Friday, June 24, 2016
Leora Skolkin-Smith is the critically acclaimed author of Edges (optioned for film and selected by Grace Paley for Glad Day Books), Hystera and the upcoming Stealing Faith, which she'll read from tonight.
Terin Tashi Miller spent many of his formative years in India, the child of anthropologist parents. Since then, he has lived and worked in a variety of countries in Europe and Asia.http://terin-miller-ohpd.squarespace.com/the-other-country/His writing has appeared in guide books, international magazines including Time and Geografica Revista, and newspapers including The Wall Street Journal, The Dallas Morning News and The Los Angeles Times.
He began his writing career as a part-time reporter for Time magazine, then worked for The Associated Press in India and North Dakota and AP-Dow Jones News Services in Spain and New York, and as a reporter for The Fort Worth Star-Telegram, The Milwaukee Sentinel, Amarillo Daily News and the Hilton Head Island Packet.
I'm so happy to post their KGB event and to have Terin and Leora answer some questions.
Let's ask Leora, first:
What made you want to write about Grace Paley, as a fictionalized character.
I had a very long-term relationship with Grace Paley. When she died, there was a a non-stop set of tributes that made her seem too idealized to be a real person anymore and I was very shaken. There were many falsehoods written about her and people claimed political sentiments she never had, using hr for their own political ends. She was a mother and mentor to me and she was the first publisher of my novels, publishing me herself in 005. I owed history and her a truthful, complex portrait. It quelled my rage at what had been said falsely and made me feel as if I had fulfilled a tremendous debt.
The background of your noel is the sexual revolution and early feminism of the 1970’s. Is there anything you’d like to say about this era?
Just how revelatory in the right of Hillary Clinton’s candidacy as the first woman it was to go back to the days of Ms. magazine and Sisterhood is Powerhood. A fascinating journey back in time for me.
Now, we turn to Terin:
You have a book launch coming up, right?
Yes. Friday (today) at 7 p.m.-9 p.m. at KGB Bar--an ambition I've had ever since seeing friend and fellow transplanted midwesterner Mark Wisniewski read from Show Up, Look Good and Pulitzer Prize winner Robert Olen Butler read from his novel Small Hotel there.
Tell us About The Other Country.
It's the last piece in a trilogy of books I set in India, narrated by the same character, a journalist named John Colson. The Other Country is his fictional memoir as he's become a father to a son. And his reflecting on his own childhood in India and Wisconsin, and juxtaposing his experiences as a civilian in India's last officially declared war with its brother, Pakistan, with witnessing the Mujahideen war against the Soviets and 9/11 as a journalist. And his fear for the future of all children.
So, is "The Other Country" India?
If you like. Or Pakistan. Or Afghanistan. Or the U.S. Or the past in relation to the present or future.
What are the other two books in the trilogy, and how did all this writing about India come about?
Well, the first book in the trilogy, Kashi, I first got as far as the semi-finals in the first, I think it was Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award contest. I won a self-publishing deal and self-published as From Where the Rivers Come. It won a fair number of awards and recognition for a self-published book. An Indian publisher asked me to revise it, and I did, and they published it as Kashi. The second book, Down the Low Road, I published myself. And a new Indian publisher published The Other Country.
I lived there as a kid, visited and worked there, in Varanasi, as a language student and journalist, and have never really been able to shake the desire to write about it, modern India, not the romanticised British Raj, and not as an expatriated or second generation Indian living the immigrant experience.
Monday, June 20, 2016
Hollywood glamour, family secrets, and an obsession with celebrity: New York Times besstselling author Miranda Beverly-Whittemore talks about her extraordinary new novel, JUNE
I can't think of a better way to spend a gorgeous NYC spring day than walking through Central Park and talking with Miranda Beverly-Whittemore. Not only is she smart, funny, and a terrifically talented writer, but she's also the kind of person who really listens, gives expert advice, and best of all--she's about to have a baby! (I admit it, I love babies and kids.)
She's the author of The Effects of Light, (soon to be a film), Set Me Free, The New York Times Bestseller, Bittersweet, and now, June, which is already racking up the raves. Take a look:
PopSugar picks June as one of The 31 Books You MUST Put In Your Beachbag This Summer!
Library Journal writes, “The past is not all glossy nostalgia; Beverly-Whittemore illuminates the conflicts roiling under a smooth, socially acceptable surface… Fans of Hollywood, then and now, will find this dramatic story line appealing.”
Shelf Awareness calls June “an enthralling story of Hollywood glamour, first love and shifting loyalties”
Publishers Weekly says June “explores the changing possibilities for women, the evolution of the Hollywood fame machine, and love’s potential for genuine human transformation.”
Booklist says June is “an appealing story of romance and suspense with a focus on love and legacy.”
Kirkus calls June “A lightly gothic tale of hearts broken and mended in small-town America.”
I'm so thrilled to have Miranda here. Thank you, thank you, thank you!
I love the whole idea of old Hollywood glamour and I bet the research was a hoot. How did you research this? What surprised you about the research (or better yet, disturbed you?)
I’ve long been obsessed with celebrity. Maybe as a little girl I wanted to be rich and famous (one of my first memories is oohhhing and ahhhing over Princess Diana’s wedding on a newsreel, projected on a bed sheet in the backyard of the British Embassy in Dakar, Senegal), but I quickly realized how unpleasant so many aspects of that life are, and the whole idea of being watched all the time still terrifies me.
Then, after my first novel came out, I was a co-producer on a short adaptation of that book to film, and had my first experience on a real Hollywood set. It was enchanting to watch the well-oiled machine that filmmaking is (especially as a writer who spends most of my time as a maker completely by myself) —everyone has their specific job, and when all those jobs are fitted together, the whole thing works. I realized I wanted to write not just about celebrity, but about a film set, and I thought there was no better witness to such a place than a child who gets to be a part of it.
In June, there are two generations of celebrities—in the modern day, two sisters, one an A-lister a la Jennifer Aniston, and the other a character based on Carrie Fisher; at the beginning of the book, you discover they’re the daughters of the movie star who is the celebrity in the book’s 1955, a matinee idol named Jack Montgomery. Having a family of movie stars across sixty years gave me the opportunity play with the difference between being a celebrity now and then; my perception being that you could get away with a lot more then than you can now (but you also had a lot less power then, especially if you were female).
The truth is, I went into writing this book without knowing much at all about the Hollywood system in the fifties, which meant I bought a lot of books on Amazon, which acted as life rafts when I found myself terrified if I was allowed to write about something of which I knew so little. A good friend of mine who works for TCM suggested that I might want to look at the legendary film Raintree County as inspiration for the film Jack comes to town to make, which was enormously helpful, and from which I borrowed so many ideas, including that prior to my book’s opening, the crew has already filmed a month of interiors on an LA soundstage; they’ve come to this small Ohio town to film the exteriors. But I’ll confess that I’ve never seen Raintree County; I really wanted to let the film in my book stand on its own, without being hampered by too much research, which I definitely see as a danger, because I get obsessed with what actually happened and that can often mean I hamper my own imagination.
June is so expertly plotted, almost like nesting Russian dolls, with one secret uncovering another. So, from a purely practical standpoint, how did you do this? I know you use story structure (Trubyites!) but can you also tell me what else you did?
Thanks so much! Much like my last novel, Bittersweet, June has a really twisting plot, full of surprises, which is my favorite kind of book to read. Like you, I’m a huge fan of using Truby’s Anatomy of Story to outline a book, which takes a lot of time upfront but usually means that when it comes to it, I write the actual book relatively quickly (I wrote most of June in a five month period last spring). I think writing quickly from an outline has a lot to do with plotting in that page-turny way, because I find one of the hardest parts of writing a novel is keeping the whole book in my head at any given time, and writing quickly at least keeps the ideas fresh in my mind.
Once I wrote the book, I took a month-long break from it (while my editor read it) before diving back into the book for a six-week revision in which a LOT changed, including that June had been originally written entirely in first person (it’s now in third). Again, I think doing this revision quickly (six weeks of twelve hour days), although hellish at the time, was the only way I could hold onto all the strands of secrets spinning through the book. I was so lucky to be taken so well care of by my family during that time, who fed and cheered me, and entertained my kid.
