Maximum Shelf author interview: Leslie Parry

Following Monday’s review of Church of Marvels, here’s Leslie Parry: Trusting the Characters.


Leslie Parry is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Her stories have appeared in the Virginia Quarterly Review, Missouri Review, Cincinnati Review, and the PEN/O. Henry Prize Stories, among other publications. She was recently a resident at Yaddo and the Kerouac House. Her writing has also received a National Magazine Award nomination and an honorable mention in The Best American Short Stories. She lives in Chicago.

photo: Adam Farabee

photo: Adam Farabee


Church of Marvels inhabits a very compelling and specific setting that combines fantasy and history. How did you choose this time and place?

I didn’t consciously set out to write a book about New York, but the sensory experience of living there (the space, the light, the sounds and smells) remains very vivid in my mind, years after I moved away. Like many Americans, the city was a portal for my family. My great-grandfather, who was born in 1888, grew up in an immigrant family in Greenwich Village. His own father was a dreamy, dissolute, would-be poet who operated an elevator; his mother and sister worked as dressmakers. He fell in love with my great-grandmother, an actress, when he saw her on the stage. It’s a story that’s always fascinated me, but because he died so young, it’s all that I really know of him. So at the root of this book, perhaps, is the desire to re-create the world that he lived in, to imagine a history of the Parrys in America. But the story, of course, became something else entirely. And once I started following these specific characters through the streets of Manhattan, the book took on a life of its own.

How much research did you have to do into this historical setting, and what did that process look like?

Before I even knew this was going to be a novel, I was reading certain books just out of curiosity–New York history, medical history, labor history; various histories of vaudeville, dime museums, prizefighting, theater. I even read a book on the history of garbage. So I’m sure all of those various threads were humming along in my mind, crossing and sparking, when I sat down to write. Then, when I was deep into the drafting process, I went back and did some more focused reading: on hair weaving, river transportation, the opium trade, etc. I loved doing research: it answered questions I didn’t even know I had, and helped me understand the hurdles these characters would have been up against. But at the same time–since this is a work of fiction–I didn’t feel beholden to a strict factual representation. I let the research inform the story, but not determine it.

You tell a number of different stories that eventually converge into one. Was it hard to keep track?

Yes! And more so at first, when the story was still taking shape. I knew the direction I was traveling–I knew, in a loose way, how I wanted the plot to evolve–but I didn’t always have a clear path. I took a lot of wrong turns and hit a few dead ends. But I was guided by the overall sensibility of the story; I had to trust the characters. And I was fortunate enough to have a terrific editor help me across the finish line.

Did you always intend to write them as distinct stories?

Yes. In fact, the very first pages of this novel were not novelistic at all. I began writing vignettes about people who populated different areas of the city–just character sketches, really. It was almost like an actorly exercise, trying to situate myself in another body, in another world. This came about after spending some time in New York, where a few chance encounters happened to dovetail serendipitously. I caught a sideshow act at Coney Island; I read Nellie Bly’s Ten Days in a Mad-House; I spent days traversing downtown Manhattan with my sister (usually on the hunt for gelato, mussels, pickles, dumplings). I stumbled across the word night-soiler, I think during a visit to the Tenement Museum. But I got frustrated with these vignettes after a while, unsure where they were headed. I put the pages away for a few years, but I kept thinking back on them. One day I read everything through again and saw the whole project differently–it was a novel, and soon the threads began to braid together.

What do you think makes for good or memorable characters?

That’s a good question. I’m drawn to characters who make mistakes. (This is different from having an endearing flaw–being beautiful but clumsy, say, or handsome but moody.) Mistakes–whether they’re decisions made impulsively, or are calculated; whether they happen in spite of a character’s better judgment, or begin as acts of good faith, naivetĂ©–they reveal some of the most complicated aspects of human behavior. Confusion and doubt, shame or regret, thwarted desire, yearning, fury, vulnerability, perhaps a barbed pathway to amends–it’s a universal experience, and yet has infinite variations.

Do you have a favorite character?

Whichever character I was writing about at the moment became my favorite (even when they tried me and exasperated me!). But there is a special place in my heart for Alphie.


This interview originally ran on April 2, 2015 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: Kate Bolick

Following yesterday’s review of Spinster, here’s Kate Bolick: The Single Woman as a Cultural Archetype.


Kate Bolick is a contributing editor to the Atlantic, and a freelance writer for Elle, the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, among other publications. She’s also host of “Touchstones at The Mount,” an annual literary interview series at Edith Wharton’s country estate in Lenox, Mass. Previously, she was executive editor of Domino, and a columnist for the Boston Globe Ideas section. She lives in Brooklyn, N.Y. Her memoir is Spinster: Making a Life of One’s Own.

photo credit: Willy Somma

photo credit: Willy Somma

Clearly this book was a lifetime in the making. But how long did you purposefully work on it? Did the idea of it change during that time?

Spinster began as a bolt of excitement in 2000, when I first came across 19th-century journalist and novelist Neith Boyce’s 1898 Vogue column, “The Bachelor Girl,” about her decision to never marry. Until then, I was completely unaware that the public conversation around singledom had such a long history, and after that I couldn’t stop thinking about the single woman as a cultural archetype, and collecting examples.

After a few years, I sat down and tried to write a book about how Neith and two of her more-or-less contemporaries had influenced my thinking about marriage vs. not-marriage. It was a total and complete failure. I had no idea how to turn my fascination with their unconventional lives into a compelling narrative, and I was too young to have any insight into or personal perspective on the topic, or even know how to ask the right questions. I put the project aside, but never stopped thinking about it.

Then, in 2011, the Atlantic asked me to write a cover story about the changing face of contemporary marriage, and as I did my reporting and research I could almost physically feel the ghosts of those women from the past perched on my shoulder, taking in everything I learned. After the article came out, I thought maybe I was old enough now to give that failed book another go. In early 2012 I signed a deal with Crown.

From the start, I knew that I’d use my own coming-of-age as an adult as the narrative arc, and feature the lives of my “awakeners” as “love stories”–women I’d found, fallen for, then moved on from. In this way I’d be able to lead the reader through a series of historical and intellectual ideas that might feel dry on their own. Actually plotting that out, though, was maddeningly difficult, and more than a few times I thought I had to abandon that approach and try another.

What started as a fascination with certain lives deepened with research into a more comprehensive understanding of the single woman’s place in the social order, and how it’s changed across time. The specific economic, political and cultural conditions of each era determine who the single woman can be, and how she’ll be perceived.

How was this writing process different from the different kinds of writing you’d done before?

The process of writing this book was so different from anything I’ve ever done that for months and months I was near-paralyzed with doubt about whether I could do it. Length alone was a challenge–I had to unlearn journalistic tics like concision and speed, and give myself over to the space a book calls for and demands. The primary challenge was learning how to create a narrative; what compels a reader to keep wanting to turn the page? Weaving my own story in with the lives of others in a way that didn’t feel thunderingly obvious and clunky was likewise vexing. I also struggled with tone. I’ve written plenty of literary criticism, personal essays, interviews and biographical articles–how could I find a voice that would be capacious enough to let all these disparate forms coexist under the same roof?

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

The book is officially a memoir, but I had to leave out acres of thoughts and experiences in order to keep the emphasis on what matters: the lives of the women I write about; the history of single women in general. Which is to say, the book is only one slice of me. Dear reader, I contain multitudes!

Could there be a sixth awakener for you, who you just haven’t found yet?

Absolutely. In fact, by the time I started writing the book I’d accumulated quite a few awakeners, which I decided to cut down to a more manageable six–the ones who’d influenced me most directly. After I finished the first draft, I realized six was one too many, and cut another. I expect that for the rest of my life I’ll keep finding new awakeners. At least, I hope I do.

Are you prepared to be an awakener yourself?

Hah! Well, given that finding an awakener is such a private, intimate process, and one that the awakener her/himself has no idea is taking place, I suppose I could handle it. In this way, I’m much better suited to being an awakener than to being a heroine, who needs to be dashing and daring. I’m not very dashing or daring.

What are you working on next?

Wait, you mean there’s life beyond Spinster?! Heh. I love the material too much to even want to think about anything else just yet. After two years holed away writing, I’m excited to finally be back in the world, talking about what I learned.


This interview originally ran on March 4, 2015 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: Spinster: Making a Life of One’s Own by Kate Bolick

Maximum Shelf is the weekly Shelf Awareness feature focusing on an upcoming title we love and believe will be a great handselling opportunity for booksellers everywhere. The features are written by our editors and reviewers and the publisher has helped support the issue.

This review was published by Shelf Awareness on March 4, 2015.


spinster

“Whom to marry, and when will it happen–these two questions define every woman’s existence, regardless of where she was raised or what religion she does or doesn’t practice… even if the answers are nobody and never.” Kate Bolick explores her own answer to the classic questions, arduously and over the years of her own life; she examines their place in society, and the way other women she admires have answered them, mining the lives of female writers who have affected her. The resulting book, Spinster: Making a Life of One’s Own, is less a polemic than one might expect, and more a thoughtful, generous consideration of our world, and a woman’s best options to honor herself.

Bolick begins with her family background, her loving parents and brother, and her home in Newburyport, Mass. In a personal and family tradition of talking, reading, discussing and writing, Bolick naturally gravitates toward literary models for the life she hopes to build. After her mother’s death, she seeks to re-create the conversations they used to share, “not with other, real, live women… but real, dead women, whom I could sidle up to shyly and get to know slowly, through the works they left behind and those written about them.” In the opening pages, she introduces her five “awakeners,” women of the written word who have offered her lessons about how to live as a woman, married or not. These awakeners are an essayist, a columnist, a poet, a novelist and a social visionary (although each, of course, crosses over and between those categories).

Maeve Brennan (1917-1993), essayist at the New Yorker, offers a loving picture of single city life and an admirable sense of style. She will also come to provide a frightening negative version of the stereotypical single woman’s final days. Neith Boyce (1872-1951), columnist at Vogue and representative of the Bachelor Girl, supplies a glimpse into the life of working women, a novel possibility in her time; although as Bolick points out, the chance of sex or sexiness in the workplace presents a “negotiation [that] continues today.” Edna St. Vincent Millay (1892-1950), poet and legendary lover, brings revelations. “Her legacy wasn’t recklessness, but a fierce individualism that even now evades our grasp.”

Edith Wharton (1862-1937), novelist and grand dame (“society’s favorite version of the single woman”), built herself a house, the Mount, with two rooms of her own, a public “boudoir” for entertaining and a spare bedroom in which to do her writing. She represents a model for the prioritization of one’s work, and also for the work Bolick reluctantly takes on in editing a luxury decorating magazine: rather than mere frivolity, this focus offers another opportunity to get to know herself. Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1860-1935), social visionary and prolific writer (of The Yellow Wallpaper, for example), inspires self-improvement and a different way to go about making a home.

Bolick tells her own story chronologically. As she discovers each of her five awakeners (a term borrowed from Wharton) and the lessons she finds with them, she changes jobs, moves from Newburyport to Boston to New York City, and dates and cohabitates with different men (referred to only by the first letter of their first names). She started using the word “spinster” in her journals in her early 20s, and always considered it a positive appellation, one posing possibility. Her evolving interest in spinsterhood is tracked by all of these layered journeys, the lives and writings of the awakeners interspersed with her own. Along the way, she also makes brief calls on Virginia Woolf, Mary McCarthy, Anne Sexton, Annie Dillard and others. Bolick acknowledges that the subjects of her investigations are all like her: straight white women of New England; diversity is not her focus.

Spinster‘s tone is charming, by turns confessional, collegial and academic. Bolick’s erudition is leavened by a playful, casual tone, even as she references Shakespeare and the Lernaean hydra in a single page. Not only a memoir, Spinster employs research into the lives of the five profiled writers, as well as into history and sexual politics. As the narrator of this voyage, Bolick is amiable, credible and fun to know.

Interestingly, all five of the awakeners eventually married, in some cases more than once. While it thoughtfully contemplates the possibilities for and arguments in favor of women remaining unmarried, Spinster is not a mandate. Bolick does not insist upon spinsterhood for her readers. Rather, she offers assistance in “holding on to that in you which is independent and self-sufficient,” whether single, happily or unhappily coupled. The word “spinster,” and all it entails–and Bolick makes great strides toward the proud and pleased application of this embattled historical term–is thus a tool for our individual contentedness.

Entertaining, wise and compassionate, Spinster is the result of Bolick’s lifetime of meditations, ruminations, angst and joy; of research, reading and appreciation of five intriguing lives; of dating, moving in with someone and time spent alone. While allowing that the coupled lifestyle is fine for some, Bolick’s message for readers is a celebration of the delights, challenges, and opportunities of remaining single.


Rating: 8 women.

Come back tomorrow for my interview with Bolick.

Teaser Tuesdays: Spinster: Making a Life of One’s Own by Kate Bolick

Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Should Be Reading.

spinster

There is a lot to love about this book, in which a fun, intelligent woman discusses singledom and the arguments in favor, while exploring the lives & writing of those who’ve gone before her. A Maximum Shelf is coming. For now, I wanted to share these charming lines.

Because I’d started contributing to magazines and newspapers as a graduate student, the transition was seamless enough, save for the fact that reviewing books makes it very easy to never go outside.

I certainly identify, Kate. Here’s to continuing to make an effort to go outside (& also loving what we do).

This quotation comes from an uncorrected advance proof and is subject to change.

John Vaillant at Village Books

Way back when I interviewed John Vaillant – in, I think, September of 2014 – I was living in Houston and getting ready to move to the Pacific Northwest. He mentioned that he’d be speaking at Village Books in February. And here we are: I went to hear him read and talk with Husband and Pops.

You know that I enjoyed his book; and I’ll tell you now that our interview was one of the most enjoyable (and moving) that I’ve ever done.

What I learned from this event is still more to his credit. It’s incredibly rare for an author who is this good with words – no, wait. First of all it’s rare for an author to be this good with words. But for an author like that to also be this composed a speaker; this articulate about the writing process; this calm and easy with an audience, this engaged with the people he’s speaking to; to have a strong speaking voice, read his own work beautifully; and then to be extremely funny to boot… well. I’ll cease raving and tell you just to go see him if you get the chance.

Also, I’m well convinced that his two earlier books, The Golden Spruce and The Tiger, would be up my alley. Sadly, as ever, my reading schedule is booked (ha), so we’ll see when I get around to them.

Maximum Shelf author interview: Erik Larson

Following yesterday’s review of Dead Wake, here’s Erik Larson: Ideas and Process.


Erik Larson is the author of four national bestsellers: In the Garden of Beasts, Thunderstruck, The Devil in the White City and Isaac’s Storm, which have collectively sold more than 5.5 million copies. His books have been published in 17 countries. Larson began his writing career as a journalist, and now gets to travel the world researching his works of nonfiction. [You can read a longer and surprisingly hilarious bio written by the man himself here.]

larsonTo begin, my mother made me promise I’d ask: how do you choose the diverse subjects of your books? What makes for a compelling story that you feel driven to tell? Why the Lusitania?

Well, you tell your mother it’s none of her business. Actually, no, please tell her that, really, I have no idea. There’s more truth to that than I care to admit. The hunt for each book idea is a hard one for me, and typically takes about a year. To write the kind of history I write, I need to find real-life events that lend themselves to being told as stories–true stories–with beginnings, middles and ends. There has to be a clear, ascending narrative arc, and there has to be a rich enough trove of archival materials to make the story and characters come alive without massaging the facts. And, it has to be something I want to spend the next few years working on. I often think finding that next idea is like finding a spouse–you have to kiss a lot of frogs before you find one that kisses back.

What drove me to write about the Lusitania was the potential it offered for nonfiction story-telling–for crafting a narrative full of real-life suspense. A nonfiction maritime thriller. The archival base was extraordinarily rich, full of elements that I felt no one else had adequately mined–all the things I love to work with: telegrams, diaries, love letters, secret documents, even the German submarine commander’s hour-by-hour war log. It doesn’t get any better than that. Whether I succeeded, of course, is for readers to decide.

Aside from the obvious choices to concentrate on Captain Turner and Kapitänleutnant Schwieger, how did you choose the individual stories to follow? Were they (Charles Lauriat, Dwight Harris, Theodate Pope, etc.) simply the ones who left behind the most documentation?

Exactly! The three you cite all left vivid, detailed accounts, especially Lauriat, who wrote a book on the subject, and in addition left a broad and deep documentary trail. I also liked the fact that Lauriat was a famous bookseller. How nice that a time once existed when a bookseller could become famous and travel in first class on Cunard ships and be recognized on sight. As for Pope, I found her backstory particularly compelling: her depression, her interest in the supernatural, the fact she was a pioneering female architect and pal of Henry James and that she was in that cadre of American women who were first to embrace their identity as feminists, back when the term itself was brand new.

You state in your “Note to Readers” that you are very careful to stick to the facts, with no embellishment. And yet your narrative is incredibly lively. Please explain the importance of that rule for you–the integrity of pure fact–and how you make the bare truth so gripping.

They key lies in detail. There are no shortcuts–you have to do the necessary digging to find the bits and pieces that will ignite the reader’s imagination. It’s the reader, I’m convinced, who does the animating of my narratives. I just present the details necessary to allow that to happen. For example, I often have people tell me that I must have made some things up, because I have actual dialogue in my books. But in fact, if there is dialogue, it’s pulled directly from some actual historical document, like a letter, or memoir, or newspaper interview. More often than not, however, what they point to isn’t even dialogue–it just seems to be dialogue, and reads that way in their imagination. Which is wonderful. The human mind loves to connect dots and finish sentences and make disparate bits of information seem like a coherent whole.

lusitaniaWhat do your processes of research and writing look like, and are they in fact two separate processes? What’s the most enjoyable part for you?

They are two separate processes that merge in the middle. Ideally I’d like to have all my research done before I start to write, but that never happens. Invariably I reach a point where the book just has to come out. It’s like how my wife describes pregnancy: get this baby out of my body, NOW. Passages come to mind, and I start writing. At first I’ll just write them in my journal–I keep a journal for each book–then I’ll start writing things in a computer file called “Passages.” Then I enter my page-a-day mode, where I get up early, and write a single page before breakfast, and then return to my research for the rest of the day. Pretty soon the writing supplants the research almost entirely–although the research really never ends, because you always end up having to check things. What did early NYC street lamps look like? What was the weather like on a particular day? What were people reading in the newspapers in New York on the day the Lusitania departed? That kind of thing.

How do you keep so many characters and events in such a complex world history straight?

The most powerful tool is chronology. Before I start to write, I build a chronology that contains every worthwhile fact that I’ve mined from archives, books and whatever, with each item coded in such a way that I can readily find the source document in my files. This chronology becomes a de facto outline, with various events clumping at various points, and with each character’s role clearly defined. Using this as a spine, I craft the first draft. Then, I lay the whole thing out on the floor of our bedroom and, using a scissors and tape, I literally cut everything up and move it around, hunting for the most natural structure, while hoping that no one will open a window at the wrong moment. Once my dear departed dog, Molly, walked across the manuscript for Thunderstruck. Luckily only one small passage was displaced–it wound up on the balcony outside my bedroom.

What are you or will you be working on next?

I’m exploring a possible idea. This is early for me, so, being a pessimist, I’m pretty sure the idea won’t pan out. But I’m writing a test proposal. I won’t say what the subject is, because I never talk about works in progress until they’re done. It’s very annoying for my friends and family, though my wife and daughters all know early on. The proposal is a draft of what I would eventually send my agent, and which he in turn would send to my publisher, and which ideally my publisher would love so much that she would spend gobs of money to acquire it. Doing a proposal is a good test of an idea’s strength. If you get through the process–writing an opening chapter, an overall description and a chapter outline, maybe 80 to 100 pages in all–you have a pretty good sense that it’s a viable idea and that halfway through you won’t hang yourself from boredom.


This interview originally ran on February 9, 2015 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!

West of Sunset by Stewart O’Nan

F. Scott Fitzgerald’s final, less glorious years in Hollywood, fictionalized with nuance and grace.

sunset

“A poor boy from a rich neighborhood, a scholarship kid at boarding school, a Midwesterner in the East, an Easterner out West,” F. Scott Fitzgerald “knew better than anyone how to live in an imaginary world.” In West of Sunset, Stewart O’Nan (The Odds) fictionalizes Fitzgerald’s final four years in the late ’30s, spent in Hollywood scraping by, writing and editing screenplays while Zelda rides out her own ups and downs at Highland Hospital. Their years of wealth, fame and adventure are behind them, and though he lives modestly by Hollywood standards, Scott’s finances are increasingly desperate, with Zelda’s hospital bills to pay, their daughter Scottie’s tuition and his own living expenses.

Between pills to sleep and pills to wake up, Scott struggles to hide his heavy drinking from his employers and eventually falls in love. He continues to visit Zelda as her mental illness persists and sees Scottie on holidays, while his girlfriend, Sheilah Graham, barely tolerates his drinking (not to mention his marriage). In these years, Fitzgerald begins but does not finish The Last Tycoon, his last manuscript.

O’Nan brilliantly, sensitively portrays Fitzgerald’s internal drama with a tone of wry wit and doom. The nuances of Zelda’s character are apt and appropriate, and appearances by Dorothy Parker, Hemingway and Humphrey Bogart add color and humor. O’Nan’s characterization and dialogue are spot-on, and his choice of the less-glamorous years of his subject’s life yields a beautiful, elegiac novel worthy of its model.


This review originally ran in the January 13, 2015 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!


Rating: 8 Cokes.
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