Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Q&A with Cherise Wolas


Cherise Wolas is the author of the new novel The Family Tabor. She also has written the novel The Resurrection of Joan Ashby. She has worked as a lawyer and a film producer, and she lives in New York City.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for this new novel, and for the members of your fictional Tabor family?

A: The fictional Tabors have been with me for a very long time. I first imagined them during a snowstorm when I was living in a small town in Washington.

They lived in a rambling house, knew how to speak a dead language, and the youngest child was a hemophiliac who created alter egos for himself. That first iteration is in a tiny story called "Aramaic" that was published in Narrative magazine.

Their second iteration was in a long story called "An Unexpected Conversion." A new version of the Tabors appeared. They were clarifying themselves as a contemporary family and refusing their quasi-magical components.

Their third iteration appears in my debut novel, The Resurrection of Joan Ashby. Joan Ashby is an acclaimed story writer and her second collection, Fictional Family Life, is about a 15-year-old hemophiliac named Simon Tabor and his alter egos; and a 15-year-old boy named Simon Tabor who throws himself off the roof of the family home because he’s sure he can fly; and his family and the doctor and nurses who repair his broken body.

Stories from Joan Ashby’s Fictional Family Life are excerpted in The Resurrection of Joan Ashby.

Despite tucking the Tabors into Joan Ashby, they remained in my mind, and refused to be ignored. They were developing, deepening, changing, and moving in unexpected directions.

And they kept throwing questions at me: Does the past remain in the past or does it spill into the present without our being aware? How do the choices we make to embrace or abandon a love, a marriage, a dream, a faith, a bad act, a lost memory, the secrets and failures of ourselves and others shape us? Do we ever know those we are closest too? How is that what we show to our family and the world can be so different from what goes on in our own hearts and minds?

These were some of the questions that intrigued me and that I wanted to explore.

And thus began their fourth iteration in The Family Tabor. They emerged as a family that is brilliant, accomplished, and worldly. They glow. They are lucky. But these attributes don’t safeguard them (or anyone, whether fictional or real) from confusion and struggle.

Harry Tabor is delighted with the world he’s created, but then everything he believes about himself is upended. Roma Tabor is a “miracle-worker” psychologist for troubled children and teens, and a mother whose love for her children doesn’t prevent her from seeing them clearly.

The adult children, Phoebe, Camille, and Simon, are at personal crossroads, each seeking something we all want—love or connection or the belief we’re living our right life.

Over the course of what is to be a celebratory weekend honoring Harry, the Tabors find themselves peeling back their own layers, having to admit truths to themselves, as they search for new paths they hope will lead them in the right direction.

But peeling away our layers leaves us naked, and truths can be impossible to admit, and every new path signals the end and loss of something.

Perhaps in the future, there will be another iteration of the Tabors. Maybe a sequel to The Family Tabor or maybe I’ll finally write Joan Ashby’s Fictional Family Life in its entirety.

Q: You said in our previous interview that you didn’t know how The Resurrection of Joan Ashby would end before you started writing it. Was your writing process similar with this new novel?

A: It was. If only because I can’t write in any other way. For me, writing is about exploring and engaging and discovering the unexpected, so I’ve learned not to come at my work with preconceived notions about anything.

In the past, when I outlined, I found it cut me off from the mysteries I love finding as I write, and I was instantly bored—if I already knew where the story was going to go, why write it?

Of course, when I begin a project, I have a growing sense about the people, and the ideas are percolating, and there are questions I’d like to figure out answers to with them, and it’s a journey we take together.

These people are my creations, but I never think of them as characters. They’re absolutely real to me, are in my mind nearly all of my waking and sleeping hours, to which the staggering volume of emails I send to myself at night when I should be sleeping attests.

Writing is how I intently listen to them tell me who they are, the problems they’re having, their hopes, dreams, secrets, issues, what they want to do, how they want their stories to go.

Through the writing, all kinds of clues emerge—about these people, their pasts and futures, about the themes, the interactions, the progressions. And each clue leads to a key, and each key leads to another door. And I keep going.

When the writing is going badly, I’ve learned it means I’ve stopped listening, that I’m interposing myself and my own beliefs on them. So I rewind and find my way back into them.

My actual writing process is never about reaching the end of a first draft, and the truth is I never have a first draft. As I write forward, I am constantly going backwards, editing, revising, honing, noticing elements, teasing them out, re-envisioning, contemplating anew. By the time I have a completed manuscript, it’s likely the thousandth draft.

Q: What role do you see religion playing in the novel and in the lives of your characters?

A: Since first imagining the Tabors, they’ve always been a Jewish family. In The Family Tabor, they are steeped in the ancient history of the Jews, but are very modern, and being Jewish barely defines them. Indeed, they celebrate the High Holidays and Passover and little else.

When I began writing the novel, I never expected religion, or faith, or religious identity to play any substantial role, and I never intended to write a Jewish American novel.

But with anti-semitism and hatred for immigrants so loud and ugly again in this country and throughout the world, the Tabors and their various relationships or responses to the faith of their ancestors compelled me to be courageous and brave and follow their explorations.

The family members set their terms. Harry, the patriarch, considers himself a “historical Jew,” who aligns himself with the cultural and ethical lineage of his people, but doesn’t believe in the power of prayer. And yet, on a tennis court, on the day he is going to receive a big award, he sees visions and hears a voice.

Roma, the matriarch, treasures the mind over faith, and although her grandmother believed in her faith, it was luck she relied on. For Phoebe, Judaism means lighting Friday night candles when she remembers. Camille believes in none of it; her religion is her social anthropological work, studying tribes out in the field.

Simon is exhausted from a lasting insomnia, and over the course of the weekend gathering, he realizes that he has a hole in his soul, and thinks that perhaps what’s missing is the foundational underpinning of the faith he’s never seriously considered.

Q: The book is set in Palm Springs, California. How important is setting to you in your writing?

A: It’s very important. In The Resurrection of Joan Ashby, the fictional Rhome, where Joan and Martin start their married life, was critical for me. It’s a tiny town, with circular streets, and beyond the town center, it’s nearly rural, with a population of something like 8,000.

And then I created their house. While it sits on four acres, in a new and unpaved development outside of Rhome, the house is very small. When it’s renovated years later, and becomes large and gracious, Joan still doesn’t have a room of her own in which to write.

In The Family Tabor, I again first saw Harry and Roma’s house in my mind. And then I realized they lived in a desert, and it was Palm Springs. I signed up on various Palm Springs real estate sites so I could troll through the listings and determine whether what I was imagining would exist there.

One of the agents called me, and from then on, she sent me pictures of houses to look at, but by then I had already created the Tabors’ mid-century home, with the desert and the cacti right beyond the back patio.

Setting it in Palm Springs had both a conscious and unconscious significance, which, as I continued to write, I came to understand.

The conscious was my childhood recollections of visiting my maternal grandparents and celebrating Passover with them in Palm Springs. Unconsciously, I think Palm Spring represented a certain form of Judaism to me, hewed to by my grandparents who, despite all they suffered, maintained their faith.

And as I wrote, setting it in Palm Springs made even more sense because there are two deserts in the novel, the “newer” one in Palm Springs, and the ancient Negev, in Israel.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: So many amazing fans of The Resurrection of Joan Ashby have written to tell me which of her excerpted stories they think I should write as novels: "The Last Resort," about a woman in a mental institution; "Bettina’s Children," about a married couple who move to Nigeria; the rare babies; and "The Sympathetic Executioners," about the twin boys who become killers.

Perhaps in the future, I’ll explore those possibilities because they continue to fascinate me. I am working on my third novel now, and the main characters did make their first appearance in Joan Ashby, but none of my books are connected, and these characters have their own journeys in their own new world. 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Cherise Wolas.

July 17

ON THIS DAY IN HISTORY
July 17, 1902: Christina Stead born.

Monday, July 16, 2018

Q&A with Dunya Mikhail


Dunya Mikhail is the author of the new book The Beekeeper: Rescuing the Stolen Women of Iraq, which focuses on women who were captured by ISIS. Mikhail was born in Iraq and now lives in the United States. A poet, her other books include The War Works Hard.

Q: How did you end up writing about Abdullah, the beekeeper, and the women he rescued in Iraq?

A: In 2014 when I learned that women were sold, I felt so insulted. I made contacts with friends and relatives back home to ask what on earth was going on.

I spoke with Abdullah by chance. I called his cousin who escaped from Daesh. He translated between us because I don’t understand Kurdish. She mentioned that he rescued her.

When I called him again to ask another question about her, I learned more about his own story. When I asked him what could I do to help, he said that writing and making the world know about what happened to them is the best help.

We agreed that every time he rescued someone, he would tell me their story. Our calls were cut off several times due to the urgency of the other calls he receives from people trying to run away from captivity. So it took us a whole year of speaking on the phone to collect those stories.

Q: Were the people you interviewed hesitant to speak with you at first? How did you conduct your interviews?

A: A couple of them were hesitant in the beginning but most of them did want to speak about what they went through. Some of them I met in person when I went to Iraq in the summer of 2016 after 20 years of absence. Some of them spoke with me on the phone. Abdullah also told me about how he rescued them.

Q: What do you hope readers learn from your book?

A: I hope readers learn about the kindness of strangers, not only about the brutality of the extremists.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I am working on a novel, which is a strange thing to do for me!

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I don’t consider myself a fiction writer. I am a poet who is writing a novel, a particular novel.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

July 16

ON THIS DAY IN HISTORY
July 16, 1928: Anita Brookner born.

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