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Gavin Extence on Kurt Vonnegut

Kurt VonnegutWhen the world loses a literary icon, it can be difficult to imagine that the void can ever be filled again. Of course, we have our book collections to comfort us as we revisit our old favorites, and if we're lucky, we continue to discover new details with each reading. Still we mourn, knowing that nothing truly new will come from them again. Sometimes, however, we stumble upon something that reminds us that while an author's written work lives on for us as readers, it continues to inspire new generations of writers, as well.

The Universe Versus Alex Woods, one of our Best of the Month picks for July, is such a book for me... as it relates to my own all-time favorite storyteller, Kurt Vonnegut.

This debut work by British author Gavin Extence stars an epileptic space-buff outcast; it details the tragedies and hilarities that come with most journeys from boyhood into young adulthood, and then takes it further. Extence makes no attempt to hide -- in fact he makes every attempt to emphasize -- the immense influence that Vonnegut had on him as a reader and as a writer.

In the personal essay that follows, Extence explains his own relationship with Vonnegut's writing and the lessons he's learned about writing as a result.

Gavin Extence It's a rare treat when you find a book that holds you rapt from the first page -- something that isn't merely enjoyable, but touches you on a much deeper and more personal level. For me, one such book was Kurt Vonnegut's Breakfast of Champions. There was something about Vonnegut's voice -- the sheer oddness of it, I think -- that really spoke to me. My own imagination was set running, and continued to run long after I'd finished reading. I kept thinking about the weird mixture of insight and faux-naivety, the almost childlike quality of Vonnegut's writing, and how this offered such a fresh and funny way of looking at the world.

That reading experience sowed the seed of my debut novel. I knew, long before I had a plot or fleshed-out characters, that my narrator, Alex, was going to be a strange, smart, and rather innocent teenager -- someone who would share the off-kilter point of view I admired so much in Breakfast of Champions. And this was just the beginning. There are many other ways in which Kurt Vonnegut's writing influenced my own -- far too many to list here. Instead, for the sake of my word count, I'll restrict myself to sharing just the following points. These are the key lessons I learned from reading Kurt Vonnegut:

The Universe Versus Alex Woods

1. Don't be afraid of simplicity. Often, the simplest way of saying something is also the best. This is particularly true when dealing with big, 'complicated' ideas. You don't have to be wordy and obscure to say something profound.

2. Explain things -- even the 'obvious'. This is important. Explaining things (characters, events, phenomena) promotes understanding and stops us from taking the 'everyday' for granted. Lots of human behavior seems funny or absurd once you start trying to explain it. 

3. Engage your reader. Talk to your reader directly, as if you're having a conversation. Writing should convey personality.

4. Comedy and tragedy are two sides of the same coin: humor can be a source of great pathos, and tragic circumstances, viewed from a certain light, can be extremely funny. Use humour to deepen emotion (and vice versa).

5. You don't have to write emotionally to evoke emotion. Sometimes, a much greater poignancy can be achieved by being matter-of-fact. When it comes to death and disaster, less is more.

All creative writing starts as imitation. We learn to speak through mimicry, and I don't think that learning to write is all that different. To create original stories, you first need to understand how others use language to build narrative. Put slightly differently, I believe that the best lessons in creative writing come from reading -- as deeply and widely as possible. Reading teaches you big, important lessons about what makes your own imagination tick, and trying to write the sort of fiction you love to read teaches you even more. It shows you what works for you and what doesn't, what comes naturally and what you struggle with &ndash what you can and can't do. And it is from this process that your own voice starts to emerge.

--Gavin Extence

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YA Wednesday: Happy Birthday, Harry Potter (and J.K. Rowling)

Okay, so I know Harry Potter is not a YA book (though they did get progressively darker, no?) but since Harry's birthday falls on a Wednesday this year, and I have these cool new covers to share, I figured, why not?  And in case you aren't up on your Potter trivia, Harry and his creator, J.K. Rowling, share their July 31st birthday.  That's handy...

In just a few weeks something big is happening with the series--Harry's getting a makeover.  If you love the Mary GrandPré covers you grew up with, no worries, they aren't going away, but are being joined by new paperback editions with covers designed by graphic novel author and illustrator, Kazu Kibuishi (which I'm loving).  The new editions aren't available until August 27, but here's a look at a few of them, along with the originals--what do you think?

HP1_new_cover  HP4 HP6

HP1_old HP4_Old HP6_old

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The Last of Us with Neil Druckmann (Part Two)

Spoiler Alert! The Last of Us is a new, bestselling video game for the PS3 that has players talking about its secrets, reveals, and fascinating storytelling. In this interview, we do not delve too deeply into specifics, but general plot and characters are discussed. The Last of Us is best enjoyed with as little information as possiblefair warning!

In Part One of our interview, Neil and I discussed character storytelling within video games, and in this final installment we discuss Dark Horse's The Art of The Last of Us and forthcoming graphic novel prequel, Neil's influences, and what lies ahead in The Last of Us universe. We covered storytelling, characters, and backstories, but what about locations? In particular, I loved the Bill’s Town “stage,” but players do not stay there, or in any location, for long. It’s one thing to design a game with a sense of urgency, but these levels all have such depth—more than any one player can explore upon first visit. How do you balance design and storytelling?

Neil Druckmann: It’s really difficult. You have to know that you are going to create more content than any one player will ever see—but also knowing that there will be nooks and crannies that one player will find that his or her friends do not. There might be a garden that you discover, which kicks off a conversation about “garden gnomes” with Ellie, and you think, “I never would have heard this if I hadn’t stumbled upon this location. And I understand [Ellie] more as a result of that.” It’s a constant struggle, because the more stuff like that you create, the more of a burden you are putting on the team to build. It’s a balance, where you ask yourself, “Is it okay if 30 percent of players find this, if 40 percent of players find it? What if it’s five percent—when is it too little?”

You try to save the really meaty storytelling for the main path, and the further you explore beyond the main path, the more secondary and tertiary the storytelling. But if you do find those layers, I believe you gain a deeper appreciation for the characters and world that we’ve created.

Omniv: Right. There are notes between unseen characters that can be collected and read, along with other subplot threads that can only be accessed by exploring. In the bookstore stage, I noticed faux film posters and advertisements. Who created these posters and who wrote the notes that characters can discover?

Neil Druckmann: It’s a team effort. The notes were written mostly by our editor, Ryan James, and me. The movies posters were [a result of] background artists coming up with stuff. The only one I did was “Dawn of the Wolf,” and then a bunch of things, like the store names and stuff, is between the art director and the background guys. I’ll just filter it out if it’s a little too satirical or if it takes you out of the experience.

Omniv: One sequence that felt very new to gaming was the upside-down moment that occurs early in the game. When it comes to designing and planning these sequences, are they a subversion of familiar gaming mechanics or do they stem from some place wholly different from that?

Neil Druckmann: It starts from pacing. We know that if you experience the same thing over and over again, you get diminishing results. We have to constantly switch things up. That could be with story, characters, environment, or it could be with this “set-piece moment” that—no pun intended—flips the script [laughs].

The idea with [the upside-down] moment was that each level has its own theme, and by that I mean we are trying to tell two stories: the story of Joel and Ellie, and over each location how their story grows in some specific way. In the case of Bill’s Town, they start out where [SPOILER character] dies, and they do not trust each other very much. We knew that during this level Ellie was going to have to prove herself to Joel. Out of a brainstorm, we thought, “So, what if Joel was stuck inside one of Bill’s traps?”

Bill was this paranoid guy who set up all these traps, and it would be up to Ellie to save Joel and then up to Joel to clear a path for Ellie. Again, it’s a situation where they have to rely on each other while switching things up for the player. Set-piece mirrors story while complementing characters.

Omniv: The Last of Us also gains depth through character design, and the art book states that “Iteration is an integral part of the Naughty Dog [Studios] process.” Can you elaborate?

Neil Druckmann: Yeah, that idea goes beyond characters. Nothing is precious. Nothing is too good that it cannot be thrown away if the project will benefit from it. In this instance, we’ve thrown away whole designs for the Joel character. He was fully modeled but it didn’t seem right within the context of the game, so he had to be redesigned, re-thought, re-modeled and re-integrated into the game. There were situations where whole cinematics were finished and then [we] realized that the whole game would benefit more if that scene were integrated into gameplay. So, we scrapped the whole cinematic and built a level up from scratch.

From the first day I arrived at Naughty Dog, I saw that we constantly make these really hard choices in service of the project. We’re all slaves to the final experience, and no one’s ego should get in the way—and that’s where the “iteration” statement comes from. We’ll keep cranking away until someone says, “Stop. It’s time to ship the game. You’re done.”

Omniv: Speaking of iterations, there’s a forthcoming graphic novel from Dark Horse Comics that serves as a prequel to The Last of Us game. What should fans expect from this project?

Neil Druckmann: In the game, we get to see some of Joel’s backstory—his family, how he enters into the story—but we don’t’ get to see this with Ellie. When Dark Horse presented us with the opportunity of telling another story, it became intriguing to tell the backstory of Ellie and the events that led her to enter into this journey. The graphic novel is called The Last of Us: American Dreams, and it takes place one year before the events of the game. We get to see Ellie living within the Quarantine Zone and what it’s like to live within a military school. She doesn’t have the options that we do—she can’t be whatever she wants; she has very few choices left. She meets a character named Riley, and the two bond over their similar aspirations of wanting more than what this Quarantine Zone affords them. Riley takes Ellie on a quest to escape the Quarantine Zone, and that’s the thrust of the story and the 24 hours it takes place in.

Omniv: With this graphic novel, you’ve added another notch to your career as writer. Who are your influences, your favorite storytellers?

Neil Druckmann: [Laughs] How much time do we have?

Omniv: How about your Top 3?

Neil Druckmann: Okay. From comics, the one that comes to mind is Brian Michael Bendis. I really enjoy his stuff. His run on Alias was one of my favorites, and I kind of got into writing because of him. He published a script book for some of the stuff he did for Powers, and he talked about reading Story by Robert McKee and how that set the rules for him. So, I started reading that and it influenced the type of stories I wanted to tell.

From books, obviously Cormac McCarthy is a big one—The Road and No Country for Old Men were big influences on The Last of Us. Another one is David Benioff, who did City of Thieves, which was maybe the biggest influence on the tone of the game. It’s historical fiction about these two survivors living in Leningrad during Worth War Two. They are charged with a crime, but a general needs to find a dozen eggs for his daughter’s wedding cake, and he says that the two thieves will be freed if they can find eggs in this impoverished city in 24 hours. If not, they will be executed. It’s this beautiful, human story about two survivors, and they run into cannibals, Nazis—it’s funny and dark all at the same time. I love it; it’s one of my favorite books ever.

From film, obviously the Coen Brothers are huge. They break the traditional story structure, and their characters always have so much depth. It’s always so inspirational to watch.

Omni: As we discussed prior to this conversation, I’m halfway through the game, so please, no spoilers—

Neil Druckmann: Sure.

Omniv: But fans seem to be split on what they want once they finish The Last of Us. Some want a sequel, while some want it to remain self-contained. Ideally, what would you like to see?

Neil Druckmann: Well, you make a game like this and you just don’t know. You don’t know if people will like it or if it will be successful. So, you never know if you will have a chance at a sequel, so we never left any threads dangling. Here’s the story we wanted to tell, and we told that story. Now that it is successful and people do love it we have a choice to make. Do we take the chance and make the Matrix 2 of video games?

Omniv: [Laughs]

Neil Druckmann: Or, are we able to find a story in this world that reflects back on the first story and make The Godfather 2 of video games? We don’t know yet. The only thing we have committed to is single-player DLC [downloadable content] that expands a little bit on the story and world. It’s a short story, and if you play it you gain insight into the larger journey. After that, there are some ideas floating around. Some of them are intriguing, but there’s nothing really solid yet. We’ve always said that if there’s something that really grabs us for the next 3-4 years, we’ll follow it. If not, we’ll go off and make some other world.


Many thanks to Neil, Naughty Dog Studios, and Dark Horse Comics for this insight. Now, back to my sleepless nights!



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Handpicked: Our Most Anticipated Books For Fall

The biggest season in publishing approaches! In anticipation of an amazing array of books in every genre, we're proud to present The Big Fall Books Preview.

In addition to the Top 20 Books of Fall, where we look ahead at the blockbusters to come, each of the Amazon Books Editors has chosen one special selection, an under-the-radar release that we're rooting for. For each, we offer a special post including interviews, essays, excerpts, exclusive photos, and even a music playlist.

Without further ado, we present our Editors' Picks:


    Sara Nelson selected: My Notorious Life by Kate Manning

  • Go here for a chapter excerpt

    Jon Foro selected: The Mushroom Hunters by Langdon Cook

  • Go here for exclusive photos from the author

    Mari Malcolm selected: Provence, 1970 by Luke Barr

  • Go here for exclusive photos from the MFK Fisher archive

    Chris Schluep selected: Johnny Cash by Robert Hilburn

  • Go here for an exclusive interview with the author

    Neal Thompson selected: The Maid's Version by Daniel Woodrell

  • Go here for an exclusive interview with the author

    Robin A. Rothman selected: Parasite by Mira Grant

  • Go here for an exclusive interview with the author

    Kevin Nguyen selected: The Night Guest by Fiona McFarlane

  • Go here for an exclusive guest essay from the author

    Seira Wilson selected: Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell

  • Go here for a playlist

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An Excerpt From "My Notorious Life" by Kate Manning— A Big Fall Books Preview Selection

Kate Manning's My Notorious Life, is a big, fat, fierce novel loosely based on the experiences of a midwife in 19th century New York. Historically detailed, politically astute but never preachy, it begins with a scene so provocative we dare you to try to stop reading.

My Notorious Life will be available September 10, 2013.





It was me who found her. April 1, 1880. The date is engraved on my story same as it is on the headstone, so cold and solid there under the pines. What happened that morning hurts me to this day, enrages me still, though many years have passed.

My Notorious Life

The time was just before dawn. She was there in the tub. It had claw feet, gold faucets. Marble was everywhere in that room, so magnificent. A French carpet. A pair of velvet settees, a dressing table, candelabra, powders and pomades, all deluxe. I knew something was wrong right away. When I knocked I knew. There was not no noise of bathing, just that slow drip. That plink of water landing on water, so dreadful. I went in and there she was. A scarf of red across her shoulders, down her chest. The water was red and cold with all her life leaked out. A bloodbath. My hands were trembling. Terrible sounds strangled in my throat, quiet so as not to wake the house. My little daughter and my husband were fast asleep. The maid was not yet up.

Mother of God she was dead. I collapsed down at the vanity reeling and keening. I couldn’t look but I had to. The scene was reflected so clearly in the mirror, and strange, how it was serene, almost. She seemed at rest. The way her hair fell you did not see the red cut. You saw the profile of the nose, the chin. She was a bather in a painting, so peaceful, but I hated her for what she done to herself. Even after how I cared for her so long. She would be my undoing now, too, not just her own. Who would believe a suicide? They would say I killed her. They would write me again in the headlines, as Murderess. Hag of Misery. She-devil. How they’d lick their chops. They’d come for me with their shackles and their oakum and their lies, then put me away for good unless by some conjurer’s snap I could get her poor corpse out of the water and away down the stairs and out to Fifth Avenue to disappear. It was the very morning of my Trial. I was due in court in three hours.

What could I do? What would happen to me now? If I could change places with her. The thought came to me. If only it was me dead there in the water.

I imagined it, picking up the knife.

My troubles would end. I’d not be a grief to anyone. If only I was dead. These ideas raced now through the panic. I looked again in the mirror at her reflection over my shoulder and seen all of a sudden how it wasn’t a bad resemblance. Our age was close enough. That black hair. And it was the mirror, that morning, the way we were doubled in it, that shown me the way to my escape.

Fast, I took the rings off my fingers. The gems from my ears. I put them on her. Her skin was wet and cold as fish, a shock to the touch. The diamonds sparkled on her delicate dead hands, on the collops of her lobes.

Why? I asked her, silent as I worked. But I knew why. Why was not the mystery.

There was not no choice. They would come for me. I ran now. I packed a bag. A reticule filled with cash. He helped me with it and kissed me goodbye, both of us afraid.

—Hurry, he said. —You got no time to waste.

My throat closed with panic and sadness. But I left him to it, my husband, to carry it off, to say it was me dead in the bath. He’d know what to do. He took the risk of it. He knew people. He had connections of influence. They’d believe him. He said we’d find each other later. There was no choice but to trust him. She was dead and the traps would be knocking any minute. There wasn’t no other way. I went out the back door in a hat and veil, which was nothing special at our address. Ladies was always coming and going in their veils and disguises, the curtains of their victorias drawn. Half of them would have worn mustaches or pup tents, anything not to be recognized departing from my notorious parlor. I went east across Fifty Second Street on foot, as it would not be advisable to use the driver. My carriage was well known as myself in all parts of town. I got on the omnibus down the Avenue, and from there I was off to the railyards, to book a ticket.

Meanwhile at the so-called Halls of Justice downtown, my enemies was coiled snakes lying in wait. How eager they was to see me in the dock at last. How disappointed, how outraged they would be, to receive a telegram from my lawyer with the news. The case was a bust. Stop. The accused was dead. Stop. Madame DeBeausacq a suicide. At first they scoffed and pshawed under their preposterous hairy mustaches. It was somebody’s idea of a joke, they said. They noted the date: April 1. They were sure that soon I would show up so they could smite me with their sanctimony and their outrage. But I did not show up, and soon half them toads had a new theory. That I was murdered, that a Tammany hoodlum snuffed me out to hush me up, to kill my society secrets along with me. Whatever they thought, the b*****ds was stunned out of what wits they had, which was not many. In the end, they celebrated. They bragged. They got me, was their feeling. Finally they got me. They said I would take my secrets to the grave.

They should be so lucky. The grave under the white pines at Sleepy Hollow has its own secrets. She died to keep hers safe. But I’m d****d if I’ll keep mine. Here they are, written out from the beginning, from the time of my early life and up till now.

As for them c**ks***ers, I have just one thing to say: APRIL FOOL.

Learn more about My Notorious Life and see more in Amazon's Big Fall Books Preview.

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Personal Photos from Langdon Cook, Author of "The Mushroom Hunters"— A Big Fall Books Preview Selection

TMH_jacketTo write The Mushroom Hunters: On the Trail of an Underground America, Langdon Cook spent several years in close company with commercial foragers—laboring alongside them, sharing camps in the bush, and documenting their secretive work from patch to plate. The result is a detailed, hard-won account of the men and women who bring wild fungi to market. With a cast of iconoclastic characters and echoes of the Wild West, the book tells the story of itinerant pickers and buyers who seem like throwbacks to an earlier era, scratching out a living in the country's most remote forests. Some are refugees from war-torn countries; others are exiles from the Old Economy. The author's personal photos, paired here with brief excerpts, depict a rough-hewn subculture in a truly American vein, one that is inevitably contrasted by the final creation on a restaurant plate.

The Mushroom Hunters will be available September 10, 2013.



Meet Doug Carnell, a year-round commercial mushroom harvester, with a handful of hedgehog mushrooms


To say Doug is a woodsman is to make an easy understatement. Doug has worked as a logger, sure, but he's also served in the military, pounded nails, cut steel, and captained a crab boat. When you drive around the Pacific Northwest's moldering timber communities with Doug in his five-hundred-dollar midnight-blue Buick Century sedan, you spend a lot of time waving to the people you pass, all friends or former colleagues: shake rats, long-liners, Cat drivers, metal scrappers, and those three old coots jawing outside the general store. He might spin a yarn about the ghost of a little girl who haunts Willapa Bay's oyster flats or point out the eroded tops of cedar posts used long ago as an Indian salmon weir. He's skied with Olympic medalists and sold peaches for profit. He's been thrice married and thrice divorced. But, above all, Doug is a mushroom picker.

Doug's friend Jeff Lacey with fall porcini mushrooms


Hanging out with this pair reminded me of the sort of male camaraderie that develops in close quarters. You'll find it in school dormitories, on fishing boats, in the military. Old pals, they knew each other's foibles and weaknesses all too well and exploited them in an ongoing raillery of inside jokes, ragging, and general good-natured BS. They talked about women, football, and more women. Neither one was a paragon of the married life, and they goaded each other endlessly about their exes and sins of the flesh.


Doug and Jeff sell their harvest to Jeremy Faber, proprietor of Foraged and Found Edibles, shown here slicing porcini in half to check for insect infestations


Faber set his portable electronic scale on Sang Tran's kitchen counter, zeroed it out with an empty basket, and got to work. He moved about the kitchen with a barely contained intensity, like someone who's had too much coffee and maybe a few candy bars, though he's skinny as a rake. When he wasn't talking to Sang, he mumbled aloud a litany of things he'd forgotten to do that day or would need to do later when he got home—well after midnight—sounding like nothing so much as a human Post-it. Within minutes, word circulated around the neighborhood, and a line of mostly Asian men appeared at the back door, holding overflowing baskets: golden chanterelles, porcini with caps the size of softballs, scarlet lobsters, and the odd cauliflower mushroom, looking like something that might wash up at high tide.


As Faber grades and weighs another basket of mushrooms, the pickers' wives anxiously watch their profits ebb and flow


The pickers arrived one after another: Cambodians, Lao, Hmong, Mien. This was the main reason Faber had come to Raymond: to buy several hundred pounds from a community of mostly first-generation Southeast Asians who foraged in their adopted Pacific Northwest nearly year-round. Virtually all of them had been touched by war. Many had military backgrounds or grew up in military families. They had been anti-communists, rebels, guerrilla fighters, U.S. allies, and finally refugees.


A taste of spring: Chinook Salmon with Pinot Noir Sauce & Morels


Parked in front of a white tablecloth in a trendy Manhattan restaurant, a curious diner might pause to wonder how all this came about. Not long ago, on a snowy evening near Central Park, I browsed the menu at one of New York's finest eateries. The quail came with black trumpets. Shaved truffles sexed up a celery root agnolotti. The garganelli corkscrewed fetchingly in a morel cream sauce. The menu was dotted with calligraphied references to chanterelles and porcini, like little colorful caps poking through the forest duff. The fungi, it turned out, even outnumbered the fish. Such riches would have been unimaginable a generation ago.


A matsutake mushroom buyer working out of a shipping container on the outskirts of Chemult, OR


Wealthy Japanese wanted their matsutake—and they had to look abroad. Demand went up and buyers started bidding wars. Prices went off the rails, briefly topping six hundred dollars per pound for number-one buttons. A gold-rush atmosphere took hold, and the fact that many of the Southeast Asians carried guns was not lost on anyone, notably the media. Newspapers reported sensational stories of running gun battles in the woods, social ills in overcrowded camps, and a general Wild West ethos more appropriate to the O.K. Corral than to Crescent Lake Junction.


A Mexican crew relaxes after a day of picking mushrooms near Sisters, OR


Mexican crews started to arrive by the vanload. “How you doing?” Faber said to the boss man of one crew, giving him the soul shake. Faber was suddenly in a good mood, giddy even. He was raking it in. The boss man, surprisingly clean cut and wearing a white straw cowboy hat—he was probably the driver and translator—looked confused. Who is this crazy white guy? “I'm okay…” he said tentatively. “Do I know you?”


Jeremy Faber and award-winning chef Matt Dillon in the kitchen


Matt Dillon can remember when he actually had a day or two off and could go picking. He remembers getting his tires slashed while picking matsutake with Jeremy Faber near Mount Rainier. Or the feeling of driving up to a gray and misted ferry terminal with a carload of wild mushrooms after spending a couple of days on the Olympic Peninsula. “I'd have hedgehogs, a few matsutake, some chanterelles, some yellowfeet, maybe a couple cauliflower mushrooms, all sitting in the trunk of my car in mushroom baskets I'd borrowed from Jeremy. It's raining, it's mid to late October. It's cold out. I'm in my rain gear, drinking hot cocoa, my dog in the back.” Matt Dillon and Jeremy Faber were best friends now, but it wasn't always like that…

TMH_9 Doug picking a golden chanterelle patch, Olympic Peninsula, WA

If the hedgehog is the underdog of wild mushrooms, the matsutake an exotic foreigner, and the king bolete royalty, the chanterelle is a preening starlet on the red carpet, hoping—praying—for one more Peoplecover. Despite its romantic twirl off the tongue, you'd think the chanterelle was practically domesticated—an off-the-shelf French floozy Halloween costume. Is there an A-list wild mushroom that gets less respect among the mycoscenti, after all, than the chanty? Like an overexposed model, it has the faint whiff of “been there, done that” among connoisseurs. Well, I for one wouldn't kick a golden chanterelle out of the kitchen for getting around, and apparently I'm not alone.










The sun rises over Manhattan as Jeremy Faber loads 300 pounds of Oregon chanterelles at Newark Airport into his delivery van, some of them bound for New York's four-star restaurants such as Del Posto


The orecchiette came with a lamb-neck ragu, sage bread crumbs, and carrot puree. Fusilli was tossed with lobster. A type of pasta known as agnolotti—“little envelopes with something good inside,” remarked the waiter—was served with a filling of Grana Padano and Tyrolean speck and a broth punched up by black truffles. And those were just the first courses, or primi. For the secondi I ate a perfectly cooked veal chop, sliced into medallions and garnished with caramelized chanterelles. The meal was rich, surprising, abounding in flavors—and much, much more money than any of us was accustomed to spending.


TMH_11Mycologist David Arora with the iconic psychoactive mushroom, Amanita muscaria, Mendocino, CA

 Meeting up with Arora had been my idea. Somehow I knew that he and Doug would have plenty to talk about, though I hadn't anticipated the myriad connections they would share from three decades on the mushroom trail. People, places, events: They talked a common language, and Arora's sharp memory helped elucidate long-forgotten details in the foggier corners of Doug's head. We sipped cups of hot tea, and Doug told Arora about his biggest payday, the matsutake pick of the early 1990s, when prices went crazy.












Plates of truffle-infused salumi at the Oregon Truffle Festival

The cooks, tattooed and pierced like a crew of treasure-seeking pirates, sailed up and down the line, brandishing their mandolines like sabers, shaving paper-thin rounds of black truffle over the plates in quick staccato bursts. A second course of creamy red and white quinoa served risotto-style with a Riesling-poached egg, shaved coppa, wild winter herbs, lemon-thyme emulsion, and shaved white truffles had me reeling. Uncle, I wanted to cry, putting my face in the dish to suck in its delights, but it was too late: A meat course of white-truffle-roasted beef short ribs with white-truffle potato puree, salsify, and beet jus was already before me.











Mushroom picker, northern British Columbia


Back at camp, Faber started to organize the buying part of the operation. He had baskets arranged all around the SUV, and it didn't take long for pickers to see them as they drove by. A new buyer was in town. They approached cautiously at first, not wanting to commit, with one main question: How much?


Wild food entrepreneur Jeremy Faber picking morels


Faber plays both sides of the wild foods business: He's a picker and a buyer. Most of the time he's busy driving around the Northwest, buying from a carefully cultivated network of pickers so he can sell directly to restaurants or at farmers' markets. When the pick is good, though, he'll be out in the field himself, alongside his pickers, trying to boost his margins. He'll tell you that's the only way to make money in this business. You've got to be willing to get dirty.


The author with fifty pounds of morels on his back, Yukon Territory


Jeremy Faber called me out of the blue on a Thursday afternoon. It was late June. He had a simple question for me: Did I want to go to the Yukon tomorrow? All along I'd talked about how much I wanted the wilderness picking experience, the military-style campaign of pulling mushrooms out of the bush and rushing them to market against the clock. Here was my chance. This wasn't some token “wilderness” in the Lower 48, surrounded by towns and roads. This wasn't a nice little forest preserve. Weren't there grizzlies up there? What if I got lost? These were the questions on my mind. Equally worrisome: Would I measure up? This last question was the worst of all.

Learn more about The Mushroom Hunters and see more in Amazon's Big Fall Books Preview.

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Photos from the Era of "Provence, 1970" by Luke Barr— A Big Fall Books Preview Selection

Provence_jacket At this past spring's BookExpo, Clarkson Potter gave me a preview of their exceptionally beautiful and inventive cookbooks for fall. Luke Barr's Provence, 1970 stood out: they rarely publish food lit or bios, so it was already special, but they clearly adored this book, and when they explained its story and origins, the hairs on my arms stood on end. I felt like I was being handed a long-lost diary that promised access to what had to be one of the most fascinating, consequential moments in American culinary history (which, yes, happened in France).

Over the long last weeks of 1970, the era’s true tastemakers--Julia Child, M.F.K. Fisher, James Beard, Simone Beck, and Judith Jones, among others--found themselves gathered in Southern France, where they cooked, feasted, and talked deep into the night, arguing about technique and taste until loyalties were redrawn and opinions reinvented. Decades later, Luke Barr, M.F.K. Fisher’s grand-nephew, discovered journals and letters recording conversations and details of their dynamics, and he set about recreating this time of improbably wonderful convergence. He succeeds with elegance and gusto.

At our request, Barr has selected photos--from the Shlesinger Library at the Harvard's Radcliffe Institute--to give you a preview of the marvelous world of this book. You won't actually find these photos in the book, but when they arrived, I thought "Yes--this is exactly how I imagined these people, in that place," a testament to the evocative quality of Barr's prose. I also realized that I felt genuine gratitude for these people, the visionaries who believed so deeply that Americans could eat just as well as, or better than, the French that they spawned a movement of simply delicious food and cooking. When prepackaged food fails to satisfy our soul (or even our bodies), they keep calling us to the table, imploring us to cook and enjoy great meals with friends. And amid our own feasting, talking, arguing, and laughter, we can almost feel the Provençal sun warming our backs.  

Provence, 1970 will be available October 22, 2013.





M.F.K. Fisher at Last House, in Sonoma County, California. The house was built during her trip to Provence in the fall and winter of 1970. “I’m about to make a real break in my life,” she wrote in a letter to a friend just before she left, as she contemplated the future.

MFK Fisher at Last House


Richard Olney and Simone “Simca” Beck, in the garden at Olney’s Provencal estate in the early 1970s.  He had pioneered a new, bohemian style of cooking, and had little respect for Julia Child and the rest of the American food establishment.

Olney and Simca

Julia Child on the terrace at La Pitchoune, her vacation house in Provence, in the early 1970s. At home in Cambridge, MA, she and her husband Paul were “invaded by telephone, telegraph, and letter, by peeping people, news editors, food writers, television tipsters, photographers, High School Year Book interviewers, cooking utensil salesmen, almond growers, fish experts, oven salesmen, restaurateurs, orchardists.” At La Pitchoune, on the other hand, they could forget their intense American life and be quiet and anonymous.

Julia Child at La Pitchoune

James Beard at La Pitchoune, early 1970s. Beard was the godfather of the American food world, and a frequent visitor at the Childs's vacation house. In 1970, he was enrolled at a nearby diet clinic, hoping to lose weight, and working on his opus, American Cookery.

James Beard at La Pitchoune

Julia Child and Simone Beck in Provence in 1970. Volume two of their hugely influential book, Mastering the Art of French Cooking, had just come out, but their relationship was strained. This would be their final book together.

Julia Child and Simca

Bert Greene, James Beard, and Julia Child cooking together at M.F.K. Fisher’s Last House, in Sonoma County, in the late 1970s. Child, Beard, and Fisher remained lifelong friends, seminal figures in modern American cooking.

Bert Greene, James Beard, and Julia Child

Learn more about Provence, 1970 and see more in Amazon's Big Fall Books Preview.

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Robert Hilburn Talks About Johnny Cash— A Big Fall Books Preview Selection

515rDaYukBL._SY300_Robert Hilburn's upcoming Johnny Cash: The Life is one of the Fall books I'm most excited about. Hilburn knew Johnny Cash throughout his life, and his book is well researched, appreciative, and clear-eyed. Cash is one of the most authentic guys you'll find in music, and this book makes that clear–Cash had a lot of problems in his life, and he caused problems for others who were close to him, but he remained a man of genuine artistry and empathy.

Robert Hilburn was kind enough to answer some questions about Cash and I'm thrilled to share that interview here.

Johnny Cash: The Life will be available October 29, 2013.


Chris Schluep: You were at the Folsom Prison concert. What was that like, and did you have a sense at the time that you were partaking in something historical?

Robert Hilburn: I was just getting started as a freelance music writer for the Los Angeles Times and I thought the idea of writing about Johnny Cash—the man who wrote "Folsom Prison Blues" actually singing the song at Folsom State Prison—was a natural. To my surprise, an editor at the paper rejected the idea. His words, "We don't want to give any space to that drug addict." And that was Cash's reputation at the time. He missed so many concerts that his own record label, Columbia, refused to invite press to the date; the last thing they wanted was another "no show" article. But I heard about the concert through a Los Angeles disc jockey and, after getting my editor to change his mind, found myself the only music writer on the scene.

The show was spectacular. Cash was as charismatic as anyone I had ever seen on a stage. More importantly, he conveyed grand artistry and purpose. Rather than simply do his regular show at Folsom, he tailored a set list specifically for his audience. Because of his own troubled lifestyle, he empathized with the prisoners. He knew how it felt to stand before his loved ones in handcuffs and to face the future without hope—and he reflected those shared feelings in his music. I left Folsom with a standard of artistry that I applied to performers for the rest of my years as a pop critic. I didn't know the album would open the door to superstardom for Cash, but I knew it was a classic moment in American pop culture.


CS: How do you feel he was misunderstood as an artist?

RH: Cash was more troubled in his personal life and more influential in his professional life than even his biggest fans realize—and it was that mixture of career accomplishment and frequent personal turmoil that was at the intersection of Cash's story and legacy. The drugs were just the tip of the iceberg in the story of Cash's troubles. Even more daunting was his lifelong guilt over having abandoned his four girls and his failure to fully live up to his spiritual ideals. At the same time in a profession where success is measured almost exclusively in hits, Cash wasn't a singer whose ambition was another hit on the jukebox. He wanted most of all to make music that lifted people's spirits, especially the downtrodden. Cash's music was rooted in folk and country, but his recordings eventually reached all the way into rock and even hip-hop circles. There was something wonderfully universal about him.


CS: You knew Johnny Cash through his life, but you also did a lot of research for the book. What's an example of something that surprised you about him while you were performing your research?

RH: One of the first things I learned about Johnny is I had to double-check everything he said: He wasn't one to let facts interfere with a good story. He wasn't so much trying to mislead people as make the stories more colorful. One of my favorites involved the writing of "Folsom Prison Blues." Though Cash said time and again that he wrote the song in 1951 after seeing a movie about Folsom during his Air Force days in Germany, I learned he, in fact, wrote it three years after seeing the movie—and then only after hearing another song, pop composer Gordon Jenkins' ‘Crescent City Blues," that gave him the outline. I had heard pieces of the story, but didn't know the specifics until I sent an email questionnaire to the members of Johnny's old Air Force squadron. One of the questions was whether they had ever heard of "Crescent City Blues."  To my delight, one airman, Chuck Riley, replied he had not only bought the Jenkins album on a "whim" but that he was also playing it in the barracks in late 1953 or early 1954 when Johnny happened by. Cash was so intrigued "Crescent City Blues" that he asked Riley to borrow the album so he could make a tape of the song. Over the next few months, Cash changed the song from a tale of lost love to a lonely prison setting. Though he made significant alterations, Jenkins eventually sued for copyright infringement—and Cash agreed to a $75,000 settlement. It was a small price to pay. If Cash had never heard Riley's copy of the obscure album, it's unlikely he would have ever written a song called "Folsom Prison Blues."


CS: In your view, why is Johnny Cash a legend?

RH: Early in life, Cash was moved by music—especially country and gospel—because it lifted his family's spirits as they worked the cotton fields in Arkansas. As he got older, he would see music continue to give people comfort and hope, and that appealed to him. Cash also had a remarkable ability to empathize with his audience, whether it was young soldiers in Vietnam or Native Americans or the aged. In turn, his audience felt an attachment to him. He wasn't just an entertainer, but someone who shared his audience's hopes and concerns and values. He came across as authentic, trustworthy and unique. As Bob Dylan said, "Johnny was and is the North Star; you could guide your ship by him—the greatest of the greats."

Learn more about Johnny Cash: The Life and see more in Amazon's Big Fall Books Preview.

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How I Wrote It, with Daniel Woodrell— A Big Fall Books Preview Selection

Daniel Woodrell by Kate EstillIn 1928, an explosion ripped through a dance hall in West Plains, Missouri, sending bodies into the night air. Others were trapped inside as the building burned to the ground. Dozens were killed.

Daniel Woodrell remembers hearing that story a lot growing up – that and the possibility that one of his relatives worked for someone who may have been mysteriously involved. There were whispers and rumors, but the truth was "never satisfactorily explained," he said. All he knew for sure was: "No accident. It was no accident."

Woodrell tried for years to write about the incident and, in doing so, to write a sprawling story about the community and the families affected by the fire. But the story always felt flabby and unfocused. It wasn’t until he decided to tell it from the point of view of the maid (a very fictionalized version of his grandmother), that he was finally able to find his story. The other key was to stop trying to find the truth and to let the fiction take over.

Though he's never been comfortable with autobiographical fiction, this is nonetheless Woodrell's most personal book, based closely on real people and real events, the writing of which was "tricky."

The Maid’s Version will be available September 3, 2013.


WoodrellAfter years of collecting tidbits of the story, he eventually quit trying to research the precise details – what was the price of beans that year? – and decided to "run with it."

"After a while I quit asking questions and just let myself develop it and let my imagination take over," he said. And once he started writing, "I didn't want to know too much. I knew enough to take it and run with it ... I wanted to be free to invent. I wanted to make my own characters. It's not a roman a clef."


Woodrell works in an enclosed back porch, surrounded by built-in bookshelves and way too many books: "Lots and lots of books." There's a window in front of him, but he keeps it covered up; the trees outside are too tempting and distracting. While writing The Maid’s Version, he kept a copy of an old newspaper article about the dance hall explosion nearby at all times.


He used to write his novels (this is his ninth) in longhand on a legal pad. Now he'll start sketching out his narrative on paper, but the real writing occurs on the computer. I asked him about his computer and whether he uses any specific software to write, but no… "whatever my wife puts in for me."


Though he's got a ken for Irish writers - he mentioned Kevin Barry’s great forthcoming collection, Dark Lies the Island, Roddy Doyle’s Bullfighting, and Claire Keegan – when he needs to prime the pump his hand usually reaches for Faulkner, his go-to source of words that “gets me thinking in terms of words and fiction." He can also read a few pages of Hemingway or James Agee to "get my ear pitched to words."


Coffee in the morning, and a requisite exercise session after he’s done writing for the day. (A walk, some weights and stretching.) Like the best writers, he starts at dawn and writes until he can't.


None. Not while writing, anyway. If he's just sketching ideas and "doodling," he can listen to some jazz or classical. But never anything with words - "lyrics seem to drag me into their thing instead of my thing." Similarly, he can’t linger on Faulkner or James Salter or Cormac McCarthy, or else he'll end up sounding too much like them. (He once described trees an "indominable" and his wife – the novelist Katie Estill, his first reader – told him, "Indominable? You gotta lay off the Faulkner for a while.")


Though the book took about a year to write, there was at least a year before that during which Woodrell headed down "wrong paths" and ended up discarding many thousands of words. "Not much from those early versions survived. Maybe ten pages." he said. "I mourn the fact that I've been doing it this long and can still get down the wrong path and be too stubborn to concede it early."

Then again, he knows... "It's not really wasted. It taught you what you had to do to find the right way."

Looking back...

Woodrell said he feels relieved that after years of considering this story he found a way to explore and portray a family and a community not unlike his own. Along the way, he realized that people are shaped as much by unresolved events (like the dance hall explosion) as by events that are easier to explain and understand. "Some things," he said, "just need to stay unresolved."


This book opened him up to some new ideas. For now, he'll be exploring those ideas in short stories.

Learn more about The Maid’s Version and see more in Amazon's Big Fall Books Preview.

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Mira Grant on Tolkien, Disneyland, and "Parasite"— A Big Fall Books Preview Selection

Mira Grant

Parasite. The name is a bit frightening, and it's meant to be. The story is set a little more than a decade into the future, when a young girl with no memory seeks some very dangerous answers. The beginning of a two-part series, Parasite is disturbing, it's inventive, and it's my selection for the Amazon Books Fall Preview Editors' Picks.

Author Mira Grant, known to Urban Fantasy readers by her given name Seanan McGuire, took her research extremely seriously, experiencing first-hand what having a tapeworm was like; she named it Timmy, and what she learned lends a reality to her book that makes the possibilities even more frightening.

Those who already follow her prolific career may know many things about her. But, when it comes to the Sci-Fi and Fantasy genre, even die-hard fans can't know enough of the person behind the writing. (Her favorite X-Men character is Emma and she can eloquently defend the Resident Evil movies; in fact, pictured here at San Diego Comic-Con, she has just realized that the color scheme of her book is similar to the Umbrella Corps. in that franchise).

I reached out to Seanan to learn a little more about her, Amazon Asks style. Her answers were, (unsurprisingly) true to her roots: imaginative, honest, and unabashedly geeky.

Parasite will be available October 29, 2013.



What's the elevator pitch for your book?

Who doesn't want to be healthy and slim without raising a finger? When the SymboGen Corporation began marketing their "Intestinal Bodyguard"--a genetically engineered tapeworm guaranteed to be helpful and harmless--it seemed like the American Dream had finally been reduced to pill form. Sadly, when something seems too good to be true, it generally is, and the parasites want their own lives. Jurassic Park meets the medical thriller in this story of modern medical science gone too far.

What's on your nightstand/bedside table/Kindle?

I just finished the latest volume of Matt Fraction's Hawkeye--one of the best comics being published today--and I'm currently reading Jim Hines's Codex Born, which is absolutely fantastic in that "I wish I'd thought of it" way. And I'm getting ready to read last year's WHO report on human parasitism, because why not.

Top 3-5 favorite books of all time?

On Writing by Stephen King, IT by Stephen King, The Thief of Always by Clive Barker, Fire and Hemlock by Diana Wynne Jones, and Tam Lin by Pamela Dean.

Important book you never read?

Anything by Tolkien. I bounced off his text so hard. It's sad, because he's a huge cultural touchstone, but I just can't read him.

Book that changed your life?

Watership Down by Richard Adams. It was accidentally shelved with the kids' books in my elementary school library. I never looked back.

What's your most memorable author moment?

I had a woman come up to me to show me her tattoo, and it was a phrase from one of my songs, tattooed on her arm in Circular Gallifreyan. [It's a "Doctor Who" thing.] And it was just so beautiful, and it meant so much to her, and it meant so much to me, and...yeah. If I can make that kind of difference in even one person's life, I'm doing the right thing.


Preferred reading format: print? digital?

Print, all the way. I grew up below the poverty line, and the ability of a single book to enrich a community is hard for me to over-state. Something someone bought new would go to the used bookstore to the library booksale to the flea market to the dumpster, and there would be someone waiting to read it every step along the way. It is hugely important to me that I keep releasing books back into the world through this channel.

What talent or superpower would you like to have (not including flight or invisibility)?

Teleportation. I have friends all over the world, and I'm a Disneyland Annual Passholder. If I could teleport, I'd be at Disneyland every afternoon after I finished my word count, and I'd be seeing my friends every weekend, no matter where they lived. It would be magical. Also I wouldn't have to ride public transit anymore, which would save me time and money and probably lower my blood pressure considerably.

What are you obsessed with now?

I'm starting to get really into GMO foods and their impact on local ecologies, especially their contribution to colony collapse and the rise of "superbugs." Because forcing rapid evolution in insects is sure to work out well for us!

What's your most prized/treasured possession?

I own a full Aarne-Thompson Index to Motifs in Folk Literature, which is probably my most precious possession that is not one of my cats.

What do you collect?

Books. Obscure horror movies. Bad horror movies. Monster High dolls. Comics. Evangeline Ghastly and Ellowyne Wilde dolls. Disney trading pins.

Favorite line in a book?

"Then, Midian." Clive Barker, Cabal.

What's next for you?

After Parasite, I have several books coming out in my Seanan McGuire identity, including Half-Off Ragnarok and The Winter Long, and then it's back to the world of SymboGen and the Intestinal Bodyguard for book two in the duology. It's exciting!

Learn more about Parasite and see more in Amazon's Big Fall Books Preview.

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A Guest Essay by Fiona McFarlane, Author of "The Night Guest"— A Big Fall Books Preview Selection


My editors' pick for our Big Fall Books Preview was Fiona McFarlane's debut The Night Guest. It's a tender novel about old age and a psychological meditation on isolation, all told with the page-turning pace of a mystery. I can't stop thinking about this book, and every time I look at the cover sitting on my desk, I think about calling my grandparents.

If that doesn't convince you to pre-order this book immediately, Fiona McFarlane has penned us a lovely essay about writing from the perspective of a woman in her seventies, which she based on experiences with both of her grandmothers. Read on!

The Night Guest will be available October 1, 2013.


Ruth, the main character in The Night Guest, is a widow in her mid-seventies; I’m less than half her age. For this reason, I’m often asked how I went about writing her, this woman who was born in the 1930s, has grown children, has retired from life, and is in many respects utterly unlike me. I’m young, and childless, and working. Both my grandmothers lived into old age with various forms of dementia, and I knew and adored and observed them, which I imagine helped me approach Ruth with respect and love. Writing The Night Guest did feel, in some ways, like being in their company. But this autobiographical information reveals almost nothing about how a writer goes about creating a character, which is always an act of creative empathy, whether we’re inventing an elderly woman or a teenage boy or a medieval saint or some great galactic queen — in other words, anyone who isn’t ourselves. Making that leap into another life is one of the loveliest and most difficult things about writing; about living, actually, when you think about it. So writing Ruth was no more or less challenging than the novel’s other main characters — moody, majestic Frida, or courtly, pompous Richard.

Still, The Night Guest does privilege Ruth’s thoughts and feelings, and perhaps I did feel some special anxiety about creating the inner life of a woman twice my age. I suspect most writers begin a project with a kind of willed naivety about what it will require, and that was certainly the case here; I began my novel with an elderly woman who thinks she hears a tiger walking around her house in the middle of the night, and this situation so excited me that, at first, I thought very little about the woman, and mostly about the circumstances she found herself in. But Ruth’s circumstances are, after all, a culmination of the way she lived her life: her childhood in Fiji, her missionary upbringing, her marriage to sensible Harry. I didn’t approach the novel thinking, ‘How do I write convincingly about an elderly woman?’ There’s no such thing as a typical elderly woman. I hoped, instead, to write convincingly about a specific human being: a woman called Ruth Field, who is the sum of seventy-five years’ worth of experience, memory, habit, and opinion. The Night Guest is, in part, a novel about how we accumulate an understanding of our lives, and how that understanding might change, even at the very end.

I’m also interested in the representation of older women in popular culture. The first stereotype is, of course, the sweet little old lady, of crocheted doilies and dusty, pinkish houses and little purses carried with both hands. The most common way to subvert this stereotype is to lace the dear old thing with arsenic — to make her murderous. The other two options for an older woman seem to be the magnificent matriarch or the feisty eccentric. Ruth is none of these things. She is a self-consciously ordinary woman with opinions, prejudices, and fears. She is kind. Her back hurts. She swears (mildly) and has sex (carefully). She is unsentimental and irritable and able to laugh at herself. I hope any reader would recognize her as a human being, both maddening and wonderful. -- Fiona McFarlane

Learn more about The Night Guest and see more in Amazon's Big Fall Books Preview.

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Rainbow Rowell's Playlist— A Big Fall Books Preview Selection

Fangirl300One of the books I'm most excited about this fall is Rainbow Rowell's Fangirl, a coming-of-age novel that is smart, funny, and genuine.  Fangirl takes place during Cather Avery's first year of college, learning who she is when stripped down to just Cath--not the twins Cath & Wren and not Magicath her fan fiction pen name.

Through all the changes, both difficult and thrilling, one part of her old life still makes as much sense in her dorm room as it did in her childhood bedroom--the Emergency Kanye Party. When the going gets tough in this story, the tough crank up Kanye West, sing out loud and dance until they feel better. I like it. Check out Rowell's Fangirl playlist below to see what other music played a part in this story.

Fangirl will be available September 10.


"I Wonder" – Kanye West: So Cath, the main character of Fangirl has a Kanye West thing; he's sort of her Patronus. This song lays out how lost Cath is at the beginning of the book. "You ever wonder what it all really mean? You wonder if you'll ever find your dreams?"

"Cath" – Death Cab for Cutie I think this song might be the reason I chose the name "Cath." The lyrics don't fit my Cath, but the feelings do. More loss, more lost.

 "Heaven's on Fire" – The Radio Dept. : I use songs to help me get into the right mood and frame of mind when I'm writing a scene. This song, for me, is Cath's first few weeks of college – when she feels all caught up, and completely overwhelmed, by the activity. When she's overdosing on new and other.

 "Paranoid" – Kanye West feat. Mr. Hudson When things hit bottom for Cath, she throws herself an Emergency Kanye Dance Party. I can see her jumping on her bed to this song. "You worry bout the wrong things, the wrong things."

 "American Boy" – Estelle feat. Kanye West: Required listening for every Emergency Kanye Dance Party. Plus, it's happy and bouncy, so that reminds me of Cath's friend Levi, who joins the party.

 "Brandy Alexander" – Feist: When Cath finally falls in love, she almost resents how easy it is. She resents that she can't help it. This song is so sweet and seductive and irresistible – which is exactly how Cath sees the guy she's falling for.

 "I See You, You See Me" – The Magic Numbers: This is another reluctant love song – about two people who sort of back into love. When it gets to "This is not what I'm like, this is not what I do" – I think of Cath and the way she tries to reject her feelings. Like she's allergic to them.

 "Love Letters" – Jude: There's a part of the book when just about everybody regrets their behavior. "Love Letters" feels like regret to me – but also hope. There's so much longing in Jude's voice.

 "Samson" – Regina Spektor: One of the love stories in the book is between Cath and her twin sister, Wren. Cath feels abandoned by Wren. Now that they're at college, Wren would rather party than hang out with her twin. But Cath is still so devoted to Wren, and worried about her. "You are my sweetest downfall. I loved you first."

 "Landslide" – Fleetwood Mac: Every book I write has "Landslide" on its soundtrack, and always at the same point in the story – the part where the main character does whatever he or she has to do to grow and change. I play "Landslide" in my head whenever my life is changing in a big way.

 "Hymn for Her" – The Magic Numbers: This is my happy-ending song for Cath. I'm not exactly sure what the lyrics mean, but I love how gentle and cautious it is, especially at the beginning. It's so reassuring for a love song. "It won't hurt to find love in the wrong place. I've been hurt before, but all the scars have rearranged."

Learn more about Fangirl and see more in Amazon's Big Fall Books Preview.

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Graphic Novel Friday: The Last of Us with Neil Druckmann (Part One)

Spoiler Alert! The Last of Us is a new, bestselling video game for the PS3 that has players talking about its secrets, reveals, and fascinating storytelling. In this interview, we do not delve too deeply into specifics, but general plot and characters are discussed. The Last of Us is best enjoyed with as little information as possiblefair warning!

I hope regular Graphic Novel Friday readers won't mind a break from routine. I heard enough buzz about The Last of Us game that I picked it up on release day—sleep did not soon follow. This terrifying game stars hard-edged Joel as he reluctantly leads young Ellie out of a post-apocalyptic nightmare.

Dark Horse Comics (publisher of the new The Art of The Last of Us and a forthcoming graphic novel prequel) coincidentally approached me with the opportunity to speak with the game's Creative Director and writer, Neil Druckmann. We discussed character storytelling, origins, game mechanics, the art book tie-in, the graphic novel, and more.  Part One of our interview follows below: In The Last of Us, beyond the gameplay, the visuals, the scares, what fans keep coming back to is “the storytelling.” What sets this game’s story so apart from its contemporaries?

Neil Druckmann: If I had to put a finger on it, the focus on it all along has been [that] we are not telling a post-apocalyptic story; we’re not telling a survival story—although the story is those things—we’re telling a story about a relationship between two characters who, over the course of the game, come to love each other as if they were father and daughter. In making this game, every decision along the way has been with that in mind.

The writing, the music, the environment, the mechanics we’ve implemented—where you are learning to rely on one another, has been in service of that relationship. That clear focus has allowed us to do some pretty subtle stuff in the storytelling but also some engaging, immersive stuff from a gameplay standpoint that has really allowed gamers to take part in forming that bond, that relationship, in a way that you couldn’t experience in a movie, or a novel, or a graphic novel. They’re engaged with these characters on a level that they’ve never experienced before. They are there every step of the way as they form that bond between Joel and Ellie.

Omni: Is beginning from a pair of characters rather than a set-piece or overarching story an anomaly in gaming? Is this unique to your brand of storytelling?

Neil Druckmann: I think it’s unique to Naughty Dog [Studios, the game's publisher]. The way we think of story is that “character is story and story is character.” For me, a lot of video games aren’t as interesting when they become more about the world or the lore, and to me, it becomes very exposition-heavy. I might be engaged with the game because of its gameplay or aesthetics, but for the most part I find video games are lacking in character storytelling.

I’m sure you’ve noticed, we don’t have to use as much dialogue, because so much of the storytelling can be told through expression or a gesture. Coming back to mechanics, as Joel comes to rely on Ellie more, the player does as well—so when you are separated [in the game], you begin to miss this person, because you’ve begun to rely on them.

Omni: Speaking of reliance, I remember a point in the game when Joel jumps atop an elevator and it drops before Ellie can join the player. I spent the next level in a panic, wondering, “Is Ellie okay?” as I made my way back to her.

Neil Druckmann: Yeah, Joel has come through the initial outbreak and seen some terrible things, so he’s become very cynical. Yet, the more time he spends with Ellie, the more his humanity comes out. Whereas for Ellie, the more time she spends with Joel, the more she becomes independent and a survivalist. I don’t want to spoil it because you’ve haven’t gotten there, but there’s a point when these two character arcs collide and things change pretty dramatically. That was always the idea before we even had the genre and idea worked out. We always wanted the story of Joel and Ellie to be paramount.

Omni: There’s plenty of character storytelling within this game. It’s not just Joel and Ellie, as the cast is peppered with peripheral but memorable characters. One of my favorites is Tess. How much backstory was written for her that players never saw?

Neil Druckmann: Quite a bit. You’re trying to figure out who she is and what motivates her. What is her relationship with Joel? It all does come back to Joel and Ellie, though, and Tess is there to reflect back certain qualities of Joel. In the beginning, we see Joel as this loving father and then we jump 20 years later, and he is a ruthless survivor. Tess is just as ruthless as he is, if not more so, and we see Joel has shut down and is relying on Tess to tell him, day in and day out, what to do. Tess is there to show the state that Joel has come to and also to provide a moment of hope when they discover what Ellie may be. For maybe the first time in her life, she’s given an opportunity to do something good. She’s so desperate for that—she clings to it. Without her, I think Joel would have given up.

Omni: In The Art of The Last of Us, it mentions that Tess was initially considered to be the main antagonist. What changed?

Neil Druckmann: There were a lot of things that changed. One was that we felt, incorrectly, that the story needed an antagonist who was there throughout the entire narrative. It sounds cool in concept, but to write the stuff and implement it never felt real. We couldn’t buy into this character of Tess and why she would chase Joel all over the country. There was a personal vendetta—maybe her brother died—and it all felt contrived. Plus, Joel would have to betray Tess in some way in order for her to pursue him. It all became problematic—why would Joel buy into the mission with Ellie if not for Tess? By having Tess not become the antagonist, it let her give him one last command, to buy time for them to form a bond. It becomes a personal journey for Joel. I think the story became more powerful without the—for lack of a better term—Hollywood structure to it.

Omni: You stated earlier that the core of the game is not a post-apocalypse, and yet when the first trailers were released, a lot of gamers understandably initially assumed “Zombie Post-Apocalypse.” But , there is a fungal aspect to the plague that provides the game its unique, terrifying twist on the genre. I have to believe there is a story behind this infection.

Neil Druckmann: Bruce Straley, the Game Director on The Last of Us, and I both watched this BBC documentary, Planet Earth. And in it, there is a whole section on fungus. There’s this insane thing in nature that actually exists called “cordyceps,” where spores infect insects—like ants—and burrow their way into the ants’ minds and change their behavior. They take over the mind and cause the ants to act erratically, but this beautiful fungus grows out of their heads and eventually bursts. The spores spread and destroy the entire colony. It was this dark, morbid thing in nature, and we were really fascinated by it—and the documentary shows other types of insects and their own aversion to the cordyceps fungus. At the end of this segment, the narrator says, “The more numerous a species becomes, the more likely it is to fall to the cordyceps fungi.”

This was so powerful, and immediately Bruce and I said, “What if this leapt to people?” In densely populated areas, you can imagine it would alter our minds and behavior, and it would grow out of our heads and our bodies in these beautiful, saturated colors. This was the starting point of our infected, and it is kind of a zombie tale, but it was so grounded that we became fascinated by it and the world we could create from it.


Look for Part Two next week, folks, where we discuss the graphic novel prequel and game mechanics.


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