Don Rearden’s The Raven’s Gift was recently named as one of the 50 Notable Books of 2013 by The Washington Post. We are particularly proud of Don here at The Rogue Reader, as his short story Aurora’s Dance was published by the Rogue last year.
I interviewed Don about the circuitous route The Raven’s Gift took to publication, growing up in the Alaskan tundra, and the oral storytelling tradition of the Yup’ik people.
COURT: Don, congratulations on the success of The Raven’s Gift. In a recent blog post you mentioned “the long and convoluted route taken by my novel on the road to getting published in the United States.” Would you mind giving those of us who aren’t familiar with that road a little more background on it?
DON: Thanks for the chance to chat with all the Rogue Readers, Court! And congrats on the success of Tenderloin. I’m looking forward to reading it as soon as I get finished grading all these damn freshman composition essays. My reading hours now are like sunlight in the Alaskan winter — never enough!
I joked in a keynote speech last October that the convoluted route to this novel finally getting into the US was something like the circuitous route of a raven itself. If you know anything about Alaska ravens, they are a curious and incredible creature, to say the least. Here in Anchorage, they stream down from the mountains at sunrise and fan out into the city, as if going to work. But if you watch one closely it will take a path that is never exactly direct, though they seem to have a destination in mind. For my raven—this novel—I knew in my heart the book would someday be published here in the US, but there were times I definitely didn’t trust my heart.
In 2008 the book hit the desks of editors just at about the same time the bottom fell out from under the economy. Adam Chromy, my kick ass agent, got the book into the hands of the top editors in the States, and many of them liked it, but they couldn’t get it past their editorial boards. Perhaps the marketing folks and other editors didn’t see the value in a book about the world ending, while the world seemed to be ending. One publisher shut down acquisitions company-wide the exact day an offer was supposed to be coming.
When all hope seemed lost for the book in the US, Penguin Canada swooped in and saved the day. They picked up the book and published it in Canada in 2011, and to my surprise, the book was an instant hit here in Alaska. Unfortunately, we didn’t have a US deal and that made distribution here in Alaska expensive and somewhat illegal. Booksellers here were pretty much bootlegging the book. Several stores were selling copies of the trade paperback Canadian edition for upwards of $27.
Text Publishing of Australia and New Zealand did pick up the rights for down under in 2012, but still no US deal. It was exactly like being the dude in junior high who claimed he had a girlfriend, but she lived in another country. My countries happened to be Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. And then France. At least France sounded like a more romantic place for a girlfriend, though, right?
Then a funny thing happened. Penguin Canada started a boutique imprint of select Canadian titles to distribute in the US called Pintail. After four international countries and countless rejections, my raven was coming home.
COURT: That is such a great story for any disheartened writers out there. And then to be featured on the Washington Post like it was has to feel amazing.
DON: I still can’t quite believe it, either. It’s been a long road, but an amazing one. The Washington Post accolades make it all that much sweeter for me and for all those who believed in the book. I couldn’t have asked for more, and in the long run, I really think that convoluted route might have made all the difference. I look forward to seeing where this particular raven flies next.
Brian Koppelman is the co-writer of Rounders, one of the great gambling movies and a personal favorite of mine. He and his creative partner, David Levien, also wrote Oceans Thirteen, The Girlfriend Experience and Solitary Man, which they co-directed. Most recently they directed the “30 for 30” ESPN documentary, This is What They Want, about Jimmy Connors’ run in the 1991 U.S. Open. Koppelman’s “Six Second Screenwriting Lessons” on Twitter (@briankoppelman) have developed a passionate following, and were recently featured in The New Yorker.
With the upcoming release of Inside Llewyn Davis, I exchanged emails with Brian about his favorite filmmakers, the Coen brothers. Among other Coen-related topics, we discussed a few of his favorite Coen brothers’ characters, what aspiring authors can learn from the Coens’ scripts, and what it’s like to write with a partner.
COURT: When did you become a full-blown Coen brothers’ fan?
BRIAN: I became a full-blown Coen brothers’ fan the moment I heard Nathan Arizona talking about Unpainted Arizona in Raising Arizona, which happens within the first ten minutes of the film. I was a college junior, on a date, had never seen Blood Simple and hadn’t really heard of the Coens. But as Nathan Arizona kept talking, I started cackling, loudly, and I didn’t stop until the credits came up. I went back to see the movie the next day, alone, and then found a way to watch Blood Simple. Since then, I have seen every single Coen brothers’ movie on the day of release (or at the latest, by the end of the first weekend). To me, they are the best living American filmmakers, along with Woody Allen, Martin Scorsese, Paul Thomas Anderson, Quentin Tarantino, Steven Soderbergh, and Wes Anderson. And as much as I love all those filmmakers—and I do. I know most of their movies by heart—Joel and Ethan Coen are my favorites. Their movies, even their darkest ones, just leave me feeling better about the world, because somehow, it’s a world that supports Coen brothers movies. I do feel I need to say: Woody is also my favorite. It’s just that his last movie to make me feel that way about the world is Deconstructing Harry, which was made about 15 years ago.
COURT: I know it’s a bit like naming a favorite child, but are there Coen brothers’ movies that you find yourself rewatching more than others?
BRIAN: I have seen every one of their movies at least twice, most three times or more. The ones I have watched so often that I can sing along as they play are, in descending order: The Big Lebowski, Miller’s Crossing, Barton Fink, O Brother Where Art Thou, Raising Arizona, True Grit. Also: the Marlon Wayans/Stephen Root scenes in Ladykillers. And, although I don’t rewatch these next two that often, I do consider them to be masterpieces: A Serious Man and No Country For Old Men.
What are your favorites, Court? And why?
COURT: Well, I’m a Little Urban Achiever, the name for those of us obsessed with The Big Lebowski. Don’t think I didn’t catch your nod to Lebowski in This is What They Want, when you said, “This will not stand.” I think it’s the funniest film ever made. It’s so random and yet tonally cohesive at the same time. I really don’t understand how a human brain concocted that movie.
No Country for Old Men is up there for me, too. Tommy Lee Jones’s speech at the end is devastating. And I think The Man Who Wasn’t There gets overlooked when people talk about great Coen brothers movies.
A similar question for you: They have so many memorable characters. As a writer, are there any that you are jealous of that you wish you’d written?
BRIAN: If I start with a “things about the Coen brothers movies that make you jealous” list, we’ll be here a long time, but I love Tom Reagan in Miller’s Crossing for his code of honor and Ulysses Everett McGill in O Brother because he’s a Dapper Dan man.
COURT: Why do you think their work appeals to writers so much?
BRIAN: I think the Coens appeal to writers because they use language in a way that showcases their love of language. They create characters who employ very specific idiolects, who can, in fact, be identified by how they use words.
COURT: I have read that every little verbal quirk of every character is written into the screenplay, which blows my mind. I wonder if their ability to write so specifically for their characters is made easier by the fact that they often know what actor they are writing for (whether it’s John Goodman, Steve Buscemi, John Turturro, or Frances McDormand). When you write, do you write with someone specific in mind?
BRIAN: Dave and I rarely write with a specific actor in mind. Obviously, when we were writing Ocean’s Thirteen we did. And in that case, it was inspiring and made the writing more fun. Picturing Matt Damon wearing that silly big nose cracked us up, and we loved imagining Brad Pitt and George Clooney watching Oprah. And when I was writing Solitary Man, I definitely had Michael Douglas in my head, even though we didn’t know each other, and he had no idea I was writing a movie for him.
COURT: One of my favorite combination of actor and character is from your movie Rounders, Martin Landau’s Abe Petrovsky. I find myself quoting his line, “Gin, always gin,” at least once a week (hey, don’t judge me). I have to know, was that line written in the script or did Martin Landau improvise it?
BRIAN: Mr. Landau plays Abe Petrovsky, who is based, very closely, on an old law school professor of mine named Abe Abramovsky. I loved Professor Abramovsky, who died a few years back, far too young, at 60. Professor Abramovsky was one in a million. A true humanist, a great storyteller, and also a man who liked to smoke and drink and hang out all night kibitzing. His cigarette? Pall Mall. His drink? Gin. Always Gin. Levien and I wrote that line, and the entire character, as a way to honor Abe. He was still alive when the movie came out, and we were thrilled that he loved it and the work of his on screen counterpart.
COURT: Like the Coens, you have a writing and directing partner. I’ve read the Coens really are of one mind artistically, that anyone on the set—actor, cinematographer, whomever—can ask a question of either one and know that he is speaking for the other. Would you mind talking about what yours and David’s process is like?
BRIAN: Although David and I aren’t brothers, we’ve been best friends since we met as teenagers in 1982. So we sort of developed our artistic outlook together. Rather than saying we are of one mind, I think we complement one another. There’s no one whose creative opinion means more to me. We have total trust and faith in one another. And the only time we ever really disagree is over ordering lunch. Because he’s getting salad and I’m going for Chinese. And honestly, he’s right. But for that half hour, I’m definitely having the better time.
COURT: Then you’re the clear winner in my book. Thanks for talking with us, Brian. It’s been fun.
A hearty congratulations to fellow Rogue Don Rearden, whose novel The Raven’s Gift was named to the Washington Post’s 50 Notable Fiction Books of 2013. The Raven’s Gift is a haunting story that takes place in an Alaska known only by a few. But don’t take my word. I’m biased, after all. Here’s Michael Dirda of The Washington Post:
“But only an exceptional writer could write that fine literary novel and then relegate it to backstory, using its fragments to heighten the eeriness and drama of what is an intense thriller. And yet ‘The Raven’s Gift’ also remains a love story — in fact, two love stories. What more could you ask?”
Good question, Michael. The answer is nothing!
Next week Don will sit down with the Rogue to talk about The Raven’s Gift, the Rogue Reader, and his forthcoming Alaskan thriller, set for release in early next year. Until then, Happy Thanksgiving from the Rogue, and remember, your bets go into your bookie before the turkey goes into the oven!
Eddie Machen, San Francisco’s number one heavyweight contender, worked out at Newman’s Gym
After focusing recently on one of the darkest moments in San Francisco’s history, the Jonestown Massacre, it’s a pleasure to shine some light on one San Francisco’s most inspiring institutions: Newman’s Gym. Newman’s was a boxing gym located in the heart of the Tenderloin in what used to be the dining room of the Cadillac Hotel. Run by the legendary Billy Newman from 1924 until his death in 1984, World Champs Joe Louis, George Foreman, and Muhammad Ali all worked out at Newman’s, as did Miles Davis, who posed for this iconic photo there.
When I began my research on Newman’s for Tenderloin, everyone I interviewed told me, “You need to talk with Pedro Fernandez.” After finally running him down, I understood why. Pedro is one of those people who owns the room. A former police officer, four-time San Francisco Golden Glove champ, and current host of Ring Talk, the longest running radio program on boxing in the country, Pedro and I met at a local bar to talk about Newman’s, the Tenderloin, and growing up in San Francisco.
COURT: Pedro, thanks for talking with the Rogue Reader. Tell me a little about your background.
PEDRO: Thanks for having me, man. I came from a broken home. Parents divorced when I was young. But that taught me how to hustle early. I started working when I was 11 at various newspaper stands in the Mission District. I sold six days a week. Three cents a paper, six cents on Sunday. For a 14-year old, selling 80 papers plus tips, I was the man.
COURT: When did you start boxing?
PEDRO: True story. I got into a fight one day in 1969 with this big guy who took my quarter off the pinball machine. I was killing that kid when this other dude steps in and breaks it up. The guy who stepped in was Eddie Machen, San Francisco’s number one heavyweight contender. He took me in after that and started teaching me how to box. read more →
Over at the Huffington Post, I talked to Julia Scheeres about her book,A Thousand Lives: The Untold Story of Jonestown. Julia meticulously combed through over 50,000 pieces of information released by the FBI, making A Thousand Lives the definitive account what occurred at Jonestown. We discussed what daily life at Jonestown was like, Jim Jones’s descent into madness, and her trip to Guyana in 2008. Julia shared some of the photos she took on her trip to Guyana in 2008 with the Rogue, as well as other rare photos she collected for her book.
It’s been a little dark this week on The Rogue, with all the talk of Jonestown (don’t worry, there’s more to come of that on Monday, the 35th “anniversary” of the tragedy), so I thought I’d lighten it up with a collection of stories you might have missed this week:
Thirty-five years after the Jonestown Massacre, there is still no memorial for the victims in San Francisco, the city most affected and most responsible for the tragedy. My piece in the San Francisco Bay Guardian today asks why, and makes the case for correcting this disgraceful omission.
The Guardian article is the polite argument. Here at the Rogue, we are less concerned with niceties. By looking the other way, San Francisco helped create the monster that was Jim Jones. The argument that nobody knew what was really going on at the Temple and therefore could not have foreseen this tragedy is only partly true—918 deaths is beyond anyone’s most macabre imagination. But San Francisco knew something malignant was going on at 1859 Geary Street. The politicians who sucked up to Jones for his support knew it, too. You didn’t have to be an insider to be in on the secret, either; all you had to do was read the newspaper.
The Oklahoma City National Memorial
Out of sight, out of mind seems to be San Francisco’s position now. Building a memorial, however, would not discredit San Francisco for its association with Jim Jones any more than the Oklahoma City National Memorial discredits that city for housing Timothy McVeigh. Nobody other than Jim Jones and his henchman were criminally responsible for the massacre. But just because you aren’t legally culpable doesn’t mean you don’t owe the victims and their families the bare minimum, which in this case is a solemn memorial to their lost lives.