Monday, September 21, 2020

Q&A with Sophie Hannah

Photo by Onur Pinar

Sophie Hannah
is the author of the new mystery novel The Killings at Kingfisher Hill, the latest in her series featuring Agatha Christie's iconic Hercule Poirot. Her many other books include Closed Casket and The Mystery of Three Quarters. She lives in Cambridge, UK.


Q: How did you come up with the plot for this new Hercule Poirot mystery?


A: I think in this instance it was the idea for some of the key characters which was the creative spark for the plot.


I knew I wanted to write about a particular family dynamic that really interested me, and imagining all the possibilities about how it might play out – how certain situations would give rise to certain psychological traits and how those traits would manifest themselves under pressure – generated the idea for the mystery.


And from there I came up with the hook: en route to an exclusive country estate to investigate a murder, Poirot encounters a woman who insists she’ll be killed if she sits in a particular seat on the coach...and then I started to put all the pieces together. 


Q: Were you always a fan of Agatha Christie's work, and how did you approach the recreation of an iconic character like Poirot?


A: I have loved Agatha Christie ever since I read The Body in the Library when I was 12 years old; by the time I was 14 I’d collected and read every single one of her novels, so you can imagine how honoured and excited I was to be given Poirot to work with!


I was very conscious that I didn’t want to change or update him in any way – he’s the world’s most beloved fictional detective, after all, so I really wasn’t trying to “recreate” him. I invented Inspector Catchpool to narrate Poirot’s new adventures – a new person, like I was, working with Poirot.


Q: You also write non-Poirot novels, as well as short stories, poetry, and nonfiction. Does your writing process differ depending on what you're working on, and do you have a favorite genre?


A: Apart from poetry – which has a different, more spontaneous energy – my approach to whatever book I’m writing is pretty standard in that I’m a die-hard and dedicated planner!


I have to know where my plot/structure – and each chapter – is going before I begin to write properly. That’s the only way I can be sure the whole thing is going to work and, once the scaffolding is in place, I can enjoy the freedom of bringing all the details to life and feel totally relaxed.


I don’t think I have a favourite genre to write in as such. I love working on my psychological thrillers and crime novels because I’m fascinated by the human brain and how our psyches can warp very easily. I'm also loving my venture into self-help - that has been hugely exciting, as it’s a new challenge, and working on my Culver Valley Crime Series is like visiting old friends.


There’s a special place in my heart for Poirot, obviously, and I adore sending him on new adventures!


Q: Do you need to do much research for your Poirot novels, and if so, have you learned anything that especially surprised you?


A: I do constant fact-checking during the writing process to make sure I have the details right for the period, but by far the most useful research has been my lifelong re-reading of Agatha Christie’s books, which has immersed me in her style.


As my favourite author of all time, it was inevitable that she would be a huge influence on my writing. She’s part of the reason I have always loved crime as a genre, and my pre-Poirot crime books had the same sort of preoccupations and elements that you can find in her novels.


Also, regular stays at Greenway – Agatha Christie’s holiday home in Devon (whilst not exactly research) have provided much in the way of inspiration!


Q: What are you working on now?


A: My main writing job for the rest of the year is working on my next Culver Valley novel, starring Simon Waterhouse and Charlie Zailer. It will be book number 11, and I’m really excited because Charlie and Simon – my police protagonists – haven’t had an outing since The Narrow Bed in 2016 (published later in the U.S. as The Next To Die).


I can’t wait to send them back to work in this new novel, which is based on an idea I absolutely love, one I have wanted to write about for ages.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: Yes! I want to shout about my amazing and relatively new online coaching program for writers – Dream Author Coaching. Creating the program and coaching using my “Dream Author” approach has been such a wonderful experience - and I'm loving helping so many writers to become more confident and succeed beyond their wildest dreams.


Dream Author is for writers of any genre and at any stage of their writing journey – we have writers who have only just dared to put pen to paper, and also many regularly published and bestselling writers. Dream Author provides help with all the emotional, psychological and practical aspects of being a writer. Anyone interested can see what it’s all about on the website:


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Donna Miscolta

Photo by Meryl Schenker

Donna Miscolta is the author of the new story collection Living Color: Angie Rubio Stories. She also has written When the de la Cruz Family Danced and Hola and Goodbye. She lives in Seattle.


Q: You note that you wrote the stories in this collection over a period of 15 years. Did you write them in the order in which they appear in the book?


A: I did write the kindergarten piece first. It once had a life as an essay, but I realized I could have more fun with it as a piece of fiction. Kindergarten was a series of humiliations for me, which seems a sad way to start off in school. I thought it would be more freeing to project those humiliations onto someone else, someone fictional, yet real to me, which was how Angie Rubio came into being.


Once Angie was established in my mind and on the page as a character, I wanted to consider who she was several grades later in school, how she navigated the daily small and large insults directed at her merely for the effrontery of being brown.


I wrote about the slumber party she attended in late elementary school. Then I went back and filled in the years between the trials of kindergarten and the mortification of that slumber party. After that, it was pretty much chronological.


It was a pleasure but also a bit heartbreaking (a heartbreaking pleasure?) to move with Angie through the stages of her life, to watch her puzzle through and struggle against the othering of her that was a constant in her life, a part, however perversely, of the accepted order of things. 

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


A: For a long time, I was calling the book The Education of Angie Rubio, which seemed apt because each story is about a life lesson Angie learns as she progresses in school. I also liked the resonance of the title – the repetition of the vowels and the soft g sounds.


But titles containing “the education of” had been used already for a number of other books, so I just started calling my book Angie Rubio Stories, which, while to the point, lacked zing.


Jaded Ibis Press editor Elizabeth Earley suggested we use the title of one of the book’s stories, “Guided Tours in Living Color.” I love that title for that particular story, but I didn’t think it was representative of the whole book.


However, shortening it to Living Color and adding Angie Rubio Stories as a subtitle did work for me. The stories are about Angie and what it means for her to live her life as a person of color, or more precisely to grow up learning how to respond to those who see her as someone less than they because of her color.


Q: You've written stories and also a novel--do you prefer one form to the other?


A: When I was writing my first novel, that is, learning how to write it, I often took breaks away from it either because I was stuck, or I was suddenly inspired to write a story about something else. Writing a novel is a long, hard process. Writing a story can be long and hard, but still much shorter than writing a novel.


I’m working on another novel now and I’ve taken breaks from it to write essays, a form I’m interested in exploring more. So I think my preference has less to do with craft and more with my state of mind – whether I’m weary of the demands of the novel or stuck on where to go next with it.


I will say that I enjoy being immersed in a long-term project, but I also love the gratification of completing a story in a matter of weeks or months. But sometimes there is the confusion that happens when you think you’re writing stories and they turn into a novel or you think you’re writing a novel and all you really have are a bunch of stories.


And thus, I reveal my ineptness in distinguishing between writing the novel and the story.


Q: What do you hope readers take away from Living Color?


A: I want readers to enjoy Angie as a character. There is often humor in her predicaments and in her attempts to extricate herself from them. But at the heart of many of these situations is racism – not violent physical attacks, but subtle and not so subtle jabs of language that thwart Angie in her struggle to find herself and her place in the world. This is what I want readers to experience.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I’m working on two things as time and inclination allow. I have a draft of a novel done, and based on some valuable feedback I’ve received, I have more drafts ahead of me in terms of plot.


Ofelia and Norma are two characters from a story in my second book Hola and Goodbye. After their short career as high school wrestlers in the story, in the book they enter the social minefields of young adulthood. Issues of body image, sisterhood, and individual power are among the themes I explore through the lives of these characters.


I’ve also begun a nonfiction project. Having explored identity, belonging, and family dynamics in my fiction, I am compelled now to investigate the sources of my fiction in personal essays about place, childhood, and family.


My heritage is Filipino and Mexican. I’ve never been able to address this combination in my fiction, instead creating characters who are one or the other. Nonfiction allows me, in fact, requires me, to bring both sides into play.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: I’m one of those fiction writers who draws from her own experiences when imagining a character. Except for the novel I’m currently working on, most of my fiction arises from something I’ve observed, lived, or learned from gossip or family lore.


