Thursday 16 September 2010


You could have read it here first, but I'm delighted to see that with Michiko Kakutani's glowing review in the New York Times, Patricia Engel has well and truly arrived as an important new literary voice.

The occasion, of course, is the publication of Patricia's debut, Vida, a book which has more than lived up to my high expectations, and the promise of early pieces such as 'Lucho', 'Dia' and 'Desaliento'. All of these stories feature the same main protagonist, the Colombian-American Sabina; in Vida they are woven into a sequence of linked episodes in her life spanning two decades. The result is a highly satisfying hybrid of novel and short story collection that is particularly successful in portraying a multi-dimensional central character.

Patricia has a way with arresting opening lines, and a seemingly effortless, conversational style of narration that is brilliantly sustained. This creates a rare sense of immediacy and intimacy that is the mark of a gifted storyteller. Take the beginning of the title story:

'She told me her real name was Davida . . . She said she couldn't remember who started calling her Vida but that it happened here in Miami. In Colombia she was never called anything but her given name, but over here Vida stuck, which she said was okay with her because that plane ride over the Caribbean broke her life in two.'

There are a number of interesting pieces on Patricia and her work available to read online (including a mention this week in the New York Daily News!) but the best place to start is her website. I also recommend you take a look at the Q&A she did for The Roving Editor back in April last year.

I don't have as much time as I'd like for literary talent-spotting these days, as my regular job as an editor tends to get in the way. However I'm always interested to hear from and about promising new writers, so do get in touch via the blog or look me up on Twitter. In the meantime, get your hands on Vida here. I'm not sure if there are plans to publish the book on this side of the water, but I'm glad to see the Grove/Atlantic edition is available on UK Amazon also.

When we spoke last spring Patricia told me, 'I write stories for the pure thrill of it.' It's a thrill that will be shared by her many readers, I'm sure.

Friday 11 June 2010

'WHY I WRITE' by Donald Ray Pollock

‘I found myself, at the age of forty-five, feeling trapped and dissatisfied with a factory job that I’d held for twenty-seven years (I ended up staying thirty-two years). Don’t get me wrong, it was a good job, but I wanted to do something else with the rest of my life.

‘Since I didn’t really know how to do anything except factory work, and maybe because I loved to read, I decided to try to learn how to write, figuring that at least it wouldn’t cost anything other than time and a few reams of paper and a typewriter. Also, being a person who feels somewhat-to-very uncomfortable around groups of people and most “social” situations, writing appealed to me because of its solitary nature.

‘I would like to add that I was extremely naïve when I started. I thought that writing must be fairly easy and that you made a lot of money. Fortunately, by the time those two illusions were smashed, I’d already started to love sitting at the keyboard staring at the wall for hours at a time.’

Donald Ray Pollock is the author of Knockemstiff. A graduate of the MFA program at Ohio State University, he was the winner of the PEN/Robert Bingham Award in 2009. He was recently awarded a grant from the Ohio Arts Council. His work has appeared in publications including the New York Times, Berkeley Fiction Review, PEN/America, Washington Square Review, and Epoch. Visit his website here.

* More about 'Why I Write'.


Of all the questions regularly put to authors by journalists and readers, it seems to me that the most important one is why they bother in the first place.

A number of years ago the French newspaper
Libération published a special supplement in which they asked some of the great writers of the day to express themselves on the subject 'Pourquoi ecrivez-vous?' I remember Samuel Beckett's contribution was by far the most concise, reading in its entirety: 'Bon qu'a ca.', which could be translated as 'Good for nothing else.'

I thought it might be enlightening to ask some of the Roving Editor’s favourite writers to address this question under the heading ‘Why I Write’, after George Orwell’s famous essay on the subject, published in 1946. Orwell’s is an honest, revealing attempt at an answer, but ultimately he admits: ‘All writers are vain, selfish, and lazy, and at the very bottom of their motives there lies a mystery. Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand.’

In dusting off this question and putting it in front of a new set of writers I am not expecting responses as terse or as self-deprecating as those of Orwell and Beckett. However I’d be surprised not to detect some echoes at least of how they felt. So, in what I hope will be the first in occasional series on the blog, I am delighted that Donald Ray Pollock has agreed to tell us ‘Why I Write’. Watch this space.

Thursday 3 June 2010


The announcement of the New Yorker's '20 under 40' list of fiction writers worth watching has prompted a huge spike in traffic to the Roving Editor. Virtually all of the visitors are searching for one name: Téa Obreht, whose first published work was praised here almost a year ago. I'm delighted for Téa, whose debut novel, The Tiger's Wife, is due in March 2011.

In addition to the original post, I recommend you sample Téa's story 'The Laugh' and this interview, both published in the Atlantic magazine's 2009 fiction issue.

Congratulations also to three other writers on the New Yorker's list whose work has been featured in the Roving Editor: Wells Tower, Joshua Ferris and Yiyun Li.

Thursday 6 May 2010


It was Donald Ray Pollock who first drew my attention to Sam Lipsyte's work in a Q&A he did for the Roving Editor back in 2008. Don praised Lipsyte's 'great and quirky' collection Venus Drive. I sought out his work online and discovered the stories 'Cremains' and 'Flashback, or Why Nobody Won the Fight Between Our Fathers in Walt Wilmer's Toolshed'. Their pitch-black humour and terse, self-incriminating narrative voices reminded me strongly of early Beckett fictions (in particular First Love and Other Novellas) mixed with the earthiness of Bukowski.

Lipsyte has produced three novels since Venus Drive. His latest, The Ask, will appear in the UK next month, thanks to independent publisher Old Street. (Full disclosure: I occasionally do some work for Old Street in my capacity as a freelance editor.) The Observer has already flagged up what amounts to a major coup for a small UK publisher, given the widespread critical acclaim The Ask has enjoyed in the States, not to mention its respectable showing on the New York Times bestseller list.

On the evidence of what I have read so far, The Ask is that rarest of literary beasts, a comic novel that manages to be both funny and profound. Its beleaguered protagonist Milo Burke has echoes of Ignatius J. Reilly in A Confederacy of Dunces, while the world of work is depicted with the same merciless eye for detail that made Then We Came to the End so bracing and true. Milo is a fund-raiser for a university in New York he knows is second-rate, but for which he is obliged to make 'the ask', a role that puts him in touch with a wealthy former college friend who has questionable motives for making 'the give'. I'm hoping the working out of the plot is as satisfying as this premise -- and the promise of the opening chapters -- suggests.

If further persuasion is needed, take this endorsement of The Ask from another fine writer who has been featured on these pages, Wells Tower: 'One of the most hilarious and perfectly executed books that I've read in recent years.'

Thursday 25 February 2010


Aravind Adiga's debut novel, Man Booker Prize-winning The White Tiger, is one of a number of upcoming literary adaptations from British filmmakers. A long list of projects recently awarded funding was released by the UK Film Council this week.

Adiga, whose work has been featured on the Roving Editor, will see The White Tiger brought to the screen by fellow novelist Hanif Kureishi. Kureishi recently commented, not entirely seriously, one suspects: 'I needed the money for my children – to ensure that they have a better life. The lives of my children are much more insecure compared to mine. I need to make films like Slumdog Millionaire.’ Elsewhere he said 'The White Tiger is a rags-to-riches murder story. It is Aravind's extraordinary characters that make this one stand out above all others.'

Among other forthcoming attractions. . .

Wednesday 9 December 2009


In what has been an exceptional year for the short story, the announcement of Petina Gappah as winner of the Guardian first book award is further cause for rejoicing. Her debut collection, An Elegy for Easterly, is published by Faber.

You can read a brand new story called 'Miss McConkey of Bridgewater Close' here. This is a quietly powerful piece about a child coming of age as Rhodesia transforms itself into Zimbabwe.

In her blog, the author describes the background to the story as 'the time that I find most interesting to write about, the move from settler rule to majority rule and the early days of independence. I am interested in exploring how independence materially changed lives, especially for the blacks who made it to the suburbs and whose children found themselves in the alien territory of formerly whites-only schools.'

Not only that: she also includes the video for the hit 80s record (by David Scobie, 'one of Rhodesia/Zimbabwe's early rock stars') her parents dance to at the end of the story. It takes you right back. . .