Monday, November 23, 2020

Wayne Santos

Over the years, Wayne Santos has written copy for advertising agencies, scripts for television, and articles for magazines. He’s lived in Canada, Thailand and Singapore, traveling to many countries around South East Asia. His first love has always been science fiction and fantasy, and while he regularly engaged with it in novels, comics, anime and video games, it wasn’t until 1996, with his first short story in the Canadian speculative fiction magazine On Spec that he aimed towards becoming a novelist.

He now lives in Canada, in Hamilton, ON with his wife. When he’s not writing, he is likely to be found reading, playing video games, watching anime, or trying to calm his cat down.

Santos's new novel is The Chimera Code.

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

The Chimera Code was the title that my publishers finally settled on. I’ll be frank and admit that titles aren’t my strong suit. I’m definitely one of those people who, if could say something succinctly, I probably would have been a poet or a song writer, but no, it takes me tens of thousands of words to get the point across.

The original title of the book was just “Chimera,” and that was in reference to the fact that a combined arms combat squad utilizing conventional weapons, magic and digital attacks are referred to in the military jargon of the world as “Chimera units.” That, of course is a reference to the many headed mythical beast. That was just my way of indicating that the book itself, a mix of cyberpunk and magic, was similarly something with multiple body parts from other animals all retrofitted together.

What's in a name?

My naming conventions for characters tend to be a mix of names that just pop in there intuitively, and consulting phone books or baby name generators randomly. For The Chimera Code, Cloke’s name is not her actual street legal name, but one she gave herself. I actually got that name from an actor in Space: Above and Beyond named Kristen Cloke. I just really liked the sound of it, and when I tried it on for size on that character, it stuck.

Zee is a lab-engineered hacker that was designed without a gender, so they eventually decided on the name “Zee” since they’re neither XX, or XY, but something else entirely. So that was just a way to claim an identity that was still pretty declarative of who that person is.

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

I think my teenage self would have mixed feelings of surprise. There would be the positive surprise of finding out that older me had written a book that younger me could enjoy, with explosions, cyberpunk settings, magic, and some meandering world building that never stops and lectures you.

But my teenage self would also be surprised in a negative way. At that time in my life, I had some expectation that I would let go of the childish things in my fiction writing, and eventually write something of literary significance. The kind of thing that critics would praise as having depth and profundity. Instead I wrote something fun, that I personally enjoyed, and teenage me would have expected more than that.

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

Between the two, I think endings are probably a bit harder. I tend to “discovery write,” meaning that I start the book with only a few fixed plot points in mind, and let the characters figure out the rest for themselves. The end is not always one of those fixed points, but the beginning usually is. I haven’t written any books with major changes to the beginning although the endings have sometimes gotten tweaked along the way.

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

The one thing I tend to share with most of my characters is snark. To people I’m close to, they all know I can get pretty sarcastic, and enjoy snappy repartee, and that’s something that will usually surface in at least one character. Often multiple, in different flavors of snark. Otherwise, they’re usually their own people.

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

Plenty of non-literary influences! The biggest ones are video games, anime and movies. I freely crib from a lot of other forms of entertainment in the hopes that people unfamiliar with one type will think I’m brilliantly original and not just stealing from a type of entertainment they have no interest in.
Visit Wayne Santos's website.

The Page 69 Test: The Chimera Code.

My Book, The Movie: The Chimera Code.

--Marshal Zeringue

Saturday, November 21, 2020

Kristin Fields

Kristin Fields grew up in Queens, which she likes to think of as a small town next to a big city. She studied writing at Hofstra University, where she was awarded the Eugene Schneider Award for Short Fiction. After college, Fields found herself working on a historic farm, as a high school English teacher, designing museum education programs, and is currently leading an initiative to bring gardens to public schools in New York City, where she lives with her husband.

Fields's new novel is A Frenzy of Sparks.

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

I always know the title of my novels before I start writing. In many ways, the title becomes the question I work backwards to answer. There are many ways that A Frenzy of Sparks connects to the themes of the novel: coming of age, addiction, the civil, political, and societal demands for change (not unlike those of today). In both of my novels, A Lily in the Light and A Frenzy of Sparks, the title has also been a line in the story.

What's in a name?

My family is Italian American. Writing this novel was really a way to connect back to many aspects of my upbringing and the names of my characters were no exception to this. Gia, Leo, Agnes, Eddie, Lorraine, Ray, Tommy, all the Joes and Lous. These were all common names I heard growing up. I loved the name Gia because it was so simple – just three strong letters – much like her personality.

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

One of the earliest facts I knew about myself was that I wanted to be a writer. Someday. I wish I could go back in time and tell my teenage self that someday she will write novels. More than one. I think it would have made my teenage self a little bolder and less shy knowing that there were promising things in her future.

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

Definitely beginnings. The first three chapters of a novel are so important because they set the scene for the rest of the story. In many ways, every character trait, any relationship dynamics, etc that will be important to the story later need to be introduced in the beginning so that the story builds in a way that makes sense to the reader. I often don’t write the beginning of the story until the bulk of the middle/end is done so that I can set the beginning up properly.

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

Gia is the closest character I’ve written to myself. I was a lot like Gia when I was her age. I loved nature. It explained the world around me and I felt like I had a better understanding of nature than I had of people. I was quiet and observant and wanted to do good in a world that didn’t quit feel entirely open to me as a girl as it did to boys. Gia doesn’t understand why the rules are different for her than they are for her slightly older brother and she challenges them in a way I didn’t know how to when I was her age. Gia is also a lot braver than I was.

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

Shortly after I decided to write A Frenzy of Sparks, I was cleaning on a Saturday morning with music streaming, and the universe sent me Brandi Carlile's "The Eye." It’s about watching someone you love return to old habits that aren’t good for them. My favorite line from the song is, “You can dance in a hurricane, but only if you’re standing in the eye.”

It struck a nerve. For weeks, I listened to it over and over again; at home, on the subway, walking, trying to figure out what it was that gripped me and how it was connected to A Frenzy of Sparks. Eventually, I realized that Gia, the main character, was Brandi's "sturdy soul" in the eye of a hurricane watching her world spin out around her. It was an image I kept returning to as I wrote A Frenzy of Sparks.
Visit Kristin Fields's website.

The Page 69 Test: A Lily in the Light.

My Book, The Movie: A Frenzy of Sparks.

The Page 69 Test: A Frenzy of Sparks.

--Marshal Zeringue

Thursday, November 19, 2020

Susan Lewis

Susan Lewis is the bestselling author of My Lies, Your Lies and over forty more books across the genres of family drama, thriller, suspense and crime. She is also the author of Just One More Day and One Day at a Time, the moving memoirs of her childhood in Bristol during the 1960s. Following periods of living in Los Angeles and the South of France, she currently lives in Gloucestershire with her husband James, stepsons Michael and Luke, and mischievous dogs Coco and Lulu.

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

I sometimes feel that getting the right title can be almost as difficult as deciding what the book is going to be about. I think titles can matter a lot, especially for less well-known authors as their names won’t be strong enough on their own to pull readers in. In the case of My Lies, Your Lies I knew I had to come up with something fast, as my publisher was keen to go with a title I simply didn’t feel was right. Their suggestion was Forgive Me which didn’t cover it at all. (It is now the title for my next book.) Luckily, everyone went for My Lies, Your Lies as it does go some way towards telling you what the book is about.

What's in a name?

Names are always important to me. It helps me to see the character, to understand something of their personality and to portray the right image of them to a reader. In My Lies, Your Lies I chose the name Joely for the lead protagonist because of its gentleness, elegance and relevance to age (early forties). There is also, I feel, a determination and intelligence to it. As for Freda, the other main character, I chose that because, in my view, it’s strong, not very feminine and has an older and even slightly feisty resonance to it. She’s a difficult woman with all sorts of issues, and for some reason that name just suited her.

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

Shocked beyond words! This is my forty-eighth bestseller (in the UK) so my teenage self would be utterly shocked by that too. My Lies, Your Lies is something of a departure novel for me with so many mind games and the highly controversial storyline that’s set in the Sixties. So even at my age today, I’m a little shocked by it.

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

I think endings are more difficult. I actually love writing beginnings; this is when I start to make new friends, settling into the company of strangers who will become as close and troublesome as family in the following months. In My Lies, Your Lies I didn’t know for quite a while how I’d end it, but when I finally hit on the right way it was one of those YES moments. The sudden twist of it has invited much contact and comment from readers, although I won’t say in what sense as I don’t want to spoil it. I’ve no idea which I end up changing more, the beginning or the end. Probably the nuance of the ending rather than the actual ending itself.

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

Having written so many books I could never say I see myself in all the characters – I’d be pretty weird if I could! However, they will often – not always – have similar views, aspirations and even politics to mine. I would find it very difficult to write a lead character with opposing opinions or life-values to my own, at least in a sympathetic sense. I save that for the antagonists – always a great way to get myself worked up into a frenzy of outrage. I find it almost impossible to write someone who is wholly bad, they keep presenting me with redeeming features and I just have to go with them.

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

Most of my inspirations are non-literary. I am regularly deeply moved and/or fascinated by other people’s lives and the experiences they endure and battle to overcome. This can range from the agonising and terrifying wait for a new heart; to the horrendous threat of homelessness; to the tragedy of dementia, to date-rape, to murder, to cancer; to falling victim to a crazy stranger’s vendetta (as in My Lies, Your Lies.) This makes the subjects seem very downbeat, but I promise they don’t read that way. There is humour in everything, even if it’s black, and all kinds of romance. I see it as my job to engage a reader in a way that will uplift, inform and most of all make them care.
Visit Susan Lewis's website.

My Book, The Movie: My Lies, Your Lies.

--Marshal Zeringue

Wednesday, November 18, 2020

Ruth Gilligan

Ruth Gilligan is a writer and academic from Dublin now based in the UK. She has published five books to date and was the youngest person ever to top the Irish Bestsellers’ List.

Her most recent novel, The Butchers [US title: The Butchers' Blessing], is set in the Irish borderlands during the 1996 BSE crisis, and was published to widespread acclaim in March 2020.

Gilligan holds degrees from Cambridge, Yale, UEA and Exeter. She contributes literary reviews to the Irish Independent, Guardian, TLS and LA Review of Books. She works as a Senior Lecturer in Creative Writing at the University of Birmingham and is an ambassador for the global storytelling charity Narrative 4.

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

I would have said that the title of my novel was key – the thing that came almost before the story itself; the one aspect of my work-in-progress that I was happy to talk about.

‘What are you writing at the moment?’ people would ask.

‘A novel called The Butchers.’

‘Ooh – great title!’

And this was still the case when the book came out in the UK and Ireland – a book about the clash of tradition and modernity in late 90s Ireland; a book about a group of eight men, known as the Butchers, who travel the country slaughtering cattle according to a set of ancient folkloric customs; a book about the women they leave behind.

But then the book was bought by an American publisher and the first thing they said was: ‘We love the novel, but we need to change the name.’

They said it was too violent; too savage; that although the Butchers were a key feature of the plot, there was so much else going on too – there were stories of family and loss; of folklore and feminism; stories of individuals – and the country around them – finally coming of age. The Butchers, as a title, was too specific; too harsh.

In the end, we compromised on The Butchers’ Blessing. It meant there was a continuity between the UK and US editions, but it was also a little softer; a little less gory; a little more suggestive of the focus on faith and tradition and superstition. I will never know for certain how the different titles effect readers’ experience of being taken into the story on either side of the Atlantic, but I definitely have some thoughts…

What's in a name?

Because, as I mentioned, The Butchers’ Blessing is all about the tension between ancient and modern Ireland, it felt important that the Butchers – and their families – all had Irish (ie. Gaelic) names. So we have Úna and her father Cúch, which is short for Cúchulain, the ancient Irish hero. We also have Cúch’s wife Grá, which is, incidentally, the Irish word for love – something she struggles with as the novel goes on. All my British friends would message me asking me to send a Whatsapp voice note explaining how to pronounce these unfamiliar words, but I resisted, because that was the whole point – I wanted them to feel unfamiliar, a bit strange, part of a language that has all but died out; to give readers that sense of the Butchers and their families hailing from another time, another world.

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

Unbelievably my teenage self wasn’t just a reader she was also a writer – I published my first book at eighteen! But it was a very different thing – a semi-autobiographical commercial novel set in suburban Dublin, all about young people finishing high school and coming of age and making stupid mistakes. People liked the ‘authenticity’ of the voice given I was drawing directly on the world I knew; with The Butchers' Blessing, the opposite is the case. Farm life, the Irish border counties, the folklore and superstition of that wild landscape – all of that was completely new to me and required years of research. So yes, teenage Ruth would be pretty surprised!

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

In terms of plot, I tend to have a fairly clear sense of where I want the novel to start and end – the latter in particular feels like the punchline I am always trying, eventually, to work towards. In terms of writing style, however, I find openings really difficult – they can feel so laboured, so much like the author (ie me) is trying to find their groove; like they are trying a bit too hard to lure you in. So yes, in terms of editing, I definitely find myself revising the beginning over and over again.

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

I definitely see myself in Úna who is arguably the main character in The Butchers’ Blessing. She is an odd, devout, curious child who is devoted to her father, and who is totally bewildered by the fact that certain aspects of her life might be dictated by her gender. She is a rebel, but also a sensitive soul – I can definitely relate! There are other characters like Fionn the farmer who seems a world away from me and my experience, but I do relish the challenge to trying to put myself in someone else’s unfamiliar shoes – that is the whole point of fiction, for me, to develop empathy and to experience new perspectives.

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

I listened to a lot of great Irish music while writing this novel – The Gloaming and Colm Mac Con Iomaire were particularly influences, creating the perfect, haunting backdrop to this windswept, eerie landscape. Great Irish playwrights like Brian Friel and even Enda Walsh were great for dialogue, the musicality of their characters’ speech. This novel, for all its preoccupation with folklore, is also steeped in fact – I read every Irish newspaper from 1996 to make sure the headlines and pop culture references were accurate throughout. Who knew I would ever write a novel that featured cattle and the Spice Girls?!
Visit Ruth Gilligan's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Tuesday, November 17, 2020

Glen Erik Hamilton

A native of Seattle, Glen Erik Hamilton was raised aboard a sailboat and grew up around the marinas and commercial docks and islands of the Pacific Northwest. His novels have won the Anthony, Macavity, and Strand Magazine Critics awards, and been nominated for the Edgar®, Barry, and Nero awards. He now lives in California with his family, and frequently returns to his hometown to soak up the rain.

Hamilton's latest novel is A Dangerous Breed.

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

Titles are key. They need to immediately draw a prospective reader's interest. For genre fiction they have to say "thriller" without sounding generic. And ideally a title will give a hint as to the theme of the novel. It's rare that I have a title before I've written the first or even the second draft of a new book.

A Dangerous Breed was an exception. Since I knew the story would be about Van Shaw investigating his parentage, and his worries that violence and crime were inherited traits, I had similar titles floating in my head from the start. Consequently, the motif of dogs--fearsome and otherwise--and the question of nature vs. nurture worked their way into the writing without much conscious effort.

Other titles in the series have varied histories. Sometimes my first suggestion is a slam dunk. Other times choosing the right title has involved a protracted discussion with the publisher. They have the experience; I'm at least smart enough to listen. If a title I like doesn't make the cut, I save it with a mind towards a future book or short story.

What's in a name?

I love choosing names, even though it's one of the hardest and most time-consuming steps in writing. I will frequently give a character a placeholder name until the right name occurs to me--or more likely, I ferret it out through online searches.

Think of a name as shorthand for the reader, conveying character traits through syllables. My protagonist's name is Van Shaw. The name is Irish, and direct. Almost blunt. The name Shaw creating a sound like a sword being drawn. His full given name is Donovan, the same as the grandfather who raised him to be a thief. Inherited name, inherited outlook.

In A Dangerous Breed, I introduce a few new characters, including the ruthless and paranoid international arms dealer Anatoly Liashko. The last name close to lash​, with the crack of the whip at the end. Van has a new love interest in Raina Marchand, known as Wren. Wren's French Moroccan heritage is implied in her name--she's certainly more well-traveled than Van--but it's her nickname that's most telling. Wren is a flight risk, and Van might be risking his heart to trust that she'll stick around.

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

Teenaged G.E.H. would say "well, duh​". Of course I write about nefarious plots and loathsome villains and intricate heists. It's what I grew up reading. Short of writing Conan the Barbarian adventures--which I just might someday--my influences are, pardon the pun, easily read. The road from John D. MacDonald and Robert B. Parker and Patricia Highsmith to the Van Shaw series is straight and wide.

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

Both beginnings and endings take a back seat to the middle acts, which are always toughest. All of the plates are spinning, and the escalation and the reveals have to be timed just so, to lead to a satisfactory conclusion. But I'll try to answer the question asked, not the one I jumped into.

Of the two, I give the most time and thought to the opening chapters. Partly that's because the action of the novel's end is, if I've done my job right, a natural conclusion to the events in motion. Even a surprise twist is usually hinted at many chapters in advance. So the climax and denouement evolve naturally and are a little restricted because of that.

Beginnings, however, can have much more variety. Do I start with a seemingly unrelated incident? Starting with action is always good, but it might not fit the tale being told. In A Dangerous Breed, I started with a prologue for the first time, a flash-forward to Van in peril. This wasn't to start with an exciting hook--well, not just that--but to reveal something to the reader that Van can't learn until midway through the story: that he's going to meet his father for the first time. That foreknowledge lets the reader be a step ahead, knowing a piece of Van's fate that lends emotional weight to his fraught search for the truth.

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

I spend a lot of time in Van's head, or he in mine. It's natural that our points of view would share some similarities. Obviously he's smarter and tougher and is quicker with a comeback--typical wish-fulfillment there--but he's also younger and makes the kind of mistakes in his personal life that I've made. Every writer forages through their own history for specifics.

Aside from the protagonist, every character has some aspect of my own personality. Sometimes that's my darkest thoughts given shape, or my views on a topic filtered (sometimes warped) through a different outlook. I'll take traits from people I've met and give them a spin. But even those traits are how I see them, so the observer inevitably changes the observed.

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

I'm on record as a huge fan of the Columbo TV series, and part of that was how the writers played with classic mystery tropes and structure. Plot ideas frequently arise out of the news -- in A Dangerous Breed, diverse stories like recall elections, the Russian annexation of Crimea, and Seattle's massive waterfront renovation project all became ingredients. I'm often impressed by the level of dialogue in old movies. When they didn't have explosions to fall back on, the level of banter created the fireworks. Since I'm writing about a thief, I might as well steal from the best.
Visit Glen Erik Hamilton's website.

The Page 69 Test: A Dangerous Breed.

--Marshal Zeringue

Monday, November 16, 2020

Thilde Kold Holdt

Thilde Kold Holdt is a Viking, traveler and a polyglot fluent in Danish, French, English and Korean. As a writer, she is an avid researcher. This is how she first came to row for hours upon hours on a Viking warship. She loved the experience so much that she has sailed with the Viking longship the Sea Stallion ever since. Another research trip brought her to South Korea where she also learned the art of traditional Korean archery. Born in Denmark, Holdt has lived in many places and countries, taking a bit of each culture with her.

Her new novel, Northern Wrath, is the first book in The Hanged God Trilogy.

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

The title, Northern Wrath, immediately tells a potential reader that there are some people in the north, and that these people are pretty angry. So that certainly puts potential readers on the right path.

The title also encapsulates the first book in a different way for readers, as it references both a scene and a physical symbol within the book.

What's in a name?

The names of my characters tend to define their journeys. Take Hilda, for example, whose name means battle, or warrior. Her dream to become a warrior is essential to her journey, and her name encapsulates that desire. Meanwhile, Einer means lone warrior, and that too defines the path he must take.

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

My teenage self would probably be ecstatic and very proud, more so than surprised. You see, my teenage self was both ambitious and arrogant, so anything less than a 600 pages novel with a huge amount of research behind it was just not going to be impressive to my past self.

That being said… If we are talking my past self at the age of twelve, pre-teenage years, she would have been very surprised to see herself grow up to write something that is so grounded in history and research. When I was twelve I had a great history teacher for a year, and for the first time I thought: “hey, this history thing can be pretty cool!” Had I not had Mr. Costes in history class as a young kid, I would never have had the confidence to tackle history.

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

Beginnings are more difficult. Sometimes it is only when you reach the end that you know where you need to start in order to tell the story the right way. Northern Wrath was like that. It has had six different beginnings. The current opening chapter was one of the last things I wrote, and it came a long time after finishing the manuscript.

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

Neither nor. Since they come from my imagination, they must have pieces of me, and some probably have more and others less, but it hasn’t been a conscious effort.

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

The biggest inspiration is undoubtedly the time I’ve spent sailing aboard a Viking warship. By the time I began to sail with the ship I was already halfway through Northern Wrath, but my experience aboard changed my perception of the Vikings and their communities and one can even say that it shaped the novel.

Northern Wrath is about a village’s final battle to protect their way of life. It was only after sailing with the longship that I realised that in reality, the story is not about a village but about a family’s struggle to survive and protect each other. They don’t really need to be blood-related to be family. They’re all from Ash-hill and that is a bond that is as strong as blood.
Visit Thilde Kold Holdt's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Sunday, November 15, 2020

Martyn Ford

Martyn Ford is a journalist and award-winning author from the UK.

His debut middle-grade children's book, The Imagination Box, was published by Faber & Faber in 2015 to critical acclaim and has since become a trilogy. This was followed by 2019's standalone title, Chester Parsons is Not a Gorilla.

Ford's adult debut is Every Missing Thing.

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

It sets the tone and subject matter. The story is broadly about two missing characters and the effect their absence has on everyone else. Our focus is on what’s not there and what we don’t see, even when we’re watching closely.

There are also subtler themes around honesty and similar virtues lacking from some of the main characters. And how corrosive, and ultimately catastrophic, such shortfalls can be on a long enough timeline.

Plus, it sounds cool. Which is a big factor when coming up with a title.

What's in a name?

In Every Missing Thing some names and their spellings are deliberate and touch on themes in play, but these are definitely subtle. Generally speaking, as with titles, how the name sounds is most important.

Naming characters can be tricky though, but I think a lot of the process is subconscious. In practical terms, once you know setting, period, themes and a few traits, you can usually get a sense for things on instinct alone. If your main character is, say, a Brazilian astronaut and the story is a serious sci-fi horror, you probably shouldn’t call him Lord Jeremy Baxter.

Once it feels OK, the next stage is simply putting it into Google to check they’re not famous. On the other side of these bottlenecks, we’re free to explore.

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

Probably not that surprised. I imagine he’d like it. I think a lot of my biggest influences can be traced back to things that made an impression on me when I was young.

Also, it seems obvious to say, but the book is very “me” – it’s exactly the kind of thing I’d like to read.

However, I bet my teenage self would be able to deliver quite a sharp critique. I know which bits he wouldn’t like. But then again, he’s an idiot so I’d take it with a pinch of salt.

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

Beginnings are probably harder and change more as the story takes shape. Generally, I have an ending in mind when I start writing.

With Every Missing Thing, the ending (and a particular twist) was actually the very first seed of the entire idea. However, some plot points that get us there changed a number of times.

Any mystery is ultimately hanging on its conclusion. But without a strong beginning the rest is irrelevant as few people will even read it.

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

There are certainly similarities. I suppose both likeable and unlikeable characters say something about their creator.

However, there is a great deal of moral ambiguity in the story with even the best of the bunch crossing a few lines. So, I’d have to distance myself.

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

Film and TV, for sure. Also, having worked in journalism for many years, I consume a lot of news.

The media and sensationalism are major themes in Every Missing Thing. That kind of omnipresent memetic view in the wake of high-profile news stories is focal to the narrative and its resolution.

I’m interested in the way this public speculation often sees truly outlandish theories bandied about and even become something like common knowledge.

This is also prominent in lots of modern true crime documentaries, particularly those centred around an unsolved mystery.

Storytelling in this format deliberately offers the audience a great deal of agency – we are left to decide, even when we don’t have the full picture.

The novel essentially asks the question: what if one of these huge, well known mysteries was brought back into the limelight?

Our protagonist Sam is given one last chance to piece it all together and find the single most important missing thing of all: the truth.
Visit Martyn Ford's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Friday, November 13, 2020

Corey Sobel

Corey Sobel is a graduate of Duke University, where he was a scholarship football player and received the Anne Flexner Award for Fiction and the Reynolds Price Award for Scriptwriting. He has reported on human rights abuses in Burma, served as an HIV/AIDS researcher in Kenya, and consulted for the United Nations and other humanitarian organizations. He has written for numerous publications, including HuffPost, Esquire.com, and Chapel Hill News.

Sobel's new novel is The Redshirt.

My Q&A with the author:

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

That depends on a reader’s familiarity with college football.

If you know even a little bit about the game, you will know that a “redshirt” is a term used for freshmen who don’t play their first season and thus retain a year of NCAA eligibility. My hope is that this reader—let’s call them Reader A—has their interest piqued because a redshirt freshman, being the lowest of the low of players on scholarship, isn’t an intuitive focus for a novel. We won’t see this player play in games or impact their team’s season in any real way, which is usually the status quo for the heroes of what few literary novels exist about sports. So what will be the focus? Why will this player’s experience warrant an entire book? Maybe this is a long way of saying that, for the football-savvy, the title will signal that this isn’t your usual sports story—which it isn’t.

My experience so far, though, is that very few of the book’s readers know a single lonesome thing about college football—and that I haven’t heard reports of people setting The Redshirt on fire or using it as a doorstop suggests that this hasn’t been an obstacle to them enjoying it. For this reader—Reader B—the title will be a bit mysterious. Why is it “redshirt,” one word, instead of “red shirt”? Less literally, I would hope that readers’ minds wander to books that contain something similar to a red shirt; what I’ve heard most often is that they are reminded of Nathanael Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter. I am over the moon when people tell me this, because that association is very much intended. Hawthorne is one of my favorite writers, and I had his masterpiece in mind when settling on this title. Just as is the case with The Scarlet Letter, my book focuses on the customs of a deeply conservative society and on the stigma that’s affixed to anyone who dares to rebel against those mores.

My ultimate hope is that, by the end of the book, Reader A will have a new, perhaps Hawthorne-inspired take on a redshirt, Reader B will have learned at least enough about college football to see it’s a worthy literary subject, and both will have their perspective changed enough to come out of my novel a new reader—let’s call them Reader C.

What's in a name?

When I started working with my press’s absolutely stellar copy editor, Ann Marlowe, she created a working “style guide” that included, among many other things, the name of every single named character. There were 70-odd names on that list, and if we were to have counted the unnamed characters, I would guess that that number might approach 100. This isn’t surprising, given that The Redshirt is about a Division One college football program, which is allowed to have up to 85 scholarship players; will usually have another score (or two) walk-on players; more than two dozen coaches; and let’s not even get into all the maintenance staff, announcers, groundskeepers, and sundry other folks who make a program run.

This guaranteed my book would be an even bigger headache than novels usually are for their writers. Because I don’t really enjoy naming my characters, and am not sure I’m very good at it. I write fast and, at least in the beginning, a bit recklessly, and at this initial stage characters’ names mostly exist to not slow me down—there is no long rumination on the symbolic etymology of a character’s name in Walloon, no onomatopoeic function like what Dickens (so wonderfully) employs. That isn’t to say I’m not inclined toward certain sounds, and if anyone were ever interested, I’m sure they could read my names like a palm-reader does hands and suss out all sorts of fascinating nonsense about what these names say about me.

I pay closer attention to names as I begin revising, though at that point a character’s first name will be stuck in my head and will probably stay as-is. I know there is a trend these days to leave characters totally unnamed, and that there are also folks who have surprisingly strong antagonism toward writers who dare to give their characters a last or even [clutches pearls] middle name the reader is expected to memorize. Those people can go with God—in football, names are of tremendous importance, not least because you need some way to tell apart all the bodies flying around a field. So last names were a must for me, and as I said I did put some thought into the last names of my characters; I would often see what fun meanings I could generate by pairing a last name with the existing first name.

But this was only the case for the more important characters, and at a certain point I needed to just pull names out of whatever orifice I could. Sometimes, I used the name of a friend who I happened to have seen that week; sometimes, I would associate this character with that childhood bully and indulge in a little meaningless revenge; more than once, I looked up at the bookshelf that hangs above my desk and used a name on one of the spines.

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

Depends on the year of teenagehood.

My fifteen year old self, who was a football fanatic, terrible student generally, and a resentful reader specifically, would have been disgusted to see his name on a novel that focuses on the exploitative nature of the sport. He would then go off to weep in the woods of his parents’ old subdivision, since his having published a book at the age of 35 would be proof his worse fear had come true—which is to say that he wasn’t in his thirteenth season as a future Hall of Fame linebacker in the National Football League.

But if he was nineteen, and trapped in a game he had come to despise, a game that was dominating his life so completely that he didn’t have the energy to keep his eyes open during his literature seminars at Duke, let alone the psychic space to work on the fiction he wanted more than anything to spend his every waking moment working on? Well, he’d also find some quiet place to go and weep—but this would be out of gratitude.

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

In my first draft, I don’t find writing beginnings or endings difficult, mostly because I write obsessively fast. The beginning of the first draft comes quickly, in part so I can keep barreling on to get to the end as soon as possible.

But precious little of what I write is actually usable; what I’m after in a first draft is to feel, for lack of a better word, the “soul” of my book, which I guess means some energy that writing the book is generating in me which I can then recycle into writing more of it. As long as this soul exists, I can comfortably strip away all the embarrassing dialogue and overwrought descriptions and half-assed characters and write them over and over again, each try a new attempt to get what’s on the page to match the soul of the work. This happens in no set order whatsoever, and the letter and the spirit of the book’s final ending might match up many months before the same happens to the final beginning of the book.

Does this make me sound spiritual, even religious? It probably does, and that isn’t a coincidence—the only kind of magic I believe in is what happens when we use language to try and convey our experience. This modest mysticism also makes it so that I believe the beginning and the ending of a book are also invisibly and yet irrefutably linked—even though they reside at opposite poles, they are constantly, often imperceptibly, shaping one another.

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

There is a passage in the second paragraph of Thoreau’s Walden that serves as a mantra for me: “In most books, the I, or the first person, is omitted; in this [book] it will be retained; that, in respect to egotism, is the main difference. We commonly do not remember that it is, after all, always the first person that is speaking.”

What I take this to mean is that, no matter how I might narrate my books, no matter whether a character has experiences that line up with my own or is of a race, gender, sexuality, or nationality that are radically different from mine, I will still, at base, be writing about myself. I mean this in the broadest sense possible, so that if I am writing about someone who has those different identifiers, and who thinks and acts in ways I never would (or could), I am still ultimately writing about myself—in this case writing negatively, saying who I am by who I am not.

I find this idea to be tremendously freeing. That isn’t to say I don’t sweat over and grapple with and bite my fingernails to the quick about doing my best to honor the experiences of the characters I write—I most certainly do. Instead, what Thoreau’s passage reminds me of is that I am always at the heart of my book, no matter what I do. And if I can succeed in making this tiny, humongous essence that is me compelling to the reader, that’s going to have to be enough.

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

I am an inveterate museumgoer, and try visit the Metropolitan Museum of Art as often as possible. The Asian wing is my favorite place in New York City, in particular the Japanese galleries. Unlike the rest of the museum, this place is never busy, and I assume because of the age of the holdings and the materials they are made of, these galleries have mellow, creamy-orange lighting that lowers my blood pressure the moment I step into it.

Then there is the art itself: wooden sculptures of the Buddha I can stare at for twenty minutes straight; watercolor paintings that manage to be vanishingly delicate and crushingly intense simultaneously; tall folding screens of gold leaf paper that depict farmers at work or cranes in flight. Japanese art is as varied and indefinable as any other culture’s, and even in these few galleries there is a galaxy of different styles and philosophies and media. But I will say that I most often find myself focusing on pieces that are more minimalist in nature; because of their limited number of colors, components, and/or subjects, they force me to focus for longer and more carefully than I am usually inclined.

I’m not sure whether you could make a one-to-one connection between any piece of art in the gallery and my writing, but I do like to think that the meditative state the Japanese galleries summons in me has cleared my mind of clutter and allowed for some fresh ideas to make themselves at home.
Visit Corey Sobel's website.

The Page 69 Test: The Redshirt.

--Marshal Zeringue

Thursday, November 12, 2020

Jessica Gross

Jessica Gross is a novelist and essayist.

Her nonfiction has appeared in The Los Angeles Review of Books, The New York Times Magazine, and The Paris Review Daily, among other places. She holds an MFA in fiction from The New School, a Master's degree in cultural reporting and criticism from New York University and a Bachelor's in anthropology from Princeton University. She also has a dog, whose name is Benji.

Gross received fellowships in fiction from the Yiddish Book Center (2017) and the 14th Street Y (2015-16), where she also served as editor of the LABA Journal. She teaches fiction and nonfiction writing at Eugene Lang College at The New School. (If you're interested in private writing coaching, get in touch.)

Gross's debut novel is Hysteria.

My Q&A with the author:
What's in a name?

I kept the narrator of Hysteria nameless. The novel is told in what I hope is a very immersive first person; I wanted to embed the reader as deeply as possible in the narrator's psyche. I never think of myself in the third person, so it made most sense to me to lean into "I" and "me" rather than to ever have her think of herself by her name, which would suggest she has some perspective. (Hint: she doesn't! She's very myopic.)

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

Very. Hysteria features a highly sexual protagonist who becomes convinced that her bartender is Sigmund Freud. My teenage self fantasized about sex but was terrified of it, and knew nothing about psychoanalysis.

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

Both are incredibly difficult to write! Endings are probably harder and scarier -- I put them off as long as possible -- but I change beginnings more. I have a habit of obsessively revising the first chapter of a book before I allow myself to move on...even though I know that by the time I finally reach the end of the draft, I may very well abandon the original opening altogether.

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

Though the life history of Hysteria's narrator is very different from mine -- I did not grow up in Manhattan, my parents aren't therapists, I'm not an only child, and I've certainly never become convinced my bartender is Sigmund Freud -- her emotional life and thought patterns are very familiar to me.
Visit Jessica Gross's website.

The Page 69 Test: Hysteria.

--Marshal Zeringue

Wednesday, November 11, 2020

Louise Guy

Louise Guy has enjoyed working in marketing, recruitment and film production, all which have helped steer her towards her current, and most loved, role – writer.

Her passion for writing women's fiction is a result of her love of reading, writing and exploring women's emotions and relationships. Women succeeding through hard work, overcoming adversity or just by owning their choices and decisions is something to celebrate, and Guy loves the challenge of incorporating their strengths in these situations into fiction.

Originally from Melbourne, a trip around Australia led Guy and her husband to Queensland's stunning Sunshine Coast where they now live with their two sons, gorgeous fluff ball of a cat and an abundance of visiting wildlife - the kangaroos and wallabies the most welcome, the snakes the least.

Guy's latest novel is A Life Worth Living.

My Q&A with the author:

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

The significance of the title, A Life Worth Living, becomes very clear in the novel’s opening pages when the reader is presented with identical twins who lead very different lives, but both desire something different – ideally what each other has. The question is raised by both as to what is worth living for and what they would change if they could. This question holds more meaning as the story progresses and one sister is forced to make a choice which will allow her to follow a different life path. A path that comes at a very high cost to her and everyone around her.

I had several titles before settling on A Life Worth Living. They included Identical Deception and The Twin Thief, but neither felt quite right. The final title was decided upon quite close to publication. With this book, the publisher did not push for an alternative title. I’m never concerned about a title at the outset of writing a book. I have a working title that usually changes as something meaningful hits me while writing. I’m also conscious that the publisher may change my titles, so don’t spend too much time deliberating over them.

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

With A Life Worth Living, the ending was more challenging to write than the beginning. I reached a point where I knew the situation that unfolds after the twist couldn’t continue, but the fallout if the truth was to come out would be so devastating that I didn’t want to take my characters down that road either. As a result, I put the story aside for a few months while working on something else. Through that entire time the ‘what if’ scenarios ticked over in my mind until the lightbulb moment hit, and I knew how it needed to be resolved.

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

There are bits of my personality in my characters and storylines. I’ve never based any character entirely on myself but know that certain traits, beliefs, and opinions come through. It’s lovely when you read a character voicing your opinion as their own when it is one you might not publicly attach yourself to in the real world!

In A Life Worth Living, I found I couldn’t help but inject some of my own beliefs into characters’ reactions to how Eve chooses to live her life. Her behaviour is divisive at times, depending on where your moral compass points, and my reaction is clearly shown through the words her mother shares with her.

I’d like to think that the characters in my books who are caring, compassionate, and relatable reflect parts of my personality but that might just be me applying a filter that I want to believe is true!

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

Family, friends, and eavesdropping are the biggest non-literary influences in my writing! I get so many ideas from a casual conversation when someone mentions something that has happened. People seem more inclined to share the difficulties they experience in life and relationships than the joyful moments, which is perfect book fodder! People also love to gossip, which is ideal for the types of family and friend driven stories I write. I don’t make a habit of eavesdropping, but the simplest of circumstances, such as sitting in a waiting room and listening to conversations, can deliver wonderful ideas for a story.
Visit Louise Guy's website.

The Page 69 Test: A Life Worth Living.

My Book, The Movie: A Life Worth Living.

--Marshal Zeringue