Thursday, April 30, 2020

Andrea Robertson

Andrea Robertson began writing novels after a horse broke her foot. Twelve books later, she believes that horse must have been an agent of fate.

Prior to becoming a full-time writer, Robertson resided in the academic world where she was a professor of early modern history. She now lives in Southern California with her husband and two dogs.

Robertson's new novel is Forged in Fire and Stars.

My Q&A with the author:

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

Forged in Fire and Stars takes readers directly into the story. The first chapter of the book takes place at a smithy, introducing readers to the forge and its fire. Getting to the stars requires a journey with the protagonist Ara and her companions, while digging into the lore and history of the kingdom – Saetlund - they are trying to save.

The working title for Forged in Fire and Stars was Loresmith. By birthright, Ara should become the next Loresmith – a blacksmith who is able to craft weapons blessed by the gods. Her father would have passed his skills and secret knowledge onto her, but he was killed when the Vokkan empire conquered Saetlund. Ara must prove her worth to the gods before she can ascend to the mythical role.

My editor and I decided against keeping Loresmith for the title as it didn’t feel evocative enough. We wanted a title that would draw readers into a world of fallen kingdoms, hidden magic, and deep mysteries. We hope that Forged and Fire and Stars conveys those characteristics and piques readers’ interest.

What's in a name?

I spend a lot of time discovering the names of my characters. I say discover rather than choose because I believe that they already have a name and it’s my job to find it. My previous novels have been set in our world that I infuse with fantastical elements. The characters in those books have names that were picked for either their cultural origin or their meaning. For example, in the Nightshade series there are two Guardian (shapeshifter) packs that originated in the Middle Ages – one in France and one in England. The first and surnames of each pack member reflect those distinct ancestries. The meaning of the three central characters’ names were also significant. Calla’s name relates to her features, white blonde hair and golden eyes. Renier means “deciding warrior”; he’s a pack alpha who is a fighter and as a leader has to make brutal choices. Shay, short for Seamus, means “usurper.” His role in the novel is the disruptor.

Forged and Fire and Stars is high fantasy so my usual name discovering tactics were moot. Instead of going for meaning I relied on the sound of the name and what that evoked for me. I also used invented ancestries to create culture consistency in characters names. The kingdom of Saetlund is divided into five provinces. Once I’d decided on the sound, spelling, and shape of a name I worked to create similarities in the names of other characters from the same region. I’ve also learned that I heavily favor one or two syllable names and I’m not particularly sure why that is, especially considering my own name is three syllables.

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

After the jumping up and down and screaming had passed, I would have been ecstatic that I’ve published not only one book, but twelve and that I’ve been on the New York Times bestseller list. I don’t think the content of my novels would surprise my teenage. My favorite genre has always been fantasy and I dabbled in fantasy writing throughout my childhood. My teenage self would also like how important a role nature and animals play in my books – that’s something that has been close to my heart for as long as I can remember. A question my teenage self would ask: Why haven’t you written a horse book yet? I was a horse crazy girl (still am, truth be told) and I’d be impatient to see myself writing a book that centered around horses.

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

Beginnings are much more difficult to write than endings. I struggle with the balance between action and exposition. I know the ending of each book when I begin writing it. More than that, I know the ending of a series when I begin writing its first book. Having a conclusion fixed in my mind makes for a target to build toward, the plot arc to follow. By contrast, I fumble around in drafts until I stumble upon the right beginning. I think it happens because I haven’t hit my stride as a writer when starting a book. Once I find that pace and rhythm it’s like being carried on a current.

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

To varying degrees. My characters emerge as complete beings – though it takes the course of a book, sometimes a series, to see that completion – and because of that I don’t like to look for myself inside them. Having said that, I think it’s impossible to not have parts of yourself and your experiences appear in characters. For example in my upcoming novel the character Eamon struggles with a chronic illness. Two years ago I was diagnosed with fibromyalgia after several prior years trying to figure out why my body and mind seemed to be falling apart. My life has been transformed by learning to function with this illness. I didn’t set out to write a character with a chronic illness, but as I wrote Eamon it became clear that he was struggling physically and mentally. My own experience then informed the ways that Eamon coped with his condition.

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

I draw inspiration from everything around me. For me writing is a contradiction of solitude while being hyper-aware of the world all the time. I’m incredibly close to my family and we’re a family of readers, so the theme of family and loyalty appears frequently in my writing. I grew up in northern Wisconsin and my backyards was a massive forest; that was the place my imagination thrived and love of nature and animals figures prominently in my books.

My favorite genre has always been fantasy, so classics like Lord of the Rings, Chronicles of Narnia, Chronicles of Prydain, The Dark is Rising, etc. built the foundation of my literary imagination. My all-time favorite book is Watership Down and I believe that’s because it is the perfect blend of nature and fantasy.

As far and other media and pop-culture go, I like to say Joss Whedon taught me how to write dialogue; Buffy the Vampire Slayer is my favorite TV show. I love witty banter a la Much Ado About Nothing (not coincidentally I think, Whedon made an excellent film adapation of that play). I listen to a lot of music and play a lot of RPG board and video games. All of these things feed into my writing life.
Visit Andrea Robertson's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Wednesday, April 29, 2020

Taylor Brown

Taylor Brown grew up on the Georgia coast. He has lived in Buenos Aires, San Francisco, and the mountains of western North Carolina. His books include In the Season of Blood and Gold (2014), Fallen Land (2016), The River of Kings (2017), Gods of Howl Mountain (2018), and Pride of Eden (2020). You can find his work in The New York Times, The Rumpus, Garden & Gun, the North Carolina Literary Review, and many other publications. He is a recipient of the Montana Prize in Fiction and the founder of BikeBound.com. He lives in Savannah, GA.

My Q&A with the author:

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

I like to think Pride of Eden does a fair bit of work in setting the right tone and mood of the novel, which is set on an exotic wildlife sanctuary called Little Eden. Malaya, an army veteran and anti-poacher ranger, comes home from Africa to work at the sanctuary, which is run by this eccentric former jockey and soldier of fortune, Anse Caulfield. Soon, Malaya realizes that many of the animals, particularly the big cats -- lions, tigers, etc. -- may not have come to Little Eden by legal means. In fact, Anse might be taking the concept of animal "rescue" quite literally, rescuing animals from abuse and neglect...

I tend to prefer harder physical nouns in my titles, but "Pride" has a nice double meaning for this book. I mainly think of a lion pride -- the human/animal families at the heart of this book -- but the title also signifies an exploration of human pride and hubris, especially as it relates to dominion over the natural world. These are ideas the characters themselves are grappling with in the book.

What's in a name?

So much, I believe! There's a bit of poetry in naming characters, I think. Not so much in the lyrical sense, but in being aware of the hidden resonances and meanings of names, their hardness or softness -- what they "speak to" the reader about a character. That said, I try not to overthink them -- usually, they seem to happen on their own.

In Pride of Eden, I just loved the beauty of the name "Malaya," which means "free" or "freedom" in Tagalog. Malaya's grandfather served as a Philippine Scout in WWII, so the name carries echoes of her ancestry. For the character of Little Eden's owner, I wanted a harder, sharper name that matched his personality. "Anse" -- short for Anderson -- recalls Devil Anse Hatfield, one of the infamous patriarchs of the Hatfield-McCoy feud, and I can't help but hear a touch of "adze" in there. Another character in the novel is Larrell Pope, better known as "Lope" -- a contraction of his first and last names. He's a tall and thin character, with a natural poise and calm, and in a book full of animal imagery, the name Lope recalls antelope, of course.

But again, I can't say I deliberated very long on these names. They seemed to arrive with the characters.

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

I tend to find endings harder. In this case, the first two chapters of Pride of Eden were originally short stories, published at The Rumpus and The Sycamore Review, so I already had the book's beginnings largely fleshed out. I've used the same tactic in other books, namely my novels Fallen Land and The River of Kings, where I worked out either the beginning or ending of a book in a short story. However, even when I think I know the ending of the book, unexpected things tend to happen in the story -- much like life -- and I usually turn out with a different end than I anticipated.

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

That's a great question, and my answer might be unexpected. When I'm actually writing the characters, I don't think of them as having a very close connection to my personality. In fact, as a younger writer, I remember feeling a little pride in the fact that my fiction wasn't thinly-veiled autobiography -- that my characters were, as you say, "a world apart." However, when the books come out and I'm encouraged to look more deeply at my own work from a distance, I can usually find traits of myself in my characters -- struggles that I was going through, fears or broken hearts, even story arcs that parallel my own or my family's.

In the case of Pride of Eden, all of the characters are going through grief of some kind. I wrote this book during a time of great personal loss, and I do think that bled through into the characters -- Malaya, Anse, even Lope.

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

Music has always been one of my biggest non-literary influences, but that was less the case with Pride of Eden. Rather, my biggest inspiration turned out to be the animals themselves. My research for this book led me to have some fairly close encounters with various species both in the wild and at sanctuaries. In Africa, I was feet away as a herd of elephants passed, and we had a rhino come right up to our truck -- close enough to slobber on my friend's arm! I can't quite describe the feeling of calm that those gentle giants invoke. They seem to move in a kind of slow motion, and the world seems to quiet around them -- you have the sense of mass and gravity and time being truly interlinked.

Stateside, I visited several different exotic animal sanctuaries such as Carolina Tiger Rescue (Pittsboro, NC), Catty Shack Ranch (Jacksonville, FL), and White Oak (Yulee, FL). While there was always a fence between me and the big cats, they were such an inspiration. They're the sharp point of eons of evolution, and there's such power and majesty in their movements, in the very slink of their shoulders through the brush. It's heartbreaking to think of their habitats disappearing around them, and how many are bred for lives of captivity. That power and heartbreak really inspired me.
Visit Taylor Brown's website.

My Book, The Movie: The River of Kings.

The Page 69 Test: The River of Kings.

My Book, The Movie: Pride of Eden.

The Page 69 Test: Pride of Eden.

--Marshal Zeringue

Tuesday, April 28, 2020

Ellen Lindseth

Ellen Lindseth is a graduate of University of Colorado, Boulder, and the Carlson School of Management. She has also studied at the Loft Literary Center (Minneapolis, MN) and is a member of the Women’s Fiction Writers Association and the Romance Writers of America (RWA). She is the author of the novel A Girl Divided, a 2019 finalist for the RWA’s prestigious RITA Award, and “As Time Goes By,” a short story chosen for publication in the Midwest Fiction Writers’ anthology Festivals of Love.

When not writing about resourceful women of the 1940s, she feeds her passion for adventure by flying as a private pilot, researching new experiences (such as performing burlesque onstage for a local fundraiser), and traveling the world with her husband (also a pilot) in search of plot ideas.

Lindseth's new novel is The Long Path Home.

My Q&A with the author:

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

Quite a bit really, as it reflects both the heroine’s physical journey through the course of the book as well as her emotional one. I wasn’t sure at first, though, to be quite honest. The working title, the one that guided me through the story’s creation, was Violet Exposed. That one would have accurately portrayed the dilemma the heroine, Violet, finds herself by the end of the story, when her many personas get in the way of finding true love and redemption.

While readers might not be burlesque dancers, or runaway daughters, or even find themselves in the midst of a spy plot, I think we all eventually face the choice of whether or not to reveal our true selves to someone else. And I think we all secretly wonder if we would have the courage to do so?

My publisher, however, thought my working title sounded to much like an erotica, and wanted me to come up with a more wistful title. Not being an author who is wedded to her titles, I tossed out some ideas, and we settled on The Long Path Home.

With the benefit of time, I think this new title does give the reader a better feel for both the external plot in which she travels overseas with the USO to a war-torn Italy, hoping to free herself of murder charges and find her way back to Chicago, and the internal one where she is forced to reconsider her past decisions with the hope of one day reconciling with her family. Both journeys are perilous. Both journeys – if she has the courage to see them through – will ultimately lead her home.

What's in a name?

For me, a great deal. Take Violet, for example, my heroine. I wanted to give her an old-fashioned name that would’ve been popular during WWII, one that could be shortened into an affectionate nickname, and would also reflect her character. In the language of flowers, the sweet-scented violet symbolizes truth and loyalty – two virtues my Violet struggles with and then ultimately embraces.

I also loved the idea of calling her Violet because the plant itself, if you’ve ever grown one in your garden, is so resilient. Once established, it is next to impossible to eradicate. This unexpected toughness in something appearing so fragile and lovely is a key trait of Violet’s throughout the story.

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

I find endings incredibly difficult to write. Where to start my characters on their journey is far easier -- they tell me. In what I consider a lovely gift, my characters come to me fully formed, with all their quirks and traumas already in place. My role is to decide what their ‘Happily Ever After’, or perhaps ‘Happily For Now’, would look like. Then I create the experiences that will guide them, which isn’t always as easy as it sounds. Like in real life, there are many paths to the same result. There are always different versions of success that might lead to happiness. Because I want to explore all the possibilities, I find it incredibly hard to pick just one.

Which is where the editor comes in. The painful truth is that sometimes I pick the wrong ending, or don’t make it clear enough, or don’t continue far enough into the character’s future to show the pay-off. When my decisions are challenged, I might resist at first, but the reader’s experience always comes first for me. So when my editor says, “You might want to re-look at this,” I almost always do.

In the case of The Long Path Home, my initial vision was challenged quite a bit. I think I rewrote the ending at least five different times, changing the location of the pivotal scene twice, the characters involved, and even Violet’s role. At the suggestion of my wonderfully supportive editor, I also added a couple scenes at the end in order to increase the emotional payoff. At times the process was quite painful, but the resulting narrative is something of which I’m extremely proud.

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

While there are definitely aspects of my personality in all my heroines, they are not me. They may share traits (mostly my flaws), but they are distinct individuals. That said, I do try to put myself in their shoes as much as I can, so as to really know them.

With Violet, I knew she was a burlesque dancer, and not a bit apologetic about it. Having been on stage in small academic productions, and danced as an adult in recitals, I already had an idea of how addictive applause can be. But to addictive enough to strip? I wanted to explore that, and actually was lucky enough to take burlesque classes from, and then perform with the Rose Academy of Burlesque here in Minneapolis. I’m here to tell you, stripping on stage was indeed a rush, even if I will never, ever do it again.

Still, I’m glad I did it as the experience gave me deeper insight into Violet’s character, an insight I hope managed to make it onto the page where the reader can experience it, too.
Visit Ellen Lindseth's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Monday, April 27, 2020

Constantine Singer

Constantine Singer grew up in Seattle and earned his BA from Earlham College and his Masters from Seattle University. He currently lives in the Echo Park neighborhood of Los Angeles with his family and teaches history at a high school in South LA.

Singer's debut novel is Strange Days.

My Q&A with the author:

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

Titles are the most difficult part of a manuscript for me -- they’re the reader’s introduction to the work and they direct the cover design which becomes the primary enticement tool on the shelf.

Strange Days got its final title less than a day before it was sent for cover design. It had previously held at least a dozen different titles, none of which were effective. Putnam had finally settled on Patched! Which they thought was a “tech-forward” title but nobody, including them, loved it.

My agent earned every penny of his cut and more by refusing to allow it and tossing Strange Days out there as an alternative. My editor agreed, saying something along the lines of “whatever,” and I went back and seeded the phrase throughout the manuscript. In the end, it led to a wonderful cover, which is enticing, but the title itself has never pulled its weight.

What's in a name?

Some names in Strange Days are archeological remnants of early versions of the story idea. Alex, Sabazios, Cassandra and Sybil all survived in-tact from the first iteration of an outline in which I thought the book would be a metaphorical retelling of Alexander the Great’s conquering of Anatolia -- Sabazios was the King of Gordia (of Gordian Knot fame) whose cleverness was undone by Alexander’s blunt refusal to play by his rules.

Cassandra and Sybil were placeholder names from that same outline and were more role-descriptions than names. Cassandra would tell the truth that Alex didn’t want to believe and Sybil would speak for the Oracle.

Of course, none of the original metaphor ended up in the final manuscript, but the names stuck.

Also, I chose Alex’s last name, Mata because it can mean both, “shrub” and “He kills” depending on context, and that felt a lot like Alex.

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

I think my teenage self would be unsurprised by the content of the novel -- as a teenager I was fascinated by science fiction, and time travel specifically -- but I would be very surprised I had the wherewithal to actually finish a manuscript and submit it for public inspection.

As a teenager, I was terrified of putting myself out into public view as anything other than an occasionally loveable screw-up who spent most of his time and energy getting loaded. I wouldn’t even turn in homework I’d completed because I couldn’t handle being judged on my merits.

I also think my teenage self would be horrified at how exposed he is in the book. He and Alex have a lot in common.

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

Beginnings. Beginnings beginnings beginnings. When I start a project, I assume that the first twenty pages won’t make it through the second draft. I have a pretty reliable story-building technique, so I’m always clear about where things are headed and how they’ll end, but never where to start.

I don’t mind, though. Those extra-long unnecessary edited-out first sections are where I learn about voice and tone and where I get to explore my characters’ personal worlds. It’s where I meet family and learn about passions and fears. It’s also where I get to spend some time literally getting dressed with my characters and eating meals -- if I don’t do that, it’s hard to really know who they are.

Every manuscript I’ve written, I keep a separate file titled “Parts.” It’s where all these things go when I excise them from the manuscript. I keep them because those early experiences are like a baby-book -- a place to remember who they were.

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

Alex is a pretty accurate reflection of the clockworks inside teenage me. He is (and I was) fear-bound and afraid of judgment. Alex’s focus on all the ways he’s different from everyone around him is straight out of my experience, too. Most of my protagonists are “inside-outsiders” -- kids who look like they should belong, but who know -- for various reasons -- that they don’t. Alex is Latino, but can’t speak Spanish. His parents own their home and have some money while his friends are poor and from immigrant families. He isn’t physical like his brother and father, and he hides his intelligence because he doesn’t want to stand out from the crowd. Our circumstances might be different, but the fear is exactly the same.

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

I’m politically minded and that shows up clearly in my writing. Less obvious is probably my three-decade long conversation with God. My spiritual questing began when I was 19 and I have a minor in religion because of it. I was on the road to becoming a minister at one point in my life, too, so the dynamics and mechanics of faith show up as major themes in almost everything I write.

Alex’s story is essentially a story of doubt and faith -- Alex consistently puts his faith in others he sees as better than him while never having any in himself. His story can be seen as a spiritual journey, being betrayed by imperfect objects of faith and finally learning to sustain himself from the small heat of the eternal flame within.

I’m also a recovering anthropology major and tend to see things through a sociocultural lens. Anomie and adaptive culture are regular themes in my work.
Visit Constantine J. Singer's website.

The Page 69 Test: Strange Days.

My Book, The Movie: Strange Days.

--Marshal Zeringue

Sunday, April 26, 2020

Sam Wiebe

Sam Wiebe is the author of the Vancouver crime novels Cut You Down, Invisible Dead, and Last of the Independents. His short stories have appeared in Thuglit, Spinetingler, and subTerrain, and he is a former Vancouver Public Library Writer in Residence. He lives in Vancouver.

Wiebe's new novel, Never Going Back, is due out in August.

My Q&A with the author:

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

Never Going Back is about Alison Kidd, a reformed master thief whose brother is kidnaped. To free him she’s forced to pull off one last heist—a set of priceless photographs owned by a retired hockey star. When the book opens, Ali is being released from incarceration, wondering why her brother isn’t waiting to pick her up.

The title speaks to her immediate situation—she’s on the straight and narrow, vowing never to return to prison, and yet circumstances force her to take on one last dangerous job. Existentially, the title speaks to her desire for something better. It becomes a mantra for her to fight through her predicament.

What's in a name?

The names should fit the characters, but the why of that…I don’t know. Sometimes it just sounds right to me. Ali sounded right for her character, someone who’s cunning and talented, has a little larceny in her heart but is fighting against it.

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

My teenaged self read everything from westerns to mysteries to mainstream fiction, biographies, history, trash. I think he’d like Never Going Back.

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

They’re both tough. A beginning has to grab you. An ending has to resonate after it lets you go. I probably change the endings more.

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

Certain things come from me or people I know, yeah. The most interesting one from Never Going Back had to do with a friend of mine whose father installed alarms. There’s a way to ‘cheat’ certain alarm systems, even quite high-tech ones…read the book to find out.

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

In the case of Never Going Back, photography. The Vancouver School and street photography play a key role in Never Going Back. Street photography is a document of a time and place, and yet is composed and artificial. Photographs are mechanically reproducible, as Walter Benjamin pointed out in a famous essay—and yet certain photos become priceless.

And what better object to steal than something that’s priceless?
Visit Sam Wiebe's website.

My Book, The Movie: Invisible Dead.

The Page 69 Test: Invisible Dead.

The Page 69 Test: Cut You Down.

--Marshal Zeringue

Friday, April 24, 2020

Nicole C. Kear

Nicole C. Kear is the author of the memoir Now I See You, chosen as a Must-Read by People, Amazon, Martha Stewart Living, Parade, Redbook, and Marie Claire UK among others. Her books for children include the new middle grade novel Foreverland, the chapter series The Fix-It Friends, and the middle grade series The Startup Squad, co-written with Brian Weisfeld. Her essays appear in the New York Times, Good Housekeeping, New York, Psychology Today, Parents, as well as Salon, the Huffington Post and xoJane. She teaches non-fiction writing at Columbia University and the NYU School of Professional Studies.

A native of New York, Kear received a BA from Yale, a MA from Columbia, and a red nose from the San Francisco School of Circus Arts. She lives in Brooklyn with her husband, three children and two teddy bear hamsters.

My Q&A with the author:

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

Foreverland, the title of the book, is also the amusement park where 12-year-old Margaret runs away to, because of hard times at home. Foreverland's motto is: "where magic never ends!" and that's an important concept in the book for both of the runaways who want to call Foreverland home. Jaime and Margaret flee to Foreverland separately, for different reasons, but what they share is a desire to go back in time, to a happier moment in their pasts. What they wish more than anything is that the magic of those happy moments might never end. In different ways, they both want to stop time, to stay children forever, like the famous boy who never grew up, Peter Pan. So, in that respect, Foreverland as a title does a lot to get us into the story in both the most simple way (that's where all of the action unfolds) and in the most profound way, too!

What's in a name?

I have to disagree with Shakespeare here. I think there’s a lot in a name, as far as fiction is concerned. One of my favorite parts about coming up with a new character is naming them; it’s a priceless opportunity to communicate something essential about the character. Foreverland is heavily inspired by Peter Pan but I wanted to keep the re-telling very modern and very loose, so that readers discover the connection at some point, but not until they’re pretty far into the book. Because of this, I had to keep my references to the source material soft, subtle.

When it came to Jaime, the charismatic, impulsive, unforgettable boy Margaret meets in the park, who’s cut from the same character cloth as Peter Pan, I didn’t want to choose something obvious, like Peter or Pete. The author of Peter Pan is J. M. Barrie (the J is for James) and I immediately thought of Jaime. It felt modern, a little more gender-neutral and it works in Spanish, which was something I was looking for, because Jaime is Latino.

I rejected “Wendy” for the female protagonist of my story because it’s too on the nose. Instead, I discovered that the real-life inspiration for the character of Wendy was a little girl named Margaret Henley, the daughter of a friend of J. M Barrie’s. She died at 5 from meningitis, and invented the name of “Wendy” accidentally -- she couldn’t pronounce Barrie’s name and instead called him “Fwendy-wendy.” So I named my character Margaret, after the original Wendy. It’s exactly the kind of traditional name I thought my character would have.

Belle’s a supporting character, but she is one of my absolute favorites - a punk-rock, tough-as-nails teen who is Jamie’s fierce and loyal protector at the park. You can probably guess what Peter Pan character her name derives from.... Tinkerbell! I love this one, since it feels like a misnomer for this character. It’s a sweet name for a sour girl, so there’s tension there, and complications, which I find interesting.

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

Beginnings are a cinch for me --but they’re never the right beginning. I always rewrite them over ... and over ... and over. On my computer, I have dozens of different opening paragraphs for Foreverland. My biggest challenge was figuring out where to start the story. Initially, I started with Margaret in her home, and followed her as she journeyed out of the city to the amusement park -- I wanted to show the backstory, and let the readers understand the reasons she fled home. The trouble was, it was just taking so long to get to the fun part, the running-away-to-live-in-an-amusement-park part. So I wondered, “What if I just start right there, with that exactly: ‘I am running away to live in an amusement park’?” It was a, “it’s so simple, it just might work!” moment.

I decided to start with Margaret standing in front of the gates to the park, deciding whether she will actually go in. She’s a safe, sensible girl with a good head on her shoulders. She gets panicky when she orders from the “12 and under” menu even though she is 12 because she’s worried she’d cutting it a little too close. So running away, breaking the rules is not a natural behavior for her. But she sees the park spread out before her in all its summer splendor, and the memories she has from years past are so enticing. So she’s pulled in, but she’s pulled out, too. I liked the idea of starting in that moment of tension, the moment she makes the decision that changes everything.

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 characters -- not so much in their personalities, but definitely in their emotional experiences. Margaret is shy, quiet, invisible -- nothing like me at twelve (or now for that matter). I was loud, assertive, dramatic, a born performer and a spotlight-hogger. But so many important moments Margaret experiences or remembers come from my experience. For example, when I was a kid, I used to love hiding. My favorite place to hide was in the deep coat closet at my aunt’s apartment in Manhattan. I can distinctly recall the smells and sounds in there, the hard, cold paint can under me, the furry, puffy coat bottoms pressing ion my head, the closeness of the dark. And that’s a moment Margaret recalls in the story from her childhood.

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

My main inspiration for this book was a conversation I had a few years ago with my son, who was about to turn 12. He was lamenting the fact that he was getting older, saying he was nostalgic for his childhood.

“How can you miss being a kid,” I asked him. “When you’re still I kid?”

“Because,” he said. “I know it’s about to end.”

I thought this was an unusual reaction to growing up -- I remember being in such a rush to get older. But then I listened to a podcast called, “Being 12: the year when everything changes.” And I heard 12-year-olds from all over talk about their conflicted feelings about entering adolescence, and scientists and social scientists weighing in on what a remarkable year of transformation it is, developmentally. It put me in mind of Peter Pan -- specifically how he visits Wendy, and begins their adventure together on her last night in the nursery, the last night she gets to be a kid.

I was discussing this with my son one afternoon, as we walked home, and that’s when I decided I’d write a middle grade novel about it.

“But what would be a modern-day Neverland?” I asked him. “A place of magic, where anything is possible, all your childhood dreams fulfilled?”

He knew, instantly. “An amusement park,” he said.

And just like that, a book was born.
Visit Nicole C. Kear's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Thursday, April 23, 2020

Cherise Wolas

Cherise Wolas’s debut novel, The Resurrection of Joan Ashby, was a nominee for the 2019 International Dublin Literary Award, a 2018 PEN Debut Fiction Prize semi-finalist, a New York Times Book Review Editors’ Choice and Paperback Row selection, an ABA Indie Next Great Read pick in both Hardcover and paperback, and named a Best Novel, Best Debut Novel, and top 10 Novel of the Year by Kirkus Reviews and many other outlets. Huffington Post called it “An audacious balancing act whose betrayals come from the least expected corners, submerging reads in a dazzling universe we hate to leave.” Joan Ashby has been published or is forthcoming in a number of foreign countries, including the UK, Poland, France, Turkey, Israel, and China.

Her second novel, The Family Tabor, was named a New York Times Book Review Paperback Row selection, as well as an ABA Indie Next Great Read selection in three categories: Hardcover, Paperback, and for Reading Groups. It has received numerous five star reviews, including from The Chicago Review of Books, which described it as “a hypnotic generational saga, elegant, cerebral and finely tuned. Pitch perfect and a supple and engrossing read.” Legendary Entertainment Television has optioned The Family Tabor for a multi-season premium cable television show.

My Q&A with the author:

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

When I first thought of Harry, Roma, Phoebe, Camille, and Simon—patriarch, matriarch and their adult children—whose lives, collectively and individually, are at the center of my second novel, they arrived with their last name already fixed. They were, from the start, the Tabors. And before I’d written a single word, before I knew it would become a novel, I was already calling it The Family Tabor. A spare title, but a little mysterious too–no further clues other than they might be close-knit, and by gathering them under that single umbrella and placing Family before Tabor, perhaps indicating that whatever they experience, they will do so together. And indeed, over a broiling summer weekend in Palm Springs, CA, gathered to celebrate Harry being named Man of the Decade, all the Tabors experience individual life-altering revelations while collectively immersed in a shocking disappearance none could have imagined. Just before the novel’s publication, I learned something wild that I’d never known: that when I was born, my first home was on a street named Tabor. So perhaps a reflection of how the unconscious might work at least in this writer.

What’s in a name?

I think we’re affected by our own names, and form, rightly or wrongly, immediate perceptions of others based on their names, and, no doubt, I’ve been influenced by having an uncommon name, so I believe names possess an ocean of essentiality. My characters’ names are specifically chosen, based on their actual meanings, and how they fit their natures, personalities, and journeys. I like to imagine the secondary meanings unconsciously affecting readers, which is probably ridiculous. In The Family Tabor, the patriarch’s name, Harry, carries his informality, while the matriarch’s name, Roma, is more formal and exotic, and fits her history and temperament. The names of the adult daughters, Phoebe and Camille, each have secondary meanings, but Simon’s, which means “one who has heard,” crystallizes one of the major themes in the novel—how the past influences the present. Simon Tabor wants to find existential reasons for his life—he wants to hear how to find that understanding, while his ancestor, Simon Tabornikov, lived a deeply meaningful life and heard everything, despite being profoundly deaf.

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

I can’t decide whether my teenage reader self would be surprised by my novels, but I know this: she’d be shocked that her journey did not include majoring in English Literature, and getting an MFA, but instead becoming a lawyer and founding a film company, even as she kept writing every day. She’d also be shocked that a story she wrote would lead to love from three thousands miles away, providing indelible proof of what she’d always believed: that the hefty power of words can change everything.

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

My process is very organic: a character pops into my mind, a place lays itself it out, I hear dialogue in my head, an image appears, and with The Family Tabor, I immediately pictured the family, the weekend celebratory gathering, each child coming home bearing a heavy weight, and I knew their father’s own heavy weight would shockingly upend the family. But because of the way I work, I discover the characters and their stories and the overall story as I’m actually writing, and so my beginnings inevitably undergo many, many changes. Although something from the original beginning always remains intact—for instance, I knew I wanted to open with Harry and Roma Tabor in bed, their forty-plus year marriage on display, as well as their connection to the present and the past. My endings find me, and though sometimes I might fight it at first, when I find the deep currents beneath it, and understand it, and work with it, and the ultimate elements click into place, there’s a feeling of transcendence because the novel must end this way. And that’s what happened with The Family Tabor; it made sense that the ending would highlight the uncertainty that dominates our lives, as well as the fragility of existence. During the celebratory weekend honoring Harry, he learns that actions he took decades ago thoroughly derailed the life of a friend. Can the past be forgiven in the present? Should the past be forgiven? Should Harry be allowed to complete his journey seeking forgiveness? Can past sins be absolved by the next generation? All of that is in play. I love endings that compel readers to keep thinking and wondering about what will happen next in the lives of these characters, and that’s what I strive to achieve.

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 so real to me that I perceive them as living, breathing human beings. I step into their skins, into their lives and thoughts, seeing their worlds through their eyes, and from the moment I begin writing, I am them, I am each of my characters, but they are never me.

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

It’s very hard to isolate those gossamer inspirations, but everything from overheard conversations to obituaries.
Visit Cherise Wolas's website.

The Page 69 Test: The Resurrection of Joan Ashby.

The Page 69 Test: The Family Tabor.

--Marshal Zeringue

Wednesday, April 22, 2020

Beth Morrey

Beth Morrey‘s work has been published in the Cambridge and Oxford May Anthologies and shortlisted for the Grazia Orange First Chapter competition. She lives in London with her family and Polly the dog.

Morrey's debut novel is The Love Story of Missy Carmichael.

My Q&A with the author:

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

The very first draft of my book was called Why Keep a Dog. When I was first querying agents and getting nothing back, I started to reconsider the title, and decided it was obscure, misleading (too doggy) and also a bit dry. For my next round of queries, it evolved into The Love Story of Missy Carmichael, which I thought was nice because it’s not a love story in the traditional sense – it’s about different types of love, with my protagonist Missy at the centre. The title has poetry, rhythm and resonance, but it’s also not quite what you think, which is a good indicator of the book – I hope.

What's in a name?

I am obsessed with names, and spend ages thinking about them. When you find the right one, it can open up a whole character, make them real somehow. Missy is actually Millicent, an indicator of her suffragette heritage (i.e. Millicent Fawcett, an English political activist who co-founded Missy’s Cambridge college). Carmichael is Missy’s married name, and her husband Leo is at the centre of her love story. Leo is a lion of a character – huge and golden in her mind. Missy doesn’t get on with her daughter Melanie, and notes that her name comes from the Greek word meaning ‘blackness’. To let you in on a secret: Missy never gives a name to her formidable grandfather, Fa-Fa, but I always knew it. It’s Aldert.

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

While my 42-year-old self is dazed and amazed at the idea of having a bestselling novel (in the UK), and being published in America, I suspect my teenage self would be nonchalant about the whole thing. When you’re young, you think you have the world at your feet – that everything will come easily. It’s only when you’re out in the world that you get corners knocked off, and realise how hard it all is. It’s like driving a car – when I was 17 it was nothing, but now I’m so plagued by neurosis I can’t even make the attempt.

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

The beginning is much harder than the end. Starting out, I tend to waffle on, put far too much information in, not really knowing where I’m going. By the end I’m in control, in the rhythm of it, and much more focused. The first draft of Missy Carmichael is unrecognisable at the start, but the finish was always pretty much the same, once I’d dropped the superfluous final chapter. I often drop the final chapter – I like endings to be underdone.

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

There’s a lot of Missy in me, in that I’m a bit of a waspish old witch, sometimes socially awkward, and have a lot of doubts about myself as a mother. I’m also, like her, a Christmas fiend. So there are similarities. The main difference is hair. I have crap, straight, thin, mousy hair, and tend to give my characters nice big curls and colour.

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

My background in television is a huge influence. For example, I developed a series called 100 Year Old Drivers, which made me think about old people very differently – what they were like, what they could achieve. They were all so vibrant, active and curious – which informed the character of Missy. Working in television you get used to being aware of the zeitgeist, how to turn it into an accessible story, so that’s helpful. I also had to churn out treatments, which got me used to writing as a day job. Increasingly, I’m finding I want to put in references to climate change in my writing – it feels important that it’s woven in somehow, that it permeates everything we do.
Visit Beth Morrey's website.

Coffee with a Canine: Beth Morrey & Polly.

The Page 69 Test: The Love Story of Missy Carmichael.

My Book, The Movie: The Love Story of Missy Carmichael.

--Marshal Zeringue

Tuesday, April 21, 2020

Susann Cokal

Susann Cokal is a moody historical novelist, a pop-culture essayist, book critic, magazine editor, and sometime professor of creative writing and modern literature. She lives in a creepy old farmhouse in Richmond, Virginia, with seven cats, a big dog, a spouse, and some peacocks that supposedly belong to a neighbor.

Cokal's first young adult novel, The Kingdom of Little Wounds, received several national awards, including a silver medal from the American Library Association's Michael L. Printz Award series. Her books for adults, Mirabilis and Breath and Bones, received some nice notice too.

Cokal's new novel is Mermaid Moon.

My Q&A with the author:

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

I suppose the question could be generally philosophical: How much work should the title do? I always agonize over titles. For a long time, I called this book The Half-Made Moon, which I thought was a lovely title that pointed to a real moment of change—a half moon can wax or wane, and when it is half-made it is full of potential. The action takes place over four days when the moon over the Thirty-Seven Dark Islands cuts that half-slice in the sky.

But then I thought, This is a novel about a mermaid; shouldn’t there be some indication of that? You know, for people actively looking for books about mermaids (or trying to avoid books about mermaids, I suppose). So I decided that a half-made moon really looks like the flukes of a mermaid’s tail, and the people who are around for the action during a half-moon might name that shape after the person who brought about the events that make that time memorable. And there’s a nice alliteration, which I like.

So I hope the title brings readers in!

What's in a name?

Character names are always to some degree allegorical, or at least rich in meaning for the author. Jane Austen used to fiddle with names a lot; for her the difference between a Jane (a name she used a few times in fiction) and an Anne was enormous, though that difference might not register for us much now.

