Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Mark Wisniewski talks about his brilliant new novel WATCH ME GO, and so much more









With a stellar quote from Salman Rushdie himself, Watch Me Go, by Mark Wisniewski, is as tense as it is disturbing. His other works include Show Up, Look Good, and Confessions of a Polish used Car Salesman. He's also the author of the collection of short stories, All Weekend With the Lights On. (Great titles, right?) I'm thrilled to have Mark here. Thank you, Mark.   

What sparked the writing of Watch Me Go? What idea was haunting you that pushed you forwards?

The notion that someone like Deesh could simply be trying to survive economically--then become imprisoned and hated because his friendships and efforts to merely earn rent backfired--struck me as the underpinning of a potentially tense, suspenseful, and even horror-laden novel. Back when I was in academia, I experienced a chain of events along those lines. A situation like that can, despite your best intentions, keep getting worse, and the number of wise choices available to you keeps diminishing while the stress keeps building. And at some point you know you're in for hell yet you still hope--but trying to fight back or leave simply makes matters worse. In Deesh's case, he is black, and some people out there will always hate him because he's black, and that's an imprisonment he'll never escape--and that horrifies me.

The novel is just gorgeously written, and is being called a literary crime novel--which I love, because it elevates the genre, or perhaps, creates a brand new one. Can you talk about thi
s?

Watch Me Go
took twenty-five years to write and publish, so there were countless drafts and revisions, so in theory--mathematically speaking--it should be five times as polished as a novel that took five years? And yes, that math does assume an oversimplification of how writing works, but there's also a certain logic there, no? Anyway Deesh's and Jan's diction is fairly off-the-street, which some readers would call "anti-literary"--so I'm glad you found some beauty there--that is, in the way they talk.

So much of Watch Me Go is about forgiveness, fate, race and justice. I wonder if you can talk a bit about this, as well.


I didn't want only to show the horrors of racial and economic injustice. Certainly I wanted to show those horrors--because I think people should quit denying that America's suffered significant backsliding when it comes to race and justice. But I also wanted to show that maybe there's something you and I could do to fight those horrors today. In my mind, WMG says we could do what Jan and Deesh (the two narrators) did: listen well, and then, when someone is listening to us, tell our truths as candidly and relevantly as possible.

What kind of writer are you? Do you have rituals? Do you have to drink ten gallons of coffee or have music playing? Do you outline?


I'm a binge-writer. It's either up all night writing or off at the racetrack playing. And writing requires that I drink much coffee. And I play music, often loudly. Often the same song or CD over and over. And yes I do outline, am a big believer in outlines, but not necessarily from the very beginning. At the beginning, particularly when the narration's in the first person, I write freely to help myself hear a narrative voice.

What’s obsessing you now and why?


My next novel. Because for a while there, it was just something Penguin Putnam wanted me to do--but now it's one of those stories in me I need to get out.

What question didn’t I ask that I should have?


Who's my long shot in today's 9th at Aqueduct?

Jane Hawley talks about The Suitcases of San Leon, how she writes, why it's great to live with another writer, and so much more







Jane Hawley is a hoot. I met her through my good Facebook friend, Nick Belardes, and quickly learned that anyone Nick adores, I'll adore, too. She's currently pursuing an MFA in Fiction at Texas State University, where she serves as the managing editor of Front Porch Journal. Her nonfiction has been published in both The Pinch and Memoir Journal. “The Suitcases of San Léon” is her first published work of fiction, and it's extraordinary. I'm so happy to host Jane here!

So tell us about your story in Day One--and what does it feel like to see it in there?
In “The Suitcases of San Léon,” an empty bus pulls into the depot station. As the workers clean the bus, they find evidence of the passengers’ presence—the urine-soaked seats, the human remains, and the luggage that, along with the passengers themselves, will never make it to their final destinations. The workers understand that the disappearance of the travelers is linked to the drug cartels. The men are tasked with deciding what to do with the suitcases and the moral implications of protecting themselves through silence or risking their lives to speak up as witnesses to the violence. It developed out of an article I read nearly four years ago about a massacre of forty immigrants who were pulled off a bus on Mexico’s Federal Highway 101. People only noticed something had happened once their suitcases started piling up in stations around Tamaulipas.

I’m so thrilled to have my work appear in Day One and now as a self-titled Kindle Single. It’s difficult to make a living as a writer and Day One is one of the best paying magazines out there for emerging writers. The editor, Carmen Johnson, was wonderful at working with me to strike balance between my vision for the piece as an author and how readers would receive the story. I also love the cover design by Michael Hirshon. It’s really incredible to see how an artist visually translates the emotions of your story.

What kind of writer are you? Do you outline things out messily, or not at all? Do you believe in the Muse?

