Monday, October 25, 2021

Margaret Verble

Margaret Verble is an enrolled citizen of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma and a member of a large Cherokee family that has, through generations, made many contributions to the tribe’s history and survival. Although many of her family have remained in Oklahoma to this day, and some still own and farm the land on which her books are set, Verble was raised in Nashville, Tennessee, and currently lives in Lexington, Kentucky.

Verble's first novel, Maud's Line, was a Finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2016. Her second novel, Cherokee America, was listed by the New York Times as one of the 100 Notable Books of the Year for 2019 and won the Spur Award for Best Western. It is set in 1875 in the Arkansas River bottoms of the old Cherokee Nation West and is a prequel to Maud's Line. The books are linked both by their setting and by four characters who are young in Cherokee America and elders in Maud's Line.

Verble's new book, When Two Feathers Fell from the Sky, is set in 1926 in the old Nashville Glendale Park Zoo.

My Q&A with the author:

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

I think the title is fairly apt. It alludes to a major plot point and bounces off the introductory chapter which tells the reader when in time the story is placed. I can’t take credit for the title. My editor, Nicole Angeloro, came up with it and it took some thought.

What's in a name?

I named my title character Two Feathers because I found a horse-diver who used that name had actually worked at the Glendale Park Zoo, where the story is set. I don’t know much about that woman except that she worked there for more than one season and was a featured, highly-touted act. I suspect in real life she was white because whites were always dressing up like Indians to make themselves more exciting and exotic.

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

I don’t think my teenage self would be surprised at all by this novel. She’d probably say, “What took you so long?” I was raised on the grounds of the old park zoo where the novel is set. I can’t remember not knowing about it, and it captured the imagination of every child raised in my neighborhood.

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

I don’t think I can truthfully make a generalization about that. I think the critical point in any work of literary fiction is about 80% of the way in. Writers who don’t write from a formula let the characters drive the narrative, but at some point that narrative has to turn toward an ending. The last 20% of the tale is wrapping it all up, not necessarily neatly, but in some way. A lot of novels fail right there. You have to get that right and it can be tricky.

Do you see much of yourself in your characters?

Not necessarily. Or I should say probably not as much as some of my readers do. No one has ever confused me with Check Singer, the protagonist of Cherokee America. But I’ve had the rather discombobulating experience of people assuming I’m a lot like Maud Nail. Since I have grandchildren and Maud is eighteen I’ve found that rather odd. But a good thing, I guess. Anyway, the female protagonists of all of my novels are rather take-charge kind of women. And it’s true I’m like that. And all three of them are good with a gun and I used to be a fairly good shot. But I don’t shoot much anymore and I don’t feel the need to be in charge of much other than my own life. So these characters come out of me but aren’t me.

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

Certainly, the greatest influence on my writing was the fact that I grew up watching a treaty being broken. When I was young, in Oklahoma the Army Corp of Engineers was stealing the Arkansas River bed from the Cherokees in trucks carrying valuable sand and gravel right down the very section line I portray in Maud’s Line. It was an outrageous theft that went on for several years and it infuriated me. Those trucks ran me to the side of the road more than once and I had to watch the old Indians in my family stomach that theft when I knew they had been stolen from again and again.

Another influence that pertains directly to When Two Feathers Fell From the Sky is the fact that my mother was a fourth grade teacher and the fourth grade was where children in Nashville were first introduced to its history. Which, believe me, consisted of a lot of stories of murderous Indians – who were Cherokees – attacking poor innocent white people for no apparent reason. That, too, infuriated me, both on my own behalf and on my mother’s, who had to teach that nonsense year after year. She never said anything about that, but that’s how everybody handled that kind of history then. They just kept their mouths shut. Fortunately, times have changed.
Visit Margaret Verble's website.

My Book, The Movie: Maud's Line.

Writers Read: Margaret Verble (March 2019).

The Page 69 Test: When Two Feathers Fell from the Sky.

--Marshal Zeringue

Tuesday, October 19, 2021

Jessica Vitalis

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

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

My Q&A with the author:

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

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

What's in a name?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

--Marshal Zeringue

Thursday, October 14, 2021

Bethany Ball

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

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

My Q&A with the author:

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

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

What's in a name?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

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

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

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

--Marshal Zeringue

Sunday, October 10, 2021

Georgie Blalock

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

Her latest novel is The Last Debutantes.

My Q&A with the author:

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

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

What's in a name?

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

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

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

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

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

My Book, The Movie: The Other Windsor Girl.

The Page 69 Test: The Other Windsor Girl.

My Book, The Movie: The Last Debutantes.

--Marshal Zeringue

Wednesday, October 6, 2021

Katherine Ashenburg

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

Ashenburg's new novel is Her Turn.

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

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

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

What’s in a name?

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

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

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

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

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

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

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

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

--Marshal Zeringue

Monday, October 4, 2021

M. J. Kuhn

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

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

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

Kuhn's new novel is Among Thieves.

My Q&A with the author:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

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

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

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

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

--Marshal Zeringue