Friday, January 18, 2019

Art. Life. Loss. A piano. Chris Cander talks about THE WEIGHT OF A PIANO, why it's so wonderful hearing from her readers and so much more.

“A visionary novel about the madness inherent in all art and the burdens of history that give rise to art and must be carried in turn. The miracle of wonderful fiction is to place wondrous objects where we would never expect to find them–to make the unexpected both palpable and real–and this beautiful, intricate novel gives us one indelible picture after another, each one written in a different key.”
—Charles Baxter

Chris Cander is the author of 11 STORIES and WHISPER HOLLOW, which was longlisted for the Great Santini Fiction Prize, Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance; nominated for the 2015 Kirkus Prize: Fiction, Kirkus Reviews; and chosen for the Indie Next Great Reads List, American Booksellers Association.

In her latest incandescent novel, THE WEIGHT OF A PIANO, two women, a Soviet concert pianist and a young mechanic, discover their connection to the same Blüthner piano--and to each other.

Thank you so much for being here, Chris!

 I absolutely loved the idea of an upright piano being key in a novel, and how it winds its way through the pages like a refrain. Which brings me to my favorite question: What was haunting you at the moment that made you know that this was the moment when you had to write this particular book?

I've long struggled with my relationship to objects with provenance, mostly because by nature I appreciate minimalism and order. But I was born into a family of artists and archivists, and we have a lot of stuff: my grandfather's countless woodworking treasures; handmade quilts and blankets from the women on my mother's side; my father's photographs, souvenirs, and mementos that have been passed down from one generation to another. Part of me wants to preserve everything with the care and love it deserves, and part wants to set it all on fire. So the idea of a woman having only a single physical object—an enormous, expensive, burdensome one—that represents both her parents and her lost childhood fascinated me. I wanted to know what she’d do with it, because I also want to do know what I will do with all the things I'll eventually inherit.

This wonderful novel spans so many time periods, as well as countries and history, that I am wondering about your craft. Do you map things out? Have charts? What kind of writer are you?

I tried plotting once, and it was the emotional equivalent of solitary confinement. There was no freedom in it, no joy. For me, creative writing is an act of spontaneous exploration, like an unplanned road trip. But when it comes to research, I'm fastidious. I keep precise records of what I've read and whom I've interviewed--and how it all informed the project. I use Aeon software to create timelines, so that every event is precisely noted. (If you want to know the moon phase or the exact age of a character on page 214, for example, I can tell you.) I do a ton of research, but use only enough in my novels so that the reader trusts me enough to lose herself in the story.

I'm also particular about my work ethic. When I’d been working on my first novel for a few months, I decided to calculate my average daily word count, and I came up with an average of .87 pages. I loved that figure, because it sounded so surmountable, and yet I’d made such progress. It became my mantra and my output goal, and now, my family and friends know exactly what I mean when I say, “I’m going to do my .87.” Any day I meet or exceed my .87 is a good writing day. Whether the 300 or so words are actually any good isn’t as important—especially on a first draft—as the commitment to the work they represent.

Art. Life. Loss. To me, these are the big, big questions. Do you think there are ever any concrete, set-in-stone answers? (I know the answer to this, but I’m curious to hear your take on this.)

I think if there were any set-in-stone responses to those huge, abstract ideas, we wouldn't need fiction. (I'm guessing you might feel the same way.)

I also love the title, because that word “weight” is really so freighted. Can you talk about this please?

In this case, the word is a double entendre. There's the psychic, emotional weight of the piano in the characters' lives, which grows heavier and heavier for different reasons, and the actual physical weight, which makes it not only a symbolic burden but a real one. (By the way, this particular Blüthner weighs 560lbs. That's a lot of piano to drag through a desert--and a life.)

What’s obsessing you now and why?

The current administration of our country has inspired/provoked in me an insomnia-inducing concern about the thoughts, emotions, and actions that can draw people together or wrench them apart, and the wounds they inflict on others as they try to heal themselves.

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

How about this: Do you like hearing from readers of your books?

When I fall in love with a novel, I reach out to its author to say so, and to thank her for those two or three nights of reading pleasure. Because I mean it, and because I know the gruesome, inspired, tiresome, amazing, thankless, graceful, painful, divine work that goes into writing a book. I think it's nice to express gratitude for work that's made an impact, and I never expect a reply--though the kindest ones often do. And so yes, when a reader reaches out to me, I'm incredibly grateful they took the time to do so. In fact, I framed the first love letter I received from a reader and it still sits on my desk these years later, reminding me that I'm connected not only to the imaginary world, but to the real.


Tuesday, January 8, 2019

Thomas Kohnstamm talks about LAKE CITY, 3 x5 cards on corkboard, personal ethics, writing, and so much more.

The socko cover

Portrait of the artist

Just some of the rave blurbs

Thomas Kohnstamm is the author of DO TRAVEL WRITERS GO TO HELL? (great title, right?) and he lives and writes in Seattle. I loved Lake City, and I'm thrilled to host him here. Thank you, Thomas!

 I always want to know what the why now moment is for writers—how and why you felt haunted/pressed to write this particular book?

 Lake City took me almost 7 years to write. My first book, Do Travel Writers Go to Hell?, came out in 2008. I liked the book but it exited the commercial process as a pretty different product than that which I had set out to write. Lake City is, in many ways, the result of me re-starting from scratch, re-learning fiction and writing my purest comedic translation of my take on life and the world around me. It wasn’t something I did as a hobby or for fun: it was a compulsion. Counterpoint was really supportive of me and my creative vision for this book.

 Lake City is a fabulous mix of class and cultures, which I think is particularly appropriate given what’s going on now in politics. Do you think that most people can—like your hero—figure out what the truly right thing to do is? And if not, what the hell do WE do?

Lane, the protagonist, makes a lot of mistakes before kind of, sort of starting to get a few things right. In our dog-eat-dog, hyper-capitalist environment we are asked to make daily decisions where we balance our personal good against the wider good. Everyone likes to say that they are always thinking of others but also nobody wants to be the sucker. We place a ton of cultural value on the trappings of success and not on “he led a nice quiet life, didn’t rock the boat and was really dependable for those close to him.” We are all a combination of successes and failures. It sucks that current leadership models that one should always consider their personal needs before anyone or anything else.

Lake City is also really funny, particularly about Seattle, but I have to say this could take place in Brooklyn, too.  Why do you think our world has gone so haywire

Well, my grandfather was an orphan from Brooklyn and I’m not sure that the world is more haywire now than when he was a kid during WWI. That said (and this is not funny), we do have a fragmentation of society, family and a globalized market which is working out well for those with the right skillsets and gumption and many more are being rendered redundant. I have been thinking a lot lately about how the entire concept of the nation state is likely moribund. As humans, we have some big, fundamental issues to wrestle with in the coming generations.

So this is your debut novel (though you’ve written a memoir and animation series)—did it change your writing or you? And how?

I think that screenwriting really helped me with pace, plotting and dialogue. It is terribly hard to write a novel, but you are also allowed the luxury of a bit of digression in a book. Screenwriting is shorter but you must be ruthless with your words.

They’re all narrative cousins and working on one definitely helps the other.

What kind of writer are you? Do you outline or do you hang out for that notoriously pesky mu

Lake City was very tightly planned: like 3X5 cards on a cork board for most of the scenes. I spend a lot of time (years?) thinking about stuff (searching for the muse?) before really launching into something. I’m not the kind of writer to get off and running on something and then figure out what it is and end up cutting a bunch of pages. That’s not to say that I don’t keep room for flexibility, but my years in the trenches have taught me some pretty painful lessons about undertaking projects without a decent sense of where I’m heading.

What’s obsessing you now and why?

Everything: politics, my family, my dogs, beer, weed, skiing, new books I want to read, new shows I want to see, old books I still intend to read, shows and movies I want to catch up on, mountain biking, trying to sleep, travel, languages. And, of course, my next book… already have the 3X5s on the cork board and the first part done.

When do you write?

I’m a bit of an insomniac. I write for a few hours in the afternoon when life and other work allows but, usually, I wait until after my wife and kids are asleep. I try to harness the insomnia as I catch a second wind around ten or eleven pm and can get a lot done between then and one or two in the morning. And no one emails or calls at that time – I love it.