Maximum Shelf author interview: Cecilia Ekbäck

Following Monday’s review of Wolf Winter, here’s Cecilia Ekbäck: The Impact of Place.


Cecilia Ekbäck was born in Sweden, in a small northern town. Her parents come from Lapland. Ekbäck now lives in Calgary with her husband and twin daughters, “returning home” to the landscape and the characters of her childhood in her writing. Wolf Winter is her first novel.

ekbackWhat background–literary or personal–led you to this subject matter?

A wolf winter is a very cold, very bitter winter. But in Sweden, it is also the period in life when you’re faced with your mortality, when you realize that you’re alone–an illness, or the loss of a loved one or something like that, when you come face to face with death, and feel very lonely. Where you have to face sides of yourself that you didn’t know that you had, that you like less, or things that you haven’t dealt with. I wrote this book after my own wolf winter, which was when my dad passed, from cancer. He was my best friend. That was the time when I had to do a lot of soul-searching, when I had to do a lot of thinking through what I wanted to do with the rest of my life and what I was going to do with the enormous space that he left after himself. The book sort of came out of that. I wanted to take a number of characters and have them walk through their wolf winter, if you like, both literally, with the cold and the winter and the snow and the hunger and so on, but also emotionally.

The book switches perspectives slightly between several characters. What led you to that strategy?

Society in those days was very compartmentalized, so I knew that I wanted the main character to be a woman. When we read history, there’s so little about women. I wanted to write women back into that period. And I felt you had to have a few different views to get access, for example, to the church. Maija was always there; and then I felt that her character did not let her easily get involved in the more emotional or spiritual side of Blackåsen, so I let her daughter do that. And then I felt that we needed the priest to get access to the church and to the crown.

Was there a character you felt closest to?

Well… I like them all. But I like Maija and the priest very, very much. Frederika felt… a little bit close to home. I grew up in a very religious environment, and I just felt she came a little bit close to home, so I liked her less! But I was very, very fond of the priest and of Maija.

Are there heroes and villains in this story?

I think there are more strengths and weaknesses. You could say that there are certainly villains. But I guess what I wanted them to be was thoroughly human. So nobody, I don’t think, is straight out one way or straight out another. I wanted to work more with strengths and weaknesses of each character.

What kind of research did you do to evoke 1700s’ Sweden?

I read lots. I’m not a historian, and I get uncomfortable when people say this is a historical novel, because I know that I don’t have my education in that field–I have a terrible memory, and very poor attention to detail. It’s a story set in the past, is how I think about it.

I read everything I could find. In northern Sweden, very often when a town celebrates 200 years or 300 years, they publish a book. Those books are only locally published, and they give the history of the place and lots of anecdotes and so on. I worked a lot with books like that. Then, one of the most important things I did was interviews with my grandmother, her sister and their friends. Even though the story happened way earlier, Lapland didn’t actually change that much until after the Second World War. My grandmother used to say they lived like people had lived in all times. And then, one day to another, they went from shoes that they had made themselves to buying high-heeled shoes in the shop. It was a shock to everyone. It was like when falls a meter of snow and you wake up and you go out and you think, this is not my world! I recognize certain things, but not many others…. So, I spoke a lot to them about the practical details, how they cooked, how they shepherded goats, how the cold was, how the houses were, and I imagined that a lot of it wouldn’t have been that different. Because a lot of this sort of knowledge was passed down through generations–the way you did laundry, the way you worked with nature and so on. So that was really, really important for the practical life of the settlers. And I spoke to a lot of priests, but that was more to understand the faith of the state church as was in that time.

I wrote this story four times. The first time it was set in 1985, and it was really much more of a family saga. I was writing it to try and understand where we came from and why we were a certain way and why we were religious, why we didn’t speak of certain things, why we were frightened of certain things, and so on. And the second time it was set in, if I remember correctly, 1865. And then I wrote it set in the early 1800s, and then, finally, in 1717. And every time I wrote it I thought yes, but this is not where it starts, this is not the beginning. And the further I went back, the more I felt that 1717 was a great year, because the early 1700s was when the settlers began to arrive to Lapland, for various reasons. That particular year was a year when Sweden was at its peak. Sweden was a great power, but it was crumbling. The king had warred abroad for his whole life, and he had just returned to Sweden, and we were warring on several fronts and there was no more money and so many people had died in the years of war…. I thought that added something, that crumbling sense, where things change for the characters regardless of which social class they belonged to. I thought that was a good setting for them and for this story. It’s where the story felt comfortable. We’re so influenced by place, in the largest sense of the word; not just nature and climate, but political history and socially what’s going on and so on. I wanted a place that would have an impact on them, whether they were close to it or further away.

What did you feel upon completing your first novel for publication? What are you working on next?

It’s a bizarre thing, publishing your book. You’ve lived with it for so long and it’s so close to you. The delight is that others read it and talk about it, and they’ve seen things in it or found things in it that they feel are valuable, and then I feel elated. But the publication of it actually frightened me more than it made me happy. When I found out that I had actually sold the book, I went to my best friend and I cried. I said, I don’t want to be published! And he said, you’re insane. But that’s what I did. And then I called my husband and said I thought I had a brain tumor. Those are the two things I did.

Now I’m working on the second book, which is a very, very loose sequel. It’s set 130 years later, at Blackåsen, and so the mountain is the same and the supposed curse is the same, but the characters and the dilemma they face are completely different. I have found it easier in a way and harder in others, to write the second one. Easier in that I have more of a writing process. And also easier because I wrote it in so many different centuries that a lot of the research I’d already done. But harder in the sense that it’s much more real: it’s actually going to be a book! It’s not just a story for me any longer. And I find that makes it harder.


