Tuesday, May 17, 2022

Q&A with Natalie Jenner

 


 

 

Natalie Jenner is the author of the new historical novel Bloomsbury Girls. She also has written the novel The Jane Austen Society. She has been a lawyer, a career coach, and a bookstore owner. She lives in Oakville, Ontario.

 

Q: What inspired you to write Bloomsbury Girls, and how did you choose a Bloomsbury bookshop as the book's location?

 

A: During the first wave of the pandemic, I was really missing visiting bookshops – I was also heavily promoting The Jane Austen Society at the time, and found myself missing the characters as I spoke about them.

 

Then around the time of that book’s release in May 2020, I rewatched the movie 84 Charing Cross Road and I remember thinking that there was a whole other story in there, about the many staff and their different roles and departments.

 

I told my agent that I was thinking about writing a new novel that would follow Evie Stone, the servant-girl-turned-literary-sleuth from The Jane Austen Society, into a London bookshop where the women employees would be at odds with the men in charge: in this way, I would satisfy two things that the pandemic was making me crave.

 

My agent told me that my editor had already suggested something to that effect, and I am someone who really responds to anything that feels even remotely like fate.

 

And I already knew and loved Persephone Books in London, which is a shop dedicated to reviving and reprinting 20th-century commercial works by women (one of the themes to this book) and used to be located on Lamb’s Conduit Street in Bloomsbury.

 

So, location ended up one of the easiest parts of the book to decide upon!

 

Q: You mentioned Evie Stone--you bring back several of the characters from The Jane Austen Society in this new book. How did you decide on the characters to highlight again?

 

A: Evie was always going to be the most central to the new book because she was the youngest character in The Jane Austen Society and the one with the least settled future.

 

I don’t plot or outline when I write, so when I started writing that first chapter, right away it was the characters most likely to be in London and involved in some way with Evie’s academic and career pursuits that popped onto the page.


It felt like unexpectedly running into old friends—in fact, when Yardley later shows up at the shop, I was as surprised as Evie ended up being (the joys of pantsing!). It was as simple and as logical as that.

 

Q: What do you think the novel says about the role of women in the British literary world in the post-WWII period?

 

A: Novels have an interesting history of readership: one thing I learned from researching what turned out to be my first book, is that until later in the last century, men were at least as avid readers and reviewers of Jane Austen as women.

 

Narrow genre categories tended to arise as the production of books became, ironically, cheaper and more diversified.

 

In the first half of the last century, science fiction and fantasy, mystery, psychological thrillers, and romances really took off (today we could add legal thrillers, chick lit, beach reads, and a host of other categories).

 

I think by mid-century, with movies and television starting to dominate the cultural landscape, advertisers began honing in on demographics, and this simply never serves less powerful social groups well.

 

For all the talk that women made the purchasing decisions for the home, men still ran most newspapers, magazines and journals, and I think it’s natural to gravitate towards whatever is pitched as being for you.

 

The end result is that after the war, I think women in countries with powerful media often had a bit of an uphill battle in getting attention for their work.

 

There were always exceptions—Du Maurier, Agatha Christie, Patricia Highsmith—and as an author, I live in the world of exceptions, because that is where possibility lies, and it is because of the efforts of all women writers that someone like me has a job today.

 

Q: The characters include some actual historical figures--what did you see as the right mix of history and imagination as you wrote the novel?

 

A: I am a former lawyer and I tend to edit down as I write, approaching every new word from the position of less-is-more. So when an historical figure did pop up on the page, my only concern was how their presence would propel my characters’ story forward.

 

A good example is Clarissa Spencer-Churchill, about whom many books have been written and who led a wonderfully robust and adventurous life.

 

I wasn’t going to include her at all in the book, until I discovered that she had worked alongside Sonia Blair (George Orwell’s widow, who was already a major cameo character in the story) at the literary journal Horizon, which was about to become a major plot point as I wrote.

 

So I was thrilled to have an excuse to give her a tiny moment in a party scene.

 

Q: What are you working on now?

 

A: I am working on another stand-alone book that brings forward a new character from Bloomsbury Girls, the disaffected shopgirl and budding playwright Vivien. She will end up working as a script doctor at the Cinecittà movie studio in Rome in 1955, which is totally satisfying this former cinema studies undergrad.

 

Q: Anything else we should know?

 

A: I am still mostly at home due to a family member who is at the highest risk of severe Covid, and the emails, encouragement and support from readers who enjoy my books has been the greatest balm for both my husband and me as we muddle our way through this challenging time for everyone. I am so grateful to you all.

 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Natalie Jenner.

Q&A with Eimear Ryan

 

Photo by Trevor Patchett

 

 

Eimear Ryan is the author of the new novel Holding Her Breath. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including Granta and The Dublin Review, and she is co-founder and editor of the literary journal Banshee. She lives in Cork, Ireland.

 

Q: What inspired you to write Holding Her Breath, and how did you create your character Beth?

 

A: Holding Her Breath is a combination of my two main passions in life: literature and sport. It's a story about a young woman navigating sporting failure and it's also a literary mystery. 

 

The mystery aspect came first. Two of my favourite artists died within six months of each other--Seamus Heaney and Philip Seymour Hoffman. There was this huge outpouring of sadness and fondness for them both, a sort of collective grief.


I started thinking and reading about the deaths of great artists and the many reverberations and repercussions from their deaths. Then I thought, what would it be like to be related to a figure like that?

 

That was when Beth came along: the granddaughter of a famous dead poet but immersed in a very different world, that of elite swimming.  


It was important to me from the start that she was an athlete--that she was strong and capable, that she knew it, that she carried herself with that physical confidence even if she didn't always feel strong inside.


I think as a young sportswoman you navigate the world differently. You look at your body more through the lens of utility than beauty. I don't think any young woman is immune to the many toxic messages about desirability, weight, and physical vulnerability that we receive from society, but if you are involved in sport you at least have a convincing counter-narrative to those messages. 

 

Q: What do you think the novel says about family legacies and mythologies?

 

A: Often family stories are so entrenched and so seemingly monumental that sometimes it never even occurs to us to question them. In most Irish families, there’s something that’s not talked about – it might not necessarily be a secret, just something unacknowledged.


In Beth’s case, it’s the circumstances around the death of her grandfather Benjamin. Her mother and grandmother find it too painful to talk about, but obviously not talking about it produces a different sort of pain in Beth, a sort of longing.

 

It’s complicated in Benjamin’s case because it’s not just a family myth, but a national literary myth too. Beth is both drawn to and repelled by her grandfather’s legacy: attracted by his brilliance and warmth, but terrified that she has inherited the same demons.

 

Q: The Independent.ie review of the book, by Meadhbh McGrath, says, “The title of Ryan’s novel nods to the other shadow following Beth: her past as a promising competitive swimmer.” How was the book's title chosen, and what does it signify for you?

 

A: The title changed many times over the course of the writing and editing process. All along, the various titles I had for it referenced Benjamin’s poetry. Finally, it was suggested to me that the title should really reflect Beth, as it’s her story more than Benjamin’s.

 

Not only does the phrase “holding her breath” refer to her swimming, but it’s also how Beth’s anxiety manifests. The words “holding her breath” were at one point the last words of the novel (they’ve since changed) but it just seemed to fit as a title, as there are numerous references to breath throughout.

 

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

 

A: Yes – I had the final scene and even the final lines in mind from quite early on. It helped a huge amount to have a finish line to aim for when I was bogged down in the narrative.

 

The second half of the novel changed quite a bit – originally, Beth went down a completely different avenue on her journey of discovery – but the ending always remained the same.

 

It’s something I’ll try to have in place when writing further novels, because it really does give you a feeling of confidence to know that your story has a strong ending – it makes the confusing middle a bit easier to navigate.

 

Q: What are you working on now?

 

A: I’ve just finished writing a memoir about growing up as a sports-obsessed girl in rural Ireland in the 1990s. I’m now working on some new short stories and plotting the next novel.

 

Q: Anything else we should know?

 

A: I help to run a small feminist publisher called Banshee Press. We publish the literary journal Banshee and a handful of books each year. You can find us online at bansheelit.com.

 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Stephen L. Moore

 


 

 

Stephen L. Moore is the author of the new book Patton's Payback: The Battle of El Guettar and General Patton's Rise to Glory. Moore's many other books include Blood and Fury. He lives in North Texas.

 

Q: Why did you decide to focus on General George Patton and the World War II battle of El Guettar in your new book?

 

A: This topic was actually one suggested to me by my Dutton editor, Brent Howard. Brent thought that a fresh look at Patton’s first campaign command in World War II was overdue and I agreed that it sounded like a very interesting topic.

 

I’ll admit that my knowledge on the subject was little more than the bare facts, so it was one I dived into with great interest to learn all that I possibly could.


As I explored the topic, I became fascinated with Darby’s Rangers and with the little tank destroyer battalions that came into heated battle with Germany’s superior Panzer and Panther tanks. So, it was just natural that these two groups became areas of focus in my El Guettar narrative.

 

Q: What would you say are some of the most common perceptions and misconceptions about Patton?

 

A: George Patton was often perceived as a profane, hard-driving leader who inspired troops both by leading from the front and with his controversial statements. He cared little about what other high-ranking leaders thought of him, and was known to call out some of his subordinate generals in embarrassing fashion.


One misconception was that he had no feelings for his men. But his action sometimes showed his respect for them, such as times when he took extra effort to forward needed supplies like blankets and extra socks to front-line soldiers.

 

Others criticized Patton for being a racist, although he was credited by one historian for being the first to integrate Black and white soldiers into the same rifle companies. His speech to one Black tanker battalion implored them to fight their best, to not let down fellow members of their race, and to not let him down.

 

Q: How did you research the book, and what did you learn that especially surprised you?

 

A: Although his personality was strong, demanding, and profane, it was interesting to me how Patton often inserted comments in his diary where he looked for Divine intervention, hoping that his God would grant him success.

 

Interestingly, he believed in reincarnation, thinking he might have once been a military leader killed in action in Napoleon’s army.

 

For my research, I turned to Patton’s diary and to the first-hand accounts of soldiers who served under him. Since most veterans of the North Africa campaign are no longer living, I also reached out to children of these veterans to locate memoirs, papers, and other personal stories of their experiences.

 

Q: Author John C. McManus said of the book, “Moore’s research is impressive, but his remarkable ability to relate the human story of everyday Americans in time of war is what really makes this book so hard to put down.” What do you think of that description?

 

A: I certainly appreciate his comments. My goal in writing has always been to bring the human element into the story by contacting as many living veterans as I can find.

 

I then supplement with archival interviews and oral histories, which I blend in with the official military reports. Such reports alone are very dry without the emotion of what those involved experience.

 

Q: What are you working on now?

 

A: I am currently working with a 97-year-old World War II submarine veteran to create a fresh perspective on the story of two sister submarines and their odd fates in the Pacific.


The key action will center around one submarine’s stalking and repeated torpedo attacks against a Japanese aircraft carrier which is carrying American POWs.

 

Much of this attack is carried out in the midst of a powerful typhoon, where the submariners have only their radar gear to track a large enemy ship whose type is still unknown to them.

 

Q: Anything else we should know?

 

A: Later this summer, I have another book being released that also deals with armored warfare in Europe.

 

This one, Blood and Fury, takes place more than a year after Patton’s Payback. It follows America’s top Sherman tank ace, Staff Sergeant Lafayette “War Daddy” Pool, from the beaches of Normandy through France, Belgium, and into Germany.

 

This highly-decorated hero was the source of the “War Daddy” nickname used by Brad Pitt’s character in the WWII film Fury.

 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Stephen L. Moore.

Q&A with Amy Weinland Daughters

 


 

 

Amy Weinland Daughters is the author of the new book Dear Dana: That Time I Went Crazy and Wrote All 520 of My Facebook Friends a Handwritten Letter. She also has written the book You Cannot Mess This Up. She lives in Tomball, Texas.

 

Q: What inspired you to write this book, and how would you describe your friendship with Dana?

 

A: I lived this story and it fundamentally changed me. Now, after the fact, I feel compelled, as if it is one of the primary reasons for my actual existence, to share it with as many people as possible. The book is, 100 percent, a vehicle to share the story. I am on a mission!

 

Dana and I have gone from being camp pals in the 1980s, to doing 30 years of life completely apart, to reconnecting on Facebook, to sharing so much through the U.S. Mail as pen pals, to talking on the phone every single morning.

 

Our friendship is profound, perhaps because we trusted each other emotionally before we communicated electronically or met in person. And now, because we have a free space, where judgement is reserved and trust is deep, to share almost anything.

 

Q: How would you describe the variety of reactions you received when you wrote to your Facebook friends?

 

A: The initial reaction to the letters was shock, especially early in the project when nobody knew to expect a letter. Even after friends anticipated receiving something, they seemed to be surprised by it. That was true even though I communicated very clearly that I was writing everyone a letter.

 

Each recipient felt special, I believe, because they were being treated as an individual amid the backdrop of social media. While it’s beneficial, in many ways, that we can blast out a message to hundreds of people at the same time, it depersonalizes us in a way that can hurt us profoundly. Do we even matter as a person?

 

I was surprised at how deeply the letters touched people. This was illustrated in hundreds of ways: by people’s willingness to share very personal information in their replies, by the deep, often emotional, level of gratitude expressed and by the fact that so many people, to this day, tell me where they keep their letter, usually in a very special place.

 

There was also a lot of laughter and much catching up on where life had taken us since we last met.


Q: The writer Rivvy Neshama says of the book, “This is a book for anyone who wonders about the differences between a Facebook friend and a Real-Life friend and who yearns to see the real life behind a person's Facebook image.” How would you describe those differences, and did you change your mind in the course of writing the book?

 

A: Though our connections on social media are between actual individuals and therefore real, they are limited because they don’t require us to be deliberate.

 

While we can care about our online connections, we aren’t required to sacrifice our time, our patience, our goals, our privacy, etc. to invest in a relationship.

 

It’s not so much that we don’t want to do such things with our online connections, it’s that the surreal nature of social media makes doing so an impossibility. Investing happens only one-on-one, personally, in “real” life.

 

The process of writing the letters made me understand more clearly both sides of the equation.

 

First, I’m connected to actual people on social media – individuals with beautiful, flawed and complicated stories that I can’t even begin to grasp through looking at a profile or posts. I had made so many inaccurate assumptions about friends!

 

Next, I can’t be friends with 580 people. Again, while I can care, and certainly do, it’s humanly impossible to be truly present, in a one-on-one way, with hundreds of individuals.

 

For me personally, the most surprising takeaway from the process of writing the letters was guilt. While so much love was shared through the mail, I was opening hundreds of doors to relationships that I couldn’t foster.

 

I believe there is so much good, and harmful, in social media. Perhaps what it really provides us, in the world of human interaction, is a jump off point from which to participate in real relationship.

 

It’s also a reminder to draw a clear line between our real life and online connections. To be deliberate, and to invest, in those relationships we participate in during the course of our “real” lives.  

 

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

 

A: I hope that anyone who reads Dear Dana walks away inspired and perhaps ready to go do something big – on their own terms. I also hope that they might come away with a different perspective on grief.

 

Most of all, my wish is that each reader comes away feeling hope - with a restored faith in humanity and overwhelmingly convinced that nothing can separate us.

 

Q: What are you working on now?

 

A: Though I do have a third book idea waiting in the wings, and still have my foot in the door with my freelance work – primarily in college football – my main focus right now is launching Dear Dana into the world.

 

My goal is to do anything and everything I can to get it into as many hands, and hopefully hearts, as possible.    

 

Q: Anything else we should know?

 

A: Thank you for the opportunity to share my story! I’m sincerely so grateful to have such a wonderful platform to connect with potential readers.

 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

May 17

 


 

ON THIS DAY IN HISTORY
May 17, 1873: Dorothy Richardson born.

Monday, May 16, 2022

Q&A with Jill Esbaum


 

 

Jill Esbaum is the author of the new children's picture book Jack Knight's Brave Flight: How One Gutsy Pilot Saved the U.S. Air Mail Service. It focuses on an event that took place in 1921. Esbaum's many other books include the Thunder and Cluck series. She lives in Iowa.

 

Q: What inspired you to write Jack Knight's Brave Flight?

 

A: I found Jack's story while researching a different topic, and the other book idea flew right out of my head.

 

Jack's brave flight seemed ideal for the picture book format––an unlikely everyman thrust into a role he hadn't anticipated, a do-or-die moment to shine or go down in flames (perhaps literally), a brief timeline, and a successful outcome that made Jack an overnight sensation.

 

Q: How did you research the book, and what did you learn that especially surprised you?

 

A: I always start by Googling my subject. Many articles about this event included bibliographies that led me to other, more-obscure sources. I also interviewed the daughter of one of the men involved in the relay.

 

The biggest surprise I found, which wasn't included in any newspaper article about the event, was that when Jack finally landed in Chicago, after flying through a blizzard in sub-zero temperatures, he couldn't crawl from the plane. His leather flight suit had frozen to the seat.

