Sunday, February 28, 2016

Katarina Bivald: Books--The Scent of Unread Adventures

The Writer's Life

photo: Cecelia Bivald
Swedish author Katarina Bivald can't remember a time when she wasn't reading. She claims to have always turned to books "for company, support and inspiration," and she grew up working in a bookstore. Therefore, it's fitting that her passion for the printed word and reading wove their way into her first novel, The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend (in paperback from Sourcebooks Landmark; see the review below). The story centers on a young Swedish woman, a bibliophile, who travels to a run-down Iowa town to visit her book-loving pen pal, only to be met with townsfolk who underestimate the power of books and reading.
Why and how did you become a writer?
I always dreamed about writing a book. But somehow or another, I never gave it any serious effort. When I was 25, after I finished university, I took a job and worked for 10 months to save up some money. Then I spent a month writing full time while traveling around Ireland. It was a great way to get to know my characters.
The truth is, for a long time I never expected this book to be published. I just wrote it as a trial run; writing a complete draft, from Chapter 1 to The End, in order to learn how to write. It didn't have to be good, it would never be published. I just wanted to take any idea and finish it. Since I only wrote it for myself, I decided to fill it with everything I love in books: small American towns, quirky characters, unexpected friendships, love--and books, of course.
Why did you set the novel in the United States?
The best thing about writing a book is that you get to make things up... so it was fun to set things in a small town in Iowa rather than in my own suburb outside of Stockholm. Books should provide some escapism even for the writers. The name of the town, Broken Wheel, came to me one day, complete with the entire history of the town. When I wrote the book, I had never been to Iowa, had never even visited the U.S. But in a way you could say I had grown up there, with Fannie Flagg and Annie Proulx and Louisa May Alcott.
At one time you worked in a bookstore.
Yes, but the bookshop I worked at in Sweden was nothing like the bookshop I created in the town of Broken Wheel. In the bookstore where I worked, I spent most of my time trying to read in secret--and sniffing books, of course. It was there I discovered how different books smell. They all share the scent of unread adventure, but there are differences as well: paperbacks smell different from hardcover, English paperbacks smell different from Swedish; classics different from chick-lit, and chick-lit different from crime. School books have their own very distinct scent of forced reading and boring days spent locked in a classroom.
Did you know from the start this novel would be about the power of books and community?
Yes, definitely about the power of community, although the link between books and community took me by surprise. When I started writing the book, I thought working in a bookshop was all about the books. I considered customers a rude interruption in my reading. But when I looked back on all those years in the bookshop, I realized it was actually the people I remembered, which got me thinking about what a bookshop can do to a town and a community that's struggling, failing.
The story is anchored by pen pals. Did you ever have a pen pal?
Nothing that I managed to keep up for any length of time, but I have often lamented the dying art of letter writing. And I have received a touching amount of real letters from people who've read The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend, including some who've kept up a correspondence with me for months. It's one of the most fun things about having written a book.
Who, in your own life, shares your love of books?
I share my love of books with everyone in my life, whether they like it or not. I have no friends, no lovers, no acquaintances, no family members, who haven't, at one time or another, received a book as a gift from me. Although I'm not sure whether they consider it a gift or a threat ("do tell me what you thought about it").
Do you have any favorite books about books?
I love books about books! Some of my favorites are: Dewey--The Small-Town Library Cat Who Touched the World by Vicky Myron (the reason my book is set in Iowa--who wouldn't want to write a book set in a state that once had a library cat?); 84, Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff (the touching exchange of letters between a formal, rather stuck-up English bookseller and a very much less formal American woman); The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society (very impressive title).
How have books changed your life?
Sometimes I think books are the reason I'm still single. Having once fallen in love with both Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet (being a bisexual book lover is a curse), it's very difficult for real people to measure up. Not to mention, real life. It's so... unstructured. God has a lousy sense of plot development.
Your novel has already sold 50,000 copies in Sweden and France and will be published in 25 countries.
Yes, it's been quite a journey. For a long time, I wasn't even sure if it would be published in Sweden, so I never imagined the story or the people in it reaching so many countries. It's a somewhat bizarre thought, that my book has traveled much farther than me. 
Has writing this novel, and having it so well received, changed you?
I write full time now, that's the most obvious change. But a more far-reaching change is that I've discovered how unsettling it is to fulfill dreams so very thoroughly. I'm still not used to it. Truman Capote wrote in Answered Prayers about occasions where you don't sacrifice a talisman: "When you have nothing and when you have everything--each is an abyss." So it's been strangely unsettling but, most of all, incomprehensible, in a fun, refreshing sort of way. It has made me experience things I had never even imagined, and as I get older, I find truly strange experiences surprisingly rare. 
Are you writing another book?
I am indeed. My second novel was published in Sweden this year, called Life, Motorcycles and Other Impossible Projects. It's about a single mother whose idea of time shifts when her only daughter moves to a different town to study. Eventually she starts taking motorcycle lessons, gets involved in an impossible project, falls for her motorcycle instructor (even more impossible) and eventually discovers just how complicated dreams and freedom can be.
My third book is much more unclear. At the moment, it's taking place in a fictional town in Oregon, so now when I look outside the window I see not the tiny Swedish pine trees, but the more magnificent Oregon ones.
Note: This interview is a reprint and is being posted with the permission of Shelf Awareness. To read this Q&A as originally published on Shelf Awareness (1/19/16), click HERE

The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend

When 28 year-old Swedish bibliophile Sara Lindqvist loses her job in her hometown bookshop, she travels to Broken Wheel, Ia., to finally meet and visit with her book-loving pen pal, Amy Harris. Upon her arrival, Sara is heartbroken to learn that the 65 year-old bibliophile has recently died.

Encouraged to stay on by the good-natured residents of the struggling rural town (population 637), Sara takes up residence in Amy's now vacant house. 
Sara and Amy shared a belief that books are better than real life. But once Sara settles amid the charms, rhythms and personalities of Broken Wheel, she begins to wonder if the stories of those who live in this small town might be as compelling as books.

Friendship and kindness are offered to Sarah via a colorful cast of characters including owners of the local diner and bar, a reformed alcoholic mired in grief, a buttoned-up churchgoer living a double life, the standoffish owner of the hardware store, quirky members of the town council and a dreamy-looking, long-time resident, set in his ways, who may actually hold romantic feelings for the Swedish newcomer.

When Sara decides to honor the memory of Amy by setting up a makeshift bookshop featuring all the books she and Amy loved--classics from Little House on the Prairie to Bridget Jones's Diary--she draws townsfolk to the neighborhood hub. Might Sara's quest bring Broken Wheel back to life? Katarina Bivald's feel-good first novel explores how books and reading have the power to reinvigorate stagnant lives and communities.

Sourcebooks Landmark, $16.00 Paperback, 9781492623441, 400 pp
Publication Date: January 25, 2016
To order this book via INDIEBOUND link HERE

Note: This review is a reprint and is being posted with the permission of Shelf Awareness. To read this review on Shelf Awareness: Reader's Edition (1/16/16), link HERE

Sunday, February 14, 2016

Dear Mr. You

In her inventive, unconventional memoir, Dear Mr. You, award-winning actress Mary-Louise Parker offers glimpses into her life via 34 letters written to and about significant men in her life, showing how masculine presences--fleeting, long-term and imagined--have influenced her, for better or worse.

The letters range widely in subject, form and tone. Most pay homage to family, as in "Dear Grandpa," which tells the story of Parker's grandfather and a creative act of love he undertook to brighten a son's dark days during World War II. In "Dear Daddy," Parker writes longingly of her father, his war experiences and how an injury sustained in battle changed his life--and Parker's.

Other letters are odes to--or denunciations of--lost loves, sexual exploits and long-ago intimacies. Tenderness and sensitivity gravitate to the fore in a letter about Parker's short-lived friendship with a man battling cancer. She writes an affectionate portrait about the two-way street of friendship, and humbly recalls meeting the biological uncle of her adopted, Ethiopian-born daughter. In "Dear Future Man Who Loves My Daughter," Parker admiringly glances back at the protectiveness of her own brothers when she was growing up. The men at the center of each letter often serve as mirrors, reflecting much about Parker and those who populate her world.

Whether writing to NASA, poets, musicians, a goat facing castration, an ash-covered firefighter on 9/11 or doctors, Parker's prose is infused with a perfect balance of sarcasm, humor and poetic language. Her letters shine with candid, self-aware depth--unabashed in revealing the truth of her own nature and experiences. 

Dear Mr. You by Mary-Louise Parker
Scribner, $25.00 Hardcover, 9781501107832, 240 pp
Publication Date: November 10, 2015
To order this book via INDIEBOUND link HERE

Note: This review is a reprint and is being posted (in a slightly different form) with the permission of Shelf Awareness. To read this review on Shelf Awareness: Reader's Edition (11/24/15), link HERE

This review was also featured (in a longer form) on Shelf Awareness: Book Trade (11/3/15). To read the longer review click HERE