Sunday, August 1, 2021

Moisés Naím

Moisés Naím is a Venezuelan author and prize-winning journalist whose writing on international affairs is read worldwide, appearing in such publications as the New York Times, the Washington Post, Newsweek, Time, El País, and many others. He is the author of twelve nonfiction books, including Illicit and the New York Times bestseller The End of Power. A former contributing editor to The Atlantic, Naím was also the editor in chief of Foreign Policy magazine for fourteen years.

Two Spies in Caracas, his first work of fiction, is based on his experience as a former member of Venezuela’s economic cabinet. Naím lives in Washington, DC, with his family.

My Q&A with the author:

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

Plenty.

This is a story of two seasoned spies who work undercover in Caracas, the capital of the country with the largest reserves of oil on the planet. The century-old alliance of Venezuela and the United States has been broken, and Hugo Chavez, a new charismatic military leader, now controls the country. Instead of closed links with Washington, he wants close ties with Havana. The CIA sends its best operative – a woman – to Caracas to lead the effort to stop Venezuela from falling into Fidel Castro’s lap. Castro, in turn, has sent one of his top agents to Caracas with the mission to neutralize the US influence. Inevitably, the two meet – and like each other. A lot happens until they discover who is the person they love. Thus …Two Spies in Caracas.

What's in a name?

The title, the opening phrase, and the last paragraph: these three elements deserve –need –the most attention. I have watched as excellent columns, interesting cover stories and book covers are undermined by a forgettable title, a mediocre cover, an unoriginal opening phrase, or an unsurprising end. Fortunately, none of the editors in the many countries where Two Spies in Caracas has been published asked me to change the title. Even when I told them that I would consider changing the title if they –who know the audience—felt that a different title would be better. It was reassuring when they didn’t want to change the title.

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

A young me would have been completely surprised by the story of my first fiction book but not by the fact that I managed to write one. The surprise would be to realize that the democratic country in which I grew up was no longer a democracy.

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

As I said, these are two critically important elements. I give them a lot of thought and change them often. The first title I use is never the one we (me and the publisher) pick for the published book.

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

Curiosity.
Visit Moisés Naím's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Friday, July 30, 2021

Adam Simcox

Adam Simcox is a London-based filmmaker who’s shot commercials for brands such as McLaren, Primark and Vice, and music videos for Britpop veterans as well as fresh on the scene alt-country stars. He began his film career by writing and directing three features: the first sold to Netflix; the second and third won awards and critical acclaim at festivals worldwide. He is a graduate of the Curtis Brown Creative novel writing course.

Simcox's debut novel is The Dying Squad.

My Q&A with the author:

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

I’m usually terrible at picking titles. It’s something my friends mock me for, unmercifully. Much like the opening chapter which came to me in a dream, The Dying Squad just popped into my head. It’s based on the mobile unit used by the British police, an agile grouping of coppers that could operate across London without adhering to divisional policing boundaries. My flying squad are similarly agile, solving crimes their living counterparts can’t. And they’re, you know, dead, hence the name. Fingers crossed the title gets across the irreverent style of the book, too.

What's in a name?

I never promised subtlety with The Dying Squad — it’s essentially Line of Duty, stitched together with Ghost — and that can be seen in the name of our hero, Joe Lazarus. Joe begins the story staking out a Lincolnshire farm house; when he storms it, he finds his own bleeding out body and a ghostly spirit guide called Daisy-May, who’s there to recruit him to The Dying Squad. With that in mind, giving him the surname of Lazarus seemed to be the appropriate (if wildly unsubtle) thing to do. The really weird thing is, an early reader and good friend told me he had a friend called Joe Lazarus. Real life people shouldn’t be walking around with cool, pulp fiction names. It’s unwholesome.

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

Definitely beginnings. With the exception of The Dying Squad, the start of a book always seems to be a bit of a moving target to me. I’m in the process of writing books 2 & 3 at the moment, and the beginning's the thing that’s changed the most. It’s because it usually involves the crime in the living, breathing world; they’re the parts I enjoy writing the most, but they’re also the most challenging. The end, I almost always have in mind. That makes it a hell of a lot easier when you’re writing it, as you always have something to aim for.

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 it would be strange if elements of your personality didn’t feed into your characters. Daisy-May seems to be a lot of early readers' favourite character, and she’s probably closest to me, in terms of voice. I remember reading once that the best way to find your voice when writing is to write how you talk: for better or worse, that’s what I do. She’s quite sarky and deadpan, which I am too, I guess. Joe has a certain cynical, world-weariness that I can definitely relate to, as well.

(And, I’m told, a certain, know-better-than-everyone arrogance.)

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

So many. I love the films of Shane Meadows, and have tried to bring his mix of grit, humour and heart into my own work. My background is in film, so that informs my writing style; The Dying Squad book 2, for instance, is very much influenced by Seven and Heat. Music is hugely important to the way I work, too; I’ll often create my own temporary soundtracks to write to. I find watching live music often sets off ideas firing, which is one of the reasons why lockdowns have been so tough.
Follow Adam Simcox on Twitter.

My Book, The Movie: The Dying Squad.

--Marshal Zeringue

Wednesday, July 28, 2021

Carolyn Ferrell

photo credit: Matt Licari
Carolyn Ferrell’s short-story collection, Don’t Erase Me, won awards from the Los Angeles Times, Ploughshares, and more. Her stories have been selected for anthologies by Roxane Gay and Curtis Sittenfeld, among others. A recipient of grants from the Fulbright Association and the National Endowment for the Arts, Ferrell teaches writing at Sarah Lawrence College and lives in New York.

Her new novel is Dear Miss Metropolitan.

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

What a great question. I think some readers might find the title a bit intriguing, because the eponymous Miss Metropolitan occupies comparatively little space in the novel. In other words, the title might surprise—which I think is actually a great thing. It embodies Emily Dickinson’s line: “Tell all the truth but tell it slant—.” I could have given the book a more straightforward name. But Miss Metropolitan is both an individual character as well as a representative of the various communities experiencing the trauma, grief and healing at the novel’s center. I think of her as a kind of Everywoman. She stands for the community that has failed the “victim-girls” and yet ultimately bears responsibility for them. The title is a nod to the woman who has lived across from the “house of horrors” yet neglected to see what was right in front of her.

What's in a name?

I thought hard about all the names in the book. Some had their origins in fairy tales, or specific events from my past; some were nods to literary references. I had originally named Fern’s brother “Gemmy” as an homage to David Malouf’s protagonist in Remembering Babylon—a brilliant novel about race, gender, and colonialism. I later changed his name (at the wise suggestion of my agent Lisa Bankoff), thereby giving him a more direct connection to his sister Fern. There was something about those characters that was to me very botanical—they were delicate yet resilient flowers.

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

My teenaged self would be shocked at the structure of Dear Miss Metropolitan—she would likely ask, “You can do things like that in a book?” (Actually, that is a question I ask myself all the time.) I love discovering writers for whom formal innovation is key to their storytelling—Edward P. Jones, Jenny Offill, Milorad Pavic, Alejandro Zambra, George Saunders, and Gayl Jones are just a few examples. When I was a teen and first read Hemingway—whom I doubt anyone now would call experimental—I was stunned to discover stories that weren’t plot-driven. Because that’s how I’d been taught to read in school: for the plot, for the twist ending, etc. We were given Richard Connell’s “The Most Dangerous Game” as an example of a complete short story. Hemingway’s Nick Adams Stories alerted me to more layered aspects of literature: character development, setting, voice. Hemingway’s stories opened my mind, formed for me the most important question: what can a story do?

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

I think that question changes with each piece. Beginnings usually come quickly to me. I never know where a piece is going to end up, even when I think I know. Everything changes when you revise. Dear Miss Metropolitan actually began with a small scene where the girls, captives in Boss Man’s house, are arguing over a bra (for Jesenia, the bra is a relic from her former life, but for Gwinnie, the bra is a practical object—a sleep mask—something that will make her captive life a bit more bearable). During revision, I wound up moving that scene closer to the end of the book, where it would resonate with earlier details. That anecdotal bra launched me into the story of the three kidnapped girls; it later came to function as a symbol of the love that grew between them.

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

I’d say my characters are very much a part of me because all writing is in some form autobiographical. Though I didn’t go through the same experiences as Fern, Gwinnie and Jesenia, their voices came from my head and heart. I did virtually no research for the book. I had to learn to see their world through their eyes—the fragmented, the absurd, the horrific, the reassuring. I had to face their very difficult questions—Why didn’t anyone find me? How could I have disappeared for so long? Where was the outrage? Was I—as a Black and Brown girl—simply considered disposable? Exploring the answers was, for me, a really hard process.

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

Music and art were huge influences. Music clearly means a lot to the characters in Dear Miss Metropolitan—Gwinnie finds respite in Prince, for instance. I have a dear friend who introduced me to the world of Prince fandom—I’d never heard of Prince fan fiction, did not know that people traveled over the world to attend his concerts. (I remember a Prince fan once telling me, “If ‘When Doves Cry’ is your favorite song, you don’t really know Prince,” and feeling pretty ashamed, because that is indeed my favorite song of his.) While writing, I listened to a lot of unaccompanied Bach; it recharged my batteries. My late stepfather was a jazz musician, and spoke eloquently of the influence of Bach on his craft. I found that really enlightening. At one point I was inspired to add images to the narrative in Dear Miss Metropolitan. I loved the ways visual art allowed for nuance and expansiveness in the characters, settings and conflicts. I felt I was always growing as a writer.
Visit Carolyn Ferrell's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Monday, July 26, 2021

Hilary Davidson

Hilary Davidson was a journalist before she turned to the dark side and started writing crime fiction. Her novels include the Lily Moore series—The Damage Done, The Next One to Fall, and Evil in All Its Disguises—the bestselling Shadows of New York series—One Small Sacrifice and Don’t Look Down—and the standalone novels Blood Always Tells and Her Last Breath.

My Q&A with the author:

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

I think the phrase “her last breath” immediately suggests the idea of a dying declaration or a person’s last words, and that sets up the book really well. In chapter one of Her Last Breath, the reader meets Deirdre, who is at her sister’s funeral. It’s especially painful for her because they’d had a troubled relationship and had gone through periods of estrangement. By the end of the chapter, Deirdre has received a message her sister wrote the morning she died, warning that her husband was going to kill her and revealing that her husband had killed his first wife. The message sets Deirdre on a quest for justice, but it also turns her world upside down because she’s left with so many questions about who her sister really was and what else she was hiding.

What's in a name?

The main character’s name is Deirdre Crawley, and it was chosen very deliberately. Deirdre’s parents are from Ireland and “Deirdre of the Sorrows” is a famous story from the Ulster Cycle of mythology. It’s not meant in any way to mirror the situation, but both Deirdres have a life that’s marked by pain. Crawley was meant to sound like a lowly creature, which Deirdre is in the eyes of the wealthy family that her sister married into. That family’s surname is Thraxton, which I chose because it reminded me of anthrax; it’s not quite an anagram, but it’s close. The Thraxtons are a toxic clan, so it fit.

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

My teenage self would never believe that I write for a living. I was the first person in my family to go to college, so author was not something I considered as a realistic career path. This is exactly the kind of book I loved to read back then, though — twisted family secrets always intrigued me.

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

I know exactly where my story begins when I start writing. There might be some fine-tuning that happens later, but it normally stays true to my original vision. Endings are so much harder! Usually I have some murky idea of where I’m going with the story, but my endings evolve with each draft of my books. My normal practice is to write three drafts before anyone else sees the book, and the ending has likely changed each time.

With Her Last Breath, the real challenge was creating a sense of closure for Deirdre, and the reader, with her sister. How do you reconcile with a dead character? Several people have told me the ending made them cry, and I have to confess that writing it made me cry, too.

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

When I started writing novels, I was self-conscious about whether I should put in any details that connected me with my main characters. My first three books were about a travel writer named Lily Moore, and because I’d been a travel writer myself, I wondered if people would confuse me with my character, especially because she had such a troubled personal life. I remember one interviewer asking me what my sister thought of the book — because Lily's sister was a heroin addict and petty criminal — and having to explain that I don’t have a sister.

I don’t really worry about that anymore, maybe because Her Last Breath is my seventh novel. Now I kind of enjoy inserting something from my life into my character’s. It comes as a surprise to a lot of people that Deirdre’s dedication to martial arts is something we share, and that we both started studying karate as children. But Deirdre wants you to know she can kick your ass while I prefer to keep those talents under wraps. I love Deirdre but she is not subtle at all.
Learn more about the book and the author at the official Hilary Davidson site.

The Page 69 Test: The Damage Done.

The Page 69 Test: Blood Always Tells.

The Page 69 Test: One Small Sacrifice.

The Page 69 Test: Don't Look Down.

The Page 69 Test: Her Last Breath.

--Marshal Zeringue

Saturday, July 24, 2021

Hermione Hoby

Photograph by Nina Subin
Hermione Hoby grew up in Bromley, in south London, and graduated from the University of Cambridge in 2007 with a double first in English Literature. After working on the Observer’s New Review she moved to New York in 2010. She has written for the Guardian, the New Yorker, the New York Times, Harper's, and others. She has also interviewed hundreds of cultural figures including Toni Morrison, Naomi Campbell, Laurie Anderson, Debbie Harry and Genesis Breyer P-Orridge.

Her debut novel, Neon in Daylight, is a two-time New York Times editors’ choice.

Hoby's second novel is Virtue.

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

I like how the word has both an old-fashioned tenor, as in "feminine virtue" and, simultaneously, a contemporary flavor in terms of "virtue-signaling". (It's interesting to me that "virtue" is a term rarely used sincerely any more.) In some sense, I think this is an old-fashioned novel. The setting may be contemporary, the politics and attitudes are of this moment, but formally, it's just pretty traditional. The book is about trying to be good, and the near-impossibility of living an uncompromised life in a compromised world, so I hope the title does something to indicate that, and to convey both earnestness and irony.

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

She wouldn't read the novel, she'd just be too busy freaking out that we'd written one and that it was published. So her incredulity over "being a published author" would eclipse any kind of reaction she had to the book's content. I'd look on in affectionate embarrassment and mutter pleas for her to be a bit quieter.

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

Endings are harder. For this one, the bad beginning which I wrote and rewrote and despaired over and rewrote again finally became a sort of pre-ending, in which Luca imagines his own ending. Beginnings, of course, are powered by that rush of optimism and possibility. But striking the perfect honesty of an ending is so much harder - it's so much more difficult to honor the characters and what's come before, to find that sweet spot of resolve and surprise. You don't want things to be too pat, too neatly ribbon-bow-ed, but nor do you want it to trail off inconsequentially, leaving a reader deflated.

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

If I saw myself in them I couldn't write them; they have to be realer than me, but at the same time yes of course they are bits of me, as well as bits of other people. Writing as a young dude was fun, although having him eat a Whopper was extremely hard - one of the most difficult moments to inhabit! (I'm a lifelong vegetarian and I think I'd rather chew off my own little finger than eat an animal's corpse but don't hold me to that, I need my typing hands.)

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

I'm extremely greedy with input: I need sixty or so good books a year, but I also need people, visual art, music, conversation, style in whatever forms that takes. So, it's all influence, all material. I just grab whatever I can get from wherever and everywhere I can get it. I continue to write mostly to Steve Reich's Music for 18 Musicians, which is a magical piece of music.
Visit Hermione Hoby's website.

Writers Read: Hermione Hoby (January 2018).

The Page 69 Test: Virtue.

--Marshal Zeringue

Thursday, July 22, 2021

Linsey Miller

Linsey Miller grew up in Arkansas and has previously been a crime lab intern, neuroscience (undergrad) lab assistant, and pharmacy technician. She is represented by Rachel Brooks of Bookends Literary and holds an MFA in Creative Writing (Fiction) from Wichita State University. She can currently be found writing about science and magic anywhere there is coffee.

Her debut duology, containing Mask of Shadows and Ruin of Stars, was about a genderfluid thief who fought their way through auditions to be the next royal assassin. Her more recent books are Belle Révolte, a French-inspired fantasy about two girls, one revolt, and unimaginable magic, and The Game, a YA thriller about a game of assassins that turns deadly in small-town Arkansas.

Miller's new book, What We Devour, is a young adult dark fantasy about dangerous magic, a curious boy, and the terrible choices we are sometimes forced to make.

My Q&A with the author:

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

I always want my titles to prepare readers for what they’re about to read, and I knew What We Devour was going to be a very specific type of dark fantasy. It’s about a young girl navigating the politics of a world in which humans gained magic by eating the immortal creatures who previously oppressed them, and it deals heavily with issues of class inequality and the ethics of magic/academia. My publisher and I bounced around a few ideas—they liked Pretty Beasts, What We Destroy, and We All Devour, and I liked A Monstrous Feast and What We Wrought. Eventually, we all agreed on What We Devour. I am particularly drawn to it since it prepares readers for the main metaphor and themes of the book.

What's in a name?

The main character’s name—Lorena Adler—came from a combination of things. I quite like the cadence of it, and the nickname that some of the other characters use, Lore, fits in well with the themes and feelings of the story. Like the lore of how humans gained magic, people use Lore in whatever way benefits them.

I also always loved the Irene Adler from the original A Scandal In Bohemia growing up. Knowing that the name is somewhat derived from “noble” felt fittingly ironic for Lorena.

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

I like to think she wouldn’t be terribly surprised by What We Devour itself. It’s sort of the culmination of a lot of my ideas, and I like to think she’d read it and go, “Oh, so that’s where this thought process is going? Alright.” She would probably just be shocked I wrote a book since teenage Linsey was still dead set on being a medical examiner.

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

I always know the ending when I set out, but I never know the beginning. I tend to not even start drafting unless I know where the main character ends up. The penultimate chapter in What We Devour I wrote a draft of several years ago, and though I rewrote it, the plot didn’t change. The first three chapters, though, changed constantly. The first draft had a much more action-heavy feeling, and then the next draft was a bit too hero’s quest epic fantasy for my liking. Eventually, I settled on the current opening because it felt like the right amount of intrigue and melancholy to set up the world before the characters actually explored that world.

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

They have bits and pieces of me, the small things that flesh them out. Lorena and several of the other characters have the same quirks or preferences (disliking tomatoes or always cleaning their glasses when anxious) I do. I do this when I start writing to help ground them to specific character arcs in my head, and they don’t always keep these traits. I think it helps me figure out ways to make them more real, though.

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

Loved ones have had a large influence on a lot of my writing concepts. Lorena has a small found family that I can definitely see my own friends as the inspiration behind, and many of the concepts in the book come from my childhood and my father, who was a union representative. I can also definitely see flashes of my favorite anime—Psycho-Pass, Fullmetal Alchemist, and the like—in What We Devour.
Visit Linsey Miller's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Tuesday, July 20, 2021

Amy Makechnie

Amy Makechnie is the author of the critically acclaimed debut novel, The Unforgettable Guinevere St. Clair. Her second novel, Ten Thousand Tries, was written for all the kids, the ones who have ever had the audacity to try and try and try again.

My Q&A with the author:

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

Ten Thousand Tries immediately alludes to a theory that Malcom Gladwell made famous and which my main character, Golden, seizes upon: that you can master anything by doing it ten thousand times. (Gladwell also says this does not apply to sports, but I wasn’t about to tell Golden that!) Golden is convinced that with enough effort, he can take his team to the soccer championship, stop Lucy Littlehouse from moving away, and prevent his dad from losing to the three worst letters in the alphabet: A-L-S. The title is wonderfully alliterative and works well, but the original title was When We Were Golden. Even now I am still a bit partial to the original.

What's in a name?

Whenever I meet people with interesting names, I write them down. This is what happened with my main character, Golden. As soon as I heard it, I knew I’d have to use it someday! For an 8th grade boy, “Golden” can be a tough one. His frenemies give him all sorts of nicknames, “Goldfish,” “Golden Macaroni,” “Goldilocks.” Despite the teasing, Golden feels destined to do something great in his life. His name represents so many hopes and dreams that we have during the middle school years. Benny Ho is Golden’s best friend with Chinese ancestry. Lucy Littlehouse is the next door neighbor best friend with long blond braids and rollerskates. I love the alliteration of her name, and “Littlehouse” is just cute.

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

A huge reader, she would be shocked and awed that her future self was writing novels! She would also love to read it - I’m sure of. Perhaps I’ve never truly grown up.

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

I have a pretty good idea what both the beginning and ending will be, but I tweak and edit the beginning much more than the ending because I know I must pull the reader in right away if I want to keep them reading. With Ten Thousand Tries, I looked forward to and dreaded the ending because there are so many feelings going on. In fact, I cried quite a bit writing it - but not because it’s all sad! There’s just a lot of heart.

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 definitely begin as a part of me. I relate to them on a very personal level. In the beginning I feel I’m often writing from my POV exclusively, but by the end, each character has morphed into their own separate identities, separating from me.

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

For Ten Thousand Tries, I was hugely influenced by three factors: my good friend who had ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis), my “golden boy” middle-schooler son who was obsessed with Lionel Messi, and the co-ed middle school soccer team I coach. In more general writing terms, my mother and husband have greatly influenced me for the better. My mother because she’s such a terrific storyteller, and my husband because he’s a walking dictionary (it drives me crazy and has been spectacularly helpful).
Visit Amy Makechnie's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Sunday, July 18, 2021

Jennifer Nissley

Jennifer Nissley is the author of The Mythic Koda Rose. Although her first love is writing, she is powerfully attracted to video games, horses, and pretty much any piece of clothing or interior design with an animal on it.

Nissley received her MFA in Fiction from Stony Brook Southampton and lives in Queens with her wife and doggo, but sadly no horses.

My Q&A with the author:

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

What I love about my title, The Mythic Koda Rose (and it took us a long time for my team to settle on one), is how that one word "mythic" conveys so many of the novel's most salient themes. For example, fame, and legacies, and how the heroine, Koda Rose, will step free from her famous father's shadow to make her own mark on the world. Before landing on this title, my top choice was When I Die, Pack My Summer Clothes, a line from the book that I personally find darkly funny... but in the early stages of trying to sell the manuscript, my agent received feedback from editors that the title was too morbid and confusing. At first I was bummed, but the title we finally landed on is just perfect -- so I've officially emerged from mourning on that front.

What's in a name?

Easy! Koda is my dog's name. When starting a new story, I often assign my characters placeholder names borrowed from friends, acquaintances, pets, etc. that usually don't end up sticking, but Koda was different -- there's a double entendre there. "Coda" can refer to an ending generally, but also to the concluding section of a piece of music. Since the novel is suffused with music (after all, her dad was a famous musician) and Koda herself is a bit of an ending, one of her dad's final "creations," it just worked. I simply added "Rose" to familiarize it more and kept the "k" spelling because it seemed like something a self-indulgent celebrity parent would do.

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

I'm fairly confident that teenage me would be appalled by this book. Unfortunately, I was That Kid who loved reading Dickens and Hawthorne for AP Lit, and never touched Young Adult novels, having deemed them too lowbrow for my refined tastes. For the longest time, I wanted to write Serious Adult Literary Fiction. Or historical fiction. It took me a long time -- like, most of my 20s -- to work out what sort of stories I actually wanted to tell, versus the ones I saw the Important Respected Authors around me telling, if that makes sense.

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

While they're both challenging, I honestly don't find one any more so than the other. In fact, once I've found my opener and my exit, they tend not to change that much from one draft to another because they're both so intensely dictated by the characters I've created and themes I want to explore. It's the middle that gives me the most trouble. For Koda, I always knew that the story would open at a point of tremendous vulnerability and uncertainty, and that the ending would see her coming to embrace that uncertainty with confidence, accepting that she still had more about herself to explore. For the final line, I got lucky. It literally popped into my head one day as I was stepping off the subway!

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 it's impossible not to insert yourself into your characters, even if you're not doing so consciously. For example, Koda is the timid, insecure part of me who dreads putting herself out there, but Sadie, Koda's father's ex-girlfriend, is the snarling chaotic part of me who cares not enough about some things and too intensely about others. That sort of "seepage" from my subconscious can get really interesting... and terrifying, especially when the characters start doing things I don't like or agree with. Conversely, that's also when things really start getting fun. I'm not the sort of writer or reader who demands moral certitude from characters. The messier, the better.

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

Video games! I don't get to play them as much as I used to as a kid (thanks, real life) but there's just something about visual, interactive storytelling that enthralls me -- especially in The Legend of Zelda series, or any of the From Software titles. (Yes, for the like two people reading this who know what I'm talking about, I am 100% the kind of gamer who loves Dark Souls. And I platinumed Sekiro on PS4.) I'm especially inspired by how video games utilize changes in music, lighting, and other environmental cues to create atmosphere. Of course, movies and TV shows can do that too, but in video games it's different because I'm controlling the character, and forming a bond of sorts with them as these changes take place. I always end up imprinting on the character and identifying with them and their world in ways I don't when I'm passively watching a TV show or movie. Ultimately, that's what my writing process is like too.
Visit Jennifer Nissley's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Friday, July 16, 2021

Nicole Trope

Nicole Trope went to university to study Law but realized the error of her ways when she did very badly on her first law essay because—as her professor pointed out—'It's not meant to be a story.' She studied teaching instead and used her holidays to work on her writing career and complete a Masters' degree in Children's Literature. After the birth of her first child she stayed home full time to write and raise children, renovate houses and build a business with her husband.

The idea for her first published novel, The Boy Under the Table, was so scary that it took a year for her to find the courage to write the emotional story. Her second novel, Three Hours Late, was voted one of Fifty Books you can't put down in 2013 and her third novel, The Secrets in Silence, was The Australian Woman's Weekly Book of the month for June 2014.

The Boy in the Photo is now out in the US from Grand Central Publishing.

Trope lives in Sydney with her husband and three children.

My Q&A with the author:

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

The title is chosen by my editor and as such, I have very little input- but I loved this title from the beginning. I think it does a fairly good job of introducing readers to the story. Daniel is abducted at six-years-old and with each passing year, his mother is sent an age progression photo by the police as they continue to search for him. He goes from being the child she is raising to the boy in the row of photos on her fridge. It’s a terribly sad image but it lets readers know what has been lost and when Daniel returns, he is so very different to the child his mother was expecting, it seems that the boy in the photo no longer exists.

What's in a name?

Daniel began life as Orlando but after discussion with my editor, it was changed. And as soon as it was changed-his personality came into view. When he was Orlando, I was somewhat removed from him but I have always loved the name Daniel and had no trouble finding my way into the little boy’s mind. When I name characters, I search through databases until something just feels right. It’s amazing how changing the name of a character can help the writing of their traits and quirks.

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

This is exactly what she would think I would write. I have always been a bit of a catastrophizer. If something can go wrong then it will. As I get older, I have tried to leave this way of thinking in my work but as a teenager I was very pessimistic.

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

Beginnings are more difficult. I usually have an ending in mind but the beginning is a necessary way for me to find the voice of the novel. If I can nail the prologue or first chapter then I find the whole book flows. As such I will write and rewrite the first few pages until they have the flow I’m looking for. Sometimes it’s necessary for me to write the final chapter so that I can get it out of my mind and focus on the start. With this novel, the line ‘Megan, they found him,’ was an easy way to get myself into the first chapter. It repeated itself in my head until I wrote it down and from there everything worked.

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

I write about families in crisis and I’m a mother so my experience of raising children and everything that can go wrong always influences what I write. A novel can start as a scenario that has only crossed my mind, a small worry and I then shape it into a story where the very worst happens. But for the most part, my characters grow and change and survive whatever happens to them-some don’t of course. I do feel I am part of every character, man, woman or child because their voices are in my head and even when they do something that I wouldn’t do, there is some part of me that I know might react that way.

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

The news is a great source of stories as well as reality television. I am a big fan of crime series and of course I read an absolute fortune. I read everything from romances to detective fiction, always interested in how a novel comes together. But sometimes, inspiration strikes from something someone says or does that has no real weight until a story forms in my mind.
Follow Nicole Trope on Twitter.

The Page 69 Test: The Boy in the Photo.

--Marshal Zeringue

Wednesday, July 14, 2021

Susan Elia MacNeal

Susan Elia MacNeal is the author of The New York Times, Washington Post, Publishers Weekly, and USA Today-bestselling Maggie Hope mystery series, starting with the Edgar Award-nominated and Barry Award-winning Mr. Churchill’s Secretary, which is now in its 22nd printing.

Her books include Princess Elizabeth’s Spy, His Majesty’s Hope, The Prime Minister’s Secret Agent, Mrs. Roosevelt’s Confidante, The Queen’s Accomplice, The Paris Spy, The Prisoner in the Castle, The King’s Justice, and The Hollywood Spy. The Maggie Hope novels have been nominated for the Edgar, the Macavity, the ITW Thriller, the Barry, the Dilys, the Sue Federer Historical Fiction, and the Bruce Alexander Historical Fiction awards.

My Q&A with the author:

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

Love, love, love the title The Hollywood Spy— because it tells the reader exactly what they’re going to find—a spy story set in Los Angeles. And then the cover—the font, the design, the amazing painting by artist Mic Wiggins—lets us know it’s set in the 40s with a strong female lead. And then, as the reader goes through the novel, I hope that he/she/they will see that there are actually many spies in Hollywood—and the title may refer to more spies than just Maggie.

What's in a name?

Maggie Hope is the protagonist of The Hollywood Spy and also the entire series. I chose the first name after going to the British census for popular names in England in 1915 (Maggie’s birth year). Margaret was right at the top. I remember loving it because it’s definitely a name of that period, but it’s also a classic name. And then shortening to the nickname “Maggie” makes her more approachable.

Hope is interesting, too. Again, I went to the census for popular English last names. And then, not finding anything, I looked at British celebrities who came of age during World War II. There was Bob Hope! What a great name! And then there’s the whole double meaning—yes it’s a last name, but it’s also Maggie’s viewpoint—that of hope, not cynicism.

Also, one of the secretary’s memoirs about working for Mr. Churchill, he misheard her introducing herself and thought her surname was “Holmes”—and then calling her “Miss Sherlock” for their time together. So I had my fictional version of Churchill mishear Maggie the first time she gives her name—and then when she corrects him, he says, “Yes, we need some Hope in this office.” It just really seemed true to something he’d pick up on, appreciate, and then say.

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

My teenage self would be surprised and happy by the fact I wrote a book called The Hollywood Spy, especially considering all the reading and writing I was doing at that age, as well as watching old movies. (Although, maybe not…. My teenage self was kinda capricious and moody, as I recall.)

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

Oh, I find beginnings really hard. Remember—there’s the story and then there’s how you tell the story. How you open sets the tone for everything, introduces key people, as well as foreshadows so much. Plus, it’s what readers will pick up and read in the library or bookstore (or online) to see if they’re going to like the book enough to buy it. One thing that takes off some of the stress (while still being daunting) is that I rarely use my first prologue. In fact, I’ll usually keep it for a while, but then jettison it and rewrite something completely different for the novel that I end up writing. So, it’s sad because I know I’ll most likely cut all those words I struggle over—but at this point I realize it’s just a necessary part of the process.

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 better-looking, smarter, more athletic, more charming, and braver than I am. I think they’re more based on people I know (not just one person, but composites). The only character taken directly from reality and placed in my books is Mr. K., Maggie’s cat. Mr. K was my first cat, when I was her age—and I love getting to share him with readers. There are actually a few (real) cats now named Mr. K. or K. in his honor by readers of the series, which I find amazing.

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

I’m inspired by the ballet choreographer George Balanchine (who also has a cameo in The Hollywood Spy). I love the way he was so (seemingly) matter-of-fact about working/creating. One of his quotes is: “My muse comes to me on union time.” Because he used unionized dancers, musicians, etc. for his work—when they were there, he just had to create. No excuses, no procrastinating. So I like to think of my characters on “union time” as well—and that I really need to get down to business every day, regardless of what else is going on in my own life or in the world.
Visit Susan Elia MacNeal's website.

My Book, The Movie: The Prisoner in the Castle.

--Marshal Zeringue

Monday, July 12, 2021

Natalie Mae

Natalie Mae is an ex-programmer, a dark chocolate enthusiast, and an author of young adult novels. She has also been a freelance editor and a Pitch Wars mentor, and she feels it notable to mention she once held a job where she had to feed spiders. When not writing, she can be found wandering the Colorado wilderness with her family.

Mae's new novel is The Cruelest Mercy.

My Q&A with the author:

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

Like its predecessor The Kinder Poison (kind-er, like kindness), The Cruelest Mercy is an oxymoron meant to symbolize the very heart of the book - readers will know the exact line where it hits. It's also deliberately reversed from book one, which had the softer word first, as to symbolize the role reversal a couple of the characters take in this story. Without spoilers, we'll just say that the already grey lines between the villains and heroes in the first book completely dissolve in this one as the hero strives to do everything in her power to pursue what she believes is right.

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

Honestly, I think my teenage self would be both incredibly proud and also rather scandalized - I was a very shy honor roll student as a teen, and I liked to keep to myself, and I certainly didn't want people to know like ... any of my secrets or guilty pleasures. I was also raised on old-school Disney movies where the hero is always good and the bad guys always bad, and the direction The Cruelest Mercy goes, with the heroine giving in to her dark side, and especially how that starts drawing her to the villain in this book, would have me blushing if people knew I'd written it. But then also, like - I didn't even know at that point that getting published was an option for me as a career? And for that I would definitely forgive myself.

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

Oh my gosh beginnings are the bane of my existence. Between seven published and shelved books, I have yet to write one where I don't completely rewrite the start like 30 times. Especially with fantasy books, there is so much to set up in the opening chapters, without it reading like you're trying to set all those things up, and it's really hard and I hate it. Endings I usually have a pretty clear view of from the start - while I always end up making small tweaks to the close of the book, they're usually my least edited pieces. I love endings. I'll write you endings all day.

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

A piece of me is in every single one of my characters. Some of them hold my fears, some of them hold my dreams, some of them hold the better parts of me, and some of them the worst. None of them are all of me, and I often like to combine characters with bits of friends I actually know to give them extra habits and personalities and mannerisms that make them their own. I also feel like I'm hanging out with that friend when I write that particular character, so I guess I'm like the opposite of the writer-killer? Like, be cruel to one of my besties and yeah, a character with your name will probably die in my next book, but mostly I'd rather put the people I adore in there so we can hang out.

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

Movies and video games have a huge influence on my writing! Video games like Assassin's Creed, Tomb Raider, and Silent Hill help me visualize action scenes, establish atmosphere, and picture clothing and landscapes. Movies like Pirates of the Caribbean, Emperor's New Groove and Star Wars give me the best idea of pacing, humor, character relationships, and even how people lean or look around or move while they're talking. I see my books in my head like movies; I like them to read visually, so visual media like these is especially important (and fun) for me to take in.
Visit Natalie Mae's website.

The Page 69 Test: The Kinder Poison.

--Marshal Zeringue

Saturday, July 10, 2021

Michelle Ruiz Keil

Michelle Ruiz Keil is a writer and tarot reader with an eye for the enchanted and a way with animals. Her critically acclaimed debut novel, All of Us With Wings, called "...a transcendent journey" by the New York Times and "...a fantastical ode the Golden City's post-punk era" by Entertainment Weekly, was released from Soho Teen in 2019.

Keil's new novel is Summer in the City of Roses.

My Q&A with the author:

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

My second novel was a hard book to name. I wanted a title that was nostalgic, a little dreamy, that somehow held the liminal and the ordinary at once. I like the contrast between "city' and "roses" and the way that combination tells you about a city that might be something like a garden. I also like the way "summer” lets the reader know the scope of the story--one significant season. There was another title originally planned for the book. The only word that remains from the original is "in"--and that's an important one for me. I'm aiming for immersion in my mythic nineteen-nineties Portland summer--and a sense that one summer can change everything.

What's in a name?

Names are a significant part of my worldbuilding. I don't usually start knowing the meaning of a name. That's something I look up after the first draft is done, trying to discover what subconscious clues I've given myself about the people I've created. In Summer In The City of Roses, though, the significance of my protagonists' names was obvious from the start. I like to say my stories' bones are made of fairytales and in this case, I was working with two--the Grimm tale Brother and Sister and Greek myths about Iphigenia and Orestes, siblings of the house Atreides. Because my characters have Greek heritage on their dad's side, I named my sister and brother Iphigenia and Orestes, usually called Iph and Orr. The stories attached to the names led me to many of the elements that make up the book. Iph must be saved from peril by a feminist rescuer who is fond of dogs. In the myth, it's Artemis-- but in my story, it's a bicycle riding genderfluid dandy with a mini-pitiful sidekick. Mythical Orestes is chased by avenging goddess called Furies while my Orr meets a band of angry girls in a punk band with the same name.

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

Teen me would have been equally delighted and shocked by Summer In The City of Roses, especially by Iph, who embodies some of my deepest teenage secrets. Iph is queer and out--something that did not seem possible in my suburban school in the 80s. Iph is also aware of the racism she experiences in a way that I never allowed myself to be. Back then, "color-blindness" and "multiculturalism" were the fashion. Pointing out racism was seen as ungrateful or impolite. Most of all, though, I think that voracious book-lover teen-aged me would have felt seen by Summer In The City of Roses. I hope some of my readers will, too.

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

Beginnings are by far the hardest to write. I revised the first fifty pages of Summer In The City of Roses at least twenty times. Probably more! I rely on rhythm and feel, and need to read my work aloud to edit it. It takes a while to find that in a book. Once I do, things come much more easily.

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 not educated as a writer but as an actor. Even with characters who are morally repellent, I find some kindred element to write from. The magic of stories is their ability to build empathy. My biggest hope as a writer is to shine a light on the gray areas where things are not morally tidy and easily explained. If we can go there in fiction and understand a villain or have compassion for a character's mistakes, maybe we have a bit more empathy and nuance in our real lives, too.

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

My books are like a big blender. I do tons of research on the things that fascinate me about the time, place, and people I'm writing about then throw it in and hit “crush". I make playlists, watch films, read biographies and memoirs, and dig deep into whatever mythic or fairytale material I'm using. I listen to music and make endless playlists. For Summer In The City of Roses, there were a few beloved 1990s films that made their way into the story--The Secret of Roan Inish and My Own Private Idaho--plus the entire oeuvre of Marilyn Monroe. I lost myself in research about ancient Artemis cults (lots of bear and bee imagery) and oral histories and memoirs about Pacific Northwest grunge and Riot Grrl bands. I dove into early Portland DIY publishing and Zine culture, 1990s sex work activism, and researched Portland's shameful past treatment of Japanese Americans and its exclusion of Black people from its borders. I also read about depth psychology, sympathetic magic, and alchemy. Finally, I read all the deer myths I could get my hands on. I will admit to being slightly obsessed!
Visit Michelle Ruiz Keil's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Thursday, July 8, 2021

Alena Dillon

Alena Dillon is the author of Mercy House, a Library Journal Best Book of 2020, which has been optioned as a television series produced by Amy Schumer, as well as The Happiest Girl in the World, a Good Morning America pick, and My Body Is A Big Fat Temple, a forthcoming memoir of pregnancy and early parenting.

Dillon teaches creative writing and lives on the north shore of Boston with her husband, son, black lab, and lots of books.

My Q&A with the author:

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

My original title for the novel was I Am Sera, because the book is so much about the character’s search for her identity inside and outside the pursuit of her dream, and perhaps I was inspired by the movie I, Tonya, which delved behind the polished veneer of Olympic sports in the same way my novel does. But my editor suggested The Happiest Girl in the World, which comes from an interview with gymnast Shawn Johnson, saying she felt like the happiest girl in the world when she made the Olympic team. My character idolizes Shawn to the point where she rehearses that interview over and over again. I read the manuscript again with that title in mind, and I repeatedly saw the theme of happiness rise up: what happiness means, who deserves it, who earns it, and if our goals bring us happiness or if our goals come at the expense of our happiness. It was a far more apt title than mine.

What's in a name?

My main character’s name is Sera, which is pronounced like the more conventional Sarah, but coming from Seraph. This plays on her seeming ability to defy gravity and fly, as if she had a set of invisible wings, as well as contrasting the everyday with the exceptional. I drive this point further by naming her twin brother Joe, like the average Joe.

There are several characters who resemble real people inside the USA Gymnastics space (Larry Nassar, the Karolyis, etc). There are a few reasons I fictionalized them, but I made their names capture similar spirits to draw the parallels.

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

My teenager self would be as horrified as anybody with the truths uncovered about Olympic athletes, particularly with the USA Gymnastics scandal. Teenagers trust adults who are presented as mentors and protectors and experts in their fields. We all do.

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

In this case, the prologue was the first thing I wrote in this book. I did it as kind of a test to see if I could actually write a gymnastic routine convincingly, since I have no experience in the sport. That prologue is almost word for word how it was the first time I wrote it. I find endings to be trickier. It’s hard to know when to stop, and how to give justice to the journey and story world of the previous 300 pages.

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

There is probably a little piece of myself in every character, as well as pieces of various people from my life. I don’t know anything about pushing my physical body to the extent that Sera does, or being driven madly by a dream, but I do know about the intimacy of childhood friendships, and how easy it is to convince yourself that an untrustworthy person is good. I never ruptured my Achilles, but I know two people who have, and though they weren’t elite athletes, it was still devastating to them. I weave familiar experiences with unfamiliar ones, flexing my empathy muscles when I have to imagine something outside of myself.

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

I write all my novels cinematically, as if I am seeing scenes play out in my head, so television and movies are certainly influencing factors. Here, too, watching the Olympics every cycle was helpful, as were podcasts about gymnastics, documentaries, how-to YouTube videos, and competition footage.
Visit Alena Dillon's website.

The Page 69 Test: Mercy House.

My Book, The Movie: Mercy House.

--Marshal Zeringue

Monday, July 5, 2021

Geoff Rodkey

Geoff Rodkey is the New York Times best-selling author of many children’s books, including the Tapper Twins and Chronicles of Egg series; We’re Not From Here; and Marcus Makes a Movie, a collaboration with actor Kevin Hart. He’s also the Emmy-nominated screenwriter of Daddy Day Care and RV, among other films.

Rodkey's new book, Lights Out in Lincolnwood, is his first novel for adults.

My Q&A with the author:

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

Lights Out in Lincolnwood is about as on-the-nose as a title gets. On an otherwise unremarkable Tuesday morning, the lights go out in the wealthy fictional suburb of Lincolnwood, New Jersey. And it’s not just the lights: phones, laptops, cars, and anything else with a circuit board suddenly stops working. With no warning or explanation, the modern world grinds to a halt.

This instantly upends the lives of everyone in the community, including the four members of the Altman family through whose eyes we experience the three days that follow. Disaffected marketing consultant (and clandestine day-drinker) Jen, her lawyer-turned-TV-writer husband Dan, overachieving high school senior Chloe, and underachieving freshman Max all struggle to figure out whether what just happened is a civilization-ending catastrophe, a temporary pain in the neck, or something in between. At what point should they quit worrying about their usual day-to-day problems and start focusing on more existential questions, like where to find food and drinking water? Should they try to flee town, or dig in and ride out the storm? And if their neighbors are already doing it, is it okay to loot the Whole Foods?

It’s this juxtaposition of the mundane and the catastrophic that hopefully makes the story equal parts funny and unsettling for its audience.

What's in a name?

Dan and Jen Altman are just past fifty years old, and I gave them both the commonest possible names for their age cohort (“Jennifer” was the most popular baby name of 1971, and “Daniel” was in the top twenty) partly because I wanted to encourage readers to see themselves in the characters’ shoes.

One of the things that makes Lights Out in Lincolnwood not just fun but thought-provoking is the way the story’s main conceit prompts readers to wonder how they and their community would react to a similar situation. If the complex, society-wide systems that we rely on for our basic needs suddenly quit working, how would you handle it?

Are you prepared for that kind of crisis? What about your larger community? Would your neighbors be a source of aid and comfort? Or are they more likely to slit your throat over a box of uncooked pasta?

I didn’t want my main characters to have any more than the average emotional and social resources to meet this challenge, and one way of doing that—while still giving them very specific, three-dimensional personalities and life histories—was to saddle them with statistically common names.

Also, and I wish I was kidding about this: I wanted short names. If I have to type a character’s name hundreds of times over the course of a manuscript, three letters is a lot easier than ten.

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

I think my teenage self would find Lights Out in Lincolnwood to be very in character with both my reading habits and my creative aspirations.

That said, he’d be chagrined to the point of horror to find out that it took me this long to write a novel for adults, and that I’d previously spent most of the last two decades either writing books for kids (The Tapper Twins, We’re Not From Here, Marcus Makes a Movie) or family films (Daddy Day Care, RV, The Shaggy Dog).

Those aren’t the fields I thought I’d be plowing when I first fantasized about becoming a writer. But ever since I quit my day job in 1995, I’ve had to balance the pursuit of creative satisfaction with the need to earn enough money to provide my kids with food and health insurance. And it wasn’t until a couple of years ago that I felt like I had the resources to spend a full year writing the kind of dark comedy for adults that I love to read, but that isn’t necessarily a mass-market taste.

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

Beginnings are a lot more labor-intensive: they usually get rewritten about a hundred times, both because they’re the most important pages in the book (in that if you don’t land the opening, nobody’s going to make it to the end) and because they’re the first thing you see every time you open the manuscript.

But endings are harder in the sense that a really good ending is much more rare and difficult to pull off than a really good beginning. As a reader, even some of my favorite novels don’t stick the landing.

In the case of Lincolnwood, the ending was particularly tricky, because the story arc is one of disintegration, but it’s also a comedy—and even a dark comedy won’t feel satisfying if the ending isn’t at least arguably happy. So I had to find a note of optimism in the face of chaos. I’d like to think I succeeded, but that’s up to 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?

Almost all of my characters, across a dozen books and twenty-five screenplays, have some element of me in them. But the percentages vary widely, and I’m not sure I can even identify which parts are me for any given character. It’s easier to discern that stuff at the beginning of the process, but at some point in the writing, they just end up being themselves. Either that, or they’re just badly written.

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

Real life is a constant source of inspiration. Lights Out in Lincolnwood came out of my family’s experience after Hurricane Sandy in 2012, when we lost power and water for five days. Because we never doubted whether it was a short-term problem, it wasn’t traumatic so much as annoying. But ever since then, I’ve wondered what would happen if the outages were more widespread or less temporary, and Lincolnwood was my attempt to answer that question.
Visit Geoff Rodkey's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Saturday, July 3, 2021

Sarah Stewart Taylor

Sarah Stewart Taylor is the author of the Sweeney St. George series and the Maggie D'arcy series. She grew up on Long Island, and was educated at Middlebury College in Vermont and Trinity College, Dublin, where she studied Irish Literature. She has worked as a journalist and writing teacher and now lives with her family on a farm in Vermont where they raise sheep and grow blueberries.

Taylor's second Maggie D'arcy mystery is A Distant Grave.

My Q&A with the author:

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

A Distant Grave comes from the elegiac poem "A Final Offering at a Distant Grave" by the Roman poet Catullus, which serves as the epigraph for this novel. The first murder victim in the novel is an Irish humanitarian aid worker and my detective is trying to figure out why he was in a deserted marina on Long Island, late at night, when he was killed. The title, especially in the context of the poem, captures many of the themes of the novel: a death far from home, the concept of brotherhood, grief, the idea of paying tribute.

What's in a name?

My main character, Maggie D'arcy, is Irish American, an identity that's important to her and to the plots of the books. Her name would be quite common in Ireland, and yet its spelling marks her as an outsider. (It would be spelled D'Arcy in Ireland.) I liked the idea of a little signifier like that, that would signal her difference, even in a place where she has so much family history. I like the nickname Maggie -- there's something approachable about it, down-to-earth, no-nonsense. She originally had a different name — Amy — but I decided I wanted something a bit more timeless and that signaled her Irish American identity more strongly.

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

Definitely beginnings! I often start with a beginning and an ending in mind, but it's the beginning that I often find I need to rewrite and rewrite and rewrite. The trick is finding the right place to enter your story and like many novelists, I often find myself deleting the first few chapters, realizing that they were just warm-up and that it's always better to dive in at a moment when my plot has already picked up some momentum.

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 amalgamations and every single one of them probably has a little bit of me in them. Even characters who, on the surface, are very different from me, often share a life experience with me or someone close to me, or are consumed by a passion or motivation that I can stretch to understand. I always try to find a point of connection and I love that moment when I get inside the character's head and can see why they are the way they are.

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

I was a journalist before I started writing fiction and I find that the stories I wrote many years ago are constantly inspiring characters and storylines in my novels. Interviewing real people and transcribing their *actual* words is such a great way to learn about dialogue and motive. And the things that real human beings get up to are so much more interesting than anything I could ever dream up. I'm also inspired by parenting. There's nothing like watching the emergence of essential character and the formation of personality to help a writer understand what makes human beings tick. And the intensity of the love and protectiveness I feel for my children is kind of terrifying: As a crime writer I'm always looking for the source of that intensity that makes people do things they never thought they'd do.
Visit Sarah Stewart Taylor's website.

The Page 69 Test: A Distant Grave.

--Marshal Zeringue

Thursday, July 1, 2021

Julia Buckley

Julia Buckley has loved reading and writing since childhood. She is still a sucker for a great story, and, like any bibliophile, she loves libraries, Scholastic Book Fairs, the smell of ink, pads and pens, typewriters, and books you can't put down. She lives in a Chicago suburb with her husband Jeff; she has two grown sons and a beautiful daughter-in-law.

Buckley's latest novel is Death on the Night of Lost Lizards.

My Q&A with the author:

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

My intention was that the title be a literal reference to a rare teacup, the handle of which is composed of two entwined serpents that are referred to as the "twin lizard design." In fact, the original title was Death on the Night of Twin Lizards; my editor reminded me that the other two titles in the series are alliterative, and so I altered it to lost lizards. This change still has relevance to the novel, since Hana is a collector and she had long sought this particular piece that had been lost to her years ago. Another important function of the title is to create a slightly whimsical and surreal tone which I like to think the novel possesses, as well. All of the books in the series are rooted in Hungarian folklore.

What's in a name?

It depends on the name. The four main characters, that is, the four women who make up the Horvath family, are Hana, Magdalena, Juliana, and Natalia. These are Hungarian names that I found beautiful. They have the effect of linking the women to their culture (as do the name Erik Wolf, and his sisters Runa and Thyra, to their Norwegian roots). But just as one learns when they name a baby, names can feel rusty at the beginning, as though you've made the wrong choice, because it's such a momentous thing to name a child. It's not quite as daunting to name a character, but they grow into their names in the same way, and now each character is linked to her or his name in a crucial way for me.

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

She would be super impressed that I wrote a novel, for one thing. But it would also make her very happy because she did not grow up around too many other people of Hungarian heritage. My mom and I loved reading cozy mysteries just as much as we loved other genres, and to have stumbled across this in the library--a cozy about a young Hungarian woman--would have been a real treat for her.

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

I love writing beginnings. I have written many of them that never really went anywhere, but they were so much fun to write. I love the freshness, the possibility of beginnings. I tried to start this book with a fairy-tale-like feel: Hana recalls something her grandmother said about snow as she, Hana, watches a beautiful snowfall. Endings are also fun, but because I am a linear writer and have a Dickens-like determination to tidy up loose ends, I often find my endings going on and on. Middles are the hardest for me. Trying to leapfrog from major event to major event with the necessary filler that is still somehow interesting can be a challenge.

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

I don't have too much information about characters as I start out, but they flesh out quickly as I begin to write. Hana does have things in common with me. Her grandmother routinely calls her Haniska (pronounced Honnishka), and my grandmother called me Juliska (yoolishka) for my whole life. I wanted to share this diminutive, this Hungarian term of affection, with readers. And like Hana's grandmother, mine was an excellent cook, and I was treated to Hungarian staples, and some delicacies whenever I went to her house.

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

Each story is named after some piece of Hungarian porcelain. There are many renowned porcelain makers in Hungary, and I had been admiring some of the most beautiful of them on eBay--rare pieces by Herend and Zsolnay. The first book is named for a piece by Anna Weatherley, who is a porcelain designer in Budapest. Her stuff is just beautiful, The twin lizards piece was something I found on eBay. Beautiful, but very expensive. I saved up to buy one teacup rather than the whole set, and that was my artistic inspiration. I am a person who is greatly moved by art, so you'll notice artistic inspirations along the way--paintings and tapestries and sculptures--that appear in the books. In Lost Lizards, the Horvath women find an old tapestry of the World Tree, an artistic depiction of the upper, middle and lower worlds. This has its function in the novel, not as a major clue, but as a consistent reminder to Hana that some people make choices that lead them to a place of misery, or that they make those choices because they were already there.
Learn more about the book and author at Julia Buckley's website

My Book, The Movie: Death on the Night of Lost Lizards.

--Marshal Zeringue

Tuesday, June 29, 2021

Jeffrey B. Burton

Jeffrey B. Burton was born in Long Beach, California, grew up in St. Paul, Minnesota, and received his BA in Journalism at the University of Minnesota.

His many novels include The Finders, The Chessman, and The Eulogist.

He lives in St. Paul with his wife, an irate Pomeranian named Lucy, and a happy galoot of a Beagle named Milo.

Burton's new novel is The Keepers.

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

The first book in my series about dog handler Mason "Mace" Reid and his extraordinary pack of human remains detection dogs was titled The Finders. That's what he calls his cadaver dogs. The second in the series is titled The Keepers, which plays off the old nursery rhyme (Finders, Keepers, Losers, Weepers) but, as the novel progresses, the keepers comes to represent the group of villains they're up against.

What's in a name?

Everything. You want a certain cadence (think James Bond, Mitch Rapp, Jason Bourne) and nothing that could distract.

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

My teenage reader self would be delighted with middle-aged Jeff as teenage Jeff read a bunch of dog-related novels (Where the Red Fern Grows, Call of the Wild, Fluke, etc.).

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

Currently, I've been rewriting a prologue for what seems an eternity (stripping it down to its basics). In terms of changes, that depends on what my editors find.

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

Reid isn't a superhero like the characters listed above. He's more of a regular guy, like me, who gets some things right and some things dead wrong. Unlike me, Reid's lucky to have canine friends around to pull his chestnuts out of the fire when things go south.

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

Music - Reid names his dogs after country or country rock songs ("Elvira," "Sue," "Maggie May," "Delta Dawn," "Billie Joe"). Also, The Keepers finds Reid investigating the death of a one-hit wonder. I'm also a bit of a history buff, and The Keepers digs into Chicago's deliciously checkered history.
Visit Jeffrey B. Burton's website.

--Marshal Zeringue