Thursday, September 26, 2013

Writer, author, speaker Matthew Bayan talks about how writers can avoid shooting themselves in the foot when including guns in a narrative, how he healed his heart condition and why his blistering new novel THE FIRECRACKER KING has a Stephen King comparison

So there I was trying to figure out how to write a crime in my novel and while I found a brilliant forensic expert to help me, I was getting stuck on the gun details. What kind of gun would be used in 1970? What would the crime look like? I googled. I called a cop or two. I emailed people. No one was particularly helpful and I was beginning to panic. I googled some more and came across a link that talked about how "writers could avoid shooting themselves in the foot when they write about guns." I clicked on it and was instantly fascinated. Matthew Bayan is both an author and an expert about what guns can and can't do. (I was fascinated that a silencer on a gun isn't, contrary to every film we've seen, actually silent.) He writes a series of articles (soon to be a book) on firearms in fiction for Mulholland Books/Little Brown and also lectures on the topic and advises writers. Even more amazing, he had a heart attack and managed to reverse his heart disease without surgery, detailing the process in a book that the Dallas Morning News said, "read like a thriller." 

Since Matt helps writers get their fiction accurate, I emailed him for help. There is always a moment when you are on the phone, and you hear yourself say, "But would the blood be gooey or pooling?" that you realize you are happily lost in story world. Matt not only solved my plot issue, he gave me details that were specific, surprising, and oh so real.  I was so fascinated by him (he's also hilariously funny), that I insisted I had to interview him here. I've ordered his new novel, and will report back when I'm finished with it. Thank you so, so much, Matt. 

You not only help writers "not to shoot themselves in the foot" when they write about guns, but you're also a writer yourself, and the author of Eat Fat, be Healthy, which was written after you were brought back from cardiac arrest an astonishing 72 times.  You actually reversed your blockage and you wrote about it in a way that critics said "read like a thriller." How do you write a self-help book that garners praise like that? And what can you tell us about how to have healthy hearts?

I don't see a difference between fiction and non-fiction: they both need to tell a story. I've read a lot of non-fiction and it is frequently boring stuff because the author is usually some kind of expert - doctor, business executive, scientist - and not primarily a writer. When I wrote EAT FAT, BE HEALTHY, I saw my primary job as first engaging readers with the adventure story that my life had become. I wove technical information into that, but story was always the dominant feature.

Your second question is much more difficult to answer. My bottom line is that each person has different genetics and blood chemistry and the cookie-cutter way most cardiologists treat heart disease does not take that into account. The result is a lot of heart attacks that should never have happened. My book was an attempt to lead the reader through the process of how to find the individual diagnosis and care they may need.

Your novel The Firecracker King is funny, whip-smart, and you've been compared to Stephen King. What sparked you to write this novel?  Did anything surprise you in the writing?

A high school reunion triggered the book. The reunion lasted three days which gave lots of time for standing around shooting the breeze. Five or six of my old buddies were exchanging stories; "Do you remember when so-and-so fell off the bridge...?"

Some of the stories were hilarious, some tragic. I had forgotten most of them, so when I got home, I started writing them down. Over the span of a couple years, every time I thought of one of the crazy stories from my childhood, I wrote them and threw them into the same folder.

One day I started reading through them and had the idea that they could be chapters in a book. The same characters kept re-emerging. I developed an overarching story line that pulled the individual stories together and it slowly formed into a novel.

What surprised me? The fact that I survived my childhood. Most of The Firecracker King is based on true events. As I edited and rewrote, a lot of the panic and uncertainty of the 1960s welled up in me and I think the novel is richer for that fact. I was surprised at how important the writing became for me, maybe as a catharsis for fears I had stored deep down and forgotten.

You produce articles for the mystery imprint of Little Brown. You're also the author of  a series of articles (and soon to be a book) all swirling around Firearms in Fiction: Myths, Mistakes, and How to Avoid Shooting Yourself in The Foot--and you are available for hire to help writers get their manuscripts right. How do you know what you know about guns? What things do writers most often get wrong when they are writing about firearms? What drives you the most crazy?

Simple answer: I grew up in New Jersey.

Long answer: My father was a police officer and competed on the police pistol team. I was shooting at the police pistol range by the time I was five. Those many hours spent with my father taught me respect for firearms and made me want to excel at marksmanship. I later got fascinated with the science of what bullets can and cannot do by testing their effects on materials.

