Posts Tagged ‘2014 Book Club PIcks’

Sundays With Writers: Astonish Me by Maggie Shipstead

Sunday, May 11th, 2014

Sundays With Writers

Happy Mother’s Day, my amazing mom readers!  Today’s Mother’s Day gift to you is a beautiful Sundays With Writers interview with bestselling author, Maggie Shipstead, on her beautiful new book, “Astonish Me.”  I am so honored that she agreed to do an interview with my little blog because I am such a fan of this talented writer. Although Maggie is most famous for her book, “Seating Arrangements,” I have to say that I enjoyed Astonish me even more and I have a feeling that you will too.

“For the first time she can remember, she is not afraid of failing, and the relief feels like joy.”

What truly makes Shipstead’s novels such a treat is her ability to write character-driven pieces.  When you are done with her books, it is as though you know her characters inside and out. With a backdrop of the ballet and what life is truly like to be a ballerina, the novel immediately pulled me in until the final pages.

Astonish Me by Maggie Shipstead

In this book a young American dancer named Joan decides to help a Soviet ballet star, the great Arslan Rusakov, defect in 1975. Although they had a passionate love affair, Arslan soon moves on to other things and Joan realizes that, onstage and off, she is destined to remain in the background.

After her relationship with Arslan ends,  Joan decides to take her life in a different direction and marry the man that had always been in love with her, raises their son, and leaves the ballet for a quiet suburban life. Joan soon comes to realize though that their son,  Harry,  is a prodigy, in more ways than one. Through this discovery, Joan finds herself being pulled back into the world of the ballet and back into Arslan’s life once again.

If you are a fan of the ballet and you love character-driven pieces, this book is a treat from start to finish.

As always, no spoilers, just love for great books and writers on our Sundays With Writers series. So grab your coffee and let’s have a chat with the talented Maggie Shipstead.

Maggie Shipstead

Astonish Me is so different from your first novel, Seating Arrangements, but the one element I found to be similar was your ability to write such well-developed character driven plots. To me, it is one of those truly unique elements of your writing. Have your stories always been very character-driven and how do you shape them so well for your books?

Well, thank you! I’m glad you think so. My relationships with characters vary from project to project. Seating Arrangements exists pretty much only because I had what I’d describe as strong chemistry with the protagonist, Winn Van Meter, who is the 59-year-old father of a pregnant bride. He’s nothing like me as a person–I’m female, 30, from California, and no one would accuse me of being emotionally withholding–but I thought the idea of him was interesting and also like I understood him. The book started as a short story, but I felt I had lots more to say about Winn and also like I knew what he would do or say in almost any situation. As I expanded the story into a novel, I incorporated more characters’ perspectives, too.

Astonish Me was a little different in that I didn’t conceive of Joan as a fully-formed person in the same way as Winn, but I started out wanting to write about someone who’s very talented (enough to be in a major ballet company) but who will never be the star she wants to be. So in a way Joan evolved out of the circumstances of her life–the incredible discipline needed to be a dancer, the frustration of encountering her own limitations, the stubbornness she has about her doomed love affair with a Soviet superstar dancer. Sometimes when I’m having trouble writing, the problem is that I’m not connecting with my characters, and I’ll take some time to just stop and close my eyes and try to actually engage with these imaginary people. Being a novelist is kind of a weird job in that way.

When I was a kid I took ballet and there is something magical about it, which is why I was so captivated by this story. Did you also do ballet? How did you do your research for this setting for your book?

I did ballet very, very briefly–for a year when I was five. But my mother and I both love to watch ballet, and she took me to about four performances a year from kindergarten until I left for college. She danced more than I did and knows a ton about ballet, so I learned a lot from her over the years. I wrote Astonish Me mostly over five months while I was traveling abroad, and I dragged a hardback ballet reference book around with me but also relied heavily on the internet. I have to say that YouTube is an incredible resource for dance. I watched multiple versions of every variation I wrote about, and some companies, especially New York City Ballet and The Royal Ballet, post lots of backstage videos of rehearsal and class online, which I found incredibly helpful. I watched full-length documentaries as well and read interviews with dancers and things like that. In the end, though, it was all a bit of a leap of imagination because I’m just never ever going to know what it’s like to exist in a dancer’s body.

One book that we read for our book club was A Constellation of a Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra. In his book, he jumped forward and backward through time, taking and building the plot in these different time periods. Your book also does this as we jump decades around these characters lives. How difficult is it, as a writer, to take your readers through time travel?

It can be very difficult, definitely. There are a lot of technical decisions that go into figuring out the chronology of any narrative and a boggling, infinite number of places and times you can take the story at any moment. So that can be overwhelming. The structure of Astonish Me, though, for some reason, evolved organically from the beginning. I would write along chronologically, and then, when I got to a point in the story where I felt like a piece of information was missing, I would jump back in time to fill in the gap. The book is written in the present tense, and it’s meant to feel immediate and episodic, sort of like a ballet.

In the book, Joan gives up on her dream of being a ballerina because she believes that she isn’t good enough to ever be a prima ballerina. Did you ever give up on anything because you didn’t think you would be able to be the best at it?

When I was in high school and for some years afterward, I was a really serious horseback rider. I trained most days and had two horses I was obsessed with and missed a lot of school to compete, but I wasn’t particularly talented. I really, really, really wanted to qualify for certain events that took place at the National Horse Show in Madison Square Garden or at another big show in D.C., but I never did. I have to say, as frustrating as that experience was, I think it was ultimately good for me to understand that the process was worthwhile even if I had absolutely no chance of ever being the best. I liked spending time with horses, and I liked the pursuit of a physical skill and the excitement of competing, especially when I won, which did happen occasionally. And, generally, the idea of being the best is tricky, right? I hope I mostly try to do the best I can.

If you could tell anyone to read one book (other than your own) what would that book be?

I just finished reading Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, which I loved. That’s the book I’m talking up to everyone right now.

What do you have in store for us with your next writing project?

I’m working on a third novel–about a female pilot after World War II–and I have a bunch of short stories I’d like to finish.

*This post contains affiliate links! Love our Sundays With Writers series? Check out all of our past interviews here

 

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March Book Club Selection: A White Wind Blew by James Markert

Friday, February 28th, 2014

A White Wind Blew by James Markert

As I turned the final pages of, “A White Wind Blew,” I knew immediately that this would be a fantastic book for our book club discussion. The book covers so many issues including religion, racism, prohibition, war, the power of music, friendship, illness, and love.

Markert is a screenwriter and the book reads with the cinematic quality of a beautiful film. He also has a history degree from the University of Louisville and, with this background, it is evident that the details he includes in this book really shine.

Dr. Wolfgang Pike practices at Waverly Hills, a tuberculosis sanitarium in Jefferson County, Kentucky. He is a theological student from Saint Meinrad Abbey and is continuing to study to be a priest while practicing as a doctor at the clinic.  Music and his former love, named Rose, are the center of his life and he still mourns the loss of her daily. He has been working on a requiem for her that he just cannot seem to finish in his evenings, never able to fully bring this piece to a close. During the day though, he visits his patients and uses music therapy to help ease their pain and relax them, despite the belief of his boss that this is a waste of time.

When a former concert pianist checks in, he begins to believe that he will be able to help him finish this requiem to Rose. With his help and an unlikely choir of singers and musicians in the hospital, he begins to see the transformative power of music on these patients and what these times of practice mean to them. Unfortunately, not everyone believes this is a good idea. When Wolfgang finds a musician from the colored hospital to participate, during a time where racism runs rampant, many lives are threatened while unlikely friendships & relationships are formed.

James Markert

James Markert is a debut novelist and screenwriter, which is why his writing feels oh-so-cinematic. James  lives in Louisville, Kentucky with his wife and two children. He has a history degree from the University of Louisville, where, in his senior year, he was honored as the school’s most outstanding history major. He won an IPPY Award for The Requiem Rose, published by Butler Books.

With Requiem’s local success, James was signed by Writers House Literary Agency in New York, and the book was sold to Sourcebooks, Landmark in January 2012. Rewritten and retitled, it became A White Wind Blew.  James is currently working on his next novel, The Strange Case of Isaac Crawley, a story that takes place in the late nineteenth century and involves the theater scene, a lunatic asylum, and the theatrical version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde…and possibly a few gaslights, cobblestones, and an eerie fog.

He runs his own blog called Markert Ink where you can read about some of his thoughts on books and writing. I know you will want to become a fan after you read this one and you can follow James on Twitter!

James Markert has graciously offered three of our readers the chance to win his book. He has also offered to answer your questions, which I could not be more excited about! 

To enter to win a copy of, “A White Wind Blew,” please enter via the Rafflecopter widget below!  Just leave us a comment and let us know your thoughts on our book club and book club selections so far! 

MomAdvice Book Club

Our book club discussion for this novel will take place on March 25th. I will try to collect your questions for the author before that though via our Facebook groupSign up for our newsletter to stay informed and connect with me on GoodReads too!

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February Book Club Discussion With the Author: A Constellation of Vital Phenomena

Tuesday, February 25th, 2014

A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra

I am so excited to discuss our MomAdvice Book Club pick, A Constellation of a Vital Phenomena with you. I am doubly excited that Anthony Marra has agreed to answer our questions about his astonishing debut novel with you.

With a book of this gravity, it is hard to know where to begin in our discussion. First, I want to thank you all for participating in this month’s selection.  I know that we had two historical fiction books that centered upon wartime topics, but once I began to read this book, I knew from Marra’s beautiful writing that this would be a book worth discussing with you all.

Let’s begin with our cast of characters in this book, as there are many, all of them offering much importance to this storyline and beautifully woven together at the end of our story.

The Cast of Characters

 

Sonja: An amazingly talented doctor who is almost singlehandedly carrying for the wounded at an abandoned hospital. Sonja is consumed with worry and grief over the loss of her sister, Natasha, who has disappeared.

Akmed: The neighbor who discovers Havaa in the woods and offers his services as a doctor in exchange for Havaa’s safety at the hospital. We later learn in the story of why Akmed is so motivated to save Havaa.  Of course, we also soon discover that Akmed is more of a dreamer and artist than a doctor, but he offers his services nonetheless. He is also husband to Ula, who has dementia and is completely reliant on Akmed to care for her.

Havaa: Is the eight-year-old child that is saved by Akmed when her father is taken by the Russian military, leaving her without her father and her home. She has now become the target of the Russian military and Akmed has volunteered to keep her safe. Although Havaa is at the center of our story, her storyline isn’t as deep as many of the other characters. Her suitcase that she carries, however, holds a secret that weave some of our characters together.

Natasha: Sonja’s beautiful younger sister is truly a victim of war.  She becomes a victim of sex-trafficking, a drug addict, and is dealing with PTSD after all she has been through. We follow Natasha through both of her disappearances and discover the outcome of both of those, although Sonja never does.

Khassam: Is a scholarly elder neighbor and friend to Akmed and became one of the most endearing characters to me. Khassam writes a book on Chechnya and its history, yet only gets a fraction of his thousands upon thousands of pages published. He is in a nonexistent relationship with his son because his son has become an informant. His best friends have now become a pack of feral dogs.  While Akmed is at the hospital, he visits Akmed’s wife and shares his life story to the one person who will never remember them, due to her failing mind.

Ramzan: Is Khassam’s son and, perhaps, one of the most complex characters in the book. Ramzan has become an informant after two times of brutal torture.  He is the one who has turned in his friends & neighbors to keep his own safety and protect his father.  He is the boy that never felt loved and is still hated even when he feels he is, “doing the right thing,” for his family.

Dokka: Is Havaa’s father and a good friend of Khassam & Akmed.  Dokka has suffered horrible mutilation when he is tortured during this war.  He is a kind soul that takes in refugees during the war.  He is abducted by Russian soldiers in the opening chapter and accused of aiding Chechen rebels.  He is not a central character to this story, as those above are, but his story does weave into these other six characters in some unexpected ways.

