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

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