Among target shooters there's a natural curiosity about what other shooters are shooting, so we frequently trade weapons at the range, discuss the pros and cons of different pistols and ammunitions. Over a fifty year span, I've fired hundreds of different handguns and learned a lot about their applications in different situations. Being a writer morphed that information into something usable by other writers.

What drives me crazy about other writers? I think most of them have never fired a gun or even touched one. When I do public speaking on the topic, I ask the writers in the audience how many have fired a gun. Fewer than half raise their hands.

Big mistakes? The worst is that writers frequently misuse "silencers." First, it's a suppressor. The device can drastically reduce the sound of the bullet explosion, but it doesn't silence it. However, when I see George Clooney in a movie with a sniper rifle, I want to laugh. A bullet from a high-powered rifle travels at two to three times the speed of sound. It breaks the sound barrier. It creates a sonic boom that sounds like a firecracker. That sonic boom travels behind the bullet until the bullet drops below the speed of sound. There is no way to silence that sound which is almost as loud as the gunpowder explosion.

What's obsessing you now and why?

I'm working on a sci-fi novel that explores the issue of time travel and human existence in a way I have never seen in any other novel. It's finished, but for me the editing and polishing process is truly obsessive. I am sure I go through a novel at least a hundred times using a different filtering perspective each time: just looking at dialogue and if it sounds real and do the characters sound different; just looking at images and replacing description with image; does each main character have an inner ghost that drives them in contrast to their exterior persona; does each chapter end with a reason for the reader to turn the page, etc. on and on.

What question didn't I ask that I should have?

You want me to come up with my own question to ask myself? Looking at myself and my motivations is something I never do and answering these questions has put me in a state of mind where I need a therapy session, but I don't believe in therapy, so I'm really in an existential hell at the moment and don't know how to get out. Oh, wait, here comes lunch. Never mind. All is well now.

Kathleen McCleary talks about her new novel LEAVING HAVEN, writing what you love, and so much more

How could you not be fascinated in someone who was considered for the lead role in The Exorcist when she was a child? I'm thrilled to have Kathleen McCleary here. The author of HOUSE AND HOME and A SIMPLE THING, Kathleen's newest and most wonderful novel, LEAVING HAVEN, explores the thorny bonds of love, marriage, loyalty and parenthood--and the book is a stunner. Kathleen's written an essay about her creative process. Thank you, Kathleen!

 I started writing fiction a decade ago, people often ask the same questions: 1.) “What do you do with all your advance money?” (A: “Not what you think, because it’s not that much”) 2.) “How long does it take to write a novel?” (A: “As long as it takes”) and 3.) “Where do you get your ideas?”

The third is the stumper. The ideas come, and sometimes they come more easily than others. But now that I’m on my fourth book, I know more: the ideas come from what I feel most passionately about, the things I have to talk about. 

Nine years ago I moved from Oregon to Virginia and had to sell a house I loved with all my heart. It was the first house I owned, the house I brought my babies home to, the house I wanted to live in forever. Leaving it was so painful that for months afterward sentences kept running through my brain, sentences describing every nook and cranny of my beloved house. Then this: “And it was because of all this history with the house, all the parts of her life unfolding there day after day for so many years, that Ellen decided to burn it down.”

I didn’t burn down my old house. And I didn’t know the fictional Ellen—yet. But I knew she loved her house and couldn’t stand to give it up, and I missed my house and I missed Oregon and I could write about it with genuine emotion. That emotion led to a finished novel, something I had not imagined I could do.

Even as I wrote my first book, I was navigating the crazy seas of adolescence with my daughters, feeling besieged by Victoria’s Secret panties proclaiming “feeling lucky” and “unwrap me” and the faceless cruelty of teenage texts and tweets and the not-a-minute-to-breathe schedules. Some days I wished I could whisk them off to an island, far away from all that. I wrote a novel about a woman who does exactly that.

Writing what you love is much more compelling than writing what you know. Ideas come from passion, and passion puts your butt in the chair again and again and again. Passion sees you through crappy first drafts and dead ends and long periods of frustration because you love your story and you can’t not tell it.

Sometimes it’s not even the topic you love; it’s the emotion behind the topic. A few years ago my agent said, “If I ever wrote a novel, I’d open it with a woman giving birth and then walking out of the hospital and leaving her baby behind.” I had little interest in writing about babies or mothering and I didn’t think at all about what she’d said until, three or four months later, my husband and I were driving to the grocery store and all at once, I knew. I knew why she left her baby.

The novel that came to me does open with a woman leaving her baby. But it’s not really a novel about babies. It’s about longing for a baby and fearing you’ll never have one—something I had experienced. It’s about making terrible choices and big mistakes and yet feeling compassion for yourself and others who make terrible choices and big mistakes. It’s about integrity, about being whole.

It’s about things I love so much I had to talk about them.

Visit me at

Monday, September 23, 2013

Nancy Jo Sales talks about her astonishing book (which became the Sofia Coppola film) The Bling Ring, celebrity-obsessed young thieves, and so much more

One of the things I love the most about doing this blog is that I get to follow my own passions and seek out the people who interest/thrill/fascinate me. What could me more wonderful? A few weeks ago, my husband and I watched Sofia Coppola's film The Bling Ring. I found it so unsettling and disturbing (in the most wonderful way) because there are no heroes in it. About a ring of celebrity-obsessed kid who break into the homes of people like Orlando Bloom and Paris Hilton and "shop" there, the film isn't just an indictment of the kids--it also has a lot to say about celebrities with rooms full of shoes, dozens of Rolex watches, and such excess that one didn't notice she was robbed until the third time or so. I mentioned how much I loved the film on Facebook and someone told me they knew the woman who had written the initial Vanity Fair story on this ring, and a subsequent book. I tracked down Nancy Jo Sales and she was gracious enough to agree to talk to me. Nancy is a journalist and author whose work has appeared in Vanity Fair, New York and Harper's Bazaar. Her Vanity Fair profile of Kate Gosselin won a 2010 Mirror Award for Best Profile, Digital Media. Her Vanity Fair story, "The Quaid Conspiracy" won a 2011 Front Page Award for "Best Magazine Feature," and her book, "The Bling Ring: how a Gang of Fame-Obsessed Teens Ripped off Hollywood and Shocked the World) was based on her 2010 Vanity Fair piece, "The Suspects Wore Louboutins.""Thank you so much, Nancy, for a fascinating story and a brilliant book.

What made you fascinated by the story of The Bling Ring?

It just seemed like a culmination of stories I’d been doing for years. When I told one of my friends about it he said something like, “This is like a weird dream you’d have. It’s almost like a parody of a ‘Nancy Jo Sales story.’” I guess he meant because I’d done so many stories on kids and crime and rich kids and bad behavior; and of course the starlets.  I did the first story on Paris Hilton, for Vanity Fair in 2000, so I’d sort of been watching this coming for a long time.

What was it like researching the story? What made you want to expand it into a book, and what surprised you about what you found out? 

It was actually pretty hard and intense because there were so many news organizations on the story. I was approached by a book editor last summer (2012), after Sofia Coppola’s movie had already been shot. I only had six months to do the book, so I wasn’t sure if I could do it, but I thought I would give it a try. I wanted to have the chance to say something about the obsession with celebrity culture, which has gotten so out of control, and the conspicuous consumption and greed and inequity in our society, in which so few people now control most of the wealth.

I was surprised at how successful the kids were, that they got away with it for so long.They stole a lot of stuff—more than $3 million worth—over the course of almost a year. The police really had no clue who was doing these things and they didn’t even connect the crimes for a long time. It was the kids’ own bragging at parties and on Facebook that eventually got them caught.

What's so disturbing about the story is the kids' lack of responsibility. They really feel that they just wanted to look good, and this was fine to do. How can they think just because "they didn't kill anybody" it was fine to rob? And did you have a sense that if they were not caught, they'd keep doing it again and again, without ever realizing it was wrong?

I’m sure they’d still be doing it right now if they hadn’t been caught! The real question is all this is “why,” and that’s what I explore in my book. The answer isn’t really all that simple. I found that there were personal reasons these kids got into trouble, of course, but there were also some disturbing trends which could have added to their behavior and their attitudes. The rise in narcissism; the obsession with celebrity; and the obsession with luxury goods and designer brands. The story of the Bling Ring became a way for me to sort of take the cultural temperature.

What I loved so much about your take, and the film's take, was that the celebrities also came out sort of distasteful. Because of the almost obscene excess of their lives, I found it hard to feel too sorry for them. Plus, why on earth didn't these celebrities have better security, especially since many were burglarized more than once? It seemed impossibly easy for anyone to break in. 

Thanks. I love the film. It’s not only this seering indictment of modern celebrity culture, but it’s also a really powerful story about adolescent friendships. I think Sofia did a brilliant job. I think something she also captures is the excess of the celebrities’ lives—the scenes where the kids are robbing Paris Hilton’s closets are probably my favorites, and I have a feeling they will be iconic movie moments of the time we live in. Why didn’t the celebrities have better security? They did have a lot of security, alarms and stuff, but they didn’t always turn it on. Because they were barely kids themselves, rich and famous young people who were dashing off to nightclubs or whatever, and just forgot to lock up.

Do you feel that the film stayed true to your account? If not, what was different?

Sofia kept very close to the article as I reported it, and she stayed close to the characters in real life, although she did fictionalize certain aspects of the case for the film. She made use of my interview transcripts, which I think was a great choice on her part, because she recognized that the real dialogue of the kids was just so fresh and alive. We kept saying, “You can’t make this stuff up.” For example, when Alexis Neiers tells me, “I might lead a country one day,” or when Rachel Lee asks the cops, “What did Lindsay say?” when she was arrested. Probably the most important line in the book and the film is when Nick Prugo says, “We just wanted to be a part of the lifestyle—the lifestyle that everybody kind of wants.” That says it all.

What's obsessing you now and why?

I’d like to see our pop culture provide girls and young women with more positive messages about females and better role models. It’s become unpopular to talk about “misogyny,” or even to admit that exists; we’re even supposed to think “rape jokes” are funny. But if you look around at the landscape, and the fallout, you see that a lot of young women and girls are having a very tough time; and why should this be, when, on paper, women have never had more freedom or choice? The first step is admitting that there’s a problem. Geena Davis has a great organization that is doing just this, the Institute on Gender in Media. There needs to be more frank discussion in the mainstream media. I have a good feeling about the generation that’s coming up now, my daughter’s generation (she’s 13). They seem like new, budding feminists that will take our culture in a better and more positive direction. One can only hope.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Sandra Goroff talks about her new book of photography, Solitary Soul, never planning a shot, artistry, and so much more

I've known and loved Sandra Goroff for a few years now.  Smart, successful, funny, she's one of those people you feel you can tell everything and anything, too. When she told me she was a photographer and was putting together a book, I immediately told her I wanted to look at it. 

And I was stunned. 

Sandy's photos tell stories. They aren't just a captured moment, but they reveal character the way the best novels do. I'm so thrilled to host her here. Thank you, Sandy! 

Please tell us how you became a photographer and more importantly, why.

I don't think one becomes an artist, a photographer or a writer. I think it is something you are born to, something that develops in you but something that has always been there. I have always been interested in art and photography -- as early as I can remember i would frame images in my mind -- even before I ever owned a camera. As a Scorpio and an empath, I am highly tuned into other's feelings -- overly so -- painfully so, at times -- the images I am drawn to -- in people and things are evocative -- images that stir emotions and move me -- even though, sometimes they are sad.

Your photos have this very subtle eye--you think you know what you are seeing, and then another image seems to shine to the surface. Do you plan your photos like this or do they ever surprise you?

I never plan or pose a shot. I don't work in a studio.  I am always surprised and try to be spontaneous. Taking my camera out for a day is like going to a flea market or an antique show (also something I love). You really don't know what you are going to find, what will catch your eye and what you will go home with. It may take a long time to spot the right shot -- but once I do, the process is very fast -- I don't want to lose the moment. I can zoom in very quickly and i recognize my shot in an instant; my heart begins to beat quickly (maybe like love at first sight).

What went into making a book of photography, the choosing of the photos, the text, the everything. What did you want people to feel when looking at your photos?

One of the great thrills of art in general -- and i think that includes writing as well -- is that each person brings their own life and emotional experiences to a book, painting or photo. We have our own filters and sensibilities. I know what I see -- but i also know each person will bring something different to that experience. I don't want to dictate what that might be. I accept the fact that this is something I cannot control.

What's obsessing you now and why?

I am even more obsessed with photography now than ever before. I literally think about it all day -- whether I am editing, reviewing, tweaking, organizing or actively photographing. My mother was an artist. She passed away last year at the age of 95 but really right up to the end she was obsessed with learning new things about painting (and life); that was the quality i most admired about her and I am proud to think i may have inherited it.

