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Jenny Shank

An Interview with Novelist Manuel Muñoz

Writer Manuel Muñoz grew up in Dinuba, California. Beginning in fourth grade he worked alongside his family in the fields, harvesting grapes. He was a good student, and according to his website, he applied to Harvard "for no other reason than I knew the name." After he graduated from Harvard, he earned an MFA in creative writing from Cornell and worked in the publishing industry in New York. He wrote and published two acclaimed story collections, 2003's Zigzagger and 2007's The Faith Healer of Olive Avenue. Since 2008, Muñoz has taught in the creative writing program at the University of Arizona in Tucson. Muñoz's honors include a Whiting Writers' Award, a NEA Fellowship, and an O. Henry Award. Muñoz's dazzling new novel What You See In The Dark reimagines the filming of Psycho in the sleepy town of Bakersfield, California. Muñoz sets the filming of that classic movie against the moving fictional story of the murder of Teresa, a young Mexican-American woman, by her white lover. I recently interviewed Muñoz via email about the inspiration for What You See In The Dark, his love of books that "honor the sentence," how a small town that seems to have nothing "actually has everything," and Tucson's literary scene. New West: What first inspired What You See in the Dark? Manuel Muñoz: I had many inspirations for this novel, but one I haven’t spoken about much is a dream I had. I’m not a believer in dreams as anything metaphysically significant; it’s just the brain’s way of clearing out the day’s debris. But one night, I had a dream of walking into an empty room and a woman was sitting on a bed, smoothing out the beautiful baby-blue cowboy skirt she was wearing. When I woke, I tried to recall where I might have seen that image—a TV commercial or a flash of something while flipping channels—but I came up empty. But the image stuck, so I wrote it down. It soon became a simple question. Who is she?

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The Ringer, Chapter Two

Patricia Maestas sat home too early on a work day, sunk in Salvador's chair, a seat no one had occupied since he'd left for Mexico again six months before. The chair was hard around the edges and concave in the middle, covered in scratchy brown material that resembled burlap, so it had always been Salvador's private throne in the corner of the room. She rubbed her hands over the armrests and settled into the dent left by his body. It had been an hour since Tío Tiger called her at work to say he'd seen the article about Salvador being killed by the cops in a drug raid. Salvador had been dead for over a day without her knowing and she couldn't understand how that was possible. The father of her children, the man of her life: shouldn't she have felt something when it happened? Bewildered, she'd made her way home. When she first arrived she thought of taking the kids out of school but then thought, no, leave them a few more hours of not knowing. The afternoon sun began to fail, sending in a weak shaft that stopped just past the windows, but she could read the clock across the room as its red numbers flashed the day away: 3:45. The kids should have been home by now. She walked out on the porch, shielding her eyes to scan the street. The litany of terrible possibilities unspooled in her head. Then she saw Mia approaching from the end of the block, alone, heart-shaped face angled toward the pavement, dragging her backpack by one strap.

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Loneliness and Laughter: Daniel Orozco’s ‘Orientation”

Idaho-based writer Daniel Orozco's first book, Orientation and Other Stories (Faber and Faber, 162 pages, $23), journeys to so many different places—from life among the perpetual painters of the Golden Gate Bridge, to Paraguay, where the deposed president of a Latin-American country lives in sumptuous exile, to white-collar and blue-collar American workplaces in Washington, California, and elsewhere—that it's hard to believe it's less than two hundred pages long. The years of care Orozco has put into this book—which was more than fifteen years in the making—are evident in every honed sentence. You can tell Orozco was having fun, challenging himself to try every possible narrative technique—first-person, second-person, third-person, perspectives that are limited to one character and some that are omniscient (including one that ventures briefly into the perspective of a pack of dogs), stories composed of several distinct episodes, and one comprised of entries from a police officer's log that build into a hilarious love story. Daniel Orozco will kick off his book tour in Moscow, Idaho with a reading from his pickup truck in front of BookPeople on Main Street on June 10 (7 p.m.). He'll read in Portland on June 23 at Powell's Books on Hawthorne (7:30 p.m.).

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The Ringer, Chapter One

On the first day of tee-ball practice, Ed O'Fallon learned that his primary mission in coaching his daughter's team would be to convince the fielders to pay attention to the action at the plate. Instead, the girls preferred to concentrate on refilling aeration holes with the grass-topped earth plugs that littered the outfield like turds. While the girls arrived, Ed checked his watch. He had two hours to spend with them before he left for work. The SWAT team commander had summoned him to assist on a high-risk warrant that afternoon. The dozen-odd girls assembled reasonably on time the Saturday morning of their first practice. The team's name—The Purple Unicorns—was a relic of the tee-ball league's first season, when the coaches allowed players to suggest and vote on names for each club. The schedule the league office had issued Ed listed such competitors as the Denver Dream Stars, The Butterfly Power, The Christinas—which Ed kind of liked—and the Colorado Princess Brigade, a coach-influenced name, Ed felt certain.

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Denver Librarian Finalist for Amazon Award & Jess Walter’s ‘Poets’ Becomes a Film

Gregory Hill, who works as a book buyer at the University of Denver's Penrose Library, is one of three finalists in the general fiction category for this year's Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award. According to the contest website, Hill's novel, East of Denver, "tells the story of Shakespeare Williams, who returns to his family’s farm in eastern Colorado to find his widowed, senile father living in squalor. Facing the loss of the farm, Shakespeare hatches a plot with his father and a motley crew of his former high school classmates to rob the local bank." Greg Glasgow recently interviewed Hill for the University of Denver blog. Glasgow writes: "The story is based on Hill’s own past growing up in Joes, Colo. (called Dorsey, Colo., in the book), and his more recent experiences watching his father’s battle against Alzheimer’s disease." Also in the Roundup: The winners of the Reading the West Book Award, Filming on the adaptation of Jess Walter's The Financial Lives of the Poets begins in August, a poetry contest sponsored by the Denver County Fair, and regional book tours for Karl Marlantes, Janet Fox, Emma Donaghue, and Justin Cronin.

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What’s A ‘Honyocker Dream’? David Mogen Explains in New Memoir

Colorado State University English professor David Mogen recounts his peripatetic 1950's Montana childhood with good humor and insight in Honyocker Dreams: Montana Memories (University of Nebraska Press, 231 pages, $21.95). His father worked as a teacher and superintendent for school districts throughout Montana. Every few years, Mogen's parents would move with their six children to a new town for a different job—the towns the family lived in included Missoula, Ennis, Box Elder, Billings, Whitewater, and Froid, where Mogen graduated from high school. (When he went to college at Columbia in New York, one of his new classmates informed him that he pronounced the name of his hometown incorrectly.) Although there were many differences between these places—such as the contrast between lively Missoula, where Mogen's dad completed his studies through the G.I. Bill, and the "time warp" they encountered in Whitewater, population 75, where electricity had only recently been introduced—Mogen sees all of these towns as places where the prior generations enacted their "honyocker dreams." David Mogen will discuss his book at Matter Bookstore in Ft. Collins on August 25 at 7:30 p.m.

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Reading The West & High Plains Book Awards Finalists Announced

Last week two regional organizations announced the finalists for their annual book awards. I've listed the finalists below with links to New West's reviews of the books and author interviews. First, the Mountains and Plains Independent Booksellers Association announced the finalists for its Reading the West Book Awards (that's the new name of the MPIBA's longstanding book award series). The shortlist in the Adult category:Finders Keepers: A Tale of Archaeological Plunder and Obsession by Craig Childs (Little, Brown and Co.) • The Wake of Forgiveness by Bruce Machart (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) • Volt: Stories by Alan Heathcock (Graywolf Press) • Fur, Fortune, and Empire: The Epic History of the Fur Trade in America by Eric Jay Dolin (W.W. Norton) • The Ringer by Jenny Shank (The Permanent Press) Also in the Roundup: The finalists for the High Plains Book Awards, The Whitefish Review seeks donations for its ninth issue, The High Desert Journal announces a poetry prize, and the tally on how many books Oprah helped David Wroblewski and Cormac McCarthy sell.

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‘In This Light’ Collects Utah Writer Melanie Rae Thon’s Greatest Hits

The accomplished writer Melanie Rae Thon grew up in Montana and teaches at the University of Utah. In This Light: New & Selected Stories (Graywolf Press, 256 pages, $15) collects some of the highlights of her career, and there have been many—her stories have regularly appeared in the Best American Short Stories, O. Henry Prize Stories, and Pushcart Prize anthologies. Thon frequently sets her stories in the West, but they follow none of the typical paths Western writers are often expected to take. Thon focuses on people who exist on the fringes of society, who are damaged, dispossessed, addicted to drugs, alcohol, sex, or all three, people who never have the chance to stop and admire the landscape—like the homeless kids of Kalispell in her story "Heavenly Creatures"—they're too busy scrapping for survival. Thon relentlessly turns her attention on people that society ignores, and describes them with intense language in stories that are replete with ghosts.

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Book Festivals of the West 2011

Each year readers and writers gather to celebrate the written word at book festivals, fairs, and writing conferences throughout the West. Although there are a few spring festivals, everything really begins to pick up in June, and the schedule remains busy through November. The offerings vary from those that concentrate on helping writers improve their craft, such as the Lighthouse Writers Workshop's retreat in Grand Lake, Colo. (July 10th-15th), to those that introduce writers to readers through panels, readings, and book signings, such as the Montana Festival of the Book in Missoula (October 5th-7th). Some, such as the Aspen Summer Words Festival (June 19th-24th), combine workshops and readings. The workshops charge fees, but plenty of the festivals are free to attend, including the Montana Festival of the Book in Missoula and the Equality State Book Fair in Casper. Most workshops are already accepting applications for this year. I've updated the Book Festivals of the West map with this year's information when it was available. Please let me know if there are any more events to add or update—I'll even throw this open for events in California and Texas. New West will run reports from the festivals again this year—we already have correspondents lined up for the Jackson Hole Writers Conference, Aspen Summer Words, and the Montana Festival of the Book, and are looking for more contributors.

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‘The Sisters Brothers’ Updates A Classic Western Novel Scenario

The Sisters Brothers (Ecco, 328 pages, $24.99), the second novel by Oregon's Patrick DeWitt, is an update on a classic Western scenario, featuring hired killers on horseback out to get their man, traveling through hard-bitten frontier outposts in 1851. DeWitt has invigorated this well-worn path with wit, style, and imagination. Brothers Eli and Charlie Sisters are hit men working for a mysterious wealthy Oregon man named the Commodore. As the book opens, the Commodore has dispatched the Sisters brothers to kill Hermann Kermit Warm, who is currently being watched by Henry Morris, another of Commodore's men, in California. The Sisters brothers move across the country in a welter of violence, but the carnage goes down easily through the endearing narration of Eli, the younger, fatter, and more reluctant killer of the two. Eli narrates in a humorous, formal sort of diction that several critics have compared to that of Mattie Ross in True Grit, but Eli is more of a softie than Mattie ever was, collecting his half of the money whenever he and his brother kill someone for profit, but then giving it away to prostitutes and other women who sway his sensitive heart before he's had a chance to spend any of it. Patrick DeWitt will discuss The Sisters Brothers at University Bookstore in Seattle (4326 University Way) on May 18, at Powell's Bookstore in Portland on May 19, and in Denver at the Tattered Cover (Colfax) on May 24.

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