Archive for the ‘Author Interview’ Category


In the beginning was the encyclopedia. Yea, verily. I looketh upon it with mine own eyes. And I saw that it was good. There was evening and morning whilst I readeth it. Then again, there’s evening and morning pretty much every day (unless you live really, really far north). But I digresseth.

A score of months later (give or take, who can count), came the Bible. It was fruitful. It multiplied. It cracketh me up. It restoreth my sense of humor. I laugheth, as it led me to the path of righteousness. Or not.

Yea, verily, I did then contact A.J., and he doth reply. I asketh, and he answereth. And here it is, now, for thine own eyes. Enjoyeth.:

BSR: It’s a little trite to ask you where on earth you come up with your book ideas, but where on earth do you come up with your book ideas? What inspires (or possesses) you to embark on these incredibly ambitious projects?

AJJ: Well, I love the idea of quests. But I’m not much of an outdoor person, so I don’t see myself climbing K2 or doing the Iditarod race. So my quests tend to be intellectual or spiritual. Things I can do without getting frostbite. I also like taking things to the extreme. So I figure, if I’m interested in religion, why not go all the way – live the entire Bible – and see what works? And I love first-person writing. I love to read it and I love to write it. If it’s done well, it can be like you’re right there with the author on the journey.

BSR: Out of all the trials and tribulations from your biblical year, what was the toughest thing you endured? And, by the way, did you get to keep the slave?

AJJ: I’d say there were two parts that were the toughest. There was the attempt to avoid the little sins we all commit every day – the lying, the coveting, the gossiping. I live in New York and work for the media. So that was pretty much 75 percent of my day. The second tough part was trying to obey laws that will get you into a little trouble if you follow them in 21st century America. Like stoning adulterers. Or owning a slave. (For slavery, the closest thing I could find was a summer intern. He was great. But he had to go back to college.

BSR: With three little ones at home and what I presume is a full-time writing job, how do you find time to write your books, much less do the extensive research?

AJJ: I am having a tough time.

My sons haven’t embraced the distinction between work hours and play hours. Right now, I’m working about 16 hours a day, and getting about two hours of actual work done, because my kids come into my office every three minutes to have an important discussion about bananas or Dora the Explorer. So I don’t think I’ve mastered the balance yet.

My only trick is that I try not to waste a single second. I don’t let my mind wander too often. If I’m going around the corner to get a bunch of grapes (as I had to do today), I try to have something specific to think about while I’m walking. A little project. Like, what headline an article should have. Or a list of people I’d like to profile for Esquire.

BSR: Have you ever given thought to writing fiction, or actually, have you ever written fiction?

AJJ: I’ve dabbled a couple of times. But I just don’t think I’m built for it. Even in my reading choices I tend toward nonfiction. When I was young, I remember reading Tom Wolfe talking about how nonfiction – when it’s written in a vibrant way – is more compelling than fiction. So that really influenced me. Then he decides to write nothing but fiction. So I don’t know where that leaves me.

BSR: What are you reading lately? Anything you’d recommend?

AJJ: I wish my friends would stop writing good books. I keep feeling compelled to read them. My friend Jennifer Traig wrote a book about hypochondria called Well Enough Alone, which will be out later this year. Also, though he’s not a friend, I’m in the middle of Alan Weisman’s The World Without Us. I loved the description of Manhattan before people came in, plowed the hills down, and put up a Duane Read drugstore on every block.

BSR: What on earth (or heaven) is next for you after a year spent following the Bible?

AJJ: Well, my wife says I owe her after all I put her through with the encyclopedia and Bible projects. She’s pressuring me to to The Year of Giving My Wife Foot Massages. But I’m not sure how mass the appeal would be. But I do want to do one more of the immersion projects.

BSR: Finally, for someone whose writing ambition is to follow the same sort of path you have, what advice would you give?

AJJ: I’m worried my advice will be stuff they’ve heard before. I don’t have any huge original secrets like “use more umlauts.” To me, the most important thing, I think, is just to generate ideas nonstop. Be an idea machine. Because rarely – especially when you’re starting out – will someone assign you a book or a freelance article. You have to pitch relentlessly. And second, over-report. Especially if you’re describing a scene. Write down every detail, even the ones that seem trivial – the sound of American Gladiators playing in the background, for instance. You never know what you’ll end up using .

Blesseth thee, A.J. Jacobs. I hath enjoyed this very much. Verily, verily much, I say unto thee.

P.S.: This before/after will never stop crackething (?) me up.


My recent interview with author Kim Powers is up over at BiblioBuffet. I think it turned out rather well, mostly because Kim’s so charming.

I hope you’ll swing by and check it out!


I’m not sure it gets more impressive than this. A 19-year old college student who has already published three nonfiction books.

I virtually “bumped into” Nora Coon while working on my doomed National Novel Writing Month project, which bit that dust kicked up by grad school. Nora very kindly agreed to answer a few interview questions for me. I find her a fascinating young woman. I think you will, too.

Check out Nora’s Blog at:

1). Can you tell me, briefly, about the three books you’ve published? How difficult was it for a teenager to get into print?

Certainly. I have three books published: It’s Your Rite, Teen Dreams Jobs, and The Diabetes Game. Both It’s Your Rite and Teen Dream Jobs were published by Beyond Words Publishing (

It’s Your Rite is a collection of girls’ coming-of-age stories. I put the collection together and contributed several parts. Teen Dream Jobs is a how-to book that tells teenagers how to get a job that they actually enjoy. The Diabetes Game was published by Rewarding Health (

I suppose you could call that a more personal book – it’s a book for teenagers with diabetes, about how to have a normal (i.e. enjoyable) life with diabetes. I’ve had Type 1 diabetes (the kind that doesn’t go away) since I was 11 years old, and The Diabetes Game was published in my senior year of high school.

I had, I think, a fairly unusual entry into the publishing world. When I was 12, I attended a local writing conference in Portland, Oregon – the Willamette Writer’s Conference ( I signed up to pitch a book to Michelle McCann, who was then the Children’s Editor at Beyond Words Publishing. While she didn’t accept the book, she invited me to pitch to her again, and later asked if I would like to intern (I had neglected to mention my precise age).

After a good deal of legal maneuvering, I began interning at Beyond Words. I spent nearly two years there; I was homeschooling at the time, so I had a lot of free time. Shortly after I arrived, they asked me to write a piece for a collection they were putting together about kids traveling (Going Places). That was the first time I actually got paid for my writing, though I’d had some poems published in ( and won an essay contest.

I’d been interning at Beyond Words for about a year when my supervisor, the new Children’s Editor, told me about a book they’d thought of – It’s Your Rite, in its earliest stages – and asked if I’d be willing to put it together. I said yes, and that was it. A year later, I pitched Teen Dream Jobs to her, and she bought it.

2). What inspires you to write? What started your love of this profession?

It’s tough for me to pin down exactly what inspires me – I just love to tell stories. You could spin it as me being a control freak, or me being fascinated by human nature, or a hundred other things, but it boils down to a love of stories.

When I try to figure out what started my love of writing, I have to turn to my mother; I started writing around the age of four, which is before I have any real memories. She could tell you any one of a hundred stories about the first time I wrote a story, but I’m afraid she’s really to blame. Since I was about three years old, she’s been telling me all kinds of stories – simple ones at
first, about princesses who wished that it would stop raining, or girls who didn’t want to take baths, and then more complex stories involving travels to “lands of adventure”, as she called them.

Sorry, Mom. It’s all your fault.

3). How has NaNoWriMo helped your writing? What sort of piece are you working
on, and do you hope to publish it?

NaNoWriMo gave me a kick that I really needed, back in my senior year of high school, and since then I’ve relied on it whenever I could use a boost. It’s the absolute lack of quality expectations that helps, I think – no one cares how good your writing is. All they care about is whether or not you write. This year I’ve dragged my mother into it as well, and she’s absolutely loving it.

As for my piece this year – well. How can I say this? It was originally intended as an experiment to see if I could write high-concept literary fiction, and (surprise, surprise) I can’t. At least, not without tossing in drag racing, modern-day Malaysian pirates, pyromaniacs, and exotic dancers. Last year’s novel, though it didn’t quite stick to the original plot, was a little more faithful.

When it comes to publication, my usual philosophy is “never say never”, but in this case I’ll go ahead and say: never. I view NaNoWriMo novels as more of pressure cookers to see if the characters are any good – if they are, maybe I’ll yank them out of their current plot and setting and stick them somewhere else. My writing is generally very character-driven anyway.

Remarkably, the only NaNo piece that I’m seriously editing for submission is my National Novel Writing Day 2007 novel. So far, about twenty pages are ready for viewing by the general public, and I’m pretty sure all of those were additions after I finished the first draft.

4). How many years have you been doing NaNoWriMo? Do you intend to keep
participating, or do you think at some point it will have less relevance to your career?

This is my third year doing NaNoWriMo specifically; I also participated in National Novel Writing Day twice. So far, I’ve succeeded once at NaNoWriMo (last year) and once at NaNoWriDay (the first time). I absolutely intend to keep participating – I think that there’s something incredibly freeing about not allowing yourself to worry about what you’re writing, and simply writing instead.

5). How tough is it balancing being a student and also a writer? How do you fit it all in?

It’s very difficult sometimes – interestingly, it was actually harder to balance during high school. That might have something to do with the fact that in high school, I was under contract for both Teen Dream Jobs (my freshman year) and The Diabetes Game (my senior year), which meant a lot of extra work. I actually had to drop a course during my freshman year in order to finish Teen Dream Jobs, and was forced to opt out of a creative writing elective course in my senior year to get The Diabetes Game done.

My first year doing NaNoWriMo was also my senior year of high school, and I just couldn’t do it – I had a 13-page research paper on Chechnya due in early December, and I barely made it to 20,000 words. I came dangerously close to failing geometry thanks to my penchant for writing during class, and to this day I probably couldn’t tell you much about arcs and cosines. I’m very lopsided when it comes to academics.

Now that I’m in college, I have a bit more freedom. I still don’t always fit it all in, and I’m embarrassed to admit that usually the schoolwork goes first. My professors have been as understanding as anyone could expect them to be when I explain about NaNoWriMo, but I definitely struggle to fit everything in.

And then I’m left wondering why, since my Saturday nights still seem to end up free. Poor time management, I suppose.

6). What writers do you admire? Which have most influenced your own writing?

I have a wide range of beloved authors, including Terry Pratchett, Neil Gaiman, Joseph Heller, Jane Austen, Shakespeare, Homer (yes, I admit it! I loved The Odyssey!), Robin McKinley, Brian Jacques…as well as some favorite picture book authors whose names I can’t recall. As for my strongest influences, I think whoever I’m reading at the time tends to influence my writing. After a Brian Jacques binge during fourth and fifth grade, my writing suddenly included a lot of highly detailed feasts and battles. Interestingly, as I look back over that list, I realize that none of those authors write/wrote contemporary YA fiction, which is pretty much all I’m doing right now. I suppose it’s more the style and less the subject matter that shows up in my writing. Sadly, I haven’t been able to do a great deal of extracurricular fiction reading since beginning college. I did read one fantastic book, though, over fall break: The Book Thief, by Markus Zusak.

7). Aside from writing, what are your major interests? Speaking of major, what’s your college major?

That’s a tough one. My major interests besides writing…reading, I suppose? But that doesn’t really count. I’m a big soccer fan, though I was never much of an athlete myself. Honestly, most of what interests me involves storytelling in one form or another – I love movies, television, books, and every once in a while I’ll make a very poor clay animation film. I’m afraid my brain is
permanently set in “story” mode. Even when I go to art museums, I’m always drawn to paintings and sculptures that tell some kind of story.

As for my college major, that would be English. We don’t have a Creative Writing major here at Grinnell College, but almost every semester we have guest professors from the Iowa Writer’s Workshop who teach writing courses. I’ve considered a double major in English and History (since what is history but stories that happen to be true?), but I’m not sure I’m up to that level of

8). What are your plans for the future? Is being a writer something you plan to put more effort into pursuing?

Absolutely. There are plenty of uncertainties in my future – the largest being how I’ll support myself – but writing is a definite. I’d like to strike a balance between novels and nonfiction books, if possible. Besides writing, I’ve come up with altogether too many ideas for my future. Recent plans include: working as a travel writer and staying away from First World countries for a few years (I met a guy who did this while I was in South America), getting a pilot’s license and flying down in the British Virgin Islands (the result of briefly flying a plane while staying in the B.V.I.), earning a degree in Library Sciences and being a children’s librarian/working in the Library of Congress… It’s all pretty fluid. No matter what else I do, I’ll definitely be writing.

“What is There to Do in Mississippi?”

It’s not about desire,

this land that pulls us in

and gets us lost on back roads

til we come to an impassable bridge

at midnight by some bayou.

Our headlights useless, we just

sit silent

where kudzu looms like velvet

to swath and choke the pines.

Crickets chirr. Spring peepers

clamber to crescendo in the waters.

Later we touch. I hold your face in my hands

and my body comes alive

like those crickets in the kudzy.

But now we sit not touching in the car.

The singing night pours down around us.

Great splayed towering leaves

begin to teach us our oblivion.

– Used with permission, from Blue Window: Poems by Ann Fisher-Wirth

Los Angeles: Archer Books, c. 2003

An Interview with Poet Ann Fisher-Wirth

LG: What is it about Mississippi that is conducive to staggering talent?

AFW: Violence, beauty, suffering, ongoing conflict, a sense of loss, a sense of community, a sense of God, a sense of history. The Blues, liquor, a natural world so fertile and rich and semi-tropically tangled that it constantly reminds human beings they are not the measure of things – until, that is, they clearcut the woods, drain the marshes, poison the lakes and rivers. Damage. More damage. Repression and its underlying wildness. Orality: the voice, singing, telling stories, or just passing the time of day. A sense, far more than in many places, that literature matters.

LG: How would you describe your poetry, and the themes running through it?

AFW: I write most often in free verse, though I also write prose poems and have started experimenting from time to time with sonnets. My poems vary quite a bit: some are fragmentary and experimental, and take the form of sequences or daybooks; others are much shorter and more linear. I write about all sorts of things. Some of my work may be described as ecopoetry, including a recent poem/prose poem sequence “Dream Cabinet,” which I wrote in the summer of 2006 while visiting a tiny island called Fogdö in the Stockholm archipelago. I also write about family, motherhood, marriage, sexuality, art, literature, travel. Recently I’ve been writing about my Army childhood, including a chapbook-length sequence of poems set in Japan, called “Slide Shows.” Since I have lived all over the world, especially in Mississippi and California, my poems are located all over the world, especially in Mississippi and California. All my poems are influenced – though sometimes imperceptibly – by my thirty years’ practice (and now teaching) of yoga.

LG: What authors have most influenced you?

AFW: In high school, in 1960’s Berkeley, I was in love with T. S. Eliot, whom I thought I could make happy. Eliot, e.e. cummings, Edna St. Vincent Millay, and Dylan Thomas were my first favorite poets. I received an excellent liberal arts education at Berkeley High, Pomona College, and Claremont Graduate School, and I will always be grateful for it; canonical literature in English from the medieval Anons through the high Modernists was my bailiwick. I also studied history, religion, and theater, all of which gave me a wonderful foundation for teaching and for life. However, my education left out a lot: most women writers, contemporary writers, and non-white writers. On my own, I began to discover many new voices in the 1970’s, and a lot of gaps in my own life –between diapering babies and reading poetry, for instance – began to close. But probably the single writer who has influenced me most over the years has been William Carlos Williams, whose work I discovered while studying for comps in graduate school. Reading him, and then writing a dissertation which became a book on him, revolutionized my idea of writing and its relationship to life.

LG: What books are you reading currently? Which would you recommend?

AFW: I’m always reading a lot of different books at the same time. For one thing, I reread the books I teach, every time I teach them. So last week I read Kafka’s The Trial and some of Hemingway’s Nick Adams Stories, and this week I am reading Camus’s The Stranger and some of Eliot’s poems. Next up are Toni Morrison’s Sula and Carolyn Forché’s The Country between Us. Also I’m reading Forché’s Blue Hour and The Angel of History, Anne Carson’s The Autobiography of Red, Terrance Hayes’s Wind in a Box, Nick Flynn’s Another Bullshit Night in Suck City, and Sheri Benstock’s Women of the Left Bank. I’d recommend all these books; it is a pleasure to be in their presence. Two powerful books I finished recently, and strongly recommend, are Isaac Babel’s Red Cavalry and Jan Tomasz Gross’s Neighbors: The Destruction of the Jewish Community in Jedwabne. I’ve just begun to explore the poetry of John Kinsella, and I’m informally collecting ecopoetry from around the world. I have to admit I’m also a magazine and mystery novel junkie, and hope to begin a Ruth Rendell mystery soon. I’m married to a man who is as big a bookworm as I am; as a long-term project he is reading me the Icelandic sagas and a book of Celtic myths and folktales.

LG: Do you have a set writing schedule?

AFW: I should have a set writing schedule, but I don’t. Nor do I have rituals, really: no rows of sharpened pencils, no absinthe, no rotting apples in a desk drawer. I like to sit with my feet on my desk and listen to music, or scribble down bits of imagery and stray language as I walk through town or in the woods. Often I write at a computer, though I do also keep scraps of paper or journals. When I am teaching, my time for writing becomes very broken up. On the other hand, I’m rarely not thinking about writing or dealing with writing—my own or someone else’s.

LG: Why is poetry intimidating to so many? What is it about the genre that can be so off-putting?

AFW: Poetry is intimidating first because it’s often badly taught, and second because our culture does not value it. All little children love poetry: nursery rhymes, jump rope rhymes, nonsense rhymes. However, as children go through the many versions of the American school system, they become alienated from poetry. They give away their own power to love it, and begin to think of it as something to fear, something that someone else (the teacher) knows about, something that communicates in needlessly difficult ways, something that has little to do with “real” life. Furthermore, the ways of knowing and being that poetry offers are not valued in our society; poetry is not about beating out the competition, getting the right answer, maximizing profit, or dominating the world. I grew up in the 1960’s. I believed then, and have always believed, that many aspects of our society systematically starve people’s abilities to experience and treasure emotion, wildness, beauty, playfulness, and imagination. And yet, as we saw in the outpouring of poetry that covered the walls of New York after 9/11, poetry never fails us. We turn to it in our deepest, most joyful or desperate moments: birth, marriage, catastrophe, death.

LG: What are you working on currently?

AFW: I have recently finished a book manuscript of poems, called Gift, and I’m sending it around. I’ve begun to gather poems for what I think will be two manuscripts: one called “Sweetgum / Liquidambar” and the other called “Dream Cabinet.” But these are in the very early stages. LG: Have you written, or considered writing, in any other genres? AFW: For many years I wrote academic literary criticism. I have published a book titled William Carlos Williams and Autobiography: The Woods of His Own Nature (Penn State University Press), and many articles on various American writers, especially Willa Cather and Cormac McCarthy. I’ve also written several articles of ecocriticism – on Faulkner, Linda Hogan, Rick Bass – and a long essay titled “The Authority of Poetry,” which will be published soon in Europe and Canada. I write prose poetry as well as poetry, and occasionally I write familiar essays. With one of my daughters, the poet Jessica Fisher, I’m working on a collaborative piece for a forthcoming anthology; our piece is called “Mother Daughter Mother Daughter,” and I think it will be beautiful.

LG: Finally, what’s your favorite poem of all time? Why does this work speak to you?

AFW: There’s no way I could choose one favorite poem. Here are a few: John Keats, “To Autumn”; George Herbert, “The Flower”; William Carlos Williams, “Asphodel, That Greeny Flower”; Dylan Thomas, “In My Craft or Sullen Art.”


Ann Fisher-Wirth teaches poetry and environmental literature at the University of Mississippi in Oxford, MS. She is the author of two volumes of poetry, Blue Window: Poems (2003) and Five Terraces (2005), as well as William Carlos Williams and Autobiography: The Woods of His Own Nature (1989). She and her husband, Peter Wirth, have five children.


Selah Saterstrom’s second novel, The Meat and Spirit Plan, will be published next month by one of my favorite independent publishers, Coffee House Press.

I’m running short on adequate description to say how brilliant I think this novel truly is, so here’s what Publisher’s Weekly had to say (deleting what may be too much plot spoiler):

” This dark first-person tale of youthful initiation by Mississippi-born Saterstrom (The Pink Institution) follows a feisty narrator from public housing in a backward Southern town to the sodden grit of university life in Glasgow. The young, unnamed narrator of these detached vignettes falls into bad company as her drug-addict mother largely disappears and her older sister introduces her to sex and booze. … Saterstrom’s coming-of-age narrative is tough and unblinking, and the moments of clarity provide immense satisfaction. (Sept.) ”

Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

Let me just add to this, the prose is breathtaking, as worthwhile to read for the quality of the writing itself as for the compelling story.

Selah was gracious enough to grant me an interview:

LG: What sort of childhood did you have? Were you the sort of child who lived a lot in your imagination?

SS: Growing up I had a whole slew of cousins and my childhood was filled with adventures and misadventures with them. Between us we had an extraordinary amount of imagination. We would stage plays and other “experimental” productions which could be quite … interesting! We always practiced having a wonderful sens of humor in my family.

There was this way that our collective energy and applied imagination was able to disrupt the landscape into its more surreal versions. Surrealist writers have been important to me and reading them has taught me a great deal about the generative aspects of transgression, and how the dream – as a form of literature – makes it possible to break out of binary ghettos we may have set up for ourselves. When I think of my continued fascination with these things I think my childhood spent with cousins, how we were experimenting with other ways of knowing and engaging through our imaginations. Those times were great fun, never lacking in drama, and taught me a lot about the power of story.

LG: Were you a big reader as a child? What were your favorite books?

SS: Reading was celebrated by the adults in my life when I was a child. Reading was never a stodgy thing to do. For example, it was sneakiness of the highest order for my sister and I to turn on flashlights after the adults went to bed and read Nancy Drew under the covers when we should have been sleeping.

My grandfather had a large library and taught us about the importance of reading and writing. His library was full of history, philosophy, psychology, religion and the classics, and we mainly read from this library, which meant as a child I read a great deal of Plato, Shakespeare and French writers such as Hugo, all of whom were great favorites. I don’t know that I always understood what I was reading then, but it was when I began to love how language could flow and how it felt in the body.

LG: Have you always wanted to be a writer, or did you have a moment of epiphany when you chose that vocation? Or did it choose you?

SS: I had early experiences that I look back on now as having divinatory significance about being a writer. What those experiences had in common is that they involved the act of seeing and the power of story to make available the logic of mystery – of uncertainty – as a way that made things bearable and known to the heart’s experience.

As a child I once saw a relative’s dead body and I remember thinking, “Well, after seeing that I can see anything.” I had this overwhelming sense that this meant something important and that it was a kind of ethical responsibility to be willing to see what was there to be seen. What I did with that seeing was to write. I wrote my first story when I was around seven, and don’t remember a time after when I didn’t want to write (though sometimes I also wanted to be a ball-gown designer in New York City or a nun). I don’t think anyone in my family is surprised that I’m a writer now. Did I choose it? Did it choose me? I have no idea. When I think back to early childhood experiences of writing I only remember that it always felt right, compulsory, very, very close.

LG: The narrator of The Meat and Spirit Plan is a very complex, incredibly intelligent young woman who’s also very mixed up. What inspired you to write about her?

SS: When I was working with “troubled” teenaged girls, I saw the uniqueness of their lives and their fierce intelligence, but I also saw correspondences in their experiences of the body. Futhermore, I saw correspondences between their stories and many of my friends’ stories. I was also affected by other stories, such as the story of the sexual abuse and death of Hunter College student Ramona Moore.

As part of my research for this book I also interviewed women who had been sexually abused, and I realized that sexual abuse – something we tend to think of as the exception to the rule – really isn’t the exception. I also work for SASA, a sexual assault advocacy, support, and response team, and the statistics that state one out of three women will be in some way sexually violated is alarmingly accurate and thriving.

Through this narrator – who has a variety of sexual experiences, some of which are violations and some which are not – I wanted to examine the cultural conditions around young people and the ways they come into their bodies. I was interested in how sometimes the moment of sexual awareness coincides with moments of sexual disempowerment or disembodiment. Of course there are a lot of reasons why this happens, but what interested me was the break-down in communication we have about bodies in our culture and how this plays out among teenagers and what happens when those teenagers grow up – how we all learn to celebrate our bodies, with their history and complexities, as adults.

LG: Mississippi has been the native state of some of the greatest American authors, including William Faulkner and Eudora Welty. What is it about the South, and Mississippi in particular, that makes for such a wealth of literary genius?

SS: If only I could offer some insights to this question! I do believe that each region retains its own magical synergy and that this synergy is created by many details – from the kind of flora that grows in the region, the weather, the history of the region itself – the history that is retold and celebrated as well as the history that is not told, is not celebrated.

The way these details come together in Mississippi creates quite a synergy. One need only listen to the Blues coming out of the North Mississippi Hill country and the Delta to sense this. And I’d add, gospel music (such as The Mississippi Mass Choir).

Mississippi is a place of contradictions that bears them viscerally and with soul. As southern scholar Susan Ketchin has said, the Deep South is a Christ-haunted landscape – faith and doubt sit beside one another and this juxtaposition creates a hybrid energy which infests language with possibility. It is a story driven place, where everything has a story (and has a secret version of its story). Perhaps for obvious reasons I like Faulkner’s idea, “To understand the world, you must first understand a place like Mississippi.”

Mississippi is a place I love very much. It has certainly been a generous landscape in which to ruminate upon the complexities of the human condition as well as the human heart.

Thank you so much to Selah Saterstrom. It was a pleasure.





The United States of Appalachia: How Southern Mountaineers Brought Independence, Culture and Enlightenment to American (Shoemaker and Hoard) has just been released in paper; In the Sierra Madre (University of Illinois) will be released in paper in August.

LG: How did a Midwestern and transplanted Southwestern writer like you end up championing Appalachia?

JB: I shared most of the misperceptions about Appalachia—this strange world of Lil Abner and Snuffy Smith, feuding Hatfields, Deliverance, coal miners and poor folks needing to be saved by the War on Poverty—until I stumbled into the region in the 1980s, a college drop-out from UC Berkeley. Spending the summer on a farm and folk school in West Virginia, piled down with history books and novels, and lectured by miners, poets and blues musicians, I found a different Appalachia. Or Appalachias, rather. Far from being some landlocked hollow, with a singular culture, where nothing had ever changed in 200 years, the Southern Mountains emerged in our discussions as an international theater of war, a crossroads of cultures, and a real burning ground of innovations and groundbreaking movements. These buried histories—buried under so many ridiculous stereotypes—fascinated me.

It took me 20 years to return, but this vision of Appalachia remained in a lot of my conversations, as I worked as an educator, writer and journalist across the States and abroad. Funny enough, every time someone cracked a hillbilly joke or casually made a reference to inbreeding in Appalachia—which happened in the New Yorker magazine last month—I found myself saying…but, did you know? That line—Did you know, as in, Did you know that the first American newspaper dedicated solely to the abolitionist cause was not William Lloyd Garrison’s Liberator but a radical newspaper that came out of the Southern Mountains in 1819, and in fact, Garrison was inspired and trained by a publisher and minister from the anti-slavery movement in Appalachia?—led to this book.

LG: As you note in your book, Appalachia has an unusually long list of caricatures and stereotypes, dating back to Sut Lovingood in the mid-19th century. Your Appalachia is full of innovators, writers, and social activists, such as early American revolutionaries and abolitionists, Nina Simone and Bessie Smith, Rebecca Harding Davis, Cormac McCarthy, Pearl S. Buck and Henry Louis Gates. Have you found your readers and critics have trouble making the leap between the two extremes?

JB: It’s definitely been a challenge to get people or critics outside the region to take a second look at Appalachia. No other region has been so trivialized or maligned; while I was on tour, Neil Young did a Saturday Night Live skit called “Appalachian ER,” New York governor Eliot Spitzer lamented that upstate New York looked “like Appalachia”
(part of upstate New York is in Appalachia, by the way) and the JT Leroy “hillbilly naïf” literary hoax took place.

But this is the whole challenge of my book: It’s time for those of us outside the region to get over these stereotypes and recognize that we can’t fully understand American history—from the Revolutionary era through the abolitionist, labor, and civil rights movements, and various leaps in music and literature—until we understand Appalachian history. I’ve toured in 25 states this past year, and I’ve been dogged about touring outside the region, and the response has generally been one of surprise. In the Midwest, for example, I’ll never forget a woman rising from her seat, holding up the book in shock. She shouted: Detroit auto leader Walter Reuther came from a radical labor family from West Virginia, out of the same iron mills that produced the first important social realism fiction and literary naturalism in American literature in 1861?

LG: In some interviews, you’ve mentioned your concern in getting “regionally downsized.”

JB: A funny thing has happened: I’ve been introduced so many times as an Appalachian writer who wrote a book about Appalachia, as if only someone from the region would write or be interested in this book, when in fact, I’m an outside journalist and writer, and I approached this project as a broader work on American social history. You know, it’s hard out there for a Southern writer, in many respects, outside of the South, because they somehow remain “Southern writers” even when they have a national audience. This fascinates me: this need to pigeonhole or regionalize writers, as if their work is somehow outside the quintessential American experience.

In Chicago, for example, a literary venue asked me change my speaking gig in February to another month because it was Black History Month. They assumed Appalachia had no African American experience, or, as the sponsor told me, I had written a book “about those people down there.” Without burning a bridge, I had to quietly remind her that Black History Month was actually launched by a Black Appalachian coal miner, renowned historian Carter Woodson; that Booker T. Washington had been shaped by his experience in West Virginia, just like pioneering Black nationalist Martin Delany and contemporary African American scholar Henry Louis Gates. I spoke about the role of Nikki Giovanni in the Black Arts Movement, Bessie Smith in blues, Nina Simone in jazz, and black guitarists like Lesley Riddle in shaping country music. Where did John Henry pound those rails? And then I spoke about Rosa Park’s visit to a radical folk school in the backwoods of Tennessee, a few months before launching her historic boycott in Montgomery, and the role of Appalachians in training the shock troops of the Civil Rights Movement.

I still didn’t get invited to Chicago for Black History Month. Maybe next year!

LG: Do you think your title might have kept critical readers from picking up the book or taking it seriously?

JB: The original title was Rank Strangers: The Other Appalachians, but the marketing folks wanted something sexier. The United States of Appalachia refers to a comment by Washington Irving, who suggested we changed the name of our country in 1838 to its most notable natural landmark. One marketing person told me that readers only want to read about themselves, that no one outside of Appalachia would pick up this book. But I don’t buy that level of cynicism. When Studs Terkel, my
hero, offered a blurb for the book, I was reminded of how his monumental work had taught us that stories transcend borders and the great ethnic and regional divides.

LG: You’ve actually had two books come out in the last year—the other, a travel memoir and history of Mexico’s Copper Canyon, In the Sierra Madre. How difficult has it been to juggle the two?

JB: It’s actually been a great experience, comparing the two mountain regions, exploring the incredible treasury of literature in both areas. And in the process, I think it has also helped me break out of a potentially narrow market. I’m at work on a book on India, so the ship moves on.

LG: What advice would you give to aspiring writers of travel and culture related nonfiction writing? What have you learned that you’d like to pass along to others?

JB: If Appalachia and the Sierra Madre have taught me anything it’s that there are lot of astonishing stories still waiting for us to discover, or in truth, recover. In whatever genre, the writer needs to cross borders—be they real or imaginary—to get the full story. As a historian, I’ve been deeply influenced by the work of versatile creative writers like Bernard DeVoto and Wallace Stegner, who reminded us that the American West was a process as much as a place.

LG: Do you keep a strict writing schedule? What “habits” or “rituals”
help keep you on track?

JB: I’m raising two little boys, so my writing habits have become quite strict: I go to the office when I can, research and write like mad until the bell rings, daydream about the next chapter as I’m cooking or changing diapers or pulling weeds in the garden, and then try to write a few hours in the evening before I crash.

LG: Finally, as a public library employee I must ask, how have libraries influenced your lifelong interest in books and writing? Do you have any special memories regarding libraries playing a role in your life?

JB: It’s no exaggeration to say that a librarian in my high school is largely responsible for keeping me on track. In one of those dark and drama-filled adolescent movements, I found myself hiding out in the library, plotting my escape. I’ll never forget a librarian ambling over, dropping a book in my lap. The book—Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint. I laughed my head off. Within the week, she had drawn up a reading list of novels and poetry collections and magazines that served as my real education. I’ll never forget her; she became my mentor and confidant. In terms of public libraries, I still define a town’s worth on the quality of its library.

Thanks very much to Jeff Biggers for so generously granting me his time for this interview.

Jeff Biggers’ website:


The Keep is a novel with a distinctly gothic taste, yet it’s not easy to pigeonhole in any genre. It has those spooky, ghostly elements we come to expect, but it can’t be defined just by that. It’s hard to define at all, really.

A lot of readers have agreed with me there, though not all of them were as impressed by the overall effect of the book as I was. The book is unique in a way that’s difficult to pin down. Though it would seem a problem for a critic to be at a loss for words when it comes to describing a book, in this case that’s a compliment. It’s such a varied book. Egan took big chances writing it. I’d venture to say its richly complex style makes it a different book for every reader.

To say I was impressed is an understatement, though I can’t the book is without its flaws. It was so highly experimental not everything worked for me, but enough did that I’m crossing my fingers Egan keeps on (no pun intended) in the direction she’s going.

I think Egan’s at her strongest when she’s within the gothic framework. I wanted more of that in The Keep. What there was couldn’t have been more compelling to me. The darkness of the plot in the first 3/4 of the novel was superb. Where I felt less enchanted was near the end, at the denouement. That’s not to say I wasn’t happy with the book overall. I was, but more of the dark, more tie ins with the mysterious things going on would have been more satisfying to me.

We need more writers to take chances like this. That’s one thing I know for sure. We need less cookie cutter novels, and more books like The Keep. They may leave us scratching our heads wondering what just happened, but that’s the beauty of novels like this. Complexity is a very good thing.

Jennifer agreed to answer a few questions for me. The interview follows below:


LG: Were you an avid reader as a child? What were some of your favorite books?

JE: I would describe myself as a kid who escaped into books. Like so many children, I especially loved series; I found it jarring and disruptive to have a book end, and it was such a relief to disappear instantly back into another book from the same world. One of my favorite series was Laura Ingals Wilder’s LITTLE HOUSE ON THE PRAIRIE, but I also loved HARRIET THE SPY and, I’m slightly ashamed to admit, Nancy Drew. I loved the Zilpha Keatley Snyder books; THE EGYPT GAME is one I remember in particular. THE SECRET GARDEN, of course. The E. B. Whites. I also really loved mysteries: everything from Sherlock Homes to “Ten Minute Mysteries” (I think that’s what they were called) which I devoured.

LG: When did you know you wanted to be a writer? Did you start out in prose fiction, or did you try another genre?

JE: realized that I wanted to be a writer during a year off I took between high school and college. I’d always loved to read and write, but I’d had it in my head that I would be an archeologist, and I was pretty set on that. During my year off, I first paid to go on a small archeological dig in Kampsville Illinois, where we unearthed Mississippian Indian remains in 90 degree heat, each of us on a designated square meter of earth. That took care of the archeaology fantasies. I spent the next several months working to save up money, and eventually went to Europe with a backpack and a Eurail pass. It was a difficult trip; my mother and stepfather were divorcing at home, and I had a sense of running away–never an ideal way to travel. I kept a journal as I moved around Europe, and somewhere along the way it came to me that writing was what made the world comprehensible to me, and what gave it meaning–that writing was what I was meant to do with my life, and that I’d known it all along, but simply not seen it. I began with fiction and consider myself primarily a fiction writer (though I do a fair amount of journalism as well): short stories and novels.

LG: ‘The Keep’ is a novel that relies partly on gothic elements. What were your influences in writing this book? Have you read extensively in the gothic genre?

JE: For a while, when working on THE KEEP, I had no interest in reading anything that wasn’t gothic in feel. Of course, that still allows for plenty of reading throughout the centuries; from Walpole and Radcliffe to Joyce Carol Oates and Stephen King. The most perfect Gothic work I’ve encountered, which I’d read before but not fully appreciated, is James’s THE TURN OF THE SCREW. Two of the most compelling, though wild and ungoverned, are Matthew Lewis’s THE MONK and Charles Maturin’s MELMOTH THE WANDERER. I’m also crazy about Wilkie Collins’ THE WOMAN IN WHITE. Talk about a book that is impossible to put down! I also think that childhood reading gives all of us access to a gothic sensibility; fairy tales are often so gothic (Sleeping Beauty, Hansel and Gretel), and the interest in ghosts and haunted houses and supernatural worlds is all the stuff of gothic fiction.

LG: What contemporary authors do you admire?

JE: Oh, it depends what day you ask me. For example, I’d never really loved Cormac McCarthy until I read THE ROAD, which I think is a masterpiece. I love Don DeLillo and Shirley Hazzard and Robert Stone and Joyce Carol Oates. Of my contemporaries, I’ve admired books by Heidi Julevits, Claire Messud, Michael Chabon, Jonathans Lethem and Franzen, Elizabeth Gilbert…and the list is always growing and changing.

LG: Do you read reviews of your work? How difficult is it to read a negative review? Is there some positive value to reading them?

JE: I do read the reviews. THE KEEP received more negative reviews than any of my other books; it tended to have a polarizing effect on people. I didn’t find those negative reviews particularly helpful; ideally, I suppose, a negative review should take your book on its own terms and explain how and why you had failed to achieve what you were setting out to do. The less helpful kind simply fails to understand what you’re trying to do. Those really got me down, leading quite naturally to the question: Why read them? So I may be heading toward a new approach in that area!

LG: What are your writing habits? Do you keep a strict schedule?

JE: I’m fairly disciplined, though I wouldn’t say that I keep to a *strict* schedule. I write fiction always by hand, on legal pads, and fairly quickly. I seem to need not to be able to read what I’m writing as I write it–hence the handwriting. When I have a complete draft–be it a story or a novel–I read it through and make pretty careful plans (especially in the case of a novel; with stories the plans stay mostly in my head) for what I need to do next. In the case of LOOK AT ME, my second novel, my first revision plan was 80 pps long, single-spaced, in 10 point type. It took me well over a year just to execute it, and when I finally had, I read the draft through and wrote a shorter outline, then executed that, and so on. Even when editing, I work in longhand on printed copies, then type in my changes. The editing I can do pretty much anywhere, any time, and I have the capacity to keep at it for hours, but the original writing tends to burn me out after two or three hours, so that is most often a morning activity. Aside from legal pads and certain pens that I like, quiet and natural light are nice, but not necessary; I’ve worked on busses, planes, subways, cafes, you name it!

LG: As a public library employee I have to ask, what role have libraries played in your love of books and reading?

JE: I loved the library as a kid. I’d take out a few books and feel that gutted sense of disappointment whenever one world would end and I would have to enter another. Then that new would would encompass me, and it would be difficult to leave *it.* As an adult, I’ve also relied a lot on libraries. The beautiful reading rooms at the New York Public Library have served as my office for whole stretches of time, and I’ve also done lots of research there. I’m a huge believer in libraries, and try to take my kids often. I love to see the trance they go into, surrounded by all those books.

LG: What’s next for you after ‘The Keep’? What are you working on now?

JE: I’m working on a few short stories, trying to round out another collection I’d like to publish in the next couple of years. Some of these stories are connected, which is new for me, and a lot of fun. And I’m also gearing up to start a new novel that I’ve been thinking about and researching on and off for a few years, now. I don’t like to say too much about things that aren’t finished (much less started), but I will tell you that it’s as unlike my other books as they are unlike each other, and that it begins in the 1940’s in New York.

LG: What advice would you give to aspiring writers?

JE: Three things: 1. read; 2. write. 3. be willing to write badly.

I’m amazed by how often I’ll encounter someone in a writing workshop whose points of reference all seem to be movies. A person who isn’t inclined to read is extremely unlikely to become a writer. I think of reading as the equivalent of eating; it feeds and nourishes and energizes us, and it fills us with good stuff that can hopefully find its way into our own work.

And as to the writing part, I try to think of it as a habit, like exercise. If you’re out of shape and not used to exercising, doing so feels strange and uncomfortable. But if you’re used to exercising, *not* doing it is what feels strange. Writing should be like that, and the way to achieve this is to agree with oneself to write for a certain time period each day: start with 15 minutes and work up to longer periods of time. In some sense it doesn’t really matter what you write, only that you do it. Which leads me to point three: I think the fear of writing badly holds many people back. My personal experience has always been that good writing follows bad, and if you’re not willing to get through the bad stuff, you won’t get to the good stuff. I write terribly all the time, and I recommend it highly. In fact the working title for THE KEEP through the whole first draft was: A SHORT BAD NOVEL. And the first draft was indeed short and bad, but I kept working on it.

Thanks so much to Jennifer Egan for taking the time to answer these questions.

Jennifer Egan’s website.