Sunday, March 31, 2013

Ronlyn Domingue talks about The Mapmaker's War, the quest for peace, and so much more

I'm so honored to have Ronlyn Domingue here today!  She's the author of The Mapmaker's War (Atria Books, 2013). Set in an ancient time in a faraway land, The Mapmaker’s War accounts the life of an exiled mapmaker who must come to terms with the home and children she was forced to leave behind. In this tale, her autobiography, she reveals her pain and joy, and ultimately her transformation, in her own voice. Her prior novel, The Mercy of Thin Air, was published in ten languages. Her writing has appeared in The Beautiful Anthology (TNB Books), New England Review, Clackamas Literary Review, New Delta Review, The Independent (UK), and Shambhala Sun, as well as on, The Nervous Breakdown, and Born and raised in the Deep South, she lives there still with her partner, Todd Bourque, and their cats. Connect with her at, Facebook, and Twitter. 

Ronlyn's debut novel, The Mercy of Thin Air, was critically acclaimed and published in ten languages. In 2005, it was a Borders Original Voices Award finalist and a RedBook Magazine RedBook Club selection. More recently, in 2010, the novel was a Costco Pennie's Pick. About this book, bestselling author Jodi Picoult wrote, "This is that rarest of first novels--a truly original voice, and a truly original story," Library Journal's starred review stated, "This is a novel that gets under ones skin," and the Seattle Post-Intelligencer called it,"[E]ntrancing and ethereal."

Thanks so much, Ronlyn, for being here!

The Mapmaker’s War takes place in what feels like an ancient period of history. Aoife is out of step with her time, but ahead of it, too. One reason she becomes a mapmaker is to define her life in some way. She’s aware women are meant to be only wives and mothers, and she doesn’t have much interest in either role, especially when she’s young. How do you perceive her struggle with these expectations? 

It’s not that she’s opposed to marriage or motherhood. It’s a matter of choice. She writes, “You had no inclination to become what every woman you knew became. A wife, mother, domestic. You didn’t begrudge them their roles if they were freely chosen. Yet who can choose freely when the options are few?” She wants the opportunity to direct her own life and use the capabilities she has. She struggles against the coercion of custom and tradition, the limitations which usually don’t take into account an individual’s potential beyond gender. But readers will see her evolve with her circumstances. Aoife isn’t quite the same woman as Wyl’s wife and mother to his children as she is as Leit’s spouse and mother of their daughter. 

There’s a major theme in the novel about the concept of choice, individual and collective. Why is that so significant?

As Aoife’s story emerged and I reflected on the details of her life, I kept thinking about a book I read, Humanity: A Moral History of the Twentieth Century by Jonathan Glover. It was a difficult read because it’s about war and genocide, an exploration of man’s inhumanity to man, but Glover includes examples of soldiers and civilians who didn’t give in to violence and cruelty. Most of the book is a complete horror, but when I finished, I had a clear, distinct thought: We choose the evil we do to each other. All of it—from the level of a family to the level of nations. Of course, the reverse is also true. Aoife explores the interrelationship among individual, group, and collective choices—and the power these have to cause suffering and strife as well as peace and contentment.

For me, every book is a question I wanted to answer. What question did this novel ask of you, and did it answer it in the way you expected?

I had to sit with your question for a while. What I realized is that I didn’t know what the question was until I had the answer, but I’m not sure I can so cleanly name the question itself. It has to do with finding peace within one’s self and within a community. In The Mapmaker’s War, Aoife grows up a typical kingdom with the hierarchies we’re all familiar with from stories we’ve been told and the history we all know. But when Aoife crosses the river border of her kingdom, she visits a hidden community of people who call themselves The Guardians. I’ll let readers discover whom they guard, but I will say their culture is based on compassion, equality, and non-violence. In time, she learns why this is so and how they actively, consciously, keep this balance. 

As a writer, I found I was challenged to be conscious, too. Personally, I believe our species and every being on this planet are in tremendous peril, much of which we’ve brought upon ourselves. Dystopian and post-apocalyptic stories have a crucial purpose—they allow people to experience, but contain, their feelings of terror and confusion and even rage. However, these stories also fuel bleak narratives of our collective future—a future that in fact isn’t fixed. I discovered I wanted to write from a place of hope, even though I struggled to find it. I realized part of this novel’s power was its offer of an alternative. Aoife’s quest for peace is incredibly human—messy and complicated—but the rewards are possible. She proved that to me. I needed to know, and I imagine I’m not alone in this. 

