Sunday, July 15, 2018

Q&A with Gavin Francis


Gavin Francis is the author of the new book Shapeshifters: A Journey Through the Changing Human Body. His other books include Adventures in Human Being, and his work has appeared in publications including The Guardian and the London Review of Books. A physician, he lives in Edinburgh, Scotland.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for this book, and did you need to do additional research beyond your own work as a physician?

A: People come to me as a doctor because they want me to bring on some change in their lives, or influence some ongoing, unstoppable change.  

My first books were travel books about the Arctic and Antarctic, and my most recent book, Adventures in Human Being, brought the perspective of a travel writer to the geography of the human body. I wanted it to explore the body historically, culturally, philosophically, not just anatomically.  

With Shapeshifters my aim was to reflect more on the body as a place in space or a zone that is constantly changing. It changes in very rapid ways from moment to moment, but also in slower ways decade to decade. 

And I wanted each chapter to be grounded in my own clinical experience working as a physician, mostly in Edinburgh, but taking in experiences working as a doctor in polar regions, and in Africa.

Some of the chapters look at the big rites of passage we go through - puberty and pregnancy, menopause and dying. Some look at the way our mental experience doesn't stand still but shifts ceaselessly, woven moment to moment by memory, taking in dreaming and drug use, mental illness and dementia. 

There are chapters that look at crises like anorexia, or those disruptions in the hormonal balance of the body that can make us grow into giants, or those maladies that led sufferers once upon a time to be branded as werewolves. Then there are those changes we impose on the body through willpower - such as building up our muscles, having our bodies tattooed, crafting and sculpting ourselves through cosmetic surgery. 

Regarding research, the clinical passages in the book didn't need much as they're all grounded in what I see and do every day. But there was a great deal of reading involved, all of it pleasurable, and the kind of reading I'd do anyway to fully inform myself about the cultural hinterland of some of these changes. 

The book takes in reference points from Ovid's great poem of transformation The Metamorphoses, to the latest neuroscience and genetics examining the ways in which our DNA is ceaselessly shifting.

Q: You write, "To be alive is to be in perpetual metamorphosis." What would you say are the most common changes your patients seek help with?

A: It's impossible to say - one of the wonderful things about being a general family physician is the plurality, the wealth of diversity, of the kinds of problems you're called on to address. No two days in the clinic are ever the same. 

On a single day I might be checking over a newborn baby, assessing a healing fracture, helping someone mitigate their depression, diagnosing a new cancer, offering condolences over the death of someone's spouse, injecting someone's shoulder joint to ease its stiffness. 

I might assess someone with severe anorexia, and counsel someone else about being overweight, help one woman to conceive, then prescribe contraception for another. And easing the difficulties of ageing is one of the most important roles of medicine today - helping people to live as long and as healthy lives as they possibly can.

Q: Some of the issues you look at, such as aging, are inevitable, while others, like tattooing or bodybuilding, are voluntary. How did you choose the topics on which you focus in the book?

A: The choice of chapters was led very much by my enthusiasms, and particularly vivid stories that I have encountered in the clinic and wanted to share. There are many themes I'd love to have included but the changes the mind and body go through are near-infinite, and the book had to stop somewhere. 

I wanted to keep it within a certain narrative arc, from conception to the end of life, woven through stories from the great literary classics of transformation - whether that was Ovid's poem on Metamorphosis, Kafka on alienation, or Margaret Atwood on pregnancy.

Q: The book includes a section on prostheses. What do you see looking ahead when it comes to scientific advances affecting the body?

A: The technological advances we are witnessing right now are extraordinary, the pace of change  feels dizzying. But we seem to be getting close to prosthetic limbs that can actually sense directly from the brain an individual's intention of movement - though we're not there yet. 

In the chapter on amputation and prosthetics I spoke to someone who has one of the latest generations of prosthetic limbs, and someone else, a quadruple amputee herself, who runs a charity providing low cost prosthetics in Malawi and Zambia. 

