Lauren Oliver, bestselling author of popular teen novels Before I Fall and the Delirium Trilogy, makes her leap into the adult literary scene with Rooms, a haunting story narrated by two ghosts. After Richard Walker dies, his embittered ex-wife and two children arrive at his mansion to claim their inheritance. But the house also comes with two ghosts, Alice and Sandra, who are deeply rooted to the house. As their connection unfolds, so too does the Walker family’s woes in this gripping novel about secrets, lies and family. Oliver recently spoke with Between the Covers on Rooms, shopping and more.
Between the Covers: Rooms is an imaginative and gripping tale of the living and the dead, and you tell the stories from both worlds seamlessly and realistically. What was your inspiration? Do you believe in ghosts?
Lauren Oliver: Thank you! I don’t think I believe in ghosts in the traditional sense. Then again, I’m not actively a disbeliever, and several of my novels for younger readers deal with visions of the afterlife. So I’d certainly say it’s an area of deep curiosity. Mortality in general, and the meaning we make of life, really interests me, maybe because I wasn’t raised in any particular religion and had to kind of untangle that stuff for myself.
BTC: Alice and Sandra, the resident ghosts, are the narrators of this spellbinding story. What drove this creative decision? Was it challenging to create ghostly characters with such distinct voices?
LO: It was immensely challenging, not because I knew they had to have distinct voices and characteristics but because of their physical limitations. They’re really spectators. They’re almost incapable of interacting with or influencing the central action. So in that way there’s something theatrical about the novel–it’s as if Alice and Sandra are watching a play. Initially, I was inspired by the idea not of ghosts per se but of a house that absorbs and can reflect back memories–I wanted to render a literal depiction of a “memory palace,” which is a pneumonic device for storing information.
BTC: The remaining Walkers – Caroline, Minna and Trenton – are the epitome of dysfunctional. Why put these three troubled characters in the same house as the ghosts? What was it about Trenton that made him the only human who senses the ghosts?
LO: Well, truly highly functional people with no issues to explore probably don’t belong as protagonists in a novel, since novels are really about character development and character collisions and crises. To be honest, although the Walkers are certainly a troubled family, they don’t seem hugely more troubled than other families I know. So maybe I just know a lot of dysfunctional families! And in Trenton’s case, I think that his interaction with and attraction to death makes him able to perceive the ghosts where the other family members can’t.
BTC: The structure of this novel is so unique in that each section takes place in a different room of the house. What was the intent behind this? How difficult was this to craft and execute?
LO: The book was really inspired by the concept of memory palaces. I wanted to explore the idea that we are not just shaped by the things we own but that in some ways the shaping is reciprocal; our homes become mirrors of our emotional states just as we buy and keep objects that we hope will transform us, on some level, emotionally. The structure was very difficult from a practical standpoint because all of the drama of a particular section had to be extremely contained, which of course limits what you can depict in terms of action. But it was a welcomed challenge.
BTC: Do you look forward to the possibility of movie/TV adaptations of your work or dread the loss of control of your work? Imagine you’re in charge of the world – or at least Hollywood. Who would you cast in the movie version of Rooms?
LO: I think it’s a little bit of both. I would welcome and embrace the possibility to do a good film or TV adaptation with the right people on board. Rooms would definitely be a challenge for Hollywood, because of its narrative structure. But if it ever does go, I hope Meryl Streep plays Alice!
BTC: You’ve had such great success as a teen and middle grade author. What prompted you to tackle writing for an adult audience? Did your writing process change with the different readership?
LO: For me, it’s all about character and story. Certain stories demand to be told in a certain way, for a certain audience. Rooms is in some ways a deeply domestic drama–it’s contained, it’s set in one place, and it’s about families and marriages and parents and children and the way all of these can fail us. So it was patently adult, from the time I began to write it. That said, I didn’t deliberately set down to write an adult book. My ultimate goal as a writer, however, would be to build a flexible enough career that I can work in all three genres, for all three audiences.
BTC: I totally support your disapproval of bananas and practical shoes. What was the last great pair of shoes you purchased?
LO: Oh my goodness. You know what? I just realized it’s been months since I bought any great shoes. I really need to go shopping! In late spring I bought a pair of Yves Saint Laurent studded ballet flats, which are actually quite practical despite my averred preference for high heels. I need to go buy a pair of Giuseppe Zanottis, stat!
BTC: What can readers expect next?
LO: In the spring of 2015, I have a new young adult release called Vanishing Girls, and in the fall I launch the first in a new middle grade series. And right now I’m working on a new adult book. So…lots to come!
When Mort Foxman died, he had one request: He wanted his family to sit shiva. So the Foxman family gathers to mourn Mort, bringing all four siblings to their childhood home for seven days. During that time, old grudges reemerge, new dramas arise and secrets come to light in Jonathan Tropper’s smart and darkly comic novel This Is Where I Leave You.
In addition to the loss of his father, Judd’s life is falling apart after he walked into his bedroom to find his wife having sex with his boss. His older brother Paul, who still blames Judd for the accident that ended his promising baseball career, is struggling with fertility problems with his wife Alice who is desperate to have a baby. Their sister Wendy has a distant, strained relationship with her workaholic husband Barry and still has feelings for her childhood sweetheart Horry. Youngest brother Phillip, who is known as the family screw-up, surprises everyone when he shows and introduces them to his much older life coach/fiancée. The novel is told from Judd’s perspective, and his laugh-out-loud funny, honest observations are a perfect counterpoint to the serious and sometimes heartbreaking issues that the characters in this dysfunctional family face.
This Is Where I Leave You will be in theaters on September 19. The movie’s stellar ensemble cast includes Jason Bateman, Tina Fey, Corey Stoll, Adam Driver, Jane Fonda, Connie Britton, Dax Shepard, Kathryn Hahn and Rose Byrne. The screenplay was adapted by Tropper, so fans can rest assured that the movie will reflect the spirit (and some of the great one-liners!) of the novel.
Spending childhood nested in the same neighborhood can have a profound effect on how one grows up and views the rest of the world. When stories of the past share a consistent backdrop, memories become more cohesive and captivating, as they have in Mark Chiusano's debut collection, Marine Park. Nearly all of his stories take place in the neighborhood surrounding the run-down, isolated Marine Park in New York City.
Half of Chiusano's tales follow two brothers: Jamison, who narrates the duo's adventures, and his younger brother Lorris. Jamison seems like the fictional embodiment of Chiusano in his youth; he dredges up old emotions with such elegance that it feels autobiographical. Throughout their endeavors, Lorris overcomes rooted introversion to develop a social life more vigorous than his older brother’s. All Jamison feels he’s capable of doing is watching with brotherly pride and envy.
Chiusano's other stories volley between humorous and serious motifs. The amusing "Vincent and Aurora" is the recounting of a retired mobster who agrees to help with one last job to combat the stagnation of aging. "Shatter the Trees and Blow Them Away" laments the woes of unrequited love between two scientists working in a secret military base during World War II. "For You" is the wondrous second-person account of a man's visit to an unfamiliar bar and his conversations with strangers about wait-staff gratuity and lifelong dreams.
Short story and fiction enthusiasts of all varieties will find something to enjoy in Marine Park. Lorris and Jamison are both highly relatable, and Chiusano's more imaginative offerings are entertaining and just as finely crafted.
“Between 2001 and 2012, 63,300 American factories closed their doors and five million American factory jobs went away.” Author Beth Macy quotes these figures in her best-selling new book Factory Man: How One Furniture Maker Battled Offshoring, Stayed Local and Helped Save an American Town. Macy writes about the impact of free trade and globalization as it affects rural Henry County, Virginia, and its century old furniture manufacturing industry. Think this sounds a bit dry? Meet the driven factory man of the title: John Bassett III.
J.D. Bassett built his first furniture factory in his front yard around 1902. Twenty years later, his Bassett family furniture dynasty, with multiple factories employing hundreds of workers, was thriving thanks in part to the native “assets:” cheap southern labor and Piedmont forests ripe for lumber harvest. With Bassetts building churches, banks and schools, Bassett, Virginia, became the quintessential company town and the Bassett family its royalty, marrying its sons and daughters to scions of other local manufacturers. John Bassett III, grandson of J.D., seemed destined to inherit the Bassett Furniture throne until family politics and imported Chinese-made bedroom suites intervened.
Elbowed aside in favor of a brother-in-law, John Bassett III was determined to succeed on his own merit, and eventually settled at Vaughn-Bassett Furniture in nearby Galax. In direct competition with his own family, he found the larger threat to his business to be the growing stream of wooden furniture imported from Asia, priced well below what American companies could charge for their domestic product. With Virginia factories shutting down and double digit unemployment figures skyrocketing, Bassett struck back. Taking on foreign manufacturing, United States economic policy and the Furniture Retailers of America trade group, Bassett fought to enforce fair trade regulations while reinventing his furniture company over and over to remain viable. Factory Man is not just John Bassett III’s story but an eye-opening account of small towns dependent on blue collar industry in a changing global economy.
To join in an ongoing discussion about Factory Man, which includes many local residents' comments about the book and the Bassett, Virginia, area, visit https://www.facebook.com/#!/groups/FactoryManFans/.
Daniel Kelly needs to be the fastest, the strongest and the best. The other members of his swim team call him Barracuda, also the title of Christos Tsiolkas’ new novel. Daniel’s goal is to swim freestyle in the Olympic Games. He is half-Greek and half-Australian and comes from modest roots, but his mother insists he attend an exclusive school where he can be coached by a gifted trainer. Daniel quickly realizes he does not fit in at his new posh school. The boys that come from money are quick to tease. He shields himself from the insults and uses the anger to push through the water even faster. His ever-present drive to succeed deafens him to the instructions of his coach, and Daniel soon finds that his dream of Olympic gold leads to nothing. Consumed by hatred for himself and his modest beginnings, Daniel lashes out, and this incident will have repercussions that will haunt him for the rest of his life.
Like Daniel, Christos Tsiolkas grew up in Australia, the son of Greek immigrant parents. His previous novels have won awards in the South Pacific region, including his previous novel The Slap that won the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize. He shows skill again with Barracuda, a detailed literary masterpiece that only an accomplished writer can deliver. Daniel Kelly is a deeply flawed protagonist, struggling with life and trying to find his place in the world. It is a novel of incredible loss, but also of hope and ultimately redemption. Kelly’s story will resonate with the reader long after reading the final pages. This beautifully written novel should be savored by many a reader and would make a perfect title to discuss with a book group.
The legends of Bigfoot and his cryptid relatives (Yeti, Chupacabra, etc.) have been around for centuries, but author/illustrator Kevin Sherry has put a new spin on this old standard. In The Yeti Files #1: Meet the Bigfeet, Sherry tells the story from a Yeti’s point of view. Told in semi-graphic novel style with lots of illustrations, the reader is introduced to Blizz Richards, the Yeti narrator, and many of his friends and relatives. After receiving an invitation to a Bigfeet family reunion, Blizz relates how such reunions used to be held annually until his cousin Brian broke the code of the cryptid community and vanished forever.
Filled with silly humor, the story follows the plight of Blizz and his helpers — a goblin, an elf and an Arctic fox — as they try to find Brian and thwart the attempts of an evil cryptozoologist who wants to expose the cryptids to the world! While elementary aged children will undoubtedly enjoy the illustrations and offbeat story, Sherry has put enough subtle details in his drawings to entertain older readers too. The vocabulary can be a bit daunting, but Sherry does explain some of the more difficult terms (for example, cryptid is “a hidden animal whose existence has never been proven”). The first book in a new series, the story ends with a teaser for the next installment which may involve the Loch Ness Monster!
Kevin Sherry is a local Baltimore author who also founded Squidfire.com, an online t-shirt business.
Former Chicago Tribune journalist Marja Mills says she never expected to befriend Harper Lee, much less write a biography-memoir about her 18-month sojourn to Monroeville, Alabama, that included living next door to the reclusive author. But 15 years after Mills' first visit, her highly discussable new book, The Mockingbird Next Door, has ridden the literary wave for its jolt of homey, if not mundane, rituals of Lee's daily life. If a peek behind the curtain is what you are seeking, Mills does not disappoint. The comings and goings of the Lee sisters (Alice is older) are affectionately detailed, leading to the inevitable question as to why Harper Lee would allow herself to be portrayed so simply and unguarded after years of shying away from publicity.
For Mills, this assignment was intriguing for its possibilities, and an opportunity to prove she could still do her job despite a diagnosis of lupus. In 2001, she travels to Lee's hometown to speak to folks who knew the then 75-year-old Harper Lee (Nelle to friends) and to get a feel for Monroeville, the setting for Lee's fictional Maycomb in To Kill a Mockingbird, the instant classic about the 1930s South. With a reporter's eye for opportunity, Mills meets and impresses Alice, smoothing the way for a meeting with the famous Harper Lee, whose only book won the 1961 Pulitzer Prize and was the subject of an Oscar-winning film. When Harper Lee called the reporter's hotel room, Mills recalled, "It was as if I had answered the phone and heard, 'Hello. This is the Wizard of Oz.' I felt my adrenaline spike."
Mills injects a strong sense of place in her conversational writing, along with plenty of quaint colloquialisms. There are towns like Burnt Corn and Scratch Ankle, and fishing trips and coffee-sipping at McDonald's. She captures the Mayberry-like tone of Lee's voice with her frequent "bless her heart," "mercy" and "thanks a bunch, hon." Mills tenderly skims over rumored aspects of Lee's life, dealing with sexual orientation and drinking, although her exploration of Lee's intriguing relationship with childhood friend, Truman Capote, is one of the more interesting chapters.
Knowing Harper Lee's penchant for privacy, it is probably not surprising that Mills' book has come under scrutiny. The author has insisted she had Lee's blessing for the project. Harper Lee's released statement denies the 88-year-old ever gave approval; Alice recalled otherwise. Such matters won't deter readers who will relish this intimate look inside the seemingly uncomplicated life of one of the most complicated and beloved literary figures of the 20th century.
The shortlist for the Man Booker Prize was announced today, September 9. The competition was previously only open to authors from the U.K. and the British Commonwealth, but the rules have been amended to include novels written in English and published in the U.K., regardless of the author’s nationality. This is the first time in the award’s 46-year history that U.S. residents were eligible, and two Americans’ novels have made the cut. Joshua Ferris was included on the list for his darkly comic novel To Rise Again at a Decent Hour. Our blogger Tom shared this book with Between the Covers readers earlier this summer. Karen Joy Fowler was named for her novel We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, which was also featured on this blog last year.
The list also includes The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan, J by Howard Jacobson, The Lives of Others by Neel Mukherjee and How to Be Both by Ali Smith, which have not all been published in the U.S yet. This list includes the titles available in BCPL’s collection.
AC Grayling, chair of the judging panel says, “As the Man Booker Prize expands its borders, these six exceptional books take the reader on journeys around the world, between the UK, New York, Thailand, Italy, Calcutta and times past, present and future. We had a lengthy and intensive debate to whittle the list down to these six. It is a strong, thought-provoking shortlist which we believe demonstrates the wonderful depth and range of contemporary fiction in English.”
The panel of judges will now re-read all of the titles on the shortlist and select the winner who will be named at an awards ceremony on October 14.
High school author, Amy Zhang’s first book Falling into Place is filled with twists and turns, taking readers inside the head of high school student Liz Emerson and some of her closest friends. Liz is an unlikable character, a mean girl who has decided that she is going to take her own life, making it look like an accident by driving off a cliff. The book goes back and forth between before and after the crash, unravelling the mystery of what led Liz to such a drastic choice. Before starting Zhang’s book, read what she had to tell Between the Covers about her first novel.
Between the Covers: The book shifts back and forth between before and after Liz’s crash, how did you handle writing a book that shifted in time so frequently?
Amy Zhang: Lots and lots of outlines. I drew diagrams and color-coded and made charts before I started writing, I did it again while I was writing, I did it before I revised, I did it after I revised and revised again. The last chart had something like seven colors on it for all of the different “time zones” of the book, and it reached from ceiling to floor when I hung it up.
BTC: Liz is such a complex character, where did you draw your inspiration for her struggles?
AZ: I guess when I thought of Liz, the characteristic that stood out was her loneliness. One of the first things I saw when I first began outlining the book was the image of her sitting in her closet on the night before her suicide attempt, and that isolation is what made me understand her. You’re always isolated as a teenager. You feel alone in your thoughts, as though you’re the only one to ever think, really think—you’re afraid to have the opinions you’re developing and you’re afraid to share them. You also feel sort of isolated in time, because you’re not thinking about consequences. You only exist in the moment. I think high school can be one of the loneliest places in the world. For me, being alone was sort of at the heart of Liz’s character, and her other struggles all stemmed off of that in some way. Liz, Kennie and Julia were all hiding some really serious issues, but it was pretty easy for me to relate because it was my reality. I think a lot of parents would be shocked if they knew what their kids were really going through every day, and what they feel the need to hide.
BTC: Were you able to draw on your experiences in high school to write about Liz’s high school experience?
AZ: Definitely. The scenes that stand out are Liam’s, which were especially hard for me to write. My school has this horrible tradition of voting people on to dance courts as jokes, and I remember sitting in class and hearing courts announced and just kind of wincing every time. And how do you stop something like that? I was pretty average in high school—I was never really bullied, and I hope I never bullied anyone like Liz did. I had great friends and great teachers, but up until junior year or so, I never really thought about the fact that I sat around a lot. I watched a lot of crap happen and I didn’t do much to stop it, except push a pencil around, and Falling into Place is an apology for that.
BTC: What is your writing process like, as a younger writer who’s still in school?
AZ: Late nights, early mornings, and enough coffee to drown out desire for sleep until the book is done. I write a lot during summer, and, um, during school. At least half of my notes for Falling into Place were scribbled in the margins of my physics notebook. I guess it really just comes down to making a schedule and sticking to it. I have a jar of chocolates on my desk to bribe myself when I need to — one piece per thousand words!
BTC: Who are some of your influences as a writer?
AZ: Music is a pretty heavy influence on my writing—before I start a project, I put a lot of effort into tailoring a playlist. For Falling into Place, it was a lot of Bon Iver, Imagine Dragons and Keane. For my current project, I actually have two: one of classical music, and one of mostly Birdy, Regina Spektor, Iron & Wine and Vincent James McMorrow.
For Falling, though, I think my biggest influence was the death of a classmate during my junior year. For my grade in particular, I think that was the moment we started realizing that we weren’t invincible, and all of the emotions from that were very influential while I wrote the book.
BTC: This is your first book; do you have anything else planned?
AZ: I’m currently working on a project tentatively titled This Is Where the World Ends, which is about a boy who’s obsessed with apocalypses and a girl who’s trying to make the entire world fall in love with her.
Get ready to laugh out loud as two young actresses share glimpses into their personal and professional lives. Danielle Fishel — remember Topanga Lawrence from the 90s sitcom Boy Meets World? — and Lena Dunham, creator and star of HBO’s Girls bare it all in poignant memoirs.
Fishel’s Normally, This Would Be Cause for Concern is more than just a tell-all, although fans will enjoy learning of her celebrity dating roster which included Lance Bass and Ben Savage. She also shares her undying love for Jared Leto, who rescued her from the L.A. freeway following an accident. Fishel, who is reprising her role of Topanga in the new Disney show Girl Meets World, is as entertaining and appealing on the page as on the small screen. Storytelling comes naturally, and she has plenty of juicy gems for readers involving awful auditions, red carpet faux pas and dating disasters. But behind the stories, she shares her neuroses and faults making this a refreshing Hollywood memoir.
In Dunham’s Not That Kind of Girl, the actress reveals personal struggles which aren’t far removed from the character she plays on TV. Both deal with OCD, therapists and awkward dating experiences. Dunham excels at documenting her coming of age and her professional experiences in a male dominated industry. She tackles big issues with hilarity and honesty in this series of essays, sure to appeal to fans of David Sedaris and Nora Ephron. Dunham has said of this book, “I’m already predicting my future shame at thinking I had anything to offer you with this book, but also my future glory in having stopped you from trying an expensive juice cleanse or having the kind of sexual encounter where you keep your sneakers on. But I am a girl with a keen interest in having it all, and what follows are hopeful dispatches from the frontlines of that struggle.”