Christopher P. Stephens, Bookman

Chris Stephens has been a book dealer since 1965 - earlier if you count childhood buying and selling.

Stephens has sold major collections to university libraries all over the world. He has operated appealing bookstores in Mt. Carroll, Illinois, Hastings on Hudson, NY and several in NYC, NY. He is a wholesale dealer to other bookstores all over the world.

Chris loves books.

Stephens now maintains a lively internet operation out of his new home in Scranton, PA.

Friday, April 9, 2010

A Conversation with Christine Lehner

Christine Lehner has an especially favorite part of the blurb Richard Russo wrote for one of her books. Lehner and Russo hadn't met. He only knew her through the writing. Russo wrote:

"Christine Lehner's What to Wear to See the Pope is perhaps the most haunting, idiosyncratic, gleefully subversive, and satisfying story collection I've read since Isak Dinesen's Seven Gothic Tales."

"And I adore Isak Dinesen," said Christine. "Reading her is one of the first things that made me want to write! My mother was a big fan of Isak Dinesen too. She gave me the books to read. Probably too early but I didn't care. They were great."
Lehner's mother is Belgian. She spent much of her life in Egypt. I like to think of her mother reading Isak Dinesen in a shaded room with the desert off in one direction and the Nile, probably close by, in another direction. And I find it almost as exciting as Christine does that Russo recognizes Dinesen in Lehner just through her use of words.

Christine Lehner collected stamps as a girl. "They're so beautiful and so evocative of faraway places. I worry that people aren't collecting stamps anymore. Great collections will end up in dumps somewhere getting rained on."
Lehner also read as a girl. "And read, and read, and read. At first I was mostly interested in Nancy Drews and other mysteries, The Lives of the Saints, and poetry. My interests became more eclectic as I grew older. Now I even read quite a lot of non fiction."
I wondered if Christine still liked poetry, and if she went to poetry readings, and why.

"Yes, of course I still like poetry. I love it. The word usage in poetry is so interesting. When I was young I liked The Romantics - Robert Lowell, Sylvia Plath, Galway Kinnell. I've always preferred the visceral, emotionally charged poetry over poems that are strictly cerebral.
"I do go to poetry readings - not too often - just maybe 3 or 4 times a year. One of the reasons I go is that I enjoy being read to."
This is an intriguing enjoyment. We talked about other instances of being read to. One of them is tapes.
"I buy books, lots of books, probably too

many books, but I don't buy books on tape. I check those out of the library. The library is fabulous. You can get anything now. If it isn't in our local library, it's in the county system and our library gets it for you. It's an incredible resource."

Lehner was in a graduate program at Brown. John Hawkes was her professor there. "He was an amazing writer and also an incredible teacher. He put me in touch with people at New Directions. My first book was published there in 1983 and it's still in print. New Directions keeps an active backlist. It is one of their strengths.
"New Directions was started in the 1930s by a young guy, James Laughlin. He was at Harvard writing poetry. He started this great publishing company devoted to interesting poets and maverick writers. In the early days he put books in his car and drove them around the country. That was his early distribution system.
"Laughlin also put money into a Utah ski area, Alta. It's a throwback to a time when ski resorts weren't polished. Alta is a place for purist skiers. New Directions is a publisher for literary purists."

Time passed. Lehner raised children, read and did other things. It was a period Lehner referred to as a lacuna in her writing career. Almost 20 years later she was ready to publish her next book. By that time the people she knew at New Directions were no longer there.

"I was lucky enough to get a really nice agent. Amy Berkower is a senior agent at Writers House. She and I like each other and she liked my work as well. She had a delightful assistant at the time, Genevieve. She was sweet and smart, a lovely combination. Genevieve has gone back to school but Amy Berkower is still my agent and I feel really lucky to have her.
"Berkower placed my second book at Harcourt with Tina Pohlman. I liked Tina a lot and she was also a great editor. Unfortunately that was about the time of that big shake-up at Harcourt before it ended up purchased by Houghton Mifflin. I was fortunate to get a good review in the New York Times, but the Harcourt publicists were getting shuffled around and dropped. There wasn't the continuity to follow up book requests."
I wondered how much overlap there was in the responsibilities of agents and publisher's publicists.

"The agent 1.) sells the book, and 2.) negotiates the contract.
"The publicist 1.) sees that the book is reviewed, and 2.) gets copies out there. Publicists work in marketing and publicity although these are different and I've never quite understood the distinction between them."
Besides Dinesen, who are some of Lehner's favorite authors?

"Recently a friend recommended Jim Harrison. I'm hooked. I've been reading his fiction, poetry and his memoir. He is fantastic. He doesn't use many commas, so sometimes you have to read slowly or reread. It's a good thing though, because looking carefully you can really see the architecture of his sentences. So impressive."

For myself, I've been reading Christine Lehner - books and blogs. With great pleasure.

Books (all in print):
1983 - Expecting
2004 - What to Wear to See the Pope
2009 - Absent a Miracle

Christine Lehner's great Blog:

Chritine Lehner's homepage
an extremely interesting Paris Review interview of Isak Dinesen that does remind one of C.L.
John Hawkes by Mark Hamstra
"A Brief History of New Directions"

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