Back to mobile

Back of the Book

James Magnuson

Texas Observer contributor Anis Shivani, who writes fiction, poetry and criticism from his home in Houston, reviews James Magnuson’s novel Famous Writers I Have Known in the March issue. The novel centers on a J.D. Salinger-like literary recluse named V.S. Mohle, a James Micheneresque Pulitzer-winning popular novelist/philanthropist named Rex Schoeninger, and an East Coast con man/imposter named Frank Abandonato.

Magnuson, who directs the Michener Center for Writers at the University of Texas in Austin, spoke with Shivani by email about campus novels, Internet self-promotion, writerly self-doubt, and the utility of MFA writing programs.

Texas Observer: I was fascinated by your description of Rex Schoeninger as a way of understanding the late James Michener. What kind of relationship did you have with Michener, and what did you learn from him?

James Magnuson: I would say that our relationship was mutually respectful. He was anything but a glad-hander. I quickly learned that the last thing you should do with Michener was ask him for something. He was a very shrewd man and knew when he was being worked.

TO: The founders of some of the country’s generously endowed writing programs and residencies would perhaps not recognize the degree to which their original function and rationale have altered. What do you think have been the biggest changes with Stegner, Yaddo, Fine Arts Work Center, and what would surprise the founders the most?

JM: I’m no expert on the history of writing programs, but I have seen how the Michener Center has changed. Twenty years ago we were the new kids on the creative writing block and a bit of an oddity, because we were interdisciplinary. We made lots of mistakes in the beginning, corrected them as best we were able to. Because of the success of a number of the students, we are certainly viewed in a very different way now. That can be unnerving. I’ve tried very hard to keep us from getting too fancy.

TO: In Famous Writers I Have Known, the writing-workshop students have a decent recognition of literary theory. That may be true on an individual level, but my understanding is that on a more systemic level, theory and creative writing function in isolation, even antagonism. Do you regret the passing of humanist criticism in favor of the technocratic language of theory?

JM: When someone showed me a Walter Benjamin article in the 1970s, it felt like a total revelation. A few years later, critical theory was spreading like kudzu. What had seemed so electrifying soon became doctrinaire and disspiriting, particularly to writers. You’re right about the antagonism. It does exist. I do still seek out eccentric and suggestive criticism written by writers like D.H. Lawrence and William Carlos Williams. Zadie Smith is superb writing about books. But I confess, sometimes I will read a book like [Michael Taussig’s] Shamanism, Colonialism, and The Wild Man.

TO: What parts of writing can be taught? What can’t be taught? Are we under a mass illusion when it comes to the teaching of writing, or is something helpful being done with instruction? Do you think the age of great original writers is over?

JM: I think you can teach a young writer to spot and destroy the most egregious cliches, how to use point of view in a consistent way, how to develop a bit of an eye for the telling detail. You can get them excited about reading. You can teach them to prune dead language, even if you can’t really teach them how to make language come alive. But the storytelling instinct is either there or it isn’t. You have it or you don’t, and there’s not much a teacher can do.

TO: What do you think is the biggest con as far as the writing industry is concerned?

JM: A tough question. I think it’s probably instilling false hope. I wince at this, because I’m a natural encourager. But sustaining a writing career is so difficult. My greatest nightmare is telling someone he’s a genius, because I want him to feel better, and then he ends up wasting the next decade of his life.

TO: I like the degree of moral overlap in Famous Writers I Have Known between Frank as con man and the feelings of anxiety and self-doubt—if not feelings of outright fakery—most writers experience. Was the character of Frank the original germ of the story, or was there some other starting point?

JM: I appreciate your point. I spent eight years working on this novel and it was turned down by 30 publishers before it was finally taken. I absolutely felt like a fraud for a substantial part of that time.

As far as the germ of the novel goes, the book sprang from two very different notions. On the one hand I was intrigued by the idea of a low-life passing himself as a world-class writer. I’ve always taken pleasure in farce, in those Danish plays where the beggar wakes up in the king’s bed and everyone treats him as royalty.

