Sunday, April 25, 2010
Monday, April 19, 2010
Thank you so much, Holly.
So, what’s it like to be a debut novelist getting all this attention?
Unreal. It’s a dream come true, and all the rest of it. But I am very conscious that I am at the beginning (hopefully) of a career, and I will have much more to be proud of when I have stuck it out and written several books, not just one. I should probably just relax and enjoy it more…I am always a little too concerned about hubris.
Where did the idea of the novel come from? (I read your remarkable essay on Amazon about the line between what happens in real life and what happens in an author’s fiction, so I had to ask this.)
The characters, the plot—I honestly don’t know. But there were certain themes that had been on my mind, and I think the story came about because of those preoccupations. I was thinking about how obsessed we are with control, and how in this life it’s all illusion; it can disappear in a second—for instance, the moment you find out someone you love has been murdered. I am a Metro section addict—I read about the things that befall ordinary people, and wonder what happens next, after all the news articles have been written. And so often those stories involve secrets, and ordinary, decent people making terrible decisions. Also, I am a mother, and I started the book when my kids were very small. So, really, it is parental love that is the underpinning of the book. The illicit romantic stuff is really just the surface.
Betrayal figures prominently in The Swimming Pool—do you think it’s ever possible to be betrayed) or to do the betraying) and come away unscathed?
I don’t think so. I think it’s possible to heal, but no way would it not leave a wound. I don’t know if I personally could survive it, or if I could heal very well.
Honestly, the plot of The Swimming Pool involves things I would never do. Dear God, I hope not. But I knew that they were things that these characters would do, and that these characters were not fundamentally bad people, despite their actions. I wanted to dig down and understand the how and why.
The ending, which I won’t give away, is a stunner. At what point in writing the novel did you know what your ending was going to be? Did it surprise you?
Let me just say that I am dying to go visit some book groups (I already have a few scheduled), so I can talk about the book with people who have read it! It will be so interesting to hear what people think of the ending. It came about naturally—I didn’t know it at the beginning of the process, certainly. When I had the idea it shocked me (just like the idea of Jed and Marcella’s affair shocked me), but it also seemed right. Once that idea was in my head, nothing else would work.
I knew that my job then would be to make it believable from a character point of view. The characters involved absolutely had to act organically, and the ending had to be the natural outgrowth of their other actions and of who they were. Also, I don’t think it’s shocking from a whodunit point of view; real mystery buffs would probably spot it a mile away. But I think it’s shocking from a character point of view.
Speaking of the ending, I should mention that the only really substantive change my editor wanted was for me to lop off the last seven pages of the manuscript—what was essentially an epilogue. I absolutely agonized over it, but in the end I decided she was right. And she was. Now I can’t imagine it any other way. I like very much that these characters come to some sense of peace and resolution, but that the story is not over—it’s continuing, somewhere, after you close the book. I know where I think they go, but readers might have other ideas. Which is as it should be.
I have to comment on the great marketing strategy—a book about a steamy love affair, dark secrets, set on the beach, yet with a pedigree of blurbs that makes it undeniably literary. I especially loved the marketing letter which ended, “Is it hot in here?” as a tease. Were you involved in the strategy? Was this how you saw your novel?
No, that line was my editor’s. She gets all the credit. I always saw it as literary fiction—or, at least, that was what I was shooting for. The more commercial aspect of it is surprising to me. Probably because when you’re writing your first book in total obscurity, it’s amazing to think that anyone will ever want to read it! I like the term “literary page-turner.” Literary merit and plot are, obviously, not mutually exclusive. I always read for plot—although by plot I usually mean emotional plot rather than action, and in the end that’s what this book is about. It is about how characters get from A to B to C emotionally and psychologically. There is a tremendous amount of tension in those evolutions.
I also want to say that I was so, so lucky with those blurbs. Those authors were extremely generous; it’s an embarrassment of riches.
What idea is obsessing you now?
My next book. The working title is The Sweetness of Honey. It’s a Cain and Abel story about two half-brothers, nearly twenty years apart in age, who are both teachers at a New England prep school; they fall in love with the wrong people, who, just to make things interesting, are also the same people…the center of the book is the older brother, who’s Cain, of course. Another deeply flawed character whom I love anyway. The bad guys are always the most interesting, right?
And finally, What question should I be mortified that I didn’t ask?
Oh, no mortification. These were wonderful questions. Thank you so much for having me here.
I first discovered Aryn Kyle when I reviewed her ravishing debut novel, The God of Animals, for The Boston Globe. (I gave it a rave.) She has a new book out, the superb collection of stories, Boys and Girls Like You and Me and because she's also really, really funny, I asked her if she would do a guest blog for me. Thank you so much, Aryn!
That Horse Book
My first novel is about horses. I didn’t mean for it to be about horses—really, it’s about a family—but it’s set on a horse ranch and, draft by draft, the horses became more important to the plot until my friends began to joke that I should just call the book Horses. Think how much easier it would be to market, they said: “If you like horses, you’ll love Horses, the debut novel by Aryn Kyle!”
Every time I thought about this, I kind of wanted to die. I’d read the horse books growing up, had watched the horse movies on television—they were full of earnest girls who pined after geldings like they were forbidden lovers and saved the day, though barely, with their grit and good nature, their commitment to doing the Right Thing. The world did not need any more of these books, I thought, and I did not want to be the writer of one. But my novel was full of horses; there was a horse on the cover. People would ask, “What’s your book about?” and there really was no answer that didn’t include the word: “Horses.”
In interviews, I tried to minimize my own horsiness: I didn’t grow up on a ranch, don’t live on a ranch now, don’t, in fact, live anywhere near a ranch. But it’s impossible to control every situation, and I have the unfortunate habit of sometimes zoning off during my own interviews, which accounts for the occasional horsey sound bite. Quite near the top of an ever-expanding list of regrets I have in life would be the comment I once made during a video interview, now immortalized on YouTube, declaring that my first love was an appaloosa.
Overseas, things were even harder to control: Everywhere I went, they took my picture with horses. In Antwerp, I was driven to a stable for a television interview and instructed to walk through the barn, feeding the horses as though this was what I did every evening—a scenario which lost a little more credibility every time a horse nipped at me, causing me to shriek and run away.
A few days later in Amsterdam, I rode with my Dutch publicist, Ingeborg, to a photo shoot at yet another stable. During the drive I tried to explain—more than fifteen years had passed since I’d even ridden a horse. It made me feel a little sleazy to keep posing beside them for photographs. Ingeborg told me that the magazine I was being photographed for was the Dutch equivalent of Mademoiselle. I should not feel sleazy—they would do my hair and makeup and dress me in designer clothes!
I’ll spare you the details of the horror show that followed and just say that somewhere in the world there now exists a photograph of me dressed like a colorblind go-go dancer and kissing a horse on its cheek.
Eventually I realized that my best hope for escaping a lifetime of faux-equestrian photo ops was probably just to write more books about fewer horses. The very last thing I did before I sent my story collection off to my agent was search the document for the word “horse.” One had managed to make its way in after all, and I considered rewriting the sentence to cut it. But within its context, this horse was more metaphorical than literal, and I thought it might be bad luck to have an entirely horseless collection. Besides, who has time to worry about one little horse in a story collection that includes puppet therapy and a pirate dinner theater? I look ahead at book tour and imagine the photographic possibilities.
Saturday, April 17, 2010
Ok, I admit it, I can be a lazy writer, or at least it feels that way sometimes. I can take a a year to write a first chapter because I keep fiddling with the words, fussing with a sentence to the point of being ridiculous (Should it read, "He ran to the store" or "He ran"?) Maybe it isn't really being lazy at all. Maybe it has to do with not wanting to let this glorious writing stage go into the next panic-inducing stage of giving pages to my agent and then to my editor. The sort of "proof is in the pudding" stage.
For the past year, while I've been doing page proofs and edits for my new novel Pictures of You (Algonquin! November 2!) I've been working with two new novels at once. I threw out two hundred pages on each. I finally--because it felt too Schizophrenic to me--settled on one novel, (I'll do the other one later) and I began once again writing and writing and writing and never getting further than Chapter one.
So I did the only thing I knew how to do that might work. I had someone give me a really tight, nearly impossible deadline. While at lunch with my beloved agent, I told her what was going on and begged her to give me a timetable. "June 1, three chapters," she told me. "We'll submit as a partial." I was thrilled! June!! That was a short enough amount of time to kickstart me into letting this novel go. Then, I contacted a writer friend, a smart, serious critic and begged her to look at three chapters for me before I sent them off. "May 1," she said. Even better!
So now, I guess you could say I'm a little possessed. I have to let go, have to push forward now, have to stop worrying about the perfect sentence and move more into the story as a whole. My writing feels different now with this deadline, more feverish, more involved, and to my absolute delight, less judgmental.
Now, if only someone would give me a deadline for my script.....
Friday, April 16, 2010
Thursday, April 15, 2010
Wednesday, April 7, 2010
I first heard of Ann Hood years ago, back when I picked up her extraordinary debut, Somewhere Off the Coast of Maine. I was enthralled and began following her career obsessively, to the extent that though we've never met, I feel, because her work is so bold and brave, (Read Comfort for its blazingly honest exploration of loss), that I feel that I do.
Ann's new novel, The Red Thread is a gorgeous story based on her own experiences adopting a baby girl from China following the death of her daughter Grace. I asked Ann if she'd write something for my blog, and she graciously agreed. Many, many thanks Ann, for both another book for me to love, and for your piece below.
On the morning of September 6, 2004, Mrs. Li, the director of a small orphanage in the industrial city of Loudi, arrived at work and found a baby girl in a box at the door. Most of the abandoned babies were only a few days old, usually with the umbilical cord stump still attached. This baby was different. Dressed in blue pants and blue and white flowered socks, she appeared to be five or six months old. Between 2003 and 2004, over 500 baby girls were adopted from this one orphanage alone. Mrs. Li was finding babies at the rate of five or ten a week. Like she did with all of them, she took this baby inside where the doctor examined her. She was given a crib to share with another baby who had been found a few days earlier. She was given a name: Lou Fu Jing. Six months later, that baby girl would become my daughter Annabelle.
It is illegal to abandon babies in China. Yet mothers who give birth to daughters do it every day. For fear of being caught, they leave no clues, no records, no letters or information with the babies. Therefore, the first five months of Annabelle’s life will forever remain a mystery to us. Ever since we brought her home, I have found myself imagining the woman who gave birth to her, kept her for five months, then one morning dressed her in blue pants and white socks with blue flowers, placed her in a box, and left her on that orphanage doorstep. Had she tried to hide her and got caught? Was Annabelle a second daughter abandoned when her mother got pregnant again, hoping for a son? Or did her mother die and her father was unable to keep her? Or? Or? Or? I imagine so many histories for my daughter, spinning tales to complete her life story.
When I began to write my novel, The Red Thread, I wanted to tell the stories of the women in China who are forced to abandon their baby girls. Since those women do not speak of what they’ve done, I had only my imagination to create their lives. By inventing their stories, I felt closer to that stranger who gave me the gift of her daughter. This Mother’s Day—my fifth as Annabelle’s mother—I will pause in my day. I will close my eyes and imagine that city. The air there is polluted and gray from the steel mill that dominates its landscape. I will imagine that woman, moving through the crowded streets.
Perhaps she holds her son or daughter’s hand. Perhaps she is thinking of what to make for dinner that night. Perhaps she has a husband who will touch her cheek lovingly, a baby who will lift her arms for her to hold it. Perhaps my gratitude will reach across continents and oceans and land in her heart. In her busy day, perhaps she too will pause, and know the daughter she had to leave, is safe and healthy and loved.
Tuesday, April 6, 2010
Monday, April 5, 2010
Barbara DeMarco-Barrett's the host of the fabulous radio show Writers on Writing, the award-winning author of Pen On Fire, and one of her short stories has just appeared in the anthology Orange County Noir. Since I'm a sucker for anything noir (and I happen to revere the films Barbara mentions here), I couldn't wait to ask Barbara questions. Thanks so much, Barbara!
So when you were asked to write a piece for Orange County Noir, what went through your head? Do you usually think of your home as the stuff of noir?
Actually, I heard about the idea from Susan Straight at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, as we stood at the breakfast buffet, contacted the editor (Gary Phillips) and he said he'd like to see a story. I love noir movies (Double Indemnity, The Postman Always Rings Twice) and wanted to try my hand at it. Plot worried me at first; it's my biggest weakness as a writer. And as for my home, Orange County, well it may be sunny and happy seeming here, but darkness lurks. my home town, in fact, has a bunch of domestic abuse, white collar crime, and rich people crime--deaths in the ocean (Oh, she just fell off the yacht!) and suicides. So my home town, and probably most home towns, have the makings of noir.
I loved the story, which played out like a Robert Mitchum film noir to me right down to the knockout ending. Tell me where the idea came from and what it was like writing the story?
Oh, I loved Robert Mitchum in Cape Fear. Like I said film noir is my favorite genre in film. My story has its genesis in another movie, Days of Heaven (one of Richard Gere's first movies.) When I first started toying with plot, I thought: She could be a knitter (like me) an has a studio in the industrial section of Costa Mesa and this guy stalks her and she stabs him with a knitting needle. Then I thought: too typical. And then Days of Heaven began swimming through my head so I watched it again. I loved that film. It's so bittersweet and tragic and Sam Shepard is at his finest. I thought about the movie's plot and how I might contemporize it, and that's how my story Crazy for You came about. You'd never recognize the movie in my story, but that's where it came from. I had great fun writing the story. I suppose writing dark fiction is especially fun because it's not a world I care to go to in my daily life. I have known shady characters and loser types, though mostly when I was a teenager, and strains of those boys found their way into Levi.
Your book, Pen on Fire: A Busy Woman's Guide to Igniting the Fire Within was an LA Times bestseller and it won an ASJA Outstanding Book Award. I've recommended this book in my UCLA writing classes simply because it has a real understanding of the whole writing process while making you feel that any obstacle is not insurmountable. I also loved the idea that it's never too late, and it's always a mistake to give up. What do you think the most important component is for a writer to succeed?
You're a sweetheart for saying that. probably the most important component for success is becoming your own biggest advocate and taking yourself seriously. If you don't, who will? And then, of course, keeping your derriere in the chair on a regular basis.
You also host the fascinating radio show, Writers on Writing, which is downright revelatory about craft and the experience of being writer. (Plus, as someone who's been privileged to be a guest on your show, you really are one of the best interviewers around.) Have there been interviews that have really surprised you in terms of what the writer revealed?
I'm sure there has been, but it's been 12 years since I started the show so if there were huge surprises, they probably came early on. But one thing that I hear often is how serendipitous publishing is, and how if you keep on writing and progressing in your chosen craft, you will often succeed.
What project is obsessing you now?
My agent is circulating a book proposal that very much deals with the business end of writing, specifically about agents. And I'm working on a memoir. The rough draft is done. Now comes refining and revision, which can be greatly satisfying, y'know?
What question didn't I ask that I should have?
Oh, I don't know, maybe something about setting priorities and still having a life. I'm big on sacrificing social occasions--lunches, dinners, shopping, movies--for my writing, but not for my family--my son, in particular who's 15 now. He comes first, and I wouldn't have it any other way. They go from being little kids to big kids in a flash. I've been there for most of it. So if you have to give something up to make time for your writing, take that time from somewhere not all that important, and keep that time with those close to you.