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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!

Author Website

 

 

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Interview with Vaddey Ratner, Author of In the Shadow of the Banyan

Interview with Vaddey Ratner, Author of In the Shadow of the Banyan

 

Jaime Boler: Thank you, Vaddey, for letting me interview you.  Did you always want to be a writer?

 Vaddey Ratner: Thank you, Jaime.  It’s a pleasure to speak with you.  I think even without the experience of the Khmer Rouge, if I had a choice, I would have chosen writing as my expression.  I grew up in a culture rich in the tradition of stories and storytelling.  Even as a child, I saw the world through stories.  As an adult, I feel that writing helps me to understand the world better, more fully, more tenderly.  “We write to taste life twice, in the moment and in retrospection,” said Anais Nin, and thus I write.

 JB: When were you first compelled to write In the Shadow of the Banyan?

 VR: The story has always been with me.  I knew I would write about the experience one day.  But the novel as I have written it came to me most clearly after I went back to live in Cambodia, in 2005.  There, witnessing the present and the past collide on a daily basis, I felt that I had all I needed to write this book.  It was time for me to delve much deeper into the emotional truth of that experience.  Seeing the suffering and the struggle that Cambodia continues to face, and how similar this is to suffering in other parts of the world, I realized that a story of tragedy, loss, and perseverance is a human story, not confined to Cambodia alone. 

 JB: In your address at the PEN/Faulkner Gala in September 2012, you said: “We live and die because of our words.  They can both hide and expose us.” How did words save you?

 VR: In that speech, I refer to a person who helped me greatly in my survival.  He taught me how you can choose silence in order to protect yourself and still maintain a very rich internal connection with the spirits of those you loved and lost.  Words are very powerful.  You have to know when to use them, and when to keep quiet.

 JB: Raami’s story is loosely based on your own childhood under the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia.  What are the similarities?  What are the main differences?

 VR: All the ordeals I detailed in the novel, from beginning to end, parallel my own family’s experiences during the Khmer Rouge.  I changed the order of events, I collapsed characters, I created more complete conversations from the fragments I remembered as a child.  What I found astounding after finishing the book was that, even after these changes, the emotional truth of that experience was so much closer to the reality of what we endured than it would have been had I stuck just to the chronology of events.  I was nervous about making the father character a poet, but after my mother read it, she said I captured his spirit so well.

 JB: Your father looms large in this story.  I felt as if I suffered his loss with you.  How do you keep his memory alive today?

 VR: He was never truly gone.  Every breath I take, I know it is only possible because he forfeited his life to give me mine.  I carry him in my heart always.

 JB: You have said that In the Shadow of the Banyan is your mother’s book, too.  Would you say that your story is also the story of every Cambodian under the Khmer Rouge?

 VR: I hesitate to say that my story is representative of every Cambodian.  In fact, I make a conscious effort not to claim this.  There are many ways to tell a story, and the more perspectives we have that provide a window into this experience, the better.  During the writing, I was always conscious that however much I’d suffered as a child, others had suffered just as much, if not more.  There were those who lost both of their parents.  That put my anguish in perspective and gave me courage to keep writing, even though often it was so painful to confront those ordeals again.  Ultimately, I feel lucky to be alive, to have the chance to transform this suffering into something beautiful, something that perhaps will resonate with others.  The story of loss and hope is one that belongs to all of us.  It is a timeless, universal tale.

 JB: History and memory are important in your story.  Were there times in your writing process when your memory was at odds with what actually happened or how something truly was?

 VR: At that age, I didn’t comprehend many things.  But I remembered them, especially when something was confusing.  Because of the complexity or ambiguity of the situation, my memory clung to it more stubbornly.  I remember that growing up I tried to understand whether my father was politically inclined one way or another.  After years of talking to my mother and other surviving relatives, I came to see that his feelings, the way he questioned the foundations of his own privilege, preceded all his views of politics. I’ve come to believe he was an ordinary man burdened with the question of his own existence, his limitations.  So writing In the Shadow of the Banyan, I tried to paint Raami’s father in a way that I remember and feel my own father was, a man who had great empathy for others but was limited by his capacity to help.  I’m sure we each have felt that way at times.

 JB: Do you think your story would be different had you been a little older or a little younger in 1975?  Would words and stories have been able to save you in the same way they were able to?  If you were 4 or 10, would you have been able to transport your spirit away from there and disappear into stories like you were able to do?

 VR: My survival is so arbitrary, I can’t really answer what difference age would have made.  I don’t really know why I survived, why others died.  I can only be thankful that the courage of my family and the kindness of others I encountered may have augmented my will to live.  The tragedy is that so many others didn’t survive, even given the same opportunity.  In the end, this book is a tribute, a memorial, to those lost, and a celebration of the lives that endure.

 JB: How difficult was it for you to write this novel? Did you ever have to stop, put your work aside, and return to it later?

 VR: I relived all the losses and tragedies.  There were times when I felt I might not be able to emerge from the despair.  Some critics have said that I did not give enough detail of the violence, which I find astounding.  As a writer, I feel you don’t need the graphic details to make a powerful story, or a powerful statement against atrocities.  But more fundamentally, from a personal perspective, I don’t think it’s possible for a survivor, a sufferer of that atrocity, to go back and visit every memory at its most horrifying—that was never my purpose.  If anything, I sought to make less audible the voice of violence and augment the voice of humanity. 

                                                                                  

JB: You and your mother arrived in the U.S. in 1981 as refugees.  How did you keep your culture alive yet, at the same time, embrace American culture?

 VR: It helps that I continue to speak my language, to read and write in Khmer.  I feel I am a stronger person because I draw the richness from both cultures.  I never relinquish one in order to embrace another. 

 JB: Have you given copies of the book to your Cambodian relatives?  What do they think of your novel?

 VR: One cousin from the royal family who also lost her father wrote to me to say that in 37 years she has still not found the courage to speak of that loss.  So, in some way, I think everyone is finding a piece of themselves, a piece of their own history in this book.

 JB: My father, a Vietnam veteran, often recalls the beauty of Vietnam.  Your story made me fall in love with the Cambodian landscape.  You bring its splendor to life, even in the midst of ugliness.  I know you have been back to Cambodia with your family.  How have the country and its people changed since you and your mother left?

 VR: I often feel that Cambodia can make a poet out of you, in that you witness so much beauty and so much tragedy in the same moment.  A beggar child in rags can offer you the most generous smile.  Next to a dilapidated hut, there are stunning rice fields extending to the horizon, so much greenness, the possibility of plenitude.  On the surface, much has changed in recent years.  But on a deeper, more spiritual level, the will to survive despite adversity endures stubbornly, quietly.  It is a country I feel is at once ancient yet constantly searching for a way to renew itself. 

 JB: People really connect to your story.  There is a transcendent quality to storytelling, and your novel perfectly illustrates that.  Has the reader reaction surprised you at all?  Did you know while writing the story that you had such a wonderful book?

 VR: Thank you so much!  That’s very kind of you.  It’s extraordinarily gratifying when a reader sees what I’m trying to achieve with the book.  I set out to write this novel wanting to transcend that personal experience, to find something more universal.  But I didn’t know whether I would succeed.  I’m just so grateful for careful readers, because in their attention and attentiveness they not only show me what I’m able to achieve as a writer but they enlarge my understanding of the story by seeing beyond what I intended.  That to me is a gift. 

 JB: Do you still love stories?  If so, have you passed on your love of stories to your child?

 VR: Oh yes!  I love stories so much that if I could somehow live on them alone without the need for food or water, I would easily do that.  There are some days when I’m so absorbed in writing or reading that I actually forget to eat.  Stories can sustain me for a very long time.  My daughter is an avid reader.  She will often tell me to add a few more interesting details when she listens to me recount my writing day—I woke up, I wrote, I had cup of coffee, I wrote some more.  Already she knows the importance of a rich description. 

 JB: When you are writing, what is a typical day like for you?

 VR: I wake, I write, I drink endless coffee… I’m joking.  I start early in the morning.  Sometimes I move forward with the story.  Sometimes I move backward, and I find myself pressing delete, delete…  I try to work on whatever is most difficult in the first hours of the morning, when my mind is fresh.  But really there’s no magic formula, no perfect routine.  At least, I don’t think so.  When I get it right, I feel brilliant.  When I’m stuck, I think I’m cursed.

 JB: What are you currently reading?

 VR: A bit of many books.  The Gift of Rain by Tan Twan Eng.  The Sandcastle Girls by Chris Bohjalian. Carry the One by Carol Anshaw.  The Mute’s Soliloquy by Promoedya Ananta Toer.  Love Letters from a Fat Man by Naomi Benaron.

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

 VR: There are so many authors I adore.  Gabriel García Marquez, Chinua Achebe, Nadine Gordimer, Anaïs Nin, Amitav Ghosh, Romesh Gunesekera, Mario Vargas Llosa, Octavio Paz, V.S. Naipaul, Isabel Allende, Chang-rae Lee, Kazuo Ishiguro, John Steinbeck, Harper Lee, and of course Michael Ondaatje… I could go on for quite a long time!

 JB: What do you hope readers take with them after reading In the Shadow of the Banyan?

 VR: As a child living through a time of atrocity, it was the small glimpses of beauty that sustained me.  I want my readers to see beauty where I saw it—in poetry and music, in the geography of a vanishing world, in the humanity of the people that inhabit it.  In the Shadow of the Banyan is a reflection on family and love and language, the things that connects us as human beings. 

 JB: Are you working on anything new?

 VR: Yes, when I find the time, I’m working on the thread of a second novel.  I’m enamored with Cambodian folk music, particularly smoat, a kind of poetry sung in verse, often during funerals.  I’m compelled by the idea that the dead need music as much as the living.  So it will be a story of parallel lives and parallel loves.

 JB: Sounds like another great book!  Thanks, Vaddey, for a wonderful interview.

 

 

 

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Q&A with Emily Jeanne Miller

Q&A with Emily Jeanne Miller, Author of Brand New Human Being

Jaime Boler: Thanks, Emily, for letting me ask you these questions.  I really appreciate it.  You have worked in journalism and you have an MS in environmental studies from the University of Montana and an MFA in fiction from the University of Florida.  What is your first love: environmental studies or writing?  When did you discover you wanted to be a writer?

Emily Jeanne Miller: I always wanted to write, but I didn’t know what. I think that deep down I always wanted to write fiction but I didn’t know how to begin, and moreover I was afraid to try. Growing up, I loved the outdoors and I loved books. I worked as a journalist for a while after college then went to grad school in Montana, where I took an elective class on James Joyce. When we read the short story, “The Dead,” something burst open for me. I had to write fiction. So I did. I started there, and have been at it ever since.

JB: How did you come up with the idea for Brand New Human Being?

EJM: The original inspiration for the book was a father and son I saw late one night, when I was at hot springs resort in the middle of nowhere in Montana. Something about them struck me; I wondered what they were doing there, just the two of them, so late at night. I’m not sure I thought about them again until 2001, after I’d left Montana for Florida, where I went for my MFA. For a workshop, I wrote a story based on the father and son from at the hot springs. It wasn’t a great story, and I rewrote it a bunch of times over the next several years–well, nine years. I was still basically rewriting it when I sat down in the fall of 2009 and started what would become Brand New Human Being. The father and son from that night are now Logan and Owen. The hot springs scene is still in there, though now it plays a pretty minor role.

JB: In Brand New Human Being, Julie is working on a big asbestos case.  You covered a wide range of topics when you were a journalist.  Did you ever write about asbestos cases?

EJM: I did not write about asbestos cases, but a huge one was in the news all the time, so I was reading about it constantly. A friend of mine made great documentary about it called “Libby, Montana,” that really intrigued and amazed me, particularly on the human level–the impact environmental problems can have on the lives of individuals and families, and over generations. I also did work for the Clark Fork Coalition, a non-profit group devoted to cleaning up the Clark Fork and nearby rivers, mostly from mining-related contamination, so I was learning a lot about that.

JB: You set your story in Montana, a state in which you have lived.  As a writer, do you believe it’s easier or better to write what you know or is it more difficult because it’s familiar?

EJM: Both can be true. I didn’t write about the West until I’d moved East. I seem to have trouble writing about the place where I’m living, but then something about leaving a place brings it into sharper focus. I guess I tend to write about what I know, but from a distance.

JB: Logan is angry in this novel. He’s angry at his father for dying, his wife for being distant and overworked, his friend for wanting to sell the store, and at his son for sucking his thumb and wanting to “be a baby.”  Is Logan the real problem here?

