Tuesday, May 21, 2019

Q&A with Randy Susan Meyers

Randy Susan Meyers is the author of the new novel Waisted. Her other books include The Widow of Wall Street and The Murderer's Daughter. She lives in Boston.

Q: In our previous interview, you said of Waisted, "It was hard to write." Why was that?

A: I played with the first line of this book for over a decade: “Everyone hates a fat woman,” but I wrote and published four books before using it in Waisted. The story screamed in my head, but I kept it locked away because writing it meant facing myself. Writ honest, the novel would have to include tales of self-loathing, hiding food, and scale-terror. All of which I face daily.

Feeling ready to hit the personal nadir that delving into issues of women and weight could/would ignite took years. Hiding from the truth was far more inviting. And yet, “Everyone hates a fat woman” wouldn’t let go. So, I began.

Once embroiled in the story, I wanted to never eat again, and I wanted to eat every minute. I never wanted to look at a scale, and I wanted to weigh myself three times a day. Part of me wanted to continue denying the cruelty we face from ourselves and others, but I also felt the urge to open myself to every loathsome thought I’d ever had about myself and every bit of self-hatred I (and I imagined other women) held.

I reckoned with my mother teaching me to hate anything short of perfection. I remembered and confronted the question she’d ask on almost every phone call: “How’s your weight?”— as though “my weight” was something separate from me. Like a roly-poly puppy I dragged behind me. Or a snarling feral bear.

Inhabiting my characters forced terrifying introspection. Could I be at peace with my body and choose who I wanted to be? Could my life be other than a reaction to my mother, magazines, and impossible societal standards? Could I stop denying how my weight—whether up or down—controlled me?

Q: Can you say more about how you came up with the idea for the novel, and for your characters Alice and Daphne?

A: What’s it like to have the scale be the scariest thing in the house? And why is that more true for women than for men? Those were my initial questions.

I wanted to write (and read) a novel based on “What if a woman’s desire to be thin overrides everything else in her life” — including all ranges of women, in weight, in background, and in class.

My characters are not my family or me—and yet they are. The inner lives, traumas, and history of novelists always flavor their work. I knew my experiences with issues around body image would be baked into Waisted, but I didn’t want this novel to be my autobiography, just the emotional butter in the story’s cookies.

Alice and Daphne —seemingly so different—confront the same issue, though their back story is completely different. Both are so damaged from fat-shaming, they willingly leave their families and jobs for over a month to take part in what they think will provide the magic bullet. When reality hits that they are caught in a cruel experiment, I wanted to explore how far women will go to lose weight—and if they can rescue themselves.

I drew from a multiple of cultures (racial, ethnic, religious, class) because this is the world in which I/we live. Women from every group in America must face fat-shaming, and the pressure to be thin. I looked forward to putting these women together on the page.

Q: What do you think their experiences say about the role that appearance play for women, and also about how weight factors into family dynamics?

A: Alice, Daphne, and the other women of Waisted, represent too many of us in America. We are judged (or ignored, or feted) daily based on the quality of our appearance. Even in the most careful of families, girls are complimented on their appearance while we note boy’s strength and smarts.

When I spoke to women about Waisted, more than a few mentioned that their brothers were given desserts, but not them. One had to do push-ups while her brother ate cake.

Women are often the decorations of the media. Fighting that constant barrage is close to impossible.

When I reached out to women across the country, asking for their essays, poems, and stories about body image, their submissions (which turned into Women Under Scrutiny, a non-fiction companion book for Waisted) filled with pain, rage, and hope, overwhelmed me. Ages 17-76, representing a wide swath of women, family dynamics & weight was an overwhelming truth they put forth.

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

A: I hope women take away at the very least these four messages:
* You are not alone.
* Smart is beautiful.
* Be kind to yourself.
* Be kind to others.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: My current projects are way out of my comfort zone. I’m trying to reach yet another world I haven’t yet explored. I’m not ready to talk about it for fear of breaking the nascent state I’m building!

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I knew this novel would incite strong feelings and reactions, but I still found myself unprepared. Writing this book was a trauma, a blessing, and a ride into my past, and future. Putting out this novel, more than any I’ve written, blew up and revealed all the hidden craziness about my body that I’ve carried all these years.

Writing this novel was a creative and personal experience.

At this moment, I am thinking of how much I will share of this as I set out on book tour.  I’m truly looking forward to talking to women about it when I visit their book clubs in person and via Skype. Whether I am with them or not, I hope Waisted will engender intense honest discussion.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Randy Susan Meyers.

Q&A with Kaira Rouda

Kaira Rouda is the author of the new novel The Favorite Daughter. Her other novels include Best Day Ever. She lives in Southern California.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for The Favorite Daughter, and for your character Jane?

A: Much like Paul in Best Day Ever, Jane popped into my head one sunny day. And the rest of the book flowed from there. I’m intrigued by what goes on behind closed doors of seemingly perfect lives. And, although her family has been struck by tragedy, Jane still believes it’s almost perfect, and can be again.

Q: You write of narcissists, "Although it may seem terrifying to some that I enjoy getting inside the heads of these types of people in my most recent novels, to me, it's cathartic." Why is that?

A: No idea. I suppose once you know these personalities exist, and you see them in action in the world, causing commotion wherever they go, a good way to try to understand them better is through writing about them. That’s my theory.

Q: The novel is set in Orange County, California. How important is setting to you in your writing?

A: Setting is everything to me. I cannot write a good story without knowing the place where it is happening. It’s another, important, character in the book.

Q: Who are some of your favorite authors?

A: I have so many but I’d say if pressed to narrow the list: F. Scott Fitzgerald, Shirley Jackson, Eudora Welty.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: My next novel!

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: That’s it. Thank you so much for reading The Favorite Daughter and for having me here.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Kaira Rouda.

May 21

May 21, 1688: Alexander Pope born.

Monday, May 20, 2019

Q&A with Penny Farmer

Penny Farmer is the author of the new book Dead in the Water: My Forty-Year Search for My Brother's Killer. She is a freelance journalist, and she lives in Oxford, UK.

Q: You write that in 2015 you had an epiphany about finding your brother's murderer and his sons. What happened at that point to make you think you could find them so many years after your brother's death?

A: While on a dog walk with my then 91-year old mother I had this conviction like a bolt out of the blue that I could find Silas Boston and his two sons on the internet. To this day, I have no idea where that thought came from or why it should happen some 38 years after my brother, Chris, and his girlfriend, Peta, had been murdered. All I can say is that they have never been forgotten and we still miss them to this day.

I had a firm conviction that if I just looked hard enough and drilled down on the internet that I would find them and, of course, I did.   I actually felt cross with myself that I hadn’t looked for them before but we had been told so many times by law enforcement that he and his sons had disappeared off the radar.

Q: You say of writing the book that it was cathartic but emotionally draining. What made you decide to write the book, and what are your emotions now that it's published and people are reading it?

A: To be quite honest I hadn’t actually thought of writing a book until early on in the investigation one of the detectives, who was working on the case at Greater Manchester Police, knowing that I was a journalist, asked me if I had plans to write it up. I was also motivated by the fact that my father, a BBC TV director who sadly died in 2013, some two years before the case was reopened, had always wanted me to write Chris’s story.

I felt it was very much my family’s story to tell and being a journalist and PR consultant it seemed natural that I should write it. I believe and hope that I have written it without prejudice. As the story got bigger, we were approached by many to write it but as a family we feel very protective of Chris’s memory and I wanted to take rightful ownership of it.

My primary aim in writing the book was for it to stand as a lasting memorial to a very dear brother. He was one of life’s big characters, was hugely popular, and touched many people’s lives not just as a doctor but as a friend. It is heart-warming that so many of his friends from school and university have seen the story in the media and got in touch.

My mother and I feel that we have revisited Chris’s memory all over again and know him better now than when he died as of course he had been living away from home for five years at university. The book is like bringing him home.

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

A: My mother and older brother are delighted that I have written it. My only wish is that my father had been alive to know the story and know that Chris died defending someone less able than himself.

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

A: That evil doesn’t in the end pay. You can run but you can’t hide from judgment – after 50 years on the run Boston was arrested and charged with their murders. Boston didn’t stand trial because in choosing to stop all his meds and refuse food and liquids, he effectively chose the coward’s way out.

We were just two weeks away from travelling to Sacramento to give pre-trial evidence when he died, which was a further body blow to mine and Peta’s family. Boston followed in his father’s criminal footsteps and I am glad that [Boston’s sons] Russell and Vince didn’t become carbon copies of their father. I like to think that, though I am not religious, that Chris and Peta showed both sons a better way to live.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I have planned my second book and have started researching it but have so far been unable to start writing it as I have a full-time job but I will! I am still heavily involved in promoting Dead in the Water as the BBC have made a major 10-part podcast called Paradise.

For the making of it, I went to Belize and Guatemala in December with the investigative journalist Dan Maudsley and I was stunned to find Chris and Peta’s graves in Puerto Barrios Cemetery in Guatemala when the FBI had failed to find them. It took us one hour of being in the cemetery and the FBI said they had spent at least a month looking for them so it begs the very puzzling question why didn’t they find them?

It is particularly significant given the fact that had Boston not chosen to exit life, we were facing going to trial with a body-less crime. Fortunately, I was able to add this last minute to the U.S. edition of my book.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: My website features a lot of information on the case and photographs and videos. I can also be found on Twitter @PennyFarmer18 and my Dead in the Water Facebook page

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Dee Garretson

Dee Garretson is the author of the new young adult historical novel All is Fair, which takes place during World War I. Her other books include Wolf Storm and Wildfire Run. She lives in Cincinnati.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for All is Fair, and for your character Mina?

