Tuesday, May 31, 2016

The hours before childbirth. The lives of two different women. Pamela Erens talks about her extraordinary new novel ELEVEN HOURS.

Pamela Erens is a writer's writer--I don't know any writers who don't revere her work, but she's also acclaimed by readers who aren't writers, as well. She's the author of The Virgins, which was a a New York Times Book Review and Chicago Tribune Editors' Choice and was named a Best Book of 2013 by The New Yorker, The New Republic, Library Journal, and Salon. The novel was a finalist for the John Gardner Book Award for the best book of fiction published in 2013.She's also the author of The Understory, a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize and the William Saroyan International Prize for Writing.

Pamela is the recipient of 2015 fellowships from the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference and the Wesleyan Writers Conference, and a 2014 fellowship from the Sewanee Writers' Conference.  Her short fiction, reviews, and essays have appeared in a wide variety of literary, cultural, and mainstream publications, including The New York Times, Vogue, Elle, Salon, Virginia Quarterly Review, Los Angeles Review of Books, Tin House, The Millions, Aeon, Chicago Review, Boston Review, New England Review, and the anthologies Visiting Hours and The House That Made Me.

Thank you so much for being here, Pamela!

To me, pregnancy and giving birth were the most profound states of my being. It changed everything.  And I think in Eleven Hours, you’ve captured absolutely everything about its nature. Did anything take you by surprise as you were writing? Some subliminal memory?

Not really! I guess I’ve permanently forgotten whatever I’ve forgotten about my own childbirth experiences. I think it’s useful for writers to have highly selective memories, actually. What sticks is what’s has a certain heat to it, a resonance. It becomes usable as material, even if in very altered form. The birth in Eleven Hours resembles the ones I went through only glancingly. I tried to draw on my memory of what contractions felt like—which was difficult, as pain is hard to reconstruct when it’s over. But other than that, Lore’s labor is a complete invention: something I felt could happen in just that way.

This novel is a slim one, yet it’s so crushingly powerful, I don’t see how you could have made it longer. I’m wondering if writing it was in any way like childbirth?

Well, I did try to make the book longer! I was worried about it being too short to be considered a novel, yet it obviously wasn’t a short story. I tormented myself by looking up definitions of the novel: “over 40,000 words” “over 60,000 words,” and so forth. Every time I added material, I thought: Great! But within days I would have cut something else. And now whatever word count it came to—I no longer even know—seems utterly irrelevant.

How writing this book was like childbirth: The process was unpredictable, and I had to stay flexible to respond to the changes. There was pain and frustration, but the end result was a happiness.

How writing this book was unlike childbirth: It took a whole lot longer!

What was it like writing this particular book? Did it feel different from your others? To me, it was so deeply intimate and personal, that it felt like every page was somehow alive.

Thank you! The main way it felt different from the others was that I wrote it in third person. I naturally gravitate to an “I” who tells a story and has a certain voice. So third person is harder for me, but I wanted that for several reasons, including the mobility to flow seamlessly between Lore’s and Franckline’s stories and, toward the end, to widen the lens even further.
I can’t say that Eleven Hours felt more intimate and personal in the writing than the others. Each of my novels feels both personal and impersonal to me. Personal because the material has often been intimacy and the body—topics that can make me as uncomfortable as anyone else—but impersonal because I get to funnel those concerns into made-up people and situations, which is wonderful protection.

What’s obsessing you now and why?

The structure and material of my new novel, which I’m too superstitious to talk about yet. And a group of essays, circling around a connecting theme, that I’ve started to sketch out and work on. Also the 2016 presidential election. Yikes—who is not obsessed with the 2016 election and what will come after?

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

Q: Why on earth would you want to set an entire novel during one labor and delivery?
A: Why not?

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Writing a children's book? Read Deborah Kalb's interview about THE PRESIDENT AND ME: GEORGE WASHINGTON AND THE MAGIC HAT, balancing time, bobbleheads and more


 Deborah Kalb doesn't just write about books,  (you want to check out her fantastic books blog),she also writes the books themselves. She is the author (with Marvin Kalb) of HAUNTING LEGACY: VIETNAM AND THE AMERICAN PRESIDENCY FROM FORD TO OBAMA and STATE OF THE UNION. Her new book is a children's book, THE PRESIDENT AND ME: GEORGE WASHINGTON AND THE MAGIC HAT and it's absolutely charming. I'm thrilled to have her here. Thank you, thank you, Deborah!

Why did you decide to write a kids book? Why now? Why this subject?

Good question! It’s a big departure from the books I’ve written or edited before. I wrote a book with my father, Marvin Kalb, called Haunting Legacy, which looked at the impact of the Vietnam War on the presidents from Ford to Obama, once the war had ended. It is a nonfiction book, for adults. I’ve also edited and written reference books for high-school age and up dealing with politics and government.

I guess the constant themes running through all of those projects and this new one are history and presidents! The President and Me: George Washington and the Magic Hat is fiction, for kids, about a present-day boy named Sam who travels back in time, thanks to a cantankerous talking hat he buys at the Mount Vernon gift shop, and meets George Washington at different times in George’s life, from his youth to his Revolutionary War service to his swearing in as the country’s first president.

But the book, which is for middle-grade readers, approximately age 7-12, also focuses on Sam’s life at home and the problems he’s facing, which include the fact that he and his longtime best friend are no longer speaking.

My son is in fifth grade, and that was part of the inspiration for writing a kids’ book.

Did you research Washington? What surprised you about it?

Yes, I read a lot of books about him, both for adults and for kids. I went to Mount Vernon. I did a lot of research online about the periods in GW’s life that I was portraying in the book. I wanted to get a feel for what the various locations looked like, so I looked up photos and watched YouTube videos depicting these places as they appear today, and asked questions of park rangers and other experts about what the scenes (such as the crossing of the Delaware) looked like back then.

I was surprised to read about how George Washington wanted to be a sailor as a teenager. We think of him, understandably enough, as a great general, but his career could have gone in another direction.

I love the illustrations that I see! Did you work together and have input and what was that process like?

I love them too! The illustrator, Rob Lunsford, is a family friend—I’ve known him and his equally wonderful wife, Kathleen, since I was in fifth grade! Rob and I worked together to figure out what parts of the story would work well as illustrations, and he used my son as the model for Sam.

What's obsessing you now and why?

A: Hmmm. I think I’m currently obsessed with how to balance my time! I really enjoy interviewing you and the other amazing authors I feature on my book blog, deborahkalbbooks.blogspot.com, and that’s often so interesting that I forget to go back to my own writing!

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

These are all great questions. I guess you could ask, Will this be a series? Yes! I’m working on book two right now, The President and Me: The John Adams Bobblehead (and yes, there is such a thing as a John Adams bobblehead—we are the proud owners of one). In this second book, Sam’s across-the-street neighbors, Ava and J.P., go to Boston for a family wedding and end up being transported back to the time of John and Abigail Adams, thanks to a talking bobblehead.

Paula Whyman talks about YOU MAY SEE A STRANGER (and you can read an excerpt), writing, sex scenes, and so much more

Crackheads, bad behavior, sexual awakening. You're gripped, right? And get a gander at that fantastic cover. Paula Whyman's astonishing new collection of stories, YOU MAY SEE A STRANGER, is genius.
Paula Whyman's writing has appeared McSweeney’s Quarterly, Ploughshares, Virginia Quarterly Review, The Washington Post, The Rumpus, and on NPR’s All Things Considered. She is a member of The MacDowell Colony Fellows Executive Committee. A music theater piece, “Transfigured Night,” based on a story in this collection, is in development with composer Scott Wheeler. 

I'm thrilled to host Paula and to offer an excerpt from her book. Go and buy it RIGHT NOW.

I always want to know what sparks a book. What was haunting you that made you want to follow Miranda from teenaged years to her late forties?

I’ve always been kind of obsessed with how people change—or don’t change—over the course of a life. When I meet someone for the first time, I often try to imagine what he or she was like in high school. That’s usually the first big coming-of-age moment in our lives—and I think we come of age many times, not just one. I want to understand how a person’s identity develops, how we evolve and become who we are. When I was an editor at APA Books, I worked on a volume of research about personality change over the life span, and those questions stuck with me.

I wrote the first story in the book, “Driver’s Education,” many years before I decided I was going to write the book, which is weird considering how little I had to change about it for it to make sense as the starting place for Miranda’s story. Several years later, I realized that a few of the stories I was working on might feature the same person at different times in her life. When I understood I had been doing that unconsciously, I began to approach it more intentionally.

At the same time, I had resisted writing stories about a woman growing up in D.C. I thought that my habitat was boring. That whole “write what you know” nugget did not appeal to me. I spent a lot of time writing stories set in other places, like Thailand, or the Andes, and told from points-of-view unlike my own, a male security guard for instance. But, these stories always turned out to be about a person who was coming-of-age in some way. I finally gave in to my natural inclinations and just wrote that book. Still, I didn’t write “what I knew”—I wrote about what I was trying to understand.

What was it like writing these linked stories? Did anything surprise you?

One thing that surprised me is that I didn’t get tired of writing stories from one person’s point-of-view.  Before working on this book, I’d never written the same point-of-view character twice. The novel I’m working on now is told in multiple points-of-view. I think it’s funny/strange that I wrote a book of linked stories all from one perspective, but I don’t ever conceive of novels that way. And I never thought of this book as a novel; it was always going to be linked stories. Go figure.

I love the title, You May See a Stranger, particularly because Miranda becomes known to herself by the end of the book, at least as best she can. Care to comment?

In my head, that was the title for a very long time. I like that it both refers to the protagonist—she is a stranger to herself for much of the time—but also implicates the reader (that “you”).  And I like that it refers to the very romantic song, Some Enchanted Evening, even though the kind of enchantment that happens here has more to do with Miranda’s flights of fancy when she’s trying to understand the people she encounters, than it does with anything remotely “enchanting” in the usual sense.

I did try out a few different titles along the way. One of them was JUMP (after the story by that name). But when I mentioned it to a friend, she said, “Like the Van Halen song?” I like Van Halen, but did I want people to hear my book title and think of David Lee Roth in Spandex?

There’s such an incredible sense of place in the stories, where Washington D.C. becomes a microcosm of all that Miranda is struggling with.  Why did you pick that particular city?

The simple answer is because I’ve lived there, or thereabouts, all my life. And yet this was also the reason that for many years, I resisted writing stories set here. I thought that in order to make the stories “new” to me, they had to happen in a place that was less familiar to me. But over the years, I changed my mind. The political environment is both a given and incidental—it affects residents’ lives in varying, often subcutaneous, ways. My parents were not involved in national politics or government work, and neither was I. DC was my playground. Growing up, my friends and I played Frisbee on the National Mall. We climbed on the equestrian statues outside the FTC building.*  In college, guys liked to take their dates to park in front of the Washington Monument and make out. I guess they can’t do that anymore because of post-9/11 security, which seems a little sad.

In the book, there’s a story set during the crack epidemic of the late 1980s, when there was an atmosphere of lawlessness that was at odds with the location—here we are at home base for the laws of the land, after all, and yet there were huge and well-known open-air drug markets and 500 murders in a year. That dichotomy interests me.

There’s something I call the never-ending story, where you close a book and you are still haunted by the characters and wondering what they are going to do next, if they will be okay, and I felt that finishing YOU MAY SEE A STRANGER. Do you also feel haunted by Miranda, and do you think she’ll manage through her later years?

I’m glad to hear you’re wondering about that! The answer is, I don’t know. Perhaps at some point I’ll be thinking about your question, and I’ll decide I want to explore what happens later, the way I came to write these stories in the first place, years after a group of students asked me what happens to the girl in “Driver’s Education.” Or maybe it’s better to leave Miranda at this moment in time. I did write another Miranda story that was published in McSweeney’s Quarterly. It takes place approximately ten years after the book ends, and it ends with Miranda in an ambiguous position. I think she’ll be okay, though. I became fond of her while working on these stories. I feel like I made all of these bad things happen to her, you know, made her into a fictional screw-up, and it’s time to cut her a break. So, yes, I’ve decided, she’s going to be okay.

What’s obsessing you now and why?
I’m fixated on the many sources of anxiety we have to deal with these days, and how different people adjust to these circumstances. I have kids, so I’m anxious about anything and everything that they might have to face someday, on top of the general anxieties about other things I have little control over, like climate change, terrorism, world events, mass extinctions, mosquitoes, Ebola, fracking—shall I continue? This is something that has always occupied me, and I think the way it comes out in my fiction has perhaps changed over time. Connected with this, I’m interested in the necessity for denial in order to live life, and the harm that denial does when misapplied, or over-applied. I’m also interesting in events that trigger changes and reversals for people—transition points. My next book, a novel, is also set in and around DC. It involves an act of violence and the effects on two families. And there’s humor, as always, to take the edge off.

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

“What took you so long?” No, no--I’m really glad you didn’t ask me that! But I will answer it anyway. It would be an easy out for me to say, well, I have kids, and my kids are now teens, and I was overseeing most household stuff and most kid stuff, etc. That is absolutely true. Writing a book was a slow process in part because of the headspace required as a mother and a house “manager.” But the main reason I came to write this book later than I would have hoped is more interesting than that, I think. I spent many years avoiding writing a story collection. Many of the earlier stories I wrote were written while I was working on novels. I kept telling myself my first book HAD to be a novel. I wrote a novel for my MFA thesis. I wrote another draft novel after that (it’s in a drawer). But when I gave myself permission to write with a little more emotional honesty, to get a bit closer to the bone, I realized that at least in that moment, I wanted to write stories, and I needed to let myself do that. And what did I do? I wrote a linked story collection with a novelistic arc. So I suppose it was the right decision. I just wish I’d figured it out a little sooner!

Now, it’s as if I got it out of my system, and I’m working happily on a novel.

*Here’s a link with a photo—the statues are called “Man Controlling Trade.”

Excerpt from DROSOPHILA

Mr. Pierson, my twelfth-grade biology teacher, is unmarried and has blond hair growing on his knuckles. We used to say hair on the knuckles was a sign of mental retardation, but my mother made me stop saying that a long time ago, because of my sister. Donna has no hair on her knuckles, but that never stopped the other kids from telling me my sister’s a retard. My mother said to tell them it takes one to know one.

My sister is not a retard; she’s a fruit fly, Drosophila melanogaster. I watch the wingless one that’s shuffling around on the food supply inside the Mason jar, its toes dipped in a loam of rotting pear, lemon rind, souped banana. If I’m to be my sister’s keeper, best to keep her in a Mason jar. I can watch her if I want, and I can put her on a shelf and go away whenever I like.

When I was younger and my friends came to visit, my mother would say, “Include your sister,” but Donna didn’t wait for an invita­tion. She followed me from room to room, a ghost in white tennis socks with pink puff balls at the heels and a nightgown she wore all day if she didn’t go out. On the front of the gown was a picture of the yellow-haired specter of Cinderella, peeling off in flakes like lead paint. Now that Donna’s twenty-two, it’s hard to find a Cinderella nightgown that fits her, so our mother sends away in the mail for a decal and irons it on herself. Donna has a burn on her thigh from years ago when she tugged on the iron’s cord. I was too young to remember.

Heat-trapped pheromones mean the smell in the jar is equal parts fruit and spunk, with a hint of vanilla, or maybe that’s a scent reference to the memory of my mother’s rice pudding from last night’s dinner, blanaxed by the lingering taste of my boyfriend, Vic­tor. I just spent a half hour of my free period with Victor, inside the shed where they keep outdoor gym equipment—tackle dummies and lacrosse sticks, sod and leather and damp athlete-armpit. It was unseasonably cold, and I’d forgotten my gloves, so he warmed my hands under his sweatshirt first. I’ve never actually put his dick in my mouth, but I was curious and licked my fingers after he came. He didn’t see me do it.

To prepare the female for copulation, the male D. melanogaster licks the female’s genitalia. I think about suggesting this to Victor, but right now, I’m only that bold in my mind. We’re both virgins, and we’re not in a hurry to change that.

D. melanogaster is the perfect creature for genetic analysis. It turns out that we’re half fruit fly—the nonflying half, the half that thinks about food and sex and sex and food. In my jar, eggs are constantly hatching. Each female lays up to one hundred eggs in a day, and the eggs hatch in twelve hours. The larvae eat and molt, eat and molt, and then they pupate for a few days before emerg­ing as adults. One of my assignments is to produce grids called Punnett squares that predict the genetic make-up of offspring of selected flies in my jar.

