Sunday, September 25, 2016

Q&A with Louis Bayard


Louis Bayard is the author of the new young adult novel Lucky Strikes. His previous novels, for adults, include Roosevelt's Beast and The School of Night. He is on the faculty of the Yale Writers Conference, and he wrote the Downton Abbey recaps for The New York Times.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for Lucky Strikes and for your character Amelia, a teenager who runs a gas station in 1930s Virginia?

A: Amelia came and found me. She has an importunate quality to her, as any reader will discover, and once I’d been introduced to her, the only questions left were: “What’s your story? How can I best tell it?”

Q: How did you research the Depression-era setting and especially the history of gas stations in that time?

A: Well, there’s a reason the book name-checks Clark Gable and Joan Crawford and Myrna Loy because I grew up watching those vintage Hollywood movies on TV (even though I was a couple of generations removed).

So I think I carry a lot of that time period inside me, but of course, I made a point of reading a lot of literature from the period to make sure I got the idioms right.

I know nothing about cars or gas stations, then or now, so thank God I live six blocks from the Library of Congress, which has (believe it or not) 1930s-era gas station manuals.

Q: Did you find that your writing process was any different with a children's novel than with your novels for adults?

A: Really, not at all. I’ve said this before, but this was in some ways the least compromised book I’ve ever done. I just wrote the story I wanted to tell and left it to my publisher to decide if it was appropriate for the audience. I was never asked to change a thing.

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

A: The book’s title was not mine! My working title was “The Gas Station Pagans,” which makes total sense within the context of the book but apparently doesn’t make as much sense when it’s staring out at you from some cover in the middle of a bookstore. At least that’s what they tell me.

Q: What are you working on now?


A: A grown-up historical novel, set in 1840s America, and that’s all I’m at liberty to say. But I know I’ll come back to the YA/middle-grade world. It was just too much fun.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: My 16-year-old son is not much of a reader—he reads under duress—but this was the first book of mine that he voluntarily read.

And at the same time I’m hearing from 40- and 50- and 60-somethings who are really responding to Melia and her family. It’s funny, you always want your characters to find “good homes,” so when they do, the satisfaction is almost parental.

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

Sept. 25

ON THIS DAY IN HISTORY
Sept. 25, 1897: William Faulkner born.

Saturday, September 24, 2016

Q&A with Jim Murphy


Jim Murphy is the author of more than 30 books for children, including Breakthrough!, The Crossing, and Invincible Microbe. He has worked as an editor in the publishing industry, and he lives in Maplewood, New Jersey.

Q: You were an editor before turning to writing children's books. Why did you switch from one to the other, and how does your editing background affect your writing?

A: I became an editor in large part because I didn't feel I was smart enough to write books. My seven years as an editor were a great learning experience. I saw how manuscripts arrived and had to be gently shaped by an editor (Jim Giblin was my boss way back in 1970). 

I found the process really exciting because it suggested that even best selling writers didn't always present perfect manuscripts and, in a way, gave me a certain level of confidence. 

I also helped rewrite manuscripts (both at Clarion and as a freelance editor after I left Clarion in 1977). This helped me sharpen my idea of what a book should focus on and how to tell the story. 

Finally, I was always asking writers to put in more firsthand quotes and was surprised when most didn't bother. I decided that I'd write books that let real historical figures do a great deal of talking for themselves.

Q: Your recent book Breakthrough! focuses on the three people who figured out how to repair a congenital heart defect called "blue baby syndrome." How did you come up with the idea for this book, and how did you research it?

A: I knew about Vivien Thomas from past research into medical issues.  My editor at Clarion, Dinah Stevenson, asked if I knew anything about him and I said he had a great story (which she encouraged me to tell). 

As I dug deeper into research I decided that this was an interesting example of how teamwork can produce what seems like a miraculous result. Both Alfred Blalock and Helen Taussig have amazing stories as well. 

Research included lots and lots of reading of medical texts and research papers by Blalock and others, talks with doctors and surgeons (I wanted to know what it was really like to cut into someone's chest and operate in the chest cavity), plus discussions with some surgeons who worked with all three main characters. 

I love doing research, by the way. Writing is painful; research is eternal fun.

Q: You've covered various historical periods in your work--do you have a favorite?

A: I enjoy thinking about and researching what it must have been like to live 100, 200, 300, etc. years ago. I always come away thinking it must have smelled really bad, but that I still might feel more at home "way back then" then in the here and now.  

Q: As someone who's written many books for kids, do you write one at a time, or are you usually working on multiple projects?

A: I work on a number of books always -- some are in the thinking stage, where I spend a lot of time trying to decide if there's really enough in the subject to make me spend four or five years living with it; some are in active research (where I ask the same question: do  I really want to do this as a book?); some are in the opening stages of writing or a text in revision. 

I often just write a book text without a contract, so this is all a dangerous balancing act.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: Alison Blank (my wife) and I have just finished a nonfiction book on leprosy. Yes, leprosy! 

It's more about what happened to people with this disease, how they were banished from society, often illegally, and how they built new and productive lives for themselves. 

We focused on one boy who was sent off to Kaluapapa when he was 16 and stayed there for over 60 years, and still managed to get married and have a good (he said this) life. 

I'm also working on a novel about a girl in the Civil War (I do fiction from time to time).

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Speaking of fiction, I will have a novel published in January called The Revenge of the Green Banana. It's about this kid named Jimmy Murphy who was the worst student in St. Stephen's School and hated by the seven-feet-tall Sisters of Charity. 

Yes, it's about my experience in sixth grade and how I and a group of other outcasts try to even the score and end up learning an even more important lesson in the long run. 

It's been reviewed on the Goodreads website, according to Alison, and the Junior Literary Guild just picked it up. 

It's (hopefully) very funny but says some serious things about child abuse (by nuns, though most is psychological in this book -- though I really was stabbed with a ballpoint pen by Sister Anita!), bullying by other students, peer pressure, self-confidence or the lack of it, and first love. Wish me luck.  

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Sept. 24

ON THIS DAY IN HISTORY
Sept. 24, 1896: F. Scott Fitzgerald born.

Friday, September 23, 2016

Q&A with Dina Santorelli


Dina Santorelli is the author of the new thriller Baby Bailino. Her other books include Baby Grand and Daft Punk. She has written for a variety of publications, including Newsday and CNNMoney.com, and she lectures at Hofstra University's Continuing Education Department. She lives on Long Island.

Q: Your new novel, Baby Bailino, continues the story you began in Baby Grand. Why did you decide to focus on child abductions in both books?

A: I’ve always been a fan of edge-of-your-seat thrillers—in books, films, television shows. Stories that really scare you, not in a gory or grisly way, but so that they have your complete focus and compel you to eagerly await the resolution.

I find that, generally speaking, there are two kinds of storylines that do that for me, and they involve either potential violence toward children or potential violence toward women.

I find having children or women in danger raises the stakes somehow. Perhaps it’s because children and women are physically at a disadvantage—again, generally speaking.

The plots of Baby Grand and Baby Bailino have both of those elements, which I find not only scary, but also satisfying if those women and children are able to find a way to conquer the bad guys and win in the end.

Q: How did you come up with your characters Don Bailino and Jamie Carter?

A: I wanted a very complex villain, someone who wasn’t one-dimensional, someone who wasn’t entirely bad, but was certainly menacing and intimidating.

One of the greatest compliments I get from readers is that they love Don Bailino and that they hate themselves for it. That’s exactly what I was going for.

That how I felt when I watched Tony Soprano in the HBO series The Sopranos. For one episode, I’d think, This guy isn’t so bad. He’s just misunderstood. He needs a hug. And the next episode, when Tony’s violent streak reemerged, I’d think, What was I thinking? This guy is totally dangerous. He’s fooling us all.

As for Jamie, I wanted a woman who was down on her luck, someone who thought she had no control of her life and was always looking for others to guide her.

I wanted to take that ordinary, complacent, and seemingly weak woman and place her in an extraordinary circumstance so that she had the opportunity to show how very strong she really was.

I’m often asked if Jamie is based on me since she is a freelance writer. The answer is no (I’m probably sprinkled across many characters), but making her a freelance writer definitely gave me better access to her emotional depth since I’m very acquainted with that life. As they say, you write what you know.

Q: Did you know when you wrote the first novel that you'd be writing another one?

A: Not at first. I thought Baby Grand would be a stand-alone novel. However, as I was writing one of the final scenes, I got this sudden sense that there was more to the story.

I could see in my mind’s eye how things would play out, how the characters could continue, and it was in that moment that I made a major change to the storyline and decided to create Book 2.

Q: What kind of research did you need to do to write these novels?

A: I’ve been a journalist for 25 years, and research is so important to my job. However, when it comes to writing fiction, I tend to leave the researching behind and just write whatever comes into my head.

That is not to say that I don’t do quick online searches for help with expressions, locations, or descriptions, but I really don’t consider that research—not the kind that I’m used to.

However, I did take a road trip in May 2010 to Albany, New York, while I was writing the last half or so of Baby Grand so I could get feel for the city. I mainly wanted to take a tour of the Executive Mansion there, since the building is such an important setting for the book.

I do enjoy incorporating true-to-life details in my descriptions. Although I don’t feel any obligation or pressure to be accurate, I do like that mix of fact and fiction in novels—when novelists play with the facts in such a way that the story seems real, even though it’s not. I think it keeps readers on their toes.

So there are details about the governor’s Executive Mansion that are real, but there are also lots of things have been imagined. Other locales, such as Taryn’s Diner and Bailino’s log cabin, are completely imagined.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I am working on the third book in the Baby Grand series. I know what you’re wondering…Did I know there would be a Book 3 in the series when I started writing Book 2?

Actually, no. I had no idea. The plotline came into focus as I got to the end of Baby Bailino. (There seems to be a trend here!) However, I really think Book 3 will be the end of the story. Of course, I say that now…

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Sept. 23

ON THIS DAY IN HISTORY
Sept. 23, 1889: Walter Lippmann born.

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Q&A with Rachel Hall


Rachel Hall, photo by Pamela Frame
Rachel Hall is the author of the new story collection Heirlooms. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including Bellingham Review and Crab Orchard Review. She is a professor of English at the State University of New York-Geneseo.


Q: The stories in Heirlooms were inspired by your own family’s experiences. What did you see as the right combination of fact and fiction as you wrote the book?

A: Heirlooms is inspired by family stories, but I start fictionalizing as soon as I hear a story—and then I believe my story is what really happened.

For instance, in Heirlooms, I made Lise and Alain twins, because in real life the characters they were based on were incredibly close. It seemed easier to explain their closeness if they were twins.

At one point, I was talking to my brother about our grandmother, on whom Lise is based, and I mentioned her twin brother. My brother said, more or less, what are you talking about?

I’m not sure I thought in terms of fact and fiction as I wrote. I think the fiction-writer is always embellishing and imagining, trying to understand motivation in a way that other people (normal people?) aren’t.

For instance, the story “La Poussette,” is based on a story my grandmother, Alice, told me about a neighbor of theirs who refused to sell them any food. This was during the war in France. She claimed she didn’t have any to spare, though it was clear she had plenty.

At the time, my grandparents were trying to farm in the Vaucluse, but they didn’t know anything about farming, so they were pretty hungry. The neighbor woman tried to brush them off, but when she saw my mother’s pram, she suddenly remembered some barley she could part with, in exchange for the stroller.

In my story, I create a character, Sylvie Beauchard, who refuses to sell or barter with the Latours, and then I tried to understand her motivation, her selfishness and cruelty. I guess you could say that I often take a real event and fictionalize around it.

It seems like a small thing, but I chose fictional names for the characters even when they were based on real people. This gave me freedom to veer away from what actually happened to make a more compelling story. And my allegiance was with story always, over fact.

I should also add, that I felt some discomfort when I made my characters (those based on real people) act in certain ways or endure actions. The rape in “Leaving the Occupied Zone,” for instance was very hard to write. It was necessary to the story, but I felt sort of ruthless writing it.

Q: Before you started the first story, did you already know you’d be writing a book, and did you write the stories in the order in which they appear in the book?

A: When I wrote “Saint-Malo, 1939” I thought I was simply writing a single short short story. I tried to make it as tight as possible with the intention of entering it in Glimmer Train’s Very Short Story Contest. (It won third place!) The story was later published in Gettysburg Review and it got a lot of positive attention, which was great.

I thought I was done with the material, however. I was working on something entirely different when I got the idea for “In the Cemeteries of Saint-Malo.”

I was on sabbatical then from teaching, so I took a couple of days off from my other project to write the story. When it was done, I realized I had the beginning and ending of a linked collection.

Months later, I wrote the title story in another happy burst while my husband and daughter were out of town. At one point, I wrote down a number of story ideas on index cards and then I worked on whichever caught my interest.

In other words, I didn’t work in any organized fashion. This way of working kept the process fun and interesting for me. I loved being able to move around in time and character and point of view.

Q: Why did you pick Heirlooms as the book’s title—it’s also the title of one of the stories—and what does it signify for you?

A: Titles are tough. Sometimes a title will leap out at me while I’m writing, and I know it’s right. Other times, it’s a struggle. I find it’s much easier to title other people’s work. In a writing group I was in for a while, I was known as “The Titler,” because I was always coming up with titles for other people’s stories.

With the short story, “Heirlooms,” the title was one that came to me easily because it’s a story about the absence of tangible heirlooms. Around the time I was writing this story, I visited a new friend’s house. She had lovely antiques from her grandparents on both sides of her family.

I was struck by her casual acceptance of these things. She appreciated her heirlooms, but she also took for granted that these things had been passed down to her.

It made me think of the things my family had abandoned or left behind when they moved during the war, and then again after the war when they came to the States.

Of course, things are minor compared with the other losses of war and immigration, but I’ve also come to understand how a thing—a dining room set, a string of pearls, candlesticks—brings to mind the people who used it, makes them vivid and more knowable.

In this way, heirlooms function as memorials and markers, which is an issue that comes up for characters in other stories as well.

Q: Did you know many of these family stories as you were growing up, or did you learn more about your family history as an adult?

A: I grew up hearing stories from my mother about her life before, during, and after the war. When I was younger these stories were about the strict teachers she had at lycee or about the girls who picked on her because she was often the youngest in her class.

I was the kind of kid who pored over the family photograph albums, and I’d ask questions as I looked. My grandparents told me stories too, though they didn’t live nearby until I was in my 20s. But whenever we visited them, my brother and I would ask questions.

My grandparents could be persuaded to retell stories, and this way I’d sometimes get a new detail or bit of information. Sometimes this detail would change the whole story for me. This made me wonder about what wasn’t being recounted—either because it was forgotten or in order to protect me from some troubling incident.

As I got older I became aware of the way that the storyteller shapes the story. For instance, Alice often told the story of going to get my mother as her biological mother was dying.

My mother’s biological father, who was a medic, was away at the time, stationed at the Maginot Line. Alice couldn’t have children of her own, and my mother needed a mother.

I loved listening to Alice tell this story. She would laugh with pleasure when she talked about the way my mother, who wasn’t yet 2 years old, reached up to her from her crib and called her Maman. “She adopted me,” Alice would say.

As a girl, I loved the symmetry of this story, the perfect logic of it, but when I had a daughter of my own, I came to understand how layered and complicated this situation was.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’ve got two projects in the works. One is a collection of short stories and the other is a novel, of which I have a few chapters completed.

Like Heirlooms, both draw on real events—some historical and some more recent—though I don’t have a personal connection to these events, other than the fact that I find them intriguing.

Both projects have involved research, too, which I love, especially archival research. I’m a fan of libraries like most writers, but the archives are especially wonderful. I love receiving the boxes full of materials—all that information!

I even like the requirement that one write with pencil when using archival materials and the funny gloves you have to wear to prevent damaging the papers.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I’ve got a number of events scheduled for the fall. I’m thrilled to be reading from Heirlooms in Columbia, Missouri, on Sept. 21. I will also be in Kansas City, Missouri, where my publisher is, speaking at the National Archive on Sept. 22.

Back in Rochester, I’ll be reading with three of my students from SUNY Geneseo at the Rochester Fringe Festival. My students will read poetry and fiction inspired by their families’ stories—and I’m especially looking forward to that.

My launch party will be Sept. 27 at Swiftwater Brewery. There will be an Heirlooms special edition beer!

In October, I’ve got two NYC events—10/18 at the Cornelia Street Café with Diane Simmons (the author of The Courtship of Eva Eldridge) and 10/20 at Pete’s Candy Store.

Details about these events and more are available on my website. I’m also on Twitter @rach_h_writer and my email is hall@geneseo.edu. I love to hear from readers!

--Interview with Deborah Kalb