Friday, June 30, 2023

Q&A with Karin Lin-Greenberg




Karin Lin-Greenberg is the author of the new novel You Are Here. Her other books include the story collection Vanished. She is an associate professor in the English department of Siena College, and she lives in upstate New York.


Q: What inspired you to write You Are Here?


A: The first chapter in You Are Here, “The Sweeper of Hair,” was originally published as a stand-alone short story in the Chicago Tribune.


This story is about a 9-year-old boy who comes to a salon in a mall every day after school because his mother works there as a hair stylist. The mall is on its last legs, and it’s revealed in that story that it’s likely the mall will be shut down soon. The boy has an encounter in the mall with an aging magician, who is at the mall to do a show in the mall’s theater.


After the story was published, I kept thinking about stories that could be told about other characters in the mall. I also thought about the themes of aging and endings that were set up in “The Sweeper of Hair” and realized I wanted to explore them more in a book-length work.


The mother and son from “The Sweeper of Hair” ended up being two of the five point-of-view characters in the novel. A third point-of-view character is also introduced in this story; she’s an 89-year-old woman who comes to the salon every week to have her hair styled. She won’t admit it to anyone, but she’s lonely, comes to the mall for human connection, and is very fond of the hair stylist and her son.


Q: The novel is set in Albany, New York--how important is setting to you in your work, and how was the novel’s title chosen?


A: Setting is one of the elements I always consider in my work, but the degree of importance depends on the particular story I’m telling.


In You Are Here, I would say setting—both Albany and the mall where much of the novel is set—are fairly important. The mall is a setting that brings a diverse group of characters together. Without the mall, most of these characters would not encounter each other.


Albany is important, too, because although it’s a city, it’s not one of the biggest cities in the nation, and some of the opportunities the characters are seeking aren’t as readily available there as they might be in larger cities.

For example, one of the characters wants to learn about art, but besides the local art center, there aren’t many places nearby where she can take classes as an adult. If she were in a bigger city, there would be art schools that have continuing education classes, where she could learn with other adults. So in the case of this particular character, the setting adds to her conflict.


You Are Here is a title my literary agents suggested and was not my original working title for this book. I liked You Are Here as a title as soon as I heard it. It echoes the “you are here” markers on maps one would find in a mall, but I think it also works with the content of the novel on other levels.


Many of the characters are at crossroads in their lives, so they are “here” and they are contemplating whether they want to stay or whether they will make decisions that will change their lives and bring them to a new place geographically, emotionally, or metaphorically.


The novel also considers where people spend their time, so the title relates to that too. For example, one of the characters moves his family into a tiny house, which is too small for his family to live in comfortably, so he regrets this decision.


Another character is a widow who lives alone in a house that feels too big for her, but she feels connected to the house and the garden surrounding the house, so she won’t leave this space, even though memories of what happened there in the past trouble her.


Q: The Publishers Weekly review of the novel says, in part, “This is a remarkable study of ordinary people’s extraordinary inner lives.” What do you think of that assessment?


A: I was very grateful for the Publishers Weekly review of You Are Here and loved that assessment.


I wanted to write about ordinary people, the kind of people one might encounter at any mall anywhere in the United States. But I wanted to show that although these characters might seem ordinary on the surface, they have complicated inner lives that are full of longing and hope and joy and sadness and regret.


To me, the true story here is not what happens externally for the characters but what happens internally and how they grow or change or come to realize something they did not know at the beginning of the novel. I think that in real life everyone is complex and there’s much more to them than what we see on the surface, but it can be easy to forget this in our day-to-day interactions.


In this novel, I had the opportunity to delve into my point-of-view characters’ interiority and explore this complexity.


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 didn’t know how the novel would end before I started writing it. I didn’t even know how each chapter would end before I started writing them! I tend to have a basic idea of what I want to happen in my chapters and then start writing and see what transpires.


I especially did not know that I would end the entire book with a flashforward chapter. I thought I’d finished the novel and I put it down for a while, but something just didn’t feel complete to me. Finally, I decided I needed to jump forward in time 10 years so I could see what became of the characters and show what choices they’d made in the years since the mall closed.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I’ve been going back and forth between writing some short stories and working on a new novel about leaving home and then returning as a changed person and seeing if you can fit back into an old place once you’ve gained a new perspective. It’s been fun to engage both with writing short narratives and to work with a sustained plot over a longer narrative.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Laura Spence-Ash




Laura Spence-Ash is the author of the new historical novel Beyond That, the Sea. Hew work has appeared in a variety of publications, including New England Review. She lives in New Jersey.


Q: You’ve said that you read a New York Times article in 1998 about older British adults who returned to the United States to see where they had lived during World War II when they were evacuated out of Britain. Can you say more about that?


A: I wasn’t writing at the time, but I was fascinated, and I read everything I could find on the subject. When I read a memoir by a man who had been sent to a town south of Boston, I learned, completely coincidentally, that he and his brother had been sent to the same town where I went to high school.


In fact, we went to the same school—he was there as a day student and I was there as a boarder. Of course, our experiences were vastly different from one another, but I knew what it felt like to be in that place, so far from home. Everything else grew out of that setting.


I found that the cast of characters grew organically from the place. As I find often happens with my writing, characters begin somewhat two-dimensionally but over time and through many drafts, they become more and more nuanced and complicated. I’m far more interested in characters than I am in plot, so that is always the focus for me—they should feel like real people, with everything that entails.


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


A: The title is from a sentence in The Waves by Virginia Woolf: “In the beginning, there was the nursery, with windows opening on to a garden, and beyond that the sea.” I have long loved that quote: to me, it’s the definition of a life and how it unfurls. For each of the characters in the novel, we see their lives unfolding over a large swath of time, so it felt like the right title.


And, of course, the sea is important to the novel as it’s the big thing that separates the two families and keeps characters apart.


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

A: I did a fair bit of research early on about the Blitz, but I soon realized that I would never actually write the book if I kept doing research. I do think that I write literary fiction that’s set in the past, rather than historical fiction. For me, the characters are in the foreground.


So I began writing, moving chronologically from the beginning to the end, and I would do a deep dive to ground myself when I reached a new moment in time. I did have the opportunity to visit London, and I spent time in the Imperial War Museum, which was fascinating and a great way to learn about domestic life in London during the Blitz.


Several of the characters play postal chess, sending moves back and forth across the Atlantic, and in my research I learned that during the war, cards were redacted or destroyed, and as soon as I read that, I knew that I would need to include that in the book.


And not really a surprise, but it was fascinating to learn more about rationing in the US—as I was completing the final draft, my sister-in-law found ration books that had belonged to her mother and grandfather, including a letter that gave them permission to drive to upstate New York. While I was aware of the rations in England, I hadn’t realized the extent to which rations played a part in the US.


Q: The Publishers Weekly review of the novel says, in part, “Spence-Ash generates a stronger emotional charge with her contrasting portrayals of the two families, whose cultural and economic differences make it difficult for Bea to find her own way.” What do you think of that description, which relates to your character Bea’s two families, one in England and one in the United States?


A: I like the focus on the two families. It took me a long time to understand that this book was really about family. For years, I worked on it thinking that Bea was the main character—and she is the spine of the book—but in the end, I think it really is a book that is primarily interested in exploring family.


Initially, Bea was the only narrator but the book began to work when I included the points-of-view of all eight family members. And I do think that Bea is stuck between the two families, never clear where she belongs. I’m not sure that it’s their cultural and economic differences that cause Bea to be unsure of her identity, though. I think it’s more a matter of her emotional attachment to the Gregorys.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: While I was in my MFA from 2014-2016, I wrote a number of short stories. Three of those stories had characters that I loved and haven’t been able to stop thinking about. The characters weren’t connected in the stories, but I’ve connected them now, and I’m working on telling their overlapping stories.


They are employer and employee; they are mother and daughter; their lives span the 20th century. They are all women, on the outside looking in, trying to find a better way to be. It is fascinating to juxtapose their stories, to see how lives changed for women in the 20th century but also how things often stayed the same.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: I don’t think so! Thanks so much for this opportunity to answer these questions!


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Vikram Madan




Vikram Madan is the creator of the new kids' easy-reader graphic novel Owl and Penguin: Best Day Ever. It's a sequel to Owl and Penguin. Madan is based in Seattle.


Q: What inspired you to write the Owl and Penguin books, and how did you create your characters?


A: The Owl & Penguin characters first appeared in a series of whimsical paintings I was making in my art studio.





Eventually an editor I was working with asked if I would consider writing a picture book with these “cute characters.” The picture book project did not pan out but instead seeded the idea (in my mind) of telling stories wordlessly for pre-readers, beginning readers, emergent readers, struggling readers, and multi-lingual readers.


I spent a few months developing a wordless graphic novel proposal which eventually found a home at Holiday House. In the final version we added carefully chosen basic-sight-reading words to help with visual literacy.


The Owl & Penguin books are visual stories first. I conceptualize the story as images and sketch out a draft before adding additional narrative text.


Q: The Kirkus Review of the new book said, in part, “Charming evidence that compromise and inventiveness can produce the best day yet!” What do you think of that description?

A: I like that description very much. :) Part of the “charming” appeal of the books is in how much the characters empathize and care for each other, and find ways to support each other, which sometimes requires compromising and sometimes requires coming up with a new solution to a problem.


Many parents have told me these stories have helped their kids discuss problem-solving, broaching differences, showing kindness, expressing emotions, and supporting friends.


Q: How would you describe the dynamic between Owl and Penguin?


A: Owl & Penguin are best friends, despite having different personalities. Prior to developing these books, I spent a few months delving into the concept of “friendship,” including reading research papers on the topic. (One quote I won’t forget: “You can have unrequited love, but you can’t have unrequited friendship!”).


Strong friendships happen when people have some similarities and some differences, have some shared interests, empathize with, care for, and support each other, help each other grow, and when both people end up better off by being friends.


I tried to incorporate these elements in developing the characters and in how they interact. I think everyone would love to have a friendship like Owl & Penguin’s – I certainly would! :)


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I am currently working on the third Owl & Penguin book. In Fall 2023, I have a new graphic novel coming out with Holiday House, titled Zooni Tales: Keep It Up, Plucky Pup (Ages 5-9). This one is inspired by my pup Zooni, and is completely in rhyme!


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: My editor, Sally Morgridge, and I recently recorded an online conversation on the Making of Owl & Penguin, where I share the origin story in a lot more detail and we discuss considerations that go into writing emerging readers. Interested readers can find it here:


--Interview with Deborah Kalb