• A.Word.A.Day

    Check out my favorite daily treat, A.Word.A.Day : The magic and music of words.

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.


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.


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!

Critical Wit Podcast interview: Amy Sisson, science fiction fan

Here’s the latest installment! Check out my interview with Amy Sisson. Amy is a librarian, book reviewer, writer, science fiction fan, and personal friend. In this episode, we chat about sci fi books that appeal to a more general audience (specifically in most cases… me) and a few others to check out too. Don’t forget to check out her website here. And now the interview!



In a funny twist, Shelf Awareness alerted me to this list just after Amy & I did this interview. I guess we should have just picked apart that list. :) Maybe that’s a blog post to come…

Critical Wit Podcast interview: Madeline Miller, author of The Song of Achilles

Here’s the latest installment! Check out my interview of Madeline Miller, author of The Song of Achilles (which you know I loved), over at Critical Wit Podcast today. I really enjoyed talking with Madeline and discussing the Greek myths that we both love so much – and she was able to educate me on several points. Don’t forget to check out her website here. And now the interview!

Madeline (photo credit Nina Subin)


Breaking news:

Just last week the winner of the prestigious Orange Prize was announced, and the winner is… my gracious interviewee, Madeline Miller, for her debut novel The Song of Achilles! The Orange Prize “celebrates excellence, originality and accessibility in women’s writing from throughout the world” (quoted from their website). Congratulations, Madeline!

Critical Wit Podcast interview: Ian Dille, coauthor of The Price of Gold

Another author interview posted over at Critical Wit Podcast the other day. In this episode, I interview Ian Dille, coauthor with Marty Nothstein of The Price of Gold: The Toll and Triumph of One Man’s Olympic Dream. Nothstein holds two Olympic medals – one gold – and is one of the most highly decorated athletes of all time in the match sprint event in track cycling. That is, racing bicycles on a banked track called a velodrome. This is a sport I have competed in myself, which made the book especially exciting for me; Marty’s name was well-known around the Houston track where I’ve spent a good deal of time. And Ian is a Texas bike racer as well as a journalist, so I was enthused at the chance to chat with him, too. Don’t forget to check out his website here. And now the interview!



Critical Wit Podcast interview: Erin Blakemore, author of The Heroine’s Bookshelf

Here’s a new venture for pagesofjulia! My very first author interview has posted over at Critical Wit Podcast today. I will be doing the occasional guest hosting over there. In the first such episode, I interview Erin Blakemore, author of The Heroine’s Bookshelf which you know I loved. Don’t forget to check out her website here. And now the interview!



Oh and: I’ve already purchased the book she mentioned, Kristin Lavransdatter by Sigrid Undset, in the new Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition (single-volume) as recommended. Don’t know when I’ll get around to it! But I have my copy, so someday. :) Erin, thanks again for a lovely chat!


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 312 other followers

%d bloggers like this: