An Interview with Malcolm Brooks, Author of Painted Horses

In August, I reviewed Malcolm Brooks’s excellent debut novel, Painted Horses. Mr. Brooks graciously agreed to be interviewed via email. 

How would you describe the inception of Painted Horses?

Malcolm Brooks Author photo (c) Jeremy Lurgio

Malcolm Brooks
Author photo (c) Jeremy Lurgio

MB: I basically had to give myself permission to write an epic, after years of flailing around trying to be a hip, insouciant ironist. By the time I hit 30 or so, I realized that the books that struck me the hardest appealed as much to the heart as to the head. And topically, I’d had for years what I regarded as an ace-in-the-hole tucked away, which was the story of the ad hoc U.S. horse cavalry in World War II Italy. I’d met a retired veterinarian who told me about it when I was nineteen or twenty, and I pulled it out of my sleeve when I started to think about the novel that would eventually become Painted Horses . The web sort of spun out from there.

Painted Horses is a novel about the West, but the narrative also extends to England, Italy, and Basque country, and covers subjects as disparate as painting, horsemanship, and archaeology. With so much to research, how did you make a start?

photo 2 (18)MB: I thought about the major elements of the book a lot before I began the actual writing, and how these seemingly very disparate dimensions might work together in a coherent way. It’s important to note as well that the novel resulted from things I had a preexisting interest in, from Western history to Paleolithic art to the Basque region in Spain to the London Blitz, and so on. So I wasn’t starting from scratch, but more throwing all these longtime enthusiasms out like steppingstones across a creek, to see where they might lead on the other side. I made page after page of impressionistic notes at first, just character backstory and questions to myself about plot or theme, snippets of dialogue, etc. Eventually I got to a point where I knew as much as I could about the story without diving in and following the narrative through to the things I didn’t yet know. So I began at the beginning, with Catherine heading into Montana on the train, and just walked along with her, in a way.

Landscape, naturally, plays a central role in the novel; is there a particular place that inspired the canyon Catherine explores?

MB: The canyon in the novel is a fictionalized version of Bighorn Canyon, south of Billings, Montana, which really was dammed in the early 1960s. I co-opted not only terrain but also politics and controversy—Yellowtail Dam was a pretty major moment, when an organized tribal government attempted to have a stake and a say in modern land and water issues.

 Which section of Painted Horses was the most difficult for you to write, and why?

MB: I rewrote the first forty or so pages, right up to the initial boyhood flashback with John H, probably twenty times. On a micro level I mainly concentrate on writing pretty sentences and telling a story in a sort of organic, impressionistic way, so it took some doing to balance technique against the unavoidable, practical need to establish a plot. Following that, I had a tough time with the resolution sequence in the boardroom—I wanted Harris to deliver a sort of unassailable, philosophical defense of the ugly side of progress, but not in a way that made him sound like a cartoon villain.

In a novel that resists easy answers, it seems (to me, at least), that Miriam complicates the novel’s conflict between preservation and progress. Could you explain a bit about how her character developed?

MB: I honestly didn’t brood over Miriam much in advance at all. I always regarded a tribal presence as absolutely essential to the story, and I knew there were historically conflicting viewpoints within the Crow tribe over Yellowtail Dam. And I myself grew up within a subculture I wasn’t totally sure how to navigate by the time I was a teenager, which probably informs Miriam’s character. I guess it seemed logical to have Catherine ally herself with a young woman, and assume the role of mentor to some degree, in the way Audrey Williams mentored her in London. On another level, their relationship is and was always sort of intended to be a variation on the classic Western hero-and-sidekick trope.

What’s next?

MB: I’m hesitant to describe my next project in detail, except to say it’s set in the contemporary Southwest, and continues to explore the tension between the myth and the reality of the Western experience.

My thanks again to Mr. Brooks for his time and generous answers. You can read more about Painted Horses and Malcolm Brooks’s work at

An Interview with Rebecca Makkai, Author of The Hundred-Year House

Yesterday I reviewed Rebecca Makkai’s inventive and engrossing second novel, The Hundred-Year House.  Ms. Makkai graciously agreed to be interviewed via email. 

In the Acknowledgments that follow The Hundred-Year House, you write, “This book started as a short story about male anorexia.” Given that beginning, which section of the novel, or which character, came first?

Rebecca Makkai Author photo (c) Philippe Matsas

Rebecca Makkai
Author photo (c) Philippe Matsas

RM: That short story was a small slice of what’s now the first (1999) section of the novel. There were two couples (Cameron and Z, and Steve and Miranda) living in a coach house. The fact that “Steve and Miranda” didn’t set Sex and the City alarm bells ringing should be a sign of how long ago this was… Cameron became Doug, Z became Zee (after I realized British readers would pronounce her name “Zed”), and Steve and Miranda became Case and Miriam. Steve was the anorexic, and Cameron – although he was working on ghostwriting children’s books, as he is in the novel – was primarily preoccupied with proving Steve’s anorexia to everyone else. It wasn’t a very good story.  

photo (108)How did the novel’s unusual structure fall into place?

RM: I set the short story aside for many years, and when I came back to it I realized it could be a novel – but I initially saw it all happening in that one time period. My own curiosity about what had happened in the past was what led me to open those doors and actually write about it… and so the backwards order of those sections was actually completely organic. There was a load of planning involved, it didn’t just come flying out, but the sections are ordered as they came to me.

At one point in The Hundred-Year House, there’s a distinction made between “haunted” houses and “haunting” houses. Is that a distinction readers are meant to make with regard to the characters, too?

RM: I suppose that’s true. As we go back in time and meet certain characters, it might become clear that they’ve been the ones haunting the previous sections of the book. And some characters are much more receptive than others to the haunting influence of the house (which often takes the form of ridiculous luck, whether good or bad). Case is a prime example, in the 1999 section – he’s like a lightning rod for the house’s energy.

Visual arts play an important role in The Hundred-Year House. How did you conceive of the different artworks?

RM: I wish I could be a visual artist—I have a lot of ideas for art—but my hands won’t execute what I see. So I have to settle for writing about it instead. Certain works in the book are modeled on real-life art, though; Zilla Silverman, an artist in the 1929 section, is partly based on Georgia O’Keeffe, and her works are similar to O’Keeffe’s.

Laurelfield was once an arts colony, and The Hundred-Year House is dedicated to Ragdale and Yaddo. Is the novel’s section about the arts colony drawn primarily from your own experience as a resident, or from research into early twentieth-century artists’ colonies, or both? Who are some of your favorite writers who stayed at artists’ colonies?

RM: I actually conceived of Laurelfield before I’d ever set foot at a residency. I started applying to them as I worked on this book not only because I needed the time and solitude to work (I have two small children) but because I felt like I needed to know that world better. I was not disappointed. And I was able to do a bit of research into the history of Yaddo while I was there, which informed the book enormously. In terms of who stayed at colonies… You’d be hard-pressed to find a major American artist of the last century who didn’t stay at an artists’ residency. There’s a library at Yaddo of books by past residents, and it’s basically just like a normal library. There’s practically no one missing.

What’s next on your writing horizon?

RM: My story collection, Music for Wartime, will be out next summer. And I’m working on a novel set in the Chicago art world amidst the AIDS crisis.

My thanks again to Ms. Makkai for her time and thoughtful answers. You can read more about Ms. Makkai, and The Hundred-Year House, on Ms. Makkai’s website, Follow Rebecca Makkai on Twitter: @rebeccamakkai

An Interview with Sharona Muir, Author of Invisible Beasts

On Monday I reviewed Sharona Muir’s imaginative debut novel, Invisible Beasts. Ms. Muir graciously agreed to be interviewed via email. 

Many of the chapters in Invisible Beasts started out as short stories. How did you go about linking them to form a novel?

Sharona Muir Author Photo (c) Tom Muir

Sharona Muir
Author Photo (c) Tom Muir

SM: Actually, I thought of the entire work from the first as a bestiary – outside the “short story vs. novel” genre categories. As the question of point of view arose, not only for the action in the stories but also for the philosophical ideas behind them, I created the narrator, Sophie. In a medieval bestiary, the point of view is a given: it’s the anonymous voice of a medieval monk offering you all he knows about animals and their religious meanings. I needed some voice that had as much personality and authority, but updated. Sophie, like the good fictional character that she is, repaid me for her creation by providing all kinds of feelings, motivations, and insights that united the collection through her perspective.

For example, once I worked out her relationship with her biologist sister Evie – two brilliant sisters, one a straightforward scientist, the other endowed with a peculiar, poetic vision of living beings – the whole first section fell into place, followed by resonances of their back-and-forth throughout the book. Creating Sophie and Evie materialized the dialogue between imagination and science that is at the heart of the book, and makes it a cohesive novel.

That’s the long answer. The short answer is that as a longtime adorer of Italo Calvino’s work, in the back of my mind I had his novel, Cosmicomics, which is similar in structure and approach to Invisible Beasts: his narrator, the mysterious being called “old Qwfwq,” also unites a series of speculative tales.

Which of these invisible beasts first caught your eye (so to speak)? How would you describe the inception of the project?

photo (106)SM: I decided to have fun. I’d been reading Lynn Margulis’ and Dorion Sagan’s wonderful book, What Is Life? in which, among many other delightful moments, Margulis at one point more or less says that life is about bacteria. This made me laugh. So I wrote a short story, long since filed in my wastebasket, about imaginary bacteria called “Bedcrumbs” that, through elaborate chemical means, induce people to crave snacks after making love – in order to ensure the reproduction of their human hosts, of course. I had so much fun writing this silly tale that I couldn’t resist trying a few others, and when it was clear that I was inventing imaginary animals on a weekly basis, I started showing them to my biologist friends, and from there on we developed a game in which I’d try to create a scientific plausible, yet utterly and truly nonexistent imaginary animal. (I came close only once, Mother Nature having been at this game longer than me.) Although the project didn’t seem at all salable, I felt that I was paying a tribute to whatever blessed accident and evolutionary history had put me here, and was having too much fun to quit.

Invisible Beasts is not only a novel, but also a bestiary. Were you inspired by any medieval or modern bestiaries? Are there any you’d recommend to readers who enjoyed Invisible Beasts?

SM: Oh yes. Calvino’s Cosmicomics is charming, and a first-class example of what E.O. Wilson calls consilience, that is, unifying the arts and sciences. E.O. Wilson’s novel Anthill, in describing the empire of an imaginary species of super-ant, is as magnificently compelling as Gibbon crossed with H.G. Wells (or rather, with Wilson, the great ant maven of our time.) I was tremendously excited when I read Wilson’s excerpt from his book in The New Yorker: it showed that bestiary writing, involving knowledge of science — at least in popular form — by creative writers, was an important new development in the culture of letters.

As for the old stuff, my training in Renaissance literature meant that for years I’d carried Ariosto’s hippogryph in the back of my mind: this lion-tailed Pegasus is the weird apparition that Sophie sees at the end of the chapter called “Grand Tour Butterflies.” I looked at medieval bestiaries, too, naturally, but my favorite is Pliny the Elder’s Natural History. There is something seductive about an era when it was possible to imagine all knowledge collected in a single book (or several scrolls), and the straightfaced way in which Pliny, bless his stout Roman heart, mingles perfectly sound observations with what sounds like insane fantasy was in every way a model for my book.

Readers might know that you teach creative writing at Bowling Green State University. How has teaching influenced your own writing?

SM: There are two rewards to being a teacher.

The first is when, through learning how to explain literary mechanics to your students, you find yourself focusing on very simple and obvious things, because the basics of the craft are in their way extremely profound. I love working with beginners. It reminds me of the way a karate teacher whom I knew would say that the first thing you needed to do, after earning a black belt, was to revisit all the exercises of a white belt. Teaching my students keeps me aware of the basics, and their really endless depth.

The second reward is that of seeing a student become aware that he or she has an imagination, and has made it do something. We’re so saturated in intellectual passivity and laziness – in the instant gratification provided by digital technologies – that students often aren’t aware of how hard it is to make art, and how wondrous it is that you can. When they find out that they can do something hard, and that thanks to their effort, their imaginations have put something new in the world, the expressions on their faces make me very happy and honored to be a teacher. That energy certainly feeds my work.

Do you have a favorite endangered species you’d like to draw readers’ attention to, or an environmental project that addresses the values embedded in Invisible Beasts?

SM: Yes, I’d like to mention Wolf Park, in Battleground, Indiana.  This is a huge preserve for timber or gray wolves, which have been taken off the threatened and endangered species list.  I’m no expert on the politics or biology of that issue, but my husband, who photographs wildlife, and I have greatly enjoyed our visits to this preserve, managed by ethologists.  They keep a “tame” pack of wolves, meaning that the wolves will tolerate keepers under very specific conditions.  After seeing and learning about the wolves — their great strength, big bony heads, shrewd eyes, and the complexity of interactions among themselves – my 100-lb. German shepherd looked to me like a delicate flower of civilization and felt like a cousin.  This experience is very valuable for helping people understand wolves, and wildness generally, in concrete terms, with reference to the reality of the animals, and without romanticism.

At the same time, it’s clear that humans can’t resist making up stories of all sorts about animals, even ones as special and dangerous as wolves.  Everyone who gets to know the park wolves wants to offer names for new pack members or puppies, and becomes intrigued with the personalities of the wolves, as if they and we were all in a Hans Anderson tale together.  We can’t help being enchanted by other creatures.  We want them in our imaginations.  E.O. Wilson calls this “biophilia,” and it’s an aspect of human psychology that is central to my work.

What’s next on your writing horizon?

SM: Another bestiary!   Thanks for the pleasure of chatting with you.

[The pleasure was mine! –CO]

My thanks again to Ms. Muir for her time and thoughtful answers. 

An Interview with Celeste Ng, Author of Everything I Never Told You

Recently I reviewed Celeste Ng’s luminous debut novel, Everything I Never Told You.
Ms. Ng graciously agreed to be interviewed via email. 

How would you describe the inception of Everything I Never Told You? What was the writing process like?

Celeste Ng Author photograph (c) Kevin Day Photography

Celeste Ng
Author photograph (c) Kevin Day Photography

CN: For me, stories almost always start with images. In this case, my husband happened to tell me that when he was a kid, he was at a friend’s house when his friend pushed his own little sister into a lake. When my husband told it, it was a funny anecdote—his parents had to come pick him up early, because wow, was his friend in trouble—but for some reason that image of a girl falling into water stuck with me. I am a terrible swimmer myself, so maybe my fear of water had something to do with it. It transformed into something quite different—in the novel, Lydia is a teenager, for one, and it’s not clear how she ended up in the water. But that was the seed that started the story.

I began the novel when I was completing my MFA at the University of Michigan, in the spring of 2006, and I wrote 4 drafts before finishing the book in 2012. So it was a long process, with a lot of changes in between: I finished school, I moved, I had a baby. I like to think that long gestation made for a better novel.

 What led you to choose to set the novel in the 1970s?

Everything I Never Told You_COliverCN: As I got to know these characters, I realized that the 1970s was a time that highlighted all of the struggles they faced. Interracial marriages have become more common now, but in the 1970s—to say nothing of the decades earlier—Marilyn and James would really have turned heads. Asians weren’t as much of a presence yet, either. And Marilyn’s dream of becoming a doctor was much more poignant in that time period—she would have been in college in the 1950s, when medicine would have been a hard path for a woman. It made my heart ache to know her daughter could have that opportunity, but that Marilyn never really would.

I also found that the 1970s allowed a bigger sense of mystery. We have a lot of ways of finding and knowing people now—we can track them by the GPS in their cell phones, or we can look at their browser history and see what websites they were looking at, or check what they posted on Twitter or Facebook for insight into their thoughts. But in the 1970s, of course, there were no cell phones, no internet, no social media. I wanted Lydia’s family to have to face that information void, to have to face a lot of unanswered questions about her life.

The structure of the novel modulates (seemingly) effortlessly between the past and present, between children and parents. How did you arrive at this structure?

CN: The structure took a lot of work. As I said earlier, I went through four drafts of this novel, and every one of them had a major structural change. I tried telling the story in parts—a few chapters when Lydia’s body is discovered, then a few chapters of Marilyn’s past, then a few chapters of James’s—but that broke up the momentum. I tried braiding the different timelines together, but it got confusing. I tried a lot of things! I ended up having to change the viewpoint as well as the structure, using an omniscient narrator to help make connections between past and present. The story itself stayed relatively constant throughout; it just took a long time to figure out how best to tell that story.

Much of the conflict in Everything I Never Told You involves longstanding miscommunication and misperceptions. What’s something you hope readers take from the novel back to their own lives?

CN: I hope readers will finish the book thinking about the ways they might misunderstand people close to them, and about the assumptions they might be making about others. We assume so much, all the time—we fill in a lot of gaps in conversation and relationships. We draw a lot of inferences about what it means when someone calls you or doesn’t, when someone gives you something or doesn’t, when someone comes to your birthday party or your brother’s funeral or your dance recital, or doesn’t. But we don’t always interpret those gestures and words correctly. It’s hard to say to someone, “Wait, what do you actually mean by that?” A lot of times it’s easier to hear things the way you want to hear them than to ask questions and listen.

On your website, you write that you grew up in a family of scientists. How did that influence your writing? When did you first think of becoming a writer?

CN: I always wanted to be a writer, but didn’t think it was an actual job you could do. So I spent most of my childhood and adolescence planning to write “on the side” while I held another job: paleontologist, astronaut, journalist, book editor. By the time I finished college, I was planning to get a Ph.D. in English, teach college literature, and write on the side, when a mentor suggested I think about an MFA instead. I had no idea such a thing even existed. And it wasn’t until years after I finished the MFA that I started thinking writing could be something I could do professionally.

I actually think that growing up in a family of scientists helped me become a better writer.  From my family, I learned a particular scientific mindset: to look closely at things that puzzle you, to find anomalies more revealing than the norms, to think about cause and effect.  Most important, I think science taught me to believe that there is a logic and a system to the universe, and that—if you try hard enough, and look closely enough—you can illuminate at least a small part of it.  All of that feeds into my fiction.  If you look at science in that way, it’s an ideal training ground for a writer.

What’s next on your writing horizon?

CN: I’m working on another novel that’s actually set in our mutual hometown of Shaker Heights, Ohio.  I won’t say too much about it yet, as I’m superstitious about such things. But as you know, Shaker Heights is an interesting place: it’s racially integrated and very well off, yet of course there are still issues of race, class, and culture that affect the city. And it has a lot of quirks, and a real concern with appearance. I always tell people about the garbage collection—how you’re not allowed to bring garbage to the curb, but you have to leave it in the back for the mini garbage-scooters to pick up and ferry to the big garbage truck, so that the front of the street never looks messy.  It’s such a fascinating place, so the new book deals—so far, anyway—with a family living in Shaker, and a mother and daughter who move there from out of town and unintentionally start to shake things up a little bit.

My thanks again to Ms. Ng for her time and thoughtful answers. You can read more about Ms. Ng, and Everything I Never Told You, on Ms. Ng’s website, Follow Celeste Ng on Twitter: @pronounced_ing

Bostonians: You have two opportunities in July to hear Celeste Ng read from Everything I Never Told You!


279 Harvard Street
Brookline MA 02446


10 Langley Road
Newton Centre
Newton, MA 02459

An Interview with Cristina Henríquez, Author of The Book of Unknown Americans

Yesterday I reviewed Cristina Henríquez’s latest novel, The Book of Unknown Americans. Ms. Henríquez graciously agreed to be interviewed via email. 

How would you describe the inception of The Book of Unknown Americans? What was the writing process like?

Cristina Henríquez Author photo (c) Michael Lionstar

Cristina Henríquez
Author photo (c) Michael Lionstar

CH: The novel started with a short story told from Mayor’s point-of-view. The first line of that story, which survives in the book, was, “We heard they were from Mexico.” But not long after the story was done, it haunted me — that “we.” Who was the community or group of people behind it? I wanted to find out, so I kept writing, characters and more characters, making up a community as I went along. It took me a long time to figure out the best way to incorporate all those characters, but the point of inception for the book was that story and then spinning it out.

The process itself was slow. It took me five years to write the novel. Lots of wrong turns and misdirection, lots of failed plot threads. But you just keep kneading it out, you know? Patiently, patiently. Until you realize that it’s starting to take shape.

How did you go about conducting research for the novel?

CH: I did as little research as I could. Too much research usually puts the brakes on my inventive impulses, so I edge into research cautiously, only going as far as I need to. For this book, the research consisted mostly of looking up colloquialisms, customs, and histories from each of the represented countries. I also relied fairly heavily on my mom, who is a translator for the school district in Delaware, for questions about how the special education system works and how traumatic brain injuries manifest themselves.

photo (95)Most of the characters in The Book of Unknown Americans narrate at least one chapter. Maribel is a notable exception — is that exception meant to underscore her isolation?

CH: I wish I could say yes, but really the only reason I didn’t give Maribel her own chapter was because I was being so rigid about structuring the book. I wanted the narrative to follow a pattern: Alma, Mayor, interstitial narrative, over and over. Which meant that there was space for only one member of each family to contribute to those interstitial chapters. For reasons that I hope are obvious to people after they read the book, for the Riveras, I really wanted that person to be Arturo.

Do you hope that The Book of Unknown Americans will have a political impact?

CH: No. If it does in some positive way, I would be thrilled. But I don’t hope for it. What’s more meaningful to me is if it has a personal impact, if people read it and start to see others around them — especially immigrants — differently, with more empathy.

What’s one question you hope readers take away from the novel?

CH: That’s an interesting one. Maybe: How have we let ourselves become so intolerant?

What’s next on your writing horizon?

CH: I wish I knew! I have some loosely percolating ideas, but nothing firm yet.

My thanks again to Ms. Henríquez for her time and thoughtful answers. You can read more about Cristina Henríquez, and The Book of Unknown Americans, on Ms. Henríquez’s website, Follow Cristina Henríquez on Twitter: @crishenriquez

An Interview with Kimberly Elkins, Author of What Is Visible

On Monday I reviewed Kimberly Elkins’s fascinating debut novel, What Is Visible. Ms. Elkins graciously agreed to be interviewed via email. 

How would you describe the inception of What Is Visible? I understand that at one point it was a shorter piece; how did you go about expanding it into a novel?

Kimberly Elkins Author photo (c) Sarah Shatz

Kimberly Elkins
Author photo (c) Sarah Shatz

KE: Originally, I wrote the eponymous short story after first reading about, and being dazzled by, Laura Bridgman in the New Yorker in 2001. I couldn’t believe I’d never heard about this remarkable woman who learned language fifty years before Helen Keller, and was considered the nineteenth-century’s most famous woman after Queen Victoria. The story was published shortly thereafter in the Atlantic.

To expand the short piece into a novel, I first had to do approximately two years of research, not only on Laura, but also on the other major real-life figures in her life. The story had taken place on one of the most important days of her life, when she was twenty, but the novel turned out to span almost fifty years, as I tried to fit together the pieces of both her life and how and why she had been, in effect, erased from history. The short story basically had to be deconstructed, with bits of it appearing in appropriate places throughout the novel.

Given the two recent biographies of Laura, and the wealth of archival material related to the characters in What Is Visible, how did you choose which episodes in Laura’s life to feature in the novel?

photo (92)KE: Actually, the two biographies came out almost fifteen years ago; however, you’re absolutely correct in that there was an enormous amount of archival material, especially letters, journals, and newspaper and magazine articles. I chose to bookend the novel with Laura’s historic meeting with the nine-year-old Helen Keller in the last year of Laura’s life, and then to skip to her at age twelve, after she’d been at Perkins for five years. That was the year Charles Dickens visited her, and was astounded by her progress, devoting an entire chapter of his book, American Notes, to Laura. Subsequently, her fame then exploded worldwide. As for the rest of the novel, I wrote about not only the milestones in Laura’s life, but also those of the other three narrators–Dr. Howe, her mentor and founder of Perkins: his wife, Julia Ward Howe, the famous poet and abolitionist who penned “The Battle Hymn of the Republic”; and Sarah Wight, Laura’s beloved last teacher.

What surprised you most as you were conducting research for What Is Visible?

KE: The biggest surprise was always Laura: her fierce intelligence, her unwillingness to bend to the rules of society and convention, even as she desperately sought human connection. Her letters and journals display a large and imaginative vocabulary, and she was even learning French and Latin when she was tragically parted from her last teacher.

What’s one question you hope readers will ask themselves after they’ve finished the novel?

KE: Could I survive and thrive as Laura Bridgman did with only one sense? My hope is that the novel amply shows that one can live a rich and full life with even the severest of handicaps.

What’s next on your writing horizon?

KE: I’m working on another historical novel, the true-life story of two 19th-century sisters who were famous mediums as children, with one going on to found the Spiritualism movement, while the other attempted to debunk all that they had accomplished together. My other project is a wildly divergent take on the classic memoir, in which I revisit events from my life, including violent ones, and write the truth sandwiched between the best- and worst-case scenarios I can imagine, with the reader not being told which narrative is the true one. I think everyone would like the chance to revise their lives, and consider not only the paths left untrod, but also the deep, dark woods or the sunlit meadows through which those paths might have traveled.

My thanks again to Ms. Elkins for her time and thoughtful answers. You can read more about Ms. Elkins, and What Is Visible, on Ms. Elkins’s website,

Bostonians: You can hear Kimberly Elkins read from What Is Visible at Harvard Bookstore on Tuesday, July 8 at 7:30. 

An Interview with Kate Racculia, Author of Bellweather Rhapsody

On Wednesday, I reviewed Kate Racculia’s exuberant and delightful new novel, Bellweather Rhapsody. Ms. Racculia graciously agreed to be interviewed via email. 

How would you describe the inception of Bellweather Rhapsody? What was the writing process like?

Kate Racculia Author photo (c) Sage Brousseau

Kate Racculia
Author photo (c) Sage Brousseau

KR: I started writing Bellweather Rhapsody the summer my first novel, a coming-of-age-in-a-small-town story, was published, and I knew I wanted my second novel to be different: a mystery, one that paid homage to two of my favorite books of all time, Ellen Raskin’s The Westing Game and Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None. There would be multiple twisty plots and multiple characters, and they’d all be trapped together in a pressure cooker situation.

The idea for Bellweather’s particular pressure cooker—Statewide, a weekend conference for teenage musicians, held in an enormous, decrepit hotel—was born in the late nineties, when I, a teenage musician, attended the New York State School Music Association (NYSSMA) All-State conference, which was held at the Concord, a once grand, then crumbling hotel that was surely haunted. Even at the age of seventeen, I remember thinking: this would make an incredible setting for a murder mystery.

The writing process was very different from my first novel: I wrote the majority of the (extremely messy) first draft very quickly, and the novel began to truly take shape during a methodical revision process. I spent a lot of time in the Bellweather, getting to know these characters–enough time to solve their mysteries, as it were.

Bellweather Rhapsody is full of delightful (and never gimmicky) 90s touches. What were your favorite books and albums in the late 90s?

Bellweather RhapsodyKR: I was completely obsessed with the Beatles in the 90s; the third CD I ever bought was Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, and that sealed my fate. But if we’re talking 90s culture that was actually of the 90s, I listened to a lot of Barenaked Ladies and REM, Fiona Apple and The Cranberries, Garbage and Radiohead, and I read every Michael Crichton and Stephen King book I could get my hands on.

Like Rabbit, you were a teenage bassoonist, and according to your website, your bassoon was called Nigel. Did you and Nigel get together for a reunion tour while you were writing Bellweather Rhapsody? What kinds of research did you do for the novel?

KR: Alas, we didn’t! Nigel and I haven’t seen each other since June 1998, when I left him behind in the band room; he belonged to my high school. I bought a bassoon of my own (partially with graduation money) and played it half-heartedly during my freshman year of college, but that bassoon only ever felt like a rebound. It is, however, still in my closet, and one day I know I’m going to pick it up again.

As far as research goes, I read books on psychopaths and child prodigies, consulted with some experts (like my best friend’s dad) about which motorcycles were the coolest; went to a few performances of the Boston Symphony Orchestra and a rehearsal of the Boston Youth Symphony Orchestra; and, because I believe in experiential research (i.e., doing the same things my characters will), I went to a firing range and shot a .38 special.

If Bellweather Rhapsody were a movie, what would the track over the closing credits be?

KR: I love this question so much, I’m going to answer it twice. I’d go with either David Bowie’s “Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide” (Bowie plays a key role in the book) or The New Pornographers’ “Moves,” which has a totally boss string intro. It depends on how you’d like your Bellweather movie to end: pensive and full of feelings, or with a driving beat?

What’s next on your writing horizon?

KR: I’m working on a big sprawling novel about diners and sea monsters and missing kids, stage mothers and office drones, tattooed ladies and rollerskating drag queens—and time travel—that’s most of all about family: the ones we’re born into, and the ones we find in the world.

My thanks again to Ms. Racculia for her time and thoughtful answers. You can read more about Ms. Racculia, and Bellweather Rhapsody, on Ms. Racculia’s website, Follow Kate Racculia on Twitter: @kateracculia

An Interview with Darragh McKeon, Author of All That Is Solid Melts into Air

Recently, I reviewed Mr. McKeon’s haunting debut novel, All That Is Solid Melts into Air. Mr. McKeon graciously agreed to be interviewed via email. 

What first drew you to the Chernobyl disaster and its aftermath as a subject for the novel?

Darragh McKeon Author Photograph (c) Ana Schecter

Darragh McKeon
Author Photograph (c) Ana Schecter

DM: I’m from Ireland and it’s quite a present issue there due to the work of an Irish charity ‘Chernobyl Children International’. Since the early 1990s, they’ve brought about 20,000 children from the area to Ireland for recuperation. Some of these children came to my hometown when I was a teenager and they were amongst the first foreigners I’d ever met.

As readers may know, you’re a successful theatre director. How did working in theatre influence the composition of All That Is Solid Melts into Air?

DM: I’m sure it’s influenced me in many ways I’m not even aware of, but primarily as a director you learn to observe. I’ve spent countless hours watching actors in a rehearsal room and gradually I probably honed my awareness of all of the elements that impact upon the work – rhythm, pacing, personality, anxiety, lighting etc etc. Every scene in theatre must carry a certain dynamic. When it’s absent, the scene has no life. Identifying the central dynamic of a situation is a useful ability to carry into novel writing.

photo (85)Your four main characters are a doctor, a child piano prodigy, a dissident-turned-steelworker, and a teenage boy living in a Belarusian village. With such disparate occupations and perspectives to consider, how did you go about conducting research for the novel?

DM: By reading. A lot. I didn’t research with any particular direction or strategy, just ingested anything I could find. I did eventually travel to Moscow for specific research, but by that stage the novel was near completion.

Which writers do you read while writing? Do your reading choices change depending on the writing project at hand?

DM: On a basic level, writing a novel is a process of accumulating sentences. So I try to read and re-read great sentence writers: DeLillo, Ondaatje, Andrei Makine for a start, as well as plenty of poetry.

In the essay included with All That Is Solid Melts into Air, “The Empty City,” you make it clear that the devastating effects of Chernobyl are ongoing. How can readers help?

DM: The problems associated with nuclear energy are so vast and complicated that it’s difficult to suggest a starting point. I would encourage people to donate to Chernobyl Children International. I’ve seen their work first hand and they really are a lifeline to people in the region.

What kinds of writing projects will you be working on next?

DM: Right now I’m doing a lot of reading, I’ll hopefully be starting on another novel in the near future.

My thanks again to Mr. McKeon for his time and thoughtful answers. You can read more about All That Is Solid Melts into Air and Darragh McKeon’s work at

An Interview with Alexi Zentner, Author of The Lobster Kings

On Monday, I reviewed Mr. Zentner’s new novel, The Lobster Kings. Mr. Zentner graciously agreed to be interviewed via email. 

How would you describe the inception of The Lobster Kings? What was the writing process like?

Alexi Zentner  Author Photo (c) Laurie Willick

Alexi Zentner
Author Photo (c) Laurie Willick

AZ: The day after I sold my first novel, Touch, in 2009, I drove out to Wyoming to spend a month at a writing residency, and that’s where I started writing The Lobster Kings. I’d been planning the novel for a while, however. I tend to brood on a story for months or years, until I’m ready to write it, but starting it in rural Wyoming was a bit odd, because so much of the inception of the novel came from the landscape down east. I was struck by the rugged beauty of the coast, and wanted to, at least partially, capture that. But a lot of the struggle of writing the book came from understanding who Cordelia was and capturing her voice, and once I had that a lot of the rest of the book followed.

The novel is inspired by King Lear, and in it myth and realism are tangled together. Did other contemporary retellings of folktales and fairy stories inform your writing? Do you have any favorite contemporary adaptations of Shakespeare?

AZThe Lobster Kings mixes common myths, like that of the selkie, with myths that are particular to Loosewood Island, where the novel is set, and while I used King Lear as a jumping off point, the novel is very much its own thing. It’s a riff on Lear rather than a retelling; I was more interested in the question of what does it mean for Cordelia to inherit the island than the question of what it means for the father to give it away. I’m fascinated by the way that certain aspects of folktales and fairy stories get tangled up in contemporary stories, and I’m more preoccupied with how to move those stories forward than how to retell them. And there are so many contemporary versions of Shakespearean plays – we see them in the movies, television, books. The Disney movie, The Lion King, is a version of Hamlet, and the television show, House of Cards, borrows from Macbeth.

Did you conduct research for The Lobster Kings? If so, how did you go about it?

photo (5)AZ: My goal as a fiction writer is to do as little research as possible. What I mean by that, is that I need to do enough research to make it feel real, without doing so much research that I end up writing some sort of a book report. I spent a fair amount of time in the area, talked to lobstermen, and did my research. But part of the reason I set it on Loosewood Island, which is fictional, is that I wasn’t trying to hold up a mirror to the life of a lobsterman. Fiction isn’t about the facts so much as it is about the truth, and I wanted to give a person, a family, an island, that felt real, and to do that, I had to base it in the truth but also imagine it fully.

The Lobster Kings is set about ten years ago; why did you choose a setting in the recent past?

AZ: I’m a big believer in the idea that it is easier to see where you were more clearly than where you are. I wanted to write a contemporary novel, one that deals with the questions we are dealing with now, but setting it just a few years ago – it’s set in 2005, and it was 2009 when I started writing it – gave me enough distance that I was able to capture some of the larger questions of the novel. I think if I’d set it right now, I would have missed some of those things. We often realize only later what was the important issue of the day.

The novel tackles weighty subjects — the pull of history (personal and otherwise), sibling rivalry, the incursion of meth into vulnerable communities, attitudes toward aging and work, just to name a few — but does so with a kick of humor. How did you find that balance?

AZ: So much of the humor comes from Cordelia herself. She’s tough and determined and can hold her own, but she’s also her father’s daughter, and her father – as traditional as he was in so many ways – was a bit of an odd duck. I think, for Cordelia, who is a woman in a job that has traditionally been a man’s, she’s had to have a slightly different way of looking at things. She’s the engine that drives the story, and though a lot of tough things happen, she’s not the kind of person for whom that can dampen things.

What kinds of projects are you working on now?

AZ:  I’m working on a story collection and a pair of novels. One of the novels is probably more in the literary vein, while the other is, I think, more toward the mainstream. The mainstream one is pretty scary. But it’s fun.

My thanks again to Mr. Zentner for his time and thoughtful answers. You can read more about The Lobster Kings and Alexi Zentner’s work at