Roshani Chokshi Interview

New York Times bestselling author Roshani Chokshi’s new Middle Grade novel, Aru Shah and the End of Time, is the first installment in a four-part series following the adventures twelve-year-old Aru Shah. The novel follows Aru, whose tendency to stretch the truth gets her into deep trouble, beginning with her unwittingly setting free a demon bent on setting free the God of Destruction. In order to save her family and friends from great peril, she must go on a gripping, mythical adventure sure to thrill readers.

Ross McMeekin: You have a new novel coming out, Aru Shah and the End of Time. What inspired you to write it?

Roshani Chokshi: Aru was really inspired by the fact that I grew up obsessed with the Sailor Moon television series. On the one hand, the characters each had separate powers that were based off of their planets. They also transformed into these epic uniforms and had this special pen that they raised into the air. I was really obsessed with that idea…I kept raising sharpies into the air, wondering if the power of Jupiter would turn me into a sailor scout, but it never happened. But what I really loved about Sailor Moon was the female friendships. The female friendships were so critical in that show that they eclipsed love interests, they eclipsed the squabbles among friends…it was the most important thing about them. I was lucky enough that throughout my childhood, and even now, into growing adulthood, that I have strong female friendships. That’s why I wanted to write Aru. But the reason why I chose the mythology that I did was because I never had the opportunity to see brown girls in film and fiction taking the center stage and being magical. So it was very much a wish fulfillment project for me.

RM: Do you see yourself in the characters of the novel?

RC: Absolutely. I don’t know if you follow me on Instagram, but I have a terrific story of when my mom sent me a photograph of myself from seventh grade where I was trying to look like Spinelli from Recess, and I thought I looked really edgy but actually looked really unfortunate. That somehow subconsciously became a direct description that I lifted and applied to one of the characters. So there are clearly some middle school demons that I’m continuing to work out!

RM: Aru Shah and the End of Time is the first book in a series, and I’m curious about how you go about writing a series. Do you plan everything out beforehand? Do you have an outline?

RC: I do have an outline. What I’ve taken to doing now is something called a zero draft, because I’m writing two series right now, which is a new experience for me, and one where you have to be really precious about your brain power.  So my zero draft is me thinking about what are the emotional beats that a story has to hit through every chapter. For Middle Grade, I think the chapters work better when they’re shorter, so you’re handling them in terms of scenes—one scene is one chapter. So I’m thinking what is the goal of that scene emotionally, and what is the goal of that scene in order to move the story forward. But I think nothing is more annoying—and it certainly annoys me in fairy tales—than when things continue to keep happening to characters versus characters having enough agency to do things on their own…for instance, when something springs out of that internal need to address a wrong that was done against them, or a race against time, or whatever it is. We have to care about it because of how it affects them immediately. So that’s how my process goes. I draft very quickly, but usually just a very full outline…sometimes it’s 50,000 words of just outline. And then I rest it, reread it, and come back and start filling in the details and building out the story.

RM: On that note, what about writing this book did you find the most difficult?

RC: I think the most difficult thing—and the thing that makes Middle Grade so magical as a genre—is the voice. Growing up and reading Rick Riordan’s books, that voice in Percy Jackson is so immediate. You know it’s Percy talking to you. When you’re reading the Harry Potter books, you know you’re in a Harry Potter world because of the space between the words, the mood and attitude that’s created in that. One thing I learned from writing Aru was that I could not make her do something that was out of character and tell myself I could come back to it and fix it later, which was something I could sometimes get away with in my YA novels, because those novels were such a process of many, many layers of revision. But for Aru, if the voice wasn’t right when I was done for the day, all of those words were going to be scrapped. I had to stick very, very true to her. That was very annoying, but she’s a demanding thirteen-year-old girl, so I don’t expect much different.

RM: Are you an audiobook listener? Do you have any book recommendations?

RC: I do love audiobooks. For me, I can really only appreciate an audiobook if I’ve already read the book in another format. I think that’s because if it’s me, and it’s my first time listening to it, I’m weird as a reader in that I like to have complete and total control over how things sound, and the cadence of it, so I have trouble letting go of control and appreciating what the artist is doing. I love listening to people narrate their own audiobooks—for instance, Neil Gaiman’s audiobooks. I really loved Amy Poehler’s Yes Please and Aziz Ansari’s Modern Romance. Those really resonated with me.

Find Roshani Chokshi’s new novel, Aru Shah and the End of Time on

Bookseller Interview: Ann Seaton (Hicklebee’s)

Ann Seaton, a bookseller at partner store Hicklebee’s in San Jose, California, loves listening to audiobooks while traveling, whether by car or plane! Her advice to someone who hasn’t listened to audiobooks? “Give it a try…it’s just another way to experience a great story.”

Listen to Ann’s Recommendations:

The Book of Dust

by Philip Pullman

The Nightingale

by Kristin Hannah

Finn Murphy Interview

Finn Murphy—known by his trucker handle U-Turn—has enjoyed a fascinating view of the American experience from the driver’s seat of his 53-foot eighteen wheeler, Cassidy. More than thirty years ago, he dropped out of college to become a long-haul trucker, and since then has covered more than a million miles of asphalt.

His memoir, The Long Haul: A Trucker’s Tales of Life on the Road, details the ups and downs of his travels back and forth across the country, moving people’s belongings in and out of every nook and cranny of the States. In describing the stories filling the book, the New York Times notes, “how astonishing they are, and how moving, and how funny, and how just plain weird.” Filled with compelling characters from every cross-section of American life, The Long Haul is a riveting portrayal of a life spent traveling the wide expanses of our open roads and the tight, heavily-trafficked streets of our cities. What was the genesis of writing The Long Haul?

Finn Murphy: Well the genesis—particularly in the framework of this conversation—is my book started out on audio. I had one of those old cassette micro recorders, and at the end of my work day, I would talk into it just to unwind. Then I started talking into it while I was driving, describing things I was seeing. Then I started carrying it with me on my moving jobs and recording conversations with the people I was moving, and my moving crews—and that’s when it started getting really good, these illegal, surreptitious recordings. Over the decades I accumulated scores and scores of audiotapes. I had them transcribed and ended up with over 800 pages of stuff. That formed the genesis of the book.

Finn at a recent event, with his rig in the background.

L: What first captured you about long haul trucking as a job?

F: That there wasn’t anybody tapping me on the shoulder telling me what to do. I came from a very regimented and structured Irish Catholic family. And when I wasn’t with my family, I went to a very regimented and structured parochial school. And then my first job was with a local moving company owned by a Mr. Callahan who was also part of the church, so I lived in this phalanx of control. Then I took a road trip with a driver to Virginia Beach from Connecticut when I was eighteen, and it was probably the first time in my life that there wasn’t somebody telling me what to do. The driver told me about the life of a long haul trucker and I was like, “Oh, wow…yeah, let’s cut all the strings here and get free.”

L: So how do you fill those long hours driving the truck?

F: I use radio, I use NPR, I use local radio for traffic—I don’t trust the GPS systems—and then I use audiobooks. Audiobooks have been my savior.

L: Do you have any audiobook recommendations?

F: Here’s a general recommendation: try listening to a book that you found inaccessible in print for some reason—like Ulysses by James Joyce or The Harry Potter books. I couldn’t access either one of those by reading them. But the audio versions of those are just amazing. So if there’s a book in your personal pantheon of cultural stuff you need to check off but weren’t able to do so by reading, try the audio, because a lot of times you can break through that way. I have to say that though I did like the Harry Potter books, I still have found Ulysses inaccessible.

L: As have many!

F: Infinite Jest I have on, too, and I haven’t quite completed that one.

L: That’s another one of those that often lays uncompleted on the shelf.

F: Yes, always mentioned but never read.

Finn at the wheel of Cassidy.

L: You’ve just completed a 10,000 mile book tour through 60 cities. What surprised you most about the reception to your book?

F: The biggest surprise was how much people liked it. I was girding myself for an onslaught of other opinions, largely from my trucker brothers. My book is funny and breezy but it also has some serious parts. I take a few shots here and there, and I thought that those shots would come back to me. But no, everybody love it, I was just amazed. I was in the New York Times Book Review twice, the New Yorker…I mean, I’m just this trucker guy. I’m just thrilled. It’s like a Cinderella story.

100 Notable Books of 2017 from the New York Times Book Review

This past week, the New York Times Book Review released its 100 Notable Books of 2017, including poetry, non-fiction, and fiction. The list represents books reviewed after December 4, 2016, when last year’s list was published. You can find these titles on’s 100 Notable Books of 2017 playlist… Happy Listening!

This list includes many fantastic titles, but you may find yourself disappointed about some of your favorite books that did not make the list. If you’re wondering about how titles on the list are selected, read on for information from the New York Times Book Review editor.

So what exactly determines whether a book makes the list?

The 100 Notables are books that stand out from the thousands we review or otherwise cover throughout the year, selected by staff editors at the Book Review, several of whom have been working here for more than three decades – some very experienced and picky judges.

How is the list narrowed down and ultimately selected?

The Book Review gathers all Editors’​ Choice columns from the entire publishing year into a huge document, and then all the editors get involved in ​the torturous rounds of elimination.

Has the process changed over the years?

Yes. It used to be that every single Editors’ Choice book became a Notable of the year, and the list went on forever; and though it made many authors happy, it was a bit overwhelming for readers. In 2004, then-editor Sam Tanenhaus made the wise decision to narrow the list to 100, dividing it evenly between fiction (including poetry) and nonfiction.

*Q&A adapted from Book Briefing: The story behind our 100 Notable Books of 2017


Audiophile Files: Literate Housewife

There is, quite likely, no other blogger out there more dedicated to audiobooks than Jennifer Conner of Literate Housewife. Winner of last year’s brand-new Audie Award for Blogger of the Year and mastermind behind the Armchair Audies, Jennifer is a go-to resource for all things audiobook.

I called Jennifer recently to talk about books that are better in audio, her favorite narrators, and whether or not listening to an audiobook counts as reading.

[Judy Oldfield] Let’s start by talking about the name of your blog, Literate Housewife. You’re not actually a housewife, correct?

[Jennifer Conner] No, in my dreams only. Actually, I think I’d probably go crazy. It was actually my husband who came up with that name. It just stuck. I guess it became part of my identity.

[JO] It’s catchy. You focus a lot on audiobooks on your blog. Why are audiobooks so important to you?

[JC] Having kids and having a commute I was trying to figure out how to get more reading time in. I had been adverse to audiobooks, thinking it’s not really reading. When I realized I could get more reading in with audiobooks I decided to give it a try. Also, my kids weren’t going to sleep very well, and I was laying in their room for an hour a night and I could [have been] reading.

I read a couple and they were all right, and then I picked up The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo and Simon Vance was the narrator, and something over the course of the audiobook clicked with me. If I were to describe it, all of a sudden my eyes opened and I’m like, “Oh, now I understand the power of audiobooks.” How it added a dimension to a story. And ever since then, audiobooks have become my passion.

I think it’s ironic, as someone who started [off] thinking they didn’t really count as reading.

[JO] What do you tell people who say, oh that doesn’t count as reading?

[JC] I would try to find a book that we’ve read together, that they’ve read in print and I’ve read on audio and say here’s the story. I can hear the language that they use. I hear the way they structure their sentences and they write and it’s gorgeous no matter what. Plus, stories began as an oral tradition. I’m not going to force my opinion on anyone, but I’d argue that I get just as much, maybe even more out of a book than they might.

[JO] Tell me about the Armchair Audies. How did you decide to start doing nothing the Armchair Audies?

[JC] Every year they have the Audie Awards, which is kind of like the Grammys or Oscars of audiobooks. There are 28 categories with four to six audiobooks nominated in each.

Really it was just the overwhelming amount of audiobooks. Because I’m really super geeky about audiobooks. And there were a couple other bloggers who were always on Twitter talking about audiobooks. They announced the nominees one year and I’m like, how in the world can I listen to all of these audiobooks? Because you know that I wanted to fill out my own little Oscar Ballot but there’s no way. So just through the course of chatting with [bloggers], we had the idea of picking at least a few categories and coming up with our own. So, we asked a lot of other people who were interested and we created a ballot based on our picks.

[JO] And can anyone join the Armchair Audies? Or is it just for bloggers.

[JC] Oh, anyone really. I would be happy to host people’s reviews if they’re interested. You don’t have to be a blogger. You just have to love audiobooks. And at least write a paragraph about what you liked, what you didn’t like about them.

[JO] How did you do last year? How many were right.

[JC] My picks are never right. A few people have done well. But I picked Euphoria in the Literary Fiction category, and that won. And actually I was at the Audies, because I won a trip, and it was really neat to see Simon and see them win in the award and be in the room.

[JO] You went as Audiobook Blogger of the year. That was new, right?

[JC] Yeah, it was the first year and I was so excited to have won. My blogging has not been terribly consistent lately, because I’ve taken on new position at work and I started doing a boot camp to get fit and lose weight, so I just don’t have the time to write that I used to. So I didn’t really think that I would win. Just because other people are so prolific and always on Twitter. I wasn’t as visible. But it was an honor to have won.

[JO] Well, you are a great blogger and you do so much to support audiobooks, so I was not surprised at all when I saw your name come up.

[JC] Well thank you.

[JO] So what are some of your favorite audiobooks?

[JC] Well, the whole Stieg Larsson Millennium series are among my favorites.

Recently, Fates and Furies I thought was a really good audiobook. Dietland. That was fun in audio.

[JO] What are some books that are better or were enhanced by listening on audio?

[JC] Memoires. Especially when you’ve got an author [narrating it]. Born with Teeth by Kate Mulgrew. That was just fascinating to me. Her whole life was fascinating. I’d seen her on Voyager and Orange Is the New Black, so I was familiar with her as an actress, but she’s an outstanding audiobook narrator. So not only are you getting her life story, but you’re hearing it in her voice.

Any book that has a lot of foreign words, like The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. That has a lot of Swedish words in it. I get frustrated as a reader when I can’t pronounce words.

There’s a book called Paul Is Undead, Simon Vance narrated it. And I’m not a big fan of zombies, or anything gory or gross, but there was so much humor in that book, and the way Simon narrated it, it was a lot of fun.

[JO] Are there certain narrators that you’ll say, oh, I’m going to listen to that book even though normally, in print, that is a book you wouldn’t pick up?

[JC] Oh, yeah, well, Simon Vance is definitely [one]. Cassandra Campbell and Katherine Kellgren are examples of narrators that I would pretty much follow anywhere. Mark Bramhall. Will Collyer. He’s a fairly new narrator, he does a lot of work for Hachette Audio. Schroder by amity Gabe was the first I listened to by him and I listen to everything he puts out. The Killing Kind . . . it’s about hitmen. A hit man who goes after other hitmen. And whereas I would never pick up that kind of book to read it in print, I picked it because Will narrated it. I enjoyed it and he did a great job with it.

Follow Jennifer at @LitHousewife to keep up with the latest audiobook news.

The Bookseller Chronicles: Village Books

Between Seattle and the Canadian border, is a small town called Bellingham, a town which wears more than one hat: home of Western Washington University, fishing boats, tourists, and a deep community. In that town is a an old bookstore with rambling aisles and passionate booksellers. Village Books.

Village Books is a cornerstone of the local community, loved by all of its elements. Most people in town have a memory of it, and many have worked there. They put out a quarterly paper with all the latest book news, host reading events, and partner with the local community college to host writing classes.

I recently sat down with cofounder Chuck Robinson to learn more about the store.

[Judy Oldfield] Tell me briefly, your background with the store.

[Chuck Robinson] My wife and I founded the store in 1980. June of 1980. So we just celebrated our 35th anniversary this last year.

[JO] Congratulations.

[CR] Thank you. We’d both been in education . . . back in Illinois. We took what was essentially a one-year leave of absence, with the original intent to go back to our jobs back there, because we both liked what we were doing. But by the time we went through the process of getting ready for being away a year—we bought an older motor home and remodeled it, and sold most of what we owned, it was a real values clarification for us. We started asking ourselves questions like, well, do we really want to live here? We sold a house so we had a chunk of money. We had our retirement from teaching, even though we hadn’t been doing it for that long (we were 10 years in education at that point). So we thought maybe we’d strike out and do something different.

In the course of our travels, we discovered the Northwest. We loved it, and decided that we’d settle somewhere out between Santa Rosa California, I think was the farthest south, and up to the border. We had a list of criteria, and [Bellingham] met most of it. The size of the town, the fact that it had to have a college or university, had to be a place—by the time we decided we were going to have a bookstore (that came pretty early in the process)—a bookstore could be successful. I think we moved here in February of 1980 and opened the store in June. And it’s been a long ride since there.

[JO] Being in a college town, and a bit of a tourist place too, do you see a lot of seasonal changes around the store?

[CR] Well, you know it’s interesting that being in a college town, students at the college have never been a huge part of our business. I think because that’s probably in part because aside from the things that they have to read for class, I don’t think students are buying lots and lots of books. They do hang out at bookstores and we get students, there’s no doubt about it, but we are probably more influenced by the faculty and staff at the university. So the seasonality of that is summers, we probably lose some of those people, but that’s when we pick up the tourists.

[JO] Do you stock differently, based on that? Because university faculty is important.

[CR] The faculty at the university doesn’t seem to be looking here for academic sorts of things as much as they are for things everyone else here in town are. It’s a pretty highly educated town. A number of things have happened here. Back in the late ‘60s and ‘70s this was kind of the bounceback town from the border. There were a lot of people who weren’t happy with the Vietnam War that ended up in Bellingham. The other piece that has happened is that there are a lot of people who came here for school and stayed for whatever reason, and aren’t necessarily doing what they went to school for. A lot of the fishermen who fish in Alaska went to college up here. The first thought many people would have is that fishermen were blue-collar workers so to speak, and I guess it’s a blue-collar job, but they are very highly paid in a good fishing year and they stock up on books before they go to fish. And it’s things everybody else would read.

Our stock in trade, the biggest-selling section of our store, is fiction. I would hesitate to call it literary fiction but I would describe it as good writing. It’s everything from people who are good storytellers to the very best writers in the world. That’s probably the biggest influence the college has had. Who stays. The faculty that’s here.

[JO] Are there certain books you find yourself recommending over and over again?

[CR] Oh sure. I’ve often said that no one should live in the Northwest without having read the book The Good Rain by Timothy Egan. It’s so descriptive of place, for one thing. He goes back and looks at Winthrop’s travels through the Northwest. And Winthrop asks the question in his book, “Will the landscape shape the people or will the people shape the landscape?” So Tim goes back about 100 years later to do sort or the same circuit, trying to answer that question, what happened? Did the landscape shape the people or did the people shape the landscape, and you get some of both. But it’s just a beautifully written book.

I’m a big fan of Ivan Doig. I think This House of Sky was one of the greatest memoirs ever written. So I find myself repeatedly recommending those sorts of things.

[JO] What’s on your to-be-read list?

[CR] Right now I’m reading a book called Persian Fire, which is about Iran and it’s long, long history.

I just recently finished one of Jo Nesbo’s novels that’s not out yet, an Advanced Reading Copy.

[JO] What keeps you coming back to the store every day, after more than three decades?

[CR] The stairway? Oh, I love the interaction with the people. I love the challenge of the business aspect of it. I don’t come from business, but I think I have a real entrepreneurial edge about me. I like some of the challenges of it.

We have a very talented group of people here who are part of our leadership team, who work with the two of us, and who are likely to be—we hope, if everything works out—to be the continuation of the ownership of the business.

[JO] Do you have any crazy stories that you’d like to share?

[CR] Well, let’s see. Tom Robbins has appeared for every book of his since we opened the store. He did do one appearance with backup singers. He wrote about it in a book called My Bookstore. Different authors wrote about their favorite bookstore, and Tom wrote about our store, about the time he came and brought his backup singers. Which was a fun thing.

One of the most surprising things for us has been the authors we’ve met over the years. When we got into the business, we had no notion that we would meet, and in some cases become pretty good friends with people who were famous. Tom Robbins is a friend; Ivan Doig was a friend. . . . And then in my capacity working with the booksellers association, I’ve met four U.S. presidents, Margaret Thatcher, a whole bunch of people. Which has been surprising and exciting.

I remember reading in the paper one time someone asked Tom Hanks, “You know, we always hear the negative side of celebrity. In that you go out to dinner and get bothered by everybody. But there must be a positive side.” And Tom Hanks said, “Yes, I’ve met two presidents.” I read that and I thought, “Wow, I’ve met four presidents and I don’t get bothered by anyone at dinner besides my friends!”

[JO] Bill Clinton was just at Elliott Bay Book Company in Seattle.

[CR] Yeah, I saw Tracy’s post that he was in there. The interesting thing is that should either of the leading Democratic nominees be the next president, I’ve met both of them too.

[JO] As a former teacher, are there certain books that you’d recommend for parents whose kid is a reluctant reader?

[CR] If you’re particularly talking about teenage boys, they’ve always been kind of that difficult [age group] in that boys find a lot of distractions. It’s not so cool to read, that sort of thing. There are some books that are often thought of as adult books that I think teen guys could get into. One fairly recent one is The Boys in the Boat, Daniel James Brown’s book. Because, you know, not only does it have that sort of sports element to it and something that I think grabs you in the eyes. I mean, as you are reading towards the end, you’re going “They’re gonna lose! They’re gonna lose!” and you know damn well they don’t lose, but it’s written in such a way that it pulls you along.

I don’t think that young kids get introduced to some [books] like White Fang, Call of the Wild, that I think they would find pretty enticing.

Some of the Jon Krakauer books, Into the Wild, Into Thin Air—either one—those true adventure [stories] grab the imagination.

There are reluctant teenaged girls who aren’t reading, but that area seems to be covered a whole lot better.

Know a favorite independent bookstore you want us to feature? Let us know in the comments or tweet us at @librofm

Audiophile Files: Beth Fish Reads

Book bloggers are the core base of online book communities. They’re often the first to tweet book news, the brains behind book memes, and of course, the first to review new releases. I called up Candace of Beth Fish Reads, a blog covering both books and audiobooks to talk about blogging and her favorite types of books.

[Judy T. Oldfield] What got you into book-blogging?

[Beth Fish Reads] Most obviously, a love of books. I am a freelance book editor by trade, and I was interested in freelance reviewing. I felt like I should have a platform to practice on first. I had no idea when I started that there was a whole book-blogging community and that I would make friends.

[JO] How did you land on “Beth Fish Reads”?

[BFR] Well, first of all because I’m an editor, and my clients are all publishing companies, I wanted to be able to review books and have a reliable voice. I asked my editing friends about how they handle freelance reviews when they’re also an editor. A lot of them said they use a pen name. Even though I know that I would never review a book I worked on, and I know as a freelancer that whatever I say about a book (even if that publishing company is a client) has no effect on my own income or career, I wanted to create some kind of barrier between me as an editor and me as a reviewer. Because I didn’t want anyone to question the integrity of my reviews.

So that’s why I picked a different name to begin with. But Beth is my middle name and the fish comes from the fact that my editing business is called The Word Angler. So I just carried the fish theme along.

[JO] And because you are a professional editor do you think that you have a more critical eye than the average reader?

[BFR] I probably have a more critical eye to the language. Maybe plot, structure, and things like that. But I’m not that experienced in lit crit, so I don’t feel like I have a more in-depth insight than someone who has studied literature for a living. I do sometimes review books based on some things that bother me in terms of editing, which is probably unfair to the authors, but I can only bring my own experience to my reviews.

[JO] You explore theme a lot in your book reviews.

[BFR] I do like to explore theme when I read. I think of books in terms of theme. Like, oh, that’s a Paris book, or that’s an Africa book, that’s a book that’s a family saga, that’s a book about friendship.

I like books that explore how a person’s life can change in a moment. You know, you think you’re living your life one way and then through an accident or something maybe totally out of your control your life completely changes. And I like that theme for some reason. People, characters, forced into new situations. Maybe that’s also why I like dystopian fiction. How would you cope when the world suddenly changes?

[JO] Yeah.

[BFR] Those are things that I like a lot. I don’t read a lot of women’s fiction, which are about relationships and friendships, although I do enjoy them. I like a little more down-to-earth conflict.

[JO] And character development!

[BFR] Yes, I’m very much a character-driven reader. Although, also, as I said, I’m very attracted by setting. I’ll read a book just because it’s set in Africa, or Scotland, or a place I used to live.

But it’s interesting. A lot of people will separate their bookshelves by fiction or nonfiction or publication date but I have mine separated by theme.

[JO] You review a lot of audiobooks on your site, which must be very different because you spend so much time editing words on the page. Must be a little bit of a relief to listen to audiobooks. What do you look for in an audiobook?

[BFR] I’ve been listening to audiobooks since the 80s. I’m a big audiobook fan for just those reasons that you mentioned. I look for the very same things I look for in a print book in terms of picking a book. So you know, if I’m in the mood for a mystery or dystopian or a biography. So that’s my first step in an audiobook. The story itself. And then I listen, if they’re available . . . I listen to samples to make sure that the narrator, in my mind, fits the story or my own taste. Not every performer has a voice I would like to listen to for eight hours or thirty hours. So it’s a two-step process. I go story first, and then narrator second.

[JO] Do you ever reread or relisten to books?

[BFR] Yes, but not very many. I read and/or listen to the entire Hobbit and Lord of the Rings about every five years. And I have both read and listened to the Outlander series more than once. But generally no, I’m not a huge rereader. Not as a habit. I don’t reread or relisten.

[JO] How, besides just blogging, do you participate in the book blogger community?

[BFR] Well, I have been involved over the years in various things. You know, the book-blogging community has many things. For instance, there’s an audiobook week in June, which is audiobooks month. I’ve participated in some of those activities. There’s the readathons [where people read for 24 hours], in which I have participated in the past. There are on-going memes, weekly events, and I’m an active participator in some of those. There are other social media, like Twitter and Instagram, and I’m active on both of those.

I’ve been blogging since 2008 and I think that participation comes in waves, where you have more time and enthusiasm—and I see this in other people as well—and then you take a step back and have more private time. So, I think, currently, I’m in a more pulling-away stage than I have been in the past. But I still talk about books. I can’t stop talking about books, whether it’s on Twitter or on my blog.

[JO] When I emailed you I said we wanted to interview you because we wanted to interview bloggers. We’ve interviewed some writers, and some narrators, some booksellers, and an educator, and we really wanted some people who are book enthusiasts, book reviewers, bloggers to join our conversation. So if you could pick someone for us to interview next, who would you suggest?

[BFR] So, anybody who’s involved in the audiobook world in some way?

[JO] Yup.

[BFR] Hmm, that’s a good question. You know what, have you interviewed someone who is a producer?

[JO] No, we’ve not interviewed a producer!

[BFR] That, I think would be fascinating. That is something that I wish I knew more about, is the, how the producer, what they do to prepare the performer, how do they pick a book, I don’t know anything about that aspect of audiobooks at all.

That would be my suggestion.

You can often find Candace tweeting about her latest book haul. Follow her and don’t be shy to shoot her a bookish question.

The Bookseller Chronicles: Third Place Books

There are two Third Place Books locations. The original sits in the middle of a large strip mall in the tiny suburb of Lake Forest Park just outside of Seattle. The second is a part of the Ravenna neighborhood in Seattle proper. Both bookstores strive to bring a unique experience to their customers, acting as a social gathering space as well as bookstores.

Earlier this week I sat down with Erin Ball at the Lake Forest Park location. We found a table in the The Commons, a gathering space attached to the bookstore. Around us people studied, read books, hung out, and drank coffee from the restaurant. The din was minimal, and we were able to have a great conversation among the crowd.

Erin has worked at both stores off and on since 2008, before, during, and after attending law school. She recently became the assistant manager at the Lake Forest Park location. When I asked her if this meant she has decided that bookselling is a better choice than pursuing law, she laughs and says, “at least for now.”

[Judy Oldfield] Could you tell me in your own words the philosophy behind the “Third Place” in Third Place Books?

[Erin Ball] The philosophy is that you need three places in life. You need 1. your home, 2. your work, and 3. your community space. And that’s what Third Place Books tries to do with The Commons and the restaurant. It’s a place for people to gather, to have meetings, to study, that sort of thing. The bookstore is the centerpiece. They tried to replicate that at the Ravenna location, just on a smaller scale.

[JO] What does the Third Place mean for you personally? This is both a place where you work and a community space. Do those lines blur for you?

[EB] It does. Especially when I was at the Ravenna store, because there’s a pub in the Ravenna store. A lot of my friends would come visit there. After work we’d meet, and that would become more of a community space for me. It really does blur the lines. It’s hard to remember that you’re at work sometimes.

[JO] So it blurs it in a good way then.

[EB] In a good way, yeah.

[JO] Do you find there’s a difference between the locations? The Ravenna location is urban, it’s very close to the University of Washington. This one, the Lake Forest Park store, is a little farther out. It’s still very close to Seattle, but it’s more suburban. It’s in a strip mall.

[EB] Yeah, it’s a totally different feeling. This store feels a lot more like a community center, because Lake Forest Park is so small and this is the town center. People gravitate here. It happens during windstorms when the power is out, people come here. When it’s hot, people come here. And Ravenna doesn’t have quite the same feel. We still have a lot of customers who come in multiple times a week. But it’s less of a sit-down gathering place.

[JO] Is the tenor of each store different then? Is the clientele and the books that they’re buying any different?

[EB] It’s strikingly different. Here at Lake Forest Park it’s a little more conservative. Especially politically. In Ravenna there are a lot of young families and a lot more experimental fiction. It’s really interesting to see how how much of one particular title each store will sell. It’s crazy.

[JO] And you do a lot of book events here. You had Jimmy Carter come.

[EB] Yes, we did. That was very exciting. It was one of our biggest events. A thousand people went through the signing line. It was really fun, actually. We closed the store and it was really great.

[JO] What keeps you motivated to come in every day, year in and year out?

[EB] I find bookstores to be incredibly rewarding. Especially independent bookstores. Especially bookstores that the community revolves around. I think they’re experiencing a resurgence, which is great. . . . Books are my passion.

[JO] What books do you find yourself recommending over and over?

[EB] What I recommend most is probably a book called Stoner by John Williams. It’s not what it sounds like. It’s about a man named William Stoner. He’s born into farming in the early 1900’s but he ends up going to college and studying literature. It’s really just a quiet novel about his life. It’s so well done, and so perfectly paced and it’s sad and not sad and just really beautiful. And I feel like it appeals to so many people.

[JO] I find that a lot of booksellers carve out their niche in the bookstore that they work in. Do you have a special part of the bookstore that you’re really proud of?

[EB] Well I run the blog. But what I’ve started more recently is the Grown-Up Storytime that we have at the Ravenna store. I think it’s my favorite thing that I do. It’s the third monday of every month. They meet at seven in the pub in a secret room. We drink and read outloud. It’s mostly me reading. It’s gotten a really nice core following and I really enjoy it.

[JO] So you’re reading short stories—published works, right?

[EB] Yeah, published works. It’s not a writing circle. Usually I’ll do a short story, an article, and maybe a piece from the Internet.

[JO] What else is important to you, as a bookseller?

[EB] Books about women and by women. They should be read more. Especially by men.

When I started here a lot of the guys just didn’t read women and that was startling. Like some guys had never read Jane Austen.

[JO] And that’s crazy! People don’t realize that Jane Austen is satire. So it’s not the happy story of a marriage or anything like that. Yeah, they have a happy ending, but I almost feel like those are just tacked on.

[EB] To keep your interest, I guess.

[JO] Yeah. I’ve reviewed Bad Feminist and Everything I Never Told You, and I interviewed Dolen Perkins-Valdez for Libro’s blog. Because those were the books I was excited about and wanted other people to be excited about them.

[EB] There’s a website I get a lot of my reading lists from, FlavorWire. And they do pretty good lists. But there was another one I was looking at about the 50 coolest authors and there were two women on there. Two.

[JO] BookRiot’s pretty good.

[EB]. Yeah.

[JO] What’s on your TBR list?

[EB] Gosh. There’s a Claire Vaye Watkins book (she wrote a book of short stories called Battleborn a couple years ago). She has a new novel coming out called Gold Fame Citrus, which I’m really excited about.

[JO] Yeah, I want to read that too.

[EB] Yeah, I have the advanced review copy, I just haven’t gotten to it. The new Patti Smith book, because Just Kids was amazing.

[JO] I saw her at Seattle Arts & Lectures when she was promoting that one. And it was fantastic.

[EB] She’s coming again. And I’d love to go. She’s great.

What’s your favorite indie bookstore? Let us know!

Dolen Perkins-Valdez on Genres, Complex Characters, and Healing Our Wounds

Dolen Perkins-Valdez follows the rabbit hole of historical footnotes, adds robust, nuanced characters,  rhythmic dialogue, and intricate subtexts, and produces some of the best historical fiction around.

The inspiration for her first book, Wench, came one day when she discovered a reference to Tawawa House, in Ohio, where white slave-owners vacationed with their enslaved mistresses in the 1850s.

Her second book, Balm, takes place in Chicago shortly after the end of the Civil War, and follows the stories Hemp, who has just been freed from slavery, Madge, a black woman who grew up free and has the gift of healing, Sadie, a War Widow who’s creating a new life for herself as a medium, and Michael, a German-American doctor mourning the loss of his brother.

Dolen took the time to speak to me about both books over the phone, while she was visiting her home state of Tennessee.

[Judy Oldfield]: There’s tons of people writing historical fiction, but you seem to focus on details that other people might brush over. What draws you to your topics?

[Dolen Perkins-Valdez]: It’s a case-by-case thing. The thing that drew me to Wench is different than what drew me to Balm. With Wench I was really drawn to this place in Ohio that no one was really talking about and not just that place, but not talking about those kinds of places, and they weren’t having those kinds of conversations, which had to do with the psychological trauma of slavery and the physical abuse of women.  So I was really drawn to figuring out for myself what it was like for those women who were staying in that place.

For Balm, I was much more attracted to a broader conversation about how people were putting their lives together after the Civil War. I was also very intrigued by the continued, imagined hold of the Civil War over Americans and what that war continues to mean for us as a country.

[JO]: Despite taking place in the past, your themes are extremely relevant today. Do you intentionally put in a lot of parallels or do they naturally come about when you’re writing about race or gender in the past?

[DPV]: I think they naturally come about. I think any historian or aficionado of history or historical fiction writer believes there are clear connections between the past and the present and that’s why we’re captivated by the past. When I’m writing, I’m really trying to stay in that particular moment. I’m not trying to draw contemporary parallels because the characters wouldn’t have been able to draw those. And I think that my initial attraction in the first place is that these are questions that are still important now.

My hope is that by reading Balm we can reflect upon that moment and its connection to current day controversy, such as the continued presence of the Confederate flag on state ground. The flag continues to be present on dozens of state capitals and not just Charleston, South Carolina. There are monuments to Confederate generals all over the country. I think the country needs to think about this history and continue to contemplate what it means for us as a nation. I hope that this book is kind of a healing space for people as we think these things through.

[JO]: There’s so much nuance and complexity in your characters. There are times when the audience loves, hates, and forgives a character. How do you strike that balance between lovable and very flawed people?

[DPV]: The very first thing any author has to do is to love their characters. I love all my characters. I have a particular fondness for them even with those characters that I struggle to understand. In Wench, the character that I most struggled to understand was Drayle [a white slave-owner] and even though I had a difficult time understanding him, I tried to paint him with a compassionate brush stroke. Valerie Martin, the author of the book Property among others, wrote a blurb for Balm that said I “look to the past with a compassionate eye”. I think that’s what I try to do with my characters, to have compassion for them even when they’re really wrong. That’s the key for people who are writing about unlikeable characters.

[JO]: The New York Times recently took some heat for using the term “slave mistresses” but the description for Wench uses basically the same term, “enslaved mistresses”. How do you feel about using that term or is there a different term that you’d like your characters in Wench and the people that this really happened to described as?

[DPV]: The word “slave” is a very inadequate word to describe people, so scholars tend to prefer the term “enslaved people.” The word “slave” defines a person whereas “enslaved” defines a condition.

But the importance of The New York Times’s acknowledgement of that problematic phrase was that the history of rape of black women has largely gone unrecognized in this country. What makes these terms even more difficult is the lack of acknowledgement. If we had more direct, truthful acknowledgement of what happened (which is a very terrible history but it is our history as a country) I think there would be less anxiety around how we term it.

But it’s very difficult and my editor and I struggled with how we would phrase it when I published Wench. I think there are some people who maybe read the front jacket and thought well they weren’t mistresses they were raped. I understood that sentiment but I think after they read the book and understood that the title of the book, Wench, actually is a good connotation of the kind of sexualization that black women underwent at the time.

[JO]: Let’s talk about some of the mechanics of writing. I love your dialogue. You don’t use a lot of apostrophes, you’re not dropping the ‘g’ at the end of an ‘ing’ word, but you focus really on the rhythm of speech and it’s one of the things that translates so well into audiobooks. How were you able to capture historical dialects so well?

[DPV]: If I were to try to capture the dialect in its absolute authenticity, it would probably be unreadable for the contemporary reader. I try to paint a sound. But I did just try and capture the flow, the rhythm, the sound of how maybe my grandparents talked. My grandfather was born in 1904 and my grandmother in 1909 and I remember how they sounded. I tried to use that as my guide.

There’s a phrase in Balm when Madge asks her mother about using a Hoodoo trick on the soldiers that violate her house. Madge says, “I thought you didn’t cast those kinds of tricks on people.” Her mother answers, “don’t ain’t can’t.” Once you get into a rhythm you can hear what your characters are saying. But it is a contemporary representation of the speech. It’s my own interpretation and isn’t an authentic characterization.

[JO]: In Balm, there’s all this talk about Hoodoo, root medicine, root doctors, and mediums. There’s a bit of the fantastic about it. It’s a little magical, gothic, yet it’s classified as historical fiction. Where do you stand on genre classification?

[DPV]: I have a lot of MFA students who are huge fans of J.K. Rowling and Neil Gaiman. They’re really torn because they’re in these MFA programs and they want to write what they believe is literary fiction but their hearts are with these genre writers. I think those classifications are beginning to fail us because the genre writers are so good. That line between literary and genre is blurring and I’m glad. I grew up in the 70s and 80s watching I Dream of Genie and Bewitched and reading Stephen King, so I am not really concerned about classification.

I do think there are still some readers out there that might come to Balm and want it to be one thing or the other. But I’m not interested in that divide. I just try to write where my heart is.

I researched every plant that’s mentioned in Balm and everything that they do is actually in the realm of the real; those are things that people actually did, those are actual healing properties of those plants.

But then it came to me that Madge had an extra gift and that drew her to Sadie. Early on someone was talking about the mediums who were very popular during and after the Civil War (these were women who said they communicated with the dead) and said, “Well you know those mediums are false right?” And I said, “Well how do you know they were false?” Maybe some were and maybe some weren’t but it was just really important for the book to take a stand on that and not be ambiguous. I decided that Sadie would be a genuine medium. If I was thinking of those divides I would have been creatively hampered.

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Amanda Palmer on Recording Her Audiobook, the Weird Places She Writes, and Fear

If you already follow Amanda Palmer, author of The Art of Asking, on Twitter, then you probably know that lately she’s been busy grieving, battling Lyme Disease, recording with her father, and preparing to have her first baby with her husband Neil Gaiman. So we were incredibly pleased that she took time out from her nonstop, go-go-go life, to answer a few questions for us via email.

[Judy Oldfield] My understanding of the way audiobooks are made is that narrators—even when it’s the author narrating their own work—are given a script that they can’t stray from. It’s hard for many authors. Was it hard for you?

[AP] No, it wasn’t hard. It was actually really helpful to be in the recording studio at that exact moment. I was in New York for three straight days of recording and the book itself was in final editing stages, which meant that I was sitting there with a pencil, changing lines, scratching out repetitive words, saying things like, “Wait . . . that doesn’t actually makes sense, does it?” And I’d stop and ask the audio engineers, “Does that makes sense?” And they acted as editors along with me.

So in a sense, I was still finishing up the script, and lucky for me. Because reading aloud brings new problems into light that silent reading just doesn’t highlight. And it also really solidified my own personal relationship with the book, to just sit there for three days and read the whole thing, in front of an audience, even if the audience was just audio engineers and a rep from the publisher. It was like doing a live performance and seeing how the emotional arcs actually hit me, and hit the people listening. Truth be told, there were two or three times I looked out the studio into the control room and made sure they were crying . . . or at least close to crying. I choked up at least three times.

[JO] In The Art of Asking, you wrote about needing a lot of privacy in order to create. What’s the most unusual place you’ve written something (be it blog posts, your book, or music)?

[AP] Ha. Well—I’ve written in a lot of strange places, especially since getting a phone and being able to leave myself notes and voice memos anytime. Bathrooms everywhere. Friends’ homes. Subways. Closets at parties. One of my favorite birth-spots for a full song was in a keg room of a nightclub in Portland, OR, where I wrote “Astronaut”. I held a gun to my head that night because the guy I was writing it about was in the audience for one night and one night only. And so I just did it. An immediate audience has often been my mother of invention.

[JO] People have very strong opinions on you and your work. I have a friend who says that listening to your former band The Dresden Dolls got her through her divorce. But I’ve also read critics who’ve dismissed you for anything from your appearance to your mistakes (real or perceived). Any idea why you provoke such strong responses from people?

[AP] Sure. I think people with strong emotions elicit strong emotions. It used to bother me more, but I’ve come to realize that it’s just part of the game of life. It’s especially true when you’re a woman, and the more of the world I see, the more I see people being fearful of women who live out loud, mistakes or no. And I figure my job is just to get on with it, and not to cower, and not to try to please people.

[JO] Your TED Talk has 7 million views. Your book, The Art of Asking, is a bestseller. What’s the most surprising thing that’s happened to you because of the talk or the book?

[AP] The most surprising? Honestly the most surprising thing is when I’m walking down the street in New York and a super bad-ass looking hoodlum-esque teenager passes me on the street, takes his headphones off, and says, “Wait, are you that TED girl? I just saw your TED talk and I loved it. That asking shit is dope.” That’s happened multiple times. And I’m always astoundingly happy.

[JO] You’ve recently gone back to crowdfunding, though in a newer, more sustainable way. How has Patreon helped you as an artist?

It’s liberated me. There’s 5,500 people currently entrusting me with their credit cards basically saying, “Go ahead and make art, and charge as needed, forever,” which feels like a massive relief and responsibility at the same time. It’s like I got access, suddenly, to a magic highway spur that bypasses the entirety of the mass media, the music industry, and the entire establishment.

But there are moments when it just feels surreal to be so far off the grid, with absolutely nobody in the “real world” paying attention to the madness that is going on outside the city.

But then again, that’s the modern world. There’s always so much going on nowadays that you don’t know about. Sometimes it feels like me and my fans live in a cave, and I worry that we need more air.

[JO] is a new company. We’re the independent bookstore for digital audiobooks. As a writer, an entrepreneur, and an advocate of independent bookstores, what advice do you have for us?

[AP] Don’t let Amazon and Audible get you down.

[JO] What challenges or fears are you facing right now? What are you doing to overcome them?

Oh dear lord . . . nice timing. I’m eight months pregnant. I have NO IDEA what is about to happen to me, I feel like I’m about to fall of an existential cliff, and I’m just bracing myself for an unknown reality over which I will have little control. And what am I doing to overcome them? Nothing, really, except trying to put every piece of zen wisdom I’ve ever lean red into practice. There is only now, now and now. And now. Whatever happens: birth, death, change, catastrophe . . . it will still be now, and it will still be fine. There is never ever any space for regret or fear. It’s poison.

The Art of Asking is our Book of the Month. Use the code WeLoveAmanda at check out to get 25%.