Tuesday, October 19, 2021

Jessica Vitalis

Jessica Vitalis is a full-time writer with a previous career in business and an MBA from Columbia Business School. An American expat, she now lives in Canada with her husband and two daughters.

Vitalis's new book is The Wolf's Curse.

My Q&A with the author:

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

The working title for this story was “Death” until very late in the process; not because I thought it was a great title, but because it’s a Grim Reaper retelling and I thought of the story as my “death” book as I was drafting. It wasn’t until I started thinking about querying that I landed on The Wolf’s Curse as the title. I love the ambiguity in that readers can’t be sure if the title means that the wolf is cursed or if the wolf is the one doing the cursing. (You’ll have to read the book to find out!)

What's in a name?

I think names are incredibly important! I took great care to make sure the names I chose in The Wolf’s Curse help convey a French-inspired world. For example, the story is set in the country of Gatineau, and the village is Bouge-by-the-Sea. My main character, Gauge, is a carpenter’s apprentice; I love how his name hints at his vocation. My antagonist’s name, Lord Mayor Vulpine, carries equal weight; Vulpine means “crafty” or “cunning,” and I love that it hints at the Canidae, or dog family, since my narrator is a wolf. And I don’t want to give too much away, but the wolf’s name also carries great meaning—not because of its actual definition, but because using it helps remind her of her shared humanity.

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

My teenage self would be shocked by this novel! Although I’ve always loved to write, I never thought of myself as a creative person, and I don’t think I ever would have believed that I’d end up writing fantasy stories. That said, I also think that this is the type of book that my teenage self needed to read––despite the fantastic world in which villagers believe that stars are actually lanterns lit by their loved ones as they travel to the sea in the sky to sail into eternity, it’s actually about grief and loss, and hope and healing, and how our friends and community come together to pull us through our darkest times.

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

I always struggle with my endings. Not because I don’t know what’s going to happen from a plot perspective (I usually do), but because a great ending is about more than wrapping up a plot—it’s about digging deep into the characters’ emotional journeys and making sure that inner transformation comes across on the page. By contrast, I generally find openings fairly easy to write; I usually have a list of what I need to accomplish, and I really enjoy the challenge of fitting all of those elements into the story in a way that hooks the reader.

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

There are three main characters in my story: the invisible Great White Wolf, twelve-year-old Gauge, and twelve-year-old Roux, and they all contain aspects of my personality. In fact, I think I’m probably 1/3 the Wolf’s snark, 1/3 Gauge’s sweet innocence, and 1/3 Roux’s no-nonsense practicality. (Okay, I might be a tad bit more than 1/3 when it comes to the snark!)
Visit Jessica Vitalis's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Thursday, October 14, 2021

Bethany Ball

Bethany Ball was born in Detroit and lives in New York with her family.

She is the author of What To Do About The Solomons and The Pessimists.

My Q&A with the author:

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

Unconsciously I was probably thinking of titles like The Corrections, The Sympathizer, The Immortalists etc. I love how a title like that seems to stand tall and wide with hands on hips and takes a stance. I felt like I was attempting to sum up at least a small portion and a snapshot in time of a generation—Gen X. And it is indeed descriptive of the book. Many Americans have felt increasingly pessimistic since at least the Great Recession in 2008. And I myself fought pessimism every day that Donald Trump was president. On the other hand, I like to end novels with hope. In my last novel, I quote an Arabic aphorism: one day of honey, one day of onion. I try to end a book with a little honey if possible.

What's in a name?

I was really influenced by the time my father became Karl Malden’s Sekulovich in a movie filmed in my father’s newsroom. Sekulovich was Malden’s real name, his father’s name, and he made sure to insert it in every film he made. The bit role my father had was Malden’s Sekulovich. In the same vein, I made a little vow to myself as an homage to my late southern mom to name at least one main protagonist after someplace in the south. Carolyn in my first book and Virginia in my second. Beyond that, names are incredibly important to me. I always want to get a name bang on. I think they tell so much about a character, where they were born, who their parents were, socioeconomic class, the hopes and dreams of their parents. Virginia is married to a guy named Tripp Powers. I sort of expected someone to tell me I couldn’t do that, that his name was too ridiculous. His real name is Travis. It was important for me to let the reader know that almost as an aside. Tripp Powers is about as Dickinsinian as I will get with a name but I think it works in a lot of real life ways.

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

Writing was the only thing I was good at and it was the only activity in my life I did consistently. I was an awful awful student but I kept getting the highest scores on my writing assessment. Higher than anyone in the school. It didn’t matter much though, my guidance counselor still tried to place me in remedial English. Not that I’m bitter or anything. Fortunately I had wonderful teachers in my public school system: Ms. Zizka, Ms. Stonehouse, Ms. Downey, Ms Murley to name a few. They saw through my terrible academic record and supported me anyway.

I see bits of writers I read in high school in my writing style today: Mary Gaitskill, Tony Morrison, Bret Easton Ellis, Philip Roth, Alice Walker, Joy Williams, and Anne Tyler.

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

Beginnings are incredibly difficult. You have to get the tone and voice right or the piece has no momentum. Landings are hard but beginnings are nearly impossible. I worry and work over the beginning much more. It’s like curb appeal. It might in fact not be the most important part of the book but no one is going to enter the realm of the book unless you entice them in. A reader might forgive a less than perfect ending but they will never get past a bad beginning.

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

I like to say that I share a lot of negative attributes with my characters. This makes writing characters sort of delicious and fun. In The Pessimists, my character Gunter wants the most un-cool cool car in the world, the Mercedes G-Wagon. He wants luxury and to be high up and look down on everyone while he drives. I’m very sorry to say I share this desire with Gunter and in fact, my editor shared in the margins that she felt just the same way! It was fun to explore this dumb desire and kind of make fun of myself through Gunter. There are others but that’s the only one I’ll cop to here!

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

Most definitely music. I sang in a choir all through school and in college. My father sang in a professional choir in Detroit and I spent my childhood attending his concerts. I love music more than any other art form. For me writing must have rhythm for it to work. There are slow rhythms and fast. Loud, quiet, and silence.

My second inspiration is tennis. My son is a division one tennis player and I picked up the sport about seven years ago. I spent many years of weekends watching tournaments in tony parts of Connecticut, New Jersey, and New York. I play on a team and have been to the most elite country clubs around. Places filled with what Tom Wolfe called “the Masters of the Universe.” Some of the conversations I overheard definitely inspired The Pessimists. As an introvert writer who spends a lot of time alone, playing sports on a team forced me to get out and interact with people, many of whom I otherwise never would have met and I’ve grown to love.
Visit Bethany Ball's website.

The Page 69 Test: What To Do About The Solomons.

--Marshal Zeringue

Sunday, October 10, 2021

Georgie Blalock

Georgie Blalock is a history and movie buff who loves combining her different passions through historical fiction, and a healthy dose of period piece films. When not writing, she can be found prowling the non-fiction history section of the library or the British film listings on Netflix or in the dojo training for her next karate black belt rank. Blalock also writes historical romance under the name Georgie Lee.

