Linn Ulmann spent her childhood trailing her famous parents as they traveled the world. As the daughter of director Ingmar Bergman and the actress Liv Ullmann, two legends of 20th-century cinema, her “home” shifted time and again. The one constant was a Swedish island, Fårö, where she returned each summer to visit her father.
Now, she’s fascinated by the way our surroundings shape us. In her interview for this series, the author of The Cold Song used a short story by Alice Munro to illustrate the way setting drives her writing, and how place and memory help dictate the stories we tell.
The Cold Song concerns a cast of characters affected by the disappearance of Milla, a 19-year-old au pair working in a coastal town south of Oslo. After two years, her body—and the grisly manner of its death—is uncovered by three boys searching for buried treasure. With this act of violence at its heart, the novel explores the unexpected ways a crime haunts people who knew the victim, inflaming their secret sources of guilt.
Linn Ullmann is the author of five previous novels, including Before You Sleep and A Blessed Child; her work has been translated into more than 30 languages. She spoke to me by phone from her home in Oslo.
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"Surrealism runs through the streets," the Colombian author, who died today at age 87, told The Atlantic in 1973. ”Surrealism comes from the reality of Latin America.”
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Marcus Burke, author of Team Seven and a former college athlete, learned from Carter G. Woodson that teaching yourself is just as important as being taught in the classroom.
One truth underlies the sprawling, sometimes contentious, freebie-filled Association of Writers and Writing Programs annual conference: Making a life in literature isn’t easy.
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Some pieces of news precipitate a kind of journalistic pile-on. This can be unfortunate, a reason to rue the deluge of opinion (see: drawn-out analysis of James Franco’s antics, again and again). Or, because there are many smart and shrewd voices out there, the same density of opinion can enrich our understanding of complicated issues (see: drawn-out analysis of Edward Snowden). The pile-on—of either variety—is good for convening dissonant points of view. But the hubbub tends to obscure the subtler strands of opinion: The people who mostly agree with one another are flattened into the same perspective, and the interesting gradations that separate, say, one kind of liberal or conservative from another are lost.
There is special pleasure, then, in reading writers narrower conversation. Bill Keller and Glenn Greenwald sparred over the future of news in the New York Times last year, with provocative results. Roundtables like Slate’s Supreme Court Breakfast Table illuminate the less visible corners of controversy by forcing like-minded commentators to make agreement interesting and disagreement intelligent.
Over the past two weeks, Ta-Nehisi Coates and Jonathan Chait of New York have engaged in a comparatively spontaneous back and forth that has accomplished this to great effect, shedding light on the places were progressives thoughtfully but profoundly disagree. The conversation began with no particular rules in place or end in sight—and their debate has proceeded with the intensity and unpredictability that such an approach entails.
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A new biography reveals a William S. Burroughs both ghastlier and more impressive than many previously thought.
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Like most writers, I am an inveterate procrastinator. In the course of writing this one article, I have checked my e-mail approximately 3,000 times, made and discarded multiple grocery lists, conducted a lengthy Twitter battle over whether the gold standard is actually the worst economic policy ever proposed, written Facebook messages to schoolmates I haven’t seen in at least a decade, invented a delicious new recipe for chocolate berry protein smoothies, and googled my own name several times to make sure that I have at least once written something that someone would actually want to read.
Lots of people procrastinate, of course, but for writers it is a peculiarly common occupational hazard. One book editor I talked to fondly reminisced about the first book she was assigned to work on, back in the late 1990s. It had gone under contract in 1972.
I once asked a talented and fairly famous colleague how he managed to regularly produce such highly regarded 8,000 word features. “Well,” he said, “first, I put it off for two or three weeks. Then I sit down to write. That’s when I get up and go clean the garage. After that, I go upstairs, and then I come back downstairs and complain to my wife for a couple of hours. Finally, but only after a couple more days have passed and I’m really freaking out about missing my deadline, I ultimately sit down and write.”
Over the years, I developed a theory about why writers are such procrastinators: We were too good in English class. This sounds crazy, but hear me out.
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At age 76, Jim Harrison has touched every major genre in American letters. He’s written 10 novels, 17 books of poetry, classic essays on food and wilderness, screenplays for feature films starring Jack Nicholson and Kevin Costner. Some of his best work, though, has been in that undersold genre, the novella—a form he became associated with after the success of his 1979 suite of three long stories, Legends of the Fall.
Harrison’s new novella collection—his eighth—features a character who’s recurred in his work for more than 20 years: Brown Dog, an unconfined, hard-drinking wild man from Michigan’s wintry upper peninsula. First introduced in 1990’s The Woman Lit By Fireflies —the story concerned the fate of an Indian chief’s recovered body, perfectly preserved in the deep murk of Lake Superior—Brown Dog became one of Harrison’s most recognizable characters. This eponymous collection collects the five existing Brown Dog novellas in one place for the first time, and closes with a new one.
When I asked him to share a favorite passage for this series, Harrison used a Theodore Roethke poem to share a vision of how he writes. His process, like his protagonists, is unintellectual, wild, and elemental. He explained why he waits for years before word one, and how rhythm helps unlock his characters.
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More and more often these days, authors are considered responsible for their own success—and those who were once responsible for promoting them now tout the glories of self-promotion. Or, as a cheery New York literary agent recently put it, “You, the author, have an unprecedented amount of control over the way people discover you and your work, and how your ‘presence’ is presented to the world.”
Here’s what an author’s guide to stardom might look like in the near future.