Wednesday, January 29, 2014

I talk to Mike Gustafson and Hilary Lowe, the cool owners of Ann Arbor's coolest new bookstore, Literati

I love many things: bookstores among them, but I also love Ann Arbor, one of the coolest towns on the planet. I read recently about how Mike Gustafson and Hilary Lowe moved back to Ann Arbor to start a bookstore, Literati.
Now, how can you not love a bookstore that says this:  "We believe that, contrary to popular belief, we are not hurdling towards some digital, machine-operated future where an Amazon algorithm can decide your reading list. We believe in the whimsy that an independent bookstore provides. We believe that people still enjoy reading real books where real people work in a real bookstore. 

Almost everything in our store is repurposed or designed locally. Our bookshelves were purchased from the original Borders Store No. 1. Our tables were purchased at local thrift stores and consignment shops. Our bookmarks were designed by SIBLING, a local graphic designer in Ann Arbor. Our logo T-shirts and totes were printed by VGKids, an Ypsi-based printing company, and they were all made in the USA. We are committed to working with and supporting the local community. "

I'm thrilled to be able to talk to both Mike and Hilary about their store and remember--you don't have to live in Ann Arbor to order from them!

I love that you boldly went ahead and opened a bookstore at a time when the economy is not exactly bookstore friendly. How can everyone help support such greatness?

Quitting jobs, moving from Brooklyn back home to Ann Arbor, and opening a bookstore in this wintery bookstore marketplace was, and continues to be, a very, very scary endeavor and yet equally exciting I think there’s an underdog status with indie bookstores that, for those opening up shop these past five years, garners reactions of equal parts excitement, support, and skepticism. Sort of like how you’d look at a kid who tells you he’s going to make the NBA one day. That was kind of the reaction we got when we told people we were opening a bookstore in 2013. And I think we’re still trying to catch up to the ramifications of all those fast-moving pieces in our journey. But finally after a very hectic and crazy year and a half, we’re just now catching our breath. We’ve been open 10 months, and we’re making plans for a one-year anniversary. Some said not to open. Others told the media that we were “doomed.” So we’re thrilled to still be here, selling books, and not just puttering along, but doing quite well, hiring more full-time staff, buying more books and bookshelves, and coming up with a plan for 2014 that doesn’t involve living out in the streets or in our parents’ basements.

Honestly, the community support has been incredible. Ann Arbor is one of those places in Michigan and one of the few places in the entire Midwest where we didn’t have to sell or pitch this idea that when you spend locally, more of your money stays local. Ann Arborites already know that, embrace that, and for the most part, live like that. Though Ann Arbor was hit hard with a number of bookstores closing, we thought the market was under-served after Borders closed. Now two new bookstores have opened, and I believe Ann Arbor has a healthy number of bookstores again. The thing is, even though bookstores sell books, people support indie bookstores because many of us offer much, much more than books – we host events, author readings, children’s story times, open mic nights, book clubs, etc. and the vast majority of these events are free to the public, community-centric, and locally focused. Ann Arbor has been incredibly, incredibly supportive so far. We have a long hill to climb, but the support has been great. We’re so lucky.

Right now we are simply trying to get the word out around Ann Arbor that we are here, we are downtown Ann Arbor, and that we sell new books. As far as support, a very easy way to support us is to support us via social networking. In that regard, we’re trying to have more of an audience online. We’ve been very focused on creating a community in every facet – both in person and online. We’ve noticed that by embracing social media, we’ve kept an online community engaged and invested both with us and with books. We like to have fun, we like to be creative, and we try to show that online as well as in our store. By utilizing social media and not shying away from it, our goal is that, should the day come when rents are too high or the market is even more “not bookstore friendly,” we can change, grow, morph, and move somewhere that will accept us… and hope that our audience will move with us, too. Bookstores 30, 20, and even 10 years ago just didn’t have the plugged-in digital audiences that exist now. We have followers not just from around Ann Arbor and Michigan, but around the country, some of whom buy books through our website, which is just like buying in the store. We can keep them posted what’s going on. We’ve been encouraged by other bookstores’ use of social media, and I think social media has allowed small and niche underdog businesses to keep their fan bases loyal and the support going. Some people have found us online, liked us on Facebook or Twitter, then began to buy books through our website just because they like what we do. It’s amazing, and many indie bookstores do this, too.

Literati has a real community feel, which I love, and which I always felt when I lived in Ann Arbor. I was intrigued that you left Brooklyn to come back to Ann Arbor (something I totally get. I never stopped loving Ann Arbor.) Can you tell us about the hows and whys or how you returned?  And why you decided to open your store in Ann Arbor rather than Brooklyn?

Hilary grew up in Ann Arbor and I have family here. So it was a literal returning home when we moved to Ann Arbor from Brooklyn. But when we were living in Brooklyn, Hilary was working for Simon and Schuster as an independent sales rep, and bookstores were just part of our everyday lifestyle. We’d visit many of them, from McNally Jackson to Word to Community to where Hilary worked for a few months, Greenlight Bookstore. It was never this huge rally war-cry of “WE MUST SUPPORT THE LOCAL BOOKSTORE!” but more just like heading to the bar on a Friday night… it was simply something we did regularly. And when we got engaged and heard Borders was closing nationally, we had this huge hole in our hearts because Ann Arbor didn’t have a bookstore downtown selling new books. There is Nicola’s over in Westgate and now BookBound on the North Side, so between us three covering the geographic regions of Ann Arbor, we feel like with the other used and niche bookstores in town, we have filled the gap that Borders left behind.

Brooklyn is a fantastic place filled with writers and readers, but there are already institutions there and in-place. We were living in Crown Heights, and we toyed with the idea of opening somewhere around there, but we just felt like Ann Arbor was home (because it is). We thought we had a good idea what kind of bookstore would work here, what kind of books we would sell, and what people were interested in. It’s always a guessing game, and we continue to learn what Ann Arborites like to read, but we are Midwesterners through and through, and we wanted to open a bookstore in the Midwest. (Though we still sometimes miss Brooklyn!)

You said in an interview that you had a preconceived idea of whom your customers would be--what was that idea and how were you surprised?  How do you make a bookstore flow and be engaging?  How does it matter where cookbooks verses fiction may be? Did you research stores you loved or work on things you had always wanted to see in a store but were never able to find? 

We had an idea what kind of inventory would work, but we were and are surprised every day. The biggest surprise was how well our poetry section has been received. It’s consistently our 2nd or 3rd best-selling section. That’s more than history, or science, or our children’s section. Many bookstores stuff poetry in a small, cold, dark shelf somewhere unseen behind the best sellers and the thrillers. Our poetry section is right up front near the door, two cases filled. Credit goes to John and Russ, our two poetry MFA graduates on staff, who curated what we feel like is the best poetry section in the state. Also credit goes to the amazingly supportive poetry community in Ann Arbor. Ann Arbor is a town of poets. Poetry is strong here. Much of that is because of the educational systems in place, from the stellar MFA program to the Neutral Zone and the job Jeff Kass does with poetry and youth in Ann Arbor. We’ve been the beneficiaries of what was already a strong poetry community long before we arrived.

Store lay-out was difficult, and continues to be something we monitor. We are a small space, and we have two floors. Having two floors can be good, and it can be bad. For events, it’s great because we can separate the events so as to not disturb the rest of the store. For theft and staffing and lugging books around, it’s not the best layout in the world. So we really, really had to consider layout carefully. The manager of the original Borders store, Joe Gable, helped us with our original layout. But, man oh man, we agonized, debated, and continue to debate. People think that when you open a bookstore, that’s it. The books never move, the shelves stay in place, and you just sit back and watch the customers come in. Not at all true. Every bookstore is an organism of many moving pieces – the books move, the shelves move, and like a river, over time, the geographic layout of the store completely changes.

The best decision we made in the opening process was that we painted our sections with chalkboard paint so we could quickly switch sections. We have changed sections around so many times, we’re running out of chalk. We wanted to get that flow just right so a customer can walk in the doors and circulate throughout the store and the transitions of topics would make sense. As in, we wouldn’t have military history flow directly into humor. Sounds like common sense until you begin to play around with unlimited options… then it gets tricky. And you can drive yourself crazy trying to guess what is the best customer experience for browsing. But for our two floors, we have fiction on the main floor and non-fiction on the lower-level. That way, we can identify ourselves with being a fiction-centric store but also be able to point non-fiction lovers in the right direction. (Plus the lower level is cozier with more seating – perfect for browsing the many non-fiction options be have down there – including history, cooking, nature, decorating, science, philosophy, sports, and much more!)

We did research other bookstores, but it’s one of those things where you can’t do too much research or you’ll drive yourself nuts. Sort of like (what I imagine to be) the difficulties in writing. If you sit down to write, say, a memoir, it might help to read other people’s memoirs to see how they structure it, formulate it, and narrate it… but if you read too many memoirs, you’ll just stare at your own blank computer screen in complete anxiety and terror. We toured a few bookstores and got some ideas, but they were general ideas. We had to cater Literati Bookstore for this specific space and our specific two floors, so many of our pre-conceived notions of what-a-bookstore-should-look-like simply flew out the window. The store would be much different if, say, we had just one level, or if we had a wider layout instead of a long layout. That’s why indie bookstores are all fantastic: Every owner caters his/her store to exactly fit the space. That’s when you can tell when you’ve stumbled upon a great bookstore. When every inch of it has been thought and planned.

I always ask booksellers, do you have a sense of what book a customer might need, as opposed to what he or she says he wants?

A book is like a relationship: While you might want the beautiful vixen and yet need the stable Girl Next Door, in the end, you’re going to choose what you’re going to choose. I can point you to both and say, “Here you go!” but the decision of who you choose is not up to me. Like my mom always says, “You can’t help who you fall in love with.” Bookstores allow people to fall in love… with books, with ideas, (sometimes) with people…. So if a customer comes in and asks for a book recommendation, I’ll give them a list of books based both on what they say they like and what I think they might like based on their previous reading habits. We always ask “What is the last book you read that you loved?” This helps us guide them to what we think they may like.  But ultimately, they’re going to fall in love with a book based on circumstances that we can’t always predict. But that’s the beauty in bookselling. You help guide and you may have a good match, but they may browse your selection and come across something they thought they’d never pick up in a million years and go in a totally different direction. It might be completely outside the realm of explanation. And that’s the point. A grand serendipity of sorts.

What’s obsessing you now and why?

Oh so many! I just read The Goldfinch over a month ago now and I still can’t get it out of my head. Hence why we’ve chosen it as our first Literati Bookstore pick and I’m excited to see what others in Ann Arbor think about it. So much of why we love reading is the experience of connecting with people and we’re excited to offer that connection here through the book club. I also just read a great memoir called My Salinger Year by Joanna Rakoff, which is coming out in June. It is about her experience working for Salinger’s Agent at 23 – her first real job. It’s as you might expect – bizarre and lovely and life-changing. It was so much fun – I read it in one sitting. But the book that keeps on giving for me is the cookbook One Pan Two Plates. Best cookbook for couples without kids. Michael says the jambalaya is the best he’s ever had, anywhere, including in New Orleans. The Hungarian Goulash is also pretty amazing.

Michelle Richmond talks about Golden State, chance, colonizing Mars, and so much more

Let's see. The Girl in the Fall-Away Dress. Dream of the Blue Room. No One You Know. The Year of Fog. Brilliant works of art by the amazingly talented Michelle Richmond. She's got two book  about to come out, Hum and Other Stories, from the Fiction Collection and the book she's talking about today, Golden State. In Golden State,  Richmond follows fractured lives during the course of one terrifying day: a young doctor at a VA hospital, her pregnant troubled sister, and a hostage situation. About the chances we choose to take and the lives we try to fashion, the book is both harrowing and haunting.

I'm thrilled to have Michelle here. Thank you, thank you, Michelle. 

Golden State takes place across one day, and yet in that day, whole lives are really lead. I deeply admired the masterful way you played with time, breaking it apart, in order to give us pieces of different stories before we got to the whole. Did you always know this was the structure? How difficult was it to write?

The story began, really, with the idea of the main character, Julie, making her way across town on a broken ankle over the course of a single day. I wanted to use this structure to allow Julie, who is about to turn forty, to reflect on how she got to this point in her life--the mistakes she's made, the people she has loved, the path she has taken. While I've never written a novel set in a single day before, I tend to write in a similar pattern--of present action interspersed with reflection--in all of my novels. It's just the most natural-feeling way for me to write a story, perhaps because I am always so interested (not just in novels, but also in life) about where people came from, what made them who they are.

With Golden State, however, an extra wrinkle was added--a hostage situation that's taking place at the hospital where Julie works. It was quite challenging to figure out where the pieces fit. Writing a novel, as you know, is like putting together a huge puzzle. I actually laid the chapters out on my dining room floor for weeks at a time, during various phases of the process, to figure out where things went. 

There are so many brilliant parts of the novel about what it's like to work in a VA hospital, what it's like to be a vet. What kind of research did you do, and what about your research surprised you?

There is one reason the novel ended up being set at the VA: After The Year of Fog came out, when I was just beginning to think of this new idea for a novel, my son began preschool at a wonderful little one-room school on the campus of the VA hospital in San Francisco. Most of the parents worked at the hospital, and one of them, a very respected and accomplished general internist, was kind enough to allow me to trail him for a day and sit in on a diagnostic lecture. The school was integrated in interesting ways with the hospital. On Halloween, the children would go trick or treating through the hallways. And they would take walks on the beautiful grounds, perched over the Pacific Ocean. I was deeply inspired by the place.

When I was trying to flesh out the character of the sister who has returned from Afghanistan, I communicated with an old high school friend who has served several tours as a Marine in Afghanistan. And when I was in college, I lived with (and was engaged to) a guy who ended up spending his senior year of college in Iraq as part of Desert Storm. When he returned home, he was deeply changed. I saw the effects of PTSD first hand. Now, twenty years later, I can look back and feel empathy for that very young man whose personality was altered by war. I didn't realize it when I was writing the book, but looking back and reading it, I realize that the character of Dennis is probably inspired in part by that experience, and by the reality that the invisible scars our veterans carry last for decades.

Like your brilliant THE YEAR OF FOG, Golden State deals with another aspect of losing a child. As a mother, I'm both terrified and drawn to those kinds of themes. Can you talk about how it is for you?

Yes, I think writing comes from a lot of places--our dreams, our aspirations, and also, in some measure, our fears. I cannot imagine anything worse than losing a child. When I was writing The Year of Fog, I was not yet a mom, but I had nieces, and my relationship with them informed my writing about Abby's relationship with Emma, the six-year-old girl who goes missing in that book. Now, as a mother, I have such sweet memories of the time when my son was very small, and the sweetness and intensity of that mother-child bond is something I tried to capture in Golden State. But the reverse side of maternal joy, that deep and blissful connection we feel to our children, is the fear that we will lose them or not be able to protect them. In both The Year of Fog and Golden State, this fear is realized, with terrifying consequences. And I wonder if writing is also some way of staving off the worst. The things we almost can't bear to imagine are often the things we can't help but imagine, and those mental wanderings make it into our books.

There's a thread in the book about chance. One character says that you can look at a lotto ticket as a waste, since you have no chance of winning. But you can also look at it as a chance--someone has to win, and it might be you. Can you talk a bit about that please? I found that incredibly hopeful.

Yes! As I write this, a man in San Jose just won over 300 million dollars in the super lotto! He is a working class guy who was on vacation with his family, and when he came home he thought he should check the ticket he'd bought before he left, and lo and behold, he had the numbers. While I don't play the lottery (much), I am always fascinated by the stories of those who win. It's impossible, right? But actually, it isn't. Improbable, yes, but not impossible.

Tom, Julie's husband, is a beloved radio personality in San Francisco, and the host of a show called Anything Is Possible. He and Julie are different--he believes anything and everything is possible, while she's far more circumspect. I pay close attention to news about space, and I think part of the reason I do that is that it's so amazing to me, the things scientists discover on a daily basis--billions of new earth like planets in our universe, species long thought to be extinct that are actually thriving in the Ecuadorian rain forest. It's wonderful, the possibilities of our world. Strange possibilities come to fruition on a public level and a personal one all the time. In the book, California's attempted secession is emblematic of that idea--things seem crazy and impossible until they happen...and then we have to admit that they weren't crazy and impossible after all.

What's your writing life like? Was writing this book different from working on any of the others and if so, how so? 

Writing on this book went very slowly (five years), in part because my responsibilities are different than they were when I was writing The Year of Fog, and in part because there was a great deal of complexity that I had to sift through while writing Golden State. I discarded hundreds of pages, entire plot lines. I spent many months researching secession, because originally the narrator had an ancestor who fought secession in the south and had been disowned by the family for doing so. Now there is absolutely no vestige of that character or that plot line left in the book! More than a hundred pages of writing were ultimately condensed to three pages, a road trip that Julie and Tom take through Mississippi early in their marriage. 

I write while my son is in school, but not every day. I also do editing on the side, and I have this little publishing venture called Fiction Attic Press, a literary labor of love that keeps sending me down the rabbit hole! My 2014 resolution is to try to concentrate more on my own books.

What's obsessing you now and why?

Oh, my, what a wonderful question! Space--for the reasons mentioned above. There is currently a contest going on whereby one can apply to go on a private spacecraft to colonize Mars. When I saw that a writer had made the first cut, I was so jealous. I mean, I want to go to Mars, because who wouldn't want to be the first writer on Mars? I mean, talk about leaving behind a legacy of your work! Talk about being remembered! But the problem is, I don't want to live on Mars. I am quite happy in California, where everything is green. And I don't think my husband and son would tag along, which makes it out of the question. But in my next book, there is a character who is searching for intelligent life in the universe. Last year I went to the SETI conference. Bizarre stuff. And yes, I'm obsessed.

What question didn't I ask?

You asked everything, Caroline! 

Brigid Pasulka talks about The Sun and Other Stars, soccer, community, cat videos and more.

A widowed butcher. Soccer. A young man in love. What could be more magical? I'm thrilled to have Brigid Pasulka here to talk about her extraordinary novel, The Sun and Other Stars. She's also the author or A Long Time Ago and Essentially True, which won the 2010 Hemingway Foundation/Pen Award and was also a Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers Selection.

Let's talk about craft. Do you plan out your novels or just "follow your pen?" Did anything take you by surprise in the writing of this novel?
I think generally, I start with a nice, simple idea, which, after 40 pages of a first draft becomes impossibly tangled and complicated. Ten or twenty drafts later, I’ve managed to unknot it, and that’s the finished novel. 
The Sun and Other Stars started as a nice, simple story about the son of a butcher in a small town in Italy who had lost his brother. Then one day, I looked up the spelling of Roberto Benigni and found that he had made it his mission to recite Dante’s Divine Comedy to as many people as would listen. It made me think of how the Divine Comedy is such an integral part of every Italian’s education, and I felt compelled to read it. I was very quickly sucked in, and the parallels between Dante and the story I’d already written were uncanny. I ended up reading it several times, and eventually gave myself over to Dante, borrowing characters and scenes, and forcing myself to think deeply about judgment, sin, redemption and hope.
I loved all the soccer details in the novel. Is this something you already know or did you do research, and what was the research like?
I was a tomboy growing up, and played just about every sport except  soccer. So when I came to the realization that I couldn’t set a story in Italy without some element of soccer, I had a steep learning curve. My first introduction was when I was in Italy for the 1998 World Cup. I was babysitting for a family where the father later became a team manager for several Serie A and B soccer teams, so he really initiated me into the cult of soccer. He took me to practices, and, on my last trip to Italy, to a Serie A game. Here in the U.S., I went to a season’s worth of Chicago Fire games, and was given access to practice fields and locker rooms. But most of my education happened on YouTube. The entire history of soccer has been lovingly and meticulously recorded by its fans, whether a spectacular goal that took place in 1964 or Ultra fans taking over a train station or episodes of “Have You Heard the Latest about Totti?” where Roma captain Francesco Totti tries to tell jokes about himself while keeping a straight face. And then, of course, I had real soccer nuts check the final manuscript. But it was a lot of fun to research, and one regret I had while writing the book was not playing soccer when I was younger. It simply wasn’t popular yet where I grew up.
You have a real gift with characters who are so alive, your pages are breathing. How do you go about crafting your characters? When in the writing process do you know that they are alive?
How my characters come to life is still a mystery to me. I usually start with a visual of what they look like--sometimes taken from real-life people or even photos. Etto’s brother, Luca, is based on a photo of a young Italian novelist, and the two random people he’s standing next to in the photo became implanted in my head as Zhuki and Etto. Somehow the face helps me get to the facial expressions, which helps me get to the inner workings of the character. Other than that, I don’t spend any conscious time crafting them. I simply put them in the story and watch what they do. And at first, I don’t really know them, so there’s some vagueness, then some awkward resistance between the dialogue and actions that I want to write for them and what they themselves want to do. But when the dialogue and actions start to write themselves (“Of course he would say that!”) that’s when I know the characters are truly alive.
The novel is also really about community--something that isn't as strong anymore today. Can you talk a bit about that?
It’s one of the things I miss now that I live in the city. I grew up in a farming township of 100 people, and my dad and his wife still live in a similar place. People stop by each other’s houses unannounced. Someone will always be around to plow your driveway. Stores keep tabs. My dad even used to leave the keys in his truck so if anyone needed to borrow it, they wouldn’t have to bother him. 
Of course, the downside is that everyone knows everyone else’s business. If anything goes wrong in your family, it automatically goes on the prayer list at church whether you want it there or not, and people read the newspaper not for the news--they already know it--but to see if the reporter got it right.
So the sense of San Benedetto community exists in the U.S.--you just need to look for it. Or create it yourself. But a lot of people--including Etto--fear that kind of closeness because then they feel it obligates them, and we are a society who sees obligations as constricting rather than giving us boundaries within which we can be more ourselves.
What's obsessing you now and why?
Cat videos--what else?
What question didn't I ask that I should have?
None. The questions were great.

Monday, January 20, 2014

A dream house becomes a nightmare in Sonja Condit's amazing debut, Starter House

Who doesn't love things that go bump in the night--especially when they are the showpiece of a literate new novel by the enormously talented Sonja Condit? Thank you, Sonja, for being here.

 I always ask, what sparked this book? Did it become something different than what you thought it would be?  And if so, what surprised you about that?

I wanted to write a ghost story because I love them. A few things bother me about ghost stories, though, mainly that the haunted house is so obviously haunted. No reasonable person would choose to live there, so how do you write a ghost story about a reasonable person? I wanted to create a haunted house that was a perfectly ordinary modern house with no immediate danger signs. When my husband and I were house hunting, we visited a house we didn’t like, and it was only a couple of blocks away from the house we bought. Over the next few years, I noticed it was almost always for sale. Nobody ever lived there more than a few months. Why was that? I never knew. I think it’s standing empty now. 

The second element of the story was pregnancy. There are a lot of books about pregnancy and none of them helped me with the first baby, because I had a terrible time, bled for four months straight, and almost lost him. My obstetrician told me “there’s nothing we can do, go home and pray.” You won’t find that in What To Expect When You’re Expecting. So, when I wanted to put more pressure on the reasonable person in the ordinary house, I gave her that pregnancy. (The baby is fine, by the way; he’s almost fifteen. These ideas have been in my head for a long time.) And the third element was that the ghost isn’t dead. This is built into our language. People say things like, I left my childhood behind, or part of me died that day. I just made the figurative language into an actual event.

As for surprises, I wrote the whole book knowing somebody would have to die, but I didn’t find out who until I wrote that scene. I went into the scene prepared to kill anyone, and I hope some of that uncertainty is still there for the reader.

There is something about pregnant women and things that go bump in the night that really make a story roll. There’s Rosemary’s Baby, of course, and there’s your book. Why do you think this is such a perfect blend?

Even an ordinary pregnancy is terrifying. Think about it—until quite recently, getting pregnant was the most dangerous thing a woman could do. Then, this person you know nothing about starts to take over your life. They have personality and opinions long before birth. I played in orchestras in my third trimester with the second baby, and she reacted very differently to different kinds of music. (She didn’t like trombones.) And, especially with the first one, you know your life will never be the same. From now on, forever, you will be someone’s mother. This is a huge change in identity; it reorganizes every part of your life. Loss of autonomy and loss of identity are important elements of horror.

 I really admired the way you tunneled into your characters and made them breathe on the page, which is a considerable feat. How did you do such alchemy?

My agent, Jenny Bent, made me do it. She’s a wonderful reader and editor. She went through the manuscript marking all the places where she couldn’t tell what Lacey was feeling with the question how is she feeling, and I worked it out. Most of the time I answered the question not with a description of Lacey’s feelings, but with a paraphrase of her thoughts. That seemed to work. In the book I’m writing now, I hope to do that without being told.

Modern Love's Daniel Jones talks about Love Illuminated, what he's learned about love, how living online changes our relationships, and so much more

Oh, yes. Every writer knows the name Daniel Jones, because we all are desperate to be published in his extraordinary Sunday column in the New York Times, Modern Love. (It took me six tries to get in.) But he's so much more. The author of After Lucy, a finalist for the Barnes & Noble Discover Award, and he has  published in the New York Times, Elle, Parade, Real Simple, Harper's Bazaar and more. He currently lives with his wife, the brilliant writer Cathi Hanauer, and their two children in Northampton, Massachusetts.

In Love Illuminated, Daniel uses his unique perspective to explore how love saves us, destroys us, gives us hope and makes us hopeless. It's such a great book (and could the timing be any better now that Valentine's Day is upon us soon?)  I'm delighted to host Daniel, here!


At the beginning of the book you have a quiz about love, which touches on some of the thorniest issues of the heart.  Why is something so important so difficult? By the way, I love your saying it’s the question that counts, because as we all know, the answers are always very different.

I couldn't figure out how to write or organize this book until I wrote that line: "Let's start with a quiz." So many books about relationships start with quizzes, but those tend to have actual answers that give you a score - a kind ridiculous idea, at least to me. All I hear about day after day are people struggling with unanswerable questions, or with questions that don't have easy answers. How do I find someone? How can I trust them? How can we stay in love? These were the kind of complicated questions I wanted to tackle. 

Do you think it’s sad that people are more calculated  about finding a mate (i.e. online dating and making finding a mate a job) rather than giving in to the mystery and magic of tumbling into love?

On one level online dating is just a way to find someone - or to find a lot of people! - and there's nothing sad about having new ways to search for love, especially for those who have trouble getting out and meeting someone otherwise. On another level, though, online dating can change the way we approach the search by pushing us to figure out, in advance, whom we might be most compatible with and then drawing a circle around that group of people and excluding everyone else. But time and again I see stories of the unlikeliest couples making the best match. I think we overestimate our ability to decide about love in advance. 

What really interests me, and what I explore in the book, is how technology promises to empower us, promises to make things easier. And in many ways it does. But in love and partnership and compatibility, we should be skeptical of our ability to "streamline" love or to somehow make the process easier and more efficient.  

What struck me so much about the book is how different love is now than it was in our parents’ age, and how probably even more different it might be in the future. Care to make a guess what love will be like in 2040? And even though it will be different, don’t you think the fundamentals still will apply--the need for companionship, for sexual sparks, for emotional contact?

As I ask at one point in the book: What do we know about love now that Shakespeare didn't know 500 years ago? Anything? What have we gotten better at? I think we've gotten more open-minded and accepting about relationships than we used to be, but the basic difficulties and mysteries of love and partnership remain refreshingly the same. We doubt ourselves, we cheat, we suffer, we are generous in ways we'd never believe and can be bafflingly mean to those we love most. I doubt we'll make a whole lot more progress over the next 25 years. I hope not, anyway. Love is more interesting when it's hard to figure out, not when it's scientifically explained. 

There’s been a recent spate of books about how men might be outmoded, but unless all those women love other women, do you think this is just wrong reasoning?

Those books are using provocative titles to get attention, but what they're really exploring are subtle shifts in power. I don't think men are going anywhere, but women are getting more powerful in relationships and in politics and at work, and this comes at the expense of men's power. 

Have you ever been offended by any pieces sent in to Modern Love? 

I don't get offended very easily - at least not by the style or subject matter of an essay. Reading the stories of people's lives fills me with a sense of compassion more than anything. 

I loved your novel After Lucy. Are you writing another one, and do you ever feel that editing Modern Love is giving you material or education that you could not have gotten elsewhere?

Thank you! Writing After Lucy was my proudest accomplishment. I often think about writing another novel, but to be honest I'm more drawn - both in reading and writing - to nonfiction these days. I've always been a news junkie, and working for the Times has even made me more of one, so I don't think in fictional terms all that often. 

What’s obsessing you now and why?

I'm obsessed, like a lot of people, with what all this time on screens - large and small - is doing to us, how it's changing us. I see people having their most satisfying relationships online. But these aren't physical relationships, and the person we are in them is just a slice of who we really are. It's easy to moan about this and act nostalgic about the way things used to be, but none of this is going away. Does this mean our relationships in the future will be more emotional and less physical, simply because the way we spend so much of our time together will be through the ether? Who knows. I know there's no stopping it.

What question didn’t I ask you that I should have?

Why did I write the book? My answer, two years ago, would have been to put down what I knew, what I'd learned about love and relationships from having spent so many year in this editor's chair. But after finishing the book I realized that I wrote it to find out what I knew, to solve the puzzle of what all this immersion has meant to me and taught me. I couldn't make sense of all those stories until I really focus.