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Maximum Shelf author interview: Kief Hillsbery

Following Wednesday’s review of Empire Made, here’s Kief Hillsbery: Writer as Detective.


Kief Hillsbery is the author of two novels, War Boy and What We Do Is Secret. He is a former contributing editor and columnist for Outside magazine, and a former writer for Rolling Stone. He lives in New York City. His new book is Empire Made: My Search for an Outlaw Uncle Who Vanished in British India, coming from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt on July 25, 2017.

photo: Tobin Yelland

In Empire Made, you recount your relative Nigel Halleck’s mid-19th-century experiences with the East India Company. How closely were you able to stick to recorded facts, and how did you navigate points of departure?

In the beginning, I envisioned Nigel’s story as part of an account of my own experiences living and traveling in Nepal, Afghanistan and the former British India. I hesitated to make him the focus because of the scarcity of recorded facts about his life there. Very little of his correspondence survived, and what did was fragmentary. I just didn’t think that I had enough material. My ace in the hole was my taste in popular fiction. When I read for pleasure, more often than not I turn to police procedurals: Harry Bosch, Inspector Lynley and Sergeant Havers, Donna Leon’s Guido Brunetti series. And the hand dealt to all these detectives at the beginning of each book is the same one dealt to me at the beginning of mine: not enough material. It’s all about accumulating new material through research and analysis, and paying close attention to seemingly trivial details. Ultimately you have enough of it to feel confident in making assumptions that help advance the case, or the narrative. When I felt stuck trying to figure out what was up with Nigel all those misty years ago in India, I often got unstuck by channeling my inner detective.

For example, when Nigel transferred out west to the Punjab from Patna in the aftermath of the First Anglo-Sikh War, he was posted to a British headquarters at Jalandhar, about 75 miles east of Lahore. But he first went to Lahore, traveling 150 miles out of his way by horse at the height of the Indian “Hot Weather,” on a post road that was bordered every dozen miles with cemeteries for the interment of Europeans who succumbed to heatstroke. In other words, it wasn’t a detour undertaken lightly. I was stymied in trying to establish why he went to Lahore. It clearly had nothing to do with his new job. At the time, it wasn’t even British territory. All I could do was take my cue from Harry Bosch. When he reached a dead end he invariably went back to his “murder book” and reviewed every piece of evidence collected so far. So I re-read all of Nigel’s surviving letters. And there it was, in an aside written several years before about two friends of his who had been posted to the Punjab. He hoped one day to follow in their footsteps, so he might see for himself in Lahore the Shalimar Gardens of Shah Jahan, patron of the Taj Mahal. So even as I lack recorded facts to back me up, I feel confident in saying that I know why Nigel went to Lahore.

You switch chapters between Nigel’s travels and your own. Was that your strategy from the beginning, or did you have to work into it?

It seems entirely sensible with benefit of hindsight, but it took a lengthy false start to persuade me. I originally conceived of the structure as a mosaic of vignettes, along the lines of Bruce Chatwin’s In Patagonia. I’ve always admired what he did with that book. And it seemed like an organic approach for mine. Two mosaic tiles, one in Nepal and one in Afghanistan, ultimately provide the key to unlocking the central mystery of Nigel’s life. To my way of thinking there was also something gemlike about a series of highly polished, standalone vignettes, and precious jewels are part of the story, too. (The British publisher has chosen to title the book The Tiger and the Ruby.) The problem, I discovered, was that vignettes worked against creating narrative momentum. Chatwin didn’t have to worry about that because he wasn’t telling a linear story. I was, and I needed a structure that enabled readers to feel they were progressing towards its conclusion.

I still resisted the idea of alternating between Nigel’s travels and my own, because his were so much more extensive and occupied so much more time. The first complete draft of the book consisted of three parts, with the first telling most of his story and the second focused on my initial efforts to uncover it. A briefer third part braided the two threads together and revealed the outcome. Momentum was still a problem. What finally worked was to just accept that there would be more Nigel chapters and establish a rhythm of interspersing them with my own personal chapters. The trick was to get the two parallel narratives to Nepal in consecutive chapters. Once I managed that, everything seemed to fall into place.

Do you feel catharsis for having partly uncovered this family mystery?

My inquiries into Nigel’s life in India spanned a long period of time, and were pretty casual until I started work on the book. So the emotional connection is a little too attenuated to speak of catharsis. I definitely feel some satisfaction. It’s tempered, though, by nagging questions that will probably always remain unanswerable. The theory that Nigel was some sort of deep-cover British agent was based entirely on circumstantial evidence. But it’s hardly outside the realm of possibility. Then there’s the connection to the Koh-i-noor diamond, which played a central role in stories handed down concerning the years of Nigel’s exile. As unlikely as it seems that he was directly involved, part of me will always wonder if all the generations of smoke didn’t originate in a flicker of historical fire.

What was your favorite part of creating this book?

Since I was immersed in the staid and rather stuffy world of colonial Victorians, it was always delightful to discover the exceptions that proved the rule. There was the wife of the governor-general of India, a titled aristocrat who left him to live in a Bedouin harem. There was the chief magistrate of Calcutta, who took every opportunity to don female attire in public. There was the commander of the East India Company army, who took 13 native wives and led them on evening promenades around the walls of the Red Fort at Delhi, each on the back of her own elephant. Stories like these made me fantasize about stealing a page from Lytton Strachey and writing another book, Less Than Eminent Victorians.


This interview originally ran on June 22, 2017 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: Danya Kukafka

Following Wednesday’s review of Girl in Snow, here’s Danya Kukafka: Choosing Favorites.


Danya Kukafka is a graduate of New York University’s Gallatin School of Individualized Study. She currently works as an assistant editor at Riverhead Books. Girl in Snow is her first novel.

You began writing novels when you were just 16. What is different about this, your first to be published?

photo: Elliot Ross

I was writing pretty straight YA before. I wrote my first full novel–it was very bad–for a 10th grade project, and I gave it to my mom for Mother’s Day. And she said, “Honey, this is about a dead girl!” And after that I dabbled in some Peter Pan fan fiction, and then I wrote a paranormal YA novel when I was in college that was rejected by about a billion agents. And then after that I decided to go a little bit older. When I first wrote this book, I thought it was a YA novel until someone told me that it was not. So, I think as I got older my writing sort of naturally got older, too.

I had read a lot of straight YA when I was in high school, and a lot of it deals in the paranormal. One of my favorite series is Meg Cabot’s Mediator series. It’s about a girl who can talk to a ghost. I loved those books, and I took a lot of what I thought paranormal books could do from that. But I’ve definitely moved away from that, probably for good. I’m happy that this is the one that caught. Looking back, I’m glad it wasn’t those earlier ones that published.

How did you choose this setting in (fictional) small-town Colorado?

I grew up in Fort Collins, Colorado. It’s actually not a small town, it’s a pretty large city; but surrounding it are all these really small suburban enclaves, and I think they’re really interesting. They’re so insular. And the landscape of that part of Colorado is also really interesting to me. It’s the Front Range of the Rocky Mountains, so you have these huge mountains looming over you, and to the other side you have open plains. You’re just kind of tucked into the base right there.

Why three characters’ voices? Did they all come to you at once, or did one come later than the others?

Oh, this is a good one. No, they did not. The first character that I had was Cameron, and I thought the book was only Cameron’s book, when I started it. I wrote an entire draft of only Cameron, but I could not get to the end. None of the endings made sense, and I couldn’t figure out what to do. I was taking a writing class at NYU with Colson Whitehead, and there was a story that I had written, that had a very, very early version of Jade’s voice. It came out really naturally, and everyone in the class really liked it, and I sort of thought, well, what if there’s a way to fit her into the story? So I had this draft, a full draft of the novel, and I went back and I wrote all of Jade’s chapters into that draft in about six months. And I had what I thought was a YA novel in my hands. But then I signed with my agent, Dana Murphy at the Book Group, and she said, this is not a YA book. This is adult writing and about adult themes, so let’s write in an adult perspective. (It was also very short.) So that was where Russ came in. We sort of thought up Russ together. And it was amazing how much he opened up the book for me: it felt so much bigger and richer and more expansive. But… I wouldn’t do it that way again.

