Wednesday, January 16, 2019

Q&A with JoAnn Chaney

JoAnn Chaney is the author of the new novel As Long As We Both Shall Live. She also has written the novel What You Don't Know. She lives in Colorado.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for As Long As We Both Shall Live, and for your characters Matt and Marie?

A: ALAWBSL came about in the same way most of my ideas do—it starts with a real situation and becomes something more. I was watching Dateline one night and saw the story of a Colorado man who had two wives die under suspicious circumstances and my imagination picked up from there.

As for Matt and Marie, I wanted to write about a successful, nice couple you might see anywhere. A couple you’d think has everything going for them, including the perfect marriage, and then the reader gets to see the rot underneath. Every relationship has problems, but this one—oh man, this one has some big problems.

Q: You bring back characters from your previous novel, What You Don't Know. Why did you choose to focus on Loren, in particular?

A: I find Loren to be an interesting character worth bringing back around. In many ways, he’s a stereotypical cop we see everywhere in fiction—a cop with a bad temper and a foul mouth.

But I think he’s also a cop who has been through a lot and has seen and experienced things that’ve made him that way in the end, and at his core he’s a good guy.

He’s a man who has seen bad things and done bad things, but he’s also done bad things for good reasons. I honestly think he’s the most realistic character out of the bunch, and that’s why I keep him hanging around.

Q: You tell the story from various characters' perspectives. Did you always plan to do that, or did you change things around as you wrote?

A: Actually, I always planned to write this particular book from several perspectives. There’s a few twists and moments when information is revealed to the reader and not some of the characters, and I needed multiple perspectives to make it work.

And it was work, believe me—it’s a tough thing to pull off a big surprise at the end of a book, but I think I made it happen.

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

A: The original title of the book was All Together Now with Feeling, a line that anyone who reads the book will recognize. My editors nixed the idea—Note: Writers! Listen to your editors!—and we brainstormed for titles that would work for the book and also be appealing to readers.

And since the book is about marriage, we pulled a lot of lines from wedding vows, i.e.: For Better Or Worse, Till Death Do Us Part…and my brilliant editor Christine Kopprasch suggested As Long As We Both Shall Live, I loved it, and the rest is history.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’m actually working on two books at the same time now.

One is about a series of murders where the victims are being found through online dating apps. The other is about a mass killer using cell phone technology to communicate and taunt his victims and the police.

They’re both a lot of fun and hopefully I’ll be wrapping them up soon.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: ALAWBSL was recently optioned by Made Up Stories, the production company who most recently worked on Gone Girl and Big Little Lies, so we’ll hopefully see it on screen in the future.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Jan. 16

Jan. 16, 1933: Susan Sontag born.

Tuesday, January 15, 2019

Q&A with Claire Saxby

Claire Saxby is the author of the new children's picture book Dingo. Her many other books include Big Red Kangaroo and Emu. She lives in Melbourne, Australia.

Q: Why did you decide to focus on dingoes in your new children's picture book?

A: I've written a number of books about iconic Australian animals - all plant-eaters. I wanted to write about a predator, to understand their ways and to portray them in their world.

Dingoes don't always get the best press, particularly where their world and ours overlap. If we understand them, perhaps we can coexist more peaceably.

Q: How did you research the book, and did you learn anything that particularly surprised you?

A: I read everything I could find about dingoes, both online and in books. I tend to try to search out research papers and books as they have the level of detail I need. Most of that detail doesn't end up in the book but it sits on my shoulder as I write, so that I can almost “inhabit” my character.

The discovery that surprised me was that the head of a dingo is the widest part of their body so if their head can fit through a space, then their body will too.

Q: What do you think Tannya Harricks' illustrations add to the book?

A: Tannya's art is so beautiful. There's an atmosphere to her oil paintings that evokes the mountains where this dingo family live. My words are very specific and introduce one dingo family. Her art brings to life the whole world my dingo ranges through.

I love the colours and the light of the mountains and Tannya has captured it so wonderfully. Her art adds information about family and about landscape.

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

A: Curiosity. I want them to enjoy the story, to discover the world within the pages, but mostly I want to spark their curiosity about our wonderful world. I don't want to provide all the answers, I want to stimulate more questions.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I'm working on a few things, all at different stages. I pressed “send” on two manuscripts [recently], one for this same series. The other manuscript is full of rhythm and repetition, competition and cooperation and just a little silliness.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Jan. 15

Jan. 15, 1929: Martin Luther King Jr. born.

Monday, January 14, 2019

Q&A with Kathryn Schwille

Kathryn Schwille is the author of the new novel What Luck, This Life. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including New Letters and Memorious. She lives in Charlotte, North Carolina.

Q: How did you come up with the idea of centering a book around the 2003 Space Shuttle Columbia disaster?

A: In February 2005, I saw an Associated Press story in my local newspaper about a conference of forensic scientists. A police document examiner from Israel had delivered a talk about the unique project she’d undertaken.

Eighteen pages from the Columbia diary of Israeli astronaut Ilan Ramon had been found on a forest floor in East Texas. The pieces of the metal-bound notebook, which had survived two months in the elements, were battered and stuck together, some even wadded. Her job was to separate the pages and see if there was anything for his widow to read.

I’d never heard about the discovery of a diary, so I began wandering the internet, wondering what else had been found. Thousands of searchers had descended on that very rural area and had found so much we never heard about. East Texans were in a situation that no one had been in before, with space debris at their feet. I couldn’t get it out of my head.

Q: Some of the chapters are written in first person, while the others are in third person. Why did you decide to write it that way?

A: The project began as a collection of linked stories. When I write, I “hear” narrators, and in this case, I heard quite a few. I couldn’t settle on one, which seemed okay, since I wanted to tell the story of a town. In the end, I was able to knit the sections together – I hope – in a way that offered a unity of effect, even though it’s not a traditional novel structure.

Q: The book has been compared to Winesburg, Ohio, and Olive Kitteridge. What do you think of those comparisons?

A: I’m an ardent admirer of Elizabeth Strout’s work and I could only wish that my work ever comes near to her brilliance in Olive Kitteridge. What Luck, This Life might be similar in that the shuttle disaster is in every chapter, if sometimes only nominally, in the way that Olive is in every story, even if she only floats through in the background.

At the end of Olive Kitteridge, the reader has a fuller picture of her character. At the end of What Luck, I hope the reader has a fuller picture of the disaster and what it meant for the people on the ground.

I am, of course, flattered by the comparison to Winesburg, Ohio, a book that’s often cited as ground-breaking, even though it’s also not considered Sherwood Anderson’s best work. Anderson, too, hoped his book would tell the story of a town.

The critics were hard on it in 1919, and they deemed its structure unsuccessful, though perhaps if the stories had not been so uneven in quality, the reviewers would not have harped so much on the structure. George Willard is considered the main character in Winesburg, but he does not become a fuller character by the end to the same degree as Olive Kitteridge.

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

A: The manuscript had four or five titles before this one. None seemed just right. As I was reading through the manuscript, after yet another round of revisions before sending it off on yet another round of submissions, I found what I’d been looking for was there all along, on the last page.

I wanted a title that could hold the whole of the work as a novel. An astronaut looking down on earth, in the midst of an adventure so few humans will have, feels very fortunate in that moment. The reader knows his joy won’t last. I like the irony of the title, the allusion to both the thrills and horrors that await us. To me, the phrase holds the hope that our fortunes can change.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’m working on a novel which – though I’m not yet sure how – touches on the new kinds of families being formed by sperm donations.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I knew that the Columbia’s break-up was often overshadowed in American memory by the Challenger – a televised blow-up in 1986 that so many saw on TV. But I’ve been surprised at how often people really don’t remember the Columbia, or repeatedly confuse it with the Challenger.

I call the Columbia the national tragedy that happened between the two larger, horrific pillars of 9/11 and the war with Iraq. I want people to remember it, and know its story.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Jan. 14

Jan. 14, 1912: Tillie Olsen born.

Sunday, January 13, 2019

Q&A with Katrin Schumann

Katrin Schumann is the author of the new novel The Forgotten Hours, which focuses on a young woman whose father is accused of assaulting her friend. Schumann's other work includes the nonfiction books The Secret Power of Middle Children and Mothers Need Time Outs, Too. She lives in Boston and Key West.

Q: You've said that the idea for The Forgotten Hours was inspired by people you knew. How did the initial inspiration turn into the book, and how did you come up with your character Katie?

A: There was a dark moment in my life when I went through a couple of difficult experiences--through two close friends on opposite ends of the spectrum--involving consent and assault accusations. 

At the time, I was so involved emotionally that it took over my life. I felt protective and afraid, and my loyalty was badly shaken. I learned how incredibly hard it is to admit to yourself that your instincts might be off. I felt unmoored and lost.

I kept thinking, what am I supposed to be learning from this? In a way, I too was a casualty, and I realized that my experience was more universal than I'd initially thought--all those who are accused of crimes, whether they’re guilty or innocent, have loved ones who suffer along with them.

I think of them as peripheral victims, and I wanted to find a way to explore and explain that experience. I chose a narrow lens through which to look: the daughter of the accused, because I wanted to show how much we’re impacted by our limited perspectives, and I wanted the stakes to be high--will the accused man’s daughter, Katie, be able to build a healthy and happy life?

I was trying to create a character who is smart and strong and has a good heart, who is capable of great things, but has been damaged by circumstances beyond her control. I liked the idea that Katie forges ahead valiantly, and that from the outside her life looks pretty damn good, but on the inside it’s a different story: she’s lost her sense of safety and her belief in herself.

Q: What resonance do you see the story having during the current #MeToo era?

A: These are issues we've been struggling with for a long time, and it's an incredible coincidence that my novel happens to be coming out when the #MeToo conversation has been amplified around the world.

One of my goals was to get people thinking about the nuances, the gray areas. It's in our natures to want to point fingers, and my book looks at how it can be dangerous to jump to conclusions.

We have biases, expectations, selective memories, strong loyalties--all this information is competing with itself. I wanted to examine this, and let the reader see how complex navigating truth and reality can be.

But, ultimately, I believe that love wins; in these sobering times, I wanted to show that we—empathic, thoughtful humans—can indeed face our own weaknesses and those of the people we love, and heal. 

Q: The story jumps back and forth in time. Did you write the chapters in the order in which they appear, or did you move things around as you wrote?

A: I did move smaller memories around a lot, because memories are often nonlinear and random, and I wanted to explore that.

I knew where the longer chapters set at the lake that summer night should go--I knew that they provided the all-important spine to the story. They complement and contrast and play off the present day chapters in a sort of dance, both emotionally and in terms of plot.

It was challenging to write this way, but once I found the “voice” of each era, each timeline, the story really seemed to take off. 

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

A: Originally, I had a very different working title that I loved, but it ultimately didn't set quite the right tone. The novel ended up being more of a dreamy pastiche of overlapping memories, butting up against reality, and I needed to find a way to convey that in the title.

I spent weeks brainstorming--listening to my favorite songs and jotting down ideas, thinking in terms of theme, picking important words and playing around with them.

And then one day, “The Forgotten Hours” popped into my head and I knew I had it. It captures what I was trying to convey so well--the idea of being imperfect, out of control, overlooking or assuming things, of looking backwards for answers.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I have a novel coming out next year that's also about a young woman dealing with circumstances beyond her control--in this case, the aftermath of a war.

It's set in East Germany and Chicago at the beginning of the Cold War, and it's the story of a young photographer forced to choose between her freedom and her child when her husband, a member of the newly-formed Secret Police, discovers she's having an affair.

It also explores this idea that people are not easy to define and label; they’re rarely all good or all bad. 

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I wrote this book to challenge readers to think deeply about an uncomfortable issue, but I also wanted to point out the beauty of our world—the beauty of our never-ending search for love and connection, of our ability to be resilient and hopeful in spite of our pain and uncertainty.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb