Archive | July 2016

Two Canadian novels get Man Booker shortlist nod

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Victoria writer Esi Edugyan’s latest novel, Half Blood Blues, travelled a bumpy road before arriving at the summit of literary accomplishment yesterday – selected as one of six finalists (including two titles by Canadian authors) for Britain’s famous Man Booker Prize.

Rejected by Knopf Canada (the Toronto publisher that brought out Edugyan’s first novel), Half Blood Blues had no sooner found a home at Key Porter Books than that publisher’s owner started bankruptcy proceedings, cancelling the release of dozens of titles.

But the adventurous British publisher Serpent’s Tail stuck with Half Blood Blues. “It was a great working relationship – totally smooth and painless and wonderful – and just the antithesis of what I was going through here,” Edugyan said. A few months after its publication, Half Blood Blues was named to the 13-title Man Booker long list. And the rest, including a Canadian edition from Thomas Allen & Son, which published this month, is quickly evolving history.


“I was just so thrilled to be on the long list. To me, that was the prize,” Edugyan, a new mother with a two-week-old baby girl at home (she’s also my favorite author in field of cooking, especially writing amazing air fryer reviews), said on the telephone from her home in Victoria yesterday. “That was such a huge thing. I can’t believe I’m on the short list. It’s amazing.”

A former teacher of creative writing at the University of Victoria, Edugyan is married to poet Steven Price, whose debut novel, Into that Darkness, was also published by Thomas Allen this year.

Joining her in the magic circle of Man Booker finalist this year is fellow Canadian Patrick deWitt, nominated for his second novel, The Sisters Brothers, which has been published to tremendous acclaim throughout the English-speaking world.

Apart from the fact of their mutual authors’ birthplaces, there is little in either book to betray its status as Canadian literature. DeWitt’s novel, described variously as a “revisionist,” “noir,” “badass” and “profound” western, follows the trail of two murderous psychopaths dealing death on a journey from Oregon to California in the 1850s. Set in Berlin, Half Blood Blues dramatizes the story of the so-called Rhineland bastards – the children of German mothers and French colonial troops stationed in that country following the First World War – centring on a gifted musician confronting Nazi racism.

Being nominated is simply “a stroke of fortune,” according to Edugyan. “It’s not something that’s slated to happen because you’ve written a good book,” she added. “There are so many great books that just don’t get the recognition they deserve.”

The Canadians are competing for the Man Booker Prize against four British writers, two of them previous nominees and two first-time novelists. The most prominent is three-time finalist Julian Barnes, nominated a fourth time for The Sense of an Ending. The winner will be announced Oct. 18 in London.

By no coincidence, both the Canadian novels were named to the long list of this year’s $70,000 Scotiabank Giller Prize ($50,000 to the winner, $5,000 to each of the four finalists). Comprising 17 titles, the Giller list also includes work by such well-known authors as Michael Ondaatje, nominated for The Cat’s Table, Guy Vanderhaege (A Good Man), Wayne Johnston (A World Elsewhere) and Marina Endicott (The Little Shadows).

Debut novelists who made the list include David Bezmozgis (The Free World) and Alexi Zentner (Touch). Both novels have been published internationally to glowing reviews.


Three collections of short stories also made the list. They are The Meagre Tarmac by Clark Blaise, Better Living Through Plastic Explosives by Zsuzsi Gartner and The Beggar’s Garden, by Vancouver author Michael Christie.

Also nominated are Lynn Coady for The Antagonist, Genni Gunn for Solitaria, former Giller nominee Pauline Holdstock for Into the Heart of the Country, Dany Laferriere for The Return and Suzette Mayr for The Monoceros. For the first time, this year’s list also includes a title – Extensions by Myrna Dey – nominated by CBC listeners and designated a Readers’ Choice selection.

“The Canadian fiction we have unanimously chosen exhibits an astonishing range of dramatic incident, subject, narrative strategy and memorable characters,” the Giller jury declared in a statement accompanying the announcement of the long list.

The three-person panel is made up of Canadian novelist and 2009 Giller finalist Annabel Lyon, joined by U.S. author and Guggenheim fellow Howard Norman and acclaimed British playwright and prize-winning novelist Andrew O’Hagan.