What's your writing life like? Do you plan things out?

Once a project takes root, I spend months and years in what I call my research and incubation phase. This is a period when I keep a giant notebook of what streams through—images, bits of dialogue, fragments of an event in a character’s life, random linkages—and notes on everything I read which somehow has a relationship to what I’m working on. In time, the plot reveals itself, sorts itself out, and I’m able to sketch out the entire arc, beginning to end. So I guess, yes, I plan things out. I already know “what” happens, and I’m often writing to discover “how” those events unfold and connect. 

When the writing finally starts, I work full days, six to ten hours a day, usually four or five days a week, but it’s not unusual for me to work on weekends. When the energy runs out, I’ll take a break from the writing and/or revising, sometimes to do more research and thinking, sometimes because I’m exhausted. 

I wrote my first novel, The Mercy of Thin Air, on a computer, but almost every word of The Mapmaker’s War was written by hand. I typed up the handwritten manuscript in the break periods. 

What's obsessing you now?

I wish I could say it was the revisions of my forthcoming novel or a new project, but it’s not. I’m rallying for The Mapmaker’s War in whatever ways I can conjure. Many of your readers are no doubt aware of the dispute between Barnes & Noble and Simon & Schuster, which has affected dozens of S&S authors who’ve had spring book releases. It’s a tough situation for everyone—B&N, S&S, and the authors. We’re all losing something in this. Ultimately, I have a responsibility to my little beastie to give it a fighting chance. I spent five years on this novel—it pushed me to my limits as a writer and human being—and I believe the story’s message of peace and hope is one this world desperately needs right now.

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

So, what’s next for you? 

Why, thank you for asking. The Chronicle of Secret Riven will be out in 2014, the epic sequel which takes place 1,000 years after The Mapmaker’s War. In Mapmaker’s, Aoife is told a prophecy about children who will be born in a distant future and a great event that will take place in the land from which Aoife was exiled. Secret Riven, the daughter of a translator and an historian, is one of those children. From an arcane manuscript, Secret learns of her connection to Aoife, and in time, she discovers her role in these mysterious events. I’ll say for the record it involves a plague… (For a hint about the aforementioned manuscript, readers might take a close look at the translator’s note at the start of The Mapmaker’s War.)

Anne Lamott talks about Some Assembly Required, now in paperback!

In honor of Annie Lamott's Some Assembly Required: A Journal of My Son's First Son coming out into paperback now, I'm rerunning the original blog post about the hardback book today. It's a fantastic book and Annie also has a hilarious essay up on Salon, about her year on

I'm completed thrilled to post this blog, for many, many reasons. I don't remember when I first had contact with Annie--I think it was after I read Operating Instructions (though I had been following her career since All New People). But what I do remember is, before I gave birth to my son, I had a miscarriage at three months and people were saying all sorts of ridiculous things to me, like "At least you didn't know the baby," or, "Why'd you have a kid at your age, anyway" I just felt I had to talk to her, and I called and left a message (or maybe I wrote a letter, I don't remember) and then immediately felt like an idiot, because who was I to intrude on her time? I went out to sulk and when I came back there was this ten minute, hilariously funny, incredibly warm message on my answering machine from Annie. It was the first time I laughed since the miscarriage.

I never forgot such incredible kindness. 

She's got legions of fans, her books seem to become bestsellers before they are even out of the gate, and she writes about what's really important. I loved Some Assembly Required (written with her incredible son Sam) because she talks about how difficult it is to let go of our children and let them have independence, how thorny, wild and wonderful it can be to navigate from being a mother to being a grandmother, and how love and hope and faith are the glue that holds it all together.

I'm honored, thrilled, and so excited that I can hardly sit still, to also report that Annie will be interviewing me in April 26 at Rakestraw Books in California as part of Algonquin Books Book Club. Please come! (This is yet another example of her incredible generosity and kindness.)

I can't thank Annie enough for coming on this blog--or for everything else. Thanks, thanks, thanks, Annie.

What was it like writing a book with your son? What surprised you about the process?
The main thing was that I wouldn't have written it without his initial insistence that it was a great idea, for Jax to have an operating instructions of his own. Then, getting him to write his pieces or submit to the interviews was pretty much like getting your kid to do his college applications. Every so often a sweet funny little e-mail arrived on its own, but I had to rely on all the old parental stand-byes--guilt-mongering, teeth pulling, threats; money changed hands. Then I would receive one of his set pieces--like the Father's Day entry, or the story of my brother's wedding, and it would just stun me with how profound and lovely it was..

I love that you talk about the whole idea of letting go of our children, letting them find their own way. As a mother of a 15 year old, I already am panicking about this! So much of our culture gives it a cute name—empty nest syndrome—but it’s a real ache of the heart, and I loved how honest you were about your struggle. So I have to ask, does it get easier?

If it were mostly a phenomenon that men experienced and expressed, it would not have a birdy name. It would have a name that captured the wrenching pain of loss and identity, how scary it is to create a new life when all that you've known drops away. The male term would make men seem heroic for being able to raise their children knowing the kids would leave while still in their youth, in the natural yet excruciating order of things. I think men minimize the process with a cartoony name because it hurts them so much, too--missing the kid, and facing up to the passage and ravages of time., and all that silence and empty space.

My story was that Sam moved out on his own to live, work, go to school, locally. So I had the best of both worlds--him having taken the plunge, yet getting to stay in close contact. I loved so many things about both having him around, and him being gone, the freedom and quiet of that. My work took off. Then a year and a half later, he and Amy were pregnant, which was very frightening and unexpected. The best thing to do about all the pain and confusion of feelings is to wake up to them, have a real awakening to the mixed grille nature of one's emotional responses--grief, anger at having to hurt so much, failure, the great attendant achievements, the wistful mooniness--because an awakening always leads to blessings and expansion of consciousness. You really have to cry a lot, or it all gets stuck and plugged up. Then the tears, the water, the action of self-care, your life-force and general wonderfulness, lead you back into the flow of life, your life; like a stream. Then you get to have all these dreams come true, because you have time and space.  I also love the way you talk about your faith: it’s messy, complex, complicated, and best of all, it’s always evolving. (I also love your two prayers that Sam says he got from you, Help, help, and thank you, thank you.) Do you ever waver in your belief, and if so, what brings you back?

I don't really waver in my faith too much, but there are times when I think--or rather, can SEE--that life here on earth can really be too hard to bear. I sometimes feel sick with the devastation that dear friends are going through--sick kids, bad diagnoses, Madoff, various anvils dropping on top of their lives from out of the sky. But each and every time, literally, I have seen the response of their closest people and of the community, and so have gotten to see miracles and mind-blowing acts of strength, generosity, vulnerability and grace. I have a son I adore, but I don’t have grandchildren yet (I think I would kill myself if I did—he’s only 15). But you describe how different the love of grandchildren is from the love of children. Why do you think that’s so? What makes your son having a son so incredible?

The great thing about grandchildren is that they LEAVE. When your kid still lives with you, at the end of they day they walk to their own room to continue plotting the uprising against you. Or to shut you out of their minds so they can think straight, or find a floaty patch of peace. But with a grandchild, you pour yourself into him, and then at the end of the day, one of the parents takes the baby away! It's so great. You and the dogs sink to the floor with exhaustion. Then you get to watch all the shows you recorded on your DVR, in a row, while eating something delicious that you don't have to share with ANYONE. Then of course you find yourself craving the baby again, because he is so lovely and smart and hilarious and delicious, and his skin is so soft and he just adores you. So maybe you have a little withdrawal, but then you see him again, absolutely pour yourself into this mutual love machine, until you are totally used up--babies are exhausting--and then the parents take him away. And you get to have a tiny pre-dinner nap.

You and your son Sam also have this incredible honesty with each other. How did you get so lucky to have such a thing?

Maybe it had to do with my being a single mother. Also, I so love and live for truth and honesty in the world, especially because those qualities are so rare; so he grew up with this as a primary value, amidst my very closest friends and my brother, and it can be very addictive.

 There’s a part of the book I found profoundly moving. You’re at an ashram, and you say that the leader doesn’t “breathe on you, the way your parents would. He lets you come to it.” Do you think that might be the secret of life?

The secret of life is close friends. But it really is so life-giving and wonderful to see real people modeling a beautiful healthy way to be with others, OE not needing to own, control, manipulate, rescue them, to see people who know from deep within that each of us--even our kids!--is on our own hero's journey towards truth and oneness.

It seems that so much about the book is about relinquishing control—of where the baby is baptized, of how he is raised,--and yet, it’s a paradox that this letting go actually brings closeness. 

 I'm so lucky that Sam and Jax still love and depend on me, even though I am so impossible and needy and spoiled (AND such a martyr, although perhaps 75% better.) Letting go is by far the hardest and most important thing we do, daily and over time. As I said in the book, when people chirp, Let go and let God," I literally want to attack them. There's a great line from the recovery community that everything we let go of has claw marks on it, and that is still often true for me. One way I let go is by SOMEHOW not doing certain controlling things--for instance, maybe I hold my tongue instead of sharing my rarely helpful Helpful Thoughts. And that creates an atmosphere of ease, the opposite of clutch and clench, and that means our children don't have to gird themselves defensively against us. So they don't have to bolt from us, and we find ourselves metaphorically sitting together on the couch a little while longer, or riding around in the car enjoying the views together, or the music., or God knows, even each other's presence.  

How are Sam and Jax and Amy now?

They split up a few months ago and are now living about an hour apart, raising their boy together from two different homes.
What's obsessing you now?

Oh, all the usual things; how the book will do, what my butt looks like, how old one of my dogs has gotten, and how I can possibly survive when she dies; the economy. 

Saturday, March 30, 2013

Director of Photography Jonathan Miller talks about the sweet, funny, and prize-winning film, Gimme the Loot, lens flares, visualizing what a film should look like, and so much more

There's something exhilarating about seeing a truly great movie, especially once that's a Valentine to New York City. Gimme the Loot, shown at the 2012 Cannes Film Festival, is also a Grand Jury Prize winner at SXSW and the winner of the Independent Spirit Someone to Watch Award, and it boasts rave reviews from The Wall Street Journal, The Los Angeles Times, and many more. About two rival gangs of graffiti artists, it's a sunny romance, urban adventure and an edgy comedy, all buoyed with a knockout soundtrack, and when Jeff and I went to see it last night, the house was packed. Part of why the movie looks and feels so great is due to the brilliance of Jonathan Miller, the Director of Photography.  I'm so honored to have Jon here to talk about his work. Thank you so much, Jonathan!

I always want to know why people do the things they do and how they got to do them. What sparked you to be a cinematographer? What and when was the moment when you felt this was what you had to do in life to be happy? And how did you go about making it such a successful reality?

The moment that sparked my interest in cinematography and what it could do was watching The Conformist (shot by Vittorio Storaro) in a film class in Rome while studying abroad. That film blew me away and it's still on of my favorites.  Seeing how that film captured Italy and Rome (where I was) and represented memory and emotion visually was an inspiration. I could not stop watching it. The film seemed to be capture memory in all its vagaries through image and editing in the most fascinating way.  

I'm not sure cinematography is what I have to do to be happy. Making films is what I love, but there's nothing easy about it.  I think maybe cinematography is the place where craft, intellect and instinct come together in the most natural way for me.  I remember early on in my career I was shooting a short called Warlord  down in Maryland and I realized one day that I was just in the zone on this movie; I was in that state where things feel effortless and you know what you're going to do before you do it and everything just flows beautifully. I'd never felt like that outside of sports before, so it was kind of a revelation. 

As far as making my cinematography career a successful reality, I work on that one every day. I think success is so fleeting you have to enjoy the process and your life as a whole first and then enjoy whatever comes your way.  I'm always looking to learn, try new things, challenge myself, and help other people along the way. I try to remind myself to step into fear/the unknown every day because that leads to growth and adventure.  Also, Francis Ford Coppola said his best advice to young male filmmakers is "get married." It forces you to make money doing it.  For me that means I have this feeling of togetherness and support that anchors me, and also it pushed me to grow up and provide for my family (now 4 of us). 

I know you've shot commercials and videos, but is Gimme the Loot the first film you’ve worked on? What was the experience like? Was it what you expected? What surprised you about it? I know, with writing a novel, I never have a sense if the book works until it's finished--and even then, I'm so close to it, I can't tell. (I depend on Andra to tell me!) Did you know this film was going to be such a hit?

Gimme the Loot is my second feature technically, although I barely count the first one because it was so low budget and a difficult experience. 
When I met Adam (the director), and read his script and watched his short film Killer, I was really excited. It felt like this was the feature I'd been waiting for. I grew up painting graffiti in New Haven, CT. Graffiti, skateboarding, and Hardcore music were what I was most excited about in high school. So the film was right up my alley, and I felt a responsibility to make sure the graffiti was accurate. 

Shooting the film was remarkably pleasurable for such a low budget film. We did a lot of testing and talking in preproduction to find the look and plan the shots. We were well prepared. Adam was very clear about what he wanted and focused on getting the scenes to really work often in a single shot.  We shot very little coverage and we did lots of takes. Adam was so intent on getting the performances right that I had a lot of freedom as an operator to improve the shots as we did more takes. The days were shorter then normal for an independent movie and we ate awesome ethnic food in whatever neighborhood we were shooting in. It was a calm and focused shoot.  

One of the visual references for the movie were the long slow zoom outs in Barry Lyndon. Before this film I hated zooms and almost never used them. By the end I loved them. We talked a lot about how to best execute all the walking and talking scenes in the movie. On our budget lots of long dolly shots were not realistic. A steadicam also felt wrong as we couldn't afford to use it for more than a few days and that footage would stick out like a sore thumb.  We wanted to keep the movie really honest, like we just stole everything. The feeling that we went out in real places and stole all our shots was a big driver of the aesthetic. In a sense, it mirrors the story of these kids trying to hustle for $500; we were hustling in the streets to steal this ambitious movie with no money in our pockets. We also wanted it to be smooth and not shaky handheld like a lot of these movies can be. So the long slow zoom became one of our favorite tools to bring in the city and all its wonderful characters and keep the shots dynamic and revealing. I grew a new appreciation for the simple power of the pan and the beauty of a slow zoom that is hidden in a pan. 

One thing that was amazing was how many interesting-looking people just walked through our shots without seeing the camera and added their vitality to the movie. New York is an incredible city that way; there is so much going on and film shoots are so normal that people often don't even look at or see the camera.  The city adds so much production value, and you can capture it for free. 

I had very little perspective being so close to the film. The first time I saw a fine cut, I thought it was a good movie and worked very well. I really had no significant notes, except for a scene at the beginning that we planned to reshoot anyway. Credit there goes to the Morgan Faust, our awesome editor, and Adam for ruthlessly cutting it down to what it is. When it first screened at SXSW I was so nervous and worried that it looked and sounded bad and everybody was going to hate it. At the second screening it looked and sounded a hundred times better so I was pretty happy with that. I never in a million years thought it was going to win the Grand Jury Prize. Privately, I had big dreams for the film but no concept of what was to come. Everything since then, Cannes, all the awards, a million festivals, outstanding reviews, Jonathan Demme, theatrical release etc. has just been a trip. I'm very grateful.   

How did you decide how you wanted the film to look? What goes into that process? How collaborative is it?

Well, Adam had some really interesting ideas in his head about how he wanted to make it look. My job is to get inside the director's head and figure out how to visualize and capture the feeling and texture of what he wants. So with this film we talked a lot, looked at a lot references together, and then I shot a lot of tests and we looked at them. Then I shot more tests before narrowing in on what we finally chose.  Originally, we planned to shoot on film, super16. When that became unrealistic, due to our budget, we knew we needed to find a look that would fit the story and the homemade feeling we wanted it to have. Adam had this idea of an old video look - kind of like the pastiche of archival footage in the documentary Senna. Something that evoked the 90s and felt period and soft. Adam talked about how he wanted it to look like we shot on tape and buried the tapes for a year. I liked the grain in the documentary Darwin's Nightmare and how it gave these cheap video cameras a lot more organic life then they normally have. McCabe and Mrs Miller was another important reference. So we tested real old video cameras, including an old Betacam that one of Spike Lee's cameramen left at Abel Cinetech (we had to jumpstart it to get it working with modern batteries). We tested a lot of old lenses and filters. The camera that I thought would really allow us to get nice grain, shoot flat and soft, and allow us to pull off the slow zooms was the Sony F900R (an older HD camera that was originally developed to shoot Star Wars Episode II). I'd used the camera on a lot of television docs and felt I could make this camera really sing with the look we had in mind. So we shot on tape and used an old Standard Def Canon 22X lens. We cranked up the gain to 6db on everything to increase the grain, used a custom gamma curve from Light Illusion, and put an Antique Suede filter in front of the lens for everything. It was a sort of weird way to do it, but we really loved how the dailies looked, and the film has a unique and sort of timeless look as a result.   Since then the Chilean movie No went and did what we tested, shooting on old period cameras to achieve a period look, and it's amazing.  

