Mira Jacob is the author of The Sleepwalker’s Guide to Dancing, and “I Gave A Speech About Race to the Publishing Industry and No One Heard Me.” Hear her keynote speech here.
I did what most first-time novelists do, I think, which was to bounce between a deep conviction that the book would never see the light of day and my fantasy Oscar speech (which I would deliver for writing the screenplay once the book had been made into a movie, naturally). What I never imagined was the more gratifying, deeply human part of putting a book out, which is that it reaches people and sometimes it changes them and sometimes they tell you about it. That moment is pretty stunning each and every time it happens.
The Sleepwalker’s Guide to Dancing is often described as heartbreaking and hilarious. In your writing, how do you balance sorrow and humor in the lives of your characters?
You know, I come from very funny people who have lived through many terrible things, and humor is our go-to coping mechanism. It’s not hard to bring that to fiction, especially when I am regularly traumatizing myself and my characters.
Your writing has appeared in outlets like Guernica, the Telegraph, and Vogue, and your contributions have also been hugely popular on BuzzFeed Books and Ideas. Do you think BuzzFeed changed the accessibility of your work to different type of readers? How does your work change for this outlet?
I was an editor for several different sites while writing my novel, so I’m intimately familiar with traffic patterns and what kind of piece works for online audiences. Buzzfeed is a really interesting space because while there’s plenty of click bait there (see also: The Internet), there’s also this great staff of sharp thinkers who are passionate about books and writing. They know what they’ve got in their arsenal, and they also know what they want to see in the world, so that extent, they’ve been really helpful to me and many other writers, helping us get eyeballs to subjects that don’t traditionally draw them.
I was blown away by “37 Difficult Questions From My Mixed-Race Son” and “I Gave A Speech About Race To The Publishing Industry And No One Heard Me.” The way you are grappling with racial inequality in your writing is unflinching and powerful. Do you see your work as activism?
I am absolutely an activist. I’m also a writer, a mother, and a human on the planet, so I see my work as a being aware, staying vigilant, saying the hard, true thing even/ especially when I am scared, and keeping my heart open to other humans.
You are currently working on a graphic memoir called “Good Talk: Conversations I’m Still Confused About.” Can you speak to the unique intersection of text and image in graphic literature?
While I’ve read plenty, I’m not an expert in graphic literature by any stretch of the imagination, so I’m going to first answer this from the perspective of the creating—someone who is currently grappling with the many nuances of this form. What I love, truly love, is the strange freedom it is allowing me, the synthesis (finally!) of my eye and ear. My husband is a filmmaker, so I’ve spent a lot of time being jealous of the visual aspect of his work. There’s just something really great about a medium that extends itself toward you (as opposed the novel—which, as much as I love it, requires readers to become pretty devoted hunters). In terms of reading, I love the way a line drawn across a piece of paper can inform an entire emotional outlook. Is that magic? It feels like magic. I keep reading and re-reading the visual information and breaking things down and apart to see how they work. Right now, I’m in a moment of deep appreciation for the points at which the narrative breaks—where the words succumb to the pictures or vice versa. I feel like I can feel the artist right under the paper when that happens.
As always, I have to ask, what are you reading right now?
Thunder and Lightning: Weather Past, Present and Future by Lauren Redniss. It is a gorgeous book of history, facts, anecdotes, legends, and drawings, all woven into a visually stunning meditation on the weather. It’s one of those books that you pick up, read a little, and go about your day completely changed.
Jim Childs is the publisher of Rowman & Littlefield’s Globe Pequot, Lyons Press, and Falcon Guides. Listen to a recording of her keynote address here!
Today, a Publisher must be grounded in the market in a way that provides a clear sense of consumer trends, the evolving retail environment and the rapidly changing role of marketing. It’s a more complex, challenging job with an accelerated, daily learning curve.
With such a broad range of topics including military history, sports, crime, outdoor activities, travel, cooking, and many regional interests, how do you curate these titles to communicate Rowman & Littlefield’s mission?
We’re an enthusiast, category, regional press. Globe Pequot stays true to that vision by having a team that has a first-person passion for our categories and an innovative level of market expertise and insight. Our publishing list reflects this level of market engagement with a continual focus on evergreen topics and emerging trends and talent.
How is connecting to nonfiction readers different from connecting to fiction readers?
A Nonfiction enthusiast has the benefit of knowing its audience and being able to drive discovery and sales in a very targeted way.
What are you reading right now?
I still continue the bad habit of reading four or five books at the same time. I’m mainly a non-fiction reader but occasionally stray into a good novel or a good short story collection. My current reading list includes: Michael Korda’s biography on Robert E. Lee; Marilyn Robinson’s Lila; Doris Kearns Goodwin, The Bully Pulpit; and Houghton Mifflin’s 2015 Short Story collection.
Natalie Elliot is a professor at Saint John’s College. Listen to a recording of her keynote address here.
You studied for your bachelors with honors and a master’s degree in political science at the University of Alberta. What drew you to study political science?
At the time, I was an English major with a focus on post-colonial literature. I was somewhat disappointed with my courses in English because they spent a lot of time on theory, and I wanted to read literary works directly. On the recommendation of a friend, I took a political theory course, where I discovered a couple of professors who focused on close textual readings of classic works in politics. These included Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar and Plato’s Republic. At that point, I decided to study literature and politics in the political science department. It has not always been an easy combination, but at that point in time, it was exactly what I was looking for.
University of North Texas and Southern Methodist University were lucky enough to have you before you took a position at St. John’s College in 2011. As an educator, what is the role of literature in your classroom? How to you encourage your students to be passionate about the readings you introduce?
At both UNT and SMU I taught political theory classes that drew on literary works for political insights. We read Melville and Twain to understand the politics of slavery; we read Bacon and Shakespeare to understand democratic and aristocratic politics. I think that literary texts can serve as surrogate experiences for students. Since they do not present a formulaic account of how the political world works, they give students a chance to think through a new world on their own. I find that the most effective way to bring literature to life in the classroom is through seminar discussion. Even in large classes, students get engaged with the puzzles of plot and the intricacies of character, and they start to gain insights about the human condition that are not already framed by theory.
Your talk for PubWest’s 2016 conference is “What Does it Mean to Be a Reader?” Can you briefly tell us how you see academic and commercial or pleasure reading as similar and different?
Most of the reading that I do for work consists of careful studies of canonical texts, and, in general, the works speak to each other in profound ways as a part of a larger tradition. When I am buying new books, it is more of an adventure. Since I have a taste for tradition, I particularly like books that address traditional literature, art, politics, science, poetry, and classics in new ways. Sometimes I find the book market overwhelming, but I like to think of bookstores as curators, and I have found a few that keep great selections of new works. My favorite in town is Garcia Street Books. I also read a few blogs for new stuff. I like a lot of what Brain Pickings posts-particularly texts that combine visual and textual elements. I have yet to find a critic I like for new fiction and would welcome suggestions!
What are you reading right now?
Work: Oedipus Tyrranus; Bach’s St. Matthew Passion score; Gulliver’s Travels
Research: Shakespeare’s plays set in Verona
Play: Michael Benson’s Cosmographics
Kristen Gilligan and Len Vlahos are the new owners of the Tattered Cover Book Store. You can find a recording of their keynote speech here.
Congratulations to you both! You are purchasing the Tattered Cover Book Store from former American Booksellers Association president and first amendment activist Joyce Meskis. How do you hope to honor her great work as an activist and dynamic business owner?
LEN: Joyce is leaving immeasurably large shoes to fill. Our first goal in taking over the store is “Don’t screw it up.” In many ways Tattered Cover defined the modern American independent bookstore, and we are determined to honor the legacy of warm, inviting spaces, stellar customer service, a robust schedule of events, and the best staff…anywhere. That said, we also think it’s valuable—and Joyce shares this opinion—that bringing a new set of eyes to a business like Tattered Cover is helpful. While we can never fill Joyce’s shoes, we can honor everything she and the team here have built by walking carefully and methodically in our own shoes.
Len, you have two young adult novels coming out, Scar Girl from Lerner in spring 2016, and an unnamed work with Bloomsbury in spring 2017. How does your work as an author inform how and what you read, and the kinds of readers you want to connect with at the Tattered Cover?
LEN: Wow! Good and tough question. I actually have three books coming out. The two you mentioned, and then a third book from Bloomsbury in winter 2018. For the most part, I try to avoid reading books with similar themes or settings to what I’m currently writing. It’s not always true, but mostly true. I honestly don’t think about the readers I want to connect with while I’m writing. I write because I love to write, because I like to tell stories and explore characters, and because, honestly, it’s a bit cathartic. That anything I write connects with readers is just mind blowing. I mean, who knew?
Len’s book tour for Scar Boys took you from coast to coast! Having spent March to January in libraries and bookstores across the country, what have you found is unique to Denver’s literary culture?
LEN: Kristen had lived in Colorado for several years after college, and I’ve visited the state many, many times over the years. The appeal of Colorado is the people. Everyone here is friendly, laid back, non judgmental. That is especially true in the literary scene. There are so many writers that call Colorado home, and it’s fun getting to know them. We’re also excited to have met folks from other area bookstores, from the Lighthouse Writer’s Workshop, and from local publishers.
Kristen, I’ve seen some great photos of you with notable authors like Chelsea Clinton and Ellen Hopkins. Can you tell us about the importance of author-reader interaction in the community you and Len are building at the Tattered Cover?
KRISTEN: Tattered Cover is known for it’s premiere author events. It’s an important part of it’s history (and future!), and our customers continue to attend the events and appreciate our programs. It’s humbling when we hear from publishers that authors specifically request to come to the Tattered Cover. The authors are very well-received in our community. It’s our job to continue to foster the author/community relationship. Recently, we began building relationships with Denver-area schools and are finding that the desire to have authors brought into schools in extremely high there as well—from elementary to high schools. We’ve also just created a Teen Advisory Board.
As industry professionals, you know how important publicity is, and new ownership for the Tattered Cover has had no shortage of media attention! The energy in reporting from NPR, the Denver Post, and plenty of industry outlets have captured a reverence for Meskis’ tradition as well as excitement for the future of the store. What interviews have been the most fun for you both so far?
LEN: For me, the most fun was being interviewed by Scott Horsely of NPR. I’m an avid public radio listener, and I was very familiar with Scott’s work covering the White House. When we found out he was a former TC employee, and that he wanted to do a story on the transition, it was pretty special. After the interview we spent half an hour chatting with Scott about his life covering President Obama for the past seven years.
KRISTEN: I totally agree with Len. However, it was the most stressful one, too! I don’t do as much public speaking as Len, so imagine when the microphone was thrust at me and I had to respond intelligently on the spot! But the fun didn’t end after the interview. Hearing my own voice on national radio, then hearing from friends from all over the country who heard it, too, kind made this whole adventure real.
Thank you both so much for your answers. Before we go I have to ask, what are you reading right now?
LEN: I’m reading The Language of Secrets by Ausma Kahn (Minotaur, publishing Feb. 2). It’s a novel/mystery set in the Muslim community in and around Toronto, and it beautifully written. And I’m listening to Unremembered, the first in a YA series by Jessica Brody, a local author. This is an action/adventure/mystery with a sci-fi twist. The audio production and narration are excellent.
KRISTEN: I have several books going at one time. I don’t like to do this, but I’m easily inspired—and I like knowing a little about a lot of books, rather than being all-consumed for too long with one title. I’ll tell you about a few that rise to the top: Book Scavenger by Jennifer Chambliss Bertman (Henry Holt, 2015): a middle grade mystery/adventure about a girl and a boy playing a national online literary game with ciphers, code-breaking puzzles while solving a mystery about the creator of that game. Great for all ages, including reluctant readers. Illuminae by Amie Kaufman, Jay Kristoff (Alfred A. Knopf Books for Young Readers, 2015) Epically inventive and visual. Told through archived documents, texts, and clever sarcasm, two teens embark on a futuristic space adventure that is at once a thrilling, yet intimate, race against time. Don’t miss this one. The Readers of Broken Wheel by Katarina Bivald (Sourcebooks, 2016) Through a pen pal relationship, a young Swedish bookseller, Sara, travels to Broken Wheel to spend a few months with her pen pal and fellow book lover, Amy. However, upon Sara’s arrival, elderly Amy has passed away. Sara decides to remain a few months and quietly becomes immersed in the fabric of the town and its inhabitants. Everyone is very helpful and generous, and Sara feels she somehow needs to return the endless favors. So, she opens a bookshop. Need I say more?