Posts Tagged ‘Sundays With Writers’

Sundays With Writers: The Royal We by Heather Cocks and Jessica Morgan

Sunday, December 13th, 2015

Sundays With Writers

Hello, my friends! The holidays have certainly slowed down my reading pace, but I have picked up my speed again this week and am trying to secure some new authors here for our Sundays With Writers feature. I mentioned that I was completely enchanted by, The Royal We this week and as soon as I shut that incredible book, I emailed the authors to see if they would share more about their fictional story of an American getting swept off her feet by a real Prince.

The Royal We by Heather Cocks & Jessica Morgan

Perhaps, that sounds a little cheesy, but it is anything BUT cheesy. Instead of focusing on the fairy tale romance aspect of the story, Heather & Jessica really dive into what it would take for someone to transition from college student into a Princess and the very real dilemma of losing her privacy, what strains that might put on her friendships, and what her family might go through as she takes on a celebrity status that she had never desired.

It’s funny, heartwarming, and really beautifully executed from a really smart family lineage (we will dive into that in our interview below) to what training might be involved to be a part of the Royal family.

It read like a guilty pleasure read that still had lots of depth and soul. I laughed, cried, and was disappointed that I had to close the final pages when I was done. I just didn’t want it to end and I am convinced there is more of a story to tell.

On that note, go grab that coffee and settle in for a REALLY incredible interview with Heather & Jessica about their incredible novel, The Royal We.

Heather Cocks & Jessica Morgan

You are only the second set of authors that have joined me on Sundays With Writers that write as a duo instead of solo.  How do you build the story in tandem and what do you think the benefits have been with writing together instead of tackling a book like this on your own?

JESSICA: Basically, we work from a super detailed outline. Once we’ve gotten together and hammered out our plot, one of us will start writing and go at it until she wears out, more or less — at which point she ships the manuscript over to the other, who edits and reworks the first chunk, then writes the next chunk until she taps out.  So we go back and forth, essentially, until we’re done. I love working this way. I think most writers have a crew of creative people they can go to for feedback, or help with a plot issue, and we have that built in, automatically, which for me is invaluable.

HEATHER: It also incorporates automatic breaks. When a writer needs to, say, deal with their kids, or their day job if they have another one, or even just take a break because they feel stuck, the project doesn’t move along without them. The beauty of being in a duo is, when one of us passes it off to the other — for any reason — we get a brain rest AND the project keeps moving along. There isn’t that sense of, “Ohh, every time I walk away from my computer, I am going to have to make up for it later.” As for building the story, hammering out that initial outline requires a lot of back and forth — we both work better via e-mail or IM rather than in the same room, in part because when we start to digress we can scroll back and be like, “OKAY, no, this is where we were, let’s pick up again.” So that’s just easier for us.

But once we start writing, we also communicate with each other closely because invariably we realize the outline was too ambitious, or made a logic misstep, or just needed some compressing, and so we’ll leave notes for each other throughout the draft referencing those issues and being like, “Here is my pitch to fix that; here is where I was going with this,” or whatever. You just really need to communicate. And you have to be able to do it without taking any of it personally. The goal is the same: a great book.

Some of our readers might not know that this is actually your third book that you have written together.  The Royal We has been so well-received, even garnering you a nomination for Best Fiction on GoodReads!  As authors and as bloggers, do you think the success in this third book is because of our new ways to share about books on social media, is it just the story itself that is really resonating with readers, or is the secret sauce having a strong story and having those ties to social media because of your online writing?

JESSICA: Gosh, I wish I could explain why some books do well and some don’t — I think that’s the question that writers and publishers ask themselves every day! I certainly think that, for us, having a strong social media following was absolutely helpful, and I am quite sure the book would not have done as well as it has were it not for our wonderful, supportive readership from the blog.  That platform was very valuable for us. But all that said, few people are going to spend $12 to $20 on a book just because they follow the authors on Twitter. If the book isn’t any good, it’s not going to continue to sell, and having a strong social media following definitely doesn’t guarantee you good reviews, or good word of mouth. So for us, I think we also needed to be able to deliver the goods.

HEATHER: I wish there was a secret sauce. We would sell that and retire to Fiji. I think a lot of things have to come together and there’s some magic involved. For instance, would Girl on a Train have done such gangbusters business without Gone Girl being a hit at the cineplex? Maybe — it’s not a question of Girl on a Train being good, but rather how brilliantly they leveraged that timing. The movie version of Gone Girl had come out to great acclaim and awards nominations right around the time Girl on a Train came out, so being able to position it as a combo of Gone Girl” and Rear Window or whatever, was a genius piece of marketing. But all that is just a jumping off point, and if the book doesn’t deliver, it goes away; Girl on a Train delivered on the promise, and a juggernaut was born. But that first push… man, getting those stars to align is so hard.

Britain Royal Wedding

 

We did time our book’s release to Will and Kate’s anniversary, and frequently joked about whether she’d thoughtfully get pregnant for us as well. And then that happened, and it meant the royal couple was foremost in everyone’s minds from about January through April, and that made it a lot easier when our book crossed people’s desks, because it resonated with something current that was also captivating pop culture. Which isn’t to say that nobody can get noticed if they don’t dovetail with something else in pop culture, but it sure does help. Because for us, it’s not like we were known commodities as authors. Switching from YA to contemporary adult fiction was basically like starting from scratch — it didn’t matter that we’d written Spoiled and Messy; the wider adult audience didn’t know that, and doesn’t know who we are — and so it helped tremendously to have that hook. And then as Jessica said, because we did deliver the goods, we were able to back up the attention we got.

I’m also really proud of Spoiled and Messy, but I think what’s hard is that the audience of contemporary fiction is larger and wider than for YA, and the publications that serve it are also much bigger — People, EW, etc. Which isn’t to say that YA’s audience is insignificant, or even restricted. I’ve long said that YA is just a classification based on the age of the protagonist, and not the age you have to be in order to read it. But I do think that in terms of publicity and reach, as compared to general fiction, it’s a smaller pool with just as many bodies in it. And so it’s harder to get noticed, or break through and be invited to the next pool. There are so many wonderful books out there that don’t get the lightning strike of being on the right person’s desk at the right time. And it really is a lightning strike. 

Buckingham_Palace (source: Wikipedia)

As I dove into your book, I really thought it was just going to be a light and fun read, but it really became evident as I read that you did a lot of in-depth research on the royal family. I understand you even visited Buckingham Palace to see it all in person which is incredible! What was one of the most surprising facts you discovered when doing your research about the real royal family? Do you have any favorite recommendations for books or documentaries for those of us that would like to dive into learning about the royals more?

JESSICA: Thank you so much! We did do a lot of research — it was important to us that the book felt grounded in reality, especially because the story itself is sort of fantastical. So much of it is about the difference between the gilded fairytale exterior of falling in love with a prince, and the actual, much less glamorous reality, so we really wanted to nail the reality bit, as much as we could. In terms of books, we read a lot of biographies of the current young royals, mostly for logistical details — Katie Nicholl’s book WILLIAM AND HARRY, for instance, had a lot of bit and pieces about the way the royal family’s security detail works in their daily life, which we needed to know for the book. Although it’s not about the current royal family, I strongly recommend THE HEIR APPARENT, by Jane Ridley, which is about Edward VII and his mother, Queen Victoria (who comes across like a real piece of work). It’s a very smart, juicy read. I also used Kate Fox’s WATCHING THE ENGLISH, which is social anthropology focused on the British class system, and which is a really funny, interesting book. (There is a line in there which I often mention, because it’s so memorable, in which she notes that the British love toast racks, while we Americans prefer our toast to be “humid,” which is pretty accurate and very funny.)

HEATHER: The trick for us was that there’s a point where we can’t do research. Because there’s a point where only a select few REALLY know what’s happening. What are the private apartments at Windsor or Buck House like? No idea, and there aren’t pictures. (We found one of the Queen’s study but that’s it.) The curtain has only been pulled back so far, to the world, so our challenge was to research whatever we could, and ground the book in every place possible, so that when it came time for us to make a guess, it was educated. And if the reader felt grounded in the other realism, it increased the odds they’d take that leap with us, and trust us and not think about it.

The tidbit about the family paying for whatever clothes Bex picks is true though. Helpfully, I can’t remember where I read that about Kate, but I know I did. I also enjoyed tips on how to curtsy and get in and out of cars without exposing oneself. We invented the idea of them doing Duchess training with Bex, but honestly, once we dug into the types of things she’d be expected to know and do — without looking like she had to learn them — it didn’t seem like such a far-fetched leap.

queen-maxima

Your blog, Go Fug Yourself, is focused on celebrity fashion so I must ask you, which real-life royal’s style have you admired the most?

JESSICA: I think the British royals have a tough row to hoe, sartorially. Kate gets a lot of flack for being too boring, but if she were NOT boring, she’d get a lot of flack for that. I personally enjoy a lot of her preppy, ladylike style, but you can’t really call it groundbreaking from a fashion standpoint, and nor should it be. On the wackier side, I must say that I always enjoy the many insane hats sported by Queen Maxima, of the Netherlands. That woman knows how to wear a turban.

queen-elizabeth

HEATHER: I don’t know that I am that captivated by any of them, particularly, to be totally honest. I will give it to the Queen. She knows what she likes, or what works for her, and manages to keep it varied and cheerful in other ways without straying from the basic cuts and coverage she prefers.

I also give credit to Camilla, who I think has had the toughest road to walk, given the circumstances of her relationship with Charles and their eventual marriage. Talk about being under a microscope, because everything she did was going to be compared unfavorably to whatever Diana used to do, because she was the most beloved royal in history in her day. So I find my favorite royals are borne of sympathy rather than me being actually enamored of the clothes. But I mean, if you want someone who keeps it clean and classy, Queen Letizia in Spain is pretty solid. She even kind of makes me want to wear business slacks, which is madness.

You developed a well-blended timeline of the real royal lineage and your fictional lineage that is actually quite astounding in detail and depth. Was this one of the most complex aspects of creating your story and why did you feel getting this accurate was so important to your story?

JESSICA: It was definitely something we spent a lot of time figuring out. I will note that Heather did a great deal of the heavy lifting here, and she can probably speak to the nuts and bolts of this aspect more than I can. But we had to figure out a way to create essentially an alternate history that kept in place enough familiar touchstones that it was still recognizably the UK, but that WOULDN’T have the person who is currently Queen Elizabeth, like, wandering around in the background as a distant member of our ruling family. It was really fun, actually.

HEATHER: When we sold the book, we did it with the prologue and the first chapter written. And when that’s all you have to worry about, you can toss in random little asides about ancestors or foreign royals, and it just feels rich and fun and insidery.

But when when you sit down to write the REST of the book, suddenly it matters.

The portraits on the piano in Bex’s hotel room, for example — we didn’t put any thought into who they were when we first wrote the prologue, so we just made them as colorful-sounding as we could.

But then once you’re writing a whole and complete book, and these characters are walking around and have real anchors to history, you have to go back and do the math: “What makes sense? Could that person have existed? When do we think Bex and Nick went to a royal wedding in Europe? Not possible! DELETE.”

And it’s for the same reason that we needed to research the rest of it: Readers can tell when you’re flying by the seat of your pants, and if they have to take themselves out of the story to figure out whether that royal could have existed, or who the hell that person is, or where THEY come from, and why are they marrying someone from that country… anything that causes the reader to put down the book and frown is a risk of losing that reader. You have to keep them on the journey, keep them swept up in it.

So while Jess had the actual book, I put my mind to the basic dates and a rough ancestry.

It seemed the likeliest places to change it were either to keep Edward VIII on the throne instead of having him abdicate, or change up Queen Victoria’s succession.

Edward’s rumored Nazi ties were not ideal, to say the least, and he was a bit too close — keeping him meant we didn’t have enough time to invent our own monarchs, and Queen Elizabeth was born in his lifetime, so she’d be a real person unless we got to tinkering with his family timeline as well.

It got muddy.

Victoria, we didn’t want to eliminate — she’s too seminal to the world, for a lot of reasons — but we found a nifty loophole in her succession.

Her son, who would become Edward VII, survived an assassination attempt.

And HIS firstborn son died of pneumonia as a lad.

So by changing those two things — Edward IS assassinated while still Prince of Wales, and Albert Victor does NOT die of pneumonia but instead lives to succeed his grandmother — we had an entirely fresh line of royals, and we could make them whatever we liked.

After that, it was just pinpointing rough ages we needed the current family members to be, and working backward through the dates. There was, in fact, lots of surprise math on this exam.

My sister helped out a ton with researching defunct dukedoms we could revive for the various spouses of our royals, and which countries might offer princesses for our kings to marry that wouldn’t monkey with ancestry. She was able to point out where it was illogical for a particular heir not to have married, and help us get past that. For example, we betrothed our Arthur I to Grand Duchess Olga from Russia, a real person who died in WWI. We had him drag his feet after the betrothal because he was in love with his best friend’s wife, and by the time he was ready it was too fraught to get her there due to the war, and then she didn’t survive it. Hence, he remained an unmarried heir. My sister was crazy helpful with all that stuff. It mattered to us that we would be able to explain this. If the world isn’t real to us, then why would it be to anyone else?

You really showcase the challenges that would be placed upon the shoulders of someone who is wed into the royal family. The story sheds light on the things that Kate Middleton and her family might have experienced during that courtship and the scrutiny one might be under in this new role. Why did you want to explore this and do you hope readers will think differently about Kate through this fictional account?

JESSICA: I don’t actually care if anyone thinks differently of Kate — and that sounds so unkind, and I don’t mean it that way! I just mean that we didn’t write the book as a way to make Kate Middleton more sympathetic. We wrote it because it seemed like an interesting story to explore — how difficult it would be to go from being a basically normal civilian to being thrust into a huge spotlight, simply because of the person with whom you fell in love. You know, we write about celebrities on our blog all the time, but those people chose to be famous. Nick — the prince in our book — was born into it, and Bex, our heroine, is forced into it because she loves him. And that seemed like something that would be interesting to explore. What do you give up for love? What are the downsides of this development that we are all taught is a fairytale, because there are actually quite a lot of them —  you can never go outside in yoga pants again, and that’s the very least of it. Is it possible to love another person enough that you give up some of what makes you you? There seemed like a lot of interesting conflicts we could explore. Once we got into writing the book, I never really thought about Kate at all. Obviously, the story is based loosely on her relationship with Prince William, but I never thought of our protagonist as anyone but Bex. That being said, if people find themselves thinking more fondly of Kate because they were so fond of Bex, that’s a wonderful tribute to our book.

HEATHER: Yes, it’s definitely not a book that was borne of us liking Kate, per se, or being Kate apologists or anything. It’s just… once you start to think about it, how the hell does she DO it? She has only ever seemed totally composed. And when you consider she’s really the first person to marry into this family during the crazy paparazzi/Internet age, she’s treading new ground because nobody really knew what it would be like for her until they were in the middle of it. She’s handled this scrutiny with such calm. And Jess and I were talking about that with our agent one day, very casually, gabbing all about what the still waters must look like from underneath — are her feet paddling like crazy trying to keep her afloat — and suddenly our agent was like, “Someone should write that book.” We basically both shouted, “WE SHOULD WRITE THAT BOOK.” I think it’s a nice exercise in considering how ANY situation might feel from the other side. There always are two sides to every story, if not more, whether that person is the jerk at your office or the Hollywood starlet or the sudden princess. Look again and then think about what you’re not seeing.

lauren-graham-mae-whitman

(source: Variety)

You made a big announcement that the book will be adapted to the big screen. As a big Parenthood fan, I was so excited to see that Lauren Graham & Mae Whitman will be teaming up for this adaptation. How involved will you be with the film adaptation of your book and tell us about what was that moment like when you heard the news?

JESSICA: Oh, it was BEYOND exciting! We didn’t really expect that the book would be optioned — I think every writer hopes that it happens, but no one really thinks that it will — and it’s still so very surreal. Lauren and Mae are so smart and kind and really everything you could hope for; I feel incredibly grateful and really excited about the entire thing. We got really, really lucky. That said, I don’t know how creatively involved we will be — contractually, not at all, and that’s fine! We totally trust Mae and Lauren to do the book justice. As I said to them, I really just want to be in the room when they cast the hot British dudes. I don’t need to have a VOTE, I just want to get to eyeball them from the back row.

HEATHER: It is basically now their boat to drive. If they tell us there’s a seat on it for us, then great! If they tell us we can ride it for half an hour once, that’s fine too. If they never speak to us again, that’s totally their call (although it would make us sad, just because as humans Mae and Lauren are truly even smarter and cooler than we imagined). We have no expectations of anything, and are just grateful the book is in loving and intelligent hands.

Can we expect a sequel from you because I feel like there is so much more to tell in this story of Bex & Nick? Oh, and you can only answer yes to this…

JESSICA: Hah! Well, thank you so much. We don’t know what we’re going to be writing next. We’ve discussed a sequel, but I think it’s really important to us that, if we do write one, we come up with a fresh, new story to tell. We don’t want to write a sequel just for the sake of spending more time with those characters — although we’d love to do that! It also has to be a good book on its own. I think we’ve all bought sequels to books that we’ve loved and been disappointed by them, and that’s what we want to avoid, and figuring out how to do that, and if it’s even possible, is taking some time.

HEATHER: Part of me wants to let them live a while first, you know? The call for a sequel has been so flattering, and obviously tempting. For me, The Royal We has been such a perfect book experience that I don’t want to be careless with it.

I understand you are collectors of Royal swag! What is your favorite piece in your collection?

JESSICA: I collect Commemorative Royal Mugs and I LOVE THEM. It’s so hard to pick a favorite. Heather kicked the whole thing off by giving me a mug commemorating Wills and Kate’s engagement the year that happened, and that is the one that I would hate to lose the most, I think. That said, I also LOVE the mug I have wherein the mug-makers accidentally used Prince Harry’s face instead of Prince William’s. That’s a keeper, as well.

HEATHER: Jess gave me a Chuck and Di wedding jar that has the most hideous photo of Diana on it. It’s amazing. My parents also have a tin wastebasket from their engagement that I have asked for whenever my mother decides to get rid of it. We made an allusion to that in the book. Oh, my mother DID send me the book they got about the courtship and wedding, full of photos. It’s great. There’s a passage that explains that royal babies are not commercialized with souvenirs the way weddings are, which is HILARIOUS to read now, when of course nothing was more commercial than the birth of George.

If you could tell anyone to read one book (other than your own) what would that book be? (This will be added to one of our most visited posts of must-reads from the authors featured in Sundays With Writers)

JESSICA: One book! That is really a difficult choice to make. I have a degree in English lit, and I’m sure several of my professors will strongly disapprove of this — it’s very tempting to choose a classic, or at least something “literary” —  but I am going to recommend the classic Judith Krantz book, SCRUPLES (and also SCRUPLES II; the first book ends on a real cliffhanger, so be warned).  If you are interested in/enjoy popular woman’s fiction, Krantz is truly the master of the genre. Her books always feature strong women who excel at interesting jobs, and the plots are propulsive and highly readable and deliciously soapy. I personally never feel guilty about anything I read, but if you are into so-called “guilty pleasure reading” — or even if you are a person who only reads highly literary intellectual books but who longs to UNDERSTAND the idea of guilty pleasure reading — Scruples one of the most pleasurable, and, by this point, a classic of that genre. (Her autobiography, which is titled, brilliantly, SEX AND SHOPPING, is also a favorite.)

HEATHER: Oh, wow, I can’t pick that either. I think it’s because I would never advise anyone to read only ONE book, and I don’t even know HOW to answer this without considering the context. If it’s someone who never reads, I’d say start with the Harry Potter series, because it will invite you into books and then keep you there. If it’s someone who likes stuff that’s tonally similar to The Royal We — funny, with heart — I would hand them Someday, Someday, Maybe, by Lauren Graham, which I promise is a recommendation I would have made before she ever even picked up our book. If you’re into literature and wordplay and quirk, I’d suggest The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde (and then read the whole series; they get goofier but no less imaginative and punny). If you want striking prose, read anything by Kate Atkinson. And if you love wartime and friendship and romance, it’s a tie between The FitzOsbournes trilogy and Code Name: Verity, both of which are wonderful examples of books that are technically considered for teens, but offer so much to anyone of any age. How’s THAT for a wishy-washy answer?

You can connect with Heather Cocks & Jessica Morgan on their website!  I’m always thankful for these moments with writers and I hope you will pick up this amazing book! You can always connect with me on GoodReads, through our books section of our site, and you can read our entire Sundays With Writers series for more author profiles. Happy reading, friends!

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Sundays With Writers: You by Caroline Kepnes

Sunday, October 18th, 2015

Sundays With Writers

Some interviews take longer to wait for than others and I have been pursuing poor Caroline Kepnes since July to have her be my guest on the site. I was obsessed with talking with her, kind of like her obsessive character she has created… I wasn’t going to let this one go.  Why? Well, heck, if you have read You, you know why I had to talk to her.

As a rule, I hesitate to take on any series books. I am one of those fickle people that can’t seem to follow through on a series and since I try to read such a diverse amount of books for our reviews each month, I like to offer you a plethora of choices. After reading it though, I knew that Caroline had more of a story to tell about her character Joe, and I knew I wanted to hear that story.

You by Caroline Kepens

For my friends that don’t like to read racy literature, this is one you can skip, but for my friends looking for a little excitement in their lives…well, this book is for you. Bring on the excitement (JAZZ HANDS)!! Every friend I have recommended this one to has gotten swept away in the crazy. It’s impossible not to.

This book is dark, disturbing, twisted, erotic, psychotic…just try to put it down. Fans of Chelsea Cain & Gillian Flynn will love this book.

This is a twisted love story told from Joe, our obsessed narrator, who finds love in his bookshop after cyber-stalking a girl who used her credit card at his store. We watch as Joe becomes more and more unhinged as he discovers love is nothing like the books he’s read and the movies he’s watched- a fact that he is most displeased with. Twisted humor makes for laugh-out-loud moments and cleverly woven pop culture themes add a little lightness to the dark. This is an author to watch.  To read my full review, head on over to my July Must-Reads list!

Grab your coffee and let’s settle in with Caroline to chat about this year’s new guilty pleasure book, You!

caroline-kepnes

The way that Joe utilizes social media to stalk Guinevere, in an attempt to create her ideal boyfriend, was chilling for someone who uses social media so much. How did you come up with the concept of creating this cat-and-mouse game through tweets and Facebook?

Writing a book full of status updates and tweets is one way to rationalize your time on Facebook, isn’t it? Looking back to that time before I started writing, I realize that I was on Facebook a lot, in a negative sense. I had spent a lot of time in hospitals, waiting around, too anxious to read, too fried. My phone was always there, the ever-changing fake-true story of sometimes interconnecting narratives that is your Facebook feed. I was fascinated by the dissonance between how we present ourselves and how we live. I was so aware of how interactive Facebook is, emotionally, how you can use it to drag yourself down if you want, how to lift yourself up, get attention, give it, such a strange new tool in our pockets. And it’s intriguing to me, what people choose to project, why they make that choice. I’m a psychologist at heart in a lot of ways and I loved the idea of this misguided, lonely soul who uses this tool in all the worst possible ways. But you feel for him sometimes of course, because he wants love. I liked the idea of technology as a weapon for both Beck and Joe. She is using it to get attention. He’s using it to pay attention. It’s all too extreme. Also, I had been a heavy smoker and I quit cold turkey, which was traumatic, and this book was like a replacement for cigarettes in some way.

As a former journalist for Tiger Beat & Entertainment Weekly, we can really see your pop culture personality pull through with all of your references to current songs, movies, and the media during this time. Did you ever worry that this would date your book in any way by using so much pop culture within it?

I was watching The Honeydrippers video for “Sea of Love so much while writing that I put the video in the book. That’s how it worked with a lot of the references. I would write in a coffee shop, then get in my car and listen to a mix CD of Hannah and Her Sisters instrumentals and Elton John. And I would end up stopping at a coffee shop on the way home to write more. I was so full of drive and inspiration and my God, what a joyous time. I genuinely didn’t care if the book was good or bad. It felt like its own thing, a beast that I was nurturing, and as I type that I’m like, eew, pretentious, but at the same time, it’s true. So that was the fun, the flow part.

Then of course, there’s so much more to writing than the high of the first draft, with or without the musical inspiration. You snap out of it and review your work, find that you have quoted e.e. Cummings and Prince repeatedly and become self-conscious and bite your lip and question all of it. It’s extreme to point toward a moment in history in a work of fiction, like when Benji finds out about Lou Reed’s death. But I love reading books and looking at the publication date and thinking, ok, so this is what it was like at this moment. And in this case it felt right. With lyrics, it’s also extreme to quote so many songs and seek legal permissions. But similarly, the references felt right for this particular narrative. Joe’s mind was absolutely clogged with quotes and songs and images. That was endemic. His interpersonal relationships have not been rewarding. I thought of that scene in Good Will Hunting when Will says his friends are Shakespeare, et al, the guys who wrote the books and the good doctor is basically like, No, kid. They’re dead. That scene stayed with me. And it’s interesting, in Hidden Bodies, I started quoting songs again and rewrote seventy pages over and over and it felt wrong. And it was like, that’s because it is wrong. He has a relationship now and this story isn’t about him swooning, being alone, seeking. It’s about him trying to preserve what he has. He’s not in his head so much, he’s in the world, socializing more. The references are there, but they’re different.

Frank Langella

While we are on the subject of pop culture, can you share your favorite story or celebrity that you covered and why it was so special to you?

I have always been obsessed with film press junkets. I used to write the Reel Girl column for E! Online and I got to go to junkets a lot. They are trippy and interesting, with journalists who know so much about movies, tense publicists, uncomfortable celebrities, Fiji water flowing, the air of formality of The Four Seasons that I swear makes everyone awkward. I. Love. Junkets. Anyway, I was sitting at a roundtable with journalists and Frank Langella. He was in this intimate movie called Starting Out in the Evening. I asked him what it was like to slap a woman on camera. And he slapped me. Gently, but you know, it was a slap. And it was just amazing. Best junket ever. Here’s a link to the play by play!

I censor myself in my writing that I put out into the world because I’m always worried what other people might think. I really need to work on that! Your book really pushes all the envelopes. Did you ever worry about what anyone would think about any of these scenes that you wrote or do you write without worry about it? Do you have any advice about stepping out of your comfort zone when writing?

Oh, God, that’s such an important topic that I think about so much. The main thing, forget about the end result. Remember that a bomb could go off and that would be the end of that. Stop editing. Stop wincing. Stop rereading. (You get to do all that after and torture yourself for as long as you want.) Seek flow. Follow your instincts. Don’t put writing on a pedestal. I like to think of it as a combination of playing and thinking. You can’t undermine the importance of the play part, the need to create a time and space to play. The way you do when you’re a kid. Be a hedonistic child. Do what you want. A few weeks ago, my friend’s kids had me read B.J. Novak’s book to them over and over again. This is what I love about kids, they’re not like oh I should read something else, broaden my horizons, seek balance. They indulge. I think it helps to have that spirit as an adult. Worry later. And then yes, worry and think a lot about what’s wrong with what you did. But separate those two tasks, the play and the edit. And everyone is different. Some people want to breathe, regroup and edit after a chapter. Some people want to push out the whole thing and then look after. And some people change with each project. It’s just about figuring out what works for you.

I think, if you’re having this issue with what other people think, go sit in a coffee shop and write. You’re exposing yourself. Anyone who walks by can see that you’re not just futzing around on Facebook (not all the time) but that you are attempting to create something. So already, you’re facing the opponent, letting strangers know that you are trying to write. It’s a great starting point because these people don’t get to review your work. It’s more about you becoming comfortable creating something out of your imagination on your own, near other humans, rising above the din and letting the work take over.

Of course, if an hour later you are miserable and have a blank screen, that’s okay too. You learned something about yourself. You hated being in that coffee shop and trying to create something. Ask yourself why. Go home and draw the curtains and tell the computer about your day. Maybe that ranting will spark an idea and before you know it, your bad writing day rant has mutated into a scene. Let this exercise be a priority. Same way you have a skin routine, this is no different. Your imagination deserves to be treated with tenderness. And if you fall off the wagon and freeze up and go into that, oh shit I don’t think I can write ever again mode, let it rip. Indulge the anxiety. Binge on TV and let yourself slowly realize that the only cure for writing anxiety is writing. Your brain is resilient. Just like your skin.

I really, really adored that you thanked two of your former teachers in your acknowledgements.  What was it about these two teachers that made them so special and have you heard from them on their reaction to your book?

Teachers are so important. Their contribution is incalculable. Both the teachers I thanked are legends in my hometown school system. I saw one recently and it was such a joy. He’s an author as well as a teacher (Girl Singer by Mick Carlon is out November 10!). He loved the part in the book where Joe arrives in Little Compton, and that meant so much to me, particularly that’s a descriptive scene and Mick was my journalism teacher, which is to say, he helped countless students hone into their environments, notice surroundings. He’s a phenomenal person. They were both so encouraging and thoughtful and above all, my God, they both love books. That’s contagious.

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Stephen King with The Thing of Evil (read all about her- so cute!)

Joe makes fun of Stephen King an awful lot in your story and the actual Stephen King happens to endorse your book on the cover. Did he love all of the references to himself and how do you get such a legend to write a blurb for the cover of your book?

I see his name on the cover and I feel overjoyed. Stephen King dazzles me. To think of him creating so many rich stories and then sharing photos of Molly, The Thing of Evil, I mean, he’s such a wholly admirable person. Joe’s take on him was so much fun to work out. There’s Joe’s basic deranged sense of authority. He’s miffed at people claiming to love Stephen King. Joe, of course, feels superior to his customers. He suspects they haven’t read the bulk of King’s work. He thinks most of the people buying the book about Danny Torrance never even read The Shining, only saw the movie version. And then, Joe is flat out mad at Stephen King because the man publishes a novel when Joe has a date?! He makes Joe late! And Joe has control issues. He resents the reliability of our culture, the guarantee that a Stephen King book will attract readers, the resultant inconvenience that this creates for Joe. Ah, narcissism!

Stephen King is just amazing. I have turned to On Writing many times in my life. He gets it. And his understanding of us, strengths and weaknesses, I am grateful for his work. I don’t know how the blurb on my book happened. I just know that last December I was roaming around Kitson in the Beverly Center with a low-grade fever in holiday shopping panic when my phone started buzzing. He was tweeting about me. It blew my mind. Always will. It means so much to me that he read my red and white book and felt compelled to tell people about it.

I understand you are preparing the sequel to You now! Where are you in the stages of development of the next book and are there any talks yet of turning your first book into a screenplay?

Hidden Bodies comes out in February! It’s the sequel and the waiting is killing me. But it’s the good kind of pain, like waiting for Christmas as a child. I finished writing it a few months ago. I knew I wanted to spend more time with this character while I was writing the first one. There was never any doubt that there are at least three books. The first one for me was primarily about being in your twenties, Joe being about thirty, feeling he missed out on having normal twenties, always a little late. Hidden Bodies has Joe in his thirties, a little weary, driven and violent as ever, but you know, he wants love, home, stability, the American dream. But it’s the same thing, nothing is quite what he wants it to be. I have plans for another one and I hope to tell his story for years to come. And yes, Showtime optioned You. Greg Berlanti and Sera Gamble are working on the script. It’s all tremendously exciting. And I’m working on two new books right now.

If you could tell anyone to read one book (other than your own) what would that book be (we list it with all the recommendations over the year HERE)?

The Street by Anne Petry is brilliant and searing. One of my all time favorites.

You can connect with Caroline Kepnes on Facebook or through Twitter! I’m always thankful for these moments with writers and I hope you will pick up this amazing book! You can always connect with me on GoodReads,through our books section of our site, and you can read our entire Sundays With Writers series for more author profiles. Happy reading, friends!

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Sundays With Writers: Kitchens of the Great Midwest by J. Ryan Stradal

Sunday, October 11th, 2015

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Do you love quirky books like Eleanor & Park? I am such a fan of quirky literature and Kitchens of the Great Midwest combines good old-fashioned Midwest humor with loads of charm in this adorable fictional debut by J. Ryan Stradal. After I finished it, I immediately emailed J. Ryan to see if he might like to join me in our Sundays With Writers series and was so thrilled when he said he would. Today I am sharing a little behind his unique story and, since this story follows the culinary career of Eva, a peek at his own love affair with food.

Kitchens of the Great Midwest by J. Ryan Stradal

When Lars Thorvald’s wife, Cynthia, falls in love with wine—and a dashing sommelier—he’s left to raise their baby, Eva, on his own. He’s determined to pass on his love of food to his daughter—starting with puréed pork shoulder. As Eva grows, she finds her solace and salvation in the flavors of her native Minnesota. From Scandinavian lutefisk to hydroponic chocolate habaneros, each ingredient represents one part of Eva’s journey as she becomes the star chef behind a legendary and secretive pop-up supper club, culminating in an opulent and emotional feast that’s a testament to her spirit and resilience.

Each chapter in J. Ryan Stradal’s startlingly original debut tells the story of a single dish and character, at once capturing the zeitgeist of the Midwest, the rise of foodie culture, and delving into the ways food creates community and a sense of identity.

This book is perfectly quirky in every way. The reader gets to go on a journey chapter by chapter with different narrators who are all somehow connected to an incredible little girl named Eva, that grows into a woman of major culinary talent. As with any book with changing narrators, some chapters you are more drawn into than others, but it does not take away from the quirky hilarity written in each chapter.

Being a Midwest girl, there were many references that made me feel nostalgic about my own Midwest roots as Eva’s coming-of-age story unfolds. I had a hard time putting this one down!

FYI- There are some graphic scenes and language in this one.

I included this book in our September Must-Reads list this month and am excited to have J. Ryan join me this morning. Grab your coffee and settle in with another incredible writer!

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The structure of your book is so unique because Eva and her life story are told through other characters and that is how we get to know her. Why did you think it was important to structure your book in this way?

When I decided to set a book in the Midwest at large, I knew I would never please everyone; it’s too large and varied for one book. Still, there are a range of Midwestern types I attempted that I don’t always see represented in fiction; I wanted as many points of view on the Midwesterner’s relationship to region and food as possible. I also wanted Eva’s adult career to be cloaked in mystery and hearsay, and I felt that telling the story from multiple points of view would both allow me to introduce a variety of Midwestern characters – while keeping Eva at a bit of a distance. It’s intentional that the reader will find Eva increasingly remote.

Eva even from infancy is passionate about food, but is raised by her aunt and uncle who don’t really understand her passions for the culinary world. Have you ever felt misunderstood by your parents or community for a passion you had and did you channel this in the character of Eva?

Absolutely. When I was Eva’s age, I sometimes felt alienated from the hockey and football-obsessed town I grew up in, and I didn’t share my family’s interest in hunting or motorcycles. I affirmed that there was a place for me in this world largely through books and music. While I had supportive teachers and good friends, I also attached myself to interests that were pretty far outside the realm of what was available in my corner of southern Minnesota, and that’s reflected in Eva’s passion for extremely hot peppers – which, obviously, aren’t commonly identified with Iowa.

As a foodie, I appreciated the humor and lightness you add to our obsessions with food. There is one line that I highlighted because it really gave me a moment’s pause. When your character Pat is made fun of by other foodies for a simple cookie bar instead of a vegan and locally sourced dish, the line says, “She suddenly felt sorry for these people for perverting the food of their childhood, the food of their mothers and grandmothers, and rejecting its unconditional love in favor of what?” Do you think there is some truth in Pat’s feelings when it comes to our obsessions with healthier living and misunderstanding the food of our parents & grandparents?

I think Pat would feel that way. She doesn’t see a place in the ecology of that setting for what defines her as a cook, so she views their values as not merely an abnegation of her bars or her ingredients, but of her as a person. She’s been devoted to doing one thing one way for a long time, and in her emotional reaction to these foodies, I also perceive a bit of a generation gap – a little bit of that LP enthusiast who decries CDs and MP3s as inferior. She’s not wrong, but given what she knows and what she doesn’t know, you can see why she takes rejection of her food personally.

The way you write about food and, in particular, describing dishes that Eva creates is so beautifully descriptive that it made my mouth water. “The venison, firm enough to meet your teeth, and soft enough to yield agreeably in your mouth, revealed subtle, steely new flavors with each bite, while the tomatoes were so full of richness and warm blood, it was like eating a sleeping animal.” I mean, REALLY! How do you develop this richness to your words and were there any people or books that aided in your inspiration for developing such incredible descriptiveness in these dishes?

Wow, thank you. I don’t really know if I can point to one book. I’m always reading something, and I’m also always looking for books that challenge my expectations and comfort level as a reader; seeing marvelous sentences makes me want to write them. Like most writers, I try my best to explain things in a way that I haven’t seen them explained before, but also in a way that’s visceral and descriptive, to the best of my ability, and relevant to the voice of the character. The sentence you just quoted came from a character who is a sommelier with restaurant experience. Had the character been a nurse or a President, it would’ve come out somewhat differently. This is probably a boring answer, and I feel bad because the question was so generous.

Have you ever eaten or been a part of any dining experience like Eva offers and were there any restaurants that served as inspiration for creating this pop-up dining experience you develop?

Sure, a few times. Some years ago I attended a pop-up in downtown Los Angeles that gave me some ideas in terms of how the principals behind the operation used the ephemeral location to their advantage. I’ve also read about a few (that I have yet to attend) that seem to demonstrate the chef’s passion for both fresh ingredients and a bespoke experience. Collectively, they made Eva’s operation seem somewhat plausible, though I admit at the time I wrote the book I thought Eva’s dinner seemed slightly far-fetched. I no longer think that’s the case.

Since I am a Midwesterner, I truly could appreciate so many of the references you made in this book. I understand that you live out in California now. Can you share what you miss the most about the Midwest?

The people, first and foremost. The environment – the air, the water, the trees, and their evolutions during the fiercely stark seasons. I think about Minnesota a lot; I still consider it home even though I’ve lived in California for seventeen years.

If you could tell anyone to read one book (other than your own) what would that book be (we list it with all the recommendations over the year HERE)?

This is monstrously tough. How can I choose just one? Debbie Graber’s short story collection Kevin Kramer Starts On Monday isn’t out yet – it comes out next spring – but it’s the funniest thing I’ve read in a very long time. Debbie is just brilliant; her humor, which often sends up the contemporary American workplace, is infused with plenty of heart, pathos, and intelligence. I read it in manuscript form and I can’t wait for it to exist in the world. Please pre-order it the moment it becomes available.

You can connect with J. Ryan Stradal  on Facebook or through his website! I’m always thankful for these moments with writers and I hope you will pick up this amazing book! You can always connect with me on GoodReads,through our books section of our site, and you can read our entire Sundays With Writers series for more author profiles. Happy reading, friends!

*This post contains affiliate links!

 

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Sundays With Writers: Where All Light Tends to go by David Joy

Sunday, August 23rd, 2015

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Where All Light Tends to Go kept popping up in my list of recommendations on Amazon, like those Suggested Friends on Facebook. After seeing it there so many times, I knew I needed to give in and read it. Within just a couple of short days, I had shut the pages and knew that I had to talk to David Joy about this book. Not only is this guy a gifted storyteller, but his passion for other writers and their stories is contagious.

I particularly love how he admits to immersing himself into his storytelling. I think that showcases how much this book means to him and how much it should mean to us!

Where All Light Tends to Go by David Joy

Where All Light Tends to Go is Southern Grit at its finest in this dark debut novel! Joy creates a compelling coming-of-age story about a teen boy growing up in the Appalachian Mountains whose father deals meth in their small town.

The area surrounding Cashiers, North Carolina, is home to people of all kinds, but the world that Jacob McNeely lives in is crueler than most. His father runs a methodically organized meth ring, with local authorities on the dime to turn a blind eye to his dealings. Having dropped out of high school and cut himself off from his peers, Jacob has been working for this father for years, all on the promise that his payday will come eventually. The only joy he finds comes from reuniting with Maggie, his first love, and a girl clearly bound for bigger and better things than their hardscrabble town.

Jacob has always been resigned to play the cards that were dealt him, but when he botches a murder and sets off a trail of escalating violence, he’s faced with a choice: stay and appease his kingpin father, or leave the mountains with the girl he loves. In a place where blood is thicker than water and hope takes a back seat to fate, Jacob wonders if he can muster the strength to rise above the only life he’s ever known.

If only life were that simple. This story is beautifully told and the ending was a strong one, despite the feeling of hopelessness for these people.

Grab your morning cup of coffee and let’s settle in with David Joy, a truly incredible storyteller!

David-Joy

Congratulations on your incredible debut novel! I was so excited to see that it was selected as one of the best books of 2015 by Indigo.  How long did it take you to write this beautiful book and what has it been like to have it so well received by so many once it has been released into the world?

The novel started with an image. I was at a friend’s hog lot and I had this image of a young boy standing over a pig he’d killed suddenly realizing how much power he had over life and death. I wrote that scene and I knew that the boy had a story to tell. I kept trying to write that story and I kept getting it wrong, at one point burning about half a novel and starting over. After about a year or so of living with that image I woke up in the middle of the night and I could hear Jacob speaking to me clear as day. At that point it was just a matter of trying to keep up, and I wound up writing the first draft of Where All Light Tends To Go over the course of a few months. That’s kind of a roundabout way of answering your question, but I think I tend to live with images and stories for a long time before I ever actually get it right on the page. Once I’m writing, though, things tend to happen quickly.

The response to the novel has been wonderful. I think the highlight for me has been meeting writers I’ve admired for so long—writers like Daniel Woodrell and Tom Franklin and Donald Ray Pollock and Frank Bill—and actually becoming a part of the conversation.

You refer to your genre of storytelling as Appalachian Noir. What can a reader expect from this genre and if they love this style do you have any other recommendations on books to check out that will fill the void while we await your next novel?

I started using that term, “Appalachian noir,” as a sort of adaptation of something Daniel Woodrell originally used as a subtitle for his novel Give Us A Kiss, his term being “country noir.” He’s sort of the godfather of what I’m trying to do in a lot of ways, along with writers like Larry Brown and William Gay and Ron Rash and Barry Hannah and Harry Crews. As far as what I think folks can expect, these are typically stories about hardscrabble lives, working class people making the best of circumstance. There’s often a criminal element to the story, but I don’t know that that’s a necessity. I think more than that these stories are a balancing act between hope and fate, a sort of tightrope walk above brutality on the one hand and the sentimental on the other. Other writers I admire who write within a similar vein are folks like Mark Powell (The Dark Corner) and Charles Dodd White (A Shelter of Others) and Jamie Kornegay (Soil) and Brian Panowich (Bull Mountain) and Rusty Barnes (Reckoning), or even a novel like Robert Gipe’s Trampoline. Then there are some incredible female writers like Steph Post, who wrote a novel called A Tree Born Crooked, or writers like Bonnie Jo Campbell (American Salvage) and Tawni O’Dell (Back Roads). Some of these writers might not consider what they’re doing noir, but it’s that same type of emotional weight being created and for me that’s the key to what I’m trying to do on the page.

I am going to quote one of my favorite passages from your book. “On the pew where I sat though, there wasn’t a damn bit of light to be had. Light never shined on a man like me and that was certain. In a lot of ways, that made men like Daddy the lucky ones to have only ever known the darkness. Knowing only darkness, a man doesn’t have to get his heart broken in search of the light. I envied him for that.”

The light plays such a big part in this book and we see references to it throughout the story and the title. Why do you think the light (or lack of it) is such an important element in your story and how did you come to create this concept for your readers?

With this novel I knew the title before I wrote the first word. That’s not to say that I knew what it meant, and I certainly didn’t try to write toward that meaning, but rather it just sort of matured with the story. I think that idea of light and dark works really well as a metaphor for what Jacob’s facing. We’ve got an eighteen-year-old kid born into very harsh circumstances that he’s not really equipped to handle. There’s a similar line to the one you’ve quoted where Jacob is talking about the idea of light at the end of the tunnel, that sort of hope that one has when they’re coming out of the darkness. But for Jacob, he can’t understand an idea like that because he’s not coming out, he’s walking into the darkness, and, “for those who move further into darkness the light becomes a thing onto which we can only look back. Looking back slows you down. Looking back destroys focus. Looking back can get you killed.” So Jacob can’t look back. This conflict between light and dark is ultimately about hope. When you’re facing the types of things that Jacob is facing, it’s much easier to just accept the way things are than to hope for anything better. Hope leads to heartbreak and that’s why Jacob’s so conflicted. That’s really the key issue in the book, and so I think that metaphor, the idea of light and dark, helps to stitch that seam.

You have a bit of a Breaking Bad opener with a botched murder situation which was rather gruesome to read and kept me on the edge of my seat. Do you think Jacob’s life would have worked out differently if they had successfully killed the guy?

This is probably the toughest question I’ve ever been asked because what happens to Robbie Douglas is the catalyst for things falling apart. Without that trigger, the pin doesn’t hit the shell. In other words, none of what takes place in the novel would have happened. At the same time, the fatalism that we witness is something that I think was inevitable. If Robbie Douglas had died, Jacob might’ve prolonged that unraveling, but things would have still fallen apart. Lives like Jacob’s typically end one way.

Crime, poverty, and meth addiction create a rather hopeless environment for these characters. Do you think your novel has hope in it? Was it difficult to write in such a sad space or do you feel like you are the type of writer where this dynamic really thrives?

I think there are elements of hope, and I think it’s that balance between hope and fate that, with any luck, keeps the reader invested. As for writing within that space, I can remember after finishing the novel I was talking to my sister and I told her, “It’s going to take a long time to find my way out of the darkness I’ve created.” I’d spent months inside of that space, immersing myself to the point that I was walking into walls, to the point that when I had to go somewhere like the grocery store it felt as if I was moving within a dream. The world I’d created was more real to me at that moment than anything else around me. I think for an artist to create anything meaningful it takes that type of immersion. There’s a sort of sacrifice that has to be made, and, for me, the end justifies the means. I tend to tell stories of heartbreak and circumstance and desperation as I think those types of elements allow you to immediately get to the heart of a character. When things fall apart a person can’t be anything aside from exactly what they are. That’s what interests me most.

Jacob says in one scene, “I’d always hoped she’d become a real mother. But with time, I realized that someone can’t give what they don’t have. She was what she was, an addict, and there was nothing that could be said or done to change her. Death was her only savior.”

I don’t know what to say about that except that it was difficult to watch this dynamic between Jacob and his mother and it made me feel sorry for him to have two parents like this. Is addiction something that you have experienced with anyone close that you channeled in this character?

I really like that you pulled that quote as I think that line, that idea that, “someone can’t give what they don’t have,” is the heart of why she can’t be a mother to Jacob. There are some readers who seem incapable of empathizing with Jacob’s mother and father, but, for me, there are tiny pieces, tiny statements that elude to why these people are the way that they are. That’s really important to me: humanization. Without that I’d just be creating caricatures. There are moments where I think we see what she could have been had she not been addicted to drugs. That’s the reality of addiction. That’s a reality that I’ve seen time and time again where I live and where I grew up. I think the easy thing to do is to dismiss those people, to say, “I’m nothing like that.” The harder thing to do is to look at it with empathy. And empathy doesn’t mean coming to justify those actions as acceptable, but what it does mean is coming to recognize and hopefully understand why.

If there was a sequel, how do you see life working out for Maggie?

I have a really great friend, a mentor and an incredible novelist, Pamela Duncan who ran up to me after finishing the novel and said, “Is Maggie pregnant? She’s pregnant, isn’t she?” I just laughed, but I love this idea of wanting to know what happens to her as I think that’s a good sign that I’ve created a character that resonates. As for what I envision, I think Maggie goes to Wilmington. I think a lot of what Jacob holds as truth as an eighteen-year-old is naïve, but I think what he sees in Maggie, that strength and that certainty that she’ll leave, is real. So, for me, I always saw her getting out.

If you could tell anyone to read one book (other than your own) what would that book be (we list it with all the recommendations over the year HERE)?

I’m going to stay true to my neck of the woods and give you three recommendations—a novel, a memoir, and a book of poetry—from Appalachia because I think a lot of what comes out of this region is tragically overlooked. As far as a novel, everyone needs to read Robert Gipe’s Trampoline. It’s bar none the best debut released this year and it’s arguably the best debut we’ve seen from this region in decades. With memoir, I was really impressed with Leigh Ann Henion’s book, Phenomenal. I think her storytelling is brave and her insight into our relationship with the natural world is matured and beautiful. Last but certainly not least, everyone needs to be reading Rebecca Gayle Howell, especially the poems in Render: An Apocalypse, which are just gritty and raw and lovely. She’s writing scripture. So there’re three for you to get your hands on!

 You can connect with David Joy on GoodReadson Facebook, or through his website! I’m always thankful for these moments with writers and I hope you will pick up this amazing book! You can always connect with me on GoodReads,through our books section of our site, and you can read our entire Sundays With Writers series for more author profiles. Happy reading, friends!

*This post contains affiliate links!

 

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Sundays With Writers: Under a Dark Summer Sky by Vanessa Lafaye (GIVEAWAY)

Sunday, August 2nd, 2015

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Debut novelists hold a special place in my heart. I love the thrill of discovering new talent and also have experienced the struggles of writing your first book. The process of idea to publishing was so much harder than I had anticipated and I love bringing these new talents in front of you for those very reasons.  I received a copy of Under a Dark Summer Sky from NetGalley and it was one of my favorite reads this summer (you can read my review here). I just know that this will be a favorite for you too especially if you love historical fiction.

Under a Dark Summer Sky by Vanessa Lafaye

If you have been waiting for the next The Help, friends, this is it. I really want to get this book on your radar because the story is so beautifully told and it is about something that happened in history that I was never aware of. Under a Dark Summer Sky is a perfect balance of fact and fiction.  I have no doubt, you will get swept away in the storm that hits Heron Key in 1935.

It is hard to believe that this was a debut novel- it was so perfectly executed. I love when I am transported into time in a historical fiction novel and learn something I have never known before and that was the case in this one. This well-researched book perfectly combines fact and fiction into an incredible story about a hurricane that ripped through the Florida Keys. The racial tensions of the people combined with a camp of misplaced disturbed war veterans creates an incredible conflict within the town when all of their safety is at risk as a hurricane approaches. I just know you will fall in love with this perfectly woven story (and learn a lot about the 1930’s in the process!

Grab your cup of coffee and let’s learn more about the real-life hurricane that inspired this incredible book today!

Vanessa Lafaye

I would consider your book to be the next The Help, tackling a time of racial tension and segregation between blacks and whites, but creating this perfect storm of emotion and disaster within the pages to play on these issues. It feels like you can cut the tension with a knife from the first chapter until you close the last page. What was it about this era that appealed to you and why did you decide to set the book up in Florida around a natural disaster?

I’m delighted with comparisons to The Help, as it’s one of my favorites.  I didn’t choose the era or the setting, the story chose me! I often say that this is the book that almost wasn’t.   I stumbled on it at a low point in my life, after I had cancer the first time and had failed to get 2 novels of women’s fiction published. By pure accident, I discovered the story of the veterans and the hurricane, and it captured my imagination.  I felt compelled to dramatize it although I had not written historical fiction before.  I was appalled that the events have been forgotten, even by people living in Florida.  The veterans changed the course of US history, and I was consumed by the challenge of bringing that story to life. I never expected to write a book set in Florida.  It turned into a big nostalgia trip, almost like a love letter to my home state.

As a reader, you really capture the hurricane so well that I felt like I was there witnessing it all. What type of research did you do to set up this pivotal moment in this community? Have you experienced any major hurricanes yourself?

Growing up in FL, hurricanes were a regular summer feature, but I never experienced a bad one.  When I discovered the story, I read some excellent factual accounts, which are referenced in the book.  I watched videos of survivor stories, also referenced in the book.  But when it came to write the storm scenes, I set myself the task of making the reader feel like they had been through a washing machine.  It was a huge challenge, using only words on a page, and harrowing to write those scenes, sometimes overwhelming.  So it’s good hear that you think it comes across.

bonus-marchers

(Source: Wikipedia)

The most surprising thing for me, as a reader, were how these World War I veterans were placed into these communities on projects after the war, and the havoc that it creates in these towns (both for the soldiers themselves and for the community members). Misplaced, homeless, and without work, these men were thrown into these racially divided communities nursing a lot of issues from being in the war. How did you learn about this occurring and why do you think it makes your story more compelling?

The story of the veterans in the hurricane led me to explore their experiences during and after the war, which is where I learned about the Bonus Marchers and their treatment by the government.  I found it incredible that these dispossessed, desperate men helped to bring down one President and damage his successor, yet they have disappeared from history.  Writing about a southern state in 1935, I could not ignore the issue of segregation at that time, which led me to study the treatment of African-American soldiers in particular.  Most of the veterans in the camps in the Keys were white.  I chose to focus on a black minority because of the links to the other characters that I wanted to portray.

I always have a favorite character in each story I read and there was just something about Henry that had me rooting for him from the beginning until the end. I loved how you developed him, particularly his experience from serving as a black soldier to his struggles to fit into a segregated community of unacceptance. Was there one character in particular that you had a fondness for and were there any in the story that you related to the most personally?

Henry is also my favorite. I admire him so much.  His experiences should have made him bad or crazy, but basic his goodness has survived.  I have a fondness for people who refuse to let life beat them down.  Henry is certainly damaged, but he’s not beaten, despite everything.  I relate most personally to Hilda – although I hasten to add that I was never a beauty queen!  I wrote her first scene when I had gained a lot of weight after cancer treatment and felt very bad about myself.  I couldn’t fit into my clothes. I poured all of that into Hilda’s character, which was quite therapeutic.

This book was published in the UK first under the title of Summertime. I am always curious about title switches when books come to the US. Why did you change the title?

Debut authors don’t have much say in these decisions!  The publishers know what will work in their market.  We get consulted, but ultimately it’s a decision for the professionals.  The book has a different title in each country where it is being published:  Norway, France, Italy, Germany, and Holland.  Norway is ‘Sommerstorm’, France is ‘In the Heat of Summer’, Italy is the equivalent of ‘Summertime’, and I’m looking forward to seeing the others soon!

I have a special fondness for debut novelist and this book does not read like a debut novel to me, but a seasoned veteran in the field of writing. How long did it take you to research and write this story? What has been the most surprising thing to you about the process from story to publishing?

It’s great to hear that you’re fond of us debutantes, because it’s a big old hill to climb, for sure. It took me 2 years to research and write – but I was working 2 jobs at the time as well!  I don’t have kids, which is what made it possible, I guess.  And I was very highly motivated to get the story out.  I really wanted it to be published during the centenary of WWI (2014-18)! The most surprising thing about the process has been working with bloggers like you.  Before I had this experience, I had no knowledge of book bloggers, or their importance to the whole publishing industry.  I worked for 30 years in academic publishing, which is very different, and has nothing to compare.  So I was astounded to learn of how many bloggers are out there, how much time and energy they devote, and just how much influence they have over readers.  It’s been a revelation.  You guys have transformed fiction publishing.

If you could tell anyone to read one book (other than your own) what would that book be (read ALL the recommendations over the year HERE)?

It’s actually 3 books: The Regeneration Trilogy, by Pat Barker.  Is that allowed?  These books were among the first, along with Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks, which opened my eyes to the history of WWI.  Before that, like most Americans, I was ignorant of this period, but it’s a huge deal here in England.  I finally understood what the veterans had sacrificed in that awful, stupid war.

Vanessa has graciously shared 3 signed copies of her book to give away on the site this morning (all the way from England)! Enter by following the directions in the Rafflecopter widget below to enter to win!

a Rafflecopter giveaway

You can connect with Vanessa Lafaye on GoodReadson Facebook, or through her website! I’m always thankful for these moments with writers and I hope you will pick up this amazing book! You can always connect with me on GoodReads,through our books section of our site, and you can read our entire Sundays With Writers series for more author profiles. Happy reading, friends!

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Sundays With Writers: The Book of Speculation by Erika Swyler

Sunday, July 26th, 2015

sundays-with-writers-1

My husband laughs about how much research I do to prepare for these Sundays With Writers interviews, but I love researching about the people behind the books just as much as I love the books themselves. Today’s guest, Erika Swyler, is an author that I have found completely fascinating as I have read more about her.  She wrote a beautiful book called The Book of Speculation and instead of going about the whole writing process the traditional way at a computer, she did it longhand. Instead of sending files to land an editor, she decided to try binding books herself to catch an editor’s eye.

It’s because of her unique methods that I wanted to feature her today in our interview series. I can’t wait for you to read this book and this interview with Erika!

The Book of Speculation by Erika Swyler

I knew I was going to love The Book of Speculation because it had so many ingredients in it for success with me- librarians, old books, a bit of magic, and a glimpse at the old carnival life. The book has been compared to Water For Elephants and Night Circus, but definitely stands on its own and is an ambitious debut novel from this first-time author.

When Simon, a young librarian, receives the gift of a book that is a travel log for a carnival in the 1700’s, he discovers a drowning death of a circus mermaid that is coincidental to his own mother’s drowning death (a former circus mermaid herself) that happened even on the same day. If their family is cursed, his sister could be the next victim and he will do anything to save her. The chapters alternate between the travel log (complete with unique sketch drawings) and present day as Simon tries to stop the curse on his family. The author manages to bring these stories together in a beautiful way with a satisfying conclusion to these mysterious drownings.

You can read my full review of this book here as well as a few other great must-reads for the month of April!

Grab your cup of coffee and let’s settle in with Erika Swyler today and learn more about her debut novel! 

erika-swyler

I can admit, I am a bit of a nut about books and movies that have to do with the circus. I understand that you lived at the library for months researching the history of circuses in America to write The Book of Speculation. What is it about the circus life that fascinates you and what is the most surprising discovery you made while doing your research?

Circus life fascinates me because it’s so much about people finding and building family. Shows are living, breathing things with all these fascinating interpersonal dynamics. The life seems so rootless, yet these intense bonds form between people in shows. When you look at circuses and carnivals closely they make you question your ideas about what a home and family are.

the-wallendas

It was surprising to discover how far back some families can trace their history with the circus. The Wallendas were already established and touring in the 1780s. That’s insane. They’ve been practicing circus arts for essentially half of circus’s history. That’s a bigger footprint than P.T. Barnum.

Your book has a lot of unique elements in it, but one of them that really stood out to me was the use of illustration in your story. Did this add more pressure to you to create these and how do you think it makes your book more interactive for your reader?

Illustrating added pressure, but it also offered me far more control than most novelists have their first time out, and it kept me mercifully busy. When most people are sweating and waiting for edits, I was up to my ears in charcoal and graphite. That was a very good thing. I had total freedom as to what the illustrations were, and that let me build on aspect of a characters I wouldn’t have been able to otherwise. My circus master, Peabody, sketches in his journal. Actually showing the reader the illustrations says so much about him, his journal, and the plot. Illustration lets readers look at the exact images the characters in the book are seeing. That’s smashing a wall. You’re looking at the drawings, you’re in the book.

erika-swyler-2

I think the most surprising thing I discovered about you while researching for this interview is that I read that when you prepared your manuscripts of this book to send out to various publishers that you hand bound and tea-stained each of the copies to give them the feel of an old book, similar to the one that Simon receives in the beginning of this novel. Do you think that the work you did to create a unique reader experience for them ultimately helped you land your book deal?

Binding the manuscript put the story on the outside. It’s rare to see a book look exactly like what’s in it. I had an inkling that whoever connected with the manuscript as art would connect with the story, because it is about old books, bibliophiles, and beautiful objects. I also suspected that I was selling myself based on my ability to work hard. Making books like that is a huge time investment. I wanted people to know that I was willing to break my back to make this book happen. Ultimately, that came across. Once the manuscripts were out, things moved quickly. And I found my dream editor.

I understand you are now an expert in Japanese Stab Binding. For those of us reading our pathetic e-books, what is this binding process and why did you chose it for your manuscripts?

I’m more a jack-of-all-trades than an expert, but I’ve gotten pretty good with this type of binding. Japanese Stab Binding is a method where you sew through an entire block of paper rather than stitching together folded signatures. Each stitch goes through both covers and the pages. The stitches are visible, and the thread can be used to make decorative patterns. It’s used a lot in photo albums, for binding loose pages, and for quick and dirty paperback repair.

Stab binding made sense for the manuscripts because it’s relatively cheap, fast when compared to other techniques, and it’s visually striking. Being able to sew loose pages meant I was able to work with standard copy paper and splurge on covers rather than losing money on typesetting and printing. It’s also a very human stitch. When you see a book with a stab binding, you get a sense of how it’s done and that you understand it. It’s a binding that feels like history.

I often feel like I was born in the wrong era and it seems that might be something you and I have in common! I read you do your first drafts in longhand and on your collection of vintage typewriters. Do you have a favorite typewriter in your collection and why do you love these retro methods of book writing so much?

I write a lot longhand and on typewriters because it keeps me from editing. Computers have given us this terrible habit of writing a word then deleting it over and over again. You don’t do that longhand. I also find that characters and scenes demand different voices. Writing by hand feels very different than using a typewriter, which is a universe away from writing a laptop. Some characters want the typewriter. Sometimes if I’m really flying I switch around between hand, typewriter, and computer.

I do hoard typewriters. The oldest I have is an Underwood Champion from the late ’30s, but my favorite is a 1958 Hermes 3000. It’s mint green and fabulous. The keys feel right, it has great control over margins and spacing, and I can really move on it. It’s a beautiful machine. My husband got it for me. He supports what I do in a very deep way. He can’t write the words, but he makes sure I have the tools to write them.

There have been comparisons to The Night Circus and Water for Elephants with this book. In what ways do you think your book is different from these and why do you think there is such a fascination with the circus life in literature?

So those comparisons are huge and humbling. But there are some major differences. First, the fantastic element. Water for Elephants has both feet in a lush reality. The Night Circus floats in the fantastic. The Book of Speculation dances in between. I love the idea of everyday lives being infused with elements of wonder. I’m essentially mythologizing the ordinary—that’s the oldest trick in storytelling, but one that’s often overlooked. Then there’s scope. The Night Circus and Water for Elephants both span a lifetime (albeit magically enhanced in some instances). I went big and set my scope as 250 years of a family’s history. It asks readers to look for overlaps and intertwining stories. Essentially, I got to write historical fiction, fantasy, magical realism, mystery, a family saga, and literary fiction all at once.

Circus demands that you gawk, while also maintaining an intense wall of privacy. It’s impossible to watch a circus performance without wondering about artists and what their lives are like. Acts are billed as “the best” or “the only.” It’s the nature of writers to need to know what “the best” is like without makeup and lights. Combine that with a secretive culture and you might as well just wave a red flag at us.

Circus (PBS series)

Do you have any books on the circus or documentaries that you could recommend for people who want to learn more about the circus life?

There’s a wealth of information out there. The Circus Age: Culture and Society under the American Big Top by Janet M. Davis is pretty fantastic. For that specific carnival cadence, Howard Bone’s Side Show: My Life with Geeks, Freaks and Vagabonds in the Carny Trade is about as atmospheric as it gets while revealing surprisingly little. That perfectly captures the “insiders only” feel of carnivals and circus. PBS also made a six-episode series, Circus, which is incredible. As far as access to modern circus life, it’s unbeatable.

 If you could tell anyone to read one book (other than your own) what would that book be (we will add it to our list of recommended reads for our readers!)?

Geek Love by Katherine Dunn. I suggest people read it because it may freak them out. It’s also what fearless narration looks like. It’s bold and bizarre in all the right ways and full of incredible visual writing. It’s a book that stays with you long after you’ve finished. It’s the book I dream about writing.

 You can connect with Erika Swyler on GoodReads or through her website! I’m always thankful for these moments with writers and I hope you will pick up this amazing book! You can always connect with me on GoodReads,through our books section of our site, and you can read our entire Sundays With Writers series for more author profiles. Happy reading, friends!

*This post contains affiliate links!

 

Sundays With Writers: Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng

Sunday, July 5th, 2015

Sundays With Writers

I can’t tell you how excited I am about this interview today! It’s not every day that a girl gets to feature the author of the #1 book on Amazon of 2014 so today is incredibly special. I have a feeling that many of you have read Everything I Never Told You and will enjoy hearing the story behind the story on this book.

We read this book in my local book club and I thought a lot about it after I closed it. It dealt with racial tensions that I had not been aware of and also spoke to me because so many of us have things we never tell the people we love and it makes you think about your own family and words that are unspoken.

Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng

Everything I Never Told You is a beautiful debut novel and Ng’s descriptive language is such a treat to read. When a family’s daughter goes missing the lives of her family members begin unraveling through Ng’s beautiful storytelling. The reader is taken on a journey from the very beginning of the relationship of the parents and moving through each family member, including Lydia, their missing daughter. Everything I Never Told You is every character’s story that was never told- from the disappointment felt by parents to not fitting in due to their race to what roles they were expected to fill in the family (whether wanted or not).

This is a book that would lend itself well to a book club discussion since it tackles the big issues of parental roles/expectations as well as the heartache of youth and the challenges with fitting in. I think it is important to set expectations though with genres and I did not find this to read like a mystery or thriller, but more of a character-driven piece. This is a beautifully written family drama and for fans of this genre, you will really fall in love with Ng’s storytelling.

This book was featured in our Must-Read List for March!

It is such an honor to have Celeste Ng join me today. If you don’t know how to pronounce her name- check out her Twitter handle (AWESOME!). Now that you know the important stuff, let’s settle in with a cup of coffee and hear more from Celeste about her debut novel.

Celeste Ng

You open with the death of Lydia in the very opening sentences of the book and then build the story from there. Why did you decide to start with her tragic death and then work your way out in the story?

In earlier drafts, the book began quite differently: “At first, they don’t know where Lydia has gone.” And neither did the reader, until about thirty or forty pages in. What I realized, eventually, was that this pointed the reader in the wrong direction. It prompted the reader to focus on whether Lydia was alive or dead, rather than on what happened within the family to lead to her death.

So in the last draft of the novel, I changed the opening and put Lydia’s fate right up front. Once you know that Lydia is dead, that information colors everything you read afterwards.

Race plays a big part in this novel and, to be honest, I was embarrassingly unaware of racial discrimination among Asians in the 70’s, particularly in the disapproval of the relationship between the white mother (Marilyn) & the Asian father (James) in the Lee family. Was this something that you had heard about, researched, or have you experienced this discrimination firsthand?

Unfortunately, discrimination among Asians isn’t just limited to the 1970s. It still happens today, both overtly and in what we might now call microaggressions: small actions, often not intended as malicious, that remind people of their otherness. With one exception, every moment of racism or racial tension in the novel is something that I or someone I know personally has experiences firsthand. And these moments aren’t rare: every person of color I’ve spoken with has experienced something similar, no matter where they live.

Your book was selected as the #1 book of the ENTIRE YEAR on Amazon in 2014. First, what was it like to find out that your debut novel was selected as this and, secondly, do you feel added pressure to deliver something just as epic in your next book?

Here’s how I found out about the Amazon pick: I was sitting in my living room drinking tea and playing with my son when someone tweeted “Congratulations!” at me. I actually had to tweet back, “On what?!” So the whole experience has been surreal, and I’m very grateful to Amazon’s editorial team for championing the book.

I do feel some pressure to deliver another book that will live up to the response for this first one—how could I not? But honestly, the expectations have an upside as well. Writing is such an uncertain job; you work for years on a single project and hope that when it’s done, someone will read it. Having so many people read and respond to the book makes me more optimistic that people will want to read the next one, too.

The title of your book, Everything I Never Told You, is the anthem of every character in this book as they all have their own secrets and struggles that they can’t seem to share with others. Was there anything you have never shared with someone that you wished you would have and what message do you hope your readers will walk away with from reading this book?

My father passed away unexpectedly over a decade ago, and I didn’t have a chance to say goodbye properly. (None of us did.) I think about that a lot, about what I’d have said if we’d have another chance to talk. And even now, I often think of things that I’d like to share with him—not important things necessarily, just jokes he’d have enjoyed or observations he’d have gotten a kick out of.  More than the Big Important Topics, those kind of small things are the glue that holds a relationship together. I guess I hope that readers will close the book thinking about how life is short—and precious—and will make a conscious choice to never take the time they have with loved ones for granted.

As a mom, I really struggled with Marilyn leaving her family behind in this book because she felt she did not get to pursue her own dreams. I will admit, I was actually pretty angry with her as this family hobbled along in her absence. I think being a mom does mean sometimes we have to put our dreams on hold in order to make our family lives work. Did you sympathize with Marilyn? Have you ever had to put anything on hold in your own life because of your family?

It’s totally okay to be angry with Marilyn! (She makes some questionable choices, as do all the other characters.) But you’re right, being a mom, you’re in a constant juggling act trying to balance the needs of your family and your own needs. This is true for any parent, of course, but in today’s world, it’s especially true for mothers.

As a working mom myself, I end up putting my family before my own wants a lot of the time—as do most parents, I think. Sometimes these are small things: maybe I’d rather have chicken one night but I cook spaghetti because that is what my kid will eat. Sometimes they’re larger: for example, I’d love to go on a writing retreat, like the ones at McDowell (where someone brings you your lunch every day while you work!) But that would be a huge strain on my family, so it’s off the table, at least for a while.

And in fact, I’d miss them too much if I were away for so long.  That’s the thing that makes it hardest: you’re not just choosing between something you want and something they want, you’re choosing between something you want and something they want that you want too. Your desires get all mixed up with your family’s and it becomes hard to even tell what you yourself want.  So yes, I have a lot of sympathy for Marilyn.

What can we expect from you in your next book?

The next book is still very much in draft form, so I won’t say too much about it yet—I’m still working out the details! But it takes place in my hometown of Shaker Heights, Ohio, and focuses on a family living there and a mother-daughter pair (with some secrets in their past) who move in from out of town, and the ways those two families get entangled and stir up trouble for one another.

If you could tell anyone to read one book right now (other than your own) what would that book be? (read all the recommendations from authors HERE)

Just one? That’s a very hard choice to make. I’d go with The Bluest Eye, because Toni Morrison is one of my all-time favorite authors and that book says so much about race and culture and identity and love, and it’s beautifully written to boot.

You can connect with Celeste Ng on GoodReads, on Facebook, or through her website! I’m always thankful for these moments with writers and I hope you will pick up this amazing book! You can always connect with me on GoodReads,through our books section of our site, and you can read our entire Sundays With Writers series for more author profiles. Happy reading, friends!

*This post contains affiliate links!
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Sundays With Writers: The Life Intended by Kristin Harmel

Sunday, June 28th, 2015

Sundays With Writers

A warm welcome to my new readers and fans of our Sundays With Writers feature! I was so honored to share on Hollywood Housewife this week my book recommendations for your summer beach bag. Laura’s blog is a personal favorite of mine and I love her book reviews so much that it was such a treat to be featured over there. She will be joining us this month sharing some easy summer beauty routines so stay tuned for that piece from her- it’s a good one!

One of the books I featured in this post was The Life Intended by Kristin Harmel. I reached out to Kristin to see if she would let me interview her for our Sundays With Writers and by the end of the exchange she was sending me recipes to replicate some of her favorite dishes she tried in Italy. She really is as warm and engaging as this beautiful book. This is my first book that I have read by her, but it won’t be the last.  In fact, The Sweetness of Forgetting is now on my summer reading list!

The Life Intended by Kristin Harmel

I am a big fan of books that explore the what-if’s in life and this one does it beautifully. When Kate loses her husband in a tragic accident she finally feels like she can move forward in a new relationship twelve years later. When her husband begins to visit her in her dreams though, she begins to fall into an alternate universe where the lines between reality and imagination are blurred.

One of my  favorite movies is Sliding Doors and this book reminded me so much of that movie. Harmel truly explores what does it take to move forward in life without forgetting your past.

In this story, Kate blames her lack of sleep on stress. But when she starts seeing Patrick, her late husband, in her dreams, she begins to wonder if she’s really ready to move on. Is Patrick trying to tell her something? Attempting to navigate between dreams and reality, Kate must uncover her husband’s hidden message. Her quest leads her to a sign language class and into the New York City foster system, where she finds rewards greater than she could have imagined.

This is the best piece of chick lit I have read this year and I would highly recommend for anyone who needs a little reading escape! I have been telling everyone to escape with this one and I keep hearing how much they loved it too. It’s one I would be packing in my beach bag this summer, for sure!

I gave this book 5 out of 5 stars in our reviews for the month of April!

Grab your coffee and let’s settle in with Kristin to talk about her beautiful book today! 

Kristin Harmel

I am such a fan of magic realism in stories and this beautiful book, with parallel worlds running, was amazing! How did you come up with this idea for a story?

Thanks so much for the kind words! And in answer to your question, would you believe I dreamed the whole story, almost completely intact? It sounds nutty, especially since dreams play a role in The Life Intended, but this has never happened to me before, and this is my ninth book! I was searching for a story idea around the time I was out promoting my previous novel, The Sweetness of Forgetting, and I woke up one morning with the idea for The Life Intended in my head. I jumped out of bed, grabbed a pen and a stack of paper, and began scribbling as quickly as I could before the story vanished. Of course I had to work out many of the intricacies later – research, character development, pacing, etc. – but the framework for the story was there from day one. I kind of think of this, therefore, as “the book intended!” Oh, it’s also important to note that I’m not usually a very vivid dreamer, so it was all the more unusual that I woke up with a whole book in my head!

Kate’s job is working as a musical therapist and she uses this to help kids in the foster care system to work through the emotional struggles they are dealing with. Did you know anything about musical therapy before working on this book?

No, I didn’t know much. I had to research music therapy from scratch, and I was also fortunate enough to receive the assistance of a lovely musical therapist in New York who helped answer many questions for me.  I put a ton of time into researching this book; I didn’t know much about sign language, hearing loss or the foster system in New York either, and those were all things that came into play, so I had to do a lot of work to get the details just right.

In the story Patrick and his family have a fun family tradition with silver dollars that they “pay forward” to others. Do you have any traditions like these in your own home?

Nope! But how crazy is this? It turns out that my father-in-law has a silver-dollar necklace, exactly like the one I describe Kate wearing, that his own father gave him. His family actually had a similar silver dollar tradition, and I never knew about it. What are the odds?

Kate ends up taking a sign language class to help her learn to communicate with her daughter, that helps her life take a much different path than she expected. What type of research did you do on the deaf and sign language to help you prepare for these scenes in your book?

I have a few friends with hard of hearing children, so I did a lot of talking with them – and a bit of talking with the kids. I also interviewed a few experts in hearing loss, did a ton of reading – especially on cochlear implants and how music therapy works for deaf or hard of hearing patients – and consulted a sign language interpreter to help me get the sign language scenes correct.

Did you learn anything that surprised you through your research on communicating with the deaf?

When I set out to write this book, I had no idea that music therapy was used with deaf kids. I was thrilled to discover this, actually. I love the idea that we’re capable of hearing music with more than just our ears. With kids who can’t hear at all, for example, vibrations play a role in music therapy. In general, I really like the idea of using unexpected techniques to create additional bridges between us, in every walk of life. Another thing I learned about deafness, which I hadn’t realized before, is that there’s a difference between “deaf” with a lowercase “d” and “Deaf” with an uppercase “D.” The former is simply the medical state of hearing loss; the second refers to the community of people who have a shared culture based on this hearing loss. I never understood that distinction before, nor did I understand that within the Deaf community, cochlear implantation is still a source of debate. That was fascinating to discover, and I include some of that in The Life Intended.

In one scene Kate says, “I’m a firm believer that music is a huge gift in life… it has the power to connect people to each other in a way that words just can’t.” What is one piece of music that you have felt really connected to?

Music has always meant a lot to me; not only can a piece of music touch you in the moment, but I also think that music can connect you to certain periods or memories in your life. For example, whenever I hear one of the New Kids on the Block songs I loved in the late ‘80s, I’m always ten years old again, and my long-dormant crush on Donnie Wahlberg reappears for an instant. (Don’t laugh at me! He turned out rather nicely, thank you!) Or when I hear Third-Eye Blind’s “Semi-Charmed Life,” I’m immediately transported back to my freshman year of college, because that was a song I really liked then. The theme music from the movie Superman always reminds me of my childhood and makes my heart swell, and the theme music from Somewhere in Time, another Christopher Reeve movie, makes me believe in true love all over again. I think it’s astonishing that music can evoke so many feelings, memories and emotions. It’s like a totally different language!

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

All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr. I realize that’s sort of a lame response, because the book is so popular right now, but it’s truly one of the most beautifully crafted and beautifully written books I’ve ever read. I recommend it all the time! (Editor’s Note: Check out our Sundays With Writers with Anthony Doerr HERE!)

Thanks so much for taking the time to chat with me, Amy! It was lovely having a virtual coffee with you!

You can connect with Kristin Harmel on GoodReads, on Facebook, or through her website! I’m always thankful for these moments with writers and I hope you will pick up this amazing book! You can always connect with me on GoodReads,through our books section of our site, and you can read our entire Sundays With Writers series for more author profiles. Happy reading, friends!

*This post contains affiliate links!
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Sundays With Writers: The Bullet by Mary Louise Kelly

Sunday, March 15th, 2015

Sundays With Writers

There is just nothing like a good thriller especially the kind that keeps you up at night until the wee hours of the morning because you just can’t put it down. I was lucky enough to receive THE BULLET last month to review for NetGalley and found myself reading at a record pace because I just couldn’t flip those pages fast enough. I had a book hangover for a couple of days, trying to recover from the lack of sleep I had been experiencing while reading this.

It’s that good.

THE BULLET comes out this week (March 17th) and I want you to run right out and get it so you can experience my level of exhaustion. I really doubt you will be able to put it down.

I reached out to Mary Louise Kelly to see if she might like to share a little bit about her life as both a reporter and a fictional writer.  I think this interview perfectly captures what I imagine her personality to be which seems to fill the pages in her fabulous new thriller. Please do read through to the end so you can see her publicly challenge her brother in this interview.

She is my kind of lady.

The Bullet by Mary Louise Kelly

THE BULLET  is a beautifully written mystery that echoes some of my favorite thrillers from Chevy Stevens.  The premise of the book is when a woman discover a bullet in her body that she was never aware of it, it sends her life spiraling in a direction that she never expected. The origin of that bullet and the people around her that it has affected, cause this cold case to be reopened… reopening wounds of the family and friends around her.

Despite the gravity of the case and the circumstances surrounding it, the book is laced with great humor and a cast of endearing characters. I really enjoyed this one for a quick escape and can’t recommend it enough.

Grab your coffee and let’s settle in with Mary Louise as she shares more about this book!

Mary Louise Kelly

The premise for your latest book THE BULLET is shaped around a woman going in for a routine scan and discovering that she has a bullet in her body that she never knew about. How did you come up with this unique idea for the storyline for your book?

It’s a true story! I was sitting on the sidelines of my son’s little league baseball game one afternoon, when another mom plopped down next to me, heaved a sigh, and said something like, “Well, I’ve had a heck of a week.” Long story short, she had just had a routine scan that revealed a bullet in her neck that she never knew about. She had no scar, no clandestine past, and she swore she’d never been shot. Driving home afterwards, I kept thinking, how is that even possible? I’m a reporter by training, so I dug into medical literature, looking for examples of people who have survived gunshots to the neck or head. And then the novelist in me took over:  I imagined all kinds of wild scenarios, from amnesia to witness-protection programs to CIA plots. My protagonist discovers the bullet in her neck by page 8. What follows are 349 pages of pure fiction, focused on her quest to find out how on earth it got there, and what on earth she’s going to do about it.

What is your process for fleshing out a thriller like this? Do you have the mystery solved before you write it so you know where you are headed or did you build the story and motive as you progressed through the writing?

I map out the whole thing, to make certain it’s a story that can sustain 350 pages. But then I end up throwing out the road map as I go. My original outline is stuffed with all kinds of plot twists that fell by the wayside, and it never mentions characters that end up playing major roles. You get to know characters as you write them, and some prove more interesting than others (the nice thing about fiction is that you can kill off the ones who get on your nerves.) One theme that runs throughout The Bullet is that we should question how well we really know the people we love, and even how well we know ourselves and what we are capable of. I kick off the book with a quote from one of my favorite writers, Robert Penn Warren. He writes that human beings are complicated contraptions, “not good or bad but… good and bad and the good comes out of the bad and the bad out of the good, and the devil take the hindmost.” Isn’t that great? I agree with him, and tried to conceive all of my characters as complicated contraptions. That makes both the protagonist and the forces opposing her more interesting, and both of them kept surprising me as I wrote.

You have created such endearing characters in this book and Caroline’s family, in particular, are just the kind of people every girl wishes she had in her life. Which character did you find the most endearing??

Thank you. I have a soft spot for Beamer Beasley, the grizzled cop who helps Caroline unravel the secrets of her past. Writers aren’t supposed to admit to imagining which Hollywood star would play our characters, but Beamer is screaming to be played by Morgan Freeman, and really, wouldn’t we all want him on our side when investigating a gruesome crime? I also loved every scene with Madame Aubuchon. I could just picture her so clearly, in all her hauteur and brittleness, but also her intelligence and decency. As for Caroline’s family, a lot of readers have commented on how close she is to her brothers. They love and support her, even as they drive her nuts. I confess this sibling back-and-forth is completely autobiographical. My brother C.J. gets me riled up faster than anyone; you do not want to be in the room when the two of us get going on politics or feminism or the relative merits of tofu vs. steak. But as I note in the Acknowledgments, C.J. is also hands down the person I would want beside me in a bar brawl.

Mary Louise Kelly

Source: KPLU

How do you think your background as a reporter has helped you as a writer? What skills are you able to use from this profession to be build a good fictional story?

My journalism training helps enormously with dialogue, because when you write for broadcast, you strive to write conversationally. Most of us write in complete, grammatically correct sentences, because that’s the way our high school teachers and college professors taught us. But that’s not the way people talk, and it takes time to unlearn it. Writing for radio gave me a head start. It also instilled an instinct for storytelling. At NPR, we aim for the “driveway moment” – that moment when a listener has made it home, and he’s got the car in park, and he needs to get inside, but he’s listening to something so gripping he can’t turn it off. You want to spool out enough detail that the listener gets hooked, while holding enough back that he wants to keep listening. That’s key to writing a good novel, too, although I suppose the goal shifts to creating a  “nightstand moment” – when a reader sits up turning pages, well after he knows he should have chucked the novel on his nightstand and have turned out the light.

Caroline’s irritation with the reporters made me chuckle since you have worked as an NPR & BBC reporter. In one line she says, “Reporters. Honestly. What an exhausting profession, to be professionally trained to be relentless.” Is it exhausting?

Actually, no. It’s exhilarating. There was a great line in a New Yorker profile of Samantha Power, President Obama’s ambassador to the U.N. The writer describes Power, a former journalist, as retaining “a reporter’s instinct for amassing facts and deploying them to extract more.” That’s exactly right. You find out one interesting thing, and it makes you want to dig and find out more. Get a bunch of reporters together, swapping stories about that time on deadline on the Khyber Pass, or banging on voters’ doors in Iowa, or quizzing the President in a White House press conference, and at some point we all break into grins, and somebody says out loud what everyone is thinking:  I can’t believe we actually get paid to do this.

 Since this is your second book to be published, did you find this one easier or harder to write than your first? How long did it take you to create this story and what did you find most challenging with this book?

This second one took less time. Maybe I’m getting faster, but more likely it’s because the first time around I was working full-time as NPR’s Pentagon correspondent. While writing Anonymous Sources, I kept jetting off on reporting trips to war zones, and when I was home in Washington, I was filing daily news reports from the Pentagon. Writing fiction was my third priority, after my day job and after being a wife and mom.

The Bullet took me 16 months, from sitting down to write Chapter One to handing in a full draft of the manuscript. Then come months of editing and polishing and proofreading. As for Book Three… we shall see how long it takes. Right now I’m ramping up again on journalism; I have dearly (insanely?) missed the daily deadlines, and being engaged in the national dialogue on everything from race to politics to technology. My hope is I’ll end up with loads of fresh ideas for my fiction; my agent fears I’ll end up taking a decade to produce another book. But another side effect of being a reporter is that I write fast, so watch this space!

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

I would tell my brother to read Birdsong, the 1993 novel by Sebastian Faulks. It’s about a British soldier in France during World War I, and it is the most gorgeous epic of love and war and regrets. I’ve been telling my brother to read it for twenty years now, and he keeps refusing, at this point out of sheer orneriness. C.J., consider yourself publicly challenged.

You can connect with Mary Louise Kelly on GoodReads or through her website! I’m always thankful for these moments with writers and I hope you will pick up this amazing book! You can always connect with me on GoodReads,through our books section of our site, and you can read our entire Sundays With Writers series for more author profiles. Happy reading, friends!

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Sundays With Writers: Walking on Trampolines by Frances Whiting

Sunday, February 22nd, 2015

Sundays With Writers

I hate to complain about winter, but it has been a pretty brutal one lately.  It has been hard to get motivated to do anything and so I have found myself on more than one occasion with a pile of laundry and chores to do, but huddled next to my little fireplace with a hot coffee and a big book.

On Friday I will be sharing my round-up of great things I read this month and one of those great books was WALKING ON TRAMPOLINES  by Frances Whiting. I thought it looked like a light escape, but what really grabbed my attention was the recommendation from Liane Moriarty who praised it  as “a tender exploration of friendship, families, and first love.”  You know I love her so I had to read it.  I decided to dig in and read it in a record two days- I just couldn’t put it down.

Walking on Trampolines by Frances Whiting

“Tallulah de Longland,” she said slowly, letting all the Ls in my name loll about lazily in her mouth before passing judgment. “That,” she announced, “is a serious glamorgeous name.”

From the day Annabelle Andrews sashays into her classroom, Tallulah ‘Lulu’ de Longland is bewitched: by Annabelle, by her family, and by their sprawling, crumbling house tumbling down to the river.

Their unlikely friendship intensifies through a secret language where they share confidences about their unusual mothers, first loves, and growing up in the small coastal town of Juniper Bay. But the euphoria of youth rarely lasts, and the implosion that destroys their friendship leaves lasting scars and a legacy of self-doubt that haunts Lulu into adulthood.

Years later, Lulu is presented with a choice: remain the perpetual good girl who misses out, or finally step out from the shadows and do something extraordinary. And possibly unforgivable…

It’s not how far you fall, but how high you bounce.

This is one of those books that you think will just be a quick escape, but ends up being a beautiful story with endearing characters that you think about after you close the final pages. This coming-of-age story follows the friendship between two teen girls and then the consequences of them both falling for the same guy, which destroys their friendship. Thankfully, it was just so much more than that and really built around a cast of flawed characters, the bonds & love of our family, first loves, true loves, and how friendships between unlikely people can reshape your destiny. There were some really great themes in this one and it is the kind of book that reminds you of your own coming-of-age story and the friendships that can endure those tumultuous years. The theme seems simple, but the story was not.

I asked Frances if she would share a little bit about her journey as a writer today because I think her story is the story of many of us. We have a story that we just have to tell, but our family and careers sometimes get in the way of achieving our dreams to share it! Please grab your coffee and join me for a beautiful interview with Frances Whiting today to discuss her book, WALKING ON TRAMPOLINES!

Frances Whiting

 I absolutely love the unique title of your book. Why did you title this book WALKING ON TRAMPOLINES and what do you think this title really says about your story?

Thank you! Walking on Trampolines is my first novel, and I really wanted to find a title that I loved, but also one that that would capture that feeling of the book, that time between childhood and teenage -hood, which is so exciting but also really unsettling at the same time. I remembered when I was a kid the feeling of trying to walk on a trampoline, I would take these big, loping steps, and it was fun but it also felt very unsteady beneath my feet. So, given that much of the book is rooted in that time and place for Tallulah and Annabelle, I thought it would be an apt title…it’s not just in our youth we feel like this though _ sometimes I still feel like I’m walking on trampolines!

WALKING ON TRAMPOLINES was previously published in Australia, where you live and have been a weekly columnist for the Australia’s Sunday Courier-Mail for over 20 years. What is it like to have your book coming out in the United States and what are some of the ways that you had to adapt it for your US readers?

Well, being published in America still seems a bit surreal to me…I am so excited and grateful that Simon and Schuster saw something in the book and took it on. To be truthful, I still can’t quite believe it’s happened. In terms of adapting it, there were really only a few tweaks here and there, with some really, particular Australian terms or brands that had to either be explained a little bit, or replaced with something universal. Everything else stayed the same, because one thing my column has taught me in the 20 years it’s been going, is that people are people everywhere. We have so much more in common than we do our differences, so the themes of intense friendship, love, betrayal, mental illness, family, redemption, the power of laughter, forgiveness are, I think ones that we can all share in. And I love the idea that Tallulah and Annabelle are all the way over there!

Walking on Trampolines by Frances Whiting

Walking on Trampolines by Frances Whiting

Walking on Trampolines by Frances Whiting

Walking on Trampolines by Frances Whiting

Walking on Trampolines by Frances Whiting

Walking on Trampolines by Frances Whiting

Source: Simon & Schuster Canada

This coming-of-age story really takes on some adult themes including the struggle of Tallulah’s mother, Rose, and her mental illness. One of the most endearing things about Rose is the dresses she wore and the names she had for them. What was it like to see Rose’s dresses come to life through those illustrations and what was the inspiration for the naming of these dresses?

When I saw the illustrations, it’s hard to describe how I felt, because seeing something that’s been in your mind’s eye on paper is a strangely familiar feeling! I loved seeing them all, it brought Rose alive to me.  The inspiration behind naming the dresses was my work as a journalist, believe it or not! I have interviewed so many families in so many situations over the years for my feature writing and some of those families had members with a mental illness. What struck me was how many of those families coped with the situation, and how the person with the mental illness was both loved and loving. They may not have been the cookie-cutter type of family, but they had worked out ways to be a family and function around that person. When I reported on mental illness myself, or when I read other articles about it, more often than not it was painted as a tragedy or a great burden on families, and I felt a real need to redress that. So I wanted a character who had a mental illness but was so loved by her family and who loved them right back! Many of the people I have met over the years had some sort of manifestation of their illness _ one man I met was, for example, made pots and pots of jam when he was feeling anxious. So when it came to Rose, I thought naming  her dresses could be her way of making jam!

You create a character that really comes alive in this story in Duncan, Tallulah’s radio host boss, whose larger than life personality really seems to leap off the pages. He was definitely my favorite character and, I would say, the relationship between him and Tallulah was one of my favorites in your story.  Who was your favorite character in your book? Was there one relationship that really stood out for you?

Thank you again! You know what? I loved Duncan best too! And the strange thing is when I was first writing WOT he wasn’t even a character in it. But one night at home, I started to write about Lulu’s new adventures in the city and suddenly there he was! I’m not sure how to explain it without sounding crazy but it was like he entered the room and demanded to be written. And he was by far the easiest character to write, he just seemed to jump from my pen to the page. And my favourite relationship was between Duncan and Tallulah, I really loved playing with that whole “When Harry Met Sally’’ theme of whether men and women can truly be friends. I think they can and I loved the love between the two of them.

How much fun was it to create the unique language between Annabelle and Tallulah? Where did you get this idea?

So much fun!!!! I got the idea from my own childhood, and the childhoods of many people I know, because one of the things that kids (including me) seem to love doing is to create secret worlds for themselves. Whether it be cubby houses, or clubs, or hidey holes, there is something very appealing to children about a space and place that is just for them. So I wanted to capture that appeal of being exclusive with your friend, of knowing something that others don’t, of  being a member of a secret club that only you and the others in it understand. I liked the idea of doing it through language because as a writer one of the things I really love is playing with words. This gave me permission to have a whole lot of fun and to hell with writing conventions!

What has been your feedback on Annabelle as a character? Do your readers seem to like her or do you think she is unlikeable because of what she did to Tallulah?

Sometimes I feel like I’m the only person in the world who does like Annabelle, and I really do! I have a lot of sympathy for her, in that I think she had such a confusing childhood and ultimately was really just desperately looking for love and security. But most readers don’t like her at all-  and they let me know! But I think there’s a lot that’s good about her – her loyalty to Tallulah ( apart from that one BIG transgression), her strength, her sense of humour and her ability to forgive and truly forget.

In one line, Tallulah says, “I let them go, finally realizing that your first love, no matter how big it may have been, wasn’t necessarily your true one.” Did you have a big first love like Tallulah and then later find your true love or were they one and the same?

I did have a big first love! It was everything a first love should be, exciting and scary and passionate and dreamy and dramatic and blissful…  sometimes all in the one day! But it was a first love, in that it was a young love that didn’t last into adulthood. My true love came many, many, many years later, when I met my now husband. I’m lucky.

It took you seven years to write this book- that is no small feat! Many people I know dream of writing a book, but can’t see the light at the end of the tunnel. What made you persevere and keep writing it? What was the biggest struggle with the execution of finishing it?

It was tough sometimes for me to believe I would finish it. I was working as a journalist full time, with two small kids (one of them, my daughter a surprise baby and 45 and mid-way through the book!) to love and care for, and all the other things that make up our lives.  I think what kept my going was the characters themselves. I came to love Tallulah and Annabelle, and I just didn’t want to leave them rootless and unfinished…if that makes any sense at all. I wanted to see them through, and every time I returned to writing them (sometimes it could be weeks before I returned to the book) it was like greeting old friends.

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

Oh My! What a hard question! I love books so much, choosing just one is almost impossible. But I’ll bite the bullet and say…no I just can’t do it! So instead I’ll say The Shadow of the Wind, The Great Gatsby, anything by P.J. Wodehouse, The Last Anniversary, anything by Mary Wesley, Nick Hornby, Tony Parsons and Clive James.

Is that cheating?

Thank you so much for your interest in my book, Amy. It meant so much for me to receive your email and warm words. Thank you for loving books.  Thank you especially for loving mine!

You can connect with Frances Whiting on Facebook! I’m always thankful for these moments with writers and I hope you will pick up this amazing book! You can always connect with me on GoodReads,through our books section of our site, and you can read our entire Sundays With Writers series for more author profiles. Happy reading, friends!

*This post contains affiliate links!

 

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