The founder, Olivia Giles, said to me, “The most transformative thing about prosthetic limbs is the potential they offer for children. The kids we work with, if they lose a limb in an accident, they become trapped in the home, a burden on their families, often ashamed of the disfigurement. Having a prosthetic leg makes it possible for them to go back to school. You can see it in the mothers’ faces when the new limbs are fitted, their faces light up, because they know that this means that their child has a future. The prosthesis gives them a future.”

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I'm always working on something, and ideas I'd love to find time to write about are usually percolating somewhere in my mind. Sooner or later one of them will take hold, and grow, and gather its own momentum.  When a book starts to flow it's a wonderful feeling - it takes on its own life. 

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: From my perspective the necessity, the inescapability, of ceaseless change means there's always hope.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Gavin Francis.

July 15

ON THIS DAY IN HISTORY
July 15, 1919: Iris Murdoch born.

Saturday, July 14, 2018

Q&A with Marianne Levy


Marianne Levy is the author of Katie Cox vs. the Boy Band, a new novel for kids. It's a sequel to Katie Cox Goes Viral. She has worked as an actress, and has written for The Independent and The Guardian. She lives in London.

Q: At what point did you know you'd be writing this sequel to your first Katie Cox book?

A: I always knew there'd be a second book for Katie, although I have to say, I wasn't entirely sure of exactly how the plot would go until I embarked upon it. That's the magic of writing books, and what keeps me at it, that sense of discovery. I love it when my characters surprise me.

Q: What was it like to write about Katie again, and do you think she's changed at all since book one?

A: The second book picks up just a month after the end of the first, because I wanted to keep exploring Katie's sense of discombobulation.

She's famous, but she doesn't feel famous, her life is changing, in that she's got a recording contract and a fan base, but day to day, many things, like her messy bedroom and her school routine, are exactly the same.

She's caught between these two worlds now, almost two different versions of herself. And that's provided loads of writing material, which is great for me, although not much fun for her...

Q: Are there any differences between the UK and US versions of your books?

A: The covers are different, and the titles. In the UK the book is called Face The Music. And a few of my British terms have been changed for US readers.

I love how, on the back cover of the US version, Katie is described as being the owner of the World's Worst Bangs. It feels so exotic. Here in the UK, we call bangs a fringe.  

Q: Who are some of your favorite writers?

A: The answer to that question changes every day. I've just finished reading the latest collection by David Sedaris, which is utterly sublime. And I'm a big fan of Ann Patchett; her novels are absolute perfection and I want to press them into the hands of everyone I meet.

Now that I come to think of it, what both those writers share is a sense of  effortlessness. Their books are so incredibly well-crafted, but they seem to flow from a well of pure inspiration.

When it comes to children's writers, my favourites right now are Lemony Snickett, Katherine Rundell and Andy Stanton.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: Something absolutely and completely different from anything I've ever written before! 

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: The collective noun for a group of hippos is a bloat. Isn't that wonderful?

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Marianne Levy.

Q&A with Vicki Salloum


Vicki Salloum, photo by Kelly Allerton
Vicki Salloum is the author of the new novel Waiting for You at Midnight. Her other books include  Candyland and Faulkner & Friends. She lives in New Orleans.

Q: What was the inspiration for your new book, Waiting for You at Midnight, and for your character, Arabella?

A: My husband was the inspiration for Waiting for You at Midnight.  Like the fictional character, Logan, in the book, my husband was dying of cancer.

After he died, I wrote this book as a final goodbye to him, to say all the things I didn’t say when he was alive and to let him know how much he meant to me. I don’t think he just disappeared somewhere. Somehow, I believe he is aware of all this and knows that I wrote this book to honor him. 

And I was the inspiration for Arabella. Her emotional needs in conflict with the workings of her moral intelligence mirrors that of the author in that disorienting first year of widowhood.

Q: What do you think the novel says about widowhood?

A: Everybody’s grief is different. I don’t know of any widow who acts like Arabella, but then I don’t know the workings of the minds of most women who lose their husbands. 

