Monday, July 6, 2020

Tracy Clark

Tracy Clark is a native Chicagoan who writes mysteries set in her hometown while working as an editor in the newspaper industry. She is a graduate of Mundelein College, where she earned a Bachelor of Arts degree, and the University of Illinois at Chicago, where she earned her MA.

Since reading her first Nancy Drew mystery, Clark has dreamed of crafting mysteries of her own, mysteries that feature strong, intelligent, independent female characters, and those who share their world. Cass Raines, ex-cop turned intrepid PI, is such a character.

Clark's latest novel is What You Don’t See.

My Q&A with the author:

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

I’ve been lucky so far in choosing titles that my publisher hasn’t wanted to change. A lot of thought went into each of them and each title hints very clearly at what readers will find inside the book, once they flip back the cover (fingers crossed) and dig in. Broken Places refers directly to the main character’s state of being at the start of that story. When we meet Cass Raines she is battered, broken, at a loss, but not defeated. The title’s from a Hemingway quote: “The world breaks everyone and afterwards many are strong at the broken places.” That’s Cass, strong at the broken places. In Borrowed Time, book two in the series, the title is more about the case she’s investigating, and after readers have finished reading, why I selected it becomes clear. What You Don’t See, book three, well, that title does double duty pinging off, I think artfully, both the main and subplot. I think a book starts at the title and cover. Those are grabs one and two. The first page is grab three. If you make it past those points, you’ve got a good shot at holding your reader to take them along on your journey. At least that’s always my hope.

What's in a name?

Everything.

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

Not a bit surprised. My teenage self always had these twisted little crime stories rattling around in her teenage brain. The pull toward crime fiction, in fact, started way before then. Before I even put pencil to paper to scribble out a story, I worked them out in my head, ran them over and over, or acted them out with my Barbie dolls. Most kids’ Barbies attended tea parties, walked the red carpet or lounged around at the beach. Mine robbed banks, got kidnapped, chased killers, ran from the cops, held up in farm houses and shot their way out, taking it on the lam across three states. I never got that snazzy Barbie Corvette, though it made my Christmas list at least three years straight, so my Barbie peeled out in an old running shoe. Inelegant, but that’s where you really have to use imagination. Never got the Barbie Beach House either, so I built my own, only it had a firehouse pole, a panic room and an escape hatch that led out to the woods in back. Barbie was always the star in these little pre-writing test plays, either as protagonist or antagonist. Ken? Big dud. Way too skittish. A real liability in a shootout. He always took a bullet.

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

Beginnings are more difficult. You have to really think about whether you’re starting in the right place to give your story the best start. I spend more time there. But once I have that solid kickoff, I can practically write the ending in my sleep. In fact, for this last book, What You Don’t See, by the time I hit the midway point of draft one, I had the ending, right down to the closing dialog exchange. That was a gift. The end doesn’t always come to me fully formed like that. When I’m working the story out in my head, I have an inkling of how I might end it, but often that shifts and changes as I get closer to the final scene. This time I just got lucky.

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 Cass Raines and I share a droll sense of humor, but that’s about it. She’s far too brave for me, too extroverted, too bold, too brash. I’m far quieter, shy. I’m Alistair Cooke in an arm chair. She’s Evel Knievel on a bike. I can go an entire day just thinking up stuff, not uttering a single word, if allowed to, and I’d be just fine with that. Cass could never do that. If she met me, she’d narrow her eyes, stare at me, and wonder what the heck my malfunction was. If I met her in the flesh, I’d give her a very wide berth. So, worlds apart, but oddly connected. But I will admit to some degree of Walter Mitty envy toward some of her exploits, but in the end, it’s a lot safer here in my writing chair.

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

Strong women doing nonconventional things well have always inspired me. Even as a kid, I looked to those women, black women especially, who rebuffed efforts to hold them back or pigeonhole them into a slot relegated to their sex. Smart women, brave women, rude women, loud women, unstoppable women, they inspire me. Their drive, their persistent forward momentum, their absolute refusal to sit in a box of someone else’s making, breathe life into Cass Raines. I think of them as I write, and I hope with every sentence, paragraph and page some of that moxie rubs off on her.
Visit Tracy Clark's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Sunday, July 5, 2020

Julia Spiro

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Julia Spiro lives year-round on Martha’s Vineyard, where she enjoys fishing, clamming, scalloping, and anything on the beach. She also teaches spin classes in Edgartown and considers spinning her second passion. She previously worked in the film industry and lived in Los Angeles. She graduated from Harvard College.

Spiro's new novel is Someone Else’s Secret.

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

In my book, the two main characters are both involved in an unthinkable crime, but in different ways. One of them is directly involved in the crime, the other is a witness to it. Both of them silently carry the weight of this crime for ten long years, until they decide that the truth must be revealed. I wanted the title to touch on the difficulty we often face in speaking up when we know there has been an injustice, and the feeling that we are somehow unable to do so if the truth will impact others negatively or perhaps if we don’t feel like the truth is ours to tell. The idea really sprung from my time working in Hollywood, when I was privy to so many whispers about sexual assault and abuses of power, but, like many of my peers, I didn’t do anything about it. There were lots of other titles I considered, but I knew that the title had to have the word “secret” in it, because the story is also very much about how holding onto a single secret can shape the trajectory of our lives, and even ourselves. Someone Else’s Secret as a title also poses a bit of a mystery, which was another reason I chose it. The reader knows right away that the story is about two young women, so the question becomes: who’s secret is it? And who has the right to tell?

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

My teenage self wouldn’t be surprised at all by my novel. She’d read it and guess that I was the author, no question. Both Lindsey and Georgie are very much me, in different ways. Many of their insecurities are my own. But my teenage self would be shocked that I actually let anyone read it and didn’t just stuff it under my mattress. I wrote many short stories in high school but I kept most of them to myself, aside from the occasional teacher. I think my teenage self would love my novel but would have wanted more sex scenes!

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

Usually, I find the beginning harder to write, because I go back and forth with countless drafts deciding which has the strongest hook. The endings generally come more naturally to me once I know my characters and where they’re going. In this case, however, it was the opposite. I had visualized the opening scene early on and I knew what I wanted it to look and feel like. But I struggled to determine how I wanted the story to end, and I wrote several different versions of it. Without giving away too much, I wanted the characters to have justice, but I also wanted the story to be realistic and not tie up in a too-tidy bow. It was a difficult balance.

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

Everyday life all around me has really had the biggest influence on my writing. I don’t like writing alone at home or in an enclosed office space. I need to write in a café, coffee shop or public library. I put headphones on and listen to classical music, but I silently observe the people around me. I find this crucial to my writing process. At the risk of sounding creepy, whenever I hit a mental block in my writing process, I just cast my gaze around the room and find inspiration wondering about the lives of the people around me – the couple having lunch, the mom with the toddler, the person behind the counter making espressos, the old man eating alone. There’s always an abundance of stories and ideas right in front of me if I just look around. Martha’s Vineyard, where I live and where the story is set, was also a source of inspiration in and of itself. It is a seasonal island that transforms for three months a year from a peaceful community where everyone knows one another into a crowded tourist destination, so the politics and socioeconomic dynamics here are fascinating and layered.
Visit Julia Spiro's website.

The Page 69 Test: Someone Else's Secret.

--Marshal Zeringue

Saturday, July 4, 2020

J. Todd Scott

J. Todd Scott was born in rural Kentucky and attended college and law school in Virginia, where he set aside an early ambition to write to pursue a career as a federal agent. His assignments have taken him all over the U.S and the world, but a badge and gun never replaced his passion for books and writing. He now resides in the American Southwest, and when he’s not hunting down very bad men, he’s hard at work on his next book.

Scott is the author of the Texas/Big Bend trilogy: The Far Empty, High White Sun, and This Side of Night.

His new novel, a stand-alone, is Lost River.

My Q&A with the author:

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

Titles are funny things…they tend to come when I least expect them, and I often don’t “title” a book until the end. In fact, I usually use a placeholder title, some word or phrase, and for Lost River, that was “American Vampires” for almost the entire time I was writing it. That was favorite, fictional band of Trey Dorado, one of the book’s viewpoint characters, but I ultimately settled on Lost River, which has significant meaning for one of the other viewpoint characters: Casey Alexander. Lost River is the name of a real cave system she explored with her father while growing up in Kentucky; it also serves to refer obliquely to the (also real) Big Sandy River running near my fictional Angel, KY, and finally, I think it also hints at how all these small towns like Angel have been “lost” or forgotten due to failing economies and the opioid crisis itself.

What's in a name?

Trey Dorado (or Jon Dorado III) is an unusual name. I liked the sound of “Trey,” because it’s simple and sharp, but also ambiguous. I can see someone named that driving a hay truck through a Dairy Queen in Kentucky, just as easily as I can see him listening to his Beats headphones on a New York subway. The “Dorado” part was a play on the myth El Dorado, which over time referred to a man, a city, and then an entire kingdom. El Dorado to me suggests searching for something just out of reach, and the risks you’ll take to find it. It also suggests that oftentimes, attempts to find some new home or new place in some faraway land are just as mythical and futile; home is always with you,

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

My teenage self could never imagine the adult me writing a book like Lost River. At that age I was more into sci-fi and fantasy, even horror. Horrific things do happen in this book, but there’s nothing fantastical about any of it. It’s all too real, too visceral, too now. I also couldn’t have imagined writing this story because so much of it reflects my long career as a federal agent, and I wasn’t truly contemplating such a career then.

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

Beginnings are hard because you’re trying to set the right tone and tempo and voice, and the beginning of any book needs to do so much “lifting” to get the whole story off the ground. Endings are usually a relief, and by the time I’m in the home stretch, I know exactly what I want to say, how I want to say it, and the final images I want to leave the reader. Lost River has a surprisingly gentle coda for a book that has so much darkness and so many sharp edges, but it was truly a joy to write it, and I knew that ending well before I put the words down on the page.

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 don’t see myself in any of the characters in Lost River, although that’s been less true for some of my other novels. I’m not as young as Trey anymore, I’m nowhere near as hot-headed as Casey, and although Paul and Van Dorn are much closer to me in age, our experiences are worlds apart.

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

Again, for some of my other books, I can point to films or even music that influenced those stories. That’s less true with Lost River. If there was any influence on this book, it’s my job as a federal agent. I thought I had a unique take on the opioid crisis and felt compelled to share some of the things I’d seen and dealt with. I’m hardly a topical writer, but this was a topic I wanted to address.
Visit J. Todd Scott's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Friday, July 3, 2020

Katherine St. John

Katherine St. John is a native of Mississippi and graduate of the University of Southern California. Over the years she has worked as an actress, screenwriter, director, photographer, producer, singer-songwriter, legal assistant, bartender-waitress, yoga instructor, real estate agent, and travel coordinator ... but finds she likes writing novels best. St. John currently lives in Los Angeles with her husband and children.

Her debut novel is The Lion's Den.

My Q&A with the author:

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

The Lion’s Den was the first title I came up with for the book and I can say with absolute authority that it’s the right title, because over a period of months I went through about five hundred alternate titles with my publisher, and none of them were nearly as good! Thankfully, we circled back around to the working title. The Lion’s Den is a double entendre in this case, because it’s the name of the yacht that Belle and her friends set sail on, which proves to be the proverbial lion’s den over the course of the novel. Alternate titles we considered were All That Glitters, Filthy Rich Girl (which I must say I hated), and even… Yacht Candy. Yeah, we went a little deep into the weeds in search of a better title, which only served to make me all the more certain The Lion’s Den was the title that was meant to be.

What's in a name?

I put a lot of thought into the names of the girls on the boat because I wanted to make sure the reader found it easy to keep the characters straight. Alliteration felt appropriate for most memorable golden girl Summer Sanderson, and Amythest (yes, it’s misspelled on purpose) stands out as the one with the amethyst contacts. Wendy is a person whose loyalty changes depending on which way the wind is blowing, and Claire is sweet and pure. Rhonda and Brittani just felt so right for Summer’s mom and sister. Belle is a nickname born from the classic Isabelle, and she’s in some ways like Belle from Beauty and the Beast – brave and kind and likes to read, still growing into her full name. As for John, well, at the end of the day John is a john, is he not?

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

I have to say, my teenage reader self wouldn’t be at all surprised by The Lion’s Den – in fact, teenage me would likely gobble it up in one sitting! While I like to think I’ve grown and changed in the years since I’ve been a teenager, I’ve always loved reading books about shifting dynamics between friends, I’ve always had a soft spot for a romantic element in a story, and I’ve always loved a good page-turning mystery.

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

I definitely find it harder to write endings than beginnings, but even more difficult are middles! I often know where I’m starting and concluding a story, but it’s the course the characters take to get there that is most malleable. I always want to make sure that all of my characters (not just the protagonists) are believable three-dimensional human beings with arcs, and that the journey they take and the lessons they learn over the course of the novel dovetail with the storyline and end in a satisfying way.

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

Belle and I probably share the most personality traits of any of the protagonists I’ve written because I also worked as an actress in Hollywood in my twenties and had a number of similar experiences to what she goes through. Though my experiences were not quite as dramatic and never involved murder, thankfully! That said, I see myself in all my characters, both good and bad. Jungian psychology says that the traits we most despise in others are elements of our shadow selves or disowned selves, and that one of the best ways to learn what we need to work on as human beings is to understand what we most deplore. I see myself doing that with my characters, whether or not I set out to!

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

My biggest non-literary inspiration is probably psychology. I have always been interested in what makes people tick, why we become who we are, and if and how we can change. I love delving into a character’s personality and background and exploring how that colors the way she sees and reacts to the world.
Visit Katherine St. John's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Thursday, July 2, 2020

Riley Sager

Riley Sager is the pseudonym of a former journalist, editor and graphic designer.

Now a full-time writer, Sager is the author of Final Girls, an international bestseller that's been published in 25 languages, and the New York Times bestsellers The Last Time I Lied and Lock Every Door.

Sager's new novel is Home Before Dark.

My Q&A with the author:

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

This was a hard book to title, mostly because it’s really two books in one—the story of a woman returning to the allegedly haunted house she lived in as a child and the full text of the bestselling horror memoir her father wrote about their time there. That’s a lot of heavy lifting for a title, which is why I took a more abstract approach. I knew the title needed to signify a house was involved, but I also wanted it to hint at the paranormal. I considered several ideas, including House of Horrors, which I thought was a little too on the nose. That became the title of the book within the book. I finally settled on Home Before Dark because it has a kiss of the sinister while really conveying the sense of returning to a place you might not want to be coming home to.

What's in a name?

A lot of Home Before Dark deals with perception. How strangers see you. How friends and family see you. How you see yourself. Even the reader’s perception comes into play. In half the book, the main character is a child. In the other half, she’s an adult very different from her younger self, and the reader witnesses that transformation. I wanted a name that could change as dramatically as the character does. I picked Maggie because of how malleable it is. Margaret. Maggie. Mags. She’s called all of those things and more at various points in the book.

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

I suspect the thing teenage me would be most surprised about is the fact that I actually followed through on his dream of becoming a published author. And a bestselling one at that! The book itself, though, wouldn’t be much of a surprise. It’s very much in line with my interests back then. In fact, I’d read all the books that influenced Home Before DarkThe Haunting of Hill House, The Amityville Horror, The Shining—when I was that age.

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

Definitely the beginning. By the time I get to the ending, I’ve been living with the book and its characters for months, so it’s a well-oiled machine at that point. But the beginning—when I’m trying to figure out character, tone and voice—always gets revised to death. It’s a reader’s introduction to your story, so it needs to be as fine-tuned as possible.

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

Most of my characters contain some small aspect of me. In Home Before Dark, it’s the frustration of moving into a house that turns out to be a lot more than you bargained for. In a complete coincidence, I bought and moved into a house while writing the book. It didn’t go smoothly. There were so many problems, some we knew about before we bought it and some that completely blindsided us. I ended up taking all that house-related frustration and passing it on to my characters.

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

I’m a huge fan of the movies, and film has inspired me in so many ways. I like to think of movies as our national language. Everyone is familiar with certain films or certain genres, and I like to use that to my advantage. Sometimes the mention of a movie is a quick and easy way to set a scene or introduce a character. Because I know what readers expect, based on their knowledge of these movie tropes, it’s fun to play around with that. Sometimes I lean into the trope. Other times I do the exact opposite. It’s an enjoyable game to play with my audience.
Visit Riley Sager's website.

The Page 69 Test: Home Before Dark.

--Marshal Zeringue

Wednesday, July 1, 2020

Donna Hemans

Jamaican-born Donna Hemans is the author of the novel River Woman, winner of the 2003-4 Towson University Prize for Literature. Tea by the Sea, for which she won the Lignum Vitae Una Marson Award for Adult Literature, is her second novel.

My Q&A with the author:

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

Tea By the Sea is a title I had in mind long before I developed the story. I don’t recall now how I came to find it but I jotted it down and knew that I would ultimately find a story that worked with it. In this novel, a young mother spends 17 years searching for her daughter taken from her at birth. That description doesn’t readily connect with the idea of having tea by the sea. But readers will discover that tea by the sea is the activity that connects the daughter, Opal, to a mother she doesn’t know. Built into that activity is the guilt Lenworth, Opal’s father, feels after having taken his baby daughter away from her mother.

What's in a name?

Part of Tea By the Sea takes place in Anchovy, a small town about eight miles outside of Montego Bay in Jamaica. It’s where my father grew up, and the house in Anchovy is my grandparents’ house. My grandparents are long gone and my father and his siblings have long talked about selling the property. I deliberately chose Anchovy as the setting because it was one way of preserving a piece of my heritage.

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

When I first started writing Tea By the Sea, I had what I thought was a strong opening. I started with a mother getting her twin daughters ready for school, dropping the girls off, heading to the subway to go to work, but ultimately turning away from the train station and walking to a church. I knew then that she would refuse to leave the church until her demands were met.

At the time, I envisioned a story that took place over 24 hours, slowly unfolding how Plum came to lose her child. But it wasn’t until I sat down with an editor that I realized my story began in the wrong place. So I completely altered the beginning and the structure—shifting the timeline from 24 hours to 17 years. The beginning is now more direct.

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 are a world apart from me. Perhaps an observer will say something different. But my characters and their circumstances don’t necessarily reflect my personal life.

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

Water. I love being by the water, listening to it trickle over rocks or dash against a shore. So I tend to center water in my books. Sometimes water is life-giving. Sometimes it takes life. Other times it’s purely there as a means of transportation, a barrier between two characters, or, in the case of Tea By the Sea, the thing that sustains Opal and Plum.
Visit Donna Hemans's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Tuesday, June 30, 2020

Diana Clarke

Diana Clarke is a writer and teacher from New Zealand. She received her MFA in fiction from Purdue University and is currently pursuing her PhD at the University of Utah.

Her debut novel is Thin Girls.

My Q&A with Clarke:

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

I am a notoriously bad titler, so I didn’t actually come up with Thin Girls, although now I can’t imagine the book with any other name. I usually call a book some incomprehensible combination of letters (mcisnanxjcjw) until someone helps me out with a title. Titles give me stage fright; it’s terrifying, to name a book! A name, I think, should glance without pointing, suggest without winking, and I’m so unsubtle. I am also always wary of the dreaded aha (!) moment in which the reader comes across the book’s title in the book and is immediately ejected from the story’s world, so it was important to me that, if the title phrase did come up in the book, it wasn’t in a cheesy ‘big reveal’ way. The phrase “thin girls” is mentioned on the first page, and then regularly throughout the book. It’s a to-the-point title, an immediate declaration – this is a story about eating disorders, body image, the dieting industry. It’s a book about girls who are thin and girls who want to be and girls who can’t be and the fact that every girl is under the pressure to be exactly, and often only, just that.

What's in a name?

I really regret the twins’ (the book’s main characters) names, Rose and Lily, but by the time I realised they didn’t work, it was too late. The reason the names initially came about is because one of the book’s presiding images is the twinflower, a flower with two buds to each stem in which each bud simultaneously takes from the other while also keeping the other alive. So, the names make sense, but maybe a little too much sense. I tried changing them, but the girls seemed to want to keep them and it would have felt so invasive to take their names from them after writing the first draft. I wish I could let them choose their own names. What feels more comfortable, in terms of naming, is when the main character, Rose, gets involved with a pro-anorexia group and they nickname her Riz, because the name has a skinnier mouthfeel than Rose. They’ve all got thin nicknames too: Mim, Lin, Flee. I think the nicknaming process speaks to the power of names. A nickname is a name you choose for yourself, or your beloved people choose for you, and one that is adopted through unity and acceptance. It is because it fits. It’s often our first communication of the self to others and it allows us to retain some kind of authority over the self in a way that given names don’t. A nickname, a name taken on, is much more meaningful than a birth name, I think.

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

Not. Not at all. She was a sad little thing. She might be surprised that I made it out of adolescence alive and healthy, happy, even! But she wouldn’t be surprised by this book. In a lot of ways, this book is for her. Here you go, little friend.

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

I can’t end a book. Beginnings are natural, for me. I write linearly and I start at the start and, usually, the first scene of the first draft remains the first scene in the published book. A miracle. The end, though? I must’ve changed Thin Girls’ ending a hundred times. One iteration was just me killing every single character in a big fire because I was so sick of writing endings. That was not a proud moment. I apologised in the next draft. The eventual ending is more hopeful than I ever imagined it to be, and I think that hope, that flicker of maybe, is so important, but it still makes me wince to read. Do other writers experience this? If anyone teaches a class on ending a book, sign me up.

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

Big time! I’m every character. I feel divided and multiple pretty much always, and so writing fiction is the perfect outlet for that strange crowded feeling. There are so many selves in this book, but the characters are also more than me; they usually have just an essence of my personality in them. Rose is an idiot, for example, and Lily is often self-destructive. That’s all me. But the twins are more than their respective idiocy and unawareness, too, and this is where the fiction comes in. I play “a person who does X would also probably do X” with myself while I write. For example: a person who does yoga would also probably enjoy eating salad. Or, a person who is as self-destructive as Lily would also probably get into a dangerous relationship. I find it to be a really helpful character-building tool – a way to distance my characters from myself.

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

My friends and family. I take so much from the people in my life. Anecdotes and traits and mannerisms and speech patterns. I’m also super into trashy television. I like “good” TV too, but there’s something about bad reality shows that make me think hard about narrative and the ways in which we construct stories and characters and plot out of thin air. Reality TV tries to turn life into something that can be consumed in a few hours, and that’s what a novel does too. At least, for me.
Visit Diana Clarke's website.

My Book, The Movie: Thin Girls.

--Marshal Zeringue

Monday, June 29, 2020

Gennifer Choldenko

With more than 2 and a half million books sold, Gennifer Choldenko’s best known Tales from Alcatraz series, has been called “A cornerstone series in contemporary children’s literature.” Al Capone Does My Shirts—the first book in the series—was a Newbery Honor Book and the recipient of twenty other awards. All four books in the series were Junior Library Guild selections and garnered many starred reviews. Choldenko’s newest novel is Orphan Eleven. Publishers Weekly has said this about Orphan Eleven: “This uplifting tale of hope, survival and belonging has all the ingredients to become a beloved middle grade book.” Choldenko lives in the San Francisco Bay area with her loyal husband and naughty dog.

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

The title Orphan Eleven is designed to work on two levels. The first level is to make a reader interested in opening the novel. Once you begin reading the book, the title operates like a puzzle. Orphan Eleven is not paid off until chapter 25 (of 36). But some readers may figure out why the book is named Orphan Eleven before this reveal. I like to think that both readers who guess and readers who don’t will feel an ah-hah moment once they understand the origin of the title.

My first draft of this novel was written in the voice of a secondary character named Nico. Then the book title was: The Con Man’s Apprentice. I love that title which made it into the final book as a chapter title. But when I changed viewpoint characters, it was no longer the right title for the book.

What's in a name?

Names are very important to me. I spent a really long time trying to figure out the name of the protagonist’s sister. But once I figured out her name was Dilly Sauvé, POW! she came into view with such clarity. A good name is like a good midwife bringing a character into the world for the author.

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

Of all of my books (16 published so far) I think my eleven-year-old self would be the least surprised by Orphan Eleven. That’s because so much of my eleven-year-old heart is in the main character: Lucy Sauvé. I just wish I could have read this book when I was a kid.

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

That’s like asking which foot do you wash more the right or the left? I change everything over and over and over again until that cosmic click tells me I’ve got it right. My license plate is REWRITZ, which gives you some indication of my process. That said though, I think endings are more challenging. It is very difficult to get an ending that really really works. But so very gratifying when you do. My best endings are for Al Capone Does My Shirts, Al Capone Throws Me a Curve and Orphan Eleven.

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

Every character I write -- antagonists, protagonists and walk-ons -- all share my DNA. They are created by my mind. My belief systems, imagination, experience, reading colors who they are. I’ve been married for many years, but my husband still can’t predict what I will say or do. That’s because there are so many different characters inside of me.

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

Because I’ve written one series: the Tales from Alcatraz, I do look closely at good series TV. The Sopranos, The Crown, Ozark, Breaking Bad all are terrific. And the growth and change of the characters is what makes them so good. For me, writing a series means managing the character arcs across all of the books. For Orphan Eleven which at this point is a stand alone, I made good use of cinematic cuts to make the ending more suspenseful.
Visit Gennifer Choldenko's website.

Coffee with a Canine: Gennifer Choldenko & Sasha.

--Marshal Zeringue

Sunday, June 28, 2020

Brianna Wolfson

Brianna Wolfson is the author of Rosie Colored Glasses and the newly released That Summer in Maine.

My Q&A with the author:

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

The title, That Summer in Maine, sets the stage for where the majority our story will take place, and suggests that Maine is a destination, not a home. The characters that occupy the stage, and the drama that will unfold, is left more to the imagination.

What's in a name?

The character that the plot revolves around is Eve. She is, almost above all else, naive and her naivete that leads to the inciting incident of the story. I think you can see where we are going here! This is definitely a reference to Eve, the first woman, who succumbs to the temptation to eat the forbidden fruit from the tree of knowledge of good and evil. In That Summer in Maine, Eve similarly succumbs to the temptation of knowledge; in her case, to explore her familiar roots by reuniting with her biological father.

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

Not at all! Two of the four primary characters are in their teens. That Summer in Maine is very much a story of daugtherhood and motherhood, and I envision, and hope, that teenagers and adults alike can see themselves in and empathize with these characters.

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

Endings. All great characters start with great flaws and the story is built on how the characters address those flaws.

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

My first novel, Rosie Colored Glasses, drew a lot from my personal story. This isn't as much the case with That Summer in Maine, but I always feel like my characters reflect parts of me (even the villains). With this novel specifically I wanted to explore the relationships between non-blood relatives because that has been a really important part of my upbringing.

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

My family is always a source of inspiration and story telling. I come from a rambunctious, feelings-forward, bunch, which I think is what allows me to take so many different perspectives in my writing.
Visit Brianna Wolfson's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Saturday, June 27, 2020

Nicola Maye Goldberg

Nicola Maye Goldberg is the author of Other Women (Sad Spell Press, 2016) and The Doll Factory (Dancing Girl Press, 2017). She lives in New York City.

Her new literary thriller is Nothing Can Hurt You

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

Quite a lot. It’s from Louise Gluck’s incredible poem “A Myth of Devotion” which I kept taped above my desk while I was writing the book. The phrase also appears in certain translations of Luke 10:19. It’s a promise many of the characters make to one another, which none of them are able to keep.

What's in a name?

For the name “Sara Morgan,” I wanted it to have the same number of syllables as “Laura Palmer,” who is sort of the dead white girl prototype in contemporary culture. But that’s more thought than typically goes into naming a character. Usually I just glance around at whatever books or magazines are on my desk and go from there.

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

Very! I was a scaredy-cat as a kid. I remember at a sleepover in high school, my friends and I watched Red Dragon, mistaking it for a Kung-Fu movie. I was miserable for a week. My interest in horror and mystery and true crime didn’t develop until college. I think if my teenage self read the description of Nothing Can Hurt You, she probably wouldn’t even want to read it.

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

Beginnings are super easy to write, but I almost always end up deleting them. Endings are a little harder. The stuff in the middle, of course, is what I spend the most time on.

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 so many characters in Nothing Can Hurt You, most of whom are demographically and psychologically very different from myself. That is partly a function of what I wanted to explore in the book – namely, the effect of violence on a community – and also a desire to experiment with throwing my voice, with writing authentically about people with whom I don’t have much in common. But of course no one see themselves clearly. It’s possible the characters I think have nothing to do with me are the ones I most resemble.

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

I watch a ton of television – I often have in on in the background while I’m writing – so that’s probably a big one, though it’s hard to pinpoint exactly how it influences me. And I have a playlist of spooky songs I liked to listen to while writing Nothing Can Hurt You. Lots of PJ Harvey, Nick Cave, Okkervil River, Tom Waits.
Visit Nicola Maye Goldberg's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Thursday, June 25, 2020

Lesley Kara

Lesley Kara is an alumna of the Faber Academy “Writing a Novel” course. She lives on the North Essex coast. She is the author of The Rumor, a Sunday Times Top 10 bestseller.

Her new novel is Who Did You Tell?

My Q&A with the author:

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

Who Did You Tell? was one of the first titles I thought of and luckily, my agent and editor liked it too. Psychological thrillers nearly always have a question at their heart and this title hints at a secret - a secret that’s been shared. It ties in with one of the key themes in the book and that’s addiction. The main character, Astrid, is a recovering alcoholic, who is forced to move back home with her mother. She is reluctantly attending AA meetings which are, by their very nature, confessional, so the title plays on this. What happens if the thing you are most ashamed of has been shared with the wrong person?

What’s in a name?

I wanted a name that reflected the unconventional, spiky nature of my protagonist. It’s no spoiler to tell you that her real name is Hilary, but as a teenager she thought that was far too bland, so she renamed herself Astrid which is, as she’ll tell you in Chapter 2, ‘a rebellious, rock-and-roll kind of name that carries a hint of the stars, a wildness.’ I think names in fiction are incredibly important – names of characters and names of settings, too. Who Did You Tell? is set in a fictional seaside town called Flinstead, on the east coast of England. It’s loosely based on the very real town where I live, but I didn’t want to be constrained by the actual geography of the place. I wanted to be free to play around with the setting and make it work for the novel.

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

As a teenager, I was a voracious reader. By the age of eleven, I’d already worked my way through the kind of books my parents kept on the top shelves. Didn’t they realise I could stand on a chair? Mario Puzo’s The Godfather and Peter Benchley’s Jaws were two of my favourites, with certain chapters particularly well-thumbed, so as a teenager I was more or less reading anything and everything I could get my hands on, from literary classics to bonkbusters, and then I discovered crime (the genre, I mean). So I think my teenage self would be absolutely delighted to read about Astrid’s murky past!

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

I always find it easier to write beginnings, and as soon as I discovered Astrid’s ‘voice’, the words just flowed. Astrid is a mass of contradictions: feisty and sarcastic on the one hand, but incredibly vulnerable on the other, and I hope the first chapter conveys that. I rewrote it countless times, because sometimes you have to find out what kind of story you’re writing before you know the exact place to start. The ending changed a few times as well, now I come to think of it.

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

Who Did You Tell? was loosely inspired by my experience of witnessing the effects of alcoholism in my own family, but as for writing in general, inspiration is everywhere. The germ for my first novel, The Rumor, was hearing a rumor myself. A notorious figure who’d committed a heinous crime as a young child was apparently living in my neighbourhood under a false identity. It probably wasn’t true, but it got me thinking about how rumors can escalate out of control and have all sorts of unintended consequences. The idea for my next novel, The Dare, which will be out next year, comes from a particular walk I used to go on with my best friend when were thirteen. In the novel, the walk ends badly, and one of the children dies. But thankfully, my friend and I are both still alive!
Visit Lesley Kara's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Wednesday, June 24, 2020

Kimberly Belle

Kimberly Belle is the USA Today and internationally bestselling author of six novels, including her latest domestic suspense, Stranger in the Lake (June 2020). Her third novel, The Marriage Lie, was a semifinalist in the 2017 Goodreads Choice Awards for Best Mystery & Thriller, and a #1 e-book bestseller in the UK and Italy. She’s sold rights to her books in a dozen languages as well as film and television options. A graduate of Agnes Scott College, Belle divides her time between Atlanta and Amsterdam.

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

Six books in, and not one of my titles has ever stuck, so I’ve stopped spending energy thinking about what to call it until the story is finished. When I turned this one in, it was called “Book #6,” though admittedly, Stranger in the Lake is a much catchier title. An accurate one, too, since that’s how the story begins, with an unnamed woman floating in the lake behind my main character Charlotte’s home, in the same exact spot where her brand new husband’s first wife drowned. A coincidence? Maybe, but what the title also does is suggest that the stranger may not be a stranger at all—something that turns out to be true. Charlotte saw the woman talking to her husband the day before, even though he tells the police he’s never met the woman. His lie exposes cracks in their fragile new marriage, and it digs up dark secrets that have been simmering under the lake’s waters for years.

What’s in a name?

I have a running list of names that I pull from when naming a character, but it has to fit both the character and the story. I’ve been known to change a name halfway through because it didn’t feel right. Sometimes something as simple as a name change can really make a character come alive in my head.

In Stranger in the Lake, my main character’s name is actually a plot device. Charlotte is a woman who has married way, way up to a man much older and wealthier, and somewhere along the way, she traded in her given name—Charlie—for the more refined Charlotte. But the name change is not fooling anyone, and it makes the people in town think she’s uppity. In the end, Charlotte/Charlie will have to decide which person she wants to be.

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

I’m not sure she’d be surprised by the story as much as that I had written one. I’m not one of those writers who penned her first novel in crayon. I’ve always loved getting lost in a good book, but for the longest time it never occurred to me to actually write one. My first career was in nonprofit fundraising, and it definitely helped me hone my writing skills. Fundraising letters, website texts, scripts for meetings and events…I learned very quickly how to drill down to a powerful, poignant message that tugs at the heartstrings.

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

Beginnings and endings are the easy part for me, it’s the stuff in the middle that takes most of the time and effort. I write from an outline, but even the most detailed plans can go sideways once I get into the weeds of writing. Sometimes the pacing is off, or a character’s actions don’t fit their personality. Sometimes a character I didn’t plan for walks into a scene and has something essential to say. I always give myself room to rework the story as I’m writing, but my beginnings and endings rarely change.

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

I’d like to think I have Charlotte’s tough skin and that I share her sense of loyalty, but I’m not sure I could have survived everything she has. My research for this story taught me that far more people follow in their parents’ tragic footsteps than break the cycle like Charlotte did, and I can’t say for certain which side of the equation I would have fallen on. I do also share her architect husband’s drive, his innate desire to create beautiful things, but I think (hope?) that’s where the similarities between us end. I guess that’s the answer here, that like most authors I put little pieces of myself into every character—the good, the bad, the ugly. My characters are the best and the worst of me.
Visit Kimberly Belle's website.

The Page 69 Test: Dear Wife.

Writers Read: Kimberly Belle (July 2019).

--Marshal Zeringue

Tuesday, June 23, 2020

Jennifer Ryan

New York Times and USA Today bestselling author Jennifer Ryan lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with her husband and three children. When she isn’t writing a book, she’s reading one. Her obsession with both is often revealed in the state of her home, and how late dinner is to the table. When she finally leaves those fictional worlds, you’ll find her in the garden, playing in the dirt and daydreaming about people who live only in her head, until she puts them on paper.

Ryan's new novel is Sisters and Secrets.

My Q&A with the author:

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

A lot! It basically conveys the major plot and tells you exactly the kind of story you’re getting.

For me, titles are hard. You want the reader passing by the shelf to see the title and think, “I want to read that.” It’s not always easy to come up with something that goes with the story really well. In this case, it did. But Sisters and Secrets wasn’t the original title. When I turned in the book, the title was The Silva Sisters Secrets. The publisher and I loved it. But the book distributor thought it was too fussy with all the s sounds, so I simplified it. I like the new title a lot better. It felt like that should have been the title all along.

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

The beginning is always the hardest part for me. I don’t outline. I usually know how the book opens, who my characters are in a general way, and I go from there.

I like to write from beginning to end. I spend time revising the beginning because it’s the set up for everything that follows. Once I have the beginning the way I want, I write to the end with very little revision until it’s finished. Then I do several rounds of edits adding in details and making sure there’s continuity.

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 pieces of me in every book. But I really relate to these sisters in different ways.

Sierra is the most like me. She’s the middle sister. So am I, though I have two brothers. She’s self-sufficient and very capable. Asking for help is not her way, because she feels like she can do it all. I’ve always been that way.

Amy is a bit neurotic and a perfectionist. I’m a little bit of this, but not as much as Amy. I get her desire to make her family happy by giving them a nice home life and being the best mom she can be. I don’t go overboard like Amy does, which actually makes her family resent her a bit. My kids would probably say I tend to get lost in books and ignore them – but they get that about me. And I make them brownies to make up for it.

Heather is a free spirit who leans toward being selfish. She’s more a combination of people I know, who justify their actions for lots of reasons even when they hurt others.

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

I find a lot of inspiration in country music, TV, and movies. People watching is a lot of fun for me. I like to make up stories about people I see doing things in real life.
Visit Jennifer Ryan's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Monday, June 22, 2020

Elle Cosimano

Elle Cosimano's debut thriller, Nearly Gone, was an Edgar Award finalist, won the International Thriller Award for Best Young Adult Novel, and was awarded the Mathical Book Award recognizing mathematics in children’s literature. Her novel Holding Smoke was a finalist for the Bram Stoker Award and the International Thriller Award. Her books for young adults have appeared on several statewide school and library reading lists.

Cosimano's new novel is Seasons of the Storm.

My Q&A with the author:

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

The original working title for this book was When We Wake, but the entire team (myself, my agent, and my editor) felt this title was too soft for this story. This is a tale of adventure—a story of forbidden love and rebellion, featuring high-speed chases and high-stakes battles. We needed a title that hinted at the danger of the world and the urgency of the plot. My publisher came up with Seasons of the Storm, and we all immediately agreed the title was perfectly suited to its task.

What's in a name?

Names play a critical role in Seasons of the Storm. Each character’s name is self-chosen, reflecting their new identity once they are turned from humans into the immortal embodiments of their assigned season on earth. The Seasons each possess a specific elemental magic, and they are grouped by their creators to live with others of the same nature in order to foster competition between those that are different. My main character is a Winter named Jack Sommers. His chosen name not only hints at his elemental magic (a nod to Jack Frost), but also reveals a glimmer of his defiant personality—a character trait that drives him to rebel against his creators when he falls in love with a Spring he’s forbidden to be with.

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

As much as I loved writing as a teen, I never imagined writing as a career. In my mind, novelists were celebrities, lumped together in the same box with actors and film producers and famous musicians. I never would have dreamed it could be possible to become published at all. So if anyone had told teen-me that Seasons of the Storm—the kind of high-stakes, magical urban fantasy I would have loved reading as a teen—would become my fifth published novel (with three more on the way), this would have been a mind-blowing revelation for me.

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

I struggle most often with beginnings. The perfect opening line, the gripping set up of an opening scene ... these are always the most challenging parts of any story for me. When revising, more often than not, I am rewriting entire chunks of the earlier chapters, making sure I’ve laid the groundwork for the rest of the story. On the other hand, endings have always come easily for me. Maybe it’s the mystery novelist in me, but there’s nothing I find more gratifying than braiding all the loose threads together into show-stopping reveals and a satisfying conclusion. My beginnings tend to be slower, taking time to build, the stories usually picking up speed as they race, tires squealing, toward nail-biting finishes.

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 elements of my own self in every one of my characters—my heroes, my secondary characters, and even my villains. I have to feel some degree of connection with each of them in order to write them, to understand their motivations, needs, and goals. Sometimes, this means exploring parts of my own teen experiences—both joyful and painful. Often, it means tapping into the deepest, quirkiest parts of myself, and finding the universal truths in them so I can project those truths into my characters. We’ve all experienced loneliness, loss, love, betrayal, rejection, and desire. Hints of my own triumphs and scars are often written into the hearts of my characters.