But the other seed of the novel was planted as I watched so many people circling James Michener at the end of his life, angling for the remainder of his fortune. My wicked thought was, who could come along to ace them all out?

TO: Did you have any difficulty settling on the tone for the novel?

JM: Getting the tone just right was the hardest thing, and the most crucial. I had to take the utmost care not to impose my literary opinions on Frankie. In one sense I had to dumb him down (smart as he is). I went through and meticulously deleted all the words that I would use and he wouldn’t. I also had to keep from becoming too fair-minded and kind for as long as I could.

TO: We seem to be well past the era where a literary dispute could mean anything to the culture at large, as with the case of Mohle and Schoeninger’s spat on national television, which had dire consequences for both. Yet writers are eagerly enlisting in the latest phase of their own cultural emasculation—namely participation in social media, which really amounts to substituting a fake brand for any sense of individuality. What are your feelings toward the impact of technology on various aspects of writers’ self-understanding?

JM: I’m bewildered by all this. I’m one of the late adapters, one of those people who can never remember their password. It’s a little unnerving. On the one hand, I find some great literary things on the Internet I would never find any other way. But I wonder if it’s turning all of us nerdy literary types into something we’re not. A friend of mine says she feels like one of those clowns with the balloons out in front of Jiffy Lube, hopping up and down shouting, “Look at me! Look at me!”

TO: What are some of your favorite campus novels?

JM: I love the David Lodge novels, Kingsley Amis’ Lucky Jim, Richard Russo’s Straight Man, and Michael Chabon’s Wonder Boys.

TO: It seems to me that Schoeninger—with his research orientation—does have a glimmer of truth in his possession, as far as the future of the global novel is concerned, even if his execution, and those of others like him, lacks much literary merit. Have you incorporated research in any of your novels? Do you think there can be a balance between the genuinely autobiographical (represented by Mohle) and the sociological approach (represented by Schoeninger)? Are there writers today who successfully integrate both elements, the autobiographical and the sociological?

JM: I used to do a lot of research for my novels. I loved to go out into the world with a small spiral notebook in my back pocket and just look at things. I learned about rat-baiting in nineteenth century New York, the layout of major league ballparks, the whereabouts of anti-war radicals in the mountains of New Mexico. But then a family and a job curtailed my roaming. I made adjustments.

I love novels with reach and ambition. It seems to me as if a lot of contemporary fiction is way too cautious, as if it’s been put through the rinse cycle one too many times. Peter Carey’s novels are wonderful in the way they blend history and the very idiosyncratically personal. What Salman Rushdie pulled off in Midnight’s Children was amazing. And don’t forget Doris Lessing and the way she shuttled back and forth between the autobiographical and the political in The Golden Notebook. Will there be another Tolstoy? I don’t know. I’d be happy with another Dos Passos.

Support the Texas Observer
Things I’ve Learned from Dying: A Book about Life
By David Dow
Grand Central Publishing
288 pages; $25.00
Things I’ve Learned from Dying: A Book about Life
By David Dow
Grand Central Publishing
288 pages; $25.00

There’s a certain amount of irony in appending the epigraph “I could write a book about what I don’t know” to one whose title foregrounds its intent to share the lessons gleaned over the course of a career, and one walks away from Things I’ve Learned from Dying: A Book about Life wondering if, in fact, there is anything David Dow has yet to learn. Perhaps the real question is: If there are things Dow still doesn’t know, what hope do the rest of us have?

Things I’ve Learned from Dying is an energetic three-part memoir delineated into sections titled “Beginnings,” “Middles,” and “Endings.” Dow, a professor of law at the University of Houston and of history at Rice University, as well as founder and director of the Texas Innocence Network, details his father-in-law’s death from a quickly metastasized melanoma, his family’s beloved Doberman’s death from acute liver failure, and one of his many clients’ final years on death row and eventual execution. True to its title, the book is peppered with sentences structured around the phrase, “One thing I’ve learned,” such as: “One thing I’ve learned is that there is a time to be silent and there’s a time to hold nothing back. What I might not have learned is which is when.”

