It was a dim and smallish room I entered for my third library event, and at first I thought I was lost. I was in the main branch of the Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County, and after searching unsuccessfully decided to follow someone, who mercifully led me to the right room. “Headlines and Dead Lines”, the title of the class, promised to teach me about a library database that would research local history, and as the program began, I contentedly settled in for a good history lesson.
The class, taught by Reference Librarian Cindy Hill, mostly focused on Newsdex,
a database that holds listings for local Cincinnati history. As I listened, Hill
rattled off various fun facts about the system. “It’s the longest-running
publicly available database for the Cincinnati area,” she announced proudly. “It’s
a really great place to start.”
According to Hill, Newsdex is often used for genealogies, but also provides
information on companies, neighborhoods, historical sites and local events. You
can find death notices, obituaries, wedding announcements, murders, addresses,
local events and advertisements. The database includes articles from multiple
Cincinnati publications, both current and discontinued, like the Cincinnati Post, Times-Star, Gazette, Commercial and the Western Spy. “[Newsdex] has a totally wide-range of newspapers, but
it’s not complete,” Hill said. “It’s being updated all the time.”
As I listened to her, I began to see why Hill sounded so excited about the
database. “As far as we know, there’s
not another library that’s done this,” she said. “Many of our databases require
a library card, but Newsdex is used all over the world…it’s used across this
country and beyond.” She added that people from as far away as Japan have
requested information from the index, and that local companies and news
organizations have also used the site.
Later I talked to Steve Headley, president of the Genealogy and Local History
department of the public library, who told me that the database has been around
in one form or another for a long time. According to Headley, Cincinnati
librarians began to index newspapers into the library’s card catalog in 1927.
In 1940 a concentrated effort began to index obituaries, as well as death
notices, and in 1990 the system was digitized and named Newsdex. “There is no
other real source [like] it, especially for the number of newspapers that it
covers,” Headley said.
However, as great as Newsdex is, it doesn’t contain everything. Hill explained
one reason is that some people wanted to live private lives, so nothing was
printed about them in the paper. “Not everyone can be traced,” she warned.
“There were people back then that didn’t want to be out there.” According to
Headley, the information might not be indexed yet, since information is added
as librarians have time. “The further back you go, the less complete it gets,”
he said, “simply because when the librarians were doing the indexing they were
using the individual cards, and it was pretty time consuming.”
One thing I appreciated about Newsdex is that it’s easy to use. Instead of
having to weed through newspapers pages, Newsdex tells you what paper the
article is in, what day it printed and what page it’s on. Then you simply work
with the genealogy librarians to get that paper. At the end of the hour, I
found myself wishing I had something to research, because I wanted to use my
newfound knowledge. Instead of being intimidated by the wealth of information
in Newsdex, it amazed me how much local history one city could hold. Cincinnati
has so many facts to be discovered, and while I know I could never dig through
them all, Headlines and Dead Lines made me want to try.
Did this event sound interesting? Check out similar workshops at the Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County:
Book a Librarian: Get help with job searches, research or resume writing.
Date with an iPad: Learn the tricks to using this Apple device.
Technology Appointment: Schedule a one-on-one workshop to learn basic computer skills.
Writing can be so frustrating. As I sit here trying to spit out a catchy introduction, I struggle to make sense of anything in my brain, which seems to cause an even greater muddle. Most of the time writing is simple; you put a thought into words on a page. But the more I write the more I realize there’s more to crafting a paragraph than simply ordering the words correctly and sticking a period at the end. To be a good writer you must capture the heart of the message, sending it from inside yourself and into the reader. And if you’re a great writer, you’ll get something back.On Friday night I was settled in a chair at the Fort Thomas branch of the Campbell County Public Library, waiting for the first author visit of the Signature Series to begin. I watched the crowd of middle-aged women around me fidget impatiently in their seats, waiting for the nationally-acclaimed author, Beverly Lewis, to appear. As I, too, waited, I caught snippets of conversations as ladies swapped stories of reading Lewis’ novels, describing what her writing meant to them. I listened, wondering why Lewis didn’t write about her audience, for their stories seemed as touching as the books they seemed to adore. Perhaps one of the most touching tales came from the row right behind me. Paul and Janet Devotto were telling the woman seated beside them about Janet’s twin sister, Joan Braun, who passed away last October. Joan had a stroke several years ago that left her partially paralyzed. Because she couldn’t move her left arm or left leg, Joan came to live with Paul and Janet, so they could take care of her. “She was the greatest person,” Janet said when I caught up with her later, her voice catching slightly.
“She loved to read more than anything else,” Paul explained to me. “Reading was a passion for her.” According to the couple, Joan’s favorite author was Beverly Lewis. “Joan loved her,” said Paul. Although Joan was an avid reader, her partial paralysis kept her from holding a book, so Janet and her husband bought Joan a Nook. “We got all her books to read, and we would sit and read until four in the morning,” Janet recalled.
The couple eagerly relayed their story to Lewis as she signed their book, thanking her for the way her novels touch lives. As Paul later told me, “Not many people know they’ve made a difference, but this woman has. Joan needed something and this woman gave it to her.”
The Devottos’ story is one of many Lewis has heard over the years. “I love to meet [my readers] and hear their stories, because they always tell me little tidbits about how the stories touched their hearts in a particular way,” she confided to me. “They say, ‘I know you, Beverly, I’ve read your heart. I’ve read your heart in all the books you’ve written.’ ”
As I talked with Lewis about her audience, it’s evident from the softness of her voice that she has a very personal connection with her fans. “There’s some sort of a bond between me and my readers I think, now, from all the years and all the books, which I think is important,” Lewis said. “I always call them my reader friends because, for all these many years, it seems like they have been so faithful to continue to show up for my new books, which is awesome.”Even as a self-proclaimed compulsive writer with more than 80 published works, Lewis has not lost the heart of her message, that very core that has inspired thousands across the globe. As I walked out the door at the end of the night, I realized all these people came because of a story. They each had one story that in turn influenced their life, providing comfort or peace or inspiration. These women came not to hear a story, but to share their stories, sequels that began in the pages of a book. I don’t know about you, but to me, that’s good writing.
"Lydia is dead. But they don’t know this yet.” These are the opening lines to Celeste Ng’s debut novel, Everything I Never Told You. They are not necessarily shocking or revelatory to readers, but instead reveal a central concern that haunts the entire story: the unknown. The novel traffics in secrets — those between mothers and daughters, fathers and sons and brothers and sisters that ultimately threaten to erase a family portrait hung crookedly in the eyes of everyone else in society.
Set primarily in Midwestern Ohio during the late 1970s, Everything I Never Told You deftly examines a mixed-race family before and after a young girl is found drowned in a lake. Ng’s prose, graceful yet powerful, follows the characters as they try to make sense out of a family member’s death and their own grief. Within this narrative is a deeper one, a quietly devastating interrogation of identity and the need to belong.
Ng, who will give a reading at Joseph-Beth Booksellers on Thursday at 7
p.m., spoke with me about diversity in diversity, the challenges of writing her
first novel and the metaphors to be found in hidden garbage.
This post is the first in an ongoing series of interviews with local and visiting authors.
CityBeat: How did the idea for Everything I Never Told You unfold? Did it turn out to be the same story you thought it would be when you first started writing it?
Celeste Ng: I didn’t expect culture to be such a big part of it. It wasn’t until I started to look at the family. I had an idea about a family tragedy that would happen, and when I started to write about the family I knew that they were a mixed-race family. That was sort of surprising to me.
CB: One thing I enjoyed about the novel was how you took a mystery framework to explore more literary themes of identity and race. Can you talk about that choice of exploring your topics with that aspect of crime/thriller genre?
CN: I never intended to write a mystery or a thriller. What I’ve always been interested in with my fiction is family relationships, and how families react to each other. How parents and children get each other, don’t get each other, drive each other crazy. It’s that idea that introduced that mystery element into it — I wanted to look at how a family might deal with a tragedy.
CB: What kind of research did you do for the novel?
CN: In terms of getting the details right, I grew up in the early ’80s so a lot of things came from memory — the telephone cords and the record player that skips a little, all that sort of stuff. I researched the history of interracial marriage and about how it’s become more common. That’s when I learned that it wasn’t legal in the United States until 1967, which was a real surprise to me. For the characters themselves, I did the kind of research that writers do, which is just digging deeper and deeper into the characters, writing them until I felt like I knew what they would do or say.
CB: Another thing I noticed throughout the book was how adept you were at weaving between past and present tenses. You begin the novel at the middle, with Lydia’s death, and that’s what everything else in the story orbits. Was this challenging?
CN: I’m glad you mentioned that, because it was actually the main thing that I struggled with in writing the novel. I wrote four drafts of the novel, but the story basically stayed the same throughout — what really changed was the structure. The past imbues the present and the present echoes the past, and so I knew that there was a lot in the family’s background that I wanted to explore, and that was part of the story just as much as the story of what happened after Lydia’s death. And so I had to figure out a way to fuse this together so that the reader could see the connections between present and past. It took a lot of experimenting and restructuring and revising.
CB: Why did you set the story in the past, in ’70s Midwestern Ohio? How would the story be different today, with technology and more access to books like yours?
CN: As I was getting to know the family and the issues they were facing, I found the ’70s was a period that encapsulated that. It was a period where women would see their daughters getting opportunities that they themselves had missed out on. I don’t know if this a story that couldn’t happen today. I would like to think so — I think we’ve made a lot of progress — but another thing I researched was how public attitudes toward interracial marriage had been changing, and it was only very recently — I think in 1997 that a majority of people felt OK with interracial marriage, which is kind of mind-blowing to me, because I remember 1997, you know. I would like to think that things would be a lot different for the family now, but a lot of the issues about viewing cultures and balancing personal life and dreams with children — these are still issues that are with us.
CB: Is your recent success validating to you as a writer, and do you think it might change the way you write? Do you feel the need to keep or appeal to a wider audience now that you’ve reached this level of recognition?
CN: That’s a great question. The answer to how it feels to get all of this is probably surreal — that’s the best adjective I can come up with. I work alone, in my house or in the corner in the library and I write these things from my head, not knowing if anyone else will believe them or will ever connect with them, and so to have the book go out into the world and have a lot of people connect with it has been really amazing and kind of mind-blowing. I say to my husband, ‘Is it possible that I am having a very, very vivid waking dream, and I’m just hallucinating this?’ and he very nicely says, ‘It’s possible, but seems unlikely that that’s happening.’ I’m just kind of touched and thrilled, and that sounds very boring and cliché but it’s true. If it’s changing my writing, I don’t know yet. I’ve started to work on another novel but it’s on pause at the moment while I’m on book tour. But I’m thinking about it a lot, and I have to see if it changes my writing style. I like to think that it won’t, but that just having written a book will have taught me something.
CB: In 2010, before publishing your novel, you wrote an essay published in Huffington Post titled “Why I Don’t Want to be the Next Amy Tan.” After publishing the book, have people seen you as the next Amy Tan, or have things changed?
CN: You know what, no one has made that comparison, and I don’t know if that’s because they went and Googled me and they found that and decided not to do it or not. Amy Tan and I are both Chinese-American women writers and we write about families, but we write very different kinds of books. We have different subjects, even if broadly speaking we are writing about the same thing — families. When you get into particulars, we’re very different authors, and so I would rather be compared to Tan in terms of language style and technique, but I don’t think our books are a lot alike. We’ve had different experiences. I’ve been very encouraged in the past few years to see that people have been moving away from that kind of comparison — that there is Amy Tan and then she will be replaced by the next Amy Tan. That there can be diversity within diversity, that there can be lots of Asian American voices, and they can all be somewhat different from each other. That it something that is more possible now that wasn’t even an issue up for discussion a few years ago.
CB: Who are your general influences in storytelling, literary or not?
CN: There are some readers I love to read as a writer to study, but I also read because I love their work. Toni Morrison is one of them — I think she does an amazing job at writing about really big important subjects and always keeping it on a human level and making the writing beautiful. There’s a book called The God of Small Things by an Indian writer named Arundhati Roy, which again I love as a reader and teach from it. I pick it up to find passages I want to give to my students and I just end up reading it at the bookshelf because I love it so much. She handles language in such an amazing way and she moves through time in away that was an inspiration for the book. I looked at that a lot as a touchstone to figure out — how do I weave together past and present? I watch a lot of TV, so I like seeing some of the long form TV shows that have developed over a long season. I’m a huge Downtown Abbey fan — it’s so soapy, but it’s on PBS and so you feel very virtuous when you’re watching it. There’s something about watching characters develop in that long arc in shows like Mad Men or Sopranos. Writers tend to sort of downplay TV as an insulin, but I feel that film and TV do influence the way I tell a story in the way you cut back and forth between characters or in the way that you show things. So that’s an influence for sure.
CB: You mentioned a book you were working on earlier, can you talk more about that project?
CN: I think it’s going to be another family story, set in my hometown of Shaker Heights, a suburb of Cleveland. It’s very pretty, there are lots of trees and beautiful houses, and they like it that way. What comes along with all that beauty and trying to be progressive and consciously working to be diverse is that there’s also a lot of focus on appearance and worry about what other people will think. They have these tiny little golf-cart sized garbage trucks that drive down every driveway to pick up the garbage in the back and bring it up to the truck in the front. There’s never garbage in the front, and I feel like that’s really metaphorically rich, that you have to keep your garbage hidden. So I think it’s going to involve a family that’s living in this community and then a mother and daughter come in from outside and have secrets, and about the way those two families get kind of intertwined and tangled.
CB: That whole environment sort of reminds me of Twin Peaks, going back to that TV influence.
CN: Exactly — there are other things too, like you were only allowed to paint your house certain colors so that the entire street could be harmonious aesthetically. They don’t do that anymore, but there’s still a lot of things like that there.
CB: Is there a question you wish someone would ask you about your work that hasn’t been asked yet?
CN: One question I was asked in an interview and then I was sad that they cut it was after being asked if there would be a movie of my book, who would I want to be in it? I can tell you the news that was just made official about a week and a half ago — the film rights have sold to Relativity Media, a studio in L.A. So I’ve been thinking about this question a lot. One of the things that excites me a lot about the fact that the book might become a movie — besides the fact that that’s cool — there would be roles for Asian Americans and mixed Asian actors, and I feel that right now those people are on the sidelines as extras, or maybe the sidekick. And so it would be really cool for someone like John Cho to play James the father. That’s what I’m excited about — the idea that maybe this could be a place where Asian American or mixed Asian actors could get roles, that there would be a spotlight for them.
CB: The whole prospect must be terrifying and wonderful, having your film in someone else’s hands.
CN: It is, but I’m trying to think of it as its own thing. I love film adaptations, and what I love about them the most is when they take the opportunity to make a slightly different thing. It’s like when you cover a song: it’s better when they don’t try to sound exactly like the original. When they do something completely different with it, that’s when I think it’s cool, and so I think of the movie as its own thing. It’s nerve-wracking, but it’s worth it.
Celeste Ng will read at Joseph-Beth Booksellers on June 4 at 7 p.m.
Early last year we wrote about Nick Spencer's successful, somewhat surprising transition into the world of graphic novels. Now Spencer — the former Cincinnati City Council candidate, club operator and music promoter who moved to New York City in 2008 and whose grand ambitions sometimes got him into trouble — is garnering even more attention within the world of his new endeavor, recently nabbing four nominations at the Will Eisner Comic Industry Awards 2011: Best Short Story, Best Continuing Series, Best New Series and Best Writer.
Knockemstiffwas rightly praised by everyone from The New York Times to Chuck Palahniuk (“more engaging than any new fiction in years”) to literary savant Michael Silverblatt, whose incisive KCRW radio show Bookwormfeatured an interview with the author.
Listen up, fans of crafty, post-modern fiction: Local author/professor/all-around good guy Michael Griffith christens his freshly minted new book, Trophy, 7 p.m. tonight at Joseph-Beth Booksellers.
The Cincinnati literary scene suffered a loss last summer when Brock Clarke moved to Portland, Maine, to take a job teaching creative writing at Bowdoin College. Through his work as a writer (via two short-story collections and three novels, including 2007's well-received An Arsonist's Guide to Writers' Homes in New England) and educator (he taught creative writing at UC where he brought in such guest speakers/authors as Chris Bachelder, Sam Lipsyte, Heidi Julavits and Jonathan Lethem), Clarke was a one-man literary juggernaut who produced, nurtured and promoted the written word with unwavering commitment, creativity and good taste.
Just a reminder for the discerning literary types out there: Ace wordsmith and impressively bearded Nicholson Baker stops by the Mercantile Library tomorrow (May 3) at 7 p.m. to read from and discuss his work.
The 54-year-old New York City native has tackled a number of topics and genres — from nonfiction to fiction, from books about phone sex and bottle feeding babies to historical investigations about about the insidious nature of war — in a writing career marked by his playful use of language, biting humor and interest in the “moments between the big moments.”
It’s no coincidence that the late David Foster Wallace’s new novel, The Pale King, was published on April 15. Actually, “new novel” might not be the best wording — the 560-page book, which carries the telling subtitle An Unfinished Novel, was crafted from Wallace’s papers after he committed suicide in 2008.
I’ve yet to read The Pale King, but after perusing several reviews in recent days (including Tom McCarthy’s incisive piece in yesterday’s New York Times Book Review), I have a pretty good handle on its setting: the seemingly banal inner workings of the Internal Revenue Service.