Now that we have all of our characters, let’s delve into this book more!  As a reader, we were able to follow the timeline from 1994-2004 as it moved forwards and backwards through time, taking the reader on a journey of what each of these characters went through during the war and how it had impacted each of them as people.  

In this novel, two doctors risk everything to save the life of a hunted child named Havaa.  Havaa is just eight years old when her neighbor Akhmed finds her hiding in the woods, watching her house burning down. Akhmed knows getting involved means risking his life, but her father is an old friend, and he risks it all deciding to take her to an abandoned hospital where a woman named Sonja Rabina runs a hospital almost single handedly.

Sonja does not love kids…at all. Akhmed convinces her to keep Havaa for a trial, and over the course of five extraordinary days, Sonja’s world will change in ways she never imagined. The reader is taken on a journey through each of these character’s past on an extraordinary journey of love, loss, and ultimately what it means to be human.

I found myself completely swept away into each of these characters and what they had to overcome.  Although the book was about war and suffering, the book was also all about love and what we do for love.

This entire book was so beautiful that I reread some of the scenes over again. For example, the scenes when Natasha finally has some happiness and purpose when delivering babies in the hospital, brought me a lot of joy as a reader. The scenes when Khassam goes to visit Ula to tell her his secrets because he knows her failing mind will never remember them truly moved me to tears. The beautifully drawn portraits that Akhmed drew that hung in the street deeply moved me as a reader.

Everything about this book seemed to have significance and meaning. In previous interviews, Marra has described how he settled upon, “A Constellation of Phenomena,” as his title.  In an interview he states, “One day I looked up the definition of life in a medical dictionary and found a surprisingly poetic entry: “A constellation of vital phenomena—organization, irritability, movement, growth, reproduction, adaptation.” As biological life is structured as a constellation of six phenomena, the narrative life of this novel is structured as a constellation of six point-of-view characters.”

The reader quickly realizes that every word is precious and every sequence of events will later have meaning and be woven together. Marra frequently writes of what we can expect to come from these characters and even clues us in on their longevity through an omniscient voice that help us sometimes know whether we should get too attached or worried about the next scenes outcome.

When Marra brings it all together, it is beautiful and surprisingly hopeful, especially when we learn of the fate of the beautiful Havva.

MomAdvice Book Club

I am so honored that Anthony Marra has agreed to speak with us today, to share more about this amazing book. You can become a fan of Anthony Marra on Facebook or follow him on Twitter.

Anthony Marra is the winner of a Whiting Award, a Pushcart Prize, The Atlantic‘s Student Writing Contest, and the Narrative Prize, and his work has been anthologized in Best American Nonrequired Reading 2012. He holds an MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and is currently a Jones Lecturer in Fiction at Stanford University. His first novel, A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, was published in May 2013 and will be translated into over a dozen languages.

In short, he is a big deal, and he is talking with us today! 

Anthony Marra

Questions for Anthony Marra

I understand that this novel began as a short story called, “Chechyna.”  At what point did you feel that this short story was actually a novel and what did a process like this entail for you as a writer?

Nearly as soon as I finished the short story, I realized that the characters, their pasts and futures, stretched much farther than a twenty-five page piece of short fiction could contain. In the short story, I’d only just crossed the border into a land that fascinated, perplexed, and moved me. The next several years were my attempts to explore that land more deeply and draw a map of what I had found.

Many times as a reader we are clued in on the fates of these characters, even during pivotal scenes, which is a rarity as a reader. Was this style of omniscient narrating difficult to flesh out since you had to know how these characters stories would develop?

My writing process is largely based on retyping. As soon as I finished the first draft of Constellation, I printed it out, dropped it in front of my keyboard, and retyped the book from the first word on, and did this a number of times until I had a final draft. I find this useful for a few reasons. First, it forces you to go through the book at a glacial pace, meaning you end up noticing both the inconsistencies and the small resonances you might miss if you were moving through the book at a rate of more than a page an hour. Second, it tricks your mind into returning to the same creative well from which the sentences first emerged, letting the language change organically from the inside out, rather than through the transposition of red-pen edits. Third, and most important, you begin to see the scene both as you write it, and through your earlier imaginings. There was a David Hockney exhibition here in San Francisco a few months back, and there were entire walls of the same landscape painted again and again, in different seasons and different mediums. One of the placards said that Hockney believes he sees the landscape more clearly the more times he paints it, because he’s seeing it not only through his eyes, but through his memory.

I had a similar experience writing this book. Up until the fourth retyping of it, the novel was told in a very limited third person perspective. The reader never knew or saw beyond a single character per chapter. But the fourth time through, I felt like I knew the scenes so well that my eye began to wander away from the main characters to minor characters I hadn’t paid much attention to before. In a sentence I projected the future of a character who only appears in the book for the space of a paragraph. It felt like a big bang right in the middle of the book. Suddenly the story seemed like it could be much larger, more inclusive, really trying to wrap the covers around as much of this world as it could encompass. And I realized that I wanted to tell a story in which there were no minor characters. Just about every character, no matter how minor, gets their sentence in the spotlight.

The weaving and gathering of six characters together really brought these stories together for me as a reader.  How hard was it to pull these six characters together for you as a writer? Did you always know how they would interweave?

I knew from the beginning that if I was going to write about the Chechen conflict, it couldn’t be a novel with a traditional beginning, middle, and end. Violence has broken these characters sense of time and narrative. Yet they’re all trying to piece their lives together, to recover what’s been lost, and while they often don’t succeed, by attempting to rescue their past they instead create new and unexpectedly meaningful present. I wanted the novel to embody at a structural level this central act of its characters, mending their individual stories into a communal whole.

While writing the first draft, I had a final page in mind that I was writing toward. Even though I ultimately decided to go with a different ending, it gave me a destination, a concrete point in the future of the novel that I had to get to, even if I didn’t really know the way. Sometimes I knew characters would interweave fifty pages in advance, other times it wasn’t until I was in the midst of writing a scene. A novel contains not only a writer’s thoughts, to paraphrase Marilynne Robinson, but also a pretty good blueprint for how a writer thinks. As a writer, I tend to find myself tuning into the echoes trapped between narratives, and using those echoes as the connective tissue to build the kind of mega-story made up of many small stories that feels a lot like life as I experience it.

Natasha and Ramzan both find themselves as prisoners a second time. When faced with the reoccurrence of this, Natasha sacrifices herself while Ramzan sacrifices those around him to save himself.  Were you able to sympathize with both of these characters and why they made the choices they did?

That’s a great question, and yes, I found both characters very sympathetic. Ramzan, the ostensible villain of the book, probably has more of my empathy than any other character. He’s more or less an average person placed in very difficult conditions. A place like Chechnya in this time period magnifies moral choice. Because the stakes are so high, the smallest betrayal can lead to tragic consequences. Were Ramzan to live in America, his ethical failures would probably result in nothing more calamitous than, say, lying on his CV. So I felt it was important to portray his experience without any kind of authorial judgment. The ability to recognize ourselves in a character like Ramzan makes his betrayals all the more harrowing.

Natasha, when confronted with different but no less difficult choices, decides to resist because she reaches a point at which she values her dignity more than she values her survival. If placed in those circumstance, I think we’d all like to believe we’d have her courage. More likely, we’d have his fear.

What do you have in store for us with your next book?

Well, I’d initially thought I’d packed my bags and head to warmer climes after Constellation. Instead, I ended up in the Arctic Circle, working on a book that revolves around a 19th-century landscape painting, and the lives of those who alter, repaint, buy, lose, receive, and restore the painting, along with those who live and die on the plot of land it portrays.

Thank you to Anthony Marra for joining us today in our book club discussion. Isn’t he amazing? I was so honored that he took our questions on his book!

 

What did you think of The Constellation of Vital Phenomena? Did you like the omniscient narrative in this one? Which storyline moved you the most?  Share your thoughts on our  book club pick below and offer recommendations for what you might like to see on our list in the upcoming year!

 

Our next book club pick will be announced on February 28th- stay tuned! In the meantime, catch up on what is happening this year and explore our past book club selections here!

This post does contain affiliate links! 

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