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!

Maximum Shelf author interview: Chevy Stevens

Following yesterday’s review of That Night, here’s Chevy Stevens: Listening to Her Own Voice.


Chevy Stevens grew up on a ranch on Canada’s Vancouver Island and still lives on the island with her husband and daughter. When she’s not working on her next book, she’s camping and canoeing with her family in the local mountains. Her debut, Still Missing, won the International Thriller Writers Award for Best First Novel. That Night is her fourth novel.

unnamedThis is your fourth novel. Is it getting easier, or harder?

I really enjoyed writing That Night, and even though it still had some challenges–as each book does–it was the fastest I’ve ever written a novel. It was a different experience for me in many ways, however, because I was pregnant when I started writing the book. I had a wonderful amount of energy and focus (love those pregnancy hormones!), and also the burning desire to get as much completed as possible before the baby arrived. I was a few days short of finishing my first draft when she decided to make her appearance. The rest was finished after she was born.

I think with each book you learn more and you grow as a writer so you learn to recognize weaknesses early, and to question things sooner. I’ve also learned how to listen to my inner voice more when I have doubts about a plotline or a character. I think with each book I’m beginning to understand my own style more, what works for me, where my voice resonates the most, and what my fans also enjoy the best about my writing. Hopefully I can keep giving them that.

You got the idea for your debut, Still Missing, in which a realtor is abducted from an open house, while working as a real estate agent yourself. Where do your subsequent creepy-terrifying plot concepts come from? Do you scare yourself with these stories?

Never Knowing was the result of a conversation I had with my editor, a “what if” premise, which grew into a story. In Always Watching, I wanted to write about Nadine, the therapist in my first two novels, and I was intrigued by the debate about repressed memories and also the subject of cults. The cult in that book is inspired by a hippie commune that lived in Shawnigan Lake in the ’70s.

That Night grew from an idea I had while watching a true story on television about a man who served years for his girlfriend’s sister’s murder. I also “saw” Toni in my mind and wanted to write about her.

Sometimes certain scenes in the books do scare me quite a bit. Essentially, I am telling myself the story first, so if I don’t feel anything, then it’s not strong enough. There are some moments in the current book I’m working on that are truly terrifying and made my own heart pound when I wrote them.

Did you have to research the prison system?

I did quite a bit of research for That Night. There seemed to be more information available about the American prison system than the Canadian, so I had to work hard to uncover some sources willing to talk to me. Because of the sensitive nature of the information they shared, they asked to remain private. I read everything I could find–online articles, books, memoirs, and watched both documentaries and numerous episodes of Lockup.

Shauna and her gang are so mean, it’s just boggling. Do they come from life–yours or anyone’s–or are they a grotesque fantasy?

I think we all remember “mean girls” in high school, but they are also a product of what I learned during my research. I read books on teen bullies and how girls can be especially vicious, often cutting another girl out of their circle, or simply deciding they don’t like someone and then making their life hell. There have been many documented real-life cases where bullying has gotten completely out of hand, with deadly consequences. Sadly, a few young girls have even taken their own lives because they can’t cope with the constant harassment. The worst part to me is that parents are often unaware of what’s happening to their children at school.

Toni’s voice is convincingly teenaged in the passages set in her early life, and more grown-up in the post-prison passages. Did you make a conscious effort to vary her voice? Was it difficult to switch gears?

I don’t think it was conscious. Writing is a bit like acting sometimes, you go into the character. So when I was writing Toni’s teenage years, I felt like a teenager, with a teenager’s concerns and thoughts and hopes and dreams. Then, when Toni was older and released from prison, I wrote from a different mindset, imagining how it would feel to be in that situation, how it would shape you, harden you, how angry you would be at the system for failing you.

Are you already at work on your next book, and can you share anything about it with us? All your books so far are stand-alones; any interest in the idea of a sequel?

Yes, I am close to finishing my fifth novel. I’m not ready to share the title just yet. It’s a superstition of mine that the book has to be finished first. But I will share that it’s another standalone about three sisters who escape a terrible situation and go on the run, only to get caught in an even worse nightmare.

I haven’t wanted to write a sequel to any of my books at this point because I’ve usually put the characters through quite a bit, and it doesn’t feel fair to keep ruining their lives.


This interview originally ran on April 30, 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: Lily King

Following yesterday’s review of Euphoria, here’s Lily King.

Lily King grew up in Manchester, Mass. She received her B.A. in English Literature from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and her M.A. in Creative Writing from Syracuse University. She has taught English and creative writing at several universities and high schools in the U.S. and abroad. Her three previous novels are The Pleasing Hour, The English Teacher and Father of The Rain. Her short fiction has appeared in literary magazines including Ploughshares and Glimmer Train, as well as in several anthologies. King is the recipient of a MacDowell Fellowship and the Whiting and PEN/Hemingway Awards, among others. She lives with her husband and children in Maine.

photo credit: Laura Lewis

photo credit: Laura Lewis


Presumably even this “loosely based” work required research into the field of anthropology and Mead’s life. Did you have any background to begin with? Did you enjoy this research?

It required a ton of research and no, I had zero background in anthropology or ethnology, not even one anthropology course in college! Like many writers, though, I have always felt like an extremely amateur and untrained anthropologist in the world, observing the huge, crazy mysteries of human behavior and writing it all down in novels.

On the one hand, you enjoy the research because it’s not writing, which is much harder, but on the other hand you miss writing miserably and feel like a part of you is dead. I had so much to learn before I could start, but because I always knew the book would be fiction, I didn’t want to get too attached to any one detail or fact. I read a lot of books at a squint, taking notes but always letting my imagination in on it, writing more notes on what could happen than what did happen, but at the same time trying to absorb all the information in some visceral way so that it felt like personal experience I could draw from when I started writing. And it was hard to know when to start writing. There was always, always more to read, more to learn. When I finally decided it was time, the research loomed over me. But once I wrote the first scene, I felt it become my story, and all that information became useful, not threatening.

What makes Margaret Mead such a good subject for this work? And when did you know you wanted to write about her?

I stumbled into the novel by reading a biography of Margaret Mead nine years ago and coming across this one short chapter about when she was way up this river in Papua New Guinea with her second husband and she met her third. She fell in love hard and fast in this completely isolated environment. She believed in an open marriage, what she called “polygamy,” and her husband did not, but she was very honest about her feelings and the whole thing, combined with the heat and mosquitoes and malarial fevers, was just a wild mess. So of course I thought, what a fantastic novel that would make. For a long time I didn’t believe that I would actually write it. But I kept going out and getting books about them and by them and taking notes and getting ideas while at the same time thinking: I cannot write this novel. I cannot write a novel about a love triangle between anthropologists in Papua New Guinea in 1933. It was preposterous. But I couldn’t seem to stop myself, either.

How did the writing of Euphoria differ from your three previous novels?

With the first three, I was able to just start writing. Each of them required a little detour to the library for something, but usually not until I was deep in, after the first draft had been written. But for this one I didn’t even write a sentence for a year after I got the idea. I was working on my novel Father of the Rain while reading everything I could get my hands on about Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson and Reo Fortune. And when I got that first sentence–four sentences, actually–in a coffee shop, I didn’t write anything else for several more years. That little cluster of sentences, though, helped me feel I could write the rest someday. They are the words that open the book still and are not much changed from when I scribbled them down at the back of a notebook in that coffee shop. That was very different. With the other books, once I got the first sentences I kept going for fear the initial vision would cloud over and vanish.

Euphoria is told in first person by Bankson, who is the outsider in his own tale. This gives the reader a somewhat restrained perspective. How did you decide to tell it this way? Did you toy with giving Nell her own voice?

That’s an excellent question. The plan all along was for it to be told from Nell’s point of view. It was supposed to be her story entirely. And it did start that way. But after I wrote the first chapter, I realized I needed the reader to feel what was going on with Bankson, the man she is about to meet and fall in love with, so I wrote that next chapter from his perspective. It surprised me how much closer I was able to get to him, and so quickly, how I was able to get inside him in a way that I was not inside her. This is something that all the planning and plotting of a book can’t anticipate. I knew I was a bit in love with him even before I started writing, so I thought it would be so easy to write from Nell’s perspective about falling for him. I just never expected to identify with him so closely, sort of fuse with him. But once I did, I realized it was his story. I denied this for a while, actually, and tried to write the book from all three points of view, but apart from Nell’s journal entries, Bankson claimed the whole thing in the end.

How important is historical accuracy in fiction? How faithfully does your novel follow the historical record?

Fiction is called fiction for a reason. While I used what I read about a particular moment in the life of Margaret Mead as a springboard, I felt absolutely no allegiance to historical accuracy when it didn’t work within the story I was trying to tell. Some of Euphoria is historically accurate, but not because I forced it to be, just because those elements were useful to me. They inspired me. I love history and I love reading about history and I treasure what little I know about our past on this earth, but a novel is not where I go for facts. A novel is where I want to feel the truth. Sometimes you need facts to get at the truth; more often you need your own voice and vision.


This interview originally ran on April 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!

on author access

I have done some author interviews, as you may have noticed. I did a handful for a podcast, which was an interesting opportunity that I enjoyed but which came to be a little more work, and stress, than I was looking for in an unpaid gig – although many thanks again to Chris at Critical Wit for the chance, which was great while it lasted! And I do the occasional interview for the Maximum Shelf special editions of Shelf Awareness. For the former, I got to choose my own subjects; for the latter, they are assigned to me. When I go to choose interview subjects, I am looking firstly for authors whose books appeal to me (obviously), and nextly for authors that look like they would talk to me – that look like I could get access to them. Reasonably enough, debut authors who aren’t getting ALL the attention in the world are more likely to take the time to talk to little old me than are the Micheal Connellys of the business. (Not to pick on Connelly and for the record, I never asked him for an interview.) A good measure of this is, when I look at their website, does the “contact me” link take me to the author’s email address? or does it say something like “for speaking opportunities, contact the publicist at xxx and for interview requests, contact the whomever at xxx”? The first instance makes for a far better chance of somebody small-time, like myself, getting access.

But when I’m assigned an author interview at Shelf Awareness, I’m guaranteed access, even to the big authors, because the author (or his/her team) has agreed to the special issue in advance. It does promote the upcoming book, you know. So I get the assignment and I get connected with the author or some representative of the author – a publicist, an agent, or somebody with the publishing company. And when we’re both ready, I get set up with the author him/herself. This is easier for me because I don’t have to go seeking access; and it’s presumably easier for the author, for whom usually an appointment is set up and he/she just has to be available by phone or email at the agreed upon time.

So it was surprising when I had a different experience, some time ago. (I am posting this experience well removed, timing-wise, from the incident in question, to preserve this author’s anonymity. And I am calling this author Jane, and making her a woman because I’ve interviewed more women than men and that seems to help preserve anonymity, as well.) I got the book; I read the book; I wrote my review and my interview questions; and I was in touch with Jane’s representative (listed as a “cataloging coordinator” at the publishing company), who asked for an estimated time frame for when I’d be ready for the interview. I gave this estimate, and right about on time, emailed the representative again that I was ready to set up an appointment. As always, I offered the option to do the interview by phone (to be recorded and then transcribed), or by email (no transcription necessary, and more convenient for all parties, but less likely to get off-the-cuff, conversational answers). And that’s when things went south. This author’s representative said, ok, great! so this is what we’ll do: I’ll send you a list of questions you can ask Jane, and you can pick from that list. Um, no. That’s actually not an interview at all; that’s a press release. It’s not like I was going to ask hard or antagonistic questions – c’mon. I passed this issue along to my “boss” for this project, who agreed with my rejection of this option, and followed up with the publisher herself.

This begun a process. My boss and myself eventually communicated with no fewer than 4 people at the publisher: a Cataloging Coordinator, a Director of Advertising and Promotion, an Associate Director of Publicity, and a Publicity Assistant. The cataloging coordinator also referenced the opinions of an editor and a marketing director who apparently weighed in as well. There was a great deal of concern that author Jane (a fairly well established one, with several bestsellers to her name) just couldn’t possibly talk with me, or couldn’t possibly be asked questions that did not come from an approved list. (They did ask for my questions in advance, and I willingly provided them.)

After dealing with these 4-6 folks over a period of weeks, we did finally end up scheduling an interview with the hallowed Jane – a full 7 weeks after my original interview request, which had been preceded by a 2-week notice of my upcoming need for the interview, which was preceded by the original agreement between publisher and my boss. By this time, boss and myself were thoroughly aggravated with the process and all the players involved, including poor Jane, who we realized may very well have no knowledge of any of these goings-on. In fact, as it turns out in the end, she is very active and friendly via social media, and was so friendly and easy-going in the eventual interview that I’m 100% certain that she was innocent in these proceedings.

I had read nearly a dozen books since I’d read Jane’s, which was less than ideal for the interview, with my memory fading somewhat. And I worried that I would have trouble being friendly with her after all the trouble her people had given me – although that turned out to be easier than expected, because she was a peach. Things came out okay in the end; but just barely, and at a certain cost in terms of hairs pulled out by my boss and myself in the two months (plus) that the entire process took. And poor Jane to this day doesn’t know this story, I feel sure; if she reads this blog post (unlikely) I don’t know that she’ll recognize herself.

Should I have told her? I certainly feel that she’s being poorly served by a team that blackened her name with such unprofessional communications with an organization in her industry who was essentially on her side – trying to help her sell her book. I’m assuming they have some sort of mandate to not harass this well-established author – to not give out her home number to anybody who wants it, for example (obviously). But they handled my boss and myself badly.

I didn’t tell Jane this story, because she was just trying to get through this interview and get back to whatever she had going on on the afternoon in question. No hard feelings towards her in the end. But I wanted to share with you the interesting range of experiences I’ve had in interviewing authors… I’ve never encountered one who was less than friendly, professional, and gracious. But this publicity team seemed determined to shoot itself in the foot. How outrageous do you find these events? And for other book bloggers out there – what are your experiences trying to get access to authors? When I was pursuing my own interviews (cold calling), I never even bothered with anyone who looked unattainable. Maybe I’m a coward, but I didn’t want to have to beg, or bother anyone who didn’t want to deal with me. If it’s this hard when agreed to in advance…

Maximum Shelf author interview: Laura McHugh

Following yesterday’s review of The Weight of Blood, here’s Laura McHugh.


Laura McHugh: On Dark and Light.

Laura McHugh grew up in small towns in Iowa and the Ozark mountains of southern Missouri. She now lives in Columbia, Missouri, with her husband, two young daughters and one enormous dog. Her background includes computer science, software development and library science; The Weight of Blood is her first novel.

mchugh

Lucy’s voice is convincingly young adult. Did you find it difficult to write in her voice? What kind of preparation did you do?

That made me laugh, because I sometimes forget how far removed I am from being a young person. Lucy is the youngest of the narrators, but her voice came to me first. I didn’t do any formal preparation, though I think a few things in my everyday life gave me a foundation to work from. I kept a journal throughout my teens, and I still remember how I felt and acted at that age. I tried to channel my 17-year-old self to an extent, though only a few bits and pieces of me ended up in Lucy’s character. Some of my favorite books are adult novels with young adult narrators, and I kept those in mind as I was writing Lucy’s sections. And I’m not sure whether this really helped or not, but as the youngest of eight kids, I spent years observing (spying on) my teenage brothers and sisters.

Did the evil side of this novel get to you at all while you were writing? Give you nightmares?

I didn’t have nightmares, but I did spend an unhealthy amount of time worrying about the dangers that await my daughters out in the world. My oldest is in elementary school, and I won’t let her walk home from the bus stop by herself, because I keep a mental list of children who were kidnapped on the way to or from school. I always imagine the darkest possibilities in any situation, which isn’t good for my anxiety level, but serves me well as a writer.

Is this dark story based on truth?

Part of it, yes. I started the novel knowing that Lucy’s friend Cheri was dead, but I wasn’t sure what had happened to her. Then I came across a news article about a shocking crime involving a young woman in Lebanon, Missouri–the small town where I’d attended high school–and I knew that Cheri would suffer a similar experience.

Living in rural communities, it often seems like everyone knows everyone else’s business, and that it would be impossible to keep secrets, but then you see a horrific case like this one–multiple people involved, over several years, and no one said a word. I don’t want to give too much away, though I can tell you that the real-life victim survived her ordeal, unlike Cheri.

What about the Ozarks drew you to place your characters there?

The forbidding landscape and the remoteness of the Ozarks create a sense of foreboding that helps set the tone of the novel. And I’ve always been fascinated by the culture, which is steeped in folk wisdom, home remedies, and superstition. We were outsiders in our tiny town, yet at the same time, it became my home. Years after moving away, I was still haunted by the place, and the novel allowed me to explore the darker side of those tight-knit rural communities where outsiders aren’t welcome.

How did you decide to use a split narrative?

Lucy doesn’t know what happened to her mother, Lila, but I wanted the reader to know. And I didn’t want Lila’s story to be backstory, I wanted it to be as real and present as Lucy’s. The split narrative allowed me to do that, though I often cursed myself for that decision during revisions–I kept thinking how much easier it would have been to write a novel with one timeline and one narrator! In the end, weaving the two narratives together was the most satisfying part of the writing process.

And the secondary characters get perspectives as well, although not in first person. How did that strategy come to you? Was it especially challenging?

I hadn’t initially planned for more than two narrators, but as I worked on the first draft, the other characters kept telling their own versions of events. Each secondary character has secrets–pieces of the puzzle that are hidden from everyone else–and their perspectives were necessary to make the story whole. I wrote the secondary characters’ sections as they came to me, some in first person and some in third, and eventually changed them all to third for consistency. I wanted Lucy and Lila to stand out as the main characters, so I kept them in first person.

The hardest part was integrating the different perspectives and timelines. I clipped an index card to each chapter, with notes on the narrator, timeline, and key events. Then I spread them all out on the floor and moved them around, trying to get the order right and identify any gaps in the story. I was very methodical and possibly a bit crazed. The process took days, during which I fed my children a lot of chicken nuggets and let them watch too much TV. Everyone, including the dog, was relieved when I finished that part and let them back in the living room.

What do you have in mind next? Is there room for a sequel here?

Spiegel & Grau has purchased my second novel, Arrowood, which I’m working on now. A young woman returns to her childhood home in a decaying Iowa river town, where she witnessed the kidnapping of her sisters years ago. A terrible discovery forces her to question everything about her past, including her own memory.

I would love to write more books set in the Ozarks, though I’m not sure if Lucy will make an appearance. I was pretty hard on her in The Weight of Blood, and I think she deserves to rest for a while.


This interview originally ran on January 15, 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: Sue Monk Kidd

Following yesterday’s review of The Invention of Wings, then, here’s the gracious Sue Monk Kidd!


Sue Monk Kidd: Inhabiting the Past

Sue Monk Kidd was born and raised in Georgia and now lives in Southwest Florida with her husband, Sandy, and their black lab, Lily. Since her first publication in 1988, she has written fiction, nonfiction and memoir; The Invention of Wings is her first work of historical fiction. Kidd’s bestselling books include The Secret Life of Bees, The Mermaid Chair and, as co-author with her daughter Ann Kidd Taylor, Traveling with Pomegranates. Kidd is very active on Twitter.

photo: Roland Scarpa

photo: Roland Scarpa


How much research did you do on the real Grimké sisters?

Well, I began reading about the Grimké sisters and I could hardly stop. I was inspired to write the novel because I discovered them at Judy Chicago’s Dinner Party exhibit in New York, and I came home very excited and began to read about their lives. And that went on for months. I suppose I did full-time research for about six months before I began writing, and then I wrote for three and a half years, during which I was still doing a lot of research. I would sit in front of the computer, inventing and writing, and suddenly I would have to get up and figure out what kind of mourning dress widows wore in 1819. Or what were the emancipation laws in South Carolina at that time. It was constant, ongoing research. And it wasn’t just reading books; I made trips to the Library of Congress, the Smithsonian, the New York Historical Society–and of course a lot of places in Charleston. That was a primary site for me, and a lot of organizations were helpful.

Did you enjoy that research?

I loved it so much that I had to make myself stop and start writing. I think a writer can get lost in her research if she’s not careful! There’s a point where you just have to put it aside and begin writing. I was very concerned that I get that era right. I wanted it to be as authentic as I could make it, rich with details, and I wanted the reader to be plunged into a real world. So I needed to gather a lot of information, and I really had fun doing it.

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

That is such a large question for any author of historical fiction. In this case, I was not only writing about a time and place that existed, but I decided to populate the book with real historical figures. As this was my first book of historical fiction, it was a learning curve for me. I started off so enamored with Sarah Grimké’s history, just in reverence for her life and her history and that of her sister, too, that it was very hard to deviate from that historical script. It took me a long time to come to a place where I understood that there was Sarah Grimké, the historical figure, and then there was Sarah Grimké, my character. And I’m not a biographer, and I’m not a historian; I’m a novelist. I had to come home to that again, because I was so caught by her history. I would say that I wrote the truth of Sarah’s life as much as I possibly could, and I think that anyone who reads the novel will find her life rendered there pretty closely. But my goal, I realized, was to serve the story itself, and that meant that I had to deviate some. It meant that I had to invent; it meant that I had to find Sarah in my own imagination as well as in history, and that was really crucial. The moment that I was able to let go and do that, she became alive for me in this book.

How did you make the decision to write this story in two voices?

When I began I was inspired to write the story of Sarah Grimké, and that was as far as I got. I knew I wanted to write her story in first person, because I love the intimacy of that first-person voice. I feel like I can inhabit her and her mind and her heart, and I love seeing the world through her eyes. I love the closeness of that and what it allows me to do, to get into her inner life. But as I began reading about the history, it became very quickly apparent to me that I could not just tell her story without telling the story of an enslaved character. It seemed that in order for this whole time and place to be fully fleshed out, I needed to enter the lives of two characters. So as I was reading about Sarah’s childhood I discovered she had been given what she called a waiting maid, when she was somewhere around 11 years old. This waiting maid was named Hetty, and Sarah taught Hetty to read, and then Hetty died soon after that, as a young person. That’s everything I knew about her life. But the moment I read about her I knew that this was the character, and that I could have this close relationship between them that’s also a complicated, difficult relationship, and I could talk about both worlds. Now, it was daunting to me to do this, to be honest, because writing first person from the standpoint of an enslaved female character is pretty far flung for me. So that was sort of my literary sky dive, I guess! But it was apparent to me that that’s what I needed to do, to tell both stories.

Sarah left plenty of detail to history, including many writings in her own voice, while Hetty barely existed at all on the record. Was it freeing to write Hetty, in comparison?

It was absolutely freeing. Maybe the biggest surprise in writing this novel for me was that Hetty’s voice was more accessible, that it came to me more easily. This I did not expect. I thought it might be the opposite, actually. I think it was because Sarah came with this big historical script, and we knew basically nothing about Hetty. So I had this broad imaginary canvas to fill in. It freed me, I think, just to be able to explore and to just let her talk–and she would talk! I mean she would just talk, talk, talk to me.

Hetty’s mother, Charlotte, is a rich personality who keeps her secrets. Does she have a historical counterpart? Where did you find her?

There was a little seed of something that kind of helped me to create her character. When I was reading the slave narratives I came upon one sort of secondhand story: one woman was speaking about her time in slavery, and referred to someone named Sukie, who was apparently a very defiant, unusual woman. She told a story about how Sukie resisted her master’s advances and pushed him into–I think it was a hot pot of lye soap or something like that–and he was burned, and for that she was sold. And she remained very defiant to the very end. Something about that ignited this idea in me, and I wanted to be sure that Charlotte was someone who could protest and resist and who was concerned about her own self-possession, who had this spirit of insurrection and even subversion. I think it’s important to offer images of enslaved women who are not just victims. We’ve had far too much of that, I think. I wanted to show women who were not just victims, certainly not in their minds. They were in a struggle to be human, self-possessed, to fight back and to show this kind of defiance and resistance. In that regard, the slave narratives were evocative for me of the kind of character that I tried to bring to Charlotte.

Do you have a favorite character? Or one with whom you especially identify?

Oh, it’s always hard for an author to say which character is her favorite! It’s like picking between your children! As a writer, I feel like you have to love all your characters, even the so-called misbehaving ones. But having said that, it’s true, your heart gravitates to your characters in special ways. I remember reading something Alice Walker said that I referenced recently. She spoke about writing about her mother in literature, and she said, my mother was all over my heart, so why shouldn’t she be in literature? And I just loved that line! I thought, that’s how I feel about Handful. She’s just all over my heart. And every day that I wrote, I had this very special feeling about her. I love Handful’s great hope, and the way she used irony and wit to deal with things.

Sarah’s big struggle, at least in my novel, was to find her voice. I literally gave her a speech impediment, which the historical records say she did not have, but I have this idea that writing a novel is really about taking a bad situation and making it worse! Sarah had difficulty speaking in public, but she didn’t have an impediment, so I sort of enhanced it and made it a little worse. That’s one example of how I deviated from the record to serve the story. Her journey was to find her inner voice and to be able to articulate her truth in the world, and I identify with that–I think many people identify with that.

What have you read and loved lately?

Well, I just made this long transatlantic flight, and I hauled books on board instead of my iPad! I don’t know what that says about me. I read three Edith Wharton novels that I had not read before, and I hate to admit that I hadn’t read these; but I guess we all have classics that we’ve not read and we’re ashamed to admit we’ve not read until we finally do! Those were The House of Mirth, The Custom of the Country and The Age of Innocence, and I thought–what took me so long? And then I read Delia Ephron’s Sister Mother Husband Dog: Etc., which I just loved. The other book I read recently was Dear Life by Alice Munro. All wonderful books. There are so many and so little time! That’s what’s so great about a nine-hour flight, you know.


This interview originally ran on December 18, 2013 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: Koren Zailckas

This interview was published by Shelf Awareness here in an abridged format due to space constraints. This is the full interview.

Following Monday’s review of Mother, Mother, then, here’s the lovely Koren Zailckas!


Koren Zailckas: On Mothers

Koren Zailckas is the author of two memoirs, Smashed and Fury, and lives in New York’s Hudson Valley with her husband and three children. Mother, Mother is her first novel. She recently tweeted: “33 with 3 books and 3 kids. #birthdaysymmetry.”

Where did you get the idea for this distressing mother figure?

korenI really wanted to challenge the cultural assumption that all mothers are inherently selfless. We’re living in an era of baby-bump obsession, in a don’t-speak-badly-of-your-momma culture. Read an Angelina Jolie profile or watch TLC and you’d think women enter delivery rooms as laboring heffalumps and exit as Battista Salvi’s Madonna and Child. But the word “mother” isn’t synonymous with Mother Theresa, and having a child doesn’t make a woman a mom any more than owning a paintbrush makes her Frida Kahlo.

This idea that all mothers are naturally patient, forgiving and self-sacrificing isn’t just sappy-sweet, it’s callous. It’s dangerous. It discounts experiences by those of us who were raised by women whose genetics and early life traumas permanently altered their brains and made them incapable of empathy.

Here’s the sick truth: Some mothers aren’t naturals. I’d always suspected that as a kid, but I learned it for certain when I moved from Brooklyn to the Catskills. Last lambing season, I was in a New Paltz knitting supply shop, surrounded by beautiful, hand-dyed yarn, when the farmer clomped inside in rubber overalls and announced her sad morning. “The ewes gave birth last night,” she said, darkly. “And two of them just weren’t naturals. They left their newborns to freeze to death on the side of the barn.” Some mothers, no matter how well intentioned, just can’t see their kids as anything other than tools, hindrances or extensions of themselves. Other mothers can’t consider their children at all.

Mother, Mother’s Josephine Hurst isn’t just a critical or controlling mom. She’s a narcissistic mother, and she’s in good company. Loads of women–one out of ten Americans, according to new studies–have Narcissistic Personality Disorder, which many shrinks consider untreatable. Medication rarely helps. Therapy doesn’t do much either.

I hope Josephine will give shivers of recognition to anyone out who grew up with a narcissistic mother. I hope those readers will recognize her neediness, her manipulative nature, her grandiose sense of self-importance, her tendency to play favorites between her children and pit her family against one another, and I hope they seek some small comfort in it. Maybe that sounds crazy, but I really mean it. I hope Josephine puts a name–NPD–to longstanding patterns of maternal chaos. I hope some readers have a light-bulb “this is a syndrome!” moment. (You see: also in the narcissistic mother’s repertoire is “gaslighting.” They’re great at making their victims doubt themselves and question what’s real.)

As for those lucky folks who grew up with the mother of Mother’s Day Cards, I hope Mother, Mother gives them at least a glimmer of the fear that resides in the hearts of kids like Will Hurst. As humans, we are born utterly helpless–dependent on our mothers much longer than any other species on Earth. If mothers are our first teachers, then having a narcissistic mother teaches you that the world is a fucking terrifying place, where the rules change constantly and punishment is the only constant.

You wrote two memoirs before this novel. Was this your first try at fiction?

Yep, this was my first attempt at fiction. Mother, Mother brought me back to Smashed in that way. Smashed was my first prose. Before that, I’d only poetry and interoffice memos.

And how was it different?

mother motherFiction required a lot more restraint than memoir. By design, memoir is an exercise in over-sharing. You’re giving the reader way too much information to begin with, confiding things you wouldn’t tell to just the casual stranger while you’re waiting side-by-side for a bus: “Warm today, isn’t it?… Let me tell you about that time I staggered, drunk, lost and naked down the halls of a fraternity.” You wouldn’t do that. No emotionally healthy person would do that.

I think I gravitated to memoir because I had my fair share of damage. I grew up in a family a lot like the Hursts, where you weren’t allowed to express emotion, speak openly, talk about why your mom is a radically different person in public, talk about why Dad lives in another state for weeks and months at a time. You bottle all that stuff up over a long period of time and it eventually just explodes all over some poor, unsuspecting victim, no matter who they are, no matter how briefly you’ve happened to know them. I think, to begin with, I wrote Smashed and Fury because I was suffering from what Zbignew Herbert called “suffocation from formlessness.” I was smothering under the weight of all the memories I hadn’t put into words. When I was finally ready to name those experiences (addiction, anger over ongoing family dysfunction) the stories came out, fast, in reams.

In my memoirs, I’ve always tried to best to be as self-aware as I can. To own my shadows. To be ten-times harder on myself than I am on anyone else in the story. But no matter how you slice it, it’s still exhibitionistic. It’s still a bit like being a trench-coat flasher: “Here I am, all at once! Here are my stories! I know they’re flabby in some parts, but I can’t change them–they’re real!”

Maybe the cheap analogy would be: fiction feels like a strip tease. But it’s more than that. Fiction feels like real intimacy. Especially when it comes to psychological thrillers, suspense stuff. You reveal things slowly to the reader, over the course of your time together. Not every character has to be hyper self-aware all the time, owning every character flaw, aware of their deeper motivations. You can gently fold in a hint, here and there. Teaspoon of backstory. Foreshadowing, to taste.

I still find that really difficult from time to time. My husband’s pet name for me is “Spoiler Alert.” He always tells me I say way too much when I’m making movie or book recommendations. My brother-in-law will never forgive me for ruining the grand finale of The Sopranos for him.

I might well have told you how the Hursts end up in Mother, Mother’s first chapter were it not for my long-suffering editor. She probably has carpal tunnel from all the times she went back to the manuscript to slash out obvious clues.

Did you do research into Asperger’s syndrome in order to get it exactly as right as you got it? Did any other aspects of this novel require research?

I did a little bit of research. But mostly, I manifested Will’s Aspergers in a way I could relate to.

Will’s intense focus, his “Aspie interest,” is language. He’s like a collector of rare and precious objects, and in this case, those objects are unusual and arcane words. Autotonsorialist: one who cuts their own hair. Misodoctakleidist: someone who hates practicing piano. Awkwardness ensues whenever Will uses them in spoken conversation, but he just can’t help himself. He’s addicted.

Over the course of Mother, Mother, I think Will’s relationship to language changes. Words stop being a mode of connection. Instead, they become more like trophies, accolades. He trots them out to impress, intimidate or prove his worth. It’s a really narcissistic use of language. It worsens Will’s social functioning, heightens his loneliness and drives him deeper inside himself.

Aspergers? Maybe. The side effect of a dysfunctional family? Possibly. Or maybe, for Will, it really is a burgeoning writer thing. As a writer, you spend so much time alone, trying to think of funny and fresh ways to describe every day things. Then, when it’s time to go out into public, you forget that you don’t have to agonize over word choices. When you’re chatting about weather with your neighbors at the farm stand, you can just say, “It’s pouring.” People look at you funny when you go all Du Maurier and say, “Can you believe this lashing, pitiless rain?”

Two of your main characters share similar experiences but head in very different directions towards the end. Did they always go that way, or did you have to go along for the ride to learn the fates of your characters?

I think I knew from the first word that Violet and Will had very divergent ideas about their family. Any therapist will tell you, siblings can be raised by the exact same people and still have totally different mothers and fathers.

This is especially true in narcissistic families, where the narcissist picks one kid to be the golden child (the person who earns added prestige for the narcissist) and another to be the scapegoat (the person the narcissist projects her own negative self-image onto).

In the Hurst’s case, I think Will is quite genuine in his confusion over his sister. He doesn’t have any clue why Violet’s so angry. Her drug use, her rebelliousness… It seems really irrational to him, especially with his mother right there in his ear, telling him, “Your sister’s crazy.”

And for her part, Violet doesn’t understand why Will is so fearful and reserved. He seems to have his mother’s unconditional approval. Josephine’s love seems to come so naturally to him.

With that dynamic in place, I think I did go along for the ride. When I began, I didn’t quite know what would happen to Will or Violet.

Will, in particular, shocked the hell out of me. It was kind of thrilling to watch him unfold. Especially because he’s at this very pivotal year. He’s twelve when the book begins and really on the brink of adolescence. A transformation happens. One I never saw coming.

Transformations fascinate me, especially where psychology is concerned. That’s what everyone who’s hooked on psychology wants to know: How does change occur? How do good people turn evil? Or, how do kids grow up?

Can you tell me how there came to be humor in such a very dark book? How would you characterize your style of humor?

I suppose I’ve always had a touch of gallows humor. That self-lacerating, inverted kind. Also, a bit of that bone-dry, stuff-your-feelings, British humor too. (Maybe that’s why I married an Englishman.) Also factor in a little bit of defeatist attitude. I’ve always related to that George Bernard Shaw quote: “If you can’t get rid of the family skeleton, you might as well make it dance.”

I’m glad you think this book is funny. I think it’s really important for dark, scary books to be funny. Every few pages, I really wanted there to be at least a restorative chuckle, something to lighten the mood from jet-black to slate.

I think the biggest laughs in life are usually tinged with relief. They’re a kind of collective, hissing sigh: “Wheew, look at us, joking about this really delicate, uncomfortable, offensive topic! We’re really skating on thin ice here, aren’t we? But it’s fun! Hold my hand. Did that sound like a crack?”

Some of the creepiest ladies in the history of literature are also the funniest. Shirley Jackson is fucking hilarious. I wish she were still around today, if not only so her mommy-memoirs could be optioned for a self-starring reality show. Take Life Among the Savages… Beginning each morning with the very real fear that you will slip on a Matchbox car or doll’s broken arm and break your neck on the stairs is morbidly priceless.

In my experience, once you become a mother everything is doubly terrifying and laughable. It only seems natural to mix the two together. (Although, that could just be the sleep deprivation talking.)

The dual first-person perspectives are very unsettling (in a good way). How did you choose that format?

I think sheer panic drove me to tell the story from two perspectives. When I first started thinking about fiction, many years ago, I told Crown’s Molly Stern, “I’m going to write a first-person, one-perspective novel.” Just like that. All fresh-faced bravado. Molly wasn’t discouraging, but she reminded me just how tricky that is. It’s hard to keep the plot constantly pounding when you have just one protagonist.

Initially, with Mother, Mother, I thought (quite cowardly) that I’d hedge my bets between Will and Violet. I thought: double the characters, double the action. Never a dull moment. From there, it became a much more strategic, much more about how “family,” as a concept, is a bit like “car crash.” Everyone experiences it from a different perspective. So why not let the reader get two points of view on the Hursts?

Since you came from writing memoirs, I wonder how present you are in Mother, Mother. Did you have to fight putting yourself in this book, or was it a relief?

I think there are snippets of myself and my childhood all over this book. That said, the Hursts are a prime example of writing what you know, then taking it to a level that is psycho-extreme.

For instance, I always felt like my mom was a little possessive of me when I was a kid, and I tried to go to friend’s houses as opposed to bringing them home to mine, where my mom talked down to them and slated them behind their backs. I was in my thirties when I got a Facebook message from a woman I used to play with when I was seven. “I was sooo afraid of your mom!” She wrote. “She used to call us brats and hooligans. We were only allowed one juice box no matter how thirsty we were!” I think I sort of exorcised some of that in Mother, Mother, and took it to a scarier extreme. I mean, Josephine homeschools Will because she’s so keen to have him to herself.

I’ve been reading Eric Booth’s The Everyday Work of Art, and he has a great line about how the word “art” in its infancy was a word that meant “to put things together.” And the process of writing Mother, Mother really felt like that. Marrying personal experience to the psychological profile of narcissistic mothers. Piecing together recurring nightmares with irrational fears, Frankenstein-ing in ordinary scenes from a modern, American, family life.

You know, it was a relief. I feel like doctors should prescribe thriller-writing to anyone with anxiety or PTSD. You get to be in charge of your fear. And of course, you get to change the outcome. In real-life dysfunctional families, roles shift, but there’s not much change.

What have you read and loved lately?

This is really the golden age of women’s psychological fiction, and for the past few years I’ve been gobbling up everything by Tana French, Gillian Flynn, Laura Lippman, Megan Abbott, Kelly Braffet. It’s just too exciting to look away.

That said, I have three children under four, so I’ve also have Mo Willems on heavy rotation. That’s my life at the moment: Murder and The Pigeon Finds a Hot Dog.


Don’t you just love how very funny she is? Thanks, Koren, for taking the time to share so much with us. I certainly enjoyed it!

This interview originally ran on June 26, 2013 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!

What The World’s Strongest Librarian is Reading

Following up on my review of Josh Hanagarne’s new book, The World’s Strongest Librarian, and my interview of the man himself: this section didn’t get printed in Shelf Awareness but I thought my readers might be interested. I certainly was! For one thing, The Black Count is on my list.

So, from our interview conversation: What the World’ Strongest Librarian is Reading.


Josh says, “I read a book almost every day. Because I can’t sleep. It’s really hard for me to go to sleep with the tics, so that’s one of the silver linings, that I get to read so much. I shouldn’t say I read a book every day, but I finish a book almost every day. I read everything from juvenile books to big giant books that I’ll finish after eight days of reading.”

What good books have you read lately?

Truth in Advertising by John Kenney. It has never been this fun to be cynical. Kenney was an insider in advertising and copyrighting in New York, and it is just the most brutal look at the superficial world of advertising, and the storytelling – I really want everybody to go read it.

The Black Count: Glory, Revolution, Betrayal, and the Real Count of Monte Cristo by Tom Reiss is about Alexander Dumas’ father, who was the basis for The Count of Monte Cristo. He was a black man during the Napoleonic campaigns, and he rose to great power in a time when the world and the military were definitely ruled by whites. He winds up being imprisoned for something like 20 years, and the whole time he’s in prison his jailer is trying to poison him. Then it turns into this incredible story, if anything more swashbuckling and gigantic than The Three Musketeers or The Count of Monte Cristo. It’s a crash course in the Napoleonic campaigns that doesn’t feel like a history book. It’s just a wonderful book, the wildest adventure story.

I have been rereading Mark Twain, which I always am.

I just read a University Press book, Conversations with David Foster Wallace, that was quite good. Very theory-intensive, which I don’t enjoy so much anymore, but really good since I’m a fan of Wallace’s.

I just read The Liar’s Club by Mary Karr again.

And, The Twits by Roald Dahl. I just read that with Max. Max is finally old enough to want Roald Dahl. And that has made me happier than anything.”


See more of Josh’s book reviews and related and unrelated writings at his blog, The World’s Strongest Librarian.

Maximum Shelf author interview: Josh Hanagarne

Following yesterday’s review of Josh Hanagarne’s new book, The World’s Strongest Librarian, here’s my interview with the man himself.


Josh Hanagarne: The World’s Strongest Librarian Writes

Josh Hanagarne is from Moab, Utah, and lives with his wife, Janette, and son, Max, in Salt Lake City, where he works at the beautiful main branch of the SLC Public Library. His memoir, The World’s Strongest Librarian, touches on the bizarrely various pieces of his life: his struggles with Tourette Syndrome; his journey to becoming a husband and a father; his love affair with books and libraries that would eventually lead to a career; an obsession with the gym that became a penchant for tearing phone books and full decks of cards; and a less-than-smooth lifelong relationship with the Mormon Church, where he still finds family and friends but less faith than he once held.

worldsstrongest

Your book includes a lot of personal and painful history that belongs not only to you but to your wife and family as well. What was the process for sharing those personal details?

It was hard. During the first draft I didn’t think too much about how people were going to react. When I started going through on the second draft, I started showing things to Janette or to my mom and asking, is this accurate? Is this something you’re okay with having in here? Sometimes it was, sometimes it wasn’t. Whenever anybody was mildly uncomfortable with something, I just took it out–nothing of real consequence. I guess when you write a memoir, you choose which periods of your life you’re going to represent, and then you choose which episodes best represent those periods. If you’re a normal person, sometimes that means you’ll look good and sometimes it means you’ll look bad. So that wasn’t fun, but it was honest, I think, without being tedious and self-flagellating.

I’ve always used humor kind of in self-defense, because I knew if I could make people laugh I could make them focus on something other than my tics. I think this book is kind of sad, and I think a lot of humor is rooted in something sad. I believe Kurt Vonnegut and Mark Twain both talked towards the ends of their lives about having various forms of irony fatigue, because humor was mainly a self-defensive tool for them. I think in any book where you get to pick and choose what you put in, the sadder stuff’s going to get sadder, and the funny stuff’s probably going to get funnier.

You’ve included Dewey classification numbers under each chapter heading. Do you think this resonates with the general population, or mostly just librarians?

I don’t know. I think most people, even if they don’t get it, will probably be intrigued. Some people have pointed out that they don’t all work out exactly the way capital-“L” Librarians think they should, to which I will just say, the numbers do exactly what I want them to do. I think it’s eye-catching. I didn’t necessarily think of it as being gimmicky, because it really does tie in thematically with each chapter. What I really like about it is that you can kind of see what’s coming and yet sometimes not have any clue how one thing will lead to the next.

Tell us about the process of writing this book: When did you write? Were you still working at the library?

This is probably going to disappoint a lot of aspiring writers who put off writing until they have hours of free time every day, but I don’t think I ever sat down and wrote for more than 15 minutes at a time. I just can’t; the tics won’t let me. I wrote whenever I could. I’d guess I rarely wrote more than half an hour total in a day. I do write really fast. I found out that, at least now, I’m the sort of writer who has to make a gigantic mess and then clean it up, because if I start trying to anticipate all the editorial questions on the fly, I just freeze up and I don’t get anything done. So I wrote a lot more to get to this book than I probably could have, if I were another writer. I wrote the first draft totally on my own and then I sent it to my editor, and things had just been going so well that I kind of assumed, yeah, my first draft is surely anyone else’s fourth or fifth. Then my editor sent it back and said, you’ve got to get rid of 120 pages. We can’t even talk yet. Fix this. Which was a great lesson to learn, and not an easy one. But editing was really kind of fun, because Megan [Newman] is really the right editor for me. I think it took three total drafts between us, but about eight on my part. I learned that it takes a hideous amount of work to appear spontaneous. But it was a lot of fun. The shortest way to answer your question is: I wrote every day, I only wrote for a few minutes at a time, and I just kept going. A big part of it is being willing to show up.

Was the writing process cathartic for you?

If this book hadn’t come about, I think I’d probably still be going through the motions in church, trying not to make waves. The ideas I’ve gotten from church have everything to do with my relationship to my body, and the explanations I thought I owed for my life. In writing the book, I realized, I’m actually going to have to deal with this. So I got into the sticky situation of writing a book about how much I love my family and yet gently distancing myself from the church, knowing that that would be painful for my family. That was the biggest catharsis: realizing that I was going to have to deal with that shift in faith. Spending so much time thinking about that, and trying to word it correctly, is what taught me what I actually do think about it all.

Would you say that you had a message or even a cause to communicate with this book, related to Tourette’s, or libraries, or anything else?

I’m not much of a crusader. But when I go speak to groups of people with disabilities, or their parents, or special educators, the reaction I get is so humbling and overwhelming. If people I speak to are actually getting out of this story what they tell me they are, I knew I really needed to do this book as well as I can. So that it can go be me in all the places I can’t be. There’s definitely no downside to spreading the word about Tourette’s. This story seems to inspire some people without me ever needing to claim I can inspire anyone. As far as libraries, obviously this whole book is my love letter to books and libraries. That’s not necessarily what I intended, but for me to write about myself honestly, that’s the only thing that could have happened.

What do you most want people to know about you that’s not in your book?

To entertain my son occasionally in the morning when I put my pants on, I will hold them up at about waist height and I will try to jump into my pants. So I jump all the way up in the air and tuck my knees in and if I do it right, my feet come through the pants and I’m dressed. And if it goes wrong it goes really badly wrong. And about one of every 10 times I can put my pants on this way. Once in a while. You know, one out of 10 might be optimistic.


This interview originally ran on April 9, 2013 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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