Thursday, May 13, 2021

Katherine A. Sherbrooke

Katherine A. Sherbrooke is the author of Fill the Sky, which was a finalist for the Mary Sarton Award for Contemporary Fiction and the Foreward Indies Book of the Year, and won a 2017 Independent Press Award. She is Chair of the GrubStreet Creative Writing Center in Boston and lives south of the city with her husband, two sons, and black lab.

Sherbrooke's new novel is Leaving Coy's Hill.

My Q&A with the author:

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

An early title I considered was Call Me Lucy Stone, but I realized that had two problems: it might sound like a straight biography, and more importantly, considering that most people don’t know who Lucy Stone was, using her name didn’t help (unlike, for example, the recent The Mystery of Mrs. Christie—right away, anyone remotely familiar with Agatha Christie will know what the book is about). Coy’s Hill is where Lucy grew up, and the reader is taken to that childhood home very early on in the book. What I hope the title will do is create a set of questions for the reader that remain relevant straight through to the last page: what does Coy’s Hill represent for her, what does she take away when she leaves, and what remains with her forever?

What's in a name?

Given that this is historical fiction based on the lives of real people, my main characters were all named for me! But I did invent some characters who were composites or represented key turning points for Lucy. One such character is an escaped slave named Juda May who makes an indelible impression on Lucy. I had read that many slaves were named for the month in which they were born. That fact speaks volumes. I wanted to create for this character a name that adhered to that custom but was as graceful and beautiful as this character is in my mind’s eye.

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

Such an interesting question! I think my teenage self would be pretty surprised. I wasn’t the slightest bit political as a young person and was too clueless to see feminism as something important in my world. I hope that younger self might have been drawn into this story enough to understand (earlier in her life) how far behind the starting line women were placed by our Constitution and the impact one determined woman can make, but that is something I’ll never know!

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

Beginnings, without a doubt, are much harder for me and get revised more than anything else. In fact, I’ve come to believe that the opening (for me) can’t be truly finished until the rest of the book is locked in place—and I don’t mean after the first moment I write “the end,” I mean after countless revisions, all the way up until the book is about to go through its last pre-pub copy edit. By contrast, the last paragraph of the book rarely changes from the first draft. By that point in the process, it’s very clear to me how it needs to end.

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

There are pieces of me in all my key characters—even those characters with traits I detest exist in some way because of my reaction to them. The old cliché “write what you know” is often debated by writers. I believe we should all be free to imagine any place, time, or situation in our work, whether we have experienced it or not. But the inner life of say, of a character standing on an asteroid in a fictional universe, is likely made real because we are able to tap into an emotion we have felt course through our own body, something we know on a visceral level.

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

Performed drama, whether in the movies, TV or on stage. Dialogue is one of the best ways to bring a reader into a story and watching forms that rely almost solely on dialogue is really helpful to me. I often say that I worship at the altar of Aaron Sorkin! The other is music. Great lyrics are essentially poetry. The ability to encapsulate a situation in only a few words stops me in my tracks and reminds me of the importance of every word, how the combination of certain words can light our brains on fire. As a writer of novels, I have a long way to go to improve my economy of words! I often turn to music as a reminder of just how quickly stories can be told.
Visit Katherine A. Sherbrooke's website.

The Page 69 Test: Leaving Coy's Hill.

--Marshal Zeringue

Wednesday, May 12, 2021

Jeffrey Siger

Jeffrey Siger was born and raised in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, practiced law at a major Wall Street law firm, and later established his own New York City law firm where he continued as one of its name partners until giving it all up to write full-time among the people, life, and politics of his beloved Mykonos. A Deadly Twist is the eleventh novel in Siger's internationally best-selling and award nominated Chief Inspector Andreas Kaldis series.

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

The title for book #11 in my Chief Inspector Andreas Kaldis series is A Deadly Twist, and the story is filled with many unexpected deadly twists. But the interesting thing for me about this title is that it’s the first book in my mystery-thriller series that does not employ an alliterative title. With the exception of the trade paperback version of The Mykonos Mob (Book #10)–titled Island of Secrets–every Kaldis book uses an alliterative title naming the Greek locale where that story is set. With my books considered fast paced favorites of armchair travelers, I suppose it’s fair to say that, even in their alliterative form, my titles work well at drawing readers into the story. By the way, I happily agreed with my publisher’s decision to end that practice, as at times it seemed to take as long to come up with the title as write the book.

What's in a name?

My books are all based in Greece, and Greek names generally follow rather rigid traditions. For example, a first-born son is named after the father’s father, the second son after the mother’s father. Four sons having four more sons rather quickly floods the market with a lot of similar first and surnames. At times, I’ll use the names of friends for casual characters, but generally my goal is to keep the names simple, in order that the reader has no trouble keeping track. To that end, my primary characters all have simple names: Andreas, his wife Lila, his side-kick Yianni, his mentor Tassos, and his personal assistant/secretary Maggie. But I also often employ a different convention for some generally non-recurring characters (both villains and not) who play a crucial role in a particular story. Names such as Artist, Demon, Colonel, Teacher, Kharon, and Aryan, come to me as the plot unfolds and serve as the distinctive avatar for their character—in all senses of that word.

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

Raised as I was where the confluence of two great rivers forms the mighty Ohio, my teenage bookshelf held multiple copies of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn—the literary gift of choice to Pittsburgh youth on virtually any occasion. But my teenage self would not be surprised at the deadly twist my writing has taken from what I read back then, because each night I’d fall asleep listening to the distant sound of trains rolling along down by the river, as my mind conjured up any manner of wild adventure tales.

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

Both come relatively easily to me; it’s what’s in between that’s the tricky part. I’m a complete seat of the pants writer, meaning that when I sit down at the keyboard I rarely know where my writing is headed. When I start a new book, I let my fingers and thoughts run wild, and out of that exercise emerges a beginning that points me in a direction I do not yet consciously recognize. I don’t question why that is, but I do make sure to light plenty of candles of thanks to the writing gods. By the time the ending is due, my characters have figured it all out, and I’m just along to take dictation.

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

Personally, I don’t see it, but people who know me well say that Andreas Kaldis’ style of solving problems, family values, sense of humor, and sense of justice, are mine. I think they’re just trying to stay on my good side.

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

I spent a career as a litigating lawyer learning how to marshal facts in support of a myriad of complex legal conclusions. Undoubtedly, that skill set comes into play in structuring my plots and character interactions.
Learn more about the book and author at Jeffrey Siger's website.

The Page 69 Test: Murder in Mykonos.

The Page 69 Test: Prey on Patmos.

The Page 69 Test: Target Tinos.

The Page 69 Test: Mykonos After Midnight.

The Page 69 Test: A Deadly Twist.

--Marshal Zeringue

Tuesday, May 11, 2021

Nicole Kornher-Stace

Nicole Kornher-Stace lives in New Paltz, NY, with her family. Her books include Archivist Wasp (2015) and Latchkey (2018) -- which are about a far-future postapocalyptic ghosthunter, the ghost of a near-future supersoldier, and their adventures in the underworld -- and the forthcoming and Jillian vs Parasite Planet.

Kornher-Stace's new novel is Firebreak.

My Q&A with the author:

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

At the outset, not very much! It becomes obvious later on but not until we're a good chunk of the way through the book. Titles usually for me go one of two ways: it occurs to me out of nowhere and I know immediately that it's the title I want to use, or I agonize for days/weeks/months over it before just slapping something on because I can't very well try to publish a book or story without one. This, luckily, was the former. There was some short story I'd read years ago that used the word "firebreak" in a nonliteral sense, in that case to contain a viral pandemic--I wish I could remember the story so I could credit the author, but I think it must have been in one of hundreds of library books I've borrowed over the past few years so I have literally no idea even whether it was in an anthology or collection or what. In any case, in hindsight it's amusing because there's a ton of concepts in this book that ended up being news headlines in 2020, with the glaring exception of the, y'know, global pandemic. The fact that the title was inspired by a pandemic short story, though, kind of brings it all together for me.

What's in a name?

So the same thing goes for character names as titles: either they arrive with a nametag or I spend forever trying to figure out what nametag to put on them. Mal arrived with a nametag. That is, I knew she went by Mal, and then I just kind of extrapolated that her full first name is Mallory. Her last name, which only shows up I want to say twice in the novel, was pretty randomly selected--when I have to pick a name that doesn't really matter a lot to me/the story, I tend to just kind of grab the first name I see. Sometimes that means I go to an online name generator and just grab something, sometimes it means I scan bookshelves or my kid's school yearbooks and grab a first or last name at random from there, sometimes I'll be kicking the name question around in the back of my head and read an article or something that mentions some first or last name and I just borrow it from there. Mal's was one of those. I honestly don't remember which! In my head she's Mal, or her in-game handle Nycorix (which just popped into my head one day and I gave it no further thought from there)--her full first name and last name were afterthoughts.

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

Somewhat, I think, at first! As a teen I was already seriously writing speculative fiction and trying to get it published, but it was all very folklore-inspired dark fantasy stuff, very Tanith Lee- or Angela Carter-esque, heavy on atmosphere and imagery and lyrical prose. If you had told teen-me that I'd be writing a cyberpunk techno-thriller, I'm not sure I would have believed you. That said, around the same time I started becoming politically aware. I was a huge Rage Against the Machine fan and they did this genius thing where they gave you recommended reading lists in the album liner notes that explained what their lyrics and message were based on. So I got every single one of those books and I read them and it was life-changing. Firebreak is absolutely saturated from page one with that stuff. People tell me constantly how realistic the book's corporate-police-state dystopia is. There's a reason for that. It's based on the corporate police state dystopia we live in.

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

I often hear writers say they love writing beginnings! Nothing's constraining them! The blank page holds infinite possibilities! Etc. You know what I see when I look at a blank page that I'm trying to turn into a book? Anxiety. I like to start books in medias res and feed the reader the context they need organically, bit by bit, a breadcrumb trail that leads them deeper into the story without slamming them into the brick wall of pages and pages of exposition. Which a smart person would worry about in a second draft. Apparently I'm not that person. Writing that first chapter is like feeling my way through a maze in the dark with the world's tiniest flashlight. But the upside is that once I know where I am and what I'm doing, the rest of the book just falls out! I drafted Firebreak in five weeks and deleted nothing from that first draft...apart from the ending. I was told it wasn't hopeful enough, which is something I wanted to change for sure, because the thing with everything I write is that it's dark, it's scary, but it's never hopeless. At least, that's the goal. Especially in a dystopian novel. I want to suggest that positive change is still possible, because I want to believe that in real life it still is too.

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

There's a lot of me in my characters, but probably less so in the main characters than the side ones. Mal's a gamer, as am I, and it was really important to me to write a book that shares some worldbuilding similarities with Ready Player One but is about a woman gamer--or rather a pair of women gamers--working together, because I wanted to provide a kind of antidote to certain aspects of RPO that frustrated me. Mal is also introverted, prickly, not great at people, but she cares very deeply about justice. That's all me. Oh yeah, and we both curse a lot.

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

I grew up on a steady diet of video games and movies as well as books, and they all influence me equally. All of my scene framing and pacing and fight choreography, etc. comes from movies, and Firebreak's VR video game is based loosely on a number of massively multiplayer online RPGs I played back in the day when I had that kind of free time. And as I mentioned above, the book could not exist independent of its politics. The world is very, very recognizable. It's just a few steps ahead of where we are now. The hope is that we never quite get there.
Visit Nicole Kornher-Stace's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Monday, May 10, 2021

Zhanna Slor

Zhanna Slor was born in the former Soviet Union and moved to the Midwest in the early 1990s. She has been published in many literary magazines, including Ninth Letter, Another Chicago Magazine, and Michigan Quarterly Review, and she is a frequent contributor to The Forward. She and her husband, saxophonist for Jazz-Rock fusion band Marbin, recently relocated to Milwaukee, where they live with their young daughter.

Slor's debut novel is At the End of the World, Turn Left.

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

I think quite a lot of work actually. It's a very unusual title--an English translation of a modern Hebrew phrase--and I think the cadence of it is very easy on the ears as well as enticing. I did a lot of linguistic research because one of my characters is really interested in linguistics -- untranslatable phrases to be specific -- and once I saw this one I knew it would make a great title. Also the meaning of it, "middle of nowhere," works really well with the book because the characters feel that way sometimes in terms of their identities and where they fit in.

What's in a name?

I don't have a great system for picking names. Usually I just go with what sounds good, or I look at lists until I find something I like. The names of a couple of the characters in my book, Liam and August, were based on real people who came up with their own names back in 2006-2007 when I was in college and trying to write them into short stories for literary magazines. I liked them so I kept them. Anna was the name I had picked for the fictional version of myself around the same time, so I just kept that as well. Additionally, I wanted to give Anna and Masha both names that were easily pronounceable, unlike my own name. Readers do not like struggling with pronunciation. So that is also a consideration, especially with so many Russian characters.

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

Not surprised at all. She might be surprised by the fact that I have a daughter, but not by this book. A lot of the themes here I have been mulling over most of my life, and I've been wanting to write a novel since I was in first grade.

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

Oh definitely endings. I am so bad at endings. This book probably went through 1,000.

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

Oh yeah, definitely. Anna started as a fictional version of myself at 19. We have a lot in common; we didn't have a ton of friends in high school, we were both really into painting & wanting to be an artist for a living, and spent a lot of time at basement shows or with roommates. I was a lot more boy crazy than her though, and no longer enjoy painting very much. I identify with certain things about Masha too; her music taste, her interest in languages, her Israeli boyfriend, Krav Maga. I am married to an Israeli who served in the IDF and am really into martial arts as well. We are not at all religious, like Masha, but I do understand her need for that kind of community, and I have religious friends.

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

Oooh, what a fun question. TV for sure. Breaking Bad taught me a lot about how to have really good tension in a scene. I was probably thinking about it a little when writing one of the later scenes, in fact. The first 4-5 seasons of Walking Dead, before it became unwatchable, were really helpful in terms of character development through action. And Gilmore Girls, which I rewatch almost yearly, is great for keeping levity in your scenes, especially with intergenerational interactions. I always related to Lorelai's relationship with her parents so much, and I don't think it would be as enjoyable to watch them without the humor added. I think all good TV needs to have a good mix of all these things, and books should too.

