Writers’ Lives Are Not Actually Like This Under Most Circumstances


There’s been a lot going on these past few weeks and I feel like posting a disclaimer — Writers’ lives are not actually like this under most circumstances. I don’t want to mislead anyone into thinking that this is going to be an exciting blog. For the most part I plan to talk about books (and I will in just a minute), but first, Mr. Colbert.
My favorite part of this story is that our wonderful bookseller Andy Brennan actually owns a nearly-life-sized cardboard cutout of Stephen Colbert. He took it with him from his last job at Borders and kept Colbert in the garage, which just goes to show that you never know what’s going to wind up being useful. I got an email from the producers of the show at 6 a.m. the morning I was leaving on a 10 a.m. flight for New York, asking if I would bring some Parnassus T-shirts and tote bags with me. I ran over to the store on the way to the airport, let myself in, saw the Colbert cutout in the middle of the store, and screamed.  The cutout is still in the store and people have their picture taken with it every day. It no longer startles me.
How did I manage to get on the show? We owe our thanks again to that front page story in the New York Times the day we opened. When the producer called in early February, she said she’d meant to call in November because of the Times story, then got busy, then remembered again. In other words, this came straight out of the blue. No one at the show had read my books and they weren’t inviting me as an author.  I was there as a bookseller and a representative of the independent bookstore movement. Is there actually a movement towards independent bookstores? Well, I figure there must be if The Colbert Report is having me on.
The first thing I did when I got the news was email my friend Susan Orlean (The Orchid Thief) because she’d just been on the month before with her new book, Rin Tin Tinthe Life and the Legendwhich is a fascinating account not only of Rin Tin Tin himself, but the dog in American society. Susan said there was nothing to worry about because The Colbert Report has the best hair and makeup person in the business and that Stephen Colbert was a nice guy. I found both of these things to be true. I met Stephen Colbert for perhaps one minute before the show and one minute after and thought he was extremely professional and polite. The hair and makeup person, Kerri Plante-Price, did makeup for Sex and the City for many years and was fantastic. The show itself was a little bit like being in a car crash. It happened very fast. I walked away thinking of all the things I should have said, (namely, support YOUR local bookstore, not just, support MY local bookstore. I felt bad about that.) Still, all told, I think it went well. I brought two of my favorite Nashvillians along with me, co-owner Karen Hayes, and my stepson, Cecil VanDevender, because they are the two biggest fans of the show I personally know and, well, they’re good company.
Since everything on my end was unscripted, I had no plans to shout out that my book should be ordered from Parnassusbooks.net. By the time I got home we were covered over in orders from all over the country. A big thank you to our wonderful events and marketing manager, Niki Castle, who formed deep friendships with the people at the Green Hills post office. When you mail 700 packages, it helps to have friends.  Thanks also to Patrik Ward who set up our website in the first place so that we were able to receive all those orders. We never crashed. Everyone at the store pitched in to get the envelopes stuffed and the labels written.  It was a huge job. Along with the orders came a great deal of cheering and encouragement from all over the country for bravely opening a bookstore. All of us at Parnassus appreciated the love.  (I first typed the word ‘support’ but really, reading all those messages, it felt more like love.)
If all that wasn’t enough, I went to Chicago on February 28th and met up with my friend Renee Fleming.  We spent the day at the Lyric Opera of Chicago, where Renee is now the creative director, and took part in a press conference to announce the launch of the opera of Bel Canto that is being commissioned by the Lyric. Mark your calendars for the 2015/2016 season. Writing an opera takes some time. Talk about glamour, those opera people really know how to do it up right.  I was especially excited to meet the librettist, the Pulitzer prize winning playwright, Nilo Cruz, and the composer, Jimmy Lopez.  If you have the time, watch the clip from Chicago public television.  You can see how nice it would have been if Kerri Plante-Price had come with me to do my makeup.
Waiting for my plane in Chicago Tuesday night, I got an email from my editor at The Atlantic, giving me the go-ahead to write the long piece I had proposed about Parnassus. The tricky part was that it was due in six days. I’ve been holed up typing ever since I got back. It should run in the summer fiction issue. And no, it’s not fiction.
But let’s get to fiction before this gets ridiculously long. I’ve read some okay things in the past few weeks but I’m not here to recommend okay books. I want to recommend the very best books and that would be the one I finished last night, What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank, by Nathan Englander. It’s stunning. The title story alone is worth the price of admission. I’ve been a big fan of Englander’s since I chose his story “How We Avenged the Blums” (it’s in this collection) for The Best American Short Stories 2006. When I first started student teaching at the University of Iowa in 1985, I used to teach the famous Raymond Carver story, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” with the Anton Chekhov story that inspired it, “Concerning Love” or “About Love”, depending on your translation.  Englander made me go back to those two brilliant stories and think how wonderful it would be to teach all three of them together, the third being every bit as important as the first two. That’s about as high as praise can come. I recommend getting out your Chekhov and your Carver and reading all three for yourself.
I think about Nathan Englander, who surely will toil under the constant comparison to Philip Roth all the days of his life. It’s unavoidable given the ground they cover, and it honors both men. Reading What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank made me want to pick up Goodbye, Columbus again.  But what amazes me is that a writer who will always draw comparisons to Roth then titles his short story collection after one of the greatest short story writers of the age, Carver. I came away thinking that Englander must be an expansive personality and full of good will.  He really does stand among the greats.
One last thing: the wonderful Kathy Schultenover will be leading the Parnassus book club in a discussion of A High Wind in Jamaica on April 18 at 6:30 p.m. and 19 at 10 am. This is one of my favorite novels, I picked it for the Classic of the Month last month, and this gives you plenty of time to read it if you’re interested in joining in. And while you’re in the store, be sure to say hello to our newest employee, Heidi Ross. She’s a marvel, a lovely, helpful person and such a good reader. I love Parnassus, and the best thing about it is the people who work there.

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ISBN-13: 9780449003718
Availability: Usually Ships in 1-5 days
Published: Ballantine Books, 1/2000


ISBN-13: 9781439190135
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Published: Simon & Schuster, 10/2011


ISBN-13: 9780307958709
Availability: Special Order – Subject to Availability
Published: Knopf, 2/2012


ISBN-13: 9780618543526
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Published: Mariner Books, 10/2006


ISBN-13: 9780679748267
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Published: Vintage, 1/1994

A High Wind in Jamaica (Paperback)


ISBN-13: 9780940322158
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Published: NYRB Classics, 9/1999