Tuesday, May 14, 2024

Kate White

Kate White is the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and USA Today bestselling author of eighteen novels of suspense: ten standalone psychological thrillers, including the newly released The Last Time She Saw Him, and also eight Bailey Weggins mysteries.

My Q&A with the author:

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

I really love the title of my newest book, The Last Time She Saw Him, because it gets a potential reader into the story right away, and in some ways it’s a microcosm of the novel. In the book, Kiki Reed has a brief conversation with her ex-fiancĂ©, Jamie, at a party, and then minutes later he’s found dead outside. Kiki soon becomes convinced he was murdered, but since the cops aren’t on the same page, she has to do everything in her power to make them see the light. Thus, she spends a lot of time thinking about the last time she saw Jamie. Was there something he said or something she saw that could provide a clue as to who murdered him?

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

I love writing the beginning of a thriller (and I usual change that the least). The book is all new to me, and I’m usually beyond excited to start my protagonist off on her journey. In The Last Time She Saw Him, I liked describing the sights and sounds of the party, the interactions between guests, the `really disturbing conversation that Kiki overhears, and then. finally, at the end of chapter two, the shocking sound of a gun going off.

As for endings, I like thinking about the last chapters because I always try for incredible twists, but writing those chapters is, if you’ll excuse the expression, murder for me. I get so impatient because I’m eager for the protagonist to figure it all out and find resolution. Also, in the case of The Last Time She Saw Him, the ending is scary, and I was scared at times thinking about it. Those dark woods, the ominous sound of twigs snapping…. I’m not there, of course, but it feels like I am.

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 a little of myself in every protagonist I’ve created. I just find that makes the character easier to write. All my protagonists have been women with careers, and in general they’ve had careers I’m familiar with in some way. In The Last Time She Saw Him, Kiki is a career coach, and though I’ve never done that, I’ve written several bestselling books on career success, and I’ve given career advice to many people who have come to me. I used a lot of what I’ve learned in the scenes about Kiki’s work. Tip: job interviewers want to see enthusiasm almost as much as anything else, so during an interview consider sitting a little bit on the edge of your seat. Don’t try to be cool as a cucumber.

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

I’m an avid bird watcher and I’ve gone bird watching on all seven continents. But as much as I like seeing a type of bird for the first time and viewing my favorites again and again, I also love what I think of as the spaces between birds, when I’m waiting quietly for a bird to reveal itself. This kind of experience always helps my brain to refresh and become inspired. I’ve even named some of my characters after birds—like Robin and Phoebe.
Visit Kate White's website, Facebook page, and Instagram page.

The Page 69 Test: Even If It Kills Her.

The Page 69 Test: Eyes on You.

The Page 99 Test: The Gutsy Girl Handbook.

The Page 69 Test: Have You Seen Me?.

The Page 69 Test: The Second Husband.

--Marshal Zeringue

Saturday, May 11, 2024

Abraham Chang

Abraham Yu-Young Chang is an award-winning, published poet with an MFA in creative writing from New York University. He has worked in the publishing industry since 2000 and currently manages Special Sales for Simon & Schuster. He lives in Forest Hills, Queens, with his wife, Erica—and a substantial collection of Blu-rays, vinyl records, comic books, and action figures. 888 Love and the Divine Burden of Numbers is his debut novel.

My Q&A with the author

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

The title 888 Love and the Divine Burden of Numbers came to me in three distinct parts. It was quick and yet it was slow. I knew my book would address the big idea of belief, as a whole – and how much control we have over our destinies – especially, in luck and love.

I had the “888 Love” part figured out once I was well on my way into writing about the Eastern numerology, superstitions, and the things you pick up from your family growing up that can influence susceptible young minds – especially when there are mental health issues. I had always known that Chinese people loved the number 8, because the number (“bah”) sounds like the word “fah” for “grow, thrive” – so “88” was a common sight, especially around the Lunar New Year. The extra 8 was natural for my main character, Young, to add on as his personal extra bit of “oomph” to ensure that additional stamp of good luck in his life.

I wasn’t aware that the Triple 8, the “888” was circulating around as well. I had not noticed it until I had completed my book and happened across it while walking through a casino! But it’s a “thing” and you’ll see it on license plates, names of restaurants, all sorts of things. Chances are if there are 8s – a Chinese person is likely nearby.

Working through our mental and spiritual health is what I believe is at the core of the meaning of life. We are constantly carrying the weight of our own humanity – this “divine burden” – it can come in different forms, to different people. For Young, he wants to understand the numbers, systems, and patterns that he believes he sees all around him that are guiding him. He is holding out hope that there really is a way to see ahead, to manipulate, to know the right path to take, to make decisions – big and small. This is the burden that he is carrying – the numbers that tease, haunt, and embolden him all at the same time -- whispering the promise of just maybe, maybe - the secrets to the universe.

What's in a name?

I named my character “Young Wang” for a few reasons. “Wang” in Chinese when pronounced correctly is actually the same as “Wong – meaning “king”. We can blame romanization or Ellis Island or what have you for these inconsistencies and “mistakes” in naming. For such a noble surname – there sure are a lot of literal dick jokes for “Wang” in English.

The name “Young” has so many connotations – both in English and Chinese. In English – what better name immediately invokes youth? Especially for a coming-of-age story! In Chinese – “Young” refers to the ocean. What else is larger, full of potential, full of the divine? Also – on a “meta” level: My Chinese name is “Yu-Young”. As with most novels, the reader can’t help but wonder how much of the narrative is inspired by real events, how many of the characters are out in the world living and breathing. The book is packed with Easter eggs, metatextual and textual references, foreshadowing, and hopefully lots of pay off. I want the reader to be constantly thinking and wondering: “Was that intentional? Was that part connected to this – or to that?” My answer is usually: yes and yes.

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

My teenage self would be surprised that I’ve learned to lighten up. There is much more humor (as in the funny “ha ha” kind and not just the funny “hmmm” kind) in 888 Love, than I had originally intended. I think teenage Abe would be proud that I kept my poetic sensibilities throughout and found a way for my Kevin- Smith-comic-book-nerd side to coexist with the angsty, brooding Abe that still prefers to wear all black and dwell on Simic and Rilke.

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

I had the middle, and one of the most dramatic moments scribbled down in a notebook, 20 years ago. The ending, I had a sense of where and how I wanted it to take place. But the beginning, that was tough! I had tried many things (much is still in the book, but in different places). I credit my editor for encouraging me to keep it simple: introduce us to the two most important characters from the start and go from there. I wrote the prologue of the book in a single sitting – it just made sense to start the book with a journey, a change. For Young, it’s a moment where he realizes that things are shifting for him, he’s growing up and with that, the realization that sometimes the people you love the most, need to love themselves and do right for themselves – and this may mean hurting the ones they love. For Su Su, he finally can restart and take action again. Stalled and sputtering, he was lying in wait. As Young learns himself on his own trip later on in the book – the real healing starts when you force yourself to take that first step in a longer journey, in pushing through the ache of change, and leaning into the forward motion. The standing still is just terminal stagnancy – living means moving ahead, “putting the pedal to the metal, a restart, a new start -- and the literal start to the book.

