Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Barbara Shapiro talks about THE MURALIST, becoming a mega-bestseller, wrong turns that turned into right ones, and so much more

 So here is the thing about Algonquin Books authors. We tend to support and adore one another--and we all know how lucky we are to have such a publishing house behind us--and such great writer friends. I first met Barbara Shapiro when she signed onto Algonquin. It was her first book with them--and my second--and we soon began having events together, going shopping, talking about boots, books and writing, and everything else. She is the author of seven novels (The Muralist, The Art Forger, The Safe Room, Blind Spot, See No Evil, Blameless and Shattered Echoes), four screenplays (Blind Spot, The Lost Coven, Borderline and Shattered Echoes) and the non-fiction book, The Big Squeeze. 

Her last novel was on the New York Times Bestseller list and there's little doubt that this one will be there, too!  Thanks so much, Barbara for being here!

So much of this extraordinary novel is about how art can influence politics--and vice versa. There are a lot of discussions about whether or not art can or should be provocative as well as great, that it can have a power beyond artistic merit,  which I found fascinating. What do you hope to influence with this novel, which is surely art?

I do believe that art – and literature – should be provocative. If a novel or a painting doesn’t make us think, doesn’t make us ask questions of ourselves and of the world, then it’s just words on a page or paint on a canvas. I hope The Muralist both entertains and forces the reader to confront some difficult issues, particularly the plight of refugees, both then and now. What are the lessons we can learn for the past? And alternately, are we capable of learning them?

You became a mega best-seller with The Art Forger. How did that change the way you write? The way you look at publishing?

The success of The Art Forger had a huge impact on my writing, primarily that I quit my job and was able to write full-time. The ultimate gift. After five previous novels that didn’t do particularly well – to say the least – I now understand the power of a great publisher with a killer marketing and publicity team, and I thank Algonquin Books every day.

I love the line where a friend of the artist Alizee comments that  ‘she wants to do something so badly that she can’t see what’s possible and what isn’t.” I love that push to try.  And what is the cost if it isn’t possible? Do you think that trying is enough?

I don’t know if trying is enough, but I do know if you don’t try, then you’re never going to get what you’re striving for. I think the pain of losing is less than the pain of knowing that you didn’t give it your all. Or at least it is for me.

This remarkable story is told through the eyes of two people, present day Danielle, searching for the mural that her aunt--who went missing--painted. And the story of The Muralist Itself.  I always have to ask what sparks a novel? What was haunting you so that you had to write this?

I wanted to write a novel set during the depression that had both art and a mystery in it. When I started my research, I discovered that when the WPA closed down its art section, they threw all the art in storage out on the street as trash. What if someone in the present found a box filled with these paintings? What if they were painted by Jackson Pollock, Lee Krasner and Mark Rothko, all of whom worked for the WPA in New York City? What if there were secrets hidden behind each of these paintings that led back a mystery in 1940? Hence, Danielle in the present and Alizee in the past.

The Muralist also explores the plight of the Jews trying to escape Nazi Germany and get to America and brings out horrifying things I didn’t know--that the United States was in no hurry to enter the war and save Jews. That Jews, as well as blacks, were already being persecuted in America. What else surprised you in the research?

Those things surprised me, as did the true story of Breckinridge Long, FDR’s man in charge of allocating visas to refugees. He was an ardent anti-Semite, and we now know that he was responsible for refusing congressionally approved visas to 200,000 refugees, who were forced to remain in Europe during WWII. We also know what happened to most of them.

So I have to act--where does your fascination with art and art history come from?

I wanted to be an artist when I was a little girl. My parents supported this and sent me to art classes. It quickly became apparent that I didn’t have any talent, so instead I became an art appreciator not creator. What better than to create protagonists who are artists so I can pretend to be them?

Tell me about your writing process of this novel. How did it differ from The Art Forger? What did you discover in the writing and were there any wrong turns that turned into right ones?
So many wrong turns. Four years of them. A few turned into right turns, but very painfully so. After writing for two years, I gave my manuscript to my editor, who was much less enamored of it than I was. Two more years of rewriting and rewriting and rewriting. What I discovered is that, for me at least, it takes a long time to get to the final product, and I just need to go with it. Good thing I like to rewrite – although not quite this much.

There are such fascinating cameos in the novel--from Eleanor Roosevelt to Jackson Pollock.  I know you have fictionalized just about everything, but you still must have done some research in order to change it, right? So, what was your research like? Recently, the writer Mary Morris told me, when talking about research “never look for facts. look for the stories.” Care to comment? And I’d also love to know what surprised you in your research.

  I couldn’t agree with Mary Morris more. A historical novel – even when it includes actual people – is a story above all else. It’s not necessarily about names and dates, which I see as background, it’s about a life lived during that historical moment with its ups and downs, its goals and obstacles, all of which illuminate the human condition, no matter when or where it takes place. I use research more for ideas than I do for facts.

What's obsessing you now and why?

I’m writing a new novel – working title, The Collector’s Assistant – about post-Impressionist and early modern art so I’m completely taken with the work of Matisse, Renoir, Picasso, etc. The book is set in Philadelphia and Paris during 1920 – 1936, so I’m also deep into research about that time and those places. But mostly I’m obsessed with my main character, a deeply damaged and flawed woman who does what she has to do to right the wrongs against her. Again, story over history.

What question didn’t I ask that I should have?
How do I feel about launching a new book following on the success of The Art Forger? Terrified.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Mark Dunn talks about We Five, being obsessed AND iconoclastic, writing and having fun, and so much more

 I think it is fair to say that I would read Mark Dunn's grocery list, especially since you just know it would be written so imaginatively that you would want to save and frame it. He's the acclaimed author of five previous novels and more than thirty full-length plays. His debut novel, Ella Minnow Pea, was winner of the Borders Original Voices Book of the Year, a finalist for the BookSense Book of the Year, and a Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers selected title.

We Five is stunningly imaginative, an amalgamation of five novels, about five different young women, in five different time periods. I am so honored to have Mark here to talk about it. Thank you a million times, Mark!

What was the idea that sparked this book, the thought that haunted you so you had to write it out?

For quite some time now I've been fascinated with all the different ways that writers tell their stories and, specifically, the various ways that different writers can tell the same stories, using their own voices and their own literary contexts to do this.  I've been a fan of the Victorian author Elizabeth Gaskell for a while and wanted to share my interest in her work with readers, but at the same time I wanted, in effect, to partner with her, to tell a new story, but do it using her voice.  I've also sensed in her writing that she wished to be even more honest (and daring) in her own storytelling but was hampered by the narrow Victorian strictures of the day in which she lived.  What if Mrs. Gaskell had the same freedom that today's writers have?  This question really excited me.

What made the project even more exciting was the possibility that her story might resonate with other writers in such a way that they would feel compelled to retell her story in their own times and in their own voices.  I've "channeled" other writers and their styles before.  An earlier novel of mine, FERAL PARK, was written in Jane Austen's voice.  Likewise, many of the 100 stories that comprise AMERICAN DECAMERON were written in the styles of writers who were active in the periods in which the stories were set.

I decided to pretty much pull out all the stops with this one.  Not only would one fifth of the book be voiced by Elizabeth Gaskell, but another fifth would be ostensibly written by someone quite comfortable with the wry, observational voice of America's Sinclair Lewis.  The turn-of-the-20th century authors Frank Norris and Jack London are channeled, as well.  For the version of the story set during the 1940 London Blitz I created an amalgamate voice from those British authors who wrote contemporaneously with that war.  For the last version of Gaskell's story, set in Mississippi in 1997, I went with the voice I'm most comfortable with: Mark Dunn (channeling, somewhat, my novel WELCOME TO HIGBY, which also stomps this ground).

There wasn't a single epiphany-moment in which suddenly I knew I was going to write this novel in this special way; one idea simply built upon another and so-forth.  Even the idea for the epilogue took its time getting to me.

This is truly one of the most ambitious novels I’ve read. You have five different female friends, five different suitors, five different historical periods (an epilogue, whose time frame I won’t spoil here), five different locations, and five different jobs through time. How difficult was it to structure the novel and what surprised you about it in the writing? Did you have a favorite period that you were writing about, and if so, why?
I like each of the story frames for different reasons.  I enjoyed the freedom of language and expression that my contemporary Mississippi characters gave me.  (I could use profanity and not have to answer for it!)  The London chapters were a treat because I was writing about a place and a period in which, because of my initial unfamiliarity, required me to do quite a bit of historical research (something I really enjoy).  I've also been a big fan of Sinclair Lewis and his witty, sometimes jaundiced take on middle America in the teens, twenties and thirties, and am especially comfortable writing about the 1920s, a period radically different in terms of culture and societal freedom than anything that preceded it.  I've also always wanted to set a novel in 1906 San Francisco, which WE FIVE partly allowed me to do.

It wasn't difficult to structure the novel, although I did have to take care to guide the reader in such a way that the shared story thread didn't get lost.  I had to strike a balance between giving each version of this story its own literary individuality while keeping true to the essence of each of the characters, which required solid character continuity.  I rarely construct story outlines for my books (although I do ultimately impose a deliberate structure upon them as I go along) so I was constantly being surprised by the direction that the characters (who often seem to take over my stories) wanted me to go.  There were moments in which I was shocked by the directions in which my characters were taking themselves, but I gave them their heads, because my many years of writing characters for stage and page have taught me that the character is almost always right.

My original feeling was that there would be a paradigm of good vs. bad/right vs. wrong that would define the book.  I didn't realize that the characters would, none of them, fall so easily into those rigid boxes.  Still, there is a tidiness to some aspects of the book which keeps it on a bit of a leash: the recurring theme of fives, for example, the distinction among the five climactic "apocalypses," and so forth.

I love the whole conceit of five different authors retelling the same story and that this book includes bits of each story. How did you juggle all these sensibilities and create a cohesive book while staying true to each of the authors’ intent?

One of the things I strove to do was to imagine each of these authors writing in a very specific time, which made me seek to make their voices contemporaneous with the period in which they were writing.  You'll notice that none of the five authors is writing with blatant historical retrospection; they're writing about something that could very well have happened on that very day or in the very recent past.  This kept their stories, for me at least, dynamic and immediate.  One of the challenges for me was respecting what could and could not be said by an author at historical points that would not make the story too anachronistic or unrealistic.  You'll notice as we progress through the time periods of the five versions of the primary story that behavior and language begins to loosen up.  I did, for the sake of narrative continuity, have to take a few liberties.  Jack London could not have written about Jane's rape with the frankness that Grady Larson did.  Nor would Sinclair Lewis have been able to acknowledge, so freely, Cain's homosexuality and his obsessive love for Pat.  (Although, interestingly, in Lewis's 1930 novel DODSWORTH, he has the eponymous character inadvertently visit a Berlin gay bar and make a couple of comments about what he saw there!  Way to go, Sinclair!)

All of these women are searching for love- so hard they don’t see what the men chasing them are really doing. Since this goes on through all the time periods, I’m wondering, do you think gender wars have progressed at all? Or is it just...different?

Nothing really changes in the universal need for love.  Perhaps society has allowed us to loosen the blinders a bit, but we all continue as human beings to make bad choices surrounding who our hearts tell us to love.  People still take advantage of that vulnerability.  Our lives even today are too often defined by that hunger to be loved and all the lousy outcomes that this hunger can lead to.  Obviously, over time, women have become more empowered in society, but there will always be predatory men and vulnerable women.  (And for that matter, predatory women and vulnerable men!)  That doesn't change.

So much of the book is how catastrophe impacts our lives. Would you talk about that please?

One of the themes that I wanted to explore in the book was an existential one -- that when it comes right down to it, no matter what we do, no matter what choices we make for ourselves -- we are still at the mercy of a random universe that throws situations our way over which we have no control (and often don't even see coming!)  In such a random universe anything can happen, and some of it very bad, even catastrophic.  One of the things that keeps us going -- that allows us to thrive in such a haphazard, aleatory environment is the compensatory knowledge that there are those at our sides who care about us and look out for us.  Families often play that role, but we don't choose our families.  We do choose our friends.  And we choose them mostly for positive reasons.

What kind of writer are you? Do you outline or do you wait for the muse?

As I mentioned above, I'm not a big outliner.  Only one of my novels UNDER THE HARROW was so narratively complex and so broadly scoped in terms of its story, that I could not have written it without an extensive outline.  But generally speaking, most of my books and plays, I've allowed initially to unfold on their own.  Only in subsequent drafts do I go back in to shape and cut and rearrange the story elements -- in a sense, to "clean up" the narrative.  With WE FIVE the muse was beside me for the whole process, though I did have to remind her that there was a certain protocol that had to be respected: the prescribed cycle of author participation, the need for each chapter to propel the reader to the next chapter as smoothly as possible given the radically different story presentations, and that there was an overarching narrative arc that needed to remain intact through the book.

What’s obsessing you now and why?

How did you know I was a hopelessly obsessive writer?  My obsessive hope right now is that those who would enjoy this novel have the opportunity to discover it.  The last few years of my journey as a writer have put me in partnership with two different publishing houses that didn't have the tools or resources to promote my work.  A writer writes to be read, and I'm looking forward (with, yes, some obsessive trepidation) to finding from my new publisher, Dzanc Books, the opportunity to share my latest novel with interested readers.

What question didn’t I ask that I should have?
I suppose something might be said about an author who has made somewhat of a career out of finding new, often iconoclastic ways to tell his stories.  Every novel I've written (and I loosely call AMERICAN DECAMERON a novel, since all of its 100 stories in the aggregate create something much larger than a simple "short story collection") have represented attempts by me to discover new and sometimes, as in the case of my progressively lipogrammatic novel ELLA MINNOW PEA, unique ways of creating narrative.  Indeed, to my knowledge, no one has written a novel in a format similar to WE FIVE.  This isn't brag -- simply exemplary of my belief that writers -- and novelists especially -- may be as narratively adventurous as they like and still remain accessible to their readers.  Moreover, they can blaze new territory in the process.  However, I don't consider any of my work "experimental" in that often pejorative sense.  Still, I can never myself writing future novels in a safe, traditional style.  What's the sense of being a writer if you can't have some fun?

Jillian Cantor talks about The Hours Count, Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, writing, rescue dogs, and more

 If you want to have a great time at the Tucson Book festival, you want to hang out with Jillian Cantor! But beside being a great tour guide and friend, Jillian is also the author of award-winning novels for teens and adults including the critically acclaimed MARGOT, which was a Library Reads pick for September 2013 and also featured in O the Oprah Magazine, People, Ladies Home Journal, and Her most recent book for teens, SEARCHING FOR SKY, was nominated for the 2015 Carnegie Medal in the UK.  Her new novel, The Hours Count, is a devastating exploration of the Rosenbergs. The only thing that would make me happier than hosting Jillian here is having her come have pie in NYC with me. Thank you, Jillian!

What sparked the writing of this book?

I took an anthology of women’s letters out of the library, thinking it would help me with another book idea I’d had (that I never ended up writing). As I was reading through the letters in the book, I came across the last letter Ethel Rosenberg (and her husband, Julius) wrote to their sons, on the day of their execution, June 19, 1953. The letter ends as they tell their sons to always remember that they were innocent. That sparked me to start reading about the case, and I quickly started to believe that maybe Ethel was innocent, or at the very least that she did not deserve to die the way she did. I also learned that at the time Ethel was executed, her sons were only six and ten (very similar to the ages of my own sons as I was writing), so I really started thinking about Ethel Rosenberg as a mother, not as this “spy” as we’ve been taught in our high school history books. Then I read that on the day Ethel was first arrested in 1950 she left her sons in the care of a neighbor. I don’t know who that real neighbor was, but I invented a fictional neighbor, Millie Stein, and that’s where my novel began to take shape.

You’re known for your meticulous research--what was the research like for this novel? Did anything surprise or disturb you?  

Thank you – I’m glad you feel that way! I read almost everything that was published (non-fiction) about the Rosenbergs and their case before I started writing, including many of the letters the Rosenbergs wrote from prison. Also, I read a lot about the time period – what the atmosphere was like during the Cold War, the continual overarching threat of the bomb, what it meant to be a communist at the time and even a Jew, and maybe most importantly, what it was like to be a mother. So much surprised me! Initially it surprised me how little evidence there was against Ethel, how a woman, a mother, had been executed just like that. I learned that Ethel was convicted based on her brother’s testimony that she typed up notes, and that she was sentenced to death because of that. That in itself is surprising, but then I learned that years later, in the 1990s, her brother admitted that was a lie, that he’d perjured himself to save his own wife. Many things about the time and motherhood were surprising, too. My main character Millie has a son who, today, would essentially be considered autistic, but, at the time, it was common practice to blame the mothers for a child’s “unusual” behavior, to say mothers were too cold. The theory of Refrigerator Mothers, which I read a lot about, is both shocking and disturbing.

I love the way you took an incendiary story--of the Rosenbergs--and filtered it through the eyes of a young wife and mother who is grappling with her own story. What do you think this structure allowed you to do that you couldn’t have done otherwise?

Above all I think I wanted to write a novel about motherhood and about female friendship. Though I tried to stick to the timeline and real events of what happened with the Rosenbergs and their case, filtering everything through the eyes of my fictional Millie – and also giving her her own fictional story – really allowed me to explore the themes I wanted. Also, I felt this horrible sense of injustice for what happened to Ethel and her children in real life. I wanted to make the novel deal with that in a fictional way. I’m trying to say this without giving a spoiler about the ending, so I’ll just say, adding in the fictional component allowed me to make the story a little bigger – to tell past the moment Ethel and Julius were executed from the view of someone who was close but still on the outside of things.

I always read the first sentence of a novel before I dig in, and yours is a knockout: On the night Ethel is supposed to die, the air is too heavy to breathe. Where did that line come from and why did you start the novel that way?

Thank you! Ethel was executed in the middle of June at Sing Sing, and I read the night was terribly humid. So in one way, I’m commenting on that, setting the scene for that particular night, but I also wanted to get across the point that Millie (who is narrating this) is feeling guilt, having trouble breathing through the mess, the heaviness, she has created for herself.

Margot, your sublime novel before this one, is also historically based—how was the writing of this novel different than writing Margot?

was really more of a what-if – we know that Margot Frank died in the Holocaust, but my novel asked, what if she didn’t? What if she made it to America and saw the overwhelming commercial success of her younger sister Anne’s diary? What kind of life would she have in Philadelphia in 1959, the year Anne’s diary is made into a Hollywood film? In The Hours Count I basically stick to the historical timeline as it existed, from the years leading up to the Rosenberg’s arrest through to their execution. Before I began writing I made a huge chart on my office wall, detailing the historical timeline with all the true historical events I wanted to include in the novel from 1947-1953, and then I wrote the fiction around these events. Also, this time, I’m looking at these events and real people through the eyes of a fictional woman, who not only becomes involved in the Rosenbergs’ lives but who also has her own struggles with her marriage and her child.

What’s obsessing you now and why?

Stamps! I’m finishing a draft of my next novel, which is about a stamp engraver in Austria just before WWII who uses stamps to work with the resistance, and also about a woman in 1989 Los Angeles who discovers one of his stamps and unravels his secret love story. Honestly before I started thinking about this book I never thought about how stamps were made, who created them, and what was involved. Or even the reasons why people collect stamps. There are so many stories in stamps!

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

Hmmm, good question! You asked fantastic questions, Caroline, and thanks so much for having me on the blog! I’ll add onto your last question – how about what’s obsessing me now outside of the writing world? I recently adopted a rescue dog, an adorable little chiweenie who’d been abandoned by her previous owners. It’s the first time in my life I’ve ever had a dog (I was always a cat-only person up until now), so I am currently obsessed with all things dog!

Saturday, October 17, 2015

Lisa Scottoline (it rhymes with fettucine!) talks about her blazing new novel CORRUPTED, why it's not selfish to please yourself, the slim lines between right an wrong and so much more

Lisa Scottoline is amazing. She's not only a live wire with the greatest perspective on life that I know (you'll see when you read her interview), but she's also the New York Times bestselling author and Edgar award-winning author of 24 novels, including CORRUPTED. She also writes a weekly column with her daughter Francesca Serritella for the Philadelphia Inquirer titled "Chick Wit" which is a witty and fun take on life from a woman's perspective. These stories, along with many other never-before-published stories, have been collected in six books including their most recent, Does This Beach Make Me Look Fat?, and earlier collections, Have a Nice Guilt Trip; Meet Me at Emotional Baggage Claim; Best Friends, Occasional Enemies; My Nest Isn't Empty, It Just Has More Closet Space; and Why My Third Husband Will Be a Dog, which has been optioned for TV. Lisa reviews popular fiction and non-fiction, and her reviews have appeared in New York Times, The Washington Post and The Philadelphia Inquirer. Lisa has served as President of Mystery Writers of America and has taught a course she developed, "Justice and Fiction" at The University of Pennsylvania Law School, her alma mater. Lisa is a regular and much sought after speaker at library and corporate events. Lisa has over 30 million copies of her books in print and is published in over 35 countries. Lisa's books have solidly landed on all the major bestseller lists including The New York Times, USA Today, The Wall Street Journal, Publisher's Weekly, Washington Post, and The Los Angeles Times, and LOOK AGAIN was named "One of the Best Novels of the Year" by The Washington Post, and one of the best books in the world as part of World Book Night 2013. 

What happens when, as an adult, you take on the person who bullied you as a child? Lisa Scottoline's extraordinary new novel Corrupted delves into the failures of the law--and the failures of our own selves, and I'm thrilled to have her here to talk about it.

 I always want to know what sparked a particular book, what the thing that haunted you that made you need to write Corrupted?

It started with the character, in that Bennie Rosato is such a strong, confident woman, but I wanted her to explore self-doubt and regret.  Why?  After twenty years of writing about her, I feel that she's really become real to me, and as I've gotten older, I think about my life with regrets.  I can’t pretend I don't have one or two, and I became tempted by the idea of a second chance.  People always think they want a second chance, but if they were confronted with the same situation, what would they do differently?  So Bennie has a legal case that she regrets deeply, not only because she didn't get justice for her client, but because it also compelled her to leave behind a man she loved.  And she hasn't been in love with anyone, for real, since then.  So I wanted her to look back, both professionally and personally, and think, if I got a second chance, what would I do with it?

 I’m always bowled over by your research (I seem to keep asking, how did she KNOW that?) on just about every pages. What is it like? What surprises you?  Do you ever want something to be able to happen, and then your research shows you that it can’t possibly?

Thank you so very much for saying that, and I did a lot of research for this book.  I love doing research, not only because I get to learn stuff, but also because it's easy!  As anybody who writes knows, it's not easy to produce something out of nothing, every single day; that's both the challenge and the joy of writing, whether you're published or not.  (I'm curious whether you agree, since you're one of my favorite authors!)  But to stay on point, the research I did for this book had to do with juvenile justice, which is different in many ways from the adult criminal justice system, and in certain respects, is terribly antiquated.  The judicial corruption scandal at the heart of this novel, which was true-life and took place in Pennsylvania, exploited this very defect in the system.  We are only just now beginning to understand the complexities of the adolescent mind, and I think we need to appreciate and safeguard the rights of younger people more and more; in fact, the United States Supreme Court just heard the question of whether it is constitutional to incarcerate juveniles for life.  That question will involve an analysis of law, justice, as well as societal and political norms, and I love exploring the bolus of interests that will yield the answer.

This novel, like all of your novels, deals with moral issues as well as telling a gripping, smart story. There is always so much at stake.  In Corrupted, Bennie Rosato, represents a man who killed the bully who taunted him as a child, and led to his being sent to juvenile prison.  And she feels that part of this is her fault, as well as that of the whole legal system. You make us care deeply about your characters. Do you think the legal system will ever be fixed? And do you think there are strong lines between right or wrong, or do you think you can do something wrong for the right reasons?

First, thank you for saying nice things about the book, and I think it's important to care about the characters, if only if not because it makes an entertaining novel, but because it gets people to really think about the underlying issues.  I always think of myself as writing for smart people, so I never write down to anybody, but I “play up,” or assume the reader knows what I'm talking about or will figure it out.  When I learn something, which I did in my research for this novel, I pose it to the readers so they think of great questions, like you did. 

In answer to your first question, whether the legal system will ever be fixed, the legal system is completely dependent upon legislative branches, both at the state and federal level.  If we can get people interested in the law, they can vote people in who will vote their way, and people can actually influence the law in that way.  It's remarkable, truly.  The best example of this is rape shield laws.  If you think back a long time ago, victims of rape were prosecuted twice, and it was really fiction that brought that to the fore, dramatizing what these women went through when they had to testify to convict their rapist.  As a result, people put pressure on legislatures to develop laws that would protect crime victims, and rape shield laws were born. So it's a perfect example of how when people mobilize, they can actually impact law to gain justice, and I draw enormous comfort from that, so I think people can fix the legal system if they just know more about it and motivate themselves to do so.
As for whether there are strong lines between right and wrong, I don't think so, and that's really the stuff of my fiction; the differences between right and wrong, legal and illegal, justice and injustice.  And as for whether you could do the wrong thing for the right reason, or vice versa, that sounds vaguely like the story of my life.  LOL!

You are an acclaimed mega-selling author of 29 (29!!) books and yet you have this warm, welcoming, down-to-earth presence. Do you ever get nervous or worry about a book or do you feel more like the seasoned pro you are?

OMG, how sweet are you!  The truth is, I am nervous and I worry about my books every day of my life.  I write 2000 words a day, and I am constantly worried if it's good enough.  I'm starting to understand that this is part of my makeup, and being anxious comes with the territory of being a writer, for many women.  To overcome it, I tell myself to “act as if,” in therapy speak - in other words, to act as if I'm not worried or anxious or insecure.  I think this is really key to happiness in life, honestly.  Just go forward, despite whatever worries her anxieties you have.  The point is that it’s behavioral, it's about action, and I try to channel my anxiety into action.  This may be a sexist assumption, but I feel as if this insecurity plagues women more than men,  or maybe they just hide it better.  Sometimes I even think to myself, what would a man do?  Or day?  Would he edit himself or just say it?  Then, say it!  I'm always amazed when I see men praise their own books and see how easy it is for them.  I could never say those things.  But what I do feel is determined to get it right and extremely lucky to be able to tell the stories that interest me and touch my heart, in the hope that they will reach other people who feel the same way.

You’ve collaborated with your daughter on books--what is that like? And how can I convince my son to collaborate with me?

LOL,  I love reading about your son on your blog!  Make him do it!  Punish him if he won't!  (Yeah, right.)  Francesca and I started writing together, honestly, because we wanted to see more realistic and positive images of mothers and daughters in the culture.  We really are best friends, even though we get into what we call “Chihuahua fights,” and among my friends, all of them are very close to their daughters.  So we were both like, why don’t we give it a try, and we both end up telling the true, if comic, tales of mothers and daughters.  We been doing it for six books, and this last summer, we made the New York Times Bestseller list with DOES THIS BEACH MAKE ME LOOK FAT?  It's an awesome title, which Francesca thought of, and it's all about how the last thing women should worry about is their weight.

 What’s obsessing you now and why?

You might not believe this, but I'm not the obsessive type.  It takes too much work.  I really love things, and if I think about what I really love, besides my daughter, it's my dogs.  Daughter Francesca has wisely moved to New York and so she is out of my adoring gaze, but my dogs cannot escape.  They're always around me, sleeping on the sofas and chairs, begging for scraps at mealtimes, or barking whenever I have a phone interview.  But despite their adorably disobedient nature, I take time every day, several times a day, to just go over and kiss each one, hug them and scratch them, and generally have a Zen love session with a furry, warm little animal.  And I have five such animals, so you can imagine this is time-consuming, but it recharges me for my day, if not my writing.   And when I think about what I’m really feeling right now, it's enormous love and gratitude for my life.  I'm healthy and happy, and I finally managed to say no to lots of obligations and requests that I didn't really want to fulfill, in order to spend more time working on what really matters to me, like my books.  I call this protecting the candle, and I could talk forever about it, because I think it's really been a journey for me and for a lot of women, to realize that every time you say no to someone else, you are saying yes to yourself.  To not worry about pleasing others, but to worry about pleasing yourself and devoting your spare time to your interests.  I think women get socialized to believe that this is selfish, but nothing could be farther from the truth.  It's just setting limits, and leading life on your own terms.  I suspect I have this perspective because my only child is up and grown, and I was a single mother almost her entire life, but I suspect that many mothers will feel the same way, as the years come on.  It's truly a glorious time in a woman's life, and it only gets better.

What question didn’t I ask that I should have?
Please, you asked everything, and I just went on and on and on because I feel as if I know you so well, and we must meet someday!  And your IS THIS TOMORROW, which you so graciously signed to me, is at the top of my to-be-read pile as soon as my edit-deadline is over!!!

I just realized I have been pronouncing your last name wrong all the time! Forgive me!  It’s SCOTT oh Leen ee, right? And not SCOTT Oh Line. That’s correct, right?

Caroline, my father always said to tell people it rhymes with fettuccine, but that isn’t very literary, is it?  Still, it works and you can call me anything you want!  Hope we get to meet someday and let's do try! xoxoxoxoxoxoxoxox

The wonderful Amy Koppelman talks about her devastating new novel, Hesitation Wounds, the movie of her novel, I Smile Back, starring Sarah Silverman, writing and so much more

Amy Koppelman is the kind of person who, after you admire a hairpin of hers, takes it out of her hair and gives it to you (I know because I still love that red clip.) She's also one of the most talented writers around.  She's the author of A Mouthful of Air, and I Smile Back (soon to be at theaters everywhere and on demand, starring Sarah Silverman. You can watch the trailer here. )  And her new novel, Hesitation Wounds is a devastatingly brilliant look at psychiatry, the people we love and lose, and depression.

I always want to know what was haunting you when you started to write this novel? And while you were writing, did you feel more haunted--or less?

I never know what I’m going to write about when I start writing.  I know the feeling I’m trying to figure out and the character but I don’t know the story.  When I started I Smile Back I knew I wanted to write about fear, and the ways in which we negotiate with our fear and about inheritance, what we inherit from our parents besides height and eye color or, I guess the better or rather simpler way to say it is I was trying to figure out what is the legacy of mental illness.  Can it be avoided or are we forced to repeat the trauma?  Laney repeats the trauma almost as if to understand she needs to inhabit it.

What kind of writer are you? Do you map things out, or try to bribe the muse?

When I start writing I just write without any agenda if that makes sense. (There are long stretches of time when I don’t write.  Usually I’m reading then.  I don’t read and write at the same time because I don’t want to accidentally start mimicking the voice in the book I’m reading.) I write and write, on and off, for days and years until I write a scene that clarifies it for me-that reveals what it is I’m writing about.  Then I go back and look at all the pages and pages of writing and between the crappy, awful, embarrassing writing I find sentences--sentences that when linked together tell a story.  It’s really quite amazing because it’s all there-the subconscious is a powerful, powerful thing.  After I gather up any writing that’s salvageable I start over.  It’s daunting and frustrating because after four years I may only have five thousand words but the second time through is easier.  In my second draft, I know the destination-what I’m writing toward.

 Your language is just exquisite, so here's a chicken or the egg question for you--what comes first for you, the story, the character or the language?

The character and her feelings come first to me if that makes any sense.  All I know going in how my protagonist’s heart hurts (the way she’s feeling) but I don’t necessarily know why.  That’s part of what I’m trying to figure out I guess.  How and why we find Julie, Laney, Susa (those are my three protagonists) where we find her when the story opens and where she’s going to go from here and why.

Your fabulous book I Smile Back, is a film starring Sarah Silverman which will be coming out this fall. How strange was it to see your book transformed into film?
What was the hole process like for you?

Watching  Sarah inhabit Laney, (a character that I carried around in my head for years and years) was surreal.  I Smile Back, is a very interior novel.  It’s not something that lends easily to film. Paige Dylan (my screenwriting partner) and I had to eliminate scenes and locations for budgetary reasons.  But all the pain: the crippling anxiety, self-doubt and shame Laney feels in the novel – it’s all up there on the screen. Sarah came to set, day in day out, with a willingness to access the darkest, ugliest, saddest parts of herself and by doing so she was able to capture every nuance of the character. And I am just so grateful.

What's obsessing you now and why? And will it find its way into your work?
I’m spending the majority of my days getting word out about my new novel, Hesitation Wounds (It’s coming out November 3rd on The Overlook Press).  I’ve been reaching out to readers, writers, reviewers, librarian’s, bloggers, booksellers…fiction lovers like me. Hesitation Wounds, took me over eight years to write so I’m just trying to give it the best shot I can.  I guess the best way to say it is right now I’m in the business of shameless self-promotion.  Gosh-that makes me sound like a terrible person.  But it’s just so hard to get people to read.  Especially if they don’t know you wrote a book.  So thank you Caroline!  Getting to be on your blog is a big deal!