Her latest novel is The Last Debutantes.

My Q&A with the author:

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

The title works pretty hard to take readers into the story. The Last Debutantes is set in 1939, during the last debutante season before World War II. Once war breaks out, many things, including the lives and futures of the debutantes, change forever. The title indicates that the 1939 Season was the last one of normalcy before everything changed. Although the debutante tradition would return after World War II, the war and the world that had spawned that tradition was, like the debutantes, irrevocably altered. These were the last debutantes to celebrate their entry into society in this way.

What's in a name?

I didn’t have much choice in naming Valerie de Vere Cole because she is a real person. She was the niece of British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain and lived with Mr. and Mrs. Chamberlain at No. 10 Downing Street where she celebrated her debutante season in 1939. However, I did choose to use the more formal version of her name, Valerie de Vere Cole. In the newspapers of the time, she was only referred to as Valerie Cole. Her father’s name was Horace de Vere Cole and he had an impressive lineage that included ties to the Earl of Oxford. I decided to add the de Vere to Valerie’s name to give her a more aristocratic flavor.

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

I find it harder to write endings rather than beginnings. With most of my novels, the opening scene is the first thing that comes to me, and it sets the tone for the rest of the story. The end comes after a great deal of research and time spent with the characters. Once I better understand the story, and the historical characters’ lives and world then it is easier to write the end. The end is more likely to change depending on the direction the story, characters and historical research take me.

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 some of myself in the characters because my deadline for finishing The Last Debutantes was June 2020. My writing schedule for March through June was well sketched out and, as we all know, the universe had other plans. It was a very unique experience to write during such a stressful and uncertain time and it allowed me to better relate to the debutantes who were doing their best to carry on with their normal lives while also living though very uncertain times.
Visit Georgie Blalock's website.

My Book, The Movie: The Other Windsor Girl.

The Page 69 Test: The Other Windsor Girl.

My Book, The Movie: The Last Debutantes.

--Marshal Zeringue

Wednesday, October 6, 2021

Katherine Ashenburg

Photo by Joy von Tiedemann
Katherine Ashenburg is the prize-winning author of two novels, four non-fiction books and hundreds of articles on subjects that range from travel to mourning customs to architecture. She describes herself as a lapsed Dickensian and as someone who has had a different career every decade. Her work life began with a Ph.D. dissertation about Dickens and Christmas, but she quickly left the academic world for successive careers at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation as a radio producer; at the Toronto newspaper The Globe and Mail as the arts and books editor; and most recently as a full-time writer.

Ashenburg's new novel is Her Turn.

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

I was well into writing the novel when I settled on the title. Liz, my heroine, edits a newspaper column of personal essays called “My Turn.” Calling the novel Her Turn indicates that Liz is going to take centerstage now, and also suggests that it’s finally her turn to make sense of her divorce. There’s also a little word-play in the title, in that Liz changes quite a bit in the course of the book: she turns.

With the first meaning, of Liz coming forward, the emphasis is “Her Turn.” With the second meaning, the emphasis is “Her Turn.”

What’s in a name?

When I used to read about novelists saying their characters took over, I rolled my eyes: it all seemed too mystical for me. But I have to admit that Liz more or less insisted on being called Liz. She’s a mostly tidy, organized and conscientious character at the start of the novel (her affair with her married boss being the sole exception to that), so I wanted to give her a classic name like Claire or Ellen. But try as I would to fix those names on her, “Liz” kept bubbling to the surface. I had no idea why. Finally I had to accept that Liz acknowledged her transgressive side, and voila, my heroine had the right name.

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

I think my teenage reader self might say to me, “What in the world took you so long?” An omnivorous reader of novels in my teens and after, it never occurred to me that I could ever produce one myself. I was 73 when my first novel, Sofie & Cecilia, was published three years ago. Now I see no reason to stop. As for the content, my teenage self liked novels about romance, eccentric characters and heroines with interesting jobs who needed to understand themselves better. I think she would approve of Her Turn.

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

I find beginnings far easier. With Her Turn, I had gotten Liz into such a mess I couldn’t imagine how I could ever rescue her and end the book. Her ex-husband’s second wife has submitted an essay to Liz, not knowing she’s sending it to her predecessor and, guarding her anonymity, Liz has been pretending to engage in a thorough edit of a piece she never intends to publish. Catastrophes multiply and there’s no way Liz can emerge unscathed.

One morning, still in the dark as to how this could end, I told myself that whatever happened, Liz needed to talk on the phone with the second wife. Disciplining myself to write the dialogue with no sense of where it was going led me to a conclusion that satisfies almost everyone.

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

That depends on the book. My first novel, Sofie & Cecilia, was about three painters, so paintings were my inspiration as well as my subject. For the novel I’m writing now, it’s Dior’s 1947 New Look collection. For Her Turn, I relied on Liz’s career as a journalist, one that I shared. The driven, hyper-focused people in a newsroom almost guarantee that a novel set there will be funny, and I enjoyed returning to that world.
Visit Katherine Ashenburg's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Monday, October 4, 2021

M. J. Kuhn

M. J. Kuhn is a fantasy writer by night and a mild-mannered office worker by day. She lives in the Midwest with her husband, a puppy named Wrex, and a cat named Thorin Oakenshield.

Less than a year into her life as a full-time office-worker she began using her nights and lunch breaks to work on her first novel, and she hasn’t looked back since.

When she isn’t reading or writing you can find her playing the piano, weightlifting, or anxiously awaiting the next installment of George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire.

Kuhn's new novel is Among Thieves.

My Q&A with the author:

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

The title of my debut, Among Thieves, is based on one of two common idioms: “There is honour among thieves,” and “No honour among thieves.” It’s purposely ambiguous which one I mean, and when you dive into the story you’ll see why!

The plot centers around a mercenary named Ryia, but it is ultimately the tale of six thieves teaming up to steal a magical artifact… while each thief secretly plots their own betrayal. They all have their own designs for the heist’s loot, and the multi-perspective story will have readers wondering who will be victorious in the end.

I’m hoping the title calls to mind both the obvious meaning (thieves), and the implied meaning of these commonly used and misused idioms. Are the characters in the story to be trusted? Do they have any sense of loyalty or honor? The reader will find out as the story unfolds.

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

My teenage-reader-self would be thrilled with my novel, I think. Shocker - it’s exactly my taste! I have been obsessed with heist stories since around my teenage years (high school and on), so I think my teen self would be tickled that I managed to pull off a heist novel myself.

Also, it’s been my dream to see a book I wrote on the shelf at a bookstore since I was in elementary school, so this entire experience is really just a dream-come-true for my younger self.

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 all incredibly different from me. In reality I am not a sword-fighter, or a mercenary, or even a bold enough person to say half of the sassy remarks you’ll find in the pages of Among Thieves. However, I do still insert bits of myself into the characters as I breathe life into them. If it’s possible to write without doing so, I haven’t figured it out yet!

I may give a character one of my own fears, or make them wrestle with a flaw I also have. I think this is part of the reason why sharing a book with the world is so difficult sometimes. Yes, it’s fiction! The story is fake, the characters are not directly based on any real people, it’s all make-believe. But my own heart beats alongside the heart of the story, which makes sharing it an incredibly vulnerable act.

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

I am influenced by all of my experiences, to some degree, but I know that’s not a very satisfying answer!

I’ll try to be a little more specific and center my inspirations around Among Thieves. Let’s kick things off with the obvious: My obsession with heist films such as the Oceans franchise, and The Italian Job definitely inspired me to write a heist story of my own.

My inspiration for main characters who weren’t exactly knights in shining armor came from many different places, but I think I was inspired largely by video games, specifically Mass Effect. In the Mass Effect franchise, the player has the option to make the main character either a hero or an antihero. During my first playthrough, the antihero option was so much more interesting to me that I definitely latched onto the idea of morally gray characters at that point in time.

Lastly, I was inspired by my enduring love of fantasy films and television shows. Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings films (and of course, the original literary source material) have been an obsession of mine throughout my life. I was also fascinated by the twists, turns, and betrayals of George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, and (to some extent) the HBO adaptation, Game of Thrones. There is so much wonderful fantasy and sci-fi content out in the world these days, and I am definitely thankful for it!
Visit M. J. Kuhn's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Wednesday, September 29, 2021

Andrea Wang

Andrea Wang is the award-winning author of the picture books The Nian Monster (Asian/Pacific American Award for Literature Honor), Magic Ramen (Freeman Book Award Honor), and Watercress. The Many Meanings of Meilan is her debut middle-grade novel. The first character in Wang’s Chinese name is an archaic one that means fragrant, but her parents’ friends all thought it was the character for jade, which sounds exactly the same. That sparked her lifelong interest in names and identity. She’d much rather be a rock than smelly. Wang likes to write about family, food, and culture. She spent her childhood in Ohio and Boston and now lives in Colorado with her family.

My Q&A with the author:

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

My agent actually came up with the title The Many Meanings of Meilan. I originally called my book The Orchid Variations, but that doesn't do nearly as much work as a title since it assumes that readers know that the second syllable of Meilan's name, "lan," means "orchid" in Mandarin. The current title does a much better job -- right away you know that Meilan is Chinese American and that the story is about the different ways she sees and defines herself by her name.

What's in a name?

Meilan's name is the crux of the book. When the principal of her new school renames her to "Melanie" because it "sounds more American," she begins to question who she really is. Her parents also start calling her by a new nickname, "Lan," which further confuses her. When she discovers that there are multiple Chinese characters with different meanings that are all pronounced "Lan," her sense of self begins to fracture. She decides to adopt three of these homophones -- the words for "basket," "mist," and "blue," as the meanings for who she is in different situations, and behaves accordingly. It's not until her grandfather tells her the origin of her name that she learns to embrace her whole self.

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

My teenage self would be surprised and mortified by The Many Meanings of Meilan. I was a very shy and reserved teen who would never have considered writing a book that is so deeply personal and reflects so many of my own struggles with identity, family dynamics, microaggressions, and racism.

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

I never know the right place to begin a story until I've written the ending. I always knew that the book would be about Meilan's code-switching and end with her uniting the different versions of herself, but it took a while (and my wonderful editor's help) to figure out what she was like before and how she got to the point where she felt she had to take on these different personas.

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

Meilan is very much a reflection of my child self. I was always the kid hiding in the back row, sitting cross-legged in my chair in an attempt to make myself as small and invisible as possible. And at home, I tried to be the most dutiful, filial Chinese daughter -- just like Meilan. However, it took me until I was an adult to find my voice. I gave Meilan the ending I wished I'd had as a child.
Visit Andrea Wang's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Monday, September 27, 2021

Andrew Welsh-Huggins

A son of the Finger Lakes in western New York State, Andrew Welsh-Huggins now calls himself a “proud native adopted Ohioan.” By day, he is a reporter for the Associated Press in Columbus. By earlier in the day, he is the author of seven books in the Andy Hayes private eye series, featuring a former Ohio State and Cleveland Browns quarterback turned investigator.

Welsh-Huggins's latest novel in the series is An Empty Grave.

My Q&A with the author:

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

Sometimes I start writing a book with a title in mind, other times I’m not sure of the title and wait for inspiration. For the first book in my series about former Ohio State quarterback turned private eye Andy Hayes, Fourth Down and Out, I went with the pun to telegraph Andy’s troubled back story. The second novel involved an arson fire and I settled on Slow Burn early on. The same went for the fourth novel, The Hunt, about Andy’s search for a missing prostitute. An Empty Grave started life as Dead Run, but it became clear early on that that was only a working name. I settled on the final title after realizing how much of the book focused on secrets and mysterious deaths. In any case, I always aim for something punchy that will catch a browsing reader’s attention but that also doesn’t give away the plot.

What's in a name?

Normally, I choose character names in unromantic fashion, by mixing and matching names from a 2008 Columbus White Pages phone book (remember those?) that I keep close at hand. That’s how I started with Hillary Quinne, the female private eye whom Andy encounters in An Empty Grave. In this case, though, I tinkered with her name a few times. I knew she would be a professional rival with some romantic undercurrents, and someone who will likely make return appearances, and so I wanted a memorable name that conveyed power and intrigue.

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

I don’t think he’d be surprised by the crime fiction elements since I’ve loved mysteries since I was a kid and was sneaking my mom’s Perry Mason paperbacks off the shelf. He’d probably be a little wide-eyed at the idea of a character with a football background, however, since organized sports were never my thing.

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

I’m a proponent of a strong opening chapter, both from the obvious perspective of hooking a reader early and the understanding (gleaned from multiple book events over the years) that I’ll probably end up reading that aloud frequently, so it needs to be solid. As a result, I tend to revise that opener a lot.

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

My character, Andy Hayes, is both my alter ego and a fictional version of myself. No one calls him Andrew and no one calls me Andy. I’m a former small college track runner; he’s an ex-major university college football star. He’s been divorced twice and can’t manage a steady girlfriend while I’ve been married nearly forty years to my wife, Pam. He’s a dog guy, I’m a cat person, etc. On the other hand, we share the same sense of humor, read a lot of the same books, approach life with a similar level of skepticism, and have equally low thresholds for tolerating BS. I’m not sure how well we’d get along in real life, but I think I’d enjoy having a beer with the guy from time to time.
Visit Andrew Welsh-Huggins's website.

My Book, The Movie:: An Empty Grave.

--Marshal Zeringue

Friday, September 24, 2021

Jo Perry

Jo Perry earned a Ph.D. in English, taught college literature and writing, produced and wrote episodic television, and has published articles, book reviews, and poetry.

She lives in Los Angeles with her husband, novelist Thomas Perry.

They have two adult children. Their three cats and two dogs are rescues.

Perry's new novel is Pure

My Q&A with the author:

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

“Pure” comes from the Latin Latin “purus” –– "clean, clear; unmixed; unadorned; chaste, undefiled." Pure is a mysterious title, but its associations and meanings illuminate the novel from beginning to end. The title arrived with the idea––a volunteer in a Jewish burial society who encounters a body of a woman she suspects was murdered. Jewish burial societies (Muslims have a similar burial prep) prepare bodies for burial by performing tahara, a ritual washing which returns the dead to newborn purity.

“Pure” is also an intensifier, i.e., it can mean unadulterated or unalloyed as in “pure joy” or “pure misery.” “Pure” has goodness-connotations, too, and my protagonist is trying to find a path to goodness. And the novel takes place during the pandemic lockdown in Los Angeles, there is always the threat of contamination, constant masking and unmasking and imposed isolation as strategies to remain uninfected/pure.

What's in a name?

My female protagonist is named Ascher Lieb and the choice was personal to me. Since I have a masculine (well, “Jo” without the “e” isn’t “ Joe,” but it’s close) gender-neutral name, it felt right that my protagonist would, too. I am named after my maternal grandfather, Joseph. Ascher is named after my paternal grandfather.

“Lieb” means “love.” “Lieb” is both an ironic and unironic name for Ascher who must to solve a murder alone and loveless. But Ascher receives love from unexpected sources and she bestows love, too. Ascher’s name also announces her Jewish heritage (it’s a Jewish tradition to name children after someone who died), and carries an slightly archaic, uncomfortable heaviness that fits her situation: Ascher has been parentless for some time when her only relative, her beloved aunt, dies. Family and the absence of family weigh her down as she makes her way through the locked-down world seeking the truth for the dead woman and for herself.

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

I recently crossed over into a new decade––a big one––yet my ever-receding-in-time teenaged self still resides inside my head. Is she a lens or a vestige? Or am I still somehow still that girl––self-doubting, first-person-writing, smart-ass drawn to the sly and the dark––but with more layers, tons of baggage? I’m not sure, but I think that my late-teens self would feel a kinship with Ascher. They are both awkward outsiders. Both have the only-child fear of being parentless. Both write. Both find ways to evade hard truths.

So, I think my teenaged self would probably love Pure.

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

In my experience, the beginning of a book provokes and contains its ending. I’m not saying I know the ending right away––I don’t. The ending is hidden––but it’s dimly, distantly there––a feeling, a mood, a question. So, what I do is intuit my way to the ending. I don’t outline, so mine is not an orderly process delivering me to the final page. I feel my way. Characters appear on the page. Characters dissolve. Stuff happens to them and between them. They surprise me. They lead me in new directions, then take me finally to the place where they’ve been going all along—The End.

I revise constantly and then revise my revisions, but I rework the early parts of a book more than I do the closing.

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

Yes. And yes. I recognize aspects of personality and my experience in my characters, but they are separate from me. My Dead series is about a murdered man and a dead dog he encounters in the afterlife who return to the living world to solve his murder, and later to help the meek and the exploited. Rescuing a dog dumped in a Home Depot parking lot was the experience that informed the first book in the series, Dead Is Better. That dog changed me and my life just as the dog in the novel whom the dead man names Rose, changes him and his afterlife. But I am not my human protagonist, Charlie––he’s got his own problems to work out. And I am not, though I wish I were, deeply wise and sweet as Rose.

Ascher is only my second female protagonist (Everything Happens, a novella, has the first) and she is my first first-person narrator, so I suspect that aspects of my personal experience have seeped into her character and into the story more often than in the other books.

Writing a novel is building a world, then populating it. Unless the writer is living an extraordinary life, that world must be a world apart from the writer’s world to be interesting or surprising. To create this new world, the writer uses everything she knows, every person she’s met, every experience, and every fear, every joy, accident, or trauma she has lived.

But in my books I also investigate/interrogate my personal preoccupations: In the Dead series, it’s mortality. In Pure, it’s what Robert Frost described as “what to make of a diminished thing.” Besides solving a murder–if there was a murder–Ascher must find the truth of the dead woman and her own truth. She must find a way to get past failure, to live with loss, and how to love her less-than-purely-good self in a world roiled by racial and ethnic hatred.

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

Problems I feel powerless to solve or understand and questions I can’t answer inspire my novels. I have been interested in antisemitism and death for some time now. But my family and current events have also inspired me.

As my son went through Jewish chaplaincy school, his deepening connection to and knowledge of Judaism enriched my own understanding of the religious tradition into which I was born. I became moved and inspired by Jewish death rituals which inspired Pure. As I was writing it, my son helped me by translating prayers, answering all sorts of questions, leading me to texts that illuminated the Jewish concept of the soul and its journey from life to the afterlife, the requirement for the living respect, guard and care for the dead, and the selfless good deed that is tahara, the ritual preparation and purification of the body before burial. The chaplains and Jewish burial society volunteers who worked to care for the living and the dead of the Surfside collapse were a recent reminder to me that questions about death, the soul and the afterlife are universal and always relevant––even to a nonobservant, Jewish atheist like me.

I realized with a start long after I finished Pure that two hate-inspired defenestration murders in Paris that I forgot reading about must have unconsciously shaped the novel. It shocks me a little that I had no memory at all of Sarah Halimi’s or Mireille Knoll’s murders while writing, but I was reminded of both when they returned to French headlines after I’d finished the book. Clearly, though, these murders influenced events in the book.
Visit Jo Perry's website.

Coffee with a Canine: Jo Perry & Lola and Lucy.

My Book, The Movie: Dead is Better.

The Page 69 Test: Dead is Better.

My Book, The Movie: Dead is Best.

The Page 69 Test: Dead is Best.

My Book, The Movie: Dead Is Good.

The Page 69 Test: Dead Is Good.

The Page 69 Test: Dead is Beautiful.

My Book, The Movie: Dead is Beautiful.

My Book, The Movie: Pure.

--Marshal Zeringue

Sunday, August 29, 2021

Kate Myles

Kate Myles has worked as television producer for a variety of networks, including Discovery, OWN and the Food Network. Before her producing career, she was an actor and comedian, enjoying a two-year stint as a host of the Travel Channel series, Not Your Average Travel Guide, among other adventures. Her short fiction has appeared in Quarterly West, Necessary Fiction, and Storm Cellar Quarterly.

The Receptionist is her first novel. Myles lives in Los Angeles with her husband and son.

My Q&A with the author:

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

The Receptionist
is short and to-the-point. People tell me it’s a great title, so that must count for something! It lets us know we’ll be meeting an entry level worker who does something in the thriller vein…something nefarious. As we get into the book, I like the fact that the title character is not the protagonist. She’s more of a change agent in the other characters’ lives.

What's in a name?

Doug. Say it with me, “Doug.” He’s a monosyllable. A gen-xer. A former frat boy running his dad’s company into the ground. In fifth grade, I sat next to a Doug. He was always alert to other people’s vulnerabilities and would pick on me and my best friend, saying we probably still played with Barbies. He wasn’t wrong. Doug.

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

My teenage self would be all in. My favorite movie back then was The War of the Roses, the Kathleen Tuner/Michael Douglas movie. It’s a dark comedy with an off-the-wall plot where things go from bad to worse to absolute hell. I didn’t realize until after The Receptionist was finished just how much that movie influenced me.

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

A beginning is an announcement - about the writer, about the type of book the reader has just picked up. I drop an F-bomb in the first sentence of The Receptionist in a big fat welcome to a certain type of reader and a warning to others. Overall, I do spend a ton of time trying to get the prose in the first few paragraphs just right.

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

Nope. No connection. These characters become so over-the-top awful, I won’t cop to any similarities between them and myself. I’m a good person. I swear.

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

Religion. I grew up super Catholic and feel like it’s all through my writing although I’m not sure most readers would pick up on it. I’m basically an atheist now, but my whole philosophical framework was shaped by Catholicism. Amen.
Visit Kate Myles's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Thursday, August 26, 2021

Kira Jane Buxton

Kira Jane Buxton's writing has appeared in The New York Times, NewYorker.com, McSweeney’s, The Rumpus, Huffington Post, and more. Her debut novel Hollow Kingdom was an Indie Next pick, a finalist for the Thurber Prize for American Humor, the Audie Awards, and the Washington State Book Awards, and was named a best book of 2019 by Good Housekeeping, NPR, and Book Riot. She calls the tropical utopia of Seattle home and spends her time with three cats, a dog, two crows, a charm of hummingbirds, five Steller's jays, two dark-eyed juncos, two squirrels, and a husband.

Buxton's new novel is Feral Creatures.

My Q&A with the author:

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

Feral Creatures
is a nod to a few elements of the book, which I’m thrilled about since I love how it sounds phonetically and that it has an aura of intrigue. Since the novel is narrated by a crow and is set in a world where humans have succumbed to a deadly virus (a little topical, alas), most of the characters are animals and are indeed, feral creatures. At the beginning of the novel, S.T. the domesticated crow—a fervid fan of all things human and in many ways the last bastion of humanity—finds the impossible: the last child on earth. He vows to protect her against the many dangers of the Alaskan village in which they live, as well as the horror that humanity has morphed into and that continues to plague the planet. S.T. attempts to raise Dee as he knew humans to be, imagining her to grow up well-adjusted and with cultural understanding and education. But as Dee grows, S.T. realizes that Dee is perhaps not the quintessential human being, but rather, a creature with animal instincts. S.T. fear materializes as he realizes that Dee is wild and untamable, and that—much to his chagrin—he is raising a feral creature.

What's in a name?

My main character and crow narrator’s name is S.T., which is short for Shit Turd. This rather vulgar name was bestowed upon him by the man who raised S.T. from a fledging—a crass and vociferous man who called humans “MoFos” and taught S.T. a lot of colorful language. Since S.T.’s world view is filtered through the eyes of the boorish human who raised him, it fits perfectly. S.T.’s beloved charge and the last human child is named Dee. This is the name that S.T. gave her in homage to his bloodhound and best friend Dennis. “D” for Dennis.

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

I think teenage Kira would be delighted that I got away with writing from the perspective of animals and peppering a novel with salty language! Looking back on my life and my upbringing, this book seems in some ways inevitable. It combines my love of animals with my love of language, my horror at climate change and my ardent belief that laughter is the best medicine. Teenage me was a little dark and brooding, so might be a bit disappointed by all the hope and levity in Feral Creatures!

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

I’m not sure I find either “harder”, but I’d say the beginning takes a lot more contemplation and energy. The beginning of a novel is where I am laying out a premise and a promise to a reader, introducing the tone and a character who we must trust to sail us through the narrative seas. I have written most of a novel without being 100% committed to or sure about an ending, and am willing to be flexible if what I had imagined as a finale must change. But as I write, the beginning is my bible, and I will use it to steer, bolster and center me as I take literary risks and journey through a plot.

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 is a little of me in all my characters, but I also hope that there is a little of every reader in certain characters! S.T. uses humor as a coping mechanism, which I certainly relate to—comedy has been a life raft for me at times in my life. Dee is a character who is deeply connected to nature. I also feel a kinship with the creatures and plants I encounter, but I aspire to her level of instinctive acuity. The sweet musk ox character, Oomingmak has terrible gas, and I’d like to state—on the record and with great relief—that his gastric woes were not inspired by my own.

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

One of the first movies that utterly destroyed me was Gorillas In The Mist. I sobbed for days after watching it as a child, and I’m quite sure that, in conjunction with growing up with a family who rescued all sorts of animals and practiced kindness to all organisms, it informed my desire to be an advocate for the creatures we share our planet with. My first job was as a volunteer at a zoo in Indonesia, and I know that every close animal encounter I experienced imprinted a sense of wonder and reverence in me. I spend every day with wild birds I have befriended and actually spend more time with animals than people—it probably shouldn’t be a surprise to me that I have yet to write a novel solely about humans!
Visit Kira Jane Buxton's website.

Coffee with a Canine: Kira Jane Buxton & Ewok.

My Book, The Movie: Hollow Kingdom.

The Page 69 Test: Hollow Kingdom.

My Book, The Movie: Feral Creatures.

--Marshal Zeringue

Tuesday, August 24, 2021

Kelly Creagh

Kelly Creagh is the author of the Nevermore Trilogy, Nickolas Claus and other books filled with darkness and light. Her stories often explore themes of duality, the shadow self and heroes (and villains) who find themselves battling their own psyches. Creagh's major literary influences include Edgar Allan Poe, Charles Dickens, Gaston Leroux, Susan Kay, J.K. Rowling, Robin McKinley, Stephen King, C.S. Lewis, Robert Louis Stevenson, Lewis Carroll, Libba Bray, Holly Black and too many more to name. She holds a Bachelor of Science in Theatre Arts and a Master of Fine Arts in Writing for Children and Young Adults.

Creagh's new novel is Phantom Heart.

My Q&A with the author:

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

Titles have always been tough for me. I actually tend to title my books with a poetic mind, but when they reach the publisher, they usually receive a much more straight-forward title. This, I feel, has really worked out. Through the process of revision and editing, I get close to my work, and so the bird’s-eye view titles don’t occur to me. In the instance of Phantom Heart, I think the title accomplishes a lot toward conveying what the story is about. The word “phantom” seems particularly pivotal since the novel is a modern retelling of Gaston Leroux’s gothic classic, The Phantom of the Opera. So, one look at the novel’s cover and title will convey this to the reader, which is a huge plus when it comes to reaching the intended audience. Additionally, Phantom Heart deals with a missing heart and a shattered soul. My phantom character is in an interesting predicament that leaves him with few options regarding how to deal with Stephanie, the protagonist, who has moved into the dilapidated mansion he is bound to through a curse. As the story progresses, the issue of the absent heart compounds the danger, and ultimately raises an interesting question. Can a person’s heart ever truly go missing?

What's in a name?

Names are one of my favorite things to tinker with when writing, and Phantom Heart was no exception. In Gaston Leroux’s original novel, the protagonist is a young soprano named Christine. For my retelling, I did want a heroine with a strong “I” in her name to mirror Christine’s. However, Stephanie is quite different from Leroux’s ingénue, and so I also wanted to give her a fresh introduction as her own person. Additionally, the novel took inspiration from a song called "Stephanie" by El Radio Fantastique. I do not know where or how I stumbled upon the song, but it certainly stuck with me—for years! I had so many questions about the strange lyrics and what the story behind them could possibly be. The song itself is pleasantly odd and ominous, too. I remember listening to this song back in 2010, and I think it just stuck with me and inspired my subconscious. So, as a nod to this slice of inspiration, I named my heroine Stephanie.

In Leroux’s novel, there’s a love triangle. One of the love interests is of course the phantom, and the other is the Viscount Raoul de Chagny. I took inspiration from this name and also from Lon Chaney, who famously played the Phantom, and named my ghost-hunting Raoul-inspired character Lucas Cheney. Phantom fans will find several other names in the book that are direct nods to characters from the source material.

Finally, since I’m such a huge Edgar Allan Poe fan, and because I owe so much of my inspiration and success to him, I always find ways to pay homage. In this instance, the house Stephanie’s family moves into is known locally as Moldavia, which was the name of Edgar Allan Poe’s childhood home in Virginia.

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

My teenage self would be geeking out. I actually wrote Phantom Heart with my teenage self in mind, since The Phantom of the Opera is my all-time favorite piece of classic literature. In middle school, I was absolutely obsessed with book, and I carried my paperback copy everywhere. I used to draw scenes from the novel during math class. I still have both the drawings and the beaten paperback novel. I read the book several times both in middle school and high school, and gobbled up any retellings I could get my hands on. I think if I were to travel back in time and tell my middle school/high school self what we would one day accomplish, she would be quite proud of me.

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

For me, endings have always been the toughest part. Phantom Heart, however, turned out to have a very tricky beginning. While the first chapter hasn’t changed dramatically, the second chapter changed many times. Actually, the whole book underwent several massive revisions. I don’t think I’ve ever revised so much on a single project, and I do a lot of revision, since that’s one of my strengths. That said, I always knew how the book ended. And while the content on those final pages has changed from earlier drafts, the ultimate outcome of the story has not. Historically, though, my endings have always received more overhaul than my beginnings.

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 writers can’t help but imbue their characters with some aspect of themselves. While I’m very different from Stephanie, who has an analytical mind and loves math, physics, and science, I think I’ve instilled her with some of my dry humor. And it is my hope that my readers will see a bit of themselves in my phantom character. During the course of the novel, he wages a war with various aspects of himself, all represented by their own mask. I think we all wrestle with masks and facets of our shadow self. In my mind, that’s what the Phantom of the Opera is—a character who represents the dual nature of humans. He is beauty and the beast—a character who strives for the light but struggles with his own darkness, which is something I think most people can identify with in some capacity.

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

I draw a lot of inspiration from my friends, my family, and people-watching. I’m always picking up on conversations and interactions, and storing unique sayings and personality traits. Always, I’m threatening to put my brothers in my next novel so they remain wary of vexing me. Music also inspires me as well as travel. Art is another wonderful source of inspiration. My mind plays with lyrics and visuals, so I always have both a playlist and a Pinterest board going while I’m drafting and revising a project.
Visit Kelly Creagh's website.

Coffee with a Canine: Kelly Creagh and Annabel (September 2010).

Coffee with a Canine: Kelly Creagh & Annabel, Jack and Holly.

The Page 69 Test: Phantom Heart.

--Marshal Zeringue

Saturday, August 21, 2021

Zoje Stage

Zoje Stage's debut novel, Baby Teeth (2018), was a USA Today and international bestseller. It was nominated for a Bram Stoker Award for Superior Achievement in a First Novel, and was optioned for film by Village Roadshow/Valparaiso Pictures. Her second "mind-bending" (NY Times) novel, Wonderland (2020), was one of Book Riot's Best Horror Books of 2020, and one of Overdrive's Best Audio Books of 2020.

Stage's new novel is Getaway, described as "stunning" in a starred review from Booklist. A former filmmaker with a penchant for the dark and suspenseful, she lives in Pittsburgh.

My Q&A with the author:

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

I submitted the book to my agents (and then my editor) under a different working title, but I always knew I'd be asked to change it (it was a little too artsy). As standard practice I prepare a list of alternate titles, and Getaway was the first one I suggested. I like a title that works on multiple levels, and the story involves a group of friends on a "getaway" who then need to "get away" from the situation they find themselves in.

What's in a name?

Naming characters is both tricky and fun. I try to pick names that suit the characters and their background, and are memorable in some way. Since Getaway involves three main female characters, I wanted to pick three names that were very different from each other—Imogen, Beck, Tilda—so it would be easy to learn who's who. And perhaps because my own name causes pronunciation confusion, I endeavor to pick names that are easy to pronounce.

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

Honestly, those are the two parts of a book that I change the least. It can be hard to figure out where a book should begin, but it's a crucial decision and impacts the trajectory of the story so I don't start writing until I'm pretty confident about the opening scene. And though my writing process is very intuitive, I keep an image in my mind of a general ending and write my first draft toward that image (I call myself a "directional pantser"). Once I'm deep enough into the story a more detailed conclusion comes into focus, and I've never changed the endings of any of my books.

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

Sometimes I think all of my characters contain slivers of me (and that's probably true to some degree)—things I've thought about, or saw/read/experienced. But I share some fairly concrete similarities with Imogen, the protagonist of Getaway: we're both reclusive novelists who live in Pittsburgh, who have an older sister and a best friend from high school, and did a fair amount of theatre and backpacking in our teens and twenties. It's interesting to me to see how even a character I share things with becomes completely her own person, by way of living a story that is unique to her.

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

Perhaps because of my background in film, I think very visually. I see every scene I write as part of a movie in my head. I had a very definite idea of what kinds of films I dreamed of making (back in the day): character-driven stories that relied on realism in spite of an unusual/odd plot element (like Let the Right One In). And that has become the framework for my novels as well, exploring how an ordinary person would process—physically, emotionally, spiritually—some sort of strange and difficult situation.
Visit Zoje Stage's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Tuesday, August 17, 2021

Edward M. Lerner

A physicist and computer scientist, Edward M. Lerner toiled in the vineyards of high tech for thirty years, as everything from engineer to senior vice president. Then he began writing full time.

His novels run the gamut from near-future technothrillers, like Small Miracles and Energized, to traditional SF, like the InterstellarNet series and Dark Secret. Collaborating with New York Times bestselling author Larry Niven, Lerner also wrote the Fleet of Worlds series of Ringworld companion novels. Much of Lerner's short fiction has been collected in Creative Destruction and Countdown to Armageddon / A Stranger in Paradise. His nonfiction articles on science and technology centerpiece Frontiers of Space, Time, and Thought: Essays and Stories on The Big Questions.

Lerner's 2015 novel, InterstellarNet: Enigma, won the inaugural Canopus Award for interstellar-themed fiction. His writing has also been nominated for Hugo, Locus, and Prometheus awards.

Lerner's new novel is Déjà Doomed.

My Q&A with the author:

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

For Déjà Doomed, I (like to) believe the title will draw readers straight in—and not merely because of the word play on the—precognitive? trick of memory? delusional?—phenomenon of déjà vu.

If the as-yet unidentified someone(s) of the title is doomed from the get-go, that immediately begs several questions. Who is doomed? Doomed to what, exactly? Who or what brought on this impending catastrophe? And what—if anything—can my unsuspecting, soon-to-become targets do about it?

Add in the wonderful cover art by Christina P. Myrvold—the lunar setting and the mysterious alien artifact—and I choose to think the average browser will be hooked.

What’s in a name?

Ah, character names. My main goal in naming characters is simple clarity. Most any name by itself can be distinct enough, but most novels (and Déjà Doomed is no exception) have lots of characters. So: no two characters should have similar-appearing or (planning ahead for an audio book) similar-sounding names. Dale and Gale won’t do, nor Kirsten and Kristen. And no recurring characters should have eminently forgettable, super-common monikers like Joe or Ann.

When characters come from very different backgrounds—as do the Russians and Americans in Déjà Doomed—decidedly ethnic names can serve as useful reminders to the reader. So, for my Russians, I used nothing as commonplace in both cultures as Anna. I’ve got an Ekatrina, with its diminutive Katya. Now there’s a name.

Many writers are into wink-wink, nudge-nudge cleverness in their character names. Arthur Miller did it with his “low man” protagonist Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman. Herman Melville did it using biblical references with Ishmael and Ahab in Moby Dick. For my taste, that sort of thing is heavy-handed. I’d rather let the characters speak for themselves.

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

First off, he’d be amazed I turned out to be a writer at all. At that age, I had no such aspirations. But once he got over that shock, the subject of Déjà Doomed would be no surprise at all.

I’m a child of the early Space Age: eight years and a few months old when the Russian launch of Sputnik changed everything. I’ve been an avid reader of science fiction for as long as I can remember. By my mid-teens, I’d decided to major in physics. By virtue of my age, I also grew up through the Cold War, so the Great Power rivalry elements of Déjà Doomed also come naturally.

What else (besides the mere fact of the book) might surprise that younger me? The computer aspects, for sure. Computers were far beyond my experience—or most anyone’s experience—in my teen years of the Sixties. Little did I know back then that physics would turn out to be my gateway major to computer engineering.

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

For me, beginnings are definitely harder. Well before I start to write text, I know—in an outline sense—what happens when. That’s not enough. It’s still typically a good 60 to 100 manuscript pages into a novel before I have my final sense for all my major characters. Till that happens, some of any story remains at risk of changing to fit how the characters will react to one another and to circumstances.

Beyond letting me get to know the characters, the first few chapters—sometimes with a few iterations—turn out to involve experimentation. Settling upon the overall pace of the opening. Deciding which parts of the story will be told in-line and which will be flashbacks. Choosing details to be scattered like Easter eggs, as (hopefully subtle) foreshadowing.

As for endings, at all times I (think I) know how things will end up. That’s not to say the perceived ending never evolves as I write, only that there’s always an ending in mind.

Finally (pun intended), there’s the very end of the end. Every book’s closing sentence or short paragraph—something wry, or poignant, or a hook for a possible sequel—always comes seemingly out of nowhere late in the writing process.

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 some of my experiences in my characters, though not me.

But opinions differ. People who know me well have commented they do see me in some of my protagonists. Perhaps they’re more objective about it than I am.

Whoever’s right, I hope never to experience personally the sorts of challenges I routinely inflict on my characters. Those guys are expected to earn their room-and-board for what’s typically a year of taking up space in my brain.
Learn more about the author and his work at his website.

My Book, The Movie: Déjà Doomed.

The Page 69 Test: Déjà Doomed.

--Marshal Zeringue

Saturday, August 14, 2021

Willa C. Richards

photo credit: Emma Daryl Richards
Willa C. Richards is the author of The Comfort of Monsters. She is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop where she was a Truman Capote Fellow. Her work has appeared in The Paris Review and she is the recipient of a PEN/Robert J. Dau Prize for Emerging Writers.

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

I think the title of my book The Comfort of Monsters is a good entry point into the novel’s thematic heart. Interestingly enough, it was a late piece of the puzzle. I had a couple of other working titles. For a while I was very fond of The Torturer’s Horse, which is a reference to the W.H. Auden poem “Musée Des Beaux Arts”. I was thinking about the ways that smaller, or perhaps more specifically, less visible kinds of suffering are always going on in the shadows of more public, more visible kinds of horrors. This is certainly the situation in my novel, in which a teenage girl named Dee McBride disappears in the city of Milwaukee, at the same time that Jeffrey Dahmer’s crimes are discovered by the MPD.

But The Comfort of Monsters came to me from a book by Jack Halberstraam called Skin Shows: Gothic Horror and the Technology of Monsters. This book investigates a few films, one of them being the Silence of the Lambs, in order to discuss how the monsters in these movies are indicative of our culturally conditioned fears. One quote from the essay, which also appears as an epigraph to my book, proposes that modernity has ended the comfort monsters could provide for us. Partly because, as demonstrated in Nazi Germany, for example, modernity has shown us all to be so much a part of our institutions, and our systems, that evil no longer lives within specific individuals, i.e. specific monsters. It lives very much in the banal. Evil exists so much in our everyday existences, which require us to move through these systems, and therefore forces us into collaboration and complicity.

I think this work is in conversation with the novel, which also shows how it’s much easier to identify and isolate one person as the monster-- (a serial killer, a violent ex-boyfriend, a bad cop)-- and to turn that person into the sole source of evil. It’s much harder to admit our interconnectedness within our institutions and therefore the roles we all play when institutional failures occur.

What's in a name?

Sometimes, I truly feel like the character chooses their own name. That seemed like the case for my narrator Peg McBride. (Her full name is Margaret.) My novel started as a short story, and I don’t remember entertaining any other names for her. Of note, I suppose, is the fact that my aunt, my mother’s sister’s name is Peggy. My mother’s relationship with her sister was one among many of the sister relationships I used to inform the writing of Peg and her younger sister Dee.

In my family, nicknames are a big deal. They are a real language of intimacy, of love. Everyone has different nicknames for one another. So I also wanted Peg’s sister Dee to have a nickname for Peg, which was Pegasus, because Dee was really into Greek Mythology. And Dee’s name is shortened from Candy, which is shortened from Candace.

I think because the sister relationship is at the core of the novel for me, it was important to show that level of intimacy on the page, which is demonstrated even in what they call one another. Sometimes they even call each other babe or baby too. Which I know some readers have resisted, or felt creeped out by, but again, when I was growing up this language of intimacy was very common.

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

That’s a tough question. In some sense, I think my teenage self would be very surprised that I even wrote a novel. When I was a teenager, I very, very much wanted to be a poet. The summer before I left for college, I sent a bunch of my poems via email to Ron Wallace who was the head of the Creative Writing program at UW-Madison at the time. So embarrassing.

But he was really chill about the whole thing. And I did end up taking some poetry classes at Madison, but I also took some advanced fiction classes. Going into those classes, I barely knew what a short story was, because we just didn’t read them in high school, so I was really blown away by the form. I remember I turned in a short story to one of my professors and she handed it back to me, and said, “Well, one day you’re going to write a novel.” It seemed like an absurd comment at the time, but I guess she was right.

On a thematic/content level though, I don’t think my teenage self would be very surprised. I have been interested in many of the issues the novel explores for a long time.

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

I love beginnings. Probably because I enjoy the generative stage of writing the most, where I still feel that sense of wonder and awe, like anything could happen. I change beginnings a lot, and will often try many different ones on for size.

Writing endings is more difficult for me. I particularly struggled with the ending to this novel, because, as one friend pointed out, when you evoke a missing person’s story, generally there are only two outcomes. This was a huge constraint for me, especially since I wasn’t strictly writing a thriller or a mystery, and I didn’t want to be confined to only these outcomes. So working within those constraints and finding a way out of them, while staying true to the specific story I was trying to tell, was a real challenge.

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

With first person narrators especially, I find it difficult not to let parts of my personality, elements of my own consciousness into my characters. I often do character sketches so that these elements are used deliberately and so I can distinguish the character from myself really clearly. One writing teacher I had liked to perform interviews, where he would have writers answer questions as if they were their character. It sounds silly, but it’s effective for differentiating the character from yourself, and also for fleshing out simple details, like a character’s favorite color or ice-cream flavor, as well as elaborating on their more complicated, messier attributes like secrets, fears, anxieties, dreams, motivations, etc. I think these two things combined are what create complicated, fully-realized characters.
Visit Willa C. Richards's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Wednesday, August 11, 2021

Naomi Hirahara

Naomi Hirahara is an Edgar Award-winning author of multiple traditional mystery series and noir short stories. Her Mas Arai mysteries, which have been published in Japanese, Korean and French, feature a Los Angeles gardener and Hiroshima survivor who solves crimes. The seventh and final Mas Arai mystery is Hiroshima Boy, which was nominated for an Edgar Award for best paperback original.

Hirahara's first historical mystery is Clark and Division, which follows a Japanese American family’s move to Chicago in 1944 after being released from a California wartime detention center. Her second Leilani Santiago Hawai‘i mystery, An Eternal Lei, is scheduled to be released in 2022. A former journalist with The Rafu Shimpo newspaper, Hirahara has also written numerous non-fiction history books and curated exhibitions. She has also written a middle-grade novel, 1001 Cranes.

My Q&A with the author:

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

Clark and Division transports the reader to a very specific intersection in Chicago. I like titles that have special meanings for insiders, yet still resonate with outsiders. For those not familiar with Chicago, Clark may evoke Lewis and Clark, so some kind of exploration. And Division, a separation line, which definitely applies to Japanese Americans being released from World War II detention centers. Even native Chicagoans will not know that the Windy City was the No. 1 destination for these released people. I like stories that surprise.

What's in a name?

We don’t learn of the narrator’s name, Aki Ito, until some pages into the novel. Instead her older sister’s name, Rose, is center stage, representing Aki’s diminished stature in her family. Aki has a Japanese name that is frequently mispronounced in America. At twenty years of age, she has constantly battled with discovering and asserting her identity. I like using short surnames as Americans do have a difficult time with long Japanese names.

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

Surprised that I was able to pull off a novel on the Japanese American experience. I never saw novels like these growing up.

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

Beginnings, definitely! Endings are like rolling down a hill. You can’t really change the trajectory of the story that late in the game. But starting it? That can be anywhere.

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

At first I didn’t see much similarities between myself and my narrator, Aki. She’s a younger sister and a bit unsure of herself in the beginning. I’m an older sister used to calling the shots. But we are both the daughters of an immigrant parent who are family interpreters and protectors. I think that I’m like Aki in we are perceived as being harmless and perfectly normal, but in reality, we are quite dangerous.

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

Interactions with elders.
Visit Naomi Hirahara's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Monday, August 9, 2021

Ally Malinenko

Ally Malinenko is a poet, novelist, and librarian living in Brooklyn, New York, where she pens her tales in a secret writing closet before dawn each day.

Her new novel is Ghost Girl.

My Q&A with the author:

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

I think Ghost Girl as a title does a decent amount of work. Maybe it’s a story about a girl who is a ghost. Maybe it’s a story about a girl who sees ghosts. It could go either way. But two things are definite – there’s a ghost and a girl. And that is factually true in the book. That said, I feel I should mention that I did not come up with the title. My publisher did. My book was originally called The Trick of the Devil. We had a list of other potentials but landed on Ghost Girl. Now I can’t imagine it being anything else. Words are funny like that.

What's in a name?

My main character's name is Zera. Zera is a name I made up (apologies in advance to any and all Zera’s out there) specifically because I wanted it to hew close to the word zero. It creates an immediate underdog status and we all love to root for an underdog. But in defiance of that underdog status, my main character hates her given name and instead goes by Zee. Just the sound of the letter. Short. Simple. Pointed. Stubborn, even. Much like Zee. It was a way to control a name she did not pick and does not like.

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

Not terribly to be honest. I think she’d be more surprised that I wrote so many other stories before finally realizing that middle grade horror was my childhood favorite and that’s what I should be doing. But also I think she would understand why I strayed so far from it. She would vividly remember the way people questioned her reading choices, her love of all things terrifying. She would remember that there was a level of shaming that happened. That being a horror fan, as a kid, was lonely.

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

Neither. I find the middle hard. I’m not a plotter, I despise outlines, so when I sit down to write a story, I know how it begins and I know how it ends. Everything in between is subject to change, other than the central character growth. I write this way so I have time to figure out my characters, to play with events, and most of all to allow myself the open space for changing my mind and reversing course. As long as I know where the road ends, I’m willing to try different paths to getting there.

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 most writers infuse their characters with aspects of themselves – at the very least they are our creation after all. I think there is a lot of me in Zee – from her interests, to her world view, to her questionable decision making.

I think ultimately whenever we create a character, be they like us or world’s apart, we are crafting a story for the purpose of engaging in empathy. We are saying to all the strangers in the world, “This is how I feel and what I think? Do you?” and we are sending that message out and hoping for the answer to be “Yes. Yes I do.”

Stories are about connection, about weaving a slightly stronger web than we had before we wrote or read or shared something.

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

Art of all kinds has squirreled its way into my work, to be honest, but more than anything it would be music. For Ghost Girl, Zee as a character lived in my head for a long time but I could never find the right story for her. Then I started listening to Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds. At the start of a track called "Tupelo," there is a thunder crash. It was in that moment, ascending the steps of the subway and hearing that crash that this story started to take place. There was a storm. People were missing. And a stranger with ill intentions had come to town.

The influence grew from there. There are, at printing, seventeen references to Nick Cave’s lyrics in Ghost Girl.
Visit Ally Malinenko's website.

--Marshal Zeringue