Tuesday, January 26, 2021

Joshua Phillip Johnson

Joshua Phillip Johnson lives in a little green house on what used to be the prairie with his partner and their child. His work has appeared in Syntax & Salt, The Future Fire, and Metaphorosis Magazine, among others. He teaches at a small liberal arts university.

Johnson's new novel is The Forever Sea.

My Q&A with the author:

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

I spent an enormous amount of time on my title, and my hope is that it gives readers both a sense of the lyrical prose as well as a glimpse into the mythology of the book. And beyond that, I hope it signals that the environment here is a major focus—if not the focus! Initially, I had called it The Book of the Forever Sea, but it was too misleading (since there’s no actual book in this novel called that). Following that getting nixed, I tried out longer, more poetic titles that were all iterations or permutations of the “A Noun of Noun and Noun” formula, but each one felt like a well-walked path, and so I settled with The Forever Sea.

What's in a name?

Names are all about sound for me. My main character is named Kindred Greyreach, and she’s surrounded by people named things like Cora the Wraith, Long Quixa, The Word, Little Wing, Jane Caraway, Scindapse. I like names that are evocative as much as they’re participatory. The word ‘kindred’ has all sorts of meanings and textures and history to it, and while I didn’t pick it to force some sort of heavy-handed interpretation, I did like that it was such an open and meaning-filled word. It asks questions more than it gives answers. With whom is this character kindred? To what is she similar and to what is she dissimilar? What is her family and what isn’t? Lots of my characters have names that were picked for that kind of participatory reason: they open the door for audience involvement in a really straightforward way.

The one character who isn’t like that is Little Wing, who is named after a favorite Jimi Hendrix song.

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

Teenage me would be completely shocked to see a book with my name on it! However, I don’t think he would be surprised to find what was inside. A book about found families and weird magic and expansive landscapes would’ve been exactly in his wheelhouse.

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

Beginnings! I write and rewrite beginnings endlessly. I think a good beginning promises the rest of a book, and so knowing what kinds of promises I want to make (and which ones I can actually keep) is a task that takes me many, many attempts to feel good about.

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 myself in Kindred in lots of ways. She’s quite passive (at least at the start of the book) and unsure of how she fits into the world and the community around her, and those are things with which I often contend. She asks many of the questions I do about the natural world and our place in it, and writing her story became my attempt to answer those questions—for both of us.

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

Miyazaki films! There’s so much in those movies to inspire: the colors and stories, the characters and pacing, the intensity of sound and the generous helpings of silence. I rewatched several of the Studio Ghibli movies on a pretty regularly rotation during the drafting and revision of this book.
Visit Joshua Phillip Johnson's website.

The Page 69 Test: The Forever Sea.

--Marshal Zeringue

Sunday, January 24, 2021

Allie Reynolds

British-born Allie Reynolds is a former freestyle snowboarder who swapped her snowboard for a surfboard and moved to the Gold Coast in Australia, where she taught English as a foreign language for fifteen years. She still lives in Australia with her family. Reynolds’s short fiction has been published in women’s magazines in the UK, Australia, Sweden, and South Africa. Shiver is her debut novel.

My Q&A with the author:

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

Titles are so hard to get right! My novel, when I originally submitted it to agents, was titled The Icebreaker. I chose it because the icebreaker game the characters play in the reunion is a pivotal point in the story. Rather than breaking the ice, the game ends up doing the opposite and revealing deep, dark secrets that cause huge rifts between the characters, who are now trapped on an isolated mountaintop, all suspecting each other.

But my agent didn’t feel it was a strong enough title. I guess people might think an icebreaker refers to a ship that breaks the ice in Arctic waters! So we brainstormed alternative titles. My agent eventually came up with the title Shiver at 4AM one morning and I loved it. It definitely suits the novel, which is set on a freezing French glacier and is creepy rather than gory or overly violent, and I hope that readers will actually shiver as they read it!

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

My very first job was a Saturday job in a bookstore, aged fourteen, a job that lasted throughout my teenage years. I dreamt of being a writer ever since then. I even told my boss that, and he just laughed and said: “Doesn’t everyone?”

I’d love to tell my teenage self – and my boss – that one day my novel would end up in a ten-publisher auction and be translated into 19 languages!

In my late teenage years, I became obsessed with snowboarding and the icy white world of the high mountains and started writing a journal which eventually became a novel set in that world. It took me another twenty years to get it right!

Do you find it harder to write beginnings or endings?

I think both are hard! I have five earlier attempts at novels and always sweated for ages trying to get the opening right. With Shiver, the opening came very smoothly. I came up with the prologue and opening lines late one night when I couldn’t sleep, so I turned the light on and wrote them down before I forgot them, and those lines have barely changed since. My brilliant agent and editors took my manuscript through lots of revisions but I’m happy to say they didn’t change a single word of the prologue! I’m glad I was sleepless that night.

As for the ending, my agent asked for another twist, so I brainstormed various options and luckily I came up with a twist that we both loved. With my previous novels, the endings often only come with time, sometimes months later.

Which do you change more?

I edit obsessively as I go along. This means that by the time I reach the end of my first draft, the opening has already been edited thousands of times! So I definitely change the opening more than the ending. Also I think those opening lines and chapters are so important as a way to draw your readers into the story, so it’s crucial to get them as good as they can possibly be. We don’t want anything that drags the pace or bores the reader in those early pages, otherwise they might stop reading and put the book down.

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

The voice of Milla Anderson, the female protagonist in Shiver, came really easily because she’s a lot like me – a feisty, determined tomboy – only she’s a lot more competitive, and a whole lot braver – as well as being a way better snowboarder than I ever was! The other characters in Shiver are also highly competitive. With Shiver being a thriller, it worked well to have them competitive – it drove the plot. In my opinion, we see a lot of highly competitive males in our society, and we tend to admire them, yet we see far fewer overtly competitive females. If they are competitive, they sometimes end up being criticised, so naturally women may feel the need to hide their competitive streak. In Shiver, I wanted to show a group of female characters who are competitive and not ashamed of it.

I get frustrated by women being portrayed as weak and helpless victims in crime novels and thrillers. I hope the female characters in Shiver are just as strong as the male characters – if not more so.

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

I love sports – particularly board sports. I snowboarded for years, then switched to surfing about fifteen years ago, and I’ve tried just about every board sport there is. As a former athlete, I’m always fascinated by top athletes in other sports. I’m interested in their lives, their mindsets, how they mix their ambitions with their personal relationships, and in the mind games they’re often known to play with rivals. I love reading athletes’ memoirs and figuring out what drives them. Sports psychology is an area of recent interest to me, too.

I love reading fiction with a sports theme and it seems to me that there isn’t that much of it, so I’m filling a void and I hope to incorporate sports in my future novels too. Athletes make great thriller characters, in my opinion because they’re driven, single-minded and ruthless!
Visit Allie Reynolds's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Friday, January 22, 2021

Liese O’Halloran Schwarz

photo credit: Amy Stern
Liese O'Halloran Schwarz grew up in Washington, DC after an early childhood overseas. She attended Harvard University, and then medical school at University of Virginia. While in medical school, she won the Henfield/Transatlantic Review Prize for her short fiction, and also published her first novel, Near Canaan.

She specialized in emergency medicine, eventually returned to writing, and published her second novel, The Possible World, in 2018.

Schwarz's new novel is What Could Be Saved.

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

I think it really accurately reflects the book, but it is subtle and the meaning isn’t clear until one has read the book. My editor and I struggled a good while to find the right title. My books tend to be sort of complex (What Could Be Saved is told in two timelines, on two continents and in two eras, from several different points of view), so we considered a number of titles that might fit one bit or the other well, but it was hard to find a title that worked not only to encapsulate the whole story, but also to communicate properly to the reader something about what the reading experience might be. My wonderful editor at Atria, Peter Borland, generated lists of suggestions, and What Could Be Saved was in one of his lists. It’s actually a phrase taken from a conversation between two characters in the book, but its meaning as a title is layered, and not limited to that specific conversation. I also feel it communicates a hint of hope— I want prospective readers to know that while the book contains some serious themes and might stir their emotions, the story has an overarching optimism.

What's in a name?

I think character names are really, really important. Not as blatantly as in Dickens, but I think they serve to reflect the background and age of the character. Most of my characters name themselves, and those original names stick. There was one exception in What Could Be Saved: the character who ended up being named Robert started out with a different name. That original name suited him, but it began with the same first letter as one of the other main characters, and I try to avoid that—I think it can lead to confusion. Luckily, I made the change to Robert early enough in the process that the character settled into it, and now it really feels right. In What Could Be Saved I also have Thai characters, and their names have meanings. They are play-names (nicknames used almost exclusively in place of official first names) given by the family for various reasons — their hopes for the child, or some aspect of the child’s temperament or physical appearance. Choosing those names was fun.

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

Pretty damned surprised! I was a poet when I was a teenager, and although I always imagined that someday I would write fiction, I’m a perfectionist who would obsess over a poem’s line break, or the placement of a comma, for years. I think my teenage self would be amazed that I actually managed to wrangle so many words in one project.

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

Beginnings, by far! The entry into a book feels critical to me— it has to tell enough to get the story going, and ground the characters and settings and situations but not tell so much that it bogs down the movement of the narrative. It also has to strike the right tone when introducing characters. I usually have some idea of how I want the book to end when I’m about a third of the way through the draft, or even earlier. Although significant changes might happen when I fine-tune the ending, I labor much harder over the beginnings. I will sometimes completely redraft the beginning multiple times if needed to get it right, even after the rest of the draft is done.
Visit Liese O'Halloran Schwarz's website.

My Book, The Movie: The Possible World.

Writers Read: Liese O'Halloran Schwarz (August 2018).

The Page 69 Test: The Possible World.

The Page 69 Test: What Could Be Saved.

--Marshal Zeringue

Wednesday, January 20, 2021

Megan Chance

Megan Chance is the bestselling, critically acclaimed author of several novels. Her books have been picks for Amazon Book of the Month, IndieNext, and the Historical Novel Society Editors’ Choice. Booklist calls her writing “provocative and haunting.”

Chance lives in the Pacific Northwest.

Her new novel is A Splendid Ruin.

My Q&A with the author:

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

I think it does a lot of work. The two words are nearly an oxymoron: ruin has a negative connotation, certainly, and splendid a positive one, so how is it possible to have a splendid ruin? But in fact, May, the protagonist in the book, has exactly that, and I think the title leads you into anticipating a journey through hell but with a positive outcome. The original title for the book was Poor Relations, which I liked because it had a double meaning, not just in the fact that May, in coming to her aunt’s house in San Francisco after her mother’s death, was a poor relation, but also because the relationships between all the characters in the book were so fraught with misunderstandings, lies and secrets. But the editorial team at my publisher wanted something different, and we spent months tossing things about until we came up with A Splendid Ruin, which I think now is a perfect title for it.

What's in a name?

I chose May’s name as a deliberate homage to Edith Wharton, and her novel The Age of Innocence. In that novel, May Welland is an innocent debutante who marries Newland Archer, a man who eventually betrays her. But May is a complex character, and she grows into a strong woman with a compelling depth by the end of the novel. I wanted my May to be that kind of woman as well, and I wanted the naivete and eventual strength of May in Wharton’s book to lend her spirit to my May.

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

Not at all. I’ve wanted to be a writer since I was very young. I wrote stories and novels all through my teenage years. I loved historical fiction, and I loved stories with darker themes and romance and adventure. A Splendid Ruin checks every box I loved as a teenage reader.

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

Beginnings. Generally I try not to think about them too much, and I just plunge in, knowing I can change them later, which I almost always do. Endings often come to me in a wild burst of inspiration—especially last lines. I may tweak them, but I rarely change them too much.

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 all characters have a bit of me in them, or at least they draw on something I know or have felt before. Some of them have a very strong connection to my personality, and others don’t have much of one at all. But they all come from some central point of understanding that I have about human nature. My goal in writing a character is to get deep within their skin; that means I have to understand and empathize with them. In that way, I have to feel some kind of connection.

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

So many things. Movies and television shows and music certainly. I also think that the years I spent working in TV news had a very deep impact. In news you’re constantly seeing both the best and the worst moments in peoples’ lives, and you’re also seeing the consequences of decisions people make every day, and so yes, I think that’s influenced my writing in ways that may still be lurking in my subconscious. Also, I have an incredibly interesting family, and some fascinating friends, and they have certainly been very influential.
Visit Megan Chance's website.

My Book, The Movie: A Splendid Ruin.

The Page 69 Test: A Splendid Ruin.

--Marshal Zeringue

Monday, January 18, 2021

Molly Ringle

Molly Ringle was one of the quiet, weird kids in school, and is now one of the quiet, weird writers of the world. She likes thinking up innovative romantic obstacles and mixing them with topics like Greek mythology, ghost stories, fairy tales, or regular-world scandalous gossip. With her intense devotion to humor, she was proud to win the grand prize in the 2010 Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest with one (intentionally) terrible sentence. She's into mild rainy climates, gardens, '80s new wave music, chocolate, tea, and perfume (or really anything that smells good). She has lived in the Pacific Northwest most of her life, aside from grad school in California and one work-abroad season in Edinburgh in the 1990s. (She's also really into the U.K., though has a love/stress relationship with travel.) She currently lives in Seattle with her husband, kids, corgi, guinea pigs, and a lot of moss.

Ringle's new novel is Lava Red Feather Blue.

My Q&A with the author:

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

The title was originally Lava Red and Feather Blue, but my publisher suggested it was more poetic and intriguing without the “and,” so we went with that. Other than that, the title hasn’t changed since early draft days, and I like it because it fits some of my central criteria for a good title—people can pronounce it and spell it—and also because it has multiple meanings for the story. Lava red and feather blue are the royal colors in the fictional country of Eidolonia, where the book takes place, and it’s mentioned that they represent, respectively, the powerful fae and the delicate humans who share the island. But in addition, “lava red” and “feather blue” could each represent various characters. A red-haired prince, a half-fae human born with blue feathers on his skin, a fire faery who can attack with lava, a gentle faery who can turn into a blue bird…readers have options for how to interpret it.

What's in a name?

I have fun with names; I like looking up their meanings so they fit a character, as well as trying to pick ones that are euphonious. You have to be careful in fantasy especially—made-up unpronounceable fantasy names are a notorious pitfall! So in this book, while the humans have relatively human-world names like Merrick and Larkin and Cassidy (because it does take place on modern Earth, just with one magical country added), the fae names and some place names are less familiar. All of them are, I hope, pronounceable and easy enough to keep track of, but they also weren’t entirely made up from scratch. Since Eidolonia is a Pacific island, I took inspiration from native languages in and around the Pacific: Hawaiian, Maori, Aleut, Inuit, and so on. Thus, for example, there is a volcanic expanse of cooled lava called the Kumiahi Desert that plays a large role in the story, and (if the internet is to be trusted) “kumiahi” in Maori means “overflow,” and “ka umu ahi” in Hawaiian means “furnace.” An apt name for such a place, was my hope!

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

I think my teenage self would be surprised that the book is so open with LGBTQ identities and romances—in the ’90s, such things were far less understood and spoken of than they are now, or at least, at my age and in my high school they were. But I think I would have been fascinated by it, as someone who’s always been into a variety of love stories. Fantasy has always been one of my favorite genres, too, with the Oz books being among my earliest reading memories, so the part where I created a fantasy country with fae and witches and unusual animals would probably not have surprised me as much.

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

I definitely rewrite beginnings more! Midway through writing Lava Red Feather Blue, I went back and added a “200 years ago” prologue at the start, because I decided that it would play much better to see Prince Larkin being put into his enchanted sleep than just to hear about it in the modern day, when the rest of the story takes place. Besides, who doesn’t want a little glimpse into 1799?

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

The news and politics influenced this book in the sense that when I started plotting it, back in early 2017, I was really tired of the problems and the mood of the modern USA, and didn’t want to set a story here. So I decided it was time to take that back-burner idea I had of making up a country on a big island in the north Pacific, and start giving them some of the advantages and adventures that we can’t have! Magic being, of course, chief among those advantages—although magic causes problems too. Aside from that, the environment is also a fairly clear theme and an inspiration. The fae in the story are sentient forces of nature, essentially, and I spend a lot of time, in real life as well as in this book, pondering the question, “Are we humans getting along with the rest of nature as well as we could? Couldn’t we and the rest of nature learn to take care of each other a bit better?”
Visit Molly Ringle's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Saturday, January 16, 2021

Gerald Brandt

Gerald Brandt is an international bestselling author of science fiction and fantasy, and the author of the cyberpunk San Angeles sci-fi trilogy: The Courier, The Operative, and The Rebel. The first of the trilogy was a finalist for the Aurora Award for Best Novel. His short story “Storm” appeared in the 2013 Prix Aurora Award-winning anthology Blood & Water. By day, he’s an IT professional and coding guru. In his limited spare time, he enjoys riding his motorcycle, rock climbing, camping, and spending time with his family. He lives in Winnipeg with his wife Marnie, and their two sons Jared and Ryan.

Brandt's new novel is Threader Origins - Book One of The Quantum Empirica.

My Q&A with the author:

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

Threader Origins wasn't the working title for the book. During our first revision pass, my editor (two time Hugo Award winning Editor) Sheila Gilbert and I hashed out the titles for all three books in the series. At the time, I had no idea what to call books two and three, but once we had Threader Origins they fell into place. The working title was Qabal. The problem with that is that it focused on the wrong things in the book. This really is an origin story on a couple of levels, the first being Darwin's (the main character's) introduction to Threads and how to use them, and the second is on the Threads themselves and the power they give and take. This is Darwin's first step into a new world, and he finds out more about himself than he could have in his own.

What's in a name?

Character names was a big issue for me in this novel. As I mentioned above, the main character's name is Darwin Lloyd. Both names have meaning, but the first name is the one that will click with readers. I think most readers will almost immediately think about Charles Darwin and his book On the Origin of Species. For me, it brings to mind the ideas of evolution and growth, both concepts in Threader Origins. In this case, it's the evolution and growth of the human species itself. You'll see a few physicists names dropped throughout the book, but Darwin's was very specifically chosen.

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

I always know how a book is going to end before I even write the first word. That doesn't make it any easier to write! Even with that, I'd have to say beginnings are more difficult, and especially with Threader Origins. The entire series of three books is written from a single point of view... Darwin's. Because of that, I wanted readers to have an immediate connection and look into who he really was and what was happening to him. I must have gone through over a dozen iterations of the opening before I reached the version that is in the book. I woke up one morning with the almost final version in my head. It's basically the same as what I wrote down that day with a few minor tweaks, and I think it works extremely well.

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 wrote characters that were like me, I don't think I'd have any readers. Bored is not something a writer wants readers to be! I guess since all my characters came from my imagination, they are more a part of me than I am of them, if that makes any sense.
Visit Gerald Brandt's website.

The Page 69 Test: The Operative.

Writers Read: Gerald Brandt (January 2017).

The Page 69 Test: Threader Origins.

--Marshal Zeringue

Wednesday, January 13, 2021

Claire Booth

Formerly a crime reporter for daily newspapers such as the Miami Herald and Philadelphia Inquirer, Claire Booth is the author of the Sheriff Hank Worth Mysteries: The Branson Beauty, Another Man's Ground, A Deadly Turn, and the newly released Fatal Divisions.

From my Q&A with the author:

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

I think that titles play a really important part of bringing readers into the story. I hope that Fatal Divisions does that. The book is about families—the ones you’re related to and the ones you form with friends—and the actions that can tear those families apart. It was a tough title to come up with, because the natural phrases that come to mind are so overused—“Family Ties,” “Blood Kin,” etc. My editor and I batted around many combinations before we settled on Fatal Divisions, and I’m quite happy with it.

What's in a name?

Since this is a series, most of my character names were decided long ago. I do have one very important new one in Fatal Divisions, however. Finella McCleary Lancaster. She’s the sister of Duncan McCleary, who is the father-in-law of my main character, Sheriff Hank Worth. Duncan is a character with a proud Scottish heritage, and I needed his sister to be the same. I thought her name would be a perfect way to reflect that. I turned to my favorite name resource, a book of global baby names, and found “Finella.” It’s not often the absolute perfect name pops out at you, but it did for me this time.

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

My teenage self wouldn’t be surprised at all! I’ve loved mysteries since I could read, speeding through things like Nancy Drew and Trixie Belden. And I spent my teenage years devouring Agatha Christie. So writing my own mysteries would be something my teenage self would see as a natural next step.

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

I actually find the middle to be the most difficult. I always know where I want to start, and I usually know where I want to end up, but it’s how to get there that gives me the most trouble. In this book, I start with a missing person and a suspicion that someone close to my main character, Hank Worth, is a killer. I won’t tell you how he sorts out those problems, but it took me many twists and turns to get where I knew I had to end.
Visit Claire Booth's website.

My Book, The Movie: Fatal Divisions.

The Page 69 Test: Fatal Divisions.

--Marshal Zeringue

Monday, January 11, 2021

Elizabeth Green

Elizabeth Green graduated from the University of the Arts with a BFA in theater arts. They have contributed to McSweeney's Internet Tendency, Hobart, Wigleaf, Necessary Fiction, fwriction : review, and others. Their hobbies include native gardening and aikido. Hailing from Upstate New York—Greenwich, to be specific—Green now lives outside Philadelphia with their husband and two cats.

Their new book is Confessions of a Curious Bookseller.

My Q&A with the author:

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

I hope the title entices readers to flip to the back and read the summary. The word Confessions is true to the spirit of it, in that it's an epistolary tale about a quirky bookstore owner in Philadelphia. Through emails, journal entries, blog posts and other means, the reader learns about the narrator's life through her quotidian confessions – be they truthful or not. The narrator is also curious – not in the sleuthing sense but in the off-centered sense. She is unique, cantankerous, bold, and so is truly curious by nature.

Also, she's a bookseller, and so what's more appropriate than calling it like it is? The publisher, I think, came up with the title initially as we were throwing ideas at the wall, and this one stuck the most. We certainly did go back and forth a bit with it, but in the end the editor, my agent, marketing and I all agreed that it was best to call it Confessions of a Curious Bookseller. I'm glad we did, because I think it's an intriguing title.

What's in a name? 

To be honest, the name Fawn Birchill came to me in a flash, like most names I come up with for the stories I write. I wrote it down, saw how it looked, said it aloud, and liked it. I like the crunchiness of it, if that makes any sense. Probably not, but it sort of gets caught in the mouth, which I like. It's strong but elegant, hard and soft. Her name grew into her as I wrote her and got to know her more.

What developed was that the dichotomy of the sounds informed her personality. She is at once impossibly frustrating and incredibly kind. She is cruel in one breath and in the next, charming (or tries to be). She is larger than life, but also deeply human. To me, her name, as it is sounded out, represents the opposition she fights within herself every day.

Also, I was living in Philly when I wrote it (lived there for 15 years). I absolutely love that city, so I had to set the book there. There is no place like it in the world, and it's where I've had the pleasure of meeting some of the most important people in my life, including my spouse.

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

My teenage self would not be very surprised! In my teens I was obsessed with absurdist theater, wordplay and the unreliable narrator that comes with that genre. I read Samuel Beckett, Tom Stoppard, Bertolt Brecht, Edward Albee, Christopher Durang and Caryl Churchill like they were going out of style.

My love of the deeply flawed and unreliable narrator became ignited however, when I came across the BBC's The Office by Stephen Merchant and Ricky Gervais when I was young and impressionable.

I think the teen would be happy that I experimented in this way, and leaned in to my interests. She'd be surprised I'm not acting (I went to theater school) but maybe there's still time for that someday.

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

It's much harder to write endings I think because I often change the ending more than the beginning. I always knew what I wanted to have happen to Fawn, our main character, but I wasn't exactly sure how I'd word it.

Fawn puts herself through a lot of heartache throughout the book, so I only thought it fair to give her a happy ending. The happy ending isn't exactly what you might expect, but I think it's appropriate. Equally true, those around her end up (for the most part) coming out on top (despite her cantankerousness and sabotage), which I also felt was important.

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

Fawn's insecurities, fears and general introversion aren't out of nowhere. Fawn is certainly larger-than-life and takes everything to the nth degree, but broken down, Fawn and I share a lot of the same fears.

Striving to impress family and perfect strangers is definitely something that might as well be a professional sport for Fawn. I've been in this trap for most of my life, and I'm still climbing my way out of that thinking.

I also feel a connection to Fawn's sister Florence, the more responsible and grounded of the two. To me, Florence and Fawn are two sides of my personality: The desperate need to break out and live a flighty, adventurous life (Fawn) and the comfort of a life that is regimented and based in reality (Florence).

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

My life in theater certainly influenced my writing. I grew up on the stage, so I think it was baked into me at a young age to want to impress people. It was an unhealthy way for me to look at it, but I took the applause and interpreted that as love. I think Fawn interprets love similarly. She thinks it comes from others' admiration where really it needs to come from within.

I take a lot of influence from my socio-economic background. A running theme in a lot of my work is the push and pull between the haves and have nots. I could write volumes on the psychological impact financial insecurity had on me as I navigated the world as a young adult.

I saw how family wealth gave people the kind of security and comfort that was completely foreign to me, and that ingrained security – at least from a financial standpoint – fascinated me. I knew people in high school and college who just didn't have that worry hanging on them. It was palpable. Financial insecurity certainly crops up often in my works, so clearly, I still have a lot to work out.

Also, my work in the service and retail industries both during and after college certainly influenced me. I had a lot of wonderful experiences working those jobs and met some fantastic humans, but there was also a darker side to it. I've had to deal and put up with some seriously crazy stuff that only people working in those industries would probably believe. It made me fully understand the cliché: truth is stranger than fiction.

On a less serious note, other huge non-literary influences include: Stephen Merchant, Ricky Gervais, Taika Waititi, Will Sharpe, Jordan Peele, Ari Aster, A24 films, Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Donald Glover, Diane Morgan, Christopher Guest, Steve Pemberton, Reece Shearsmith, and absurdist theater. For music: Tom Waits, Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, Balmorhea, Sigur Rós, Rachmaninoff, The Black Angels and others.
Visit Elizabeth Green's website.

The Page 69 Test: Confessions of a Curious Bookseller.

--Marshal Zeringue

Saturday, January 9, 2021

Chris Harding Thornton

Chris Harding Thornton, a seventh-generation Nebraskan, holds an MFA from the University of Washington and a PhD from the University of Nebraska, where she has taught courses in writing and literature. She has worked as a quality assurance overseer at a condom factory, a jar-lid screwer at a plastics plant, a closer at Burger King, a record store clerk, an all-ages club manager, and a PR writer. Pickard County Atlas is her first novel.

My Q&A with the author:

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

The title was a weird journey. The working title was Reclamation, which is one underlying theme, but there are more, and readers will find their own, so that felt too reductive. Pickard County Atlas came to me solely because maps from county atlases appear at key moments in the story. Only after the publisher didn't push for a different title did I think it actually fit. The main thing it conveys is how connected the story is to place (a fictional county in north-central Nebraska in 1978, just prior to the 1980s farm crisis). In the book, the place is described as a "cusp" where the Nebraska sandhills begin, and the three main characters are on cusps of their own. The first character we see is a sheriff's deputy named Harley Jensen, who has a tragic past he's carried with him for four decades. Then we meet Pam Reddick, who married too young, has a three-year-old, and feels suffocated by poverty. And then there's Rick, her husband, whose older brother was killed by a farm hand in 1960, leaving the Reddick family a wreck. The body was never recovered, but just prior to the book's opening, Rick's father has a headstone dedicated to his lost son, and that's all it takes for the characters to start falling from their respective cusps. So, the place, era, and characters are intertwined, and I think the book maps that interconnection.

What's in a name?

For the characters, I mainly chose names that were emblematic of the region and eras in which people were born. "Otto Ziske" is probably my favorite. Large swaths of Nebraska have people of German and Czech heritage, so I combined those two with him. As for the main characters, Harley wasn't the most popular name of its time, but it wasn't that uncommon, and there are so many Jensens in parts of Nebraska that you can't swing a cat without hitting three or four. Pam and Rick were names that seemed both tied to era and slightly nondescript, which was important to me--the notion of writing a book about people who wouldn't normally have a book written about them.

For places, I used a mix. Pickard is a name from my family tree, while the Wakonda, a creek, is a phonetic English version of a Native term (several tribes use it). It's often translated as "Great Spirit." For some, that connotes a supreme being, but it also carries more nuance than that; it doesn't divide physical from metaphysical, it encompasses the interconnected spirit or energy of all things--I don't know if English captures it well, even if it tries to in that phonetic version.

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

Teenage-me wouldn't be too surprised. Granted, at seventeen, I was itching to graduate and get as far from home as I could, only to turn around years later and write a book immersed in my sense of home. But I'd also been born with eleven living grandparents (four grandparents, six great-grandparents, and one great-great-grandmother), and I grew up around nine of them (two lived out of state). They're what caused an early obsession with Nebraska and pre-Nebraska history, which permeates and informs the story. Many of the darker elements of the book wouldn't be surprising, either. I was (am) a little on the goth side, which was also partly influenced by one of those grandmothers. She was an encyclopedia of morbid local tales.

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

In this book, the ending. Early on, I knew the fates of the characters would converge, but I had no idea what would happen when they did. I had to write my way there to find out, which I think was important. Not knowing kept me going. Then, when I finished the first draft, all the events were in place, but the ending was still wrong somehow. My agent, Emily Forland, thought there might be a missing chapter. Once she pointed it out, I don't think it took an hour to write, and I knew that was where one character needed to go. Then, during more revision with my editor, Daphne Durham, I sensed I was copping out on two other characters. I was making pretty sentences and avoiding what the characters needed to feel. I had to take the characters' endings one at a time and not as they happen sequentially in the story. Where each needed to go was too much to deal with, emotionally, in one swoop.

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

This is a funny question. My mother read it and definitely saw herself in a character. I think (I hope) I finally convinced her that none of us are in the book.

Having said that, I am also totally in the book. I've never been a forty-seven-year-old sheriff's deputy or a mother or father, but every character is a fragment of myself (often doing terrible things to the other fragments--I'm not sure how healthy that is). I write to empathize with other people, to grasp at why they do what they do. But empathy is never equivalent to being. I can only write from the frames of reference I have (which comes up in the story). I believe each of us sees the world through an individualized and constantly changing lens shaped by our body's chemistry in combination with each experience we have. I think we share things, we have mirroring experiences, and we have more connectedness than we consciously realize, but there's almost always that frame, or lens, we see the world through. I do think that can be transcended; I think I've had a few moments when I've caught a glimpse of that. Most of the time, though, I think the best I can do is try to widen my scope through reading and listening to how other people experience the world.

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

Film and television are huge. My sense of plot comes mostly from films--The Departed is a favorite--and fairly recent TV series, like The Wire, Downton Abbey, True Detective, Sons of Anarchy, and Mayans MC. I was late to the game on The Sopranos, but it's great, too. Tonally, the Coen brothers are an influence. The only movies I've ever watched a second time immediately after finishing the first have been Coen brothers films. David Lynch's Fire Walk with Me, as a standalone piece, setting the Twin Peaks series completely aside (which is difficult, I know), was also formative. Easy to watch? No, but incredible. And then I've been influenced by the imagery of too many filmmakers to name--Wong Kar-wai, Paul Thomas Anderson, Fellini, Kurosawa--that list would go on for days.

Music has always been huge, too--my dad played guitar, my great-grandparents always had the radio on, and my grandmother would burst into song if you said the right word (e.g., if you said, "coat," you'd hear, "Get your coat and get your hat / Lay your worries on the doorstep"). I started college as an opera major, and then I worked in independent music in one capacity or another for years. I listen to every genre, I think, but in this book, rock and country are prominent. In early drafts, each main character had specific albums they listened to. It was overboard, and I pared back, but each time I needed to reenter a character after taking a break, I just listened to the music they did. I also suspect music is why I toil over a sentence for three hours--I need a precise number of syllables for rhythm.
Visit Chris Harding Thornton's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Thursday, January 7, 2021

Molly Greeley

Molly Greeley was born in Ann Arbor, Michigan, where her addiction to books was spurred by her parents' floor-to-ceiling bookshelves. A graduate of Michigan State University, she began as an Education major, but switched to English and Creative Writing after deciding that gainful employment was not as important to her as being able to spend several years reading books and writing stories and calling it work.

She lives in northern Michigan with her husband and three children, and can often be found with her laptop at local coffee shops.

Greeley's new novel is The Heiress.

My Q&A with the author:

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

The Heiress is the untold story of Anne de Bourgh from Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice, and the title is very much a nod to one of the main things we know about Anne from Austen's novel - that she is the heiress to a grand estate in Kent. Coupled with the subtitle ("The Revelations of Anne de Bourgh") I think the title does some pretty decent lifting as far as getting the reader into the story. Anne is voiceless in Pride and Prejudice - she has no speaking lines whatsoever, and is known only as the rich, supposedly sickly cousin of Mr. Darcy - and as such is something of a blank slate; the "revelations" aspect of the subtitle indicates that there is more to her, and to her story, than we might expect.

What's in a name?

Because The Heiress is an Austen continuation, many of the characters were already named long before I came along to write about them. Of the secondary characters who were my own inventions... well, the Regency era in England was not (in general) a time of terribly unique given names; there's a reason there are so many Annes, Janes, and Catherines in Jane Austen's works. To stay true to the time in which I was writing, I scoured British registrars of births and deaths for the period, and chose names for my characters from there.

The one character whose name I agonized over was Colonel Fitzwilliam, who, though an Austen creation, is not given a first name in Pride and Prejudice. In the huge canon of Austen spin-offs and continuations, naming him "Richard" became the norm somewhere along the way; but since this doesn't stem from the original work, I wanted to distance myself from it. I finally settled on "John" for his first name, and I'm afraid I have no better explanation than it feeling right.

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

I think my teenage self, who adored Austen and Austen adaptations, would nonetheless be completely surprised to find she had grown up to write a book like The Heiress. As a teenager, though I did dream of growing up to become a writer, it was fantasy books I aspired to write. I suppose some of the more fantastical/hallucinatory elements of the story could be considered nods to my love of fantasy... but as my teenage self would no doubt tell you, that's a stretch.

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

Beginnings are almost always harder for me than endings. Even - as with The Heiress - when I don't have a clear idea of how the story will end when I begin writing, I tend to know it when I get there. I must have rewritten the beginning of The Heiress five or six times trying to find a way to thrust readers into the story, while staying true to the slow and ponderous life my main character was living at the story's start. The end, though, seemed to fly from my finger ends and onto the screen, one of those rare moments in writing when it feels as if you're not in control, in the best possible way.

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

In general, yes, I do see myself in my characters. No character I've written is truly "me," but most of them contain elements of myself, even if only in a single thought they have. My antagonists might even have bits of me in them, since I try to twist my head around their thought processes and get to the why of their behaviors.

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

There are so many non-literary inspirations! Movies, certainly; I find myself watching movies now the same way I read books, trying to deconstruct the way the story is told, how the viewers are shown who a character is, how settings are used effectively. And I do make a playlist for every book I write, which I listen to with headphones when I need to really shut out the rest of the world and plug into the world I'm trying to create. On each playlist, there tend to be one or two songs that lyrically resonate with the characters I'm writing; I listen to those again and again.

Nature is also something of an inspiration; in both The Clergyman's Wife and The Heiress, the woods around Anne's estate of Rosings Park play a role in the main characters' emotional lives, and this stems from my own experience of just being able to breathe more deeply when I'm in the woods, and of my mind getting swept clean of those clamorous, intrusive, everyday thoughts that can get in the way of writing.
Visit Molly Greeley's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Tuesday, January 5, 2021

Molly MacRae

Molly MacRae spent twenty years in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains of Upper East Tennessee, where she managed The Book Place, an independent bookstore; may it rest in peace. Before the lure of books hooked her, she was curator of the history museum in Jonesborough, Tennessee’s oldest town.

MacRae lives with her family in Champaign, Illinois, where she connects children with books at the public library.

Her latest Highland Bookshop Mystery is Heather and Homicide.

My Q&A with the author:

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

My titles are teasers. It’s just barely possible someone will see the title Heather and Homicide and mistake the book for a nonfiction case study of botanical criminal activity. More likely they’ll recognize it as something lighter, and maybe even for what it is, a cozy mystery. It’s the fourth book in the Highland Bookshop Mystery series, with the title following the pattern of the other books – two alliterative words separated by the word “and.” The first word is something recognizably Scottish, the third suggests something nefarious. The beauty of only three words is wiggle room. Heather could have been the plant that turns whole hillsides purple. Instead, Heather is a true-crime writer who says she’s arrived in seaside Inversgail, Scotland, to research recent murders for her new book. But if that’s true, why does she seem more interested in a shadowy lawyer who had nothing to do with that crime? And why is she seemingly being stalked by death? I love coming up with titles, and for this book, and this series, titles come first. They’re teasers for me as much as for readers. They’re clues to the puzzle of where is this story going to take me?

What's in a name?

Heather and Homicide takes place in the west coast Scottish Highland town of Inversgail. Here’s the origin story for that name.

A small river, not much more than a wide burn, flows from the green sheep- and heather-covered hills and spills into the sea at Inversgail. The river is the Sgail on modern maps, although the name has been spelled Sgail, Skail, and Sgeul on older maps and since maps of the area have existed. The spelling of the river’s name has led to a debate over its meaning and the meaning of Inversgail. There’s no question about the inver part – inver means either “river mouth” or “confluence of waters.”

The “sgeul” camp say that sgail is an Anglicization of sgeul, a Gaelic word for story. A family of noted storytellers and bards lived in the area and the sgeul camp believes the river was named to honor them. And because stories and storytelling and mouths all go together, they find the name Inversgail particularly apt.

The “skail” camp say “sgail” is a misspelling of “skail,” a Scots word meaning to spill. Rivers naturally spill their waters at their mouths, and thus the name Inversgail.

A third camp believes that “inver” holds the key. The town’s name results from a confluence of meanings. The storytellers lived and told their stories beside the river. The stories spilled from their mouths, just as the river spills into the sea at Inversgail.

NB: The above language information is real and the debates over meanings plausible, but if you go looking for the seaside town of Inversgail, or its river, as one of my readers did on her long-awaited trip to Scotland, you’ll be as disappointed as she was. You’ll only find them in my books and I write fiction.

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

My teenage self would be tickled. I lived in Scotland at the tail end of my teens. I fell in love with the people, landscape, colors, food, smells, accents, language, islands, sheep – and the bookstores. My teenage self would be glad, almost fifty years on, that I still feel that love. Also that the book is a mystery. She wanted to write mysteries.

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 look in a mirror and see my characters looking back. They bubble up out of the soup in my head, though, so they can’t help but carry bits of me with them. Some of those bits are obvious. Janet Marsh and I are both retired librarians. She and her three business partners are running a bookstore, now, and I ran one before joining the library. Janet is short and afraid of cliff edges. Check and check. Some of the bits are only wishful thinking, because the four bookstore women are much better versions of me – braver, more quick-witted, better at darts, willing to take bigger chances. Some of them play Scrabble better, too. That’s part of the fun of writing books like this – vicarious living through imaginary friends. I hope that I’m a world apart from the murderer in the book. Villains walk among us in real life, though. They certainly walk among the characters in mysteries, and this one bubbled up right alongside the other characters in the story.
Visit Molly MacRae's website.

My Book, The Movie: Plaid and Plagiarism.

The Page 69 Test: Plaid and Plagiarism.

The Page 69 Test: Scones and Scoundrels.

My Book, The Movie: Scones and Scoundrels.

The Page 69 Test: Crewel and Unusual.

The Page 69 Test: Heather and Homicide.

--Marshal Zeringue

Monday, January 4, 2021

Monica Rodden

Monica Rodden lives in Austin, Texas, with her husband, Greg, and a dog who loves to chase everything. When not preventing Hamlet from terrorizing the local squirrel population, she writes murder mysteries for young adults...with a classic twist!

Rodden's new novel, her debut, is Monsters Among Us.

My Q&A with the author:

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

It does a lot of work. I'm very grateful to my publishing team for the title. Before it was very English major-y: Whatever Our Souls Are Made Of (based off the quote from Wuthering Heights). While my book does take some inspiration from that classic novel, that title makes it sound almost like a romance--which the story most definitely is not! Monsters Among Us tells the reader immediately that this is a thriller novel with high stakes and danger lurking in the shadows.

What's in a name?

I want to answer this one so badly, but I can't without spoiling the ending! I put a great deal of thought into the first and last names of my characters, and each meaning is important to the storyline. There is one name I can discuss without giving anything away though: a dog called Molly, a name that can mean "rebellion." In Monsters Among Us, Molly is an elderly chocolate Lab who devolves into puppy-like chaos when she sees another dog (or a squirrel). Does she help solve the murder? Well, she does lend a paw or two... (I will stop with the dog jokes now).

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

Beginnings, 100%. Endings are fun and fast but beginnings can cause a sort of paralyzing self-doubt, leading to multiple rewrites. At least for me. I also judge books hard for their beginnings, so I'm extra tough on myself about them.

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

Podcasts. I listen to This is Actually Happening and Terrible, Thanks for Asking, and of course a lot of true crime. But it's the two former examples--people just telling their stories--that have been an unexpected gift to my writing. Our own life is, by default, small and limited compared to the vast experiences of the whole of the world; there's no way to know it all, to empathize with so many different situations. But an hour of someone talking in your ear about how it feels to go through something you never have can stretch your mind and your writing to encompass, responsibly, more of the world.
Visit Monica Rodden's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Friday, January 1, 2021

Michael Mammay

Michael Mammay is a science fiction writer. He is a retired army officer and a graduate of the United States Military Academy. He has a master’s degree in military history, and he currently teaches American literature. He is a veteran of Desert Storm, Somalia, and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. His debut novel, Planetside came out in July, 2018, and was selected as a Library Journal best book of 2018. The audio book, narrated by RC Bray, was nominated for an Audie award. The sequel, Spaceside, hit the shelves in August, 2019.

Mammay's new novel is Colonyside.

My Q&A with the author:

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

The title Colonyside doesn’t do too much—the story takes place on a recently colonized planet, and that’s about it. Another author (Craig Alanson) joked that the title means it won’t be set in a colony, because in my previous books, Planetside took place mostly in space and Spaceside took place mostly on a planet.

I think the most interesting thing about the title of Colonyside is that wasn’t what we were going to call it. My editor thought we should go with a title that didn’t include the word ‘side’ in it, to break the cycle, and I was on board with him. Then we sent it to marketing and they were like…uh, no. It needs to be a ‘side.’ So here we are.

What's in a name?

Absolutely nothing. Carl Butler is just something I came up with when I was drafting a test chapter of the first book in the series, and I stuck with it. The only thing I wanted from it was to be racially ambiguous enough that you could conceivably read the character however you wanted. I never mention Butler’s race or skin tone in three books, and that’s intentional.

I am so bad at names. There’s a character in Colonyside called Moop. He’s the owner and proprietor of Moop’s bar. When I drafted that, I didn’t think it would stick. Surely someone would make me change that name. Nope. It’s in there. It has absolutely no significance beyond my lack of imagination. My biggest thought when naming characters is ‘don’t make too many characters with names that start with the same letter.’

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

My teenage self…it would depend on what part of my teens. My younger teen self would be really surprised, as I never really considered writing. At eighteen or nineteen, I’d have been less surprised. In college, I told my mom that I was going to be a writer. Of course I was at West Point at the time, so there were other things in store for me, and I didn’t actually start writing until I was in my forties.

I think I’d have been surprised that I ended up writing science fiction, as I was more of a fantasy fan back then. I did try to write fantasy first—there’s a failed novel somewhere on an old thumb drive. But then I had the idea for Planetside, and that carried me into SF.

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

I hate writing endings. With my first book, I didn’t even know how it ended when I started writing it. Now I have to outline my books before I write them (because that’s how I sell them to the publisher), so I have some idea. But I don’t actually follow my outlines—my characters kind of take on lives of their own. So often when I get to the end, the end that I planned doesn’t work anymore.

I love beginnings. If I could, I’d sit there and just write the first five pages of a dozen books. But only if you promised me that I wouldn’t have to think up endings for them. To me, a beginning is so freeing. It’s like sitting down and just thinking, ‘what if this happened?’

That’s how I came up with the idea for Colonyside. It was basically: Carl Butler is retired, but what if a really rich guy (think Jeff Bezos rich) put pressure on the government to have Butler do one more mission? And that’s the book. It all came from that idea. Of course since it’s the third book in a series, I already had some characters and some basics of the setting, so that helped too.

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 some people might see a bit of me in Carl Butler. After all, I was a colonel in the army and so is he. Now I’m retired, and so is he—I think those connections are pretty obvious. But that’s really about as far as the similarities go. When someone asks me if Butler is based on me, I’ll look at them very seriously and say, “Yes. I went to distant planets and investigated strange things with aliens. Unfortunately, now that you know that, we can’t let you continue to roam free.”

The similarities do come into play when I get stuck, occasionally. Like if I don’t know what Butler is going to do in a situation, sometimes I think ‘well, what would I have done in that case?’ And that’s often enough to get me started in a productive direction.

But he’s definitely not me. None of my characters are based on real people, but I do try to write characters that are familiar, just the same. For example, Mac isn’t a real soldier I knew, but when soldiers read my book, most of them have known a guy like Mac.

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

I spent 27 years in the army, and I think that influenced my writing in a couple of different ways.

First, I try to inject a lot of realism into my soldiers and their battles. I try to give the reader the feel of what it’s like to be there, both in combat, and in the interactions between soldiers outside of combat. I think that’s one of the strongest elements of my writing, and it’s what a lot of my fans point to when they recommend the book to people.

Second, having fought in a lot of different places, I have some very strong opinions on war. Without giving away too much, let’s just say I’m not a big fan of it. The impetus behind most wars tends to be a lot less noble than we’d like to hope. At the same time, you’ve got some really decent people trying to do their best with it. And I think that makes for good stories.

What happens when you put a fundamentally decent person into an ugly situation? What happens when a person who wants to do the right thing is faced with a situation where maybe the right thing is well in the past, and all he’s got left is a decision between two wrong things? There are rarely black and white choices in life, and when there are, they’re probably not that interesting.
Visit Michael Mammay's website.

--Marshal Zeringue