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

888 Love is a love letter to pop culture in all its forms: mainly in music, film, TV and all the things I grew up with in the 80s, 90s —when we still had a real sense of monoculture – where a good majority of the people you knew had the potential to be exposed to, have access to, and enjoy the same sort of things. All the things! There are references to other works of art throughout the entirety of the book: 888 Love starts with Don Henley and the Eagles and ends with a bit of a remix of Paul the Apostle and the New Testament. I wanted the book to feel big and small, long and short, and fluffy and epic. First love(s) and our formative years tend to be all-encompassing in that way. Pop culture is always chasing that type of feeling – whether it’s expressed on the screen, in song, verse, prose. Storytelling -- in all its liquid, gas, and solid forms -- has inspired me down to my atoms.
Visit Abraham Chang's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Tuesday, May 7, 2024

Julie Mae Cohen

Julie Mae Cohen is a UK-bestselling author of book club and romantic fiction, including the award-winning novel Together. Her work has been translated into 17 languages. She is vice president of the Romantic Novelists’ Association in the UK. Cohen grew up in western Maine and studied English at Brown University, Cambridge University, and the University of Reading, where she is now an associate lecturer in creative writing. She lives in Berkshire in the United Kingdom.

Cohen's new novel is Bad Men, her first thriller.

My Q&A with the author:

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

My novel, Bad Men, is about a female serial killer who kills bad men who hurt women—rapists, murderers, abusers. The title is slightly misleading and ironic in that the novel isn’t about the bad men; it’s about the protagonist, Saffy, who is by all normal moral standards quite a bad woman, as she has murdered a lot of people. The novel is meant to be funny and highly satirical, and one of the fun parts about writing the story was the inversion of ‘bad’ and ‘good’—with almost all of the ‘bad’ men going unpunished and even abetted by normal society, and almost all of the ‘good’ characters, including Saffy and her love interest, Jon, doing lots of things that are extremely morally questionable. Suffice it to say that the serial killers in this book, while not necessarily cuddly, would be fun to have a drink with.

Of course, there’s a serious intent behind this story, which is to highlight the epidemic of male violence against women. So in that aspect, the title isn’t ironic at all.

What's in a name?

My protagonist is named Saffy Huntley-Oliver. When the hero of the book, Jon, meets her, he thinks that ’Saffy’ is a combination of ’silly’ and ‘daffy’. Of course she’s a serial killer, so this is a misnomer, but she plays up to it—acting like the ditzy blonde on occasion in order to get away with literal murder. ’Saffy’ is a nickname—her real name is Seraphina, which is another major misnomer, because it means ‘angel’. She is sort of an avenging angel, though. I guess it depends on your ideas of angels.

Her last name, Huntley-Oliver, reflects her social class; she’s an heiress, from both old and new money. I wanted something that sounded aristocratic and wealthy. And there’s another glaringly obvious pun, using ‘Huntley’ for a hunter of predators.

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

I don’t think she would be surprised at all! As a teenager I loved serial killer books and movies—I think I have seen The Silence of the Lambs more than a dozen times. It is a comfort movie for me.

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

Beginnings are much more difficult for me. For one thing, you have to make yourself sit down in a chair and write them. Once you’ve got to the ending, you’ve already got momentum, but beginnings are a standing start. You’ve got the whole undiscovered mountain of a novel in front of you, and you’re at the bottom. Which is exciting, of course, but it is also daunting. However, from the moment I started writing Saffy, she was alive in my head. She’s the most enjoyable character I’ve ever written—probably because she’s the happiest—and everything about writing this novel was a pleasure, from start to finish.

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

If I said that I based my serial killer heroine on myself, I think I would be in trouble, so I am saying nothing. I have definitely only killed fictional people. (Some fictional people may be based on real ones.)

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

The horrifying statistics about male violence against women. According to the World Economic Forum, six women are killed by men every hour around the world, mostly by their partners or members of their family. Bad Men is a funny book; but the issues it covers are very real.
Visit Julie Mae Cohen's website.

The Page 69 Test: Bad Men.

--Marshal Zeringue

Friday, May 3, 2024

Ishi Robinson

Ishi Robinson was born and raised in Kingston, Jamaica. A Canadian citizen, she has lived in Bern, Toronto, Rome, London and now lives in Berlin with her Czech husband. Her first published work was a short story in Jamaica’s national newspaper when she was eleven years old. At seventeen, she sent a letter to her father from Switzerland that he thought was so funny he sent it to the other national newspaper, which snagged her a weekly column on teenage life in Kingston. She also previously wrote a weekly column on life as an expat in Rome for a now defunct online magazine. Robinson got back into fiction writing in Berlin, from where she has published short stories in several online publications and one anthology. Sweetness in the Skin is her first novel.

My Q&A with the author:

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

There’s a lot of meaning behind the title: I’m telling the story of a young girl who is searching for family, identity and belonging; one who’s using her talent for baking to reach what seems to be an unreachable goal. As she tries to figure out who she is, she’s bucking up against the expectations her family have set for her, which are a direct result of the colorism and legacy of colonialism that exist in Jamaica still. So we’re talking about being comfortable in your own skin, about sweet foods, about which skin color is beautiful and more deserving than another – for me, that all culminates in Sweetness in the Skin.  

What's in a name?  

My two characters with the most unusual names are Pumkin and Boots. My mum calls me Pumkin, so that one was easy – even though this character is not me, there’s a lot of me in her, and she is loved, so the name seemed fitting. The character of Boots was inspired by my Uncle Shoes, a very close family friend. He was one of the loveliest, sweetest men ever. Everyone called him ‘Shoes’ since he was in high school…but no one remembers why.

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

Mildly? I don’t think she’d be surprised that I wrote a novel, but that the novel is so emotional. I typically wrote very lighthearted, humorous things – and also horror stories! So I surprised my adult self that this is what came out when I set out to write a book. 

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

The middle. The beginning comes pretty quickly to me, and pretty soon after I start writing, the end makes itself clear. It’s everything in between that’s a struggle.  

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

I see a lot of myself in some of these characters: in Pumkin, in her tenacity, her fear of rejection, not knowing if people will show up for her, feeling like she has to figure everything out on her own. And in Mandy for her sheer cluelessness about things that ‘every’ Jamaican is supposed to know or do.

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?  

Music: I had a specific playlist of 90s Jamaican dance hall, peppered with some older Rockas (the Jamaican equivalent of R&B), that I would only listen to when writing this book. It helped transport me back to a specific time and place and elicited the emotions I was looking to convey.
Visit Ishi Robinson's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Wednesday, May 1, 2024

Katie Tietjen

Katie Tietjen is an award-winning writer, teacher, and school librarian. A Frances Glessner Lee enthusiast, she’s traveled thousands of miles to visit her homes, see her nutshells, and even attend her birthday party. Tietjen lives in New England with her husband and two sons.

Her first novel is Death in the Details.

My Q&A with the author:

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

“Death” and “Details” are both very central concepts in my book! My protagonist, Maple, begins selling her intricately crafted dollhouses and finds her first customer dead.

Because she thinks the sheriff is overlooking suspicious details at the scene, she turns her crafting skills towards a new purpose: re-creating the death scene in miniature so she can walk him through all the ways his investigation went wrong…which he is, ahem, less than thrilled about.

Ultimately, Maple’s impressive attention to detail is what enables her to crack the case.

What's in a name?

I wanted to set the story in New England, and the name “Maple Bishop” just strolled right into my head. I like the way it sounds, it evokes the setting, and it allowed me to play with the idea that this character is definitely not syrupy-sweet like her name! I had fun naming her sort-of nemesis Ginger, too, continuing the culinary theme.

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

Teenage Katie would be delighted that she became a published author! It was her goal. She’d probably be a little surprised that it’s a cozy mystery, but not that it’s historical; she read a lot of historical fiction back in the late nineties.

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

I definitely think endings are more intimidating to write, although I changed both the beginning and ending of this book multiple times (and the middle, too, really). I must’ve re-written the first chapter seventeen times and cut a bunch of scenes that happened before Maple discovers the body; I wanted that moment to happen closer to the beginning than it did in the earlier drafts.

In the beginning, it’s all fresh and exciting. By the end, I was flailing around trying to make sure I’d tied up all the loose ends. Then, I had to go back to the beginning and middle to add in other details to make sure the ending made sense. Somewhat ironically, in order to make the plot linear, the whole revision process was quite a non-linear.

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

I like to think that Maple and I share a determination to do the right thing, a deep sense of loyalty, and a dedication to truth and justice. However, while Maple can be prickly and impatient, I think I’m more friendly and approachable.

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

Maple was inspired by the real-life “mother of forensic science,” Frances Glessner Lee. She made incredibly detailed miniature re-creations of death scenes in order to help train investigators; they’re actually still used to this day.
Visit Katie Tietjen's website.

The Page 69 Test: Death in the Details.

--Marshal Zeringue

Monday, April 29, 2024

Ava January

Ava January is a historical writer with a passion for mystery, and when she’s not found soaking up the Queensland sun with her two young sons, she can be found eavesdropping on conversations in cafes and making up entire backstories (and murderous intents) for unsuspecting bystanders. When she grows up, she’d like to be Miss Marple.

January's new novel is The Mayfair Dagger.

My Q&A with the author:

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

The title of The Mayfair Dagger was the starting point for the entire story. I loved the idea of a woman in hiding, not just physically but from herself emotionally as well. Albertine Honeycombe is sweet and soft but has decided she will reinvent herself as Countess Von Dagga, a woman who needs no one and nothing (except money, one rather needs money regardless of their feelings about it). While she might fancy herself a crack detective referred to as The Mayfair Dagger, Albertine learns that changing who you are is never as easy as a mere name change. The reader begins with an idea of who Albertine might be, but that is challenged as they get to know her further.

What's in a name?

My main character is a woman who is pretending to be a married countess who also acts as a detective. Due to laws of the time she was unable to work, hold her own bank account or arrange her own accommodation so she communicates as her ‘husband’ in writing. I wanted to give her a name that could be both female and male – her husband is Albert and she is Albertine. Both referred to as Bertie.

Like Dickens, I give my awful characters awful names like Lord Grendel, named after the monstrous creature defeated by Beowulf in the Old English poem Beowulf, for no other reason than I find it personally amusing, although it does serve to remind the reader not to take the story too seriously. If the author doesn't, why should the reader? Relax and read it for pleasure, instead of aiming to review or critique.

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

Other than that I’d actually completed it, not very! I’ve always been in love with mystery novels and The Mayfair Dagger is a combination of everything I love - a mystery without gore and trauma, a strong sense of relationships outside the romantic storyline and a dog!

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

I always have a very clear vision of the beginning. For me it’s the springboard that spurs me into beginning a project. The opening scene of my stories come to me as a movie scene in my mind and once it’s really clear I begin. As a “pantser” (someone who doesn’t plan their stories) the ending often changes a number of times throughout the writing process, depending on where the characters take me! I knew Albertine would be a terrible detective and apart from a few good skills like lockpicking, she is a complete failure at her chosen profession. We journeyed together through the story to find out what she truly wanted from her life.

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

My life experiences inform my characters – for instance, like Albertine I lost a much adored brother at a young age, but my characters personalities tend to be completely unique and unfold as we explore the story together. As I write humorous stories, often parts of their personalities are plot devices to add a layer of fun. Albertine’s best friend Joan, is a man crazy girl from the country which lent itself to hilarity in a number of situations, particularly as they began to be investigated by the men Scotland Yard and were supposed to be avoiding them, not seeking them out.

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

I lived in England in my early twenties and the history that is steeped into every building constantly blew my mind. It’s impossible to live in a building that’s centuries old without wondering how many stories occurred between the walls. Many a weekend was spent wandering the halls of grand country houses listening to audio tours. The online collections of the Victoria and Albert museum were also a source of research and constant inspiration.
Visit Ava January's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Saturday, April 27, 2024

Amy Shearn

Amy Shearn is the award-winning author of the novels Unseen City, The Mermaid of Brooklyn, and How Far Is the Ocean From Here. She has worked as an editor at Medium, JSTOR, Conde Nast, and other organizations, and has taught creative writing at NYU, Sackett Street Writers Workshop, Gotham Writers Workshops, Catapult, Story Studio Chicago, The Resort LIC, and the Yale Writers' Workshop. Shearn's work has appeared in many publications including the New York Times Modern Love column, Slate, Poets & Writers, Literary Hub, Real Simple, Martha Stewart Living, O: The Oprah Magazine, and Coastal Living. She has an MFA from the University of Minnesota, and lives in Brooklyn with her two children.

Shearn's new novel is Dear Edna Sloane.

My Q&A with the author:

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

I think this title is the most straightforward of all my book titles – it’s an epistolary novel which begins with someone trying to reach, and therefore writing to, Edna Sloane. It’s also the title the book had the whole time, from before I started drafting all the way to publication, which is rare for me – most of my books have their titles changed at some point!