A: I love history and had self-published a historical mystery set in 1878, The Gargoyle in the Seine, which I always intended to continue as a series but have not yet gotten around to that. Then I fell in love with Downton Abbey and started to ponder a story with a similar setting.

One of the characters in the 1878 book was a spy for the British government and though he’d be far too old in 1918 to be a main character in a YA book, I came up with a life that could have happened to him after 1878. That’s how his youngest daughter, Mina, becomes the main character of this book, and why there are spying and code elements in it. It was so much fun to write and so much fun to imagine their whole family’s history in those intervening years.

Mina’s personality developed as I wrote the story-it’s always hard for me to figure out a character completely until I’m actually writing.

Q: What kind of research did you do to write the novel, and did you learn anything that especially surprised you?

A: When I’m writing historicals, I first immerse myself in the general history of the time period so I can get a better feel of how to focus. As I’m reading, I always find references to events that intrigue me, and I note those down and then delve into more specific research.

When I first started researching All is Fair, I only knew the very broad outlines of the history. Stumbling on books about how the Belgian underground operated and the raid on Zeebrugge were like finding hidden treasures. I knew I had to incorporate both of those.

After the structure of the story comes together, I focus on memoirs and autobiographies to get a sense of the smaller details of daily life. I do tend to get so interested in the research, I have to cut myself off at some point so I’ll actually write the story!

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

A: The basic plot didn’t change but there were many, many other changes along the way. In the original story, the first part of the book, the spy element, had more characters and more twists and turns. At one point I almost turned the story into two books, but then we decided to edit it down. I cut three characters and really pared it back.

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

A: I think it’s so important that we all know something of history and how the major events affect ordinary people. I’m a firm believer in the statement that those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it. While this is a story which has a happier ending for the main characters than many would have at the time, I hope readers come away with a bit of understanding of that time and how it changed the lives of everyone who lived then.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I just finished the majority of the work on another YA historical fiction story, this one set during the Russian revolution, called Gone by Nightfall. It’s inspired a bit by The Sound of Music. An American girl lives with her Russian stepfather and a whole unruly assortment of younger siblings and stepsiblings in Petrograd.

She’s hoping a new young Russian tutor, who just happens to be rather handsome and dashing, will stick out the job of wrangling the children so she can go back to the United States, but then the revolution happens and everything gets turned upside down.

The book will be out in January 2020. I’m not sure what my next book will be after that, but I’m exploring lots of ideas.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Just that I hope readers walk away with a sense that the characters are going to go on and have interesting lives. That’s what I want with all my books. I also hope readers find many more historical fiction stories to embrace. Historical fiction a bit of an underdog in genre term and it’s hard to reach readers, so thank you very much for reading the book!

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

May 20

May 20, 1799: Honoré de Balzac born.

Sunday, May 19, 2019

Q&A with Tembi Locke

Tembi Locke, photo by Jenny Walters
Tembi Locke is the author of the new book From Scratch: A Memoir of Love, Sicily, and Finding Home. It focuses on her relationship with her late husband, a chef from Sicily. Locke is an actor and is the creator of TheKitchenWidow.com, an advocacy platform. She lives in Los Angeles.

Q: Why did you decide to write this memoir, and what impact did writing it have on you?

A: There were perhaps two main reasons I decided to write From Scratch. One, I wanted to share what I had learned about love and loss. Two, I wanted to create a kind of love letter to my late husband and his homeland for our daughter. I had reached a point in my life where to not tell the story would have been another kind of grief.

Plus, I am a firm believer that there are times when we need to look back and find meaning into order to go forward. It gives us a better understanding of our present and perhaps our future.

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

A: From Scratch has multiple meanings. On the one hand, it directly connects to the theme of food in the book. But it is also about building an improbable life from scratch and then starting over from scratch.

Q: How did you select the recipes that you include at the end of the book?

A: I always felt the book should have recipes. It seemed like a perfect way to honor Saro, who was a chef.

But also, I was inspired by two books, Like Water for Chocolate by Laura Esquivel and Many Beautiful Things, a book of stories and recipes by food writer (and actor) Vincent Schiavelli. I wanted the recipes in From Scratch to accompany the narrative and pull from the delicious foods prepared by the people who passed through my heart.

Q: How would you describe the impact that Sicily has had on your life?

A: Sicily has taught me more than I can ever fully articulate. It has seeped into my bones and enriched my life, teaching me about the constancy of love and place as well as the beauty for our natural world.

Its people and ancient, kaleidoscopic culture have also taught me there is no finish line in grief. That “island of stone,” in all its visual lushness, customs and contradictions, gave me a stillness when I needed it most. It helped me find safe harbor when I was adrift in a sea of loss.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: Right now, I am largely focused on the book launch. But I have a recurring role on the FOX drama Proven Innocent, and recently completed an independent film, The Obituary of Tunde Johnson. And I am toying with a new book idea.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb