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Interview with Kent Wascom, Author of The Blood of Heaven

The Blood of Heaven by Kent Wascom (Grove Press; 432 pages; $25).

In elegant, lucid prose, fiction newcomer Kent Wascom brings the frontier, in all its violence and disorder, to stunning life in The Blood of Heaven.  Wascom follows Angel Woolsack, from his early life as the son of an itinerant preacher to the bordellos of Natchez and the barrooms of New Orleans to the bayous of Louisiana where Angel meets schemers and dreamers.  Rich with detail and characterizations, The Blood of Heaven revisits an early America where fortunes and men were made and great risks were taken.

Wascom is not yet 30, but he infuses his story with a wisdom, awareness, and clarity well beyond his years.   As Angel and others carve out a rough-hewn existence in early nineteenth century America, we  see them seizing their place and even plotting to overthrow a sovereign government.  Through it all, Angel’s hold on us never wavers but intensifies.  The Blood of Heaven proves Wascom is a trailblazer whose brilliance is not a one-off but a true and rooted fact.


Jaime Boler: Thank you, Kent, for letting me ask you these questions.   I was entranced by The Blood of Heaven and particularly loved how you capture the spirit and wildness of the frontier. Did you always want to be a novelist?

Kent Wascom

Kent Wascom

Kent Wascom: Well, I really appreciate the kind words, Jaime. I’m so glad you enjoyed the book. And, yes, for as long as I can remember I wanted to be a writer. I started writing stories when I was in elementary school, and finished my first novel—historical fiction, oddly enough, about Prohibition—at age twelve. My parents were incredibly tolerant of this strange kid who sat in his room pecking away at an old IBM Selectric.


JB: You were twelve going on thirty, but it paid off.  How would you describe The Blood of Heaven?


KW: Religiosity, love, revolution, and the birth of the American empire.


JB: What was the impetus behind your story?


KW: The voice of Angel Woolsack, the furious cadence of his speech and the viciousness of his perceptions.


JB: How did you decide on the title?


KW: I’m awful with titles. The title of the first draft was “The Kings of the Cannibal Islands”, but by the third draft the thematic element of that song had been mostly dispensed with, and it remained untitled until I wrote the last pages.


JB: When did you begin work on the novel and how long did it take to write?


KW: I began the book, after trying it out as a short story and novella, the summer of 2009, in my first year at Florida State. It took around two and a half years, maybe closer to three, to complete.

JB: While reading your story, two things struck me: 1) that The Blood of Heaven is your debut; and 2) that you aren’t even 30.  Havethe blood of heaven you written any short stories?  And how is it that your writing is so wise and astute?

KW: You’re too kind. Any wisdom in the book is the result of osmosis or at best a sort of unconscious ventriloquism. As for short stories, I’ve written quite a few, but only one I felt was worthwhile. (The one that won the Tennessee Williams prize) I love the form, love the masters like [Barry] Hannah, [Jorge Luis] Borges, [Amy] Hempel, [Julio] Cortazar, and [Isaak] Babel, but I don’t think I have the control or quality of perception necessary to be a worthwhile writer of short stories. When ideas come, they’re always for novels, or at the least novellas. I need space to roam, I suppose.

JB: What kind of research did you do for The Blood of Heaven?  Did anything you learn surprise you?

KW: The research process, because I was either a full-time student of teacher throughout, was catch-as-catch-can. And, because discovering the story of West Florida and the Kempers was such a surprise, I was continually amazed—even at the simple facts of daily life at that time, the tenuousness of the frontier people’s existence both in terms of safety and livelihood and their national status.

JB: Did you find anything in your investigation that you’d like to revisit someday, perhaps for a future story?

KW: More than I can say. That Samuel Kemper led a force of Americans into Texas and Mexico during the 1811 Gutierrez/Magee expedition, where they fought alongside Mexican nationals against the Spanish colonial army. It fascinates me to no end, this idea that ethnic boundaries were of little consequence at that moment in time, only to become very important several decades later.

In my research of Cincinnati and the Ohio River area I found a travelogue by a British traveler who was making a trip from there and down the Mississippi in order to collect Native American artifacts. His descriptions of how the settlers desecrated the burial and worship mounds which dot the waterways and forests of the region still have a hold to my imagination, and moreover that some of the artifacts were described in such wonderfully [Gabriel] Garcia Marquez-esque terms. There was a green, polished stone about the size of a platter which, if you kissed it, would cause you to levitate. This confluence of Enlightenment ideals and the fantastic seems ripe.


JB: Sounds like such lyrical and beautiful language.  Do you have a favorite character in The Blood of Heaven?  If so, who and why?

KW: Red Kate. I like the combination of threat and desire, of this woman who loves but could also kill you in a flash. I felt so much for her that she’s the only character unfortunate enough to encounter Angel who manages to escape, spiritually and physically. Not, of course, intact.

JB: Is Angel Woolsack based on a real person?  How did his character come about?


KW: Many of his actions in West Florida are based on those of the third Kemper brother, Nathan, who did not die as he does in my book. In my research I found that Nathan, lesser known than his two older brothers, was actually the one doing much of the rabble-rousing. I liked the idea that regardless of what he did, he would be overshadowed.

But he was never to be Nathan. Better, I thought, that he should be an outsider, that his position with the brothers should be precarious. I did have something of a physical model for Angel, at least late in life.

Early in the writing of the book, I stumbled on a picture of the man who ceremonially fired the first shot on Ft. Sumter, inaugurating the Civil War. http://www.old-picture.com/defining-moments/pictures/Edmund-Ruffin.jpg I looked at him and thought, there’s Angel. Of course I reduced him by and eye and arm.


JB: What, in your view, can the period in which you set your novel teach us about American history and about ourselves?

KW: I think the turn of the 19th century offers a profound coign of vantage for understanding ourselves as a country that has been in a continual state of flux from the moment of its inception. The very idea of a “national character” is as mutable (or permeable for that matter) as our borders and the capricious regard in which we hold the borders of others. Moreover, the period was the brooding ground for our great national conflict, which continues to this day, between Enlightenment principles and the savage convictions of violence, avarice, and religious fanaticism.


JB: Would this story have worked as well, or at all, if set in a different time and place?

KW: The characters are such products of their time, truly turn of the century people—with one foot in the 18th and the other in the 19th—that they could not be transplanted. However, their circumstances, the intrigues and revolutionary acts of extra-national acquisition (an over-fancy way of saying filibustering) in which they participate have occurred throughout the history of the country, so in a way I do believe the story would work as well if it were set at the time of Philip Nolan, or William Walker, or Sam Zemurray.

JB: How different were earlier versions of the novel compared with the final copy?


KW: Radically. The first draft combined Reuben and Samuel, only featured Red Kate in a minor fashion, continued the story through 1814, and was almost completely thrown out.


JB: What was the most difficult thing about writing The Blood of Heaven?

KW: Living with the voice of Angel. Having the crazed, calloused perspective of a 19th century slaver rattling around in my head even after leaving the desk.


JB: Did you learn anything new about yourself in the midst of writing and editing your story?

The author signing copies of his book

The author signing copies of his book


KW: I certainly learned the foibles, the tell-tale tics and tremors, of my technique. Nothing will give you a better idea of your weaknesses as a writer than repeated readings of your work. I hope I’ve absorbed some of that learning and can avoid a few miscues and wrong turns as I work on the next book.


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


KW: Read, fiddle about in the outdoors (fishing, hiking, etc.), the occasional human contact.


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


KW: There are so many, and it’s really a jackdaw’s nest-style collection. Of course, the Southern America pantheon, which I (after Carlos Fuentes, who stands high in my regard) consider paired with the Latin American: [William] Faulkner, [Flannery] O’Connor, [Barry] Hannah, [Harry] Crews, [Cormac] McCarthy, [Shelby S.] Foote, [Larry] Brown; [Jorge Luis] Borges, [Gabriel] Garcia Marquez, [Juan] Ruflo, [Julio] Cortazar, [Mario] Vargas Llosa, [Eduardo] Galeano, [Jose] Donoso. My more recent but no less verdant loves: Hilary Mantel, whose backlog I’m rationing, William T. Vollmann, for his historical work and philosophy. For pure linguistic pleasure, learning the beat and pulse of a sentence, I adore William H. Gass and John Hawkes. Above all, perhaps, is Yukio Mishima, whose unflinching eye, salience to horror, and the achievement of his Sea of Fertility tetralogy, has been immeasurable influence.


JB: What was your publication process like?


KW: Magical, really. I finished the final draft of the book on the same day my friend and mentor Bob Shacochis finished his. A first sign of cosmic promise. Within a few weeks Bob had passed the manuscript on to interested editors at Scribner and Grove. A week or so later, Bob told me that Grove editor Elisabeth Schmitz was hosting a dinner at the AWP conference in Chicago, and that I should go. “But,” he said, “I don’t think they want the book. They haven’t said a word about it, and these sorts of silences don’t bode well, my boy. But go, make some connections, and maybe they’ll take the next one.” So, for the week leading up to the conference Bob runs me down with talk of Grove’s disinterest, leaving me haggard and depressed by the evening of the dinner.

Unbeknownst to me, the folks at Grove had read the book in three days and had been screaming at Bob to let me know that they wanted it. Meanwhile, all I hear is “They really don’t seem to want the book. Tough luck, kiddo.” So the evening of the dinner arrives, and I’m standing outside this pizza place with Bob when a cab pulls up and out steps Elisabeth Schmitz. As she approaches, Bob takes me aside and says, “Okay, there is something I’ve been keeping from you. I’m sorry to say that, at this time, Grove / Atlantic is NOT prepared to offer you a one book contract.”

I am near collapse when Elisabeth winsomely says, “Because we want to offer you a TWO book contract.” I burst into tears, grab Elizabeth and spin her round, and proceed to collapse into a laughing, bawling wreck out there on the sidewalk. Utterly glorious.

JB: That IS glorious and rather wonderful.  Do you have any advice for anyone working on a first novel?

KW: For those embarking on their first: Let no National Novel Writing Months fool you, the act of writing a novel is arduous and long, and the world, as you’ve undoubtedly noticed, is pitiless to your goal. Your efforts should be limited to survival (financial, emotional—though neither of these are guaranteed) and not only finishing the book, but making it the best that it can be. (In short, revise until you’ve got the words on the page memorized.) Give primacy to nothing else.

There’s a great quote from Harry Crews that goes something like, “The world doesn’t want you to write a book. The world wants you to go to the zoo and eat cotton candy, preferably every day.” Do your best to avoid that world, though you will lose a chance of friends on your way.


JB: Your writing has been compared to Cormac McCarthy and Charles Frazier and even Flannery O’Connor and William Faulkner.  How do such comparisons make you feel?

KW: You can only bow your head at such things and try to shake them off.  It’s such a lovely compliment, to be associated in a small way with the pillars of world letters. But these comparisons are like beauties with razor-blades for teeth; they appear gorgeous but can just as easily leave you in shreds. If you look at some of [Cormac] McCarthy’s early reviews, he gets absolutely savaged with the [William] Faulkner comparison.


JB: What do you hope readers take with them after reading The Blood of Heaven?


KW: Enjoyment. It may seem strange to say that about such a harrowing book, but I enjoy dark and harrowing books, and I hope it finds an audience of such people—while also shaking up the worlds of some cloistered others. Intellectually, once it’s in the reader’s hands my desires are off the table; they take from it what they will.


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



KW:  I’d better get it out of the way that The Blood of Heaven is the first volume of a planned sextet, dealing with the history of the Gulf coast and later its interchanges with the Caribbean (The Golden Circle, if you will), from the Louisiana Purchase to Katrina and the oil spill. From birth to apocalypse. Secessia, the novel I’m currently working on, is about the occupation of New Orleans during the Civil War and features as perspective characters, among others, Angel Woolsack’s son and wife (both mentioned in the prologue), as well as the infamous General Benjamin Butler. I hasten to add that the sextet is a lifetime project—I can only hope that I’ll be lucky enough to have a kindly publisher who will keep printing them as they come—and will be interrupted by unrelated projects.

JB: Wow, I am in awe and will eagerly await Secessia.  Thanks, Kent, for a wonderful interview.  Good luck with the book!


KW: Thank you so much, Jaime. It was a pleasure.


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Interview with Matt Bell, Author of In the House Upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods

In the House Upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods by Matt Bell (Soho Press; 312 pages; $25). 

Jaime Boler: Thank you, Matt, for letting me ask you these questions.  I loved your mythic, fabled novel IN THE HOUSE UPON THE DIRT BETWEEN THE LAKE AND THE WOODS.  Did you always want to be a writer?


Matt Bell

Matt Bell


Matt Bell: Thank you! I’m so glad you enjoyed the book, and I appreciate you talking to me about it.


I was always a reader, and did occasionally write, off and on, but I didn’t begin to actively pursue writing seriously until I was twenty or so, right before I went back to college. Not surprisingly, that change happened around the same time I found the first literary writers I truly loved, writers like Kurt Vonnegut, Denis Johnson, Amy Hempel, and Raymond Carver.


JB: How would you describe IN THE HOUSE UPON THE DIRT BETWEEN THE LAKE AND THE WOODS in ten words or less?


MB: It’s not the easiest book to synopsize, is it? Ten words isn’t much—that’s less words than are in the title—but let’s say the book is a “myth about marriage and parenthood—with bear, squid, and maze.”


JB: How did you come up with the title?


MB: I think I had the title pretty early on. It’s not a particularly tricky title, despite how long it is: It’s really just the setting, right? And I always liked that. Part of what makes the book go is the constrained setting, and I like announcing that in the title.


JB: Your story explores the limits of parenthood and marriage—and of what happens when a marriage’s success is measured solely in the houseby the children it produces, or else the sorrow that marks their absence.”  Yet you infuse the tale with allegorical and epic qualities.  Why did you choose to tell the story in this way?  And how different a novel would it be without the myth and enchantment?


MB: The story is this way because it’s what the story demanded, more than anything else: I was discovering the events of the story before I knew what they meant, or how they necessarily went together. For me, these thematic concerns emerge from story, not the other way around.


JB: Novelist Colum McCann writes, “It’s complicated when you’re talking about voices and trying to create voices, or trying to create an atmosphere around a voice. I think eventually the voice is heard deep, deep into the work. There’s one line there—if you can recognize it, you can bring it back to the beginning. It’s like music, right? You find the right note, the other notes will follow. That’s how the voice things work in a book. You’re like a conductor who goes into the pit and you bring all the magicians and the instruments and you have to strike them up. Most likely you need a few days with them to find the texture of the music you want to play, or perhaps months. And then you find where the actual quality, the actual flavor of the voice is. From there, you hope the music works.”  Is this true for you?  Whose voice did you hear first in your own story?


MB: I think this is absolutely the case: Without the voice, there isn’t even any way to continue forward. I often don’t hear it quite right at the beginning—one of the reasons to rewrite so much is to continue to deepen the voice—but I try always to let it push the story forward. I don’t plan first drafts, I don’t try to understand too much, I try to let the speaker dictate where the story goes next. In this case, of course, it was the husband’s voice—and his voice was so loud that it was, for a long time, hard to see the rest of the story from any other perspective but his.


JB: You teach creative writing at Northern Michigan University.  Is writing something that can be taught or is it a matter of either you “got it or you don’t”?


MB: If I didn’t believe you could teach writing, my job would be a bit of a scam, right? Talent exists, but it’s the least of the qualities a writer needs, and a writer can make up for most any lack he or she has with a powerful work ethic, a voracious reading appetite, and an honest and personal approach to the world, in addition to the study of form and technique. And if any of these aspects of being a writer can’t be taught, they can at least be modeled. I try to do both for my students.


JB: Has teaching writing made you a better author?


MB: Absolutely. It’s a pleasure to get to talk about stories I love with smart and sensitive young writers, and of course their own work is often surprising and inspiring. A lot of the models I share with my students are stories that were fundamental in my own growth as a writer, but I also share a lot of very new stories from lit mags and new collections that I find interesting. It’s great to get to work through those stories with fifteen smart students, and to see them working day by day to understand their own natural aesthetics, the slice of literature in which they’ll begin to write and work.


JB: What is a typical day of writing like for you?168260_642316809130295_92234040_n


MB: Under normal circumstances, I write in the mornings, from the time I get up until I break for lunch at 12 or 1. Then the rest of the day is given to reading and teaching and editing, and of course to friends and family and so on. It’s a surprisingly dull-sounding schedule, perhaps—but I’m very thankful for it.


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


MB: I’m so bad at listing favorites, because the number of writers I might name is far too lengthy for this kind of interview. If you forced me to pick a favorite book, I’d say Jesus’ Son by Denis Johnson: I’ve read that book at least once a year for as long as I’ve known it, and it’s gotten better with every single read.




tumblr_mnkw9hNU5R1r8flbfo1_500JB: Your debut has already been selected as June Book Club Selections for Powell’s Indiespensable and the Nervous Breakdown.  IN THE HOUSE UPON THE DIRT BETWEEN THE LAKE AND THE WOODS also has the distinct honor of being chosen as an Indie Next pick for July.  How did you react upon hearing the news?


MB: Obviously, each of these was a great honor, unexpected but greatly appreciated. I never thought the response to this novel would be so kind, and I couldn’t be more grateful for the attention it’s received.


JB: What do you hope readers take with them after reading IN THE HOUSE UPON THE DIRT BETWEEN THE LAKE AND THE WOODS?


MB: There isn’t a specific message I want readers to take away, or anything like that. The book isn’t an argument, in that sense. What I hope instead is that readers have an experience with the book, that it draws them in and then makes a space where they might be moved and possibly changed, intellectually or morally or, most importantly, emotionally. That’s what writing the book did for me. It’s what I hope reading the book will do for others.


JB: Thanks, Matt, for a wonderful interview, and good luck with the book.


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Interview with Caroline Leavitt, Author of Is This Tomorrow

Caroline Leavitt

Caroline Leavitt

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

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

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

JB: Did you always want to be a writer?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

is this tomorrow

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

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

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

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

JB: Is Ava loosely based on your own mother?


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Elizabeth Strout, Amy & Isobelle
Dan Chaon, Stay Awake

Meg Wolitzer, The Interestings
Anything by the Brontes!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

CL: Thank you so much for these wonderful questions!



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

Jessica Soffer

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

JB: What was your publication process like?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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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 Sherri L. Smith, Author of Orleans

Sherri L. Smith

Sherri L. Smith

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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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



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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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



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


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



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


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


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


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

More about that scene from my book review:

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

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

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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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



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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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



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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


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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