What’s obsessing you now?

Oh, so many things are obsessing me now. 

I love lens flares and the quality of a lens bokeh. I'm obsessed with older lenses - Leica Rs and 1960s Nikkor -S and Os, Cooke S3s, the new Hawk Vintage 74s...
I want to tell stories that break open the world and flood it with meaning-- stories that change the way we see things and have the potential to change our lives. 

I'm obsessed with light and how it shapes the world around us. I think of light as a liquid sometimes. A material that flows through and around things creating shapes and intangible substance. How we capture that liquid light energy that is changing and flowing is what cinematography is all about. 

Friday, March 29, 2013

Sarah Pekkanen talks about The Best of Us, movies, discovering writing as a mom, and so much mores

I'm so happy to have Sarah Pekkanen here on the blog today! She's the author of These Girls, Skipping a Beat and The Opposite of me. Her fourth novel, THE BEST OF US, won a Starred review from Publishers Weekly - "A deeply enjoyable page-turner" and Maire Claire magazine calls it "The perfect book to curl up with on a rainy day." Thanks so much for being here, Sarah!

So tell us about The Best of Us? Where did the idea spark?

I was feeling particularly exhausted - it had been a long winter and my kids were passing around the same virus for most of it - and I started fantasizing about a dream vacation. Somewhere sunny and tropical, like Jamaica, in a private villa on a white sand beach. I'd have massages on the beach - my ultimate fantasy! - and a private chef would cook the meals, and there would be plenty of wine and fun.... I knew the closest I'd get to that vacation would be going down a giant slide at a waterpark with my boys (which is fun, too, but not quite so glam, particularly when my MiracleSuit gives me a wedgie), so I decided to create that trip for my four stressed-out female characters. Friends since they college, they reunite for the vacation of a lifetime. But it couldn't all be naps and fruity rum punch - I threw in a whole lot of tension and a big hurricane named Betty.

You write a lot about relationships between women. Can you comment on the "gender wars" that seem to be going on in publishing  where if a woman writes about domestic issues she's "women's fiction," but if a guy does it, why, he's Franzen?

It's true that folks like Nick Horsnby, who writes the same kind of books as Jennifer Weiner and the rest of us in the "women's fiction" or "chick lit" category, tend to get a little more respect from the press. And a lot more attention. But I don't think readers care how we're labeled - they just want to read good books. It's mostly an issue within publishing and the media, which selects the books that receive attention. Luckily, we have champions like Jen and Jodi Picoult, who are calling attention to the issue and forcing some editors at newspapers and magazines to rethink how they cover our books. Jen and Jodi aren't doing this for their own benefit, as they're already superstars, but they're fighting on behalf of the rest of us. I so admire what they're doing, and how they're forcing a shift in the way editors and reporters view such novels written by women.  

So you wrote your first book at the age of ten. You always knew you were going to be writer?

I did! I worked as a newspaper reporter for years, but rediscovered my love of fiction when I became a mom. One night when the kids were asleep I took a glass of wine up to the computer and began to type.... and those pages turned into THE OPPOSITE OF ME, my first book. Of course it wasn't nearly that easy - I rewrote the thing a dozen times, then found an agent, who made me rewrite it a few more times. It took years, but it was terrific training, and my subsequent novels came more quickly. 

What's your writing life like? Do you plan out your books? How was writing this particular book different than any of the others?

I write everywhere and anywhere. Right now I'm in the passenger's seat of a moving car as I type this (If I keep my head down and ignore the road whooshing by, I don't get carsick). But my process has evolved. I outlined my first book pretty carefully, had an even tighter outline with my second book, and went nuts on my third by keeping color-coded index cards. For THE BEST OF US, I hoped I'd absorbed the rhythms of a commercial novel and I didn't outline it at all. I knew how the book would begin and end, but the middle surprised me every time I sat down to write.

What's obsessing you now and why?

Movies! I've had to put everything on hold for the past few months (we moved into a new house, among other life upheavals) and I'm about to turn in my fifth book. When it's in the hands of my editor, I'm going to take off a week or two and see all the movies I've missed recently. Popcorn, milk duds, and the big screen is my nirvana. Movies and books are the greatest escapes - there's no cheaper, more fulfilling way to travel to completely new world. 

Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni talks about Oleander Girl, the changing face of India, writing a children's book, and so much more

So there I was at a big cocktail party for the Tucson Book Fair and none of the authors I knew had shown up yet. I was wandering around amidst all the food, gravitating towards the vegetarian entrees when I met Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni--a fellow vegetarian! Of course, as soon as I saw her name tag, I was thrilled to meet her, since I knew and loved her novels, and what is more wonderful than becoming friends with someone you admire? Chitra is an award-winning author, poet and teacher, who writes about immigration, the South Asian experience, history, myth, magical realism and diversity. Her books have been translated into 29 languages and two of her novels, The Mistress of Spices and Sister of My Heart, have been made into films. Her short stories, Arranged Marriage won an American Book Award. She teaches creative writing at the University of Houston, and I'm thrilled to host her here. Thank you so, so much, Chitra! 

You manage to do this alchemy: create gripping page-turning stories that are crafted with luminous prose. What sparked this particular novel?

The genesis for this novel is tangled. It came out of recent visits to India, where I noticed how fast the country is changing, and how powerfully these changes surge up against traditions that are thousands of years old. I explore this through the complicated relationship between the protagonist Korobi, who belongs to a very old and respected Kolkata family, and her fiance, Rajat, who symbolizes the new India with his contemporary ideas for building his family business and his penchant for the disco scene in the city. Mixed up with the above is an obsession with family secrets, something that I feel transcends cultural boundaries, and often has to do with the sexual transgressions (or what a society considers the sexual transgressions) of women.

The novel brilliantly shows post 9/11 America through the eyes of Korobi, who is Indian. Did her experience match yours at all when you came to America?

I was around the same age when I moved from India, and as wide-eyed with wonder, but it was a different America I came to, more hospitable and accepting of brown-skinned foreigners. Korobi's USA has been shaken by 9/11. She--as well as many of the other Indians in New York--will experience the repercussions of this disaster: the prejudice, an sometimes the violence, that rises from fear and a need to blame. But she will find many positives, too--kindness in unexpected places, enriching friendships, heart-shaking beauty, an ability to see one's own culture more clearly. I certainly experiences these as well.

How difficult do you think it is for us all to find our true identities, and to be willing to face the truth about ourselves and others?

It's difficult. It's what Korobi (and, in their own way, each of the other narrators in the novel--Rajat, his chauffeur, Asif, Korobi's grandmother Sarojini) struggles with through the novel. Identity is a shifting thing. Often we think it lies in externals because they are easier to measure, such as family pedigree, parentage, race, education, religion, socio-economic circumstance, but it's more slippery than that. Facing that and facing the truth can be pretty painful, but that kind of pain can help us grow, or it can destroy us. 

I love that one of your characters says, "never choose something because it's easier." Can you talk a bit about that please? Would you say that that is how you live your life?

I believe in it, though I can't say that I manage to follow that path all the time! But the easy choice, the lazy choice, stagnates the soul. One has to pay the price for it at some point or another, as at least one character in the novel will realize. 

What is your writing life like?

I write as regularly as I can. Not writing makes me grumpy! On the days when I'm not traveling and not teaching at the University of Houston, I like to give myself several hours to write, preferably in the morning. I often experience writer's block, but I'm learning to work through it. I'm an obsessive reviser. I keep a writer's notebook, and if I'm lucky enough to get ideas for new stories or books, I write them down as soon as I can because otherwise I forget them. 

I have to ask, because you and I bonded over this, how did you become a vegetarian?

I decided on this several years ago. It was hard, at first. I fell of the vegetable wagon (!) several times. But it was important for me to keep trying because I wanted to cause as little pain as possible to other beings through my food habits. I'm very happy that I am one now--and very happy that me met as we foraged for vegetarian food at the author's reception at the Tucson Festival of Books!

What's obsessing you now and why?

A couple of different projects that I want to start on. A novel based on the epic, The Ramayana, retold from the main woman character Sita's point of view, and a collection of stories about an Indian family and some of the people whose lives are entangled with theirs. Characters keep popping up in my head. But I'm on book tour now, and when I travel, I can't write anything. So I'm yearning.

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

I'm very excited about my first children's picture book, which has just come out: Grandma and the Great Gourd (Roaring Brook/Macmillan.) It's the retelling, in English, of one of my favorite Bengali folktales, which my grandfather used to tell me when I was little. it has a hero's journey structure (in that, it's not unlike Oleander Girl!) I had a lot of fun writing it, playing with rhythm and onomatopoeia, and I love the vibrant illustrations by Susy Pilgrim Waters, which really enhance the story.

Ellen Sussman talks about The Paradise Guest House, Bali, why where we live matters so much, and so much more

I first met Ellen Sussman on, this wonderful online watering hole for writers, and we quickly became friends. She's the author of On A Night Like this, a San Francisco Chronicle bestseller, Dirty Words: A Literary Encyclopedia of Sex, Bad Girls: 26 Writers Misbehave (Hey, I wrote about cheating in my first marriage), and her new novel, The Paradise Guest House is just out and racking up the raves, with a starred Publisher's Weekly leading the avalanche. She's a San Francisco Library Laureate and she teaches through Stanford Continuing Studies and in private classes out of her home. I'm thrilled to have her here, and only wish she was really HERE--so we could go grab tea and cake. Thanks, Ellen! 

What sparked this particular book? What was the research like and did anything surprise you with it?

My husband and I planned a vacation in Bali in 2005 and a few weeks before we left terrorists set off bombs in restaurants and cafes on the island. We didn’t cancel our trip as most people suggested. In fact, we saw almost no tourists during our two weeks there. But we fell in love with the island and the Balinese people. The idea of terrorism on that peaceful island made no sense to me (or to the Balinese) and so I began to imagine a novel about a young woman who gets caught in the 2002 bombings (which killed 200 people, mostly young tourists) and returns to the island a year later to find the man who saved her. 

I find that I write in order to learn and understand the things that puzzle me. And so this book became my way of learning about Bali, the people, the culture and religion and also about the effects of terrorism on our psyches.

I returned to Bali to spend a month researching the novel. (what a gig!) I was surprised by how quickly the tourists forgot about the terrorist attacks. But the Balinese had not forgotten. I interviewed survivors of the bombings and families of victims. Their lives have been very much altered by those events in 2002. And yet they’re so strong and so loving. I learned a great deal from hearing their stories.

I love the idea of a woman searching for home--why do you think where we live matters so much? 

That’s an interesting question. I didn’t feel at home in any of the places I lived in my life until I moved to Paris! And now I have a real home in northern California. The easy answer is that home is the people around us – but I don’t think that’s entirely true. I think place matters a great deal. We want to feel as if we belong to a place, that we fit in and find our true selves in that place. It’s a hard thing to do. And yet, it’s crucial to our happiness.

What's your writing life like now? How have things changed for you in ways you didn't expect?

It’s amazing to feel like I’m living the writer’s dream right now! I struggled for so many years and almost lost faith that it would ever happen. But I kept writing through it all. Now, with French Lessons still selling so well, Paradise Guest House just hitting the shelves, and my next novel already sold (and mostly written) I feel extraordinarily blessed. And lucky! What hasn’t changed is my focus on the writing. Every day I sit at my desk and write for three hours. Publishing can be a very distracting business. The  important part (for us writers) is to sit our butt in the chair and write. 

What's obsessing you now and why?

I’m writing a novel about marriage – how can we commit to love and marriage knowing all that we know about divorce and love gone bad? I’m in a wonderful marriage but I think love is a very complex subject, especially over time. I’m also looking at sibling relationships and trust. Whenever I enter new writing territory my characters and their problems become my newest obsessions.

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

I’ve got one for you: how do you write your wonderful books and still have time to support other writers in the way you do? You’re fabulous, Caroline. We all love you.