Tuesday, February 28, 2012

The amazing Tracey Becker, producer of Finding Neverland and the upcoming Hysteria, talks about producing, helping writers, and so much more!

My son Max grew up in Big Fun, this wild and wooly toy store that was right down the block from us in Hoboken. Since Max was there all the time, my family got to know and really like Joe Falzarano, one half of the owners. (He's also a producer who teaches comedy at LA Standups.) We never met Tracey Becker, his wife, but I heard about her all the time from people wandering in who would talk to Joe (yes, I eavesdrop), and always, always in glowing terms.Then I began to see her around town, and she always looked so incredibly happy!. I caught her waltzing with her baby at the Cabin Fever party at the local Elk's Club. I saw her exuberantly talking to someone on the street.  I didn't know her, and was too shy back then to introduce myself, so the opportunity just vanished. And then I heard that she had gotten famous. BIG FAMOUS. She had optioned a property which became the Oscar winning Finding Neverland with Johnny Depp. Then she was producing this big new upcoming film, Hysteria, and a film about Jerry Garcia, Losing Jerry. The whole family had moved to LA, and Big Fun was never the same. 
I started this blog, and the biggest pleasure for me has been in talking to people and finding out how and why they do what they do. Because I had also started writing scripts, as well as novels, I wanted to talk to film people as well as novelists, so I tireless began combing the web and FB, looking for the people I admired and whom I was dying to talk with--and to my delight, there was Tracey. You might think that someone this famous would brush me off, or simply be too busy to respond, but Tracey got back to me immediately, and was warm, funny and completely wonderful. I love the answers she gave, and I can't wait for Hysteria. Thank you, thank you, thank you, Tracey.

You have this amazing story. You started as an actress and then became a playwright, and now you’re an award-winning producer. What was the journey like to the other side of the camera? How do you feel that your training as an actress and a writer helped you as a producer? Were there any surprises?

I'm flattered to be called a writer - even if it is in error!  Yes, I started out in drama school at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York when I was 19, and quickly got to work as one of the most in-demand, completely unpaid actresses in the City.  Although emotionally ready to play Medea at 21 (she innocently believed), all of my film and tv auditions were for very perky cheerleader types.  Assuming I could bring great depth to those roles, and not the requisite amount of perk, needless to say I didn't land many jobs on screen, but theater was a different story.  I am a process whore - and theater afforded me constant access and involvement in the process, and I loved it.  I was blessed to work with many amazing living playwrights, and eventually realized that I had a capacity for understanding story and structure, and so ended up dramaturging many of the plays I was in.  
Eventually I grew frustrated of rehearsing for months with a core group of undeniably talented folks, only to perform most nights in front of seven wrangled audience members and a cadre of cockroaches on the fifth floor of a walk-up building on East 39th Street.  Thinking I could get a better audience and squeeze more money out of the non-existent production budget, I foolishly began to produce.  At the time, I was also a member of the 42nd Street WorkShop, a really wonderful collective of writers, directors and actors.  I partnered with actress/director Nellie Bellflower and we began producing a series of staged readings of new plays by both new and established playwrights in the Hamptons.  It was gorgeous - our first season was at MoMA's Art Barge in Amagansett, and the place was so old that they couldn't handle more than 4 or 5 clip lights, and we had NO budget, so the actors would sit on rickety stools full of paint drips in front of a row of slop sinks and we'd time the shows precisely so that the setting sun over the bay coming through the picture windows would be our stage lights.  Somehow we'd convinced Moet & Chandon to sponsor the whole thing, so our well-heeled guests sat on folding chairs sipping champagne and hearing new plays come out of the mouths of all of these fabulous actors we'd imported from our WorkShop and Broadway.  
Our second season we moved to the John Drew Theater at Guild Hall in East Hampton, and it continued to grow.  We produced an off-Broadway play to great reviews, and then realized that since we were neither "to the manor born" nor did we marry partners with deep pockets that perhaps theater wasn't the only thing we could produce.  Realizing that many of the plays we were getting were really screenplays in disguise, we decided to try our hand at developing screenplays, as well.  About that time, Allan Knee - one of the members of the collective - had written a play called "The Man Who Was Peter Pan" that Nellie and I fell in love with.  We optioned it, knowing that it would make a terrific screenplay.  We worked first with Allan, and then with David Magee - who we also knew from the WorkShop - to develop the script that eventually became the film "Finding Neverland".  I still think that my proudest achievement to date was when David was nominated for an Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay for the film Nellie and I had in mind seven years earlier when we first saw the reading on stage. 
I love the story of how you optioned a property, and then suddenly, you were producing Finding Neverland, with Johnny Depp, and winning all sorts of awards, including seven Academy Award nominations. Did you know—and how do you ever know—that this or any project will garner acclaim? What do you look for in a story? 
You never really know that anything you do will garner acclaim.  Frankly, you never really know whether or not something you've spent seven or more years on will even get MADE, much less seen, much less win an award.  The real award is getting the sucker on screen.  That being said, however, I knew that we had a beautiful, magical screenplay that was quite unlike most of what was in the marketplace at the time.  That was both good and bad - good because so many people responded to it, and bad because most folks said "we love it, but we don't know what to do with it."  I've gotten that reaction many times since then!  
I wish I could tell you what it is that I look for in a story, but it's not yet definable.  Maybe in thirty years I can look back at my body of work and be able to find the thematic, but right now, I'm just attracted to the intangibles.  A character that moves me - that somehow reveals a part of myself that I hadn't recognized (or owned up to) yet.  A little bit of magic - something that makes me forget I'm reading a screenplay and totally transports me into this world.  And I need to want to (or have to) LIVE in this world, with these characters, for the next decade of my life - because that's how long indie films can take to get made, sometimes.  If I'm not willing to share my life with this story for the foreseeable future, it's not the right one for me.