I only know what Arabella feels. She feels like the place in her heart where he lives is bleeding. She feels the rawest kind of aching, in her shoulders and upper arms and throat and back of the neck. The emptiness is so intense that she feels everything human in her is about to die. She is scared to death of being alone and is obsessed with finding someone to take her husband’s place. 

This is widowhood for Arabella, but it doesn’t say anything about widowhood for anybody else. Widowhood is personal. How a woman handles it depends on her emotional and psychological makeup and her moral character.

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 am an instinctive writer. Like Flannery O’Connor, I want to be just as surprised by the ending as everybody else. O’Connor also said that good stories come from the heart. I try to write from the heart and whatever the ending turns out to be, the heart has led me there. 

As far as changes, the manuscript changed for the better after the editor I hired got hold of it. Most of her suggestions were about the writing itself, not about structure or content. Fiction deals with reality through what can be seen, heard, smelt, tasted, and touched. I have a lazy habit of wanting to tell the story rather than show through sensory detail. My editor put a stop to that.

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

A: The main character, Arabella, met Logan, the man who was to become her husband, more than 20 years earlier. Their first significant time together was on the night of New Year’s Eve, when they slept together, and then the next morning, when they went walking around the city of New Orleans, holding hands and telling each other their life stories. 

Fast forward more than 20 years when Logan dies in late September. Three months later, the widow Arabella realizes she will be alone on New Year’s Eve. She thinks of all the past New Year’s Eves that she’d spent with her husband and becomes terrified at the thought of being without him on this night that meant so much to them. 

She scrambles to find friends to be with—parties to go to—and, when her plans fall through and New Year’s Eve finally arrives, she begins to see things in a different light. In her thoughts she speaks to Logan, This is New Year’s Eve. You are no longer with me. Everything I have of you is right here in this house. 

Grief-stricken, she longs for his spirit to appear to her at midnight and she realizes that on this special night there is nowhere she would rather be than alone with him at home, in the place where they loved each other.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I can truthfully say I’m working on nothing. Don’t even have an idea for a novel in my head. Lately I’ve been thinking of other things.  This morning, I volunteered to work for the homeless at one of the local Catholic churches. 

And I’ve also been thinking of teaching fiction writing to children or adults on a volunteer basis somewhere, thinking that all these classes and workshops I’ve taken over the years should be put to some good use. 

But I can guarantee you that I’ll be starting another novel within six months. Fiction writing is not only an addiction, it is the only thing in this world I absolutely love to do.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: People who have not been through what Arabella has been through don’t understand how intense grief can be, how it manifests itself, and how long it can last. 

But when you experience it yourself, you realize that, in your aloneness, you are stuck with the problem of what to do about it. How to get rid of the pain. How to occupy your time so that your days have purpose.  How to feel peace. And joy. And how do you do all these things when your thinking is so muddled that you can barely wash your face in the morning. 

Finally, how do you find the strength to make a triumph of your life because that is what you most want to do. People who have been caregivers are the ones who most want to make a triumph of their lives. More than anybody else, they understand how precious life is and how fleeting. So this book is an examination of the soul in turmoil.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

July 14

ON THIS DAY IN HISTORY
July 14, 1903: Irving Stone born.

Friday, July 13, 2018

Q&A with Lillian Li


Lillian Li is the author of the new novel Number One Chinese Restaurant. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including Guernica and Granta, and she lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for Number One Chinese Restaurant?

A: Whenever I start to talk about writing Number One Chinese Restaurant, I find I always begin with the summer before I wrote the novel, which was the summer I was a waitress at a Chinese restaurant.

When most people hear this, they assume I must have known I wanted to write about the restaurant before I started working there, but that wasn’t the case. I just wanted to make some money before grad school. The fact that the restaurant was a Chinese one was a complete accident.

I didn’t realize at the time that I could get a waitressing job by strolling into an Applebee’s and asking if they were hiring; my mom ended up finding the job through the classified section of the local Chinese newspaper.