What's in a name?

I liked the idea of creating a kind of totally exaggerated, fantasy alter-ego for myself, and so from the start I wanted my protagonist to have a name that echoed the structure of mine, thus the two-syllable first name (Amy/Edna) and one-syllable last name (Shearn/Sloane). I also liked the idea of her having one name that sounds quite old-fashioned (Edna, a grandmotherly name that perhaps only on Edna St Vincent Millay has ever seemed sexy) and one that sounds quite contemporary (Sloane, which as a first name has an androgynous, cool-girl sound to it, I feel).

Edna Sloane and the other protagonist, Seth Edwards, have names that are sort of mirrored versions of each other. When the novel was first forming, I was thinking about Mrs Dalloway, and how the two main characters (who never meet) are kind of foils of each other and also represent two parts of the same mind. In a way, Edna and Seth really are two parts of the writer’s self.

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

I think not at all, really. She might be surprised by other books I’ve written, actually, but this one feels very close to the core of who I’ve always been: obsessed with the written word; playful with form; a little artsy, a little funny, a little crabby, a little optimistic. And the fact that it’s published by an indie press, with a gorgeous weird painting on the cover by one of my favorite artists of all time, would have really pleased her little 90’s soul.

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

Oh endings for sure. Though I think what changes most is usually the middle. Middles are terrible.

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

For this book, I see a lot of myself in the characters for sure. Seth is in some ways my young writer-self, if she’d had less of a filter – the hunger, the yearning, the impatience, the jealousy. I also have been in the trenches, like Seth, of working in digital media and feeling like I was at once so close and so far away from my dreams of writing novels. And Edna is kind of, as I mentioned, a fantasy alternate self – I’ve never had that runaway success she has in her writing life, so it was fun to imagine its highs and lows. But also, she’s a kind of writer’s fantasy in general – the writer who doesn’t have to share any of her self besides her writing, whose books kind of sell and promote themselves.

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

My friends, and the conversations we have about life, love, work, parenting, the world, are hugely influential. Some of this comes from my training as an editor looking for interesting ideas – there’s that idea that, well if my smart friends are talking about something, maybe there’s a story there!

There have also been a few shows that have had perhaps outsized influences on me: Fleabag and Dickinson both really informed, I think, my next novel (Animal Instinct, comes out in 2025!), in style, voice, content, and story shape. I’m not sure it’s exactly influenced me, but frequently talk in my classes about the first episode of Mad Men, which I think has incredibly perfect story structure – not only does it have a wild twist, which is fun, it does everything a first chapter of a book should do, and tells you everything you need to know about the protagonist, though you don’t realize it at the time.

And I should also note that the work of Amy Cutler, one of my favorite living artists, has long been meaningful to me – her intricate, surreal portraits of women’s interiors make me feel how I want my books to make readers feel! I’m so grateful that one of her paintings is on the cover of this book. Truly a dream come true.
Visit Amy Shearn's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Thursday, April 25, 2024

Cara Hunter

Cara Hunter is the author of the instant New York Times bestselling thriller Murder in the Family as well as the Sunday Times bestselling crime novels featuring DI Adam Fawley and his Oxford-based police team. Of those novels, Close to Home was shortlisted for Crime Book of the Year in the British Book Awards 2019 and No Way Out was selected by the Sunday Times as one of the 100 best crime novels since 1945. Hunter’s books have sold more than a million copies worldwide. She lives in Oxford, on a street not unlike those featured in her books.

The newest title in the DI Fawley series is The Whole Truth.

My Q&A with the author:

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

Titles play such an important part in establishing the reader's route into a book. Like the jacket design, it's like a signpost for the sort of experience to expect. You only have to look at the original titles for classic novels to see how vital they can be - would The Great Gatsby have been such a hit if it had been issued as Trimalchio in West Egg? And what about All's Well That Ends Well - doesn't have quite the gravitas of War and Peace, does it.

As for my own books, all the novels in the Fawley series thus far have had three-word titles, all of which have a double meaning. Thus Close to Home (literally, figuratively), In the Dark (likewise), All the Rage (fashion, but also anger - the theme of the book). The Whole Truth is number five, and here the title is - of course - a deliberate reference to the oath taken by witnesses in court, but it's also, as the reader quickly discovers, the name of a podcast, included in full in the book, which analyses a possible miscarriage of justice. The rub there is that the case in question is one where my lead character, Adam Fawley, was instrumental in securing the conviction. And as he well knows, he wasn't the only one back then who didn't tell 'the whole truth'...

What's in a name?

I never intended Close to Home to be the start of a series - I had no idea it would even be published. That story was conceived as a twist on the oft-repeated crime-fiction theme of the disappearance of a child (and no, I'm not going to tell you what the twist is!). In any situation like that there's inevitably a police investigation, so Adam started life as - in effect - a necessary piece of plot machinery for that particular novel. And the name I gave him reflected that. The book is set in Oxford, and the surname Fawley is an echo of Jude Fawley, the 'hero' (if that's the right word) of Thomas Hardy's Jude the Obscure. Jude has a son who commits suicide in one of the most tragic scenes in Victorian literature, and Adam, too, has a son who took his own life, shortly before the action of the novel begins. I made this part of Adam's back story because I wanted him to be acutely aware of what parents who've lost a child will be going through.

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

I think my teenage self would be surprised to see me as a writer at all! We didn't have many books at home, and no-one in my family had had a university education, so being a writer wasn't on my radar at all, not even as a distant dream. But I was always a voracious reader, and eventually went to Oxford to study English literature (that's where the Hardy comes in!). But even then, I didn't have any idea of being a writer; I had a career in banking and PR and as a copywriter and it wasn't until much, much later that the urge to write creatively started to evolve. But that's all good: as I always say to readers who ask about my writing career, this is one of those things you can come to later in life; in fact, you may well have more to say.

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

Beginnings are vital - I work on the basis that you have about a page to reel your reader in - but it's endings that are the real challenge. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been intrigued by the premise of a novel, only to find the whole thing ends in a damp squib. It’s as if the author has a great initial idea, but absolutely no clue how to resolve it. Not like all those Victorian classics I studied at Oxford - they really knew how to do a decent final page.

And of course getting the ending right in crime fiction is even more important than in other, more self-consciously 'literary' genres. The contract with the reader demands closure and tidiness (though a few loose ends are allowed), but there's also the elephant-in-the-room issue of The Twist. I love doing these - as a writer, nothing gives me more pleasure! But you have to follow the rules - your perpetrator must have been in plain sight throughout (Agatha Christie is the acknowledged queen here), but so well hidden that the reader's first reaction is 'OMG!' followed swiftly by 'But of course'. Because looking back, there is, to paraphrase Frank Kermode, 'sense in the ending'.

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 quite a lot of Adam in me, probably because I write him in the first person. Some of his background is mine too - the sense of humour, the upbringing in a dreary London suburb - so some, but only some. He's definitely not a surrogate me. Occasionally I'll see an aspect of myself peering out from another character, and that's usually a surprise when it happens - something unintentional. I think that happens to writers a lot - you find facets of your own life snaking into your fiction.

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

Mainly crime on TV, both crime drama and true crime. The best of these are truly innovative: the way stories are told, the pace, the rhythm, the energy, the rapid changes of point of view. Not to mention the use of mixed media (a major aspect of my writing style, which I took to its logical extreme in Murder in the Family by eliminating the author's presence entirely). That's the sort of experience I'm looking to replicate in my books. But you'd have to ask my readers if I've succeeded!
Learn more about The Whole Truth and visit Cara Hunter's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Monday, April 22, 2024

Caroline Leavitt

Caroline Leavitt is the New York Times and USA Today bestselling author of Days of Wonder, With or Without You, Cruel Beautiful World, Is This Tomorrow, Pictures of You, Girls In Trouble, Coming Back To Me, Living Other Lives, Into Thin Air, Family, Jealousies, Lifelines, and Meeting Rozzy Halfway. Many of her titles were optioned for film, translated into different languages, and condensed in magazines. Many of her titles were Best Books of the Year and Indie Next Picks. A New York Foundation of the Arts Fellow, she was also shortlisted for the Maine Readers Prize, and was a Goldenberg Fiction Prize winner. She recently won an award from the MidAtlantic Arts for portions of her next novel, The Inseparables.

My Q&A with Leavitt:

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

Days of Wonder is a little deceptive as a name of a book because it’s a title of hope. The book is about two 15-year-olds from different classes in NYC who fall madly in love and are about to be separated by the boy’s abusive father, and so they start fantasizing about killing him. And then the fantasy veers into something realer, and both kids are accused of attempted murder. Both kids were sleep-deprived and drugged-up the night of crime, and neither can really remember just what happened. Jude, with a wealthy dad and a good lawyer, goes free, but Ella gets 25 years. When she’s early released after six years, she’s desperate to find Jude, to find her child, and to find out what really happened that night, and why?

Doesn’t seem like the stuff of wonder, does it? But I wanted to focus on the bright glints of life or hope that appear in a lot of the novel’s darkness. Yes, this great gorgeous young love is destroyed, but like that great old movie, Splendor in the Grass, there is always the memory of it. Things don’t work out the way any of the characters imagine they will, and there is a tremendous cost to everyone, but out of that darkness, there is growth, understanding, and yeah, a sense of wonder about how the world works. I wanted that wonder to be revealed at the end when the real story of the attempted murder comes out.

My publisher wanted to change the name, to call the book, The Second Life of Ella Fitchburg, and I protested, because that title, to me, sounded, too briskly commercial. That word, wonder, has always obsessed me.

What's in a name?

Oh, for me, names are everything. In fact, I actually gave my character family names—and for different reasons. I called Helen, Ella’s mother who grew up in a Hassidic community she was boosted out of, the same name as my own mother. My mom grew up in an Orthodox Jewish family and her father was a rabbi. When he died suddenly, she stopped believing in God and gave up religion, though for the rest of her life, she yearned for that community. I wanted to give fictional Helen that community in a way my mother never had! I called Ella’s later boyfriend Henry, making him a good guy, because for me, it erased the fact that my father had been a brutal bastard to the whole family! And I used the name Ruta for a minor character because I wanted to give my sister the happy life that had escaped her. For me, names are all about the emotions I feel when I hear the name. In a book about the yearning for connection, I satisfied my own yearning for connection with my family that is lost to me now.

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

My teenaged reader self would be happy—because I knew I wanted to be a writer when I was in first grade and I told stories to the class (“Adventure With a Lion” was my first!). I persisted through countless teachers telling me I couldn’t write or that wasn’t a profession for me.

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

Both, but the beginning has to be right before I can go on, and I often write it through sixteen revisions. I have to have that inkling that something wrong is about to happen, that getting out of it isn’t going to be easy, and I have to know that I am writing about the things that obsess and matter to me, which are usually family, loss, longing. I don’t think about masterpieces when I am first writing as much as I am thinking about getting deeper and deeper into the story-world that I am desperate to inhabit!

I had started Days of Wonder two different ways, one way had Ella snooping on and virtually stalking the little girl she gave up while she was in prison. I liked that, but it didn’t feel like it had enough danger in it for me. So, then I tried to start the book with Ella just getting out of prison at 22 and being the one stalked by an angry media. That felt like the right place for me. It came alive in my mind, so I used that.

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

Their emotions are mine. Like Helen, I always felt, and still feel like an outsider, always struggling for community. Like Ella, I had that wild, passionate young love that I never ever forgot. And like Jude, I often blame myself for things that are not my fault at all. But I always try to get past that feeling, to make the characters live and breathe on their own.

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

Everything inspires me. A great dinner or a disgusting one. Seeing a lover’s argument on the streets of New York City and watching their body language. Eavesdropping on people next to me at a restaurant, capturing the cadence of their speech in my mind.
Visit Caroline Leavitt's website and blog.

The Page 69 Test: Pictures of You.

My Book, the Movie: Pictures of You.

The Page 69 Test: Is This Tomorrow.

My Book, The Movie: Is This Tomorrow.

My Book, The Movie: Cruel Beautiful World.

The Page 69 Test: Cruel Beautiful World.

Writers Read: Caroline Leavitt (October 2016).

My Book, The Movie: Days of Wonder.

--Marshal Zeringue

Thursday, April 18, 2024

Helen Benedict

Helen Benedict, a British-American professor at Columbia University, is the author of seven previous novels, six books of nonfiction, and a play. Her newest novel is The Good Deed.

The Good Deed, set in a refugee camp in Greece, comes out of the research Benedict conducted for her 2022 nonfiction book, Map of Hope and Sorrow, co-authored with Syrian writer and refugee, Eyad Awwadawnan and endorsed by Jessica Bruder (Nomadland), Dina Nayari (The Ungrateful Refugee) and Christy Lefteri (The Beekeeper of Aleppo), among others. That book earned PEN's Jean Stein Grant for Literary Oral History in 2021 and praise from The New York Times, The Guardian, Kirkus Reviews, and elsewhere.

My Q&A with Benedict:

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

I think titles are of utmost importance to the writer and the reader. For the writer, they serve to distill, even if subliminally, what the book is actually about and even its mood and point of view, so it's essential to get it right. If the title is ironic or funny, that sets an inescapable tone for the whole book. Likewise, if the title is poetic, quirky, funny, weird, surreal, or deadly earnest. For the reader, the title signals all that and more because basically it's calling out, "See how intriguing I am? Read me!"

Because of all this, I often go through dozens of titles before I find the right one. But best is when a title comes to me right away and sticks. That happened with The Good Deed. It is ironic but serious, implying that a good deed is not all it seems, that it might even be the opposite, just as that road of good intentions is. I hope readers will find the title intriguing and just mysterious enough to make them want to read the inside of the book, too, especially when they see those words over the picture on the cover, which shows an empty lifejacket floating in the sea. Is the book about the good deed of saving someone from drowning? Maybe!

What's in a name?

Most of the characters in my book are Syrian or Sudanese and so have Arabic names, where every name carries a meaning. This meant I chose the names -- Amina, Leila, Nafisa -- with care, as I did the names of all the people in their families. But I also have an American tourist in there, Hilma, and a Greek man named Kosmos. Hilma sounds old fashioned, which fits a little. Kosmos sounds grandiose, which fits, too. I like to know the meanings of the names I choose but I don't want those meanings to be too obvious or to define people. We are all more complicated than a name.

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

My teenage self would have been surprised that I'm writing about refugees in Greece, about which I would have known nothing, but not surprised that I'm writing about enterprising, independent women in difficult circumstances. At that age, I was reading a lot of Charlotte Bronte and discovering feminism and Civil Rights, so the leap from the me then to the me now is not so enormous.

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

Beginnings are a dream for me to write, for they usually trigger the entire novel for me. They might come from an image in my head, something I see, a phrase I hear, a memory, and that will open the door to the whole story. Endings, on the other hand, are hell. They carry so much weight. They can leave the reader with a gut punch or betray the whole book, letting it down with a pathetic thump. I rewrite both a lot, but endings are so hard that I prefer writing novels to stories, so I only have to come up with an ending every five years or so!

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

I never write directly from my life or the life of anyone I know, but of course no writer can be impervious to her own personality, ideas, prejudices, likes and dislikes. So I do pilfer from myself occasionally. But in The Good Deed, nobody is the least like me. Even if someone shares an opinion with me, they will often have other opinions I don't agree with at all. I love writing characters who are different from me because that becomes an adventure in discovery, rather than just boring myself by writing what I already know.

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

The Good Deed is highly influenced by the news, given that it's about current refugees in current day Greece. It is based on research I did myself by spending a lot of time in the refugee camp over several years, and spending much of those years talking with and listening to the people trapped in that camp, several of whom are still my friends. Indeed, I co-authored a nonfiction book out of that same research with a Syrian refugee I met in the camp named Eyad Awwadawnan. That book was called Map of Hope and Sorrow: Stories of Refugees Trapped in Greece. I then wrote The Good Deed because I wanted to go even deeper into the hearts and everyday lives of what it's like to flee for your life from home, only to have to live in a place where nobody wants you.

Music matters to me when I write, for there is as much music in prose as in poetry, or should be. I am very aware of rhythm, chorus and sound when I write.

I have watched many documentaries about refugees that have fed my work, but nothing compares to having spent time myself among people struggling to keep their dignity and love alive in a filthy, inhumane camp.
Learn more about Helen Benedict and her work.

My Book, The Movie: Sand Queen.

The Page 69 Test: Sand Queen.

The Page 69 Test: Wolf Season.

--Marshal Zeringue

Tuesday, April 16, 2024

Mark Cecil

Mark Cecil is an author, journalist and host of The Thoughtful Bro show, for which he conducts author interviews with an eclectic roster of award winning and bestselling writers. He has written for LitHub, Writer’s Digest, Cognoscenti, The MillionsReuters, and Embark Literary Journal, among other publications. He is Head of Strategy for A Mighty Blaze and he has taught writing at Grub Street and The Writers Loft.

Cecil's debut novel is Bunyan and Henry; Or, the Beautiful Destiny.

My Q&A with the author:

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

I really love my title, Bunyan and Henry; Or, The Beautiful Destiny, which I think does a lot of work.

The initial title of the book was just “Bunyan” because it’s a big, larger than life story about a very famous folk hero. Sort of like, Oedipus Rex, or Hamlet, or Madame Bovary and so on. By the time my publisher acquired it, we changed it to, “Paul Bunyan And The Beautiful Destiny,” because this picks up some of the spiritual and philosophical themes of the work as well.

But by the time we were ready to go to print, the team at my publishing house thought that title could be improved. So we came up with a number of alternatives, and even sent a list of possible titles around at Penguin Random House and at my agency, and people voted on their favorites. I think we got it right in the end.

First, it highlights the unlikely friendship of these two American folklore heroes—white lumberjack Paul Bunyan and Black steel drivin’ man John Henry. The other title didn’t have John Henry in it.

The second part of the title “Or, The Beautiful Destiny,” is great for a few reasons. First, it announces the philosophical and spiritual aspects of the work—this is a book that has a meditation and message about how to live an authentic life, and follow a higher calling. While my book is often described as an entertaining romp, it’s also meant to serve as a kind of bottled courage to those considering a change in their lives.

Finally, the title as a whole has a kind of literary ring and formulation to it—it has a semicolon in it, after all! It harkens back to a kind of old-timey, literary tradition, like Moby-Dick, Or, The Whale. I think the compound formulation is intriguing, and literary, and subtle, and just might do the thing a title is supposed to do most…make a person passing it in a book store think, Wait a second, what’s this about? And then they read the first page and get hopefully get hooked.

What's in a name?

I really do love character names, and I’ve been told by other writers that my character names “do some of the storytelling work.”

Of course my main two characters are well-known folk heroes. They already had names. But the other characters I had a lot of fun with. To name a few:

Eleanor Throttlecock—a tough minded, upper class British woman who runs an outlaw, underground fight ring.

Mad Dog Mahoney—Bunyan’s chief rival in Lump Town, the polluted mining hamlet where the story begins.

El Boffo—the book’s main antagonist, an archetypal Yankee peddler and owner of Lump Town. He has written an evangelistic book aphorisms called Awaken The Capitalist Within.

Bright Eyes—the genius Native American woman who has cracked the scientific mystery of the book.

Pulaski and Lynch—a pair of racist bounty hunters.

All these names are a lot of fun, but also capture the essence of the characters, I hope.

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

I think my teenage self would be really proud of this book! It’s an all-ages kind of story, one that a teenager can enjoy, and also someone late in their lives. For a long time I was trying to write books that were serious, dark and pessimistic…in other words, books that seemed more “literary.” But at last I wrote the book of my heart, one that’s upbeat, optimistic and full of hope in the end. It’s the kind of book I would have loved to read as a young man, when one always feels at a crossroads, on the verge of making a big decision, and trying to figure out life.

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

For me endings are harder. I once heard Jeannette Winterson say that writing a novel is like entering a tunnel that gets narrower and narrower. At first there’s lots of light and room, but then there’s just this tiny little opening at the end, and you have to squeeze yourself out of it. That said, if you can nail the ending, and deliver the payoff you have set up, it’s the greatest thing in the world. Where your character ends up and why is deeply related to what the story “means” and what you are trying to say. And it is hard to figure out what you’re trying to say! Endings are tough—but if you stick the landing, you’re golden.

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

I believe that all great fantasy and myth—and arguably even more realistic fictional storytelling—is powered by emotional autobiography. I think Lord of the Rings is about J.R.R. Tolkien’s experiences in World War I (much as he might have denied it.) And I think Luke’s conflict with Darth Vader is really about George Lucas’s own revolt against his father, who owned a stationary story in California and wanted his son to work with him, rather than go to film school. For me, I left my job mid-career to chase my dream of writing a book. It was more heartbreaking, desperate and difficult than I ever could have imagined. And yet, in the end, I did publish my book, and it was absolutely one of the most exhilarating things I’ve ever done. Paul Bunyan in my book is stuck in his life, and wonders if he will ever leave his terrible job and chase his own Beautiful Destiny. Finally, he decides to take the leap. His adventure is a metaphor for my own.

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

What an interesting question. I’d have to say film has influenced me, especially fantasy films like Lord of the Rings and Black Panther. I always want my writing to be so clear and visual, that even a child could conjure up in their mind what they are seeing. My books also have tons of dialogue, rhymes, chanting and even singing. I often ask myself when writing, could a director shoot this scene? And if a film director couldn’t shoot it, then usually that means the scene is not clear enough or active enough or entertaining enough. Filmmakers take pace and action very seriously, and I try to bring that into my work.
Visit Mark Cecil's website.

My Book, The Movie: Bunyan and Henry; Or, the Beautiful Destiny.

The Page 69 Test: Bunyan and Henry; Or, the Beautiful Destiny.

--Marshal Zeringue

Friday, April 12, 2024

Karen E. Olson

Karen E. Olson is the winner of the Sara Ann Freed Memorial Award and a Shamus Award finalist. She is the author of the Annie Seymour mysteries, the Tattoo Shop mysteries, and the Black Hat thrillers. Olson was a longtime editor, both in newspapers and at Yale. She lives in North Haven, Connecticut.

Olson's new novel is An Inconvenient Wife.

My Q&A with the author:

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

The phrase “an inconvenient wife” was something Henry VIII said to describe his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, when he was trying to divorce her but she was stonewalling the process. Most of his wives were “inconvenient” in some way at some point in their marriages, and as my book is told from the point of view of four of the wives, it has always felt to be appropriate as a title and sets the stage for the reader.

What's in a name?

Since the book is a fictional retelling of history, I played around with the actual names of the historical figures: Henry VIII becomes Hank Tudor; Katherine Parr becomes Kate Parker; Catherine of Aragon becomes Catherine Alvarez; Catherine Howard is Caitlyn Howard; and Ann of Cleves is now Anna Klein. I didn’t change Thomas Cromwell’s name, but I did change Thomas Culpepper to Alex Culpepper because there were a lot of Thomases in Tudor England and I didn’t want to confuse the reader.

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

My teenage self would be thrilled. My Tudor obsession actually began when I was 14 and read a biography of Elizabeth I. The only real surprise would be that it’s crime fiction, a genre I didn’t read until I was in my twenties.

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

Endings, definitely. The beginning is a blank slate with endless opportunities. By the middle of the book, though, I start to wonder how I’m going to stick the landing, since everything has to come together and make sense. That’s when the rewriting and revising happens.

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

Since I’ve written about the world of billionaires, it is most definitely not my life. However, Kate’s background is more humble, more middle class before she gets involved with her husband’s world. She had to work through school to pay for her education and she worked in public relations to pay her bills. Also, as a woman of a certain age, I am able to relate to Catherine and how she faces growing older. So I do bring some of myself into my characters.

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

I love spending time on Zillow looking at real estate. When imagining Hank Tudor’s estates and Anna Klein’s inn, I bounced from magnificent house to magnificent house with swimming pools, oceanfronts, tennis courts, picturing my characters’ physical world.
Visit Karen E. Olson's website.

The Page 69 Test: An Inconvenient Wife.

--Marshal Zeringue

Wednesday, April 10, 2024

Ashton Lattimore

Ashton Lattimore is an award-winning journalist and a former lawyer. She is the editor-in-chief at Prism, a nonprofit news outlet by and for communities of color, and her nonfiction writing has also appeared in The Washington Post, Slate, CNN, and Essence. Lattimore is a graduate of Harvard College, Harvard Law School, and Columbia Journalism School. She grew up in New Jersey, and now lives in suburban Philadelphia with her husband and their two sons. All We Were Promised is her first novel.

My Q&A with Lattimore:

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

I think the title All We Were Promised clues readers into the sense of expectation that each of the main characters carries throughout the story. The book centers on three very different young Black women in pre-Civil War Philadelphia: a formerly enslaved housemaid, a wealthy socialite and budding abolitionist, and a young girl who’s currently enslaved and hoping to escape. Though their circumstances are very different, each of them has absolutely been promised something, whether by their family members, friends, society at large, or even the law. For the housemaid, Charlotte, her white-passing father brought her to Philadelphia on the promise of freedom and a better life, only to shunt her into a role as his domestic servant. Meanwhile Nell, the wealthy abolitionist, was born into a free family and has—until this point—led a life that’s comfortable and uncomplicated, but as she becomes more involved in the abolitionist movement she discovers that her social class doesn’t protect her from the city’s racial strife. Lastly there’s Evie, who was left behind on the plantation when Charlotte and her father fled. Evie expected at least loyalty from her dear friend, and she arrives in Philadelphia ready to demand what she feels she’s owed.

My original working title of the book was The Free City, which gets at the same idea on a larger societal and legal scale. The story is set in Philadelphia, the cradle of liberty, but it’s also 1837, and we see the stark reality of who actually had access to its promised freedoms and who did not, regardless of the city’s professed virtues or the state’s actual emancipation laws. As a title, All We Were Promised captures that same sense of irony, in a less direct way.

What's in a name?

The original idea for this novel was inspired by Les Miserables, so several of the character names reflect that. In its earliest shape, All We Were Promised was the story of a father who was on the run from a dangerous past, and how his daughter grappled with the limitations he placed on her life. As I created the character names, escaped convict “Jean Valjean” became fugitive slave “James Vaughn,” and his daughter “Cosette” became “Charlotte.” As the story grew in scope and came to incorporate more characters, a few more names were similarly inspired, while others were just reflections of what I thought sounded appropriate to the time period and the characters’ backgrounds.

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

Honestly, not in the slightest. I’ve always been a history nerd, particularly U.S. history and Black history, and I’ve always gravitated toward writing stories that center upon the experiences and growth of young women. In addition, I’ve been a Broadway enthusiast since I was about 9 years old. Given all that, learning that I’d grown up to write a historical fiction novel about three young Black women in 1830s Philadelphia that was also loosely inspired by Les Miserables would probably be the least surprising thing my teenage self ever heard.

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

Definitely beginnings. At the start of All We Were Promised, I hoped to catch each character at the moment just before their life changed. For some of them, that was more obvious—with Evie, who’s arrived in Philadelphia but is still enslaved, when she sees Charlotte in the marketplace, it’s like a sudden lightning bolt of possibility for her. But for a character like Charlotte, whose life has gone through so many transformations in just a few years, discovering her “beginning” was less straightforward: is it the moment she first meets her sophisticated new friend, Nell? Or is it when she decides to start sneaking out of the house, against her father’s wishes, to join a literary club and rub shoulders with abolitionists? For me, discovering those precise moments of transformation that mark a beginning felt more complicated than deciding where each character would land at the end of her journey.

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

There’s quite a lot of me in Charlotte, in the sense that she’s being pulled in many different directions all at once: She’s trying to break into high society and the abolitionist world, free her enslaved friend, and pursue her passions as a seamstress, all while keeping secrets from just about everyone she knows. I have fewer secrets, but the sense of trying to juggle a lot of different versions of yourself is very familiar—it’s a lot like how I felt working on this book and juggling my day job and two young children!

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

History is the biggest influence, and of course musical theater. I’ve also been very influenced by TV, particularly when writing All We Were Promised. Two of my favorite TV shows are Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel, and much of the last third of the book is pretty directly inspired by two episodes of those shows—“Homecoming” from Season 3 of Buffy, and “Not Fade Away” from Angel, which was the series finale. I don’t think it’s too much of a spoiler to say that helping an enslaved person is very risky business, and as a result, the young women in the story end up in pretty grave danger. Similarly, “Homecoming” finds Buffy and rich-girl queen bee Cordelia in serious peril, and while All We Were Promised doesn’t feature any vampires or monsters, there’s something really inspiring in that episode about how two wildly different young women worked together in an extreme situation. As for “Not Fade Away,” thematically, the message of that episode was that the fight against evil is never fully won, but you have to just keep fighting. Given the state of the world Charlotte, Nell, and Evie lived in as Black women in the 1830s, and the state of the abolitionist movement at that time, that message—to just keep doing the work, even against seemingly insurmountable odds—really resonated, and it directly inspired the last line of the book.
Visit Ashton Lattimore's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Monday, April 8, 2024

Ellen Feldman

Ellen Feldman, a 2009 Guggenheim fellow, is the author of The Living and the Lost (winner of Long Island Reads award), Paris Never Leaves You (translated into thirteen languages), Terrible Virtue (optioned by Black Bicycle for a feature film), The Unwitting, Next to Love, Scottsboro (shortlisted for the Orange Prize), The Boy Who Loved Anne Frank (a New York Times Book Review “Editors’ Choice”), and Lucy.

Feldman's new novel is The Trouble with You.

My Q&A with the author:

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

Of all the novels I’ve published, The Trouble with You was the hardest to title. I auditioned dozens of attempts. They were all too generic and could apply to any story or too specific and therefore incomprehensible. After much solitary agonizing and endless consulting with my patient editor and publisher, we hit on The Trouble with You. That’s the exasperated phrase that would be thrown at the protagonist Fanny, her aunt Rose, and several other characters in the book. I’m delighted to report that many readers have agreed. They’ve told me they could hear the more conventional characters in the book shouting the words at those who flouted the rules to forge their own personae.

What's in a name?

I’m a stickler for a character’s name fitting his or her nature. It has to be appropriate to the time and place, but especially to who the character is. That said, I avoid names that telegraph a character’s temperament or behavior. Dickens could pull it off. I can’t. I’m not sure how I determine the suitability of a name. It’s more instinct than reason. In this novel, Rose’s name is, I think, an apt and ironic comment on the world she inhabited and the life she was dealt.
Rose, whose very name was a joke, like the names of so many of the girls with whom she'd grown up and worked in the factories. Rose. Iris. Flora. Pearl. Ruby. Golda. They gave them names that connoted beauty or opulence, then sent them to work sewing hats or gloves or dresses so their brothers could graduate from college.
Other characters, however, often squirm in the names I initially give them and demand repeated changes. Fanny took some time to find a name she was comfortable wearing. Thank heavens for global search. Charlie, on the other hand, danced brashly onto my laptop screen wearing his name. He knew who he was. I had to get to know him.

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

I have a double-edge answer to that. My teenage self would be amazed that I’ve published novels. I always wanted to write and began writing in childhood, but I always thought writers were special people beyond my reach. That said, I don’t think my teenage self would be surprised by the story. Kernels of it were bubbling just beneath the surface in her angst-ridden adolescent mind.

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

The Trouble with You is the exception to my answer to this question. I usually find the beginning of a novel challenging to the point of despair and have to write several opening chapters, most of which are discarded, before I find my way into the story. In this book I knew the beginning from the moment the idea started to take shape in my mind. I was striving for something that would plunge the reader into Fanny’s life, let the reader savor her happiness, yet create a subtle tension about what was to come. As for endings, in this book, as in most I’ve written, I know where it’s going but I rarely know exactly how it will end until I’m almost there. That’s because I depend on the characters to lead me to the conclusion.

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 it’s hard, if not impossible, to write a character you can’t get inside. Some of my characters are close to the person I want to be so it’s not difficult living in their skins. Some are people I don’t admire and fear resembling. Then I try to find what makes the character tick so unpleasantly. The worst part of writing those unattractive characters is that I often realize the objectionable traits are ones I’m fighting in myself. The recognition is disagreeable for me as a woman, but invaluable for me as a writer.

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

Years ago a writer friend told me that in my books I “seize the thistle.” He meant, of course, that I go after difficult subjects. I have always cherished the description. I can’t undo past injustice, but I can try to call readers’ attention to it. However, I don’t so much choose topics as feel chosen by them. Specific instances of war, racism, and misogyny make me want to alert the world to the fact that they happened and warn against their reoccurrence. People who have fought those scourges – individuals like Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt and Margaret Sanger – inspire me to write about them. Fictional characters like Fanny, Charlie and Rose in this book allow me to address vast human issues in deeply personal terms.
Learn more about the book and author at Ellen Feldman's website.

The Page 69 Test: Scottsboro.

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