Monday, August 20, 2018

Q&A with Stephen McCauley

Stephen McCauley is the author of the new novel My Ex-Life. His other novels include The Object of My Affection and True Enough, and his work has appeared in a variety of publications, including The New York Times and The Washington Post. He is co-director of the Creative Writing Program at Brandeis University.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for My Ex-Life and why did you decide to focus on two ex-spouses reuniting after many years? 

A: I've always been interested in writing about friendships that are close and loving and that perhaps blur the definitions of "friend" and "lover."

I know a lot of people who, through internet stalking and such, have started writing to and flirting with exes. It's the lure of history and the familiar combined with a new and exciting context.

In this case, the exes know they will never be a couple again in the same way, so it made for a more romantic friendship, at least in my mind.

Q: You tell the story from several characters’ perspectives. How did you decide on your point-of-view characters?

A: I started off writing it from the man's perspective alone, but it became clear that was too limiting. Then I included his ex-wife's perspective.

When I'd written about 100 pages, a friend said, "There's something dark and interesting about the 17-year-old daughter. Maybe you should write a chapter from her POV and see what's going on." That opened up the third point of view and a whole piece of the story that was hidden from me.

I tend to insist on complete consistency in POV in my work and novels I’m reading. In film, POV has little integrity. If you need to have a scene from a minor, random character for plot, you do it. I’ve come to realize that most readers don’t care about this as much as I do, if at all. I’m trying to loosen up about it.

Q: Did you know how the novel would end before you started writing it, or did you make many changes along the way?

A: I had no idea how it would end. Truly none.

The more I wrote, the more hopeful I became that I could give the characters some positive way to move forward. That was mostly because I came to like them a great deal.

On the other hand, I didn't want everything to resolve too neatly. I rewrite constantly and probably rewrote the ending 10 times.

Q: How was the book’s title chosen, and what does it signify for you?

I like the play on "ex-wife" and even "sex life," and whenever I mentioned it to people, they started telling me about their "ex-lives." I took that as a good sign--that it's something people are interested in as a concept.

Since the book is not in first person, "my" in the title might be misleading, but I liked how intimate it sounded.

Q: What are you working on now?  

A: I'm shifting back and forth between three novels. They're all very different, and my view of what I like best changes from day to day. This probably means I won't use any of them. I'm trying to get someone else to decide, but that doesn't seem to be working either.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Unlike my characters, I have no interest at all in reconnecting with my exes. Even for coffee.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Stephen McCauley.

Aug. 20

Aug. 20, 1932: Vasily Aksyonov born.

Sunday, August 19, 2018

Q&A with Sylvia McNicoll

Sylvia McNicoll is the author of the new young adult novel Body Swap, in which a teenager and a senior citizen switch places after an accident. Her many other books include Dying to Go Viral and Best Friends through Eternity. She lives in Burlington, Ontario.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for Body Swap, and for your characters Hallie and Susan?

A: Senseless death in a young person is the single most event I feel overwhelmed by in life--if only I could change even one factor so that they don’t pay for some inattentive or foolhardy moment with their lives.

Regret is an emotion, therefore, I feel compelled to probe. How powerful is it? Can we change any point of our past if our regret is strong enough?

It’s a theme I also explored in Dying to Go Viral and Best Friends through Eternity. The main character dies in the first chapter and then gets a do-over in the rest of the story so that their regret can change something even if it’s not their ultimate fate.

Enter Hallie. She’s inspired by a real girl (as all of my main characters are) run over by an 86-year-old driver in our local parking lot. While I blamed the senior, she claimed vehicle malfunction and the courts allowed her to keep driving. When I expressed dismay at their decision, my writing buddy told me I was an ageist. I realized she was right.

Q: What do you think the book says about aging, and perceptions of older people?

A: I think Body Swap reminds/warns me, and so perhaps my reader, that with good health and barring accidents, we will all grow older and we should all work together to make that experience more of a reward for living well.

People love to say age is just a number but failing health can be the real determinant or quantifier of your life.  Youth is not a skill or quality we earn, we all start out young. Age is the real privilege, as Eli in the novel says, and reward for good luck, exercise, sunscreen and healthy eating.

Q: Did you make many changes along the way?

A: Initially I wrote Susan’s thread in third person. I felt it separated her strand more clearly, gave it a natural distance for my young readers without cliché ageist mannerisms on both sides of the generations.

But all my writing friends, my agent, and even my editor later insisted I rewrite and then later stick with first person. (I kept wanting to switch back.) They were right.

I think it was important to give my readers the first person extreme closeness with the experience of aging and no matter how you write it, whether for a film like Freaky Friday or for a novel like mine, soul switches are difficult to keep clear in your audience’s mind.

Q: Did you know how the book would end before you started writing it, or did it change.

A: As far as how the ending evolved, (for me they are never set in concrete even though I have something in mind): what I wanted most to do is challenge people’s perceptions of seniors and teens so I needed a twist.

Susan’s an intelligent woman; I knew she should become proactive about accepting some limitations in her abilities going forward which meant living in an assisted living facility of her own choice on her own terms.

But if I want to surprise the reader, I need to surprise myself. So the actual outcome of the vehicle acceleration propelled the surprise for me, and I hope for the reader. Once it fell into place, it seemed so natural to me.

Q: Who are some of your favorite writers?

A: I am so indiscriminate. I love reading everything from the Coffee News in diners to the bulletin boards on school staff room walls. Even though they can be longer and more difficult reads, self-published novels sometimes give me a more authentic hit—these writers are so passionate about their stories they defy publishing norms! 

So I guess I have no favourites. Most of my friends are writers, I buy all their books. I love buying and reading an author’s debut novel too. Those are lucky!

Q: What are you working on now?

A: Currently I am rewriting a story called What the Dog Knows. It is a middle grade that explores some of the benefits our pets offer us…expanded. Brownie, the dog, is sage, funny, loyal, and loving and he wants to save his 13-year-old person Naomi from drowning. (This is another regret story.)

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I am so grateful and happy to have such a long, evolving writing career. I love my work and my readers.

Thank you.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a link to Sylvia McNicoll reading from Body Swap.

Aug. 19

Aug. 19, 1930: Frank McCourt born.

Saturday, August 18, 2018

Q&A with Martin R. Ganzglass

Martin R. Ganzglass is the author of the new novel Treason and Triumph, the fifth in his Revolutionary War series. Other books in the series include Spies and Deserters and Blood Upon the Snow. A former Peace Corps volunteer in Somalia and a retired attorney, he lives in the Washington, D.C., area.

Q: This is the fifth book in your series - how did you choose which events to focus on this time?

A: Generally, I have been following the chronology of the Revolutionary War and the fifth book brings me to 1780 and 1781. While there are many events over these two years, the two most obvious ones are General Benedict Arnold's attempted betrayal of West Point in the fall of 1780 and the combined American French victory at Yorktown in the fall of 1781.

Both are events of high drama and gave me the opportunity to describe them through the eyes of my fictional characters.

For example, I was able to depict the feigned madness of Peggy Shippen Arnold, the general's wife, when Arnold flees West Point after the plot has been discovered leaving his wife and infant son behind, through the fictitious character of Elizabeth Van Hooten.

I had inserted her into Peggy Shippen's rich and privileged Philadelphia social circle in two earlier novels, Blood Upon the Snow and Spies and Deserters. This was pure luck and no foresight on my part. 

Q: One theme running through the books involves the conflict between two brothers. Can you say more about how you created the Stoner brothers and developed their political views?

A: Willem and John Stoner are typical of many families at the time. Particularly in New York and New Jersey, members of the same family were divided in their loyalties, with some supporting the King and others joining the patriots' cause.

I wanted to counter the myth that the colonists rose up against oppressive British rule in a unified and fervent fashion. John, the Loyalist, is also an opportunist (as well as being an evil and immoral person.) He is motivated more by greed than politics and he believes he has chosen the winning side that will bring him wealth and prestige.

Will is an idealist, and through his association with General Knox, comes to believe entirely in the cause regardless of the personal consequences. 

In some sense, the American Revolution was the first American civil war because so many families had members on both sides. In New Jersey there were Loyalist and Patriot militias that waged a violent and vicious guerrilla war against the civilian supporters of the other side. Will and John are simply examples of the existing divisions among family members.

Q: How was the title for this latest book chosen, and what does it signify for you?

A: The two pivotal events of 1780 and 1781 were the shocking betrayal by General Arnold and the victory at Yorktown.

If Benedict Arnold had successfully turned the fort at West Point over to the British, the British would gain control of the Hudson River and successfully split the New England colonies from the others. Then it would have been possible to subdue the Americans piecemeal.

Arnold also attempted to pass to the British the route General Washington was taking to West Point, which would have enabled a strong British cavalry force to capture him, as well as Generals Lafayette and Knox. That could have effectively ended our Revolution then and there.

The evidence of Arnold's betrayal undermined Washington's confidence because he had so misjudged Arnold's character. It was definitely a low point in the Revolution.

Conversely, with the victory at Yorktown, many Americans believed the war was over. Over 8,000 British and Hessian troops were captured along with vast amounts of supplies, arms and munitions. The victory enabled many supporters to at least believe that independence was in sight and the war would end soon. 

Q: What type of research did you do for this book, and did you learn anything that particularly intrigued you?

A: I relied heavily on many thoroughly researched articles in the Journal of the American Revolution and the blog, Boston 1775.

In addition, my favorite memoir is by Private Joseph P. Martin, a Connecticut farm boy turned soldier for the duration of the war. He is an acute observer of physical details and a philosopher one moment and a witty humorist the next.

His book, Private Yankee Doodle - Being a Narrative of Some of the Adventures, Dangers and Sufferings of a Revolutionary Soldier, edited by George E. Scheer, is a well-written, eye-witness ground level account of the War, including the battle of Yorktown.

As I did research for this book, I knew of the starvation and suffering of the soldiers at Valley Forge during the winter of 1777-1778.

What I learned is that the soldiers suffered constantly throughout the war from lack of food, blankets, shoes and even clothing. And Congress did little to alleviate their plight, despite General Washington's pleas.

It is remarkable that the ordinary soldier, with few exceptions, remained in service. Ill clothed, with rags around their feet, and endured the lack of rations, lack of pay, and legislative lack of concern. I grew to understand the true sacrifice of these soldiers, far beyond that one winter at Valley Forge.

I also had no idea there were integrated units in the Continental Army. Approximately 500 black soldiers were at Valley Forge and the army census for 1778 listed 755 blacks in combat service. Nor did I know that an estimated 5,000 African Americans served in the Continental Army or Navy.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I am writing the sixth and final novel in the series. I have a general idea what will happen to the characters but they have surprised me in the past by taking me in unforeseen directions and may do so again. Hopefully, this novel will be published in June 2019.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Several of my readers have suggested that I follow Will and Elizabeth and their growing family in the next decade after independence, say up to 1800.

I have not yet decided whether or not to do so. Instead of writing another historical novel, I may want to write short stories. I am tempted to try a different genre but I have plenty of time to make up my mind.

First, I will finish the series that I began six years ago in the winter of 1775 with General Knox's noble train of artillery struggling through the Berkshires from Lake George to Cambridge.  

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Martin R. Ganzglass.

Aug. 18

Aug. 18, 1944: Paula Danziger born.

Friday, August 17, 2018

Q&A with Christina June

Christina June, photo by Hannah Bjorndal
Christina June is the author of the new young adult novel Everywhere You Want to Be, based on the Little Red Riding Hood story. She also has written the YA novel It Started With Goodbye, a modern-day Cinderella retelling. She is a school counselor, and she lives in Virginia.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for Everywhere You Want to Be, a modern-day Little Red Riding Hood story?

A: I knew Tilly, the "evil" stepsister from my first book It Started With Goodbye, had a story to tell, and after going with my good friend, Lisa Maxwell, on a research trip to New York (for her New York Times bestseller The Last Magician), I wanted to write a New York book too! 

And what better substitute for the evil forest in Little Red Riding Hood than the skyscrapers of NYC? The rest just fell into place as I began to brainstorm.

Q: What did you see as the right blend of the traditional fairy tale and your new characters?

A: A lot of fairy tales we loved as children have just a few really recognizable elements, but when you dig deeper, it's the themes that stick with us. 

I wanted to make sure the things we associate with the story were there--the red cape, the big bad wolf, Grandma, the basket of bread--but that I also stayed true to what the story is really about. 

It's a cautionary tale about a girl striking out on her own. Ultimately, things work out okay in the end, but not without some complications. When I'm adapting a fairy tale, I look for those "must have" items and then work in the new elements after those are in place.

Q: Do you usually plot out your novels before you start writing, or do you make changes along the way?

A: I normally plot a lot in my head, both in terms of characters and conflict, but this is the book that forced me to write it all down in advance. I sold on proposal, which meant writing a detailed synopsis (seven pages!) and three chapters months before I wrote the whole thing. 

A lot changed in the synopsis, but once it was accepted, not much changed when I sat down to write. I hated it, but in the long run, I think changing my process has really helped me. 

Now I can't imagine writing without doing the synopsis ahead of time. My first drafts are much cleaner and there are less big ticket items to revise, which is great because I am not a lover of revisions.

Q: Who are some of your favorite writers?

A: I'm a huge fan of Judy Blume--all-time favorite author. I grew up reading a lot of V.C. Andrews, L.M. Montgomery, and Christopher Pike. In current YA, I love Miranda Kenneally, Katy Upperman, Tiffany D. Jackson, Jenn Bennett, Marci Lyn Curtis and Brigid Kemmerer. 

In adult, I've really enjoyed Alyssa Cole, Liane Moriarty, Helen Huang, Kevin Kwan, Celeste Ng, Taylor Jenkins Reid and Jane Green.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I am headed into copy edits on my 2019 book, No Place Like Here, which is a modern twist on Hansel & Gretel. Ashlyn thinks she's going home after a year in boarding school, but instead, she learns her dad's going to jail, her mom's going to rehab, and she's off to work at a wilderness retreat center with her estranged cousin. 

It's about a girl finding her voice and I'm excited for it to be out in the world next spring!

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I've got a couple of events coming up in August--8/25 in Richmond, Virginia (with Katy Upperman) and 8/31 in Arlington, Virginia (with Sandhya Menon).  I'd love to say hello to readers who want to drop by!  Check my website for more info.

And, if you're into newsletters, my subscribers are the first to know about events, giveaways and new stuff.

Thanks for hosting me!

--Interview with Deborah Kalb