Taking some liberties with its timeline and compressing legal cases that spanned the better parts of decades, Dow explains how to argue a death penalty case in Texas, along the way bringing to light some of the nuances of the appeals system—and some of the ways in which he longs for even more nuance. He outlines the four stages of a death penalty case: the trial and state court appeal come first, followed by the state court habeas proceeding; after that comes the federal habeas appeal; the final stage is what Dow describes as “all the last-minute freneticism when death penalty lawyers try to think of anything they can to save their client’s life.” In Things I’ve Learned from Dying, we enter death row inmate Eddie Waterman’s case at the third stage. Dow’s ruminations about representing Waterman before the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals show him at his most entertaining and opinionated:

People who think bogus legal proceedings happen only in places like Iran or China apparently haven’t been to Texas.

It hasn’t always been this way. … But decent judges have been replaced by bureaucratic hacks who reach results that melt their political butter no matter how much violence they have to inflict on legal principles on the way to getting there.

In the section titled “Middles,” Dow recounts offering advice to a younger colleague who is distraught after the execution of his first client: “Work on developing a cold cold heart, pal,” he says, invoking Hank Williams. But while there is evidence here of professional numbness—occasional decisions based solely on detached experience and expertise—this is not the narrative of someone unaffected by a life spent with the dying. Throughout the memoir, using passages from a journal he kept during his father-in-law’s illness and recreating other scenes from memory, Dow meditates on the instant between life and death. “One thing I’ve learned,” he writes, “is that beginnings are unambiguous, but endings are not.”

His story’s overlap of human, canine, legal and familial loss ultimately leads Dow to acknowledge the difference between the individual and the universal: “The deepest knowledge, I’ve learned, can be awareness of the chasm separating you from someone else.” In convincing prose, Dow shows what such lessons cost.

Houston Rap Tapes

I mean, most poor people don’t even know they can do something… You don’t know. You don’t even know that you have recourse. And people ain’t been educated on fighting’ back unless it’s some street shit, like fighting your neighbors or beating up… fighting your family members, killing your best friend. And nobody like… fightin’ the government, the city. “What the fuck you mean, fight the city? You mean like… Houston against me?” —Willie D., Houston Rap Tapes

“Your city is only as big as the parts of it you allow yourself to see,” writes Lance Scott Walker in the preface to Houston Rap Tapes. Walker will be at Brazos Bookstore in Houston tonight at 7 p.m. signing copies of Houston Rap Tapes, the companion book to Walker and photographer Peter Beste’s documentary photo book, Houston Rap (excerpted in the January issue of the Observer). Walker will also be at Sig’s Lagoon in Houston tomorrow, Feb. 27, at 6 p.m., and at Farewell Books in Austin on March 1 at 1 p.m.

Houston Rap provided a window into Houston rap culture through the faces and stories of the producers, MCs, DJs, radio personalities and community members who shaped it. The photo-heavy book had room for only brief excerpts from nearly 10 years’ worth of interviews, so Houston Rap Tapes tells the rest of the story. The new book’s oral histories illuminate what Walker calls a “cross-section” of Houston hip-hop, and each person’s story reveals something about the larger story of Houston—and about the people and places that too often go unseen.

Though Houston Rap and Houston Rap Tapes offer a big picture of Houston, Walker notes that the picture is in no way complete. “I think there are a lot more stories to tell, and we’re successful if this encourages people to take another look into the history of Houston rap artists and learn more about the city. If you’re from the area or identify with the city, you end up learning about yourself along the way,” Walker says. “The great thing about finishing a project like this is that once it’s out in the world, it takes on a life of its own, and when that manifests in something that’s going to turn people on to the culture and the music, that’s good for everybody involved.”

The Parallel Apartments
by Bill Cotter
McSweeney's
500 pages; $25.00
McSweeney's
The Parallel Apartments
by Bill Cotter
McSweeney's
500 pages
$25.00

Bill Cotter has a thing for maladjusted characters who transplant their problems from one city to another. His first novel, Fever Chart, traced its dysfunctional lead from Boston to New Orleans, while Justine Moppett, the heroine of his second, The Parallel Apartments, carts her neuroses from New York to Austin in search of answers.

