A Few Quick Questions With…Nathaniel Barber

Like many things in this Book Tour stop, getting this Q&A together almost didn’t happen — but Barber stepped up and got some good A’s together for the Q’s a I threw at him. All while prepping for a book release party. Couldn’t have been easy, but it’s much appreciated.

There was a good deal of jumping around in time in your arrangement here, why did you choose not to start with young Nathaniel and move forward? Was there a strategy (that you care to share) behind the arrangement?

I’m aware that jumping around the timeline could seem like a gimmick. I understood that was a risk but it was a risk I felt was worth taking.

Chronology is a tool. It is very useful. It sets the pace and sometimes, when there’s a lot of messiness and moving parts, chronology can be the only thing that holds a narrative together.

Arranging these stories in chronological order demanded segues between the chapters. They just didn’t read right without them. Maybe it was somehow possible, but I was having a bear of a time trying to make them flow. These segues were lengthy and distracting. You can imagine, for example, the acrobatics required to naturally transition between hosting an exchange student from Paris, to an obsession about pants.

“Time passed. The days grew into weeks and my thoughts turned to pants…” and so on. No thank you.

I admire brevity. While these stories could use a bit more economy of language, the subject matter is very tight. The scope of the story is singular and isolated. These stories stand on their own. I like that about a short story. It demands so much from the reader: they must put the pieces together themselves. A short story reader is a smart reader. With barely enough information, they’re able to carry the weight. It’s participatory. A shared experience.

Similarly — what led to you choosing the events to write about?
Really, the stories chose me. I know that sounds glib. I can’t help but roll my eyes when I hear authors say things like, “The stories chose me.” But it’s true. As I mentioned, I struggled with these stories to an obscene length. They simply would not let me alone. Many of them were not easy to tell. I would have preferred something witty and artful, but instead I got stuck with these plain-jane stories. They’ve grown on me since though. I’ve developed a great appreciation for banality, thanks to these stories.
What was the biggest surprise about the writing itself? Either, “I can’t believe X is so easy!” or “If I had known Y was going to be so hard, I’d have skipped this and watched more TV”.
The biggest surprise for me was that there would be an end to working on these stories. Writing and editing a story is a suffocating experience. Sometimes it seems they will never be finished. Their arc, the characters and the concepts that are juggled around a story are sometimes so nebulous and scattershot it seems like a game of whack-a-mole. But I kept working on them, and eventually, story by story, I wrote that last sentence. It’s quite a thing, when you know you wrote the last sentence, even if it still needs to go through a number of edits—it’s a thrilling process, to fine-tune that last sentence.
A lot of what makes a writer are the books that he’s read — what books in particular do you think made you the writer you are/the book the book it is?
Kurt Vonnegut’s Galapagos and Pat Conroy’s The Death of Santini and Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird and Alice Munro’s Dear Life.
You’re leading quite the interesting life — is there another book in you? (or are you waiting to see how this goes?)
Yes, I contain multitudes (to quote Whitman). Luck Favors The Prepared is a way of asking for permission to write more. I have so much more in me, I can’t wait to get it out there. There’s two books of rhyme and meter poetry on the way. One is a book of childish poems for adults, and the other is a book of grown-up poems for children. What could go wrong? Also, soon I’ll have another collection of nonfiction short stories (and some fiction short stories) as well as as novel which I’ve begun but I hate. I hope I fall in love with this novel soon because so far, the outlook is grim. It doesn’t seem very funny, it deals with a lot of awful, horrible characters. There is violence, there are some terribly graphic scenes I don’t know how to write yet. And worst of all, I have no idea what will redeem the story. So, the jury’s out on that one.
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Guest Post: The Delicacies of Writing Non-Fiction by Nathaniel Barber

The Delicacies of Writing Non-Fiction:
What to Leave In or Omit and Why Asking Permission Is the Greatest Hurdle to Telling a Great Story

Luck Favors The Prepared is a collection of nonfiction short stories. But, that ‘nonfiction’ part has been a tricky business. Nonfiction is rarely flattering. Seldom does its characters move about as gracefully or as tactfully as we believe we move about our own lives. Most people long for privacy—while the goal of nonfiction (as is the goal of any writing) is the opposite of privacy, to reach an audience. Additionally, the claim (and the sting) of nonfiction is that these are stories which have actually happened, concerning people who actually existed—people with feelings and, possibly, access to legal counsel.

