penguin press

Psychedelic Trips with Author Michael Pollan

When Penguin Press author Michael Pollan set out to research how LSD and psilocybin (the active ingredient in magic mushrooms) are being used to provide relief to people suffering from difficult-to-treat conditions such as depression, addiction and anxiety, he did not intend to write what is undoubtedly his most personal book, HOW TO CHANGE YOUR MIND: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence, a #1 New York Times bestseller.

Upon discovering how these remarkable substances are improving the lives not only of the mentally ill but also of healthy people coming to grips with the challenges of everyday life, Pollan decided to explore the landscape of the mind in the first person as well as the third. The true subject of his “mental travelogue” is not just psychedelic drugs but also the eternal puzzle of human consciousness and how, in a world that offers us both suffering and joy, we can do our best to be fully present and find meaning in our lives. In this “Meet our Author” interview, Pollan offers fascinating insights into the writing of HOW TO CHANGE YOUR MIND, his own personal experiences with psychedelics, how this influenced the creation of this book, and the biggest takeaways. You are best known for your books about food such as THE OMNIVORE’S DILEMMA, IN DEFENSE OF FOOD, and COOKED. What led you to write about psychedelics? It’s true I’m best known for my books about food and agriculture, but that work grew out of a deeper fascination with human engagement with the natural world, and the species we evolved with, a fascination explored in earlier books like The Botany of Desire and Second Nature. Food and beauty are two of the human desires other species have evolved to gratify, but there are other, more mysterious desires, and the human drive to change consciousness, whether mildly and routinely with plant drugs such as caffeine, or more dramatically with psychoactive mushrooms, has always fascinated me. Why do we want to do this potentially risky thing, and why did plants and fungi evolve these remarkable chemicals that affect us in this way? What do these experiences do for us, as individuals or as a society? Psychedelics are the most extreme case of this curious phenomenon, and they have been a central part of human societies for thousands of years. I wanted to find out why. And then I began hearing about a renaissance of research into psychedelics by scientists hoping to treat cancer patients suffering from “existential distress,” addicts, people struggling with depression and so-called “healthy normals.” These researchers had found that psilocybin, the psychoactive compound in magic mushrooms, could reliably occasion a “mystical experience” in people that they deemed one of the two or three most significant experiences in their lives –comparable to the birth of a child of death of a parent. The experience had changed them in lasting ways. This was something I needed to explore. I wasn’t sure I had ever had a spiritual experience. Would one happen to me? Was there some dimension of existence or consciousness I was missing out on? Was it really possibly to change one’s mind as an adult? My journalistic curiosity soon morphed into a personal quest to explore some of the uncharted territory of both the mind and my mind. While researching your book you decided to experience psychedelics yourself. Why? Did you have any reservations? Well, I’ve always liked to do participatory or “immersive” journalism—I bought a cow to understand the cattle industry; built a house to understand architecture; and apprenticed myself to great chefs and bakers to learn their crafts, so embarking on a few psychedelic trips seemed like something I should do, for the edification of my readers if nothing else. I’ve always believed in the value of getting one’s hands dirty, so to speak, as a way to move beyond the usual journalistic attitudes of cynicism or world-weariness. You learn a lot more when you have some skin in the game. But in this case it was more personal than that. It was impossible to listen to people describe these transformative experiences—experiences that had extinguished their fear of death, surfaced buried experiences from their childhoods, shifted their priorities in life and their whole world view—without feeling the need to have such an experience myself. Would I change? Was I capable of a “mystical experience?” Would I learn something new about myself? I was particularly keen on the possibility that the experience could help me escape habitual patterns of thought and behavior, something we all struggle with. But I certainly had reservations. I had had very little experience of psychedelics—I was only 12 during the Summer of Love, which means I’m less a product of the psychedelic sixties than of the moral panic against psychedelics. They terrified me. And the night before every one of my “journeys” I was a sleepless wreck, as I rehearsed in my mind everything that could go wrong, listening to a voice in my head saying this was crazy. That voice, I came to realize, was my ego trying (selfishly) to prevent me from a having an experience that, among other things, would undermine that ego. How did your personal experiences influence your thinking and writing? My trips allowed me to connect better with the dozens of patients and volunteers I interviewed, helping to put some flesh on abstractions I was hearing from them, like “ego dissolution,” and “mystical experience” or “merging with nature.” It allowed us to speak one another's language about an experience often described as "ineffable." But the experiences also presented a terrific literary challenge—how do you evoke a psilocybin or LSD trip on the page, without sounding like a lunatic? (You will decide if I succeeded.) I also think the experiences changed me — changed my relationship to my ego (which I no longer think of as identical to my self, but more like a "character" that needs to be managed and sometimes demoted); made me a better meditator; generally made me more open and less defended, etc. My wife Judith, who had trepidations when I embarked on this journey, eventually became quite supportive. Initially she worried that my involvement in psychedelics might somehow change me. What she didn't foresee is that it might change me for the better! What is the biggest take-away from your experience writing this book? Though ostensibly a book about psychedelics, HOW TO CHANGE YOUR MIND is really a book about the mind—a realm on which psychedelics happen to shine a powerful new light. Consciousness is one of the greatest mysteries there is—there is nothing of which we are more certain, and yet nothing that is further from being understood by modern science: how brains produce consciousness (if in fact they do—some believe it may exist outside of us). Yet consciousness itself is not a single thing. Psychedelics show us that, as William James said, minds are capable of multiple kinds of consciousness, separated from our everyday experience by “the filmiest of veils.” There are doors in the room of one’s mind that open onto unsuspected dimensions of mental experience. Psychedelics is only one of those doors—there are other, non-pharmacological doorknobs too, like meditation, prayer, breathing exercises, sweat lodges, vision quests, etc. But turn any one of these knobs and enter, and you realize, as I did in my “reporting” for this book, that the mind is far vaster, and the world more alive, than I ever suspected.  

Joana Avillez and Molly Young Celebrate NYC in D C-T! Catch Them at 5/7 Event

Illustrator Joana Avillez and writer Molly Young have joined forces to create a charming, illustrated ode to NYC: D C-T! (“The City!”), published on May 1 by Penguin Press. Combining the puzzle language first created by William Steig (author of CDB! and creator of Shrek) with humorous observations of their beloved city, D C-T! is endlessly entertaining and a “breezy charmer” (Publishers Weekly).

expand ran an excerpt last week, New York Magazine deemed the book highbrow and brilliant in their approval matrix, and WWD interviewed Avillez and Young. Nylon created a video interview in which Joana and Molly recreated scenes from the book. Check it out here. You can catch Joana and Molly in conversation with Tamara Shopsin at Books Are Magic in Brooklyn on Monday, May 7 C U D-R (see you there)!

Maira Kalman Celebrates CAKE: View Her Art, Watch Her Video

With great style, wit, and joy, Maira Kalman and Barbara Scott-Goodman have collaborated to celebrate their favorite dessert in CAKE, published by Penguin Press. Kalman’s enchanting illustrations, in her inimitable style, and Scott-Goodman’s mouthwatering recipes complement each other perfectly, making CAKE a whimsical celebration of a timeless dessert.

The Wall Street Journal called CAKE a “stunningly designed book . . . There is love and loss, heartbreak, celebration, poignant and hilarious times—always with cake.” Shelf Awareness featured the Penguin Press video trailer with Maira that gave a behind-the-scenes peak of the book writing process, in addition to some “procrastibaking.” Watch Maira’s charming CAKE video: On Sunday, May 6, meet up with Maira at the Brooklyn Public Library for a “Square Dance Sunday Book Signing, featuring CAKE and Max the Dog.” And don’t worry, there will be plenty of cake!

Batuman, Greengrass, Shamsie are Women’s Prize for Fiction Finalists

The Women’s Prize for Fiction has announced its 2018 shortlist. This annual award, now in its 23rd year, celebrates excellence, originality and accessibility in writing by women throughout the world. Three books published by Penguin Random House in the U.S. and Canada are on this year’s Women’s Prize shortlist:

THE IDIOT by Elif Batuman (Penguin Press) SIGHT by Jessie Greengrass (Hogarth, to be published 8/21/18) HOME FIRE by Kamila Shamsie (Riverhead) View the complete Women’s Prize for Fiction 2018 shortlist here. The Women’s Prize for Fiction winning title will be revealed at an awards ceremony in London on June 6 – the author taking home £30,000 and a bronze figurine, “the Bessie.”

Our 5 L.A. Times Book Prize Winners

The 39th annual Los Angeles Times Book Prizes were announced at the L.A. Times Festival of Books this past weekend at the University of Southern California, and among the award winners for books published in 2017 were five titles from Penguin Random House imprints in the following categories:

Fiction Mohsin Hamid, EXIT WEST (Riverhead Books) Art Seidenbaum Award for First Fiction Jenny Zhang, SOUR HEART (Lenny / Random House) The Christopher Isherwood Prize for Autobiographical Prose Winner Benjamin Taylor, THE HUE AND CRY AT OUR HOUSE: A Year Remembered (Penguin Books) Current Interest Nancy MacLean, DEMOCRACY IN CHAINS: The Deep History of the Radical Right's Stealth Plan for America (Viking/Penguin) Science & Technology Robert M. Sapolsky, BEHAVE: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst (Penguin Press) Congratulations to our award-winning authors, their editors and publishers. To view the complete list of this year’s L.A. Times Book Prize winners, click here. The Los Angeles Times Book Prizes were first awarded in 1980, with the idea of honoring literary excellence and celebrating the community of readers in Los Angeles. The inspiration of former L.A. Times book editor Art Seidenbaum, those first prizes included awards in four book categories – fiction, history, general nonfiction and poetry.
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Penguin Press Author Stephen Kotkin Wins the Mark Lynton History Prize for STALIN

Columbia Journalism School and the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard announced the winners of the 2018 J. Anthony Lukas Prize Project Awards, including the Mark Lynton History Prize for Stephen Kotkin’s STALIN: Waiting for Hitler, 1929-1941, published by Penguin Press.  Established in 1998, the Lukas Prize Project, marking its 20th anniversary year, honors the best in American nonfiction writing. The late Mark Lynton was an historian and senior executive at the firm Hunter Douglas in the Netherlands.  Mr. Kotkin will receive his $10,000 prize at a the Lukas Prize Project Awards ceremony on May 10 at the Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia University. 

The judges’ citation reads as follows:  “A stunning achievement, Stephen Kotkin’s STALIN reveals with precision and clarity the period in which the impatient dictator developed into a monster who used his authoritarian rule and coercive power to manipulate social divisions, invent enemies, and forge despotism in mass bloodshed.  Through his prodigious research and command of an immense body of new documents, Kotkin comprehensively documents Josef Stalin’s rule and his remaking of the USSR into an empire, and he gets inside the mind of a tyrant whose murderous obsessions led him to execute nearly a million people. This second volume of Kotkin’s (planned) trilogy deepens understanding of the turbulent, tragic period by juxtaposing Stalin’s extension of influence in the Soviet Union with Adolf Hitler’s rise in Germany, culminating in the most disastrous conflagration in modern history. In a landmark work of historical scholarship, Kotkin has written a captivating biography of a despot that chronicles the evolution of Stalin as a human being, political operator, and growing archfiend in this horrific era of modern history.” View the complete list of 2018 Lukas Prize Project Awards winners and finalists here.

Ryan Walsh Uncovers the Mysteries Behind the Birth of Van Morrison’s Masterpiece in 1968

Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks is an iconic rock album shrouded in legend that has touched generations of listeners (the record topping many personal “Desert Island” music lists) and influenced everyone from Bruce Springsteen to Martin Scorsese.  ASTRAL WEEKS: A Secret History of 1968 (Penguin Press), the first book by musician/ journalist Ryan H. Walsh, unearths the album’s fascinating backstory and takes a mind-expanding deep dive into a lost chapter of Boston, circa 1968, featuring both the famous and the forgotten, including Van Morrison himself, folkie-turned-cult-leader Mel Lyman, Timothy Leary, the Velvet Underground, Andy Warhol, Peter Wolf, and James Brown.  

  [caption id="attachment_9917" align="alignright" width="258"] Astral Weeks album cover[/caption] In this Behind the Pages interview, Walsh reveals what sparked the creation and writing of ASTRAL WEEKS as well as how this book may resonate with readers in 2018.   What was the genesis of ASTRAL WEEKS and the vision that it could become a book? This book started out with me searching out for some comfort via music. I was 22, heartbroken, lonely, and I stumbled upon the record in a store. Something about the cover and title told me to buy it. That led to a curiosity about its origins, which surprisingly led to my own backyard here in Boston.  Boston magazine gave me the go-ahead to write a piece about it, which led to Ed Park at Penguin Press reaching out to me and asking, “Could this be a book?” [caption id="attachment_9918" align="alignright" width="259"] Van Morrison, Spring Sing on Boston Common, April 20, 1968. Courtesy of MONTUSE/Dick Iacovello/[/caption] During the writing process, how did you go about assembling the myriad characters and researching the stories as well as sub-plots that you wove together so masterfully in telling the tale of the making of this iconic Van Morrison album and the many intersecting worlds in Boston, circa 1968? I set rules for myself: all stories had to have an anchor point in Boston during the year 1968. They could go to other cities and years, but some vital part of each person and story had to exist inside of those parameters. Secondly, I was looking for stories about people striving for something spiritual or mystical in music and other pursuits. I was also looking for stories that bled the reality between creativity and real life.  So many people in the book were questioning themselves and the world around them: Is this real? Am I real? Is this a genuine moment?  [caption id="attachment_9916" align="alignright" width="300"] Orpheus in 1968. (l to r) Eric Gulliksen,Jack McKenes, Harry Sandler, Bruce Arnold. Courtesy of Bruce Arnold Music/Orpheus.[/caption] What elements of your book do you think will resonate most strongly with readers here in 2018? People often say that 1968 in the USA was a year in which the country seemed hell bent on tearing itself apart. It seems to me that could end up being a sentence that applies to 2018 too, sadly. But mostly, I think that the stories in the book are universal, human stories. You don't have to love Van Morrison or be familiar with Boston to enjoy this. You just have to love a good tale told in front of a campfire.   Photo of author Ryan H. Walsh courtesy of Marissa Nadler.

Featured Author Event: Ian Buruma (NYC)

Author Ian Buruma will be presenting his latest book, A TOKYO ROMANCE: A Memoir (Penguin Press) on Thursday, March 8 at 7:00 pm at McNally Jackson Books in NYC. Buruma will be in conversation with Darryl Pinckney, followed by a book signing.

When Buruma arrived in Tokyo in 1975, Japan was little more than an idea in his mind, a fantasy of a distant land. A sensitive misfit in the world of his upper middleclass youth, what he longed for wasn’t so much the exotic as the raw, unfiltered humanity he had experienced in Japanese theater performances and films, witnessed in Amsterdam and Paris. One particular theater troupe, directed by a poet of runaways, outsiders, and eccentrics, was especially alluring, more than a little frightening, and completely unforgettable. If Tokyo was anything like his plays, Buruma knew that he had to join the circus as soon as possible. A TOKYO ROMANCE is a portrait of a young artist and the fantastical city that shaped him. With his signature acuity, Ian Buruma brilliantly captures the historical tensions between east and west, the cultural excitement of 1970s Tokyo, and the dilemma of the gaijin in Japanese society, free, yet always on the outside. The result is a timeless story about the desire to transgress boundaries: cultural, artistic, and sexual. “Delicious… a wild ride through the late-20th-century Japanese avant-garde scene through the eyes of an innocent from across the sea.” — Kirkus, starred review Ian Buruma was educated in Holland and Japan. He has spent many years in Asia, which he has written about in God’s DustA Japanese Mirror, and Behind the Mask. He has also written Playing the GameThe Wages of Guilt, and Anglomania. Buruma is currently a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Institute for the Humanities in Washington, DC.

Elizabeth Strout Wins The Story Prize for ANYTHING IS POSSIBLE

Elizabeth Strout has won The Story Prize for ANYTHING IS POSSIBLE (Random House), receiving a $20,000 award and an engraved silver bowl at the 14th annual Story Prize event, which took place on Wednesday, February 28, at The New School in Manhattan.  The Story Prize judges offered high praise for Strout and her latest collection of short stories: “The intelligent prose is seemingly humble but elegant in its subtlety and enchanting in its overall effect. The blade of her wit is so sharp, you barely feel it until after the slice. Strout is a specialist in the reticence of people, and her characters are compelling because of the complexity of their internal lives, and the clarity with which that complexity is depicted. It is a sublime pleasure to read her work.”  

The Story Prize runners-up – Daniel Alarcón for THE KING IS ALWAYS ABOVE THE PEOPLE  (Riverhead Books) and Ottessa Moshfegh for HOMESICK FOR ANOTHER WORLD  (Penguin Press) – were also honored and each received $5,000. Three independent Story Prize judges – Knopf/Vintage author and poet Susan Minot, critic and author Walton Muyumba, and Library Journal Associate Editor Stephanie Sendaula – selected the three finalists from among 120 submissions representing 93 different publishers or imprints, and then determined the winner. Warm congratulations to Ms. Strout, her editor and publisher.

Our Three Lukas Prize Shortlist Authors

Columbia Journalism School and the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard have announced The J. Anthony Lukas Prizes shortlist, honoring “the best in American nonfiction writing” in 2017 on history and topics of American political or social concern. The judges selected three of our 2017 titles as finalists in two of the three categories, from more than 350 submissions:

Anthony Lukas Book Prize ($10,000) AMERICAN WOLF by Nate Blakeslee (Crown Publishing Group) THE FAR AWAY BROTHERS by Lauren Markham (Crown Publishing Group) Mark Lynton History Prize ($10,000) STALIN by Stephen Kotkin (Penguin Press)