Helen in Love, Rosie SultanIt was a cold day in February and I was stalled. The writing of my novel, Helen In Love—which fictionalizes the story of Helen Keller’s secret love affair—wasn’t working. I’d done years of research: files littered my desk, photographs of Keller hung on my study walls, newspaper clippings from 1916—the year of the novel—blared their headlines of how Keller spoke out against the United States entering into World War I.

I had so many letters, photos, and books about my subject that I should have been able to write the novel in—what? A month? Two at most?

Well, it wasn’t happening. My characters felt stiff on the page—bloodless. I pushed them around like cardboard cutouts and after more time than I want to say—okay, after four years of writing—I finally did what any novelist worth her salt does in moments of frustration. I quit.

The next day, during a blustery snowstorm, I walked into my study. Instead of opening my computer, I left it shut. Then I ran my eyes over the bookshelves lining my walls. Please, I prayed to the writing Gods. Let me find a book to jump-start my writing.

And then I saw it. Way down on the bottom shelf, a flare of red caught my eye. The red cover of a novel I’d picked up years earlier but had never read now grabbed me. No, that cover didn’t grab me: it dragged me in. Blood red, this cover, with a Klimt-like female figure in a red dress, her black hair flowing, her dress enfolding her like a shroud.

And who was this figure on the book’s cover?

Madame Mao.

I moved to the couch in my study and opened the pages of Anchee Min’s mesmerizing novel, Becoming Madame Mao (Mariner Books).

All that week I walked in to my study at noon and stayed on the corner couch with Min’s novel until the sun went down. I was completely engrossed in the story of Madame Mao: her early years of desperation, then her love affairs, and a kind of heat rose up off of the page as I read. Min’s portrait of a woman I’d only known as the wife of Mao Tse-tung, Former Chairman of Communist Party of China, defied all of my expectations.

Gone was my image of Madame Mao as the tiny, grey-clad figure I’d seen on TV when she and her cohorts were charged with being the “Gang of Four.” No, this Madame Mao, told with Min’s careful shifts from first and third person, sizzled with life, lust, desperation, and greed.

She was human. She was fierce. She was very flawed.

And loved her.

When I finished the book later that week, I knew that fiery, flawed Madame Mao had freed my writing.

I flipped open my computer ready to do something different. The story I wrote, of another icon, might do something similar. Helen Keller, too, was not just her public image: a demure, school-teacherish, icon–preachy and dull. Rather, she was a suffragette, a supporter of civil rights as early as 1916, a firebrand socialist whose outspoken opinions offended many. And she was a woman who craved love.

As I wrote I felt—no, I was—alive to the story of the real Helen Keller. The one who wanted to “wear high heels and drink gin.” The woman who, despite worldwide fame and good works, said with great bitterness at her life’s end, “Had I been sighted, I would have married first of all.”

Several months later my novel was finished. The red copy of Anchee Min’s book was creased and worn on my desk. But my characters were alive.

And so I say thank you to the person I least expected would renew my writing.

Thank you, Madame Mao.

This holiday season, our Penguin authors can help you find the best book for everyone on your list.

View more holiday recommendations on the Random House Tumblr.

Daniel James Brown is the author of two previous nonfiction books, The Indifferent Stars Above and Under a Flaming Sky. He lives outside of Seattle.

The Family: Three Journeys into the Heart of the Twentieth Century, by David Laskin

For me, the best kind of history is personal—history that speaks from the heart and to the heart. That’s what Laskin offers up here as he traces three strands of one family’s epic sojourn through some of the most momentous events of the twentieth century.

Read an excerpt »

Lost in Shangri-La: A True Story of Survival, Adventure, and the Most Incredible Rescue Mission of World War II, by Mitchell Zuckoff

I like to be transported by history—taken to a different time and a different place, preferably someplace thoroughly exotic and utterly unfamiliar to me. What could fit the bill better than being dropped into the jungles of central New Guinea in the middle of World War Two?

Season of the Witch: Enchantment, Terror, and Deliverance in the City of Love, by David Talbot

It seems strange to have so many events that I lived through myself growing up in the Bay Area called history, but this is an accurate and compelling social history of San Francisco during those giddy and sometimes nightmarish years between 1967 and 1987 when flower children and mayhem came to visit Baghdad by the Bay.

Lords of the Sea: The Epic Story of the Athenian Navy and the Birth of Democracy, by John R. Hale

Hale masterfully immerses his readers in a subject that could easily be as dusty and dry as an ancient tomb. Instead he brings vividly to life the entirely understandable trials and tribulations of citizens much like ourselves, who just happened to live and die in ancient Athens and invent democracy while they were at it.

Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption, by Laura Hillenbrand

Read an excerpt  »

No one is better at unfolding a great, sweeping historical narrative than Laura Hillenbrand. I was mesmerized by this tale of extraordinary courage under the most trying circumstance imaginable followed by ultimate salvation.

The Bounty: The True Story of the Mutiny on the Bounty, by Caroline Alexander

This book is nearly ten years old now, but I still have huge admiration for it. It is one of the rare works of history that is both thoroughly scholarly and at the same time a true page-turner. And if you think you know the full story of Captain Bligh, Fletcher Christian and the mutiny from the silver screen, it will hold some surprises for you.

Read an Excerpt »
View the Table of Contents »

Rage Is Back, Adam Mansbach

Staff Picks

Andy Dudley, Digital Business Manager

As we end 2013, the Penguin staff celebrates and recommends some of the outstanding books you may have missed this year.

I loved this book because it’s set in a New York City that may not exist post-Bloomberg, but really should. It’s for people who loved Jonathan Lethem’s The Fortress of Solitude. Or have spent the past few weeks chasing down the newest Banksy graffiti sighting. Or want to crawl into the subway tunnel just to see what’s there. Or like reading fast paced, literary, revenge tales.

My self-esteem is suffering. It has everything to do with NaNoWriMo, and only a little to do with writing.

It’s because I haven’t been reading.

You could say I am a bit of a “scorekeeper” when it comes to books read. I’ve never met a Goodreads reading challenge I didn’t like, and I’ve been known to waste many hours delving into the recesses of my memory to come up with the approximate date that I read a book in elementary school, so that I can add it to my Goodreads “read” shelf. There’s something immensely satisfying about getting “credit” for having read all these books, even if I didn’t enjoy them, or worse, if I barely remember them at all. For me, scrolling through my own “Read” shelf is also a way of taking stock: What have I been thinking about? What made me laugh? What am I now more inspired to do? I reflect on all these things when I review what I’ve been reading. As the music-nerd record collectors in Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity attach heavy meaning to their stacks of albums, books I’ve read are an important part of how I validate how I’ve spent my time.

And now it actually is becoming a problem, because I haven’t read a book cover to cover since I started NaNoWriMo. I’ve started two (On Such a Full Sea by Chang-rae Lee, coming out from Riverhead in January 2014; and On Writing, by Stephen King—both really, really wonderful books, deserving of rich praise and fast reading), and both of them languish on my bedside table, begging to be opened, read, tucked back into the shelf, added to Goodreads. Next to them are unfinished issues of Real Simple, Entertainment Weekly, New York Magazine, and People Magazine.

I’ve been blowing off these books and magazines because a militant typist inside my head scoffs at me when I reach for them. “You should be writing. You’ll never win NaNoWriMo if you spend all your free time reading!” (I have exactly 19974 words, and I need 50K to “win.” I feel hugely behind schedule.)  So I skulk away from the books, but not toward the computer. I get sidetracked by my TV, Twitter, and my cat. Double guilt: no books read, no words written. The technical term for how this plays out is “shame spiral.”

On Monday morning, I decided that enough was enough. Instead of thumb-typing in my NaNoWriMo document as I took the subway to work, I played an audiobook instead: I Kiss Your Hands Many Times, by Marianne Szegedy-Maszak, a family memoir that came out from Spiegel & Grau. It’s subject matter has nothing to do with my NaNoWriMo project: It is about an aristocratic Hungarian family in the first half of the 20th century.

The audiobook of I KISS YOUR HANDS MANY TIMES is read by the author, and I was reminded of Elizabeth Gilbert, who also narrated the audiobooks for her memoirs. Both women have smart, warm voices—they are natural storytellers who bring their family stories to life in a way that makes them feel both rare and universal. Almost immediately, I started to chill out and get really into this book, which combines a sweeping romance with a great deal of historical research about complicated topics like anti-Semitism and Catholic conversion in Hungary, the Treaty of Trianon, and bourgeois values in Budapest during the interwar period. These were subjects I studied with great interest in college—I studied abroad in Budapest for a semester, living just a few blocks from the Dohany Street Synagogue, mentioned often in Szegedy-Maszak’s book. I rode the same subways that the author’s family did while living out these scenes, and the prose taps into that deep well of wonder I had as a young person delving into a new place, startled and amazed by what I learned of it.

My NaNoWriMo project does not take place in Hungary, but the main character is a college student far from home. Simply thinking about my own college memories brings up all kinds of things from that time I had forgotten about: How often I ate Subway sandwiches for dinner, because I didn’t know how to cook anything; how exciting it was to be invited to a party, and how much planning went into the outfit that I would wear; how easily I got lost when I went to a new city, not just because the city itself was new, but also because I didn’t yet know how to go to a new city—how to find out what I didn’t know.

This fall a discussion developed on the Book Country discussion boards about whether reading was “an acceptable procrastination technique,” and our members were almost uniformly in support. One member, Carl E. Reed, wrote that “Everything is grist for the mill when you’re a writer.”

I thought of that as I sat back down with my NaNoWriMo project this week. I KISS YOUR HANDS MANY TIMES is an unlikely source of inspiration for my particular work-in-progress, but it remains one just the same. Carl and the rest of the Book Country community were right, and because of that, I’ve resolved not to feel guilty about reading during NaNoWriMo anymore. You never know how a good book might jumpstart your own Nano inspiration.

Lucy Silag is the Community and Engagement Manager for Book Country, Penguin’s online writing and publishing community.

To the Letter: A Celebration of the Lost Art of Letter Writing, Simon GarfieldNot long ago, my 25-year-old son told me something I never thought I’d hear from him. He wanted to write to a female friend he’d met recently in Portugal, but there was an obstacle in his way called technology. He wrote to her by email, and she replied, and then he wrote again, all within a day. But this was not a satisfying exchange; it was just too damn quick. What he envisaged when he first thought of writing was a genuine meeting of minds, a Henry Miller/Anaïs Nin or Kingsley Amis/Philip Larkin kind of thing. Perhaps romance would blossom, and perhaps it wouldn’t, but at least there would be some time to mull things over a little bit in an intelligent way.

Fat chance. He soon found that email, wonderful thing that it is in so many ways, is rather too instant for gestation and deeper thoughts amassed over time; wait a week to return an email and people think you’re dead. And so my son’s relationship with his potential new friend petered out as quickly as it formed. He could, of course, have maintained the correspondence the way we’ve done it for a handful of years before email – pen, paper, envelope, stamp, postal system – but he’s 25, busy with filmmaking, and the thought of spending money on a stamp and then having to catch the last post had long ago begun to seem rather Victorian to him.

He told me this story when I was almost at the end of my new book about the history of letter-writing, and, magpies that writerly fathers are, I couldn’t help but put it in the epilogue. The ability to correspond slowly was another important thing sacrificed to brilliant technology. I added it to the list of other things we stand to lose when we abandon letters: an ability for secret intimacy; an ability to document our personal history in a meaningful way (more meaningful than just arrangements and links to cute cat vids); an ability to uncover secrets in attics years later; an appreciation of the beautiful – lovely paper, careful handwriting, emotion on a page that may be treasured or burnt.

Everyone writes a letter differently; everyone writes an email that looks the same. Fairly obvious really, and this has clearly been a slow decline over two decades. In To The Letter I wanted to emphasize how important this transition really is. I argue that it’s the biggest loss of the digital revolution, more significant than the loss detailed in my last two books about typefaces and maps.

So what will we miss most? And what will I miss most?

Love letters, obviously. Partly this is because I’m very happily married, so no new love letters for me beyond fuzzy things from my wife in birthday cards. But I really mean the idea of love letters, and their memory. My book is a trail of passion from the 12th century onwards, taking in misbehaving nuns, errant cartoonists and smitten poets, and you’ll detect their moistness on every page. There’s also a compelling (I hope) sequence of letters written during the Second World War that tracks the beginning of a beautiful and lasting relationship (I know it endured, because I obtained the letters from the correspondents’ son.)  Could they have written the way they did by email? No. Personally I’m just glad that I still have letters in shoeboxes from former beaus – almost all of which I will probably never read again. But like those kisses on the bottom, I’m glad I got ‘em.

Soon I think we will even write condolence letters by email or text. This is the last empire to crumble, and most of us have the good sense to mark a death by getting out the envelopes. But for how much longer? I’ll give it a decade or two before people start sending ‘so sorry to hear’ from a tablet.  And then it will become socially acceptable, and we’ll shrug and say how much easier and certain it is, what with postal deliveries not being what they were etc.

Condolence letters were where it really began for me with letters. My dad died 40 years ago when I was 13, and that’s the first flood of post I can remember, jamming our thin letterbox in the weeks after his death with Basildon Bond and slightly perfumed pastel-colored rectangles. Many of them said very similar things, but that wasn’t the point: the point was that friends had made the effort to sit down and gather kind thoughts about someone they loved or admired, and then wrote about him in a personal way in their own unpixelated hand. Touch has a memory. I still have those letters.






Beautiful Americans, Lucy SilagHalf the fun of NaNoWriMo is the breaks you take to update your word count on social media. Last weekend, I happily tweeted out my latest stats, hashtagging them with #NaNoWriMo. Then, I clicked through to see what others had just tweeted about it.

Imagine my dismay when I saw that two friends of mine from graduate school were just at that very moment engaging in a Twitter conversation about NaNoWriMo—and not a friendly one. Literary writers both, they were mocking the idea of anyone being able to write a novel in a month. One friend went for a cheap laugh by calling it “National Delete a Novel Month.”

I do not usually take people to task over differences of opinion on social media. But this time I felt compelled to intervene.

“You shush!” I tweeted at them. “I’m doing it!”

Immediately, my two friends apologized for any offense, which made me laugh, and then forgive them. They are both kind, funny people—snarky, but in a charming way. Their NaNo–naysaying was harmless. But the exchange stuck with me. Why do some writers resist the idea of NaNoWriMo, not just for themselves, but as a cultural phenomenon? What is it about binge-writing that is so distasteful to the “serious writer”?

Me, I’ve always been a fan of binge-writing. I wrote my first book, Beautiful Americans, in a series of Saturday afternoon binges. I was 23 years old, just out of college, and new to New York City. My fiancé, who was then my boyfriend, got up at 5am every Saturday for his shift at Borders at Columbus Circle in Manhattan. So every Saturday I was left to my own devices, since I didn’t have many friends in the city yet. For the first few months, I’d spent those days reading, or looking at Myspace. I’d always said about myself: “I could write a book if I tried.” Since I had some time on my hands, I decided to try.

Early drafts of that book, Beautiful Americans, were really terrible. My favorite TV show at the time was Lost, and because of that I was enchanted with the idea of my characters flashing back to really involved, harrowing scenes from their lives before they’d all met. There were about twenty main characters, and none of them were very likeable—they stole, lied, and cheated, and always with a snotty attitude. Not only that, the characters were 17 but spoke like they were 23 and just out of college—like their author. Best of all, the novel took place in Paris, a city I was not at all knowledgeable about or even particularly admired. Every time a character encountered the city around them, they remarked how much it smelled of urine.

Luckily, I was young and not very self-aware, and thought that if I was having fun doing something, I must be good at it. For hours at a time, I typed away at this manuscript, completely living in its world for the whole day. I never attempted to make it a part of my everyday life, because binge-writing was so engrossing. When I finished a draft, I binge-revised it. It went on like this for months, binge-writing and binge-revising as it made its way from pipe dream to agent to published book.

There were so many drafts of Beautiful Americans. I cannot tell you how many, because I lost count after 20. I wrote, rewrote, and copyedited that thing until it was a very, very distant cousin of the original manuscript, a cousin so far removed that they weren’t of the same species.

I recently heard a famous, National Book Award-winning writer describe her early days in this way: “I wrote my way to a new life.”  Beautiful Americans, and those long-ago Saturdays I spent just pouring out the words, not worrying if they were good or bad or even spell-checked, led me into a new life, too.

Even before I published the Beautiful Americans books, they gave me so much. Because of that first manuscript, I saved up for a research trip to Paris so that I could fact check the book before it was sent to publishers, and on that trip I started to finally see what was so enchanting about the City of Light, now one of my favorite places in the world. Writing that manuscript brought me into contact with a community of writers here in New York, which brought me friends in my city. Most of all, writing those drafts proved right something I’d always had a hunch about: I could write a book if I tried. Not everyone knows that about themselves. I do. It’s a great feeling.

I wouldn’t know what that felt like if I hadn’t started somewhere, and binge-writing on Saturdays, like Wrimos are doing all through the month of November, all over the world, is where I started.

Many “serious writers” are suspicious of NaNoWriMo because of how they painstakingly labor over every word of prose. Wrimos just let the words fly. How can something be good if so little thought is going into its construction?

Don’t be fooled by this. These are simply two ways of going about the same hard work, and arguments about which is the better way are silly.

What we do know is that one of these types of writers is spending November feeling like they are moving boulders uphill, and the other feels like they’re riding a bike downhill with no hands, whooping (or tweeting) are the whole way.

I’ll happily take the latter.

Lucy Silag is the Community and Engagement Manager for Book Country, Penguin’s online writing and publishing community.

The Lair, Emily McKay

The second book in the series, out now!

A lot of people assume that since I write vampire novels, I must be fascinated with this particular variety of the undead. Mmmm … yes and no. There are certainly elements of vampire mythology that I find curious. I’m interested in how our perception of vampires has changed over time. But would I want to be a vampire? No. In fact, hell no. Here are my top reasons why vampirism is not for me:

  1. Eternally undead = eternally bored – I could probably get on board with the whole not aging thing (Nobody wants wrinkles, right?), but frankly the idea of never dying kind of freaks me out. Forever is a long time. I mean, wouldn’t you get bored? Are really supposed to believe vampires experience no existential angst? But maybe I just read Jean Paul Sartre’s No Exit at a formative age.
  2. What if I’m an unattractive vampire? Forever? – Here’s the part where I sound vain and frivolous. (Just thought I’d warn you.) I’m still working on loosing those last ten to twenty pounds. What if I get turned before I reach my goal weight? If eternity is boring, then eternity  fifteen pounds from my goal weight … well, that just seems very disappointing. (Actually Adam Rex wrote an interesting YA about this very issue called Fat Vampire. Check it out!)
  3. Diet – and speaking of diet, don’t you think that all blood diet would get boring? I don’t even like to eat the same breakfast cereal too many days in a row (except Lucky Charms) so I can’t imagine eating the same meal every day for, oh about …eternity

    The Farm, Emily McKay

    The first book in the series

  4. Holidays – Sure, there are no guarantees that vampires even celebrate the basic holidays, but if they do, what do they eat? Does drinking blood mean no Peeps? No Cadbury eggs? No Halloween candy??? I wouldn’t want to live like that. And no turkey at Thanksgiving? (Assuming these are American vampires.) No way!
  5. I’d end up hopelessly unhip – In the end it comes down to this. I don’t think I’m cool enough to be a vampire. I don’t think I could be an ultra cool and charasmatic vampire like Lestat. I don’t adapt to change that well. I’m not even middle-aged yet, and I already use the phrase “Well, when I was young…” entirely too often. Can you imagine how bad that would be after two hundred years? Or four hundred? “You have allergies? Bah! Back in my day we had the plague!”

In the end, I guess I’ll just have to stay human. Unless I lose those last fifteen pounds. And someone makes Peep flavored blood. Then, we’ll talk.

Headhunters on My Doorstep: A True Treasure Island Ghost Story, J. Maarten Troost

As we end 2013, the Penguin staff celebrates and recommends some of the outstanding books you may have missed this year.

J. Maarten Troost is the acclaimed author of The Sex Lives of Cannibals and Getting Stoned with Savages. His third foray into the South Pacific Islands is his newest memoir Headhunters on my Doorstep. Funny and witty, I found myself laughing out loud on every page.

Following in the steps of Robert Louis Stevenson, Troost island-hops to the Marquesas, the Tuamotus, Tahiti, Kiribati and Samoa. In between bizarre observations of the local color, touching personal reflections and his ongoing struggle to stay clean, Troost makes the reader feel at ease, feel like they are there with him (the best kind of travel-log) and even tells the story of how he came to get his first tattoo…when he was over the age of forty – and sober! I want everyone to read this!!

- Beth Parker, Associate Director of Publicity, Gotham and Avery Books

The Lair, Emily McKayNow that the second book in the Farm series is out, I get a lot of people asking me which book was harder to write. Of course, the truth is, all books are hard to write. There’s the grueling emotional toll that writing takes on you (and if it’s not emotionally grueling, you’re not digging deep enough). And then there’s the sheer willpower it takes to sit your butt in the chair and put fingers to keyboard. That’s the same for every book. And then, there are the problems that are unique for every book. Each story taps into your fears and emotions in a different way.

When I wrote The Lair, the opening action of the book takes place at Base Camp, where the teenagers who are part of the rebellion are living. It’s winter. They’re in the mountains. And all of civilization has collapsed around them. I spent a lot of time worrying about how to feed these two hundred plus imaginary people. It’s a world without grocery stores! A world without fast food! Where is the food coming from?

The question doesn’t even take up that much of the book. It’s just something I thought about a lot. It got in my head. I found myself creeping out of bed in the middle of the night to research how to stockpile food. Did you know you can have a year’s worth of food drop shipped to your house? Did you know you can make a candle out of a can of Crisco? Did you know it’s still possible to get scurvy if you don’t get enough vitamin C? This is the kind of information that can really mess with your head.

Then one day, I went to the grocery store and they were completely out of zucchini. I freaked out, sure this was a sign of the coming apocalypse. So … um, yeah. I sort of started stock piling food.

But here’s the thing about book-related insanity: it comes and goes. Now that my Lair-related crazy has passed, my brief foray into prepping has allowed me to make a generous donation to my local food bank. That’s a good thing, right?

I’ve moved on to other forms of crazy, now. Like wondering whether evil monsters will ever invade our world from a parallel universe. And if they do, will grocery stores still operate?