Monday, February 23, 2015

Naomi Elana Zener talks about Deathbed Dimes, being a slave to the Muse, Satirical Mama, and so much more

Naomi Elana Zener writes satire and fiction on her hilarious blog, Satirical Mama  Her vociferous blogging has been read and appreciated by industry bigwigs such as Giller Prize winner Dr. Vincent Lam and New York Times best-selling author and journalist Paula Froelich. Now, she has her debut novel out, Deathbed Dimes, about greed, litigation, love, and so much more. Thanks fo rbeing here, Naomi!

 I always want to know what sparked the writing of a book. What sparked yours?

The initial spark was that it was a bucket list item. Also, I wanted to write a novel about the massive intergenerational wealth transfer that is set to befall the Gen Xers as the Baby Boomers pass on that will inevitably result in an upswing in estate litigation battles. Greed permeates life and becomes worse when the Grim Reaper comes to visit. I studied Estates law both in law school and during my Master of Laws, and I was fascinated by the truth being stranger than fiction aspects of the lengths people will go to in order to get their piece of the estate pie. I highly recommend that people read estate litigation cases, which span a huge range of examples of how people will fight over money, no matter how much or how little is at stake.

As I developed the idea, I was inspired to address the inequities and misogyny women lawyers face trying to climb the partnership ladder (or, the stairs to the c-suite if practising law in-house), the struggle women endure to strive for work-life balance when working in a male dominated profession—the concept of having it all: love, marriage, and the corner office with a compensation package to match those of men, and guardianship issues children are forced to contend with as their parents age and lose their capacity to manage both their personal and financial affairs. People are fascinated by greed, wealth, and celebrity, so knowing this, I made Hollywood the backdrop for my satirical story.

What kind of writer are you? Do you outline or just wait for that pesky Muse?

I most certainly outline, but I’m also a slave to the Muse. My Muse is a fickle lover in that it doesn’t always strike at the most convenient times. I can be hit by inspiration when I’m driving (and we never text ourselves or take notes while behind the wheel while sitting at a red light), in the midst of a family frenzied moment, or possibly even in the middle of a fight with the husband—can you imagine me telling mine: “Excuse me, but we have to take a time out so I can make some notes (inspired by this argument) for my work in progress. Hold that ‘go f*#k yourself” for an hour, ok?” Needless to say, it’s far more convenient when my Muse waits patiently for me to be ready to write.

I imagine your background as an entertainment lawyer gave you lots of material. Did you have to do any additional research, and if so, what?

I did a ton of legal research for this book. My novel is a Helen Fielding-meets-John Grisham mash up commercial story. Regarding the entertainment/Hollywood aspects, they came from a few parts research and a few parts personal experiences.
The legal procedural aspects of the story involves a major lawsuit over a billion dollar estate that highlights how people will go to battle for other people’s money. There are also a few subplots involving parental incapacity and guardianship issues. I poured over cases I’d studied in law school and matters I’d read about in the paper. Everything in my book is fictional, but the legal matters are a composite of cases that have actually transpired. Truth is stranger than fiction, especially in the arena of estate litigation, which made it easy for me to write a story about it.

A lot of readers have commented on the depth of your characters (to me, character is king.) How do you go about building a character?

Character is king! Or, queen since I have many strong female characters in my novel. Any character will be boring unless they’re real. They can be over the top or as quiet as a church mouse. You can love them, hate them, want to kill them, or want to marry them (as I did in the case of Luke Brandon in Sophie Kinsella’s Shopaholic books), but unless there is a sense of reality, the characters won’t be able to carry the story. And, a story is only as good as the characters who tell it for you. What makes them real for me as a writer is if they hold a trait, likeable or not, in common with someone I know.

The manner in which I build every character I write is to include a little piece of myself, or someone I know, in their overall personality. Sometimes they’re caricatures of people I know, or at the very least they share traits with people I know. I live my life by the motto “I’m not mean. I’m just honest!” so it’s typical of my personality and writing style to use what I think of others to build characters based upon my honest observations of them. I joke that I have a superpower: I can make anyone immortal. Be nice, or piss me off, and you can live forever in my fiction.

What surprised you in writing this book?

That I could in fact write a novel. It was a bucket list item, and I didn’t know if I could accomplish it. I had no problem with the research or creating characters—I’ve always had a fertile imagination, or so my teachers advised my parents on my report cards—but I had no idea if I could weave my ideas together to create a compelling and entertaining read. A read that people would relish from cover to cover, laughing out loud in between.

You write the blog Satirical Mama--how do you also have time to write?

