Sunday, August 30, 2009

A little respect, please....

Recently a person approached me to help him with his manuscript. He needed editorial work and wanted to get his book in shape for a publisher. I explained what I do and how I work and how thorough I am, and the success I have had with clients. I love doing this work--love to help other writers, plus it helps me in my own work to figure out what is and isn't working in someone else's work, and why. But when I told him my fees (which are way below the market rate, by the way), he had a fit. "Who the hell do you think you are?" he said. "Both my wife and I are appalled! Your fee is what I make per hour!!"

I was stunned. The message, of course is that what he does is infinitely more important than what I do. Out of curiosity, I asked him what he wanted to pay, and he told me there were many people around who would be willing to read and edit a whole 400 page manuscript and come up with 20 pages of notes for...the price of a great dinner in Manhattan.

Today, I was reading a piece about a 58-year-old man who had lost his job in the financial world and how he was stressing about finding another. My heart was shattering for him, right up until he brightly quipped, "But I can use this time to write a novel!"


Is being a novelist the catch-all job that anyone can do if he or she only had the time? (I once dated a Wall Street guy who insisted he was "going to write that novel" when he had banked enough money and could take a break. Um, he had four million banked. I had a friend who loved the idea of being a writer and told everyone that was her calling, but since she could not sit alone in a room for the hours every day she would need to, the best she did was jot down ideas in a notebook she carried around.) I welcome anyone to the writing party, but am I amiss to want those people to take the job seriously? Do people really not recognize how terrifically hard (and terrifically rewarding) a job it is? Do they imagine we sit at our desks daydreaming happily, waiting for inspiration, and then when it comes, the words pour out of us and we are giddy with delight? I welcome anyone who has the passion and drive and wants to write, but I want the 15 drafts, the angst, the false starts, the desperate, mad need to write--to be understood and to break through this idea that writing is all fun and glamour and a beach house filled with champagne.

Writing is a calling, but it is also a really difficult, exhilarating, grueling, terrifying, wonderful job. I just wish people would treat it that way, rather than something that everyone can take up in spare time like knitting, which, by the way, is not so easy, either.

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.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Writerly themes

Recently, the writer Katharine Weber told me that she almost always has fire in her novels (including her knockout upcoming one, True Confections), which is startling because she never really has much to do with fire in real life. I almost always have people driving crazily --which really has nothing to do with me except that I am phobic about driving and have not been behind a wheel since I was 16 and was given my license by a bored instructor who made me drive around the block before barking, "Think you can drive? Good. Then you passed."

Obsession always make for interesting writing and what strikes me is sometimes writers don't even realize what is obsessing them until it begins cropping up in their writing--which just proves that maybe we really are writing the books we ourselves want and need to be reading.

It's tough getting started again after vacation. I admit I am cranky, still a little sick, sunburned even after wearing SPF 90 (90! I could go on the sun!) and suffering withdrawal from all that delicious, intoxicating sugar of ice cream, fudge and more ice cream.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Off to oceanland

Off for a non-working, boardwalk-walking, biking, minigolfing, fudge and ice cream eating, movie going, swimming, arcade playing vacation.

See you Wednesday or Thursday.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Sweltering and writing thoughts.

I am not a summer person. Give me fall or winter any day. This heat is drenching me and the sky is like a big wet washcloth, making it hard to move and even harder to breathe. We have two kinds of ice pops in the fridge here, air conditioning everywhere, and when I think of going outside, I think of icy movie theaters.

But what I really want to talk about is the writing process. I had lunch today with a really interesting person (I'm going to blog about him next week), and we got to talking about how long it really takes to write a novel. Or, how long it takes me to write a novel.

I always tell my students that before I even gave my most recent novel to my agent, I had rewritten it about 7 times. She called me to tell me she loved it, and then she had me rewrite it another five times. (This is no joke--and because she is so brilliant and astute, I was happy to do it.) She sold the novel to Algonquin within weeks, and guess what? They loved it...and they wanted rewrites. And I was thrilled to do them, because this stage--seeing the novel stretch its legs and start to take on a life all its own--is transcendent. It's actually my favorite part of the process.

Now, I'm in first draft stage. It took me, as it always does, about six months from my initial idea, just to figure out a general idea for the story. I know, of course, it is all going to change. I know, too, that I am going to be doing 8 drafts, then more for my agent, and more for my editor. I know I'm in it for the long haul. Three years, maybe four.

And nothing makes me happier.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Read this book: The Embers

I have become fascinated with other writers' process, and these interviews spur me on in my work, as well as giving me an opportunity to ask questions of writers I admire. I will, of course, blog more about my own process, and whatever else is obsessing me, but while I struggle to carve out some time for myself (I am deep in the writing draft one process!), here's another amazing book. The Embers by Hyatt Bass is a remarkable novel about a broken family--and Bass is a remarkably interesting writer and person.

I was fascinated to learn you trained to become a ballet dancer. Do you feel the obsessive training necessary to be a dancer helped you in being a writer?

I’ve never thought about that before, but I guess it did. For one thing, sitting down on a daily basis to work on something without a boss or a deadline pushing you along is really challenging, and the discipline of the ballet training probably helped with that. Also, I think I learned a certain patience from ballet since it often takes years to get something right. You’ll think you’re just never going to be able to do something, and then one day it suddenly happens. And so that might have helped me keep the faith in my book over the seven years it took to write it.

I was also very interested in the fact that The Embers began as a film. How did it become a novel? (And will it become a script now?)

I’m not sure why exactly, but from the very beginning it felt more like a novel than a film. I kept pushing that idea aside, trying to write it as a screenplay, until the finished screenplay didn’t work, and I thought, okay, why not just try it out as a novel? Once I started writing that way, I was completely hooked. I loved the freedom—the lack of page-limit, and the fact what I was writing wasn’t just a blueprint for a final product, but it really was a final product. Instead of imagining how it might be fleshed out down the line with imagery and actors and so on, I could actually describe imagery or gestures, or whatever, and convey tone or mood and story through so many different devices besides straight action and dialogue.

The gnarled bonds (and bones) of family is a topic near and dear to my heart, yet it seems that when males write about it is considered revelatory (The Corrections), yet when women do, it is demeaned sometimes as “domestic drama.” Obviously, I loved your novel and don’t want to stick it into any genre at all, but I’m wondering your thoughts on this.

I know what you mean because I used to fall prey to that sort of sexist thinking myself. I had a revelation recently that in creating the characters of Ingrid (a precocious adolescent girl) and Joe (a very accomplished 70 year old playwright), I was actually writing about the little girl I still felt I was at the time I began writing the novel, and the successful male writer I aspired to be. Over time, though, my confidence in my own work as well as the discovery of writers like Susan Minot and Marilynn Robinson really shifted my thinking in terms of male writers versus female. Not that I hadn’t admired female writers before, and not that I don’t continue to admire male writers with equal fervor now… It’s just that I’m now fully comfortable with being a female writer, and it’s very clear to me that the perception of female writers as less weighty or serious or whatever is just a sign of prejudice in whoever espouses that opinion. If you took the name and jacket photo off my book—or Minot’s or Robinson’s books, or for that matter, William Styron’s or Michael Cunningham’s or Jonathan Franzen’s books, I’m pretty sure people would have difficulty figuring out whether the writer were male or female.

Everyone in your story impacts everyone else—most profoundly what happens surrounding a death in the family. What made you decide to make the death the fulcrum that the family pivots around? And since you are a mom, yourself, how difficult was this to write about?

I’m so interested in family dynamics and how the people that are closest to one another or love each other the most often have the hardest time connecting. So, to put a tragic incident at the center of the story—something everyone could immediately understand would tear these people apart—seemed like a good way to explore this concept. What I’m really writing about in the book is the way people overcome the sorts of challenges that all families face—not necessarily epic tragedies like this one, but little everyday challenges. Often, though, the best way to explore something in fiction is to take it to an extreme. When I started writing the book, I’d just gotten married, and my husband and I planned to have children fairly soon. So, I was thinking about the risks that lay ahead for me—first of all, in marriage (especially since my parents were divorced) and also in terms of having children. Not only had I had a couple of friends who’d died at very young ages, but I was very much aware of the fact that no matter how much I did right as a parent, I would inevitably fail in some ways, too. While I was writing the book, we had two children. So, that was really interesting because there I was writing about family, and I had suddenly gone from being my parents’ child to also being my children’s parent, and I had a new understanding of family and of the story I was writing—a story told from the points of view of its three main characters: a daughter and both her parents. It was actually really cathartic for me to write about the loss of a child at the same time I became a mother because the fear of all the terrible things that could happen to one of my children over the years created an ever-present anxiety¾which I hear is very typical for new mothers—and facing those fears in my work was comforting in a way, maybe because it allowed me to file them under fiction each day.

You have said that writing fiction is a very safe way to bare your soul. I’m curious why you feel that—since it seems to me that readers are always assuming or looking for an autobiographical hook!

Well, people can guess at what might be autobiographical, and make assumptions, and say whatever they want. But when you’re writing fiction, you’re completely in control in the sense that you’re creating your own world, and your own characters, and scenarios, and only you know where any of it comes from or whether it bares any resemblance to your own life.

There are a lot of wonderful collisions in the book. The past bumps against the present and different family members’ points of view take center stage at different times, yet this prismatic way of telling the story gives a riveting forward-moving narrative. How difficult was that to pull off? Did you outline or map out the novel or did it just happen organically and surprise you?

Thank you! I love that about the book, but it’s also a major reason for why the book took seven years to write. I definitely mapped the whole thing out, scene by scene. And then, of course, surprises and new, exciting ideas would come up along the way that would change the course of things. My agent told me if she’d met me when I was very first starting out, she would have told me I was insane, and that I should just choose one character, and tell the book in a straight chronological narrative. She completely agrees that the way I told the story is what makes it especially intriguing, but we laugh about how complicated and hard I made things for myself, especially for my first novel. It’s really an example of how ignorance can breed confidence.

What’s your working life like and what are you working on now?

What question should I be mortified that I neglected to ask you?

Working life right now is a little odd because I’ve just finished my book tour, but I need to take a little break before jumping back into my next novel. In the spring, I mapped out the next book, and wrote the first twelve pages before pre-publication madness for The Embers forced me to put everything on hold. But I’m really excited about it, and am dying to jump back in. So, just a short break to get my brain ready for fiction again, and then I’ll disappear into that. In terms of my working life, though, I usually write about five hours a day in my office, which is just down the street from my home. My goal is two double-spaced pages a day, and I usually do around that amount. I’m not a very fast writer unfortunately. And I love editing. And I can’t imagine any question you should be mortified for not asking!

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Read this Book: Await Your Reply

Dan Chaon is a genius. No, really, I mean it. I was so knocked out by his stories Among the Missing, that I carried the collection with me everywhere for weeks, and when I read his first novel, You Remind Me of Me, I kept wishing I had a better adjective for it than superb. Await Your Reply interconnects three different story lines in ways you can't imagine, unrevealed until the last taut, disturbing and incredibly powerful pages.

Dan's also got one hilarious sense of the absurd and he's the first person I think of when I see a link about hideous sweaters or freak food from the fifties. Thank you, Dan for letting me annoy you with all these questions.

In Await Your Reply, you juggle three different story lines—Ryan who is running identity theft scams alongside his father, Miles who is struggling to find his vanished brother, and a young girl Lucy, who is traveling with a man she begins to think she doesn't know at all. When the stories finally connect, the effect is shattering. How on earth did you handle this juggling act in the writing? Did you map each story out separately and then figure out how to thread the together? Do you outline? What’s your writing process like?

I tend to write in very small pieces—I still work like a short story writer, I think, because the chapter is my main unit of construction. At early stages I tend to focus on the paragraph. On jots in a notebook. The book began with sketchy pieces that eventually became chapters 1, 2 and 3. Images: the hand in the ice cooler, the motel on the edge of a dried up lake, the guy driving his car all night, passing into the arctic circle. My imagination tends to accumulate around such little fragments, building forward and backward and outward. I put together a novel the way coral makes a reef. It’s not always pretty.

Once I established the basic through-lines for the book, I put together a very abstract outline. I imagined it as three groups of 10: Ryan-Lucy-Miles, Ryan-Lucy-Miles, Ryan-Lucy-Miles,Omniscient narrator. 30 chapters in total. This gave me a framework to work with, and I would end each character-based chapter with a cliffhanger so I would have a “push” when I got back to the individual thread. I thought of the “omniscient narrator” sections as place-holders that would allow me to take stock and explain the book to myself.

This structure didn't end up exact, but it more or less holds true. I actually wrote the book more or less as it appears, in alternating chapters. Of course, there was a lot of revision as I discovered new things about the characters and situation. But part of the fun was uncovering the connections as I went along. The stories didn't come together in the way I originally thought they would: that was a surprise for me as well.

As the stories in Await Your Reply came together, it all began to feel fated to me—as if none of these characters really had any choice or chance (even though they certainly could have done a wide variety of other things). It was almost like film noir on the page. Do you believe in fate?

That’s a hard question, and maybe it’s the “big” question of my life. Do I believe in fate? I feel like a lot of my work is torn between romantic humanism and logical determinism and straight-up nihilism, and I never seem to be able to make up my mind.

I was adopted, and I think that has always contributed to my thinking on the subject. I grew up knowing that my life was an accident, knowing that I could have had any number of possible lives, or none at all. Of course, everybody feels this way to some extent, but it feels more immediate when you begin life as an infant who is “chosen” by a particular couple. Why them?What if it was someone else? What would my life be like? And of course I grew up just as Roe v. Wade was giving pregnant teen girls additional options, so I couldn't help but think that my very existence was an oddity of a certain period of American history.

But of course everything is random. I just so happened to go to Northwestern University, where I met my wife, and circumstances conspired so that we would fall in love and get married and have our kids, and so on. Still, when I think back on those events, I can’t help but imagine that it was meant to be.

For the characters in Await Your Reply, the self is a kind of Ouroboros, a snake swallowing its own tail. While they are busy trying to reinvent themselves, their old identities are following along behind. But I’d like to think that at least one or two of them will be okay, and that not all of them are purely victims of fate.

You began as an acclaimed short story writer. What made you want to move onto novels and was this a difficult incarnation?

I moved into the novel form kicking and complaining. When I sold Among the Missing to Ballatine, I was contractually obligated to produce a novel as my next book. So I didn't exactly choose the form, and I think that I bring a certain “short story” sensibility with me even as it looks like I’ll be working with the novel form for at least a while longer.

The thing that I like about short stories is the way that the narrative is edged all around with shadow, you’re dealing with one single incident and the territory outside of that is unknown--in the way that old maps were drawn, before the world was round.

In many ways, I prefer the “slice of life” way of thinking about the world; I've never been good at trying to encapsulate or summarize or offer up big philosophical overviews. Yet, at the same time, I’ve gained an appreciation for the kind of expanded canvas that a novel can offer.

Ultimately, it seems to me that these two narrative forms, novels and short stories, can interact with one another in interesting ways. I’ve been working on short stories which reconnect with characters from You Remind Me of Me and Await Your Reply, while at the same time I’m thinking about short stories that I’ve been working on as potentially parts of a novel.

It reminds me of that old Sesame Street cartoon that I loved when I was a kid:

Yeah, I still think that’s profound. It still makes me a little weepy.

Your books are dark, but I also want to mention how hilariously funny you are and how you seem to have a huge interest in the weirdest,, funniest things in the world—i.e. strange posed photos of people from the fifties, strange food sites. So are you laughing in the darkness or are you a genuinely happy soul?

A genuinely happy soul? Gee, Caroline, that’s a tall order—and I probably wouldn't make the cut. I wouldn't describe myself as “light-hearted.”

But I do like to laugh, and even more I like to make other people laugh. But it depends on your sense of humor, I guess. The two of us, you and I, have a similar funny bone, I think—a little dark and a little campy. We’ve shared terrifyingly hilarious magazine ads from the twentieth century, and awful cookbooks, and so forth. And I imagine that you probably get the dry jokes that are peppered around in my work, which I often secretly chortle over. Miles, I think, is often endearingly humorous. I love the scene with him in the bar with his friend, and his big sex scene sent me into fits of giggles. And I thought Ryan’s songwriting was awesome. And I enjoyed Hayden’s mean, stand-up comedian observations.

In short, I think there are a lot of moments of levity in all my books, but it seems like most readers focus on the “dark” aspects. In fact, one reader review took me to task for my utter humorlessness, and I felt very guilty. Do I just think that I’m funny, when I’m actually not?

I tell myself that it’s probably an acquired taste—a peculiar sort of laughter. I’m not trying to convince anyone, but I’m not trying to apologize, either. Sometimes I feel like the absolute best effect in books is the moment that makes you laugh and feel like crying at the same time.Lorrie Moore is a master of that; so is George Saunders. So was my late wife, Sheila Schwartz.

My own sense of humor owes a lot to Sheila. Sheila died of Ovarian Cancer in November, 2008,after an eight year struggle with the disease, and that was as terrible as it sounds. But at the same time we both learned how to joke about the situation. Sheila was the funniest person I have ever known. She had a spine of steel and a heart of gold, and it was that weird combination—brutal irony mixed with compassion and empathy for people’s foibles—that made her such a great observer. Such a great writer.

Here is one of the essays that Sheila wrote during her illness, called “Three Cancer Patients Walk Into A Bar.” I think is horrifying and hilarious and terribly, terribly heartbreaking, all in equal measure.

The reviews have been absolutely phenomenal for this book. Do you ever read your reader reviews on Amazon and Goodreads ( the from-the-masses reviews?) Have you ever gotten a bad review and if so how do you deal with it? Do you take it to heart or just laugh and go make yourself a sandwich?

It’s foolish, but I read everything. I have been warned against it, but ultimately I am really curious to know what readers have to say. It matters to me.

Of course, sometimes the people that write reviews for Amazon or Goodreads or whatever are idiots, but that’s actually pretty rare. Most of the time, if someone cares enough to bother to write their response to your book, they’ve usually spent as much time thinking about it as the average newspaper reviewer. And—realistically—those online reviews are likely to reach more readers than any newspaper ever will.

Some of the positive reviews on various social networks have been incredibly heartening and inspiring. And some of the negative reviews have hurt pretty bad, especially when I can see their point-- you’re right, I suck-- to the extent that I actually wish that I could give those people their money back, or reimburse them for the time they spent reading, or erase the memory of having read my book from their mind.

My wife, Sheila, had a wise thought about this. “You’re not writing for people who don’t like your books,” she said. “You’re writing for people who love your books.” And that’s the most comforting advice I’ve ever received.

Still, there are the nasty and stupid reviews, where I fantasize about hunting those people down and torturing them in some kind of Saw IV way. Of course, they think they are safely hiding behind some fake Internet identity, but someday I will find them, and they will be sorry. That means you, (Name withheld) from (town withheld), (state withheld.) I think you're a dick.

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

You should have asked me how to say my last name. "Chaon” = “Shawn.”

Much easier than it looks. But widely mispronounced.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Read this Book: Bird in Hand

Bird In Hand by Christina Baker Kline is one of those books that I have been carrying round with me and urging everyone on the planet to read. It's a knockout, about love, lies, and the choices we make that can change a life instantly and irrevocably. Plus, how can I not adore another writer who also is phobic about driving and accidents?

Bird in Hand took you eight years to write. What was your initial inspiration? What kept you going through such a long process? Did the novel change over the years?

The story of Bird in Hand emerged slowly, from a number of sources. I’ve always thought of this creative process as akin to sand rubbing against other detritus inside an oyster shell, eventually creating a pearl. (Though I recently learned that this theory of pearl formation is apocryphal, I still like the idea.) Here are a few I can identify:

Fear of Driving …. Just over ten years ago I moved from New York City to Montclair, New Jersey with my husband and two young boys. After many years of relying on subway trains and taxis, suddenly I was driving on unfamiliar (and confusing) highways, with not only my own precious human cargo in the backseat but other mothers’ as well. Late at night, I’d terrify myself with “What If” questions, such as: what if something happens to one of these children, my own or someone else’s? What if somehow I’m responsible? As I turned these kinds of questions over in my mind, I realized – with the writer part of my brain – that it would be a lot more useful and less neurotic to use them as material than to keep pointlessly obsessing.

The Seven-Year Itch …. My husband, David, and I had been married for seven years at that point, and were, like many of our friends, going through a complicated time: a new house, a new lifestyle, two small children, loss of autonomy for both of us, some loss of identity for me, a stressful job for him, a commute into the city … I wanted to write about the complexities many couples deal with at this stage of their lives, whether or not they come through intact.

And Now for Something Completely Different …. My other novels – The Way Life Should Be, Desire Lines, and Sweet Water – are all about young women on a quest to find out who they are. I wanted to write from male perspectives; I wanted to write about children; I wanted to give my characters clashing motivations. I wanted to explore darker subjects than I’d tackled in the past. For a while Bird in Hand seemed impossible to pull off. I couldn’t figure out the structure. (In fact, I put it aside for a few years and wrote The Way Life Should Be.) My amazing editor at Morrow, Kate Nintzel, came up with the idea of telling the back story – the part that takes place in England – in reverse chronological order. After that, the whole story fell into place.

Though Alison is portrayed, in some respects, as the victim of Charlie and Claire's affair, you are also very careful to show us Claire's side of the story, and Charlie's, too. Was that difficult for you to do? Did you find yourself siding with one character over another?

It was exhilarating to move from one character to another in this novel. I loved all of them equally. Flaubert famously said, of the vain, shallow, adulterous heroine of his most famous novel, “Madame Bovary, c’est moi” – and that’s exactly how I felt with these characters. I found that I sided with each as I wrote from that character’s perspective. It made perfect sense to me, writing as Claire, that she was entitled to Charlie’s love. I understood Ben’s ironic distance and distraction. I empathized with Charlie’s restlessness and yearning. And though Alison’s perspective begins and ends the novel, I always thought that the other characters were equally entitled to their points of view.

Writing Bird in Hand, with its multiple perspectives, spoiled me. When I began my novel-in-progress this spring (working title: Orphan Train), I intended to write from one character’s POV, but found it constricting. I decided to give voice to two other characters around her. It creates a richer writing experience for me – and I think it will expand the scope and the depth of this book.

Your personal experiences could inform pieces of both Alison and Claire: you are a writer like Claire; you re a mother like Alison. How, if at all, did you use your own life in creating all four characters?

One of the many joys of writing fiction is the alchemy of it. I love that bits and pieces of my own experience, my thoughts and feelings, overheard conversations, friends’ stories, movies, TV shows, and other books work their way in, often without my consciously realizing it. Grace Paley once said, “It is the responsibility of writers to listen to gossip and pass it on. It is the way all storytellers learn about life.” But to answer the question: I used my own life in many ways in this novel. I think that these four characters are all me, and they’re all my husband, David. They’re also lots of other people I’ve met. And no one at all. I felt like an actor (or perhaps several actors) writing this book: I truly inhabited these characters. I became them as I wrote.

Part of what makes this novel so compelling is the thought that any of this could happen to any of us. The details that make up this novel feel very real. How did you make this happen?

The accident scene gave me a lot of grief. I consulted with police officers, a passel of lawyers, and finally with a Vice President of Public Relations at Liberty Mutual Insurance Company, who patiently explained the intricacies of New Jersey laws and liabilities. Several times I was tempted to cut that opening altogether: I worried that it tilted the book too heavily toward Alison, that it formed a cloud that she couldn’t get out from under. But ultimately I think it is a crucial part of the story, propelling everyone toward the kind of seismic change that might not otherwise have happened. In a larger sense, I wanted to convey the idea that mundane and seemingly trivial details comprise the bulk of our existence. These details make us who we are.

Bird in Hand can be seen as a criticism of romanticizing modern marriage. And yet the ending isn't necessarily sad. Do you feel that each of the characters made the right choice? Or just made a choice?

In real life, I am something of a romantic – and happily married! But I also know that marriage is hard, even under the best of circumstances. In this novel I wanted to show what’s hard about marriage; I wanted to explore characters who can’t quite figure out how to communicate with each other. I wanted to follow them to all the dark and elusive places. Truly, I don’t think Alison and Ben had much of a choice in any of it. But I suppose I believe that for Alison to live the rest of her married life with someone who isn’t in love with her would be sad and pathetic.It’s better to know it now, while she’s young and has a chance for a rich, happy family life with someone else. Charlie’s decision may have been just the impetus she needs to find out what she really wants. And Ben? Maybe he’ll get that baby after all.

What are you working on now?

I love teaching at Fordham, where I’m Writer-in-Residence. And I’m working on a new novel, tentatively called Orphan Train. This is the first of my novels that involves an actual historical event and lots of research, which is both exciting and daunting. I’ve started a blog, which is exciting and fun to work on, about the experience of writing this novel – it’s about craft and discipline and the creative process. It’s called A Writing Year: Ideas and Inspiration for Writing a Novel, and you can find it at (

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Welcome to bronchitis-ville

Sick. Antibiotics. Be back soon.