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

I derive a lot of inspiration from music. Every book I’ve written has been created to a running playlist of songs that put me in a specific mood or headspace to create that singular story. The playlist for Seasons of the Storm was particularly special in that each character became a Season at a different point in time, and their musical tastes reflect their unique generation. For instance, Julio Verano was a surfer from southern California in the 1980s when he became a Summer. His counterpart, Amber Chase, became an Autumn in the wake of Woodstock in the late 1960s, and the songs that imprinted on her heart were very different from Julio’s or Jack’s. I found myself creating vastly different playlists for each Season, and those playlists kept me grounded in the heads and hearts of each character.
Visit Elle Cosimano's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Saturday, June 20, 2020

Meghan Holloway

Meghan Holloway found her first Nancy Drew mystery in a sun-dappled attic at the age of eight and subsequently fell in love with the grip and tautness of a well-told mystery. She flew an airplane before she learned how to drive a car, did her undergrad work in Creative Writing in the sweltering south, and finished a Masters of Library and Information Science in the blustery north. She spent a summer and fall in Maine picking peaches and apples, traveled the world for a few years, and did a stint fighting crime in the records section of a police department.

She now lives in the foothills of the Appalachians with her standard poodle and spends her days as a scientist with the requisite glasses but minus the lab coat.

Holloway's new novel is Hunting Ground.

My Q&A with the author:

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

At this point in my career, I still come up with my own titles, and I am very strategic about my choices. My titles convey a clue about the plot and the character’s position in the story with the title.

The three protagonists in this story find themselves ensnared in the same trap. Hunting Ground is a blunt introduction to the fact that my story centers around predator and prey, and how, at times, those roles can be fluid.

What's in a name?

Names are important, and when I’m coming up with characters, I often choose a name that reflects something about each individual, whether in relation to themselves or another character’s view of them.

Obsession is the driving motivation of all three characters, but I think you see that most clearly and in the most twisted sense with Jeff, the serial killer. He is the character who is most at home in his compulsion, the most self aware, and I went with a touch of irony, as the meaning of his name is “peaceful.”

The name Evelyn means “desired, wished for,” and the character herself represents an embodiment of perfection for Jeff. Just why and how she represents that, you’ll have to discover for yourself.

Justice has been far out of reach for Hector. With his character, I wanted to explore how prolonged grief and a lack of closure can warp a man’s psyche. Homer’s Hector is the classic hero of the Iliad, courageous and honorable. My Hector is the antithesis of that. He is bitter, manipulative, and driven by vengeance.

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

Beginnings are more challenging for me, and I find they also change the most throughout the course of my revisions. I usually have the ending in mind when I start writing, but it takes me several drafts to find the perfect first chapter hook for the reader.

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

I do not think an author can ever write in a vacuum where their own personality, outlook, and experience does not influenced their stories. None of my characters are autobiographical. However, my experience from working in the records department of a police station for several years influenced how I portrayed the police and the justice system. My own work in a museum archive during grad school was the inspiration for Evelyn’s career in the story, and Yellowstone National Park is one of my favorite places to visit in the states. So pieces of me do show up in the novel, but not a direct translation of me in any character.

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

When I was writing this book and the two subsequent novels, I watched the ID channel most evenings. Investigation Discovery covers true crime stories in loose documentary style across the channel’s variety of shows. Writing a series that is so chilling and gritty, I needed to stay deep in the dark labyrinth of human nature. I found the best way to do that was to continually dose myself with stories of the appalling crimes humans commit against one another. A little grim, but effective.
Visit Meghan Holloway's website, and follow her on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

--Marshal Zeringue

Friday, June 19, 2020

Lisa Braxton

Lisa Braxton is an essayist, short story writer, and novelist. She earned her MFA in creative writing from Southern New Hampshire University, her Master of Science in Journalism Broadcasting from Northwestern University and her Bachelor of Arts in Mass Media from Hampton University.

Braxton's debut novel is The Talking Drum.

My Q&A with the author:

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

I chose a title that I thought was intriguing and as it turns out, my readers think so as well. On their face, the words “Talking” and “Drum” seem like an odd combination. It’s counterintuitive to think that a drum can talk. The title makes people curious as to what a “talking drum” is. People with a vague understanding of drumming have come close to guessing correctly, but they still aren't sure. Their questions about the title lead to a fun conversation that I always end with, “If you want to know the meaning of “The Talking Drum,” you’ll have to read the book.” My title does a highly effective job of piquing curiosity. Once readers get into the story they can follow the breadcrumbs to find out the full meaning of “The Talking Drum.”

What's in a name?

I gave the character who co-owns the bookstore with his wife the name Malachi, after Malachi in the Bible. The Biblical Malachi was a prophet in the Old Testament and the writer of the Book of Malachi. In The Talking Drum, Malachi is a prophet in the sense that he announces what the future will be for the bookstore he and Sydney are opening. He is not a writer, but an academic who leaves academia and starts of business centering on books to educate the general public.

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

She would be very surprised. When I was a teenager, I knew that I wanted to become a novelist but at that age I had no idea the themes I would explore. My teenage self would be surprised and awed that I’d written such a thought-provoking, timely, and socially relevant work of fiction.

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

I see a lot of myself in my character Sydney, Malachi’s wife. Sydney is a suburban girl. She’s not too comfortable in the gritty environment she’s moved to with her husband. She grew up pampered. Her parents provided her with horseback riding lessons, European travel, private schooling. She loves learning, studied print journalism and photojournalism and is in law school on a fellowship. She wants very much to make her young marriage work and is struggling to find her voice in the relationship. She’s searching for her footing. She needs to learn to be assertive. I can identify with most of Sydney’s feelings and personality.

Thursday, June 18, 2020

Margaux DeRoux

Margaux DeRoux was born in Juneau, Alaska. Before turning to fiction she was a waitress, a teacher, and a marketer. She now lives in California with her husband and daughter.

Her new novel is The Lost Diary of Venice.

My Q&A with the author:

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

My title, The Lost Diary of Venice, includes several key elements of the story: the book is a dual-narrative, with one plot-line set in Renaissance Venice, the other in modern-day Connecticut, and a diary links both time-periods together. The novel was inspired by a treatise I’d discovered, written by a sixteenth-century artist who was going blind. I’d initially titled the book The Science of Shadows, after a line in his text. My agent and editor, however, both felt that this was a bit too dark, and didn’t convey the romantic qualities of the novel. I agree, and am so happy they helped me come up with a title that’s a much better fit for a historical-fiction romance!

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

My teenage self would not be surprised at all by the fact that I wrote a novel! I was very creative in High School, and actually got in quite a lot of trouble for skipping class to paint and write and make short films—all of which centered on themes of love, loss, and the struggle to find one’s place in the world. As an adult, though, I put my creativity aside for a long time. I thought I needed to find “a real job.” Eventually, I realized that I would never feel truly alive unless I was expressing myself creatively.

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

With a dual-narrative, the ending is particularly challenging: as the book progresses, the stories intertwine and influence one another. There are two sets of loose threads, and they need to be tied up in a way that makes the novel feel like a cohesive whole. On top of this, I personally always want to create endings that are satisfying—but aren’t what a reader might anticipate. With romance in particular, I think it’s important to reflect the way that love can surprise us, how our hearts can change and soften in unexpected ways.

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 aspects of self surface always surface in one’s writing, if not consciously, then subconsciously. One character in my novel is an introvert and a bookworm, another is an artist—all qualities I can claim. The love stories in each time-period are bittersweet, and reflect my own past experiences.

At the same time, writing also offers us the chance to explore perspectives other than our own. The villain in my novel is a zealot, for example—to craft him, I drew upon interactions I’ve had with religious extremists. Yet whether they’re living five hundred years ago or today, every character is subject to the constancy of human nature, and our eternal quest for love and fulfillment.

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

Music influences me greatly. I naturally find myself listening to different types of music when writing different characters; for me, music is transportive, and changing artists helps me shift perspectives. I often wonder what other authors listen to when they write—I’d love it if books included soundtracks!
Follow Margaux DeRoux on Twitter.

--Marshal Zeringue

Wednesday, June 17, 2020

Hannah Mary McKinnon

Hannah Mary McKinnon was born in the UK, grew up in Switzerland and moved to Canada in 2010. After a successful career in recruitment, she quit the corporate world in favor of writing. She now lives in Oakville, Ontario, with her husband and three sons, and is delighted by her twenty-second commute.

Her new novel is Sister Dear.

My Q&A with the author:

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

Sister Dear does a great job of giving the reader a sense that something ominous is looming. If you flipped the words to Dear Sister, one might think it’s a memoir or a love-letter of sorts to a sibling. However, Sister Dear gives it a slightly creepy undercurrent, the indication that all isn’t quite right, which is exactly the case in Eleanor’s life right from Chapter 1.

What's in a name?

I chose Eleanor as my protagonist’s name because I liked the sound of it. It’s elegant, but perhaps unassumingly so, which fits fictional Eleanor exceedingly well. It really was that simple.

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

My teenage reader self wouldn’t be surprised by Sister Dear. I loved reading thrillers and crime fiction when I was younger, too, so my writing psychological suspense isn’t much of a stretch in that sense. However, my teenage self might be surprised I chose to pit fictional siblings against one another. After all, my sister and I get along very well.

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

The beginning is typically harder for me because it means starting with a blank document. When I get to the ending, I have the rest of the story – the characters, their motivations, the build-up – behind me. I’ve often swapped out the first chapter for another or changed it completely. For my first novel I kept trying to write Chapter 1 and failed so many times, I inserted a page break and jumped into Chapter 2, and the words flowed because there seemed to be far less pressure. I didn’t write Chapter 1 until I’d finished the first draft of the novel, and even then it changed again.

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

There may be a few things here and there, little details I sprinkle in, but I’m writing fiction, not an autobiography. As an author it’s my job to make things up, to create these characters that seem and feel real to the reader. Frankly, I think if I based the characters on myself the books would end up rather boring, not to mention sounding the same!

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

I love watching movies – especially at the cinema where the trailers are my favourite part. I think film in general has had a huge impact on me. I often describe on the page what I see in my head, as if I were watching my novel unfold on screen. Visualising things helps immensely with conveying descriptions and emotions via my characters to my readers.
Visit Hannah Mary McKinnon's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Monday, June 15, 2020

Kelly McWilliams

Photo Credit: Black Forest Photography
Kelly McWilliams is a mixed-race writer who has always gravitated towards stories about crossing boundaries and forging new identities. For this and so many other reasons, young adult literature will always be close to her heart. Her novel, Agnes at the End of the World, benefited from a We Need Diverse Books Mentorship.

McWilliams has loved crafting stories all her life, and her very first novel, Doormat, was published when she was just fifteen-years old. She has also worked as a staff writer for Romper, covering issues important to women and families. She lives in Colorado with her partner and young daughter.

McWilliams applied the Page 69 Test to Agnes at the End of the World and reported the following:
How much work does your title do to take readers into the story?

My title, Agnes at the End of the World, makes the novel’s stakes clear from the get-go—this is a story about a girl standing on the edge of a cliff, which just happens to be the collapse of society as the result of a terrible pandemic.

But the title has metaphorical resonance, too. Raised in a doomsday cult, Agnes has been anticipating the apocalypse for her entire life. But Agnes’s world doesn’t end in fire and brimstone, as the controlling Prophet of Red Creek predicted. Ultimately, her world ends in ways she never could’ve anticipated—and it ends twice: First, when she must leave her family and everything she’s ever known behind in order to save her brother’s life; then again, when she discovers the Outside world is facing down a near-apocalypse—a real one.

What's in a name?

“Agnes” is an old-fashioned name, meant to convey the fact that Agnes herself comes from a strange community that exists slightly outside time. It’s also a name that shouldn’t be beautiful—all those consonants packed into the middle!—yet somehow, rolls off the tongue. As a character, Agnes is as unexpected and surprising as her name.

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

I grew up reading dystopian and apocalyptic fiction, especially the dark, edgy, socially conscious kind. My favorite book for many years was Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower—I also loved On the Beach by Nevil Shute, Z for Zachariah by Robert C. O’Brien, and Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale.

If I could travel back in time, I’d absolutely drop Agnes at the End of the World off at the doorstep of my teenaged self (with clear instructions to prevent time travel paradoxes, of course). I think past-Kelly would really enjoy this feminist, apocalyptic tale!

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

Beginnings are definitely challenging to write. Ultimately, however, writing the ending of my novel felt more intense. Endings are crucial, because they’re what leave readers with a lasting impression of the work as a whole. I went back and forth on whether my protagonist would live or die at the end (no spoilers here, so I won't say any more!). I toggled between the bittersweet, the tragic, and the hopeful for months before I decided Agnes’s fate.

I’ll never forget the river I cried when I wrote the last scene for the final time—I just knew in my bones that I’d finally gotten it right. At long last, I’d found the missing puzzle piece, the perfect fit.

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

Agnes at the End of the World is a novel narrated from the perspective of two sisters, but that wasn’t always true! It used to be Agnes’s story alone.

I was pregnant with my daughter when I first conceived the premise of this book, and of Agnes, who must choose between remaining in the only world she’s ever known and saving her baby brother’s life.

Agnes is in many ways my ideal self—a selfless caregiver, steadfast in her beliefs. But in my second draft, I decided to explore the perspective of her younger sister, Beth, who represents another, more shadowy side of myself. Beth is occasionally selfish, petty, and needy—but also fun to be around. Agnes is a superhero, but Beth cares more about kissing boys and wearing makeup (despite the strict rules of her oppressive society) than about saving the world. Beth is relatable, and her desires are recognizable to anyone who’s ever been a teenaged girl.

Agnes and Beth play foils in the novel; but they also represent my own dual selfhood, I believe—the ideal and the real.


--Marshal Zeringue