Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Nami Mun and How a Great Short Story Becomes an Even Better Novel, Thursday, September 21st, 7 PM

So it seems that all I can talk about of late are short stories, or at the very least, what becomes of one.

Valerie Laken stopped by, she of the wonderful novel Dream House, to buy the new Lorrie Moore. We started chatting and I invited her to lunch with my friend Sue Boucher, who was visiting from the Lake Forest Book Store the next day, as well as friend, sales rep, Downer Store opener, and guest blogger John Eklund. I took a bit of a chance including her in the mix, but we were having so much fun talking about the ins and outs of book publishing and promotion (I think Dream House will be a great book club book in paperback, and I was trying to offer tips) that I wanted to continue the conversation. It turned out that John and Valerie hit it off well; John is a huge fan of A Gate at the Stairs, so how can two Moore-o-philes not bond?

The conversation veered again and again towards the story form. A piece of Lorrie Moore's novel had been published as a story in The New Yorker. Was it the genesis of the novel, or an excerpt? No one knew.

I mentioned how much I like the new Harper Perennial paperback original program for stories; the new collections from Simon Van Booy and Lydia Peelle seemed to be particularly well published and both got a good amount of attention; it turned out that Laken's book of stories is scheduled to be in that program!

Sue and I discussed our dinner with Dan Chaon, and I remarked how Chaon told me that the novel had the genesis in three disparate short stories that he only into the process realized he could connect. The endwork is reather seemless; it's like three strands of ribbon being woven together. (Laken later returned to the shop and purchased Await Your Reply. Thanks, Valerie!)

We discussed novels that had their genesis as stories. Books that tried to be novels but never fully mutated from their story form. There was discussion over whether Julia Glass might be considered a short story writer, though all her published books have been positioned as novels.

Conversation then turned to Nami Mun, who was soon to be visiting for the paperback release of her first novel, Miles from Nowhere. Laken had been at University of Michigan around the same time as Mun, and had heard everyone at Michigan talking about the story that became the genesis of the novel...there was a lot of buzz and the book had a high-profile sale to Riverhead (part of the the U.S. division of Penguin).

Uh, oh, expectations. Everyone knows of an acclaimed story that became a novel, but the rest of the book never measured up. I don't want to get in trouble so I'm going to throw out Carol Edgarian's many-years-ago Rise the Eurphrates. The first 50 pages knocked me over like a baseball bat (referenced from a story in Sherman Alexie's new collection). The next 300 or so were a coming-of-age story that almost had nothing to do with the rest of the book. It was fine, but it surely wasn't what Random House had hoped for.

We all know other writers who master the short story but struggle with the novel form. Susan Engberg, quoted once again, asks why one has to graduate from one to the other. That's one worry. But Laken had other roadblocks, working against her loving the book. Miles from Nowhere was published at the same time as her novel, and as Michigan alums, she surely felt competition. (Oh, come on. Much as you wish the best for your friends, it's not easy to be second best).

It didn't matter. She wound up loving the book about Joon, the Korean teenage runaway who tries to make ends meet by being an Avon lady, and also a prostitute. In fact, she sent me this rec, to use as I please...

"Miles from Nowhere is that rare thing: a book that lives up to and even exceeds the hype. It's got heart, humor, and great artistry. I think the book succeeds so well in part because Nami uses an incredibly delicate touch with the raw, sometimes harrowing subject matter of her young runaway teens on the streets of New York. In anyone else's hands, this story could seem melodramatic or sensational, but Nami's wit and deft touch make the story feel natural, accessible, and deeply compelling. Also, she's written some of the best metaphors I've ever read. This was one of my favorite books of the past year."
--Valerie Laken, UWM professor and author of Dream House

There has been praise from all sorts of media, some of which we rounded up in our recent email newsletter. But why not offer a few more links?

Here's the Dallas Morning News Review...praising Mun's absorption in the grittier world of drugs, prostitution and violence...for "those who delight in the raw power of words." (I'm still convinced that my ex-bookseller Sarah would have loved this book, but I couldn't get her to read it.)

And here's an interview in Time Out Chicago. Mun feels she was never meant to be a writer. After the first draft, she went out and interviewed marginalized people to bring the story a great authenticity.

No comments: