Tech Vegans, Carbon Hunting, & the Property Managers of Wall Street

February is all snow days and slow days—a good time to settle in with some magazines that have been piling up in the corner. I’ll be posting an occasional series called Long Form, featuring some of my favorite recent long-form articles.

Long-form journalism can read a lot like a good short story—compelling characters and plot—a self-contained experience. At best, I forget I’m even learning something. So grab a cup of coffee, find a comfy chair and let’s get reading.

First up is I Cut the ‘Big Five’ Tech Giants From My Life. It Was Hell (Kashmir Hill, Gizmodo), a fun and fascinating read about how hard it actually is to avoid Google, Amazon, Facebook, Microsoft, and Apple. For the article, the author cut out every piece of technology (software, apps, hardware like smart phones and TVs) that was powered in any way by products from the “big five” tech giants. She took her tech diet seriously, even having a special network tool designed to prevent her devices from communicating with any of the tech giants’ servers. It’s terrifying to see how deeply embedded these companies are in daily life, with a vast infrastructure that makes them more like utilities than conveniences. Although you can become a “digital vegan” (it’s a thing), it’s going to cost you time and effort. Hill thinks that escaping these monopolies may mean rethinking the assumption that everything on the internet is free, but also questions who could afford which version of the internet.

This was interesting: Amazon’s most profitable business isn’t retail, but web hosting that powers many apps and websites.

Second, The Tiny Swiss Company That Thinks It Can Help Stop Climate Change (Jon Gertner, the New York Times). Offering a glimmer of hope for the ecological future, this article explores the race to perfect technologies like carbon capture,
and to build a new market for them. The story connects past breakthroughs like Haber-Bosch—a process of manufacturing fertilizer that led to a population explosion—to the kind of problems we face in a densely populated and industrialized planet and how technological breakthroughs could address them. There’s just enough science to keep the reader on the path, following Swiss company Climework’s efforts to build a direct-air-capture network at a lower cost and larger scale than currently possible. Experts on both sides of the argument for this technology give context to how it may (and may not) mitigate climate change.

My favorite part: “The technicians had in front of them 12 large devices… which soon would begin collecting carbon dioxide from air drawn in through their central ducts. Once trapped, the CO₂ would then be siphoned into large tanks and trucked to a local Coca-Cola bottler, where it would become the fizz in a soft drink.”

The hot, new investment market for foreclosed homes, and what that means for renters, is the subject of When Wall Street is Your Landlord (Alana Semuels, The Atlantic). This article focuses on the suburbs of Atlanta, where the 2008 housing bubble hit hard, and where some zip codes have one-in-five single-family rental homes owned by institutional investors. Semuels outlines general issues with property management investors through a lot of anecdotal evidence, and some unflattering comments made to shareholders about profits. It makes the grim case that the giant money machine of private equity has found a way to profit off of a crisis it helped to create, and how the implications of that will impact the prosperity of many families for at least a generation.

Suggested side read: This connects to the New York Times series, Bottom Line Nation, showing how private equity firms swooped in after the 2008 financial crisis and took over in unexpected ways.

Have any slow reads you’d like to recommend? Post them in the comments!

Don’t Do the Hustle: an Interview with Author Belinda McKeon

by Julie Chibbaro

In a society where the dollar is everything, and our very existence depends on money, it’s often difficult for writers to find the time and resources to reach down deep to discover what we really want to say. This is a fact that I’ve been struggling with as an author, and it’s great to talk to other writers, to understand their ways of dealing with the grind of life while also making time for what they want to focus on —– their writing.

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Belinda McKeon, our February 2019 guest and the award-winning author of the novels Tender and Solace, doesn’t have all the answers, but she does have an amazing ability to juggle a tremendous amount of creativity. I asked her how she does it:

GLB: You are a playwright, journalist, novelist, professor. How do you manage to do it all?

BM: I don’t really do it all —- I just do one thing at a time. I tend to work on projects in blocks, including teaching work, which consists of a lot of syllabus and assignment-writing over break, and then class prep in blocks during the week. Around that, at the moment, I’m trying to spend two to three hours a day working on my current novel, and there’s no journalism or playwriting happening. They’ll return, I hope, when the teaching semester is done and I have some space for them. When I was in my twenties, the idea of firing on all cannons was much more attractive to me. Now I see the pressure to be massively productive as, basically, another part of the neo-liberal con, even for writers. I write what I can, when I can. That’s really all anyone can do. The rest is hustling, which is not the same as creating.

GLB: You’re from Ireland. How does that inform your work?

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BM: Fundamentally. The cadence, intonation, sentence structure, grammatical structure, of my writing is Irish. That’s before I even get to the question of character, storyline, themes, settings. I was born in Ireland, I lived there until I was 26, I return there several times a year, and in a sense I’m always halfway there, or half there, because a good deal of my reading, my social media feeds, even sometimes my radio listening, is from there. Also, my husband is Irish. But we’ve been in the US for almost 14 years, and life here, and the texture of life here, has become an organic part of my thinking and my writing over that time. The novel I’m working on at the moment is set here, between Newburgh and New York, and that is something I think it took me almost 14 years to be able to do without (I hope) forcing it. It took that long for the experience of being here to filter down into the writing in that way. Of course, one of my characters is still Irish, and is thinking about the immigrant experience all the time…there’s not much getting away from that. Still, it contains many aspects, so I don’t feel limited by it.

GLB: Lots of times, writers want to protect their characters. How do you get so honest in your work?

BM: I don’t have a choice. Honesty, often horrifying honesty, is just what comes out when I sit down to write. I don’t have any interest in writing characters who portray me in a flattering light. I’m just a messy, needy human.

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Belinda McKeon’s debut novel Solace won the 2011 Faber Prize and was voted Irish Book of the Year, as well as being shortlisted for the James Tait Black Memorial Prize.

Her second novel, Tender, was published in the US by Lee Boudreaux Books in February 2016. (Read the Kirkus starred review here.)

Her essays and journalism have appeared in the New York Times, the Paris Review, the Guardian, A Public Space and elsewhere. As a playwright, she has had work produced in Dublin and New York. She lives in Newburgh and is an Assistant Teaching Professor of Creative Writing at Rutgers University.

Burning Questions About Book Publishing: What are good resources for keeping a pulse on the industry?

By Ruta Rimas

The business of book publishing can feel so far away from the reality of writers. Maybe you imagine an editor sitting at her desk, surrounded by stacks upon stacks of paper (real or virtual), casually crushing dreams as she rejects manuscript after manuscript. Truth be told, very little of that type of work goes on during business hours; the dream-crushing is done late at night, on subway or train rides home. Luckily, that’s when the dream-making happens as well.

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When a writer publishes their book, it can take a year or two for it to get to market. In the meantime, information and news about the publishing world might seem like it bounces around at light speed. What are editors buying next? What manuscripts just sold? What’s the juicy industry gossip? How can anyone keep up?!

Well, in my attempt to answer that, I thought it might be time for a straightforward post that provides a few resources for anyone who wants to keep better tabs on the goings-on of book publishing. Below is a list of sites that, as an industry professional, I often turn to when I need intel. Because here’s a secret: it’s nearly impossible to keep up with everything that’s happening, even for those of us who work within the industry.

Industry News Sites

Publishers Weekly: https://www.publishersweekly.com/

This publication is both in print and online and is the quintessential publication for the industry. Some online content is free, like this article (https://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/international/international-book-news/article/79125-man-group-pulls-out-of-booker-sponsorship.html). Big book deals are announced, industry news is shared, and the best part? Loads of book reviews. It might worth it to invest in a subscription for the wide range of information, depending on where you are in your writing career.

Shelf Awareness: https://www.shelf-awareness.com/about.html

 

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A FREE (!) website and FREE (!!) bi-weekly newsletter with the top 25 books of the week, as selected by booksellers and librarians. Also included is book news, interviews with authors, and more publishing-based articles.

Publishers Lunch: https://lunch.publishersmarketplace.com/

Publishers Lunch is similar to Publishers Weekly, meaning some of the content is behind a paywall and requires a subscription, and some is free, like this recent article: https://lunch.publishersmarketplace.com/2019/01/newbery-to-medina-caldecott-to-blackall-and-more/

You can also sign up for daily Publishers Lunch emails for FREE. From their website: “Publishers Lunch is the industry’s “daily essential read,” now shared with approximately 45,000 publishing people every day. Each report gathers together stories from all over the web and print of interest to the professional trade book community, along with original reporting, plus a little perspective and the occasional wisecrack added in. Daily Lunch is e-mailed daily to qualified book trade professionals. Deal Lunch is e-mailed occasionally, sharing about 10 deal reports from the previous week (or roughly 5 percent of reported deals).” https://www.publishersmarketplace.com/lunch/subscribe.html

These three sites and newsletters can help orient you within the book publishing business, from the who’s who of editors, to buzz-worthy books, to bookstore openings and author events. They’re a worthwhile investment, even if only in the time it takes to read one of the free newsletters. Knowledge is power, after all, and these publications provide a ton of great information.

Reading Outside Your Comfort Zone

by Kristen Holt-Browning 

In a recent interview, the author Roxane Gay said something that jumped out at me:

“I read everything. The number one thing I tell my students is read diversely. And I’m not talking about demographics, though that’s part of it. Aesthetic diversity, genre diversity. It matters because it just makes us better informed, and it protects us from our worst instincts. . . Anybody who tells me, ‘I only read literary fiction,’ I’m just like, ‘Well, you’re an asshole. What are we going to talk about?’ Literary fiction—a lot of it’s not that good! . . . My favorite thing to read is spy thrillers, which I just love. I also read romance novels, because they are fun, and they are sweet, and they’ve got a happy ending, most of the time. The world is shit, so—I need that happy ending.”

Reading this, I realized that I hardly ever read anything other than literary fiction. I think that, in college, I was so eager to dive into the classics, and so suddenly aware of the canon, that I snobbishly turned away from anything that wasn’t approved by the academy. And, after graduation, working in publishing, I was surrounded by people who, like me, were reading the latest literary novel, and I wanted to keep up.

Maybe it’s getting older, maybe it’s leaving New York and the publishing scene behind—whatever the reason, I don’t feel that pressure anymore. So, taking Gay’s words to heart, I picked up two fantasy novels by Naomi Novik: Uprooted and Spinning Silver. I had recently stumbled across a glowing review of Spinning Silver, which praised its original and creative use of fairy tale. Although I never read fantasy, I do love the fairy tale-influenced work of Angela Carter (if you haven’t read The Bloody Chamber, get thee to a bookstore now!). So, Novik’s work seemed like a good opportunity to take baby steps into unfamiliar literary territory.

In Spinning Silver, Miryem, the daughter of a moneylender, lives in a town that seems to be situated in an Eastern European locale, a long time ago. Her family is Jewish, and faces anti-Semitism that rings all too true. The villagers live in the shadow of the Staryk—creatures of ice who will do anything for gold. This doesn’t bode well for Miryem, who discovers she has the magical ability to turn silver to gold.

I was impressed with how Novik adapts and twists the fairy tale of Rumpelstiltskin, and ingeniously subverts the anti-Semitic trope of the Jewish moneylender. She also explores the theme of female agency—without giving short shrift to the fantastical Staryk, and their unnerving ability to turn all the world to winter.

Similiary, Uprooted is situated in a Slavic-inflected, premodern world that is overlaid by magical elements. The protagonist, Agnieszka, is chosen in a longstanding ritual that takes place every ten years: a magician known as the Dragon takes a young woman to live with him for a decade, before he releases her and chooses a replacement. The village acquiesces to this sacrifice, receiving in exchange his magical protection from the Wood, a menacing, monstrous forest that seeks to encroach on the village year after year.

In Uprooted, Novik loosely adapts the fairy tale of Beauty and the Beast, but here, both of the main characters have magical abilities. I was pleasantly surprised to find that these books are well written, with fully developed plots and characters. She doesn’t fall back on the types of stereotypes that I’ve always ascribed to fantasy: there are no fire-breathing dragons or maidens in distress here. Novik may be a “genre” writer, but her books intelligently interrogate fairy tale and fantasy, while also engaging with perfectly “literary” themes like discrimination, gender roles, and social pressures.

Clearly, I’ve overlooked a lot  of great fiction by narrowly reading only one type of book; my future reading will definitely include a wider range of genres.

Have you read any romances, mysteries, thrillers, or fantasy novels that you loved? I’m open to recommendations!

Joyce Carol Oates: Fantasized into Being

By Flora Stadler

I was a runner for half my life. I loved the clarity it gave me. I could outrun the thoughts reeling through my head and clear a space for my mind to wander.

In my 40s, my knees decided they’d had enough. So I felt a knowing pang when I read that Joyce Carol Oates relied on running to clear her mind and think about her writing. She once said that “the runner who’s a writer is running through the land- and cityscapes of her fiction, like a ghost in a real setting.” Yes, I thought when I read this.

The first of her novels I ever read was The Accursed, and I couldn’t get over the immensity of it. That a mind could contain all of that was overwhelming to me as a reader and a writer. Even though it feels like dark magic, I know it’s mostly work—hours of research, running, planning, building, revising. Something else she’d said, about “the writing itself being the biggest challenge,” made me wonder what that process must be like for someone so skilled at taking giant subjects and building a universe to contain them. So I asked her:

How do you overcome that writing challenge, especially when you’re working on a dense novel with historical contexts and big themes? Where do you start and how do you keep your momentum?

“Writing begins with inspiration, a sudden thrilling ‘idea’—which then must be contemplated, meditated, fantasized into being.

I spend much of my ‘creative’ time running/walking—I never write until I have imagined the prose that I will write, as a sort of film evoked in my head when I am away from my desk.

My day-dreaming/meditation—focuses upon characters engaged in dialogue, scenes.

I don’t, however, think of them as ‘characters’—rather as people.

If I try to write directly—before I have ‘imagined’ the scene—it is much, much more difficult.

Beyond this, I try to outline as much as possible. I amass a folder of notes, scenes, sketches, etc. that can be as bulky as 200 pages, before I actually begin the first chapter.

‘Pre-production’ is everything in a novel, as it is in the making of feature films.

After this initial work, writing is a matter of increments. Weeks, days, hours, minutes—attentiveness to the sentence, that builds the paragraph, eventually the scene, & eventually the chapter, & beyond.”

I loved that her written response to me looked and read something like a poem. I’d expect nothing less from a great runner. As for me, I’ll take her advice and walk through my stories first from now on.

Joyce Carol Oates is a playwright, poet, essayist, and the author of dozens of novels and short stories. She has been a writing professor at Princeton for more than 40 years, has won the National Book Award and two O. Henrys, and truly is a National Treasure. You can follow her on Twitter and check out her latest novel, a dystopian thriller titled Hazards of Time Travel.