But she has a near-anthropological understanding of poultry that she’s brought to her latest book, Cinders: A Chicken Cinderella (G. P. Putnam's Sons, $17.99), a feathery retelling of the classic fairy tale with a Russian setting. She’s currently touring to promote the book, in an enormous tour bus branded with an image of her chicken-princess on the side.
Brett’s encyclopedic knowledge of chickens, gleaned from observing her personal flock of more than 75 birds, inspired the book.
“Both my editor and I breed chickens, and we were talking about how sometimes one little chicken will get a little bit picked on while they’re molting,” Brett says, speaking recently on the phone.
“And then I joked about how when their feathers come in, they look like whole new chickens, and they’re perching like they’re queen of the roost, and my editor and I said, ‘Just like Cinderella!’ at the same time.”
Having already interpreted such classic tales as Beauty and the Beast and Goldilocks and the Three Bears in her past books, Brett was initially reluctant to go back to the well of classic fairy tales, but found herself thinking about how the chickens’ plumage would be a perfect fit for a Russian setting, and how the hierarchy of chickens—the “pecking order,” so to speak—could serve as a metaphor for human behavior.
“They all assume different personalities,” Brett says. “There’s the young pullets, the females, under a year old, and they’re all running around like, ‘I’m so pretty! I’m so pretty!’ And then they get older and they’re a bit more dignified and starting to lay eggs, and they’re acting like it’s the most important thing to happen in the history of the world.
“And then older hens will get bossy, and order younger chickens around, and young chickens will be fighting with each other, and trying to get noticed. They just really looked like they could take on the roles of a story, or a fairy tale in this case. And it lends itself to the Cinderella story—they’re kind of gangling and scrappy at a certain age, and then all the sudden they’re beautiful.”
She’s loved the birds since childhood: “I had a pet chicken as a little girl, and I trained her to ride on the handlebars of my bicycle” Years later, one of her early ideas for a children’s book led to her getting some feed store chicks for research. That helped inspire her 2002 book Daisy Comes Home, and in turn led to her acquiring what she calls “a huge farm of chickens.”
She sells a few, but keeps most of the others: “They live to a nice old age.”
Brett also thoroughly delved into Russian culture and history to create the world of Cinders: “We did a research trip to St. Petersburg and crammed in as much culture as we could in a short time—we saw the ballet, and a symphony concert, and a folk dance concert, and went on walks in the woods and had a hot steam bath and saw some wonderful restored architecture.
"The highlight was probably going to the Museum of Ethnography, where there were mannequins dressed in what was probably the style of the 1800s—I say ‘probably’ because in some of the more traditional villages, they also dressed in this style.”
She admits to wanting to do a few updates to the Cinderella story for her book ("I just didn't want to make the stepmother wicked"), but otherwise loves using animals to tell old-fashioned stories.
“There’s just something human about telling a story animals that’s kind of un-explainable to me, but makes a certain sense when you think about it,” Brett says.
Jan Brett appears at Quail Ridge Books & Music at 5 p.m. on Saturday, Nov. 23 (the giant "Cinders" bus out front will be hard to miss). This is a signing line ticket event. For more information, visit www.quailridgebooks.com or call 919-828-1588.
But few were prepared for Schrader's next venture,The Canyons, an erotic thriller from a script by Bret Easton Ellis and starring porn actor James Deen and uninsurable trainwreck Lindsay Lohan. The quarter-million dollar production was crowdfunded, and the entire guerrilla filmmaking ordeal was recounted in a memorable New York Times Magazine feature.
The Canyons has received poor reviews, but its notoriety seems to ensure that it will find an audience. The film is available on iTunes beginning today.
When INDY Week was offered a telephone interview with Schrader, we decided to ask Jay O'Berski, artistic director of Little Green Pig Theatrical Concern, to talk to him. O'Berski is a longtime Durham theater director and Duke University theater instructor who's no stranger to difficult working conditions and challenging subject matter. Here's their conversation, which occurred Thursday, Aug. 1.
JAY O'BERSKI: I know that you’ve traditionally worked with actors that might be considered difficult—and obviously most recently, Lindsay Lohan—but also including Richard Pryor in Blue Collar
PAUL SCHRADER: Well, he was also extremely angry.
[laughs] Yes, well that too. And George T. Scott on Hardcore, who was an alcoholic. I’m just wondering about your philosophy on dealing with difficult actors and how you can get a performance out of them.
Well, usually the reason you work with a difficult actor is because they’re worth it. You know, if you have a difficult actor who’s not worth it, you fire them. Or you decide not to hire them. So, you know going in that this person has a reputation, but you’ve decided that it’s going to be worth it, and you just try to be as tolerant and patient as—you know some days you have to be kind of stern, and some days you have to be devious, or some days you have to back down—you know, you just sort of smell your way through it. And sometimes you can help improve a performance, and sometimes you can’t. You know, directors don’t really make performances. You know, they watch, and they advise, and they reject. But you know, it’s the individual actor who’s going to bring it to the table.
Right, so when you have an actor like Lindsay Lohan, you know, who’s notoriously difficult, do you feel like audiences are watching this film like it’s a circus or a—
I would imagine that there is an element out there that can’t help but do that. You know I have to believe that if a movie has any... interest, once it gets going, you’re now into the characters and you’re not saying, "There’s Denzel Washington or Mark Wahlberg."
Now as far as large thematics in your work, a lot of your films, you speak of the fact that we are all actors, basically—that we wear masks, that we hustle all the time. That it’s really about, I believe the term you used was “fucking up” to get to the top.
You’re mixing some of my dialogue with some of Bret’s… You know, I personally think that the film is more Bret than me, and of course Bret says it’s more me than him. But, Bret’s world is a colder world than mine, but, you know, I was trying to be faithful to it.
What about the erotic nature of the film and some of your other work? Do you find that the marketplace accepts it? Do you find that the actors you work with are accepting?
Well, you don’t deceive anyone. Even though Lindsay started to get cold feet about doing the sex scene, it was something you had to discuss many, many times before, and had been agreed to many times before. But, you know, when it comes to the day, she kept trying to… dim the lighting. But you—you never deceive them. And you know, actors on the whole are a pretty brave lot. They’re used to embarrassing themselves and making fools of themselves for money, and when you have actors who are doing that, who are getting naked emotionally, you are going to have times when those emotions get out of control. Words are said, and doors are slammed, and tears are shed and you have to clear the set and pull everything back together again, but that’s part and parcel of doing this kind of work.
Did I hear that you got naked in order to coax her to, um…?
Did you find that that worked?
It was basically just to call her bluff, because she was saying that everybody had to get naked and we were running out of light and I just called her bluff and, you know, it ended up that 45 seconds later we were shooting.
Mitch O'Connell's colorful, crazed pop-art illustrations have appeared everywhere from the cover of Newsweek (four times) to a recent full-page story in The Wall Street Journal, but you'll have to forgive him for hoping for a good-sized turnout at his appearance at Nice Price Books in Raleigh on April 27.
"I’ll be in North Carolina meeting my fiancé’s father," says O'Connell, on the phone from his home in Chicago. "My only goal is that hopefully a respectable line is in place to impress him.
"So I impose this responsibility on the people of Raleigh—hopefully it’s a burden they’re willing to shoulder."
O'Connell's on tour to promote Mitch O'Connell: The World's Best Artist, a new hardcover collection from Last Gasp Publishing that offers an extensive retrospective of his pop culture-infused career in art, providing colorful, chaotic pics that draw from decades of American iconography.
"I’m lucky that my grandparents and my parents saved a lot of my stuff, so there were still books available from childhood and adolescence," O'Connell says. "It let us give the book an actual narrative, and hopefully a humorous one."
That was the challenge set before young writer Brandon Sanderson when he was called upon to complete The Wheel of Time, a series of doorstop-sized fantasy novels published from 1990 to 2005 by Robert Jordan, a pen name for James Oliver Rigney, Jr., that have sold 44 million copies worldwide. Jordan’s death in 2007 while working on the planned 12th and final volume of The Wheel of Time caused an uproar among those seeking to know the fate of hero Rand al’Thor and the other characters.
Enter Sanderson, the prolific young writer of the acclaimed Mistborn series. A longtime fan of The Wheel of Time, Sanderson was tasked with turning Jordan’s partially-finished manuscript, pre-written ending and extensive notes into something that would successfully conclude the series, which eventually was split into three novels. (Jordan had once said the last book could run 2,000 pages; the finale trilogy collectively ran more than 2,500). That last book, A Memory of Light, was published in January to rave reviews and a spot on the top of the New York Times bestseller list.
Sanderson will appear at Quail Ridge Books and Music with Jordan’s widow and editor Harriet McDougal on Feb. 20 to promote Light and answer questions about the series. We got him on the phone to ask what it was like to finally bring the series he loved to an end.
Journalist Jonathan M. Katz, who currently resides in Durham, was the only full-time U.S. reporter in Haiti at the time of the 2010 earthquake. His experiences, not just during the immediate aftermath of the quake but over the next few years of relief efforts, are recounted in his new book, The Big Truck That Went By: How the World Came to Save Haiti and Left Behind a Disaster (Palgrave Macmillan, $26.00), which he'll read tonight at Durham's Regulator Bookshop at 7 p.m. The book has received widespread acclaim for its insight into post-earthquake Haiti, and during its writing it received the J. Anthony Lukas Work-in-Progress Award from Columbia and Harvard Universities.
We got on the phone with Katz at his Durham residence for an in-depth discussion of the problems with Haiti relief efforts, the lack of understanding and need for accountability regarding the international community's involvement with Haiti and much more.
INDY WEEK: Obviously you have strong opinions on the issue, but I’m curious if your thoughts or perspective on Haiti have changed from when you first wrote the book.
JONATHAN M. KATZ: Most of what I’m describing in the book is what happened, so if something significant happened in the future, I’d want to write a Part Two. But, nonetheless, it’s important to remember that the clock hasn’t stopped, and people are still living in Haiti, and the problems they are facing are still going on.
But I wanted to focus on the aftermath of the disaster, and then the coverage of this a year after, and then two years after, because those are the problems that carry into the future. These problems didn’t end, and they aren’t going to end unless things are done.
About 20 or so years ago, Kevin Allison was mostly known as that ginger dude from the MTV sketch-comedy crew The State, mostly serving as the straight guy for the other players’ more wacked-out characters.
These days, Allison is less about playing roles and more about telling stories, mainly on his podcast, RISK!. Sort of a more uninhibited version of public-radio shows like The Moth and This American Life, host Allison usually corrals many funny people (to name a few, Marc Maron, Sarah Silverman, Margaret Cho, Janeane Garofalo, his former castmates in The State) to tell stories that are brutally honest, wildly entertaining and, on some occasions, deeply emotional.
Allison, 42, took time out to answer some questions the Indy had about his podcast, and what can people expect when he brings the show live to the Artscenter this weekend during the NC Comedy Arts Festival.
INDY: In a recent Indy article, RISK! was described as "The Moth, but less NPR-y." Do you think that's a fair assessment?
Of course, the big question is how you get all these people to dispense such personal stories?
In the first few months, the stories were mostly about embarrassing, R-rated comedy-of-errors situations. Someone pooped their pants on a date. Someone masturbated to a grainy home video and then realized the people in the video were his parents. Someone accidentally fed psychedelic mushrooms to their elderly cleaning lady.
But in time, the fans of the podcast started writing in saying things like, "This show makes me feel like I'm not such a freak after all" or "Now I see that others have been through harder things than I'm going through lately," and they started pitching us stories. So, it was from fans of the show that we first started to get the heavier stuff: stories of surviving abuse, dealing with the death of a loved one, struggling with extreme poverty.
So the show took on this extraordinary feel where any given live show or podcast episode could go from outrageously hilarious to shockingly tear-jerking. And that's now what people love most about it. That it's as unpredictable and extreme as life itself.
After nearly a decade and 11 novels in her best-selling urban fantasy series The Hollows, author Kim Harrison admits that the characters "almost seem real" to her. "I know them better than a lot of my neighbors," says Harrison in a call from a hotel in Houston on her latest book tour. The author will appear at Quail Ridge Books and Music on Saturday, Feb. 2.
"I’ve spent almost 10 years with most of the characters in the books, and know what they will and won’t do—but it’s most exciting for me when they do something I wouldn’t expect, because then I have to back through the books and figure out why and flesh out their history one more layer, and that’s always fun."
The Hollows series, which started in 2004, chronicles the adventures of witch and private investigator Rachel Morgan in an alternate universe where supernatural creatures exist alongside the human population, which was mostly wiped out by genetically-engineered tomatoes in the 1960s. The series, currently on the 11th of a projected 13 books, features plenty of action and not a little humor—and has hit the top of the New York Times bestseller list.
Harrison says she's already written the end of the series: "The next book is at the publishers, and, if I’m lucky, I’ll have the edit letter waiting for me when I get home. And the final book is in rough-draft form. Everyone who survives gets their happy ending—everyone who survives, that is. I like to laugh, and I can’t end things on a sour note. Rachel would be very upset with me if I did."
In its premiere at last year’s Sundance Film Festival, Compliance proved one of the most controversial films there, prompting multiple walkouts in its initial screening. And last month, INDY Week's Neil Morris called it the best film of the year.
The film chronicles a day at a fictional fast-food franchise where the manager (Ann Dowd, who recently received Best Supporting Actress from the National Board of Review for her role) is called by a police officer (Pat Healy) informing her that a young employee (Dreama Walker from TV’s Don’t Trust the B—— in Apt. 23) has stolen money from a customer and needs to be detained until the cops arrive. Even though audience members are clued in early that the “cop” on the phone is a fake, those on the other end of the line follow through with his demands—which include a strip search and increasingly degrading acts being perpetrated on the hapless cashier.
It sounds far-fetched—until you find out this scenario really did play out more than 70 times in the United States.
“My reaction to hearing the story of the events it’s based on was one of, ‘I’m not one of those people! I would never do that!’” says Zobel in a call to his apartment in New York City.
“But then you start realizing there are times when you just don’t know what you’d do in a situation. There are things that are built into us that in some ways I’m curious about. I don’t think that this is a matter of education or intelligence level, but the relationship to authority that some people have, and how that relationship comes out in people.”
Despite the grim subject matter of Compliance, Zobel says that his cast and crew had a better time making the film than some people have had watching it. “We were certainly not comfortable on set some times, but as creators, we had a different relation to what was going on onscreen — people who make horror movies aren’t scared all day,” Zobel says with a laugh. “We were aiming for an effect, so it wasn’t so much of a situation that was like that of watching the film.
“This was a movie that was really being made by virtue of the fact that all the people involved were interested. We weren’t interested in competing with The Avengers—it was just a group of people who were really interested in this idea. So we wanted to be faithful to the ideas that got us there, and making sure those ideas came across.”
Zobel’s eclectic background includes co-founding the popular Flash animation site Homestarrunner.com, home of such cartoon characters as Strong Bad and Trogdor. After college, he attended UNC School of the Arts in Winston-Salem with David Gordon Green, and went on to work with him on his films George Washington, filmed in Wilmington, and All the Real Girls, filmed in Asheville (Green, in turn, executive-produced Compliance).
His first feature, The Great World of Sound, was released in 2007 and received warm reviews. Filmed in North Carolina, it told an offbeat story about two hucksters who recruit amateur singers to make demo recordings.
INDY WEEK: It’s only been a little over a year and a half since bin Laden’s death. How soon after the event did you start working on this book? What were some of the challenges in making sure it was something that was ready to be published?
Mark Bowden: It all started, technically, the day after bin Laden was killed. I was out in LA at the time, and a movie producer asked me if I would consider researching and writing a script. I emailed Jay Carney, the White House press secretary, and asked me if he would consider putting me on the list of the thousands of journalists who wanted to interview the President about this event.
Much to my surprise, Jay emailed me right back and said he thought I was an ideal person to do a story like that! He didn’t know I was just writing a script, but my friend the producer wound up deciding not to pursue the project, so I wound up with potential access with no project. I called up my publisher and pitched it to him, and he said yes.
I told him I did not want to be the first—that I wanted to research this until I felt I was ready to write, and he accepted it on that basis. So I signed a contract and got to work!
How much access did you wind up having?
Ultimately, I did sit down with President Obama for an interview in the Oval Office that lasted an hour and a half. I interviewed most of the key people on the White House staff; I interviewed extensively at the Pentagon and at the CIA, and at the Joint Special Operations Command, and in and around the country with sources of my own who were able to help me understand various aspects of the technology and strategy that’s been involved in the last 10 years, and I had the help of my son and my cousin David, who worked on a documentary film for the Discovery Channel based on my work, and they did reporting and interviewed people in Pakistan and Afghanistan.
With all that, I had help, and I had opportunity.
As you were doing research for this, how did your perception of the situation evolve, in terms of your understanding of it?
Well, I think like everyone else, I was fixated on the raid itself. But as I got more into the story, I realized this was more of a 10-year-long story, for which the raid was only the last few hours. And I was only vaguely aware of the evolution of what I call the “targeting engine” that the CIA and Special Operations and NSA and various counterterrorism intelligence agencies put together.
So that was all new to me, at least in the detail that I came to understand it, and of course at that time I had no knowledge at all of how the CIA found bin Laden, which to me is probably the single most remarkable aspect of the story.
What do you feel is the biggest misconception that the public’s had about the events leading to bin Laden’s killing?
Well, I do think that most people don’t realize, or didn’t realize, that finding bin Laden was not a sudden stroke of luck. It was a very long and painstaking process that developed the information that led to this fellow Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti. Really, the most remarkable piece of this was finding him, not knowing that he would ultimately lead them to bin Laden, but knowing there was a good chance that might happen, and then that subsequently paying off.
I think the most surprising thing for most people is that this was not something that happened suddenly; it was a very gradual, very determined intelligence effort that found bin Laden in the compound.
That touches on one thing the book makes very apparent—that intelligence is more than what people see in thrillers, it’s about a gradual compilation and advancement of leads. What was one of the greatest challenges in presenting that information in a way that stays true to the process and conveys its impact without sensationalizing it?
Well, I think that’s obviously a major challenge when you’re constructing a narrative. But I believe that if you penetrate to the core of a story, and you understand the significance of each turning point, it becomes inherently interesting.
I think where writers get lost is when they get distracted by a lot of extraneous, but curious or interesting detail. But the key to me was focusing in on exactly what were the pieces that had to be fit together, and where did those pieces came from. If you narrow it down like that, I think it becomes compelling—if you put together the story in a very clear and I think decisive way, and I think that helps maintain the reader’s interest.
In the book, you often have passages where you go inside the head of Barack Obama and others. When you’re going through your research and interviews and translating them into prose, what are the biggest challenges with sequences like that?
What I try to avoid doing is using a lot of the conventional tools of attribution, which tend to slow down the narrative. I’m content as a writer, if President Obama tells me, “This is what I was thinking, and this is what was happening,” if I can simply relate that fact.
What I’ve done traditionally in my books is have detailed source notes at the end, if anyone wants to check the attribution of the quotes throughout the novel. In this case, that was virtually impossible, because most of the key people involved, other than President Obama, were willing to talk to me, but did not want to have specific things attributed to them, because I was dealing with people who were in high office and positions of responsibility, and they’re just concerned about putting too fine a point on their thought process.
There is a bit more of a need here than in my other books for the reader to simply trust what I’m telling them is through my reporting, rather than something I’m making up.