Wednesday, January 21, 2015

The Music of Echos: A Conversation with Maxwell Neely-Cohen, author of Echo of the Boom

On the second page of Maxwell Neely-Cohen's epic debut, Echo of the Boom, a ten-year-old character muses, "It's the air that tears you apart. Not the fire, but the boom. Then there's the debris, the shrapnel, the fragments; they rip into you at high speed. Finally, as if you're not in enough trouble already, you have to land somewhere." If I had to summarize Echo of the Boom, it would be with those thoughts. Neely-Cohen's bordering-apocalyptic tale is one that starts out with the whims of adolescents, but crashes along, building speed, needling you, then ripping into you, and ending with echoes, which are so much more damaging than the boom. The storyline follows four youths, navigating a world of anxiety and neurosis, in a sense, what it means to be a teenager in modern times. I was fortunate enough to get to ask Neely-Cohen some pointed questions and his responses can tell you more about the essence of his novel than any book review or copy. Hang on. It's a wild ride....
Steph Post: Echo of the Boom has been described as "equal parts Gossip Girl and Gravity's Rainbow." If that description alone doesn't intrigue readers, I don't know what will. Do you think this juxtaposed comparison is accurate? If you had to choose two other books/shows/films/works of art to juxtapose in a comparison to Echo of the Boom, what would they be?

Maxwell Neely-Cohen: The truth is I said that line to my publisher once as a joke, and of course it ended up on the flap. I do though think it’s a little bit accurate in certain ways, maybe more accurate than a lot of people (and even I) might realize. On my book tour a reader said to me that “the book is a midpoint between those two worlds, and thus isn’t really particularly like either of them, but the direct center on the spectrum between them.” And maybe that’s right, but what’s hard is that there aren’t very many actual serious readers of both those works, so who knows.   
It won’t surprise you that I spent way more time thinking about comparisons to music, technology, and video games than I did to books, but I guess I’ll say Echo of the Boom is like if White Noise was genetically infused with the content from every teenage tumblr on the planet.
SP: As always, I'm interested in craft. Four different story lines, built up around four different characters, are running through Echo of the Boom and they are balanced and handled with a delicate precision. What was your process for creating, placing and then intertwining the four narratives? Did you write each one separately and then blend, or did the form of the novel occur in a more linear fashion?

MNC: It took me a few years just to figure out how to write all four and keep it all straight. I ended up writing each separately three-fourths of the way through, and then blended them all to that point, then wrote the ending, then rewrote and resequenced at least 100 times. But the book changed very violently between versions, right up to final editing for publication. The early drafts are a totally different entity, which is less balanced and more sprawling, but allowed much more contiguous time with each narrative. But it turned out that speed was a friend to the narrative, so it went in that direction.
SP: The four main characters- Efram, Molly, Steven and Chloe- are all in various stages of adolescence. Yet while the characters are teenagers, and much of the book is an exploration of shifting adolescent society, I didn't get the sense that this was a young adult novel. Is your ideal reader an adult or a teenager? Do you think there needs to be a delineation between adult and young adult novels?

MNC: It isn’t a YA novel, though many teens have read it. As your question guesses, I really don’t like that delineation, or genre hierarchies in general. I think teenagers are capable of reading things that we do not encourage them to read. And I think that certain works of science fiction or mystery or even YA are actually great high-level works of literature, yet don’t get that credit. I don’t have an ideal reader, I’m happy when anyone reads it, but I did get a kick out of certain teenagers liking it, it was good to know I wasn’t totally full of it.
SP: So much of what is happening in your novel, from the pop culture references to the apathy and anxiety of your characters, is distinctly, and purposefully, of the moment. This is a post-postmodern work, raising urgent and relevant questions through the trials of teenage angst. Could Echo of the Boom have been written in any other time period? Would readers of fifty years ago have been able to relate to the neurosis of its pages?
MNC: Weirdly enough, I think the geopolitical elements would pose greater issues to a reader 50 years ago than any of the youth culture stuff. And those are the components which would have been impossible for me to write in any other time period. But even that said, I actually think we have always had a really high capacity for the alien in literature, and I think it would be readable. In fact I have a crazy theory that the further back in time you go, the more any contemporary work would still “work,” because its difference would be less of an issue the more alien it becomes.
SP: I was listening to an interview with Emily St. John Mendel, of Station Eleven fame, the other day and the concept of our current preoccupation with the apocalypse and the dysfunction, if the not the end, of humanity was raised. It does seem that quite of bit of current literature is exploring these themes. I'd take it even further, though, and say that much of these "end-time" ideas are being played out in some form with stories lead by teenagers. (everything fromThe Hunger Games to Divergent to The Fifth Wave to, of course, Echo of the Boom) What is the connection here? What is going on in the world that is herding these two elements together?
MNC: Emily and I once actually had a conversation about this, about how (as she has often discussed) at every point in history, humans were convinced the world was ending. My novel really was an attempt to figure out the connection between contemporary teenagers and the theoretical apocalypse. The Hunger Games, Divergent, and The Fifth Wave all probably exist in the world of Echo of the Boom. In many ways it’s a commentary on the real things driving those obsessions. I think that coming of age in a time where you are statistically least likely to be a victim of violence, yet have access to infinite violent narratives (both real and unreal), leads to a certain interest in the apocalyptic. You can easily start to think it’s all or nothing. But the young interest in the apocalyptic (an interest which I think has waned with generational turnover) was really motivated by wish fulfilment. To a lot of kids (and adults), the apocalypse sounded fun and meaningful, not to mention a circumstance where they might be actually valued.
SP:  Echo of the Boom is divided into seven sections and each section begins with a strange pairing: a passage from The Book of Revelation and a song lyric (everything from Miley Cyrus to Modest Mouse). What was going on in your head here? You were a DJ at one time, so the inclusion and influence of music makes sense, but how did you choose specific songs, and then specific lyrics, to line up with prophetic Bible verses?

MNC: I just tried to find lyrics that I felt were saying or in conversation with what the bible verses were saying, the opening of each of the seven seals, as a way of melting it into the context of the book. But yes, it’s basically just me DJing the book. One friend asked me if I needed to write the book as a final way of escaping that part of my past, and maybe that was part of it, but it’s hard for me not to soundtrack everything I write, and in this case, it actually made sense to do it literally.
SP:  Echo of the Boom is a massive debut, in a year of massive literary debuts. What did you read over the past year that has had an impact on you? What literary works are you most looking forward to in 2015?

MNC: It was a great year, and in truth I felt most affected by fellow debut authors, some of whom I would be lucky enough to meet. Jen Percy’s Demon Camp, Lacy M. Johnson’s The Other Side, David Burr Gerrard’s Short Century, Will Chancellor’s A Brave Man Seven Storeys Tall, Ales Kot’s Zero, and Mira Jacob’s The Sleepwalker’s Guide To Dancing all stayed with me.

There’s a lot of journalists and essayists who I can’t wait to see what they do in 2015. Durga Chew-Bose, Rembert Browne, Katie J.M. Baker, and Ta-Nehisi Coates to name a few.
SP: If you had to push one author on me right now (and yes, I'm asking you to do so!) who would it be? Who should I absolutely be reading at this moment?

MNC: Chelsea Hodson (!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!)
What did I tell you? Now that you have some idea of what you're dealing with, make sure to pick up a copy of Maxwell Neely-Cohen's Echo of the Boom. Keep reading, keep reviewing, keep supporting authors!

Sunday, January 18, 2015

This Book Will Change Your Life

In case you missed it: A Tree Born Crooked was reviewed over on This Blog Will Change Your Life. Here's an excerpt:

"But really, what we want to say most, well besides what a great, new talent Post is, and how excited we are to see what comes next from her fertile lit brain, is that Post's book did for us what we want all books to do, it made us want to read more, Elmore Leonard and Daniel Woodrell and Donald Ray Pollock and Bonnie Joe Campbell, because we suspect that we will find kindred spirits and kindred voices, and now we want to consume those voices too."

Be sure to read the rest and check out the other great reviews and articles happening over on TBWCYL!

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Swimming Through Memory, an Interview with David Connerly Nahm, author of Ancient Oceans of Central Kentucky

Every now and then I do an interview with an author that is almost as fascinating and powerful as the book we are discussing. I loved reading David Connerly Nahm's lyrical masterpiece Ancient Oceans of Central Kentucky, but I was startled to find that I loved this interview with David equally, if not more. Nahm's book is an experimental dance, a quietly building cacophony of questions surrounding the main character, Leah, and her exploration of memory, ghosts, silence and childhood loss. It is a work of poetry as much as it is of prose, with whole passages swallowing you and dissolving before your eyes, often at the same time. It is not a book to be read lightly, but rather to be immersed in and to take what you will from its pages. This interview is much the same, as Nahm lets us into his world of craft, music, honesty and poetry. If you haven't picked up Anicent Oceans of Central Kentucky yet, I'm sure you will by the time you get to the bottom of this post. Enjoy.

Steph Post: I'd like to start with the design of Ancient Oceans of Central Kentucky, because your book is so visually striking. The front cover evokes an implicit sense of nostalgia, which is so relevant to the theme of the book, and the prints throughout, of shells and corals, play on this theme, invoking 19th century naturalist works. How important is the design of the book to its contents and how much of a hand did you have in the design?

David Connerly Nahm: Thank you for the kind words about the book and for the interview in general. It is always a little intimidating to talk about your work with people who have clearly read closely and thought hard about it.

As for the book's physical form: Eric Obenauf at Two Dollar Radio designed the book cover. He came up with a few ideas and I told him which parts I liked best. It went through a few drafts and a few designs and he was kind enough to put up with me.

The shells on the inside were a late addition to the text. Originally, the separate sections of the book were just separated by headings (Part One, Part Two, etc.), but it felt unnatural for the book, which is, as you note below, so free flowing to have such novel-ish signposts stuck in the middle, so I suggested that perhaps we could just put some images. The shells were one of the ideas we came up with and the one that ended up being the best. They are from an old science textbook. Eliza Obenauf took the idea and made it real and made it look good.

The degree to which a book's design matters to the contents depends on the book. The fact that Ancient Oceans of Central Kentucky has a great cover and nice paper and is a cool size doesn't really matter to the contents of the book (in fact, those are elements that someone reading on an e-reader won't ever know about), but as a reader, it would be a lie if I didn't say the physical presence of a book plays an important role in my enjoyment and/or impression of a book. Sometimes, you want to read a book that is heavy and vast. Sometimes you want to read one that is light and slim.  

SP: I've been slightly wary of calling Ancient Oceans of Central Kentucky a novel because of its extremely experimental form. The style is certainly poetic, with pages of what could be considered stream of consciousness, and oftentimes the setting, both with time and space, is blurred. If a story is a journey, I felt that I was swimming or floating through this one. In many ways, I was reminded of Michael Ondaatje's The Collected Works of Billy the Kid, which has also been often questioned in terms of genre. How would you categorize Ancient Oceans of Central Kentucky? Does genre even have a place in your work or the realm of literature as a whole?

DCN: When I was working on the book, and I mean late in the work, once it had begun to take its final form, there was a part of me that was so sick of the idea of trying to write a "good novel" that I gave up. I wrote what I wanted, how I wanted, and tried not to worry what it was or if it was even good. I spent too many years mired in outlining and planning and plotting and drafting and editing and outlining that the only way for me to finish was to give it all up, put together the book that I most wanted to read myself. If it was a novel--great. If it wasn't--fine.

I think of the book as a novel. It is a work of narrative prose fiction with characters and locations and a plot--pretty standard novel stuff. To the extent that there is something un-novel-like about the book, it is the extent to which the book relies on how things are said as much as what is said. Probably the biggest influence on the book, in this respect, comes not from poetry, but from music. I like how music can convey feeling and movement and meaning and urgency without having to worry about plots and characters. Most people don't question chord changes, they just enjoy the feeling of them. Or consider song lyrics. Lyrics have a little more room to be evocative, while still at the same time being extremely moving and meaningful to people. I was jealous of that freedom. I wanted to write a book that made me feel like I do when I hear one of my favorite songs in the car at night.   

Of course: Everyone gets to write and read however they want. There's no one way. For me, though, worrying about what something is, or how it should be, never works. The less I think about what I am doing, the better I like the outcome. Maybe the really meticulously plotted and planned works that I wrote in the past were really good, but I didn't enjoy them, as a writer or reader, so I don't feel bad about having deleted them.

SP: Much of your book deals with memory, as the main character Leah steps back and forth between the present and the past, many times even within the same 'scene.' At one point, in describing Leah experiencing a memory, you write, "something which barely counted as a memory, something which was little more than a faintly colored feeling... an electrical impulse that rushed through her mind that she might call a memory, but which was some elemental and ancient relative...". How trustworthy do you think memory really is? Do you think it is something real or something we construct to make sense of the past? As a fiction writer, do these questions matter to your characters and your story?

DCN: Memory is all there is. Biologically, aren't we always living in the past, our senses registering the moment only after the moment has passed? Memory is the well from which we draw ourselves. At the same time, memory doesn't really work very well. We don't pay attention. Remembering something is like taking a small stone and rubbing it with our thumbs--we stay aware of it, but over time, we wear it down and change its shape. But we don't just live in the past. We live in a constant state of anticipation, constantly thinking about what will happen--in the next year, the next day, the next moment.

Again, though, I don't really think about any of this what I am writing. I write and write and then I edit and edit and once I have something that I like, I move on and I try and think about what I am doing as little as possible. I just want to surprise myself.

SP: Another theme that really struck me in Ancient Oceans of Central Kentucky is the concept of cruelty in children. Many of Leah's memories deal with being a school child and especially how she is treated by the other children after the disappearance of her brother. She is bullied, ridiculed, taunted and, in many ways, treated mercilessly by the other children. She admits herself, though, earlier in the story, that she too was cruel to other children. This theme was most summed up for me with the line, "They weren't bad children, were they? They just wanted to carve their names into something while they were still sharp." Was writing about the insensitivity of children something you consciously set out to do? Do you think the cruelty of the adults in the book is in juxtaposition to or an extension of the brutal actions and reactions of the children?

DCN: That's just how people are. To have written anything else would have been dishonest. To a greater or lesser degree, everyone does these things. We all get taunted and we all taunt someone else. We all have our feelings hurt and we all hurt others. I know that my childhood is clouded with shame over how mean I was to some of my classmates. I used to think of myself as a kid who'd been the victim of bullying, and while I got my fair share of it, in retrospect, I gave more than I received. My only hope is that I have become a better person as I've grown older.

I don't know why people have fond feelings about their childhoods.

SP: I'm interested in how you constructed this work. Since there is no strict linear plot, how did you go about ordering the events of the present and the memories of the past? Did this structure flow naturally from the beginning or was this a conscious part of the revision process?

DCN: The novel's shape and structure is entirely the product of editing. I did not open the word processor on day one and write this from beginning to end. I wrote and wrote and wrote for years and then, during the above-referenced period of un-novel-ing, I cut and cut and cut. I had, at one point, 400,000 words, most of which were garbage. I just kept what I really liked. Then I shuffled things around until I was happy. Since I knew I was writing a novel that was atmospheric and non-linear, I paid very close attention to the pacing. The seven sections of the novel are very carefully put together and arranged. At one point, I printed the whole book out at work and laid it all out on the floor in a conference room so I could see the whole thing at once.

So, the non-linear nature of the novel's narrative was designed to create the forward momentum of the novel. Whether it works or not is up to each individual reader to decide, but a great deal of thought was put into the where each small sliver of the story would go. The structure of the novel only came into existence during the revision process. The revision was the writing of the novel.

SP: Circling back around to the question of form, regardless of specific genre there can be no argument that Ancient Oceans of Central Kentucky is not full to the brim with poetry, both in language and style. As an educator in the English field, I have heard many times that there is no place for poetry in the modern world. I am often asked if people even read poetry anymore. What place do you think poetry, however you would define it, has in our current times? Do we need poetry?

DCN: There will always be a place for poetry. There will always be a place for novels and short stories. There will be a place for those forms we haven't come up with yet. I think when people say that one form of literature or another is dying or doesn't have a place, they just mean that it doesn't look like it did when they were in high school. There are probably more people writing and reading poetry right now than ever before (Note: I have no data to back this up).

SP: Finally, pick three works you've read this year that had an impact on you as either a reader or a writer. What was so special about these works? In what ways do you believe they have influenced you?

DCN: It is only the second week of the year, and I've only read three books so far, but luckily I loved all three, so here they are:

Citizen by Claudia Rankine: This is one of those amazing books that transcends form and, like all great art, is a bottomless well of beauty and truth. All writing should aspire to this.

The Events at Poroth Farm by T.E.D. Klein: A great meditation on strange stories that is its own great strange story.

The Sword in the Stone by T.H. White: The parts with King Pellinore and the Questing Beast manage that impossible combination of humor and sorrow--my favorite things.

Thank you so much to David Connerly Nahm for stopping by and giving, truly, one of my favorite interviews. Please check out his novel Ancient Oceans of Central Kentucky from Two Dollar Radio and, as always, if you like what you read, share the love, spread the news and write a review.

Friday, January 16, 2015

Books and Authors with Cary Barbor

I'm not going to lie- this is an interview I'm proud of. Cary Barbor is a fantastic interviewer and it was such a pleasure to be on her show. We talked Tom Waits, Justified (of course) and how A Tree Born Crooked came to be. Have a listen and if you like what you hear, spread the word!

Thursday, January 15, 2015

The Badass Chronicles Number Two: Natalie Harnett

In case you missed it, my newest Badass Chronicle posted last Saturday over on Revolution John. I had the pleasure of sitting down to interview Natalie Harnett, debut author of the incredible novel The Hollow Ground. Take a look!

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Indie Lit Roundup!

I am thrilled to have a review of A Tree Born Crooked by Scott Russell up on Atticus Review! Not only that- the review is included as part of the January 2015 Indie Lit Roundup. Sam Slaughter's prediction that 2015 will be the year of Indie Lit is inspiring and definitely worth a read. Here's to an incredible 2015!

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

The Spark: Best Books of the Year

Check out Alternating Current's Best Book of the Year feature. Authors, editors and publishers wrote about their favorite books of the year.... and mine was Smith Henderson's Fourth of July Creek. (though there were several more I wish I could have written about!)

Saturday, January 3, 2015

2015: An Epiphany and Writing

New Year's is one of my favorite holidays. I like the idea of celebrating newness and change. I like the idea of resolutions, of thinking about the future differently, of dynamism. Some people are averse to change- I welcome it, I thrive on it. It terrifies me, yes, the way rollercoasters terrify me. In a good way.

So, of course, my New Year's resolution begins with writing. I've been kicking around my thoughts for the past few days, but this morning, as I was about to have a temper-tantrum and chuck my laptop out the window, I realized that I was actually going to have to take action. I had been thinking about the same old, "push myself harder" and "take risks," but this morning I realized that I need to make a change not in thought, but in actions. I have to change my entire writing process for this new novel. And THAT is terrifying. Not rollercoaster terrifying, but face-to-face with a T-Rex wanting to eat you terrifying. (note, I've never actually had this experience, but I assume that being face-to-face with anything wanting to eat you would be somewhat unnerving...)

I've written two novels in the past three years. The actual process was relatively the same. It was hard, sure, but I was writing, basically, about elements I was comfortable with. Gun fights, car chases, you know... Small town grit lit, which I love, but have also become somewhat adept at. Now, I'm doing something very different. I had thought I was just going back to re-write my very first, self-published novel from years ago. My plan was simply to spruce it up and redeem myself.

Fact: I have no concept of the term "simply."

So now I am writing an epic novel that I've realized is most likely going to take me two years, more research than I ever did in grad school and require a new way of thinking about writing. My epiphany this morning was that I am going to have to re-design my entire first draft process. I'm looking into story boarding, for starters. I can't expect to write this novel in the same way that I wrote the other two, because it isn't anything like the other two. So, back to the drawing board.... It's going to be a wild year. In my head, at least.

Aside from all the writing nonsense, I hope to continue to champion other authors. If there's anything that I've learned during this past year, it's that authors need to stick together. We need to lift one another up, read each other's work and provide hope, encouragement and support to one another. Having my first novel come out this year was brilliantly exciting, but also frustrating and daunting. I was blessed to have authors I've never even met in person make themselves available for emails, phone calls and Twitter cheer sessions. I've learned so much this year from those who have come before me and I hope that in some small way I can help others in the same way that I've been helped.

As for the world, I think we should never underestimate the importance of kindness. I hope that I, and others, can remember that.

Happy 2015.