This interview originally ran on November 25, 2014 as a Shelf Awareness special issue. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!

Maximum Shelf author interview: Jonas Karlsson

Following yesterday’s review of The Room, here’s Jonas Karlsson: On Acting in Writing.


Jonas Karlsson writes plays and short fiction. One of Sweden’s most prominent actors, Karlsson has performed on Sweden’s premier stage and in several acclaimed feature films and television series. In 2005, he made his debut as a playwright, earning rave reviews from audience and critics alike. Spurred by the joy of writing for the stage, Karlsson began writing fiction. He has published several short story collections; The Room is his first novel.

jonasThe Room is a short and apparently straightforward work, but takes us deeply inside the head of Björn, which is a strange place. How difficult is it to present such seeming simplicity?

Thank you! I’m glad to hear that. As an author, I believe it’s all about trying to get inside your main character’s head. If you’re close enough to the story, you’ll get an instinct for what is important and what isn’t. If I choose to describe the right details, it will give the reader a clear image–probably not exactly the same as mine, but one shaped by the reader’s own experiences.

Your background as an actor would imply that you haven’t spent a great deal of time in office settings, but this isn’t the first work of fiction you’ve set there. What experience are you drawing on?

That is correct–I’ve never worked in an office. But I’ve visited many offices and maybe I nurture a secret dream about working in a real open office landscape. I can tell you that the environment in the theater and movie business is more similar to offices than you could imagine. There are a lot of meetings, deals, hierarchies, informal decision paths, intrigues, jealousy–not to mention weirdos–there as well.

Did you intend this as another short story that got away from you, or did you set out to write a novel?

I actually never know how lengthy a story will be when I start writing. Most often I start with a situation or some dialogue that I think seems intriguing. Then I write on and see what happens. Sometimes it turns into nothing, other times it becomes a short story, and sometimes–pretty rarely–it turns into something as lengthy as this. It all depends on what I find along the way, and if I find it exciting to keep going. (I love this feeling of freedom in the writing process. It is like being a jazz musician and starting on a piece of music, and not knowing what will happen–all you can do is hang on.) The story about Björn was hard to let go.

Your decision to write in Björn’s own perspective or voice is a large part of what makes his story so creepy. How did you make that choice?

In the beginning, I only had the part where Björn finds a room. I put myself in his shoes and, as the character took shape, he became very special. When I had the whole story set in my mind, I actually tried to change it to third person because it was so hard to describe how the people around Björn reacted to him. But this proved not to be so easily done. I felt it was like exposing him: “Look here, what a crazy guy, and look at the weird stuff he does….” It became obvious that the story had to be experienced through Björn for it to work.

Besides, I think it’s very intriguing to gradually, over time, discover your narrator isn’t to be trusted.

What do you think makes Björn such a compelling protagonist?

I hope that I’ve given him depth, despite the many comic situations he finds himself in. I always try to imagine that I’m my main character–I have to think: Okay, if I was Björn, what have I done? Kind of like I do as an actor when I play a part.

How hard, or troubling, is it to write from inside a space of darkness or even mental illness?

Above all, it is very exciting. But I did have periods when I thought it was difficult and wondered if I was going to go mad, or if my readers would think that I had become weird and had all of those crazy ideas. At the same time, it is a wonderfully mind-blowing feeling to create and enter into the mind of such a special character. Again, it is similar to acting in that way.

Did you have any role in the translation of this novel by Neil Smith into English? What does the process look like? Is there any sort of back-and-forth?

Neil is such a good translator, and I trust in his judgment 100%. We really just talked about the end, which is altered a bit from the original text. Otherwise I let him do his work, which he does so well.


This interview originally ran on November 10, 2014 as a Shelf Awareness special issue. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!

Maximum Shelf author interview: John Vaillant

Following yesterday’s review of The Jaguar’s Children, here’s John Viallant: Looking at the World Differently.


John Vaillant’s work has appeared in the New Yorker, the Atlantic, National Geographic and Outside, among other magazines. His two previous nonfiction books, The Tiger and The Golden Spruce, were award-winners and international bestsellers. Vaillant was born in Massachusetts and lives in Vancouver, B.C. The Jaguar’s Children is his first novel.

vaillantIs Hector’s story based on a specific true account? Where did you get the idea?

The idea came from a conglomeration of different border-crossing incidents. There was one particularly awful case in which a boxcar load of immigrants attached to a train was taken across the border and never opened. It wasn’t found for weeks, until it got to Iowa. Just a hideous, nightmarish situation. I started wondering, what happens in there? What would you go through? And then my family and I lived in Oaxaca for a year, 2009-2010. In Oaxaca, water trucks are a common sight. On one side, they read, “Agua por Uso Humano,” “water for human use,” and I kept thinking about that, and I kept thinking about thirst, and the anagram of agua and jaguar. It just fell into place. All these disconnected observations and ideas gradually coalesced. There was a moment when this fellow, the narrator, just announced himself to me, in January 2010.

This is your first published fiction. What led you here from your past work in nonfiction?

Trying to find a container that was suitable for the story I wanted to tell. Needless to say, Oaxaca is a really interesting place–Mexico is full of stories. There was a nonfiction story that was jaguar-related, that I was pursuing and actively researching down there, and for a couple of reasons it didn’t fully coalesce. A lot of what I was experiencing were more like travel anecdotes, but I didn’t want to write a travel book. It felt too trivial. So then I asked, how do I take all of these things I’m seeing and hearing and feeling, and put them all together in a place where they will make sense and hang together, and create a synergetic narrative and a picture of what is going on down there right now? And the novel was the right form.

This is also somewhat a departure from writing you’ve done about the relationship between people and the natural environment.

I’m really interested in hearing voices that I, or we, don’t usually get to hear, so that’s in a sense what the books are about: creating a platform for these people or beings who are generally invisible, to get some air time. You know, it’s not a selfless, altruistic mission on my part–I’m really curious and I want to see what that world is like, I want to understand it better and re-create it in a way that feels authentic. Ideally people who live that life, whether they’re tigers or conservationists, or biologists or foresters or Mexicans in Oaxaca, will feel that their realities were accurately reflected. So the whole natural world connection is almost incidental, honestly. For me, those margins where human beings and the natural world collide, that’s where the most dynamic tension is. It’s a kind of a front line, and also a fault line. Whether it’s human beings and corn, or human beings and thirst, or human beings and tigers, or the forest, there is a common thread. But it’s certainly not intentional; it’s just where my natural interest seems to go.

Did you go to Oaxaca with any work in mind, a book or a story?

I was deep in The Tiger then. I was in the middle of edits and to be perfectly honest, all I wanted to do was finish that book, lie in a hammock and read books that didn’t have tigers in them. Or any other big cats. That really was the plan.

And here we are.

Here we are. That’s the beauty of the muse, really. All the books I’ve done have really come unannounced. It wasn’t a premeditated objective to write any of those stories, they’ve all come to me and I see them as gifts of sorts. Really time-consuming ones. This again came right when I was just about wrapping up The Tiger and ready to read Under the Volcano or some other books about Mexico. And instead, Hector showed up.

Hector’s perspective is of a Mexican indio from Oaxaca, and his voice is convincing.

I do have a strange, kind of inside track to Mexico. For three generations my father’s family lived there, and I grew up steeped in Mexican lore as it was refracted through their experience. My grandfather was a well-known archaeologist who wrote the first comprehensive history of the Aztec nation, a book called Aztecs of Mexico. My grandmother told us many stories about him. Her house, all her kids’ houses, including my father’s, were filled with things from Mexico, some of them very very old, none of them more modern than 1930 because that’s when they came back. So Mexican art and artifacts were featured in my upbringing, as were stories of my grandfather.

In what ways was your year in Oaxaca helpful?

My wife is a potter and an anthropologist, and she wanted to spend time with traditional Mexican potters. I would follow her around in her trips to these villages, quite remote and very very traditional, so we’d meet people who didn’t speak any Spanish at all. People who have never really succumbed to the dominant culture. They were nominally Christian, but observing and worshiping traditional deities and certainly pursuing traditional practices, whether it was ceramics or agriculture. So it was really like going into another world. I had a notebook and a camera and my innate curiosity. The fact that I had a deep Mexican connection in the family gave me more of a motive to try to understand it. What was it that kept three generations of my family down there when they were all Americans? And perfectly well-connected Americans; they could have had fine lives up here, but for some reason Mexico was the place that offered them something different, something more.

But ultimately this is a story about a Zapotec guy from southern Mexico. Think about the U.S./Mexican border: it’s the most active border on the planet, the site of the largest human migration on earth, and Oaxaqueños play a huge role in that. One in three people from that state go to the States at some point to work, most of them illegally. And all kinds of things happen to them. As I came to understand that, it just started to feel more and more important.

And there was another inspiration. Just as I vowed not to read any more books about tigers, my father-in-law gave me The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga, which won the Booker Prize in 2008. It’s a wonderful novel about a low-caste, indigenous guy from northern India, who notices that there’s something big going on in Bangalore and Delhi. Big money is being made. He’s very smart, but he just doesn’t understand the system well enough to know even how the money’s being made. And that’s how a lot of indigenous Oaxaqueños approach the U.S.–they may have family up there, they may not, but they do not understand the culture terribly well–or often the hazards of the journey, which are many, and can be absolutely lethal. So you have these people who are capable in their sphere but naïve about the wider world, making the journey north, and a lot of them come to grief on the border.

Was this book as difficult or traumatic to write as it may be to read?

I wondered a lot about why I would want to return to this place over and over again, and go back into that truck. It’s a hideous, deadly place. But I thought, nobody else is probably going to do this. And this is something that happens to people, that shouldn’t be happening. And Hector was a very compelling person. But as far as difficulty goes–it was extremely difficult. The novel is a different animal, so to speak, than nonfiction, and certain narrative tools do translate, but being in that voice and pacing it and dealing with the other voices… really was new to me. You’re not really the same after doing something like that. I look at the world differently and feel it differently as a result of spending so much time there.

So the challenge of immersing yourself in the painful subject matter was ultimately rewarding, which I think is the case for readers as well. This is about more than just a nightmarish border-crossing incident.

So much of the book isn’t about that. It’s really about being a young person in a very troubled–some could argue broken–society and first trying to find his place in it, and then ultimately having circumstances align in such a way that he has to leave. The time you spend in the truck is desperate and terrible, but also you get to see how strong Hector is, and what he’s made of. He’s extraordinary in some ways, but he’s not superhuman. It’s amazing what people survive. It’s amazing the kind of clarity and wisdom those kinds of stressors can evoke and inspire. I think it’s a crucible for him, and for his character. I think all of us undergo tests, some of them truly terrible–it’s part of the human experience. Hector is a guy trying to figure it out. Trying to survive at the immediate level, but also at the cultural and occupational levels. The world is changing really fast around us. There are pressures being brought to bear that I have no control over, so what do I have control over? How should I respond to the people around me, to those who are trying to help me and those who are trying to impede me or hurt me? In that sense it feels like a kind of fundamental story.


This interview originally ran on November 5, 2014 as a Shelf Awareness special issue. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!

Maximum Shelf author interview: Yannick Grannec

Following yesterday’s review of The Goddess of Small Victories, here’s Yannick Grannec: On Mathematics and Metaphor.


Yannick Grannec is a graphic designer, freelance art director, professor of fine arts and enthusiast of mathematics. The Goddess of Small Victories is her first novel. She lives in Saint-Paul de Vence, in France.

(Interview translation courtesy of Other Press.).

yannickWhy Kurt Gödel? Why did you feel the need to tell his story, or more accurately, Adele’s?

When I was 18, I read Gödel, Escher, Bach and became fascinated by the work of Kurt Gödel. Twenty years later, I read, by chance, an essay about the friendship between Gödel and Einstein and, as the subject interested me, read other essays. In one of them, I came across a few lines about Adele that struck me as condescending. This question was implied: How could such a genius marry such a common woman?

Knowing Gödel’s life–the man was paranoid, anorexic, depressed–I wondered: How could a woman love such a difficult man for 50 years? There was nothing scientific about it, but that seemed to me to be the real mystery.

I had the intuition of a human story that needed telling, one that came with an opportunity to share what has always fascinated me, the history of science, as part of the fabric. To tell it in the voice of Adele seemed to me completely natural: she was the Candide, which allowed me to transmit complicated ideas with simple words. I felt an immediate empathy for her, as though I’d always known her: she spoke to me of all these destinies of women, of these lives sacrificed for love or out of social obligation. She spoke to me of my mother, my grandmothers, and all those other women howling through my DNA.

What kind of research did you do to prepare for this writing?

Even before beginning to write, I read a great number of documents over the course of at least a year. Of course, I had begun with everything that was within my intellectual reach that had to do with Kurt Gödel, then Einstein, then the biographies of those scientists who shared their destiny. But as soon as I pulled on one thread, an infinite tapestry appeared: I had to stick my nose into epistemology, into history in general, into philosophy, etc. I admit to having had a few periods of discouragement. In particular about Husserl, on whose subject, clearly, I stumbled. Like Adele, I didn’t have the keys. I assembled a wide-ranging collection of photographs to nurture my imagination (the people, the period clothing, the places, etc.) and then I went on reconnaissance to Vienna and to Princeton, to soak up those places. In certain neighborhoods, those two cities seem to be stopped in time. It is very easy to imagine the era before the war in Vienna and the 1950s in Princeton. I had come up with a route, from house to café, from university to sanatorium, to follow in Gödel’s footsteps. I understood why, for example, they lived in the suburb of Grinzing: the 38 tram was direct from the mathematics university. Kurt didn’t like complications in his daily life. Each new discovery stirred up big emotions: seeking Kurt and Adele on the street where they lived, I found an old photography studio at the address that had belonged to Adele’s father. I’ve returned there since, only to discover it has been replaced by a snack bar. Destiny, in this case, gave me this gift. Three years later, I would have missed it. At Princeton, I timed the route Gödel walked with Einstein, to determine the length of their conversations. At the Gödels’ tomb, in Princeton, I cried. I’ve lived with them; they’re my family.

As for having the nerve to make Einstein, Gödel or Oppenheimer speak, I owe it to a kind of wild foolishness, the one that urges you to jump from a diving board into cold water. In retrospect, I shiver at the thought.

How did you come to the decision to switch back and forth between the latter-day view of Anna’s life, and Adele’s life history as it happened?

Anna was born in hindsight. I needed a character who would listen to Adele. And I felt a need to interrogate the Gödels about their lack of reaction to the rise of the Nazis. I needed to explore this gray area. I’m going to say something very pretentious, but the novel’s construction is meant to be a metaphor for the incompleteness theorem. The system observed here is not a mathematical system, but that of Adele and Kurt’s relationship. Extrapolating from the incompleteness theorem–Gödel forgive me!–we can say: one has to be outside of the system to understand the system. So I opted for a double construction: a subjective perspective, from the inside of the system where Adele recounts her story and her feelings in the first person, and a more objective perspective, in the third person, where the narrator observes Adele and the way she tells her story, completed by the letters of the Gödels’ nurse, Elizabeth Glinka.

Anna was therefore supposed to be an objective observer, but the more I wrote, the more her character developed. The relationship with the old woman became a creative re-creation, allowing me to work without documentation, following my intuition. Her destiny became a mirror of Adele’s with, obviously, different paradigms of social origins and historical circumstances. In the end, Anna is, for me, a very positive character: she gives Adele her affection and the possibility to pass on the vital force that defines her. So the novel doesn’t conclude with a disappearance, but with all the possibilities of a life being constructed.

Toward the end of the book, it felt like we got a more intimate look inside Adele’s head. Was this intentional?

The first part of the book takes place during the time of the events that tormented her: life in Vienna during the heady days, the rise of Nazism, the flight across the Pacific, the move to the United States, McCarthyism. At the end of the novel, we accompany the couple through their aging, in a life that’s more and more reclusive. We must understand Adele’s solitude, her boredom. I felt strangely compelled to make the reader feel Mrs. Gödel’s inner battles: her anger, her discouragement followed by a sort of abandon, the acceptance of her own weakness and inevitable decline.

Did you have any role in the translation of this novel by Willard Wood into English? What does the process look like?

My English is really not good enough to judge the translation. I have complete confidence in Judith Gurewich, my American publisher, and Stephen Carrière, my French publisher, both of whom are completely bilingual. I know it’s a very good translation. I loved working with the translator, Willard Wood: we exchanged numerous e-mails. Willard has a sensitivity, an attention to detail that moved me, and a deadpan sense of humor that I greatly appreciated. For other translations, I had to sometimes explain, literally, the idiom or the double senses, which can be very exhausting. That wasn’t the case with Willard, who has a perfect mastery of the second degree in both languages. It was very important to me to keep the humor of the original French, if I can allow myself to describe it that way!

How important is historical accuracy in fiction, and how faithfully does this novel stick to the historical record?

To slip into Gödel’s life demanded a great deal of exactitude. When you use someone’s life, respect is an imperative at every moment. For Kurt, it wasn’t difficult; his life had already been explored and dissected by different biographers, like the “bible” by John Dawson, Logical Dilemmas. For Adele, I had so little information. I had to make myself empathetic, attempt to guess her feelings, her emotions, through the few anecdotes I was able to gather: the aggression of the Nazis on the steps of the university, the naturalization scene in Oskar Morgenstern’s memoirs, Dorothy Morgenstern’s saying that she was very intelligent and funny. I constructed three chronologies: an historic and scientific frieze; a timeline of Kurt Gödel’s life (his trips, moves, work, depressions and health problems); and underlining it, one of Adele’s life as well. She was the unknown in the equation determined by history and the history of her husband. I tried to guess at and date her moods, her joys and, at times, her despair.

The main difficulty lay less in historical exactitude than in approaching scientific exactitude. First of all, it was necessary to attempt to understand. I could talk about this famous incompleteness theorem in a general way, but not in any detail; I’m not a mathematician, and I’m not at all conversant in the language of logic in which it’s expressed. Then, I had to betray. Because the language of mathematics is, by its very definition, objective–but to integrate it into fiction, and to share it, I could only use written language, a subjective tool. To go from sign to metaphor is a betrayal. So I needed to accept, and have others accept, an inevitable inexactitude.

For the part on the continuum hypothesis, I took a course taught by a mathematician friend. This part is more developed, because I thought I understood it better, and my intention was to use only what I thought I understood, because it was important to me to be intellectually honest. Of course, often, we think we understand, but it’s only the surface of things.


This interview originally ran on August 6, 2014 as a Shelf Awareness special issue. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!

Maximum Shelf author interview: Michael Pitre

Following yesterday’s review of Fives and Twenty-Fives, here’s Michael Pitre: At Our Most Human.

pitreMichael Pitre is a graduate of Louisiana State University, where he was a double major in history and creative writing. In 2002, he joined the U.S. Marine Corps. He deployed twice to Iraq and attained the rank of captain before leaving the service in 2010 to get his M.B.A. at Loyola University. Pitre lives in New Orleans with his wife. Fives and Twenty-Fives is his first novel.

This novel handles a great deal of trauma, and one assumes you experienced similar trauma during your military service. Was your writing process cathartic, or painful?

My experiences in Iraq were pedestrian compared to those endured by the characters in this story. It’s a book about people I knew and, in some cases, friends for whom I could have done more. That’s the hidden pain of veterans, I think. We always remember the moments when we weren’t brave, occasions when we didn’t measure up, and days when we didn’t give our best.

Catharsis came from a desire to do right by my friends. There were times when I knew exactly what would happen at the end of a paragraph, and I didn’t want to finish it. Yes, it was painful. Had this book been easy to write, it would not have told a true story.

You point out that this is not a memoir, but you have a great deal in common with Lieutenant Donovan. Were the boundaries between fact and fiction always clear to you as you wrote this book? Did those boundaries turn out as you’d intended?

Early on, I was hyper-focused on maintaining a bright line between fact and fiction. Again, I set out to write a story that would honor the people I knew, and I’d hoped to avoid autobiographical details entirely. Of course, writing is a process. What crept into Donovan’s character from my own experiences were mostly his feelings of inadequacy as an officer, and the awkwardness of being a young veteran in graduate school where classmates ask you to tell stories they aren’t prepared to hear.

Are there any misconceptions about the war in Iraq that you felt you had to guard against?

I was eager to shun misconceptions about war in general, particularly when it came to glamour and gallantry. War is work. For the average U.S. service member in Iraq, it was filthy and exhausting, absurd and terrifying, repetitive and boring. That’s why I chose road repair as the principal mission of Donovan and his Marines. It wasn’t a sexy gig, but I don’t know of another task in Iraq that was more dangerous or more necessary.

On the home front, I was wary of the giving the impression that Iraq War veterans are damaged goods. The young men and women who fill the ranks of the U.S. military are devoted professionals.

Though the characters in this story are struggling to reintegrate to civilian life, they aren’t giving up, they aren’t blaming anyone, and they aren’t victims. They’re working through their problems, and in the end, they’re doing it together.

Who is the hero of this story? Or, your hero?

All three narrators are young men placed in impossible circumstances, and none of them come away clean. Even Donovan, who’s all but bestowed with the formal title of hero, knows the truth about himself. The title becomes his burden.

The closest thing this story has to a hero is Sergeant Gomez. I’ve known a few Marines like her. I’d say they’re my heroes.

I’m so glad you said that. She is so much more than the “token female” that she might have been in lesser hands. Her presence as the only woman in the platoon felt very natural. Does your experience bear out her ease in this story?

The short answer is yes, it’s perfectly normal for a female sergeant like Gomez to run a road repair crew. Most Marines wouldn’t give it a second thought. Female service members have been fully integrated into occupational specialties such as military police, combat engineers and logistics for well over two decades, and these groups have spent as much time on the roads of Iraq and Afghanistan as anyone.

In fact, as the American experience in Iraq wore on, female service members became highly valued for cultural reasons. To avoid inflaming the population, male Marines were forbidden to search Iraqi women at security checkpoints. So, a task force of female Marines was assembled, trained in search techniques and deployed to check points throughout western Iraq. This ad hoc solution was eventually formalized into a program called “Lioness,” in which every battalion in theater had to answer its “Lioness tax” by surrendering a number of female Marines for the duration of a deployment.

Lioness was so successful that the program was copied and expanded into Afghanistan. Infantry patrols were reinforced with Female Engagement Teams composed of six to 10 female Marines. While the grunts dealt with the Afghan men outside, the female Marines would take off their helmets, go into the houses and develop relationships with the Afghan wives, mothers and daughters.

I served in Iraq alongside a female sergeant named Sally Saalman, who was perhaps the most feared and respected Marine in our battalion. She’d served on a forerunner of Lioness in 2005, and had been badly wounded in a suicide attack that killed six service members, three male and three female. (Read more about that event here.)

That was her first deployment. We met on her third. When Saalman raised her voice, everyone around would shut the f*** up and listen.

When and why did you decide to switch voices between your three main characters?

From the beginning, I knew the story would require three different perspectives and that one had to be Iraqi. It’s a long-ignored truth of war that warriors often suffer least. This is especially true in counter-insurgency, where the civilian population is the battlefield. The Iraqi people were the mission. I felt that not representing their experience with its own, distinct voice would’ve been narcissistic.

As for Donovan and Pleasant, I thought it important to show how some veterans have opportunities opened for them by their service, while others are left all but ruined by it.

Did you set out to write a book with a message or moral, or is this simply the story that you held inside yourself as a novelist?

I didn’t set out to write a book with a message or a moral. This really was just a story I had to tell. But along the way, as the character of Dodge became very real to me, I stumbled across the idea of people finding each other in their shared frailty. We’re at our most human when we can recognize our dread, and our weakness, in others.

For those who presume they have nothing in common with a kid from Baghdad, I’d hope that they finish this book having discovered that they have everything in common with him.


This interview originally ran on July 23, 2014 as a Shelf Awareness special issue. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!

Maximum Shelf author interview: Marja Mills

Following yesterday’s review of The Mockingbird Next Door, here’s Marja Mills: Making Acquaintances.


Marja Mills is a former reporter and feature writer for the Chicago Tribune, where she was part of the staff that won a Pulitzer Prize for a 2001 series about O’Hare airport entitled “Gateway to Gridlock.” The Mockingbird Next Door is her first book.

Mills was born and raised in Madison, Wis. She is a 1985 graduate of Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service; a lifelong interest in other cultures led to studies in Paraguay, Spain and Sweden. Mills lives in downtown Chicago and often spends time in Madison and her father’s hometown of Black River Falls, Wis. (pop. 3,500).

marja

Did you have preconceived notions of what Nelle Harper Lee would be like? In what ways did she surprise you?

I didn’t know what to expect. I thought she might be quiet and reserved. Not so. She was gregarious much of the time, and witty. She loved to laugh. When she was telling a story that especially amused her, she’d take her glasses off, tip her head back and just laugh until she could finish what she was saying.

Nelle and her sister Alice–an attorney she calls “Atticus in a Skirt”–loved to get in Nelle’s Buick and explore the back roads. I’d read that the home she shared with Alice when Nelle wasn’t in New York was more modest than one might expect for an attorney and an author of her remarkable and enduring popularity. That was true. They lived simply, didn’t care about material things and had an eclectic group of good friends, from a Methodist minister and a librarian to a hairdresser and a bank president and his wife. Most were retired but still very active.

What about the Southern culture you encountered, in general? Any surprises there?

Being from the Midwest, I was surprised how many words in common usage in Alabama were new to me. Things such as mashing buttons instead of pushing them. Or using a buggy at the Winn Dixie instead of a grocery cart. That was a source of entertainment for the Lees and their friends: watching me learn local expressions. My favorite is an old-fashioned one that Nelle taught me: “journey proud.” It’s the excitement and apprehension before a trip that makes it hard to sleep.

How would you describe Harper Lee as you later came to know her?

My first day living next door in Monroeville, she left a note inviting me to dinner. That touched me. Soon she was calling to have afternoon coffee together, often at McDonald’s.

And of course you can’t know Nelle without knowing her sister Alice. Their lives were entwined and yet quite different, as were their personalities. Miss Alice, as she is known, is 15 years older than Nelle and there was another sister and a brother between them. As I wrote in the book, “even at their ages, it was clear Alice was the steady, responsible older sister, and Nelle Harper the spirited, spontaneous younger one.”

Both gave generously to the Methodist church and various charities. Nelle had been donating large sums, quietly and behind the scenes, for many years. As their Methodist minister friend, Tom Butts, said, she educated many people who had no idea she was their benefactor.

In what ways, if any, do you identify with Harper and Alice Lee?

They got lost in books as children, pulled into another world where you’re not just reading words on the page but living in the story, walking around in it. I was that way, too. Nelle’s eyes would dance, 70 years later, when she talked about being absorbed in the adventures of the Rover Boys.

Aside from many hours spent talking with Nelle and Alice, what research was involved for this book?

Some of the most valuable and enjoyable research I did was around kitchen tables and on porches, interviewing Lee friends and family. There were people I needed to talk to “while they still had their marbles,” as Alice put it. Or “while they’re still above ground,” as Nelle said. These were leisurely interviews but overall there was a sense of urgency, too, that if their stories about the town and the Lees weren’t preserved they would go with them to the grave.

Books were part of the research, too, naturally. I have rows and rows of them at home. Many of the titles were recommended by the Lees, with Alabama history and Southern fiction being two major categories. I enjoyed memoirs by Horton Foote, the playwright who adapted To Kill a Mockingbird for the film, and Wayne Flynt, the Alabama historian.

What was different about the writing process for this book, compared to your past experience as a journalist?

I had the opportunity to really get to know the people and the place I was writing about, to let them reveal themselves over time. That’s a luxury most journalists don’t have. Nelle and Alice did things on their own terms and on their own time. The way this experience unfolded gradually was more compatible with that that. “You let the river run,” was the way Rev. Butts put it.

You allude to the Lees’ approving what went in the book and what didn’t. How much were you asked to hold back?

Not as much as I expected. Much of what they said that was off the record was to spare the feelings of a friend or relative. When I lived next door, we talked about some of the things they especially wanted in the book. They resented Truman Capote’s characterization of their mother, for example. Both sisters described her as a gentle soul. I went over with them stories I wanted to share as well. I was ready to do much more of that but their approach was “use your own judgment.”

Has Nelle or Alice read this book? Any comment from them?

Because of their age and health–neither is able to live at home anymore–I don’t know that they’ll be able to read it but I think they’d enjoy reliving some of the adventures we had together. Age and diminished vision do take their toll. I’ve wondered sometimes how many books each has read in her lifetime. A staggering number; both were avid readers since childhood. Even in her 90s, Alice often had four books going at once. She told me about the time she and Nelle decided they would donate some of their books to the Methodist church.

Nelle set her jaw and tried to keep up her determination to part with some of the books. But then she would have second thoughts and retrieve them from the boxes they were trying to fill. Alice was no better. For all their generosity over the decades, books were hard to give away, even for their church. The evidence of that was the rising tide of books in their house. They had all shapes and sizes of bookcases, crammed where they could find space, and it still wasn’t enough.

In your book you make it clear that the Lees supported this project, but there was some press in 2011 regarding a statement from them indicating the opposite. Can you help us understand these conflicting reports?

I asked Alice Lee about it. Nelle was not living at home; she had a serious stroke in 2007. Alice issued a statement. She said that the first statement had gone out without her knowledge and did not represent her feelings or those of her sister. As far as I know, that put the matter to rest.


This interview originally ran on June 25, 2014 as a Shelf Awareness special issue. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!

Maximum Shelf author interview: Terry Hayes

Following Wednesday’s review of I Am Pilgrim, here’s Terry Hayes: On Breadth of Scope.


Terry Hayes was born in Brighton, England, migrated to Australia as a child, was based in New York as foreign correspondent at 21, and produced a current affairs radio program before moving to Los Angeles to work as a screenwriter. He has written numerous screenplays and mini-series, and has received two international Emmy nominations. His credits have included Payback with Mel Gibson, From Hell with Johnny Depp and Vertical Limit with Chris O’Donnell. I Am Pilgrim is his first novel. He lives in Switzerland with his wife, Kristen, and their four children.

photo: Kristen Hayes

photo: Kristen Hayes

I Am Pilgrim travels through many complex spheres in numerous countries. How much research was required for this book? How did you go about it, and did you enjoy that part of the creative process?

The short answer is: an enormous amount of research. When I started I had no idea just how challenging it would be–which was probably just as well, otherwise I might not have even started. I did have a couple of advantages. With the exception of Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia, I had either lived in, or visited for extended periods, all of the countries where the plot takes place. The race against time criss-crosses continents, and ranges from the Lower East Side of Manhattan to Damascus in Syria, from Santorini in the Greek islands to a Bulgarian border post. My own wanderings lessened the research load and, I hope, allowed me to bring the novelist’s eye for detail to those locales. The second advantage I had was that I had once been a journalist and foreign correspondent, so I am accustomed to efficient and focused research and interviews. I approached the material as if I was a journalist on assignment–I admitted to myself I had a lot to learn. The one thing that I found the most difficult was the science. The plot involves a lot of biological detail, and I wanted that to be as accurate as possible. When I was at high school, several of my science teachers told me that I was very lucky I was good at English and history! Still, I have an enormous curiosity and am happy to read and interview widely, so I eventually managed to wrestle that part of the subject to the ground.

In a practical sense, it would not have been possible without the Internet. Such a vast array of information, so readily accessible, I believe is changing the nature of writing, especially of something like an international spy thriller. You can find out exactly how public beheadings are conducted in Saudi Arabia, how much a gene sequencing machine costs on eBay, or many of the latest tradecraft habits of covert intelligence agents operating in hostile territory. It gives an enormous grounding to the rest of the research. I did enjoy it, most of the time. I am lucky to have an overwhelming curiosity and a pretty good memory, so the research, whether it was about the Islamic faith or the design of a Roman coliseum called the “Theatre of Death,” was really a great experience. Of course, I worried that I had made a mistake–which I am sure I probably have–but I reminded myself that the book was not a documentary. It was, beyond everything else, a work of fiction.

You have created an extraordinarily intricate plot, with lots of characters and lots of detail. Can you tell us a little about the note-taking, outlining or whatever method you used to keep everything straight?

This is the type of book I have always loved–big, epic stories that you can really lose yourself in. The ones that affect you in a very emotional way and also, hopefully, teach you something on the journey. That was the sort of novel I tried to write. Part of that ambition was to interweave a major plot with a number of subplots and somehow try to make it all “of one piece.” Basically, how I did it was to keep telling myself the story. Or, better still, telling it to my wife on long car rides! I think, by the end, she was glad to hear the last of Pilgrim. Of course, you have to have some major stepping stones, or turning points, along the way. The biggest of these was the ending. Whether it is a screenplay, a piece of journalism, or the novel–I have always had to know how it was going to finish. So, once I had an idea of the character and an ending, I could start to embellish it. “Okay,” I would ask myself. “Where do we meet him?” “Why is he there?” “What does he want, what is his objective?” On and on and on. Slowly, the blanks would start to get filled in, and in order to do that, you have to have Pilgrim–or whatever his real name is–interact with other people. It’s funny, but you don’t forget a good run of events in the story, or ideas of how to do it. Bad ideas don’t last a single sleep. Time after time, I would start at the beginning again and tell myself (or my long-suffering wife) the story. When the detail became too much, I started to make notes and, naturally, I had to do that while I was researching the more difficult sections of the story–the things like the biology of viruses or the exact methods used in waterboarding. As the story grew, I started to use what people in movies call “beat-sheets”–one-line notes detailing each “beat” of the story, each significant development of the plot or important moment for a character. Toward the end, the problem became finding the exact research note I knew I had made months earlier. “I know I wrote that down somewhere….”

In the past, you have written in a number of formats, including screenplays, television and journalism. How was writing this novel familiar, and in what ways was it new and challenging?

Well, it is all story-telling. Whether it is a feature article for a newspaper or a screenplay for an action movie, you are always trying to take the reader–or viewer–through a sequence of steps, or events, which are believable and arresting. There is always that struggle to find the right word, the memorable phrase, the clearest way of expressing something. So those things were extremely familiar. The major difference is that in writing movies or long-form TV, the script is part of a manufacturing process–it is a step along the way to creating the finished episode or movie. In a novel, it is the finished article. So the pressure on crafting the words and paragraphs is that much greater. Sometimes a little paralysing! The other major difference is that in movies or TV you can’t tell the audience what a character is thinking–you have to rely on the actor to try and convey that. Of course, in a novel those internal thought processes are easily conveyed, so it is much easier to explain why a character follows a certain course of action. After years of writing for the screen, I found that completely liberating. I loved having the ability to say in the novel “He thought such and such… so he did this and this.” Because you can’t do those internal thoughts in a screenplay, I always think writing a movie is like fighting with one hand tied behind your back: it’s a real skill, but it sure makes things hard.

Pilgrim, like many of fiction’s most compelling heroes, struggles with his own past and demons. If anything he becomes more human, and less perfect, as the novel develops. Did he develop this way for you, too?

Yes, he sure did. I think it’s a little like life itself–the more you get to know somebody, the more you learn about their flaws and the wounds they carry. It doesn’t mean you like them any less; to the contrary, you often end up admiring them even more. So it was with Pilgrim. Most of us, I think, are damaged in some way, but Pilgrim–as you point out, like so many heroes in fiction–is more damaged than most. On one level, the novel is about him confronting and dealing with those issues and demons from his past–a different sort of pilgrimage, I guess. Despite his failings, despite his flaws, he never gives in. He knows that he has to endure an enormous amount of anguish and pain, but he finds the courage and resolve to see his mission through to the end. The fact that he is prepared, if necessary, to sacrifice himself in the pursuit of something far more important than himself makes him a true hero, in my mind. There seems to be a prevalent view, especially in movies, that heroes should have some sort of super-powers. I don’t agree. I think it is the very human things, faults and failings included, that make a true hero. Especially if he or she can overcome them and show us what great courage and commitment really mean.

And then there’s your antihero, the Saracen, who is Pilgrim’s genius-counterpart but approaching total evil. Do you think of them as two sides of the same coin?

They have so many things in common–especially an anguished childhood–that I certainly see them like that. If this were Star Wars, I would say one turned to the dark side, the other to the light. Although born on completely opposite sides of the earth, they both experienced the death of a parent in horrific circumstances, they are both extremely intelligent, have undertaken medical degrees, and are loners, complete outsiders in the world. They both go on a great journey, a pilgrimage, where the fate of people and nations hangs in the balance. At one stage Pilgrim describes his adversary as a “ghost”–spectral, hidden and barely glimpsed–but Pilgrim could just as easily be describing himself. These two men, who have spent all their lives living in the shadows–one hell-bent on cataclysmic revenge, the other a covert intelligence agent–move ever closer to each other. When they finally step out of the shadows and meet in a place called the Theatre of Death, their battle relies more on intelligence than it does on weapons. It is an epic struggle between two men trying to outsmart each other. In order to do that, they have to know an enormous amount about each other. I have always thought that, because of his own background and experiences, Pilgrim understands his adversary better than any man on earth.

What do you have in mind next? Avoiding spoilers, of course: is there room for a sequel here?

Well, in my fevered mind, Pilgrim was always the first part of a trilogy. On the last page of the last novel we discover what his real name is, and I don’t think it is giving away too much to say that he walks up the front steps of a house and we know that he has found safe harbor at last. As you can probably tell, I have the next two books outlined–which I had to do in order to set up a lot of things in the first novel that I would pay off in the later volumes. However, as I was not certain if I Am Pilgrim would meet with any success, I did not want to launch into writing the second volume if nobody had read the first! Therefore I am in the midst of writing a book tentatively called The Year of the Locust, which is another thriller, partly set in the intelligence world. It also involves “just over the horizon” science and pits a man and his wife against seemingly impossible odds. I like the story very much and, as much as is possible while wrestling with words every day, I am really enjoying it. I hope, when it is finished, other people will feel the same!


This interview originally ran on May 27, 2014 as a Shelf Awareness special issue. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!

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