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 www.malcolmbrooks.net

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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, www.celesteng.com. 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!

July 23: BROOKLINE BOOKSMITH. 7:00 PM

279 Harvard Street
Brookline MA 02446

July 29: NEWTONVILLE BOOKS. 7:00 PM

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, www.cristinahenriquez.com. 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, www.kimberlyelkins.com.

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

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 alexizentner.com

 

An Interview with Michael Blanding, Author of The Map Thief

Yesterday, I reviewed Mr. Blanding’s newest book, The Map Thief. Mr. Blanding graciously agreed to be interviewed via email. 

How would you describe the inception of The Map Thief? What was the writing process like?

Michael Blanding Author Photograph (c) Kevin Day Photography

Michael Blanding
Author Photograph (c) Kevin Day Photography

MB: I have always been interested in maps, and was struck by Smiley’s story when I first read it in the New Yorker back in 2006. I was fascinated by how much people were willing to pay for antiquarian maps and how Smiley was able to exploit that desire for these rare objects in perpetrating his thefts. When I heard he was out of prison in 2011, I approached him for an interview and found him very willing to talk and tell his story. As I started working on the book, however, he suddenly stopped cooperating, and I had to work hard to report around him through other dealers and libraries in order to piece together the story. It added a lot more work to the writing and reporting — so that it eventually took me three years in all.

Writing the book clearly involved a great deal of research into the world of maps; is there a particular cartographic time period or geographical region that was a favorite with you?

photo (82)MB: As a lifelong resident of New England, I was fascinated to learn about the early settlement of this region by the English in the1600s. Smiley was also a New England native and specialized in this period, and so I was able to learn a lot from the maps he traded and eventually stole… At the time, the Dutch “golden age” of mapmaking was waning and the English were the upstarts in colonizing the area — so their first maps are very crude. But very quickly over the course of the century you can see them filling in details and creating more accurate depictions of the area as their knowledge and power increased. It’s very cool to see that happen right on the pages of these maps and atlases.

Many of the events of The Map Thief take place in the Northeast, and the Leventhal Map Center at the Boston Public Library figures prominently in the book. Since you are a Boston-area-based writer, can you recommend any other locations in Boston where new cartophiles might find interesting maps to peruse?

MB: Interestingly, before Smiley started stealing maps, he was a successful map dealer for many years — and his first and most important client was Boston real estate developer Norman Leventhal. Over the years, Smiley helped him acquire the largest collection of maps of Boston and New England ever assembled. While Leventhal eventually donated money to endow the map center at the Boston Public Library, he kept the rarest and most valuable maps in his possession — and they can now be viewed in a permanent exhibit at the Boston Harbor Hotel. The exhibit offers a fascinating glimpse at the history of Boston on multiple walls of its lobby and conference rooms, and I really recommend it to visitors of the city.

Given the inaccuracies and inconsistencies in his self-portrayal, would you be interested in interviewing E. Forbes Smiley III again if he decided to grant interviews once more? Do you think there’s anything left to be gleaned there?

MB: Though Smiley gave me a lot of information about himself and his thefts in the six hours he spoke with me, there were still pieces of the story he promised to tell me before he cut off contact — including exactly how he stole the maps and which maps he stole when. I was able to piece much of this information together from other sources, but still had to speculate on some ofthe chronology of the thefts. I would have liked to go through this chronology in more detail and cross-reference it with information he provided to the FBI to try and pin down these details.

What kinds of projects are you working on now?

MB: I don’t have another book project as of yet, but I am working on some interesting magazine stories, including an article for WIRED magazine about issues surrounding electronics manufacturing overseas. I’m also putting together a proposal for a new book that combines investigative reporting and memoir — we’ll see if that comes together! At the moment, though, I’m very excited to work on publicizing The Map Thief through media and speaking events — and finally sharing my baby with the world after three years of work.

My thanks again to Mr. Blanding for his time and thoughtful answers. You can read more about The Map Thief and Michael Blanding’s work at www.michaelblanding.com

If you’re in the Boston area, head over to the Brookline Booksmith on June 3 from 7-9pm for a reading, reception, and signing with Michael Blanding. 