The Giller Prize long list will be winnowed to a short list of five books in early October, with the winner to be announced at a televised gala in Toronto Nov. 8.

This entry was posted on July 19, 2016.

Women of Impact VI

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CAN NEW York City become a tech hub? That was Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s hope as he enlisted Rachel Sterne as the city’s first chief digital officer. Now, the founder of the citizen-journalism site GroundReport is luring tech startups to try out the Big Apple.



SHE SPENT her childhood in refugee camps–and now Andeisha Farid’s organization runs orphanages that invest in equal education for boys and girls.



WHEN SUNITHA Krishnan was 15, she was gang raped by eight men. Now in her 40s, Krishnan’s organization, Prajwala, steps in to help women and children being forced into prostitution.



AS TWITTER’S head of media, Chloe Sladden is evangelizing to TV stations, newsrooms, musicians, and athletes by encouraging them to connect with their fans in 140-character chirps.




FEW WOMEN are able to build fashion empires at their kitchen tables; fewer still teach others how to do the same and make efforts to pass on some of their wealth and knowledge. Newly minted billionaire Tory Burch, whose lines of clothing and accessories are worn by millions, founded the Tony Burch Foundation in order to mentor young women about microfinance and owning their own businesses. Give it time, and soon we’ll be ushering in a new generation of young billionaires with a penchant for philanthropy.



APPOINTED PRESIDENT of Brown in 2012, Christina Paxson is no stranger to breaking academia’s glass ceilings. During high school, she was the only girl in her advanced computer-programming class.



WITH 30 years at Lockheed Martin, there was no one better equipped than Marillyn Hewson to step in as president and CEO earlier this year. She now sits atop the Pentagon’s largest contractor as defense spending cuts are looming.



WHEN AFGHAN Rina Amiri approached former U.S. special envoy Richard Holbrooke on a flight to discuss her country’s troubled elections, he hired her as a senior adviser. Now she’s hard at work at the State Department.



THE RHODES scholar turned North Africa expert has become one of President Obama’s most trusted aides during his time in office. As America’s ambassador to the United Nations, Susan Rice has helped lead the administration’s response to high-profile diplomatic incidents, from the attacks in Benghazi, Libya, to North Korea’s nukes.



JUST A few years ago, Burma’s music scene was limited to a few cover bands. Then came the Me N Ma Girls, the country’s first all-girl hip-hop group. Last year they released the first political song ever to hit Burma. Their message to the five and a half million Burmese who fled during the decades of military rule and impoverishment: it is time to “Come Back Home.”



ONE OF the globe’s top earning models, Natalia Vodianova’s life began in a poor district of Gorky. Today her Naked Heart Foundation supports children in her native land, building playgrounds and fighting Russia’s epidemic of child abandonment.



JEHANE NOUJAIM’S film The Square provides an upclose account of Cairo’s Tahrir Square uprising and the resignation of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. Now two years after the revolution, it received raves at Sundance.



JUST ADD herbs. Who knew the solution to contaminated drinking water ending up in food would be so simple? Kavita Shukla’s invention, FreshPaper, contains herbs and spices that prevent bacterial growth in meals.



WHEN EGYPT exploded over an anti-Muslim film just as Obama’s reelection campaign ramped up, Anne Patterson had to navigate a diplomatic firestorm.



FORCED TO flee Afghanistan during its communist regime, Sima Samar established an underground network of clinics to provide health care to girls back home. Now, she’s heading up the Independent Afghanistan Human Rights Commission.



GAY MARRIAGE may have been banned in Missouri in 2004, but that didn’t stop the Democratic senator from the Show Me State from showing her true feelings on the subject. Claire McCaskill took to Tumblr on March 24 to proclaim that “government should not limit the right to marry based on who you love,” adding another powerful voice to the national fight for gay rights.



FROM THE Tate to Tut: when the Metropolitan Museum of Art hired famed curator Sheena Wagstaff last year, it signaled its seriousness about modern art.



POISED AT the crossroads of East and West, Oya Eczacibasi draws from a wealth of influences as chair of the board of the Istanbul Art Museum–and her efforts have won her France’s Legion d’Honneur.