Thank you for asking about my satirical short fiction blog, I started it in 2012 after I discovered that I had a bemused, often snarky, possibly wannabe Joan Rivers-esque little writer living in my brain—one that exploded and required an outlet. I’d begun to view the world so differently, and like great writers before me and my contemporary peers, all of whom I respect and admire greatly, I started to write satire in the grand tradition of calling out hypocrisy and injustice as I saw it unfolding. One of my earliest pieces was a comment on an Orthodox Jewish rabbinical decree (and I’m Jewish) that held if women couldn’t get pregnant and refused to give their husbands a get—a religious divorce—then the husband could legally have a “kosher concubine.” There was no quid pro quo for women in this decree. So, when the shoe was on the other foot orthodox Jewish women buttercups saddled with an impotent, sterile husband simply had to suck it up. As a feminist and Jewish woman, this enraged me. So, Kosher Pickles was born: a story about a speed-dating agency for Orthodox Jewish women in search of a kosher ‘mancubine’ to help them get pregnant.  Most recently, after the Charlie Hebdo massacre, and the news that Oxford University Press had allegedly advised its authors not to write about or depict pigs in their stories, so as not to offend Muslim and Jewish readers and to ensure that those books would have a wide audience, I wrote #JeSuisCochon, which was my take on the importance of upholding freedom of speech.

As for finding time to write for my blog, and work on my novels, I find time whenever I can steal it. I have a family and I’m a practising entertainment attorney, so I don’t have a lot of spare time. I have little to no desire to ferret time away from my domestic life, but once the house is quiet and everyone is asleep who needs to be, is usually the best time for me to write. But, if the mood strikes me when I’m riding shotgun in the car driven by my husband, or waiting at the doctor’s office, or sneaking off for a visit to the lavatory, I do my best to jot down notes so my aging brain doesn’t forget them when the time is right to write a new piece. Blame the Muse.

What’s obsessing you now and why?

I’m absolutely in love with the characters in my new novel, Platinum Palms, a group of wonderful geriatric women raising a baby in secret in a luxurious retirement community. I’m enthralled by their lives and escapades, and they are keeping me up at night. I need to find a new agent to represent both it and all of my work, so that too is keeping me busy.

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

Who do I want to play the characters in Deathbed Dimes, in either its movie or TV series adaptation?

Given the dearth of great stories and roles for women, I think Deathbed Dimes is ripe for adaptation for either the silver or small screen. I play around with ideas of actresses and actors for each role for the day when Hollywood comes calling. I could see anyone from Kat Dennings or Mila Kunis bringing Joely to life, with Bernadette Peters or Megan Mullally making an excelling Sylvia. I’m still toying with ideas for Coco, Joely’s best friend. Stephen Amell or Chris Evans would be great for the role of Chip, whereas Sam Worthington is my frontrunner for Ethan. To me, Armand is Jeff Goldblum and Antonia is Gina Gershon. As for Blake, I really envision a Robert Downey Jr.-type in the role. And, for Janice, Tracey Ulman would be perfect. This is a living, breathing list that changes often, so don’t hold me to any of my current casting choices—who knows what I’ll be thinking if and when I get the call (fingers crossed) that Deathbed Dimes will become a TV series or feature film.

Bryan Reardon talks about his gripping new thriller, Finding Jake, whether we canr eally know our kids, writing, and more

 What's more terrifying than a school shooting? And what if people suspect that your son might be the shooter? That's the topic of Bryan Reardon's terrifying new novel, Finding Jake. Bryan also co-wrote Ready, Set, Play with retired NFL player and ESPN analyst Mark Schlereth and Cruel Harvest. I'm thrilled to have him here.

So much of this book is about Simon, the father, struggling to understand what he does and doesn’t know about his own son. Do you think we can ever really know our kids? Or anyone for that matter?

My short answer is no. But let me explain. One day, when our kids were about five or so, we sat around our way-too-small kitchen table talking about what they wanted to be when they grew up. My daughter said she wanted to be a fashion designer and live in France. I turned to my son and he answered me with a very serious expression. "I want to be a red dentist." Huh? I think I actually got nervous about this. What does that mean? Why would a dentist be red? Shouldn't he want to be an astronaut or a football player?

I used to think that I'd be a really open dad that talked to his kids all the time. I'd have these very serious conversations sitting at the foot of their beds, nodding and coming up with the perfect hip but wise advice. I assumed that meant I'd know everything about our kids, that there would be no secrets. Back on that day while I sat at the table looking into the unwavering eyes of my son, I knew without knowing how wrong that is. I talk to our kids all the time. They even tell me stuff. But I have no idea who they really are, or why they might want to be a red dentist.

I wonder if thinking you know someone is a trap. Maybe we sometimes put people in a perfect box of predictable understanding only to find out later how little we actually did know. Or worse, maybe we attribute certain motivations to people based on what we think we know about them. I've definitely been guilty of that one and been proven wrong a ton of times, sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse. I'd like to think that maybe the only person I really know is my wife. But maybe she's pulling the wool over my eyes, too…. (just kidding, honey). But if my son grows up to be a red dentist, then everything I wrote above is moot.

I loved the portrayal of Simon, who is the only stay-at-home father in the neighborhood, whose marriage is cracking at the seams even as he is desperate to find his son. How difficult was it for you to write such a character, as a father yourself? And did it change anything in the way you relate to your kids?

I'll be completely honest, I wrote what I know but with fiction. I am a stay-at-home dad. I do worry a lot. Many of Simon's worries are my own. But the fiction comes when you put Simon and his family in the situation of a high school shooting. The idea for the high school shooting was not to capitalize off of other people's tragedy. I'd recently read Dave Cullen's book Columbine. I'm not sure what to say about that book. You can't say you loved it, but it impressed me. Particularly how honestly it dealt with both the victims and the perpetrators. What really stuck with me, and what sort of inspired Finding Jake was what Dave Cullen wrote about the Klebold family. The two ideas came together: what if a dad like me was faced with the horror of a situation like that?

Parenting is by far the hardest job I've ever had. I worry every day that I am doing it wrong. Maybe we are supposed to be guide rails. We may not be able to know our children but maybe understanding them and guiding them is enough. You kind of know they are going to swerve back and forth, but maybe it's enough just keeping them from going off the cliff.

The structure of the book was really powerful, the way these two intersecting story lines  between the present and the past converge. Was this intentional from the start or was this a discovery you made while writing the book?

The book definitely started that way. In my mind, I jumped in with Simon at the end of this journey. I imagined him both reliving the tragedy and rethinking every moment in Jake's life. Those past scenes felt like pieces of the puzzle being slowly put back together, each one tying back to Simon's internal struggles, each scene reaffirming or re-panting his memory of Jake.

I also wanted to talk about the tension in the book that builds and builds until the ending. Did you know the story before you wrote it or was it an act of discovery? Which brings me to the question: what kind of writer are you? Do you have rituals you do? Do you map everything out?

I try to map things out and outline, but I really stink at it. As for knowing the story beforehand, I'd say 50/50. I had no idea how it would end. In fact, the last third of the book just came out so fast. Somehow, I almost felt like I lived those moments, and I definitely got caught up with them.

I think that I write from my gut. I get the feeling that when I outline I tend to write blandly. At the same time, if I get to a spot where I have no idea what's going to happen next, I freeze up. So, every time I stop writing for the day, I tend to jot down a few thoughts on where the story is going next. That way when I start back up, I have some guidance. I also find that driving and showering provide the best opportunities for inspiration.

I have to ask you, did you name the father Simon after your rescue dog?

Great question! The answer is actually no. And it's kind of freaky. I started writing this book just after the New Year in 2013 and named the characters Simon, Jake, Laney, etc. Their names never changed during the editing process. On President's Day, my wife, who never really wanted a dog, showed me a picture she found on He was one of a litter of four rescue puppies, all named after the judges on X Factor: Reid, Brittany, Demi and Simon. We adopted him on sight. The kids were so excited to give him a name. But when we got home and watched him for a while, everyone just looked at each other with the same thought. He's totally a Simon. So we kept his name.

Two funny things I should mention along these lines. First, Jake is actually named after a neighbor's dog. I was sitting by a window and saw him in their backyard when I was deciding on a name. Second, it is embarrassingly obvious the ending was written after we adopted Simon. Those two dogs were never part of the original plan. Simon, the dog, just stares at me a lot as I write.

What’s obsessing you now and why?

Still and always - our kids. Getting another book deal. What to put on Facebook because apparently that is more important than I realized?

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

Just one last thought. I think the hardest part about writing this as a father was and is worrying people will think Jake is my son. I actually questioned submitting this book to anyone for that reason. He isn't. Although I thought of him and my daughter a lot as I wrote it. However, the physical description of Jake is my son. There has never been a more haunting day then when I first opened the email with the cover art in it. The cover is an older version of my son, there is no denying it.

If Jake is anyone, he's an amalgam of a few other kids I've known, some from when I was a kid. I wonder, though, what our kids will think when they get older and read it. Will they see themselves in some of the stories? Will they be angry with me? Who knows?

Similarly, I've lost sleep over what people might read into the story. I've already had a few think they were characters in the book. One time, someone said, "Oh, you wrote about me in such and such a part." I didn't have them in mind at all during that scene, but I did in a different scene. Truthfully, though, no one is really in the book. Sometimes I used situations from real life and embellished them to make the point I wanted to make. I really wanted the flash back chapters to point back in some way with the current sections, so the characters had to act in certain ways and say certain things, none of which ever really happened.

Jonathan Odell talks about the inspiration for his incredible novel, Miss Hazel and the Rosa Parks League

“Jonathan Odell can take his place in the distinguished pantheon of Southern authors.”
Pat Conroy

  “Here it comes---barreling down the track like a runaway train, a no-holds-barred Southern novel as tragic and complicated as the Jim Crow era it depicts."
Lee Smith

Jonathan Odell's novel, Miss Hazel and the Rosa Parks League is a tale of two mothers, in pre-Civil Rights Mississippi, one black and one white, but it's also the story of a most unlikely friendship. I'm thrilled to have Jonathan here talking about the inspiration for one of his characters, Miss Hazel. Thank you, Jonathan!

The Picture Box
By Jonathan Odell author of Miss Hazel and the Rosa Parks League

The inspiration for Miss Hazel, the major character from the book, came from an old black-and-white photo, one of dozens in the fruitcake tin we called “the picture box.”  It was a treasure trove of old-time photographs of grownups in ancient dress, children more grim-faced than their years, and several mules. My mother’s side of the family, as poor as they were, had been fervent picture takers. When I was a child, I would randomly pull a picture from the box and say, “Tell this one, Momma,” and she would narrate the story of our family.
I remember choosing one particular photo that disturbed me. It was a family portrait from the 30’s. All 14 of them were standing and squatting and kneeling in front of an old paintless barn. But I couldn’t find my mother.   
When she put her finger on a gawky, half-starved child, I gasped. The little girl’s hair was dry, brittle looking, like a straw. Her dress ill fitting and shapeless, faded. Too short for her spindly legs. Her back was stooped and shoulders slumped. Her eyes cast downward, her head bowed, seemingly in shame, as if already knowing the insult the developed photograph would bring. At age twelve, she looked defeated.
“Momma! That can’t be you! You’re so pretty! This little girl looks starved and about to die.”
Momma laughed. Then she pulled out another picture from the box. “See if you can find me in this one.”
It was another family shot, and I recognized Momma immediately. The transformation was remarkable. She was looking directly at the photographer. She has an air of sassiness, maybe even flirting with whoever was taking the picture. Her sisters look uneasy next to her. She was acting the movie star.
She held her finger provocatively to her full lips, as if at that moment savoring something exotic, something the farm-hardened family around her could never be aware of. Something indeed had changed. This was the mother I recognized, the pretty, flighty one.
“What happened, Momma?”
“I just decided I wasn’t going to be ugly no more,” she sniffed. “Course they all hated me for it. But I didn’t let that stop me. I picked extra cotton to buy freckle cream remover. I made a leather harness to straighten-up my back, and I stole eggs to wash my hair with. They all called me Little Miss Priss. Said I was getting above my raising. I didn’t pay’em no mind.”
Years later I was able to see something in that photograph I hadn’t noticed before. It was the way the skin-and-bones girl held her right hand. The fingers themselves are tensed, rigid, almost claw-like, as if they are preparing to grab hold of something in a death grip, and never let go. The hand is the only thing about this emaciated child that looks as if it hasn’t completely given up hope, as if something inside her, when pushed to the wall, would put up one hell of a last fight.
My mother’s obsession with beauty and fine clothes was not mere vanity. It was an audacious strategy. For a girl raised in the bone-crushing poverty of the 1930’s South, there were few options to escape the fate of the farmwives who peopled Jasper County, Mississippi. Mother decided her only hope  was to find a man who thought she was pretty enough to get her the hell out. She did.
That was the story I wanted to write. About women like my mother, white and
black, whose spirits refused to be broken by poverty, violence or oppression, and took
any avenue, no matter how irregular, to save themselves.

Friday, February 13, 2015

William Torgerson talks about The Coach's Wife, coaching basketball and why love really is the biggest subject of all

Set against the backdrop of the O. J. Simpson trial, The Coach's Wife is about love, longing--and basketball obsession.  Writer, filmmaker, and family man, William J. Torgerson is an associate professor in the Institute For Writing Studies at St. John’s University in New York. His other novels include Love on the Big Screen and Horsehoe. His screenplay adaptation of Love on the Big Screen won the Grand Prize of the Rhode Island International Film Festival Screenplay competition. You can reach out to Bill via Twitter @BillTorg.Thanks so much for being here, Bill!

I always want to know what sparked a particular book. What was the question haunting you that drove you to write?

I had to write at least two books to get to The Coach’s Wife. The original spark was that I was married and divorced in less than three years when I was in my twenties. I promised God and everyone that I would love a woman forever, and then I ended up working very hard to get myself to fall out of love with her. Those events haunted me for a long time.

Having never considered myself a writer, I began in 2002 by writing down everything I could remember about my divorce. I don’t really know what compelled me to do that other than I had to get “it” out of me. I changed a few names in the story I was writing and called the pages a first draft of a novel. As an high school English teacher, I knew just enough about stories to know that I needed help with mine. I applied and was accepted to an MFA program, (Georgia College and State University in Milledgeville home to Flannery O’Connor!) revised my work, and those pages ended up becoming the material for Love on the Big Screen when Zuke is a college student and The Coach’s Wife which begins following his first year of being a high school coach and teacher.

Love on the Big Screen arrived to me one day in the writing classes I teach at St. John’s University. We were working on opening sentences in what writer and teacher Donald Murray would have called a daybook. I wrote, “Everything Zuke knew about love he learned from the movies, most of them late-eighties romantic comedies.” I was quickly off and running with that sentence and those pages became my first novel. If I were coming up with a question that haunted me, perhaps this: “How did we ever make the mistake of thinking we were right for each other?”

The Coach’s Wife is built around a deceptively simple premise: Zuke, your character, wants to fall in love.  But don’t you feel that love is the biggest subject of all?

I never thought about “the biggest subject of all.” That is a phrase that would scare me into not writing. I find myself constantly trying to block out what an ordinary subject I have chosen, and how I am writing something that I’m not sure anyone would ever want to read. When I work, especially in a first person narrative like this one, I am just trying to inhabit Zuke’s character and write the sentence that will organically follow what’s just been written on the page.

When my character Zuke and his buddies say, “A man without a her is a man without hope,” you are exactly right in that was a premise I felt I could move forward with. What happens, I wanted to know, when someone very badly wants to fall in love and get married? Zuke travels a long way down that path in this novel.

So I’ll give you love as being the biggest subject. I grew up going to church, and I went to a college much like my character Zuke. It was a place where we had mandatory chapel attendance (assigned seats and fines for missing) and four required Christian courses. One of the things we did in the classes was to outline the Old and New Testament page by page. The Biblical concept of love is something I’ve continued to carry with me from those days. As Zuke says near the end of the book, the idea that love is patient, that love is not keeping track of the wrongs committed by the person you love, and that love is being kind to another, those are all things that Zuke and I believe we can do when we choose to love others. I think about people as having a choice about who they love. This can sound cold and unromantic. When love means something else--perhaps to possess--confusion and suffering follow. In my books, Zuke begins by saying he loves women he’s never even talked to. By the end of The Coach’s Wife, Zuke will begin to try and enact what it means to love a wife everyday.

A lot of the book is about basketball, and you were a coach for many years. What surprised you about being a coach, and more importantly, what surprised you when you transformed that into the book?

I became a head basketball coach in Indiana straight out of college at the age of twenty-two. That’s a pretty young age to work with a bunch of people (assistant coaches, parents, fans, administrators, school board members) decades older. There were lots of people telling me I didn’t have any idea of what I was doing and trying to pressure me into doing what they wanted me to do. I’d read this book called Born to Coach by Rick Pitino who is now the coach at Louisville. I’d adopted his title as a sort of mantra for my life believing it was my destiny to be a great coach. I thought if I could even begin to replicate just some of what my college basketball coach had taught me, we’d have a good team. Then we won five games and lost fifteen. That losing record was a great surprise to me.

When it comes to the surprises I found during the act of writing, I didn’t realize the degree to which the failure of my first marriage was my fault. Before writing, I felt like divorce was something that had happened to me rather than something in which I participated. I thought of myself as a victim. The act of writing taught me my role in the end of the marriage.

Since I’m now fifteen years post divorce and a decade into a wonderful marriage, I find that since I’ve been writing fiction (making things up) I have a hard time remembering what really happened in my life. My stories have become my truth rather than something closer to the reality of the life I have lived.

I love that the book is set against the notorious O. J. Simpson trial (as well as Kurt Cobain’s suicide and our finding out that Prince Charles cheated on the beloved Diana). Why did you choose this time period, beside the fact that’s it’s tremendously fascinating? And why do you think popular culture informs our decisions?

In the realm of pop culture, both my character Zuke and I looked up to John Cusack’s character in the film Say Anything and Anthony Michael Hall’s “Farmer Ted” in the film Sixteen Candles. Both of these characters decide they are in love with a girl they’ve barely met, and then they boldly go forth and pursue these women until the kiss at the end. I was caught in a cycle where I’d create some fantasy of a person to pursue and then when I would actually end up dating the girl she was of course nothing like the person I’d made up in my head. I tried to convince people to love me, and I think I’d have been better off loving people who would love me back.

As for 1994 as the setting, it partly just made sense to follow Zuke’s previous fascination with the 80’s movies that he’d be graduating from college in the 90’s. However, I could have jumped ahead to lots of different time periods. I started with wanting to have a woman desire a fairytale wedding. Princess Diana and her wedding is the woman’s side (in this book) of Zuke’s fantastical expectations about love. I wanted to establish a background of fairytale romances with not happy endings. I read a lot of old newspapers and magazines starting with the subject of Princess Diana and that took me to OJ Simpson and Kurt Cobain and their respective marriages.

What kind of writer are you? Do you outline? Do you have rituals? Do you wait around for the pesky Muse?

Definitely no Muse. I write like I trained for marathons or worked on my basketball game when I was a player: a little bit everyday adds up to a lot. John Irving (A Prayer for Owen Meany, The World According to Garp) was a wrestler, and he was an early writer I read when I was getting started who had a way of working that made sense to me. I’ve been a word counter, trying for 800 words a day and thinking along the lines that a page a day will add up to over three hundred for the year and that will get me a long way toward a finished manuscript. The word counting came from a writer named Donald Murray who has this great book about teaching writing called Write to Learn.

My daily routines have been disrupted in that my daughters are ages six and nine, and this year I’ve started to spend half of the year commuting eight hundred miles between my job in New York and my home in North Carolina. That works begins to get published also takes you out of your routines. (as you know!) When nothing was getting published, I could write my book, start sending it out for rejections, and then start writing the next one. Once manuscripts (stories, novels, journal articles) were published, there are spans of time where nothing is happening and then there are requests for revisions. I prefer to write over an hour but not more than two everyday, but at the moment I find chunks of time (for example, the month I’ll have between semesters of teaching writing) where I’ll write everyday and should be able to finish some shorter pieces of creative nonfiction. I’m excited to hang out with my family now, and I imagine a time in the future when their lives will get busier. I try to remind myself everyday that in fifteen short years my girls will be out of high school. I know that time will go fast, and it’s what I want to most savor about life right now.

So you’re also a filmmaker and a professor at St. John’s--how do you manage your time?

In addition to what I’ve already said, I say I identify story projects and I see them through to completion. Those stories have been films, articles about teaching, podcasts, short stories, and novels. I want to work everyday and even if I’m only able to work only 150 days a year, I’m still progressing toward the completion of the project. I feel physically sick if I’m not writing and working out most days. Either I love to work, or I’ve just become so ingrained in my habits that I don’t want to do anything besides spend time with my family, work out, and compose stories. I hope for the day my whole family can go for long hikes in the North Carolina mountains and then sit down to read and write together for the rest of the day. I love the idea of my family being our own reading and writing group. We’ll see!

I have to ask who wrote the questions at the back of the novel, because they really made me smile.  (Would you want your daughter to date Zuke?)

I wrote the questions in the back of the book so thank you! When I moved from Indiana to Charlotte, North Carolina to start my life over post divorce, I started teaching at a school where the other teachers nicknamed me Question Boy. I see now that I meet people and right away I’m asking them what could be considered very personal questions. I guess I have tried to tone that down about myself over the years. I’m sure it’s also what drives my documentary filmmaking. I’m decidedly not a chit chat--How is the weather?--kind of guy. As for my daughters dating Zuke, my wife Megan and I can’t stand the thought of them ever being on a date. We love to ask them when they are moving out because they always respond, “Never!” We want to hear that as much as we can while it lasts.

What’s obsessing you now and why?

On the one hand, if I have to try and think about what is obsessing me, maybe nothing is? I hear you thinking, “Well then, you’re in trouble as a writer.” I have an obsessive personality, the need to be constantly mentally and physically engaged. My brain is all over the place: fracking, my students’ revision of their work, the role of social media in the classroom, the practice plan for my daughters 3rd grade basketball team…. I’ve figured out that if I write and work out most days, I’m able to gain a bit of peace and be able to at least appear to relax as the day turns to dusk. What I’m most thinking about at the moment is finishing two pieces of creative nonfiction that come from two short films I directed: “Yes You May,” is about an Asheville, North Carolina gardener who has spent thirteen years hybridizing a new blue poppy (talk about obsessing!) and another called “The Mushroom Hunter” about my dad and his morel obsessed buddies.

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

How about this one: You’ve written two books about Zuke. Will there be a third? I’ve got two more books in me about Zuke, but I don’t know if they will demand to be written. The first book would be about Zuke’s marriage, perhaps called Waiting for Julie. It might be too sad of a book to write. I’ve also got in mind a prequel that would be something like three days of Zuke’s high school life in the year 1987

The perfect snowbound read: Tatjana Soli talks about The Last Good Paradise, the wrong kind of happiness, and so much more

Is getting away from it all on an island paradise really the Nirvana you think it might be? Tatjana Soli's new novel is about broken dreams and broken people, and what it might take to jump start an island and a life worth living--and it's just deliriously good.

Tatjana's bestselling debut novel, The Lotus Eaters,  was the winner of the James Tait Black Prize, \a New York Times Notable Book for 2010, and finalist for the LA Times Book Award among other honors. Her second book, The Forgetting Tree, is a New York Times Notable Book for 2012. Her stories have appeared in Zyzzyva, Boulevard, and The Sun. Her work has been twice listed in the 100 Distinguished Stories in Best American Short Stories. 

 I'm so honored to have her here. Thank you, Tatjana!

 I was dazzled by all the twists and turns in the novel. Just when I thought I knew what was going to happen, you’d shift the sand, and characters would regroup. Did you plan out this novel? What was the writing like? Did anything about the process surprise you this time around?

I always dream of starting out with an outline, a clear sense of a book — beginning, middle, end — but somehow my brain doesn’t cooperate. I literally have to fight my way through a rough draft one sentence at a time. Maybe some book in my future will present itself differently, but so far it’s been a blind process. My favorite description of this is E. L. Doctorow’s famous line: “It’s like driving a car at night: You never see further than your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”

What I did have with this book is a strong feeling for the characters. The story pours through each of them, grabbing on to their obsessions, preoccupations, conflicts. I think it is more character-driven than my other books. Ann and Richard start the story out, and they are at a point where they are notched up to the breaking point by the events in their lives. The writing was like going through a crisis with a good friend; sides of that person’s character are revealed that you might have never known. These characters, as intermittently crazy as they are (or maybe because they are crazy), became my homeboys.

What surprised me in the writing was that I really enjoyed playing with a lighter tone than I had used before. You talk about the tragedy in the book, and there are definitely serious things that happen, but the overall tone is a happy, optimistic one. Straight comedy doesn’t feel true to life to me as a writer (although I love reading comedy and farce in other writers books) but here I think I straddled a tragic-comic line that felt true to me. I tried to make sure the happy stuff was earned.

So much of the novel is so, so incredibly moving--and unexpected. Somehow, the tragedy in the novel, made the joy even more profound. Can you talk about this please?

Thank you for that. That was really something I aimed for the reader to feel, that kind of complex emotional experience. In a way, this book was much more about my experience of life, while my previous ones were more in dialogue with other books that were important to me. As I get older, I notice that the people who are most important to me have this way of bringing light into any situation. Those people are priceless. We all go through difficult life events, whether it’s illness in the family or various professional setbacks, and having a sense of humor, cracking the possibly inappropriate joke to break the tension, makes all the difference in the world in surviving the day. I didn’t have the wisdom to appreciate this in my twenties.

At one point in the novel, Ann says, “if you pursued the wrong kind of happiness, it eventually would grow stale on you.” But how does one know what the right kind of happiness is?

Oh god, if I knew that I’d be on a South Pacific island right now! Seriously, though, each of my characters comes up with a very different “right” answer to that question. I guess happiness is as individual as our fingerprints. I’m always trying to come up with metaphors for my students of what the writing experience is like, but maybe looking for the right kind of happiness is like writing a novel, a sentence at a time, like those headlights in the dark, hoping for the best.

There’s an ache in your novel that I just loved. Dex isn’t feeling the joy fame used to bring him and instead feels himself aging. Richard feels as if he is losing his cooking talent--and his wife, Ann, who feels her past life as a lawyer fading like a tan. Do you think humans are designed to find happiness, or just to seek it?

Well, I’m from gloomy Eastern European stock, and we always tend to see the glass half empty. One of the things I played with in the novel is this idea that as Americans — no matter where we come from or how recently we arrived — we have this national trait of optimism. We truly believe that we deserve to be happy. We absolutely believe in second chances. People from other countries marvel at this hubris, and I think they envy it, too.

What’s obsessing you now and why?

It’s embarrassing to admit, but I develop writer crushes all the time. Right now I’m working on a historical novel, and I’m obsessed by E. L. Doctorow. He’s just so smart about writing and about history. I get the chance to go to college writing classes occasionally, and I’m always struck how students at that age see everything that is happening as an anomaly; it comes out of nowhere. Then you talk to people in their seventies and eighties, and they see those same things as connected to prior events. I just read a personal letter by a friend of my family, who is ninety-years-old, and he wrote about being at the beach landing at Normandy during WWII. I’ve known this man for many years and yet suddenly he just moved from everyday reality to myth. So I’m thinking about the difference, the tension, between history as reality and as myth.

Holly LeCraw talks about her devastating new novel, The Half Brother, teachers who mattered, what's obsessing her now and more


 Holly LeCraw is wonderful, warm, funny, and a genius writer.  Her new novel, The Half Brother, is already garnering praise any writer would kill for. The Millions said it  is "the finest school-set novel in recent history." Booklist, in a starred (love those stars!) review, compares her to Donna Tartt and Anne Tyler.  Her work has appeared in Post Road, Writer’s Digest, The Millions, Image, and various anthologies, and has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. She is the author of THE SWIMMING POOL, a 2010 Top Debut (Kirkus) and Best Book of Summer (Daily Beast and Good Morning America); it was also published in Canada, Germany, Greece and Israel.

I'm thrilled to have Holly here, though I'm sorry she's snowbound in Boston!

 The setting of your novel is a New England boarding school, genteel, cloistered—which plays off terrifically against the tumultuous things going on in your characters’ hearts. What made you choose a boarding school?

As you know, writers generally benefit from structural limitations—setting a book on an island, or during one summer, or over the course of one day. It makes the canvas a little more manageable (or seems to, at least at the beginning of the process). A boarding school setting functions in that way, and it’s also a sort of fairy-tale environment, shut away from the real world, where life seems heightened, small events are writ large, because it’s such a small and coded society. And it’s full of adolescents and their drama.

Also, a boarding school is almost always a setting of privilege, and people are usually fascinated by privilege, whether or not they approve of it.

All that being said, however, I didn’t choose the setting first. I didn’t go to boarding school myself; it doesn’t have any personal significance. I had Charlie Garrett, my protagonist, first, and he was a teacher, and it went from there. Ages ago, I had him working in a day school—but it was in a small town. So, for this story, I always wanted that sense of separation.

I seem to do this thing where I write a book that is a particular Kind Of Book but I’m the last to know. My first book was set on Cape Cod, and I was completely surprised when people called it a great summer book, beach book, all of that. What a dummy! But to me Cape Cod was incidental—just where my people lived, you know. Then this one—it didn’t occur to me until very late that THE HALF BROTHER was a “boarding school book,” which probably sounds ridiculous; but since it’s a story of adults, not students, I hadn’t been thinking of it with that label. I suppose you could say, though, that it’s a coming-of-age book, given that Charlie is a very, very late bloomer.
As it turns out, there are a lot of people out there who seem to love boarding school books. So it’s quite nice to have this built-in audience I wasn’t anticipating.

Families. Secrets. The things we do—or don’t do—for love. All these themes permeate your wonderful novel. Why do you think love, the most important thing in life, is always the most difficult thing to maneuver? Why does it bring out the best—and the worst—in us?

Charlie’s obsessed with questions of identity, and identity begins with one’s family. This is a guy born with imposter syndrome, because he has no father, and because he senses that there is a secret he’s not being told, in the way that all of us, especially when we’re children, can sense secrets.

I myself was attracted by the notion, the problem, of nature vs. nurture, of genetics, of the source of identity—for whatever reason that presented itself as one of the central questions of the book. Charlie assumes identity comes from parentage, which of course it does, in part; but that’s just one way he’s letting others define him. He has a very old-fashioned, classical, even Biblical belief in this biological determinism. It isn’t until he comes to Abbott, and really until he falls in love, that he feels like he has a little bit of agency, that he is finally himself, an individual. And then that goes south, rather spectacularly.

It’s one of the hallmarks of falling in love, that one feels finally like oneself. Literally that you’ve found your other half, your completion. And that is a lovely, lovely feeling, but it’s also dangerous, and it makes you extraordinarily vulnerable. I suppose I wanted to look at one of the worst case scenarios, where that love is definitively thwarted.

I have to ask about your very arresting cover. I love the line that separates the two. Do you have input on your cover? (Most authors have approval, but covers are pretty much a marketing decision, usually.)

The process this time was utterly ideal. That design was the first one they showed me, and it was perfect. I had nothing to do with it, except to say that I loved it. That line is genius. When the jacket was approved and I started showing it to people, every single person said, first thing, “Oooooooh.” As in, I’m intrigued. It’s the line—the line makes it. The line is a mystery, and makes you want to pick it up.

Now we come to the questions I always ask: What kind of writer are you? Do you outline? Do you have rituals? Do you wait around for the pesky Muse?

What kind of writer am I? Slow. I’m the slow kind!

I don’t outline until after a draft is done. I always thought that was just another sign of my essential inefficiency, but then I found out that a lot of writers do it that way. I generally outline in desperation, at that point where I feel I have lost all control, or never had any to begin with, and I am trying to impose a shape, any shape at all, on what I’ve got; but I just think that’s part of the process. An outline early on would be restrictive, at the moment when you should be putting no restrictions at all on yourself. Later on it’s useful if you need to see where holes are or where the tension is dying.

Rituals. Well, in theory I take a walk or at least move around a little outside, walk the dog or something, before I start working—every single day I have very good intentions! Also meditating, for just ten or fifteen minutes, is a good transition. Mainly though it’s apply butt to chair. Absolutely no waiting for the Muse. No way. That’s not to say I don’t frequently feel despair about whatever I’m working on. But there’s no point on blaming it on any Muse.

What’s obsessing you now and why?

I am wishing I had more time to work on my next idea. It’s very embryonic but it’s pulling me. And I wouldn’t say I’m obsessed, exactly, but for a long time now I have been thinking about fundamentalism, of all religious varieties, and the psychology of it and what it’s doing and has done in the world. And I’m thinking about the theater. I have a character right now who’s an actor. She’s obsessing me, mainly. I want to hear what she has to say.

What question didn’t I ask that I should have?
Well, I’d like to mention the teachers I thank in my acknowledgments. There is Kemie Nix, who was my Children’s Literature teacher in elementary school, and who was my first and best and most important enabler in my obsession with books. There is David Purdum, who was my English teacher my sophomore year in high school. He’s the one who said, “take the end of the sentence and pull,” which is a line I gave to Charlie. We were reading Faulkner for the first time, and we were just baffled—I think it was the first sentence on the first page of The Unvanquished, one of those Faulknerian sentences that’s half a page long, nearly undiagrammable. He just sat back and let us wrestle with it. It was great. And there is the late Margaret Lauderdale, who had this legendary, delicious southern accent. She hated it when she caught someone chewing gum; she’d say, “You look lahyke a cay-ow.” When we read Our Town, she gave us a quotation from St. Teresa of Avila, “Among the cooking pots moves the Lord,” which I have never, ever forgotten, and which informs my writing every day.