Saturday, May 21, 2022

Brian Klingborg

Brian Klingborg has both a B.A. (University of California, Davis) and an M.A. (Harvard) in East Asian Studies and spent years living and working in Asia. He currently works in early childhood educational publishing and lives in New York City. Klingborg is the author of two non-fiction books on Shaolin kung fu; Kill Devil Falls; and the Lu Fei China mystery series (Thief of Souls and Wild Prey.)

My Q&A with the author:

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

There is an art to creating a good book title. It must be catchy, suggestive of the plot without giving too much away, and not something that dozens of other authors have already used for their books.

The working title of the first book in the Inspector Lu Fei series was City of Ice. Pretty catchy, I thought. And relevant, as the book is set in the northern part of China, near Harbin, which is, in fact, nicknamed City of Ice. Unfortunately, many other authors, mostly writing in the fantasy genre, had already used that title. So, in the end, we had to change it to Thief of Souls. Although Thief of Souls is a good title, I’m not sure it let readers know what to expect. As I said to my editor, it sounds a bit like a 1980s synth-heavy pop song by Stevie Nicks.

The plot of this next book, Wild Prey, revolves around the illegal animal trade in China and Myanmar. In keeping with the criteria – catchy, relevant, unique – I came up with a variety of titles that included words like “meat,” “raw,” “butcher,” and so on. Okay, so perhaps I was going for lurid, rather than catchy.

After some back and forth, my editor and I narrowed the choices to either Wild Prey or The Quarry. We both liked The Quarry best – it was evocative and somewhat “literary.” However, when I started polling friends to see if they knew the definition of the word as “an animal pursued by a hunter,” I discovered many did not. So, out of fear that readers might think the book was about chipping stone out of a hole in the ground, we settled on Wild Prey. In the end, I think the title fits the plot like a CSI tech’s latex glove.

What's in a name?

When you’re writing about a country where just 5 surnames account for more than 300 million citizens and the language is wildly divergent from English, it is a struggle to come up with names that a Western audience can both pronounce and keep straight.

In the Lu Fei series, wherever possible, I have resorted to using nicknames or titles – Chief Liang, Constable Sun, Li the Mute, Big Wang, “Monk,” and so on. I’ve also avoided choosing, with limited success, names that I think most readers will find difficult to digest: Xi, Qin, Cui, Xiong, and the like.

For my protagonist, I wanted a name that was easy to read, meaningful in some way, and was authentically “Chinese.” In other words, no Kuai Chang Caines or Charlie Chans. I chose Lu (according to Chinese conventions, surnames go first) because it was simple, and Fei, meaning “to fly,” because it sounded illustrious.

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

As a teenager growing up in a small town – this was before home computers, the internet and cable television – reading was my escape. I read anything and everything, but mostly fantasy, horror, and historical fiction. And although I was reading for pleasure, I always enjoyed learning something new in the process.

I suppose that sentiment has informed my own writing. Wild Prey, and its predecessor, Thief of Souls, are crime/thriller novels, but they are also intended to give Western readers a peek into a different culture and society. While fifteen-year-old me wouldn’t have had an inkling that I’d go on to study Chinese culture and live in Asia, he might have guessed I’d base my writing on factual history or current events.

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

Endings are much harder than beginnings. A beginning starts with an inspiration. A brainstorm, a “Hey, what if?” Beginnings are full of promise and excitement.

But every beginning eventually comes to a midpoint - and must strive to reach a satisfying conclusion. That’s where the hard work lies. Figuring out how to mold your one brilliant idea into a complete story.

When writing, I usually start off strong and have a general idea of where I’m going but get lost frequently along the way. It’s like driving down an unfamiliar road with a destination in mind, but only a few fragments of a map to guide you.

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

I suppose all my characters have some connection to my own personality. After all, their emotions, reactions, and motivations all spring from the same well – me!

The protagonist of Wild Prey, Inspector Lu Fei, is a citizen of the People’s Republic of China and came of age at a time when that country’s society and economy were undergoing rapid changes. In writing him, I have worked very hard to create a character who is relatable to a Western audience, but also very much of a product of a culture and setting that is not my own. While I like to think we share a similar sense of humor, romantic sensibility, and fondness for beer, my goal is to make Lu Fei true to his setting and himself.

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

I’m a huge movie buff, especially horror movies. Horror movies are designed to tap into a primitive part of your emotional framework – your lizard brain – and produce a visceral response: fear, disgust, arousal, excitement, jubilation.

Good horror films also know how to paint a character with just a few brush strokes, build tension, lull you into a false sense of security, and then BAM! - hit you with a surprise twist.

Although my books are more in the thriller or crime vein than horror, I try to follow some of these same principles. If I can get my readers to feel and experience what my characters feel and experience, then I will have done my job.
Visit Brian Klingborg's website.

My Book, The Movie: Wild Prey.

--Marshal Zeringue

Wednesday, May 18, 2022

Sarah McCoy

Sarah McCoy is the New York Times, USA Today, and international bestselling author of the novels Mustique Island; Marilla of Green Gables; The Mapmaker’s Children; The Baker’s Daughter, a 2012 Goodreads Choice Award Best Historical Fiction nominee; the novella “The Branch of Hazel” in Grand Central; The Time It Snowed in Puerto Rico; and Le souffle des feuilles et des promesses (Pride and Providence).

Her work has been featured in Real Simple, The Millions, Your Health Monthly, Huffington Post, Read It Forward, Writer Unboxed, and other publications. She hosted the NPR WSNC Radio monthly program “Bookmarked with Sarah McCoy” and previously taught English writing at Old Dominion University and at the University of Texas at El Paso.

McCoy lives with her husband, an orthopedic sports surgeon, their dog Gilly, and cat Tutu in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.

My Q&A with the author:

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

A great deal! It’s the name of the setting, Mustique Island. Immediately, readers are docked on the shore. I don’t think the title could be more specific about what you’re going to get: it’s a book about an exclusive, privately-owned tropical island. Google the name and you’ll see it’s real and notable for scandal and secrets. The title has been Mustique since I saved the first page as a word document and thought, “This could be a book.”

What's in a name?

In Mustique Island, the spark of inspiration for the three protagonists’ names came from real people mentioned in Colin Tennant’s autobiography, but everything beyond that is entirely of my own imagining. Their names, Willy May, Hilly, and Joanne, are fictionalized variations of reality. These three women are surrounded by public figures whose lives have been well-documented in the press and further speculated by the world. Princess Margaret, the Tennants, Mick Jagger—you can go online and pull up books written about and by all of these named individuals. I carefully chose to include information already suggested (gossip magazines) or documented (newspapers) in the public domain.

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

I don’t think teenage Sarah would be surprised by the content so much as the fact that I am putting that content out publicly for others to read. By that I mean, as a teenager, I was terribly aware that there was an implicit “good girl” code of behavior. Adhering to that social protocol made a young woman acceptable and liked by superiors (parents, teachers, neighbors, adults). I struggled with depression, which was often catalyzed by my sense that what I felt inside had to be masked— everything from my burgeoning sexual desires to simply wishing to speak my mind when my opinion did not fall in conservative line. I knew that the real Sarah was not a good girl by the good girl code. So I felt both like a fake and a failure. This novel speaks openly to all of those topics.

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

I love writing endings. They are the climactic catharsis of the storytelling. It’s so satisfying to write endings!

I tend to write my way into a book. My beginnings often get chopped, reformatted, reversed, and definitely rewritten multiple times. I’m one of those writers who believes that I’ve got to know the ending before I can write the beginning. It’s the omnipresent author’s duty to set forth a story navigation (even if the reader doesn’t implicitly know there is one) so that we end up on course. So, I’d say beginnings are trickier. I need to know my characters well enough to give the readers only the most significant bits for the oncoming journey, but I don’t really know my characters well enough until I’ve journeyed with them to the ending. That make sense?

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

Characters are autonomous spirits. They are muses that come to writers via some mode of story sharing. It could be a visual image, a song/sound, a touch, taste, idea, or feeling. My characters tend to come to me as voices. I heard Willy May’s Texan twang first and it drew me to her.

That said, all characters are filtered through the writer’s lens of interpretation. They connect to writers most able to understand or most willing to investigate their fundamental conflicts. Willy May, Hilly, and Joanne certainly connected with me as empowered females searching for their footing in the world. The Caribbean culture connected with me as a Puerto Rican. The solitary island setting connected with me while putting this to paper during the pandemic lockdown.

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

Everything is fodder for inspiration. I warn my family members, friends, and neighbors of this on a continual basis. Nothing is out of bounds simply because I haven’t the ability to compartmentalizing my experiences. It’s all me. Trying to pick one as the lead inspiration would be like trying to separate different hues coming through a sunny window. The molecular structure and natural variants within the glass changes the light. It’s a multifaceted rainbow and a single ray of sunshine all in one.

In Mustique Island, 1970s music, photographs, magazines, films, newspapers, politics, the British royal family, my own family members’ history—all of it influenced the writing.
Visit Sarah McCoy’s website, Facebook page, Instagram page, and Twitter perch.

The Page 69 Test: The Time It Snowed in Puerto Rico.

The Page 69 Test: The Baker's Daughter.

Coffee with a Canine: Sarah McCoy and Gilbert.

The Page 69 Test: The Mapmaker's Children.

My Book, The Movie: The Mapmaker’s Children.

The Page 69 Test: Marilla of Green Gables.

The Page 69 Test: Mustique Island.

--Marshal Zeringue

Tuesday, May 17, 2022

Wendelin Van Draanen

Wendelin Van Draanen has written more than thirty novels for young readers and teens. She is the author of the 18-book Edgar-winning Sammy Keyes series—often called “The new Nancy Drew”—and wrote Flipped, which was named a Top 100 Children’s Novel for the 21st Century by School Library Journal and became a Warner Brothers feature film, with Rob Reiner directing.

Van Draanen’s latest novel, The Peach Rebellion, explores the lives and loves of three young women who come from completely different backgrounds and join forces to take a stand against the patriarchy.

My Q&A with the author:

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

Titles can be tricky! Sometimes the perfect one reveals itself from day one, or was the inspiration for the entire story. And sometimes it’s a struggle. The working title for The Peach Rebellion was Millions of Peaches. The trouble with a working title is that it’s seared into your brain for – in this case—the three years that it took to write it. So, when my editor suggested that the working title didn’t really reflect the story of three young women standing up to the patriarchy, it was a challenge to erase my mental board and start fresh. But she was right. And I do love The Peach Rebellion as a title. I like that it’s not too on the nose, and reflects the sweet conflict inside.

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

Teenage Wendelin would be astounded. Not just because The Peach Rebellion is a historical novel and I was a mystery buff, but because I became an author at all. Writing was not my forte in school—math and science were. But tragic events forged me into a writer, and now I can’t imagine life without writing.

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

Like a title, the first and last lines can be inspiring or a struggle. When I write a book, I always have the idea in mind for the ending. I like knowing what I’m driving toward! And often what spurs me to begin the actual writing of a project is the spark of a first line. With The Peach Rebellion, both the beginning and ending changed a lot. I added an opening to the story—one that immediately set the tone and helped convey the emotional depth of a tragic event. And the ending…I reworked the last pages a lot. But endings are so important! They’re the author’s swan dive off the page. I want my reader to hug the book after they close it; to feel emotionally satisfied and hopeful, but not wrap things up with too many bows. It takes real work and contemplation to achieve the right balance.

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

I feel that to convey the heartbeat of a character, you have to understand them. That can come from your own experiences, or by research, reflection, and submerging yourself in their world and dilemma. There are alternating narrators in The Peach Rebellion. As the daughter of immigrants, I understand why Ginny Rose—the Dust Bowl migrant—so often feels like an outsider. And having worked for my parents at their small family business, Peggy—the peach farmer’s daughter—is a girl I really identify with. But in the writing process, these characters evolved away from the sparks that inspired them. They become their own separate and completely independent entities. But I can still feel their heartbeat, and I think that helps make them come alive to my readers.

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

The Peach Rebellion is a celebration of differences—of people coming from vastly different viewpoints and backgrounds and uniting for a common cause. Like peaches being the combination of such varied elements—earth, air, sun, and water—the characters in the story combine forces to create change, not just in themselves, but in their community. The book’s theme is very much a reflection on the heartache I feel over how divided we are as a country, and as a world. Ultimately, I hope The Peach Rebellion serves as a way to consider and discuss why we label and treat people as outsiders, the lingering effects of economic disparity, and the fortifying power of being part of something bigger than ourselves.
Visit Wendelin Van Draanen's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Sunday, May 15, 2022

Seraphina Nova Glass

Seraphina Nova Glass is a professor and playwright-in-residence at the University of Texas, Arlington, where she teaches film studies and playwriting. She holds an MFA in playwriting from Smith College, and she's also a screenwriter and award-winning playwright. Glass has traveled the world using theatre and film as a teaching tool, living in South Africa, Guam and Kenya as a volunteer teacher, AIDS relief worker, and documentary filmmaker.

Her new novel is On a Quiet Street.

My Q&A with the author:

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

Titles are so hard. When I was writing Hallmark scripts, I learned that networks will sometimes buy just a title by itself, or buy a script they don’t like just to take the title because they are so powerful. I find coming up with a title painstaking, and arduous. It sometimes seems easier to write the whole novel then land on a title you love.

I’ve also learned that the publisher usually wants to change it. So far, my very first book, Someone’s Listening, is the only title I had as a working title that made it to the actual final vote and was used. At first I was a little offended. Can they just change my title? Now. I’m very grateful because my titles are usually crap and they have a glorious team of people working on creating a title that works on so many levels.

Often, I start with a working title and part way through writing the book, I hate it so much, I take the time to go into all my working documents, the notes, outlines, character pages and change it everywhere because I can’t look at it anymore! Dramatic, I know. But, I’m happy to report though, that the novel I’m writing currently is titled The Vanishing Hour, and I think it suits the piece for a change, and I’m happy with it.

My novel, On A Quiet Street, coming out this month was originally called The Payoff, and my agent and I, and our film agent really liked it and thought it would stick, but when the publisher proposed On A Quiet Street, it felt right. All of the three main characters in the story live in a quiet cul-de-sac in Brighton Hills where all the chaos rests just under the glossy, manicured surface, and they are all just close enough to nose into one another’s secrets and uncover a shocking web of lies.

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

I start with the ending almost always, so I take a lot of time to really figure out exactly what the twists and climax will be before I begin, so I know what I’m writing to. I’ll say that takes the most time, but that is the phase before I actually start writing—it’s more the staring at walls and taking distracted dog walks than writing. Once I know where it’s all headed, the ending is the easier and more fun part to write because I am most familiar with it.

Then, going back to the beginning and getting to know the characters and creating the world feels much harder to me. It’s like a first date or making a new friend in some ways—I get nervous meeting them and even though I get to create them, I hope I like them. I hope it goes well! You know?

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

I love this question because my characters have often been called “unlikable.” And yes, I do see myself in them. Maybe because I write female protagonists roughly around my age, and in domestic settings, it’s easy to relate to them, and because, of course, I hear my own voice often, and I’m pulling from my memories and life experiences here and there.

I’ve often written about this “unlikable” critique and how it’s a double standard because male characters are never coined “unlikable,” and because it’s so much more important to me that they are interesting and layered than “likable.” But, since I do see myself in many of them, I’m not sure what that says about me!

When I think about a couple of my very favorite fictional characters, I think of Eleanor Oliphant and Olive Kitteridge, and “likable” isn’t the first word that comes to mind, yet I’m still in love with them and adore their complexity and rough exterior.

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

My background in theatre has been a big influence in my writing career. Yes, my education was in playwriting, but as an acting instructor for many years, it’s interesting to see the similarities of creating a character on paper and a live human being crafting a character on stage—all the unwritten backstory the actor needs to fill in to make a well-rounded, three-dimension character is the same.

I was watching Masterclass where Aaron Sorkin is discussing “Intention and Obstacle.” He was saying that in storytelling, you can never have a character’s intention that’s too strong--too great, and you can never have obstacles too formidable. That has to be in place and tested before he can begin a story. This is the same thing we’ve been teaching in acting for decades, so I loved the parallel.

The acting teacher Uta Hagan begins with the idea of “super-objective” when working with actors. You have to ask yourself, as an actor, “what do I desperately want, and what’s in my way?” So, I’d always thought about this in the context of acting, but now I see that it’s the only way for me to begin as a writer also. It’s always been an anchor for me, if I lose my way in the middle of a story, to come back to the protagonist and their “super-objective,” and it gets me back on track. It’s been such a helpful piece of advice.
Visit Seraphina Nova Glass's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Thursday, May 12, 2022

Evie Hawtrey

Evie Hawtrey is a Yank by birth but a sister-in-spirit to her fierce and feminist London detective, DI Nigella Barker. Hawtrey splits her time between Washington DC, where she lives with her husband, and York, UK, where she enjoys living in history, lingering over teas, and knocking around in pubs.

Her new novel is And By Fire.

My Q&A with the author:

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

Generally I am rubbish at titles. Absolute rubbish. That’s not a new discovery for me, because, although this is my first foray into crime writing, I’ve been a published historical novelist (Sophie Perinot) for over a decade. So, I get stressed around titles because they matter. And I am also very open to input from my agent and editor when titling my books.

In the case of And by Fire, however, the title is mine and I am rather proud of it. I think it takes the reader deep into both timelines in my crime novel (modern-day London & London 1666), while simultaneously connecting them.

And by Fire is excerpted from a longer phrase, “and by fire, resurgam,” from a taunting note written by my modern-day murderous arsonist on the back of a unusually placed necktie. The word resurgam (Latin for “I shall rise”), come up repeatedly in the novel—spotted by my contemporary detectives, DIs Parker and O’Leary, on the south transcept of St. Paul’s Cathedral; on the charred page of a book that floats down at the feet of architect Sir Christopher Wren during the horrific Great fire of London, offering him a moment of reassurance and inspiration.

Why not include resurgam in my title or even make it the single-word title of the book? Because foreign words, along with words that are not easy for readers to spell (and thus search), are big no-nos in the publishing industry. So Resurgam was out from the get-go. Other titles I did consider include: From Fire, As to Ashes, and The Hawk and the Phoenix. But I think And by Fire best evokes the effort that it takes, whatever your passion or profession, to rise from ashes—to never give up—while at the same time leaning into a central theme in the book: what type of sacrifice can be justified to achieve one’s personal ends? Ultimately that is the pivotal question in both timelines of And by Fire—what can and should we justify in the name of art? My resounding answer is self-sacrifice, but not the sacrifice of others.

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

My teenage self wouldn’t be surprised to find adult me writing novels—after all I cut my teeth telling stories to the neighborhood kids on our walk to and from school (30 minutes each way, but not uphill both ways). I do, however, think teen me would be surprised by this foray into crime after a decade long career in historical fiction (as Sophie Perinot). After all, I was a history major in college but I’ve never murdered anyone (no matter what my current search history may suggest).

Seriously though, maybe teen me should have expected this. I like to surprise people—including myself. And my voracious appetite for reading certainly included classic mysteries by the likes of P.D. James and Agatha Christie. On top of that my love for PBS/BBC mystery TV series started in my pre-adolescent days and continues to the present day. Readers will find references to some of my favorite BBC detectives—including fierce, feminist inspiration Jane Tennison of Prime Suspect, and clever Endeavour Morse—in And by Fire.

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

Middles. I am a contrarian aren’t I.

But seriously, I knew what the opening crimes in each of my dual timelines were going to be, before I wrote the opening lines of And by Fire, along with who committed them. In the case of my 1666 timeline, I knew what the “oh my God” unexpected crime twist was as well. In my modern timeline I knew my killer’s motivation for his sculptures using burnt flesh as well as burnt wood. But I am not an outliner, so, while I had ideas for the additional, escalating crimes in the modern timeline, as well as a handful of pre-determined clues for my detective teams working in both the present day and the 17th century, I genuinely had to solve multiple murders set more than three-hundred-and-fifty years apart as I went along. In a weird way that was sort of like being all of my detectives—DI Nigella Parker of the City Police of London; DI Colm O’Leary of Scotland Yard; Lady Margaret Dove, maid-of-honour to the queen; and Etienne Belland, royal fireworks maker to King Charles II—while at the same time playing God. Except I wasn’t a very effective God, because quite often my characters failed to listen to me.

Sure, there were days when I charged ahead at the speed of an inferno (sorry couldn’t resist), exceeding and even doubling my expected word count, and ending my workday with an “you’ve got this” adrenaline rush. But most of the time, like my detective protagonists, I felt as if I was taking one step forward and two back. Or as if I was seeing or hearing something important at a crime scene without quite being able to grasp why it was a key puzzle piece.

