Now that Ashland Creek Press is over a year old, we’re starting to get out and about to show off our books — and we were happy to have made an appearance at the Wordstock Festival in Portland this year. We enjoyed meeting new readers as well as talking with fellow authors and publishing colleagues…it’s always a joy to be surrounded by people who simply adore books.
Among the most entertaining parts of hanging out in our booth was seeing children glimpse our old Underwood portable, which we’d brought along to keep our typewriter notecards company. The very young children (under six years old) and even a few older kids (eight to ten) looked at this typewriter as if they were gazing upon a T. rex. Most of them had no idea what it was or what it did, and we and/or their parents had to explain that this used to be how people wrote books, and also letters (the quaint idea of letters, of course, requiring a whole other explanation…). They looked at the typewriter in wonder and disbelief…which was fun but also made us feel pretty old.
I also enjoyed sitting in on a couple of panels, including The Art of the Ending with Natalie Serber, Brian Doyle, and Jon Raymond, moderated by Lee Montgomery. I always love hearing how authors come to the endings of their works, and Lee Montgomery got things going by asking panelists to talk about how they approach endings as well as to read a favorite example or two. Natalie Serber, author of the short story collection, Shout Her Lovely Name, said she is most interested in “the sloppiness of life” when it comes to endings — “endings that honor mysteries and mess.” She read the ending of James Baldwin’s story “Sonny’s Blues” one of her favorite endings.
Brian Doyle, editor of the University of Portland’s Portland Magazine and author of the novel Mink River, cautions that often its the penultimate paragraph rather than the last one that is the true ending (this, I find when I’m writing nonfiction, is almost always true for me). “Sometimes you end by stepping sideways,” he said, meaning taking a step to the side and leaving the ending open, leaving a “sonic absence” at the end of a piece. He shared a few Chekhov endings as among his favorites.
Screenwriter and novelist Jon Raymond mentioned the importance of getting the story as a whole to come together as something that’s as vital to a good ending; he agreed with Natalie about art reflecting the messiness of life but said he also likes endings that are “shaped the way life often isn’t shaped.” He shared endings from Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead and Cormac McCarthy’s The Road.
In all, it was a great weekend — especially getting the chance to visit with Jasmin Singer and Mariann Sullivan of the wonderful organization Our Hen House, at Blossoming Lotus. (Note to anyone looking for great food/wine/beer/cocktails in Portland: Blossoming Lotus is now among my restaurants ever, in no small part because it has an excellent happy hour.)
This is not exactly mainstream news, but the major publishers have been battling with libraries for the past few years over the pricing and management of e-books.
It boils down the money, basically. Publishers have been increasing the price of e-books to more than triple the price of the equivalent paper books. To get an idea, check out this recent price list developed by Douglas County (Colo.) Libraries here (PDF). A recent Publishers Weekly article noted that the e-book of Fifty Shades of Grey sells on Amazon for $9.99, while libraries pay $47.85 per copy. Laura Hillenbrands’s Unbroken is $12.00 on Amazon, but it’s $81.00 for libraries on 3M and OverDrive.
Why, you may ask, are publishers charging more for something that costs them far less?
Among many reasons is this: print books wear out over a few years, forcing libraries to purchase more — while e-books are, in theory, forever.
So some publishers want e-books to have a built-in lifespan to them. Or a limited number of times an e-book can be checked out.
I’m not kidding.
And some publishers have simply decided not to see some e-books to libraries.
The president of the American Library Association recently posted an open letter to three of the world’s largest publishers. It reads:
It’s a rare thing in a free market when a customer is refused the ability to buy a company’s product and is told its money is “no good here.” Surprisingly, after centuries of enthusiastically supporting publishers’ products, libraries find themselves in just that position with purchasing ebooks from three of the largest publishers in the world. Simon & Schuster, Macmillan, and Penguin have been denying access to their ebooks for our nation’s 112,000 libraries and roughly 169 million public library users.
