Posts Tagged ‘Sundays With Writers’

Sundays With Writers: Tell Me Three Things by Julie Buxbaum

Sunday, May 22nd, 2016

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I have some really fantastic writers lined up in the next few weeks to share about their new books and today’s guest is a special treat because I have loved her ever since her debut novel, The Opposite of Love. It’s been awhile since I have seen Julie on the shelves and I was so thrilled to see her again, writing a debut YA novel, Tell Me Three Things.

Tell Me Three Things by Julie Buxbaum

Let me tell you a little bit about, Tell Me Three ThingsThis is the story of a teenager named Jessie, the loss of her incredible mom, and the abrupt new marriage of her father that relocates them to Los Angeles. When her father meets a woman from his support group, he elopes and moves them into the wealthy woman’s home, switching Jessie into the wealthy prep school that her new stepbrother attends. Of course, Jessie doesn’t fit in at all.

When she starts receiving emails from SN (shortened from Somebody Nobody) offering her help and support in these uncharted waters, a relationship blooms and becomes a huge support for Jessie. The reader gets to read this beautiful, hilarious, and always sweet exchange. When Jessie wants to meet SN in person though, the reader is led on the journey with Jessie. Is SN her soulmate? Is SN even real? I guess you will have to read to find out! This is a great one to pack in your beach bag this summer.

Delightfully sweet and everything I love about Buxbaum’s writing! I featured this book in our April Must-Reads this year. 

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I have been a HUGE fan of your writing since you wrote your debut novel, The Opposite of Love. It’s been six years since you published your second novel, After You, and you have come out with your first YA novel- what a treat that was for a big fan like me! What have you been up to over these years? You have said that it took you 24 years to get the courage to come up with a YA book. Do you think you will stick around in this genre moving forward?

Sometimes I can’t quite believe it’s been six years since my last book, but it really has! In that time, I had two children, wrote an adult novel that now sadly lives in a drawer, dabbled in television writing, and wrote two young adult novels: Tell Me Three Things, which just came out, and a book called What to Say Next which should be out Spring 2017. Yes, I very much hope to continue in YA. It has reminded me of why I love to write. And thank you for being a fan. I’m absolutely honored!

Your main character, Jessie, begins receiving anonymous emails from a person nicknamed Somebody Nobody (SN) who helps her to navigate her new school, the cliques, and which classmates she should align with. I understand this email exchange was inspired by an anonymous correspondence of your own. Can you tell us more about that?

It’s rare that something so magical and weird and wonderful happens in real life that it feels like the stuff of fiction, so when it did, I had no choice but to steal that material for a book. Shortly after I graduated from law school, I received what was essentially a secret admirer-type email from a classmate, and the note came at the perfect time. I was working crazy hours, feeling sort of lost and depressed in my first grown up job, and just feeling down on myself, and this single email somehow managed to change everything. I never found out who he was, and I’m not sure that I ever want to. Just the idea of him, just the idea of someone noticing me—I had never before thought of myself as someone who got noticed—was enough to shift me out of my rut.

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(follow Julie’s updates on Facebook!)

How much fun was it to create the subject lines for those emails? I was crying laughing as they changed from Jessie to SN? Did you have a favorite subject line or back-and-forth in this email exchange?

In my first draft, I didn’t have funny subject lines for the emails, and there was just banter in the emails themselves. That came later in the editing process, and yeah, they were super fun to write. I’m one of those annoying people who laughs when writing their own jokes, and they totally cracked me up. I was sad when Jessie and SN moved to IMing, because I didn’t get to keep coming up with them.

One of the most painful things that Jessie must deal with is the death of her mother. Your mother passed away, when you were at the tender age of fourteen, and you were able to use your own personal experience to help craft your story. Why did you think it was important to share a piece of your story in this and would you have any advice to another child who has had to face the unbearable loss of a parent at a young age?

Losing my mom as a teenager was an incredibly isolating experience so I very much would have liked to see myself represented in fiction. But back then we didn’t have the vast Young Adult aisles we have now. I wrote Tell Me Three Things for sixteen-year-old me and if it reaches even one or two teenagers who went through what I went through and can recognize themselves and be comforted by seeing their own experiences reflected in Jessie’s, I’ll be happy. As for advice for someone who is grieving, I think it’s important to be told that though the loss of a parent will never be okay, you will be.  My main character counts in days since her mother died. She tells herself that if she survived one day without her mom, she can survive two. If she survives two, she can survive three. I clearly remember doing that to get through that difficult time. But now, I get to count in years, and in some ways it’s a celebration. I made it, and I’m okay. And though it’s hard to see it right now through that grief haze, you will be too.

Your journey to publishing is such an interesting one! Can you share a little bit about why you quit a promising career as a lawyer to be a writer? What would you say to someone else who feels stuck in a career and feels a passion for writing like you?

I was miserable as a lawyer! I felt bored and uninspired and every Sunday night I would cry because I didn’t want to go to work the next morning. I finally gathered the courage to quit as part of a New Year’s Resolution (actually the only New Year’s Resolution I’ve ever kept!) and decided to write that novel I had always talked about. I didn’t really intend to become a writer full-time—the original plan was to write the book and then transition into a different kind of law—but I got super lucky and very quickly had a career. I never recommend that someone quit and pursue novel writing in the way I did—it was a stupid thing to do that just happened to work out for me—but if you have a passion for writing, make it a priority and fit it in any way you can. It’s not easy, but I find that most writers can’t help but write. When I’m not writing, I’m cranky.

I know that, The Opposite of Love, had been optioned for film and I read that Anne Hathaway had been attached to the project as the lead. Is this movie still happening? Can you picture, Tell Me Three Things, being optioned for film?

Sadly, The Opposite of Love died in development, which happens to the vast majority of books optioned to film. I’d love for Tell Me Three Things to be optioned (and I haven’t given up hope that one day The Opposite of Love will get made somehow too!) I live in LA, so I have lots of meetings about both books, though so far we haven’t found the right home for either of them. But I can absolutely picture it as a film, and would love the opportunity to write the screenplay.

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Do you have any tips for us on work/life balance? Any secrets that have helped you over the years to get in adequate writing time and be present with your kids? I know I am always looking for help in this!

I wish I had some magic secret, but I unfortunately don’t. I feel like the whole concept of balance is an illusion. I think it’s all about getting through each day doing the best you can. Do I end some days feeling guilty that I haven’t spent enough time with my kids? Absolutely. When I take the day off because my daughter has the flu, do I feel guilty for not working? Absolutely. The truth is I should probably stop wasting so much time feeling guilty and realize that I am doing my best on every front, and that sometimes I’m going to drop the ball. I’m human. All moms are, and maybe the first step to finding balance is to stop holding ourselves to ridiculously impossible standards. My kids will never have homemade Halloween costumes, my house is always a disaster, and we all eat more frozen food than we should. But in the grand scheme of things, none of that matters. What matters is the fact that my kids know they are loved and are well taken care of and I get to do a job I love. That should really be enough. I do meditate with the Headspace app, and I feel like that’s helped me feel present in my own life in wonderful ways, whether that’s time spent with my kids or at work. But balance? Never really going to happen. My life is just way too messy for balance.

The Incident On The Bridge by Laura McNeal

Who have been your biggest literary influences? Any YA authors, in particular, that you think we should be reading?

The answer changes daily to this question. There are a ton of writers whose work I deeply admire—Zadie Smith, Richard Powers, Marilynne Robinson just to name a few—but in terms of inspiring what I do each day, I’m mostly affected by whatever book I read last that made me wish I had been the one to craft it. I’m not so much inspired in the sense that I attempt to write like an author I love, but instead reading prose that makes me marvel has the wonderful side effect of making me go sit my ass back down in a chair and work harder on my own work. It makes me want to be better.

As for recommendations, I recently read The Incident on The Bridge by Laura McNeal, which is YA but is also very much suited for adult readers, and the book was lyrical and beautiful and heartbreaking and I can’t recommend it highly enough. I’m now going back to read Dark Water for which she was a finalist for the National Book Award.

You can connect with Julie Buxbaum on her website and 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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Sundays With Writers: All Things Cease to Appear by Elizabeth Brundage (Interview)

Sunday, May 15th, 2016

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Today’s SWW interview is with Elizabeth Brundage to discuss her new book, All Things Cease to Appear. I devoured this book and couldn’t wait to interview Elizabeth about it, especially after reading about her real-life ghost story that had inspired this storyline. I had chills up and down my spine when I read her experience and I think you will too. I’m so excited to share this interview with you today and honored that Elizabeth would be so open to sharing with our readers!

All Things Cease to Appear by Elizabeth Brundage

I love being part of a local book club and this past month we read, All Things Cease to Appear. I think it is important to set expectations with this one. Do you remember Everything I Never Told You (I interviewed the author too!)? Well, I felt like the setup of this book is similar. We are opening with someone being accused of murdering their wife and then working our way out from there. Some people get disappointed when things work in this direction (maybe thinking it takes away from the mystery of it all?), but I really loved that it opened this way and then the reader discovers more and more of the motive as the story unfolds.

The book opens with the murder of Catherine as the police began questioning the most obvious of suspects… her husband. The book builds out the story of this couple from the purchase of this farmhouse filled with secrets, the failing marriage, and George’s strange double life.

This book is a really deep character study into a sociopath. Brundage writes this book so well that things like the home, for example, become a character unto itself. This is slow, but worthy of the pacing with rich characters. I couldn’t put it down.

We included All Things Cease to Appear in our April Must-Reads list!

Oh, and I wish I could put you by a bonfire for this eerie tale and we could share it with a couple of flashlights! I guess coffee will suffice.  Settle in! 

Q&A With Elizabeth Brundage

Elizabeth Brundage I read a rather chilling story about the house that inspired the location for your book. Just like the book, the house had its own sad story. Can you share with us a little bit about the house you lived in that you were able to draw inspiration from and have you ever gone back to see it since you left?

The novel began with a real unsolved murder.  I first heard about it many years ago.  My husband was just finishing his residency in an upstate New York town and we were considering staying in the area for his fellowship. At the time, our daughter was three, and I was pregnant with our second.  I went to look at a house that had come on the market in a nice, suburban neighborhood.  I was standing in the living room looking out on the back yard and a sensation of darkness came over me – I know that may sound strange, but it did.  I told the realtor and she said that it wasn’t the house we were standing in, but the one just across the yard, shrouded in big pine trees.  She told me a woman had been murdered there with an ax while her young daughter, a three-year old, was home with her.  This story shook me, and stayed with me for years.

We ended up moving to Connecticut for a few years and then, after my husband’s fellowship, we moved up to the Albany area.  By then our daughters were 3 and 6.  We ended up renting a house in a rural area of Columbia County, south of Albany.  The house was a cape, built in the early nineteenth century.  My husband had just joined a cardiology group and I was alone a lot of the time with the girls.  Almost immediately strange things started happening in the house.  One day I was walking on the street and this man, a neighbor, came up to me and told me the house was haunted; the owner had moved away and was stuck renting it out.  He said the owner used to go out to dinner and come home to find the furniture rearranged.  We never experienced that, but there were things that freaked me out.  On Halloween, I turned on my computer and the printer started printing out a skeleton head made up of the word Boo.  This was before the Internet – the only thing running through the computer was electricity.  Then, around Thanksgiving, I came home with my hands full of groceries – I was holding a turkey as I recall – and tried to open the front door.  The knob wouldn’t turn, and then I could hear the doorknob being unscrewed from the inside, as if there was somebody behind the door.  The next thing I knew, the knob came off in my hand.  I wrote that scene into the book.  Once, I caught my youngest daughter, three, pointing at something across the room that I couldn’t see, giggling.  At night we’d get into bed and the mattress would shake as if someone – an invisible child – was jumping up and down on the foot of it.  Soon after my oldest daughter, who was six, informed me that three little girl-ghosts were living in the house. They had all died in a fire, she said, and their parents were up in heaven.  It was creepy, sure, but it was also very sad.  On the day we moved out of that house I happened to open a corner cupboard and discovered three pair of shoes, the sort little girls wore in the early 1800s, in age-appropriate sizes of the girl ghosts our daughter had described.

Both of these experiences came together to help me write this book.  I was interested in writing a ghost story that was not the usual terrifying horror story.  Instead, I wanted to show that the real terror in this world simmers among the living.  I have never been back to that house since, but I took the shoes with me I suppose to remind myself of that time, proof, perhaps, that there’s much we don’t know about this wondrous universe, and that every individual on this planet has a story worth telling.

You open your story right away with the murder of George Clare’s wife. Why did you decide to shape your book in this direction rather than building the story out and then ending with the murder?

I thought a lot about starting the novel with Cole Hale’s story of leaving the farm, but I ended up changing my mind.  The murder is still an open case, and it’s the reason I wanted to write the novel.  It presents a fascinating question to the reader, an invitation to investigate.  I was less interested in the murder as any sort of police procedural and more compelled to explore the people whose lives were irrevocably changed by it, including the murderer himself.

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(george inness painting/wikipedia)

Since George Clare teaches art history, did you have to do a lot of research to prepare for his role as a professor or have you always been interested in art yourself? Who is your favorite artist?

I’ve always been interested in art and have studied art history for years.  I did do research on the Hudson River School painters, George Inness in particular, which led me to exploring the writings of Emanuel Swedenborg, an eighteenth century philosopher who had a very particular insight into life and death and the notion of an afterlife.  Teaching for many years at various colleges supplied me with plenty of source material to create the Art History Department at Saginaw, the fictional college in the book, and one of the main characters, George Clare, who is an art historian.  Halfway through the book George and his friend Bram have a conversation about the value of art.  I think art is extremely important.  I love many painters; I don’t think I could choose a favorite.

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(elizabeth has a gorgeous IG feed- follow her!!)

Did any real-life cases inspire this story and did you have anyone in your life that helped you craft the character of George?

The murder is based on a real cold case murder that remains unsolved.  Several aspects of the case intrigued me, primarily that the young daughter was left alone all day with her dead mother.  I think that is just heartbreaking.  No, George Clare is not based on anyone I know, thank God.

Do you think that George’s wife, Catherine, was as much to blame as he was in the crimes he committed? Do you think if she had done things differently she could have escaped?

I think Catherine Clare was somewhat repressed by the times.  It was the late 70s, the women’s movement was just getting under way.  Her husband, George, terrified her.  They were intent on keeping on the appearance of an ideal marriage, which, I think, many of us do to some degree.  For reasons that I try to explore in the book, she doesn’t have the where-with-all to leave him.  When she finally musters the courage, it’s too late.

Did you do a lot of research on sociopaths to create George? Did you have any scenes in your book that were difficult to write with George?

Once you get into the head of a character, they are pretty much calling the shots, so it wasn’t difficult for me to write George.  I found him to be a very troubled and fascinating character.  To him, everything he does makes perfect sense and is absolutely necessary for his own survival and reputation.  Some of the scenes when he’s with Willis were hard to write because I knew that he was the last person on earth she should be sleeping with.

Do you feel like you have a better understanding of sociopaths after writing this book? I don’t want to share any spoilers, but do you think that George got what he deserved in the end?

George doesn’t do anything he doesn’t want to.  He even chooses his own fate in the end.  That falls in line with being a true psychopath, I think.  He has a spectacular ego.  Yes, I did some research on these sorts of disorders, but I believe that the best way to achieve a certain level of authenticity as a writer is to become a patient, thoughtful, and empathetic observer of life.

This book has a large cast of characters and it is almost like the town itself is a character. Did you have a favorite character you enjoyed writing?

My favorite character is Cole Hale.  Throughout the book, we watch him grow up and become the good man that he is.  I have a real soft spot for him.  I also loved writing his brothers Eddy and Wade.  Eddy has an edge to him, but a deep respect for life.  He never doubts himself because he knows who he is; I was a little in love with him.

Lastly, what is one of your all-time favorite books? (This will be added to one of our most visited posts of must-reads from the authors featured in Sundays With Writers)

There have been so many books that I have loved that have influenced me.  Having to pick one is impossible, but I will offer Great Expectations by Charles Dickens, because it’s a great coming of age story full of fascinating, surprising, various, and brilliantly vivid characters my favorite of which is Miss Havisham, one of the all time greatest creations in literature.

You can connect with Elizabeth Brundage on 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 Nest by Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney (Interview)

Sunday, May 8th, 2016

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I am so excited to be interviewing Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney this week to discuss her incredible debut novel, The Nest. I absolutely loved her book and couldn’t wait to interview her for many, many reasons.  Not only did she write her first book at 54, but she secured a really fantastic advance on it, becoming one of the most talked about novelists for 2016. I love, love, love hearing about writers pursuing a book later in life because it gives me so much hope to know that we can carve new paths at any age and there is never (TRULY)  an appropriate time to give up on something you have always wanted to do! It seemed an appropriate message to share this Mother’s Day.

Is there something you have always wanted to do?

DO IT!

The Nest by Cynthia D'Aprix Sweeney

Let’s chat about, The Nest. Do you love dysfunctional family stories? I know I do! The Nest reminded me a lot of Jonathan Tropper’s, This is Where I Leave Youin that regard. This book centers around four grown children and the inheritance (AKA- The Nest!) that they are supposed to be inheriting. Leo, the unreliable alcoholic sibling in the story, ends up getting in a terrible car accident and has to pay the accompanying passenger a large sum to keep the story quiet. His mother gives him the majority of the inheritance as hush money for the car accident, unbeknownst to his siblings.

The story then really unfolds with all of the siblings and what this inheritance would have meant to them is uncovered. As a reader you see what life looks like without the money they always planned on. No spoilers, but imagine that you had made financial mistakes, but always knew you would have a large sum to bail you out and find out that the money doesn’t exist. Awful, isn’t it?

I think some people will find the ending a little dissatisfying, but I also know that most dysfunctional family stories don’t have tidy endings. I loved it- laughed a lot and sympathized with many characters. This was a great escape! Read More…

Now grab your coffee and let’s settle in with Cynthia today!

Q&A With Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney

Cynthia D'Aprix Sweeney

You landed a seven-figure advance as a debut author and became one of the most buzzed about novelists this year. It’s sad that this is so notable in this industry with all of the incredible writers out there, but it truly is amazing (I couldn’t be happier for you!)! Did you find that it put more pressure on you to deliver because you had so much hype surrounding your book? How did your family react to this incredible news?

Unlike non-fiction, which a writer can sell with a book proposal, fiction is usually sold once the manuscript is completed. So Ecco/HarperCollins bought the book I’d already written. There was still back and forth with Megan Lynch, who is my wonderful editor at Ecco, but I knew from our initial conversations that she and I were very much on the same page about the edits and that she wasn’t looking for extensive revision. In fact, I was excited about making the changes Megan and I discussed because I knew the result was going to be a stronger book.

I have to say, as I near the age of forty, that hearing you became a novelist at the age of 54 gives me a lot of hope for the opportunities I might have to look forward to and how I could transition my career path when my kids are grown. Was this a more recent dream to publish or have you always known you wanted to write a book? Was it a hard transition to switch from nonfiction writing to fiction?

I sold the book when I was 54, but I’d started writing fiction 7 or 8 years earlier and, yes, it was hard – mostly because I didn’t know what I was doing a lot of the time, mostly from a craft and technical perspective. So I took classes and in 2011 I decided to return to graduate school to get my MFA in fiction from the Bennington Writing Seminars. I graduated in 2013 and started The Nest there as my thesis. But I think the hardest transition was from writing because I was hired and paid for a project to writing in the hope that on some distant, unknowable day a publisher might be interested in the book.

It sounds like your literary agent had impeccable timing for when to release your manuscript. Can you share with us when she sent it?

First I’d like to share that my agent is a he! Henry Dunow had the brilliant idea to send out the manuscript the Monday after the Thanksgiving break when everyone was returning to work after spending the holiday with their own families in the hopes that the book would resonate more clearly. I don’t think either of us expected the kind of response we got that week, but I’ll always be grateful for his artful sense of timing.  

Amy Poehler

I understand that you were in a book club with Amy Poehler and when the book club didn’t take off, a friendship was formed over drinks and your love for fiction. Amy also wrote such an incredible endorsement that’s placed on the cover of your book. When did you share the book with your friend and was she one of the first people to read it?

I met Amy at a book club that included lots of funny, smart women in the improv/comedy world of New York City in the late 90s. The book club kind of petered out mostly because of everyone’s performing schedules (not mine; I had two small children and was itching to leave the house whenever I could manage). But Amy and I would see each other socially and we reconnected when I moved out to Los Angeles. She’s a huge reader and loves fiction and was very supportive and enthusiastic when I went back to graduate school and started a novel. I didn’t want her to read the book until I felt I had a solid version, but she was definitely one of the first people I sent it to after I turned in the final draft to Ecco. 

Just because I think this is such an incredibly sweet story (and then we can stop talking about Amy), can you share how you were worried that you wouldn’t be able to use the title The Nest because of a project she had in the works?

I found out shortly before finishing my book that there was a movie coming out with Amy and Tina Fey called The Nest. To be honest, I wasn’t really worried because I know publishers change titles all the time. But when the book was out on submission, everyone I spoke with kept saying how much they liked The Nest. I just kept my mouth shut about the movie and figured I’d give everyone the bad news later. A week after the book sold, I had dinner with Amy who told me that only days earlier the movie The Nest had been changed to Sisters, which was a complete coincidence and felt a little bit like kismet. So the title came back my way.

This book is very focused on an inheritance that is supposed to be given to the siblings in this family. I read your interview with NPR where you shared about the inheritance your parents gave to you and I just loved it because our family hopes to give experiences rather than things to our children. Do you have a favorite family trip from this inheritance given? Is this the type of inheritance you hope to pass on to your kids?

My family –my parents and my siblings—still vacations in the same little town in Maine every summer. My parents started taking us there when I was ten. They still stay in the same tiny rental cottage and as our family has grown, we rent houses nearby. We don’t all always manage to make it every year but we mostly do and our children have grown up with that tradition and I’m sure they’ll be passing it along to their kids.

There is a large cast of characters in this book and I would have a hard time picking a favorite, but I would say that I related the most to Melody’s struggles. Did you have a character, in particular, that you related to and which one was the most fun to write?

I relate to every character. I think if you put all four Plumb siblings together, you would probably have a pretty good approximation of me. Leo was the most fun to write and probably the one I miss writing the most.

Who have been your literary influences as a writer?

Jane Austen, Elizabeth Strout, Jonathan Franzen, Ian McEwan, Tessa Hadley, Alice McDermott, Meg Wolitzer, William Trevor, Nora Ephron, David Rakoff – I could go on and on! Everyone I read influences me in some way.

I’d love to vaguely talk about the ending of your book (so we don’t give any spoilers away). Is this the ending you had envisioned for these characters? Do you see any potential in this being a sequel or do you think this is where you would like to end their story?

I was probably a little more than halfway through the first draft when I felt I had a sense of where everyone would end up and I don’t think anything changed in the writing. I do believe this is where their story ends for me and I’m content with it. No sequels!

Jill Soloway Directs The Nest

While I was reading your book, I was already picturing this becoming a movie. I know you might get asked that a lot, but would you be open to that if the opportunity presents itself? Did you picture any actors for these characters when you were crafting them?

I did not picture any actors while writing and I’ve been asked so many times who I imagine but I can never think of anyone because the characters exist in my head as they exist in my head, if that makes any sense. But that will have to change eventually because I sold the movie option to Amazon Feature Films (editor’s note- check out Amazon’s plans for films!!!) . I’m adapting the book to screenplay and Jill Soloway is producing.

Lastly, what is one of your all-time favorite books? (This will be added to one of our most visited posts of must-reads from the authors featured in Sundays With Writers)

Ah, the most dreaded question for any writer. Or for me at least because it’s so hard to chose. New love? Old favorite? Funny? Sad?  Both?  Maybe I’ll do all of those (sorry, I’m cheating).

New love: I just finished Empty Mansions, by Bill Dedman and Paul Clark Newell, Jr., the story of the heiress and recluse Huguette Clark who lived to be 103. It’s mystery, biography and history all rolled into one fascinating page-turner.

Old favorite: Mrs. Bridge and Mr. Bridge. I slightly favor the Mrs., but they’re both great.

Both funny and sad: I just finished watching the Nora Ephron documentary on HBO and it made me pick up Heartburn again. I’ve been telling everyone to reread it because it’s so deeply funny and so deeply sad. My favorite combination.

Cynthia D'Aprix Sweeney

You can connect with Cynthia D’Aprix on her website or through 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!

 

 

Sundays With Writers: The Serpent King by Jeff Zentner

Sunday, April 24th, 2016

Sundays With Writers

I love discovering debut novelists and today’s guest, Jeff Zentner, is joining me today to talk about his first book, The Serpent King. I wanted to post this interview right away because it is on sale this month for just $1.99. Make the purchase. I promise you, it will be one of your favorite reads this year! It’s a gripping YA read that had me laughing and crying (sometimes simultaneously) and I was so sad when this book ended.  It’s as epic as, The Fault in Our Stars.

It’s that good.

The Serpent King by Jeff Zentner

The Serpent King is about three unlikely friends growing up in the rural South that are all fighting demons of their own. Dill’s father is a Pentecostal preacher, known for his snake charming church, that becomes part of a town scandal that has left his family open to scrutiny and struggling financially. Travis is obsessed with a book series called Bloodfall that helps him escape into another reality away from his abusive father. And Lydia is a blogger ready to start a new life in New York while struggling to leave behind what is familiar and those she loves. These three unlikely people bond together and end up facing a struggle none of them could have ever predicted.  This friendship is beautifully woven with humor and heart.

I could not put this book down and read it in a single day. I had to know what would happy with these three and I couldn’t wait to chat with Jeff about his incredible writing. 

Grab your coffee and let’s chat today with Jeff Zentner about the story behind his story!

Jeff-Zentner-Headshot

I know that many of us feel like we have a book in us, but we also feel like we don’t have the time. I understand that you managed to write your book on your commute on your phone. Can you tell us a little about that process and how big that screen was on that phone because I’m trying to picture this? I’m so impressed!

It was a process born of simple necessity! I had almost two hours of bus commute each day, round trip, a day job, and a family. I had to squeeze the writing in whenever I could. So I’d try to write 500 words on my iPhone 5S on the way into the office, 500 words at lunch, and 500 words on the way home. Yes, my right thumb would get very tired. After I’d put my son to bed at night, I would try to write another thousand words or two (on my laptop) if I could.

Before writing, my primary creative outlet was music, and what makes writing wonderful is that I can whip out my phone at all sorts of random times and get a little work done on something. I couldn’t do that with music, because even in Nashville, bringing your guitar on the bus and trying to work out a new song is frowned upon.

I grew up in a very conservative religious home, not exactly like Dill’s, but I could relate to that need to not disappoint God or your parents. Even though Dill has so much thrown at him, he seems pretty steadfast in his faith through it all. Did you want your readers to take away that message and why do you think it was important for Dill not to turn away from God?

I also grew up in a conservative religious home, although my parents were much more supportive and loving than Dill’s. Still, I was able to glean insights about what growing up with less supportive and loving religious parents would look like. Through my life, I’ve had my struggles with faith and I’ve had to come to my own view of God because I don’t always believe everything I’m told about him. Faith is a thing not easily abandoned, and I think it would have been dishonest of me to depict it as something one can simply walk away from. It felt more honest to me to have Dill wrestle with it until he could come to know a God who was more concerned with his joy than putting him to constant tests that could harm him.

Tavi Gevinson

Lydia was my favorite character because I could relate to her humor and to her job as a blogger. I understand she was loosely on Tavi Gevinson and her fashion blog Style Rookie. I know, as a blogger, I am concerned a lot about my brand and I related to Lydia’s struggle with not sharing photos of her friends to stay consistent to her brand’s message. Do you think it was wrong of her to do that and how did you come up with this all-too-true blogger struggle?

I actually don’t believe that it was wrong of her to do that. It’s her blog and her persona and her brand and I think she’s entitled to craft those things as she sees fit. But even though I think she wasn’t wrong to exclude Travis and Dill, I think she was right to include them once she felt brave enough to do so. I think at that point she was correct that no one would think less of her for associating closely with the fashion-challenged.

But ultimately what I think about the rightness or wrongness of Lydia’s actions is in no way authoritative. I lost all power to dictate how people felt about her behavior once I published the book with her in all of her flaws. So if anyone else thinks she was wrong to exclude Dill and Travis, who am I to say otherwise?

I came up with this struggle sort of by intuition. I’d read Tavi’s blog and it looked like she associated exclusively with people with equally amazing style. I thought it unlikely that she only knew and loved people with exceptional fashion sense. So I figured there was some image control going on there. Also, I’ve maintained Internet presences for years for various musical projects, so I knew that part of crafting an image and persona was selectivity in what you reveal about yourself.
Snakehandling

Dill grows up in a Pentecostal church that believes in snakehandling. What type of research did you do to create your church scenes?

I’ve long been fascinated with the practice of snakehandling, so I’ve done a fair amount of reading on it. The definitive work is a beautiful book called Salvation on Sand Mountain, which I highly recommend. I also interviewed friends who have attended worship services at snakehandling churches.

The nice thing, though, is that there’s no central authority for snakehandling sects. There’s no pope of snakehandling. So I invented the church in the book and therefore no one can say I got it wrong!

One line in your book is, “And if you’re going to live, you might as well do painful, brave, and beautiful things.” I really loved it because it is so true. I would imagine that it took a lot of bravery to put your book out into the world. Do you feel like this is one of the bravest things you’ve done? Have you always dreamed of writing or was this something you discovered you enjoyed later in life?

I do think it’s one of the bravest things I’ve personally done, but that doesn’t mean it’s one of the bravest things that can be done. I think it takes more courage to do what Dill does in the book, which is to survive bleak circumstances, including bullying. unloving parents and poverty, and not allow them to define him.

I haven’t always dreamed of writing because for most of my life, it wasn’t something that I allowed myself to dream. It just seemed too impossible; too daunting. I thought books were things that floated down from ivory towers, clutched in baskets held by doves. It’s only been in the last few years, and becoming personally acquainted with several published authors, that it’s come to feel like something I was capable of doing. It helped too that I had a day job that required rigorous, intensive writing on a daily basis. That was the final element that gave me the courage to try my hand.

Jeff Zentner at Penguin Random House

(follow Jeff on Facebook!)

You signed a two book deal with Crown/Random House & Tundra/Random House Canada which is awesome and (for me as a writer) a little terrifying too. Did you have to immediately get to work on the second book after this book was published? Has your writing process changed with this book or are you still writing on a bus?

It was terrifying for me too! I had no idea what my second book would be, and yet I needed to deliver my editors something she loved as much as The Serpent King, a story I’d thought about for years. I ran several ideas past them until finally, on idea ten or eleven, something clicked. So I got to work on book two and now it’s finished and on track for a spring 2017 release. It’s not a companion or a sequel to The Serpent King, but it does feature a cameo from one of The Serpent King’s gang.

My process for this book was a little different. While I was writing The Serpent King, I did nothing but write it. No outside reading, no TV, no movies, nothing. And I decided I wasn’t going to try to write again so devoid of my creative inputs of information. So with book two, I made sure to leave plenty of time to consume the books and shows that I loved while I was writing. I did write almost all of it on the bus. I wrote even more of it on the bus than The Serpent King, in fact, because I reserved my evenings for reading and shows.

I don’t want to spoil the ending for anyone, but I felt like it left it wide open for a sequel. Do you see this story continuing or do you feel like you have closed the chapters on these friends?

I can’t envision writing a sequel. I’m happy with where things end and I think I gave my readers enough for them to write their own lovely sequels in their heads. I even used to have an epilogue that I cut because I was unsatisfied with how neatly it tied everything up with a bow. I didn’t leave enough room for imagination.

I’ve had the unique opportunity to interview a few musicians turned novelists over the years and I understand you are a musician (as well as an attorney & youth camp volunteer!) as well. Are you still writing music too? Do you find these processes to be similar?

Sadly, I find that the music-writing muse has left me. But hopefully only for a time. I’m starting to make friends with my guitar again. I went a long time without even playing it. I’m just trying to renegotiate my relationship with music now. It feels like we broke up and we’re just learning how to be friends again.

There is, truly, the best prom date ever written in your book. Please tell me your high school prom was that cool?

I wish I could tell you that! I barely even remember prom. I remember we got rained on and my date’s hair was still wet for our pictures. That was pretty funny. And pathetic. So I guess we had kind of a pathetic prom.

Lastly, what is one of your all-time favorite books? (This will be added to one of our most visited posts of must-reads from the authors featured in Sundays With Writers)

I’m going to cheat and do two.

On the adult side, my all-time favorite book is The Road by Cormac McCarthy. It’s so brutal and unsparing yet beautiful and filled with ferocious love. I feel like I can survive anything with that story in my mind.

On the young adult side, my favorite book is The First Time She Drowned by Kerry Kletter. It’s so incredibly lyrical and gorgeous and filled with wisdom. It inspires me asa writer to work harder.

Jeff Zentner

You can connect with Jeff Zentner  on his website or through 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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Sundays With Writers: Green Island by Shawna Yang Ryan

Sunday, April 17th, 2016

Sundays With Writers

I love how book clubs can stretch me into books or genres of books that I might not have ever explored on my own. This month our local book club read Green Island by Shawna Yang Ryan. It was such an incredible read that I knew I had to share it with you. When preparing for this interview, as with most of these interviews, I discovered the author was just as intriguing as the book. I’m so excited to share an interview with Shawna today and how she prepared for her incredible new book.

Green Island by Shawna Yang Ryan

I just love when a book educates you on a time in history that you have been completely unaware of. Ryan pulls off a magnificent literary feat by tackling six decades set in Taiwan over the course of the twentieth century. It is horrific what so many endured during this time and begins with the story of the unnamed narrator’s father being captured because he is suspected of Communist activities. He is kept for over a decade in brutal and inhumane conditions. It then follows his return home, the unkindness of others, the stress of feeling watched, and the other generations that continue to struggle through the decades with their own issues. It’s far too much to go into in a quick review, but you will learn a lot along the way!

There are a couple of things I would note when you dig into this great read.  First, I wish I would have educated myself a bit before diving into it. I knew nothing about the Chinese nationalists or the history of Taiwan and there is no real introduction into the history of that.  After a browse through Wikipedia, I was able to understand better, but it was a confusing time in politics and reading that first would have helped me through the book. I also found this one moves at a slower pace at times, but I felt it was worth the journey to really build out these characters.

Now grab your coffee and let’s chat with Shawna Yang Ryan this morning!

Shawna Yang Ryan

I understand that Green Island took fourteen years to write. What an incredible moment to finally see your book out in the world after all that time! What was your biggest challenge you faced when writing this book and how did the challenges compare to writing your debut novel, Water Ghosts?

I still have to pinch myself—I still can’t quite believe it’s out! The biggest challenge was managing all the information and figuring out how to tell the story in a way that was responsible to the people who had lived through the events. I felt much more free to be inventive and less beholden to the facts of history with Water Ghosts, which is set much further in the past and depends more on magical realism than history.

Chiang Kai-shek(蔣中正)

As an American, I was blindly unaware of this time in history for Taiwan and I am sure I echo many other Americans who were unaware as well. What do you think are some common misconceptions that are held about this time in history? What do you hope people will come away with after reading your book?

Thank you for saying that. I too was largely unaware of this history before I did this project. The biggest misconception is that Taiwan somehow “broke away” from China, rather than seeing the story as Chiang Kai Shek fleeing to Taiwan and then using it for his own purposes. The supposed “China/Taiwan split” is really about an old conflict between two Chinese political parties and not about Taiwan. Taiwan is separate from the Chinese Nationalists (or Kuomintang/KMT) but the two get conflated. I hope that after reading the book, people will understand Taiwan’s distinct history, and why the island rightly should be considered and recognized as an independent country, and not a “renegade Chinese province.”

Green Island Taiwan Prison

(green island prison, source: Taiwan Adventures)

In 1987, martial law was finally lifted in Taiwan. Did you find that people were still hesitant to talk to you when you were conducting interviews for your book or did you get the impression that they were finally unafraid? What was your favorite interview that you did while gathering your research?

I started interviewing in late 2002 and a few people were still afraid, though many more were relieved to speak out. One woman told me that her colleagues did not believe the story of the massacre and had called it a lie, so she was glad that more and more people were starting to talk about their experiences. The more time went on, the more comfortable, eager even, people were to talk. Every interview was so intense, so interesting and so moving that I really don’t have a favorite. I do have a fondness for one interview that I hadn’t planned for—I was interviewing someone else and she said, let’s go find So-and-So and we walked over to his shop and talked him right then. I liked that it was spontaneous, and I liked sitting in his little shop on an old street in a small mountain town outside of Taipei and hearing him talk. The setting and the conversation together were a beautiful experience.

I have read that your own mother is Taiwanese and the daughter of Chinese immigrants who had fled the mainland in 1949. Did any of your own relatives share or aid in crafting your story for Green Island?

I based some of the story of Ah Zhay’s husband on my grandfather, who, as you note, fled to Taiwan in 49. My aunt’s husband’s father was also a 49er, who married a local woman, and I borrowed a little from their unique story too. And I thought about my parents’ romance in Taichung in the 70s for the narrator’s experiences in that period. I also had a conversation with my dad about motorcycles and who rode what—it was fun to think of all the nuances embedded in something as simple as that.

fulbright

You had the unique opportunity to come to Taiwan through the Fulbright program and then ended up staying in Taiwan for three years. What was just as impressive as your book to me was that while you were there you took Mandarin daily and tried to do many household tasks only speaking Mandarin.

Not only does the language have 20,000 Chinese characters, tones in your voice can mean completely different things. How difficult was it to learn for you and how do you think knowing this shaped and improved the quality of your writing?

It was extremely difficult and it’s still difficult! I get tongue-tied so often! Though I have learned so many characters by now that when I read something, I think, My god, how did I do it?  How do I know that character, I don’t recall studying it—since every single one took countless repetitions to memorize. After all that, it was only last summer when I was visiting my family that I had what I guess must be the experience of fluency. I found myself listening to their conversations and not translating in my head. I even forgot they were speaking Mandarin. I was just in it. It was amazing! I guess twenty years of study gets you somewhere eventually!

Language study has made me more aware of grammar, so I think my sentences have a lot more formal transitions—more subordinators and conjunctive adverbs than before. I’m also more aware of the roots and connotations of words. I think about how metaphors might make sense in Mandarin.

What do you miss the most about living in Taiwan now that you are teaching in the Creative Writing Program at the University of Hawai’i?

I definitely miss my family. I also miss the feeling of being slightly not-at-ease with myself—feeling foreign and working through the day in another language. Lastly, Taiwan may be the most convenient place on earth to live. You can even do your dry cleaning at 7-11!

I loved reading that you had a really unique experience landing your literary agent. Can you tell us a little bit about your road to landing an agent with your first book?

I had been sending my first novel out for years and receiving rejections. One rejection stated that it sounded like a story, not a novel!  I found that my former professor had started a small press, so I queried them, and his editor liked the manuscript and they ended up publishing it. Somehow, a copy found its way into the hand of Marilyn Dahl of “Shelf Awareness,” and she wrote a rave review. An agent saw the review and emailed me. It was out of the blue, and I had given up on going the traditional publishing route, so I was very surprised. My path was circuitous, but it worked out in the most ideal way.

If we want to learn more about Taiwan and their history, can you share books or documentaries that might help us understand more about what the Taiwanese people faced?

Julie Wu has a lovely novel called The Third Son that came out a few years ago. A few books by Taiwanese feminist author Li Ang have been published into English. Hou Hsiao Hsien, considered by some to be one of the best filmmakers in the world, has two films that are particularly historical: A City of Sadness, about the 228 Massacre, and The Puppetmaster, which is part narrative and part documentary about the life of puppeteer Li Tian-lu. Lastly, for nonfiction lovers, George Kerr’s Formosa Betrayed is a classic.

Lastly, what is one of your all-time favorite books? (This will be added to one of our most visited posts of must-reads from the authors featured in Sundays With Writers)

Toni Morrison’s Beloved is a perfect novel. The perfect novel? The language is dense and poetic, and it strikes the ideal balance between personal level intimacy with the characters and broad, historical importance, as it tackles the trauma of American slavery. And it has magical realism! This book is everything.

Watch this interview to learn more about why Shawna decided to write about Taiwan!

You can connect with Shawna Yang Ryan  on her website or through 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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Sundays With Writers: Be Frank With Me by Julia Claiborne Johnson

Sunday, April 3rd, 2016

Sundays With Writers

I am so excited to share about another incredible book that I enjoyed this month. Be Frank With Me was included in my March Must-Read recommendations and once you read it, you will know exactly why. It is a charming, funny, and heartwarming story that I enjoyed from start to finish.

Be Frank With Me by Julia Claiborne Johnson

Reclusive literary legend M. M. “Mimi” Banning has been holed up in her Bel Air mansion for years. But after falling prey to a Bernie Madoff-style ponzi scheme, she’s flat broke. Now Mimi must write a new book for the first time in decades, and to ensure the timely delivery of her manuscript, her New York publisher sends an assistant to monitor her progress. The prickly Mimi reluctantly complies—with a few stipulations: No Ivy-Leaguers or English majors. Must drive, cook, tidy. Computer whiz. Good with kids. Quiet, discreet, sane.

When Alice Whitley arrives at the Banning mansion, she’s put to work right away—as a full-time companion to Frank, the writer’s eccentric nine-year-old, a boy with the wit of Noel Coward, the wardrobe of a 1930s movie star, and very little in common with his fellow fourth-graders.

As she slowly gets to know Frank, Alice becomes consumed with finding out who Frank’s father is, how his gorgeous “piano teacher and itinerant male role model” Xander fits into the Banning family equation—and whether Mimi will ever finish that book.

Frank is one one of the sweetest characters that is so perfectly formed that you just want to give this sweet little boy a hug when you get done with this book. I found myself giggling through some of Frank’s antics and well up when he just couldn’t fit in with his peers. I can’t imagine the research that went into forming all of Frank’s numerous thoughts about actors, movies, and all the fun facts that he had gathered over the years that seemed to consume him. The supporting characters were just as fascinating especially Frank’s eccentric mother.

The only criticism with this one is the ending felt unresolved and wasn’t wrapped up very tidy- it just left me dangling. I am wondering if that is because the author plans a sequel. If so, I can’t wait to read it because I already miss Frank.

Now grab that cup of coffee and settle in for my interview with Julia Claiborne Johnson

Julia Claiborne Johnson

I understand that your debut novel took you five years to write and then one year to edit. What was the writing process like for you over those five years and what helped you persevere for that long to fulfill your dream of writing a book?

Once I got the idea for this book, I felt compelled to write it because its central question seemed so fascinating to me. What’s it like to be the mother of somebody who’s so different from most children that it makes life difficult for everybody? How did Albert Einstein’s mother manage, for example? I wanted to read the Walter Isaacson doorstopper bio of her. Since I couldn’t find a version of that book, I decided to write one. In the beginning, in fact, my novel was called Einstein’s Mom. Until Frank took over. As Frank is prone to do.

Please note: My book is only half-doorstopper in length. Although I wrote thousands of pages before winnowing it down to the 300 or so I ended up with, I wanted my novel to be quicker and lighter than a 750-pager would be. And by “light” I hope I’m not suggesting it’s shallow. I think it’s funny, but during that last year of copy-editing I had to read the final version over and over, sometimes twice in a week, and it still broke my heart every time.

As for the sticking with it until the book was finished, well, if I’d given up anywhere along the way, all the weeks and months and years of work I’d done already would have been for nothing. So I stuck with it.

Hancock Park

(source: wikipedia)

Frank is absolutely obsessed with old Hollywood and facts just spilled and spilled and spilled onto the pages of your book. How much research did you do to prepare for a character like Frank and what is one of the most surprising facts (or favorite Frank fact) that you discovered while researching for this character?

Well, I’ve lived in “Old Hollywood” for the past twenty years. You can walk to Paramount Studios where Fred and Ginger used to dance from my house in Hancock Park, a neighborhood built up in the 1920s and so about the same age as Old Hollywood itself. I’m a ten-minute drive away from what used to be Mann’s Chinese theater, where stars’ handprints are immortalized in cement. The first neighborhood I lived in when we moved out here, Whitley Heights, was walking distance from the handprints. Gloria Swanson, Rudolph Valentino and Jean Harlow all lived in Whitley Heights. I loved all that Old Hollywood stuff before we came out here, and once we got here I was swimming in it day and night.  So everything I soaked up over the years ended up on the page.

You know what my favorite Frank fact was? That George Gershwin died in what was the old Cedars Sinai Hospital, a building now owned by the Scientologists. It’s a huge, and painted bright blue these days. I already knew that fact before I wrote the book, and was so delighted to have the chance to use it. My own children were born in the new Cedars Sinai.  When I was being rolled into the delivery room to give birth my son, the nurse who was in charge of me leaned over me and whispered “Kim Basinger had her baby in this room.” So you see what I mean. “Hollywood” is everywhere out here, whether you like it or not. Luckily for me, I liked it.

Casablanca

What is your favorite old Hollywood film?

I really love Casablanca, which shouldn’t shock you if you read my book since it pops up in it more than once. It was so smart and witty, and I always watched it when it came on television when I was in high school. Years later, I had a teacher who was my all-time favorite named Leslie Epstein. He was arid and hilarious to me in exactly that same way the characters in Casablanca were. Turns out his father and uncle were the identical twin screenwriters who wrote Casablanca. Which thrilled me to pieces, as you can imagine.  I love the idea that a wonderful thing like a particular sense of humor can be passed down from generation to generation, the same way a nose or hair color is.

Despite our abilities as a reader to come to our own conclusion that Frank likely has Asperger’s syndrome, you deliberately chose not to give a label on why Frank was the way he was. Why was it important to you to not include that and do you think it would have changed the plot in some way if Mimi & Frank had uncovered this through their time with the psychologist?

Well, Alice isn’t in on those sessions. That very topic was probably discussed there. But listen, Frank’s diagnosis wasn’t what mattered to me. Frank mattered. I was writing a novel about a unique character, not a psychology textbook. I was very firm in my decision not to label him with anything. I felt saying “Frank is on the autism spectrum” diminished the reader’s experience of his gradual unfolding as a complex individual. I didn’t want anybody going in with preconceived assumptions about him.

Beyond  the “is he or isn’t he on the spectrum,” I was also aiming to write a book about how hard it is to be unusual for any kid, and how helpless it makes parents feel to see their children suffer. Tall, short, fat, skinny, slow on the uptake, too smart for your own good—being different hurts when you’re young. School works best for the kids in the middle. For the outliers, it can be so painful.

Your husband is a comedy writer and there are so many great one-liners in this book that I found myself laughing out loud. Did your husband contribute in any way to some of the humor you added to this story?

Would my novel be less funny if I weren’t married to a comedy writer? I hope that’s not the case. I guess it would be fair to say that living in a house where wit is valued ups my game in a general way. But I was born funny. My husband was born funny. We fell in love with each other because like prefers like—the way the prom queen falls for the prom king because they’re both young and hot and beautiful. So no, aside from being delightful company, my husband didn’t help me in any concrete way. He doesn’t read much fiction anyway. He’s non-fiction all the way. In fact, he only read my manuscript twice—the very first draft, and then, years later, the last draft. His biggest contribution was saying to me, “I don’t know. It seems good.”

Harper Lee

I read that you created Mimi, the reclusive author known as M.M. Banning, as a mash-up of Harper Lee & Salinger. Did you find it quite ironic when Harper Lee’s book, Go Set a Watchman, ended up being published much like Mimi’s work would be?

How crazy is that? I never would have guessed that would happen, though of course I’d tried to imagine what it would be like if something like it did. And then it happened! My agent sent me a clip about all that after my novel had sold already and was being edited.  And here’s the kicker—Harper Lee and I have the same publisher—HarperCollins. Go figure. That’s some kind of crazy kismet.

I have to imagine that Frank was your favorite character to write, but did you have any other favorites that you really loved crafting for this book?

You know who I loved most of all? Mr. Vargas. In my mind he was two of my favorite wise, kind and patient men shaken up together into one: My husband and my old teacher, Mr. Epstein.

Some of the hardest scenes for me, as a reader, were reading about Frank’s struggles with his peers and his inability to fit in at his school. One of my favorite lines, in fact, comes from Isaac when he said, “Frank will be okay, Alice,’ Mr. Vargas said. ‘He’s an odd duck, but brilliant children often are. It may take him a while, but someday he’ll figure out how to live in the world of ordinary mortals.” Was there any scene that you really had a hard time writing for Frank?

I don’t want to reveal plot points, but the scene where Alice goes to the school to hear Frank’s student of the week presentation made me cry as I was writing it. Which is embarrassing to admit. But it kills me. I didn’t realize what was about to happen when I started putting that scene together. Of course, neither did my narrator Alice. I guess she’s a lot tougher than I am because it didn’t bring her to tears. Not on the outside, anyway.

E.F. Hutton Suit

Frank’s fashion stands out so much that it is almost a character in itself. I understand that you have worked in the fashion world so did you have a blast creating Frank’s wardrobe? Did you have a favorite outfit for Frank that you wrote?

I did work as a writer at fashion magazines when I was young. I was boggled by the people in the fashion department—I’d never really encountered visual genius before, but I sure knew it when I saw it. So what if they couldn’t put a coherent sentence together any better than I could put together an outfit? I could write about their clothes forever even if I couldn’t translate what they told me unto anything I put together on for myself. I wanted Frank to be as fabulous as those fashion people were. I wanted everyone to know as soon as they saw him that this Frank kid was something else. Which, of course, can as much a good thing as a bad thing when you’re a kid.

As for my favorite of them all, I was kind of a sucker for the E.F. Hutton suit.  There’s just something so hilarious to me about a little boy in a pinstripe number a middle-aged, all-business guy would wear. And that pinstripe suit had real fashion possibilities. Like the Audrey Hepburn little black dress, it was a canvas a fashion savant could build on. Frank could switch it up with pockets squares and cravats, just like an investment banker would. Although I guess an investment banker would probably steer clear of cravats.

It is unusual for an audiobook to come out before the book, but that is what happened with your book. Why did the publishing house decide to do this with your debut novel and did it help with sales? I also understand you declined being the voice of your audiobook. Why didn’t you want to do that as the author?

I think it was an experiment, to see what would happen if the book came out on audio first. I was up for it experimenting. It sold really well that first weekend, too, I think. Plus I was thrilled to pieces that there was an audio version available, since someone in the very first book group I did has eye issues and couldn’t have experienced the book otherwise. Also, I myself have “read” many books while ironing, weeding, driving or exercising. It’s nice to be able to experience books with your ears and brain when you need to use your hands for something else.

I didn’t want to read for my audiobook myself because I am no actress. Also, I have kind of a hilarious Southern accent, which I don’t notice until I hear a recording of myself. Then I think, Sheesh, you have got an accent on you, girl. I don’t think for the life of me I could have made it go away while I was reading Alice, who is from Nebraska, and the main voice you hear throughout the book. So for those reasons it seemed like a terrible idea for me to read it. Tavia did a great job, didn’t she? I picked her because she was so amazing at doing Frank.

Lastly, what is one of your all-time favorite books? (This will be added to one of our most visited posts of must-reads from the authors featured in Sundays With Writers)

That’s the easiest question you’ve asked me! My favorite book in the world is Bel Canto, by Ann Patchett. It’s beautifully-written, wonderfully imagined, and completely heart-breaking. In it, terrorists seize the mansion of the vice-president of an unnamed South American country during a party that’s being thrown for a Japanese industrialist lured there with the promise of a performance by his favorite opera singer. The industrialist comes, the opera singer performs, guests from all over the world are in attendance; but the terrorist’s real target, the country’s president, skips the party to stay home and watch his favorite telenovela. As the standoff stretches from days into weeks, the hostages and captors for a community that you know can’t last. I’ve read this book so many times that I still have to keep a box of tissues at my elbow for the end game.

And here’s the thrilling footnote to all this: I don’t know what would have happened to Frank without Ann Patchett. When I finished the first draft of my novel late one night, I looked up the name of her agent and sent that agent an email about it. A week later, Ann Patchett’s agent was my agent, too. 

 You can connect with Julia Claiborne Johnson on Twitter or through 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!

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Sundays With Writers: The Perfect Son by Barbara Claypole White

Sunday, March 27th, 2016

sundays-with-writers-1

Parenting a child with an invisible disability is something that today’s featured writer is no stranger to. Barbara Claypole White’s book, The Perfect Son, has been on my list of books to read since this year’s GoodReads Choice Awards nominations came out. I knew that it would be such a treat for us all to hear about Barbara’s incredible book and also a little about her parenting journey as the parent of a child with an invisible disability.

The Perfect Son by Barbara Claypole White

The Perfect Son is a beautiful story of a struggling father and son relationship and the mother that holds them together. When Ella has an unexpected heart attack, the result of a heart condition, and must be hospitalized the men in the family must come together to help her and themselves. As a strained relationship between a father and son becomes further strained Felix finds himself suddenly in charge of his son who has Tourette’s and needs more assistance than most teenage boys. Forced to reconcile their differences, they find comfort in unlikely friends and in each other.

Now grab that coffee and settle in with this incredibly open, honest, and funny Barbara Claypole White today!

Barbara Claypole White

The fictional Ella & Felix are raising a son with Tourette syndrome which puts a lot of strain on their marriage, particularly when Ella becomes sick and is unable to help. You have shared that you are a parent of a child who has battled obsessive-compulsive disorder and even have a genetic heart issue yourself that inspired Ella’s journey. Were you able to channel a lot of your own struggles as a mother and wife into this story? How do you keep your marriage healthy when your children’s mental health comes with so many challenges?

Great questions, because the original story seed came after a mom in our local support group for parents of OCD kids asked why my marriage had survived when most of the marriages in the group had failed. I think it was a combination of factors: our marriage was well-established, we only have one child, I was a full-time parent, and we’re good at tag teaming in a crisis. Plus the three of us communicate well with each other. Of course all this lovely knowledge comes with hindsight. The early days of undiagnosed OCD were hell. My husband and I had very different parenting styles, which made the situation a thousand times worse, and our first child psychologist was not an OCD expert. When our son was around nine, we hit crisis point. I researched the heck out of OCD, found a local psychologist who specialized in exposure therapy, and told my husband that I would take on the treatment one hundred percent if he would agree to never countermand me. This is exactly what Ella did: she compartmentalized the family.

Dividing up our roles—I was the caregiver; my husband was the breadwinner—worked, and we managed to force the OCD into submission (until the stress of junior year of high school retriggered it). But I always knew that my husband was my safety net. I remember one evening when I’d run out of coping skills and he had a dinner meeting. I called him and said, “I’m losing it. I need to walk away.” And he drove straight home. Ella never had that luxury. Or rather she never trusted Felix enough to ask for help.

I also encouraged our son to be open about his struggles—as Ella did with Harry.  There is no shame, and sharing information with other kids and teachers helped our son. Too many people with invisible disabilities suffer in secrecy and isolation. I was determined that would not be his path.

Ella’s journey, learning to let go, was definitely my journey. Our son was awarded a full-ride to an in-state college, which I secretly hoped he would accept. But his heart was set on Oberlin—three states away and a ten-hour drive. He’s thriving there, although the first few weeks were rough. He was homesick, and my husband and I were terrified (OCD can morph quickly). At some point, however, you need to trust that you’ve done enough good work to enable your child to monitor and take responsibility for his illness.  Once our son had settled in, my husband and I discovered we quite liked being empty nesters.

I love that when you wrote about Harry’s struggles with Tourette syndrome you did not go the typical route associated with the disorder, which is involuntary swearing or the utterance of obscenities (coprolalia). I read, in fact, that only ten percent of people with Tourette syndrome actually exhibit this symptom and that Harry’s tics are more common to this syndrome. Was this a conscious decision to not include this? Did you want people to think differently about Tourette syndrome or do you think that a dialogue like that would have been a distraction to the story you had crafted?

It was a conscious decision. One of my early readers was the mother of a teen with Tourette’s, and she thanked me for not giving Harry coprolalia. That’s when I knew I was heading in the right direction.

My goal is always to create complex characters, not stereotypes that scream, “I am my disorder.” When I started doing book clubs for The Unfinished Garden—a love story about grief, OCD, and dirt—I was shocked to discover how many people interpret OCD as a fear of germs. (Thank you, television detective Adrian Monk.) Symptoms of OCD and Tourette’s are highly individualized; there are no textbook cases of either. The same is true for the bipolar disorders.

My first introduction to Tourette’s, however, was the stereotype. Remember that episode of LA LAW when the firm had a client with coprolalia? I wrongly assumed this was the standard version of Tourette syndrome, and after my son was diagnosed with OCD, I kept telling myself OCD wasn’t as bad as Tourette’s. These days I can’t decide which scenario is worse: that you can hide OCD or that you can’t hide Tourette’s.

Felix, Harry’s father, was a character that I found to be unlikable for a good portion of the book. We later learn that Felix has struggled with many demons, including abuse from his own father, which make it hard for him to love his own son. Since you are a parent of a child who needs extra help in the world, did you have a hard time writing these scenes with Felix and his irritation with Harry’s disabilities or did a part of you relate to his frustrations as a father?

I was rooting for Felix from day one, but the trick was hoping readers would stick with him long enough to see the amazing decisions he makes as the story unfolds. When the novel starts he’s an outsider in his own family and definitely an anti-hero. But then you witness him attempt—three times—to create the perfect sandwich for Harry’s lunch, and realize how hard he’s trying to cope. Even though other characters in the novel misjudged him constantly, I always understood Felix. I heard his voice from the beginning, and I knew exactly how he would react. More importantly, I knew why.

The flashback scene to Felix’s relationship with his own dad was framed within a recurring nightmare I’d had as child: I saw a black study at night, with a cold fireplace, a black wing chair, and an open window with black curtains blowing in the wind; and I sensed evil coming through the window. I took all that fear and gave it to poor little Felix. I could forgive him anything after that scene.

Do you think that Ella is a helicopter mom or do you think that her actions were necessary to insure that Harry was able to function well through his life? Do you think overprotectiveness is really necessary for kids like this and what has helped bring balance to your own life as a mother?

Ella raised an amazing young man. She gave him the confidence to be Harry and that’s his armor in a judgmental world.  I hope I’ve given my son the same gift. And yes, I think parents of children who process the world differently need to be overprotective. Our goal posts keep moving, and half the time we don’t even have a rule book.

When our son developed horrible sleep patterns, I gave up trying to keep him in his bed and created a permanent nest for him on our bedroom floor. Some of our friends were horrified and expressed their opinions quite loudly. I became good at nodding and ignoring, because I was doing what worked for my family. (I’m witchy when sleep deprived. A happy Barbara was best for all!)

Once I’d learned how to be my son’s OCD coach, I gained confidence in the knowledge that I could help him. When he was accepted to a small private school in Durham, North Carolina, not unlike Harry’s school in the novel, the admissions officer told me they’d never had a pupil with OCD before. My response was to type up an information sheet for the teachers and staff called OCD 101. And I always gave the OCD update at parent-teacher conferences. Some of those teachers are still family friends. Man, I loved that school…

I was our son’s advocate throughout grade school, although I did back off in high school. And I had nothing to do with the college search. My husband and son handled that without me. (An excellent exercise in father-son bonding.) Now that our son’s an adult, I’ve had to learn that I’m no longer his coach. Only he can do the work to manage his anxiety; I just cheer him on from the sidelines.

Being open, finding acceptance, knowing that bad days end…all these have helped me find balance as a mother. And I garden, which is the best therapy. Did I mention I also drink gin every Friday with my best friend? Girlfriends rock.

Barbara-Claypole-White-2

Ella struggles with Harry moving away and going to college on his own, and I understand that you have also gone through the same experience letting your son go off to college as he struggled with OCD. As a parent of a child with invisible disabilities, do you have any advice for moms about letting kids go when you have spent a lifetime monitoring them so carefully? Even thinking about this creates anxiety for me!

I think the first step is always to listen to your child. I was hoping our son would stay in-state, but I never imposed that opinion on him. And thank goodness, because he would have driven home every weekend to hang out with his BFF. Instead he learned to live outside his comfort zone and tackle many of his anxieties, including a terror of flying. We also followed his lead on mental healthcare. Although we researched options on campus, he chose to keep his mental health team here. It turned out to be a wise move. He does phone consults as needed, and I make appointments whenever he’s home on break.

Keeping the communication lines open is also essential. We text every day, and the three of us Skype once a week.  We also have an open policy that he can text or call us at any time of the day or night if he’s in crisis. And I told myself—from day one—that if things didn’t work out and he had to leave, I would be proud of the incredible achievement he had made by going there. So many teens with OCD can’t leave the house, and now he’s a junior in college. My crazy, off-beat son—what a guy.

You have created such an incredible supporting cast. As someone who is very particular about spelling and grammar, I REALLY loved Max and his need to always use punctuation in his text messages. Did you have a favorite supporting character that you loved writing?

Thank you. I love writing secondary characters.  Max was tons of fun because he has none of Harry’s anxiety. Every time I hear Green Day’s ‘Troublemaker’ I think of Max. He’s such a generous soul and so devoted to Harry. But if I had to pick my favorite, it would be Eudora. Writing her was a hoot. She came to me fully formed wearing the hat from the final scene, but I couldn’t see how she would fit into The Perfect Son. I put her aside for a future story…until I was spitting out my first draft, and she appeared in Ella’s garden with a pair of clippers. Then I knew she had to stay.

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 The Perfect Son has received absolutely glowing reviews on Amazon and was selected as a GoodReads Choice Award Semifinalist for Best Fiction in 2015 and as a Kindle First selection. What is that like for you as a writer and do you feel more pressure with your next book to deliver something as equally fantastic?

No pressure, right? Twitch, twitch. The success of The Perfect Son has changed everything, and the demands on my time have skyrocketed. Right now I could work 24 hours a day seven days a week and never be on top of everything, but I’m finally making a living as a novelist and can afford to hire a cleaner. Yay.

When I’m researching and writing, I think only about my characters, not my audience. I’ve also learned that each novel has its own rhythm and I can’t compare my stories. The new manuscript has a very different feel, so I’m intrigued to see how fans react. There’s more dark humor, it’s definitely busier, and I have four strong characters who each insisted on having a voice: Marianne, my record producer heroine—a complex woman who has manic-depression; her almost-daughter Jade, a former teen runaway; Darius, Marianne’s devoted husband, a music legend with anger management issues who got kicked out of AA because he wasn’t an addict; and Gabriel, the English vicar who was Marianne’s first love. Called Echoes of Family it’s due out in late September, and it’s the reverse of The Perfect Son, which is a story about how you can’t escape genetics. This time I’ve created a family without blood ties—a social group that came together out of need and supports each other in a gloriously dysfunctional way. I’m big on dysfunction.

You have said that The Perfect Son has been your most challenging to write. Why did you find this book more challenging than the previous two you wrote?

This was the first novel I wrote entirely to contract, with the deadline clock ticking. Everything that could go wrong, went wrong: I had endless problems with the research—it took me seven months to find a cardiologist who would talk with me; I lost more titles than anyone should have to lose; and I turned the manuscript in to my first publisher only to learn my contract had been cancelled. Fortunately I have the best agent in the world, and two weeks later I had a new contract with a great publisher and a terrific team. Then I came up with the right title and there was no looking back.

Vivienne_Westwood

source: wikipedia

Our readers might be unaware that you were part of the first British Designer Show and have worked for Vivienne Westwood. Are you still passionate about fashion now that you are a writer? Which celebrity was your favorite that you dressed?

I don’t follow trends anymore, but the fashion world has crept into my characters’ backstories. Ella, for example, was a jewelry designer. I’m still a wee bit of a clotheshorse, even though I work in leggings and sweatshirts most of the time. And I love my fuzzy slippers. But I do enjoy clothes retail therapy, and planning author outfits is way too much fun. As for celebrities…I measured an English singer in her bra and knickers once (not telling who!) and she was lovely. But my favorite story from that time was seeing Princess Diana at the first British Designer show. She was wearing pink suede by Maxfield Parrish, one of our clients, and the entire exhibition hall went silent when she walked in. Surrounded by men in black suits, she was taller than most of them and her blonde hair stood out like a beacon. It was an incredible moment; she had such presence.

Lastly, what is one of your all-time favorite books? (This will be added to one of our most visited posts of must-reads from the authors featured in Sundays With Writers)

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte. It has everything: a spunky heroine, a messed-up sexy hero, a mystery, a dysfunctional family, plus love and madness in the English countryside.  And Jane makes Rochester cry. I aim to make all my heroes cry. Yes, even the vicar in Echoes of Family.

The Perfect Son by Barbara Claypole White

You can connect with Barbara Claypole White on her website or through 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!

 

 

Sundays With Writers: The Forgetting Time by Sharon Guskin

Sunday, March 20th, 2016

Sundays With Writers

I have been SO looking forward to this interview with Sharon Guskin this month so I could share more behind her debut novel, The Forgetting Time.  It has been a very long time since I have finished a book in a mere 24 hours, but I could not put this book down and it grabbed me from the first lines until I finished the final page. I think what grabbed me the most is that the premise was something I had not read about before or really had given much thought to. Don’t you love when a book really makes you think or when you begin to question a previous held viewpoint? This book did that for me and I think it might do the same for you!  I can guarantee you will find this book on my top ten list this year- it’s that good!

Honestly, it is difficult to do this interview without any spoilers so if you want to read this one and come back, please do! I really enjoyed piecing this together so I don’t want to take that from you if you haven’t had the chance to read it yet! 

The Forgetting Time by Sharon Guskin

What would you do if your four-year-old son claimed he had lived another life and that he wants to go back to it? That he wants his other mother?

Single mom Janie is trying to figure out what is going on with her beloved son Noah. Noah has never been ordinary. He loves to make up stories, and he is constantly surprising her with random trivia someone his age has no right knowing. She always chalked it up to the fact that Noah was precocious―mature beyond his years. But Noah’s eccentricities are starting to become worrisome. One afternoon, Noah’s preschool teacher calls Janie: Noah has been talking about shooting guns and being held under water until he can’t breathe. Suddenly, Janie can’t pretend anymore. The school orders him to get a psychiatric evaluation. And life as she knows it stops for herself and her darling boy.

For Jerome Anderson, life as he knows it has already stopped. Diagnosed with aphasia, his first thought as he approaches the end of his life is, I’m not finished yet. Once an academic star, a graduate of Yale and Harvard, a professor of psychology, he threw everything away to pursue an obsession: the stories of children who remembered past lives. Anderson became the laughing stock of his peers, but he never stopped believing that there was something beyond what anyone could see or comprehend. He spent his life searching for a case that would finally prove it. And with Noah, he thinks he may have found it.

Soon, Noah, Janie, and Anderson will find themselves knocking on the door of a mother whose son has been missing for eight years. When that door opens, all of their questions will be answered.

This book reads a bit like a mystery as you try to solve the puzzle of a child’s unusual first years of life. The story intertwines with a doctor nearing the end of his career due to a deadly diagnosis and could be the only one who could make Noah and his mother’s life better. What Noah is suffering from is beyond what any parent could comprehend. Gripping, thought provoking, and and an excellent pick for any book club! 

Now grab your coffee and let’s settle in with Sharon Guskin today to hear more behind this incredible novel!

sharon-guskin

Your debut novel is absolutely incredible and the way that you write has an assuredness that can be unusual for a first book. I read in a past interview that you have described The Forgetting Time as “my third first novel,” following two earlier novels “that almost sold but didn’t.” You also have been a writer for twenty years which may explain how beautifully you captured this story.  How did you have the perseverance to continue after those books were rejected and what do you think finally clicked with this book that the first two novels seemed to be lacking?

It wasn’t always easy to keep going. There were plenty of days when I thought, “Maybe I should quit.” But I had a lot of support from friends and family.  And as time went on, the process became easier, because my intentions became clearer; I wasn’t writing a book to impress anyone with my sentences, or because I wanted to claim the identity of a “successful writer” or validate my life in some way. That’s the upside of all that disappointment: I became able to extricate my sense of my life’s value from any external success or failure.  So I became free to write what I wanted to write.  I started to work on a story based on a subject that I thought might be interesting to other people, and even eye-opening for them to think about. I think that’s why this book works, and the others didn’t:  my intentions were sound, so I was able to focus simply on telling the story.  My debut novel finally came out this February, a month after my fiftieth birthday, and it has been an entirely wonderful experience.

Dr. Ian Stevenson

Dr. Ian Stevenson

Dr. Jim Tucker

Dr. Jim Tucker

Your book was inspired by the work of the late Dr. Ian Stevenson and Dr. Jim Tucker at the Division of Perceptual Studies at the University of Virginia School of Medicine and the research they did on children who remember previous lifetimes. How did you stumble upon their research and why did you think adding these real-life cases before the chapters adds so much to your story?

I’ve always wondered about what happens when we die (who doesn’t?), but the question became more urgent for me about eight years ago, when I was volunteering at a hospice. My children were still quite young then, and I’d go from diapers and playdates to spending time with people who faced imminent death. And the experience really woke me up, and I started thinking: this can’t be all there is…why aren’t we talking more about this? Around this time, a friend was cleaning out her garage and handed me this book, “Old Souls,” which was by a reporter from the Washington Post who followed Dr. Ian Stevenson as he went about investigating his cases — and these cases really blew me away. Children who made distinct statements (with names, locations, etc.) about being another person in a previous lifetime — statements which were later confirmed after locating the dead individual. Amazing cases, in which children seem to identify relatives from a different life.

And I started to think, why are my children the way they are, with their particular attractions and dislikes? It happens all the time: two siblings come out entirely different. But why? Could it be related to a past life? Then I read “Life Before Life” by Dr. Jim Tucker, and I knew I had to tell a story inspired by these cases. I was very happy we were able to include parts of that nonfiction book in the novel; I think it grounds the book in a way, so the reader can see that I may have made up my story, but I did not make up this phenomenon. It’s real, and I think people might want to know about the real cases…But you don’t have to believe in any of this to enjoy the book!

The fictional Dr. Anderson is diagnosed with aphasia which affects his ability to understand written and spoken language. I understand that you have a family member who has this and it helped you craft the struggles of Dr. Anderson?

Yes, it’s been hard to watch his language deteriorate, and I hope some of my compassion for him came through in the writing of the character. But my relative is also astoundingly positive and present, despite the fact that he can no longer be understood very much by anyone except his wife. So I tried to keep a bit of that aspect, as well.

Return to Life by Dr. Jim Tucker

Almost all of the cases (real and fictional) of children experiencing past lives have happened in other countries and not in the US. In fact, when Noah shares his experience with the officers they are able to believe he has ESP, but dismiss reincarnation. Why do you think Americans have such a hard time believing in children experiencing a past life?

It’s true that most of the cases have been in Asia or in cultures that believe in reincarnation (for instance, the Druze in Lebanon). I think in large part this is because Americans simply don’t take their children seriously when they make comments that seem to indicate a previous lifetime, and the culture itself wouldn’t really encourage children to make that kind of connection even if they have strong feelings and specific memories from a previous existence.

But I think things are changing; everywhere I go, people tell me stories about statements their children have made (“Remember when we lived in China and took care of the babies?” “Remember when I was old and lived in the black house?”) that suddenly seem to make sense to them. And Dr. Tucker’s last book, Return to Life,” is entirely based on extraordinary American cases.

After researching this book, did you find that your own viewpoint changed on reincarnation? What was the most surprising thing you discovered while preparing for this novel?

When I began the book, I was mostly curious and fascinated…but after steeping my mind in these cases for all those years, and becoming familiar with the meticulous, extremely thorough methods of Dr. Stevenson and Dr. Tucker — and getting to know Dr. Tucker, who is one of the most rational and conscientious people you’ll ever meet — I started to think, what do I believe? Do I believe this is true? Actually, I think…. I do.  And that has led me further, to my own spiritual path.  But I think my job as a novelist isn’t to tell anyone what I think happens after you die, but rather to ask the question: What if it’s true? What does that mean for you, and for how you live your life?

One surprising thing: I didn’t have any past-life memories of my own, or at least I didn’t think so. But as I went about writing the novel, images arose on the page that are identical to certain Buddhist images and meditations. Very specific things. I wasn’t familiar with Buddhism while I was writing most of the book — I starting learning more at the end of the process — but by the time I finished I became convinced that I probably had practiced in a previous lifetime. (I guess that’s not so surprising, given my attraction to the material!)

If we are interested in exploring the topic of children experiencing past lives more, what are some of your favorite books or films that we could dive into?

Soul Survivor by Bruce & Andrea Leininger

BOOKS:

Life Before Life” and “Return to Life,” by Dr. Jim Tucker, give a very clear and engaging presentation of this work and of his methodology. “Return to Life” consists of American cases.

Old Souls” by Tom Shroder (a former Washington Post reporter) provides a wonderful portrait of Dr. Stevenson and his work.

Twenty Cases Suggestive of Reincarnation” and “Children Who Remember Previous Lives,” are slightly more academic books by Dr. Ian Stevenson about this phenomenon.

Children’s Past Lives” by Carol Bowman gives a different, more therapeutically- oriented approach to this topic; she does past-life regression therapy as well.

Soul Survivor” By Bruce and Andrea Leininger tells the gripping story of their young son, who remembered a life as a World War II fighter pilot.

unmistaken-child

Unmistaken Child

FILMS:

Not surprisingly, perhaps, most of the serious films on reincarnation concern spiritual subjects.

My Reincarnation,” is a documentary about Yeshi, the western-born son of a Tibetan Buddhist master. Yeshi is apparently the reincarnation of a Buddhist master himself, but struggles with integrating his father’s tradition into his modern Western world.

Unmistaken Child” is a moving documentary about a Buddhist monk’s search for the reincarnation of his beloved teacher.

Little Buddha” is a narrative, directed by Bernardo Bertolucci, about a little boy in Seattle who may be the rebirth of a great Buddhist teacher, Lama Dorje.

I Origins, Birth, and Cloud Atlas are interesting, entertaining (if not really serious) takes on this topic. And on the completely silly front, I always enjoy watching the Albert Brooks movie, “Defending Your Life.”

Since the publication of the novel, you have begun gathering stories of readers who have reached out to you with their own extraordinary stories of children living past lives. What has the response been to this and, if we have a story like this, how can we share it with you?

I’ve been shocked at how many stories are out there. I’d say about a quarter of the people I’ve talked to about the book have shared something with me, usually a statement a child made or a strange or remarkable event that happened to them and changed the way they look at reality. I just started collecting them recently and will post on my website and my Facebook page. If you have a story you’d like to share, please email me at sharon@sharonguskin.com or submit your story here.

And let me know if you’d like to remain anonymous!

Stolen_poster

Our readers might be unaware that you are also a very successful writer and producer of award-winning documentaries! Do you have a favorite project that you worked on? As a documentary junkie, do you also have a few recommendations of your own personal favorites that you think we should binge on?

I worked on a documentary called STOLEN about the art heist at the Isabella Gardner museum that I think is a wonderful, rich, compelling account of Vermeer, Isabella Gardner, and the biggest art theft in America. And the film ON MEDITATION consists of lovely portraits of people who meditate, from my old writing teacher and Zen Buddhist Peter Matthiessen to Giancarlo Esposito and Congressman Tim Ryan.  I’m proud of both films.

Personal favorites? Any film by Albert Maysles (a humane, wonderful filmmaker). ARMOUR OF LIGHT, about an evangelical minister and the mother of a teenage shooting victim who join forces to oppose gun violence in the United States. THE CENTRAL PARK EFFECT, an utterly charming and fascinating film about birders in Central Park. EXIT THROUGH THE GIFT SHOPTWENTY FEET FROM STARDOM.

Lastly, what is one of your all-time favorite books? (This will be added to one of our most visited posts of must-reads from the authors featured in Sundays With Writers)

One book that really inspired me recently was Vaddey Ratner’s In the Shadow of the Banyan, a novel about Cambodia. It is both dark and radiant at the same time. She finds meaning and beauty within the horror, which makes the book truly transformative.

You can connect with Sharon Guskin on her website or through 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!

 

Sundays With Writers: What She Knew by Gilly Macmillan

Sunday, March 13th, 2016

Sundays With Writers

I am so honored to be interviewing Gilly Macmillan today to talk about her debut novel, What She Knew. I am always game for a good thriller, but can we be honest and say that many rarely deliver? It is tough to surprise seasoned readers, isn’t it? Well,  I am so happy to say that this one really delivers in the thriller category and kept me guessing until the final page. I am not the only one that fell in love with this book. What She Knew is an IndieBound Pick, a Target Book Club Pick, A LibraryReads List Pick, and a Featured Book for Book-Of-The-Month Club for December 2015.

What She Knew by Gilly Macmillan

In a heartbeat, everything changes…

Rachel Jenner is walking in a Bristol park with her eight-year-old son, Ben, when he asks if he can run ahead. It’s an ordinary request on an ordinary Sunday afternoon, and Rachel has no reason to worry—until Ben vanishes.

Police are called, search parties go out, and Rachel, already insecure after her recent divorce, feels herself coming undone. As hours and then days pass without a sign of Ben, everyone who knew him is called into question, from Rachel’s newly married ex-husband to her mother-of-the-year sister. Inevitably, media attention focuses on Rachel too, and the public’s attitude toward her begins to shift from sympathy to suspicion.

Macmillan delivers a solid thriller that left me guessing right up until the final pages. Narration is done well through the eyes of the detective, the mother, and social media outlets who tell the story of an eight year-old boy who goes missing on a walk with his mother in the woods.

The author weaves enough loose ends to create a well curated variety of suspects that lead you down the wrong trails in the woods yourself and creates great tension as the stability of the child’s own mother comes into question.

I included this book in our February Must-Reads list!

Grab your coffee and let’s settle in with Gilly for the scoop behind her spellbinding thriller, What She Knew.

Gilly Macmillan

As a mom, your book really illustrates some of my worst fears, losing and not knowing where your child is has to be one of the scariest feelings in the world. As a mom of three, which scene was one of the hardest for you to write and do you think you would have responded in the same ways that the fictional mother, Rachel, did?

So many scenes in What She Knew were difficult to write from an emotional point of view, but the press conference was definitely one of the hardest.  It’s the moment when Rachel’s private nightmare goes public, and I found it heart-wrenching to put her in that situation.  She has to gather herself, at one of the most raw and difficult moments that she’ll ever have to live through in her life, and face the media, and the wider world and also remain composed enough to address somebody who may have taken her child.  I lived every moment of that scene with her as I wrote it, and it was painful.

It’s interesting that you should ask whether I would have responded in the same way as Rachel, because that’s something my husband and I discussed!  I think I would certainly share many of her feelings, and I channeled much of myself into her emotional reaction to her son’s disappearance.  However, I do have a very practical side and I might have been more careful than Rachel to try to keep my feelings under control when I needed to, and I might also have felt driven to try to do something practical, as Rachel’s sister does in the novel.   Having said that, however, I suspect that when we’ve only ever been on the outside of an extreme situation like the one Rachel finds herself in, we can never really know for sure what it feels like to be on the inside, and how we would behave.  We can only hope we would do the right things.

You attacked research for your book in such a unique way, starting by not researching the topic at all when writing the first draft of this book and then building that out in later drafts. Was this intentional and do you think this created a better layering to have a more uninformed stance with your first draft?

The decision to do no research for the first draft of What She Knew was intentional, and came about because I was time-short.  My three kids were all settled into school, so I had a bit of time on my hands for the first time in years as I’d been caring for them more or less full-time, but money was getting tight, so I knew I only had a small window to have a go at writing a book before I needed to get a ‘proper’ job.  This meant that I couldn’t afford to spend lots of that time researching, so I decided to write about something that I knew (motherhood), locate it in the city I live in (Bristol, UK), and write 1,000 words a day until I had a completed book (every day I recorded how many words I’d written on a sheet of paper that became increasingly dog-eared over the months as the total increased).

What resulted from that effort was a draft of the book that told the story entirely from Rachel’s point of view.  It was a messy draft, and I had inevitably made lots of the mistakes you might expect from a rookie writer, but I sent off the first three chapters and they were just enough to get me an agent.

Being signed up by an agent who had confidence in my work – even though she also had a lot of issues with it! – was the thing that finally made me take myself a bit more seriously as a writer.  With my agent’s help, and realizing that this might be my one shot at being a writer, I really got down to work on the manuscript.  I began to research the subject in earnest, and work on layering up the novel, and I decided to create the detective’s character, as I felt that Rachel’s voice needed a counterpoint, somebody who would take a more professional view of the case and let the reader see into the investigation.

In retrospect, although some might say that it was a very disorganised way to write a book, I do believe that the way I worked helped me to get Rachel’s voice down in a really direct way right from the outset.  I hope that means that, in spite of all the changes and edits that have taken place since the first draft, Rachel’s narrative hasn’t lost its power as the honest, unfiltered words of a mother whose child has disappeared and whose story forms the spine of the novel.

When Rachel has to make a statement before the press about her child going missing, she goes off script and attracts the media in a negative way, ultimately branding her as a bad mom. There was something about this press scene that mimicked that moment in Gone Girl where Nick’s body language and motives are pulled into question after his hearing. Media and the way they villainize this mom not only come into play here, but also are a big part of this book with a blog and social media commentary throughout. Why do you think we are so intent on victimizing people and why did you think building a social media outlet was such an important addition to this book?

Part of my process of developing the book after the first draft was to comb over all of the fine details that I wanted to be as accurate as possible. I spoke to police officers and researched child abduction and I also paid careful attention to real life cases.  There were two of these, both high profile, that took place in the UK while I was writing the novel.  In the first instance I experienced these cases as I always had done, ie via traditional media reporting, but as I dug a little deeper I discovered that the cases were also being discussed by individuals all over social media and in the comments sections attached to online newspaper reports.  I’d never really paid attention to that stuff before but it struck me straight away that if I included this kind of thing in the book, it could be a very interesting to let the reader experience the case of Ben’s abduction in the way that they might in real life, alongside the versions of events that they learn from my two narrators.

What made my decision easy in the end, was that the comments and social media pages that I read were alive with opinion, fizzing with it, and I was surprised at the strength of people’s feelings and how polarized opinion was, and how much they judged the people involved even though they only had access to a tiny amount of verified information. It was too powerful to ignore.   I knew that if I was Rachel I would have found it tremendously difficult to know that it was going on out there, in addition to the very private pain I was feeling and so social media had to almost become a character in its own right.

I’ve thought a lot about why people victimize others in this way.  I think it’s often a combination of factors, but there are a few which stand out to me.  First and foremost, the internet offers little or no accountability for what we say online, so people behave more badly than they might otherwise.  Chat forums where people state their opinions very bluntly, combined with sensationalist headlines, can heighten emotions and feelings in a large group of people very quickly.   Combine that with the speed at which things can travel on the internet and the fear and misunderstanding that can spring from emotional, unreasoned debate and an aggressive pack mentality can develop swiftly.  I also think that our ability to comment freely online, and engage with others easily and anonymously if we wish, makes us more susceptible to feeling emotionally involved in events that are really nothing to do with us, and that in other circumstances we might keep a respectful distance from.  These factors all combine to make Rachel a victim of the internet, as well as of a crime, in What She Knew.

I understand that you actually crafted three endings for this book. What was it about the ending that you struggled with and why do you think the one you chose for this novel was the most satisfying conclusion for your story?

The ending posed a challenge in many ways. As a mom, in my very first draft, I veered away from a realistic ending, because I wanted to make everything nice for everybody, because that’s what we do, right?  We tuck everybody up at the end of the day and tell them to have sweet dreams.  However, I was advised that the too-nice ending didn’t sit well with the rest of the story, and readers might feel dissatisfied, so I took advice from my agent and experimented with other options.  The final choice of ending came down to the fact that What She Knew is at its heart a story about a terrible crime, but also about a mother, and a child, and a detective who cares, and my desire to get as much veracity into the novel as possible.  For me, the ending we finally settled on seemed to do justice to both the story, and the characters, and also felt truthful, which was so important to me.  I’m a big reader myself and I like to feel that an author hasn’t cheated me in the end, but has stayed true to the story.  It’s been really interesting since publication to hear reader’s views on the ending.

I know that a lot of research went into this book from police investigations to missing children cases. What was the most surprising fact you discovered while preparing this book and has any of the research shaped any new viewpoints for you on this topic?

When I first sat down for a cup of coffee with some real (retired) detectives I described the set-up at the beginning of the book when Ben goes missing, as I had written it in an early draft. Ben goes missing late on a Sunday afternoon in the woods, as darkness is about to fall, and I told the detectives that in response to his disappearance I had fictionally mobilized air support, search teams with dogs, and on horses, and had a vast amount of manpower combing the area within an hour or two of the call being made to police.  They were aghast!  I still remember their faces across the table now.  No, they told me, at dusk on a Sunday evening in the woods, the police would certainly attend, but you would probably only get a couple of uniformed officers and if you were lucky you might get one extra officer with a dog, but that would be it!  This was mostly because of the darkness, but also because of budgets and available manpower at that time.

Their advice was a reality check for me and I had to rewrite all of the scenes at the start of the book.  I realized I had assumed too much, and I actually knew almost nothing about police procedure or about many of the challenges of detective work.   Needless to say, we didn’t just have one cup of coffee.  A few hours, and a few rounds of sandwiches and many more pots of coffee, and some follow-up emails later, I had learned so much from them about the police and how they operate and I found all of it fascinating.  They gave me a great deal of practical advice but what I also took from them is how much they cared about their jobs and how every case is complicated and challenging and sometimes very frustrating for even the most dedicated detective, and I wanted to be sure to do the demands of the profession justice, and to bring some of that realism into the story.  It added a whole new dimension to the book, and in particular to my detective’s story.

What She Knew

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Many moms feel like they have a book in them, but few of us feel we have the time to work on our own dreams while juggling a busy life with our family. What prompted you to move forward on this dream and could you share a time management strategy that helped you finally to get moving on your first book?

As I said above, it was a sense that I had a one-off window of opportunity to try to do this that really spurred me on, because I knew that I wouldn’t dare to quit a paying job to write a book, so it was now or never. My time management took a lot of work, but the thing that really got me writing was to make a rule that I couldn’t do anything else – no tidying, laundry, dog-walking, surface-wiping, etc. – until I’d written 1,000 words each day.  I’m not good at working in the evening when I’m tired (I wish I was!) so that meant I would sit down and start to write the minute I got back from dropping the kids off at school in the morning, when my head was clear, and I had a big incentive to get on with my word count so that I could leave my desk with enough time to get everything else done.  My social life suffered a bit, as did household organization, and I had to pull away from being involved in school associations and that sort of thing, but it was worth it. 

My advice to anybody else would be to try to carve out an amount of time, however small, where you can write each day and guard it fiercely.  That way, even if you can only find time to write a few hundred words each day, you are progressing, and you will be able to make it to the end.  Keep track of that word count too, because it’s encouraging to see it rising.  Also – don’t beat yourself up if your first draft isn’t a polished work, or even close to one.  Once, it’s done, it gives you something to improve and work on.  Often, the whole process felt like an exercise in holding my nerve as much as anything else so that would be my advice too: hold your nerve, and don’t assume that it can’t be you.

I understand that you are writing another book that will include another case with DI Jim Clemo. Will you be referencing the case from this book at all? Can we expect Jim to be a bit damaged from how he felt he handled this case?

Yes, I am! I’m currently working on my third novel and this will be a sequel to What She Knew and I’m delighted to say that Jim will be back.  It’s really wonderful to revisit Jim’s character, as I’ll admit that I’m very fond of him, and starting to write him again was like visiting an old friend.  It’s still early days for that novel, but I will certainly be referencing the Ben Finch case from What She Knew and exploring the impact that it’s had on Jim as he tries to move forward with his life, and his career. 

Before that book hits the shelves, though, my second novel will be out in Fall 2016.  It’s a standalone book called The Perfect Girl and is about a girl called Zoe, who is a 17-year-old musical prodigy with a genius IQ and a secret in her past that she and her mother will go to extraordinary lengths to protect.  The book is about one night, where Zoe is giving a performance that her mother, Maria, has been planning for months, but by midnight, Maria is dead.  Like What She Knew, it’s a book with family and parenting themes, and asks questions about how far we push our children and ourselves in pursuit of that perfect family ideal, and how often life offers us second chances if we get things wrong.

In Cold Blood by Truman Capote

The true crime genre is something that many of our readers are into right now as we read lots of books, listen to podcasts, and watch documentaries on true crime. Do you read this genre or utilize any true crime cases to write your books? Any recommendations for true crime fans?

The first true crime book that I ever read was Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood. I loved it, and was absolutely gripped by it.  I’m not sure I’ve read much true crime since then, though I read a lot of crime fiction as you might expect, and I’m always up for a good recommendation!  Recently, I’ve found myself addicted to the Serial podcasts and also the Making of a Murderer documentary and I recommend those very highly if you’re into true crime, though I expect many of your readers will know them already.  The intricacies of the cases, and the way you get to know something about the personalities involved is what hooks me, and I’m struck by just how often truth can be stranger than fiction.

I am always curious when a book first is published in another country and then is published here if any changes have to be made. Did anything have to be changed in the US publication that maybe Americans might not get?

We changed very little, as the US publishers wanted to keep an English feel to the novel. There were the usual obvious swaps of words like ‘pavement’ for ‘sidewalk’ and that sort of thing, but that was extent of it within the novel.  The biggest change was the title.  In the UK the book is called Burnt Paper Sky, which is a reference to a description in the book of the moment when Ben goes missing and his mother realizes that the sky above is darkening at the edges like burning paper.  The US publisher felt that they would prefer something less opaque so they came up with What She Knew and I was very happy to approve that as I thought it was a terrific title.

Max Macmillan

I read in your bio that not only are you juggling the usual mom schedule while writing a book, but your son is also a cast remember on the BBC TV show, Call the Midwife. How did your family stumble into this opportunity and what has that been like for you as a mom?

‘Stumbled into’ is the right description for our involvement in Call the Midwife, though it has been and remains an amazing experience for my son. A few years ago we were facing a long summer at home and I was looking out for things for my kids to do when a friend emailed with an opportunity for boys to audition for a part in the choir in a local theatre production of the play Coram Boy.  It looked like fun, and my son is musical, so we went along one day, and he took his violin as they said they also wanted to see young violinists. The outcome was that after two auditions, and in spite of almost no drama experience, he was offered one of the main roles!  It was a wonderful surprise and a wonderful experience: months of rehearsal that culminated in a huge Christmas production with performances over a few days in front of thousands.  It was at one of those performances where the director of the first series of Call the Midwife spotted Max, and asked us if he’d like to audition for the role of the doctor’s son, Timothy Turner, in Call the Midwife, as he had a good resemblance to the actor who played the doctor.  Originally, it was just supposed to be a single day of work filming just one scene in the Season Two Christmas Special, so we agreed, as we thought it would be a fantastic experience.  Since then however, Max’s role has grown as the show has, and shooting for the sixth series begins soon, which will be Max’s fifth year of involvement.  He’s in fewer episodes now that he’s older, as we have to limit his availability for shooting to make sure it doesn’t have a negative impact on schoolwork or musical interests, but he still loves every minute of it.

Lastly, what is one of your all-time favorite books? (This will be added to one of our most visited posts of must-reads from the authors featured in Sundays With Writers)

This is such a hard question!  There are so many books I could list, but I’m going to go with Paula by Isabel Allende.  The book tells the true-life story of the author’s daughter’s sudden and unexpected illness, which befalls her when she’s a young adult.  That story is interspersed with the history of their family and the story of Isabel Allende’s own extraordinary life.  It’s a powerful, heart-wrenching account of a mother’s love for her daughter, and one woman’s path through all of the big moments in life: love, motherhood, work, grief, joy and family.  It’s raw and honest, powerful and heart-wrenching, and beautifully told.

You can connect with Gilly Macmillan on her website or through 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!

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Sundays With Writers: The Immortals (Olympus Bound #1) by Jordanna Max Brodsky (GIVEAWAY!!)

Sunday, March 6th, 2016

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This post is brought to you in partnership with Orbit Books.

One of the best things I have found about being a bookworm is the ability to explore so many different genres. What I often find surprising is that genres like fantasy or science fiction, books that feel out of my comfort zone of reading, are often my favorite books of the year. Today I am sharing a book that takes a modern spin on Greek mythology in a fresh new way and Greek mythology certainly feels out of my comfort zone!  Growing up I had a very limited exploration of it in my literature classes so the idea of Greek mythology is a little intimidating to me. Is it to you?

I don’t want you to be intimidated by that though because today’s author, Jordanna Max Brodsky, not only builds a compelling story built on these themes, but she also provides a very thorough glossary for you to help assist those of us that aren’t as familiar with Greek mythology as she is.

She creates a thriller experience exploring a serial killer on the loose in Manhattan whose murders follow Greek themes and rituals as you try to uncover the killer involved in the killing spree.

The Immortals by Jordanna Max Brodsky

The Immortals is an ambitious modern day retelling of Greek mythology set in the city of Manhattan. Selene, also known as Artemis, is a woman intent on making men pay for crimes against women. Amidst her vengeance on these men, she stumbles upon the body of a young woman washed ashore, who has been gruesomely mutilated and wreathed in laurel. She finds her ancient rage returning and forms an unlikely partnership with the woman’s former lover as they try to figure out who this serial killer is that is performing ritualistic killings in their city. Fans of Greek mythology will swim in this fresh retelling of these ancient stories.

Publishers Weekly states, “This intelligent, provocative fantasy breathes exciting new life into old, familiar tales.” Her book also has been selected as a Barnes & Noble Bookseller’s Pick as well as Amazon’s Best Book of the Month.

I am so honored to have Jordanna join us today to share about the research and travel she did to create this fresh spin on Greek mythology.  Jordanna is also sharing a copy of her book to share with one lucky reader! Scroll down to enter! 

Now grab your coffee and let’s settle in for a chat with Jordanna about the debut of her new Olympus Bound book series!

JordannaBrodsky-creditBenArons

As a debut novelist, tell me about your excitement to have your novel selected not only as Barnes & Noble’s Bookseller’s Pick, but also as an Amazon Best Book of the Month? What has been the most surprising part about writing and publishing your first book?

It’s always thrilling to have your book recognized, and I certainly hope the extra publicity will help spread the word.

I always thought the most exciting single moment would be seeing my book on the shelf at a store—everything would finally seem real.  But surprisingly, the best thing by far is hearing from total strangers about how much they’re enjoying it.  As a passionate reader, I’ve always loved sinking into a book and having it come to life around me.  Knowing that I’ve provided that pleasure to others is absolutely awesome.

You explore Greek mythology and all the gods & goddesses that go along with it through a uniquely modern day twist set in the city of Manhattan. What compelled you to write a modern day retelling of Greek mythology and why did you choose this city, in particular, to set the scene for this story?

Like so many people, my love of Greek mythology began when I was a kid.  I tore through D’Aulaires Greek Myths, and I still remember getting to the end and wondering, And then what happened? The book implies that the gods’ statues fell, their temples crumbled, and they just disappeared.  Ever since, I’ve dreamed of changing that ending.

Approaching the story as an adult, I began to see that the Greek gods provide all sorts of opportunities for exploring themes far deeper than those I recognized as a child: the intersection of myth and history, the question of who creates identity, the evolution of perceptions of gender and virginity, and age-old arguments about the desirability of immortality.  The Immortals explores all those questions and more.

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the blockhouse in central park- image from wikipedia

As for the setting, putting the ancient Greek gods in quintessentially modern New York City may seem like a stretch, but for me it was a no-brainer. Manhattan is actually the oldest big city in America—it stretches all the way back to the early 1600s.  It’s old enough and big enough to hold secrets.  As a New Yorker myself, I’m always struck by how many historical sites are tucked between the skyscrapers, unbeknownst to tourists or even long-term residents.  My favorite: an 1814 defensive blockhouse perched on a hill in the north end of Central Park, surrounded by thick forest.  You can see the midtown skyline from there, but you feel like you’ve stepped back in time.

My Artemis, the Goddess of the Wilderness, came to a tree-covered island inhabited by the Lenni Lenape Indians four hundred years ago, and she’s lived here ever since, watching the city grow up around her.  Now she prowls the last wild spaces in Central Park, still clinging to her memories of the past.

Your chapters have very unique titles that I understand all came from epithets, which you had a plethora of them to choose from since Artemis has over 300 epithets alone just to describe herself! Did you have a favorite and how did you decide to settle upon epithets for chapter titles?

My favorite epithet is “Relentless One” because it embodies both the best and the worst of Artemis’s personality.

The idea of using the epithets for chapter titles actually came from my friend and agent, Jennifer Joel.  I immediately latched on to it because Artemis’s abundance of epithets is one of her most appealing traits.

Each name embodies a different aspect of her personality, and many are completely contradictory.  She’s the Punisher and the Good Maiden.  I think each of us contains a multitude of titles as well—those we’ve chosen for ourselves and those society has thrust upon us—even if we don’t articulate them.  We can’t help but empathize with Artemis.

I understand that much research was involved in this book as well as traveling, even though you have a degree in both literature and history from Harvard. How much research did you have to do into Greek mythology to begin telling this ambitious story and what was one of the most surprising facts you discovered when researching for this book?

My desk is literally teetering with books on Greek myth, religion, and culture.  The good and bad news is that very limited written evidence exists for a lot of what I’m writing about.  Ancient Greek civilization reached its peak well over two thousand years ago, and they transmitted most of their stories orally. Most of what they did write down disappeared after the destruction of Greco-Roman society by barbarian hordes.  So we have fragments, scraps, and retellings by later authors who used their own imaginations to reconstruct the stories.  For the historian side of me, such gaps drove me crazy, but they also gave me the leeway I needed when it came to telling a fictional story about the gods.

Even knowing full well that much of the ancients’ knowledge has been lost to us, I was still shocked to discover the extent of our ignorance.  For instance, in The Immortals, Selene investigates a serial killer who is reenacting the rituals of an ancient Greek cult.  This cult was the most popular religious society in classical Athens. It lasted for thousands of years and involved thousands of participants, many of them literate.  Yet no one ever wrote down the details of the cult’s secret practices, because to do so was punishable by death. Can you imagine modern people keeping such a secret?  It would be a tell-all HBO documentary within a matter of months! For centuries now, scholars have tried in vain to figure out what the cult did behind closed doors and what spurred its incredible popularity. To me, that’s an irresistible mystery—one that plays a large role in The Immortals.

I love a powerful heroine and you definitely have carved out a beautiful one in Selene who acts as a protector to women who are being abused. Why did you settle upon this career path for Selene and can we expect her to continue in this same mission as the series progresses?

Despite the fading of her supernatural powers, I wanted Selene to hold on to her most important title: the Protector of the Innocent.  Because of her immortality—not to mention her anti-social proclivities—I figured she’d have a hard time as a cop in the modern world.  That left me with private investigator/bodyguard/vigilante.

As for her future path, you’ll have to read the upcoming Winter of the Gods to find out the details.

Are you finding it easier to write the second book now that you have such a strong understanding of Greek mythology or are you continuing to expand upon your research to develop the next book?

I’m definitely expanding.  First of all, a slew of other Olympians appear in Winter of the Gods, so I’ve had to do all sorts of research on them.  Secondly, I’m examining a whole new Roman cult religion that I knew nothing about before I started.  It’s taken me back to Italy for an exploration of the extant temples and led me to all sorts of other research topics including astronomy and early Christianity. The research is never done: I’ve already started delving into ancient philosophy and mathematics for Book Three!

D’Aulaires Greek Myths

If we are interested in exploring Greek mythology further, what are some of your recommendations for books or documentaries that we could check out to learn more about this time in history?

If you never read it as a kid, you should check out D’Aulaires Greek Myths. It’s full of magnificent illustrations, and although it’s written for young people, it presents the myths in a rich, detailed way that’s appealing to people of all ages.  If you’re looking for a great, readable treatment of Greek religion and civilization that’s full of fantastic photos of artifacts and sites, try Exploring the World of the Ancient Greeks by John Camp and Elizabeth Fisher.

And after you brush up on your basic mythology, I certainly recommend trolling through your local museum’s Greek and Roman collection.  I’m lucky enough to live ten minutes from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which has one of the best.  There’s nothing like coming face-to-face with Artemis as depicted by the ancients themselves.  If you want a quick refresher on the different gods, visit my website, where I’ve also posted my own photos of favorite statues and artifacts that I’ve encountered in museums around the world.

Lastly, what is one of your all-time favorite books? (This will be added to one of our most visited posts of must-reads from the authors featured in Sundays With Writers)

Glad to see another author already posted about The Song of Achilles, which is my favorite novelization of Greek myth.  I recommend it heartily to anyone who enjoys The Immortals!

As for non-myth books, I’d have to pick Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and ClayIt’s one of the few books I’ve read that I immediately told everyone in my life to pick up.  Set primarily in 1940s New York, it tells the story of two Jewish cousins (one of whom escapes from Nazi Europe) who create superheroes for the Golden Age of Comics. Add in a Harry Houdini subplot, love stories both gay and straight, a wealth of historical New York City detail, and the most sublime prose style I’ve ever encountered, and you get an irresistible work of brilliance.

Enter below to win a copy of The Immortals! Follow the instructions on the widget to enter to win!

You can connect with Jordanna Max Brodsky on her website, on the official Olympus Bound page,  or through 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! This post was brought to you in partnership with Orbit Books.

 

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