Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Q&A with Eve Chase

Eve Chase is the author of the new novel The Wildling Sisters. She also has written the novel Black Rabbit Hall. She lives in Oxford, England. 

Q: How did you come up with the idea for The Wildling Sisters, and for your characters Margot and Jessie?

A: At the very beginning, when my first page was terrifyingly blank, I could see four sisters and a lifeless body on an English lawn so I hammered out the prologue, which, unlike most of the book, remained pretty much unchanged by subsequent edits.

I always knew I wanted to write about sisters, and also that particularly bucolic Cotswold landscape. Jessie’s character formed later, as I wrote. 

Q: As you noted, one of the themes running through the novel is the bonds between sisters. Why was that something you wanted to explore?

A: I’ve always been interested in family dynamics and what happens when you push familial bonds to their limit - that volatile mix of loyalty, love and dysfunction. Sisters in particular fascinate me as I have three brothers. Obviously, I’d love any of the Wilde sisters as my own!

Q: The novel is mostly set in a house called Applecote Manor, which plays an important role in the lives of the characters. How important is setting to you in your work?

A: A sense of place is important if you want to transport a reader into the heart of a novel, I think.

In the case of The Wildling Sisters this meant conjuring up the old house and its lush grounds as vividly as I possibly could without slowing the plot. I wanted my readers to smell Aunt Sybil’s sweet pink roses after they’d turned the last page.

Q: Did you know how the novel would end before you started writing it, or did you make many changes along the way?

A: I always make a million changes along the way, and rewrite endlessly. But I always knew, more or less, how the novel would end. I’d find it very hard to write not knowing where I was going at all.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’m afraid I get superstitious about novels in progress – don’t want to jinx it!

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: In the UK the novel is called The Vanishing of Audrey Wilde. I love both titles. 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. For a previous Q&A with Eve Chase, please click here.

Q&A with Stephen Taylor

Stephen Taylor is the author of the new biography Defiance: The Extraordinary Life of Lady Anne Barnard. Born in 1772, she was known for defying convention. His other books include Commander and Storm and Conquest. A former journalist for The Times, he lives in Windsor, England.

Q: Why did you choose to write a biography of Lady Anne Barnard, and how was the book's title chosen?

A: I knew her as an interesting but neglected subject. She spent three years in Africa from 1798 and was one of those indomitable women travellers – there were a few – in the early days of the British Empire, a free spirit who mixed as easily with indigenous people as with the aristocrats she had known in London society where she was a leading figure.

That suggested the title. She was an aristocrat herself, but always unconventional even by the standards of a raffish era. Her rejection of at least 12 proposals from the rich and famous attracted plenty of gossip as well as disapproval. “Eccentric,” said many who knew her, but also “the devil in scarlet” according to one.

Q: How did you research the book, and what did you learn that especially surprised you?

A: From her diaries of Africa it was obvious that she was a brilliant writer and artist. But when I set out I had simply no idea of quite how rich a treasure her papers were. They are held at her ancestral home in Scotland and include six volumes of memoirs which have never been published. 

What struck me in the years I spent with them is how painfully honest about herself Anne was. In an age when women generally pruned their writings of anything intimate, hers can be utterly raw.

But as well as self-disclosure, what Anne’s memoirs provide is a fresh insight into her times. She lived right at the heart of London society in a bawdy age so there were plenty of escapades. She played a central role in the Prince of Wales’s secret marriage and went off to observe France during the Revolution while in the throes of a turbulent love affair.

Q: You write of Anne's decision to take in her husband's child, Christina, "As her final act of defiance, it was also the most enduring." How would you describe the relationship between Anne and Christina, and what did it say about Anne's personality?

A: For a woman to acknowledge her husband’s daughter by an African woman and bring her back to London was the brave part. The point is that although the Georgians were quite forgiving about male infidelity, they were less understanding in matters of race, particularly those then referred to as “Hottentots.”

For Anne to raise Christina as her own and provide for her so she could go on and marry a landed Englishman was the enduring bit.

Since the book’s publication in Britain I have been contacted by descendants of Christina. They knew they had an ancestor of African origin but not the story of how she came to be in London.

One of the descendants has a family diary which showed how Christina was educated by Anne and taught to play the harp and sing at musical salons. Another wrote, “What a remarkable woman Anne was, and thanks to her we are all here today.”

Q: How would you describe Anne's legacy today?

A: Both literary and artistic. What I hope my book will do is send others to the memoirs which it seems to me still have plenty of mileage in them for historians. And that her wonderful watercolours and sketches from Africa may be published.

I also go back to her vision for Africa. When she set off on a wagon tour of the interior in 1799, the British saw the Cape as no more than a strategic bastion.

Anne did her best to convince powerful friends at home that Africa too had potential. “Here is scarcity, but here will be plenty,” she wrote to one. “It is in the power of activity to make this the finest scene in the world by planting.”

Q: What are you working on now?

A: As well as Africa, I have an abiding interest in seafaring. Three of my previous books are connected with the sea. So I am back working a subject that has already taken some years – a kind of group biography of the common seaman in the age of sail. Ordinary folk only, though. No officers.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Playing the piano doesn’t get any easier in your late 60s, but it’s still a relief from searching for the right words.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Ellen Marie Wiseman

Ellen Marie Wiseman is the author of the new novel The Life She Was Given. Her other books include the novels Coal River and What She Left Behind. She lives on the shores of Lake Ontario.

Q: You’ve written that the idea for your new novel started with the image of an old camera. How did that lead to the creation of your characters Lilly and Julia?

A: After imagining the old camera hidden inside a mansion, I imagined a little girl, Lilly, locked in the attic, which probably stemmed from my love of the book Flowers in the Attic and my fascination with heartbreaking stories about people hiding their “less than perfect” children in a back bedroom.

And after touching on a freak show in my third novel, Coal River, I wanted to explore that world further so I came up with the idea of Lilly being sold to a circus sideshow.

I also wanted to write about someone finding the attic bedroom years later and unraveling the secrets hidden there. That’s how I came up with Julia, who inherits the mansion and uncovers her family’s dark past, with a few surprises thrown in, of course!

Q: What kind of research did you need to do on circuses in the 1930s, and did you learn anything that especially surprised you?

A: During the writing of The Life She Was Given, I read the following books: American Sideshow by Marc Hartzman; Shocked and Amazed: On & Off the Midway by James Taylor; Step Right This Way: The Photographs of Edward J. Kelty; and Carney Folk: The World's Weirdest Sideshow Acts by Francine Hornberger. 

Some of the things I learned that surprised me had to do with circus superstitions, like goats on the lot bringing good luck, peacock feathers bringing bad luck, whistling in the dressing room bringing bad luck, and a bird in the big top meaning death for a performer.

Also, in the circus, all elephants, whether male or female, are called bulls. And all freak shows have fake acts, or gaffs, like Pickled Punks, which are strange once-alive objects, mostly human remains, in jars. (Hitchcock did an episode about this called The Jar.) P.T. Barnum created the Fiji mermaid by attaching a monkey’s skull to a fish’s body.

There were also fake Siamese twins, and the most famous Siamese twin, Marguerite Clark, was actually a man with a rubber baby doll glued to his stomach.

Q: The novel alternates between your two characters. Did you write it in the order in which it appears, or did you focus more on one character initially?

A: I wrote the characters’ stories separately, first Lilly’s, then Julia’s. Then I printed everything out and put the chapters together, alternating each character and hoping the story would make sense when I read through it. Thankfully, with a few tweaks here and there, it did!

Q: How was the novel’s title selected, and what does it signify for you?

A: After tossing a few different ideas around, my editor came up with the title "The Life She Was Given." To me it signifies the lives both Lilly and Julia were given, the things they had no control over, and the choices they made trying to find love and happiness.

I think it’s important to remember it’s a matter of luck what kind of life we’re given, and to read and learn about the struggles of others helps us be more thankful in our own. 

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’m working on my fifth novel, which is set in the Philadelphia tenements during the Spanish Influenza, the most lethal pandemic the world has ever know.

It follows a young girl who, after discovering her mother has passed away, becomes determined to take care of her twin baby brothers until her father returns from the war. Eventually she must leave the apartment to search the quarantined city for food, so she puts her brothers in a bedroom cubby to keep them safe. But when she comes back, they’re gone.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: The Life She Was Given will be released on July 25 and is a Goodreads Best Book of The Month for July! Yay! I’d love to have you join me on Facebook, Twitter, and my website.

Thanks so much for your interest in my work! I hope you’ll check out all four of my novels and let me know what you think. And don’t forget to leave reviews on Amazon and Goodreads!

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Gin Phillips

Gin Phillips is the author of the new novel Fierce Kingdom, which focuses on a mother and son who face danger during a visit to the zoo. Her other books include Come In and Cover Me and The Well and the Mine. She lives in Birmingham, Alabama.

Q: You write that "it occurred to me that maybe that dark daydream of a life-or-death situation could be the center of a novel about motherhood." How would you describe the relationship between your main character, Joan, and her young son, Lincoln?

A: That’s a tough question because in some ways that answer takes up an entire novel. Motherhood is hard to capture in a few words, and capturing it—as least as it applies to these two particular characters—was what I most wanted to do in the story.

But—to keep it short—I think Joan is someone who takes immense joy in her son, and he enjoys her. There’s a playfulness and great affection between them. She loves the way his mind works. She listens to him.

She’s a mother who enjoys motherhood and who does her best to appreciate the small things along with the big ones. And because he knows she listens, Lincoln talks to her. About pretty much everything. She’s the center of his world.

Q: You've noted that you enjoyed the pacing of the novel, which takes place in a space of only three hours. Did you always plan to structure it that way?

A: I don’t know that it was exactly a plan—I sketched out a draft of the first couple of chapters, and it started to occur to me that it might work in real time. I liked the idea, so I kept going with it, and the further I got, the more sure I felt that it was the right choice.

Q: How was the novel's title chosen, and what does it signify for you?

A: I had a different working title taken from a line in the book, but I really liked “Fierce Kingdom” when I started talking over other possible titles with my editor. There is, of course, a fierceness to Joan and her desire to protect Lincoln.

But I like the word “kingdom” even more. It echoes the animals all around the zoo. There’s a kingdom of two—Joan and Lincoln. And there’s the more complex kingdom of everyone who’s stuck inside the walls of the zoo for these three hours. They are a kingdom unto themselves—Joan, Lincoln, the other survivors, and the gunmen.

And back to fierceness, there’s both a fierce desire to survive…and a fierce kind of connection between them all, sometimes in ways we don’t expect.

Q: You've written for adults and for kids. Is your writing process similar, and do you have a preference?

A: I like both. There’s a complexity to the literary fiction novels that I really enjoy. And there’s a purity to the kids’ books that I enjoy—I love remembering what it felt like to read at that age. Where there’s no thought of theme or structure, but where you just fall into the world of the book. Utter escape.

My writing process is pretty much the same for the two types, but the kind of satisfaction I get out of them is different.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: A historical novel set in a real-life utopian community in Alabama that existed in the early 1900s. (I am fascinated by utopian colonies.) The book follows the story of a boy and girl raised in this idyllic town…and what happens once they’re grown up.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

July 25

July 25, 1896: Josephine Tey born.

Monday, July 24, 2017

Q&A with Eleanor Brown

Eleanor Brown, photo by Joe Henson, NYC
Eleanor Brown is the editor of the new anthology A Paris All Your Own: Bestselling Women Writers on the City of Light. She also has written the novels The Light of Paris and The Weird Sisters. She teaches writing at The Writers' Table and Lighthouse Writers Workshop, and she lives in Colorado.

Q: In your introduction, you ask, "What is it about Paris?" How would you answer that, and how did you come up with the idea for this book?

A: When I was writing my own Paris novel, The Light of Paris, I became very conscious of how many "Paris books" there were, especially in recent years, and I was curious as to why that is. Why Paris and not New York or London or Tokyo or any other city? 

My essay in the collection talks about how I had a mixed experience in Paris, so I was especially curious to hear whether other writers loved the city as much as the characters in their books. Because I do think there's a curious expectation that you must love Paris, and we reinforce that in our writing, while in reality of course things are much more complicated.

I don't want to completely answer why I think Paris captures our literary imaginations so much, because I think readers will come away from A Paris All Your Own with their own answers to the question, but I do think what I learned from the anthology is though the weight of Paris's reputation is heavy, it's also a city that really allows you to create your own experience.

Q: You write, "I was startled to see how heavily female, heterosexual, and white both the writers and the stories are." Why do you think that is, and how were the contributors selected for this collection?

A: I knew I wanted to create an anthology that was a fun read, that would appeal to readers of my work, because putting my name on an anthology, say, of Paris noir would be confusing to everyone, and I wanted to give women writers a microphone.

But within those confines, I was looking for an array of voices and experiences. So the anthology includes Cara Black, who's a mystery writer, and Susan Vreeland, who writes about the stories behind art, and memoirist Julie Powell, author of Julie & Julia, and Cathy Kelly, who's a hilarious and prolific Irish writer Americans might not have heard of. 

But as I researched writers to include beyond my initial "must have" list, I constantly bumped up against the fact that there is so much of Parisian experience that isn't being represented in popular English-language fiction. The why is as always a combination of factors, but let me just say that I am impatiently waiting the big Paris Wife-like Josephine Baker novel, for instance.

There is a really terrific anthology called Paris Was Ours that made a concerted effort to include a diversity of voices in all senses of the word, and if readers are looking for something weightier, I can't recommend it enough.

Q: How did you choose the book's title, and what does it signify for you?

A: It comes from Paula McLain's essay when she talks about trying to immerse herself in Hemingway's Paris, and how we can't ever quite do that. I certainly learned the same lesson when I was trying to follow in my grandmother's footsteps researching my own novel. So did Therese Anne Fowler, author of Z, trying to do the same thing with Zelda Fitzgerald.

But to me it means, as I mentioned before, the way that we create our own experiences, for better or worse, and that though we may all go through a similar experience ultimately what we have is all our own, and it's up to us to create that. Paris is only an invitation - what you do with that invitation is up to you.

Q: In your own essay, you write, "Whenever someone asks me how I liked Paris, I feel like I have to lie." Why is that, and how would you describe your experience overall?

A: My experience was definitely mixed - I had a lot of expectations of Paris (Michelle Gable writes about this too, hilariously) and I brought my own personal issues to the city and shockingly it refused to bend to my will! So I spent a lot of my time there stressed and unhappy.

But ultimately that means I look back at the experience as a rewarding one. The most lasting legacy of that trip is how much visual art I got to experience and how that world really unfolded to me in a way it never had before. But more personally, I learned a tremendous amount about myself, about travel, about how to treat experiences and people that aren't as I expected.

So even though the day to day of my time in the city was mixed, I look back on it positively, and when I read Meg Waite Clayton or M.J. Rose's essays, which are both just gorgeous love letters to the city, I can see what they adore about it.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: Right now I'm traveling around to share the good word about A Paris All Your Own, but when I get back, I'm back to work on a couple of top-secret writing projects!

Q: Anything else we should know?

Anthologies including multiple authors are so much fun, and I don't think many people realize how great they are. I love the short pieces so I can pick it up and read something and then put it back down without losing the thread, or devour them all at once.

And I hope that people who might come to this book because they love J. Courtney Sullivan, for instance, will stumble across Maggie Shipstead or Jennifer Coburn for the first time. Bon voyage!

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. For a previous Q&A with Eleanor Brown, please click here.

July 24

July 24, 1802: Alexandre Dumas born.