Saturday, September 19, 2020

Marieke Nijkamp

photo credit: Karin Nijkamp
Marieke Nijkamp is a #1 New York Times bestselling author of YA novels, graphic novels, and comics, including This Is Where It Ends, Even If We Break, and The Oracle Code. Her short stories can be found in several anthologies. Nijkamp is a storyteller, dreamer, globe-trotter, and geek.

My Q&A with the author:
How much work does your title do to take readers into the story?

I’m fairly good at titling short stories, but my novel titles are rarely mine alone. In this case, the working title for the book was All The Darkest Parts Of Us. And it’s true enough—it’s a story about a group of teens who go to a cabin in the woods one last time to play the RPG that bound them, only for their game to turn deadly, with their secrets threatening to break them.

But it’s not just a thriller about secrets, self-discovery, and growing up. It’s also what happens when friendships start to fragment and all those hairline fractures none of the characters wanted to acknowledge, grow.

Hence, Even If We Break. With much gratitude to my editor, who is wonderful at taking snippets from the book and turning them into spectacular titles.

What's in a name?

I love naming characters, and I spend far too much time on name meaning websites. I’m not always looking for names with specific meanings (though there is that too), but I also try to make sure the names fit together. That they don’t all sound alike, for example.

In this case, there are the characters’ names, but also the names they use for the characters they play. To make sure that didn’t get confusing, name and character name all start with the same letter. So Finn plays Feather, Liva plays Lente, and so on.

How surprised would your teenage reader self be by your novel?

Only surprised that it’s a whole lot more contemporary than what I read at the time. I read so much fantasy. (I still do.) But I also was an avid roleplayer, so the RPG part wouldn’t surprise teen!me in the slightest.

Do you see much of yourself in your characters? Do they have any connection to your personality, or are they a world apart?

Quite a few of the characters here have bits and pieces of me. For example: Ever, the game master, is nonbinary, like I am. Maddy is autistic, and I am too. It was important to me to have that representation in the book, because it’s sadly still too rare. And I’m really grateful that I got to explore those elements of identity here.

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

Music. Games. Playing RPGs with friends. Taking long walks outside. Things like that.
Visit Marieke Nijkamp's website.

The Page 69 Test: This Is Where It Ends.

The Page 69 Test: Before I Let Go.

--Marshal Zeringue

Thursday, September 17, 2020

Wendy Walker

Wendy Walker is the author of the psychological suspense novels All Is Not Forgotten, Emma In the Night, The Night Before and Don’t Look For Me. Her novels have been translated into 23 foreign languages and topped bestseller lists both nationally and abroad. They have been selected by the Reese Witherspoon Book Club, The Today Show and The Book of the Month Club, and have been optioned for both television and film.

My Q&A with Walker:

How much work does your title do to take readers into the story?

The title does a lot of work highlighting the theme of the book and also the basic set-up for the plot. Molly Clarke disappears on a back road far from home. A note is found that says “Don’t look for me” and explains that she is leaving because she feels her family will be better off without her. When she is not found, the search is called off and she is presumed to have walked away from her life. But, of course, that is not the case. When taken alone, the title might not be quite as effective as it is. However, because my books fall squarely in the thriller genre, and when taken together with the book’s cover which depicts a woman running away from an approaching vehicle, the fact that this is a book about a missing woman is quickly conveyed.

What's in a name?

I spend a lot of time finding names for my characters, and even the towns and streets in the story. I keep a spreadsheet with names I’ve used in prior books so I don’t repeat them, and then I grab an old phone book (which has last names) and pull up a website with baby names for boys and girls. I then make a short list for each character. I think about the character’s personality and then try to match that with a name. What’s interesting about this process is that my visceral reaction to a name might be very different from another person’s because these reactions are based largely on people and characters we’ve encountered in real life. As the writer, I name characters that evoke the response in me because I have to stay true to the character throughout the story. If I can do that, the reader will come along with me for the ride!

Do you find it harder to write beginnings or endings? Which do you change more?

The ending is the hardest to plot. There are high expectations with thrillers to create a great twist, and this is usually the starting point for me – how will it end? The beginning is much easier because I always use a “cold” start – placing the reader in the center of the action that is already taking place. My novels often span only a few days or weeks, even if the backstory is more developed as the action unfolds. For me, hooking the reader by pulling them right into the heart of the story is highly effective. I always know where to start once I know where it will all end!

Do you see much of yourself in your characters? Do they have any connection to your personality, or are they a world apart?

My characters all have parts of me somewhere in them. I think it’s impossible to separate completely from a character, even one that is not at all like me. Everything we experience in our lives, people and situations and other stories in all forms, shape our perceptions of character traits, personalities, reactions, motivations and emotions. It’s a primal human trait and important to our ability to socialize and have relationships. Even when we are writing, we are drawing from our human experience. Some of my favorite characters are ones I am nothing like and are unlikable, period. In crafting them, I had to draw from characteristics that I find unappealing – and that necessarily draws from my own experiences throughout my life.

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

I am a huge consumer of streaming series, the darker the better. I am always watching out for twists and turns and characters that I’ve never seen before – and I think about how they add to the experience of the story. I truly believe that entertainment is as much about how a story is told as it is about the story itself. Turning to a different medium and experiencing story telling in that form helps to expand my thinking about how I might tell my own stories in written form.
Learn more about the author and her books at Wendy Walker's website.

The Page 69 Test: Four Wives.

The Page 99 Test: Social Lives.

The Page 69 Test: Don't Look for Me.

--Marshal Zeringue

Tuesday, September 15, 2020

Ellen Byron

Ellen Byron is the Agatha Award-winning author of the Cajun Country Mysteries. The USA Today bestselling series has also won multiple Best Humorous Mystery Lefty awards from the Left Coast Crime conference. She also writes The Catering Hall Mysteries (under the pen name Maria DiRico), which launched with Here Comes the Body.

Byron’s TV credits include Wings, Just Shoot Me, and Fairly OddParents. She’s written over 200 national magazine articles, and her published plays include the award-winning Graceland. She also worked as a cater-waiter for the legendary Martha Stewart, a credit she never tires of sharing. A native New Yorker who attended Tulane University, Byron lives in Los Angeles with her husband, daughter, and rescue chi mix, Pogo. She still misses her hometown - and still drives like a New York cabbie.

Byron's new novel is Murder in the Bayou Boneyard.

My Q&A with the author:

How much work does your title do to take readers into the story?

The titles for my Cajun Country Mysteries have to accomplish three tasks: clue the reader in on the plot theme, have an element of suspense, and a hint of the Cajun Country location. Pulling off this hat trick isn’t easy and coming up with a title for this particular book was a struggle. The working drafts were titled Halloween Horreur, but I knew that would never fly because you can’t have a foreign word in a title, and “Horreur” is so close to “Horror” that people would assume it was a typo. I batted around title ideas with everyone. I have a list of at least thirty. My publisher finally stuck the landing with Murder in the Bayou Boneyard. The title is great because it relays to readers the book is a mystery set in Louisiana that somehow involves a cemetery. It also inspired a wonderful cover that brings home the storyline and amps up the atmosphere by adding the plot’s semi-abandoned mansion and the red eyes of a mythical creature called a rougarou, plus pumpkins and a dog in costume, which lets readers know the action takes place around Halloween.

What's in a name?

My protagonist’s full name is Magnolia Marie Crozat, although everyone calls her Maggie. I wanted her to have a name that evoked Louisiana, and Magnolia does that. Then I created a back story where Magnolia Marie was the name of a distant and admirable ancestor on Maggie’s mother’s side of the family. While Maggie has great respect for this ancestor, she is much more comfortable as a Maggie and not as a Magnolia. The dichotomy between the two names illustrates the conflict between the legacy she carries as the member of a storied Louisiana family and her rebellion against it as an artist who spent twelve years living in New York City. Maggie is not and will never be the stereotypical delicate Southern flower that her full name calls to mind.

How surprised would your teenage reader self be by your novel?

My teen self is the one who discovered Agatha Christie and read every mystery by Dame Agatha that she could get her hands on. I think she’d be thrilled that in the village of Pelican, I created the Louisiana equivalent of Miss Marple’s St. Mary Mead.

Do you find it harder to write beginnings or endings? Which do you change more?

I’m a plotter, so I lay out a story with a lot of detail before I start writing. I find beginnings much harder because you really want to pull a reader into the story. If I don’t get the beginning right, it doesn’t matter how good the rest of the book is because the reader has already moved on. I get a rush when I nail the very first line and very first page. I put so much effort into this that – knock wood! – I have yet to get an editorial note on the first page of a manuscript. Those first pages have stayed the same from draft #1 to publication. Here’s the first line of Murder in the Bayou Boneyard. I couldn’t move on to write the rest of the book until I made it work: “It’s a good thing we lay our departed to rest above ground,” Gran whispered to Maggie, “Because if I sunk any further, I’d be standing on a coffin.”

Do you see much of yourself in your characters? Do they have any connection to your personality, or are they a world apart?

I think it’s hard to write a protagonist who doesn’t reflect yourself in some way. Maggie and I share a lot of the same characteristics – strong-willed, stubborn, loving, acerbic – but I think she’s less of an extrovert than I am. Still, I often see myself when I write her. But here’s the interesting thing regarding the protagonist of my Catering Hall Mystery series, which I write under the pen name of Maria DiRico. Even though that series is totally inspired by my real life – Mia, my lead character, literally lives in my nonna’s old two-family home in Astoria, Queens – I don’t see myself when I write her. I see a combination of a close friend of mine and the actress Leah Remini.

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

I’m influenced by Louisiana history, the news, and family – always family. That’s a running theme in everything I write – both the family you’re born with and the family you create through friends and workmates. A huge source of inspiration comes from another source. For years, I did a form of improvisation called Theatresports. It taught me how to collaborate, to say “yes” to offers, to ask myself, “What happens next?”, and to take chances. It was fantastic training for both my career and my personal life.
Visit Ellen Byron's website.

Coffee with a Canine: Ellen Byron & Wiley and Pogo.

--Marshal Zeringue

Sunday, September 13, 2020

Jennie Liu

Jennie Liu is the daughter of Chinese immigrants. Having been brought up with an ear to two cultures, she has been fascinated by the attitudes, social policies, and changes in China each time she visits. She lives in Western North Carolina with her husband and two young sons.

Liu's new novel is Like Spilled Water.

My Q&A with the author:

How much work does your title do to take readers into the story?

Having a daughter is like spilled water is an old, well-known saying in China that refers to the notion that sons are more valuable than girls, because traditionally once a daughter was married, she became part of her husband’s family. Despite Like Spilled Water’s setting in modern China, the insidious hold of this worn-out idea is evident in Na’s family from the start when we find that her brother has died.

About your previous novel, Girls on the Line, you said both main characters were relatable to you. Is that true of Na, the protagonist of Like Spilled Water, too?

I wrote Na, who was raised in the countryside by her Grandma, to be somewhat na├»ve, which I can certainly relate to being at that age. My own overtired parents raised my siblings and me with benign neglect, but they kept us pretty sheltered and close to home outside of school hours. With five kids, they were far from being tiger parents, yet their unspoken authority over us at the time still bewilders me. Even though we were raised in the States, it’s like our obedience was written in our DNA. Writing LSW was partly an attempt to unpick that.

What would surprise American readers most about the social and cultural context of Like Spilled Water?

The pressure on the young people in China is enormous and can be traced much to the One Child Policy, its unintended consequences, and the country’s social policies. But like in any culture, when you’re raised and immersed in a certain way of life, it may be hard to see that there may be something to question, especially in such a collectivistic, authoritarian country like China.

What's the strongest link of Girls on the Line to Like Spilled Water?

GOTL is a story about what happened to two unadopted girls under the One Child Policy. When I was ready to start a new book, I wanted to do a retelling of one of my favorite novels, Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier, When I tried to configure a story set in the States, I quickly saw that direct retelling wasn’t going to work because I didn’t want to write a marriage story or a story that featured the lives of wealthy people. All the things I had learned about the One Child Policy from GOTL was fresh in my mind, and the image of my own girl cousin sprung to my mind—she was left-behind in the countryside to be raised by her grandma while her parents took her younger brother to the city. From there, the story took off, again with the fallout of the One Child Policy threading through.
Visit Jennie Liu's website.

My Book, The Movie: Girls on the Line.

The Page 69 Test: Girls on the Line.

Girls on the Line Q&A with Jennie Liu.

--Marshal Zeringue

Thursday, September 10, 2020

Kelly J. Baptist

Kelly J. Baptist was born and raised in the great state of Michigan. She’s lived in Alabama, Florida, and Minnesota, but somehow found herself right back in her home state. Baptist won the 2015 We Need Diverse Books short story contest, and her winning entry is included in the middle grade anthology, Flying Lessons and Other Stories. Her new novel, Isaiah Dunn Is My Hero, is a follow-up to that story. Baptist also won the 2017 Lee and Low New Voices Honor Award for her picture book manuscript, The Electric Slide and Kai, which is scheduled for a September 2020 release.

My Q&A with the author:

How much work does your title do to take readers into the story?

I think both titles and covers have a huge responsibility for pulling readers into the story. They are the "first impressions" that are so important for potential readers who are quickly browsing for their next reading adventure. For me, I usually have a firm title before I begin writing the story, as I did with The Beans and Rice Chronicles of Isaiah Dunn, the prequel to this current work. In writing the follow-up, I didn't have a title when I started, but I knew I wanted Isaiah's name in the title again. As I thought about how resilient Isaiah was and how his late father wrote him as a superhero character, I wanted the title to be affirming and reflective of how I personally felt towards Isaiah and kids like him. Thus, the title Isaiah Dunn Is My Hero was so fitting. I got the title about halfway through writing and didn't consider anything else.

What's in a name?

A name is everything! Isaiah is a biblical name and means God Is Salvation, and while I didn't know that when I named my character, it matches with Isaiah's constant drive to help or save his family from the downward spiral he sees them on. Isaiah is a very strong name, which is fitting for a very strong kid. I gave his best friend the nickname Sneaky for two reasons: 1. He was a sneaky kid when he was little. When I was younger, my sister and I played a game called Sneaky Soldiers, where we would spy on people, preferably at big family gatherings. I wanted to honor that memory. 2. He's really into sneakers. There's another character, Angel, who, at the beginning of the novel, is absolutely nothing like her name. I wanted that contrast to be strong.

How surprised would your teenage reader self be by your new novel?

I think my teenage reader self would be surprised that I was writing for children! But at the same time, my teenage reader self would've felt so excited to see the cover of this new novel and to read about such a relevant and moving story. As a teenager, I was very proud of my heritage and would've felt empowered to see this title.

Do you find it harder to write beginnings or endings? Which do you change more?

I find it harder to write endings. I've typically been a pantser, (ie, writing by the seat of my pants) so I'm used to allowing the story to take me somewhere that I may or may not know about. I have a general idea of how a story will end, but sometimes events in the story change the direction. I think the hardest part of writing endings is being so close to completing the work and feeling the anticipation and urge to just get it done! Very similar to childbirth, where you are tired of pushing and just want that baby out! With Isaiah, I originally wanted the story to take place over the course of a year. As I progressed through the story, however, I found that would've drawn things out unnecessarily and so I had to adjust my ending.

Do you see much of yourself in your characters? Do they have any connection to your personality, or are they a world apart?

Yes, I do see myself sometimes in my characters. In Isaiah Dunn Is My Hero, I'm definitely like Sneaky when it comes to the candy hustle and saving my money for special purchases. I can also identify with Isaiah's mom and the tough task of grieving while still being responsible for kids and their needs. Isaiah's love of writing poetry also reminds me of myself when I was his age

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

Hands down, Kobe Bryant. Not in terms of subject matter, but in how I approach writing. I take so much from his Mamba Mentality and the idea of striving to be better every single day. I have a small tattoo of his jerseys and name on the wrist of my writing hand and it serves as a reminder to push past writing (and life) obstacles and put my all in everything I write. Outside of God and family, Kobe has been my biggest inspiration.
Visit Kelly J. Baptist’s website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Wednesday, September 9, 2020

Gerald Elias

A graduate of Yale, Gerald Elias has been a Boston Symphony violinist, Associate Concertmaster of the Utah Symphony since 1988, Adjunct Professor of Music at the University of Utah, first violinist of the Abramyan String Quartet, and Music Director of the Vivaldi Candlelight concert series.

His novels include Devil's Trill, Danse Macabre, Death and the Maiden, Playing With Fire, and Spring Break.

Elias's new novel is The Beethoven Sequence.

My Q&A with the author:

How much work does your title do to take readers into the story?

For The Beethoven Sequence, I took my cue from the master of the thriller, Robert Ludlum, he of The Bourne Identity and dozens of his other best sellers with a similar title structure. As a reader, when I see a title like that, I think, "Hmm, that's intriguing. I feel a secret conspiracy coming on, or an international plot, or power behind the throne lurking somewhere in the darkness. I wonder, "What that's all about?"

Of course, the title has to have an integral relationship to the story, whether it's the name of the main character or whatever device it is that functions as the drama's trigger. In the case of my book, the Beethoven Sequence is a musical construct that was created by the mentally imbalanced protagonist, Layton Stolz, whose obsession with Beethoven's vision of liberty is so perverted that in the end he becomes a monomaniacal despot. I hope the prospective reader will look at the title and say, "Ooh, The Beethoven Sequence. Now that sounds interesting!"

What's in a name?

As I write a book, I constantly change the names of the characters until I've settled on names that really fit their personalities. On occasion, I've sometimes confounded my editors when I've neglected to correct every one of the changes, and they write back saying, "Who the hell is so-and-so on page 168?" Whoops.

During a first draft, I often just plug in names as place holders, knowing that I'm going to change them. But that doesn't always happen. In my Daniel Jacobus mystery series, for instance, I took my son's name, Jacob Daniel, switched the order, and plugged it in. It stuck! Six books later, and it still works. Not that my son will ever forgive me.

For The Beethoven Sequence, here are the names of two of the main characters I eventually settled on, and why:

The protagonist: Layton Stolz. It's a blunt, working class name. Nothing poetic about it. What you see is what you get. Someone you wouldn't expect to get very far in the world. In a nod to Dickens, many of whose characters' names "sounded like" their personalities, someone with a strong imagination might construe "Layton Stolz" as sounding like "Latent Dolts." In any case, you can tell that for someone with a name like Layton Stolz to become president of the US, there would inevitably be a mountain of challenges to climb.

Stolz's loyal assistant: Ann Smith. I couldn't think of a plainer name. (Apologies to all those beautiful Ann Smith's out there.) The tragedy of Ann Smith is that she has no personality of her own, and the only way for her to find meaning in life is to attach herself to Stolz like a barnacle to a killer whale. It's only at the bitter end that she realizes the horror of her choice and the emptiness of her life.

How surprised would your teenage reader self be by your new novel?

I recall reading Nineteen Eighty-Four as a teenager (long before 1984 and not long after Joe McCarthy) and thinking, "Oh, my God, this is so horrifying because it's so plausible!" and counting the years left until we reached the title's doomsday date. Because Orwell's literary approach was so rooted in the here-and-now and so mundane it made the terror of Big Brother eminently believable. For years, I looked over my shoulder everywhere I went (and am starting to again).

With The Beethoven Sequence, with its own dystopian direction, my teenage reader self would be asking the questions, "Can this really happen? Can a deranged political outsider with no experience in governing really become president? Can someone in that position consolidate his power, eliminate his enemies, and destroy democracy while purporting to defend it?"

Do you find it harder to write beginnings or endings? Which do you change more?

Typically, my books start with a central idea and a rough plot outline, but I allow myself the latitude for that idea to morph into something substantially different or bigger. For The Beethoven Sequence the initial idea was: What could the potential ramifications be if the extraordinarily popular Suzuki Method of violin playing were given an injection of super-steroids? The book actually started out as a short story, but as I developed the characters, I found I had no choice but to expand it into a full-fledged thriller.

As I always do, I sketched a basic plot, Point A through Point Z with some stops in between, but as I got to know the characters more and as the complexities of the story began to reveal themselves, both ends of the book evolved, especially the ending.I hope I will have convinced the readers that the ending seems inevitable. But it certainly didn't start that way!

Do you see much of yourself in your characters? Do they have any connection to your personality, or are they a world apart?

As my Daniel Jacobus mystery series takes place in the dark corners of the classical music world, I’ve seen the world from many of my characters’ perspectives, so I find a little bit of myself in many of them, even the villains. One time, giving a talk at a bookstore, I introduced Jacobus as "a blind, curmudgeonly, over-the-hill violin teacher," upon which the bookstore manager quipped, "Does that mean, Jerry, that the book is autobiographical?" Before I could reply, he corrected himself. "Oh, of course not. You're not blind."

There's no possibility I'll fall into that trap with The Beethoven Sequence, in which all the characters are totally the products of my decidedly macabre imagination and of reading the daily headlines.

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

Call it prescience rather than inspiration, but believe it or not, I really did write much of this book before the current administration in Washington.
Learn more about the book and author at Gerald Elias's website.

The Page 69 Test: The Beethoven Sequence.

--Marshal Zeringue

Monday, September 7, 2020

Sarah Warburton

Sarah Warburton is the oldest of four sisters, raised in Virginia, and an avid reader and knitter. She has a B.A. in Latin from the College of William and Mary, an M.A. in classics from the University of Georgia and another from Brown. Warburton has worked at independent bookstores--Page One Books in Albuquerque and Books on the Square in Providence--and spent ten years as a writer, which led her to become lead editor for UpClose Magazine. Her short story "Margaret's Magnolia" appeared in Southern Arts Journal, and her Pushcart prize nominated story "Survival English" appeared in Oyster River Page. Now she lives with her family--husband, son, daughter, and hound dog--in the mountains of Southwestern Virginia.

Warburton's new novel is Once Two Sisters.

My Q&A with the author:

How much work does your title do to take readers into the story?

I chose Once Two Sisters because it felt like the beginning of a fairy tale. Right away you know that these two sisters are different, and that is the seed of the story. The older sister, Ava, used to tell stories to her younger sister Ava, and as an adult and best-selling novelist, she mined Zoe’s life for her plots. Ava is controlled, successful, and cerebral. Zoe is bold, reckless, and passionate. Each sister measures herself against the other. Also Once Two Sisters is only a half step away from Once Upon a Time, and throughout the novel Ava continues to use the storytelling technique as a coping mechanism. I hope that in addition to setting up the conflict, Once Two Sisters also hints at the promise of a happily-ever-after.

What's in a name?

I think Zoe answers this one best: “Two are always in opposition—good and bad, oldest and youngest, smart and dumb, black and white—and with names like Ava and Zoe, it was obvious we were the alpha and omega, the only two our parents intended to have.”

How surprised would your teenage reader self be by your novel?

My teenage self would be surprised it took so long! Seriously, even as a teenager I read crime novels and thrillers, graduating from Lois Duncan and Agatha Christie to Barbara Michaels, Daphne DuMaurier, Stephen King and Ed McBain. I spent hours in the library, running my hands over the stacks, pulling out whatever caught my interest. I hope that my teenage self would open up Once Two Sisters, glance at the first page, and be hooked.

Do you find it harder to write beginnings or endings? Which do you change more?

The beginning of this book was so clear to me, like I could hear Zoe whispering in my ear. But when I submitted the first chapter to Embark Literary Journal (which only publishes first chapters) I didn’t even have the ending completely written. I knew where the story was going, but it took a long weekend with my writing group and a lot of queso and chips for me to write all the way to “The End.” And even after that I did plenty of revisions to get it where I wanted it.

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

My sisters would laugh at this, but they are definitely a huge source of inspiration. As the oldest of four, I really think our families are the people we know the best, and yet because we think we know them so well, we can mischaracterize or just plan misunderstand huge parts of their lives. And I also find music hugely inspirational. While I was writing Once Two Sisters, I listened to First Aid Kit, a Swedish folk duo made up of two sisters, music from the television show Good Girls to pump myself up, and a playlist I created called “Creepy” with songs by Rasputina, Freedy Johnson, and Neko Case to get in the right frame of mind for the missile silo scenes.
Visit Sarah Warburton's website.

My Book, The Movie: Once Two Sisters.

--Marshal Zeringue

Saturday, September 5, 2020

Teri Bailey Black

Teri Bailey Black grew up near the beach in Southern California in a large, quirky family with no television or junk food, but an abundance of books and art supplies. She’s happiest when she’s creating things, whether it’s with words, fabric, or digging in the garden. She makes an amazing chocolate cherry cake—frequently. She and her husband have four children and live in Orange County, California.

Black's new novel is Chasing Starlight.

My Q&A with the author:

How much work does your title do to take readers into the story?

For a year, this book didn’t have a title as I waited for the right words to pop into my head. You know, that perfect little phrase that explained to readers that this is a murder mystery set in Old Hollywood, with a main character inspired by Katharine Hepburn and Nancy Drew; a mansion filled with quirky, aspiring actors; a gangster subplot; the inner workings of a movie studio; and romance.

Then cover design started and I needed a title fast. I frantically scribbled ideas in a notebook. At first, I wanted something a bit obscure and literary. Maybe ... The Luminosity of Stars? My publisher (wisely) wanted something more sellable.

Since my main character is an aspiring astronomer, I thought it would be fun to play off the double meaning of stars—both the glamorous type and heavenly. I wrote down every star-related phrase I could think of, but nothing felt right—until I wrote down Chasing Starlight and knew it was perfect. I couldn’t understand why I hadn’t thought of it sooner. But isn’t that always the way with good ideas?

What's in a name?

My main character was inspired by Katherine Hepburn—a smart, no-nonsense, say-it-like-it-is girl, who’s trying to remain sensible as she’s caught up in the allure of Hollywood and a murder mystery. I named her Katherine Hildebrand, and she went by Kate.

As the story evolved, I realized something significant happened to her four years ago, which changed how she felt about herself. In my second draft, she was called Kitty as a child (when she felt safe and loved) and changed it to Kate after that significant event. Now, whenever someone calls her Kitty, she quickly corrects them; she’s Kate now (a name of hard edges, as she points).

How surprised would your teenage reader self be by your new novel?

Not surprised. Growing up, I wrote prolifically from every genre: historical, contemporary, high fantasy, Regency romance, detective stories.

My first published novel, Girl at the Grave, happened to be a Gothic murder mystery set in the 1800’s, so when I set out to write a second book for the same publisher, I imagined a similar historical setting. But I wanted it set in my home state of California, and life was still very wild west in the 1800’s. I hadn’t planned on writing a western.

I wracked my brain for an interesting time and place in California’s history -- hit upon Old Hollywood and got very excited. My grandfather worked at the MGM Motion Picture Studio as a propmaker for thirty years, so I felt a personal connection.

Do you find it harder to write beginnings or endings? Which do you change more?

Endings are easy, because I know my characters and story so well by then. But beginnings are the fun stuff. Those first few chapters have no boundaries, with ideas pouring in—an intriguing situation, interesting characters, an atmospheric setting. I can change anything without having to rewrite an entire manuscript.

The muddy middle is the hard part, when I have to figure out what all these interesting people are supposed to be doing. At that point, I stop and outline the entire plot (loosely), and then start over at chapter one, with a better idea of where I’m going.

Do you see much of yourself in your characters? Do they have any connection to your personality, or are they a world apart?

Kate Hildebrand is a lot like me. More sensible than emotional. Organized. I laughed as I wrote one of my own pet peeves into her dialogue: a sign-up clipboard passed around a large meeting, nobody knows which way to pass it, so an entire section of the room gets
missed. For Kate’s perfectionist traits, I looked to my daughter, who writes daily lists and checks the weather forecast every night so she can plan what to wear the next day. (I write lists but tend to ignore them.)

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

As I started writing, I set out to watch a few old films to learn about movie making in the 1930's—and quickly became an obsessive fan, my TV airing a nonstop stream of black-and-white singing, dancing, and snappy dialogue.

Everyone should do themselves a favor and watch To Have and Have Not, Stage Door, The Big Sleep, The More the Merrier, and His Girl Friday. (I could go on.)

I’ll add a warning: Vintage films are often sexist and racist. In a strange way, it’s so blatant, it actually showcases how ignorant and abhorrent those attitudes are. Old movies are history lessons as well as entertainment, and sometimes that history shows its ugly side.
Visit Teri Bailey Black's website.

The Page 69 Test: Chasing Starlight.

--Marshal Zeringue

Thursday, September 3, 2020

Alexandra Joel

Alexandra Joel is a former editor of the Australian edition of Harper's Bazaar and of Portfolio, Australia's first magazine for working women. While occupying a number of other executive positions in the media industry she also contributed feature articles, interviews and reviews to national and metropolitan publications. She is the author of Parade: The Story of Fashion in Australia and Best Dressed: 200 Years of Fashion in Australia. Both detail the development of fashion, style and national identity. Her recent book, Rosetta: A Scandalous True Story, has been optioned for the screen by a major US-owned production company.

With an honours degree from the University of Sydney and a graduate diploma from the Australian College of Applied Psychology, Joel has also been a practising counsellor and psychotherapist. She has two children and lives in Sydney with her husband. She is a keen student of art, fashion, history and politics and is exceedingly fond of Paris.

The Paris Model is Joel's debut novel.

My Q&A with the author:

How much work does your title do to take readers into the story?

I knew immediately that my book’s title had to be The Paris Model. It evoked both the setting and the fabulous, high fashion world inhabited by my heroine. Fortunately, my publisher agreed!

Although the title takes the reader straight into the story, the book also depicts the early life of Grace Woods, who was raised on a vast sheep and wheat ranch in country Australia. Only after making a shocking discovery does she flee to glamorous post-war Paris in order to solve the mystery of her true identity.

Having become a model for the newly famous couturier, Christian Dior, Grace begins a complicated romance with the mysterious Philippe Boyer. As she is drawn into his dangerous world of international espionage, she not only discovers the dramatic truth of her origins, but also the meaning of bravery, loss and the enduring love between a parent and child.

What’s in a name?

As The Paris Model is inspired by a real person, I used her actual name, Grace Woods. I should add here that readers will discover there is more to her name than either they – or she – might first have thought.

The names of Grace’s parents are also real, as of course are the many fascinating individuals she encounters in Paris, including Pablo Picasso, Rita Hayworth, Julia Child and Jacqueline Bouvier, the future Jackie Kennedy Onassis.

How surprised would your teenage reader self be by your novel?

I would have been stunned, mainly because I loved books so much and was so in awe of novelists I never dreamt I could actually be one myself.

Do you find it harder to write beginnings or endings? Which do you change more?

The start of the book is so much harder to nail down than the end. My beginnings never finish up being the beginning, because I always seem to jump into the issue or turning point that matters most to my leading character. However, as readers need to know much more before I make this sort of revelation, those passages inevitably end up being relocated somewhere else in the manuscript.

Endings are quite different. I find they come easily because by then I have lived my characters’ lives with such intensity that I just know how their story will conclude.

Do you see much of yourself in your characters? Do they have any connection to your personality or are they a world apart?

I really enjoy writing about strong, courageous women who tackle significant challenges – personally, professionally and even physically – though I’m not sure I’m as brave as any of my heroines.

I suppose that all my characters reflect some aspect of me, even the reprehensible ones, though it’s certainly a more hidden, darker side. They also reveal my fantasies: when it comes to one of my leading ladies I frequently think, ‘I want her life!’

Luckily for me, via writing, I’m able to walk in the footsteps of every one of my complex characters.

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

History, travel, films, art… the list goes on, for you never know what will be the spark that sets you off on your next writing adventure.

When it comes to inspiring people, my father was a wonderful storyteller with an incredible imagination. To this day I can hear his voice conjuring imaginary worlds with verve and commitment. I hope I capture that vivid quality in my writing.

My mother was a very successful model, so I grew up seeing her swishing about looking incredibly stylish. Perhaps that’s one of the reasons I always include fashion in my books, not just because of the sheer glamour but also because clothes say so much about an individual’s personality and the era in which someone lived. This is particularly important for a novelist like me who writes historical fiction. Another huge influence has been my two earlier careers, the first in journalism and the second as a psychotherapist. I have had the privilege of sitting in rooms with countless individuals, asking them questions and listening to their stories. There could be no greater inspiration for a writer.
Visit Alexandra Joel's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Wednesday, September 2, 2020

Rosanne Parry

Rosanne Parry is the author of the many award winning novels including Heart of a Shepherd, Last of the Name and A Wolf Called Wander which has spent more than 40 weeks on the New York Times best seller list. Her new novel is A Whale of the Wild. Parry and her family live in an old farmhouse in Portland, Oregon. She writes in a tree house in her back yard.

My Q&A with the author:

How much work does your title do to take readers into the story?

Titles are hard, and A Whale of the Wild, had extra work to do. It is a companion novel to last year’s A Wolf Called Wander which has spent 40+ weeks on the NYT best seller list, so the title needed to be similar. And the wolf book sold a dozen translations, so we needed to pick a title easy to translate.

I had hoped to work the word “orca” into the title because my story is told from the point of view of a sister and brother orca in the Salish Sea, but we went with “whale” in the end because it’s more familiar in Europe and Asia.

I had also hoped to work in the word “journey” because the orcas travel from the San Juan Islands near the US Canadian border out to the open Pacific and back again to the Puget Sound south of Seattle all in search of their family and the salmon they need to eat.

In the end we went with “wild” because one of my primary reasons for writing from the point of view of an animal is to help young readers feel a connection—a sense of kinship—with the wild places of America.

What's in a name?

I’m always checking shop employee name tags for a good character name!

But with my orca characters I didn’t want to use conventional human names because names have historic and ethnic connotations I was hoping to avoid. Also the 70+ members of the Southern Resident Killer Whale community who inspired this book all have names I didn’t want to use because the book is not based on any particular orca.

In the end I chose to name all my characters with the names of stars. The matriarchs of the group are named for the brightest stars in the northern hemisphere. My main characters are named Vega and Deneb for the main stars in the summer triangle. The big males in the group are named for Rigel and Anteres after the supergiant stars. I like how those names confer a sense of dignity and timelessness.

How surprised would your teenage reader self be by your new novel?

My teenaged self would be shocked I chose to write for a living at all. I hated writing in school. I’m a terrible speller and when I was a teen I just assumed it meant I was a bad writer. What a relief to learn that the making up things part is really the most important bit when you are the writer. And cheers to my heroically patient editor and overworked copy editor for making my pages more correct than I could make them on my own.

Do you see much of yourself in your characters? Do they have any connection to your personality, or are they a world apart?

One of my greatest assets as a writer for young readers is my enormous family. I have lots of nieces and nephews some of whom now have kids of their own, so there’s always a middle grade aged reader in my life.

My main character Vega is an oldest child, she’s going to be the way finder of her family some day and that responsibility weighs heavily on her. So when I write from Vega’s point of view I am thinking about all the matriarchs-in-the-making in my own family—those girls who are such strivers, brilliant competitors, so caring, but also who worry and second guess more than they probably should.

Deneb is a younger brother and for him I’m channeling those boys with big sisters in my life who are big-hearted, funny, brave, and trying so hard to be a man among the men of our family. Even when they make a mistake, they are trying to do right.

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

Research is really one of my favorite parts of the writing process and so I relied a lot on the scientists who work on cetaceans in the Salish Sea for information that helped shape the events of the plot. I’m grateful to the Center for Whale Research and The Whale Museum in Friday Harbor and the Sea Doc Society on Orcas Island.

I’ve also learned a lot from the many Indian Nations of the Salish Sea who have thousands of years of history living side by side with orcas. They have also done much to support healthy rivers and remove dams in order to restore the salmon runs both orcas and Indians need to survive.
Visit Rosanne Parry's website.

--Marshal Zeringue