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