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.

--Marshal Zeringue

Thursday, April 4, 2024

Sara Donati

Sara Donati (a pen name for Rosina Lippi) she is the author of the Wilderness series, historical novels that follow the fortunes of a group of families living in the vast forests in upstate New York from about 1792-1825, with particular attention to the War of 1812. Her newest series (the Waverly Place Series) is about the extended Bonner family and includes The Gilded Hour and Where the Light Enters. The story in this series jumps ahead two generations to follow Nathaniel and Elizabeth Bonner’s grand- and great granddaughters into the twentieth century.

Donati's new novel, The Sweet Blue Distance, is set in 1858 in New Mexico Territory; it serves as a bridge between the Wilderness series of novels and the first two novels of the Waverly Place series.

My Q&A with the author:

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

I have never had much luck naming my own novels. Editors and marketing people have more control than I like. I wanted to call this newest novel Little Birds -- and I admit it would give the reader no real sense of the story. The Sweet Blue Distance does provide some insight. This is a novel about moving west and into a new life, and thus far it seems that readers agree that the title evokes the images I was hoping for.

What's in a name?

Character names are a universe to themselves. I have a total of ten historical novels in print, and the same families feature in most of them. This provides an anchor, of a sort -- the first and primary couple are Elizabeth and Nathaniel. As their universe grew (children, children-in-law, grandchildren) I found it harder and harder to find compelling names, almost certainly because I didn't know those characters very well yet. I have used 'Martha' multiple times in various generations, and the name has deep connotations for me because of the last Martha -- born to Jemima Southern, who readers love to hate, and to Liam Kirby, who they love unconditionally. Martha is a conflicted young woman with some awful childhood memories (thanks to her mother) but she finds her footing and grows into one of my own favorites. I suppose that she had to develop in that direction because she married into the Bonner family; she had to earn that privilege. At least, that's what my writer's brain worked out.

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

Beginnings are awful. It may take me months of rethinking and rewriting an opening, and I won't get anything really written until that's done. A bit morbid, by it's something like digging a grave. Just how deep do you need to go? How wide? If I start out and convince myself I'm on the right track -- when I know that I am not, really -- I will pay for it not so far down the line. The worst experience with this cost me about five thousand words. That discarded chapter still lives deep in the bowels of my hard drive. I won't go looking for it.

I'd like to point out that dozens of hugely admired and successful writers agree with me on this. Agatha Christie put it very clearly: "Starting to write a book: there is no agony like it" (1977). My favorite quote is what George Orwell had to say: "Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand."

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

A few of my characters have traces of my personality, but only slightly. Many of my female characters are more capable of violence than I think I would be in similar situations. It's more likely that I draw on a person from my life for a character, and most often this is not a compliment. There are two female and two male characters that I drew pretty much from life, People familiar with my work will recognize the name Moncrieff, but they have no way to know who he's based on, and I'm not going to go into detail. At least, not until the real-life Moncrieff is dead. It occurs to me that I should ask my readers for the five worst characters I've come up with. I wonder what they will say.

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

The biggest influence on my writing mind has always been history. Or better said, hidden histories. As a teenager I was truly angry to find out that Anne Frank's diary had been severely edited by her father, who wanted a neater, cleaner story. Later reading about the War of 1812 I was shocked at how little we had been taught about that war. Reading extensively about slavery and the way colonialization destroyed whole nations of people put another set of stories in my head. And I have always been interested in the way women survived in a world where they were pinned down by the demands of survival. You can find all these topics and others in my historical fiction. My purpose is to turn a small light on. The very best compliment I have ever had about my novels goes something like "I didn't realize... so I went to read about it... and now I'm still reading because wow, why did I never learn any of this in school?"
Visit Sara Donati's website.

The Page 69 Test: The Gilded Hour.

--Marshal Zeringue

Tuesday, April 2, 2024

Mark Pomeroy

Mark Pomeroy lives with his family in Portland, Oregon, where he was born and raised. In 2014 Oregon State University Press published his first novel, The Brightwood Stillness, which The Oregonian called “absorbing and humane.” He has received an Oregon Literary Fellowship for fiction, and his short stories, poems, and essays have appeared in Open Spaces, Portland Magazine, The Wordstock 10, NW Book Lovers, The Oregonian, and What Teaching Means: Stories from America’s Classrooms. For the past twenty-eight years he has led creative writing workshops in Portland schools.

Pomeroy's new novel is The Tigers of Lents.

My Q&A with the author:

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

I worked on The Tigers of Lents over the course of twelve years. For eleven of those years, the novel had a different title. My editor and publisher liked the earlier title, but asked me to supply an alternative option.

It took two weeks of brainstorming — long lists, plenty of brooding, some cursing — before I zeroed in on a title that links some key aspects of the novel. I also like the sound of The Tigers of Lents. Sound is important.

The Tigers of Lents is a family saga that centers on three feisty teenage sisters living in poverty in Lents, an outer neighborhood of Portland, Oregon. One of the sisters is a soccer star on the verge of possibly accepting a college scholarship. The novel shows how the three girls battle to be taken seriously, how they experience a crash of worlds when they try to engage the wider society, and how they also battle with self-doubts and self-sabotage.

The title connects the novel’s soccer element to the inner character of each person in the Garrison family.

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

My teenage self would probably be stunned that I’m a novelist. I spent part of my childhood living on poverty’s edge — that fluid state, month to month, that many people don’t understand. Parmesan cheese comes powdered in a can, and you and your single mother are one emergency away from real struggle.

I read as a young kid, then stopped reading as a teen. For several years after my mother remarried, when I was in third grade, my homelife was difficult, and I wanted to be out of the house as much as possible. I spent a lot of time in the street playing soccer.

I worked on my high school newspaper, but not until I was in college did I start reading again, widely. After college, I traveled a lot and worked part-time jobs, then I was a middle school teacher for a few years. I quit to have my mornings for writing fiction. In the afternoons I worked as a creative writing teacher in Portland Public Schools, and as a soccer coach in after-school programs all around the city.

Some of these gigs were in neighborhoods marked by poverty. Places much like where I spent part of my childhood.

In 2011, I was the last writer-in-residence at Marshall High School in Lents. The school district had just chosen Marshall, out of all the city’s high schools, for closure, citing budget issues. It was another major blow to that community, which had been cut in half by a freeway a few decades earlier.

I found myself, before each teaching day, sitting in the school’s parking lot and taking notes, the freeway noise filling my car. The seeds of a new novel were growing, and they connected to parts of my childhood.

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

In a beginning, you just want to pull the reader into the story in an honest way. You want crisp, evocative sentences. You want the reader, from the sentences and the voice, to feel an immediate trust and curiosity. Mostly, you want to tap what the late great Oregon writer Brian Doyle called “The Shimmering Center.” Each scene, each person in the novel must be true in that sense. Set aside the rest.

In The Tigers of Lents, both the opening and the ending just came in the moment, in the flow of drafting, and I felt there was resonance. I felt this over time. Sixty-some drafts.

There are no shortcuts, of course. It’s about showing up regularly at the desk and proving to the spirits that you’re actually serious about the work. Stubbornness is key. As is faith.

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

Places. Mount Hood and its foothills. The Oregon Coast. The Salmon River near Mount Hood. Central Oregon, including the Metolius River. New York City, Salzburg, Namibia, the island of Ometepe in Nicaragua, Nepal, parts of Indonesia, Vietnam, and Cambodia. Among other places.

Musicians. So many musicians. Erroll Garner, Anita Baker, Midnight Oil, Hilary Hahn, Yo-Yo Ma, Gonzalo Rubalcaba, Peter Gabriel, Mark Knopfler, KRS-One, Kendrick Lamar, Alison Krauss, Sting, Chopin, Beethoven. Among many others. A few days ago I heard Chaka Khan’s “Ain’t Nobody (Loves Me Better),” it had been several years, and I about teared up. God, what a song.

Athletes. Christine Sinclair, Megan Rapinoe, Julius Erving, Tim Duncan, Steve Nash, Pelé, Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Ed Viesturs, Homare Sawa, Marta, Sabrina Ionescu, Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce, Lothar Matthäus. The list could go for another few pages.

I would also include many painters, woodworkers, schoolteachers, ceramic artists, small business owners, nurses, professors, bakers, landscapers, and so on. Anyone who brings sustained attention, genuine skill, dedication, kindness, grit, grace, and integrity to their work.

Inspiration is all around us. It’s our choice — to notice or not notice.
Visit Mark Pomeroy's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Saturday, March 30, 2024

Sarah Beth Durst

Sarah Beth Durst is the award-winning author of over twenty books for kids, teens, and adults, including Spark, Drink Slay Love, and The Queens of Renthia series. She won an American Library Association Alex Award and a Mythopoeic Fantasy Award and has been a finalist for SFWA's Andre Norton Nebula Award three times. She is a graduate of Princeton University and lives in Stony Brook, New York, with her husband, her children, and her ill-mannered cat.

Durst's new novel is The Lies Among Us.

My Q&A with the author:

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

The Lies Among Us is quite literally about the lies among us. When Hannah looks at the world, she sees it overlaid with the physical manifestations of the lies we tell one another and ourselves. A toxic sludge spills from the TV while a politician speaks. A shadowy convertible that no one ever owned speeds past her on the highway. The house she grew up in -- when she looks at it, she sees a cheerful two-story yellow house with white shutters, a porch swing, and pink azaleas. Her sister, Leah, sees a drab one-story beige house with peeling paint and a yard full of junk.

Hannah herself cannot be seen or heard by anyone, and in the wake of her mother's death, she struggles to reach out to a sister who will not -- and cannot -- acknowledge her.

It's about sisterhood, grief, and the corrosive nature of lies, as seen through the eyes of a woman who does not exist.

What's in a name?

My favorite source of names is the Social Security website. They have this baby-name statistics page where you can search for names by popularity in their birth year. I use it all time to ensure my character names match their age.

Beyond that, I try to choose names that match the character in feel. Hannah is sheltered, innocent, and kind -- so I gave her a name where the shorter central letters are visually cushioned and protected by the taller first and last letters.

Leah is more bitter, sharper -- I wanted her to have a correspondingly shorter name that also pairs nicely with Hannah, to make them aurally sisters as well as biologically.

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

I think she'd be very surprised. My teenage self would have expected all my books to include swords and monsters and unicorns and winged cats... and in fact, I have written many novels with all those things. (My latest epic fantasy is called The Bone Maker, and it has a bone army and all sorts of wizards and warriors. And my upcoming cozy fantasy, The Spellshop, has both a unicorn and a winged cat, as well as merhorses and a talking spider plant!) But this novel... It's a true departure for me in many ways.

This novel is my first book club fiction and my first family drama, and it was such a tremendous writing experience! In this novel, I had the chance to use the techniques I'd developed in other genres to explore an intangible concept in a concrete way, specifically the concept of lies and the effect they have on our relationships and ourselves. I learned so much by pushing myself to experiment with style, voice, and the interiority of my characters.

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

I can't write the book until I know the beginning. It's where I find the voice of the novel. Sometimes it flows out easily, and sometimes I write fifty or more openings, auditioning different approaches to the style, the tone, the characters, and the story. The ending usually unfurls naturally from all that I've written in the chapters before.

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

I try to create characters who are distinct from me (and from anyone I know). They need to feel like real, unique people in order for me to write them. That said, I think it's impossible to avoid pouring some of yourself into your characters.

Writing a character a bit like being an actor -- you try to imagine what you would do, say, and feel if you'd had a certain set of experiences and possess a particular worldview, and then you try to bring the character to life (except in writing, your tool is your keyboard, instead of your body, face, and voice).

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

I always listen to music as I write. For The Lies Among Us, my playlist included a lot of Kate Bush, Tori Amos, k.d. lang, Edie Brickell, Taylor Swift, Vertical Horizon, and multiple covers of Suzanne Vega's "Tom's Diner."
Visit Sara Beth Durst's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Thursday, March 28, 2024

Sami Ellis

Sami Ellis is a queer horror writer who’s inspired by the horrific nature of Black fears and the culture’s relation to the supernatural. When she’s not acting as the single auntie with a good job, she spends her time not writing.

Check out her words in the Black horror anthology, All These Sunken Souls.

Ellis's debut novel is Dead Girls Walking.

My Q&A with the author:

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

I am very much a speculative fiction author, and I love, love, loved getting the chance to play around with death in a Friday the 13th-type camp story. Thus, and this is probably a spoiler to some, Dead Girls Walking as a title is quite literal. The girls are dead - and somehow, they are also walking. Gasp!

What's in a name?

The name Temple Baker came to me in full. I usually have to mix and match different names that are familiar to me (there are lots of “Imani’s” in my notebooks), but the original title for Dead Girls Walking was Temple Baker the Badass. I hated the title, but the name itself stuck - and if you read the book, you'll find that that's not all there is to her name (though she'll kill you before she ever tells you).

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

As a teenager, I read anything that was kept in stock at the library. That mostly means that as long as it wasn't popular – thus not already checked out – I was reading it in one sitting. I think teen me would be most surprised that I stuck to one kind of story, one kind of genre. I always loved horror, sure - but I had been reading 2 rom-coms a day back then. I inhaled Kimani Tru and Simon Pulse's entire catalogue just for fun. The idea that my adventurous tastes don't translate to my talent would probably shake teen me to her core.

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

Beginnings are difficult for me because they teach me, and the reader, about patience that we may not have. I have to wait to get to the fun parts I like! All of my stories are like a Jenga tower. Readers pick apart at it page-by-page, chapter-by-chapter until everything collapses on itself - and the collapsing part is the fun part for me. Bodies are found, girls are screaming, and somehow I’ve got to rebuild everything that fell apart.

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 my younger self in my characters. Temple is hardheaded and frustrated with everything, including herself. It makes her lash out and fight people who are only trying to help her. I wasn't exactly that girl all the time, but there were plenty of times I was. I had friends that were that girl. I've had students that were that girl. And those people just needed someone on their side for once, even when they were acting out. So I tried to write Dead Girls Walking with love love, instead of tough love, for some girl to find it when she needs it – since I’d probably be the same at that age.

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

Dreams influence me a lot! I used to have frequent hallucinations around when I went to sleep and woke up (they’re called hypnogogic and hypnopompic hallucinations), and eventually I decided - "Well, I'm a horror writer, so let's write some of these down." I used to have this one particular hallucination that was recurring, which had never happened to me before. I would keep waking up and there would be math all over my walls. Scribbled, in-depth math like a professor's chalkboard. I would always get out of bed to run to read it, but by the time I reached the wall I would be too awake and the hallucination would dissipate. I used that one in Dead Girls Walking.
Visit Sami Ellis's website.

My Book, The Movie: Dead Girls Walking.

--Marshal Zeringue

Monday, March 25, 2024

Heather Gudenkauf

Heather Gudenkauf is the Edgar Award nominated, New York Times & USA Today bestselling author of ten novels including Everyone Is Watching, out this week. Her debut novel, The Weight of Silence, was an instant New York Times bestseller and remained on the list for 22 weeks. Gudenkauf’s critically acclaimed novels have been published in over 20 countries and have been included in many Best Of lists including Seven Thrillers to Read This Summer by the New York Times, The 10 Best Thrillers and Mysteries of 2017 by The Washington Post, Amazon Best Book of 2022, GoodReads Most Anticipated Mysteries of 2022.

My Q&A with the author:

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

I think the title, Everyone Is Watching, is a sneaky teaser into what the novel is about. It begs the reader to ask the following questions: Who is being watched? Who is doing the watching and why? Readers quickly learn that the story centers around five strangers who travel to an isolated location to take part in a high-stakes competition reality series for a chance to win ten million dollars. And to make things even more interesting, the show is being live streamed worldwide.

What's in a name?

I often find coming up with names for the characters and the settings particularly challenging. I spend an excessive amount of time agonizing over the right name for a character, a city, or a town. For Everyone Is Watching, I knew I needed to create the perfect name for the estate where the reality series One Lucky Winner takes place. I finally settled on Bella Luce, which means beautiful light in Italian. Here, we have this gorgeous Italian villa in the middle of wine country USA, and initially, the contestants are completely mesmerized by its beauty. Little do they know what dark secrets the estate holds.

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

My teenage self would not be surprised to learn that my chosen genre is mystery/thrillers. I have loved reading them since I was probably much too young to do so. I consistently raided my dad’s side of the bookshelf and snagged titles by Stephen King, Dean Koontz, Jonathan Kellerman, Elizabeth Peters, and John Grisham.

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

I typically have little trouble beginning or ending a book; along the way, both typically go through extensive editing. For Everyone Is Watching, I knew that the story needed to start with each character receiving their invitation to take part in One Lucky Winner – a reality show that had the potential to change their lives. Ultimately, I only included one of these scenes to keep the book's pace moving. As for the ending – I can't remember exactly how many iterations I went through to finally land on the fitting conclusion – lots of versions ended up on the cutting room floor. I've finally come to an uneasy acceptance that this is just how I write – messily and with many false starts and wrong turns. All I can say is thank goodness for revisions.

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

While writing Everyone Is Watching, I watched too many hours of reality television to count: Survivor, Alone, The Challenge, Big Brother, The Amazing Race, and so much more! What did I learn? As a society, we are obsessed with fame, notoriety, and competition. As we watch these shows, we begin to feel like we know the contestants beyond the superficial. We sit on our sofa-sized thrones in front of our screens, christen the heroes, and disparage the villains. We choose sides. I explore this idea in Everyone Is Watching, along with the question – what would you do for ten million dollars?
Visit Heather Gudenkauf's website.

Coffee with a Canine: Heather Gudenkauf and Maxine.

Coffee with a Canine: Heather Gudenkauf & Lolo.

My Book, The Movie: Not A Sound.

The Page 69 Test: Not A Sound.

The Page 69 Test: Before She Was Found.

The Page 69 Test: This Is How I Lied.

The Page 69 Test: The Overnight Guest.

--Marshal Zeringue

Friday, March 22, 2024

Joanna Goodman

Joanna Goodman's novels include the #1 national bestseller, The Home for Unwanted Girls, which was on The Globe & Mail’s Fiction bestseller list for more than six months, as well as The Forgotten Daughter and The Finishing School, both national bestsellers. Her stories have appeared in The Fiddlehead, B & A Fiction, Event, The New Quarterly, and White Wall Review, as well as excerpted in Elisabeth Harvor’s fiction anthology A Room at the Heart of Things.

Originally from Montreal, Goodman now lives in Toronto with her husband and two kids.

Her new novel is The Inheritance.

My Q&A with the author:

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

I always write my novels with a “working title” that never makes it to publication. Once the novel is complete, the real title inevitably reveals itself to me. With The Inheritance, my original working title was The Gold diggers. I meant that to be tongue-in-cheek, since the novel is about a mother and daughter’s decades-long battle to inherit from her billionaire father, who died intestate. Because Arden was his illegitimate daughter, the courtroom drama spans from the early eighties to the present, thrusting them into the spotlight and making them vulnerable to being seen as scammers and gold diggers.

Just before the book came out, I changed the title to When We’re Millionaires, which I felt catapulted the reader into the heart of the book’s theme, which is the idea of life being on hold while we chase down our goals, as opposed to actually living in the present. (When I lose ten pounds. When I have a New York Times Bestseller. When we inherit millions…)

All the characters in The Inheritance are in a kind of purgatory as they wait year after year, decade after decade, for this money to come in. I loved the idea of exploring how Virginia, the mother, would hand down that legacy to her daughter - well intentioned, but is it the right choice?

In the end, The Inheritance best captured the soul of the book in its entirety, from the literal courtroom inheritance case to the idea of legacy as an inheritance. Its conciseness won the day.

What's in a name?

So much can be conveyed about a character or a place with just a name. Getting it right can be the difference between an iconic character versus a forgettable character. I spend a ridiculous amount of time choosing the names of all my characters, and when called for, fictional towns like Denby, New York.

The main characters in The Inheritance are the mother, Virginia Bunt; eldest daughter, Tate Bunt; and youngest daughter and main protagonist, Arden Bunt.

I actually address older sister, Tate’s name, in the novel, because it says a great deal about her mother:

"Beauty mattered a great deal to Virginia. Tate was named after another very beautiful person, Sharon Tate. At the time, they didn’t know that Sharon Tate been stabbed to death, only that she was gorgeous."

As for Arden, the younger sister, I chose the name because it’s unique, pretty and unconventional, qualities embodied by Arden herself. I love that it rhymes with garden, conjuring up all kinds of feminine imagery. The name Arden also speaks to her mother’s quirky, individualist nature. No common names for Virgina’s daughters! Naturally, their names would be as wacky and idiosyncratic as Virginia is.

Their last name, Bunt, was named after someone I know. The moment I met her and heard that name, I knew it was going to show up in one of my novels. The name Bunt is like a punch. It has so much going for it - it’s short, powerful, comedic. Virginia, Tate and Arden Bunt are names that I really believe enhance the characters and add to their dimensionality.

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

Teenage Joanna would not be the least bit surprised by The Inheritance. I wrote my first novel at nine years old, and then started many novels throughout my teen years. I used to write blurbs and reviews of these novels as though they were already published. So, the fact of this novel’s existence would not be a shocker. As for the content of The Inheritance, young Joanna would expect that adult author Joanna would be writing exactly this kind of novel. I write pretty much the same themes and types of characters I wrote and read back then. My characters are always women and girls, and they are always struggling with acceptance, self-worth and purpose. I used to read tons of Judy Blume back in the day, and what I loved best about her writing was her female characters. They were so real and authentic, and they were always living through familiar struggles that I could relate to, which is exactly the kind of books I write.

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

I find it so much harder to write endings. The beginning is the very best part. I’m fresh and excited and the idea is bursting out of me. The first few chapters of The Inheritance literally wrote themselves, mostly because I already knew my characters, and it was just a matter of introducing them to the reader, and establishing that inciting incident to kick th ebook into high gear. While I always have a clear idea of the ending, it often happens that my characters and my story veer in a completely different direction than the original outline, and I can be as surprised by the endings as my readers are. Without revealing too much about how The Inheritance ends, suffice to say, by the time I got to the last chapter, my original ending fell by the wayside, which feels a bit like flying without your pilot’s license. It’s scary.

The other challenge in writing a good ending is achieving the perfect balance between leaving readers with a positive, uplifted feeling that is also plausible and realistic. I’ve never been a fan of the classic happy ending, and yet it really matters to me that I end on a note filled with possibility and hope; more like a version of a happy ending, grounded in real life. This for me is inevitably requires the most amount of editing and fine-tuning.

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

In a word, yes. I often joke that every lead character I write is some version of myself, or, at the very least, she will go through a similar struggle to ones I have experienced in my own life. Frankly, I can only write what is authentically real to my own experience. In that sense, I always have a deep connection to my characters. In The Inheritance, I feel the most connected to Arden as the mother of a teenage daughter, and also as the daughter of a mother who handed down a very complex legacy that I’ve had to navigate as an adult. So while Arden and her experience as the illegitimate daughter of a billionaire are completely fictional, her experience as a mother and daughter are very much connected to me.

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

The greatest influence on my writing is travel. I travel a lot for work and am always inspired by something on a trip - whether it be the place itself, an experience at a museum or the type of people I encounter, there is something about stepping foot outside my own familiar world that seems to unlock a flood of creativity and inspiration. So much of The Inheritance was inspired by one of my trips to New York City. On that particular trip, we walked and walked, from the City Center, with all its court houses and government buildings, to Wall Street, and then through Chinatown and little Italy. We also went to Brooklyn on that trip, and I knew immediately that Arden would grow up in Brooklyn, and that her stepfather, Hal, would have a home there. Just about everything I experienced on that trip wound up in the novel - whether it was the Surrgoate's Court where the inheritance case unfolds, or Joshua’s apartment in Battery Park, or Hal’s little house in Midwood, all those seeds were planted on my travels.
Visit Joanna Goodman's website.

The Page 69 Test: The Inheritance.

My Book, The Movie: The Inheritance.

--Marshal Zeringue

Wednesday, March 20, 2024

Ron Corbett

A former radio host and newspaper columnist, Ron Corbett’s first book of fiction was Ragged Lake, the debut novel in the Frank Yakabuski mystery series, and an Edgar Award nominee for Best Original Paperback.

The father of four, Corbett is married to award-winning photo-journalist Julie Oliver and still lives in his hometown of Ottawa, Canada, where he writes the Yakabuski stories from the study of a century-old house, “not far from a good river.”

Corbett's new novel is Cape Rage.

My Q&A with the author:

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

This is an interesting question because Cape Rage was not the working title for this book. It had a longer, more literary title, and I’m not going to tell you what it was. I’ll see if you can guess it. I believe you can. There are enough clues in the book. It’s a line from a Bob Dylan song – from "Brownsville Girl" – and the line is right in the book. I thought it was a powerful line, what a person will do in the name of revenge, and the book started with that title, the very first thing, that freaking title, so when my publisher said, Ron, uh umm, don’t know how to say this, but, we, how do we say this politely, -- we hate it – I was shocked. Who was it that gave that writing advice -- the first thing you need to do is kill your babies? I thought I understood that expression, but I really didn’t. Not until the debate over the title of this book. In the end, I came to understand the only people that would truly understand the original title would be me, and people who had finished reading the book. But that’s not the purpose of a title. A good title should tell you something about what you’re going to read. And Cape Rage does a much better job of that. It tells you that place is going to be important to the story. It tells you that violence and anger and vengeance is going to be part of the story. And it’s a title I came up with, so I’m happy with it.

What's in a name?

I did give a lot of thought to the name Danny Barrett. I have two series going, the other being the Frank Yakabuski mysteries, which are set on the Northern Divide, in Canada. The Divide is a real place, which I have fictionalized, but I’ve kept many of the real details, including that there are many people of Polish descent up there, including my detective. Yakabuski is a common name along the Divide, and in the Ottawa Valley – which is not that far from where I live. So, when I started the other series, I wanted a simpler name. I wanted hard consonants. I wanted a first name that could be a diminutive. I played around with all that and came up with Danny Barrett. An interesting thing about that name, and which I’m looking forward to playing around with later – it’s his undercover name. It’s not his real name. The reveal on that will come in a later book.

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

I think my teenage self would be surprised I didn’t get away with the Dylan title. I don’t think much else would be a surprise. I have always loved mysteries, and adventure stories. I am still reading those stories. I am lucky enough to now be writing those stories.

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

This is another question, like your first, that has some background to it. These are some interesting questions. A bit out of the norm. I almost always start with the ending of a story, and then work backwards. In the first Danny Barrett book, The Sweet Goodbye, one of the final scenes, the one with Travis Lee and Pearl Lafontaine, that was the first thing I wrote. In the first Frank Yakabuski book, Ragged Lake, the first thing written was the final scene, almost the final line. Most of my novels have been like this, and if not the final scene, some scene well into the book. The one exception is Cape Rage, which started with an early scene, one of the villains being shot in the back and left for dead in the woods, although he’s not dead, and that starts the revenge plot. The problem with starting with an ending is you need to back it all up – it’s like pushing a car uphill. There must be an easier way. I say that a million times while writing a novel. I tend to come up with scenes and then need to stitch them together. I envy people who envision stories from beginning to end. I envision scenes and then need to connect 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 Danny Barrett is a world apart. I could never be an undercover police officer. Although he’s like a lot of characters I love reading about. I’ve spent a lot of time reading. That’s part of a writer’s life. Does that count? Frank Yakabuski would be a little closer, mostly because he lives and works in places I would recognize and feel comfortable in. I could be in a canoe with Frank. I could be in a tavern with Frank. I’m pretty sure I’ve met Frank.

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

I’ve already mentioned Dylan. I think he’s shown everyone how to be a true artist. True Gen as Hemingway used to say. That would be another inspiration, although obviously literary. I guess Dylan, with that Nobel, would have to be called literary as well. My wife, Julie Oliver, is a photojournalist from Belfast. She’s my rock and I’d be nowhere without her. I have four children, all of whom I love and love me and that blows my mind, how lucky I am it turned out that way. I was a journalist for 30 years, but journalism died and that makes me sad. I’m still looking for the one true sentence. It's out there. All this inspires me.
Visit Ron Corbett's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Sunday, March 17, 2024

Sydney Leigh

Sydney Leigh has had a myriad of jobs, from running a small business to teaching English across the globe. She has travelled the world solo, where her daring spirit has led her to jump out of airplanes, dive with sharks, and learn she would never master a surfboard. Leigh served on the Board of Directors for Crime Writers of Canada from 2019-2021. She is a member of Sisters in Crime and International Thriller Writers.

Leigh's new novel is Peril in Pink.

My Q&A with the author:

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

The title of my book, Peril in Pink lets the reader know two key things. First, that something bad is going to happen. It’s a murder mystery, so that’s a plus. Second, that the book has a fun vibe. This is a story about Jess, a woman who quits her job and partners with her best friend, Kat, to open a Bed & Breakfast. Jess and Kat paint all of the doors of the B & B pink to help establish their brand (and the title of the book!). Of course, when someone is murdered during the opening weekend, Jess feels compelled to get involved and becomes an amateur sleuth in the process.

No one is going to read the title and think this is an angst-fueled spy novel or a literary thriller (two genres I love to read but cannot write). Like the story, the title is light and playful.

My working title as I wrote the book was Petty in Pink, a play off of the 1980s movie, Pretty in Pink. The publisher changed it and I was okay with the change since Petty in Pink could imply a variety of genres. I want readers to know this is a crime fiction novel, albeit one without graphic violence. Known as a cozy mystery, the title suggests no tissues will be needed while reading this book.

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

My teenage self would be very surprised by my novel. In high school I was a horror fan, through and through. If I had to predict which genre I’d write, it would be horror without a doubt. But adult me doesn’t have the stomach to write such things. While I still enjoy reading and watching horror, I wouldn’t be able to sleep if I was thinking about things that scared me all night.

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

I love to write the beginnings. It sets the tone, and kicks off the fun. My favorite part of writing is the banter between characters and the start of my books are full of that. Ensuring all the loose ends are settled and solved is trickier. Not that I mind it, either. But it’s tougher for me to write and I definitely end up changing it more.

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

The funny thing is the more I write the more I become like my amateur sleuths. I don’t mean getting involved with murder investigations, but I ask more questions and allow my curiosity space to bloom and grow. I love asking people questions that I may not have had the courage to ask before. Nothing mean-spirited or too personal, but I’m curious to understand people’s reactions and feelings.

I also love trying new things which is what got me into writing in the first place. My characters, on the other hand, are more set in their ways. Also, I’d say I’m more reserved than Jess. Although we both have a goofy side. When I’m not writing, for example, I enjoy taking improv classes. To have a space where silliness and imagination runs free appeals to me. Not so sure Jess would enjoy doing something so out of her comfort zone.

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

I love reality TV. There, I admitted it. Selling Sunset, Love is Blind. Yes please. That’s not all. I love seeing movies in theatres because I’m completely absorbed into the story. All genres. And TV has lots of great stuff I enjoy. I love Murder, She Wrote, The Goldbergs, RuPaul’s Drag Race, and Never Have I Ever, to name a few. And my favorite podcast, My Favorite Murder, is definitely an influence.
Visit Sydney Leigh's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Friday, March 15, 2024

Clare McHugh

Clare McHugh is the author of two historical novels, A Most English Princess and The Romanov Brides. After graduating from Harvard College with a degree in European history, she worked for many years as a newspaper reporter and later magazine editor. The mother of two grown children, McHugh currently lives with her husband in London and in Amagansett, New York.

My Q&A with the author:

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

I feel so lucky to have landed on the perfect title for this novel! What better title than The Romanov Brides for a book that brings to life on the page the momentous decisions made by two German princesses, the sisters Ella and Alix of Hesse, to marry into the Romanov family, imperial rulers of Russia.

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

I think that my teenage self would be delighted to see that I achieved my dream of publishing an historical novel. In fact, The Romanov Brides is my second. In 2020 I published A Most English Princess, about Vicky, Queen Victoria’s eldest daughter.

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

Beginnings are so challenging. So much about a story’s scope, intention, and tone is established in its first chapters, and must be perfectly rendered in order to draw the reader in and retain his or her attention. I find it particularly difficult to choose where in a character’s life to begin, because I love to write childhood scenes. But a little of that can go a long way for readers! For The Romanov Brides I ended up removing 15,000 words from the book’s first section so as to “cut to the chase” of the action more rapidly. I must have rewritten the initial chapters twenty times over. By contrast, I find the second half of any book easier to write because once the first half is in good shape, one is set up unspool the action deftly and end it.

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

Both Ella and Alix are characters with whom I share personality traits—inevitably so, I believe! They are my creations, although I depended on their letters and the contemporaneous memoirs written by others to render them historically accurate. Like Ella, I tend to be a people pleaser (even more so when I was younger.) I am attracted to an artistic temperament, as she was, and once I love a person, I am, like Ella was, loyal to the hilt! Ella has a capacity for faith that I lack and a kind of pride that comes with royal status which is both out of reach to me, and, I fear, unappealing. But characters are never perfect, and if they are, they are flat and boring. I share Alix’s longings for love and security, and her desire to be understood. Her stubbornness, her iron will, and her insistence on being right I certainly relate to—although having lived much longer than Alix did, I hope I have learned to soften these tendencies!
Visit Clare McHugh's website.

The Page 69 Test: The Romanov Brides.

--Marshal Zeringue

Wednesday, March 13, 2024

Rachel Lyon

Rachel Lyon is author of the novels Self-Portrait with Boy—a finalist for the Center for Fiction's 2018 First Novel Prize—and Fruit of the Dead. Lyon's short work has appeared in One Story, The Rumpus, Electric Literature’s Recommended Reading, and elsewhere. She has taught creative writing at various institutions, most recently Bennington College, and lives with her husband and two young children in Western Massachusetts.

My Q&A with the author:

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

Fruit of the Dead came to me through researching the myth of Persephone. While in the underworld, Persephone eats six pomegranate seeds, sometimes referred to as "fruit of the dead," an act that, without her knowledge, binds her to the place for eternity. Every time I revisit the myth I'm offended on Persephone's behalf that nobody tells her, on entry, "Hey, just be aware, the food here is cursed, stay away from it," or, like, offers her any paperwork to look over, any fine print. In my book, the 18-year-old Cory, an analogue for Persephone, is given an NDA to sign, but becomes hooked on a (fictional) drug that her employer, a pharmaceutical CEO, has yet to bring to market. He describes it as, "a highly effective, highly popular, highly pleasant, highly safe, frankly groundbreaking painkiller. Greater efficacy. Fewer side effects. Longer relief. Plus, you know, between you and me, it’s a good time. Not too good. Just good enough, let’s say. Granadone is so safe we used it in a cocktail at the company Christmas party. Vodka, soda, bitters, a splash of pomegranate juice, a slice of lime. Tasty—kind of plummy—and so potent you felt like you’d transcended this earthly sphere. We called the cocktail Fruit of the Dead. I mean, come on. Irresistible, right?" So the titular phrase refers not just to the mythical seeds, but also to this fictional, drug-spiked cocktail, which Cory very much enjoys.

What's in a name?

In mythology, Persephone is also known as Kore, or "The Maiden,” so the name Cory felt like a close contemporary cousin of that moniker. I named her mother Emer for its assonance with the word Demeter. Their last name is Ansel, which is a Germanic name that has some relationship to the idea of divinity. Rolo Picazo is probably the most outlandish name in the book. He's my proxy for Hades, but his name is actually a relic of a much earlier version in the book, when it did not yet have any relationship to the myth. In that version of the book, my antagonist / romantic interest was a writer. His first name is derived from the candy, because he's seductive, a sweet-talker, if you will. I gave him the last name Picazo, which some think may be derived from the Latin "pica," or magpie, as a nod to an idea I got from my dad. My father is also a writer, but works in the realm of art history and criticism; he has a thing about magpies, who are supposed (according, apparently, to folklore alone) to be great collectors and hoarders of things, particularly bright and shiny objects. I toyed with other names for Rolo once it became clear that there was no turning back from incorporating the myth, but I kept referring to him as Rolo Picazo accidentally, so, in the end, it just felt right to leave him that way.

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

I find this a really compelling question, and not just because my main protagonist is a teenager herself. I hope that my teenaged self would feel seen and respected by my treatment of this fictional teenaged girl. But I fear she'd feel embarrassed, overexposed. Cory is a vulnerable character. She makes poor decisions, lacks some self-awareness, fumbles socially, and is written intentionally as a girl with a healthy sex drive. I imagine teenaged Rachel would probably be mortified by all that. Then again, I loved lush, highly descriptive books when I was a teen—Nabokov, Gabriel García Márquez—and, in the sections written from Cory's perspective, my book does, I think, reach or at least intend to reach a similarly luxuriant, elevated register. So, if she didn't know it was written by the woman she'd someday become, maybe she'd enjoy it. I hope so.

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

Oh, endings, for sure. But in this case, I think I revised the opening of the book more obsessively. I was clearer on how the book would end than I was on where, precisely, to enter the story.

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

I drew on my own experience to write both Cory and Emer. Personality-wise I don't know if I'm very much like either of them, but they are certainly derived from me. For instance, I was not a failure in school, as Cory is, but when I was in school I certainly blew off the odd assignment, and sometimes took for granted that the consequences of whatever minor slackage I was guilty of just would not be that bad. Nor am I the type-A executive director of an international NGO, as Emer is—I am not obsessive, as she is, or damaged beyond repair by trauma—but I do love a spreadsheet, and I do, sometimes, perseverate on things, and I've certainly experienced some unpleasant things. I think of fictional characters, in general, as, kind of, cherry-picked, finite distillations of certain traits and experiences belonging to the author. Real people are, you might say, infinite. We are always changing; a character—who is made merely out of a few thousand words, who is subject to the constraints of a constructed plot—cannot change.

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

This book was influenced by many things. The trials of Jeffrey Epstein and the Sackler Family. The #MeToo movement. The births of my son, and then, two years later, my daughter. My sobriety. The pandemic, of course. Non-literary inspirations are as infinite as we are, I think.
Visit Rachel Lyon's website.

The Page 69 Test: Self-Portrait with Boy.

My Book, The Movie: Self-Portrait with Boy.

The Page 69 Test: Fruit of the Dead.

--Marshal Zeringue

Sunday, March 10, 2024

Melanie Maure

Melanie Maure holds a Master’s in Counselling Psychology and lives in central British Columbia. She is second generation Irish and spends a great deal of time in Ireland, which is an enduring source of inspiration for her work.

Sisters of Belfast is Maure's debut novel.

My Q&A with the author:

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

The title Sisters of Belfast encompasses the story quite well. If anyone is interested in stories set in Ireland and or the complex connection between sisters, then they will know what to expect to a certain extent. This was not the original wking title, which was far more obscure—lovely but obscure. And thanks to my brilliant editor, who knows the world of books and the importance of a title, especially for a debut novel, we came up with Sisters of Belfast to draw the reader in. Perhaps the original title will work for a second or third book!

What's in a name?

I adore the lyrical sound of an Irish name. Aelish was initially Aoife, but I knew from my experience as a reader that a tricky name can cause a reader to stumble, disrupting the flow if they are unfamiliar with the pronunciation. Aelish, like her name, is a subtle yet complex character. She is soft and still holds an internal power. Looking back now, I cannot see her with any other name. Izzy, on the other hand, is straightforward with sharper edges. And so the sound of the name suited her. Choosing names is the most fun part for me as a writer, and it is how I meet them and form them in my mind. I’m not sure if other authors are this obsessed with the names, but I certainly am. It is where I begin.

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

As a diehard Stephen King fan, I know my teenage self would be surprised. And she would probably have something snarky to say about the book’s exploration of spirituality, seeing as I thought I had it all figured out at that age. I was a know-it-all little punk who wanted to be as far away from her mother’s religious beliefs as possible. Hmm? Sounds like Isabel.

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

Endings are more difficult as I love a book that wraps things up nicely and with respect to the story. This can be difficult to do when you have so many characters in the story. I also don’t like to feel rushed into an ending when reading. You can feel it when a writer is rushing to finish, and it can be dissatisfying. I understand the need for a great beginning to bring a reader in, and I feel that a great ending will keep them coming back for more.

While the beginnings are easier to write, they definitely get more editing and tightening. By the time I get to the end of a story, I am deeply intimate with the story and its characters, and so the beginning needs a deeper polish to reflect this depth of intimacy that has grown over several years. It is like bending a straight line into a circle and ensuring the ends match up.

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

Music is and always has been central to my life. I am one of those freaky people who can hear a song once, maybe twice, and will remember the lyrics. If I could choose any other form of written expression, it would be to write song lyrics. This pertains to my writing because I adore a song that immediately throws me into an emotional state. This is what I strive to create in my writing. I hope my readers feel deeply and remember the characters after leaving this fictional world.

Just like songs have a unique feel, I believe a great book has the same power. There are certain books I have read through the years, and although I may not be able to recall specific details, I remember well how it felt to be in the story.
Visit Melanie Maure's website.

The Page 69 Test: Sisters of Belfast.

My Book, The Movie: Sisters of Belfast.

--Marshal Zeringue