Friday, July 21, 2017

Q&A with Julia Glass


Julia Glass is the author of the new novel A House Among the Trees. Her other books include the bestselling Three Junes and I See You Everywhere. She is a Distinguished Writer in Residence at Emerson College, and she lives in Marblehead, Massachusetts.

Q: One of the themes you address in your book is artistic creativity and how it affects your characters Mort, the children’s book author, and Nick, the actor who’s playing Mort in a film. Do you think their experiences of creating art are similar, despite their different mediums?

A: I like to think that the fiction writer’s work is almost identical to that of the actor, with one difference: the writer does it in private while the actor must, at some point, do it in public. (Yes, big difference!)

But we are both tasked with immersing ourselves in hearts and minds other than our own—and in making our characters come alive for the audience we want to entertain and move.

We are soul mates, perhaps, when it comes to the way we exercise our imagination. (The Nobel Prize–winning Australian novelist Patrick White once said that the only reason he became a fiction writer was that he couldn’t be an actor.)

So in that respect, Mort’s work is parallel to Nick’s, and it’s part of why they “bond” so quickly in their e-mail correspondence, prior to Lear’s sudden death, and why Mort entrusts Nick with a secret he needs to unburden.

Yet the public quality of a successful actor’s work bestows on him genuine celebrity, which a writer’s work rarely does. I’m sure that even Maurice Sendak, who was the inspiration (though not the model) for Mort Lear, could walk down a busy street in New York City without being stopped for an autograph or its modern-day version, the selfie.

Probably most authors cherish this anonymity—but not all. I am certain some would envy the Nick Greenes of the world, who are widely recognized, even adored, by total strangers. I think my character Mort, as he aged, had a craving for true stardom, which led him toward the folly of hubris.

Q: As you mentioned, the issue of fame also arises in the novel. Why was that something you chose to explore, and how do you see it affecting your characters?

A: Fame—which comes in forms other than tabloid celebrity—is a subject I did not anticipate addressing when I started writing A House Among the Trees.

I love how dim-witted I often am at the outset of a story! Because here I am portraying an iconic, revered children’s author and a newly minted movie star. (“Duh,” as my teenage son might say.)

What I loved, as I wrote my way in and got wise to this issue, is that I accidentally created two characters on opposite sides of their fame: one just emerging into its blinding brilliance, the other fighting (if subconsciously) to keep his place in the spotlight over decades of a career following the book that made him a household name.

People often talk about achieving public recognition of their success as “having arrived.” But here’s the thing: the place at which you’ve arrived is as much like the peak of a mountain as it is like a fabulous party.

It’s a precarious place, and if you want to stay there, it takes a lot of hard work—which can lead to vanities, insecurities, and even jealousies that threaten the integrity of your work. Remaining true to the talent, vision, and plain old hard work that earned you success and fame (and maybe wealth) is never easy.

Readers of my novel see the consequences of this challenge in Mort Lear (and his loyal guardian, Tommy Daulair)—and the revelation of the challenge to Nick Greene. Merry Galarza, the museum curator who feels betrayed by Lear’s final wishes, suffers the collateral damage of fame.

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

A: Titles do not come easily to me, and they often change. This novel was, in my mind, The Inseparables right up to my turning in the first finished draft. For various reasons, that title wasn’t viable. I was disappointed.

My editor and I struggled with a number of alternatives, and then I began to think about how important Mort Lear’s house is throughout the entire story, not just as a setting but as the repository of Lear’s material and spiritual legacy.

And it stands on a property that he bought because he loved all its marvellous old trees (of which the reader gets a kind of tour toward the end of the book). I have always been captivated by trees, and whenever I visit a new place, I’m constantly bugging people to find out the names of the ones that are new to me.

What I didn’t realize when I settled on A House Among the Trees (choosing it over A House in the Woods, with its stronger fairy-tale allusions) was that I had unconsciously quoted the first line of Lear’s breakthrough picture book, Colorquake.

That fictional book begins, “Ivo’s mother kept a perfect house, a house among the trees.” Of course, my editor noticed it right away! (Again, DUH!)

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

A: I never know the end of a novel till I’m well into writing it—and still I may change my mind a few times. I write my novels the way that E. L. Doctorow claimed to write his: as if I’m driving in the dark, on a long journey, and all I can see is the short stretch of road illuminated by the headlights.

Yet I have faith I will reach my destination, even if, once in a while, I get lost along the route and have to—as a newfangled GPS would put it—“recalibrate the route.”

Q: What are you working on now?

A: Speaking of long journeys, I’m currently out on the road, promoting this novel, but once my touring winds down, I hope to return to the novel I set aside when these characters (Tommy, Morty, Nick, and Merry) knocked too loudly on my door for me to refuse them entry.

The suspended (I hope not abandoned) novel is set in Vigil Harbor, the seaside town I created at the end of The Widower’s Tale, and features at least one of the characters from that earlier novel. More I cannot say at this tender juncture!

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: My favorite part of being on the road to promote a new book is getting to meet the booksellers who sell it and the readers who will read it (or, to my astonishment, have done so already!).

I continue to learn new things about my own characters and themes as I answer questions and chat with fans—so far, in the Midwest and along the West Coast.

But I have several remaining events back in the Boston area, as well as in New Orleans, Nashville, and at the National Book Festival in D.C. I’ll be adding a couple of other venues to my fall schedule as well. Anyone interested in dates and details should keep an eye on my author Facebook page

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Bethany Ball


Bethany Ball is the author of the new novel What To Do About the Solomons, which focuses on an Israeli family. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including The Common and The American Literary Review. She lives in New York.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for your novel, and for the Solomon family?

A: I married an Israeli about 17 years ago. I think whenever two people from different cultures marry there is going to be friction and a kind of culture shock, for both parties.

My husband was a kibbutznik from a large-ish family. I had not really intended on writing a book about Israelis but I had written several pieces about Israeli commandos and a story about an Israeli mother who unknowingly leaves her child alone while she travels to America.

When I wrote the first chapter of What to Do About the Solomons, which was about a kibbutznik named Guy Gever having a kind of breakdown (or breakthrough), I knew I had a book in the making. It was a lot of fun and a good way to write a first novel.

There were sparks between the stories, a kind of friction that propelled the narrative forward. And writing the book was a way for me to make sense of two things: Israeli culture and the dynamics of a large family.

Q: You tell the story from a variety of perspectives. Did you especially enjoyed writing about some of the characters in particular?

A: I enjoyed writing the first chapter very much. That was one of those rare chapters that felt completely effortless to write. It was the chapter that made me want to write the book.

Guy Gever is alien to me in many ways, and at the same time, utterly familiar. I love the idea of people breaking down and rebuilding themselves, creating a life they ultimately want. For that reason, I rooted for Maya as well.  

Q: The story takes place over many years in the life of the family. Did you write the chapters in the order in which they appear, or did you move things around as you wrote?

A: The narrative takes place over many years because my feeling about people is that you only really know them over a long period of time.

I wanted to show my characters evolving and devolving over years and years, but I didn’t necessarily want to do it in chronological order.

Memory does not work chronologically. Someone can behave to me in a certain way and maybe I’m surprised. Or maybe I will remember an incident that happened 20 years ago that illuminates the interaction. I wanted to bring that quality to the book.

Q: How was the title selected, and what does it signify for you?

A: I had a very difficult time naming this book. No one could come up with a title. It was a painful process. I kept going for sort of biblical titles, Old Testament titles, but they didn’t speak to the modern, secular nature of the book.  

Eventually, my amazing agent Duvall Osteen came up with the title. We were on the phone and she said it and I was like, That’s it! Luckily, my editors at Grove went for it as well.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’m right now trying hard to get back to my second book. It’s a more traditional novel set in Detroit, the American South and New York City in the year 1999 leading up to the Millenium. It deals with the mythology of Y2K, being broke, and auto plants.

One day I’d love to revisit the Solomons, but not for this book.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: As someone who was born to Protestant parents but did a kind of conversion later, I wrote this book to help me understand this culture that was alien to me, and seemed also to be unknown to a lot of people here in the United States.

I wanted to write about kibbutz life and I wanted to write about a large sprawling family. In my mind I had Anna Karenina, Mrs. Dalloway, Bolano and even Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing as references.

A good friend of mine who’s Greek said that he had many “Solomons” in his family and could relate. As crazy and in some ways exaggerated the Solomons are, they love and support one another and as someone who comes from such a small nuclear American Midwestern family, I envy them to some degree. 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Amber Isaac


Amber Isaac (L) and Cody appearing on TV
Amber Isaac is the author and illustrator of the children's book Cody: The Teeny, Tiny Alpaca, which tells the story of an alpaca she is raising. She is the owner of the Silken Suri Alpaca Ranch in Colorado.

Q: Why did you decide to write this book about Cody?

A: I actually decided to write the children’s book at the suggestion of some of Cody’s online fans. They had been following Cody’s medical ups and downs from when she was a baby and suggested that she might be a great inspiration for children. Once they put the idea in my head, the story came to me very easily.

Q: How did Cody become such a famous alpaca?

A: When Cody was born, I didn’t even announce her birth online since her chances were so slim. After a couple weeks, I started posting photos of her online. People started cheering her progress. They’ve become very loyal and supportive during the ups and downs of her medical journey.

Q: How did you first get involved in raising alpacas?

A: After working 13 years backstage on Broadway, I moved to Colorado 10 years ago to be closer to my family. I wanted to work with animals and accidentally discovered alpacas. I instantly fell in love!! I purchased six alpacas that first year and now have over 100 on my ranch.

Q: What do you hope readers take away from Cody's story?

A: Cody’s life has been unique and unusual. She really has never fit in with the other alpacas on the ranch. I realized early on that many children face the same situation at school and in their everyday lives.

I really want Cody to be a catalyst to reach children who might feel left out or different. Cody’s book can help children learn that being unique is something to be celebrated. 

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I am currently working hard to promote Cody’s message every chance I get. My hope is to reach people across the country and all over the world. Her Facebook page has over 93,000 followers and her new Instagram account has already flown past 14,800! Her recent compilation video with The Dodo received over 13 million views.

We’d love to draw the attention of organizations who work with children who might benefit from Cody’s message: anti-bullying, special needs, foster care, etc.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Be sure to follow Cody on Facebook, Instagram (@CodyAlpaca) and Twitter (@AlpacaCody). Don’t forget to shop at www.codyalpaca.com. 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

July 21

ON THIS DAY IN HISTORY
July 21, 1899: Ernest Hemingway born.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Q&A with Camille T. Dungy


Camille T. Dungy is the author of the new essay collection Guidebook to Relative Strangers: Journeys into Race, Motherhood, and History. Her other books include Trophic Cascade and Smith Blue. She is a professor of creative writing at Colorado State University, and she lives in Fort Collins, Colorado.

Q: How did you choose “Guidebook to Relative Strangers” as your book’s title, and what does it signify for you?

A: One of the first essays I wrote for the book was "A Good Hike." In it, I find myself in the midst of a precarious situation. As I wrote in the essay, "The group of people on whom I found myself dependent were relative strangers," but thanks to their care and attention I was able to reach safety (and I got a great story too!).

As I continued the journeys that informed this book, I began to understand the importance of developing community with the relative strangers I find around me all the time.

From providing windows into our common histories to sharing unexpectedly delicious treats, writing this book was like penning a survival guide that made clear to me that the ability to thrive is dependent on finding ways to connect.

Q: The subtitle focuses on three themes: race, motherhood, and history. How do the three coexist for you?

A: I can't imagine how these could not be connected. The poet Emily Dickinson once wrote, "Today, makes Yesterday mean." Equally, tomorrow will be shaped by the decisions we make today.

Who I am as a woman has evolved since I have become a mother. I am even more concerned about the ways in which history and the present will direct my child's future.

Because I am a black woman in America, my concern is heightened even further because of the many ways the legacies of our history still guide us today.

Q: You begin the book with a description of an interaction at an artists’ retreat. Why did you choose that as your starting point?

A: One of the truths about opening my life to relative strangers is that my sense of self is frequently challenged. I am a writer. That part of my identity has been key to me for all of my adult life, and well into my childhood.

At the artists' retreat I wanted to compartmentalize my experience and put the artist side of me first. But that wasn't going to be possible. Other parts of my identity were called upon, sometimes tested. My race, my gender, my interest in history and its influence on contemporary social structures.

