Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Interview: Larry Nolen (OF Blog of the Fallen)

Every Tuesday, I'll have an interview posted.

Larry Nolen is the man behind the blog
OF Blog of the Fallen which has book reviews, interviews, and commentary when it comes to fantasy and science fiction.

Thanks for agreeing to do the interview. First off, can you tell us more about yourself?

This reminds me of those "summarize yourself in one paragraph or less" questions. Looks easy, but is very difficult to do. I'll try my best, although I'm going to have to leave a few things vague due to the nature of my job and Google searches.

My name is Larry Nolen and I am a 34 year-old teacher. I have a MA in History from the University of Tennessee with a concentration in 20th century German cultural/religious history. I have taught in both Tennessee and Florida, teaching from the 6th grade all the way to one community college class several years ago as an adjunct. I have taught mostly in public schools, although I recently worked a few months as a general education teacher in a residential treatment facility for teens with severe emotional and behavioral disorders. But that's the boring C.V. summary, no?

I am also a former high school two-sport athlete (football, soccer), was Phi Beta Kappa my senior year at UT, and am quite fond of practical jokes, including the time that I replaced a floormate's Colgate toothpaste with his jock itch medication. I love to drive fast and my classroom and home environment is perpetually in a state best described as "creatively organized."

When did you first fall in love with the speculative fiction genre? What is it about the genre that appeals to you?

Although I read C.S. Lewis's Narnia books at 9 and Tolkien's main works at 12-13, I never really explored reading speculative fiction while I was growing up. When I wasn't busy playing sports or hanging out with friends, I generally read the "classics" (helps that my mom is a high school English teacher) and history texts (my dad being a history teacher). It wasn't until I was in my mid-20s, about 23 or so, that I began reading speculative works in general.

As for its appeal, it is the speculative nature of the narrative, the asking of "what if?" and "why not?" I do not like "safe" stories (perhaps a reason why the years have been unkind to my impressions of Tolkien) and I wanted to read authors whose works would be intellectually and emotionally stimulating due to the unease that their stories would cause. Needless to say, this attitude probably isn't going to be the most popular response to your question if asked to 99 other fans, right?

What made you start OF Blog of the Fallen? Why is it named so?

I guess I'll be answering this question before the one a bit below, despite it being chronologically out of order. Around 2004 or so, I began to get the "itch" to go outside the bounds of my Admin/moderator work for wotmania's Other Fantasy section and to see if I could facilitate a larger discussion about certain issues I had in mind. Unfortunately, soon after I began the blog with four other wotmania Admins, I got swamped with work and lost focus, leading to a three year period where there might be only a single post a month. I decided in late May of 2007 to revive it as a potpourri of reviews, occasional interviews, and commentaries that wouldn't take a narrow approach towards discussing speculative fiction.

As for its name, I happened to be reading Steven Erikson's Malazan Book of the Fallen series and I thought I'd combine wotmania's Other Fantasy section (OF) with a reference to the "fallen" (completed reviews, interviews, general thoughts and commentary). Sometimes I wish I had just shortened it to the OF Blog and left it at that, but habit is a hard thing to break...

How did you first get involved with WoTMania?

Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time series was actually the first epic fantasy I had read and enjoyed since I read Tolkien 21-22 years ago. I first started reading it after an impulse buy of the seventh novel, A Crown of Swords, while midnight shopping at the local supermarket. Although my approach certainly isn't a recommended one, it provided the perfect distraction at the time from my MA Exams and the final grad school papers I was writing in the fall of 1997. From there, I thought about doing a search for news of then-upcoming ninth book in early 2000 after I finally got home internet and I discovered wotmania. It seemed interesting, read the comments every few weeks and eventually decided to post sometime in October 2000. It is kind of funny how the more active I got, the less interested with the series I became. I suspect it's because the burnout from all my grad readings had subsided and I wanted to explore and see if there were other "genre" writers who were better. By that time, in late 2001, I was added to the Admin staff for the just-created Other Fantasy section of the site. Since I hated to be ignorant of the field, I decided that I would read and discover things that I liked. Just so happens that was around the time that the New Weird movement/scene/whatever you want to call it started to make waves. Lucky me.

