Wednesday, September 29, 2021

Andrea Wang

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

My Q&A with the author:

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

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

What's in a name?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

--Marshal Zeringue

Monday, September 27, 2021

Andrew Welsh-Huggins

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

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

My Q&A with the author:

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

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

What's in a name?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My Book, The Movie:: An Empty Grave.

--Marshal Zeringue

Friday, September 24, 2021

Jo Perry

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

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

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

Perry's new novel is Pure

My Q&A with the author:

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

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

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

What's in a name?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

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

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

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

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

My Book, The Movie: Dead is Better.

The Page 69 Test: Dead is Better.

My Book, The Movie: Dead is Best.

The Page 69 Test: Dead is Best.

My Book, The Movie: Dead Is Good.

The Page 69 Test: Dead Is Good.

The Page 69 Test: Dead is Beautiful.

My Book, The Movie: Dead is Beautiful.

My Book, The Movie: Pure.

--Marshal Zeringue