Aline Ohanesian: Turning the trans-generational grief of genocide into historical fiction

Raffi HadidianAline Ohanesian is the author of critically acclaimed novel, Orhan’s Inheritance, which was long listed for the Center for Fiction’s First Novel Prize, a Summer 2015 Barnes & Noble “Discover Great New Writers” pick, an April 2014 Indie Next pick, and an Amazon Top 25 pick for 2015. The novel was also a finalist for the PEN Bellwether Award for Socially Engaged Fiction. 

Aline was born in Kuwait and immigrated to Southern California at the age of three. After earning an MA in History, she abandoned her PhD studies to conduct the research that led to her debut novel. She is an alumna of the Bread Loaf and Squaw Valley writers’ conferences. She lives and writes in San Juan Capistrano, California with her husband and two young sons.

The paperback edition of Orhan’s Inheritance was published by Algonquin Books in January 2016.

[This interview was originally published on January 18, 2016.]

Photo by Raffi Hadidian


What led to your fascination with the Armenian genocide? Was it a story that seems to have been passed down with your mother’s milk, as it were?

I had an emotional connection to this history because my grandparents on both sides were survivors. I felt I had to tell this story not only for them but for the 1.5 million who lost their lives. Writing this novel was my way of coping with and exploring trans-generational grief.

What aspect of this cultural history spoke most powerfully to you in terms of storytelling?

I’m always amazed at the resilience of the human spirit. When people suffer the worst of fates and still manage not only to survive but be kind and loving.

Tell me about the research you did for Orhan’s Inheritance.

In some parts of the world, the history in this book is contested, so it was very important to me to be as historically accurate as possible. It took me seven years to write this novel. I’m not exaggerating when I say that I probably read every history book ever written on the subject, including a few books from denialists. I have a masters in History from UCI [University of California at Irvine] and whenever possible I referenced primary sources, things like diaries, letters, ledgers, etc. I also took a trip to the interior of Turkey, where the book takes place, and spent time in a small village where they still burn cow dung for fuel. It was like walking into a time warp. Great for my research.

How long did you work on the book?

It took me seven years to write it and another year to find an agent. She sold it on the first round within a week of signing me.

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What is the key to blending the history and politics of something like the Armenian genocide with a story so that the two are in balance?

Writing a book like this, with two time periods and several characters whose story spans eighty years, is like weaving a tapestry. What matters most is the characters and their story. I only included history that impacted my main characters in a direct and personal way.

I love the fact that Orhan is a photographer who has experienced a form of photographer’s block but learns how to see again — but differently — from his encounters with Seda and Ani. It has stayed with me as one of the central “images” of the novel. Can you explain the genesis of this idea and how you wove it into his character development?

I have an affinity toward people who make art in whatever medium. They are my tribe. Making him a photographer reduced the psychic distance between us. I tend to place a high value on people who choose art over everything else in their lives. With Orhan, I got to experience what it felt like to turn one’s back on one’s art. It wasn’t just a block, but a voluntary distancing of himself from his art. I wanted to explore the personal consequences of that, not just to him but to his family and community. Making art is hard, but the alternative can be devastating too, if one has the ability, sight, calling, whatever you want to call it.

I was particularly intrigued by the question that arises late in the book when Orhan is forced to confront the issue of identity. Is he a Turk of the past or the present, or a global citizen of the present and future? How is he supposed to live his life in light of these questions? I imagine that is a question that has been (and is still) faced by Germans and the new generation of Serbians and some Rwandans, etc. How do you view the issue of collective guilt?

It’s so true, and this book was #1 in Serbia I think precisely because that society is still dealing with those questions. As a novelist, I don’t propose any answers to the question of collective guilt. Instead, I ask the question and let my characters answer it for themselves. There have been major shifts in identity formation as a result of our global connectedness, via the internet, speed and ease of travel, etc., but in some ways, the more things change, the more they stay the same. Our world is still suffering from violence born of nationalism, racism and sexism. Collective guilt is different from personal, individual guilt and has to be acknowledged by the nation-state. In the case of Turkey, that state has a deep history of denial and oppression of basic human rights.

I was also moved by Ani’s sentiment that “Remembering is all we have in the face of denial. Silence is the enemy of justice.” What role does fiction have in this “remembering”?

I think great art can also bear witness. Here I’m thinking of the work of Arundhati Roy, Louise Erdrich, Edward P. Jones and others. Those are the writers I admire the most, the ones who can tell you a heart-wrenching story and inadvertently teach you about history and its power structures. There’s a great quote by Toni Morison that goes, “All of that art-for-art’s-sake stuff is BS,” she declares. “What are these people talking about? Are you really telling me that Shakespeare and Aeschylus weren’t writing about kings? All good art is political! There is none that isn’t. And the ones that try hard not to be political are political by saying, ‘We love the status quo.’”

I’m curious about whether Orhan’s Inheritance has been well received by the Jewish community (if you know). I would imagine the concept of “transgenerational grief” would resonate among those who are descendants of the Holocaust, both literally and figuratively. Your description of Armenian loss having existed for generations “like something precious, in every syllable of language taught in Saturday schools, and in the smell of dishes, and in the lament of songs” rings very true for me. It’s universal.

I haven’t heard from any Jewish organizations, but I will say that I have been a student of the Holocaust and its literature, and I feel an affinity toward that community both in my personal life and my professional one.

What do you make of recent research that suggests the trauma of events like genocide can be passed down genetically? (http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/descendants-of-holocaust-survivors-have-altered-stress-hormones/)

My community and I always knew it to be true and I’m glad that science now supports that wisdom.

What was your area of study when you earned your MA in History? What were you working on in your Ph.D. program?

I was studying American history, partly to try to figure out what it means to be an American. My dissertation was on the intersection of citizenship and consumerism in American culture. I had an incredible group of professors and I owe them a tremendous debt of gratitude.

For those who want to learn more about the subject, which books do you recommend, both fiction and nonfiction?

For non-fiction I would recommend Dawn MacKeen’s The Hundred Year Walk, which just came out to raving reviews. It’s a lovely story of her grandfather’s survival and it explains the past but also points to what’s happening now in the Middle East. There are some great novels about the topic. My three favorites are Micheline Marcom’s Three Apples Fell From Heaven, Nancy Kricorian’s Zabelle and Antonia Aslan’s Skylark Farm. There are dozens more including one from Chris Bohjalian called Sandcastle Girls.

What has been the highlight of being a debut novelist? 

One highlight is receiving letters and emails from readers who’ve been impacted by the novel. I never imagined the lovely things people would say about my words. It is a surreal and wonderful experience and it’s been happening at least once a week since the book came out last April. I’m incredibly grateful for the reception the book has had, but to be honest, the very best part of this journey has been and remains the hours I spend writing. That is my prayer, my religion and my privilege. It’s not always easy but it’s always rewarding. (Even on bad days when I want to throw my laptop into a ditch, I’m still grateful I get to write. To try.)

What are you working on now?

It’s a secret. No, just kidding. I am working on two things at once. I have no idea which of the two will take fire, but it’s exciting. I don’t want to repeat myself, so I’m stepping way outside my comfort zone. I don’t know how readers will react, but I’ll worry about that after I’ve finished writing.

How has social media changed the landscape for writers, especially those early in their career?

Social media is a great way to create community and converse with other writers and readers. It’s only a problem if it gets in the way of your writing. I’m sure some people can tweet and work on their novels at the same time, but I’m not one of them. I have to limit social media so I don’t have any of those apps on my phone or my laptop. I have them on an iPad that I use in my leisure time. Like a lot of other things, it can be a double-edged sword.

Which writers have had the greatest influence on you as a reader and a writer? What have you read recently that has impressed you?

I mentioned some of them earlier. I re-read one of the Russians at least once a year. Having said that, I’m always reading so I’m always discovering new favorites. I’m on a Lidia Yuknavitch kick lately. I loved The Small Backs of Children. And Josh Weil’s The Great Glass Sea blew me away. Atticus Lish’s Preparation for the Next Life and Smith Henderson’s Fourth of July Creek. I could go on and on.

Are there any books you especially like that you think have been unfairly overlooked?

Oh, so many. I don’t understand why some books get the attention they do, while others are ignored. I do believe there’s a benefit to living in Brooklyn and/or having an MFA. Like in any business, connections matter when it comes to coverage and who gets reviewed, etc. I do think gatekeepers like agents and editors are important. But the writer can’t worry about anything beyond the page. I worry about the words and let the rest take care of itself, or not.

Do you have any recommendations for standout fiction by women for the readers of this blog?

Many of the writers I’ve mentioned here are women and women of color. Lucia Berlin’s A Manual for Cleaning Women is an excellent short story collection. I love Susan Straight both as a person and a writer. I thought the structure of Naomi Williams’s Landfalls was very interesting. Again, I can go on for pages.

“AmWriting” — Chrissy Kolaya talks with Christine Sneed and Alison Umminger about the challenges of the writing life

A huge thank you to Read Her Like an Open Book for giving me a chance to talk with two writers I deeply admire and think of as my literary big sisters, Alison Umminger and Christine Sneed. — Chrissy Kolaya

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Chrissy Kolaya is a poet and fiction writer. Her work has been included in the anthologies New Sudden Fiction (Norton),  Fiction on a Stick (Milkweed Editions), and Stone, River, Sky: An Anthology of Georgia Poems, as well as in a number of literary journals. She teaches writing at the University of Minnesota Morris, where she’s one of the co-founders of the Prairie Gate Literary Festival. Her first novel, Charmed Particles, was published by Dzanc Books in November 2015. [Read my review here.]

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Alison Umminger is a professor of English at the University of West Georgia.  Her short fiction has won the Lawrence Foundation award from Prairie Schooner, and been published in numerous journals.  American Girls is her first novel.

Christine Sneed -- Adam Tinkham
Christine Sneed‘s stories have appeared in The Best American Short Stories, O. Henry Prize Stories, Ploughshares, Glimmer Train, Massachusetts Review, The Southern Review, New England Review, Greensboro Review, Pleiades, and a number of other publications.  She is the author of the novels Paris, He Said and Little Known Facts, and the story collections Portraits of a Few of the People I’ve Made Cry and The Virginity of Famous Men. She lives in Evanston, Illinois and teaches for the graduate creative writing programs at Northwestern University and Regis University in Denver.

CK: Would you each tell us about your new book?


American Girls
Alison: American Girls is about a 15-year-old who steals her mom’s credit card and runs away to L.A., where she researches the Manson girls, hangs out on a television set with her sister’s boyfriend, and becomes a little less shitty than she was at the start of the novel. It’s low on plot and heavy on voice/atmosphere, and I originally conceived it as a kind of love letter to Los Angeles.

The Virginity of Famous Men

Christine: The Virginity of Famous Men, my forthcoming short story collection, will be out in mid-September. In “Beach Vacation,” a mother realizes that her popular and coddled teenaged son has become someone she has difficulty relating to, let alone loving with the same maternal fervor that once was second nature to her.

In “The Prettiest Girls,” a location scout for a Hollywood film studio falls in love with a young Mexican woman who is more in love with the idea of stardom than with this older American man who takes her with him back to California. “Clear Conscience” focuses on the themes of family loyalty, divorce, motherhood, and whether “doing the right thing” is, in fact, always the right thing to do. The title story, “The Virginity of Famous Men,” explores family and fortune and picks up a year and a half after Little Known Facts, my second book, left off.

CK: California looms large in both of these books! I’m curious about the idea of revisiting your own literary territory as Christine does in her title story. Christine, would you talk a bit about the experience of returning to these characters? What are some of the challenges and rewards?

Christine: It was a lot of fun to imagine my characters from Little Known Facts a year and a half after where that book ends. A few people had asked if I was going to write a sequel to this novel, and I don’t have plans to – other than this short story. I guess the challenge of writing about them now is whether or not I remain faithful to the tone of that novel and portray them in a believable way. I hope I succeeded. The reward was that I again had a good time writing about fame and its effects on the relatives of the famous.

CK: One of the things I find especially encouraging about the writing world is the work writers do to build and maintain vibrant and supportive literary communities, both in person and online. What are some of the most inspiring/creative things you’ve seen others do to build literary community?

Christine: I love that on Twitter there are hashtags devoted to reading picks, e.g. #fridayreads and #amreading, which I think can generate a lot of buzz for many authors.

In Chicago, where I live, there are more than 50 “live lit” series, one of which I used to help direct and curate, Sunday Salon Chicago. Due to the number of reading series in any given week here, so many writers are able to read new work, sell books, meet other writers, and in some cases, create lasting friendships and working relationships.

There’s a lot of support for writers in this city, in general, and also, quite a few independent bookstores with staff devoted to promoting the books of local authors. Much hand-selling goes on, and I think more and more writers and publishers see this as a key factor in a book’s success.

Alison: I think some of the online communities (the functional ones) are pretty amazing for sharing information and encouraging folks along the way. The NaNoWriMo is pretty awesome for getting folks motivated in the midst of their busy lives — and I love hearing about some of the mini-retreats that groups of writers arrange for working collectively, with a team atmosphere. Writing can be so lonely and isolating, and yet I think a certain amount of feedback along the way is essential.

CK: What are you most proud of doing to build and maintain literary community?

Christine: As mentioned above, I helped to organize Sunday Salon Chicago for two years, which was a labor of love for everyone involved. Like many recurring reading series, my co-organizers and I couldn’t pay our readers; we didn’t charge admission for the readings, in order to reach the widest audience possible, and we weren’t paid for our work either.

On my website, I also do Q and As with writer friends who are promoting new books. It’s a lot of fun, and it helps get the word out to a few more people who are likely to pick up these titles and share them with friends, too.

Alison: Well, I feel like I am part of a “little writing group that could” that includes Maggie Mitchell and one other member — three of us worked on novels together, and two have made their way into the world since our group’s inception. I also joined a group called the Sweet Sixteens this year, made up of hundreds of folks with debut YA and MG novels. I’m mid-way through reading sixteen debut novels, and that’s been a wonderful way for me to get to know other YA writers.

CK: Alison, did you always imagine yourself writing for a young adult audience or has your audience changed throughout your writing career?

My agent had been telling me for years to try YA, but I have a lot of trouble thinking of books in terms of genre. I happen to love writing books about younger characters, because adolescence is so intense and so many things happen for the first time. I feel like Anna’s story happily fits what YA is right now, and I’m thrilled to be part of the lively and diverse YA community.

CK: In the razzle-dazzle of book promotion, it can seem to readers and emerging writers as if you must be one of the lucky few who’ve won the talent-and-good-fortune lottery. What were some moments of struggle for you along the way, and what advice can you share with writers who find themselves reading this while in the midst of one of those challenging moments?

Alison: Well, the distance from my “I want to be a writer” moment to a hardback with my name on the spine was 23 years, so I’d say I’m a walking advertisement for persistence. I wrote a literary novel before this one that was rejected by at least 40 publishers, many of whom genuinely liked it but saw no larger market for the book. That still kind of breaks my heart, but the marketing aspect of books is very real, and I think writers need to be realistic about what that means. I’ve had students who are very talented, but very niche writers, and I encourage them to look for smaller presses and not be discouraged if agents aren’t lining up at their doors.

Christine: I think you have to learn to manage your expectations when it comes to a book’s sales and reviews – i.e., how many copies will sell and how positive the reviews will be (provided you get reviews, which certainly isn’t a given, especially with mass market periodicals).

You can never predict what will happen, as obvious as that sounds. I wish it were easier to earn a steady living from writing, but it’s extremely difficult, and I keep reminding myself of something my friend and fellow writer Karen Brown said recently: “The next book!” as in, the next book will be the one that breaks through in a way that will allow you to stop having to scramble so much for teaching work and other paying gigs and permit you to focus more on your writing.

CK: What advice would you give your younger writing self?

Alison: Your real life is pretty separate from and far more important than your work, so don’t put so much value on being a published writer. And enjoy the process of writing the book — that’s the real fun part.

Christine: As I said earlier, learn to manage your expectations. No book’s trajectory can be predicted. The writing has to be the focus, always.

CK: What’s next for each of you? 

Christine: I’m working on a new novel and a little bit of nonfiction and short fiction. In the fall, I’ll be doing some readings in Illinois, Michigan, Indiana and Wisconsin to promote The Virginity of Famous Men.

Alison: I’m working on another YA novel, also a realistic contemporary piece. It’s very early in the drafting process, so I’m trying to stick with it even though the book isn’t exactly talking to me right now. Pants to the chair method, as my dissertation director so wisely once told me.

CK: I love to root for the underdog. What’s a book or author that you’d like to see more folks fall in love with?

Christine: Zoe Zolbrod’s memoir The Telling is an excellent book that I recently read that was published in May by an independent Chicago press, Curbside Splendor. I loved Alison’s book too – American Girls (UK: My Favorite Manson Girl). I hope it finds readers far and wide. And your novel, Chrissy, Charmed Particles.

Alison: In terms of YA, I just loved Devil and the Bluebird by Jennifer Mason-Black, and I’m super excited for the brilliant Dana Johnson’s story collection, In the Not Quite Dark, which is out this month. She’s one of the best short story writers out there, and I hope this finds its way onto lots of reading lists this summer.

CK: Thanks so much, Alison and Christine! Thanks Bill, for hosting our Q&A and for all the work you’re doing to bring together readers and literary fiction by women!


Photo of Christine Sneed: Adam Tinkham

The Writing Life: Jane Delury talks and laughs with Jessica Anya Blau, Caroline Leavitt and Elissa Schappell

Three of the most interesting and entertaining writers on the contemporary fiction scene are Jessica Anya Blau, Caroline Leavitt, and Elissa Schappell. Each has a distinctive voice and style, but their fiction probes individual character and cultural shifts with an accuracy and emotional intensity that makes their books particularly satisfying reads. They are smart, funny, and intellectually restless people, and that shows in their work. In this interview for Read Her Like an Open Book, Jane Delury explores the serio-comic writing life with the three East Coast authors. After you read this, you’ll want all of them to be your next-door neighbors. But for now, you’ll have to enjoy their books.


Since you began writing, what has changed from book to book? Are you consciously trying to do something new with each project?

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Jessica Anya Blau:  I’ve actually tried to do the same thing over again, but when I do that, I feel like a complete fraud and a failure . . .  an asshole who has nothing new to say. So, each book I’ve written has been new to me. In that way, each one was difficult in novel ways and with a whole new depth. There’s a general terror in writing—the fear of failure, fear that I’m dumb, fear that I’m not up to the task I’ve set out for myself—which only seems to grow with each project. In general, I write despite my feelings.

Caroline Leavitt 2016Caroline Leavitt:  I’ve always tried to do something new, whether it’s setting things in different time periods, or changing point of view, but I seem to do it in twos. My first two novels were in first person, my last two were in the 50s, and then the 70s in third person. Of course, this adds to the terror. Like Jessica, I am on the verge of nervous collapse ALL THE TIME. But I have to share my favorite John Irving quote. If you don’t feel that you are on the edge of humiliating yourself, or losing control of the whole thing, then you’re not trying hard enough. I loved that quote so much, I tracked Irving down and wrote him a letter about how much better his quote made me feel. To my shock, he wrote me back a two-page handwritten letter talking about all sorts of things, and ended with, “But I didn’t say that. Though it sounds like I COULD have.” So, I’ve learned that doing new things, getting more ambitious and complex, equals nausea, terror, shock.

JAB: A two-page letter from John Irving?! That’s amazing. I wrote Alice Munro once and got back a post-card that said, “Jessica, keep writing.”

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Elissa Schappell: Clearly I need to start writing some fan mail. God knows I admire so many writers. Anyone got a Ouija board? I’d love to get in touch with Dawn Powell and Jane Bowles, Virginia Woolf, Jean Rhys…

Every time I start a new project, I think, I want to do something different. With Use Me, the idea that you could write a novel in stories was all new to me.

With my second book, part of a two book contract—a promised novel—I had decided I was going to write a “big” Tom Wolfe-style novel—an IMPORTANT book—socially relevant, with a capital T, Topic. My subject was race—the relationship between white upper middle class liberal mothers and their black and Filipino nannies—it was about privilege and drug addiction, plastic surgery, passionate female friendship, sex… all the hits.  I spent almost two and a half years working on that book—working against all my better instincts, slogging through it like I was writing a book report—and it was shit.

At the same time I was writing stories so I wouldn’t stab myself, which saved me. Because when I wasn’t trying to be a good girl and finish my homework (which is what that novel felt like) when I let myself write what I couldn’t say out loud, or say without screaming—when I let myself be angry and bold, when I chucked the map and just felt my way in, the writing wasn’t terrible and every other word wasn’t a lie.

Has the process gotten easier, or harder? Did you know what you were getting into when you chose to be a writer?

CL:  It’s always impossible. I have what I call writer’s amnesia. I forget how hard I cried and whined and panicked about the book prior to the one I am writing at the time. I think somehow that being so panicked is something new, and then all my writer friends sigh and laugh, and my husband says, “You were just like this last book. And that’s how I know your writing is going well.”

JAB: Yes, I guess it’s like having a baby. You forget until you remember. And you don’t remember until you’re there, vomiting and pissing on the table, screaming for someone to knock you out and make it end.

ES:  That’s exactly my process! Have you tried laying a rubber sheet out on your desk? It really helps quite a lot.

JAB: I’m so going to try that!

ES: As to easier or harder, I think this book I’m working on now is by far the hardest book I’ve ever written, and I’m in a flat out panic. It’s true, I tell my friends and family, I don’t know what I’m doing, it’s not working—I’m lost. And its exactly what Jessica is talking about. They all nod, and say,Yep this is exactly what you said last time.

Although no one has suggested this means the work is going well. It’s more, Buckle up it’s going to be a bumpy ride.

I didn’t think about what I was getting into—I never thought about a career as a writer. I thought I was going to be a painter, or an actress or a veterinarian, or a DJ (yes, really—I was that far gone) writing was just what I did.  I have no other wage earning skills, and certainly not at this age. I could tell you all about my checkered employment history but it would just make you sad.  Three words: Balloon delivery girl.

However surprised I might be that I became a writer—no one else, not my parents, or my friends from childhood or college seemed surprised. I was so disappointed at my 20th high school reunion, here I thought I was finally going to out myself as a writer—show them my true face, and instead they nodded at me…. “Oh, yeah”, smug little fortune tellers, “We all saw that coming. You were always a writer. Except for one woman who said, “I thought you’d be a toll booth operator.”

JAB: I ran into a high school friend once and when she asked what I was doing, I said I was writing. she said something like, “Oh that’s cool you’re riding. Do you own your own horse?” I said, ‘No, I don’t own my own horse.” And that was that. My father said to me (and this is a near-exact quote): “You were a beach bunny, I thought you’d grow up to be a wife.”

CL: No one thought I was going to be a writer except for me. My mother wanted me to be married and have a man take care of me (writing could be my little hobby) and my dad wanted me to be married and to be JEWISH-married.)  I had a high school teacher who sniffed at me, “Sorry, you don’t write that well.” A Brandeis writing professor told me that I would never make it, that he could see me as a Montessori nursery school teacher because I was such a “sweet little girl.”

I had no idea what I was getting into when I sold my first novel. I was so scared, I threw up a lot. Then, when the book took off, I thought, oh great, this is my career, every two years I’ll write a book and it will do as fabulously as this one did. HA. HA. My second book didn’t do as well and my publisher folded (not because of me, though!). The next publisher folded just as my novel came out. Then, I got a three-book deal with a BIG publisher who did absolutely nothing for me and refused to take my calls. I got another three-book deal with a different big publisher, and guess what I’m going to say? By then, I had a great new agent (I was always terrified of my first agent and had to pretend to smoke—I have never smoked in my life—to make myself feel brave). Even with my new agent, my ninth novel was rejected by the big publisher as not being special enough. Algonquin bought it and made that ninth book a bestseller the first month it was out. The editor who rejected it as “not special” sent me an email the day it made the NYT bestseller list, only she meant the note to be for her gynecologist, and it was really, really graphic! I let it go, but she emailed it again, so I had to tell her that I was not her doctor. She said, “Fine, how are things?” I told her, and she never wrote back.

How do you feel about the pressure put on authors to promote themselves now? When you release a new book and go on tour, what gratifies and bugs you the most?

CL: It’s tremendous pressure. Most writers I know are socially awkward, scared, nervous, and the ones who aren’t drink or drug themselves to be outgoing. What I love about being a writer is being able to write, to be in my house with Jeff, my husband, who also works at home. I actually love social media because I don’t have to leave my house to do it! I can go on twitter and Facebook and feel that I have been given a shot of human interaction and then go back to my day. And I’ve made and met real friends there—people I never would have met if I just awkwardly approached them! I haven’t figured out how to do Instagram, yet.

JAB: Yeah, you’re actually great at Facebook. You’re real. Authentic. It’s like everyone’s your best bud—the kind of bud you talk to on the phone while you’re emptying the dishwasher. I like seeing your stuff. And Elissa’s great on Facebook, too. Elissa’s political and says all the things I would say if I weren’t afraid and too shy to say them. I feel a little embarrassed promoting myself but I accept it as part of the package—I want my books to be out the world so I’ll do whatever needs to be done. The very kind marketing woman at HarperCollins just set up an author page with me—the whole thing made me nervous—I was worried no one would tap that like box. I also recently started Instagram but was told by several people I was “terrible” at it because I kept posting pictures of my diapered, fishy-smelling, one-eyed dog. One of my daughters has my Instagram password now and she randomly goes in there and deletes the photos she thinks would turn people off. She also randomly posts pictures, too.

ES:  I understand that social media makes some people queasy.  I also think that when a writer says, I don’t understand it, or, It’s not my thing that they sound a bit like an old codger complaining about newfangled technology, What do they call it, TV? It’s nothing more than radio with pictures. Just a fad!

My publisher told me, or let’s be real, threatened me, “You have a choice you can make a Facebook page, or we will set up a Fan Page for you.” That did it. I didn’t like it, but I did it. In the beginning I didn’t say much but posted videos of bands I loved and whatever nice press I got. It felt artificial to me, but obviously I got over that. Now I really dig it.

It’s good to have a place to hype the things you love and hyperventilate over the things that make you insane.

I agree with Jessica. Caroline is great at Facebook. She’s a natural, very open and intimate—you feel like you know her and you like her. And Jessica’s page is sly and beautifully curated. In both cases, you can see how the work grows out of each author’s unique sensibility.

I am much more political on my page then I am in my fiction. What is more tedious for a reader then to turn to a book of fiction and find instead a diatribe about the venal, blood-and-money-drunk radicalized Republican party’s depraved indifference to the lives of ordinary human beings, particularly people of color, women and the poor?

What about touring?

JAB: I love touring. I love meeting people at readings. I love staying in hotels. I love watching people in airports. I’m so grateful for my publisher, so happy that they’ll send me on a tour.

CL: I don’t like the plane wait, the plane ride, and the plane descent. I do love having a hotel room and getting room service (though on my last tour, I was obsessed with bed bugs, and I kept having to look at every bed until I simply was too tired to bother about that.) I love speaking to large crowds (lunches! Dinners! Organizations!) because it feels exhilarating and I love to talk. I always want to be paired with another writer at bookstores because I worry less that no one will show up, except two people who heard there was going to be cake.

JAB: I showed up at a reading once where there was one guy. Front row. Center. Holding the book.

ES:  I know that guy! The guy in the tinfoil hat!  I am always so grateful for his presence. Sometimes it’s just him, the bookstore owner, and whomever they could rustle up in the bar next door. If it’s cold maybe we get a couple of guys who were just standing around a trash can warming their hands. Books can throw some serious heat.

I had a panic attack on my first tour. I ordered room service—roast chicken and a bottle of Evian—and the bill was something like $50. I flipped. I called my husband, literally hyperventilating, and gasped, “I ordered a $50 chicken… I am in so much trouble…”  I thought I should return it, or at least the ten-dollar bottle of water, it seemed reckless and like I might be taking advantage of the company’s largesse. He talked me out of it. Can you imagine?

CL:  I love speaking to readers. I worship indie bookstores and book clubs. The only thing that bugs me is if people get my name totally wrong (okay, this happened only once, but I was introduced as Mrs. Harriet Lev. COME ON!)

JAB: Is there a writer named Harriet Lev?

ES: I agree with what Caroline said. Indie bookstores are the lifeblood of book culture. The people who work in those stores—no, who work in those temples—the folks who hand sell books, they may be our last best hope of saving the culture from the nincompoopery of the mass industrial entertainment complex.

JAB: Agreed. Hooray for indie bookstores! Down with nincompoopery!


Jane Delury’s stories have appeared in publications including Narrative, Glimmer Train, The Yale Review and the PEN/O. Henry Prize Stories. She’s an associate professor of writing and literature at the University of Baltimore.

Jessica Anya Blau’s latest novel, The Trouble with Lexie, is out June 28th, 2016.  Her previous books are The Wonder Bread Summer, Drinking Closer to Home, and the national bestseller The Summer of Naked Swim Parties. Recently, Jessica ghost-wrote a memoir that is coming out with HarperColllins in the fall of 2016. Jessica grew up in Southern California and currently lives in Baltimore, Maryland. You can learn more about Jessica’s new book and all things JAB at www.jessicaanyablau.com.

Caroline Leavitt is the New York Times bestselling author (she wants to tattoo that on her forehead because she still fears it was a mistake) of Is This Tomorrow and Pictures of You–and 8 other novels. Her new novel Cruel Beautiful World will be out October 4th and she begs everyone to please buy it, read it, and spread the word—and if you want to be her best friend, she also insists that everyone buy and read the work of Jessica Anya Blau, Elissa Schappell and Jane Delury. More fun facts at www.carolineleavitt.com

Elissa Schappell is the author of Blueprints for Building Better Girls and Use Me. She is the former Hot Type book columnist at Vanity Fair, a former senior editor of The Paris Review, and co-founder and now editor-at-large of Tin House magazine. She lives in Brooklyn with her family.

 

A chat with Rachel Cantor about the writing of GOOD ON PAPER

rachel-cantor-2015-bennett-beckenstein  Good on Paper

Rachel Cantor has been writing stories with her distinctively smart-and-witty voice for several years. They have been published in Paris Review, One Story, Ninth Letter, Kenyon Review, New England Review, Fence, and Volume 1 Brooklyn and have been anthologized, nominated for three Pushcart Prizes, and short-listed by both the O. Henry Awards and Best American Short Stories. But she really burst onto the literary scene with her 2014 debut novel,  A Highly Unlikely Scenario, or a Neetsa Pizza Employee’s Guide to Saving the World (Melville House). Cantor has lived and “worked everywhere from Azerbaijan to Zimbabwe (most recently in Nigeria, Senegal, and Laos).” Noteworthy stops included Rome, Melbourne, France, India, and Pakistan. She currently lives “in the writerly borough of Brooklyn but have at various points made my home in most U.S. states between Virginia and Vermont.”

Last week marked the publication of her second novel, Good on Paper, which is receiving rave reviews from mainstream media and bookish publications alike. I spoke to Rachel briefly on January 31.


You balance a compelling drama with wickedly sharp humor and manage to keep it from becoming gimmicky or jokey. The latter leavens the former, as in the best comic relief in fiction of ideas. Where does your skill in doing this come from? Your peripatetic life experiences, your ethnic-religious culture, your muse, strong coffee?

I tend to write voice-driven fiction, and the voice you describe—both serious and comic—is what comes naturally to me, especially (though not only) when writing in the first person. That voice is integral to who I am—part of my personality, even—rather than a skill, per se (though hopefully I also do it well!). So it would be hard to say where it comes from—genetics? stories heard in infancy? experiences on the road? I can say for certain that it’s not coffee, because I don’t drink the stuff (but I wouldn’t want to count out tea!).

Shira’s work on the translation of a Nobel Prize winner’s poem seems like a metaphor that mirrors her efforts to organize and make sense of her complicated personal life. How did the idea of having your protagonist struggle with an Italian poet’s new version of a work by Dante come to you? 

I wrote many stories about Shira before I wrote Good on Paper, so her work as a translator predates the novel. Even if it didn’t, it makes sense that Shira, a one-time expatriate and ex-academic with literary interests, would find herself involved in translation. Also, I really enjoy writing (and reading!) books about work; I’m interested in how a character involves herself in endeavors outside herself and her family. When I decided that a translation project would drive the narrative of this novel, it wasn’t hard to focus on Dante: any Italian poet concerned with his place in the literary canon (as the poet in this book is) would, I assume, want to “take on” Dante. The fact that the poet was interested in Vita Nuova rather than The Divine Comedy makes sense given that he wants to tell a love story, not (merely) a tale of spiritual redemption.

I love the idea of people creating their own families, as Shira and Ahmad do, even though he’s gay and they’re not romantically involved. Together, they provide Andi with stable “parents.” What appealed to you about this subplot?

Again, these characters and interrelationships and fault lines predated Good on Paper, so I didn’t have to create them for this novel. Ahmad already was Andi’s de facto father, they already lived together in Ahmad’s Manhattan apartment. The question instead was: how will the conflicts Shira has historically experienced, both within herself and with others, play themselves out in this book? How can Good on Paper push Shira to her emotional, intellectual, and even spiritual limits? This involved pressuring her relationships, including those with her daughter and best friend Ahmad. Though truth be told, I think their shared Upper West Side apartment, with its many rooms and lovely location, was the product of New York City real-estate wish fulfillment!

Good on Paper is a novel about the power of stories to change lives. How has the reading and writing of stories changed your life?

It’s hard to say how reading may have changed my life, since I can’t remember a time when I didn’t read stories—they determined who I am. Before that, who knows what I was? I started writing stories at a relatively late age (my mid-30s); certainly that changed everything! When I decided to write, to “become a writer,” that forever changed everything important about me—my lifestyle, how I spent my days, the critical choices I made, what I gave up (material comforts, for example), my goals, the people I hung out with. It gave me the focus that has directed my life ever since. As soon as I made that commitment, my life felt aligned for the first time. I’ve never looked back!

Aline Ohanesian discusses her fictional exploration of the Armenian genocide in ORHAN’S INHERITANCE

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Raffi Hadidian
Raffi Hadidian

Aline Ohanesian is the author of critically acclaimed novel, Orhan’s Inheritance, which was long listed for the Center for Fiction’s First Novel Prize, a Summer 2015 Barnes & Noble “Discover Great New Writers” pick, an April 2014 Indie Next pick, and an Amazon Top 25 pick for 2015. The novel was also a finalist for the PEN Bellwether Award for Socially Engaged Fiction. 

Aline was born in Kuwait and immigrated to Southern California at the age of three. After earning an MA in History, she abandoned her PhD studies to conduct the research that led to her debut novel. She is an alumni of the Bread Loaf and Squaw Valley writers’ conferences. She lives and writes in San Juan Capistrano, California with her husband and two young sons.

The paperback edition of Orhan’s Inheritance will be published by Algonquin Books on January 19.

What led to your fascination with the Armenian genocide? Was it a story that seems to have been passed down with your mother’s milk, as it were? (This is certainly the case with many Jews like myself.)

I had an emotional connection to this history because my grandparents on both sides were survivors. I felt I had to tell this story not only for them but for the 1.5 million who lost their lives. Writing this novel was my way of coping with and exploring trans-generational grief.

What aspect of this cultural history spoke most powerfully to you in terms of storytelling?

I’m always amazed at the resilience of the human spirit. When people suffer the worst of fates and still manage not only to survive but be kind and loving.

Tell me about the research you did for Orhan’s Inheritance.

In some parts of the world, the history in this book is contested, so it was very important to me to be as historically accurate as possible. It took me seven years to write this novel. I’m not exaggerating when I say that I probably read every history book ever written on the subject, including a few books from denialists. I have a masters in History from UCI [University of California at Irvine] and whenever possible I referenced primary sources, things like diaries, letters, ledgers, etc. I also took a trip to the interior of Turkey, where the book takes place, and spent time in a small village where they still burn cow dung for fuel. It was like walking into a time warp. Great for my research.

How long did you work on the book?

It took me seven years to write it and another year to find an agent. She sold it on the first round within a week of signing me.

What is the trick to blending the history and politics of something like the Armenian genocide with a story so that the two are in balance?

I’m not sure I would call it a trick. Writing a book like this, with two time periods and several characters whose story spans eighty years, is like weaving a tapestry. What matters most is the characters and their story. I only included history that impacted my main characters in a direct and personal way.

I love the fact that Orhan is a photographer who has experienced a form of photographer’s block but learns how to see again — but differently — from his encounters with Seda and Ani. It has stayed with me as one of the central “images” of the novel. Can you explain the genesis of this idea and how you wove it into his character development?

I have an affinity toward people who make art in whatever medium. They are my tribe. Making him a photographer reduced the psychic distance between us. I tend to place a high value on people who choose art over everything else in their lives. With Orhan, I got to experience what it felt like to turn one’s back on one’s art. It wasn’t just a block, but a voluntary distancing of himself from his art. I wanted to explore the personal consequences of that, not just to him but to his family and community. Making art is hard, but the alternative can be devastating too, if one has the ability, sight, calling, whatever you want to call it.

I was particularly intrigued by the question that arises late in the book when Orhan is forced to confront the issue of identity. Is he a Turk of the past or the present, or a global citizen of the present and future? How is he supposed to live his life in light of these questions? I imagine that is a question that has been (and is still) faced by Germans and the new generation of Serbians and some Rwandans, etc. How do you view the issue of collective guilt?

It’s so true, and this book was #1 in Serbia I think precisely because that society is still dealing with those questions. As a novelist, I don’t propose any answers to the question of collective guilt. Instead, I ask the question and let my characters answer it for themselves. There have been major shifts in identity formation as a result of our global connectedness, via the internet, speed and ease of travel, etc., but in some ways, the more things change, the more they stay the same. Our world is still suffering from violence born of nationalism, racism and sexism. Collective guilt is different from personal, individual guilt and has to be acknowledged by the nation-state. In the case of Turkey, that state has a deep history of denial and oppression of basic human rights.

I was also moved by Ani’s sentiment that “Remembering is all we have in the face of denial. Silence is the enemy of justice.” What role does fiction have in this “remembering”?

I think great art can also bear witness. Here I’m thinking of the work of Arundhati Roy, Louise Erdrich, Edward P. Jones and others. Those are the writers I admire the most, the ones who can tell you a heart-wrenching story and inadvertently teach you about history and its power structures. There’s a great quote by Toni Morison that goes, “All of that art-for-art’s-sake stuff is BS,” she declares. “What are these people talking about? Are you really telling me that Shakespeare and Aeschylus weren’t writing about kings? All good art is political! There is none that isn’t. And the ones that try hard not to be political are political by saying, ‘We love the status quo.’”

I’m curious about whether Orhan’s Inheritance has been well received by the Jewish community (if you know). I would imagine the concept of “transgenerational grief” would resonate among those who are descendants of the Holocaust, both literally and figuratively. Your description of Armenian loss having existed for generations “like something precious, in every syllable of language taught in Saturday schools, and in the smell of dishes, and in the lament of songs” rings very true for me. It’s universal.

I haven’t heard from any Jewish organizations, but I will say that I have been a student of the Holocaust and its literature, and I feel an affinity toward that community both in my personal life and my professional one.

What do you make of recent research that suggests the trauma of events like genocide can be passed down genetically? (http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/descendants-of-holocaust-survivors-have-altered-stress-hormones/)

My community and I always knew it to be true and I’m glad that science now supports that wisdom.

What was your area of study when you earned your MA in History? What were you working on in your Ph.D. program?

I was studying American history, partly to try to figure out what it means to be an American. My dissertation was on the intersection of citizenship and consumerism in American culture. I had an incredible group of professors and I owe them a tremendous debt of gratitude.

For those who want to learn more about the subject, which books do you recommend, both fiction and nonfiction?

For non-fiction I would recommend Dawn MacKeen’s The Hundred Year Walk, which just came out to raving reviews. It’s a lovely story of her grandfather’s survival and it explains the past but also points to what’s happening now in the Middle East. There are some great novels about the topic. My three favorites are Micheline Marcom’s Three Apples Fell From Heaven, Nancy Kricorian’s Zabelle and Antonia Aslan’s Skylark Farm. There are dozens more including one from Chris Bohjalian called Sandcastle Girls.

What has been the highlight of being a debut novelist? Being an Indie Next pick, an Amazon Top 25 of 2015 book, a Barnes & Noble “Discover Great New Writers” pick, the Center for Fiction first novel nomination?

One highlight is receiving letters and emails from readers who’ve been impacted by the novel. I never imagined the lovely things people would say about my words. It is a surreal and wonderful experience and it’s been happening at least once a week since the book came out last April. I’m incredibly grateful for the reception the book has had, but to be honest, the very best part of this journey has been and remains the hours I spend writing. That is my prayer, my religion and my privilege. It’s not always easy but it’s always rewarding. (Even on bad days when I want to throw my laptop into a ditch, I’m still grateful I get to write. To try.)

What are you working on now?

It’s a secret. No, just kidding. I am working on two things at once. I have no idea which of the two will take fire, but it’s exciting. I don’t want to repeat myself, so I’m stepping way outside my comfort zone. I don’t know how readers will react, but I’ll worry about that after I’ve finished writing.

How has social media changed the landscape for writers, especially those early in their career?

Social media is a great way to create community and converse with other writers and readers. It’s only a problem if it gets in the way of your writing. I’m sure some people can tweet and work on their novels at the same time, but I’m not one of them. I have to limit social media so I don’t have any of those apps on my phone or my laptop. I have them on an iPad that I use in my leisure time. Like a lot of other things, it can be a double-edged sword.

Which writers have had the greatest influence on you as a reader and a writer? What have you read recently that has impressed you?

I mentioned some of them earlier. I re-read one of the Russians at least once a year. Having said that, I’m always reading so I’m always discovering new favorites. I’m on a Lidia Yuknavitch kick lately. I loved The Small Backs of Children. And Josh Weil’s The Great Glass Sea blew me away. Atticus Lish’s Preparation for the Next Life and Smith Henderson’s Fourth of July Creek. I could go on and on.

Are there any books you especially like that you think have been unfairly overlooked?

Oh, so many. I don’t understand why some books get the attention they do, while others are ignored. I do believe there’s a benefit to living in Brooklyn and/or having an MFA. Like in any business, connections matter when it comes to coverage and who gets reviewed, etc. I do think gatekeepers like agents and editors are important. But the writer can’t worry about anything beyond the page. I worry about the words and let the rest take care of itself, or not.

Do you have any recommendations for standout fiction by women for the passionate readers of this blog?

Many of the writers I’ve mentioned here are women and women of color. Lucia Berlin’s A Manual for Cleaning Women is an excellent short story collection. I love Susan Straight both as a person and a writer. I thought the structure of Naomi Williams’s Landfalls was very interesting. Again, I can go on for pages.

 

Lost and Found: A Conversation with Janina Matthewson about OF THINGS GONE ASTRAY

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One of the most gratifying aspects of being a passionate reader (and a blogger) is when a book arrives with no fanfare and proceeds to utterly captivate you and carve out a special place for itself among your favorite books. Such is the case with Janina Matthewson’s wonderfully surreal and bittersweet debut novel, Of Things Gone Astray, which was published by The Friday Project (HarperCollins) in the UK in August 2014 and in the U.S. this past January. Novelist Simon Van Booy liked it, too. “Of Things Gone Astray is a brilliant novel that redefines the boundaries of where our lives begin and where they end.” [You can read my review of February 18, 2015 here.]

Matthewson has quite a varied background for someone so young. She studied theater, English, history, and linguistics and trained as an actress; she published a novella, The Understanding of Women, in October 2012; and her play, Human and If, had its first reading in July 2012. Originally from Christchurch, New Zealand, she has been living and working in London for the past few years (and trying to get used to being cold at Christmas). She was kind enough to speak to me about her novel over Easter weekend.

What inspired you to write about people who discover “things gone astray” in their world?

I initially was going to write about people who had something taken away, but that disappeared when I was brainstorming the characters. I don’t know specifically what inspired it, but I did start working on it about a year after I moved to London so it’s possible loss was just on my mind.

What informed your decision regarding how many characters (and narratives) to use? Were you ever concerned that there might be too many, that the plot might become confusing?

I think I just brainstormed characters. Actually, I thought more about things you could lose – until the list felt complete. I didn’t have  a set number in mind, and when I had the six, they stayed. I guess I always assumed that if I could keep track of them all while I was writing — given how messy that process was — it wouldn’t be too complicated for the reader. And I think if it had been, that would have been one of my first notes from my editor.

Was it always your plan to use a third-person narrative, or did you consider/try first-person point of view? Third-person has obvious advantages in a novel of this type, but I think it would be interesting to read each character’s internal monologue, too.

I’m not a huge fan of first person, to be honest. There’s too much temptation to explain every feeling the characters are having, and I like leaving things open to interpretation. I’d only ever use it if it was to serve a real purpose — for example, in Gone Girl, which I loved, it’s really important that the reader doesn’t trust what they’re being told, and first person narration is a great way to do that, because ever word is written with an agenda. Or The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, which is one of the greatest detective novels ever written, because of its use of it. When it’s not used to that kind of effect, it always makes me feel like I’m being pushed too hard to care about the protagonist.

Do you view one character and his/her story as the central strand of the plot?

I guess Jake is for me, because he serves as a contrast. Because he thinks he has nothing left to lose, and is the one who actually stands to lose the most.

How did your background in theater come into play when writing the book? Did you conceive of the story as a play and then decide it was better suited to a novel, or was the novel form always the plan? Are there any plans to adapt Of Things Gone Astray for stage or screen? I could see it working beautifully in both forms.

This was always a novel. I write scripts too, but I find that some stories just naturally fit into a certain medium, and when I try to write them outside it, they don’t work. I think having a background in theatre makes me more inclined to think about characters — I’m used to analysing character motivations. There aren’t any plans for an adaptation but I would love to see how someone would do that.

How long did you work on the book? What was your writing process? (Was it a structured, daily task as part of a workaday life, or did you write it in an intense period of activity, or something else entirely?)

It took around a year and a half in total, I think, and I had to work it around a rather chaotic working life, part of which was working at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, sometimes until 3 in the morning.

How much of the novel was outlined or otherwise planned, and how much came about as you wrote it? Did you have all the characters’ eventual connections plotted out before you began writing or did they grow toward each other organically?

I had ideas of structure, many of which changed as I wrote. I always knew they would cross paths. Some of them took a few tries to get right.

I was especially intrigued by the story of Cassie refusing to leave the Arrivals terminal and eventually putting down roots there. Can you explain the genesis of Cassie’s story?

I was actually waiting for a friend at the airport — I was early, because I panic about that sort of thing. It’s a pretty prosaic genesis really!

I also liked the use of two types of narrative you utilized for young Jake’s story. The flashbacks to the earthquake in New Zealand are in present tense, which provides immediacy, and in a narrowly focused third-person, which makes his experiences all the more sympathetic. And in his sections the text itself is right-justified, so it is physically off-kilter on the page. Can you talk about these interesting authorial decisions?

They were both there right from the beginning — actually in the very beginning Cassie was present tense as well. But I always knew I had to have some way of distinguishing the memories from life, and I was lucky enough to stumble upon an effective way early on.

Of Things Gone Astray is both haunting (from the characters’ palpable sense of loss and confusion) and hopeful (as they find their sense of direction, encounter others who provide a new perspective/coping strategy, and move through the grieving process). That seems like the book’s greatest accomplishment. How did you manage to strike that delicate balance? I could easily see the story itself going astray.

That is such a lovely thing to hear and, to be honest, I don’t have an answer. In the end you just have to trust your instincts — and the instincts of your editor — and hope that it strikes the right chord in the reader. I have quite a low tolerance for mawkishness and sentimentality, so I guess that probably helps me balance out the loss with things that are a bit more light-hearted.

As a New Zealander living in London, do you get homesick? Or are there so many fellow Kiwis there that it eliminates much of one’s desire to get on a plane and fly halfway around the world to get home? What do you miss about New Zealand?

I get frustrated that I can’t see people whenever I want. When someone I love does something exciting and I can’t just go over and celebrate with them. I don’t see a huge amount of Kiwis in London really — just a couple of friends who’ve also moved over — but I kind of like that. Because what’s the point of moving so far just to be surrounded by people from home? I do miss being near the sea, and I miss living somewhere where it’s not stressful to just leave your house. London takes a lot of energy — I think I’m more relaxed in New Zealand. So I miss that.

2013 Flannery O’Connor Award winner Karin Lin-Greenberg on her FAULTY PREDICTIONS

KLG Faulty Predictions

Karin Lin-Greenberg has made a splash on the literary scene with her debut story collection, Faulty Predictions. As one of two winners of the 2013 Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction (along with Monica McFawn), Lin-Greenberg received a publishing deal with University of Georgia Press, which sponsors the award, for the collection of stories she submitted for the contest. Reading Faulty Predictions, one sees very quickly why Lin-Greenberg was selected for the award: she has command of the story form, great empathy for her quirky and very human characters, and a droll sense of humor that adds an inspired light touch to her tales of family conflict, identity, and coping with a rapidly changing world. I expect to hear much more from Karin Lin-Greenberg after this stellar debut. (My review of September 26 is here.)

Tell me about the Flannery O’Connor Award application and selection process and how it led to the publication of this collection.

The Flannery O’Connor Award is sponsored by the University of Georgia Press and each year two winners are selected and their books are published the next year. All the collections submitted are first sent to four or five preliminary judges, who each read their batch and then pass on a certain number (I believe about ten manuscripts) to the series editor, Nancy Zafris. Then Nancy chooses two collections from the collections given to her by the preliminary judges. Once my collection was chosen, I worked with Nancy on revisions to the stories and then worked with a copy editor on smaller issues. Finally, I was able to give some input into the cover and design.

I love the wide range of characters in your stories: high school students (“Editorial Decisions” and “Half and Half Club”), college professors (“The Local Scrooge”), two Chinese immigrant women engaged in a power struggle (“Prized Possessions”), a bus driver coping with drunk and disorderly college students on Halloween (“Designated Driver”), an emotionally distant brother reluctantly helping his sister find a bridal gown during the annual Running of the Brides sale at Filene’s Basement (“A Good Brother”), a pair of senior citizen housemates on a crime-stopping mission inspired by one’s psychic messages (“Faulty Predictions”). What inspires or comes to you first in your stories, an idea about a particular character, a specific conflict, or a theme you want to explore?

Each story happens differently for me, but one element I never start with is theme. I believe themes emerge, especially in revisions, but I think it’s dangerous to start out a story intending to write about a certain theme. I tell my students to let the literature folks think about theme and for the creative writers to worry about telling a compelling story.

Sometimes I start with conflict. For example, for “A Good Brother,” I was reading an article about the Running of the Brides, and I thought, “Who would be really pissed off by this?” And then I came up with the character of an uptight brother that has to take his sister shopping for wedding dresses. And not only does he have to go shopping for wedding dresses, but he has to be in the middle of all this chaos and has to miss a golf outing for this event. Once I came up with the protagonist who’d be disturbed by this event, the conflicts kept unfolding.

I asked the same “Who would this really piss off?” question when I wrote “The Local Scrooge.” For three years I lived in Ohio and would sometimes go to an ice cream place called Jeni’s in Columbus. They have this menu in brightly colored chalk on huge chalkboards with all of these unique ice cream flavors (like goat cheese with fig and wildberry lavender) that I found exciting, but I started to think about a type of character who would find these kinds of flavors exasperating. Then I started thinking about what else would bother this character, and I realized that complicated drinks in coffee shops would drive him crazy. And then, thinking about coffee shops and ice cream shops, I knew that this character would abhor tip jars, and I started to ponder what sort of character could be so enraged about tip jars that he’d—very inappropriately—bring one to his job. I came up with a college professor demanding tips from his students. So one thing just kind of leads to another oftentimes as stories unfold for me, but stories can really start anywhere or with any sort of spark.

You have so much empathy for these wonderfully eccentric and very human characters. How do you get inside these people and decide how to present their flawed attempts to fix themselves, others, and/or the circumstances they find themselves in?

I think fiction can really teach us—as both readers and writers—empathy. I’m most interested in characters who are flawed and might make bad decisions, but whose motivations we understand. I love being able to inhabit characters’ minds, which is why I generally stay away from the objective point of view. I think the big question I ask when writing is “Why is this character this way?” For example, the grandmother in “Prized Possessions” is judgmental and critical, but ultimately, as her backstory is revealed, I hope readers come to understand that she just wants to be appreciated by her family and to have an important role in the lives of her grandchildren.

How did you choose the title story? Is it the central story thematically, your favorite story, or just a good umbrella label for the collection? (“Prized Possessions” and “Half and Half Club” also seem like they would have been appropriate titles.)

I looked at the list of all the titles of the stories in the collection, and there were some that could just be crossed out as the title of the entire collection because of either their vagueness or specificity (“Bread,” “Miller Duskman’s Mistakes,” “Late Night With Brad Mack”). I contemplated the titles that were left and decided that “Faulty Predictions” applied to all the stories. I think all the characters believe their lives or relationships are going to progress in a certain way, and something happens in each of the stories to contradict these “predictions.”

I noticed in the Acknowledgements that three stories (“Late Night with Brad Mack,” “Half and Half Club,” and the title story) have not been previously published. Are these your most recent stories? If so, do they reflect any particular/current preoccupations and/or approach?

Yes, those were three most recently written stories. I tried to get them published before the book went to press, but I just wasn’t able to with the time constraint. I wrote all three of the stories when I was teaching during the 2011-2012 academic year at Appalachian State University in Boone, North Carolina. Boone is a fairly isolated town in the mountains of western North Carolina.

The second semester I was at App State, the poet Toi Derricotte visited and gave a reading, and she read a poem based on an experience she’d had as a young woman on a train. There was a character in the poem who didn’t realize that Derricotte was black and made a disparaging comment to her about another black passenger on the train. She spoke about how some people are in the position of always being aware of race, while others don’t ever think about race at all or believe they can be flippant about it.

After she read the poem, Derricotte asked the audience how many people thought about race on a daily basis. She asked for a show of hands. About three or four people in a room of maybe sixty students raised their hands. The raised hands belonged to the few students of color that were in attendance. I realized then that I’d been thinking about race a lot more in Boone than I ever had before.

Boone was probably the least racially diverse place I’ve ever lived. I’ve lived in some small towns and places that weren’t very diverse, but I’ve worked at colleges and universities that were able to draw somewhat diverse faculty and students. But the faculty, students, and non-university people who lived in and around Boone were almost all white.

I’m half Chinese and half Jewish and I’m pretty sure there was no one else in Boone like me. So I set “Faulty Predictions” in Boone and created a character who hasn’t known anything but this fairly homogenous town. She has a granddaughter who’s mixed race, and she wants to connect with this girl but can’t allow herself to. This woman is clearly a racist, but I also wanted to show that she is a product of her environment and living in an isolated place and not being exposed to people unlike her has, in a way, ruined her.

I wrote “Half and Half Club” right after I wrote “Faulty Predictions,” and that story is also concerned with race, once again in an environment where there isn’t much diversity. So, yes, I definitely see connections between these two stories. “Half and Half Club” is also one of the longest stories I’ve ever written, and I think I was writing toward a novel; lately I’ve been wanting to tell larger tales than a short story can contain.

How did you and your editor decide which of your stories to include in Faulty Predictions? I see from your website’s list of stories that you have many others.

The stories in the collection are the stories I’d submitted originally. Nothing was swapped out. Nancy Zafris and I worked on the order a bit. The first and last stories stayed where they were, but we shuffled everything else around, trying to make sure stories that were similar (in terms of characters or point of view or types of endings) weren’t right next to each other.

Before I submitted the collection, I did a lot of thinking about what stories to include because, as you mentioned, I do have other stories. When I first started submitting to prizes for story collections in 2006 when I graduated from my MFA program, I included every story I’d written that had ever been published. I thought that publication was a stamp of approval and meant the story needed to go in a collection. But over the years I’ve thought a lot more about how collections work, and I’ve also realized that because my stories are set in many different places and have a lot of different types of characters, they need something to hold them together. I tried to choose stories that have a similar sensibility to include. I think these stories are alike in terms of voice and tone, and they all have (I hope!) something funny in them.

 How do you find time to write while working full time as a professor at Siena College?

I certainly write more during the summer and other breaks from teaching than I do during the school year. I do, however, get inspired to write when my students are excited about a topic we’re discussing in class. For example, last semester I taught a class on experimental fiction and we read several stories that were written so they progressed backwards chronologically. Several of the students in the class tried to write their own stories whose chronologies worked this way, and I so appreciated the way they grappled with the form and its challenges. It made me want to go home and try my hand at the same technique.

 What books have you particularly enjoyed recently that you recommend?

A book I read recently and loved was Tell the Wolves I’m Home by Carol Rifka Brunt. Brunt does such a great job of creating a teenage character who feels realistic and vulnerable and true. And the ending of the book is a real knockout. I don’t want to give anything away, but that book had the most emotionally affecting ending I can remember reading in a long time.

I also recently read Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng, which I actually tracked down because of your glowing review on this site. That book and the characters have stuck with me, and I keep thinking about the incredibly effective way Ng employed omniscient point of view to allow readers to know and understand the secrets the characters keep from each other. It’s not a point of view I’ve ever been able to use successfully, so I’d like to go back and reread and really examine how Ng accomplishes what she does.

Right now I’m reading and thoroughly enjoying Dear Committee Members by Julie Schumacher. It’s an epistolary novel, entirely in the form of letters of recommendation written by a professor of English and creative writing. It’s hilarious because it does such a good job of depicting some of the particularly ridiculous aspects of academic life.