Eventually I worked it out. The puzzle pieces fell into place, and I—or rather my fictional detectives—brought “the malefactors to book” (as Kirkus Reviews put it). Writing the final scene in each of my timelines felt like crossing the finish line at a marathon. I am delighted with how my mysteries, both modern and historical, were resolved as well as with how crimes past and present tied together. I only hope readers will be equally satisfied.

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

I feel several very deep connections to my modern timeline heroine, DI Nigella Parker of the City of London Police. I am not claiming to be as fierce as Ni is, but I gave her a “gift” of sorts—her fear of fire is my own. The house address, and the names may be different, but the core story at the root of Ni’s fear is basically the same one that sparked my own. Additionally, DI Parker and I have a similar approach to things that cause us anxiety—we try to kick them in the teeth (metaphorically). What you can’t conquer destroys you—Nigella has that thought in And by Fire, it’s a mantra for her. It is also mine.

On a less serious note, Ni and I share a couple of favorite perfumes—ironically each with underlying notes of smoke. I wore one while writing much of the book: Iris Cendre by Naomi Goodsir. When I want to summon my inner Nigella—inside or outside the writing realm—Iris Cendre is my go-to bottle.
Visit Evie Hawtrey's website.

Writers Read: Evie Hawtrey.

--Marshal Zeringue

Monday, May 9, 2022

Chris Holm

Chris Holm is the author of the cross-genre Collector trilogy, the Michael Hendricks thrillers, and thirty-odd short stories in a variety of genres. His work has been selected for The Best American Mystery Stories, named a New York Times Editors' Choice, appeared on more than fifty year's best lists, and won a number of awards, including the 2016 Anthony Award for Best Novel. He lives in Portland, Maine.

Holm's new standalone biological thriller is Child Zero.

My Q&A with the author:

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

This book went through several titles before my agent, editor, and I settled on Child Zero. First it was Survival (too bland). Then, for a long while, it was Endtimes (too biblical). Once we scrapped that one, it was a free-for-all of terrible suggestions until we hit upon Child Zero.

I’d like to think that Child Zero, in addition to being short and punchy, is also something of a tease. Who is this kid? What is he “child zero” of? Are we looking at some kind of “patient zero” situation?

What's in a name?

I sweat the heck out of my characters’ names, because a good one helps create an air of verisimilitude, while a bad one can be jarring enough to knock a reader clear out of the book.

Names are products of one’s region, heritage, and socioeconomic status. Because given names are subject to trends, they can evoke specific eras, and tell you whether the people they belong to were raised by traditionalists or iconoclasts. In fiction, they’re often winking or referential. That’s an awful lot of weight for a few short words to carry.

Child Zero’s protagonist, Jacob “Jake” Gibson, is so named because a) J names are disproportionately represented among popular action heroes—think James Bond, John Rambo, Jason Bourne, John McClain, Jack Reacher, Jack Bauer, and John Wick, b) Child Zero is an attempt at near-future prognostication, not unlike many works of William Gibson’s, and c) I named my previous protagonist, Michael Hendricks, after a gin, so it struck me as funny to name this one after a gin cocktail.

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

He’d be shocked to discover I make my living as an author, because the very notion was beyond his wildest dreams. He’d probably adore Child Zero, because it’s exactly the sort of book he gravitated toward. And he would lose his freaking mind if you told him it was recommended by none other than Stephen King.

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

Though I’m not an outliner, I never begin a book without knowing how it begins and ends. As a result, both tend to stick pretty close to what I envisioned. It’s all those pesky scenes between that trip me up.

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

Whether intentionally or not, every character I write is bound to be some version of myself, but I try my best not to lean into it—because, as a writer, I live for the moments in which they surprise me.

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

For years, scientists and medical professionals have been sounding the alarm about the impending collapse of the antibiotic era, but their warnings have largely gone unheeded, probably because the public fails to comprehend the enormity of the threat.

It’s not their fault. Widespread antibiotic resistance is a thorny concept, the full ramifications of which are tough for laypeople to wrap their heads around. That’s where I come in.

Before I became a fulltime author, I made my living as a molecular biologist. My background makes me uniquely suited to render, in vivid detail, the terrifying reality of a post-antibiotic world—and, by doing so, educate readers about this looming crisis before it’s too late to avert.

That was the impetus behind Child Zero, and the reason I spent six years working hard to get it right.
Visit Chris Holm's website.

The Page 69 Test: The Killing Kind.

The Page 69 Test: Red Right Hand.

The Page 69 Test: Child Zero.

--Marshal Zeringue

Tuesday, May 3, 2022

Julia Glass

Julia Glass's books of fiction include the best-selling Three Junes, winner of the National Book Award, and I See You Everywhere, winner of the Binghamton University John Gardner Fiction Book Award. Other published works include the Kindle Single Chairs in the Rafters and essays in several anthologies. A recipient of fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the New York Foundation for the Arts, and the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, Glass is a Distinguished Writer in Residence at Emerson College. She lives with her family in Marblehead, Massachusetts.

Glass's new novel is Vigil Harbor.

My Q&A with the author:

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

Vigil Harbor was titled, until the 11th hour, In a Time of Tempests. I loved that title the way one loves a garish dress that you secretly suspect makes you look more clownish than elegant. I wanted the reader to picture storms, hurricanes, typhoons--high drama! (And if there were an intimation of themes Shakespearean, so much the better.) In the near-future era of this novel, the volume's been turned up on many existential threats, but none more prominently than climate change (though I would not call this novel cli-fi).

Ultimately, however, that title was a diva. At heart, this is a story about a place, the forces that its history and topography have exerted on nearly five centuries of inhabitants. I thought of David Ebershoff's Pasadena, Richard Russo's Empire Falls (such a great pun); Sebald's Austerlitz, Eliot's Middlemarch. All good company. (My fictional town Vigil Harbor actually harks back to a previous novel of mine, The Widower's Tale.)

Last week I got a wonderful note from a close writer friend, praising the title: "What a terrific name for where we are this day, this year, now! I think all the time about how to characterize the sense of parlousness and the need not to give up hope, both more intensely felt than ever before in our lives. Vigil Harbor covers the ground in two words." Never mind that I had to look up the word parlous (which does not, it turns out, mean "talkative"). Miraculously, what he describes is the very ethos of the book as I've intended it!

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

Beginnings simply arrive, like a dear friend pulling up to the house in a convertible and saying, "Hey, climb in. Champagne's chilled and the day is ours." A new beginning will feel, for a while, perfect, even brilliant. Endings, on the other hand, are valiantly fought for, like the summit of a mountain after a long hike. (I sometimes think I suffer the climb just to earn the view.) Yet once I reach the end of a book--which takes months, if not years, since I revise as I go along, rather than writing a series of drafts--I'm often happily surprised. Rarely does it change much, if at all. Over the course of writing a novel, it's that seductive beginning that I'll fuss with and change, discard, replace, re-voice, dozens of times. So the entire enterprise is a big game of bait-and-switch. Yet I fall for it every time.

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

All the characters I end up caring for the most (and often my feelings about them change radically along the way) emerge from some cranny of my own psyche--generally reflecting qualities and habits of which I'm not terribly proud. Yet I won't realize it (and this is a blessing) until I'm well along in crafting a story. My tendency toward caution, my curmudgeonly resistance to innovative changes, my hoarding of grudges: these are just some of the worst sides of my personality that have distinguished characters with whom, to my shock, readers fall in love. A number of major characters in my novels would seem to embody cautionary tales written by and for their author!

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

Above all, the ambition I once had to succeed as a visual artist, which lasted into my early thirties, definitely shaped the way I write. I am extremely visual and love nothing more than to put my reader in a very particular place, be it a house, a landscape ... or a town like Vigil Harbor. I am a writer who looks as passionately as I feel. The places I've lived and loved also cast a large shadow, especially New York City and New England.

I would also have to say that becoming a mother and raising children, something I've done on a later timeline than most women, changed forever the way I see and write about my characters, all of whom I can't help seeing as the children of their parents. I think hard about every character's family tree and gene pool. And so, quite often, do they.
Follow Julia Glass on Facebook.

The Page 69 Test: Vigil Harbor.

--Marshal Zeringue

Friday, April 29, 2022

Marc Cameron

New York Times bestselling author Marc Cameron’s Jericho Quinn Thriller Series debuted in 2011. Since then, he’s written eight Quinn novels and four Arliss Cutter novels featuring a deputy US marshal based in Alaska, including the most recent Cutter, Cold Snap. Cameron is the author of five Tom Clancy/Jack Ryan novels for the Tom Clancy estate, including the Shadow of the Dragon and Chain of Command.

A retired Chief Deputy U.S. Marshal, Cameron spent nearly thirty years in law enforcement. He holds a second-degree black belt in jujitsu and is a certified law enforcement scuba diver and man-tracking instructor. The job of a deputy US marshal is extremely varied. Cameron’s career focused primarily on dignitary protection and fugitive operations. As a member of the rural Tactical Tracking Unit for the US Marshals District of Alaska, Cameron routinely tracked lost hikers, hunters, and fugitives in the vast Alaska bush. His assignments have taken him from Alaska to Manhattan, Canada to Mexico and dozens of points in between.

My Q&A with the author:

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

We’re going for Northern Noir. The Cutter novels are set in Alaska, most often in rural communities—what we call “the bush.” I want the books to have that icy, isolated flavor. Cold Snap takes place during the spring. In the lower forty-eight flowers are blooming and kids are flying kites in the park. But—like the old Johnny Horton song, springtime in Alaska can dip well below zero. The land, water, even the air itself conspire to crush anyone who’s not prepared. Deputy US Marshal Arliss Cutter is a skilled outdoorsman and fugitive hunter, but he’s from Florida. The intense chill of the Arctic grates on him, especially when in his mind, it should be spring. A sudden cold snap in the mountains makes for deadly conflict—man v man in a frozen environment that will happily kill both hunter and hunted. It would be impossible to write an honest story about Alaska without making weather a leading character.

What's in a name?

I had a couple of back-and-forth conversations with my publisher early on about Arliss. There was a feeling on that end that a deputy marshal should have a “tougher” sounding name. To me, he’s been Arliss from the beginning. It just took me a minute to convince the team. Cutter’s partner, Lola Teariki, is of Cook Island Maori descent. I wanted something that was recognizable as Polynesian, and to people that know, as Maori, and more particularly, as Cook Island Maori. My wife and I visit Rarotonga for a couple of months every year so I spent a lot of time poring over the phone book looking for suitable surnames. It’s Te Ah Ree Kee but I knew going in some readers would pronounce it “teriyaki” in their heads… My maternal grandmother’s name was Lola. She was one of the most adventurous people I’ve ever known—always on the move into her nineties. Lola Teariki shares much of her spirit.

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

I grew up very poor in rural Texas. As a boy, I read Old Yeller and Where the Red Fern Grows—and wrote a lot of stories about good dogs and trusty horses. In middle school I found Fleming and Forsyth. They turned me to writing Bond-esque espionage. In high school, I discovered Robert Penn Warren and Hemingway whose work nudged me toward a snooty literary phase where I tried, I think, to be too ‘writerly.’ I still have some of those manuscripts and boy, oh, boy, they will never see the light of day. All my friends knew that my teenage-self dreamed of living in the north, being a cop, and writing novels—but I think we’d all have been hella surprised to learned that it actually worked out.

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

I generally know the ending and the route my characters will take to get there, but the beginning takes me several tries. It’s not uncommon for me to bang out three chapters and then, when I start chapter four say to myself, “This is where the book actually begins.” Those first three weren’t wasted. I needed to write them to reach the starting line.

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

I worked in Alaska for most of my career with the US Marshals, much of that on the district’s man-tracking team and fugitive task force. I get asked all the time if I’m Arliss. I wish. His adventures are inspired by my career, but he’s far cooler and more capable than I ever was. He’s sort of an amalgam of all the terrific people I worked with over the years. If I’m like anyone in the books, it’s Arliss’s grandfather, Grumpy, a lawman in Florida during the period when I came on the job in Texas.

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

I come from a family of cowboys and farmers who spent most every evening on the porch telling stories while they shelled peas or played dominoes. Some of my earliest memories are chewing on a piece of fried chicken, listening to how some kid in the next county over died of a tick bite or how my great grandma blew her fingers off on at a piece of military ordinance the kids found around Camp Polk. They may not have known the terms “character arc” or “rising action,” but my family could tell a mean story. I value those porch-swing master classes more than any formal training I’ve ever received.
Visit Marc Cameron's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Wednesday, April 27, 2022

Bonnar Spring

Bonnar Spring writes eclectic and stylish mystery-suspense novels with an international flavor. A nomad at heart, she hitchhiked across Europe at sixteen and joined the Peace Corps after college. Bonnar taught ESL—English as a Second Language—at a community college for many years. She currently divides her time between tiny houses on a New Hampshire salt marsh and by the Sea of Abaco.

Spring's new novel is Disappeared.

My Q&A with the author:

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

Fay disappears on page one, so the title leads directly into the story. The mystery of Disappeared is learning where Fay went and why she left without giving any hint to her sister, Julie, what she was doing.

Without giving away too much of the plot, ‘disappeared’ also refers to other characters in the novel. And it hints at the loss of trust between the sisters caused by Fay’s disappearance.

Julie’s search for her sister prompted the original title, The Black Desert, because most of the cat-and-mouse intrigue and the dangers the women encounter take place in that stony wasteland adjacent to the Sahara.

But the novel is an on-the-road adventure, and The Black Desert started (after numerous re-writes and editor complaints) sounding too static. I came up with Disappeared, which ties into the themes I write about and spotlights the story’s action and emotion of the two sisters.

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

My teenage self would not recognize me. I write stories that focus on themes of betrayal, revenge, and redemption. There are a lot of messed up, conflicted characters acting out in ways that may or may not be productive.

Okay, I was a lonely and hormonal teen, bookish, a bit of a nerd. But I had no inkling then, of the lies and the losses that would upend me as an adult. In fact, many of my characters experience that same loss of center, for lack of a catchy diagnostic term, when they come into adulthood and other people begin carving off pieces of their psyche. They’ve become wounded and raw—unlike their oblivious teenage selves.

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

So far my female characters have all shared one aspect or another of my personality. Most are quiet and serious. They feel inadequate to the tasks demanded of them, but somehow they manage to hold it all together and win through. Of course, they are smarter, prettier, and more decisive and creative than I am.

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

I lie to myself about why I travel. I say I want to (as the cliché would have it) “get away from it all.” There’s a kernel of truth—I like taking a break from daily workouts, escaping long New England winters. Still, I plan involved vacations, not two weeks at the beach with a stack of novels. That always sounds scrumptious, but somehow it never happens.

Trekking to Machu Picchu, biking in Cuba, on camelback into the Sahara ... that’s what I end up doing because, for me, getting away is only the means to an end. And the end is learning more about who I am when I’m not supported by the norms and expectations of my home culture.

We’ve all had the disorienting experience of driving home from work, only to find ourselves pulling into the driveway with no memory of the trip. Our internal maps keep us from needing to pay attention to most road signs throughout our daily lives.

Now that I’ve got a few novels under my belt, I realize I’m doing the same thing with my characters that I do on vacation. Because I write international thrillers, they often turn up in places they’ve never been before. In addition to not knowing friend from foe, my characters literally don’t know their way around. To meet the challenge of unfamiliar territory, their senses must remain on high alert.

I want my readers to experience my characters’ heightened awareness along with them.
Visit Bonnar Spring's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Wednesday, April 20, 2022

Andrea Yaryura Clark

Andrea Yaryura Clark grew up in Argentina amid the political turmoil of the 1970s until her family relocated to North America. After graduating from Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service — including a year of study at the Universidad del Salvador in Buenos Aires —and completing her MBA at York University (Toronto, Canada), she returned to Buenos Aires to reconnect with her roots. By the mid-1990s, many sons and daughters of the "Disappeared"—the youngest victims of Argentina’s military dictatorship in the 1970s —were coming of age and grappling with the fates of their families. She interviewed several of these children, and their experiences, not widely known outside Argentina, inspired her debut novel. She lives in Brooklyn with her husband, two sons and a spirited terrier.

Clark's new novel is On a Night of a Thousand Stars.

My Q&A with the author:

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

On a Night of a Thousand Stars was not the original title. In fact, I had two titles before landing on this one. The first title was Southern Cross. It remained the title until one day, an editor friend pointed out that a reader might think the story takes place in the American south, involving the KKK. My next title was The Ambassador’s Daughter. I liked this one, but a few months later, a search online revealed that another author had snapped it up. After some brainstorming with my agent and editor, we came up with the final title, which, in my view, is the best one. The title may be evocative for those familiar with the musical, Evita, but key scenes take place under the big Argentinian skies.

What's in a name?

I knew almost immediately I would name one of my main characters Paloma, which means dove and is a symbol of peace and love. The novel transpires in Argentina, but it was important to me that the other characters’ names be easily pronounced in English.

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

My teenage self would be very surprised! My father was a poet/novelist and he had various writer friends who would often come to our house for readings or workshops, but I had always been drawn to the theater, singing and playing the guitar. That said, when I was a high school senior, I took a screenwriting class as an elective. I remember how much I enjoyed writing dialogue and being thrilled when two of my one-act plays were chosen for the stage.

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

It’s a work of historical fiction so I knew what the overall ending would be. I wasn’t sure, however, how one of the two narrative threads would be resolved. This led me to work more on the ending than on the beginning.
Visit Andrea Yaryura Clark's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Monday, April 18, 2022

C. S. E. Cooney

C.S.E. Cooney lives and writes in Queens. She is author of the World Fantasy Award-winning Bone Swans: Stories (2015), an audiobook narrator, and the singer/songwriter Brimstone Rhine.

Her new novel is Saint Death’s Daughter.

My Q&A with the author:

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

Like Lois McMaster Bujold’s Warrior’s Apprentice, Theodora Goss’s The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter, or Laurie R. King’s The Beekeeper’s Apprentice, Saint Death’s Daughter hints at the identity (and destiny) of the protagonist via a kind of shorthand nepotism. We learn something about Lanie Stones's character immediately because we already know something of the greater power behind her; what power, after all, is greater than Death itself?

From the title Saint Death’s Daughter, we may intimate that Lanie Stones is closely related to Death, perhaps even a beloved child, and that Death (in this world, at least) is considered holy. We might also conjecture that, being of this lineage, there are duties into which Lanie has been born—and might not have chosen, given the choice. We also know that, like any child of a famous parent, Lanie has a lot to live up to. (As the author, I can tell you that the title also leaves room for the projected sequels—Saint Death’s Herald and Saint Death’s Doorway—to suggest Lanie's character arc, as she grows in power, agency, and expectation.)

What's in a name?

Lanie Stones’s full name is “Miscellaneous Immiscible Stones.” One of my great delights in writing Saint Death’s Daughter was naming the whole branching family tree of Stoneses, from Unnatural Stones, to Irradiant Stones, to Ostrobogulous Stones, to Extramundane Stones, to Quick Fantastic Stones and her son, Even Quicker.

Part of my delight is in the ridiculous nature of their names, and how well the Stoneses wear them, or retrofit them (Unnatural’s nickname was “Natty,” as he was a very fine dresser) to suit their tastes. I wanted Lanie to have a name that meant jumbled, that meant not-one-thing-only, or not easily defined. She’s a necromancer, yes, but woman cannot live on necromancy alone. It’s her ability to adapt, to become something of a renaissance woman of the world, that really ensures her survival—for all her uncanny powers.

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

I think my teenage self would have liked it fine. It may even have influenced her going forward. But she was more interested in fairy tales than necromancy at that point. I think it would help that she also liked Stephen King, Anne Rice, Clive Barker, and Angela Carter at that age. But she hadn’t yet discovered Terry Pratchett, which I think was her loss. Much of what I learned about humor in writing I learned later from Terry Pratchett, so I don’t think my teenaged self’s sense of humor was quite developed enough to appreciate my writing now. I think she might have skipped the footnotes, which would have been a real pity.

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

I think my beginnings tend to be far more polished than my endings, simply because I always comb through what I’ve already written to get be primed for the next chapter I have to write. The end may get a good eight drafts, but by the time it’s written, the beginning would have had about twenty-four. But by the end I also know more about the voice, the characters, and the world than I did at the beginning, so it evens out. No, it’s the middle that’s the hardest: that fine balance between editing down until nothing but the essentials remain and keeping the bits of the book that made it, you know, actually worth writing. Which are not always the purely load-bearing, velocity-dependent, twistily cunning plotty McPlotty bits.

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

All the characters are some aspect of opinion of me. Who do I fear, what repulses me, what lessons do I need to learn, where am I most wise or most foolish, what do I think is cool, what do I think we need more of in the world, what do I notice out in the real world that I want to reflect or enhance in my own fiction? Lanie in particular has to unlearn a lifetime of lessons taught to her in a toxic household. She has to acknowledge and examine the historical myths her own culture tells itself, and her place in it. She has to leave her home in order to understand it, and meet people whose perspectives are alien to her to realize just how strange and isolated a life she’d been leading. I believe in friendship, found family, tenderness, owning up to my mistakes, trying to do better—and Lanie does too. Eventually.
Visit C.S.E. Cooney's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Saturday, April 16, 2022

Philip Gray

Philip Gray studied modern history at Cambridge University, and went on to work as a journalist in Madrid, Rome and Lisbon. He has tutored in crime writing at City University in London and serves as a director at an award-winning documentary film company, specialising in science and history.

Gray's grandfather was a captain in the Lancashire Fusiliers and fought through the First World War from start to finish, losing his closest friends along the way. Years after his death, Gray came across a cache of trench maps and military documents that his grandfather had kept, and in which he had recorded the events that befell his unit. Gray was inspired to write his thriller Two Storm Wood when the pull of his grandfather's legacy felt too strong to ignore.

My Q&A with the author:

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

Two Storm Wood is the name given to a strongpoint on one of the battlefields of the Somme during the First World War. Because the Western Front ended up playing host to 20,000 miles of trenches, dugouts, tunnels and fortifications, it became necessary for navigational purposes for the army to give them names, most of which had nothing to do with the underlying topography, let alone the local language. This, of course, gives the author a lot of leeway, which I have exploited. I actually came across the name in a different place altogether. (Yes, there is a real place called Two Storm Wood, but it is not in France!)

In the story, Two Storm Wood is where the aftermath of a horrifying atrocity is discovered deep underground. This terrible crime, and the events leading up to it, form the dark heart of the story – a vortex into which the characters are inexorably drawn. As such, it constantly focuses the readers’ attention on the question of what happened there, and why. Helpfully, this puts readers and characters on the same page, as it were.

What's in a name?

I try not to be too clever with the names of my characters. I generally use first names that carry no special connotations, and surnames that are reasonably simple but distinctive from each other. For me, names that have been chosen to say something relevant about a character only serve to remind me that I am reading a fiction, and that the character is not real. In some kinds of story, that does not matter. But in Two Storm Wood, authenticity is crucial. That is why I have avoided using any names that might seem artificial.

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

When I was at school, I had two large posters on my wall depicting scenes from the First World War. So, of all the books I have written or co-written, Two Storm Wood might have surprised me the least. I’d like to think, though, that the book’s particular take on the war – the post-war clearance effort, aimed at locating and identifying nearly half a million missing men, the presence of the Chinese Labour Corps, the extent of drug use by the troops – would surprise my younger self, because these are aspects of the conflict that were quite quickly forgotten.

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

Both are tricky and subject to change, but I find beginnings get reworked and reordered more often. Early drafts of Two Storm Wood actually began with what is now Chapter 3; and main character, Amy Vanneck, began her journey into the story at an earlier point. I think, in general, the need to balance narrative momentum with context and backstory is at its most tricky in the earliest stages of a book. The readers need to be engaged swiftly, but also to know where they are and who they are supposed to be concerned about. Getting it right often involves a lot of trial and error.

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

As is often said, there is a little of the author in almost every character he or she creates, even if it is only the way those characters think or respond to the world. In Two Storm Wood, I would say that Amy’s world view chimes quite closely with my own (although she’s stronger and braver than me!). That said, I think if my personality is expressed anywhere, it is in the overall architecture of the story: the decisions about right and wrong, bravery and cowardice, honour and shame, that the characters are forced to make. I think that’s usually the way it is. You get a sense of a writer’s identity from his or her work as a whole: what makes them angry or sad, what they find ridiculous, what bothers them and what doesn’t.

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

My writing is often described as cinematic, and this might have something to do with the fact that I used to do a lot of still photography, in particular portrait and landscape work. I tend to imagine scenes visually in the first instance, and the visual context of what takes place is always important to me, helping to fire my imagination. I’ve also written for the theatre, and I think that has considerably sharpened my ear for dialogue, as well as making me more aware of the rhythms that flow through it. The little bit of screenwriting I’ve done may also have changed my perspective on the pacing of scenes, and the balance between description, thought and action. Things tend to move along a little quicker these days – although any novel that aspires to be as stripped down and concise as a screenplay is going to end up very short indeed!
Visit Philip Gray's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Wednesday, April 13, 2022

Sarah Bird

Sarah Bird is the author of eleven novels. Her latest, Last Dance on the Starlight Pier, is out this month from St. Martin’s Press. Set during the Great Depression, the novel focuses on one woman—and a nation—struggling to be reborn from the ashes.

My Q&A with the author:

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

Quite a bit, actually. My working title was The Cellophane Wedding since the book takes place in world of the dance marathons of the Great Depression and that was one of the events that promoters cooked up to draw crowds. Since so many couples couldn’t afford to start their lives together, weddings became rare enough that audiences would pay to see one.

And a cellophane wedding? Where the bride and all her many bridesmaids wore gowns made of transparent cellophane over their underwear? Well, that was a guaranteed sold-out house.

The cellophane wedding was just one of the fabulous research discoveries I made about the dance marathons and, though it didn’t become the title, it became a pivotal element.

In the end the actual title, Last Dance on the Starlight Pier, was a better choice because, in a very few words, it plunges the reader into the story of a young woman whose future is going to be decided during a dance marathon held beside the sea. The word “last” introduces the sense of urgency that animates my protagonist and her quest.

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

My teenage self would adore this novel and the two that preceded it since they are what she loved most: historical fiction. I grew up reading the big, juicy epics that my mother devoured. Doorstops by the likes of Leon Uris, Mary Renault, and Taylor Caldwell. I think my earlier novels would have surprised the shy Catholic schoolgirl that I was since they are generally considered comic and can be fairly bawdy.

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

Beginnings are definitely harder for me. I generally know, or at least think I know, what the ending will be. But I’m typically not certain how the book should begin until I’ve written the whole thing. The ending is like a note on a pitch pipe. It tells me the emotional tenor I want to end on. My job is to find the right note to open with and all the ones that go in the middle so that the whole thing is ultimately in tune.

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

I’m sort of a Method writer. Like a Method actor, I have to become my protagonist, to understand her grief and joy, in short, her motivation, in order to tell her story. Some of my protagonists have included the only woman to serve with the Buffalo Soldiers, an Okinawan girl conscripted by the Japanese army during World War Two, a drug-addled caterer, and, most recently, a desperate nursing student/former vaudeville performer who enters a dance marathon. On the surface, my current life as a suburban mom would seem worlds apart from them. But, emotionally, I have inhabited each one and they are all me.

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

Though I’m deeply grateful for my acceptance as a “Texas Writer” to the point that I’ve been selected for the Texas Writers Hall of Fame, I’m not sure I deserve the title. I was a mostly finished product by the time I ever set foot in the Lone Star State. My early influences were about as strong as they come: large, Catholic, Democratic, military family composed of voracious readers. These influences set me on the path I was to follow in both life and in my writing.
Visit Sarah Bird's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Saturday, April 9, 2022

Antoine Wilson

Antoine Wilson is the author of the novels Panorama City and The Interloper. His work has appeared in The Paris Review, StoryQuarterly, Best New American Voices, and The Los Angeles Times, among other publications, and he is a contributing editor of A Public Space. A graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and recipient of a Carol Houck Smith Fiction Fellowship from the University of Wisconsin, he lives in Los Angeles.

Wilson's new novel is Mouth to Mouth.

My Q&A with the author:

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

Mouth to Mouth starts with an anonymous narrator bumping into a college acquaintance while waiting out a flight delay at JFK. That acquaintance, Jeff Cook, now a successful art dealer, invites the narrator for a drink in the first class lounge, where he proceeds to unspool the story of his rise, a story that kicks off with his rescuing a drowning man on the beach in Santa Monica. That event—traumatic, heroic, overwhelming—shapes the course of his life to come.

That's the title on a literal level, obviously. But baked into the structure of the novel is the telling of the story itself. How reliable is Jeff? What are his motives for telling our narrator? That’s the second layer, a story that’s transmitted face to face—the Bible uses mouth to mouth at one point to mean this—and a story that’s related second-hand. This book is at least as much about storytelling (the narratives we tell ourselves and those we share with others) as it is about saving a life, so the two meanings overlap nicely in Mouth to Mouth.

What's in a name?

The fun thing about Francis Arsenault’s fancy name is that it’s a construction. He was born Frank Busse. I’m fascinated by people who rename themselves.

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

My teenage self would be surprised by how conventional it is, I think. I mean that it’s a realist novel rather than a surrealist stage play. He would appreciate the brevity of it.

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

I don’t know the ending when I set out to write something, so in a sense the ending is ever-changing, hovering in a kind of subjunctive mood the whole time I’m working. Once it’s arrived at and written, though, it doesn’t usually change much. The ending seems like it would be more difficult, but once I’m there, I feel like I’ve got everything necessary to put it together, and, if all goes well, a dollop of inspiration.

Beginnings used to be easy for me, when I was younger. Now I write for a bit, start over, write a bit further, start over, write further, start over, and so on. So the beginning gets written many times. Everything relies on it. If there’s a problem with an ending, I like to tell my students, it’s usually in the beginning somewhere.

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

Only in glimpses. Like when you see your kid make a gesture you recognize as your own. The zone from which characters emerge is a miasma of personal observation, internal functions, types, vague recollections of books I’ve read, and so on. From my perspective, they seem very cobbled together. Little Frankenstein’s monsters. Of course, I do my best to spackle the cracks so that from the reader’s perspective they appear as coherent wholes.

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

Much of Mouth to Mouth takes place in the so-called art world—Beverly Hills in the mid-1990s, to be specific—and the novel calls into question all kinds of issues of valuation and commerce pertaining to the buying, selling, and collecting of fine art. But putting the financial aspect aside, the book is also inspired by art and artists from that world. Agnes Martin—whose Writings is incredible—has a cameo, and Jeff Cook describes a profound aesthetic encounter with a piece by Joan Mitchell, one of my favorite painters. Several fictional artists and their artwork appear in the novel, transparent sublimations of my own fine art fantasies.
Learn more about the book and author at Antoine Wilson's website and Twitter perch.

My Book, The Movie: Panorama City.

--Marshal Zeringue

Thursday, April 7, 2022

Erica Ferencik

Erica Ferencik is the award-winning author of the acclaimed thrillers The River at Night, Into the Jungle, and Girl in Ice, which The New York Times Book Review declared “hauntingly beautiful.”

My Q&A with the author:

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

The title Girl in Ice can be interpreted as referring to the girl who is actually frozen in the glacier and thaws out alive, and/or the protagonist, the linguist Val Chesterfield, who is in one sense “frozen” by her anxiety disorder, which causes her to feel safe only in certain settings: home, her office, etc.

Girl in Ice is also short and direct, and has a thrillery-feel, which I thought would be effective, as much as I chafe at categorizing the novel strictly as a thriller, since it also has elements of mystery and touches of horror – and – it’s not a by-the-numbers thriller read. We tossed around a few other titles but not too many. One was Girl on Ice, which to me sounded like a skating story or an appetizer.

The title of the German edition (September 12th release) is Ein Leid Vom Ende Der Weld, or, Song From the End of the World, which I love. They are positioning the book as general fiction rather than a thriller. I love the complexity of the word Leid, which means song but also call, or melody, or melodic message. There is no literal singing in the book, but the girl who has thawed from the ice certainly “sings” her own message of warning and truth to this modern world about climate change and the dangers of not working together to address it.

What's in a name?

I come to names in a very subconscious way. I choose them without choosing them, if that makes sense. I picture the character and then name them. Who they look like in my mind, literally a sound picture. It’s tough to be as clear about this as I’d like.

I’m also hampered by associations I have with the names of people I’ve known. That kid Suzy who was a bitch in high school; mild, meek Sarah, bully Lisa and her gang. I tend to go for names I don’t have any association with; otherwise all I’m doing is picturing the person I knew, or know, with that name.

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

My teenage self would be surprised that I became a writer, since back then I was a painter, a fine artist. She would also be surprised that, being such a conformist in high school, and also painfully shy, that I let my freak flag fly in all my books.

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

The ending of Girl in Ice, as apocalyptic as it is, felt inevitable me. The combustion of greed, misdirected grief, repressed love and lust, all trapped in one of the harshest environments on earth could only end in the way it did. I spend months outlining a book before I write a first draft, so endings don’t change. But beginnings, or first chapters, are rewritten dozens of times, because they are a balancing act of giving just enough of the who, what, why, when, and where to orient the reader but not confuse them, and an irresistible hook.

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

Call me an incurable narcissist, but I am in all of my characters, to some extent. Hey – I know myself best, why not reach inside and use what I’ve got? We all contain multitudes, if we admit it to ourselves. For my part, I know I can tap on inherent shades of the beast inside me, my cunning, great kindness, my grieving self, my joyous self, the part that remains a child, the jealous part, loving part, wounded, empathetic. And then there is the rich trove of tapping into everyone I know or have ever known….

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

Like so many others, I survived an extremely challenging childhood, and so I have ready access to dread, to feeling trapped, to planning creative ways to survive. In short, my fight or flight hormones are quite close to the surface, so it’s natural for me to write stories filled with tension and scares.

Other influences are travel, being in nature, film music, theater, the news and films!! I love the films of Werner Herzog and Guillermo Del Toro (Pan’s Labyrinth, The Shape of Water), especially.
Visit Erica Ferencik's website.

--Marshal Zeringue