Tuesday, July 5, 2022

Shashi Bhat

Shashi Bhat’s fiction has won the Writers’ Trust / McClelland & Stewart Journey Prize and been shortlisted for a National Magazine Award and the RBC Bronwen Wallace Award for Emerging Writers. Her stories have appeared in such publications as The Threepenny Review, The Missouri Review, The Fiddlehead, The Malahat Review, The New Quarterly, subTerrain, Best Canadian Stories 2018 and 2019, and The Journey Prize Stories 24 and 30. Her debut novel, The Family Took Shape, was a finalist for the Thomas Raddall Atlantic Fiction Award. Bhat holds an MFA in fiction from the Johns Hopkins University. She lives in New Westminster, BC, where she is the editor-in-chief of EVENT magazine and teaches creative writing at Douglas College.

Bhat's new novel is The Most Precious Substance on Earth.

My Q&A with the author:

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

The Most Precious Substance on Earth refers to a moment in the book when the main character's high school band conductor tells them that platinum is the most precious substance on earth. (Their band is called the Platinum Band.) It turns out this statement is false—the most precious substance is either diamonds, rhino horns, or meth. So it’s a bit of a bait-and-switch, which is a pattern that occurs throughout the book. Symbolically, what I had in mind was that the most precious substance is whatever is lost when a girl comes of age—a mix of innocence and hope and confidence and the beliefs that we hold in girlhood.

Very early on, my agent suggested changing the title to Mute, which is one of the chapter titles and is a clear nod to one of the book’s key themes: the ways in which women are conditioned to be silent. My main character, Nina, is a person who often wants to speak and has something to say but just can’t make herself say it. I was attached to my original (and current) title though. I liked the obliqueness of it, and I’m a bit of a sucker for “lovely” sounding titles.

What's in a name?

The name Nina means “little girl,” which makes sense given the book’s subject matter. The narrator has a traumatic experience early in the narrative, when she is really only a little girl herself. But I chose it for more practical reasons—it’s not too long; it doesn’t draw too much attention to itself. It’s also the kind of name a South Asian parent might have given their child after immigrating to North America in the ‘70s or ‘80s, because it’s not conspicuously “ethnic” and eases assimilation.

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

Pretty damn surprised. My novel is set in high school, and though the plot and characters are not taken from real life, details sometimes are. For example, Nina’s high school band wears a distinctive forest green band sweater with a white treble clef embroidered on the right breast—exactly like the one I wore in high school. There’s a reference to a “long, low, mud-coloured radiator at the front of the school where the cool kids sat in a stylish row”—exactly like the radiator in my high school.

I think my teenage self would be surprised at the familiar details combined with an unfamiliar story; I wonder if she would think the jokes are funny, given that so many of them are about the world she lived in and the culture she consumed. I am confident that she would like this book, though.

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

My beginnings tend to change more; I just write something to get started, and then usually the real beginning turns up elsewhere in the first draft.

I love writing endings, especially short-story endings, because I think they hold the greatest potential for emotional power. One of my favourite pieces of writing advice, from one of my college professors, is to always be thinking about what the reader is feeling in “the white,” i.e. the white space after the story ends. I love a gut-punch ending, an open ending, a lingering ending, a devastating ending, an Amy Hempel “In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson Is Buried” ending. Since this book is structured as a novel-in-stories, there are many such opportunities here. I don’t know that writing endings is easier, but I feel most driven to get them right.

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

Music was a big part of my life when I was younger. I played the flute and piano and also sang for many years, though I’m very rusty now. I think this has affected both the shape and sound of my prose; I read aloud and edit sentences for rhythm, or I write long sentences to create a feeling of crescendo. The narrative arc feels very musical to me, especially the compressed version we find in the short story, where we see that escalation and retreat so clearly. In this book, Nina is quite musically inclined, so I was able to incorporate descriptions of actual music as well.

Incidentally, my publisher recently had me make a playlist as bonus reading guide material for this book, which was a delightful experience. There’s ‘90s alternative rock, Canadian classics, concert band music—my high school self would’ve loved that playlist.
Visit Shashi Bhat's website.

The Page 69 Test: The Most Precious Substance on Earth.

--Marshal Zeringue

Sunday, July 3, 2022

David Santos Donaldson

photo credit: Billy Bustamante
David Santos Donaldson was raised in Nassau, Bahamas, and has lived in India, Spain, and the United States. He attended Wesleyan University and the Drama Division of the Juilliard School, and his plays have been commissioned by the Public Theater. He was a finalist for the Urban Stages Emerging Playwright Award. His writing has appeared in Electric Lit, Literary Hub, and The Rumpus. Donaldson is currently a practicing psychotherapist and divides his time between Brooklyn, New York, and Seville, Spain. Greenland 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 Greenland is purposefully somewhat mysterious—it doesn’t tell you what the book is about in any obvious way. You’d never expect it’s a novel about a young queer Black writer holed up in his basement writing a novel about E.M. Forster’s secret real-life love affair with the Black Egyptian tram conductor, Mohammed el Adl. But as you read on, the title slowly begins to make sense. Eventually the narrator/protagonist, Kip Starling, ends up in Greenland itself, where he hopes to find his true voice in the icy wilderness. For me, the title Greenland has a couple of symbolic references. In the visual sense, Greenland is a land of whiteness—more than 90% of the county is covered with snow and ice; and my narrator is grappling with finding himself amidst a world of Whiteness. He is also socially, politically and artistically finding his own voice on the blank page—which appears to be a neutral thing, but that is only because whiteness is assumed to be neutral. I’m also making a literary reference (almost an inside joke, really), nodding to the work of Graham Greene. Literary scholars have nicknamed his oeuvre “Greeneland.” Greene’s work deals with British colonialism and its spiritual and moral consequences. These are the very themes explored in my novel too.

What's in a name?

Kip is short for Kipling. My narrator was named after his father’s favorite writer, the staunch British colonialist, Rudyard Kipling. So the weight of colonial history is placed on him from birth. He struggles to manage this inheritance throughout the novel. His last name, Starling, is meant to remind us of the black bird with its strange and grating cry. Kip is like a caged bird for the first part of the novel—locked away in his basement study where he’s boarded himself in, nailing the door shut, in a dramatic fashion that some have compared to being like an “Edgar Allan Poe madman.” Symbolically, as a Black queer man in the United States, Kip is also caged in, unable to be fly freely due to the confines of racism and homophobia. At one point Kip compares himself to the bird in Paul Laurence Dunbar’s poem “Sympathy,” from which Maya Angelou took the title of her book, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. The symbol of the bird also figures prominently in another way—as a path to spiritual freedom. Even the book’s cover captures that, in Devan Shimoyama’s beautiful artwork: a queer Black interpretation of the classical paintings of the myth of the abduction of Ganymede. Zeus appears in the form of a giant bird and sweeps away the beautiful young man. I intended all of these references with the name of Kip Starling. And I also just like how the name sounds—kind of snappy.

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

Not only would my teenage self be surprised by the style and voice of this novel, but even me of a few years ago would be surprised. I never liked writing in first person, let alone things that seemed autobiographical in tone. This novel is quite meta but it’s still fiction. Yet, it reads like autofiction and that was on purpose. I embraced the play with reality and fiction. What is real versus not real. I think this question is more and more something we grapple with in our world. So many of our interactions are virtual. Reality TV stars become presidents of the “free world.” We are even now presented with the idea of “alternative truths.” It’s crazy. And yet, in another way, this questioning of reality gets to the core of some of the most ancient spiritual and philosophical teachings—especially from the mystic traditions. They all say our daily waking life is really an illusion, like a dream; and the truth is the deeper “reality” of dreams. Paradoxical. But I love engaging with this idea in the very form and style of the book. Writing is usually strongest when style and content are in accord. So, this novel’s meta qualities demanded a form that was new to me. I’m still surprised it worked!

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

I find endings a lot harder than beginnings. E.M. Forster, in Aspects of the Novel, says that a love story can either end in two ways: either the couple lives happily ever after, or one or both of the lovers die. Endings are hard for me because a story can’t just drop off, you need some sense of closure—even if there’ll be a sequel. And real life rarely has such neat closures as novels seem to require. In Greenland, I knew I wanted to end with something satisfying in terms of Kip’s search for his own voice amidst Whiteness, but I wasn’t sure how that could happen, or if it would come off as too contrived and pat. In the end, I think I organically found a resolution that is both realistic and also gives a sense of closure—or rather, a sense of Kip being able to move on with a fuller more empowered sense of himself. But I tried not to artificially tie ends up. And, of course, there is a death. One reviewer called it something like “the most unhappy happy ending—or perhaps the reverse.” That sounds about right to me. But once I have a good ending, I then go back and rewrite the beginning many times over, to make sure all the seeds are planted up front, so the ending feels inevitable when you look back.

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

Well, I get this question a lot because this book reads very much like an autobiographical novel—and that’s my fault; I did it on purpose. I’ve been tricky in that I set things up from the beginning so that Kip is almost identical to me: Black, queer writer in Brooklyn, British-educated, writing a novel about E.M Forster real-life relationship Mohammed el Adl. As I said before, I like pointing to the fine lines between fact and fiction. I want the reader to think this is kind of a whacky fiction, but then question, “Is it also real?” Because it’s both. As the novel progresses Kip becomes his own person, not like me at all. However, there is still no experience Kip has, that does not also reflect some of my own emotional truth. But the same is true for all of the characters in the book—even the ones who share none of my obvious markers of identity.

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

I’m so glad you asked this question because the truth is, some of my strongest influences are not other novelists but filmmakers and playwrights. The works of Satyajit Ray, Vittorio De Sica and Pedro Almodóvar. Together they make up a strange mix of Neo-realism with deep humanism and then stylish melodrama. I feel like all those qualities end up in my writing. I’m also a huge fan of both Tennessee Williams and August Wilson—both of whom I often quote with the same reverence as the Bible or Shakespeare. These are some of my guiding forces as a writer.
Visit David Santos Donaldson's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Friday, July 1, 2022

Anna Hogeland

photo credit: Shelby Kinney-Lang
Anna Hogeland is a psychotherapist in private practice, with an MSW from Smith College School of Social Work and an MFA from UC Irvine. She lives in Vermont.

Hogeland's new novel is The Long Answer.

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

My hope is that the title invites readers to wonder both, what is the long answer, and what is the question being asked? We rarely feel the space to really tell our stories in their entirety; as a therapist, I have a real honor of getting to hear the long answers, by which I mean the truer, more nuanced answers, to questions as simple as, how are you? When I began trying to conceive a child, I noticed that the stories of how people made families were greatly condensed, and I was desperate to know what those years were really like for people, so I might be better prepared for how they might be for me. This book is in part an attempt to provide those long answers both for myself and for any readers who also feel the absence of them in their own lives.

What's in a name?

I spend way too much time choosing character names! And the names of streets, restaurants, towns, and so on. I change them often during the writing process. Researching names is definitely a way to procrastinate on the “real” writing, but I also feel that a character’s name needs to feel very right to me before I can really inhabit them. So, to a reader, I don’t know that my character names will seem particularly significant, but to me as the writer, they each have the sound, connotation, and region of origin that feels most suited to the character.

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

For this book, the beginning came very easily to me, at first. I wasn’t sure how it would end, because it mirrored my own life so closely, and I wasn’t sure how my own story would progress. A year into writing it, however, I knew my own arc better, and the ending presented itself without too much trouble. But I ended up working and reworking the first ten pages forever, trying to figure out the best way to organize the information, how to ease the readers into the story. Those first pages ended up being the ones I labored on the most.

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 write autofiction, I definitely share a lot in common with my protagonist (we even share the same name), but we are not the same person. She is a literary construct who lives in a book, and I am a human. I get to evolve past her, and move her around, which is an empowering feeling.

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

I am endlessly inspired by the stories I hear around me: stories from my family, friends, therapy clients, stories I overhear in restaurants. I am always looking for material that feels emotionally and relationally complicated, that moves in a way you wouldn’t expect–and if you are really listening to those around you, these stories are everywhere.
Visit Anna Hogeland's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Tuesday, June 28, 2022

John Vercher

John Vercher lives in the Philadelphia area with his wife and two sons. He has a Bachelor’s in English from the University of Pittsburgh and an MFA in Creative Writing from the Mountainview Master of Fine Arts program. He is a contributing writer for WBUR Boston’s Cognoscenti, and NPR features his essays on race, identity, and parenting. His debut novel, Three-Fifths, was named one of the best books of the year by the Chicago Tribune, CrimeReads, and Booklist. It was nominated for the Edgar, Anthony, and Strand Magazine Critics’ Awards for Best First Novel.

Vercher's new novel is After the Lights Go Out.

My Q&A with the author:

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

Speaking only regarding my own personal preferences, I’d say titles matter for both active and potential readers (as well as writers). As a writer, I love the process of coming up with a title that engages a reader’s curiosity, especially a title that doesn’t quite have its meaning revealed by the back cover copy. It’s fun to imagine the feeling of discovery when they encounter a passage or line that reveals the title’s importance to the novel. It’s fun to imagine this because it’s enjoyable for me as a reader to experience as well. It can be tempting to make the title gimmicky, so to that end I strive to keep the title relevant to the overall themes of the book and perhaps doing the work of hinting at the book’s conclusion. In the case of After the Lights Go Out, I hope I accomplished those things.

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

For me, beginnings and endings are actually easier than the middle. In the great plotter vs. pantser debate, I’m pretty firmly in the pantser camp. That said, I only sit down to write when I’ve figured out both the beginning and the end. The middle is the most challenging, but also the most enjoyable. As with the title, I enjoy the sense of discovery from putting my character in a challenging situation and revealing his character in the ways in which he works to get himself to a better place. In terms of changing one more than the other, the answer is neither. I don’t begin writing until I have the beginning and end firmly set.

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

While it’s not auto-fiction, there are certainly elements of myself not only in my protagonist, but in my other characters. Authenticity is important to me as both a reader and writer, and I feel the best way for me to be authentic on the page is to bring elements of people and places I know well. I admit that’s a longer way of saying “write what you know,” but it’s what I’ve found works best for me. I know my style well enough to know that if I wrote anything based on significant research, it would come off sounding like exactly that.

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

Music? Pictures? Movies? The news? The environment? Politics? Family? Yes to all! After the Lights Go Out was heavily influenced by music. Fighting is very rhythmic, and I wanted my sentences and paragraphs to have their own rhythm. As such, I often listened to music to infuse my sentences with a flow. I also tend to think cinematically while writing and am a huge fan of fight cinema, so there are certainly elements in this novel. I’m always intrigued by explorations of race and family as a reader. I’ve followed the advice of writing what you want to read and so those two subjects figure largely into the theme and content of After the Lights Go Out.
Visit John Vercher's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Saturday, June 25, 2022

William Martin

William Martin is the New York Times bestselling author of twelve novels, an award-winning PBS documentary, book reviews, magazine articles, and a cult-classic horror movie, too.

In novels like Back Bay, City of Dreams, The Lost Constitution, The Lincoln Letter, and Bound for Gold, he has told stories of the great and the anonymous of American history, and he’s taken readers from the deck of the Mayflower to 9/11. His work has earned him many accolades and honors, including the 2005 New England Book Award, the 2015 Samuel Eliot Morison Award, and the 2019 Robert B. Parker Award.

Martin's new novel is December ’41.

My Q&A with the author:

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

I toyed with many titles for my new thriller, in which a German assassin plans to kill Franklin Roosevelt as he lights the National Christmas Tree on December 24, 1941. But Killing Roosevelt sounded too much like other titles. Saving Roosevelt sounded too on-the-nose. And December 8, 1941, the day that the book begins, sounded too specific, especially since the book unfolds over 19 days. I almost called it 19 Days in December, but I didn't like that, and it could be any December. It could be a Christmas books. So I settled on December '41. There's not a lot of mystery in the title. It's telling you when the story is set, and since the whole month is filled with one earth-shaking event after another, a reader is likely to pick it up to see what it's all about, or what event will be the focus of this book. Then they read a about the plot, and I know I've got them.

What's in a name?

The main character is our anti-hero, the German assassin. He's a purposely non-descript individual who changes his identity four or five times in the book. His main identifying characteristic: according to a lot of the other characters, he resembles the actor Leslie Howard, best known for playing Ashley Wilkes in Gone With the Wind. His name in German is Martin Bruning, which translates to Martin Browning. Naturally, people ask me if I see something of myself in him because his first name is my last name. The answer is a resounding "No." I gave him that name because it's a good German first name, but not an obvious one like Hans or Wolfgang. It also suggests that he has a kind of single-minded intensity, like other German Martins... Martin Luther, for example. The last name? Well, for starters, I like the way "Browning" sounds. Secondarily "Browning" is the name of an American gun manufacturer, and this guy is very good with a rifle or a pistol. He'll be using a Mauser when he takes the shot, but I couldn't very well call him Martin Mauser. Again, too on-the-nose. So... Browning.

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

My teenage self wouldn't be too surprised by any of my books. Today, I write the kind of books I've always liked to read. Back then, in high school, I loved Shakespeare's History Plays, and they're historical fiction. I loved World War II adventures like Sink the Bismarck! by C.S. Forester and westerns like No Survivors by Will Henry. And in the movies, I loved stories with larger than life characters who turned out to have flaws just like the rest of us. Lawrence of Arabia, for example. And all of those elements figure today in December '41.

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

I spend more time on the beginning. You need to get the first line right. Then the first paragraph. Then the first page. I knew from the beginning that I was writing a novel that might have been seen in the movies in 1941. So I originally envisioned a newsreel spinning around the globe, showing you what was happening in all the theaters of war before settling on the main characters. Too long. Gotta get to those characters more quickly. I knew it. So did my editor. So I shortened it, and shortened it some more, and finally got to the opening I have now, which plays very nicely. As for the end, I always have an idea of the location I'll use, and in the broadest terms, the characters involved, and by the time I get there, I'm writing so quickly that it seems as if the book is writing itself.

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

At some level, all fiction writing is autobiographical. We are all drawing upon our own experiences and observations. And the fictional characters in historical fiction serve two important roles: they are foils for the historical characters and stand-ins for all the readers who've dreamed of looking a famous historical figure, like FDR, right in the eye. Beyond that, a lot of my heroes, like Kevin Cusack in December '41, have aspects of my background - Irish-American, Bostonian, would-be screenwriter, a self-sufficient guy who keeps getting involved even though he'd rather not be sticking his neck out. I don't see myself in Kevin, but my background makes him seem more alive.

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

With December '41, I relied on 40s Swing Music to get me in the mood and help me to get back there to 1941. I watched a lot of 1940s movies to capture the sensation of being in those film, because it's a sensation I want the reader to have as they read. I also listened to the dialogue so that I could recapture it. And as I wrote, I always had this question buzzing in the background: how do those events in 1941 matter to us today in our personal and political lives. So politics and the future of our democracy are never far from my thoughts as I work.
Visit William Martin's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Thursday, June 23, 2022

Caroline Woods

photo credit: Anastasia Sierra
Caroline Woods is the author of the novels Fräulein M. and The Lunar Housewife, named a most anticipated book of summer 2022 by The New York Times, Bookpage, Publishers Weekly, CrimeReads, the Today Show’s Read with Jenna community, and more.

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

The Lunar Housewife is my original title, although we toyed briefly with some others (the one that came closest was How To Spot a Communist, named for a newsreel that aired in the fifties). I love The Lunar Housewife because it does a lot of work to let the reader know that this is a historical novel (the word "housewife" does that--now we say "stay-at-home-mom") with kitschy, sci-fi elements. Its one limitation is that "The Lunar Housewife" is actually the title of the novel within the novel, the one Louise Leithauser, my protagonist, is writing, about an American woman who goes to live in a lunar colony with a Soviet man. But I think that's okay. In a metaphorical sense, Louise herself becomes a lunar housewife; she's slowly isolated, and fenced more and more into a domestic role, by the conspiracy-embroiled men around her.

What's in a name?

When Louise meets Papa Hemingway a third of the way through the novel, he comments that her name, Louise Leithauser, sounds like a girl journalist in a comic book. That's what I was going for. I wanted her to sound like a celebrity, a bit unreal; I think it fits with the space-age pulp flavor of the book.

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

I don't think my teenage self would be surprised at all. I think she'd love this book. My taste hasn't changed much over the years. I like historical fiction, but with a twist: multiple points of view, time travel, sci-fi--I need a bit of something else to really love a book. My favorite books as a teen were Sebastien Japrisot's A Very Long Engagement, a brilliant historical mystery told in nonlinear fashion, and Margaret Atwood's genre-bending The Blind Assassin.

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

I think finding the entry point at which to drop readers into the story is harder. I always knew how this book would end: Louise would find a way to get the better of the guys in her life, and their CIA handlers. But where to start? A fabulous New York party, full of debauchery and celebrity guests, seemed the way to go.

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 my main characters tend to have a lot of me in them. I'm working on getting away from that in the future.

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

Politics, for sure. I think reaching adulthood and learning, for example, what the CIA did to interfere with foreign elections, especially the 1953 overthrow of the democratically elected leader of Iran, had a significant impact on what I have wanted to write about for the last decade. It's not a coincidence that The Lunar Housewife is set in 1953; the Iran events are happening in the background and explain why it matters that the CIA also had an influence on what people were reading in America and abroad.
Visit Caroline Woods's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Saturday, June 18, 2022

Mary Anna Evans

Mary Anna Evans is an award-winning author, a writing professor, and she holds degrees in physics and engineering, a background that, as it turns out, is ideal for writing her new book, The Physicists’ Daughter. Set in WWII-era New Orleans, the book introduces Justine Byrne, whom Evans describes as “a little bit Rosie-the-Riveter and a little bit Bletchley Park codebreaker.” When Justine, the daughter of two physicists who taught her things girls weren’t expected to know in 1944, realizes that her boss isn’t telling her the truth about the work she does in her factory job, she draws on the legacy of her unconventional upbringing to keep her division running and protect her coworkers, her country, and herself from a war that is suddenly very close to home.

My Q&A with Evans:

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

The Physicists’ Daughter does a lot of heavy lifting in terms of signaling what this story is about, and it does all the work of characterizing the protagonist. Justine Byrne’s identity was shaped by her physicist parents, and that is a very consciously placed apostrophe. Both of Justine’s parents were physicists, which was an unusual state of affairs in 1944.

From the time Justine was born, they began teaching her to see the world like a physicist, logically and thoughtfully. When they die in a car accident when Justine is only 17, she is prepared to tackle the daunting task of taking care of herself in an era when this was very hard for a woman to do alone. World War II is raging, so she is able to find a good job at a munitions factory doing Rosie-the-Riveter-style work…but it’s clear to someone with Justine’s background that her boss is lying to her about the work she’s doing. It’s also clear to her that someone is trying to sabotage that work.

Nobody expects Justine to have the knowledge and skills that she does, so she is the perfect person to take on the task of uncovering a spy and a saboteur. As I like to say, the Nazis are no match for the physicists’ daughter.

What's in a name?

In a historical novel, it’s important to give characters names that are appropriate for the time period, but it’s also important that the protagonists’ names not be too odd-sounding for modern readers. Thus, an important secondary character in this book is named Mavis, but I judged that modern readers would not imagine a young woman with this name.

One way to deal with this issue is to use timeless names, so an important character is named Charles, a name that’s less used now but is not totally out-of-step with our time. Georgette seemed to be a time-period-appropriate name for an American girl of French descent who was probably named for her father. For those who know their fashion, Georgette also evokes a lovely, soft, dressy fabric often used in the mid-twentieth century.

Justine’s name also has French origins that suit the New Orleans setting, and it evokes justice. Crime fiction, for me, is a constant exploration of justice, and Justine is herself driven to seek justice. Also, I have always sympathized with the poorly treated character of Justine in Frankenstein, so there’s a Mary Shelley allusion wrapped up in my protagonist’s name.

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

I’ve always loved historical novels and science, and I’ve always loved New Orleans. I was still in my teens when I chose a physics major for my bachelor’s degree. Considering those things, I’d say that this was the book I’ve lived my whole life to write, so teenaged me wouldn’t be surprised by it at all.

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

I don’t want to be difficult, but the middles of books are the hardest part for me to write. Once I have the premise of the book clear in my head, the opening chapters write themselves. If they didn’t, it would be a sign that this might not be the book for me.

The middle is more of an exploration. I know where I’m going, but it's not always easy to see how to get there, while still keeping the narrative compelling enough to draw the reader through to the exciting climax.

The ending, like the beginning, writes itself. It’s as if I’ve spent a couple of hundred pages setting up the dominos and, when the time comes, I push the first one over. It’s my theory that if writing the ending isn’t easy, then the middle of the book hasn’t done what it needs to do. That means I need to go back and work on it some more before I write 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?

Justine has my logical approach to life and my devotion to the people I love. We both like to look at the world and try to figure out what makes it tick.

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

For this book, I must credit mid-twentieth-century mathematicians and scientists—all of them, certainly, but especially the women. I’m not sure it’s possible for us to understand the obstacles that stood in the way of women like Marie Curie, her daughter Irène Joliot-Curie, and Lise Meitner. After Justine’s time, we saw more women of color in math, engineering, and science, like Chien Shiung-Wu, Maryam Mirzakhani, and Mae Jemison, and they faced incredible obstacles.

It was a momentous century. Women were often shunted aside, but they were there. They persevered.
Learn more about the author and her work at Mary Anna Evans's website.

The Page 69 Test: Floodgates.

The Page 69 Test: Strangers.

My Book, The Movie: Strangers.

The Page 69 Test: Plunder.

The Page 69 Test: Rituals.

--Marshal Zeringue

Wednesday, June 15, 2022

Jonathan Vatner

Jonathan Vatner is the author of The Bridesmaids Union (2022) and Carnegie Hill (2019). His fiction has earned praise from People, Town & CountryThe New York Post, and the Los Angeles Review of Books. He is the managing editor of Hue, the magazine of the Fashion Institute of Technology and teaches fiction writing at New York University and the Hudson Valley Writers Center.

My Q&A with Vatner:

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

The title, The Bridesmaids Union, refers to the secret Facebook group of disgruntled bridesmaids at the heart of the story. I came up with it in the same way my protagonist does: While I was puzzling over what it should be called, I got an email from a union I belong to. As the title of the novel, I thought it was intriguing and relatively self-explanatory. The title of my last novel changed twice, so I was pleased that no one suggested a different name this time.

What's in a name?

I wanted my protagonist and her two sisters to be named after flowers—it’s sweet and a little funny—so I picked Iris, Jasmine, and Rose. Iris is my favorite flower, so I gave that name to my protagonist. Initially their last name was Sullivan—I saw them as Irish-American—but Jazmine Sullivan is a famous singer/songwriter. To avoid any unintended associations, I changed it to Hagarty.

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

As a teenager, I read mostly fantasy novels by authors like Terry Brooks, David Eddings, and Piers Anthony. So I think young Jon would be pretty surprised to see that we wrote a rom-com together!

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

The beginning is easy. When I’m done with the book, I write a new first chapter. Originally I had started the novel in medias res—the Bridesmaids Union was already in existence. But my editor thought it would be good to walk readers through why Iris created it, so I wrote a disastrous wedding scene, the straw that broke the camel’s back.

For me, the ending is always harder. I honestly didn’t know what would or should happen, even after I finished the first draft—and the second. I’d known from the beginning what the climax would be, but I didn’t know how it would resolve. I was trying to figure out what was more important, familial or romantic love. And then I realized that neither Iris nor I was thinking about it in the right way.

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

As a rule I don’t write about myself. I find other people so much more interesting! But there’s something of me in every character, usually in their actions and choices rather than the surface details of their lives. There was a lot of me in Iris, in terms of her being afraid to speak her mind and feeling like she couldn’t say no to requests for her time. As I was writing the book, I was working on being stronger and less ashamed. Maybe one day I’ll feel confident in writing a novel about myself.

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

I love news stories about weddings gone wrong, which is one reason writing The Bridesmaids Union was so much fun. I also love “Am I the Asshole?” on Reddit, for the same reason I love fiction: it helps me think through my moral beliefs. I burned out on political news after the 2016 presidential election—my appetite for reading anything remotely partisan completely went away—but the Trump/Clinton divide figures prominently in the book. Iris is liberal, as am I, but the book doesn’t take a side.
Visit Jonathan Vatner's website.

The Page 69 Test: The Bridesmaids Union.

--Marshal Zeringue

Saturday, June 11, 2022

Lauren Belfer

Lauren Belfer is the New York Times bestselling author of And After the Fire, winner of the National Jewish Book Award; A Fierce Radiance, a Washington Post and NPR Best Mystery of the Year; and City of Light, a New York Times Notable Book, a Library Journal best book, a Main Selection of the Book-of-the-Month Club, and an international bestseller. Belfer attended Swarthmore College and has an MFA from Columbia University. She lives in New York City.

photo credit: Sigrid Estrada
Belfer's new novel is Ashton Hall.

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

I tried out many different titles for Ashton Hall, dozens and dozens, filling page after page, over several years … poetic titles, metaphoric titles, quotes from Shakespeare and quotes from the Bible. I’m too embarrassed to share any of these many titles! Then one day I realized that the simplest title, the one I’d used from the beginning as a working title for the file on my computer, was actually the best one: Ashton Hall. Ultimately, the house itself is what unites every aspect of the story … the house, its history, the beauty of its gardens, and the sorrow and happiness that have been experienced there.

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

In some ways, my teenage self wouldn’t be at all surprised by this novel – my teenage self was even more obsessed with everything British than I am!

However, my grown-up self has actually lived in Britain and experienced some of the often-comical ways in which daily life in England differs from the expectations of many Americans. England as seen through the eyes of Americans is among the themes of Ashton Hall.

My teenage self, however, was willful and stubborn, and she wouldn’t want to hear about the realities of living in Britain. If she ever had the chance to live in Britain, she wouldn’t even see the peculiarities. She would live the dream, and more power to her!

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

I always know the beginning and the end of a book before I begin writing. These are my two fixed points. I also have a rough outline of the entire story, but usually I put the outline away and let the details evolve freely as I move forward. I return over and over to the beginning of a novel, trying to enrich it and make it more subtle and intriguing. Once the story is established, I also return to the beginning to plant seeds for what will come later in the story.

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

Everything I see and experience in the course of a day influences my writing. In fact, I know the writing is going well when, say, I spot a magnificent Golden Retriever (my favorite breed) on the street and immediately I think – character x in the novel would adore that dog, and perhaps I can weave the dog into the story. Or maybe I hear an old song playing while I’m in the supermarket, and I wonder if one of my characters would be moved by that song. If the answer is yes, then the next day at my desk, I’ll have the character hear the song when she herself is at the supermarket, or in a restaurant, and she might reflect on the last time she heard it, so that the song sparks memories for her. In this way, everything I happen upon in the world enriches the novel.
Visit Lauren Belfer's website.

The Page 69 Test: A Fierce Radiance.

My Book, The Movie: A Fierce Radiance.

The Page 69 Test: And After the Fire.

My Book, The Movie: And After the Fire.

--Marshal Zeringue

Thursday, June 9, 2022

Samit Basu

Samit Basu is an Indian novelist. He's published several novels in a range of speculative genres, all critically acclaimed and bestselling in India, beginning with The Simoqin Prophecies (2003). His novel The City Inside was short-listed (as Chosen Spirits) for the JCB Prize, India’s biggest literary award. He also works as a director-screenwriter, a comics writer, and a columnist. He lives in Delhi, Mumbai, and on the internet.

My Q&A with Basu:

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

I think The City Inside does a fair bit of work: even without any context readers would know it’s an urban setting and expect some sort of exploration, or interiority, or mystery. The information that it’s a near-future sci-fi novel set in Delhi, India, with a focus on internal change as its protagonists try to cope with multiple-choice 21st-century crises that affect everyone in the world, with an additional Indian layer of chaos? Not so much.

Two years ago, the Indian edition was called Chosen Spirits - that title was from an old Urdu poem about Delhi, but when I sold the book to Tordotcom in the US, my agent suggested the new title - the older title sounded too spiritual for a book that would be read as dystopian/cyberpunk, and I agreed. It’s also a book about power, privilege, belonging, popularity and conformity - so I thought The City Inside totally worked.

What's in a name?

The City Inside aims to be a very small exaggeration of present-day India, so everything about the technology, locations, professions and people - plus everything else in the worldbuild and plot are very present-reality based. So every name has cultural/political/social significance, but I don’t think knowledge of those significances really make a difference to the reading experience - just as I can experience stories set in New York or Tokyo and understand them even if I don’t get every local reference. I do think that for some stories, I get a sense that they’re very specifically embedded in their setting and somehow that makes them more universal.

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

Very! The City Inside isn’t the book I wanted to write as a teenager. Most of my other books are! But this one is something that is a very specific response to the last decade, and worrying about the next one, and my teenage self, reader or otherwise, couldn’t have imagined either of those. I do think my teenage self would have been more surprised by the real world today than the imaginary future one in the book.

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

I find beginnings harder and I rewrite them after I’ve got a sense of the voice, the characters, and everything else about each book. The City Inside was particularly difficult - most of my other books are plottier, pacier and more event-driven, and so the constraints on the beginning are clearer. But for this one, it was more about capturing emotions, feelings, atmospheres, characters, while also providing worldbuild, which was particularly challenging. I don’t usually throw away the first 7000 words entirely and redo them from scratch, but this book needed it.

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, definitely. There’s a lot of me in most of the characters, and the rest is from people I’ve actually met. This isn’t always the case at all - most of the protagonists of my other books are worlds apart.

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

I’ve worked in film, shows, comics, print and online journalism and theatre - so all of these. I’ve almost worked in video games too. All these media, and then of course there’s real life, and non-fiction in various media. And the internet. My writing is influenced by everything I experience, and most of that isn’t literary.
Visit Samit Basu's website.

--Marshal Zeringue