Category Archives: Interviews

Book reviews with author interviews

The Carrion Birds by Urban Waite

book cover

No Country for Old Middle-Aged Men

Ray Lamar was a drug enforcer, a killer, but ten years ago it went bad, with the Juarez cartel, a rival to his boss, killing his wife and severely damaging his son in a hit-and-run. Ray had left, feeling unable to care for his son, but now he is back, and dreaming of living a legitimate life he has taken on one last job from his old gangster employer, Memo.

Ray had wanted this for so long and never known how to do it, something so simple, a visit to see his son, a new life away from the violence of the last ten years.

He wants the payoff from this to tide him over until he can get established, and go legit. The job is supposed to be simple, a heist, yank some H from a truck, at least that was what he was told, but Ray smells a rat. There is more to this assignment than he was told. Blood is spilled and everything goes to hell from there.

[While reading the book, I kept seeing the face of Brooklyn-born Esai Morales as Ray]

Ray’s cousin, Tomas Herrera, had been the sheriff of Coronado, NM. But before Ray left, while he was still trying to find and punish the cartel people who had taken out his family, he asked Tomas to look into a local cartel employee, a woman. She wound up dead. Tomas wound up an ex-sheriff. That’s a lot to take, even if Tomas always did love and admire his older cousin. How Tom and Ray deal with each other is one of the many fine elements in this excellent novel.

[I see the face of Demian Bichir for Tom]

When Tomas was kicked out of office, he was replaced with a young deputy, a woman he had trained, and liked, Edna Kelly. The mayor wants her to keep Tom away from any sort of police-related activities, but the guy knows his stuff, and she could use the help. That they might have at one point been more than friends adds a level of tension, even though they have moved on.

The baddie in town is Dario Campo. He’s the guy who owns a bar in town that does not seem to do a lot of business, but is, somehow, always open. Dario arranges for the transportation of imported product. It is his transport that Ray was sent to heist. Dario is no simple black hat. There is another deep-background baddie, but we will not address him here.

There are enough supporting players to matter but the unheralded co-star is the town of Coronado, New Mexico. In the same way that Jennifer Haigh writes stories that tell the tale of Bakerton, PA (See Baker Towers and News from Heaven: The Bakerton Stories), Waite writes about the slow death of a town. The oil that lit up the local economy years back has been pumped. We see yet another local well lay off it’s entire crew. The mayor struggles to keep the town from disintegrating entirely, desperate to keep bad news quiet, much as Mayor Vaughn urged Chief Brody to keep things on the down-low on Amity Island back in the 70s. How many oil towns in the southwest have seen their flames go out as the petro was drained and replaced with a whole lotta nuthin’. It is not just the lives of the main characters that are at stake.

I am at a decided disadvantage here as TCB is my introduction to Waite. Those with exposure to his earlier works will be better able to comment on his actual oeuvre. I gather this one has a lot in common with his last one, but you will have to check other reviewers for consideration of the changes, or consistencies from one book to the next. But we do know that Waite admires some writers and works in particular. He said in a 2011 interview with Powells’, I really like Cormac McCarthy though I think it might show too much in my writing. He mentions Blood Meridien as one of his favorite five books. So we can look for the town to get painted red, and it ain’t Christmas. Another item that popped to mind was the film There Will Be Blood. It has the obvious relevance of considerable violence in the West, although TWWB had much more to do with oil. In There will be Blood, Daniel Plainview’s need for family is foiled when his adopted son, deaf, cannot hear and learn from him. In The Carrion Birds, Ray, who desperately wants to have a normal life after having wandered in the desert for many years, is faced with a son who was damaged as a child and can neither speak no hear. There will be no happy family ending for him. Unlike Plainview, our guy does not see himself as god-like, but his need for vengeance resonates with Plainview’s.

There is a lot in here about greed, revenge and hoping for that which lies beyond reach. In addition to Ray’s dream, Tom would like to be sheriff again. And they are not alone in their unlikely desires. We can count on the baddies for greed, and Ray will provides all the revenge we will ever need, both ten years in the past and in the today of the story. Will justice ever be enforced? Can it be? What constitutes justice anyway?

On finishing this book, I had a feeling that it was somehow Shakespearean, more than a western, more than a noir, but had substance that I was feeling, but was unable to articulate. I claim no special knowledge of Shakespeare. Like most of us, I have seen many plays and films, and have read many books that either were Willy’s original plays or updated interpretations, but my familiarity is non-academic, of the garden-variety sort. So, I did what anyone in 2013 facing a shortage of knowledge might do, I headed for my internet machine to see what I could see. What I came up with was an ancient (100 yrs old more or less) text by an Oxford don that goes into the details of what it is that constititutes Shakespearean tragedy. I began listing elements, criteria and hoped to be able to come to a firm conclusion based on those. The result? Ah, there’s the rub. While many of the elements do fit nicely into this novel, there are others that have to be squeezed in like a stepsister foot into a glass slipper. I am including that list here, but while I tucked it under the cover of a spoiler notice in Goodreads, recognizing that it is a sidetrip not everyone will want to take, I am still rookie enough not to have mastered that in WordPress. So be forewarned. Elements within the red text that follows can be considered potentially spoilerish

In order to consider whether the story does or does not conform, one must look at elements that will give far too much away. The book in question is Shakespearean Tragedy – Lectures on Hamlet, Othello, King Lean and Macbethby one A.C. Bradley, an erstwhile professor of poetry at Oxford. The book is available for free thanks to the Gutenberg project. Clicking on the above title will take you there.

1 – it is pre-eminently the story of one person, the ‘hero,’
Check – this is Ray’s story, and while others figure in significantly, primarily Tom, it remains Ray’s story
2 – The story leads up to, and includes, the death of the hero – check

3 – The suffering and calamity are, moreover, exceptional – check
Wife killed, child damaged for life, father tortured and killed

4 – exceptional suffering and calamity, then, affecting the hero, and—we must now add—generally extending far and wide beyond him, so as to make the whole scene a scene of woe – check – there is a significant body count

5 – They befall a conspicuous person. Here we hit a soft spot. Ray has been away for ten years, so does not quality as locally conspicuous, although everyone there seems to know him from his earlier time in the town

6 – actions beget others, and these others beget others again, until this series of inter-connected deeds leads by an apparently inevitable sequence to a catastrophe – check – the calamities that befall are a product of human action, not the heavy hand of fate or the almighty

7 – the conflict may quite naturally be conceived as lying between two persons, of whom the hero is one; or, more fully, as lying between two parties or groups, in one of which the hero is the leading figure – well duh-uh, conflict assumes opposing parties

8 – here is an outward conflict of persons and groups, there is also a conflict of forces in the hero’s soul – check – Ray enters the scene hoping that he can ultimately walk away from the criminal life, but struggles to decide whether to remain and seek vengeance or leave

9 – They are exceptional beings – in Ray’s case one might argue that his skill in combat, his history as a special forces soldier, is what raises him above the ordinary, but in Shakespeare’s tragedies his primary tragic character was a political leader, a royal, someone very clearly in the public eye, so elevating Ray to that level is a significant stretch – no check

However, the royal/leader character represents in a way the potential demise of an entire comunity, embodies that in fact. While Ray lacks that sort of societal standing, the town is, in fact endangered by his actions. Those actions may be only a part of the longer demise of the community, but that his actions tie in to the town’s peril might (in a sneaky way) raise Ray up a notch into that “Exceptional being” category, just barely, with a bit of wishful thinking.

10 – In the circumstances where we see the hero placed, his tragic trait, which is also his greatness, is fatal to him – check – his skill in combat, that which makes him special, also allows him to seek large scale vengeance, which forces the authorities to come after him

11 – the Elizabethan drama was almost wholly secular – check
There is no meaningful reference to god as an actor here

Oh, and Willy the Shake tragedies take place in five acts. Ditto TCB, which is spread over five chapters.

One could go on in this vein for some time, but I will spare you further such contemplations. Suffice it to say that, with some reluctance, I am persuaded that Ray’s journey qualifies as of the Shakespearean tragic sort. I encourage you to check Bradley’s very interesting free book, if the subject pulls you.

The title, The Carrion Birds, seems quite well suited to the story. It is the town that is dying and sundry characters have been picking at the likely corpse for some time. Drug dealers are prime among these, but they are not the only ones. Another view might be that carrion birds are harbingers of death

The thought of death still circling him, as it always did, as it always did, high up like a vulture on the wind.

While it is tempting to settle on this, it is worth bearing in mind that this book was published in the UK under the title Dead if I Don’t. I do not know why this change was made, and whether it was the author’s idea or not, but I think the newer title is definitely a better fit.

Bottom line, this is a powerful read, with engaging characters, in all shades of gray, complicated matters under consideration, and a forward momentum that will keep you turning the pages. Dig in.


After the review was posted, Urban sent a note of thanks. I followed up with some questions, and the author very graciously offered thoughtful responses. He has OK’d the use of his words here. I inquired into why the title was changed from the UK version.

The title change was a decision I made after it was pointed out to me that all of the Sookie Stackhouse books by Charlaine Harris start off with “Dead.” So, since my book was quite a bit different from those I wanted something different for a title. The Carrion Birds title was the pick that I went with here in the US.

I asked if I was barking up the wrong tree re the whole Shakespeare thing:

To be truthful I hadn’t thought about the Shakespeare connection until you brought it up. But that’s not to say it isn’t a large part of The Carrion Birds. The origins for much of what I write are usually a bit chaotic and hard to place. My writing just kind of “pops to mind” for lack of a better term. And it’s only after reflecting a bit on it that I start to get a feel for the origins.

I remembered re-reading Macbeth in the course of a night during a break I was taking from the novel. I was a little out of it and I was trying to find a way back into The Carrion Birds and something in there must have clicked for me. I had also been reading James Dickey’s To the White Sea and there is a definite sense of tragedy (or tragic karma depending on how you look at it) in that book. Plus a very early draft of TCB dealt with a sort of Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid kind of feel. All that paying for your sins stuff. Which plays pretty well in TCB.

I should also say that a lot of my education in college came down to how many Shakespeare lit classes I could take, as well as all the electives I could fit in with film classes on Hitchcock. I like to say that Graham Greene has always been the biggest influence on how I put a novel together, but thinking on it now I’m starting to realize when I first came to the daunting task of putting a large work together, I fell back on my knowledge of plays and films.

With this in mind I’m arguing for Ray as a sort of “exceptional being.” He’s the son of one of the richest, former oilmen in the valley and in that way he is a sort of royal in the small scale of this community. So perhaps I was channeling some Shakespeare after all.

I asked if had any thoughts on casting:

As for casting, that’s one loaded question for me. I like your choices. Definitely two actors I would get behind in a heartbeat. But personally I try not to think on it too much. I worry I might start seeing those faces when I jump in on some bit of writing. And it might change how I lay out my characters or what decisions or actions I want them to accomplish. It’s just better for me if I don’t get too close with them. Who knows when I’ll have to kill them off…

Had he considered leaving Memo to his dark devices instead of the fate he wrote for him?

He’s such a bastard of a character. I feel like left to his own devices he would have ended up the way he does no matter what happens. So I guess I could have let him be, but what fun would that have been?

Finally, what’s coming up?

I try to get in at least five pages a day on the next project. And that project being a sequel to my first novel, The Terror of Living, makes the stress just that much higher. I loved my first novel and to be working on a sequel to it is exciting but also horrifying. I want what I’m writing now to outdistance what I’ve written before. I want each new project to be better than the last and so coming back to these characters I guess I just want to do them justice in the most badass way I can.

Thanks so much to Urban for offering real quantities of his time, and I guess I really should get cracking on his prior novel.

==========================================EXTRA STUFF

2011 interview with the author – from Powell’s

Author’s site

Author’s Facebook site

A free short story by the author on Simon and Schuster’s site

The Shakespearean lectures book noted in the review

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Filed under Interviews, Literary Fiction, Reviews

The Girl With a Clock for a Heart by Peter Swanson

Peter Swanson’s The Girl with a Clock for a Heart is due out February 2014

George had imagined this moment many times but had somehow never imagined the outcome. Liana was not simply an ex-girlfriend who had once upon a time broken George’s heart; she was also, as far as George still knew, a wanted criminal, a woman whose transgressions were more in line with those of Greek tragedy than youthful indiscretion. She had, without doubt, murdered one person and most likely murdered another. George felt the equal weights of moral responsibility and indecision weigh down upon him.

There are lies, damned lies and then there is Liana Dector, falsehood on feet, the sort of dame who puts the fatale in femme fatale. Of course she was also George’s long lost sweetheart from college, the one. George is a decent sort, an unexceptional guy who had the misfortune to cross paths with the wrong woman at a tender age, and never really recovered. She is the one who has been haunting his dreams ever since, the one for whom he would drop all others, the one for whom he would do anything, really, anything. When she walks back into his life what she asks does not seem all that much, really. Of course if it hadn’t been all that much, then George might have been spared a whole lotta trouble.

He’d known he was going to say yes to Liana even before he knew what it was that she wanted. He’d known the moment he’d let her into his apartment. He also knew that Liana was as trustworthy as a startled snake.

Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray in Double Indemnity– from

I am sure there are more than a few of us, particularly we gullible guys, who have a page of our private books dedicated to one person in particular, the one who broke our hearts the worst, the ones who came into, or more likely passed through, our lives at a point when the people we were becoming had not yet formed, when the clay was still damp, and left an impression, like a teen tagger in wet concrete. How does that scarring affect the rest of our lives? What directions do we take, or avoid, as a result? Two words work to describe George Foss once Liana returns to wrapping her desires around his dreams, poor bastard

The story is told in two time lines. The earlier covers the time when Liana and George first got together, in college, and George’s attempt to find out what was really going on with his gf of a semester when she takes a powder. This includes learning about Liana’s life in her Florida home. The latter, and larger stream is contemporary, and includes a crooked ex boyfriend from whom Liana snatched half a mill, an impressively violent enforcer sort, George’s on-again-off-again gf, a mysterious house well off the beaten path, and a payload of diamonds.

There is indeed a mystery here. Can anything Liana says be believed? What is the truth of her tales, both now and in the past? What is the nature of her relationship with her erstwhile bf and with the thuggish Donnie Jenks?

Mary Astor and Humphrey Bogart in The Maltest Falcon – Image was taken from

A few cops cross the stage but there is no primary PI in this noir tale. This book is less Raymond Chandler, and more North by Northwest. Liana’s favorite book is Daphne Du Maurier’s <i>Rebecca</i>, and you might extract some value by keeping that in mind. George has a cat named Nora, which might be a nod to The Thin Man, which featured Nick and Nora Charles. But I expect that one is a stretch. Are the references to hot and cold calculated nods to The Postman Always Rings Twice, or are we going all taffy-like again?

Liana is a person with several aliases, and that always makes one suspect there is content in here about identity. How do we become who we are? Can that change? What if people cannot or do not accept us for who we are? Can we ever get away from who we were? Notions of this sort abound.

I had become this different person, this person I’d rather have been—you know, in school, doing well, with a boyfriend, a boyfriend like you—but it was like I had a secret disease, or there was this clock inside of me, ticking like a heart, and at any moment an alarm would go off and [the girl I was then] would no longer exist. She’d die and I’d have to go back to being Liana Dector.

There are always some hesitations. I thought the notion of the book’s title was less than meets the eye. Few of the subsidiary characters come to life, much. But when you are flipping through pages as fast as I did and you will, such things generate as much concern as notions of morality to a sociopath. <i>The Girl With a Clock For a Heart</i> is a must-read thriller. Once you pick it up you will not be able to put it down, unless of course, that special someone from that special time all those years back should show up at your favorite reading spot and ask you for a favor. One look in those eyes and you know you won’t be able to say “no.”

Lauren Bacall – From


Peter Swanson graciously agreed to answer a few questions about his book. The responses here have been only minimally edited:


How important is place in The Girl

What’s most important is the difference, class and otherwise, between New England and the fictional Sweetgum, Florida. Liana wants to reinvent herself, and part of that is leaving the town she lived in and never coming back. And when George visits Sweetgum it is important that he is out of his element.

Could it have taken place in locations other than Connecticut, Boston/New Essex, Florida?

The important thing would be the differences between the locations. The book is currently under option by a British film company, and writer/director James Marsh is working on an adaptation. I spoke with him about setting the story in England, which is his plan right now. He wants to substitute Oxford for Boston and a seaside town in East Anglia for Sweetgum. I thought this completely worked.

Why Tulum, and not, say Rio, Cancun, or the French Riviera?

The short answer is that I’ve been to Tulum and haven’t been to Rio or the French Riviera. The longer answer is that I just think there’s something incredibly evocative about Tulum, those Mayan ruins hovering above the ocean.


On your blogger profile, you list yourself as a writer of crime fiction and poetry.  Which came first?

Poetry came first. I’ve been writing it since I was a kid, and for most of my twenties and thirties I worked very hard at becoming the best poet I could be. I’m not sure that worked out quite the way I had planned, but I wrote a few poems that, when I read them today, don’t make me physically ill. So that’s good.

Do they get equal time or is one dominant?

Right now, fiction is entirely dominant. I only write poetry now when I get an idea for a poem, and that happens very infrequently. I think I’m tapped out on poems. I don’t really write confessional poetry—e.g. Grandpa’s funeral, running into ex-girlfriend, etc.—so I sometimes feel like I’ve said all I can say in poetry form. This is one of the reasons I decided to do The Hitchcock Sequence, a sonnet for every Hitchcock film. It gave me a subject matter

You have written a lot of short crime fiction. Have you considered other genres, say police procedural, or horror or sci-fi?

I’ve written some horror short fiction and a little bit of sci-fi. It’s a matter of ideas, more than anything, and almost all of the ideas I get fall into the realm of mystery/crime. I like the idea of writing a solid police procedural but that involves a lot of research, and I’m pretty lazy about research.

When did you decide you wanted to write novels?

I started writing novels about ten years ago. At first, I just wanted to see if I could do it. I wrote a classic whodunit in which the amateur detective is a visiting writer/poet at a university. It was hard work, but more than that, it was a lot of fun. I loved spending a year in one fictional world, and I loved the feeling of finishing the novel, getting to the last page.

When did you start working on this one? Was it a prolonged gestation?

The Girl with a Clock for a Heart began life as a novella. It was essentially the college-years section of the book. My agent was the one who suggested that it could be turned into a book. The whole process probably took about two and a half years.

You are writing sonnets for all of Alfred Hitchcock’s films. Is that project complete?

All the sonnets are written, although a few them definitely need to be tweaked, or even re-written. I’ve been sending the poems out individually to journals and online magazines, and several have been published. At some point I’ll see if I can find a publisher for the whole sequence.

What impact did Hitchcock’s work have on your writing in The Girl?

Hitchcock is my favorite filmmaker, and he’s a big influence for that reason alone. Out of his 53 films there are at least ten or so that I re-watch frequently so they just seep in. James Marsh commented to me that he thought there was a real Vertigo vibe going on in The Girl with a Clock for a Heart, and that was news to me, although maybe he’s right. Definitely Irene is based on Midge, the Barbara Bel Geddes character from Vertigo.


What was the spark that started your engine in writing The Girl?

I was thinking about the difference between going to college now and going to college when I did, back in the 1980s. Nowadays, most teens have an established online identity. When you arrive as a freshman and meet someone new you probably run back to your room and look them up on facebook and find out everything about them. But in the olden days all these kids arrived in college, and they had a real opportunity to reinvent themselves. No one knew anything about anyone. That was the spark that led me to wondering how far a freshman year re-invention could go.

When you were writing did you have particular faces in mind, people you know, relatives, neighbors, actors?

I do and I don’t. Usually, when I start writing a character, I picture what they look like, often using actors, but as I keep writing that connection seems to fade. As I said before, when I pictured Irene in this book I was picturing Midge from Vertigo. Short blonde hair, glasses. But she’s the only character in the book that I had a real specific person I thought about.

Barbara BG
Barbara Bel Geddes as Midge in Vertigo

I heard that there is a sequel in the works,

There actually isn’t. The book I’m working on right now is a new standalone thriller. I would write a sequel but I would need to come up with an idea first that would get the characters back together, and that hasn’t happened yet.


What is your physical writing methodology re when and how long?

I work at home in the morning, on my computer. I write 500 words a day on whatever it is I happen to be working on. That makes it sound like I’m incredibly disciplined but I do a whole lot of procrastinating before I start to write. Sometimes it’s reading, and sometimes it’s looking at mindless stuff online, or playing Candy Crush on my phone, but after doing that for a while, I eventually settle down into writing. I write my 500 words and then I quit. The most important part for me is that I’m writing every day, plus I think it’s important to read what you’ve written that day before you fall asleep. A lot of work can get done during a good night’s sleep.

In that case there are a lot of us who are incredibly productive. Thanks so much, Peter, for so generously offering your time.  Best of luck with The Girl. I hope a lot of people get a chance to read it.

==============================EXTRA STUFF

A fun site that deals in you-know-what, includes a lovely list of further links

A short story by Swanson, With the Lights Out

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Visitation Street by Ivy Pochoda

Visitation Street is my favorite novel of 2013

If Ivy Pochoda never writes another book, this one would be enough to keep her name on the lips of readers for decades to come. On a hot July night in Brooklyn’s Red Hook neighborhood, (named, BTW, for the color of its soil and an erstwhile geographical point, not for the hook-shaped pier that juts out from it today) two fifteen-year-old girls, Val Marino and June Giotta, looking for a little fun, take a small raft out into the city’s upper bay.

Only one returns, found unconscious under the pylons of a local pier.

What happened?

There is danger in being in love. When we are in love we tend to lift up the things about our beloved that appeal, while minimizing, if we see at all, the things that do not. My feeling about Visitation Street reminds me of that. There is an air of ecstasy about it, as if I have found The One. And maybe there are flaws that I simply cannot see because of the overwhelming feeling of excitement that I experienced while reading this book. For what it’s worth, I have had this feeling several times in the last few years, with The Orchardist, Caribou Island, Billy Lynn’s Long Half-Time Walk, and Skippy Dies, to name a few. I have not felt any regret about declaring my love for them, and do not expect any regrets this time around. But just so’s ya know. Ahm in luuuuv. My wife understands.

This is a magnificent book, very reminiscent in power and achievement to Dennis Lehane’s Mystic River. In fact the book is released under the imprint Dennis Lehane Books, and seeing how reminiscent it is of Mystic River that seems appropriate. Ivy Pochoda has achieved a stunning success in so many ways in Visitation Street that it is difficult to know where to begin. How about characters?

Pochoda clearly has a gift for portraying people. Val is struggling to remember what happened that night, and we feel her pain as she travels from forgetting to remembrance. Eighteen-year-old Acretius James, Cree, struggles to overcome the death of his Corrections Officer father, Marcus, and to find direction in his life. He spends a lot of his time on a beached boat left by his dad.

Was this boat, seen on a pier off Beard Street, the inspiration for this?

Will he remain moored in the rubble of the past or find a way to sail forth? Jonathan Sprouse, a musician and music teacher at a local parochial school, and borderline alcoholic, has a lifetime of descent interrupted by an opportunity to do something worthwhile. He hears the world differently from you and me.

The wino’s voice catches Jonathan’s ear. It’s dissonant, all flats and sharps with no clear words.

and later

Nearly every day Jonathan tells Fadi about a piece of music that’s perfectly suited to the moment. Last week he said, “It’s an afternoon for Gershwin. Mostly sunny, a little snappy, but with a hint of rain.” And two evenings ago he asked. “Did you see the sunset? Only Philip Glass could write a sunset like that.”

Fadi is a bodega owner, invested in helping his community, and he works to try to unravel the mystery of what happened to Laura Palmer June Giotta. (and what is going on across the street from his shop with the owner of that place and the wino who seems always to be hanging out there?)

Here is the real-world place that provided the model for Fadi’s

Finally, Ren is a mysterious protector who appears, seemingly out of nowhere, to watch over Cree and Val. (For those who are familiar, think the Super-Hoodie character in the British TV series, Misfits) Pochoda makes us care about every one of these people. She breathes life into them, giving us reasons to want them to succeed. We feel the love for these characters that their creator obviously does. But they are all, well, except for Fadi, damaged people, sinking, needing a life preserver of one sort or another. Val is a basket case after that night. Jonathan was born playing first violin and somehow finds himself at the back of the orchestra. Cree suffers from the loss of his father and Ren has a dark past that has defined much of his life. But they struggle to rise above the waves, and we cheer their efforts.

Next is the landscape, which, in this case, is the most significant character in the story. When SuperBitch Sandy raised the ocean’s wrath in 2012, devastating large swaths of the East Coast, it was not the first time that Red Hook had been laid waste. The area had once been the primary entryway of grain to the nation. Large proportions of the nation’s sugar was imported and refined in Red Hook, and a considerable swath of the metro area’s beer was processed there. But the dock jobs moved to newer ports, the neighborhood was bisected when Robert Moses carved an elevated trench through it with the construction of the Gowanus Expressway, and the crack epidemic led Red Hook to be declared one of the worst neighborhoods in the nation in 1990. But Red Hook had been making a comeback. A new frou-frou supermarket has been built in a Civil War era waterfront building (it is referred to in the book as Local Harvest, but is in reality a Fairway. I have shopped there and it is fabulous, or at least it was before Sandy destroyed it. It reopened in March 2013) The story is set in 2006. There is now an IKEA in Red Hook, occupying what was an abandoned dockyard at the time of the story. On the next pier down was an abandoned sugar refinery, which was demolished in 2007, so don’t go looking.

This image was found in and permission was granted to use it here

A cruise ship terminal, imminent for most of the book, is opened by the end.

The Queen Mary II, at the Brooklyn Cruise Terminal – 7/6/13

The change in the neighborhood is part of the world Pochoda describes. There is, by the way, a Visitation Place, on which is located a Visitation rectory.

Visitation and Van Brunt

We presume that the day care center at which the girls worked is there as well. There is a real Red Hook Gospel Tabernacle to match the one in the story. People were indeed killed in this neighborhood from drug-related gang violence, most notably a school principal who had walked out of his public school looking for one of his students, and took a stray round. In the Red Hook Houses, recently devastated by Sandy, reside some 8,000 people, in less than idyllic conditions. It is still a tough place.

So we have amazing characters and a spot-on depiction of a neighborhood in transition from drug center to the next cool place. Next comes plot. There is indeed a compelling mystery, and Pochoda is no less skilled at peeling back the layers in that than she is in revealing her characters, bit by bit. You will want to know what took place and Pochoda will let you know, in due time.

Next is the introduction of a dose of magical realism. Cree’s mother, Gloria, has the sight. Enough of a talent to spend countless days talking (visiting?) with her dead husband, while sitting on the memorial bench that had been erected to his memory. (This was inspired by the death of that public school principal. A school was named for him. Cree’s father must make do with the bench.) Enough of a talent that locals come to her for help in communicating with their dearly departed. That particular strand of DNA did not come to Cree, but his grandmother and his aunt also have the ability, and there may be another family member in line as well. After that night, Val sees and hears things. Is she losing her mind? She is not alone. How the people visited by these incomings handle the stress of it is a significant element of the tale as well. Is it real at all or merely the self-inflicted manifestation of guilt?

The notion of ghosts is prominent here in Pochoda’s Red Hook. Certainly the death of Cree’s father is a spectre that continues to impact both his son and his widow. Jonathan carries with him the burden of a death as well. Val must cope with the death of her friend, and Ren not only has death-related memories that live on for him, but has seen the torment of many others.

There wasn’t a goddamned night on the inside when I wasn’t woken by somebody haunted by the person he dropped. Ghosts aren’t the dead. They’re those the dead left behind. Stay here long enough, you’ll become one of them—another ghost haunting the Hook.

Cree’s mother communes daily with her late husband. And the neighborhood itself echoes with the change from is to was:

As he crosses from this abandoned corner of the waterside back over to the Houses he becomes aware of the layers that form the Hook—the projects built over the frame houses, the pavement laid over the cobblestones, the lofts overtaking the factories, the grocery stores overlapping the warehouses. The new bars cannibalizing the old ones. The skeletons of forgotten buildings—the sugar refinery and the dry dock—surviving among the new concrete bunkers being passed off as luxury living. The living walk on top of the dead—the water front dead, the old mob dead, the drug war dead—everyone still there. A neighborhood of ghosts.

I expect that by including references to sundry locations that have now moved on to another realm, Pochoda is linking the deaths and births on the landscape with the more human ghosts that inhabit this world. All these incredible characters come to life in this book, even though they are walking through a place as haunted as any graveyard.

The final piece here is the power of Pochoda’s writing. Here is a sample.

The women grow grungier and sexier the later it gets. Soon they bear no resemblance to the morning commuters who will tuck themselves into bus shelters along Van Brunt on Monday, polished and brushed and reasonably presentable to the world outside Red Hook. Nighttime abrades them, tangles their hair and chips their nails. Colors their speech. At night, the hundreds of nights they’ve passed the same way begin to show, revealed in their hollowed cheeks and rapid speech. Jonathan wonders how long it takes for their costumes to become their clothes, their tattoos their birthmarks. When will they let the outside world slip away and forget to retrieve it?

Really, what could possibly be added to enhance that?

Ok, there have to be a few chinks in the armor here, somewhere, right? I looked pretty closely at the geography of the events, and it seemed a stretch. For example, did Jonathan really carry the unconscious Val eight blocks to Fadi’s? Well, he is a young guy, 28, 29, so yeah, I guess it is possible. There is no inpatient hospital in Red Hook, and I have not yet found out whether there was one there in 2006. But I continue to search. The four-corners location which includes Fadi’s bodega appears to be located not at the intersection of Visitation and Van Brunt, but a block away at Pioneer Street. These are small items, and I have no trouble with the author using a bit of elastic geography to support her story. Certainly “Visitation “works better than “Pioneer,” the actual name of the street where the bar and bodega intersect Van Brunt, particularly as characters here are visited, in one way or another.

This not a book you will want to begin before bedtime, as you may find yourself reading straight through and costing yourself a good chunk of a night’s sleep. We are in can’t-put-it-down territory here. And you might want to have a good cardiologist nearby when you finish reading this book. It’s gonna break your heart.

It’s no secret. I love this book. But I’m a modern guy and this is not an exclusive love. I am more than happy to share. Don’t let this one sink beneath the waves of your attention. Reach in and pull it out. This is simply an amazing book. You must read it.

I exchanged a note or two with the author since posting the review and she very graciously responded, OK’ing the use of her words here. I asked, “Do the names of the characters have personal relevance? Why June, Val, Cree, Jonathan, Ren and so on?”

A writing teacher of mine once told me that names should be simple but also stand out. Cree (Acretius) is the name of a guy I met when I was 11. He was older (19), black, and represented a teenage world that I couldn’t really imagine. It just stuck with me. Val was originally called Viv which seemed too old. Jonathan (based on someone named William who really looks like a Jonathan) was named for that reason and after a music teacher I had in high school.

It seemed to me that the neighborhood of Red Hook was supremely significant here. “Was it your intent to mirror the ghostliness of the human life in Red Hook with the architectural changes that have taken place between 2006 and now, IKEA in place of the crumbling dockyard, Fairway due but not yet arrived, razing of the sugar factory, et al, or was that a happy coincidence?”

I truly meant to capture the ghostliness of Red Hook…Red Hook was as much a character for me as any of the real live people. In my first draft I was writing about the neighborhood more than the people in it, which wasn’t so hot in terms of plot.

And as for the specifics of place in Red Hook

I lived, as I mentioned on Pioneer and Van Brunt. The Greek’s cafe was downstairs and Heba / Hafiz deli was across the street. There’s a Catholic School on Summit and an abandoned one on Henry (I think) that I used as inspiration for St. Bernardette’s. Though in all honestly, some of the interior of St. Bernardette’s is based on my school, St. Ann’s on Pierrepont St. However, the boat was on Lorraine St closer to the projects. How the hell did it get there? That was super strange. It’s so far from the water. The Bait & Tackle most certainly is the Dockyard. In fact, I’ll be doing a reading there this summer. I can’t wait.

The Red Hook Bait & Tackle on Van Brunt and Pioneer

I wondered if she had been inspired by particular art work, as there is a lot of it adorning the public spaces in the neighborhood

I really made up all the artwork in the book — Ren’s murals etc. There’s no basis in real Red Hook graffiti there. Maybe soon!

As for what is next for Ivy

I’m in LA now and it’s getting harder and harder to write about Brooklyn. I am tooling around with a book set here. Wish me luck!

Best of luck, Ivy. Although with talent like hers, I doubt she will need much.

===================================EXTRA STUFF

Ivy Pochoda, a child phenom, and later professional squash player, is a Brooklyn native. She grew up in Cobble Hill, not far from Red Hook, and she lived in Red Hook for a time as well, until signs of gentrification gave her second thoughts. She lives in Los Angeles at present. It sounds like she is there to stay, which is very, very sad. 😦

After reading this book, you might want to keep up with Ivy, so here are links to her website and FB Page.

Ok, I got a little funny in the head, (love will do that to a guy) trying to trace the movements of the characters here. Along those lines I employed Google and made a map that shows many of the locations identified in the book.

Keep in mind that several places cited in Visitation Street have changed or been replaced. The abandoned shipyard is now an IKEA. The abandoned sugar refinery has been razed. The bar on which the Dockyard is based, as we have learned, is the Red Hook Bait and Tackle Shop with maybe an idea or three from other local watering holes. (And there is a new liquor store nearby, named The Dockyard, that looks to be opening ‘ere long)

In addition to the images I splashed all over this review, there are more, on Some relate to the book more than others, but all the shots in this set were taken in Red Hook.

3/30/13 – I came across this piece in the NY Times re what the Real Estate types, in a bit of the location renaming that is a plague here, are calling the “Columbia Waterfront District.” Get over yourselves, people. It is still Red Hook. There are some nice shots in the linked slideshow though.

7/4/13 – You must check out a video on Ivy’s site, in which she talks about Red Hook and some of her inspirations for elements of the novel.

7/11/13 – A lovely piece on Ivy in the LA Times

7/12/13 – A fun interview with Ivy in LA Weekly, focusing on bars and eateries – worth a look

7/31/13 – Library Love Fest has an interview with Ivy that get some new details on the genesis of the book

Reviews and the like
VS received starred reviews from PW and Kirkus, was named as one of the summer’s best by Gillian Flynn on Oprah’s site, and received glowing reviews from Entertainment Weekly and The NY Times

7/14/13 reading at the Bait and Tackle – by Joe Angio


Filed under Interviews, Literary Fiction, Reviews

Goat Mountain by David Vann

Goat Mountain is due out September 2013

Drama is a description of what is bad inside of us and the end point of that is hell, a description of a hellish landscape.

This is what David Vann had to say in an interview with GR pal Lou Pendergast. (A link to the full interview is in the LINKS section at the bottom of this review) It will come as no shock then that in his latest novel he presents us with a hellscape, and we see that some of the bad is not content to remain cooped up. In fact David Vann’s Goat Mountain is like Deliverance (without the sex) mated with The Golden Bough, as directed by Terence Malick.

Northern California. Rural. 1978. On several acres owned by their family for many years. A grandfather, father and eleven-year-old boy, accompanied by the father’s friend, Tom (his is the only name we learn), have come for an annual deer hunt. This is to be the boy’s first chance to kill a buck. They spot a poacher on a hill. Sight him through their scopes. Encouraged to look through the scope of dad’s rifle, the boy takes a careful sighting, then squeezes the trigger, instantly killing the unsuspecting man. What are the rules? Should the boy be turned in to the authorities? Should he himself be killed as an unfeeling abomination? Should the deed be covered up? Do they just walk away? Contending with this issue is the motive force in the story. But it is not the only thing going on here.

An idea is the worst thing that could happen to a writer, and as I’ve written these other books I’ve tried actually to not to know where I’m going. I think my ideas are very small and close the story off, instead I try to just focus on the landscape and the character with the problem and just find out what happens.

And yet some ideas manage to find their way in to this work. It is a good thing he eschewed this advice in favor of a bit of wisdom he received from a very accomplished writer.

I had a class with Grace Paley, and she said that every good story is at least two stories. And to me that’s the one unbreakable rule in writing – the only one. That if you just have an account of something, and it’s just an account – like in most people’s journals or blogs or whatever – it’s just sh*t. Like it will never work. I can’t think of a single good work ever that was just one thing – that was just an account of something. What we read for as readers is that second story – the subtext – and the interest of what story will come out from behind the other one. And so you can’t break that rule, as far as I can tell. I’ve never seen it done.

So what else is in here beyond the dramatic tension of a family trying to figure out what to do with their young murderer?

All of my books are about religion and our need for religion…I started as a religious studies major actually. One thing that links all of my works…is how philosophy can lead to brutality

Religion it is, but not just religion, human nature. Our narrator ponders whether killing is in our DNA.

We think of Cain as the one who killed his brother, but who else was around to kill? They were the first two born. Cain killed what was available. The story has nothing to do with brothers.

And later:

What we wanted was to run like this, to chase our prey. That was the point. What made us run was the joy and promise of killing.

The story is told mostly as an internal monologue by the boy, as both child and man. While we encounter him as an eleven year old boy, his story is related to us by the adult he will become. Positing a guess that the narrator is speaking from 2012, that makes the narrator 45 or so, just about the author’s age. And yes, Vann is familiar with hunting. I didn’t feel what I was supposed to feel. I killed my first deer when I was eleven and I started missing them after that.

Religion here considers the pre-historical

The first thing to distinguish man…there’s not much we can do that is older and more human than sitting at a fire. ..It’s only in fire or water that we can find a corollary to felt mystery, a face to who we might be. But fire is the core immediate. In fire we never feel alone. Fire is our first god.

In the atavistic is there relief from civilization? Vann offers a contemplation of human nature, through the eyes of a monster who feels more connection with ancient hunter-gatherers than he does with any living human.

I wish now I could have slept under hides. I wish now I could have gone all the way back, because if we can go far enough back, we cannot be held accountable.

Is the unfeeling boy really a monster, merely immature, or the core of what it is to be human?
David Vann and his father in Alaska
This image of Vann and his father was taken from The Guardian

The bible references here lean toward the Old Testament, and they are abundant. For those who, like me, enjoy trawling for literary references it might be wise to heed Chief Brody’s advice to Quint, “you’re gonna need a bigger boat.” Cain comes in for frequent mention. I noted his name nine times, but there may be more. There is a host of further biblical references, including one in which the boy endures his own Calvary-like hike. Edenic references abound. When we read I slithered my way up that steep canyon, my belly in the dirt, and I refused to be left behind, we might be reminded of Genesis 3:14:

Cursed are you above all livestock
and all wild animals!
You will crawl on your belly
and you will eat dust
all the days of your life.

There is a look at Jesus as being guilty of muddying the lines between life and death, the Ten Commandments as being directed against inherent human instinct, and the Eucharist as a way of remaining connected with our bestial nature. Consideration is given to the existence of the devil, and whether we need for there to be some dark agent in charge, anything in charge, because the existential chaos of being is beyond our ability to cope. What are the rules? Who made them and why? And what happens, what should happen, when we break them? There are also parts that reminded me of Dante’s Inferno, as the boy consumes some particularly sulphurous water early on and the group has to pass through a daunting metal gate to enter the place in which the story takes place, among other clues.

This is a book that reaches a grasping claw into your stomach and shakes your guts around before yanking them out. Definitely not a book for those who are uncomfortable with the dark, the violent or the sad. But even with all the brimstone challenging your nostrils, you cannot help but detect the aroma of power and substance in Vann’s harsh new novel. Once you calm down from the brutality of the story you will long consider the subjects it raises.


David Vann very graciously took some time during a whirlwind book tour to answer some questions about Goat Mountain

W – There is a lot in Goat Mountain about the primitive, atavistic drives in human nature. When the boy thinks “Some part in me just wanted to kill, constantly and without end” was he expressing some primitive element within the human character, his personal pathology or something else?

I think it’s both. The book shows a descent that one particular mind takes (as in my novel Dirt, also, and my nonfiction book about a school shooting, Last Day On Earth) but I’m also trying to find shadows of something human and not just peculiar to an individual.

W – How much of what the boy considers, particularly as it relates to a compulsion to kill, reflects your view of human nature (Do you think we are killers by nature?) or was the boy making excuses for his aberrant urges?

I honestly can’t answer any of the big questions about human nature or even individuals. I wrote about my father’s suicide for ten years and yet his final moment still remains mysterious to me. With the school shooter, also, I could put together a narrative that made his final act possible but not inevitable. At the last moment, he and my father could have chosen differently. So I don’t think we’re determined. I think we can kill or not kill, and that many factors push us toward or away. In my fiction, everything is limited to a character’s view always, but I also have basically had or can imagine having all the thoughts and feelings of all my characters, in that they feel possible and believable to me.

W – In an interview you said your books are about “how philosophy can lead to brutality.” But the boy in Goat Mountain appears to have the brutality in him inherently. Can it be that brutality leads to philosophy?

That quote was specifically about Dirt, about the dangers of the New Age movement. But it’s an interesting question, whether brutality is so abhorrent it always has to be covered in philosophy in order for the perpetrators to be able to go on telling the story of themselves. You’re right that the narrator thinks he had an inherent brutality as a boy, or perhaps it was the culture he grew up in (he says children will find whatever they’re born into natural). He’s disturbed by the fact that he didn’t feel bad after first killing, but then this changes with the buck and after that he no longer wants to kill, and he becomes fully human when he kills without wanting to. That’s what I find really disturbing about human killing, when it’s divorced from instinct and becomes abstract and we kill for philosophy or religion or politics or calculated risk.

W – There are several references to a time before god. For example “grandfather did not come from god. I’m sure of that. He came from something older” and “The darkness a great muscle tightening, filled with blood, a living thing already before god came to do his work” and “The act of killing might even be the act that creates god.” The contemporary view of the Hebrew and Christian god is that there was no existence prior. If the boy believes in god how could he believe that there was a time before god?

There has to have been a time before god, because we made him, and it was quite a while before we came up with the idea of making gods. And antimatter is interesting as a concept, because it makes possible the existence of something before anything, the existence of what pulls existence into being. That’s what the grandfather in the book becomes, the thing that makes matter possible. That’s the closest I can imagine to god. Putting a face on god is as stupid as imagining aliens with a head and two arms and two legs. Our images of god are all simplistic like that, too dumb to be able to believe now. I began as a religious studies major and moved on to fiction, which investigates mystery more honestly.

W – Did you have Dante’s Inferno in mind while writing Goat Mountain? If so, were the obstructions the four face getting into their land an echo of the challenges Dante and Virgil face entering the Inferno?

D – I have always wanted to write an inferno, since it’s the natural goal or end of tragedy, as you’ve quoted from me before, and I like Dante’s depiction and also the Venerable Bede’s and Blake’s and McCarthy’s, and there are always obstructions to entering and time it takes to recognize. The inferno is an externalization of a felt landscape within, the shape of our human badness, and the characters have to be put under pressure for a while before they can start to see a mirroring in the landscape. So the book becomes increasingly hellish, as Dirt did. It’s really only in the final section of the novel, when they reach the burn (an area that had had a fire recently), that the architecture of their hell is more fully realized. So they don’t enter gates really but are steadily building.

W – If Goat Mountain completes a holy trinity for you, will you be continuing with religion as a major focus in your next book? What is your next project?

My next novel, which is finished, is titled Bright Air Black and is the story of Medea, set 3,250 years ago, trying to stay close to the archaeological record. It attempts to be a realistic and sympathetic portrayal of her as a destroyer of kings who wants a world not ruled by men. I’ve been wanting to write something about her for 25 years, and I’m fascinated by the time period because it’s the time the Greeks imagine as the beginning and therefore can be considered the beginning of western culture and literature, but it’s actually the end of an older world, the fall of the bronze age and Hittite empire and decline of the Egyptians. Medea worships Hecate and also Nute, an Egyptian goddess, so there’s a continuity with focus on gods and landscape. But Goat Mountain is the end of my books that have family stories and places in the background.

W – Are there any plans afoot for films to be made of any of your books?

I’ve co-written the screenplay for Caribou Island with two-time academy award-winning director Bill Guttentag, and we’re trying now to raise funding for the film. And the French producers Haut Et Court (producers of Coco Avant Chanel and The Class) and French-Canadian director Daniel Grau will be making a film from Sukkwan Island, the novella in Legend of a Suicide.

W – You said in an interview with the Australian Writers Centre:
…what I teach my students is how to read, how to be better readers, and the importance of studying language and literature. And, I use a linguistics approach for talking about style, very specifically talking about what individual sentences do, writing a grammar for a text.
Have you ever considered putting your teaching ideas into a book?

I have thought about that, because I can’t find a textbook that does what I’d want it to do, but I’m focused for now on writing novels.

W – What books have you read in the last year that you would recommend?

I’ve been reading a lot of books, about a book per week, and my favorite this year was John L’Heureux’s new novel The Medici Boy. A great portrait of an artist, an historical thriller, and a depiction of the persecution of gay men in 15th century Florence, it’s a rich masterpiece that I recommend to everyone.

W – What do you do for fun?

Right now I’m on a six-week residency in Amsterdam with the Dutch Lit Foundation, and my wife and I are going to music and museums and restaurants and walking all around the city. Amsterdam is wonderful. We live half the year in New Zealand, where I do watersports almost every day (waterskiing, wakeboarding, sailing, windsurfing, kayaking) or mountain-biking or hiking. And we sail on the Turkish coast each summer. I also play congas and a bit of guitar and I like tequilas and rums.

Thanks, David, for your time and fascinating insights.
Scheduled release date is September 10, 2013


Vann’s earlier novel, Caribou Island was my favorite book of 2011. And his 2008 Legend of a Suicide is compelling reading as well.

Lou Pendergrast’s interview with DV
(Source for “All my books are about religion” quote)

The author’s website – among other things there is a large list of interviews

And his GR page

The Family History Is Grim, but He’s Plotted a New Course – NY Times article on Vann from 2011
(Source for “an idea is the worst thing… quote)

University of Gloucestershire Creative Writing Blog interview with DV from October 10, 2011
(Source for Vann’s mention of Grace Paley)

The White Review with Melissa Cox (online only)
(Source of the “I didn’t feel what I was supposed to feel” quote)

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Filed under Interviews, Literary Fiction, Reviews