Why not?

Since I had basically fleshed out the whole plot from one perspective, it was actually pretty easy to go in and add these people in terms of structure, because I already had the opening and the middle and the end. I knew generally what needed to happen. So it was actually really fun to go in and find out the little ways I could put these characters into the world that I had built. It was definitely messy for a while, but at the same time I always knew that it was making this world bigger, which I really liked. But it was very accidental and–well, maybe I will end up doing it this way again! But I hope to go into it with a little more intention and a little more knowledge next time.

Do you have a favorite among the three protagonists?

Cameron has to be my favorite. He’s the little dude of my heart, my little brain child. I love Jade for many other reasons–I loved writing Jade because she’s so angsty and such a teenager, and that was really fun to write. And as Russ came along I got to be more of a grown-up, which I also really enjoyed. But yeah, my favorite’s Cameron and I won’t hesitate to say it. Sorry, guys.

How has your day job (as an assistant editor at Riverhead Books) affected your writing?

I think I’ve become much harder on myself, which is a good thing. Also, I’m reading all the time, which is really good for my muscles, I guess. Just being able to read other people’s work as it’s coming in, and see how even really successful and amazing authors need revision–that’s been really inspiring for me, because I realize that everyone goes through this kind of horrible process of writing a book. But I’ve also had a really great experience learning to discern what stories I find necessary and interesting. Working for an editor and as an editor has helped me become pickier as a reader and a writer. Of course, I also find it a little bit scary sometimes, just seeing the volume of amazing work that is out there and knowing that you’re going to have to fit into it somewhere.

And what’s next?

I’m working on a new novel. I can’t say much about it yet but I will say it’s going to be set in upstate New York, about a family. I’m working on a draft, it’s messy right now, but it’s been really freeing to start something new and be out of the story I’ve been with for so long. I can play around now. I can do something totally different.


This interview originally ran on April 26, 2017 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: Jennifer Ryan

Following last week’s review of The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir, here’s Jennifer Ryan: Original and Authentic.


Jennifer Ryan lives in the Washington, D.C., area with her husband and two children. She is originally from Kent and then London, and has worked as a nonfiction book editor. The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir (Crown) is her first novel.

photo credit: Nina Subin

photo credit: Nina Subin


How did you choose to use the epistolary form?

The letter form is one of my favorites. I really enjoy the way the voice exposes the inner feelings and personality of the character. The way she interacts with the off-stage recipient adds an extra tension–is some kind of pretense going on? It leaves some lovely space for an unreliable character to come through–someone who isn’t telling the recipient (or the reader) the truth, and will inevitably be uncovered by the end.

Is there one of these women you especially identify with?

Mrs. Tilling, the middle-aged widow whose only son goes to war. She was the first one I wanted to write about. Writing gives you the opportunity to dig into a situation or subject, put yourself in the middle of it as a character and experience what it must have been like. As a mother, I wanted to know how it felt to have your only child go to war, especially with the gruesomeness of the First World War fresh in your mind, all the young men mown down by bullets in the Somme. You’ve spent 18 years bringing up your son, caring for him, cooking for him, loving him, and this day–when he walks down the road with his kit bag over his shoulder–may be the last time you ever see him.

The differences in their voices is subtle, but distinct.

This was a wonderful part of writing Chilbury. Kitty steps away from traditional narrative style in her journal, jumping around from subject to subject by use of headings, and using her wonderful lists to cover subjects such as “People’s Colors,” and “What Happens to People When They Die.” Miss Paltry uses a lot of metaphors, and I had a hysterical time creating ones such as, “the day was as cold as a slap round the face with a fresh-caught cod.” She was a delight to create, and I always looked forward to writing her entries. Mrs. Tilling always longed to be writer and has a more literary style, which allowed me to be more expressive and use more sophisticated language and grammar. They are also defined by their accents. Mrs. Tilling has more of a middle-class vernacular, whereas Venetia and Kitty are more upper class, and Miss Paltry is more lower class.

Why this time period?

About 15 years ago I read about the London children being evacuated to the English countryside, and a new obsession was born. Since then, I’ve read personal accounts, memoirs, biographies, reference books and novels about the Second World War. When I was considering writing a novel, I’d been editing a book on the war in Afghanistan, and through that I recognized how cultural values change in a time of warfare. The population shifts and for a time things become more fluid, rules less rigid. Authority is challenged and the suppressed–in this case the women–have a chance to widen their horizons.

On a more personal note, when I was growing up, we had two grandmothers: one was Shakespeare Granny, who ruthlessly analyzed all the tragedies, and the other was Party Granny, who was full of hilarious and often scandalous stories about the war. I always had a burning ambition to write about her stories, especially the ones about her choir, which she swears got her through the war. Unlike the Chilbury ladies, though, Party Granny’s choir was reportedly dreadful, and there were plenty of stories about how they lost competitions and sang so out-of-tune that when they visited a choir member in hospital, the nurses took them to perform for every ward to “give everyone a good laugh.” They hammed it up, of course, “to jolly everyone along.”

How did your experience as an editor of nonfiction inform this work?

Narrative nonfiction works similarly to fiction. I created a structure whereby the main story arc of the choir contained and ran alongside the five story arcs of the main characters. Structure is the cornerstone of any good, well-functioning nonfiction, and I think the same is true of fiction.

The work of sentences is also crucial, and although they tend to move to a different end in nonfiction, a good understanding of sentence potential and variability is key to producing a fluid work. But because the characters themselves were writing the entries, I had to step back from writing complex sentences and grammar for all but Mrs. Tilling, who professes to yearning to be a writer.

Editing nonfiction has also given me the opportunity to dive in deep with other topics. A few years before I began writing Chilbury, I edited a book by a renowned cellist on how music affects our emotions, and some of the core ideas were used in the book. Having also sung in choirs, I wanted to bring that feeling of togetherness that they create, the magic of allegiance in song. It’s not an easy task to describe music in words, but I wanted to make sure it felt real to the readers, as if it was being performed in front of them.

How big a role did research play? How closely does this story mirror fact?

Research played a massive role. The day-to-day life of women during these times was incredibly hard. There were few labour-saving devices such as laundry machines and dryers, let alone central heating. All meals had to be made from scratch. The rationing and shortages made cooking even more time consuming. My grandmother had a dozen or so wartime recipes, like Lord Woolton Pie (a vegetable form of shepherd’s pie made specially for Lord Woolton by the head chef of the Savoy Hotel), mock banana (which was made from mashed parsnip mixed with sugar) and Pink Gin (my grandmother’s favorite cocktail, which was a lethal mix of straight gin with a splash of Angostura bitters.)

One of my favorite research tasks for Chilbury was interviewing people alive during the era. In an eye-opening way, most of the elderly women I interviewed remembered the war as one of the best times of their lives, recalling the new freedom and the work and responsibility, the feeling that you had to live for the day. One lady in her 90s decided that she simply had to demonstrate how to do that dance, “Knees Up, Mother Brown,” and I begged her not to as she struggled to her feet, clasped my arm, and began kicking her legs up one by one. Gripping hold of her as best I could, I had to laugh along with her. She couldn’t have been more delighted to relive the memories.

I was careful to make sure that everything that happens in the novel could actually have happened. Some of the plot threads came directly from my grandmother’s stories of the war, and one of the characters, Venetia, is based on her friend Letty, who was very beautiful and always playing the boys off each other.

The story of Silvie, the 10-year-old Jewish refugee from Prague, came from research about Sir Nicholas Winton, who set up a program to transport Jewish children from Prague to the U.K. in the wake of the war. In total he rescued 669 children, most of whom lost their parents in the Holocaust. They were taken in by British families, many of them remaining with those new families after the war. There are many horrific and sad accounts of the Nazi invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1938, and I tried to keep Silvie’s experiences true to the brutal reality of the situation.

It was important to me that the book was both an original work and authentic to the era. It certainly was an incredible time to live and write about, and I feel incredibly lucky to be able to plunge into this fascinating era and try my best to re-create some of the most exciting and frightening years of the war in Kent.


This interview originally ran on January 10, 2017 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: 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.

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