Wednesday, December 1, 2021

Gail Schimmel

Gail Schimmel is an admitted attorney in South Africa, with four degrees to her name. She is currently the CEO of the Advertising Regulatory Board―the South African self-regulatory body for the content of advertising. She has published five novels in South Africa, with The Aftermath as her international debut. She lives in Johannesburg with her husband, two children, an ancient cat and two very naughty dogs.

Schimmel's new novel is Never Tell A Lie.

My Q&A with the author:

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

Never Tell A Lie is undoubtedly a book about lies, and the harm that can occur when you’re known to be a liar. I think it is great as a title in that it sets out one of the major themes of the story. But – it wasn’t my working title, it was chosen by the publisher. My title for the book was The Friendship, because for me this book (and really, most of my writing) is about the complexity of women’s friendships – how important they are, and how dangerous they are when they go bad. I suppose, in an ideal world, the title should be some sort of mash-up of the two ideas. But “Never Tell A Lie in Your Friendship” just isn’t that catchy...

What's in a name?

Names are such a thing for me! Firstly, I need the character to have a name that fits them. If I name them wrong, then they might not work. A lot of people have asked me about the name “Django” in this book – the main character’s son. People think I had some great symbolism in mind. Nope – that was just the name that character wanted, and he wasn’t interested in debating. My worst is when I have to change a name at edit stage (like if two main characters have a name starting with the same letter). I have also been known, in a first draft, to name 3 characters “Sue”, and to change a character from “Molly” to “Maggie” half way through.

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

Whenever I feel down and like I am not where I want to be, I ask myself what teenage Gail would think of what 47-year-old Gail has achieved. And, to be honest, teenage Gail would be thrilled! I think she would love this novel, although it is probably a bit less literary than she would have expected. Because teenagers are awfully serious, and grown-ups are not.

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

I love both beginnings and endings – it’s the middle that is a murky pile of confusion and angst!

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

My main characters always have a little bit of me. I honestly believe that that is almost impossible to avoid, as hard as one might try. But none of them actually are me, and none of the other characters are ever completely based on anyone I know.

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

Relationships. My books are all about relationships, and the “what if” of life, and my inspiration often comes directly from a moment in my life or a conversation. Also, I seem to have an enormous amount of ideas in the bath or shower – so it seems that washing is a big inspiration for me!
Visit Gail Schimmel's website and follow her on Facebook and Twitter.

--Marshal Zeringue

Wednesday, November 24, 2021

Melissa Payne

Melissa Payne is the bestselling, award-winning author of The Secrets of Lost Stones and Memories in the Drift. For as long as she can remember, Payne has been telling stories in one form or another—from high school newspaper articles to a graduate thesis to blogging about marriage and motherhood. But she first learned the real importance of storytelling when she worked for a residential and day treatment center for abused and neglected children. There she wrote speeches and letters to raise funds for the children. The truth in those stories was piercing and painful and written to invoke a call to action in the reader: to give, to help, to make a difference. Payne’s love of writing and sharing stories in all forms has endured. She lives in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains with her husband and three children, a friendly mutt, a very loud cat, and the occasional bear.

Payne's new novel is The Night of Many Endings.

My Q&A with the author:

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

I put the majority of my creative energy into creating, developing and writing the story. Finding the kind of title that hooks potential new readers and also accurately reflects the nuances of the story is an art form in and of itself. So I love working with a team when brainstorming a new title.

In my new book, The Night of Many Endings, the story centers around five characters and how a night stuck in a library changes them in one way or another. It’s about perceptions and stereotypes and how we can never really know someone until we learn their story. While in many ways this story is about new beginnings, it’s also about letting go of the past and allowing others in and to do that sometimes we must let our story end in order for a new one to begin.

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

My teenage self wouldn’t be completely surprised that I wrote a book, after all, I read every chance I got and even attempted writing a novel of my own in high school. It was dreadful, by the way, a wanna-be romance heavy on the descriptive phrases and light on substance. However, I’ve always loved stories that are rich in characters, stories that give readers a glimpse into a character’s imperfect world, stories that teach me something new and let me see the world in a different way. So in this sense, I don’t think my teenage self would be surprised that I choose to write character-driven fiction, or that I love to make the setting (mountains, small town, snow storm) as much of a character as the people. I think my teenage would be happy I found a use for all those descriptive phrases.

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

I usually always know my ending before I start writing, but in The Night of Many Endings, I struggled to get the ending just right. Hmm, perhaps that’s why this title works so well.

I’m used to rewriting my opening pages, usually because I’m just getting to know the characters and the opening pages need to be tweaked to show the depth they developed as my writing progressed.

In this book, I also had to rewrite the ending a few times to get Nora’s just right. I knew she struggled with her brother’s addiction, that she carried her guilt like an albatross around her neck, determined to find him, to fix him, to keep him sober. What I hadn’t yet learned about Nora was how she would overcome a change in direction, a new purpose for herself if it didn’t contain her brother. Getting Nora’s ending just right took me a few attempts because I think it was hard for me to understand how she would let go and what it meant for her character. But I’m very happy with Nora’s ending now and I think she is too.

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

Most of my characters are pieces of people I’ve observed or known. But as I don’t want to read only about people like me, I also don’t want to write only about people I know.

I love the challenge of developing a character, understanding their backgrounds, their experiences, their perceptions of the world that brought them to page one. In The Night of Many Endings, I had a character who I didn’t always like, or agree with and I definitely didn’t care for some of her thoughts or the way she spoke to other characters. My challenge with her was to understand why she thought or said the things she did. Once I understood her motivations, then I could see how the night with strangers would challenge her worldview and in turn, influence her own shift.

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

Where I live, snow is a major part of our lives. So developing the storm that strands five strangers in a library in The Night of Many Endings wasn’t too difficult as I’ve lived through a similar blizzard.

In that one, seven feet of powder fell onto our small town. We lost power and had no water, except what we could melt from snow, with only an old weather radio to listen for updates on the storm. When the storm ended, we couldn’t locate our cars. After digging for several hours, I finally found the windshield of one of them. The amount of snow was staggering. We were stranded at our home for seven days before we were able to track down a front-end loader to help dig us out.

The experience of that storm heavily influenced my writing in this book, and especially helped me to describe the cold and dark since those memories persist to this day.
Visit Melissa Payne's website.

Coffee with a Canine: Melissa Payne & Max.

My Book, The Movie: The Secrets of Lost Stones.

The Page 69 Test: The Secrets of Lost Stones.

--Marshal Zeringue

Friday, November 19, 2021

Joy Castro

Joy Castro is the award-winning author of the post-Katrina New Orleans literary thrillers Hell or High Water, which received the Nebraska Book Award, and Nearer Home, and the story collection How Winter Began, as well as the memoir The Truth Book and the essay collection Island of Bones, which received the International Latino Book Award. She is also editor of the anthology Family Trouble and served as the guest judge of CRAFT‘s first Creative Nonfiction Award. Her work has appeared in the New York Times Magazine, Senses of Cinema, Salon, Ploughshares, Gulf Coast, Brevity, Afro-Hispanic Review, and elsewhere. A former Writer-in-Residence at Vanderbilt University, she is currently the Willa Cather Professor of English and Ethnic Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

Castro's new novel is Flight Risk.

My Q&A with the author:

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

A good deal, I think. Flight Risk implies someone on the verge of leaving, someone a bit unstable, someone unsatisfied with current conditions, someone who cannot be predicted, who cannot be controlled by the promise of what's on offer--and Isabel Morales, my heroine, is all these things. Flight Risk also connotes someone valuable--someone that a company, for example, wishes to retain, but may not be able to. (Will their counteroffer be sufficient?) In Isabel's case, this has everything to do with the life she's currently living and the wealthy husband who doesn't want to lose her--but who knows very little about her past.

What's in a name?

Isabel's surname, Morales, suggests not only her Latinx heritage but also the idea of morals, ethics, choices between good and evil, and these choices have plagued her whole life. She questions her own morals and those of others.

The name of her old-money Chicago husband, Jon Turner, suggests a certain WASPish American solidity--but a "turner" he indeed is. He's willing to change--and the stability he exudes might not tell his whole story.

Nic Folio, a dashing character Isabel re-meets in the latter half of the book (after not having seen him for decades), is also meaningfully named. His name pegs him as Italian American, like many of the mining families in West Virginia are, but Folio, as any scholar of Shakespeare can attest, is also an important term in book history and print culture, and Nic Folio certainly poses a reading challenge to Isabel. Is he who he seems to be? Like a Jane Austen heroine faced with a suitor who seems too good to be true, Isabel needs to read him accurately to control her own fate.

Even the name of the little diner Isabel repeatedly visits, The Cracked Egg, in the rural West Virginia town to which she returns, is meaningfully named, given the book's exploration of fertility choices in an era of climate crisis.

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

Endings! Much harder. Unless they come to me as a gift--which happens occasionally but was most definitely not the case with Flight Risk--then I draft and redraft them a dozen times at least. I want to bring all the threads in the novel to satisfying closure without its feeling too tidy. I like it when endings snap into place, but not too neatly. Believably, but not predictably. I love a good happy ending, too, but it has to be a happy ending that's really been earned, and sometimes happy endings don't work at all for the material. They ring false. So you really have to honor all the arcs the story has set up.

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

Yes, a bit. What I do is select particular strains of my own character and then amplify them. For example, Isabel has had some of my experiences but has made different choices, and she's very creative, but she's a visual artist--a sculptor--rather than a writer. She feels lonely and lost and fragile, as I sometimes do.

Her husband Jon has my earnest do-gooder qualities along with my easily hurt pride and aloofness--my tendency to withdraw when I am hurt and go off to lick my wounds alone--while her sister-in-law Sophia embodies all my playful flightiness and whatever elegance I might possess. I poured my self-pitying bitterness and resentment into Aunt Della--thank goodness readers don't have to spend much time with her--and Isabel's mother-in-law Helene is a status-conscious elitist with a suspicion of the poor, an attitude of which I've sometimes been on the receiving end, so I know its sting.

I think we all contain multitudes, as Walt Whitman famously wrote, so I just draw on the various qualities I observe in myself and others, whittle them down to their essence, and then push them to extremes, so the characters become sharply defined and thus memorable and vivid without feeling like caricatures.

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

I watch a lot of film and actually write a little film criticism on the side, so I think my writing might be influenced by various cinematic styles, like film noir, for example, of which I'm a great fan. I often see and hear the scenes of my books in my mind very vividly and then write them down, as if I were simply transcribing what I'm watching. Pop music has influenced me over the years, especially that of singer-songwriters who use a lot of storytelling in their work, like Natalie Merchant, Dar Williams, Billy Bragg, and Peter Mulvey. I love the way they can cover so much ground very intensely within just a few minutes.
Visit Joy Castro’s website and Twitter perch.

The Page 69 Test: Hell or High Water.

The Page 69 Test: Nearer Home.

--Marshal Zeringue

Tuesday, November 16, 2021

Cat Rambo

Photo Credit: On Focus Photography
Cat Rambo (they/them) is an American fantasy and science fiction writer whose work has appeared in, among others, Asimov's, Weird Tales, Chiaroscuro, Talebones, and Strange Horizons. A graduate of the Johns Hopkins Writing Seminars, where they studied with John Barth and Steve Dixon, they also attended the Clarion West Writers' Workshop. Their most recent works include And The Last Trump Shall Sound (co-written with James Morrow and Harry Turtledove), the fantasy novel Exiles of Tabat, and the space opera You Sexy Thing. They live, write, and teach somewhere in the Pacific Northwest. “Cat Rambo” is their real name.

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

The title first emerged as what we call a “working title,” a placeholder. It’s the name of the ship the crew steals, an intelligent ship that isn’t sure it wants to be stolen. But over the course of time, it became the title in my head. Tor marketing, my editor, and I went back and forth about that a bit -- they’d propose something that I wouldn’t like, and I’d send back my suggestions, like Ancillary Restaurant and Food Cart at the End of the Universe, neither of which flew for some reason. Finally they just told me Marketing had decided to “lean into it.” I’m still unsure what that means, but for me, it does convey the fast and funny flavor of the book.

What's in a name?

Character names (and place and technology and all names, really) for me are often fluid while I’m writing, placeholders that may end up changing radically over the course of time. And I would have thought that would hold true in this book as well, but instead they each wandered onstage as I pantsed my way along, and each came with a name that didn’t change when it came time for rewriting and polishing. The only names that did change were the two were-lion twins, who were originally Biff and Baff, and the change wasn’t my idea but my agent’s.

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

My teenage reader self loved novels with casts of characters voyaging into strange new worlds, so I’m pretty sure they’d be delighted and maybe even a little smug, rather than surprised. I’ve always said that I would be a writer, since the age of 12 or so, and while I don’t know that they could have predicted the long and sometimes weird, sideways journey that it’s taken to get there, I know they always had it in their head that it would happen. I went back to the town I grew up in a few years ago, and a friend said, “You did what you always said you would,” and that was surprisingly satisfying.

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

I find endings much harder, but I change the beginnings a lot more. When I first start writing, I have no idea where I’m going, as a rule, and so I’m just along for the ride, flailing around until I finally hit my stride. Then I can work steadily until it’s time for the ending, and that’s something that requires holding a lot in your head in order to deliver on all the promises that you made along the way. When I first sat down to write this book, I found myself with two people arguing about an eggplant. After the first chapter or so I had a very rough idea where I was going, and that path became clearer as I kept writing. But that beginning I sat down to write didn't end up being the first chapter; instead I led with what I thought was a much grabbier piece.