It’s funny to realize that as soon as we make story out of anything—every fact—it becomes fictionalized, both because of memory and because how he look at things changes as we change. In June, there are so many secrets and so many memories, that I wanted to know: do you think we can ever really know the real truth about anyone and anything? How close do you think we can get?
That was another starting point for this book. I wanted to write about legacy—from both a cultural and familial viewpoint, because I thought there was a nice parallel to draw between the stories we tell ourselves about our celebrities and the stories we tell ourselves about our ancestors. Both groups of people are revered in mythic ways, almost godlike in our telling of them. But of course they are/were just people, like us, making all sorts of mistakes, lusting, striving, stumbling along the way. I wanted this book to uncover what really happened/s when that layer of time or celebrity is peeled back, and we’re left with the people at the heart of that matter. That’s when life gets interesting, and I believe that almost everyone in my book comes to understand that at the end.
The past impacts the present—from 1955 to 2015. Was writing one time period more fun than another for you? Why or why not?
This is the first time I’ve attempted an historical novel, and I was really scared to do it. But I had some tricks up my sleeve, which I thought of as short cuts, because the two different time periods in this book seemed much more incidental than the plot, if that makes sense. First of all, the small Ohio town where this book is set is based on the real town where my grandmother grew up, and that town has not changed much since the 1800’s, so once I knew that town well, I knew I could write about it at any time period, really. Then I sat down with my parents and a few other friends who’d been children in 1955 and asked them to just brainstorm brands of food, and what their mothers wore, and what they did on Saturday afternoons, and a huge amount of that knowledge went into this book. Finally, although the book is called June, and in the past era, there is a very important character named June, I always knew that the true main character of that storyline is a scrappy tomboy named Lindie, and she was always very accessible to me. I felt safe with her, and I knew that her presence meant I didn’t need to be as scared of writing about 1955 as I might otherwise have been.
I suppose that makes it sounds as though the 1955 section is my favorite, but the truth is I had a total blast writing the present-day section as well. The two modern actresses in that time-period, especially the irreverent Elda (the one based on Carrie Fisher), were so much fun to write. And Cassie, whose the main character in the present day, is so lost at the beginning of the book; it was really fun to help her find home again.
Both June and Lindie are incredible characters, which makes me want to know how did you go about creating them?
As I said above, Lindie just kind of came to me fully formed. She was always queer, stuck in this small town in the fifties in which queerness as a notion didn’t even exist; I realized that her journey would include coming to terms with this fundamental truth about herself, even embracing it, at a time when that would have been very hard to do. Her love for June sometimes puzzled me, because June is a bit of a prickly pear; she’s not the person I’d be in love with. But June’s character is consistent throughout—she’s the person who doesn’t leave a small town, but decides to stay there, to embrace that life—and it was really fun to illustrate this fundamental aspect of her character both through Lindie’s eyes, when June is only 18, and then through June’s granddaughter Cassie’s eyes, after June has died as an old woman. I suppose there are aspects of my maternal grandmother in June, who was a big believer in privacy, which is something not many of us value anymore. For both Cassie and Lindie, this part of June is hard to decipher, even, at times, to like, but it is fundamental to who she is, and informs every big decision she makes in the book (especially the surprising ones).
What’s obsessing you now and why?
I will confess that I just got completely obsessed with organizing my seven year old’s lego collection, much of which he inherited from a teenager next door. I did all this crazy research online about which kind of drawer system is the best for loose lego pieces, and settled upon the Akro-Mils kind, and proceeded to spend three very obsessive days sorting pieces by size (not color) into tiny little drawers. Yes, I know he will quickly dismantle this, but dammit, my book’s about to come out and I’m six months pregnant, so a little procrastination/nesting never hurt anyone, right? Right???
What question didn’t I ask that I should have?
Oh Caroline, you always ask the best questions, and I’m always happy to answer them! What I want to ask you is when you will meet me for teatime again, only this time, let’s skip Alice’s Tea Cup and go somewhere where they will let you have coffee.
Tuesday, June 14, 2016
How does a brilliant, critically acclaimed novelist add to her illustrious career? With a brilliant, critically acclaimed YA. Jennifer Gilmore talks about her haunting YA debut, WE WERE NEVER HERE, writing, and so much more
First, just some of the advance praise of Jennifer Gilmore's gorgeous YA debut, WE WERE NEVER HERE:
"Both painful..and mesmerizing."–Publishers Weekly, Starred review
“Sensitive and insightful."
“Heartwarming, heartbreaking, tender, and true.”
–Deb Caletti, National Book Award Finalist for Honey, Baby, Sweetheart
“A powerful, graceful, and poignantly beautiful story. I cannot overstate how much I loved this book.”
–Courtney Sheinmel, author of Edgewater and Positively
“This poignant, sharply-observed novel of invisible illness also reminds us of the redemptive power of love and community.”
–Adele Griffin, author of The Unfinished Life of Addison Stone
Jennifer Gilmore is one of my favorite people on the earth. Not only is she warm, smart and funny, but she's also a brilliant novelist, both for adults--and now, in her YA debut-- for teens. She's the author of the highly acclaimed The Mothers (being adapted for film), Something Red, (a New York Times Notable Book) and Golden Country, a New York Times Notable Book of 2006, a finalist for the National Jewish Book Award, on the long-list for the International IMPAC Dublin Prize, a finalist for the Harold U Ribalow Prize, and a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize.
I'm so happy to have her here. Thank you so much, Jennifer!
You’re a critically acclaimed adult novelist. What made you decide to write a YA?
I got a call from a YA publisher after she’d read my second adult novel, Something Red. She said, You do 16 really well, you should write YA. I started something and then put it aside for my last adult novel and then I decided to go back to it. I decided I had a story to tell that was best suited for teens. Or more, it was something I wish I’d had to read when I was a teen and reading mattered so much to me.
Was there a different in writing YA rather than adult novels? Did you miss anything? Did anything surprise you in it?
There is an idea in YA that your protagonist is in the moment and moving forward only. It’s hard to think about the future and hard to think about the past. I think that’s accurate for most teens, actually. The future is hard for any of my characters to imagine. But I have to say, I was a kid who, at 8, was like: oh my God it was so much better when I was 7, so I think there is leeway there. I think teens have memories and nostalgia for things that are gone and they have all kinds of hopes and dreams. As much as I missed writing about the past as I usually do, I was surprised how much a forward moving narrative taught me as a writer. You can learn when your protagonist does. You don’t have to know everything already. That was sort of wonderful.
Every novel seems to spark from something that haunted the writer. What sparked you to write this?
That’s very true. I was quite sick in my twenties. What happened to me haunted and invigorated me, like our past always does. I wanted it to take place fictionally though in a time when it would be most shocking. Being sick as a young person is a strange thing, but when you are 16, as Lizzie is here, and you’re not yet comfortable in your skin, that’s a terrible thing. So what if your illness is what, in the end, gives you the power to actually be yourself? I wanted to look at that. How you get power out of being powerless.
I have to ask about the title, which I love with a passion. Can you talk about that please?
Titles are difficult. I’m so glad you like it! I was thinking about Lizzie wishing this time in her life had never happened. But if it had never happened then the wonderful things that came out of that experience—falling in love, making friends, becoming open to life, really—wouldn’t have happened either. She only realizes this later. For a long time she wishes none of it had happened, and the boy she meets has his own secrets , a past he wishes he had not been present for as well.
Illness, especially long-term or chronic, is like being in another country where you don’t know the language, and you captured it absolutely perfectly. What was it like to write about?
Writing about being sick comes very naturally to me. I’ve written a lot of non-fiction on the topic that helped me arrive here fictionally. I like to think of the hospital as an alternative universe. I like to think writing about illness is like writing sci fi: here are the new rules, here is the language, here is the map. In a sense, writing gives you a do-over. I don’t believe writing is therapy in any way (how many happy writers do you see running around, especially fiction writers?) but I think I got to relive it and do it better this time. My character asks for help and gets help from her family. I don’t think that’s how it was for me. I was very private and ashamed. I wanted to undo that. I have tried to undo that.