Cotter will be at Austin’s BookPeople on February 25 at 7 p.m. to read from The Parallel Apartments; he will be joined by performance artists Annie La Ganga and Rebecca Beegle, also known as The Grownup Lady Story Company. In keeping with the women’s stories within The Parallel Apartments, La Ganga and Beegle will each tell hilariously true stories of their own.

Though he was born in Dallas, Cotter has lived in Austin for the last 17 years and considers it home. It was Austin that gave him the idea that would become The Parallel Apartments, so he decided that in Austin the story would stay. “One time I was in Austin driving around with my mother, and she pulled the car over on Avenue G, I think it was, and pointed at a duplex across the street,” Cotter says. “There were weeds in the yard, those fancy artisanal chickens you see sometimes, and she pointed to the place and said, ‘Bill, that’s where you were conceived.’ My mother is not one to confess that sort of thing, and so at the time the idea of a fictional character came to me, a character returning to their place of conception instead of their place of birth, hoping to find the answers to some mysteries. I don’t think I could have set it in any other city but Austin.”

The book’s promotional material makes The Parallel Apartments sound like a Pedro Almodóvar film—full of color, and featuring an ensemble of bizarre yet lovable characters including at least one transvestite—but they give nothing away about what Cotter says the book is really about. “I had this story that I wanted to tell about a matriarchy and the matriarch herself. It’s about these five generations of Austin women. And the middle three generations, they’re mutually estranged,” Cotter says. “And the story is about the circumstances of their estrangement and how they’re trying to solve it, how they’re trying to get over it, get around it, and get back together again.”

Cotter says he grew up surrounded by powerful women, and although he found the concept of matriarchy intriguing, at times he found himself doubting his ability to portray women accurately and authentically—and almost abandoned the story completely. “I really struggled with this book in this way. I am writing about women, and I’m writing about women from the first person, from their perspective, and I’m not a woman, and I think it’s a kind of arrogance for me to try and write about that,” Cotter says. “I didn’t want to be seen as presumptuous and arrogant, but at the same time it fascinates me and I wanted to explore it. Whether I succeeded or not I don’t know.”

The Parallel Apartments is difficult to define. One part kooky comedy, one part family drama, one part exploration of womanhood, and one part gruesome catalogue of emotional dysfunction, Cotter’s second novel defies any particular genre, except, perhaps, Cotter’s own. Protagonist Justine Moppett has an obsession with creating collages, and The Parallel Apartments is its own kind of collage, pieced together from scraps of Cotter’s own psyche. “I guess I’m pretty maladjusted myself, and that’s not to say I’m interested in myself, but I’m interested in characters that aren’t quite normal. They haven’t made it. They’ve been mishandled by providence some way or another,” Cotter says. “They hold more interest for me—someone that’s been damaged in their life, and are trying to heal themselves.”

Support the Texas Observer
Sofia Piel
San Antonio playwright Gregg Barrios

Gregg Barrios, the San Antonio playwright, poet, journalist, and occasional Observer contributor, is taking his new play, I-DJ, to New York City, where it will kick off the FRIGID New York Festival later today. I-DJ is one of the first original San Antonio plays to run in a commercial New York City theater venue, and Barrios is duly excited. “It’s quite an honor to have my work at this year’s FRIGID New York. Of the thirty companies selected, most are from New York City, a few are from Canada, but we’re the only one west of the Mississippi,” Barrios says. “That speaks volumes in my playbill.”

The seedling of the idea that would become I-DJ was planted when Barrios worked as an arts journalist during the early 1980s in Los Angeles, where he covered the city’s recording industry, including Herb Alpert and Jerry Moss’ A&M Records. In I-DJ, A&M artists constitute the soundtrack for the life of gay Mexican-American DJ Amado Guerrero Paz, aka Warren Peace, whose story traverses both the Vietnam War and the AIDS crisis of the 1980s. “He tells his story through the music that emerged from Alpert’s A&M Record label,” Barrios says. “The Carpenters, Chris Montez, Joan Baez, The Police, Peter Allen, and briefly, the Sex Pistols. The music is a character that comments, disagrees, and soothes Warren as he tells his story.”

In the original version of the play at San Antonio’s Overtime Theater, Warren, played by Rick Sanchez, tells his tale against a backdrop of music, film clips and a wall plastered with graffiti by San Antonio artist Supher. As B.V. Olguin describes the play in the San Antonio Current, “Call it a cross-cultural, multimedia dog pile.”

Though some elements of the dog pile didn’t make it to New York (Supher’s graffiti wall, for one), the play should find a warm welcome at FRIGID; the festival’s mission is to offer participants total artistic freedom and to provide venues for work regardless of content, form or style. “FRIGID New York prides itself as an open and uncensored festival,” Barrios says. “We had the creative freedom that many other curated festivals shy away from. It also is a smaller [festival] with only 30 productions, so you don’t get lost in the crowd of shows. And best of all, FRIGID gives us 100 percent of our box office.”

First, I-DJ had to raise the funds to get there, and Barrios says he’s thankful for the support of I-DJ’s home stage, the Overtime Theater, and the wider San Antonio theater community. “The response from the local community has been overwhelming. Four theater groups—the Overtime, the Playhouse, the Woodlawn Theater and San Antonio College—have contributed with in-kind services, fundraising and cast and crew,” Barrios says.

“The best part about going to do this particular show,” Barrios says, “is that it tells a Mexican-American story. That’s a real rarity in New York theater, and even locally. It isn’t often that Mexican-American actors have the opportunity to do Latino parts. The play also speaks to the underserved LGBT community,” Barrios says. Plus, “The fact that our local team will get to see how a play is produced in NYC is a rare opportunity for them to get a taste of what working actors who come to NYC in search of a career in theater have to endure, and perhaps weigh their options when pursuing their own dream. That experience alone is priceless.”

The FRIGID Festival runs through March 9, and features five performances of I-DJ at the Under St. Marks Theater.

1379

Happy Valentine’s Day from The Texas Observer! We’d like to use the occasion as a shameless excuse to share some of our writers’ favorite books about love—be they memoirs, cultural histories, or novels.

museumofinnocenceThe Museum of Innocence by Orhan Pamuk
Recommended by Anis Shivani
Orhan Pamuk’s The Museum of Innocence (2009) stands out for me as the most remarkable recent love story. Perhaps not since the 1960s has a novelist of world repute tried to cover the different paradoxes of love on such a grand scale. What is the distinction between love and obsession? Does one have to sacrifice identity to be truly in love? In other Pamuk novels, politics are often prominent, but here the politics of the authoritarian 1980s in Turkey recede into the background as the single-minded pursuit of Kemal for his distant relative Füsun makes him rediscover himself as a nobody. Kemal spends night after night at Füsun’s home over many years, craving the slightest nearness, while Füsun carries on with another man. Recently Pamuk has added another dimension with the remarkable museum he has laboriously constructed to document Kemal’s love in the form of the minutiae of the era; the museum’s catalog—or rather Pamuk’s philosophy of love and of novel-writing—is available in an astounding art book called The Innocence of Objects (2012).

lovewesternworldLove in the Western World by Denis de Rougemont
Recommended by Steven G. Kellman
Inundated with erotic images, one might believe that romantic love is universal. However, as François de la Rochefoucauld observed: “There are some people who would never have fallen in love if they had never heard of love.” A social construction, love was, according to Denis de Rougemont, invented in medieval Provence. In Love in the Western World (1939), de Rougemont identifies troubadour poetry as the origin of a condition he traces through to Hollywood. Though biological coupling is ancient, the exaltation of passion as a transcendent state was new to the Middle Ages, an era of religious mysticism. Saint Valentine was a third-century Roman, but it was not until the 14th century that he was celebrated as the patron of love. On Valentine’s Day, Love in the Western World provides an antidote to the reification and deification of love.