Let’s be clear on what this means: If our libraries’ digital bookshelves mirrored the New York Times fiction bestseller list, we would be missing half of our collection any given week due to these publishers’ policies. The popular Bared to You and The Glass Castle are not available in libraries because libraries cannot purchase them at any price. Today’s teens also will not find the digital copy of Judy Blume’s seminal Forever, nor today’s blockbuster “Hunger Games” series.
Not all publishers are following the path of these three publishers. In fact, hundreds of publishers of ebooks have embraced the opportunity to create new sales and reach readers through our nation’s libraries. One recent innovation allows library patrons to immediately purchase an ebook if the library doesn’t have a copy or if there is a wait list they would like to avoid. This offers a win-win relationship for both publishers and library users since recent research from the Pew Internet Project tells us that library users are more than twice as likely to have bought their most recent book as to have borrowed it from a library.
While we at Ashland Creek Press have only a small number of e-books to offer libraries, we have priced our books roughly in line with what the general public pays. We will sometimes discount e-books here and there on Amazon or Apple (or they will do the discounting automatically for us).
But we will never price our e-books at more than the cost of a print book. That’s not right.
In fact, our e-book pricing comes in at roughly half the print book pricing.
And we are pleased that most of our e-books are now available for libraries via the 3M and OverDrive platforms. We’re also eager to work with California libraries with their e-book initiative.
It’s easy for publishers to say they love libraries. But too many are now trying to gouge libraries.
Q: How did you come up with the idea for Balance of Fragile Things, and why did you want to tell this story?
A: The book is a culmination of cultural narratives that consider the powerful connection I’d always felt to the land through my parents and their cultures. While studying literature at Binghamton and C.U., I found it difficult to get my hands on books that were considered both multiethnic and environmental. Postcolonial eco-critical ideas were just converging as a sort of late-to-the-party nuanced theory. I have always felt a strong connection to the environment and land, and I attribute that to my parents’ love for nature and the stories that my grandmother on my mom’s side imbued me with when I was a child. In order to reconcile this strange lack, I took it upon myself to craft this book. The family, the Singhs, represents the quintessential American family that rarely gets the center stage in a work of fiction. To me, they are simply an all-American hodgepodge of a family. They fight to assimilate while holding onto their history and personal cultures.
Q: What were some of the sociological issues that you wanted to explore in this book?
A: I feel that we today have the luxury to reflect upon the past with comfort and peace. We have a privileged position in history. Though there are many of us who are still marginalized, as Americans we already have a voice. Though we still have plenty of barriers to break down, we have the ability to speak and write about the things we need to change. We are gifted with so many freedoms we don’t have the ability to recognize because of our birthright. We need to take care of the freedom we have. We should be careful not to become complacent.
Many of us were born with this kind of haunting feeling that we cannot take for granted what our ancestors fought so hard to achieve. They made it to America, but not without loss. Many of them encountered severe racism when they arrived. But still, they arrived. They escaped not unscathed because there, in the past, their relatives died. Their families died. They shed their blood all across the land, and yet here we are born. It is like being culturally haunted. Here we stand. We are protected. We have so much opportunity. Why would we waste one single day?
This is the fire that drove me to write this book. In a way, I sought to memorialize the past and merge it with my present concerns regarding the environment. Shortsightedness is the biggest failure of our privileged position as Americans. With the ability to change in our hands, why would we choose to stop seeing the outcomes of so many of our actions? Rather than focusing on growing, we should be focusing on improving our systems, industries, lifestyles, quality food availability, etc. Why do we choose to be blind to the poisons we release into the ether and water? We are intelligent enough to know there will be consequences. Let knowledge be the first step. Then action.
Q: What was your inspiration for the setting of Balance of Fragile Things?
A: I began research for the book the spring of 2006, in Endicott, New York. I was just finishing my first year of study at Binghamton University (SUNY), and all seemed well. Until, that is, it started to rain. It rained for days, weeks, until the rivers breached and the town flooded. The roads and bridges washed out. Then the warnings came. Endicott residents: Do not use the water from your tap. Boil water, or use bottled purified water for cooking, eating, and showering. The National Guard came by and taped up the faucets. I fell ill, as did many others.
I did some research and found that my apartment was strangely close to an old IBM facility, and that same facility had previously been a leather treatment plant, and so on and so forth into historical chemical contamination land. IBM stored VOCs (volatile organic compounds) in leaky drums under the town when it closed down the facility. These same VOCs, I later found out, had caused cancer and birth defects, and the town is now in a suit against IBM for their corporate carelessness. These same barrels were on the water line in Endicott. The VOCs were in the water supply during the flood. I was enraged. I relocated. Permanent Endicott residents were not so lucky. Their housing prices continue to drop. Illnesses abound. I felt it was important to set this novel in a place like Endicott during the flood because their stories rarely reach a wide audience.
Q: What was your writing process like?
A: I did a lot of research while simultaneously writing. I traveled to Northern India with my parents and grandmother in order to trace her path after the Partition. I needed to see where my father’s family was from. I also traveled with my mother to Riga, Latvia, a place she had never been. Her mother was Latvian, her father German, and she was born in post-war Germany. Even so, her mother, my Oma, was such an influential character of my childhood, and her tales of Latvian life always haunted me. The character of Oma made so much more sense after visiting Riga. I saw Oma’s face in so many other faces around us.
I wrote nearly every day and, before this final version, I wrote three versions. The first was experimental. The second was a more traditional tale. The third was a combination of the two. Because there are six different points of view, it was more complicated than I had originally imagined. Though the characters were and still are so clear in my mind, and their voices and internal narratives are as well, the thing I struggled with most was point of view.
I write in my home office. When I am writing, the office becomes an art exhibit for the book on which I am working. I collect images and art objects that inspire settings and tack them to the walls. I take photographs from my butterfly watching, and other tchotchkes that draw me sensually into the world. For this book I made a sound track that consisted mostly of opera, Madame Butterfly and other very dramatic pieces. Every morning, I would take my coffee with me into the office, sit down, light a candle, press play on my iPod, and bam!, I was right there where I left off. I also heed the advice of Hemingway in that I never finish a full sentence when I am ready to stop writing. I leave it half done so that my brain has to wrap itself around finishing that sentence the next morning and returns immediately to the world of words.
Q: What was your research process like?
A: I spent time researching and interviewing family members about their experiences during the Partition, along with academic research about the aftereffects of the Partition. I traveled extensively in the Punjab up to the border of Pakistan, but we didn’t cross, as it wasn’t safe at the time. I watched the changing of the guards. There were massive Pakistani and Indian men, all of whom were probably Punjabi milk and corn fed. They towered, six foot six or more, over the rest of us. The two fences of razor wire that stretched across the curves of the land in either direction met here in two stadium seating areas that sat hundreds and were full of hot people in the sun. We sat on the Punjabi side and stared at the Pakistanis through the gaps between the iron fences. They stared back at us. It was totally understood, this literal divide, something expected, even enjoyed by the spectators. The massive gates that separated the two countries were, of course, locked, and I couldn’t help but think that we were actually placing ourselves in a dramatization of the Partition. Here we were, agreeing to sit on our representative side of the gate. Staring at each other. Baking in the Punjabi sun. Jeering at each other. Screams of “Hindustan Zindibad!” and “Allah O Akbar!” filled the terracotta dusty air. The tension was palatable. I finally turned to my family with a sort of claustrophobic gaze and told them I couldn’t breathe. The sounds were overwhelming, a sort of passionate aversion boiled like a betrayed sibling that you love and hate.
What shocked me most was the feeling I got that this violent event that took place over months wasn’t settled in the collective unconscious. To my knowledge, neither Pakistan nor India had agreed on the final death count. Nor did they create a memorial to these hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, dead. This allows the memory to simmer just below the surface of the Pakistani and Indian identity, and we still see it bubble to the surface when tensions rise. The violence was animalistic in 1947. Men turned to savages. Neighbors killed neighbors. Women were mutilated and tortured. Children were torn to pieces. I feel it’s important to settle this past, to acknowledge it, in order for the last of that generation to have peace so that the younger generations don’t carry this burden or violent memory. My grandfather lost most of his family during the Partition.
I also visited Riga, Latvia, and did a great deal of research about World War II, which is a strangely ever-expanding topic. Because of the scale, people can never feel as if they know everything about the subject. My family has a complicated story on this side. In the novel, Oma is a fairly real character, though the book is fiction. My grandmother’s escape from the Nazis and Russians with her two children, my aunt and uncle, was always something that haunted me. Her strength and cleverness, which saved them all as they went from Latvia to Poland, from DP camp to potential new homes, is inspiring.
Q: What surprised you the most during the writing and research?
A: My research into butterflies was so enjoyable. I would spend days watching little blues mud-puddle in the spring here in Boulder’s Chataqua Park or one of the many other trails. Once I began to look for them, I began to see them everywhere. It’s like a switch turned on in my perspective. Butterflies are the second most important pollinator to bees, and that altered the way in which I see them. To me, they are beautiful, yes, but they are so much more. There are many groups and associations that focus on counting, following, and discussing butterflies and other invertebrates, like Xerces Society and the North American Butterfly Association.
Q: How has your own multiethnic background informed the story?
A: It informs everything I do. My brother and I speak frankly about how we were raised with this sort of unspoken pressure to achieve. Though it was never said aloud, we knew how hard our parents fought to come to America and about all the conflict our ancestors encountered. This fueled us to work hard, study hard, and do well. Many first-generation kids have this same fire. It’s also uncanny to sit between two or three cultures, but all in all, I feel it’s a good kind of strange, one that deepens the questions you have about society and places. I feel more comfortable in the in-between.
Q: Which character is closest to your heart?
A: I feel for each and every one of these characters. I feel that Paul is trying so hard to be honorable in a shameful world. Maija is caught in the cruel balancing act of motherhood, work, and ghosts. Isabella is a remarkable young woman who is coming into her own as well as she can. However, it may be obvious that I sympathize with Vic the most because he tends to be the most central character with his blog and the most chapters. I feel for him because he is so outside of what is considered normal; he looks different and sees differently. I’ve never really felt I fit in to what was considered normal—perhaps no one really does, and that is the truest fallacy. It brought me great joy to follow his coming of age.
Q: How did you come up with the idea for The Dragon Keeper, and how long did it take you to write it? Did you have a special routine or place in which you wrote?
A: I was on a business trip in London in December of 2006 when I read an article in the paper about a Komodo dragon reproducing via parthenogenesis at the Chester Zoo. Since it was so close to Christmas, the article made a lot of overt comparisons to the Virgin Mary, and the tone of the entire piece was very light. It was clearly intended as entertainment. I immediately ripped the article out of the paper and read it obsessively in my hotel room over the next few days. I knew there was a much bigger story there, but I had no idea it could be a novel. A few weeks later, I was watching The Daily Show back at home when they aired a clip from the Chester Zoo. The dragons had hatched, and one of the zookeepers told the cameraman that it was the best day of her life. Jon Stewart made some joke about how pathetic this woman was, and in that moment I knew I had to write this story. I was fascinated by this woman, by the revelation that animals had begun reproducing without mates, and by the idea of a love story between a zookeeper and a dragon.
I wrote the book during my last two years in the Hamline MFA program, and it became my thesis. Since I have a full-time job, I wrote mostly during my lunch breaks and before classes at night. After I graduated, I revised the book two more times in the two years that followed, while working on other projects as well.
Q: Have you ever worked at a zoo?
A: No, I never have. My zookeeper abilities don’t extend much beyond feeding a cat. My work life has been largely spent in corporations, and that’s the employer that ultimately came to the page. The Zoo of America is, of course, completely fictional, and I began thinking of it as corporate America, as in: “How would corporate America behave if it owned a zoo?” The actual zoos I was lucky enough to visit while researching the book were conscientious, humane institutions that bear little resemblance to the Zoo of America.
Q: Are you trying to say that zoos are a bad institution?
A: I didn’t want the book to be strictly pro-zoo or anti-zoo, but I did want to raise questions that we don’t always think about when we visit zoos. As the planet’s current conquering species, what is our responsibility to the other creatures who live here? We’ve come a long way from the roadside menageries, but do we have the right to capture and display animals for entertainment or education? What if, like Komodos, the species is losing its natural habitat? There are a lot of issues to consider, and I hope I’ve been able to introduce some of those questions for readers.
Q: What sort of research did you do to write the book?
A: Although I would have loved to travel to Indonesia, my budget dictated that most research had to be conducted through reading. Because Westerners first encountered the Komodo dragon relatively recently, there aren’t a great deal of academic studies available. I read the ones I could find, including Walter Auffenberg’s definitive 1981 book based on his research while living on Komodo Island.
I also wanted to get a sense of zoo life, without getting too focused on the habits of any one particular zoo. I visited the Memphis Zoo in 2007 and was fortunate enough to interview the curator of reptiles as well as both keepers who looked after their two Komodo dragons. At one point I mentioned Auffenberg’s comment that early expeditioners thought the dragons were deaf because they didn’t react to gunshots. The curator had never heard that and seemed incredulous of the fact. Later he showed me why. When we were behind the Komodo exhibit, he opened the top half of the door that led inside and said, “Jeff!” Jeff, the eight-foot-long Komodo, immediately turned 180 degrees and barreled for the door. The curator and I had to retract our heads and slam the door shut before Jeff could rear up over it into the hallway. “He can hear,” the curator said, grinning.
Q: Is parthenogenesis really possible?
A: Yes, it is, and there are documented cases of parthenogenesis in Komodo dragons. When I happened to find that article about Flora, the Komodo at the Chester Zoo who reproduced via parthenogenesis in 2006, I was immediately fascinated by the idea of sexual animals reproducing without mates. In the course of The Dragon Keeper, we learn that Jata’s offspring are even more unique than Flora’s. What happens with Jata specifically has never been known to occur in Komodos, but it seemed to me like the next logical evolutionary step, although I’m as much at a loss to explain it as Meg and everyone else in the book. To me, it’s still somewhat of a miracle.
Q: Are there really Komodo dragons like Jata?
A: Yes! It was very important to me to portray Komodo dragons as accurately as I possibly could. I researched the species extensively, and in several of the studies I found references to a Komodo dragon named Bubchen who lived in the Frankfurt Zoo in the early twentieth century. By all accounts, she was an extraordinary animal who became completely acclimated to living with humans. Many of Jata’s behaviors are based on what I could find out about Bubchen, and I couldn’t resist including a small tribute to her in the book as well.
Q: Would you describe The Dragon Keeper as a love story?
A: Certainly Meg is embroiled in a love triangle for much of the story, but ultimately I’ve always seen this as a love story between Meg and Jata. Sometimes the perception is that a human-animal bond is simpler than relationships between humans, but I’ve always thought it raises many compelling questions. Why does this person choose to give their affection to an animal instead of someone within their own species? And then you have to look at the animals’ side of the relationship. Are they even capable of returning affection? What are the circumstances of their lives that have brought them into close contact with humans instead of others of their own species? In Jata’s case, you also have to understand that she’s an alpha predator, and her instincts will always be at war with any attachment she is capable of developing on Meg.
The Names of Things is a beautifully written book permeated with a sense of sadness and regret, set against the backdrop of the desolate Kenyan landscape. There are two main reasons why I find myself recommending this novel. First, the author’s ability to vividly describe a setting is among the finest I’ve encountered. Second, while Wood maintains in his afterword that The Names of Things is fictional, the story feels intensely real and personal. (Reviewed by Kim Kovacs).