Sunday, January 30, 2011

Jo-Ann Mapson turns the tables and interviews ME

Jo-Ann Mapson is a stellar author and also a friend and she's interviewing me, here! thank's Jo-Ann!

I’m turning the tables on Caroline Leavitt, the incredibly talented writer, inspiring teacher, who so generously blogs about everyone else’s writing.

Pictures of You is the story of two women, unhappy in their marriages, whose lives literally collide in a car accident. April dies, but Isabelle survives, with guilt is so enormous she feels compelled to become involved with April’s husband and young son. It’s a lot more complex than that, but I don’t want to spoil anyone’s reading experience.

When I began to gather questions to ask you, I picked up the book again—and read it all the way through. A book that stands up to and begs for multiple readings is a great book, in my humble opinion. It’s exciting that Pictures of You has gone into multiple printings before it’s pub date. There’s a real buzz about it, and I hope it leads to good things.

The characters in this story are so real. Some haven’t finished high school. Others have asthma. Overprotective fathers misinterpret things. Mothers we’d like to forget are driving forces.

Can you tell us about creating April, Sam, and Charlie? Where does your inspiration for them come from?

I started the book with just the image of a car crash, and a woman standing the wrong way in the road, with a little boy running off to the side. Originally April was much darker but I began to realize that it would be much more complex if she was more complicated, if there was a part of her that people could relate to or even feel for. Sam originally didn’t have asthma, but when it showed up, I didn’t want to write it. I had suffered through a terrible childhood with asthma (it’s very mild now), and the last thing I wanted to write about was the shame and grief and terror of that time. But it kept coming back, and in lavishing my attention on Sam, I seemed to have healed my own shame about my past!

Charlie, to me, was your basic good guy who comes to realize that he didn’t really know the woman he loved best in the world, and he gradually comes to also realize that it was his own fault. That he saw what he wanted to see. I found that so fascinating.

There’s also a sense of overlapping mysteries—April had a secret life, Charlie has her investigated. Sam is friends with the dangerously unsupervised Teddy. How did you use suspense techniques in this story?

It’s funny you asked that because this is actually my first book where I’ve really tried my hand at suspense. A lot of the time I just didn’t know what I was doing and some of it actually came about without my knowing it. (Just now when you asked about Teddy, I thought, “Oh, yes! I can see that!” But it wasn’t intentional.) But as I was writing, the idea, “What happened that day? What really happened?” kept beating like wings in my head, and that propelled my writing.

Talk about the role of parenthood/motherhood in this book.

I gave Sam three kinds of parents. April, his mother, yearns to be perfect and yet does some really dangerous things. When he’s sick in the hospital, she gives him peanut butter and enrages the nurses. Yet, she is determined to make him feel that even with asthma, his life can still be special and an adventure. Charlie also wants to be a perfect dad, but he’s overcautious. He doesn’t push communication, which causes a lot of mistakes. Isabelle is sort of the ideal. She respects Sam. She opens his world by teaching him photographer, and she’s very open about saying what she thinks and feels. She’s all about seeing what is really there, and going deeper and deeper until you do.

There’s a hornet inside Isabella’s car. Luke hides a picture of Isabelle and himself in a wall. Sam reads up on angels. Even Nelson the unsociable tortoise has personality. How do you find those details to make characters and setting so realistic and at the same time so human?

I wish I knew. Sometimes I think my mind is just a repository of details from my life or from the lives of my friends and I remember them at the right time. I’m afraid of hornets in the cars. My husband and I hid a photo of ourselves in a wall. I had a tortoise for many years who was also cranky as all hell. With Sam, it was just the vision of a little boy reading about this whole angel world.

This book is different from your others particularly in the time frame. We get to see characters in the future. Why was that important to the story?

That leap ahead just came out of nowhere, but as soon as it did, it felt like a gift. I had been floundering around, trying to figure out the right end, and suddenly, I felt this jump ahead was exactly the way to end the story. I always feel that I want novels to be “never ending stories.” You turn the page and you still feel the characters are living their lives, that things go on. It was important to me to see how Sam turns out, and I couldn’t do that unless he was also an adult at some point.

What question didn’t I ask? And what are you working on now?

You could ask me, how can people find out where you are touring so they can come so you won’t have to read in front of three people? My website has all the details. Also, does writing get any easier? The answer is no. Every book is different and in a way, it gets harder. Right now I’m working on a novel set in the late 50s and early 60s in suburban America, which is due to Algonquin in 2012.

Joy, Joy, Bliss Bliss!

My books at Costco!

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Hope Katz Gibbs talks about Truly Amazing Women

Hope Katz Gibbs, is a truly amazing woman. And she's also the author of the book, Truly Amazing Women Who Are Changing The World (check out the website). I was so enamored of this project, I asked Hope if I could pepper her with questions. Thanks, Hope!

Where did the idea for Truly Amazing Women come from?

Having been a journalist since graduating from the University of Pennsylvania in 1986, I got used to being the only woman at the editorial meeting. When we'd be pitching story ideas, I'd be the one saying, "You know, we really should write about more women."

Luckily for me, when the editors gave the nod (persistence is one of my gifts), I was the one assigned to write the story. And I have had the honor of profiling hundreds of amazing women in my career.

But the idea to write the book came to me in April 2008 after attending two events filled with amazing women in one single day. The first was a luncheon hosted by Nechama Shemtov, the leader of an influential Jewish DC organization called Aura, held at the DC residence of the Ambassador of Colombia. Speakers included Fran Drescher, Hadassah Lieberman, Rep. Shelley Berkley of Nevada, and Holocaust survivor Nesse Godin. More than 200 of Washington's elite ladies filled the room.

Hours later, I headed over to a fundraiser for Hillary Clinton at the home of DC philanthropist Edie Fraser. I again found myself in the presence of dozens of amazing women — all of them banding together in an effort get a truly amazing politician elected president.

Over coffee the next morning, as I recounted the previous day over coffee with my husband, illustrator Michael Gibbs, he said, "You know, you should write a book." That day, the website was born. So I credit the creation of Truly Amazing Women to my amazing man.

I’ve been loving your website,, particularly the reasons "why she did it," which really illuminate the whole creative process. What do you, personally, think makes an amazing woman?

I am so glad you like this approach, because my goal is to give time-strapped readers a snapshot of what the women do, and why they do it, as a way to inspire others to step up and become the amazing women they can be.

As for what makes someone "truly amazing," well, that's a little tricky. On the one hand, it's pretty obvious that Oprah Winfrey is amazing — especially with her Angel Network. Ditto for other women in the public stratosphere who are doing incredible, tireless work, such as Hillary Clinton, Michelle Obama, Jordan’s Queen Noor, among others.

But they really don’t need any more press. So the goal for this book is to highlight women who are making changes in their own way. Sometimes it is a smaller contribution, such as Kim Valentini who founded the Smile Network International and brings in doctors to do plastic surgery on poor children with cleft lips. And there is Carolyn Kellams, founder of Keep Your Freedom, Keep Your Dreams, which trains teen parents in California to teach others how to prevent teen pregnancy.

In addition to featuring incredible nonprofit founders, I also highlight entrepreneurs, authors, educators, and other women who are making a difference in the lives of others. For me, an amazing woman is someone who has dug deep inside, pushed past her demons, and sticks to her mission despite the obstacles.

You have a proposal for women to fill out, on how they are amazing, which I want to tell everyone here about. Have you found that women are reticent about promoting themselves or that they might think they are not amazing (when they clearly are?)

Of course! We're women, right? We are conditioned to promote others, shy away from the limelight, and downplay our amazingness. Of the 100-plus profiles that I have posted so far on, nearly half of them required me begging, cajoling, sharing a bottle of wine, and (twice) doing a little dance to convince her.

Believe me, I understand the reason some women hold themselves back. But one of the things that I think I do well is to see the brilliance in others. I have made it my mission to bring that to light. It's a fascinating sociological aspect of this project, isn't it? That so many truly amazing women don't admit to, or fail to see, their amazingness? And perhaps worse, they don't think they are making a difference. If I can accomplish anything with this project, it would be to shift how women think of themselves.

There is something incredibly empowering about claiming your power, saying, “Yes, I’m amazing,” which I love. It's also incredibly empowering to realize that you can make a living at what you love to do. Do you find, in a way, that these tough economic times are in a way a gift, a now-or-never moment for people to find and follow their bliss?

Well, nothing polishes the diamond like adversity, right? In fact, I compare the bad economy to a forest fire that has burned down our old ideas about what is right and necessary. In its place is a fresh landscape where we can reinvent ourselves. It's not a pretty process, but it's fundamental to the nature of how society works. Personally, I love the idea of throwing off old models that, if we are being honest, didn't work so well in the first place, or have outlived their usefulness. Change is painful for all of us. But, for perhaps the first time in our adult lives, we can all try a new approach. I can't wait to see what all the truly amazing women out there do with this opportunity.

Tell us about the documentary you are planning to do?

As with everything worth doing, it's a process. Right now, I am diving into a world that I never fathomed I'd be invited into, and am currently talking to a major cable network about turning the profiles into a TV series.

And how I got to this place demonstrates the power of women. Through Facebook, I met San Francisco video editor Susan Utell, who gave me the idea to turn the book into a documentary. That led me to connect with video and TV producer Ann-Marie McHugh of Quincy Productions in New York – whom is the new videographer working with my PR firm, Inkandescent Public Relations. Another girlfriend suggested we pitch it to this well-known cable company where she has a contact. Amazing, huh?

Here's the idea for the show:

I want to profile three women in each episode. The first would be a woman who is high profile, such as Fran Drescher, who founded Cancer Schmancer; or journalist, author, and first lady historian Cokie Roberts.

The second would be a woman who is also known, but not a household name, such as Gail McGovern, who heads up the American Red Cross, and Josette Sheeran, the leader of the UN World Food Programme.

The third woman is one who is flying under the radar, yet making tremendous changes in people's lives, including cancer researcher Stephanie Bunt, who created a fundraiser called "Miles for Miles" to raise money for a friend with the fatal disease, progeria. And there's Molly Barker, founder of the international nonprofit organization, Girls on the Run, which encourages middle schoolers to put on their running shoes and stay fit.

Each would be featured, documentary-style, and share their story, dreams, and accomplishments. Each woman will also offer a leadership lesson that others can apply in their own lives. To me, the most interesting element of each segment will be the teaching component, so that viewers come away saying, "If she can do it, I can do it." I hope to start a revolution!

Are there any questions I didn't ask that I should have?

I think you covered everything. I can't thank you enough for helping me spread the word, and forencouraging more women to appreciate their own awesomeness. Anyone who is interested in being included in this amazing project can submit a proposal at And, I encourage everyone to read the January 2011 issue of The Costco Connection, where I had the privilege of interviewing you about your new book, "Pictures of You:" Congrats on being the Penny's Book Pick of the Month!

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

See You In A While, Crocodiles

My red cowboy boots, my black dresses and I are off on book tour for PICTURES OF YOU!

I'm fantastically excited, thrilled, honored and jazzed. I'll be sending photos to FB and reports, and I'll be back here towards the end of Feb. before I have to jaunt off again on here and there visits, taking me through May.

PLEASE Check out my tour, the news, the reviews,

Please come and say hi. I promise to draw coffee cups in your books and give you a hug.

Ellen Meeropol talks about House Arrest

Ellen Meeropol's House Arrest is well...arresting. Heidi Durrow calls it "a compelling debut" while Julia Class raves that it is “smart, provocative, and moving." I want to thank Ellen for answering all my pesky questions here.

What particularly impressed me about House Arrest were all the moral choices going on. Both Emily and Pippa have to make a choice about whether or not to break the law, for their own reasons. How do you go about crafting a character?

The spark for this book was a short article in the Boston Globe about a nurse who was assigned to monitor the pregnancy of a cult member. Her patient was under house arrest pending investigation of the death of a child living in the cult. It captured my interest so I clipped the article and put it in my “ideas” folder. A few years later, I still occasionally found myself wondering what it would be like for a nurse to build a therapeutic relationship with a cult member, with some whose health beliefs were so different from her own, and decided to explore the story. In my imagination, the nurse and an Isis cult member became friends and the novel’s ethical dilemma developed from that friendship. I had no idea where the narrative would go, but I knew the conflict had something to do with the care-giving relationship and with prejudice against the cult.

When I’m crafting characters, I often imagine them Thumbelina-sized, sitting on my shoulder and whispering their secrets into my ears. Perched on one shoulder, reserved home-care nurse Emily told me about her childhood in Maine, how she lost her parents because of their political activism, and how she believes that living by the rules will keep her safe. On the other shoulder, Pippa revealed what she discovered about her father, and why she had to leave Georgia, and how the Family of Isis welcomed her.

A sense of place and the natural world are important to the way my characters grow. House Arrest is set in the Forest Park neighborhood of Springfield, Massachusetts, where I lived for many years, and on an island off the coast of Maine, where most of my fiction takes place. I work surrounded by hand-drawn maps and elaborate family trees, grounding my characters in our shared imaginary world.

You come from a background of nursing which infuses this novel. How different is Emily from you?

I worked for many years as a pediatric nurse and nurse practitioner, particularly with children with spina bifida, the condition that Emily’s beloved cousin Zoe has. I never did home care, so I had to learn from colleagues in that field. I have worked with patients from different cultural backgrounds, people who have wonderfully varied ways of looking at health and illness, and I’ve always been fascinated by those differences.

Emily is not based on me (for one thing she’s half my age) but aspects of her character are drawn from young people I have known whose activist parents made choices that had terrible consequences for themselves and their families. Emily is haunted by her parents’ actions and frozen in her own life. Nursing is a way for her to connect with people and she’s good at it.

I read that you didn't begin writing fiction until your fifties. Why not? And what jump-started your desire? What was that like?

Some days I wish like anything that I had started writing much earlier. That way, maybe I wouldn’t be publishing my first novel and applying for Medicare at the same time! I’ve always read a lot, and I often thought about writing fiction. For many years I scribbled ideas on napkins and corners of the newspaper and collected them in that “ideas” folder. But it wasn’t until 2000, when I was planning a two-month “sabbatical” so that my husband could write his book, that I realized that it was a perfect time for me to jump in too.

We rented a cottage on that island off the coast of Maine that I mentioned before; there I met my muse and she literally changed my life. I wrote all the time. Three years later, I entered an MFA program and then I took early retirement from my nurse practitioner job. Re-inventing myself in my fifties was both humbling and exhilarating. Regardless of my age and my past life as a competent profession, I was a beginner again, free to experiment and make lots of mistakes. It continues to be a terrifying and liberating experience.

The novel talks a lot about forgiveness, and how whether we actually should forgive. Do you think there ever is anything that is unforgivable? Should compassion rule us more than our laws?

I don’t really have an answer for that question, Caroline. Whether or not to forgive something that feels unforgivable is such a personal decision. If I wanted to tell people how to live, I’d write essays or self-help books. As a person and a writer, I’m fascinated by situations in which well-meaning people make questionable decisions that have awful consequences and novels let me explore those stories, with made-up characters. For my characters, sometimes forgiveness is the only way to heal.

Can you talk about your writing process?

I’m a seat-of-the-pants writer. I start with a character, or a scene, or sometimes an image, and follow it to see where it takes me. I write at the computer, in a very messy office strewn with books and papers and magazines and folders and notes and maps and photographs. I’ve never made an outline, although I’ve often wished for one. I once heard E.L. Doctorow say that for him writing a novel is like driving on a dark road at night, with only your parking lights for illumination. You can only see ahead a short distance, but that’s all you need to keep going. I’m working on my third novel manuscript now and am just beginning to trust the process.

Another part of my process is having multiple narrators. I love reading books that offer the story from several points of view, and that seems to be the way writing narratives develop for me as well. The stories that fascinate me often involve complex perspectives. I enjoy developing my novels by alternating between four or five characters, taking turns sitting on my shoulders and opening their hearts to me.

What's obsessing you now in your work and why?

No matter what I’m writing, my obsessions tend to poke their nose into my characters’ business. In general I am obsessed by the way family legacies shape our lives, and by the interplay between our actions, especially relating to political activism, and the consequences of those choices.

Right now I’m working on a manuscript about a university professor who is kidnapped and taken to a civilian detention center on an island off the coast of Maine for interrogation. This is new territory for me and this book is frightening to write. One of the multiple narrators is a guy who believes that torture is warranted to protect national security. It’s enormously challenging to try to inhabit this character in order to write his scenes.

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

You didn’t ask me what the biggest surprise has been so far in the debut of my first novel. My answer would be the generosity and bigheartedness of other authors (like you!) and by readers. Publishing literary fiction is such a difficult business; there are so many books and so little space for “success.” But I’ve been amazed by the welcome from established authors, by the support, the blurbs, the suggestions, the camaraderie, and the generous response by readers. Thank you!

Tuesday, January 25, 2011


Hey! It's an Algonquin Books Giveaway for PICTURE OF YOU! To celebrate the official pub date of my novel, Algonquin is giving away two copies of my novel! All you have to do is leave a comment on the Algonquin blog ( or facebook page to have a chance to win! (And you'll win my undying gratitude, too!)

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Robb Forman Dew Talks about Being Polite to Hitler

I first met Robb because of a letter I wrote to her. Instantly, she responded, and she was so warm and friendly, that I kept writing to her. We've become friends--and she's truly one of the most important people in my life. A brilliant writer, she has the ability to tunnel so deeply into her characters' lives that you swear that any moment, they are going to ring your bell. Being Polite to Hitler moves through memory and history, the political and the personal with effortless grace. I loved the book--and I love Robb, too. Thanks, Robb, for answering my pesty questions.

Being Polite to Hitler is funny, moving, and so, so blazingly alive, thanks to your gorgeous, evocative prose. What’s most wonderful for me, is Agnes, who I’ve devotedly followed through the first two novels, who actually reaches her 70s in the novel, with an inner life that is just as sparkling as her outer one. When you began writing about her, did you ever expect her to end up the way she did?

When I began this trilogy I didn't think Agnes would be the focus of any one of the volumes. I had in mind something along the lines of Faulkner's Snopes trilogy. I thought I was going to be able to illustrate the rise and fall of a family within a community. But Agnes just...well, she had a world view that I hadn't imagined tackling, and I became more and more intrigued. And, as a matter of fact, in the first draft of BEING POLITE TO HITLER Agnes died. But it was too neat. No one dies that conveniently, and the last line of the book popped into my head and bothered me for weeks while Agnes was still dead.

This is your third book centered on the extraordinary and wonderful Agnes (and her family) of Washburn Ohio. The times have changed and we are now in post WWII America, with a familiar cast of characters. Did you always see these books as a trilogy?

I did see them as a trilogy, but initially there was a novel that precedes THE EVIDENCE AGAINST HER. It began about 1830 with the Scofield family, who were hard-scrabble farmers in Pennsylvania. But I suddenly found myself trapped in what is always referred to as "Historical Fiction," and I didn't want to have to wrestle with those assumptions about what I was after. Of course, then people assumed that EVIDENCE was historical fiction, which drove me crazy!

You have an enviable ability to show just how fluid time is, but I’d also say that you have a knack for showing how fluid family is, as well, and how people continue to impact the lives of others. Would you comment on that?

I'm often asked that question, and I once found myself arguing with my students, in a class I was teaching at Iowa, that if Henry James did say that a writer couldn't use a universal narrator (which my students had been mysteriously talking about as a "universal P.O.V.") that he was simply wrong. I had been so worried about not having any idea what a P.O.V. was that it took me quite some time to make my point. I don't think that is exactly what he said, because whatever works, works! I wish I had a choice in the matter, but I cannot think of time as static, nor can I think of a person as ever separate from his or her experience.

The problem for me is that everything that is always true, is always true all of the time. I work very hard to separate the pointless from the significant in conveying character and family, and at one point in the novel previous to this one, my husband was reading a section for me--which I couldn't do without, but which I don't always accept graciously. He came to find me and spread the marked pages out to show me. "You know, sweetie, I just don't think the history of WWII is your story," he said. I was appalled, because I had become fascinated with various treaties and little known meetings.

"How can you SAY that? I need my audience to know what's going on in the world..."

"Well," he said, "but, you know, there are other sources." Charles teaches American History, and I threw away about 150 pages which would have been deadly boring to anyone but me--and would even have been boring to me the second time around.

I love all the history threaded through the narrative. What was the research like for you, and given the historically rich periods the novel covers, how did you decide what to use and what to discard, particularly as the events impact the characters?

Don't you think that we are entitled to the memories of, say, our grandparents? If we live in a household that is saturated with the stories told by the people we live with, then those stories, filtered through their telling, and also filtered by our affection or dislike of the story-teller...Well, it's absurd to imagine that those stories aren't possessed by us as memories, too. I was about six years old when my parents and Red Warren and Cal Lowell--probably Peter and Eleanor Taylor, Alan Tate--I can't remember exactly who was there--but they and my parents and my uncle got into what turned into a spirited discussion in which eventually they settled on the fact that if a person preferred Benny Goodman to Artie Shaw, then it was inevitably the fact that that person would prefer Tolstoi over Dostoevsky. And vice versa: If you liked Artie Shaw then by rights you must prefer Dostoevsky over Tolstoi. I wasn't old enough to understand what was being debated, except that it was being debated with deeply earnest intensity. I was an argument that was never resolved in my extended family, and it was a moment that I claim as a memory of my own.

I loved doing the research for the first book, because the book was dependent on my perceptions of that era. I became fascinated--oddly enough--with the huge Corliss engines eventually built by Scofields and Sons, a company, of course, which was invented. In fact, I spoke to a wonderful woman in Dayton, Ohio, at The National Cash Register Company which houses the last extant Corliss engine, and she went down to the works and held her phone out so that I could record what it sounded like. I was astounded at the sound--a sort of smooth, muscular, loud--but purposeful--noise. I drove my friends crazy insisting that they listen to it over and over.

As it turned out, though, I only described that sound very briefly in one paragraph of the book.

What I particularly loved about this novel is the way the minute details of family life play out against the monumentally terrifying political events—i.e. the threat of nuclear war, the social change of the 50s and 60s and the 70s that is undermining all that has come before. The family seems to evolve even as the times do. Because it all feels so seamless, I wanted to ask you about your process. How much of a novel do you know before you sit down and write? Are you an outliner or do you fly by the seat of your writing pants, so to speak?

My sense of being dismissed as a "domestic" writer had become increasingly annoying to me. I was 52 when I began this trilogy. For one thing, people betray their bias when they refer to a book as domestic--Jonathan Franzen is, in my opinion, consumed entirely with domestic life and its fluctuations within a frightening and changing framework, but no one would ever describe his work as domestic fiction. But I had put myself in the position of being considered less than...well, I hadn't had the courage to express my whole point of view. I have virtually no education; who was I to make pronouncements? And finally I thought it was time I grew up and had my say. Not that anyone was waiting around for me to do so, but I needed to try to make my case. I'm not at all sure I've succeeded.

I've always thought that the profound and the mundane were one and the same thing. We all live our one, insulated life--there's no choice--and suppose you gave birth to a baby at the same moment, say, that John Kennedy was assassinated? In your life your child's birth is far more profound, but in the life of the world babies are a dime a dozen. But it seems to me that it's far to easy to dismiss the personal as unimportant as opposed to the universal. My fiction is about character--what people are like and how they became who they are--and I was determined to attempt to make people see that.

I love the provocative title, Being Polite to Hitler, which is about staying safe, hiding your terror, and appearing to do the right thing—an impossible act given the changes flying all about the characters. Can you tell me how this title came about?

As a matter of fact, that was a saying in my household. A sort of code, really. When we were off to see people we didn't especially want to see, or going to some event we dreaded, it was referred to as: going off to be polite to Hitler. Little, Brown really wanted me to change it to...well, to anything else! "IN THE GARDEN," was one of their favorites, and I still don't know why--unless they meant something along the lines of the garden of life. My editor liked my title, but whomever is the head of LB was dead set against it. I ended up in tears to my long suffering agent, threatening to withdraw the book from publication--which I couldn't possibly have afforded to do, and somehow or other my editor persuaded Little, Brown to let the title stand. I think LB thought it would antagonize whomever they think is my natural audience. I hope they're wrong!

You and I have had many conversations about the writing life vs. the publishing life—and both are, indeed, different species! Do you personally see hope for the future of publishing?

I grew up among poets and critics and writers--and also among readers. Reading simply was more relied upon as entertainment and fulfillment. We'll never see that intensity again But I've always thought there was a core group of serious readers of about 20,000. I think that number won't change much, but we will have a whole different genre of reading, I think, that isn't intended to be anything but entertaining. I think that's fine. And, anyway, it's inevitable. But I would hate to be young and becoming a writer now. I don't think any but a very few can make their living doing it. I can't even find anyone with whom to discuss fiction with me except other writers! It used to be one of the greatest pleasures of my life--well, and thank god for email, because as you know, discussing books is invaluable to a writer. And just fun!

What is obsessing you now? What question didn’t I ask that I should have?

Oh, well. I've backed myself into a peculiar corner with all these characters still roaming around in my head. I've been obsessed with the idea that I may never be able to shake them off! And I'm so glad you didn't ask me what I'm writing next!

Jonathan Evison talks about West of Here

I can't tell you how thrilled I am to be asking Jonathan Evison questions on my blog. First, you have to know that he's a knockout, genius writer who has written THE book of 2011. (Don't take my word for it, look at the starred advance reviews from PW, Booklist and Library Journal. Look at how Vanity Fair raves and he's the number one indie pick.) But even more importantly, you have to know what an incredibly funny, kind and truly generous guy he is. I personally would like to bottle him and sell him if I could. (How about, it Johnny, we could make a killing.) So thanks, Johnny, for both the incredible book and for the personality that goes along with it.

I read somewhere that you wrote this before All About Lulu? I loved Lulu but this book is so much larger in scope I’m trying to figure out how one evolved from the other. Why didn’t you publish this one first?

Nah, I was researching West of Here while I was writing Lulu. Lulu being a first-person voice novel, practically wrote itself. I knew with West of Here I really wanted to push myself as a craftsman. I wanted to use every tool in my belt and a few I didn't have. It's rather shocking to me--after the fact-- that the novel has enjoyed such a broad appeal. With 41 limited points-of-view, and a hundred odd years to cover, i was afraid I might lose a lot of readers.

You also told me that part of why you have such thick skin is that you wrote six novels before All About Lulu that no one wanted. I find this incredible, both that no one wanted them, and also that you were able to persevere and keep writing and remain incredibly cheerful. Was this out of need or belief in yourself or both?

If you'd read most of them, you see it wasn't so incredible that nobody wanted to publish them. The first three were all out stinkers. As far as what keeps me going, it's the process of writing itself. I need it to distill all the stuff life throws at me. Not that it's always a barrel of monkeys--writing West of Here probably took a couple of years off my life. And writing the book I just finished, literally broke my heart. But I always feel like I come out the other side a better person.

Where did the whole idea for West of Here come from and how did you manage to seemingly effortlessly juggle all the story and time lines?

Well, I wanted to bring the history of the Olympic Peninsula--the history of America, really--to life on the page. But I didn't want to write a historical novel, per se, rather a novel about history, about footprints, who makes them and who follows them, etc. And rather than employ a wide-angle lens to historicize the material, I wanted my lens to be a kaleidoscope of overlapping limited points-of-view, so that the living history which I sought to create, was democratic. In my experience, most "histories" only tell one side of the story. As far as juggling all those POV's, it wasn't effortless--it was a big fat pain in the ass, but in the end, exhilarating.

Gertie, one of my favorite characters in the book, says that a “person is made up of choices”, an idea which keeps playing out through the book. But how much real choice do you think we have in our own choices, especially when we are hurtling through the forces of history?

Well, for starters, you have the choice to complain or make lemonade, as it were. I think this fundamental choice in outlook has a far-reaching effect on any life, and also on all the lives that touch that life. Determination and optimism are choices, and from what I've observed, they can pay big dividends. Or not. Either way you feel better, and the people around you feel better.

The line “we are haunted by ourselves” links the past to the present (at least it does for me), Do you think it’s ever possible to escape our past, all that has come before us, or do you think it is coded into our DNA?

Absolutely it's possible to escape our past. It may be hard as fuck, but it's possible, and we all know folks who have done it. I don't think you can outrun your past, I don't think can hide from it, but I know for a fact you can turn around, look it in the face, accept it, and move on. That's what Port Bonita is trying to do, and that's what America ought to do. The world, really.

I deeply admired how the tone and the writing changed in the historic parts and present day. How difficult a hire wire act was this? Did you ever feel discombobulated?

To write these two epochs in American history in the same voice would have been a disservice to the narrative, I think. We don't speak the same language we did in the nineteenth century, figuratively or literally. Manifest destiny, for instance, is no longer a commonly accepted ethos. We know longer think anything is possible, not without without paying a few fiddlers, anyway. Cynicism is far more common these days. And the government's not giving away land to anyone with a shovel, anymore.

OK, tell me what’s coming up next for you besides richly deserved fame and glory and maybe some more rabbits?

Well, I'm done with my next novel, The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving, which will pub sometime in '12 or '13. Again, it's a departure from West of Here, which is a novel of big themes and ideas. The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving is a novel of the heart. I think it is at once the saddest and funniest thing I've written. At present, I'm deep into a new novel, The Dreamlife of Huntington Sales, which is possibly a more ambitious narrative enterprise than West of Here. IF IF IF it works-- but the real joy, is finding out.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Alice Hoffman talks about The Red Garden

Alice Hoffman really needs no introduction, but I want to give her one anyway. A bestselling author for adults and young adults, a screenwriter, and humanitarian (she does great, great work for breast cancer), she's also beloved by her legions of readers AND she knows and loves NYC's City Bakery, renowned for the best hot chocolate on the planet. I took the arc of The Red Garden with me everywhere, from the NYC subways to a book convention in Michigan. I'm thrilled Alice agreed to answer my questions. Thank you so much, Alice!

What I really loved, beside the shimmering language, was how strong and powerful the women were, something that kept being passed down through the generations. Could you comment on that?

The Red Garden is very much about survival – in the natural world, in the world of loss and love. The women in the book all have the will to survive, even in the most extraordinary circumstances, and I think there is a sense of knowledge and experience being passed down throughout the history of the town.

The Red Garden had so much of a magical fairy tale quality to it, but by that, I mean The Brothers Grimm—the real, dark fairy tales that haunt you, rather than the happier Disneyfied versions. Would you agree? And where did that love of fairy tales come from?

I grew up reading fairy tales, and always felt they were the stories that didn’t talk down to me as a child-reader. The darkness inherent in Grimm’s’ Tales, and the Russian fairy tales my grandmother told me, seemed “true”. I think children understand that fairy tales are often journeys that chart growth – growing up, finding oneself or one’s true love. Real fairy tales are often brutal, and beautiful as well.

The Red Garden, explores the threads that link people and places and memories together from the 1700s to the present. You’ve explored before, in Blackbird House, how a place can become a character and a catalyst, and how the natural world can influence or impact our choices. Do you feel that we can ever escape our pasts or our places—and should we?

In Blackbird House the focus was a house, and the ways in which an old house can contain many stories, many lives. In The Red Garden I think the complications are more complex --- it’s the story of a town, but also of the complicated relationships and personal histories of the residents. I made a “family tree” after the book was completed and was surprised to find how inter-related everyone was, and how many secrets were never discovered.

I loved reading about Johnny Appleseed in The Red Garden, and truly, the novel is filled with history. I was wondering how much research you did or if you let your imagination take over?

I did quite a lot of research, and I was surprised at how my vision of Johnny Appleseed was formed by Disney. He was a truly remarkable character – a precursor to the hippie movement, a true believer. For each story, I researched the time period and my characters grew out of the time periods in which they lived.

I’ve been reading your work since Property Of. It seems to me that your earlier works feel and read differently than your later ones, which isn’t to say they allaren’t terrific. I’m wondering how much of this is organic or conscious or a little of both? Do you feel that as you yourself change, so does your writing?

I think most writers have themes or obsessions, but I agree that a writer’s work changes with life and work experience. What you write at a very young age reflects who you are as a writer in a particular moment in time. It makes sense that as you experience the world your vision evolves. Hopefully, we get smarter and are more compassionate as time goes by.

People talk about how difficult it is to translate good books into good films. Obviously the forms are different. It’s funny, but Independence Day (a wonderful film that you wrote), feels like an Alice Hoffman movie, but Practical Magic, though enjoyable, did not. Maybe it’s that word “based on a novel by”, which changes the story for filmic purposes. Or maybe it’s simply because you didn’t write the script. So, I’m curious. Had you ever envisioned Independence Day to be a novel or was it always a script, and do you think that’s why it felt like such an intrinsically Alice Hoffmanesque film? Is there a way to solve this problem of better translating a book onto the screen?

I wrote the screenplay of Independence Day so it was “mine” in a deeper way – I wasn’t the screenwriter or involved in the production of any of the films made of novels. Independence Day was never envisioned as a novel; it was always meant to be a film. I think a novel can make for a great film, but it has to be a unified vision. The practice of having three or four writers on a film is a mystery to me – how could there be a voice or a vision?

What is obsessing you now?

For the past five years I’ve been working on and researching a novel set in the distant past in the Middle East. I’m currently obsessed with the time period – finding out everything from how cheese was made, to what sort of snakes lived in the wilderness, to the habits of leopards.