Maximum Shelf author interview: Malin Persson Giolito

Following last Thursday’s review of Quicksand, here’s Malin Persson Giolito: A Small and Scattered World.


Malin Persson Giolito was born in Stockholm in 1969, and grew up in Djursholm, Sweden. She holds a degree in law from Uppsala University and has worked as a lawyer for the biggest law firm in the Nordic region and as an official for the European Commission in Brussels, Belgium. She is now a full-time writer and has written four novels; Quicksand is her English-language debut. Persson Giolito lives with her husband and three daughters in Brussels.

photo: Viktor Fremling

photo: Viktor Fremling

Was it the crime that sparked this novel for you, or Maja herself, or something else?

I couldn’t stop thinking about the crime. But it’s quite a difficult subject to write about, especially if you want to write a book people actually enjoy reading. I didn’t get anywhere until Maja came along. And I think the reason I wanted to write about a school shooting was not particularly the crime itself but the environment, that is, the school. It’s a very closed kind of environment. I think the book is about situations that you can’t control, and closed rooms. Maja was the key to the story. The first idea was the school shooting, but I didn’t know what to do with it until Maja came along.

It’s quite funny: as a writer, you’re probably the least capable of talking about your novel. You don’t really know what you’re doing. For the longest time you’re doing this puzzle upside down, so to speak, and then when the book is done hopefully you will see what the puzzle looks like, or perhaps one of the readers will tell you. There is something about this closed room that must have intrigued me, because we have not only the school but also the courtroom and the neighborhood where she grows up, which is an upper-class, very closed neighborhood–they’re very isolated from other parts of the Swedish society. Also, being a teenager is being isolated. You live in your own world of black and white, right and wrong, love and hate… teenagers are lovely. I have two. But they’re also quite isolated in their own minds, in their own day-to-day world.

You write the voice of this teenager so convincingly.

I have a tendency to say this was the easy part, but that’s not really true. It took me a lot of time to get to her. But once I had her, that was the best part, just living inside her head, with her rage and her judgments. She’s an enraged teenager. She’s a very privileged teenager that has gone through this tragedy, and now she’s put in a place where she has absolutely no control over her situation anymore. And we learn that during the year that led up to these events, this tragedy, she also lost control of her life. So how does she react? Well, one of the reactions is this rage. She hates everyone. And funnily enough, that was when I liked her. I think there must be an enraged teenager within me.

I think we all can relate to this loss of empowerment when we look at the world around us right now. One of the things I really liked was that I didn’t have to be this thoughtful adult who sees the good in people–I could just let go of everything and just be her. Which is not the same as saying that I agree with her. Her way of judging people around her is not something that I necessarily share. But it was still surprisingly easy, once I was there, to just do that. Once in a while you just want to let it go, to quote a famous Disney princess. I really liked that with Maja.

One of the tricks, when you write suspense novels, is to use the unreliable narrator. And when I started writing I knew from the beginning I didn’t want that. I didn’t want her to turn out to be someone else, didn’t want her to wake up after having had an alcohol-related dementia, or whatever. I wanted her to be reliable narrator, in the purest sense of the term. But I didn’t think of the fact that she’s a teenager, and if you look up “unreliable narrator,” I think you’ll see a picture of a teenager. But she’s just her, and that was very important. That’s what made me really love her. She just wants to get through this. She’s a survivor, in more ways than one.

What in your background prepared you to write this story?

The fact that I’m a lawyer prepared me a little too well, I think. There are parts of courtroom procedure that interest a lawyer that are not interesting for anyone else. It’s easy to take certain things for granted, certain principles. But once I had Maja, this was an advantage. Because she could ask all those questions that lawyers are supposed to have moved away from. Maja’s first big question is, how can you say that you’re innocent until you’re proven guilty? That is absurd. Either you’re guilty from the beginning or you didn’t do it. That’s not something that a court can change. Obviously this is a core problem. These are the Ten Commandments for a lawyer. Maja made me question my own Ten Commandments, which is fantastic.

When it comes to growing up in Djursholm–and it could be any rich neighborhood because they all more or less look the same, I think–I grew up there with a single mom who worked as a nurse. I’m not saying I had a hard childhood. I was privileged. But we didn’t have the economy of my classmates, so to speak. I think that the fact that I grew up there not as a rich kid has made me a good observer. Or I hope so. I knew that I wanted to write a story about the way that our society looks today, with all the differences and the inequalities, and the growing gap between the people who are the richest and those who have the least, and I knew that this was my angle.

A lot of people ask me if I’ve eavesdropped on my own teenagers, but I don’t think that you can. They helped with music, and Snapchat, and whatever, but I’ve tried to avoid naming all those things anyway, because they change so quickly. Obviously it helped that she was in isolation, in jail. It was good for many literary reasons, actually. If you want to write about the life of a teenager one of the problems is they have so many friends and they do so many things. I just said that their world is very small, but it’s also true that their world is very… scattered. And I didn’t have to worry about that while she was in jail.

You speak English very well. How does translation work when you are proficient in both languages?

I was lucky to be translated by Rachel; she’s absolutely fantastic. It’s one thing to speak a language–I can see that this is a very good translation–but I’m not an English speaker. We would have a discussion to find something equivalent or take it out entirely, which we did in a few instances. I think it worked very well. There are actually two versions, the same English translation, but one is more British. And maybe because I’m more Americanized than I am British, it feels strange to hear Maja speak British English. I don’t know why. I can see her as an American teenager. It doesn’t strike me as odd.

I’m involved, but more as an observer than as a translator. I can’t translate my own text, but I can applaud.

Is this novel a departure from your previous work?

Quicksand stands out because it’s Maja’s book, it’s so much just her, she’s the only voice that we hear. All of my previous three novels have lawyers as main characters. The first one is not a suspense novel; it’s about a woman who works in the biggest law firm in the Nordic area and she gets fired when she’s expecting her third child. And I wrote that novel, coincidentally, just after being fired from the biggest law firm in the Nordic area, while expecting my third child.

My third book is about a man that has been convicted of murdering a 15-year-old girl, and he’s been in prison for 11 years when he gets a new lawyer–my main character–and she tries to get him off. That is more traditionally court-related, more like this one in that sense. The other is about a lawyer representing a seven-year-old boy who is cared for by the state’s social authorities. Very sad story. I have readers who say, do you ever write anything where children are not hurt? Nope. Always very depressing. I don’t know what it is. I always say to myself that the next one is going to be a fun, lighthearted, feel-good novel, but it never works.

What are you working on next?

I’m in that phase where still everything is possible, like I think that I can write the great novel that will reveal the truth about everything. I don’t know, I have this idea about trying to place the novel in Brussels, because I live in Brussels, but I also knew that I’m not going to write about terrorism. And writing about Brussels today without writing about terrorism, well–so I guess it’s going to be another feel-good, lighthearted novel about terrorism. I seriously don’t know. I think I know who it is about, which I won’t tell you. But I think that I’m onto something.


This interview originally ran on November 16, 2016 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: Jade Chang

Following yesterday’s review of The Wangs vs. the World, here’s Jade Chang: Method Writer.


Jade Chang has covered arts and culture as a journalist and editor. She is the recipient of a Sundance Fellowship for Arts Journalism, the AIGA/Winterhouse Award for Design Criticism, and the James D. Houston Memorial scholarship from the Squaw Valley Community of Writers. She lives in Los Angeles. The Wangs vs. the World is her debut novel.

photo credit: Teresa Flowers

photo credit: Teresa Flowers


Your journalistic background covered some of the topics in the Wangs’ lives, but still: How different was writing a novel? And how hard?

I never got an MFA, but my college did have a good creative writing program, so I went through writing workshops there. And in workshop, we were always writing short stories. I guess I liked it okay, and when I graduated I continued trying to write short stories, but sometimes a thing is just not your form. And short stories were kind of hard for me. Simultaneously, I was working as a journalist. And I enjoyed writing articles–hated writing on deadline, but enjoyed writing articles. But once I started writing a novel it felt like, ahh!–this makes more sense. Having all this space, all this room, all this time, having a much broader canvas felt more exciting to me. I don’t know that being a journalist affected my experience enormously, except that I think it’s really good training because you learn to not be too precious about your words. I got used to being edited, to rewriting and all that stuff. And that’s good training for any writer.

Did the Wangs come to you fully formed, or did you have to work to build them? Are they based on anyone you know?

There’s definitely no character-by-character corollary for them in real life. I would say that Charles Wang, the father, came to me kind of fully formed. His bluster, his exuberance, his excitement about life, but also his kind-of-asshole side, all of those things felt like–well, like a view of America to me. And then also he just really felt like a lot of fun to do. The other characters definitely felt from the very beginning like real people to me. But I do a lot of character work–I ask myself questions about a character, and a lot of that stuff doesn’t go into the book at all, but it gives me a more well-rounded sense of who someone is and how they will react in a situation that does end up in the book.

Your characters are so rich, and span genders, ages, lifestyles and stages of life.

I knew I wanted to look at contemporary life from several different viewpoints. Growing up kind of between Gen X and Gen Y, I always found that definition of generations really interesting. So I really wanted to have siblings who were in different generations, who looked at the world in different ways. There are roughly 10 years in age between the sisters Saina and Grace, and that’s a huge difference in experience.

Then you have a father who is an immigrant, children born here, and a stepmother who comes from a world that’s actually very different from the father’s, even though to someone who knows nothing about them, you might think that they are from the exact same world. I wanted to show a lot of different viewpoints. And I was interested in getting into a lot of worlds in this book. So you have the father who thinks of himself as a consummate entrepreneur or businessman, who makes a fortune in makeup. And then you have the oldest daughter who is an artist, and so you get to go into the art world. And then you have the middle son who’s a standup comedian and the youngest daughter who is an aspiring style blogger. I really wanted to look at worlds where you have a balance between artifice and reality. It’s all tied to the outset of the financial collapse in 2008, and that particular financial collapse, as most of them are I think, was based on essentially a lie, or the big con–mortgages we couldn’t really afford, and all that. The financial world at that time was falling apart based on a beautiful lie. It made me very interested in other worlds that are based on that as well. I think makeup is definitely that. And then the art world–you know, I love it so much in many ways, but a piece can be worth nothing or millions of dollars, based on who says it is. That is so fascinating to me. I love the overlaps between these worlds, in how we ascribe values to things.

I really enjoyed your shifting perspectives–even the car gets a voice. Was that hard to write?

It was a challenge, and it was a really fun challenge. I definitely knew I wanted to do that. I was joking with a friend that, just like a method actor, I’m a method writer. I just really need to completely be in someone’s head and looking through their eyes in order to fully embody a character. And I liked the challenge of it, honestly. I wanted to see if I could write from five or six viewpoints.

You chose to leave some untranslated Chinese dialogue for the (non-Chinese-reading) reader to decipher from context clues. Why?

A lot of the books that we read in America today are from the point of view of white people in America. Or they’re written for what has been the majority audience, which is white people in America. And I feel like on the one hand obviously this book is for everybody, as every book is, but I wanted a different world of people to get to be the insiders. So people who speak Chinese and can understand the Chinese, they get to be the insiders in this book. But I didn’t want to write it in Chinese characters, because I wanted any reader to be able to kind of sound it out and get that experience of what it feels like to eavesdrop in a language that you don’t understand.

But you’re not actually missing out on anything. There might be something a little bit jokey, or a colloquialism that’s in the Chinese that doesn’t come out in the English, but essentially, it’s all there.

Do you have a favorite character?

I feel a lot of sympathy for Andrew. He is the middle brother, he is really trying hard to find his way in the world, he’s so good-hearted, he really just wants the best for everybody. But he’s also a young guy, and so he makes a lot of dumb missteps. And I just love stand-up comedy. I think it’s so fascinating and so fun. You have to be so smart to do it well, and also so emotionally reckless. I feel a lot of sympathy for stand-up comics in general, and so writing him and writing those scenes where he gets up and does stand-up sets, that really made me love him a lot.

But whichever character I was working on emotionally, working on their emotional arc, I felt a lot of love for that character at that point.

What are you working on next?

I am working on another novel. We’ll see what happens.


This interview originally ran on September 7, 2016 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!

author interview: Ridley Pearson: The Price of Darkness

Ridley Pearson is the author of more than two dozen novels, including The Red Room, Choke Point and The Risk Agent, plus the Walt Fleming and Lou Boldt crime series and many books for young readers. He lives with his wife and two daughters in St. Louis, Mo., and Hailey, Idaho. White Bone is the fourth novel in his Risk Agent series.

Pearson at Solio wildlife sanctuary: "Time and time again I was a matter of 15 yards from these rhinos."

Pearson at Solio wildlife sanctuary: “Time and time again I was a matter of 15 yards from these rhinos.”


White Bone’s plot centers on elephant poaching in Kenya. How did this issue come to your attention?

I heard a statistic about elephants, and it really shocked me. In 2014, the first real decent study documented that 100,000 African elephants had been killed in three years. One of every 12 African elephants had been killed by a poacher in 2011. Three-quarters of local elephant populations are declining. In nine years, there would be no more wild elephants in Africa.

Then I met Mikey and Tanya Carr-Hartley, who run a four-generation-old guiding service in Kenya. Eventually I went, under their care, to Kenya to do interviews and see the country and dig into the poaching, and my hair was blown back.

I interviewed 24 people over the course of three and a half weeks, and 23 of them in some way lied to me. These were very trustworthy sources, including our own (U.S.) State Department. Finally, my last interview was an activist lawyer, and we went through my interviews and she told me point by point who had fabricated what. My jaw dropped. There I’d been digging into this to help everyone, and in some way or another everyone had manipulated the truth.

"My guides Ole and Charcoal."

“My guides Ole and Charcoal.”


It was eye-opening, and dangerous. I was in Nairobi when there was a terrorist blast that killed 18 people. I was at a lodge when poachers killed a rhino 300 yards away from me while I slept. There’s a scene in the book where Grace runs into these herdsman, and they try to rape her. Those were two guys I ran into when one of my guides had to go get a vehicle and I was left–by my own choice–and within 10 minutes I ran into these guys, and they did not like me. It was 20 or 30 minutes of, oh boy, all he has to do is lift that spear and I’m going down.

Is there a point at which research makes it harder to write fiction?

My approach is “faction.” My charge is to suspend your disbelief, and I think it works best if I put more fact in than fiction. I do a lot of research. I learned about a guy who was investigating poaching and was a pilot over Mt. Kenya, and his plane happened to go down. A lot of people think that plane was sabotaged; it’s never been proven. I told that story, where a guy was killed in the bush who had been investigating. I just made it a little more palpable and believable for the reader.

Were you searching for John Knox and Grace Chu’s next case, or was this something you needed to write about first, and they were the best fit?

The latter. I just wondered if I could put Knox and Chu into Africa, and what that would look like.

"Ole showed me every plant that could kill you, every root that could heal you: it was unbelievable. I based all that information with Grace off my days with Ole."

“Ole showed me every plant that could kill you, every root that could heal you: it was unbelievable. I based all that information with Grace off my days with Ole.”


I’ve written 51 books. And I haven’t done this for probably 20 years, but I actually wrote the entire book and put it aside and started over. I just wasn’t buying my own story. It wasn’t lighting me up. And it wasn’t the story my editor (Christine Pepe at Putnam, who’s just one of the greatest editors who’s ever lived) wanted. So I stepped back and thought: What am I doing wrong here? I’ve always wanted to do a book about a person out in the wild with nothing. I’m an Eagle Scout, so I’ve gone through some of this in my own teens. When Ole, my guide, told me that a white person wouldn’t last 24 hours in the bush, I said, well, how could I last 24 hours in the bush? He showed me every plant that could kill you, every root that could heal you. It was unbelievable. I based all that information with Grace off my days with Ole.

How did you handle characterization?

I felt a great depth of participation with Grace because of her circumstances. I think this is the book where readers of the series will go, “Oh, that’s the Grace I’ve been waiting for.” I learned a lot about her. She has a lot of stick-to-it-iveness that I really wasn’t sure about. She’s an accountant by trade, but she went through the Chinese army training, and had some short-lived intelligence experience. So I always sensed that she had this potential. This book was her chance to be out on her own, investigating something that’s a little more money-oriented than pure fieldwork, and then it ends up Fieldwork with a capital F. In previous books you never really got in with Grace and felt her, and were afraid or proud or achieving with her.

The challenge is not to put everything in. In my fieldwork, there were some amazing moments. I had an encounter with one of the people who had lied to me. On the very last night I was there, he came up to me at a party and said, “Hey, listen. I’m terribly sorry about how I played that when we were at Solio.” And I said “Yeah, so am I!” But at least he was man enough at the end to come up and say, “Sorry I just lied to your face.” That was a very emotional moment for me. And you can’t get them all in.

"This is me in what they call a 'nice' town near Solio Lodge."

“This is me in what they call a ‘nice’ town near Solio Lodge.”


You regularly write realistically about violence, depravity and corruption. Is this emotionally difficult?

I think you pay for it.

Every day for two years as I wrote this book, these images hung in my head. These stupid idiots come in with automatic weapons on ATVs, they massacre the elephants, they chainsaw their faces off for the tusks, and they’re gone in 15 minutes. For all the dark that Grace and Knox went through, those are the images that haunted me. When you’re there and you see these animals, just how majestic they are–it’s absolutely despicable.

I want to route some of the money from the book there, and get some people at the end of the book to say, “I’ll send $10 to them”–it doesn’t have to be $100,000. It’s just bizarre to me that this is going on, and none of our grandkids will see elephants except in a reserve or in a zoo. An elephant is being killed every 15 minutes, and has been since I started this and long before I started this.

That was the darkness I lived with. Everything else was manufactured. I’ve done a lot of research over 30 years. I’ve been inside the mind of a lot of devious criminals. I’ve spent time in prisons for the criminally insane. I’ve interviewed forensic psychiatrists who have themselves interviewed 140 mass murderers. I’ll say, this is what my guy did, who is he? And we’ll be eating dinner, and the stuff they describe stops me from eating. So there is darkness. And I pay for it.


This interview originally ran in the July 29, 2016 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish news.

author interview: Allison Amend: In the Space Between the Lines

photo: Stephanie Pommez

photo: Stephanie Pommez


Allison Amend, a graduate of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, is the author of the novels A Nearly Perfect Copy and Stations West, which was a finalist for the 2011 Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature and the Oklahoma Book Award. She is also the author of the Independent Publisher’s Award-winning story collection Things That Pass for Love. She lives in New York City, where she teaches creative writing. Her latest novel is Enchanted Islands, based on the life of Frances Conway, who lived with her husband, Ainslie, on the Galápagos Islands for several stretches in the 1930s and ’40s. My review is here.

When did you discover Frances Conway, and what about her spoke to you? Did you know you needed to tell this story when you first encountered her?

I discovered Frances through her memoirs. I originally wanted to write about the series of strange disappearances on the Galápagos island of Floreana, but some of the descendants of the people involved are still alive, and Dayna Goldfine and Dan Geller were making a documentary about it, and I felt I wanted more freedom to imagine characters. It was in that period of research, though, that I read Frances’s memoirs and immediately fell in love with her voice. She is funny and witty, self-deprecating and actually a talented writer. This was a voice I wanted to attempt to emulate.

What also struck me about her two books is what they didn’t say. She was 50-year-old woman married to a man more than 10 years her junior, and in her middle age they decided to go to a deserted island? There was some larger story that she wasn’t talking about. It was in the space between the lines that my interest in the story grew.

I had written a full draft of the novel before I went to do research. Frances never mentions in her memoirs that Ainslie has a drinking problem, but I wrote that into the novel. Later, I spoke to the son of someone who knew the couple, who said that the Conways had come to Floreana in part so he could dry out. There are traces of honesty even when we try to hide them.

Have you ever been to the Galápagos?

Yes. My parents took me and my brother when I was just out of high school. It was an amazing trip. During that time I read Floreana, Margret Wittmer’s account of the strange goings-on on the island, and I became fascinated with the human history of the islands.

I returned to do research in February 2015 and found the islands much changed. Land-based tourism is in full effect, and the population of the islands has exploded. I saw many more Ecuadoreans taking advantage of their natural park. It’s wonderful that the islands have become accessible to those who are non-wealthy, but the increased traffic stresses the islands.

Every superlative everyone has uttered about the utter awesomeness of the Galápagos is true. I urge everyone reading this to visit this spot before tourist degradation destroys it.

enchanted islandsWhere is the line between fact and fiction? How firm is it? How important is it to you?

Ehhh, line-schmine. I like to say that fiction dwells in the possible, not the probable. Is it possible that Frances and her husband were spying for the U.S. government? Unlikely. But it does seem clear that Ainslie wrote an anonymous feasibility report for the U.S. Navy, and it is rather strange that a mismatched middle-aged couple would play Swiss Family Robinson on a strategically placed island full of Germans just before World War II, so who knows?

If there had been more historical records about Frances and Ainslie, I might have felt more compunction about inventing their lives, but the dearth of facts seemed to me to be a green light.

How much research did you do, and do you find that part of the process enjoyable?

I love to do research, and all of my books have been research-intense. It is one of the most enjoyable parts of writing for me. This may be because I get to procrastinate and call it writing.

I did try to complete a working draft before I started researching so that I would be sure to focus on creating characters rather than writing a Forrest Gump-like series of important events.

I did a lot of my research on the internet, unsurprisingly. There is a fantastic resource on the human history of the islands compiled by John Woram: www.galapagos.to, which has nearly all the historical documents that exist on the islands. I also did a lot of reading on spying tradecraft in the 1930s, and the role of the Pacific and the Panama Canal in the Second World War. Then there was all that research on Chicago during the turn of the century and San Francisco in the periods between the wars. Oh, and I went to the Roosevelt library and the Allan Hancock collection at the University of Southern California.

I read Frances’s memoirs several times, because I wanted her voice in my head. For a while I considered weaving in parts of her memoir, but I decided that would be more of a gimmick than an asset to the novel, so I tried to put the book out of my head and just write from my memory of her voice.

There comes a time, though, when research starts to inhibit imagination instead of spark it, and then it’s time to put the research away and just write.

Do you have a favorite character or one you feel closest to?

Well, obviously I spent four years or so with Frances, so I feel like I know her (or my fictionalized version of her) very well. But I have sympathy and fondness for all the characters in the novel.

In what ways is this book different from your previous work?

All of my books are different from each other. One of my biggest pleasures in writing is to try something new–it keeps the writing exciting and challenging. After my last historical novel, I swore I would never write another… but the pull of this story was just too great.

Enchanted Islands was a challenge because I was writing in first person for the first time in a novel. And I was writing from a voice that already existed. I didn’t have to match it, but I wanted to be true to its spirit. I was also challenging myself to write a tightly plotted novel, with spies and violence and action. From someone who comes from a literary fiction, character-driven background, highlighting plot is like getting a horse to walk backwards.


This interview originally ran in the June 3, 2016 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish news.

author interview: Fernanda Santos: Reporting from the Heart

photo: Nick Oza

photo: Nick Oza

Fernanda Santos covers Arizona and New Mexico as the Phoenix bureau chief for the New York Times. Her experience as a journalist is broad, crossing two continents, several languages and a range of subjects. Her first book, The Fire Line (Flatiron Books), is about the deadly 2013 Yarnell Hill, Ariz., wildfire that killed 19 members of the firefighting team the Granite Mountain Hotshots. My review is here.

How was writing this book different from newspaper work?

I wanted to write a book because I couldn’t answer the questions that I wanted answered in newspaper stories. I knew that somebody would write about this fire, and I would have tortured myself for the rest of my life for not having had the courage to write it. I called a colleague in New York, and he said, look at every chapter as a story. Can you write a 4,000-, 5,000-word story? And I said yes, I can write that. He said they just all have to connect in the end. And it seemed so simple.

On one hand, it was that simple. But on the other hand, it’s very different than writing a newspaper story. I had complete control over it. In newspapers, the editors get hold of your text and shape it, or send it back to you and ask for more of this or that, because they want to drive a specific point. With the book, I kept waiting for the moment when the editors would get my chapters and start telling me where to go and what to do next, and it never came. When I was halfway through, I sent it to Colin Dickerman, my editor at Flatiron. I didn’t even know if I’d written something that resembled a book. And he said, there’s a lot of great material here, great reporting, but it’s a little confusing. Why don’t you do an outline? And I thought, oh! I guess that would help! With the outline, everything was easier. I set deadlines for each chapter. I only had a certain amount of book leave, and I didn’t want to jeopardize the job that I really love. So I assigned myself these stories, like my friend told me, and pursued the deadlines as if an editor was there to enforce them. And all of a sudden it flowed, just naturally evolved from one chapter to the next. A lot of the skills I used were developed over those years writing newspaper stories.

How did you gain access to these men’s families, and their trust?

I approached it very differently than I would if I were to just write a story about the deaths. I was not looking for a quote, or a quick couple of lines to throw in a story to define a character. I really wanted to understand who these men were, and I figured the best way to do that was if I got to meet their families. I had a friend in common with the wife of Andrew Ashcraft. I asked this friend to reach out to her, and we met. Then she referred me to her mother-in-law, who was close to another mother, who was close to another family, and the word started to get around. I guess they liked me. They said I had a lot of patience, and I was very interested in learning their stories.

I wrote letters to other families. I explained what the book was about, why I wanted to talk to them, and I said that although I had their addresses, I had not gone knocking on their doors because I didn’t want to add to their anguish. I wanted to leave them in control. I wanted them to reach out to me, and say if, when and where. And before I realized it, I had met everybody.

I also went to the fire academy in Prescott, where a lot of the Hotshots trained, and some of them taught; one of them, Eric Marsh, helped found the academy. I did the basic training, and then another course, and I’m actually going back to a third. I wanted to understand the world they inhabited, because wildland firefighting is a very small world, very tight. Once I went through the academy I could understand better what former members of the crew and families of the men had told me.

fire lineI love that you explore so many facets of this story: firefighting techniques, the history of fire management in the United States, the science of weather forecasting.

I realized early on I had to explain three things. Readers had to understand what wildland fire is, what it is like to fight a wildfire. They had to understand the very specific conditions of the vegetation in that part of the state, which obviously connects to the bigger issues of the drying of the west, climate change, the warming of the planet. And they needed to understand the characteristics of the storm that hit the fire, that hooked the flames and turned them around on the men. So I spent a lot of time in the National Weather Service office here in Phoenix, and the office in Flagstaff. I hung out with meteorologists, asking questions. They referred me to some texts. And I had two very thick fire policy books that I read, which were very helpful. I met several times with the author of those books, Stephen Pyne. In fact, he read my manuscript to make sure I didn’t embarrass myself.

It was in some ways a relief, when the emotional side of things became hard to deal with–you know, spending six hours with a widow, talking about a husband and a life that in many ways resemble my own. These guys were younger than my husband, but we like to do a lot of the same things these guys liked to do with their wives; we have a child, a lot of them had kids–so you understand the broad outlines of a life at home. Emotionally, that is very hard. There were times that I really looked forward to sitting down with a meteorologist and talking about science. It gave me a break, and recharged me so I could go back and sit down with another family for hours and talk about whatever they wanted to talk about. My husband says that I report with my heart first, which is why sometimes I come home a total wreck. I hope that’s what comes through.

Was it easy to return to your work for the Times?

It was not easy. I went from an environment where I was in complete control, and I took the story as far as I wanted to take it, to an environment where I have limits to the stories I write, the amount of time I can spend, even the way I write them. I remember telling my editor after one frustrating story, how is that I can write a book and I can’t write a story? And he said you can write both, but you can’t write a story as if you are writing a book.

I miss my book. It’s very weird, but I miss the intimate connection that I had with that story.

This was very rewarding, then.

It’s interesting. I’m from Brazil. I came here as an adult, I’d never written a story in English, I went to graduate school, I’ve been at the Times 10 years, and now I’ve written a book about wildfires. A very American story, in some ways. It was such an empowering experience for me, as a person. We know all the conventions, the boxes people try to fit us into. You’re a woman, you’re an immigrant, you’re a Latina; therefore you’re expected to know about immigrants, Latinos, parenting. Not about firefighters, a real man’s world. Because English is not my first language, how dare I write a book? Those were the things in my head. What are you thinking? Why did you get yourself into this? I had all these battles with myself, and I obviously overcame them, because I wrote the book. To me, that was such a priceless experience. My daughter is six, and I’ve been talking to her about what people say you can and can’t do, what girls can’t do. And in Latin culture we’re very respectful to authority. So I’m telling her, sometimes you have to break the rules. Sometimes you have to try something that people think you’re never going to be able to do, so you can prove to them that you can. It really taught me a lot about how far I can go.


This interview originally ran in the May 10, 2016 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish news.

Maximum Shelf author interview: Steven Rowley

Following yesterday’s review of Lily and the Octopus, here’s Steven Rowley: On Obstacles and Octopuses.


Steven Rowley is from Portland, Maine, and is a graduate of Emerson College. He has worked as a freelance writer, newspaper columnist and screenwriter, and lives in Los Angeles with his boyfriend and their dog. He is @mrstevenrowley on Instagram and Twitter. Lily and the Octopus is his first novel.

How autobiographical is this story?

photo: Malina Saval

photo: Malina Saval

There’s no way to deny that it’s partly autobiographical. I did have a dog, named Lily, and when she passed away I went into a funk. The depth of grief I felt took me completely by surprise. After about six months or so feeling completely blocked, not just in writing but in life, I sat down to do what writers often do, which is try to put pen to paper and work their way out of a tough spot. Thematically and emotionally it was autobiographical, but as I kept writing, the character and the plot became more fiction. It got weird, certainly, along the way, but I thought, the story can get as weird as it wants to on the surface as long as I stick to the mission of adhering to absolute emotional honesty.

It sounds like you did the writing as a part of healing.

Oh, it was hugely cathartic. Absolutely. Although it’s largely on the surface about a man and his dog, I see the story more about a character who’s stuck in life. Sometimes our biggest obstacles are those that we make up, that we imagine, or if they’re not entirely imagined, that we exaggerate. So it’s really a story about what it takes to get unblocked and power your way though.

Did you know that that was the story before you were writing it?

It’s interesting. I come from a background in screenwriting, and with screenwriting you have the plot much more laid out in advance. And this was something I was approaching from more of an emotional standpoint, looking to examine themes of grief and depression–I hate to harp on those because the book is, hopefully, not without its humor as well. I was surprised where the story took me because I was so focused on the emotion of it. There’s a big set piece near the end that came completely by surprise.

Why on earth an octopus?

Well, I did have a dog that suffered from something that looked a bit like there was a small octopus on her head. But beyond that, I wanted something as different as possible. What’s most different from a dog that’s covered in fur, that’s basically all spine (since she’s a dachshund) than an invertebrate who’s sort of slimy and hairless and lives in the sea? I liked playing with that dichotomy, that they were as different as different can be. On top of that, I have an enormous respect for octopuses (my editor and I have gone over this time and time, and the plural of octopus is octopuses). They’re so smart, and according to scientists they’re playful, can use simple tools and they learn and adapt as they go. And that’s what I needed, a cunning antagonist. Because the main character learns more about the octopus throughout the story as it unfolds, I needed a villain who would learn and adapt as well, continue to know how to needle our narrator. So, that is an octopus. And I do carry some guilt about villainizing them in any way, because they’re really magnificent creatures. Please everyone, don’t hate the octopus. Just the particular one in this story.


How was writing a novel different from your previous work as a screenwriter?

Screenwriting is a collaborative art. Many people help to bring a screenplay to life as a film, and many times it’s not the writer’s original intent that makes it to the screen. On top of that, when you’re writing a screenplay you’re writing a blueprint, it’s not in and of itself the final product. I had in my mind that I wanted to try a novel someday, so that if nothing else I could point to something bound and finished and say, this is what I do.

A screenwriter’s job is to make the internal external. All emotion and feelings are expressed through action and dialog. In this book, I wanted to luxuriate in themes and feelings. The book is very internal; there’s a very limited number of characters. The narrator has one friend, one sibling, one parent and one therapist, and that’s it. He’s sort of removed from humanity, which is why he has such a powerful relationship with his dog. I really wanted to take the time and explore what was going on inside of his head, and when you’re exploring depression it’s often internal like that. So it just seemed that a novel or prose was the right medium for this story.

Your journey to publication was unusual. Congratulations, by the way.

Thank you! When I finished the manuscript, I was very proud of it as a piece of writing, but I saw it as so deeply personal, and to be perfectly honest I was also worried that it was perhaps a little weird. Self-publishing was also attractive to me because, coming from film, I didn’t want too many other voices trying to tell me it can’t be an octopus, it should be an alligator, or whatnot. My boyfriend recommended I hire an independent freelance editor, so I found a woman named Molly Pisani and she and I worked on the book together. I paid her and I never expected to hear from her again. I went about doing what writers looking to self-publish do. I hired a typesetter, looked at ISBN numbers and how to market the book and sell it, all these things, and out of the blue I got a phone call from Molly about three months later. She said, “I can’t stop thinking about your book. I know a woman who works at Simon & Schuster who I think might respond to it in the same way that I did. Do you mind if I send it?” I said no, I certainly don’t mind, but I was so far down the line toward self-publishing that I really didn’t think anything would come of it. And she did say that it could take her friend a month or two to look at it. That was on a Friday, and on Monday morning I woke up to a call from Simon & Schuster, from the woman who is now my editor, Karyn Marcus. It really happened that quickly.

What’s next?

Everyone is asking, will it be a screenplay or novel? And I have to say that publishing is being incredibly kind to me right now. Working on Lily with my editor, she gave me a note once and said, “…but I defer to your creative vision.” And I almost fell out of my chair! Because in 10 or 12 years really giving it a go as a screenwriter, I had never heard those words from a producer or a studio executive. As a writer, that’s kind of addictive. So for many reasons, my next project, which I’m working on right now, is a follow-up novel. I’ve been really fortunate with this publishing deal, which has allowed me to leave my day job, and I’m focusing on writing full time now. I’m excited.


This interview originally ran on May 9, 2016 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: Dan Vyleta

Following yesterday’s review of Smoke, here’s Dan Vyleta: In Dialogue with the Manuscript.


Dan Vyleta is the son of Czech refugees who moved to Germany in the late 1960s. He holds a Ph.D. in history from King’s College, Cambridge. Vyleta is the author of three previous novels: Pavel & I, The Quiet Twin and The Crooked Maid. An inveterate migrant, he has lived in Germany, Canada, the United States and the United Kingdom. When not reading or writing novels, Vyleta watches cop shows or listens to CDs from his embarrassingly large collection of jazz albums. He currently resides in Stratford-upon-Avon, in England.

vyletaYou employ many voices and events. Was this your plan from the beginning?

I’m not a great planner, if I’m honest. I always feel as if you write from the gut and you edit with your brain. It felt right to give people their own voice, let people speak–because it’s a novel about the state of your soul, I suppose. Everybody’s wrestling with this phenomenon that nobody can quite make sense of. The entire society works in a certain way because of it but it’s never been explained, it’s just there. And then, because this is also a novel about class, about different parts of society interacting, I had to find voices more peripheral to the action to give interesting counterpoints. The more I think about it, I think of the structure as quite dramatic, i.e., like a theater play, where occasionally somebody will come out from the chorus and stand there dazzled by the light and start talking at the audience. I think it was a dialogue between the manuscript and myself: things I wanted to do and things that the manuscript responded to. And that’s how a novel is shaped, you push forward and you listen into your own work and it gives you guidance and an architecture emerges out of that.

What makes a good hero, or a good villain?

For both the answer is complexity. Evil comes in many shades. It has to be complex. We have to feel the human being in there, we have to have some level of sympathy. We can fear them, but–there’s something quite attractive about villainy, isn’t there? The villain has to work on you emotionally on a whole range of notes, rather than just hitting the base notes over and over again with a fist. There has to be movement, so we realize there is a thinking person behind this, who is reacting and evolving and changing. And very often there’s a tragedy, since most people don’t grow up thinking, when I grow old I want to be a villain. I think as a writer it’s quite simple: you have to love the people you write, and all the more so if they are your main protagonists. It’s hard to love people who don’t have warts. You love them for the flaws as much as for what they can do. You love them both for the things you recognize of yourself in them and for the things you admire or wish you had. This is a strange refraction. What I admire in the three heroes of the book is courage, in very different keys. One is very… leading with his chin, as it were; one has the courage of emotional honesty, almost a courage of tenderness; and the third, in some ways my favorite, has the courage to change, to actually think differently, which is about the most difficult thing in life, you know.

Do you create those elements consciously, or does it come naturally?

I think anything you try to put in consciously feels off. It’s funny. Obviously you think about your book, and obviously you have plans for it, and hopes. I take reams and reams of notes, often including bits of dialogue or monologue that will never show in the book but which tell me something about the character. But the moment something simply has to happen in a mechanical sense, the page kind of dies. The page becomes an instrument to deliver that prearranged piece. And I think the beauty of writing is that you as a writer are in the position of the reader–each sentence can surprise you. Of course you think about plot and you’re aware of certain plot twists or elements, but the precise rhythm or emotional tone of it–it’s always good if there’s something in it where you think, wow, that’s how it worked out? That’s kind of sad, or very untoward, or funnier than I thought it would be.

In what ways is Smoke like and unlike your previous novels?

I’ve been asking myself that question, and I don’t have a good answer. My first three novels are all historically set, as is this, although in the middle of the 20th century. I feel as if, in this book, I’m writing unchained. When friends ask me what I’m writing I say, it’s like a Foucauldian children’s book for adults [laughs]. What does that even mean? On the one hand it’s more conceptual than anything I’ve written, about how we are trained to function well in society and what it would mean not to function well, and how we differentiate between who’s worthy and who’s unworthy. On the other hand, and this is what I mean by unleashed, it’s channeling this sheer joy for narrative that I remember in reading as a child. A sheer hunger for just turning the next page, which I really admire in the best of children’s literature. I have been thinking of Dickens a lot because this is a 19th-century novel partially set in London. Great Expectations is essentially a children’s book for adults, I think. Its entire engine, the way it drives forward, its tenderness, is very close to a children’s book, but the things that it explores are very adult indeed.

As a physical symbol, why smoke?

As Dickens points out, based on 19th-century medical theory, there must be particles of disease rising out of poor quarters of town where lots of people suffer physical ailments. If we could only see them, we would be scared, and it would be even worse if we saw their moral ailments. That, coupled to Dickens’s emphasis on fog and soot flying through the air, as it did in London in the 19th century, suggested the smoke to me initially. But the more I thought about it, I thought, well, it’s versatile. It’s undeniable, it’s immediate, it leaves a stain, it can’t be suppressed. It correlates with our own suspicions. You know, quite recently and suddenly cigarette smoke has become a sinister marker. You can’t have a hero in a film smoke anymore, right? It has dangerous implications. You can do it ironically if you set it in the ’60s. So that was part of it. And once I realized that the point wasn’t just that smoke marks sin or desire or vice, but that it was infectious, that it was something that could crawl into you, possess you, it became clear to me that smoke is really the perfect metaphor. You can walk through it like a mist, you can inhale it, you’ll feel it on your skin, it’ll be in your hair. And there’s a kind of analogy to sweat, right? Your every pore can be suffused with it. There may be moments where smoke pours out of your eyelids, finds its way around your fingernails. There’s this sort of visual power to it that I love.


This interview originally ran on February 24, 2016 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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