As soon as I was hired I realized it was going to be an…awkward fit. For one, I was younger than all the other waiters by at least two decades, though most were in their 50s and 60s.

I was also the only American-born Chinese—everyone else had emigrated from China—and English was my first language while it was their second, third, sometimes fourth language.

But most importantly and egregiously of all, I had zero restaurant experience, and all my co-workers had years, sometimes decades of restaurant work under their belts. This is some weak foreshadowing to say that I was awful. I spilled a beer on a customer my first night and never improved from there.

I lasted barely a month before I quit, and I vowed to forget the entire experience once I moved to Ann Arbor for grad school. But the experience followed me to Michigan.

It had been physically challenging, yes, but long after the ache left my fingers and knees, I still felt the deep loneliness and alienation of serving people six days a week, 12 hours a day, people who looked right through me, who didn’t think of me as a human being.

I couldn’t imagine anyone lasting longer than a month in a job like that. Then I couldn’t stop imagining it.

What would that kind of environment do to a person over the years? What kind of life would they make for themselves as a substitute for the outside world? What would they be willing to do for connection, love, respect? What would they be willing to give up? It was through that compulsive imagination that I wrote the book.

Q: The book includes a large cast of characters, and you tell the story from a variety of perspectives. Did you write the novel in the order in which it appears, or did you focus more on one character and then turn to another?

A: I think an accidental saving grace for me with this novel was that I came up not with characters first, but relationships. Or rather, I came up with characters and relationships in tandem.

I knew I wanted waiters Nan and Ah-Jack to be longtime friends with room for romance. I knew Johnny and Jimmy, the two current co-owners of the Beijing Duck House, would have a bad case of sibling rivalry. And I had an idea of Nan’s relationship to Johnny and to Jimmy, and so on.

This meant that writing one character automatically informed all the others, which is the best kind of butterfly effect!

At the same time, when I first started writing, the first few hundred pages were almost like the prologue to the actual novel.

I was writing my characters, in relationship to each other and to the restaurant, going about their normal routines, not realizing that a novel is what happens when the normal routine is upended.

The first hundred pages I wrote, Jimmy hadn’t even bought a new restaurant yet! He signed the contract on page 100. So while I technically wrote the novel in the order of what happens, only two-thirds of it ended up in the final manuscript. 

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

A: I usually wouldn’t say I have good instincts, but I do have good instincts when it comes to writing endings. I didn’t know how the book would end when I started writing, but I knew I would find it, and in fact there has only ever been that one ending. The last paragraph in the book is the last paragraph I wrote in my first draft.

The problem is earning the ending, and many of the big changes I made came from that desire to give the ending as much oomph as possible.

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

A: That’s a great question! The title took forever and changed multiple times and honestly it came about in reaction to a title I didn’t like, but couldn’t, at first, put my finger on why.

Someone suggested the title Number One China Kitchen, and my immediate feeling was absolutely not. But I couldn’t articulate why I had such a strong reaction.

I finally realized that while Number One China Kitchen has a lovely rhythm to it, it’s nonsensical. And one of the main stereotypes of Chinese restaurants is that they have names that don’t seem to make sense in English.

The title made it seem like the joke was on the people in the restaurant, which I hated. But I liked that sentiment of “Number One,” so I wanted to see what would happen if I changed the second half of the title to make grammatical sense.

Not because I think there’s anything inherently superior about standardized English, but because I wanted people not to know who or what the joke is on.

I also wanted to point out how dodgy it is that people think a simple statement like Number One Chinese Restaurant could be a joke. Number One French Restaurant would not get the same reaction, for example.

This prejudice against Chinese cuisine, Americanized Chinese food is something the characters are working against in the book. I wanted readers to react to the title and then to go into the novel with that reaction in mind.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’m just starting a potential novel about a group of childhood friends who grow up in a sheltered Chinese American community and, at separate points in their lives, leave, or are forced to leave that space, and how that impacts their understanding of themselves, their community, and the wider world.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I’m also a bookseller at my local independent bookstore (Literati, in Ann Arbor) and want to encourage people to check out their area’s indie bookstore if they have a chance.

Independent bookstores are great spaces with well-read, well-informed staff. Visiting one will introduce you to books, authors, and presses you might not otherwise have stumbled across, and many have frequent literary events as well, free for the public.

These bookstores support the reading and writing community, and so I want to do everything I can to support them as well. 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

July 13

ON THIS DAY IN HISTORY
July 13, 1934: Wole Soyinka born.

Thursday, July 12, 2018

Q&A with Abby Fabiaschi


Abby Fabiaschi is the author of the novel I Liked My Life. She is the cofounder of the nonprofit Empower Her Network, which works with survivors of human trafficking. She lives in West Hartford, Connecticut, and Park City, Utah.

Q: You note that your novel initially was inspired by a loss you experienced as a teenager. How did you end up creating the characters of Eve, Madeline, and Brady?

A: Yes, I set out to explore grief compounded by guilt during those tender teenage years where we are all still in search of our voice and true self. With that goal in mind, I created a what-if scenario, tapping into the perspectives of the mother and the father as well, in the hopes of creating a holistic, layered narrative.  

Q: You started an initial version of the book when you were 24, and put it away for seven years. How did your vision for the novel change over that time?

A: The heart of the story didn’t change, but the mother and husband’s perspective matured. When I completed the first draft I’d been married about a month and had no children.

When I revisited the story, I had a much better understanding of the institution of marriage, its roots and complexities, and I also had children of my own, allowing a more genuine imagining of what Maddy would want to convey to Eve.

The biggest change between the drafts was more tactical, though: I struggled with how to present a deceased narrator. Initially, I did that thing writers do and assigned her a setting and “look,” but, having never been dead, this was impossible to do well and distracted readers from the heart of the story.

In the second draft, I abandoned that tact and let readers imagine Maddy’s afterlife however they wished.

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

A: I’m an inefficient writer. At first, I have no plot. No plan. I get bored with my own story if I know what’s going to happen. I love exploring who a person is at their core and how they got there. Character in mind, I go in search of conflict that drives their growth or demise.

I enjoy unearthing what a character does when squeezed … pushed … provoked… by life. Once I find the real story, it can be frustrating to delete all the work leading to that moment, but mostly it’s exciting. By then, I know my main character well and I get to see how they step up to adversity.

Q: Who are some of your favorite writers?

A: I read addictively and across genres. From the classics, Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird is my all-time favorite. (And yes, I enjoyed Go Set a Watchman, naysayers be damned.) Love Jane Austen. Edith Wharton. Charles Dickens. It’s such an obvious list it’s boring.

The most impactful read so far this year was Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi and my favorite contemporary writer is Elizabeth Strout, whose economy with words astounds me. Other favorites: Toni Morrison, Ken Follett, and Lisa See.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I love talking to book clubs! Over the past year I have FaceTimed and Skyped with over 65 groups. If your book club is interested in reading I Liked My Life, fill out this quick form and I’ll join in to answer any questions.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb 

July 12

ON THIS DAY IN HISTORY
July 12, 1817: Henry David Thoreau born.

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Q&A with Kent Wascom


Kent Wascom is the author of the new novel The New Inheritors, which takes place in the World War I period along the U.S. Gulf Coast. He also has written the novels Secessia and The Blood of Heaven. He lives in Louisiana.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for The New Inheritors, and for your character Isaac?

A: While Isaac is the primary focus of the novel (it begins and ends with him), he came along much later in the book’s development. I worked on this book for almost a year before I settled on Isaac as the central character.

Up to that point I'd written a ton of backstory for the Woolsack family members, some of the Rule Chandler section, but the manuscript was basically a series of false starts and flashbacks.

I'd been nursing the germ of an idea for a story about an artist on the Gulf Coast in the early 20th century, inspired in part by Walter Anderson, whose relationship to nature in his life and work stands in stark opposition to the rapacity of his and our time.

Isaac's backstory, the first 50 or so pages of the book, came pretty close to fully-formed in a six-week burst. Then all the other threads worked into place, or were cut.

Q: In our previous interview, you said, "I will always sacrifice historical accuracy on the altar of the story." How did this apply in this new novel when you created your own characters in a historical setting? Did you need to do much research to write this novel?

A: This book has far fewer fictionalized historical figures, though each character is a mashup of various persons, and their backgrounds and experiences were rooted in the historical record.

My research is mostly for continuity (making sure the events line up) and for texture, in other words to make sure the characters fully inhabit their time in terms of culture, events, etc.

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

A: At the risk of sounding super precious, choosing a title for any work is pretty arduous for me. Lots of wavering, false starts, reading poetry, bouncing ideas back and forth with my editor and others at Grove, friends, passersby. So this title was a team effort.

The book is about what we inherit in terms of our history, family, and environment. With this novel and its narrative voice, which leaps ahead to the present day and back 60 million odd years into the past, I hoped to re-scale the concept of inheritance, and show that we are in a continual process of contending with both the past and the future.

Consequence, like a baton, is passed in relay from one generation to the next. The title itself is meant to address the reader (as the narrator often does) because the reader is an inheritor, too, as is each succeeding reader who ever picks the book up or ever will.

Q: How does this novel fit in with the two you've already written?

A: The New Inheritors, like the previous two, is a part of the larger novel sequence that I'm working on, The Gulf Quartet. The first two books, The Blood of Heaven and Secessia, cover the periods of the Louisiana Purchase and the Civil War respectively. The new one takes us into the 20th century.

The novels share characters (bloodlines, basically) but each is told in a unique form (POV or style); they can be read individually and in any order. Taken as a whole, sequentially or not, the books form a history of my stretch of the Gulf Coast of the United States from the early 19th century to the present day.  

Q: What are you working on now?

A: Short stories, mostly, which is something I haven't really done in a long time. And for the past six months or so I’ve making notes toward the last book in the quartet, but that’s in very early going.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Hmmm, maybe an anecdote-cum-recommendation: As a very happy member of Brazos Bookstore’s Indie Press subscription book club, last month I received the collection Some Trick by Helen Dewitt. This was my first time reading her work (I’m woefully late to the game) and the stories are amazing.

At present I’m midway through her first novel, The Last Samurai, which blows other big experimental novels (a lazy term, I know, but I mean in particular those hefty boys of the late '90s and the aughts) out of the water. Just stunning. 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Kent Wascom.

July 11

ON THIS DAY IN HISTORY
July 11, 1899: E.B. White born.

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Q&A with Jonathan Santlofer


Jonathan Santlofer is the author of the new memoir The Widower's Notebook, which focuses on the impact of his wife's unexpected death. His other books include Anatomy of Fear and The Marijuana Chronicles. He has taught at a variety of universities, including Columbia University and The New School, and he lives in New York City.

Q: You’ve written that “men are neither trained nor expected to express their feelings.” At what point did you decide to write this memoir about the loss of your wife?

A: I’d say the decision was kind of made for me. For two years after my wife died, I kept notebooks—things I couldn’t say in public. I found myself transcribing notes and the book wrote itself. I didn’t think of writing a book.

I have to credit several women I know who encouraged me to write it…Men are not brought up to express their feelings. It was difficult, but it became less so as I did it.

Q: Yes, in the book you write that you asked yourself, “Do men actually write these kinds of books?” What do you see as some of the most common perceptions and misperceptions about how grief affects men?

A: I wouldn’t have been able to answer that a while ago. The culture gives us a narrow bandwidth. Men are not supposed to grieve openly. There are gender stereotypes regarding grief--I hope they change. Changing stereotypes was a motivating factor in writing this book. People should be able to grieve as they want to.

The men I know are more open [than their parents, but] my men friends would come over and hang out and would not talk about feelings: “How do you feel?” But my women friends would say, “Let’s talk about it.” It’s got to change—I hope so…

Is it our culture that’s alien to the idea of grief and how it deals with men and women? I couldn’t do much for a year [after my wife died]. I couldn’t read. When I started reading, I read grief memoirs: Joan Didion, Joyce Carol Oates. Ninety-eight percent of them were by women.

They were helpful, but I asked someone how come men don’t write this kind of book. They said because women are more comfortable. I said, Let’s get started writing these.

I read [Didion’s] The Year of Magical Thinking when it came out. I’m a huge Joan Didion fan. But when I read it [again] after my wife died, I read it in a whole different way. The book really struck me. She wrote that she was called a cool customer—[a term that's] usually applied to men.

Reading books helped me understand how my point of view could add to the genre.

Q: Much of the book involves your relationship with your daughter, and you note that “I have been writing much of this book for my daughter…” What does she think of it?

A: I would say this is not her story, it’s my story. I was pretty careful not to presume to write about her feelings. I wrote about how we reacted and how we leaned on each other. My daughter and I are incredibly close, but there have to be boundaries.

My daughter as a baby and toddler grew up in a playpen in my studio. We’re very similar, but I still say I was conscious of her boundaries. She doesn’t mind any parts of the book about her and me, but the parts that detail her mother’s death are very hard for her, and for me. I relived it through the writing.

If she wrote a memoir, it would be very different. It struck me at some point how different our loss is—losing your wife is very different from losing your mother….

Q: You mentioned the notebook you kept following your wife’s death, and you write in the book, “I am not a fan of how-to manuals, and my notebook was never that.” What role did the notebook serve for you?


A: One of the first books somebody gave me was Elisabeth Kubler-Ross. I think she did an important thing [with her writing], but boy did I not like that book. When you’re in an immediate state of grief and loss, to be told you’re supposed to be experiencing things in order makes you feel you’re doing something wrong.

I had never journaled in my life. Because I trained as an artist, people are always giving me really fancy notebooks. Very soon after my wife died, I went through all my notebooks, and I thought, no, too nice, I [would feel like I] have to write something important.

I found a composition notebook. I recorded my daily life. I went out almost every night, because I didn’t like being at home alone. I would come home to write down what happened. It was a way for me, when I felt a little crazy, to put down my thoughts so I could feel less crazy. I appeared like myself on the outside, but I didn’t feel that way.

The notebooks were very comforting….It’s one of the things I would recommend to people. You don’t have to show it to anyone. I didn’t use two-thirds of it [in the book]—it was just for me…

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’m working on a historical thriller that’s part fact and part fiction. Before my wife died, I had started it. I couldn’t work on that [after her death]. I went back to it in the past year, and now am almost finished.

After writing the memoir, I realized that here I am writing something that’s part real and part fiction, and that I needed something real in my fiction. I brought something to my characters that I wouldn’t have had [before]…the way I think about things in my writing has changed. It has affected this book in a good way.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: People are saying things to me about the book, that there’s quite a bit of humor in it. It was not intentional, but that’s who I am. I was watching a Netflix documentary about humor—it’s amazing because it made me realize that a personal tragedy changes you but doesn’t change the exterior of you.

Humor keeps us human. It makes the worst things bearable. I didn’t write the book to make people sad, or to make people laugh either...I would hate to think the book will make people sad. I want to make people hopeful, to think you’ll get through this because there are times you won’t [think so]. Humor is part of this, and maybe also a defense.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Jonathan Santlofer.

Q&A with Lucy Tan


Lucy Tan is the author of the new novel What We Were Promised. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including Asia Literary Review and Ploughshares. She is based in New York and Shanghai.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for What We Were Promised?

A: As an MFA student at the University of Wisconsin, I wrote a short story set in Shanghai about two hotel maids being accused of stealing a bracelet. The feedback from my workshop was that the story had promise, but was limited by the form.

When my professor suggested I try writing it as a novel, I was relieved and excited. There was so much more I wanted to explore about the characters in that story, and turning it into a novel would allow me the space to do that.

