Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Q&A with author Hilma Wolitzer

Hilma Wolitzer, photo by Robert Conlon
Hilma Wolitzer is the author of nine novels, including Hearts, The Doctor's Daughter, and An Available Man. She also has written a guide to writing, The Company of Writers, and books for young readers. She lives in New York.

Q: Your most recent novel, An Available Man, focuses on a widower, Edward, and his family and potential love interests. How did you come up with these characters, and why did you decide to write from a male point of view?

A: Several of my women friends were widowed or divorced and re-entering the dating world. I heard some harrowing and funny (and wonderful) stories that made me want to write about starting over later in life. 

At first I was going to have a female protagonist, but then I began wondering how men coped with the issues of loss and loneliness, which didn’t seem to be gender-specific. Suddenly, I envisioned a man ironing in his living room, and that was Edward. 

His story, and all the characters in his life, grew from that image. It was a challenge to write from the male point of view, especially for someone without brothers or sons, but one that I enjoyed. 

The title, "An Available Man," is somewhat ironic because Edward is pursued by women soon after his wife’s death, but doesn’t feel emotionally available. 

Q: You've written nine novels. Do you have any favorite characters among all of those that you've created?

A: That’s something like asking which of my children is my favorite! I love all of them, of course, but for different reasons. The most recent ones, like Edward and his family, are freshest in my mind, but I still have a soft spot for all the others. 

My fiction is always character-driven, so whenever I finish a novel, I feel a little bereft. Maybe that’s why I’ve written sequels to a couple of them.

Q: In addition to your novels, you've also written non-fiction and books for young readers. Which type of writing do you prefer, and why?

A: I enjoy writing fiction of any kind the most. It gives me a chance to “live” additional, alternate lives, even if they’re only inside my head. The age of the characters (or my readers) doesn’t matter.

Q: Your daughter Meg Wolitzer is also a novelist. What similarities and differences do you see in your writing and hers?

A: Meg is one of my favorite writers (as well as one of my favorite children!) I think we both see the pathos and humor in most human events. 

Some readers see a similarity in our styles, but I think we share a world view more than a way of writing. For one thing, her chapters are longer! We often admire the same books, and our shared profession does give an extra dimension to our relationship.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’ve just begun a new novel—it’s about mothers and daughters. It’s too early to talk about in any coherent way, except to say that I’m becoming attached to the characters and hope they’ll reveal their story (which I never know fully in advance).  I write for the same reason I read—to find out what happens.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Hilma Wolitzer will be participating in the Hyman S. and Freda Bernstein Jewish Literary Festival, which runs from October 19-29, 2014, at the Washington DCJCC. For a previous version of this Q&A, please click here.

Sept. 16

Sept. 16, 1898: Author H.A. Rey born.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Q&A with author Alan Cheuse

Alan Cheuse is the author most recently of An Authentic Captain Marvel Ring & Other Stories. He has written many other books, including novels, short stories, and an introduction to literary study. He reviews books for NPR, and teaches writing at George Mason University and the Squaw Valley Community of Writers.

Q: You've reviewed books for many years on NPR. How do you select the books to review, and what do you try to convey to listeners in a limited amount of time?

A: I select books according to my taste, which means I read across the spectrum, from serious, possibly even important new fiction by major writers to the newest of writers who may be worth the public’s serious attention, and across the genres, so I’m always looking for the superior new thriller or science-fiction novel or story collection…

The challenge for me is to make each two-minute review as fresh and interesting as possible while focusing on the essence of the book itself.

Q: What is the significance of the Captain Marvel ring in you newest story collection?

A: It's something that somehow changed the way I saw things in childhood, a ring with a peep-hole that when you looked in gave you the illusion that you were star-and-comet gazing.... That's the way I see what happens when you apply your gaze to a page of fiction.

Q: One of your recent books, Paradise, Or, Eat Your Face: A Trio of Novellas, included characters who are writers. Are there special complications that come with writing fiction about writers, or are they just like any other characters?

A: I have avoided writing about writers in my fiction, focusing instead, when I write novels about artists, on painters, photographers.

My conventional wisdom was that it’s better to look just to the side of the star to see the full light rather than directly at it, so writing about these other inventive characters might also reveal something about writers (though that certainly was not my intention). My intention was not to write about writers.

That being said, it’s true, I noticed that this grouping of…novellas in book form gives the reader three writers, one a young travel writer with some emotional problems, the others a successful writer who has suffered a stroke and lives in  the limbo of aphasia (or maybe it’s hell, aphasia for a writer) and a writer at the top of his powers who finds himself looking back at a part of his life he never wanted to write about.

But since no character is like any other character except in the broadest way I don’t think the artistic bent of each of these characters draws anything back, and in fact may reveal things that I never wanted to write about before myself. 

Q: Your work includes novels, novellas, short stories, and essay collections, and you've co-edited a multi-volume introduction to literary study. Is there one type of writing that you prefer to do?

A: Writing stories and novels. The former, a very satisfying variety of composition because you can complete something within a few weeks or months and receive some satisfaction from it. But then you have to immediately plunge into another project to keep feeling like yourself.

The latter—writing novels—gives you a year or two or three or more in which to stay undercover and write and revise and write and revise, almost, I want to say, to live years of one’s life in a wonderfully satisfying way. It’s like raising a child to a certain age, and then beginning over again with another child—in comparison writing stories is like taking your kid to the zoo or the circus. Short term pleasure.  

Q: You also teach writing at George Mason University and the Squaw Valley Community of Writers. What elements of writing do you focus on with your students, and are there particular pieces of advice you offer them based on your own prolific writing career?

A: I always try to focus on training young writers to learn how to write scenes, which to my mind stand as the building blocks of most good fiction. And to emphasize the importance of reading the masters. And—this is our Squaw Valley rubric—to isolate their flaws and efface them and identify their strengths and build on them. 

Q: What are you working on now?

A: In March, I have a novel coming out called Prayers for the Living. It's a new revised version of a novel I published nearly 30 years ago called then The Grandmothers' Club.

It's about a New Jersey rabbi who gives up his pulpit for a career in international corporate commerce, and destroys himself and his family in the process--as told by his mother. I want to cheer that it's endured this long. See what you think.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Alan Cheuse will be participating in the Hyman S. and Freda Bernstein Jewish Literary Festival, which runs from October 19-29, 2014, at the Washington D.C. Jewish Community Center. For a previous version of this Q&A, please click here.

Sept. 15

Sept. 15, 1890: Writer Agatha Christie born.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Q&A with author Alix Christie

Alix Christie is the author of the new novel Gutenberg's Apprentice. A longtime journalist, she also is a letterpress printer. Christie grew up in California, Montana, and British Columbia, and now lives in London.

Q: How did you first develop your interest in printing?

A: My grandfather was a printer and the foreman of the last major hot type foundry in America, Mackenzie & Harris in San Francisco. I was his apprentice, starting at age 16; we made several books together over the years. I also apprenticed at another fine printing shop, the Yolla Bolly Press, in northern California, though I was training as a journalist at the time.

I still own a letterpress, which I loan out to printers in S.F., since I’ve been living abroad for so many years. I love making things with my hands, and printing is a uniquely satisfying way of making art for a writer who can’t draw! I am looking forward to the day when I go home and set up my own printshop.

Q: Why did you decide to write a novel based on Gutenberg and his apprentice, and how did you blend the historical and fictional aspects of the book?

A: I became intrigued by some research published in 2001 that suggested Gutenberg’s technique was not as advanced as generally thought. I did some digging and discovered the existence of Johann Fust and Peter Schoeffer, both of whom were well known to scholars but not to the general public.

Once I realized that this historic partnership had blown up in a lawsuit, I found myself wanting to get to the bottom of how and why their partnership imploded. The surviving sources are mute; very little physical evidence exists, especially for the key years of 1450-54.

As a journalist as well as a writer of fiction, it was important to me to hew as closely as possible to what is factually known. The facts served as a scaffold, over which I tried to construct a plausible narrative for why this historic partnership might have hit the rocks.

Q: What type of research did you do to write the book?

A: I read massively in the piles of Gutenberg research in German, English and French. I interviewed and became friends with the world’s two main experts on Gutenberg and Schoeffer, and discussed my theories with them both.

At the same time, I made a few trips to Mainz, Eltville and Frankfurt, and really tried to drink up the physical setting of the Rhineland. I was very lucky in that I was living in Berlin, and could spend time in the actual locations.

For each successive draft of the novel I found I needed to know more, and dipped back in. For this the internet is nothing short of miraculous. The most incredible find was the actual library catalog of St Jacob’s Benedictine monastery in Mainz dating from 1444, which had been reprinted in the 19th century and scanned into Google Books!

Q: Which authors have inspired you?

A: I didn’t expect to write historical fiction, particularly. (My previous writing has been contemporary). But once I was embarked on GA (which took seven years total to research and write) I found Hilary Mantel to be a guiding light. She’s a genius. I’m also inspired by W.G. Sebald, Elena Ferrante, Ron Hansen, Junot Diaz, Marilynne Robinson and Geraldine Brooks.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’m embarking on another historical novel based on my family history, of Scottish emigrants who became fur traders in the American West.
Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Two things: that my long journey to publication is proof that sticking with it is the most important thing. And that we have much to learn from the past, especially now: how Peter Schoeffer faced this dramatic new technology was, for me, a way to investigate my own ambivalence toward the digital world that increasingly surrounds us.

I also have a fairly comprehensive Q&A on my website, at the bottom of the Author page. If you haven’t checked it out, please do, I’m very partial to all the beautiful images.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb