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Carol Cassella On Her New Novel, “Healer”

If Carol Cassella had her way, you would not be able to buy a copy today of her new novel, Healer.

Not today, and maybe not any time soon.

“I really had to struggle to discover the heart of this story,” Cassella told me over a recent lunch at the Treehouse on Bainbridge Island. “I started out with such a clear idea of where the plot should go, but the characters I was developing and the emotional impact I was going for kept taking me in a different direction.

“Writing it was a very difficult two years. Just before my deadline, I wanted to rewrite it as a whole different story. But then I had to turn it in to my publisher.”

That being said, Cassella’s editor was happy with what she turned in.

“And sometimes the editor sees that way before the author does,” she said.

And that being said, Cassella had good reasons for her second-novel jitters.

Healer, much like Oxygen before it, started as a medical mystery — almost a genre exercise, she said. Cassella, an anesthesiologist at Virginia Mason Medical Center in Seattle, started it when she found herself intrigued by the shadowy world of big money and biotech research. But while Oxygen dwelled in a world she intimately knew — her main character was an anesthesiologist, after all, and the story was split between Seattle and her native Texas — Healer dragged Cassella far out of her self-confessed comfort zone.

For one, the story is set in a fictional Eastern Washington town (basically, a stand-in for one of the more touristy villages in the Methow Valley). For another, Cassella may be a physician, but she said that going into the writing of Healer, the biotech world was as big a mystery to her as it probably is to you or me. Three, the narrator is a doctor who gave up medicine fifteen years before, and because she lacks board certifications, works in a small clinic that handles migrant laborers on a sliding scale. Cassella, by contrast, still works (albeit part-time), and today — release day — is just another day in a white lab coat for her.

More about the story: Claire Boehning, at 43, sees her upscale Seattle world turn upside-down when her biotech-researcher husband, Addison, loses all his venture and personal capital to a gamble on an anti-cancer drug that flunks its early trials. The couple, who have a 14-year-old daughter, are broke. They sell their tony home on Lake Washington and retreat to their ramshackle second home in the tiny town of Hallam. Faced with a looming inability to pay even the most baseline of bills, Claire hauls her medical license out of mothballs. But all she finds is a job of last resort, at a clinic run by an aging, ailing and overworked old doctor. Meanwhile, Addison is desperately traveling the country, meeting with venture capitalists, trying to revive interest in a drug he’s convinced was unfairly derailed. Suspense looms over some big questions: Was the drug flawed, or were the trials flawed? Will big money trump big science? Will some key characters do the easy thing … or the right thing?

As readers of Oxygen know, Cassella doesn’t tilt toward happily-ever-after endings. Nor does she fatalistically throw up her hands in the face of what seems like an impenetrable ethical and moral quagmire. What usually happens in her work, just as in real life, is a tense and deliberate detangling of some serious gray areas. And so, in a sense, the mystery that Cassella said she started out to write remains intact after all.

“I may have started out one way, but I never wanted to write just a black-and-white story,” Cassella said. “I find that the gray zone is a far more interesting place.”

Finding her gray zone came through years of craft development, much of it through Bainbridge’s Field’s End and critique partners in the author community around Kitsap County. As difficult as Healer was to finish, the making of Oxygen, Cassella makes clear, was much longer and harder. She started as one of probably a zillion people in middle age who wanted to write, but had no idea what … or how.

“If you get to midlife and you’re not going to buy a Ferrari or argue the bigger questions, you’ve got to do something,” she said with a smile. “It became obvious that I had to write because I wasn’t going to stop beating myself up for not writing.”

That said, Cassella was generally happy in her career and in her family life, as a wife and mother of two sets of twins, ages 14 and 15. And her motivation for writing at the time was to finish a book so she could say that she’d finished a book … and then put it on a shelf. “I wanted to write, but everything else got in the way. Like folding laundry,” she said. “I learned that I couldn’t wait for time to write. I had to make time to write.”

But, with the encouragement of author friends, she spent three years writing the book, and used Oxygen to shop for an agent, and after that, a publisher. There were rejections along the way, but the book found its home, and continues to be a big success over two years after its release. It’s had about 10 foreign translations, and just recently made a big splash in Canada as Wal-Mart’s “Read Of The Month” up there.

The book’s success meant that Cassella, soft-spoken in person, had to develop a public persona for signing and touring. “It’s not in my natural grain,” she admitted.

But, like thousands of other authors who have likely said the same, she’s found her way. And Kitsapers can see for themselves when Cassella appears 3 p.m. Sunday at Eagle Harbor Book Company to read from Healer and sign copies. (She’s also appearing at 7 p.m. Thursday at Elliott Bay Books in Seattle.) After that, she hits the road out of state for nearly three weeks before making some more stops at bookstores up and down Puget Sound. (Click here for her schedule.)

And then it’s back to work on book No. 3, already in progress.

“My next book will be a medical mystery, about a woman who’s a doctor,” she said. But then she hastens to add: “It’ll have different voices, a different feel and a different theme.”

Just like Healer does. Oxygen it isn’t. And while I’m no critic, I’m confident in saying that it, like the book itself, is a good thing.

Even if Cassella isn’t quite able to admit that yet.

A Twisted Image: Judging Books By Their Covers

Gregg Olsen, the Olalla author of fiction thrillers and true-crime books, was kind enough to send me the cover (above) for the paperback release next spring of his latest nonfiction work, A Twisted Faith. It is, to say the least, a pretty startling departure from the hardcover version that came out this spring (below). (Bainbridge Islanders, at least, will note that the church in the cover is most definitely not the church at the center of Olsen’s tale.)

In fact, I’d go so far as to say that the hardcover says: “This is an ambitious work of literary nonfiction that stretches beyond the genre.” And that the paperback cover says: “Downmarket true-crime book-of-the-month fare.” (I’m not badmouthing Olsen here, by the way; like most authors, he’s not involved in the cover-design process. It’s my understanding that very few authors have that veto power.)

One can only speculate about what changed in the thought process at the New York offices of St. Martin’s Press between the selecting of the respective covers.

In fact, one can only speculate why publishers change the design from hardcovers to paperbacks at all. Seems like a needless expense, doesn’t it?

What happened with Gregg Olsen’s book also happened, to a less extreme but somewhat similar extent, with the late Bainbridge Island author Jack Olsen and his literary crime masterpiece, Salt Of The Earth, in 1996 and 1997.

Compare the hardcover (above) with the paperback cover (below).

Now, while I wouldn’t call this paperback cover “ugly,” I do think the term “downmarket” applies here as well. Note the hallmarks of the mass-market true-crime book here: The ripped photographs, the blood-red type and the much bolder title type. (And I’d bet a serious amount of money that Jack and his publisher fought like hell over whether the background color would be black or white … and that Jack won.)

And the change in quotes is quite telling, too. The hardcover features a lovely quote from fellow Bainbridge Island author David Guterson: “A literary achievement of the highest order.” For the paperback, the publisher switched to a quote from Salt Of The Earth‘s review in The New York Times: “Pulls you along irresistibly.” Note the change in appeal from the head to the gut.

Speaking of Mr. Guterson, as his former students at Bainbridge High School called him, let’s take a look at the contrast between one of his hardcovers and the paperback edition. Here’s the hardcover of his 1998 second novel, East Of The Mountains ….

… and the paperback cover.

If you’re like me, you’re thinking: “They’re both beautiful covers … but why did the change need to be made?” And maybe: “I wonder how much in royalties David Guterson lost because someone decided they needed to shell out for a new cover design for the paperback?”

Well, that’s why the geniuses all live and work in New York, and we’re just idiot readers in Kitsap who ought to keep our mouths shut and just buy books unquestioningly, right?

And lest I complain too much, let’s not forget that things could always be worse. Gregg, even the good-humored good sport, shared with me a blog post he wrote a while back on the worst book covers in true crime. And here’s one he missed ….

Debbie Macomber’s Latest Cedar Cove Book Is Out

Just noticed that Port Orchard romance author Debbie Macomber released the 10th book in her Cedar Cove series, 1022 Evergreen Place, on Tuesday. The release comes just after the launch of a Cedar Cove website for fans of the popular idealized-Port-Orchard fictional locale. Oh, and Macomber now has her own free mobile-phone app for the iPad, iPhone and Android.

The paperback release of 1022 Evergreen Place comes on the heels of a hardcover release, Hannah’s List, and another paperback, Summer On Blossom Street, in May (the hardcover came out last year). And Macomber has another hardcover release, Call Me Mrs. Miracle, coming out in October. Like its predecessor, Mrs. Miracle, this story is being filmed as a Hallmark TV movie (Doris Roberts again stars.) Looks like it’ll be ready for the Christmas season, according to Macomber’s blog. Also, I see from her website, her work is being anthologized no less than five times throughout 2010.

(None of this one-book-ever-nine-years Franzenesque highfalutiness for Macomber, eh?)

Macomber’s fans probably already know this, but she’ll be appearing for a “high tea” at the Victorian Rose Room Tea Room in Port Orchard, on Bethel Avenue, on Sept. 18 at 3 p.m. For $24.93, you get to hang out with the author, sip some tea and get a copy of 1022 Evergreen Place.

(I confess that I haven’t read any of Macomber’s books. But in my quest to eventually read everything every Kitsap author puts out, I’ll give them a shot. Any Macomber fans care to suggest a good starter book for a 45-year-old male fan of hardboiled crime fiction? Or just a good starter book of hers, period?)

The story of 1022 Evergreen Place:

In 1022 Evergreen Place, Mary Jo Wyse realizes she’s falling for her firefighter neighbor, Mack McAfee, who delivered her baby in A Cedar Cove Christmas. Problem is, Mary Jo hasn’t been too wise when it comes to picking men. It will take some heroic measures on Mack’s part to convince her to give him a fighting chance.

Jonathan Franzen, “Freedom” and Big Flippin’ Deal Book Syndrome

Freedom is big enough and thoughtful enough to engage and irritate an enormous number of readers.” — Ron Charles, The Washington Post

Freedom, the new novel by Jonathan Franzen, arrived in bookstores today.

This book has been accompanied by an unusual level of fanfare and backlash. The New York Times gave it not one but two reviews that all but hailed it as the most important American literary novel to come along since … well … The Corrections, by Franzen. Much importance as well was attached to the fact that last week, Franzen was the first living novelist to grace the cover of Time magazine in quite some time.

With such big hype, however, comes big backlash. There was much histrionic chatter over booksellers supposedly breaking today’s release-date embargo when one gave a copy to President Obama to read during his recent vacation. Novelists Jodi Picoult and Jennifer Weiner stirred the pot when they claimed that The New York Times, in gushing twice over Freedom, is biased toward white male authors and against a) women authors; and b) writers of commercial fiction. And The Washington Post, as if to stand apart from The Times, gave Freedom a mixed review with many pointed criticisms. And, of course, many people haven’t forgiven Franzen for “disrespecting” Oprah in 2002 when he cringed over her Oprah Book Club endorsement. So bombastic is the blowback that it’s inspired a new term, “Franzenfreude,” and has made Franzen “the author we love to hate.”

So, with all that buildup, let me throw some questions at you to discuss:

1. Did you pre-order Freedom, or buy it today?

2. Do you plan to buy Freedom at any point?

3. To what extent do reviews and publicity, good or bad, influence you to buy a book?

4. What’s your opinion of Franzen and his work?

5. In today’s fractured, scattered, multi-media world, can there still be such a thing as an Important American Novel that gets everybody across all age, class, ethnic and gender stratas talking about it and its themes?

6. Did all this chatter fly right past you … and you find that you couldn’t care less about Franzen and his book?

The floor is yours.

Good Stuff That’s Coming Up

A look through Kitsap’s September literary calendar:

• Friday, Sept. 3, 9 a.m. through 4 p.m.: Stillwaters Environmental Education Center, 26059 Barber Cut Off Road in Kingston, begins its annual fundraising book sale. At least 15,000 new and used books, covering all genres and subjects, will be sold each Friday through Sunday, through Oct. 3. During the sale’s last weekend, books will be sold by the grocery bag ($5 on Friday, $3 on Saturday and free on Sunday). All proceeds go to support environmental education. For more information, contact Naomi Maasberg at (360) 297-1226 or at naomi@stillwatersenvironmental

• Sunday, Sept. 12, at 3 p.m.: Eagle Harbor Book Co. on Bainbridge Island hosts Carol Cassella, the Bainbridge author whose second novel, Healer, will be in bookstores Sept. 7. Those wanting a signed copy can order it in advance through the bookstore. (Full disclosure: I was lucky enough to score an advance copy, am about 150 pages in, and can say it so far is every bit the equal of Oxygen … and probably a lot more than that. I’m working on an interview with Carol for this blog ahead of this reading; stay tuned for details.)

• Tuesday, Sept. 14, at 7 p.m.: Liberty Bay Books in Poulsbo hosts Erica Bauermeister, the Seattle author of the novel, The School Of Essential Ingredients. (Of the book, Publisher’s Weekly says: ““In this remarkable debut, Bauermeister creates a captivating world where the pleasures and particulars of sophisticated food come to mean much more than simple epicurean indulgence…Delivering memorable story lines and characters while seducing the senses, Bauermeister’s tale of food and hope is sure to satisfy.”) Bauermeister is a founding member of Seattle7Writers, the literary-and-literacy promotion collective, and will participate in The Novel: Live! fundraising event in October.

• Thursday, Sept. 16, 7 p.m.: The Kitsap Regional Library Foundation hosts Between The Pages, an evening with five authors — Eileen Goudge, Jane Smiley, Joshilyn Jackson, Josie Brown and Tatjana Soli — at the Bainbridge Performing Arts Center. Tickets are $50 for the event, a fundraiser for the foundation, and includes a copy of Brown’s novel, Secret Lives Of Husbands And Wives. VIP tickets sell for $150; that price gets you an invite to a catered pre-event reception with the authors; the latest books bu all five authors and an opportunity to have them signed, among other good stuff. Click on the above link for ticket and other info; tickets can also be purchased through Eagle Harbor Book Co. and Liberty Bay Books. (If, like me, you’re wondering how Kitsap lined up so many literary rock stars for one evening, rest assured that I’m looking into the story behind this event and hope to have a blog soon on that subject. I’m dying to go to this myself, but that damned work thing appears to be getting in the way. Hint, hint, boss.)

• Tuesday, Sept. 21, at 7 p.m.: Field’s End hosts Bainbridge resident Tom Tyner, aka The Latte Guy, who will speak on “The Ins And Outs Of Writing A Weekly Column.” A land-conservation lawyer, Tyner has written his humorous observations on coffee, parenting and island life on and off for The Bainbridge Island Review since 1993. His earlier columns were collected in a book called Skeleton From Our Closet.

• Tuesday, Sept. 23, 7 p.m. (and continuing for the next four Tuesday evenings): Field’s End hosts novelist and University of Washington English professor Shawn Wong, who will offer a workshop on “Beginning Fiction.” (From the website: “Nearly everyone says or overhears someone say, “I have a great idea for a novel.” How do fiction writers get from idea to written pages? How do you give yourself practical writing assignments to meet your goal? What tricks can you play on yourself to move your writing ability from one level to another? How can you be an objective editor of your writing? There is no tried-and-true path to writing fiction, but Shawn Wong’s students for the past 26 years at UW have gone on to write and publish short stories and novels and win writing awards. What he tells them will be compressed into four sessions. In other words, let’s skip the apprenticeship and get straight to the writing.”) Wong is the author of the novels Homebase and American Knees, both literary novels stemming from his Chinese-American experience. The latter book was adapted into Americanese, an independent movie being release this year. Cost for the four-week workshop is $160. For registration forms and other information on the classes, which take place at the Bainbridge Public Library’s meeting room, go to Field’s End online.

Know of any September signings, readings or other literary events in Kitsap County you’d like to publicize here? Drop me a line at

Live From Poulsbo, It’s Saturday Afternoon Live! With Your Host, Jamie Ford!

This year’s “One Book One Community” pick by the Kitsap Regional Library is Hotel On The Corner Of Bitter And Sweet, the bestselling, universally acclaimed debut novel by 1986 South Kitsap High School graduate Jamie Ford.

The library’s programming emphasis on the book and its themes culminates Saturday, Oct. 16, with a visit by Ford himself with the Kitsap reading public at the North Kitsap Auditorium in Poulsbo. The event, from 2 p.m. to 3:30 p.m., is free.

I confess that I haven’t yet read the book — it glares accusingly at me from an ever-growing stack of books on my nightstand by authors with Kitsap ties — though I swear I will sometime in the next month (or so). So the reason, as things stand now, that I’m so looking forward to Ford’s visit is this:

The dude is freaking hilarious.

Just from his Facebook statuses (stati?), I could see immediately that this is the sort of guy with whom you could enjoy a cheerful evening of beer consumption. Some recent gems:

Officers on my doorstep at 4:00 a.m. — some kids were breaking into cars in my neighborhood. Should I install an alarm or just skip to claymore mines?

•  My daughter just asked me what color eyebrow piercing she should wear to her job interview. How do I answer that?

High school orientation tonight. My wife and I are threatening to embarrass our teens by making out in the janitor’s closet.

Broke my arm in high school on Friday the 13th. Drew much-wanted attention from cheerleaders. I’ll take that kind of bad luck any day.

Better yet, Ford is one of the relatively few authors who keeps up a blog and fills it with prescient, and cheerfully askew, perspectives on the publishing world.

One of my favorite recent entries is on a controversy over the way The New York Times selects which books it reviews. Upon seeing that Freedom, the forthcoming novel by Jonathan Franzen, got two glowing reviews in a week’s time from The Great Gray Lady, authors Jodi Picoult and Jennifer Weiner blasted off on Twitter, claiming that The Times is biased against women authors and popular fiction. That’s led to a lot of back-and-forth on the interwebs, and Ford weighed in with a wry take:

Honestly, I don’t know if Jodi is spot-on or hurling aspersions from the cheap-seats. I guess I’m just too busy to pay that much attention to the New York Times Book Review. Except for that time they were going to review me, then pulled out when they saw my first name and their literary bus jumped the guardrail and plummeted into the abyss of androgyny.

Despite answering trivia questions about college football and Bud Light commercials, they remained unconvinced of my gender and review worthiness. I even faxed them my birth certificate—clearly evidence that I was indeed male and worthy of their time, but in a form reply they stated that the mere effeminate nature of my name offended them and thereby voided any chance of a glowing review.

Like I said, freaking hilarious.

That’s why I’m hoping that the 90-minute format of Ford’s appearance in Poulsbo, on a Saturday yet, is no coincidence, and that we’ll be treated to 90 minutes of top-flight comedy.

Or, you know, 90 minutes of witty erudition and worthy insights. Works just as well for me.

I’m hoping Ford will indulge me with a Q&A in the coming weeks. Stay tuned.

A Book Signing, and a Bit of Advice for Aspiring Authors

First, the news: Author Brian Thornton is signing and reading from his newest release, The Book Of Bastards: 101 Worst Scoundrels and Scandals From The World Of Politics  And Power, at 3 p.m. Sunday at Eagle Harbor Book Co. on Bainbridge Island.

Technically, by mentioning this, I’m sort of cheating on one of the purposes of this blog, which is to promote the works of Kitsap County authors. And Brian, sad to say, lives in Pierce County.

But another one of the purposes of this blog is to pass along whatever advice I can pick up and share with aspiring authors, and in Brian’s story toward published authordom is some sage wisdom worth repeating.

Namely, make friends. So much of where you get in writing and publishing comes from who you know. And more than that, who knows you. And even more than that, who likes you.

Brian is a friend of mine. We met last summer at the Pacific Northwest Writers Association conference. He’s the president of the Northwest Mystery Writers Of America chapter, and since crime writing is my thing, I pegged him as a person to know. As it turns out, that was a great move because a) he’s fun as hell to be around; and b) he knows freaking everyone. We’ve hung out a handful of times, had a few meals and a few drinks, gone to a few literary events.

Now, note what I said: He’s a friend of mine. He’s not someone I with whom I networked (though the net effect is in some ways the same). He’s not someone I schmoozed. He’s someone who’s willing to open some doors for me, and I in turn will do what I can to help him along in his quest to become an established author of historical mystery fiction. You know, the sort of things friends with mutual interests will do for one another.

Brian, who is one of the most naturally garrulous and gregarious people I’ve met, owes a lot of his success to date to the friends he’s made through his own initiative. I’ve asked him to share a bit of his story with us.

“I got my first book contract in part because of my fondness for the work of the German poet Rainer Maria Rilke,” Brian said, “and sold my first short story to a national publication in part because I gave up my seat in a crowded bar to a couple of ladies with no place to sit.

“Of course the longer versions of these stories involve friendships struck up while networking,” he added. ” In the first case, a passing reference to Rilke’s work in a posting on the e-mail list of a national writers’ association (Mystery Writers of America) led to a friendship. My new friend, an editor at Adams Media, eventually asked whether I was interested in writing a book for her.

“I’ve written seven for that press, including my latest one.

“In the second case,” Brian continued, “I was at a conference for mystery writers, fans, editors and agents, and gave up my seat to a very nice lady who turned out to be the editor of a nationally distributed mystery magazine.

“She was a real class act, suggesting I send her a story when I thought I had one.  I did so.  Having made that connection got me out of the slush pile, which is a big leap.  And while she passed on the first story I sent her (as well as the second), she eventually bought one, and it wasn’t the last one.”

Pretty cool, huh?

Just in the last few months of knowing Brian, I’ve gotten to know that Adams Media editor as well, and she and I have exchanged e-mails that may lead to me doing some work for her. And most recently, through Brian, I’ve been invited to submit a short story to an upcoming anthology of West Coast mystery fiction. Neither of those prospects may pan out, but that’s not the point. The point is to have prospects, and prospects are most commonly forged through friendships.

How do you make these friendships, you ask? In my experience, it’s as simple as approaching them. Most authors aren’t remote, unapproachable Buddha-On-A-Mountaintop figures; mostly, they’re working stiffs with day jobs and families and bills who have been fortunate and persevering enough to generate a small side stream of fame and money through their writing talent. Brian, for example, is a guy who squeezes in his writing dreams when he isn’t working as an eighth-grade history teacher.

Follow the basic rules of friend-making: Don’t be obnoxious, don’t be fawning, don’t pester them to do things for you. Contact them online — most are on Facebook or have a contact e-mail through their websites — and show some knowledge of their work. If they live nearby, ask them if you can buy them lunch or a cup of coffee at a convenient time. Listen, and allow yourself to be listened to, and relax and enjoy yourself as much as you enjoy them. In my experience, most are fun, funny people, full of great stories, great advice and a great desire to do pay forward the kindnesses that were given to them when they were like you, on the outside looking in. I’m not the most socially adept or outgoing person on the planet, but I’ve made many friends this way, and treasure them all. And feel confident than if and when my time comes, they’ll probably help me out however they can.

Here are some of Brian’s time-tested rules for breaking the ice with book folks:

1. It costs you nothing to be gracious.
2. Every single author you’ll ever meet has been exactly where you are now.  The lion’s share of them never forget that.
3. Most of the authors I’ve met are funny, interesting people, fun to talk to, and incredibly generous with their time.
4. Because of the changing terrain of publishing most everyone in the business is looking to network all the time.  You rarely reach a point where you think, “I don’t need to meet anyone else new.”
5. When you encounter someone who isn’t interested in networking, you’ll know it (or you should).
6. Every author I know has a horror story about people trying to take advantage of them.
7. Don’t become someone’s horror story!  Don’t ask for someone to refer you to their agent or their editor within ten minutes of meeting them.

Sage wisdom, like I said.

So, there you are. Brian and I will be walking the talk on Sunday. I’ll be taking he and his fiance to lunch before his 3 p.m. reading. And then I’ll hang out with them at the reading itself. Come on down say hello, if you can. I’d be happy to meet you … and I know Brian would.

Catching Up With the Seriously Funny Mary Guterson

It seems like no time at all has passed since Mary Guterson‘s second novel, Gone To The Dogs, was hitting bookshelves. It was just over a year ago, in fact, that the Bainbridge Island author seemed poised to break through in a big way as the Pacific Northwest’s resident comic chronicler of whackbag women.

But a lot can change in a year, and a lot has changed for Guterson. She’s since relocated to Los Angeles, where she works as a freelance writer of copy for movie trailers and is developing an addiction to frozen dinners from Trader Joe’s. (Ouch! Dart to the heart for us Kitsapers!) She’s done some teaching gigs, most recently at the Whidbey Island Writers Association’s MFA program. “And i don’t have an MFA,” she told me. “But they didn’t seem to care. I actually enjoyed teaching there so much that I’m thinking of trying to get myself some sort of teaching gig down here.”

And she’s working on her third novel (following Gone To The Dogs and her equally delirious, delicious We Are All Fine Here), but don’t expect another uproarious tale of a chick with a one-way ticket to Crazytown. Guterson being who she is, however, she couldn’t possibly not be funny in talking about her unfunny work-in-progress.

“For one, it’s not a comedy,” she said. “And for two, the main character is a child. Aren’t you just dying to read it??? An unfunny kid! Who wouldn’t want to rush out and pick up that book?”

She added: “In truth, it’s about the fifth novel I’ve started in the last couple of years, so I’m not at all positive this one will stick, but so far so good.”

More seriously, she elaborated: “I make no plans when I write. I don’t know what I’m going to write until I write it. So, writing a more serious work wasn’t done as part of a plan to stretch myself or to keep from being pigeonholed.

“I just write what I write, and apparently at the moment, I don’t write funny.”

Guterson’s ties to her native Northwest remain strong, and she’s a frequent flyer up this way. In October, she’ll have a short story published in a collection produced through Humanities Washington. And in the middle of the month, she’ll be participating in “The Novel: Live!”

The latter is an exciting experiment in which 36 Northwest writers — including Kitsap writers Susan Wiggs, Suzanne Selfors, Carol Cassella, Kathleen Alcala and Guterson, along with South Kitsap High grad Jamie Ford — spend two hours each writing their parts of a “marathon novel” on the cabaret stage of the Richard Hugo House before a live and participating audience. After the novel is done, it will be published and sold as an e-book in all formats, with profits going to a number of nonprofit Northwest literary causes.

“The Novel: Live! is the brainchild of Seattle7Writers, an authors’ collective of which Guterson is a founding member. Its aim is to energize and promote the area as a reading community, and Guterson is participating in that spirit. (Even if she claims she’s really in it for “free wine.”)

Writing, as we know, is generally a private, protected discipline. So I had to ask Guterson if she was intimidated by the idea of writing on display like a guppy in a fish bowl when her turn comes to take the stage on Friday, Oct. 15 from 6 to 8 p.m. (Cassella’s two-word response to the same question: “Totally terrified!”)

“Maybe I should be,” Guterson said. “But I’m thinking of it as performance art. There’s no thought that we are going to produce a work of beauty. Oh, God, watch, the others will produce a work of beauty and I’ll totally f— it up by writing my usual bulls–t. Now I’m afraid. Thanks a lot, Jim.

“But no, really, I think it’ll just be a fun sort of lark.”

(On her website, Guterson has the following idea for those following her during her turn onstage: “We can make a plan in advance where I say I have to use the ladies’ room, and then you, dear reader, sit in my seat and type away, and meanwhile I take FOREVER to come out of the bathroom! And when I DO emerge, you will have done most of my writing for me. Perfect!”)

(By the way, if you can’t come in person, you can follow the whole thing on a live-streaming website and e-mail suggestions to Guterson as she’s working. More on that at a later date.)

In the meantime, Guterson continues work on her novel without a publishing contract. Which, curiously, is the way she prefers it.

“I was offered a two-book contract for both of my books, but turned down the offer both times,” she said. “I don’t want to be contractually obligated to a creative endeavor. That would kill what little creativity I’ve got.”

It stands to reason that Guterson should have a strong position in making her third book deal, then, when the time comes.

Gone To The Dogs did very well,” she said. “I believe it ended up selling more copies than my first novel …. My agent tells me that both books sold very well, and that my publishers have been very pleased. And that’s good enough for me.”

Us too.

Jonathan Evison’s New Book (aka, The Coolest Thing Ever)

The advance galley boxed set for Jonathan Evison's new novel, "West Of Here."

Last week, I got a curious package in the mail from “High Tide Seafood” of “Port Bonita, Washington.”

I opened the packaging to find a pine box that looked for all the world like the kind that high-end salmon distributors use to send out gift container of vacuum-sealed smoked salmon.

As much as I love smoked salmon, what was inside this particular box was much better.

It contained a series of old-style postcards and maps spotlighting Port Bonita, the fictional setting of Bainbridge Island author Jonathan Evison‘s coming second novel, West Of Here. Oh, and an advance paperback proofreading copy of the book itself, even though the finished version of West Of Here, which will be released in hardcover, won’t be available in bookstores until Feb. 15, 2011.

The galley box was the brainchild of Evison and the marketing folks at Algonquin, his new publisher. It’s in an effort to whip up plenty of pre-release interest in Evison, who is being pegged by his publisher as a literary talent poised for a breakthrough even bigger than the one he got from his knockout debut novel, All About Lulu. And the folks at Algonquin are putting their money where their mouths are, preparing for a first-print run of 75,000 (Lulu‘s first printing was just 10,000), and sending the author on a cross-country tour of the publishing industry’s book fairs and festivals this fall. That’s all ahead of a 21-city, 25-day tour after the book’s release date.

“They believe in me, I guess,” the 41-year-old Evison told me recently over beer and pizza at The Treehouse on Bainbridge Island.

It’s nice to see at a time when cost-conscious, risk-averse publishers are generally doing less for their authors. And nice especially since West Of Here is a radical departure from the coming-of-age tale in 1980s Southern California that made Evison’s name and fame to date. It’s a novel of epic sweep, encompassing parallel narratives set in 1889 and 2006, and rooted in the hardscrabble reality and inscrutable mythology of the Olympic Peninsula. (Port Bonita is essentially Evison’s stand-in for Port Angeles.) I’m only 60 pages in so far, but I can tell that West Of Here is storytelling grounded in years of Ph.D-level research of the area, the history, the people, the culture and the land.

Here’s what his publisher has to say:

Set in the fictional town of Port Bonita, on Washington State’s rugged Pacific coast, West of Here is propelled by a story that both re-creates and celebrates the American experience—it is storytelling on the grandest scale. With one segment of the narrative focused on the town’s founders circa 1890 and another showing the lives of their descendants in 2006, the novel develops as a kind of conversation between two epochs, one rushing blindly toward the future and the other struggling to undo the damage of the past.

An exposition on the effects of time, on how something said or done in one generation keeps echoing through all the years that follow, and how mistakes keep happening and people keep on trying to be strong and brave and, most important, just and right, West of Here harks back to the work of such masters of Americana as Bret Harte, Edna Ferber, and Larry McMurtry, writers whose fiction turned history into myth and myth into a nation’s shared experience. It is a bold novel by a writer destined to become a major force in American literature.

All that’s evident in the contents of the box, which were inspired by vintage postcards and other art of the time. And the cover itself, which harks back strongly to the style of the great novels of the 1920s and 1930s from Ernest Hemingway and John Steinbeck, among others.

All that is the longwinded way of saying what I said in the title line of this post … which were the same words I uttered when I opened the package: “This is the coolest thing ever!” All befitting one of the coolest authors ever (in my experience, anyway). Which reminds me: Thanks again for the beer and pizza, dude.

E-Readers vs. Printed Books? Let’s Argue. Or Not.

If you’re an avid book reader, you’ve probably been hearing this argument for a while in some form or other.

Person A : “I love my electronic book-reading device. So small, so easy to use. And the books I can buy here are so much cheaper than printed books.”

Person B: “I’ll never use a e-reader. I just love the look and feel of a book too much. I like collecting them, the way they look on my shelf, how easy they are on my eyes.”

Person A: “But e-readers are the future, man. Who knows if they’ll even be printing books down the road? And right now, there are all sorts of books you can’t get in print because they’re so expensive and inefficient to produce. What could be cooler than carrying thousands of books in something that weighs about as much as two-pack of Pop Tarts?”

Person B: “Oh, come on. They’ll never stop printing books. Too many people are going to want them and nothing else. Besides, you can’t take an e-reader into the bathtub with you. And I love my local bookstore. I don’t want to see it go out of business.”

And on and on and on. You may have even been in an argument like this. I know I’ve been in too many to count.

Here’s the thing, though: Why does it have to be an either-or argument? Why can’t both sides be right? (If only because both sides are right.)

I own a Kindle e-reader. (This blog is not an advertisement for it, however; it just happened to be what I bought. I’m sure I’d be just as happy with a Nook or an iPad or whatever). I also regularly buy printed books (and love our independent bookstores). Here’s how I’ve found the balance:

My Kindle is used to buy two kinds of works:

E-book-only releases. Thousands of writers these days are uploading their books directly to Amazon’s Kindle Store, Smashwords or other electronic-publishing outlets and selling their work for, generally, between 99 cents and $2.99. I’m a fan of crime fiction, and write it myself, so I regularly take the time to scout out cheap e-books that are up my thematic alley. Some are good, some are good but unpolished, and some are just plain awful. But that’s OK; I generally learn something valuable and relevant to my own efforts, and I’m not out much money.

E-book re-releases of out-of-print books. A lot of authors who originally saw their books published the traditional way have seen their books slip out of print (in other words, no longer on bookshelves or available to order). Many have clauses in their publication contracts that allow the rights to their books revert back to them after so many years. So what these authors sometimes do is e-publish those books themselves so they can a) reintroduce the work to a new audience; and b) create a potential stream of passive new revenue for themselves. I’ve discovered some fine, fun mysteries this way — and even better, often get to read new volumes in a once-published series. Many authors saw a series end because their sales went flat, but not before they had completed another volume or two in the series. Before e-books, those volumes would have probably stayed tucked away forever with their creators.

One example: An author named Ron Franscell published a mystery called The Deadline about a dozen years ago that I liked. However, he couldn’t get a deal for a second book, The Obituary, that featured the same lead character. As soon as he gave up on shopping it to traditional publishers, he put it up himself in the Kindle Store. I happily bought it for $5.99 and enjoyed it a great deal.

Everything else (i.e., books in print) I’ll buy in printed form from bookstores.

In this way, the argument is moot. For me, anyway. I’m all about the future. Except when I’m all about the past.

How about you? Does it have to e-readers only for you, or nothing but print books? Or can you find some middle ground? Discuss.