Ask a Vintage Expert: Vintage Publicist Turned Writer Gives his Two Cents

The Sun & Anchor asks writers and editors about what goes on behind the scenes. Next up — Award winning writer (and Veteran Vintage Publicist) Ethan Rutherford on Bad Advice

Bad Advice

Write what you know, write what you know.  I’m not sure who first came up with that little nugget of wisdom, but it’s everywhere.  It’s in the air.  It gets passed around like a cold in writing workshops and “how to” books.  And, if taken the wrong way, it’s just a terrible, destructive piece of advice, almost as misleading as “show don’t tell”.

Why?  Because if taken the wrong way—which is what you do as a young writer, you take everything the wrong way (I still take things the wrong way, I can’t help it)—it’s the sort of set-in-solid-stone advice that will shut down your imagination before it even wakes up.  This is fiction we’re talking about, the realm of boundless dramatic opportunity.  Your characters can do anything you want them to do, anywhere you want them to do it.  Your imagination is a muscle; so flex that mofo.  Don’t give your emotional experience to a character just like you—you know, we know, where that leads: to someone, sitting at a desk, writing about what it was like to become a writer.  That’s fine for non-fiction.  But for fiction?  A reader—or, I should say, this reader—wants to be flung far and transported; I want to immerse myself in the fully imagined lives of characters I’ve never—would never—encounter, in situations I would never find myself in.  I want to be surprised at the recognition something shared between myself and these characters, linking us.  And further away you are from that character’s experience, the more surprising that recognition is when it comes, and the harder it hits.

So if the goal of a story is to make the strange familiar, why not begin with the strange?  Why not write what you don’t know, but are interested in exploring?  John Gardener has written that a successful ending ought to be both surprising and inevitable.  The problem with writing what you know is that, from the outset, you know how you are going to demystify the experience, and while you often stick an ending that’s inevitable, rarely is it surprising (to you, to the reader, to everyone).  Set the stakes a little higher.  Wade into a pool that you think might be just a little too deep.  Let that story gallop ahead of you, so when you do, finally, lasso it, and bring it home to the Recognizable Corral, you’re not sure exactly how you’ve done it, and are just as amazed as everyone else.

ABOUT: Ethan Rutherford’s fiction has appeared in Esopus, New York Tyrant, VERB, Faultline, American Short Fiction, Fiction on a Stick, and the Best American Short Stories 2009.  His stories have received Special Mention in the 2009 and 2010 Pushcart Prize anthologies, and he is the recent recipient of a SASE/Jerome Foundation Grant for Emerging Writers, as well as a Minnesota State Arts Board Grant. In 2009, he received his MFA in creative writing from the University of Minnesota.  He’s just finished a collection of short stories, and is at work on a novel. Click here to read some of his work.


Candid and Uncensored with David Eagleman and Rebecca Goldstein

In their respective novels SUM: Forty Tales from the Afterlives and 36 Arguments for the Existence of God: A Work of Fiction, David Eagleman and Rebecca Goldstein both explore the relationship among science, literature and religion. In a candid and uncensored email conversation, the authors compare their writing processes and talk about their search to marry the limitations of science with literary imagination.

Dear Rebecca,

First, let me say that I loved 36 Arguments for the Existence of God.  It’s wide ranging and very smart in its approach to life’s questions.  While reading your book, it struck me that you and I are both writing from a similar space at the intersection of science and literature.  We both live in the corridors of academia–and even more specifically, in the world of the science of the mind–and our fiction seems to soak up that background in the form of vocabulary and concepts.

There’s probably a lot to explore about that nexus of worlds, but to get the conversation started I thought I’d pick out one particular point: I think that space provides a good launching pad for exploring big ideas while giving no truck to dogmatism.  And that seems to be the formula for both good science and good literature.

As we know, many first-class writers spend their energies assembling arguments in the God/No God debate, but perhaps there is more interesting material to talk about.  To this end, I immediately liked the deception of your book’s title: I felt that the real story was neither about arguments for nor against the existence of God, but instead about interesting ideas in the middle ground. The narrative seeks no easy solutions, but is instead willing to live with complexity.  This is epitomized in one of your characters, Azarya, who understands both the speciousness of religious edicts as well as their deep importance to community.

In the end, your book struck me as both post-religious and post-atheist.  Am I correct about that characterization, or would you disagree?  This is actually a description that a reader suggested to me about Sum during a book reading.  I loved the phrase and stole it!  After all, life is more interestingly complicated than either side of the God argument might suggest, and it often feels to me that a science-based and non-dogmatic position might be the right place to start the exploration.  After all, the scientific temperament is persuaded by evidence, but when no evidence exists, it is comfortable with uncertainty.  I think that’s an interesting place from which to write literature nowadays.  What are your thoughts?


Dear David,

It is wonderful to be in dialogue with you. Although we’ve never met, I know that there is much mutual understanding and sympathy.  We’re both as deeply touched by science as by literature, and, for some reason that I’ll never understand, that makes us members of a smallish set. I have some specific questions I’d love to ask you, but before I get to them let me address your questions to me.

You’re right that I tried, from the very beginning of the book–that is, in its title–to squeeze in the ambiguity and complexity and paradox that I think lurks around these God debates.  The full title is even longer than the one you quote.  It’s “36 Arguments for the Existence of God: a Work of Fiction,” and I meant that sub-title to be an ironic comment on the proofs themselves (or, as one ardent atheist reader pointed out, on God Himself, a work of fiction).  I wanted ambiguity and complexity and paradox because that’s the sphere that humans inhabit at their deepest core, and no questions draw deeper from that core than those raised by the God debates. In the Appendix, where I simply analyze the arguments as a trained philosopher, I can be straightforwardly rigorous, knocking down one argument for God’s existence after another.  But in the body of the novel, where the human reactions toward the whole complicated business of religion is what animates the plot and characters, things gets far more complicated. Is it possible to be an atheist who feels sympathy toward at least some of the religious impulses–which, by the way, I think can be given purely secular expression?   Would that make me post-atheist and post-religious?  I’m not sure, but in any case, that describes me.

So here’s my question to you regarding your extraordinary Sum: Do you have a philosophical position regarding the possibility of the afterlife, and did it in any way play into the conception of your novel?  Do your professional views in neuroscience allow you to entertain the possibility of an afterlife?

My best,


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Judge these books by their covers: Nabokov Giveaway!

Perhaps the most creative and ambitious backlist promotion in the history of Vintage International, John Gall’s individually commissioned Nabokov backlist covers have become collector’s items in themselves. As an homage to the author’s love for collecting butterflies, each cover was created using pins, paper, and butterfly boxes.

Below, see them in all their glory. Click through for larger images. And just for fun, tell us which is your favorite! Then leave a comment with your reasons why– the most original argument will win a copy of the book they’ve chosen.

*Bend Sinister, The Enchanter, The Gift, Look at the Harlequins and The Luzhin Defense won’t be available until early next year, but don’t let that sway your vote! We’ll get it to you as soon as possible if one is your favorite. The rest are currently available.

Editor Spotlight: Vintage Editor Lexy Bloom on our rich Japanese Backlist

One of the interesting things about working as an editor at Vintage is discovering the many gems hiding on our vastly diverse backlist. Of particular interest to me is our Vintage International list, home to many of the great masters of modern Japanese literature, among others, such as Yukio Mishima, Kobo Abe, and Junichiro Tanizaki, and, of course, Haruki Murakami. As someone with an interest in contemporary Japanese fiction — I edit Natsuo Kirino and others — I had read some of the modern Japanese masters, but certainly not all of them. It’s been an enjoyable project for me to oversee the repackaging and repromotion of many of these classic novels.

A great place to start is with Junichiro Tanizaki’s fabulous novel THE MAKIOKA SISTERS, often called “the greatest Japanese novel of the 20th century.”

In 2007, Leonard Lopate selected this novel as part of his “Underappreciated Writers” series, stating this: “In the rigid literary society of Japan, Junichiro Tanizaki stood out by constructing long narratives whose imaginative content, amplitude, and structure can rightly be called novelistic. He eschewed shishosetsu – the Japanese genre that most closely resembles the novel but includes autobiographical details – choosing instead to call attention to the fictionality of his texts. . .”

Click  here to listen to entire piece.

Interview with Sapphire, author of PUSH (Now the Major Motion Picture PRECIOUS)


Director Lee Daniels’ movie “Precious: Based on the novel Push by Sapphire” opened last weekend to record breaking box office.  The movie has already won the 2009 Sundance Grand Jury Prize and the Toronto People’s Choice Award (the only film to have ever won both awards). 

The story behind the making of the film “Precious” is almost as compelling as the movie itself: Watching this recent interview with Sapphire and find out more about the background story of how Sapphire worked closely with Daniels to help adapt PUSH into “Precious”:

“Precious” is based on the #1 best-selling novel PUSH by Sapphire, which follows Precious Jones who at 16-years old and already pregnant with her second child, meets a determined and highly devoted teacher who takes her on a journey of transformation and redemption.

“Precious” is now playing is currently playing in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and Atlanta.  The movie opens tomorrow in Philadelphia, Washington, Houston, Dallas and San Francisco.

For more information, including interviews with “Precious” executive producers Oprah Winfrey and Tyler Perry, and director Lee Daniels please visit:


Art Director John Gall on The Nabokov Collection

Today’s Design Observer highlights John Gall’s recent project — a redesign of our Nabokov backlist.

See a brief excerpt of here:

“Every so often, a dream project lands on your desk. Here’s one: redesign Vladimir Nabokov’s book covers. All twenty-one of them. Let me rephrase. Every so often the most daunting project of your entire life arrives on your desk.


Nabokov was a passionate butterfly collector, a theme that has cropped up on some of his past covers. My idea was also a play on this concept. Each cover consists of a photograph of a specimen box, the kind used by collectors like Nabokov to display insects. Each box would be filled with paper, ephemera, and insect pins, selected to somehow evoke the book’s content. And to make it more interesting for readers — and less daunting for me — I thought it would be fun to ask a group of talented designers to help create the boxes.

Here’s who I asked: Chip Kidd, Carol Carson, Jason Fulford and Tamara Shopsin, Megan Wilson and Duncan Hannah, Rodrigo Corral, Martin Venezky, Charles Wilkin, Helen Yentus and Jason Booher, Peter Mendelsund, Sam Potts, Dave Eggers, Paul Sahre, Stephen Doyle, Carin Goldberg, Michael Bierut, Barbara de Wilde, and Marian Bantjes.”

Please visit Design Observer for complete slide show.

Equal parts Margaret Mead, Albert Camus and Indiana Jones, meet Daniel Everett

When Professor Daniel Everett set off for the tiny village of the Pirahã people, located deep in the heart of the Amazon, his goal was to convert the 350-person indigenous tribe to Christianity. Thirty years later, he emerged an expert, enthusiast and atheist.Part passionate memoir, part scientific exploration, DON’T SLEEP, THERE ARE SNAKES is Everett’s riveting account of his life-changing experiences and discoveries deep in the Amazon jungle. Everett spent seven of the last thirty years living alongside the Pirahã, captivated and inspired by their language and its cultural and linguistic implications. The Pirahã ethos is rooted in the present, and driven only by immediate goals and needs; this worldview is reflected in their unique language in several ways.  See below a sampling of images and sounds from the Piraha’s.

In the Pirahã language, there is such a complex array of tones, stresses and syllable lengths that its speakers can dispense with their vowels and consonants altogether and sing, hum, or whistle conversations:

Listen to a A Pirahã Song.

Learn how to say:: Tomorrow I will collect Brazilnuts – in Pirahã

Below are select images from the area:

On the Maici River, approaching the Piraha Villages

The Piraha helping Daniel disembark from the boat

A view of a Piraha village from across the river

A young Piraha family from one of the villages

Please visit Professor Everett’s website for more information. His memoir DON’T SLEEP THERE ARE SNAKES is available wherever books are sold.