Saturday, August 29, 2009

Read This Book: Breaking the Bank

I’ve known Yona Zeldis McDonough (check out her website for giveaways and contests) for years now, and there’s no greater pleasure than when a wonderful friend is also a wonderful writer. Thanks, Yona, for answering all my nosy questions.

One of the things that impressed me so much about your book was the change in tone from your previous novels, which were darker. Although Breaking the Bank deals with very serious issues of money, love, divorce, there is also something deliciously madcap about it. What precipitated the writing of this novel? Was it deliberate, or did it just spark?

No, it was not deliberate at all. When I write, I hear a voice telling me the story. It’s a crazy, blissful feeling and at its best, it makes me feel as if I am transcribing something told to me by someone else, rather than inventing something myself. So I can’t predict what the voice will say or how it will sound; I can only listen, hard, to what it says. What precipitated the writing of this novel was a conversation I had with my brother in which he observed that whenever a bank made a mistake, it was always in their favor. I countered by telling him how I once was given an extra $400 that was not mine by a teller. I had a momentary frisson when I counted the money and realized her mistake but I found I was unable to keep it and returned to the window, to tell her what had happened. She was inordinately grateful; it was her very first week on the job and had I kept that money, she would have been fired. Of course I hadn’t known all that when I decided to give the money back, but I felt rewarded in some small way for having done the right thing. As I shared all this with my brother, I started thinking about how the story might have been different had an ATM, not a person, given me the money. What might I have felt and done then? Our conversation triggered Mia’s voice in my ear.

The book seems tailor made for a film--what's your feelings about books into movies?

From your lips to God’s ears as they say in our tribe! Seriously, I would love that. I think this is an extremely cinematic book for several reasons: it is very plot driven, it has a magical element that is grounded in a completely real and recognizable context, and it has a happy ending. And there was even a cinematic inspiration of sorts; the final scene of It’s a Wonderful Life was very much on my mind when I wrote the last chapter.

Tarot cards figure in the novel, so I have to ask--are you a believer and do you get your own cards read?

No, I am not a believer in any literal way. But I love cards of all sorts (playing cards too) on a purely graphic level. And I find tarot cards especially appealing because reading them creates a de facto sort of narrative. The cards are turned over, images are revealed, and someone has to link all the disparate symbols or elements together into a story. Sort of like being a novelist, only it doesn’t take quite as long. It was only afterwards that I realized the cards provide another element of magic to the story.

What is your writing life like and what are you working on now?

My writing life is pretty staid. I get up, dressed etc. and after breakfast head down to the basement of my house, which is where my office is. I bring my dog—a yappy little Pomeranian with whom I am utterly besotted—with me, for company. She lies on a pillow either chomping on a chewy or resting her little snout on her paws. I love having her there. When I get stuck with something I writing, I go over to pet her belly or to play with the dollhouse my husband built for me; many of the things in it were things I owned and loved as child, so it has a very powerful and calming effecting on me. I rearrange the furniture and other tiny objects for a while and when I go back to work, I usually see a way out of my dilemma. I’ll break for lunch, and then head back downstairs again later. If I am deeply into a particular piece of writing, I might return to it in the evening but that doesn’t happen all the time.

Right now I am working on an essay and a novel. Both deal with ballet in one form or another, as did my first novel, The Four Temperaments. I studied ballet very seriously as a young girl and even though I was neither driven nor talented enough to have been a professional, the training for that life was so encompassing and absorbing—for me, it was an almost religious discipline—that it has remained with me, a completely formative—and transformative—experience.

You have said you never work from any sort of an outline, which boggles my mind. What then, carries you through the writing? Did you start with a premise..i.e. What if a woman goes to an ATM and it spits out thousands of dollars?

It’s the voice that carries me. I don’t work from an outline, but I do work in a very linear, ordered way, from chapter to chapter. I always re-read the chapter I have just finished before starting a new one; this keeps me aware of pacing and narrative flow.

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