A Conversation with Dylan Landis: Rainey Royal “comes from my own lifelong fascination with mean girls”

Dylan_Landis

Interview by Ellie Gaines

Special Contributor to Read Her Like an Open Book 

 

During the last semester of my senior year in high school, I did an internship with the novelist Jessica Anya Blau. I was beyond excited when I saw that on the long to-do list that Jessica made for me was a request that I read two galleys (Dylan Landis’s Rainey Royal and Katie Crouch’s Abroad) and interview the authors. Reading a book that wasn’t out yet seemed a lot more exciting than organizing bookshelves (that was also on the list!), and to be honest, it made me feel pretty special. And getting the opportunity to interview these writers truly thrilled me.

From the opening pages of Rainey Royal I fell in love with Landis’s prose. When I finished the book, I went to Jessica’s bookshelves and borrowed Landis’s debut novel-in-stories, Normal People Don’t Live Like This. Over the next two days, I devoured the stories every chance I got. Here’s the conversation I had with Dylan Landis.

 

In your first book, Normal People Don’t Live Like This, we see the characters Rainey and Leah. What made you decide to continue on with these characters in Rainey Royal, and make a whole book dedicated to Rainey? Where did you get the original idea for this character?

               Rainey was one of the most compelling characters in Normal People Don’t Live Like This—a school bully, a radiantly sexual girl with serious troubles at home. But after the first two stories she vanished, because I was focusing on Leah, who had troubles of her own, and also because this was my first book of fiction and I didn’t know much about structure. My mentor and teacher, the novelist Jim Krusoe, suggested I add another Rainey story, but I was impatient to have a book out and thought my manuscript was finished. That unwritten story left a little hole in the book that readers often pointed out—”What happened to Rainey?”

And that became the opening for the new book, Rainey Royal. The fact is that I missed her and she never stopped talking to me. She comes from my own lifelong fascination with mean girls. I grew up not just wanting to hide from these girls; I wanted simultaneously to be them. They seemed so beautiful and fearless and free; they seemed to have some knowledge about the world and its mysteries, which I took to mean sex. I wanted to stand near them, just out of their sight. I wanted to absorb something magical from them. Later on I became a bit wild like them, but I never became the real thing. I write about them instead.

Normal People Don’t Live Like This is composed of connected short stories while Rainey Royal is more novelistic in that each story centers around Rainey, and we move forward in time. Why did you choose to do it one way or another?

All I knew, moving from story to story in Normal People, was that Leah would get older. She grows from twelve to twenty-two. I circled her life, pausing to write about a conflict here, a problem there. That circling and pausing is what makes it more of a linked story collection, though because she matures it’s possible to see it as a novel-in-stories.

Writing a novel, or something closer to a novel, felt like a natural next step, a more fluid way to tell a story that took place over fourteen years.. I tried to stay conscious of a narrative arc, aware of specific problems that had to persist and either blow up or resolve as the book progressed. The novelist Benjamin Percy calls these problems “flaming chainsaws.” They have to keep recurring, and they have to move forward each time. So a chapter may stand on its own and may be published as a short story—I was thrilled when the story “Trust” won an O. Henry Award—but if the flaming chainsaws are juggled well through the entire book, you should end up with something that has the weight and the arc of a novel.

In Normal People Don’t Live Like This we see a few short stories that revolve around Leah and her mom. The fact that Leah’s mom is anorexic adds an interesting tension to Leah’s relationship with her mom. Why did you decide to have Leah’s mom be anorexic? Did you want to relate her lack of food to the lack of connection she has with her daughter? A starvation in two senses?

That link between anorexia and emotional starvation came straight from the basement, the writer’s subconscious. So it wasn’t a decision but rather a discovery that Helen was anorexic—though that word wasn’t so much in use in the 1970s. We just called it dieting. You put your finger on it exactly, though: a starvation in two senses. I didn’t think about it while I wrote, but in revision I saw the starvation as being Helen’s lack of connection, not just to Leah, whom she genuinely loves, but to her own self. It always intrigued me that when Helen first gets sensually involved with a man, she takes a bite of food from a spoon he holds.

Rainey Royal begins with Rainey making connections between Saint Catherine of Bologna and herself. When you started writing did you know that Saint Catherine would be woven throughout the book? Or did you write about Rainey and then discover their similarities? Why did you believe it was important for Rainey to relate to such an unusual character like a saint from the times of Columbus and Queen Isabella?

I had a moment of inspiration, while making notes for the first story, that Rainey—who loves libraries—would look up the patron saint for artists. And of course she’d make the connection personal, and call her Cath. To Rainey, Cath is not some ancient, inaccessible religious figure; she is a chick just like herself, a girl who can draw like crazy, and whose mother is out of the picture, and who must have problems with grown men, because don’t all teenage girls have problems with men? If you’re Rainey, isn’t that part of the territory? I knew right away, reading Saint Catherine of Bologna’s bio, that she would make a great sister-protector for Rainey, who desperately needs one.

In Rainey Royal we follow Rainey from the age of fourteen until she is in her mid-twenties. Is there something important about those years particularly in a girl’s life? Is there something important about a girl’s relationship with her father in those years?

Those are the coming-of-age years; they’re packed with emotional growth and pain. My memories of those years are the most vivid I have, more vivid than yesterday’s. So it’s good, rich earth to turn over and pick through when I’m looking for psychological material. And I think by the time a girl is fourteen or fifteen her father has taught her, by example or by neglect, how she should be with men, and how they should be with her. If that’s a lesson she has to unlearn, as Rainey does, she’s going to have a struggle on her hands.

Tina is Rainey’s best friend and is very protective of her. She also does the one thing that scares Rainey the most, when she develops a relationship with Howard. Can you explain the love/hate dynamic between the two girls? Do you think all female friendships are double sided?

Adult female friendships can be utterly devoted in the most straightforward way, but in adolescence I remember them as passionate and sometimes two-hearted. There’s a moment where Tina thinks about how she and Rainey are so close, “she doesn’t get why God made them both girls,” and a contrasting moment where Rainey thinks about how, with Tina, she “always has to mention the one thing that hurts; it’s like nudging a loose tooth.” Those are the two hearts, the urge to push away and the urge to fuse. It’s not always that complicated, but as a writer I’d rather explore both aspects of female friendship.

Both of your books are centered around the 1970s.  Why did you choose this time? Do you think your stories would be different if you set them in modern day times?

               The era chose me. I was writing about teenagers, and that was the time of my adolescence, the decade when emotional memory, and memory of visual and auditory detail, were strongest. If the stories were set now I’d be consulting the internet and my friends’ teenage children for details and veracity, and it’s possible things might not feel as true.

a

Advertisements

Carrie La Seur on The Home Place: “I wanted to tell a good story, one that the people I’m writing about would appreciate”

Carrie La Seur  The Home Place ad

In a year distinguished by outstanding debut novels, Carrie La Seur has written one that stakes its own claim to the distinctive territory known as the literary suspense novel. I was pulled in on the first page of The Home Place and the story had me riveted until the last page. I was equally impressed by the quality of the writing and the multi-layered plot. There is a great deal going on in The Home Place but it never feels overloaded or heavy-handed. The many characters and conflicts, the murder mystery, the love story, and the threat posed by coal mining to the ranchers’ way of life in southeastern Montana are all handled so expertly that one would never suspect that this is La Seur’s first novel. And she wrote it while working full time as an attorney and raising children. You can read my review here

***

You have such an interesting and impressive background. Educated at Bryn Mawr and Yale Law School, Rhodes Scholar at Oxford, public interest lawyer, and now author. Having grown up in Billings, what made you decide to head east to a small, private liberal arts school? Did you experience culture shock moving from Montana to Philadelphia, or had you been yearning for city life for so long that you adapted easily? Did you plan to become a lawyer while at Bryn Mawr or did that come later?

I got good scholarship support to go to Bryn Mawr, but it was a huge culture shock for me. I went there because I wanted to see the world. We could barely afford it. I typed all my papers in the computer center, worked in the dining halls, walked dogs, etc. By the time I graduated, I had an idea that I’d like to be a lawyer, because I wanted to have the tools to represent people I had grown up with who had never gotten a fair shake.

When did you start writing? Was it always a part of your life or is it a more recent development?

Writing has always been my primary form of self-expression. I kept journals for many years and still dip into one now and then. When I was a kid, I’d write plays and have my friends and little brother act them out. I’ve tried a few writing classes, but they always took the joy out of it. The moment writing ceases to be a joy, I get up and walk away. Without that, there’s no point.

Which writers have had the greatest influence on you, both as a writer and as a reader? (I always assume they’re not necessarily the same, as one can love some writers but not be inspired to write like them.)

This book began as a little project I gave myself to tell something like the homecoming story Anne Tyler told in her first novel, If Morning Ever Comes, but for myself, with characters and problems that interested me. But I’ve never thought in terms of wanting to write like someone. Every word is derivative in some way, but you’ve got to mean it as your own or why write it?

I’m a terrible reader of novels. I’m hypercritical. I keep looking for that childhood experience of being so swept away in a book that I can’t bear for it to end and I want to read it over and over, like I did with C.S. Lewis or L.M. Montgomery or L’Engle or Tolkien. Something about Doris Lessing satisfies me lately, although I couldn’t say exactly what. It has to do with puzzling out big questions in a very engaging way. I love biography, history, and histories of ideas. Agrarians have been blowing my mind lately. I could read Wendell Berry, Wes Jackson, Michael Pollen, or farm memoirists like Kristin Kimball all day and night. It’s probably consistent that Barbara Kingsolver’s Prodigal Summer made me very happy. I like to read about people having complex, long-term interactions with places, delving into seasons and soil. And then Neil Stephenson and William Gibson and Arthur C. Clarke because my husband said they were geniuses and made me read them, and he was right. Tomorrow I will change my mind about all of this.

Obviously, there are some similarities between Alma Terrebonne and you, in terms of where she was raised and educated and her career choice. How did you decide which autobiographical aspects to use in The Home Place? Did you start out writing a memoir and it turned into a novel because it gave you more freedom and allowed you to include more than your personal experiences? A few authors have told me this is how their novel began (e.g., Brittani Sonnenberg with Home Leave).

There are settings and characters that are very familiar to me, and of course themes that I wanted to explore, but the story really isn’t very autobiographical. It was certainly never a memoir. If anything, I used details from my own life to emphasize the fact that my fictional characters aren’t as improbable as they might seem.

The Home Place is a character study and the story of a family dealing with a tragedy amid a web of complex relationship dynamics. The writing is often lyrical and there is a palpable sense of place. These are all characteristics of literary fiction. Yet it is a murder mystery set against the rural drug culture and complicated by the environmental issues posed by Big Coal trying to expand mining in Montana. What were the challenges of writing a “literary thriller”? How did the plot evolve?

Alma needed a compelling reason to come home, and something to keep her in Montana long enough to deal with what she left behind. That required an urgent event right away. Once I decided what that event was, much of the rest fell into place – as much as you can say that about a novel that easily went through a dozen rewrites. Mostly I wanted to tell a good story, one that the people I’m writing about would appreciate.

Do you view The Home Place as a sort of “belated coming-of-age” story? I’ve read several novels in the last few years in which characters who have been away from home for a long time feel the pull of “home” (both family and place) and experience a transformation in acknowledging this connection.

There are definitely elements of the bildungsroman here, especially considering how long it took me to write it.

As you wrote The Home Place, did you picture certain actors playing each role? Or when it was finished and existed outside of you? It’s a very cinematic read, and I found myself doing that as I read. Are there any plans for a movie?

To tell you the truth, I didn’t think about that until you asked. I wasn’t picturing famous faces.

It’s probably not the greatest commercial choice, but if they left it up to me I’d go for Noomi Rapace – who played Lisbeth Salander in the Swedish version of the Girl With the Dragon Tattoo movies – for Alma. She kicked ass, and Alma has more than a little fight in her to get where she is. The accent might be a challenge, so then Rooney Mara.

For Ray, I love Evan Adams, but he might be a little old for the role. For Vicky, Taryn Manning, “Pennsatucky” from Orange Is the New Black. Maddie: Betty White. Helen: Someone like Debbie Reynolds or even Sally Field. Pete: Channing Tatum, all the way. Walt is Woody Harrelson or Nick Nolte in hairy, crazy mode. Chance: Nobody too pretty. I never said he was handsome. Someone like a young Hugh Laurie.

No movie deal yet.

What is your writing routine? Do you write in a particular place? What five things do you need in order to write?

I write whenever I get a chance. Much of The Home Place was written on the couch after the kids went to bed. The only 5 things I need are 5 minutes of peace and quiet, and sometimes that’s all I get.

What has surprised you about the process of writing and publishing your first novel, both good and bad?

It’s all surprised me. I knew nothing. I was stunned to find an agent and ecstatic to sell my book. The whole thing is still hard to believe.

Fun Questions

If I were a car, I would be… a bicycle. A really fast one.

If I were a city, I would be… Melbourne, Australia.

If I were a pet, I would be… a horse.

If I were a product from the Home Shopping Channel, I would be… ? (I don’t have cable.)

If I were a TV show, I would be… Firefly.

If I were sushi, I would be… unagi.

If I were a movie, I would be… The Thomas Crowne Affair.

If I were a fairy tale character, I would be… the witch.

If I were a Disney character, I would be… Quasimodo.

If I were an actor, I would be… broke.

If I were a sound, I would be… the song of the western meadowlark.

If I were a beverage, I would be… Laphroaig.

If I were a year, I would be… next year.

Dog or cat person? Dog.

Beatles or Stones? Stones.

Dylan or Springsteen? Springsteen.

Half-full or half-empty? Leaving glasses of water sitting around is just asking for trouble.

Lisa Gornick: “I am a great admirer of old-fashioned sprawling novels.”

lisa_gornick   Tinderbox

 

Lisa Gornick’s Tinderbox is a powerfully written exploration of one family in a state of crisis. Her training and experience as a psychologist and psychoanalyst shows through in the richness and realism of her characterizations. The novel also benefits from a compelling multi-level plot and an intriguing structure. You can read my recent review here.

Can you tell me about your background as a writer (e.g., when you started, your education, writing experiences, etc.)?  What led you from psychology and psychoanalysis to fiction?

I actually started as a writer, and then became a psychologist and ultimately a psychoanalyst.  Like most writers, I was first a passionate reader — one of those nose-in-a-book kids.  By high school, I’d begun my own scribbling: poems that in my twenties morphed into stories.  Becoming a therapist and ultimately a psychoanalyst was an organic outgrowth of my love of language and character-driven novels.  Over the years, I’ve written about Freud’s relationship with creative writing and creative writers and the links between “novelizing” and “analyzing,” including the connection between free association and the literary imagination, pulse points in fiction and a treatment, and the centrality in both endeavors of the story behind the story.

I would imagine that this background would come in handy in creating complex, realistic characters. The characters in Tinderbox all had some kind of quirk or burden, all of which seemed realistic to me. People are full of contradictions, complexities, character “flaws” and secrets. Do you get a lot of ideas from your therapy practice?

I have a rigid rule about writing about patients: verboten in any form, clinical or fiction.  That said, my understanding of how we become who we are and how stories unfold is strongly informed by my psychoanalytic training and experience.

What made you feel that you had to tell this story? What were your goals/artistic objectives in writing Tinderbox, beyond telling a compelling story?

Tinderbox began with a true story that got under my skin about a nanny who fell apart when she came to work for a family whose loving attention to their child stimulated her own buried longings for a mothering she’d never had.  The story (whose details I entirely altered) dovetailed with an interest in one of the occupational hazards for therapists, who are often a magnet for revelations by people encountered outside our offices — a situation in which everyday kindly intentions of being a sympathetic ear need to be tempered with prudence about what is best directed into a treatment.  While these ideas were percolating, I spent some weeks in Montana and Idaho when terrifying wildfires were blazing, a contributing factor, I learned, having been the Smokey Bear policy of preventing all fires, which can lead to overgrown underbrush that sets the stage for out-of-control conflagrations.  These situations came together in what is a central theme of the novel: a tragedy of good intentions.

What was the greatest challenge in writing Tinderbox?

The greatest challenge of writing Tinderbox was figuring out the structure.  I am a great admirer of old-fashioned sprawling novels that move seamlessly in and out of various characters’ heads with a relaxed capaciousness, and I didn’t want to be constricted by what seems to me to be the now overused schema of alternating points of view by chapter.  Rather, I wanted the story to be preeminent: to narrate each scene from the point of view that makes most sense for both that moment and the larger unfolding of the various elements of the novel.  The image I had was that the narrative is like a baton passed from character to character — though I did limit the number of characters who have access to the baton, in part to enhance the mystery and suspense.

The second major structural challenge concerned how to handle time.  I’ve heard it said that our personal narratives begin with the memories of our grandparents, and indeed the story told in Tinderbox stretches back several generations.   At the same time, I wanted the novel to have a tight front story with a clear beginning, middle, and end. The aim was to have the scenes in the past have the same vibrancy as the scenes in the present (i.e. to avoid the feeling of the flashback) while simultaneously maintaining a strong driving sense of the contemporary story moving forward.  Novels, like nearly every important undertaking, contain many opposing forces, and insight, hard work, and a good dose of luck are required to achieve a balance.

Readers might wonder whether you have actually been to the exotic locales in the book like Peru and Morocco. From your detailed descriptions and the strong sense of place you create in the Morocco scenes, it certainly seems like you’ve been there.

I have spent time in both Morocco and Peru.  I couldn’t have written the scenes that take place in Essaouira, the wind-swept city where Rachida grew up, without having been there first.  As for Iquitos, the nanny Eva’s home, I didn’t visit there until I’d written several drafts of the novel.  Thinking about it now, that was for the best.  Eva is the one major character whose point of view is never shared, so her home is understood only through others’ fantasies about it — most particularly, through Adam, the father of the child Eva cares for, who has been obsessed with the place since first seeing Werner Herzog’s film Fitzcarraldo, which is set there.

How did you become interested in Sephardic Jews and their migrations? Have you found that readers are particularly intrigued by the subplot about Moroccan Jews in Peru? Most people have no idea there were (and are) Jews in Latin America (and that many of them were and are Crypto-Jews who hide their identity in a very Catholic part of the world), and they usually aren’t aware of their presence historically in countries like Morocco, Iraq, and Iran.

Learning about the Jews of Iquitos was an uncanny discovery for me.  When I first began the novel, I’d already decided that Eva was from Iquitos — which, like Adam, I knew about from Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo and Les Blank’s documentary Burden of Dreams, about the parallel process between Herzog’s epic making of the movie and his character Fitzcarraldo’s maniacal project.  I’d already conceived of Adam’s wife, Rachida, a Moroccan Jewish doctor from Essaouira, whose now decimated but once powerful Jewish community I knew about from my travels.  Then, one day when I was reading about Iquitos, I stumbled upon a reference to a small Jewish community in Iquitos.  That seemed strange: a Jewish community in a landlocked city, accessible only by boat or air, in the middle of the jungle?  My curiosity piqued, I began to research further and  — my heart nearly stopped.  The Jews of Iquitos, I learned, were the descendants of Moroccan Jewish rubber traders, many mere boys of 19 or 20, who’d come to the perilous Amazon during the rubber boom of the late 1800’s and then peremptorily departed when the  boom went bust in the early 1900’s, leaving behind their common-law Indian wives and offspring.   In other words, there might be an historical link between my characters Rachida and Eva, whom I’d independently imagined and never thought of having a connection beyond employer and employee.

Adam’s obsession with pornography ties in with the problems caused in some marriages by the limitless supply of porn on the Internet. Did you (do you) see a lot of this porn obsession in your work as a therapist? What does it signify generally and for Adam specifically?

You don’t have to be a therapist to know that porn is ubiquitous in our culture.  It’s virtually impossible for preteens not to stumble upon it, and it has a huge impact on men’s lives.  For Adam, there is a very specific meaning to the images he seeks — and they are key to understanding his psychic life, but his use of porn is also terribly destructive for him and for his family.  Because he’s a screenwriter and movies are sacred to him, he’s horrified at the idea of contaminating his work with porn viewed on a screen, so unlike most contemporary porn addicts, he looks only at porn in magazines.

What are your favorite books or the ones that most influenced you?

For Tinderbox, there was a specific set of novels that I studied — literally outlined to understand how they were put together.  This group of novels included Peter Carey’s His Illegal Self, Alice McDermott’s After This, and Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day.  In everything I write, I have been deeply influenced by Alice Munro: the economical way she conveys an entire life within a tight narrative; her original sentences, devoid of writerly showiness, that convey the way we think; her acceptance of the coexistence of pettiness and largesse in the human heart.

Several drafts into Tinderbox, I read for the first time Anna Karenina (the Pevear and Volokhonsky translation).  I was stunned by how contemporary the novel feels and how gripping it is despite its enormous cast of characters and sociological, philosophical and political ambitions.  The novel’s accessibility, it seems to me, is in part due to the structure of  bite-sized sections, each of which can easily be read in a single sitting, within longer parts.  Inspired by Tolstoy, I revamped Tinderbox, throwing out the chapters, and reorganizing it into four parts, each, a la Anna, with short numbered sections.

What are you working on now, and when can we expect to see it in bookstores?

I have a collection of linked short stories — a novel in fragments — titled Louisa Meets Bear that centers on a star-crossed affair between Louisa, the artistic and sexually-adventurous daughter of a San Francisco geneticist, and Bear, the passionate but explosive son of a Cincinnati plumber, upcoming, also with Sarah Crichton Books/ Farrar, Straus and Giroux, in June of 2015.  And, I’m finishing up a new novel, tentatively titled The Peacock Feast, that opens in 1916 with Louis C. Tiffany, the genius glass artist, torpedoing the breakwater in front of his phantasmagorical Oyster Bay mansion, with its daffodil columns and blue-tiled minaret, rather than allowing the town to reclaim what he viewed as his beach for public bathing.

 

Natalia Sylvester: “It’s all about the relationships we create—with readers and with bookstores.”

Natalia Sylvester  Chasing the Sun

Natalia Sylvester’s debut novel, Chasing the Sun, was published on June 3. Set in Lima, Peru in the early 1990’s, it depicts the effects on a marriage of the wife’s kidnapping by a rebel/insurgent group that used kidnappings to raise money for its activities. Sylvester was born in Peru, raised in Miami (she earned her MFA at the University of Miami), and now lives in Austin. You can read my review of Chasing the Sun here.

I love that your profile says, “Peruvian. American.” with a period instead of a hyphen. How important has your Peruvian heritage been to you personally and as a writer?

My heritage has been completely important to me as a person and a writer, and at the same time, completely not. And by that I mean, I was not as aware of it my whole life as I have been now, looking back on it and seeing how it’s perceived. Self-identity when you’re bicultural is a funny thing: we don’t see ourselves as “other voices,” yet we’re often seen as the “diverse” aspect of the greater landscape. But we’re just as much a part of the fabric of the human narrative as any other writer is. I guess that’s why I don’t hyphenate in my profile. I don’t feel like I’m half one culture, half another, because that would imply that there’s a standard to measure my identity against.

Did you always have in mind writing about Peru or your heritage/ethnicity, or did you just happen to stumble into a great story that was set in Peru?

I think the setting had less to do with my heritage than it did with what felt true to the story. Originally, I tried setting it in an unnamed Latin American country, a la Bel Canto by Ann Patchett or At Night We Walk in Circles by Daniel Alarcon (both beautiful, powerful novels that pull off unnamed settings flawlessly). But every book is different, and in Chasing the Sun, so much of what’s happening externally—a citywide curfew, terrorist group uprisings and attacks, hyperinflation, political turmoil that results in the president suspending congress—affects the characters externally. The city of Lima and the fear that permeates it during this time almost became like characters to me, and I couldn’t imagine telling the story without them.

“I’d say the toughest part about writing your debut novel is you never know if it’ll become your debut novel!”

What was the greatest challenge in writing Chasing the Sun? What would you say is the most difficult thing about writing one’s debut novel?

One of the initial challenges was writing it in present tense. Everything I’d written prior (including the first drafts of Chasing the Sun) was in past tense, but I felt there was a sense of urgency lost when the story was told as if it’d already happened, versus happening right now.

I’d say the toughest part about writing your debut novel is you never know if it’ll become your debut novel! I’d written and been on submission to editors for another novel before this one, and when it didn’t sell, I realized I had to keep going and write a new one. And even then, there were no guarantees. Writing to hopefully get published is a huge gamble of our time. It makes absolutely no promises, which is why it’s so important to love the process of writing and discovering a story to begin with.

How did you come to be published by New Harvest, Amazon’s joint venture with Houghton Mifflin Harcourt? Were you concerned at all about some stores not stocking New Harvest books because they didn’t want to help Amazon?

My agent sent the novel out to several publishers, including Amazon, when we started shopping around Chasing the Sun. My acquiring editor at Amazon was so enthusiastic and just completely understood the story in such a way that I knew I had to work with her.

Like any writer would be, I was concerned about some stores not stocking the title, but what quickly I realized is no book, regardless of its imprint, is guaranteed to be on any store’s shelves at any time—the store might be out of stock, or they simply didn’t order it from the publisher’s catalog. The great thing is readers always have options: they can order it online at a store like Amazon, or they can request that the store of their choice order it, which is also true of Chasing the Sun at any B&N or indie bookstore. Knowing that from the beginning made me realize it’s all about the relationships we create—with readers who’ve been excited about the book coming out or are just learning about it, with bookstores that have stocked the book because they’re all about supporting authors. I’m so grateful for all who’ve shared the joy of this journey with me.

“All fiction demands that we imagine being someone, somewhere, in some situation, that’s outside of what we’ve experienced.”

Although the book is written from a third-person point of view, we experience the story largely through Andres. What is the key for a woman in writing a male character?

I’m not sure there’s really a key for me. At least, not one that’s gender-specific. Women writing men, men writing women: should it be any harder than someone in the 21st century writing from the POV of someone in Roman times? All fiction demands that we imagine being someone, somewhere, in some situation, that’s outside of what we’ve experienced. So my approach is the same throughout: I imagine things, I try to place myself in someone else’s shoes, and what I don’t know, I make up in a way that feels true. Now…if only it were as easy as it sounds, right?!

“Must we always be likable, even when we’re subject to unthinkable crimes, in order for our stories to be valid?”

I was interested to note that, while Marabela has some justification for her feelings toward Andres, she still comes across as emotionally distant and somewhat difficult. In the pre-kidnapping flashbacks, I thought she was occasionally unfair and unreasonable in her interactions with him. But at other times, I thought he was weak, indecisive, and needy, which could certainly be a problem in a marriage. Were you at all concerned about Marabela not being a particularly likable character? Does she even need to be likable for readers to sympathize with her plight?

It’s funny, now that you mention it, the thought of her being or not being likable honestly never entered my mind. She’s been kidnapped, she’s experienced unimaginable fear; to expect her to be pleasant or likable, or somehow warm versus cold, would be an unfair demand for me to make of her or any character in a similar situation. Unfortunately, it seems to be a demand that’s constantly made of women characters in fiction, and it saddens me to think of how that reflects on our expectations of women in real life. Must we always be likable, even when we’re subject to unthinkable crimes, in order for our stories to be valid?

What are the five things you need to have in order to write (5 essential tools)?

I love this question. 🙂

1. Quiet. 2. My giant blue fuzzy sweater (okay, I can probably write without it, but I strongly prefer to be wearing it when I write). 3. Not necessarily inspiration (because who can wait for that), but I need to have a story I believe in. I feel like I can tell, very early on, if an idea is one that comes from a true place within me. 4. My laptop or my journal. I alternate between the two. 5. Books. I have to be reading other works as I write. They nourish and inspire me.

A conversation with Laura McBride: “To me, a novelist’s research is about picking up tone and voice, and the occasional telling detail. From there, it has to be a work of personal imagination.”

summer book preview clarke winspear morris lusbader mccollough o

Laura McBride’s first novel, We Are Called to Rise, was published by Simon & Schuster on June 3. It is receiving well-deserved acclaim for its powerful depiction of the intersecting lives of four widely varying characters in “off-the-Strip” Las Vegas. It is as timely and relevant as any novel I’ve read in recent years. We Are Called to Rise is one of those special novels that has something for everyone. [Read my review here.]

What inspired you to write We Are Called to Rise? I understand that the book’s turning point is based on an actual event.

I often start thinking about a story from some bit of news that catches my attention.  It is a kind of a mental game – to ask how could that have happened, who would have done it, why – and I have done it for many years.  I can write a hundred pages on hearing an intriguing thirty seconds!  I was inspired to write a novel for the experience of writing one itself.  It is something I had long wanted to do, and the process was something I enjoyed very much.

Did you always conceive of telling the story with multiple narrators, or did that approach occur to you after you’d written a draft in third person or through the eyes of a single character? Why did you opt for the four first-person narrators rather than an omniscient narrator?

I had heard that novels with first person narrators might be more likely to be published. (I have no idea if this is true, but I thought I might as well give myself every chance I can.)  The first person voice is quite restrictive, so I decided to use several narrators in order to be able to tell the full story.

I was so impressed by how convincingly you inhabited four completely different characters in order to make each work as a first-person narrator. That is an act of great imagination and artistic empathy. In particular, what was the key to getting inside the mind of an 8-year-old Albanian immigrant boy?

I’m not sure.  What I did was imagine myself as a child, and put myself into some of Bashkim’s situations.  What would the world look like to him? What would others do, and how would he interpret that?  His voice came very easily, once I committed myself to trying it.  It was so mentally engaging –  to imagine the world from the viewpoint of a child.  I loved writing in his voice.

When most Americans think of immigrants today, they tend to think of Mexicans. Yet we know that immigrants come from nearly every country. Why did you choose to make Bashkim an Albanian boy?

I wasn’t thinking of him as a type, as a typical anything, or even as an immigrant at all.  That’s not the way I approach stories.  He could have been from anywhere, and once I had given him a few details, he just grew into himself.  It’s only when it was time to market  the story that I started to think: oh, it is a book about an immigrant, or about war.  Also I don’t particularly associate the word immigrant with Mexicans.  As you say, the whole history of our nation is immigrants.

While Bashkim is the central character in the plot, I found Avis to be the heart of the novel. She is such a well-conceived and -executed character. Her mother was a nomadic drug addict who neglected Avis and her little brother Rodney. Yet by sheer force of will, we learn through flashbacks, she has created a better life for herself. As the novel begins, she is an upper-middle class suburban wife whose husband suddenly announces he’s leaving her for a younger woman. She is also the mother of a son recently returned from Iraq who does not seem like himself but refuses help, a caring mother-in-law, and part of a circle of close female friends she has known for decades. She has suffered so much, yet she seems to represent the fact that “we are called to rise,” to overcome and be more than what happens to us. Can you talk about your vision of Avis and her role in the novel?

I love Avis too, and I appreciate your comments here.  Avis was very difficult to write.  I saw her as a woman who had spent her whole life very much on her own, having to figure things out without models or people to show her the way. In middle age, she faces challenges that make her think about her life and her choices, and she doesn’t even know if that reflection is something one should do. To me, Avis is brave and reflective and independent.  She relies on herself.  

What kind of research did you do in creating the character of Specialist Luis Rodriguez? You cover his traumatic experiences in Iraq, his long recovery in Walter Reed Hospital, and his relationships with Dr. Ghosh, his abuela, and Bashkim so believably. Have you had college students who were Iraq War vets?

Yes, I often have soldiers in my classes, and while we do not particularly discuss their experiences, things sometimes come out.  I have been paying attention.  I also did a novelist’s sort of research (as opposed to an academic’s); I read blogs by soldiers and went on chat rooms that were populated by people associated with the military.  To me, a novelist’s research is about picking up tone and voice, and the occasional telling detail. From there, it has to be a work of personal imagination.

Another impressive aspect of We Are Called to Rise is your accurate depiction of the Las Vegas where people live their real lives, and your insight into the effect living there has on people. My mother has lived in Henderson for 15 years, so I’ve become familiar with the non-tourist areas of metro Las Vegas, and your descriptions are spot-on, both physically and culturally. There is such a strong sense of place in your book that “off-the-strip Vegas” feels like another character. Tell me about your thinking behind making such an unglamorous place so central to the story.

Well, I have lived here for 25 years, and I think it is a very interesting place, so it was natural to set a story here. Las Vegas is fascinating because it is a boomtown.  It attracts 40 million tourists each year, but it has also attracted millions of new residents in a short period of time.  We came from all over the world, from all sorts of backgrounds, for all sorts of reasons.  And the place, a dusty desert city, was not ready for us.  That explosion of people, and the lack of infrastructure to accommodate them,  makes for some crazy events.  Those of us who lived here learned how to help each other; we turned to our neighbors – who did not look or talk or think like each other – and created communities.  Las Vegas is not a utopia, but it does succeed at social mobility, it often succeeds at diversity, and it has given many people a second, a third, even a fourth chance.  As far as I’m concerned, it is a novelist’s dream.

When did you write We Are Called to Rise? In your free time during the school year, during breaks from school, at writing retreats like Yaddo? What was Yaddo like for someone who did not have an MFA or move in those literary circles?

I had a sabbatical in the spring of 2012, and I wrote it that semester. I went to Yaddo for a month at the end of that term, and I finished the novel there.  I did some rewriting and additions during the next six months, while I was teaching.  I like to focus intensely on what I am doing, so each of those rewrites was done in a concentrated rush of days, working 10-12 hours at a time, over a weekend or a school break.

How did you come to use a line from an Emily Dickinson poem as the book’s title? It’s so fitting.

It is fitting, and I did choose it, but it was my agent and her assistant who recognized what a great title it would make.  I sent them several possibilities, none of which seemed quite right to me, and they picked We Are Called to Rise.  I’m grateful for their strong sense of that title, because I think the sentiment does fit the book, though it was not what I was thinking about when I wrote it.  Also, I adore Emily Dickinson, particularly for her artistic courage and sureness.

A Conversation with Mary Vensel White on THE QUALITIES OF WOOD

Mary Vensel White  tlc tour host

See my review of The Qualities of Wood here. And be sure to enter to win a copy of The Qualities of Wood (details in the review).

The Qualities of Wood is your first novel, but if you’re anything like most writers, it’s not the first book you’ve written. Can you tell me about your writing background leading up to this book?

I started out as many writers do, I suppose, with a diary or notebook. But when I think about what influenced my writing from early on, I always think of reading. Yesterday, I saw a quote by Sandra Cisneros, who claims she became a writer not because she went to school but because her mother took her to the library. I’d have to claim the same: my journey to writing started with lots of books, and the library, and a mother who read. And you’re right, TQOW is the second novel I completed. The first is called Sissy Longlegs and it’s about a young woman who tracks down her biological mother, thereby altering the path of the three women involved—the girl and both of her moms. I still think it’s pretty good, actually, and maybe one day I’ll do something with it. I had no formal writing training, although my degrees were in English so there was lots of reading and literature analysis.

Most readers aren’t familiar with your publisher, Authonomy, which is a new venture of HarperCollins. How did you come to be published by Authonomy? 

I came to Authonomy.com in 2010, I think, and posted part of my novel for critique and feedback from other writers. The site offers a review by a HarperCollins editor for the five most supported books each month. By March of 2011 I had received my review, which was quite positive. Up to that point, few books had been published by HC as a result of being “discovered” on the site. I realized that, but still thought it would be helpful to have a professional opinion. Plus, the collateral benefits of participating in the site were great—meeting other writers, giving and getting advice on writing, etc. I actually had an offer from a small press for the book around the time I got my review from HC. Shortly after the review, I was contacted by Scott Pack, who had just taken over the Authonomy site and coincidentally, was the editor who initially reviewed my novel. They were planning to start a digital-first imprint, he said, and wanted my book to be the first. They hoped to publish 10-12 titles a year and from those, take a few to print based on performance. And so, mine has eventually become one of the digital editions that will now be in book form too.

What was unique about the experience of being an Authonomy author?

After all this time, I would have to say that the very best part of being published via Authonomy is the network of friends and support I’ve gained through the process. Writing is such an isolated vocation and it’s been great to share the pitfalls and triumphs within the community. I’ve made some good business connections and some great friends through Authonomy. And I truly believe that participating in the site by critiquing and ingesting the critiques offered to me really improved my editing process and enriched my perspective in many ways.

What inspired the characters and plot of The Qualities of Wood?

When I wrote the book, my husband and I had just moved to Chicago. It was my first experience living in a big city and I started thinking about the ways setting can influence people, especially an urban surround vs. countryside. Would people behave the same in both? Would they be more in touch with their natural, or animal side, when surrounded by the natural world? Really, the first inspiration for the book was the thought of Vivian’s airplane touching down amidst that unfettered green, the expanse that would possibly cause her to look beyond her previous, day-to-day hassled existence in the city. As for the plot, I was very interested in playing around with the notion of genre, of writing a mystery that wasn’t really a traditional mystery, but more the story of the greatest mystery of all: the human condition. In the same way that things perhaps aren’t what they seem for Vivian, they wouldn’t be for the reader either. That was my goal.

I enjoyed the complicated nature of Vivian and Nowell’s four-year-old marriage. They are close, but often struggle to communicate and experience many misunderstandings. Vivian has too much time on her hands and not enough occupying her mind since she’s not working. Nowell is prickly, secretive, and defensive, which makes him a more complex creation and also inherently suspect in the mysterious goings-on. I’m interested to know how this relationship developed in your imagination and during the writing of the book.

I was pretty newly married at the time, and thinking about the break that occurs between childhood and adulthood. At some point, we try to figure out our childhoods and move forward and yet, most of our relationships seem to relate, one to the other. Marriage is a big step that can really force this break, as we join or really, create a new family and leave behind the old one. I wonder, sometimes, about perception and whether any person can truly understand another. The brief separation and move from city to country disrupted Vivian and Nowell’s marriage and made them see each other in a new light. This is an endless process in relationships, I think, but maybe the first big shift for them.

I was impressed by how quickly you established a sense of foreboding and how consistently you were able to maintain it. You had me figuratively crossing my arms and examining the motives, body language, and behavior of every character (even Katharine!). Early on, I was wondering whether the residents of the town were going to turn out to be straight out of Twin Peaks or just regular ol’ people from a small town. (For the record, I live in a town of 15,000 about 20 miles outside of Bakersfield.) How do you go about creating that feeling and mindset in the reader? What’s the key to establishing and controlling tone, which is so crucial in a book of this kind?

There’s something about small towns that make them desirable locales for fiction. I am no stranger to Bakersfield because I grew up in Lancaster, which had a population of 37,000 in the 70s before the aerospace boom propelled it towards its current numbers. But it definitely felt like a small town when I was growing up. The Antelope Valley Fair was the biggest event of the year; we had one movie theater and no shopping malls. In TQOW, the small town setting helped in terms of controlling the tone of the story. Vivian feels somewhat cut off from things, with only so many sources of stimulation coming her way. Writing the story from her perspective was key, too. Because she is suspicious and becomes increasingly agitated, the reader feels that way.

I loved the use of the woods behind the Gardiners’ house. They act as a buffer between their property and the land of the laconic and seemingly threatening Mr. Stokes. Chanelle Brodie’s body is found there, which is central to the story because it sets the plot in motion. And, of course, we can’t ignore the powerful symbol of the woods in stories like Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown.” Can you describe the meaning of the woods and what you had in mind in making this location so crucial to the novel?

Again, it comes back to setting for me. It was the primary impetus for the book and I wanted the surroundings to be almost like a character within the story. The woods symbolized a literal break from Vivian’s existence within the house and the grass-covered land surrounding it. A different setting, a different world, a place where maybe people behave differently. A place where the natural world is difficult to ignore because it looms overhead and presses up against you. Growing up in the desert as I did, it was easy to build this wooded, leaf-filled land into something larger-than-life, to imagine it as somewhat idyllic yet dangerous too.

Are you considering setting a novel or story in Orange County, for instance, in Newport Beach or Laguna Beach? I’m surprised that more novels aren’t set in these distinctive locales, with their unique sub-cultures and strong sense of place.

Actually, I just finished a collection of stories set in southern California. The setting has to meld with the project and for this one, southern California’s unique structure, with its patchwork quilt of cities connected by freeways, seemed a perfect complement to the stories, which are about the unlikely connections between people and how archetypal stories can be upended in a modern setting. Some of the characters live in LA County and some in Orange County; I know people like to think these two are so distinct and separate and yet one bleeds into the other in cities like Anaheim, Huntington Beach, Cerritos. And I think there may be more stories set in California than you think!

What books and/or authors have inspired you, both as a reader and a writer?

See Mary Vensel White’s guest blog post about the book that changed her life.

The writers who cause me a shiver of excitement with the release of a new book (or new translation): Per Petterson, Kent Haruf, Marilynne Robinson. These three could write about toast and I would be enthralled, probably. My favorite books include Anna Karenina, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter and as you know, Lolita. Biggest influence on the writing of TQOW: Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson. Book that would have most influenced TQOW, had I read it before writing: Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier. And three books I read recently and highly recommend, all story collections (read more short stories!!!): This Close by Jessica Francis Kane, This is Paradise by Kristiana Kahakauwila and Burning Bright by Ron Rash.

Elizabeth Graver: “Everyone—and every place—has a story, a history, an untold life”

Elizabeth Graver portrait

Elizabeth Graver
 

After reading The End of the Point last July, I interviewed author Elizabeth Graver on July 8. I’m reposting it now because the book has just been published in paperback. I found her responses just as thoughtful and beautifully written as the novel. The interview stands on its own and will, in fact, almost certainly inspire you to read her latest novel, which was longlisted for the 2013 National Book Award.

Find out how to qualify to win one of three copies of The End of the Point here: http://wp.me/p3EtWm-cT

What inspired you to write The End of the Point?

I’d heard a story from my husband of a beloved Scottish nanny who took care of the children in his family for several generations and then moved back to Scotland in her old age.  When she died, she left all her money to the female grandchildren in the family she’d worked for.  Apparently, she’d had a romance with a soldier during WWII. That was the first seed: Why did she stay with the family for so long, why did she leave? It led me to Bea, and then to so many other questions—about place, social class, child-rearing, the intersections between historical events and personal history.  The book (slowly—it took me over seven years to write) unfolded from there.

You live and work in Boston. How much of a connection do you feel to the Massachusetts coast? Any particular spot(s)?

My own beloved landscape is the woods and fields of inland New England.  I grew up in Western Massachusetts, and I now live in a rural suburb outside of Boston, in an old farmhouse surrounded by fields and woods.  New England—its seasons, the shapes of its hills, its particular flora and fauna—is in my life-blood; this comes into particularly sharp focus whenever I live somewhere else.  I didn’t grow up on the coast, and perhaps because of this, the ocean always feels a bit vast and daunting to me—beautiful and compelling, but not my home place.  I do love to swim, though, and to be buoyed up by salt water.  My husband’s family has for five generations had a house on a little spit of land on Buzzards Bay, in South Dartmouth, Massachusetts.  I love spending time there, but it will never be a place of origin for me, though it is for him and for our daughters—and in a very powerful way.  My fictional Ashaunt is in part an effort to understand their relationship to the real place that served as inspiration for my novel.

The book is divided into five sections, each focusing on a different character (although always in third person). Why did you choose this narrative structure?

I was interested in inhabiting one place over a wide span of time and through a number of different points of view. I think of the book almost as a kaleidoscope. The first, brief section, “Fifteen Axes, Fifteen Hoes,” provides a sweeping glimpse of the long view, moving from the early Native Americans through to the turn of the 21st century. In the other four sections, I cover much less time but go deeper, landing (among other places) during WWII, during Vietnam, and at the end of the 20th century.  My hope is that the structure, in both its diving-ins and its jumps and ellipses, might suggest to the reader a lot of other, untold stories.  We land here, and here, but we could have landed somewhere else.  Everyone—and every place—has a story, a history, an untold life.  Here are a few.

Why is Helen so demanding of Charlie? In general, do you believe it is worse when the first child is a boy? When the family is wealthy like the Porters? How does one find a balance between expectations and genuine desire to see potential realized on one hand and unconditional love and encouragement on the other?

I see parenting as a complex mix of nurture and nature, and as very colored by one’s own past and the parenting one received. Helen is by nature ambitious, restless, smart.  But she also suffers a number of losses.  The loss of her brother, after whom she names her son—seems to me a central one.

And she comes of age in a time and place where intellectual ambition is, if not actively discouraged, certainly not put first for women. Helen begins life as the third child in her family and ends up, after the death of two siblings, the eldest one.  Charlie is her oldest son. She is young when she has him. She funnels too much into him.  The wealth is complicated, both enabling and inhibiting, I think.  Helen tries in various ways to move outside the circle she was born into, but its pull is powerful and its gifts not insignificant, and she always comes back.

What made you decide to focus on Bea in the opening section? I enjoyed the character and the time spent in Scotland. Have you been asked to write a sequel of sorts exploring Bea’s life in detail? (We know how it ends, of course, but filling in all the missing years.)

No one has asked for a sequel yet! I love Bea, and I had a great time going to Scotland to research that part of the book.  I’m not sure why I began with Bea, but it may have something to do with her insider/outsider status. She is trying to make sense of things at the same time that the reader is.  She finds Ashaunt too sandy, windy and chaotic for her liking.  I didn’t want this book to read as a nostalgic beach book in any easy way, though interrogating nostalgia is something I hope the book does.  Bea comes from elsewhere.  She leads us in. I’m also interested in expanding notions of “family” and “mothering” to include non-blood relatives and even land.  Bea, while technically childless, is in a funny way a mother to much of the book, just as Ashaunt is a mother to Charlie and perhaps to other characters too.

Two characters (and, arguably, even more) suffer from mental illness. You write about the nature and experience of mental illness quite knowledgeably. What is the story behind that?

If I hadn’t been a writer, I might have been a psychologist.  I’ve written about mental illness in my other books as well (most centrally in The Honey Thief). Mental illness can highlight fundamental questions we all grapple with: Who am I? How am I separate from or linked to the rest of the world?  What is the line between the real and the imagined? The past and the present?  My body and my mind?  My sister is a psychiatrist and helps me when I get stuck.  For better or worse, the line between mental illness and health feels like a quite porous one to me.  As a novelist, I never stop hearing voices.

What is your technique/strategy for incorporating prose poetry into the novel without “overdoing” it and distracting from narrative momentum?

I try to keep time moving in the novel (not always forward, but in one direction or another) and to stay landed in scene most of the time.   If there is poetry, or highly poetic prose, it needs to be in service of the characters and story. But I’m also not aiming to write a fast-paced book. Not everyone will like it.  I hope readers who love poetic prose will be happy to linger when I do!

Were any other novels particularly inspirational or influential in writing The End of the Point?

Annie Dillard’s The Maytrees for its prose and seaside setting; Julia Glass’sThree Junes, for its structure; Virginia Woolf—all her books, but in particular To the Lighthouse.  George Colt’s non-fiction book, The Big House.

Why do you think so few men read fiction by women, even novels that are clearly not romance or genre fiction? For instance, why shouldn’t a man be intrigued by the title, cover art, and/or plotline of, say, Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers, Attica Locke’s The Cutting Season, Rilla Askew’s Kind of Kin, or Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior?

I happen to know quite a few men (and be married to one of them) who read a lot of fiction by women, so I may have a skewed vision. It may also not be a coincidence that I married a man whose shelves were filled with Grace Paley, Emily Dickinson, and Louise Erdrich long before I met him. Some of why more men don’t read more fiction by women, of course, has to do with what gets reviewed, and where, and by whom (and you are helping with that with your wonderful reviews of fiction by women writers).  And with some of the covers and marketing, as a recent article pointed out.  And fiction is sometimes seen, at least historically, as “softer,” more emotive, less “useful” than non-fiction.  Also, though, it asks the reader to cross over all kinds of boundaries—of time, place, gender, etc. etc. That can be scary.  Also necessary, in my view.

Who are some of your favorite authors? For each author, could you explain briefly why his/her work is important to you?

George Eliot, for her wide social vision, her prose, her mix of empathy and rigor.

Alice Munro, for her narrative structures, language, use of white spaces, psychological insight.

Toni Morrison, for her poetry and the risks she takes in form and subject matter.

Edward P. Jones, for his explorations of generations and of the power of place, and for his handling of time.

John Berger…Marilynne Robinson . . . Charlotte Bronte . . . Michael Ondaatje . . . Angela Carter . . . Bruno Schultz . . . William Trevor . . .

What have you read recently that impressed you?

I’m in the middle of Colum McCann’s Transatlantic and really enjoying it. I’m interested in the structure, in the separate but echoing narratives. I was blown away by Katherine Boo’s Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity. I love really good narrative non-fiction, particularly books that take me deep into a new world.

What is your writing routine? I know you teach English and creative writing at Boston College; do you do the bulk of your writing on school breaks, summer vacation, etc., or do you manage to make it part of your daily life?

I do the bulk of my writing when I’m not teaching, though I do a lot of mulling, gestating, dreaming during the semester, and I revise in the cracks between other things.  I have two daughters, 10 and 13, so my daily life is very full.  I try to go away for a week or so every year—to an artists’ colony or to some other quiet place with my historian friend—and then I plunge really, really deep into the work.  A week can feel like a month when I’m in intense writing mode. It’s exhausting and exhilarating and necessary.  Parenting, teaching, and writing are all things I do intensely, and I’m grateful to have all three things in my life.  At any given moment, one thing might be at center stage. I work hard to put writing there some of the time.  This said, I’m in much less of a hurry to finish a book than I used to be—a gift of middle age, perhaps.

What are you working on now? How do you typically come upon the subject of your next novel or story? 

I’ve been poking about in my own family history and just spent a few days interviewing my wonderful 86-year-old Uncle David about his childhood in Spain and New York. What might come of it—a story, an essay, a non-fiction chronicle of some sort, a novel—I can’t say yet, but I’m having fun.  My maternal grandmother was a Sephardic Jew born in Turkey.  As a young woman, she moved to Spain, and later, widowed with two small sons, immigrated to New York.  I interviewed her when I was in college and have long wanted to do something with those tapes; she was a marvelous storyteller who lived a fascinating and quite dramatic life that involved a lot of cultural crossing.  Right now, I’m reading about Sephardic Jewish life in Turkey and Spain, interviewing relatives, playing around . . .

[See Elizabeth Graver’s guest blog about the early stages of the novel-writing process, posted on May 13, 2014, here: http://wp.me/p3EtWm-cJ.]

The subjects of my fiction come to me in lots of different ways, inspired by a dream, or a magazine article I’ve read, or by lowering myself down into research and seeing what happens.  Or a voice arrives.  I never know where I am going in the beginning or even what genre I’ll end up in.

Kindle, Nook, or good old-fashioned book?

Old-fashioned books.  I just got an i-Pad, but so far, I’ve only read newspapers and magazines on it. I figure it might be good for reading while travelling, and I’m itching to go somewhere far-flung with my family (I might get to use this new idea as an excuse to go to Spain!). But I do love the feel of a paper book—to be able to flip back and forth, write in the margins. I won’t easily give that up.