I would love to write for TV one day, which seems to be getting more common with authors lately, since every other book gets turned into a show or movie. Gillian Flynn is a huge inspiration. Her books are amazing and she has been able to transition so well into writing for the screen--Utopia was so good!
Visit Zhanna Slor's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Sunday, May 9, 2021

Mary Sharratt

An American author living on the Silver Coast of Portugal, Mary Sharratt is on a mission to write women back into history. She is the author of Revelations and seven previous critically acclaimed novels, including Daughters of the Witching Hill, the Nautilus Award–winning Illuminations: A Novel of Hildegard von Bingen, The Dark Lady’s Mask: A Novel of Shakespeare’s Muse, and Ecstasy, about the life, loves, and music of Alma Mahler.

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

My title Revelations was drawn directly from Julian of Norwich’s luminous masterpiece, Revelations of Divine Love, the first book written in English by a woman. Revelations also ties in thematically with my 2012 novel, Illuminations, about Hildegard of Bingen, another great medieval female visionary. In many ways, Revelations is a companion book to Illuminations; I wanted to have similar titles to connect the two books. Finally, the title evokes Margery Kempe’s mission to secretly carry Julian’s controversial manuscript, Revelations of Divine Love, with her on her pilgrimage through Europe and the Near East.

What's in a name?

In writing biographical fiction drawn from real historical characters, you don’t get to make up names. Margery Kempe, nee Brunham, was a real person. Julian of Norwich was also a historical figure, but more mysterious. We don’t know what her actual birthname was. As an anchoress bricked into a cell built on to the back of Saint Julian’s church in Norwich, she took the name of the church as her own. That’s how humble and self-effacing she was.

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

Quite shocked, actually. As a teenager, I was intent on destroying the patriarchy and all patriarchal religion. As an adult, I’m intrigued how mystical and visionary women of all faith traditions have subverted institutional patriarchal religion from within. Julian of Norwich called God Mother and devoted her life to writing about the Motherhood of God. Similarly, Hildegard of Bingen wrote about her visions of the Feminine Divine. This isn’t a modern feminist interpretation. It’s there in the original texts.

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

Beginnings are the hardest for me. I often write and rewrite a beginning for weeks or even months until a strong sense of the protagonist emerges. I really need to “hear” the protagonist’s voice before the narrative gets rolling. The ending grows organically from all that has come before it.

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

Margery Kempe certainly feels like a world apart, very quirky and eccentric and courageous in ways that I am not. When accused of heresy, where a guilty verdict would have seen her burn at the stake, she regaled the Archbishop of York with the story of a defecating bear and a priest. She also had fourteen children, something I can’t even begin to fathom. But as a married woman in the 15th century, she didn’t have much choice in the matter. I do, however, identify with her wanderlust. At the age of forty, she left a soul-destroying marriage to wander the world as a pilgrim, traveling to Jerusalem, Rome, Santiago de Compostela, and later to Danzig (modern day Gdansk, Poland) and various pilgrimage sites in Germany. She preserved her adventures for posterity in The Book of Margery Kempe, the first autobiography in the English language.

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

I love medieval sacred music and constantly listened to recordings of medieval polyphony while writing this book. I like to give my every novel its own soundtrack.
Visit Mary Sharratt's website.

The Page 69 Test: Revelations.

--Marshal Zeringue

Saturday, May 8, 2021

Mercedes Helnwein

Mercedes Helnwein is a visual artist and writer. She was born in Vienna, Austria, and grew up in Germany, Ireland, and partially the US and the UK. Instead of going to college she moved to L.A. where she began putting on art shows with her friends and selling her drawings. Her obsession with writing began at age ten when she wrote her first short story for a school assignment – "The Celery Stick Who Became President." She currently lives and works in L.A. and Ireland.

Slingshot is Helnwein's debut novel.

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

For a very long time the title was The World is A Vampire. This was because of the main character’s love for the Smashing Pumpkins, but also because I felt that that song ("Bullet with Butterfly Wings") summed up so perfectly the main character’s teenage view of existence.

When it came to choosing an actual final title for the book, my editor suggested Slingshot. I loved the idea of a one-word title and that it tells you nothing about the story. It’s a love story, so even better, because I had a natural instinct to want to counter-act the romance aspect of the story, without actually compromising it. I really like how hard-core, over-the-top, helplessly the main character falls in love, but it is happening to a person who didn’t ask for it or want it, and who definitely isn’t the right candidate for it. I felt like the title somehow reflected that.

Also, I promise it’s not a random title at all, because the whole story hinges on an actual scene with a slingshot in the book.

What's in a name?

The name of my main character is Gracie Mae Welles. Grace – Gracie. I was looking for a very simple, traditional American name. Something pretty and innocuous. And most of all, something that would clash with her personality. I like the idea that personalities don’t necessarily match names, and in most cases we don’t even notice when names are mismatched to people because we’ve grown so used to people and their names. I can’t imagine Gracie being called anything else at this point, but at the beginning I had to really get over the fact that that was the name I picked for her.

I called the boy she falls in love with Wade. This was inspired by this old-time banjo player/fiddler called Wade Ward. My banjo teacher gave me a CD of his and the name always stuck in my head as weird – I’d never heard it before. And when I had to give this kid a name it was just instantly Wade.

The biology teacher ended up being Mr. Sorrentino, mainly because I was watching only Mafia movies and shows at the time and wanted him to be Italian.

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

I was obsessed with Charles Dickens and 19th century literature in general, so my first question would have been why the hell was I writing a story taking place in modern times? What possessed me not to write a complex Dickensian drama? Secondly, the idea of writing a love story would have seemed preposterous to me, because I considered all love stories unbearable and cheesy. Thirdly, I would have questioned the choice of all the 90s music Gracie listens to, because teenage-me listened to a lot of old blues, folk, Tom Waits and 60s music and I would have thought that would be a better choice.

But I think I would have been drawn into the story pretty quickly and would have had no choice but to share a lot of the main characters’ views on a lot of things, being that teenage-me was good research material for this book.

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

Endings probably – or basically everything coming after the beginning! I usually only have a fragment of an idea when I start – just a scene or a relationship that seems funny to me. I knew that I wanted Slingshot to be about the gritty details of first heartbreak. The idea of writing a love story was never interesting to me, but the idea of looking at the entire experience of first love and heartbreak through the eyes of a teenage kid with zero experience – all the bad decisions, wrong assumptions, delusions, and scrabbling for sanity – that seemed like it would have enough opportunity for humor to make the subject matter worthwhile. And it was by trying to set up the heartbreak that the love-story part evolved into this very real, emotional situation, and I ended up with a story that is as much a love story as it is a heartbreak story.

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 have been hard for me to write so intimately about the subject matter of first love without remembering exactly what it was like for me. Same with the subject of coming of age or just being a teenage girl. I have mountains of teenage diaries and camcorder footage. I went through all of that and used whatever experiences were useful to the story, but Gracie was always supposed to be her own character.

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

Music. Florida as a backdrop. Kids I used to know. Schools.

Anything funny/weird/interesting I come across: billboards, dialogues, bad language, idioms, hairstyles. America. I was born in Austria and grew up in Germany, the UK, Ireland and the US …so I’ve never felt like an American (or like any other nationality either actually) but I think because I had this outside view of America it has always been super inspiring to me, even down to the most mundane aspects of its culture and customs, for example strip malls or how big the soft drink cups get at fast food places and movie theatres.
Visit Mercedes Helnwein's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Thursday, May 6, 2021

Alicia Beckman

Alicia Beckman adored living in Seattle as a college student and young lawyer, but is happiest back home in her native Montana, where she lives with her husband, a musician and doctor of natural medicine, and their full-figured gray tuxedo cat. As Leslie Budewitz, she’s the bestselling author of the Seattle Spice Shop and Food Lovers’ Village mysteries. A three-time Agatha Award winner, for Best Short Story (2018), Best First Novel (2013), and Best Nonfiction (2011), she is a past president of Sisters in Crime and a current board member of Mystery Writers of America.

Beckman's new novel is Bitterroot Lake.

My Q&A with the author:

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

The title Bitterroot Lake appeared as I neared the end of the first draft, and like love at first sight, I recognized it instantly. My previous novels are cozy mystery—the light-hearted side of the mystery world—and I was headed down an adjacent road, with a proposal for a traditional mystery series. The acquiring editor thought the first had the potential to be stand-alone suspense and I knew she was absolutely right. That meant my working title no longer fit, and also meant using a pen name. I didn’t mind either change. Only a handful of my books have come to print with their original titles, and the pen name gave me a chance to honor my late mother.

Bitterroot Lake is the story of four women who reunite unexpectedly after twenty-five years and are forced by murder to reconsider the tragedy that tore them apart. It’s also a story of fractured friendships and family ties, of the connections between women across the generations, and of the ways a place can influence us.

Not far from my home in NW Montana is a small mountain lake called Little Bitterroot. The name worked so well for this book that I didn’t hesitate to borrow it. The real lake is fairly remote and not near a town, but the surrounding area is very much that of the fictional place.

The connotations of the word “bitterroot” fit the story perfectly. The bitterroot is a ground-flower with pinkish-lavender petals native to the Northern Rockies, wild and impossible to cultivate. Meriwether Lewis, he of “undaunted courage” as historian Stephen Ambrose titled his biography, borrowing a phrase from Thomas Jefferson, named the plant, which is sacred to the native tribes of Western Montana. It is now the state flower. It is pure loveliness, a brief life that returns each year. And yet, the name hints at secrets, that something deeply rooted has left a bitter taste, sown discord.

The unexpected gathering at the center of the story takes place at a lakeside lodge owned by the family of the main character, Sarah McCaskill Carter. And there is something inherently mysterious, even ominous, about “lake” in a title.

So the title is both geography and metaphor, taking us to a place and setting the mood for the journey. Ultimately, like that flower blooming on the hillside high above the water, good and beauty triumph, but at a cost.

What's in a name?

Sarah and her brother and sister are each named for a long-gone relative or family friend. They know it, but they don’t know much about their namesakes. I firmly believe that a woman’s journey—a heroine’s journey—is one of identity. For Sarah and Holly, discovering the truth about the women whose names they bear gives them a stronger sense of connection to their family and its history, and ultimately, a stronger sense of themselves.

But it was actually finding the brother’s name, Connor—through a suggestion from a reader—that helped me see the connections between the three siblings and their ancestors, and decide to make that a stronger element in the story.

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

My teenage self worked as a bookseller, the second best job I’ve ever had. (First? Novelist, of course.) One of my favorite books from those days was “. . . And Ladies of the Club” by Helen Hooven Santmyer, a fat paperback I still have. It begins in 1868 in a small town in Ohio, when two young girls are invited to join a local book club, and ends in 1932 when the last of them dies. In between, the girls become young women, wives, mothers, widows, and old ladies, but the constants are their friendship and the club. Clearly, the themes of women’s friendships and of women helping each other cope with ordinary life and extraordinary tragedy—a huge part of Bitterroot Lake—took hold a long time ago.

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

While I can’t say one is harder than the other, for most of my books, the beginning changes more. That seems natural: We find the story as we write it, and what we thought was the beginning might turn out to have happened years before, fifty pages in, or not at all. That said, the first chapter of Bitterroot Lake is pretty much what I wrote in the original proposal, although the finished book has a short prologue that both sets up and reflects the rest of the story.

I always knew the choices Sarah and her friends would make at the end. I did not know how they would get to those choices or the discoveries they would make along the way. Finding out what happens, and how it affects the main characters, is a big part of why I write, and I think it’s the main reason we read fiction: to have an emotional experience, to make an emotional connection, that helps us better understand the world around us.

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

There’s a piece of me or something that intrigues me in most of my characters, even, I have to admit, the villains. The key is to take that bit and push it, stretch it, see how an experience makes one person behave one way, while another person responds completely differently.

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

So many things! I’m deeply rooted in Montana, the setting of Bitterroot Lake and my Food Lovers’ Village mysteries, and I loved going to college in Seattle, the setting of my Spice Shop mysteries. A sense of place and history are key to my writing. I paint a little, and art and artists work their way into most of my stories. Food. Travel. Dogs and cats. The sense of discovery. Knowing a lot of artists, writers, and musicians, as Mr. Right and I do, has expanded my sense of the creative process. Central to it is the ability to bring together disparate ideas, and I’m grateful for the ways that writing, by doing that, connects me to the world and the people in it.
Visit Leslie Budewitz's & Alicia Beckman's website.

The Page 69 Test: Bitterroot Lake.

--Marshal Zeringue

Wednesday, May 5, 2021

Anne Hillerman

Anne Hillerman continues the Navajo detective stories her father Tony Hillerman made popular. Her debut novel, Spider Woman’s Daughter, received the Western Writers Spur Award as best first novel. That book and the four novels that followed were all New York Times best sellers. Her newly released sixth mystery is Stargazer. When she’s not working, Hillerman likes to read, cook, ski and travel. She lives in Santa Fe with frequent trips to the Navajo Nation.

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

Stargazer is a one-word work horse. It describes the victim, an astronomer whose murder drives the mystery. It also speaks to at least two of the main subplots---one that concerns aviation and a second that involves planning for the future, seeing ahead, and the like—metaphorically studying the stars to see what they hold. Because the story concerns both the murder of an astronomer, fear of flying, and at least two of the major characters’ struggle with how to shape their destinies, I love this title.

Titles usually arrive in my brain around the time I’ve finished the first draft. That was true for Stargazer and I am especially fond of it.

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

I find both beginnings and endings to be challenging and both get a lot of massaging before I let them be. In Stargazer, I added a new beginning to my original first chapter a few days before I declared the first draft finished. It’s the only place in the book that offers the reader a chance to meet the dead man. That mattered to me because his death drives the story. I wrote this scene as a literary snapshot, which meant leaving out details that could have spoiled the reader’s fun in figuring out who did it. I found it a delightful challenge.

In a traditional mystery both the writer and the reader understand that the crime must be solved by the end of the book. It’s reassuring to work in this template as the story races to its conclusion. In Stargazer, as is usual for me, I did a lot of tightening to enhance the action and deepen the tension. The result put Bernie Manuelito, my police officer protagonist, in greater danger more quickly. After the climactic scene where she confronts the villain with the news that the gig is up, I add a brief wrap- up chapter to deal with loose ends. I changed that, 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 see a bit of myself, both strengths and faults, in all the major characters even though, as the question suggests, we are a world apart.