justkidsJust Kids by Patti Smith
Recommended by Brad Tyer
Punk godmother Patti Smith’s memoir of her formative years is swimming in love: love of words; love of books; love of Smith’s youthful co-conspirator, photographer Robert Mapplethorpe; and love, maybe most of all, for the New York City of the late 1960s and early ’70s, which nurtured all the love above in a way that seems almost hopelessly romantic from a distance of over 40 years. The book has its quirks—Smith’s beloved “for,” for example, is an unsalvageably stilted synonym for “because”—but anyone capable of producing the album Horses can be forgiven that and a whole lot more.

 

americanahAmericanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Recommended by Patrick Michels
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie deftly avoids a common pitfall of so many will-they-won’t-they love stories, abruptly ending her novel at the moment that central question is resolved. Along the way, though, Americanah takes you through decades of urban development and political strife in Nigeria, two central characters’ immigration to two different countries, and meditations on the meaning of race in the United States. There’s a lot going on here. The central love story, the tale of an old college couple that never got the satisfaction of a proper break-up, carries it all well, tying together a story about rediscovering people and places we once thought we knew.

 

writtenWritten on the Body by Jeanette Winterson
Recommended by Elizabeth Stewart
This book is often celebrated (and taught in college classrooms) for its gimmick: The enigmatic narrator’s gender is never revealed, making the love story therein possibly queer, possibly not. Narrative intentions and questions of heterosexual or homosexual aside, Written on the Body is unforgettably smart, wry, and gorgeous. Although at first it’s difficult not to assign pronouns to said narrator, eventually you forget about whatever genitalia the storyteller might have because it doesn’t ultimately matter. The story isn’t about that. It’s about the narrator’s love for the redheaded Louise, what that love means, and how having a savior complex serves only yourself. At the beginning the narrator asks, “Why is the measure of love loss?” and by the end we’ve figured out that it doesn’t have to be.

oldconflictA Fine Old Conflict by Jessica Mitford
Recommended by Robert Leleux
For those in search of a romantic read, I’d recommend Jessica Mitford’s A Fine Old Conflict, one of my all-time favorite books. Among the 20th century’s finest muckrakers, Mitford was also—much like her good friend Molly Ivins—a fierce politico and a legendary humorist. This memoir chronicles her time as a card-carrying Communist, for which she makes no apologies. It’s a fascinating, rigorous history, and it’s also a scream. (Few writers could make you weep with laughter over the evils of McCarthyism.) A Fine Old Conflict is also the story of Mitford’s marriage to Bob Treuhaft, one of the nation’s pluckiest lefty lawyers. The story of their romance, laughter, activism and partnership is something I keep with me always.

TheSonPhilippMeyer

Philipp Meyer has been busy the past few weeks. He’s been meeting with an unending line of directors, producers and cable networks who all want a hand in bringing his critically acclaimed second novel, The Son, to television. Meyer has enlisted the help of fellow novelist Brian McGreevy in navigating the perils of adapting his book for the small screen, since McGreevy had already successfully passed the hurdles in adapting his own graphic novel, Hemlock Grove, into the TV series of the same name. Meyer and McGreevy met while attending the Michener Center for Writers at UT-Austin, and even before Meyer completed The Son in 2013, he knew he and McGreevy would be working together to get it on TV.

American Rust, my first book, was auctioned by a big studio, and [they made] huge promises. They attached a director, they attached a screenwriter, I heard they even wrote a screenplay. Of course nothing happened, but I also had no input,” Meyer says. “99.9 percent of stuff that Hollywood picks up they actually have no intention of making it, and for the one percent of stuff that they do want to make, they have literally no interest in having the creator of the original material involved.”

It seems the only way to keep a hand in the adaptation of your own work is to do it yourself, so Meyer, McGreevy and fellow Michener graduate and author Lee Shipman are writing the screenplay for Meyer’s multigenerational Texas oil saga together. This is Meyer’s first attempt at screenwriting, and though the plot of the series will mirror that of the book, he says much of the dialogue will change. “I just felt like, okay, what is the point of this scene? What does this scene have to get across? What has to change, from beginning to end?” Meyer says. “The result of that was that all the scenes are entirely new. It just seemed like quoting stuff from the book was just not efficient.”

The trio began writing in September, after Meyer finished his book tour. The original plan had been to do a miniseries, since the 592-page book (which spans a period of roughly 200 years) would never fit into a two-and-a-half hour feature film, but it soon became clear that the story would fit best within the format of a traditional serial show.

“The arc of the series would have the same creative arc as the book, so it wouldn’t be open-ended,” Meyer says. “Whether that means four seasons or six seasons we’ll have to figure out.” More seasons means more storytelling options—and for Meyer it also means a chance to utilize some of the 4,000 pages of material that didn’t make it into The Son.

If Meyer and McGreevy have anything to say about it, the show will be shot in Texas. But that question, along with the issue of casting, is irrelevant until they’ve decided on a network and a director. “There’s an auction going on,” Meyer says. “Who’s going to commit the most money is not the entire story. Who’s the best home creatively, and who’s going to give us the most creative freedom and see eye-to-eye with us, in terms of what the show should be—[when we answer these questions], then we’ll make the decision.” As deliberately as Meyer and McGreevy are weighing their choices, the demand for the show is immediate, and Meyer and his partners are targeting a 2015 premiere. “You fight this battle, you fight this battle, you fight this battle, then you sort of hurry up and wait,” Meyer says. “It’s like making sausage. I never knew that there were so many moving parts.”

The process may seem all-consuming, but in the midst of constant meetings and screenwriting, Meyer has also started work on his next book, which he calls a “modern take on the old myths of the Underworld … a sort of modern Orpheus and Eurydice story.” Rather than historical fiction, the new book will offer magical realism, and though he’s hoping this book won’t require as much intensive research as The Son did, the stakes are high for his third novel. “To be honest, people still don’t really know what I’m capable of doing, because they’ve seen only two books,” Meyer says. “Novel writing is so much more intense than screenwriting. In screenwriting, the dialogue has to be perfect, but everything else, they’re just screen directions. Ninety-five percent of the artistic value of a film or TV show is the result of the actors, the director, the costume designer, the set designer, the director of photography,” Meyer says. “Two hundred people have to do their absolute best work in order to make a film or TV show good. The writer is one part of that. With a novel it’s just you.”

Following the critical and commercial success of The Son, and given the time that screenwriting and participating in the production of the upcoming show will take, Meyer would have license to be stressed about writing his third novel. He’s not. “It’s no different from being a pro athlete in some ways,” he says. “Like, you’re not really surprised when you win some championship, because you know how good you are. You know how good you are long before the world has any idea, because otherwise you wouldn’t keep doing it.” When the bidding war began for rights to The Son, Meyer was excited—but not surprised. “There’s this false modesty that some writers and artists affect, but you can’t make it without going through a decade or more of very intense and painful rejection, and so, by definition, you get very used to the world’s conception of you and your work being very, very different from your own,” Meyer says. “So when the world’s reaction changes from negative to positive, you’re still in the habit of ignoring it, and I think you actually have to stay in the habit of ignoring it.”

This habit of trusting in his own work, and tuning out both avid fans and harsh critics, was one more reason to adapt The Son for TV himself. He, McGreevy and Shipman are hoping to encourage more authors to take control of putting their work on-screen. “It’s a super-obvious thing to do, but no one’s doing it,” Meyer says.

As enthusiastic as Meyer is about adapting The Son for TV, he’s quick to draw a boundary between his work as a novelist and the ephemeral nature of television. Regardless of what happens with the show, he says, “I wrote the book as a book. I wrote the book to last.”

Last year, the Observer’s Emily DePrang called George Saunders on the phone to talk about Tenth of December: Stories, his most recent work. She asked him if short stories fight injustice, and Saunders responded that they do. In his words, short stories “make the boundaries permeable … remind you that you’re not without agency and you’re not above or below the fray.” Saunders will be in Houston at Brazos Bookstore at 7:30 p.m. tonight. To mark the occasion, we polled Observer writers for their favorite short story collections, new and old, that traverse boundaries and pull readers into the fray.

 

goodbye-columbusGoodbye, Columbus by Philip Roth
Recommended by Steven G. Kellman
A few months before celebrating his 80th birthday last March, Philip Roth, the most decorated living American novelist, announced that, after publishing almost a book a year since 1959, he had ceased writing. Goodbye, Columbus, the collection that launched his career of brilliant literary provocations, is still astonishingly fresh. Consisting of the title novella and five short stories, the volume explores love, faith, and assimilation with both wit and compassion. In particular, “Defender of the Faith,” the story of a war-hardened drill sergeant who responds in complex ways to a cunning Jewish recruit who tries to exploit their common background to extract special treatment, shows no signs of aging.

 

jesussonJesus’ Son by Denis Johnson
Recommended by Emily DePrang
Jesus’ Son, by Denis Johnson, is messed up. Not the execution of the book itself—it’s crushingly beautiful and stylistically perfect; I mean perfect—but the content: drugs, crime, car accidents, drugs again. It makes you feel deeply with and for people you would never want to meet and live moments you’d never want to live through, except that because Johnson is such an excruciatingly good writer, you’ll read on anyway. And if you’re me, you’ll read on again and again and again, just to get that feeling.

 

 

objectlessonsObject Lessons
Recommended by James McWilliams
“Jack liked his office and it was alright to like your office.” This is the opening line of Norman Rush’s classic short story, “Lying Presences,” originally published in The Paris Review in 1982. Rush’s story is one of 20 published Paris Review pieces now compiled in a book called Object Lessons. It goes without saying that the stories themselves are, in various ways, masterful (if largely dark) expressions of what many prematurely lament as a dying genre. But what’s especially valuable about this anthology is that leading contemporary writers—including Dave Eggers, Jeffrey Eugenides, Jonathan Lethem and Lorrie Moore—chose the stories and, albeit too briefly, introduced them. Unexpected insights emerge from this arrangement. Who would have guessed—as Mona Simpson, who introduces Rush’s story, reveals—that the opening line about Jack liking his office had, on its own, convinced The Paris Review (where Simpson once worked) to publish the story before even finishing it? As Simpson notes, “Editors, like curators, develop refined intuition.” It shows throughout this volume.

 

hideislandHide Island: A Novella and Nine Stories by Richard Burgin
Recommended by Anis Shivani
Burgin writes some of the most dangerous short fiction being published today, as Hide Island: A Novella and Nine Stories—his newest collection, and ninth overall—demonstrates. These stories are dangerous because they force readers to question ordinary ethical behavior and the boundaries between transgressors and victims. While his previous collections have also been dark—involving every variety of sadomasochistic behavior imaginable—the new book seems to be his darkest yet, compounded by an intensified concern with mortality in addition to Burgin’s usual preoccupation with sexual “deviancy.” In all these stories, Burgin puts the darkest possible spin on our private lives, exposing the baleful mendacity and self-deception whereby we operate day to day. There is an undertone of a radical political critique here, an ardent nihilism that is all the more lovely for its ring of unshakeable truth.

 

barnumThe Barnum Museum by Steven Millhauser
Recommended by Elizabeth Stewart
This book is usually remembered for the story at the end, “Eisenheim the Illusionist,” because it inspired the movie starring Edward Norton and Jessica Biel, but for me, Millhauser’s magic lies in his shorter stories. The one I can’t forget is titled “Rain,” and follows a man caught in a downpour after coming out of a movie theater. City lights and storefront signs swim around him, and eventually everything—even the protagonist—dissolves. The premise is straightforward, and the story is approximately eight pages long, but in those eight pages Millhauser manages to explicate the futility of an unremarkable life, while deliberately, and beautifully, washing it away. The Barnum Museum is a series of age-yellowed, water-damaged images—long-forgotten artifacts and mementos both magical and achingly sad.