Category Archives: author interviews

Rasputin’s Shadow by Raymond Khoury

Blog Tour: Rasputin’s Shadow by Raymond Khoury (Dutton Books; 384 pages; $27.95).

About The Book:

On a cold, bleak day in 1916, all hell breaks loose in a mining pit in the Ural Mountains.  Overcome by a strange paranoia, the rasputinminers attack one another, savagely and ferociously.  Minutes later, two men–a horrified scientist and Grigory Rasputin, trusted confidant of the czar, hit a detonator, blowing up the mine to conceal all evidence of the carnage.

In the present day, FBI agent Sean Reilly’s search for Reed Corrigan, the CIA mind-control spook who brainwashed Reilly’s son, takes a back seat to a new, disturbing case.  A Russian embassy attache seems to have committed suicide by jumping out of a fourth-story window in Queens.  The apartment’s owner, a retired physics teacher from Russia, has also gone missing.

Joined by Russian FSB agent Larisa Sokolova, Reilly’s investigation into the old man’s identity will uncover a desperate search for a small, mysterious device, with consequences that reach back in history, and if placed in the wrong hands could have a devastating impact on the modern world.

 

About The Author:

khoury

Raymond Khoury is the bestselling author of The Devil’s Elixir, The Last Templar, The Sanctuary, The Sign, and The Templar Salvation.  An acclaimed screenwriter and producer for both television and film, Khoury now lives in London with his wife and two children.

 

Bookmagnet Says:

I have been a fan of Raymond Khoury ever since I stumbled upon The Last Templar back in 2006.  Unlike a lot of other writers of mysteries and thrillers, Khoury has managed not only to sustain my interest in his stories and his recurring characters but he also stimulates my mind by delving into history.  His newest novel Rasputin’s Shadow is no exception.  From its explosive (literally) beginning to a stunning climax to a satisfying conclusion, Rasputin’s Shadow is the thriller of the year. Khoury effectively blends mystery, action, and intrigue with history, producing a compelling, pleasing story.   If the late, great Tom Clancy was the master of the Twentieth-Century thriller, Raymond Khoury is his Twenty-First Century successor.

 

Mini Q&A with Author Raymond Khoury

Rasputin is known as one of the most elusive figures in Russian history, but what specifically drew you to him as a character for your upcoming novel, RASPUTIN’S SHADOW?

Grigory Rasputin

Grigory Rasputin

As with previous novels, it was an unplanned convergence of influences. Very early into my research on the central theme of this book, mind control and how much we know about the way our brains work, I read about a Russian scientist who had been carrying out some pretty shocking “Manchurian candidate”-style experiments during the Cold War. He was described as having “Rasputin-like powers.” And that just lit up inside me. It was the perfect historical parallel for what I was working on, the big daddy of mind control, and the fact that Rasputin’s story had also taken place in Russia was too irresistible to ignore. The story fell into place within seconds. Like Hannibal Smith used to say, “I love it when a plan comes together.”

Your novels contain a lot of historical truths, so how do you go about researching your subject before you dive into the story?  Did anything surprise you during your research for this book?

I probably do a lot more research than I need to for my novels, for several reasons: part of it is simple curiosity: I just find it interesting to educate myself about the topics and themes I’m curious about, and it’s so easy to get swept up in surfing from one link to the next. Also, I have this obsession with wanting every detail in my books, historical or otherwise, to be accurate. I remember being on a panel with Harlan Coben once, and he said, “we’re fiction writers, we can just make things up.” And he’s right, of course, we do—a lot. But I feel a need to know exactly what a Turkish horse-trader in the 13th century would have been wearing, what he would have eaten, what his sword (scimitar!) would have looked like, before writing him into a book. And that takes a lot of research that can only end up as a sentence here or a word there. The big scene at the end of The Templar Salvation, for instance, the plane and the sea, or the one where the Italian gets chucked out of it earlier on: I went through every detail of those sequences with a pilot who owns that exact plane, and we made sure everything I wrote was not only correct, but doable.

In past reviews your writing has been called “cinematic.” Do you consciously try to write this way? Or do you think that thrillers naturally lend themselves to this style of writing?

I see my stories visually, it’s hugely important for me. I see the scenes unfurling in my mind as I’m writing them, and I often sketch out storyboards for the big set pieces to “direct” them as I write them out. Thrillers naturally lend themselves to this style, and to be frank with you, I’m often disappointed by thrillers that turn out to have limited scale in their visuals. What I mean is that as a writer, you can almost take any scene and ratchet up the suspense and the scale without necessarily turning it into ridiculous, comic-book-like, over-the-top mindless action. Think of a director like Michael Mann, for instance, and the bank robbery scene from “Heat.” Or any scene from “Collateral.” Or read “Marathon Man,” which is exactly similar, beat for beat, to the great movie it spawned. In my mind, a real thriller should have a ‘cinematic’ aspect, but it’s crucial to keep it within the confines of reality.

What impact, if any, do you think your experience as a screenwriter and producer has on your ability to paint a vivid description in your novel writing?

Huge impact, no doubt. I’m always told by readers that they could “see” the book like a movie while reading it. I don’t believe in taking shortcuts. If the FBI is shadowing a hostage trade-off between a group of Russian mafiya thugs and some Korean gangsters in some remote Brooklyn shipyard in the dead of the night, that’s an opportunity for a major set-piece with a lot of suspense, it deserves to be cinematic. I believe good writing should conjure up vivid visuals in the mind of the reader and should kick up as much adrenaline in him or her as a great movie would.

What types of characters do you most enjoy writing?

I enjoy spending time with all my characters. RASPUTIN’S SHADOW probably has the largest cast of characters I’ve used in a novel, and I really enjoyed creating them and exploring their own foibles. That said, I usually enjoy writing the main antagonists most: characters like Vance in THE LAST TEMPLAR, the Hakeem in THE SANCTUARY, Zahed in THE TEMPLAR SALVATION, and El Brujo in THE DEVIL’S ELIXIR (no spoilers about the new book here!). They’re never clear-cut bad guys, nothing’s black or white. They have histories, they have reasons for doing what they’re doing, we need to wonder what we’d have done if we had been in their situation. The grey area of human nature is very interesting to me. I also hugely enjoy writing the historical characters: Rasputin and Misha, or course, in the new book; but also, Sebastian and Theresia’s love story in THE SANCTUARY and Conrad and Maysoon’s one in THE TEMPLAR SALVATION are particular favourites.

 Raymond-Khoury-168x120

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Interview with Michael Farris Smith, Author of Rivers

Rivers by Michael Farris Smith (Simon & Schuster; 352 pages; $25).

It had been raining for weeks. Maybe months. He had forgotten the last day that it hadn’t rained, when the storms gave way to the pale blue of the Gulf sky, when the birds flew and the clouds were white and sunshine glistened across the drenched land.

michael farris smith 1

Thank you, Michael, for letting me ask you these questions.  Rivers left me chilled, gasping, and shaken to the core.  Did you always want to be a writer?

Not really. For a long time I didn’t know what I wanted to do so I was kind of a drifter. Change of scenery was something I really desired and needed so I didn’t stay in one place very long. But this restlessness took me to Europe for a few years and that’s when I began to read and that led me to the desire to write. I will say, though, that when it hit me at age 29, that’s all I wanted to do. Still is.

 

How would you describe Rivers?

Wow. That’s a tough one for the second question. I think RIVERS is about redemption, survival both emotionally and physically. I think RIVERS is about the odyssey of not only Cohen but of all the characters. There is so much to overcome. I wanted it to be more complex than simply good versus evil, and I hope it comes across that way.

What made you decide on the title?  Did you ever have any others in mind?

RIVERS wasn’t the original title. The original title had been used recently to my chagrin, but my agent and I were knocking around other ideas and when RIVERS was suggested, I thought it was perfect. It works on several different levels in the story. It’s strong, straightforward, Southern. Exactly what I wanted.

Michael, what was the impetus behind this novel?  How did you come up with the story?rivers1.jpg

There was no one thing, but several things came into play when I had the idea for RIVERS. Mississippi was still feeling, and is still feeling, the pangs of Katrina and something in me wanted to write a post-Katrina novel. But it wasn’t working and I was frustrated. At the same time I was also very much wanting to break from writing stories to writing novels and I wanted an idea that would, at the very least, picque interest. So I decided to quit banging my head against the wall with a Katrina story, and take the notion of hurricane destruction and the place and people that take the punishment and ramp it way, way up. What if a stream of hurricanes went on and on? What would it look like? What would we do? And then I started to work.

I want to talk more about Cohen.  He’s such an interesting man.  He’s a pragmatist, yet he stays in his home with the world practically coming apart around him.  He’s got a dog, a horse, and a whole lot of memories.  He’s haunted by the past.  Cohen’s a realist yet he also seems to be an idealist.  How did you come up with this character?  How easy or how difficult was it to make him so multi-layered and complex?  Is there any of you in Cohen?

I had an image of a man waking up in the middle of the night, on family land, on the Gulf Coast, after a big storm, and then he goes out to look around. And that’s really all I had. I just started to follow him, to see what he saw, to feel what he felt about what he was seeing. The layers eventually came, but I didn’t have a real game plan for Cohen other than I wanted to lay as much trouble on him as I possibly could and see how he would react. Turns out, he took a lot, and kept fighting.

I think there’s some of me in Cohen, like I guess there is in most all of my characters, but I don’t think there is much overlap. And least not consciously. He’s kind of a South Mississippi guy who grew up playing ball and riding around with a cooler of beer with his buddies and working with his hands, and that’s a pretty decent description of me.

Are there any plans on making a movie of this book?  I would love to see Matthew McConaughey as Cohen.

That’s a good suggestion. I’ll see if we can get him a copy.

Mariposa is another intriguing character and she also lets you talk about New Orleans and what happened there.  She’s also haunted.  How did you come up with the character of Mariposa?

Mariposa was so much fun to create because, like you said, she gave me the chance to use New Orleans and all the ghost stories and dark alleys of the French Quarter. I wanted some of the characters to be displaced, to have ended up in this situation by straight-up bad luck, and that’s how she came to be. I didn’t know when she was introduced limping along the side of the road that she would grow into the character that she grew into, but I’m glad she did.

How did Hurricane Katrina affect you and your friends and family?  Do you think Rivers would have ever been possible without Katrina?

I’m certain that there would have never been RIVERS without Katrina. It’s the first hurricane in my lifetime to have struck Mississippi and it had such an impact on so many people. I felt that impact and those emotions drove me through the writing of RIVERS.

rivers 1In Rivers, Cohen recalls a vacation he and his wife took to Venice.  It’s so interesting that they vacationed in the “floating city” given that New Orleans features so prominently in your story.  The low elevation of New Orleans means it’s like a bowl and this means it’s vulnerable to flooding.  Is there a reason why you had Cohen and Elisa tour Venice?

It started as a way to give some more information about Cohen and Elisa and their life before, so I sent them to Venice on a vacation for the sheer irony of the water. It was only about 4 pages, but my agent really liked it and suggested I write their entire trip. So I created about 20 pages of what their Venice experience was like and then sliced it up and put it here and there throughout RIVERS. It helped that I’ve been to Venice a few times and that is a place, much like New Orleans, with its own strange feeling. It’s so old, so beautiful and ancient one minute, then you turn a street and it’s decrepit and smelly. But it also has a haunting feel, and it seemed to be a good parallel to what was to come for Cohen and Elisa.

What kind of research did you do for Rivers?

None. I looked at a map once or twice to make sure I had the distance between places correct, but that’s it. I didn’t want to look at any footage of natural disasters or study hurricane patterns because I had a pretty strong vision of the place I was trying to create and I didn’t want it tainted.

Although this is speculative fiction, it is so powerful given our extreme weather this century.  If something similar happened in the United States, irrevocably altering the landscape of the Gulf South and the way we live, do you think things would progress as they do in Rivers?  Or would they be worse?

That’s a really good question and I’ve had this come up with other readers. About all I can say is I hope this isn’t a Gulf Coast that we ever see because there are many people in this world anxious to try and take advantage of calamity.

A great deal of loss permeates Rivers yet there is also a great deal of hope.  Was that an aim of yours when you set out to write the

michael farris smith 2story?

I think almost every story has to be about hope in some way. The novels and stories that I love center around hope and survival, whether it be emotional, spiritual, physical, psychological, whatever. The late, great Barry Hannah said all stories have to be about life and death and hope is in the middle of life and death.

I love Barry Hannah, another fellow Mississippian.  Did you have an ending in mind when you began writing Rivers or did the conclusion come to you over time?

I never have an ending in mind until I get there. I think planning too far ahead robs my characters of free will and that’s the last thing I want to do.

Which writers have influenced you the most? Who are some of your favorite authors?  What are some of your favorite books?

So many favorites: Larry Brown, Daniel Woodrell, Cormac McCarthy, Harry Crews, Jean Rhys, Ernest Hemingway, Albert Camus, Carson McCullers, Truman Capote. Some of my favorite books are The Stranger, Joe, The Crossing, Death in Venice, Old Man and the Sea, Ballad of the Sad Café, Good Morning Midnight, Feast of Snakes, The Iliad, [and] No Country for Old Men.

What do you like to do when you aren’t writing?

I like to be outside, chasing around my daughters, cooking out in the backyard, playing guitar, tailgating.

Our home state has produced truly magnificent writers—William Faulkner, Eudora Welty, Richard Ford, and Jesmyn Ward—just to name a few.  How does it feel to join their illustrious ranks?

It feels pretty good. There are so many great writers from this state, writers that you read and admire and aspire to be like, and then when you finally find your name mentioned alongside them, it’s surreal and satisfying and humbling.

What do you hope readers take with them after reading Rivers?

I hope that readers travel the same journey as Cohen and the others. I hope they are emotionally spent, that they feel the struggle, that they hope, that it’s an adventure.

What’s next for you, Michael?  Are you working on anything new?

I’m working on something but as always, you just wait and see how it goes. I’m excited about working again. There’s been a lot lately to keep me away from the healthy exercise of writing fiction and I’m ready to be back to it more consistently.

Thanks so much, Michael, for a wonderful interview.  Good luck with the book!

Thanks to you and so glad for your enthusiasm for RIVERS.

Author Website

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Meet Michael!

Friday, October 4 – Book Mart & Café, Starkville, MS: Signing from 3:00-5:00 pm

Saturday, October 5 – Barnes & Noble, Tupelo, MS: 2:00 pm

Tuesday, October 8 – Lemuria Books, Part II, Jackson, MS: Signing at 5:00. Click here to reserve a First Edition signed copy.

Wednesday, October 9 – University of Southern Mississippi, Hattiesburg, MS

October 11-12 – Southern Festival of Books, Nashville

Wednesday, October 16 – “Tea with Authors” at Mississippi Library Association Conference, Biloxi, MS

October 18-19 – Auburn Writers Conference, Auburn University

Tuesday, October 22 – Mississippi State University, Starkville, MS

October 24-26 – Welty Writers Symposium, MUW, Columbus

October 29 – Florida State University, Tallahassee, FL

Friday, November 1 – Turnrow Books, Greenwood, MS

Thursday, November 7 – Texas A&M-Commerce, Dallas, TX

Wednesday, November 13 – James Madison University, Harrisonburg, VA

Friday, November 22 – Lunch with “The Literary Club” in Columbus, MS

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Q&A with Colin Winnette, Author of Fondly

colinThank you for allowing me to ask you these questions, Colin.  Did you always want to be a writer?

Yes, to an embarrassing degree. Embarrassing mainly because, when I was younger, I had a very strong sense of what being a writer meant: it meant I would grow a beard and wear sweaters and drink coffee (or at the time, water from a mug) and hold my head in my hands a lot. I would sit in front of my mother’s typewriter and “be a writer,” or perform “being a writer.” I was sort of writing stories too then, but I distinctly remember that feeling less important than the overall project of “being a writer.” 

Who are some writers you have always admired?  Have they influenced your writing in any way?

Ben Marcus was an author who really cracked me open when I first read him. His book Notable American Women came into my hands at a very significant time. I was in undergrad, obsessed with Kafka and Chekhov and Carver, who were really my only models for good story writing at the time, and someone handed me this odd book by a living American writer, (which didn’t bode well to my undergraduate self). But the book was one of the strangest, most brutal and affecting things I’d ever read. He made me rethink a lot of my assumptions about stories and what they can do and what I might want to do with them. That book rerouted my trajectory and my taste got a lot weirder and my writing got a lot better.

 

You previously wrote Animal Collection and Revelation.  What was different this time around?  Is a third book easier to write or more difficult?

WinnetteAnimalI was still working on Animal Collection when I started writing Fondly. I actually finished Fondly before AC, though the release dates don’t reflect that. I like to work on multiple projects at once because it allows me to use a lot of different kinds of energy. When I’m getting nowhere with one thing, I can switch modes and give something else a try. That said, both of the pieces in Fondly came very naturally to me. I worked on In One Story, The Two Sisters for much longer, probably because it covers so much ground and takes so many different forms. I wound up cutting a lot from that piece, and rewriting it all several times. Still, the overall process was easy. I had a clear idea of what I was going for, and I had enough confidence when writing this book to say, all I have to do is keep myself interested and something good will come. I used that as the guiding principle; keeping myself interested and curious and energized.

Your new book is titled Fondly and consists of two novellas, “In One Story, The Two Sisters” and “Gainesville.”  What about the novella form appeals to you?

When I set out to work on both of these, I had no idea how long they would be. I imagined Gainesville would be fairly long, but didn’t fondlycoverwant to force it in anyway, so I just wrote and wrote until I’d reached the end. Whether or not it’s a novel or a novella or a collection of short stories, as one reviewer had it, seems based on some hard to determine combination of word count and personal opinion, as well as how the book is printed and marketed. I wouldn’t necessarily categorize these works as novellas, but I suppose it’s the most useful way of describing them. Nothing in particular appeals to me about the novella form, but I love a book that feels like it’s the precise length it needs to be. I suppose one thing I admire about novellas is that, reading a novella by someone else, I’m happy they were brave enough to write a short book. Many authors seem driven by length, because “novels” (60,000 words or more, I’m told) sell better and people take them more seriously. If a book is 1,000+ pages, it becomes the most commonly discussed aspect of the book. Why it’s 1,000+ pages, less so. To me, personally, finding the right length for a story is as important as sentence-level work. The length should be doing just as much work. A short book gives you the room to develop a story but still keep it fairly lean and swift, which seemed important for these two particular works.

How would you describe Fondly?  And how did you come up with the title?

For me, describing Fondly is difficult. Partly because it is two very different projects in one, but mainly because the scope of the work feels larger to me than a synopsis provides for. That’s not to say someone else couldn’t do it. I just don’t have the bird’s eye view other might be able to access. The work is primarily concerned with questions of family, mortality, the how and why of stories, the defects of language, as well as human deficiency, love, mutation, and some kind of messy unity. But that’s sort of like saying this pasta dinner is primarily a matter of flour and water and oil. If that makes sense.

The title came from the cover image. I had a different title, that I wasn’t very happy with. It was very long and wasn’t exactly the right tone. Then Scott Teplin did these incredible spot drawings for the book, as well as its wonderful cover, and I knew I had to change the title to something that would sit on the jacket, next to that image, and interact with it in some profitable way. I thought about it and thought about it and at some point the idea of pulling something from an email occurred to me. I don’t know why or when. It just occurred to me and I started poring through old emails for a word that felt right. It was right there from something my boss/friend Camden Avery wrote to me in one of our early emails. It seemed like the perfect combination of humor and affection and playfulness and, with the cover image, morbidity. It also turns the book into a kind of twisted offering, which I liked. 

Please tell us a little about how you came up with each novella?  What was your inspiration for the stories and for the characters?

It’s hard to say because there’s so much going on in either work, in the book as a whole, and all of it came from different sources, different parts of myself. It was ongoing too, everything I thought or felt or encountered while I was writing these got thrown in somehow, even if I ultimately removed it. The book is really massive, as far as characters and stories go. On some level, I suppose I was excited about exhausting myself, or seeing if that was possible.

In your opinion, Colin, what is good fiction?

Today, this morning, right now, I feel like good fiction leads you from something you know, to something you couldn’t have known otherwise.

Do you have several story ideas in your head at one time?  How do you decide what to pursue, what to shelf it for later, and what to discard?

Yes. Always. I’m a mess.

 

It’s all about what feels right and where my energy is. If it doesn’t feel right or interesting to me, I drop it or change it and move on.

What is the best writing advice you ever received?

I’ve received a lot of incredible advice over the years, but what comes to mind right now is something I read in undergrad. There’s a passage in In Search of Lost Time, in which Proust describes a writer who isn’t particularly bright or gifted or good, but who is wildly successful and respected and widely read. I couldn’t quote it, and I’m probably remembering it wrong, but the gist of what he says seemed to come down to something like, she was just the one who kept writing and, after years of it, she was one of the few people who had stuck with it long enough to produce a body of work, and she thereby became an authority on whatever it was she was writing about. She had just put in the hours and finished what she set out to do, which is actually far more than what many people are capable of. What that passage did for me was allow me to dig a little mental tunnel around my insecurities—the voices in my head insisting that I wasn’t talented, had nothing of any interest to say, and was wasting my time—so that I could get on with the writing part of writing. And, after years of basically purging onto the page, I started getting a sense of what I liked and what I wanted to do. And I started getting better. Or, at least, I started to enjoy what I was making more and more often.

What do you like to do when you are not writing?

I run a lot. I watch movies and movie trailers with my wife. I worry about not writing. I used to hike a lot but now we live in a city, so I go to the store a lot and get coffee a lot and move the car a lot.

colin 2Have you read any books recently that utterly awed you?

I’ve been working on an interview with Zach Schomburg about Daniel Clowes’s books David Boring, Like a Velvet Glove Cast in Iron, and others. They’re amazing. So funny and dark and moving and strange. They’re really starting to sink in and affect the way I’m writing. I would recommend them to anyone and everyone. Plus, the art in them is great and they’re a quick read.

Which upcoming novels are you excited to read this fall?

I just finished an advanced copy of Jesse Ball’s new book Silence Once Begun. It’s phenomenal. It’s so heartbreaking and powerful, and it’s formally bold. It might be my favorite thing he’s done so far.

What do you hope readers take with them after reading Fondly?

I hope they know I never meant no harm, and that I still love them.

What’s next for you?  Are you working on anything new?

I just finished a draft of a new novel, and I’ve got a few poetry manuscripts I’m kicking around. I had a book set to come out with Mud Luscious Press, but they closed up shop and now that book is out in the wind. I just got back from vacation, and I was working pretty steadily on a few new projects while I was gone. It’s hard to say, at this point, what they’ll turn into, but I’m enjoying working on them so far.

Good luck, Colin, and thanks so much for a wonderful interview!

Follow Colin on Tumblr

Buy the book here!

 

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Q&A with Katherine Hill, Author of The Violet Hour

The Violet Hour by Katherine Hill (Scribner; 368 pages; $26).

Katherine Hill begins her intimate and utterly beguiling first novel, The Violet Hour, on a boat.  This leisure cruise ultimately charts the course of Hill’s novel.

Katherine Hill

Katherine Hill

Thank you, Katherine, for letting me ask you these questions. The Violet Hour is one of my favorite novels so far of 2013. How did you come up with the story?

Thanks so much for having me, Jaime. As is probably the case with many long projects, the roots of this book go way back. In college, I took a literature seminar called “Doomed Love in the Western World.” The course title was delicious and the reading list was even better: Troilus and Criseyde, Antony and Cleopatra, Madame Bovary, Anna Karenina, Tess of the D’Urbervilles, The House of Mirth, The Satanic Verses. We talked a lot about ideals of love, and about the social forces that aim to disrupt or control it. For a long time after, everything else I read seemed to extend the conversation of that class. So when I set out to write my own novel, I had a tradition in mind. I wanted to know what doomed love might look like in contemporary America, a free society that still bears so many invisible chains.

Which character did you see or hear first? And in what way?

The novel began for me as it begins for every reader, with the very first scene. I had a vision of a family on a boat, struck by a disaster of their own making—sort of a metaphorical shipwreck like the kind that opens The Tempest, one of my favorite of Shakespeare’s plays. I liked the idea of starting with an extreme moment, really an almost impossible situation, and then working my way out of the wreckage. What kind of people would get into a marriage-ending fight in front of their eighteen-year-old daughter? What kind of people would they then become? Abe, Cassandra, and Elizabeth Green were born from that scene and those questions.

Your novel features a large cast of characters, and I love the different windows they provide into the story. Howthe-violet-hour.jpg difficult was it to juggle everyone? Do you have a favorite?

I loved juggling all those perspectives. Just when I thought Abe had nailed some essential truth, Cassandra would sidle up and offer a completely valid counterpoint, which Elizabeth would then revolve once more. They made it pretty impossible to choose a favorite! But I like it that way. Writing from multiple perspectives is simply the best exercise in sympathy. It’s a reminder that so many truths are flexible, and that right and wrong—especially among members of a family—are rarely as simple as we’d like to think.

Cassandra grew up over her father’s funeral home, and her father dies on his birthday. Did you want to illustrate how death is always a part of life?

I see The Violet Hour as a novel of desire. The book is full of it: desire for love, for success, for freedom, for equanimity. Death is, in many ways, the great counterpoint to desire, which is rooted in the body and which propels us forward in so many ways throughout our lives. But what happens when we leave the body? This is a particular quandary for secular Americans like Abe, Cassandra, and Elizabeth, who feel the preciousness of life but a deep uncertainty as to how to live it. The funeral home setting gave me so much to work with.

The death of Cassandra’s father takes place just as Hurricane Katrina ravages the Gulf Coast.  You draw such effective parallels. As Cassandra and her family are forever changed by his passing, a nation is forever altered by a mammoth storm and its aftermath. I cannot imagine this story without Katrina, even though this family is far from Katrina’s impact. What led you to put Katrina in your story? Do you think The Violet Hour would have less impact without including the hurricane?

You know, I think there is a strong temptation, when writing fiction, to thrust characters into the center of dramatic, historical events. Certainly, many great writers have done it beautifully: Thackeray took us to Waterloo, Claire Messud and Lynne Sharon Schwartz took us to New York City on 9/11. But in this novel I was interested in the ways in which distant witnesses are already thrust into historic events through the news. A catastrophe is understood to be national when it greets us in the morning paper (or these days, on Twitter), and reading about it implicates us all—especially those of us who are fortunate to live in relative comfort and privilege. The situation in this novel gave me an opportunity to explore the experience of loss and guilt on multiple levels: Abe, Cassandra, and Elizabeth are working through a series of acute private griefs at the very moment that the Gulf Coast and the nation are working through a massive public grief. At times their own pains seem small in comparison to the gross injustice of Katrina; at times it’s Katrina that seems small. I think it’s part of fiction’s job to explore this volatility between the personal and the social—the lovely echoes as well as the deeply troubling ones.

I love how you emphasize the might of water. For Abe, taking his boat on the bay was his greatest pleasure. Then, you contrast that with the destruction Hurricane Katrina’s floodwaters caused in New Orleans. What made you write this juxtaposition? Was it intentional?

Absolutely, water is both alluring and dangerous: an attractive environment for a hobbyist, and a terrible environment for a fight; a source of prosperity for a city, and a force that can bring a city to its knees. I loved playing with that duality in every aspect of The Violet Hour. The very same things we love and need can so often be the things that destroy us.

What do you hope readers take with them after reading The Violet Hour?

Well, of course I hope (perhaps foolishly) that readers will love these imperfect characters as I do. I also hope they’ll finish the book in a spirit of reflection and maybe even reassessment, which was definitely part of my experience in writing it, and also a huge part of my own pleasure in reading. My favorite novels—by writers like Jennifer Egan, Jonathan Franzen, Aleksandar Hemon, Lorrie Moore, and Zadie Smith—have all urged me to look at myself and the world anew. It would so gratifying to inspire that experience in others.

What’s next for you, Katherine? Are you working on anything new?

I am! I’m now in the exhilarating, very early stages of a new novel about an American football player. I’m a huge football fan, simultaneously elated and horrified by the sport, so the research has already been tons of fun.

UK edition (Viking/Penguin, February 2014)

UK edition (Viking/Penguin, February 2014)

 

Katherine Hill is the author of The Violet Hour, a novel first published by Scribner in July 2013.  

hill

 

Her short fiction has been published by AGNIColorado ReviewThe Commonn+1Philadelphia Stories, and Word Riot, and has been honored with the Nelligan Prize, the Marguerite McGlinn Prize, and fellowships at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. Her articles and reviews have appeared in numerous publications, including The Believer, Bookforum, The Paris Review Daily, Philadelphia City Paper, Poets & Writers, and the San Francisco Chronicle. Currently an assistant editor at Barrelhouse, she is a former speechwriter at the University of Pennsylvania, and has taught writing at Philadelphia University, Mighty Writers in South Philadelphia, and the PEN Prison Writing Program in New England. She holds a BA from Yale and an MFA from Bennington College. 

Katherine’s Website

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Thanks for the interview, Katherine, and best of luck with the book!

 

 

 

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Q&A with Susan Rebecca White, Author of A Place at the Table

A Place at the Table by Susan Rebecca White (Touchstone; 336 pages; $25).

a place at the tableA rich, beautiful novel about three unlikely, complex characters who meet in a chic Manhattan café and realize they must sacrifice everything they ever knew or cared about to find authenticity, fulfillment, and love.

A Place at the Table tells the story of three richly nuanced characters whose paths converge in a chic Manhattan café: Bobby, a gay Southern boy who has been ostracized by his family; Amelia, a wealthy Connecticut woman whose life is upended when a family secret finally comes to light; and Alice, an African-American chef whose heritage is the basis of a famous cookbook but whose past is a mystery to those who know her.

As it sweeps from a freed-slave settlement in 1920s North Carolina to the Manhattan of the deadly AIDs epidemic of the 1980s to today’s wealthy suburbs, A Place at the Table celebrates the healing power of food and the magic of New York as three seekers come together in the understanding that when you embrace the thing that makes you different, you become whole.

 

If you are a fan of Kathryn Stockett’s The Help, you will absolutely devour Susan Rebecca White’s newest creation, A Place at the Table.  Thanks to the wonderful Alison Law, I was able to ask Susan three questions and here are her answers.

Do you have several story ideas in your head at one time? How do you know when you can run with an idea and

Photo Credit: Dorothy O'Connor

Photo Credit: Dorothy O’Connor

when you need to shelf it for later and when you should just discard it?

I work on several story lines at once. While writing A Place at the Table I would work on Bobby’s section for a little bit; then hit a wall. Then I’d turn to Amelia and work on her section for a bit; then hit a wall. Then I’d turn to Alice. That’s probably why I keep returning to the multiple narrator form. I can pick up a different piece of the storyline when I exhaust myself with another.

I am not entirely sure how it is that I ultimately decide which storylines stay in the final novel and which are jettisoned. I write a lot more than is ever actually published. I probably wrote 1000 pages of text when putting together A Place at the Table, but only 300 + made it to the final draft. I am a big believer in spilling material and then tidying it up during the editorial process. Often I think of writing as excavation. The story is in there, but I have to dig it out of me. And I dig it out by writing.

In your opinion what is good fiction?               

Good fiction disrupts the tidy narratives that we create about our lives and exposes something deeper, darker, and ultimately more authentic. Good fiction excavates if not The Truth then deeper truths about who we are. Ultimately good fiction connects us to each other. There’s an adage “the more specific, the more universal.” By paying exquisite attention to specific characters on the page, seeing who they really are beneath the well-rehearsed stories they tell of their lives, we begin to question our own tidy narratives, our own delusions. Good fiction makes you acutely aware of being alive when you are reading it, even though you are reading about someone else’s story. And in that regard good fiction does what we ask of religion: It takes us outside of ourselves. It helps us transcend our own limited perspectives. Good fiction also grabs us, makes us want to know what happens next, makes us want to turn the page.

How would you respond to those who claim women writers do not write “serious” fiction?

Hmm. Well, first I would want to give that person the middle finger, but being a nice southern woman I’d probably refrain. I guess I respond by giving a big eye roll, shaking my head at ignorance, rolling up my sleeves, and getting back to work.

 

Learn More about Susan:

susanrebeccawhiteauthorphotoBorn and raised in Atlanta, Susan Rebecca White earned a BA in English from Brown University, then moved to San Francisco, where she taught and waited tables for several years, before moving to Virginia to earn her MFA in creative writing from Hollins University. At Hollins, she was a teaching fellow and the recipient of the James Purdy prize for outstanding fiction.

Susan’s debut novel, Bound South, received wide critical acclaim and was shortlisted for theTownsend Prize. Bound South was followed by A Soft Place to Land, also critically acclaimed and a Target “Club Pick.” Susan’s third novel, A Place at the Table, is receiving early praise and is on the American Booksellers Association “Indie Next List” for June of 2013. The Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance (SIBA) selected A Place at the Table as a 2013 Summer “Okra Pick.

Susan has been invited to festivals and book events around the country and has been a speaker at numerous academic and cultural institutions, including SCAD Atlanta, the Carter Center, the Margaret Mitchell house, and Birmingham’s Hoover library. Susan appeared in the February 2011 issue of Vanity Fair magazine, in a photograph and accompanying essay celebrating women authors living in Atlanta. During the summer of 2011, Susan lived in Manhattan to gain on-the-ground knowledge of the city and research in greater depth the history of Café Nicholson, the real-life restaurant that inspired Café Andres in A Place at the Table.

Susan currently lives in Atlanta, where she teaches creative writing at Emory University. During the winter of 2011 she was the writer-in-residence at SCAD Atlanta. She is married to Sam Redburn Reid, also an Atlanta native, meaning she and Sam both grew up eating Varsity hamburgers and riding the pink pig at the Rich’s downtown.

Did you know?

Susan and Lauren Myracle are sisters.  Myracle, a New York Times bestselling author, writes books for tweens and teens.

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Q&A with Suzanne Rindell, Author of The Other Typist

The Other Typist by Suzanne Rindell (Amy Einhorn Books/Putnam; 368 pages; $25.95).

If Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl was THE mystery of 2012, then Suzanne Rindell’s The Other Typist is THE mystery of 2013.  Suzanne kindly answered some questions I posed to her via email.  I’m very excited to share her Q&A with you today.

“They said the typewriter would unsex us,” Suzanne Rindell writes in her dark and arresting debut The Other Typist.

Author-Photo-239x300

Thanks, Suzanne, for letting me ask you some questions about your riveting and suspenseful psychological thriller The Other Typist.  How did you get the idea for the book?

I was a grad student, specializing in 1920s literature and culture, when I came across the obituary of a woman who had worked as a typist in a police precinct during the Prohibition era.  I became sort of obsessed with imagining what her life might’ve been like; what sorts of things she might’ve seen at the precinct and what sorts of reports she might’ve typed up, etc.  I found myself wondering what would’ve happened if she ever deviated from the truth in the course of doing her job, and the plot for my novel was born.

Which character did you visualize or hear first? And in what way?

Definitely Rose.  She was my narrator and I started hearing her voice telling a story in my head.  I was only a page or so into things when I realized she wasn’t telling a straight story, and she might be somewhat emotionally damaged and unreliable.

What about an unreliable narrator appeals to you?

I have no idea.  I’ve always admired the great unreliable narrators — like Humbert Humbert in Lolita — but I didn’t know I was writing one until Rose got going and I realized that even I didn’t totally take her at her word.  It’s quite strange, to tell the truth.

Why did you choose to set your story in 1920s New York City?other-typist1.jpg

I find New York very inspirational.  It’s a character in its own right, evidenced by many more books, shows, plays, and movies than my novel.  The 1920s was a natural fit for me because I was immersed in research on the era for my dissertation.  I wanted to live in Fitzgerald’s New York, if only temporarily and in my imagination.

How different were earlier versions of TheOther Typist compared to the final, published version?

Some of the middle stuff shifted during editing.  But the beginning point — Rose’s voice that drives that first chapter — and the final scene (which I won’t describe for fear of plot spoilers) were always the same.  It was a question of arriving from one point to the next properly.

How did you manage to hold back so effectively, revealing the truth only subtly and slowly?

Unlike other mysteries, this is a story that hints at its conclusion from the start.  I wasn’t out to surprise people with the plot twists as much as I was out to surprise them with the moral evolution of one particular narrator.  I think you know very early on how messed up Rose is, and what a predicament she’s gotten herself into… the big reveal is why and how.  As I wrote I felt a sense of gravity developing in Rose’s life.  Her end was inevitable.

When you were writing this story, did you have any idea the effect it would have on readers?  Did you have any notion at all how big this story was going to be?

Not truly.  I think when you write you have a sense of being alone.  You live in your imagination and if you like the story you’re telling — no matter how dark — you enjoy going there.  The process of writing this book was really an escape for me.

Congratulations are in order!  Keira Knightley is to star and take a producer’s role in a film version of your novel.  Your readers are so excited.  When and how did you first hear the news?  What will it be like to see your story on the big screen?  What do you think Knightley will bring to the character she plays?  Do you know who she will play?

I’m very excited about this.  I heard the news from my agent and from my film agent at CAA.  Ms. Knightley has opted for some very impressive projects in the past and I’m honored she is interested in The Other Typist. The rest — how long things will take, which character she will play, etc — is in the hands of Hollywood, which is mysterious to me but which I will watch for with relish.

What’s next for you, Suzanne? Are you working on anything new?

I’m finishing up a second novel!  It’s set in 1950s New York, and has to do with the publishing scene and the Greenwich Village beatniks of that era.  I guess it’s a kind of second love-letter to New York.  I’m having fun with it.

Thanks for a wonderful interview, Suzanne, and good luck!

 

Suzanne Rindell is a doctoral student in American modernist literature at Rice University. The Other Typist is her first novel. She lives in New York City and is currently working on a second novel.

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Interview with Karen Brown, Author of The Longings of Wayward Girls

The Longings of Wayward Girls by Karen Brown (Washington Square Press; 336 pages; $15).

Compelling, atmospheric and smart, The Longings of Wayward Girls lures you in, beguiles, and even abducts you for a time.  You are in Brown’s dark domain where deep guilt, loss and impossible longing rule.  Little Sinners, and Other Stories as well as Pins and Needles made Brown the darling of critics, but I predict The Longings of Wayward Girls will speak to readers and critics alike.  Brown is a powerful force in fiction today, but her new novel makes her distinct voice even louder and more relevant.

Jaime Boler: Thank you for letting me ask you these questions, Karen.  The Longings of Wayward Girls captivated and wowed me.  Your setting, your plot, and your characters are all pitch-perfect and smart.  Did you always want to be a writer?

Karen Brown

Karen Brown

Karen Brown: I have piles of writing stored in accordion folders and boxes, going all the way back to my first illustrated story about talking squirrels who convince a girl to jump from her second story bedroom window. Writing has always been something I seemed to do well. In school teachers put my poems on the bulletin board. When you have early acknowledgement, it becomes part of who you are, and if you’re lucky, who you become.

JB: Your previous works have won awards.  Pins and Needles received the Grace Paley Prize in Short Fiction, and Little Sinners, and Other Stories was awarded the Prairie Schooner Book Prize in Fiction.  What were those experiences like?

KB: I was a short story writer who’d published in literary magazines, and the natural goal was to get “the book.” These contests came with publication, so I began putting stories together and submitting them. I did this for many years–rearranging stories, replacing older stories with newer ones. I never got discouraged—maybe because I was always writing, and always changing the manuscripts, and because it was fun, and I was doing what I loved. It was a great surprise and a great honor to have each of my manuscripts chosen. I knew how many people entered, and I was all too well aware that my winning meant others faced rejection.

JB: The Longings of Wayward Girls is very similar to the titular tale from your short story collection, Little Sinners, and Other Stories.  Did you always intend for the story to be a longer novel? little sinners

KB: Each story I write feels like just a piece of something larger. I was drawn to the setting of “Little Sinners,” and I thought that the prank the girls pull might have more lasting repercussions. I’d also written “Housewifery” at this time, and I knew that I wanted the main character to be living in a similar suburb with her own family, and to discover a hidden pond. The combination of both stories led to the novel.

JB: Please describe your new novel The Longings of Wayward Girls out July 2 from Atria Books.

KB: Set entirely in a small Connecticut town, The Longings of Wayward Girls is a book about how the past influences the decisions of a woman, Sadie, as she confronts pivotal life events: the birth of a stillborn daughter, and the anniversary of her mother’s death—the realization that she has now reached the age her mother hadn’t, that she is moving into “unknown territory.” Sadie must confront her memories of her childhood, and recognize that her perception was skewed by her own inability, as a thirteen-year old, to understand the events of that time.

JB: How did you come up with the title?

KB: The story of titles starts with the collection, Little Sinners. Originally, the collection was titled Leaf House, and the press felt that I needed something more commercial. I’d already been working on the novel, based on the short story “Little Sinners,” and I’d always planned for Little Sinners to be the novel’s title as well. But faced with coming up with a new one for the collection, I basically stole my novel’s title. That left the novel title-less, and the working title (The Lost Girl) wasn’t quite what the team at Atria wanted. “Something more like Little Sinners,” my editor said. Of course, I regretted stealing my novel’s title, but the book had already come out, and I couldn’t steal it back! We made lists. I even brainstormed with my students. We had some good ones! But I kept going back to my editor’s suggestion, and I agreed. The title Little Sinners fit Sadie and her friend so well. My idea for Longings came from that. They aren’t really “wayward,” just like they aren’t really “sinners.” The title assumes a world within the book that judges them, one that the girls emerge from, that’s ingrained in who they become.

longingsJB: Did you always know where you ultimately wanted  to take your story and your characters even when you wrote it as a short story?

KB: When I’m writing a story I don’t really know the ending until I get about halfway through. Because the novel is based on the story I had a sort of template, but I had to change the ending to add more momentum—so I did know where I was heading—just not how I would get there!

JB: I know the idea for Longings is based on a real person.  Who was Janice Pockett?  And how did this little girl provide the impetus for your literary works?

KB: In the 1970s several girls went missing in a particular area in Connecticut, and Janice Pockett was one of them. I’d been researching missing girls even before I wrote the short story, and I discovered newspaper articles about Janice’s disappearance. She went missing about the time my friends and I were exploring pastures and woods, and roaming freely about our neighborhood. We didn’t know about Janice Pockett or the other girls, or feel any sort of fear about where we lived, and yet they’d disappeared just a few towns away. Janice, too, lived in a rural area. She’d simply gone off on her bicycle to retrieve a butterfly and never returned.

The presence of the real missing girl was always with me as I wrote the book, and it greatly influenced the conclusion. She has never been found, and her sister keeps a Facebook page for her. On it she posts photographs of her sister wearing the same clothes my friends and I wore—the same Brownie uniform, the same bell-bottom pants and cardigan sweaters. I think I wanted the Laura Loomis sections to bring to life the stages of loss and the absence of resolution that families with missing children experience.

JB: Now I want to talk about the differences in the novel compared to the short story.  First of all, you have changed points of view.  In the short story Little Sinners, you tell the story from the main character’s first person perspective.  In the novel, though, you write in the third person.  Why the change?

KB: The reminiscent narrator in the short story isn’t Sadie from the novel—she’s an adult at a different place in her life, regretting her inability to determine what really happened all of those years ago, and seeking forgiveness. I had to invent a character who would live within the frame of the story, who would have experienced things—marriage, childbirth, the loss of her own mother—that the story’s narrator hadn’t. And I didn’t feel that the voice in the story could carry a book. It’s just too heavy with sadness.

JB: Another difference is the name change of the best friend.  In the short story, the friend’s name is Valerie Empson; while in the novel, the best friend is Betty Donahue.  Why was this changed?

KB: I’m not sure why I changed the name! Valerie was the name of one of my close friends growing up, and I think I wanted to be sure to distance the fictional character from the real person—in case she read it—something she is actually doing now! And as Betty’s character developed she seemed more like a “Betty.”

JB: By far the biggest change, though, is that in the short story, Francie, a little girl who disappears, is found alive.  But in the book, it is years and years before her fate is revealed.  What prompted you to change this part of the story?

KB: I wanted the revelation of what happened to Francie to remain, as it does in the short story, at the end. And I wanted the impact of this to have had bigger ramifications for Sadie—so that the reader knows she’s lived all of these years with the belief that she was implicated in Francie’s disappearance. It felt weightier, more powerful. Also, since the main characters in the story and novel are fundamentally different, the events resonate differently in each.

JB: The Longings of Wayward Girls is set in a Connecticut suburb.  Is it much like the town in which you grew up?  What was your childhood and adolescence like?

KB: I used the town I grew up in as a model for the town in the book. My niece drew the map from a sketch I made. The town was once called Wintonbury, and the historical society is called The Wintonbury Historical Society. The names of the roads are slightly off (mostly because I didn’t use a real map of the town as I wrote—I just pulled names and vague locations out of my memory!) We had plenty of fields, a swamp, the “dead end” and a local produce stand. There was a Vincent Elementary School. The pond, and the American Indian names are drawn from Windham County, in northeastern Connecticut, where my brother lives. (Once, he led me up a path through the woods, and showed me an amazing pond.) My friends and I did put on plays, and hold a version of the Haunted Woods in the summer. We played elaborate games of house in my basement. And so much more, that never found its way into the book!

The map from Karen's website

The map from Karen’s website

JB: When you were younger, did you ever pull a prank on someone?  Or have one played on you?

KB: I do remember leaving letters from a farmer boy under a stone at the dead end. But I’m not entirely sure they were ever retrieved, or who, exactly, they were intended for. Memory has a way of blurring these things. If I remembered exactly I wouldn’t have been able to make a story out of it.

JB: Do you see Sadie and Betty as bullies?  Why or why not?

KB: I think they are precocious and caught in the process of moving from childhood to adulthood. The book pauses them on the edge of that, and so their actions seem to arise out of a sense of their trying to claim some power over something in their lives. Sadie, especially, feels the loss of childhood acutely. But to answer your question, yes! Most readers would agree that they are bullies.

Holyoke is one of the subjects in this book.

Holyoke is one of the subjects in this book.

JB: You incorporate colonial history into your story, and I really love that you do.  What role does the diary of Mary Vial Holyoke play in the life of Sadie, your main character?  What does Sadie learn from the colonial woman?

KB: Colonial women frequently dealt with the death of a child—something Sadie discovers when she volunteers to map out the old cemetery. The section of Mary Vial Holyoke’s diary that I quote is her recording of the illness of her oldest daughter Polly. Most of the diary notes the passage of days as chores and errands and visits, and suddenly there’s a line that alerts the reader that Polly is sick. From this point on each day names a different woman who came to “watch” over Polly, and there’s a great sense of women pulling together to help Mary through what we discover is the death of her child. I think Sadie is in denial about her own grief—and doesn’t yet see the ways the women who gather at the pond, and at Kate’s, might help her through it, or how the regularity of her life—the way she is needed by her husband and children–might ease her pain.

JB: Emotions such as deep loss and impossible longing resonate throughout your novel.  What made you want to explore these feelings?

KB: I’m not sure I set out to explore those feelings exactly, but in creating the character of Sadie I seemed to gravitate toward them. I imagined that loss and longing fueled Sadie’s choices, and that these feelings arose from her childhood. While I never feel I have to explain a character’s actions, I still believe that a reader should understand her or him, whether she agrees with them morally or not.

JB: You teach creative writing and literature at the University of South Florida.  How has teaching writing made you a better writer?

KB: The practice of reading good fiction in class, and discussing what strategies a writer has used to achieve that result definitely keep me focused on my own choices.

JB: In your view, Karen, what is good fiction?  How can good fiction change both the writer and the reader?

KB: For me, good fiction provides readers with a unique voice—one that allows us to navigate a world  that is familiar enough for us to believe we are experiencing events there, but that retains an element of strangeness that keeps us guessing, and wanting to know more. Good fiction utilizes specific details that accomplish multiple tasks: they let us in on secret aspects of the world—visual, emotional, and intellectual. If a book can lure a reader in, it has the potential to change the way they view their world.

JB: Which writers have influenced your work the most? Which books have had the greatest effect on your life?  Which matter the most to you?

KB: I’m drawn to lyrical writing, and as a literature student I loved writers like [Gabriel] Garcia Marquez, [Vladimir] Nabokov, Toni Morrison and Don DeLillo. I still love these writers, and reread their work. They tell their stories, which seem private—and by this I mean they are about particular people’s lives, but somehow they manage to encompass all of us, and deal with vital issues in the world.

JB: As an author of both short stories and novels, which medium do you prefer?  Why?

KB: As a reader, I enjoy a novel to escape. But if I’m reading as a writer, and want to come away from something with a jolt, a fine short story is always best. As a writer I can’t choose which I prefer—they are both so different, and require different things from me. I’ve trained myself to distill a moment down to fit the length of a story, but it’s an entirely different process loosening up the story, and filling it with scenes and multiple moments.

JB: What do you hope readers take with them after reading The Longings of Wayward Girls?TheLongingsofWaywardGirls

KB: I’m going to answer this in a roundabout way: When I knew I wanted to write a novel, I began to read them voraciously. I joined a book club, and I read the other members’ choices—books I would never have chosen myself as a stuffy instructor of Modern American Literature: Stieg Larsson, Carlos Ruiz Zafon, David Baldacci, Kate Morton. And I introduced my book club to my own choices: Richard Yates, Elizabeth Strout, Ann Patchett, Jess Walter. I learned how invested readers could be in characters, and how engaged they became with the events that befell them.

I realized that books can entertain, as well as teach us something about ourselves, and I hope that readers will enter the world I’ve created and experience both of these things.

JB: What’s next for you?  Are you working on anything new?

KB: I’d like to publish another novel, and I’m working on one now. The process of writing Longings—the revisions, the editing—taught me so much! I’m trying to apply that knowledge to this new book. (Like Longings it was inspired by one of my short stories—“Galatea” from Pins & Needles.)

JB: Thanks for a wonderful interview, Karen.  Good luck with the book!

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Interview with Elliott Holt, Author of You Are One of Them

You Are One of Them by Elliott Holt (Penguin; 304 pages; $26.95).

When two school-age girls have a falling out, the clash can seem like the outbreak of world war.  Both sides have many friends, allies who declare war simply because of loyalty to one party.  Think of them as NATO versus the Warsaw Pact.  There is no détente, and things can quickly get ugly.  Each girl deploys secret agents to spy and gather intelligence on the opposing foe.  Undercover surveillance reveals the weaknesses of each adolescent, failings that must be exploited at any cost.  Mutually assured destruction is a given.  If one of the girls tells a deep, dark secret on the other, retaliation will be swift and massive.    In this electrically charged, DEF-CON 1 environment, nuclear war becomes a real possibility as the chances of disarmament plummet.  This terminology recalls the blackest, iciest days of the Cold War—the early 1980s—the setting of Elliott Holt’s smart and suspenseful debut You Are One Of Them.

 

Jaime Boler: Thank you, Elliott, for letting me ask you these questions.  Your debut novel, You Are One of Them, grabbed me from the first page and still has a hold on me.  You worked at advertising agencies in Moscow, London , and New York, and attended the MFA program at Brooklyn College  at night.  Did you always want to be a writer?

 

Elliott Holt

Elliott Holt

Elliott Holt: Thanks so much for reading the book, Jaime. Yes, I’ve wanted to be a writer for as long as I can remember.  My mother recorded me making up song/poems at age 3 and then transcribed them. I still have them.  And by the time I was five, I was telling people that I wanted to be a writer. I wrote poetry and stories throughout my childhood. And I was always a voracious reader.

 

JB: How would you describe You Are One of Them?

 

EH: It’s a book about identity and friendship and loss, about the obsessive nature of grief, and about the way history (personal and cultural) shapes us.

 

 

It explores the themes of the Cold War–competition, paranoia, propaganda, loyalty–on the smaller scale of a friendship between two girls. Humans have a tendency to divide the world into us vs. them. Coke vs. Pepsi, the US vs. the USSR , boys vs. girls, Democrats vs. Republicans, the popular kids vs. the unpopular kids, etc.

 

It’s easy to see the world in those polarized terms and to define ourselves versus an enemy or rival. During the Cold War, much of what it meant to be American was “not Communist.” During the Revolutionary War, we weren’t British, during World War II, we weren’t Nazis, and during the Cold War, we weren’t Russian. And friendships can work that way, too. There is often an intrinsic rivalry in close friendships.

 

JB: What was the inspiration for your story?

 

EH: I was inspired by the true story of Samantha Smith, an American girl who wrote a letter to Soviet premier Yuri Andropov, asking for peace, in 1982. But her story was just a jumping-off point. This novel is not a fictionalized account of her life. (She died in a plane crash in 1985, but her remains were found. The events of my book are fabricated.)

 

Samantha Smith

Samantha Smith. For more information on this extraordinary little girl, please click her photo.

The premise was inspired by Samantha Smith, though. I thought, ‘what if two girls had written to Andropov, but only one got a response? How would the friendship between those two girls change if one of them became a famous peace ambassador and was invited to the USSR, while the other was left behind?’ So I told the story from the point-of-view of the marginalized character. And then I asked myself why this character would be so hurt by what she perceived as abandonment. So I created a family history for her, one defined by loss and fear. The late Cold War years were pretty terrifying for a lot of us. But for Sarah Zuckerman, my narrator, there is never any buffer or escape from that fear. Her mother has an anxiety disorder, so Sarah never feels safe.

 

JB: How did you come up with the title?you are one of them

 

EH: In Elizabeth Bishop’s poem, “In the Waiting Room,” the speaker says to herself, “you are one of them.” That phrase felt right for my book both in terms of tone and because the meaning works on many levels. This book is about our tendency as humans to divide the world into “us” versus “them,” but it’s also a book about identity and understanding of self. In that poem, the speaker realizes just how connected she is to the rest of humanity. Sarah, the narrator of my book, makes similar discoveries about herself.

 

You can read it as an accusation, “you are one of them!” or a quiet realization. Sarah realizes that she herself is one of ‘them’–she’s not so different from everyone else.

 

JB: In You Are One of Them, you revisit so many 80s fads and issues.  Are you a child of the 1980s?  What do you remember most about that decade?

 

EH: I was born in 1974, so yes, I was a child in the 1980s. I remember watching regular space shuttle launches on TV (and watching the Challenger explode in 1986) and following the news of regular summits between the Americans and the Soviets. I also played a lot of Pac Man!

 

JB: As a child of the 1980s, did the prospect of nuclear war frighten you?

 

EH: Definitely. Like a lot of kids my age, I was really worried about nuclear war. I was very aware of the arms race between the US  and the USSR.

ColdWarLogo

Click to learn more about the Cold War.

 

 

JB: I, too, was a child of the 80s and the possibility of nuclear war frightened me.  I’m curious as to whose voice you heard first—Sarah’s or Jenny’s?

 

EH: When I was writing the book, I was always focused on Sarah’s voice. This is Sarah’s story, not Jenny’s, and I knew that I had to write the book in the first person because Sarah is a character who has spent her life thinking of herself as a footnote in someone else’s story. In this book, she is finally telling her version of the events. Her friend wrote a book about her journey to the Soviet Union,  now Sarah is telling her story about her trip to Russia .

 

Everyone’s version of a story is different. And Sarah is not the most reliable narrator, not because she’s coy or dishonest, but because her experience is totally subjective. She sees the world through her particular lens. She’s narrating this story from a perch in her thirties, so she is looking back at her childhood in the 1980s and at her twenties in the mid-1990s. Her story is colored by nostalgia (she has a wistful, romantic view of Jenny) and by her anger and grief, but she also has enough distance from the events to put them in their historical context. The perch informs the voice and the tone.

 

JB: How were earlier versions of You Are One of Them different from the final version?

 

EH: The book changed a lot in the four years I was working on it. It’s hard for me to track all the changes I made along the way, because I revise so much. I wasn’t sure I could finish the book. I threw a lot of pages away. I spent a lot of time spinning my wheels and feeling like I’d never get it right.

 

I’d been working on it (writing and rewriting the same fifty pages) for three years before I found the line, “The first defector was my sister.” But that line unlocked the central metaphor of the book. And once I heard that line in my head, I found the tone. I follow the sound of sentences. I play with language. “Defector” sounds like “defective.”  So I found myself playing with both political defection from one’s country and the idea of being a person with defects.

The first defector was my sister.

 

JB: Perfect segue to my next question.  Why is Sarah so concerned with defectors and why does she worry she herself is defective?

 

EH: Sarah has lost a lot of people (her sister dies, her father leaves, her mother retreats into fear, and then her best friend dies), so she feels abandoned. She feels like something must be wrong with her because so many people she cared about have left her. She sees the abandonment as “defection” because she is influenced by Cold War lingo. She brands herself as a sort of martyr.

 

JB: You Are One of Them has an ambiguous ending.  I thought I knew, and then I began second-guessing myself.  Did you always intend for the conclusion to be so indefinite?

 

EH: I always knew that I wanted the book to end this way. The surface mystery is not completely resolved, but there is resolution in terms of Sarah’s emotional journey. Sarah chooses, finally, to let go of her friend’s story and focus on her own.

 

JB: You also write short fiction, which has been published in  Kenyon ReviewBellevue Literary Review, and The Pushcart Prize XXXV (2011 anthology).  Which medium do you prefer: short stories or novels?

 

26563adadb52d24c32d312684e7c3d60EH: I really love writing short stories, but in many ways they are harder to write. You can’t have a single weak line in a short story! I’ve published three short stories and each of them took me more than two years to write. I would write a first draft pretty quickly, but then spend two or three years revising it. But I’ve learned that writing a novel requires a level of endurance that a story doesn’t. I think you figure out the rules of the story or novel you’re writing while you’re working on it, though. So each new project brings different challenges.

 

JB: You are the winner of a Pushcart Prize and runner-up of the 2011 PEN Emerging Writers Award.  Did you feel any added pressure because of these early awards?

 

EH: Those two awards didn’t add pressure, but they did inspire me to keep working on my book. As a writer, you face so much rejection and self-doubt that any kind of encouragement is really helpful.

 

JB: What is a typical day of writing like for you?

 

EH: It depends. I can’t support myself just by writing fiction, so if I’m working at an ad agency (I still freelance sometimes) or teaching, I often go several weeks or even months without getting to write much at all.

 

But I saved up money to give myself a year of uninterrupted writing time while I was finishing this book. And during that period, I would spend ten or twelve hours a day at my desk. When I’m in the zone on a project, I’m hard to distract. I write in the morning, revise and edit in the afternoons and evenings. I print drafts out and edit them by hand (scribbling in the margins, etc.)

 

JB: What are some of your favorite books and who are some of your favorite authors?

 

EH: I love so many writers and so many books! Here is a sample of authors whose work I adore (in no particular order): Alice Munro, Mavis Gallant, Anne Carson, Vladimir Nabokov, Anton Chekhov, Graham Greene, Leo Tolstoy, Edith Wharton, Jane Austen, James Baldwin, Dana Spiotta, Jeffrey Eugenides, Rachel Kushner, and Zadie Smith. And I read a lot of poetry. Fiction writers should read more poetry. I’m especially keen on Emily Dickinson and Elizabeth Bishop.

 

JB: I love that you read such a wide-range of authors.  What do you like to do when you aren’t writing?

 

EH: Read! I love to read. I also like to hike/walk in the woods, swim (especially in the ocean), and go to movies, plays and art museums.

 

JB: All that reading as a kid has now paid off!  It made you the writer you are today.  What was the most difficult thing about writing your story?  And did you learn anything new about yourself in the midst of writing and editing?

