Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Caroline Zancan talks about LOCAL GIRLS, celebrity worship and its discontents, Amy Schumer and more.

I am a sucker for debuts, and I was quickly engrossed in Caroline Zancan's phenomenal LOCAL GIRLS. About celebrity, coming of age, and growing up in the swampy heat of a beach town, the novel is powerful and profound. Caroline is also an editor at Henry Holt, and she loves Hanya Yanagihara's A LITTLE LIFE as much as I do. Thank you so much, Caroline for coming on my blog!

 I always ask writers what the “spark” moment was for his or her book. What was haunting you that led to this story?

The idea came to me when news hit that a young, very well-liked celebrity—one very different from Sam Decker in many ways, I should addhad overdosed. He had a pretty clean image, and I, at least, was totally surprised when I heard. It was reported that the night he died was drinking in a bar in mid-sized city. And I just kept thinking about how much meaning we put on our celebrity sightings these days—we exchange them with each other like personal trivia about ourselves, and almost feel a sort of kinship with the celebrities we've crossed paths with. I associate certain celebrities with the friends of mine who have seen them, or have stories about them. And in addition to just being really sad for this particular celebrity's family and friends, I kept thinking about the patrons of that bar, imagining how crazy and sad and profound it would be to hang out with a celebrity--drink with him across the night--only to learn the next morning, along with the rest of the world, that he had died. Incredible excitement giving way to something much darker and sadder, and the kind of meaning it would be tempting to place on the whole thing. I just kept thinking, "Man, imagine the story those people have." Originally it was going to be a short story set just in the present of the bar, but the more I kept writing, the more drawn I was to the girls. The story ultimately belongs to them, and I think my hope is that people's reading experience will mirror the writing experience a little--at first you're leaning forwarded to hear what this celebrity has to say, kind of giddy from the proximity--but by the end you realize the girls' lives are just as interesting and profound and worthy of your attention.

And then on the total flip side of that, F. Scott Fitzgerald has always been my favorite writer, and
his story “The Freshest Boy” is one I return to again and again. It’s about a young boy who witnesses a loaded moment between his heroes and makes a major life decision based on what he overhears. This book is by no means an adaptation or retelling of that story—the boy was way younger and a lone wolf, bullied at his upper crust East Coast boarding school, and his heroes were a college baseball star and a theater actress, and he never speaks to them. (And they fare better than poor Sam Decker!) But I've always loved that idea of a brief encounter with someone you’ve loved from afar that changes your life forever.    

There’s such a riveting sense of place in the novel--the beach, the bar, the killing heat--the sense of it all being a dead end. Did you grow up in a town like this?

I'm not from Florida but I grew up going there, and lived there for a summer in a college. It’s a wild place, and I say that lovingly and with awe. I find it fascinating—the creatures and landscape there are stranger than fiction or legend or fairytale. I started visiting regularly when I was 11 or 12 and as my brother and I were pedaling off on our bikes that first day my dad was like “watch for gators!” and I was like “Haha, DAD.” But truly, gators are the least of it. It feels a little like anything could happen at any moment, and when you pair that ruggedness and that wildness with the cheerfulness of the vacation culture, it’s just kind of like “how is everyone not writing about this place all the time?”

I’m from a small town, about an hour outside of Cincinnati, one that I love, and still go home to often, but the thing I shared with these girls at that age more than that is that sense of restlessness. The epigraph I chose for the front of the book, by John Steinbeck, is “All of them had restlessness in common” which is true of my own experience as a young person. I remember being 18, just so ready for whatever was going to come next to arrive, even if I wasn’t sure exactly what that was going to look like, and then again after I graduated from college. It’s that slice of time when you suddenly have some agency over the course of your life—any complaints you have about your life are kind of on you; you’re no longer under anyone’s thumb--but you aren’t quite sure what you want to do with it yet.

These girls--19, not off to college--are both best friends and worst enemies, and they’re so alive, they snap off the page.  How did you go about crafting them and why?

I love the company of women--I've never been one of those "Oh, most of my friends are guys, I'm a guys' girl" despite how much I also enjoy the company of men. And it never fails to surprise me, the levels of intensity and the complexities--some thorny, some delightful--that relationships between women can bear over time. And I think this is particularly true when we're young, in high school or just after, because there are so many additional emotions and complications--it’s a pressure cooker of a stage of life, and close female friendships exist within that. Not to mention that the older you get, the more outlets you have to discuss problems or seek advice through, whereas teenage girls often turn in to each other instead of outside to the rest of the world when it comes to coping or exploring something they're thinking or feeling. As a result, I think we've all had our Nina or our Lila, or both, and I think it does have an impact on our lives, one that I've been surprised to discover is quite lasting. While these characters are all fictional, they're meant to capture a dynamic between girls that is very real.

I was fascinated that the girls found their outlet in reading about celebrities--and even more astonished when they actually got to meet one in their town.  Why do you think we actually need our celebrities, our royals, our heroes--especially when a part of us knows they must be very different than whom they pretend to be?

Storytelling held a sacred place in my childhood--when I wasn't reading books, I was watching movies. I grew up wanting to work in book publishing because it's one way to immerse yourself in stories for a living. And while not everyone makes a career out of it, I think I share that passion for a well told story with a lot of people--I think it's a way of trying to make sense of the world, or give it meaning. I think every culture in the history of human kind has incorporated storytelling into their way of life in some form or another. And these days celebrities are the face of a lot of the stories we hold most dear. I would die if I was ever in a room with Christian Bale not because I actually think he's a magical person, or better than any other person I pass on the streets on any given New York afternoon, but because to me he will always be Jack Kelly, one of my childhood companions. It feels personal. It's funny, living in New York City for the last decade and working in publishing, I actually will meet or interact with celebrities, and while it's exciting, there's always that moment of "please don't be a dick, please don't be a dick," because you never want to discover someone you admire is actually terrible. It would be like breaking up with a longtime friend. And at the end of the day, they're just people, which sounds obvious, but there is that strange juxtaposition of being like "holy shit, it's you"--total titillation--and hearing them talk about the most ordinary things. And I think it's that dichotomy that drives the weird celebrity culture of the 21st century--we place so much importance on these celebrities we all revere, we've elevated them to such a vaunted status in our society, and yet at the end of the day, people are people. I don’t think anyone could live up to the expectations we’ve set for them. Camera men follow some of them around all day, and sometimes they really are just buying toilet paper or taking their dog for a walk.      

I always want to know about process. What kind of writer are you? Do you outline? Do you write in stages or every day?

I find that I'm a different writer with every project I take on. This book kind of came out in a burst--it's taken me longer to write a lot of short stories I've done than it took to write this. I was kind of never not writing it. I scribbled notes on cocktail napkins in bars, and sent myself stray lines or plot developments in email form as I was going over the bridge during my morning commute. It became a little bit of an obsession, which my poor husband had to suffer through--we'd be sitting in front of the TV at the end of the night before going to sleep and I'd say "urg--why am I not working on my novel right now, I'm being so lazy." And he'd be like "What are you talking about? You've been working on that thing all day." I kept talking to him as if the characters were real, which he was a very good sport about. I remember when I finished my last revision before my agent sent it out to editors, I turned to him as I shut my lap top and said "Well, I guess Sam Decker's really dead now" as if it was the saddest thing in the world.    

In general, though, I always carry an idea around in my head for awhile, letting it marinate, before I try to put it down on the page. There's nothing more frightening to me than a blinking cursor at the top of a new word document, so if I'm going to sit down in front of a computer, it's because I’m ready to go; I know what I want to say and I have a general sense of how I'm going to say it.    

What’s obsessing you now and why?

I’m not sure I’d call it an obsession, but a book that I’ve found really hard to shake—in a good way—is Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life. It’s the first book I read in 2015, and nothing has really been able to capture my attention in quite the same way since. Because I am almost constantly reading for either work or pleasure, things tend to come and go quickly, but this one seems here to stay. It’s a remarkable, stunning book that’s so big and powerful I almost don’t know how to talk about it. I had lunch with Hanya’s agent and she gave the galley to me and was like “I don’t really know what to say about this one, just read it” and that’s pretty much how I feel about it.

And then on the other end of our culture, I could binge watch Broad City and Amy Schumer all day. It’s a great time for women in comedy, and I love to laugh.  

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

I think you were pretty thorough—I loved these questions!

Jenny Milchman talks about AS NIGHT FALLS, acknowledgement pages, prison research, and more

Two desperate escapees from prison. A secluded house with a family and secrets. Both collide in Jenny Milchman's tense, nervy new novel, As Night Falls.  She is also the author of Ruin Falls and Cover of Snow, which won  the 2013 Mary Higgins Clark Award for best suspense novel of the year. I'm honored to have her here. Thank you, Jenny!

This novel is really like the threat of a razor against your throat--tight, suspenseful and terrifying. What sparked the idea? (I always think there is something that haunts an author and leads to a book.)

I do, too, Caroline—I call those genesis novels. Ones that have a clear creation story. I’m writing one now, in fact—my fourth book. It came to me at such a distinct moment in time, with such a specific trajectory, that I get goosebumps when I imagine telling the story-behind-the-story on tour. And actually, come to think of it, I know the origins of both my other published novels as well.

But not As Night Falls. This book is an enigma to me, and always has been. I can’t remember when or why I began telling the story to myself—a process that has to take place before I sit down to write. I have no idea how those two prisoners appeared to me, and still less how I came up with the reason they would invade my heroine’s home.

Here’s what I do know: This book seemed to write itself. Scene after scene, like a row of dominos, falling into place. It felt effortless. (Well, until the revising anyway. But that’s for another question). Although the story takes place in one night—about eight hours—there is a novel-within-the-novel that flashes back four decades before catching up to the present day at the end. And I was deeply inspired by one book when fashioning this part of the novel: Lionel Shriver’s We Need to Talk About Kevin.

I was working as a psychotherapist when I read Shriver’s Orange prize winning tale, and I specialized in treating children. I remember feeling that Shriver got the process so exactly right—she brought to fictional life a dynamic I was seeing again and again in reality. In short, kids look to parents to put a lid on their natural aggressive impulses, and when parents turn a blind eye—for various reasons—that aggression will escalate. With As Night Falls, I wanted to write about a similar family structure—but one that would, arguably, have a happier ending.

And that is my—I hope not too frustrating—answer for how the story came to me!

Please tell us what the research was like? What surprised you?

I was lucky to be teaching at the time with an author I deeply respect, Les Edgerton. Les has an incredible grasp of story structure—and a dark, gritty voice—but I turned to him for help with neither of those things while writing As Night Falls. Instead, I asked Les to make sure I got my prison details right. That was the bulk of the research I did, since I knew about my heroine’s psychotherapy career from personal experience, and as I mentioned, most of the rest of the book just seemed to appear out of the ether. But I did want to make sure I didn’t put forth either a stereotyped or unrealistic portrayal of what it was like to be a convict.

What surprised me? That prisoners and guards usually maintain a balance of respect while inside. I thought I had this relationship down pat—hey, I read Stephen King’s “Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption” a hundred times like every other writer. (Wait, has every other reader read that novella a hundred times?) But in most cases, apparently, the guards are not abusive, and they know that behaving aggressively will only cause a state of unrest that makes their job harder. I had to go back and do some rewriting when I learned that!

So much of the book is really about our strengths, what makes someone strong, and what reservoirs we sometimes find inside of us and how we use--or misuse those. Could you talk about that please?

I think you hit upon a theme in all my books, and one that comes from the very depths of me. To a certain extent, every character I write is a terrified kindergartener, getting dragged along the street by a bully. Or an ostracized sixth grader, afraid to speak up, let alone fight back. All of my protagonists come from places of weakness at the beginning.

And what does such a person do when catapulted into a situation that threatens everything she’s now come to have? What lengths will she go to, which pinnacles will she reach?

One criticism I fear being made of my work—although it hasn’t happened yet—is that it falls into something of a Disnified trap. Might doesn’t make right in my books. The scales of justice can balance as a character approaches her own version of happily ever after.

Because isn’t that a world we’d all like to live in, if we could? There are authors whose work I respect enormously because they are able to face in their fiction the lack of closure we live with day to day. I marvel at these writers’ bravery—as great as any my protagonists possess. That isn’t the place I want to go to for the length of time and depth of commitment it takes to write a novel, however. In my books, the mice can speak, if not dance and sing. The trapped princesses go free.

I don’t want to oversimplify because another dimension I feel compelled to explore is the fact that each villain is the hero of his or her own story. My bad guys have virtues, or at least reasons; my good guys have flaws. But the fact that in the books there are good and bad guys speaks to what you’re getting at, I think. What makes someone strong in a Jenny Milchman novel? It’s less genetics or environment or past experience or intention or any of a dozen other sources, and more this: they deserve to find strength.

I also want to talk about your stunner of an ending. How did that come to you? Especially that killer of a last line.There’s the climactic sequence, which was really an action scene to write. To me it felt inevitable—things had to go that way from the moment Sandy faced two prisoners entering her home that night. Things probably had to go that way from the moment Sandy was born. I don’t know that this sequence necessarily followed the right succession of events, or the best one. Only by a rather bizarre reckoning could the ending of As Night Falls be considered wholly happy. But I do think it was inevitable; at least, I couldn’t envision a more fitting alternative.

And then there’s what I think of as more of a denouement or epilogue. It’s told from a secondary character’s point of view, although this person is the source of the whole story in a way. She’s watching the main characters at a distance, seeing where they wound up.

When I was in the thick of writing As Night Falls, I woke up in the middle of the night, and wrote that entire epilogue scene down on a few scraps of paper. It changed a fair amount in the rewriting, but the essence of that ending was captured at 3 a.m. one morning. And the last line of it stayed exactly as jotted down.

I think the line may have the most resonance for people who have read all three of my books and have come to know the fictional Adirondack town in which they are set. In Wedeskyull, winter closes in like a claw and doesn’t release its grip for a long time. In As Night Falls, the weather becomes one domino in the row that causes everything to fall. And in the final line, the weather is a metaphor for the fact that no matter how ghastly things may get, the sun does come out and shine, however briefly.

There also are some surprising (and heartbreaking) revelations about family, how a mother shapes a son, how a sister grapples with a damaged brother. Do you think family can heal as much as it hurts?

I think family is probably the healing property of life—but I don’t necessarily mean the families we are born with. There are also the families we construct. Those families may include spouses, partners, children. They may include aging parents or parental figures who need care. They may be made up entirely of fur babies, beloved pets. They may be our students if we’re teachers, our patients if we’re nurses or therapists or physicians or PA’s, our troop members if we’re Girl Scout leaders, the people we encounter as volunteers at a soup kitchen or shelter, or as members of a church or temple or mosque. The possibilities for family are endless, and by being around them, yes, I do believe we can heal. Ourselves and others.

In As Night Falls, Sandy has created a new family because the one she came from was so annihilating, so damaging. And when that new family is threatened, it’s the one thing Sandy can’t stand to lose. In a way, she’s escaped her family of origin, but she hasn’t really. It still has the power to fell her, to suck her down. Only by becoming strong enough to save her husband and daughter can Sandy fully inhabit the life she has built versus the one she was given.

And we all have the power to do that—it just may happen in less dramatic ways.

This might seem like a weird question, but I always read acknowledgement pages and yours, at seven pages long, was fascinating. Not only did you give us a window into your life, but there was such a generous spirit, especially to other writers. (“Writers need writers,” you write, and they do indeed.) Can you talk about all of this? I think the writing community, when it is cooperative, rather than competitive, saves lives, spirits, and enriches our work.

It doesn’t seem weird at all! I love reading acknowledgments too, and I take great care in writing mine. (The horror at the thought of leaving someone out!) Anyway, I’m so glad you enjoyed them.

The writing community is how I finally got published after an eleven year journey/struggle/battle. I’d gotten close a lot of times—and I do mean a lot: Over the course of those years, I worked with three different agents and we had fifteen “almost-offers” on novels that were submitted. (An almost-offer happens when an editor wishes to acquire a book, but doesn’t get buy-in from her editorial board or someone else at the publisher). My first published novel was the eighth one I had written.

What made it happen in the end was that an author whose work I love—but whom I didn’t know except as a fan—agreed to read my unpublished manuscript. As if that wasn’t enough of a leap, after reading it she handed it over to her own editor. This author’s editor became my own weeks later. So it took me eleven years and a few weeks to get published. When it happens, like love, it happens.

Dennis Lehane talks about writers “sending the elevator down” and that is what I’ve been lucky enough to experience in the writing world. Unlike the music or film or theater industry, which seems to be rife with competition, I haven’t seen that in publishing. Perhaps it exists and I’m not privy to it. But I think by putting a great deal of support out there—as you do, Caroline—we invite support and good will back into our lives and our creative processes.

If anyone reading this column is running for the elevator, shout out to me. I’ll hold it for you.

What’s obsessing you now and why?

My book-in-progress! Well, I’m also headed out on tour for As Night Falls this summer, and planning a three month, 100 stop tour is pretty consuming. But the story I’m currently writing is always the most blissful, and right now, I am lost in its world. I wonder if my heroine will triumph? I wonder if she’ll be able to find one of those families-of-her-construction?

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

Your questions were all so incisive and penetrating. You spoke to how we dig deep as writers, and what that kind of mining brings to our work. Completing this interview, carrying it around with me (figuratively) for a few weeks, was such an empowering experience.

But I’ll address one less optimistic dimension lest people who are struggling in their journeys—towards publication, or towards a completed book—feel alone. I’ll ask myself, What is the hard part?   There are two, and they both start with the letter R, and they both cause me fits and pain and grief at times.  Revision.  Rejection

None of us gets out of this game alive, right? But by encountering writers like you, Caroline, who build a web of connections and offer insight into each one, we can sure play a few fantastic rounds.  One more R word, and it’s the name of this author game—we do it with every book we write, friend we meet, story we tell—not to mention the overarching theme in As Night Falls.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Svetlana Grobman talks about growing up in Cold War Russia, writing, and so much more

I love discovering great small presses. Musings Publishing is based in Missouri, and they sent me a book with the provocative title, THE EDUCATION OF A TRAITOR, complete with a haunting cover photo.  Kirkus Reviews calls this "an intimate look at a young woman's struggle to find her own truth in a repressive society." Midwest Book Review calls the memoir, "Hard-hitting and involving." I'pm honored to have Svetlana, who grew up in Moscow during the Cold War, on my blog. Thank you, Svetlana.

I always want to know what sparked a book. Why write a memoir now?

It was my American husband who “sparked” my book. It happened five years ago. At the time, I was working on a book describing my coming to Columbia, Missouri, which for me, then a 39-year-old Jewish immigrant with no English and no knowledge of American life, was as disorienting as if I had landed on the Moon. I had a good time writing that book, because the most difficult period of my immigration was already over, and I could have fun describing my learning English -- mixing up words “desert” and “dessert,” “hair” and “hare,” and getting puzzled by expressions like “keep me posted” when no postage stamps were in sight.

My husband, however, thought that my life in Russia was a more important subject to write about, and, eventually, I agreed with him -- not because I believed my past life to be exceptional, but because it was representative of other lives spent under an oppressive regime. 

Why now? For one thing, it took me a long time to improve my English, and it took me even longer to feel strong enough to relive my past. This does not mean that everything in my Russian life was painful. Some things were so absurd that they were actually funny.

I love the title of the book. Can you tell me how that came about?

I was born six years after WWII ended, and I grew up reading numerous books and watching movies about the war. Their main characters (Soviet soldiers and civilians, for we never cared about the allies) were divided into two categories: those who died for our country – we called them heroes, and those who didn’t – we called them traitors. Yet one thing always bothered me. The heroes, it seemed, had to die to prove their worth, while the traitors had no excuse for what they did – of did not do -- even if their only crime was being captured by the enemy. I was in awe of the heroes, and I hated the traitors. Still, I often wondered if I’d be able to die for my country if circumstances demanded it.

As it turned out I didn’t have to face death to become to a traitor. The first time I was called that was the time when I, then fifteen years old, tried to transfer to another – much better – school, and the person who called me a traitor was the principal of my current school.

Later, when I applied for an exit visa to Israel, which was the only legal way Jews could leave the country in those days, and after I was stripped of my Soviet citizenship, many people called me a traitor – some out of hate and some out of jealousy, since that way out was closed to ethnic Russians.

In any case, I wanted my book to depict the transformation of a naive girl into a young woman who realized that everything she had been told and believed was a lie, and she had to “betray” these false ideas in order to survive.

It's fascinating to read about your time as a Young Pioneer. What do you wish you had known back then that might have helped you?

The way I was then, nothing could have helped me, unless I had been a different person – less bookish, less impressionable and sensitive, less gullible about brainwashing, and, most of all, not Jewish, for in the Soviet Union anti-Semitism wasn’t just a private matter but also a government policy.

To make this policy work smoothly, all Jews had a line, “Nationality -- Jewish" written on all of their documents--school, work, library, and medical records, and, of course, on the most important document of all, our Soviet passports.  Our "Nationality" was always on the fifth line, which made it easy to spot.

When my daughter was born, the first question the nurse asked me after my (rather difficult) delivery was, “Nationality?”-- even before she asked if I had picked a name for my baby.

From your memoir, Soviet Life seems very, very difficult. Do you think much has changed there? 

Well, I never went through a war (my parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles did). I wasn’t a victim of Stalin’s purges (many prominent Jews were). I was never arrested by the KGB and sent to a Siberian gulag (my grandfather was). Nothing that dramatic. Yet, I – and millions other people – lived under an oppressive, anti-Semitic, and corrupt regime, cut off from the rest of the world and constantly brainwashed about the superiority of our country. If I had to describe
 my childhood, I would describe it as colorless. It was also stifling.  

As for Russia of today, I haven’t been back since 1990, the year I left Moscow’s Sheremetyevo International Airport, accompanied by the hateful glances of its customs officers who had thoroughly searched our belongings but had not found any diamonds hidden in the double bottoms of our suitcases, foreign currency over the allowed amount of $60 per person, or valuable books and documents. (They did strip us of three of our gold-plated teaspoons, proclaiming that “according to government rules” we were allowed to take only one teaspoon per person.)

Yet from what I hear from people who do travel to Russia or from the things I read about my former Motherland, I get the impression that although some of Russian citizens have become much richer, the main traits of the country are, unfortunately, the same. It is still a country where brainwashing is a high art, it is still extremely nationalistic, and it still has no respect for international laws – or any laws for that matter.

What kind of writer are you? Do you outline or simply follow your pen?  Do you write at the same time every day?

I do not outline. I wouldn't say that I follow my pen either. I follow my stories, for things come to me as stories, which I later need to put together. Also, I am a night person, and no matter how much I’d like to change that, I am never productive before 7 or 8 pm (I have a full-time job, tooJ).

What's obsessing you now and why?

Well, I’m obsessive by nature, so I always have a variety of things to obsess about. Yet if I must prioritize my obsessions, then my book – or its “fate," so to speak – is my number one concern. I spent five years writing this book, so it is important to me to share it with the reading public. And not just because of vanity or financial concerns. I believe that The Education of a Traitor is the most important work I have written or am likely to write in the future. Why? Because, to me, it has historical as well as personal significance. It does not describe the ravages of war or other horrendous events, but it does describe what everyday life was like, at that time, in that place, for millions of people like me who lived in the former Soviet Union during the Cold War. Also, I believe that to understand the Russia of today, people need to learn more about the Russia of yesterday.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Annie Liontas talks about Let Me Explain You, hip-hop, titles, her third eye and writing, and so much more

 I love big, wild, unruly books, which is why I fell for Let Me Explain You, which is an Indies Introduce Debut from ABA for 2015--another reason to snap this novel up! She is a recipient of a grant from the Barbara Deming Memorial fund, and one of her stories, "Two Planes in Love" was a runner-up in Bomb Magazines 2013 Fiction Contest.  I'm thrilled to have author Annie Liontas here.  Thank you, Annie!

I always ask writers what the “spark” moment was for a book. What was haunting you that led to this story?

1.5.  By that, I mean, I’m a member of the 1.5 generation, not quite Greek, not entirely American.  I was born in the U.S. but lived in Greece and assimilated at age five, learned English, figured out that ketchup wasn’t a condiment for spaghetti.  I’ve always been confronted with the feeling of being foreign; I imagine it’s the obsession that will follow me for life.  I’m OK with that.  Someone once told me that writers belong to their own nation, and that feels right.

I loved and deeply admired the multiple perspective of your novel and the big, brawling multigenerational feel. How difficult was that to do? Was there ever a moment when you wondered if you could pull it off--which you did, beautifully, by the way?

You know something—everyone who read the book was like, “Why not just write the whole thing as Stavros Stavros Mavrakis?”  He’s funny, ridiculous, a big noise on the page.  I knew, though, that it couldn’t just be his story, and I kept returning to the daughters.  I kept asking them, “What do you have to say about this?”  It took a long time—and hundreds of trashed pages—to finally pick up their voices.  They just kept getting drowned out by their father, so I had to really tune my ear.

So much of this blindingly beautiful novel is about family--the ties that bind as well as throttle us, but it’s also about the stories we tell. Can you talk about this, please?

I guess this comes from my innate belief that everybody has a story to tell, even the tiny people.  There are these big voices that emerge in literature, and often they’re men, and often they’re patriarchs.  The story they tell is usually only one version of the story needing to be told—and as a result even their own lives become stripped down.  The more stories we tell of ourselves and others, the richer the narrative becomes.  And in family, every voice matters.  Stories are also ways to explain to ourselves what’s happened to us, around us, before us, because of us.

I have to ask about the title (because I have such trouble titling my own work.) Where did it come from?

The title was the last to come:  it told me I was finished writing the novel.  It’s part of Stavros Stavros Mavrakis’ refrain, “Let me explain you something.” (He was mansplaining before it became a thing).  Once I inherited Let Me Explain You as the title, I was able to go back and reframe the entire novel, even at the sentence level.  I was able to interrogate my characters:  who is being explained?  Who is doing the explaining? Who feels entitled to tell someone else what they are?  Is there any truth to what’s been said?  Is there any power in explaining yourself?

I always want to know about process. How do you write? Do you have rituals, use index cards, Scrivener, or do you not plan out at all?

During Let Me Explain You, I wrote pretty feverishly at night, usually listening to a single song on repeat, usually hip-hop (Current track is “Every Day” by A$AP Rocky).  My best writing time—when my third eye opens—is probably from 10 PM-2AM.  This isn’t exactly conducive to having a job, so I’m trying to adjust, these days, to daylight.  I also do a lot of mapping—my living room is covered in giant posters right now.  But sometimes that gets overwhelming, and I convert down to a single sheet of paper.  I guess process is whatever serves you in the moment, whatever tricks you to plow ahead.  The one thing I absolutely need, though, is Microsoft Word 2010.  No other version lets you go full-screen with a completely blacked out background.  Don’t they know writers are particular and easily distracted?!

The other thing I’d like to add is—I’ve always felt guilty about not being someone who writes every day.  But, honestly, I’m not sure women are programmed that way.  We work on an obvious cycle.  I finally got sick of beating myself up and, for the last few years, I’ve been documenting my writing hours, noting when and how I work, and it’s helped me understand my own (changing) rhythms.  I know to be patient if I haven’t purged something, it’ll come soon.  That’s how I discovered Marina’s voice inaugurates Part III of the book.  The waiting still feels miserable, of course, and you convince yourself you’ll never write again.  But at least the track record serves as a reminder.

What’s obsessing you now and why?

I think I’m always keeping my ear to the ground for those tiny voices that need to be heard.  At the moment, I’m trying to channel a gay teenager living in Newark who feels foreign in her own body.  I’m also playing with some fabulist fiction, because I get claustrophobic in my writing self and need to shake it up.

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

What’s the best question in the book?

“Do you want me to smell my fingers?”

Bridget Foley talks about Hugo & Rose, why outlining is not a dirty word, radical fandom, and so much more

 You know how you meet people in person and you get a vibe and you can just tell that you want to be their best friend? I've never met Bridget Foley, but her emails, her website, and of course her writing, are all so effervescent and honest,  well, Bridget--looks like you're stuck with me. I'm honored to host her on the blog to talk about Hugo & Rose, imaginary lives and outlines (Yay! I'm a story structure outline person myself!)  Thank you, Bridget!

 I always want to know what sparks a book--but you talk about that in the extraordinary acknowledgement pages of your novel. Please can you tell us about the grief, bravery and courage it took for Hugo & Rose to emerge, and how writing the book changed you? Was there anything in it that surprised you?

Shortly after I finished the first draft of HUGO & ROSE, I became pregnant with identical twin girls. I edited the book on bed rest, my belly making the reach to the keyboard a bit more difficult each day. The plan had always been for the book to go to market in September because the girls were due in November, which meant that all book business would have been cleared by then. Best laid plans.

On September 1st, the girls’ placenta abrupted which caused them to be born 10 weeks early. They were small but their prognosis was good. My agent called to see if we should put off the book sale; my husband and I talked about it. We were picturing ourselves trying to deal with two newborns at home while undergoing the stress of the sale… so we decided it would be best to do it on the timeline we had planned.

Right after we pulled the trigger my daughter Giddy took a turn. She was transferred to a different hospital and suddenly we were spending our days talking about blood counts and liver numbers. Our life became shuttling between hospitals, talking to doctors and sitting by the beds of our girls. We got dispatches about the book, but they were like tiny voices in a loud room. I barely noticed.

Giddy passed away when she was 19 days old. HUGO & ROSE sold three days later. My entire journey as a published author has also been that of a grieving parent.

It was not easy.   It still is not easy.  It never will be.

Oddly, HUGO & ROSE uses the premise of an alternate life lived in dreams to explore the ways humans deal with trauma. Without spoiling the ending, I think it is safe to say that Hugo and Rose are characters who got stuck in a moment that helped them deal with a particularly difficult event in their lives. But the thing that was meant to help them, also keeps them from appreciating the lives that they had after their trauma.

For the past year and a half, like Rose, I have also been living an imagined life in parallel to my real one. Mine is one in which my dead daughter is in the bath tub next to her living sister, or on the swings, or at the breakfast table. There is a part of me that will never leave the room in which my daughter died.

And that could absolutely keep me from appreciating my life, from being joyful about the children I still have, or happy about what an incredible privilege it is to have a book published. I have sorrow but it is my daily practice to try to keep it from preventing me from experiencing all the love and joy and happiness this world has to offer.

With the book coming out I had to decide how open I was going to be about my daughter’s death. I decided to share, not because I want pity, or even sympathy, but because I’m not sure I know any another way to be at the moment. I have said elsewhere that while my daughter’s short life is not the book’s story, it is the story of the book. I can’t talk about one without talking about the other.

What does it really mean to be “the dream of yourself”? Can you talk about that please?

There’s this strange little line in the book that I’m kind of obsessed with. It surprised me when it appeared on the screen years ago and years later, it still gets at me:

            She didn’t want to be who she was when she was who she was.

It’s even weirder if you say it aloud, which I would recommend because it’s fun. I love playing with word repetition… but this line is like a little poem in the middle of the chapter about the misery of feeling like you’re performing your life instead of living it. I think everyone has a “dream self” that they can’t shake; the thinner, happier, more productive version of themselves. That person with the better job, bigger house and longer temper who if they just stepped in, everything would be easier. There are entire industries devoted to helping us become the people we dream we could be.

Of course, in the book the fantasy of the better self is literalized. In their dreams Rose and Hugo are thin, beautiful and brave, while in real life they are aging, overweight and deeply fearful of a great many things. Their “other self” is a constant companion through their day, reminding them of all the things they are not.

What kind of writer are you? Do you outline or just follow your pen?

I love outlines. I adore outlines. I preach outlines to any and every person who asks me for advice. This is because every work of fiction that I have ever failed to complete, or had to put through a brutal, traumatic reworking was written without an outline.

I have read beautiful books that were ‘discovered along the way’ and I have many friends that write that way… it just doesn’t work for me. The gift of an outline is that it gives you something to hand to your most trusted reader before you have invested months and months on it. It is much easier to fix structural problems, or gaping plot holes when they are only a few sentences on a twenty page document rather than threaded through an entire 400 page manuscript.

The outline also eliminates the dread that accompanies every morning of opening up your computer and asking yourself, “what next?” When you work from an outline, the question isn’t the “what” it’s the “how.” How do I tell this part of the story? This keeps your fingers moving, which is great because, at least for me, stagnation is death. If I wait for “inspiration” I could be waiting a really long time… Instead if I wake up and make myself write a scene because that is what is needed I’ve found that inspiration has a way of walking in the door.

I think outlining gets a bad rap because people think doesn’t allow for discovery, that it leads to a rigid, unimaginative result. But I believe if that’s the case it says more about the writer than the process.

What’s obsessing you now and why?

The thing that’s obsessing me right now is the idea of radical fandom, which is my term for a kind of cultural discipline I’m trying to apply to my own life. Charles Murray wrote a great book called, “Coming Apart” a few years ago in which he compared America in 1960 to 2010. He argued that in the past fifty years the gap between the haves and the have-nots has widened not just for economic reasons but because we have stratified our culture. In 1960 people from every level of the social strata consumed the same things. They shopped at the same grocery stores, saw the same television shows, read the same books.

That just isn’t what is happening today. White collar and blue collar people shop differently, watch differently, read differently. We’re talking the audience for Mad Men versus the people who watch Two and A Half Men. And we use social signaling to tell everyone in our tribe that we belong. It’s “Did you see Girls last night?” or “Twilight…ugh.” We have become a very critical culture. There are a lot of people today who are defined by the things they hate.

(By the way, Murray says the sole remaining unifier of the classes is that they both still root for the same sports teams. I would argue that they are also probably consuming the same pornography. Sex and Violence… Kumbaya!)

Whenever people express these hard line opinions there’s often something about it that demotes the people who do enjoy that particular bit of culture. I’m talking Kim Kardashian, NASCAR, the Bachelorette. Case in point, a few months ago when commenting on their feud, Jonathan Franzen stated that he had never read the books of Jennifer Weiner nor did he know anyone who had. If we leave out what this may or may not be saying about the ghettoization of women who write “domestic fiction” versus men who do the same, this is just incredibly sad. It speaks to a lack of diversity in his life. 

As a writer, I just don’t think these attitudes are particularly useful. If something is a phenomenon, it’s more helpful for me to seek to figure out what people are responding to about something than to dismiss it out of hand.  Hence “radical fandom.” If something is having a ‘moment’ and I have the urge to dismiss it, I compel myself to lean into it; to see it, hear it or read it from the view of its fans not it detractors. I think it’s possible to be “smart” person and open to all forms of culture. Roxane Gay is a master of radical fandom. So is Camille Paglia.

Thinking like this has gotten me on board with Flo Rida, Miranda Lambert, Owl City, EL James and Kim Kardashian. Emojis used to drive me crazy, then it occurred to me that I was cutting myself off from a whole different mode of communication. Now I embrace them so fully I’m actually irritated I don’t have them on my computer keyboard.  Why limit yourself? Life’s too short to be defined by the things you hate.

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

Well, it’s difficult to translate from the emoji… it’s something like depressed face, ice cream cone, lightning bolt, epiphany face, happy face. Of course that doesn’t capture the nuance, but you get the gist.   And the answer is, all the time, my friend, all the time. (winky face)

Laura Dave talks about her sparkling new novel Eight Hundred Grapes, chocolate in lasagna, post-its, writing, and so much more

Glamour Magazine“Best Books of the Summer”*

*Cosmopolitan“30 Things to Do This Month”*

*Us Weekly“Hot Summer Reads”*

*MarieClaire.com “The 7 Books You Have to Read This Summer”*

*Popsugar.com “Best 2015 Summer Reads”*... - See more at: http://books.simonandschuster.com/Eight-Hundred-Grapes/Laura-Dave/9781476789255#sthash.cEwOwua4.dpuf

*Glamour Magazine“Best Books of the Summer”*

*Cosmopolitan“30 Things to Do This Month”*

*Us Weekly“Hot Summer Reads”*

*MarieClaire.com “The 7 Books You Have to Read This Summer”*

*Popsugar.com “Best 2015 Summer Reads”*... - See more at: http://books.simonandschuster.com/Eight-Hundred-Grapes/Laura-Dave/9781476789255#sthash.cEwOwua4.dpuf
Who doesn't want to read a novel about wine making? Laura Dave's Eight Hundred Grapes is as sparkling as Prosecco and as satisfying as Pinot Noir.  She also writes great, warm, funny emails, just so you know. She is the author of London Is The Best City In America, The Divorce Party and The First Husband, and I'm delighted to host her here. Thanks much, Laura!

Glamour Magazine“Best Books of the Summer”*

*Cosmopolitan“30 Things to Do This Month”*

*Us Weekly“Hot Summer Reads”*

*MarieClaire.com “The 7 Books You Have to Read This Summer”*

*Popsugar.com “Best 2015 Summer Reads”*... - See more at: http://books.simonandschuster.com/Eight-Hundred-Grapes/Laura-Dave/9781476789255#sthash.cEwOwua4.dpuf
 I always want to know what sparks a book--what was the idea that haunted or grabbed you that wouldn't let go?

Great question.  For Eight Hundred Grapes, I was playing with an image for a long time of a woman showing up at her hometown bar on what should have been her wedding day. I didn’t know who she was talking to, and I didn’t know why she had come home, but that woman stayed with me. During a trip to Napa Valley and Sonoma County, I started thinking about Wine Country.  I thought it was potentially a lush backdrop for a novel.  And when I started imagining that Wine Country was where the woman in the dress was going (where she had always been going), I thought I might be getting closer to the heart of a great story.
Glamour Magazine“Best Books of the Summer”*

*Cosmopolitan“30 Things to Do This Month”*

*Us Weekly“Hot Summer Reads”*

*MarieClaire.com “The 7 Books You Have to Read This Summer”*

*Popsugar.com “Best 2015 Summer Reads”*... - See more at: http://books.simonandschuster.com/Eight-Hundred-Grapes/Laura-Dave/9781476789255#sthash.cEwOwua4.dpuf

Tell me about your research! I felt that I learned so much about wine. Did anything change the storyline as you were researching?

I'm thrilled to hear you feel that way!  I spent a lot of time up in Sonoma County bending the ear of every winemaker that would talk to me and really immersing myself in the Sebastopol community.  The more I learned about wine making - the patience and perseverance and faith it takes - the more it felt to me like a metaphor for trying to build a life with someone, trying to build a family.   Wine making became a character in the storytelling and influenced how I thought of every other character - what they were struggling with, how they were going to find their way through it.

So much about the book is about the secrets we keep and how they impact our lives, but it's also about the families we are born into and the families we choose to make, too. Can you talk a bit about that please?

I like your distinction because I think it's an important one, especially in storytelling.  Usually, in fiction and in movies, we see the families that we choose later in our lives depicted as the idealized version of family  - almost like they are the reward for the tricky families we grew up with.  I understand the reasons why.  But I wanted to write about a family we are born into loving that deeply as well.   And, with the Ford family, I was drawn to the fact that despite their poor decisions, their love for each other defined them - maybe more than any other characteristic.

Let's talk about craft. I loved the structure of the book, the shifting points of views and the rich inner life of all of your characters. What kind of writer are you? Do you outline, use post-its (my personal fave), or write in chunks?

I love a good post-it!  And I've been known to hang a few - though usually I know very little about where a novel is going.  I don't outline, I don't write toward a specific ending.  I start with a question that is driving the narrative.  A question like: how do we commit to someone over the course of a lifetime?  In the case of Eight Hundred Grapes, the question started off simple and got slightly more complicated.  Essentially though I wanted to figure out: how do we fight for what matters to us?  How do we figure out what that thing is?  I loved figuring out the different ways the Fords answered that question.

And I have to ask--chocolate in lasagna? Really? Did you try this? And should I?

It's delicious!  I even have a video recipe for those interested in trying for themselves: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=78hrb3TouK4
If you try it, you'll have to tell me what you think!

What's obsessing you now and why?

Big Sur, California.  After every novel, I start a novel that takes place in Big Sur - a place I absolutely love.  Every time, I end up throwing out the novel (perhaps it's a place too close to my heart?), but it gives me a reason to go back there and sit at the Big Sur Bakery and eat ginger scones.  I pretty much always want to be at the Big Sur Bakery eating ginger scones.

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

I loved your questions! Especially because you didn't ask me what I'm working on next.  I'm supposed to be knee-deep in a new novel, though it's slow going.  I'm still setting this next thing in Big Sur and history has shown me where that goes.   Though, who knows?  Maybe this time, Big Sur will stay off the cutting room floor.  I'm simultaneously working on the screenplay for Eight Hundred Grapes.  I'm writing it for Fox 2000, which has been a fun experience - and it would be a dream come true to see a novel as a movie. Though I have to finish the script first!  

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Story guru Jeff Lyons talks about ANATOMY OF A PREMISE LINE, the 11th century, story structure, and so much more.