The short story I initially wrote became the basis for the first three chapters of the novel told from the point of view of Sunny, one of the housekeepers who services the Zhen family.

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

A: It was important for me to represent points of views from a range of social classes across China. Sunny is a migrant worker who has spent most of her life in the countryside. Lina and Wei Zhen represent the class of culturally elite Chinese who were educated abroad and have returned home with bifurcated national identities.

By telling the story from these three characters’ points of views, I hoped to present a fuller picture of what it means to live in modern China. Allowing readers access to the story from these angles also meant that the Zhens’ family drama could be understood from both insider and outsider perspectives.

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 the novel would end! I had a scene in mind, a place (both physically and emotionally) where I wanted to bring my main characters to allow for a resolution.

Two of the main plot questions the novel asks are: Why has Qiang come home to the Zhens? Why did he leave in the first place? I didn’t fully know the answer to these questions until two-thirds of the way through writing the first draft.

For most of that time, I worried that I wouldn’t be able to resolve the story in a surprising yet satisfying way. Writing without a plan can be a nerve-wracking, but I see no other way of doing it.

For me, the pleasure of writing is not so different from the pleasure of reading, and the element of surprise is a big part of that. I like surprising myself as much as I like surprising the reader. It’s upon revision that I develop my characters fully.

Knowing the ending makes it easier to shape the story in ways that clarify the characters’ intentions. I wanted to write for re-readers, for those who would want to experience the story again, once all the secrets are revealed.

Q: The book is set in Shanghai. How important is setting to you in your writing?

A: For me, the setting is extremely important. Choosing the setting for a novel represents a serious commitment—after all, you’re choosing the place where you’ll spend your working hours for the next few years!

For me, that place must feel familiar and unfamiliar at the same time, a place I know intimately but which I won’t grow tired of exploring. The setting needs to feel as alive to me as any one of the characters in the story.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’m working on a novel about three actresses growing up in Wisconsin.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I drew heavily from personal and family experiences in writing this novel. I spent two years in China after graduating college, living in a hotel much like the one in What We Were Promised.

While my parents are very different from Lina and Wei, they were also Chinese-American ex-pats adjusting to life in contemporary Shanghai. Shanghai has changed so dramatically in the past 15 years. This novel is not only a family chronicle, but also a love letter to the city as it was in 2010—full of change and promise, but still caught in the shadow of China’s painful and rich history.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with David Bell


David Bell is the author of the new novel Somebody's Daughter. His other novels include Bring Her Home and Since She Went Away. He is an associate professor of English at Western Kentucky University, and he lives in Bowling Green, Kentucky.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for Somebody's Daughter, and for the Frazier family?

A: It began with the notion of a starter marriage, those very brief marriages that some people--including me--have in their twenties. What if that person, who you thought you'd left way in the past, suddenly showed up again and said you were still connected in a way you couldn't have imagined?

Q: You tell the story from the alternating perspectives of Angela, her husband Michael, and a detective working on the case. Did you write the chapters in the order in which they appear, or did you move things around as you wrote?

A: I pretty much wrote it in order, going from one character to the other. I know during the revision process I moved some things around, but I was working from an outline that kept me pretty much on target.

Q: The story's action takes place within a day. What are some of the issues involved in plotting a novel that takes place over such a short time?

A: Most people's lives aren't this exciting. Not that much happens to most of us in one day. So I had to make sure there was enough happening, and I always had to remember where everybody was and when and what they were doing.

Q: Who are some of your favorite writers?

A: Too many to mention, and I always worry I'll leave someone out. But some excellent thriller writers are JT Ellison, Jessica Strawser, Lisa Unger, Kimberly S Belle, Kate Moretti, Heather Gudenkauf, Mary Kubica, Tom Hunt, Larry Sweazy, Nina Laurin.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I'm working on a new novel...about a man who has a brief encounter with a mysterious woman in an airport. And then finds out the crazy secret she's on the run from.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I once stood at a urinal next to Norman Mailer. Now that's pretty cool, isn't it?

--Interview with Deborah Kalb