Most novelists I know spend about four years on their novels, though certainly it varies, and some can manage a novel every two years. Movies, of course, take a lot longer, and I read that Losing Jerry, the new film from your company, Beachfront Films, took five years to develop the script. I’m intensely curious. What’s the process of developing a script like for you?

I'm sure that films are sometimes like novels - the development of each one is its own, unique process.  I sometimes think indie movie development/production is like being asked to create the wheel, only being given a completely different set of raw materials, instructions and tools every time.  You know what it's supposed to do, and roughly how it's supposed to look, but how you make a wheel out of clay and a bulldozer versus how to make one out of steel and a toothbrush are two very different - and unique - processes.  That might be a bit of an exaggeration - but not by much.  
Sometimes an idea will come to me from something I read, or hear on the radio, or via something a friend says/tells me, and I'll know that there's a germ of a movie in there.  Most often, when friends who don't do what I do tell me that they know a story that would make a great movie, they're halfway right.  There's an interesting incident or an idea that could be used in a movie - either as part of the story or as a marketing hook - but the nuts and bolts of the story - the whole story - isn't there, and it's my job to figure out whether it's really a movie.  
For instance with HYSTERIA (insert shameless self promotional plug here...), my friend Howard Gensler - who is the Arts & Entertainment editor for the Philadelphia Daily News - came to me more than ten years ago with an idea.  "Did you know that the vibrator was invented in Victorian England by a doctor who used it to treat women diagnosed with hysteria?"  We both knew there was a movie in there somewhere, but what WAS that movie?  It took a couple of years to find the right team to figure that out.  Director Tanya Wexler came on board knowing that whatever it was going to be, that this was the movie she felt destined to make.  We then found screenwriters Stephen and Jonah Lisa Dyer.  By then, we had a two page treatment which used the vibrator as a device (yes, pun intended - but when you make a movie about vibrators, you can't avoid them), but that the REAL story was about social change and knowledge.   
We also knew that we had to tell this story in an entertaining way, and since we couldn't stop giggling every time we mentioned the "v" word, we figured it had better be a comedy.  What better way to fit all of this in than to develop a classic, old-fashioned romantic comedy, with the vibrator as the catalyst of the two characters coming together.  (Pun NOT intended, but...)  So every time, every idea - whether it's a book adaptation (like the amazing, gut wrenching adaptation of "Huckleberry Finn" I adapted with the HYSTERIA writers), or a screenplay that comes to me already written that I give extensive notes on - wherever it comes from - the process is always somewhat similar.  Find the story - decide whether or not there's a market for the story, figure out how big or small of a budget that market will bear, and then dive in to tell the most compelling version of that story possible.    
You also have a wonderful company Scriptswami.com, which offers screenplay consulting, analysis and coverage.  The site is packed with incredibly useful information and insider tips, but what strikes me most of all is how generous you are with what you know.  Why, with all that you do (and you also have a nine-year-old) did you also set this company up and how do you find time to do what you do?

I absolutely LOVE working with writers.  It's my favorite part of the process, to be honest.  So when I'm not in production on one of my films (which is a little too rare, anyway) I find it cathartic to help writers get to the next level with their work.  Whether or not it's a script I have an interest in producing, I attack every script I read the same way.  I assume that the writer is interested in getting notes and feedback from a working producer, as opposed to another "reader for hire" that might be a film student or a wanna-be writer or a studio wonk that's not as invested in getting the script right.  Sometimes readers simply want to put their own stamp on the material - but I can't work that way.  Certainly I will have ideas that may or may not work, but I know that the genesis of the idea is what the writer should pay attention to.  If I'm coming up with a possible solution, it's because there's a problem - and that's what the writer needs to acknowledge and tackle in a re-write.  Whether he/she uses my idea or not is (mostly) irrelevant, so long as they understand where the seed of the problem lies, and are able to address it.  I feel that there's room enough in the pool for everybody, so why be so precious with what I might or might not know?  I'm no expert - I'm just a gal who's pretty passionate about helping tell good stories.  A lot of writers have had success working with me to help refine their work, and that's pretty gratifying.
What’s obsessing you now (besides Hysteria, your new film, which will be out in the spring)?

May 18th via Sony Pictures Classics in NY and LA, to be exact, rolling out to the rest of the country after that!  Right now, in addition to working very closely with a couple of amazing filmmakers on developing their next projects, I am producing a very cool, very sexy thriller set in the late 30's on the deserted island of Floreana called "The Galapagos Affair".  It's based on a true story and was written by the wonderful William Boyd - bestselling British novelist and screenwriter ("Chaplin").  I'm also working with Eric Howell on the feature adaptation of his Oscar short-listed 2010 film "Ana's Playground" about children in war and human trafficking.  It's a really powerful script and he's  filmmaker whose names will be on everyone's lips very soon.

What question didn’t I ask that I should have? 
Oh, I can think of so many....  not.  Writer's block?  Maybe.  How about... "How do you feel about adapting bestselling author's novels into film?"  Well, bestselling or not, books and film are really such different media.  There is nothing more satisfying to me than getting swept away in a novel - especially one that plays with its narrative structure a bit.  Because I'm so jaded, at this point, I tend to read EVERYTHING with an eye toward turning it into a feature screenplay, so I LOVE it when I get lost in a world that doesn't immediately scream out to me "I'm a movie in disguise!"  
On the other hand, knowing how to distill a screenplay (which ideally is 110 pages long -including scene descriptions) from a great novel is also thrilling.  My favorite book-to-screen adaptation (as of this writing) is John Irving's "Cider House Rules".  I am a huge fan of his - "A Prayer for Owen Meaney" is on my desert island list - and the work he did to distill one clear, definable, actionable story from his sprawling novel was beautifully executed.  I think you've got to have tough skin to be a novelist in the first place, and a double layer of callouses to watch that story morph into something that might resemble that book baby you gave birth to, but it might end up looking nothing like you, and that's not something everybody can handle.  Okay - that rambled on a bit and didn't quite get to the point, so maybe you should've asked me another direct question!

And finally, so do you miss Hoboken? Big Fun just isn’t the same.

I DO miss Hoboken - and I desperately  miss New York.  Thankfully, we have the world's greatest family and friends there, so need no other excuse to come and visit!  Big Fun (the toy stores that my husband and I owned in Hoboken and on Hudson & Horatio Sts. in NYC) was an excellent chapter in our lives, and a piece of us is still in every whoopee cushion we see...

Monday, February 27, 2012

Anita Nair talks about The LIlac House, Greek myths, crime and more

I was sent The Lilac House to blurb, and I think I was enraptured by the second paragraph. About grief, recovery and the way two people make a connection, The Lilac House is as engrossing as it is haunting. I'm honored to host Anita Nair here.

Tell us where the idea for The Lilac House came from?
I began writing The Lilac House in October 2006. The idea was to write a light novel but eventually I decided that I couldn’t waste the next few years writing a book that would mean nothing to me. Perhaps it was that thought that drove me to seek new dimensions, a fresh texture, and in due course found myself working on this rather complex narrative.

I was really interested in the structure, how you told Meera's story, and then Jak's and slowly the two converge. Was this by original design or did this happen during the writing? And do you map out your novels before you begin or are you the kind of writer who simply discovers the story as you are writing it.

The cyclone happens when a hot steam of air and a cold stream of air converge. Hence I wanted to carry this phenomenon into the narrative structure as well and so arrived at two streams of thought namely Meera and Jak’s. This was part of the original design as the novel came into its own when I decided to use the cyclone metaphor. In fact in many ways that has become the pattern of my writing. First the idea, then the metaphor that captures the idea the best and from it stems the writing.
I don’t really map the story out but somewhere in my head is a beginning and an end…. The exciting thing for me to get from that point A to point Z

Can you please talk about the role of Greek myths in the story? And how you came to write the knockout Thereafter... ending. I'd also like to know if you feel we can ever make peace with our pasts.

I was reading Robert Grave’s The Greek Myths and suddenly it occurred to me that the gods and goddesses of Greek myths are probably just as human as we are with none of the guilt we seem to be burdened with.  Their depths of degradation are as low as they are triumphs. It makes a great metaphor. And Hera seemed the capture all that Meera was and hoped to be.
The Lilac House would have ended very bleakly for both the reader and me if it had ended without The Thereafter. And so I decided that I would work in that final image of hope. No rainbows and tinsel streaked horizons but a glimmer of hope which is enough for most of us to move on. I am not certain that we ever make peace with our pasts. But we need to make that effort to come to terms with it. 

What is obsessing you now?
A crime novel that I began on a whim. I am not even a reader of crime fiction in general. Nevertheless some strange power drove me into writing a first chapter and thereafter I had to delve within and around me to be able to carry it forward. It was a world that I was not familiar with. But sheer doggedness in terms of research has propelled the novel forward. It’s also writing out of the comfort zone which makes me that much more satisfied with every chapter written. Especially as very few crime novels have emerged from India. So going into territories that others haven’t makes me feel a bit of a pioneer and super sleuth. 

What question didn't I ask that I should have?
Well, you have asked me all the important ones so there isn’t any I can think of either…

Friday, February 24, 2012

Dan Chaon talks about Stay Awake, Suzanne Vega, buttering up his toast and more!

What's so terrific about Dan Chaon is that not only is he one of our most celebrated and brilliant authors, but he's also outrageously funny, totally hip, warped-in-the-best-way and an all around great, great guy. 

Among the Missing was a finalist for the National Book Award, You Remind Me of Me was named one of the best books of the year by The Washington Post, The Chicago Tribune, the San Francisco Chronicle, The Christian Science Monitor and Entertainment Weekly.  He also is the recipient of the 2006 Academy Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters.  Stay Awake, his latest collection, is not only racking up the raves, but it also had me so unsettled that I dreamed about it--and I still feel haunted. 

I can't tell you how much fun it is to have Dan here on my blog again (and psst Dan, re your last question: I have the perfect person but she's a die-hard New Yorker and can't move until her girls are in college in 3 years!).

A zillion thanks, Dan!

So, I have to ask, because you’re so modest, what does it feel like to be the toast of the literary world?

As toast,  I enjoy being buttered up. 

 I read that you’re writing the script for Await Your Reply. What’s the process like, especially in adapting your own work.  Do you see things you wish you would have changed when you were originally writing the novel, or do you see the film as a different entity altogether? And did you teach yourself how to write scripts or was this a skill you already had?

I started out as a film major in college,  and my heroes were Hitchcock and Welles.   Then I realized that film was all about collaboration,  and,  being a control freak,  I got discouraged.  I drifted over to fiction writing and got stuck in it,  since I liked the fact that it allowed me to be actor/director/writer/producer/set designer/makeup consultant/etc.   and I didn’t have to worry about budget issues.  

When the production company Anonymous Content asked me if I would be interested in writing the script for Await Your Reply,  I was really surprised,   and I took some time to think about it before I accepted the challenge.   I had to get my mind around the idea that,  whatever I wrote,  it would just be a blueprint for a big collaborative project that would involve a great number of people. 

But I liked the work of the guy that they had chosen as a director,  Frederic Planchon,   and it seemed like a chance to revisit my early interest in making films,   so I decided to roll with it. 

The biggest issue was that a huge part of the novel was interior.   Most chapters involved characters thinking about stuff,  rather than actual dramatized scenes.  So that had to be dealt with.   Ultimately,  the screenplay became a very different creature than the novel.   I expect that,  as things go forward,  it will become even more different.  

The good thing is that the novel will always exist as itself.   Whatever happens with the film is not in my hands,  and that is pretty interesting.   I’ve gotten to a point where I’m less concerned about controlling everything,   and I’m just curious to see what the seed will grow into,   once it has been chewed and digested and reconfigured by many minds.   It might be awful or it might be really cool.   But in the meantime it’s fun to participate in it.  

There a huge sense of anxiety in these stories, almost an encroaching dread of ghost stories (the Bees kept me awake at night), and yet there’s also a kind of humor sifting through.  Do you think people can ever find peace or be able to really reinvent themselves? Do you think that who we are is sort of like a stain we can’t get out?

That’s the big question,  isn’t it?   I  don’t know the answer,  though I’ve spent my life thinking about it constantly.  

I have lived my life in a state of constant reinvention.   I was adopted as an infant.   My mother claimed that she “picked me out,”  that she got to walk through a room full of adoptable babies in cribs and that she chose me.   I kind of doubt that is true,  but it certainly affected my sense of myself,   the sense that I’ve always had that “who I am” is random,   the result of caprice rather than fate….

In AWAIT YOUR REPLY,  one of the characters thinks  “You could be anyone,”  and I don’t know whether that is a blessing or a curse.  

The stories in STAY AWAKE are also full of people who want to reinvent themselves,   to escape into new identities in one way or another,   and who succeed and fail to varying degrees in that endeavor.  

Do I think they will ever find peace?   No.   But I’m not sure that “finding peace” is an achievable goal,  or even a goal that I’d personally want for myself.   There is one guy in my story “Long Delayed,  Always Expected”  who seems to have found peace,  but he is irrevocably brain damaged.  

I’m curious about the title. Can you talk a bit about it?

It’s from a song from the movie Mary Poppins.     In 1988,  not long after I finished college,  Hal Willner put out a compilation of covers of Disney songs on A&M Records called “Stay Awake: Various Interpretations of Music from Vintage Disney Films.”  The album contained an incredibly sinister and spooky a cappella version of “Stay Awake” sung by Suzanne Vega.   Even as a young man,  I knew that I wanted to write a story about the feeling that the song had evoked in me,   and I  had that title in my notebook and I knew that it would become something someday.  I only had to wait 25 years.    

What’s obsessing you now?

I’m at a point where I’m waiting for the next obsession to appear.   So you could say that I’m obsessing about not having an obsession.    Lame.   I’m sorry.  

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

 Can you hook me up with an awesomely cool single friend of yours?  

Deborah Henry talks about The Whipping Club, Jews in Ireland, research and obsessions

 I'm so honored to have Deborah Henry here talking about her new novel, The Whipping Club. Thank you, Deborah! 

I’m always interested in process. Can you tell me where and how the seeds of this novel sprouted?

I was barefoot in the grass, playing with my children in our backyard.  I was marinating, as I call the pre-writing phase. Born of a Jewish father and an Irish Catholic mother (though not immigrants) it dawned on me: What would my parent’s relationship look like if they had met and married in Dublin in the 1960’s? The answer was not good.  Interfaith marriages were unacceptable. Being a child of a mixed marriage, I wondered about a fictitious child born to such a couple. My budding story evolved into a manuscript rife with uncanny similarities to harsh events that took place in Irish orphanages. The more I researched, the more I uncovered a hidden Ireland, an island in which thousands of adults and children were forcibly separated, many of them “orphans” adopted by American families, and many still live with a vague sense of identity and a yearning for connection to their roots.

Everything about this novel is so alive. What was the research process like? What surprised you?

I remember reading JEWS IN TWENTIETH CENTURY IRELAND: Refugees, Anti-Semitism and the Holocaust by Dermot Keogh at the beach, and a friend saying, “You mean all three of them?” I joined a group called The Irish JIGS – The Irish Jewish Interest Group and had the pleasure of visiting a section of Dublin called “Little Jerusalem.” I also had the great opportunity to meet with a number of the prominent Jewish community in Dublin, including the family of Robert Briscoe, the first Jewish Lord Mayor of Dublin, and found their contributions to business, law, medicine and the arts in Ireland far greater then their numbers would suggest, far greater than most people are aware.

I have interviewed Mary Raftery and Mike Milotte, award-winning Irish journalists, and have received firsthand the personal testimonies of the survivors of Magdalene laundries, Mother Baby Homes, Orphanages and the Industrial School Systems, receiving generous help from the best-selling authors, Bernadette Fahy and Paddy Doyle. I spent the better part of two years engrossed in nonfiction titles and writing down questions. I traveled to Ireland when the research and question sheets became excessive and there, I would study the smells in the air, the people, the sounds on the street – all the nuances of Dublin and the suburbs of Dublin where much of the book takes place. Every trip also included interviews with police officers, lawyers and members of the RTE.  Overseas, I would search video stores and find films relating to any of my subjects. Mostly, I found country dramas involving unwanted pregnancies, and converted them to the United States VCR recording system, and listened as well as watched everything, including mannerisms, dress, flora and fauna, and idiosyncrasies of the culture. I spent hours at the Irish Jewish Museum, walking the streets of Little Jerusalem in Dublin, interviewing the elderly at the Jewish Nursing Home. I also spent time with homeowners in Donnybrook.

My grandmother Sara Conroy, who hailed from the North of Ireland and I, were very close. There is a photograph of my deceased grandma above the mantelpiece in my office. She had grown up on a farm and rode horses and ate well, so I was quite shocked and dismayed when I learned about this underbelly of Ireland. The undercurrent of darkness, the anti-Semitism and, especially, the cruelty to children, disturbed me. I read some incredibly well documented books which helped me uncover these sorrowful subjects. Banished Babies, The Secret History of Ireland’s baby export business by Mike Milotte and the late Mary Raftery’s groundbreaking work Suffer the Little Children: The Inside Story of Ireland’s Industrial Schools along with heartbreaking memoirs by Mannix Flynn, Patrick Touher, June Goulding, among others. I realized, too, that this wasn’t an Irish problem alone. This was, and is, a worldwide epidemic and needs to be exposed.

There is a photograph on my desk of 5 Mount Eden Road which bears a remarkable resemblance to the Ellis family residence I had described years before in my novel. There is a drainpipe which Jo used to climb down from her bedroom window. As I walked along the lovely roads in Donnybrook, I stopped in front of this home, which looked identical to what I had written. These neighbors invited me for tea and walked me through their gardens so I could learn more about the natural surroundings, all of which helped with texture in my story. There were other instances of uncanny similarities to chapters I had written years earlier. In one scene, Jo falls though a stained glass second floor window ledge and lo and behold, The Donnybrook Church has stained glass windows and a ledge on the second floor. These were interesting moments; moments of intense synchronicity. Brief but wondrous, like pieces of a puzzle perfectly dropping into their rightful place.

The novel has a great deal to say about the secrets we keep and the ones we feel compelled to reveal. But what really interested me was how grace can be found in the bleakest of moments. Can you talk a bit about that?

I never really know what the story is about until the end.  The protagonists Marian McKeever and Ben Ellis in THE WHIPPING CLUB feel enormous shame and guilt about the sacrificial secrets they kept from one another during their marriage. There is also loads of anger and resentment toward the Irish society’s social and religious intolerance that this interfaith couple and their children must endure. In the end, though, the characters, battered down in every possible way, let go of their hate. A sense of forgiveness for their younger selves, for the missteps that have shaped the arc of their lives, and for the society in which they live, takes hold of them.  The nobility of forgiving one’s self and forgiving others, in an authentic manner, seems to emerge for me often. It is the highest calling. I tried to find the humanity within each character and eventually, as they began to breathe on their own, many of the characters struggled to find the light within their own secret darker selves.

What was the actual writing like?

It took me well over five years to research and write THE WHIPPING CLUB. In the early years, I would drop my children at school and drive to a deserted field and write in my car until pick-up time. During the summers, I would get up at 4:45 a.m. to write for a few hours before the first birds sang and before my children awoke. As the work developed, I would hole up in Dublin at the Shelbourne Hotel and also, The Killiney Castle Hotel, to rewrite, edit, and conduct interviews. I like settling into a routine of writing every morning for at least four or five hours. Three years ago, we moved to a different home in the same town of Fairfield, Connecticut, which upset my writing space a bit. My office now is much fancier and sort of in the middle of adjoining rooms – all of which is distracting, so I have built bookshelves in a room in the basement with no heat/air conditioning and no windows, which seems suitable for writing. I need complete quiet to think which is why getting up so early is helpful. Sometimes, I drive to the beach and write in my car.

 Other than the intense passion I have for my three children, I have never experienced enthusiasm the way I feel when I write. Although there were only a few moments, “moments of clarity” I call them, moments when those missing puzzle pieces fall into place as if they were always there waiting to be found, these moments made up for all the years of failing and retrying, all the early hours, all the hard hours, all the grueling day after day and night after night efforts.
 What’s obsessing you now?

I have begun another novel with the working title, MADNESS, which takes place during the French Occupation in Paris and follows the travails of a French woman (married to a Jewish man) who has a relationship with a German soldier. In today’s publishing climate, as authors in both traditional and independent publishers are required to do oodles of publicity, I am busy with THE WHIPPING CLUB, but the budding story is thankfully, growing.

Ron Hogan 's new venue for interviewing authors!

This is from the incredible Ron Hogan, a friend to writers and readers and I want to pass it along.

Most of you are familiar with the Beatrice.com website, and some of
you might even have done interviews with me over the years. I'm
putting together a new version of Beatrice -- an app that will publish
feature-length interviews with authors of fiction and nonfiction, as
well as streaming video from those conversations. I've already got one
issue -- featuring acclaimed memoirists Darin Strauss, Deb Olin
Unferth, and Alina Simone -- just about ready to go, and several more
interviews already taped. But I'm asking for a little help with the
initial development, which is why I've launched a Kickstarter


If I can raise enough funds by the end of March, I'll be releasing the
Beatrice app for free; the more I'm able to raise, the more interviews
I'll be able to share before charging for new issues. I'm really
excited about this project -- I think it's a great way to extend
Beatrice's mission of introducing readers to great writers -- and I
hope you'll believe that a new publication dedicated to raising
authors' profiles is worth supporting.

Whether or not you're able to support it directly, though, please
consider spreading the word to your friends -- and, for those of you
who have an online presence, to your readers. The more people hear
about this project, the more likely it becomes that enough people will
contribute to the campaign to make it a success. If you're on Facebook
or Twitter, and you'd like a shorter URL to share with your friends
and followers, you can use http://kck.st/wW23D5

Thank you for hearing me out -- and for any support that you're able to give!

Ron Hogan

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Jodi Picoult talks about Lone Wolf, the Holocaust, and more

If there is a real life Supergirl, I'd have to say it's Jodi Picoult. The mega-bestselling author of 19 novels (with a new one coming up, co-written with her daughter) has won over zillions of fans with Songs of the Humpback Whale, Harvesting the Heart, Picture Perfect, Mercy, The Pact, Keeping Faith, Plain Truth, Salem Falls, perfect Match, Second Glance, My Sister's Keeper, Vanishing Acts, The Tenth Circle, Nineteen Minutes, Change of Heart, Handle With Care, House Rules, Sing You Home, and Lone Wolf--the last five debuted as number one New York Times bestsellers. 

She's been awarded the New England Bookseller Award for Fiction, she's a recipient of an Alex Award from the Young Adult Library Services Association, she won the Book Browse Diamond Award for novel of the year, a lifetime achievement award for mainstream fiction from the Romance Writers of America, Waterstone's Author of the Year in the UK, a Vermont Green Mountain Book Award, and more. Her books are translated into 34 languages in 35 countries and she also wrote five issues of Wonder Woman comics! The Pact, Plain Truth, The Tenth Circle and Salem Falls have all been made into TV movies, while My Sister's Keeper was a big-screen release.

She also has a musical play, she also makes it her business to work for important causes like gay rights, and time after time, she wins the award for "most generous, supportive writer on the planet." She also has great hair! I'm thrilled to host Jodi on my blog again. 

Jodi, a million thanks are not enough for you.

I love  the opening quote from Margaret Atwood, “All stories are about wolves.” But I also think this book has one of the best first lines I’ve ever read “In retrospect, maybe I shouldn’t have freed the tiger.” Where did that line come from? `

I went to see the Big Apple circus one night and literally woke up with that sentence in my head the next morning.  I realized that Luke would have had a singular moment in his life - a memory - that would have somehow been the fulcrum upon which his whole world turned.  For him, it was understanding that captivity chafes, whether you're human or animal.  It's why - even though he wants to have a family as tight and secure as a wolf pack, he can't confine himself in the role of husband and father.  It also gives us as readers the first glimpse into Luke's mind in terms of what it means to die on one's own terms.

There’ s a lot in the book about why people stay and why they might feel compelled to leave, both their lives and situations. Without giving anything away, I wanted to ask, if you could imagine Luke ten years after the novel. What do you think he’d be doing? How would he have changed from this experience?

Boy - that's a hard one to answer without giving away a spoiler!  Well, I think that Luke would continue to think he could do better as a parent…only to realize that he really can't.  When I met Shaun Ellis, the man I studied with who actually DID live with a wild wolf pack like Luke, he talked about being caught between two worlds.  That is very much Luke's conundrum, too.  Even when he wants to be a better man, he actually fits more seamlessly among his wolf brethren. 

Your novel is so full of so many little surprise and reveals.  Do you know all of these before you start, or do they come as surprises for you, too?

It really depends on the particular surprise.  I knew the epilogue, for example, before I wrote a single word.  And I knew what Cara's little secret was early on.  But I didn't realize that Edward was gay until I literally watched him turn down a pass made by a  woman as I was typing it.  And that informed a whole host of other twists!

 The novel is so much about real moral issues—who decides who lives, and what really constitutes life, but what got me was the human drama swirling around it. There’s a real intimacy in the way the characters speak to us, so that even relatively minor characters, such as one in the epilogue (don’t want to give anything away) have a riveting, living and breathing presence. Did any characters announce themselves that you hadn’t intended to be there?'

  Sometimes I write a book and there are characters pushing at the margins, desperate to have a voice.  In this particular story the "cast" felt very tight to me.  I knew who had a vested interest in the situation and who would have the opportunity to speak.  That said, I hadn't intended on giving Joe a narrative.  He's Luke's ex-wife's new husband (that's a mouthful, LOL) and he winds up representing Edward in court, at his wife's request…although that will mean alienating his stepdaughter.  Joe's history as a guy of Hmong origin trying desperately to live up to the mythic shadow cast by Luke Warren made him a really sensitive, fascinating guy…so he wound up speaking too.

The wolf scenes are so wonderful they are almost hallucinatory in their you-are-there quality and feel.  How close did you yourself get to wolves, and tell us what it’s like to howl?

I really thought I was pretty brilliant, creating a character like Luke Warren, who studies wolves by living with them.  Then I found out a real guy was actually DOING that.  At that point, it became my mission to meet him.  Thankfully Shaun Ellis was more than happy to meet me, to introduce me to the multitude of captive packs he now works with in Devon, England, and to share his expertise.  Everything Luke says - and everything I learned - comes directly from Shaun's life, and a good number of Luke's tight scrapes are borrowed from Shaun's actual experiences in the Rockies living with a wild pack.  

The ones that really stay with me are the time he went hunting with the pack in winter, and the alpha directed the wolves to suck on icicles.  He had thought maybe the other wolves were becoming dehydrated sitting in the snow waiting to make the kill…but it didn't seem right to him.  Then he realized that the alpha had planned for wind direction so that the prey couldn't smell them lying in wait; that the alpha had set up the ambush perfectly, but that due to the cold weather, the prey would be able to see the breath of the wolves in the hollow where they were hiding.  By getting the pack to suck on the icicles like lollipops, she prevented that.  The second story Shaun told me that affected me deeply was a time that his wolf brother suddenly went ballistic, snapping at him and backing him into a hollowed out tree.  Shaun was terrified and sure the wolf was going to kill him, although up till this point the wolf had been very accepting of his presence - and that he had assured his own death by forgetting he was still with wild animals.  After about three hours of snapping and snarling, the wolf suddenly went placid again and let Shaun out from the tree.  That was when Shaun noticed the scat and the claw marks of a grizzly.  The wolf hadn't been trying to kill him -- it had been saving his life.  

When I went to Devon, Shaun had just had surgery and couldn't enter the pens because the wolves would have ripped off his bandage and licked the wound clean -- so instead, I had to meet his wolves with a fence between us.  Unlike normal visitors, though, I was brought through the first fence (there are two) and got close enough for the wolves to get used to my scent and to rub up against my hands.  They can sense your heart rate going up and a tester wolf will turn around and nip through a fence, so you still have to be pretty careful and calm!  I also got to feed the wolves by lobbing rabbits to them; and yes, Shaun taught me how to howl.  It was pretty remarkable to learn the song - and it really IS that, a song.  I played the alpha, my son was the beta, and my publicist the numbers wolf.  We each had a particular "part" in the harmony, and when we all began to howl our individual parts together, all of a sudden a plaintive howl rose from the six individual packs a short distance away -- each of them giving their location in response to the one we had offered them.  It felt like we were having a conversation.

 I read recently new scientific studies are reevaluating vegetative patients and finding them non-vegetative. It puts the whole scenario of pulling the plug into a whole other spectrum.  Plus, this is one of those issues where you can never know what you will do or how you will feel until you are there. What’s most remarkable is that this novel didn’t feel like you were arguing one way or another—you were simply letting the very real human drama unfold, which colored the decisions. So, how hard was it for you not to take a side here?

It was easy this time around, because I don't know necessary how I'd feel if I were in Cara and Edward's situation.  I have joked with my husband and said that if I can still type with my tongue, to keep me alive, but honestly, would a man as virile and active as Luke Warren want that?  There IS no one right answer in a situation like this, which is always tragic, because even if someone winds up being kept on life support their lives may not ever be what they once were.  Living a life, and being alive, are two very different things.  It's true that science changes daily as we learn more about disorders of consciousness, and we may in five years have a much better sense of the difference between vegetative and minimally conscious states -- but a lot of the problem in the medical community involves the difficulty to accurately diagnose the problem in the first place.  Often the "miraculous" recoveries are not miraculous - just misdiagnosed.  Irrecoverable brain injury will remain, unfortunately, irrecoverable brain injury.  I think that if I learned anything writing this book, it's to have the conversation about what you'd want, if God forbid you wound up in this position.  That way you take the responsibility off the shoulders of those who will otherwise be making a decision for you.

I always have to ask, what’s obsessing you now?

 The Holocaust!  It doesn't have a title yet but it's about a young woman, Sage Singer, who befriends an old man who's particularly beloved in her community.  Josef Weber is everyone favorite retired teacher and Little League coach and they strike up a friendship at the baker where Sage works.  One day he asks Sage for a favor:  to kill him.  Shocked, Sage refuses…and then he confesses his darkest secret - he deserves to die, because he was a Nazi SS guard.  Complicating the matter?  Sage's grandmother is a Holocaust survivor.  What do you do when evil lives next door?  Can someone who's committed a truly heinous act ever atone for it with subsequent good behavior?  Should you offer forgiveness to someone if you aren't the party who was wronged?  And most of all - if Sage even considers his request - is it murder, or justice?

And what question didn’t I ask that I should have?

What ELSE is obsessing you now?

Well, for the first time this year, I have TWO books coming out.  Lone Wolf in February…and then on June 26, a YA novel I co-wrote with my daughter Sammy.  It was her idea, and frankly, she's got a better imagination than I ever did at her age.  It's called Between the Lines, and it's about what happens when happily ever after…isn't.   Delilah, a loner hates school as much as she loves books—one book in particular. In fact if anyone knew how many times she has read and reread the sweet little fairy tale she found in the library, especially her cooler than cool classmates, she’d be sent to social Siberia . . . forever.To Delilah, though, this fairy tale is more than just words on the page. Sure, there’s a handsome (well, okay, incredibly handsome) prince, and a castle, and an evil villain, but it feels as if there’s something deeper going on. And one day, Delilah finds out there is.  Turns out, this Prince Charming is not just a one-dimensional character in a book.  He's real, and a certain fifteen-year-old loner has caught his eye. But they’re from two different worlds, and how can it ever possibly work? 
It's an absolutely STUNNING book - with the coolest illustrations that remind of Arthur Rackham's work from the turn of the century and silhouettes that take my breath away -- in other words, it's a book you want to keep on your shelves and just look at because it's so pretty.  But it's also sweet, and funny, and charming, and it was a delight to have the experience of writing it with my own daughter!  I'm incredibly excited for its publication and we'll be on tour this summer to promote it!