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Book Review: Rivers by Michael Farris Smith

Rivers by Michael Farris Smith (Simon & Schuster; 352 pages; $25).

     rivers   “He had forgotten the last day that it hadn’t rained, when the storms gave way to the pale blue of the Gulf sky, when the birds flew and the clouds were white and the sunshine glistened across the drenched land,” Mississippi native Michael Farris Smith writes in Rivers, his riveting new novel of speculative fiction.  In Rivers, Smith imagines a chilling future for the Gulf South, where relentless, Katrina-like storms roll in one after the other.

Although Hurricane Katrina did not hurt the author directly, seeing his state “suffer in that way” deeply affected Smith, he explained during a reading at the University of Southern Mississippi’s Center for Writers.  He originally thought that he wanted to write a Katrina or a post-Katrina novel.  After starting and stopping several times, Smith was unhappy with the direction in which he was heading.  The writing “felt really contrived” to him, and the “last thing” he wanted to do was “cheapen” the tragedy for those who experienced Katrina’s wrath.

Smith could not get the idea of storms out of his mind, however.  “To hell with Katrina,” he decided.  The wheels in Smith’s head slowly began to turn.  “What if after Katrina there came another one like a month later and after that there came another one just a couple weeks later?  And then what if for five or six years we essentially had a Katrina-like storm that never ended in the Gulf?  What would the world look like?”  Smith’s setting suddenly clicked, but he knew he could infuse even more conflict into his place, intensifying the mood and the story.

When Rivers begins, 613 days have passed “since the declaration of the Line, a geographical boundary drawn ninety miles north of the coastline from the Texas-Louisiana border across the Mississippi coast to Alabama.”  Things only got worse “after several years of catastrophic hurricanes and a climate shift,” suggesting “there was an infinite trail of storms to come.”  The “consistency and ferocity of the storms” have not diminished but have instead accelerated.  This is the environment in which Smith plunges his characters and us—dark, elegiac, primeval, and utterly compelling.

With the stage for his conflict set, the author needed a main character.  Smith kept seeing “an image of a guy waking up in the middle of the night on family land outside of Gulfport after he’s been trying to live down there through all this, and he goes outside…gets on his horse, [and] splashes around to see what’s going on.”

That man is Cohen, a pragmatic Southern stalwart who stays in his home despite ruthless weather, anarchy, and violence.  The federal government got out of Dodge long ago, but not Cohen.  He insists on staying not because of stubbornness but because he possesses mile-wide streaks of idealism and sentimentality.  These traits, along with his memories, keep him from living a life north of the line.

Two recollections especially mark Cohen.  The first is the tragedy that befalls Cohen and his wife, Elisa, as they attempt to evacuate the coast during a maelstrom.  Smith writes, “On the asphalt of Highway 49, underneath an eighteen-wheeler, surrounded by screams of those who were running for it as they had all seen them coming, the handful of tornadoes breaking free from the still black clouds, like snakes slithering down from the sky, moving toward the hundreds, thousands of gridlocked cars that were only trying to do what they had been told to do.”  As the tornadoes close in on the couple and explode “through the bodies and the cars and the trucks, metal and flesh” fly in all directions.  Cohen, powerless at that moment, can only watch as his wife and unborn daughter die, a scene that makes for emotional reading.  The other memory from which Cohen cannot escape and returns to time and again throughout the narrative is his reminiscence of a vacation he and Elisa once took to Venice, Italy.  One cannot help but compare Venice, the floating city, to New Orleans, itself a precarious metropolis that features into the story.  These vignettes offer greater insight into Cohen’s mindset.

If Cohen leaves the coast, he fears he will desert Elisa, his birthplace, and even a part of himself.  With a horse named Habana and a dog as his only companions, Cohen trudges across a dark and stormy landscape and struggles to hold onto a past that is getting harder and harder to cling to as the last vestiges of the old world crumble around him.  Practicality and romanticism are at war inside Cohen, which Smith ably demonstrates in the story.  Cohen knows his home is forever altered; he knows that to stay is a lost cause; he knows there is nothing left for him.  But he cannot do it—he cannot leave.  Smith envisaged Cohen, an extremely intricate and layered personality, so complex, intriguing, and damaged, and rendered him perfectly.

The author peoples Rivers with equally strong minor characters—Mariposa, a haunted young woman from New Orleans; Charlie, an old friend of Cohen’s family who is the go-to guy on the coast; Aggie, a man who lures women and men to his compound for his own nefarious purposes; and Evan and Brisco, brothers who have only each other.

When something unforeseen and unwelcome happens to Cohen, he is right in the thick of things and must decide, once and for all, if michael farris smithhe will be a man of action or inaction.  Cohen may be an unlikely hero, but we all are really.  Heroism is thrust upon him, just as it is forced upon so many ordinary people in extraordinary times.  Smith takes Cohen on multiple odysseys in Rivers, fully developing his main character and binding him to us.  I believe Cohen will appeal to readers because he is an Everyman type of figure, relatable, likeable, and sympathetic.  He is the sort of guy you would see at the local football game on Friday nights, barbequing on weekends with a beer in one hand, and driving his old Chevy around town.

If you enjoyed Peter Heller’s The Dog Stars, Karen Thompson Walker’s The Age of Miracles, and Cormac McCarthy’s works, you will surely appreciate Smith’s clarity, vision, and voice.  Rivers, as Smith tells me, “is about redemption” and “survival both emotionally and physically,” universal themes we can all understand.  Perhaps that is why Rivers struck such a chord with me.  The gloomy, sinister future of which the author writes is not implausible but wholly possible and therefore terrifying.

If Rivers is made into a movie (Please God), I’d love to see Matthew McConaughey as Cohen, Billy Bob Thornton as Charlie, and America Ferriera as Mariposa.

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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?

Wascom__Kent_photo_by_John_Wang

 

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 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).

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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Interview with Amy Brill, Author of The Movement of Stars

about-amy-200x300

Amy Brill, Author of The Movement of Stars

Jaime Boler: Thank you so much, Amy, for letting me ask you these questions.  The Movement of Stars is such a gorgeous novel, and I know readers of all ages will embrace your protagonist, Hannah Gardner Price.  You are a writer and producer and you previously worked for PBS and MTV.  Did you always want to be a writer?

Amy Brill: I did. I’ve wanted to be a writer for as long as I can remember. I was a voracious reader from a very early age. For my 5th grade book-and-author luncheon I was Louisa May Alcott, so I guess I had a latent thing for the 19th century even then.

JB: Your Twitter profile says: “Turned 40, sold book, had baby in car!”  Please tell me more!

AB: Oh, well. You know. Second baby. Things just went faster than expected! If you’re really curious, I wrote about the birth-in-the-car for Redbook recently. You can read it here.  Or did you want to hear more about 40? It’s the new 30. I just cling to that.

JB: For those who do not know, The Movement of Stars is loosely based on the life of Maria Mitchell.  Who was Maria Mitchell?

AB: She was the first professional female astronomer in America. She was born on Nantucket in 1818 into a large Quaker family, and was taught astronomy by her father, who calibrated the chronometers for the Nantucket whaling fleet. She had only a high school education, but she went on to discover a comet and become the founding professor of astronomy at Vassar College.

maria mitchell

JB: You first learned about Ms. Mitchell on a trip to Nantucket in 1996.  What about her captivated you so much that you wanted to write about her?

AB: I was taken by the idea of this young girl who was so dedicated to her passion that she spent night after night up on her roof, in every kind of weather, searching for something as elusive as a comet. I felt compelled to learn more, and more, and more, until I was so immersed in her life and times that I had to keep going.

JB: What prompted you to write about her?

AB: I didn’t want to write a straight biography, I wanted to write a novelized version of her life. It took many years of research and many dry, epistolary drafts before I understood that the story I really wanted to tell existed only in my head, and that Miss Mitchell and the “facts” of her life were only a leaping-off place, not a destination.

JB: How is Hannah Gardner Price different from Maria Mitchell?

AB: There’s certainly no indication that Maria Mitchell had any kind of relationship with a black whaler from the Azores, to begin with. Also, their family situations were entirely different. Hannah lives alone with her father, her twin brother being away on a whaleship. Maria Mitchell had a large family around her. And all of the secondary characters are invented, except the Bonds, the father-and-son team who ran the Harvard Observatory. They were real people and were friends with Maria and her father, though my version of those relationships is invented.

JB: What kind of research did you do for The Movement of Stars?

AB: I don’t think there’s any kind I didn’t do, short of navigating an actual whaleship across the Atlantic.

I think I read everything there is to read about 19th century astronomy, New England women and self-fashioning, Nantucket culture, Quakers, and whaling. I was assisted by the many archives and libraries I visited, from the Kendall Library of the New Bedford Whaling Museum to the Maria Mitchell Association archives to the American Antiquarian Society in Worcester, MA, where I was a visiting artist fellow in 2005.

JB: Hannah’s world is so small and fixed in place when the story begins.  She’s bound by her gender and her religion.  Everything changes for Hannah by the end of the book, and her world enlarges in so many different ways.  If Hannah were to spend one day in 2013, what would she say about women’s roles?  How far would she say we still have to go in the Twenty-First Century?

AB: She was hardcore in her beliefs and outspoken about equality for women. So I think she would be be thrilled that women now go to college, work in any field they like, and vote. But I think she’d be aghast that more women aren’t running for office to redress the issues that force families to shoulder the tremendous burden of incompatible work-life policy in the workplace, and to fight for adequate, subsidized childcare and family leave to enable women to actually achieve parity without sacrificing quality of family life. Wow, that was a mouthful.

JB: You set your story in Nantucket in the 1840s, an era and a locale that come to vivid life in The Movement of Stars.  How did you capture the sense of place so well?

AB: I spent a little time there, but mostly through careful research and deep enchantment with the place itself. In so many ways Nantucket today and Nantucket 200 years ago aren’t all that different.

JB: How difficult was it to get inside the Quaker mentality?  Was it hard to write using all those “thees” and “thous”?

AB: I can’t say I was inside the Quaker mentality; that particular, rigid moment in that Meeting was just an isolated sliver of what Quakerism was and is. As for thee and thou and thy and thus… well let’s just say there was a lot more of that in earlier drafts, and we can all be happy that most of them landed in the circular file, i.e. the wastebasket.

JB: What does the character of Isaac Martin do for Hannah?  And what does he add to the story?  How different would Hannah have been if he had not shown up at her door?  Would Hannah have accomplished all the things she did without Isaac?

AB: Isaac is fundamental to Hannah’s growth as a holistic human being, one who understands her own heart as well as her mind. She might have found her comet—she might not have—but she certainly wouldn’t have come to know her own desires, or found her own convictions along the way.

JB: Did you learn anything new about yourself while writing this story?

AB: So many things. I mean, I grew up alongside Hannah. When I started, I was 25, single, clueless. When I finished, I was 40, married, with a child (now two!). So I found my way to the same twin engines that fuel Hannah’s journey—love and discipline—right alongside her.

JB: Do you have a favorite character in The Movement of Stars?

AB: That’s like asking me to name my favorite child. Can’t do it.

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

AB: I like to be outside, in the sun, preferably at the shore, making sand castles with my kids and throwing a Frisbee with my husband. Not at the same time, obviously.

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

AB: I love Andrea Barrett, Ann Patchett, Shirley Hazzard. Of my contemporaries, Megan Mayhew Bergman and Elissa Schappell and Claire Vaye Watkins’ recent story collections all blew me away. I see a very female theme emerging here! Sorry, boys. I’ll shout you all out next time.

JB: What is your favorite book?

AB: I love [Ann Patchett’s] Bel Canto. Me and everyone else on earth. It wove a powerful spell.

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

cvr-the-movement-of-stars

AB: My World Domination New England Tour will kick off right after Mother’s Day! I’ll be in Mystic, CT, Worcester, MA, Wellesley, MA, Portsmouth NH, Falmouth, MA, and Sandwich, MA, in May, and then Cohasset, MA, and Providence RI, in early June. Then in Concord, MA, and at the Nantucket Book Festival later in June! I’m probably forgetting some places, but it’s all on my website at http://www.amybrill.com/news-and-events/.

JB: What do you hope readers take with them after reading The Movement of Stars?

AB: Lots of Kleenex. And a deeper understanding of the nature of human desire, in all its manifestations.

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

AB: Always working. Articles, essays, a few short stories, and gnawing on ideas for another novel.

JB: Thanks, Amy, for a wonderful interview.  Good luck with The Movement of Stars!

AB: Thanks so much for having me here. My pleasure.

Oprah.com has selected The Movement of Stars as part of its “5 Dreamy Historical Novels” for spring reading!

“These stories take you back to the age of calling cards, carriages and the occasional complex, believable “attachment” also known as love.”

Read more: http://www.oprah.com/book/The-Movement-of-Stars-by-Amy-Brill#ixzz2RPSGROku

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