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

It’s hard to write a character that doesn’t mirror yourself to a certain extent, because you are writing your own experiences, and it takes empathy and imagination to get past that. I think each character definitely represents some characteristic I recognize in myself - Niko is just trying to take care of people and do the best she can; Skidoo is full of love, sometimes to the point of naivete; Atlanta is trying to figure out where she fits in the universe; Gio is wryly cynical, sometimes too much so. Walt Whitman said “I contain multitudes,” and I think that’s true for every writer.

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

Volunteer work, which has been a lifelong value, has shaped so much of what I think and know about people and human nature. Most recently I’ve been working with SFWA, the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, in 2015-2019 as a board member and more recently as a volunteer with several of its programs. I think a willingness to say, “Well, someone’s got to do this work, I might as well,” is a force that keeps the world moving along in an upward direction, perhaps more so than writing, though one could argue that either way, I suppose.
Visit Cat Rambo's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Thursday, November 11, 2021

Lori Rader-Day

Lori Rader-Day is the Edgar Award-nominated and Anthony and Mary Higgins Clark Award-winning author of The Black Hour, Little Pretty Things, The Day I Died, Under a Dark Sky, and The Lucky One.

Her new novel, Death at Greenway, is based on the true events of a group of children evacuated out of the Blitz during World War II—to Agatha Christie's holiday estate, Greenway House.

My Q&A with Rader-Day:

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

So much work! I had a slightly different title for it, but my publisher suggested this one because it was shorter. It also sounds like an Agatha Christie novel, doesn’t it? It’s not, but because Death at Greenway is set at Agatha Christie’s house and features cameos from the author, it makes sense to strike that tone. The word Greenway absolutely had to be in the title; that was advice given to me by Sophie Hannah, who writes the Poirot continuation novels for the Christie estate.

What's in a name?

There are two Bridget Kellys in Death at Greenway. When the second Bridget arrives on the scene, the first Bridget and our protagonist allows the group at Greenway to call her Bridey, as her mother and siblings had, But then that other Bridget claims “Gigi” as her nickname and Bridey is stuck being called a baby name, and one that reminds her only of loss.

Why two Bridgets? Well, our favorite author Agatha Christie appreciated a little identity swapping in her stories, and so do I. Twins or doubling is a Gothic literature staple, though the idea of there being two Bridgets didn’t come from any real concept. The story was born with Agatha Christie’s reference in her autobiography to “two hospital nurses” chaperoning the Greenway evacuees. That facelessness gave me a chance to wedge fiction into the story, but it also inspired the fictional household’s inevitable comparison between the two, though they are so very different, and Bridey’s beliefs that, in comparison to Gigi, she pales in every measure.

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

I love writing beginnings but because I discover as I go along instead of setting the course ahead of time with an outline, I often have to go back to add, delete, or change the beginnings. I also work hard on endings, so they get quite a few revisions before I’m satisfied. Don’t even ask about the middle. That’s a disaster.

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

My characters usually have some little piece of me in them, even the villains because of course villains are the heroes in their own stories and it helps to have a kernel of understanding of them.

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

Death at Greenway was inspired by nonfiction (but found in a literary way, in a book). But I spent a great deal of time on research outside the literary: in historical records, in World War II photos, in 1940s advertisements, and in music of the era. Music was especially helpful to set the mood as I wrote. I always keep a playlist for my novel-in-progress and then share it out afterward. Greenway’s playlist had a lot of Vera Lynn, the angelic voice of World War II, but also a few more contemporary tunes that I thought helped me with theme and tone.

The other best inspiration I had was Doreen Vautour, the woman who was once one of the Greenway ’vacs. Her memories, relayed to the National Trust and shared through the BBC years ago, led me to connecting with her and getting to know her. We just celebrated her 83rd birthday, and she spent at least part of it re-reading Death at Greenway—this time leisurely since she’d already read it for whodunnit!
Visit Lori Rader-Day's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Saturday, October 30, 2021

Tess Little

Tess Little is a writer, historian, and Fellow of All Souls College, Oxford.

She was born in Norwich, read history at the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge, and is currently studying for the MA in Prose Fiction at the University of East Anglia. She recently completed a doctorate on 1970s feminist activism in the UK, France, and the US, having interviewed activists and visited archives across all three countries.

Little's short stories and non-fiction have appeared in Words And Women: Two, The Mays Anthology, The Belleville Park Pages, The White Review and on posters outside a London tube station.

Her debut novel was published in October 2021 as The Last Guest (North America) and The Ninth Guest (UK); it was first published in the UK as The Octopus.

My Q&A with the author:

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

The Last Guest has had almost as many titles as full drafts. It began as a novella, with an extremely long title to balance out the brevity of the story—When we Called the Police to Collect my Ex-husband’s Body,—and that title ended with a comma because the first words of the prose continued on from the title: ‘We believed he had died from an overdose’.

This first sentence survived various edits because the story still launches from the same jetty. The narrator, Elspeth Bryant Bell, arrives at the Hollywood house of her ex-husband, British film director Richard Bryant, for his fiftieth birthday party. She expects to find an enormous, sprawling celebration in his honor, but instead she is met by only seven other guests. In the morning, Elspeth finds Richard’s body, sprawled across his couch. The director is dead, seemingly due to an overdose. Then the police discover that Richard was murdered, and each one of his guests becomes a suspect.

But of course, the original title was far too long for a published novel, so when my agent and I first sought publishers, here in the UK, we decided to rename the manuscript. I toyed with Aquarium, To the Surface, Chromatophore—and eventually settled on the title which these ideas were circling: The Octopus.

When Elspeth arrives at Richard’s house, she meets not only his seven other guests, but also his pet: a giant Pacific octopus named Persephone, who watches over the party, silently, from her tank. And just as Persephone’s aquarium sits at the heart of Richard’s house, so too does the captive octopus sit at the heart of the novel—embodying the stories of Elspeth and the other party guests.

But that title is quite cryptic and metaphorical. It doesn’t give potential readers any idea of genre; The Octopus might well be sci-fi, fantasy, or even non-fiction. For that reason, my American editor was interested in trying a different title—something darker, mysterious, a little Agatha Christie-esque, perhaps.

We went with The Last Guest, which I like to think is not too distant from the UK title. While the ‘last guest’ could be read as Elspeth—the final human to arrive at the party—to my mind it represents Persephone. She’s the last guest the reader meets, crawling out from her rocks after Elspeth’s arrival.

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

I begin every story I write with the first sentence—which sounds obvious and trite, but many authors don’t. I’ll carry around the kernel of the story for a while—perhaps collecting characters, phrases, images—but I find the writing doesn’t flow until I have that very first sentence. It has to capture the voice of the narration, the atmosphere, the pace, and once you have those elements the rest will follow.

So I’m very careful with my first sentences; I don’t write them down until they feel right. And looking back at everything I’ve written, I can see that those sentences always survive multiple drafts. ‘We believed he had died from an overdose’ is Elspeth’s voice, and that sentence holds the story of The Last Guest.

My endings, on the other hand, often change. I’ll begin a story knowing the rough arc of the characters—maybe a realisation they’ll reach, or a decision they’ll make—but not knowing exactly where the writing will end.

This is a dangerous way to live when writing a murder mystery—a genre which famously requires every detail to reconcile with the solution. I rewrote the ending of The Last Guest with almost every re-drafting and seeding each solution through the novel took much careful thinking, and much time. Hopefully this makes the red herrings all the more credible. I certainly believed them myself at one point or another.

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

Writers are often told to write what they know—or at least, to begin there for their debut novel. The characters in The Last Guest, however, live entirely different lives from mine. Elspeth is middle-aged, a mother, American, wealthy, divorced; she worked as an actor—I’ve never been any of those things. And that’s just my protagonist, who at least shares my language, race, and gender, unlike other characters in the novel.

I think I wrote this story, in part, to escape myself and my life—or to grapple with questions that have occupied my mind in a more removed way. I enjoy telling stories, telling truth slant. But of course, that requires some knowledge. Imagination isn’t plucked from thin air.

Despite the prima facie differences between myself and my characters, they did emerge from two personal places. The first is listening. While writing The Last Guest, I was completing my PhD in history. Researching and reconstructing other lives was my bread and butter, whether from archival sources or, quite literally, listening: I was conducting oral history interviews as well. My interviewees were all women, all older than me, and many were of different nationalities to me. Having spent hundreds of hours listening to such voices, Elspeth’s voice came to me quite naturally.

In listening to other people narrating their lives for my historical research, I’ve never failed to find some commonality. This is the second place from which my characters emerged: my own thoughts, experiences, ways of being. I gave each of them at least a sand grain’s worth of myself—as writers often do.

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

The Last Guest was influenced by many non-literary works. By film, of course, given the novel is set in LA: classic film noir, as well as Mulholland Drive, The Invitation, The Player, Play it as it Lays. I also watched a great deal of octopus footage, to study their movements and behaviour: Jean PainlevĂ©’s silent, black and white depictions were the films I returned to most often, and they ended up making a cameo in the novel.

I returned to certain works of art too: Hockney’s technicolour depictions of California, Bernini’s Proserpina. While writing, I came across the Sunset paintings of Caroline Walker, a series depicting a former beauty queen living a lonely existence in the beautiful, cinematic emptiness of the Hollywood Hills. (The cover of The Last Guest features her dark, aquatic oil painting Plunge Pool.)

Architecture was another major influence—Sedgwick, Richard’s modernist home in the Hollywood Hills, is a reimagining of the old country manors of Golden Age detective fiction. Where those stories took place amid the crumbling bricks of English tradition, The Last Guest unfolds within brutal concrete and clean glass. Still a home for the isolated elite, but the Hollywood version—this time literally perched above the masses, looking down across the cityscape.

Here, John Lautner’s Sheats-Goldstein Residence was my main inspiration, as well as the work of photographer Nicholas Alan Cope, who captures stark LA architecture in black and white on the pages of his book Whitewash.

As for music, I couldn’t name all the songs I listened to while writing The Last Guest, but I do remember feeling greatly affected by Nina Simone’s 1976 Montreux Festival performance of ‘Stars’, which tells a beautiful, heart-breaking story. It’s everything I wanted for Elspeth.
Visit Tess Little's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Monday, October 25, 2021

Margaret Verble

Margaret Verble is an enrolled citizen of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma and a member of a large Cherokee family that has, through generations, made many contributions to the tribe’s history and survival. Although many of her family have remained in Oklahoma to this day, and some still own and farm the land on which her books are set, Verble was raised in Nashville, Tennessee, and currently lives in Lexington, Kentucky.

Verble's first novel, Maud's Line, was a Finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2016. Her second novel, Cherokee America, was listed by the New York Times as one of the 100 Notable Books of the Year for 2019 and won the Spur Award for Best Western. It is set in 1875 in the Arkansas River bottoms of the old Cherokee Nation West and is a prequel to Maud's Line. The books are linked both by their setting and by four characters who are young in Cherokee America and elders in Maud's Line.

Verble's new book, When Two Feathers Fell from the Sky, is set in 1926 in the old Nashville Glendale Park Zoo.

My Q&A with the author:

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

I think the title is fairly apt. It alludes to a major plot point and bounces off the introductory chapter which tells the reader when in time the story is placed. I can’t take credit for the title. My editor, Nicole Angeloro, came up with it and it took some thought.

What's in a name?

I named my title character Two Feathers because I found a horse-diver who used that name had actually worked at the Glendale Park Zoo, where the story is set. I don’t know much about that woman except that she worked there for more than one season and was a featured, highly-touted act. I suspect in real life she was white because whites were always dressing up like Indians to make themselves more exciting and exotic.

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

I don’t think my teenage self would be surprised at all by this novel. She’d probably say, “What took you so long?” I was raised on the grounds of the old park zoo where the novel is set. I can’t remember not knowing about it, and it captured the imagination of every child raised in my neighborhood.

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

I don’t think I can truthfully make a generalization about that. I think the critical point in any work of literary fiction is about 80% of the way in. Writers who don’t write from a formula let the characters drive the narrative, but at some point that narrative has to turn toward an ending. The last 20% of the tale is wrapping it all up, not necessarily neatly, but in some way. A lot of novels fail right there. You have to get that right and it can be tricky.

Do you see much of yourself in your characters?

Not necessarily. Or I should say probably not as much as some of my readers do. No one has ever confused me with Check Singer, the protagonist of Cherokee America. But I’ve had the rather discombobulating experience of people assuming I’m a lot like Maud Nail. Since I have grandchildren and Maud is eighteen I’ve found that rather odd. But a good thing, I guess. Anyway, the female protagonists of all of my novels are rather take-charge kind of women. And it’s true I’m like that. And all three of them are good with a gun and I used to be a fairly good shot. But I don’t shoot much anymore and I don’t feel the need to be in charge of much other than my own life. So these characters come out of me but aren’t me.

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

Certainly, the greatest influence on my writing was the fact that I grew up watching a treaty being broken. When I was young, in Oklahoma the Army Corp of Engineers was stealing the Arkansas River bed from the Cherokees in trucks carrying valuable sand and gravel right down the very section line I portray in Maud’s Line. It was an outrageous theft that went on for several years and it infuriated me. Those trucks ran me to the side of the road more than once and I had to watch the old Indians in my family stomach that theft when I knew they had been stolen from again and again.

Another influence that pertains directly to When Two Feathers Fell From the Sky is the fact that my mother was a fourth grade teacher and the fourth grade was where children in Nashville were first introduced to its history. Which, believe me, consisted of a lot of stories of murderous Indians – who were Cherokees – attacking poor innocent white people for no apparent reason. That, too, infuriated me, both on my own behalf and on my mother’s, who had to teach that nonsense year after year. She never said anything about that, but that’s how everybody handled that kind of history then. They just kept their mouths shut. Fortunately, times have changed.
Visit Margaret Verble's website.

My Book, The Movie: Maud's Line.

Writers Read: Margaret Verble (March 2019).

The Page 69 Test: When Two Feathers Fell from the Sky.

--Marshal Zeringue

Tuesday, October 19, 2021

Jessica Vitalis

Jessica Vitalis is a full-time writer with a previous career in business and an MBA from Columbia Business School. An American expat, she now lives in Canada with her husband and two daughters.

Vitalis's new book is The Wolf's Curse.

My Q&A with the author:

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

The working title for this story was “Death” until very late in the process; not because I thought it was a great title, but because it’s a Grim Reaper retelling and I thought of the story as my “death” book as I was drafting. It wasn’t until I started thinking about querying that I landed on The Wolf’s Curse as the title. I love the ambiguity in that readers can’t be sure if the title means that the wolf is cursed or if the wolf is the one doing the cursing. (You’ll have to read the book to find out!)

What's in a name?

I think names are incredibly important! I took great care to make sure the names I chose in The Wolf’s Curse help convey a French-inspired world. For example, the story is set in the country of Gatineau, and the village is Bouge-by-the-Sea. My main character, Gauge, is a carpenter’s apprentice; I love how his name hints at his vocation. My antagonist’s name, Lord Mayor Vulpine, carries equal weight; Vulpine means “crafty” or “cunning,” and I love that it hints at the Canidae, or dog family, since my narrator is a wolf. And I don’t want to give too much away, but the wolf’s name also carries great meaning—not because of its actual definition, but because using it helps remind her of her shared humanity.

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

My teenage self would be shocked by this novel! Although I’ve always loved to write, I never thought of myself as a creative person, and I don’t think I ever would have believed that I’d end up writing fantasy stories. That said, I also think that this is the type of book that my teenage self needed to read––despite the fantastic world in which villagers believe that stars are actually lanterns lit by their loved ones as they travel to the sea in the sky to sail into eternity, it’s actually about grief and loss, and hope and healing, and how our friends and community come together to pull us through our darkest times.

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

I always struggle with my endings. Not because I don’t know what’s going to happen from a plot perspective (I usually do), but because a great ending is about more than wrapping up a plot—it’s about digging deep into the characters’ emotional journeys and making sure that inner transformation comes across on the page. By contrast, I generally find openings fairly easy to write; I usually have a list of what I need to accomplish, and I really enjoy the challenge of fitting all of those elements into the story in a way that hooks the reader.

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

There are three main characters in my story: the invisible Great White Wolf, twelve-year-old Gauge, and twelve-year-old Roux, and they all contain aspects of my personality. In fact, I think I’m probably 1/3 the Wolf’s snark, 1/3 Gauge’s sweet innocence, and 1/3 Roux’s no-nonsense practicality. (Okay, I might be a tad bit more than 1/3 when it comes to the snark!)
Visit Jessica Vitalis's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Thursday, October 14, 2021

Bethany Ball

Bethany Ball was born in Detroit and lives in New York with her family.

She is the author of What To Do About The Solomons and The Pessimists.

My Q&A with the author:

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

Unconsciously I was probably thinking of titles like The Corrections, The Sympathizer, The Immortalists etc. I love how a title like that seems to stand tall and wide with hands on hips and takes a stance. I felt like I was attempting to sum up at least a small portion and a snapshot in time of a generation—Gen X. And it is indeed descriptive of the book. Many Americans have felt increasingly pessimistic since at least the Great Recession in 2008. And I myself fought pessimism every day that Donald Trump was president. On the other hand, I like to end novels with hope. In my last novel, I quote an Arabic aphorism: one day of honey, one day of onion. I try to end a book with a little honey if possible.

What's in a name?

I was really influenced by the time my father became Karl Malden’s Sekulovich in a movie filmed in my father’s newsroom. Sekulovich was Malden’s real name, his father’s name, and he made sure to insert it in every film he made. The bit role my father had was Malden’s Sekulovich. In the same vein, I made a little vow to myself as an homage to my late southern mom to name at least one main protagonist after someplace in the south. Carolyn in my first book and Virginia in my second. Beyond that, names are incredibly important to me. I always want to get a name bang on. I think they tell so much about a character, where they were born, who their parents were, socioeconomic class, the hopes and dreams of their parents. Virginia is married to a guy named Tripp Powers. I sort of expected someone to tell me I couldn’t do that, that his name was too ridiculous. His real name is Travis. It was important for me to let the reader know that almost as an aside. Tripp Powers is about as Dickinsinian as I will get with a name but I think it works in a lot of real life ways.

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

Writing was the only thing I was good at and it was the only activity in my life I did consistently. I was an awful awful student but I kept getting the highest scores on my writing assessment. Higher than anyone in the school. It didn’t matter much though, my guidance counselor still tried to place me in remedial English. Not that I’m bitter or anything. Fortunately I had wonderful teachers in my public school system: Ms. Zizka, Ms. Stonehouse, Ms. Downey, Ms Murley to name a few. They saw through my terrible academic record and supported me anyway.

I see bits of writers I read in high school in my writing style today: Mary Gaitskill, Tony Morrison, Bret Easton Ellis, Philip Roth, Alice Walker, Joy Williams, and Anne Tyler.

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

Beginnings are incredibly difficult. You have to get the tone and voice right or the piece has no momentum. Landings are hard but beginnings are nearly impossible. I worry and work over the beginning much more. It’s like curb appeal. It might in fact not be the most important part of the book but no one is going to enter the realm of the book unless you entice them in. A reader might forgive a less than perfect ending but they will never get past a bad beginning.

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

I like to say that I share a lot of negative attributes with my characters. This makes writing characters sort of delicious and fun. In The Pessimists, my character Gunter wants the most un-cool cool car in the world, the Mercedes G-Wagon. He wants luxury and to be high up and look down on everyone while he drives. I’m very sorry to say I share this desire with Gunter and in fact, my editor shared in the margins that she felt just the same way! It was fun to explore this dumb desire and kind of make fun of myself through Gunter. There are others but that’s the only one I’ll cop to here!

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

Most definitely music. I sang in a choir all through school and in college. My father sang in a professional choir in Detroit and I spent my childhood attending his concerts. I love music more than any other art form. For me writing must have rhythm for it to work. There are slow rhythms and fast. Loud, quiet, and silence.

My second inspiration is tennis. My son is a division one tennis player and I picked up the sport about seven years ago. I spent many years of weekends watching tournaments in tony parts of Connecticut, New Jersey, and New York. I play on a team and have been to the most elite country clubs around. Places filled with what Tom Wolfe called “the Masters of the Universe.” Some of the conversations I overheard definitely inspired The Pessimists. As an introvert writer who spends a lot of time alone, playing sports on a team forced me to get out and interact with people, many of whom I otherwise never would have met and I’ve grown to love.
Visit Bethany Ball's website.

The Page 69 Test: What To Do About The Solomons.

--Marshal Zeringue

Sunday, October 10, 2021

Georgie Blalock

Georgie Blalock is a history and movie buff who loves combining her different passions through historical fiction, and a healthy dose of period piece films. When not writing, she can be found prowling the non-fiction history section of the library or the British film listings on Netflix or in the dojo training for her next karate black belt rank. Blalock also writes historical romance under the name Georgie Lee.

Her latest novel is The Last Debutantes.

My Q&A with the author:

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

The title works pretty hard to take readers into the story. The Last Debutantes is set in 1939, during the last debutante season before World War II. Once war breaks out, many things, including the lives and futures of the debutantes, change forever. The title indicates that the 1939 Season was the last one of normalcy before everything changed. Although the debutante tradition would return after World War II, the war and the world that had spawned that tradition was, like the debutantes, irrevocably altered. These were the last debutantes to celebrate their entry into society in this way.

What's in a name?

I didn’t have much choice in naming Valerie de Vere Cole because she is a real person. She was the niece of British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain and lived with Mr. and Mrs. Chamberlain at No. 10 Downing Street where she celebrated her debutante season in 1939. However, I did choose to use the more formal version of her name, Valerie de Vere Cole. In the newspapers of the time, she was only referred to as Valerie Cole. Her father’s name was Horace de Vere Cole and he had an impressive lineage that included ties to the Earl of Oxford. I decided to add the de Vere to Valerie’s name to give her a more aristocratic flavor.

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

I find it harder to write endings rather than beginnings. With most of my novels, the opening scene is the first thing that comes to me, and it sets the tone for the rest of the story. The end comes after a great deal of research and time spent with the characters. Once I better understand the story, and the historical characters’ lives and world then it is easier to write the end. The end is more likely to change depending on the direction the story, characters and historical research take me.

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

I do see some of myself in the characters because my deadline for finishing The Last Debutantes was June 2020. My writing schedule for March through June was well sketched out and, as we all know, the universe had other plans. It was a very unique experience to write during such a stressful and uncertain time and it allowed me to better relate to the debutantes who were doing their best to carry on with their normal lives while also living though very uncertain times.
Visit Georgie Blalock's website.

My Book, The Movie: The Other Windsor Girl.

The Page 69 Test: The Other Windsor Girl.

My Book, The Movie: The Last Debutantes.

--Marshal Zeringue