Wednesday, November 24, 2021

Melissa Payne

Melissa Payne is the bestselling, award-winning author of The Secrets of Lost Stones and Memories in the Drift. For as long as she can remember, Payne has been telling stories in one form or another—from high school newspaper articles to a graduate thesis to blogging about marriage and motherhood. But she first learned the real importance of storytelling when she worked for a residential and day treatment center for abused and neglected children. There she wrote speeches and letters to raise funds for the children. The truth in those stories was piercing and painful and written to invoke a call to action in the reader: to give, to help, to make a difference. Payne’s love of writing and sharing stories in all forms has endured. She lives in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains with her husband and three children, a friendly mutt, a very loud cat, and the occasional bear.

Payne's new novel is The Night of Many Endings.

My Q&A with the author:

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

I put the majority of my creative energy into creating, developing and writing the story. Finding the kind of title that hooks potential new readers and also accurately reflects the nuances of the story is an art form in and of itself. So I love working with a team when brainstorming a new title.

In my new book, The Night of Many Endings, the story centers around five characters and how a night stuck in a library changes them in one way or another. It’s about perceptions and stereotypes and how we can never really know someone until we learn their story. While in many ways this story is about new beginnings, it’s also about letting go of the past and allowing others in and to do that sometimes we must let our story end in order for a new one to begin.

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

My teenage self wouldn’t be completely surprised that I wrote a book, after all, I read every chance I got and even attempted writing a novel of my own in high school. It was dreadful, by the way, a wanna-be romance heavy on the descriptive phrases and light on substance. However, I’ve always loved stories that are rich in characters, stories that give readers a glimpse into a character’s imperfect world, stories that teach me something new and let me see the world in a different way. So in this sense, I don’t think my teenage self would be surprised that I choose to write character-driven fiction, or that I love to make the setting (mountains, small town, snow storm) as much of a character as the people. I think my teenage would be happy I found a use for all those descriptive phrases.

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

I usually always know my ending before I start writing, but in The Night of Many Endings, I struggled to get the ending just right. Hmm, perhaps that’s why this title works so well.

I’m used to rewriting my opening pages, usually because I’m just getting to know the characters and the opening pages need to be tweaked to show the depth they developed as my writing progressed.

In this book, I also had to rewrite the ending a few times to get Nora’s just right. I knew she struggled with her brother’s addiction, that she carried her guilt like an albatross around her neck, determined to find him, to fix him, to keep him sober. What I hadn’t yet learned about Nora was how she would overcome a change in direction, a new purpose for herself if it didn’t contain her brother. Getting Nora’s ending just right took me a few attempts because I think it was hard for me to understand how she would let go and what it meant for her character. But I’m very happy with Nora’s ending now and I think she 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?

Most of my characters are pieces of people I’ve observed or known. But as I don’t want to read only about people like me, I also don’t want to write only about people I know.

I love the challenge of developing a character, understanding their backgrounds, their experiences, their perceptions of the world that brought them to page one. In The Night of Many Endings, I had a character who I didn’t always like, or agree with and I definitely didn’t care for some of her thoughts or the way she spoke to other characters. My challenge with her was to understand why she thought or said the things she did. Once I understood her motivations, then I could see how the night with strangers would challenge her worldview and in turn, influence her own shift.

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

Where I live, snow is a major part of our lives. So developing the storm that strands five strangers in a library in The Night of Many Endings wasn’t too difficult as I’ve lived through a similar blizzard.

In that one, seven feet of powder fell onto our small town. We lost power and had no water, except what we could melt from snow, with only an old weather radio to listen for updates on the storm. When the storm ended, we couldn’t locate our cars. After digging for several hours, I finally found the windshield of one of them. The amount of snow was staggering. We were stranded at our home for seven days before we were able to track down a front-end loader to help dig us out.

The experience of that storm heavily influenced my writing in this book, and especially helped me to describe the cold and dark since those memories persist to this day.
Visit Melissa Payne's website.

Coffee with a Canine: Melissa Payne & Max.

My Book, The Movie: The Secrets of Lost Stones.

The Page 69 Test: The Secrets of Lost Stones.

--Marshal Zeringue

Friday, November 19, 2021

Joy Castro

Joy Castro is the award-winning author of the post-Katrina New Orleans literary thrillers Hell or High Water, which received the Nebraska Book Award, and Nearer Home, and the story collection How Winter Began, as well as the memoir The Truth Book and the essay collection Island of Bones, which received the International Latino Book Award. She is also editor of the anthology Family Trouble and served as the guest judge of CRAFT‘s first Creative Nonfiction Award. Her work has appeared in the New York Times Magazine, Senses of Cinema, Salon, Ploughshares, Gulf Coast, Brevity, Afro-Hispanic Review, and elsewhere. A former Writer-in-Residence at Vanderbilt University, she is currently the Willa Cather Professor of English and Ethnic Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

Castro's new novel is Flight Risk.

My Q&A with the author:

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

A good deal, I think. Flight Risk implies someone on the verge of leaving, someone a bit unstable, someone unsatisfied with current conditions, someone who cannot be predicted, who cannot be controlled by the promise of what's on offer--and Isabel Morales, my heroine, is all these things. Flight Risk also connotes someone valuable--someone that a company, for example, wishes to retain, but may not be able to. (Will their counteroffer be sufficient?) In Isabel's case, this has everything to do with the life she's currently living and the wealthy husband who doesn't want to lose her--but who knows very little about her past.

What's in a name?

Isabel's surname, Morales, suggests not only her Latinx heritage but also the idea of morals, ethics, choices between good and evil, and these choices have plagued her whole life. She questions her own morals and those of others.

The name of her old-money Chicago husband, Jon Turner, suggests a certain WASPish American solidity--but a "turner" he indeed is. He's willing to change--and the stability he exudes might not tell his whole story.

Nic Folio, a dashing character Isabel re-meets in the latter half of the book (after not having seen him for decades), is also meaningfully named. His name pegs him as Italian American, like many of the mining families in West Virginia are, but Folio, as any scholar of Shakespeare can attest, is also an important term in book history and print culture, and Nic Folio certainly poses a reading challenge to Isabel. Is he who he seems to be? Like a Jane Austen heroine faced with a suitor who seems too good to be true, Isabel needs to read him accurately to control her own fate.

Even the name of the little diner Isabel repeatedly visits, The Cracked Egg, in the rural West Virginia town to which she returns, is meaningfully named, given the book's exploration of fertility choices in an era of climate crisis.

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

Endings! Much harder. Unless they come to me as a gift--which happens occasionally but was most definitely not the case with Flight Risk--then I draft and redraft them a dozen times at least. I want to bring all the threads in the novel to satisfying closure without its feeling too tidy. I like it when endings snap into place, but not too neatly. Believably, but not predictably. I love a good happy ending, too, but it has to be a happy ending that's really been earned, and sometimes happy endings don't work at all for the material. They ring false. So you really have to honor all the arcs the story has set up.

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

Yes, a bit. What I do is select particular strains of my own character and then amplify them. For example, Isabel has had some of my experiences but has made different choices, and she's very creative, but she's a visual artist--a sculptor--rather than a writer. She feels lonely and lost and fragile, as I sometimes do.

Her husband Jon has my earnest do-gooder qualities along with my easily hurt pride and aloofness--my tendency to withdraw when I am hurt and go off to lick my wounds alone--while her sister-in-law Sophia embodies all my playful flightiness and whatever elegance I might possess. I poured my self-pitying bitterness and resentment into Aunt Della--thank goodness readers don't have to spend much time with her--and Isabel's mother-in-law Helene is a status-conscious elitist with a suspicion of the poor, an attitude of which I've sometimes been on the receiving end, so I know its sting.

I think we all contain multitudes, as Walt Whitman famously wrote, so I just draw on the various qualities I observe in myself and others, whittle them down to their essence, and then push them to extremes, so the characters become sharply defined and thus memorable and vivid without feeling like caricatures.

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

I watch a lot of film and actually write a little film criticism on the side, so I think my writing might be influenced by various cinematic styles, like film noir, for example, of which I'm a great fan. I often see and hear the scenes of my books in my mind very vividly and then write them down, as if I were simply transcribing what I'm watching. Pop music has influenced me over the years, especially that of singer-songwriters who use a lot of storytelling in their work, like Natalie Merchant, Dar Williams, Billy Bragg, and Peter Mulvey. I love the way they can cover so much ground very intensely within just a few minutes.
Visit Joy Castro’s website and Twitter perch.

The Page 69 Test: Hell or High Water.

The Page 69 Test: Nearer Home.

--Marshal Zeringue

Tuesday, November 16, 2021

Cat Rambo

Photo Credit: On Focus Photography
Cat Rambo (they/them) is an American fantasy and science fiction writer whose work has appeared in, among others, Asimov's, Weird Tales, Chiaroscuro, Talebones, and Strange Horizons. A graduate of the Johns Hopkins Writing Seminars, where they studied with John Barth and Steve Dixon, they also attended the Clarion West Writers' Workshop. Their most recent works include And The Last Trump Shall Sound (co-written with James Morrow and Harry Turtledove), the fantasy novel Exiles of Tabat, and the space opera You Sexy Thing. They live, write, and teach somewhere in the Pacific Northwest. “Cat Rambo” is their real name.

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

The title first emerged as what we call a “working title,” a placeholder. It’s the name of the ship the crew steals, an intelligent ship that isn’t sure it wants to be stolen. But over the course of time, it became the title in my head. Tor marketing, my editor, and I went back and forth about that a bit -- they’d propose something that I wouldn’t like, and I’d send back my suggestions, like Ancillary Restaurant and Food Cart at the End of the Universe, neither of which flew for some reason. Finally they just told me Marketing had decided to “lean into it.” I’m still unsure what that means, but for me, it does convey the fast and funny flavor of the book.

What's in a name?

Character names (and place and technology and all names, really) for me are often fluid while I’m writing, placeholders that may end up changing radically over the course of time. And I would have thought that would hold true in this book as well, but instead they each wandered onstage as I pantsed my way along, and each came with a name that didn’t change when it came time for rewriting and polishing. The only names that did change were the two were-lion twins, who were originally Biff and Baff, and the change wasn’t my idea but my agent’s.

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

My teenage reader self loved novels with casts of characters voyaging into strange new worlds, so I’m pretty sure they’d be delighted and maybe even a little smug, rather than surprised. I’ve always said that I would be a writer, since the age of 12 or so, and while I don’t know that they could have predicted the long and sometimes weird, sideways journey that it’s taken to get there, I know they always had it in their head that it would happen. I went back to the town I grew up in a few years ago, and a friend said, “You did what you always said you would,” and that was surprisingly satisfying.

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

I find endings much harder, but I change the beginnings a lot more. When I first start writing, I have no idea where I’m going, as a rule, and so I’m just along for the ride, flailing around until I finally hit my stride. Then I can work steadily until it’s time for the ending, and that’s something that requires holding a lot in your head in order to deliver on all the promises that you made along the way. When I first sat down to write this book, I found myself with two people arguing about an eggplant. After the first chapter or so I had a very rough idea where I was going, and that path became clearer as I kept writing. But that beginning I sat down to write didn't end up being the first chapter; instead I led with what I thought was a much grabbier piece.

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

It’s hard to write a character that doesn’t mirror yourself to a certain extent, because you are writing your own experiences, and it takes empathy and imagination to get past that. I think each character definitely represents some characteristic I recognize in myself - Niko is just trying to take care of people and do the best she can; Skidoo is full of love, sometimes to the point of naivete; Atlanta is trying to figure out where she fits in the universe; Gio is wryly cynical, sometimes too much so. Walt Whitman said “I contain multitudes,” and I think that’s true for every writer.

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

Volunteer work, which has been a lifelong value, has shaped so much of what I think and know about people and human nature. Most recently I’ve been working with SFWA, the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, in 2015-2019 as a board member and more recently as a volunteer with several of its programs. I think a willingness to say, “Well, someone’s got to do this work, I might as well,” is a force that keeps the world moving along in an upward direction, perhaps more so than writing, though one could argue that either way, I suppose.
Visit Cat Rambo's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Thursday, November 11, 2021

Lori Rader-Day

Lori Rader-Day is the Edgar Award-nominated and Anthony and Mary Higgins Clark Award-winning author of The Black Hour, Little Pretty Things, The Day I Died, Under a Dark Sky, and The Lucky One.

Her new novel, Death at Greenway, is based on the true events of a group of children evacuated out of the Blitz during World War II—to Agatha Christie's holiday estate, Greenway House.

My Q&A with Rader-Day:

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

So much work! I had a slightly different title for it, but my publisher suggested this one because it was shorter. It also sounds like an Agatha Christie novel, doesn’t it? It’s not, but because Death at Greenway is set at Agatha Christie’s house and features cameos from the author, it makes sense to strike that tone. The word Greenway absolutely had to be in the title; that was advice given to me by Sophie Hannah, who writes the Poirot continuation novels for the Christie estate.

What's in a name?

There are two Bridget Kellys in Death at Greenway. When the second Bridget arrives on the scene, the first Bridget and our protagonist allows the group at Greenway to call her Bridey, as her mother and siblings had, But then that other Bridget claims “Gigi” as her nickname and Bridey is stuck being called a baby name, and one that reminds her only of loss.

Why two Bridgets? Well, our favorite author Agatha Christie appreciated a little identity swapping in her stories, and so do I. Twins or doubling is a Gothic literature staple, though the idea of there being two Bridgets didn’t come from any real concept. The story was born with Agatha Christie’s reference in her autobiography to “two hospital nurses” chaperoning the Greenway evacuees. That facelessness gave me a chance to wedge fiction into the story, but it also inspired the fictional household’s inevitable comparison between the two, though they are so very different, and Bridey’s beliefs that, in comparison to Gigi, she pales in every measure.

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

I love writing beginnings but because I discover as I go along instead of setting the course ahead of time with an outline, I often have to go back to add, delete, or change the beginnings. I also work hard on endings, so they get quite a few revisions before I’m satisfied. Don’t even ask about the middle. That’s a disaster.

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 usually have some little piece of me in them, even the villains because of course villains are the heroes in their own stories and it helps to have a kernel of understanding of them.

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

Death at Greenway was inspired by nonfiction (but found in a literary way, in a book). But I spent a great deal of time on research outside the literary: in historical records, in World War II photos, in 1940s advertisements, and in music of the era. Music was especially helpful to set the mood as I wrote. I always keep a playlist for my novel-in-progress and then share it out afterward. Greenway’s playlist had a lot of Vera Lynn, the angelic voice of World War II, but also a few more contemporary tunes that I thought helped me with theme and tone.

The other best inspiration I had was Doreen Vautour, the woman who was once one of the Greenway ’vacs. Her memories, relayed to the National Trust and shared through the BBC years ago, led me to connecting with her and getting to know her. We just celebrated her 83rd birthday, and she spent at least part of it re-reading Death at Greenway—this time leisurely since she’d already read it for whodunnit!
Visit Lori Rader-Day's website.

--Marshal Zeringue