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  • Tara Sonin 2:00 pm on 2019/10/07 Permalink
    Tags: , , , his bright light, Interviews, , the dark side   

    An Interview with Danielle Steel On Motherhood, Writing Every Day, and the Novels That Have Meant the Most to Her 

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    Danielle Steel is a venerable novelist who has written over 180 books and is a staple of the New York Times bestseller list. In the interview below, she discusses everything from her experience as a mother, to how she develops her ideas, and why her decision to include an intimate LGBTQ scene in her latest novel, Child’s Play, was an important one.

    I’d like to ask some follow up questions to the recent (and incredible) piece in Glamour about your success and work. You mentioned that some ideas begin as more “mundane” but then become “magical.” From where do you draw inspiration? Does it start with a character or a conflict?

    My ideas start with a character or an event, either a theme that intrigues me, or sometimes a news event that captures me. In Child’s Play, it’s about a mother who thinks she has ‘perfect’ adult children who are doing everything she hopes for them and thinks they should—-and suddenly they all have their own life plans, entirely different from hers or what she wished. It’s something most parents of young adults go through, and should resonate both with parents, and adult children. Mother does not always know best!!! A big adjustment for all!!

    I was fascinated by your rigorous writing schedule that you detailed in that article, which has obviously paid off in spades. If you could give any advice to young writers about starting and maintaining a consistent writing practice, what would it be?

    Write Every Day!! (I didn’t take a day off from writing for the first eleven years). And work as hard as you can—and even harder. Discipline is essential, and perseverance. Don’t just wait for inspiration to strike you, sit there and work no matter what, even if it comes slowly. There is NO substitute for hard work (in anything, not just writing).

    You have written 180 titles at the time of this printing. As a thought experiment: other than Child’s Play, your most recent title (which I’ll get to in a moment), if you were a bookseller recommending your own work to a prospective reader (or a professor teaching a Danielle Steel 101 course) which ones would you recommend they start with? Of all your books, which stand out as particularly special throughout your career?

    183 titles. My work is intentionally very varied, historical fiction, contemporary fiction, books about corporate life and industries, some thrillers (like my recent book The Dark Side), some books slanted toward women, some of strong interest for men, family sagas, some lighter themes, and some very serious ones. There should be something for everyone in my body of work—-even children’s books, and a few non-fiction. The book that was the most special to me of course was the one about my late son Nick, “His Bright Light.”

    Child’s Play, your newest novel, introduces the reader to Kate, a successful woman who has lots of ideas about how her life and the lives of her three adult children should be. Her steadfast devotion to certain ideals—high quality education, marrying well, etc. reminded me about a section in the Glamour piece where you discussed the differences in how you experienced your early working life and how your children have experienced theirs. Was the inspiration for this book drawn from your own observations as a mother?

    My observations in Child’s Play come from my experience as a mother (of many children. I have 9), and from what I’ve seen around me among young people and parents. We want the best for our kids, but our plans for them aren’t always what they want or what is suited to their life. It takes strength and courage to find the right path in life, and it takes patience, understanding and great love to let your children follow the path that seems right to them. And sometimes the two are very different!!

    I loved how Kate really thinks she knows her children but they are all keeping things from her, to varying degrees. As she described her relationships with them, I felt only encroaching dread because I knew that the more clearly she defined them, the more wrong she would wind up being. Without betraying their privacy of course, what are some of the things about your own children that have surprised you as they’ve grown up?

    Motherhood and mothering is always surprising!! Life is surprising!! My children have followed paths I expected for the most part, but with their own special spin on it, which suits their individual needs and personalities.  I’m very proud of them!!

    The three “children” in Child’s Play are of course adults in their own right with fascinating storylines: the son Kate describes as a nerdy video-game designer who would have no social life without his squeaky-clean fiancé is actually quite a Romeo who has an affair; Claire, whom she views as naive in relationships decides to pursue the most permanent of them all, motherhood; and Tammy, her workaholic daughter with no time for a relationship is actually in a committed partnership with a woman. How did you develop each of their characters, and did you plot each of their endings before the story began?

    I tried to think of the things that would surprise me the most and might be the biggest adjustment for most parents, to make the book varied and resonate with my readers going through challenges with their kids.

    The reader quickly learns that Kate has been keeping secrets of her own, and that realization is what sparks the children to be more open about their own paths in life. Your novels often overlap genres, between mystery, thriller, and even coming-of-age journeys. What do you love most about writing in each genre?

    I write about the human condition, which is what fascinates me most, the things that make us all suffer and bring us joy, the challenges we face that we have no control over (like the loss of a loved one). I love what difficult situations bring out in people, how we grow from them, however painful. I love writing about people and relationships that bind us, what brings us closer to each other and tears us apart. The rest is all a backdrop for those relationships, a stage on which life plays out.

    Tammy’s storyline in particular was quite moving and very modern—there’s a beautiful intimate scene between her and her partner involving artificial insemination as they pursue building a family. I can’t recall another book with a scene like that in it, and I think it’s so important for the LTBQIAP+ community to see themselves represented, as well as for your straight, cisgender readership to be exposed to scenes like that. Can you discuss the process of writing that scene, and why it was included?

    Tammy’s storyline and the scenes around it are important because it is part of our modern life. It’s as real as all relationships, and important to include in a book about relationships, couples, and families.

    I know you don’t read while you write, but are you reading anything right now? If not, what are some of your favorite books by other authors that you would recommend?

    I’m not reading anything right now, and I wish I were. I have a lot of work on my desk at the moment, and two books in outline that I’m going to start soon, so I’m not reading right now.

    Last question: please describe Child’s Play in three words.

    Describe Child’s Play in 3 words: A Great Read.  And 3 more words:  Please read it!!

    Child’s Play is on B&N bookshelves on October 8.

    The post An Interview with Danielle Steel On Motherhood, Writing Every Day, and the Novels That Have Meant the Most to Her appeared first on Barnes & Noble Reads.

  • Jeff Somers 3:00 pm on 2019/04/24 Permalink
    Tags: , , , Interviews, , ,   

    Agatha Christie, Sleight of Hand, and Psychological Complexity: An Interview with The Silent Patient Alex Michaelides 

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    There’s no shortage of excellent thrillers to read in the modern world, but every now and then a book comes along that rises above the rest and becomes that book that gets passed from person to person like a virus, accompanied by breathless endorsements and the sort of giddy joy only book lovers recognize. Well, we have our first bona-fide phenomenon thriller of 2019, the twisty, buzzy The Silent Patient, by Alex Michaelides.

    The Silent Patient has the bones of an old-school mystery, fused with a modern energy similar to The Girl on the Train or Gillian Flynn’s novels. It’s the sort of book you immediately want to recommend to your book club or best friend or, you know, strangers on your morning commute, just so you’ll have people to discuss it with. And then we thought, wait a sec, we’re Barnes and Noble, we can excitedly discuss the book with the author. So we reached out and sat down with Alex Michaelides himself to fanblog all over him, chatting about Agatha Christie, working as a scriptwriter in Hollywood, and, of course, the genesis of his remarkable debut novel.

    You obviously have a deep love for old-school mystery-thrillers like the works of Agatha Christie or Patricia Highsmith. How did those old-school cool novels influence The Silent Patient?

    Well, I grew up on the tiny island of Cyprus, in the Mediterranean. It was before the internet, and there was nothing to do in the summers except read. I was thirteen when I discovered Agatha Christie, and devoured all of her novels over one summer at the beach. It was probably the happiest reading experience I ever had, and it made me into a reader—and, I suspect, a writer. So later on, when I began thinking about writing a novel, I knew I wanted something to replicate that experience I’d had on the beach. And the plan was to take a Christie-style plot and marry it with a deeper psychological complexity. I tried to imagine what Christie might be writing now, if she were alive and had my life experience. Of course it’s not just Christie—I’m a huge fan of Patricia Highsmith, P.D. James, Ruth Rendell, Dorothy L. Sayers, all women actually! There is something so satisfying about encountering a story that works on one level and yet when you reach the end you realize you have been looking at everything the wrong way up. I think that sleight of hand, like a magician’s trick, is what appeals to me the most.

    Like all magic tricks, at its core writing is all about process. They say write what you know, and you drew on your experience working at a therapeutic community to write The Silent Patient. How much ‘real life’ is in the story?

    I was pretty messed up as a teenager, neurotic, anxious, depressed—and I had a lot of personal therapy for many years. I also studied it a couple of places at a postgraduate level—but never finished my studies, as I felt strongly that I was a writer not a therapist. As part of my studies, I worked at a secure psychiatric facility for teenagers. It was one of the most formative experiences of my life, and certainly the most humbling. It was incredible, helping kids heal and get well—and it went a long way to healing the messed-up teenage part of myself. I didn’t know I was going to write The Silent Patient then, but later on when I knew that I wanted to write a Christie-style book, I needed an enclosed location—the kind of thing she does so brilliantly—and I suddenly thought of the psychiatric unit. And instead of a detective, I could have a psychotherapist. Everything went from there. I didn’t use any of the people I encountered at the unit, but I did use the atmosphere and the emotions that I felt while I was working there. I kept notes at the time, and that helped me a lot when I came to write the book.

    Many have noted the symbolism of a woman who doesn’t speak, combined with the themes of Alcestis in The Silent Patient, which ties into what’s going on today with #MeToo and other movements. Was this intentional?

    You know, it wasn’t intentional, as I wrote The Silent Patient before the #MeToo movement began. But there was a synchronicity there, for sure. When they were bidding for the movie rights, I had many producers, male and female, comment on the fact that Alicia does not speak and asking me how I felt it related to #MeToo. It was quite clear to me that when a person is imprisoned, and not believed, not being heard, then her only recourse is not to speak. So silence in my thinking is a last resort; the last weapon available, when everything else has been taken away from you. That was what interested me about Alicia—as well as the silence in the Greek myth of Alcestis. Alcestis dies to save her husband, and yet when she’s brought back to life at the end of Euripides’s play, she refuses to speak when confronted with her husband. Why? Is she overjoyed, overcome with emotion? Or is she deeply furious, angry with him, betrayed and hurt that he let her die? The refusal to conclude, the refusal to supply a definite answer, is so powerful, and has been haunting me my whole life.

    We hear you’re adapting your own novel for a film version—are there any special challenges to turning your own work into a different medium? Did you think about a film version as you were writing it?

    I think writing for screen and for novels is very different. A friend of mine is a critic, and he always says something I find very helpful—that screenplays are about contraction, and novels are about expansion. Meaning that for a movie you try to keep everything going, keep the plot ticking along. Whereas in a book you can slow down and go into someone’s thoughts and spend a day with them as they walk round the park or think about their life. And discovering that transformed me as a writer. I feel very much that I’m more of a novelist than a dramatist. I never really imagined it as a film. And I think the silence will be extremely challenging. Having said that, making the film is an incredible opportunity. It will be very exciting to take the book apart and put it together again for another medium. I am very pliable these days. I think you have to be, if you’re going to succeed as a writer. It’s never good to get stuck on ideas or lines or bits of dialogue.

    What’s harder—writing a novel or getting a movie made?

    I would say each is hard. The motivation to keep writing every day, for months at time, is a big part of writing a book. But it’s much harder—as in emotionally more painful—to make a movie. I personally have found film-making to be a soul destroying process. A movie with a decent script and a great cast can be derailed by production problems that are nobody’s fault. It’s heartbreaking. So the decision to write The Silent Patient was a last ditch attempt to try and be in control of the creative process from start to finish, and get away from movies. So the irony I am now writing the screenplay is not lost on me. I have a feeling it’s going to be different this time, as I’m working with some amazing people.

    Speaking of writing, The Silent Patient contains a DefCon-5 kind of plot twist that has people’s heads spinning, yet it works perfectly. Did you start with the twist, or did you start with the premise or the characters and find the twist as you outlined? What’s your position on ‘spoiler etiquette’?

    It was rather a magical moment, the way it happened. As I have said, the various strands came together—Greek Mythology, Agatha Christie, psychotherapy—and the idea was born in one moment, as I was walking through the park near where I live. I was trying to imagine a psychological detective story about a woman who doesn’t speak and the therapist trying to help her. I was trying to come up with an ending—and I remember asking myself, ‘what would Agatha Christie do?’ And then suddenly, I saw it. I sat down on the nearest bench and pulled out my phone and wrote down the whole plot, which I still have on my phone. The details changed of course, but the general movement of the story and the twist have remained the same. It was a really good day, that day.

    Regarding spoilers, I will always remember going to see The Mousetrap in London, when I was a kid. At the end of the performance, one of the actors steps forward and asks the audience not to reveal the ending to anyone else as it would spoil their enjoyment of the play. So I think it’s just good manners, don’t you?

    We do! So we’re not going to spoil The Silent Patient, we’ll just encourage everyone reading this to buy a copy immediately so we can all discuss it freely. Thanks, Alex, for taking the time to talk about your book with us!

    Shop all thrillers >

    The post Agatha Christie, Sleight of Hand, and Psychological Complexity: An Interview with <i>The Silent Patient</i> Alex Michaelides appeared first on Barnes & Noble Reads.

  • Miwa Messer 5:00 pm on 2018/08/29 Permalink
    Tags: , , , , Interviews, lucy tan   

    Imagine Your Way Into Another Life: Lucy Tan and Chloe Benjamin in Conversation 

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    The booksellers who handpick books for our Discover Great New Writers program were floored by Chloe Benjamin’s The Immortalists and Lucy Tan’s What We Were Promised—and still think about the places and people these novels conjured for us, months and months after we first read them. We were thrilled when Chloe and Lucy took the time to talk about the intersection between family stories and research (and writing what you know), the importance of empathy in creating and imagining, capturing the incredible range of female experience in fiction, and more, in this wide-ranging conversation for B&N Reads.

    (P.S. There’s also a terrific list of recommended reads you’ll want to add to your TBR pile.)

    Chloe Benjamin: Lucy, I’m so excited to be celebrating the launch of What We Were Promised, and to be talking about it together for Barnes & Noble. I have such clear memories of the first time we met, back in 2014—you had been accepted to the University of Wisconsin’s MFA program in fiction, which I’d finished a few years before, and you were here for a prospective students’ weekend. I was instantly taken by how whip-smart and engaged you were, and selfishly, I wanted you to come so I could have you as a friend. Since then, I’ve seen you spend years working on this novel. After you graduated but before you left town, we had a weekly writing date I still miss. And when I finally got to read What We Were Promised, it was every bit as staggering as I’d expected, full of exquisite details, an epic cultural scope, and the kind of compassionate characterization that challenges assumptions.

    I’m wondering if we can start with the genesis for this book, as much as I’m sure you’ll come to groan at that question once you go on tour and everyone starts with it! I know your background and family informed certain aspects of the book, but as a fellow fiction writer, I also know it’s a vast oversimplification to suggest that those things went into the bloodstream of the book undiluted by imagination and invention.