Yvonne Prinz talks about her astonishing YA, If You're Lucky, mental illness, and who decides what's real?

Okay, you know how they always say you can't be friends if you just know the person on social media? So, so not true. That's how I met Yvonne Prinz and I am telling you, we must have been sisters in a past life. We love the same things, especially movies, and whatever Yvonne tells me to watch, I immediate do, because she's got an instinct for greatness.  She's the co-owner of the uber-cool Amoeba Music and the author of All You Get is Me, The Vinyl Princess, Still There Clare, Double Dare Clare, Not Fair Clare. I'm absolutely jazzed that Yvonne and I now share the same publisher, Algonquin! And I'm thrilled to have her here to talk about her haunting new novel, If You're Lucky. Thank you for everything, Yvonne.

I always have to ask, what sparked this book? What was the thing haunting you so you felt you had to write this?

There were several things that came together in me to write this story. Over many years of working on Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley I noticed that a lot of the homeless people showed signs of Schizophrenia. After some research I found that approximately 200,000 individuals with schizophrenia or manic-depressive illness are homeless, constituting one-third of the approximately 600,000 homeless population in the U.S. That’s a staggering number and indicative of a broken system. I read a lot about the illness and I felt that it would make a great book if I could somehow incorporate it into a thriller. I wasn’t looking to write a Gone Girl type of book, I wanted to write something that could get a little more inside the head of a schizophrenic.

I love the northern California coastline. As you travel north toward Oregon on Highway 1, the hamlets become increasingly secluded but so beautiful. The fog blankets that coast almost every day in the summer. I’ve long wanted to create a story around one of these hamlets and I felt this was the perfect story to place there.

I watched an Andy Griffith episode called “The Stranger” where a man arrives in town and he seems to know more about the locals than they’re comfortable with. He wants to make it his new hometown. Turns out he subscribed to the local paper for years. Of course Andy steps in and makes the folks in Mayberry feel ashamed for not embracing the guy. I kept thinking about  working with this theme but then I arrived at a version where the stranger is loved by everyone in False Bay, (because their prodigal son has just died and they are vulnerable), everyone, that is, but my main character, Georgia.

What I particularly loved about this book--among many things--is the whole issue of Georgia taking meds to still the voices in her head. And when she stops, to try and solve a crime--she can never be sure if her interpretations are real or the result of her hearing voices again. It was chilling, real and moving. And Georgia is just a brilliantly realized character. Did you do research on this?  What surprised you about it?

Schizophrenia, I found, is a very difficult illness to treat. What works for one person might not work for another. Also, schizophrenics are notorious for going off their meds because of the negative side effects or because they don’t actually believe that they’re ill. I was very moved by a couple of TED talks, and a book written by a teenage schizophrenic. All of these people were incredibly bright and all three had been off their meds at one time or another and the results were disastrous. I wanted to give my character a solid reason for wanting to get off her meds.  Georgia believes that her dead brother is trying to tell her something important and she can only hear him if she’s un-medicated. This seemed like a perfect jumping off point for the abyss she eventually falls into.

The most surprising thing I discovered in my research is the number of people who struggle with this illness and how little it’s talked about and how misinformed the general public is about it. Writing this book created empathy in me for people who endure the illness and especially toward the schizophrenics who are homeless, undiagnosed, un-medicated, and live that nightmare daily. The most important thing I learned that I would hope to impart on my readers is that these people are hardly ever dangerous except to themselves. The media has created a lot of misconceptions about this.

I also love the tagline on the jacket--Who Decides What’s Real? It’s really a book about trusting yourself, no matter what anyone else says or thinks, isn’t it?

Yes. In Georgia’s case though, the struggle to make people believe what she’s convinced is the truth is almost insurmountable because of her past reputation for not trusting strangers and her tendency to fabricate stories about newcomers. She’s the ultimate in unreliable narrators. As a reader, you want to believe everything she tells you but…

What kind of writer are you? Do you outline and map things out, or do you just sort of follow your pen?

A bit of both. I start with an outline. I write elaborate character sketches. And then I start building. I rarely stick to my outline and I often write secondary outlines as I go just to keep myself somewhat on track. My books never turn out how I initially visualized them. This is especially true for “If You’re Lucky”. I did eleven complete rewrites on it. It’s the only book I’ve ever cried over (out of self pity mostly, but also frustration) My editors at Algonquin had some fabulous insight and really helped me find the best way to tell this story. I am so grateful.

You’re also the owner of the very famous Amoeba Records and you’re a film buff.  How do those two impact your writing--and your writing life?

I’m not sure this is because of Amoeba or because I’m just generally a music person but I write to a soundtrack that plays in my head, not a musical score but real songs. I often stop while I’m writing to find a song that speaks to a scene. I listen to it a couple of times and get back to work. It’s like my writing adrenaline. Also, every one of my books has a musical element. In “If You’re Lucky” it’s Gypsy Jazz. My character Fin is the son of a famous Gypsy Jazz guitarist and this has a strong bearing on how Fin came to be what he is. 

The film buff thing is torture. I write (and rewrite) overly cinematic scenes. I inevitably have to shave them down but ultimately I think it’s a good thing to have great films running through your head while you write. I am annoying in my conversations with people about film. I honestly don’t understand people who don’t go to the movies. Who doesn’t want to escape for two hours? I certainly do.

What’s obsessing you now and why?

I obsess over everything. There is no such thing as mild interest in the way I live. If I read a good author I want everything they wrote, same with music, art, photography, film. Even a color, when I like it, becomes an obsession. Right now I am also obsessing over a YA novel rewrite, which will hopefully be finished by the time people are reading this. My character is a violinist in a Celtic Punk Band so there’s a lot of listening to music. Her baby brother is autistic so that too is consuming me these days. I’m also an obsessive food forager, but I think that’s healthy (maybe?) If you tell me what you are looking for food-wise, I can probably find you a source, no matter how exotic it is. There is an actual food forager job these days: People who source foods for chefs. This is what I’m going to do if no one likes my book. I will be the best damn food forager in the nation and possibly the world.

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

You’ve been away from the world of YA writing for a while. How does it feel to be back?

I feel like the old dancer in A Chorus Line who says “Can the adults smoke?”

And finally, when are you coming to visit?

Soon, Darling, soon. And we’ll tear it up. We’ll hit every movie theatre in every borough.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Virginia Pye talks about Dreams of the Red Phoenix, writing, meeting Mick Jagger and so much more

I'm thrilled to have Virginia Pye  (brilliant, funny, warm) here to talk about her astonishing second novel, Dreams of the Red Phoenix. And I'm not the only one raving about it. Author Gish Jen has called it, “Gripping, convincing, and heartbreaking…a real page-turner and thought-provoker—wonderful.” Kirkus writes: “There’s a comparison to Ballard’s Empire of the Sun, but this unflinching look…shares truth in its own way.” Her debut novel, River of Dust, was published in 2013 by Unbridled Books and was chosen as an Indie Next Pick and a 2014 Virginia Literary Awards Finalist. Virginia has published award-winning short stories in literary magazines, too. Thank you so much, Virginia!

What sparked the writing of this book? (I know from reading your acknowledgement pages, but the story is so great, I’d love for you to tell it here.)

A central character in my debut novel, River of Dust, is a young American missionary wife and mother living in the rugged northwest of China in 1910. Grace is a naïve ingénue at the start of the story, but as she faces greater challenges and dangers, she grows in wisdom and worldliness and eventually becomes a powerful woman. In my next novel, I wanted the story to focus on a more mature and confident woman who, if anything, must learn to be less impulsively decisive and strong willed in the face of challenges. As I tried to think of female role models who were strong, my grandmother came to mind. One evening when she was living as an American missionary in Shanxi Province during Japanese occupation, Japanese soldiers arrived on her front porch and accused her of using a radio to communicate with Chinese resistance fighters. It was a silly idea, because the radio she owned didn’t allow for two-way transmission, but the Japanese insisted. The story goes that my grandmother was so unimpressed by the Japanese and unafraid of them that she actually swept them off her porch with a broom. In Dreams of the Red Phoenix, I wanted to write about a woman whose confidence borders on hubris and who must work to become a more thoughtful person. 

The premise is intoxicating--a young mother is torn between helping the Chinese fight the Japanese, but she also needs to save herself and her son while she can. It’s a difficult moral choice, and her plight opens a window into the political situation of the time--and makes it very human. Can you talk about this a bit, please?

Like many writers, I feel torn between wanting to be politically active and the realities of a “job” that keeps me alone at my desk for many hours each day. Also, as a writer, I tend to be an observer, and yet I wish in a way I was a more active participant in political life. This tension plays out in Dreams of the Red Phoenix through Shirley, who thinks she wants to retire from the world, but then is drawn into the urgent stream of human need. After the Japanese attack she sees the Chinese suffering all around her. She has the nursing skills to help them and fairly quickly she realizes she has no choice but to lend a hand. This experience opens not only her eyes, but her heart as well. She ends up feeling at one with the people she is helping.

But she also must care for and protect her son. In her enthusiasm for her new cause, she loses sight of how Charles, though a teenager, still needs her. I think every mother has moments when she convinces herself that her child will be fine without her; she can step away. And sometimes that’s true and the time is right for the child to be independent. But sometimes, we just wish it were true—whether because we’re worn out with parenting, or because we’ve become excited to enter a new chapter of our own lives. Dreams of the Red Phoenix weaves a mother’s conundrum of how to parent a teenager through a story set in a dramatic and violent political moment in a faraway land.

What was the research like for this novel? Did anything surprise or disturb you?

For River of Dust I had been lucky enough to use my grandfather’s journals to help me gain a feeling for that earlier time period and language. My grandmother left very little writing behind and none of it gave a sense of her voice. So I delved into other descriptions of 1937 North China. It was a wildly confusing and complicated time with at least four different factions fighting for power: the Nationalists, the Communists, the Japanese, and the traditional warlords. Most foreigners, and most Chinese as well, had only a partial understanding of all that was going on around them, but I had to understand the history myself. So I started by reading Jonathan Spence’s excellent The Search for Modern China, which incidentally begins in the year 600, just to give a sense of the vast range of China’s history that the modern period begins then!

I also read a good number of autobiographies from that time, especially those by American journalists, including Edgar Snow. But most helpful were the stories of three American women living in China in the 1930’s: Helen Snow, Nym Wales, and Agnes Smedley. When I discovered descriptions by Smedley of her experience traveling with the Communist Eighth Route Army in the mountains of northwest China and her visits to Mao in hidden army caves, I knew I had found a unique setting to use in my novel.  As with River of Dust, the research helped ground me, but then I took extensive liberties that I hope China experts will forgive.

How was writing this particular novel different from writing River of Dust? Does one novel build on another, do you find, or are they completely different animals?

The two novels are companions, not sequels, though they do have much in common. Caleb Carson, the minister in Dreams of the Red Phoenix is the nephew of The Reverend in River of Dust, and partly chose to go to China because of the heroic stories he heard about his mother’s brother. The settings in both novels are similar, though not precisely the same. I got smarter in the second novel and did not name the town where the story takes place, so it could remain clearly fictional. But the two books do share key themes: they each explore what it means to be a foreigner in a foreign land, especially during times of crisis and danger. Both books are about confidant, stoical, strong, and good-hearted Americans who are somewhat blind to what goes on around them.

Writing Dreams of the Red Phoenix was a lot of fun, as was doing the research for it. I felt a certain ease as I did it, I’m not sure why, but perhaps because I’d already delved into one corner of Chinese history from an American perspective. I think of the two books as cousins, and I’ve recently completed a third novel that will round out this fictional family portrait.

There’s a terrific sense of page-turning tension through the book. How difficult was that to sustain?

I love plot. As a literary novelist, I’m not sure I’m supposed to admit that, but I do. I love upping the ante on my characters to see what they’ll do next. When faced with a dramatic moment, I try to hold their feet to the fire even more. I love the surprises that occur when that happens. My job is to have the story stay on the rails. The characters need to remain true to themselves, even when the plot becomes more exaggerated. If the characters don’t respond realistically to challenges, then the reader isn’t going to buy the twists and turns. So strangely enough, character, even more than story line, is what makes the tension work.

What’s obsessing you now and why?

Right now, I’m in the middle of a move from Richmond, Virginia, where I’ve lived for the past seventeen years and have raised our two children, to Cambridge, Massachusetts, where I grew up. My husband and I are moving for his work. He’s an art museum director and now runs the deCordova Sculpture Park and Museum, which everyone should visit when up in the Boston area. This transition is radical for me and for our whole family. I haven’t lived in Cambridge for thirty-five years! It’s wild to be back. My new home is around the corner from the bus stop where I used to wait every afternoon of middle school for the city bus to take me out to Belmont. I never thought I’d move back, but here we are. So, I’m a little distracted from writing, though I’m eager to send my third China novel off to my agent, which I hope to do soon.

But what’s most obsessing me quietly and persistently is the South. All the years while living in Richmond I tried to conceive of a novel inspired by mother’s side of the family. They were Southerners with deep roots in South Carolina and Georgia. Whatever I write about the South will necessarily reflect that I’m a white Northerner of Southern extraction who lived in the South for almost two decades and raised Southern children but has now moved back to the North. This book will show the North/South divide, which I believe exists even today, from the perspective of having one foot in each camp. That’s what’s obsessing me, but it’s anyone’s guess how it’ll find expression in fiction.

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

As always, I think you covered the bases. I’m amazed you have time to write your own wonderful novels and also delve so thoughtfully into the work of fellow writers. Thank you for reading and thinking about and sharing Dreams of the Red Phoenix.

Here’s something fun: I’ve only visited mainland China once, and it was after writing River of Dust. I went there in 2014 for the Shanghai Literary Festival, which I highly recommend. It’s for English speakers and draws a wonderfully international crowd. While there, I met with a book group of women from all over the world. They loved River of Dust, and really got it, because, like my characters, they were living as foreigners in China. I was so relieved that the book resonated with ex-pats.

Also while in Shanghai, I met Mick Jagger. Yup, me and Mick. He came into the bar where the Literary Festival was taking place and, oddly enough, no one was talking to him, so I sidled up and we started chatting. He had just arrived in China at four that morning and was scheduled to do a show that evening for a massive 20,000 seat crowd. So naturally I asked him how he handles jet lag. He was friendly, and helpful, and pretty soon we were joined by others who listened as he shared his jet lag tips—homeopathy, light lamps, hydration, and naps.

As he spoke, I tried not to stare to closely at him, but part my brain was screaming: you’re talking to Mick Jagger! You are standing inches away from the man. I found myself trying to memorize his face—and his clothes, which couldn’t have been more ordinary. He’s a petite guy. Super skinny with large, bony hands. But that face! So iconic, like Mt. Rushmore. And as craggy as Mt. Rushmore, too. I wanted to reach out and poke his cheekbones to see if they were real. Definitely a stranger than fiction moment.

Monday, October 5, 2015

The sublime Bonnie Jo Campbell talks about her short story collection, Mothers, Tell Your Daughters, writing in the kitchen, the difference between a donkey and a mule and so much more

Bonnie Jo Campbell is the critically acclaimed author of some of my favorite books ever, including Once Upon a River, American Salvage (Nominated for the 1009 National Book Award in Fiction), Q Road, Women and Other Animals (winner of the AWP Prize for short fiction.  Her newest collection, Mothers, Tell Your Daughters (genius title, right?) is fierce, humane and dazzling. I'm so thrilled to host Bonnie here (and I love the photos of her with the donkeys!) Thank you, Bonnie.

What propelled you to write a collection of short stories instead of another novel? Is there a different feeling in it for you?
I'm always working on both novels and short stories, and to my surprise, a collection of stories came together before my new novel did. Writing the stories is more like dating, while writing the novel is like getting married and setting up house and planning for children. There's more freedom to experiment in the short stories, to try out strange or extreme voices and see where they carry me. In a novel, I need to be more dutiful and thorough in creating comprehensive world in which a reader can take refuge for ten or twenty or thirty hours. 

The people who inhabit your work are fierce, downtrodden, working class and rural--and absolutely raw and real. What made you center on them or did you feel as if you had no real choice because they were calling to you?
The people in my stories are a heated-up version of the sorts of people I know from my hometown.  Of course I also know plenty of upper middle class people, educated people, people who are doing just fine, but I find myself more interested in exploring the problems of folks who are having troubles making sense of life. I wonder if I am interested in these people because I spent so much of my young life at the mercy of such people--if you make the supposition that children are at the mercy of adults.  Many of the women in these stories have been affected by sexual violence, and I guess I have felt the need to tell about their experiences.

This extraordinary collection is about mothers, daughters, grief, love, guilt, the ties that bind and sometimes strangle. Why do you think the mother-daughter relationship is so much more fraught than, say, the mother-son one?
We're going to have to call in the psychologists and social workers for that question! There is nothing more personal and essential than giving birth, and then to give birth to someone who could in turn give birth sets up a complicated dynamic from the get go. Maybe part of the problem comes from the natural identification mothers and daughters have with one another as creatures with so much in common, and the necessity of breaking away from one another, breaking that profound bond. Now add to that, as my stories do, some element of sexual molestation of the mother or the daughter. And by the way, thank you for saying the collection is extraordinary.

I’m always interested in process, so can you tell me what was different about writing this book than your last one? What surprised you about it?
Well, for starters, I did all my revising and a good part of my writing in the kitchen of my house. My other books had been written in a room I considered my office, but that didn't work this time, and I'm not sure why. I wrote a lot of this standing up at a table containing fresh fruits and home-canned vegetables. Garlic and onions were always nearby. Dishes were piling up behind me. What surprised me is that I managed to actually wrestle these stories into shape. There were times when the whole collection seemed unwieldy, impossible to manage, like a school room full of unruly, undisciplined children. Did I gain weight while finishing this book? Yes, a little.

What kind of writer are you? Do you have rituals? Do you plot out your novels or just fly by the seat of your pen? How do you craft your stories?
I start writing when I've got an interesting character in a tough situation, and then I write as much as I can and then I step back and see what I've got and try to figure out what I want to achieve. In the early stages I work organically, feeling my way along, but then I analyze and scheme and shape and make maps of cause-and-effect relationships. My background is in mathematics, so I've always gotten a lot of good out of my left brain. I've heard a lot of people warn writers against too much analysis of their own writing, so I guess I work differently than those writers.  Joyce Carol Oates says she always knows where she's going when she sits down to write, and I wish I could have me a little more of that.

What’s obsessing you now and why?
I'm obsessing about all the wrong things right now. I'm obsessing about my book tour for Mothers, Tell Your Daughters, and I'm obsessing about my health and exercise and how to winterize our drafty old house. I'd like to be obsessing about women and their chickens (a profound relationship) or about mushrooms (I love almost every kind of mushroom and need to go out for aging.) I'm obsessing a little bit about my new novel about a girl who loves mathematics--I hope to obsess more soon. Oh, and folding bikes. I have one folding bike, and I want more folding bikes. Or I want to play around riding them anyway.

What question didn’t I ask that I should have?
You could have asked me about the difference between a donkey and a mule. You probably know, but in case some of your readers don't know, a donkey is one of the world's three equines (horse, donkey, zebra). A mule is a creature born of a donkey father with a horse or pony mother, and it's sterile. Two times in the history of the world, it has been documented that a female mule gave birth.  The recent one was a mule giving birth to a mule daughter. If my book has a mascot, it's that pair of mules.