EH: I’m glad that I kept working and didn’t give up on it. I had to prove to myself that I could write a novel. I learned how important determination and will is to the process.

 

JB: When you were writing your story, did you have any idea how big it could be?

 

EH: When I was working on the book, I wasn’t even sure it would be published! I’m very grateful that it was.

 

JB: What do you hope readers take with them after reading You Are One of Them?

Audio Book

Audio Book

 

EH: I hope that its depiction of fear, loss, and friendship resonates with readers.

 

JB: What’s next for you?  Are you working on anything new?

 

EH: I’m working on a couple of short stories right now. And I have an idea for another novel, but I’m not yet sure if it’s going to work!

 

JB: If You Are One of Them is an indication, anything you write will be smart and compelling!  Thank you, Elliott, for a wonderful interview.  Good luck with the book.

 

EH: Thank you so much, Jaime.

 

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Interview with Kent Wascom, Author of The Blood of Heaven

The Blood of Heaven by Kent Wascom (Grove Press; 432 pages; $25).

In elegant, lucid prose, fiction newcomer Kent Wascom brings the frontier, in all its violence and disorder, to stunning life in The Blood of Heaven.  Wascom follows Angel Woolsack, from his early life as the son of an itinerant preacher to the bordellos of Natchez and the barrooms of New Orleans to the bayous of Louisiana where Angel meets schemers and dreamers.  Rich with detail and characterizations, The Blood of Heaven revisits an early America where fortunes and men were made and great risks were taken.

Wascom is not yet 30, but he infuses his story with a wisdom, awareness, and clarity well beyond his years.   As Angel and others carve out a rough-hewn existence in early nineteenth century America, we  see them seizing their place and even plotting to overthrow a sovereign government.  Through it all, Angel’s hold on us never wavers but intensifies.  The Blood of Heaven proves Wascom is a trailblazer whose brilliance is not a one-off but a true and rooted fact.

 

Jaime Boler: Thank you, Kent, for letting me ask you these questions.   I was entranced by The Blood of Heaven and particularly loved how you capture the spirit and wildness of the frontier. Did you always want to be a novelist?

Kent Wascom

Kent Wascom

Kent Wascom: Well, I really appreciate the kind words, Jaime. I’m so glad you enjoyed the book. And, yes, for as long as I can remember I wanted to be a writer. I started writing stories when I was in elementary school, and finished my first novel—historical fiction, oddly enough, about Prohibition—at age twelve. My parents were incredibly tolerant of this strange kid who sat in his room pecking away at an old IBM Selectric.

 

JB: You were twelve going on thirty, but it paid off.  How would you describe The Blood of Heaven?

 

KW: Religiosity, love, revolution, and the birth of the American empire.

 

JB: What was the impetus behind your story?

 

KW: The voice of Angel Woolsack, the furious cadence of his speech and the viciousness of his perceptions.

 

JB: How did you decide on the title?

 

KW: I’m awful with titles. The title of the first draft was “The Kings of the Cannibal Islands”, but by the third draft the thematic element of that song had been mostly dispensed with, and it remained untitled until I wrote the last pages.

 

JB: When did you begin work on the novel and how long did it take to write?

 

KW: I began the book, after trying it out as a short story and novella, the summer of 2009, in my first year at Florida State. It took around two and a half years, maybe closer to three, to complete.

JB: While reading your story, two things struck me: 1) that The Blood of Heaven is your debut; and 2) that you aren’t even 30.  Havethe blood of heaven you written any short stories?  And how is it that your writing is so wise and astute?

KW: You’re too kind. Any wisdom in the book is the result of osmosis or at best a sort of unconscious ventriloquism. As for short stories, I’ve written quite a few, but only one I felt was worthwhile. (The one that won the Tennessee Williams prize) I love the form, love the masters like [Barry] Hannah, [Jorge Luis] Borges, [Amy] Hempel, [Julio] Cortazar, and [Isaak] Babel, but I don’t think I have the control or quality of perception necessary to be a worthwhile writer of short stories. When ideas come, they’re always for novels, or at the least novellas. I need space to roam, I suppose.

JB: What kind of research did you do for The Blood of Heaven?  Did anything you learn surprise you?

KW: The research process, because I was either a full-time student of teacher throughout, was catch-as-catch-can. And, because discovering the story of West Florida and the Kempers was such a surprise, I was continually amazed—even at the simple facts of daily life at that time, the tenuousness of the frontier people’s existence both in terms of safety and livelihood and their national status.

JB: Did you find anything in your investigation that you’d like to revisit someday, perhaps for a future story?

KW: More than I can say. That Samuel Kemper led a force of Americans into Texas and Mexico during the 1811 Gutierrez/Magee expedition, where they fought alongside Mexican nationals against the Spanish colonial army. It fascinates me to no end, this idea that ethnic boundaries were of little consequence at that moment in time, only to become very important several decades later.

In my research of Cincinnati and the Ohio River area I found a travelogue by a British traveler who was making a trip from there and down the Mississippi in order to collect Native American artifacts. His descriptions of how the settlers desecrated the burial and worship mounds which dot the waterways and forests of the region still have a hold to my imagination, and moreover that some of the artifacts were described in such wonderfully [Gabriel] Garcia Marquez-esque terms. There was a green, polished stone about the size of a platter which, if you kissed it, would cause you to levitate. This confluence of Enlightenment ideals and the fantastic seems ripe.

 

JB: Sounds like such lyrical and beautiful language.  Do you have a favorite character in The Blood of Heaven?  If so, who and why?

KW: Red Kate. I like the combination of threat and desire, of this woman who loves but could also kill you in a flash. I felt so much for her that she’s the only character unfortunate enough to encounter Angel who manages to escape, spiritually and physically. Not, of course, intact.

JB: Is Angel Woolsack based on a real person?  How did his character come about?

 

KW: Many of his actions in West Florida are based on those of the third Kemper brother, Nathan, who did not die as he does in my book. In my research I found that Nathan, lesser known than his two older brothers, was actually the one doing much of the rabble-rousing. I liked the idea that regardless of what he did, he would be overshadowed.

But he was never to be Nathan. Better, I thought, that he should be an outsider, that his position with the brothers should be precarious. I did have something of a physical model for Angel, at least late in life.

Early in the writing of the book, I stumbled on a picture of the man who ceremonially fired the first shot on Ft. Sumter, inaugurating the Civil War. http://www.old-picture.com/defining-moments/pictures/Edmund-Ruffin.jpg I looked at him and thought, there’s Angel. Of course I reduced him by and eye and arm.

 

JB: What, in your view, can the period in which you set your novel teach us about American history and about ourselves?

KW: I think the turn of the 19th century offers a profound coign of vantage for understanding ourselves as a country that has been in a continual state of flux from the moment of its inception. The very idea of a “national character” is as mutable (or permeable for that matter) as our borders and the capricious regard in which we hold the borders of others. Moreover, the period was the brooding ground for our great national conflict, which continues to this day, between Enlightenment principles and the savage convictions of violence, avarice, and religious fanaticism.

 

JB: Would this story have worked as well, or at all, if set in a different time and place?

KW: The characters are such products of their time, truly turn of the century people—with one foot in the 18th and the other in the 19th—that they could not be transplanted. However, their circumstances, the intrigues and revolutionary acts of extra-national acquisition (an over-fancy way of saying filibustering) in which they participate have occurred throughout the history of the country, so in a way I do believe the story would work as well if it were set at the time of Philip Nolan, or William Walker, or Sam Zemurray.

JB: How different were earlier versions of the novel compared with the final copy?

 

KW: Radically. The first draft combined Reuben and Samuel, only featured Red Kate in a minor fashion, continued the story through 1814, and was almost completely thrown out.

 

JB: What was the most difficult thing about writing The Blood of Heaven?

KW: Living with the voice of Angel. Having the crazed, calloused perspective of a 19th century slaver rattling around in my head even after leaving the desk.

 

JB: Did you learn anything new about yourself in the midst of writing and editing your story?

The author signing copies of his book

The author signing copies of his book

 

KW: I certainly learned the foibles, the tell-tale tics and tremors, of my technique. Nothing will give you a better idea of your weaknesses as a writer than repeated readings of your work. I hope I’ve absorbed some of that learning and can avoid a few miscues and wrong turns as I work on the next book.

 

JB: What do you like to do when you are not writing?

 

KW: Read, fiddle about in the outdoors (fishing, hiking, etc.), the occasional human contact.

 

JB: Who are some of your favorite authors and what are some of your favorite books?

 

KW: There are so many, and it’s really a jackdaw’s nest-style collection. Of course, the Southern America pantheon, which I (after Carlos Fuentes, who stands high in my regard) consider paired with the Latin American: [William] Faulkner, [Flannery] O’Connor, [Barry] Hannah, [Harry] Crews, [Cormac] McCarthy, [Shelby S.] Foote, [Larry] Brown; [Jorge Luis] Borges, [Gabriel] Garcia Marquez, [Juan] Ruflo, [Julio] Cortazar, [Mario] Vargas Llosa, [Eduardo] Galeano, [Jose] Donoso. My more recent but no less verdant loves: Hilary Mantel, whose backlog I’m rationing, William T. Vollmann, for his historical work and philosophy. For pure linguistic pleasure, learning the beat and pulse of a sentence, I adore William H. Gass and John Hawkes. Above all, perhaps, is Yukio Mishima, whose unflinching eye, salience to horror, and the achievement of his Sea of Fertility tetralogy, has been immeasurable influence.

 

JB: What was your publication process like?

 

KW: Magical, really. I finished the final draft of the book on the same day my friend and mentor Bob Shacochis finished his. A first sign of cosmic promise. Within a few weeks Bob had passed the manuscript on to interested editors at Scribner and Grove. A week or so later, Bob told me that Grove editor Elisabeth Schmitz was hosting a dinner at the AWP conference in Chicago, and that I should go. “But,” he said, “I don’t think they want the book. They haven’t said a word about it, and these sorts of silences don’t bode well, my boy. But go, make some connections, and maybe they’ll take the next one.” So, for the week leading up to the conference Bob runs me down with talk of Grove’s disinterest, leaving me haggard and depressed by the evening of the dinner.

Unbeknownst to me, the folks at Grove had read the book in three days and had been screaming at Bob to let me know that they wanted it. Meanwhile, all I hear is “They really don’t seem to want the book. Tough luck, kiddo.” So the evening of the dinner arrives, and I’m standing outside this pizza place with Bob when a cab pulls up and out steps Elisabeth Schmitz. As she approaches, Bob takes me aside and says, “Okay, there is something I’ve been keeping from you. I’m sorry to say that, at this time, Grove / Atlantic is NOT prepared to offer you a one book contract.”

I am near collapse when Elisabeth winsomely says, “Because we want to offer you a TWO book contract.” I burst into tears, grab Elizabeth and spin her round, and proceed to collapse into a laughing, bawling wreck out there on the sidewalk. Utterly glorious.

JB: That IS glorious and rather wonderful.  Do you have any advice for anyone working on a first novel?

KW: For those embarking on their first: Let no National Novel Writing Months fool you, the act of writing a novel is arduous and long, and the world, as you’ve undoubtedly noticed, is pitiless to your goal. Your efforts should be limited to survival (financial, emotional—though neither of these are guaranteed) and not only finishing the book, but making it the best that it can be. (In short, revise until you’ve got the words on the page memorized.) Give primacy to nothing else.

There’s a great quote from Harry Crews that goes something like, “The world doesn’t want you to write a book. The world wants you to go to the zoo and eat cotton candy, preferably every day.” Do your best to avoid that world, though you will lose a chance of friends on your way.

 

JB: Your writing has been compared to Cormac McCarthy and Charles Frazier and even Flannery O’Connor and William Faulkner.  How do such comparisons make you feel?

KW: You can only bow your head at such things and try to shake them off.  It’s such a lovely compliment, to be associated in a small way with the pillars of world letters. But these comparisons are like beauties with razor-blades for teeth; they appear gorgeous but can just as easily leave you in shreds. If you look at some of [Cormac] McCarthy’s early reviews, he gets absolutely savaged with the [William] Faulkner comparison.

 

JB: What do you hope readers take with them after reading The Blood of Heaven?

 

KW: Enjoyment. It may seem strange to say that about such a harrowing book, but I enjoy dark and harrowing books, and I hope it finds an audience of such people—while also shaking up the worlds of some cloistered others. Intellectually, once it’s in the reader’s hands my desires are off the table; they take from it what they will.

 

JB: What’s next for you?  Are you working on anything new?

Wascom__Kent_photo_by_John_Wang

 

KW:  I’d better get it out of the way that The Blood of Heaven is the first volume of a planned sextet, dealing with the history of the Gulf coast and later its interchanges with the Caribbean (The Golden Circle, if you will), from the Louisiana Purchase to Katrina and the oil spill. From birth to apocalypse. Secessia, the novel I’m currently working on, is about the occupation of New Orleans during the Civil War and features as perspective characters, among others, Angel Woolsack’s son and wife (both mentioned in the prologue), as well as the infamous General Benjamin Butler. I hasten to add that the sextet is a lifetime project—I can only hope that I’ll be lucky enough to have a kindly publisher who will keep printing them as they come—and will be interrupted by unrelated projects.

JB: Wow, I am in awe and will eagerly await Secessia.  Thanks, Kent, for a wonderful interview.  Good luck with the book!

 

KW: Thank you so much, Jaime. It was a pleasure.

 

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Interview with Bill Cheng, Author of Southern Cross The Dog

Southern Cross the Dog by Bill Cheng (Ecco Books; 336 pages; $25.99).

Chinese-American author Bill Cheng takes on the African-American existence in Mississippi in his odyssey Southern IMG_9156_t607Cross the Dog.  Cheng focuses his narrative lens on Robert Chatham, a black man in his 20s who believes he is cursed.

Cheng contrasts the tenderness of falling in love for the first time with the rising waters of the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927, the catastrophe that destroyed Robert’s home and changed his life forever.

Robert’s journey takes him from a refugee camp to a brothel to a job clearing land in the name of progress.  With an evocative setting, Southern Cross the Dog is a testament to a man’s will to live and to the distance he will go for friendship and love as he must carve a place and an existence free of bad luck and curses.

Full of meaning, Southern Cross the Dog features a strong narrator who takes us with him on his incredible journey.  Cheng’s magisterial and resonating historical epic is steeped in an astounding setting and peopled by the most intriguing and charismatic characters.  Equally memorable and equally fascinating, Southern Cross the Dog heralds the arrival of a brilliant new voice in literature.

 

Jaime Boler: Thank you, Bill, for letting me ask you these questions.  You blew me away with your epic odyssey set in my home state.  Did you always want to be a writer?

Bill Cheng

Bill Cheng

Bill Cheng: It’s my pleasure.

I can’t remember a time of wanting to be anything else.  When I was a kid, I was prone to daydreaming a lot in class, and, when I was twelve, I started writing these adventure stories with my friends.  There wasn’t a discrete moment, though, where I felt like I was suddenly [a] writer.  It was just something I did, out of boredom or to amuse myself.  Some part of that probably holds true today.

 

JB: How would you describe Southern Cross the Dog in ten words or less?

 

BC: Coming home.

 

 

JB: Are you a fan of the blues?

 

BC: Very much so.  I kind of came of age at a time when this country was particularly fragile and unsure of itself and its place in the world.  Blues, for me, had a way of framing that anxiousness and desperateness.  When I listen to John Hurt or Skip James or Leroy Carr, the world becomes smaller somehow, more manageable.

 

JB: Which character’s voice did you hear first?

BC: Dora’s.  Robert I saw first, but Dora I know down to the timbre.  When I was 21 or 22, I was teaching for a short time at this this school in Bedford-Stuyvesant.  I think I heard her voice there.

 

JB: What was the inspiration behind Southern Cross the Dog?

BC: There isn’t one blues song that helped me build the texture and world of this novel.  The first one I point to, though, is John Lee Hooker’s Tupelo, but there are a host of others: (In the Evening) When the Sun Goes Down by Leroy Carr; Hellhound on my Trail by Robert Johnson, Death Letter Blues by Son House, Make Me a Pallet on Your Floor by Mississippi John Hurt, Hard Times Killing Floor by Skip James… the list goes on and on.

But on the subject of inspiration, the writers teaching at my MFA program at Hunter College—Colum McCann, Peter Carey, Nathan Englander—have been an ongoing source of inspiration, not only for this book, but my outlook on what I think a writer is and should be.

 

JB: Your title is a reference to “Where the Southern crosses the yellow dog,” where two railroad lines cross in Moorhead, Mississippi.  What does the title mean to Robert Chatham, your main character?

BC: Interesting question.  I don’t know if I’ll have an interesting answer.  To me, that’s always existed in my mind as a place of final rest and peace, like the Beulah Land that John Hurt sings about.  To me, that’s what Robert wants throughout the novel, but when Robert he uses the term in the novel, I’m not sure if it’s anything but a reference to the place.

 

JB: Prior to your Mississippi book tour, had you ever visited the state?  Did anything about Mississippi or its people surprise you?

 

The author at Lemuria Books in Jackson, MS

The author at Lemuria Books in Jackson, MS

BC: I hadn’t.   

I hate to generalize, but I suppose my greatest surprise was how warm and genial [everyone] was.  I remember driving through Vicksburg one Sunday evening, and my wife and I had gotten a little turned around.  We were along some stretch of houses down by the river, and some old guy was just sitting on his porch, looking at us.  Then, unexpectedly, he lifted up his hand to wave to us.  We waved back.

 

JB: Yes, that sounds exactly like Mississippians.  What research did you do for Southern Cross the Dog?

 

BC: I’ve done a fair amount.  Read a lot, listened to music, oral histories, watched movies, documentaries, visited museums—basically everything short of booking a flight and setting foot down into the Delta. It can be tricky with research; you don’t want to do so much that the story you want to tell becomes bullied and constrained by the research.  Somewhere in my parents’ house is a replica of a brochure that shows all the Black-friendly hotels in Mississippi.  That never made it into the book, but it told me something about the world I was trying to imagine.
JB: What was the most difficult thing about writing your novel?southern cross

 

BC: Writing the Dora section was difficult.  Having to embody a young black girl who undergoes this horrible abuse—it really tested my convictions as to what I believe is and isn’t within a writer’s wheelhouse.

 

JB: Did you learn anything new about yourself while writing this story?

 

BC: I suppose I learned a lot about what I’m willing to test and what I’m willing to risk as a new writer starting out.  I learned that good fiction is unafraid, and, more than art, the writer needs conscience.

 

JB: How were earlier versions of Southern Cross the Dog different from the final copy?

 

BC: In the earliest conception of the book, Eli Cutter was going to play a more significant role in Robert’s life.  Robert and Eli would have traveled together in Duke’s medicine show.  In the end, I decided it would make the already large book too unwieldy.  I also cut some scenes with the dog.  Its presence was pressing too deeply in the realm of the supernatural, and I wanted it its presence to be an open question in the reader’s mind.

southern cross the dog

 

JB: What do you hope readers take with them after reading Southern Cross the Dog?

 

BC: I want readers to understand that this was not a book about the South, or about the Black experience.  It’s about us, today, right here.

 

JB: What’s next for you?  Are you working on anything new?

 

BC: Yes.   About a hundred new things, in fact.  It’s hard to stay with anything new when a part of you is still so vested in the world of this book.  But I think things are about winding down now.  I have a new novel I’m trying to make some headway, but I might just go ahead and try to knock out some short stories as a kind of palette cleanser.

I can say, however, with some confidence that whatever my next project is, it won’t be another blues novel.  It’d be easy enough to poach some of the characters from here and perhaps set the book in post-WWII Chicago but there’s nothing vital in that for me right now.  It’s not to say that it couldn’t happen in the future, but, right now, I feel like I’ve said what I wanted to say.

 

JB: I will read anything you write.  Whatever it is: I know it will be good.  Thanks, Bill, for a wonderful interview.  Good luck with the book!

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