An Interview with Andy Weir, Author of The Martian

Yesterday I reviewed Andy Weir’s debut novel, The Martian. Mr. Weir graciously agreed to be interviewed via email. 

Andy Weir; Photo (c) Andy Weir

Andy Weir; Photo (c) Andy Weir

When you were writing The Martian, how did writing and science go hand-in-hand? Did you stop to make calculations as the plot came along, or did you have the science planned out parallel to the plot? Or did you have another method altogether?

AW: I did a lot of stuff in advance. But as specific plot points came up I usually had to get much more detailed information. So there was pretty much constant research throughout the process. 

What kinds of books did you read while you were writing, if any? Survival stories? Sci-fi? Nonfiction about the space program?

AW: I actually didn’t read much at all during that period. I had a full time job during the day and I was sinking most of my spare time in to writing. I just didn’t have the time for other leisure activities.

What would be on your data stick if you were headed to Mars? For that matter, what’s on Watney’s?

AW: It’s funny, but I never defined what was on Watney’s data stick. Presumably not a lot of entertainment; probably botany papers and articles. As for me, I guess I’d want tons of TV shows and movies.

photo (74)You dedicated The Martian to your mom and dad; how did they support your scientific and creative inclinations when you were growing up?

AW: Dad and I would make model moon-bases and such when I was a kid. And his collection of classic sci-fi paperbacks is what got me interested in the genre. Mom always pushed me to take my shot at writing. It’s kind of backwards from the usual dynamic. I was usually the one saying I need to be cautious and have a stable career and Mom was encouraging me to take a chance.

What would wisecracking, ingenious (and sweet) Mark Watney give his mom for Mother’s Day before taking off on a mission to Mars?

AW: I hate to cop out, but if I were going to write that in to a book, I would engineer a sweet backstory for the present. Some childhood story that makes a mundane item the perfect gift for his Mom. Off the top of my head: When he was a little kid, he wanted an expensive toy. His mom got it for him and he immediately broke it and she was mad. He found it later in an old box. Knowing his mother is worried sick about him going on the mission, he repaired the toy (he’s good at that sort of thing). He gives it to her and asks her to hold on to it for him till he’s back. 

After the success of The Martian, what’s next on your writing horizon?

AW: I’m working on my next book. I’m keeping the details quiet at the moment because I haven’t pitched it to the publisher yet. I’d like them to hear about it from me first.

My thanks again to Mr. Weir for his time and his thoughtful answers.

An Interview with Mark Wunderlich, Author of The Earth Avails

Yesterday I reviewed Mark Wunderlich’s new book, The Earth Avails. Mr. Wunderlich graciously agreed to be interviewed via email. 

How did The Earth Avails come together as a collection? How did you go about putting the poems in order?

Mark Wunderlich Photo (c) Nicholas Kahn

Mark Wunderlich
Photo (c) Nicholas Kahn

MW: I knew early on which poems I wanted as the first and last poems in the collection.  I opened with a poem which I think of as perhaps one of the only unadulteratedly happy poems I’ve written as it describes walking out into the natural world and feeling fully alive.  The book ends with a sort of extended argument with God, in which the speaker gives over control to a God whose attention is elsewhere, and who is ambivalent to the suffering happening on earth.  This is not a new or original argument to have, but I felt to compelled to have it anyway.  In between these two bookends, I chose and ordered the poems to create variation, modulation of tone and subject.

About half the poems in The Earth Avails take the form of prayers or “heaven letters”; who is the “you” addressed in these poems?

MW: The second person to whom many of the poems are addressed is God.  Mind you, I’m not a believer.  There is no deity. So the God I’m addressing is an emotional and intellectual construct–the center around which I wound a long skein of rhetoric and heightened speech which are poems.  Though I don’t believe in a deity, I do believe in the mystery and glory of the natural world, and I am regularly in awe of it.  The natural world is full of such intelligence, so many patterns and complex interactions, and in my mind these are sacred.  The God in The Earth Avails is a conflation of a Christian God (whom I beg, praise, admonish, flatter and to whom I complain and sometimes eroticize), and my own notions of that which is sacred.

Readers may know that you teach writing and literature at Bennington College. How has teaching affected your writing?

photo (70)MW: I am lucky in that teaching is my vocation–my calling.  I love being in the classroom, and I love teaching my students at Bennington.  Just this week, I was introducing Leaves of Grass to a class of undergraduates at Bennington, and I could see on their faces that the work was opening up to them, and that it was becoming their own–their inheritance.  I teach a variety of writing and literature courses–literature to undergraduates, and writing courses to graduate students–and both sustain me in various ways, particularly because I have a great deal of freedom as to what I teach and how I teach it.  Teaching has allowed me to continue my education and to read more deeply, and teaching also requires that you articulate you thoughts.  As a teacher of writing, I think a great deal about the mechanics of writing, particularly syntax, and the ways in which that influences forms of poetic expression.  I have learned to break down the different components of poems in order to explain them to other people.  These activities have made me a better writer.  That said, teaching takes a great deal of energy–energy not spent on one’s own poems.  Sometimes I do feel as though I am burning my own work so someone else might write theirs, but that’s a false notion.  One can always find twenty minutes.

“Sand Shark” brought to mind Elizabeth Bishop’s “The Fish,” and The Earth Avails is a collection keenly attentive to the natural world. Were you influenced by any nature writers in particular as you were working on these poems? How do you envision poetry’s role in preserving the natural world?

MW: I spent a lot of time reading Virgil’s Georgics as I worked on this book.  I love the sweetness and melancholia of those poems, and I love the ways in which he explains various agricultural tasks and husbandry in poetic form.  He was one of my primary literary influences with this book.  I am also completely entranced by Jorie Graham’s most recent book called Place, in which she contemplates, among other things, the degradation of the environment.  As for the role poetry might play in preserving the natural world, I’m not sure it’s a significant one.  If only it were! Poems can expand our sense of the importance of a subject by creating in readers a greater sense of mystery.  Poems, by applying language to the world, can heighten our sense and also name those things we admire or are moved by, but that heretofore were unsaid or unspoken. I’m afraid, however, that the larger forces that hold sway in the material world–global capitalism and the petroleum economy–are much too powerful.  I’m afraid we are past the point of no return, as far as the level of greenhouse gasses we have put into the atmosphere. The problem is so large and there are so many contrary demands and desires in play that I’m afraid we’ve passed the point of no return.  The future–as far as climate change goes–does not look good for us.  The title of my book, however, is a tiny reminder that the earth itself is indifferent.  The earth will last, but the current patterns of the climate, the current forms of life may not.  The earth will win out.  We will be the ones to lose.

What kinds of projects are you working on now?

MW: It’s spring now, so I’m gardening.  I’m looking after my beehives.  I’m teaching and traveling to give readings.  I’m grading countless student essays.  As far as writing goes, I have a nonfiction project in the works which stems from my travels to places north of the Arctic Circle.  I’m also trying to write new poems.

My thanks again to Mr. Wunderlich for his time and his thoughtful answers.

An Interview with Michelle Huneven, Author of Off Course

Yesterday I reviewed Michelle Huneven’s beautifully-crafted new novel, Off Course. Ms. Huneven graciously agreed to be interviewed via email. 

How would you describe the inception of Off Course? What was the writing process like?

Michelle Huneven (c) Karen Tapia

Michelle Huneven
(c) Karen Tapia

MH: As often happens with me, I started out with one book in mind, but another one happened.  I had wanted to write a novel that charted a woman’s life from childhood to a version of stable adulthood with some years en route spent lost to trouble. Well, that book didn’t happen.  In Off Course, I started right where my heroine,  Cressida Hartley, at age 28, turns off the beaten path.  She’s at a perilous, vulnerable stage, when she’s done with school and about to set forth in life.  She should be settling into a career and making at least general decisions about marriage and family. But first, she has to write her dissertation. For whatever reason, she can’t get going on it. She just can’t.  She makes herself ever-available to distraction and gets lured away from her friends, family, and self. Or, to quote the epigraph, “demons arrive singly and in droves, often taking the form of men.”

In terms of process, I  tried something new with Off Course, which was to write a certain number of words a day. 1000, I think, which is a lot. Too many.  This was not an effective method for me.  To meet my daily goal, I wrote a lot of dreck, some of which stuck to the book for a long time and interfered with plot and shaping. Also, I had to go back and fix every damn sentence. Did forcing myself to produce at such a rate prove a worthwhile exercise for my imagination?  No.
The setting for much of the novel sometimes seems like another character in Off Course. How did you decide to set the novel in the Sierras?

photo (68)MH: My parents had a cabin high up in the Southern Sierras, so it was a geography and community with which I was deeply familiar. I went up to the cabin as a kid, although not with the strict regularity that Cress’s parents dragged her to their A-frame.  I also lived in our cabin briefly when I was trying to write my first novel.

I disliked going to the cabin as a child; I appreciated the landscape more when I lived there as a young adult, even though that wasn’t the happiest time of my life.  But I loved going back there in my mind all the years and months that I was writing Off Course.  The landscape, with its rocks and trees, trails and wild animals, was all there in memory, just waiting to be closely observed.

I did try to go back to the area a few years ago to do research for the book, but a freak snowstorm in May forced me to turn back at 6000 feet.
Cress’s graduate work is in economics, and her dissertation focuses on art in the marketplace. Are readers meant to think of the mountainside community as a kind of marketplace, too, with commodities beyond those merely bought and sold?

MH: The mountain community certainly had its own a singular, improvisational economy. It was tricky for anyone to make a living up there, but then again, for some of my characters, it was the only kind of place where they could make a go of it. The developer of The Meadows was a here-today, gone-tomorrow drunk, but because he was the only person selling property up there, customers had to deal with him.  The fellow who ran the lodge (who charged customers whatever he felt like) and the contractor who built vacation homes (and sometimes overran his bids by more than 100%) could not have stayed in business had there been any, more viable businesses to compete with them.

To get closer to your question— this community seems to be a place where all bets are off.  There’s a whiff of the numinous, of ether, a high altitude queasiness and an out-of-time holiday hilarity that allows certain emotional and financial transactions to occur there, antics that might be out of the question at lower elevations.  One of my readers happily described life on the mountain as “an all day sex party.” Another described it as “an erotic eden.” Both comments point to a rarefied atmosphere where there’s a certain relaxation of inhibitions and a willingness to work the margins of romantic possibility.

Readers may not know that in addition to being a novelist, you’re also a journalist and food writer. If you were choosing a meal to complement a reading of Off Course, what would be on the menu?

MH: Oh gosh—nothing very good for you! We’d start with a bowl of pozole: a clear fragrant broth made from pork, chicken, and chiles, with bits of meat and  plump multicolored kernels of hominy.  Dinner itself would be a pot roast simmered all day in beer with masses of onions.  I’d serve it with chard or kale sauteed—just this once–with bacon.  There would be buttermilk biscuits with sweet butter and a green salad dressed with local olive oil—although to be truer to the spirit of mountain life, you’d probably toss it with that weirdly-flecked Wishbone Italian dressing that’s been in the refrigerator door for at least two years.  Dessert would be peach cobbler made from Bisquick and canned peaches served with ice cream that is slightly crystallized, from melting a bit on the long drive up the mountain and then living too long in a freezer.

What’s a question you hope readers will take away from Off Course?

MH: Is a great, passionate, all-consuming, sometimes-rapturous, obsessive love—a love that could hijack years and potentially cause scarring, if not real damage to its players—something to be desired?  Is the experience worth the pain?

My husband says this question is too one-sided, but he underestimates the romantics among us.

What kinds of writing projects are you planning next?

MH: I have been writing short stories for the past year and a half.  Recently, I’ve started two books, one a historical novel about a brilliant but wrongheaded scientist who once lived on my property and the other a novel about a church and its search for a new minister.  Both take place close by to where I live, in beautiful Altadena, CA.

My thanks again to Ms. Huneven for her time and wonderfully generous answers. You can read more about Ms. Huneven, and Off Course, on Ms. Huneven’s website, www.michellehuneven.com. Follow Michelle Huneven on Twitter: @MHuneven