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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 Julie Kibler, Author of Calling Me Home

Interview with Julie Kibler, Author of Calling Me Home

Julie Kibler

Julie Kibler

Jaime Boler: Julie, thank you for allowing me to ask you these questions.  We over at She Reads love your book Calling Me Home, the February Book Club Selection.  Many of us, in fact, have said it’s our favorite book thus far!  There is a story behind your story.  How did you come up with the idea for Calling Me Home?

 

Julie Kibler: Five or six years ago (I’m struggling to remember the exact time frame these days!), my dad shared that when my grandmother was a young woman, she had fallen in love with a black man, and that their families had torn them apart. This really opened my eyes. My grandma hadn’t been an especially happy or warm person, at least when I knew her, though we shared some special moments in time. But learning this convinced me she had lost her “one true love”–and that her life had never been exactly as she dreamed it might be as a result. The idea for writing a novel with this concept at the crux took hold and wouldn’t let go. It took me a few years to gather the courage to write it, but I finally did. I am thankful I did, and I think she would like it. I hope she would like it. 

 

JB: Readers are really connecting with your main characters, Isabelle and Dorrie.  How do you feel about the wonderful early praise your book is getting?

 

JK: It is exhilarating and terrifying at once. I’m thrilled most of the reviews I’ve seen have been positive. Yet, I think every writer really takes to heart the ones that aren’t quite so good. We hyper focus on the things we worry might be true. Of course, we can’t please everyone, and the hope is that your book will find the right readers in the right timing. I am, of course, absolutely thrilled readers are connecting with Isabelle and Dorrie. I tried to make these two women as authentic as I could, and it wasn’t always easy.

 

JB: In Calling Me Home, the residents of Shalerville erected a sign warning any African-Americans to get out of town before darkness fell.  On your website, I read where your father’s hometown actually had such a sign.  Was it difficult to write about such an ugly time in our history?

 

JK: It was difficult at times, partly because I did not live during that era. I did not experience it myself. I knew I’d never truly comprehend what it must have been like, from either side of the sign. I believe my father was brave to share this when I asked him to describe his hometown as I was creating my setting. I didn’t know about sundown towns, and he had never, ever mentioned this before. I think it was both freeing and a little frightening for him to say the words that were on the sign in his hometown out loud—which were even uglier than those I used in Calling Me Home. I used a phrase more commonly documented in discussions about sundown towns. My dad was one of my earliest readers, and he seems pleased with the story and the setting I created based on a conglomeration of details I learned about the whole region of Northern Kentucky—not on one single town.

 

During my research, I also learned that my grandmother and her family had lived in more than one sundown town—and not just in Kentucky. These towns existed all over the country in various forms, as I learned on a website created by James W. Loewen. I also realized my mother’s side of the family had lived in sundown towns, too, here in Texas—in fact, one entire county. It blew me away. My parents are some of the most open, least racist people I have ever known. Somehow they made a break with this attitude and taught my siblings and me differently. Thank goodness.

 

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

 

JK: To be honest, there wasn’t any true system to my research. I am the kind of writer who gets an idea and takes off, researching as I go along. That doesn’t mean I didn’t fall down the rabbit hole of research on many occasions—for hours or days or sometimes weeks, I would hyper focus on certain details, trying to ensure I got them completely right. Interestingly, one detail that seems almost insignificant in relationship to many others, I got wrong. I discovered it after the galleys were printed and out. I corrected it for the final copy. Nobody has noticed or pointed it out in the galleys (a very small detail relating to the work Isabelle did working with photographic slides), but I know it’s there, and that bothers me. So, while I may not do my research in a completely orthodox or linear fashion, I am a perfectionist when it comes to getting things right.

 

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

 

JK: This is a weird question. Not because you asked it, but because of the answer. I have to say that I had a gut feeling it could be. I was so obsessed with writing it, I knew I had finally found the “right story” (it wasn’t my first manuscript). The reaction of those I told about it as I was writing and of my critique partners as they read it, one by one, also gave me an inkling it could be. I was also somewhat systematic in trying to make it a “big” story. I found Donald Maass’ books Writing the Breakout Novel and The Fire in Fiction especially helpful in ensuring the story hit on all cylinders. I didn’t want to blow it; I really wanted to tell this story.

 

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

 

JK: I must admit I was often impatient with Isabelle. Some reviewers have noted they thought she was naïve at certain points. My reaction is a strong YES. She was 16. She was sheltered. She was in love. I was frustrated with her at times, even though I was writing her. I thought she was melodramatic and self-involved and, frankly, quite dumb on more than one occasion. Then I would step back and say, Yeah, she was. I have two teenage girls—one who was exactly Isabelle’s age as I began writing the novel. I pictured her in this situation 75 years ago, and how her level of maturity might have directed her actions. Some days 16-year-old girls are really wise. Some days, it’s obvious their frontal lobes aren’t completely connected to the rest of their brains yet.   

 

On the other hand, Dorrie was pretty easy for me to write, and I loved her. I loved how she made me laugh or cry. I relate to her for several reasons. First, I was a single mom for several years and I know what it’s like, though my situation was unlike hers in many ways. Also, and this is one of the few places I’ve mentioned it, but my personal hairstylist of 12 years is a lot like Dorrie. She recently moved away, and I still text or call her to whine, because I miss her. Not just because she did such a good job on my hair, but because over that twelve years, we became friends. She knows my character Dorrie was modeled after her personality to a certain extent. But in many ways, they are very different. Dorrie thought and did things my friend never would have done, and vice versa. The book is dedicated to Fannie in the acknowledgments, because she is one of the strongest single moms I’ve ever known. I’m hoping she’ll show up at one of my book events. If I could convince her to read from my book, I would, but she told me it would take alcohol to make that happen.

 

But as far as favorites? I’ll just say this: In real life, I have three kids. They are each my favorite. 

 

JB: I pictured Dorrie as Queen Latifah.  Are there any plans to make the book into a movie?

 

JK: My film agent understands my vision for the possibility of turning Calling Me Home into a movie. Hearing the news that someone or some studio was interested in making a film from this story would be mind boggling, but very exciting! We’ll see.

 

JB: You hear so much today about the United States being a “post-racial society,” but as Isabelle and Dorrie travel together, glares, stage whispers, and meanness follow in their wake.  Do you think we’ve come far as a nation in term of race relations?  Do we still have far to go?

 

JK: I think these are immeasurable distances. I believe there will always be marginalized groups—probably for reasons we couldn’t even comprehend today. We’re a constant work-in-progress. The United States has made inroads, certainly, but there are still miles to travel. It’s said we all have prejudices to varying degrees and for varying reasons. I know this is true in my own heart if I’m honest. I make assumptions. I stereotype. I try not to, but sometimes I do anyway. 

 

I see extremes where I live. My neighborhood and city is about as diverse as you can find anywhere. On my block, there are Asian, black, Hispanic, white, and Middle Eastern families. I feel exhilarated sometimes to see the rainbow of faces in our local restaurants. My kids have never been particular about the race of their friends.

 

On the other hand, sometimes you still hear ugly whispers about who belongs where, when, and how. School districting tends to be a hot button in many communities, and it’s often an unspoken battle about racial diversity. Sadly, this behavior seems modeled by the adults and passed down from generation to generation. If only we could follow the example of our children more often.

 

JB: I have to say this story made me cry.  Did you ever cry while writing it?  Did you ever have to get up, leave what you were doing, and get away from it for a while?

 

JK: I cried over certain chapters when I wrote them, and I cry again every time I read them. I cry every time I read the last page. I think this means these characters were like the Velveteen Rabbit—they became real to me. I rejoiced with them and I grieved with them. I don’t remember having to get away from them. Writing that made me the most emotional was the kind I wanted to dwell in forever. I wanted to jump in that stream and swim as long as I could. Unfortunately, that kind of writing session is something you can’t predict or replicate. It happens a different way each time. 

 

JB: What would your grandmother have made of this story?

 

JK: I asked my dad this after I sold the book. He said she was probably laughing in her grave and saying, “Ohhhhh, SH##!” Pardon her language, but I think he’s right. I can picture it. But I also believe she would be happy. Calling Me Home is not her story as much as it is the essence of it. She was probably poor. She wasn’t a doctor’s daughter. I don’t really know much at all. What I do know is I felt her sitting at my shoulder, whispering to me of what it felt like to be a young girl hopelessly in love in an impossible situation. 

 

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

 

JK: I’m a rabid movie fan—especially independent films. My husband and I attend movies nearly every weekend, and then talk about them over dinner. I’m a little worried about the book release as I know we won’t have as many chances to get our movie fix. I fear withdrawal.

 

We’re also big fans of food. We love finding new restaurants and trying new things, as well as going to our favorites and wallowing in our comfort foods. I say “we” because I’m lucky enough to have a husband who has similar taste in cuisine. We figured out if we share, we can get an appetizer, entree, and dessert without overeating too much. Well. Sometimes.

 

I love to travel, and my favorite thing is going off the beaten path. I was once put off a train in England because of a bomb scare. I landed in a little suburb of Liverpool where I might have been the first American tourist to ever show up. It was one of the most memorable days I’ve ever had, wandering around and talking with the locals. They were shocked when I ordered a baked potato—a “jacket potato”—with chili AND cheese. I assured them this is done regularly in Texas. 

 

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

 

JK: Probably Laura Ingalls Wilder. I’d say her writing affected me as a child more than any other, and was instrumental in making me both a reader and a writer. There are few books I’ve read over and over—the Little House books are the exception.

 

JB: What book is on your nightstand right now?

 

JK: About 15 or so, in a precarious pile. Not kidding, though I’m reading J.K. Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy on my Nook for a book club meeting. I never read a single Harry Potter book (I know!), and I’m liking this quite a bit. I had no preconceived notions of what a Rowling book should be. I’m also reading a manuscript for a blurb, which is a new and surreal experience. And I’m reading a book as research for my current project. I often have three or four books going these days, which means I read each one very, very slowly.

 

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

 

JK: Evolving.

 

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

 

JK: I’m doing a launch event in Arlington, Texas. At this point, I’m also doing events in Austin, Houston, and Waco, Texas; Denver, Colorado; and Spokane, Washington. There are a few other things in the works. My events page on my website and Facebook author page should be current.

 

JB: You are also a book blogger.  How important are bloggers to the publishing industry and to authors?

 

JK: I think book blogging is a relatively new and developing phenomenon, so it’s hard to say. Book bloggers feel very important to me, and publishers obviously put a lot of stock in them to send so many books for review each year. I’m eager to see how this evolves over time, and how it affects publishing. Will blogger reviews become more important than industry reviews? It’s so hard to say. It’s a form of word-of-mouth marketing, though, and we all know word-of-mouth is instrumental in selling almost anything.

 

JB: What do you hope readers take with them after reading Calling Me Home?

 

JK: In my acknowledgments, I charge the reader with an unoriginal (something similar is attributed to Mahatma Gandhi), yet important challenge: It’s up to you to be the change. It’s the thing I truly want readers to think about as they close the cover.

 

JB: Are you working on anything new?

 

JK: Yes, but I can’t talk about it just yet! It might lose its magic. Suffice it to say it’s another story involving marginalized groups, family issues, and a nostalgic setting closer to my current home in Texas.

 

JB: This story really has so much to teach us about life, about our fellow man, and about ourselves.  It bridges generations and races, and I thank you for giving me the opportunity to talk with you about Calling Me Home. Good luck with the book, Julie!

 

JK: This has truly been my pleasure, and your questions were thoughtful and fun to answer. Thank you so much for your kind words and for hosting me today.

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Filed under author interviews, books, fiction, historical fiction, literary fiction, She Reads, women's lit

Interview with Kathy Hepinstall

Interview with Kathy Hepinstall, Author of Blue Asylum

Jaime Boler: You grew up in Texas.  Did you always want to be a writer?

Kathy Hepinstall: Yes, I think so, but it took different forms. As a girl, I wrote mostly poems. Later, I wrote short stories and went into advertising writing.  After a few years in that career, I decided I wanted to try a novel.

JB:  In your opinion, what is the most difficult think about being an author?  And what is the most rewarding?

KH: The most difficult thing is navigating the often challenging waters of the business of publishing. The most rewarding is being able to bring a story to life and have it resonate with other people.

JB: Your last novel, Prince of Lost Places, came out in 2003.  What have you been doing since then? 

KH: Mostly freelancing in advertising.  Wrote some more novels, but didn’t success [in] publishing [anything] until Blue Asylum.

JB: How did you come up with the idea for Blue Asylum

KH: I’d been wanting to write a love story set in an insane asylum.  Just really liked all the inherent tensions in those two intersecting realities: Love and Insanity.

JB:  What kind of research did you do for Blue Asylum?

KH: I was on Sanibel Island for six weeks doing research and starting the first draft. I also learned about mental asylums of the day. 

JB:  I have a PhD in American history and wrote a dissertation on slave resistance in Natchez, Mississippi.  I never found any white plantation mistress who ran away with the slaves, but that’s not to say it NEVER happened.  Such a thing would have been deeply buried by the whites.  Did you find anything in your research about white women taking flight with slaves? 

KH: No, that was purely imaginative. But it made me like Iris to think she could do that.

JB: Are any characters in Blue Asylum loosely based on you or people you know? 

KH: Mary, the doctor’s wife, was based on Mary Lincoln. Ambrose was based on someone I loved and still do. And I see Wendell in all good people. 

JB: Do you think there were actual people like Iris who were declared insane and put into asylums who really were not insane?  Perhaps wives put there by their husbands? 

KH: Yes, that came up in my research.  Victorian men would get rid of their wives that way.

JB: Was the water treatment historically accurate?

KH: I’m trying to remember now..I think cold water was used in some supposedly curative way at some point in the history of asylums. But the water treatment also came from a description I read of a plantation owner who would punish his slaves by putting them in a hole and pouring water on them until it became terribly painful. 

JB:  In this novel, you create the quirkiest and most unforgettable characters.  Did their insanity give you license to really play with them, to really make them stand out? 

KH: Yes, that was very liberating creatively, especially with characters like Penelope and Lydia Helms Truman.

JB:  Do you have a favorite character in this book?  (I think mine is Wendell.)

KH: I do love beautiful tortured lamb-saving Wendell. I also like Lydia and, curiously, both the Cowells. 

JB:  In every one of your stories, you manage to provide unexpected twists.  I never see them coming.  How do you always do this?  And how difficult is it? 

KH: Thank you so much. I really like being surprised as a reader, so I try to surprise readers of my novels. Sometimes I wonder, have I given too many clues? Too few? I regret I wasn’t clearer about the ending to The House of Gentle Men. 

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

KH: Find a really great editor.  That’s really hard to do but it may come as a surprise and be someone you know.  Also, finish it.  Finish even a terrible first draft. Finishing is a good habit to impress upon the brain.

JB:  Who are your favorite authors? 

KH: Toni Morrison, Michael Ondaatje, poets like Lorca and Vallejo.

JB:  Out of all the novels you’ve written, do you have a favorite? 

KH: Absence of Nectar, most likely forever.

JB:  I saw on your blog where you are trying to get Oprah to read your book.  You even left a signed copy of Blue Asylum for her.  Could you talk a little about that? 

KH: I wanted to get Oprah’s attention in a playful, respectful way so a friend of mine and I buried a copy of Blue Asylum in the foothills of Montecito, where she lives, then took out an ad to her in the Montecito Journal with a treasure map.  So far, no response but I understand – people wanting her attention are legion.

JB:  Will you go on a book tour for Blue Asylum?  Which cities will you visit?  Any chance you might stop in Lemuria Books in Jackson, MS? 

KH: I’ve done readings/book parties in Portland, LA, New York, Virginia Beach and will visit San Francisco later in May. Love Lemuria Books. May not be able to get down there this year but some day soon I’d like to return. I’ll always remember their kindness and warmth and humor. 

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

KH: Just some kind of resonance in their own lives, and I hope, a greater love and respect for lunatics and lambs.

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

KH: My sister and I plan to rewrite a novel of ours called Girls of Shiloh, about two sisters who join the Confederate army as men.

JB: Thanks so much, Kathy, for agreeing to answer my questions.  I really appreciate it!

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An Interview with Samuel Park, author of This Burns My Heart

Here is my interview with the wonderful Samuel Park, author of the novel THIS BURNS MY HEART.

Thanks, Sam, for doing this!

Jaime Boler: What was it like growing up Korean in Brazil?

Samuel Park: Hi Jaime, just wanted to start by saying what a delight it is to be featured in your blog. I hope I can do justice to the wonderful questions you came up with. So, to answer the first question, growing up Korean in Brazil was really fun–there were a lot of other Asian students in my middle school, so I never really felt that “different.” There’s a surprisingly large Asian population in South America!

JB: When did you first know you wanted to be an author?

SP: When I was eight years old–as soon as I could read, I wanted to write. I’d watch American movies from the 50s every afternoon and then I’d write my “little novels” in my notebooks–which were just my kid versions of those fantasy and adventure stories.

JB: I see you are a Jane Austen fan. I read that after I finished the novel, and I suddenly saw Soo-Ja as a Korean Dashwood sister. How has Austen influenced your writing?

SP: Soo-Ja is very much like Elinor in that she’s too principled to try to steal Edward back from Lucy Steele. And just because she doesn’t say it out loud, doesn’t mean her heart isn’t in terrific pain. I suppose my intense love for Austen has influenced my writing in the sense that it very much shaped my awareness of the different and complex ways we can love–in Soo-Ja and Elinor’s case, silently, honorably, but not at all less passionately and intensely as Marianne. I also have a lot of admiration for Lizzie Bennet of Pride and Prejudice. She’s really strong and bold, but prone to making mistakes and has one particularly big flaw–her prejudice; Soo-Ja too is held back by an enormous blind spot early on in her love life.

JB: You say this is your mother’s story. How so?

SP: It is and it isn’t. It was inspired by her experience as a woman living in a Confucian-dominated society as that society moved from very traditional to more modern. But the novel is a work of fiction, with made up characters and situations.

JB: Do you have a favorite character in the book? If so, who and why?

SP: You know, I actually *love* Eun-Mee, the villain. She was unbelievably fun to write, because she says all these outrageous things. To continue the Austen analogy, Eun-Mee is a mixture of Darcy’s haughty aunt Lady Catherine deBourgh and Lizzie’s frivolous sister Lydia. Villains are fun to write because often times, they drive the story, and can be very charming.

JB: Did you, like Hana, dream of coming to the United States?

SP: I did! I think the United States attracts dreamers, and Hana is definitely a dreamer.

JB: Is any character based on you? If so, which character? Did you find it difficult to write for that particular character?

SP: None of the characters are directly based on me, but I’ve felt or am able to imagine feeling everything that the characters feel. Emotion-wise, the characters take after me–I went through an emotional journey with them, and tried to make their emotions as truthful as possible by thinking of times that I was in a similar situation, or feeling the same way about someone.

JB: I have to tell you that my favorite scene in the book is the drawing scene with Yul and Soo-Ja. It was so beautiful that I read and re-read it. Do you have a favorite part? If so, please do tell us about it!

SP: I’m so glad you liked that scene! It’s a pivotal scene in the book, and I rewrote it many, many times. The first time, they weren’t even drawing! But early on, I realized that these two people would never vocalize their feelings–they had to use their gestures to express their love. Neither Soo-Ja nor Yul are allowed to say what they feel, because it goes against their customs. But they’re in absolute sync–in spirit and mind–and their drawing together allows you to see that.

JB: Do you have a favorite line from the book? If so, will you share it with us?

SP: The first line is my favorite line: “You tricked me.” How do you make a life with someone who deceived you? And yet, so many of us do, or have to.

JB: Some themes that stood out for me while reading the book were family obligations versus true love and communal needs versus those of the individual. What do you want readers to take from This Burns My Heart?

SP: I guess I want people to consider what it means to live a life of duty, where you can’t just undo a mistake. That’s the way it was for women of that generation, women who could not get divorces–you were stuck, but you made the best of it. I hope I show in my novel what it’s actually like to be in that kind of situation. Maybe that’s the question I want readers to take away: “Would you turn away true love if it came knocking a second (and possibly last) time?”

JB: I noticed the importance of both saving “face” and losing “face” in your novel. Can you tell us more about that concept?

SP: Soo-Ja can’t really make her own choices because those choices deeply implicate her parents. For instance, she can’t get divorced. She just can’t. It’d bring enormous shame to her family. That’s a tremendous responsibility–to live not only for yourself, but also for those you love. They would lose “face,” and Soo-Ja cannot bear to cause pain to those she loves.

JB: At the beginning of This Burns My Heart, I saw Min as a villain. Yet, at the end of the novel, I had ceased to think of him as such. In my eyes, he was just as much a victim as Soo-Ja. He redeems himself in the end. The true villain was Min’s father. But who do you see as the “bad” guy?

SP: I’m glad you think of Min that way, since I took pains to explain why he does the things he does. Min’s father definitely comes off as the “bad” guy, but I don’t really think of him as such. I’m very forgiving and understanding of all my characters, even when they’re acting up and causing havoc in the story!

JB: Do you think, in Soo-Ja’s heart and in Yul’s, that Hana is his daughter?

SP: Oh, that’s such an intriguing question! It certainly does feel like she could be theirs, doesn’t it?

JB: It’s interesting how Soo-Ja helps Jae-Hwa escape a bad marriage; yet, she is not ready to do this herself because she does not want Min to take Hana away from her. Is Hana the only thing that keeps Soo-Ja with Min? What else keeps Soo-Ja in her loveless marriage?

SP: I guess that’s one of the mysteries of the book… But it is really ironic, isn’t it? Soo-Ja is so completely firm and sure of herself when she goes free Jae-Hwa, yet she can’t figure out how to free herself. It’s strange the bonds that keep people together, and even stranger the bonds we use on our own selves! Personally, I think her sense of honor and duty are what keep her in the marriage. In her mind, if you pick X, you have to live with the consequences of picking X. You can’t just say the next day, You know what, I think I’d like Y better so I’m gonna go with Y.

JB: Father-daughter relationships seem stronger here than mother-daughter, mother-son, or even father-son. For example, Soo-Ja and Mr. Choi have an unbreakable bond. Min is also very close to Hana. Was that deliberate?

SP: Oh, that’s a great question. I actually thought of Soo-Ja and Hana a lot as I wrote the book, but you’re absolutely right that in spite of all her sacrifices for her, ultimately Hana may like her father better. Isn’t that odd, how that happens, sometimes? I think that’s often the case in real life. We like the people who are similar to us even more so than the ones who truly love us.

JB: If Soo-Ja had gone to Seoul to become a diplomat, as was her dream, what would have happened to her then?

SP: My guess is that she probably would’ve lived for a long time in Europe or in the United States, and then returned to South Korea in her 30s. She probably loves her father too much to live apart from him out of her own volition. She also might’ve found a man who was a better match for her, in terms of her temperament and personality. Just like choosing Min had a domino effect, I feel that her being a diplomat would’ve led to very different choices and experiences.

JB: In the course of This Burns My Heart, the reader cannot fail to notice how much South Korea has grown. We first see a country recovering from a devastating war to a nation on the cusp of becoming a superpower. What kind of future do you see for both North and South Korea?

SP: The germs of democracy are spreading so quickly through the world–almost like a virus–it’ll have to reach North Korea eventually. As for South Korea, I see it becoming more and more socially progressive, especially in terms of opportunities for young women. I also see it as continuing to have strong ties with America, a country that has been a deep part of its history, having fought a war together.

JB: I want to congratulate you for writing some of the best prose I’ve read in years. How long did it take you to write this novel?

SP: Thank you! What’s the emoticom for cheeks blushing and writer taking a little bow? Actually, it’s very gratifying to hear that because I decided early on not to take any shortcuts. If I thought in the back of my head that a scene could be better, I would make it better. Sometimes it’s tempting to just write something and hope that it’s “good enough,” and I’m very proud that I did not take that bait. I have a lot of respect for the reader’s time and options–I absolutely do not take it for granted. But to answer your question, it took me about nine months to write it, and then I spent another three years or so revising it.

JB: Are there any plans for a book tour? If so, which lucky cities will you be visiting?

SP: The cities I’ve been to or will be visiting during my tour include Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York, Milwaukee, and Chicago, where I live. I would love to eventually make my way to the Pacific Northwest and the South.

JB: What’s next for Samuel Park?

SP: I’m working on another novel, which is about a mother-daughter relationship, and that’s all I can say for now! Thank you again for this interview–I love all the questions you asked.

Thanks, Sam, for a great interview!

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