Tuesday, May 30, 2017

The nature of gender and of reality. Sara Taylor talks about her new novel, (and what a great title, too) THE LAURAS

 Once again, I was so charmed by the bio the author herself wrote that I am swiping it here. (Hey, being funny counts.)

Sara Taylor is a product of Virginia and the homeschooling movement. She traded her health for a BFA from Randolph College in Lynchburg, Virginia, and her sanity for an MA in Prose Fiction from the University of East Anglia in Norwich, England. Following the MA her supervisor refused to let her leave, so she remains as a PhD candidate at the UEA where she researches censorship, writes fiction, and is occasionally entrusted with the teaching of undergraduates. She spends an unprecedented amount of time on delayed trains between Norwich and her husband’s house in Reading, and tends to get lost, rained on, and chased by cows with unsettling frequency.
Her short fiction has been published electronically and in print in The FiddleheadThe Fog Horn, and Granta, among other places.

So what was haunting you that propelled you into writing The Lauras?

When I first began the book I wanted to write a short story about a small child who is kidnapped of their parents’ front porch and taken on a journey by an older adult whom the child knows but isn’t entirely comfortable around. The story had other ideas – the narrator’s voice quickly evolved to be older, and the relative became the mother almost immediately. When I started writing the book I had just committed to staying in the United Kingdom, and my parents, especially my mother, were having a hard time with the fact that I wouldn’t be coming back to America. I think I was mostly haunted by the fact that, even if I did go back, I wouldn’t be able to return to the life I’d led before I left, which was what they were missing. I was also pretty preoccupied by how difficult it is to see a person whom you’ve defined by their role – parent, child, sibling – as an individual, and how much harder it seems to be when that role is specifically mother or child. And I had some family stories that I’d wanted to make use of for a while but had never been able to make fit comfortably in other characters’ backgrounds.

I loved the voice of teenaged Alex who refuses to gender-identify.  But I also loved Ma and her stories that she tells Alex as they road trip across the country, where like the best journey, it isn’t the destination that is so crucial, it is the getting there. Can you talk about this please?

A lot of the subtext of the story consists of Alex trying to come to terms with the fact that Ma has an identity, a past and future, that is independent of her motherhood, while being simultaneously frustrated by the fact that Ma doesn’t seem to consistently recognize that Alex also has an identity that isn’t based exclusively on their relationship, and which isn’t the same as it was when Alex was six years old. Since everything is filtered through Alex’s eyes, it’s easier for the reader than for Alex to see how successful either of them are in this.
Alex’s voice came to the page almost immediately, and without much work; I’ve known several people who don’t occupy the traditional ends of the gender spectrum, and a lot of Alex’s preoccupations are either mine or those of people close to me. Ma was more difficult; I feel like I got to know her over the course of the novel, and several of the stories she told did not make it into the final version but were important for me to write so I could better understand how she became who she is.

The Lauras says so much about environment, both the land outside of us, and the environment of relationships.  Can’t our identities, like some of our sexualties, be fluid, too?

It’s easy to label people, both in terms of identity and sexuality, in terms of their environment – that person has a child, so they are a mother; that person has a partner of the opposite sex, so they are straight. Both instances makes categorizing and interacting with people easier on some level, and both categorizations ignore what came before and what will come after the child, and the partner. I get the feeling that, culturally, there has been an aversion to fluid identity, on one level because humans are organized creatures who find things easier to deal with when they can be categorized, and on a slightly different level because fluidity means change, change is caused by time, and time brings death; a lot of Alex’s preoccupation with change even while clinging to fluidity is my own obsession with the linear way humans experience time. And even the people who have no problems with the categories they’re in, are in more than one category: mothers are also daughters, workers, creators, things that are uncategorizable. Sometimes it seems like the refusal to identify as one has been assigned, or to identify at all, is the only way to start getting beyond the arbitrary designations to the substance of things.

What kind of writer are you? Do you scribble on legal pads, or only use your trusty computer?

The first draft usually happens in the morning, every morning until it’s finished, while drinking coffee; it always happens in a lined notebook with a fountain pen, because I have a bad tendency to procrastinate if given a computer and ballpoint pens give me hand cramp. Then it gets transcribed onto my computer so that it can be revised several times, usually in the afternoons and often while drinking tea. I tend to lose all concept of what I’ve written once it’s on the computer, so every few versions the whole thing gets printed out, marked up in pen, and occasionally cut up so pieces can be moved around. When all that’s done I call what is left the first draft, and that’s when the real work begins.

What’s obsessing you now and why?

For nearly the past five years I’ve been working on contemporary, realist fiction, and researching and writing about fringe forms of censorship. A big part of both of those has involved trying to answer the question, ‘how do I represent reality as it is as clearly and accurately as possible?’ The closer I get to being able to put those projects to bed, the more I find myself wondering the opposite, ‘what does the reality that I would like to represent look like?’ There are piles of notes and premises that I’ve had to put away over the past few years because they only work in a fantastic or speculative frame, and they’ve started whispering to me quite insistently. I think it’s safe to say that realist fiction is an exploration of what humanity is, while speculative fiction is an exploration of what it might become; I’m probably not the only person at the moment who is slightly obsessed with what we might become.

A father caring for his autistic son, The infusion of humor with pain. Jem Lester talks about his extraordinary novel SHTUM

Jem Lester wrote such a charming bio for himself, that I am stealing it here: Jem was a journalist for nine years and saw the Berlin Wall fall in 1989 - and though there, he denies personal responsibility. He was also the last journalist to interview the legendary Fred Zinnemann, before the director died. He denies responsibility for that too.Jem has two children, one of whom is profoundly autistic, and for them he accepts total responsibility. He lives in London with his partner and her two children. Shtum, won the 2013 PFD/City University Prize for Fiction.

Thank you so much for being here, Jem.

Shtum is an astonishing book about a father caring for his autistic son—an experience you share
. What was it like putting the story on paper? Did anything surprise you as you wrote?
Parts of Shtum were certainly difficult to write, especially those passages/scenes that dealt with the less dignified elements of dealing with a non-verbal, autistic child such as Jonah. I am the father of a beautiful non-verbal boy myself and it was always in my mind whether I had the right to construct such a portrayal. Many of the behaviours exhibited by Jonah, were based on the reality of my life, with my son and over years it becomes normalized. So it was both painful and revelatory to see it on a typed page and then to witness people’s reactions to it. The passage I found the hardest to write was Ben’s speech to the educational tribunal, which he attempts in Jonah’s voice. I have to admit that I had never tried to get into my son’s head, but felt it was a crucial part of the book. In the end I wrote it in a single take and not a word has been subsequently changed. What surprised me was the ease with which Georg’s voice arrived and how pivotal that was to the dynamic between the three generations of men.

Your novel is so much about the bonds we share, and what we do for love, and in the novel, the parents separate to give Jonah, the son, a better chance at being properly educated. Ben is forced to be in a household not just with his son, who doesn’t talk, but with his father, too—and he doesn't communicate with him, either. But what struck me so much was that Ben is really the one with the problem. Can you talk about that please?
Ben is stuck between resentment and impossible redemption. He is unable to see through the fog of mistrust that follows him round and approaches every relationship certain that he will be betrayed – that’s a devastating place to be. He had a difficult childhood with Survivor parents, whose experiences shut them off from him emotionally and he was his mum’s carer until she ran off. So, really, he is a classic second generation Survivor. His resentment toward his father is all encompassing because he still can’t escape the necessity of his financial help; while his opportunity for redemption by being a perfect father, is stymied by Jonah’s autism. It’s not so much that he has never grown up, but more that he never had a childhood. It was one full of inappropriate responsibility that he rebels against when he feels it’s enforced. Georg on the other hand knows his own faults, while Jonah doesn’t recognize that he has any. Ben is not likeable for a large part of the book, but that is the character’s reality.

What also struck me is that the novel is also very emotional, veering from rage to humor to heart-wrenching sorrow. What was that like writing that? Could you get up from your desk and walk away from it?
I am always looking for the punch line – in my writing, as in my life. I grew up in a blackly comic, Jewish family where nothing was out of bounds. What I recognis\ze is the use of humour as a safety valve, resorting to the joke as a way of avoiding the pain. However, I found that the pain stayed with me throughout the writing process, affecting my own mood quite dramatically (and not in a good way). It was hard to get away from, but worse was the revision process, during which I would make little commando-like incursions into the manuscript, fix the problem and get the hell out as quickly as I could…

What kind of writer are you? Do you scribble on legal pads, or only use your trusty computer?
I’m a thinker, a planner and a dialogue writer. I can spend weeks or even months thinking my way through an entire book, before writing a word of prose. This can be unnerving – especially for my agent and editor – but what it means is I’m confident when I start to write. And when I do start to write I begin with dialogue, because I’ve found that it is the best way into a character. A confrontation, lament, internal monologue, whatever it takes to get the character to open up and tell me about his/herself. As for the planning, I usually have three or four notebooks on the go at any one time and they’re full of chapter plans, timelines, flow charts, narrative maps and lines of dialogue. Also, I don’t necessarily write chronologically, dipping into a later scene, or writing the ending – depending on the mood I’m in on any given day.

What’s obsessing you now and why?
I’m currently obsessed with avoiding all news of Brexit, because I’m too angry and upset about it to function unless I ignore it. I suppose it’s because I was eight when the UK entered the then ‘Common Market’ and I have grown up feeling and identifying as a European. It’s left me feeling embarrassed when I visit Spain (which I frequently do) and deeply unsure of where I want to live. Leaving the EU, for me, is something of a grieving process. I don’t know if there’s a book in it me, but it is driving me mad. I’m also obsessed with where my own son will live when he reaches nineteen (he’s currently approaching seventeen) as officially he is no longer ‘a child.’

What question didn't I ask that I should have?
What question? How about who is your current favourite American author? Easy: Michael Chabon, who I met and interviewed when he was in London to promote Wonder Boys well over twenty years ago.

Friday, May 19, 2017

An eerie isolated commune. The society of cults. Polish food, and so much more. The brilliant British writer Eleanor Wasserberg talks about her astonishing novel Foxlowe

 "Foxlowe is an unrelentingly eerie meditation on groupthink, societal taboos, parentage, and how the comparative morality of modern life can be taken to savage extremes." NPR Books

Oh, British writer Eleanor Wasserberg's review above had me at "unrelenting." I absolutely loved her novel for its darkness, its smarts, and the exquisite writing. I'm thrilled to have her here.

