Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Meet: Robert Greer

Robert Greer is a Denver-based novelist and renaissance man (as you'll see). His latest is a prequel to his CJ Floyd mystery series, FIRST OF STATE, which is out today! On Thursday evening, he'll be speaking and signing at the Tattered Cover Colfax Avenue store. I've had the pleasure of meeting him several times and he's a fascinating and lovely person. If you're in Denver, go!

White Readers Meet Black Authors: You also are a practicing physician and a rancher, correct? What made you start writing? When/how do you find time to write?! Do doctoring, ranching & writing have anything in common?

Robert Greer: There are many things that being a doctor, rancher and writer have in common but the two most significant things might well be the fact that each requires a demanding sense of dedication and precision. I’m actually a pathologist and as such, when trying to establish a diagnosis, I have very little margin for error. The same thing goes for ranching. Sending too big a head of water down an irrigation ditch to irrigate hay meadows can result in disaster. A little bit of math and physics expertise and a great deal of common sense are required to irrigate 700-800 acres of hay meadow without taking out half a mountain side. Writing, of course, requires a precision of language and often an ear for dialect. These I suspect are but a few things that the three things you have mentioned have in common.

WRMBA: Tell us about your latest novel.

RG: My latest novel, a prequel to my CJ Floyd mystery series, represents the tenth novel in the series. I wrote FIRST OF STATE after finishing a literary novel SPOON, my brief respite from the mystery and thriller world. I decided on a prequel because I wanted to bring readers up to speed on the central character’s early life. I first introduced CJ in 1996 in THE DEVIL’S HATBAND. At the time of that novel, CJ was forty-four. The reader never really finds out in that book what happened in CJ’s life between the ages of twenty and forty-four except that he’d served two tours of duty as a navy patrol boat machine gunner in Vietnam and that he eventually joined his uncle Ike’s bail bonding business in Denver. FIRST OF STATE fills in much of that twenty-four year void as CJ takes on the task of finding out who killed an antiques collector friend of his. A man he befriended just weeks after coming home from Vietnam. The novel also lets readers see CJ forging long-term friendships and watch him get bitten by the western memorabilia collecting bug. Interestingly as the novel unfolds, CJ ends up solving three cases, not simply one.

WRMBA: Describe your work for someone unfamiliar with it. What's your writing style like? What subjects/themes do you explore?

RG: I think my writing can best be described as character-driven writing that has an associated strong sense of place. I use the backdrop of Denver and Denver’s historically black Five Points community to set most of the novels in motion and have explored everything from the perils of molecular biology and gene splicing gone array in novels like LIMITED TIME and HEAT SHOCK to who might’ve really killed JFK in THE MONGOOSE DECEPTION. In a sense, all of my novels are travelogues that take the reader across the vastness of the American West, allowing them to rub shoulders with, and to find out about, people they might not otherwise encounter in real life.

I’m not sure how to describe my writing style except to say that I was trained formally as a writer and have a Masters Degree in Creative Writing. I suspect academics would argue that there is some of the “academy” in the way I write. I often use language, dialect and certainly dialogue to move a story along and to describe the West, a land that I so much love.

WRMBA: What's your goal(s) as a writer? Do you set out to educate? entertain? illuminate?

RG: I have never really had goals as a writer except to write a book that I am proud of and that I hope people will enjoy. I suspect that I do educate people about certain things although I don’t purposefully start out to do so. I do not use my writing to try and change the world, and I am exceedingly suspicious of people who claim that they not only do but have. There seems to be a certain arrogance to such statements, and although there are clearly documents out there that prove that you can change the world with words (the United States Constitution, for instance) I guess I’m just not arrogant enough to believe that my words equal those of Jefferson.

WRMBA: What's next for you?

RG: I’m always working on a book and typically write one a year. Currently I’m working on a stand-along thriller entitled ASTRIDE A PINK HORSE, a book about revenge which deals with the making and possible triggering of a “dirty nuclear weapon.” That’s probably as much as I should say about the novel right now because I don’t fully have it formulated in my head.

WRMBA: What's the best book (or whose the best writer) that not enough people know about?

RG: I would recommend that readers read “Cemetery Road” a mystery by Gar Anthony Haywood. The book is a great mystery and Gar is a wonderful great writer and friend. For those who have not read him, I think you’re in for a treat.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Warm fuzzies

Go over to the sweet Shalema's blog Authors In Color and see the nice shout out she gives black authors. And, ahem, take note of her message:

I wanted to let authors know that I appreciate you and will support you by purchasing your books and sharing the good news with all I encounter.

Seriously, this brought tears to my eyes. Thanks Shalema!

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Guest review of HOW TO READ THE AIR

The following review is from The Happy Nappy Bookseller. Please check out her blog for more reviews, especially of diverse children's and YA novels.

How to Read the Air by Dinaw Mengestu

This is Mengestu's second novel. His debut The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears was very well received, with much critical praise. It was also one of my favorite novels of 2007.

Jonas Woldemariam was the first person in his family born in the United States. His parents are from Ethiopia. Jonas didn't have great relationship with them. Now in his 30's Jonas decides to retrace his parents life in America beginning with a road trip.

In his verison Jonas imagines a better outcome for his parents. He dreams for them if only for a moment. Mengestu's writing throughout was gorgeous though it was in these moments that I was completely wowed and found myself rereading passages.

The novel alternates between Jonas' story of his parents, his life and failed marriage. Jonas lives in New York. He meets his wife Angela working at a refugee resettlement center, while punching up (the sadder the better) immigrants' stories in hopes of getting them American citizenship.

Thanks to the book synopsis I knew Jonas got divorced. The author put so much care into Jonas relationship, I still found myself hoping for a different outcome. Though their marriage didn't last, at times Jonas and Angela reminded me of George and Coco from Mama Day by Gloria Naylor. I loved Mama Day and the portrayal of George and Coco, so this is not a comparison I would make lightly.

How to Read the Air is a beautifully layered story. Mengestu is a very talented writer and should not be missed. I can definitely [see] this novel on a few best of lists at the end of the year.

Mengestu talks, in this video, about How to Read the Air. For more, see The New York Times review of How to Read the Air.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Guest review of THIS I ACCOMPLISH

This I Accomplish: Harriet Powers Bible Quilt and Other Pieces by Kyra Hicks is a testament to how quilts can tell stories as rich and complex as any novel. In a passionate voice fueled by comprehensive research, Hicks introduces readers to a fuller and truer version of the life and work of master quilter, Harriet Powers.

Harriet Powers was born a slave in Georgia on October 29, 1837. It is assumed that she was raised as a house slave and learned to sew as a child. She is best known for two magnificent story quilts she made after the Civil War.  For over 125 years the Bible Quilt and the Pictorial Quilt she stitched have been closely studied for what they could tell historians and museum curators about African American folk art and the lives of slaves after the Civil War. Because she was a slave, scholars assumed she was illiterate. This assumption had often been used by scholars to explain the so called primitive look of the appliqué figures she used on her quilts to tell stories from the Bible and her life.

Powers’ life and quilts seemed to be so well known; Hicks originally intended her book to be a simple annotated bibliography. However, as she pored over the sources she began to notice that some researchers, made statements about Mrs. Powers and her quilts without citing verifiable references. Curious, Hicks decided to make a game of challenging what she read, and like the fictional African American woman detectives she admires in her favorite mystery novels, Hicks began to ask new questions about Harriet Powers and her famous quilts. Questions like: Was Powers really illiterate? What was the exact chain of custody or historical background for each quilt? Had Powers created other quilts and where were they if she had?

As if to make sure that everyone understood exactly where she was coming from, Powers triumphantly signed her letter: This I Accomplish, Harriet A. Powers.

It is because Hicks decided to ask what she didn’t know as opposed to accepting as fact what others had written that we readers are now blessed to have the full story of both the Pictorial Quilt and the Bible Quilt. We now know in intricate detail the movements of each quilt from one interesting owner to the next on their journey to their final homes in The National Museum of American History at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington D.C and the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, Massachusetts. In addition, we also get to experience Hick’s joy and astonishment when her hard work and curiosity pays off in the discovery of an incredible letter written by Powers herself. In the letter, the quilter states not only that she was literate but also how she became so.  She also declares that she was the creator of at least three other quilts and represented her own artwork at fairs and shows. As if to make sure that everyone understood exactly where she was coming from, Powers triumphantly signed her letter: This I Accomplish, Harriet A. Powers.

The story of the discovery of the letter and the stories of the people who owned the quilts would have been enough to make This I Accomplish special, but Hicks goes above and beyond this. In the second half of the book she presents a complete annotated bibliography including books, articles, poems, plays, exhibits and other media. She also presents timelines that help place Powers and her quilts in context with what was going on in the rest of the world. And as if to pass on the baton of her meticulous research, Hicks offers in the concluding pages of her book, questions and ideas for future historians, museum curators, and quilters to work on. Examples of future projects range from: locating other quilts by Powers, to the petitioning the Postal Service to issue a commemorative stamp celebrating the 185th anniversary of her birth in 2012.

I loved this book. The new research it uncovered about Powers and her life made my heart sing and after a long hiatus of just writing fiction, I felt the need to go back to my first love of quilting. I am deeply grateful to both Kyra Hicks and the magnificent quilt artist, Mrs. Harriet Angeline Powers, for reviving my passion of telling stories with fabric.

About the guest reviewer
Karen Simpson in Ann Arbor Michigan. Writing, fabric art and history are her passions. She taught African American quilting for over twenty years before her focus shifted to stitching words together to create fiction. Her debut speculative novel Act of Grace will be published in February 2011 by Plenary Publishing. In the novel Grace Johnson, an African American high school senior saves the life of a Klansman and everyone in her hometown of Vigilant, Michigan wants to know why.  With insight shaped by voices of ancestors and spirits Grace bears witness to her towns violent racial history so the all involved might transcend it. More information can be found on Karen’s blog Grace Notes.