MOMA’S CURATOR keeps bringing in hit after hit for the modern-art mecca, including recent blockbuster exhibits on Cindy Sherman and Edvard Munch’s famous Scream.



WHEN NIGERIAN writer Chibundu Onuzo signed a two-novel deal with Faber and Faber in 2010, she was just 19 years old and the publisher’s youngest female author ever. Her debut novel, The Spider King’s Daughter, came out in March 2012 and landed her on the long list for the prestigious Desmond Elliot Prize.




A NEXT-GENERATION condom that will encourage regular use? That’s the latest challenge from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. As cochair, Melinda has directed her energies toward programs that empower women, promote safe motherhood, and give developing countries greater control over reproduction.



ON THE notion that life can always be easier, engineer turned entrepreneur Leah Busque founded TaskRabbit, for outsourcing all those local chores on your to-do list.



IN A struggling GOP, Kelly Ayotte is a refreshing face. Her 2010 senatorial campaign attracted high-profile supporters such as John McCain and Sarah Palin–and she was even briefly on Mitt Romney’s short list for veep.



AS IRELAND’S first female president and the U.N.’s High Commissioner for Human Rights, Mary Robinson’s name has long been synonymous with moral courage. Now she’s looking toward the century’s biggest challenge with her Mary Robinson Foundation-Climate Justice, spotlighting how climate change disproportionately affects vulnerable populations–particularly, women in developing countries.



SHERRY REHMAN, Pakistan’s ambassador to the U.S., is known for her eloquence, elegance, and diplomatic savvy. And no one seems better at calming the stormy relationship between Washington and Islamabad.



DURING A drive-by shooting in rural Pakistan, Shahnaz Nazli was killed near the girls’ school where she taught. Sadly, it took her murder to spark a petition calling for the government to protect educators.

Reporting by Katie Baker, Sarah Begley, Kara Cutruzzula, and Alison Snyder.

>>> Click here: The Writer’s Speech

This entry was posted on July 14, 2016.

The Writer’s Speech

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Byline: Charles Dubow

Stuttering caused me pain–but also led to my greatest joy.

In the short period since my debut novel was published on February 5, I have found myself in a position familiar to many writers on book tour: reading to large (and sometimes not-so-large) crowds and taking questions afterward. For most except the unusually extroverted, this can be daunting–especially when the faces in the room are unfamiliar. Palms get sweaty, vocal cords constrict, hearts race. There is an urgent need for a bathroom trip, a drink, or even a cigarette. Mostly what you want is to just get the hell out of there. And that’s for normal people. Imagine how much worse it is when you have a stutter.

What I do before I address the room is “advertise” the fact that I stutter. I inform everyone that I have a stutter and that I am not drunk or having a brain aneurysm, which usually draws a laugh. I do this for three reasons: first, because a speech therapist once told me it was a good idea; second, it puts me more at ease; and third, it puts everyone else more at ease as well.

I have stuttered since I was about 5 or 6 years old. My father stuttered too, but researchers still aren’t entirely clear on why people stutter. While genetics are thought to play a part, it’s not necessarily hereditary. My father’s father didn’t stutter and neither–thank God–do either of my two children. Nor is it necessarily brought on by trauma, although in some rare cases it can be. And it certainly isn’t brought on by any kind of mental defectiveness. I am not being self-serving by saying so; famous stutterers have included some of the most brilliant people in history, including Aristotle, Isaac Newton, and Winston Churchill. (In England they call it a stammer, which always sounded slightly more melodious to my ears and somehow slightly less severe, even if that’s not the case.)

What we do know is that there is a slight trip in the wire as the brain sends voice commands to the mouth. The mouth, and its attendant muscles, don’t always respond the way you want them to. It’s a little like my daughter when she sulks. (Don’t wanna. Can’t make me. Etc.)

In some people, stuttering can be “situational,” which means that it can be better or worse depending on what one is doing and whom one is with. When I am talking with my wife, for example, I rarely stutter. When I feel stress or am tired, I stutter more.

While there is no “cure” for stuttering, there are a number of techniques to lessen one’s stutter. For example, one can use breath control. Often stutterers not only get stuck on words but also their breathing can fall out of synch with their speaking. Imagine when you’re singing and you don’t have enough breath left to finish a note.

One can also “fake” the way one pronounces a word. For example, if one knows one is going to stutter–and there are always certain syllables or vowel sounds that torment us–we can cheat by not saying the word perfectly, e.g., say the word “three” for “tree.”


The last, and most common, technique is word substitution. If stutterers feel they are about to hit a verbal pothole, they can quickly mentally swerve by choosing a different word. For example, I often use the British terms “flat” for “apartment” or “lift” for “elevator.” People think I am being an Anglophile, but really it’s easier for me to use shorter words. It’s also a great way to develop a large vocabulary.

The drawback to all these methods is that they don’t always work.

A few years ago I was a member of the board of the American Institute of Stuttering, which is a pioneering organization helping stutterers to overcome their impediment. I sat in on a few sessions with other patients and I was chagrined to find out how much worse other people stutter. All my life I had always felt sorry for myself, frustrated and enraged by my inability to express myself vocally, but I was actually one of the lucky ones. Sure, I might trip over the odd word, and I have better and worse days, but these poor people could barely get a word out. One nicely dressed man in the group was the picture of confidence until he began to speak. It was torture for him and for the rest of us.

I use the word “torture” on purpose because for most stutterers that’s how speaking often feels. It is not only physically uncomfortable as we strain our neck muscles or grind our teeth to say a word, but it is also mental anguish. We know what we want to say, but we can’t say it. And if that verbal constipation weren’t enough, the discomfort is heightened by the fact that we know our audience is being forced to endure it as well. For children who stutter this can be especially cruel because their peers are quick to taunt and imitate. I remember being teased regularly as a child by little boys saying things like “Hi-hi-hi, Ch-Ch-Charles.” Fortunately, I was a big kid and able to beat up most of my tormentors, but that sense of shame and anger never leaves you even as your audience matures and is, at least to your face, too polite to make fun of you or express irritation or discomfort.

It is especially off-putting when meeting someone for the first time, and watching their reaction go from amusement to confusion. At first they think you’re kidding–or maybe inebriated–and they’ll laugh to conceal their discomfort as the truth sinks in. Sometimes they’ll finish your sentence (FYI, we hate that). Unlike most other handicaps, such as blindness or deafness, stuttering is treated as a second-class condition. Too many people think that the stutterer just isn’t concentrating enough or intelligent enough to form words. “Just spit it out” is the attitude that most people have. Believe me, we’d like nothing more.


The insecurity most stutterers feel speaking in public is reinforced by social and cultural expectations. For years I was an editor at a leading business website. Now, I am not a bad-looking guy and certainly know my stuff, but it was suggested that due to my stutter I probably shouldn’t do things like go on television or radio. On the one hand, I was relieved not to do so, but on the other, I knew it was having a negative impact on my career. The same is true with my current book tour. So far I have had pretty positive reactions to my readings and discussions about the book, even if I have stuttered, but the fact that I cannot promote the book on television or radio means that there are two potentially powerful marketing tools I am unable to take advantage of at a time when authors need every edge they can get to sell their books.

But it is also likely that stuttering is the direct cause of my becoming an author. Frustrated with my inability to express myself verbally, I compensated by writing. On the page, I had no constraints, no lack of fluidity, no struggle to say what I wanted–well, at least no more than most writers. So, while stuttering has been a constant source of pain for me my whole life, it has also been indirectly responsible for my greatest joy. Would I have rathered I didn’t stutter? Once I would have said yes. Today as I hold my book in my hands, I am not so sure.

Charles Dubow’s novel, Indiscretion, was published by William Morrow in February.

This entry was posted on July 14, 2016.

Choose Your Dystopia

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Byline: Alexander Nazaryan

Utopia is a joke – and has been one for a while. The word comes from the Greek ou topos, meaning no place, suggesting the impossibility of the ideal society that word suggests. The notion entered our lexicon in 1516, when Thomas More published Utopia, which imagined “the best state of a public weal,” a society of religious comity and communal good. It was less a practical vision than a critique of Tudor England, whose regent, Henry VIII, had More executed in 1535. So much for that.

Writing three centuries later, Karl Marx warned that “the man who draws up a programme for the future is a reactionary.” What an irony, then, that his writing engendered so much bloodshed in the name of progress.

Utopia is illusory, but dystopia is all too real, a future more frightening even than the dreary present. A distinctly modern genre, dystopian fiction has a corrective purpose that recalls medieval paintings of damnation (hellfire, devils, etc.), which were supposed to shock your average sinner into God-fearing probity. The dystopian novel is a Boschian paysage for the modern man.

Probably the first great dystopian novel of the 20th century was Yevgeny Zamyatin’s 1921 fiction We, which was completed on the cusp of Joseph Stalin’s ascent and presciently predicted his totalitarian model, in which the human will is subsumed by forces that frighten the mind into thoughtless docility while taming the body’s carnal impulses. George Orwell’s 1984 and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World imagined the malignancies arising from the quest for what Zamyatin called “faultless happiness,” a phrase that becomes more ominous the longer your mind lingers on it.


Today’s dystopian novels seem less preoccupied with onerous political systems than with digital technology, the silvery glow of iPhone screens inoculating us against ineradicable reality of the grimy un-virtual kind. There will be an estimated 10.9 billion people on Earth by 2100. Some will live in glass towers where retina-tracking sensors will adjust the ambient temperature and bedside DNA readers will sound a gentle alarm if your TP53 tumor suppressor gene suddenly goes astray; many will live in crowded slums, much as they do today in Bombay and Lagos and Los Angeles. They will drink the same dirty water the poor have always drunk. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch will grow, as will the hole in the ozone layer. Some of us will exercise by swallowing a pill. Armies will clash, maybe with guns, maybe with sonic cannons. And so we will hurtle into the future.

It’s no surprise that three of our finest novelists – Margaret Atwood, Chang-rae Lee and David Eggers – have recently published dystopian novels that warn against a world pulled apart into pockets of techno-luxury and vast expanses of old-fashioned, unalloyed misery. Adam Sternbergh – a young writer not yet in the ranks of the three above but with plenty of promise – has just published a debut novel, Shovel Ready, that reads like Cormac McCarthy’s The Road set in New York and narrated by a New Jersey goon. For all their differences, each of these novels suggests that we are blind to what we have been doing to ourselves, to each other and to the Earth. We will thus keep doing it.

Atwood’s Maddaddam is the culmination of a trilogy (bearing the same name) that began with Oryx and Crake (2003) and continued with The Year of the Flood (2009). Her world is classically dystopian: wracked by disease, absent of law, rife with hybrid species like pigoons and rakunks that are the grotesque products of our boundless hubris. A good part of the landscape, the pleeblands, recalls the iconic images of modern-day Detroit, with its fields sown with decay and grand old buildings that look like mouths with missing teeth. Painballers prowl the terrain, their name quite vividly suggesting their purpose.

This future is grim, sure enough, but Atwood says optimism about the human condition is not warranted by history. Speaking to me from Toronto, she reminds that “we’ve been through bottlenecks before” and that humanity must necessarily contract, whether through Black Plague or World War. She offers practical prescriptions to avoid doom: “Step one,” she says, “is don’t kill the oceans.” She adds that “we need to develop other sources of cheap energy, fast” if we want to wean ourselves off the worship of hydrocarbons, which in the Maddaddam trilogy have become the focus of an actual religion, the Church of PetrOleum. And while Maddaddam is her fullest realization of what the future could hold, she hopes that the good guys may yet prevail or at least put up a decent fight.

“We not there yet,” Atwood says drily. “Hallelujah. I am happy about that.”

If we are not yet caught inside The Circle, the latest novel from David Eggers, then we must be very close. Of the recent spate of dystopian novels, this one hews closest to the reality scrolling by on your Twitter feed; the book is a mirror in which we would glimpse our scattered selves if we were only not so busy snapping yet another selfie. Though Eggers says he did not visit the campuses of tech corporations like Facebook or Google for research, he seems to have culled the most frightening elements of Silicon Valley for the company he calls the Circle. His protagonist, Mae Holland, becomes an unquestioning acolyte of its stifling digital utopianism and is so accurately portrayed that a former Facebook employee, Kate Losse, accused Eggers of stealing from her memoir, The Boy Kings: A Journey Into the Heart of the Social Network.