What if I get it wrong? What if I muddy up the dates or fail to nail the dialogue verbatim? These, while valid points, were the least of my concerns. The ultimate hang-up was whether a person would be not flattered by the character I’d made of them.

The conclusion I always reached (which was no) held up the writing of these stories for many years, until, at long last, I was able to call a truce with my inhibitions and get to writing.

What explains the shift?

For starters, these are good stories so they were not easily dismissed. Given time and pressure, eventually their persistence forced me to reconcile this seeming insurmountable hurdle to nonfiction: the spectre of fairness.

Readers of Luck Favors The Prepared will notice I traffic in some incredibly unsavory characters. Was it fair of me to write them so? Probably not. People, however, have had more than enough time to get along without fairness. Indeed, we’ve lived in a dearth of fairness since time immemorial. It is audacious of my characters to demand fairness would make a historically rare visit just to save their hide.

The best we can do is be proactive, and behave ourselves. If you’re good, most assuredly, nobody will write about you.

We’ve developed many ways to live well, even in this absence of fairness. Chances are you’ve had a brush with Christianity, the founding tenets of which warn we should (to paraphrase a number more eloquent passages) watch our ass. If you feel exempt from the offerings of Christianity, the scientific community has an equally potent formula coined by Newton’s third law: every action has an equal and opposite reaction. There are some still who feel left behind by both Christianity and science, for them I can only hope they have a magnanimous sense of humor. After that, you’re S.O.L.

The idea is, in a world where what goes around, comes around—fairness is a red herring.

It took me longer than it should have to come to this conclusion. When I did, it was like a fresh breath of air. Which is why I am now gleefully submitting Luck Favors The Prepared for publication, just under the wire, during this lapse in the Universal Calendar when fairness seems to have checked-out.

If nothing is fair, what then, will keep the world from coming apart?

In this supreme absence of fairness, Christianity, science or humor implores us to act with kindness, beauty and grace. It is, you could say, a last-ditch stopgap to prevent everything from going to pot. This is an idea I can get behind in a major way. It has allowed me to finally locate my voice—and write nonfiction to my heart’s content. But to do so compassionately, in spite of appearances to the contrary.

In the spirit of kindness it is important to note: while I have not shied away from capturing a character at their very worst, that unfortunate snapshot is strictly happenstance. I am not aiming, specifically, to capture a character at their worst. Though, to be fair, I am not straining to capture a character at their finest either. One should not aim to catch a character behaving any which way. They should only aim to capture the story. Kindness should be, above all else, a commitment to the story.

While many of my characters found themselves illuminated in such a harsh light, kindness suggests that (hopefully) they were just going through a rough spot. Their only real crime (in the universal sense) was they experienced a fevered lapse of judgement in the company of someone with such an impeccable memory.

Kindness forces us to consider the angels of our better nature, that people are great, complex creatures. We are brimming with contradictions. Sometimes we are terrible and evil. Other times, we are beautiful and reaffirm all of the wonderful things.

How does one know when they’re writing from a place of kindness? Crap stories are usually unkind. We’ve all heard an embittered divorcee seethe about their poisonous ex-wife or husband. It’s nothing you would treat yourself to after a day’s work. That’s what red wine is for.

Nonfiction without kindness reads flat and vindictive. Any too-thin story is so obviously a sad revenge-vehicle to facilitate a tantrum. It is painfully uninteresting. Yes, sometimes unkind nonfiction is fun to read. But it’s a dirty, bitter pill and should be enjoyed sparingly.

Are the stories objective?

Just because I am the narrator, doesn’t mean I am exempt from the critique of these narratives. To lean faithfully on the story’s foundation means I should just as freely throw myself on the same pyre to which I’ve thrown these poor characters. Could I have been more critical of myself, the character? Maybe, but that’s above my paygrade.

Writing nonfiction is to shoulder into unfairness. So the very least a nonfiction author can do is make well and sure they’re writing from a place of kindness and objectivity. Or, at least, try real hard to do so. This is why I still write with boundaries. Very strict boundaries in fact. There’s much more I could write, but it’s a waste of time if there’s no redeeming story.

I am forty years old now. Does an inability to understand and reconcile the dueling perspectives of fairness and kindness explain why it’s taken me so dang long to offer Luck Favors The Prepared? Probably not. But lay off, I’m short on time. I suppose I could try harder, to completely throw myself at producing books, which is a lot like working a second job without pay. Try explaining that to a wife and a daughter.

Book Spotlight: Luck Favors the Prepared by Nathaniel Barber

Welcome to our Book Tour stop for Luck Favors the Prepared. Along with this blurb about the book, we’ve got a Guest Post by Mr. Barber about writing non-fiction; a Q&A with the author and then finally, my take on the book (the links’ll work when the posts go live).

One word about Nathaniel Barber before I show you his very nice (and very orange) cover — I have miscommunicated, mis-remembered, and generally mishandled setting things up for today, and he has dealt with grace, professionalism and generosity throughout. All of which was worse, because I really liked his book, and wanted to put the best foot forward for it. Anyway, I’m just trying to say, the dude’s a mensch, check out his stuff.

Book Details:

Book Title:  Luck Favors the Prepared
Author: Nathaniel Barber
Category: Non-Fiction/Memoirs, 204 pages
Publisher: Take the Stairs Publishing
Release date: September 8, 2017

About the Book:

In his first collection of short stories, Nathaniel Barber allows a peek inside the life observant. Luck Favors the Prepared is a straightforward read, shifting from remote and comic documentary to lived-in memoir, dreamily recalling the absurd choreography of divorce, landlordship, role playing video games, misguided activism, customer service and sudden, unexpected wardrobe failures.

As a son of the Pacific Northwest, his stories are nestled in the mossy bosom of Washington, Oregon and Northern California. His characters are plucked from the past and set to life. They are belligerents and buffoons. They are the beautiful and the bewildering, plagued by dark and grotesque motives, juxtaposed with loving attention that suspends judgement for a world where no one is defined by their worst deeds.

Luck Favors the Prepared is an unforgettable tour through the ordinary and unconventional. This full collection is lovingly handcrafted by the hardest working nobody in the Pacific Northwest.

About the Author:

Nathaniel Barber’s writing is a deadpan examination of life’s banal cruelties. His stories bustle with compelling characters, rich dialogue and moving scenes narrated with an icy, satirical memoir, distilling comedy from otherwise devastating humorlessness.

His forthcoming collection of short nonfiction, Luck Favors the Prepared, recounts life as stumbling about a strange dark room, desperately patting the walls for a light switch. He is also completing a collection of fiction shorts and a book of adult poems for children.

He currently lives in the Pacific Northwest with his wife and daughter and cat and a collection of bicycles in various states of disrepair. He works in the warranty department for an ergonomic furniture company. He does not use semicolons or Oxford commas.

Website * Facebook * Twitter * Instagram

Hungry Heart (Audiobook) by Jennifer Weiner

Hungry Heart (Audiobook) Hungry Heart: Adventures in Life, Love, and Writing

by Jennifer Weiner , Jennifer Weiner (Narrator)

Unabridged Audiobook, 13 hrs, 15 min.
Simon & Schuster Audio, 2016
Read: February 6 – 14, 2017


I’m not the biggest Jennifer Weiner fan in the world, nor am I in her target demographic in any way, shape, or form — but I’ve enjoyed (in some cases more) those books of hers that I’ve read. So I figured there was a better than even chance that I’d appreciate this collection of essays about her life, career, love life, dogs, social media and more. It’s also read by Weiner herself, which is almost always a winning characteristic for me.

Sadly, this audiobook was better in theory than it was in real life.

There’s a scene in the last season of Gilmore Girls where Logan points out to Rory that despite her prejudices, attitudes and belief, she’s actually part of the same privileged class that he is — which she doesn’t take too well (understandably). I kept thinking about that as I listened to some of Weiner’s tales of woe about her childhood and college life. I’m not saying that she didn’t have problems in her childhood, that she didn’t have trials that no one should have to go through, or overcome a lot in her professional life. But man…the self-pity was overblown — she got an Ivy League education, came out of it with less debt than many people I know who went to less prestigious schools, took a high school trip to Israel, and a largely pleasant childhood.

It doesn’t get much better when she starts talking about her adult life, either. She assumes sexism — and has faced, continues to face, and will probably face a good deal of it in the future — but seems to have some fairly strong gender biases herself. She will frequently say something like “As a woman, I know I’m supposed to be X in this situation.” Almost every time she said something like that I thought, actually a man in the same situation would be expected to behave the same way — it may not be honest, healthy, or “authentic” in the contemporary understanding — but it’s what how an adult person in polite Western culture should act.

Oddly, for someone who lamented her own inability to be a stay-at-home mom/writer, the scorn she displays for stay-at-home moms later in the book seems out of character. Actually, she is dismissive of people with other beliefs and convictions than hers. I’m not suggesting for a moment that she shouldn’t be an opinionated person (of any sex), but it’s hard to respect anyone who can’t reason with their opponents with out dismissing or vilifying them.

I actually had a few more things in my notes along those things, but seeing this on the screen makes me want to stop before this becomes a diatribe against the book. Because, believe it or not, I enjoyed this book — when she tells a narrative or goes for a laugh, I really got into the book and wanted to hear more. It’s when she gets on her soapbox or when she doles out advice that wouldn’t work for women less-well-off than she is, I couldn’t enjoy it.

If anything, this book makes me like her fiction more — because the flawed people she writes about are a lot more relatable than she presents herself as. But listening (I think reading would be better — see below) to Weiner describe her problems with overeating, or the journey to get her first book published (and the real life experiences that shaped the book), her mother’s reactions to her book tours, getting the movie In Her Shoes made, stories about her dogs, and so on — man, I really liked that and would’ve gladly consumed more of that kind of thing.

As an audiobook, this was a disappointment. I found the little sound effect/chime thing between chapters grating. Weiner’s reading was too slow and her cadence demonstrates that she reads a lot to her kids. Which would be fine if the prose matched, but it didn’t.

I can’t rate this too low — it was well-written I laughed, I felt for her and some of the other people she talked about in a way that I can’t justify rating below a 3. But man, I want to.

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3 Stars

Scrappy Little Nobody by Anna Kendrick

Scrappy Little NobodyScrappy Little Nobody

by Anna Kendrick

Hardcover, 271 pg.
Touchstone, 2016

Read: December 22 – 26, 2016


Unlike some of the celebrity memoirs I’ve read this year (and yeah, there’s been a lot of them — I’m not sure why), this is a pretty straight-forward one. Roughly chronological, it covers Kendrick’s life and career from childhood to the last year or two. What separates this is Kendrick’s voice — it is so strong, so funny (I almost wish I’d gone for the audiobook version — narrated by the author — instead for her literal, not just authorial, voice), so brutal.

Thankfully, she saves most of her mockery for herself, so she comes across as charmingly self-deprecatory and insecure.

I’m not sure what to say about this, without resorting to a very long list of quotations that will be too long, and yet not long enough.

I chuckled often, I enjoyed the look at her life and strange childhood; the behind-the-scenes anecdotes about some of her films and award-shows; the present-day social awkwardness. I may not have much to say, but it’s only because my brain isn’t firing right tonight (it seems), not because the book doesn’t deserve it.

If you’re a fan of Kendrick’s, you’ll enjoy this. If you wouldn’t call yourself a fan, but have enjoyed some of her work, you’ll probably enjoy this. If you don’t know anything about her, you still might like this (and get a list of movies to go look into).

—–

4 Stars

Talking as Fast as I Can by Lauren Graham

Talking as Fast as I CanTalking as Fast as I Can: From Gilmore Girls to Gilmore Girls, and Everything in Between

by Lauren Graham
Hardcover, 205 pg.
Ballantine Books, 2016

Read: December 12 – 31, 2016

This book isn’t a proper autobiography or anything (doesn’t claim to be, either); it’s stories, memories, thoughts and humorous bits that Lauren Graham shares about her life and career.  She uses the revival of Gilmore Girls as an excuse to look back on her both to this point, as her career is marked by looking back this year. I haven’t seen the new Gilmore episodes (still working my way through the series with my kids), so I could’ve read the material discussing that a little closer — although I did think the tributes to Edward Herrmann fitting and touching.

The book covers pretty much what you’d expect from an actor’s memoirs — discussion of her childhood, paying her acting dues, education, her big break and so on. All told with wit and charm. Graham’s personality shines forth and really draws you in. She spends a good amount of time talking about the original run of Gilmore Girls, Parenthood, and her novel. I was glad to see that she did that — so many actors/celebrities don’t give that much time or space to the things that made someone want to read their books in the first place.

A few of the highlights of this book are from the parts that aren’t de rigueur. There’s a section on eating and health tips, that made me laugh out loud — Graham learned the same lesson Jim Gaffigan and Weird Al did — food jokes work 99. 6% of the time. There’s some really good writing advice that Graham was given by a friend that helped her to finish this book — and seems like the kind of thing that could help many authors. There’s some recurring jokes about Ellen DeGeneres and the cast of Today. I don’t want to suggest those are all the highlights, but they’re are good sample. 

Most of the book feels like Graham set her phone to “Voice to Text” and cut loose. But there’s no way that it would’ve come out as good if that’s what she did — that kind of feel is the result of a lot of hard work and planning. It all paid off, this was one of the more enjoyable books to read that I’ve tackled recently — don’t get me wrong, the content was good, too — but the writing was as smooth as silk. Unlike that sentence. Between this and her novel, it’s clear that Graham’s really quite a writer, I hope to see more from her.

This was a fast, breezy read — a lot of fun with plenty of heart. Pretty much everything you want from/would expect from Graham. A sure fan pleaser.

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3.5 Stars

Operation Cure Boredom by Dan Martin

Operation Cure BoredomOperation Cure Boredom

by Dan Martin

Kindle Edition, 260 pg.
Rascal Press, 2016

Read: October 11 – 12, 2016


In serious need of direction, training, something to do with his life post-rehab — and gullible enough to fall for the outrageous assurances of military recruiters — Dan Martin finds himself in Air Force boot camp. Which isn’t as bad as, say, what Eugene Jerome went through in Biloxi or what “Joker” Davis endured at Parris Island — but it’s pretty bad. Thankfully, Martin can now laugh about it. And he does a pretty good job getting his readers to do the same. Martin’s look back on his years in the military is told as a series of comic anecdotes — while he is trying to portray what happened to him, he’s doing it to make the reader laugh.

He never sees any kind of action — Desert Storm began and ended too soon for that, but he did travel the world as part of an aircrew maintenance team. Which leads him to all sorts of interesting locales — and even more not-so-interesting ones. Throughout his enrollment, he matures — somewhat — making this a sort of coming-of-age tale, and the Martin that is honorably discharged isn’t the same loser that enlisted.

I do think this could be 1/4-1/3 shorter, tightening up the narratives a bit would help. It meanders a bit, both in the individual stories and the overall narrative. I don’t know that I found anything out and out funny, but I found much of it amusing. That’s probably taste, or just the particular day I read it (although I think a more streamlined approach might have helped).

This could be the Non-Fiction Prequel to Joe Zieja’s Mechanical Failure, the sensibilities that characterize Sgt. Rogers are seen very clearly in Martin. Martin’s memories are good reminders for us that the military isn’t just full of heroes or hyper-violent patriots, it’s primarily full of regular Americans just trying to get their jobs done. Less over the top than Heller, Hooker and Abrams — but in the same vein, and hewing closer to the truth. Operation Cure Boredom is the military memoir we all needed.

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3 Stars