I love the whole idea of isolated communes, especially as seen through the eyes of a girl, rather than through the eyes of an adult. What led to your making this decision?

The decision to make Foxlowe that kind of setting came partly out of the landscape, which lends itself to spooky goings on with the pagan sites and moorland, and trying to find a place for Freya’s character to work. I’d been writing her for a while but she doesn’t have any power in a “real” society setting; she loses her teeth. Telling the story from Green’s point of view meant that it wasn’t (I hope) unremittingly bleak: she loves her home and finds a lot of joy in it. It also gave me the opportunity to play with unreliable narration, which is fun.

I mean this as a huge compliment—my skin crawled a bit reading this—and I couldn’t stop reading. What was it like for you writing Foxlowe?

Thank you, that’s oddly wonderful to hear! I really enjoy dark stories and I loved my characters so I was happy to hang out with them at Foxlowe and watch them be horrible to each other. I did veer away from writing one particular scene—I won’t spoil anything by giving details—which did break my heart a little bit, but it had to be done so I steeled myself to write that one. I also found the ending quite hard to write, but I think it was the right way to leave the story.  Both of those were saddening rather than chilling experiences though.

At one point, a character says, “Stories are everything.” I always write “stories save us” when I sign books, so you and I are on the same page here. Why do you personally think, in the context of this fine novel, that making a story of our experiences is so important? And does that story have to be true for it to be valuable?

That’s a lovely thing to write at signings! The storytelling element of Green’s experience is crucial to the novel for me. Stories are used by Freya as a form of control and almost world-building; Freya constructs a reality around them and clings to them as a way of making sense of what for her is a deeply frightening world. There are glimmers of truths in these stories—the Bad, for example, is of course “real” in many ways. When Green is striving to tell her own story, she is still hearing Freya’s voice and sometimes others from her past. I loved writing the moment when she starts to tell her own version: it’s a coming of age for her, even as Freya’s influence is still felt in the way Green attempts to take back some control through this method. I think claiming our own narrative for our experiences and telling our own stories—while recognizing that they are still only one version—is a huge part of growing up. Green is also quite self- aware about using fiction to tell truths at certain points in her story: that comes naturally to her after living in a storytelling culture like Foxlowe. 

There have been a few novels and shows about cults, The Path, The OA,  The Leftovers—and it never seems to work out very well for anyone. Why do you think that is?

I think writers and storytellers are drawn to that set up because there is so much interesting psychology involved. Group think, the tension between the indoctrinated self and that older self that is questioning and rebelling, how people operate without our version of society...that’s all rich fodder! As for why it doesn’t work out, apart from making a good yarn? I think that while the attractions of that kind of life can be very strong: living simply, rejecting what is frightening or exhausting about society, the bonds offered to people who are usually isolated and looking for a family or tribe...ultimately in order to work at all these kinds of places have to establish their own mini society with rules and punishments and hierarchies, which ironically seem to be even more restrictive and punitive than the social limits people were trying to escape. Someone’s version of this utopia will always have to be imposed on other people; someone has to lead and control, and people eventually start to rebel against that.

What kind of writer are you? Do you scribble on legal pads, or only use your trusty computer?
Both. People very generously give me beautiful notebooks as gifts and I fill them with scribbles and doodles. I have lots of old notebooks full of Foxlowe ideas, sketches of the house and so on. Once I come to the real draft writing though I am on my trusty battered laptop, with an Internet blocker on!

What’s obsessing you now and why?
Polish food: I’m writing about a flight from Krakow to Lviv in September 1939, and my character is hungry—I need to decide what for! I’m also researching stuttering which is fascinating: I have a character who doesn’t stutter when she lies, which has led me to some brilliant psychological research and cases.  

What question didn't I ask that I should have?
These are great questions! I do love being given the chance to witter on about Staffordshire—the fact that the double sunset is a real phenomenon, for example, or that the Standing Stones are based on a real stone circle, or that The Cloud is a real hill in the area with a wonderful view over the moor. There is no cult up there, that I know of, but when you are walking alone in the misty moorland and you come across a pagan stone you really can imagine why there might be.

A Sydney family grapples with a mysterious virus in Amanda Hickie's tense and brilliant BEFORE THIS IS OVER

I always believe that writers are haunted into writing the novels they write. What was haunting you?

I'm always haunted by the small decisions we make every day that have unknowable consequences, the ones where you think 'I'm being silly, this is part of normal life, it's perfectly fine' but you know deep down that very occasionally it's not fine. Before This Is Over starts with a big crisis outside my character's control and those come along in our lives with predicable regularity irrespective of what we do - diseases, hurricanes, earthquakes etc.  Somehow, we never find ourselves saying "if only I hadn't been around when the Spanish flu hit", instead it's "if only I hadn't gone out that night," "If I'd only asked him to stay," "If only we'd taken more care."

I think that's doubly true once we become parents and our kids' well being is up to us. Hannah asks herself early on why it is only possible in hindsight to know which times she should have dug her heels in. That haunts every decision I make.  

What I most loved about this novel was the incredible tension that could be found in an ordinary life. I couldn’t tear my eyes from the page. Was there ever a time while you were writing the book that you felt simply too unnerved to write it?

It has surprised me how many people have found it unnerving - it is, as you say, ordinary life. I'm a bit of a wuss when it comes to scary things so I certainly didn't set out to write that kind of a book. Maybe because I had the author's omniscience, nothing could sneak up on me.

But there were moments that I baulked at or flubbed the first time. For instance, the scenes of Gwen at the front door and the food truck involved Hannah either aware of behaving badly or being swept up in events beyond her control. I had to steel myself to put her through those. I lived with these characters for quite a long time and they are people to me, so I felt bad if they suffered. I wanted to make everything work out well for them or take them aside and give them a heads up. But then I wouldn't have found out how they reacted to the hard choices.

I especially loved the last paragraph, where Hannah watches her son running and knows that when he comes back, he’s going to be someone different. As the mother of a 20-year-old son, I know that feeling. You captured it perfectly. Can you talk about that please in the context of your novel?

I have two - eighteen and twenty four - so I've been around a lot of teenagers. Watching my kids and their friends, I was always acutely aware that in many ways they were more thoughtful and compassionate, more interested in the world, less self-obsessed than my friends and I were at their age.

I think the obvious interpretation of the novel is that of all the characters, Zac undergoes the biggest metamorphosis, but I'm not sure he does. Certainly Hannah's view of her son undergoes a profound change but I suspect that as parents we are slow to recognize the capabilities that our children acquire for themselves. Zac does what his parents tells him to for a lot of the book, and then he starts to surprise them, but only, I suspect, because they haven't stepped back and seen the person he is.

The line about the baby health nurse was a conversation I had - I complained that my eight month old always crawled away when I put him down. It felt like he didn't need me. The nurse said that he was confident I would be there when he got back and that allowed him to go explore. It was a profound insight - that our job as parents is to make them sure enough of themselves and us that they can leave.

It's very easy to mourn the toddler or the preteen they were. Our culture is not very tolerant of teenagers - they are lazy and self-obsessed and spend too much time on social media. Since when can you treat a whole generation like an undifferentiated mass? The ones I know are as individual as adults - and that shouldn't be a surprise. They only difference is that they are still in the process of making themselves, and so we get to meet a new version of them at each stage. Our task is to discover and help launch each of those versions. In my experience, getting to know each one of them is amazing.

What kind of writer are you? Do you outline things before you begin, or start with a moral question, or simply follow your characters where they might take you?

I have a bunch of questions floating around, sometimes for decades - what happened to Romeo and Juliet when they woke up dead? How would I survive a catastrophic epidemic? - and as I come across events or ideas that are relevant, they add to that idea. Then at some stage I start thinking about the specific traits needed to tell this story - a doctor, an aging parent, a distant friend, a son. A few of those will start to fit together to make a specific character.

I probably have a starting and ending point (in Before This Is Over, those naturally fall around the epidemic) and four or five significant scenes that form a rough story arc, as well as a bunch of 'this needs to happen somewhere' ideas. By the time I've finished the starting scene, the next few scenes will have suggested themselves.

And I'm not the first to say, but for me most of the writing is in the rewriting and editing. The structure and plot of the novel barely changed after the first draft, but it became much more of a unity and I doubt there is a line that hasn't been modified in some way.

What’s obsessing you now and why?

I had to ask my husband this, and his answer made me realize why. I don't think I have a setting between disinterest and obsession.

At the moment I'm diving into a particular song writer. When the novel was released in Australia I was asked by an interviewer to suggest music to go with the interview. After casting around for suitable disaster themed music, I stumbled on a song by The Postal Service called 'We Will Become Silhouettes' that I already had in my collection and loved, but had never really listened to the words. The first three lines are almost the plot of my novel! So now I can't stop listening to Ben Gibbard's music. The last week or so I've been walking around the house singing a single line from one of his songs - but the song (and hence the line) changes every day. Maybe one of them will attach itself to another book or character. No way to know until it happens.

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

I don't want you to ask this, but since some of my friends made this assumption I'd like to knock it on the head - Is this your family?

It most definitely isn't. I can picture the house Hannah lives in, what Sean and the boys look like, and it's not by looking at my own life.

That having been said, the things we write about come from somewhere and I'd be lying if I said that I never lifted a line they or one of their friends said or stood in the school ground at 7 am waiting for a bus to camp and thought 'I could use this...'

The other day I got into a quite spirited disagreement with my husband about what Mr Moon (Hannah's cat) looks like. We could both describe him in detail, but our descriptions were nothing alike and nothing like either of our cats. The same is true of the human characters.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Unwed mothers, social pressures, the equal terror of telling the truth or keeping a secret. Janet Benton talks about her astonishing new novel LILLI DE JONG

I first met Janet at a reading of debut authors. Of course, I loved her wild mop of curly hair, but more than that, I loved her wild intelligence, her wit, her humor--and of course, I loved her novel. So does Library Journal, which gave it a starred review, and the notoriously cranky Kirkus Reviews called it a "monumental achievement." Janet has written essays, scripts and stories and I cannot wait for her next novel. Thank you so much, Janet for being here!

 It struck me that although Lilli de Jong is set in the 1800s, it’s very timely, since there still seems to be a virtual war on women, and there is still hostility towards unwed mothers and adoption. Can you talk about that, please?

To answer this, I’m relying on a lifetime’s reading, experience, and travel. But to answer briefly means simplifying my opinions; I apologize to any whose experiences I’m not speaking to. 

Increasingly, I think the oppression of women rests on this: Women are a society’s most precious resource. We can create and raise humans, who are of enormous value, and our attention is in high demand—since nearly everyone, having been an infant, craves our care. If women are unequal and isolated, we are easier to control. The conditions of inequality and isolation make it easier for us to be underpaid and undervalued. This makes us dependent on those who earn more and have more societal power. It’s what we call a vicious circle.

Since the attentions of mothers, whether birth or adoptive, are often turned inward—toward those who are unable to survive otherwise—it’s easier for others to fashion an outer world that diminishes us. We are paid less, when we work for pay, even than women who aren’t mothers. We do our unpaid work of raising the next generation at high cost in a society that makes our sacrifice a private problem, not a public good. Too many—women and men—endure too much hardship in raising children.

Societal attitudes reveal that a woman must be married to have sex and children without facing prejudice. These attitudes are based in structural inequalities with long histories. Married women and children were and in some places still are the legal property of husbands. Women didn’t have the right to vote in America until almost 150 years after the nation was founded, and a married woman didn’t have the right to her own wages; her children and home didn’t belong to her, so if her husband died, she could lose them. She depended on a brother, son, or son-in-law for rescue, if rescue was to be had. This forced dependency still exists legally in some countries (in Saudi Arabia, for instance, girls and women lack the rights to make extremely basic decisions), and it still casts its long shadow on the United States.  

The unwed mother has long been an easy target. But why? By looking at the biases against unwed mothers and their children, we learn that, when a female has sex, by choice or force, and has a child without being married—i.e., without being under the legal umbrella of a man—she is a threat to that power structure. Judging from what occurs, we see that the resources of the unwed mother and her children must be kept minimal to discourage their independence.

Children around the world are given up to adoption or to orphanages because of the wage inequality and prejudice that dog unwed mothers. It breaks my heart to see children not being well cared for; it breaks my heart to see parents who don’t seem to know how to love. If any mother truly wants to raise her own infant or someone else’s, whether she is married or not, a humane and intelligent society will support her in doing so.

 At one point, Lilli asks, do secrets matter? And I think your novel is saying that sometimes they do, and sometimes it’s best to keep them. Care to comment?

In situations of inequality and prejudice, telling the truth can ruin your life. A work of literature that explores this in a heartbreaking way is Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles. Young, innocent Tess is sent by her drunken lout of a father to live with a wealthy man in exchange for money. The wealthy man rapes her; she runs away, turns out to be pregnant, and tries to keep her infant alive while working as a farm laborer. Her tiny infant dies. At another farm, she meets the love of her life, a man named Angel. They agree to marry. On the eve of their marriage, she writes a letter confessing the tragedy of her past and slips it beneath the door of his room. Unbeknownst to her, the letter slides beneath a rug. They marry the next day; then she finds the letter, unopened. She gives it to him in the place they’ve gone to honeymoon. He can’t accept her past misfortune and leaves. The rapist comes for her again, hearing of her desperate status, and she becomes his chattel. Then Angel, having changed his mind long before and written letters that the rapist has hidden, comes to her door at last, asking why she never responded. She goes into a mad rage, kills the rapist, and then is hung. Having witnessed Tess’s hanging with her younger sister at his side, Angel walks off into the future with the virginal sister.

Secrets are terrible. Telling the truth is terrible.

Still today, women who are raped may be whipped or stoned to death for “tempting” their rapists, as was 14-year-old Hena Akhter in 2011 in Bangladesh. Even girls forced into prostitution at an early age, or stolen and enslaved by rebel soldiers (such as schoolgirls abducted by Boko Haram in Nigeria), are considered unmarriageable and scorned if they escape. Their children may be denied rights. This prejudice reveals one consequence of seeing women and our reproductive capacities as the rightful property of men. This prejudice is a cancer in the hearts of societies around the world.

Lilli uses her journal to share her secrets and to express her thoughts, which she does eloquently. Do you also keep a journal?

I wrote in a journal at least several times a week from age nine till perhaps eight years ago, when I began to put every scrap of time apart from work and family into writing Lilli de Jong. So for decades, for hours every week, I poured my thoughts and feelings into notebooks. I have two old trunks from used-furniture stores that are crammed full of journals. I’ve carried them with me—accumulating weight—since I left home over three decades ago. So I am quite familiar with the intimacy between a journal and a writer that Lilli feels, as well as with the way that writing in a journal can make one’s troubles more bearable—a fact that keeps Lilli alive.

The novel is absolutely fascinating. What was your research like? What startled you?

The research was fascinating, indeed. I adored getting to know publications of the period, archive materials, recent works by historians, artifacts, whatever bits I could glean about the nature of life in 1883 Philadelphia. What startled me was learning the depth, persistence, and legal basis for the crippling of women’s lives and opportunities, as well as reading old works by many who were quite aware of these problems. Having read about inequalities of all sorts in history, I no longer believe what so many claim—that people in the past simply didn’t have awareness of oppression. The historical record shows that many oppressed people and their oppressors knew precisely what exploitation and inequality they faced or propagated. Truly, how could they not have? Such things are rather obvious to the naked eye. Though of course some were committed to blindness, just as they are today—and to some degree, it’s always difficult to see what’s accepted as normal.

I was startled, too, to read of the corruption of public officials at Blockley Almshouse—Philadelphia’s public almshouse, run by a Board of Guardians. Food and other resources were literally stolen by at least one of the so-called guardians and put in storehouses in his home. Inedible foodstuffs and other substandard supplies were purchased cheaply, with those involved pocketing the price difference.

What kind of writer are you? Do you map things out or follow the pesky muse?

Both. I write out what comes to me, create a mess, then try to map it, sometimes section by section. I always put down a lot more words than I keep. Even to answer these questions, I did a much longer draft, then pared much of it away.

What’s obsessing you now and why?

How to help Lilli de Jong make the world a better place for mothers and children—which is everyone.

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

“Would you like this stipend to live on while you write your next novel?” Ha ha. If only.

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

An epic love story that begins on 9/11, the meaning of love and how it changes, writing and more. Jill Santopolo talks about THE LIGHT WE LOST

Lucy and Gabe meet on the morning of 9/11, and through the years, come together and apart in a moving, insightful epic love story, which is also a debut, The Light We Lost by Jill Santopolo.

Jill Santopolo received a BA in English literature from Columbia University and an MFA in writing from the Vermont College of Fine Arts. She’s the author of three children’s and young-adult series and works as the editorial director of Philomel Books, an imprint of Penguin Young Readers group. An adjunct professor in The New School’s MFA program, Jill travels the world to speak about writing and storytelling. She lives in New York City.
I'm ridiculously thrilled to have you here, Jill. Thank you so much1

What was the backstory for The Light We Lost? I always think authors are somehow haunted into writing their books. And what is it like for you to be a debut author?
I love the idea of writers being haunted into putting their stories on paper. I don’t know if I was quite haunted into writing The Light We Lost as much as I cried my way into it. This book exists because of a horrible break-up, which is a bit of a sad backstory for a novel. I’d been writing books for children up until that point, but what I was experiencing couldn’t really be explored in children’s literature, so I started writing vignettes for an adult audience, about a woman who has her heart broken and what happens afterward. Those vignettes eventually became a novel. (And I eventually stopped crying.)

But while that was the spark that ignited The Light We Lost, it took me four years to write this story, and it morphed and changed along the way. While I’m not Lucy and my story’s not hers, the things she thinks about: love, loss, ambition, regret, desire—those are all things I was wondering about in the years during which I wrote this book.

And as far as being a debut author—it’s been incredible! The Light We Lost is actually my fifteenth book (I’ve written fourteen books for young readers), but this is my debut for an adult audience, and I feel like I’ve entered a different world. The Light We Lost is being translated into more than thirty languages, it’s gotten incredible advanced praise (thank you for your blurb!), and one review has come in so far, and it was starred. This all has been making me think that perhaps I should’ve been writing for adults all along.

So much of The Light We Lost is about first love--the power of it, how we never forget who we were when we had that love. But do we stay the same in that love?

That’s such an interesting question. I have cousins who first met and fell in love in junior high school and then married and stayed together for decades. In observing them, my guess is that the love grows and matures as people do, and hopefully as people who are in a relationship change, they grow together and not apart.

In The Light We Lost I think that there are things about Lucy and Gabe and the way they interact with each other that do stay the same in the thirteen years that they know each other. But at the same time, they change as people, they both grow up a bit, and that maturity informs how they act toward each other and the choices they make.

9/11 also figures in the book, changing your characters. How were you yourself changed by the force of that event?
 Just like Lucy and Gabe, I was in my last year of college in New York City when the towers fell. And I think it made me realize in a deep, powerful way how a life can change—or end—in the blink of an eye. That none of us know how long we have on Earth, and that we should strive to live the lives we want and be the people we want to be, because there may not be a later.

What kind of writer are you? Do you map things out? Have rituals?

I do map things out. A friend had told me about the computer program Scrivener just as I decided to try to turn those vignettes into a novel, and I think that program is part of what made the writing of The Light We Lost possible. I could use the outlining function to synopsize every vignette that I knew I wanted to write, and then could move them around if they ended up feeling like they were in the wrong place.

I don’t have rituals, but I do give myself deadlines—word count deadlines—that I have to hit each week. Because writing isn’t my only job, I try to be very disciplined about my writing time and my productivity.

What's obsessing you now and why?

The concept of “alternative facts” and the way that the truth no longer seems unassailable. I keep trying to puzzle through how we can find a common ground as a country, but if we can’t even agree that facts are facts, I’m just not sure how we do it.

What question didn't I ask that I should have?
Hm. I think you asked all the best ones. The only other one I can think of that people have asked and I’ve found interesting to answer is what I’ve learned from the writing and publication of this book, and I think the answer to that is how universal love is. When we fall in love or have our hearts broken, those experiences feel so personal, but now that people have read early copies of The Light We Lost, so many readers have been telling me that they dated someone just like Gabe, or married someone just like Darren, or felt the same way about their children that Lucy feels about hers. Maybe that’s actually the answer to what I’m obsessing about right now—to somehow use the universal feelings we all have about the people we love to connect in a larger way. Perhaps love does make the world go ‘round?

Abbi Waxman talks about grief being like ugly furniture you can't get rid of, hope, gardening, and her great new novel THE GARDEN OF SMALL BEGINNINGS

It’s been more than three years since my husband died, yet in many ways he’s more useful than ever. True, he’s not around to take out the trash, but he’s great to bitch at while I’m doing it myself, and he’s generally excellent company, invisibility notwithstanding. And as someone to blame he’s unparalleled, because he isn’t there to contradict me, on account of being cremated.
So begins Abbi Waxman's exhilarating new novel, The Garden Of Small Beginnings. And here's a fun gact, Abbi ghostwrote Nicole Ritchie's novel!

Thank you so much for being here, Abbi!

I always want to know what is haunting an author enough for them to spend year(s) writing a novel. What was it for you?
A desperate need to get out of the house. Otherwise I might have had to clean it, and I really hate cleaning.

I love the title, The Garden of Small Beginnings, because I think so much that is difficult about life can be managed if you start small--and that word (and world) of the garden, was just so fantastic. Can you talk about this please?

I am an utter failure as a gardener. I once – and I stress once – successfully grew a small patch of vegetables. Tomatoes, green beans, English peas… I was a goddess of the summer for one season. Never again, despite repeated attempts. I wanted to create a character who was better at most things than I was, thus the gardening. It was aspirational. And I wanted to kill off my husband at the time, so I made her a widow. All writing is wish fulfillment, let’s face it.

I also was enamored of Lillian, a now single mom of two kids--which makes this the perfect Mother’s Day Gift, by the way. What do you want readers to come away having learned about mothering? (And self-mothering.)
That children are hilarious and irritating and wonderful and dreadful and short. And that you should put your own oxygen mask on first, and then attend to those around you.

I loved your explorations of grief, which felt so true to me (wish I didn’t know that, but I do),  What is the major thing people get wrong about grief?

That it goes away. It doesn’t. It just solidifies like an ugly piece of furniture you inherited and therefore can’t throw away.

What’s obsessing you now and why?
Teenagers. Because I have two and am about to have a third, and because everything I thought I knew about parenting just became utterly useless. Fantastic.

What question didn’t I ask that I should have?
If I knew who was going to win the Superbowl next year. I don’t, but just think if I did and you’d asked, we could have made a fortune! Never mind.

J. Courtney Sullivan talks about sisters, faith, secrets and her phenomenal new novel SAINTS FOR ALL OCCASIONS, and gives us all a great poem

 I first met Courtney, along with the great Jenna Blum, at a book fest. The three of us whooped it up, laughed, traded insecurities and mostly talked about working in our pajamas. Come on, how could you not adore someone like that?

Her latest novel Saints for All Occasions is devastating, astonishing, and full of power, about faith, sisters and the secrets and it's a knockout, and everyone in the media thinks so, too. (Just in case you think I am prejudiced about Courtney, which I am.)

She is the author of the New York Times bestselling novels Commencement, Maine and The Engagements. Maine
was named a Best Book of the Year by Time magazine, and a Washington Post Notable Book for 2011. The Engagements was one of People Magazine’s Top Ten Books of 2013 and an Irish Times Best Book of the Year. It is soon to be a major motion picture produced by Reese Witherspoon and distributed by Fox 2000, and it will be translated into 17 languages.

Courtney, thank you, thank you, hugs and love.

So much of this exquisite book is about faith—the faith we have that we are doing the right thing, the faith we have in a higher power, the faith we might have in ourselves.  Do you think there is a moment when we can ever really know?

I wanted to write about two sisters who follow two very different paths—one takes the more traditional route of marriage and motherhood, the other chooses to live as a cloistered nun—precisely to examine the matter of faith. I think to most of us, the thought of taking vows and committing one’s life fully to God is hard to fathom. But motherhood requires the same degree of commitment up front to something you can’t experience until you’re in the thick of it.

One cloistered nun I spoke to mentioned having to renew her faith in God and her calling each and every day, and make the decision to commit all over again. Who among us doesn’t do that in some way or another—whether it’s faith in a partner, faith in our art, faith in our choices, or faith in ourselves?

I loved the descriptions of life among the cloistered nuns and I read that you did first hand research. What surprised you the most?

A close family friend, Mother Lucia, went into the cloister before I was born. I only started hearing about her a few years ago, when my aunt told me that we ought to meet. She thought Mother Lucia and I would really hit it off. I couldn’t imagine how, but eventually we did meet and it turned out my aunt was right—I adored Mother Lucia from the start. She’s a lover of literature, a great thinker, and a wonderful conversationalist. And the abbey where she lives—Regina Laudis in Bethlehem, CT—absolutely ignited my curiosity and creativity. As a fiction writer who loves to do research, I always want to strike a balance between getting the details of a time and place as accurate as possible, while also diving into the unknown inner worlds of the people therein. Cloistered nuns raised so many questions for me—how did they end up in such a place? How did they know they should stay?

The Abbey is incredible. The nuns there all had full lives before joining and they believe that the gifts obtained in those former lives enrich the present. One of them, Dolores Hart, was a Hollywood actress in the fifties, who starred in movies with Elvis and gave up a film contract to become a nun. They have former politicians, businesswomen, artists of all kinds. I think what surprised me most was how freely and happily they spoke of those former lives, while also embracing their current reality. They weren’t running away from the past, but toward something deeper. (The other thing that surprised me was how funny some of them are. They have such wonderful senses of humor.)

Did you grow up in a religious household in Boston? I’m a Bostonian and you captured it so perfectly.

I was raised Irish Catholic in a suburb of Boston called Milton. Everyone in my neighborhood growing up was Irish Catholic as well, so those rituals of christenings and communions and weddings and wakes were fixtures of our lives. As was attendance at CCD and church every Sunday (and, when my friends and I got a bit older, finding ways to get out of going to CCD and church.) I was quite skeptical of Catholicism from a young age, and I continue to be. But so much about it never leaves you—I don’t even believe in God, but every time an ambulance passes by with its siren blaring, I still say a silent Hail Mary for the person inside. 

The characters within one family in Saints For All Occasions reflect what I’ve seen in my own community—that there’s been a shift in the church’s power from one generation to the next. Nora and Theresa are devoted to their faith. It’s a ruling force in their lives. Nora’s adult children are far less devout. Two of them shun the church completely, and two go to mass mostly out of habit, or to please their mother. Still, it plays a role in all their lives. It continues to have a hold on them, even when they’re not sure why.

The relationship between the two sisters, Theresa and Nora was so alive, rich and tragic that I was sobbing as I was finishing the story because it seems to me that you truly got at what grace really is, what being human—and humane—really is, as well, as I found myself devastated in the best possible way. Can you talk about this please?

First off, thank you so much! You made my day. (Isn’t it strange that in our profession, it’s a high compliment to be told you’ve devastated someone you really like?)

Second, there are people—often family members—who shape our lives, even if we’re estranged from them. Maybe especially if we are. In this book, there are many different ways in which family members are lost to one another. Immigration separates Nora and Theresa from their relatives in Ireland, whom they never see again after making the journey to Boston. Death separates them from their mother, and from Nora’s son Patrick. 

Nora and Theresa are central to each other, even though they don’t speak for decades. They have such a rich history. Even their separation grows out of misguided attempts on each of their parts to do what is right for the other. The epigraph to the book comes from a beautiful poem by Margaret Atwood: “I exist in two places/here and where you are.” I felt that was so fitting for many of the relationships in the story. But of course, I also wanted to see what would happen when the sisters finally do come back together after living such different lives.

Secrets and how and why we keep them infuses your novel.  Without giving anything away, do you think Patrick would have turned out differently had he known one of the secrets?

Oh yes. My friend Helen Ellis, after reading an early draft of the book, pointed out that it’s never the secret that does a person in. It’s the keeping of the secret, the shame that takes hold as a result. I think we are in a fascinating historical moment when it comes to secrecy—as a culture, I see us moving toward a more honest reality. I think the Internet, for all its flaws, has a lot to do with this. It’s easier now to find your people, to build community, and these things make it easier to be honest about who you are. In the book, Theresa gives birth in a home for unwed mothers in the early sixties. This was a real place in Boston. Files were sealed and later lost in a fire, so, until recently, it was basically impossible to know what happened there. I spent hours on online message boards, reading the stories of the people who passed through—birth mothers forced to give up their children and the children themselves, now grown, comparing notes on birth dates and names. In many cases, they find one another this way.

Even this past week, the silver lining of the healthcare nightmare was the fact that so many people refused to be silenced and took to social media to say, “I have a preexisting condition, here’s what it is, we are all human and imperfect, let’s stop pretending otherwise.”

I see this novel as being about many things, but chief among them is the idea of openness vs. closedness. There are secrets that these characters hold onto so tightly that they’re willing to give up almost anything to preserve them. The consequences are sometimes quite devastating. There’s also the question of how one lives in an ever more open and accepting world if one’s family of origin is still deeply repressed. Nora’s daughter Bridget is gay and in a relationship and in her forties, and Nora still refers to Bridget’s partner as her roommate.

What’s obsessing you now and why?

Like everyone I know, I’m obsessed with and terrified by our current political climate. I’m expecting my first child in June, and I’m also quite obsessed with him already—wondering what to name him, what he’ll look like, which books to buy him. But also, how to tell him about the state of things. To that end, I’ve become obsessed with this poem called Good Bones by a poet named Maggie Smith. I recite it often to myself, like a little prayer:

Life is short, though I keep this from my children.
Life is short, and I’ve shortened mine
in a thousand delicious, ill-advised ways,
a thousand deliciously ill-advised ways
I’ll keep from my children. The world is at least
fifty percent terrible, and that’s a conservative
estimate, though I keep this from my children.
For every bird there is a stone thrown at a bird.
For every loved child, a child broken, bagged,
sunk in a lake. Life is short and the world
is at least half terrible, and for every kind
stranger, there is one who would break you,
though I keep this from my children. I am trying
to sell them the world. Any decent realtor,
walking you through a real shithole, chirps on
about good bones: This place could be beautiful,
right? You could make this place beautiful.

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

I can’t think of one. I so love your blog. You’ve really been on fire lately. (Your interviews with Elizabeth Strout and Lidia Yuknavitch were two of my recent favorites.) Thank you so much for having me!