Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Q&A with Suzanne Chazin

Suzanne Chazin is the author of the new mystery novel A Place in the Wind, the fourth in a series featuring detective Jimmy Vega. Her other books include No Witness But the Moon, A Blossom of Bright Light, and Land of Careful Shadows. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including The New York Times and Family Circle, and she is based in suburban New York.

Q: Your new novel focuses in part on the issue of DACA, which is very much in the news today. Why did you choose that as one of the subjects of the book?

A: You know how long it can take to write a book. I started this in the spring of 2016. There was a sense that Hillary Clinton was going to be the next president, and there was a dark horse on stage with Donald Trump making strong statements about immigration. I saw the story following, but dismissed it.

But I was intrigued by the idea of someone like him who took a local issue and magnified it through the lens of immigration. DACA was a desperation move by President Obama who tried to [help the Dreamers] and finally created an executive order.

I felt it would explode in the future—either someone like Hillary Clinton would be in office and would change it into eventual citizenship, or DACA would become a road to nowhere.

I spoke to the Westchester Hispanic Coalition and asked, Is there someone this would affect? They introduced me to someone who became a good friend. It’s something near and dear to my heart. Unlike most of immigration, it’s a clearer issue. They came as children, and you’re talking about people who are American in everything but a piece of paper. 

Q: So did you need to make changes in the book given the Trump administration? 

A: The election happened when I was finished. I was intrigued early on. I thought [I would be] writing about someone who was going back to being on television saying “You’re fired.” It was almost dystopian.

[This character in the book] would talk to Jimmy about facts and truth. I made that up! Donald Trump has been a figure in New York forever. I’m not saying this character is Donald Trump. By the time of the election happened, the book was finished. What it is, it was.

Q: Your character Wil, who’s part of the DACA program, discusses his status being very difficult.

A: For DACA kids, there has always been this question, they can’t vote…a lot of fields are not open to them. The greater America is waking up to what DACA means, but for DACA kids it has been nonstop.

Q: How do you see the dynamic at this point between your ongoing characters Jimmy and Adele?

A: They’re the mainstays of the series. They’re not going [away] as a couple; they’re monogamous. But they’re very different people, and that becomes a constant source of difficulty. They don’t see the world the same way, but they really respect each other. In No Witness But the Moon, Adele had to put a lot aside. We needed a chance for Jimmy to be there for Adele.

People’s emotional tenor can change on a dime when something’s close to them. A young girl teaching at an immigration center and disappearing—you see how the town would react, how Jimmy and Adele would. She has a child who’s underage at home, she’s a working mother. Jimmy is past that—his daughter is in college, but he has growing pains with her.

They wear multiple hats and have stresses and strains outside their relationship that add to the stresses and strains inside.

Q: How did you choose the title for this new novel and what does it signify for you?

A: Alejandra Pizarnik is a Jewish poet. One character is a Holocaust survivor. It was appropriate to pick a Latin American poet who is also Jewish. The actual quote—I was taken with a “place in the wind”—it’s that DACA sense that you’re building something permanent and the wind comes and it’s gone….Even [the character] Max Zimmerman, in Poland, Cuba, even here, he’s striving, rebuilding [after his life was destroyed during the Holocaust].

Q: So now you’re working on book five?

A: Voice with No Echo. It’s from a poem by Julia de Burgos, a Puerto Rican poet, "The Quietest One." I’m working on domestic violence, but it’s not just limited to immigrants. Also, Jimmy has someone important from his past in the fifth book, his half-sister. There’s more about his music and his life with his band.

I’m still concerned about these [immigration] issues…Readers will say I didn’t guess the ending so I really loved the book. Others take other things [from the book]. I’m ok with both those readers. I hope people will get these issues after reading the series.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: If people are curious about why DACA is a big issue, this is an interesting book. This is a cautionary tale about a whole town. It’s about Jimmy and Adele, but it’s about what happens when people lose their trust and faith in each other. It’s almost like a three-act play. A stranger comes to town, in the guise of an ambitious politician, and undoes the town.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Suzanne Chazin. 

Q&A with Steve Wiegenstein

Steve Wiegenstein is the author of the new novel The Language of Trees, the third in a series of historical novels about the fictional community of Daybreak, in the Missouri Ozarks. The other novels in the series are Slant of Light and This Old World. He has taught at a variety of universities, including Centenary College of Louisiana and Drury University.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for Daybreak, the community you've written about in your novels?

A: I'd studied 19th-century utopian communities for many years, while also writing short fiction with a contemporary setting. Then one morning it came to me that I could combine those two passions of utopian studies and fiction writing, while using my home region (the Missouri Ozarks) as the setting.

I had a location in mind that I remembered since childhood and decided to place an imaginary town there. It's got everything I needed from a thematic and descriptive standpoint--a river, a mountain, a lush valley.

So after that the only issue was to populate it! I modeled my fictional community on the Icarians, a real-life utopian community that lived in the Midwest for about 50 years, but altered many of the particular details of their society. So it's a not-real community that has some real progenitors.
Q: Did you know when you wrote the first book that you'd be writing a series featuring the same characters? 

A: Oh yes. The grand scheme is to portray this same location through the years, with generations coming and going, families flourishing and dying out, the town rising and falling.

I'm interested in the American landscape and especially in issues of rural and urban life, so I wanted a country community that could serve as a kind of microcosm of American ideals and dreams as people struggled with changing economic and social conditions over the decades. So a series was always in the plans.

Q: What type of research did you do to write The Language of Trees, and did you learn anything that especially surprised you?

A: For this book I needed to research the social conflicts that occurred in Missouri (and by extension, in all of rural America) with the coming of the Industrial Age.

We think of the main conflicts as occurring in urban environments--the Haymarket riot, the Pullman strike, and so forth. But I learned that rural, agricultural communities were equally affected by the coming of modernity, and that people resisted these changes in some remarkable ways!

Our commonplace notions about history tend to simplify the ways in which people lived, and the ways they responded to changes taking place in society. So I hope to complicate that picture a bit. 

I was also surprised a bit by the degree to which the Ozarks was transformed by the arrival of the big timber operations in the late 1880s. This transformation was cultural, economic, and environmental, and the countryside was never the same again. It's a powerful and under-told story.

Q: You've been writing about some of these characters over several books--how have they changed?

A: This has been the most fun of all! These characters have grown up, aged, deepened. Just to pick one for an example, Charley Pettibone appears in the first book as a rather callow 15-year-old who happens into the community more or less by chance, and who runs off to fight in the Civil War because he thinks it will be a great way to cover himself in glory and make himself a hero to the ladies.

He returns in the second book embittered, angry, a real hard case who has been transformed by his war experience into something very close to a murderer, and who has a terrible time readjusting to peacetime life.

By the third book, he's a husband and father who has tamed (mostly) his wartime instincts and is someone to whom the younger folks look to for wisdom. It is absolutely one of the best experiences of my life to be revisiting these characters as they change.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I'm working on the fourth novel of the series, which will take us into the 20th century. The Modern Age has taken hold with a vengeance, and inhabitants of the Ozarks are now dealing with a different sensibility, in which country folk are stereotyped as "hillbillies" and considered to be a lesser form of being than the growing urban society, which is bypassing them in technological development and perceived cultural superiority.

But these imagined differences may turn out to be less--and different--than commonly supposed. 

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I love talking with library groups, book clubs, and civic organizations! I get a great charge out of speaking with groups in person, but also do conversations over Skype and other online platforms. Any book club that would like to have me talk with them can get in touch with me through my website and we can work out a date!

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Amulya Malladi

Amulya Malladi is the author of the new novel The Copenhagen Affair. Her other novels include A House for Happy Mothers and The Mango Season. In addition to writing, she works as a marketing executive for a global medical device company. After living in Denmark for 14 years, she moved to California in 2016 and lives in Orange County. 

Q: How did you come up with the idea for The Copenhagen Affair, and for your main character, Sanya?

A: I love Copenhagen. It’s one of my favorite cities in the world. A few years ago I wasn’t writing, I wasn’t getting published, my day job was stressful, I was pretty sure my marriage was coming to an end – I was depressed. I started to write The Copenhagen Affair as a way to laugh. Since I read everything I write to my husband, I thought he could also have a laugh in process. I never thought it would get published because I wrote this one just to have some fun.

In some ways, Sanya is the character I have written who is closest to me. Slightly off balance (or more than slightly), irreverent and trying to find that place for herself where she’s happy. She’s not all me. I was never a people pleaser, but there are parts of Sanya that I recognize very well.

Q: You’ve noted that you’ve experienced depression. Why did you decide to include depression as a focus of the novel, and did your own experiences factor into those of your character?

A: Oh, absolutely! Sanya’s depression is a lot like my depression. You feel guilty for being depressed because you really don’t have a problem. I remember a friend told me, you have a great husband, awesome kids, lovely house … what exactly is your problem? Subtext – you’re a drama queen.

I’m a high-functioning depressive. I can work. I can throw a party. I can socialize. I also can spend 10 hours straight on one of those long flights crying for the most part (hoping no one notices).

Mental health is still taboo. People don’t talk about seeing a therapist and it’s worse in Denmark where it’s all about crisis control rather than continual mental health. I always surprise people at work when I easily say, “Oh I’m going to work from home that day as I have a therapist appointment in the middle of the day.” You could say you’re seeing the dentist and no one cares but you say you’re seeing a therapist and 15 eyebrows shoot up. Why?

In writing Sanya I also hoped that women (because we refuse to admit when we have a problem so as to not inconvenience others or feel like drama queens) will relate and not ignore their needs but get help and live a fuller life.

Q: You lived in Copenhagen for many years. What do you hope readers who may not be familiar with the city take away from your portrayal of it in the novel?

A: The Copenhagen I describe is my Copenhagen. These are the places I went to. Someone else’s Copenhagen will be different, obviously. I wrote about it as a love letter to the city I love—but I find that nearly every early review I read ends with the reviewer adding Copenhagen to their travel list. That’s heartwarming.

I want people to see Copenhagen as this foodie capital with walking streets and outdoor cafés; with bad weather and old buildings with green turrets; the new harbor and the minimalist design and …

Q: What do you think the book says about marriage?

A: I think the book says that marriage is tough and ever-evolving. It’s not a static thing. As we grow—and we’re married, we can grow together or grow apart. I also wanted to show that marriage has layers. You don’t just love all the time or hate all the time or want each other all the time.

The biggest problem with long marriages like the one Sanya and Harry have (and the one I have) is that we fall into habits and someone compromises on one thing or the other and it becomes the norm and someone is steadily unhappy with the compromise—and if you don’t fix it, one day, it all goes boom!

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I recently moved to L.A. and I was talking to my agent about how I find “geography” difficult. I envy the writers who write about a small town or a home town because I have moved so much and travel so much that I feel unauthentic writing about a place I don’t know well. She had commented on my shoes and I told her I bought them in Macau and that’s when she said, “Why not write about that—the travel, that life—where your geography can be an airport, an airplane …?”

So came to be a quarter of a first draft of The Nearest Exit Maybe Behind You—I think of it as the fictional Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Sept. 26

Sept. 26, 1949: Jane Smiley born.

Monday, September 25, 2017

Q&A with Jen Waite

Jen Waite is the author of the new book A Beautiful, Terrible Thing: A Memoir of Marriage and Betrayal, which focuses on her relationship with her ex-husband. She lives in Maine.

Q: Why did you decide to write a memoir about your experiences with your ex-husband, and what was it like to write about such a difficult time in your life?

A: I did not sit down to write a memoir. It wasn’t a planned, purposeful endeavor. I was writing close to everything when it was happening. It was because my mom and another character in the book, who’s “Nat” in the book, told me you need to start writing and move it out of your body.

The reason for writing it at the time, I didn’t really know. In hindsight, I figured out that I tried to understand what was happening and tried to process it. I didn’t write to help other people, but to figure out what was happening in my own life…

It was entirely therapeutic, and then it quickly turned into, I have a lot of pages, and a plot, and I realized it could be something more than just for myself.

There were scenes where it was very painful and I was releasing a lot of emotion. There were scenes where I had to force myself to write. But most of it, I felt that I had to. It was almost as if every sentence had already formed in my head. It took two and a half to three months to write. It just kind of came.

Q: How was the book’s title chosen, and what does it signify for you?

A: That title was not my original title. It was "Human Heroin." But it would have been too confusing. We were brainstorming titles and my editor came up with ["A Beautiful, Terrible Thing"]. I’m really glad now. It’s more appealing to the demographic the book resonates with, mostly women, who have been in these relationships.

The “beautiful, terrible thing” for me is not the relationship…but the fact that I went through this and came out so much stronger. As cheesy as it sounds, I’m so much better a person. And it goes without saying, my daughter is the most beautiful thing that came out of it. It’s what I learned, and it’s the truth.

Q: The book is organized primarily into chapters focusing on before and after you found out about your husband’s affair. How did you decide on the structure of the book?

A: I sat down that first day and it sounds like I’m lying, but it happened organically. I knew exactly what I was going to start with. In my head was a timeline. Certain events were highlighted that I knew would be the “before” and the “after.”

In hindsight, I had to juxtapose falling-in-love moments with the after moments to find out what went wrong.

And it’s important for the reader to go along on the journey in dual time as well. It felt like an amazing beginning and the end was so horrific—what I’m hoping was that people would almost see through my eyes that I couldn’t even believe it myself. People need to experience the before and after at the same time.

Q: What do you hope readers take away from the book?

A: I hope for anyone who’s been in a relationship with a toxic person, not necessarily a psychopath but any unhealthy relationship, I hope they feel validated. A lot of people walk away thinking they’re crazy.

And I hope people who haven’t might, A, take the warning signs and B, understand the psyche of a person in that relationship, why it isn’t easy to extricate yourself. People think, Oh, just leave. I’m hoping it will be a multiple purpose.

A few therapists have contacted me and said it changed how they were treating their patients now, [after having] a glimpse into a person in that relationship.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I haven’t started writing a book. I’m doing a lot of articles that tag along with the memoir; my publisher has contacted me about media outlets that are interested.

I’m working in Portland, Maine, for an insurance company. It’s a 9-to-5 job and I’m happy there.

At the end of the memoir, I was ready to become a therapist. I’m still excited, but I’ve taken a pause to make sure that’s something I want to do, and with a toddler and a book coming out…

I want it to be a thoughtful decision, not one born out of trauma.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: The reactions have been all over the board. I learned not to read reviews—the good ones are awesome; the bad ones are so painful. The word “psychopath” is a very visceral, intense word. It’s interesting that people are so fixated on, Is he or isn’t he? That is missing the point, but I get it because I did use that word.

I want people to know there’s more than whether he is or isn’t a psychopath, but it’s being in a toxic relationship, what drew me to him, owning that part of me. I hope it gives other women a direction about where to go. What set me free was looking inward at my own self, doing that scary work about my own vulnerabilities.

It is click-baity that way [the idea of a psychopath], but it’s so much more about forming boundaries, recognizing your own self-worth, finding yourself. For me, it was to find the person I really always was, and a lot got covered up by everything else that was happening in my life. It’s about getting back to the root of who we are and where our power lies.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Robin Roe

Robin Roe is the author of the young adult novel A List of Cages, which focuses on a high school student who comes back into contact with his foster brother, whom he hasn't seen in many years. Roe has run a mentoring program for at-risk teens in Dallas and counseled adolescents in Boston. She notes that she incorporated experiences from her own life and the kids she's worked with as she wrote the novel.

Q: Did you know how the book would end before you started writing it, or did you make many changes along the way?

A: Right away, I had a general sense of how the book would end, and I wrote the last line very early in the writing process.

Q: Who do you see as the ideal readers for this book, and what do you hope they take away from it?

A: I really see A List of Cages as a book for anyone.

When people experience abuse as children, it shapes the way they view themselves. There’s often this feeling that because bad things were done to you, then you must be bad. So I hope that any reader who’s gone through this can start to release shame about experiences that weren’t their fault.

On the flipside, if someone can’t personally relate to the abuse, I hope it encourages empathy, and an understanding that we have so much power to positively impact the lives of others. 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Sept. 25

Sept. 25, 1897: William Faulkner born.