the contextual life

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Meet the Book Pusher :: Questions for Courtney

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Courtney is a freelance writer, lover of all things literary, and a book pusher for a major publishing house located somewhere between Battery and Central Park. We sat down to discuss books, literary events, and the writing process.

What are your top 5 books at the moment?
The Missing of the Somme by Geoff Dyer. I hadn’t discovered Geoff Dyer until recently, and I am OBSESSED. He is wildly inventive and brilliant, and I say that not just as his publicist (really). I’ve never read anything like him before—he has a way of inserting himself into a story that makes it so personal and wonderful. Reading him for the first time felt like the first time I read Julian Barnes, who I also love.
Mildred Pierce by John M. Cain. The HBO series sparked my interest somewhat, and someone I like also mentioned loving the book. When it came time to place an order for 5 free books, it was first on my list. Mildred is amazing—I cant stop reading about her and want to dive in and inhabit these characters lives. I was really happy to hear, when I mentioned it to my mom, that it was a favorite of my grandmother’s. Which I can totally see. Mildred was cool, my grandmother was cool.
Your Voice in My Head by Emma Forrest. Haven’t read it but keep hearing about it.
All Our Worldy Goods, by Irene Nemirovsky. I read part of Suite Francaise and adored this earlier novel of hers. Knowing the fate of the author can be at times heartbreaking, but she has such a strong voice and delivers such humanity to her characters in the darkest times… it’s musical. I love her.
A Visit from the Goon Squad. It just won the Pulitzer and the National Book Award, and is a series of interconnected stories that visit different characters throughout their lives. I think “Goon Squad” is supposed to be a metaphor for time. So, the first story features a woman on a date who steals a wallet—she mentions another character to her date. The next story is about that side character, but ten years or so earlier… then someone is mentioned in that story, and that character is visited in the next story at a different point in time and so on. It’s great.

I saw Jennifer Egan at BookCourt recently. She was great so I urge everyone to buy her book. It seems that after work everyone is exhausted. Also, in our industry, we tend to go to events for work and reserve our energy for that. What makes you go to an author event outside of necessity?
That’s a really good question. I saw Jennifer Egan too and she was brilliant. I overheard people leaving the library saying “Jennifer Egan is just like, awesome,” and I felt the same way. I don’t know—I’ll tend to go if it’s an author I love or book I’ve connected with – Jonathan Franzen and Lorrie Moore at 92nd Street Y come to mind, or if a friend is going and it sounds interesting, I’ll tag along.

What makes you consider a book?
Publicity! And as a book publicist, I’m always impressed when a hit (or reading about the book somewhere, whether it be an interview or review) makes me want to go out and get it. We have access to so many books for free, its rare I’ll go out and buy one and that’s when you know someone’s doing their job. Two books this happened to recently is Art and Madness by Anne Roiphe, and soon to be Your Voice in My Head by Emma Forrest.
If you’re saying this for review purposes, it probably doesn’t apply to me. I guess when I was a reporter it would depend on where I worked. I was an arts reporter in a beach resort town, so something that would appeal to that audience would be key. I interviewed the authors of THE PERFECT MANHATTAN, whose book was about bartending in the Hamptons. I also interviewed Betsy Carter, a local resident who wrote a novel about a girl coming of age in Florida—Betsy stuck with me. She was the founder of a woman’s magazine too, and I remember on our interview her taking me around her beautiful house and showing me the old issues she was most proud of. She was great for the camera too. So to get back to the point, in that regard, it was a lot about the local connection.

Do you have any tricks for writing outside of your presumed interests?
You mean if I’m not particularly interested in the subject? I guess the same for when I’m working on a book—find something I can connect with, and start there. Then one word after the other (tomorrow they will be wrapping fish with it, as an old editor used to say)

You write fiction. What are some challenges you face? What do you enjoy?
The last complete short story I wrote was over two years ago. The last piece of fiction writing I have, aside from a few notes in a notebook here and there (I guess that happens on a weekly basis, to be fair to myself) is the start to a story I started writing in a coffee shop awhile back. It was a line about the past being a mess of knots that needed untying, like a piece of jewelry on a fine chain that was caught. That is my biggest challenge—I can somewhat easily come up with nice language, an interesting thought or scene or dialogue, but I struggle to string it together, give these lines a home, or come up with a plot (from what I hear, “plots” are important to a story!). And I struggle with the discipline to just sit there and do it. A writer I’m working with talks about how every day she sits at a computer for two hours—whether the going is good, or bad, just two hours, no more, no less. I think I would benefit from this kind of system, if I could find the time.

How do you find time?
Ha! See above. I don’t. I’m a terrible employee to myself, but great to others. So if I’m on deadline for Newsday, for example, which I write for from time to time, I find the time—whether it be lunch breaks, evenings, mornings, weekends, you name it. You find the time and cherish the rush of it. I sometimes cover Black Friday shopping for them so go to the store at midnight, and then have the story due at 5AM so you write it in less than an hour, which is a fun challenge. That’s actually less of a challenge for me, when you have that little time. When you have to do it you do it!

Do you find that writing on that tight of a deadline for a newspaper can be implemented for fiction or do you think they are two separate beasts? Like that beer and wine analogy?
I think its two separate beasts because fiction is so based in the imagination. I picture needing to sit there, let my mind wander for it to really work. But you know—when you are really “in” a story, it tends to flow I guess. Maybe I should adopt that philosophy of a deadline to my fiction, see what happens.

What’s your approach to journalism pieces?
I take a lot of notes. I don’t use a tape recorder. I find that in the conversation, whatever the subject says, the interesting things, the really good stuff, you know it when you hear it, a bell goes off—I’ll hear it in that moment so write that part very clearly and underline it. I wonder if I had a voice recorder, going back would it have that same spark or feel I felt when I first was conducting the interview live, in that moment. So I take notes, and go back to the people if I need to clarify something. I’ll go back three times if I have to, I’m obsessive about getting my facts right and telling the story the right way.
My approach to finding the start comes from an editor’s advice awhile back. I think it was his, maybe I came up with it myself. After you went to a meeting, or attended an event, if someone were to ask you, how was it? in normal conversation you would probably say, it was good—this cool thing happened…. Whatever your brain went to, that cool thing that jumped into your brain that was the most interesting, that’s your lede, your start point. The rest will hopefully flow. Though I find it to be more like putting together a puzzle.

That’s great advice. Do you find that you usually stick with the lede or does it morph into something else along the way?
I find I stick with the lede, unless an editor wants to change it but that hasn’t happened. It’s like going with your gut. You regret it if you don’t.

Any thoughts on voice? Finding it, cultivating it, etc?
I think I have a strong voice in my writing, I recognize my style and think its distinct. I find, especially if I’m trying to write fiction, that it will somewhat mimic an author I’m reading at the moment. So my suggestions to writers are read everything you can so you can absorb all the many different styles… then find your own. For some reason I don’t think this part should be hard. It’s the you—I think finding my voice is the easiest part.

I always liked that line, “write like how you speak”. It’s always been a huge help—unless you don’t speak well, that is. How does your approach to writing non-fiction differ from writing fiction?
I adore and admire fiction, but journalism comes easier to me. With fiction, I find the blank page very, very disturbing and intimidating. At least with journalism, you have real voices out there, notes, a subject. Fiction is just a completely empty canvas. What the hell do you throw on there? It’s a lot to ask your imagination to do and I really admire writers who do it so well.

Do you have a systematic writing process?
No, I think I fly by the seat of my pants. I should have one though. I’m sure coffee is involved!

I’ll second the coffee! What have been some inspiring writing books–either the intentional writing guide or a book whose writing made you want to hunker down with pen and paper?
ON WRITING WELL, by William Zinsser!!! My first Newsday assignment I was babysitting and re-read it cover to cover. That book is amazing. And of course EB White’s The Elements of Style is a great refresher, and the one you’ve been talking about Gabi ain’t bad, Bird by Bird. But I’d say On Writing Well is my bible. There are a couple of others on my shelf I’ll have to take another look at.

On Writing Well definitely has some great nuggets of wisdom in it. Where do you like to write?
My desk, or in bed. I find I always have a good idea right before I drift off to sleep, or am on the subway, somewhere/sometime where its really inconvenient.

How do you feel about writing while listening to music? I know this can be a factor for writing in coffee shops.
That’s a good idea actually—maybe it could be like helping a work-out along or making a run more tolerable. I’ve never noticed if I’ve listened to music while I write—I don’t think I usually do, especially for journalism because I’m trying to focus so much, but I bet with fiction, and getting my mind to wander, it might help relax me (and keep me in the chair). Thanks for the thought!

What do you enjoy about working with authors?
I love my authors!!!!! This is by far my favorite part of the job… more than the scheduling, etc. I love developing a rapport with your authors and finding what it is in their book that you can really connect with. Goes a long way in publicizing and developing that relationship.

Has your own writing experience affected how you approach the authors you’re working with?
I’d say yes, but maybe not as much as you think. Hmm. That’s a good question. I mean I think it certainly helps the bond. When you’re interested in writing yourself, and a big reader, a person you’re working with can definitely recognize that straight off the bat. And of course it helps when you’re developing press releases and pitching. It’s probably helped me more with editors on the other side (newspapers when im pitching) more than my authors, but I don’t know. I guess I have a tremendous respect for my authors, and that helps.

Do you read book reviews? If so, which ones?
Never. Just kidding. Like, 90% of the time?
I read the reviews my books receive, but also scan the rest in general to see what people are talking about, etc. At my company we have a system where we read all the papers in the morning marking off whats relevant to books and circulating it. Definitely keeps you up to date!

Do you read literary journals?
I read them a lot straight after college. Now I read them more if a friend or an author is featured in one, or if I am at a bookstore and one catches my eye. I’d like to read them more. Some friends work at Lapham’s Quarterly, so I read that pretty regularly.


Written by Gabrielle

May 25, 2011 at 5:12 am

Posted in books, interviews

Tagged with , , ,

2 Responses

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  1. Delighted to come across your superb blog..and nice to meet you..ELiza Keating

    eliza keating

    May 25, 2011 at 5:19 am

    • thanks, eliza! always nice to know there are readers out there. hope to have some good book and music suggestions for you in the near future. i’m writing up something on one of my favorite bands now for next week. stay tuned!


      May 25, 2011 at 5:42 am

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