Friday, April 23, 2021

Maria Kuznetsova

Maria Kuznetsova was born in Kiev, Ukraine, and moved to the United States as a child. Her first novel, Oksana, Behave!, was published in 2019. She lives in Auburn, Alabama, with her husband and daughter, where she is an assistant professor of creative writing at Auburn University. She is also a fiction editor at The Bare Life Review, a journal of immigrant and refugee literature.

Kuznetsova's new novel is Something Unbelievable.

My Q&A with the author:

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

The title does a lot to take the reader into the thematic ideas in my novel – that, while there is a certain order to a generational family saga that spans centuries and continents, at the end of the day, the result can be called "something unbelievable."

What's in a name?

Names – and nicknames - are so important in Russian-speaking culture. In my book, last names are important, too – Larissa sheds her family name to take the name of her husband, who comes from an illustrious family. Natasha, an actress whose first name becomes a running joke because many of the Russian prostitute roles she tries out for are also for people named Natasha, sheds her last name – which was the same as her grandmother's – to take an American last name that would make her seem like a more Americanized actress. Natasha also gives her daughter, Natalia, the same name as her grandmother's mother – so in the end, there is still something that binds all these generations of women, whether they shared the same last name or not.

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

Very surprised! As a teenager, I didn't feel like I had "permission" to write about characters who weren't American - like Natasha the actress, I wanted to fit in and shed my immigrant identity. I would be shocked that all of my characters were born in Kiev and spoke Russian – and I would also be surprised that I took so much interest in my family's past and history.

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

Generally, beginnings! I never know how the story really starts until I find the right ending.

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

I do see a lot of myself in my characters - usually a worse version of myself for comedic purposes, to be honest.

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

The Bachelor!
Visit Maria Kuznetsova's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Wednesday, April 21, 2021

Nev March

Nev March is the recent winner of the Minotaur Books/Mystery Writers of America Award for Best First Crime Fiction.

After a long career in business analysis, in 2015 she returned to her passion, writing fiction and now teaches creative writing at Rutgers-Osher Institute. A Parsee Zoroastrian herself, she lives in New Jersey with her husband and two sons. Murder in Old Bombay is her debut novel.

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

My novel Murder in Old Bombay is based on a real tragedy. It was first titled The Rajabai Tower Mystery when it won MWA’s award and chosen for publication. However, my publisher and I discussed that “Raja-bai” is unfamiliar, even alien to people in the States and could put off readers. (Search Rajabai Tower Tragedy to find articles about the original events.) “Old Bombay” gives an impression of the Colonial era, so that works well for a historical mystery set during the British Raj.

What's in a name?

My protagonist Captain Jim Agnihotri’s very name is his burden, and central to the plot. It reflects his mixed parentage; James is an English name while Agnihotri is a Hindu Brahmin (high caste) name. He’s Anglo-Indian. “Anglo-Indian” was a term which originally meant British people settled in India. In the 1700s, Englishmen often took Indian wives and mistresses. Later however, the children of such unions were disapproved of by Englishmen as well as Indians, and were treated as outcasts. So yes, names matter. Another key character is feisty Diana. That’s a western name, reflecting her outspoken nature. The Parsi community did well under British rule so they adopted many western names, including Diana, Amy, Jenny etc. In memory of the original victims Bacha and Pilloo, I’ve retained their first names in the story.

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

That’s such a strange thing, I don’t think teen Nev would be surprised at all! I had written short stories from a male perspective even as a teen. My first short-story to be accepted in 1990 by a children’s magazine was a spooky adventure story for boys called “Must There be Crying?” I’d read war stories, western novels and classics even as a child. I’m now impressed that my parents allowed us kids to read these regardless of gender.

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

My beginnings fuel my story. All through the narrative, the ending beckons, urging me on. I hold off writing it as a reward for getting through some twisty bits. I usually have a strong idea of the ending, but I’ll admit that I alter it more.

Do you see much of yourself in your characters? Do they have any connection to your personality, or are they a world apart? What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

My observations and memories of small moments of life—those linger, germinate and influence my writing. The child waif in my tale, Chutki, comes from an incident decades ago. While waiting in line for a bus, I glimpsed a young mother (a baby in her lap) begging in front of Bandra Train Station. We didn’t even speak, but the look in her eyes when our gaze met--it has never left me. It’s curious how writing pulls these moments from my subconscious! Truly, we write to discover what we think.
Visit Nev March's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Tuesday, April 20, 2021

Laura Maylene Walter

© Eric Mull Photography
Laura Maylene Walter is a writer and editor in Cleveland. Her writing has appeared in Poets & Writers, Kenyon Review, The Sun, Ninth Letter, The Masters Review, and many other publications. She has been a Tin House Scholar, a recipient of the Ohioana Library Association’s Walter Rumsey Marvin Grant, and a writer‑in‑residence at Yaddo, the Chautauqua Institution, and Art Omi: Writers. Body of Stars is her debut novel.

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

A few years ago, I made lists of potential titles to find a replacement for the working title I’d long been using for my in-progress novel. I scrawled ideas in my writing notebook early in the morning, jotted down more possibilities on my lunch break at work, and emailed my writing friends long strings of (mostly terrible) titles for their feedback. Throughout this process, Body of Stars eventually found its way onto one of those lists, but it took a few days to sink in as the perfect choice.

Now, I can’t imagine any other title for this novel, which is set in a world where the freckles, birthmarks, and moles on the bodies of women and girls predict the future. These markings are arranged into patterns or “constellations,” so celestial bodies serve as a metaphor in the novel. The protagonist, Celeste, views her own markings as both a privilege and a burden. When she discovers a catastrophic prediction about her older brother, she wishes she could erase her markings and live without the weight of knowing what is to come.

The title therefore has a dual meaning: it can refer to literal bodies of stars, but mostly, it speaks to the overarching depiction of women’s bodies as mystical and capable of relaying fate and magic.

What's in a name?

I named many of the characters in this novel in rapid succession early in the process. The narrator’s name, Celeste, speaks to the celestial metaphor I mentioned above, while her friend, Cassandra, is partly named for the prophet in Greek mythology (and partly just because I’ve always liked the sound of Cassandra). I also named Celeste’s brother, Miles, who’s a central figure in the novel, quickly—on the spot, in fact, when I first dreamed up this book while embarking on a writing exercise at a conference.

Since Body of Stars is set in a world where predicting the future is possible, naming at least one character after a prophet seemed like an easy choice at the time. As the years passed and I became more deeply entrenched in the novel, however, I felt less of a need to have the characters’ names highlight the themes so literally—but by then, Celeste was Celeste and Cassandra was Cassandra, so I didn’t consider making any changes.

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

This question takes me back to my shy, awkward, hopeful teenage self, the girl who wrote stories alone in her room and dreamed of one day writing novels. In many ways, I don’t think that past self would be surprised by this novel at all. Its themes of women’s autonomy, the magic of considering the future, and sibling relationships are all elements that would ring true to me then.

I do think my younger self would be surprised by the layers in this novel, the artwork, the book-within-a-book element of the fictional guidebook Mapping the Future, and the sheer amount of work and imagination it took to bring it to life. Surely my past self would be surprised that it took years beyond what I anticipated to publish my first novel. Ultimately, I think I’d just be proud of myself for never, ever giving up even in an endeavor that is as difficult and unpredictable as writing and publishing a novel.

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

It’s always hardest to begin, isn’t it? The blank page can be a terrifying beast, especially when you bring to it all your hopes, fears, expectations, and dreams. By the time I approach the end, I usually have a better sense of the world of the story and can find my way through—with the understanding that I will certainly need to revise, of course.

Some minor edits aside, the first few paragraphs and the last few paragraphs of Body of Stars remained largely unchanged from the first draft to the published version. I like to say that it was just the entire rest of the manuscript that needed to be revised time and time again!

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

I share many qualities with Celeste: her way of observing the world, her insecurities, her anger, her sense of justice, and her slow realization that she has a lot to learn about how the world works and her place in it, to name a few. But in the end, she’s not me. Celeste is of a different world, one where the magic of predicting the future is possible. Even though this fictional world is a mirror of our own, Celeste endures tragedies that I haven’t, and she has to grapple with problems as expansive as the whole of the future. Regardless, she’s meant a lot to me over the years, and I hope I can say I’ve grown and changed with her throughout the writing and revision process.

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

So much. Everything, really. Long, solitary walks. The frustration of never knowing how the future will turn out. Any time I’ve felt intrigued by a psychic, palm reader, or medium, even though I don’t believe in such things. When I was a child, the films The Last Unicorn, The Mosquito Coast, and The Shining. The landscape of my hometown. A mountaintop observatory. The anxiety of moving to a new place and not knowing anyone. The friends I’ve been closest to at various stages of my life, and the friends I’ve lost along the way. Planetariums. Art museums, natural history museums, medical museums, and witchcraft museums.

Lastly, something I only thought of this very moment as I typed this up: the night I was fifteen, when I camped out under the stars for the first time. I stared at the sky for ages and it was the most glorious sight I had ever absorbed. Everything was vast, and I felt so small, and meanwhile the stars were way out there, ancient and massive and unreachable.
Visit Laura Maylene Walter's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Sunday, April 18, 2021

Jennifer Adam

Jennifer Adam started writing stories when her grandmother showed her how to make books out of construction paper and staples. After living on both coasts, she ended up marrying a farmer and settling down in the middle of the country. A lake covered in swans makes up for being landlocked, though, and she enjoys taking a kayak out whenever she can. She rides a formerly wild mustang and enjoys hanging out at the barn. When she's not on the water or in the saddle, she's probably hiking through trees or hiding in a library. She is a voracious consumer of books, collects fountain pens and colored inks, and adores classical music and ballet.

The Last Windwitch is Adam's debut novel.

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

Quite a bit, actually. The original title was Three Feathers to reflect the symbolic significance of feathers in the story, but when the book sold my agent remarked that they would likely want to change it. My editor pointed out that young readers like to know what to expect when choosing a book and the title is often the first key to unlocking their curiosity. She (and the marketing team) were afraid that my original title didn't give enough clues about what was inside. They sent me a list of suggestions, but while I agreed that a new title should hint at the magic and conflict within the book, none of the alternatives quite fit for me. We bounced ideas back and forth for a couple of months as we worked on edits, and then one morning The Last Windwitch just flew into my mind. Luckily everyone else loved it, too, and here we are!

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

Well, my teenage self might be quite surprised I actually succeeded in getting one published, to be honest. But she would not be surprised at all by the story itself. This is a book I wrote for myself and it reflects the things I've always loved: magic, horses, bravery, loyalty, friendship, wild forests and rich worldbuilding, our connection to the natural world and climate, and the toxic danger of the abuse of power. I wanted to write my own original fairytale built on all the layers of myth and folklore I loved as a girl. This is definitely a book younger me would have treasured.

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

I find it harder to write endings because my stories are complex and full of tiny threads that have to be woven together in a smooth, satisfying way. The closer I come to the end, the more I struggle to keep things from tangling up or fraying. I find that while the actual events of the end don't change, the way I translate them to the page can be quite different from one draft to another as I work out the best way to describe the emotional beats. However, I tend to change the beginnings more - to my own surprise! It's easy for me to throw myself into a story so the beginning always flows quickly, but as I get farther into a draft I often discover that I've actually started in the wrong spot so I have to go back and adjust the entrance point. The book I'm currently working on has had four different beginnings!

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

Every character I write contains a piece of myself. Some of those characters are more closely connected to me and my own worldview, of course, but they all hold some aspect: a hope, a fear, an experience. I suppose you could say the wicked queen in The Last Windwitch is a world apart from me because she represents the values I reject, but that's still a link to my own personal philosophy.

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

My writing is heavily inspired and influenced by the natural world and the animals I encounter. I live on a farm so the cycle of seasons is an integral part of my family's daily life. Weather is not a topic for small talk here - it's our livelihood. This is why it's a major theme in my story. I have also adopted and gentled five wild mustangs from the western rangelands. These wild horses are so sensitive to their environment, so reactive and aware of every change in their surroundings, they became the basis of the stormhorses in my book. Brida's pony, Burdock, is also directly based on personality traits of my horses. My love of the woods, of birds and wildlife, is woven through the entire world of my story. And I often take myself for long walks around our lake and through our forest when I'm stuck in a plot hole or trying to work my way through a knot - something about water, woods, and a wide sky always opens my mind!
Visit Jennifer Adam's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Friday, April 16, 2021

Ilona Bannister

Ilona Bannister grew up on Staten Island and lived in New York City until she married a Brit and moved to London. A dual qualified U.S. attorney and UK solicitor, Bannister practiced immigration law in the UK before taking a career break to raise her two young sons and unexpectedly found herself writing fiction. When I Ran Away is her first novel.

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

I think When I Ran Away lets the reader know exactly where they're headed when they pick it up and it brings the reader directly into Gigi's mindset at the verge of her breakdown. But hopefully they find that the twists and turns Gigi takes on her journey toward accepting her new self as a woman and mother surprising. I think they'll find her choice of destination interesting as well. I think many readers will relate to the things she's running away from and that many people fantasize about doing the same thing at one point or another, especially after lockdown.

What's in a name?

Gigi's full name before she marries Harry is Eugenia Stanislawski. She readily takes Harry's surname, Harrison, when they marry. It's a nod to my own Ukrainian maiden name, Ilona Lewyckyj, and a life spent with a name many people struggle to pronounce or remember. My husband didn't use my name for our first three dates until he could be sure how to say it! Gigi's father, Jaroslaw Stanislawski, who goes by Jerry, is named for my late uncle, not because he bears any resemblance, just because it's a nice way to remember him.

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

She would be shocked. First, she'd be amazed that she became a writer at all since that was never in her life plan. And I think she'd be slightly worried by the content, so we'd have to have a little chat before she read it, and I might tell her to hold off on reading it until she was a little older.

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

I think when you set out to write, you either already know your beginning or your ending. But through the editing process, that can change. My first start to this novel is now chapter seven, so, I've learned that you may have to sacrifice what you imagine your ending or beginning to be in order to give the whole story a better package.

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

I'm very connected to my characters, not necessarily by personality, but by the emotions they deal with and the feelings they convey to the reader. While I write fiction, I draw on reality for the emotional lives of my characters to make them authentic for the reader and to create characters that readers hopefully relate to.

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

People-watching is my go-to inspiration. I have always been a keen observer of people, perhaps from many years of riding the subway in New York City or the tube in London, but people - how they dress, speak, their accents, how they interact, the objects they carry, the way they move - are fascinating to me.
Follow Ilona Bannister on Twitter.

--Marshal Zeringue

Wednesday, April 14, 2021

Karla Holloway

Karla FC Holloway is James B. Duke Emerita Professor of English, African-American Studies, and Professor of Law at Duke University. As a professor, her classrooms and scholarship focused on literature, law, and bioethics; but in 2017 she turned her full attention to writing fiction. Her debut literary fiction is A Death in Harlem, a mystery set in the moment of the Harlem Renaissance.

Holloway's new book, Gone Missing in Harlem, is a novel about memory, mothering and resilience that bridges the Harlem Renaissance and the Great Depression. Weldon Thomas, NYC's first colored policeman, returns to solve the mystery of a Harlem baby whose disappearance fails to engage the same energies and interest as the contemporaneous Lindbergh kidnapping.

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

I’m a title person. I had a review once that was totally correct but that still embarrasses me. It was my first book and the reviewer wrote that my title was better than the book (The Character of the Word). Ouch! So I was quite conscious in coming to a space where the two at least matched in quality. For a while (for my non fiction writing) I was taken by alliteration (Moorings and Metaphors, Codes of Conduct) – possibly why some say (not incorrectly) that I write for sound before I invest in sense. I do pay close attention to the sounds, rhythms, and tones of language. But fiction was a decided shift for me, and these titles (A Death in Harlem and Gone Missing in Harlem) became about the place that sustains the story – thus, my “in Harlem” repetition. Knowing the place (and era) was a gift because the “who, what, when, and how” remain open to each novel and the story has to find its way to and then blossom in this space. I love that freedom, and it’s an assurance for the reader that ‘Yes, it is indeed one of those books,’ and, at the same time, it gives me permission to wander into the intricacies of wherever the place takes me. (Currently, I’m intrigued by a ‘what?’ – “A Haunting in Harlem”).

What's in a name?

I love choosing “old-school” names for my characters, and since I’m pretty old-school myself, many come from my own friends and family. However, the newest novel has a loving but struggling mother named DeLilah, whose name I chose because the sound of it seemed to fit her (plus I could shorten it to “Lilah”). I totally forgot the Biblical reference and given my character’s character, I’m hoping readers won’t notice, (although, I suspect they will). I almost wish now I’d written a disclaimer: “there is no association between this character and her Biblical counterpart.” Then again, it might become a discussion point and maybe I’ve misread my character!

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

She’d be shocked, not easily convinced it was me doing it, and insist on reading it before she claimed it. I was a discerning and cautious teenager – eager to be a “credit to the race.” I think she’d take to leaving these books in unsuspecting spots and sticking around to watch readers’ responses.

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

Totally, the Turner Classic Movie station and any film between 1920 and 1944. Were there automobiles? Automobiles + horse and carriages contemporaneously? How did the fabric move on women’s bodies? What was on their dresser tables? What’s in the backgrounds? I’m devoted to details of a scene and if you look past the foregrounded action to the background of a scene on TCM, it gives you a sense of place like none other.
Visit Karla FC Holloway's website.

Q&A with Karla FC Holloway.

--Marshal Zeringue

Tuesday, April 13, 2021

Elissa Grossell Dickey

Elissa Grossell Dickey is a mother, writer, and multiple sclerosis warrior who believes in the power of strong coffee and captivating stories.

Her debut novel is The Speed of Light.

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

The book’s title, The Speed of Light, is perfect for the story in numerous ways. It refers to the fact that my main character and her love interest are both Star Wars fans, and they watch the movies throughout their relationship. It also refers to the fact that snowflakes falling against a windshield can make it look like you’re flying at light speed. Most of all, it refers to the fact that life can—and does—change quickly, for better or worse, be it a getting devastating diagnosis, meeting a handsome stranger, or enduring a chilling act of violence at work. You never know what life will throw at you, and The Speed of Light shows how one woman navigates this.

What's in a name?

I chose my main character’s name, Simone, basically just because I liked it! But while she’s not named after anyone in particular, I do think the name fits her character, as to me the name invokes a quiet strength.

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

I think beginnings are harder, and thus, I tweaked my beginning a lot more. You need to pull the reader into the story at just the right time, giving them enough context that they care about the character, while also making it lively enough that they aren’t bored. For Simone’s story, I ended up starting with her getting her annual MRI, since it’s a unique enough experience to hopefully be interesting to readers, while also providing background as to what she’s dealing with.

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

Simone’s journey and her experiences as she goes through her MS diagnosis and comes to terms with her illness are based on my own, so in that way it’s a very personal story to me.

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

The book was very much inspired by my own MS diagnosis. Writing this story and my main character’s journey coming to terms with her diagnosis was very therapeutic for me; in a way, I wrote the story I needed when I was first diagnosed. The fact that it debuted on March 1, the first day of MS Awareness Month, made it all the more special.
Visit Elissa Grossell Dickey's website.

My Book, The Movie: The Speed of Light.

The Page 69 Test: The Speed of Light.

--Marshal Zeringue

Sunday, April 11, 2021

Dan Stout

Dan Stout lives in Columbus, Ohio, where he writes noir with a twist of magic and a disco chaser. Stout's stories have appeared in publications such as The Saturday Evening Post and Nature. He is the author of The Carter Archives, a series of noir fantasy novels from DAW Books.

The new title in The Carter Archives is Titan Song.

My Q&A with Stout:

What's in a name?

I love this question. There is so much in a name, and my thoughts about character names changes with what stage the manuscript is in.

First, there’s the process of finding a name that works during the drafting process. This is really for me, in the very early stages. I spend a great deal of time trying on different options before settling on character names. Names have a “feel” to them, and I can be working with a character for a while, trying to find their voice, and then I change their name and immediately they start taking on a different persona.

But I also have to make sure that readers will recognize and remember the names. You can have great characters, but if they’re named Stan, Steve, and Steph, most readers will struggle to keep them separate.

On top of all that, Titan Song is a blend of fantasy and noir mystery. To pull off that combo, I need to deliver a mix of elements from both genres. I can use names to underscore each of those core genres, such as by mixing common 21st Century names with unusual variations or period names to emphasize the otherworldliness of the setting.

Finally, sometimes names are just fun! In Titanshade, all the male members of a specific species have names that begin with A. That’s a bit of worldbuilding that started as me poking fun at myself for giving characters' names that were too similar.

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

I’m pretty sure my teenage self would give me the highest of fives!

When I was a teenager, I saw a book with cover art that clearly was blending noir and high fantasy. I wasn’t able to buy it at the time, but that idea always stuck with me. I think that teenaged Dan would be proud to know that a few decades down the line, he’d be writing his own take on that concept.

Honestly, finding the joy in writing has a lot to do with finding the overlap in who I am now and who I was at different points, whether I was 15, 25, or 35. All those versions of me wouldn’t agree on much, but the things that we do agree on? Those are deeply held beliefs, and I think the passion comes through in my writing.

(At the same time, if my teenage self saw my modern author photo, he’d be a lot more appreciative of that full head of hair he's got…)

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

The honest answer is that it depends. I’ve written three books, and for two of them, the beginnings flowed out effortlessly, while for the other it was pretty painful going. I’m still early enough in my career that I’m learning what makes the difference between those two states, and how to use that knowledge to make my life a little easier.

On the other hand, endings are always fun. I like to know the ending of the story before I get too far into the book, so that I can set the trajectory of all the various moving parts. Also, I write sequentially, so by the time I get to the end, it’s been a long, difficult process, and writing those final scenes is a moment of great catharsis.

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

Oh, man! Everything influences me. I’m a sponge, soaking up details and holding them against each other, looking for conflicts and contradictions, the kind of thing that creates inherent tension in a character and on the page. The news is definitely an influence, but not just the headlines – I love science news and sports.

Film noir is definitely an influence on Titan Song, as well as my writing in general. Individual books are greatly influenced by music, and I often hang a photo or painting over my desk that encapsulates the emotion I’m striving for in a book or specific scene.

My spouse is a theatre person, and we spend hours watching television, film, and stage plays, then unpacking the storytelling craft to see what we thought did or didn’t work.

I keep a bookshelf filled with my journals and scrapbooks, and everything I find of interest gets pasted in on their pages. Whenever I need a jolt of inspiration I know that I can always riffle through those pages and find something that will inspire me.

And honestly, those are just the first things that spring to mind. I've drawn on everything from hikes in the park to old Soviet propaganda posters for inspiration, and hopefully I'll be able to keep drawing on the things around me for more books in the years to come.
Visit Dan Stout's website.

My Book, The Movie: Titanshade.

The Page 69 Test: Titanshade.

The Page 69 Test: Titan's Day.

My Book, The Movie: Titan's Day.

--Marshal Zeringue

Friday, April 9, 2021

Donis Casey

Donis Casey is the author of the Alafair Tucker Mysteries, an award-winning series featuring the sleuthing mother of ten children, set in Oklahoma during the booming 1910s. Her first mystery, The Old Buzzard Had It Coming, was named an Oklahoma Centennial Book. She is a former teacher, academic librarian, and entrepreneur.

Casey's new novel is Valentino Will Die, the sequel to The Wrong Girl.

My Q&A with the author:

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

I usually suffer trying to come up with the perfect title. Only one time did I leave the title to the publisher, and I was not happy with what they chose. So for Valentino Will Die, I did it myself, and the reader can pretty much glean exactly what the story is about from the title. Most of my titles are taken from something one of the characters says, and Valentino Will Die is no exception. In fact it's Rudolph Valentino himself who utters the fateful line to our heroine, movie star Bianca LaBelle, one evening beside her swimming pool. She prods Rudy to tell her what has been bothering him for several weeks, and he replies he has been receiving threatening notes that say “Valentino will die.” I thought about having the notes say “Valentino must die,” but “must die” titles have been done to death, as it were. Instead, let's be decisive and say he “will die”.
What's in a name?

My protagonist was born Blanche Tucker, the eighth of ten children growing up on a horse farm in Oklahoma during the 1910s. She's originally named after a great-aunt of mine, whom I knew. Great Aunt Blanche was a beauty who ran away with a ne'er-do-well and ended up alone and in trouble. She was a lovely but troubled person, so I decided to give her a happy ending. Blanche became a silent movie star in the 1920s and changed her name to Bianca, oh so exotic and glamorous. Her mentor, another famous actress called Alma Bolding (also named after one of my aunts who deserved some glitz in her life) suggested Bianca change Tucker to LaBelle, after the Keats poem “La Belle Dame Sans Merci,” “the beautiful lady without mercy,” after Bianca smacked a killer in the head with a tire iron.
Do you find it harder to write beginnings or endings? Which do you change more?

When I write the first draft of a novel, I don't worry about the beginning at all. I just write. After the draft is done, that's when I worry. I search through the early part of the manuscript to find where the story actually starts, an intriguing event or episode that will pose the problem and catch the reader's interest. It's usually there somewhere. When I find it, I move it to the beginning and rearrange the story to suit. When I started Valentino Will Die, I thought I knew how it would end, but I was only half right. The characters always decide to change the trajectory of the plot as it unfolds. I really work on the endings of all my books, and I certainly did so with Valentino. I love a twist, so if I can work in a logical twist at the end, I'll do it every time – and does Valentino have a twist!. I want my endings to be satisfying and memorable for the reader. The end is what makes the reader want to pick up your next book.

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

My family history, to begin with. Since I spun off a long, family-inspired series* into the Adventures of Bianca Dangereuse novels, set in 1920s Hollywood, my inspiration comes much more from digging into my own neuroses, especially memories of how I felt about things when I was as young and full of vinegar as my protagonist, Bianca LaBelle. I have come up with some fabulous story ideas from newspapers. When one writes historical mysteries, its fascinating to read contemporary reports of historical events. With the benefit of time, we might now know what actually happened, but it's usually not at all what they thought they knew while events were unfolding.

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

My teenaged reader self probably would identify, if she read the book at all, that is. My teenaged writer self would be surprised, all right. She already thought of herself as a deep thinker and an author who would only write existential novels full of angst. Fifty years and a lot of real life existential angst later, I want to write about likable people who eat good food, wear great clothes, and do the best they can.

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

Though her life and experiences are completely unlike my own, I see my young self very much in Bianca LaBelle's personality. She appears to the world as confident and outgoing but she's been badly burned, so she is wary of others, is drawn to misfits, and something of a loner. I also see a lot of my grown-up self in the villain K.D. Dix, a small, dimpled, elderly woman with a sweet face who runs a many-tentacled crime syndicate. She has to be in charge so no one can get to her. Dix had a tough youth. She dealt with it by becoming a stone cold killer. I write murder mysteries.

*FYI, the earlier series was the ten book Alafair Tucker Mysteries set in 1910s Oklahoma. Bianca is one of Alafair's children.
Visit Donis Casey's website.

The Page 69 Test: Hell with the Lid Blown Off.

My Book, The Movie: Hell With the Lid Blown Off.

The Page 69 Test: All Men Fear Me.

My Book, The Movie: All Men Fear Me.

The Page 69 Test: The Wrong Girl.

My Book, The Movie: Valentino Will Die.

The Page 69 Test: Valentino Will Die.

--Marshal Zeringue

Wednesday, April 7, 2021

Clay McLeod Chapman

Clay McLeod Chapman writes novels, comic books, and children’s books, as well as for film and TV. He is the author of the horror novels The Remaking and Whisper Down the Lane.

My Q&A with the author:

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

Quite a lot, I think... Whisper Down the Lane, or Telephone, is a game of rumors. A group of children sit in a circle. One child whispers a sentence -- I like to eat Lucky Charms in my pajamas -- into their neighbor's ear, then that child whispers the sentence into their neighbor's ear, going around the circle until the whispered statement returns to its originator. But when it goes around the circle, the phrase tends to mutate. Words are forgotten and replaced. Even the original intent behind the sentence alters itself. When it comes full circle and the originator gets to hear the sentence returned to them, they say it out loud (usually to laughter): Eyes do harm to unlucky lamas.

My novel, Whisper Down the Lane, is about the adult version of this childhood game... The rumors that spread and pervert themselves from one neighbor to the next. How something relatively harmless that someone says can take on a life of its own and become dangerous. How lives can be destroyed by lies.

What's in a name?

I was a bit cheeky with my character names... I'm a bit embarrassed to admit this, but if you look at the names of a lot of supporting characters in the book, you'll find my reading list on full display. I wanted to pay my respects to the masterworks that influenced my novel. Consider them satanic panic Easter eggs.

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

If anything, I think he'd be relieved to see that he was still writing as an adult... and grateful that he was getting published. As far as surprises go, I'd personally be curious if my teenage self would be aware of how his writing style has -- hopefully -- evolved over the years. Would he still hear his voice in my writing? It's an interesting question. The DNA was there, all those years ago, for sure, but it's definitely evolved and refined itself since then.

Starting back in high school, I became completely enamored with first person narrative. That root is still there, plunging into my writing and growing over the subsequent decades. Now -- finally! -- it's starting to bear wondrous fruit.

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

Well, the ending certainly changed the most for Whisper Down the Lane. Chapters were rearranged up until the very end of the editing process, as well as adjusting how much was said vs. how much we cut in order to leave certain mysteries unsolved. The conversation between my editor and myself always revolved around how much do we want to trust our narrator. Does Richard, our protagonist -- or perhaps antagonist -- even know the truth? How much is he hiding the truth from himself? This meant a lot of dial adjusting. And trimming. Lots of trimming. Less is more, but until you've written it all down on the page, you just won't know what needs to be taken away. I tend to overwrite, which I find is better for those first drafts, because then you just compress and cut.

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

For most of my work, I'd say no... but with Whisper Down the Lane in particular, I'd say yes. Maybe even for the first time. For better or for worse, I 'cast' myself in the dual roles of both protagonists from the novel: five year old Sean and thirty year old Richard. Since the book times place in both the 80s and 2013, which conveniently follows my own personal timeline as a human being, so I essentially got to write about my own childhood and then my own adult life. It's completely fictionalized, though. This isn't autobiography. I took the tone and terrors of the times -- being a kid and then a parent -- and got to explore them both.

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

For this book, it was the early films of Roman Polanski. I think we should all do a movie night of Repulsion, Rosemary's Baby and The Tenant. Who's with me?
Visit Clay McLeod Chapman's website.

My Book, The Movie: The Remaking.

The Page 69 Test: The Remaking.

My Book, The Movie: Whisper Down the Lane.

--Marshal Zeringue

Monday, April 5, 2021

Adam Mitzner

Adam Mitzner is the acclaimed Amazon Charts bestselling author of Dead Certain, Never Goodbye, and The Best Friend in the Broden Legal series as well as the stand-alone thrillers A Matter of Will, A Conflict of Interest, A Case of Redemption, Losing Faith, and The Girl from Home. A practicing attorney in a Manhattan law firm, he and his family live in New York City.

Mitzner's new novel is The Perfect Marriage.

My Q&A with the author:

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

Titles are very tricky business. I’ve written 9 novels, and I’m at about 50% whether my title ends up being the title when the book is published. I had the title before I began writing for exactly two of the books.

The Perfect Marriage was one of those two. Before I wrote the first line I knew that the book was going to be about this couple that were very happy together, but that the title would suggest otherwise because no marriage is actually perfect. So it worked well on both levels – before starting the book, the reader knows that the titular couple at least think they’re blissfully happy, but the reader also knows that there’s more to it than that.

What's in a name?

I like to give the main characters names that evoke some feeling in the reader. In The Perfect Marriage, the main characters are named James and Jessica Sommers. To me, Sommers – like summer – is a carefree happy time. And I liked that their first names shared a common first letter, which gave them that cute couple vibe. One of the characters is named Hayley, and she’s a force of nature, like hail. Wayne is a weaker character, and no offense to Wayne’s, but I chose the name because it’s slightly old-fashioned and also because it’s Batman’s alter ego’s name – his weaker part. And Owen is what we might have named my daughters had they been boys.

Minor characters I name after my friends and family, often to their chagrin.

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

This is a funny one for me because I would say that my younger self would be shocked because I do not recall ever having any interest in being a writer until I was in my forties. However, since I’ve published, I’ve heard from friends from my teenage years who remember that I always had such an interest. So, I’m not sure who to believe.

On substance, however, I think the themes I explore in my novels are the ones that intrigued me even as a teenager. What’s the “right” thing to do? What price do we pay for pursuing our passions? What will we do for the people we love? Can good people do bad things?

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

Like the famous Mad Men line, I am like Don Draper in that I prefer the beginnings of things. Writing the beginnings are more fun because it’s like meeting people for the first time. You get to know them slowly, imagining things about them that may or may not be true, fantasizing a little bit about who they truly are. At the end, all those mysteries have been revealed.

I do not know the ending when I start writing, which requires that I go back to the beginning once the ending is finished to make sure that the characters are true to themselves throughout the book. Another reason that I edit the beginning more is simply because I am constantly editing as I write, as opposed to
doing a first draft completely and then beginning to edit. So the beginning is around longer and therefore subject to more edits.

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 school of thought that you are all the people in your dreams. I think the same is true of writing. Which is my way of saying that all of the characters are me, in some form or another. The way I am, the way I’d like to be, the way I think others see me. Sometimes the characters are based on people I know, but even then they’re really how I think those people see the world. Obviously, I have no idea whether that’s right or not, so in that way I still think even those characters are more like me than the people I’m actually basing them on.

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

My family, first and foremost, because the issues in my books usually revolve around family dynamics. The Perfect Marriage hews closer to my life in some regards than most of my books, as my wife and I are both previously divorced and have children from our prior marriages. And I think my marriage is perfect, of course. But all of my books are at their core about personal morality and the ties that bind people, and to find that place I am most influenced by my own relationships.

I’m also very influenced by television, especially the type of limited series you see on Netflix, Hulu and Amazon Prime. I watch them with an eye toward the visual cues as well as the story telling techniques. Over the past few years I’ve noticed that I’m often able to guess the endings, which I think is because I know what I’d do if I were writing the show.
Visit Adam Mitzner's website.

My Book, The Movie: The Perfect Marriage.

The Page 69 Test: The Perfect Marriage.

--Marshal Zeringue

Saturday, April 3, 2021

Paula Munier

Paula Munier is the USA Today bestselling author of the Mercy and Elvis mysteries. A Borrowing of Bones, the first in the series, was nominated for the Mary Higgins Clark Award and named the Dogwise Book of the Year. Blind Search was inspired by the real-life rescue of a little boy with autism who got lost in the woods.

Munier credits the hero dogs of Mission K9 Rescue, her own rescue dogs Bear, Bliss, and Blondie—a Malinois mix as loyal and smart as Elvis—and a lifelong passion for crime fiction as her series’ major influences.

She’s also written three popular books on writing: Plot Perfect, The Writer’s Guide to Beginnings, and Writing with Quiet Hands, as well as Fixing Freddie and Happier Every Day.

Munier lives in New Hampshire with her family, the dogs, and a torbie tabby named Ursula.

Her new Mercy and Elvis mystery is The Hiding Place. My Q&A with the author:
How much work does your title do to take readers into the story?

When I was writing Blind Search, the publisher didn’t like the working title (which was so bad I’ve forgotten it). So I came up with a list of 100 titles I could live with. The publisher liked Blind Search, and the editorial director liked The Hiding Place. So my editor told me, “This novel will be called Blind Search, but your next novel will be called The Hiding Place.” So I began plotting the story knowing it would be called The Hiding Place, but without knowing why. I had to write the book to find out. In retrospect, it seems inevitable, but it didn’t seem that way when I started.

What's in a name?

Mercy Carr is my heroine. I wanted to use a virtue name, as there’s a long tradition of virtue names in New England where the series is set. I chose Mercy because it’s pretty and it reminded me of one of my favorite songs, "Mercy Now" by Mary Gauthier. Carr is a family name of one of our New England forebears. So it all fit.

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

Since I went to high school in New Orleans—every teenager’s party dream town—and had never set foot in New England, I’m sure my wilder, younger self would wonder how the heck I ended up here in the snowy woods. And why.

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

I really can’t begin until I have an image in my mind. That image usually becomes the beginning. In A Borrowing of Bones, it’s the image of a woman and a dog home from Afghanistan marching off their grief in the Green Mountains of Vermont. In Blind Search, it’s the image of a little boy with autism lost in the woods. In The Hiding Place, it’s the image of a dying man asking Mercy to solve the cold case that has always haunted him. So I rarely change the opening, because I have this image in mind. The endings are a lot more fluid, because the ending I have in mind when I begin the novel—if I have one in mind—may not be satisfying enough.

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 there’s a bit of the writer in every story’s characters. That said, for me, writing fiction is less about autobiography and more about roads not taken. Most of my characters are composites drawn from real life, research, and my imagination.

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

The more stories you write, the more material you use up. So you end up priming the pump with everything and the kitchen sink. That’s half the fun, weaving all these disparate elements—your dogs, your garden, TV interviews with law enforcement, murders that make the headlines, what you saw on your last hike in the mountains, that dessert you had in Alsace, and more—into a story that makes sense. It’s a form of alchemy—and if you’re lucky, you get gold.
Visit Paula Munier's website.

Coffee with a Canine: Paula Munier & Bear.

My Book, The Movie: The Hiding Place.

The Page 69 Test: The Hiding Place.

--Marshal Zeringue

Thursday, April 1, 2021

Tasha Alexander

Tasha Alexander is the author of the New York Times bestselling Lady Emily mystery series. The daughter of two philosophy professors, she studied English Literature and Medieval History at the University of Notre Dame. She and her husband, novelist Andrew Grant, live on a ranch in southeastern Wyoming.

Alexander's new novel, the 15th Lady Emily mystery, is The Dark Heart of Florence.

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

Titles have long been the most frustrating part of writing for me. Of my sixteen novels, only two have my original titles. At this point, I expect my publisher will want them changed. For example, I wanted Uneasy Lies the Crown to be called The Death of Kings, which was deemed (among other things) too masculine. The title of my current book, The Dark Heart of Florence, captures the flavor of the story well enough, I suppose. The working title was The Ninth Circle, taken from Dante’s Divine Comedy, which, perhaps, offers more insight into the book. The ninth circle of hell punishes treachery with a frozen lake. The worse the offense, the deeper the guilty party is frozen in it. Just how deeply the villain in Dark Heart should be placed isn’t cut and dry, at least not if you consider their motivation and principles.

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

My teenage self would be delighted that I’m writing, although she’d probably have hoped I was far, far hipper than I am. In high school, I would have assumed that I’d be writing about—and living in—New York, even though for nearly all of my life I was far more interested in historicals than contemporary fiction.

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

Beginnings are definitely trickier for me, mainly because I can’t be precisely sure how they should read until I’ve finished writing the entire book. This might be different if I could construct a decent outline, but my brain just won’t work like that. Instead, I figure out the story as I go, relying more on instinct than organization. Once I’ve got a complete manuscript, I circle back to the start and revise, finally able to flush out the 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?

Well, sadly, no one has irrevocably settled an enormous fortune on me, but times have changed since the late Victorian/early Edwardian days. Emily, my protagonist, is like me in some superficial ways. We both like classical antiquities, travel, and studying languages, but our worlds are entirely different. I find it satisfying to write about something removed from my own life. It broadens my horizons and keeps me interested.

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

Travel has informed every book I’ve written. It’s the source of endless ideas. Every new place helps me better understand people from all kinds of backgrounds. There are many ways in which we're all alike, but at the same time, it’s critical to recognize that we don’t all have similar lives. Cultural mores, opportunities, and daily experiences make an enormous impact on individuals. They can also keep us from recognizing the ways in which we are the same. Traveling with an eye toward learning about new cultures makes it possible to write more fully realized characters.
Visit Tasha Alexander's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Tuesday, March 30, 2021

Alma Katsu

Alma Katsu’s books have received starred reviews from Publishers Weekly, Booklist, and Library Journal, been featured in the New York Times and Washington Post, been nominated and won multiple prestigious awards, and appeared on numerous Best Books lists.

Red Widow is her first spy novel, the logical marriage of her love of storytelling with her 30+ year career in intelligence. As an intelligence officer, Katsu worked at several federal agencies as a senior analyst where she advised policymakers and military commanders on issues of national security. The last third of her government career was spent in emerging technologies and technology forecasting. She was also a senior technology policy analyst for the RAND Corporation and continues as an independent consultant and technology futurist, advising clients in government and private industry.

Katsu also writes novels that combine historical fiction with supernatural and horror elements. The Hunger (2018), a reimagining of the story of the Donner Party, was named one of NPR’s 100 favorite horror stories, was on numerous Best Books of the Year lists, and continues to be honored as a new classic in horror. Her first book, The Taker (2011), was named one of the top ten debut novels of 2011 by Booklist. Katsu has relocated from the Washington, DC area to the mountains of West Virginia, where she lives with her musician husband Bruce and their two dogs, Nick and Ash.

My Q&A with the author:

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

This book is a huge departure, going from fantasy and historical fiction to a spy thriller but also because this is the first one that is not “The [Noun]”. Old habits die hard: the working title had been The Widow but my publisher had put out Fiona Barton’s bestseller by the same title not too long previously. We then kicked around many titles, none of which seemed to fit. The publisher came up with Red Widow and immediately we knew it was the one. After you’ve read it, you’ll see that it applies in two ways. Plus, if it puts people in mind of Red Sparrow, I won’t complain.

What's in a name?

I usually put a lot of effort into character’s names, trying to come up with ones that give insight into the character’s personalities. For Red Widow, I went in the opposite direction. People who do clandestine work are not supposed to stand out. I wanted names that would blend in. Case officers are supposed to be forgettable, even, and while Lyndsey would use a false name during actual operations, I wanted to show that these extraordinary people who do extraordinary work often appear, on the surface, to be quite unassuming.

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

Very! I did not intend to go into intelligence work when I was young. I wanted to be a writer. That was my intention. And I would not have been able to write this book without having spent a lot of time in the intelligence business.

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

Beginnings are easy for me, endings hard. When I start, I usually have an idea where the ending needs to go but don’t know the specifics. Many times,
the last third of a book changes quite a bit after the first or second draft. The real work for me always seems to be in revision.

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

In Red Widow, there’s a bit of me in both Lyndsey and Theresa Warner. There has to be: my view of the intelligence business, and particularly what it’s like for a woman, is drawn from my personal experience. You see a lot in thirty years; plus, as an analyst, assessing and drawing conclusions is my business. I’ve come to a lot of conclusions about what it means to spend a lifetime in the field, whether it’s a good bargain, and used it in writing this book.

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

For previous books such as The Taker or The Deep, there were movies that influenced my vision. For Red Widow, I draw on any of the more famous spy movies, no James Bond or Jason Bourne. The FX TV series The Americans was an influence in terms of the smart tone, and the fact that the female agent was extremely tough and extremely professional, not the way women are too often portrayed in spy films and TV.
Visit Alma Katsu's website.

The Page 69 Test: The Taker.

My Book, The Movie: The Hunger.

The Page 69 Test: The Hunger.

The Page 69 Test: The Deep.

The Page 69 Test: Red Widow.

--Marshal Zeringue

Sunday, March 28, 2021

Carrie Seim

Carrie Seim is the creator of the best-selling adventure series The Flying Flamingo Sisters and author of Horse Girl, her new middle-grade novel for Penguin Workshop. She served as a staff writer for several Nickelodeon comedy variety shows and has contributed to The New York Times, The Atlantic, Cosmopolitan, The New York Post, McSweeney’s and Architectural Digest. Her essays in awkwardness are featured in the book Mortified: Love is a Battlefield.

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

I conjured the title Horse Girl (in the middle of a canoe on the Long Island Sound, in fact) long before I sorted out any inkling of a plot — the title conveys so much in just two brief words. They crackle with so many pop-culture references. Is the main character a misunderstood misfit? A young woman harnessing new power over her changing life? Before even flipping to the first page, I hope readers will eagerly anticipate a story that’s deeply funny and also brave, about a girl who’s definitively awkward yet unsinkable. All from the title alone.

What's in a name?

My protagonist, Willa — aka Wills — is named after Willa Cather, the most famous author from Nebraska, where I’m from and where the novel is set. The horse-tagonist, Clyde Lee, is named for a real Clydesdale-Thoroughbred lesson horse my sister used to ride at a stable in Omaha. He was a gentle giant who was wonderful with kids, but also extremely stubborn. Many of the funny horse antics in the book — including him trying to toss his rider when he was ready to eat dinner — are inspired by Clyde.

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

Not surprised at all! The older sister in Horse Girl, Kay, is completely informed by my teenage self. Like Kay, I also loved trivia, show choir, Spanish verbs, piano, snowflake fractals, the history of Norse gods — and I was deathly allergic to horses. (Even though I loved them dearly, I sneezed my way through horse camp.) It was such fun to cast myself as the villain (or at least pseudo-villain) in this story. Wills, meanwhile, is completely inspired by my younger sister Lindsay. One of my favorite scenes in the book, where the two sisters are arguing through opposite ends of a laundry chute, is completely lifted from real life. My teenage self would circle this novel at the top of her book-order form!

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

Yes! [see above]

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

Endings — no question! I come from the improv comedy world, where you dive headlong into an empty stage with absolute trust that you and your scene partners will create a captivating story — out of thin air — that will delight your audience. It’s that whole “leap and the net will appear” mentality. So I have a lot of practice coming up with fearless beginnings on the spot. I wrote the first chapter of Horse Girl like a fever dream — it poured out of me, almost like a comedy sketch. The ending however — let’s just say it almost made me quit writing altogether! I was desperate for it to be surprising yet satisfying, and true to the humor and angst in the rest of the story. A tall order, indeed. It was a daunting task, but I think (hope?) I pulled it off.

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

Horse Girl was inspired most directly by my sister — the O.G. horse girl in my life. The novel is really a love letter to her. Beyond that, the horse-girl pop-culture canon is so fertile. I turned to everything from National Velvet to My Little Pony and the cult-favorite film Wild Hearts Can’t Be Broken. As children, my sister and I would record Olympic show jumping events on our VCR and play them over and over again until the VHS tape practically melted. I also drew comedic inspiration from the genius animated characters Tina Belcher in Bob’s Burgers and Missy from Big Mouth, both of whom have rich interior lives centered around imaginary horses. And of course Mean Girls was a huge inspiration for the intricate web of female friendships (or frenemy-ships) in the stable.
Visit Carrie Seim's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Friday, March 26, 2021

Nicola DeRobertis-Theye

Nicola DeRobertis-Theye was an Emerging Writing Fellow at the New York Center for Fiction, and her work has been published in Agni, Electric Literature, and LitHub. A graduate of UC Berkeley, she received an MFA in Creative Nonfiction from the University of North Carolina, Wilmington, where she was the fiction editor of its literary magazine Ecotone. She is a native of Oakland, CA and lives in Brooklyn, New York.

DeRobertis-Theye's new novel is The Vietri Project.

My Q&A with the author:

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

It sums up the whole book; moreover it was the only title I ever considered, the title from the earliest days, and no one, from my agent to my publisher, ever suggested changing it, which I think is a mark of success. At first, The Vietri Project refers to the project in the bookstore where my narrator works, of assembling large and mysterious book orders for a signor Vietri, in Rome. Later, when she is traveling and decides to look him up, it becomes her search for the facts of his life, for what answers he might be able to give her about how she should live her own.

What's in a name?

My narrator’s name is Gabriele, named after her Italian grandfather. It’s a boy’s name in Italy but reads as very feminine to Americans, and I tried to include other names like that where I could, like her male cousin Andrea. I wanted to use names which were feminine in one context and masculine in another to suggest a breaking down of assumed categories, especially as they relate to one’s identity. I also used the name Vietri from the very beginning, it carried associations with two very different towns in Italy (Vietri sul Mare and Vietri di Potenza), and etymologically could be broken down to mean “three lives”, which is also accurate to the life story my narrator uncovers.

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

Not very, I think. The things that mean the most to me—travel, books, wondering how to be a good person in the world, are all there.

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

Endings, absolutely. The first chapter of this novel stayed mostly unchanged from the very beginning, while the ending was originally the penultimate chapter. In early drafts there was one further chapter, but eventually, it made more emotional sense to end where it did. But the question of how it would end—would she find Vietri, or not?—wasn’t one I knew the answer to while writing, and the mystery kept me interested as well.

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

I do. Though I am quite different in terms of personality and family history from Gabriele, there were enough similarities that early in the book I had her make two choices I have never done: to order a diet coke, and to cheat on her boyfriend. I felt like that gave me enough psychic distance from her early on to let her develop into her own character.

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

I think the biggest thing that affects what I’m writing is the setting, a sense of place. The other thing is history: I wanted this book to also function as a guide to the last 100 years of Italian history. But movies, music, art, they all feed the creative soup that the writing comes out of.
Visit Nicola DeRobertis-Theye's website.

My Book, The Movie: The Vietri Project.

The Page 69 Test: The Vietri Project.

--Marshal Zeringue

Wednesday, March 24, 2021

Jess Montgomery

Jess Montgomery is the author of the Kinship Historical Mysteries. Under her given name, she is a newspaper columnist, focusing on the literary life, authors and events of her native Dayton, Ohio for the Dayton Daily News. Her first novel in the Kinship Historical Mystery series garnered awards even before publication: Montgomery County (Ohio) Arts & Cultural District (MCAD) Artist Opportunity Grant (2018); Individual Excellence Award (2016) in Literary Arts from Ohio Arts Council; John E. Nance Writer in Residence at Thurber House (Columbus, Ohio) in 2014.

The Stills is Montgomery's third novel in the Kinship series.

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

Though it’s two short words, The Stills works on two levels to bring readers into my novel. The Stills is set in 1927 in the Appalachian area of Ohio (the southeastern corner). Of course, 1927 is a little over halfway through the United States’ experiment with Prohibition. My series focuses on Sheriff Lily Ross, inspired by Ohio’s true first female sheriff. In my first two novels featuring Sheriff Lily, Prohibition—and moonshining and bootlegging—are in the background of the stories, occasionally brought in as minor plot points. In The Stills, bootlegging comes to the forefront, forming a main part of the plot. Lily faces off against George Vogel, a big-time bootlegger, inspired by the real-life crime boss George Remus. She can no longer think of violations of Prohibition as simply being a continuation of backwoods moonshining that has been going on for generations. George is bringing big crime—and big danger—to the heart of Lily’s county, and not long after he arrives, people start to die. She forms a wary alliance with a Bureau of Prohibition agent, as well as people in her community, to confront him.

But Lily is also still slowly coming to terms with her grief over losing her husband, Daniel, in the first novel in the series (The Widows). Other characters, too, must pause and consider how events around them impact them at their deepest level. So The Stills also refers to those quiet, still moments we all have—sometimes by choice, and sometimes as they’re foisted on us—to reflect on our situation, our beliefs, our place in the world.

The Stills also refers to extreme illness, which forces us to be still, and of course death, the final ‘stilling’ we all experience.

What's in a name?

The novels are set in fictional Bronwyn County. Kinship is the county seat. Kinship is more than a place name; kinship is also how Lily solves crimes and manages to balance her work and personal life—kinship with family, friends, and neighbors.

Each Kinship novel is dual narrated by Lily, who as sheriff and thus the detective who solves the mystery in each book, and another member of the Kinship community (thus continuing the “kinship” theme.)

In The Stills, Fiona—the wife of Lily’s nemesis George Vogel and a former Kinship resident—is the other narrator. Here I will confess that I named Fiona after the character Fiona on the television show Supernatural, which was and is a guilty pleasure for me. My Fiona and the Supernatural Fiona have only in common that they are women who are in situations where, to retain control over their lives and safety for the people they most love, they must be wily and even manipulative.

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

In some ways, not surprised at all. My family of origin—all my ancestors going back many generations—is from Appalachia. I was part of the first generation born outside of Appalachia, but our trips when I was a kid was “going on down home,” meaning to my Grandma Lou’s little house in Eastern Kentucky. When I was in high school, I wrote a musical play inspired by the ballads I’d learned from my kin. So I think I would probably just smile that all these years later, I still love writing from that heritage.

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

I always have a sense of the ending, sometimes quite specifically, so I have something to write toward. Beginnings are much harder for me, and I end up revising them over and over, to finally get them right (I hope).

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

I actually see myself in all my characters, or at least try to put a bit of myself in each character. This is true even for the “bad guys.” I think we all (well, except for the tiny percent of humans who are actual sociopaths, but so far, I don’t write about those particular types of characters) have the capacity for joy, gratitude, love, remorse, but also jealousy, fear, hate and so on. So when I’m writing about my characters, I think about what most drives them. If it’s jealousy or fear, such as with my “bad” guys, I look at moments in my own life where I’ve experienced those feelings, and then I try to plunk what that was like into my character, and exaggerate that attribute.
Visit Jess Montgomery's website.

My Book, The Movie: The Widows.

The Page 69 Test: The Hollows.

The Page 69 Test: The Stills.

--Marshal Zeringue