Part of the joy of writing a mystery fiction series is the freedom the genre gives an author to explore issues that arise in human relationships, be they professional, social, or of the heart. Besides their jobs as crime solvers, each of my main characters negotiates the sometimes stormy territory of personal relationships in different ways. Bernie, my main crime solver, juggles a job, a marriage, a sibling relationship, and an aging parent--- as I did for many years. Her husband, Sgt. Jim Chee, works at a job he loves and wonders what’s next in his career--- the same position I was in when I switched from writing non-fiction to fiction. And Joe Leaphorn, like many people I know, failed retirement and enjoys the mental stimulation and the social connection of continuing his involvement in the world of law enforcement where he once made a living.

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

I love writing about real places, such as the Alamo Navajo community and the Very Large Array astronomy center that are featured in Stargazer. Not only does this result in two less things to pull from my imagination, it also gives me a solid base for information.

The amazing scenery of the American Southwest is one of my main inspirations. The expansive vistas lead to big thoughts, and give ideas plenty of room to grow. If I ever get stuck on a story, a trip to the landscape where the fictional action unfolds usually shakes the words free.

Some of my inspiration comes from driving through this vast, largely empty, amazing country, usually with little traffic and time to quietly focus on the conflicts and joys of the book in progress.

My years as a food writer also provide some magic to the stories. When in doubt, my characters often review cases over a meal. I enjoy switching from evil to endive for a few paragraphs.
Learn more about the book and author at Anne Hillerman's website.

My Book, The Movie: Spider Woman's Daughter.

The Page 69 Test: Spider Woman's Daughter.

The Page 69 Test: Song of the Lion.

The Page 69 Test: The Tale Teller.

--Marshal Zeringue

Monday, May 3, 2021

James L. Cambias

James Cambias has been nominated for the James Tiptree Jr. Award and the 2001 John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer.

Cambias's new novel is The Godel Operation.

My Q&A with the author:

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

I picked The Godel Operation very specifically because it sounds like one of a series of adventures. I plan to write other adventures in the Billion Worlds setting, involving some of the same characters, so I wanted a name with an obvious structure for future variations. So at present I'm writing another novel in the same setting called The Scarab Mission, and I just finished a short story for an upcoming Baen anthology called "The Paoshi Puzzle."

Now for short fiction I don't plan to be quite as locked into the structure of "The Name Thing" forever but since that particular short story is sort of a prequel to The Godel Operation it seemed appropriate. I have two other Billion Worlds stories which don't follow that pattern: "Calando" in Athena Andreadis's anthology Retellings From the Inland Seas, and "Out of the Dark" in John Joseph Adams's collection Lost Worlds and Mythological Kingdoms.

The title does have significance within the story. The "Godel Trigger" is the legendary MacGuffin my characters are pursuing in the novel. So one of the characters could well refer to these events as the "Godel Operation." Though they'd probably call it the "Godel Fiasco" instead.

What's in a name?

I put a lot of effort into coming up with character names. I make heavy use of translation software to find words in other languages with a nice sound and appropriate meaning. My narrator, Daslakh, is an artificial intelligence in a small spider-shaped body. Its name is deliberately chosen to sound anonymous: it's derived from the Hindi word for a million. So it's kind of as though this machine is calling itself "John Smith."

My second protagonist, Zee, is a young man who starts the novel feeling a bit depressed because he is anonymous — one of a quadrillion humans living in the Solar System at the end of the Tenth Millennium. So his name is just literally the letter Z. I knew it had to be a short name for contrast with Daslakh. The two names together make a nice team: Daslakh and Zee.

The two main female characters have names taken from different languages. Adya's name is derived from the Indian language Malayalam (not to be confused with the Malay language spoken in southeast Asia). Her rival Kusti's name comes from Kazakh. In a story taking place 8,000 years from now the last thing I want is to have people named Bob and Sue and Tiffany.

Other characters have names with more obvious derivations. Pelagia, a spaceship with an orca brain, has a name derived from a word meaning deep ocean. The space habitat Summanus is permanently in Jupiter's shadow and is named for the somewhat obscure Roman god of nighttime thunder.

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

I think Teenaged Me would be pleased and delighted with The Godel Operation, but not very surprised. One of the early wellsprings of my Billion Worlds setting was a nonfiction book by the British science writer Adrian Berry, called The Next Ten Thousand Years. I read it way back in the late 1970s so a lot of the concepts have been bouncing around my skull since I was a teenager.

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

In the case of The Godel Operation I wrote the first chapter as a kind of "proof of concept" for the characters Daslakh and Zee and the Billion Worlds setting. When I saw it was something I thought I'd like to write, I then had to sit down and plan out the rest of the story. I have learned the hard way that I really do need to know how it's going to end before I start, so I plotted it all the way out. Only then did I pitch the novel to my publisher.

In general beginnings are easier than endings.

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

I definitely see a connection between myself and my characters. Each one has some little bit of my own personality. Of course, I do draw on other people, both people I know and historical figures. But when I'm coming up with behavior and dialog for the characters in the story I need to be able to "play" them like an actor, at least inside my own head. As a result each one has a viewpoint I can adopt. Yes, that includes villains.

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

Since I was a skinny 13-year-old science fiction fan when Star Wars came out, I'd be lying if I said that hasn't been a tremendous influence on me. The grungy, "lived-in" look of the spaceships and other worlds in George Lucas's movies definitely affected how I imagine the future.

But in general I try not to let current events affect what I write. When I'm doing science fiction, I want to immerse the reader in a future or alien world, and the quickest way to pop that bubble of belief is to throw in some gratuitous reference to some damned thing on Twitter or CNN in 2020 which nobody will remember by the time the novel gets printed.

I also don't let my personal grudges and quarrels into what I write. I don't think I have ever modeled a villain on someone I personally dislike. You won't find the kid I feuded with in middle school or the girl I broke up with in college hiding under a false name in my fiction.
Visit James L. Cambias's website.

My Book, The Movie: A Darkling Sea.

My Book, The Movie: Arkad's World.

The Page 69 Test: Arkad's World.

My Book, The Movie: The Godel Operation.

--Marshal Zeringue

Sunday, May 2, 2021

Sofía Segovia

Sofía Segovia was born in Monterrey, Mexico. She studied communications at Universidad de Monterrey, mistakenly thinking that she would be a journalist. But fiction is her first love. A creative writing teacher, she has also been a ghostwriter and communications director for local political campaigns and has written several plays for local theater. The Spanish edition of her bestselling El murmullo de las abejas (The Murmur of Bees) was an Audie Award winner and named novel of the year by iTunes, and the English translation by Simon Bruni and narrated by Xe Sands and Angelo Di Loreto was one of Audible’s Top 10 of 2019 and a Voice Arts Award winner. She is also the author of Peregrinos (Tears of Amber), Noche de huracán (Night of the Hurricane), and Huracán (Hurricane).

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

The original title in Spanish is Peregrinos — Pilgrims— in honor of the oldest and most shared human story of exodus and migration. It didn’t work in English, especially in the US because of the foundational story, and so it had to change. I love the title Tears of Amber because it shows the subtle fantastical element of the story, but it also directly connects the stories of Arno and Ilse. I chose both (Spanish and English titles) in the hope to intrigue, but I know they are still on the abstract side of things. In other words, they don’t give the story away from the get go, but I hope they become clear in the process and still resonate strongly when the reader reaches the end and closes the book.

What's in a name?

I do believe names are crucial. In The Murmur of Bees, Simonopio became what the root of his name signifies —the one who listens—, and I didn’t even know the meaning until after publication. For Tears of Amber it was a bit different: the names Arno and Ilse are the names in real life of my characters, and in honor of their struggle I kept them. For some others, real or imagined, I had to consult the encyclopedia of German or Polish names. My requisite was simple: I had to be able to pronounce them! Having said that, I couldn’t dismiss my past experience with Simonopio. I chose the name Janusz for a character in Tears of Amber because to me, it sounded melodic and benign. Janusz turned out to be as endearing as his name and a favorite character, not only for me, but for most readers.

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

I like to think that my teenage self would love to read Tears of Amber, and that the characters would give her an important insight into the human condition and the human experience. Although, she would be surprised to learn that she was the author, because my teenage self — as much as she loved reading and writing — didn’t believe in herself, so she didn’t even dare dream. Yet.

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

To each its own. In previous novels I’ve known the ending — even to the precise wording— before starting. In Tears of Amber I found the ending to be the biggest challenge to date. From the start I wanted to underscore the continuation of Arno’s and Ilse’s journey —the Mexican connection— but I knew I shouldn’t extend the story even further. I did have to rewrite until I found the perfect approach and the perfect “amberine” solution.

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

Writing myself in my characters would be boring! I love becoming and feeling “other”, a superpower we, as willing readers, acquire through good fiction. As a writer I make an even more pronounced effort to leave my sense of self behind. Having said that, as I write, I do build an undeniable connection to my characters, whomever they may be. I learn through them. In that exercise, I’ve been old and newborn, of diverse nationalities, evil and good, man and woman, and even bee (in The Murmur of Bees) and dog (in Tears of Amber). I do create them, but I know they transform me. I get back to myself with new insight.

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

Even when I leave my sense of self behind, current events and politics are ever present in the themes of my novels. The anguish provoked by the daily news moves me. In the paper, every day, one can read the universality of gender violence, the eternal war between good and evil, or the constant rise and fall of totalitarians, for example. I’ve found that they are concepts better analyzed, absorbed, and comprehended through fiction. I take the cold hard facts and figures of the news as inspiration to change the telling of them. The characters in all my novels are common folk like us, like me: people who live and suffer their own current news or circumstances without much say in the matter. In other words, just statistics found in the news. Through fiction, characters can become more real than people in reality, in a way, because they tell of the human experience and condition, something mere statistics can never do.

Also, as I write, I realize that I am combining the cinematic language with the literary, which results in what I feel are some strong cinematic scenes expressed through written language.
Visit Sofía Segovia's website.

The Page 69 Test: Tears of Amber.

--Marshal Zeringue