Sunday, March 17, 2019

A brilliantly epic saga about art (think Tiffany), the ends and beginnings of lives, communes, and the dazzle of secrets. The sublime Lisa Gornick talks about her racking-up the raves novel THE PEACOCK FEAST.

I first met Lisa Gornick through her novels, which I loved and was astonished by. But I didn't get to actually meet her in person until she published Louisa Meets Bear, and I was smitten by her intellect, her warmth and I wanted nothing more than to hang out with her. Her latest novel, THE PEACOCK FEAST, about generations of family and the secrets that seem to keep them, is so dazzling, that I found myself rereading pages.  And I'm not the only one, because look at some of the raves pouring in:

 "An intricate, emotionally complex and glorious chronicle . . . Swerves and fatal mistakes abound . . . [in] this magical novel.”

–Jane Ciabattari, BBC-Culture

“[A] wonderfully complex, many-stranded novel . . . The Peacock Feast is marvelously rich in character, event and locale . . . A thoroughly rewarding novel and, though not terribly long, a truly mighty one.” 
—Katherine A. Powers, Newsday
“Lisa Gornick…has crafted a perfect novel in The Peacock Feast… [A] luxurious novel . . .It’s a book that beckons readers to get lost in its tapestry.”
New Jersey Star-Ledger
“Fun, trenchant, immersive . . . but on top of that I got historical and psychological mystery, art history, and several different lush settings . . . Exactly the book I needed.”
–Rebecca Makkai, Electric Literature

Lisa has been hailed by NPR as “one of the most perceptive, compassionate writers of fiction in America…immensely talented and brave.” She is also the author of Louisa Meets Bear, and Tinderbox—all published by Sarah Crichton Books/Farrar, Straus and Giroux, and Picador—as well as A Private Sorcery, published by Algonquin. Lisa lives in New York City with her husband and two sons.

I'm so thrilled and honored to have her here, Lisa. Thank you so, so much.

I always think that writers are haunted into writing their books. What was haunting you to

write The Peacock Feast?

One snowy February day, now over a decade ago, I wandered into an exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art about Laurelton Hall, the dream-like estate Louis C. Tiffany, known largely for his works in glass, built in Oyster Bay, Long Island on 588 lavishly landscaped acres. Unlike many of the mansions of the Gilded Era that were reproductions of a French chateau or British manor, Laurelton Hall was a stylistic hodge-podge heavily influenced by Tiffany’s interest in Orientalist arts. There was a fountain court modeled after the Topkapi palace in Istanbul, a loggia with columns topped by ceramic blooms inspired by the Agra Fort in India, and a blue-tiled minaret that housed the heating system. What stopped me in my tracks, however, was a photograph (now the frontispiece of the novel) of a procession of five young women dressed in white Grecian gowns with straps that encircled their breasts and buttocks. The woman leading the group wore a cap made from the head of a peacock with its beak resting on her forehead. She and the two behind her held silver salvers on their shoulders with a roasted peacock atop, while the others carried bouquets of peacock feathers. Who had conceived of this horrifying but gorgeous tableau, like an illustration for a Grimm’s fairytale? And who were these young women? By the time I began to have a sense of the answers, the seed for a novel had been planted.

Grace’s details of being raised in a commune were amazing. What was your research like?

I’m so glad you asked about this because the story of Grace’s parents’ move to Riva Crik—the fictional commune in Mendocino County where Grace and her twin brother, Garcia, are born—is easily overshadowed by the Tiffany strand of the novel. I started with an idea about how the hints in 1963 San Francisco of looming change seep into the consciousness of an adolescent, himself on the precipice between childhood and adult life.  Forgive me for quoting from the novel, but it more concisely captures the interface between external and internal reality than I could do by paraphrasing:

Leo did not know about the lysergic acid experiments being carried out in Menlo Park to the south or that the Haight would become the sanctuary for seekers and lost souls from Maine to Texas, but he could sense it. It was as though he’d been given truth glasses and the life he led in the Presidio and Pacific Heights suddenly looked absurd: the navy blazer he wore to school, the tennis whites required on the courts at his grandparents’ club, the striped tie for Sunday dinners—costumes of a bygone era.

I was familiar with the history of the Haight from having worked at the Haight-Ashbury Free Medical Clinic. As for the communes of Northern California, a lot has been written about the experiments in collective living inspired by the sixties counterculture and some of the newsletters and magazines published by the communes in those years are available, but the era came most alive for me during a visit to Mendocino when some of the original commune members, still living on the same land, generously allowed me to interview them.

Was there anything astonishing that you wanted to use and you didn’t?

Oh my goodness, I fell down the novelist’s proverbial research rabbit hole with Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters.  Astonishing only tamely scratches the surface with regards to their adventures crossing the country in a psychedelically painted bus dressed in outlandish hand-made clothing with music blasting from speakers mounted on the roof and a jug of LSD-laced orange juice stashed aboard. In early drafts, many of the Pranksters—Kesey, Mountain Girl, Neil Cassady, Stark Naked—and others in their circle—Larry McMurtry, Jerry Garcia, Alan Ginsberg—had their own scenes. I also had a long chapter about Grace’s mother’s last year of high school in Houston, including the day before the Kennedy assassination when she goes with her mother to the Houston Hobby airport to join the bystanders greeting LBJ and Lady Bird as they descend the steps from Air Force Two, and then the President and Jackie, in a white dress with a poplin top and a black pillbox hat, as they wave from the door of Air Force One. You know the adage about killing your darlings. I loved some of these stories for the way they capture the seismic shifts of the time, but my sage agent and editor convinced me of the eye-rolling dangers of having my fictional characters bumping up with these sixties icons—as clichéd as having a character in 1920s Paris at the Café Rotonde where it just happens that at the adjacent table Fitzgerald and Hemingway are discussing the manuscript of The Sun Also Rises. Coincidences are thrilling in life but treacherous in novels.

So much of this extraordinary novel is about time and secrets and the intersection of lives,

particularly of two very different women. Why is it that secrets gain power the longer they

are kept, do you think?

To be prosaic, secrets are like a water leak. You may start off with a hairline crack and a few drops of water on the surface of a pipe, but as time goes on the collateral damage seeps into distant places. Part of this collateral damage, in my view, is that we lose touch with what happened as opposed to our story of what happened such that reality, memory, and fantasy become intertwined and difficult to distinguish. Writing fiction carries similar risks. You may start off with the kernel of something experienced, and then you change what happened, either to protect the persons who were involved or to make the situation more resonant, and end up with the fiction more vivid than the recollection.

In the novel, two women, separated by a continent and two generations, have both been impacted by the same event from a century before. Returning to the water leak analogy, it’s as though they live in the same building but don’t know each other or how their lives are connected by each suffering the different impacts—for one, perhaps, the ceiling mysteriously collapses; for the other, the walls are filled with mice—of the same hairline crack.

Three generations plus a hundred years is daunting for any writer. (Prudence, after all, goes

from four to one hundred and one!) How did you map all of this out? How did you keep

track, and was there ever a moment where you felt: oh, this is too much for me to do? (Not

that I think YOU have this problem, but I do when I write.) And how daunting was it to base

parts of the novel on real historical events?

Novelists look at one another’s finished work and think, Oh, that writer didn’t trudge through the swampy confusion I did! The Peacock Feast required an insane amount of work: the research (not only about the Tiffany and Freud families and the 1960s, but also about hospice work and capital punishment in Texas in the 1970s and 1980s, when youth were executed), figuring out the structure, threading the mystery the secret spurred with the hope that it would both come as a surprise and seem inevitable. Because I was committed to respecting what I know of historical reality, I had to keep elaborate timelines about the relevant dates of events in the lives of Louis C. Tiffany, Dorothy and Robert Burlingham, the Freud family, and Grace Slick—and then make sure that when my fictional characters interacted with the historical ones, the sequences aligned.

I always wonder about process, if writers learn from their past novels or if every novel is a

brand new terrifying thing to contemplate. Can you talk about this please?

One of the main distinctions, I think, between literary fiction and genre fiction is that literary fiction writers are always trying to do something new: to stretch the boundaries both of what they’ve accomplished with their prior work and what the ever-changing form of the novel itself has done. Given that aim, for me, writing never becomes easier. What has changed is that I better understand my own process: the need to allow for confusion, for days when the work feels wooden, for how God-awful my early drafts are, for the role of reading in my work—and I better understand how and when to receive feedback and what to do with it. It’s a painful endeavor at nearly every phase of the process.  The longer I work at fiction, which, in my case feels more like an obsession or fate than a choice, the more I believe the overused saying: don’t become a writer unless there’s no other way you can imagine a satisfying life.

What’s obsessing you now and why?

I’m obsessed these days with conciseness on every level and how that relates to the compression and depiction of deep feeling, and with the resonances between structure in music and structure in novels. It’s all a bit wonky and an excuse for a lot of reading, which is a great pleasure for me.  And, like so many of us, I’m obsessed with the boundary between memoir and novels, and between truth and fiction: the ethics as well as the artistry.

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

You’ve asked marvelous questions, and I think I’ve said enough for readers to have a hunch as to whether my book will sing to them now. Thank you!

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

Not only is Julie Clark's THE ONES WE CHOOSE a fantastic novel that you all should buy right NOW, but it's going to be a FILM!

Not only does the amazing Julie Clark have a debut that is knocking everyone's socks off, she now has a film deal! She is partnering with Courtney Kemp (THE GOOD WIFE/POWER) and Lionsgate to adapt THE ONES WE CHOOSE for television!

I'm thrilled to host Julie here and get all the gossip and the news. Thank you so, so much, Julie. And everyone should go out to your favorite indie and buy this book immediately.

So how did this happen? Was your film agent actively seeking out people or did they approach you?

My literary agent gave the book to my film agents, who read it and then put together a list of producers, production companies, and writers to pitch the project, very similar to how books get submitted to editors. I honestly thought that was as far as it would go. But then my agent emailed me to say "A production company wants to talk to you about an option. DO NOT GET TOO EXCITED." Because a lot of the time, the interest goes nowhere, and she's really good at making sure I keep my feet on the ground and writing the next book. But when the offer came in, she finally gave me permission to get excited.

Do you get to write the script? Be in a cameo?
I will not be writing the script. I have no desire to learn scriptwriting, since I feel like there is still so much to learn about novel writing! But I will be able to consult with Courtney and whoever ends up writing the script, so that's really exciting. And I'll also probably pass on a cameo, since I'm much more comfortable behind the scenes. But it'll be fun fantasy-casting the series with my friends!

Obviously, film changes everything in a novel--how do you feel about that? Can you look at them as two different things?

 I have to look at them as two separate things, since they now own a piece of my story, and they can write it how they thing it will best fit for television. When I spoke with Courtney about her vision, I was really excited about the ideas she had, the things she wanted to incorporate, and even the changes to character and plot that she suggested. I loved THE GOOD WIFE and I love POWER, so I know she'll do something amazing with it.

What's obsessing you now and why?

Working on my second book! I'm at that fun stage of revision where the story, plot and characters are all solid in my mind, so now I can focus on making it sing. I read in a Celeste Ng interview about something her engineer sister says: First you make it work, then you  make it elegant. I'm in the elegant-making stage, which I absolutely love.

So does this fame make it easier to write your next book or harder, and why?

I'm still up at 3:45 every morning because books don't write themselves! I'm hard at work polishing up my next book which we will hopefully be sending out to editors soon.

Thanks Caroline for all you do for authors!! xo

A loving marriage. A terrible medical mistake. Judy Goldman talks about her extraordinary memoir TOGETHER

Judy Goldman has written the most wrenching and beautiful love letter this year. Together: A memoir of a Marriage and a Medical Mishap is about time and resilience, and oh yes, love. And it's remarkable. Judy's the author of
Losing My Sister, a  finalist for Memoir of the Year by both Southeast Independent Booksellers Alliance (SIBA) and ForeWord Review.

Her two novels are  Early Leaving and The Slow Way Back, a finalist for SIBA’s Novel of the Year, winner of the Sir Walter Raleigh Fiction Award and the Mary Ruffin Poole Award for First Fiction. And she's also a poet:  Holding Back Winter and Wanting To Know the End, which was the winner of the Gerald Cable Poetry Prize and the top three prizes for a book of poetry by a North Carolinian – the Roanoke-Chowan Prize, Zoe Kincaid Brockman Prize, and Oscar Arnold Young Prize.

I'm so honored to host Judy here. Thank you, Judy!

 I loved reading about how you changed and grew resilient, brave and strong. Do you ever look back at your early years of your marriage and wonder how things would have unfolded if you had been that way back then?

One of the biggest lessons I learned about writing memoir is that you need to include sparks of reflection -- what you knew then, what you know now.  Who am I in light of who I was?  Well, what I know now is that I actually was resilient, brave and strong all along.  I just didn’t know it.  My grandpa called me “Flimely,” a Yiddish word meaning little bird.  That image of me stuck.  I was sweet, demure, too small to be taken seriously.  Even though I broke my engagement three weeks before the wedding (not to the man I’m married to), even though the all-white high school I taught in was one of the first schools in Georgia to admit black students and there were fierce fights every day, even though after teaching for two years I moved to NYC alone, I did not see myself as strong or brave.  But here’s the truth:  I was strong and brave and sweet and demure.  I didn’t know you could be more than one thing.  It took writing this memoir to find all the parts of me, to understand that we are all many things.

There is one line in your book that made me burst into tears: young love turning into old love.  There is, to my mind, something extraordinary, about going through something with another person over a long period of time. It’s easy to be in the rush of love, but navigating the sharks and man-eating jellyfish that pop up are something else, yet it is these very horrors that make love deeper. Can you talk about this please?

 Oh, Caroline, I love that my book made you cry!  In my memoir, I write about how, on our wedding day, my husband and I believed everything would stay exactly the same as the minute the two of us ran down the steps of my parents’ house in a snow of rice.  Look at that brand new husband and wife on the cover of my book -- the wife’s “going away” outfit, how she holds her little white gloves in her hand, the husband’s suit pants too short.  But really, if we’re lucky, if we're fortunate enough to spend years together, we’ll face change — both the slow, ordinary changes that life’s forward momentum brings and the sudden, dramatic ones that take us by surprise.  Identities will shift.  Roles will switch.  When my husband had an epidural to relieve his back pain, something went terribly wrong and he was paralyzed from the waist down.  We had both colluded in seeing him as the strong one in our partnership.  I used to joke I was like Patty Hearst:  I married my bodyguard!  But then I was forced to take over.  My husband was forced to give in.  I write in my memoir:  These shifts do not necessarily cause a marriage to falter.  They can strengthen it.  If we take the aerial view.  And keep creating our marriage as if from scratch.  And keep falling into bed with each other. 

What’s obsessing you now and why?

I tell creative writing students we have to write about what keeps us up at night.  What’s keeping me up now?  I’m working on a new memoir about how I walked alongside the civil rights movement, never for one minute linking arms with the people marching down the middle of the street.  Because I grew up in Rock Hill, South Carolina, attended the University of Georgia, taught school in Atlanta – during the ‘40s, ‘50s, and ’60s -- I kept finding myself in situations that turned into junctures.          

 Junctures interest me.  We neglect one path in favor of another.  We go straight instead of turning.  Our lives play out.
What else am I obsessing about?  How my 10-year-old grandson’s report on Louisiana is coming along.  What kind of drivers my 16-year-old identical twin granddaughters will be.  I’ll be 77 when my new memoir comes out in February — will I be too old to remember how to give talks and readings?  Do I need new boots for the winter?  
 Should I keep going with my obsessions, Caroline?   

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

What have I learned about writing, success, failure?

Here’s what I know:  You can spend years working on something you’ll end up throwing away.  The truth is, when you begin a new book, you cannot know if it’s going to be okay, or even if it has the potential to be okay.  My second collection of poetry was titled, Wanting To Know the End.  But we can’t know the end.  We can’t know if our children will flourish and be happy.  We can’t know if our house will sell.  We can’t know if we’ll be successful in what we write.  Who even knows what success is?
After I’d written poetry for years and was yearning to write prose, I studied The New York Times Book Review to see how long a novel had to be in order to be called a novel.  I found one that was 206 pages.  Great!  All I had to do was fill 206 pages.
There’s a lot you cannot know when you begin.  No one out there is begging you to write.  No one even knows if you got a single word down today.  Your job is to just push on.  Your job is to write the next word, the next sentence, another page.  Try to make it to 206.

Monday, February 4, 2019

A love letter to her ranch. The perils of the writing life. Finding your center and healing it. The great, great Pam Houston talks about DEEP CREEK

I think I've loved every thing Pam Houston has written. She has that rare ability to be so honest on the page, so brave even as she's being vulnerable that you cannot help but follow every word. I'm a city girl, but DEEP CREEK, her latest masterwork got me in ways I couldn't quite explain, so that I was dreaming of a ranch life, thinking about horses and pipes freezing in snowy weather, and seeing the rare beauty of the world. But she also got me thinking about family, about the wounds they inflict on growing girls and we heal.

I'm not the only one who adores this book. Take a look at these raves:

"…good writing can make you envious, no matter how foreign the terrain. Other times, you read a good memoir and find yourself wanting to track down the author and become friends. A third kind of book is so insightful and evocative, you shelve it beside other favorite and instructive titles. “Deep Creek” might just do all three.”
-Nathan Deuel for the L.A. Times 

“Pam Houston is in possession of a deep, heart-achingly beautiful love for her own personal piece of earth. And as equally deep is her ability for hope. In a time where the world is either drowning, or burning, or being drilled-into, Houston’s outlook promises a better tomorrow – even if that means we’re no longer here.”
-Sara Cutaia for the Chicago Review of Books

“If Cowboys Are My Weakness was Pam Houston’s call to millions of women—blasting us with self-recognition of how we give away our own power—then her new book is the response to that call.”
-Amy Reardon for The Rumpus 

Pam Houston is the author of the memoir, Deep Creek: Finding Hope In The High Country, as well as two novels, Contents May Have Shifted and Sight Hound, two collections of short stories, Cowboys Are My Weakness and Waltzing the Cat, and a collection of essays, A Little More About Me, all published by W.W. Norton. Her stories have been selected for volumes of The O. Henry Awards, The Pushcart Prize, Best American Travel Writing, and Best American Short Stories of the Century among other anthologies. She is the winner of the Western States Book Award, the WILLA Award for contemporary fiction, the Evil Companions Literary Award and several teaching awards. 

I am so tickled and honored to have you here. Endless thanks, Pam.

I love that this book is like a love letter to your ranch. There’s a gorgeous line in your book about how your ranch saved you. I love the unexpectedness of what place does for you. All my life, I never wanted anything domestic because of my upbringing, and then suddenly, I had this old 3 story house, and I swear that house wooed me, and changed me. What I want to know is what you discovered that was new about your ranch in the writing, how you were even more changed by that ranch in writing about it? It surely must have deepened the bond.

I discovered several things writing this book. The first thing is that I wrote my way into a working definition of the difference between the action of fiction and nonfiction on the page.  In fiction writing the action is all vertical.  Fiction pops and dives.  If you were to graph the action of writing fiction it would look like a EKG.  Nonfiction is more about saturation.  It is water running out across a large field, sinking into all of the nooks and crannies. I got saturated with the ranch while I was writing this book, in a good way. I have spent so many of the years there just trying to figure out a way to pay the mortgage, writing the book was time to take stock. To enumerate all of the ways the ranch has grown me up, made an adult out of me, and they were more numerous than I ever imagined it. I knew I loved it in a romantic way, but I didn’t realize how much I loved it in a married people way, in a been through some stuff together way, in a learning each other all the way down to the bone way.

I also deeply loved the parts about your writing career (how is it possible that a university would be so snotty after you had published the incredible Cowboys are My Weakness?!!!), the travel involved. You went from struggling to fame, but what I love the most is you seem the same person, down to earth, knowing what is important. Do you think it is the ranch that helps you not let this all go to your head? I have a feeling that you don’t think you are as famous as you absolutely are, which makes me adore you even more.

I feel very lucky to get to do what I love for a living. And by that I don’t just mean writing, I mean teaching, which if I am really being honest is the center of my life, its deepest heart.  Because of how I was raised, and who I was raised by, I will never stop trying my hardest, never stop thinking that somehow I could have done an even better job, no matter how small or large the job it. I am a Capricorn, for one thing, and you know, we strive. Also, there are so many days when I fail as a rancher, when I fail as a writer, when I fail as a teacher.  So there is plenty of cause to try harder.  My friend Fenton Johnson calls this the price of admission to being a writer. You are never going to think the finished work is as good as it could have been and you are only as good as the thing you are working on right now. If I had let the good stuff that has happened to me go to my head, well, then I would be an asshole.  I feel lucky to be here, lucky to have gotten out of my childhood alive, lucky to have found a place in the world that feels like home, luckiest of all to do what I love for a living, but I don’t take one moment of it for granted. 

Your childhood was a horror house, yet I still felt your deep well of deep understanding and almost matter-of-fact mourning of what you did not have (and should have), and what you did with what you got instead. Do you think we can ever transcend our childhoods? And in a way, should we, since all those healed over wounds make us more compassionate if we let them?

Here is another thing writing this book solidified in my emotional center. I was born to parents who wanted me not at all, but that is far from the worst thing that can ever happen to anyone, and in my case it may have been the very thing that set me on this wonderful path. Being a writing teacher has taught me so many things, but one thing it has really taught me is that the abuse I suffered in my household was probably a 4 on a scale of 10. People do terrible things to children, and in my house, we had enough to eat, we weren’t on the run from the police, there were no guns (just to name a few things our privilege spared us). I don’t even know who I would be if I had not had the childhood I did. Would I be a writer?  Would I have compassion? Would I be so excited when the trauma stories of my students find their way into the world? Would I have found my way to the ranch? Nature was a much better parent to me than either of the people I was born to, but it is possible to see that as a gift rather than a tragedy. I am who I am because of everything that happened, good and bad, and I like who I am well enough.

I’m always obsessed by writing process. Do you feel that every book you write is built on the one before? Or is it always new?

I told myself, when I started writing this book, you are not going to rely on any of your old tricks. That is a terrible thing for a writer to tell herself, and I don’t even know exactly what I meant by it, but I knew each time I was doing that and made myself stop. The themes of my previous work appear in this book because they are the themes of my life, but in the voice of this book I am being much more generous with myself. I made space for self-discovery on the page. That made me very very nervous because I often think reflection, (as it has come to be called in NF classes) can be quite dull and can serve to shut the reader out of the story.  I did more of it than ever before here, and though it scared me I think it was the right decision for this book. 

What’s obsessing you now and why?

Well, I got married last summer, and I have never thought of myself as a married person, and I find my own status therein a constant source of both humor and wonder. I married a Taoist Forest Service lifer named Mike and I want to find a way to write about that happiness. Another dangerous subject.  Other obsessions: The Arctic and the way it is showing us exactly how dire and imminent the climate catastrophe is. Also the beauty of the Arctic. I’m heading to Iceland this summer. The work of my students is obsessing me, especially my students at the Institute of American Indian Arts, who are putting so much good work into the world right now, creating a whole new Native American Literature Renaissance. My non-profit, Writing By Writers, which is growing into all kinds of new programs in several states and Chamonix France. See, I told you, teaching is almost always at the center of my life. 

What question didn’t I ask that I should have?
Not one.  These were great.  Pan

Bestselling author Pam Jenoff talks about THE LOST GIRLS OF PARIS, research, and why every book is harder to write than the last

I'm a little bit prejudiced on all things Pam Jenoff because not only is she a fantastic writer, but she's also one of the most fun people to hang out with at any book festival. Pam is the author of The Kommandant's Girl, which was an international bestseller and nominated for a Quill award, as well as The Winter Guest, The Diplomat's Wife, The Ambassador’s Daughter, Almost Home, A Hidden Affair and The Things We Cherished. She also authored a short story in the anthology Grand Central: Original Postwar Stories of Love and Reunion. I'm so jazzed to have her here. Thank you, Pam!

The premise of The Lost Girls of Paris is irresistible. A widow finds a suitcase of photographs of women, who turn out to have been spies during WWI under the amazing Eleanor Trigg. How did you find this story and what was it about it that made you know that this was the story you had to tell now?

I was researching ideas for my next book when I came upon the story of Vera Atkins (the real-life spy handler who inspired Eleanor Trigg) and the women who served Britain’s Special Operations Executive.  I was struck by the scope and bravery of their endeavors.  I was even more so taken by the fact that some of the women had died and never come back, and that their arrests suggested some sort of betrayal.  I was struck by the theme of strong women and also by the idea of the trust we place in our government – and whether or not that trust is warranted.

What I love so much about The Lost Girls of Paris is how much it fits into our women empowerment movement as it tells the story of these brave, resourceful women who dared and risked their lives even as many women had not yet recognized their own power. Can you talk about this pleas

I have long loved writing about women in history who, in normal times, would have lived a very set life, but through historical events, like war, are thrown off the path.  I like to see how they respond to tests and challenges and how they change and grow. I didn’t set out to write a book about #metoo, but several people (including the movie producer who has optioned it – a woman) have remarked how timely a story it is, as women are finding their voice in government and the arts and all walks of life.

I always want to know how writing one book differs from the last one. Did you feel that you were building on things you had learned—or did you get writers’ amnesia and it just felt like you were learning how to write a novel, even as you were doing it?

Every book is hard for me in a different way.  The Lost Girls of Paris is my tenth and arguably the most difficult to write.  I had three women across years and continents.  Weaving their stories together, managing a balance and finding their voices was equally frustrating, challenging, uplifting and rewarding.

The author Mary Morris once told me, when I was stressing about research, that the trick is to focus on the stories, rather than the dates and facts. Is it that way for you? What’s your research like? And what surprised you about researching The Lost Girls of Paris?

I always say that real life makes for terrible plot, but wonderful setting.  So I try and take all of the research and wave it into the sense of place.  Also, I am a contemporaneous researcher, so I only need to do so much before I start writing, and then I can research specific issues while I write.  (Writing and research are different parts of the brain for me and I do them at different times of the day.) For The Lost Girls of Paris, I was surprised by how many really good non-fiction books had been written about Special Operations Executive and the women who had served in it – and how they differ on what might have actually happened to cause the agents to be arrested.

What’s obsessing you now and why?

I am working on a new book that is much darker than anything I’ve written before, and I’m wrestling with how to bring readers joy while being true to the story. I think it will come down to beautiful prose and really engaging characters and relationships.  Also, I normally know most of the story arc and this time I only know the first third.  But the voice is coming through very strong and I am strangely calm about writing into the unknown.


The great Elizabeth McCracken is in the house and talking about her fantastically great new book BOWLAWAY and lots of other stuff, too!

First, the incredible credentials:

Elizabeth McCracken is the author of six books: Here’s Your Hat What’s Your Hurry, The Giant’s House, Niagara Falls All Over AgainAn Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination, Thunderstruck & Other Stories, and the forthcoming Bowlaway.  She’s received grants and fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, the Liguria Study Center, the American Academy in Berlin, the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, and the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study. Thunderstruck & Other Stories won the 2015 Story Prize.  

Who doesn't adore Elizabeth McCracken? She's hilariously funny on Twitter, her books are spectacular, and she's one of those people who you just want great things to happen to. And they do.

Her new novel BOWLAWAY is about a bowling alley, a mysterious son, and how the past intrudes on the future. (And Elizabeth, my 19 score was caused by gutterballs after gutter balls...) Thanks so so much for being here! I am so jazzed that I might take up bowling lessons, but probably not. And your Elvis hat? That's where Jeff and I honeymooned in December-_Graceland and we got our own private tour.)

I always want to know what was the why now moment for a particular novel? What question was digging at you that you had to explore?

I live in Texas now—heavens, what a sentence—and I miss New England every single day. I miss cultural crabbiness, & I miss autumn, and even ice; I miss steak tips and affordable lobster; oh dear lord do I miss the Atlantic ocean. So I started writing about New England and home. I was also really interested in genealogy—my grandfather McCracken was a genealogist—how devoted people are discovering who they are related to by blood, even though it’s nearly coincidental. I love family stories and how they seem important in a different way than the stories of friends.

 I absolutely loved that the pivot of this novel was a bowling alley!  Oh my God!  Tell me if you researched and what that research was like? Tell me what you think a bowling alley is a metaphor for, if anything? (And by the way, my highest bowling score ever is 19. Yes, that’s right. 19.)

 Well, once you start writing about New England, how can you avoid candlepin bowling? I was on candlepin bowling leagues as a child, and once I was in junior high school and high school, the local candlepin alley was where I hung out to play video games and bowl and eat junk food. I do love candlepin because there’s no such thing as perfection. Low scores are the norm. Nobody has ever rolled a perfect game. It’s dull and repetitive but also somehow beautiful—I wanted to write like life but that seems a bit much even for me.

I did less research than I sometimes do, though I spent a lot of time with a very odd book called The Game of Candlepin Bowling by Florence Greenwood. I watched a lot of YouTube videos of candlepin bowling games, too, which are intensely soothing and weirdly suspenseful. You never know till the ball meets the pins how successful you will be.  (19? Caroline! That seems statistically impossible!)

 What I also adore about your work is that there is an eccentric quality, but we never don’t believe a single thing you write. So, what were you like as a little girl? What was your world view then and what is it now?

I was an eccentric, without a doubt, from a long line of eccentrics, and I was raised (particularly by my mother) to be bullheaded about the things I loved and the things Elizabeth McCracken  effort.

 I have to ask this—I’ve loved your work since The Giant’s House, when you were a single librarian, and now you are married to another writer and a mom. Do you feel as if you are writing your life—and has it changed the way you work?
I definitely don’t feel as though I’m writing my life. My books and my life seem to be happening side by side—though for sure I write about children in a way that I didn’t used to, now that I spend a lot of time staring at them.

 What’s obsessing you now and why?

 Well, like most people I know, the GODDAMN STATE OF THE WORLD. I feel as though ordinarily I would be obsessed with all sorts of things, and my energy is taken up with reading news and donating to progressive causes and casting obscure secular curses on certain people which so far seem not to be working. But I’m also casting about for the new obsession.

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

 Yes, I did once get a bowling trophy, for Most Consciences. [sic—they meant “Most Conscientious.” Which is a pretty pathetic thing, when it comes to bowling.]

Friday, January 18, 2019

Art. Life. Loss. A piano. Chris Cander talks about THE WEIGHT OF A PIANO, why it's so wonderful hearing from her readers and so much more.

“A visionary novel about the madness inherent in all art and the burdens of history that give rise to art and must be carried in turn. The miracle of wonderful fiction is to place wondrous objects where we would never expect to find them–to make the unexpected both palpable and real–and this beautiful, intricate novel gives us one indelible picture after another, each one written in a different key.”
—Charles Baxter

Chris Cander is the author of 11 STORIES and WHISPER HOLLOW, which was longlisted for the Great Santini Fiction Prize, Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance; nominated for the 2015 Kirkus Prize: Fiction, Kirkus Reviews; and chosen for the Indie Next Great Reads List, American Booksellers Association.

In her latest incandescent novel, THE WEIGHT OF A PIANO, two women, a Soviet concert pianist and a young mechanic, discover their connection to the same Blüthner piano--and to each other.

Thank you so much for being here, Chris!

 I absolutely loved the idea of an upright piano being key in a novel, and how it winds its way through the pages like a refrain. Which brings me to my favorite question: What was haunting you at the moment that made you know that this was the moment when you had to write this particular book?

I've long struggled with my relationship to objects with provenance, mostly because by nature I appreciate minimalism and order. But I was born into a family of artists and archivists, and we have a lot of stuff: my grandfather's countless woodworking treasures; handmade quilts and blankets from the women on my mother's side; my father's photographs, souvenirs, and mementos that have been passed down from one generation to another. Part of me wants to preserve everything with the care and love it deserves, and part wants to set it all on fire. So the idea of a woman having only a single physical object—an enormous, expensive, burdensome one—that represents both her parents and her lost childhood fascinated me. I wanted to know what she’d do with it, because I also want to do know what I will do with all the things I'll eventually inherit.

This wonderful novel spans so many time periods, as well as countries and history, that I am wondering about your craft. Do you map things out? Have charts? What kind of writer are you?

I tried plotting once, and it was the emotional equivalent of solitary confinement. There was no freedom in it, no joy. For me, creative writing is an act of spontaneous exploration, like an unplanned road trip. But when it comes to research, I'm fastidious. I keep precise records of what I've read and whom I've interviewed--and how it all informed the project. I use Aeon software to create timelines, so that every event is precisely noted. (If you want to know the moon phase or the exact age of a character on page 214, for example, I can tell you.) I do a ton of research, but use only enough in my novels so that the reader trusts me enough to lose herself in the story.

I'm also particular about my work ethic. When I’d been working on my first novel for a few months, I decided to calculate my average daily word count, and I came up with an average of .87 pages. I loved that figure, because it sounded so surmountable, and yet I’d made such progress. It became my mantra and my output goal, and now, my family and friends know exactly what I mean when I say, “I’m going to do my .87.” Any day I meet or exceed my .87 is a good writing day. Whether the 300 or so words are actually any good isn’t as important—especially on a first draft—as the commitment to the work they represent.

Art. Life. Loss. To me, these are the big, big questions. Do you think there are ever any concrete, set-in-stone answers? (I know the answer to this, but I’m curious to hear your take on this.)

I think if there were any set-in-stone responses to those huge, abstract ideas, we wouldn't need fiction. (I'm guessing you might feel the same way.)

I also love the title, because that word “weight” is really so freighted. Can you talk about this please?

In this case, the word is a double entendre. There's the psychic, emotional weight of the piano in the characters' lives, which grows heavier and heavier for different reasons, and the actual physical weight, which makes it not only a symbolic burden but a real one. (By the way, this particular Blüthner weighs 560lbs. That's a lot of piano to drag through a desert--and a life.)

What’s obsessing you now and why?

The current administration of our country has inspired/provoked in me an insomnia-inducing concern about the thoughts, emotions, and actions that can draw people together or wrench them apart, and the wounds they inflict on others as they try to heal themselves.

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

How about this: Do you like hearing from readers of your books?

When I fall in love with a novel, I reach out to its author to say so, and to thank her for those two or three nights of reading pleasure. Because I mean it, and because I know the gruesome, inspired, tiresome, amazing, thankless, graceful, painful, divine work that goes into writing a book. I think it's nice to express gratitude for work that's made an impact, and I never expect a reply--though the kindest ones often do. And so yes, when a reader reaches out to me, I'm incredibly grateful they took the time to do so. In fact, I framed the first love letter I received from a reader and it still sits on my desk these years later, reminding me that I'm connected not only to the imaginary world, but to the real.