Wednesday, October 4, 2023

Q&A with Noelle Salazar



Noelle Salazar is the author of the new novel The Roaring Days of Zora Lily. Her other novels include The Flight Girls. She lives in Bothell, Washington.


Q: What inspired you to write The Roaring Days of Zora Lily


A: To be honest, it started with a name. Zora Lily was the name of my maternal great-great grandmother - a fact I didn't know until a few years ago.


I couldn't understand how a name that fantastic wasn't passed down in some way, shape, or form - and I decided then and there that Zora needed a book. Finding the tale to tell is a whole other story.


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


A: Once I decided the era (1920s) and the location (Seattle) I started going down very deep rabbit holes online regarding both things.


I bought books, nonfiction and fiction. I scoured details of the buildings that were built around that time, the music, the musicians, the bootlegging industry, the names of the speakeasies... It was some of the most fun I've ever had researching a book.


I think the most surprising thing I learned was regarding Roy Olmstead and his wife, Elise. He was a police officer, and she was a Londoner who had worked for British Intelligence during WWI.


Roy was one of the most successful bootleggers in Seattle. Elise was rumored to have an evening radio show where she read children's stories over the air, hiding important details for bootleggers in her words.


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 never start a novel unless I know how it ends. I like knowing where I'm going, even if I'm not quite sure how I'm going to get there. There aren't usually many changes once I see it in my mind.


That being said, the present-day parts of the story weren't added in until after the first draft was done. I love the opportunity it gave to tell Zora's story fully. 


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


A: Title choice is always a tricky business. For months there was a placeholder for the story: The Jazz Girl. But that didn't really describe Zora accurately. She was about so much more than just the fabulous music surrounding her in those clubs.


My team and I threw phrases and words back and forth for weeks, taking pieces of something and trying to match it with something else until we finally had a title we all loved. 


Q: What are you working on now? 


A: My next book is about a flight nurse during WWII. Nurses hold a special place in my heart, as there are several in my family.


I didn't realize flight nurses didn't even exist until WWII - and when I read about them - my mind was blown. What an amazing group of women. I'm so excited to tell this story!


Q: Anything else we should know? 


A: I hope to keep evolving as a historical fiction writer. There are so many intriguing eras, with incredible women filling them...women who fought to be heard, or just put their heads down and quietly accomplished feats we are still just learning about. It makes me excited.


I want to know about women in the 1930s - after the extravagance of the ‘20s. I want to know their pain and how, after leading more modern lives, they seemed to go backwards. I want to know about the women after WWII. The ones who joined the working force and then had to give up their jobs once the men came home.


I have dreams of writing books for each decade of the 1900s. Partially to push myself, partially so I have an excuse to wear clothes from each era, but mostly to tell the stories of the women that came before me.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Alison Rose Greenberg



Alison Rose Greenberg is the author of the new novel Maybe Once, Maybe Twice. She also has written the novel Bad Luck Bridesmaid. She lives in Atlanta.


Q: What inspired you to write Maybe Once, Maybe Twice, and how did you create your characters Maggie, Garrett, and Asher?


A: Someone in my life gave me an elevator pitch: a 30-year-old man told two different women in his past to marry him, and then both women show up at his door.


I remember thinking, that’s not very interesting, because men get all the choices. Society and biology aren’t holding 30-something men at gunpoint, telling them to have life figured during their fertile years.


I had the idea to gender-flip it, and age a female main character up to 35. I’m at the end of my 30s, and in reflecting on this last decade, I was inspired to create a story that would dig deep into the choices women my age face.


With Maggie, I knew I wanted to showcase a dreamer. The creative side of me is reflected in Maggie’s passion for her career coupled with the agony of trying to make it.


To round Maggie out, and make her feel very real to me, I wanted to have her career ambitions complicated by a yearning to start a family. I went through a divorce as a single mom in my early 30s and fought like hell for my career as a screenwriter (and then, author), with two young children in tow.


I wanted Maggie’s resolve to showcase that it’s never too late to fight for a career and fight for the family you desire.


I wanted the men to be very different—but I also didn’t want us to question if they loved Maggie.


Garrett was created to embody That Guy You Pine For. For Maggie, he’s the definition of right guy, wrong time. And he has a difficult time putting his heart on the line—both for Maggie and for his own career.


Conversely, I created Asher to be the soulful artist, an actor who leads with his heart. He’s Mr. Right Guy, Right Time. I played Deana Carter’s “Strawberry Wine” on repeat when writing young Asher. He’s the first love we all wish we had.


Q: Maggie is a musician and music plays a big role in the book. Why did you choose that as a theme, and did you need to do any research to write the novel?


A: I knew Maggie would have the career of a creative, and I’ve always been infatuated with singer-songwriters, so it felt natural to put Maggie into the shoes of a struggling musician.


I researched the hell out the industry. From reading books on lyric-writing, to picking up biographies and autobiographies on female singers, to devouring interviews with female singer-songwriters.


I loved Broken Horses by Brandi Carlile and the Stevie Nicks biography Gold Dust Woman. I dove into the darker sides of the industry, inspired in part by an explosive New York Times article I had read in 2019 about Ryan Adams.


Q: The writer Robinne Lee called the book “an emotional journey of love, lust, longing, and being true to the artist within.” What do you think of that description?


A: I was destroyed (in a great way) by Robinne’s novel, The Idea of You, so her description made me shriek with joy. Maggie leads with her emotions and her whole heart—showing us unapologetically how badly she wants love and how badly she wants to make it in her career.


Q: The novel jumps from one year to another in Maggie’s life. Did you write the story in the order in which it appears, or did you go chronologically through her life and then move things around?


A: My original draft did not have flashbacks as chapters, but rather little pieces and anecdotes peppered into the present.


I’m endlessly grateful for my editor, Alexandra Sehulster. She pushed me out of my comfort zone, and we realized that the most authentic way to tell Maggie’s story was with three timelines.


I created a master Excel spreadsheet of the timelines, and in using and rewriting some of my original draft, I wrote a majority of the story in the order in which it appears, rather than chronologically through her life.


I was able to have a pretty good handle on where Maggie was emotionally in those timelines, which helped me navigate writing the past and present, side-by-side.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: Getting all my ducks in a row as I dive into book #3.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Raj Tawney



Raj Tawney is the author of the new memoir Colorful Palate: A Flavorful Journey Through A Mixed American Experience. Also a journalist, he is from New York City. 


Q: What inspired you to write Colorful Palate


A: For years, I’d been publishing many personal essays on food and identity in a variety of news and media outlets. I was receiving emails from readers across the country who identified with my stories about being a multiracial American and the important role that food has played in helping me understand myself. 


I kept being asked if I was writing a book and then, one day, I decided to finally do it. Also, I wanted this to serve as a love letter to my family and to show them that people like us matter.  


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


A: Originally, when I had an agent, they shopped it around as Off White. After it didn’t sell and the agent sort of lost interest, I left the agency and decided to shop it around myself. 


I think many people in the industry want to talk about race and identity in a brash, aggressive manner. And although difficult stories are very important and need to be told, I felt like my life consisted of both beauty and pain, and it wasn’t necessarily “dark.” In fact, it was vibrant and flavorful. So, that’s how Colorful Palate came about.  


Q: The professor and author Krishnendu Ray said of the book, “Here is an Indian who is equally Puerto Rican as much as Italian. A kid raised well on Arroz Negro, Insalata di Mare and Tandoori chicken. Read it and cook from it to find out what it might mean to be authentically American.” What do you think of that description? 


A: I think what he means is that food is a tool I use to understand my own family’s journey and plight. Each meal tells a story about my mom, grandma, dad, brother, and now my wife and her family. 


Through this cross-section of cultures and their cuisines, I was able to discover how food was not only a pleasure but a gateway into learning more about myself.  


Q: Can you say more about the impact that writing this book had on you? 


A: Writing this book was highly emotional and sometimes distressing. I had revisit moments and memories in my life that I hadn’t come face-to-face with in a very long time. But it was cathartic and, although I still don’t have all of the answers to life, I feel like I’ve grown as both a writer and human being.  


Q: What are you working on now? 


A: I’m finishing a middle grade novel for Paw Prints Publishing/Baker & Taylor that will be out in fall 2024. I’m very excited about it. It’s also about a mixed kid.  


Q: Anything else we should know? 


A: I’ll be on tour this fall, visiting New York, Boston, Miami, and other cities. I’m excited to meet people and have lively discussions. It’s a time to celebrate and open minds… I hope. 


Thanks for having me, Deborah! 


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Len Kruger




Len Kruger is the author of the new novel Bad Questions. He worked at the Library of Congress for many years, and he lives in Washington, D.C.


Q: What inspired you to write Bad Questions, and how did you create your character Billy Blumberg?


A: My memories of seventh-grade junior high (“middle school” today) inspired me! That is such a weird time for boys. Some are becoming interested in going on dates and school dances. Others are still into little kid things, like candy and toys and baseball cards. Many, like Billy, are straddling both worlds.


I wanted to write a first-person narrative of a 12-year-old boy grappling with a very transitional and turbulent time in his life. To render Billy’s character, I channeled my 12-year-old self and drew upon some of my pop culture obsessions growing up in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s.


These included: the Mad Magazine satire of the movie Love Story, the radioactive vegetable episode of Gilligan’s Island, and the metaphor-rich “Cone of Silence” in the TV spy spoof Get Smart. Billy uses all these memes as frames of reference to make sense of the world and reckon with the many challenges he must face.   

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


A: Several things.


First, the adult Billy is a physicist and one of the key characteristics of the scientific method is asking good questions. However, the 12-year-old Billy — in his quest to figure out how life works — goes down multiple rabbit holes of superstition and pseudoscience, asking lots of bad questions that get him into trouble. Billy’s father does the same, with tragic consequences.


Second, there’s lots of Jewish content in the novel, and “questioning” is a feature of Judaism (e.g., the Four Questions of the Passover Seder).


And finally — “Bad Questions” as a title — I just liked the sound of it!


Q: The writer Suzanne Feldman said of the book, “An adult’s story seen from a young boy’s point of view, Bad Questions rings with emotional truths that resonate vividly and viscerally today.” What do you think of that description?


A: I like this description because it makes it clear that Bad Questions is more than the pure nostalgia of a 12-year-old’s story in 1971.


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 how the novel would end. As I was writing Bad Questions, I could only see maybe one or two chapters ahead.


I really like E.L. Doctorow’s famous comparison of writing a novel to driving at night: you can see as far as your headlights illuminate the road, but you can’t see the final destination until you get there.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I’m working on a new novel. In 2021, I had a short story published in the Potomac Review about a condo-dwelling, curmudgeonly 69-year old divorced guy who hates electric scooters and loves dogs. I really like the first-person narrative voice of the story, so I decided to keep going and make a novel out of it!


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: Thank you for the great questions!


I and the two other Washington Writers’ Publishing House contest winners (in poetry and creative nonfiction) will be doing a book launch and reading at Politics & Prose, Washington D.C., on Oct. 14 at 3 pm. We’ll have another reading at the Writer’s Center in Bethesda, Maryland, on Oct. 22, also at 3 pm.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Oct. 4



Oct. 4*, 1880: Damon Runyon born.

*Not all sources agree on his birthdate.

Tuesday, October 3, 2023

Q&A with Virginia Pye


Photo by Margaret Lampert



Virginia Pye is the author of the new historical novel The Literary Undoing of Victoria Swann. Her other books include the story collection Shelf Life of Happiness. She lives in the Boston area.


Q: What inspired you to write The Literary Undoing of Victoria Swann, and how did you create your character Victoria?


A: I moved back to the Boston area eight years ago after many years away and noticed that people here read more than in any other place I’ve lived. It’s hard not to bump into historical markers to famous writers everywhere around this highly literate city.


As I sat down at my desk in Cambridge, I started to feel the shadow of the famous male authors who once lived here and make up part of the American canon—Emerson, Hawthorne, Thoreau, Frost, Du Bois, and others.


It made me wonder what it might have felt like to be a Boston woman writer in an earlier time. Not a Margaret Fuller, who was taken seriously by the male literary and publishing establishment, but a woman writer of what they would have called “frivolous” tales, the dime novels that women readers loved.


If I sensed a weight on my shoulders in this bookish town today, how must a woman author have felt back then? My protagonist, Victoria Swann, and her troubles began to take shape in my mind.


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


A: I had a wonderful time researching this novel. I visited the Schlesinger Women’s Library at Radcliffe to learn about local women writers of an earlier time.


To my delight, I came upon a brief description of Mary Abigail Dodge (1833-1896), known by the pen name Gail Hamilton, author of essays and more than 25 books on religion, politics, travel, rural life, and the rights of women.


She also played a key role in the evolution of publishing when she sued James T. Fields of the esteemed Boston house of Ticknor and Fields for underpaying her as a woman.


When I read that, I instantly decided that my character of Victoria would do the same. I wanted this novel to be about a woman writer fighting to have a voice both on and off the page.


As I continued to research, I was surprised by how many of the issues faced by women in the 1890s are still with us today. Women writers, and all writers, are still fighting to be treated fairly by publishers (and movie companies).


But also, when I tracked down a treasure trove of dime novels at Brandeis University, I discovered that the advertisements at the back of them reveal an altogether different story from the ones told in the romance and adventure tales.


They offer thinly veiled abortion services by doctors whose addresses are P.O. boxes because abortion was illegal. Potions and strange apparatuses promise to help women with an unspecified problem, though presumably everyone knew their purpose.

And in Letters of the Lovelorn, real women sought advice about abusive relationships, harassing bosses, and also, unwanted pregnancy.


The real story of women’s lives of that era exists in the back pages of the popular fantasy tales and their problems are not dissimilar from those of many women today.


Q: The writer Kerri Maher said of the novel, “The adventures and dreams of Victoria, a brilliant and irreverent romance novelist from more than a century ago, will resonate with readers today.” What do you think of that description, and can you say more about how you’d compare Victoria's life to those of women writers today?


A: My hope is that readers will feel a strong connection to Victoria because her struggles aren’t very different from our own. Women are still trying to make their voices heard in so many ways, not the least as writers.


Sure, women writers are more published than in her day, but are our stories really the ones we want to tell? Are we holding back on what can be said? I think that could be true.


As we all know, abortion rights have taken a big step backward so that an illegal procedure as described in my story is close to our own reality. I was amazed that the Comstock Law is being discussed in relation to the Supreme Court’s recent rescinding of Roe v. Wade.


My novel also explores immigrant rights, in particular those of Chinese women who came to this country and then were deemed illegal. And finally, my novel shows a gay love story that I hope is less closeted than today, but perhaps not, depending on the state.


So, things have changed, and yet they haven’t in ways that leave many good people vulnerable.


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 always make changes along the way, so that honestly, I don’t recall what I first envisioned as my ending. I suspect it wasn’t too different from where the book ends now.


I knew the feeling I wanted to leave the reader with—a sense of triumph that Victoria deserves. But it’s also a triumph for all readers and writers, for all thinking people with big hearts.


Also, I wanted the final moments to be a love story to the bookish cities of Boston and Cambridge. It makes perfect sense that the last scene takes place at the Boston Atheneum, an august private library a few doors over from our State House.


Nothing better suited Victoria than for her to go from a country farm to a lonely garret by the harbor, to Brattle Street, and finally to a place of honor on Beacon Hill.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I’m many drafts into my next novel, a contemporary story set in Richmond, Virginia, in the summer of 2020. It’s about two marriages that implode as the social protests take place and the Confederate monuments are falling.


It’s a dramatic time, both personally and politically, in a city I know and love after living there for 17 years.  


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: Only that I hope your readers will pick up my novel and enjoy it. I’m grateful to the many respected fellow authors who read it in advance of publication and said nice things. But it’s readers who make all the difference.


That’s what the novel itself is about: how the relationships that readers have to the books they read is profound and how writers, like me, are deeply grateful to readers for their encouragement and love.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Virginia Pye.

Q&A with Michele Campbell




Michele Campbell is the author of the new novel The Intern. Her other novels include The Wife Who Knew Too Much. A former federal prosecutor in New York City, she lives in New England.


Q: You’ve said that The Intern “represents a return to roots for me.” How much did you draw from your own experiences in creating your character Madison?


A: Madison Rivera is a lot like me. We’re both of Puerto Rican heritage, from modest backgrounds, and went to big-name schools where we felt like outsiders. We’re both lawyers by training, and love the law, but questioned our place in the legal profession because we lacked connections to smooth our paths.


In writing her, I wanted to highlight an aspect of the Latina experience that I don’t often see reflected in popular fiction. Not the immigrant’s journey, which is not mine, but that of the next generation, trying to get ahead on a less-than-level playing field.


In many ways, Madison’s journey is my journey – minus the murder, of course!


Q. The writer Helen Wan said of your characters, “Both Madison and Kathryn are believably imperfect, each struggling with her own family ties and inherited obligations, while trying to pursue happiness and ambition at the very highest echelons of law and society.” What do you think of that assessment?


A: It’s right on point! Both women are caught between family loyalty and ambition, for sure.


Madison lands the internship of a lifetime working for charismatic federal judge Kathryn Conroy. But she has a secret that could destroy her career. Her troubled younger brother Danny was arrested, and Conroy is the judge on his case.


When Danny goes missing after accusing Conroy of corruption, Madison’s quest for answers brings her deep into the judge’s glamorous world. Is the judge a mentor, a hero, a criminal, a victim? Answering those questions requires Madison to investigate the judge’s past, in which her family secrets play a huge role.


The Intern asks not just whether we can escape the past, but whether it’s wrong to even try. What do we owe our families as we move on to new challenges, and what happens when the price of loyalty is simply too high?


Q. In our previous Q&A, you said of The Intern, “This book will be a combination of a modern, female-driven psychological thriller and good old-fashioned legal thriller in the vein of John Grisham or Scott Turow.” How did you balance the two as you were writing the novel?


A: I simply put two interesting women in a situation that mixes twisty, cat-and-mouse psychological suspense with the gripping stakes of a classic legal thriller, and the balance flowed naturally.


Madison is a deeply ambitious law student. She idolizes Judge Conroy and sees her as the perfect mentor – until her own brother accuses the judge of corruption, and then goes missing. Searching for answers, Madison worms her way into Judge Conroy’s life, and the judge encourages this.


The reader doesn’t know which woman to trust. Are they using each other? Are they a danger to each other, or are they secret allies?


The action unfurls against the glamorous backdrop of Back Bay Boston, and the courthouse, where the stakes could not be higher. So the book is legal thriller and psychological suspense in equal measure. It’s really fun!


Q. How would you describe the dynamic between Madison and Kathryn?


A. Friend and enemy. Cat and mouse. Love and hate. These two characters are engaged in one of the great balancing acts, and the suspense could not be higher. Also, I think readers will love the ending.


Q. What are you working on now?


A: A genre-bender that’s part thriller, part fantasy and part historical. I’d describe it as The Nightingale meets The Midnight Library but with the pace of a thriller. That’s all I can say for now, but I’m very excited about it!


--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Michele Campbell.

Q&A with Michelle A. Barry




Michelle A. Barry is the author of the new middle grade novel Seagarden. It's the second in her Plotting the Stars series, which began with Moongarden. She lives in Connecticut.



Q: Seagarden is the second novel in your Plotting the Stars series--did you know from the start that you'd be writing more than one novel about your character Myra?

A: I always knew there was more to Myra’s story to tell. In particular, I had a very clear vision of how I wanted Book 2 (Seagarden) to end, and how I wanted Book 3 to begin. It's definitely a dream come true to be able to write (and share with readers) Myra’s full adventure!


Q: In our previous interview, you discussed the influence of The Secret Garden on Moongarden. Was there another classic that inspired Seagarden?

A: In Seagarden, Myra and her friends join an exchange program that leads them to a new school on Venus. While their lunar school, S.L.A.M., has a heavy focus on magic as it relates to science and math, the curriculum at V.A.M.A. has a much more creative, artistic flavor.


The kids have a real “we’re not in Kansas anymore” moment, reminiscent of The Wizard of Oz, when they arrive and see all the ways they could use their magic that never occurred to them before.


Q: Why did you choose Venus as the setting for Seagarden?

A: I am a huge PBS buff and especially love the network's NOVA series. NOVA did a special mini-series called The Planets, and during the episode on Venus, they mentioned that years ago, scientists believed that Venus could be tropical, even a water world.


They later discovered that it was not, but the idea of a tropical Venus captivated my imagination and is the reason why in Seagarden, Venus has become a man-made water world, with artificial seas and waterways.


Q: Do you think Myra has changed from one novel to the next?


A: Absolutely! The heart of the Plotting the Stars series for me is friendship, and how friends and friendships can evolve and change as you get older.


In Moongarden, Myra is learning how to become a friend. In Seagarden, she is grappling with being secure in her friendships, understanding how to cope with your best friends bringing new people into your friend group, and how to handle the aftermath of a friendship breakup.


She has a lot more maturity with her relationship in Seagarden, but some of that maturity comes from hard lessons learned.


Q: What’s next in the series? What are you working on now?

A: Book 3 (title not yet revealed) is due out in the fall of 2024, so that is my main focus currently. I am very excited about this segment of Myra’s story, and what it means for the book’s other characters, who each have their own journeys and character arcs.


I also love exploring new settings in each book – and without giving too much away (no spoilers!) – am looking forward to exploring new planets through Myra’s eyes!


--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Michelle A. Barry.

Q&A with Karen Eber



Karen Eber is the author of the new book The Perfect Story: How To Tell Stories That Inform, Influence, and Inspire. She is the CEO and Chief Storyteller of the Eber Leadership Group.


Q: You begin The Perfect Story by describing a story about your eyes. Can you say more about that, and about what it told you about the power of storytelling?


A: I have different colored eyes. I love them, but other people often don’t have the same response. After getting grilled incessantly about them, I told a story that they turned different colors after I ate crayons.


The first time I told the story, it created an energy shift. I went from feeling like I was on display as a sideshow at a circus to creating a moment of laughter and connection.


Stories can build rapport even in the most unnatural of settings. And at their core, they help us connect and learn more about one another.


Q: What do you see as the elements of a good story?


A: Great stories have characters, conflict, connection, and structure.


We can understand the characters and why they make the choices they do…even if we don’t agree.


There is a conflict that has to be resolved – either between characters, events, or with a character and their own values.


Connection is created as our senses and emotions are engaged. We can feel like we are in the story beside the characters, sharing their experiences.


Putting all of that into a solid structure makes it not only easy for the storyteller to share but also for the audience to follow along.

Q: What role does storytelling play in the world of business?


A: It’s so critical in helping share ideas, expand thinking, persuade, and even motivate. Stories bring meaning to data. They introduce perspective. Teams learn from stories.


They are a more dynamic way to communicate and are an underutilized tool – from the C-suite down to the average employee. They will reinforce what is encouraged or discouraged on a team and help employees grow.


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


A: Storytelling is a skill you can and should learn. In The Perfect Story, I want people to learn more about what is happening in their brains when they listen to stories. And more importantly, what to do with that in your stories.


I use science to teach people how to hack the art of storytelling. If you’re new to storytelling, I teach you how to follow the steps and work the process.


It is a comprehensive guide to building a toolkit of ideas, tailoring them for your audience, building a story structure that is engaging and immersive, telling stories with data, using your body when telling stories, avoiding manipulating and navigating the vulnerability.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: Launching this book into the world and expanding my team that delivers storytelling workshops for companies.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: At the end of each chapter, there is something I love. Interview vignettes are included to share the experiences of people who tell stories in vastly different settings.


Some of them include an executive producer at The Moth, a co-founder of Sundance Institute, and a former Pixar creative director. These interviews include what each person might share if you sat next to them at a dinner party.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Oct. 3




Oct. 3, 1900: Thomas Wolfe born.

Monday, October 2, 2023

Q&A with Susan Stokes-Chapman




Susan Stokes-Chapman is the author of the novel Pandora. She is based in Wales.


Q: What inspired you to write Pandora, and how did you create your characters Dora and Edward?


A: Both Dora and Hermes popped into my head fully formed, and the myth of Pandora’s Box sort of came up alongside it. I knew I wanted to combine them somehow, so set initially to researching the myth.


On disappearing down a Google rabbit-hole I discovered that Pandora’s box was never a box at all, but a vase! It turns out that “box” was a mistranslation, courtesy of the 16th-century philosopher Erasmus. When he translated Hesiod’s tale of Pandora into Latin, the word pithos (a large storage jar or vase) was translated into the Latin word pyxis, meaning “box.”


All I needed to do then was find a way to get an ancient and potentially magical vase over to 18th-century England!


I set then to researching antiquity in the Georgian period, whereupon I came across the name William Hamilton who was a collector of Greek vases, having collected many of them during his 35 years living in Naples.


In 1798 when a French invasion seemed imminent, he decided to pack off his vase collection to England for safety. Ironically, some of this collection went down with the naval ship HMS Colossus off the Scilly Isles. It was this historical fact that allowed me to place the mystical Pandora’s “Box” into the Georgian London.


In terms of Dora as a character, I knew I wanted her to be a jewellery designer with a pet magpie, I knew she had to be an orphan, and that she had to live in an antique shop.


I also knew Dora had to be a fiery and stubborn young woman, fighting to find her place in the world. I wanted a heroine who could be immediately likeable, who could evoke sympathy, but who was also a strong character in her own right.


She’s completely reliant on Hezekiah and she has no money of her own, so the odds are heavily stacked against her, but she thrives anyway.


Even so, she definitely evolved from the original Dora I’d created in my head; over the course of editing the novel I actually came to realise how similar I am to Dora – we’ve both felt trapped by circumstance, we’ve both struggled to find recognition for our creativity, and we’ve both had to be determined and unrelenting to fulfil our dreams, so she really is a character very close to my heart and I think bringing her to life on the page was a series of subconscious choices.


When it comes to Edward, he actually came in much later. I’d written about 10 chapters of the novel before I realised the story couldn’t be carried by Dora alone. By this time I’d already decided that the Society of Antiquaries was going to feature in the story, so it made sense to create a character who linked to it.

Edward also needed to complement Dora, and though their histories are very different they have very similar story arcs – they essentially want the same things, which is to be recognised by a society that would seek to curtail their ambition, and they work really well as a team to overcome all the obstacles put in their way.


It was incredibly satisfying to bring Edward and Dora to life and watch them grow together over the writing process.


Q: Can you say more about how you researched the novel, and did you learn anything that especially surprised you?


A: I’d lived in London before so knew the city well, but the bulk of my research came in the form of extensive reading, which is always an eye-opener! Surprise, though, is probably not the right term to use in this instance.


I will say that in the 18th-century there was a distinct divide between the concept of “legal” acquisition of antiquities (the excavations made by William Hamilton, for instance) and the acquisition of antiquities on the black market. However, both types of acquisition were technically stealing, so there are lots of ethical implications concerning that.


There are also interesting parallels between contemporary attitudes to possession of foreign property. It just goes to show how history can teach us, still, about the modern world!


Q: The Washington Post said of the book, “With a nod to Pandora’s mythical box, Stokes-Chapman artfully imagines a world where greed, violence and hatred have run rampant, and envisions their ramifications for a disadvantaged young woman trying to find her way.” What do you think of that description?


A: I think it is very generous, and lovely to receive such high praise! It’s always interesting to hear what other people think of the novel, and always a relief when they have identified in some form or another just what you were trying to achieve with it.


Q: Why did you choose late-18th century London as the setting for your novel, and how important is setting to you in your work?


A: My first since-shelved novel focused on the real-life love affair between William Hazlitt and Sarah Walker (more info can be found on my website). It was set in 1820s Holborn, so I’d already done a lot of research into Georgian London before Pandora even popped into my head. It made sense, then, to use that prior knowledge so as not to waste it.


In terms of setting, all I know is that I feel the place has to make sense to the story itself, and what I am trying to tell. For Pandora, London just worked! As for my second novel (see below), that would not have worked anywhere else except Wales.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I am just coming to the finishing touches of my second novel, The Shadow Key. It is based in rural Wales in 1783, and a novel which has been on my mind since 2006! My connection to Wales is longstanding and I knew that one day I would write a novel set within the beautiful, lush landscape of the country which I now call home.


The Shadow Key is a story of faith and family bonds, elitism and exploitation, and the power of friendship to surmount evil. It’s my love letter to Wales, and while in comparison to Pandora it is darker, I hope my readers will fall in love with Linette and Henry’s story.


I have also started the first tentative forays into researching my third novel, another 18th-century Gothic tale but this time set in Prague…


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: I can’t think of anything, except to say stay tuned for bookish news! My website is and I can be found on both Twitter(X) and Instagram on the handle @SStokesChapman.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb