Adam Ash

Your daily entertainment scout. Whatever is happening out there, you'll find the best writing about it in here.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Bookplanet: getting to know the author (whether or not you've read the book)

1. Favorite Author Not on Tour? See the Movie – by JULIE BOSMAN/NY Times

Can video save the literary star?

Ask the tastemakers at Powell’s Books, the venerable independent bookstore in Portland, Ore., who are planning a new series of short films featuring authors, to be shown at bookstores, movie-premiere style.

The British author Ian McEwan is the star of the first film, which is planned to run 23 minutes and will feature snippets from an on-camera interview with Mr. McEwan, as well as commentary from peers, fans and critics.

Such films could eventually take the place of in-store book readings, which attract fewer attendees all the time, many booksellers say. “Some authors go to events and are really captivating personalities,” said Dave Weich, the marketing manager at Powell’s Books. “That does not describe most of them.”

For Mr. McEwan, the film will virtually replace his standard book tour, since he has declined to do traditional bookstore appearances to promote his new novel in the United States. The book, “On Chesil Beach,” will be published on June 5 by the Nan A. Talese imprint of Random House’s Doubleday division.

For years publishers and bookstores have tried to lure book buyers by featuring authors in blogs, podcasts and question-and-answer forums with readers. Mr. Weich said Powell’s did not expect to profit from the first film but hoped to attract more visitors to its Web site, , by posting the videos there.

Powell’s has enlisted Doug Biro, a former creative director at RCA Records, to direct the first film. (Mr. Biro has also directed music videos for Christina Aguilera and Rufus Wainwright .) It will have its debut on June 1 in Manhattan during BookExpo America, a widely attended annual gathering of publishers, booksellers and authors.

More than 50 bookstores across the country have planned screenings of the film from June 13 to 17. After it is shown, the video will be posted on Powell’s Web site and as a series of shorts on YouTube.

Mr. Weich said he hoped the series, called “Out of the Book,” would defy the less than exciting fare typical of television and films featuring authors. “It’s meant to be entertaining,” he said. “The last thing we’re shooting for is two talking heads sitting there talking about literature.”

2. Speaking volumes: why I like writers' talks
Hearing authors discuss their works (and their lives) is fascinating, but I'm not convinced the appeal is 100% high-minded.
By Eloise Millar/Guardian

Over the past couple of weeks, whenever I've had a spare minute I've been listening to Michigan State University's writers' lectures series online. It's an archive of summer lectures where the likes of Kurt Vonnegut, Philip Roth, Norman Mailer and Margaret Atwood are given a platform to talk about pretty much anything they like. If you're a book nerd like me, I can't recommend it enough.

Among my favourites is the talk by Atwood, who speaks about her favourite villainesses (Lady Macbeth, Medea) in a surprisingly sexy voice.

There's also EL Doctorow, waxing lyrical about his childhood reading matter (Jack London, Alexander Dumas) and flinching at the ferocity of the after-talk questions ("I feel like I'm taking my orals").

Vonnegut, meanwhile, offers his audience a (seemingly) random crash course in transcendental meditation before tying it with the importance of books in the western world. Books are our form of meditation, he says. When we read we slow down, we digest: "And therefore I plead with you - to protect the book, to keep it always at the centre of our civilisation." (Always one for lightness, he then goes on to list "lots of broads and big money" as his main reasons for writing.)

There's very little about the history of the lecture series on the website itself - and I can't tell you much other than that the lectures are held at every year at Michigan State University's College of Letters and Arts; that the series was founded in 1988; and that, in 1998, it was renamed after Dean John W Edie (who established the lecture series). None of this is very interesting, however, and aside from wondering where they get the money to pay all these writers (or do they come cheap?), I'm just grateful that MSU has also seen fit to post the talks on the internet.

Another thing I've been wondering about is just why, exactly, I find Vonnegut et al. such compelling listening. What is it about a flesh-and-blood author that's so fascinating? Is it that, knowing (and loving) the works, we want to know the person behind them? Or is it less the writer per se than the writer as a biographical cipher - are we less interested in their lives for their own sake than for the literary "clues" that their various histories (and, in talks, off-the-cuff remarks) might impart?

For myself, I tend to plump for the latter. At least, I'd like to think that my curiosity is entirely academic - attributable to an interest to the books, and nothing to do with any Heat-reading, curtain-twitching propensities on my part.

If I'm honest, I'm not sure that this is entirely true, however. Yes, the fact that the younger Doctorow loved adventure stories fits in nicely with the older Doctorow's plot-tight offerings of, say, Billy Bathgate and Waterworks. And yes, Vonnegut's seemingly tangential waffling - and the way his careering ideas finally tie so beautifully together - mirror his prose style.

But I was also thrilled by Vonnegut's confession that he was "secretly" in love with the local post-woman. Ditto the few snippets Doctorow offered about his early home life, and the existence of a novel-writing older sibling.

Maybe, in fact, that's why the lecture series is so appealing. The talks are enlightening, and often profound, but they also are full of the fun of back-fence gossip and the simple investigation of our fellow human beings. (A bit like my favourite books, in fact.)

Anyway - a few final questions. Am I right about the appeal of these things? Do you share my interest in reading interviews and profiles of authors? And if you do, what are you looking for? Is it a key to the secrets of writing? Is it simple human curiosity? Or is the appeal simply learning that our literary gods are human, like the rest of us?


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