All these parts of who I am and what I care about were called upon despite the fact I wanted to just slip away and be a writer. It becomes clear that, for me, writing can't happen in isolation from these other parts of my identity. In the opening essay and throughout the book, I write about what it means to represent all these selves.

Q: Given the current political climate, what do you see looking ahead when it comes to the issue of race in the United States?

A: I have to live in hope, because my own life and my family's life is at stake, but I am also very concerned.

I know that this country, that the whole world, has been through divisive and repressive phases before. I understand that some of those moments in our history still haunt us fundamentally today. I have to stay alert and attuned to the dangerous climate, and I have to work to actively resist it.

There is quite literally a storm gathering outside my office window as I type this response. Thick gray clouds cloaking the sun, branch-bending wind, occasional flashes of lightning, that barometric depression that always threatens to give me a migraine, heavy raindrops and pebble-sized chunks of hail.

This storm will pass. I can hope we will stay safe. But I can't pretend it is not happening, that it is not potentially very dangerous. I have to acknowledge that if proper precautions aren't taken (and even in some cases despite our best efforts), a storm of this magnitude can cause irreparably devastating harm.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: As I said above, I identify as a writer, which means I am nearly always writing. Though I am not always writing a thing. It takes a while for a gravitational pull to develop around new work.

This year I've published both a new collection of poems, Trophic Cascade, and the essay collection Guidebook to Relative Strangers. I am writing, but I'll have to write a lot more in order to refill the well.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Thanks so much for spending this time with my words!!!! Much of Guidebook to Relative Strangers is about what I have discovered about myself and my country while traveling to give readings and lectures.

I am part of what one of my grandmother's favorite poems calls "a great, wide, beautiful, wonderful world." I am honored to have been able to write about it. I still love traveling and discovering the ways I can form deep connections with relative strangers. If you want to know if I'll be in your area, come visit my website!

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

July 20

ON THIS DAY IN HISTORY
July 20, 1933: Cormac McCarthy born.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Q&A with M.J. Rose


M.J. Rose is the author of the new novel The Library of Light and Shadow. Her many other books include The Secret Language of Stones and The Witch of Painted Sorrows. She lives in Greenwich, Connecticut.

Q: This is the third of your Daughters of La Lune books. Did you know when you wrote the first book that you’d be writing a series?

A: ​They aren't really a series at all - each is a stand-alone book that takes place in a different time period with a different member of the family and are written to be read in any order at all - or just one. I have about a dozen stories I want to tell about various members of this family though time - that I'm going to be coming back to over time.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for your main character, Delphine, and for her artistic gift?

A: ​I saw a series of paintings done by an artist I admire names Stephen Mackey and the idea came quickly - I was mesmerized by the paintings.

Q: What kind of research did you do to write this book, and did you learn anything that especially surprised you?

A: ​I do so much research for each book - much of it reaching original source material written during the period. I try to really live in the period and become obsessed with finding out tiny details - most of which never make it into the book.

I wasn't surprised as much as fascinated by all my reading. The Jazz Age was so radical  - coming right after World War I, people were tying to escape the horrors they'd seen and heard about and lived. Their efforts led to so much art and music and literature.

And women were living through a very liberating time and exploring their newfound freedom with gusto.  Having basically had every job on the home front during the war, they weren't so anxious to give up what they'd discovered about themselves.

Q: Do you usually know how your novels will end before you start writing them, or did you make many changes along the way?

A: ​I always know. I begin knowing where I'm going but the journey to get there is the surprise.​

Q: What are you working on now?
A: It's too soon to talk about other than to say it’s the same time period and its not about one of the Daughters of LaLune – it’s a bit different.​

Q: Anything else we should know?
A: I keep extensive Pinterest boards as inspiration before, while researching, and while I'm writing the book and readers always find them really interesting. Here's the one for The Library of Light and Shadow.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Ann Marie Stephens


Ann Marie Stephens is the author of the new children's picture book Cy Makes a Friend. Her other books include Scuba Dog. She is an elementary school teacher, and she lives in Fairfax, Virginia.


Q: How did you come up with the idea for Cy Makes a Friend, and for your character Cy?

A: The notion of writing about a Cyclops came to me like most of my ideas. It was random. Cy jumped out of nowhere and tugged at me off and on for years.

If I dig a little deeper then I can say it probably came from a long time love of Greek mythology that started in 7th grade. Combine that with the fact that I am drawn to books where authors take unlikeable characters (like a one-eyed monster) and make them loveable and you have Cy.

When the story first started forming I knew I would highlight Cy’s insecurities to make him relatable to readers. Almost everyone has uncertainties when it comes to making new friends. If Cy, with his giant eye and lack of social skills, can put himself out there to make a friend, then anyone can.

Q: What do you think Tracy Subisak’s illustrations add to the book?

A: Tracy really surprised me with her illustrations... in an amazing way. When I am writing a story I always see images in my head. They help me develop my character. If I can see them, then I will know what they might do or say in any situation I present to them.

In my mind, Cy was a traditional Cyclops with a human body, large eye, and hair like Homer Simpson. When I saw Tracy’s sketch of Cy with his furry body, swoopy bang, and adorable smile, my own image disappeared immediately. I was in LOVE!

She chose the perfect colors and gave Cy the vulnerability I wanted him to have. My editor and I use the word “love” a lot when we talk about Cy. He has that effect on people.

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

A: Most importantly, I want readers to see themselves in the book. Perhaps they are like Cy. Or maybe, they have no trouble making friends and need to see how hard it can be for other people.

It’s difficult at any age, to approach someone you don’t know, and attempt a conversation or friendship. I’ve had adults come up to me at book signings and say, “My kid is just like Cy,” or “I really identify with Cy because as an adult, I still have trouble making friends.”

Creating friendships requires bravery and sometimes patience. Like the book says, “Being brave takes time.”

Cy Makes a Friend seems to be helping out in the autistic community as well. Parents and teachers have talked to me about how their kids on the spectrum see themselves in Cy. Feedback like this means the world to me.

Q: Who are some of your own favorite authors?

A: This is an easy one! I’m a super fan of Bob Shea (anything and everything!), Laurie Keller (Arnie!!), Lauren Oliver (pure genius), Leo Lionni (every single mouse), Arnold Lobel, (Mouse Tales!), Ezra Jack Keats, (relatable characters), Pam Munoz Ryan (flawless storytelling), and Holly Goldberg Sloan (beautiful language).

I really like books that are funny or profound, and I gravitate to characters with strong voices. Many of my friends are children’s book authors as well, so obviously, I love and respect their work too! (Lezlie Evans, Mary Rand Hess, Sue Fliess, Kwame Alexander, Kathy Erskine, Ann McCallum... should I keep going?)

Q: What are you working on now?

A: This is a loaded question for me. I am working on lots of different things. I’m all about what I’m in the mood to work on when I sit down to write. Unless of course I have a deadline, then I don’t have a choice!

My current work in progress is a picture book manuscript. It takes place in the ocean and it’s about two creatures that have a perfect symbiotic relationship until a third party “drops in” and complicates things.

I’m writing a few other picture book stories too. That way, if I’m stumped on a plot point or even one line in my work in progress, I can jump to another story before I get frustrated.

I’m also doing some educational writing but I have to keep that stuff a secret until I don’t have to keep it a secret anymore! (Stay tuned.)

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I guess I should tell you about my other books. I have Scuba Dog, published by little bee books. Boyds Mills Press will be publishing two of my books, titled Arithmechicks Add Up and Arithmechicks Take Away, about fuzzy little farm chicks that do math.

I’ve been an elementary teacher for over 26 years. I teach first grade which is one of the most challenging yet rewarding ages to teach. Every year my students motivate me to be a good person and teacher while simultaneously wearing me out!

I’m also a little obsessed with scuba diving and traveling the world to meet new people and see amazing places.

Lastly, I’m so appreciative of people like you, Deborah, for sharing the book love. Authors and illustrators rely on kindness and generosity to keep our books alive! Thank you!

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

July 19

ON THIS DAY IN HISTORY
July 19, 1921: Elizabeth Spencer born.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Q&A with Matthew Klam


Matthew Klam is the author of the new novel Who Is Rich?. He also has written Sam the Cat and Other Stories. His work has appeared in a variety of publications, including The New Yorker, Harper's Magazine, and Esquire, and he has taught at Johns Hopkins University, American University, and other schools. He lives in Washington, D.C.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for Who Is Rich?, and for your main character, Rich Fischer, a cartoonist teaching at a summer arts conference?

A: I have attended those summer arts conferences for decades, a couple of times as a student and many times as a faculty member. It seems they’re summer camps for grownups. We assemble a persona for the people we work with, our neighbors, and all that stuff is set aside.

It’s grownups indulging in another self—you set aside your mortgage, your marriage, and you’re really focused on one thing. You want to read a page of your memoir on stage…If you can get that other side of people in midlife, that’s where the general idea came from.

For the main character, for years I was casting around for someone who could be a stand-in for me, a male who doesn’t participate in capitalism the way men do. I took a class in cartooning and I met a cartoonist who said a lot of things I did as a short-story writer…

I was there studying [cartooning] just for fun. I started teaching at Johns Hopkins and it was fun to take a week out and draw…Everybody knows comics. We tap into it with our kids. When my daughter was 2 or 3, I did a lot of [that type of] reading.

Q: One of the themes that runs through the novel is creativity and how an artist works. What does Rich’s career say about the life of a creative artist?

A: It probably says it’s kind of challenging. Everybody’s life is hard. People in the arts come to understand that, especially people like Rich, who had a fairly effortless start. I share a lot of his background. He had a lot of notoriety, he published a book, and then all of a sudden he’s in his 30s, and what’s next? It’s illustrative of an early success story and what happens after that.

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

A: I was casting around for a while for a title that did a good enough job of covering the bandwidth of the book. I though of “Who Is Rich and Why?” I ran it by a friend who said it was too complicated.

I thought [Rich is] pretty obsessed with his envy of money, more than with money itself. Ron Charles did [pick up on that] in the Washington Post review, but in the early reviews I don’t see people paying much attention to that.

Q: Another theme in the book is marriage. How would you describe the relationship between Rich and his wife, Robin?

A: Yesterday I was talking to someone who said very defensively, That’s not my marriage, but I’ve been there.

You have to note that [Rich and Robin] are on the tail end of the sleepless years. They have a functioning marriage, but they do not have much insight, until the end. They’re in an awful place, but I really am hoping just by showing how much he knows about her, you’d get the sense he cares about her.

He also knows a lot about Amy [his romantic interest at the conference]. Amy is a disruptive force…

Q: Yes, how do you see the role of Amy in the book?

A: It’s a fantasy of his. She’s a real person, but they don’t know much about each other, just how good an emailer or texter they are…

She’s an American archetype, like a frightening Ralph Lauren model. What she really is is someone who wasn’t averse to going into banking, she met someone who’s in it…who is a billionaire. You can understand her staying, you can understand her leaving.

I came at [her relationship with her husband] from a few different angles. A lot of people I know have relationships that are works in process. Theirs is exaggerated. And she may not be giving [Rich] the full story.

Q: Why did you decide to set the novel in 2012?

A: It’s probably the unwieldy nature of the long haul of writing a book. I started it in 2010. In 2014 and 2015 I hoped whatever would happen in the next presidential election wouldn’t be so extreme that it would distract us. Little did I know.

I turned in the finished manuscript in July 2016. We worked on it in the summer and the fall, The die was cast in 2016. I was hoping Hillary would win.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: Putting some things in a folder. That’s about as far as I’ve gotten. I’m working on a couple of little things. I’m pretty distracted by being public with the book. It will take time to calm down.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Jennifer Fenn


Jennifer Fenn is the author of the new young adult novel Flight Risk. She has been a middle school language arts teacher, and has written for a variety of publications. She lives in Downingtown, Pennsylvania.

Q: Flight Risk was inspired by a true story. What intrigued you about it, and at what point did you decide it would make a good book?

A: Flight Risk was inspired by the story of Colton Harris-Moore, dubbed The Barefoot Bandit, a teenager who evaded police for two years and stole several planes before he was eventually caught in Bermuda.

His story is fascinating. As a teenager without any flight training, how did he pull it off?  And perhaps more importantly, why? 

I became aware of this story while Harris-Moore was still on the run, and I found myself—a writer, a teacher, a generally law-abiding citizen—rooting for him not to get caught, which led me to examine why society loves certain anti-heroes, including fictional ones, like Walter White and Tony Soprano, for instance. 

The basic facts of the story provided a vehicle to tackle many other interesting topics, such as how schools approach students with ADHD and how stories are shaped by cable news pundits.

Q: What did you see as the right blend between the factual basis of the story and your fictional creations?

A: Harris Moore’s story was a jumping off point for Robert’s. The true story provided me with a “what,” and I fictionalized the “who” and “why.”  

Robert’s background and motivations are invented, as are all the secondary characters and their stories. Robert’s particular personality quirks were also inspired by several of my former students. 

As I drafted and edited, Robert’s story diverged from Harris Moore’s more and more. As the character developed, I didn’t feel any obligation to remain true to the facts of Harris Moore’s life and I don’t claim to tell his story.

Yannatok Island, where Flight Risk takes place, does resembles the actual islands off the coast of Washington where the real events occurred. Sticking to that general geographical area helped me create a realistic setting. I wanted to keep technical details involving airplanes and flying accurate, but I fictionalized heavily when it came to the narrative.

Q: You tell the story in a variety of ways, including "interviews" with other characters. How did you come up with this approach?

A: When I began my first draft of this novel, I was also teaching 7th grade Language Arts and one of my classes was reading Jerry Spinelli’s wonderful Maniac Magee. That book opens with a jump rope rhyme about the title character and all his exploits, which have been mythologized by the neighborhood kids. 

That got me thinking about how folk heroes are created today, in the age of social media and how a myth can grow around a person and becomes something apart from them and beyond their control. 

I wanted the interviews to show how different characters embellish Robert’s story as his notoriety grows. Everyone thinks they know the "real" Robert Jackson Kelly, but their interviews highlight the difference between the public perception of Robert and his real motivations and feelings while he’s on the run. 

I also love books that utilize a strong voice. Using the interviews allowed to write in more than one voice, while also using a close third-person point of view to get inside Robert’s head, which I enjoyed. 

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

A: I wrote the ending of Robert’s story early on, and the book’s last sections changed very little throughout the writing and editing process.

The image that ends the novel was one that stuck with me as I moved through several drafts. This novel actually began as a flash fiction piece, which ended with the same scene. I nearly always write the end of my stories first.

In fact, until I come up with at least an image, a single sentence, to end on, I don’t start. I don’t outline, so I like having a target I’m writing towards. Having that image in place also helped me build image patterns and foreshadowing throughout the novel as I drafted.

The ending of Robert’s story felt inevitable to me.  There’s a sense of fate that I hope comes across in the narrative. 

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’m working on my next young adult novel, which is currently untitled. This novel is about a teenage drummer in a successful rock band who is deaf. 

The story deals with how undergoing cochlear implant surgery impacts his musical talent and his relationships with his girlfriend, bandmates and family. I’ve enjoyed learning more about both the Deaf community and the music business while drafting this novel.  

--Interview with Deborah Kalb 

July 18

ON THIS DAY IN HISTORY
July 18, 1933: Yevgeny Yevtushenko born.

Monday, July 17, 2017

Q&A with Margot Livesey


Margot Livesey is the author of the novel Mercury, now available in paperback. It focuses on a married couple, Donald and Viv, and Viv's obsession with a horse named Mercury. Livesey's other books include The Flight of Gemma Hardy and The House on Fortune Street. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including The New Yorker and Vogue, and she is a professor of fiction at the Iowa Writers' Workshop. She grew up in Scotland and lives in the Boston area.

Q: How did you first come up with the idea for your novel Mercury?

A: There were two things that propelled me. One was writing a column for The Boston Globe. I was a guest editor for six weeks, and I wrote a couple of columns, and then there was a massacre in Binghamton, New York.

I was struck by the [fact that] the perpetrator was a fairly recent immigrant to the States, and he had known how to get a bullet-proof vest, a weapon, ammunition. I have been here off an on for 30 years, and had no idea how to get a gun. I decided to write my next column about that—how to get a gun in Massachusetts.

Happily, it turned out to be hard to do. I didn’t explicitly make clear my views on gun control, but you could tell my attitude. The day it was published, I got 120 emails, and messages on my home answering machine.

Five men called, none identified themselves, and each said slightly threatening things. I was really interested. Massachusetts is one of the most liberal states and yet this was a really volatile issue. I was hard at work on another novel [at the time].

A couple of years later I was having a drink with an old friend who happened to be Scottish, who told me he was searching for something in the trunk of the car and found a gun—his wife had bought it legally but failed to mention it to him.

He was very upset about this. He said We used to believe the same things, but we don’t any more. I thought that was really interesting. There are so many books and films about physical infidelity, but there aren’t many about the other sort, when you part company about your core shared beliefs. It’s an interesting subject matter particularly at this time of unrest.

Those two things propelled me toward Mercury, and I have a long interest in horses. I grew up riding ponies and reading books [about horses].

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

A: Titles often are so fraught for me. I went back and forth about various titles. I thought "Mercury" was a title you could take in various ways.

It’s a positive thing, the messenger god, who takes souls to the underworld, but also the god of thieves, a toxic metal, an unstable thing. I liked the various possible meanings of the title. In a book that takes on various moral issues, I didn’t want a judgmental title.

And I had the idea about writing something about someone who reaches a point in life when she purchases a gun. I wanted to write about an ambitious woman. There’s often a kind of question mark around that. Are we saying something good about her?

I thought horses were a particularly good object for Viv’s ambition. If her goal were to find a cure for diabetes, we’d all be on her side, and if it were to rob a bank, we would say no, no.

But horses are something we can have different opinions about. Some people would understand why she poured so much money into it, and some would be bewildered.

Q: Your character Donald is Scottish, but is living in America. As someone who’s originally from Scotland but lives in the U.S., what do you see as some of the similarities and differences between the two, and how important is setting in your work?

A: Setting is hugely important to me in my work. As a young writer, I thought of setting as wallpaper, it didn’t matter if something was set in Poughkeepsie or Newcastle.

As I became a better reader and I hope a better writer, [I saw that] setting controlled so many of the possibilities for the characters’ lives, as it does in our lives.

In thinking about Mercury, I knew it had to be set in the States but I liked the idea of refracting some of the things about America through the eyes of someone who maybe questioned them a bit more, [such as] American exceptionalism. That sort of idea is very American. It’s not part of Scottish culture. Donald looks at this very questioningly.

Also, America is in some ways a country of reinvention, where there’s always a second chance. You can move on to a new job, a new place, a new partner. That’s an interesting difference between him and Viv.

Q: Donald is an optometrist, and the novel deals with seeing and blindness, both in a literal and a figurative sense. Why did you choose that as one of the book’s themes?

A: Some of this was probably at an intuitive level I can’t fully articulate, but my husband paints large abstract oil paintings and I spent a lot of time in his company thinking about color and seeing.

As someone with contact lenses [for many years], people have been gazing into my eyes and saying, “Better or worse?” We rely on vision so much. Oh, I see! Oh, I get it! It feels like such a central sense to us, but it seems [one can be] easily manipulated or deceived instead.

I have an acquaintance who’s blind since birth, unlike my character Jack, [who goes blind as an adult]. Talking to him, I was interested in how he, as it were, saw the world.

I thought Donald had to have a stable profession. It seemed to be a wonderful chance to write about seeing and vision…It’s a perfect profession for someone who’s so exact and so imaginative in other ways.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I wish I could give a stunning answer to that. I’m trying to write a new novel, which is proving rather intractable, but I’m hoping to get it under control soon. I just published a book of essays about writing, and I keep looking over my shoulder and hearing the advice, and failing to live up to it.

Q: Anything else we should know about Mercury?

A: One of the things that interested me was the question of making a choice between your wife and your children, and the truth, and at some of the readings I’ve given, people are cavalier about the choice Donald faces. Why can’t he just go along with it now? Nobody’s going to get hurt!

I hope by the time a reader gets to the end of the novel, the reader understands why he has to go to the police, but it’s a very painful choice for him.

And I also hope readers understand how there’s only one letter’s difference between mother and smother. Viv’s been a good partner and parent for a decade before she meets Mercury, and feels this horse will allow her to fulfill the dreams of her youth. 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb