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Interview with Caroline Leavitt, Author of Is This Tomorrow

Caroline Leavitt

Caroline Leavitt

Jaime Boler: Thank you, Caroline, for letting me ask you these questions.  I devoured Is This Tomorrow  in one sitting and loved the tense, suspenseful atmosphere you create.  I know this novel is very personal to you.  What was your inspiration for Is This Tomorrow?

Caroline Leavitt: I grew up in the 60s and my family was the only Jewish family on a Christian block. I grew up hearing, “You killed Christ,” and “Where are your horns?” and in third grade, I was even given a test on Jesus and the apostles in public school! But there was another family that was even more outcast—a divorced woman with two kids. She had a lot of boyfriends, she was sultry, and she was therefore, suspect. I was friends with her daughter who kept telling me that the family she babysat for was going to adopt her and I kept telling her that was impossible.

But it actually happened. Her mother gave her up, she left with this family, and shortly afterwards, the woman and her son just vanished. I was haunted by that.  I wanted to write about what it feels like to be an outsider in a closed community, and I also wanted to write about the 1950s, when everything was supposed to be perfect and everyone was supposed to be the same, and anyone who was not, was somehow punished.

JB: Did you always want to be a writer?

CL: I did! I was a sickly little girl with asthma who spent a lot of time in the library or at home when other kids were playing.  I wanted to validate my experiences and I could do that by writing about them. Plus I loved creating these whole worlds!

JB: Please describe Is This Tomorrow using ten words or less.
CL: Tense. Paranoia. Yearning. Fear. Suspicion. Love. Mothers/sons. Fathers/ sons.

JB: Is This Tomorrow is your tenth novel.  How was writing this book different from writing your first or second book?  Does it come easier?

CL: It never gets easier. There’s a famous John Irving quote (I love John Irving) where he says if you don’t feel that you are writing over your head, that you have no authority to tell your story, and that everything is about to fall apart instantly, than you are not writing hard enough. You are supposed to feel sick with nerves and terror! And I think he’s right.

Every book is something brand new and it is always hard, filled with terror, filled with joy, and monumentally difficult and wonderful. It’s different than writing my first because I know to expect these states so I don’t panic over them as much anymore!

JB: I often hear that writing a book and then seeing it on shelves is like being pregnant and giving birth. Is it like that for you?
CL: I would say no, because for me being pregnant was pure bliss. I loved all of it, from the morning sickness on down to the labor pains. And giving birth was just a day out of the whole 9 months. To me writing a book is more like running a marathon with a stone in your shoe and blisters on your feet, and every once in a while someone hands you a band-aid and some cold water.

JB: Your family moved to the suburbs of Waltham, Massachusetts, in the 1960s.  Yours was the only Jewish family in a predominantly Christian neighborhood.  How were you seen as “different”?  Did you feel like an outsider?
CL: I was a total outsider. I wasn’t just Jewish, I was also sickly with asthma, and I was really smart in a town where only 10 percent of the high school went on to college and being smart was viewed with suspicion. (Many people thought that smart people were Communists.) One of the ways I got through it was looking to the future. I knew I would get out of Waltham, that I’d go to college, that I’d be a writer.

is this tomorrow

JB: Which character’s voice did you hear first while mulling this story in your head?

CL: Ava.  I heard and felt Ava’s pain in struggling to make a home for her son, to avoid her ex-husband getting custody, to get to work on time, and to deal with the adoration of her son’s best friend all at once!

JB: Why did you set your story in the 1950s and 1960s?

CL: Because it’s such a fascinating time for me. The suburbs in the 1950s were supposed to be the American dream! There was money in the bank, cars in the garages, women had all these modern conveniences, yet the undercurrent was that everyone was terrified of the atom bomb and of a Communist takeover. There were all sorts of pamphlets written about how to spot a Communist (beware of multi-syllabic words!) and how to survive an atom bomb (Wipe your feet before you come in the house to get rid of excess radiation.) Women were second class citizens and people were very, very paranoid about anyone even remotely different. The 60s was on the cusp of change, but even in the early sixties, it was still pretty unsettling a time.

JB: Is Ava loosely based on your own mother?

 

CL: Not really. Though when Ava marches up to the school to complain that Lewis has a test about the apostles—that was my mom!

JB: What was the most difficult thing about writing Is This Tomorrow?

CL: When I had to write what happened to Jimmy and why. I felt such despair. I wanted to skirt over it, but I knew that I couldn’t, and it haunted me for weeks.

JB: Did you discover anything new about yourself in the midst of writing Is This Tomorrow?

CL: I discovered a new compassion for the people who had made my life difficult when I was young. In creating fully realized characters, I began to understand that they had their own issues and problems and they were doing what they felt they had to do. And I began to realize that writing about my childhood in Waltham was actually liberating. I could look at it through a much more compassionate lens.

JB: How were earlier versions of the story different from the final copy?

CL: The earlier versions were not fully formed. Around the 6th draft, I realized part of the book was a meditation about mothers and sons, and letting go. Around the 8th draft, I began to see that there was a love story forming and so I worked really hard on that. And around the 20th draft, I knew what exactly had happened to Jimmy and why.

JB: Do you have lots of different ideas for future stories in your head at one time?  If so, how do you decide which idea to pursue, what to keep for later, and what to discard?

CL: I do. If it haunts me over six months, I know it’s a keeper. I have a folder called NEW NOVELS and I throw in ideas. Some of them are things I’ve been wanting to write for years and years, but I just haven’t figured out how yet.  To me, it’s all in the timing. Some ideas are like wine. They just have to be aged a bit for me to realize what the real story is and why it’s important to me.

JB: You are also an avid reader, reviewer, and blogger.  How has blogging changed book marketing and publicity?

CL: Blogging is fantastic! I started blogging because I thought that was what writers were supposed to be doing, but then I was also reviewing books for People, The San Francisco Chronicle and The Boston Globe, and there were often books I loved that I couldn’t place, or I couldn’t pitch because I was friends with the writer (that’s considered unethical). So I figured what I could do was conduct interviews with writers. That way I could give them press and I could have fun and learn something about writers I admire!  There are fewer and fewer newspapers and book review sections, and blogging takes up the slack beautifully.

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

CL: I’m a movieholic. I love independent films (I was actually a finalist in the Sundance Screenwriting Lab this year), but I will see anything that moves on the screen, which means a lot of times friends refuse to go with me because of my choices. I also read all the time and I love prowling NYC, and going from museums to shops to restaurants to parks.

JB: Any hidden talents we don’t know about?

CL: Well, I was the proud owner of a gorgeous tortoise for 20 years. I used to walk him in Central Park. I wrote about him for NYT Modern Love. Before I got married, my tortoise was my litmus test for boyfriends. If a man would eat dinner while the tortoise was on the table, then he was a keeper.

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

CL: John Irving, The Ciderhouse Rules, The World According to Garp

Elizabeth Strout, Amy & Isobelle
Dan Chaon, Stay Awake

Meg Wolitzer, The Interestings
Anything by the Brontes!

And of course all my writer friends’ books. If it is on my blog, chances are I adore it.

JB: There are so many great books that come out each month (even each week).  How do you decide which books to read and review for your blog?
CL: I’m a great scout. I sometimes hear about books by seeing a post on FB or twitter. Sometimes writers or publicists will write to me about a book, or sometimes authors will suggest other books that I might like.

JB: What advice do you have for anyone working on a first novel?

CL: Don’t. Give. Up. See if any part of your novel in progress might work as an excerpt. (Check out Poets & Writers, a great resource for that.) Try to build community with other writers so you have a support system in place. Always help other writers. It’s good karma and that also helps you build community.  Attend conferences so you know editors and agents.
Also, do not write for the market. Do not write for a reader. You will kill your art. The way to reach others is to write for yourself, to dig deep. That is what will make your work universal and true.

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

CL: I get up at 7 to see my son off to school, then I hit my desk and stay there until lunch. My husband works at home, too, and we have lunch together. Sometimes we take off and go see a movie! But then we are back at our desks until dinner. After dinner is what I call clean-up time, where I handle all the odds and ends I have to do. But we have a rule. No working after ten. And we stay up until one, so we can decompress and have a life!

JB: What do you hope readers take with them after reading Is This Tomorrow?

CL: That fitting in, especially in a closed community, is not always what you want or need to do. That you can find your own community and it may not look anything like what you thought it would, but it can still nourish and support you. That paranoia can destroy lives. That love and hope can save them.

JB: What’s next for you?  Are you working on anything new?outdoorshot12-03
CL: I just sold a proposal for my next novel, CRUEL BEAUTIFUL WORLD to Algonquin, which I now have to write. It should be out 2015. It’s set in the waning days of the 1960s and the early 70s when all the peace and love movement began to turn ugly, and it centers around a young girl who runs off with her older high school teacher to a back-to- the- land Utopia, which turns unexpectedly tragic.

JB: Thank you, Caroline, for a wonderful interview.  Good luck with the book!

CL: Thank you so much for these wonderful questions!

 

 

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Interview with Jessica Soffer, Author of Tomorrow There Will Be Apricots

Jessica Soffer

Jaime Boler: Thank you, Jessica, for letting me interview you.  I love Tomorrow There Will Be Apricots for its profound message, its well-drawn characters, its rich recipes, and, perhaps, most of all, for your phenomenal writing.  How did you come up with Tomorrow There Will Be Apricots?

Jessica Soffer: During graduate school, I wrote a story called “Pain.” It was the chronicling of a woman’s entire life of self-harm from childhood to womanhood. It was an unsuccessful piece in a lot of ways—most of all, I think, because it was so sad. And there was no break from that.

Lorca was the protagonist, though, and she was the upshot. I loved her. Love her. She’s so sad, and yet in Apricots, she finds a way out of that: through food, through friendship, through a kind of persistent optimism that she never got around to in the short story.

JB: Please describe Tomorrow There Will Be Apricots using ten words or less.

JS: A(1) debut(2) novel(3) you(4) simply(5) cannot (6) live(7) or(8) breathe(9) without(10).

Or.

Food(1), friendship(2), NYC(3), growing(4) up(5), growing(6) old(7), sadness(8) and(9) hope(10).

JB: “Soffer” means “scribe” in Arabic.  Your father was a sculptor and painter, your grandfather was a scribe, and you are a writer and storyteller.  It’s as if writing is in your DNA.  As a child, did you want to be a writer?

JS: I’ve always been obsessed with books and words and rhythm. It wasn’t until I was in high school that I started to consider a career in writing, what that might look like. And it was very much because of my parents that I wasn’t afraid, because they dedicated their lives to the pursuit of creativity—of living in it, for it, because of it—that I felt I could too. And I had some idea of how to begin.

JB: Food is a symbol in Tomorrow There Will Be Apricots, substituting for love, affection, and companionship.  What prompted you to use food in such a way?

JS: Food is certainly a symbol for all those things in Apricots. But as much as that, I’d say that food is a source of real sadness, Tomorrow There Will Be Apricotsreminding the characters of what once was, what can no longer be, what can never be. I’m deeply interested in the things that bring us—in equal measure—joy and sorrow. And the notion that it is often those very things that can be most useful. For Lorca and Victoria, the novel’s protagonists, food is a way to communicate happiness and loss. It’s a way to engage with the world: with emotions, memories, each other.

JB: There are a lot of mouth-watering dishes in Tomorrow There Will Be Apricots.  Do you like to cook? What is your favorite food?

JS: I love to cook and do often. I’d say that my favorite foods change seasonally: mushrooms in fall, bean soups in winter, greens in the spring, and watermelon in the summer. I don’t mind if it’s covered in sand and saltwater. In fact, I’d prefer it.

JB: What are the perils and pitfalls of incorporating food into a novel?  What are the rewards?

JS: I think that’s probably a question for the reader, and not me. I mean, maybe the self-harm and the food will turn people off. Maybe I’ve ruined French bistro food for anyone who has read the novel. Maybe some people like their food on a plate and not between the pages.

But I never thought about that while writing. You can’t, I don’t think. You write. You write. You write what you can write, what you feel you have to. Of course, everything is a choice and writing has little to do with fate. But I wrote the book I felt most compelled to write. I never thought about whether it was good or bad idea to write about food (and it would scare me to really consider those questions now)—it was, call me idiotic, simply what I wrote.

JB: I never sympathized with Lorca’s mother, Nancy, even when I discovered her history.  Is she a sympathetic character?

JS: I think that every character is a sympathetic character. And every person. Nancy shouldn’t have been a mother and her treatment of Lorca is unforgivable. But she is deeply unhappy, always has been, and cannot find her way out of it. That, for me, commands a whole lot of sympathy. Lorca will be OK. Nancy never will.

JB: What kind of research did you do for your book?

JS: On Iraqi Jews: I spoke with family members, read books, watched documentaries. On self-harmers: I went to cutters’ meetings, met with psychiatrists, psychologists, cutters too. At a certain point though, I had to put the research aside: let the good stuff sift in and let the rest vanish for a time. All the “facts” were pressing too hard on the work and it came through burdensome and clunky.

JB: You teach fiction at Connecticut College. Has teaching fiction made you a better author?

JS: I hope so. I guess that remains to be seen. But I have had to think about the fundamentals of writing again. All the stuff that I take for granted, that feels second nature, I’ve had to reanalyze and consider and articulate. Like, why it’s unfair to say, “And then she woke up.” Why and why not and what’s an appropriate alternative. Fiction feels fresh again. Like I’m seeing it with a new set of eyes. It’s wonderful. And my students are smart and eager and fantastic. Just fantastic.

banner soffer apricots_edited-1JB: You point out in your novel that the Jewish life is over in Baghdad and “masgouf will never be prepared as it once was again.”  Can you explain?

JS: Masgouf was carp, typically from the Euphrates or Tigris, pulled out of the water, grilled on the banks and prepared with lemon and tamarind and tomatoes. Because of all the dead bodies in those rivers, there was a fatwah declared on those fish. And Baghdad is not what it once was. All the Jews are gone. Their experience of eating masgouf as they once did is very much over.

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

JS: Virginia Woolf, Alice Munro, Vladimir Nabokov, Roberto Bolaño, Flannery O’Connor, James Salter.

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

JS: Read, of course. Walk the streets of New York City, the beaches of Eastern Long Island. Cook. Yoga. Read.

JB: What was your publication process like?

JS: I’ve been very, very lucky. I’ve been blown away by my agent, editor, and publicist. I don’t think everyone gets a crew this dedicated and generous and lovely, really, and I’m hesitant to talk too much about it lest the magic dispels. But I worked hard and long with my agent, revised and revised. And then again with my editor. They were both tireless. The work needed it. I had to do big structural shifts but they could see past those, believed in the book despite its shortcomings, which is surprising to me now. They saw a better version of the book than me. And they led me to it.

JB: How different were earlier versions of Tomorrow There Will Be Apricots from the finished copy?

JS: It meandered much more. There was more Joseph. People kept calling it “literary,” and not in a good way. I think “obtuse” would have been a better word, though less a sensitive one. It required a stronger plot, more forward momentum, more of Lorca and Victoria together. And that’s what it got in the end.

JB: What was the most difficult thing about writing this novel?

JS: This part. The letting go. The having faith that it will find a place in the world, its place. Faith is so hard and so crucial. In a lot of ways, there’s a sadness to the whole thing. That what I love the most—writing—has been bastardized (I know that’s a very strong word and maybe not the right one) for my career. It’s no longer just joy, which is obvious and should have been for the last five or six years. But it’s only just dawning on me. And I’m so sensitive. The thick skin must grow. It will.

JB: What did you learn about yourself while in the midst of writing and editing?

JS: That I love to write. That I can’t wait to write another, better novel with its own set of issues—different ones, I hope. That I can’t imagine a different career, a more engaged way to spend my days. That if I was on a deserted island and could only take one item with me it would be my computer so I could write. And a charger and a very, very long extension cord. I wouldn’t need the Internet, but my handwriting is atrocious. So a computer, yes.

JB: Please give us a peek into a typical day in your life when you are writing.

JS: It changes radically. There are days when I do not get out of my pajamas. When I cannot pull myself from the computer screen. There are days of staring into space. Days of erasing. Days when I know I won’t be productive and so I try to find alternative ways of contributing to the work: reading, looking at art, doing yoga until it hurts, considering something new and writing notes until I scrap them and revert back to what I’d been toiling away on previously. The good stuff tends to rise to the top. I worked full-time until I started working with my editor so those days looked very different than the days when I taught undergrads—and different still from the days when I had no real “job” but the writing itself.

JB: What do you hope readers take with them after reading Tomorrow There Will Be Apricots?jessica_soffer_web._V371310385_

JS: I can only hope that it moves them as writing has moved me my whole life. That the characters linger, the sadness, the hope, the sense of nostalgia. Not that readers learn anything—I don’t have anything to teach really—but that there is a certain feeling that comes across and it doesn’t vanish. Good books have done that for me for so long: moved me in a fundamental, physical way, as much as an emotional one. That’s lofty, I know. But here’s to hoping.

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

JS: I have an idea for a novel but I haven’t really gotten down to it yet. I’ve been working on lots of non-fiction for newspapers and magazines as the book stuff is happening. But I’m eager to get back into fiction. It’s what I love the most and what requires the most—space, time, energy. Of course, it’s what rewards the most, too.

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

 

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Blog Tour: Mini-Interview with Maria Goodin, Author of From the Kitchen of Half Truth

Jaime Boler: Did you always want to be a writer?

Maria Goodin: Yes, among other things. I am quite changeable and restless, so I don’t think I was ever destined to just think of a

Maria Goodin

Maria Goodin

career I wanted and head straight down that route.

I have worked as a teacher, a massage therapist, a counselor, an administrator…I think I will always have a varied career. But yes, writing a novel was always an ambition of mine. I think there is a lot of negative talk out there about becoming a writer, though, and how hard it is to get published.   To be honest, I probably saw being an author as the least obtainable career option, and so for a long time it was left on the shelf while I focused on finding other ways to pay the bills.  The desire to write a book was always there though, nagging at the back of my mind.

JB: How did you come up with the idea for FROM THE KITCHEN OF HALF TRUTH?

MG: I was out and about one day when I heard one lady say to another “and the baby was caught in a frying pan”, or at least that’s what I thought she said. I was on a busy, noisy street at the time and I’m sure I must have misheard. But the image was such a funny one it really stuck in my mind. I nutmegwrote a short story, “Nutmeg”, based around this idea, and when that won a writing competition I was inspired to turn that story into a novel.

JB:  What do you hope readers take with them after reading your story?

MG: One reader said it made them think about what’s important in life, and I think it would be a great achievement if my readers took that message away with them. Life passes so quickly and it’s so easy to forget what really matters and take it for granted.

I’m also very interested in this question about reality –the idea of an absolute reality versus individual self-created realities – and if readers wanted to consider that issue after reading the book then I think that would be a positive thing. It’s easy to go through life assuming that we are all living the same ‘reality’, and perhaps getting frustrated when other people don’t appear to be on the same page as us, but I think we all create our own worlds as a result of individual life experiences. I think an appreciation of this can help us develop empathy and be less judgmental.

JB:  Your book is about storytelling.  How have stories enriched your life and made you the person you are today?from the kitchen of half truth

MG: I have fond memories of being read to as a child, and later I read quite a lot by myself. I also watched a fair bit of television and quite a lot of films. As a consequence, I developed a very vivid imagination. I was always disappearing into my own little world, and I became quite skilled at envisaging characters and scenarios. I was always daydreaming, and even as an adult I have a bit of a tendency to get lost in my own head at times. Expressed positively it makes me creative, but expressed negatively it doesn’t always help in addressing practical matters!

Fiction has always provided an escape from the stresses and strains of daily life for me, whether it comes from a book, the television or from my own imagination.

JB: Thank you very much, Maria, for answering my questions!

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Interview with Amy Brill, Author of The Movement of Stars

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Amy Brill, Author of The Movement of Stars

Jaime Boler: Thank you so much, Amy, for letting me ask you these questions.  The Movement of Stars is such a gorgeous novel, and I know readers of all ages will embrace your protagonist, Hannah Gardner Price.  You are a writer and producer and you previously worked for PBS and MTV.  Did you always want to be a writer?

Amy Brill: I did. I’ve wanted to be a writer for as long as I can remember. I was a voracious reader from a very early age. For my 5th grade book-and-author luncheon I was Louisa May Alcott, so I guess I had a latent thing for the 19th century even then.

JB: Your Twitter profile says: “Turned 40, sold book, had baby in car!”  Please tell me more!

AB: Oh, well. You know. Second baby. Things just went faster than expected! If you’re really curious, I wrote about the birth-in-the-car for Redbook recently. You can read it here.  Or did you want to hear more about 40? It’s the new 30. I just cling to that.

JB: For those who do not know, The Movement of Stars is loosely based on the life of Maria Mitchell.  Who was Maria Mitchell?

AB: She was the first professional female astronomer in America. She was born on Nantucket in 1818 into a large Quaker family, and was taught astronomy by her father, who calibrated the chronometers for the Nantucket whaling fleet. She had only a high school education, but she went on to discover a comet and become the founding professor of astronomy at Vassar College.

maria mitchell

JB: You first learned about Ms. Mitchell on a trip to Nantucket in 1996.  What about her captivated you so much that you wanted to write about her?

AB: I was taken by the idea of this young girl who was so dedicated to her passion that she spent night after night up on her roof, in every kind of weather, searching for something as elusive as a comet. I felt compelled to learn more, and more, and more, until I was so immersed in her life and times that I had to keep going.

JB: What prompted you to write about her?

AB: I didn’t want to write a straight biography, I wanted to write a novelized version of her life. It took many years of research and many dry, epistolary drafts before I understood that the story I really wanted to tell existed only in my head, and that Miss Mitchell and the “facts” of her life were only a leaping-off place, not a destination.

JB: How is Hannah Gardner Price different from Maria Mitchell?

AB: There’s certainly no indication that Maria Mitchell had any kind of relationship with a black whaler from the Azores, to begin with. Also, their family situations were entirely different. Hannah lives alone with her father, her twin brother being away on a whaleship. Maria Mitchell had a large family around her. And all of the secondary characters are invented, except the Bonds, the father-and-son team who ran the Harvard Observatory. They were real people and were friends with Maria and her father, though my version of those relationships is invented.

JB: What kind of research did you do for The Movement of Stars?

AB: I don’t think there’s any kind I didn’t do, short of navigating an actual whaleship across the Atlantic.

I think I read everything there is to read about 19th century astronomy, New England women and self-fashioning, Nantucket culture, Quakers, and whaling. I was assisted by the many archives and libraries I visited, from the Kendall Library of the New Bedford Whaling Museum to the Maria Mitchell Association archives to the American Antiquarian Society in Worcester, MA, where I was a visiting artist fellow in 2005.

JB: Hannah’s world is so small and fixed in place when the story begins.  She’s bound by her gender and her religion.  Everything changes for Hannah by the end of the book, and her world enlarges in so many different ways.  If Hannah were to spend one day in 2013, what would she say about women’s roles?  How far would she say we still have to go in the Twenty-First Century?

AB: She was hardcore in her beliefs and outspoken about equality for women. So I think she would be be thrilled that women now go to college, work in any field they like, and vote. But I think she’d be aghast that more women aren’t running for office to redress the issues that force families to shoulder the tremendous burden of incompatible work-life policy in the workplace, and to fight for adequate, subsidized childcare and family leave to enable women to actually achieve parity without sacrificing quality of family life. Wow, that was a mouthful.

JB: You set your story in Nantucket in the 1840s, an era and a locale that come to vivid life in The Movement of Stars.  How did you capture the sense of place so well?

AB: I spent a little time there, but mostly through careful research and deep enchantment with the place itself. In so many ways Nantucket today and Nantucket 200 years ago aren’t all that different.

JB: How difficult was it to get inside the Quaker mentality?  Was it hard to write using all those “thees” and “thous”?

AB: I can’t say I was inside the Quaker mentality; that particular, rigid moment in that Meeting was just an isolated sliver of what Quakerism was and is. As for thee and thou and thy and thus… well let’s just say there was a lot more of that in earlier drafts, and we can all be happy that most of them landed in the circular file, i.e. the wastebasket.

JB: What does the character of Isaac Martin do for Hannah?  And what does he add to the story?  How different would Hannah have been if he had not shown up at her door?  Would Hannah have accomplished all the things she did without Isaac?

AB: Isaac is fundamental to Hannah’s growth as a holistic human being, one who understands her own heart as well as her mind. She might have found her comet—she might not have—but she certainly wouldn’t have come to know her own desires, or found her own convictions along the way.

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

AB: So many things. I mean, I grew up alongside Hannah. When I started, I was 25, single, clueless. When I finished, I was 40, married, with a child (now two!). So I found my way to the same twin engines that fuel Hannah’s journey—love and discipline—right alongside her.

JB: Do you have a favorite character in The Movement of Stars?

AB: That’s like asking me to name my favorite child. Can’t do it.

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

AB: I like to be outside, in the sun, preferably at the shore, making sand castles with my kids and throwing a Frisbee with my husband. Not at the same time, obviously.

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

AB: I love Andrea Barrett, Ann Patchett, Shirley Hazzard. Of my contemporaries, Megan Mayhew Bergman and Elissa Schappell and Claire Vaye Watkins’ recent story collections all blew me away. I see a very female theme emerging here! Sorry, boys. I’ll shout you all out next time.

JB: What is your favorite book?

AB: I love [Ann Patchett’s] Bel Canto. Me and everyone else on earth. It wove a powerful spell.

JB: Will you go on a book tour?  If so, which cities will you visit?

cvr-the-movement-of-stars

AB: My World Domination New England Tour will kick off right after Mother’s Day! I’ll be in Mystic, CT, Worcester, MA, Wellesley, MA, Portsmouth NH, Falmouth, MA, and Sandwich, MA, in May, and then Cohasset, MA, and Providence RI, in early June. Then in Concord, MA, and at the Nantucket Book Festival later in June! I’m probably forgetting some places, but it’s all on my website at http://www.amybrill.com/news-and-events/.

JB: What do you hope readers take with them after reading The Movement of Stars?

AB: Lots of Kleenex. And a deeper understanding of the nature of human desire, in all its manifestations.

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

AB: Always working. Articles, essays, a few short stories, and gnawing on ideas for another novel.

JB: Thanks, Amy, for a wonderful interview.  Good luck with The Movement of Stars!

AB: Thanks so much for having me here. My pleasure.

Oprah.com has selected The Movement of Stars as part of its “5 Dreamy Historical Novels” for spring reading!

“These stories take you back to the age of calling cards, carriages and the occasional complex, believable “attachment” also known as love.”

Read more: http://www.oprah.com/book/The-Movement-of-Stars-by-Amy-Brill#ixzz2RPSGROku

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Interview with Rhonda Riley, Author of The Enchanted Life of Adam Hope

tlc tour host

I am very excited to be part of my very first blog tour!  Today, I am the first stop on TLC Book Tours’ The Enchanted Life of Adam Hope blog tour.  Up first is my interview with wonderful debut novelist Rhonda Riley.  I will also be reviewing this tale today and giving away a copy of the book.  Thanks to Rhonda, TLC Book Tours, and  Trish Collins.

Jaime Boler: Thank you, Rhonda, for letting me ask you these questions!  I see extraordinary things for The Enchanted Life of Adam Hope and am quite excited to be part of TLC Book Tour’s blog tour.  You are a graduate of the creative writing program at the University of Florida.  Did you always want to be a novelist?

Rhonda Riley

Rhonda Riley

Rhonda Riley: Thank you for your enthusiasm for Adam Hope. I’m happy to be here. As a very young woman, I wanted to be a variety of things (political activist, lawyer, child psychologist),  but [being a] writer didn’t occur to me until I was in my 20s and then my focus was poetry and creative nonfiction.

Novels seemed daunting.  And I thought in poems then. I couldn’t imagine how writers got their arms around something [as] big as a novel.  All those pages!  I was in my 40s before I ever thought of writing a novel.  And Adam Hope is the first and only novel I’ve written.

JB: How many publishers were chomping at the bit for your debut?  How did it feel to sell your debut novel at auction?

RR: To tell you the truth, I don’t quite remember.  There were four or five publishers very interested and the serious bidding came down to three, I think.  The process was thrilling and surreal, and I do not use the word “surreal” lightly. Everything seemed to happen exactly the way it was supposed to, and, at the same time, it was so unexpected.  I feel very fortunate.

JB: Please describe The Enchanted Life of Adam Hope in ten words or less.

RR: Ten words!  Okay, here goes: A woman finds a unique stranger who changes her world.

JB: How did you come up with the idea for The Enchanted Life of Adam Hope?

RR: I was writing nonfiction and poems trying to tell a few truths about my family.  After several attempts, I gave up [on] truth and decided to make up stuff.  That kicked the door wide open.  Then, one day, I got an image of two hands touching in the mud, and I knew their contact involved some kind of transformation or transmission between two people.  From there, I followed that single image. I didn’t imagine the whole book or even the entirety of Adam’s character in one swoop.  It came about in increments.

JB: Many writers say they hear the voices of characters in their heads before a story takes shape.  Was this true for you?  If so, I’m curious as to whose voice you heard first: Addie, Adam, or Evelyn?

RR: I definitely heard Evelyn’s voice first. In fact, it was Evelyn’s voice and her character, not Adam’s, that drove me to write the story. Hers was the voice that obsessed me.  I knew she was the teller of the story. Adam’s/Addie’s voice, in all its uniqueness, evolved.

I first got the idea for his voice from something that happened to a friend of mine.  She was awakened one morning by a beautiful, mysterious sound that seemed to come through her body, an experience that left her euphoric.

Then, years later, I was once sitting on the toilet in the ladies room in one of the old bathrooms at UF (you take your inspiration where you can get it). The stall walls were marble and I discovered, quite by accident, that if I leaned forward while singing the second note of the Gloria chorus, my voice and the thin marble resonated in a lovely way.  My head and chest vibrated.  And I thought how wonderful it would be if we could do that to each other.

Thus, Adam’s voice. The first time I heard Tibetan singing bowls was a turning point in creating a description of his vocal abilities.

JB: I read that the original title for the novel was Adam Hope: A Geography.  Why was the title changed?

RR: My editor and agent both thought it was a cool title, but potentially confusing rather than intriguing.  Confusing enough that it might put some readers off.  A work of fiction that announces itself as a geography probably would lead to some pretty frustrating search results. Personally, I like titles that immediately make me ask questions like:  “A geography of a person, what would that be?”  But others prefer titles that answer the question: “What’s in this book?” I decided to trust the opinion of my editor and agent.  They have much more experience in getting people take a book off the shelf.  My job is to keep people reading once they open the book.

adam hope

JB: One of the myriad things I love about your novel is that it crosses genres (supernatural, mystery, love story, historical fiction, debut fiction, literary fiction) and will attract many different readers.  How important was it to you to appeal across genres?

RR: Actually, it was a little scary when I began to realize where I was taking the story.  I was afraid it would keep me from finding a publisher.  But I made a decision early on to write the story I wanted and needed to write, to write it the best I could, and then think about genres and publication later.  I didn’t set out to cross genre boundaries, but I do like the fact that it worked out that way, and it certainly makes sense for a book that features someone like Adam who crosses genres of self.  As a reader, I am very comfortable with books that don’t fit neatly into one category.  The transgression of boundaries can be fun.

JB: Adam Hope is such an unconventional character, one literally made in the image of others.  How did you dream him up?

RR: I think Adam appears unconventional because he is in a conventional context and he is narrated by a pretty conventional person, but characters with special abilities have been popping up in stories for a very long time. He is sort of the reverse of the zombies and vampires so popular now.

I built him gradually, one characteristic at time.  One clear memory I have of consciously making a decision about him was when I chose his occupation.  I wanted him to be connected to the natural world and animals.  I wanted him to be associated with a large, powerful animal, one capable of being domestic and wild. Horses seemed such a perfect fit for him.

For me the center of the story of Evelyn and Adam is its play on differences and similarities, intimacy and strangeness, the other and the self. Androgyny also seemed a natural fit for Adam in that it bridges two opposites.

JB: You have your very own Adam and Eve (Evelyn) in this story, your very own Genesis.  How difficult was it to fashion these characters?

RR: Evelyn was easy, I just recalled my mother’s voice and that seemed to lead very naturally to a defined character. I think of Evelyn as being made up of two of my favorite women, my mother and my great aunt, Lil.  Adam was more difficult—a lot more pondering and experimentation on my part.

JB: What kind of research did you do for The Enchanted Life of Adam Hope?

RR: I did a good deal of research about farm life and textile mills of the Carolinas in the 1940s.  Very little of it actually shows up in the novel.  In the end, I relied mostly on the stories my mother had told me. But I think the research, especially reading newspapers from the period, helped me more fully imagine the world I wanted to create.

I had to do some research on horses, since I was not familiar with them. And I had horse-loving friends who helped me there.

The most challenging research was finding photos of the genitalia of infant hermaphrodites so that I could describe Gracie’s birth.  Luckily, I live near a university medical library and didn’t have to rely on the internet for that research.

JB: The Enchanted Life of Adam Hope has been compared to The Time Traveler’s Wife and The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, huge bestsellers and brilliant novels (well-deserved praise, in my opinion).  How do such comparisons make you feel?

RR: I am honored to be compared to them. Lauren Groff also wrote me a great blurb comparing the book to the work of Alice Munro and Gabriel Garcia Marquez– that actually made me blush when I first read it. I think The Time Traveler’s Wife is a particularly apt comparison since Adam Hope is also a realistic, contemporary treatment of a surreal situation.  That was the comparison I used to get my agent’s attention.

JB: Did you know how big this novel could be while you were writing it?

RR: I was hoping for publication and some degree of success, of course.  But no, I can’t think about that while I am writing. And I have to ignore those wild fluctuations in my own psyche.  One day it looks like a the greatest story I every wrote; the next day, all of it looks like crap.

While I was trying to find an agent, I stumbled on a very humorous new word on one agent’s blog: casturbation.  It is the act of imagining, before you finish your novel, who will play the lead in the movie based on it.  There are some fun and tempting fantasies in the process, but while I am writing, I really have to think only about the story.

JB: Who did you envision playing your leading characters?

RR: For Adam, some combination of Johnny Depp (prior to his piracy days) and John Goodman (in his younger, Barton Fink days).  One because of his pretty face and ability to be a little offbeat and the other for his ability to be physically imposing and ordinary.   For Evelyn, Tilda Swinton.   All these actors are now too old to play these parts. Guess that must say something about me.  Or about how long I took to write the story.

JB: Hey, I love Johnny Depp!  He never goes out of style.  Neither do John Goodman and Tilda Swinton.  Great actors, all.  How many drafts did The Enchanted Life of Adam Hope go through?  How different were the earlier drafts from the final version?

RR: I don’t really know. I lost track. I’d say six or seven drafts, including the final ones with my editor.  But some of the last drafts were partial revisions where we were working only on the final chapters.   The first three or four drafts were very different from the final one.

The whole novel was once a series of letters Evelyn wrote to her daughters and it included a lot of information about her life as an old woman. Lots of italics to indicate the time changes!  And I included Evelyn’s daughters’ emails to each other about her. I really loved writing about Evelyn as old woman. But, after getting feedback from friends and a couple of agents who liked my writing but not the format, I changed the entire novel.

I got about 80 pages into a third-person version, but I couldn’t make that feel right, so I switched to a straight first-person narration without letters.

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

RR: It varies wildly, I am not a disciplined person, but when I am on [a writing kick], it is four to five hours a day. I meet a couple times a week with some other writers.  We all meet at one woman’s house and we just write.  We don’t talk, our phones are off and there is no internet.  Group self-discipline.  It’s great!

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

RR: I love the stories of Alice Munro.  They always seem so seamless. She makes writing appear effortless. I like Robert Olen Butler’s Tabloid Dreams. I am on a Louise Erdrich kick now, trying to decipher what I like so much about the narration of The Master Butchers Singing Club. Whatever it is, I want to be able to do it as well as she does. But my favorite book is Michael Ondaatje’s In the Skin of a Lion. Beautiful language.  So seductive.  And a pretty fantastic story, too. I can’t get over it.

JB: What are you currently reading?

RR: I am currently reading Laura Lee Smith’s debut novel Heart of Palm.  I just met her and she lives about an hour from me, in St. Augustine, Florida, We’re thinking of doing a little mini-Florida tour together.  I just finished The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami.  Those two are very different books and good in very different ways.  I’m also reading Generation Zombie (an academic take on the zombie phenomena) by Wylie Lenz and Stephanie Boluk.  I’m one chapter into The Righteous Mind, and on the last pages of Karen Armstrong’s The Battle for God. And every month I read Discover magazine.  I read a lot of nonfiction.

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

RR: Dawdle and travel.  Dawdling and traveling might seem to be contradictory activities but the best travel must involve some dawdling. After a long session writing, I like to do anything that involves not sitting down. One of the hardest parts of writing is all the desk time. I used to have hobbies, but I’ve gotten lazy.  Friends, pets, a backyard and writing can take up a lot of time if you do them right.

JB: What do you hope readers take with them after reading The Enchanted Life of Adam Hope?

RR: I would hope they find mysteries–the small ones as well as the big ones– easier to accept and listen to. I’d be pleased if, after meeting Adam, they found the strangeness of the stranger more interesting than alien.

JB: Are there any plans to turn the novel into a movie?

RR: Nothing now, but I have an agent and a film rights agent.  I know some folks involved in the film industry have read the book. But there are no plans at this point. I would love to see how someone would do Adam’s voice in a movie.

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

RR: I’m very curious about how Adam Hope will be received.  I’ve been inviting readers to come up with their own ideas and illustrations of where Adam is now and to share those speculations. He/She could be anyone anywhere, you know.  Meanwhile, I am working on a new, completely unrelated novel about sin and innocence.   I also have lots of notes and an outline for a sequel to Adam Hope.

 

JB: OOH, I can’t wait for that!  Thank you so much, Rhonda, for a wonderful interview.  I know readers are going to love the book just as much as I do.  Good luck!

RR: I’ve enjoyed it!    Thank you for your interest in my work.

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Other stops on blog tour:

Rhonda’s Tour Stops

tlc logoMonday, April 22nd: Bookmagnet’s Blog

Tuesday, April 23rd: Kritters Ramblings

Wednesday, April 24th: A Chick Who Reads

Thursday, April 25th: Sara’s Organized Chaos

Monday, April 29th: No More Grumpy Bookseller

Monday, May 6th: A Night’s Dream of Books

Tuesday, May 7th: Giraffe Days

Thursday, May 9th: Book Snob

Thursday, May 9th: Tiffany’s Bookshelf

Tuesday, May 14th: Bibliophiliac

I am giving away a brand new copy of The Enchanted Life of Adam Hope.  Please fill out the brief form below.  Giveaway ends Friday, April 26, at 5 pm ET.  I will use random.org to choose a winner.

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Interview with Melanie Thorne, Author of Hand Me Down

Melanie Thorne

Melanie Thorne

 

Jaime Boler: Thank you, Melanie, for letting me ask you these questions. Hand Me Down is so incredibly powerful and provocative.

 

Melanie Thorne: Thank you, Jaime, for taking the time to ask such insightful questions!

 

JB: Did you always want to be a writer?

 

MT: It didn’t even occur to me that I could make a career as a writer until I was in my early twenties and Pam Houston suggested I apply to creative writing graduate programs. For most of my youth, I wanted to be a rock star or an actress/singer.

 

JB: How would you describe Hand Me Down in ten words or less?

 

MT: OMG, this is so hard! Here goes: A tough, tender novel about sisters searching for home.

 

JB: Hand Me Down is semi-autobiographical.  Can you explain?

 

MT: The basic outline of events in the novel—Liz’s mother choosing her sex-offender husband over her daughters, the sisters’ separation and subsequent journey—is based on my childhood experience. But in writing and revising this book over the years, real people turned into characters, timelines and places and exact details were altered and adjusted to better serve the story, so the result is a mix of truth and fiction.

 

JB: Why did you want to write a novel instead of a memoir?

 

MT: When I first started writing Hand Me Down, I had images of a “based on a true story” line on the eventual cover. There was a part of me that wanted the world to know that these events had really happened, but as I got deeper into the project, there was a bigger part of me that wanted the freedom to shape the truth of what happened in order to tell the truth of the story. In a novel, I could make stuff up without worrying about the limitations of “what really happened” so I could get at the larger emotional truths more easily. There is also an aspect of protection in writing a novel. No one knows which parts are pulled directly from my teenage journals and which parts I made up completely, and I appreciate that little bit of shelter.

 

JB: The title Hand Me Down has so many meanings to me in this story: sisters Liz and Jaime are passed from relative to relative almost like an old garment yet abuse is also passed down like eye color and diabetes in your story.  What does the title mean to you?

 

MT: Very close to what you said, actually, which is great to hear. I tried so hard to come up with a title that would encompass the idea of Liz and Jaime literally moving from place to place, and also the idea of qualities and behaviors—both genetic and learned traits—being passed down through generations. I had pages and pages of possible title lists in my journals and then one morning I woke up and Hand Me Down had appeared in my brain like a little present from the writing fairy.

 

JB: Hand Me Down is told from the perspective of fourteen-year-old Liz.  Why did you choose to tell the story in this way?  Do you think the story would have the same deeply moving effect on the reader if you had not used the first-person point of view?

 

MT: Part of the motivation for writing this story was hearing my angry and hurt teenage self in my head, begging at first, and then demanding that I let her tell her story. She needed to be heard, that part of me needed to be heard, so I thought I’d give her a voice retroactively, on the page. First person was the only way for me to truly let Liz tell this story, and I’m not sure it would have been as powerful without access to Liz’s emotions and inner thoughts. There is so much she doesn’t say for so long that having insight into her mind allows readers to connect with her more.

 

JB: I know you have a younger sister.  Is the character of Jaime based on her?  What has been her reaction to your novel?  What has been the reaction of other family members?

 

MT: Jaime is indeed based on my sister, and much of Liz and Jaime’s dynamic is the same as my and my sister’s. The first thing she said after she read Hand Me Down was, “I forgot what a jerk Dad was.” The book brought up a lot of memories for her, but it was also gratifying to hear that the one other person who’d lived some of these experiences felt I’d gotten them right. My sister has been incredibly supportive, as have the rest of my family members. I think it’s been difficult to have so much of this stuff stirred up and put out in the public, and they have been so understanding and supportive, and best of all, proud of me for this accomplishment. I’m so lucky to have them.

 

JB: Liz is based on you.  How are you alike and how are you different?

 

MT: Liz and I were both fighters; both of us skeptical and cautious, slow to trust but fiercely loyal. We were both independent, but acted tougher than we felt; both driven and determined to succeed beyond what the world expected given our circumstances. But Liz is braver than I was at fourteen, says the things I wish I’d said, takes action when I would have retreated. I like to think of her as a stronger version of my teenage self; me with the benefit of ten years of hindsight.

 

JB: How does Hand Me Down differ from what really happened to you? 

 

MT: It’s hard to separate out all the little exaggerations or adjustments I made in the process of fictionalizing my experiences. I can tell you that one of the few entirely made-up scenes in the novel is the big climax scene with all involved parties near the end. There wasn’t a big blow out fight like that in real life, but the book needed to hit a peak, and I thought bringing everyone together would cause sparks to fly.

 

JB: What was the most difficult part about writing Hand Me Down?  Was it hard recalling painful events and issues?  Did you ever just stop writing and leave it for a while?  Or even cry and rage at the past?

 

MT: There were definitely issues that were difficult to confront and moments that hurt to relive, but it was worth the uncomfortable trips down memory lane. The initial planning and research—which mainly involved reading old journals from when I was fourteen—made me cry a lot. I did rage some, too, but most of that was in the early stages of the project, the personal steps I needed to take towards healing that made it possible for me to write a three-dimensional story that was bigger than just me.

 

I did take long breaks while working on it because I was too busy working the jobs that paid the bills to write much, but I think those pockets of time away really helped me to process the events and gave me (and the book) a better perspective.

 

JB: The paperback version of Hand Me Down, published March 26, has an epilogue.  Why did you choose to add an epilogue to the paperback edition?

 

MT: The epilogue, “Word Association” was originally a story I wrote in grad school that features Liz and Jaime about ten years after the events in Hand Me Down. My agent and editor thought it would be a nice addition to the paperback as a glimpse into the futures of the characters, and I agreed. Many readers have written to me asking for a sequel, so I think they are really going to like this extra bonus material. I also love the way we’ve added it: as an essay Liz writes for a creative writing class in school, just like I did in real life.

 

JB: Hand Me Down was originally your thesis.  Writing it, did you have any idea that one day it would be a successful and compelling novel?

 

MT: I hoped that it would be both those things, but at that point, mostly just enough for me to satisfy my degree requirements and not make a fool of myself at my thesis defense. I never really thought it would become a real book until it did, and sometimes it still seems unreal.

 

JB: How has writing this book helped you overcome your own neglect and abuse?

 

MT: One of the biggest things I realized while writing Liz’s journey was that the mistakes her parents made—the mistakes my parents made—were not about her or me, but rather results of their own childhood traumas. For a long time I wondered what I had done wrong, as so many kids in these situations do, and I beat myself up over the ways I could have tried harder to be good enough to keep.

 

Writing Hand Me Down helped me see that my parents’ choices were influenced by their own abusive childhoods, and I learned to accept that their errors were not my burden or responsibility. What is my responsibility is how I choose to move forward.

 

JB: Have you heard from readers who shared a similar childhood as you did?  Is the novel helping them come to terms with their own pasts?

 

MT: Yes, many readers have written or told me their stories of abuse and family betrayals, of separation from parents and siblings, of being forced to move out at young ages, or bouncing between friends’ couches and guest beds to avoid unsafe households.

 

A woman in her late sixties wrote to me and told me she’d been abused as a child and had never told anyone until now. My book had given her the strength to say out loud the unspeakable things she’d experienced. It made me cry. There seems to be a sense of freedom in these readers in finally expressing their private tragedies, and it’s amazing for me to be able to witness their first steps toward recovering.

 

JB: What was it like working with Pam Houston and Lynn Freed at UC Davis?  What advice did they give you?

 

MT: Pam and Lynn are tremendously talented writers and teachers, and I learned so much from both of them. I think the greatest advice I got from Pam was to resist the urge to write the lines that say, “Look, reader, at how bad it was.” She taught me to earn the emotions, to show them by focusing on the concrete physical world. From Lynn, “Smother your darlings” and “Less is more” are the two bits of advice that stand out the most. I am so grateful to have been able to work with such amazing women.

 

JB: What advice do you have for anyone writing a debut novel?  Or for anyone writing about trauma in his or her own life?

 

MT: In writing about a personal trauma, I think it’s important to try to look at the events from multiple angles. That might not happen in the first draft, and it’s normal to write your side first. But in revisions, shift your perspective and do your best to see through the eyes of multiple people involved. Don’t be afraid to admit the hardest thing about your characters, especially if one of them is you. Writing the difficult truths makes the best stories.

 

For all writers, I’d say just keep going. That is the only thing you can do.

 

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

 

MT: Reading, of course, gardening, watching smart TV, going to the beach, walking in pretty places, crafting, singing, cooking, and having good conversations with friends.

 

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

 

MT: Oh, boy. There are so many, and so many ways to classify favorites. But here are a few off the top of my head in no particular order. Books: Kindred, Animal Dreams, The Beach, Good in Bed, Alice in Wonderland, The God of Animals. Authors: Pam Houston, Christopher Pike, Barbara Kingsolver, Dorothy Allison, Amy Bloom.

 

JB: What are you currently reading?

 

MT: I just finished The Fault in Our Stars. Talk about heart-breaking.

 

JB: Who has influenced your writing the most?

 

MT: Nancy Drew and Christopher Pike books were my earliest major influences, and then when I began to study the craft of writing, Pam Houston, Toni Morrison, and Dorothy Allison inspired me with the strength of their writing and the power of their stories.

 

JB: What do you hope readers take with them after reading Hand Me Down?

 

MT: I think the biggest lesson Liz learns is to speak up, which is a lesson I also learned in writing this story, and something I hope anyone else who has caged a secret in their chest will take away from the book. It’s so important to unearth the betrayals and abuse that often get buried in embarrassment or fear or shame. It’s necessary to discuss those uncomfortable truths, to release the pent-up emotions in order to begin to heal. I hope that’s another take-away: hardship doesn’t have to mean destruction; getting the truth out in the open is the first step in moving on.

 

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

 

MT: I’m currently in the early stages of writing my next novel. I’m fascinated by family dynamics and, like Hand Me Down, this next book will ask questions about what it means to be a family. I love the contradictions in people, the complexities of what people try to hide and why. The dysfunctional family I’m brewing in my head should be interesting to live with for the foreseeable future and fun to introduce to the world when I’m ready.

 

JB: Thanks for a wonderful interview, Melanie, and best of luck.

 

MT: Thank you, Jaime! It’s been a pleasure.

handmedown_cvf_ppk

 

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Interview with Sherri L. Smith, Author of Orleans

Sherri L. Smith

Sherri L. Smith

Jaime Boler: Thank you, Sherri, for letting me ask you these questions.  Orleans blew me away!

 

Sherri L. Smith: Thanks, Jaime!  Coming from an avid reader, that means a lot!

 

JB: You have worked in film, animation, comic books, and construction.  What made you want to write novels?

 

SLS: Long before I did any of the above, I was a writer.  I’ve been an avid reader my whole life and started writing poetry and short stories in elementary school.  As a kid, I was always awed by novels—it was incredible to me that the author could hold an entire universe in his or her head.  Ever since then, I wanted to learn how to do it, too.

 

JB: You previously wrote FlygirlHot, Sour, Salty, SweetSparrow; and Lucy the Giant.  Orleans is so different from your other novels.  What made you want to explore dystopian and speculative fiction?

 

SLS: Again, blame my childhood.  I was a big fan of fantasy and science fiction growing up—give me Lloyd Alexander, Susan Cooper, Terry Brooks, Michael Moorcock or Frank Herbert, etc. and I was happy.  In fact, it was rather a shock to discover my first novel (Lucy the Giant) was contemporary.  I had to give myself a good hard look in the mirror and ask what the heck I thought I was doing.  But I loved the story and it worked.  From then on I decided I would just write what I loved, regardless of genre, and that’s what I’ve done.

 

JB: How did you come up with the idea behind Orleans?

 

SLS: I got the idea for Orleans from my family’s experience with Katrina.  At the time, the idea was born out of two things: an article I read about street gangs protecting their neighborhoods when the cops had all fled, and race issues that seemed to be part of the whole Katrina catastrophe.   It made me wonder: what if race wasn’t an issue?  What differences would separate people then?  What if it wasn’t something you could see?  I decided blood was an interesting answer.  And then, one day on the drive home, Fen popped into my head and started talking to me.  The street gangs became blood tribes, and it wasn’t long before Orleans was born.

 

JB: What kind of research did you do for Orleans?

 

SLS: I bought maps of the city, talked to doctors and scientists, read a lot of environmental studies and articles about hurricanes.  I researched blood types and the history of New Orleans, religious groups, and field medicine.  I watched movies about post-disaster worlds, read books, and studied knife fights in movies and books.  It really ran the gamut!

 

 

JB: One of the astounding things about Orleans is how you build a singular world, unlike anything anybody’s written before, and you do it all in one novel where Suzanne Collins, Veronica Roth, and Ally Condie need three books to fully achieve that effect.  How did you invent this wildly imaginative world?

 

SLS: That’s a huge compliment, so thank you from the bottom of my writerly heart.  I imagine that Collins, Roth and Condie knew the width and breadth of their worlds before they finished the first book, though.  The great thing about world building is, once it’s built, you can keep going back!

 

As for how I approached it, brick by brick is the short answer.  The long answer is—have you ever read Dune by Frank Herbert?  There are appendices at the end of the novel that detail the ecology of the planet.  I remember reading that as a kid and thinking, “Wow, he really made the world!”  It seemed insane, but it worked.  I had a teacher once tell me you had to create the entire room, even if you only wrote about one corner of it.  I think that’s true for all writing, but especially for speculative fiction.  With that in mind, when I started writing I actually made a notebook with tabs for religion, weather, food, tribes, disease, etc.  It was my own Dune appendix.  However, unlike Frank Herbert, I got bored with cataloging and decided to get on with the writing.  So, I didn’t refer to the notebook as much as I thought I would, but any time I lost track of things, it was my touchstone and a good place to daydream new ideas.

 

The ideas themselves came from—extrapolation.  I thought of New Orleans as I knew it and imagined what would change.  There are incredible time lapse maps of the flooding in the city during Katrina, and forecast maps for the Gulf shoreline in years to come.  Those all went into the kitty.  I sat down with a couple of doctors, and grilled my biology teacher friend and her scientist sister for details when creating Delta Fever and the DF Virus.  I saw a hut on stilts outside of Seattle, and the Church of the Rising Son was born.

 

JB: In Orleans, “tribe is life.”  Classifying someone by race no longer exists in Orleans.  It’s now all about blood type, all because of a horrible disease.  How did you come up with Delta Fever?

 

SLS: I knew I wanted a disease that would force separation by blood type.  I called a doctor friend of mine and she introduced me to a pediatric oncologist, Dr. Noah Federman, who walked me through the possibilities.  I basically told him what I needed the Fever to do, and he told me what diseases existed that were similar and how they would manifest.  I then talked to a friend who teaches biology and her sister, who is a research scientist.  They taught me how to destroy viruses and how I might try to create a cure.  Any science that works is owed to the three of them.  The rest is my crazy imagination.

 

JB: Do you have a favorite character in Orleans?  If so, please share.

 

SLS: Fen.  Hands down.  I just think she’s so cool.

 

JB: Perfect lead-in for this question: your main female character is named Fen de la Guerre.  “Guerre” is similar to “guerilla” fighter.  What made you choose this name?  And what came first—the character or her name?

 

SLS: The character came first.  Her voice popped into my head.  The name followed shortly thereafter.  I wanted something that conjured the swamps and bayous in the Delta.  A fen is a type of wetland.  It also reminded me of Fern, the little girl in Charlotte’s Web, which was my favorite book growing up.   “De la Guerre” is French for “of war.”  Orleans is constantly at war, so that made sense.  Lastly, “Fen” also sounds like the French “fin” or “end.”  I liked the idea that she would be a game changer for Orleans.

 

 

JB: It was so refreshing how you do not have the two protagonists falling in love, like so many other YA novels do.  What stopped you from doing that in Orleans?

 

SLS: To quote Short Round in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, “No time for love, Dr. Jones!”  Orleans is an incredibly dangerous place and Fen is working on a timeline.  The idea of stopping in the middle of it to make googly eyes at someone was out of the question, especially for someone as no nonsense as Fen.  Thanks to Delta Fever, romance is also a liability in Orleans.  There is no room for a Romeo and Juliet situation—you fall in love with the wrong tribe, one of you dies.  You get pregnant, your blood volume goes up and your value as a blood slave does, too.  Not to mention it slows you down in a fight.  Fen actually loves quite fiercely in this novel.  It’s just not about romance.

 

 

JB: One scene in Orleans, for me, is one I’ll always think of when I see the book or hear about it.  It’s the scene where Fen and Daniel are in what remains of the Garden District and see a curious ritual from a window of a house in which they are resting.  It happens on November 1, All Saints’ Day and also the traditional end of hurricane season.  Can you tell us about this scene?  And what inspired it?

 

SLS: Ah.  This is the scene of the All Saint’s Krewe.  Mardi Gras, which takes place in the early part of the year, is famous for its parades led by organizations called “krewes.”  The first krewes were young men in 19th century New Orleans who rode around on horses while wearing masks and holding torches, or flambeaux, in the air.  I know this sounds disturbingly like a lynch mob, but it was meant to be a celebration.  Or, more likely, it was a group of wild partiers, the 19th century equivalent of a frat party, and they hid their faces so their families wouldn’t know about their hooliganism.  At any rate, the tradition stuck and transformed into the Mardi Gras mask and the krewe parade.

 

I liked the idea that this tradition would continue to evolve in Orleans, or rather devolve to its original state.  The opening image of the novel is a man playing a saxophone on the levee as a storm threatens the city.  That image came from news footage I saw at the time.  I decided the krewes would carry on that laissez faire attitude that New Orleans is so famous for by celebrating the end of hurricane season.  The parade is as an act of defiance against nature, where people of all tribes come together anonymously.

 

In the scene, Fen wakes Daniel to see the krewe ride in a hurricane-shaped spiral reciting the names of the storms that destroyed New Orleans, and then shouting—Nous sommes ici!  We are here!  We are still here!

More about that scene from my book review:

The participants “wheel around in a circle at the widest point of the road and thrust they torches toward the center of the ring, moving to a trot as the ring shift shape and turn into a spiral ‘stead of a sphere.”  They “be like a hurricane, swirling and swirling, the smallest rider in the center at the eye.”  Then, the chanting begins, over and over, louder and louder: “Katrina, Isaiah, Lorenzo.  Olga, Laura, Paloma…Jesus, Jesus, Hay-SEUS!”

As the riders go off in every direction, they move faster and faster.  As they disperse, one rider plays an old tune, “When the Saints Go Marching In.”  The ceremony’s observers continue to celebrate November 1, because they still live in Orleans, and the ritual is to honor and remember what Orleans used to be.  This is just one of the many ways in which Smith makes Orleans intriguing and new.  No matter how many young adult books you have read, Orleans is nothing like them.

In Orleans, Smith creates a world like no other—bold, harrowing, and impossible to forget.   This young adult story is a nail-biter that will keep you up well past your bedtime, but the pay-off is well worth the loss of sleep.

 

JB: Did you ever think of turning Orleans into a trilogy?

 

SLS: Yes, certainly.  Once you’ve built the world, why not go back?  Although I think there’s a lot more to see in this universe than just the city of Orleans…

 

JB: Interesting!  Why do you think YA dystopian/apocalyptic fiction is so popular?

 

SLS: I think it has something to do with war.  We’ve been at war for over a decade and that takes its toll on a society.  From terrorist acts to man-made and natural disasters, it’s got people wondering how they will survive.  Speculative fiction has always been good at mulling over those questions and answers.  It can be a comfort to read a book and say, “Ah, there is life after this disaster.  This is how you do it.”

 

JB: In your book, the United States as we know it today no longer exists.  Florida, Georgia, Alabama, Louisiana, and Texas have been quarantined and are no longer part of the Union.  The great city of New Orleans is surrounded by a wall.  Do you think a catastrophe of this magnitude could happen in our country?

 

SLS: In fact, the Wall runs from Florida to Texas, amputating a vital part of the country.  It seems crazy but, truly, in the first week after Katrina, it didn’t sound so farfetched.  There was talk of abandoning the city, moving inland.  In fact, I remember reading a report.  I think it was in the New Orleans Times-Picayune back in the late 1980s or early 1990s that postulated the need to abandon the city in the face of a major hurricane.  The report proposed building a wall around the French Quarter to protect it for posterity.  Apparently, the rest of the city was considered a reasonable loss.  I remember reading that in my grandparent’s kitchen and thinking, “But… that’s us!”

 

JB: I know that Hurricane Katrina affected your mother and you.  How did that experience provide the impetus to write Orleans?

 

SLS: My mom grew up in New Orleans and weathered the storm there.  It was a couple of days before we realized she was trapped down there and things were falling apart fast.  I hadn’t thought of it until recently, but, in a lot of ways, Fen’s journey to get Baby Girl out of Orleans mirrors my attempts to get my mom out of New Orleans.  It’s important to me to keep New Orleans in people’s thoughts through my writing.  We tend to think “the storm is over, everything is fine.”  But, as anyone who has ever had to rebuild after a disaster knows, it’s far from over and the effects last for years.  Orleans is about that aftermath.

 

 

JB: With each hurricane or even strong tropical storm that hits the New Orleans area, flooding seems worse.  With the marshes disappearing, how likely do you think it is that the city could be underwater in 40, 50, or 100 years?

 

SLS: I don’t even want to speculate about that.  Anything can happen, as Katrina proved.  As much as the fading wetlands were an issue with storm surge, it was manmade channels and levees that led to the bulk of the damage in the city.  Not to diminish the threat, but they’ve been talking about Venice, Italy, sinking for decades and it’s still standing.  A little low in the water, maybe, but it’s there.  Hopefully the storms we’ve had recently will be a wake-up call and steps will be taken to protect our land.

 

JB: As a writer, who has influenced you the most?

 

SLS: Too many people to mention.  I’ll say my mother because she always encouraged me to keep with it.  She never doubted I could publish if I tried.

 

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

 

SLS: I think I already mentioned Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White.  I love Trumpet of the Swan and Stuart Little, too, a though that last one was a bit weird because his parents were human and it kind of threw me. I’m a fan of Susan Cooper.  I love her Dark Is Rising series.  I’ve already mentioned Dune.  I’ve come to appreciate Ernest Hemingway.  I admire Marion Zimmer Bradley’s ability to make her stories sound like truth.  David Eddings, Laurie R. King, Lloyd Alexander, Kage Baker, Olivia Butler—I’m looking at my bookcase, but it’s only one of 11 in the house!

 

JB: You really are an avid reader!  What do you like to do when you aren’t writing?

 

SLS: I like to read.  Is that obvious?  I also like travel, bake, eat, sleep, watch movies.  I like to dance and make stuff with my hands.  I watch a lot of cooking shows and make up songs that I sing to my cat, because she’s the only one who tolerates it on a regular basis.

 

JB: What do you hope readers take with them after reading Orleans?

 

SLS: That’s a good question.  I hope they recognize how precious the world we live in really is, and do what they can to protect it.  Whether that means putting together a “go bag” disaster kit, volunteering in an area that needs help, or taking steps to protect the environment, I’m happy.  Heck, if it means everyone goes to New Orleans and supports the city with their visit, that would be grand too.  Even if they just think about it and talk about the book with other people, it would mean I reached them somehow.  And that’s all any writer can ever hope.

 

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

 

SLS: I am currently working on my first fantasy!  It’s an historical fantasy based on the Nutcracker.  I’m also genre-dabbling in mystery and noir.  I want to try everything, so that’s what I’m going to do!

 

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

 

SLS: Thank you, Jaime.  It was a lot of fun.

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