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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.

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Interview with Dennis Mahoney, Author of Fellow Mortals

Dennis Mahoney

Dennis Mahoney

Jaime Boler: Thanks, Dennis, for letting me ask you these questions!  I’m so excited about your highly-charged debut, Fellow Mortals.  Did you always want to be a writer?

Dennis Mahoney: No. I came to it late, at the tail end of high school. I was creative at an early age but it was more in the line of drawing and imaginative play. I zonked out in middle school and just acted like a regular boy, listening to hair metal and playing Commodore 64 videos games. But eventually my insecurities and general unhappiness led me to reading and writing, which boosted my confidence and gave me something to do.

JB: How would you describe Fellow Mortals in ten words or less?

DM: A tragic fire heightens relationships, for better and worse.

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

DM: The hero, Henry Cooper, was based on a minor character in a failed novel I’d written. I loved that character and wanted to put such a man—lively, big-hearted, simple—into the spotlight and test him with a horrible crisis, something that would thrust him into close proximity with different kinds of people. He’s someone who gets a strong reaction out of everyone who meets him, of bringing out their truest selves. That seemed like a great seed for a novel.

JB: I love the title.  Really, we are all human, we all make mistakes.  Did you have the story first and then the title or the title first and then the story?  How did you choose the title?

DM: Titles are a nightmare for me. I don’t know why. I’ve written books where every chapter had a title, and I had no problem with that. When it comes to naming a whole book, I struggle every time. My editor and I went round and round with Fellow Mortals, convinced we could think of something better. And then one day we thought, “You know, it kind of works. Let’s keep it.” My current novel-in-progress has a title, and I like it, and that often helps me stay focused. Whether or not that title will stick around for publication is anyone’s guess.

JB: Reading your story, I kept repeating the famous Alexander Pope quote: “To err is human; to forgive, divine.”  Did you have it in mind while writing Fellow Mortals?

DM: The sentiment, yes, if not the exact quote. But I rarely dwell on theme when I’m writing a story. There’s a vibe or trajectory, and my own beliefs and preoccupations are coming through, whether I’m aware of them or not. It is significant that I chose Henry as the central character; I must have found his value system the most intriguing, especially given the problems he was facing.

JB: Arcadia can mean a harmonious and unspoiled wilderness, yet a fire changes everything on Arcadia Street so it is no longer harmonious nor is it unspoiled.  Is that why you set part of your story on a street named Arcadia?

DM: Early drafts of Fellow Mortals had loads of references to Greek mythology, which helped me tap into certain primal aspects of the story, like mortality and transformation, but made the book feel pretentious and overwrought. Arcadia was named as a reference to that region in Greece, which was known for peace and contentedness. I didn’t mean to be heavy-handed about it. The name just fit so I kept it. You can still see the mythological influence in Sam’s sculptures, however. Most of them are recognizable: Tantalus, Prometheus, Arachne, Persephone. But it worked better not to make it explicit… to let the sculptures work on a gut level, as evocations of natural forces.

JB: Would you call Fellow Mortals a cautionary tale?  How so?

DM: I wouldn’t, really. I suppose lessons could be learned by watching how various characters’ choices play out over the course of the story, but I think novels work best when they simply portray people honestly, and the readers can draw their own conclusions, just as they would if they heard a compelling story in life.

JB: Do you have a favorite character in your story?  If so, who?  Sam’s character captivated me.

DM: Henry. I’ve known a few men like this and they’re so full of life, it’s contagious. You’re better for knowing them. I have a bit of Henry in me, too, in that I’m a goofy optimist when I probably ought to know better. I loved all the characters to some degree. Even Billy Kane, who’s pretty unlovable. With Billy I had this broken, repellant man and needed to understand him and motivate him. In discovering what made him tick, I started to pity him. I’d have a much harder time loving such a man if he were my actual neighbor, but again, this is something novels can do, for both the reader and the writer; they show us people in ways we might not ordinarily see them.

JB: Do you have a favorite line and/or scene?  Please share.

DM: I don’t focus on writing standout lines. I do my best to disappear as a writer and let the characters steal the show. I do have favorite scenes, but wow—this is a tough question. I love the very last scene. It’s has the spirit I wanted to end with, and I love any scene that includes the dog Wingnut.

JB: I adored Henry.  He isn’t the sort of man you could hold a vendetta against.  And I think Sam and the Finn sisters come to this same conclusion.  But not so Peg or Billy.  Why can’t they forgive Henry?

DM: Sam struggles with it for a very long time, and has the greatest reason to resent Henry, who accidentally killed Sam’s wife. It is interesting, in retrospect, that Henry gets the most grief from the two people who lost the least. Peg and Billy suffer damage to their houses, but they don’t lose everything the way Sam and the Finns do. You can see in the opening pages that Peg and Billy have a connection in being dissatisfied to begin with, regardless of the fire, but even their mutual anger at Henry isn’t enough to make them like each other. So it’s understandable that they wouldn’t respond well to Henry—a bright-side guy—in any scenario. Their response to the fire comes from their response to life.

JB: One of the characters in Fellow Mortals is Wingnut, a dog.  How hard was it getting into Wing’s head?  Did you read any books or articles on dog behavior?

DM: Haha, it was weirdly easy. I didn’t plan it. I just suddenly wanted to know what Wingnut was feeling in that early bedroom scene and went with it. I grew up with dogs. We had a cat when I was writing Fellow Mortals, and we’ve since adopted a rescue dog who, coincidentally, is a lovable, goofball mutt exactly like Wingnut. As for how I imagined Wing’s inner life at the time, I’d say that he’s a close mirror of Henry. They have the same personality. And since I myself relate to Henry on certain levels, I guess I have some Wingnut in me, too.

JB: Did you conduct any research concerning the postal service?

DM: A little, yes. Just enough to get the details right and make it believable. I spoke to a wonderful postal employee named Barbara who filled me in the repercussions of a mailman starting a fatal fire with a cigar. But since that particular scenario, as far as we know, is without real-world precedent, I went with how it probably would have played out. I got very lucky in that the USPS, being a government agency, would handle all legal aspects of the case, including civil suits against Henry. That allowed me to get Henry completely off the hook, legally speaking, so I could focus on his conscience, which is so much more interesting.

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

DM: Trying to infuse hope and life, in a very genuine way, despite the story being, at face value, something of a downer. I didn’t want a Capital-H happy ending. There’s no resurrecting Sam’s dead wife, for instance. But, being an optimist like Henry, I believe people can make terrible situations better if they try. Life itself, at face value, can be a downer. We want things we can’t have, get sick, get depressed, lose loved-ones, suffer injustice, and eventually die. What do we do about that? Commit suicide or make the most of things? Conveying that spirited defiance of loss and mortality was a tricky thing to do without sounding cheap or sentimental.

JB: What was your publication process like?

DM: Once I had a book deal, it was a dream. My editor, Emily Bell, and FSG did everything right. They’ve supported me ever since. Prior to the book deal, I had dozens of agent rejections, an awesome agent who took me on but retired in the middle of submitting to editors, and lots of wailing and gnashing of teeth. The usual road to publication, in other words.

JB: What advice would you give to anyone working on a debut novel?

DM: My top three: (1) Find a way to love the daily work or it isn’t worth doing (2) Ignore the chatter about “the state of the publishing industry” and how to get published, because it won’t help you write the best possible book (3) Again: love it.

JB: What is your writing process like?  Do you write during certain times of the day?  Do you have a desk where you write?  Do you listen to Baroque music?

DM: Lately I’m up at 5AM and get about 250 words written before driving our son to school. I aim for 750 words a day, 5-7 days a week. I write longhand on a couch in a library/reading room I built a few years ago. (See here: http://thenextbestbookblog.blogspot.com/2013/03/where-writers-write-denis-mahoney.html) I key the pages into the computer every couple of chapters. And yes, the Patrick O’Brian Aubrey/Maturin novels made me a Baroque music addict. This works especially well lately, since my next book is set in the 18th-century.

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

DM: It’s always busy with a family. Lots of action around here. I read, watch movies, play with our son and dog, hang out with my wife, exercise some, do a little carpentry, and follow boxing. I used to grow pumpkins in the yard. I could use a new summer hobby this year.

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

DM: Patrick O’Brian’s novels, already mentioned, came at just the right time and made my life better in significant ways. I’ve never known characters who felt more like actual friends. I’m going to snob out and say I’m on a Shakespeare kick this year. That guy could write. I’m praying that Susanna Clarke publishes a follow-up to Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell.

JB: Who has influenced your writing the most?

DM: I honestly have no idea. Most of my favorite writers aren’t people I imitate. It’s possible I love them because I’m able to read them like a regular reader, instead of constantly thinking, “Hey, maybe I could try writing like that!”

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

DM: A touch of Henry’s spirit. Also a strong desire to read my next novel.

JB: Barnes and Noble chose Fellow Mortals as a Discover Great New Writers selection.  Congratulations!  How did you react upon hearing the news?

DM: Thanks! I was thrilled. I found out months before publication, so it removed some of the fear of the publication date, when you aren’t sure if anyone will like the book.

JB: Your writing has been compared to that of Stewart O’Nan and Richard Russo.  How do such comparisons make you feel?

DM: Honored, since I’m a big fan of both, and somewhat confused, as I don’t entirely see myself that way. I don’t mean that negatively or positively. I just don’t know who I’d compare myself to because I don’t really think that way. Take a parenting analogy: I try to raise a happy, well-adjusted son, but wouldn’t it be strange to compare my parenting style to that of more famous parents. “Mahoney’s fatherly lectures are reminiscent of Theodore Roosevelt Sr.’s inspirational words to young Teddy…”

JB: I have to ask if any of your neighbors have read Fellow Mortals and what their reactions to the book have been?

DM: Haha, good question. None of our neighbors are anything like the characters, so I’m probably OK. I’m a stay-at-home Dad, which looked a little odd once our son began attending school full-time. I think the neighbors are just relieved to finally know what I do all day.

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

DM: Most debut authors aren’t sent on tours anymore, because nobody shows up for unknowns. If I’d written a surefire bestseller, that’d be different, but Fellow Mortals is more of a quiet, word-of-mouth novel. I’m doing local signings, but travelling to far-off cities doesn’t make sense. I’d have to sell a ton of copies just to cover the hotel room.

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

DM: I’m writing a big mystery-adventure. It’s about a young woman who sails for a new life in a strange colonial America, where she has to survive supernatural weather, forest thieves who steal people’s limbs, and a violent past that threatens to turn everyone against her. My heroine’s name is Molly and she’s an irrepressible optimist, like Henry in Fellow Mortals.

JB: Ooh, that sounds so intriguing and unusual.  Thank you so much, Dennis, for a wonderful interview.  It’s been a pleasure.  Good luck with the book!

DM: Thank you, Jaime!

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Farrar, Straus and Giroux kindly gave me three copies of Fellow Mortals to give away.  One is left.  Please fill out the brief form below.  I will choose a winner on Friday, March 29, at 5 pm ET.

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Interview With Dina Nayeri, Author Of A Teaspoon Of Earth And Sea

Interview with Dina Nayeri,

Dina Nayeri

Dina Nayeri

Author of A Teaspoon of Earth and Sea

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Jaime Boler: Thank you, Dina, for letting me interview you.  I fell in love with post-revolutionary Iran in your novel, and your elegant, passionate prose blew me away. You are an Iranian exile, born in the midst of the revolution.  In your author’s note, you write that A Teaspoon of Earth and Sea is your “dream of Iran, created from a distance just as Saba invents a dreamed-up America for her sister.”  Can you explain?

Dina Nayeri: I spent my adulthood away from Iran (having left at the age of eight). And so I had to learn about Iran through books and magazines and other media, the same way Saba learns about America.  While I did spend eight years in my home country, my memories are fuzzy and I had to make sure no mistakes crept into the narrative.  But all the while, as I was writing about Saba’s imagined America, I kept thinking, “I understand what she’s doing, because in a way I’m doing it too.”

JB: What was it like growing up in post-revolutionary Iran?

DN: It was scary. We were always worrying about the moral police and bombings (from the Iran-Iraq war). I had to wear hijab to school. There was a constant feeling of being stifled, being close to trouble, and having to get away with things.  Talking to recent Iranian exiles, I know that I escaped the worst of it because I wasn’t a teenager there, and that makes me so sad for my friends who spent most of their lives there.

JB: As a child, did you dream of America, just as Saba did?

DN: Not really. I didn’t know much about it, and I lived a very happy, fulfilled life surrounded by family and books and whatever I needed. I was a lucky girl.

JB: At the tender age of ten, you and your family moved to Oklahoma.  What was that like?  Any culture shock?

DN: Terrible culture shock! No one in my school had ever met an Iranian before, and suddenly I went from being the popular girl (in Iran) to being an outcast.  But the shock soon wore off and I came to see the good and bad in Oklahoma—though, to be honest, I was planning to get out pretty early on.

JB: Do you have a favorite character in the story?

DN: I have a soft spot in my heart for Mahtab and Reza. If I were to let my imagination go to a place where Mahtab is alive and grows up in Iran, I would say that they would end up together.  She is feisty enough to handle his fickle ways, and he needs the kind of woman who could keep his attention. And they’re both secret romantics and idealists and dreamers.

JB: Are any of the strong female characters in the book based on women in your own family?

DN: No, they are all fictional.  But women in Iran tend to be strong. They tend to make their voices heard and I like that.

JB: A Teaspoon of Earth and Sea shows just how powerful storytelling really is.  Storytelling can transform our lives.  How has telling this story changed your life?

DN: It gave me an entirely new life. I used to be a businesswoman and very unhappy. Only after I discovered writing did I become the person I am now, and happy in my vocation.  Storytelling is everything to me, and I live in a world where everyone around me agrees.

JB: How did you feel when you learned A Teaspoon of Earth and Sea had been selected as a Barnes and Noble Discover Great New Writers book?  Congratulations!

DN: Wonderful!! What an honor it is!

JB: What are some of your favorite books?  Who are your favorite authors?

DN: My favorites are Chang Rae Lee and Marilynne Robinson and Kazuo Ishiguro. I’ve come to love Junot Diaz and Jumpa Lahiri for their beautiful depictions of life as an outsider.  I’m starting to understand and love Iranian literature in a new way, and am making my way through Hedayat’s Blind Owl.

JB: What is the one book you wish you’d written?

DN: The God of Small Things (Arundhhati Roy)

JB: How would you describe yourself in one word?

DN: Feisty.

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

DN: Read. Yoga. Cook.

JB: Do you think copies of your book will be smuggled into Iran by men like the Tehrani and purchased by women like Saba?  How does that make you feel?

DN: I hope not! I wouldn’t want that kind of drama :)

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

DN: Yes! I’m working on my second book about a family of exiles arriving in Oklahoma in 1991. There’s more about it on my website and there’s an excerpt on Granta’s website, for Granta New Voices.

JB: What do you hope readers take with them after reading A Teaspoon of Earth and Sea?

DN: I hope they see a different side of Iran—all the thousands of years of history and culture, food, music, and poetry. I hope they don’t only see Iran in the political context we often see today.

JB: Thank you, Dina, for taking the time to answer my questions and for a wonderful interview.  Good luck with the book!

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Interview with Rita Leganski, Author of The Silence of Bonaventure Arrow

Interview with Rita Leganski, Author of The Silence of Bonaventure Arrow

Rita Leganski

Rita Leganski

Jaime Boler: Thank you, Rita, for letting me interview you.  I have to tell you how much I loved your magical story.  Through his silence, Bonaventure Arrow spoke to me, and I heard him loudly and clearly.  I’m very pleased that She Reads chose it as the March Book Club Selection.  Did you always want to be a writer?

Rita Leganski: I’ve always enjoyed writing, whether it was a school assignment or just as a pastime. At times in my life when I’ve felt unsettled, story writing helped me through. When I decided to return to school as an adult, I deliberately chose to study writing.

JB: Reading this very Southern story, I was surprised to learn you grew up in Wisconsin.  You began reading Southern writers at a very young age.  How old were you?  Who were your favorite authors?

RL: I suppose I was in middle school when I was transported to 1930s Maycomb, Alabama, by Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. Huckleberry Finn did his part as well in luring my imagination southward.  As my tastes and abilities grew more sophisticated, I added Carson McCullers, Flannery O’Connor, and William Faulkner to my list of favorites.

JB: How have these beloved Southern authors influenced your writing?

RL: I think their greatest influence on me has been their artistry with voice and tone, as well as feeling at liberty to bring in supernatural influences and just downright crazy folks. Those writers taught me to let the setting actually be one of the characters.

JB: Prior to beginning this story, had you ever visited New Orleans or Louisiana?

RL: I had never been anywhere in Louisiana before going there to do research for Bonaventure Arrow. One doesn’t merely go to New Orleans; one experiences it. Everybody should try it at least once. If for no other reason, go for the beignets – fried doughnuts covered in confectioner’s sugar!

JB: One of my favorite things about New Orleans!  The Silence of Bonaventure Arrow began as a short story when you were in graduate school.  When did you begin working on the story? And how did you come up with Bonaventure Arrow?

RL: I began the short story in May of 2009 and completed it in June. It was my very last assignment before graduating with a Master’s in Writing. The professor had pleaded with us to give him something different, so I decided to try my hand at magical realism. I can’t honestly tell you how I came up with Bonaventure Arrow; he was just always there.  In the original thirteen-page short story, he is nine years old (not seven) and William has been killed in Korea. As I recall, the only characters in it were Bonaventure, Dancy, Grandma Roman, and Trinidad Prefontaine. That story did make its way into the novel, but well into it. It comprises the scene in the kitchen with the Blue Bottle fly and the scene in which Grandma Roman takes Bonaventure to Bixie’s.

JB: Bayou Cymbaline, though fictional, feels so real.  How did you come up with this “magical, haunted, and lovely place steeped in faith and superstition—the ideal home for a gifted little boy who could hear fantastic sounds”?

RL: I needed to locate the story in a unique place, one that was near enough to New Orleans to be under its influence, but not overshadowed by it. I have referred to my fictional town as a metaphorical house of God because it was home to so many different types. I named it Bayou Cymbaline because of associations and semantic characteristics of those nouns.  Bayou sets it geographically and Cymbaline was borrowed from Shakespeare’s The Tragedy of Cymbeline (I changed just one letter to make it my own). Like that Shakespearean play, THE SILENCE OF BONAVENTURE ARROW deals with innocence and jealousy.

JB: Your use of magical realism is close to the divine.  I’d put your name right beside Isabel Allende and Yann Martel.  How did characters like Bonaventure and Trinidad and others and even your setting allow you to use this literary tool to your advantage?

RL: Wow! What a compliment! Thank you very much!  Magical realism sets writers free. It invites the fantastic, the unbelievable; the downright bizarre to come into reality and both change it and leave it alone. After all, it’s reality that acts as a measuring stick for the magic. Bonaventure and Trinidad move through the same reality as everyone around them, yet they are set apart by their otherworldly gifts. New Orleans is kind of the same way; it’s a place of commerce and residences, but there’s also this ever-present vibe that’s not quite namable. Joy dances with sorrow in New Orleans. This duality of natures worked to my advantage because it gave me leeway to let the supernatural in.

JB: Who is your favorite character in the story?

RL: Coleman Tate. He was an interesting character to write.

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

RL: The toughest thing was to keep the flow going while trying to tell backstory. Preserving some sense of chronology was difficult; it seemed I had to constantly move whole sections to do it. Probably my most interesting difficulty was to bring in an element of suspense AFTER the novel had been completed. Believe it or not, The Wanderer was not part of the original version.

JB: How fascinating!  I can’t even think of the story without him.  What kind of research did you do?  Find anything you’d like to use in a future story?

RL: Even though THE SILENCE OF BONAVENTURE ARROW is a work of fiction I wanted to get it right, especially when it came to Catholicism and New Orleans. To that end, I adhered to only credible sources. I spoke to historians, archivists, and folks in New Orleans during the time I spent there doing research. I also consulted various digital collections and online libraries as well as consulting with people in Catholic ministries.

I save all my research. No doubt, I’ll reach into it for some future story.

JB: So many early readers love Bonaventure.  Has the advance praise surprised you at all or did you always expect Bonaventure to pull at the heartstrings of readers?

RL: I can honestly say it has surprised me. It’s such a different sort of story that I wasn’t sure how it would be received. I only knew how much I loved Bonaventure.

JB: Ever thought of moving to the South, but especially to New Orleans?

RL: Not really, my family is in the north. But I’ll definitely return to the South for vacations.

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

RL: I love to read, knit, and crochet. I also love to renovate – give me a paint brush and some wood flooring and I’ll be happy for a long, long time. I’m an exercise freak, too. My husband and I enjoy travelling, hiking, and snowshoeing. He loves to cook, but I need a map to find the kitchen.

JB: If a reader asked you to give her a list of five Southern writers that you consider required reading, who would be on your list and why?

RL: Carson McCullers – She’s best known for The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, but The Member of the Wedding is actually my favorite McCullers work. I also love her very long short story The Ballad of the Sad Café. Her characters are works of art. She finds the extraordinary under layers of human weakness.

Harper Lee – There are no words to adequately praise To Kill a Mockingbird. Scout Finch may very well be the best reminiscent narrator ever.

Flannery O’Connor – Though she wrote a few novels, O’Conner is best known as a master of the short story. She had a gift for exploiting the peculiar and bringing about endings that manage to be both fascinating and macabre as they blindside you. If I had to pick a favorite work of hers it would be a tie between “A Good Man is Hard to Find” and “The River”.

Tennessee Williams – He had a gift for bringing charm to the gritty. His titles are some of the best: “A Streetcar Named Desire” and “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” are a couple that pull you right in.

William Faulkner – If you want to learn how to write quirky characters, read Faulkner.

JB: An amazing list!  Which book or books are you currently reading?

RL: I just finished THE UNLIKELY PILGRIMAGE OF HAROLD FRY by Rachel Joyce. I loved it.

I’m currently reading THE SHADOW OF THE WIND by Carlos Ruiz Zafón.

JB: Those are actually two of my favorite novels.  Will you go on a book tour?  If so, which cities are you visiting?

RL: Yes, I will tour. It’s in the planning stages at HarperCollins.

JB: What do you hope readers take with them after reading The Silence of Bonaventure Arrow?

RL: That when it comes to forgiveness, accepting it is just as important as offering it. Also, I would hope that readers would become in tune with the miraculous that is all around us all the time.

JB: Are you working on anything new?

RL: I’ve actually begun three different projects. I’m hoping that sooner or later one of them overpowers the other two.

JB: Thank you, Rita, for a wonderful interview!  May you venture forth into bestseller land.

RL: Thanks for inviting me!

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silence.jpg The Silence of Bonaventure Arrow is the She Reads March Book Club Selection.  For reviews, a chance to win a copy of the book, and discussion, visit She Reads.  I am also giving away a brand new copy of the story.  Please fill out the brief form below.  I will choose a winner using random.org on Friday at 3 pm ET.  Good luck!

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Interview with Nicole Wolverton, Author of The Trajectory of Dreams

Nicole Wolverton

Nicole Wolverton

I enjoyed Nicole Wolverton’s novel The Trajectory of Dreams so much that I sought her out for an interview.  You can read my book review here.

Jaime Boler: Thank you, Nicole, for allowing me to ask you these questions.  The Trajectory of Dreams is an utterly riveting debut.

Nicole Wolverton: Thank you! It tickles me whenever I find out someone enjoyed the novel!

JB: Describe what The Trajectory of Dreams is about in five words.

The-Trajectory-of-Dreams6 NW: Crazy stalker-hero goes crazier. Honestly, I have trouble describing Trajectory in 50 words or 100 words!

JB: How did you come up with the idea for your story?

 

NW: Several years ago I was reading Mary Roach’s book Packing for Mars. There’s a lot of information in there about the
psychological testing that goes into weeding out astronauts with potential problems. In the book she also mentions the Lisa Nowak incident. Now, I have sort of an overactive imagination—and if you’re a writer, that’s a good thing. I have a tendency to think about all the crazy things my neighbors might be up to behind closed doors. Combine my weird imaginative tendencies with Packing for Mars, and my head eventually came up with a mentally ill woman with a troubling past who breaks into astronauts’ homes to weed out the chaff in the new shuttle program.

JB: Did you always want to be a writer?

NW:  Absolutely. I’ve been making up stories and writing poetry (bad poetry, I should note) since I learned to read and write. When I was still in high school, I thought I’d be a journalist because it seemed a more likely scenario—I never really thought I could ever stick with something long enough for it to become a novel. I guess time and experience changes a lot of things!

JB: On a personal note, I can remember wanting to be an astronaut until my class watched the Challenger disaster on television in 1986.  Did you ever want to be an astronaut?  What do you remember about the Challenger exploding?

NW: The idea of space travel is inherently attractive. I think everyone wants to be a part of something special and unique, boldly go and all that. That said, I’m terrible at math and realized early on that it would stand in my way of ever becoming an astronaut. I guess I’ve always been a realist. The Challenger disaster was scary—I was around 13 years old at the time, and I have really vivid recollections of how blue the sky was, which is something that became part of Lela’s remembrance of a shuttle explosion, too.

JB: Did you conduct any research for The Trajectory of Dreams, particularly on NASA and preparation for space flight and on mental illness?

NW: I tend to be a little bit ridiculous about research because I want things to be as correct as possible. Yes, I absolutely took some liberties with the shuttle program and its history, but I sort of had to in order to make the story work. To research space travel and astronaut life, I went to talks by Mary Roach (she spoke about her book Packing for Mars and the research she did) and Dr. Guy Bluford, Jr., who is a retired astronaut from Philadelphia (and the first African-American in space). Then there was all the sleep science, which came from a variety of science journals and interviews with a sleep lab tech and a bunch of my friends who’ve been to a lab for sleep tests. Lela White’s mental disorder was also heavily researched—it’s never named in the novel since she was never officially diagnosed, but she has a very specific disorder. I talked to a psychologist, researched the disorder in journals, and read several accounts of the disorder by people who have it. By far the strangest research I did related to arson. It’s nearly impossible to find a firefighter willing to tell you how to set something on fire. Eventually, an old friend from high school agreed to give me some pointers, but I’m fairly certain I’m on some kind of arson watch list.

JB: I read this on your website: “Nicole Wolverton fears many things, chief amongst them that something lurks in the dark. From ghosts to stalkers, her adult and young adult fiction plays on the mundane and not-so-mundane things that frighten us all.”  I often read that many writers write what they know best.  Is that true for you, as well?

NW: I’m really happy to say that as far as I know I’ve never been a stalker, nor do I have a serious, undiagnosed mental disorder. It’s human nature, though, to be scared of the unknown—it’s the reason most religions exist. I’m not particularly religious, but I’m fascinated by ghosts, life after death in general, and other supernatural things, scary things. Halloween is my favorite holiday because of all the superstition and legend that goes with it. There’s something about being scared that’s attractive, which may explain why I really love skydiving.

JB: What was it like having Lela in your head?

NW: Weird. Lela has a very specific set of symptoms, history, and probable reactions to certain stimuli that are the complete opposite of my own. Writing her in the context of her own plotline was difficult, but it got easier after a while because she’s predictable in a way. What got to be strange was when I’d be living my own life, wondering what she’d do in situations. I went to the grocery store once, and there was this obviously high woman gamboling around the aisles. To me, the normal reaction is to stay out of her way in case she pulled a weapon; for Lela, her reaction is to stand and stare at the woman, debating whether she might be an assassin and whether Lela should take her out as a precaution.

JB: Who is your favorite character in the story?  Mine has got to be Lela!

NW: Heh! I really like Lela because she’s the hero of her own story, and I think that’s typical even for sane people. That said, my favorite character changes week to week. This week it’s The Chin. He’s so simple, which makes him really pure and innocent. He doesn’t have it in him to lie or beat around the bush. Everything about him is all up front. Because of that, he can get his heart easily crushed. The Chin reminds me of the way we all were as pre-teens before we learned that we have to guard ourselves so closely. In a lot of ways he’s the exact opposite of Lela.

JB: What was the most difficult thing about writing The Trajectory of Dreams?

NW: Writing Lela’s reaction to things at first was difficult. Even though I had her entire personality and tendencies mapped out before I started writing, it takes a while to know someone. Lela’s also in her head a lot, so trying to get a good balance of internal and external wasn’t the easiest thing ever.

JB: Who has influenced your writing the most?

NW: I admire Kurt Vonnegut. Writing comedically while still maintaining a serious plot is something I aspire to—it’s so hard to pull off successfully. Plus, his plots are so intricate. I also really love Tom Robbins. My own writing is nothing like either of theirs, but hopefully one day I’ll approach that level of skill.

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

NW: I’m a competitive dragon boater on a women’s club crew. It’s a fantastic way to get out of my head and enjoy being outside (plus, I like to win things, so it works out well). I also love to knit and spin yarn, skydive, bake and cook, and garden. Like most writers, I read a lot, too. One day someone will invent a way for me to combine at least three of those things at once so I can multi-task…maybe dragon boating, writing, and knitting.

JB: Which book or books are you currently reading?

NW: I just started Zadie Smith’s White Teeth, and I’ve got John Dies at the End by David Wong sitting on the end table.

JB: You also moderate “5 Minute Fiction,” a weekly flash fiction challenge.  Can you tell us about that?  Would you consider writing a novel using flash fiction?

NW: 5 Minute Fiction is this very awesome timed writing exercise. Every Tuesday night at 8:30p EST, a bunch of writers converge on my website to get the prompt du jour. Participants have 15 minutes to write, edit, and submit an entry (ostensibly, the idea is that you spend five minutes writing). A guest judge picks his or her five favorite entries, which go up for public voting, and in 24-hours an overall winner is chosen. Leah Petersen started the challenge about three years ago. I inherited the challenge a year ago, and now I’m passing it on (beginning March 1) to Wendy Strain. It’s a great tradition, and I’m going to miss hosting. Of course, it’s a big time commitment, so I’m happy to see another writer take good care of it. As to whether I would write a novel using flash fiction…I’ve had some ideas during flash fiction writing that might make a good novel if expanded. Several of my flash fiction pieces have been published in literary journals.

JB: What do you hope readers take with them after reading The Trajectory of Dreams?

NW: You can never really know your friends, acquaintances, and neighbors. That sounds a bit suspicious and fatalistic, but everyone has a secret—whether it’s as dangerous as the secret Lela is hiding, well . . . I also think the mental illness aspect to the story is critical. People are talking about mental illness a lot right now, especially in conjunction with gun control. It’s important to make access to mental healthcare easier and to decrease the stigma of having a disorder. There’s nothing shameful about it.

JB: Are you working on anything new?

NW: I’m primarily a young adult writer. Right now I’m working on a novel about two people who come very close to drowning and a freak show. That sounds very strange, but it makes sense in context. I’m a big fan of freakery as a critique of the normative.

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

NW: Thank YOU!!

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Interview with Tara Conklin, Author of The House Girl

Interview with Tara Conklin, Author of The House Girl

The Author

The Author

Jaime Boler: Tara, thank you for letting me interview you.  I absolutely love The House Girl and feel readers are going to embrace both Lina and Josephine.

Tara Conklin: Thank you, Jaime!  It’s a delight to be appearing on your blog.

JB: You previously worked as a litigator in the New York and London offices of a large corporate law firm.  What made you want to write fiction?

TC: I’ve always been a huge reader and my love of reading morphed pretty naturally – at some point in grade school – into a desire to write.  But I never saw writing fiction as a viable career goal.  I decided it was something I would do for fun, to amuse myself, and so for many years I wrote stories, essays, rants but I never showed my writing to anyone.  I always thought: I’ll write more seriously when I retire.   Thankfully, Josephine and Lina forced me into early retirement.

JB: How did you come up with the idea for The House Girl?

TC: I came across the words “slave doctor” in a biography I was reading, and that term made me stop.   I started wondering about the kind of person who would occupy such a conflicted role – to dedicate your life to healing, but your patients were destined only for more harm.  From that initial spark of interest, I wrote the story of Dr. Caleb Harper.  The two women who appear in his story – Dorothea Rounds and Josephine Bell – grabbed me. I wanted to know more about them, so I started writing about each separately and I just kept writing, trying to discover how their stories connected.  Caleb’s is the last narrative now to appear in the book, but it’s where the whole thing began.

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

TC: I read a lot of slave narratives, letters and journals from the time period, jotting down unusual words and phrases as I found them.  This helped me use the right language for the historical sections.  I also read fiction and non-fiction about the antebellum south and the Underground Railroad and did a fair amount of concentrated googling as required to get the details right. You’d be surprised how much you can find on the internet about 19th century footwear, for example.

JB: The House Girl recently topped the Indie Next list for February and has been garnering lots of attention.  Early readers have compared your novel to The Help and are calling it the ultimate book club book.  How do you feel about this wonderful early praise?

TC: I’m thrilled and beyond grateful.  It’s wonderful to have such early support for the book.  Thank you!

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

TC: No, absolutely not.  I didn’t even think I was writing a novel – at the beginning, I was just writing stories that would live in my computer, like all my others.  But after I finished drafting the three historical sections, I couldn’t stop thinking about the characters.  Their stories felt very unresolved and so I decided to add a contemporary voice to bring some closure and make sense of it all.  That’s where Lina Sparrow came in.

JB: My favorite character in the story is Josephine.  Do you have a favorite?  Or is that like asking you to choose your favorite child?

TC: It is a bit like choosing a favorite child – I love them all, for different reasons.  I even have a soft spot for Dan, Lina’s boss. That being said, Josephine is, for me, the heart and soul of the story.  Everything revolves around her, so if I had to pick a favorite, she would be mine as well.

JB: The issue of slave reparations is an important part of The House Girl.  Do you think the descendants of African-American slaves should be awarded reparations?

TC: That’s a tough question.  I think now, for a whole host of reasons, it’s difficult to envision monetary reparations.  There are just too many legal and practical problems with it, even putting aside the complex philosophical and moral arguments on either side.  But I do hope the book prompts readers to think and talk about antebellum history a bit – not just the Civil War and Abraham Lincoln but the millions of individuals who lived and died for 250 years under an inhumane system, who struggled and hoped for something different.  It seems to me that their voices aren’t often heard in American history and it’s worth considering why that’s the case and what those voices might tell us.

JB: Is Lina based on you?  Are any characters in the book based on real people?

TC: No, everyone in the book is fictional, including Lina.  I admit that Lina and I share some similarities and experiences – Lina’s opening scene (she discovers that a case she’d been working on had settled days earlier) actually did happen to me.  And many of the law firm details – the secretaries’ email habits, the layout of the floors, the billable minutes – are taken from my experience. The historical characters are all pure inventions, although I borrowed some historical names – Benjamin Rust, for example, was the name of an actual slave trader.

JB: What was the most difficult part about writing The House Girl?

TC: Making Lina’s story compelling was definitely the most difficult part for me.  Josephine is, I think, a tough act to follow, but I felt strongly that Lina needed to be more than simply the vehicle for discovering Josephine.   

JB: I have to say this story made me cry.  Did you ever cry while writing it?

TC: Constantly!  I’m a pretty easy cry, but there are certain places in the book that still make me cry – even while doing the final copy edit, I was weeping.

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

TC: I take care of my three busy kids, I read, I run, and I’ve gotten weirdly addicted to Twitter recently…

JB: If you could have dinner with any author, living or dead, who would you choose and why?

TC: Oh what a great question to imagine!   Do I have to just pick one?   I really admire Jennifer Egan – she is such a risk taker, with each of her novels pushing the envelope in different ways.  And Emily Dickinson – I’ve been fascinated by her since I was an angst-filled teenager so I’d love to sit down with her.  I’d opt for dinner with Jennifer and tea with Emily.

JB: What book is on your nightstand right now?

TC: My nightstand is groaning right now – I’ve got so many!  Some near the top are: Wolf Hall, The Yellow Birds, The Snow Child, and A Thousand Acres (one of my all-time favorite novels).  And I’m nearly done with Zone One – I’m a secret zombie freak, and this is a great literary zombie read.

JB: If you could describe yourself in one word, what would it be?

TC: Resilient.

JB: Are you going on an author tour?  If so, which cities will you visit?

TC: I’ll be on a short tour – I’m doing three events in the Seattle area, and then onto the East Coast, Lenox, MA (I grew up in western Massachusetts), New York, Atlanta, and Charlottesville, and later in Indianapolis and Gaithersburg.

JB: What do you hope readers take with them after reading The House Girl?

TC: I hope the book makes them think about American history and the voices we don’t hear in the textbooks; and also (because this is true about my most favorite novels) I hope it inspires them in some way, maybe to take a risk or ask a tough question or think about how they can be true to themselves.

JB: Are you working on anything new?

TC: Yes, although book promotion is not very conducive to working on new writing!  I am dying to get back to my new book.  It’s about sisters and family, death and love; it’s very different from The House Girl.

JB: I know this is going to be a bestseller, and I thank you for giving us such an emotional story rich in character and full of historical detail.  I appreciate you letting me ask you these questions.  Good luck with the book, Tara!

TC: Thank you so much for your support, Jaime, and for hosting me on your fantastic blog! 

the-house-girl.jpg

 

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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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