What’s obsessing you now and why?
I am swamped with teaching and domestic life and those concerns are foregrounded right now. I look forward to swaths of time. I think I am obsessed with swaths of time to think something through in earnest. I’m working on a new YA called If Only. It’s all about alternative futures, what we could have been if just one thing was different. That has always obsessed me. All the things I left behind…
“A haunting, visceral novel that heralds the birth of a powerful new voice in American fiction.” Starred Kirkus Review
Deón’s powerful debut is a moving, mystical family saga set over the course of 25 years in the deep South.
Starred Publishers Weekly
Natashia Deón is one of the kindest, most generous writers I know. An attorney, writer, law professor, and creator of the popular L.A.-based reading series Dirty Laundry Lit, Deón was recently named one of L.A.'s "Most Fascinating People" by L.A. Weekly. I was introduced to her by the novelist Gina Sorell (Mothers And Other Strangers, coming May 2017 from Prospect Park Books) when I was desperate for research help on the law. Natashia literally saved my life--and she gave me more than I could have ever hoped for. Of course, I adore her. But more than that, she's a brilliant writer, and Grace is like a punch to the heart (in the best way, of course.) She's the recipient of a PEN Center USA Emerging Voices fellowship and her debut novel, Grace, is due out June 2016 with Counterpoint Press.
I'm so thrilled to have Natashia here. Thank you, thank you for everything, Natashia.
Grace is totally extraordinary. What sparked the writing of this book about a runaway slave?
A dream. When my son was born, he was sick. Within a few days, I knew something was wrong. I had just had my daughter the year before and when he didn’t behave the way she did, I became afraid for his life. It turns out that he had a rare genetic condition that affected his brain and body but doctors didn’t know that yet. I didn’t know. I only had a discomfort and fear. And during his first month, while I was walking down the hallway with him, I had a daydream, and in it I saw a pregnant slave girl and she was running for her life through the dark. I wrote what I saw and GRACE began.
It blossomed a few months later when I knew that I wanted to feature a cast of multi-ethnic women. That’s what I cared about in my version of the Civil War—America’s rich history that is multi-ethnic and complicated. And I wanted to explore the war while inside feminine brown skin, like mine.
I’m always curious about research, how a writer goes about, what you learned and what surprised you. You’ve captured generations. Care to talk about this?
When my parents left Alabama for California in the 70s, they packed lunches, drove during the day and slept on the side of the road at night. My parents were the first in their family to leave the south since the end of American slavery. And even as a child, I wondered, why didn’t they leave before? It was, after all, the site of the crimes.
There are a lot of private and personal answers to that. But I was mostly surprised at the answers that were in plain sight. I was taught about slavery like everyone else in an American public school and like many people, I hadn’t connected the dots. For example, how 3 million slaves were set free with the Emancipation Proclamation in the middle of the Civil War. Not after the war in a time of peace, or before the war started. And, how the Underground Railroad, which I grew up believing was a monumental savior to slaves only went as far south as Virginia. I wanted to explore that.
How do you do all that you do? You’re a practicing lawyer, and you run a lit series, and you teach law AND you write genius novels. How do you manage the time crunch?
God. I think He divides times for me. (smiling) As for my part, I let myself miss things. I used to try to cross everything off of my To Do list everyday, but after my first child was born and I found myself sitting in the corner, in the dark, completely overwhelmed, it occurred to me that I can miss things. That sometimes, my best intentions are not possible.
Now, I see my To Do list as a goal sheet and give myself a high-five on the days I do it all and if I don’t, I tell myself, “Good try. Or, you blew it today.” But no matter what, tomorrows will come. Except after my last.
One of the things I found so overwhelming in the novel is that when the slaves were freed, they were not really free—and in many ways, things became worse for them. (There is the line, “I don't know what’s worse. Living in fear or dying.” Can you talk about this please?)
In Grace, I wanted to explore what it means to be free today, not just for a slave or in the 1800s, but today—both physical and mental bondage. Freedom is not a cure, it’s an event, a beginning that marks the end of some state of bondage—a marriage, a job, whatever. And I believe that after childhood, fear plays a major role in freedom. Even as a law professor who teaches Constitutional law, I encourage my students to explore freedom and the role fear plays in it. And how almost any defense, or loss of freedom can be rationalized with that emotion. Even death—for the person who’s feared, or for ourselves to end our own fear and anxiety. I don’t advocate either.
But Grace is primarily a story of love, and yes, freedom, and motherhood. I wanted to show this slave-narrator as thinking and wanting and loving, the way all women do, today or in the 1800s or thousands of years ago. I wanted her thoughts to take her beyond the single-mindedness of freedom north—but that’s part of it—that’s the beginning I was talking about. I wanted her to be like we all are, asking ourselves if what we have right now is freedom?
The relationship between Josie and Naomi is astonishing—Naomi’s love affair with a white man produced Josie, who is mixed race and looks white. Both have different experiences of American racism, and of love, and of the bond between mother and daughter. And today, there is still horrific racism going on. Do you think there will ever be an end to this?
I have hope. I believe that the generations that are coming behind us can end this. Racism is a choice. I have faith that with more voices, louder voices, united voices, the absurdity of this manmade system of racism will speak for itself and the next generations will chose different than us, from our parents, grandparents and so on. And with educated and intentional advocates of all backgrounds, the change will be a system-wide overhaul that includes education, prisons, wealth, and health. Maybe it won’t happen as quickly as I hope, but I believe. I believe in Americans.
I loved the language of the novel, which brings me to the question—How do you write? Do you outline? Do you just follow your Muse?
Thanks so much, Caroline. I love language. In this novel, I wanted to explore dialect and the way we attribute language to intelligence. I wanted to show that language is a matter of exposure and utility, not necessarily intelligence. My struggle in writing this novel was to have my protagonist express herself as an intelligent human being without having all of the words. I failed her once or twice.
As far as how I write, I write as thoughts occur to me, or as events happen. One part usually leads to the next logical thought. Unless I’m PMS’ing. Ha!
But I outlined this novel and wrote it first as a screenplay. It won several screenwriting awards but at one point I decided that I needed to finish this story. If it remained a screenplay, it would need directors to bring the complete story to fruition—a director of the film, of photography, sound effects, lighting, actors, etc. And at the table when I was negotiating the option for the screenplay—this incomplete story—I realized that I needed to complete it. And oh, what a journey it’s been.
What’s obsessing you now and why?
My faith as a Christian and what it means to love all people. More specifically, how can I love all people genuinely and without judgment. The political climate has gotten me to think more and more about who I am and what I believe. I was forced to look at my beliefs and my Cliff Notes version of Jesus and say, wait a minute.
What question didn’t I ask that I should have?
You’ve done a great job. Thank you!
Tuesday, May 31, 2016
The hours before childbirth. The lives of two different women. Pamela Erens talks about her extraordinary new novel ELEVEN HOURS.
Pamela Erens is a writer's writer--I don't know any writers who don't revere her work, but she's also acclaimed by readers who aren't writers, as well. She's the author of The Virgins, which was a a New York Times Book Review and Chicago Tribune Editors' Choice and was named a Best Book of 2013 by The New Yorker, The New Republic, Library Journal, and Salon. The novel was a finalist for the John Gardner Book Award for the best book of fiction published in 2013.She's also the author of The Understory, a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize and the William Saroyan International Prize for Writing.
Pamela is the recipient of 2015 fellowships from the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference and the Wesleyan Writers Conference, and a 2014 fellowship from the Sewanee Writers' Conference. Her short fiction, reviews, and essays have appeared in a wide variety of literary, cultural, and mainstream publications, including The New York Times, Vogue, Elle, Salon, Virginia Quarterly Review, Los Angeles Review of Books, Tin House, The Millions, Aeon, Chicago Review, Boston Review, New England Review, and the anthologies Visiting Hours and The House That Made Me.
Thank you so much for being here, Pamela!
To me, pregnancy and giving birth were the most profound states of my being. It changed everything. And I think in Eleven Hours, you’ve captured absolutely everything about its nature. Did anything take you by surprise as you were writing? Some subliminal memory?
Not really! I guess I’ve permanently forgotten whatever I’ve forgotten about my own childbirth experiences. I think it’s useful for writers to have highly selective memories, actually. What sticks is what’s has a certain heat to it, a resonance. It becomes usable as material, even if in very altered form. The birth in Eleven Hours resembles the ones I went through only glancingly. I tried to draw on my memory of what contractions felt like—which was difficult, as pain is hard to reconstruct when it’s over. But other than that, Lore’s labor is a complete invention: something I felt could happen in just that way.
This novel is a slim one, yet it’s so crushingly powerful, I don’t see how you could have made it longer. I’m wondering if writing it was in any way like childbirth?
Well, I did try to make the book longer! I was worried about it being too short to be considered a novel, yet it obviously wasn’t a short story. I tormented myself by looking up definitions of the novel: “over 40,000 words” “over 60,000 words,” and so forth. Every time I added material, I thought: Great! But within days I would have cut something else. And now whatever word count it came to—I no longer even know—seems utterly irrelevant.
How writing this book was like childbirth: The process was unpredictable, and I had to stay flexible to respond to the changes. There was pain and frustration, but the end result was a happiness.
How writing this book was unlike childbirth: It took a whole lot longer!
What was it like writing this particular book? Did it feel different from your others? To me, it was so deeply intimate and personal, that it felt like every page was somehow alive.
Thank you! The main way it felt different from the others was that I wrote it in third person. I naturally gravitate to an “I” who tells a story and has a certain voice. So third person is harder for me, but I wanted that for several reasons, including the mobility to flow seamlessly between Lore’s and Franckline’s stories and, toward the end, to widen the lens even further.
I can’t say that Eleven Hours felt more intimate and personal in the writing than the others. Each of my novels feels both personal and impersonal to me. Personal because the material has often been intimacy and the body—topics that can make me as uncomfortable as anyone else—but impersonal because I get to funnel those concerns into made-up people and situations, which is wonderful protection.
What’s obsessing you now and why?
The structure and material of my new novel, which I’m too superstitious to talk about yet. And a group of essays, circling around a connecting theme, that I’ve started to sketch out and work on. Also the 2016 presidential election. Yikes—who is not obsessed with the 2016 election and what will come after?
What question didn’t I ask that I should have?
Q: Why on earth would you want to set an entire novel during one labor and delivery?
A: Why not?
Sunday, May 22, 2016
Writing a children's book? Read Deborah Kalb's interview about THE PRESIDENT AND ME: GEORGE WASHINGTON AND THE MAGIC HAT, balancing time, bobbleheads and more
Deborah Kalb doesn't just write about books, (you want to check out her fantastic books blog),she also writes the books themselves. She is the author (with Marvin Kalb) of HAUNTING LEGACY: VIETNAM AND THE AMERICAN PRESIDENCY FROM FORD TO OBAMA and STATE OF THE UNION. Her new book is a children's book, THE PRESIDENT AND ME: GEORGE WASHINGTON AND THE MAGIC HAT and it's absolutely charming. I'm thrilled to have her here. Thank you, thank you, Deborah!
Why did you decide to write a kids book? Why now? Why this subject?
Good question! It’s a big departure from the books I’ve written or edited before. I wrote a book with my father, Marvin Kalb, called Haunting Legacy, which looked at the impact of the Vietnam War on the presidents from Ford to Obama, once the war had ended. It is a nonfiction book, for adults. I’ve also edited and written reference books for high-school age and up dealing with politics and government.
I guess the constant themes running through all of those projects and this new one are history and presidents! The President and Me: George Washington and the Magic Hat is fiction, for kids, about a present-day boy named Sam who travels back in time, thanks to a cantankerous talking hat he buys at the Mount Vernon gift shop, and meets George Washington at different times in George’s life, from his youth to his Revolutionary War service to his swearing in as the country’s first president.
But the book, which is for middle-grade readers, approximately age 7-12, also focuses on Sam’s life at home and the problems he’s facing, which include the fact that he and his longtime best friend are no longer speaking.
My son is in fifth grade, and that was part of the inspiration for writing a kids’ book.
Did you research Washington? What surprised you about it?
Yes, I read a lot of books about him, both for adults and for kids. I went to Mount Vernon. I did a lot of research online about the periods in GW’s life that I was portraying in the book. I wanted to get a feel for what the various locations looked like, so I looked up photos and watched YouTube videos depicting these places as they appear today, and asked questions of park rangers and other experts about what the scenes (such as the crossing of the Delaware) looked like back then.
I was surprised to read about how George Washington wanted to be a sailor as a teenager. We think of him, understandably enough, as a great general, but his career could have gone in another direction.
I love the illustrations that I see! Did you work together and have input and what was that process like?
I love them too! The illustrator, Rob Lunsford, is a family friend—I’ve known him and his equally wonderful wife, Kathleen, since I was in fifth grade! Rob and I worked together to figure out what parts of the story would work well as illustrations, and he used my son as the model for Sam.
What's obsessing you now and why?
A: Hmmm. I think I’m currently obsessed with how to balance my time! I really enjoy interviewing you and the other amazing authors I feature on my book blog, deborahkalbbooks.blogspot.com, and that’s often so interesting that I forget to go back to my own writing!
What question didn't I ask that I should have?
These are all great questions. I guess you could ask, Will this be a series? Yes! I’m working on book two right now, The President and Me: The John Adams Bobblehead (and yes, there is such a thing as a John Adams bobblehead—we are the proud owners of one). In this second book, Sam’s across-the-street neighbors, Ava and J.P., go to Boston for a family wedding and end up being transported back to the time of John and Abigail Adams, thanks to a talking bobblehead.
Paula Whyman talks about YOU MAY SEE A STRANGER (and you can read an excerpt), writing, sex scenes, and so much more
Crackheads, bad behavior, sexual awakening. You're gripped, right? And get a gander at that fantastic cover. Paula Whyman's astonishing new collection of stories, YOU MAY SEE A STRANGER, is genius.
Paula Whyman's writing has appeared McSweeney’s Quarterly, Ploughshares, Virginia Quarterly Review, The Washington Post, The Rumpus, and on NPR’s All Things Considered. She is a member of The MacDowell Colony Fellows Executive Committee. A music theater piece, “Transfigured Night,” based on a story in this collection, is in development with composer Scott Wheeler.
I'm thrilled to host Paula and to offer an excerpt from her book. Go and buy it RIGHT NOW.
I always want to know what sparks a book. What was haunting you that made you want to follow Miranda from teenaged years to her late forties?
I’ve always been kind of obsessed with how people change—or don’t change—over the course of a life. When I meet someone for the first time, I often try to imagine what he or she was like in high school. That’s usually the first big coming-of-age moment in our lives—and I think we come of age many times, not just one. I want to understand how a person’s identity develops, how we evolve and become who we are. When I was an editor at APA Books, I worked on a volume of research about personality change over the life span, and those questions stuck with me.
I wrote the first story in the book, “Driver’s Education,” many years before I decided I was going to write the book, which is weird considering how little I had to change about it for it to make sense as the starting place for Miranda’s story. Several years later, I realized that a few of the stories I was working on might feature the same person at different times in her life. When I understood I had been doing that unconsciously, I began to approach it more intentionally.
At the same time, I had resisted writing stories about a woman growing up in D.C. I thought that my habitat was boring. That whole “write what you know” nugget did not appeal to me. I spent a lot of time writing stories set in other places, like Thailand, or the Andes, and told from points-of-view unlike my own, a male security guard for instance. But, these stories always turned out to be about a person who was coming-of-age in some way. I finally gave in to my natural inclinations and just wrote that book. Still, I didn’t write “what I knew”—I wrote about what I was trying to understand.
What was it like writing these linked stories? Did anything surprise you?
One thing that surprised me is that I didn’t get tired of writing stories from one person’s point-of-view. Before working on this book, I’d never written the same point-of-view character twice. The novel I’m working on now is told in multiple points-of-view. I think it’s funny/strange that I wrote a book of linked stories all from one perspective, but I don’t ever conceive of novels that way. And I never thought of this book as a novel; it was always going to be linked stories. Go figure.
I love the title, You May See a Stranger, particularly because Miranda becomes known to herself by the end of the book, at least as best she can. Care to comment?
In my head, that was the title for a very long time. I like that it both refers to the protagonist—she is a stranger to herself for much of the time—but also implicates the reader (that “you”). And I like that it refers to the very romantic song, Some Enchanted Evening, even though the kind of enchantment that happens here has more to do with Miranda’s flights of fancy when she’s trying to understand the people she encounters, than it does with anything remotely “enchanting” in the usual sense.
I did try out a few different titles along the way. One of them was JUMP (after the story by that name). But when I mentioned it to a friend, she said, “Like the Van Halen song?” I like Van Halen, but did I want people to hear my book title and think of David Lee Roth in Spandex?
There’s such an incredible sense of place in the stories, where Washington D.C. becomes a microcosm of all that Miranda is struggling with. Why did you pick that particular city?
The simple answer is because I’ve lived there, or thereabouts, all my life. And yet this was also the reason that for many years, I resisted writing stories set here. I thought that in order to make the stories “new” to me, they had to happen in a place that was less familiar to me. But over the years, I changed my mind. The political environment is both a given and incidental—it affects residents’ lives in varying, often subcutaneous, ways. My parents were not involved in national politics or government work, and neither was I. DC was my playground. Growing up, my friends and I played Frisbee on the National Mall. We climbed on the equestrian statues outside the FTC building.* In college, guys liked to take their dates to park in front of the Washington Monument and make out. I guess they can’t do that anymore because of post-9/11 security, which seems a little sad.
In the book, there’s a story set during the crack epidemic of the late 1980s, when there was an atmosphere of lawlessness that was at odds with the location—here we are at home base for the laws of the land, after all, and yet there were huge and well-known open-air drug markets and 500 murders in a year. That dichotomy interests me.
There’s something I call the never-ending story, where you close a book and you are still haunted by the characters and wondering what they are going to do next, if they will be okay, and I felt that finishing YOU MAY SEE A STRANGER. Do you also feel haunted by Miranda, and do you think she’ll manage through her later years?
I’m glad to hear you’re wondering about that! The answer is, I don’t know. Perhaps at some point I’ll be thinking about your question, and I’ll decide I want to explore what happens later, the way I came to write these stories in the first place, years after a group of students asked me what happens to the girl in “Driver’s Education.” Or maybe it’s better to leave Miranda at this moment in time. I did write another Miranda story that was published in McSweeney’s Quarterly. It takes place approximately ten years after the book ends, and it ends with Miranda in an ambiguous position. I think she’ll be okay, though. I became fond of her while working on these stories. I feel like I made all of these bad things happen to her, you know, made her into a fictional screw-up, and it’s time to cut her a break. So, yes, I’ve decided, she’s going to be okay.
What’s obsessing you now and why?
I’m fixated on the many sources of anxiety we have to deal with these days, and how different people adjust to these circumstances. I have kids, so I’m anxious about anything and everything that they might have to face someday, on top of the general anxieties about other things I have little control over, like climate change, terrorism, world events, mass extinctions, mosquitoes, Ebola, fracking—shall I continue? This is something that has always occupied me, and I think the way it comes out in my fiction has perhaps changed over time. Connected with this, I’m interested in the necessity for denial in order to live life, and the harm that denial does when misapplied, or over-applied. I’m also interesting in events that trigger changes and reversals for people—transition points. My next book, a novel, is also set in and around DC. It involves an act of violence and the effects on two families. And there’s humor, as always, to take the edge off.
What question didn’t I ask that I should have?
“What took you so long?” No, no--I’m really glad you didn’t ask me that! But I will answer it anyway. It would be an easy out for me to say, well, I have kids, and my kids are now teens, and I was overseeing most household stuff and most kid stuff, etc. That is absolutely true. Writing a book was a slow process in part because of the headspace required as a mother and a house “manager.” But the main reason I came to write this book later than I would have hoped is more interesting than that, I think. I spent many years avoiding writing a story collection. Many of the earlier stories I wrote were written while I was working on novels. I kept telling myself my first book HAD to be a novel. I wrote a novel for my MFA thesis. I wrote another draft novel after that (it’s in a drawer). But when I gave myself permission to write with a little more emotional honesty, to get a bit closer to the bone, I realized that at least in that moment, I wanted to write stories, and I needed to let myself do that. And what did I do? I wrote a linked story collection with a novelistic arc. So I suppose it was the right decision. I just wish I’d figured it out a little sooner!
Now, it’s as if I got it out of my system, and I’m working happily on a novel.
*Here’s a link with a photo—the statues are called “Man Controlling Trade.”
Excerpt from DROSOPHILA
Mr. Pierson, my twelfth-grade biology teacher, is unmarried and has blond hair growing on his knuckles. We used to say hair on the knuckles was a sign of mental retardation, but my mother made me stop saying that a long time ago, because of my sister. Donna has no hair on her knuckles, but that never stopped the other kids from telling me my sister’s a retard. My mother said to tell them it takes one to know one.
My sister is not a retard; she’s a fruit fly, Drosophila melanogaster. I watch the wingless one that’s shuffling around on the food supply inside the Mason jar, its toes dipped in a loam of rotting pear, lemon rind, souped banana. If I’m to be my sister’s keeper, best to keep her in a Mason jar. I can watch her if I want, and I can put her on a shelf and go away whenever I like.
When I was younger and my friends came to visit, my mother would say, “Include your sister,” but Donna didn’t wait for an invitation. She followed me from room to room, a ghost in white tennis socks with pink puff balls at the heels and a nightgown she wore all day if she didn’t go out. On the front of the gown was a picture of the yellow-haired specter of Cinderella, peeling off in flakes like lead paint. Now that Donna’s twenty-two, it’s hard to find a Cinderella nightgown that fits her, so our mother sends away in the mail for a decal and irons it on herself. Donna has a burn on her thigh from years ago when she tugged on the iron’s cord. I was too young to remember.
Heat-trapped pheromones mean the smell in the jar is equal parts fruit and spunk, with a hint of vanilla, or maybe that’s a scent reference to the memory of my mother’s rice pudding from last night’s dinner, blanaxed by the lingering taste of my boyfriend, Victor. I just spent a half hour of my free period with Victor, inside the shed where they keep outdoor gym equipment—tackle dummies and lacrosse sticks, sod and leather and damp athlete-armpit. It was unseasonably cold, and I’d forgotten my gloves, so he warmed my hands under his sweatshirt first. I’ve never actually put his dick in my mouth, but I was curious and licked my fingers after he came. He didn’t see me do it.
To prepare the female for copulation, the male D. melanogaster licks the female’s genitalia. I think about suggesting this to Victor, but right now, I’m only that bold in my mind. We’re both virgins, and we’re not in a hurry to change that.
D. melanogaster is the perfect creature for genetic analysis. It turns out that we’re half fruit fly—the nonflying half, the half that thinks about food and sex and sex and food. In my jar, eggs are constantly hatching. Each female lays up to one hundred eggs in a day, and the eggs hatch in twelve hours. The larvae eat and molt, eat and molt, and then they pupate for a few days before emerging as adults. One of my assignments is to produce grids called Punnett squares that predict the genetic make-up of offspring of selected flies in my jar.
The genes of the fruit fly were named whimsically, according to their functions, as if the scientists felt like playing a practical joke. There is, for instance, a gene that will result in a fruit fly that’s born without a heart. It’s called Tin Man. There are three genes whose proportionate presence determine a fly’s sex: One is called Sisterless; another is Sex-Lethal; the third is Deadpan. They sound like the names of punk bands: Deadpan, opening for the Sex Pistols. Sisterless, double-bill with Black Flag. I draw Punnett squares demonstrating how these three genes interact. As a female fruit fly, I would be Sisterless. And so would my sister, in case it’s not already confusing enough. When the Sex-Lethal gene is minimized, the fruit flies are male.
I should warn Victor that I’m Sex-Lethal, but when we’re together my mouth is busy with his, his early mustache abrades the skin above my lip, and my hands are caught up in his soft curly hair. Everything about him is going from soft to hard, not only his dick, but his arms, his thighs. Not his eyes, though. His eyes stay soft when he looks at me.
You May See a Stranger: Stories. Used with the permission of the publisher, Northwestern University Press. Copyright © 2016 by Paula Whyman.
Kate O'Connor Morris (daughter) and Mary Morris (mother) talk about writing, working together, paperbacks, movies, 21 DAYS UNDER THE SKY, THE JAZZ PALACE and more
Many years ago I picked up a novel THE WAITING ROOM by Mary Morris and fell in love with it. It took me years to track down Mary, through her husband Larry, and we became the best of buddies. And what inspires me even more is how close Mary is to her daughter Kate. Of course, I wanted to interview both of them. Kate is a filmmaker and the writer of 21 DAYS UNDER THE SKY. Mary is the critically acclaimed award-winning author of the short story collections Vanishing Animals, The Bus of Dreams, and The Lifeguard Stories; travel memoirs, including the acclaimed Nothing to Declare: Memoirs of a Woman Traveling Alone, Wall to Wall: from Beijing to Berlin by Rail, and Angels & Aliens: A Journey West. And she's the author of the novels The Waiting Room, The Night Sky(formerly published as A Mother’s Love) and House Arrest.
I couldn't be happier to have these two amazing women here. Thank you Mary and Kate!
Mary, your critically acclaimed novel THE JAZZ PALACE is now in paperback and I’m wondering if you perceive any difference in the whole process or if you feel differently about the paperback than the hardback?
I like the new look of the paperback a lot. It’s bright and pops out. It’s also more youthful. I loved the distinctive look of the hardcover as well, but I feel that this one can reach a wider and younger audience. Also I think the paperback looks great for book clubs and course adaptations. And now that the book has won an award I’m hoping for more of that to come.
Mary, I so admire that you didn’t know that much about jazz when you began to write this book, and yet you crafted a novel that is so authentic, so rich with character and life, that also actually written like jazz, that jazz experts have praised its authenticity. Did you ever have doubts when you were writing?
M: I used to joke that I suppose I could have found an easier topic to write about than jazz - like quantum physics. In fact the book I'm working on now has a lot in it about astronomy and trust me that is so much easier to write about than jazz. So the answer is yes I was often filled with doubts. As you know, the novel took me almost two decades to write and along the way I was so sure It would never work out and that basically during that time I immersed myself in the culture of jazz. I actually took four years of jazz piano to try and understand how musicians work but all I learned to do was play Blue Monk.
Kate, I loved your film 21 Days Under The Sky, which is about four motorcycle guys driving down the Lincoln Highway. It’s so specific, and so hauntingly shot, and the narration, which you wrote, reminds me so much of Jack Kerouac. So first, off, how did you first conceive of this project?
K: It’s funny everyone keeps telling me that the narration is very Hunter, Bukowski, Kerouac. I very much am inspired by that generation of writers, but it’s just how my brain puts things down on paper. The project itself fell in my lap very haphazardly and accidentally and I just kind of went with it. Michael, the genius director and cinematographer, and I had met in passing at a friend’s studio and he told me he wanted to do this trip. Michael is a classic dirt bag biker and I knew if I seemed interested he wouldn’t consider me for the gig. So I shrugged him off. Eight months later I was in New York and got the call to come back to Los Angeles, he needed a writer and was going to put me on a Harley, “because how else can you write about the American Dream?”. I got on a plane, got my driver’s license. Three weeks later I was on the road with a bunch of dirty men, one pair of pants, and no tent. Kate, what came first, the filming or the narration? What was the process like?
K: I guess it was a bit of both. I was on the ride itself so a lot of the filming happened while I was sitting in a ditch, or a casino somewhere writing. The film lost funding for about a year, so during that time period I had the luxury of time to think everything through. The second half of the movie I really finished a year after we got back from the ride. The process was a disaster and also very fun. I’d do it one more time.
Kate, what surprised you, and why? And do you ride motorcycles yourself? Do you want to?
K: Everything surprised me. I do ride, and I rode a Harley 48 across country with the guys for the documentary. I’d never been on a bike that big, and I’d never ridden more than 75 miles in a day. The night before we left for a 3800mi ride I picked up a bike in Carson, California, and in the morning I cried into my helmet and rode 350 miles up the notorious Highway 1 to meet the bikers in Salinas. I was ready for the worst, but the thing that surprised me the most, I suppose, was that nothing really bad ever happened. I was the only girl on the crew and we spent time with an outlaw bike club, El Forastero, and in a bunch of random towns. Often I got lost and was alone on the road. Everyone was wonderful and helpful to me. Even the Marines that asked me to show them my tits at a gas station in Eureka, NV.
Kate and Mary, I know you’ve been working on a script together. What is that like? What differences do each of you bring to the table? What similarities? What has that process been like for your work in general--and your mother/daughter relationship?
M: I've found the process of working together as mother/daughter surprisingly smooth. Our biggest problems have to do with when we meet and how often. Kate's a night owl; I'm not. I'm more a sit-down and let's get it done kind of person. Kate's life is more in flux as it should be at her age. I think that my strength is I’m good with plot and pacing. She’s very good at pushing the material and taking risks I probably wouldn’t take. For example in our script she wants to kill the dog. I can’t kill the dog. Yet.
K: She just said it all. She’s the professional, I’m the rascal, and we have a really good time together.
M: I’m a rascal, too. We did spend three days holed up in a cabin in the woods with three dogs, snowshoeing and working on the scripts and watching thrillers. The script is a thriller, by the way.
K: We couldn’t get past page fifty. But we got a great set-up. We’ve storyboarded it, and we know where it’s going…for now.
What’s obsessing both of you now and why?
M: The sky, the universe, the stars, neurology, and the screenplay we need to finish.
K: Glacier National Park, living out of a van, the corn I am growing out of an old Jacuzzi, seeing a wolf being a wolf, and the screenplay we’re going to finish.
What question didn’t I ask that I should have?
M: What other projects do you guys have on deck?
K: And would we work together again?
M + K: No comment.
The fabulous Ann Leary talks about THE CHILDREN, the weirdness of weddings, being reclusive, writing, her movie (!) and so much more
I first met Ann Leary at Japonica restaurant in Union Square. We came for lunch and stayed for the stories we were telling--FOUR HOURS OF THEM. I had the best time ever. So besides loving Ann, I love her work and I'm thrilled to be celebrating THE CHILDREN. It already has a starred Kirkus, which is notoriously difficult to get, (They call it "deeply satisfying...with shards of dark humor..) and she's going to be reading this Tuesday at the Barnes and Noble on East 86th! (I will be at the JBC auditions otherwise I would be there).
She's the author of An Innocent, A Broad; Scenes From a Marriage, and The Good House, and all are wonderful. And so is she.
Thanks, Ann for gracing my blog!
Of course, I want to know, what sparked this novel? What drove you to write it? And how did it change from what you originally envisioned to what it became?
I wanted to write about the often-complicated relationships that develop between siblings, stepsiblings and parents in blended families. My parents divorced in the 1970s. I don’t know if it’s statistically true, but I think the people of my parent’s generation engaged in a sort of unprecedented mass uncoupling. By the time I got to college, I had very few friends whose parents weren’t divorced. So I knew many who shared my experience of straddling two nests, but having no real home after a divorce. After my parents remarried, my mother lived in her husband’s house. When I came home from college, I was a guest there. My father lived in another state, with his wife – a woman I barely knew, and her young children. There, too, I was a guest. My parents had divided loyalties between their new spouses, their biological children and their stepchildren. This was difficult for everybody.
I remember visiting my father when I was a teen and being surprised at the person he was in his new family, which was very different than the one he had been in our family. His stepsons were younger than we were, and they really loved my dad. They thought he was hilarious and teased him good-naturedly. They had goofy nicknames for him, and he took no offense. He got such a kick out of them. My siblings and I - his biological kids - had a much more fraught, uneasy, formal relationship with him. At the same time, my younger sister, who lived at home with my mother and stepfather for a while, had a very good relationship with our stepfather. They just adored each other; they had a fun, easy-going rapport. He seemed to be a little less relaxed with his own kids. Now, as an adult, I recognize that the fathers probably had some guilt about their own kids and worried about the type of people they would become. They didn’t have this burden with their stepchildren; they were able to just enjoy them for who they were. If the stepchildren grew up to become sociopaths, addicts or career criminals, it wasn’t really a reflection on them. Their own children, though, had better watch their step, they had the same last name, the same genes. In some ways this worked out, as we all turned out okay. Not one of us is a career criminal. And now, because of death and divorce, I’m no longer related to any of the people who were once my stepsiblings. But I do see them on occasion and it’s so interesting to me the way that we all experienced our families in such different ways. I know this is also true of families whose parents stayed married. Everyone who grows up with a sibling, experiences the family from a unique perspective, but we each tend to assume that our siblings experienced the family in exactly the same way we did.
I think that the setting in any novel is as important as the characters. The place has to be as authentic as the characters, so I like to write about places where I’ve lived and the characters are drawn from the types of people who live in those places. My last novel, THE GOOD HOUSE, was set on Boston’s north shore, where I lived as a teen. THE CHILDREN is set in northwestern Connecticut, which is still New England, but a very different New England. The novel is set on a lake similar to one near our home, where we’ve lived for the past eighteen years. There is a particular breed of New England WASP – the good old-fashioned, blue-blooded Yankee – that just never ceases to fascinate me and there are still quite a few around here. So I decided that the parents in THE CHILDREN, Whit and Joan Whitman, would be this type.
And they are a “type.” The type who have many millions in old stock-holdings, but drive ancient, rusty station wagons and delight in clipping coupons out of the Sunday papers to save a few cents. They often live in rambling “cottages” (with 8 or more bedrooms and staff quarters) that were built by their ancestors, but have been rather let go over the years. The kitchens have failing appliances that were installed in the 1970s. There’s a coffee table in the living room that has deep gouges made by the teeth of a puppy who grew old and died decades ago. You’ll find antique beads that belonged to a flapper aunt in one bedroom, a 1960s lava lamp in another. A macramé plant holder containing a dead fern hangs in the library. These are people who only turn the thermostats up high enough to keep the pipes from freezing and wouldn’t dream of installing central air-conditioning; who thrill at finding a penny on the street; who still bemoan a loan of 12 dollars to a school friend in the 1960s, who – well, why go on? They’re, as I said, a “type.” I really enjoyed immersing myself in the eccentric Whitman/Maynard family while writing this book.
Being sort of reclusive myself, I loved the portrait of Charlotte and her other Internet life. Where did that come from? Are you reclusive at all? (You don't seem that way)
That’s funny, because you don’t seem reclusive, either, which is one of the things I was interested in exploring in this book. I think of you as a good friend that I’ve known for years. Yet, we’ve only met in real life a few times. We’re mostly online friends. I was interested in exploring the relatively new social dynamic that has been created by the Internet. We all think we see each other all the time. If somebody is a total recluse, as Charlotte is, most people are entirely unaware of it, because they see her on social media or chat with her online.
Charlotte’s reclusiveness did come partially from my own experiences. My social life has, in recent years, been conducted primarily on Facebook and Twitter. I write every day, so I’m on the computer a lot. I spend most of my time in Connecticut on our property. We live in a small town with no shops, one cozy little restaurant. We still don’t have cell-service in our area. I spend most of my time at home with my husband and our animals, which, for me, is heaven. I do like to see people in our community and in New York, but in recent years, when I go to social events, I’ve found that it sometimes takes me days to recover. I tend to overcompensate for my social anxiety by being very “on” when I see people face-to-face. Afterwards, I worry that what I considered “on,” might have been perceived by others as a state of full-blown mania. So, I ruminate a lot after socializing. “Why did I say that?” What must she have thought?” “Was that woman backing away from me because she didn’t get how funny my story about my noncancerous mole was? Or is she just a backer-upper type?” “Was that man offended when I made the joke about all the catheter commercials? What if he uses one? Why did I have to say that?”
You know, that kind of thing. It’s exhausting.
Charlotte’s reclusiveness is slightly more pathological; she really has become a shut-in. And she has an alternate persona on the Internet. Online, she’s married and has a wildly successful mommy blog. She’s snarky and fun and has loads of friends. In real life, she’s a childless 29-year-old who spends most of her time in the attic of her mother’s home. There was a trauma that happened to the children in this family and the novel is about how each carries the emotional scars caused by that incident, even now, when they are adults. They never talk about the thing that was so disruptive. Because, they’re WASPs, they never really talk about unpleasant things at all, so everything seems very pleasant, until it becomes very unpleasant.
Why do you think weddings always bring out secrets, surprise, and sometimes the worst in people?
You know, I really don’t like weddings. I’m told that my own wedding was wonderful but I was in sort of a dissociative state throughout. It made me very anxious – not the part about being married, but the whole ceremony and reception. Everybody was staring at us. This was a relatively casual wedding in my mother’s backyard, but I was a nervous wreck. Part of it was just my social anxiety, but part of it was the discord created by my parents divorce, which had happened many years prior. There were still hurt feelings, anger between the parents about money. But everybody had to look so happy.
In THE CHILDREN, I drew on my own experiences to a certain extent. A wedding is supposed to be a time of happiness and celebration. If there are old spites, anger and rifts in the family, of course they will start making their way to the surface, because everybody is forced to participate in the planning. Because it’s supposed to be a happy time, there is this strained civility in the days and weeks leading up to the wedding. You’re picking out flowers, but everybody’s shooting daggers.
So, your last genius novel, The Good House is going to be a movie with Robert DeNiro and Meryl Streep—with Michael Cunningham adapting the book into a script. Do you wake up every morning and have to reconvince yourself that this is indeed true? And are you getting a cameo?
You’re so sweet! Yes, that was very exciting when they announced the two leads! It’s still in development, they’re ironing out the script. I’ve heard they might start production this spring, but we shall see. There are so many moving parts involved in filmmaking. That’s why I love writing books, you really don’t have to worry that the main character has two other projects that they’ve committed to.
What’s obsessing you now and why?
Where do I begin? I’m very obsessive. Fortunately, I am currently obsessed with this new novel that I’m writing. I can’t say much about it except that it’s loosely based on my grandmother and her real-life involvement with a very disturbing and corrupt organization in the 1920s.
What question didn’t I ask that I should have?
You forgot to ask when we can meet up for sushi again! X
Tuesday, May 17, 2016
Violence. Girl Friendship. Damning Beauty. The amazing Robin Wasserman talks about her adult debut, GIRLS ON FIRE, obsessions, split brain writing, and so much more
Every once in a while, you read a book and then you realize you are actually gripping the pages in admiration. That's how I felt reading Robin Wasserman's extraordinary novel GIRLS ON FIRE. (Don't forget to check out her website for tour info and an excerpt!) You want to hear her speak!) Don't believe me or all the buzz surrounding Robin and her book? Take a gander below:
One of the most anticipated reads of 2016 according to Flavorwire and BookRiot
A Publishers Lunch Buzz Book
A BookPage Woman to Watch in 2016
A Top 2016 Debut to watch from Elle UK, The Irish times, and Red Online,
“A dark, propulsive fever-dream of youth and friendship….all I could do was keep reading, relentlessly enthralled by the heat-seeking missile of Robin Wasserman’s fearless imagination.” –Leslie Jamison, author of The Empathy Exams
“A book so wonderful, so terrible, so nightmarishly compelling that I hardly knew what to say when I finished reading it. Has a title ever been truer? The reader comes away singed.” —Kelly Link
“Like lightning in a bottle…seldom do you find a novel that so transports you to the dark, febrile terrain of adolescence….[Girls on Fire is a] captivating, terrifying novel, and one you won’t forget.” –Megan Abbott, author of The Fever
“Wasserman’s prose is a spell cast over the reader, shockingly full of the terror of truth….Wasserman is a brilliant writer, and Girls on Fire is a gorgeous gift of a novel.” —Laura Kasischke, author of Mind of Winter
"Next we have Robin Wasserman's Girls on Fire, which, with its narrative witchcraft, conjures up the ghost of the decade to full effect."--Flavorwire's 50 Signs of Hope for Culture in 2016
"Robin Wasserman’s novel Girls on Fire will utterly terrify you — in the best way possible."--Buzzfeed's 19 Incredible New Books You Need to Read this Spring
Robin's work has also appeared in Tin House, The New York Times, TheAtlantic.com, and The LA Review of Books. her YA books s include The Waking Dark, The Book of Blood and Shadow, and the Seven Deadly Sins series, which was adapted into a television miniseries. AND, you can read an excerpt of Girls on Fire here.
