Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Q&A with Charis Cotter

Charis Cotter is the author of The Ghost Road, a new novel for kids. Her other books include The Swallow and The Painting. She lives in Newfoundland.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for The Ghost Road?

A: I live in a beautiful spot in Newfoundland, with ocean on one side and a series of hills and meadows on the other. At a certain spot on the road that leads up over the hill and into the meadows, you can see the very faint outline of where there used to be a road, 60 years ago.  When I first saw it, I started calling it the Ghost Road, and I have wanted to write a story about it ever since.

I’ve also visited some forgotten graveyards in Newfoundland, and they are so lovely and timeless that they gave me story ideas too. And there was a tsunami in Newfoundland in 1929, where whole houses were swept away, along with the people in them, and that also took root in my imagination.

Early in my thinking about the story, I imagined a ghost coming into the girl’s bedroom carrying a candle, and the story just went on from there. My mother’s family is from Ireland, and I have a strong sense of my female Irish ancestors and the burdens of shame and guilt that get passed down in a family. All of this influenced my story.

Q: The novel focuses on many generations of twins. Why did you include that as one of the book's themes?

A: I’ve always been fascinated by twins. For centuries, twins have been held in awe by the rest of us: they seem to have a magical quality and connection to each other.

I like the idea that a twin is never alone, that they have one person who completely understands them. Like they’re two parts of one whole. The essential loneliness of human beings seems somehow mitigated by being a twin, and that idea appeals to me.

All of my books so far have had two protagonists, not twins necessarily, but friends who have a lot in common. I really like the idea of an ally: someone who you can depend on and who is going through the adventure of life by your side. All the poor twins in The Ghost Road have a dreadful time, but at least they have each other.

There’s also something about the repetition of twins in every generation that underlines the power of the curse and the feeling that this family has to keep going through the same struggles until they find a way to break the pattern.

Q: The Ghost Road takes place in Newfoundland. How important is setting to you in your writing?

A: Setting is very important. The place a story happens really holds the power of the story for me. I usually start with the setting and the story grows from there.

I find Newfoundland very inspiring, and in both The Painting and The Ghost Road, the presence of the ocean and the lonely landscape function almost like another character in the story.

The Swallow was set in Toronto in two old houses that backed on to a cemetery in one of the oldest parts of the city. This cemetery cast a pall over the houses and their inhabitants, forming a backdrop for the ghostly activities that plague the two main characters.

My next book is set in a haunted Georgian house in a small town that could be anywhere in North America. With that book, it’s the house itself that generates the entire story.

Q: Who are some of your favorite authors?

A: My all-time favourites are Jane Austen, William Shakespeare, and J.R.R. Tolkien. The classics. I can read them over and over again. I also love Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Isabel Allende and Carlos Ruiz Zafon (the Spanish contingent!)

I love murder mysteries, and my favourites in that genre are Laurie R. King, Robert Galbraith (J.K. Rowling in disguise!) and Elizabeth George. For children’s writers it’s Christopher Paul Curtis, L.M. Montgomery and E.B. White.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’m working on a book about a girl named Alice who has a hard time distinguishing between what’s her imagination and what’s real. Her parents are in the process of splitting up, and she and her mother go to live in a haunted house in the country where Alice has some very disturbing experiences.

As with my other books, I’m exploring how characters can find their inner strength while negotiating a world where nothing is ever quite what it seems. I’m having fun with the ghosts!

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I used to be an actor, and I think this helps me when I’m writing dialogue. I believe that many of the creative arts feed into each other. One of the ways I still get to perform in front of an audience is by visiting schools with my books and telling Newfoundland ghost stories. I really enjoy working with kids and it helps me keep in touch with my readers.

Thank you for inviting me to your blog, Deborah. It’s been a pleasure!

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Nov. 14

Nov. 14, 1907: Astrid Lindgren born.

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Q&A with Angela Himsel

Angela Himsel is the author of the new memoir A River Could Be a Tree. She grew up in a fundamentalist Christian family and now is Jewish. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including The New York Times and The Jewish Week. She lives in New York City.

Q: Why did you decide to write your memoir, and how long did it take you to write it?

A: I originally wrote it as a novel. I wanted to write a fictional account—I didn’t want to go into the truth. I was writing essays for Jewish publications, and a friend said, You should write a memoir.

I balked. I didn’t mind writing stand-alone essays, but not the whole thing. I thought I could string the essays together, but there were too many gaps. I started working on it as a memoir 14 years ago. I was working on other things too.

Q: Had you kept a journal or diary over the years, or did you need to do much research to fill in some of the material you write about?

A: Both. I had a lot of primary source material—I had letters and I had journals. They were very embarrassing—you look at the handwriting. It was so childish.

I had my father’s letters, my journals, letters to and from my friend Alise. I interviewed her, my parents, my aunt Viola. I wanted it to be accurate and in the spirit in which they would tell their stories.

It wasn’t just my story—I felt it was part of a larger story. I wanted it to be their story, through my words.

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

A: There was quite a debate about the title. Some of the titles I came up with were trite and silly. I wanted it to indicate change, so the title comes from something my father said.

When I was in my teen years, I started to balk at the church’s sexist views. My father said God created a role for everything. Men have a role, women have a role. What would happen if a river thought it was a tree? Things have to live by their God-given role.

I took it from there. It was a little poetic, a little unexpected, it suggested possibility—a river [could become] a tree. A Christian could become a Jew. It’s something you aspire to. You’re not as limited by what you think you are.

Q: What do your family members think of the book?

A: My sisters have read it. My brothers have not. They’re not as computer-savvy. My sisters liked it. I wanted to show it to them before it went to print. I think they were surprised by some of the material. I had done so much research, asking my mother and father about their childhood experiences. [My sisters] find it fair and accurate.

Q: Were you concerned they might not?

A: I was a little concerned. All families have their secrets, temper tantrums, fights. I felt that to be honest, you have to include that. But I hoped my siblings would see that I didn’t dwell on that. Leaving out a part is to not be honest about the whole. I tried to temper the negative with the positive.

Q: What do you see as religion’s role in your life today?

A: Religion is important to me. I think my notion of religion and God changed over the years, [but] in some sense it has not. I have always felt God’s presence. There’s a higher power. It doesn’t matter what you call it.

I like organized religion, but only to an extent. When you need organized religion—when my parents passed away, when there’s a life cycle event, there’s nothing like that. Even if you have a good group of friends.

Religion does play a unique role—[it takes] ordinary events and elevates them. I like religion a lot. It does play a big role in my life, but I wouldn’t say I’m frum [observant]. I’m not.

Q: What do you hope readers take away from the book?

A: I hope readers find it amusing. I’d like to think there is humor there that tempers some of the more serious parts of it.

I would hope readers would take away that change is possible. You’re not confined to what other people think you should be, whether it’s your religious choice or your choice of partners or part of your own identity—if you’re born a woman and want to be a man.

It’s that notion that we aren’t limited by other people’s perceptions, or by God. It’s all coming from ourselves. If you feel limited, you are limited. It’s being able to forge your own destiny.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: As of recently, I’m working on a historical novel about Michal, King David’s first wife. I’m in the beginning stages. I love to write fiction. I’m really sick of [writing about] myself!...

The plan is to write about the experience of women—what we know and don’t know about them. Michal is the only woman in the Bible of whom it’s said that she loved a man. It never says Sarah loves Abraham, or Rebecca loves Isaac. The fact that she loved him is interesting to me. It must have been common knowledge.

It’s a fun feeling to start something new where you don’t know what happens next. With a novel, I start with a germ of an idea and it flutters off. I’m not certain where Michal will take me, and I’m wiling to let her have her way.

Q: Anything else we should know about the book?

A: There’s the part in Israel. My approach to Israel is a little different. I went with no real expectations. I believe there are a lot of people in the United States who don’t know the cause of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

I hope I’ve clarified or given a backdrop to modern-day Israel through my own experiences. I didn’t go to Israel with preconceived notions that I was on the side of this or that.

That’s the important part for me—I hope it can come across as a measured and balanced view of modern-day Israel and its conflicts, as well as historical Israel. Even though this is mostly for a Jewish audience, I think a non-Jewish audience would appreciate it…

I also think that for Jews, I made an attempt to explain Christianity. A lot of Jews don’t understand the conflicts between Catholics and Lutherans, or how Christianity understand Jesus. I’m doing my public service announcement—tell Jews about Jesus, and Christians about Israel.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Christine O'Brien

Christine O'Brien is the author of the new book Crave: A Memoir of Food and Longing. Her work has appeared in publications including The Seneca Review. She lives in Walnut Creek, California.

Q: At what point did you decide to write this memoir, and how long did it take you to write it?

A: My first impulse is to answer this question by saying that I’ve been writing about my life since I was 9 and begged my mother to buy me a very ugly little green diary with gold-edged pages and a lock and key attached. I’ve always had the desire to record my life’s events.

More specifically, I began working on shaping various tucked-away pieces of my writing into a memoir while I was in the MFA program at Saint Mary’s College of California. In the MFA program I worked on the story of the Program for a year and the manuscript became my thesis.

Many more years went into the book after I graduated, in 2011, as I attended to it on and off. If I string together the hours I put into it, I would say that I’ve spent roughly five to six years working on this story.

Q: How was the book's title chosen, and what did you and the other members of your family crave during the years you were growing up?

A: The book was originally entitled Hungry but after Roxanne Gay’s memoir, Hunger, was released my editor at St. Martin’s Press thought we should rename it.

He noticed that I use the word “crave” many times throughout the story and felt the term encapsulated the meaning of the memoir even better than “hungry.”

My brothers and I craved almost anything you could think of because you name it, it was off limits. Literally. Even something like salt or pepper took on larger-than-life meaning because we were allowed no spices, even.

My personal tormentors were chocolate, steak, hot peppers, vinegar. Things I eat regularly now, interestingly, which to me demonstrates how organic to my make up the desire for these foods was. My mother’s admonishment that I “wouldn’t want them anymore once my body was pure” was incorrect though I believed her at the time.

Q: The book includes a great deal of information about your various family members. What does your family think of it?

A: I was worried about my youngest brother, Braddy’s, reaction to the book since his high energy level factors in, heavily, as one of the reasons my mother implemented the Program to begin with.

But when I gave a rough draft to him to read and asked him to let me know what he wanted me to omit and if he’d like it if I changed his name, he told me to keep his name and sent me his favorite line of the book, “the diet my mother clings to to save her marriage is the thing that will tear it apart.” The other two brothers have been equally supportive.

I come from an amazing family, really, and have to give my parents credit for creating a culture of love and support that my siblings and I have been able to perpetuate to this day. I’m also thinking that the fact we were in the trenches together, living with my father’s raging and with my mother’s dietary regimes, engendered an unbreakable bond.

Q: What do you hope readers take away from your story, and what impact did writing Crave have on you?

A: Originally I felt extremely guilty writing this book as I believed it would seem like a condemnation of my mother which was something I didn’t at all want.

I’ve been so heartened to hear that readers are feeling, instead, that I portray both parents in a loving light, as people who, despite their flaws, were doing the best they could. I would like readers to feel the inevitability, based on my parents’ personalities and backgrounds, of the unfolding of unwanted events.

To me the Program represents any playing field in which differing and nonnegotiable human needs intersect. I wanted to present all sides, clearly, so that the family’s implosion and my later implosion as an adult, makes sense. 

A surprising impact that writing Crave has had is I have come to a deeper understanding of my mother’s motivation in implementing her diet regime. Any residual anger has vanished.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’m working on an addendum memoir, The Gods of Point Lookout, culled from that original ugly green diary I mentioned, and two others, in which I document an unexpected plot twist the summer I turn 16.

It’s 1976, the Bicentennial summer, and our tiny beach house town is celebrating the country’s independence. We are one year into the Program and my brothers and I are very hungry.

I am floating blissfully, even so, having fallen in love for the first time, a state of affairs which brings me face to face with the thing that enchains me maybe even more than the Program regime, my inability to insert myself into my own life. Will I overcome the parental messages that have led to my paralysis?

Some of these events are mentioned in the middle section of Crave, but after discovering these lost diaries -- after I finished Crave -- I realized the account of this summer tells a separate story with different themes, one in which the narrator embarks on a challenging and high-stakes journey towards selfhood. As I write, I’ve noticed I’m feeling that old familiar drive that says this is a story that needs to be told.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: When I was growing up, I keenly felt the bleakness that was present in our household. A part of me resonated with the sadness I sensed in my parents and in the world around me.

I was 8 when Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy were assassinated. Vietnam was raging and young people were protesting. I sang “We Shall Overcome” as I walked through the halls of my elementary school wearing my father’s Hanes t-shirts on which I drew peace signs with magic marker. I wanted to change the world and at the same time, I also wanted to escape it.

Despite the fact that memoir is the genre that comes most naturally to me, The Chronicles of Narnia were my favorite books growing up and I desperately longed to find the doorway in, myself.

I am also working on fiction that explores this sort of escapism and enchantment of some kind. Writing it is as close as I can get, I suppose, to losing myself into a magical realm. It’s a challenge to make the unreal, real, and a great deal of fun.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Reyna Marder Gentin

Reyna Marder Gentin is the author of the new novel Unreasonable Doubts. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including The Westchester Review. She worked as an attorney for many years, and she lives in Scarsdale, New York.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for Unreasonable Doubts, and for your character Liana?

A: When the novel opens, Liana is a young attorney working in a public defender’s office struggling to balance her idealism with the realities of the hardened criminals she represents.

I worked as a criminal defense attorney in New York City for almost 20 years, and the legal aspects of the novel were inspired by cases that I handled. Liana’s commitment to the work coupled with her profound questioning of her role was emblematic of many of my colleagues and myself at some point in our careers.

Liana’s personal conflict, which centers around her ultimate choice between love and something more dangerous, is entirely a product of my imagination.

Q: The book begins with a quote from Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk: "There is nothing so whole as a broken heart." Why did you choose to start with this quote, and how does it relate to the novel?

A: One aspect of Liana’s coming of age in the novel is her exploration of concepts of justice and love with a traditional, if unconventional, rabbi. I was interested in finding an epigraph that would set that tone. I have always loved this quote.

To me it means that to experience true joy and true love, and to really be grateful for one’s blessings, on some level one also has to know the depths of despair. In the novel, Liana is in danger of losing everything, and only then does she realize all that she has.

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 definitely had the contours of the ending in my mind before I started writing, but also made many changes along the way.

One big change came after several years of revising, when a fellow writer suggested what seemed like a seismic change to me at the time. Where I had envisioned Liana wanting to get married and her boyfriend Jakob being reluctant, my friend suggested that those roles should be reversed. This was a game-changing moment for me in writing the novel.

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

A: I chose Unreasonable Doubts because it captured both the legal standard of how a jury determines a defendant’s guilt (beyond a reasonable doubt), and because Liana is riddled with doubts throughout the novel – doubts about herself and her professional choices, doubts about her boyfriend, and doubts about her client’s guilt and his intentions toward her.

Some of these doubts turn out to be reasonable and others unreasonable, and figuring out which are which is critical to her development as a woman.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’m currently working on two projects. I have a completed first draft of a middle grade novel entitled My Name is Layla which I am shopping to agents. And I have just begun a new novel with a working title Jackie and Lou, which is a love story of sorts about family and the ties that pull us in different directions.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Embarking on a new career in my 50s is incredibly exciting and a bit terrifying at the same time. I love writing, and I’m learning a tremendous amount about the business of getting the word out. I appreciate this opportunity!

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Nov. 13

Nov. 13, 1850: Robert Louis Stevenson born.

Monday, November 12, 2018

Q&A with Laura Marshall

Laura Marshall is the author of the new novel Three Little Lies. She also has written the novel Friend Request. She lives in Kent, England.

Q: Three Little Lies centers on a rape case. Why did you choose to focus on that, and how do you think the book resonates in the #MeToo era?

A: As we know all too well since the explosion of #MeToo stories on social media, sexual assault or harassment is something that has been experienced by pretty much every woman. I was interested in exploring the impact of that on my characters. I also wanted to tell a story where anybody could be lying.

Q: You tell the story from several perspectives. Did you focus more on one character before turning to the others, or did you write it in the order in which it appears?

A: I wrote it pretty much in the order it appears. When I’m writing a first draft, although I have a plan, I don’t always know exactly what’s going to happen, so I prefer to write chronologically. That way the story unfolds naturally, and I can adapt the plan as I go along.

Q: What do you think the book says about friendship?

A: The relationship between Sasha and Ellen suggests that we can never truly know our friends. Whilst I don’t think this is universally true, I have certainly had friendships in my life where there were things going on beneath the surface that I couldn’t see at the time.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I can’t start my writing day until I’ve had at least one cup of tea and one cup of coffee!

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Laura Marshall.