 

Q: What do you think Stacy Innerst's illustrations add to the story?

 

A: I knew this setting would be difficult to picture. Most of it happens in a night sky, after all.


But, wow. There's a reason Stacy has such a stellar reputation. He did a masterful job of making a reader feel like they're right there in the freezing cockpit with Jack, being pelted with sleet and snow, trying to see over the side of the plane to figure out what's below.

 

I've long been an admirer or Stacy's work and feel extremely fortunate he was part of this project.

 

Q: The Publishers Weekly review of the book called it "A riveting journey about an undersung aviator." What do you think of that description?

 

A: That's it exactly. Riveted is how I felt when first reading about Jack's monumental accomplishment. And even though he was headline news for a few days, who among us has ever heard of him (or this event)?

 

I love stumbling onto a topic that underscores the fleeting nature of fame. That's the kind of thing that gives me goosebumps.

 

Q: What are you working on now?

 

A: I'm past the research stage on another nonfiction picture book, trying to figure out how to tell readers about a briefly "famous" animal. That's all I can say.

 

Q: Anything else we should know?

 

A: My next picture book biography features Gene Stratton-Porter, a prolific author from the early 1900s. She was a fascinating woman, as famous in her time as J. K. Rowling was when Harry Potter first exploded onto the scene.

 

I couldn't resist writing about Gene, especially since an element of her free-range childhood had a direct impact on her adult life. The book is called Bird Girl - Gene Stratton-Porter Shares Her Love of Nature with the World.

 

Meanwhile, I have a funny informational picture book coming in 2023, illustrated by the phenomenal Bob Shea, called Stinkbird Has a Superpower.

 

Thanks for having me, Deborah!

 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb


Q&A with Nina Moreno

 

Photo by Craig Hanson

 

 

Nina Moreno is the author of Join the Club, Maggie Diaz, a new middle grade novel for kids. Her other books include the young adult novel Don't Date Rosa Santos

 

Q: What inspired you to write Join the Club, Maggie Diaz, and how did you create your character Maggie?

A: The first spark of inspiration for Maggie came from my editor, Shelly Romero. She had read my YA debut after we became friends and so she came to me with this idea and asked if I was interested in writing middle grade.

 

And to be honest, after writing for teens, I was super intimidated to write for a younger age category. I don’t take writing for kids lightly and I really wanted to get the voice right.

 

But as soon as Shelly presented the idea to me, my imagination took off. Maggie came together from so many shared experiences we had as kids growing up in South Florida and it was so fun getting to take those moments and make them feel funny, chaotic, and as universal as being 12 years old.
 
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’m a big outliner and like to make a map of my story beats, so before I go into that first draft, I always have some idea of where I’m headed. That way I can be sure to plant those story seeds along the way.

 

But I still make plenty of big changes in edits. With Maggie trying out so many clubs, I had to be sure to not go overboard with activities, so a few clubs didn’t make the cut.  
 
Q: What do you think Courtney Lovett’s illustrations add to the book?

A: I honestly gasped aloud when I saw the first sketch. Courtney’s art is so warm and her illustrations brought every single detail to life.

 

Writing Maggie while conceptualizing the illustrations as I went was an entirely new way to write for me, but then to actually see those incredible illustrations and the way they added to the story and moved it along has been so incredibly exciting. This is a total dream project.
 
Q: What do you hope kids take away from the story?

A: I hope it’s funny and relatable and that Maggie’s quest to immediately define herself via a club or skill helps them see that it’s exciting to try new stuff but also very okay to take your time figuring yourself out.
 
And that sometimes we have to share our rooms with our grandmas but living in a multi-generational home can be really fun too, because it might surprise you how much you have in common with your grandma.
 
Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’m currently working on something I can’t talk about just yet, because publishing is publishing, but I’m also super excited to be writing my next YA project. I’m loving getting to write in both age categories.

 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Kelly Sokol

 


 

 

Kelly Sokol is the author of the new novel Breach. She also has written the novel The Unprotected, and her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including Alpinist and The Manifest-Station. She lives in Virginia Beach, Virginia.

 

Q: What inspired you to write Breach, and how did you create your character Marleigh? 

 

A: Every story that I've written so far has started with a character. I meet this fictional person in the midst of the fight of her life. She's standing on a precipice, and the choices she makes will determine her future. And this is absolutely the case for Marleigh, the protagonist and point-of-view character in Breach.

 

Several years ago, I was writing with a group, each of us scribbling in our notebooks in response to the same prompt. The cue was "home." When my pen hit paper I imagined a young woman, leaning, exhausted onto the trunk of her car. That woman became Marleigh.

 

As I wrote, I affixed a sticker on Marleigh's car. It read, "I love my sailor." I knew she'd been loved by a Navy man. I can't stop until I've understood who this woman is, what brought her to this crisis, and what she will do to survive. 

 

I live in Virginia Beach, which is home to military special forces of all branches of service, and for 15 years before that I lived in Norfolk, Virginia, the home of the Atlantic naval fleet, and the largest Navy base in the world.

 

Fighter jets streak overhead here, casting shadows over the ocean, silencing conversation. Digitized camo is worn everywhere. I run trail ultramarathons, and that community draws veterans. Military families are my friends and neighbors. My best friend served in the Navy. My grandfather was a Marine, and way before we ever met, my husband served in the Navy.

 

For almost a decade, I've worked with a nonprofit here that's building pathways for children and their families out of poverty. This setting, and every life experience I've ever had gave rise to Marleigh and her 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 often think I know how a novel will end when I start writing, but I'm almost always wrong. I begin with a loose plot. But the magic happens when my characters exert force on the plot and change it. My main character becomes real to me when she does something unexpected.

 

That's one of the most wonderful experiences in fiction writing, when a character grows into someone more than I expected, someone flawed and textured and human. I wrote and rewrote the ending for Breach several times until the one that felt true, that felt like a held breath released. 

 

I love to write difficult women. My main characters rarely do what I think they will (or often should) do. 

 

Q: How would you describe the relationship between Marleigh and her husband, Jace?

 

A: In a word: incendiary. Their connection is electric and undeniable. Marleigh is so deserving of love and care and physical attraction. And Jace wants to be a rock for her, but he's a man. Shared trauma can sure feel a lot like love. 

 

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

 

A: I find titles so difficult! For several drafts, I name my manuscripts after their main character. The title Breach came up in conversation with my husband after he read an early draft.

 

The word "breach" is freighted with meaning. There's a physical breach. In military parlance, the breaching of a line or perimeter. A breach of contract, and, of course, the auditory similarity to a breech birth. Upside down. Painful. Dangerous. Every one of these meanings resonate throughout the novel.

 

Q: What are you working on now?

 

A: I'm revising a domestic suspense novel right now, about a woman who dares to explore and enjoy herself after a blind-siding divorce. The main character is yet another woman who is forced to face her most honest, primal self. She's forgotten what a fighter she is. The book is fun to write, and scary. I'm calling it a coming-of-middle-age novel.

 

I'm also in the early draft stages of a memoir about the importance of running throughout my life. I've only written short personal narratives, so a book-length attempt is terrifying.

 

Generally, I'm writing a new draft, revising a more polished manuscript and researching something entirely new. That's when my writing life is firing on all cylinders.

 

Q: Anything else we should know?

 

A: Family homelessness can be invisible, in large part because parents want to shield their children from stigma and  fear being separated from their children. But it absolutely exists, and there are far more homeless children than anyone would want to imagine. We can all be part of the solution.

 

Likewise, the invisible scars indelibly inked on United States servicemen and women are ruining lives. We owe these people and their families so much more after all they have sacrificed for us. Organizations like ForKids, Inc (www.forkids.org) and SALVAGEUSA (www.salvageusa.org) are doing incredible work. Check them out and see if you'd like to get involved.

 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Suzanne Mattaboni

 


 

 

Suzanne Mattaboni is the author of the new novel Once in a Lifetime. A former Newsday reporter, her work has also appeared in a variety of publications including Seventeen and Parents. She is a host of The Banzai Retro Club podcast.

 

Q: What inspired you to write Once in a Lifetime, and how did you create your character Jess?

 

A: I set out in life as a young person to try to have interesting experiences so I’d have something to write about. At one point I wanted a kind of Jack Kerouac-type of existence where there was a new and fascinating story around every corner. New Hope was part of that journey for me, so I wanted to put an experience like that on paper for people.

 

I was also inspired to try to bottle some of the vivacity of the 1980s music and art scene. I knew if I could put people in that unique moment, it would be a good time, and I could explore relationships and make some points about a woman discovering herself in the process.

 

So, Jess came into being, as a budding artist who’s hell-bent on immersing herself in this scene and creating something cool and beautiful out of it, but finding it’s not so easy to get where you want to be. Or to make people what you want them to be.

 

By the way, I never exactly became a nomad like Kerouac. That concept lost its appeal in favor of the more stable comforts of a decent home and a committed partner and a settled life. But the wanderlust was fun in the meantime.

 

Q: The novel is set in New Hope, Pennsylvania, in the 1980s--how important is setting to you in your writing?

 

A: Setting is tremendously important in this novel, almost being a character of its own. Certain towns have personalities, with an influence that exists apart from the rest of the world. Like Brigadoon, hidden away in the Scottish mist. That kind of place changes you. Or it allows you to transform yourself, especially when you’re young and open to new experiences.

        

There’s a moment in the book when Jess says that everything in New Hope has had a former life: a church that was turned into a restaurant, a patio bar that started out as a tree fort, and so on. You can walk in as one thing and leave as something completely different. Whatever you want.

 

The power of a little Bohemian enclave that’s a universe unto itself can be liberating. New Hope and its artsy tourist-town culture has a major effect on all the characters. But it’s also a metaphor for Jess’ artistic sensibility. She and her hot new guitar player boyfriend muse about the mysterious nature of creativity, how the artistic life chooses you.


Jess feels that, especially as a mosaic artist, she takes things in and reinterprets everything and spits things back out, rearranged and new. Places do that to you, too, sometimes—take you in and shoot you back out as something different.

 

And I couldn’t even fake a more appropriate name for the town. NEW HOPE.

 

That just wrote itself and was a cue to keep true to a certain amount of the source material. So, many of the haunts in the book are only thinly veiled places that existed at the time, or still do.

 

Q: The Kirkus Review of the book says, “Overall, it’s as much a nostalgia trip as it is a bildungsroman, but the reader won’t have to have personally lived through the ’80s to appreciate this ebullient and engaging story of youthful longing and independence.” What do you think of that description?

 

A: I love that you asked this question! I was over the moon about the Kirkus review, because they really got what I was trying to convey.

 

“Youthful longing and independence” is not limited to one decade. This story lives in that moment when you realize what you really want, and it’s this huge thrill… but then you’re also smacked in the face with what a long road it is to get there. You’re aching to become that thing you want to be.

 

It’s difficult to be patient when you’re bursting at the seams to become something great, when your dreams are so close, they’re practically breathing on you, but you’re not quite there yet.

 

And “ebullience?” That’s fabulous. It’s a fancy way to say it, but yeah—I wanted the book to be vibrant and fun. But I also wanted to depict real and imperfect characters who test each other.

 

I think that’s what finding yourself and becoming an adult is all about. It’s being free for the first time to test your limits, your friendships, your talents, your endurance. It’s the touchpoint when you’re so excited about what’s about to happen that it makes you dizzy.

 

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 basically knew, but as I went along, new events and nuances became infused into the story that changed its tone and the way it resonated. Sometimes you don’t see the full path for your characters until the end. As I got feedback, I started to see the characters more the way readers did, where they took on lives of their own. So, I knew the details evolved.

 

For instance, androgyny was always an element in the book; the ‘80s were an androgynous decade, especially within New Wave culture. As my drafts progressed, the impact of the early stages of the AIDS crisis started to come more to the surface. It started to beg the question as to how that affected people’s relationships and decisions.

 

Q: What are you working on now?

 

A: I’ve been fleshing out an eclectic collection of short stories, after seeing some success with that format in both women’s fiction and horror. I’m not sure how to reconcile those two things, either in my head or in this collection. Maybe I need to write a few short-form horror meet-cute stories to amalgamate the bunch!

 

Q: Anything else we should know?

 

A: Eh, I’m an open book. I share too much. I bite my nails. I’m neurotic. I sing too loud.

 

Oh, and I’m a woman who’s worked her way up in male-dominated profession, so that colors everything I do, and that’s part of the experience of the book. It’s about the first generation of women who were told “Hey, now you can have it all—education, love, sex, careers, fulfillment, everything!”

 

So, women went out to get all those things, and hit a lot of setbacks. Not everyone knew what to do with those women, and it created a lot of unforeseen conflicts. But it made the women who soldiered on ready for anything.

 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb