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Marian Thurm’s The Good Life, which we are publishing in April, is one of the most compelling novels I’ve read in some time. It’s also a book one could enter for all the major literary and/or thriller awards, as it is one of those novels that spans genres. When a gun is purchased in the first paragraph of the introduction, it’s easy to assume that it will be fired before the novel ends. The result is a literary novel inspired by a real-life event. The ending is unexpected and shocking.
Thurm is a woman whose work has been praised so often and by so many sources that there is little more one needs to add. This is her eleventh book. Concerning the first ten, two had major reviews in the New York Times Book Review. The Clairvoyant, her sixth book, was reviewed there on October 5, 1997, and her tenth, Today Is Not Your Day was reviewed on October 4, 2015 and was also named an Editor’s Choice pick. Given this impressive track record we were delighted that she submitted this latest novel to us. October has been a good month for her at the Times, and I hope that April will prove equally hospitable. With that, I turn you over to Marian.
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“As the author of eleven books of fiction, I’ve often been asked if I’ve ever done research for any of my novels. Well, let’s see: for my novel about a clairvoyant, I spent a handful of hours in the company of a couple of professional psychics. For a novel about a college student from New York who finds herself in a very small town in Kansas, I convinced my husband and son to accompany me on a road trip to a very small town in Kansas. All of this research proved to be both interesting and illuminating, but none of it made my heart beat any harder or took away my appetite for lunch. But when I began writing The Good Life, I realized that one of the most important things I needed to do was feel the weight of a loaded pistol in my hands. This was going to be a dark book—a fiercely dark book—the sort of novel that would eventually be described by Kirkus Reviews as a “pitch-dark emotional thriller.” And, in fundamental ways, it was going to be different from my other books, all of them literary fiction that never once featured a 9 mm semiautomatic Glock in the hands of any of its characters.
“Arriving at a shooting range in Pennsylvania, the nearest state to my New York City home that didn’t require a license to fire a handgun, I found myself waiting in line with a roomful of gun enthusiasts, including 10-year-old boys dressed in combat fatigues accompanied by their younger sisters and parents, all of them chitchatting casually and clearly eager to get in a little target practice this particular weekend. Not me. I was already starting to feel queasy, and wanted nothing more than to climb into our car and hightail it back to our apartment in Manhattan (the one filled with so many, many books, that my husband and I were reduced to storing some of them under the coffee table in the living room and under our bed). And speaking of books, the problem I was facing that Sunday in 2012 was that I wouldn’t be able to write my new one unless I actually went through with this gun business and held that Glock in my small, increasingly sweaty hands.
“My husband and I waited our turn in line for a half hour or so and then stepped up to the counter, where we were handed a Glock (which we were shown how to load ourselves) and a pair of headphones to cushion our ears from the sound of gunfire. I was already feeling sick with the worst kind of anticipation—the kind that requires a Xanax or two—and when we reached our assigned lane at the pistol range a minute later, I had to remind myself that this was all about my novel, the novel I felt so deeply invested in even though I’d only begun work on it a couple of months earlier.
“Lifting the gun into my hands for the first time, I was surprised at the heft of it, and intensely aware of the thudding of my cowardly heart. I took my place at the firing line and pulled the trigger, shocked at both the violence of the kickback and the sound of the bullet exploding out of the barrel. It was a profoundly visceral moment for me, leaving my hands trembling. Call me a wuss, but there was nothing thrilling about any of it; all I felt was horror, thinking of this 9mm pistol and the grievous harm it could bring to anyone in the path of its bullets.
“One shot and I’d had enough. “I’m done!” I announced to no one in particular, and the man in the next firing lane laughed at me. “You’re just like my wife,” he said. Obviously this was not a compliment, but I wasn’t the least bit insulted.
“A few days later, working on the darkest scene in my novel—the darkest scene I’d ever composed in the nearly 40 years I’ve been a published writer—I was close to tears. This had never happened to me before and I doubt it will ever happen again in the writing of another book. But each time I read the scene, which of course I had to do over and over again as I kept reworking the novel, I felt the same anguish, the same queasiness. These characters of mine were as real to me as if they had flesh-and-blood lives beyond the page, and I couldn’t bear to hurt them.
“And yet I had to, because that was the story I needed to tell.”
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As always, I hope you will post your comments on this website. If you want to reach Marian directly you can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
COMING NEXT WEEK a blog from Ira Gold, author of Debasements of Brooklyn, whose droll first mystery featuring two original and memorable characters, is due in June, and has already been purchased by Blackstone Audiobooks.
This May we’ll be publishing Charles Davis’ Hitler, Mussolini, and Me, a historical (and hysterical) novel that takes place in Rome in 1938, before World War Two and the holocaust. This meeting cements the relationship between the two dictators that will lead to the Axis powers. Charles, a Brit living in France, had always wanted to write something historically correct about these two men, but do it “differently” which, after immense research he has accomplished, marrying Truth with his keen sense of the Absurd. Its uniqueness makes it one of my favorite titles for this or any other year.
We published two previous novels written by Charles that gathered great reviews. Walk on, Bright Boy (2007), was described in Publishers Weekly as “taking place in a remote Spanish village during the Inquisition, after the Christians have conquered Moorish Spain. A combination of morality tale and gothic horror, the book raises questions about religious extremism, faith, miracles, justice and torture.” Standing at the Crossroads (2011) was lauded by Library Journal as “an exciting and thoughtful adventure story as well as a subtle political and philosophical meditation on Sudan’s long-term tragedy,” while Kirkus called it “an absorbing read, written in the spare, allegorical style of his first novel.” Translation rights for both were sold in Poland and Russia.
Suffice it to say we were surprised to receive Hitler, Mussolini, and Me as a manuscript a year ago, and see how Charles seamlessly melded facts with sharp satire. Better to laugh at these monsters of history, men who came to power quite by chance rather than brilliance; by cosmic forces beyond understanding. One would never guess that all of Hitler’s and Mussolini’s dialogue comes from what they actually said. And the same holds true for Hitler’s flatulence and Il Duce’s chronic constipation. Truth, in this case, trumps fiction.
This background, however, has nothing to do with Charles’s current blog, which offers high praise to one of the best copy-editors in the world, our very own Barbara Anderson.
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“I'm a rubbish writer but a champion rewriter. That's what I've always believed, at least. Beliefs can be hard to hold onto sometimes. I was reminded of this recently when a correspondent mentioned The Permanent Press's copy-editor, Barbara Anderson. The possessive "'s" back there, that's for her. Personally, I'd just go for the inverted comma and have done with it, but Barbara insists on her esses. Worse, she can tell you why, too.
“Being a rubbish writer but a champion rewriter is not unusual. I heard John Irving saying something similar in an interview, though admittedly he didn't use the word "rubbish". Plenty of writers sling stuff down on the page in their first drafts that later makes them cringe with horror. There's no shame in this. It's like having a party in your parents' house when you're a teenager. So long as nobody gets hurt and you clean up the broken bottles and more unsavory items afterwards, it's all a normal part of progressing toward maturity.
“Admittedly, the parties I have in my first drafts are very wild and very messy indeed, but I chuck a lot of stuff out afterwards then scrub like crazy, so that by the time I open the door, I'm persuaded that subsequent modifications will simply be titivation to take account of other people's tastes. Basically, straightening the chairs and rearranging the flowers. On the whole, I think this is the case. When Marty and Judy suggest changes it generally involves dispensing with superfluities or rendering slightly more plausible the illusion that there was never a mess in the first place. For the most part, I follow their advice (they are putting their money on the table, after all) and when I baulk, they are big enough to let me have my way. Then Barbara comes along.
“I don't know how she does it. I've done a bit of proofreading for friends, I'm a bit anal retentive (you should see the coat hangers in my wardrobe), I taught grammar for several years, I've got a thing about words, and as I say, sticking with the teenage party image, I've been scrubbing the bloody carpet for months on end. But Barbara, she's like the Mr. Muscle of dirty manuscripts. She spots these horrible stains where somebody (not me) has done something unspeakable in the middle of the ceiling; she's fishing slimy things out of dark corners and pointing out sticky patches on the sofa; and "Oh, my God, she's found a moribund body in the basement!"
“It can be quite humiliating, the typos, spelling mistakes, infelicities, factual errors, howlers, inconsistencies, and downright imbecilities still lurking in a text despite the fact that you've been poring over it for a period that is almost glacial in its duration. But Barbara cleans up the mess you've made with such expeditious energy, insight, and good humor (and not a jot of anal retention) that there's nothing to be done but thank her for preventing the humiliation becoming public. I was tempted to write "pubic" there just to upset her, but I restrained myself.
“Copy-editors are the unsung heroes and heroines of publishing. What you have just read is hardly a song of praise. Barbara hasn't had a go at it, you see, so it's more like the first inebriated belch of the evening. But for want of anything better, let it stand as a nod toward a very necessary profession.”
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As always, I hope you will post your comments on this site. If you wish to reach Charles Davis directly, you can email him at email@example.com
COMING NEXT WEEK is a blog from Marian Thurm, who has written ten previous books—two of which have gotten major coverage in the New York Times Book Review—and whose forthcoming literary thriller, inspired by an actual event, The Good Life, will be published in April.
Cathy Suter has been working as our managing editor for the past five and a half years. Earlier she was employed by Columbia University Press, Abrams, and Philosophical Library where she did editorial work. A resident of East Hampton, she is also a painter whose works have been exhibited nationally at well over a dozen galleries. In her spare times she’s also raised four daughters. It’s been our good fortune to have her on our staff, and a pleasure to share her unique blog with you.
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“As with any new form of communication based on technology, eBooks have sparked their own brand of controversy. Some readers fear that eBooks have pulled down the quality of writing. Others feel that the experience of reading an eBook is vastly inferior; they miss the smell, the look, the feel of the printed book. There’s an artist named Rachael Morrison, who’s made it her project to go through the Museum of Modern Art’s library and smell each and every one of their 300,000 books, cataloging their unique scent.
“Like other technological innovations, they will most likely work their way into society, subject to momentary trends, but ultimately sticking around, evolving, and becoming routine. Readers can take innumerable eBooks with them on a trip to Europe or on a hike up a mountain. A passenger of a two seater plane can take thousands of eBooks with them on a kindle. Charles Lindbergh, who took stamps off his letters so as to reduce the weight on his aircraft during his first trans-Atlantic voyage, would have had the option of taking a lot of reading material to Paris. In the future, eBooks could be a valuable resource in prisons if the right kind of eReader is ever developed, since, sadly, printed books are considered dangerous because they can be used to smuggle in contraband or flood a toilet in a prison cell in order to create diversion. A company called Library For All seeks donations of eBooks to send to libraries in developing countries around the world, where poverty and disorganized infrastructures, as in places like Haiti, make getting print books nearly impossible. And Digital Book World just reported that libraries lent a record number of eBooks and audiobooks to patrons in 2015. There is also another layer of responsibility that comes with this instantaneous (almost), organic and globalized way of sharing books, because the bestseller in one culture could be heavily censored in another.
“Throughout history, most every major change in communication has been greeted with skepticism. Socrates elaborates in Plato’s Dialogue The Phaedrus, written around 370 BC, on the dangers of writing as opposed to the spoken word: ‘Writing, Phaedrus, has this strange quality, and is very like painting; for the creatures of painting stand like living beings, but if one asks them a question, they preserve a solemn silence. And so it is with written words; you might think they spoke as if they had intelligence, but if you question them, wishing to know about their sayings, they always say only one and the same thing. And every word, when once it is written, is bandied about, alike among those who understand and those who have no interest in it, and it knows not to whom to speak or not to speak; when ill-treated or unjustly reviled it always needs its father to help it; for it has no power to protect or help itself.'
“In his book Here Comes Everybody, Clay Shirkey discusses the printing revolution: ‘There was an abbot, Johannes Trithemius, who was so alarmed by the changes that threatened the livelihoods of monastic scribes that he wrote De Laude Scriptorum (In praise of scribes), but ironically, to achieve widest possible distribution, had it published via the printing press’
"And in the esteemed Scientific Journal Nature, this excerpt from an article entitled ‘Nature’s Revenge on Genius’ appeared in November 1889. ‘At present our most dangerous pet is electricity—in the telegraph, the street lamp and the telephone. We have introduced electric power into our simplest domestic industries, and we have woven this most subtile of agents, once active only in the sublimest manifestations of Omnipotence, like a web about our dwellings, and filled our atmosphere with the filaments of death.
“ ‘The telephone is the most dangerous of all because it enters into every dwelling. Its interminable network of wires is a perpetual menace to life and property. In its best performance it is only a convenience. It was never a necessity. In a multitude of cities its service is unsatisfactory and is being dispensed with. It may not be expedient that it should be wholly abolished, but its operation may be so curtailed and systematized as to render it comparatively innocuous.’
“At least eReaders are mostly wireless…”
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I’d welcome your comments below. If you want to contact Cathy directly you can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
COMING NEXT WEEK a blog from Charles Davis, whose historical, philosophical, inventive, and hysterical novel, Hitler Mussolini and Me, will be published by us in May.