Category Archives: Literature

Escape from the Consumer Society: A Conversation with Mike Blue

Mike Blue is a talented writer even if you don’t agree with his philosophy: I don’t and that made for a great conversation between us – reported here on Impakter:

 

Our industrial society, ever since it began, has spawned fierce critics. Two of the best known lived in America: the transcendentalist Henry David Thoreau and the economist Thorstein Veblen. Thoreau gave us the definitive masterpiece of life in the woods with Walden in 1854. Later, in 1899, Veblen became famous with his Theory of the Leisure Class, a savage critique of “conspicuous consumption” depicting businessmen as modern-day “lords of the manor”. Now, following in their footsteps, we have Michael Blue, a young Australian author who has just published his own addition to the Thoreau and Veblen legacy: The Anatomy of Escape .

 

Anatomy of Escape ,book cover. It features the bus named Rosie in which the author lived in Sumatra while writing his book.

This is Michael Blue’s second book, the first was The Consumption Cleanse published two years ago, with  a long sub-title that said it all: “Giving up 13 consumption habits in 13 weeks for a better life and a healthier planet”.

The Anatomy of Escape, by contrast, is more ambitious. It is a crossover, partly memoir describing the high points of his own escape from the consumer society and partly guidebook telling his readers how to do it. In short, how to turn this kind of escape into a sustainable lifestyle.

Over the past year, Michael Blue has shared with Impakter several early drafts while writing his “escape” book. Choice pieces, like the explanation of why dogs always look happy (and cats don’t), the three-legged stool metaphor, or  what we can learn from Easter Island.

read the book and enjoyed it as much as I had enjoyed his articles for Impakter. But I wanted to know more. His desire to leave behind the consumer society in pursuit of happiness had always struck me as something out of the ordinary. It takes courage to abandon a career and choose to drift across the world.

When he wrote his articles for Impakter he was living in Indonesia, in an old bus converted into a house. Why do it? How to do it? His book provides answers, of course, but I still had more questions.

I got in touch with Mike and discovered that he had abandoned his bus.

He was now traveling across Colombia on a motorcycle, stopping now and then to write, nestling his computer in improbable places, including eagle nests with breathtaking views of the mountains. Eventually, we managed to have a long conversation that clarified many of my questions and doubts, here are the highlights.

Mike, I just finished your Anatomy of Escape and thoroughly enjoyed it. You have an original way to couch your ideas (e.g. the 3-legged stool! Dogs vs. cats!). It worked even in my case and that’s pretty amazing if you consider that I don’t really share your philosophy, at least not in full. While I share your distaste for the consumer society, I could never do what you’ve done, give up everything, leave behind home and family and live on the road. In short, drop out.

It might at first seem like that’s what I’ve done, drop out, but it wasn’t quite like that. I can see this clearly now in retrospect. Rather than dropping out, I feel like I have climbed out, out of the consumerism trap. And then I dropped in, if anything, to a life that I feel brings me so much more than it once did.

But climbing out of the “trap” as you call it, means giving up the lifestyle of the middle class, that I imagine you were born into. You are an accountant by profession, surely you had to give up a lot?

Read the rest on Impakter, click here.

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Filed under Book review, Literature, Literature, Sociology

#MeToo: Taking it to the Next Level

Also published on Impakter.

Here’s the opening:

Louisiana Catch by Sweta Srivastava Vikram, published by Modern History Press, 268 pages. Out on: 10 April 2018

This is a remarkable novel, a book for our #MeToo age.

To some it may look like another women’s fiction title, but it’s not. It goes beyond the recurrent themes of the genre – marriage, friends and the search for happiness, showcasing a strong woman who overcomes multiple obstacles. It brings home the universality of #MeToo, not an issue exclusive to America: It has become a number one issue around the world, India included. And it is a great read, the work of an exceptionally talented storyteller, with finely observed characters, unexpected twists in the plot and a deeply satisfying ending. This is a not-to-be-missed novel, including for those who do not normally read in the genre.

 Sweta Vikram iPiccy-collage

In my view, this book does something more: It adds a much needed, broader dimension to the #MeToo issue, shifting the focus squarely on sexual abuse. It’s not just a matter of recalling episodes of unpleasant groping and being threatened or blackmailed by an alpha male that can kill your career, your reputation or any hope you have for happiness. It is that too, of course, but it goes beyond. Sexual abuse is the one aspect of sexual violence that is unequivocally indefensible and morally deeply wrong, with no ifs and no buts.

And it does this in three ways.

One, the major event around which the story unfolds: A world conference on sexual violence against women – to be held in New Orleans, hence one of the reasons for the book’s title. There are others, and I shall come to them shortly. Ahana is charged with the organization of this conference, a task that is a big challenge and that pushes her to her limits. The conference logo she’s picked, No Excuse, is striking. In two words, it tells us we are facing the next level after #MeToo.

Two, the major themes in the novel: sexual violence against women and stalking/bullying on social media (in this case, in an online therapy group). These are deeply serious issues you find every day in the news headlines, yet they are lightly woven in the plot. And the author manages the feat of adding a new urgency to them – this is done through two intriguing characters, two diametrically different men, who erupt in Ahana’s life as she tries to organize the conference. And here we get to the other reason for the book’s title: Both men are from Louisiana, including the catfisher. And right until the middle of the novel, we can’t tell which of them is actually a ‘good catch’ for Ahana and who is the one ‘catching’ her in his net. One of them is not what he seems – hence the suspense.

Three, the viewpoint: The story is told from Ahana’s standpoint and Ahana is special. Highly educated, she comes from a wealthy upper-class Delhi family. She lives in two worlds, the traditional Indian one with all its customs, including the food and the gossiping “aunties”, and the Western one that she has been educated in. Tall and beautiful, an athletic yoga-practitioner, Ahana is recently divorced from Dev, a good-looking man but a sexually abusive husband.

Ahana is someone you grow to increasingly like and care about, and you find yourself wanting to tell her to stop, to be more careful about sharing personal stuff online. People throw up smoke screens, will Ahana see through them? Believe me, it’s a page turner.

Reading the book, I became curious about Sweta Srivastava Vikram, an author capable of creating such stunningly realistic characters, both Indian and American. If you peek at her bio, you discover she is of Indian origin, but she lives in America and has known entrepreneurial success in her own life just like Ahana. She has already had eleven books published, establishing her as a major poet – with only one of them (a novel) published in India, and she has won several awards.

Louisiana Catch is the first novel you publish in the United States. And you now live in New York with your husband. What inspired you to write this book? Any connection with your move to the United States?

Sweta Srivastava Vikram: Louisiana Catch is my 12th book but debut U.S. novel. My poetry books have been published in the U.S. before, but the novel is exciting on a whole different scale.

Louisiana Catch didn’t happen directly as a result of my move to the Big Apple. I moved to NYC about 20 years ago…

READ THE REST ON IMPAKTER, CLICK HERE.

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BIO: Sweta Srivastava Vikram, a graduate of Columbia University, was featured by Asian Fusion as “one of the most influential Asians of our time”. She is a best-selling author of 12 books and a five-times Pushcart Prize nominee. She is also a mindfulness writing coach, social issues advocate, and a certified yoga & Ayurveda counselor who helps people lead creative, productive, and healthier lives. Louisiana Catch is her debut U.S. novel and featured on U.K.’s list of “Books to Read in 2018.” Born in India, Sweta lives in New York City with her husband and in her spare time, teaches yoga to female survivors of rape and domestic violence.

Website          Twitter            Instagram          Facebook          LinkedIn

________________________________________

Featured Image Credit: New Orleans: French Quarter, Exchange Place – by wallyg flickr.com

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Filed under Book review, interviews, Literature, Literature, Sociology

If We Were Gods, Would We Be Happy?

My latest article published on Impakter:

If We Were Gods by Adam Karni Cohen, published by The Endeavour Press, July 2017 Book Review and Interview 

When I started reading If We Were Gods, I was wondering how Adam Karni Cohen, the author of this remarkable and bizarre love story-cum-family saga, could ever pull off the heavy referencing to the ancient world of Greek and Roman mythology. I was ready to be bored and expecting to classify this debut novel as yet another pretentious failure from an aspiring writer.

I was wrong, of course. This is the work of a master story-teller. Don’t be put off by the Roman gods roaming around in this book, they are not a bore or a waste of time. There’s nothing academic or pretentious about them. The gods you encounter here don’t slow down the storytelling, what they do is add a new dimension to it, refreshing and amplifying a common tale in our times. A love story between two university students from different countries and different cultures, in this case, Italy and the UK. We have Claudio Collina, son of a Verona industrialist, who came to study engineering in the UK and Jennifer who is an English med student. Claudio is a pivotal character, loaded with an intellectual baggage shaped by ancient Rome, he is the one living the ancient myths.  He befriends Chris, another British med student, and soon this becomes a “classic” love triangle.

Adam Karni Cohen took literally the classic element in this love triangle and elevated it to the main theme of his novel – thus turning it into something entirely new.

You don’t need to know anything about the triangle of love between Vulcan (the god of fire), Venus (his wife) and Mars (her lover) to enjoy the book. And as you read on, you discover that the author has woven more than a love story, this is the saga of two families, one in England, the other in Italy, and it spans decades and generations, as the story turns on Jennifer’s children, Anna, eighteen and her brother Sam, fourteen.

Sam is a particularly endearing character who, to alleviate the boredom of a summer vacation, plays at being a “detective”. He delves deep into his mother’s personal papers and there are times you feel like telling him to stop. But his relentless curiosity moves the plot forward and you come to enjoy the way the author delicately draws this teenage boy, with all his flaws, misguided ambitions and yearning to be loved.

This is an ambitious novel, finely structured and with multiple points of views. Remarkably, one key character central to the plot is one we never meet but only hear about: Claudio’s father, Federico Collina, who sounds like a ruthless startup entrepreneur (not an entirely lovable character but very real).  He has an outsize effect on his children, Claudio and Melissa, shaping their destinies.

If this all sounds complicated, it isn’t. The author pulls it off brilliantly, aided by a real talent for both story-telling and mastery of language. The reader is drawn in, the pace is relentless, this is a page-turner and a deep plunge into the human condition.

After reading it, I wanted to talk to the author and he kindly agreed to answer my questions.

Question: Literary agent Donald Maass wrote in his famous guidebook “the Breakout Novel” that a “truly BIG book is a perfect blend of inspired premise, larger-than-life characters, high-stakes story, deeply-felt themes, vivid setting and much more”. Your book checks all the boxes. Can you tell me how you came to your “inspired premise” and “larger-than-life characters” – in other words, why the mythology, why Claudio?

To read his answers on Impakter, click here.

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Filed under Book review, interviews, Literature, Uncategorized

What Turns a Police Thriller into a Bestseller? Lessons from Faceless Killers

Discovering Henning Mankell (here)

Let me start with a confession: I’m not a habitual reader of police thrillers and murder stories. Like everyone, I’ve read Agatha Christie when I was young, I’ve gone through all the classics from Arthur Conan Doyle to Ngaio Marsh but I’m not a fan, call me a dispassionate reader.
Why? Because too often, I can see through the plot and it all looks depressingly formulaic.

When Henning Mankell died this month (see this excellent article in the Atlantic Monthly, here),  I was reminded of his stature in Scandinavian literature – the Atlantic Monthly calls him the “dean of Nordic Noir“, with 30 million copies of his Kurt Wallander series sold since the first one came out, 25 years ago, in 1990.

Of course, I’m familiar with the character of Kurt Wallander, an ordinary, middle-aged policeman working in a small town in Southern Sweden, having seen several episodes of a series featuring him on ARTE TV. But now I wanted to find out more, I thought I would try and uncover the roots of his success by reading that first book in the Wallander series, the one that “made it”, with the arresting title Faceless Killers.

Here’s what I found – the main “lessons learned” to ensure that your next thriller is going to rise above the genre and make it as a global bestseller.

As you will see, there are only two rules to follow.

First, let me say it’s a great read, the pace never slackens. When it does slow down – as inevitably it must if you’re following a police investigation step-by-step, an indispensable aspect of making this novel realistic – then Kurt Wallander’s personal life butts in. He has problem with his senile, grumpy and lonely father, a landscape artist endlessly painting the same landscape, his cool wife Mona who has just left him, causing him to dream of making love to a black woman (inexplicably black but then dreams are not always explainable) and his complicated daughter Linda, an independent young woman who lives with her boyfriend from Kenya and can’t make up her mind about attending college. You get the sense that Kurt Wallander, ordinary as he is, has in fact a complex life and you, the reader, feel for him.

This observation leads directly to:

Rule #1: establish empathy with your main character – even if this is a police procedural and the implications are that police procedures and the thrill of the chase should trump characterization.

To transcend the genre and establish credentials as a genuine, world-class work of literature, follow Mankell’s example: develop your main character. Kurt Wallander soon becomes someone you feel you know, someone who goes through the same (often depressing) experiences so many of us go through our lives as a marriage grows stale, as a child turns into a rebellious teenager, as a parent slowly sinks into old age.

The other striking aspect of Faceless Killers is its social dimension. 

This is a book that has deep roots in Swedish society, and by extension, in the society of any advanced country that calls itself (like Sweden) a democracy, that believes it has humanitarian traditions. And it’s a book that does not shy from raising deep, uncomfortable questions. In fact, Mankell himself had lived in Africa and brought his own views to his books and the character Kurt Wallander. As he explained on his website,

“Racism for me is a crime, and therefore it seemed natural that I wrote a crime novel. It was after that the idea of a policeman was born.”

The book is peppered with Mankell’s personal opinions about racism and how refugees are viewed and ill-treated in refugee camps in Sweden. One, a Somali, father of nine children, while walking alone down a country lane near his camp, gets his head blown off  by a ruthless killer with an accomplice in a near-by car ready to whisk him away from the crime scene.

But the book does not merely “show”, Mankell is not afraid of “telling”, here are some examples:

  • [One character says:] “We have a refugee policy in this country that must be followed.” [The other answers:] “Wrong. It’s precisely the lack of  refugee policy that creates chaos.”
  • [Then this character amplifies his thinking]: “Right now we’re living in a country where anyone with any motive at all can come in anywhere in this country at any and in any manner. Control of the borders has been eliminated. The customs service is paralyzed. There are plenty of unguarded strips where the dope and the illegal immigrants are unloaded every night.”

Sounds familiar? Yes, it’s amazingly relevant to our own times and the current migrant crisis in Europe. Germany expects to have to take in one million refugees this year, Sweden less of course, but it is still a favorite destination of the millions of migrants pouring into Europe through Greece, the Balkans and Italy – most of them from war-ridden countries like Syria, Afghanistan and Sudan (Darfur, remember it?)

I wonder if any of those migrants has read Faceless Killers?

The book gives you the whole range of feelings – pro and against – caused by waves of migrants, here are a few more samples:

  • “For brief moments [Wallander] could also detect contradictory sympathies in himself for some of the anti-immigrant arguments that came up in discussions and the press while the trial was in progress [trial about the murder of the Somali man]. Did the government and the Immigration Service have any real control over which individuals sought to enter Sweden? Who was a refugee and who was an opportunist? Was it possible to differentiate them all?”

And then comes the conclusion, one that is haunting all of us these days in Europe as we watch waves upon waves of migrants entering the continent:

  • “How long would the principle of the generous refugee policy be able to hold without leading to chaos? Was there any upper limit?

Indeed, that is precisely what we wonder about now. And we are all like Kurt Wallander, who, as Mankell writes:

  •  “He realized that he harbored the same vague apprehension that so many other people did. Anxiety about the unknown, about the future.”

This is what makes this book so extraordinary, and enables it to rise above the “genre” of mysteries, leaving behind the usual tropes and reaching out to the level of “real” literature – not pure thrills, not entertainment for the sake of entertainment but applying a lens to reality that makes you understand reality better, and perhaps in a way you have never understood it before. In short, great literature.

And this brings us to:

Rule #2: Root your story in reality – address real life issues.

In this case, migrants, what to do with them, how to integrate them in our society. In a globalized world shaken by war and injustice, this is the kind of issue that will stay with us a long time. Think of it, Faceless Killers was written 25 years ago, yet the issues it raises are incredibly relevant to our situation today.

From BBC article: “What can Europe Achieve?” (see here)

You may wonder whether those two rules actually apply beyond thrillers and mysteries.

Of course they do!

In my view, applying those two rules to any genre novel will lift it to the level of
(a) a bestseller; and
(b) literature with a capital “L”.

You may make a lot of money with strictly genre books, selling by the millions like 50 Shades of Grey did, but you won’t reach the top. To achieve that, as Menkell shows, you need to go beyond mere thrills and open the doors of the real world for your readers, you need to make them think.

And you may ask, what is the benefit for you, the writer? Not much beyond some splendid obituaries like the one Henning Mankell got in the Atlantic Monthly or the New York Times and of course, why should you care?

But if you’re an activist who would like to see the world become a better place, then you do care. I know I do. How about you?

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Climate Change and the Collapse of Western Civilization

To anyone living in Europe, it is truly puzzling that Americans continue to deny Climate Change.  The anger, recklessness and vehemence displayed by American “climate deniers” are something of a mystery. And their favorite argument is that there is no scientific “evidence” of global warming – in spite of the rising number of “extreme” weather events, the floods, the fires and the melting ice, and some of it happening right on their doorstep.

Now, finally, two American scientists – one from Harvard, the other from the California Institute of Technology – have given us the key to the mystery.  Naomi Oreskes who is professor of the history of science and affiliated professor of Earth and planetary sciences at Harvard University and Erisk M. Conway,  an award-winning historian of science and technology at the California Institute of Technology, have used in their latest book, The Collapse of Western Civilization, a remarkably effective dramatic device. Instead of writing a standard analysis, they have set it in the future, giving it the detached, objective tone of scholarly work. It is intended as the fruit of research by a future scientist looking back on our time and trying to figure out the factors that “explain” how global warming caused the collapse of Western civilization. The year is 2939, and what bothers our future scientist is how the United States, the most powerful country on Earth, was, in spite of its power, unable to reverse climate trends.

Don’t be put off by the dramatic subject. This is a book packed with humour that will make you smile (or perhaps snigger?) and the book description in the Kindle Store perfectly captures the spirit of it:

 “a senior scholar of the Second People’s Republic of China presents a gripping and deeply disturbing account of how the children of the Enlightenment, the political and economic elites of the so-called advanced industrial societies, entered into a Penumbral period in the early decades of the twenty-first century, a time when sound science and rational discourse about global change were prohibited and clear warnings of climate catastrophe were ignored. What ensues when soaring temperatures, rising sea levels, drought, and mass migrations disrupt the global governmental and economic regimes? The Great Collapse of 2093.”

The book is clearly a success on Amazon. This is the ranking (as of February 1, 2015):

And it has already garnered 178 Amazon customer reviews. On Goodreads it got 305 rankings (average 4 stars) and 91 reviews. The mainstream media also paid attention to it, in Nature, Scientific American, the New York Times and probably many more that I missed.I particularly liked this comment from Elizabeth Kolbert, the author whose The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History I’ve reviewed in an earlier post. This is what she has to say: “Provocative and grimly fascinating, The Collapse of Western Civilization offers a glimpse into a future that, with farsighted leadership, still might be avoided. It should be required reading for anyone who works — or hopes to — in Washington.”

Yes, can we sway our politicians  or are we destined to perish like the Maya civilization? A few decades of drought, causing an economic collapse and internecine fights, were enough to turn the once-splendid Maya cities into ghost towns by the time the Spanish conquered Mexico. Of course, our civilization is global and it will take much more than a few decades of drought to kill it off. But then, Climate Change is a much more massive event…

Maya site: Palenque

I was so moved by this read that I wrote a review (now on Amazon) that I’m happy to share here:

5.0 out of 5 stars A Powerful Read and a Wake-up Call, January 20, 2015
Delightful read if one may be allowed to use that particular adjective when the subject is so grim. And the authors, two science historians coming from the best universities in America (Harvard and the California Institute of Technology), managed the feat of making serious analysis read like fiction. A real page-turner. Yet it’s not fiction, far from it. The book is in fact reviewing what’s wrong with our society, pin-pointing with deadly accuracy the reasons why we are unable to stop our “civilization” from rushing to “collapse”. This is a book that should be taken seriously by anyone concerned with our future, and in particular by our political leaders.

The idea of analyzing what is happening in the climate change debate from the standpoint of the future (the book is purportedly written by a future historian located in China in 2393) is particularly effective as it gives a neutral, balanced voice to the whole account. And it is refreshingly novel. The fact that it is short (a mere 100 pages) no doubt also helps. This is both a powerful read and a wake-up call. I found the arguments particularly convincing and being an economist, I especially liked the twist they put on economic concepts, for example, Hayek’s and Milton’s “neo-liberalism” calling it “market fundamentalism” (indeed, those theories are ideologies rather than scientific) or “gross national product” amusingly described as an “archaic” concept.

The humor is there but it is ultimately very dark humor. The message is clear. If we don’t do anything, if we don’t reverse engine and control gas emissions, we are doomed and why this is so is masterfully demonstrated. Many factors are at play and the authors pull them together in a compelling way, using the detached tone of a future historian who is puzzled by the fact that Western Civilization could not avoid collapse in spite of its remakable advances in science and technology.

The reasons for our failure to address climate change are clearly analyzed and deconstructed – and suddenly, reading this brilliant essay, I began to feel like the Mayas must have felt when decades of unexpected drought destroyed their civilization, causing economic collapse, local wars and social chaos. Just like in the case of the Mayas, the reasons we are failing are all linked to each other – to global warming of course, but more importantly, to the way we handle it (or rather do not handle it – we simply deny it’s there).

The book is at its best in explaining exactly why we deny climate change, in pointing to the “internal” causes, things that lay at the heart of our civilization, things that made it once great and that are now causing its fall – like, for example, “reductionism” which is the idea (that began in Descartes’ time) of solving large problems by breaking them down into smaller, more “tractable” elements. The approach has proved powerful to advance knowledge but as the narrator coldly remarks “reductionism also made it difficult for scientists to articulate the threat posed by climate change, since many experts did not actually know very much about aspects of the problem beyond their expertise.” As a result, scientists did not speak in a single voice, climate change continued to be denied, fueled by the interests of the “carbon-combustion complex” – another witty take on Eisenhower’s famous “military and industrial complex” – and political leaders thought they had more time to address it than they really had.

Other contributing factors are also identified, such as over-reliance of scientists on the concept of statistical significance (also termed an “archaic”!) – something that had never occurred to me before and yet totally makes sense. And this is yet another reason why I loved this book: the authors managed to shed new light and come with new insights on an argument, climate change, that I tend to consider “closed”, in the sense that I can’t imagine what more could be added.

Actually, although I gave it 5 stars, I don’t think the book is perfect. It falls in two areas, as I point out here:

There are only two aspects I regret, one, is the reference to just one climate fiction novelist (there are many, climate fiction is a brand new genre and rapidly rising with the likes of Margaret Atwood) but of course, the authors have a right to their own likes and dislikes in fiction; the other, is the premature burial of the United Nations following the collapse of international talks on climate change at some point in the mid-21st century. Personally, I view such a collapse totally unlikely – the United Nations are here to stay, they are indispensable and most likely to preside over the collapse of our civilization rather than being buried before…But those are minor details and don’t detract from the main strengths of this excellent book, which is to unravel the puzzle of climate denial.

Highly recommended.

Yes, regarding the United Nations, I do think the authors got it wrong. The road is long and difficult, but the United Nations could well be the one institution that will help to wake up the world to the danger and save Western Civilization from collapse! But I do take it on board that the authors were writing a worse case scenario and therefore had to somehow delete the UN from the equation.

As to the idea that we will experience Global Collapse as soon as 2093, why not? I suspect it is a little early, but I could be wrong on that one. In any case, in my own book about the future (Gateway to Forever), the story starts in 2222 and global warming is not longer a subject of debate, it’s a fact. Why did I chose that date? Because I rather like the numbers that repeat themselves (!). And I didn’t want to fall in the error Orwell made with his 1984 which was far too close to his publishing date (1948)… But then, he too liked to play with numbers and simply reversed them!

Naomi Oreskes rock climbin at Jackson Hole 2011 (photo Andy Tankersley)

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Filed under Cli Fi, Literature, non-fiction, science fiction

Tom Chalmers, Founder of a Publishing Ecosystem – Interview

Another interview I did under my real name for Impakter magazine. Here it is:

TOM CHALMERS – A COOL ENTREPRENEUR

on 5 December, 2014

In less than ten years, starting when he was 25, he built a whole publishing eco-system ranging from fiction and non-fiction to licensing rights

Tom Chalmers is young, perhaps the youngest UK publisher in a generation. In 2005, he was just 25 when he started Legend Press, a fiction publishing house. This was soon followed by a series of publishing companies, one for business (Legend Business), one for non-fiction (Paperbooks Publishing), one for self-publishing (New Generation Publishing) and one for writer events (Write-Connections) – all of them brought together in 2011 in the Legend Times Group while a licensing platform (IPR License) created in 2012, remains completely separate.
All these endeavors run the whole gamut of publishing and cover both traditional publishing sectors and the more technologically advanced digital areas like e-books and self-publishing. IPR License that uses the Internet to reach out to clients is perhaps the most original, and certainly, in terms of travel for the staff, the most demanding.

Mr. Chalmers is a very private individual, when I asked him for a personal picture as Impakter does not use promotional pictures, he said he didn’t have any personal pics to hand and suggested to use the one where he is speaking in China. He is the kind of person who goes at it alone, doing everything pretty much on his own.

Tom speaking pic
In short, a cool, collected and determined entrepreneur. He kindly agreed to answer a few questions for Impakter and here are highlights of a long and fruitful interview.

To read the interview, click here.

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Filed under genre fiction, interviews, Literature, writers rights

Elizabeth Jennings, Romantic Suspense Author and Founder of the Women’s Fiction Festival – Interview

Another article of mine on Impakter magazine, an interview of best-selling author Elizabeth Jennings who also founded the Women’s Fiction Festival in Matera eleven years ago. I attended this year’s Festival and had a chance to interview her – she is married to an Italian and lives in Matera (see photo below, she is presiding one of the discussion panels, surrounded by writers, from left, self-pubbed American authors Debra Holland, Tina Folsom and Bella André).
 Elizabeth Jennings (in red) on the Festival’s podium presiding a panel

Creator of a Unique Writers’Conference in Italy

on 10 November, 2014 at 08:56

Elizabeth Jennings has many namesakes. If you search for her on Google, you’ll find a deceased English poet, an African-American activist and more, but there is only one Elizabeth Jennings, the bestselling romantic suspense writer who lives in Italy and created the most successful writers’ conference on the European continent, the Women’s Fiction Festival held every year in Matera, Italy, since 2004.

How come such a difficult-to-reach, small town like Matera hosts such a well-known cultural event?

Matera, with a baroque center like so many in Southern Italy, became known in 1993 when it was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site for its “Sassi” district, one of the oldest continuously inhabited settlements on earth, a spectacular series of dwellings hewn in the rock forty thousand years ago.

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But the Sassi are not the answer, though they no doubt make the stay in Matera something to remember. And neither is the fact that Matera has just been nominated “Cultural Capital of Europe for 2019”, beating Lecce, Siena, Ravenna, Cagliari and Perugia to the honor. Indeed, one of the elements that moved the European Commission to choose Matera over its rivals was the Women’s Fiction Festival itself and its enduring success.

So the explanation for the Fiction Festival is to be found elsewhere – in Elizabeth Jennings herself, her dynamism and extraordinary entrepreneurship.

Read the interview here.

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Filed under genre fiction, Literature

Speculative Writing: the Next Big Trend in Publishing?

The Book of Strange New ThingsOver the week-end something big happened to our culture. The Book of Strange New Things by Michel Faber was reviewed by Marcel Theroux for the New York Times (see here).

So what, you may ask?

First, the reviewer, Marcel Theroux is someone worth listening to. He is a successful broadcaster and author in his own right. The son of American traveler and writer Paul Theroux, he works in television (for example, in 2004, he presented on Channel 4 The End of the World as We Know It, part of the War on Terra television series about climate change). His fifth novel, Strange Bodies, won the the 2014 John W. Campbell Memorial Award. Not unsurprisingly, this is a speculative novel that explores identity and what it means to be truly human.

Two, this is not Michel Faber’s first book, but his eighth – he has written in many genres, and  his brilliant debut novel, Under the Skin, that also happens to be sci-fi like this latest one, was shortlisted for the Whitbread when it came out (in 2000). Under the Skin inspired a fascinating movie that came out in 2014, directed by Jonathan Glazer and starring Scarlett Johansson.  Here’s a video clip that highlights how profoundly different this movie is from the usual sci-fi run:

It is basically, a search for identity, and yes, you “don’t want to wake up dead!”

Reading Marcel Theroux’ s review of The Book of Strange New Things, you can tell he was knocked off his feet. For those who don’t like sci-fi, Theroux says, “give it 10 pages, it doesn’t start with aliens, it’s about a man going on a long journey to a planet light years away and saying good-bye to his beloved wife.”

Indeed. Here are the first lines from Chapter 1, Forty Minutes later he was up in the sky:

‘I was going to say something,’ he said.
‘So say it,’ she said.
He was quiet, keeping his eyes on the road. In the darkness of the city’s outskirts, there was nothing to see except the tail-lights of other cars in the distance, the endless unfurling roll of tarmac, the giant utilitarian fixtures of the motorway.
‘God may be disappointed in me for even thinking it,’ he said.
‘Well,’ she sighed, ‘He knows already, so you may as well tell me.’

It is so real, so human! Isn’t that just the sort of thing you say to your loved one as you go off on a trip?  This sort of fiction is linked to the here and now, as we live it, with our anxieties and doubts, our loves and regrets.

The key descriptors here are “possible” and “plausible”. That very plausibility is what turns this kind of sci-fi thriller into emotion-laden explorations into the human condition. Our Earth is recognizable but it’s much worse, battered by climate change and geo-political instability. And in that sense, this book links up with the basic tenets of climate fiction,  a rapidly rising genre, ever since Dan Bloom coined the term in 2008 (and he’s a vocal part of the debate in that New York Times piece, Room for Debate, published in July 2014).

Theroux in concluding his review of The Book of Strange New Things  reveals how he really feels about it and let me quote him:

Since the critical and commercial triumph of Hilary Mantel, the historical novel is newly respectable. One hopes that Michel Faber can do something similar for speculative writing. Defiantly unclassifiable, “The Book of Strange New Things” is, among other things, a rebuke to the credo of literary seriousness for which there is no higher art than a Norwegian man taking pains to describe his breakfast cereal. As well as the literature of authenticity, Faber reminds us, there is a literature of enchantment, which invites the reader to participate in the not-real in order to wake from a dream of reality to the ineffability, strangeness and brevity of life on Earth.

This amounts to a major recognition of the speculative dimension of science fiction that has been often ignored, as millions of readers have become entranced with Star Wars and Ender’s Game. However, the escapist, irrealistic aspect of this kind of sci-fi has also turned off just as many people. Result?  Sci-fi has become classified as a commercial “genre”: pure entertainment and nothing else.

Will Faber, with his book, help to make sci-fi  “respectable”, repeating what Hilary Mantel did for the historical novel?

I believe he could, because, in fact, Faber is not alone in doing this. Other major writers are doing it too, in particular  Margaret Atwood (MaddAddam Trilogy, inter alia) and Barbara Kingsolver (Flight Behavior). Of course,both writers are also considered climate fiction authors, but Margaret Atwood for one has always argued that her fiction is “speculative”.

In my view, regardless of terminology, this is speculative writing of the highest order – it ties back to the founding masters of the speculative sci-fi genre, George Orwell (1984) and Aldous Huxley (Brave New World) who always started from highly plausible premises. And that’s why their books fascinated and scared a whole generation that was feeling under the threat of totalitarian communism.

Today, we are under the threat of global warming with big corporations that won’t do anything about it (because they profit from fossil fuels); we witness increasing geopolitical chaos, especially in the Middle East but other places too as Islamic Jihad spreads; we watch helplessly as income inequality takes hold everywhere, including in places like the United States, where chances for the young to “make it” are growing slimmer by the day unless they were born into “big money”.

Speculative authors (like myself) take this world of ours as the starting point for our fiction. And we try to look into the future to figure out what awaits us and our children.

Given current trends, where are we going?

Such questions need to be asked. And as our world continues to unravel, they will become evermore urgent.

That is why speculative fiction is going to be the Next Big Trend in Publishing.

Just one sad last note: Michel Faber has told the press (see here) that he won’t write another novel, he’s been shaken by the loss of his wife Eva who died of cancer as he was putting the last touches to The Book of Strange New Things. I sincerely hope he will change his mind, it would be a terrible loss to literature.

Post Scriptum: If you’re curious about this kind of fiction, my own speculative novel (just published) is free for 5 days, starting today November 4, don’t miss the chance, I’m not going to do it again! Click here to grab your copy before it’s over.
We mortals dream of immortality. What if there was another option? The power of money could make the difference. A few win, the great majority loses, but humanity is saved, or is it?

Gateway to ForeverExcerpt from reviews:

– A prophetic view of our future. Compelling from start to finish (Lit Amri)

A cast of characters that range from fascinating to despicable (Marsha Roberts)

– A very plausible future, scarily plausible (Bob Rector)

Published May 31, 2014. 326 pages.

UPDATE ON FREE CAMPAIGN:

On Day One (November 4): 264 units were downloaded and that shot the book up to:

Major author and playwright Bob Rector (who reviewed the book, see here) just posted the following on his Facebook page:

Great opportunity to grab one of my favorite books for free. If you like storytelling at its very best, I urge you not to pass this up.

Thanks, Bob, I hope many will follow you and read the book. And I know you love Alice, the protagonist of whom I made a portrait, so I am including it here:

Alice in the desert

 

 

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Filed under Cli Fi, Literature, science fiction

Women Make the Difference Everywhere

Here’s another article just published on Impakter under my real name, Claude Forthomme – memories of the days when I worked at the United Nations, traveling to developing countries, to inspect and evaluate aid projects, trying to sort out problems:

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Diary of a UN Official #3: When Women Make the Difference

on 27 October, 2014 at 10:31

Guinea-Bissau, October 1990, I don’t remember which day. But I remember how it was that morning when I woke up. Hot, very hot, the way it is in the tropics, damp and cloying, with a low sky of dark clouds, like a lid. I got out of my room, with just a bathrobe on, and ran to the nearest mango tree – the hotel I was staying at was very simple, just a handful of bungalows of two rooms each, set in a large, unkempt garden, no flowers, a lot of mud. But so many mangoes, greenish yellow, with a juicy, golden flesh, the perfect breakfast. I went into the bathroom to carve out my mango with a multi-bladed Swiss knife I always carried with me (back then you could taken them aboard planes). The sweet juice dripped all over the sink. I reflected how in Bissau, there are mango trees everywhere, heavy with fruit; all one has to do is look up and grab one, they’re free – a little like living in paradise.

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But Guinea-Bissau back then (and even today) is no paradise. It is one of the poorest countries on earth, more than two thirds of the population lives below the poverty line on less than two dollars a day. If Guinea-Bissau threatens these days to become a narco-state, this is no surprise.  Guess what, even when I was there, most people, some 80 percent, earned whatever living they could scrape from agriculture, mostly rice (to feed their families) and cashew and ground nuts (for export).

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I knew all about this, before coming, I had done my “due diligence” to prepare myself for my evaluation mission. Little did I know that in a few hours I would live through the most extraordinary and unforgettable experience in my life as FAO Evaluation Officer.  The project was ending, the question I had to answer was, should it continue, a standard question at the end of a project cycle. I had read about the country’s problems after it became independent from Portugal, how the Portuguese Colonial War had led to a  rapid exodus of the Portuguese civilian and military authorities, and like any war, had wrought considerable damage to the country’s economic and social infrastructure. With continuing political instability, the standard of living had collapsed and while Guinea Bissau had been a net exporter of rice in colonial times, now it was a net importer. And for years there had been no vegetables or fruit (except for mangoes) in the capital – a small town of some 150,000 people (more than double that number today). That had changed with the project I was meant to evaluate. A horticulture project, started a couple of years before, it was meant to provide the town with vegetables. It was a very small project, less than one hundred thousand dollars of expenses in two years. Peanuts. Compared to the big problems the country faced, what was the point of it? How could it help? Was another extension really needed? But I was beginning to revise my opinion.

For the rest, link to Impakter. Expect a very surprising end to that story!

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Filed under Literature, memoirs

How Good is Patrick Modiano, the New Nobel in Literature?

The Nobel jury seems to be able to discover new writers you’ve never heard of, coming from countries that have a literature you have never read, like China, Egypt or Turkey and everytime, it’s a real pleasure to discover something totally new. So when the Nobel this year went to a Frenchman I had never read – and I do read regularly French literature –  I was totally floored and rushed to buy one of his books. In French, of course.

I got “Rue des Boutiques Obscures” because I thought it was a take on the Rome address of the old Italian Communist Party (now PD, Partito Democratico). As everyone in Italy knows, it’s “via delle botteghe scure”. But no, this book has nothing to do with the Communist Party or any party for that matter.

Patrick Modiano is not interested in politics, he’s into the past, and a particular past at that, all the dark years around and during World War II, and most of his stories are set in Paris. In short, a very local, circumscribed author.

Yet, in spite of that, the themes he predilects are universal, they focus on the question of identity and self. This book, which came out in 1978, the year he won the prestigious Prix Goncourt, was quickly translated into English by Daniel Weissbort, under the title “Missing Person” – actually one of the few books he wrote that got translated. It is published in the United States by a small indie press owned by David R. Godine and of course it is available on Amazon (see here). That’s where I got it – but I was able to find the Kindle version of the French original, to pass onto my 100 year-old mother who still reads a novel per week on her Kindle; incidentally, she was very happy to get it, she likes to keep abreast of the latest literary news…This said, I’m a little surprised that Amazon, ever so efficient, hasn’t got a digital version of the English translation all ready for the American public. Quite clearly, both Mr. Godine and Amazon were taken by surprise by the Nobel jury!

He wrote some 20 books in a career that spanned  nearly 45 years (he was born in 1945). As I am now writing this blog post, I just learned from an article in the Washington Post (here), that “Missing Person” is the book Peter Englund, a historian and the permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy, recommends to readers unfamiliar with Patrick Modiano.  “It’s a fun book,” Englund said. “He’s playing with the genre.”

And the genre he is playing with is mysteries. A detective, suffering from amnesia, sets out to recover his identity, following a variety of strange leads. As described on the Godine site:

In this strange, elegant novel, winner of France’s premier literary prize, Patrick Modiano portrays a man in pursuit of the identity he lost in the murky days of the Paris Occupation, the black hole of French memory.

For ten years Guy Roland has lived without a past. His current life and name were given to him by his recently retired boss, Hutte, who welcomed him, a onetime client, into his detective agency. Guy makes full use of Hutte’s files – directories, yearbooks, and papers of all kinds going back half a century – but his leads are few. Could he really be the person in that photograph, a young man remembered by some as a South American attaché? Or was he someone else, perhaps the disappeared scion of a prominent local family? He interviews strangers and is tantalized by half-clues until, at last, he grasps a thread that leads him through the maze of his own repressed experience.

On one level Missing Person is a detective thriller, a 1950s film noir mix of smoky cafés, illegal passports, and insubstantial figures crossing bridges in the fog. On another level, it is also a haunting meditation on the nature of the self. Modiano’s sparce, hypnotic prose, superbly translated by Daniel Weissbort, draws his readers into the intoxication of a rare literary experience. 

I’d like to recall here a very astute comment made sometime back by Anne Korkokeakivi, writing for THE MILLIONS, where she noted that French novels tend to be “… dark, searching, philosophical, autobiographical, self-reflective, and/or poetic (without being overwritten).” Patrick Modiano’s “Missing Person” precisely fits this description. It is all these things, dark, searching, self-reflective and yes, poetic.

Consider the first lines:  “I am nothing. Nothing but a pale shape, silhouetted that evening against the café terrace, waiting for the rain to stop; the shower had started when Hutte left me.”

Amazing, isn’t it? The opening sentence is just three words, but how they resound. I am nothing. That is of course the whole theme of the book. What comes next is a poetic evocation of someone barely there, uncertainly watching the rain. And the last part of the sentence immediately makes you want to know who is this Hutte – someone with a strange name if there ever was one.

Yes, that is how a master storyteller starts a novel, and I guarantee that you will be turning the pages as fast as you can. And you will be wondering as the main character follows clues that turn out to be non-clues, and you will find yourself perplexed as he attempts to start conversations with people who take him for…who? Really him or someone else? This is done very subtly, especially at the level of dialogues, the kind one carries on with people one barely knows. But can one ever really know the other and oneself? So yes, the book is presented as a mystery, but the mystery is the main character…

And to answer my own question: How good is Patrick Modiano? Very good, five stars, I highly recommend it. And I think you’ll be happily surprised what a short read it is too, featherweight, a little over 200 pages.  A small perfection…

Patrick Modiano

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Filed under Literature