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The Great Lenore by J.M. Tohline

The Great Lenore by J.M. Tohline, published by Maryland-based Atticus Books, is loosely based upon F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (my review — no, you don’t have to read Fitzgerald to enjoy Tohline’s novel), but it’s also part Edgar Allan Poe(m)-inspired.

Richard Parkland takes up his friend’s offer of using his summer home on Nantucket during the winter to write his next novel, and he soon comes in contact with the Montanas, who live in an ornate home much like that of Gatsby in Fitzgerald’s novel.  Richard parallels the narrator of Gatsby, Nick Carraway, while Lenore is the female lead here and is not as insipid or self-absorbed.  Many of the elements are similar in that the Montana’s are a rich family and that their members are embroiled in drama, particularly the brothers Maxwell and Chas.  There are great loves and there are mistresses, but there is much more in these pages than a replication of Fitzgerald or any other writer.

“We stopped looking at him, and he drifted through the house like an orange blob inside a lava lamp, with a cold glass of whiskey glued to his hands.”  (page 53 ARC)

The dialogue between the characters is reminiscent of Fitzgerald’s Gatsby as they tiptoe around what they really want to say to one another or shout uselessly in anger and frustration because of the situations in which they find themselves.  These characters are acting and reacting to one another in a vacuum in which no one else matters, not even Richard.  He’s a sounding board more than once, and he’s meant to just listen — he’s the outsider, the observer, the recordkeeper.  But one of the clear gems in the novel is the setting of Nantucket, which is a small, exclusive island.  It comes alive under Tohline’s talent creating a deep sense of other-worldliness and isolation.

“Clouds of frustration and anger and betrayal eddied off behind me, and the same clouds lay before me.  The same clouds wrapped their cold, iron claws around me, scraping over my veins and shuddering through my nerves.”  (page 116 ARC)

Tohline addresses the waffling nature of humanity, our fear of making decisions and our fear of the decisions we’ve made and the regret that comes with choosing the path we’re on.  In more ways than one, Lenore becomes mythical, she is no longer a real person until her untimely death.  At this point in the story, readers would expect the “prefect” Lenore to take on an even more ideal hue, but Tohline has a different experience in mind.  He breaks down her character through the eyes of others, and as secrets are revealed about her relationships with Chas, Maxwell, and others, Lenore becomes like the rest of us — fallible.  The narration allows the reveal to come gradually, providing the reader with a faster paced page-turner than expected from a piece of literary fiction.

The Great Lenore by J.M. Tohline is a literary debut from an author whose prose is at times poetic and suspenseful, but always hovering on the edge of the mysterious.  His novel is a testament to the inevitability of choices we make and the inability we have to change them even if we have the desire and opportunity to change them.  It’s about the idealizing the past and those we love and the journey it takes to realize that the reality of those times and people was not at all what our minds remember.  Tohline’s novel is one of regret and hope for a better future, but there also is a hopelessness reminiscent of Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms.

About the Author:

JM Tohline grew up in a small town just north of Boston and lives in a quiet house on the edge of the Great Plains with his cat, The Old Man And The Sea. He is 26 years old. The Great Lenore is his first novel.  Check out his Website and this Atticus Books interview.

 

This is my 52nd book for the New Authors Reading Challenge 2012.

Interview with Eric D. Goodman, Author of Tracks

Tracks by Eric D. Goodman (my review) is one of the best novel in stories I’ve read in a long time, and it will likely end up on my best of the year list. It not only reads like separate short stories, if you just want to read something satisfying in a short slot of time, but also is a connected story by the train, the conductor, and the mystery/action storyline.  In many ways, I’ve thought about how it reminds me of Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express, but the reader is the detective.  However, there also are deeper themes at work of feeling stuck and unable to move on or wanting to change, but unable to accomplish that goal because of an inability to take a risk or the inability to let go of the past.  I digress, just go read the review, you’ll see what I mean.

I’ve got a great treat for my readers today, as Eric agreed to an interview about his book and his writing experiences. Please give him a warm welcome.

1. Since Tracks takes place on a train traveling between Baltimore
and Chicago, it is clear that trains are important to you. When did
you first realize that you loved trains and what do they mean to you?

As a child, I think I had a love of trains that many children share:
toy train sets, a need to watch trains as they passed by, an urge to
place coins along the tracks to be warped and smashed by the
locomotives. And there was always a spirit of adventure involved with
coming across a line of tracks and walking along it.

I was probably about six when I took my first trip on Amtrak. It was
exciting, an adventure, and much more fun than the usual cross-country
driving trips my family took. But then there was a long period of no
trains. Unfortunately, trains seem to be underfunded in our country
and, therefore, are sometimes more expensive than planes and certainly
cars and busses.

It was when I was a college student traveling in Russia that I
rekindled my interest in trains. Trains were a popular and
inexpensive way to get around. I took sleeper cars on overnight trips
often while in Russia. Sometimes, that was the most fun part of a
trip.

2. Baltimore is almost like its own character in the book, looming
ominously over some of the characters while anchoring others to a
sense of home. Was it hard to show both the darker and lighter sides
of Baltimore given its reputation as a high-crime city? And how do
you view Baltimore, as a resident and a writer?

Baltimore is a wonderful place to live if you’re a writer or an
artist. The literary community is tight knit and most of the writers
I know are very supportive of their fellow authors. As far as the
crime goes, I think Baltimore is a lot like any other large city:
there are areas with high crime, areas with virtually no crime, and
much of the violent crime exists in its own little sub-culture. I’ve
lived in Ohio, California, Rhode Island and lots of places in between.
I won’t pretend they’re the same, but I will say that I’ve personally
encountered no more crime here than in the other places I’ve lived. In
other words, it exists, but it’s easy to avoid.

Baltimore has a lot of character; it was easy to set certain scenes
from Tracks in rich locations with exciting backdrops.

3. When writing Tracks did you find that one scene or character
surprised you? If so, which one and how so?

My writing tends to be inspired by an idea or theme or some nugget of
conversation that I found interesting. It doesn’t begin with plot;
the idea comes first, then the character, then the plot. So my
characters surprise me often. I know what I want the theme or idea to
be, when I begin writing, but not always exactly what they’re going to
do.

The Conductor, Franklin, sort of surprised me. His two stories were
actually the last two I wrote. In the original manuscript, he didn’t
even have his own stories. He appears in everyone else’s story and
always seems like such a nice, chipper, friendly guy. And he is. But
when I began to dig deeper and write about him in his own stories, I
discovered that he had another side.

4. The conductor and the Amtrak train tie the stories together, but
the stories also could stand on their own. Was there any point in the
process where you thought that Tracks should just be a short story
collection and not be a novel in stories? What convinced you to stay
with the novel in stories format?

I had written three stories individually before I decided that I
should make this a collection. Then, as I continued to weave the
stories closer together, I thought it would be nice to create a sort
of hybrid—to write a novel and a set of stories at once. Part of it
was with the goal of both working on a novel and having stories to
submit to journals at the same time. But part of it was just out of
curiosity—could I pull off a “novel in stories?”

Coincidentally, by the time this went to print, there seemed to be a
revival in the format: A Visit from the Goon Squad, Olive Kitteridge,
Later at the Bar, The Civilized World. But I wasn’t riding a wave; I
was doing my first draft before it started!

5. From first draft to publication, how long did it take to complete
Tracksand find it a home on bookstore shelves? Have you had any
champions behind the book that spurred you to get it published and who
have helped hand-sell (I use this term lightly — noting that social
media and the Internet could help spread the word) copies?

It’s been a long line of track. I think it was back in 2006 when I
wrote the first draft. I tend to write a manuscript, then put it away
for a year or longer, then rewrite it. So although I didn’t spend
time each year working on the manuscript, about five years passed from
first draft to bookshelf. During that time I wrote a couple other
book drafts (one of which is with my agent now) and did a lot of
tinkering and polishing. I had it ready to submit to agents in 2009,
got an agent in 2010, and secured a publisher later that same year.
Then it was released in 2011.

I’ve been overwhelmed by the kind reception Tracks has received from
other writers. Some of the biggest include Madison Smartt Bell,
Thomas Steinbeck, Bathsheba Monk, Jessica Anya Blau, Rebecca Barry,
and Victoria Patterson. I even got notes of congratulations (but not
official blurbs) from Jonathan Franzen, Jennifer Egan, T.C. Boyle, and
Junot Diaz! It’s felt good to be noticed, even if sometimes only as
an insect.

Thanks, Eric for answering my questions. If you are in the Washington, D.C., area and interested in reading Goodman’s book, he’ll be reading at the Open Door Series at the Writer’s Center in Bethesda, Md., on Feb. 12 at 2 p.m. Register for the event.

 

Additionally, this is a stop on The Literary Road Trip since Eric is a local author in Baltimore, Md.

The Snow Whale by John Minichillo

The Snow Whale by John Minichillo, which is published by local Maryland publisher Atticus Books, is a satire of Moby Dick by Herman Melville to a certain extent.  The debut novel centers on the life-changing decision of John Jacobs, a zombified office worker selling desk doodles to corporations via telephone, to find out his ancestry through a cheek-swab DNA test.  The results come back and find him more than one-third Eskimo/Inuit, and its enough for John to quit his job, take a vacation from his marriage, and head to Alaska to claim his birthright and go whale hunting.

“And why couldn’t a mild-mannered desk doodle salesman like Mike be the recipient of the Genghis Khan gene?” (page 9 of ARC)

His wife, Jessica, is equally in a rut, but still enjoys her job as a ballroom dance instructor.  She wishes that her marriage was more passionate and spontaneous, but the spontaneity she gets from John is not exactly what she’s looking for.  However, she agrees that he should go to Alaska given the passionate gleam in his eyes.  While some of the actions John takes are irrational and a bit nutty, readers will enjoy the shear witty prose and dialogue that accompanies the surreal situations presented.

“Q continued to walk with half steps, arms folded.
‘Stop shivering,’ Jacobs said.
‘I’m fucking freezing.’
‘Act Eskimo.’
‘What does that even mean?’
‘This is the thaw.  This should be warm for you.'”  (page 88 of ARC)

John is on a journey to find himself and to shake up the mundane, but in the midst of his journey he comes to realize that his life was already full before he left for Alaska.  Meanwhile, the chief of the Inuit tribe, Akmaaq, is looking for an end to his suffering as the leader being slowly shunned and cast aside following a dreadful whale hunt the year before.  He is like Ahab more than John because he is seeking to meet the white whale — his fate and death.  Although Akmaaq is native, like Queequeg in the original Melville novel, Akmaaq is neither a cannibal nor seeking adventure in the wide world beyond his isolated tribe, but he has established a friendship with John to ensure his safety — at least partially — and is aware that death awaits.  Ishmael is John, here in Minichillo’s novel, because he is seeking adventure and change — he is on the journey.

The Snow Whale by John Minichillo is an excellent debut novel that will likely be on the best of 2011 list.  It incorporates classic literature, though knowledge of Melville’s novel is not necessary to enjoy the wit and captivating story Minichillo creates.  John is a quirky character that readers will sympathize with, and his journey may be a bit surreal, but probably mirrors some of the fantasies readers have had about escaping their boring lives behind a cubicle wall.  Book clubs would find a great deal to discuss from the modernization of tribal people to the misconceptions “white” people have about different cultures and peoples, and themselves.

About the Author:

John Minichillo lives in Nashville with his wife and son.  This is his first novel.  Please do check out the interview with John at Atticus Books.  Here’s a sneak peak of the book.

 

This is my 39th book for the 2011 New Authors Reading Challenge.

 

 

 

 

This is a stop on The Literary Road Trip since this book is published by Maryland house Atticus Books.

An Interview With Dan Cafaro, Publisher of Atticus Books in Maryland

Today we’re kicking off Savvy Verse & Wit’s First Annual Indie & Small Press Month Celebration with Dan Cafaro from Maryland’s very own Atticus Books.  He was gracious enough to answer a few questions about his business, books, and some more personal matters, like obsessions.

Rather than provide you with all the connection details at the end of the interview, please check out their Facebook page, the Independent Book Sellers That Rock Our World Page, and Book Blogger Central (you may even find a picture of Dan on one of these pages).

1.  As founding publisher of Atticus Books in Maryland, how long has it taken to make a name for the publishing house in the industry, and what frustrations have you overcome to make it such a local success?

We haven’t yet made a name for ourselves, but writers, damn good writers, continue to find us and that’s more than half the battle for a small press in its infancy. We began in earnest less than a year ago when we signed our first novelist (Alex Kudera) to a book contract. I had just hung our shingle in Kensington when Alex took a leap of faith in me (and I in him).  I was a solo act with no staff support in sight. He was a former adjunct from Philly with a bitterly funny academic satire to sell.  I had worked in print media for 20 years and I had just ended a publishing consulting contract with an aerospace society; trade publishing was a far cry from rocket science; it was a whole new animal and I was elated to be in position to give it a whirl.

When the entrepreneurial muse came calling, little did I know what she had in store.  After exploring every conceivable hybrid book business model known to man and industry insiders—complete with storefront, café, antiques, wine, and/or an espresso book machine (to print books on site and on demand), I elected to conserve my capital, minimize the overhead, mitigate the out-of-pocket risk, and focus my energies on the writing.  My goal became an all-consuming, wildly passionate ambition—to find the greatest writers out there who simply are not getting the attention they deserve. I wake up equally frustrated and intrinsically rewarded every day, knowing in my old-school bohemian bones that I’m driven by a desire that defies all monetary-minded rationale.  If I somehow can make a living at doing what I love by 1.) forming micro-literary villages of likeminded souls online, and 2.) helping innovate a long established (some say, struggling if not dying) profession, then I’ll be the happiest working man-child alive.

2.  What’s the breakdown of books you publish (i.e. how many poetry books, fiction, etc.)?  How many are written by local authors?

We currently have produced three titles of fiction, including two novels and one novella (The Absent Traveler & Other Stories).  In 2011, we have five titles of fiction planned for release, all novels, with other book proposals pending and in development.  We’re taking a serious look at publishing more collections of short stories (a terrific weakness of mine) as I truly admire those who can say more with less, and I believe that the short story form is due a cultural revival. Short stories often provide a taste of better things to come from developing writers, so it excites me to think that I’m supporting a fertile mind from the beginning of its artistic bell curve.  Not that all writers follow this path, but those who have mastered the short form sometimes go on to use those same characters and charming turn-of-phrase aptitude in longer, more fully layered works of magnificence.

Our writers, more than half of whom are college English professors, scatter the map, from Massachusetts, New York (3), and Maryland to South Carolina, Tennessee, and Oklahoma. Eric D. Goodman, whose debut novel, Tracks, comes out in the summer, resides in Baltimore. Tracks contains a thread of stories told by characters traveling on a train from Baltimore to Chicago. It’s richly laced with colorful descriptions and insights of the city of Baltimore. Eric is heavily involved in Baltimore’s literary scene and supports the arts regionally through his participation in DelMarVa events, readings on NPR-Baltimore, and his blog.  His dedication to the area and involvement with the Maryland Writers’ Association, the CityLit Project in Baltimore, and the F. Scott Fitzgerald Literary Conference in Rockville, Md., factored in my wanting him in our camp.

3.  From the list of authors, online contributors, editors, etc. listed on Atticus Books Website, it seems as though the working environment at the publishing house is very collaborative, almost like a large family.  Was this environment intentional, and how well does it work when deadlines arise?

In an effort to keep this answer short, let’s just say, we’re one happy, dysfunctional family—and the dysfunction comes from none other than the patriarch.  One rule, besides unceremoniously leaving the seat down in the bathroom for Libby and Lindsey (my part-time, guardian angels), is to not take ourselves (and myself) too seriously.  As a former daily news schlep, I work better under deadline, particularly when that deadline is self-imposed and I get to revise it.  Once you’ve survived the pressure of filing stories on time, within length constraints, and without typos under the watchful eye of a half-crazed editor breathing down your neck in a noisy newsroom, a mostly quiet and serene book publishing environment is a piece of cake (filled with buttercream and surprise).

4.  Atticus also has an aggressive environmental policy against using paper from endangered forests, using at least 30 percent recycled fiber, and more.  Some publishers have said adopting an aggressive stance will increase costs so much that making a profit is nearly impossible.  What prompted your decision to adopt the policy, how did you justify it, and has it been as costly as other publishers have indicated it would be?

To be honest, I’m not sure we currently print enough books to know how much impact this is having (or will inevitably have) on our bottom line.  Our books are printed on recycled paper; we’re living in environmentally conscious (and limited natural resource-sensitive, i.e., tree-hugging) times and that practice doesn’t seem to be too much to ask of any business or individual, no matter how cynical or mercenary.  Perhaps if I pinched nickels and was hyper vigilant about economies of scale, I might care to calculate the loss of margin, but that’s not how I operate.  In poetic step and verse with Oscar Wilde’s definition of a cynic, I’ve never set out to be a man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.  That statement someday may spell my financial ruin, but for now, it’s part of how Atticus Books says grace and carries on.

5.  In these tough economic times, do you think small publishers can make their mark on literature and the book selling market?  How best can small presses accomplish their goals?

If I didn’t think small presses and indie booksellers could make a mark on literature—I mean a real whale of a red-wine, dark chocolate-stain doozy, then I wouldn’t be in this Goethe-forsaken business.  I chose this vocation and lifestyle, partly because my selfless, well-compensated wife and a string of lucky breaks have afforded me the opportunity.  I believe in giving back to society when your circumstances grant you the luxury.  Will I always be in this fortuitous position?  Hell, if I know.  Will I fight the noble fight to the last breath to preserve the legacy of my authors?  You bet your life.

Small presses possess the opportunity to upset the landscape, upend the apple cart, tilt the paradigm, cloud the prism, and spoil the harvest of large publishers just by being.  Existing.  Resisting.  Insisting.  This is a game of Darwinian perseverance and as the inimitable Billie Holiday sang in “God Bless the Child”: “The strong survive while the weak ones fade.”  What makes the strong, strong and the weak, weak?  Beats the Oliver Twist out of me.  I’d rather leave that to sideline prognosticators and armchair quarterbacks.  Small presses need to rattle the right cages and make enough noise or create stirring silence to demand attention.  It won’t be easy, but there’s no such thing as impossible.

6.  Online reviewers, such as book bloggers, have gained additional recognition at Book Expo America and with publishers and PR staff.  Has Atticus Books tapped this market of reviewers to spread the word about its books and how formal or informal and/or important are these relationships?

We (staff aides Lindsey, Libby & I) love bloggers and I say that as a fan of anyone who has the wherewithal to post religiously without monetizing their effort.  Book Blogger Central, a page that we created on Facebook, is a service to those who blog and is a tribute to the work that book bloggers tirelessly perform.  And I say that not in the “brown-nosing, gosh, we need you to like us” sort of way, but more in the respectful, compassionate way that only a blogger (a fellow writer with far more faults and insecurities than time or patience) could understand.

I write (inconsistently).  I blog (just as inconsistently).  And I publish (consistently, I hope, though that’s a relative measurement).  What separates me, besides discipline, from those who do the first two things, but not the third?  Not much, really.  Do I have a pedigree in marketing or a Ph.D. in public relations?  No.  What I do have is instincts that I trust, authors whose abilities I believe in enough to invest hard-earned cash, and relations with individual media of which I’m just beginning to form.  Do I consider the opinion of bloggers as vital as the third rail of publishing (e.g., the New York Times Book Review section, Publishers Weekly, and/or Kirkus Reviews)?  Yes, without hesitation or fear of retribution, I can say I do.  Bloggers have their fingers pressed firmly on the pulse of contemporary culture as much as—if not more than—the establishment. In sum, bloggers, on the whole, are thoughtful, voracious readers who immeasurably influence their loyal, fast growing flock of followers as much as—and increasingly more than—those who represent the view of far-reaching institutions.

Now for a couple of fun questions:

7.  You’ve become a publisher to sift new writers into the market.  Who helped guide you to where you are today and has writing or reading  been a driving force in your own life?

Not to sound cliché  or patronizing, but I’ve been guided mostly by my parents to work hard and believe in myself, and I’ve been guided creatively by my friends and peers, particularly my best friend and contemporary—my beacon of a wife, to follow my dream.  I’ve also been guided by countless teachers, writers, artists, and people of unmistakable (though sometimes misunderstood) honor to pursue an honest living.

As an undisciplined writer and reader with undiagnosed ADD and an aversion to truthiness (vs. truth), I am driven by the responsibility of raising the clout and visibility of this generation’s unrecognized seers—i.e., the distinct, undiscovered voices of meaningful prose and poetry with unpublished works tucked away in the recesses of their underwear drawer.  My hope is that I forever keep in mind the indelible impressions left by those who’ve suffered for art and justice, the proverbial (but oft times, literal) starving artist, who personifies our best-in-class and highest-in-integrity ancestors.

8.  Do you have any particular obsessions, literary or otherwise, that help reduce your stress levels or ensure you remain on track?

My main obsessions are the Mets, Jets, pasta, single-malt scotch, and the security and well-being of my family, not necessarily in that order. These all prove to consume my time, passion, and addictions, usually more so than any Anne Sexton stanza or Edward Abbey diatribe, though I have to admit I’m affected daily by the things I haphazardly pick up to read.  One of the benefits of dropping out of the corporate world is being able to justify just about any casual reading or new literary discovery with research.

9.  When you were a young man, what was your dream job?  What’s your dream job now?

Heavy question, but definitely fun to consider.  I dreamed of being a baseball player and a doctor, but mostly, I dreamed of being a writer because it was the only vocation I thought suited me.  Writers (those who prefer words to just about anything else) are traditionally ill-suited for most conventional careers, not to mention situations.  As I grow older and make compromises (not of integrity, but age- and lifestyle-related), I realize now I’d probably make a good government worker (e.g., contract consultant) who happens to own both a funky small press and a minor league baseball franchise that barely make a profit between them.  As long as I can keep the two businesses in the black, afford to buy a round of hot dogs with relish, and support the career of the next John Steinbeck, then I’m not only living the dream, I’m creating it, too.  And that’s a dream worth pursuing.

10.  If you could give new and local writers one piece of advice about finding a publisher, particularly a small press, to publish their work, what would that be and why?

Explore and loiter on websites and blogs that speak your language; travel in the same circles as the writers and indie presses you admire.  There’s little good in being a lone wolf; run with the pack.  Find a community, a tribe that’s rightfully yours, and claim your stake in it.  Read works (and reviews of books) by small presses of kindred spirits and burrow in their collective skulls a while; plant your thoughts there; read between the lines of their fictional characters; see if you’re cut out of the same tapered cloth.  Then introduce yourself.  Howl at the yellow moon.  Play nice and bare your crooked smile.  Compliment your peer’s efforts.  (We’re all in need of a hug.)  Think of the publishing world as one large playground and the kindergartners have turned it upside down.  The runts of the litter are beginning to twist the upturned noses of the intellectually stunted bullies.  Take part in this leveling of the landscape.  Celebrate the renaissance.  Join the indie movement.

Instead of closing with a shameless plug about Atticus, let’s close with this piece of advice from E.B. White whose writing has inspired me a great deal over the years: “Advice to young writers who want to get ahead without annoying delays:  don’t write about Man, write about ‘a’ man.”

Read E.B. White.   There’s more wisdom in that man’s one pinkie (on his writing hand, of course) than I have in my entire body.

So, what did we learn today from this interview?

I can tell you what I learned:  First and foremost that there is a Indie/Small Press publisher in my own backyard!  How fantastic is that! And this big publisher (at least in my mind because of its ideals) loves bloggers.  What else do we need to know?!

I hope you enjoyed the first stop as we celebrate Indie and Small Press this month, and if you couldn’t have guessed, this was another stop on the Literary Road Trip.