Friday, May 24, 2024

Ash Clifton

Ash Clifton grew up in Gainesville, Florida, home of the University of Florida, where his father was a deputy sheriff and, later, the chief of police. He graduated from UF with a degree in English, then got an MFA in creative writing from the University of Arizona. He lives in Gainesville, with his wife and son. Clifton writes mystery, thriller, and science fiction novels.

My Q&A with the author:

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

My book is a neo-noir P.I. novel, and I wanted the title to have a slightly retro, pulpy feel. Twice the Trouble fit the bill. It evokes, I hope, the deliberately melodramatic titles of famous P.I. mysteries like The Big Sleep and The Moving Target. So, I’m proud of my title in that regard.

And, of course, it’s a pun on the main character’s name, Noland Twice, which came to me out of the ether for reasons I cannot fathom.

What's in a name?

Names are poetry. It’s that simple. Even if a character’s name is not an outright-metaphor (one of my favorites is a villain named Loveless in a William Gibson novel), the mere sound of a character’s name should, ideally, generate some kind of vibe regarding their essence.

I like my main character’s name, Noland Twice, for all kinds of reasons, but mainly because it’s unusual and yet easy to say and remember. I also think some of my other characters’ names are equally suggestive of their nature: Faith Carlton, Karen Voss, and Arthur Valkenburg.

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

I suspect that my teenage self would not have been nearly as surprised as my college-age self. In my teens, I was consuming huge amounts of genre fiction (science fiction, mysteries, horror), and Twice the Trouble would have fit right in. Later, when I was an English major in college, I was much more serious (okay, pretentious) and determined to write “pure,” literary fiction.

However, I think even my college self would have found some things to admire in Twice the Trouble. It’s a genre novel, but I tried to write it in almost exactly the same way as I would a literary novel—with a lot of attention to detail, atmosphere, and character.

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

Endings are much easier, for me, and I suspect the same is true for many writers. Flannery O’Connor said that the ending of a novel should fall into the reader’s hand like a piece of ripe fruit. Everything in the novel should lead up to the conclusion in a way that, in retrospect, feels inevitable, yet surprising. When I got to the final pages of Twice the Trouble, the last line just came to me, and I thought it was really good.

Beginnings are, of course, totally different. You’ve got a blank page, with nothing to go on except a few vague ideas. (I think this is true, basically, even for writers who obsessively plan-out their novels—a technique that sounds depressing as hell.) To make things even worse, the opening pages, and especially the opening lines, are incredibly important in terms of grabbing the reader’s attention and pulling them into the story. So, yes, I work very hard on openings.

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

Like a lot of writers, I have a semi-autobiographical novel sitting on my computer’s hard drive, where it will probably remain forever. In that novel, the main character is essentially…well…me. (This fact made my life even more absurd when I got rejection letters that read, “We like the writing, but we don’t really like the MC that much.” To which I wanted to reply, “Hey, I don’t like you all that much either!”)

For Twice the Trouble, I deliberately set out to write about a character that was very different from me, at least on the surface. Noland is athletic, brave, hot-headed, and mildly pathological. (And he knows Kung Fu.) I am the opposite in all these respects. However, Noland is also smart, literate, clever, and occasionally funny, which are characteristics that, hopefully, I share, to a lesser degree.

So, I guess one could say that Noland is a blend of my actual self and my fantasy self—with a few big flaws thrown in.

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

The crime films of Michael Mann were a big influence. Mann’s characters are smart, tough, and highly skilled people (mostly guys; mostly criminals). They’ve got a job to do, and they’re gonna finish it no matter what. Noland is very much in that mold. He’s an anti-hero who sees himself more as a technician than a sleuth.

Music was also an influence, particularly when I was trying to get into the half-crazed, demented state-of-mind that Noland frequently occupies. I listened to a lot of Soundgarden, Depeche Mode, and The White Stripes. In particular, “Seven Nation Army” is perfect for getting inside the head of an unbalanced, semi-pathological character. (I mean that as a compliment, Mr. White. Sir!)
Visit Ash Clifton's website.

My Book, The Movie: Twice the Trouble.

The Page 69 Test: Twice the Trouble.

--Marshal Zeringue

Monday, May 20, 2024

Kate Feiffer

Kate Feiffer, a former television news producer, is an illustrator, and author of eleven highly acclaimed books for children, including Henry the Dog with No Tail and My Mom Is Trying to Ruin My Life. Morning Pages is her first novel for adults. Feiffer currently divides her time between Martha’s Vineyard, where she raised her daughter Maddy, and New York City, where she grew up.

My Q&A with the author:

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

Morning Pages — three pages written every morning, the moment you wake up. This was Julia Cameron's suggestion to help creatives get over their blocks in her beloved book The Artist’s Way. Just write, it doesn't matter what you're writing, what matters is that you’re writing. The story in my novel Morning Pages is revealed through the main character’s morning pages. I titled my novel for the device used to tell the story. I suppose if her story was told through diary entries, I would have titled the book Diary.

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

We like to believe that we've evolved since our gnarly teenage years, that we think about different things, that the years behind us have provided us with new experiences to contemplate. But I recently discovered that I'm not only thinking about the same things, I’m even writing about the same things that I did when I was teenager.

Let me explain.

Morning Pages is about a blocked playwright trying to finish a play she was commissioned to write while life is throwing obstacles at her. There are scenes from the play she is writing within the book, and the play reads as a story within the story.

The play is about a 40-year-old single, professionally successful, woman whose parents had an acrimonious divorce when she was a child. During the first act of the play, both her mother and father find themselves needing a place to live, and they each end up having to move in with her. For the first time since she was eight, she is living with her mother and father, and it isn’t going well.

Recently I was sorting through a box that had a few papers I had written in high school that for some reason I had saved. And there I found it - a short story I had written about an adult woman whose divorced parents move in with her.

Apparently my teenage self was waiting all this time to be heard.

Do you find it harder to write beginnings or endings?

Endings! In fact, my novel is about a playwright who can’t figure out how to end her play. Finishing things, or the difficulty in doing so, is an on-going theme in the novel and in my life. I love writing beginnings. If books could just be beginnings, I would be a prolific author. I have hundreds of beginnings filed away.

The main character in Morning Pages has her own thoughts about beginnings, however. This from page 15:
I used to love beginnings. The sloppy adrenaline rush of starting something new. Thinking faster than I could type. Not anymore. These days, beginnings feel ravenous and needy. “Give us a middle!” they shout. Middles are hungry for conflict though, and that’s a problem for someone as conflict-averse as I am.
Do you see much of yourself in your characters? Do they have any connection to your personality, or are they a world apart?

I am all over many of my characters. Some of the characters in the novel are heavily influenced by my life and the people in my life, and others are intentionally drawn to resemble no one I know.
Visit Kate Feiffer's website.

The Page 69 Test: Morning Pages.

--Marshal Zeringue

Tuesday, May 14, 2024

Kate White

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

My Q&A with the author:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

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

The Page 69 Test: Even If It Kills Her.

The Page 69 Test: Eyes on You.

The Page 99 Test: The Gutsy Girl Handbook.

The Page 69 Test: Have You Seen Me?.

The Page 69 Test: The Second Husband.

--Marshal Zeringue

Saturday, May 11, 2024

Abraham Chang

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

My Q&A with the author

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

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

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

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

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

What's in a name?

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

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

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

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

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

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

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

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

--Marshal Zeringue

Tuesday, May 7, 2024

Julie Mae Cohen

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

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

My Q&A with the author:

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

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

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

What's in a name?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

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

The Page 69 Test: Bad Men.

--Marshal Zeringue

Friday, May 3, 2024

Ishi Robinson

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

My Q&A with the author:

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

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

What's in a name?  

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?  

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

--Marshal Zeringue

Wednesday, May 1, 2024

Katie Tietjen

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

Her first novel is Death in the Details.

My Q&A with the author:

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

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

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

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

What's in a name?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

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

The Page 69 Test: Death in the Details.

--Marshal Zeringue

Monday, April 29, 2024

Ava January

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

January's new novel is The Mayfair Dagger.

My Q&A with the author:

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

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

What's in a name?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

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

--Marshal Zeringue

Saturday, April 27, 2024

Amy Shearn

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

Shearn's new novel is Dear Edna Sloane.

My Q&A with the author:

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

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

What's in a name?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

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

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

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

--Marshal Zeringue

Thursday, April 25, 2024

Cara Hunter

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

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

My Q&A with the author:

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

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

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

What's in a name?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

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

--Marshal Zeringue