The genes of the fruit fly were named whimsically, according to their functions, as if the scientists felt like playing a practical joke. There is, for instance, a gene that will result in a fruit fly that’s born without a heart. It’s called Tin Man. There are three genes whose proportionate presence determine a fly’s sex: One is called Sister­less; another is Sex-Lethal; the third is Deadpan. They sound like the names of punk bands: Deadpan, opening for the Sex Pistols. Sis­terless, double-bill with Black Flag. I draw Punnett squares demon­strating how these three genes interact. As a female fruit fly, I would be Sisterless. And so would my sister, in case it’s not already confus­ing enough. When the Sex-Lethal gene is minimized, the fruit flies are male.

I should warn Victor that I’m Sex-Lethal, but when we’re to­gether my mouth is busy with his, his early mustache abrades the skin above my lip, and my hands are caught up in his soft curly hair. Everything about him is going from soft to hard, not only his dick, but his arms, his thighs. Not his eyes, though. His eyes stay soft when he looks at me.

You May See a Stranger: Stories. Used with the permission of the publisher, Northwestern University Press. Copyright © 2016 by Paula Whyman.

Kate O'Connor Morris (daughter) and Mary Morris (mother) talk about writing, working together, paperbacks, movies, 21 DAYS UNDER THE SKY, THE JAZZ PALACE and more

Many years ago I picked up a novel THE WAITING ROOM by Mary Morris and fell in love with it. It took me years to track down Mary, through her husband Larry, and we became the best of buddies. And what inspires me even more is how close Mary is to her daughter Kate. Of course, I wanted to interview both of them. Kate is a filmmaker and the writer of 21 DAYS UNDER THE SKY. Mary is the critically acclaimed award-winning author of the short story collections Vanishing Animals, The Bus of Dreams, and The Lifeguard Stories; travel memoirs, including the acclaimed Nothing to Declare: Memoirs of a Woman Traveling Alone, Wall to Wall: from Beijing to Berlin by Rail, and Angels & Aliens: A Journey West. And she's the author of the novels The Waiting Room, The Night Sky(formerly published as A Mother’s Love) and House Arrest.

I couldn't be happier to have these two amazing women here. Thank you Mary and Kate!

Mary, your critically acclaimed novel THE JAZZ PALACE is now in paperback and I’m wondering if you perceive any difference in the whole process or if you feel differently about the paperback than the hardback?

I like the new look of the paperback a lot.  It’s bright and pops out.  It’s also more youthful.  I loved the distinctive look of the hardcover as well, but I feel that this one can reach a wider and younger audience.  Also I think the paperback looks great for book clubs and course adaptations.  And now that the book has won an award I’m hoping for more of that to come. 

Mary, I so admire that you didn’t know that much about jazz when you began to write this book, and yet you crafted a novel that is so authentic, so rich with character and life, that also actually written like jazz, that jazz experts have praised its authenticity. Did you ever have doubts when you were writing?

M: I used to joke that I suppose I could have found an easier topic to write about than jazz - like quantum physics.  In fact the book I'm working on now has a lot in it about astronomy and trust me that is so much easier to write about than jazz.  So the answer is yes I was often filled with doubts.  As you know, the novel took me almost two decades to write and along the way I was so sure It would never work out and that basically during that time I immersed myself in the culture of jazz.  I actually took four years of jazz piano to try and understand how musicians work but all I learned to do was play Blue Monk. 

Kate, I loved your film 21 Days Under The Sky, which is about four motorcycle guys driving down the Lincoln Highway. It’s so specific, and so hauntingly shot, and the narration, which you wrote, reminds me so much of Jack Kerouac. So first, off, how did you first conceive of this project?

K: It’s funny everyone keeps telling me that the narration is very Hunter, Bukowski, Kerouac. I very much am inspired by that generation of writers, but it’s just how my brain puts things down on paper. The project itself fell in my lap very haphazardly and accidentally and I just kind of went with it. Michael, the genius director and cinematographer, and I had met in passing at a friend’s studio and he told me he wanted to do this trip. Michael is a classic dirt bag biker and I knew if I seemed interested he wouldn’t consider me for the gig. So I shrugged him off. Eight months later I was in New York and got the call to come back to Los Angeles, he needed a writer and was going to put me on a Harley, “because how else can you write about the American Dream?”. I got on a plane, got my driver’s license. Three weeks later I was on the road with a bunch of dirty men, one pair of pants, and no tent.

Kate, what came first, the filming or the narration? What was the process like?

K: I guess it was a bit of both. I was on the ride itself so a lot of the filming happened while I was sitting in a ditch, or a casino somewhere writing. The film lost funding for about a year, so during that time period I had the luxury of time to think everything through. The second half of the movie I really finished a year after we got back from the ride. The process was a disaster and also very fun. I’d do it one more time.

Kate, what surprised you, and why? And do you ride motorcycles yourself? Do you want to?

K: Everything surprised me. I do ride, and I rode a Harley 48 across country with the guys for the documentary. I’d never been on a bike that big, and I’d never ridden more than 75 miles in a day. The night before we left for a 3800mi ride I picked up a bike in Carson, California, and in the morning I cried into my helmet and rode 350 miles up the notorious Highway 1 to meet the bikers in Salinas. I was ready for the worst, but the thing that surprised me the most, I suppose, was that nothing really bad ever happened. I was the only girl on the crew and we spent time with an outlaw bike club, El Forastero, and in a bunch of random towns. Often I got lost and was alone on the road. Everyone was wonderful and helpful to me. Even the Marines that asked me to show them my tits at a gas station in Eureka, NV.

Kate and Mary, I know you’ve been working on a script together. What is that like? What differences do each of you bring to the table? What similarities? What has that process been like for your work in general--and your mother/daughter relationship?

M:  I've found the process of working together as mother/daughter surprisingly smooth.  Our biggest problems have to do with when we meet and how often.  Kate's a night owl; I'm not.  I'm more a sit-down and let's get it done kind of person.  Kate's life is more in flux as it should be at her age.  I think that my strength is I’m good with plot and pacing.  She’s very good at pushing the material and taking risks I probably wouldn’t take.  For example in our script she wants to kill the dog.  I can’t kill the dog.  Yet.

K: She just said it all. She’s the professional, I’m the rascal, and we have a really good time together.

M: I’m a rascal, too. We did spend three days holed up in a cabin in the woods with three dogs, snowshoeing and working on the scripts and watching thrillers.  The script is a thriller, by the way.

K:  We couldn’t get past page fifty.  But we got a great set-up.  We’ve storyboarded it, and we know where it’s going…for now.

What’s obsessing both of you now and why?

M: The sky, the universe, the stars, neurology, and the screenplay we need to finish.

K: Glacier National Park, living out of a van, the corn I am growing out of an old Jacuzzi, seeing a wolf being a wolf, and the screenplay we’re going to finish.

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

M: What other projects do you guys have on deck?

K: And would we work together again?

M + K: No comment.

The fabulous Ann Leary talks about THE CHILDREN, the weirdness of weddings, being reclusive, writing, her movie (!) and so much more

 I first met Ann Leary at Japonica restaurant in Union Square. We came for lunch and stayed for the stories we were telling--FOUR HOURS OF THEM. I had the best time ever. So besides loving Ann, I love her work and I'm thrilled to be celebrating THE CHILDREN. It already has a starred Kirkus, which is notoriously difficult to get, (They call it "deeply satisfying...with shards of dark humor..) and she's going to be reading this Tuesday at the Barnes and Noble on East 86th! (I will be at the JBC auditions otherwise I would be there).

She's the author of An Innocent, A Broad; Scenes From a Marriage, and The Good House, and all are wonderful. And so is she.

Thanks, Ann for gracing my blog!

 Of course, I want to know, what sparked this novel? What drove you to write it? And how did it change from what you originally envisioned to what it became?

I wanted to write about the often-complicated relationships that develop between siblings, stepsiblings and parents in blended families.  My parents divorced in the 1970s.  I don’t know if it’s statistically true, but I think the people of my parent’s generation engaged in a sort of unprecedented mass uncoupling.  By the time I got to college, I had very few friends whose parents weren’t divorced.  So I knew many who shared my experience of straddling two nests, but having no real home after a divorce. After my parents remarried, my mother lived in her husband’s house. When I came home from college, I was a guest there. My father lived in another state, with his wife – a woman I barely knew, and her young children. There, too, I was a guest.  My parents had divided loyalties between their new spouses, their biological children and their stepchildren.  This was difficult for everybody.

I remember visiting my father when I was a teen and being surprised at the person he was in his new family, which was very different than the one he had been in our family. His stepsons were younger than we were, and they really loved my dad. They thought he was hilarious and teased him good-naturedly. They had goofy nicknames for him, and he took no offense. He got such a kick out of them.  My siblings and I - his biological kids - had a much more fraught, uneasy, formal relationship with him.  At the same time, my younger sister, who lived at home with my mother and stepfather for a while, had a very good relationship with our stepfather.  They just adored each other; they had a fun, easy-going rapport. He seemed to be a little less relaxed with his own kids.   Now, as an adult, I recognize that the fathers probably had some guilt about their own kids and worried about the type of people they would become.  They didn’t have this burden with their stepchildren; they were able to just enjoy them for who they were. If the stepchildren grew up to become sociopaths, addicts or career criminals, it wasn’t really a reflection on them. Their own children, though, had better watch their step, they had the same last name, the same genes.  In some ways this worked out, as we all turned out okay. Not one of us is a career criminal.   And now, because of death and divorce, I’m no longer related to any of the people who were once my stepsiblings. But I do see them on occasion and it’s so interesting to me the way that we all experienced our families in such different ways.  I know this is also true of families whose parents stayed married. Everyone who grows up with a sibling, experiences the family from a unique perspective, but we each tend to assume that our siblings experienced the family in exactly the same way we did.

            I think that the setting in any novel is as important as the characters.  The place has to be as authentic as the characters, so I like to write about places where I’ve lived and the characters are drawn from the types of people who live in those places.  My last novel, THE GOOD HOUSE, was set on Boston’s north shore, where I lived as a teen. THE CHILDREN is set in northwestern Connecticut, which is still New England, but a very different New England.  The novel is set on a lake similar to one near our home, where we’ve lived for the past eighteen years.  There is a particular breed of New England WASP – the good old-fashioned, blue-blooded Yankee – that just never ceases to fascinate me and there are still quite a few around here.  So I decided that the parents in THE CHILDREN, Whit and Joan Whitman, would be this type.

And they are a “type.”  The type who have many millions in old stock-holdings, but drive ancient, rusty station wagons and delight in clipping coupons out of the Sunday papers to save a few cents.  They often live in rambling “cottages” (with 8 or more bedrooms and staff quarters) that were built by their ancestors, but have been rather let go over the years. The kitchens have failing appliances that were installed in the 1970s. There’s a coffee table in the living room that has deep gouges made by the teeth of a puppy who grew old and died decades ago. You’ll find antique beads that belonged to a flapper aunt in one bedroom, a 1960s lava lamp in another.  A macramé plant holder containing a dead fern hangs in the library. These are people who only turn the thermostats up high enough to keep the pipes from freezing and wouldn’t dream of installing central air-conditioning; who thrill at finding a penny on the street; who still bemoan a loan of 12 dollars to a school friend in the 1960s, who  – well, why go on?  They’re, as I said, a “type.”  I really enjoyed immersing myself in the eccentric Whitman/Maynard family while writing this book.

 Being sort of reclusive myself, I loved the portrait of Charlotte and her other Internet life. Where did that come from? Are you reclusive at all? (You don't seem that way)

That’s funny, because you don’t seem reclusive, either, which is one of the things I was interested in exploring in this book.  I think of you as a good friend that I’ve known for years. Yet, we’ve only met in real life a few times.  We’re mostly online friends. I was interested in exploring the relatively new social dynamic that has been created by the Internet. We all think we see each other all the time.  If somebody is a total recluse, as Charlotte is, most people are entirely unaware of it, because they see her on social media or chat with her online.

Charlotte’s reclusiveness did come partially from my own experiences.  My social life has, in recent years, been conducted primarily on Facebook and Twitter.  I write every day, so I’m on the computer a lot. I spend most of my time in Connecticut on our property.   We live in a small town with no shops, one cozy little restaurant.  We still don’t have cell-service in our area. I spend most of my time at home with my husband and our animals, which, for me, is heaven. I do like to see people in our community and in New York, but in recent years, when I go to social events, I’ve found that it sometimes takes me days to recover. I tend to overcompensate for my social anxiety by being very “on” when I see people face-to-face.  Afterwards, I worry that what I considered “on,” might have been perceived by others as a state of full-blown mania. So, I ruminate a lot after socializing. “Why did I say that?” What must she have thought?” “Was that woman backing away from me because she didn’t get how funny my story about my noncancerous mole was? Or is she just a backer-upper type?”  “Was that man offended when I made the joke about all the catheter commercials? What if he uses one? Why did I have to say that?” 

You know, that kind of thing. It’s exhausting.
Charlotte’s reclusiveness is slightly more pathological; she really has become a shut-in. And she has an alternate persona on the Internet. Online, she’s married and has a wildly successful mommy blog. She’s snarky and fun and has loads of friends.  In real life, she’s a childless 29-year-old who spends most of her time in the attic of her mother’s home.  There was a trauma that happened to the children in this family and the novel is about how each carries the emotional scars caused by that incident, even now, when they are adults. They never talk about the thing that was so disruptive. Because, they’re WASPs, they never really talk about unpleasant things at all, so everything seems very pleasant, until it becomes very unpleasant.

Why do you think weddings always bring out secrets, surprise, and sometimes the worst in people?

You know, I really don’t like weddings.  I’m told that my own wedding was wonderful but I was in sort of a dissociative state throughout.  It made me very anxious – not the part about being married, but the whole ceremony and reception. Everybody was staring at us.  This was a relatively casual wedding in my mother’s backyard, but I was a nervous wreck.  Part of it was just my social anxiety, but part of it was the discord created by my parents divorce, which had happened many years prior. There were still hurt feelings, anger between the parents about money. But everybody had to look so happy.

 In THE CHILDREN, I drew on my own experiences to a certain extent. A wedding is supposed to be a time of happiness and celebration. If there are old spites, anger and rifts in the family, of course they will start making their way to the surface, because everybody is forced to participate in the planning.  Because it’s supposed to be a happy time, there is this strained civility in the days and weeks leading up to the wedding.  You’re picking out flowers, but everybody’s shooting daggers.

So, your last genius novel, The Good House is going to be a movie with Robert DeNiro and Meryl Streep—with Michael Cunningham adapting the book into a script. Do you wake up every morning and have to reconvince yourself that this is indeed true? And are you getting a cameo?

You’re so sweet! Yes, that was very exciting when they announced the two leads! It’s still in development, they’re ironing out the script. I’ve heard they might start production this spring, but we shall see. There are so many moving parts involved in filmmaking.  That’s why I love writing books, you really don’t have to worry that the main character has two other projects that they’ve committed to.
What’s obsessing you now and why?

Where do I begin? I’m very obsessive. Fortunately, I am currently obsessed with this new novel that I’m writing. I can’t say much about it except that it’s loosely based on my grandmother and her real-life involvement with a very disturbing and corrupt organization in the 1920s.

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

You forgot to ask when we can meet up for sushi again! X

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Violence. Girl Friendship. Damning Beauty. The amazing Robin Wasserman talks about her adult debut, GIRLS ON FIRE, obsessions, split brain writing, and so much more

 Every once in a while, you read a book and then you realize you are actually gripping the pages in admiration. That's how I felt reading Robin Wasserman's extraordinary novel GIRLS ON FIRE. (Don't forget to check out her website for tour info and an excerpt!)  You want to hear her speak!) Don't believe me or all the buzz surrounding Robin and her book? Take a gander below:

One of the most anticipated reads of 2016 according to  Flavorwire and BookRiot
A Publishers Lunch Buzz Book
A BookPage Woman to Watch in 2016
A Top 2016 Debut to watch from Elle UK, The Irish times, and Red Online,

“A dark, propulsive fever-dream of youth and friendship….all I could do was keep reading, relentlessly enthralled by the heat-seeking missile of Robin Wasserman’s fearless imagination.” –Leslie Jamison, author of The Empathy Exams

“A book so wonderful, so terrible, so nightmarishly compelling that I hardly knew what to say when I finished reading it. Has a title ever been truer? The reader comes away singed.” —Kelly Link

“Like lightning in a bottle…seldom do you find a novel that so transports you to the dark, febrile terrain of adolescence….[Girls on Fire is a] captivating, terrifying novel, and one you won’t forget.” –Megan Abbott, author of The Fever

“Wasserman’s prose is a spell cast over the reader, shockingly full of the terror of truth….Wasserman is a brilliant writer, and Girls on Fire is a gorgeous gift of a novel.” —Laura Kasischke, author of Mind of Winter

"Next we have Robin Wasserman's Girls on Fire, which, with its narrative witchcraft, conjures up the ghost of the decade to full effect."--Flavorwire's 50 Signs of Hope for Culture in 2016

"Robin Wasserman’s novel Girls on Fire will utterly terrify you — in the best way possible."--Buzzfeed's 19 Incredible New Books You Need to Read this Spring

Robin's work has also appeared in Tin House, The New York Times, TheAtlantic.com, and The LA Review of Books. her YA books s include The Waking Dark, The Book of Blood and Shadow, and the Seven Deadly Sins series, which was adapted into a television miniseries. AND, you can read an excerpt of Girls on Fire here.

I'm so jazzed to have Robin here!  Thank you, thank you, Robin

I always feel that writers are somehow haunted into writing a particular novel. Were you? And if so, what was your ghost?

I love this theory, and a nagging ghost makes as much sense as any other explanation of where ideas come from. I’m haunted by the spectres of friends past: A long string of wild girls who I imagined would be, if not my soulmate, then my salvation, escape from a life of mundane desperation. My first best friend, who chose me when we were eight and ditched me cold when we were twelve, set the pattern: She was exuberant, stubborn, willful, bossy, and seemed—at least to my shy, rule-following eye—exhilaratingly herself. I spent my childhood and teen years chasing after this feeling, the joy and relief of being attached to someone who seemed prepared to set the world on fire, the permission it granted me to be both more and less myself. All these years later, I’ve been fascinated by the dynamics of that kind of friendship: Why was I so eager to play sidekick? And, more mystifyingly, what did all those wild girls get from letting me tag along? What was it about me that I still couldn’t see for myself? Those are the questions that first sparked Girls on Fire, and I guess you could say the novel is my effort to finally exorcise the ghost.

This is your first novel for adults, yet so many YA novels are read by adults, too, that I'm often perplexed at the difference. Did it feel different for you writing Girls on Fire? Did anything surprise you about it?

With my YA books, I never sat down at the computer thinking explicitly about writing for teenagers, or about audience at all (which may speak more to my narcissism than my craft, I suppose). I just wrote the stories I wanted to tell, in the language that seemed right. Girls on Fire is set in the early ‘90s, the time period of my own teen years, which lends it a more retrospective feel than I’ve allowed myself in YA—and I’ll admit that it was deeply pleasurable to revel in the culture and aesthetic of the grunge eras (not to mention doing the “research,” eg re-watching Reality Bites and Singles more times than I’ll admit here.) But I tackled the initial draft the same way I had any other book, ignoring audience in favor of story, just getting the characters and the language down on the page without worrying about who would publish it or how. I think the shift to “adult” fiction, whatever that might mean, happened in later drafts, as I allowed myself to expand to expand the story in directions that I wouldn’t necessarily have been inclined to take in a YA novel. (Caveat: That’s not to say I couldn’t have, or that other YA writers  haven’t, just that for me, this was the excuse I needed to attack the story in an unfamiliar way.) 

The biggest difference involved allowing myself to write more about the adult characters, specifically the mothers. While not a huge part of the book, page-count-wise, these women—and the question of girlhood transformed into motherhood, of the generation gap and efforts to cross it—became a really fundamental element for me. I started thinking of the novel as not just a passionate friendship romance between three girls, but an exploration of girlhood itself. It turned out that after a decade of writing for teenagers, I had quite a bit I desperately wanted to say about them, and I poured all of that into this book. It feels like putting the period on a very, very long sentence.

Violence, loneliness, repair, secrets--that is all part of girlhood friendships--and I think they somehow mark us through the rest of our lives. Do you agree?

Speaking as someone who, as an adult, has written about almost nothing but the violence, loneliness, repair, and secrets of girlhood friendship, I’d better agree! I will admit, I used to be much more confident about the “rest of our lives” thing, but I’ve discovered that as I make my way through my thirties, my teen years are starting to feel further away than ever before. I mean, obviously they are, chronologically—but they also feel emotionally less relevant, as I finally get it through my thick head that the image I formed of myself at age 13 (awkward, weird, blunt, frizzy-haired, booksmart but people-clueless) isn’t necessarily accurate anymore. I feel less beholden to the mistakes I made and the things that happened to me, less inclined to say, “I’m the kind of girl who _______” based on choices I haven’t made for the last fifteen years.

That said, whoever I am now and whoever I become, it’s because of those early days: The people who hurt me, the people I loved, the dreams I had for myself. As evidenced by the fact that I’m clearly still holding a grudge against the friend who dumped me in sixth grade! I don’t really remember what I made for dinner last night, but I remember viscerally where I was on the playground when I overheard her telling someone I wasn’t her best friend—I’m never going to forget how that felt, and for better and worse, some part of me is always going to be that girl, feeling abandoned and alone.

Tell us what kind of writer you are. Do you map things out? Follow your pesky muse?  Do you have routines and charms that urge you along? Your language is so diamond gorgeous that I wonder which comes first for you, the voice or the story? Or do they occur at the same time!

First off, thank you so much. “Diamond gorgeous” is such a lovely compliment I’m tempted to tattoo it across my forehead. (I’m trying to be less self-deprecating, and that would definitely be a good start…)

If I have a muse, he or she should speak up, because we’ve got some things to discuss. Specifically, why he or she isn’t a little speedier on the genius-idea-manufacturing front. Let’s step it up, shall we? Why should I be the one doing all the work?

For me, coming up with ideas is brute force labor, and it’s partly because the story always comes first. I’ve long wished I could be one of those writers who just starts out with an image, or the sense of a character, and wanders her way leisurely down the narrative’s garden path. But for whatever reason, that’s never worked for me. I have a million documents on my computer with a first paragraph or first sentence—some phrasing or voice that’s captured me and seems violently promising—but that’s it. A few sentences, the ghost of a piece, and nothing more. I never return to them, I’m never forced to push past the beginning, because they’re just words that were rattling around in my head. To keep going, I need them to be attached to a story, something I feel the impetus to tell.

I have kind of a split-brained process—on one side, I’ll start gravitating toward a particular kind of character, while on the other side, I’ll start circling around a nebulous kind of plot, and eventually—hopefully—there’s some alchemical spark when the two collide, and that’s when I know I’ve got something. The voice comes last. I don’t outline fiction, but I do spend a lot of time thinking through characters and making notes on scenes I want to write and emotional throughlines I want to explore, etc, before I actually sit down to page one. (Semi-related: I’m very good at procrastination.) That’s when I start worrying about the voice—it’s a little superstitious, but I don’t like typing the first sentence until I’ve already perfected it in my head, and, along with it, the sound of the story. So by the time I start writing for real, the voice tends to be fully formed.

What's obsessing you now and why?

One of the things I wanted to explore in Girls on Fire was the concept of obsession, largely because it’s something I’ve never thought myself particularly capable of. I’m too much of a dilettante. But here’s a sample of what’s crowding my brain right now:

The Longform podcast (I’ve always been too nervous to do much journalism myself; the podcast lets me live vicariously). The dark net. Moral panics about female adolescent sexuality. The Hamilton soundtrack. The democratic primary. Paris. The subprime mortgage crisis. Books about 1970s ballet. Girls. The neuroscience and philosophy of mental imagery. Creationist dinosaur hunters. Child stars. The photo-taking impairment effect. Nostalgia. Toast.

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

Here’s a ridiculously un-original suggestion: What am I reading right now? I usually hate this question, because either my mind suddenly goes blank or I’m reading something thoroughly underwhelming—or I expend way too much energy trying to come up with an answer that will somehow encompass everything about my literary soul (or, less purely, boost whatever friend of mine has a new book out). But on this particular day, I just happen to have finished the most remarkable book, and I desperately want the rest of the world to know about it: The Association of Small Bombs, by Karan Mahajan. This novel, which plays out the consequences of a marketplace explosion for both the victims and the perpetrators—although that’s such a reductive synopsis it doesn’t even begin to get at what Mahajan is doing—starts out really good and gets better. Then it gets astounding. This is one of those books that makes me want to be more ambitious in my own writing—that makes me remember exactly what a powerful story can do.  READ IT.

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Claudia Casper talks about THE MERCY JOURNALS, writing, the wreckage of the world and so much more. Plus, read an excerpt!

by Claudia Casper (Arsenal Pulp Press, May 10, 2016)
©2016 by Claudia Casper

First, an excerpt:


On October 15, 2071, two Moleskine
journals were found wrapped in shredded
plastic inside a yellow dry box in a
clearing on the east coast of Vancouver
Island near Desolation Sound.  They
were watermarked, mildewed, and ragged
but legible, though the script was wildly
erratic.  Human remains of an adult
male were unearthed nearby along with
a shovel and a 9mm pistol.  Also found
with the human remains were those of
a cougar.  The journals are reproduced
in their entirety here, with only minor
copy-editing changes for ease of reading.



                                                              March 9, 2047  |

My name is Allen Levy Quincy.  Age 58.  Born May 6,
1989.  Resident of Canton Number 3, formerly Seattle,
Administrative Department of Cascadia.

     This document, which may replace any will and tes-
tament I  have made in the past, is the only intentional act
of memory I have committed since the year 2029.  I do not
write because I am ill or because I leave much behind.  I
own a hot plate, three goldfish, my mobile, my Callebaut
light, my Beretta M9, the furniture in this apartment, and
a small library of eleven books.

Addictive, right?
Claudia Casper is the author of the novels The Reconstruction and The Continuation of Love by Other Means, which was short-listed for the Ethel Wilson BC Book Prize Her writing has appeared in the Globe and Mail, the Vancouver Sun, Geist, Event, Best Canadian Short Stories(Oberon), the anthology Dropped Threads: What We Aren’t Told (Vintage), edited by Carol Shields and Marjorie Anderson and Canadian Content. She is writing the screenplay for a 3D feature film France/Canada coproduction of The Reconstruction. Her work has been published in Canada, the US, the UK, and Germany. With Anne Giardini, Casper conceived the Carol Shields Labyrinth, an interactive online labyrinth that honours Shields’s life. I'm delighted to host Claudia here. Thank you, Claudia!

 I always imagine that an author is haunted by something that propels the novel. What sparked yours?

There were two first sparks for this novel, or at least I can’t remember which came first. One was reading a newspaper story about the Canadian General, Romeo Dallaire, who headed up the U.N. peacekeeping mission to Rwanda just before the genocide, being found black-out drunk on a park bench in Hull, Quebec. It turned out he was suicidal and haunted by what he’d witnessed there, and by his helplessness to stop it. He became one of the first spokesmen for soldiers suffering from PTSD, as well as a passionate advocate for humanitarian intervention (he asked: “are some people more human than others?”). PTSD seemed such a fundamentally human response to horror. My main character, Allen Quincy, is partly inspired by Gen. Dallaire, though he is much lower ranking, less idealistic, and the PTSD upends his life more thoroughly.

The second spark came from my family history. My father was German, fourteen when World War II ended. His father was a general in the German army and his mother, who separated from his father during the war, told my father after the war that she was Jewish. I grew up with an imaginative foot on both sides. When 9/11 happened, and with the conflicts it has spawned since, as well as with the Rwandan genocide, I had a strong reaction to the self-righteous rhetoric used by the media and by politicians, that posited that genocidal behavior and other wartime atrocities was behavior that only existed in other cultures, other ethnicities, other nations (the Germans, Africans, Arabs), when I felt strongly that it was behavior common to all human beings in specific contexts. I won’t say any more because I don’t want to give away plot surprises.

The Mercy Journals isn’t just about Mercy, the character, but it’s also very much about the quality of mercy and how we can find it in a world that is mostly wreckage. Can you talk about that please?

Mercy is the opposite of the law, of just punishment. It’s that area in between an act and a consequence that is filled with fellow feeling, with love. Mercy is something we all want. Mercy is true free choice, it’s unmechanical, it’s like a breeze, it simply appears, it cannot be ordered up. Mercy transcends the laws of nature and the bargain and barter of transactions, and yet it’s as wild and unpredictable as nature, otherwise it’s just forgiveness. No one wants to ever live in a world without mercy. That would be a very dark place indeed.

The future landscape you’ve created is so chilling because it is really a “it can happen here” scenario.  What was your research like, and did you get more and more uneasy the more you learned?

Because climate change has had such a pressing reality for me for years, I don’t feel I got more uneasy the more I learned. Ever since I read Tolstoy’s War and Peace, which so skillfully delineates how impossible it is for humans to control history, that there are too many moving parts and complex interactions for any one person or group of people to control, I have had an acceptance that we are largely on an unpredictable biological ride as a species. That being said, I don’t view that ride as hopeless, or unmitigatedly negative. We are a brilliant mix of beauty and horror, significantly weighted on the beauty side. We bond deeply and loyally, we feel sacred wonder for life, we feel gratitude for creation, we are social creatures who survive through co-operation, but we are also murderous, impulsive, insecure and terrified.

Ironically though, the fact that we can’t control history does not mean we aren’t still responsible for it. We should try and limit the consumption of fossil fuels, and avert the catastrophes that I am convinced will follow if we don’t. We could reduce energy consumption with no pain and even some gain in quality of life. We may be complacent in the west because we assume hotter and poorer countries will take the brunt, but that is blinkered thinking. A 2003 Pentagon report concluded climate change would lead to a future where “once again, warfare would define human life.” Not worth it.

Quincy, your hero, is desperate to forget, yet he writes all his memories down, believing that he can turn fact into fiction. I find this incredibly interesting because of a time when I was critically ill and given memory blockers, so I could not work through what had happened because I couldn’t remember it. It was only when I made it up through fiction that I was able to heal. Do you believe that the brain knows the difference between memory and what really happened?

I don’t think the brain does know the difference between memory and event reliably. New brain research shows that the same areas light up in reading about an experience and remembering it, as actually having it. Fascinating. In a way all memory involves a form of narrative we create about our experiences. I believe, for example, for many of us, the memories from our childhood have either been triggered by photographs or stories other people have told about us. Very few are direct memories of sensations. Perhaps the memories of how it feels to first master something, like swimming, or riding a bike, or throwing a baseball are the most based in real experience. Memories, like dreams, are always infused with emotion, but who can tell if it’s the actual emotion we were feeling at the time? I have always been fascinated with how much of who we are, our identity, is made out of memory, depends on memory for its existence. What we worry most about with regards to death, after our actual non-existence, is not being remembered. Is being erased from the planet. My dog died recently and one of the things that made it so particularly painful was that I couldn’t communicate to her that I would always remember her. Memory was not something we could share.

What’s obsessing you now and why?

I am obsessing now about the power structures involved in helping behavior. About the entanglements of ego, status, power-over and power-under, involved in assuming the role of helping someone. As the oldest child and only singleton of both my parents’ union, with two half siblings from my mother’s second marriage, and seven from my father’s subsequent liaisons, I am perfectly set up to try and consolidate my tenuous feeling of belonging with helping behavior. Self-examination and realizing that help is not always, ironically, helpful spur this new obsession.

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

What computer game am I addicted to.

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

The difficulties of writing a masterwork: The sublime Jennifer Haigh talks about Heat and Light, nearly abandoning the novel, writing, and so much more

I so love Jennifer Haigh's work that I'd have her on the blog every week if I could. Her latest novel, HEAT AND LIFE is ambitious, profound, and absolutely dazzling. Richard Price calls it, "smart, sharp, hyperprecise, and near incantatory in its momentum." Ha Jin dubs it "a  thrilling page turner"  and Richard Ford calls it "Brilliant beginning to end." But that praise could be said about all of her novels: FAITH, THE CONDITION, BAKER TOWERS and MRS. KIMBLE, winner of  the PEN/Hemingway Award for debut fiction. Her short story collection NEWS FROM HEAVEN won the Massachusetts Book Award and the PEN New England Award in Fiction.  

The thing I love the most about this interview (beside the fact that I get to do it) is the honesty about the process. She's said  that writing HEAT AND LIGHT nearly killed her, that she abandoned it but couldn't let go, until it finally began to coalesce. I'm so jazzed and honored to host Jennifer here. Jennifer, thank you for everything.

What was the generation of this book—what sparked you into to wanting to write about it? 

I grew up in western Pennsylvania and still have family there, so the gas drilling phenomenon was on my radar from the very beginning. When I started writing HEAT AND LIGHT, the drilling boom was going full force, and the national debate over fracking was raging. Josh Fox’s documentary Gasland had just come out, and environmental activists were campaigning for a moratorium on fracking in New York State – a measure that eventually passed. Among my peers -- writer friends in Boston or New York -- there was overwhelming consensus that fracking was an environmental catastrophe in the making. So when I went back to Pennsylvania for a visit and an old friend told me his parents had signed a gas lease, I was stunned.  From his perspective, this was the opportunity of a lifetime; why would anybody say no?  I was struck by the contrast between how people in Pennsylvania viewed fracking, and the attitude in New York State.  The difference is that Pennsylvania has always been an energy state. The first oil well in the world was drilled there. The Three Mile Island nuclear disaster happened there. Coal companies dominated the economy for a hundred years. All that history has shaped the culture in profound ways, and I explore that in HEAT AND LIGHT.

 How difficult a process was it to write this novel?   How did you write this?  Did the process differ from your previous books?

 For me, the process changes every time. I approach each book as a unique engineering problem. Unlike a poem, which can succeed or fail entirely on aesthetic terms, a novel is a machine – a one-of-a-kind contraption I am designing, building, testing and re-testing, so that by the time it lands in a reader’s hands, all he has to do is turn the key and the machine will come to life and start moving on its own.

More than any other book I’ve written, this one has a lot of moving parts. There are so many strands to this story, so much history brought to bear.  When I’m writing, I don’t think about plot so much as causality – how each event has consequences that lead to more consequences. As I was writing HEAT AND LIGHT, I kept thinking about that old board game, Mousetrap -- the game Wesley is playing in front of the television as they watch the news about Three Mile Island. The object of the game is to build a complicated mouse trap out of unlikely parts:  a drainpipe, a bathtub, a seesaw and so on. As a kid I was obsessed with that game, that moment when you turn the crank and kick off the whole intricate chain reaction, which ends with the plastic cage sliding down the pole to trap the mouse. Writing HEAT AND LIGHT felt very much like that.  It’s a story that gathers momentum.  I love making sentences and take great pains to write to write good ones – but in the end, this is a novel, not a poem. When you turn the key, you want the thing to move.

 Did anything about this novel surprise you?

 Everything about this novel surprised me.  For the first two years I had no idea what I was writing. The shape of the book changed monthly, sometimes weekly.  What started out as a story about fracking became a love story, a deconstruction of what went wrong at Three Mile Island, an exploration of what it’s like to be transgender in a very small town, the rise and fall of a ruthless CEO. It took me years to understand how all these pieces fit together, the interconnectedness of everything.

As I wrote, I was surprised to discover how much of the story had to do with addiction, that perverse human compulsion to poison ourselves in much the way heavy industry poisons the land.  Like many small towns, Bakerton has a thriving bar culture, which is out in the open; and a methamphetamine problem, which nobody talks about. After the coal mines closed, addiction became the most successful local industry. When Dick Devlin was laid off from the mines, he opened a tavern. His older son is a corrections officer in a prison full of drug offenders, and the younger one is a counselor at a methadone clinic – an entire family employed, directly or indirectly, by addiction.

Writing this novel nearly killed you.  Could you elaborate?

 HEAT AND LIGHT is a big book, an intricate book. It seems to me now that every thought I’ve ever had is in this book. From the very beginning, I felt overmatched by the complexity of the story. Twice I abandoned it entirely and started writing something else, but I found I couldn’t leave it alone. At several points in the writing process, I hit a point of complete cognitive paralysis. It’s exactly the way I felt studying calculus in high school, like I was mixing concrete with an eggbeater, asking my brain to think in a way it wasn’t designed to do.

I love the way you express the world as it was, as it is now, and as it might have been too. Can you talk about this?

 We all live simultaneously in the past, present and future. Most of us can’t go ten minutes without recalling the past or fantasizing about the future, all while going about our business in the here and now. To be psychologically true, fictional characters must reflect that complexity. All the characters in HEAT AND LIGHT are haunted, to one degree or another, by the past, by broken promises and missed opportunities and dreams that failed to materialize. And in a way, I’m haunted too:  I’ve written two other books set in Bakerton, so I’m keenly aware of the town’s history, its glory days as a bustling coal town and its long painful slide into poverty after the mines closed. There is a collective memory of boom and bust, an ancestral memory even the young people carry, a peculiar nostalgia for times they aren’t old enough to remember. As one of the characters reflects, “The town is all aftermath.”

 What’s obsessing you now and why?

 Like everybody, I am riveted by the upcoming election, a window into all that is best and worst in the American character:  our cynicism and idealism, our fears and bigotries, our short attention span and hunger for entertainment, our deep-seated and mostly unconscious sexism, our national delusions of grandeur and authentic capacity for heroism. There’s a novel in there somewhere.

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

 I’m glad you didn’t ask it, but one question I always get has to do with research – how much I did, and what kind, and how it shaped the novel. I hate that question, because I can’t seem to answer it without disappointing.  The person asking the question is usually an aspiring writer, and she doesn’t want to hear that research doesn’t lead to a novel, that all the art happens long after the research is done. To write HEAT AND LIGHT, I spent years learning about fracking, about nuclear energy, what it’s like to work on a drill rig. I learned about organic dairy farming, heroin addiction, EST, the Iranian Revolution, thyroid cancer, female shot-putters, strip mining, disciplinary procedures in Pennsylvania state prisons. But when it came time to start writing, I made it all up.  Research is useful in constructing the skeleton of a character’s life. The rest is empathy – an imaginative leap into another human being, his interior weather, how it feels to walk through life in his body, to live in his house and make love to his wife and drive his car and wear his clothes. No amount or kind of research can tell you that.

Monday, May 2, 2016

Amber Brock talks about A FINE IMITATION, type A planning, Neil Gaiman, history, writing and so much more

I'm partial to debuts, so I'm especially delighted to be hosting Amber Brock and her fine first novel, A FINE IMITATION. Just take a look at the high praise:

“There’s never a dull moment in this debut novel centered on an intriguing and tightly woven story line. Vera’s struggles are highly relatable, and the anguish she feels will resonate with countless readers. This surefire hit is certain to be beloved by fans of Beatriz Williams’s Along the Infinite Sea and Anton DiSclafani’s The After Party.”
– Library Journal, starred

"An absorbing tale of art, deception, romance, and forbidden desire."
– Publishers Weekly

Thank you so, so much, Amber for coming on the blog!

What was haunting you that drove you to write this novel?

A Fine Imitation started with a dream I had about a woman in a high-rise and her relationship with an artist painting a mural in her building. Still, even before I began to write, I knew I wanted to create more than just a good love story (though, of course, a good love story is nothing to sneeze at—I’m forever a fan of books that feature well-crafted romantic tension). But for me, because I teach at an all-girls’ school, I often found myself thinking of my students as I began to tease out important moments in my manuscript’s plot. I always ask my students to consider how the social conventions of an era shape a person’s opportunities and choices. In telling this particular story, I wanted to make some of the challenges that women faced in the early twentieth century come alive for my girls and for others. Even though my main character, Vera, is privileged in a lot of ways, she’s still very much restricted by what was expected of women in those decades, especially in her college years.

How does it feel to be a successful debut author? And does this make it harder or easier to write your next novel?
Being a debut author is overwhelming, amazing, scary, fantastic…a rush of emotion. I’ve dreamed about holding my own book in my hands since I was twelve years old, so the idea that my novel is going out into the world is still sinking in somewhat. I’ve found, interestingly, that starting the next novel has been similar to the start of the other unpublished novels I’ve written. There’s always some insecurity, but since my focus is always on completing the work (rather than the publishing stage), I’m dealing more with the specific challenges of the novel I’m writing. In some ways, it’s easier for me to tackle the writing when I’ve let go of the goal of publishing.

So much of your fine novel is about who we are and who we are meant to be. Can you talk about this, please?
We make a lot of decisions about who we want to be when we’re young, and early adulthood can feel like a “finish line” in a lot of ways. House? Check. Job? Check? Family? Check. We’re ticking off boxes on a list instead of considering what kind of life we truly want to pursue. Too often we let others choose our path for us, whether that’s because of parental pressure, societal pressure, or our own desire to create the sort of life that we imagine will earn us the admiration of people we respect and love. This is Vera’s struggle—she’s made all the “right” choices, but she’s not being true to herself. Once she recognizes that, she begins to re-evaluate everything.

A Fine Imitation is set in the roaring twenties, so I always want to know, what surprised you in the research? Did any of the things you discovered derail your plot temporarily, or open it up?

I always find myself researching the strangest things when I’m working on a novel. For one scene in A Fine Imitation, I needed to know how long a 1920s elevator would have taken to travel about twenty floors. I ended up learning more about the evolution of elevators than I ever expected. That’s one reason I love writing historical fiction in the Internet age—there are so many people who are experts in such fun subjects, and Google allows me to find their collected information in a way that wouldn’t have been possible only a few decades ago.

Running across an actual program from a 1923 exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art was one particularly nice surprise. That discovery led to the inclusion of a painting (Portrait of Giovanna Tornabuoni) that added weight and meaning to the scene it’s in and eventually colored the way art is discussed in the novel.

What kind of writer are you? Do you have rituals? Do you map things out?
I am a Type-A planner by nature, so no one who knows me is shocked to discover that I have lists, plans, charts, and chapter outlines. I always handwrite those materials, so I have notebooks full of scribbles.

I usually prefer to draft in the summer. I’m a teacher, so that time is marginally less busy. But inspiration arrives whenever she’s ready, so at times I’m writing in the evenings or on weekends (or between classes!). And, as with so many writers, my best ideas come in those moments when I can’t write them down—in the shower, driving my car, and just as I’m about to fall asleep. I’ve honed my memory so I can capture as many of those ideas as possible!

What’s obsessing you now and why?

Now and always—history. When I can steal a moment, I’m reading The Year of Lear by James Shapiro. Since I teach British literature, I’m always looking to learn more about Shakespeare’s work and the British canon as a whole.

I’m also researching the early 1950s in New York and Miami, and I continue to find it fascinating how seemingly minor events can continue to affect society long after most people have forgotten them.

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

What is the most surprising thing that influenced you as you were writing this novel?
I don’t think too many people would immediately connect my novel with Neil Gaiman and Terry Prachett’s cult classic Good Omens, but that book (which I love and teach) changed the way I think about how a novel’s conclusion should work. As I read the first time, I kept thinking, “There’s no way they can pull this off.” That was the last time I underestimated them. They set up an impossible choice between one potential outcome and another, then concluded with an outcome I never saw coming. When I found I’d given Vera a similar impossible choice, thinking of Good Omens freed me to consider other endings for her.

Karan Bajaj talks about The Yoga of Max's Discontent, being a striving yogi, Wall Street verses enlightenment, and so much more


I'm honored to have Karan Bajaj ihere to talk about his wonderful new novel, The Yoga of Max's Discontent. He's an Indian American author of three contemporary Indian novels, Keep Off the Grass (2008), Johnny Gone Down (2010) and The Seeker (2015). Bajaj's first novel, Keep Off the Grass, which became a bestseller with more than 70,000 copies sold in the year of release, was a semi-finalist for the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award and was longlisted for the Indiaplaza Golden Quill Award. Together his novels have sold more than 200,000 copies in India.

I always think that a writer is sparked to write a particular novel. So what sparked you to write The Yoga of Max’s Discontent?

For me, two things have to come together to embark on a novel—entertainment and meaning. I’d been playing around with the idea of writing about a journey through secret India for years but it became a deeper, three-dimensional reality when my mother died from cancer.
My questions about the nature of human suffering became more urgent for me to answer. So in 2013, my wife and I set forth as monks with a metaphorical begging bowl, going from Europe to India by road with no possessions, then learning yoga and meditation in a remote ashram in the Himalayas.
Both the adventure through secret India—hidden yoga ashrams, surreal night markets, remote Himalayan caves—and my own transformation through the journey became the impetus for The Yoga of Max’s Discontent.

You call yourself a “striving yogi”, and you spent five years on that path—that’s so fascinating I have to ask you to elaborate.  Are you still striving?

Indeed, very much striving! A yogi is on the journey to dissolve himself or herself completely, to become just a vessel for his work to express itself. I slip and fall often but I like to think I’m working everyday towards that ideal. Whether in my writing or my corporate career, I just try to act without attaching myself to the outcome. Like a tree that just grows and bears fruit because that it’s innate tendency, I try to work and write to express my innate tendency without thinking of whether my books will change the world or establish my platform or sell a lot.

I love the message of the novel, seen through the eyes of Max, who gives up Wall Street for a quest for enlightenment.  Do you think America will ever prize the spiritual over the material? Or even consider it to be a worthy search? (I hope so.)

We have this idea in India that life’s journey is like the flight of an eagle. First, you flap your wings high, as high as you can flap them, growing with experiences in the world. Then, you gracefully bring the wings down, go within and complete your journey. So there’s a role for both and I think you’re seeing that a little in America now. You’re seeing folks who’ve realized that it’s monotonous to run after external experiences, be it houses, cars, travel etc. infinitely, and they’re choosing to become more silent through yoga, meditation, or their spiritual practices. So indeed, I think a societal shift is occurring.

What kind of writer are you? Do you map things out or have them channeled through you or a little bit of both?

Over the last decade, my writing style has been a little bit parallel to my life.  I follow what I call a 4,1,4 model:
4 Years: Extreme goal-directed living—working at my corporate job, disciplined reading/writing/researching etc.
1 Year: Complete slack—take a sabbatical where I travel without a goal, write when I want to, meditate, work in an orphanage, basically allowing myself the space to just be and discover facets of myself without the constant hankering to become.
4 Years: Return to corporate/goal-directed life.
 …and so on.

I’ve done three cycles of this and traveled, deepened my writing, and learned yoga and meditation in my sabbaticals. In that sense, I think writing is a reflection of my life. For four years, I’m very outline-driven, then I completely let go. I think this balance of tight and slack is helping me produce work consistently yet have a hint of transcendence in it.

What’s obsessing you now and why?

I’m thinking a lot right now about the Axial Age, that unique period of ten centuries between 10 B.C and 0 A.D. when Confucius, Buddha, Jesus, Plato, all sprouted in the world with the same mystical insight into the nature of reality without having any connection with each other at all. I think it had something to do with society reaching a point of relative prosperity when it had progressed enough to not have to compete for resources yet hadn’t progressed enough to create too many technological and entertainment distractions. That space for contemplation may have been crucial to get a direct insight into the nature of reality.

I’m reflecting on all this because I’m wondering how to construct a life that allows me that space for mystic contemplation and not get sucked into the cult of modern productivity.

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

I guess a little about my writing history since I don’t have the usual credentials—MFA’s, New Yorker writing stints, or other creative writing pedigrees. I’m an engineer-MBA from India and wrote two novels in India on the side with HarperCollins, both of which became #1 bestsellers in India and were optioned into films. I resisted the impulse to publish them in the US despite publishing offers because I didn’t think I had anything new to add to the conversation with the books in the West—they were very specific to the Indian cultural context. This is the first time I feel I’ve written something which will give pause to readers in this part of the West and I’m eager for their feedback!

Karan Bajaj is the author of THE YOGA OF MAX’S DISCONTENT (Riverhead, May 3rd’ 2016). Get your free gifts worth $299 including your free meditation video course, yoga flow course, and Quit Sugar in 7 days guide, when you order the book at www.karanbajaj.com/yogamax (150 Spots Only!).