Thursday, August 30, 2018

Motherhood. Marriage. Life. Death. Three generations of incredible women. Suzanne Matson, one of my favorite writers on the planet, talks about her latest novel, ULTRAVIOLET.

I think I first met Suzanne Matson the way I often meet writers: I wanted to know her so fiercely that I made it happen. I had devoured THE HUNGER MOON and I kept thinking how could anyone write something that exquisite? How could I not know her? So I reached out, and through the years, I've loved all her books--and her-more and more. (She even came to one of my readings in Boston early on--and she brought a friend/novelist Elizabeth Graver! I was so excited I almost passed out.

Ultraviolet follows three generation of incredible women, traveling from 1930s India, exploring marriage, motherhood, aging, life and death, too. I'm not the only one raving about this novel, either. Take a look:

“Fascinating and stirring. . . . Matson glides through her characters’ lives in almost self-contained chapters punctuated by explosions of burnished emotion. . . . Readers will latch onto the unforgettable characters of this accomplished saga of the shifting personal and historical complications of American womanhood.” —Publishers Weekly (starred review)

“Fans of Anne Tyler and Geraldine Brooks will enjoy the intertwined, intergenerational narratives; historical details; and emotional depth of this engrossing novel.” —Booklist

“Matson’s chapters, each of which jumps forward in time, conclude with an especially poignant reflection on aging, as Samantha cares for her dying mother in her final days. This is a stoic view of mother-daughter love: an unsentimental reflection on both the tribulations and the importance of filial connection.” —Kirkus Reviews

“From its wonderful opening in 1930s India, Suzanne Matson’s beautifully accurate and illuminating Ultraviolet follows the fates of three generations of American women along the shifting borders of safety and freedom. As time carries them past risks and refuges, the reader is left with a shimmering sense of lives lived.” —Joan Silber, author of Improvement

Suzanne's previous novels are  The Tree-Sitter,  short-listed for the PEN New England/L. L. Winship Award;  A Trick of Nature; and The Hunger Moon a Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers pick.  She was awarded the Robert B. Heilman Dissertation Prize, an Academy of American Poets Prize, and the Susannah McMurphy Fellowship.  A 2012 fellow in fiction writing from the National Endowment for the Arts, Matson has also received creative writing fellowships from the Massachusetts Cultural Council and the American-Scandinavian Foundation. 

And most importantly, she's an extraordinary writer--and a very, very cool person.

Thank you so much, Suzanne!

I always always ask every writer—because I believe this is true—what was haunting you into writing this particular book? What was the question that you wanted answered? And did the answer surprise you?

Family histories from both my father and my mother always struck me as powerful source material for writing, and yet for a long time I wasn’t sure how to use this legacy.  I first wrote two novel drafts from the Finnish immigrant, coal-mining side of the family (my dad’s).  Then I set those aside to begin a story that imagined my mother’s young life in India as the daughter of Mennonite missionaries.  It occurred to me that what I really wanted to write was the story of a marriage, because the fact that my mother and father had ended up together had always seemed like one of life’s great mysteries.  I sometimes think that my childhood spent trying to get to the bottom of that strange match is what prompted me to become a writer.  It got me into the habit of asking questions about people’s inner lives and what drives them to their actions.  My mother was the more verbal and self-examining person of the two, often speculating about her mother’s situation as a missionary wife, as well as the constraints she felt born into, so that’s where the eventual book came from:  women’s lives threaded down across decades, and how the woman in the middle generation—Kathryn—negotiated her choices, limits, and consequences.  It’s Kathryn we follow from childhood to old age, but my father’s history plays an important role too.

This novel is so ambitious, tracing the lives of three generations of women. How difficult was this to write? Did it feel different from your previous novels?  And if so, how? I also want to comment that you call it “a shape-shifting” in the acknowledgements, which I loved. How did it find its form?

Once I acknowledged that I was writing a novel, rather than linked stories, everything fell into place.  But at first, when I was finding my way, the individual stories were a way to go deep into discrete, important moments in several different women’s lives.  Then I noticed that I had written the initial stories with anywhere from a few years to a decade in between them, so I consciously adopted that as my method, and it became an episodic novel, encompassing about an 80-year swath of history in small leaps forward.  I tried to structure the leaps so that the next point at which we pick up the story has already encompassed action and change, setting the stage for a new turn.  I wanted that change across the gaps to be easy for the reader to absorb, while at the same time remaining implicit.  While I was writing, the gaps felt charged for me, a kind of propulsive energy, so that the reader, entering the next episode, might feel a kind of “aha!” moment—so that’s what happened in between!  The whole process was very different than my previous novels, which all dealt with a limited time frame of roughly a year.  Added to that, my relationship to “truth” was completely different in this novel.  Though I was inventing the characters’ interiority and a great deal of the action in Ultraviolet, I never forgot that these people were also real to me.  Real and complex.  

The book travels from colonial India to the modern suburbs of America so the sense of time and place is as vibrant as your characters. What was your research like and what unsettled you about it?

It’s ironic that the narrative you’d think I would have known best, built as it was out of family history, is the one I researched the most.  Years of research, actually.  Besides the normal kind of Internet searching for events from a certain year, movies that were playing, popular songs and clothing styles, etc., I went to India to see where my mother boarded at school in the Himalayas; I went to Finland to see the village where my paternal grandparents were born, and to the port of Hanko from which Finns emigrated to America; I went to Red Lodge, Montana, and read in the town archives about the boom times and decline of coal there, as well as the persecution of labor radicals during WWI; and I went to Goshen, Indiana to read my maternal grandfather’s papers in the special collections of Goshen College’s Mennonite archives.  I held the handwritten postcard he received from Mahatma Gandhi during the period when independent India’s constitution was being written.  My grandfather had sent Gandhi a memo on behalf of the Mennonite Mission Board urging a provision for conscientious objection to military service.  Gandhi's reply:  “Dear Friend, Your letter.  Why worry!  I am in the same boat with you.  Yours sincerely, Mahatma Gandhi.”  There are so many wonderful research moments that don’t make it into a novel.  In fact—and I think this holds true for many fiction writers—maybe ten percent of what I found appears directly; the rest just informed me, creating a knowledge base from which to imagine.

What is so stunning about this novel is how subtly powerful it is. In Ultraviolet, it is the small moments that are actually the largest.  Do you find that’s true in life?

I feel like the small moments are what make living worthwhile—observing the nuances of social connection, the realities of the body, the textures of the natural world, and all kinds of cultural specificity.  Abstraction has never been my métier.  What makes life infinitely interesting to me are the granular moments, and the way they gesture toward larger realities.

What’s obsessing you now and why?

Well, it’s a hot-mess moment in American and global politics.  As a novelist I want to stay receptive to all the ways in which this anxiety-ridden age has changed the very atmosphere we try to live and work and love in.  So, all that has to enter the next project, which will be set in contemporary times, and yet, I also feel a need to shield myself from constant immersion in the toxic political climate.  Finding that balance is tricky.  Obsession as a writer used to feel simpler:  Go deep, go inward, draw from what you know about the world while living in your head.  That is a nourishing personal strategy, and yet it seems too luxurious for our time.  Right now, it feels essential to stay engaged. 

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

How did we arrive at the cover?  Catapult is terrific for working with the author.  The first cover idea was conceptually interesting but somewhat visually abstract.  In search of a new take, I mentioned that there were dogs throughout the narrative—not as a central subject, but in a way that felt to me somewhat totemic—dogs as emotional touch points.  I mentioned that I could see a cover with a dog running, maybe a blurred dog running, in some unusual effect of light, playing off the title, Ultraviolet.  The design team of Strick &Williams came back with this absolutely stunning cover that made me gasp when I opened the file.  I love the mystery of it, the fact that the dog is facing away from us and seems ready to move down this almost glowing path into the shadows.  But that journey is mysterious, and you feel, emanating from the dog’s alert posture and ready stance, some animal intuition mediating between reality and the metaphysical unknown.  The image felt absolutely perfect to me for exploring uncertainty and yet, in some way, fearlessness.    

Wednesday, August 8, 2018

An art school hidden in Grand Central Station? That's right and sublime author FIona Davis writes about it --and art, history and memory--in her new novel THE MASTERPIECE

I was lucky enough to meet Fiona Davis and do an event with her--but the REAL reason I adore her is that she had my 90-year-old mother-in-law totally engrossed in her book! The Masterpiece. It's an August LibraryReads Pick, and the raves are piling up. (Starred Library Journal; Publisher's Weekly calls it "splendid.") She's a one time Broadway actress who made the transition to writer, producing the sublime bestsellers THE DOLLHOUSE and THE ADDRESS. The only thing that would make me more thrilled than having her here would be to have pie with her.

Thank you, Fiona!

I always think writers are haunted into writing their books. What urged you to write The Masterpiece?

I’m haunted by stories of women who have it all, then lose everything and have to scramble to figure out who they are. I guess you’d call it a reverse Cinderella story, but it’s always fascinated me. With The Masterpiece, I made one of the characters a New York City socialite-type who falls on hard times and has to take a job in the information booth at Grand Central Terminal. This section of the book is set in the 1970s, when the city was crime-ridden and the terminal a filthy, dark hellhole. Another fascination of mine is old buildings with a long history, and so I enjoyed setting the other timeline in the 1920s, when the terminal was a gleaming landmark and the hub of the city. Both the landmark and my heroines rise and fall with the changing times, in a way that parallels the resilience of the great city of New York.

I was stunned to discover there had been an actual art school at Grand Central! How did you discover this astonishing fact?

I was pretty certain I wanted to set a book in the terminal, but was unsure if I could pull it off. What would the plot be? A love story between a conductor and a commuter? Hmmm. Nothing was clicking. But one of my research books on the history of the terminal mentioned that the painter John Singer Sargent co-founded an art school on the top floor of the east wing back in the 1920s, and that it existed for 20 years and enrolled around 900 students a year. Now that I could work with!

What was your research like? Did anything make your story veer into a different direction? And what surprised you the most?

I didn’t know much about the art world, and so I read biographies on painters like Arshile Gorky and Lee Krasner and interviewed illustrators and artists about technique. One day, I was flipping through an old course catalog from the Grand Central School of Art and noticed there was only one female faculty member listed. The teacher’s name was Helen Dryden, and she illustrated over 90 covers for Vogue and was wildly successful before disappearing from view. I used Dryden’s heady success and failure as the inspiration for one character’s story arc, and would never have known about her otherwise.

Also, I found numerous mentions in The New York Times about the art school: how they had a summer program in Maine and held fancy dress balls every May. As a writer, this was pure gold, informing settings and scenes that ended up in the book.

I also loved the two different time periods and the two very unique women, which brings me to my favorite kind of question about structure. How did you map this all out?

Here’s my plotting technique, from A to Z: I start with the main characters, really examining who they are, what they want, and figuring their strengths and weaknesses. Then I brainstorm scene ideas for each timeline and write them on Post-its, before arranging them in some kind of logical order and intertwining the two eras. I can usually come up with a reasonable chapter-by-chapter outline from that. You might be able to guess from my methodology that I come from a family of engineers, so it’s all very logical and right-brained. I’m in awe of writers who can let the story take them where it will. If I tried that, I’d be wandering around my apartment all day moaning and eating blocks of cheese. I need to know where I’m headed at all times.

Your novel, The Dollhouse was critically acclaimed. Did that make it harder or easier to write The Masterpiece? Did you feel like you could build on the lessons you learned or was it like approaching a totally different project?

I’m definitely building on what I’ve learned from writing each book, and from working with my brilliant editor, Stephanie Kelly. So it does get a little easier from the writing-technique angle, although not from the oh-my-God-I-have-to-research-an-entire-era-that-I-know-absolutely-nothing-about angle.

I start on the next manuscript not long after I’ve turned in the previous one to my publisher, and this was very helpful when The Dollhouse made such a big splash. If I weren’t already up to my elbows in another first draft, I might have gotten stuck, wondering how to capture the magic again. Instead, I was tackling new characters and a new landmark building and well on my way. I think this is one way that my journalism background has helped, in that I’m used to writing every day and was eager to start work on a new story well before the reviews for the first one started trickling in.

Can you talk at all about what’s next for you?

I’m happily working on a new manuscript, to be published next year. It’s still historical fiction with two different points of view and lots of twists, but it’s also slightly different from my other books. Gotta keep my amazing readers on their toes!

What’s obsessing you now and why?

I’m obsessed with the political climate for the book I’m working on now, which is set in the late 1940s and early 1950s, when people who’d done something as harmless as marched in a rally against fascism twenty years earlier, or signed a petition to protect refugees, were labeled un-American and a threat to the country. So many people had their lives torn apart, and the research is making me terribly anxious, but I think that’s a sign that I’m on the right track.

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

How about, “What has most surprised you about becoming a novelist?” Answer: That while writing is solo, publishing is a group effort and I’m lucky to have an incredible team behind me. Also, the depth of the community, support, and encouragement among readers, booksellers, and other authors. It’s been a marvelous ride.

Georgia Clarke talks about her fiesty, smart new novel, The Bucket List, the smart women she writes about, and her love of cheese, and more.

Georgia Clarke is a powerhouse (and she likes cheese, too!) I first met her when I was speaking for Generation Women, her amazing storytelling event featuring women from all different generations, and I fell in love. Of course, I wanted to read her book. Of course I loved it. And her even more.

She's the author of Parched, The Regulars, She's with the Band, and now the hilariously wonderful The Bucket List. her debut adult fiction, The Regulars was reviewed in Cosmo, People, Us Weekly, and Marie Claire, and more. It was a Best Book pick for In-Style, PopSugar, Redbook, Refinery 29, Harper’s Bazaar, and many more. The Regulars received A-list celebrity endorsements, went on a 20+ blog tour, was embraced by the bookstagram community and saw her invited on national television in Australia.

She had over 100 people come to her  NYC launch, record-breaking attendees at the LA and Sydney launches, and hosted sold-out events that saw her book going #1 in local bookstores. And she runs a course that can help you do the same! (Just check out her website!) She creates and run her  website and social media channels, sending a monthly newsletter to hundreds of engaged subscribers, and am the founder of the Brooklyn Writers' Salon, as featured in Brooklyn Magazine.

Thank you so, so much for being here, Georgia. Rock on.

What made you think of the ingenious plot about a “bucket list for breasts?”

The inspiration for this story started with a cancer scare of my own. I was in Sydney, on book tour for my last book (The Regulars), and while getting a routine Pap smear, my doctor felt a lump. I was scheduled for a diagnostic ultrasound on the same day I was doing my first live TV appearance, a meet-and-greet at Simon & Schuster Australia, an in-depth 30-minute radio interview, and my book launch. Ultimately, the lump was benign, but the stress, fear, and “what ifs” stayed with me.

I was aware of preventive mastectomies, and the concept intrigued me: it felt feminist and raw and emotional; all the things I like in a story. In the first outline of the story, the action was focused around a woman who’d had a mastectomy and was starting to date again. But as I started my research, it quickly became clear that this was not the most dramatic part of a previvor’s journey; that would be the time before the decision. Switching the focus added a ticking clock (always good for fiction!), and then the question of the bucket list naturally arose; what would you want to do with your breasts if you were thinking about losing them? What hadn’t you done? Were you meeting your own sexual needs? This created the story.

I love that Lucy and her friends have a bucket list and that it isn’t just about our bodies, but about how we choose to live our lives, and how sometimes it’s trauma that helps us find our way to happiness. Can you talk about this please?

I think the things Lacey comes up with for her bucket list surprises her a little, and makes her realize she’s not a fully realized sexual being, which is partly due to her childhood and partly due to the fact she’s 25; a young woman still learning how to relate to her body. I find it so interesting how she starts to see her body as a charge; something she’s responsible for, and that its immediate demands might not always be in its best interest. And yes, our personal stories, even the traumatic ones, are what make us who we are. We can learn from them, and they are not a barrier to happiness and fulfillment: they are part of the richness of who we are; as women, as humans.

I have to admit I am a junkie for acknowledgment pages and I read yours, and I teared up about your friend Nick, who told you to always “seek out differences.” I love that. Can you talk about that, please?

Nick, whom this book is dedicated to, was a proud gay man from Uruguay who wore black eyeliner and black nail polish and danced to Madonna and argued about Marxism. He was, to a white girl from the ‘burbs, different. After Nick died from complications related to T-cell lymphoma in the early stages of writing this book, I spent a lot of time reflecting on death and loss but also what Nicky showed me and taught me. My early 20s, which was when we met, was a transformative time for met. I met a lot of people in the queer community, which is a place that truly celebrates and showcases diversity. Difference is powerful, and I believe in the power of embracing and really hearing others’ experiences. That’s reflected in the characters in my novels, who are always diverse, and the line-ups for my multi-generational storytelling night here in NYC, Generation Women.

So tell us, do you have your own bucket list? Why or why not? And why do you have a fridge full of cheese?

My bucket list is mostly travel-related! Tokyo, Greece, more of South-East Asia… Lacey’s bucket list is sexual and body-related, but I’m not the kind of author who’s going to trot out a lit of sexual fantasies for press, ha ha. Not sure my girlfriend would be into that! And why do I have a fridge full of cheese? BECAUSE I LOVE CHEESE. It’s my crack. Now I’m thinking about making a grilled cheese…. Yum.

What’s obsessing you now and why?

I’m obsessed with Stranger Things 2, which I only just started and cannot stop thinking about. It’s so good. I finished Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel a month ago and still think about it every day, it’s a masterpiece. I’m obsessed with JT’s new album Man of the Woods because I listened to it on repeat to get pumped for the live show, and now I can’t get the songs out of my head. I’m excited for Sweetbitter on Starz (out in May!). I loved Amy Poeppel’s new book Limelight. I’m also obsessed with our current political sh*tshow, but that’s mostly very depressing.

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

I’m sure you want to know when my book launch is, right!? Done: Thursday August 9th at Books are Magic: save the date! The Bucket List is out August 7th and my last novel The Regulars is out in paperback now. Follow me on Instagram, Facebook or Twitter! I also have a monthly newsletter full of writing tips and other fun stuff which you can sign up for via my website.