Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Q&A with Sarah Hall

Sarah Hall is the author of the new story collection Madame Zero. Her other books include the novels The Wolf Border and How To Paint a Dead Man. She has taught creative writing in various programs in the U.K. and elsewhere, and she lives in Norwich, U.K.

Q: Do you see any themes linking the stories in your new collection?

A: It's always a little hard for me to talk about links between pieces of fiction as each individual story (or novel) to me seems really quite different from the next, the work seems very protean.

But certainly I think there are preoccupations that link the stories in this collection - an interest in human mutability and our "untamed" side; self-deception (and how that relates to survival) and knowledge of another; women's freedom and the female body as a site of conflict, whether that is political, animal, sexual, or mythical; dystopian worlds; alienation and belonging. 

Q: How did you select the order in which the stories appeared in the book?

A: I knew "Mrs. Fox" and "Evie" would bookend, but I wasn't sure which way round they would go, and in the end I placed "Evie" last because it seemed to amplify whatever darkness the book is working with - a sense of "take no prisoners" at the end was what I wanted.

"Mrs. Fox" has a wide open space as an ending, and reconciliation of sorts, but Evie closes the door, on fantasy, on escape, and what is left is "normality" but a kind of terrifying version of it, I think, for all three players in the story.

The stories in between those two were shuffled and reshuffled, for variation, and eventually an order seemed to impose itself, so that medical stories and psychology stories act as stepping stones.

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

A: Madame Zero was a psychiatric case study - it is believed she had a nihilistic personality disorder. The sense of the loss of self and a questioning of identity runs through the book, and it is the female figures who seem to reduce and reform, who come close to death or pass through into liminal spaces, so it seemed perfect. 

Q: As someone who writes both novels and short stories, do you have a preference?

A: I love short stories. I love writing them, reading them, I love what they are capable of, and I think their strange combination of restriction and flexibility make me a better writer. The qualities they can showcase are qualities that feel very suitable for my work and mindset as a writer. Perhaps the form is my true metier, I don't know. 

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I have started a new novel! And I'm judging the 2017 Man Booker prize. And I have a 3 year old. These things combined fill up the days.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I remain in the realm of possibilities, as Sartre said.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Oct. 17

Oct. 17, 1915: Arthur Miller born.

Monday, October 16, 2017

Q&A with Susie Steiner

Susie Steiner is the author of the new novel Persons Unknown, the second in a series featuring Detective Manon Bradshaw. She also has written Missing, Presumed and Homecoming. She has worked for The Guardian, The Times, The Daily Telegraph, and the Evening Standard, and she lives in London.

Q: How did you come up with your character Manon Bradshaw, and did you think when you wrote Missing, Presumed that you’d be writing more books about her?

A: With Manon, I wanted someone articulate and who was aware of her feelings, so that her emotional register could written. I also wanted her to be turbulent within the normal range – she is up and down, vulnerable, often a mess – but she is not crazy.

I also didn’t want the detective trope of loner, unable to form relationships. She is all connected up and wanting attachments, rather than avoiding them.

I didn’t think of her as a series detective when writing Missing, Presumed but equally, staying with her for more books is entirely fruitful and rich. It’s a pleasure to remain in her company.

Q: You write from the perspective of several characters, not just Manon’s. Do you write the chapters in the order in which they appear?

A: I write in Scrivener, a novel writing program which allows you to see your scenes in a folder to the side. So I’m aware of the hand-offs between different characters’ PoVs.

They carry the story between them, which is very useful, because you’re not stuck with one character having to think and see everything plot-wise. This also allows the reader to know things before the detectives, which heightens suspense.

I try to keep the balance between Manon, Davy et al reasonably even, though it’s fine if Manon dominates to a degree.

Q: Do you usually know how the books will end, or do you make many changes along the way?

A: I’m a huge re-writer. I usually spend a year on a first draft, then another full year redrafting. The plot can go through quite seismic changes in that time.

I try to know the ending in a broad-brush way from the start, because you’ve got to be aiming somewhere. Also, you need an ending that’s strong enough to carry the whole journey, and it’s best to know that before you set off!

Q: In a piece for The Independent about your loss of sight, you wrote, “My sight loss, which has begun to limit me only in the last five years, has accompanied an increase in my creative output as a novelist. The two seem intertwined, as if the less I can see of the world, the more I can focus inwardly.” Can you say more about that interconnection?

A: In practical terms, I work from home, in my attic, which is better for me given I have a disability. I think I’d struggle commuting to an office these days.

I suppose the analogy I was making was that my sight has reduced in circumference, to quite a small circle – it’s my peripheral vision I’ve lost. And in that circle is my novel. As I have a degenerative condition, I’m also aware that time is not unlimited.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: A third Manon caper! I’m about 30k words into Manon’s third installment. I have a good idea of the ending, but the middle is causing me all manner of headaches!

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Persons Unknown, the second Manon mystery, can be read as a standalone, so readers shouldn’t feel they have to start at the beginning.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Oct. 16

Oct. 16, 1854: Oscar Wilde born.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Q&A with Carole Boston Weatherford

Carole Boston Weatherford is the author of the new children's picture book Schomburg: The Man Who Built a Library. It focuses on Arturo Schomburg, the Harlem Renaissance figure and collector of books and art from Africa and the African diaspora. Weatherford's many other books include Becoming Billie Holiday and Moses: When Harriet Tubman Led Her People to Freedom. She lives in North Carolina.

Q: Why did you decide to write this picture book about Arturo Schomburg?

A: It was Eric’s idea—Eric Velasquez, the illustrator. We worked together on four books in the past, and on a couple of occasions in the past he pitched a book to me. With the Jesse Owens book, he said, How about a book on Jesse Owens at the 1936 Olympics, and I said, Okay!

He said he’d like to do a book about Schomburg, and I said, Okay! But the journey of this book was longer. Within a year or two we had a contract for Jesse Owens. This book took a decade. It was a long journey.

I wrote the manuscript as a book-length poem for a picture book. I let it sit for a while, and pulled it out again years later when our agent said, Do you have anything Eric and you can work on?

I delved deeper. There’s a sequence of poems in the book, so you have to have more words than in a book-length poem. I had to do more research—I had to show Schomburg’s discovering as well, [information] that debunked what his 5th grade teacher had told him [that African descendants had no history].

Q: How did you research the book?

A: [There are] two books about Schomburg—one is the definitive biography of him, and one is a monograph, The Legacy of Schomburg. There were those two, and then, as I looked at the books and artifacts and art in his collection, I researched those pieces as well, to see what he may have discovered, himself.

I tell people it’s a book about primary sources. This man was collecting them at a time when primary sources were all there was. Now there are secondary sources, thanks to the efforts of Schomburg and others.

I did not go to the Schomburg Center to work on this project, but I had been there a long time ago, before digitizing. I was there [doing research] with white gloves on. It was in the ‘80s.

Q: Did you learn anything that especially surprised you?

A: I’m trying to think of anything I didn’t know…I had not studied the Haitian Revolution that much, and was finding out details about it. And this may seem trivial, but he married three women who were all named Elizabeth!

The poem most referenced by reviewers is Whitewash, about some of the people we typically don’t think of as having African ancestry, but did. But I had heard of this before.

With Beethoven, I was not sure it had been confirmed; I had heard of the other three, Pushkin, Audubon and Dumas. It was fairly well known in circles of very enlightened black people who might be in those disciplines. That’s been the most eye-opening for many people who have reviewed the book.

I knew Schomburg gave his collection to the library but I didn’t know Schomburg was so intimately involved with other figures from the Harlem Renaissance. He was helping other people with their research, and helping writers.

I think at that time the Harlem Renaissance needed a figure like a Schomburg. Somebody had to be the keeper of the history so others could come to the well and drink from it. If Langston Hughes was the bard, Schomburg was the librarian.
Q: What do you hope readers take away from his story?

A: I hope they will take away that being someone of African descent is not something you can pigeonhole into a stereotype. I hope they will understand the breadth and depth of the African contributions throughout the diaspora, particularly in the United States.

Q: What do you see as his legacy today?

A: The collection itself. It’s the world’s largest collection of African American manuscripts and artifacts and primary sources. I hope kids will appreciate how exciting it must have been for Schomburg to deal with these primary sources. Research can be exciting.

My dedication kind of speaks to that—“Curiosity is the seed of discovery. Discovery is the root of progress.” To move forward, you’ve got to have something with you. You’ve got to know you’re entitled to [more].

Q: Getting back to Eric Velasquez, what do you think his illustrations add to the book?

A: They certainly dramatize the narrative, and lend dignity to the subject matter. Because they go from the Caribbean to the United States to Europe, they certainly cover a wide scope and sweep…I love the illustrations. I love that he’s used oil. The oil makes this more masterful.

Some of the illustrations are museum-quality portraits—of Beethoven, of Toussaint Louverture. I think Eric did fantastic illustrations—he really did Schomburg justice. The cover image, of Schomburg holding all the books, captures the essence of the man…

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’m working on a project about the Selma to Montgomery march. It’s a book-length poem.

The next to come out will be Be a King, illustrated by James Ransome. It’s not a biography but a book about how children can adapt his principles of service in their own young lives.

It weaves in aspects of his life, through images of published and personal milestones of his life, with stories of kids doing service projects in their community, living out King’s dream, and working on a mural of King at their school.

Q: Anything else we should know about the Schomburg book?

A: If I’m asked what my favorite poem is, it’s the last poem, called Epitaph. It weaves in an African proverb, that a book is a garden carried in a pocket. That portrait of him [on that page] almost comes to life.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Abby Stern

Abby Stern, photo by Martina Tolot
Abby Stern is the author of the new novel According to a Source. She has worked as a freelance celebrity reporter in Hollywood; her work has appeared in various publications, including People magazine.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for According to a Source, and for your character Ella? Did your own experiences working in Hollywood factor into the story at all?

A: When I first started freelancing for a celebrity magazine and would tell friends both in and out of LA what I did, they were intrigued and asked me a million questions. They couldn't believe I got to go to parties and red carpets to interview celebrities and would sometimes get to hang out after.

As I became more immersed in that side of the industry I got to know other people who did different things at magazines and in my gut I felt like there was a really fun story to tell. I was a huge fan of The Devil Wears Prada and thought the same kind of narrative could work for a Holllywood story so I sat down and started writing.

There is definitely some of me in Ella, good and bad. It's more of the younger version of me. People don't approach decisions they make in life ever intentionally trying to do the wrong thing, but they do. And people aren't always likeable. I wanted to make sure Ella was more real and grounded than anything else. 

As far as if my experiences made it into the book, the book is all fiction but it's definitely inspired by some things I've seen or heard and then I took all of that and used a lot of creative license to craft an interesting story.

Not everything that's based on a kernel of truth would make for an interesting novel so I had to divorce myself of the notion of only writing things how they would happen in real life for the sake of the story.

Q: Do you see Ella's story as an only-in-Hollywood plot, or could it take place somewhere else? How important is setting to you in your writing?

A: Of course most of Ella's story here has to do with Hollywood but I do think that her journey has a relatable message for anyone who lives anywhere.

As I said above, characters and people in real life don't always do the right thing. They want to or think they are but they rationalize decisions and behaviors to themselves that they know deep down aren't the best choices.

Ella is a messy character. She makes mistakes and she has to face the consequences and figure out how she can attempt to make amends to the people she's hurt. No matter where you live or what your profession is, I think we can all relate to that as fallible human beings. 

For According to a Source, the setting was important because of that push and pull Ella has between Hollywood and her real life. I do think that setting and external factors have an effect on characters no matter what the setting is.

This one for me was a particularly fun one because of all of the glitz and glam but also because of that it's really important to have grounded characters. I never had to work on the story being "fun" because of the setting but I wanted to make sure that it was a story that focused on characters instead of namedropping LA landmarks. 

Q: What did you see as the right blend between humor and seriousness as you wrote the novel?

A: I never had in mind that I want it to be 70 percent fun or 30 percent serious. Again, I had to let the characters drive the story. Sometimes, just like in life, you're in the middle of some really dark moments and there's levity. Or you can be on cloud nine and have your world come crashing down.

I'm a fairly witty person, always throwing a joke into everyday conversation, so I definitely infused that into According to a Source but the ratio of seriousness to humor always came from the characters instead of something I was trying to orchestrate as the author.

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

A: When I first sat down to write the novel, no. I was trying to let it flow out of me and wrote a first chapter that doesn't even exist now. I truly had no idea where it would go but I knew that I was having fun with it and that the people that I showed it to were responding well.

I probably didn't start to think about the actual story arc until I'd written about 80 pages. Then it was time to stop writing fun stories for the protagonist and start to shape it into a novel.

Once I got into that mindset, I knew there were a few major plot points that had to happen for the sake of structure and when I figured out what I wanted those to be I was able to fill in the gaps.

That's not to say that there wasn't a lot of revising and editing but I'd say that the final version is very close to the vision I had when I began to conceptualize the novel. 

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I'd love for According to a Source to become a TV series so I'm working on that. There's so many fun situations that didn't fit in with the narrative of the novel and I'd love for people to be able to see Ella handle them. 

I'm also working on a bunch of other TV projects and have some ideas for books in other genres I'm fleshing out and researching. I think that Ella's story is nicely bookended here for now but I think it could be fun to explore Holiday's character more in a spinoff. 

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: My dream job is to write for Last Week Tonight with John Oliver or to work with Nancy Meyers.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Oct. 15

Oct. 15, 1917: Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. born.