Monday, February 26, 2024

Robin Oliveira

Robin Oliveira grew up just outside Albany, New York in the town of Loudonville. She holds a B.A. in Russian from the University of Montana, and studied at the Pushkin Language Institute in Moscow, Russia. She worked for many years as a Registered Nurse, specializing in Critical Care and Bone Marrow Transplant. In 2006 she received an M.F.A. in Writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts. She lives outside of Seattle, Washington, with her husband, Andrew Oliveira. She has two children, Noelle Oliveira and Miles Oliveira. All three are the loves of her life.

Oliveira's new novel is A Wild and Heavenly Place.

My Q&A with the author:

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

My agent thought of the title, as she does most of my novels. A Wild and Heavenly Place represents the book well because it hearkens to the deepest desires of Samuel Fiddes, one of the protagonists. Orphaned and caring for his younger sister in the tenements of 19th century Glasgow. Samuel and Alison have already suffered a great deal, and they possess no agency to better their lives. Alone and in need, Samuel falls in love with Hailey MacIntyre, a wealthy young woman of privilege who nonetheless shares a similar desire for a life different from the one she is leading. When tragedy befalls Hailey's’ father, the two young lovers are torn apart, and ultimately voyage separately to the deep wilderness of early Seattle, in hopes of more.

What’s in a name?

A minor character in the novel is a black man, a former slave, named Pruss Loving. I came across his name while exploring the coal mining past of Roslyn, Washington, where black men from the south were brought in not as new recruits, but as strikebreakers, unbeknownst to them. I was immediately attracted to this unusual name, and tucked away in my memory to use in a future novel. Rather than hoping to convey an aspect of character, I wanted to honor all the black coalminers who came to Washington to work, many transported to the state under false pretenses.

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

This story is in fact written for my teenaged self, the girl who fell in love with sweeping, continents-spanning love stories in novels that celebrated place. I grew up reading. I loved to read. That I now write books is an accomplishment that I think would astonish her.

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

I know very little about a story when I begin, just the bare outlines, and very little about how the story will end. It is always an exploration as I write, and therefore not hard—though it is—but a journey of discovery. I did have an image this time around, writing my fourth novel, of my ideal ending, based on the ruins of a stone house on San Juan Island. That kept me going even though how I was going to get there remained elusive.

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

One of the inspirations for this new novel was a new-found hobby. My husband and I, through the influence of some kind friends, have taken up boating on Puget Sound. Because of that, I’ve not only had to learn navigation and seamanship and how to captain a boat, but it’s also given me a vantage point of Washington geography that I would not have had. I doubt very much that one of my main characters would have become a shipbuilder without that influence, nor would I have been able to write the geography in such a specific, detailed way.
Visit Robin Oliveira's website.

The Page 69 Test: My Name Is Mary Sutter.

The Page 69 Test: Winter Sisters.

--Marshal Zeringue

Saturday, February 24, 2024

Steve Weddle

Steve Weddle is the author of The County Line, an Amazon First Reads selection. His previous book, Country Hardball, which The New York Times called “downright dazzling,” is a collection of connected short stories. A former newspaper editor, he is the cofounder of the crime fiction collective Do Some Damage, the cocreator of the noir magazine Needle, and has taught short story writing at LitReactor.

My Q&A with the author:

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

The original title for the book was Cottonmouth Tomlin and the Last Outlaw Camp. I felt that captured the fun of the book, giving it a certain pulpy feel while telling you who and what the book was about. David Downing, a fantastic editor who worked on the book, pointed out to me that it wasn’t, in fact, the last outlaw camp, as there were others mentioned as competition in the book. Also, there was also a feeling among those reading and working on the book that my original title provided an Indiana Jones and the Unicorn’s Legacy vibe that doesn’t really fit.

The Lake Union folks came up with The County Line, which turns out to be the perfect fit. In the book, the powers that be are fine with crimes being committed, as long as they are committed on the other side of the county line and the money spent in the county. And that’s a rule, or a line, that you don’t break. Until you do, which is when the fun starts.

What's in a name?

Cottonmouth Tomlin was originally called “Fed,” until I realized that a book peppered with “Fed said” throughout would be annoying. So I changed him to Caleb, an Old Testament name meaning “dog.” I did a find-and-replace, moving from “Fed” to “Caleb” and spent a good week when I was editing a section of the book trying to figure out what I meant when one of the characters was complaining about the Caleberal troops.

Cottonmouth worked for me because it seemed like a tough name, but was given to him as a baby because he was dry mouthed and weak. I ended up cutting the explanation out of the book, so no one knows about that. Well, now they do, I guess.

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

Pretty darn surprised that I wrote a novel at all. I wasn’t supposed to write fiction. Like many people, I wrote poetry as a teenager. One of my greatest achievements in life is that I have forgotten every teenage poem I ever wrote. I assume they were as maudlin as they were dreadful. I wrote poems in college, even editing the literary magazine. I went to LSU and got my MFA in poetry. As it turns out, poetry doesn’t pay terribly well. People will complain that fiction doesn’t pay well, but you try buying groceries with two complimentary copies of The Wet River Review.

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

The book opens with a card game and ends with a card game. I knew I wanted these as the bookends to the story, to show how far Cottonmouth had come. I knew that the card games would be different, that the stakes would be much different when the book ended. I worked my tail off on the ending, trying to make sure everything was set up properly, that the reader feels the ending is earned. There’s the old saying that a book is a beginning, a muddle, and an end. That “muddle” often slows because the author is trying to set up the ending, moving the bits and pieces around. So this book has kidnappings and shoot outs and car chases and fist fights, but each step has to get us from that one card game in the beginning to the very different card game at the end.

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

Photographs from the time period of the early 1930s were essential, not just in fact but in feeling. I did one of those cork boards above my desk, thumb-tacking up pictures of old cars and gangsters, but also one of a garage that existed in the town I write about at the time I write about it. All the automotive details I stuck in the book, from rags to rods, exist because of those photographs that I found on eBay and in newspapers and books. In fact, Lorena the mechanic became a mechanic because of those pictures. Before I made her a mechanic, she worked in the hotel for the Rudd sisters, which is a tough way to make a living. Not as tough as being a poet, of course, but plenty tough.
Follow Steve Weddle on Instagram and visit his website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Thursday, February 22, 2024

Suzanne Berne

Suzanne Berne is the author of the novels The Dogs of Littlefield, The Ghost at the Table, A Perfect Arrangement, and A Crime in the Neighborhood, winner of Great Britain’s Orange Prize.

Her latest novel is The Blue Window.

My Q&A with the author:

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

There isn’t much explicit information in the title The Blue Window, but I think it offers a sense of mystery. A window looks out at something and also allows you to look within. So, what is being looked at, and who’s doing the looking? Are we inside or outside?

The title comes from a Matisse painting I’ve always loved. In the painting there are objects on a table by a window; outside the window is a luminous blue evening. But the window itself hardly exists.

Usually all the “stuff” of your inner life divides you from the outer world, but every so often that separation fades, and you have the feeling of joining the rest of the universe. Matisse’s painting captures that rare experience. At the end of my novel, one of my characters also gets a glimpse of it.

What’s in a name?

I thought a lot about the names of all three main characters. Marika is an elderly Dutch woman and needed a Dutch name. I also wanted a hard-sounding name, with an “eek” in it. There’s a fair amount of hidden shrieking going on in that apparently impervious character.

Lorna, her daughter, sounds like “forlorn,” which is true of that character, though she tries very hard to be the positive one in the novel.

Adam, the grandson, is of course named after the first man, which I liked because Adam is extremely immature and becoming a “man” is something he struggles with in ways that are both comic and serious.

They’re all common-enough names, but a little weird, too, when you look at them closely. And together they form a distinctive family.

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

I’d probably be surprised by the role the setting plays here. The story takes place in a remote part of northern Vermont, on Lake Champlain, which helps dramatize the characters’ various kinds of isolation. But it’s the beauty of that place I wouldn’t have expected myself to focus on, how often it contrasts with the characters’ actions and attitudes, and yet how it works on them as well.

As a teenager, I wasn’t paying much attention to where things happened. It was all about who was there.

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

I change the beginnings the most—sometimes I’m still rewriting the beginning of a novel in the final drafts. But the ending is the most delicate part of the whole operation. An ending needs to conclude the story in a way that feels satisfying, yet not too final.

Or to put it another way: the story may have ended for your readers, but you hope they feel it hasn’t stopped for the characters, who now have to go on with the rest of the lives, even though we aren’t watching them anymore.

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

Embarrassing as it is to admit, my main characters are always drawn from parts of myself. Usually, the parts that I can’t quite accommodate. Which is not to say that my characters are autobiographical—I did not live through World War II in Amsterdam, I am not a divorced therapist, or a nineteen-year-old boy who is afraid to go back to college because he did something humiliating during finals week. But my characters' struggles are always with things that I find confounding and difficult.

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

I wanted to be a naturalist when I was growing up, and a cartoonist. Both of those failed ambitions are very much a part of my writing.
Visit Suzanne Berne's website.

The Page 69 Test: The Blue Window.

--Marshal Zeringue

Tuesday, February 20, 2024

Katherine Harbour

Katherine Harbour was born in Albany, NY, where she attended the Russell Sage Junior College of Albany and wrote while holding down jobs as a pizza maker, video store clerk, and housekeeper. She then attended the Minneapolis College of Art and Design and, after moving to Sarasota, Florida, sold her paintings in cafes and galleries. She now lives in upstate New York, where she works as a bookseller. She’s a lover of nature, folklore, and ancient things. She’s the author of the Thorn Jack series, an adult contemporary dark fantasy threaded with Celtic myth.

Harbour's new novel is the YA fantasy title, The Dark Fable.

My Q&A with the author:

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

I think the title immediately takes readers into the story with the words ‘dark’ and ‘fable.’ The Dark Fable is the name of a secret society of thieves with supernatural abilities that originated in Medieval France. They usually work in darkness. A fable is a story. And stories are an important theme in this book. The Dark Fable, La Fable Sombre, has a creed: “We are the ink spilled over the stories of tyrants,” and the members of this crew of thieves find a way to trust one another, by telling the newest recruits their histories, their stories.

What’s in a name?

I wanted the names for my thieves to evoke something in the characters’ personalities. Evie, for instance, conveys not only a sense of innocence, but danger as well. Madrigal’s nickname (Mad) reflects her chaotic personality. Dev (Devon) combines elegance with a suggestion of devil-may-care attitude. Queenie, who is all common sense but loves fashion, coined her own nickname. ‘Ciaran’ means ‘dark one’ in Gaelic, but his last name, Argent, suggests a hard, metallic surface. As for Jason, the private eye hunting them, he was named after the hero in The Argonautica.

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

It’s difficult to write both. The beginning will start as a scene or an opening line, but I’ll rewrite that scene multiple times. I’m looking for something that will draw readers in, immediately. As for the ending, I’ll rewrite that also, many times. I feel it’s important that the ending has a more emotional impact, tying up loose ends and the main character’s story arc.

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

I’m definitely inspired by music and always have a soundtrack for my books. Each one is different for every story. The Dark Fable’s music was mostly songs that convey noir romanticism and bangers for a heist. And history is always a source of inspiration, whether it be archaeological finds or social customs and traditions from the past. My imagination is also sparked by images—photographs or artwork. And artwork is featured quite a bit in The Dark Fable!
Visit Katherine Harbour's website.

Writers Read: Katherine Harbour (June 2014).

The Page 69 Test: Thorn Jack.

--Marshal Zeringue

Sunday, February 18, 2024

Sara Ochs

Sara Ochs is an author, law professor, and avid traveler. Born and raised in upstate New York, Ochs and her husband now split their time between the United States and Sweden.

When she’s not turning one of the many places she’s visited into the setting of her next thriller, she can usually be found trip planning.

Ochs's debut thriller is The Resort.

My Q&A with the author:

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

This is quite the loaded question when it comes to my debut, which actually has two different titles depending on where it’s being sold in the world. While my U.S. publisher is releasing the book under the title The Resort, it is actually already being sold in the U.K. and throughout Europe, Australia, and New Zealand as The Dive. A lot of this boils down to behind-the-scenes marketing and publicity (and can be attributed to people who are much savvier than me!), but it has certainly generated some confusion.

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

My teenage self would be shocked that I wrote a novel! Until a few years ago, I never thought professional writing would be in the cards for me. I have loved reading since I was a child and have always been in awe of authors, but never imagined I would be able to write a full novel, let alone one people wanted to read!

I think the genre I settled on would be less surprising to my teenage self. I have always been a fan of murder mysteries, especially those with exotic settings. There is just something that draws me into books that can transport me to faraway places, especially those that are filled with suspense!

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

This is a really tough question! I think it definitely depends on the book. For instance, when writing The Resort, I had a very clear idea of how I wanted the book to start, and—aside from some relatively minor edits—I kept the same beginning from the first to final drafts. However, I didn’t have an ending—or even know who the killer was—until I finished my first draft. And while the climax (and murderer) stayed largely the same throughout drafts, I constantly found myself finding new ways of wrapping up all the loose threads.

However, with my second book, I’m finding the exact opposite is the case—my beginning keeps changing throughout various drafts, but my ending is largely staying the same.

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

I absolutely see myself in my characters, especially my narrators, for better or worse. In that sense, writing is a very vulnerable and cathartic process for me, as I can bestow my characters with what I perceive as some of my biggest weaknesses. I would like to clarify, however, that I do not see myself in the murderers!

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

I would say my writing is most influenced by my personal travels. The Resort and my forthcoming thrillers are all set in travel destinations where I have had transformative experiences. For instance, The Resort is set on a fictional island in Thailand that is very much based on an island I backpacked to during my twenties, a trip that ignited my love for travel and even prompted me to daydream for several years about dropping everything and moving there. Given that I write “destination thrillers,” I am always looking for new destinations to serve as settings for future books. It gives me even more reason to travel!
Visit Sara Ochs's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Wednesday, February 14, 2024

Eric Schlich

Eric Schlich is the author of the story collection Quantum Convention, winner of the 2018 Katherine Anne Porter Prize and the 2020 GLCA New Writers Award.

Eli Harpo's Adventure to the Afterlife is Schlich's debut novel.

My Q&A with the author:

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

The title Eli Harpo’s Adventure to the Afterlife sets the satirical tone of the novel. It’s hyperbolic along the lines of Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay. And it’s of course tongue-in-cheek. The whole book is about Eli’s doubt that he went to Heaven and his rejection of the myth his father raised him to believe.

What’s in a name?

Eli is named after the Elijah of the Bible, a prophet who entered Heaven alive by fire. I chose the name Harpo because harps make me think of angels. I also like the allusion to Harpo Marx.

There’s a scene in the novel where Charlie Gideon, the televangelist who recruits the family to open a new attraction at Bible World, gifts Eli’s mom, Debbie, a Delicate Twinkling figurine of a little clown boy. Eli’s older brother Abe teases him, saying the figurine looks like Eli. Debbie says it sends the message that Gideon thinks they’re clowns and he’s just using them.

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

Fairly surprised. My teen self mostly read sci-fi/fantasy. There’s a unicorn on the cover of the book, but this is not a fantasy book. Eli has sex dreams about Jesus in which they brush the mane of the unicorn he supposedly encountered in Heaven. My teen self would probably have been disappointed the unicorn isn’t real.

However, that same teenager did grapple with religion. I was confirmed in the Catholic church, but it never quite felt right. I became an atheist later in college when I started questioning everything and read a bunch of Richard Dawkins. You can definitely see that in the book.

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

Endings for sure. Endings are where all the meaning-making happens. How does it all turn out? How are the characters changed or not changed?

I struggled a lot with the ending of this book. I wanted to be authentic to the stories of queer people who leave religion. I wanted Eli to break away from his family and form his own chosen family with his husband, but I also wanted some kind of reconciliation with his father.

And at the same time, I don’t believe his father, Simon, a true believer, would change his mind about Heaven. So finding the right balance of bittersweetness was challenging and took multiple drafts.

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 Eli. We’re both middle children, although I have two sisters instead of two brothers. We’re both introverts who shy away from too much attention. We’re both from Kentucky and attended the University of Kentucky for our undergraduate degrees.

I did try to make him different than me, though. Unlike Eli, who was homeschooled and raised in a family of evangelical Baptists, I went to public school and grew up in a family of lapsed Catholics. He struggles with weight issues I’ve never had. He’s gay and married to a man; I’m bi and married to a woman. He went into a science field (Pharmacy); I’m in the arts (writing). Some of this is superficial. His voice is my voice and I feel a strong kinship with him.

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

I’m a big movie and TV buff. When sending the manuscript to agents, I often pitched it as Little Miss Sunshine meets Saved!—two movies that were definitely inspirations. It’s an accurate description, too, in that the book is very much a family road trip novel with religious satire.

Bible World was inspired by real Christian attractions that I visited, like the Ark Encounter, the Holy Land Experience, and the Creationist Museum. But then I got to exaggerate and invent my own attractions like Noah’s Ark Park (a petting zoo), The DropTower of Babel, and the Sodom & Gomorrah roller coasters, complete with a plaster pillar of salt labeled “Lot’s Wife.”
Visit Eric Schlich's website.

The Page 69 Test: Eli Harpo's Adventure to the Afterlife.

My Book, The Movie: Eli Harpo's Adventure to the Afterlife.

--Marshal Zeringue

Sunday, February 11, 2024

Cara Tanamachi

Cara Tanamachi lives near Chicago with her husband and five children (two by biology and three by marriage), and their 85-pound Goldendoodle, Theodore. Raised near Dallas, Texas by her Japanese-American dad and her English-Scottish American mom, she was the oldest of two children (the debate still rages whether she or her brother are currently the family favorite).

The University of Pennsylvania (Go Quakers!) grad worked as a newspaper reporter, and then published many novels under the name, Cara Lockwood. A former single mom, she spent eight years dating (hilariously and awkwardly) before finding the love of her life on Bumble (yes, Bumble!). She believes we all could use a little more happily ever after.

Tanamachi's new novel is The Takeover.

My Q&A with the author:

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

My working title for this book was actually Hate Mate, but my editor at MacMillan thought this might be too close to The Hating Game, and she pitched The Takeover, which I think works very well. My book is a fun rivals-to-lovers romance about two former high school rivals that meet up again in their adult lives. The last time they competed it was for valedictorian, but now it’s all about the future of the company Toggle, which Jae is trying to take over.

What's in a name?

Nami is a character from my other book, The Second You’re Single, and her name means “wave” in Japanese, which I felt suited her perfectly. She’s a perfectionist, but also once she gets her mind set on something, she’s relentless. Just like an ocean wave. There’s no real stopping its momentum once it’s in motion. Jae means “wealth” and “talent” in Korean, which I felt was perfect for him. He’s cocky and self-assured, and he does have both wealth and talent, but he also has to learn a little humility.

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

My teenage self would be so glad I’m published! I devoured all the books in my school library, and I’ve always wanted to be a novelist, and I had so many naysayers when I was younger, people who tried to make me believe that getting a book deal from a traditional publisher was a dream I’d never achieve. But I’m a little like Nami. If you tell me no, I’ll just keep trying to find other paths to yes.

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

I think beginnings are the hardest. I find often that when I sit down to write a book, I’ll realize at chapter four or five that I started in the wrong place. After I’m into the book, I might decide that I need to rewrite that first chapter.

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 little bit of myself in every character I write! They may not be carbon copies of me, but there are traits or tendencies from me in all of them. It helps me understand them better and (I hope!) make them more realistic.

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

Everything! The news, family, friends, movies. Love is all around us (to quote Love, Actually) and there are so many amazing love stories in the real world. I draw inspiration from them all the time. My favorite question to ask a couple is “how did you meet?” I love these stories!
Visit Cara Tanamachi's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Friday, February 9, 2024

Sagit Schwartz

Sagit Schwartz is a writer, producer, and licensed psychotherapist. She resides with her husband, daughter, and rescue dog in a Southern California beach town.

Schwartz's new novel is Since She’s Been Gone.

My Q&A with the author:

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

My publisher came up with my title, and it’s so much better than my original one! My book is about a psychologist who learns the mom she lost to a hit-and-run 26 years before might still be alive—and keeping dangerous secrets. It’s a dual-timeline thriller, and the past chapters follow the story of my protagonist, a 15-year-old struggling with an eating disorder after losing her mom. The present is her heart-pounding journey, trying to figure out what really happened to her mom and if she’s still alive. The title Since She’s Been Gone encapsulates everything she went through both in the past and present since her mother has been gone.

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

Publishing a book has been a lifelong dream. Despite all of the self-doubts and rejection, I persevered. I think and hope my teenage self would be happy and proud.

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

My mom died when she was 47 years old, and when I turned 47, I decided to write a book inspired by her. At age 48, a year she never had, I sold the book. The grief that consumed my protagonist, Beatrice, is one I have experienced first-hand. This book is very personal for me despite it being fiction.

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

I’m obsessed with all mystery detective shows, especially British ones. I love trying to figure out how the puzzle pieces fit together and aspired to write a page-turner that keeps readers guessing what will happen next!
Visit Sagit Schwartz's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Wednesday, February 7, 2024

Chris Cander

Chris Cander is the USA Today bestselling author of A Gracious Neighbor, The Weight of a Piano, which was named an Indie Next Great Read in both hardcover and paperback and which the New York Times called, “immense, intense and imaginative,” Whisper Hollow, also named an Indie Next Great Read, and 11 Stories, named by Kirkus as one of the best books of 2013 and winner of the Independent Publisher Book Awards for fiction. She also wrote the children’s picture book The Word Burglar, and the Audible Originals “Eddies” and “Grieving Conversations.” Cander’s fiction has been published in twelve languages. She lives in her native Houston with her husband and two children.

Cander's new novel is The Young of Other Animals.

My Q&A with the author:

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

I came across the phrase “The young of other animals” in the Oxford English Dictionary, Second Edition, Volume II as the I.1.b. obsolete definition of “bird.” It quoted John de Trevisa’s translation of Bartholomew de Glanville's De Proprietatibus Rerum c. 1495: “All fysshe…fede and kepe theyr byrdes.” That speakers of Middle English would refer to fish offspring as birds was interesting, but more compelling to me was the phrase itself, without the context provided by the quotation. It demanded to be lifted out and examined. I felt a shimmer of electricity at how those five simple words so forcefully conveyed a sense of danger or vulnerability: in the natural world, the young within a species are generally protected and provided for, while the young of other animals are likely prey.

Then I thought about the myriad relationships that could form between the implied elder of one kind of animal and the young of another. It could be predatory, certainly, but could also be symbiotic or protective or possessive. What kind of challenges might force an unexpected dynamic between unrelated animals? What makes certain animals—including humans—choose protection over predation, and how does that decision impact those involved? Those are precisely the concerns at the heart of this novel, and the dynamic plays out in both expected and unexpected ways throughout.

What's in a name?

The novel was inspired by something awful that happened to me when I was 19. When I was finally ready to write about it, I gave the awfulness to a girl named Paula. All she and I share is a similar name (my middle name is Paige), a birthday, a home state, and a really shitty night in 1989. Her mother, on the other hand, sprang from my imagination fully formed and told me in her Texas accent that her name was Mayree. “Not Mary,” she said. “May-REE.” I heard her salt and sass in that clear, admonishing declaration and it carried me all the way through to the end of the story. Her name is perfect for her; she carries a burden that—if you squint through Scripture—calls to mind the tragedy of the Virgin Mary, but she most definitely is not the kind of mother one would think to pray to.

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

Very. She would marvel at how her future self dealt with the violent attack she thought she could forget if she tried hard enough, first by becoming physically indominable, then by using it as a cautionary tale for her self-defense students, and then by writing her way through it to a place of healing.

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

My martial arts training. Like writing, it demands discipline, practice, and patience. I devote regular time to both, and it has taken many years to develop my skills in each of those arts. I like that regardless of my level of expertise, I will never be an expert at either one; there is always more to learn.
Visit Chris Cander's website.

My Book, The Movie: The Weight of a Piano.

The Page 69 Test: The Young of Other Animals.

My Book, The Movie: The Young of Other Animals.

--Marshal Zeringue

Monday, February 5, 2024

Alex Ritany

Alex Ritany is a lifelong reader and writer. When they’re not at the keyboard, you can find them hosting tabletop game night, working on illustrations, or at their other keyboard composing music. Ritany’s love of art, music, and the western Canadian landscape regularly spills into their writing, which tends to feature complex friendships, twisty romances, and explorations of queerness.

They live in Calgary with their roommate, cat, and dice collection. Dead Girls Don’t Say Sorry is Ritany's debut novel.

My Q&A with the author:

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

I love titles that leave readers asking a question, and Dead Girls Don’t Say Sorry does that marvellously. We know why dead girls don’t say sorry—hard to say sorry if you’re dead, after all, unless we’re dipping toes in a whole different genre—so the other half of it shouts: What does this dead girl have to say sorry for?

That’s the question Dead Girls is asking. What awful thing did Julia do that Nora is haunted by as she processes her own grief and survivor’s guilt?

Another core facet of this story is about healing without closure. When we were bouncing title ideas around, two other options were Dead Girls Can’t Say Sorry and Dead Girls Won’t Say Sorry, both of which speak to the frustration of trying to move on without ever understanding why someone treated you poorly.

Don’t, can’t, won’t—regardless, Nora has a lot to process, and I think the title does a wonderful job of priming readers to be asking the right questions.

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

My teenage reader self would be delighted that we’re writing at all. At that point we’d given up on most things, including that childhood dream of being an author, so it would be deeply encouraging to know that I’m now writing what we’ve always loved to read.

I don’t think my teenage reader self would be shocked about the contents of the story, though I imagine they’d be startled we were ever brave enough to open up about what we experienced with our own friendships (even if Dead Girls is a totally different story than ours was).

Nora’s story is such an emotional rollercoaster, I know my past self would be so touched to see us reflected on the page, even if they acted like they were too cool to cry over a made up story. (Spoiler: they weren’t.)

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

Most often when I start a novel, the ending is solidly set in stone. With Dead Girls, I knew exactly where the story was going—to tell a story in two timelines, you almost have to know all of the details of the “past” timeline in order to let it influence the “present”—and I meticulously planned each chapter before starting.

Of all of my novels, I stuck mostly closely to the outline with Dead Girls, because the web of it is so complex that I knew I’d get lost without it. What goes where? How do the themes of each moment in the story affect the chapters before and after it?

That being said, I often leave the beginnings of my novels for last. Openings tell you so much about a story, and it’s a lot easier to be precise when you know where you’re headed.

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

I always find a piece of myself in my narrators, even when I don’t mean to. Once, my agent asked me, “You always write yourself in, don’t you?”

Yes. Even in my most ‘different’ narrators, I’ll always go back and find I base a part of them off of a part of me. They almost always get my sense of humour, and there are some fundamentals on how I see the world that stay consistent from character to character. Sometimes I have to dig a little to find where I am in a narrator, but in the case of Nora, I’m everywhere.

Throughout both timelines, Nora is simultaneously a little too optimistic about people and bewildered about them, traits I would absolutely use to describe myself through the ages. Why wouldn’t people mean what they say? Why wouldn’t I trust the people who have had my back? Her journey of discovering betrayal strongly echoes my own, and I see my teenage self most clearly in her voice out of all of my characters.

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

In terms of media, music always plays a huge role in how a book lands out of my head. I make playlists for every novel, and they help me set tone and find the specific spot in my brain where that story lives. I’d be lost during edits without music.

More importantly, though, I think that the nature of Dead Girls shows exactly how much the people around me influence what I write. I haven’t directly written somebody from real life into a book since I was about fourteen (you know who you are, and I appreciate you), but I love trying to capture little bits and pieces of my friends and acquaintances in what I’m writing.

Nobody in Dead Girls is a one-to-one of anyone I’ve ever met—where’s the fun in that?—and Julia especially in all her nasty glory is the most made-up of all of the characters, so the aspect I take home with me to write about is always the same: how did that person make me feel? How do they interact with a room? How do they make other people feel? It’s always a lot of fun to dissect, and even more fun to put on the page.
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--Marshal Zeringue