How do you decide which books to review on your site? Same question goes for author interviews.

I decide which books I want to review based on a simple question I ask myself: "Can I say something here that would add something to the discussion regarding this book?" Of course, this also depends on a perfect world where I have hours of free time where I can sit still and reflect on what I would like to say. Lately, that hasn't been the case and I really don't want to half-ass reviews right now. As for author interviews, same general principle applies. I prefer doing interviews in rounds of 2-3 questions, which allows for follow-up questions. I've found it gives the sense of the interview "breathing," feeling more than automatic Q&A.

You've had various posts on writing book reviews but personally, what do you look for in a book review?

First thing I look for is complete and utter honesty on the part of the reviewer. Did you dare to question yourself, probe your mind to find out the whys and hows of your reactions to a story? Did you wrestle with the text and try your best to see the story not just from your own perspective but from other possible perspectives as well? Did you avoid "settling" with the general comments, instead showing that your comments are specific to that book and not just a copy/paste from another review? Did you "explore" the thematic elements, seeing what makes the story "tick" (or not, as the case may be)? These, plus seeing at least some command with the English language, are what I like to see in a book review. Styles are going to vary (Borges's approach is one of my favorites, but his is perhaps a bit too formal for many), but as long as the reviewer shows he/she was honest with him/herself and in his/her dealings with the story and elaborates on the review elements, then generally I'm going to enjoy reading that review.

What for you constitutes a good book?

Same thing as what constitutes a hot woman or man for a person? It's hard to say specifically, as it varies in degree and sometimes in kind from book to book. What makes Machiavelli in Hell a good book certainly is not going to be the same as what makes Ficciónes one in my opinion. However, I think if one were to modify slightly the questions I mentioned in the question above, it would go some way in describing what constitutes a good book. An author being honest with him/herself about his/her faults and strengths, honesty in approaching the writing, wrestling with the emerging text, exploring possibilities and daring to be unconventional when unconventional is needed - all of those are facets of what constitutes a good book for me.

Last time I checked you have hundreds of visitors dropping by the site every day. Did you ever expect to have such a wide audience?

Would you believe me if I said yes? I really didn't know what I was capable of drawing in on a daily basis, but I did (and still do) have the attitude of if I have something interesting to say and I say it in a fashion that encourages discussion rather than just dictating it for others to take it or leave it, I would end up having a growing audience.

How did you go about establishing yourself on the Internet?

Well, I began by becoming active with wotmania, rising to become an Admin for their new Other Fantasy section, and then when I felt I had gone as far as I could there, I began the blog, again mostly as a way of beginning and perpetuating a larger dialogue with others who might read my posts and who might have something to share, whether in agreement, disagreement, or pointing out silly mistakes that I had made! From there, it was a matter of reading other blogs, various author websites, and just deciding that I could enjoy myself as much by being a part of another's conversation as I would starting one of my own. From there, the usual "networking" sorts of things developed over the past 15 months or so and here I am, answering this question!

What are some of the challenges in running OF Blog of the Fallen?

Well, the main challenge is having the time and energy to blog regularly! Teaching is an exhausting field, draining one mentally, physically, and emotionally, so when I'm busy with teaching, it takes more and more effort from me to be able to blog on a near-daily basis. Another challenge is making sure that I don't repeat myself or settle into a pattern or rut. Whenever I feel that I'm starting to take the "safe" route, I'll then mix things up. Perhaps discuss something out of genre (I'm doing this more and more because my general attitude is that genre literature is but a branch of fiction, which in turn is a branch of material culture. Historian bias and all that.) to keep things "fresh." I'm rarely satisfied totally with a day's results. I do have that burning desire to go further and in the process learn more and model it for others. If I didn't, I doubt the OF Blog would have hundreds of visitors a day.

In your opinion, who are some of the unrecognized good authors out there or at least writers who aren't as focused as much by the public?

I do occasional "Author Spotlight" posts when I happen to be reading or I think of an author whose work I think ought to be read by more people. Most recently, I wrote a short piece on Argentine author Angélica Gorodischer. In many ways, her work resembles that of Ursula Le Guin's in themes and general attitude, but due to her writing in Spanish, she has only been discovered by a few Anglo-Americans.

One author I didn't have time to review when I read a collection of his back in March is Brian Evenson. Jeff VanderMeer highly recommended his The Wavering Knife to me and those stories have an incredible amount of tension to them, balanced perfectly with the writing and the characterizations. Evenson straddles that imaginary line between "literary" and "genre" fiction, which perhaps might explain why he's not as well known as he ought to be. A crying shame.

Stepan Chapman's The Troika is another book that I think deserves a much larger reading audience. It's dark in places, always surreal, with very interesting characters. One never quite feels at ease in the story, which for me makes for a nice, unsettling read. I don't think I've written an Author Spotlight on him, although I will likely do so in the near future.

Can't think of any others off-hand that I haven't blogged about at some point.

We all have a long list of favorite books but right now, what books have caught your attention?

Very tough question! There are many books I've read for the first time in 2008 that I enjoyed immensely. Not limiting myself to just 2008 releases, I would have to say these are among my favorites so far (in no particular order):

Steve Erickson, Arc d'X

Naguib Mahfouz, The Children of the Alley

Milan Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being

Toby Barlow, Sharp Teeth

Carlos Ruiz Zafón, El Juego del Ángel

Ursula Le Guin, Lavinia

Andrzej Sapkowski, La espada del destino

Gustave Flaubert, The Temptation of Saint Anthony

Gregory Frost, Shadowbridge; Lord Tophet

Antonio Orlando Rodríguez, Chiquita

And doubtless many, many others, but these certainly are worthy of reader attention.

Lately, you've had some posts on Spanish speculative fiction. When did this interest start?

It began in 2002, soon after I was hired to teach middle school social studies in the English for Speakers of Other Languages program in an outer suburb of Miami, Florida. I hate not understanding what others are saying, so I quickly picked up a smattering of Spanish from listening to my students explain what I had said in English for the benefit of the newer students who knew no English. From there, I decided to buy a particular book in both English and Spanish editions - Gabriel García Márquez's Cien años de soledad/One Hundred Years of Solitude. From there, I moved on to reading Borges in the original and then I was hooked. I wrote down the words I didn't know, looked them up, wrote that down, and then memorized it. Took me about a year to become reading fluent in Spanish. If I had to guess, I would say my reading comprehension in Spanish is about that of the average native junior high to high school student. Not perfect, but getting there.

Also, my desire to learn my students' languages (I also had Portuguese, German, Arabic, Urdu, Haitian, and Thai speakers in my classes) led me to want to under their cultures more, which I think morphed into wanting to read the more experimental and well-regarded works. Unfortunately, I've only had the time/resources for Spanish right now, although I can understand most of the Portuguese I've seen and bits of Italian and French.

Not knowing a thing about Spanish speculative fiction, can you tell us more about it? Who in your opinion are some talented authors in that field?

Most of my reading in Spanish isn't of typical "genre" writers, because there isn't quite the same sort of division there as there is in the US or UK. Where does one classify the Magic Realists like García Márquez, Isabel Allende, Alejo Carpentier, or Juan Rulfo, for example? It isn't a cut-and-dried area (not that the American or British markets are, but those are at least somewhat delineated due to marketing decisions), so about all I can say is that there is a somewhat greater acceptance of speculative writers in Latin America and Spain. But there is also a very young but active SF/fantasy scene developing. There was a good primer anthology on this, Cosmos Latinos, that was released about 5 years ago. Excellent source for one to begin exploring Spanish-language speculative fiction.

I also know that Spain in particular has a growing market for SF/F. Last month's annual Semana Negra festival (which featured, among others, George R.R. Martin and R. Scott Bakker) is a huge gathering of thousands of Spanish SF/F fans. Javier Negrete certainly is a very popular writer in Spain and I suspect it's more a matter of "when" and not "if" as to when his works, which mix mythological elements into alt-history and secondary world settings, will be translated into English. I am hoping to receive a couple of his books in the coming weeks. Outside of Spain, Argentina has a few good writers. I've already mentioned Gorodischer, but Liliana Bodoc has written an interesting epic fantasy trilogy that has a distinctly "postcolonial" feel to it compared to the standard Anglo-American fare.

In your opinion, how has the Internet changed the industry?

It's changed it mostly by allowing for quicker, more immediate communication. Sometimes, this leads to a rashness of opinion-giving before one has fully considered the book/reading at hand. It certainly has allowed for many authors to gain a following and thus earn a living as a writer which might not have happened otherwise. But one has to keep in mind that the immediacy of internet discussions (and later, of its social trends and "fads") can be distorted. It's like being at a huge indoor party...while the outside world slumbers and isn't aware of it. Some people lose focus and think that because a few dozen people are raving about a book that it must mean that there are thousands of orders for that book. Rarely works that way.

Have you ever considered writing fiction yourself?

Every now and then. I did have an idea seven years ago about writing a mosaic novel that would integrate various internet communication media into a narrative account of how a handful of people's lives would be impacted by becoming "close" without ever being in physical proximity. But although I wrote a draft of the first of six stories, I never really felt satisfied with it, plus I was so busy with teaching and other aspects of my life that I gave it up. Writing fiction never has interested me as much as writing commentaries. Again, I chalk it up to my experiences as a history grad student, as it was quite fun to rip into each other's drafts.

Aside from OF Blog of the Fallen, any other goals right now?

Well, first is to be happy at my new job. Been teaching in some very stressful places with little to no support and I was miserable and once quit two months into the school year to take a break. Happiness with teaching would make for a much better outlook on life, that's for sure! Another goal is to settle down, perhaps outside the US. I want to earn a graduate degree in English as a Second Language, so I could have the option of teaching English abroad for decent pay if I were to grow tired of living in the US. An eventual third goal is to stop being single, but I need for #1 to be settled before I can feel comfortable with settling down with a woman. Not that this just didn't sound desperate...

What advice do you have for authors?

Dare to explore and to be honest with yourself and the story you're creating. Don't overexplain things; I'm not a dummy. That's about it, since I'm not much of a control freak.

Advice for aspiring book reviewers/interviewers?

I pretty much addressed this above, but I would add that it's best to read outside of one's comfort zone, to ask tough questions of yourself before you write down your take on a book or ask another an interview question. I spend hours crafting maybe 2-3 questions for an author to answer, because I want to allow them the opportunity to be themselves and not to be constrained by the "typical" questions, so having something like that level of concern and care would be nice.

Anything else you want to plug?

Nothing really comes to mind at 12:30 AM. I might want to plug my very soft Memory Foam pillow, but I think I covered the authors I wanted to plug earlier. Thanks for asking me to do this interview. Took me almost two hours to answer, but it was a pleasure doing this.


Anonymous said...

Mr. Nolen you are such a loser!
I mean c'mon now, who sits here and writes a life story about books you square. Maybe instead of spending all your time at the computer, you should take it to the gym hungry hippo!

Amy said...

a couple of notables from this interview:

First we have Mr. Nolan going on about how he fully expected everyone to read his blog. While I don't find that hard to believe at all, I do find it proof of total arrogance.

Then later on we have Mr. Nolan saying that he's NOT a control freak. Really? REALLY LARRY?? I can't think of a more genuine control freak, and I've been thinking about it for a while now.

And finally, you haven't been at wotmania for 10 years, because I haven't been there for ten years, and I'm older than you are.

Anonymous said...

It's obvious to me you had to think it through to decide spending all the time a blog such as yours needs, especially keeping your goal of writing meaningful reviews. I've yet to see a review by you I disagree with, they're insigthful, very thorough but they do not put me OFF of reading books with excesive methodology.

as for Amy's coment, uh? what does being confident have to do with control?, and your math is waaay off, if he started posting at Wotmania in 2000 :P it'll be 10 years in 2010 no?, still, what an odd thing to focus on, when the interview is full of more interesting stuff.