About Marla Akin

Senior Program Coordinator, UT Michener Center for Writers

Michener Center to Host Acclaimed Novelist Zadie Smith on March 27

The UT Michener Center for Writers will host a reading by acclaimed author Zadie Smith on Thursday, March 27, 2014 at 7:30 pm in the Blanton Auditorium on UT campus. The reading is free, requires no tickets, and is open to students and the public, but seating is limited to 300.

Zadie Smith, born in London in 1975 to an English father and Jamaican mother, made a stunning literary debut in 2000 with White Teeth, which was praised internationally and won numerous first book awards. Her third novel, On Beauty, won the 2006 Orange Prize and was shortlisted for the Man Booker, and her latest, NW (for the London postcode area in which she was born and still resides), was named one of the New York Times’ Best Books of 2012. Granta magazine has twice listed her in its “20 Best Young British Novelists.” She divides her time between London and New York, where she on the Creative Writing faculty of NYU.

The Blanton Auditorium is located in the Edgar A. Smith Building in the Blanton Museum complex at MLK and Congress Avenue. Parking is available in the nearby Brazos garage.

Peter LaSalle’s new novel looks at life in the shadows

M song smPeter LaSalle uses a single book-length sentence in his new novel, “Mariposa’s Song,” to tell of a twenty-year-old Honduran woman in the United States without documentation.  Mariposa is working as a B-girl and taxi dancer in a scruffy East Austin nightclub called El Pájaro Verde in 2005, and her story takes readers into the shadowy world that undocumented workers are too often forced to live in due to current immigration laws.

“‘Mariposa’s Song’ is a tragedy that rings distressingly true to the bone,” says novelist Madison Smartt Bell in a prepublication comment, “and never has Peter LaSalle’s prose sung so melodiously.”  And Publishers Weekly notes: “LaSalle’s new novel is brief, but it feels expansive with its continued breathlessness.”

The novel is published in The Americas Series from Texas Tech University Press.  Edited by Irene Vilar and with a national advisory board, the series issues mostly work by Latin American writers in translation—recent releases include Nicaraguan poet Ernesto Cardenal and Brazilian novelist Moacyr Scliar—but also the occasional original book on a Latino subject that reflects the series’ stated mission of “cultivating cross-cultural and intellectual exploration across borders and historical divides.”

LaSalle will talk about “Mariposa’s Song” at the Texas Book Festival on Saturday, Oct. 27 in a three-author panel discussion on immigration narratives, “Nunca Volver: New Lands, New Lives,” moderated by Melissa del Bosque.  An excerpt from the novel will be featured in the December issue of The Texas Observer.

PeteAs the Susan Taylor McDaniel Regents Professor in Creative Writing at UT, LaSalle teaches in both the English Department’s New Writers Project and the Michener Center for Writers. He’s the author of several books of fiction, including the story collection “Tell Borges If You See Him,” winner of the 2007 Flannery O’Connor Award, and his work has appeared in Best American Short Stories, Best American Mystery Stories, Best American Travel Writing, and Prize Stories: The O. Henry Awards, among many others. A new short story collection, “What I Found Out About Her and Other Stories,” is forthcoming from University of Notre Dame Press.

ShelfLife@Texas asked LaSalle a few questions about “Mariposa’s Song.”

Did you do intensive research, or how did you come to know about the lives of undocumented workers?

In recent years I got to know quite a bit about the world of the undocumented. I did so through time spent in the Mexican bars and nightclubs that used to line 6th Street in East Austin and now have all but vanished—almost overnight, actually, in the sudden so-called gentrification of the area. I also spent some time in the home of an immigrant family in Austin’s Dove Springs neighborhood, where I went with a friend who volunteered as an English instructor to new arrivals from Latin America. I think that those experiences, meeting the people I did in the course of it all, made me begin to better understand what it’s like to survive in the United States without documentation.

So you decided to write about it?

Looking back on it, I guess I almost had to write about it.  I remember that I saw a rather absurd locally produced TV show celebrating the supposed urban wonders of downtown Austin.  One sequence showed a group of happy young professionals (does anybody say “yuppie” anymore?) who had just come out of a trendy bar at maybe 2 a.m., guys and girls. They were filmed standing on the sidewalk, gazing up at what they saw as the wondrous beauty of a scene—men working construction on a new downtown high-rise, the site lit up bright in the darkness. I realized that those people, and a lot just like them, had no idea what life was really like for such workers, that there was nothing romantic about their long hours of hard labor, sometimes even right through the night. Having worked a job in construction myself at least one summer during college, I could assure them of that. More significantly, many of those workers were probably without documentation, facing life every day with the added threats posed by our outdated and thoroughly contradictory immigration policies. I don’t know if that was exactly when I decided to start writing “Mariposa’s Song,” but it was one thing that contributed to my decision to use a novel to maybe tell others what I knew about such lives, including those of the young women who worked in the East Austin bars, hustling drinks for the owners or dancing with customers, like the old dime-a-dance arrangement.

And the entire novel is basically a single book-length sentence. Can you explain how that works?

Well, first of all, I hope it does work. I’ve written and published several short stories that use just a single sentence, though this is my first time trying it on something longer. The novel takes place in the course of one Saturday night in a rough East Austin nightclub, where my protagonist—a gentle, pretty, and very hopeful young woman from Honduras named Mariposa—works as a bar girl and gets in a nightmarishly bad situation when she meets the wrong guy at the decidedly wrong time, a smooth-talking Anglo from out of town who calls himself Bill. In starting to write, I soon found that a single continuing sentence captured perfectly the cadence of a night at that club, where the norteño and cumbia music the DJ plays goes on uninterrupted, no breaks between songs, flowing. It also seemed to capture the way Mariposa’s own thoughts meander through her mind, maybe her soothing personal song of herself, very much a music, too.

Well, it certainly seems like a fresh idea.

As said, I sure hope so.

An ear trained by Seuss, Eliot, Hendrix

Denis-adj

Denis Johnson, the legendary author of “Jesus’ Son, Tree of Smoke,” and “Train Dreams” and a frequent visitor to UT’s Michener Center for Writers, returns to campus on Thursday, Oct. 25, 2012 to give a free public reading at 7:30 p.m. in the Blanton Museum Auditorium.

Johnson has been a literary phenomenon since publication of his first poetry collection, “The Man Among the Seals,” at age 19. He grew up abroad and in suburban Washington, D.C., the son of a State Department official, and earned an MFA at the Iowa Writers Workshop, where he worked with the famously gifted and famously alcoholic Raymond Carver, his mentor for better and worse. Addiction threatened and fueled Johnson’s own bright start, as over the next dozen years he published two more poetry books—”Inner Weather” and “Incognito Lounge,” which was selected by Mark Strand for the National Poetry Series in 1982. Carver himself described Johnson’s verse as “nothing less than a close examination of the darker side of human conduct.”

In recovery, Johnson took up writing fiction, and his output grew prolific. His prose was populated with a cast of delusional to visionary anti-heroes recognizable from his poetry, perhaps most memorably in 1983’s “Angels” and his 1992 story collection,”Jesus’ Son,” both of which won him critical recognition and a near-cult following. But the stories of Johnson’s lost souls were always infused with hallucinatory brilliance and a Calvinistic sense of salvation. One reviewer put it succinctly, saying his language read “as if Camus had become a dope fiend and later found God.”

Later novels run the gamut from the self-described “California Gothic” of “Already Dead” (1998), to a slender and achingly beautiful portrait of grief, “The Name of the World” (2000) and a noir detective send-up serialized in Playboy magazine, “Nobody Move” (2009).  His haunting Vietnam magnum opus (600+ pages), “Tree of Smoke,” which won the 2007 National Book Award, gives backstory on more than half a dozen characters found in his earlier novels. “Train Dreams,” brought out in 2011 as a novella (but first published in Paris Review in 2002), packs no less of a punch in its 125 pages. Set in Prohibition-era Idaho, the novella captures the western landscape where Johnson has lived seasonally for years. It was a finalist for the un-awarded 2012 Pulitzer Prize in fiction. His collected poems are in “The Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nations Millennium General Assembly,” and his journalistic pieces are gathered in “Seek: Reports from the Edges of America and Beyond.”

With the turn of the millennium, Johnson turned his genius to playwriting and was playwright in residence at Camp Santo/Intersection for the Arts in San Francisco, where his “Hellhound on My Trail” and “Shoppers Carried by Escalators into the Flames” were initially produced. His latest published plays, “Son of a Whore and Purvis,” are written in iambic pentameter, what might be an absurdly forced and archaic form in lesser hands, but proves yet another literary coup for Johnson, who once said that his ear “was trained by—in chronological order—Dr. Seuss, Dylan Thomas, Walt Whitman, the guitar solos of Eric Clapton and Jimi Hendrix, and T. S. Eliot.”

Johnson and his wife have lived in Austin part-time over the last decade and a half, as he returned four times to teach at the Michener Center and held the 2006 Mitte Chair in Creative Writing at Texas State University in San Marcos. His ties to Austin and the university were further forged when in 2010 the Harry Ransom Center acquired his papers.

The reading is free to the public, but seating is limited. The Blanton Museum Auditorium is in the Edgar A. Smith Building on the west side of the museum complex, just north of the intersection of East MLK and Congress Avenue.  Parking is available in the nearby Brazos garage.

Warning: Dangerous Poet Ahead

FS Zapruder on street

Matthew Zapruder

Poet Matthew Zapruder visits campus this month as part of the Michener Center for Writers literary reading series. He will read at 7:30 p.m., Thursday, Sept. 20, at the Avaya Auditorium, ACE 2.302, at an event which is free and open to students and the general public.

Zapruder’s books of poetry include “Come On All You Ghosts” and “The Pajamaist,” both from Copper Canyon, and “American Linden,” from Tupelo Press. The New York Times has praised his “razor eye for the remnants and revenants of modern culture,” and among his many honors are fellowships from the Lannan and Guggenheim Foundations, the 2007 William Carlos Williams Award of the Poetry Society of America, and the 2008 May Sarton Prize from the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Co-founder and editor of Seattle’s Wave Books, an independent publisher of innovative poetry in fine press and hand-made editions, Zapruder lives in San Francisco, where he is also a guitarist in the rock band The Figments.

Dean Young, W.S. Livingston Chair in Poetry at the Michener Center, calls Zapruder “a dangerous poet.”  “His poems,”  Young says, “escape velocity while also proving the calamity of gravity.”

Reviewer Nick Sturm says of his work, “Matthew Zapruder gently places what is ordinary about our lives into [his] poems and transforms them into cliffs off which we walk and, together, float away.”

WHITE CASTLE

c. Matthew Zapruder, from “Come On All You Ghosts”

In Wichita Kansas my friends ordered square burgers
with mysterious holes leaking a delicious substance
that would fuel us in all sorts of necessary beautiful ways
for our long journey eastward versus the night.
I was outside touching my hand to the rough
surface of the original White Castle. I was thinking
major feelings such as longing for purpose
plunge down one like the knowledge one
has been drinking water for one’s whole life
and never actually seen a well, and minor ones
we never name are always across the surface
of every face every three seconds or so rippling
and producing in turn other feelings. Oh regarder,
if I call this one green bee mating with a dragonfly
in pain it will already be too late for both of us.
I am here with that one gone, and now inside this one
I am right now naming feeling of having named
something already gone, and you just about to know
I saw gentle insects crawling in a line from a crack
in the corner of the base of the original White Castle
towards only they know what point in the darkness.

The ACE building is on the southeast corner of 24th and Speedway, and parking is available in the nearby UT garage at San Jacinto and 24th Street.

Yellow Birds Soar

Kevin Powers

Kevin Powers

Just four months after his graduation from UT’s Michener Center for Writers alum Kevin Powers is rocking the publishing world with his first novel. “The Yellow Birds” was released in the U.K. last week and Little, Brown and Company brings it out to U.S. readers next week, on Sept. 11. The book tells, in alternating chapters, the story of a young American GI’s experiences in Iraq and his difficult assimilation back home. Powers served as a machine-gunner in Mosel and Tal Afar in 2004-2005.

In effusive reviews from The New York Times’ Michiko Kakutani and London’s Guardian, Powers’ debut is compared to iconic books of our time and in literary history. “Its depiction of war,” writes Kakutani, “has the surreal kick of [Tim] O’Brien’s 1978 novel, ‘Going After Cacciato,’ and a poetic pointillism distinctly its own.” The Guardian, who long-listed the novel for its 2012 First Book Award, says, “while few will have expected the war in Iraq to bring forth a novel that can stand beside ‘All Quiet on the Western Front or The Red Badge of Courage,’ ‘The Yellow Birds’ does just that.”

YB 9:11:12Both reviews quote Powers’ hypnotic prose at length, calling his language “brilliantly observed,” and “the mark of an artist of the first order.” Little, Brown publisher Michael Pietsch, who acquired the manuscript last November and brought it into print in record time, calls the work “a voice from inside the fire.” Powers joined the Michener Center’s MFA program in 2009 as a poet and continues to write and publish poetry.

The U.S. launch will be celebrated with an event in Austin next Tuesday, Sept. 11, when the Michener Center for Writers, Texas Monthly, and the Texas Book Festival co-sponsor a conversation with Kevin Powers and TM editor Jake Silverstein—also a Michener alum— at Lambert’s Downtown BBQ from 6-8 p.m. An RSVP is required in advance through the magazine’s web page.

A Mark Twain for Our Age

AllanGAllan Gurganus, author of “Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All,” “Plays Well with Others,” and other works of fiction, will teach on campus as Michener Residency Author this February for three weeks.  He is slated to meet with MFA students in weekly craft seminars and to hold manuscript conferences to discuss their work individually.

He will also read at 7:30 p.m. on Thursday, February 9, 2012 in the Avaya Auditorium, ACE 2.302, on the southeast corner of Speedway and 24th Street on campus.  The event is free and open to students and the public.  Parking is available in the nearby UT Garage at San Jacinto and 24th.

Gurganus’s work has been translated into twenty languages. His first novel sold two million copies. Adaptations of the fiction have won four Emmys, his books awarded the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and the O’Henry Short Story Prize.  Paris La Monde said of Gurganus, “A Mark Twain for our age, hilariously clear-eyed, blessed with perfect pitch.”

With this type of endorsement we thought no one would be a more suitable interviewer for his Q&A than Gurganus himself. ShelfLife@Texas is proud to present an interview with Gurganus, by Gurganus.

Welcome to campus. You yourself studied with authors as gifted and various as Grace Paley, John Irving, Stanley Elkin and John Cheever. Do you bring their examples into your classroom?

Their voices and wisecracks go with me everywhere. Sentence by sentence, I know what each of them would say about my next line. This holds true in my own classes and student conferences.  I can literally hear what the now-deceased Grace Paley is urging me to tell a given student.  The one way to repay great teaching is trying to perfect that art yourself.

By now, my students are growing famous as my teachers were. Elizabeth MacCracken of the Creative Writing Department here, was my own pupil a few decades back at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. She remains not only among the most gifted students I’ve ever taught; she is also easily the kindest.  I remember where I was sitting when I read certain of her start-up stories.

Have you looked over the fiction of your UT students you’ll work with during your residency?

Oh yes. I’ve covered pages with many checkmarks and, to earn my keep, some questions. I’m now eager to see if each of them resembles the person I imagined wrote each tale. (Sometimes I can pick a writer out of a group of other strangers on the basis of her prose. Just showing off!)

One thing that wowed me—how different each writer is. Here there is no median talent or typical story. Everybody seems wildly themselves. Talent! For me, that is the holy of holies. I literally worship it, valuing it over physical beauty. It sure lasts longer.

Though I will be in Austin less than a month, I hope to encourage students to build upon their own best instincts. Everybody is launched already, and obsessed.

After writing myself for forty-four years, I’ve bumped into certain technical shortcuts, some simple insights that—if presented dramatically and modestly—might prove useful.

You are slated to give a reading on campus on February 9th. Will you be offering a selection of “Oldest Living Widow,” your most famous work?

Oh no. Just as students find the nerve to show me brand-new work as yet unpublished, I’ll return the favor. Only fair. No matter how many books a writer has in print, the blank page never grows less abashing. In fact, that whiteness leaves you ever more snowblind. You have used up all your charm and tricks; you fear you’ve already plundered the true ore of autobiography.

It is important to demonstrate to students that I’m still a student. I’ll read from a long novel in progress called “The Erotic History of a Rural Baptist Church.”  It investigates the confusion between spiritual longing and the raw upsurge insistence of sexual desire. That makes for a combustible mix. I plan to read a passage based on an actual incident from my hometown circa 1900. A baby elephant escapes from a visiting circus. It gets pursued by a posse of local boys and girls and farmers. It takes a local preacher to pray over this event, to try and justify or explain the random violence we all wade in daily.

What advice can you offer beginning or graduate writers? It seems a field with one long apprenticeship, then rewards unevenly distributed.

Well-said. Yes, people write because they have to. There is no other excuse for it. American culture only valued Faulkner once he’d won the Nobel, once Hollywood hired him to make his own brilliant novels terrible movies. His books were out of print. Suddenly he became ‘hot’ then valid.

I’ve been needing to put things on paper since 1966. If tomorrow I learned that no other word I wrote would ever be published, my daily schedule would not change. I’d still rise at six thirty and cohabit with my desk till early afternoon. I rarely even take the Sabbath off. Stopping and starting is the hardest part of writing. Far better never to turn off the tap.

Universities provide one essential ingredient all writers need: an interested enlightened audience. I encourage people to find a group of others, working at their same level of experience. To meet alternate weeks at least and read new work aloud. Sometimes our ears know more than our brain does. There are two of them! Music is truly what we seek to write. Fiction rests somewhere between being a Law and a Song. By hearing other people hear your work, you learn to make it rock or sway or pound. The goal is helping others Laugh, Cry, Wait and Know.  Seeing that happen, in real time, thanks to sound-waves, is one great reason to endure all its attendant tortures.

Four Questions for Poet Mark Strand

StrandPrint versionOn January 26, 2012,  UT’s Michener Center for Writers will host a visit by one of America’s premier poets, Mark Strand.  In a career spanning six decades, Strand has been recognized with the highest honors the poetry world has to bestow:  he was U.S. Poet Laureate in 1990-91, served as Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets, and has won such distinguished awards as a MacArthur Fellowship, the Bollingen Prize, the Wallace Stevens Award, the Bobbit Prize, and in 2009, the Gold Medal in Poetry of the American Academy of Arts & Letters,  to name just a few.  His dozen volumes of verse include the Pulitzer Prize-winning “Blizzard of One,” “Man and Camel,” “The Continuous Life,” and the forthcoming “Almost Invisible,” in addition to books of prose fiction and essays, translations, children’s books, and art monographs.

Born on Prince Edward Island in Canada in 1934, Strand began college in the 1950s studying painting—and the visual arts continue to be an important part of his creative life—but he soon turned to poetry, completing a Fulbright year abroad translating Italian poetry, then earning an MFA at the Iowa Workshop in 1962.  Over his long career he has taught at Harvard, Princeton, Iowa, and the University of Chicago and now divides his time between Spain and New York, where he is a professor in Columbia University’s School of the Arts writing program. From his home in Madrid, he answered questions about his work.

A past U.S. laureate, recognized with the poetry world’s top honors and scores of books to your credit, you have a curious track record of publicly giving up poetry—first back in the 1980s, when you took a years-long hiatus from publishing poems, and again last year, when you said in an interview that you had “nothing left to say,” and were turning again to the visual arts, your first calling.  Is this a kind of break-up/make-up cycle in a lifelong love affair with poetry, or something else?

It is true that I have given up the writing of poems several times. Once a book is written, I feel that I have said what I had to say. And it also seems that what I had written never measures up to what I had hoped to write. So I decide that it might be best for me to do something else. Lately, this “something else” has been the making of collages, something I have dabbled in in the past, but which now seems to have become a fixed daily activity, and one that I have no desire to relinquish. So, I don’t know if I’ll write more poems. It seems more likely that I shall write more prose pieces, that I’ll finish a memoir on my parents, and that I’ll write more essays about painting.

If you’ve written about childhood and family experiences in your poetry, how is it different to approach it in prose, with this memoir?

I don’t really care for the few autobiographical poems that I have written. One becomes a secretary to oneself. And the facts take on a disproportionate importance. I am less interested in my outward biography than I am in the other biography—the inner one, the move from poem to poem, thought to thought, etc.  The book about my parents—and I have written only the first draft, a mere 85 pages—is being written because their story is interesting and unusual. I may be the only poet in America whose father served four years as an inmate in San Quentin Penitentiary.

Even your earliest work was often concerned with absence and endings, almost from the viewpoint of a much older person surveying life’s losses. How does your 70-something self reflect on those poems now?

Those early poems only show that I have always been conscious of mortality.  I have always felt lucky to be alive and, at the same time, wondered when my luck would run out.

Though humility requires that you argue the point, the rest of us can agree that you, W.S. Merwin and the Arab poet Adonis are three strikingly handsome poets of the same generation, something that’s often been commented upon. Do you think the public’s perception of a writer’s physical appearance alters in ways—good or bad—their perception of the work?

I cannot say with any certainty that my looks have impacted positively or negatively the public consideration of my work. But if one takes the whole of his life into account, rather than just the writing life, I would say that it is better to be good-looking than not.

Mark Strand will read at 7:30 p.m. on Thursday, January 26, 2012 in the ACE Building, Avaya Auditorium 2.302, located on the southeast corner of 24th and Speedway on campus.  The event is free and open to the campus and Austin community.  Parking is available in the nearby UT Garage at San Jacinto and 24th.

Michener Center Hosts New York Times Book Review Editor

SamheadshotSamT Tanenhaus has the dream job of many bibliophiles:  editing the New York Times Book Review. He not only gets access to all the latest, he’s in a position to influence what may become the greatest books of his time.

Luckily, the job has fallen to man of voracious intellectual curiosity, who has written widely on politics, literature and culture.  His 1997 biography of Whittaker Chambers was a finalist for the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize, and a new volume, The Death of Conservatism, is winning great acclaim.  UT Michener Center for Writers’ Director James Magnuson, who has invited Tanenhaus to campus to work with writers in the MFA program, calls him simply, “a person who knows everything about everything.”

That Tanenhaus produces remarkable prose and brilliant criticism of his own is even more impressive in light of the fact that the NYTBR receives as many as 1000 new books each week,  20 to 30 of which will get reviewed.  Deciding just who gets that coveted coverage involves a massive and highly subjective winnowing which he has overseen since 2004, when he took over as editor-in-chief after having been on its staff for several years, a former editor at Vanity Fair, and a long-time freelance journalist and author. Eight to ten pre-reviewers, each working in an area of specialization — literary or experimental fiction, poetry, economics, geopolitics, children’s literature, etc. — cull the hundreds down to perhaps a few dozen which are assigned to on-staff and outside reviewers who write what eventually appears in the Sunday section each week.

The Times has run a book review section since 1896, and while there are dozens of equally prestigious reviews in the United States alone today, it remains the gold standard. A bad review in its pages can be, for an emerging author especially, as useful as a rave:  It at least brings a book into the public eye, not an easy feat in an industry that cranks out millions of titles each year, 1 percent of which are ever reviewed anywhere.  The power of any criticism to make or break an author’s fortunes and to influence what the reading public buys means that Tanenhaus’s tastes and predilections are parsed endlessly for clues to a marketplace that has always been chimerical, but is now shape-shifting as quickly as the technology and socioeconomic forces that fuel it.

Sam Tanenhaus will share his unique perspective on the book world in a lecture, “Does the Novel Still Matter?” at 7:30 pm on Thursday, November 3, 2011 at Avaya Auditorium, ACE 2.302.  He’ll discuss the state of the novel today and the authority of the novelist in what he calls a “post-literary” culture. The lecture is sponsored by the Michener Center for Writers, where Tanenhaus is in residence to work with students in Stephen Harrigans “Long-Form Journalism” seminar, co-taught by Texas Monthly editor Jake Silverstein.  While on campus, he’ll also hold a seminar with Plan II Honors students, “Recognizing Good Writing:  A Critic’s Criteria.”

The auditorium is located on the southeast corner of 24th and Speedway on campus.  Parking is available in the nearby San Jacinto Garage and the event is free to students and the public.

High Praise From Down Under: UT Alum Nominated for Top Australian Literary Prizes

DomThe accent is still there, made faint by long years away from Australia.

Dominic Smith, a 2003 alumnus of the Michener Center’s MFA program in writing, was born in Brisbane and grew up in Sydney, but his education and work have taken him far from the continent since—he earned his B.A. in Iowa and worked in the dotcom boom in Europe before coming to The University of Texas at Austin for graduate school.  Smith seems to have found Texas to his liking, though, and has stayed in Austin for more than ten years now.

After graduating with one completed novel, “The Beautiful Miscellaneous,” he won a prestigious Dobie Paisano Fellowship and spent six months completing a second novel,The Mercury Visions of Louis Daguerre.” Both were sold in 2004 to Atria (Simon & Schuster), who published them in reverse order, “Mercury Visions” being touted as his debut, followed by “Miscellaneous” in 2007.

“Miscellaneous” is a contemporary tale, the story of the average son of a genius physicist who develops a form of synesthesia after an accident. The novel explores how the character comes to understand his own mind and deal with his father’s demanding expectations.  It has been optioned by Southpaw Entertainment, with Smith adapting the screenplay himself.

In “Mercury Visions,” Smith shows his gift for capturing another time and place.  Photographer Louis Daguerre slides into a madness caused by exposure to mercury vapors, and determines to capture ten final images before he dies.  The novel expertly conjures Paris in the 1800s and the historically accurate, though fictionalized, life of Daguerre, creating what Kirkus Reviews called  “a compelling psychological study, a thoughtful tracing of the birth of a new art form, and an atmospheric portrait of 19th-century France:  impressive on all three counts.”  The book was selected for Barnes & Nobles Discover Great New Writers Program and received the Steven Turner Prize for First Fiction from the Texas Institute of Letters.

BrightShoresDomSmithIn his third novel, “Bright and Distant Shores,” Smith returns to the 19th century—1897 Chicago this time, where a gilded age magnate competes in the race to build the city’s highest skyscraper and erect on its rooftop a spectacle of South Pacific natives.  It is his first novel to be published in Australia, where it’s been received with critical praise and two national literary award nominations.

“Smith’s novel is an atmospheric, meticulously observed period drama from a footsure and stylish writer with a fine sense of narrative pace,” says “The Age,” Melbourne’s daily, which has shortlisted the novel for its Book of the Year Award.  It was also shortlisted for Australia’s prestigious Vance Palmer Prize for Fiction.

Smith launches the book’s U.S. release this week with a reading and book signing at Austin’s BookPeople at 7 p.m. on Friday, September 16, 2011. He answered a few questions for ShelfLife@Texas about his research for the novel and its reception in his homeland.

What was the genesis of “Bright and Distant Shores”?

It was a story I heard about the arctic explorer Robert Peary and the anthropologist Franz Boas, who was then working at the American Museum of Natural History. In 1897, the year my novel begins, a family of six Greenland Inuit disembarked from a ship at a dock in New York City while a curious crowd of thousands looked on. They had been shipped to the city under the care of Peary at Boas’s request — he had asked Peary to bring back a single native so the Inuit could be studied “without fear of frostbite.”  Peary took it upon himself to bring back six Greenlanders instead of one, and the Inuit were housed in the basement of the museum. Within a year, all but one had died of tuberculosis, and the sole survivor, a boy named Minik, was adopted by a museum official. The bodies of the dead were turned over to a medical school for dissection and the bones were later returned to the museum.  The bones sat in a drawer at the museum until 1992, when they were returned to Greenland after a journalist exposed the situation. Minik returned to his homeland in 1909 but later came back to the United States, only to die in the flu epidemic of 1918. This tragic story got me thinking about the troublesome relationship between museums and the people and cultures they catalogue.

Is it true that you took a crash course in sailing to get the nautical lore right for the sea voyage that takes place in the novel?

It is true, and my wife can vouch for what a disaster that was. I had read all I could about 19th century tall-mast sailing and had struck up an email correspondence with a sailor named Jonas Collins, who was circumnavigating the globe alone in his 35-foot Pearson Alberg sloop. He would answer my obscure questions whenever he got Internet access—for example, how long would it take to sail out to a remote island like Tikopia from New Guinea outside of monsoon season? Even though I knew the factual ins and outs of sailing, I felt afraid of betraying what a landlubber I was in the novel.  So I enrolled in a sailing course with a private instructor.  Flash-forward to my first time renting the boat alone and deciding to bring my wife along so I could show off my maritime prowess…we nearly collided with the dock, the boom nearly hit me in the head, and I sat by the tiller yelling instructions in a way that brought Ahab to mind.  My wife was a good sport about it all, but she suggested — quite diplomatically — that I should invite one of my male friends to go along next time. I haven’t been on a sailboat since.

You do a lot of research for your historical novels. What’s the oddest thing you discovered about the 19th century or the settings for the novel?

The 19th century abounds with oddities, one of the reasons I find it a deep well to draw from in my writing. Consider the Chicago meatpacking tycoon who tried to dynamite a freighter’s way out of frozen Lake Michigan one winter, or the use of the word antifogmatic for a drink of liquor taken in the morning to brace oneself against bad weather, or the fact that Harper’s and other serious magazines published articles that profiled the emerging skyscrapers in Chicago and New York, asking questions like—How Will High Altitude Affect Business Acumen? These were, in the 1890s, buildings of not more than 10-25 floors. The 19th century is full of gripping philosophy, words, but also lots of whimsy. I feel right at home there.

You haven’t really taken Australia as a subject for your fiction thus far.  As you look towards other projects, does the book’s tremendous reception there make you rethink this?

I’ve published one short story that takes place in Australia and the current novel has an Australian sea captain — the son of a freed Tasmanian convict — but that’s as close as I’ve gotten to staging fiction on the continent.  I’ve had an idea for a while about a novel set in Australia during its early period, but so far it’s escaped my grasp.  I’m working on something now that features a school of New York painters of the early 20th century, but then I’m determined to make the Australian idea come to life.  I was in Australia for about a month earlier this year and it was very gratifying to see my work getting a warm reception there. I’ve spent half my life in the United States, but culturally I still feel very connected to the place where I grew up.

Luminous Prose

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Alex Shakar

“It’s exciting to meet an author who’s unafraid of heights.”

So writes one New York Times reviewer of Alex Shakar, a 1994 graduate of the University of Texas at Austin Department of English graduate program in creative writing and former Michener Fellow.  Shakar, whose newest book “Luminarium” was released from Soho Press last month to critical praise, will be in Austin this week to read and sign at Austin’s BookPeople.  Friends and fans will get a chance to hear new work from a writer who is establishing himself as one of the most daring and inventive social critics of his generation.

Shakar’s debut short fiction collection,City in Love,” published shortly after his graduation, won the 1996 FC2 National Fiction Competition. A reimagining of Ovid’s “Metamorphosis” set in an anachronistic New York City of 1 B.C., the stories draw on classical myths to depict isolated urbanites searching for love, artistic expression and meaning in a hard urban landscape. They range in style from the traditionally narrative to the experimental, and in the title story, Shakar employs a prototypical form of hypertext that references links within the story to a secret embedded narrative thread, foreshadowing by some years the ways in which technology alters and informs our reading experiences today.

“City in Love” was followed in 2001 by “The Savage Girl,” in which Shakar again creates a mythical city, built on the slopes of a volcano, where advertising and consumerism rule and trendspotters hungrily troll for the Next Big Thing.   The cultural landscape into which the novel was released in September 2001 was quickly changed by the events of 9/11. “The age of cynicism and anomie that is captured here may have ended in a flash,” a New York Times review said, “but . . . Mr. Shakar preserves them here with a scathing intelligence that transcends the trendiness of any particular moment.”

thumbLuminariumAfter ten years during which Shakar completed a doctorate at University of Illinois at Chicago and joined the fiction faculty at Urbana-Champaign, where he is now associate professor, he has published his second novel, “Luminarium.” This time his razor-sharp eye and wit are trained on the shaky shared ground of technology and spirituality in our cyber age. “Science fiction without the Frankenstein scars,” a Time Out Chicago reviewer notes of Shakar’s genre-bending style.  “Part Philip K. Dick, part Jonathan Franzen, this radiant work leads you from the unreal to the real so convincingly that you begin to let go of the distinction,” notes a recent starred Publishers Weekly review.

The reading and booksigning begin at 7 pm on Thursday, September 8, 2011Bookpeople is located on the corner of West 6th and North Lamar Blvd.  Shakar will also meet with students earlier in the afternoon, at 3 p.m., at the Michener Center’s Dobie House seminar room; call 512-471-8444 to reserve a seat.