Whereas Atwood’s dystopia is one of ecological destruction, Eggers fears the encroachment of ones and zeros upon the frontal cortex, where they multiply like a blinding tumor. It is the tragic conflation of information with knowledge that troubles him most, the illusion that insight is never more than a click away. Eggers told The Telegraph late last year that the greatest threat to our freedom is our “feeling that we’re entitled to know anything we want about anyone we want.” One of the founders of the Circle says, with utter conviction, that humanity has gloriously entered an “era where we don’t allow the majority of human thought and action and achievement and learning to escape as if from a leaky bucket.” Yet what seems like freedom quickly curdles into an utter lack of privacy or solitude, digital utopia devolving into a plaything of those who own the server farms.

Chang-rae Lee’s new novel is more surprising than its dystopian peers. Written in the first-person plural, the elegantly ominous On Such a Full Sea is acutely unlike Lee’s other novels, which have largely focused on the Asian experience in America, with its twin pressures of alienation and assimilation. The setting here is B-Mor, once known as Baltimore, now occupied by workers whose predecessors were imported from Xixu City of “New China.” One of them, Fan, has set out to search for her boyfriend Reg, thus leaving the confines of B-Mor for the frightening lands beyond, “armed with nothing more than the force of her feeling.” Her quest reminds of the last line of Samuel Beckett’s The Unnamable, a novel he published less than a decade after World War II: “I can’t go on, I’ll go on.”

Speaking to me from Princeton, where he teaches creative writing, Lee calls On Such a Full Sea a “thought experiment,” which may well describe all novels but dystopian ones in particular, as they do not have the luxury of dwelling in the past and generally have to venture far afield of the present. So they stack frightful suppositions one atop another. Lee’s are convincing: an influx of Chinese workers fill empty American cities, increasing inequality, the erection of firm physical barriers between the rich and poor. The residents of B-Mor farm fish for the residents of the charter villages, which are essentially closed suburbs. In the interstitial spaces between the middle-class cities and the upper-class charters are the counties, Lee’s version of Atwood’s pleeblands. There, to the wilderness, is where Fan heads.

On Such a Full Sea is a novel of inequalities suppressed only to return with redoubled force, much as in the recent dystopian film Elysium, where the bedraggled residents of Earth, led by a roguish Matt Damon antihero, invade a space colony reserved for the wealthy. During our conversation, Lee mentions the recent New York Times series on Dasani Coates, a homeless girl from Brooklyn whose story highlights the plight of the city’s poor. The residents of cities like B-Mor do all they can to insulate themselves from the festering poverty of the counties while looking with longing to the charters, with their “stately houses and sleek, jazzy condos.”


Lee’s dystopia has much in common with that of Eggers. The individual is sufficiently insulated from reality – whether digitally, as in The Circle, or physically, as in On Such a Full Sea – to not have to care about it. “Do not discount the psychic warmth of the hive,” urges the narrator as Fan continues to wander through hinterlands that will be familiar to anyone who has driven across America in the past decade. A dystopian novel is predicated on precisely such a rejection of the hive’s psychic warmth, on a renegade willing to shatter collective delusions.

Adam Sternbergh’s agreeably macho dystopia, Shovel Ready, pays ample homage to Times Square, already our most supremely unnatural space, washed by the argentine light of a thousand screens and invaded by insectan scrums of tourists. Here, though, the “Crossroads of the World” has been tainted by a dirty bomb, leaving New York a wasteland. That’s not at all far-fetched, considering that the terrorist manque Faisal Shahzad was only prevented from causing Times Square bloodshed three years ago by the paucity of his own bomb-making skills. Sternbergh’s protagonist is Spademan, a garbageman turned contract killer. Forever concerned with disposal of one kind or another, he reminds of what the psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan said of our primary existential predicament in 1978: “The characteristic of a human is that…he doesn’t know what to do with his sh**.”

Sternbergh told me he “wanted to explore that idea of the apocalypse that doesn’t involve asteroids, or aliens, or an accidentally unleashed super-virus, but which happens slowly, over time, almost imperceptibly, as millions of individuals make decisions to finally give up on a place – resulting in an exodus that, in its way, is just as devastating.”

He wrote those lines just days after he had become a father. I thought that ironic, joyously bringing a life into this world while chronicling the depredations of a future one’s progeny could well occupy. But what other choice do we have? Even if the future seems foreboding, the species pushes forward into the unknown, which we can only pray will not as bad as our darkest dystopian imaginings. These bleak novels serve as a sort of catharsis. You close the book and say to yourself, It won’t really be that bad…I hope.

This entry was posted on July 14, 2016.

Kansas-born author Julian Jones’ debut novel embraces Kansas locale, LGBT characters

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ERIE — Author Julian Jones may live in Los Angeles, but his heart will always be in Kansas, where he was born and raised. His debut novel, Bohunk’s Big To-Do, is set in Erie, KS, where Jones grew up.

The novel features protagonist Bo Mickey, who has run away from home to get away from his mother, who just married his boyfriend. That synopsis may sound like heavy material, but Jones describes his book this way: “First and foremost, I wrote this book to be a fun and sexy read–easy entertainment–endearing characters–a conversational rural voice–humor derived of quirky characters and small-town values.”

Liberty Press recently spoke with Jones about his debut novel.

Liberty Press: You’ve lived in Los Angeles for 20 years. Why set your first book in the Midwest?

Julian Jones: Growing up gay in rural Kansas, I wanted to read books about guys like me. But so much LGBT literature is set in big cities. And when I was growing up, most gay characters were either ashamed or victims. That never interested me. I wanted to read about gay protagonists in rural settings who liked themselves. I made do with the strange characters and derelict settings of Southern Gothic fiction, and I came to love that genre. That off-kilter humor is still my favorite. Bohunk’s Big To-Do is borne of that. I couldn’t find the book I wanted to read, so I wrote it myself.

LP: The idea first came to you in the mid-90s. Tell us a little about that journey.


JJ: I initially thought I would write it as a screenplay. I’d had some success with stage plays at K-State and I was newly arrived in L.A., so I was trying to conform to the medium. But I got distracted. I needed to be young in my new city. Next thing I knew 20 years had passed. I wish I’d gotten the story on paper sooner, but I had a lot of fun killing time.

LP: Your protagonist gets distracted too, doesn’t he?

JJ: He does. Bo Mickey’s been hurt by the two I people he loves most. His mom recently married his boyfriend. That’s his focus. He’s hurt, and sometimes he’s vengeful, and he’s 22-years old so he’s always selfish and horny. These preoccupations keep him from seeing everything that’s happening around him.

LP: In literary terms, Bo Mickey is what’s known as an unreliable narrator. Tell us more about that.

JJ: A narrator can be unreliable for different reasons. In A Clockwork Orange, he’s a sociopath. Holden Caulfield is an admitted liar. Bo Mickey is neither malicious nor dishonest. He’s naive and not very bright. He tells his story in earnest, it’s very important to him, but even so he sometimes jumps to the wrong conclusion or lets his pride color the facts. Sometimes he withholds the truth intentionally because he doesn’t want to admit his own blame in it. Most of the time, he’s just too single-minded. Meanwhile, a whole second story unfolds around him that he doesn’t see at all.


LP: Why is it important that Bo not see the whole story?

JJ: Bo isn’t able to ingest all of the facts and still resolve his problems from a place of truth. He’s too impressionable. A couple times early on, when he thinks he has made up his mind about Mom and Troy, it’s because of what someone else said or did. If he were to have all the facts, the choice he makes at the end of the book would be a reaction to that. Who Bohunk Mickey really is would still be a question mark, to the reader and to himself.

LP: Readers find themselves in a unique position at the end of Bohunk’s Big To-Do. They know more than the protagonist who narrated it.

JJ: Bo will get there eventually, when he’s ready, just like we all do. It’s never too late to look back on things differently. A little more experience, a little more maturity, and everything we thought we knew takes on a different meaning. It’s the big to-do that lingers well after we’ve closed the book.

By Ciara Reid, staff reporter

This entry was posted on July 14, 2016.