As Sanna, the principal narrator, explains, mermaids are named after sounds, and her name comes from the hiss of water withdrawing from sand. I made that name up because it sounded happy to me; I love the beach and spent many meditative hours there when I was lucky enough to live in California. Only much later did it occur to me that “Sanna” looks a lot like “Susann”—and in Scandinavia, the two names are pretty much alternates (both of them mean “lily”). So I suppose that in a way I did sign that protagonist pretty heavily.

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

My teenaged self always intended to write historical novels for teenagers. When I was thirteen and we had an assignment to imagine our work lives fifteen years in the future, I wrote an TV interview in which I talked about my PhD and my books. (O the hubris! The hope!)

What would surprise the teenaged Cokal is that I wrote this one about mermaids. My mother collected them, being Danish and middle-named after a folkloric mermaid, so for many years I sort of turned up my nose at them as being Mum’s Creatures. It was my version of teen rebellion; in most other ways, I was a low-maintenance kid. Now, of course, I see in mermaids what she did—that ambiguous, amphibious nature, the mystery, the magic.

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

I left this question for last—because it’s hard even to write about beginnings and endings, much less actually to write each one of those parts for itself (if you can follow my convoluted sentence). I usually think I have an amazing first line from the start, and sometimes, a few years into the process, I have to crowbar that amazing line off in order to get the opening to what it should be.

I never have the right ending in mind. I always have something imagined for the ending when I start to write, but it always changes. And when the right one comes along, after years of preparation and months of fevered prayer that somehow the conclusion will strike, it’s thrilling and uncanny and just plain weird. I figured out what should happen at the end of Mermaid Moon about six months before I knew how to make it happen, and then the key line to trigger the resolution didn’t occur till one day before I turned in the final, revised manuscript. That was a gift from the writing gods.

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

I don’t believe people who say they don’t see themselves in their characters. I think you have to, to establish the sort of empathy you need in order to write them believably.

Or maybe that means I’m a narcissist who has to see herself reflected everywhere?

Well, I feel deeply along with each one of them, even the villains and ninnies. Because I am those things at times too. And I love each one of them in some way—perhaps especially the villains—because relationships with my characters have to last all my life.

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

In some way, every little experience or object is an influence, though it might not seem so when you first see it. There’s always family, to start with—the bonds that are there or that one wishes were there. I think that comes out a lot in Mermaid Moon, which is a quest for a mother, a clan, and an identity.

I always decorate rooms with images and objets d’art that inspire and bolster what I’m working on. For this one, I have a Persian carpet that used to belong to my mother, now hung on the wall; framed copies of Jiri Trnka’s illustrations of Hans Christian Andersen, a book I’ve had since childhood; a dozen or so tiny mermaids (not Little Mermaids; they’re different) by Royal Copenhagen China; a dead mermaid an artist made for me using my hair; heaps of shells from my excursions to various beaches over many decades … heaps of history, really.

I like to create the right soundscape too. I have a wave machine going constantly (good for tricking my post-concussive tinnitus), and when I need to be lifted out of myself, I play medieval songs written by Hildegard von Bingen and performed by Anonymous 4 or Sequentia. Those recordings have got me through dissertations and novels and grim, sleepless times, and they are most helpful for writing novels, which have to come both from deep within and from some ethereal place to which I rarely get access.

So everything becomes an inspiration at the right time. And sometimes the right time is in a memory.
Visit Susann Cokal's website.

The Page 69 Test: Mermaid Moon.

My Book, The Movie: Mermaid Moon.

Writers Read: Susann Cokal (March 2020).

--Marshal Zeringue

Monday, April 20, 2020

Jennie Liu

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

Liu's 2018 novel is Girls on the Line.

My Q&A with the author:

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

I had a working title, Aging Out, that I wasn’t crazy about, but it essentially summed up that this was a novel about girls aging out of an orphanage. When an editor mentioned she didn’t like the title much either, my agent and I tossed ideas back and forth for a couple of weeks. She came up with On the Line, which I loved for the double entendre of the moral-socio-emotional lines that challenge the girls and the factory line where they go to work. I added Girls, and it wasn’t until the book came out, during an interview, that I remembered I had been reading other suspense novels, Girl on the Train and Gone Girl just before I had started writing. I suppose the word girl had lodged into my brain.

What's in a name?

In China, a person’s name is usually well thought, chosen for providential meaning. I chose my characters’ names randomly since the novel is about people who are pushed to the margins.

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

My teenage self would be so surprised that I have actually written a complete novel! I had a stab at writing when I was about seven years old, a story about a mouse, but when I showed it to my older sister, her lukewarm response, “Keep trying,” pat, pat, made me give it all up for the next twenty years or so.

Do you find it harder to write beginnings or endings?

Beginning a novel is like jumping off a cliff. First there’s that big climb to come up with a good story idea, and then to have to sit down and turn that germ of an idea into a living, breathing scene—makes my stomach turn just thinking about 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 two mains in Girls on the Line, both of whom are relatable to me. Luli is a watcher, more introverted, which is like me most of the time. But I have been impulsive and reckless like Yun, though luckily without terrible consequences.

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

News reports and photojournalist imagery have most influenced the writing of this novel. I really wanted to portray the grittiness and industrial-grade resilience of these girls. And of course my cultural upbringing, which has everything to do with the personality and resilience of the Chinese characters.
Visit Jennie Liu's website.

My Book, The Movie: Girls on the Line.

Writers Read: Jennie Liu (November 2018).

The Page 69 Test: Girls on the Line.

--Marshal Zeringue

Saturday, April 18, 2020

William Boyle

photo credit: Katie Farrell Boyle
photo credit: Katie Farrell Boyle
William Boyle is from Brooklyn, New York. His books include: Gravesend, which was nominated for the Grand Prix de Littérature Policière in France and shortlisted for the John Creasey (New Blood) Dagger in the UK; The Lonely Witness, which was nominated for the Hammett Prize and is nominated for the Grand Prix de Littérature Policière; and A Friend Is a Gift You Give Yourself. He lives in Oxford, Mississippi.

Boyle's newest novel is City of Margins.

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

In this case, I started with the title. I wrote down City of Margins in my notebook and I lived with the idea of what and how it might mean for a little while. It was the title that pulled me into the story.

I mostly write about the neighborhoods in Southern Brooklyn where I’m from, Gravesend and Bensonhurst, so I knew I’d start there, but something about that title opened up the idea of exploring the way all these different lives were connected. And something about the title dictated that it be set in the early 1990s—I think it was the end of an era, pre-internet, where a neighborhood, even in New York City, could feel so small, distant, removed.

I think there’s also a double action to the title that will hopefully draw readers in. These characters live their lives on the margins, but the story is also centered on coincidence and chance, how paths cross in unexpected ways, how the most interesting stuff is often scribbled in the margins.

What's in a name?

I have seven POV characters in this book, as well a host of minor characters. I’m most definitely drawn to the musicality of Italian names. I grew up with the Italian side of my family in a heavily Italian-American neighborhood. Many of the names I use come from kids I went to school with, people I know from the neighborhood, and—more and more often—the death notices at the funeral home where we held wakes for my grandparents and uncle. It usually only takes me a second of looking there to find some combination that really sings. Finding a name that clicks—like I did with Donnie Parascandolo, Ava Bifulco, Antonina Divino, et al—often brings the whole character into focus for me.

Occasionally, I also like to have a character’s name be a nod to some other work I admire. Mikey and Nick in City of Margins are an homage to one of my favorite films, Elaine May’s Mikey and Nicky. And Mikey’s last name is Baldini—a play on John Fante’s Arturo Bandini.

My love of naming definitely comes from my grandfather, who was a compulsive nicknamer. As a boy, I was obsessed with the names he gave people, the stories he told about them. So, there’s a good amount of that in the book, too. Characters like Johnny Christmas Lights, mentioned only in passing, for instance—that’s a name that can tell you everything you need to know.

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

An interesting question especially in light of the fact that the novel is set in the early 1990s when I was in high school. I was really scrounging through my high school memories of the neighborhood and people I knew as I worked on the book.

I think, on some level, my teenage reader self wouldn’t be surprised at all because a lot of the seeds of what I wanted to accomplish were planted back then. On the other hand, I think he’d be very surprised by the level of world-weariness that comes with age. This is a novel I could have only written now—having more fully experienced love and loss, pain and dread, having seen the ways that lives crash together.

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

Both beginnings and endings are about momentum to me. I like starting in the middle of a scene, so there’s automatic tension. We’re meeting characters as they talk, there’s some immediate conflict, we’re pushing forward. If I’m not doing that at the beginning, I’m struggling. I didn’t know anything when I started City of Margins. I had Donnie talking and then I painted from the edges out.

I’ve had lots of different experiences with endings. When the momentum is there, it can feel like everything’s going right. That’s the best case scenario. Other times the struggle is about figuring out which moment to end on, which line, what will really linger. The ending of City of Margins, a three-part epilogue set sixteen months after the main action of the book, rolled out pretty smoothly because the momentum was there, the tone was right, and things just sort of fell into place.

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

Some more than others, to be sure. In this book, I put a lot of myself into Mikey and Antonina, the youngest characters. Like I said, I was in high school during the time the book is set, so a lot of my impressions of the neighborhood and the world found my way into their interior lives.

But I think there are elements of other characters that stem from me, too. I’m the same age now as the character Donna Rotante is in the book—she feels like something of a kindred spirit. In an early draft, dirty ex-cop Donnie was merely a monster. I had to let myself feel something for him to have him function more effectively, and part of that was about feeling like he was part of me somehow.

I also think—well, I hope—that the book is full of the sort of dark humor I love.

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

Oh, so many. Film is huge for me, obviously. A few films that influenced this book are John Sayles’s City of Hope, Robert Altman’s Short Cuts, and Alan Rudolph’s Choose Me. I was inspired by these films in a variety of ways—character, place, structure, dialogue, blending of genres, the ensemble element.

Music is tremendously important to me, too. It’s very present in the narrative. Characters listen to records, to mixtapes, to car radios. It’s as present in their lives as it is in mine. I’ve often said I want my books to sound like an album. With City of Margins, I was thinking a lot about the sound of albums like Ghost Writer by Garland Jeffreys, New York by Lou Reed, Nebraska by Bruce Springsteen, and Catholic Boy by the Jim Carroll Band. Also, the song “Paths That Cross” by Patti Smith. I wanted some approximation of that sound for this world.

I also get really inspired by photos and paintings. I was looking at Donato Di Camillo’s pictures a lot at the time I was working on City of Margins. Another example in the same vein: I can just stare at a painting like Nigel Van Wieck’s Q Train and a whole world of possibility opens up to me.
Visit William Boyle's website.

The Page 69 Test: City of Margins.

My Book, The Movie: City of Margins.

--Marshal Zeringue

Friday, April 17, 2020

Tessa Arlen

Tessa Arlen is the author of the critically acclaimed Lady Montfort mystery series—Death of a Dishonorable Gentleman was a finalist for the 2016 Agatha Award Best First Novel. She is also the author of Poppy Redfern: A Woman of World War II mystery series. And the author of the historical fiction: In Royal Service to the Queen.

Arlen lives in the Southwest with her family and two corgis where she gardens in summer and writes in winter.

Her newest novel is Poppy Redfern and the Midnight Murders, the first title of the A Woman of World War II series.

My Q&A with Arlen:

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

I wanted to use the name of my protagonist and an alliterative description of her quest to reflect the straightforward simplicity of the derring-do of adventure stories between the wars.

Writers don’t often choose the title of their books, but it mattered enough to me that my publisher did not change it, for some marketing reason of their own, that I actually had the gall to put up a reasonable fight.

Poppy Redfern and the Midnight Murders (my title and the one we went with) is the story of an air raid warden. She lives in a small village in England and patrols at night to secure the blackout which gives her the opportunity to investigate the murders of young local girls who are dating American airmen.

What's in a name?

The names of the people in my books are illustrative of who they are, so choosing the right name is not only important but a lot of fun. I feel as if I have known two of my characters, Poppy Redfern and her alter-ego, Ilona Linthwaite, for years.

Poppy is bright, brave and vividly imaginative. An orphan of WWI (in England the poppy became an emblem of remembrance of those who died in the Great War) Poppy’s young father did not survive the Battle of the Somme and her mother died during the influenza pandemic of 1918. Poppy is somewhat reserved and unsophisticated but she is strong, enduring and manages to find courage in the dangerous and uncertain times she lives in.

Ilona Linthwaite is the heroine of the novel that Poppy is writing and everything that Poppy wishes herself to be. Ilona’s cool laconic drawl is direct and often acerbic, and she is very much at ease in the exciting world of newspaper reporting during the Blitz. She also urges Poppy to step out of herself, encouraging her to break rules and stand up for what she wants. As her graceful, dreamy name suggests, Ilona is a figment of Poppy’s imagination.

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

She would be astonished, and she certainly wouldn’t believe that I wrote it! My teenage self read everything she could lay her hands on, especially in math class, but was pretty undisciplined and a natural rebel, so writing, and completing, a novel would have been beyond her. But I think she would have been drawn to Poppy’s determination to do her bit for the war effort and would have admired her determination to stick things out in tough times.

Like Poppy, I went to a very starchy English boarding school (with some of the most outdated and ridiculous rules imaginable). It was a claustrophobic existence and I craved the freedom to join the exciting world of the 1970s, so the ‘going without’ and ‘mending and making do’ of Homefront life during WWII would probably not appeal to my younger self. But I would love the idea of an American airfield close by, and all the young fighter pilots filling up the local pub every night. Not to mention learning how to jitterbug! And I would wholeheartedly despise the narrow-minded villagers’ attitude that the Americans were outsiders, capable of murder simply because they were different.

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

What about middles? My greatest fear is that the middle of the book will sink like a half-baked pudding!

I love beginnings and the energy of starting a new book, but I often return to re-work my first two or three chapters after I have written the ending. By that time, I am so familiar with my characters and the predicament they have hopefully wormed their way out of, that the opportunity to re-shape them at the beginning of the story helps me to show the reader how much they have to dig down to find themselves when they are confronted with conflict. It takes a good deal to push us forward sometimes, to face down our fears as we grope our way to accomplish things that might originally have made us want to run and hide.

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 my main character has a bit of me in her, and she has some of the qualities I wish I had! I am not physically courageous (I am terrified of heights, deep water and the dark) but I am morally brave and willing to make myself do things that are daunting. Both Poppy and I tend to be quite direct, but she, unlike me, is much better at holding her tongue. I hope she grows out of some of her reserve as we go forward.

Poppy is what I call a thinking introvert. She is pensive and introspective, but she is drawn to outgoing people, like the American pilot Griff O’Neal, and enjoys the dinner parties and the Sunday lunches her grandparents organize for the Americans from the base to meet the people from the village. But she needs the solace of her night patrols to organize her thoughts and make sense of life.

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

People made a great effort during the horrors of their war to enjoy themselves when they could. Going to the pictures (movies), dancing at nightclubs, or gathering around the radio in the evening to listen to ITMA (It’s That Man Again) a favorite wartime satire and wonderfully funny to this day. Village life in England in the 1940s was insular and centered around the community: church bazaars, village fetes, and cricket matches. But the heartbeat of the village was, and still is, the pub.

I watched the movies made during the war years, rather than the ones popular after it. Mrs. Miniver, with Greer Garson, was immensely helpful in showing the subtlety of wartime propaganda, and I love the stagey acting and the cut glass accents of the time. Did people of that generation really talk in that clipped, back-of-the-throat way?

The music of the 1940s was helpful, especially the American big band sound—there was such energy and intensity to American music then. But I think the food they ate in Britain during these awful years was what helped me understand the deprivations that all Brits went through during the last war. I sent off for a tin of Spam to see if it was really as bad as I imagined. it is truly awful stuff and was probably even more disgusting in the bleak days of rationing.

Most of all I think it is the pastoral world of England that inspires me the most. The beauty of the countryside has a strong influence on all my writing. Fields and pastures hedged by hawthorn with wildflower-filled ditches; copses and woods where the loudest sound is birdsong; the breath-taking grandeur of ancient oak and beech trees. Landscapes empty of civilization and hideous mall-architecture are still the greatest joy to me about going home to visit family in England.
Visit Tessa Arlen's website.

See Tessa Arlen’s top five historical novels.

Coffee with a Canine: Tessa Arlen & Daphne.

The Page 69 Test: Poppy Redfern and the Midnight Murders.

--Marshal Zeringue

Thursday, April 16, 2020

Suzanne Redfearn

Suzanne Redfearn is the award-winning author of three novels: Hush Little Baby, No Ordinary Life, and In An Instant. Born and raised on the east coast, Redfearn moved to California when she was fifteen. She currently lives in Laguna Beach with her husband where they own two restaurants: Lumberyard and Slice Pizza & Beer. In addition to being an author, Redfearn is an architect specializing in residential and commercial design.

My Q&A with Redfearn:

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

I care a great deal about my titles, and an incredible amount of thought and angst goes into making the final choice. In an Instant was a title my editor came up with. Initially the book had been called Wreckage, but that title had already been used by a recent release. Lucky for me, since In an Instant turned out to be a much better title. In three catchy words, it conveys there’s going to be a life-altering event in which the characters are irrevocably changed. The only working title for any of my novels that ended up being my final title is the book that’s releasing in January, Hadley & Grace. The irony is it was the only working title that I never intended it to be the final title. The inspiration for the story was to write a modern retelling of Thelma & Louise, so I just plopped my two protagonists onto the first page and started to write. I assumed we’d come up with a title later, but my editor and the sales team liked it, so it stuck. While In an Instant gives a real sense of the story, Hadley & Grace relies more on the cover art and the tagline (“Move over Thelma & Louise…Hadley & Grace have arrived.”) to let the reader know what they’re getting into.

What's in a name?

I love naming characters. Most of the time there’s no deep thought behind it beyond that’s the name that popped into my head and it fit. But that doesn’t mean I don’t have fun with it. Bob in In an Instant is based on a real person, my “uncle” who neglected my brother and me when we were stranded with him in a blizzard and only attended to his own kids. The incident was the inspiration for the story, and “Uncle Bob” deserved to be in the book as himself. In Hadley & Grace, the very first character I wrote is based on a fictionalized version of a remarkable man from our town, Skipper Carrillo, also known as “Mr. Baseball.” I asked his family for permission to use his name as a tribute, and they agreed.

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

My teenage self would be astonished I wrote a novel. She’d be like “What?” Then she’d read one of them, and she’d go “Whoa, how’d you come up with that?” And I’d scratch my head and say, “I have absolutely no idea.”

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

I never really know where my stories are going to take me, but usually by the time I get near the end, I’m flying along at breakneck speed and it feels like the story is telling itself. The beginning on the other hand is painful. I have no idea who my characters are or what I’m trying to say or why I’m trying to say it. It sucks. I suck. The writing really sucks. I usually end up lopping off the beginning or rewriting it entirely.

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 comes from me, so I identify with each of them, but they are definitely not me. I actually know them as people, in the same way I know my friends or my family. It’s always strange when people think one of my characters is me because I so know they’re not.

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

People. Every story I’ve written has come from an observation of someone or a relationship that made me ask a bigger question. Every morning, until Coronavirus struck, I wrote at Starbucks, and part of the reason was to listen to the chatter and conversations around me. People are endlessly fascinating.
Visit Suzanne Redfearn's website, Facebook page, and Twitter perch.

Coffee with a Canine: Suzanne Redfearn and Cooper.

My Book, The Movie: Hush Little Baby.

The Page 69 Test: Hush Little Baby.

The Page 69 Test: No Ordinary Life.

Writers Read: Suzanne Redfearn (February 2016).

My Book, The Movie: No Ordinary Life.

My Book, The Movie: In an Instant.

The Page 69 Test: In an Instant.

--Marshal Zeringue

Wednesday, April 15, 2020

John Kelly

John Kelly is the author of 2005's The Great Mortality: An Intimate History of the Black Death, the Most Devastating Plague of All Time.

From his Q&A with Caroline Leavitt:

Q: What lessons can we learn today from your much-touted 2005 book?

A: First of all, Caroline, thank you for complimenting the book. Secondly, as that wit Voltaire once said, "History always changes, but people never do.”

First I will write about the medical / scientific / geographic similarities, then about the human ones.

The plague that I wrote about -- La Moria Grandissima: The Black Death -- was a pandemic that killed a third of Europe's then-75 million people during the years 1347-49. This high figure is, thankfully, not going to be reached by our current pandemic, coronavirus, because enough countries, so far, have been practicing vigilant shelter-in-place in a world with the instant media that the 14th century would not have even guessed was imaginable. (Despite the egregious and cruel irresponsibility of our coward in the White House, most of our governors and heroic health care workers and other local leaders and citizens are taking it upon themselves to do this necessary work themselves.) But the fact that half of the world is in lockdown – half of the world! – shows us that the enormous reach of this pandemic is close to the more fatal reach of the 14th century one.

The Black Death was borne by a bacteria on a rodent, just as this pandemic – coronavirus -- was borne by a virus from a bat. The Black Death also travelled from nation to nation from north-central Asia to China to the west, when trade opened up. Today, in our instant-global-travel world, the spread has been much more rapid – what took years in the 14th century has taken short months today.

The appalling – grotesque, by our standards -- lack of hygiene in European cities spread the Black Death like wildfire. People bathed monthly at best. About six streets in Paris were named for merde, which was often tossed out windows in buckets. Here was daytime London in 1348: “Imagine a shopping mall where everyone shouts, no one washes, front teeth are uncommon, and the shopping music is provided by the slaughterhouse up the road.”

Today’s pandemic was made for our more sterile times; coronavirus doesn’t need filth because the 21st century world is that much different than the 14th. It is highly contagious in even the cleanest and most elite circles (Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson and Prince Philip and Boris Johnson all got it).

But, in both the long-ago and today, mere talking proved dangerous. In 1348, delirious seamen reached ports in Italy so infested that, merely by having a brief conversation with one of them, an uninfected person could catch it. Today...[read on]
--Marshal Zeringue