Tuesday, March 21, 2017

We pause to celebrate creativity in clothing--ThackerNYC's Toni Hacker talks about inspiration, narrative in clothing design, classic films, OCD, Bette Davis, hanging out with other designers, and those indispensable clothing kits

My new go-to designer for all my clothes: the brilliantly creative Toni Thacker

Oh! The showroom!

Portrait of the artist at work

A bit about the company

Oh black! Oh glorious shimmer!

Yes, I wear all black, but I'm making an exception for this gorgeous dress

I think everyone should have these

I always interview writers because I'm fascinated by process--by any creative process--and so I've also interviewed filmmakers, directors and clothing designers. Anyone who knows me knows that I dress in black. If there were a darker color, I'd wear it. But I also, like many women I know, have a terrible time finding clothes that speak to me, classics with just a little bit of something unique. I first saw a link, "12 black things every woman should own"--and I went nuts. Everything was perfection, including the things that were rich with color. Unusual, classic, different, and--and actually wearable! All by ThackerNYC, who is really Toni Hacker. 

I promptly wrote the company to express my devotion and because I wanted to interview Ms Hacker, to see how she works and how she comes up with designs. And I plan to wear my ThackerNYC clothes on tour.

Thank you so much, Toni, for agreeing to answer my questions, and thank you even more for creating such glorious, absolutely perfect clothing.And also, the lipstick tips. I bought the Mac.

Every woman I know knows how impossible it is to find wearable won't go-out-of-style pieces that you can dress up or down. When I saw your collections, I felt they were so perfect I could not stop staring at them and yearning for them. Can you please talk about the philosophy behind these incredible clothes?

Thacker was created after years of listening to women (customers, friends, and family) vent their frustration about finding well-made, versatile wardrobe essentials that aren't boring...I was having the exact same problem finding what I was looking for in the market, even though I'm in the fashion industry.  My takeaway was that women over size 12 and the age of 40 are often ignored in the contemporary market and that finding versatile, unfussy wardrobe pieces was becoming just another chore in an increasingly busy world. I decided to try and tackle the problem by creating a collection of modern-meets-classic 'forever' wardrobe pieces that work together for endless looks and that work with everything you already own. I want the brand to be the hardest working 10% of your closet that you love and reach for every day.

What I also love are the details that make a very simple piece special, like subtle blue sparkle on a dress or a gorgeous gold on a classic bootie. Where does your inspiration come from? And how do you choose the fabrics and the designs?

I love classic design, but for a piece to be truly special it has to have personality...a bit of narrative. My background is in studio art and industrial design, so I fell into fashion in sort of a sideways manner.  A lot of my inspiration now, for Thacker, comes from thinking about the platonic ideal of an item and then tweaking the line, cuts, or fabric so that it feels simultaneously modern and timeless. I love unexpected details, fabrics, and color. Classic film is a huge inspiration (I live and die by the Criterion Collection), as well as art. I'm a bit of a method designer and can be seriously OCD when I'm working...I'll watch the same movie or listen to the same album repeatedly until I finish a collection. I think I do a lot of problem solving in my sleep...sometimes I dream about the collection or specific pieces and wake up to sketch them. 

How did ThackerNYC get started? What are your backgrounds? The name is really fun to say, by the way!

 launched Thacker in late September of 2016 after I exited my previous brand, Hayden-Harnett, in August of 2015. When I left I did some freelance design and consulting work and then decided to create a new brand dedicated to amazing, kickass women everywhere. The name, Thacker, came from abbreviating my name. It's how I sign my letters.

I also love your kits (as everyone knows I live in black and you are making dressing stress free for me!) what other kits are you thinking of?  

I'd love to do a beach kit! We have some really fun pieces coming out for spring/summer 2017, including our first swimsuit and a really amazing coverup.

I am fascinated by how creative people work, especially in industries different from mine. What is a typical day or so like for you? What is the best part? The worst? 

I do a lot of different things within the company (design, marketing, and graphics), so I try to be pretty scheduled with my day and work so I don't get overwhelmed. I wake up at 6, make coffee, skim my emails to reply to anything super urgent, and plan our Instagram post for the day. I just moved to Beacon, NY after living in NYC for the past fifteen years so I'm loving my new commute on the Hudson line...the river views are crazy beautiful, inspiring, and relaxing. Our office is located on the west side near Hudson Yards, and I usually get in around 10am. My day in NYC involves working with my assistant to plan social, reviewing samples and fabrics, designing graphics for our site and newsletters, and meetings. I leave the office at 5:30 and wrap up any outstanding emails on the commute home.

We writers hang out together and discuss our work-in/progress and exchange ideas all the time. Is it that way in the fashion world? And do you test drive ideas?

I think everyone in fashion is too busy to hang out! Joking...and not joking. Fashion seems glamorous, but it's a LOT of work (physically, emotionally, and mentally). You have to be a great multitasker to survive and the pace can be a bit frantic because you have to work on-calendar. Fashion folks definitely reach out to each other for help finding specific materials, or if they need help with sourcing, freelancers, web designers, photographers, etc. 

I always try to personally road test what I create before it goes into the line. I have to know that it's going to work in real time, not just when you're sitting behind a desk.

What is obsessing you now and why?

Immediately, right this second, I'm obsessed with Bette Davis. I've been watching 'Feud' with Susan Sarandon and Jessica Lange...I would give anything to be on set and see those costumes and feel those laser vibes in person. Just watched Bette in 'Jezebel' last night. Classic.

What question didn't I ask that I should have?

Favorite pieces in the collection! The Ren pants, Beau blazer, Riva shirtdress, Georgina bag, and Pippin coat are absolute must-haves. Every woman should own these pieces. 

Saturday, March 18, 2017

Jessica Strawser talks about marriage, secrets, mystery and her stunning debut, ALMOST MISSED YOU

 “Once in a great while, along comes a novel that defies the odds … leaving the reader both deeply moved and thoroughly astonished. ALMOST MISSED YOU is just such a book, by a writer’s writer with talent to spare. You may not have heard of Jessica Strawser today, but by tomorrow, everyone’s going to be talking about her and about this story.” —Jacquelyn Mitchard, New York Times bestselling author of The Deep End of the Ocean

 Jessica Strawser is the editorial director of Writer's Digest Magazine and--my favorite--a debut novelist. I'm so honored to host her here. Thank you so much, Jessica!

I always think writers are haunted into writing their books. Was this the case for you with this one? Can you talk about it?

I suppose I do find the question of fate to be a haunting one: People talk a lot today about leaving things to the universe, about wondering if things are meant to be. Sometimes it’s hard not to wish or imagine things had turned out a different way; other times we really do thank our lucky stars. I wanted to write a story that brought these ideas to the forefront and made characters question whether they’d put too much—or too little—stock in the stories they’d told themselves (and each other).

What kind of writer are you? Do you outline, fly by the seat of your pen?

I like to try to have a general idea of where I’m going, but I can’t say I know how I’m going to get there. I write things as they come to me, when they’re most vivid, even if they’re out of order, and try to have faith that I’ll be able to fill in the blanks and pull it all together in the end. I do often wish I was more of an outliner—that seems like a far less anxiety-filled approach.

What I so deeply admired about ALMOST MISSED YOU is how you navigated three very different points of view to unfold your story--and you kept the suspense at fever pitch. How difficult was this to do? Did you ever hit any wrong turns (that you obviously corrected?)
I approached the story with the idea that we’re all unreliable narrators, to a certain extent, simply by virtue of the fact that our perspectives have limits—not to mention bias. In order to get the whole story in ALMOST MISSED YOU, we need all three perspectives: There isn’t a single character at the start of the story who knows the whole story. It was great fun trying to discern which points of view were key to reveal certain pieces and to put them all together like a puzzle. I did have some different turns in earlier drafts, but I don’t know that any of them were wrong—as the story could have been told in a number of different ways. (My next novel has a more linear structure and it’s not nearly as forgiving!)

You are the Editorial Director of Writer's Digest, the virtual Bible for writers. How did that job impact your job as an author, if at all?

Oh, goodness, how did it not? Consider that in the course of editing Writer's Digest, I’ve read each issue cover to cover no fewer than five times—that’s earnest, thorough repetition of written instruction and inspiration that has fueled my writing in ways both intentional and subconscious. Likewise, it’s made me feel a part of a community that shares a dream, from the bestsellers I’ve interviewed to the readers I’ve met at conferences or connected with online. The many conversations I’ve had for our cover stories—just think of it, forty-five minutes on the phone with David Sedaris, an hour with Alice Walker, with Lisa Gardner, with David Baldacci, with Debbie Macomber, with some of today’s most successful writers in virtually every genre—has given me access to some of the best insights into the writing life around, straight from the sources. When I close the door to my writing room every night, I don’t just remember their words—I hear their voices. Though I’m always the last one awake in my house, without fail, it makes me feel less alone.

You've been getting some amazing buzz for your novel! Does this make it easier or more difficult to write your next book because of the expectations? (Forgive me if I just added to your anxiety!)
I first turned in my next book a few months back, and am just now wrapping my revision addressing my editor’s comments, so there’s been a lot of overlap during which I’ve tried to just stay focused on whatever is in front of me, which has been one novel or the other consistently for the past 18 months, since I first received the two-book offer from St. Martin’s. I will say that writing a book under contract for the first time did bring with it an inherent pressure in the sense that people who I greatly respect—namely my editor and my agent, but also my publisher, my publicist, my marketing team, and an ever-growing list of supporters--have put their faith in me, and I don’t want to disappoint them.

What's obsessing you now and why?
Sleep—I’m getting less and less of it these days! Though with a five-year-old and a three-year-old, they are the focus of my energy and my joy most every “free” hour of the day. Recently my youngest has reached an age where she has the attention and the grasp of enough basic rules that we can begin to enjoy family game nights, and all four of us are loving this new phase. It’s the simple things: to light a fire and settle in with a silly deck of cards, or Connect Four, or this hilarious Horton Hears a Who game we got for Christmas. Even at this early stage I can recognize how fleeting these days are, when mom and dad are the preferred Friday night companions, no arm twisting involved, and I soak them up as best I can.

The incomparable Meredith Maran talks about her sublimely funny and moving THE NEW OLD ME, desperation, taking chances, crafting a new life, and more

You know the kind of friend who you can call at any hour, sobbing into the phone, and not only does she dry your tears, but she gets you laughing? That's Meredith Maran.

She's the author of  a dozen nonfiction books and an acclaimed novel, A Theory of Small Earthquakes, as well as being a member of the National Book Critics Circle and the MacDowell Fellows West. She writes features, essays, and book reviews for People, Salon, The Los Angeles Times, The Boston Globe, The Chicago Tribune, The Los Angeles Review of Books, Real Simple, Mother Jones, Good Housekeeping, and other publications.
And she is totally and completely cool, and her fierce, feisty and very, very funny new memoir The New Old Me really is required reading for anyone who feels there are no such things as second acts. (There are! And 3rd, 4th and 600th acts!)

Hugs to you, Meredith and thank you for being here!

What is it about sixty that brings about such radical change?
In a word: it’s WTF time. Instead of counting forward, at 60 I started counting backwards: how many more Fourth of Julys, Thanksgivings, hikes, trips to exotic places, orgasms, new pairs of shoes (you can relate, dear cowgirl!) I had left to enjoy. Once that number becomes somewhat finite, the urgency to “Get it while you can,” as my girl Janis put it, becomes a siren’s call. I’ve never been a fan of delayed gratification, and it’s definitely too late to start liking it now.

Also, I used to be a big negotiator about every little thing—“Not that restaurant, not that hiking trail, not that movie”—and now I’m a big “yes” girl. Living in a new and thrilling city, I quickly learned to say “yes” to every invitation I got. As long as you surround yourself with great people, which I’ve been lucky enough to do, saying “yes” opens the door (and my heart) to the best kinds of adventures.

Moving from San Francisco to Los Angeles is such a radical move—were you expecting radical change? Or was this simply desperation?
Desperation, baby. I’ve lived in a lot of places—Washington Heights, the Upper East Side, Lower East Side, Upper West Side, the Village in New York, the mountains of northern New Mexico, London, San Francisco, Berkeley, San Jose—and there was only one place on earth I swore I’d never move to, and that was Los Angeles. I saw LA as a polluted Armageddon, the worst of human nature versus nature writ large. But La-La-Land was also where my only option was located and I was too broke and too broken to say “no.” Now I can’t imagine having landed in a more perfect place. And I’m not just saying that because I’ve gone “La-La.” LA and I are in a similar phase of life. We started out big and brash, lost it, and now are struggling to come back.

No one I know is as honest or brave and candid as you are—and you seem to have this almost steely resilience for refusing to give up. Where’d that come from?

Thanks for noticing! Although I must say wasn’t feeling resilient at all during my first year in L.A., the first year I write about in the book. I was lonelier and more defeated than I thought possible. I didn’t think I’d ever feel joy or excitement or optimism again. Eventually, I felt better. Moving into my little Bungalito made a huge difference—a Silver Lake womb of my own! GPS helped! Most of all, friends helped.

I certainly can’t attribute my resilience to my New York Jewish heritage! I come from a long line of pessimists. One thing I’ve got going for me is that I'm open to being surprised. In fact, I’m determined to be surprised. So when I’m down, I remind myself that although I’ve had some pretty terrible surprises, like the end of my seemingly perfect marriage, I’ve also had some pretty great surprises, like meeting the people I’ve met and seeing the sights I’ve seen in LA.  It sounds corny, but I’m really into gardening, growing food and flowers, and seeing what lives and what dies and how each flower and artichoke smells and tastes—it's all about rolling with the disappointments and reveling in the good stuff and most of all, learning what works and what doesn’t.

How scary was it to write this book? What surprised you about it?

The scariest thing about writing another memoir was that in the course of telling my own truth in my previous memoirs, I’d hurt people I loved. I wasn’t willing to do that again, and yet I love writing (and reading) memoirs best of all. I thought there had to be a way, so I interviewed 20 successful memoirists for my last book, Why We Write About Ourselves, and got some tips. Mostly, the writers recommended writing a memoir through one’s own point of view, not vilifying or idealizing others. It was surprisingly hard to keep that perspective while writing a memoir, and to keep the focus on my responses to other people and not on the other people (my ex-wife, for example). But I welcomed the challenge and I think it worked.

I have to ask, where do you see yourself in ten years? (Since you have the most amazing, surprising life of anyone I know!)
Post-Trumpocalypse, all I see in my future is a whole lot of fuming, marching, letter-writing, and Congressperson-calling. But I imagine there will be other things, too. If Pence gets his way, I’ll be sent for conversion therapy, and if it works, maybe I’ll be married to a man in ten years. Or, if I get my way, I’ll still be loving the things I love now—my daily ass-kicking workouts and hikes, writing books and book reviews, growing pomegranates and artichokes and roses, having adventures with fun, funny friends. I’m not sure I’ll end up in La-La Land, but I must say, it’s a hard act to follow!

Saturday, March 11, 2017

Amusement parks. The Ramones. Friendship. Loss. Memory. Alex George talks about SETTING FREE THE KITES

 “A warm, relatable—at times heart-breakingly so—story of two boys becoming men in 1970s Maine... George authentically relays the dynamic, difficult nature of families.”
—Columbia Daily Tribune

Alex George is wonderful in a whole variety of ways. First, there's his writing. He's the author of the sublime A Good American, a national and international bestseller, and a Library Journal Best Book of the Year. Alex has been named as one of Britain’s top ten “thirtysomething” novelists by the Times of London, and was also named as the Independent on Sunday’s “face to watch” for fiction in its Fresh Talent feature. 

Second, he's a guy of many talents. In addition to writing, he also runs his own law firm and is the founder and director of a new literary festival, The Unbound Book Festival.

And third, he wrote Setting Free the Kites, which is so haunting, so moving, so gorgeously crafted--and I'm excited to be talking to him about it at the Unbound Book Festival.

And finally, of course, what matters most--he's kind, funny, smart and I'm thrilled to have him on the blog.

I always want to know what was haunting the author enough to propel him or her into writing the novel? What was it for you?

From the very start of thinking about this book I had a profoundly visceral image in my head of the climactic scene in the novel – which I can’t really talk about at all without giving the whole thing away! But you’ll know what I’m talking about. “Haunting” is precisely the word for it. It was an image that has echoes of another, real-life event (sorry to be opaque, but no spoilers!) which made it resonate even more for me. So all the way through the book I was writing toward this final image, which gave the story its own kind of internal momentum. I wrote that scene and finished the first draft of the book in a frenzied ten-day rush tucked away in a tiny cottage in L.A. It was very intense, and exhausting, but satisfying.

I loved the way the past informed the present—haunted it really—haunted me, as well.

Thank you! One of the things I wanted to examine was how youthful friendships leave a legacy that endures for decades afterwards. By bookending the narrative with scenes from the present I was able to provide a sense of perspective to the events that constitute the heart of the book. The protagonists are teenagers when the action of the novel takes place. I wanted to be able to provide a measure of distance from that – and, of course, the knowledge that comes from maturity and experience.

I have to tell you, I just adored the amusement park. Was this one of your hang-outs? Or based on one in particular? I don’t know why but as happy as amusement parks are supposed to be, they also serve as a backdrop for the tragic. Why do you think that is?

The amusement park was a lot of fun. I never used to hang out in one as a child, but – and I know this sounds wildly improbable! – I actually ran the largest outdoor water park in central Missouri for four years, and much of what is in the novel is based on my experiences working there. For example, during the summer in Missouri the park still runs TV advertisements that feature a furry shark dancing by the side of a wave pool. That’s me in the shark suit. So naturally the amusement park in the novel had a mascot – in this case, a dragon – and I had one of the boys wear it. Write what you know, and all that.

Amusement parks are fun to write about. They are rich with potential for authorial metaphor. For example, behind every nicely painted panel there is usually a grimy, oil-encrusted motor on its last legs. The line between fantasy and reality was never thinner. And for all that we relish the collective having of fun in public, I think you’re right – there is something inherently tragic about amusement parks, too. If you go online you can find countless photographs of abandoned parks, and they are haunting to look at. The motionless Ferris wheel, the silent carousel – the ghosts of their joyful pasts still linger palpably in these images.

I put this in my blurb: As one character says, loss can destroy us, but it can also create us. You could also say that about the bonds and fissures of family, too. Can you talk about this please in the context of the book?

I wanted to examine the impact of profound loss, not only on individuals, but also in the broader context of family. For example, I realized that I wouldn’t be able to tell the story of my own childhood without telling the story of my parents, too – at that age (maybe at any age) family narratives cannot be neatly extracted and presented in isolation. So I began thinking about how cataclysmic events affect the family unit more generally, in addition to how individuals respond to such things. It brought the boys’ parents – Robert’s parents in particular – much more to the forefront of the story. Perhaps that’s just a function of where I happen to be – I have two children, fifteen and eleven, and telling this story forced me to confront some of the very worst fears that all parents harbor somewhere deep within them, and so I wanted to tell that part of the story. When you start wondering: how would I react to this, or to that? – well, that can make for some interesting material.  But – to come back to your point about the bonds and fissures of family – our reactions to such things do not happen in a vacuum, no matter how personal they may be. I say in the book, “Grief did not bring people closer. Loss turned you inward and shut you down.” And that’s true, I think, but it doesn’t mean that in turning inward, and away, family dynamics are not dramatically affected. The sad fact is that terrible loss can be a catalyst for yet more loss, of a different kind.

How fun was it to write about the 70s?

It was very fun, especially researching the music. There’s always lots of music in my books, but I wanted to explore something different this time – which is how I ended up writing about 70s rock – the New York Dolls, the Ramones, Iggy Pop and the like. I didn’t know much about the music before I started (I’m more of a jazz person) but I’ve become quite fond of it now. And of course the iconography of all that is wonderfully resonant. I know I’m going to sound like a terrible old fogey, but back then rock stars really knew how to be rock stars. There’s a moment in the novel when I talk about the anarchy of shows at the famous punk club on the Lower East Side in Manhattan, CBGB’s, when the bands spent as much time fighting with the audience as playing their instruments. I can’t imagine the manufactured pop stars of today contemplating such a thing. OK, I’ll stop now.

One of the great things about writing about the 70s was that I was able to unshackle myself (and my characters, more importantly) from all the technological advances of the past forty years. These days Robert and Nathan would have spent all their time playing on an X-Box and texting each other. Back then they got on their bikes and went off looking for adventures. As a novelist, the latter works much better.  

What’s obsessing you now and why?

Paris! I mean, Paris has always obsessed me. I went to school there when I was 13 and worked there as an attorney for a year when I was in my 20s. I’ve tried more than once to set a book there, and I’ve finally managed it (I think.) My new book, which I’ve almost finished, is set in Paris over the course of one day in 1927. I’ve been reading about Paris for years and now I get to call it research. It’s been blissful, these past few years, waking up every morning and going over the Atlantic in my head to tell these stories.

What question didn’t I ask that I should have?

You didn’t ask me about all the stories in the novel. Joan Didion wrote a book of essays called, “We Tell Each Other Stories in Order to Live,” which is a fantastic title in and of itself, but it’s really true.  There are all kinds of stories in the book – ghost stories, war stories, love stories, histories of people and places. These stories give heft and vitality to the novel (I hope!) and provide fuel for Nathan and Robert’s young imaginations. And there are books, as well, both ones I made up and The Great Gatsby. Books are (or should be!) a formative part of any young person’s growing up, and so I wanted to include them here.

Kurt Baumeister talks about his jazzy new political thriller Pax Americana, spirituality, God, gods, writing and so much more. Plus, read an excerpt!

 I'm always thrilled when someone I know writes a novel that knocks my socks off--and Kurt Baumeister's knocked my shoes off, too. It's a political thriller and trust me, it's that good.

Kurt Baumeister’s writing has appeared in Salon, Electric Literature, The Nervous Breakdown, The Rumpus, and The Good Men Project. His debut novel PAX AMERICANA will be published in 2017 by Stalking Horse Press. A graduate of Emerson’s MFA program, Kurt lives in Virginia. Find him at www.kurtbaumeister.com. Thanks so much Kurt for being here.

I always want to know what was haunting the author enough to write a particular book—so, what was haunting you?

Religion, philosophy, spirituality, God, gods, the concept of the metaphysical—those are some of the things that animated my thinking about PAX AMERICANA. Over time, I’ve come to see these sorts of issues as simultaneously significant and absurd. Which probably explains why this book is satirical. I don’t see the metaphysical world as non-existent necessarily—though I am a skeptic—but to the extent that world does exist, I see it largely as unknowable. As far as religion itself goes, my feeling is you should go with whatever gets you through the night.  If believing in a God (or Goddess or gods or goddesses) makes your life easier, that’s a good thing. As long as your belief doesn’t impose itself on the reality of others. Which, I think, is where the trouble usually starts. That’s the line we walk in America. How do you allow people to believe what they want without burdening others as a result of those beliefs? I think America’s founders were mostly inclined to favor religion, to see it as a good (even necessary) thing in and of itself. I also think they would have very different opinions today, knowing all we know. That’s not to say that a constitution written today would not have freedom of religion as a guaranteed right, but the ability to proselytize, to control the public square with your religion, the tax exemptions for simply being churches (rather than doing material good) would probably be curtailed. Other book-related hauntings: America, the corporate state, fast food, theocracies, advertising, the conservative bubble, nuclear war, New Orleans, Ian Fleming’s James Bond, animals, sports cars, silly names for products, people, and just about everything else. Man, Caroline, I am haunted by a lot.

Writing a novel is like trying to get your way out of jungle with only a dull-edged butter knife instead of a machete. But there are surprises along the way. What were yours? And what kind of writer are you?

Well, based on this example, I’d say I’m clearly the sort of writer who’d bring a butter knife to a machete fight. And I did. My god, did this book take me a long time. I wrote PAX AMERICANA as a more experimental novel first (though, it wasn’t called PAX AMERICANA then). By the time I was done with that draft, I had 130K words, 111 chapters, and seven narrators. So, basically, a pretentious mess. I cut the manuscript without much mercy, got it down to the 50K range then built it back up into something I hoped would be a bit more commercial but still retain some of the spoofy, satirical, metafictional feel I wanted.  I suppose the most surprising thing about the book is how much of a transformation Diana Scorsi underwent from the first version to the final. Besides having a different name and a much more elaborate back story in earlier drafts, she was one of the book’s villains. Though, in my (fictional) world I try to muck around with concepts of heroism and villainy. And regardless of where I personally come down on each character, I try to give them enough autonomy to see themselves as the hero of their own story, even if they might not be the hero of mine.

Your political thriller is so innovative, so fresh, that I’d love it if you’d talk about what is wrong with the traditional thriller (and what might be right.) And did you ever feel like you were breaking rules (and did you take great glee in that)?

Thank you so much for saying that. Words like ‘innovative’ do my dark little heart good. I have a difficult time categorizing this book: lurching from literary fiction to slipstream, spy novel to satire, thriller to science fiction when I do try. I guess the best thing to say is that it’s a combination of all these; though that doesn’t make for a very concise pitch. To the extent this is a political thriller, I see it as a sort of anti-thriller. It’s not that I dislike the genre. I grew up watching James Bond save the world, and reading about it, too. This is more an anti-thriller in that many of the genre conventions serve satirical purposes and also in that the tropes of the hero serving God and country are very much in doubt. One of my great interests is politics. I suppose on some level this is an attempt to create a real political back story for a thriller, to fully engage with the politics that are usually held at arm’s length. Even though, ultimately, the politics here are satirical, too. The things I think the thriller genre does absolutely get right are its pacing, attention to plot, story, and dialogue. I think these more “mundane” literary virtues are often completely forgotten in “literary” fiction. A lot of people can write great sentences. (By a lot of people, I mean a lot of serious, professional writers.) But, can you do that, make the machine move, and still make people feel something (even if that something is only laughter)? That’s the real trick.

What advice do you give other writers?

I love giving advice to people. When they ask for it.  But, as far as writing is concerned, I’ve come to believe the best thing we can do is accept that each person must walk their own path. This doesn’t mean you refrain from giving writing advice (and especially for teachers, this would be silly), but it does mean accepting your rules or precepts, or whatever you call them, may not work at all for someone else. For me, this particularly applies to art and craft (prose style, artistic vision, use of symbolism, etc.) as opposed to the business side of things (how to deal with submissions, agents, publishers, and booksellers, etc.). In my experience, the worst writing teachers are, unfortunately, also the most dogmatic. Like tourists lost in a foreign land, they shout the same words louder and louder in the careless certainty everyone will eventually understand. And they may, in fact, have cracked the code for themselves. Which is something to applaud. But the truly universal in the teaching of art? The inviolable, infallible truth? To me, that doesn’t exist. Except for one thing: “Does it work?” This makes for a lot of trial and error, but for me, it’s the only way to go.

What’s obsessing you now and why?

The election, no question. It’s miraculous how every four years
we forget everything we’d learned four years before. During primary season, we spend so much time fighting over relatively small differences, making them out to be far greater than they are. Then, during the general election every candidate heads for the middle at light speed. Probably the most interesting part is how obvious things seem in retrospect and how unobvious they are as they happen. Obama didn’t beat Romney by a lot. He didn’t beat McCain by a lot. The country is fairly evenly divided. So, even though a candidate like Trump or Clinton may seem so absolutely ridiculous, so unsupportable, to those of us on the other side, it doesn’t necessarily seem that way to the small group of people in the middle, the ones who actually decide our elections. Even landslide elections (Nixon-McGovern, Reagan-Mondale, Bush-Dukakis), results that seem so certain in retrospect, really weren’t. If we accelerate the timetable for something like Watergate or Iran-Contra, those elections’ results might have been starkly different. The idea of alternate histories fascinates me and no doubt an alternate reality in which the George W. Bush Administration was a complete success (for all the most horrible reasons) is central to PAX AMERICANA.

What question didn’t I ask that I should have?

KGB (as CL): Are there more where this came from?

KGB (as KGB): More books, you mean? Please mean more books.

KGB (as CL): Sure, OK…

KGB (as KGB): Definitely. Right now I’m working on a mythocomic crime fantasy called LOKI’S GAMBIT. You’d rightly draw the conclusion that it has something to do with Norse mythology, that the god Loki is, in fact, the narrator and protagonist, though it’s set in the modern world and there are a few twists (most important Loki’s “good,” sort of). The challenge has been to write away from AMERICAN GODS, a book I hadn’t read until long after I started working on LOKI’S GAMBIT. I do think I’m accomplishing that—writing away from Gaiman’s book—though to make that work I’ve had to move most of the story to Europe. Which makes sense since the story was always about World War II, Nazi gold, modern conservatism, and the evolution of the Norse gods. As for PAX AMERICANA, this book is indeed the beginning of a trilogy. The other volumes, for which I have plenty of material, are tentatively entitled VIRTUAL JERUSALEM and THE GODS OF HEROES AND VILLAINS. I’m also about halfway through a ​poetry collection.

(c) by Kurt Baumeister

Hunter’s office was its usual seventy-two degrees, arid, and suffused with the same bronzed mixture of subterranean darkness and simulated daylight, the artificial shadows, that permeated HQ. Tuck sat in one of Hunter’s rust-hued, industrially-upholstered, government guest chairs staring across a desk arrayed with official gifts, piles of paper, and—he knew—more than a few camouflaged weapons. One in particular had caught his eye—a brass chimp just a little taller than the Captain Christianity action figures he’d played with as a boy.
        Armed with a scimitar in one hand and an American flag in the other, the little guy looked fully capable of striking with either mitt. Gas might pour out of his mouth, a poisoned dart shoot from his belly button…You never knew, and that was the point. Abu Yashid was always trying to take out Hunter, and there were security features everywhere. It made sense to stay alert, to make sure one of those security features didn’t go off in your frickin’ face.
          Still, Tuck couldn’t help feeling a little wistful as he looked at the chimp, as he remembered that grand, old Captain Christianity set-up he’d had in his second playroom at Black Briars—the dark castle of Christo Antares, the mountain fortress of Diabolus, and the sparkling citadel of the Captain himself. He thought of the tiny wars of good and evil he’d waged in that room, preparing for the day when he’d be able to begin the real war of good and evil, his crusade to reclaim his father’s memory from the jihadis who’d murdered it.
“Again?” Hunter scowled as she looked up from her tablet.
         Even though she was in her late fifties, Tuck had always found Hunter compelling. She radiated power, raw strength and the will to control it. What might once have been the face of a cheerleader was scored with lines now, the only thing you might still call pretty Hunter’s blue eyes. Like a deep sea somehow brimming with light, they always distracted Tuck, left him thinking of America and feeling as though Hunter was special. And she was. Even though Hunter wasn’t a true Traditionalist, she’d survived and kept her power through many administrations. Tuck was sure she knew where plenty of skeletons were buried. He was also sure that Raglan and Thunder Vance, his Secretary of Homeland Security, wanted Hunter out. They just hadn’t figured how to do it yet.
“Again?” Tuck parroted, careful to keep the chimp in his field of vision.
        “As in: what have we spoken about, Squires?”
         Tuck scanned his memory for anything important that had happened lately. All there’d been was Brussels—a flight there, a flight back, and a lot of babysitting in between. He raised his eyebrows, smiled a little more fully, and waited.
        When Hunter didn’t add anything, Tuck considered the possibility that she was messing with him. Maybe her scowl was just a trick to cover the fact that she was going to give him his promotion. He decided to take a chance, backing his chair out of the chimp’s line of sight just in case. “You mean my promotion, ma’am?”
        “Promotion?” Hunter took off her glasses, angling her gaze away from Tuck. Her eyes scanned the walls of her office—the watercolors and oils, the flag, the antique sidearms, and gleaming blades. She nodded slightly, as if arriving at a decision. When she turned back to him, her expression lay somewhere between disbelief and bemusement. All things considered, Tuck felt like it could have been a lot worse. Still, the pitch of her voice rose, “Which promotion was that?”
Tuck fought the urge to scoot again, eyed Hunter warily. “Senior Special Agent.”
        “Normally, you have to make Special Agent first.”
        “Yes, but I thought—”
        “You thought?”
         He nodded.
        She smirked. “You thought what you’ve thought all along. That because your last name is    Squires, you might get a bit of special treatment, a little boost.”
        “No, ma’am.”
       “Honestly, Squires, you’re lucky I don’t suspend your ass.”
        “Suspend? I’m still not following you, ma’am. But may I say you’re looking particularly youthful today?” He eyed the lapel of her suit. “Red really is your color.”
        “Save it.”
        “Save what?”
        “Whatever part of your dignity you haven’t squandered already.” Hunter said, depositing her glasses on the desk. “I’m talking about the fucking Mossad agent on your last assignment.”
Tuck cringed. He hated it when people cursed around him, especially people he couldn’t call on it like Hunter. “That’s not ringing any bells, ma’am.”
        Hunter glanced at her screen. “The name, Hadara Telka, doesn’t mean anything to you?” She slid her hand across the desk, rested it near the chimp’s base, and smiled.
Tuck’s gaze fell back to the monkey. Had one of his eyes just opened? “Oh, OK, yeah, I think I remember someone with a name like that. She didn’t say she was Mossad though.” When Hunter didn’t add any more details Tuck asked, “What’d she do?”
        Hunter snorted.
        “They say you asked her if she was ready to meet Jesus.”
        “I asked her if she knew Jesus.”
       “Either way, they’re construing your comments as a threat to her person.”
          “She’s a Jew.”
         “She’s still got a soul, doesn’t she?”
                                         “I just got off the phone with Thunder. She was not amused by any of this.”
         “I don’t know what to say, ma’am. I was just exercising my Constitutional rights. What are we fighting for if not religious freedom?”
        “We’re not fighting for anything anymore, Squires. I guess you didn’t get the livelink, but we’re not at war for the first time in thirty years.”
         “Unfortunately,” Tuck said, nodding sadly.
        “Unfortunately what?”
        Hunter sneered and tapped the voice button on her tablet. Her assistant, Lexus, picked up.       “Ma’am.”
        “Send in Clarion.”
      "Clarion?” Tuck watched as former top agent and current disgraced desk jockey, Ken Clarion, entered the room.
         Well into his fifties, Clarion was several inches shorter than Tuck. Good looking in a menacing way, he reminded Tuck of a seventh banana from one of those 90s gangster comedies, the vaguely charismatic one who winds up being a secret psychopath. Salt and pepper hair, at least a day of beard; black, rack suit—Brooks Brothers at best—and gas station Wayfarers. His look might have been right for the manager of a nightclub in the 1980s, but it was all wrong for a representative of the greatest nation on the face of the Earth.
        “Director,” Clarion said. He crossed the room, gave a curt nod as he took the seat next to Tuck.
Tuck and Clarion had met before. First, in an Advanced Procedures seminar at the Academy when Clarion had given Tuck a B- on his final, left him sweating for days about being thrown out. Next, they’d crossed paths in the cafeteria; Tuck nodding coolly, Clarion with that bemused expression on his face, as if he was surprised Tuck was still with the Bureau.
        Still, Tuck knew enough not to discount Clarion. He’d been good, maybe more than good, once upon a time. But a series of divorces, wrecked cars, and drunk tanks had killed his career as a field agent. Clarion was tight with Hunter, and had been for decades—they’d gone to the Academy together in their twenties—that was the only reason he’d managed to stay with the Bureau.
       “Clarion’s your new partner,” she said.

Thursday, March 9, 2017

What would you do if you felt you were losing what you loved most? New York Times Bestselling author Lauren Grodstein talks about her devastatingly wonderful new novel, OUR SHORT HISTORY, the mother/son bond, politics, crying while writing, and more

I first met Lauren Grodstein at one of my very first Algonquin events--oh, let's say, 5 years ago? Six?--I was terrified and Lauren was warm, funny and I made a fast friend. She's truly amazing. Who else gets Stephen King (!) to interview her for her astonishing New York Times Bestseller, A Friend of the Family? Who else troops out to Hoboken from Brooklyn just to have chocolate croissants and coffee with me at ChocoPain?  And who else is always, always there to comfort, support, cheer, and everything else a friend does?

Lauren is a remarkable writer, (Her last book, The Explanation for Everything, was a Washington Post Book of the Year) and Our Short History had me sobbing. Lauren knows exactly what it is to be a mother. Exactly what it is to face devastating loss. Exactly what it is to realize that maybe you are not so sure of things after all. 

And I'm not the only one who adores this novel.

"It’s admittedly early in 2017, but I suspect that this may well wind up as one of the best novels of the year. Highly recommended." - Blogcritics.org

"(A) heartbreaking, character-driven story is told in the remarkable, believable voice of a courageous, sympathetic character." - Library Journal (starred review)

“Karen is a character many will love—determined, flawed, loving, witty. . . . a poignant and realistic portrait."  - Kirkus Reviews

“In Our Short History, Lauren Grodstein breaks your heart, then miraculously pieces it back together so it’s bigger--and stronger--than before. This novel will leave you appreciating both the messiness of life and the immense depths of love.” —Celeste Ng, author of Everything I Never Told You

“Funny and fast-paced and extraordinarily insightful on every page . . . Anyone lucky enough to get roughed-up by Grodstein's devastating, fearlessly honest, often hilarious, gorgeously written novel will exit it changed.” —Karen Russell, author of Vampires in the Lemon Grove

“Lauren Grodstein has written a book with such a complicated range of emotion that I can't quite understand how she did it. In highlighting the fragility and depth of the relationship between a parent and a child, Grodstein miraculously makes you love the complexity of this world even as it tears you apart." —Kevin Wilson, author of Perfect Little World.

I'm so happy to be hosting her, here. The only thing better would be more chocolate croissants and coffee with her. Thank you, thank you, Lauren!
I always want to ask the “why now” question. What was it rumbling around in you that made you absolutely need to write this particular book?

I started writing the book when my son was four, which is a very wonderful and particular age: four is when kids stop being so physically fragile, so needy - they can start doing basic things (brushing their teeth, putting on pants) by themselves.  That year I was struck by the separation that was starting between me and Nathaniel, since I had been, until that point, such a physically full-on mom.  What I mean is that - contrary to all my predictions and all my expectations about myself - I nursed that kid until he was two, I slept next to him most nights, I carried him in my arms until he weighed forty pounds or more.  I traveled solo with him and made him special dinners and played the songs he liked on the radio over and over.  We spent a lot of time together.  And then he turned four, four and a half, and started showing glimmers of having his own life that didn’t always include me.  I felt a tiny bit liberated, but also a tiny bit evicted from this weird codependent physical all-encompassing thing we’d built together.  And I started thinking about what it would be like to be separated from him not just by the normal and wonderful fact of his growing up, but by something much darker.  How would I feel if I knew a separation were to be permanent? What would happen if one of us were terminally ill?  I wanted to write about that, but there was no way I could imagine, even for a work of fiction, what would happen if a small child were terminally ill, so I had to stick it to the mom.

Throughout the book, there is a story about politics  and who we become and why—and it’s eerily prescient to what was going on in our election. Can you talk about that please?

I’ve always used my books to try on different jobs that I might have had if I hadn’t decided to be a writer.  In A Friend of the Family, I took on the voice of a physician, and in The Explanation for Everything I wrote about a biologist.  In another life where I was better at chemistry, I would have probably gone into science or medicine.  But I’ve also always loved politics, and have always been pretty politically active - protesting and writing letters and sending money and nagging my Congresspeople.  I started writing this book at the start of Obama’s second term, a time that seemed incredibly complicated to me in terms of our national leadership.  I wanted to dig into what politics looks like behind the scenes, so I decided to give Karen a job I would have enjoyed in a different life.

Karen talks about Jake being hers, and hers alone, but isn’t part of being a mother knowing that from the moment they are born, they are moving away from you? There is something both tragic and wonderful about that.

I think it takes a little while to come to terms with that.  For me, at the start, motherhood was so overwhelming that if you’d told me I wouldn’t always be entirely beholden to this irrational lunatic baby - I just wouldn’t have believed you.  And I would be lying if I said it was easy at first; it just wasn’t.  And it wasn’t easy at second or third.  When my son was three, I’d see pregnant mothers with their toddlers and feel so totally inadequate: here were these women capable of having two when I was still barely coming to grips with my one!

What I didn’t comprehend at the time was how all that completely exhausting caregiving was just reinforcing how much I loved my kid.  There was something, I think, in the full-throttled nature of the way parenting hit me (and the fact that I seemed incapable of worrying less, doing less, trying less hard) that lined and then underlined my passion for this child.  And so again, as he started growing up, started making friends on his own, having his own jokes, his own games that didn’t require my help - as relieved as I was to be able to breathe a little bit, I was also rocked by how much I already missed him.

Now my son is eight, and he has an entire universe that is his, that I don’t know everything about.  This is as it should be.  But sometimes he still crawls into my bed at night, and that’s fine with me too.  I know it won’t last forever.  I try not to miss it while it’s still happening.

I loved the feeling of the world at large, the things that matter, the difference between being loved and having power, between losing a first love and having a last one—for Karen, it’s her son.  Why do you think it takes us all so long to realize these things?

I don’t know if most of us really do realize the arc of our lives.  I think about my grandfathers, for instance, whose lives roughly coincided with the 20th centuries - they were both born to immigrant parents during the Wilson administration, suffered through the Depression, served in World War 2, worried about their sons going to Vietnam, made money, became grandparents, died at ripe old ages.  Did they know that their lives were paralleling the great American century?  Could they have known that what they accomplished would rapidly become impossible for the generations that followed?  I doubt it.  I think they lived their lives with as much intention as they had time for, and felt lucky and deserving in equal measure.  That’s how I live too, and that’s how, in Our Short History, Karen lived - until her illness.  And now that she’s dying, she’s forced to reckon with her life and the big love of her life, and she’s trying to be intentional and thoughtful - but of course she’s failing all the time.

How in the world did you write this novel without weeping?

Oh Caroline, I cried like a baby.

I want to talk about the structure of the book, which is Karen’s letter to her son. It’s funny because I have a letter I’ve written to my son on my desktop, in case something happens to me. It’s all the things I’ve wanted him to know. But in writing to one person, we discover things about ourselves—and I loved what Karen discovered. But what about you? What did you discover?

I discovered - or rediscovered, I should say - how important reading is to me.  Karen is my first female protagonist (this is my fourth novel) but she’s really not very much like me: she’s tougher than I am, more reckless, more independent.  But one thing we have in common is how much we love to read.  Karen is always leaving book recommendations for her son - everything from Hannah Arendt to The Phantom Tollbooth - and she takes great pleasure in imagining her soon reading her favorite novels one day.  Like Karen, I’m a relentless reader, and one of the ways I get through tough times is by hiding in books.  These days I’m reading as much sociology as I can, to try to understand this political moment - I’ve read books about the white working class in Chicago, the unemployed poor in rural California, and destitute miners in coal country.  But I’ve also read some wonderful and transporting fiction, like The Vegetarian and Yellow Raft in Blue Water.

What’s obsessing you now and why?

Trump, for the obvious reasons.  But I’m trying to be as optimistic as I can be, and I find that, in forcing myself to be optimistic, I’ve been able to support friends and family who need supporting.  That’s felt good.  It’s rare that I’m the one who tells other people it’s all going to be okay (usually I’m the one with my finger on the panic button) but I’ve been glad to be of some help to the people I love who are really freaking out.  I’ve also been channeling my obsession by calling and emailing my representatives, sending money to the important places (the ACLU, Planned Parenthood), and nagging other people to do the same things.   I remind myself often that I wasn’t born after history - I was born in it.  This is my historical moment, my moment to struggle.  Nobody said it would all come to me without a fight.  So if I want clean air, health care, women’s rights, immigrant rights, affordable education, government transparency, and a president I can be proud of, I will have to fight for these things.  That’s okay.  I can do that.

Of course when it all becomes too much I can also turn off the noise to protect myself.  That’s when I go back to my novels.

What question didn’t I ask that I should have?

Oh, you want to know a little more about my son?  Well, I’ll try to keep it short.  He’s smart as a whip, reliably funny, good at soccer, and blond, which truly blows my mind.  When he grows up he wants to be a soccer player and/ or President.  Either one is fine with me but frankly I’d prefer he was a soccer player and/ or a surgeon.  Presidents these days just aren’t what they used to be.

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Victor Lodato talks about his strange, dark, haunting novel EDGAR & LUCY, why children keep showing up in his work, and so much more

It's always a joy for me to be able to meet writers I don't know, even if it is just online. And it's been a treat to email back and forth with Victor Lodato, the author of one of my favorite novels of the year, EDGAR AND LUCY. Victor Lodato isn't just a genius novelist. He's also a playwright and poet. His novel Mathilda Savitch was a Best Book of the Year by the Christian Science Monitor, Booklist and the Globe and Mail, and also won the PEN USA Award for Fiction, The Barnes & Noble Discover Prize. Victor has racked up the raves with a Guggenheim Fellowship, a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, and awards from The Princess Grace Foundation, The Carmago Foundation and the Bogliasco Foundation. 

Thank you so much for being here, Victor. I hope we can get pie soon.

I absolutely adored this novel. I was astonished at the virtuosity, how you effortlessly moved in and out of characters’ heads, and yet there was this silver line that connected everything so beautifully.  Love, loss, childhood, old age—it’s a genius book.  Is there a backstory on Edgar and Lucy? Something that pushed you to write these characters alive?

 As with all my work, I started with no agenda. I wrote the first chapter pretty quickly, and was sufficiently intrigued to keep writing. I liked the characters, the voices, and that was enough.  For me, the story always comes later. Early on, though, I realized that the characters and the setting were a sort of mirror-land of my childhood in Hoboken, New Jersey, and of my hot-blooded, working-class, Italian-Polish family.  I sometimes affectionately think of this book as my “New Jersey Gothic.”

If I had a better memory of my life—and my childhood in particular—I might write memoir.  But my memory is funny: while I don’t recall specific events very clearly, I have a strong memory of how I felt as a child, and throughout most of my life.  And so I think, in many ways, that my project as a writer has been to invent stories that can accommodate these emotions—to create fictional architectures that can contain these remembered feelings that roam around in me without context.  It’s actually a relief to have a place to put these emotions—to bind them to an invented narrative.  This was definitely true for Edgar & Lucy.  Writing it felt like an exorcism.

I was gobsmacked at the structure of the novel, how it veered into strange territory, and then came back, how voices shifted (I particularly loved the grandmother coming back!). Was any of this planned, or did it just seem right to do this?

Perhaps the book took so many years to write—nearly ten—because I don’t like to force anything.  I want to feel as if the story is growing organically, sentence by sentence, chapter by chapter.  I prefer not to play puppet master too much with my characters.  I think I’m at my best when I’m writing from inside a character—when every twist and turn of the story seems to be dictated by what a character is feeling. I think that this way of working helps to keep me truthful, emotionally, and prevents me from writing anything just to be clever.  I don’t care for stories that come across too blatantly as something written by a “writer.”  I prefer stories in which the characters seem to exist on their own.  Maybe that’s because I’m also a playwright.

Honestly, as I’m working on a piece, I never really know what’s going to happen next.  The characters and I edge toward the truth together.  It’s this sort of detective work that keeps me interested—and hopefully it does the same for a reader.  I think at the core of all writing and reading is mystery—the ultimate mystery being, who are other people? One writes—and reads—in an attempt to answer this question, or at least get closer to an answer.  It’s a very humanizing endeavor.

You've said that all of your work starts with the characters' voices, and I'd have to agree with that—so does mine.  So how do you find the voices? How do you sustain them? Do you ever have a false voice come to you?

I really can’t begin any piece of writing without a deep connection to a voice. If I have to struggle with the voice, to get it right, I simply accept that this is not my story to tell, that this is not a character to whom I can do justice. With Edgar and Lucy, I felt from the start that I knew both of them in my body, in my breath. The music of their voices—though very different from each other—came naturally to me, and I spoke every word aloud, for years, as I was writing the novel.  Where such voices come from is one of the mysteries of the writing process, and one that I tend not to question. 

How does being a poet and playwright influence your novels, or are they entirely separate entities?

Certainly, writing from voice and character is an extension of my work in the theater. When I write, I actively take on the characters—perform them, really.  It’s a very physical process.  Ideally, I want to feel that whatever I’m writing is happening right now.

I guess one could say that the medium of theater is fate, while the medium of fiction is memory. I try to bring into my fiction some of the danger of theater, to create narratives that, even as they describe the past, are somehow infused with a present-tense theatricality that raises the stakes of the emotional transactions.

One of the things that I love about writing novels is the freedom to let the story unfold over a greater length of time. In a play, the magic circle drawn around the characters has to be much tighter. When crafting a play, I invariably find that I write more scenes than I can actually use. In a play, too much extra material, too many diversions, can be fatal, especially if these things impede the sense of inevitability, the sense that we are witnessing characters caught in the wheels of fate. And while a novel’s power can be reduced by excess baggage, as well (and, in writing mine, I do think I apply my playwright’s habit of precision), the form is clearly a roomier one—one that allows the characters to have a few more detours of thought and situation. And, having fallen so deeply in love with Edgar and Lucy and Florence, I thoroughly enjoyed being able to give them a more generous life.

What's obsessing you now and why?

Short stories. I feel like it was only around five years ago that I began to understand how to write a successful short story.  They’re surprisingly difficult.  But I love the form, and am working on a collection.  Because of their brevity (compared to a novel), there’s something particularly moving to me about the short story form.  You get only so much time with the situation and with the characters.  With a novel, there’s a feeling of living a life with the characters—and that can be a lovely thing.  With a story, you’re having a fling, an affair—and it’s an opportunity for a different, sometimes wilder, kind of passion.

What question didn't I ask that I should have?

Maybe: Why are there children, Victor, in most of your works?  To which, I’d say: Good question, Caroline!

I don’t set out to write books with children in them—but children keep showing up.  And I’m glad they do.  I find it liberating to write in the voice of a child, from the perspective of someone who is still learning the world and interpreting its complexities for the first time.  It enables me to address my own fears and anxieties and confusions in a very open way.  I don’t have to pretend to have all the answers.

Ethel Rohan talks about her extraordinary new novel THE WEIGHT OF HIM, how story can thwart the writer, and so much more

Born and raised in Dublin, Ireland, Ethel Rohan lives in San Francisco. The Weight of Him, her first novel, has already won the inaugural Plumeri Fellowship.
She is also the author of two story collections, Goodnight Nobodyand Cut Through the Bone, the former longlisted for The Edge Hill Prize and the latter longlisted for The Story Prize. She wrote, too, the award-winning chapbook Hard to Say (PANK) and the award-winning e-memoir single, Out of Dublin (Shebooks).
Winner of the 2013 Bryan MacMahon Short Story Award, and shortlisted for the CUIRT, Roberts, and Bristol Short Story Prizes, her work has appeared in The New York TimesWorld Literature TodayPEN America, The Washington Post, Tin House Online, The Irish Times, and BREVITY Magazine, among many others. 
I'm so excited to host Ethel here. Thank you, thank you, Ethel

What's the backstory to The Weight of Him? What made you feel that you had to write this novel?
The more I’m asked this the more I realize just how far the novel’s genesis goes beyond the initial snatch of conversation I overhead in an Irish pub—talk of weight and grief, and which of the two might kill the obese mourner then sitting huddled over a glass of clear spirits, no ice, no citrus.
The deeper backstory is of course loaded and there’s likely much that’s still sub-conscious. What’s conscious is that too many people I love have died and this is a novel about surviving grief. Devastating grief, the kind where you just can’t believe, where you feel this frantic, adrenalized urge to spin the world backwards, reversing time and bringing back the departed.
It’s also a novel about mind and body shame. I’m a survivor of childhood sexual abuse and, as an adult, of suicidal anxiety and depression. Both are torturous and stigmatized, and both made me want to climb out of myself.
Third, it’s a novel that writes the marginalized into the center with care and respect. My rage is ever growing against narrow and limiting representations that devalue individuals and groups deemed ‘other’ and relegates them to the sidelines, or worse.
I felt I had to write this novel because too many are imprisoned through illness, are in prisons of their own making, or are trapped by others.
You're best known for your short stories. How daunting was it to write a novel? And how do you know when something needs to be a short story or a novel?
Actually, I find the short story more daunting than the novel. The former is a much more challenging and mysterious beast—a specialized form I love to read and write, and which I’m always trying to unlock.

I find the novel more accessible, both as a reader and writer. I better understand its range and distance, its possibilities and limits. I’m also a character-driven writer, so I revel in getting to spend years with the novel’s imaginary cast and putting them through ever more scenes that reveal their desires, struggles, and sometimes shifts.

The Weight of Him started as a short story. I wrote tens of drafts and one version of it was longlisted in a fancy international contest and other versions received enthusiastic rejections. No matter how I revised, though, I couldn’t get the story to work. When I joined an excellent writers group, they at last lifted the veil. The story was too expansive—and the journey its characters needed to undertake too extensive—for the short form.

In general, though, I suspect most writers know instinctually when they start out whether or not they’re writing a novel or a short story. I think it’s good to begin intentionally, but to remain open to surprise and arrive through trial and error.

What I love about the novel is that Billy stands to lose so much more than weight—
and has so much more to gain. Could you talk about this please?

Gladly. There was so much to get wrong in this novel it was paralyzing. I really didn’t want to write so directly about the difficult subjects of grief, obesity and suicide. Didn’t want the book to have even the whiff of weight loss as a means to an exemplary end.

I was afraid of how readers would receive the work—especially because I was a 140lb woman writing about a 400lb man and because I worried suicide was much too close to the nerve for friends and family I hold dear.

I gave up on the manuscript many times, but the story and its protagonist, Billy, kept returning. I can’t count the number of times I raged at my computer screen, wondering why tf I was writing this? Then came a shift and I started to think on all I might get right in the novel. I knew grief, body shame, and suicide, and they were struggles that needed a much bigger and compassionate spotlight.

The crux of Billy’s story isn’t weight loss. It’s recovery. In the haze of fresh grief, an overwhelming state that can make us simultaneously crazy and steel-eyed, Billy sets out to regain his dead son, his disconnected family, and his detached self. The irony is that his crusade runs the great risk of his losing the very things he most seeks to save.

Once I knew Billy and his story intimately, I surrendered to the novel while remaining mindful of the responsibility I bore to its inhabitants to render them with care and love. For better or worse, I followed that inner voice that told me to trust the story and myself, and so it went.

What kind of writer are you? Do you have rituals? Do you plot things out as they might be on the page, or do you just depend on being in the zone and on inspiration?
Right now I’m an exhausted writer. Nothing quite prepared me for the busyness and intense emotions around putting a first novel in the world. It’s been a whirlwind and I’m still spinning.
Typically, I’m a hard-working writer. I show up every day—sometimes for a few hours, sometimes for 9-10 hours. I don’t have the luxury any longer of focusing on just my own writing. My writing life now necessitates a lot of email, social media, events, interviews, essays, articles, reading, critiquing, phone calls, and more. As much as I can, I give back and I pay forward.
I’m not sure I have rituals so much as I’m predicable. I don’t ever wait for inspiration or that elusive feeling of being “in the zone.” I show up at my work desk every morning at 8 am, right after my daughters leave for school and I’ve fixed myself a cup of tea and buttered toast. I work, meditate, eat more, drink more tea, work. On good days I go for a walk or to the gym. The past couple of years, I’ve gotten lazier and more attached to my desk, something I’m trying to fix. Then there’s more work, more tea and food. Hmmm, yes I see the pattern.
I never plot. I have some spark that starts the story, and I have my character(s) and I go from there, line by line, scene by scene. I always try to finish each day’s work knowing what happens in the next scene, or at least in the next sentence. That way I can immediately delve into the story each morning. I revise obsessively and in final drafts I repeatedly read the work aloud, striving to make it my best.
What's obsessing you now and why?
Ugh. The state of the nation. Haters, injustice and oppression have always appalled me, but never more so than now. Fact really is stranger than fiction and it’s hard to believe how inept and farcical—and yet how horribly dangerous and divisive—our current administration is. That’s another reason I’m so exhausted right now. Our political climate is head and heart wrecking, but we can’t wear out or turn numb. We have to keep recharging, and keep resisting.
What question didn't I ask that I should have?

You might have asked if publishing my first novel, the realization of a dream, was everything I imagined it to be?

Unfortunately not. Rather, the publication of my first novel has further confirmed that story will always thwart the writer because it’s impossible to master, and that’s as punishing a fact as it is invigorating. I’ll always be trying to get closer…