Tag Archives: best books of April 2013

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).

Or.

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 Julie Sarkissian, Author of Dear Lucy

Julie Sarkissian, author of Dear Lucy

Julie Sarkissian, author of Dear Lucy

Jaime Boler: Thank you, Julie, for letting me interview you.  When Julia Fierro, founder and director of The Sackett Street Writers’ Workshop, has this to say about a novel, I take notice: “Dear Lucy will be one of your favorite reads of 2013. I promise.”  That’s high praise.  How do the wonderful reviews make you feel?

 Julie Sarkissian: First off, thank you for having me on your blog!

The experience of being reviewed brings to mind the nursery rhyme, “When she was good she was very, very good and when she was bad she was horrid.” When you hear something nice about your book, such as Julia’s generous and kind words, it feels very, very good. When you hear something not so nice about your book, it feels horrid. Being reviewed puts the author in a very vulnerable position, so every emotion is very heightened.

JB: Did you always want to be a writer?

JS: Like many of us in the publishing industry – writers, booksellers, editors – one of my first great loves as a child was reading. I grew up without a television and books were the main source of entertainment in our family. I was also a very serious student from an early age. Throughout elementary school writing was a strong suite of mine, it came easily to me and I enjoyed it and took pride in it. But it wasn’t until about the age of thirteen that I became afflicted with a true and overwhelming passion for writing. I started hearing voices in my head and was compelled to write them down. I started writing on a daily basis. I was very private about my work. It was as if I was carrying on an intense, secret affair with my writing at night, and was the same straight-A, type-A, peppy student I was known for being. But something had been awakened inside of me that fundamentally change who I was, and never went away.

 

JB: You became an instructor last year at The Sackett Street Writers’ Workshop.  How do you like teaching writing?

 

JS: I absolutely love it. Though I’m a writer and ipso facto have to work alone for much of the time, I am very extroverted. So gathering in a group to discuss writing and craft and literature is such a blissed-out state for me. Teaching is so humbling and rewarding. And inspiring! Of course, my situation is rather comfortable: teaching intelligent, driven adults from my home. My mother teaches high school English and has over forty kids in each class, so I probably wouldn’t have quite a rosy attitude about teaching if that were my situation.

 

JB: How has being a writing teacher made you a better author?

 

JS: That’s a good question. I’m not sure if teaching has made my actual writing better, but it has given me a better appreciation of the artistic community, and my students’ drive and ambition are very inspiring. And teaching is intellectually rewarding, and I’m sure that has to help sharpen my mind.

 

JB: Please describe Dear Lucy in ten words or less.

 

JS: Disabled girl, pregnant teenager and talking chicken vs. the world.

 

JB: What inspired you to write Dear Lucy? Which character’s voice came to you first?  And in what way?

 

JS: The inspiration for Dear Lucy was Lucy’s voice, narrating her gathering of the eggs. Her voice was so strong I just felt compelled to follow it, wherever it lead me. Her voice was the initial inspiration and the guiding force for the whole project.

 

JB: Lucy is truly an unforgettable and beautifully quirky character.  How did her creation come about?

 

JS: Thank you so much! She presented herself to me as a voice, and from there I had to ascertain where she came from, what her past was like, what her mother was like.

 

JB: What exactly is wrong with Lucy?

 

JS: I made a choice not to label Lucy or give her a diagnosis. So the most accurate answer to that question is that there is no real answer. But to be general, I think she has some behavioral issues, I think she has some language processing problems, she is developmentally delayed.

 

JB: In Dear Lucy, you shift points of view from Lucy to Missus to Samantha.  What prompted you to change perspective and give the reader different perceptions?

 

JS: The decision to have multiple narrators stemmed from my desire to get the reader information that would have been lost or at best incredibly convoluted through Lucy’s point of view. I wanted there to be tension between what the reader knew about Lucy’s situation, her safety and well-being, and Lucy’s experience. It seemed like a great opportunity to raise the drama stakes for Lucy.

 

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

 

JS: Lucy is my favorite, because she gave me her voice so generously and inspired the whole book. But I always felt very protective over Samantha, even though technically Lucy was more limited and more susceptible to danger than Samantha. Unlike Lucy, Samantha is her own worst enemy, and I felt a sense of responsibility for creating a character like that.

 

JB: Sense of place is intensely strong in Dear Lucy.  Why did you want to set your story on a farm?  How does the setting allow Lucy to develop strong friendships and come to the aid of a friend?

 

JS: Setting the novel on the farm was an organic, unconscious part of the process. When Lucy introduced herself to me gathering the eggs, it seemed only natural that she was gathering eggs on a farm. I think the setting is emotionally meaningful because the isolation of the farm highlights and juxtaposes Lucy’s ability to make connections in any environment, even one as desolate and dark as the farm.

 

JB: Dear Lucy has been compared to Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time and Emma Donoghue’s Room.  How do such comparisons make you feel?

 

JS: They make me feel very validated for the type of book I was trying to create. I think both these books are character voice driven literary fiction, and so it is very flattering to be compared to them because in terms of genre that is just what I was hoping to achieve. I wrote about The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time for the critical portion of my master’s thesis, so it has long been a book that helped me navigate the creation of a full story with a limited protagonist. When I first read Room I was much farther along in the publication process of Dear Lucy, but I was really struck by the similarities in voice between Jack and Lucy. A few of the lines are eerily similar. Jack and Lucy are no doubt kindred literary spirits.

 

JB: What was your publication process like?

 

JS: Dear Lucy was my master’s thesis at The New School. Ann Hood was my thesis advisor and she was incredibly encouraging and supportive. After grad school finished a full draft of a manuscript and found my wonderful agent, Judy Heiblum, through a friend of a friend at the restaurant where I wait tables. My agent and I edited the book for well over a year. That was a very challenging time in the life of the book. Getting the book in sellable shape felt like trial by fire, but eventually we did get a polished manuscript ready. Someone upstairs must have been looking out for me because the book ended up being acquired by Sarah Knight at Simon and Schuster, and she is absolutely the editor who was meant to work on Dear Lucy.

 

JB: How did you react upon seeing a finished copy for the first time?dear-lucy.jpg

 

JS: It was a few seconds of pure elation, trying to take in the enormity of how six years of work, essentially my sole focus of my life for six years, had led to this tangible object in my hand. It was very significant, very existential moment.

 

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

 

JS: Faulkner has long been a huge influence on my work. Other favorite authors and major influences are Joyce Carol Oates, Toni Morrison, and Flannery O’ Connor. I buy a lot of books at Housing Works – a thrift store near my house- so I often stumble across critically acclaimed books that were published some years ago but are new to me. Some in that camp are: Mating by Norman Rush, Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit by Jeanette Winterson, The Book of Ruth by Jane Hamilton, Call Me By Your Name by Andre Aciman. Shopping in thrift stories is treasure hunting, and discovering brilliant books like these is the ultimate thrill.

 

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

 

JS: I’m from Southern California, and am a Californian at heart, so naturally I love the beach. My fiancé and I rent a beach house in Montauk every summer and I cherish those summer months. I’m big into yoga and baking. I love having dinner parties and BBQing on our deck when the weather is nice. I grew up without a television and now am unabashedly addicted to it, especially crime dramas. I’ve watched every episode of Law and Order, Perry Mason and Murder She Wrote.

 

JB: What is a typical day of writing like for you?  Do you have a favorite place where you write?  Do you prefer quiet or must you have noise?

 

JS: Like any rational human being I start the day with coffee. I’m not a morning person and my brain takes a while to start functioning. But once it does, I sit down to write either on the couch, though I am trying to wean myself off of that habit, or my desk. I get my best work done in the mornings into early afternoon. I break for yoga and lunch, and try to work a few more hours in the afternoon. I prefer quiet when I write early drafts, but listening to music while editing can be inspiring and help keep the work feel fresh.

 

JB: What was the most difficult thing about writing Dear Lucy?

 

JS: Personally the hardest thing was not to get discouraged that the process took so long. Creatively the hardest thing was structuring the novel. My editor was instrumental in helping me get structure the novel in the way that best served all the character’s storylines.

 

JB: Did you learn anything new about yourself while in the midst of this tale?

 

JS: I used to be incredibly private about my work and it was very painful for me to show it to anybody. I never shared any details about my creative process or the host emotions that come with it. But through the publication process I started opening up to my fellow artist friends about the experience of creating the book, the deep tenderness I had for my characters, the mental and creative challenges of editing, the sense of anticipation and the fear of criticism. Being able to share what I was going through was very grounding and galvanizing and helped foster a sense of community and support.

 

JB: Do you have any advice for those working on a first novel?

 

JS: Remind yourself feeling passionate about something is a real blessing. Ignore self-doubt and feel proud that you’re trying! Don’t compare your journey to anyone else’s; there are as many ways to write as book as there are books to write.

 

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

 

JS: I hope readers take away the sense that the world is renewing itself every day, and that our sensory perceptions have the inherent ability to experience profound beauty. That seeing the world through another’s eyes, or hearing it from another’s ears, feeling it through another’s fingertips alerts the mind and the heart to the beauty that is around us all the time.

 

JB: I’m sure you have attended many book launches, but BookCourt was the site of your book launch on April 23.  What was it like?

 

JS: It was a blast! My friends- Heather Robb of the band The Spring Standards and Peter Lalish of the band Lucius- played live music – all booked themed songs, including Paperback Writer by the Beatles and Everyday I Write The Book by Elvis Costello. I cried during my thank yous and started uncontrollably coughing while reading– my friend had to take over the reading for me! It was a great turnout; BookCourt sold out of books, there were lots of cupcakes, lots of wine and lots of love!

julie sarkissian

 

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

 

JS: I am working on a new book. It’s about a carnival on an old pirate ship that travels the East Coast prophesizing that to succumb to your most primal desires is the only way to have a true experience of life. When the ship docks in a sleepy New England town, the lives of three women will never be the same.

 

JB: Thank you very much, Julie.  Good luck with the book!

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Interview with Julie Wu, Author of The Third Son

Debut novelist Julie Wu

Debut novelist Julie Wu

Jaime Boler: Julie, thank you for allowing me to ask you these questions.  The Third Son utterly captivated me from the first page and transported me to 1940s Taiwan.  Once I started reading your story, I couldn’t stop!  I know readers are going to love The Third Son just as much as I do.

Julie Wu: It makes me so happy to hear that—thank you, and thanks for having me!

JB: You are a physician.  How did you get into writing?

JW: The writing actually came first.  I always loved fiction, and actually my undergraduate degree was in Literature.  I started writing soon after college, when I was in graduate school, studying opera at Indiana University.  I realized then that writing would be my ultimate occupation, but I also realized that my sheltered life experience limited my writing.  I wanted to see and experience all I could of life, and meet all kinds of people.

I’d previously been thinking of pursuing medicine, and I thought that a medical career would not only be personally rewarding but would also enrich my point of view as a writer.  So instead of MFA programs, I applied to medical schools.

JB: I did some searching and saw where The Third Son is your father’s story or loosely based on his experience growing up.  Can you explain?

JW: I would describe The Third Son as “inspired by” my father’s story.  The emotional journey is very close to his, but the actual scenes and events of the story, large and small, are essentially fictional.

JB: I also discovered you began working on this novel in 2001.  What has the journey been like?

JW: Long.  A learning experience.  Torture.  A joy.  I have learned a lot about myself, about writing, about the writing industry, and about Facebook.

JB: Your first agent suggested you write The Third Son as a memoir.  Why did you want to tell your story in novel form?

JW: I enjoy the immersive, emotional aspect of fiction.  Writing a non-fiction book was not going to give me that, especially since my father does not recall a lot of sensory detail or actual dialogue.  And I did not want to write a story about myself and my relationship with my father because I have had a pretty good, privileged life and a pretty good relationship with my parents.  How boring is that?

JB: How many revisions did the story undergo?  And how different was it then compared to the final, printed book?  Was all the revising and rewriting worth it?

JW: I lost track of the number of revisions.  I didn’t even print them all out, but I have drawers, trunks, and filing cabinets filled with drafts.  Someday I’ll have a big bonfire.

The book is about 98% different from the first draft.  The first draft, I’d say, was a somewhat tentative family chronicle.  At some point I committed wholeheartedly to fiction, and the finished book is a real, dimensional, and hopefully satisfying novel.  I think it’s the best book I could have written, so yes, it was worth it.

JB: How does it feel to finally see it in print?

JW: Awesome!  I’ll admit I didn’t jump up and down hyperventilating when I first saw my galley, but I do hold it and flip through it a lot.  I think seeing the hardcover with all the blurbs on it, in bookstores, will be very exciting.

 

JB: All the early reviews about The Third Son are positive; some are positively glowing.  How do you feel about the wonderful early praise your book is getting?

thirdJW: It feels great.  One of the reasons I wrote the book was to shed light on the modern political history of Taiwan, which is so little known in the West.   The more successful my book is, the more people will be learning a bit more about Taiwan and the Taiwanese people, which is wonderful.

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

JW: I interviewed my parents extensively.  For the Taiwan sections, I read as many books and articles as I could find on Taiwan before, during, and after that period.  I was able to use the internet to find photographs.  I had traveled to Taiwan in 1990 with the intention of writing a (different) book set in Taiwan, so I also had extensive notes from that time.

For the sections in America, I consulted books and magazines from and on the fifties and sixties, watched some old movies, and read a lot about the International Geophysical Year.   I also visited MIT’s Haystack Observatory to speak with a slightly puzzled atmospheric scientist.

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

JW: I knew the story had the potential to be big.  My job was to realize that potential.

JB: My favorite characters in the story are Saburo and Toru.  Do you have a favorite?

JW: Oh, that’s like choosing among your children.  I really do love them all.   One of the things I’ve learned over the course of revising this book is that even your minor characters must have richness and purpose.  I’ll say I’m particularly fond of my mathematician-gardener, Professor Chen, in part because he did not exist until my latest revisions and now he’s not only kind of fabulous, but also a core part of the book.

JB: Your story is so emotional, especially when Saburo is mistreated and/or abused.  Yet, this is based on your own father.  Did you ever get emotional while writing it, so choked up to had to stop and leave it for a while?

JW: Interestingly, I did not.  I really thought of Saburo as his own character.  While writing I was imagining what this person Saburo would feel, think, and do.

JB: What do your parents think of the novel?

JW: It’s difficult for them to read it with any objectivity, of course.  They are on some level disappointed that the novel isn’t their true story.  At the same time they recognize that the story I’ve written is much more page turning and appealing to the general reader than one that would have stuck to the facts.  And my father still finds reading the book to be a very emotional experience.

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

JW: Gosh, lots of things.  I like to sing, read, garden, snuggle with the kids.  When the kids are older I’d like to get back to painting and playing the violin.

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

JW: Tolstoy.  I’d love to pick his brain.  I’d also love to tell him how many former Taiwanese political prisoners I’ve spoken to have listed him as one of their favorite authors.

JB: What book is on your nightstand right now?

JW: My nightstand is covered in piles of books—novels, biographies, writing craft books, children’s books, and parenting books.  I can’t even see the clock anymore.

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

JW: Keen.

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

JW: Yes.  I’m still waiting to hear where I’m going.

the third sonJB: What do you hope readers take with them after reading The Third Son?

JW: I’m hoping readers will feel moved and empowered.  I’m also hoping they’ll have learned a bit about Taiwan and the Taiwanese people.

JB: Are you working on anything new?

JW: I am working on a book inspired by the former political prisoners I interviewed in Taiwan this past October.  It will cover the same approximate time period as The Third Son, but will be about people more directly involved in the February 28 Incident, the subsequent massacres, and the White Terror.  The book will take place partly on Green Island, a wind-swept volcanic island off Taiwan’s coast, where political prisoners—mostly apolitical university students—were kept for years, forced to build their own prison and grow their own food.  In the early years the prisoners interacted with the island’s poor inhabitants, teaching them in schools and in the fields, and providing medical care.  These people were, and are, amazing.

JB: This story, so grim, is full of hope.  I felt as if I were reading a Jamie Ford or Janice Y.K. Lee novel and not a debut novel.  You are so amazingly talented, and I thank you for agreeing to chat with me about The Third Son. Good luck with the book, Julie!

JW: Thanks so much, Jaime!  This interview was a pleasure.

 

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Book Review: The Movement of Stars by Amy Brill

The Movement of Stars by Amy Brill (Riverhead Books; 400 pages; $27.95).

movement.jpg

For when I cannot observe, it is as if the great beauty and order and Truth of the Heavens does dissolve and I sense only my own wretchedly small place,” Hannah Gardner Price, the intrepid and unforgettable heroine of The Movement of Stars, Amy Brill’s magnificent debut, writes.  Hannah is constrained by both her Quaker faith and by her sex in 1840s Nantucket, an era and a locale that come to vivid life in Brill’s hands.  More than anything else in the world, the young Quaker woman yearns to discover a comet.

Maria Mitchell, the first female astronomer in America, inspired Brill to write The Movement of Stars.  For Brill, this novel is a fifteen-year odyssey and one that is close to her heart.  Although Brill started out hoping to write a biography of Mitchell, the astronomer grew to become “a leaping-off place for the journey of a character” of Brill’s own creation: Hannah Gardner Price.  Hannah and Mitchell may share many things, but Hannah is an invention of Brill’s imagination and the driving force behind The Movement of Stars.

As Brill illustrates, Hannah loves living on the island on Nantucket.  “Her sand and shallows, salt and sawgrass, were as much a part of her as the tribal tattoos that marked the whalers from South Pacific islands far distant.  Whenever she was off-island, Hannah felt diminished, invisible as stars veiled by the bright clamor of the city.”

Hannah’s feet may be firmly planted on Nantucket soil, where she is bound by religion and gender, but she is a wanderer at heart, whose face is forever turned towards the heavens.  And it is easy to understand why.  Her father “would decide her future, because it was his right.”  She may as well, she thinks, “be a servant.”

“Rooted in place,” Hannah thinks she can “feel the Earth spinning on its axis, while she remained stuck in place, pinned to its surface by the invisible, unseen force of gravity itself.”  The rigid rules of the Quakers suffocate Brill’s unconventional protagonist, triggering Hannah’s feelings of powerlessness when it comes to charting the course of her own future.

In contrast to Hannah and her position, the stars are immense, significant, and commanding, which is part of their allure.  Since nothing changes in her own life, she looks for variations in the night sky.  Her future is set; her place in society and in Nantucket itself appears static, while the stars keep moving.  How Hannah envies them.

The heavens allow Hannah to transcend the smallness of her existence and may be a way to navigate the path of her own life.

If only she can discover a comet, that is.  With the detection come prestige and a gold medal from the king of Denmark.  No woman has ever found a comet before, and Hannah longs to be the first.

When a series of revelations and catastrophes rock Hannah’s world, she must decide who she is and what she wants.   It is a dark-skinned sailor from the Azores who truly helps her find her true North.  Isaac Martin’s character works as an effective catalyst to force Hannah to question and challenge everything that is known and comfortable to her.  Without him, she may never have sought a new orbit.  Hannah may be Isaac’s teacher, but he teaches her, as well.  He is much more than just a love interest in Brill’s novel.

Especially when he illuminates something that is astonishing to Hannah.  They are alike—he is limited by his race just as her world is compressed by her faith and womanhood.  “We are not so different,” Hannah thinks of Isaac and herself.  “Neither one of us is welcome here [in Nantucket].

In addition to producing richly drawn and fully realized characters, Brill’s Nantucket setting makes the years fall away as she transports readers to the picturesque island.  I have never been to Nantucket but I could see the conflagration that threatened the town; I could smell the salty air; I could hear the sounds of bells; I could taste the gravy Hannah mopped up with her biscuit.  That’s why fans of historical fiction will love this expertly-researched story just as I do.

Brill writes her debut with precision, lyricism, and clarity.  The Movement of Stars is a gorgeous and moving story amplified by the author’s handsome prose and stunning use of metaphor.  Brill describes Isaac in this way: “Grease stains shaped like continents mapped his hands and his forearms.”  Isaac says his body is “like an old ship now…cracking and creaking.”  When Hannah looks out over a bluff, she feels “like a surveyor at the boundary of the New World.”  Passages such as these make The Movement of Stars engaging and utterly absorbing.

Hannah Gardner Price is unafraid to reach for the stars.  Brill triumphs when she gives us a character to root for and to applaud, a heroine who, in her extraordinary courage, defies the standards of her day, a fiery woman who radiates with willpower and intelligence.  Like the comet she discovers, Hannah is a trail-blazer, one who readers will never forget.

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Spotlight on Tomorrow There Will Be Apricots by Jessica Soffer

Tomorrow There Will Be Apricots author Jessica Soffer is a born and gifted storyteller whose debut is good enough to eat.

Just look at this beautiful cover.

tomorow there will be apricots

 

From the book:

This is a story about accepting the people we love—the people we have to love and the people we choose to love, the families we’re given and the families we make. It’s the story of two women adrift in New York, a widow and an almost-orphan, each searching for someone she’s lost. It’s the story of how, even in moments of grief and darkness, there are joys waiting nearby.

Lorca spends her life poring over cookbooks, making croissants and chocolat chaud, seeking out rare ingredients, all to earn the love of her distracted chef of a mother, who is now packing her off to boarding school. In one last effort to prove herself indispensable, Lorca resolves to track down the recipe for her mother’s ideal meal, an obscure Middle Eastern dish called masgouf.

Victoria, grappling with her husband’s death, has been dreaming of the daughter they gave up forty years ago. An Iraqi Jewish immigrant who used to run a restaurant, she starts teaching cooking lessons; Lorca signs up.

Together, they make cardamom pistachio cookies, baklava, kubba with squash. They also begin to suspect they are connected by more than their love of food. Soon, though, they must reckon with the past, the future, and the truth—whatever it might be. Bukra fil mish mish, the Arabic saying goes. Tomorrow, apricots may bloom.

According to her website, jessicasoffer.com, Jessica “earned her MFA at Hunter College. Her work has appeared in GrantaThe New York Times, and Vogue, among other publications. She teaches fiction at Connecticut College and lives in New York City.”

jessica

Rife with symbolism and meaning, Tomorrow There Will Be Apricots is tender, lush, and full-bodied.  Don’t miss this splendid debut by a bright, new talent.

Jessica Soffer.  "Soffer" means "scribe" in Arabic.

Jessica Soffer. “Soffer” means “scribe” in Arabic.

Check back soon for my review and an interview with the author.  Order Tomorrow There Will Be Apricots here.

Thanks to Leila Meglio for my copy.

 

 

 

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Spotlight on The Movement of Stars by Amy Brill

Amy Brill’s magnificent debut The Movement of Stars will be released from Riverhead Books on April 18.  Brill’s story is my current read, and it truly is a gorgeous tale.

movement

 

For when I cannot observe, it is as if the great beauty and order and Truth of the Heavens does dissolve and I sense only my own wretchedly small place.” –Hannah Gardner Price

Her sand and shallows, salt and sawgrass, were as much a part of her as the tribal tattoos that marked the whalers from South Pacific islands far distant.  Whenever she was off-island, Hannah felt diminished, invisible as stars veiled by the bright clamor of the city.

 

From the back of the ARC:

It is 1845, and Hannah Gardner Price has lived all twenty-four years of her life according to the principles of the Nantucket Quaker community in which she was raised, where simplicity and restraint are valued above all, and a woman’s path is expected to lead to marriage and motherhood.  But up on the rooftop each night, Hannah pursues a very different–and elusive–goal: discovering a comet and thereby winning a gold medal awarded by the king of Denmark, something unheard of for a woman.

And then she meets Isaac Martin, a young, dark-skinned whaler from the Azores who, like her, has ambitions beyond his expected station in life.  Drawn to his intellectual curiosity and honest manner, Hannah agrees to take Isaac on as a student.  But when their shared interest in the stars develops into something deeper, Hannah’s standing in the community begins to unravel, challenging her most fundamental beliefs about work and love, and ultimately changing the course of her life forever.

Inspired by the work of Maria Mitchell, the first professional female astronomer in America, The Movement of Stars is a richly drawn portrait of desire and ambition in the face of adversity.

Amy Brill

Amy Brill

Amy Brill is a writer and producer who has worked for PBS and MTV, and has been awarded fellowships by the Edward F. Albee Foundation, the Millay Colony, and the American Antiquarian Society, among others.  This is her first novel.  She lives in Brooklyn.

Look at the UK version!

Look at the UK version!

 

 

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