I'm so jazzed to have Robin here! Thank you, thank you, Robin
I always feel that writers are somehow haunted into writing a particular novel. Were you? And if so, what was your ghost?
I love this theory, and a nagging ghost makes as much sense as any other explanation of where ideas come from. I’m haunted by the spectres of friends past: A long string of wild girls who I imagined would be, if not my soulmate, then my salvation, escape from a life of mundane desperation. My first best friend, who chose me when we were eight and ditched me cold when we were twelve, set the pattern: She was exuberant, stubborn, willful, bossy, and seemed—at least to my shy, rule-following eye—exhilaratingly herself. I spent my childhood and teen years chasing after this feeling, the joy and relief of being attached to someone who seemed prepared to set the world on fire, the permission it granted me to be both more and less myself. All these years later, I’ve been fascinated by the dynamics of that kind of friendship: Why was I so eager to play sidekick? And, more mystifyingly, what did all those wild girls get from letting me tag along? What was it about me that I still couldn’t see for myself? Those are the questions that first sparked Girls on Fire, and I guess you could say the novel is my effort to finally exorcise the ghost.
This is your first novel for adults, yet so many YA novels are read by adults, too, that I'm often perplexed at the difference. Did it feel different for you writing Girls on Fire? Did anything surprise you about it?
With my YA books, I never sat down at the computer thinking explicitly about writing for teenagers, or about audience at all (which may speak more to my narcissism than my craft, I suppose). I just wrote the stories I wanted to tell, in the language that seemed right. Girls on Fire is set in the early ‘90s, the time period of my own teen years, which lends it a more retrospective feel than I’ve allowed myself in YA—and I’ll admit that it was deeply pleasurable to revel in the culture and aesthetic of the grunge eras (not to mention doing the “research,” eg re-watching Reality Bites and Singles more times than I’ll admit here.) But I tackled the initial draft the same way I had any other book, ignoring audience in favor of story, just getting the characters and the language down on the page without worrying about who would publish it or how. I think the shift to “adult” fiction, whatever that might mean, happened in later drafts, as I allowed myself to expand to expand the story in directions that I wouldn’t necessarily have been inclined to take in a YA novel. (Caveat: That’s not to say I couldn’t have, or that other YA writers haven’t, just that for me, this was the excuse I needed to attack the story in an unfamiliar way.)
The biggest difference involved allowing myself to write more about the adult characters, specifically the mothers. While not a huge part of the book, page-count-wise, these women—and the question of girlhood transformed into motherhood, of the generation gap and efforts to cross it—became a really fundamental element for me. I started thinking of the novel as not just a passionate friendship romance between three girls, but an exploration of girlhood itself. It turned out that after a decade of writing for teenagers, I had quite a bit I desperately wanted to say about them, and I poured all of that into this book. It feels like putting the period on a very, very long sentence.
Violence, loneliness, repair, secrets--that is all part of girlhood friendships--and I think they somehow mark us through the rest of our lives. Do you agree?
Speaking as someone who, as an adult, has written about almost nothing but the violence, loneliness, repair, and secrets of girlhood friendship, I’d better agree! I will admit, I used to be much more confident about the “rest of our lives” thing, but I’ve discovered that as I make my way through my thirties, my teen years are starting to feel further away than ever before. I mean, obviously they are, chronologically—but they also feel emotionally less relevant, as I finally get it through my thick head that the image I formed of myself at age 13 (awkward, weird, blunt, frizzy-haired, booksmart but people-clueless) isn’t necessarily accurate anymore. I feel less beholden to the mistakes I made and the things that happened to me, less inclined to say, “I’m the kind of girl who _______” based on choices I haven’t made for the last fifteen years.
That said, whoever I am now and whoever I become, it’s because of those early days: The people who hurt me, the people I loved, the dreams I had for myself. As evidenced by the fact that I’m clearly still holding a grudge against the friend who dumped me in sixth grade! I don’t really remember what I made for dinner last night, but I remember viscerally where I was on the playground when I overheard her telling someone I wasn’t her best friend—I’m never going to forget how that felt, and for better and worse, some part of me is always going to be that girl, feeling abandoned and alone.
Tell us what kind of writer you are. Do you map things out? Follow your pesky muse? Do you have routines and charms that urge you along? Your language is so diamond gorgeous that I wonder which comes first for you, the voice or the story? Or do they occur at the same time!
First off, thank you so much. “Diamond gorgeous” is such a lovely compliment I’m tempted to tattoo it across my forehead. (I’m trying to be less self-deprecating, and that would definitely be a good start…)
If I have a muse, he or she should speak up, because we’ve got some things to discuss. Specifically, why he or she isn’t a little speedier on the genius-idea-manufacturing front. Let’s step it up, shall we? Why should I be the one doing all the work?
For me, coming up with ideas is brute force labor, and it’s partly because the story always comes first. I’ve long wished I could be one of those writers who just starts out with an image, or the sense of a character, and wanders her way leisurely down the narrative’s garden path. But for whatever reason, that’s never worked for me. I have a million documents on my computer with a first paragraph or first sentence—some phrasing or voice that’s captured me and seems violently promising—but that’s it. A few sentences, the ghost of a piece, and nothing more. I never return to them, I’m never forced to push past the beginning, because they’re just words that were rattling around in my head. To keep going, I need them to be attached to a story, something I feel the impetus to tell.
I have kind of a split-brained process—on one side, I’ll start gravitating toward a particular kind of character, while on the other side, I’ll start circling around a nebulous kind of plot, and eventually—hopefully—there’s some alchemical spark when the two collide, and that’s when I know I’ve got something. The voice comes last. I don’t outline fiction, but I do spend a lot of time thinking through characters and making notes on scenes I want to write and emotional throughlines I want to explore, etc, before I actually sit down to page one. (Semi-related: I’m very good at procrastination.) That’s when I start worrying about the voice—it’s a little superstitious, but I don’t like typing the first sentence until I’ve already perfected it in my head, and, along with it, the sound of the story. So by the time I start writing for real, the voice tends to be fully formed.
What's obsessing you now and why?
One of the things I wanted to explore in Girls on Fire was the concept of obsession, largely because it’s something I’ve never thought myself particularly capable of. I’m too much of a dilettante. But here’s a sample of what’s crowding my brain right now:
The Longform podcast (I’ve always been too nervous to do much journalism myself; the podcast lets me live vicariously). The dark net. Moral panics about female adolescent sexuality. The Hamilton soundtrack. The democratic primary. Paris. The subprime mortgage crisis. Books about 1970s ballet. Girls. The neuroscience and philosophy of mental imagery. Creationist dinosaur hunters. Child stars. The photo-taking impairment effect. Nostalgia. Toast.
What question didn't I ask that I should have?
Here’s a ridiculously un-original suggestion: What am I reading right now? I usually hate this question, because either my mind suddenly goes blank or I’m reading something thoroughly underwhelming—or I expend way too much energy trying to come up with an answer that will somehow encompass everything about my literary soul (or, less purely, boost whatever friend of mine has a new book out). But on this particular day, I just happen to have finished the most remarkable book, and I desperately want the rest of the world to know about it: The Association of Small Bombs, by Karan Mahajan. This novel, which plays out the consequences of a marketplace explosion for both the victims and the perpetrators—although that’s such a reductive synopsis it doesn’t even begin to get at what Mahajan is doing—starts out really good and gets better. Then it gets astounding. This is one of those books that makes me want to be more ambitious in my own writing—that makes me remember exactly what a powerful story can do. READ IT.