    Lucy Tan: Chloe, it feels surreal to be taking our private conversations public! You were such a resource and a friend to me when I first arrived in Madison, and I’m so grateful we’ve gotten even closer since then.

    I think there are two ways to answer your question about where this novel began. In 2012, I wrote a short story from the point of view of a hotel resident who is paranoid about the housekeepers touching her belongings. I scrapped the story, but there was a single sentence I’d written that stuck in my brain. In my MFA workshop the first year I was at Wisconsin, I started with that sentence and rewrote the story, this time from the point of view of two housekeepers who had been accused of stealing a bracelet from a hotel room. My teacher, Judith Claire Mitchell, told me the story read like the opening to a novel. With her encouragement, I began writing what would eventually become What We Were Promised.

    Benjamin:  You’re kidding! I do know that it grew out of a short story, but I didn’t know the piece about the single sentence. What was it?

    Tan: It was “The maids are armed beneath their cotton garb.” Looking back, I think I just needed an entry point to writing about the two years I spent living and working in Shanghai. My parents are Chinese-born, American expats, and we lived in a serviced apartment very similar to Lanson Suites, the fictional hotel where the novel is set. It was there that I met the housekeepers, drivers, locals, and expats who would inspire characters in my book. By 2010, China (and Shanghai, in particular) had exploded both culturally and economically in the span of a couple decades. As a result, the class and cultural divides were complicated and interesting. I knew I would eventually write about my experience there because I wanted to capture modern China at this moment in time, which felt like another turning point in China’s history. Walking through Pudong New District among the myriad of brand new skyscrapers, you can just feel the question hovering there, as ever-present as the smog: Will China become the world’s next superpower? There is such hope for this to be true, and yet the city itself is made up of people who have experienced no shortage of personal and political trauma.

    The Immortalists, too, explores so many time periods and subcultures, from New York City’s immigrant communities in the 1970s to San Francisco’s gay community in the early days of the AIDS epidemic, to fields of magic and life science—more specifically, the science of longevity. The breadth of knowledge and specificity with which you delve into four totally different, equally empathetic human lives, exploring everything from their careers to their personal perspectives on existence, and tracking the way these change throughout time, is astonishing. I know you did an impressive amount of research in each of these areas and I love learning about your process immersing yourself in worlds you’ve never personally inhabited. How much research do you do before you begin writing? Do you ever stop, at a certain point, to focus solely on fiction writing, or do you research throughout the entire process? Do you have any tips for other writers?

    Benjamin: I’m so touched you felt that way, reading the book. Isn’t it such a meaningful, specific experience to know that a friend enjoyed your work, as opposed to a stranger? Maybe it’s a relief, too: how horrible it would be if you hated my book!

    I tend to do as much research as I need to in order to write a certain portion of a novel; then it’s a sort of rinse-and-repeat situation—I pause the writing to research, write more when I’ve done enough research, pause again, write again. I tend to pick projects that require a lot of research, and the idea of doing it all up front, before the writing, feels terrifying and impossible—like studying now for an exam you’ll take years in the future.

    I find research really inspiring, in that I’m constantly learning things that get the gears turning imaginatively—I might encounter a detail I fall in love with, or some historical fact that winds up propelling the plot. And, of course, it’s critical for me because, as you say, I am often writing about things I haven’t experienced—and now, more than ever, I think we need to be careful, thoughtful, and intentional when we do that. It’s extremely important to me to write with integrity, and that means doing the work of learning instead of relying on assumptions.

    Even though you’ve experienced certain things that made it into What We Were Promised—expat life in a serviced apartment, for example—the way you illuminate such vastly different moments and places in Chinese life was wildly impressive to me. You take us from a Communist “cadre school” to the small village of Suzhou in the 1980s, from Sunny’s hometown of Hefei to modern Shanghai. How did you inhabit all of these places, and with such vivid, specific details? Hefei, for example, comes to life so vividly as “a city full of other cities’ leftovers—overstocked furniture, yuandan bags, and name-brand watches that were too expensive for anyone but tourists to buy… Even its pollution was secondhand.” This contrasts sharply with the Lanson Suites in Shanghai, where Sunny works as a housekeeper, serving wealthy Chinese-born, Western-educated elite. Here, too, you bring so many striking details into play: how the female staff pick new, Americanized names, with flowers, trees, and months being particularly popular, or the fact that Sunny returns each night to a group housing facility where the bathrooms smell of “boiled cabbage, urine, and copper.”

    Meanwhile, we also see Lanson Suites through the eyes of Lina, the housewife for whom Sunny works. Though she seems impervious to Sunny, Lina feels out of place herself, critical of her own directionlessness and of the zeal with which the other taitais embrace their social status; I loved the irony of the fact that the unemployed wives carry around “business cards” with their addresses, for making friends. And then you have this deep insight into corporate life and economics, but it’s never deployed dryly—the reality show that Wei’s company is developing was such a hilarious, pitch-perfect element.

    So I’ll stop raving and ask: How did you inhabit so many different places, cultural moments, and subcultures? Were certain things particularly natural or difficult to portray? Even if I did some of this in The Immortalists, I still feel like you pulled off a magic trick I can’t understand.

    Tan: My grandparents and parents lived through the Cultural Revolution, and told me stories that made impressions on me at an early age. As I worked on the book, I became more intentional about capturing more of these stories. I have hours of recorded interviews with my grandparents and parents, and much of what I learned never made it into the novel, including some of the most arresting anecdotes and details. For instance, the rats that fought in the rafters above their beds in the countryside, landing on their chests in the middle of the night. The boredom of skipping out on fieldwork to lie in the fields. Or my grandmother, turning in a diamond ring her mother had hidden from the Red Guard, and the sense of family betrayal wrestling with her political values. The characters and events in the book are fictional, but the settings and zeitgeist of what it felt like to live in China during the late ’60s and ’80s were all gleaned from oral history and factual research.

    As for the details set in present day, they are largely inspired by firsthand observations. I grew up listening to my parents and their friends talk about China and where it’s going, and this gave me insight into expat perspectives. I have a background in product management and digital media, which gave me knowledge of what it’s like to work at big corporations. The parts of the novel set in 2010 were far easier to write, since I’d lived in that time and place. And what I hadn’t seen firsthand (the living conditions of group homes in Shanghai, what it felt like to walk through the streets in Hefei), I researched and imagined. When the bare bones of facts are in place, I find it feels pretty natural to flesh out the story with fictional details. 

    Benjamin: I wonder if you can talk about writing the sections that take place at Communist labor camps. I was fascinated to see the camps didn’t seem as purely horrific as I might have assumed.

    Tan: I’m so glad you brought this up. I should start by saying that I don’t think there’s an accurate term in English for what those “labor camps” were. Yes, people were forced to perform labor, but most were not meant to be prisons, and the term “reeducation” wasn’t just a euphemism. Both my parents were reeducated—sent to the countryside, taught to do fieldwork, and to memorize Communist beliefs. While the ethics of these practices are questionable to say the least, neither of my parents came out of that experience scarred beyond the shock of adjusting to life in the countryside. Of course, there were many people who did suffer atrocities at the hands of the government and its supporters. Many were wrongly accused, publicly ridiculed, and killed or pushed to suicide, and I don’t want to trivialize their experiences. But most of what I’ve read about the Cultural Revolution focuses only on the most sensational stories of the time. I wanted to tell a story in which the political situation was not in the foreground (though it certainly affected every Chinese person’s life during the time), but served as the background to more predictable dramas of life: falling in and out of love, leaving home, and growing to know oneself.

    Another thing I’d like to bring up is that America likes to support this narrative that the Cultural Revolution was this huge tragedy that came out of nowhere and for which the government held all the responsibility. That’s why it was important for me to create a character like Zhen Hong, who is supportive of Communism, but who is probably the most pure-hearted, well-intentioned character in the book. He’s just a guy who cares about his community and wants change for his nation. Without the benefit of hindsight, he throws his energy into Communist causes. I wanted to look at some of the reasons that might have seemed like a good idea to people at the time, and how old values have changed as we move into the 21st century.

    What about you? Research aside, are there inspirations for The Immortalists rooted in your family or personal history?

    Benjamin: Yes! My ancestors on my dad’s side of the family were Eastern European Jews who came through Ellis Island, fleeing the pogroms, and settled in New York City, where my dad grew up. My grandparents were hugely helpful in giving me a sense of zeitgeist and personal details. My great-grandfather was a tailor, like Saul in The Immortalists, and my grandfather, like Simon, was slated to take over the family business (he didn’t!). He told me these marvelous stories that also gave me a sense of religion and class: for instance, his father would take him to Saks Fifth Avenue every season to buy the latest styles, which they would then knock off at the shop and sell to their (Jewish, less wealthy) customers. My grandfather’s stories also illuminated the way superstition and religion were intertwined for turn of the century Jews fleeing trauma. When his mother suspected their silverware had been used for something non-kosher, she buried it in the backyard! I have no idea if this was according to Jewish custom or if it simply seemed like the best way to prevent any negative consequences.

    As we talk about all of this, I can’t help but think of the very timely question of whether to write what you know. As I mentioned earlier, I think we’re in a cultural moment that demands writers think carefully about writing outside of their own experiences, which is so important—for too long, writers from majority groups (especially white men but also white women) have assumed the right to write about all ranges of experience, often with consequences that are damaging to underrepresented groups. At the same time, we fiction writers are drawn to fiction precisely because it asks us to imagine lives outside our own. How do you feel about these tricky questions?

    Tan: What I keep coming back to is Kaitlyn Greenidge’s op-ed in the New York Times titled “Who Gets to Write What?” In it, she recontextualizes the question. She makes the point that what we’re asking when we ask, “Who can write this?” is not whether we can write certain topics from certain points of view, but whether we can write them with the public’s approval.

    Benjamin: Wow. That is so true.

    Tan: Greenidge’s opinion is that you can write outside what you know only if it’s really good. This resonates with me; when characters feel real enough, the author begins to disappear and what’s left is just the story. I think some writers (white males, but others, too) write with the assumption that they’re starting with a blank slate—that because their intentions are pure, their writing will be free of prejudice. But we are naturally limited by our biases, much of which is informed by our ethnicities, and that’s why it’s important to do the research necessary to make sure the experiences we’re presenting are presented in the right way. So much of the work of creating and imagining has to do with empathizing, and I don’t think this is possible without a certain level of research.

    But how far do you go? Despite having done research, I worry about misrepresentation in my own novel. I didn’t grow up on a farm in Anhui, and I haven’t run with gangs in 1980s China. I know there’s a big chance people might read my novel and think, “She got that wrong.” But I’ve also read books that are clearly so heavily researched and so careful in their determination to be inoffensive that the fictional world begins to feel false. The mindset I’ve been striving for is to do the best research I can, write with empathy, and then remain open to criticism. I’m curious about your thoughts on this same topic!

    Benjamin: I think that’s really well put. As you say, part of what we’re afraid of is criticism. And we have to be able to listen to criticism, ethically and practically: it’s a moral imperative, and it’s also part of growing, of getting better. At the same time, fiction is exactly that. The idea is always to imagine your way into another life. Otherwise we would all write memoir, you know? So I think, as you say, the goal is to do so with care, sensitivity and a willingness to learn—before, during, and after the book is written.

    On a different note—because this book is so grounded in setting, I’m curious about which came first: the characters, or the place? How did you come to these characters in your mind? I’m always fascinated by this because for me, it feels like it’s hard to just “make a character up”—plenty of the writing process is just plain work, but characters and concept, for me, usually come from some inspiration I can’t explain.

    Tan: I admire that kind of gut instinct you have for your characters! I didn’t have a strong idea of who my characters were from the start; they began in my conscious mind as stock figures. That said, maybe I had a keener understanding of their identities lurking in the back of my mind somewhere. With each decision they made, each moment they dealt with conflict, I found myself getting to know them better. By the end of the first draft, I returned to the beginning, reread certain scenes, and thought, “This is totally wrong. She would never do that!” With this sharper understanding, I was able to find opportunities that I’d missed the first time around. My first drafts are usually pretty sparse. It’s in revision that they get richer with backstory and detail.

    Because it was the opening scene between Lina and Sunny that I wrote first, I guess you could say that the setting, characters, and conflict all came to me at once. But I do think setting was the biggest part of my decision to write this novel. Choosing a setting is such a commitment for me! It’s like signing a lease—this is going to be the place I’ll live for the next few years.

    Benjamin: Ha! I love that.

    Tan: One of the things that impresses me most about The Immortalists is the way the narration dips in and out of time periods with agility and confidence. The narrative knows from page one the entirety of the story, and knows exactly when to flash forward for suspense and when to stay in the moment. It’s hard for me to imagine the novel as just the skeleton of an idea. Did the voice of the narrator come naturally from the start, or was it honed over time?

    Benjamin: Mmm, that’s a good question. I like how you’ve characterized the narrative, almost as if it’s an entity itself. I think it came easily in that close third is my favorite POV; it feels the most natural for me, and I love how it allows me to escape the strictures of first person—What would this character think or say?—while also inflecting the voice with a sense of personality, the hue of each character. It’s interesting, because I feel like the style of this book, and definitely the perspective, is much more native to me than the first person POV of The Anatomy of Dreams, my first book. Before I wrote Anatomy, I was writing close-third stories that were tonally much more similar to The Immortalists. So it felt like returning home, and it was a reminder that this kind of perspective, which is connected intimately to a particular character but stylistically more flexible than first, is what I love most.

    Speaking of character, I think What We Were Promised is engaging with gender as well as race and class in really interesting ways. There’s a wide spectrum of female experience in your book, from Sunny, who cares much less about marriage than her family does, to Lina, who is a very traditional housewife and mother—but what strikes me as interesting is that both Sunny and Lina feel a lot of ambivalence about their positions. Correct me if I’m wrong, but my sense was that Sunny isn’t militantly anti-traditional marriage and Lina isn’t militantly for it; it’s more that they’ve each made compromises that have brought them to a place they have mixed feelings about. I think we’re seeing a lot of fantastic writing about women’s roles and expectations these days, but your exploration of uncertainty feels unique. Did you think about the idea of female ambivalence while writing?

    Tan: That’s an interesting perspective! I didn’t start out with the intention of writing about female ambivalence per se, but I did want to portray female powerlessness in a range of ways. What We Were Promised is a book about changing values in China, but when it comes to women’s roles, I feel that not a lot has changed. In the agrarian society where Sunny grows up, a large part of a woman’s job is to give birth—and not just to give birth, but to give birth to sons, who are more useful when it comes to fieldwork. As we move into urban areas, this stops being true, and yet male dominance continues. It’s Lina who follows Wei abroad, not once, but twice, abandoning her own prospects in China and her career in the States. Her role as a mother, too, is something she’s let her husband define. Although gender equality is advancing in China and America in certain ways, there’s still a long way to go. I think Lina and Sunny each feel hemmed in by social expectations and harbor resentment toward the roles they’re expected to fill. At the same time, they know these roles are important, and that’s where the ambivalence comes in.

    I loved that The Immortalists tracks a family throughout multiple generations, during which we can start to see female roles change. We start out with Gertie, mother of the four Gold siblings, who once wanted to be an intellectual, and who “lay beside the fountain in Washington Square Park reading Kafka and Nietzsche and Proust.” But after meeting her husband, she gets pregnant, drops out of school, and assumes the roles of mother and receptionist. In the second generation of Gold women, however, each become professionals in male-dominated fields. Varya is a research scientist working with primates. Klara is a death-defying magician who shares her act with a partner who supports her taking center stage. With all that’s going on in America right now, I found it uplifting to be reminded of the progress we’ve made for women over the last half century, despite recent setbacks. Was this intentional? What role do you think feminism could or should have in fiction? What are your favorite feminist reads?

    Benjamin: I’m passionate about women’s rights and voices, and I think in many ways, centering women’s lives in fiction—whether those lives are more conventional/domestic or not—is a feminist act in itself. I love the work of Alice Munro, whose stories contain such nuance, and whose female characters are far more than the sum of their choices—as readers, we’re forced to look beneath the surface. Lily King’s Euphoria, a fictionalized take on the life of groundbreaking female anthropologist Margaret Mead, impacted me recently. Honestly, I read mostly female writers, and in the same way that different kinds of female characters all have something to say, I think that reading women frequently and consistently is a feminist act as well. 

    Tan: I hadn’t thought of writing from female perspectives as a feminist act, but you’re so right! It’s a way of asking the world to look more closely at our experiences.

    Benjamin: I want to talk more about craft, since we both are sort of craft geeks at some level—one of my favorite things about our friendship is that we can talk endlessly about technique, unpacking how the bones of a novel fit together, whether it’s one of ours or someone else’s. How do you think your perspective on craft changed during and after your MFA? Did teaching influence that? What about the fact that you wrote short stories for many years—did that make writing a novel easier or harder?

    Tan: Writing short stories helped me improve the quality of my prose and allowed me to experiment with voice, perspective, pacing, and other fundamentals of fiction writing, which were all helpful in writing the novel. But because the forms of short stories and novels are so different, I can’t say that writing short stories made writing a novel any easier. In fact, I think some of the instincts you can have as a short story writer might work against you as a novel writer, and vice versa. The most helpful thing I’ve learned about novel writing is to fix the sentences last. If the characters, setting, and conflict aren’t already there, you’re going to have to fix the sentences all over again anyway. I haven’t figured out a way to use this same approach with short stories. Short stories feel closer to poetry, and the sentence-to-sentence (sometimes even syllable-to-syllable) relationship feels integral to its trajectory. If I don’t have the right ones in place, I have no idea how to proceed! Do you know what I mean? How does the experience of writing a short story differ from that of writing a novel for you?

    Benjamin: Oh, gosh—unlike you, I’m really not good at short stories! And I’m not just being self-deprecating; I was never able to comfortably inhabit that form. What you say about the instincts you have as a short story writer—I just don’t have those! I’ve always been mystified by the fact that there isn’t a more clearly delineated categorical line between short and long fiction. There’s this idea, especially in MFA programs, that fiction writers can do both. And I find them so very different! 

    While we’re on the subject of MFAs: aspiring writers often ask me about “to MFA or not to MFA” question. What are your thoughts?

    Tan:  I think of MFA programs as incubators. Because of the concentrated time and professional support I had during my two years at the University of Wisconsin, I was able to focus on writing as I never had before. That fast-tracked my growth as a writer by what was probably years. It was also very helpful to have the support of teachers and mentors who could point me in the right direction and say, “Okay, here’s what you should do now.” It saved a lot of time. That said, an MFA is by no means something a person must do to publish or otherwise succeed as a writer. I think if you’re a serious reader, if you have self-discipline, drive, and a community, and if you’re spending fifteen hours or more a week on writing, you’ve essentially built an MFA program for yourself.

    As a college creative writing teacher, I often suggest that my students take a break before pursuing an MFA to gain life experience, but going straight from undergrad to an MFA program has worked out so well for you! Can you talk about some of the advantages of taking that route? In what situations would you recommend this to a student?

    Benjamin: I totally agree with what you’ve said about the benefits of MFAs, but also the fact that they aren’t necessarily for everyone. I think there’s a bit of panic among developing writers—will I be disadvantaged if I don’t have an MFA? And while I do think that one major advantage of MFAs, in addition to what you’ve mentioned, is community and networking, even these can be found elsewhere—via writing groups, conferences, classes, local readings, etc.

    Similarly, I think the question of whether to go straight into an MFA from college is a very personal one. I was almost obsessively motivated throughout high school and college, so to do something else first felt like an unnecessary side route. I was conscious of wanting to “get life experience,” as we say, but I also felt that life experience and graduate school weren’t necessarily mutually exclusive. That said, most people coming out of college are just finishing fifteen years of school, and I can absolutely see how leaving the environment of the academy would be crucial for many.

    Benjamin: Let’s get nitty-gritty and talk about some of the authors and books who have influenced you. What are your all-time favorites? New favorites? Is there a book you loathed when you were younger that you’ve come to love? And what’s on your nightstand right now?

    Tan: The book I’ve been most obsessed with in recent years is In Zanesville, by Jo Ann Beard. Beard has a way of managing sentence-by-sentence tension that astounds me on every reread. I feel the same way about Danielle Evans (Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self), whom I had the good fortune of working with at the University of Wisconsin. Both these authors are funny, sad, and charming, with keen insight into the quirks of being human. Books I began loving from childhood include The Count of Monte Cristo, by Alexander Dumas, East of Eden, by John Steinbeck, and the Harry Potter series, by J.K. Rowling. My greatest heartbreak in life was having my eleventh birthday come and go without receiving a letter from Hogwarts. I’m still bitter about it, and will show them what I’m made of one day. The best novels I’ve read this year are The Immortalists (not just saying that), Strange Weather in Tokyo, by Hiromi Kawakami, Red Clocks, by Leni Zumas, and The Friend, by Sigrid Nunez. On my nightstand are: Candle Magic for Beginners (Did you think I was kidding about Hogwarts?) and a heartbreaking book called Dopesick, by Beth Macy, about the opioid crisis in America. Up next on my fiction list are Fruit of the Drunken Tree, by Ingrid Rojas Contreras, A River of Stars, by Vanessa Hua, and A Lucky Man, by Jamel Brinkley.

    Brinkley: I love these! Some I’ve read—Danielle Evans is fantastic, and I too was a Harry Potter superfan, devastated at the unremarkable passing of my eleventh birthday.

    Lastly—and believe me, this is the question interviewers will always end with—what’s next?! How comfortable do you feel sharing about work that is still in process?

    LT: I think I’ve committed to my new project past the point of no return (knock on wood), so I can share that I’ve started a novel set in Wisconsin and New York about three women in the theater world. The themes are still emerging as I write, but so far, it’s pointing toward being an exploration of art, friendship, and female ambition.

    CB: Yes, girl. Not to brag, but I feel pretty damn lucky that I’ll get to read it first.

    The post Imagine Your Way Into Another Life: Lucy Tan and Chloe Benjamin in Conversation appeared first on Barnes & Noble Reads.

  • Joel Cunningham 2:00 pm on 2017/12/13 Permalink
    Tags: a land more kind than home, , Interviews, not his last ballad, the dark road to mercy, ,   

    Unlocking Character: A Conversation with Wiley Cash 

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    In 2012, Wiley’s Cash’s novel, A Land More Kind Than Home, wowed readers and critics and booksellers, including those who sit on the selection committee for our Discover Great New Writers program. A Land More Kind Than Home is a classic Southern Gothic that uses a trio of voices to tell the story of a young man’s coming of age in the wake of tragedy; it’s a novel that so assured, it’s hard to remember that it’s actually Wiley’s debut.

    This Dark Road to Mercy, Wiley’s second novel, takes a less gothic, more noir, turn with the story of a man whose well-intentioned, but ultimately poor, choices endanger his family—and himself. This isn’t a story of black hats vs. white hats; it’s a layered story of living in the grey area, of meaning well and behaving badly, consequences be damned.

    Wiley’s still on the road talking to readers about The Last Ballad, and was gracious enough to give us a few minutes to talk shop via email.

    Where did The Last Ballad start for you?
    I grew up in Gastonia, North Carolina, completely unaware of the history of the mill. Firestone purchased the mill not long after the 1929 strike, which was one of the only communist-led strikes in American history. It turned the city upside down, people died, and families were run out of town. But by the time I was born in 1977, Gastonia had completely buried the story of the Loray Mill strike.

    It wasn’t until I went to grad school in 2003 that one of my professors learned that I was from Gastonia and mentioned the Loray Mill strike. I researched the name Loray Mill and was shocked to learn that the place I’d always known as the Firestone Plant was the epicenter of one of the most important labor movements in American history. It had all occurred in my hometown, and I had grown up knowing nothing about it. My mother and father were born and raised in mill villages close to Loray in 1945 and 1943 respectively, and they never heard about the Loray Mill or Ella May Wiggins, the woman who would become the face of the strike. This is not surprising, especially because they came of age during the Red Scare, when any mention of communism or anyone with supposed communist ties were reason enough to keep quiet.

    I was raised in Gastonia during the Cold War, and many of those restrictions still applied. This is to say that the silence surrounding the history of the strike was a confluence of things: in 1929, society was turned upside down when the poor organized to make demands of the rich; the strikers were led by avowed communists; people were shot and killed. Gastonia wanted to forget that story. The city is just now beginning to come to terms with its own legacy. It made me realize that history is not a fixed thing, and it made me understand that politics and public sentiment can dictate what is retained and what is lost.

    Why did you decide to switch to Historical-Capital-H fiction? (The obvious answer being why not, you’re a writer…)
    Something about this story pulled me back. My previous novels were historical in a sense that they were grounded in their historical moments. A Land More Kind Than Home was set in the 1980s, which was the era that showcased the rise and fall of the southern televangelist, and This Dark Road to Mercy was set in the summer of 1998 against the backdrop of the McGwire/Sosa homerun race, which, I would argue, was the last time Americans were united by something positive.

    But The Last Ballad was set in the distant past in the summer of 1929, a very different era than the 80s or 90s. Because the novel is based on a real event that unfolded over the course of that summer, I was shackled to that period. But there was also great freedom and joy in writing this novel because of its reliance on history. It was fascinating and disheartening to find so many connections between now and then: gender inequality, especially in terms of pay; racial violence fueled by white supremacy; the growing divide between rich and poor that presaged the even greater divides to come during the Depression.

    The historical moment also gave me some real direction in creating characters and considering what their daily lives would have been like. Obviously, the greatest challenge was getting it right, whether it was mill technology, period dress, automobile culture, or language. I did an incredible amount of research, but it was a joy, and it took me away from the page, which is right where writers need to be sometimes.

    What do you mean when you say the research “took you away from the page?” Don’t you need to be grounded in the details before you get to the heavy lifting: characters, narrative structure…?
    It took me away from the page in that it gave me a break from grinding out words, and it was a break that did not feel like a distraction or an indulgence. As you mentioned, it also gave me a way to be grounded in the story and the events, but research is an intellectual exercise, whereas writing is a surprisingly physical and emotional exercise. Sometimes it’s nice to get a break from that, and it’s great when that break contributes to the larger work of your book.

    Did you start with the story idea or Ella Mae’s voice?
    Both, kind of, I started with Ella May and I questioned why I had never learned the true story of a woman who was a feminist and civil rights leader before those terms were staples of the progressive movement. She was the face and later the martyr of one of the most significant labor struggles in American history, which happened to take place in my hometown, but I didn’t hear her name until I was in graduate school in Louisiana when I was twenty-five years old. I was horrified. Once I decided to write about her I struggled with how to tell her story.

    When I was on book tour for A Land More Kind Than Home, my friend and fellow writer Ben Fountain (Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk) and I drove from Austin to Houston for some overlapping events. Ben’s a North Carolina native and, unlike me, he’d heard of the strike and knew some things about it. He suggested, and suggested strongly, that I tell Ella’s story against the backdrop of the strike.

    I didn’t tell him at the time, and I don’t think I’ve told him since, but I fought that advice. The challenge seemed too big. How would I set Ella’s journey from the Tennessee mountains to the mill towns of the North Carolina piedmont, along with the many tragedies she faced, against the story of the strike, which unfolded relatively quickly in only a few months? To be honest, I had a difficult time “finding” Ella in the story of the strike, although there is no doubt that she was its central character and leader. As a way to find Ella on the page I created other characters—an African American labor organizer from New York City, a progressive mill owner who is forced to act against convictions, Ella’s oldest daughter decades after her mother’s death—and I watched Ella as she passed through their lives.

    It was fascinating. I had never realized a character by fixing her in the perception of other characters. It unlocked Ella and showed me connections between her and other important people that I may have never discovered had I forced her to take center stage too early.

    It’s a terrific device, developing Ella through the POV of the other characters. Is that what made you switch to the third person POV for The Last Ballad?
    I made the switch because I wanted there to be some historical distance between the events of the strike and the narration of those events. First person offers such immediacy, such heat. Third person is a little cooler, and a little more distant, a little more sweeping in terms of perspective. That’s how I wanted the novel to feel. I wanted to be able to zero in on those deeply emotional moments between characters, but I wanted the reader to feel part of it instead of feeling the heat from someone else’s first person relation of events.

    Although they’re not stories, A Land More Kind Than Home and This Dark Road to Mercy were both in first person. I’ve written a few short stories, most of them unpublished, in first person. It felt like a very natural way to write those initial novels, but The Last Ballad felt more sprawling, less narrow. It was my first real attempt at sustained third person, especially with so many characters, but I feel like it worked. The only first person in the novel is in the voice of Ella’s daughter Lilly, decades a later when she’s a much older woman.

    I modeled Lilly’s voice after Gail Godwin’s narrator in her brilliant novel Flora. I love that book so much. Gail was one of the first people to offer me a blurb for A Land More Kind than Home, and she’s gone out of her way to be kind to me in the years since. She’s a wonderful person and a foundational writer for those of us who are writing about contemporary Appalachia without the rosy glasses.

    Lilly’s voice is fantastic.
    Lilly’s voice was a lot of fun, and writing is felt transcendental. When I sat down I was able to channel her and hear her so clearly, and I was able to see her in the young girl who is portrayed in the earlier chapters that are set in 1929. She’s the same smart, tough woman whether she’s thirteen or eighty-nine. The challenge was tracing her knowledge of events and evolution of self over those many decades.

    Characters in realistic fiction, at least the kind I’m trying to write, are not static. They are dynamic, and they have to be shown evolving as people while still hewing to some basic characterizations that will allow readers to take that journey with them, confident that the character, at various stages of her life, is still the same person. Lilly is also a person who learns a lot about herself and her family’s struggle over the course of the novel. Each time she was on the page she was burdened by a different set of facts, and I had to be keenly aware of what she knew and what may be on her mind each time I put her on the page.

    Who doesn’t love fierce Ladies-of-a-Certain-Age? Lilly’s such a product of the place and the time and her family’s circumstances. The poverty is brutal in The Last Ballad, and yet your characters are all matter-of-fact about it—they certainly don’t like it, but there’s very much a feeling of this is just how things are. What surprised you the most as you were writing The Last Ballad?
    That may have been what surprised me. We have to keep in mind that this was a time in which there were no safety nets for impoverished families. There were no workplace protections. Racial and gender discrimination was legislated. There were roadblocks to humanity, to realizing one’s agency, and potential. Self-actualization for women and African Americans was warned against, even violently punished. These threats gave rise to incredible power, the kind of power that comes from righteous indignation, anger, and desperation. This is what fueled Ella May. It’s what made her get on a stage and tell the story of her struggle before mill owners who wanted her dead. It’s what made her demand integration in a union that was violently opposed to it. She was brave, but it was more than that: she was angry and desperate and convicted. And she was right.

    She still is.

    No one expected anything from Ella Mae, ever, did they? And even Ella Mae is surprised by the way events shake out, isn’t she?
    No, no one expected much from her. I think she even surprised herself as she slowly became aware of how dynamic and talented she was. Here is a woman earning $9 for a 72-hour workweek and living in utter poverty taking on corporate bosses in a state that is dominated by mill interests. She’s the ultimate underdog, and she’s the ultimate hero.

    That’s part of what’s so shocking about so much of what happens in TLB: the hardscrabble day-to-day, the callousness. Ella Mae really just wants to make things better for her family. She’s not thinking about making history, is she?
    No, that would’ve been far from her mind, especially because her concerns were so immediate and so dire. This phrase is thrown around a lot, but she was ahead of her time in every conceivable way.

    Watching how women move through The Last Ballad – not just Ella Mae, but also her friend and neighbor, Violet; or Miss Myra, or Claire and Katherine McAdam—their lives are so prescribed (in some cases, the women themselves are putting limits on what they can or will do), is sometimes shocking for a modern reader, though the emotional truths behind their stories is timeless. What did you learn from these women while you were writing?
    In terms of female characters, the three most important are Ella, her old friend Violet, and her new friend Katherine. As we’ve discussed, Ella is a poor white single mother who is swept in a violent mill strike and becomes the somewhat unwitting face of it. She quickly comes to terms with her new celebrity and the agency her bravery has earned her. Her friend Violet is a poor African American neighbor, but she’s also very self-possessed and bold. She may face the most discrimination due to her race and gender, but she’s also more outspoken about it and aware of it and engaged with it on a day to day basis because she has to be to survive.

    On the other hand, Katherine, the wife of a wealthy mill owner, sees Ella and Violet’s poverty as a type of freedom. They’re unmarried, they don’t face the trappings of wealth and social status. She feels more trapped inside her gilded cage than she believes they are trapped inside their poverty. She completely romanticizes their struggle, and their plight becomes her pet project. What I learned from them is the same thing that I’ve learned from the strong women in my life: there’s a connection that is forged between them because of the circumstances they often find themselves rallying against.

    Bessemer City and Stumptown (the part of town that Ella Mae and Violet live in) are almost characters in their own right in TLB. Like Ella Mae, Jess/Adelaide/Clem from A Land More Kind Than Home are all seriously connected to their community; Wade, Brady and Pruitt of This Dark Road to Mercy have no real sense of place behind them—is place the key to your characters’ development?
    Place is always central to my writing because it’s been central to my development as a writer and person. I had never thought of the dichotomy of my characters that are anchored to place as opposed to those who seem unmoored, but your reading of them makes perfect sense. I do feel that my characters who know the place they’re from and cling to it in some way are more interesting and more steady. There’s something about being of a place that makes a character feel real to me, and I only want to write about and spend time with characters who feel real.

    You’ve written three novels in less than a decade. Is there something you’ve learned while writing each one that you’ve applied to the next? (Presuming you’re already working on whatever comes after The Last Ballad…)
    While writing A Land More Kind Than Home I learned how to take three strong characters with distinct voices who all imparted separate sets of knowledge and forge them into what I hope feels like a cohesive narrative. I really struggled with the evolution of plot in that novel, but by the end of it I feel like I came out knowing how to carry tension from one scene to the next.

    That really influenced my writing of Dark Road, which is a more plot-centric novel. In that book I featured a first-person narrator who is deeply troubled and capable of incredible violence. I learned to let go of my fear and allow characters like him to take the lead.

    With Last Ballad I learned how to construct a “scene” around a character at rest. You may notice that nearly each time you meet a new character she or he is seated or otherwise not moving. I wanted their intellect, emotional range, sense of history, etc. to be the way that readers conceptualized them. Each character is introduced by the thoughts or memories she or he is having when they first appear in the novel. That’s where they’re all grounded.

    Gail Godwin isn’t the only writer who’s influenced you. Can we talk about Ernest Gaines for a minute? A Lesson Before Dying is a modern classic, the story of a young teacher and the bond he forms with an inmate on death row; set in the 1940s, published in 1983, Gaines’s masterpiece reads like it was written last year. (Much like the story Sonny’s Blues by James Baldwin, first published in 1957, and collected in Going to Meet the Man. A Lesson Before Dying reads like it was written very recently.)
    Ernest Gaines and his work has meant everything to my development as a writer and literary citizen. I first read his fiction when I was an undergraduate at the University of North Carolina-Asheville. Although he was writing about the African American experience in southwest Louisiana in between the wars, I saw a similarity in the way his characters worked and revered land and the ways my grandparents talked about working and revering land. I felt a connection to his fiction and evocation of place that I didn’t feel to other writers. This is the reason I decided to attend graduate school at the University of Louisiana-Lafayette where he served as writer-in-residence for decades. I studied under him, and we became friends. I visited him and his wife over the summer. His work exemplifies the dignity of the human spirit in the midst of struggle: the struggle to survive, to maintain cultural traditions, to cling to land that runs the risk of being taken. Him putting words on the page is an act of reclamation.

    I’m always reading one of his books. It’s hard to pick a favorite, but I can say that I learned a lot from his novel Of Love and Dust and the stories in Bloodline. From his fiction I learned how to use dialogue to impart information to both a character and the reader. Nothing is wasted in Gaines’s work. Characters do not only talk to one another, and scenes are never designed simply for the reader’s benefit. In his work there is an incredible sense of shared experience between the characters and the reader.

    You’re just finishing a massive tour; what have you learned from your readers?
    This book tour has been looooong. I’m in Atlanta right now, and I’ll be in Ohio in a few days. But it’s been a blast. We hosted 600 people at the release event in Asheville NC where musician Shannon Whitworth sang and played some of Ella’s music and Charles Frazier and I talked about historical fiction and strong female characters. After that, book tour took me all over the country for something like 35 events. I’ve got a few left in me. It’s been a blast. I published a very political novel at a very tumultuous political moment in American history, and conversations about where we are and where we were have dominated the Q&A at my events. My readers are politically and culturally engaged, and I’ve learned a lot from them.

    What’s next?
    Next? Next is a nap. And then another event tonight.

    The Last Ballad is available now.

