I am very excited to be part of my very first blog tour! Today, I am the first stop on TLC Book Tours’ The Enchanted Life of Adam Hope blog tour. Up first is my interview with wonderful debut novelist Rhonda Riley. I will also be reviewing this tale today and giving away a copy of the book. Thanks to Rhonda, TLC Book Tours, and Trish Collins.
Jaime Boler: Thank you, Rhonda, for letting me ask you these questions! I see extraordinary things for The Enchanted Life of Adam Hope and am quite excited to be part of TLC Book Tour’s blog tour. You are a graduate of the creative writing program at the University of Florida. Did you always want to be a novelist?
Rhonda Riley: Thank you for your enthusiasm for Adam Hope. I’m happy to be here. As a very young woman, I wanted to be a variety of things (political activist, lawyer, child psychologist), but [being a] writer didn’t occur to me until I was in my 20s and then my focus was poetry and creative nonfiction.
Novels seemed daunting. And I thought in poems then. I couldn’t imagine how writers got their arms around something [as] big as a novel. All those pages! I was in my 40s before I ever thought of writing a novel. And Adam Hope is the first and only novel I’ve written.
JB: How many publishers were chomping at the bit for your debut? How did it feel to sell your debut novel at auction?
RR: To tell you the truth, I don’t quite remember. There were four or five publishers very interested and the serious bidding came down to three, I think. The process was thrilling and surreal, and I do not use the word “surreal” lightly. Everything seemed to happen exactly the way it was supposed to, and, at the same time, it was so unexpected. I feel very fortunate.
JB: Please describe The Enchanted Life of Adam Hope in ten words or less.
RR: Ten words! Okay, here goes: A woman finds a unique stranger who changes her world.
JB: How did you come up with the idea for The Enchanted Life of Adam Hope?
RR: I was writing nonfiction and poems trying to tell a few truths about my family. After several attempts, I gave up [on] truth and decided to make up stuff. That kicked the door wide open. Then, one day, I got an image of two hands touching in the mud, and I knew their contact involved some kind of transformation or transmission between two people. From there, I followed that single image. I didn’t imagine the whole book or even the entirety of Adam’s character in one swoop. It came about in increments.
JB: Many writers say they hear the voices of characters in their heads before a story takes shape. Was this true for you? If so, I’m curious as to whose voice you heard first: Addie, Adam, or Evelyn?
RR: I definitely heard Evelyn’s voice first. In fact, it was Evelyn’s voice and her character, not Adam’s, that drove me to write the story. Hers was the voice that obsessed me. I knew she was the teller of the story. Adam’s/Addie’s voice, in all its uniqueness, evolved.
I first got the idea for his voice from something that happened to a friend of mine. She was awakened one morning by a beautiful, mysterious sound that seemed to come through her body, an experience that left her euphoric.
Then, years later, I was once sitting on the toilet in the ladies room in one of the old bathrooms at UF (you take your inspiration where you can get it). The stall walls were marble and I discovered, quite by accident, that if I leaned forward while singing the second note of the Gloria chorus, my voice and the thin marble resonated in a lovely way. My head and chest vibrated. And I thought how wonderful it would be if we could do that to each other.
Thus, Adam’s voice. The first time I heard Tibetan singing bowls was a turning point in creating a description of his vocal abilities.
JB: I read that the original title for the novel was Adam Hope: A Geography. Why was the title changed?
RR: My editor and agent both thought it was a cool title, but potentially confusing rather than intriguing. Confusing enough that it might put some readers off. A work of fiction that announces itself as a geography probably would lead to some pretty frustrating search results. Personally, I like titles that immediately make me ask questions like: “A geography of a person, what would that be?” But others prefer titles that answer the question: “What’s in this book?” I decided to trust the opinion of my editor and agent. They have much more experience in getting people take a book off the shelf. My job is to keep people reading once they open the book.
JB: One of the myriad things I love about your novel is that it crosses genres (supernatural, mystery, love story, historical fiction, debut fiction, literary fiction) and will attract many different readers. How important was it to you to appeal across genres?
RR: Actually, it was a little scary when I began to realize where I was taking the story. I was afraid it would keep me from finding a publisher. But I made a decision early on to write the story I wanted and needed to write, to write it the best I could, and then think about genres and publication later. I didn’t set out to cross genre boundaries, but I do like the fact that it worked out that way, and it certainly makes sense for a book that features someone like Adam who crosses genres of self. As a reader, I am very comfortable with books that don’t fit neatly into one category. The transgression of boundaries can be fun.
JB: Adam Hope is such an unconventional character, one literally made in the image of others. How did you dream him up?
RR: I think Adam appears unconventional because he is in a conventional context and he is narrated by a pretty conventional person, but characters with special abilities have been popping up in stories for a very long time. He is sort of the reverse of the zombies and vampires so popular now.
I built him gradually, one characteristic at time. One clear memory I have of consciously making a decision about him was when I chose his occupation. I wanted him to be connected to the natural world and animals. I wanted him to be associated with a large, powerful animal, one capable of being domestic and wild. Horses seemed such a perfect fit for him.
For me the center of the story of Evelyn and Adam is its play on differences and similarities, intimacy and strangeness, the other and the self. Androgyny also seemed a natural fit for Adam in that it bridges two opposites.
JB: You have your very own Adam and Eve (Evelyn) in this story, your very own Genesis. How difficult was it to fashion these characters?
RR: Evelyn was easy, I just recalled my mother’s voice and that seemed to lead very naturally to a defined character. I think of Evelyn as being made up of two of my favorite women, my mother and my great aunt, Lil. Adam was more difficult—a lot more pondering and experimentation on my part.
JB: What kind of research did you do for The Enchanted Life of Adam Hope?
RR: I did a good deal of research about farm life and textile mills of the Carolinas in the 1940s. Very little of it actually shows up in the novel. In the end, I relied mostly on the stories my mother had told me. But I think the research, especially reading newspapers from the period, helped me more fully imagine the world I wanted to create.
I had to do some research on horses, since I was not familiar with them. And I had horse-loving friends who helped me there.
The most challenging research was finding photos of the genitalia of infant hermaphrodites so that I could describe Gracie’s birth. Luckily, I live near a university medical library and didn’t have to rely on the internet for that research.
JB: The Enchanted Life of Adam Hope has been compared to The Time Traveler’s Wife and The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, huge bestsellers and brilliant novels (well-deserved praise, in my opinion). How do such comparisons make you feel?
RR: I am honored to be compared to them. Lauren Groff also wrote me a great blurb comparing the book to the work of Alice Munro and Gabriel Garcia Marquez– that actually made me blush when I first read it. I think The Time Traveler’s Wife is a particularly apt comparison since Adam Hope is also a realistic, contemporary treatment of a surreal situation. That was the comparison I used to get my agent’s attention.
JB: Did you know how big this novel could be while you were writing it?
RR: I was hoping for publication and some degree of success, of course. But no, I can’t think about that while I am writing. And I have to ignore those wild fluctuations in my own psyche. One day it looks like a the greatest story I every wrote; the next day, all of it looks like crap.
While I was trying to find an agent, I stumbled on a very humorous new word on one agent’s blog: casturbation. It is the act of imagining, before you finish your novel, who will play the lead in the movie based on it. There are some fun and tempting fantasies in the process, but while I am writing, I really have to think only about the story.
JB: Who did you envision playing your leading characters?
RR: For Adam, some combination of Johnny Depp (prior to his piracy days) and John Goodman (in his younger, Barton Fink days). One because of his pretty face and ability to be a little offbeat and the other for his ability to be physically imposing and ordinary. For Evelyn, Tilda Swinton. All these actors are now too old to play these parts. Guess that must say something about me. Or about how long I took to write the story.
JB: Hey, I love Johnny Depp! He never goes out of style. Neither do John Goodman and Tilda Swinton. Great actors, all. How many drafts did The Enchanted Life of Adam Hope go through? How different were the earlier drafts from the final version?
RR: I don’t really know. I lost track. I’d say six or seven drafts, including the final ones with my editor. But some of the last drafts were partial revisions where we were working only on the final chapters. The first three or four drafts were very different from the final one.
The whole novel was once a series of letters Evelyn wrote to her daughters and it included a lot of information about her life as an old woman. Lots of italics to indicate the time changes! And I included Evelyn’s daughters’ emails to each other about her. I really loved writing about Evelyn as old woman. But, after getting feedback from friends and a couple of agents who liked my writing but not the format, I changed the entire novel.
I got about 80 pages into a third-person version, but I couldn’t make that feel right, so I switched to a straight first-person narration without letters.
JB: What is a typical day of writing like for you?
RR: It varies wildly, I am not a disciplined person, but when I am on [a writing kick], it is four to five hours a day. I meet a couple times a week with some other writers. We all meet at one woman’s house and we just write. We don’t talk, our phones are off and there is no internet. Group self-discipline. It’s great!
JB: Who are some of your favorite authors and/or what are some of your favorite books?
RR: I love the stories of Alice Munro. They always seem so seamless. She makes writing appear effortless. I like Robert Olen Butler’s Tabloid Dreams. I am on a Louise Erdrich kick now, trying to decipher what I like so much about the narration of The Master Butchers Singing Club. Whatever it is, I want to be able to do it as well as she does. But my favorite book is Michael Ondaatje’s In the Skin of a Lion. Beautiful language. So seductive. And a pretty fantastic story, too. I can’t get over it.
JB: What are you currently reading?
RR: I am currently reading Laura Lee Smith’s debut novel Heart of Palm. I just met her and she lives about an hour from me, in St. Augustine, Florida, We’re thinking of doing a little mini-Florida tour together. I just finished The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami. Those two are very different books and good in very different ways. I’m also reading Generation Zombie (an academic take on the zombie phenomena) by Wylie Lenz and Stephanie Boluk. I’m one chapter into The Righteous Mind, and on the last pages of Karen Armstrong’s The Battle for God. And every month I read Discover magazine. I read a lot of nonfiction.
JB: What do you like to do when you aren’t writing?
RR: Dawdle and travel. Dawdling and traveling might seem to be contradictory activities but the best travel must involve some dawdling. After a long session writing, I like to do anything that involves not sitting down. One of the hardest parts of writing is all the desk time. I used to have hobbies, but I’ve gotten lazy. Friends, pets, a backyard and writing can take up a lot of time if you do them right.
JB: What do you hope readers take with them after reading The Enchanted Life of Adam Hope?
RR: I would hope they find mysteries–the small ones as well as the big ones– easier to accept and listen to. I’d be pleased if, after meeting Adam, they found the strangeness of the stranger more interesting than alien.
JB: Are there any plans to turn the novel into a movie?
RR: Nothing now, but I have an agent and a film rights agent. I know some folks involved in the film industry have read the book. But there are no plans at this point. I would love to see how someone would do Adam’s voice in a movie.
JB: What’s next for you? Are you working on anything new?
RR: I’m very curious about how Adam Hope will be received. I’ve been inviting readers to come up with their own ideas and illustrations of where Adam is now and to share those speculations. He/She could be anyone anywhere, you know. Meanwhile, I am working on a new, completely unrelated novel about sin and innocence. I also have lots of notes and an outline for a sequel to Adam Hope.
JB: OOH, I can’t wait for that! Thank you so much, Rhonda, for a wonderful interview. I know readers are going to love the book just as much as I do. Good luck!
RR: I’ve enjoyed it! Thank you for your interest in my work.
Other stops on blog tour:
Rhonda’s Tour Stops
Monday, April 22nd: Bookmagnet’s Blog
Tuesday, April 23rd: Kritters Ramblings
Wednesday, April 24th: A Chick Who Reads
Thursday, April 25th: Sara’s Organized Chaos
Monday, April 29th: No More Grumpy Bookseller
Monday, May 6th: A Night’s Dream of Books
Tuesday, May 7th: Giraffe Days
Thursday, May 9th: Book Snob
Thursday, May 9th: Tiffany’s Bookshelf
Tuesday, May 14th: Bibliophiliac
I am giving away a brand new copy of The Enchanted Life of Adam Hope. Please fill out the brief form below. Giveaway ends Friday, April 26, at 5 pm ET. I will use random.org to choose a winner.