Author Archives: Fiction Advocate

HITTING SHELVES #21: The Last Pilot by Benjamin Johncock

The Last Pilot

The Last Pilot by Benjamin Johncock comes out today!

It’s a deceptive novel: a book about flying that is actually about fatherhood; a book about the Space Race whose protagonist is a dropout from the program; a book about an iconic period in American history by an author born in England; a book about technological triumph that hides a family tragedy. More than any other account of our first adventures in space, The Last Pilot puts a sympathetic face on the domestic hardships behind the scenes.

We asked the author one question.

How are you celebrating the publication of The Last Pilot?

Benjamin Johncock

Benjamin Johncock

I wasn’t expecting today to be so emotional. My wife and I celebrated when we got the book deal, over a year ago, and then she threw a surprise party for me at the beginning of the summer. But, but, well; there it is. It crept up on me over coffee and Novel 2 this morning. It’s been a long way, but we’re here, to quote Al Shepard. What an extraordinary privilege it is to be published. My wife has just messaged me to say she’s bought champagne, steaks, and she’s lighting a fire in the garden where we’ll eat later, when the kids are asleep. We’re going to raise a glass to a few people tonight, because I’d rather give thanks than celebrate. The list is large for the road was long. Someone once told me that thanksgiving gives buoyancy for the inevitable tough times—of which I’m sure there will be plenty. If you ask me, self-celebration leads to self-elevation, which leads to becoming an a-hole. And here’s the thing: as soon as you start to think you’re great, the needle on future prose goes down. Self-doubt is your friend. No writer should ever lose the fear of being crap. I certainly don’t intend to. But tonight, we’ll take a moment, in the quiet, under the stars, together.

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HITTING SHELVES #20: Speak by Louisa Hall

Speak Louisa Hall

Speak by Louisa Hall comes out today!

It’s the story of artificial intelligence: why we create it, what we can do with it, and how it makes us human. Written in the form of primary documents by a cast of characters throughout history—including the diary of a Puritan girl on a ship bound for America, the personal letters of Alan Turing, and the memoirs of a tech entrepreneur in the year 2040 who’s been imprisoned for breaking the law—Speak is a novel of uncanny breadth and ambition. And depending on how the next few years play out, it might also be a very useful guide to staying human while technology evolves around us.

We asked the author one question.

How are you celebrating the publication of Speak?

Louisa Hall: I’ll launch Speak at the lovely Harvard Bookstore in Cambridge. That morning, I’ll wake up in a hotel room and try to persuade myself that it’s just another regular day, because I’ve always hated special occasions. When I was little, I cancelled three consecutive birthday parties on the day of the party. After that, my Mom stopped planning celebrations. Even now, as an adult, I generally have a complete panic attack the morning of a celebration and inevitably try to cancel it, usually too late, when the guests are already arriving, or after they’ve had their first drink.

Louisa Hall

Louisa Hall

What I love about writing is that I get to wake up every morning and spend time alone with my thoughts. Sitting with my characters in the silence of my bedroom is my favorite kind of party. I like imagining conversations that won’t ever happen. Actually, that kind of one-sided talking is sort of what Speak is about. Most of the characters spend a lot of time talking long after their chosen audience has given up and gone off. I’m interested in that kind of conversation. There’s something lonely and luxurious about devoting so much of yourself to language that isn’t immediately taken up. You have time to polish every word, to make your side of things perfect. You don’t have to worry so much about the hurtful errors that happen when you’re speaking in real time. Isaiah Berlin once told a friend that he preferred speaking to writing because spoken words vanish into thin air and don’t linger to embarrass you later. I feel the opposite. Embarrassing, thoughtless, or cruel spoken words do linger forever, and the risk that you’ll make a mistake is less when you’re writing. I’d like to live in a world in which every meaningful conversation is submitted in advance on a nice sheet of paper.

So on the morning Speak comes out, I’ll probably drink coffee alone in my room. I’ll work for a while on my next book, then spend some time wandering around Boston. I’ll be reluctant to head to the launch despite the fact that Harvard Bookstore is one of my favorite places on earth. On my way there, I’ll probably consider ways of canceling the event. I’ll tell myself it would be more in keeping with the spirit of the book to read it out loud to nobody. I’ll imagine writing a very nice apology note.

But in the end, I’ll go in, and as soon as I’m inside, I’ll be glad that I’m there. Bookstores are the best special occasions. They’re full of thousands of characters speaking to no one, millions of thoughts polished in silence. They’re lonely and luxurious in the same way writing is. Bookstores and the people inside them are devoted to words for which responsibility has been taken. I’ll realize that this isn’t an event with me at the center, but a celebration of words that don’t vanish, and I’ll be very glad to be at the party.

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Napoleon’s Other Waterloo

The Death of Napoleon

The 200th anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo is coming up on June 18. If you are a history buff, and you want to understand this momentous occasion a little better, there are plenty of books to choose from. If you are a fiction buff, there is only one: The Death of Napoleon by Simon Leys, first published in French in 1986 and newly reissued by NYRB Classics in a translation by Patricia Cleary.

It’s not hard to imagine that Emperor Napoleon, with his network of military loyalists, could have smuggled himself out of exile on the island of St. Helena by sneaking in a body double to take his place. And, further, it’s not hard to imagine his plan going terribly wrong in one way or another, leaving an elderly Napoleon stranded on the European mainland under a false identity, roaming the new world that his conquests have created, trying desperately to get himself back in the game. That’s the plot of The Death of Napoleon, anyway. Continue reading

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5 Questions for Angela Readman

Don't Try This at Home - Angela Readman

“I cut my boyfriend in half” are the first words in Angela Readman’s debut collection of stories. From there it only gets weirder. In “There’s a Woman Works Down the Chip Shop,” a mother turns—inexplicably—into Elvis. A girl helps her father with bizarre taxidermy in order to save the family in “The Keeper of the Jackalopes.”

Don’t Try This at Home includes the story that landed Angela Readman on the short list for the Costa Short Story Award in 2012, and the story that won it for her in 2013. You can read some of her best work here and here.

We asked the author 5 questions.

What do you think your readers think of you? Are they right? Continue reading

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The Crackpot Romantics

Auguste Dupin

Edgar Allen Poe’s early mystery stories are the inspiration for The Black Cat by J.M. Geever, a novel that Fiction Advocate is proud to publish. They are also an inspiration for the world’s most famous sleuth, Sherlock Holmes. In his new book, The Great Detective, Zach Dundas offers a popular history of Sherlock Holmes, which begins with this origin story about Edgar Allan Poe.

“With ‘The Murders in the Rue Morgue,’ ‘The Purloined Letter,’ and ‘The Mystery of Marie Roget,’” Paul Collins [an Associate Professor of English at Portland State University] told me, “Poe starts the tradition of the mystery that centers on a singular, charismatic detective, one who works outside the system and solves the mystery by observation and deduction rather than random chance.” Poe’s stories revolve around a Parisian oddball named Auguste Dupin. Significantly, his nameless and subservient roommate acts as narrator. When I later burrowed back into these numbers, all published in the 1840s, for the first time since high school, Dupin and his buddy struck me as obvious embryos of Holmes and Watson—though, this being Poe, they are significantly weirder. They live together in a giant, decaying mansion, keep the windows shuttered all day to produce artificial night, a.k.a. “the sable divinity,” and lounge about reading creepy books and going into crackpot-Romantic trances. Mrs. Hudson would have to clean the place out with a flamethrower.

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A Stranger in My Own Country by Hans Fallada

A Stranger in My Own Country

Is there an ethical voice in German literature in the 1930s?

Among the Oscar nominees this year (which included no shortage of Nazi tales, including Fury and The Imitation Game) Wes Anderson’s Grand Budapest Hotel serves as Hollywood’s sweeping take on “fascism, Nazism, prison, uplift.” His whimsical anti-fascist flick is solemnly dedicated to the work of novelist Stefan Zweig, who fled the rise of the Nazis and, despairing at the rise of Nazism, killed himself in exile. Anderson tries to sum up the age at the end of the film, in an elegy to the fair and uptight concierge of the hotel: “To be frank, I think his world had vanished long before he ever entered it—but, I will say: he certainly sustained the illusion with a marvelous grace!”

Anderson has no obligation to realism, and yet speaking in epochs prevents his characters from feeling like regular people grounded in time and space. The concierge and his lobby boy are like mythological figures that illustrate history from a vantage point in the present. Real people don’t see themselves through such grand narratives.

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Gender in Cold Worlds

The Left Hand of Darkness

I first read Ursula LeGuin’s The Left Hand of Darkness in eighth grade, and though for the years following I called it one of my favorite books, I couldn’t have given a very solid account of the story or its meaning.

I learned the word “envoy,” and the next few stories I would write, in pencil on lined notebook paper, featured alien envoys navigating a stubborn planet. I didn’t know enough about sex to recognize the power of omitting it from daily life, as LeGuin’s androgynous inhabitants of the planet Gethen do, but I wrote about big-headed green aliens who reproduced through a sort of meditative mind-meld, which I suspected to be more evolutionarily sophisticated than the mess of feelings and fluids that my own species engaged in. I didn’t know enough about the cold to recognize how it creates a bond among those who endure it together, as it does between the novel’s two central characters as they traverse the planet’s desolately beautiful ice fields, or its power to remove sex from the equation. What I recognized, and kept with me, were these words from the book’s introduction: “I talk about the gods, I am an atheist. But I am an artist too, and therefore a liar. Distrust everything I say. I am telling the truth.”

And that, for an adolescent trying on artistry and atheism, was enough to make the book a favorite—story, metaphor, and meaning be damned.

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Mislaid by Nell Zink

Mislaid

FA review tag

Nell Zink’s newest novel, Mislaid, has the official Jonathan Franzen seal of approval. The front cover blurb indicates that Franzen sees Zink as “A writer of extraordinary talent and range.” This is true, yet my dominant thought as I read the book was not “here is talent, here is range, here is writing at its best,” but rather, “this book is going to piss a lot of people off and I’m not sure whether it’s worth it.”

The novel opens with a description of Stillwater College, an all-girls school that is not a direct parody of either Wellesley or Sarah Lawrence. Yet, as is soon revealed, it is the typical picture of a women’s liberal arts college, full of bull-dykes and radical feminists and man-haters, which stereotypically amounted to the same thing in the 1960s and ’70s when the early sections of the book take place.

One of the main characters, Peggy Vaillaincourt, is everything her rich parents don’t want her to be. Within the first few pages of the novel, we find out that Peggy “was intended to be a man,” that “girlhood was a mistake,” and that she is a “thespian” (by which Zink means to convey a mishearing of lesbian). She is only happy many years later in life when she tells herself, in a moment of clarity, “You idiot… You’re a femme!” Only then does she find true love and happiness, when she wears pantyhose and makeup. I can already hear the roars of dismay from various factions of the feminist and LGBTQIA communities; as someone who considers herself a part of both, it is often hard to remember that the novel’s irreverence toward political correctness is (probably) purposeful. Whether it is satirical, however, is harder to decipher.

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