EJM: Definitely–and that’s a big part of what the novel’s about: Logan getting out of his own way. He has to let go of a lot of the old anger he’s carrying around to be able to move forward in his life.

JB: Despite the distance with which Gus raised Logan, Logan desperately wants to be a good father.  In fact, one of my favorite things about Brand New Human Being is the father-son bond between Logan and Owen.  Sure, Logan’s not perfect, but readers can feel how fiercely protective Logan is of Owen and how much he loves him.  How difficult was it to write this father-son bond–something we women can never experience?

EJM: I didn’t find it very difficult, maybe because I just thought about people/animals/things I love fiercely, and went from there.

JB: I love the title.  Early on in the book, Logan talks about Owen’s birth and how he was this “brand new human being.”  In the end, though, Logan has become a brand new human being himself.  He’s come to terms with his father’s death and realizes he’s not the one that died.  What came first for you: the story or the title?

EJM: That’s so eloquently put! Actually, that line’s been in the story since almost the beginning, but the book went through several titles before landing on that one. My original title was “Gold,” which my agent nixed for its vagueness. Then we decided on “After Augustus,” but that didn’t work for a few different reasons. We considered about a hundred more, until finally my editor’s assistant came up with “Brand New Human Being,” which I think is really catchy, and works well for the story (for exactly reasons you describe).

JB: Do you have a favorite character in this story?  Is any character most like you?

EJM: I have a favorite character–I like them all for different reasons, which I think has to be the case if they’re going to feel multi-dimensional and sympathetic to readers. One character I would have liked to spend more time with, though, is Donna Zilinkas. She plays a peripheral role in the story, but she was surprisingly fun to write.

JB: Can you describe your road to publication?  When did you begin work on the novel?  Did you receive any rejection letters?

EJM: I started working on the novel in the fall of 2009. I worked every day, hard, for almost a year. Then I revised it a couple of times–major revisions–and then I sent it to a couple of writer friends to read. I did one more revision based on what they said, and when it was as strong as I believed I could make it, I contacted several agents in early February 2011. After that things happened quickly. My agent, Lisa Bankoff, took me on on Valentine’s Day; the next week she sent the manuscript out to a handful of houses. Two were immediately interested, so I spoke with those editors, and the next day I accepted a two-book deal from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Which is not to say I haven’t received rejection letters. Over the years, sending out short stories, I’ve received plenty of those.

JB: How do you deal with both good and bad reviews?  Does one bad review dampen all the good ones?

EJM: Since this is my first book, I’m learning as I go. It’s really gratifying when someone says the book resonated with them. So far, I haven’t been too upset by anything a reviewer has said. One thing that does irk me, I’ve found, is when a reviewer gets major factual thing wrong about the book, and in the next turn criticizes it.

JB: What was the most difficult part about writing Brand New Human Being and what was the most rewarding?

EJM: The most difficult part was the discipline to keep at it. Some days I really, really didn’t want to sit down at the computer. Like, at all. That’s hard—you just have to. There’s no way around that. The process of finishing, finding my agent, and selling it was thrilling—and I don’t mean financially. So much of writing is solitary, and it can fill you with self-doubt. Producing a book that even a few people like and take seriously feel very, very good.

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

EJM: One thing I learned was that I could do it—I mean actually write a book. I had no idea whether or not that was the case.

JB: Please tell us what a typical day of writing is like for you.

EJM: While I was writing Brand New Human Being, I tried to stick to a 4-pages/4 miles daily quota, which meant I would try to be sitting at my desk by 8:30 a.m. If I had to do things (like pay bills, or do other work, or interact with a sentient being aside from my dog), I’d try to schedule those around lunchtime. After lunch I would go back to work, and around my dog’s dinner time (4 or 5p.m.) I’d get up and tend to him. Then I’d go for a run or walk, during which I’d think about the book, and then I’d sit down once more to jot down what I’d thought about, for the next morning. And then I’d leave it alone for the night. (Except when I would think about it, going to sleep.)

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

EJM: I love being outside (except this time of year in DC, when it’s scorching): walking, running, hiking, swimming. I love dogs. I read a lot. I love a good TV drama (Friday Night Lights and Deadwood are my all-time favorites), though I tend to get obsessed and gorge myself on them. I think I watched the entire Season One of Game of Thrones in a week.

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

EJM: Writer-wise, I love William Trevor and Alice Munro and John Cheever; his story “Goodbye My Brother” astonishes me every time I read it. As for novels, I re-read The Great Gatsby regularly. I also adore Richard Russo. Two of my favorite novels I’ve read in recent years are “A Month in the Country” by JL Carr, “The Museum of Innocence” by Orhan Pamuk, and “The Sisters Brothers” by Patrick DeWitt.

JB: Any chance of this getting made into a movie?  If so, who do you see in the lead roles?

EJM: No word yet from Hollywood, but I’ll keep you posted. I do love the “who-would-play-whom” game. I’m thinking Kirsten Dunst or Claire Danes could make a good Julie. And how about Jake Gyllenhal or even Seth Rogan as Logan?

JB: What do you hope readers take with them after reading Brand New Human Being?

EJM: I hope they feel as if they’ve spent some time in the company of good, complex people who are doing their best, if not always doing very well. And I hope they enjoyed the experience!

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

EJM: Yes, I’m working on another novel. Too early to talk about specifics, but it’s safe to say this one will be about a complicated family, too. And chances are they’ll have a dog.

JB: Thanks, Emily, for a wonderful interview!
 

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Interview with Jillian Medoff, Author of I Couldn’t Love You More


Jaime Boler: Did you always want to be a writer?
Jillian Medoff: I’ve been writing ever since I was a kid, crafting stories as a moody adolescent and even moodier teenager and then studying fiction at Barnard and in graduate school at NYU. My entire life has been centered around my writing, and by that I mean finding the time to write. I have a career, a job-job, in corporate communications, and I work four days a week at a very traditional, very buttoned-up consulting firm. I also have a family—a husband and three daughters, parents and two sisters. So there’s constant drama, and I’m busy, busy, but at the center of the madness is the desire to write, the need to write. That desire, that need, is as palpable and relentless as any junkie’s craving, and will possess me all day until I can park myself in a chair and do my work. I love it, I hate it, it’s ecstasy when I’m writing well, it’s despair when I’m not. I wouldn’t wish this life on anyone, nor would I, could I, ever give it up.
JB: You write so strongly and beautifully of the bonds among sisters.  As an only child, these ties were alien to me, yet I envied them. Do you have sisters?  (If you do not, then that only makes you an even better storyteller!)
JM: Yes, I have two sisters, just like Eliot. Although they’re not as annoying as the sisters in the book—whose personality traits are magnified for fictive and often comic effect—they do get on my nerves as much as Maggie and Sylvia. At the same time, they are my go-to people when the chips are down, and we love as other as deeply as my characters. I would go to the ends of the earth for my sisters, and know they would do the same. My sisters and I have a complicated, exhilarating, maddening relationship but they’re my history, my memory, the two people in the world who have known me the longest. They also love to make fun of me—ask them about my Lady J license plate.
JB: How did you come up with the idea for I Couldn’t Love You More?
JM: I received an MFA at NYU. While I was there, I took a master class with the very brilliant writer, Grace Paley who said, “Write what you don’t know about what you know.” It didn’t occur to me until a few years ago that this is exactly what I do. I’ll take moments from my own life, from my family’s life, from strangers’ lives and I’ll look at what would normally happen—what I know—and then I’ll consider everything I don’t know, the big “what if’s.”
I actually wrote an essay about the evolution of I Couldn’t Love You More, and about my writing career called “This is a True Story.” It’s available in both the print and eBook versions of the novel. One point I make in this essay is that I Couldn’t Love You More, like my other novels, Hunger Point and Good Girls Gone Bad, evolved very much the way Grace Paley suggested. For instance, when I started to write I Couldn’t Love You More, here’s what I knew: I’m a mother and stepmother. I have three children. I love them each equally but all differently. I’ve always been a writer who tackles complex themes and risky subjects—I write about the things that people think but never say aloud. If a book has a predictable storyline or familiar situations, there’s little satisfaction for me in writing it. A woman deciding which man she’ll spend her life with? I’ve read that story a million times, but a stepmother deciding which of her children she’ll save in a freak accident? Now that’s a challenge. I had no idea how I would react if forced to choose between my daughters, and figuring that out became my obsession for the next decade. In fact, even though the novel is finished and published, I still grapple with the question. I mean, how can any of us know what we would do in that situation?
JB: How is I Couldn’t Love You More different from your other novels?
JM: What an excellent question! All three of my novels are first-person, with a female narrator, which is the voice that feels most natural for me. I’ve written novels in other voices with and male perspectives, but until now, they haven’t been as successful, largely because the characters weren’t as likeable or honest as they could’ve been. But my first two novels were written by a younger writer. I Couldn’t Love You More is different only because I’m different—I’m fifteen years older, fifteen years wiser, and have had fifteen more years of rejection. I’ve also had kids, so I think it’s a deeper, richer novel in many ways. The first two have the same intimate feeling and funny, honest voice, but I Couldn’t Love You More is a much more risky and ambitious book, especially from an artistic standpoint.
JB: What role does birth order play in shaping the personalities and lives of your novel’s two sets of sisters?
JM: The birth order—and personalities—of the characters were created intentionally so that they could be subverted. I developed the three sisters using the stereotypes normally associated with three sisters—the first is too good and selfless, the second is crazy and begs for attention and the third naïve and clueless. The idea is that by the end of the book, they’ve each been totally transformed: Eliot proves she’s not so good, Sylvia proves she’s not so crazy, and Maggie, the youngest, is neither naïve nor clueless. The personalities of the second set of sisters (the daughters) are more a reflection of their parents—Eliot, Grant and Beth, the Sculptress—than birth order. I suppose, however, that I do suggest that birth order also plays a role in their personalities, and how they relate to one another. The eldest sister, Charlotte, does feel responsible for her sisters the way Eliot does, which is how I feel toward my own sisters. Although in the book, Gail, the middle daughter is more like Eliot than her Aunt Sylvia.
JB: In this story, Eliot is named for George Eliot; Sylvia for Sylvia Plath; Maggie for Margaret Atwood.  Are you fans of these women writers?
JM: Yes, I am a fan—very much so.
JB: Grant likes to display his juggling prowess, but it is Eliot who is the real juggler in their family. In fact, the women in this novel wear so many different hats: mother, daughter, sister, wife, and friend.  Women, far more than men, in our society must put on a constant juggling act.  Why do you think women like Eliot feel the need to do everything? Are women today more likely to try to be “super” women?
JM: I think there’s an unnatural amount of social pressure on women, particularly mothers, to conform to certain standards of behavior, particularly in regard to our children. Take birthday parties, for instance. When I was growing up, we’d play some games in the backyard, sing some songs and have some cake. At some point, though, we collectively crossed a line where our children became these pampered little fetish objects that need more, more, more. And if we don’t give it to them or can’t give it to them, then we’ve failed them—as parents, as women, as providers.  I’m a working mother, and although I don’t feel guilty necessarily about working, I am definitely guilty of trying to more for my daughters, sometimes at the expense of myself. When I think of how much money I spent on my youngest girl’s second and third birthdays at Gymboree, I want to smack myself. I tried to capture this contradiction throughout I Couldn’t Love You More—how we overindulge our children in weird, often hysterically funny ways, and how we know what we’re doing is ridiculous, and yet don’t stop. I was also very interested in creating an archetypical “good” woman and then having her take a public fall. None of us is so good or so virtuous that we’re exempt from making mistakes, but somehow we’ve internalized these unrealistic ideas about motherhood and parenthood and try to behave accordingly. It’s maddening because it’s impossible to be perfect, and yet we all try and then feel badly when we aren’t.
JB: I Couldn’t Love You More is getting a lot of buzz.  How do you feel when you hear both good and bad reviews?
JM: When I was younger, the bad reviews would crush me—really, truly devastate me. Everything was so personal and I couldn’t separate myself from the work—not the characters because they weren’t me, but from the heartache of having put so much time and energy into the books. Now the bad reviews still sting, but I’m able to separate myself from them a little bit. It’s the art they’re critiquing, not the artist. A do think, though, that everyone should get bad reviews from time to time. They’re humbling, and it’s important to be humbled as a novelist. It’s painful, sure, but it’s a vital part of breathing life into your characters. You can’t lord yourself above them; bad reviews can cut you down pretty quickly.
JB: Have you ever come across someone you did not know reading one of your books?  Did you approach the person?
JM: This has only happened to me once. I saw a woman reading my first novel on the subway. But I couldn’t approach her. It was too strange and felt too intimate. I didn’t want to put her on the spot, especially if she didn’t like it. Even if it happened today, I would keep my distance. Reading is such a personal experience; I wouldn’t want to infringe on anyone’s space.
JB: How do you respond to critics who constantly devalue women’s fiction?
JM: This is a very tricky question because I have very strong feelings about the subject, and no matter what I say, I’m going to offend someone. I myself have devalued women’s fiction because a lot of women’s fiction is lousy. But so is a lot of literary fiction, science fiction, historical fiction, and every other type of fiction out there. For some reason, though, women’s fiction gets a worse rap, as though it’s somehow less difficult to write a four-hundred page domestic novel than it is any other kind of novel. Is it because women are an easy target, or because women love to take each other down? All I know is that it takes me a minimum of four years for each novel I write. I do research. I revised and rewrite. I inhabit the characters as intimately as I inhabit my own skin. And you’re going to tell me that this work is less than, or inferior to, another novel simply because of my voice or point of view? Really?
To be perfectly frank: I don’t write women’s fiction. I write intimate, gritty, realistic, character-driven fiction that happens to be thrown into the women’s fiction category. Yes, I wrote this particular novel in a first-person female voice. Yes, I am discussing a stepmother: her work, children, sexual relationships, sibling rivalries, etc. However, this stepmother was created as an archetype, an Everywoman, and through the quotidian details of her very typical, very ordinary life, I Couldn’t Love You More explores all the themes of great literature: love and betrayal, the capriciousness of fate, fall from grace, and noble sacrifice.
As a writer who happens to be a woman, I am constantly devalued—even by other writers who happen to be women—simply because of a marketing decision. Am I truly less talented, less audacious, less erudite, less brave than my more quote-unquote literary colleagues? With a different cover, different blurbs, different marketing, different social circle—a book can be categorized any way a publisher desires. I am truly grateful for all the support I’ve been shown by many male and female reviewers (so far, reviews have been raves) but I also feel snubbed by a lot of other papers, magazines, and blogs, including the paper of record.
This also raises the question of humor. Women writers—particularly women writers who are funny—are even further devalued. The very brilliant Jen [Jennifer] Weiner referred to it as the “other other.” I have a predisposition to finding the absurd in the everyday, that is, looking at ordinary random moments and seeing what’s funny about them. We are each absurd in our own way, and to accept that—to celebrate it—is critical to our survival. Think about it: we live and then we die. How dark is that? Therefore, we absolutely must find humor—otherwise life would be too depressing. Of course, my philosophy doesn’t lend itself to all literary subjects. You won’t find me writing about, say, the Holocaust or missing and murdered children. But family relations, sibling rivalry, true love, the devaluation of the American dollar—all of these are perfect opportunities for humor, even in their darkest moments.
But despite what people may think, writing funny is not easy and it’s not fun. It’s deadly serious and very hard. As a writer, you (and by that I mean “me”) have to be humble as well as realistic and accepting of your place in the world. If I were too impressed with myself, I could never be funny. You (again, “me”) have to be willing to see—and exploit—your flaws and those of everyone you come in contact with. It’s a brave thing, writing humor, because it’s so easy to fall flat. I wish I could write a Pulitzer-prize winning novel about the history of slavery, but alas, who would find that funny?
JB: Of all the books you’ve written, do you have a favorite?  If so, which one and why?
JM: This is another great question. I’ve never been asked this before, nor have I thought about my books in a comparative way. But now that I’m thinking about it, and because we’ve been discussing birth order, my first novel, Hunger Point, was truly a first novel and very akin to—dare I say it?—a first child. (I can hear how precious that sounds, but it’s true, it’s true.) It was risky, brazen, independent, and given lots and lots of attention. Continuing the metaphor, my second novel, Good Girls Gone Bad, was not as well liked and orphaned, and I Couldn’t Love You More is my special needs kid. All three have taught me a lot, and they all demanded a lot, but to pick a favorite isn’t fair to the years I spent on each one. I love them the same, but different.
JB: What part has social media played in your publication experience? What do you think about book blogs, in general?
JM: Although this is my third novel, it’s the first time I’ve ever worked with social media and so far, so good. The Internet has really helped to facilitate communication between authors and their readers, so it’s interesting to talk to people who have read my novel. To this end, book blogs act as a unique link between authors and their readers, and I’ve loved working with most of the book bloggers I’ve met. Of course, if a blogger hasn’t read my work, or worse, doesn’t quite “get” it, the experience isn’t as meaningful, but everyone I’ve met so far has read at least one of my books, and even better, really loved them. I’m very grateful for the book blogger community for supporting authors—with traditional coverage waning, it’s really the one way that non-industry people (“civilians” we call them) can find out about what’s new and what’s worth reading. So here’s a big shout-out and a big thank you to book bloggers everywhere!
JB: What do you like to do when you aren’t writing?
JM: What I like to do and what I have to do are two separate things. I like to read, swim, watch TV, spend time with my family. But I have to work, so I do that. I also attend a lot of my daughters’ school functions, which I don’t dislike but they’re time consuming, and for the past few years, I’ve spent many, many hours carting my kids to play dates and weekend activities.
JB: What was the last book you read?
JM: I just finished The Forgotten Waltz by Anne Enright. It was very masterfully done, and I highly recommend it. I also read Catching Fire, the second book in the Hunger Games series with my daughter. We both loved it!
JB: What are some of your favorite books and/or who are a few of your favorite authors?
JM: My list is far and wide. When I really love a book, I will research the author and try to find everything he/she has written. Sometimes, too, I’ll write a fan letter, which I know is corny. If I love a book, it will haunt me for days, weeks even, sometimes years. Here are a few that I still think about: Song of Solomon (Toni Morrison), The Sound and the Fury (William Faulkner), And then We Came to the End (Joshua Ferris), The Things They Carried (Tim O’Brien), anything by Philip Roth, especially American Pastoral and Patrimony, Anywhere but Here and My Hollywood (Mona Simpson). I also read a lot of non-fiction. I loved Random Family (Adrian Nicole LeBlanc) and most recently, Wild (Cheryl Strayed).
JB: If you weren’t an author, what would you be doing?
JM: My dream was always to be an FBI agent, like Clarice Starling from Silence of the Lambs, or even a detective like Olivia Benson from Law & Order.
JB: What words of advice do you have for aspiring authors?
JM: Read a lot—classics as well as contemporary fiction to learn how successful books are constructed, why writers make certain choices (point of view, setting, tone, etc.).  Write the kinds of books you want to read otherwise you’ll be less inclined to go back and revise again and again and again. My novels are never truly finished, even if they’re published and sitting on the shelf. While I may no longer be interested in spending time with that particular set of characters, I can’t help but think about all the ways the book could be different, the small, insignificant tweaks that no one but me would ever notice. (It’s one reason why I never reread my books once they’re bound and shipped.) Finally, consider trashing your outlines. Work without a net. When I start a novel, I have a general idea of where I want to end up, but I never know how I’ll get there. Part of what compels me to write day after day, chapter after chapter, is the discovery process, seeing the characters evolve as I get deeper and deeper into the story. It means many more revisions (I go forward and back, forward and back over a period of four years (at a minimum) for each book I write), but your novel will be richer and more honest for it.
JB: What do you hope readers take with them after reading I Couldn’t Love You More?
JM: To be honest, I want readers to be wrung out. As a novelist, I don’t have a political agenda or specific philosophy; I’m trying to create a gut-wrenching, intimate, memorable experience. I hope I’ll keep people up at night, unable to stop turning pages. That’s my goal: exhausted, emotionally drained readers who can’t stop crying.
JB: What’s next for you?  Are you working on anything new?
JM: We actually sold I Couldn’t Love You More two years ago, so I’ve been working for a year and a half on a new book. All I can say is that it’s a corporate book—one I’ve been dying to write for a long time. It’s set in the HR Department of a small, failing company. The head of the group, an aging executive has a stroke, and then…
JB: We’ll just have to wait to read it!  Thanks for doing this interview, Jillian.
JM: Thank you so much for giving me this opportunity! I’m thrilled to be talking to you about my book and my writing career with your readers. I’d also love to hear what people think of the book, so if you’ve read it and liked it, please drop me a line at jillianmedoff@gmail.com.
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Thank you to Amy R. Bromberg at KMSPR for setting it all up.

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