I usually have an image or a character and a distinctive setting in mind when I start a story, but I have no idea what’s going to actually happen so I don’t outline plot until I’ve already written about half of the story. My best work usually comes from asking myself a moral or existential question in conjunction with the images I’m thinking about—that usually provides enough of an engine to the story to propel the writing forward. I do believe in the Muse, but I don’t believe she’s fickle. She’s always there somewhere inside me, though there are times when she speaks more softly so I have to tell myself to clear out some mental space to hear her when I’ve let daily anxieties take over my mind. I’m most creative when I’m alone, or at least when no one is talking to or around me. I guess you could say silence is my muse more than anything else.

What's obsessing you now and why?

I’m not supposed to be obsessed about anything right now other than my novel, but I’m already thinking about multiple story ideas to work on next so I’ve been allowing myself to do a tiny bit of research about the young Russian women fighter pilots who chased the Germans back to Berlin during WWII. They were called the “Night Witches” because their planes were old crop dusters that made a whooshing noise that reminded the Germans of a witch’s broomstick flying overhead. I also read some of Wendy Lower’s recently released Hitler’s Furies: German Women in the Nazi Killing Fields, which made me think about what women’s roles have been regarding violence and war both in the past and the present and how those roles have been possibly underrepresented in literary fiction.

Your story is so incredibly haunting that I wanted to know what it was like for you during the writing. Was there a moment, when everything changed or surprised you?

I had to think about how to tell the story I wanted to tell for a long time. I read a newspaper article years ago about the San Fernando massacres that took place that began with an image of the unclaimed suitcases piled up at bus depots across Mexico. I knew immediately that I wanted to write something about these suitcases. Who did they belong to? What happened to their owners? What happened to the suitcases themselves? I wanted to thread this mystery throughout the story, but I also wanted to meditate on how a community under extreme pressure responds to violence. That’s why I decided to write in the first person plural ‘we’ voice of the bus depot workers.  It’s a less common point of view and also one that I’ve always loved to read because there’s automatically a communal aspect built into the story. It was choosing this point of view that changed the story for me. The tone became more elegiac and guilty. The focus of the story shifted from the fear of the cartels to the moral implications of trying to maintain the routines of your daily life when there are so many people dying around you.

You're partners with another writer--do you trade pages, give advice? What's that like?

I’ve met so many writers who vehemently claim that they could never be in a relationship with another writer but then complain about how their partner never truly appreciates their work or—gasp!—doesn’t even like reading. Having a partner who’s another writer can be difficult—we both get moody or anxious or argue with each other or ignore the housework, and our financial situation can be precarious because we’re both writers. However, I’ve never met someone I can more deeply connect with on an emotional, intellectual, and artistic level. He respects my artistic process and knows how important writing is to me and I do the same for him. We share all of our work and often read to each other or discuss writing problems on a daily basis. He’s more open to sharing early drafts and letting me make suggestions early on in the process. I have a harder time letting mine go until I feel like I’ve incubated the story for long enough. He’s also a more prolific writer than I am so he’s constantly motivating me to write. I think I’m a better writer and person because of him and I hope he could say the same about me.

What question didn't I ask that I should be mortified that I didn't?

You can order “The Suitcases of San Léon” (for only $1) from Amazon here: http://amzn.to/1L14GwX.

You don’t need a Kindle to read the story, just a Kindle app that you can get on your phone or tablet (for either iPhone or Android). Instructions are available for Android here: http://amzn.to/1umoTmu. And for Apple products here: http://amzn.to/1J9f9EM.


Emma Hooper talks about Etta and Otto and Russell and James, and so much more






Not only has Emma Hooper written a sparklingly original novel, but she is also a musician who performs as a solo artist in the hilariously named Waitress for the Bees. Her novel, Etta and Otto and Russell and James is a dazzler, and I'm honored to host her here.
A musician, Emma performs as the solo artist Waitress for the Bees and plays with a number of bands - See more at: http://authors.simonandschuster.com/Emma-Hooper/426707805#sthash.NELfqMXW.dpuf
A musician, Emma performs as the solo artist Waitress for the Bees and plays with a number of bands - See more at: http://authors.simonandschuster.com/Emma-Hooper/426707805#sthash.NELfqMXW.dpuf



I always want to know what sparked a particular book? What was the question that haunted you?

I think the question that drove a lot of this book was “Why not?” Why not walk 3,000 miles? Why not go find the caribou? Why not make paper maché animals until all the space in your yard and heart is filled up? These Why Nots are what built the story. First them, and then their partners, the just-plain whys. Okay, there’s no reason why Etta can’t walk all the way to the ocean one way or another, now we need to figure out why she’d want to... It was like a persistent three year old asking why? why? why?  I suppose that’s a bit of a cheeky answer, because that’s, I imagine, how most every story is made, but, still, in this case, that’s what happened, my imagination said:

Why not have a character walk across Canada?

And my brain replied: 

No real reason why not… now tell me why she would want to…?

And so on.

This is your debut, and it’s an astonishing one. What was it like writing this book?  What kind of writer are you? Do you make outlines? Do you have rituals? And do you already have something else you are working on?

Writing this book was very… sporadic. I’ve got three other jobs, as a freelance musician, an academic at Bath Spa University and a violin teacher, so the writing of this book took place in all the little gaps and spaces in between other things. Lots of writing on the train! (I’m actually writing these answers to you on the train right now… :) ). 

I don’t make outlines, I prefer to start each writing session having no idea what’s going to happen next… keeps things interesting for me, and I think the spontaneity allows for a more vibrant, living story. I do have a lot of organising ‘helpers’ tacked up around my desk and office though. For this book I had a big piece of paper with the names and birthdates of all of Otto’s siblings, for example… .

Because my writing takes places at all sorts of different times and in all sorts of different places (sound-checks for gigs are another good place to squeeze in a couple hundred words…) I don’t have straight-forward writing rituals. (Though I’m envious and in awe of authors who do.) I do have a few portable rituals though; listening to music is one of these. If I’m having trouble getting my head into the writing space I’ve got three or four musicians whose work I know puts me into the right zone; I’ll pop on some headphones and sink into writing that way, often.

And yes! There is something new I’m working on… it’s a new novel set in a tiny fishing island outpost off the coast of Newfoundland (which is itself off the eastern  coast of Canada). It’s got mermaids and sea monsters and a lot of rain in it. I’m fairly in love with it at the moment...

I love the whole idea of the persistence of love and memory. Otto struggles remembering the war. Russell, his friend can’t forget a particular woman. And Etta needs to see the ocean. hoping she can remember to come back.  Can you talk a bit about memory and its relationship to the book, please?

In Etta and Otto and Russell and James I wanted to explore memory as it pertains to and shapes our ideas of identity. Our sense of self is built out of these stories we tell ourselves about ourselves in the past, and sometimes these stories and memories can get so heavy that they stand in the way of who we want to be or could be now. Etta needs to rewrite her memories so that they are hers and not overwhelmed by Otto’s. Russell needs to let his go so that he can move on and out and away. 


Etta is 83-years-old and one of the most alive characters I’ve read. Tell me how you went about crafting her. 

Well, Etta and Otto are both loosely based on my maternal grandparents. My grandpa did come from a farm family of 15 kids and his hair did go white after his trip to the World War Two front, and my grandma did teach in a tiny prairie school. Many of the recipes included are her own as well. Of course much of Etta’s character is fiction too; I think she is who I want to be at eighty-three.

What’s obsessing you now and why?

Sea monsters! Both real and mythical. The giant squid is particularly fascinating; I was recently at a film festival where I got to be in a room with one of the only two people ever to have seen a live one. Ever! He said it was shining gold in colour. Amazing. I love that there are these real life magical things still being discovered and explored.

What question didn’t I ask that I should have?

Hm… lots of people ask: “what actually happened at the end of Etta and Otto and Russell and James.” But I believe pretty strongly in Barthes’ idea of the death of the author (as in, interpretation is the key to truth in art, not authority authority), so I wouldn’t have answered anyway. So I guess that’s the question I’m glad you didn’t ask… 

As for what you should have… maybe what’s for lunch? Because I think that’s an excellent question and I do not know the answer, but wish I did...

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Growing up in Soviet Russia, moving to the US, dealing with a Soviet mother, writing and so much more: Elena Gorokhova talks about her blazingly entertaining memoir, RUSSIAN TATTOO









My grandparents were from Russia, something I am always very proud about, and I studied Russian for about 5 years, long enough to learn how to say "I like cucumbers" and "Where is the dog?"  I was also completely blissed when my novel Pictures of You was translated in Russian! Anyway, all things Russian fascinate me, including Elena Gorokhova's exhilarating new memoir, Russian Tattoo, which follows her wonderful debut, A Mountain of Crumbs, which was about growing up in Soviet Russian in the 60s' and 70s'.

Elena Gorokhova was raised in Leningrad, now St. Petersburg, a Young Pioneer with a red kerchief tied around her neck and a dedication to the Motherland.  But then she felt the siren song of America and begin to learn English, much to the displeasure of her iron-willed mother. Leaving for America was even more terrifying (and yes, it involved KGB), and America, the Great Unknown., gradually becomes the Great Opportunity.

Thank you so much Elena for coming on my blog. спасибо!


I  always want to know what sparked a particular book.  What was the question haunting you that drove you to write?

This book is my attempt to figure out the complex and complicated relationships to the people who are, or were, close to me: my first husband, my mother, my sister, my daughter.  It was also an attempt to understand my connection to the two places I’ve called home: Russia and the U.S.   Like all immigrants, I live with my soul split in half.  The longer one lives in an adopted country, the deeper one’s roots grow into the foreign soil, so the wound of the internal divide begins to scab over with time.  But the scar of exile will always remain.

Your book is strange and fascinating and eerie.  Can you talk a bit about the difference between what you thought America might be and what it really was?

I had very few expectations when I came to the U.S. because there was no information available in the Soviet Union about the West.  Everything I came across in my first few weeks here – from eating a hamburger to looking for a job – was unexpected and unknown.  I had no idea how to take a bus; I had never seen a multiple-choice exam; I couldn’t buy a pair of shoes.  I was an alien, and I felt like one.  America might as well have been Mars, or any other place where no one I knew had ever set foot.

Not only did you give birth to a daughter but your mother came from Russia to help care for her, and stayed on for 24 years.  Can you talk about what that was like?  Did seeing her reactions make you remember your own, or were they very different?

My first husband thought I wanted to leave Russia to flee communism, while in reality, I was running away from my mother.  My mother was the mirror image of my motherland: overbearing, protective, difficult to leave.  I knew if I had stayed, I would forever be a child, living with her in the same apartment, for years obediently spooning the borsch she had left under a pot warmer.  When my daughter (her only grandchild) was born, my mother came to help and stayed.  Then my older sister came for a visit, and she stayed, too.  We were all together again, with my mother ordering me to eat soup and wear a hat, just like back home.  It was a difficult and almost surreal time: my mother functioned as she did back in Russia, and my growing daughter, born in this country, did things that an American child would do.  I felt like a buffer between the two worlds, the place where the old and the new collided – so I constantly felt bruised.  It took me awhile – probably way too long - to realize that I was trying to control my daughter the same way my mother had controlled me.  I told my daughter what she should read, eat and study, pummeling her with unsought advice.  I realized I was turning into my own mother I’d tried to escape.

What kind of writer are you?  Do you outline?  Do you have rituals?  Do you wait around for the pesky Muse?

I don’t outline, and I don’t have rituals.  I simply chain myself to a chair in my home office.  I sit there in front of my computer and wait, and once in awhile something happens.  I type words on the screen, and if words don’t come, I just sit and look outside onto my neighbor’s lawn.  Children walk back from school.  The neighbor comes out and tosses a ball to his dog.  I wait and then the pesky Muse may feel sorry for me, and I may type a page or two, so that the next day I have something to go back to.  Anything is better than a totally blank page.  For me, revising is bliss when I have something to revise.

What’s obsessing you now and why?


Two things: a new project based on my sister’s life and the state of contemporary Russia.  The former is a project I’ve always been interested in: the fate of an actress in a dictatorship (my sister was a well-known theater, film, and radio actress in Soviet Russia).  I’ve been fascinated by the process actors go through in creating a role - the real make believe, as opposed to the phony make believe we all had to live by during communism.  We pretended to believe in our bright future, which was completely fake – while Russian actors lived their roles, believing in what they did, creating the truth.

The latter obsession is trying to understand the delusional patriotism and pathetic gullibility of the people living in my motherland who applaud its massive disinformation campaigns and its alternate moral universe painstakingly created in the past 20 years by Putin and his cronies.  I will always remain Russian, and it is depressing to be a witness of how the cynical, revanchist KGB gang has taken over my country so deliberately and so completely.

What question didn’t I ask that I should have?

Maybe the question of the language I chose to write in.  I only write in English.  It is my second language, and because I came to this country as an adult, I will always speak with an accent.  What I don’t know is whether I write with an accent.  It took me a long time to learn to write in English.  When I arrived here, for several years I read nothing in Russian, writing down snippets of good American writing in a special notebook I kept on my desk.  Now I read in both languages, but I only write in one.  It feels as if there were two brains in my head, a Russian one and an English one, and they function independently.  There is no crossover.  There is no translation going on between them.  Translation is a highly professional skill, and I am not very good at it.  My Russian brain does the speaking: with my Russian friends and sometimes with my daughter.  My English brain takes over when it comes to writing.




Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Reading with Robin is coming back! The extraordinary Robin Kall talks about author interviews, radio. breakfasts, teas, more--and has a book giveaway!







 How can you not adore someone who loves and promotes books and authors as much as Robin Kall does? (And who also is the warmest, funniest lunch date on the planet?) Robin is Rhode Island’s own book maven. From author interviews to events with best-selling authors, Robin shares her love of books wherever and whenever possible. You can connect with Robin on Facebook.com/readingwithrobin and follow her on Twitter@robinkall, online at http://www.readingwithrobin.com is updated constantly with all new author interviews and bookish information. Watch for news of the return of Reading With Robin radio – coming in January.

And the first three people who go to her site and sign up for her newsletter can nab a galley of Sally S. Hepworth's The Secrets of Midwives, which Robin loves.

I'm thrilled to host Robin here. Thank you, thank you, thank you, Robin.



How exciting that you are returning to radio with your show!  Can you tell us what's going to the same and what might be different?



I am so excited to be bringing Reading With Robin back to radio! What will remain the same is my passion for the books that I love and having the ability to share those with my listeners. I love giveaways and I'll be doing even more of those thanks to the generosity of the wonderful publishers I've been working with all of these  years. The show will still be broken up into chapters. That works well so why mess with it? I will have on debut novelists, beloved favorites and topical books depending on what's going on in the news or in my world. A few things that will be different will be the wonderful sponsors who have signed on to support this show. Too soon to share those now but you'll be hearing a lot about these wonderful people who are as enthusiastic about reading as I am!



I will be adding in a new feature -The Reading With Robin Book of the Month. Not sure that it will be called exactly that, but I will be highlighting one very special book each  month and will invite my listeners to participate by reading it as well and then participating in an on-air book club at the end of the month with the author also on the show. I am open to inviting local book clubs into the studio to get the whole on-air experience. So as not to have any spoilers for the real in depth look at a book I have something set up that will be invite only so those who have read and really want to get into the book will be able to do so. 

One of the additions to the show that I'm really excited about is going to be called "5 Minutes With Your Favorite Author." I'll give authors a chance to come on and talk up their favorite books and give a plug for theirs as well. The author community is so generous about championing others' books so I'd like the listeners to see for themselves what a supportive community it is. I have more but i should leave a few surprises…



You are one of the people who do more for books and authors than just about anyone I know and you are beloved by the book community.  Tell us how you started out, how you built this community--and why such a thing is so important.



Thank you, Caroline. Coming from someone who is most beloved in this community that means so much to me. What a wild story really. I started off in radio as a caller to a local show here in Rhode Island. Talk radio is addictive and as someone with an incredibly addictive personality, I was hooked. I was hooked even more as I started calling in, then becoming friendly with the host (15 years later and we are still best of friends) from there I would go into the studio for special segments and soon enough did a few fill-in hours by myself. Just thinking of those shows gives me chills. I remember thinking "What in the world am I doing here? In this studio. Alone. With all of these buttons on the control board. Oy.” I realized that I would really love to host my own show and knew immediately that the topic would be books/authors/reading -I pitched the idea, got a wonderful sponsor to agree to a show that i had no idea what it would really sound like and Reading With Robin had its first show in November of 2002. 

From that first show I met the nicest people both on-air and at the many events I would host. People who are still in touch today -some who have moved from Rhode Island, but were able to keep on listening through the magic of online streaming. It's really amazing when I stop to think of it. Kindred book-spirits. Wonderful people who attend events, always ask to help out and love being around all of the wonders the book world holds.

Reading will always be important no matter how it is we're reading. I am an old-fashioned reader and perhaps that will change one day but I just don't see it. In the years since I started the show much has changed with the e-readers, book store changes, etc., but what remains is the storyteller and the listener/reader. I like to connect readers and writers. It's a known fact that children who spend a great deal of time reading do better in school and it all starts from there. I enjoy going into the schools during reading week or whenever I am asked. The radio show has given me a platform so that I'm able to spread the message around and make it a lot of fun.



Robin, Susan Jane Gilman, John Searles, Dani Shapiro

You also have an amazing column called Well-Read, which will run every other Saturday, which will give exposure to your favorite books.  So what do you look for in a book?

What matters to you in a book? 

So happy that the column will work so well in conjunction the show. There's only so much I can cover in an hour a week so the column will enhance the show and visa versa (however you spell that) when I sit down with a book, I want to be entertained. Learning a little something is a bonus but mostly I want to get wrapped up in a story so much so that I don't even know what time it is or if Ari (my dog) needs to be walked. I enjoy a book with a sense of humor, not necessarily a funny book but one that's got a clever element or characters who see the world in an amusing way. If that makes any sense. Of course it matters that it's well written and what doesn't matter to me is that it's a book that everyone seems to be reading. I like to bring attention to books that others might not know about. I especially love a fabulous debut novel. That's one of my favorite things to share with my audience.

How do you do all that do?

Timing. I started the show when my children were young (ish) and I managed to do a lot with reading with robin often with their involvement.  Now that they are out of school, working and doing their own thing, i have more time to do mine.  



What's obsessing you now (besides these exciting events) and why?




Right now I'm obsessed with the movie,  The Interview. I want to know when how and if Sony is going to be releasing it. 



What question didn't I ask that I should have?




You asked such great questions so nothing that you should have for sure.  Here are some i love to be asked :  Are you interested in writing a book?  Short answer is yes! Isn't everyone?  I have an idea that I am pursuing so fingers crossed! 

How do you manage social media with your reading and prep for the show? 


I do my best but it's an issue. I am a social person so having the ability to tweet out a message, answer a few, check for Facebook messages and running into funny videos and the like -it's a bit distracting. I am working on prioritizing. I have a feeling I'll be working on that for a while. 



Will you be hosting Reading with Robin events outside of Rhode Island?



Yes! Last summer I had the pleasure of hosting the Grand Central Station writers in NYC and on Long Island and I would love to do more of that. With the radio show available on I heart radio and the web site traffic I am meeting more and more readers from all over so when there are enough readers to support an event, I'll be happy to tour around. One of the great things about having so many incredible author friends is that when I decide to host an event in another state-I'll just see who is around and plan a party!

What do you have coming up in 2015 in Rhode Island ?

In case anyone's travel plans will be taking them to Rhode Island or points north please keep these in mind:  January 31st -Tea with Jane Green to celebrate Saving Grace
May 5th -Sarah Mccoy is kicking of her tour of the mapmaker's children here in Rhode Island and I'm hosting her in conjunction with Brown University

May 16th- I am hosting the May breakfast for Reading Across Rhode Island's celebration of Derek Miller's Norwegian by Night. This is the 5th year in a row that I'm hosting this Rhode Island tradition of an event and I've been involved with the reading across Rhode island project since its inception in 2002.  Summer events are in the works and some very exciting ones coming up but I can't share yet!


Wednesday, Oct 7th is my annual An Evening With Authors which raises money and awareness for breast cancer awareness month. I do have this year's authors all set but not sure I should share yet. Hint -they're really great!!

And hopefully the fall will bring with it the release of Adriana Trigiani's long awaited movie release of Big Stone Gap! She has promised a big red carpet Rhode Island extravaganza so I'll be ready to plan that as soon as I get the word. I'm on 'stand-by!'
 

Monday, December 22, 2014

Tim Johnston talks about his amazing DESCENT, the surprise of writing a literary thriller, and so much more





 Descent is the kind of novel where you hold your breath while you are reading. It's also the kind of novel where the sentences are so gorgeous, you want to underline them. The story of a family torn apart when their daughter vanishes after a morning run, it's harrowing, heartbreaking and tense.

Tim Johnston is also the author of the Young Adult novel Never So Green, and the short story collection, Irish Girl, the stories of which won an O. Henry Prize, the New Letters Award for Writers, and the Gival Press Short Story Award, while the collection itself won the 2009 Katherine Anne Porter Prize in Short Fiction. In 2005 the title story, “Irish Girl,” was included in the David Sedaris anthology of favorites, Children Playing Before a Statue of Hercules. Tim’s stories have also appeared in New England Review, New Letters, The Iowa Review, The Missouri Review, Double Take, Best Life Magazine, and Narrative Magazine, among others. He currently teaches in the Creative Writing Program at the University of Memphis.





1) I’m always interested in the origins of an idea. What sparked the book? How did the final story differ from your original idea?

For most of my adult life, I've made my living as a carpenter, and this book—or the characters—came to me at a time when I was actively not trying to write.  I had all but completely cut myself off from all things writerly, publishy, agenty, by driving a truckload of tools up to the Rocky Mountains and throwing myself into completing all the finish work on a vacation house my father and stepmother had built up there.  I'd been up in those mountains—way up there, on the far downslope of the Great Divide—for months, all by myself, working away, when this family of four began to make themselves known to me.  Of course I did my best to ignore them, but they persisted, and grew more and more distinct in my mind, until one day I set down my paintbrush and said, OK, and opened up my laptop and began to write.  All I knew about them then was that they, like me, had driven up to the Rockies from the Midwest, and that this common American undertaking was going to prove to be the worst kind of turning point in their lives. 

I had in mind a story that dwelt in the aftermath of incredibly bad luck: how a family goes on with their lives once the headlines have faded and the world has moved on.  I had not intended to have a concurrent story about the missing daughter—about her singular, personal struggle to survive.  I also had an ending in mind that I thought I was writing toward until, after a long long period of paused writing, I realized I no longer wanted to reach—that that ending simply would not do for the characters I'd come to know so well. The concurrent story of the daughter contributed to this realization that I couldn't end the novel as I'd intended to, and when I finally understood another way to end it, I wrote very quickly and efficiently until the book was, suddenly, done.  

From a craft point of view, I do believe that because I didn't know the ending—or only thought I knew the ending—the characters and the plot have a less...guided feel to them than might otherwise have been the case.  In other words, I think that my surprise translates into a greater sense of surprise in the reader.

2) You’ve been praised for your ability to make the novel both highly literary and yet also a grab-you-by-the-throat thriller. Is any of this a conscious decision?

The "thriller" aspect of the novel was definitely not a conscious decision.  When you spend six years writing a book, it does not feel exactly like a grab-you-by-the-throat project; it feels the opposite of that—very plodding, very painstaking.  Also, all my training and ambition have always been in literary fiction, and I had no conscious awareness of having a knack for the suspense, or thriller genre, except that I'd loved such books before I went to college and learned that the smarty-pants world makes a distinction between a great read and great writing.  With Descent, I was mainly trying to tell the best story I could, at the maximum reach of whatever literary skills I'd learned.  That said, I did not want to write a so-called quiet literary novel, but wanted to write a novel with a compelling storyline—even a "commercial" one: a story that would appeal to more than the MFA holders of America.  I do think that much of the suspense of the novel came after I had a first draft in hand and I'd begun re-organizing the material, and working with the first readers and editors.  Only then—hearing from these readers and editors—did I begin to realize that this might be one of those books that keep people up past their bedtimes.  And I'm OK with that.

3) The structure of the story is so effortless, and so absorbing that I was wondering about the way you write. Do you plan things out in advance or just follow your pen? Are you an outliner? Do you have rituals?

Definitely NOT an outliner!  Beyond the opening events of the novel—what is now the prologue-like section subtitled "The Life Before"—I really didn't know what would fill all that middle space between a novel's beginning and its end.  The way I proceeded, after that opening section was finished, was to follow the character who interested me most, and that character turned out to be the father, Grant Courtland.  So I stayed with him and wrote his story—perhaps a hundred pages worth.  Then I did the same thing with his son Sean, then his daughter Caitlin, and lastly his estranged wife Angela.  The novel's plot hinges on the fate of Caitlin, but it was the four-way story of survival that most interested me and kept me going.  Once I understood how to end the novel, the last 100 pages or so were written much as they now appear, structure-wise; but one of the real pleasures of revising this book was figuring out how to braid those four earlier story lines together for the most compelling and, yes, suspenseful narrative.

I do have one ritual, which is to read good fiction whilst I drink my coffee in the morning.  When I realize I'm no longer processing the words in front of me, but have spun off into my own sentences, I know it's time to get to work.  

4) There’s so much in this extraordinary novel about how life can change in a second, how, in a way, there are parallel lives we could have led if not for one action that occurred. Could you talk about this please?

Well, I think this is something that fascinates all of us humans: this sense of awe at the little accidents and seemingly innocuous choices that lead us to where we one day find ourselves, wonderful or horrible as that place may be.  Some folks call this process Fate, or attribute it to the will and designs of a higher power, while others, like me, tend to believe that most of the things that have happened to the inhabitants of this planet—and to the planet itself since before it was even a planet—have been the result of accidents and natural laws, among which is the law of randomness. When something really terrible happens, we humans instinctively review events in reverse, and we can't help but imagine what would have been if only we hadn't done this, or done that—or if this random thing on its own trajectory hadn't intersected with our own.  In the novel, some characters struggle with faith, while others look to the randomness of the world to give back what it hath taken away—and indeed the plot does operate on the belief that just about any damn thing is possible.

Personally, I look back on the little accidents and innocuous-seeming decisions that led me to go work on that house in the Rocky Mountains, without which there never would have been the Courtlands, or this novel, period.

5) What’s obsessing you now and why?

Presently I'm kind of obsessed with time.  It took me so long to write this novel, and certain parties are already asking, Where's the next one?  I know that the time I took has much to do with the kind of book I wrote, and I wonder if I have the time to take my time again.  I mean, the world spins on, and there's all kinds of crazy shit out there just waiting to happen, and yet I'm a creature of a certain arrogance, or willful ignorance, that tells itself it has all the time in the world!

6) What question didn’t I ask that I should have?

What's it like to spend six years writing a novel, and then have to wait another 2.5 years after it's been bought before it's actually published?

A: It blows.

I talk to author Chris Jane about the effects of having a hit debut followed by 8 failures and then a NYT bestseller, what I won't write about, and much more











Thanks to Chris Jane for interviewing me for her wonderful 5 ON series

You post pictures around your writing area of people who represent your characters. I assume (maybe incorrectly?) you find the faces after you’ve imagined your characters. Has there been a time when looking at a picture has made you add or change something about a character – or even the story – because of what you saw in the picture (a scar, maybe, or a look in the eye)?

I start out with a vague image of the character. I might know that a character has frizzy blonde hair, and then I do a search until a photo speaks to me. I just know that’s the character. And yes, a photo can absolutely change things. I found a photo of this old woman with white braids wrapped about her head, but she looked so confident in the photo that I gave that confidence to my character!

What aspect of writing presents the greatest challenge to you, and has what challenges you changed over the course of your writing career?

Finding the right idea. I always have to have something new that I want to work on when I am finishing a novel because I hate that blank stage when you have no ideas at all and you start thinking that you may never write anything else except a grocery list! A lot of times I have an idea and it’s not the right one, but working on it will lead me to it. I spent months on this new idea and then during a conversation with a friend at lunch, I suddenly had this other idea that I was obsessed with!

Sometimes ideas just don’t work. I have the first chapter of a novel I’ve been trying to write for ten years, now, and I just cannot make it work. Sometimes it takes time. Is This Tomorrow was also one of those ten-years-can’t-make-it-work novels, and then suddenly, I was able to. I have no idea why. Maybe it was because I stopped stressing about it so much!

Imagine a world in which only one book from every author is allowed to exist for the rest of humanity’s time on earth. Which single book of yours from the last fifteen years do you save, and why?

Pictures of You. Because so much of that book is about my son when he was little–not that he is anything like the character, not that he has asthma (he doesn’t), but the love between one of the characters and that boy was and is the way I feel about my son.

If you’re stuck on what a character’s specifically worded response will be, or not sure what a character will do next, what do you do to move forward? How do you find that response or behavior?

Sometimes I try to imagine it as a movie. I write it as a script. I might say the lines out loud. I might try to go for “the negation of the negation”–which is finding what would be the absolute worst thing to happen to the character at that moment that would force the character to act or change.

What won’t you write about in a novel, and why?

I wouldn’t want to write a novel from the viewpoint of a serial killer or a rapist or a child molester. Those things, to me, are unforgivable crimes and you have to find the humanity in your characters. I don’t think I could.

You mention in a 2013 Psychology Today interview that Cruel, Beautiful World had just been bought by your publisher. Has your publisher ever rejected a novel you’ve submitted since taking you on as a client?  And if one is rejected, what happens to it?

Ah, see my response to this question below. The only other thing I would add is that Algonquin has bought both books I’ve submitted. If they rejected one, my agent would send it to other publishers. If they rejected it, it would go in a drawer, I would be deeply upset and cry, and then I would start writing something new.

Your first novel, Meeting Rozzy Halfway, had the kind of success that most authors dream their first novel will find. Were you surprised by it, and how, if at all, did that kind of attention affect your approach to your next book?

It was a total shock. I had enough rejection slips to paper the Empire State Building, and as a fluke I entered a story into the then very prestigious Redbook Young Writers’ Contest. I never thought I had a chance in hell, but I won first prize. And then an agent came calling, and then they sold a book deal on the basis of that story. That whole first year was magic. I was on TV, radio, everywhere, BUT little did I know that that is not how it goes all the time. My next book came out and my publisher went out of business so the book died. Same thing with book three and four. Then I signed with a big publisher for a two book deal, and they did no publicity and both books died. Then I signed with another publisher for a three book deal. The third book was Pictures of You and they rejected it as not being “special enough.” I asked if I could write something else for them, and they said, “No, we don’t think that will be special, either.” I was heartsick! It was my 9th novel, and outside of Rozzy, I had no sales at all. No one would want me. I was sure of it. So I cried to my friends, and one had this editor she loved at Algonquin, and she told her editor about my book. I sent her the book, and a few weeks later, I had a new publisher, who took that “not special” book and turned it into a NYT bestseller!

So now, I approach every book as simply that–a book I am writing. It may do well. It may not do well. It’s luck, timing, and a lot of other forces in play that no writer can control.

You write guest posts, you’re interviewed, you interview others, and you’ve appeared on television. What has worked best for you – outside of appearing on national TV programs like the Today Show – in terms of gaining visibility?

Social media! Facebook and Twitter are fabulous for interacting with people. I’ve met movie people there, other authors who I’ve been lucky enough to meet in person. It’s a water-cooler for writers! I’ve found the more open and honest and kind you are, the more those qualities are returned to you!

There can be a lot of imagined competition in the writing world (I say “imagined” because each writer is so different, and there’s so much reading space, that there’s little to compete for), and there’s also a kind of hierarchy. But you, a NYT best-seller who is well established and high on the totem, seem happy to promote other, some of them much lesser-known, writers and give some of your time to sites like this one. Why?

I’m glad you asked this question. There is indeed a lot of competition in the writing world–who made what list, who got what prize, who got what. And it makes writers crazy. Plus, if you look at the lists, it’s all really a matter of taste and the times, and who got the biggest publicity budget. I’m also a book critic at People, the San Francisco Chronicle and the Boston Globe, and you have no idea how many wonderful, amazing novels come through my door and they don’t get reviewed because there is so little space for reviews. (I don’t make the decisions on what gets reviewed, by the way. My editors do.)

I felt awful about this, and I decided it would be my mission to help lesser-known writers and, really, any writer. I gave over my blog to interviewing writers, which meant I could also interview writers who are my friends (you can’t review your friends because it is considered unethical). And I could spread the word about books I loved. The blog has grown and grown and it makes me feel great to help others.

I was helped a lot by other writers in my career–and hurt, too. One writer actually wrote a piece about writers who don’t deserve to make the NYT list and said “Sorry, Caroline Leavitt” in the piece! I was dumbfounded! Another writer wrote a piece about why she wouldn’t blurb a particular book–and it was obvious that it was my book! I determined I didn’t want to be that way. I believe in karma, and kindness, and I think you can really change the world by being kind, by helping others, by all these little acts to help others.

What advice would you give a class of writing students about the business of publishing?

NEVER EVER EVER GIVE UP. Really. Things can change in an instant. Publishing is a weird and fickle business, but it’s good to remember that The Help was rejected 60 times. And so were a lot of really fine books. Remember Van Gogh died penniless and unknown, but that doesn’t mean he wasn’t a genius.

Write for yourself, not for the market. If you write for readers, it sounds fake. If you write the book that you yourself need to read, then you will hit something universal and wonderful and important.

Connect with other writers on social media! Be kind. Pay it forward.

And never give up. Never. Never. Never.

Thank you, Caroline.

Readers: If you enjoy this or any of the other 5 On interviews and have writer or reader friends you think might also enjoy them, please share! The series is just getting started and there’s a terrific list of interview subjects ahead.