5 Questions for Sean Carswell, Author of The Metaphysical Ukulele

metaphysical ukWednesday, June 29, 2016 is Indie Press Night at City Lights Bookstore. We are celebrating two new novels by Ig Publishing on this occasion: Missile Paradise by Ron Tanner and The Metaphysical Ukulele by Sean Carswell. Both authors will be at the bookstore discussing their new publications. Sean answered our 5 questions. More about him, and his answers, below.

Event: Wednesday, June 29 at 7PM. 261 Columbus Ave., San Francisco, CA 94133.

About The Metaphysical Ukulele: Mixing the flair of literary invention with real events in the lives of some of our most well-known writers—Herman Melville living with a tribe of cannibals; Raymond Chandler holding The Blue Dahlia screenplay hostage from Paramount Studios; Flannery O’Connor falling in love; Chester Himes threatening to decapitate his landlord, a ukulele player who may or may not be Thomas Pynchon, among others—Sean Carswell takes the nonfiction of the literary life and turns it into exquisite fiction, with a ukulele thrown in to each story for good measure. At times heartbreaking, at times absurd, the stories in this truly one-of-a-kind collection delightfully blur the line between what is life, and what is literature.

About Missile Paradise: In the Marshall Islands, an island-nation in the middle of the Pacific Ocean that was once a testing ground for nuclear bombs, American engineers and programmers are making and testing missiles while their “hosts,” the indigenous Marshallese, sweep their streets and clean their houses. It’s 2004, the Iraq war is heating up, and 9/11 is fresh in everyone’s minds. Following four interconnected story lines—the meltdown of a burned-out cultural liaison who has “gone native” and bitterly resents his role in keeping the Marshallese down; a young programmer who has lost his leg in a reckless solo sailing journey; the struggles of a young widow with two children whose husband drowned in a mysterious diving accident; and the destructive spiral of a Marshallese teenager whose American girlfriend rejects him when she returns to the States—Missile Paradise is an extraordinary novel that deals with the major social and political issues of our time, including racism, represented by the relationship between the Americans who enjoy life on Kwajalein and the subservience of the native Marshallese, who live on the neglected and trash-strewn island of Ebeye; and climate change—the climax of the novel is a great storm and flood which forces the Marshallese on Ebeye to flee to Kwajalein.

sean carswell
Sean Carswell

About Sean Carswell: Sean Carswell is the author of the novels Drinks for the Little Guy, Train Wreck Girl, and Madhouse Fog, and the short story collections Barney’s Crew and Glue and Ink Rebellion. He co-founded the independent book publisher Gorsky Press and the music magazine Razorcake. He currently teaches writing and literature at California State University, Channel Islands.

About Ron Tanner: Ron Tanner’s awards for writing include a Faulkner Society gold medal, a Pushcart Prize, a New Letters Award, a Best of the Web Award, a Maryland Arts Council grant, and many others. He is the author of A Bed of Nails (stories), Kiss Me Stranger (illustrated novel), and From Animal House to Our House (memoir). He teaches writing at Loyola University-Maryland and directs the Marshall Islands Story Project.

City Lights: If you’ve been to City Lights before, what’s your memory of the visit? If you haven’t been here before, what are you expecting?

Sean Carswell: I’ve been to City Lights several times. I go there almost every time I go to San Francisco. My most memorable visit had to be about ten years ago.

I’d designed a book cover for Bucky Sinister’s poetry collection Whiskey & Robots. I thought of the cover as an homage to the City Lights Pocket Poets series. Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Nancy Peters saw the cover as borderline copyright infringement. They sent the nicest cease-and-desist letter to the publisher for whom I designed the cover. I talked to Nancy and we smoothed things out. A few months later, I was in City Lights and saw a half dozen copies of Whiskey & Robots in the poetry shelves, cover out.

That was such a classy move by City Lights.

CL: If your book had a soundtrack, what would it sound like?

SC: I actually put one together for Largehearted Boy.

CL: What’s the first book you actually finished reading?

SC: The first novel I really loved was Sounder by William H. Armstrong. I read it several times when I was in second grade. I remember that we couldn’t renew books at the school library, so I’d check the book out, read it, return it, and wait the allotted time until I could check it out and read it again. I read it so many times that my brother, who’d seen the Disney adaptation of the book, took to yelling, “Sounder, come here, boy” a la Paul Winfield every time he saw me. That convinced me to find a new book.

CL: If you didn’t have your current job, what might you do?

SC: Become a bookseller at City Lights.

CL: Name a few things you’d require if stranded on a desert island for an undefined period of time (and, yes, no wifi). 

SC: I’ll just talk about books. I’d bring Herman Melville’s Typee. That way, if there were cannibals on the island, I’d have a guidebook for how to live with them. I’d bring Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend, because I’ve been meaning to read it. I’d probably have time to do so on a desert island. If I liked it enough, I’d be inspired to build a raft and float home, just so I could read the other books in the series.

In case I didn’t like it, I’d bring Thomas Pynchon’s Against the Day. I’d sit on the shores of that island and keep reading that gigantic novel until it made perfect sense to me. That would keep me occupied for a decade or two.


Join Sean Carswell, Ron Tanner, and City Lights tonight for Indie Press Night, celebrating two new novels by Ig Publishing. Sean will read from his novel The Metaphysical Ukulele and Ron Tanner will read from Missile Paradise. For more about Sean, go to his official site. For more about Ig, check out their site. Our summer events are pretty much done, but do keep an eye on our complete calendar as we book for the fall.

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