Tuesday, March 31, 2020

Q&A with Suzanne Chazin

Suzanne Chazin is the author of the new mystery novel Voice With No Echo, the fifth in her Jimmy Vega series, which also includes A Place in the Wind and No Witness But the Moon. She is based in suburban New York.

Q: In your acknowledgments, you write, “Writing fiction about current events is a roller-coaster experience.” How did you stay ahead of events when you were writing Voice With No Echo?

A: The terrible stuff at the border is so horrendous. I thought about doing that, but I realized it was possible that by the time I wrote the book the entire separation would be a thing of the past. Now they’re sending everybody back.

My fear is that it’s so in the moment and so emotional that it would be handled before the book came out. It’s hard.

I was writing real stories about immigrants in 2011 and 2012, and I fictionalized it. People were saying this is not going to be an issue, and then the whole world overturned.

My husband is a retired firefighter, and my first series was about NYFD firefighters. 9/11 happened, and then it was, “How dare you write about firefighters?” I have a bad habit…

It’s been a weird thing for me. I’ve been following [the controversy over the novel] American Dirt. When I found out it was this big, I was excited. I thought it sounds like a mainstream book that blends a political issue with being compulsively readable. That’s what I’m trying to do. Then there was the backlash.

I read the book. I thought, Well, some things don’t feel right, but it’s a thriller. But it isn’t positioned as a thriller.

Q: Did you get questions about your own background in writing the Jimmy Vega novels?

A: I’m not big enough to knock down. The critical community—some are very supportive people. Overall I feel I’m the wrong person to write the stories, but I just get ignored. People who read the books come to it very fairly. I do get one-star reviews with no comment, but I get very thoughtful comments.

Q: This is the fifth book about Jimmy Vega and Adele Figueroa. How do you think they’ve changed over the course of the series?

A: They’ve deepened their relationship significantly. They met in the first book, she almost moved to D.C. in the second book, in the third book he shot and killed an unarmed man and she makes the choice to stay with him, in the fourth book he helps her.

They don’t need to get married to be committed. Jimmy is very independent, and Adele is a mother and has her daughter to raise. They’ve grown a lot closer and are strongly connected to each other. They’re yin and yang.

Q: What kind of research did you need to do to write this novel, and did you learn anything surprising?

A: I knew one of the things I loved about the fourth book was the character of Max Zimmerman. He had more of a story to tell. It was important to me to keep the stories in the New York area. One of the things was the sanctuary movement, people finding ways not to be deported.

I thought, what if a local immigrant needed sanctuary, and decided on Max’s synagogue? Then [in real life] a local synagogue’s handyman was deported, and the Jewish community rallied. He was deported over the border without a wallet or cell phone. They were able to bring him back.

I set out to write a fictional story, but the real thing happened.

What surprises me is that we continue to have so much polarity on the issue. It saddens me. We’re missing the middle—where are the things we can do to make the process humane and see what’s good for the United States long-term. But we’re not doing that. It only gets worse.

I try to show all the sides—there is a center, and we’re missing it right now.

Q: The book’s title is taken from a poem by Julia de Burgos. Why did you choose that?

A: Julia de Burgos was a Puerto Rican poet. All the poems [forming the books’ titles] are from different time periods. When poets write poems, they’re speaking to a different time period, but the echo resonated with me.

There’s a sense of loss, of being ignored, of not being recognized. All these years later, we could say the same things about immigrants in our midst today.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: The sixth book. It will come out this time next year. The tentative title is The Fragile Edge of Earth, from a poem by Cesar Vallejo. I always [consider] the notion that people are out there living very uncertain lives; they don’t know their future.

I’m not trying to write necessarily about the immigrant experience, but if there’s a diaspora—some of the family is here, some somewhere else—what if some people are safe and some may be sent back? You live with chronic dread and loneliness. What drove this series was the sense of, What does that feel like?

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: There is gravitas [with the series] but they’re enjoyable to read. These are mysteries—I get a kick out of it when people say, I didn’t know who did it. They’re broccoli brownies—they’re fun to eat but you do get some nutrition.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Suzanne Chazin.

Q&A with Elizabeth Kadetsky

Elizabeth Kadetsky is the author of the new memoir The Memory Eaters. Her other books include On the Island at the Center of the Center of the World and The Poison That Purifies You, and her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including The New York Times and Guernica. She is an associate professor of fiction and nonfiction at Penn State. 

Q: Why did you decide to write this memoir, and over how long a period did you work on it?

A: I remember the moment I made the decision, weirdly enough. 

It was in 2009, and I was sitting in a giant pod chair in my rented room in Pittsburgh at the end of a one year teaching and writing residency and making plans to move across the state for another writer-in-residence position. 

My primary residence was still in New York City, and I was traveling there several times a month and on semester breaks to help my mother and sister manage things. 

Pennsylvania, for me, was a respite from the chaos and stress of my life in New York. It was also a place to enjoy the quiet and slower pace of things, and to write. 

I say “weirdly” because most of the events of the book hadn’t yet transpired. My mother had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s about two years earlier, and I knew that the situation in New York was precarious. 

Something about the cocoon-like environment in Pennsylvania led me to want to immerse myself in my memories of the past. That part, of course—the past—had already happened; but this lens on them—of nostalgia and longing—was also new. 

I was aware that the coming months, and as it turned out years, would continually serve up material that I would want and need to process through the frame of this book project. 

It took me 10 years to write and shape the book, though the most dramatic part of the story ended when my mother passed away at the end of 2011, two and a half years after that moment in the pod chair in Pittsburgh. 

I continued to write, though, as I processed the aftermath. I finished the last essay for the book after the manuscript was accepted for publication, in 2019.  

Q: What impact did it have on you to write the book?

A: When I was writing the central material for the book, I was writing through extreme stress, anxiety, trauma, and PTSD (related to an assault that took place in 2005 and that I reckoned with during the writing process). 

Reading over the manuscript now, I see that there’s no way that I could write it from my current vantage. I am, simply put, a lot more sane now than I was then. The mania of that time is stitched in to the fabric of the text. 

I don’t like the idea that the writing of this book was therapy—the endeavour and motivation for me was to create art. 

I do, though, believe in the use of writing as therapy, for artists and non-artists alike, and the writing certainly was therapeutic for me. Processing the grief over my mother’s death in particular has been helped by writing about what led up to it. 

Somehow, finishing an essay, or, more grandly, finishing an actual manuscript and having that text published as a book, puts a certain, if external, end point on things. 

I can’t say that I will ever overcome this grief over my mother’s death, but the feeling of closure, and having had the mental space to find it by writing, has been a help.  

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

A: The title “The Memory Eaters” came to me long before the book was fully shaped. I ran it by a friend in the publishing industry, and she liked it. 

It’s funny because that title at that time described a different book from the one that I wrote—something more linear, and which much more specifically referenced Homer’s Odyssey (and in particular the Lotos Eaters chapter) and the myth of Persephone, in which Demeter’s daughter eats the food and drink of forgetting in the underworld and never wants to return. 

The title “The Memory Eaters” was meant to reference both of those archetypal stories, which in themselves are related. 

The focus on different ways of thinking about memory—forgetting, willed amnesia, Alzheimer’s and dementia, nostalgia, repetition compulsion, PTSD, ancestral history—came to me later. 

In a way the project came full circle. Having that title throughout was a kind of touchstone, always bringing me back to the original spark, the idea that sometimes forgetting can be a pleasant, even blissful—and ever-dangerous—escape.  

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

A: I was definitely telling a personal story, but all along I felt that it had universal implications. 

As quirky and singular as my mother was, and as odd as my upbringing during that strange and exciting time in New York City was, I think that many people facing the loss of parents through Alzheimer’s and dementia will find a version of their own experience. 

I want to connect with those readers and let them know that they are not alone. 

A lot of people find themselves at this crossroads between the opioid and Alzheimer’s epidemics. A dysfunctional adult child finds her- or him- self caretaking aging parents. The more functional sibling whose life is already cluttered with career and/or family suddenly notices the whole thing crashing down and must manage. 

For children of baby boomers, the similarities may be even more striking. Now-aged parents may have even availed themselves of the liberating divorce wave of the 1970s. Like my mother, those parents might find themselves single by choice in their later years, with few resources for care.

On top of that, the social services are just not there at this point for either the opioid or dementia epidemics. I want my book to highlight that shortcoming, and to ask readers to think about better ways to manage this looming crisis for the American economy and family. 

Our culture has ignored the elderly for generations now, unlike in India or other more traditional societies. This, obviously, doesn’t work, but nor is it a solution for daughters to bear the full brunt of caretaking while also financially supporting their own families. 

Meanwhile, how many families have been untouched by addiction—alcoholism or opioids or what have you? Not very many. 

And yet the extreme degree of pain and logistical upheaval wreaked upon family members and loved ones by these conditions are somehow not a part of the grand narrative of what it means to be American. 

Watching ads and considering the expectations of full time employment not to mention child rearing, one might think that all of our lives simply function smoothly within this structure of work and family. 

It’s as if there’s a huge myth out there of how we’re supposed to live that no one can actually live up to. These impossible myths are held up for us, and in the disconnect between the ideal and the reality we can feel very lost and lonely. 

Systemically, there’s a lot that’s not right. My story is just one anecdote revealing the mechanics of this mass dysfunction.  

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’m in India as a Fulbright fellow doing exploratory research for a writing project about preservation and looting of antiquities and the role of museums in stealing and/or preserving ancient history. 

It’s a way of exploring a different spin on memory, but definitely connects to what I’ve been thinking about over the last decade and more while writing The Memory Eaters

Right now I’m a little bit obsessed with some 5th century goddess statues that were stolen from a temple in Rajasthan in the 1960s. The cult of the goddess is calling me, as are the ethical and legal issues brought up by this intriguing story.  

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: A lot of readers and aspiring writers probably don’t realize how much research can go into a memoir. 

All told, I probably read about a hundred books on the topics of memory; genetics; New York City in the 1970s and ‘80s; and the art, self-help, and music movements of that era. I also read every edition of New York magazine published between 1975 and 1980. 

Much of the research was serendipitous—I found bound copies of the latter buried on a basement shelf in the library at a college where I was teaching for one semester, so I decided to read them. 

At one point I thought my book would include neuroscience on the nature of memory, so I read Eric Kandel’s In Search of Memory, Daniel L. Schacter’s Searching for Memory, and Antonio Damasio’s The Feeling of What Happens, among other books. 

While I cited very few of these works in the actual text, they did a lot to help me flesh out the scenes set during my youth in New York or to trigger my memories of it, and to give me a more nuanced understanding of some of the esoteric aspects of memory and epigenetics that I needed to reference. 

On the other hand, all this research slowed down the overall timeline for the book. In my view, it was more than worth it. Process is key.  

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Erica Ruth Neubauer

Erica Ruth Neubauer, photo by Rachel Neubauer
Erica Ruth Neubauer is the author of the new mystery novel Murder at the Mena House. Her work has appeared in publications including The Los Angeles Review of Books and Mystery Scene Magazine, and she lives in Milwaukee.

Q: How did you come up with your character Jane Wunderly?

A: She honestly just sort of came to me. I had to sit down and work out her backstory--where I wanted her to be from and where her motivations came from, but her voice just sort of popped into my head and started talking. Not in a way that anyone should be concerned about, of course. 

Q: The novel is set in Egypt in 1926. Did you need to do much research to write it, and if so, what did you learn that especially surprised you?

A: I did do quite a bit of research before I wrote the novel, and then even more once I had finished just to make sure that I gotten things right.

Before I started I watched a lot of movies on YouTube about Egypt in the 1920s--and there's something I found surprising, that videos even exist from that time.

I also tracked down an old book about the Mena House Hotel, and that gave a lot of history as well anecdotal stories collected over the years. That was a valuable resource.

I also had a list of questions that I wanted to double-check, so when we actually went to Egypt, our wonderful and very patient tour guide took the time to answer those questions for me. And I found that when I got home from the trip, I only had to change a few details in the manuscript. 

Another thing I found surprising was that by the time my novel happened in 1926, Cairo already had a tram system, and it ran all the way to Giza. I hadn't expected that level of public transportation at all.

I was also shocked that the hotel had a golf course. That seemed absolutely crazy to me, so I wrote it into 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: I had no idea who did it when I started writing this. I'm apparently quite the pantser--there was no outline at all, I just sort of felt my way through it. I was probably more than halfway through when I decided who my bad guy was going to be--and then I went back and tried to make sure that wasn't too obvious. 

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

A: I hope readers take away a sense of fun and escape. I really wanted this to be a good time, and give the feeling of having travelled somewhere exciting--in their minds at least. 

Q: This is the first of a series--what's next?

A: In book two, Jane and her aunt are going to England where they will be embroiled in a manor house mystery. And in book three, Jane will find herself on a transatlantic cruise heading back to the States. 

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Pop by my website occasionally--I'm going to do my best to keep it updated with book recommendations--what I'm reading and loving. 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Sarah Tarkoff

Sarah Tarkoff is the author of the new novel Ruthless, the third in her Eye of the Beholder trilogy, which also includes Sinless and Fearless. She is a writer for the CW series Arrow, and she lives in Los Angeles. 

Q: This is your third book about your character Grace. How do you think she's changed over the course of the series?

A: Grace’s journey is intended to mirror the experience of reaching adulthood: thinking you know everything, and then going out into the world (like to college/the workforce) and discovering that everything is more complicated and nuanced than you thought it was. 

Grace starts the series being confident in her beliefs, but timid – she’s been taught to stay in her place. When her beliefs are challenged, she begins a journey that transforms her into a really different character.

In book one, she’s still very hesitant, afraid to take action because she’s afraid of the responsibility that comes along with taking that action. By book three, she’s become almost the opposite of that.

Q: Did you know from the beginning that you'd be writing a series about her?

A: I originally pitched this idea as a film, and the producers loved the world, but they asked me, can you get rid of this teenage girl named Grace and make the main character a 30-year-old man, so it’s easier to cast? 

They ended up passing on the project, and I’m glad – the story wouldn’t have been as emotionally impactful if it was about some handsome adult man worrying about whether he was attractive!

Q: Did you do any research to write the novel, and if so, did you learn anything that surprised you?

A: I talked to some scientists to try to make sure my “fake science” was as accurate as possible. I struggle with wanting all of my sci-fi tech to be perfectly accurate, but at the end of the day, I know there are certain sacrifices that have to be made in order for the story to work. 

Q: What do you hope readers take away from this novel, and from the series overall?

A: The main theme is about challenging one’s own beliefs, which is definitely something we can all take into our own lives. It’s very easy to look at other people and say, “They should be more open-minded,” when we ourselves are stuck in our own rigid worldviews. 

I know I can be vulnerable to that cognitive bias as well!

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I just finished writing a new novel, adult fiction this time – a bit of romance, a bit of sci-fi, and it’s possibly my favorite thing I’ve ever written. I’m also working on two new scripts as well, a TV pilot and a feature script. 

I took this past year off for personal reasons, and it’s been nice to have the freedom to write exactly what I want to write, whenever I want to write it. I’m aware I may never have that luxury again!

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I started off my career writing for television (and I still do!). A lot of my prose is informed by that – fast-paced, dialogue heavy, lots of cliffhangers. I have a short attention span, so I like to write books that would keep me reading!

And Ruthless is in stores on March 31, 2020!

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Linda Howard and Linda Jones

Linda Howard and Linda Jones are the authors of the new novel After Sundown. They have each written many novels separately, and they've written three other novels together. Howard lives in  Gadsden, Alabama, and Jones lives in Huntsville, Alabama.

Q: How did the two of you come up with the idea for After Sundown, and for your characters Sela and Ben?

Linda Howard: I don’t know! It probably sprang organically from our conversations; the same with Sela and Ben. The hardest thing for them was coming up with their names. By the way, Sela’s name is pronounced SEE-la.

Linda Jones: I wish our process was organized enough that I could answer this question. We what-if’d our way into the basic idea. Ben and Sela grew from there.

Q: What was your writing process like as you collaborated on the book?

Linda Howard: The process has changed with every book we’ve written together. One thing that has remained constant is that we don’t take turns writing chapters; we each go over and write and re-write and edit almost every sentence, to the point that we don’t know who wrote what.

Linda Jones: Since we’re both pantsters, which means we don’t plot much at all ahead of time, we break with our usual individual writing method to plan a chapter or two ahead. We’ll each write scenes, email them back and forth, tinker, and make sure we’re on the same page. And then we do it again.

Q: The novel is set in Tennessee. How important is setting to you in your writing?

Linda Howard: Sometimes, not very; usually the plot will dictate the setting, and it was the same in this case. The Wears Valley/Townsend area of Tennessee is extremely suitable for long-term survival under the circumstances of the plot. It’s a mild climate, long growing season, plenty of fresh water and game, and people who know how to grow and preserve their food.

Linda Jones: With most books, the setting is not something I can change. It’s too important to the tone of the story and to the characters.

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

Linda Howard: We kind of knew how it would end. The changes were in how we got there.

Linda Jones: We did try to plot a little before we got started, but almost none of what we plotted got written. We knew where we wanted to start and where we wanted to end up, but there were surprising moments in how we got there.

Q: What are you working on now?

Linda Howard:  I’m working on the third and last installment of the GO-Teams.

Linda Jones: I’m working on the next book in my self-pubbed Mystic Springs series. Beauty and the Beastmaster will be out later this year.

Q: Anything else we should know?

Linda Howard: I hope the current situation with the coronavirus, and the very real possibility of a major solar storm such as we used in After Sundown will prompt people to be more prepared!

Linda Jones: I agree with Linda. Be prepared! As the current situation proves, you never know what tomorrow will bring.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

March 31

March 31, 1914: Octavio Paz born.

Monday, March 30, 2020

Q&A with Sue William Silverman

Sue William Silverman is the author of the new book How To Survive Death and Other Inconveniences. Her other books include The Pat Boone Fan Club and Love Sick. She teaches writing at the Vermont College of Fine Arts.

Q: You write, "In this book, I explore memory as a way of surviving death." Can you say more about that, and about how you see the relationship between memory and death?

A: For me, memory is sacred and mysterious, and, through writing, it’s able to have a life outside the physical body. So, isn’t that one way to survive death? Also through writing, memory takes on an ever-present “now-ness” that allows the writer to make comparisons, draw connections, and construct metaphors. 

In this way, we live our experiences at least twice: There’s the initial experience, then the recollected one.

And, to me, recollected memories are more real than when events first happened. We understand them better. Through memory, events deepen and expand. When we commit our memories to paper, we’re able to carry our lives forward. And, ultimately, writing a life composed of memories is a form of immortality.

Q: You describe some very difficult experiences--how challenging was it to explore those subjects and revisit them in your writing?

A: That’s such a good question, and the answer might surprise you. I actually feel a sense of relief when I write challenging material, whether it be about sexual assault, physical illness, heartbreak, and so on: otherwise known as life’s inconveniences!

This is true because, through writing, I’m finally able to understand what the event means. I discover the metaphors and organize the experience, give it a structure, which it doesn’t have in real life. Life is so messy!

Then, once all is said and done, and the experience is on the page, I see it both more clearly as well as at a distance—which might sound paradoxical, but isn’t. After all, it’s not solely inside of me anymore as it was pre-writing. I’ve extracted it and set it on paper. So, yes, a relief. The burden is lifted. I’m ultimately able to understand the past in a more artistic way.

It’s still sad—of course. But I always need to remember that I survived the actual event, and now I’ve survived the writing of it, too.

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

A: I don’t remember the original title, or even subsequent ones. But the title, like the manuscript itself, evolved over a number of years as I revised and revised until I discovered the true theme of the book that I wanted to write.

What I like about this title is its irony. On one level, of course, unless I’m very lucky, I won’t survive death—sadly. At the same time, the book is also about surviving “small” pseudo-deaths (inconveniences) that we encounter on a more daily basis such as loss, heartbreak, illness, disappointments.

I think the title sets a tone that’s a bit irreverent—which also allows me to be serious or earnest as needed.

But imagine if I had entitled the book “My Fear of Death.” Who would want to read that? With a straightforward title I wouldn’t have been able to incorporate an ironic voice without it being jarring. Death is such a, well, deathly topic, so I needed a title that would offer a wider range of voice. I hope readers think it works.

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

A: More of a willingness to discuss death. And, equally important, a willingness to discuss all sorts of emotional and spiritual pseudo-deaths such as sexual assault, miscarriage, divorce, addiction—many things in this vein—which are considered taboo.

Over the years, I’ve written about a host of taboo subjects. That seems to be where my writerly soul is led. I hope my books prompt conversations.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: The title is Acetylene Torch Songs: Writing True Stories to Burn the Soul. It’s a hybrid book examining strategies on how to write our obsessions coupled with personal essays depicting my own obsessions, which I’m writing specifically for this book. But it’s in its early stages. It could all change by next month!

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: This is actually my fifth work of creative nonfiction, and while this may seem like a lot for one small life, I’d like to encourage others to discover all their stories. Humans: We’re so complicated! And we all have many stories to tell.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Sue William Silverman.

March 30

March 30, 1820: Anna Sewell born.

Sunday, March 29, 2020

Q&A with Ronald L. Smith

Ronald L. Smith, photo by Erik Kvalsvik
Ronald L. Smith is the author of Gloom Town, a new middle grade novel for kids. His other books include Hoodoo and Black Panther: The Young Prince. He lives in Baltimore, Maryland.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for Gloom Town, and for your character Rory?

A: Well, originally the book was called Mr. Foxglove’s Valet. The town was still called Gloom, so I thought Gloomtown would be a more captivating title. I write organically, so I never know where I’m going until I get there. I was surprised to find that the story ventured into a seafaring tale, but that’s what happens sometimes.

I knew I wanted to write a creepy story and make it a fantasy, but that’s about all. I always wait for the story and characters to reveal themselves. Somehow, it seems to work.

Q: The novel is set in a gloomy town by the sea--how did you create your setting, and how important is setting to you in your writing?

A: Setting is probably one of the most important facets of good storytelling. The seaside location came to me as I was working on a map for the book. I knew that Rory, my main character, would live near the docks, so it really took off from there. I love setting.

My first book, Hoodoo, was a lot of fun because I drew on all of the flora and fauna of the South: weeping willow trees, the smell of fried catfish, the intense heat of the sun. My job is to make the reader “fall into the page,” and that’s what I try to do with all of my books.

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

A: Well, I’m a pantser not a plotter, so I didn’t know the end. I usually don’t. Once I have a few thousand words I begin to have a better idea of what could happen at the end. It doesn’t make it any easier to get to the actual end, though! I always make changes, as most writers do.

Also, editors sometimes come up with changes at the last minute that help make the book better. I love that phase of the process.

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

A: I just want them to have fun reading my books. Of course, there are always themes like friendship, family, being brave and true to yourself. You don’t want to be obvious, though. Kids are smart and will sniff out moral lessons or preaching in an instant.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: Can I say? *Looks around nervously* Sure, why not. It’s called Where the Black Flowers Bloom, and is a fantasy inspired by African mythology and magic!

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Yes. Thanks for the work you do!

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

March 29

March 29, 1936: Judith Guest born.

Saturday, March 28, 2020

Q&A with Carrie Callaghan

Carrie Callaghan is the author of the new novel Salt the Snow. She also has written the novel A Light of Her Own. She is a senior editor with the Washington Independent Review of Books, and her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including Amsterdam Quarterly and Silk Road Review. She lives in Maryland.

Q: You note that you based your character Milly on a woman named Milly Bennett who worked as a journalist in the 1930s. What first intrigued you about this figure, and at what point did you decide to write a novel based on her life?

A: I've been carrying Milly Bennett around in my head for probably 15 years now, though I can't remember exactly when I first stumbled across her name in the course of research I was doing for a different novel.

As part of that research, I read Milly's posthumously published memoirs about her daring early life: undercover journalism in San Francisco, boldly chasing a man she loved to Hawaii, fleeing heartbreak by moving to China to cover the Chinese civil war ... and most of all, her snappy but vulnerable voice.

I fell in love with her and knew I wanted to tell her story, starting where she left off. And starting with the mysterious arrest of her young Russian husband in 1934 seemed like the perfect place to begin my novel.

Q: How did you research the novel, and did you learn anything especially surprising?

A: I knew almost nothing about 1930s Moscow when I started researching this novel, and at times I cursed myself for picking a setting that was so politically complex and culturally distinct from the places I'm familiar with.

But I soon found I had a steady guide: Milly herself. I read hundreds of her letters, stored now in the Hoover Institute Archives, and Milly told me exactly what it was like to live in the Soviet Union in the early 1930s because she was providing her friends back in the States with vivid, emotional descriptions of her life.

I loved reading her quips about the terrible soap, the milk that froze overnight, or the enthusiastic Russians practicing "taking potshots at the imperialists" as they did target practice in the alley.

So much of her complex experience there surprised me: how she both wanted to believe in a better future but also was smart enough to see the warts of the present.

Q: How would you compare Milly to the protagonist of your first novel, the 17th century artist Judith Leyster?

A: I didn't realize it until a friend told me, but I guess they are both tough women who aren't always the most "likable" (though I like them very much!). Judith was ambitious and willing to sacrifice in pursuit of her ambition; Milly was dedicated, brave, and hopeless at love.

I think both women would have liked each other, since neither minced words and both appreciated a woman who could pursue what she wanted. Unfortunately for Milly, she often wanted men who were just terrible for her. Judith would have told her to straighten herself out and make better choices, which Milly does, by the end of the book.

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

A: Like with many novels, we had a heck of a time finding a title. But when I came upon this one, with the brainstorming help of some other author friends, I loved it immediately.

The image comes from a scene Milly describes in her letters, and one which I conjured in the book: a peasant man scattering salt upon the snowy sidewalks of Moscow. I love the collision of history (the peasant man, like thousands, moved to Moscow in search of a better life) and hope (the idea of salt helping to keep the ice at bay).

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I'm researching what I hope will be my next book! I don't want to say much, but I will say it is set in Spain. Part of Milly's story takes place in Spain too, and it's a country I'm deeply fascinated by. Plus, there's the onerous responsibility of a research trip or two ...

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: In some ways, this is a novel about a unique marriage, and there are some sex scenes. Just a couple, but since there was no sex in my previous novel, I feel I should warn people.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Carrie Callaghan.

March 28

March 28, 1936: Mario Vargas Llosa born.

Friday, March 27, 2020

Q&A with Jessica Andrews

Jessica Andrews is the author of the new novel Saltwater. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including The Guardian and The Independent. She is coeditor of The Grapevine, and she's based in London.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for Saltwater, and for your character Lucy?

A: Saltwater is semi-autobiographical. At first, I tried to write a version of the story that was more fictionalised - with a third person narrator and a different protagonist, but it didn't have enough life in it.

I wanted to write about my experiences of social class and the ways in which I felt my mother and my female friends were not protected by the world around them, but I think I was afraid.

I am learning that's part of the process of writing a novel - you tend to skirt around the issues that are central to your world for a little while, and it is only when you address them directly that everything begins to come together.
Q: A review of the book in The Guardian says, "It’s a standard coming-of-age narrative, but also features something very rare in literary fiction: a working-class heroine, written by a young working-class author." What do you think of that description?

A: I grew up working-class, but didn't have the vocabulary to understand the complexities of class structures until I was much older. It took me a long time to realise that the ways I felt wrong among friends at university came from the world outside of me.

I wanted to write about those feelings in order to pull them apart. It felt important to me to write about the joy and the poetry inherent in working-class life, without romanticising the struggle.

Q: The novel is told in short fragments. Why did you choose that method to structure the book?

A: I am interested in exploring the way that we carry all of our experiences inside of us all of the time, and a non-linear narrative seemed like the best form to reflect that.

I wanted to explore the way that dreams or responsibilities are passed down through generations of women, and the fragmented structure allowed me to piece parallel images together across time.

I also wanted to reflect Lucy's experience of inhabiting a body as a young woman in the contemporary world, which, to me, feels fractured.

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

A: The book moves through settings that are linked by the water; cities and towns by rivers and seas. It is also a metaphor for bodily fluids; sweat and tears and blood. It represents the threads that run through places and bodies, the things we carry with us.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I am working on a new novel, exploring denial and desire.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb