Sunday, November 19, 2023

Constance Sayers

Constance Sayers is the author of the best-selling novels A Witch in Time and The Ladies of the Secret Circus, the latter receiving both a Publishers Weekly and Library Journal starred reviews. Her work has been translated into six languages. In her spare time, she is the Chief Revenue Officer for a media and information company. She splits her time between Alexandria, Virginia and West Palm Beach, Florida.

Sayers new novel is The Star and the Strange Moon.

My Q&A with the author:

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

Usually, my agent or my editor take my original title and improve upon it, but this is the first book title that came from me. The novel is about an actress who, in 1968, goes missing on the set of a French horror film and is never seen again. The film’s title is L’√Čtrange Lune which translates into The Strange Moon. Since the book focuses on her disappearance and one man’s obsession to find her (the star), I think it is an elegant and provocative title that nails the mysteriousness of the story.

What's in a name?

Naming my characters is the first thing I do. I cannot move forward with them until they have their names. I also know when I haven’t nailed the name and, as a result, I don’t connect with them as characters. The name Gemma Turner came to me before the idea for the book was fully formed. She just leapt off the page with that name and provided a great deal of direction for the plot. Thierry Valdon is just a great name for a French director. I loved the painter Suzanne Valadon who was the partner of Erik Satie and named the director in her honor. Probably the name Thierry came from the French designer Thierry Mugler. I say “probably” because some of this stuff runs in the background, and I just settle on it. Thierry Valdon was a great creative mashup from two great creative minds in French history.

I probably need to spend a minute talking about the demon, Althacazur who appears in this book as well as A Witch in Time and The Ladies of the Secret Circus. Readers love him and no one can pronounce the name. It is All-tha-CAZAR. He is based on a demon that appears in many texts, but just didn’t want to work with real demon names. It started as Alcazar and I added a flourish to it. I wanted the name to sound weird and otherworldly.

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

I’d like to think my teenage self would be proud. As a kid, I wrote a weighty tome on my sister’s Smith Corona typewriter so my teenage self would think that nothing had changed!

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

I used to find beginnings sacred. Like so many writers, I probably fixated too much on the first fifty pages of a book. Now, I realize the first chapter is the icing on the cake after the book is completed. I know where I want to start the story but that doesn’t mean that is the point where I will begin the book. Always, my process has been to write a soft ending to the book and then provide an epilogue which is the true ending. Always, the epilogue is the final piece.

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

The character of Christopher Kent has a lot of me in him. Growing up, I had a tumultuous childhood and that shows up in each book. When I was writing The Star and the Strange Moon, my mother died. She had suffered from dementia for a few years, so she had been fading, but finally losing her just gutted me and I channeled that grief into his character. The idea of a search for her is something that I find at an existential level. Where did she go? It was a raw wound. His character personified that grief for me.

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

Music. I went into college as a vocal performance major and my father really wanted me to be an opera singer, so my childhood was filled with voice and piano lessons. I changed my major to English my freshman year and never looked back but I did feel like I let my parents down because they sacrificed so much for me to have a music career. I loved music, but in my own way and I really didn’t want to perform. I became a midnight-to-six DJ at a commercial radio station in Pennsylvania for four years and it taught me so much.
Visit Constance Sayers's website.

My Book, The Movie: A Witch in Time.

The Page 69 Test: A Witch in Time.

Writers Read: Constance Sayers (February 2020).

--Marshal Zeringue

Tuesday, November 14, 2023

Lisa Gornick

Lisa Gornick has been hailed by NPR as “one of the most perceptive, compassionate writers of fiction in America ... immensely talented and brave.” Her novels include The Peacock Feast, Louisa Meets Bear, Tinderbox, and A Private Sorcery. Her essays have appeared widely, including in the New York Times, the Paris Review, Real Simple, and the Wall Street Journal. A graduate of the Yale clinical psychology program and the psychoanalytic training program at Columbia, where she is on the faculty, Gornick was for many years a practicing psychotherapist and psychoanalyst. She lives in New York City with her family.

Gornick's new novel is Ana Turns.

My Q&A with the author:

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

Writers often go through hell with their titles—with the process sometimes devolving into a focus group with editors, publishers, marketing departments, and publicists all weighing in. For my first two novels, dozens of options were considered, and the title was changed at many stages. Since then, I’ve had the title as an anchor early on—though with this novel, I did waver between Ana Turns and Ana Turns Sixty before recognizing that the sixty made the title too “on the nose.” It was only after I had the finished book in my hands that I more deeply understood how Ana Turns encapsulates the central theme: a moment in a woman’s life, her sixtieth birthday, when she turns away from ossified views, turns back to what she cherishes, and turns towards a vision of what she wants next in this blink of a life.

What's in a name?

I’m smiling at this question because it’s taken up in the second paragraph of my novel:
My mother, who’d wanted Anna, was disappointed when my father insisted on removing an n because he deemed the double ungainly, and then disappointed again when I more closely resembled an androgynous Giacometti, collarbones in lieu of cleavage, than a stolid milkmaid like her Swedish forebears.
As a novelist, we can grant our characters names that seem simpatico with who they are—though if we do this with too heavy a hand, the reader will feel manipulated. For me, Ana’s solid loving husband had to be Henry. Her lanky boy-man lover had to be Lance. And her mother, deemed by Ana’s best friend Fiona “more battleship than mum,” had to be Jean.

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

In an interview in Esquire, novelist Lauren Groff describes one of her characters as “not not me.” Late in the novel, Ana reflects similarly on her own teenage self—that she’s not not her. My teenage reader self—a shy girl writing cryptic poems, including one about a boyfriend’s mother that won a local prize, which meant that she had to read it in front of her subject’s women’s club—would, I think, say the same of the adult novelist I’ve become.

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

I spend a very, very long time in what I consider “pre-writing”: allowing shadows of characters to slowly gain flesh until they are as real to me as my intimates. Ideas begin to whirl about what happens to these characters—in other words, what is the story I’m going to tell? Then comes the harder work of figuring out how I’m going to tell that story: from whose point or points of view, in what time frame, how the dramatic arc will be shaped. I go through dozens of possibilities before settling on the opening of the book.

Ana Turns had too many drafts to admit – but after I wrote what would become the final sentence of the book, it felt like a click on a lock and I never changed it.

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

With Ana’s chapters narrated in the first person (and then interspersed with chapters written in the third-person from the points of view of her husband, her father, her brother, her lover, and her lover’s wife), I suspect some readers will presume a connection between Ana and me–but that would be a mistake: Ana’s biography, like that of all of my characters, is both invented and a mash-up. The well that I draw from is subterranean: what I’ve come to understand on a psychological level about myself and others who I’ve been privileged to know intimately. For me, fiction involves alchemy: combining elements of something observed in oneself or others to create something entirely new.

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

Having trained as a clinical psychologist and then psychoanalyst, my beliefs in how the unconscious works, the past influences the present, and personality is revealed in action are foundational in my creation of characters and story lines too.

Like many contemporary writers, I’ve also been influenced by film: how the camera moves in and out, taking different perspectives. I recently read Noah Gallagher Shannon’s profile of Jack Fisk, the production designer who worked with Martin Scorsese on Killers of the Flower Moon. Fisk’s approach to creating the visual elements of a film as world building “for character and through character” strikes me as similar to the process I go through with my characters: imagining their bodies, their clothing, their homes, what they cook, what they read, the furnishings they inherit or choose.

As an amateur pianist, I studied with a teacher who’s both a classical pianist and master improvisationist. She taught me that composition is improvisation and that with anything we do—playing music, cooking, and writing too—we can find a balance between assuming the position of an acolyte—learning from the masters—and breaking free to proceed in a way that opens a window for inspiration. It won’t arrive on any schedule, but if you show up every day for your work, you’ll be there when it does.
Visit Lisa Gornick's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Friday, November 10, 2023

Amy Hagstrom

Amy Hagstrom is a writer and travel industry editor whose work has appeared in US News, OutdoorsNW Magazine, Travel Oregon, and Huffington Post, among others. A lifelong outdoors enthusiast, she served as a volunteer EMT with her local county search and rescue unit before launching her writing career. After raising three children in the Pacific Northwest, Hagstrom traded the Cascade, Siskiyou, and Sierra Nevada mountain ranges for the Sierra Madre mountains, making her home in central Mexico with her wife.

Hagstrom's debut novel is The Wild Between Us.

My Q&A with the author:

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

I believe my title, The Wild Between Us, does a succinct job of drawing the reader into the story. It works on several levels because the 'us' can refer to several relationships in the book: the distance between the two protagonists, the distance between them and their search subjects, or even the distance of the decade and a half that has separated them. The 'wild' is fairly self-explanatory, especially paired with the cover of mountains, a lake, and topographical lines. This book is clearly set in the wilderness. This wilderness, the Sierra Nevada mountains, serves as a secondary character in its own right, and I do think it deserves title billing.

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

My teenage reader self would be surprised to see so many familiar places in this novel, as it is loosely based on the wilderness where I grew up and spent my formative teen years. I'd like to think she would be gratified to know her future self did not forget where she came from and why she loved it the way she did.

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

As a writer, I find myself changing both beginning and endings over the course of re-writes, and this novel was no exception. That said, I find it easier overall to write beginnings. I tend to know where I want to start, gleaned from a single--yet usually fully-formed--scene in my head. I write character-driven suspense, and I have to know who my characters are before I know how they will react to the situations I put them in. So my earliest scenes are usually quieter ones, in which I get to know them. Inevitably, these scenes get moved around to allow for a stronger start.

I also tend to know how my books will end (usually in the form of another succinct yet fully-formed scene or two), and then I work back from those bookends, dealing with the messy middle!

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 in The Wild Between Us are a world apart from my own personality, with the exception of Silas's two young sons, Spencer and Cameron, reminding me of my own boys at that age. Honestly, Silas is like no one I've ever known, and while I can see aspects of myself in Meg, she's more cautious and deliberate than I have ever been.

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

Without a doubt, my time spent volunteering for my county's Search and Rescue unit inspired this novel, combined with my experience with my own kids in the outdoors. I was fortunate to learn the protocols, challenges, and rewards of SAR through months of training exercises, on-the-ground searches, and educational programs and I will never forget my time in the woods with these hardworking and dedicated people.

Additionally, my previous career as an outdoor adventure travel writer has informed all my manuscripts. I love to shine a spotlight on beautiful and rugged outdoor settings, and my years exploring wilderness all over the world ingrained in me a respect for nature and what she can do.
Visit Amy Hagstrom's website.

The Page 69 Test: The Wild Between Us.

--Marshal Zeringue

Monday, November 6, 2023

Finley Turner

Finley Turner is a debut suspense author. She made a career change to become an archivist at a university after leaving academia, where she studied cults and new religious movements.

When not producing and consuming all things morbid and dark, Turner can typically be found playing video games with her husband, and occasionally pausing to interrogate her rescue animals about what they're chewing on.

Her new novel is The Engagement Party.

My Q&A with the author:

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

The title is very matter-of-fact, which is something I really struggled with due to the lack of creativity. My publisher asked me to come up with ten alternatives, but we weren't crazy about any of them. The only one that I could see working was A Family Affair, because this novel is all about a dysfunctional family, love affairs included. We stuck with The Engagement Party because it does capture the fact that this is a claustrophobic book where none of the characters can leave the site of the party.

What's in a name?

Coming up with character names is one of my favorite parts of writing. I often pick names with the same energy as the characters, so the Sedgemont family names had to sound expensive—Beatrice, Emmett, and Kennedy to name a few.

Meanwhile, the main character Kassandra goes casually by Kass, further separating herself from the Sedgemonts. I named Kassandra after a favorite video game character, Kassandra from Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey. I like to sneak in easter eggs for myself. My advice on naming characters is to never name one after your real-life enemies. They don’t deserve to be immortalized—they would love that!

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

My teenage self wouldn’t be surprised at all that I wrote a thriller, but she would definitely be surprised it was published. My mother and I always watched murder mysteries together when I was little, like Poirot, so that’s always been a part of who I am.

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

It’s by far the hardest to write endings for me. Thrillers are all about the twist, and this is the biggest struggle for me because of how much pressure there is to surprise readers. With the first two books I wrote, including The Engagement Party, I actually didn’t know who the culprit was until halfway through the first draft. When I took a step back and really figured out what the book was about, which is redemption and revenge, I felt it all click into place.

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

I definitely see a little bit of Kass in myself. She feels awkward in fancy social situations and much prefers being casual. She falls in love too quickly, and has a bit of a mouth on her. She’s sensitive to being judged, but can hypocritically make snap judgements (don’t we all?). But luckily, there’s much about her that is a world apart from me. I won’t say what those are to avoid spoilers, but hopefully readers know what I’m talking about when they get there.

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

I absolutely love to play video games, and while most people unfamiliar with them are picturing Mario or Fortnight, I prefer narrative-heavy video games like The Last of Us and God of War. There are some heavy-hitting writers in video games that could easily write a bestselling book, but instead they write stories that players get to live in. It’s the most immersive way to consume a story, in my opinion.
Visit Finley Turner's website.

The Page 69 Test: The Engagement Party.

--Marshal Zeringue

Friday, November 3, 2023

Diane Barnes

Diane Barnes is the author of More Than, Waiting for Ethan, and Mixed Signals. She is also a marketing and corporate communication writer in the health-care industry. When she’s not writing, she’s at the gym, running, or playing tennis, trying to burn off the ridiculous amounts of chocolate and ice cream she eats. She and her husband, Steven, live in New England with Oakley, their handsome golden retriever.

Barnes's new novel is All We Could Still Have.

My Q&A with the author:

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

I struggled to think of a title for All We Could Still Have. My working title was Life, Unplanned, but I didn’t love it. When I gave a draft to beta readers, I asked them to suggest an alternative. Fortunately, someone suggested All We Could Still Have. It’s a line from the novel and it perfectly captures the meaning of the book. To me it conveys that even when you don’t get what you want or when things don’t go as planned, you can pivot and still be happy. I hope my book leaves readers with that sentiment.

What's in a name?

The protagonist of All We Could Still Have is Nikki Sebastian. Nicholas is my favorite name, and most of my books all have some form of the name in it, Nico is the bad guy in Mixed Signals, Nick is the hot guy in More Than, and now Nikki is a character I hope readers will root for. In the book she says people always call her Nikki except when they’re breaking her heart. That she prefers to be called Nikki tells me she is approachable and down to earth.

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

Of all my novels to this point, I think All We Could Still Have is the book my teenaged self would be least surprised I wrote. Teenaged me love watching Dynasty, General Hospital, and Days of Our Lives, and actually thought writing for a soap opera would be the coolest job. This book is about the ups and downs of a relationship and the work that goes into making a marriage succeed, which is sort of what soap operas are about, right?

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

For this book, the ending was harder to write. When I started writing, I had the last scene in mind, and in the draft I sent to beta readers, that’s the ending I used. But, 2 of my 3 beta readers said the ending didn’t work, and they both cited the exact same reason for it not working. So, I felt I should change it and I did. If anyone wants to know the original ending, they can email me and I’ll tell them.

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

I think there’s always a little of the author in all the characters we create. There are definitely similarities between Nikki, the protagonist in All We Could Still Have, and me. Like Nikki, I grew up in an Italian American family in New England. Like Nikki, I wanted children but don’t have any, and we’re both a bit paranoid that we don’t fit in or are judged for not having kids. We also both work jobs that involve writing and are still close to our childhood friends.

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

When I listen to music, I pay more attention to the lyrics and the story the song tells than to anything else. Sometimes I get ideas for scenes or characters based on lyrics. The song "Never Wanted to Be That Girl" by Ashley McBryde and Carly Pearce inspired one of the characters in All We Could Still Have.
Visit Diane Barnes's website.

--Marshal Zeringue