While Angie Rubio and the situations she finds herself in are fictional, Living Color is by far the book that most closely parallels my life. It’s why this character is particularly dear to me. I think that many people will see themselves or a part of themselves. Or maybe they’ll see someone they know or wish they knew in this book.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Heather Mateus Sappenfield

Heather Mateus Sappenfield is the author of the new story collection Lyrics for Rock Stars. She also has written The View from Who I Was and Life at the Speed of Us. She lives in Vail, Colorado.


Q: Over how long a period did you write the stories in Lyrics for Rock Stars?


A: Gosh, it’s been two decades since I wrote the first story, “Coloring Beyond the Lines”! I left my high school teaching position to stay home with my daughter, taking my first wobbling steps toward becoming a serious writer as she took hers.


A few years and several near misses with editors at magazines, I enrolled in Pacific University’s MFA in Writing program to hone my craft. MFAs aren’t for everyone, but that choice altered my career. Shortly before graduating, “Empty Feast” was runner-up for an award, then “Indian Prayer” won the Danahy Fiction Prize, and I thought, Well, I’m a real author now.


But this writing never stops teaching me, and I’ve since come to understand that being an author isn’t about banging out the end of a story, or awards. It’s about patiently beckoning and allowing a narrative’s elements to unfold into their greatest potential.


Post-MFA, I continued writing short stories, eventually entering the collection in contests, where it was a finalist over and over. Until one day, near my daughter’s  21st birthday, I saw how the stories worked together, speaking profoundly beyond themselves. It surprised me, honestly, and allowed me to finally fully understand that body of work.


Afterward it became a finalist for two different publication contests. When I was notified that it had won the V Press LC Compilation Book Prize, I withdrew it from the other contest and celebrated!


Q: How did you decide on the order in which the stories would appear in the collection?

A: W. H. Auden said, “A real book is not one that we read, but one that reads us.” I find this true for the reader, yes, but even more for the writer. Crafting a story deeply and well requires grit! And important aspects will not become clear unless or until you’re ready to see them.


As I said above, it took years for me to understand how these stories worked together and spoke profoundly beyond themselves. Once I did, it became obvious that the collection needed to be divided into two sections: “Songs of Innocence” and “Songs of Wisdom.” These two parts play off of one another literally, yet also symbolically, ironically, and universally.


Within the sections, I ordered the stories focusing on how they’d braid together to reinforce that effect. My hope is that virtually every sentence in the book works simultaneously to develop the story it’s in, instill its messages, and build the collection’s overall impact.


Q: How was the book’s title (also the title of one of the stories) chosen, and what does it signify for you?


A: I sooo love this title! It’s deeply meaningful for me and speaks to the core motivation of why I write. It’s from a scene in “Lyrics for Rock Stars,” where a very pregnant gold digger realizes the error of her ways through a chance interaction with a man whom she assumes is an impoverished hippie. When it later turns out that he’s a famous songwriter, they have this exchange:


She looked at him. “So you’re famous? You write songs?” Even in this light, he was wiry, and he wore a T-shirt that read Let Love Rule. He reeked of marijuana.

“Tunes, some. Lyrics mostly.”
“For rock stars? People I’ve heard of?”
“Stars, sure. Do you need anything?”
“Like who?”
He sat down, facing her, and took in her proportions.

“You’re a Mini Cooper stretched to a Caddy. No wonder you’re revving so hard.”

“People I’d hear on the radio?”

“Well, I juice out my passions, my obsessions, and they breathe each day on the radio, live night after night after night on tours.”

“I don’t know if I’d like that, turning on the radio and hearing my life.”

He shook his head. Stubble furred his cheeks. “I dig it. It makes me part of each body that grooves to my beat.”


For years, as a female and a mother, I assumed that I’d spoken through the gold digger. But one day it became startlingly clear that I’d been speaking through the songwriter.


Each story in this collection is from my own experiences. The parking lot scene in “Rescue,” for example, actually happened. It, like all the stories, has been shaped into fiction—I’m about as far from a supermodel as it gets! However, even now, thinking back on that stark night, that man’s pain, still brings a tear to my eye.


That moment of Truth, of resonant poignancy, is what I strive to capture in all the stories. A reader entering their worlds is tuning into my “lyrics.” Yet every reader has a unique “beat,” so my lyrics invariably become set to their music. For me, this a harmonious miracle, a type of magic.


Q: Do you see particular themes linking the stories together?


A: We all have obsessions, and as an author they definitely arise in my writing. They appear as settings, as character traits, as conflicts, but they’re there, time and again. Sometimes in ways that make me blush.


History as inescapable, omnipresent setting is one of my obsessions. I’m fascinated by how we all move through these histories. Sometimes they propel us. Sometimes they leave us staggering, without even understanding we’re doing so, just suffering a low-frequency malaise. But we do it. Incessantly.


Even here, within this Q&A, I’m treading through familial, social, and environmental legacies and norms.


When people interact, they each bring their individual struggles. I find this fascinating. When it’s compounded by disparity—in social structure, race, or culture—it provides the opportunity for some of the most poignant experiences available to us. Thus, this is one of the collection’s overarching themes.


Colorado—my lifelong home—is also an obsession, so the stories are set there. One thematic layer focuses on the journeys of its women through social structures designed to objectify and often use them as the price of ambition. I have these awful moments, sometimes, where I find I’m limiting myself through these conditioned social norms, and I’m appalled, especially because I have a daughter!


Q: What are you working on now?


A: When a story comes to me, there’s almost always a voice that determines its narration, characterization, and scope. Because of this, I write the story that needs to be told, regardless of genre.


Last May—on my birthday actually!—a middle-grade novel I wrote, The River Between Hearts, was the runner-up for the Kraken Prize at Fitzroy Books, and they offered me a publishing contract.


That story, of an 11-year-old girl discovering a terrified Mexican classmate hiding in her tree fort because her family has been deported, needed to be told from a child’s immediate perspective. The book just began production and will release in Spring of 2022.


On a completely different note, I recently finished Spoonfuls, a humorous adult novel in which a 38-year-old woman trapped in adolescence, and an 83-year-old woman trapped in aging, meet in a moment of desperation. The unlikely friendship they forge leads to a race, a journey, and a quest.


Above all, their bond guides them both beyond the lives they’ve been conditioned to believe define who they are, to the selves they were destined to become. It’s a book that traces the evolving ways women have been shaped by American history and culture, yet even more by their own concepts of themselves.


The manuscript is currently parked, idling until things calm down. I’ll return to it after Lyrics for Rock Stars has enjoyed its launch.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: V Press LC is an amazing small press begun by women. Its director and managing editor, Torie Amarie Dale, is a domestic abuse survivor. Someone even made a film about her.


I’ve published two YA novels with a larger press, but I’ve recently discovered this marvelous world of smaller presses, run by smart, dedicated people who are bringing beautiful, important books into the world that reach beyond the lanes of the traditional marketplace. This book coming to fruition with this press feels so right.


Also, Michael Crouch—one of my favorite narrators—recorded the audiobook! This collection’s characters range from 8 to 109 years in age. There are French accents, Chicago accents, rural accents, and urban accents. There are stories of distraught mothers, disengaged supermodels, naïve boys being boys, laconic cowboys, librarians gone bad, and lusting teens. His portrayals of them are stunning!


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Sept. 21

Sept. 21, 1934: Leonard Cohen born.

Sunday, September 20, 2020

Q&A with Kathy MacMillan

Kathy MacMillan is the author of the new children's picture book The Runaway Shirt. Her other books include Nita's First Signs and Sword and Verse. A sign language interpreter, teacher, and librarian, she lives near Baltimore, Maryland.


Q: How did you come up with the idea for The Runaway Shirt?


A: This story was inspired by a game my own toddler used to play: hiding in the laundry basket and pretending to be a shirt. I, of course, would play along and try to fold the shirt, which would always giggle madly while unfolding itself.


One of my favorite picture books is Pete’s a Pizza by William Steig, where the parents pretend that Pete is a pizza to cheer him up on a rainy day, and I always thought this story would lend itself to picture book treatment like that. Though my own little shirt is now a teenager, I hope other families will enjoy this playful story! 


Q: What do you think Julia Castaño's illustrations add to the story?


A: I absolutely love Julia’s illustrations! They perfectly capture the playful and loving relationship between the parent and child. I teach parent-child classes on improving communication through American Sign Language, and every class incorporates play through stories, songs, games, and more.


Play is the work of a young child. It’s how they learn and develop relationships. So the mother in this story taking the time to enter into the child’s imaginative world and play along is so important. Play is not just keeping young children entertained – it’s teaching them about where they are in the world, how to relate to other people, and that they are valuable and worthy of attention.


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


A: I hope they will see themselves and their families and be inspired to use their imaginations to make everyday chores more fun! Related to that, I hope the story inspires parents to follow the imaginative instincts of young children, and maybe find the joy in routine tasks. Even folding laundry or setting the table can be a way to foster closer relationships! 


Q: You've written for various age groups--do you have a preference?


A: I don’t think I have a preference overall, because every story has a different audience, and every writing category has its own pros and cons.


With picture books, for example, the writing and editing processes are much shorter than with novels, but so much of the publishing process is out of your hands. In many cases, the author has no contact with the illustrator at all!  I am lucky in that Familius Press is amazing about this, and I did have input on the illustrations at certain points. Illustrator Julia Castaño and I have even done interviews for the book together.


Even so, with a picture book, there might be a year or more where work is being done on your book and you are not a part of it! With novels, obviously, that’s not the case. Everything takes longer, and it’s pretty much all you and the editor until the manuscript is finalized.


Different categories have different demands as far as time, promotion, and deadlines. But every project teaches me something new about myself as a writer or about the writing process, and those lessons apply to projects in other categories too. I guess I would have to say that what I like best is the variety! 


Q: What are you working on now?


A: The next book in the Little Hands Signing board book series will be gearing up for production soon, and I am also working on a young adult novel that has been a long time coming. It is about a 17-year-old playwright struggling with the ugliness curse on her family – and how her world turns upside-down when she meets her beautiful new stepsister, nicknamed Cinderella.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: Signed and personalized copies of The Runaway Shirt and all of my books are available from the Deaf Camps, Inc. Online Bookstore, with all proceeds going toward scholarships to Deaf Camp.  


Deaf Camps, Inc. is a wonderful nonprofit organization that provides accessible camps for deaf and hard of hearing children and children learning American Sign Language, and I have volunteered with them for almost 20 years now. Signed books make great gifts and purchasing through this link supports a great cause!


Purchase The Runaway Shirt at the Deaf Camps, Inc. Online Bookstore | at | at | at | at 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Kathy MacMillan.

Q&A with Susan Lewis

Photo by Antony Thompson
Susan Lewis is the author of the new novel My Lies, Your Lies. Her many other books include Home Truths and One Minute Later. She lives in the UK.


Q: How did you come up with the idea for My Lies, Your Lies?  


A: Like most books this one is an amalgam of ideas so all I can say is that the 1960s story came first and the rest followed as I sat down to write.  


Q: The novel focuses on a relationship between an underage student and her teacher. What do you think readers should take away from the relationship's presentation in the novel?  


A: I think it shows that there are two sides to every story and that our assumptions, even prejudices, can skew the reality.  


Q: The book also incorporates a novel-inside-a-novel, which highlights the theme of lying and unreliability. Why did you decide to write about writers, and what do you think the book says about the writing process?  


A: Although I haven’t done it before, it’s quite easy to write about writers as I know that they do. It was extremely satisfying playing the mind games between Freda and Joely, and to show how impossible it is to stop yourself second-guessing.


Q: What are you working on now?  


A: My next book is about restorative justice – i.e.: is it possible to forgive someone for the most heinous of crimes?  


Q: Anything else we should know?  


A: I’m worried about how the pandemic will impress itself upon the writing of current fiction going forward. Will it stifle some areas of creativity by being so much bigger than anything we can make up? Will there be a glut of stories that none of us really want to read we’re so fed up with it by now? 


It will be all but impossible to avoid it if you’re going to set a book in 2020, would probably seem very odd if you tried. A challenge and a conundrum all wrapped up in a confusion.  


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

Sept. 20

Sept. 20, 1878: Upton Sinclair born.

Friday, September 18, 2020

Q&A with Christina Baker Kline

Photo by Beowulf Sheehan

Christina Baker Kline
is the author of the new novel The Exiles. Her other books include A Piece of the World and Orphan Train, and her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including The New York Times and The Boston Globe.


Q: In the book's acknowledgments, you write, "It wasn't until I'd finished writing The Exiles that I realized I'd twined together three disparate strands of my own life history..." Can you say more about those three strands, and about how you created the novel?


A: A short article in The New York Times a few years ago caught my eye: it was about female convicts transported from Britain to Australia with their children. I was immediately curious and wanted to learn more.


As a graduate student I’d been a Rotary Fellow in Australia for six weeks; later I co-authored a nonfiction book about feminist women with my mother; I also taught in a women’s prison. These strands came together when I read that article. I knew I’d found the subject that would consume me for the next three years. 


I began the book with a focus on two convict women, but as I delved into the research I realized it would be irresponsible not to address the history of the Aboriginal people who were displaced when European colonists landed on their shores.


I discovered the real-life story of Mathinna, a Tasmanian Aboriginal girl who had been orphaned and was taken in by the governor of Tasmania, Sir John Franklin (who later achieved fame and came to an unfortunate end as an Arctic explorer) and his ambitious, complicated wife, Lady Jane.


The themes of this young girl’s story -- her tenacious spirit and her displacement -- provided a counterbalance and a contrast to the story of the convict women. 


Q: How did you research the novel, and what did you see as the right mix of fictional vs. historical characters?


A: This book involved mountains of research! I went to England, Scotland, mainland Australia, and Tasmania, where the female convicts in The Exiles end up.


I read dozens of books and hundreds of articles and interviewed historians and scholars. (I’m particularly indebted to Alison Alexander, a retired professor at the University of Tasmania who has written or edited 33 books on the history of Australia and is herself descended from convicts, and Dr. Gregory Lehman, an Aboriginal historian who traces his ancestry back to the Trawulwuy people of northeast Tasmania.)


I watched movies and studied maps. The research was completely absorbing; I had to finally tear myself away from it and begin to write. 


My research doesn’t end until the final draft is submitted. I’m always stumbling on little details to add. For instance, after writing the first draft I learned about a particular tallow made of animal fat that was used in the hallways of prisons and the homes of the poor. It was cheap and had a low melting point; its odor was terrible and it quickly pooled in puddles. I threaded this detail in. 


All but a few of the characters in my previous novel, A Piece of the World, were based on real people.


The Exiles has half a dozen real-life characters: Elizabeth Fry, Mathinna, the Franklins, a female physician in the final chapter of the book, and a few others. I like having the freedom to create, but sometimes, as they say, life is stranger and more compelling than fiction; characters based on real people  can ground the story in history. 


Q: What do you think the novel says about the idea of exile?


A: This novel had several different working titles. None were quite right. After I finished the final draft I brainstormed a list of themes in the book; when I landed on The Exiles, I knew it was a perfect fit: epic, elegiac, and accurate for each character in the novel.


Exile is a state of mind as well as a state of being. When you’re torn from everything familiar to you, the places and people you know well, you must reinvent yourself. What do you value, what do you care about, how do you find meaning and solace when you’re on your own in a place you’ve never been before?


Evangeline, Hazel, and Mathinna endure a lot of hardship, but they also learn things about themselves, and about human nature in general, that they never would’ve known. Exile can be an opportunity for growth, if a pathway to freedom exists. It doesn’t for everyone. 


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


A: As I researched the book I made a 50-page, single-spaced document with my original plan for the storyline. I stuck with quite a bit of it and deviated from it in crucial places as the characters spread their wings and the story took on a life of its own. It’s always that way, I find.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: My new novel is based on a family story and takes place in North Carolina during the time of the Civil War. I’d thought I was ready to return to contemporary fiction, but this particular story is too good to pass up!


The research is fascinating (and intimidating -- a surprising number of people know a great deal, in granular detail, about the Civil War). It’s different from anything I’ve ever done. Plunging into entirely new topics is exhilarating and terrifying.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: You can find much more information on my website about the story behind the book, questions for book clubs, etc. You can also register for one of my virtual book tour events where you can ask me any question directly!


--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Christina Baker Kline.