    The post Unlocking Character: A Conversation with Wiley Cash appeared first on Barnes & Noble Reads.

  • Jeff Somers 6:00 pm on 2017/11/02 Permalink
    Tags: , Interviews, , , ,   

    We Talk with Lee Child About the Return of Jack Reacher in The Midnight Line 

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    In an alternate universe, 2016’s Night School was the last Jack Reacher novel ever. Early in his second career as a novelist (a career he famously “backed into” after losing his television job at the age of 40), Lee Child thought he would put Reacher to rest after 21 books. Luckily, fan support has proven too powerful; number 22, The Midnight Line, hits bookstores on November 21st (though you can preorder a signed edition now), and there is undoubtedly more to come.

    We were lucky enough to be able to sit down with Child for a conversation about Reacher, writing and reading, and passionate internet gun experts.

    Do you still get the same thrill every September when you start a new Reacher book?
    Oh absolutely—I have exactly the same excitement, and the beginning of it is the best part of all. The format of the Reacher novels is that he doesn’t have a job and he doesn’t have a home, and therefore the flexibility is enormous. This is not a cop in some particular city, he’s not a private eye or something, which would limit the type of channels that you could take him down. He can do anything and be anywhere. So each time I sit down with exactly the same kind of satisfaction and excitement. And those early weeks are the best of all, because I haven’t screwed it up yet—it’s still potentially a great book!

    You could say Jack Reacher novels are almost “anti-procedurals.”
    Exactly. And I have no idea what’s going to happen. I don’t have a plan or an an outline, I just start somewhere and see what turns up. The procedural plot is, I think, generally a difficulty these days, because with computers and cell phones, the standard tropes of procedural novels get harder and harder. What do you do about information being instantly available? Reacher inhabits a sort of timeless period where that technology isn’t much help, and I usually do that by taking him to remote places where maybe there isn’t a cell signal. It’s sort of a comment on this ownership society, where Reacher believes that you don’t own things, they own you—and he prefers his liberty. That has proved to be so popular—and I thought that was a guy thing initially, but it turns out women want to do exactly the same thing, in the same way. They just want to be somewhere else tomorrow if they could.

    There’s a real sense of melancholy in the The Midnight Line, almost as if Reacher is contemplating making a change. Is that our imagination, or is that on purpose?
    It is on purpose. The relentless self-confidence of Reacher needs to be tested once in a while. In a couple of the books, I’ve had him look back and think, “Did I make the right choices? Are they the idiots or am I the idiot?” I think to have him perfectly self-confident in every book would be a little same-y, so once in a while, he’s contemplative. It’s a miracle that I get away with it, really—he’s a homicidal maniac! I read one online description saying this is a detective series where the detective commits more homicides than he solves. The reader’s enjoyment of that is really a kind of comment on how frustrating real life is, with all the procedures we have to go through—which, of course, we understand we must have. But it is frustrating, and sometimes, you just want to dish out a little summary justice.

    You were famously fired for being a staunch union man. Yet Jack Reacher is the least union person ever imagined.
    Reacher is in a union of one. He’d be quite happy to bond with anybody like him, he just hasn’t found any yet. At the same time, he will stick up for the little guy as you would as a shop steward in a union, but he admits it’s not so much the little guy that he’s trying to protect. He just hates the big guy—that kind of arrogant sort of person who thinks they can get away with anything. I think his instincts are good, but he’s just too antisocial to ever join anything.

    In a sense he’s like a reluctant shop steward for the entire human race.
    Yes—which I kind of was myself, in that nobody else would do the job, and it was wrong that people were being intimidated. I didn’t want to do it, necessarily, but I just thought I had to—it was my real life “Reacher Moment.”

    You’re known for “adopting” a writer to boost when you go out on tour. How do you find new writers you want to promote?
    I get sent a lot of new books, and I love [finding] new talent. First of all, it scares me, because they are so good, and so full of energy and ideas, that it does spur me on. And certain writers just appeal to me in certain ways. This is a tough business right now, and mainly it’s a way of paying forward. I had a lot of help at the beginning, when the publishing business and bookselling was a lot different. We were indulged for a lot longer than you get now. I think if I can pay it forward, that’s the decent thing to do.

    Any books you’ve read recently that you think are particularly good?
    Nick Petrie. His character Peter Ash [starting with The Drifter] is an ex-marine who isn’t exactly Jack Reacher—but he’s in the rearview mirror, so to speak.

    What do you read for pleasure?
    I’m a phenomenal reader—just insatiable. I read all the time. Certainly I reread all my old favorites within the genre, and I read new things in the genre that have got buzz around them, but basically I read anything—anything at all. A lot of history and nonfiction. It’s kind of depressing, because however much you read, you can miss out on a hundred thousand books a year. But I read as much as I can, and fairly randomly—sometimes literally randomly. I have a process where I go to the store and judge books on how they look, how they feel, what the copy says, just touch them. I pick up ten or twelve random books—especially to take on vacation. Some of them are really good. It’s just frightening how much talent [is out there].

    Reacher sure knows a lot about guns. Do you have a gun expert you consult?
    I have a couple of guys who volunteer, usually; what they do is, they say “you know, I love your books, if you want to know anything just give me a call,” and I have. But in general I don’t call them, because what I’ve found is that whatever the issue, there is always a divergence of opinion amongst experts or enthusiasts.

    For instance, one time I happened to have dinner in London with a guy who was, at the time he mustered out, the most highly-decorated soldier in the British army. He’d been in the SAS, which is the equivalent of Delta Force or the Navy SEALs. He’d been on all kinds of operations you don’t want to know about, and he, as a soldier, couldn’t care less about what gun he was issued—all he cared about was that it worked. He said his only rule was that he would never use an automatic weapon that had been left loaded for a while because he wasn’t confident of the temper of the spring in the magazine; he was worried about it mis-loading on the second round.

    And I thought, wow, great—you know this is the most decorated soldier in the British army and he’s telling me this trick of the trade. So I put it in one of the books—I think it was Without Fail—and I got hundreds of thousands of e-mails from people saying “That’s BS! Leave it loaded as long as you want!” So in general, what I do is research in books, or online, or in gun magazines. Usually [it’s better if] I figure it out for myself.

    Have you ever considered writing something other than Jack Reacher?
    All writers have a lot of other ideas that they would kind-of-sort-of like to do. But because I backed into this career from the world of entertainment, I really believe that entertainment is a two-way street. It’s asking and responding, and it’s really up to the writer to take notice of what the reader is saying—and the readers are saying “we love Jack Reacher.” If, purely out of self-indulgence, I was to write something different, I think that would be a big disappointment to those readers—and probably a wasted book. People expect Reacher. After 22 books, they still expect me to write Reacher. If I write something different, that book starts out with two strikes against it. It’s a bit like if you go to Yankee Stadium: you know you’re going to see baseball. You don’t walk up to the stadium wondering, “is it going to be ice hockey today? Is it going to be basketball?” You need a certain amount of reliability in life, I think.

    As an author who’s already writing under a pseudonym, have you ever considered a second pseudonym in order to try something different?
    Well, that would be [the thing to do], wouldn’t it? But then we run into that 2017 discovery issue. That’s what J.K. Rowling did with Robert Galbraith, and until she was a outed, the exact same book, with the exact same words, was going nowhere. I’m not sure that I would love the experience of being a complete unknown in 2017.

    The Midnight Line is available November 7 in a signed edition from Barnes & Noble.

    The post We Talk with Lee Child About the Return of Jack Reacher in The Midnight Line appeared first on Barnes & Noble Reads.

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