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Frederick-BarthelmeFrederick Barthelme is the author of fourteen previous books of fiction. Until 2010, he directed the writing program at the University of Southern Mississippi and Mississippi Review. He now edits New World Writing, an online magazine started in 1995.

I’ve known Barthelme for about twenty years or so, more or less to the day, which would be the day I showed up in Hattiesburg to interview him. Two hours before our scheduled interview I was still scratching out questions in a battered notebook, distracted by a gaggle of teenaged girls tugging at pale bikini tops, USM first year students who I was pretty sure would not wind up in any of his classes but could easily show up somewhere in one of his novels, wisecracking their way through another scene of exquisite and heartrending longing, dialogue going off like cherry bombs through the junk landscape of the Mississippi coast. Later, I’d come on board the old Mississippi Review, which morphed into New World Writing, with brief layovers in something called Rick Magazine, later Stand Away from the Vehicle, and Blip. With the help of some of his former students we’d also put together a private journal of opinion called Public Scrutiny, which died a dignified death some years back. I’m saying I’ve known Barthelme a bit, and publicly raved about his work in various places, particularly his novel The Brothers, featuring Del Tribute and his much younger sidekick Jen, two of his most memorable characters, who team up again in Painted Desert.

Richard & Bob FinalRichard Kramer: I’d like to start by saying we’ve known each other for years and had a thousand conversations like this. I love that we can still have these conversations, but something has changed for you.

Bob Smith: I have ALS. The strangest thing about my life-threatening illness is that two of my favorite writers: Henry Thoreau and Anton Chekhov, also had life threatening illnesses. They both had tuberculosis. I’m not comparing my writing to these literary giants, but I’ve always admired them. Thoreau was ardently against slavery and Chekhov traveled to Sakhalin to write against Russia’s prison system. (Children of prisoners accompanied their fathers to prison.) Both of these writers knew the Angel of Death was stalking them, but they kept writing and fought for other suffering people.

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Peter Mountford’s enthralling new novel, The Dismal Science, looks at what happens when a recently widowed World Bank administrator gets embroiled in Latin American politics. In this companion to Mountford’s debut, A Young Man’s Guide to Late Capitalism, middle-aged and recently widowed World Bank administrator Vincenzo D’Orsi comes undone, jettisoning nearly every one of his personal and professional relationships.

Peter and I met at Elliott Bay Books in Seattle for a talk about identity, middle-age, and the 1 percent.

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Bookslut Managing Editor Charles Blackstone is a writer-about town.

The town is Chicago. It’s toddlin’, as you know, and I imagine Charles eating long lunches in the patio seating of River North restaurants, sampling the delicate cheeses available in our bountiful Midwest, and later watching the sunset stream over west town from his window with the satisfaction of knowing that it is all being well done, and done well. I’ve lunched with Charles on the patio, performed with him now and again over the years, and have come to admire the apparent effortlessness he uses to approach the literary life.

He was kind enough to submit to a conversation below, where we talk about oh-so-many things. Enjoy!

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When Willy Vlautin’s first book, Motel Life, came out, I brought it with me to the beach house where my family (parents, siblings, spouses, kids, etc.) meet up for a week every summer. I read it in an afternoon, loved it, and passed it on. By the end of the week no less than six people across three generations were diehard Willy fans. We have all read (and loved) every Willy book since. So, when an advance copy of Willy’s new book recently landed in my hands, I felt I owed it to my family to get this guy on the phone.

Our conversation took place over two hours on the Friday after Thanksgiving. Willy has a great voice with a lot of gravel and a little bit of twang—he sounds like a really smart country boy who’s read a lot of books. We skipped the usual small talk and went straight into the heart of things: writing, love, life, family, childhood, happiness, drinking, and his latest book The Freewhich happens to be the official March selection of The TNB Book Club.

Willy said way more than is fit to print in a single interview, so here are some highlights from one of the most interesting conversations I’ve ever had with a stranger:

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Few writers can crawl into a character’s head like Mary Miller. In her 2009 short story collection, Big World, Miller’s protagonists were predominately young women in their twenties.  With her new novel, The Last Days of California, Miller channels fifteen-year-old Jess, trapped in the back of the family car with her secretly pregnant sister Elise, embarking on a road trip from Montgomery, Alabama to California.  Their father’s goal is for them to arrive within four days so they can be among the last American families to be raptured.  Along the way, he encourages the family to witness even though “He didn’t really want all 7 billion people on the planet to be saved.  We wouldn’t be special then.  We wouldn’t be the chosen ones.”

Miller is a recent graduate of the University of Texas’ Michener Center for Writers. She’s returning to her native Mississippi in the fall to serve as the Grisham Writer in Residence at Ole Miss. We discussed fantasizing about fundamentalism, writing realistically about teenage sex, and why she can’t quit Mississippi.

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Drew Perry’s new novel, Kids These Days, is hilarious. I don’t say that about too many books. As Edmund Gwenn said on his deathbed: “Dying is easy. Comedy is hard.” Good comedy, above all, takes great pathos, along with a high degree of vulnerability, brutal honesty, a capacity for ventriloquism, and a uniquely skewed world view.  If you don’t possess all of the above, you won’t be able to pull off the sort outlandish set pieces Drew Perry pulls off.

Luce three scenariosKelly Luce’s debut collection, Three Scenarios in Which Hana Sasaki Grows a Tail—the first book from Austin small press A Strange Object—is garnering attention, something that’s difficult for short story collections to do. But it’s no surprise that this one is making waves. This lovely book is a joy to read. Luce’s stories show the kind of attention to the human spirit that makes short stories fun to read and makes the form special: there’s just a hint at magic and the fact that something otherworldly might be possible. Luce uses her stories to examine moments of grief, joy, love and the connections between people. And did I mention? Her writing is just damn good.

Janice LeeJanice Lee is one of the more interesting writers I know. Period. And here is our conversation on her new book Damnation (Penny Ante Editions)contemporary literature, and the expectations of “identity” from the readers, editors, and publishers.

imgresI’ve known Lisa Borders for a decade. We teach together at Grub Street, Boston’s writing center, and see each other every few months at some reading event or another. I’ve always known that Lisa was a great teacher, because her students will happily give you an earful.

I was even more pleased to learn what a fine novelist she is. Her new novel, which follows her 2002 debut, Cloud Cuckoo Land, is called The Fifty-First State. It’s about a photographer in her late thirties who leaves New York City to help her half-brother through his last year of high school, after his parents are killed in a car crash.

So no: not a feel-good story.

Unless you’re the sort of sicko (like me) who is actually interested in grief and how we survive it, and how distant families function, and whether it’s possible to find redemption where you weren’t exactly looking for it.

I was curious enough about all this to seek a further interrogation of Ms. Borders, who agreed to answer a few questions…

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NICK ANTOSCA:  Okay, normally they do self-interviews here, where the author just interviews him- or herself.  But I didn’t want to do that, so in this case two authors are going to interview each other. We both have books out.  Mine is The Girlfriend Game, a collection of stories which came out last month.  Yours is Threats, a novel which came out last year and was nominated for the PEN/Faulkner.  We both live in Los Angeles.  We both moved here in the last few years.

It seems like a lot of writers are moving out here.  I came because I wanted to write for TV.  Why did you come?  A disproportionate number of serial killers have lived in Southern California.  Why do you think that is?

michaell098300Michael Landweber’s debut novel, We, which will be released on September 1 by Seattle-based Coffeetown Press, has already gotten wonderful blurbs from writers such as Jessica Anya Blau (“a family story…wrapped in a suspenseful, gripping, and totally original sci-fi narrative”), Dave Housley (“a captivating, genre-bending psychological mystery”), and Jen Michalski (“a suspenseful and emotionally engaging novel”). We follow 40-year-old Ben Arnold as he regains consciousness following an accident, only to discover that he is inside his seven-year-old self—and his younger self, whom everyone calls Binky, is not happy about it. Ben would just as soon not be there either, until he realizes he is three days away from the worst day of his childhood—the day his sister Sara was raped, setting into motion the slow, painful unraveling of his family. Somehow, he has to figure out how to get Binky to save Sara.

IMG_0620 (1)It seems to me that Dear Lucy is a novel about, among other things, all the different ways there are to make a family. Lucy has been sent away by her struggling single mother; pregnant teenager Samantha is considering giving up her baby for adoption; Mister and Missus themselves are revealed to have had a rather unusual method for obtaining children. When you began, did you know you were writing about family?

Great question! No- in the beginning of the Dear Lucy process, I was not aware that I was writing about family. The piece began as a study of Lucy’s strange, idiosyncratic voice. In the early stages, my primary conscious motives were language based.

Bee photoThe River of No Return, Bee Ridgway’s time travel adventure, set in modern Vermont and London and Regency England, is a swift-moving, smarty-pants joy of a book — a thinking person’s escape into the past, a steamy forbidden romance, and a quest to save the world.  Bee Ridgeway is the pseudonym of the friend of my lucky youth, Bethany Schneider.

trick_of_the_lightWriter Lois Metzger was born in Queens, NY and has always written for young adults.  She is the author of three previous novels, all set in the fictional “Belle Heights” which is much like the Queens neighborhood where Metzger grew up, the place she has said, “where my imagination seems to live.”  Metzger has written two nonfiction books about the Holocaust, also for young adults,  is the editor of five story anthologies and has contributed to The New Yorker, The Nation and Harper’s Bazaar, among others.