What question didn't I ask that I should have?

What artists or photographers have inspired you most?

Edward Hopper, Jackson Pollock, John Marin, Dorothea Lang.....What I find interesting is that artists and writers, as they grow, (and age) seem to recognize that there is power in simplicity. Their later works are less complicated. Even Jackson Pollock's chaotic spatter approach became sparser in time. I am drawn to simple images. I love art and grew up with it. Some have described my photography as "painterly," perhaps this is why.

Sandra Goroff
Photographer, Solitary Soul - Available wherever books are sold.

Natalee Caple talks about her dazzling new novel, In Calamity's Wake, the real Calamity Jane, and why she wrote a profoundly anti-violent Western

Natalee Caple is the author of  the acclaimed short story collection, The Heart is Its Own Reason,  and the novels, The Plight of the Happy People in an Ordinary World,  Mackerel Sky,  and the book of poetry, A More Tender Ocean. Her newest novel, In Calamity's Wake is both profound, provocative, deeply moving, and so much fun to read. But don't just take my word for it. Quill & Quire called it "a taught poetical thriller," and The Toronto Sun said the novel "hurtles along like a runaway train full of wild characters." I'm so honored to have Natalee here today and this is really one of my favorite interviews. Thank you, Natalee!

 What sparked this novel? Why Calamity Jane?

I had just finished writing a novel about a mother-daughter counterfeiting team in the Upper Laurentians influenced by films from the French New Wave and I was living in the Canadian West, in the Rockies, for the first time. The idea of a Western appealed to me because the connection between landscape and culture was so palpable. In Canada, at least, the connection to landscape in the West means that the distance between Canada and America seems less than the distance between Western and Eastern Canada. I fell in love with the mountains, the prairies, the Badlands. I had my children there. I also discovered that the West was so much more diverse and international than I had seen in Westerns and I wanted to put the stories of women, indigenous peoples, Black America, Chinese America, back into the landscape and show the rest of the West. Calamity Jane was an ideal because she travelled and met so many people. She helped the sick and the poor and she was herself a kind of social outcast who was overwritten in popular culture. I wanted a story about the masses and their heroism, about the irreducible value of every human life. When Calamity Jane cared for people dying of yellow fever she risked her own life. When she went into battle and did not shoot another human being but instead pulled people out of battle, she emphasized the value of life. Whether those events happened as they were told or not she became a symbol of North America that was different to me, that showed a desire to resolve conflict, to protect and shelter human life beyond politics.

What was the research like? Did you have a preconceived notion of Calamity Jane? (Mine is actually from that old Doris Day movie about her) and what, if anything, surprised you? 

Once I gave up the idea that I would find out the truth about Calamity Jane (including when she was born or who she was at birth) it was a massive adventure! I devoured films, comic books, novels, digital versions of microfiche of ancient newspapers, biographies of the West that mention her – she was everywhere and nowhere. She was some kind of projection of dreaming America, the dream of being human and imperfect but good. She was a cipher that was also a real person and she seemed to have suffered somewhat under the burden of performing herself to survive. I thought it would be a book about an angry daughter hunting down the mother who had abandoned her but it became a dialogue between women about their journeys. I realized how much we need stories of women’s diversity to provide us with a context for our every experience, even failures. My daughter and my son, our daughters and our sons need their maternal legacies as well as their paternal legacies so they can understand their whole selves. 

Why tell the story primarily from the viewpoint of Calamity’s daughter, rather than Calamity herself?

Well, Calamity Jane is the mystery. She’s composed of myth and reality and she means something but it’s hard to know what. You get to see her as a greater than life mythical character, a distant third hand memory, a creature who appears in print and on film, a memory, a version recalled by a friend, a version of herself as she would tell it and other ways. I wanted to show Miette’s longing for her adoptive mother before she could know it. I wanted to show how real her beloved adoptive father was to her, what a solid life he had given her. I wanted to show how fame distorts and yet become part of who someone is in the world, how fiction and reality collaborate. I wanted to show how difficult it is to get to the truth of someone so famous that they don’t completely belong to themselves anymore. I wanted the biological mother who gave her child up to be shrouded in questions. So, if it had been from the point of view of Calamity Jane it would have been too stable, too falsely clear who she was. 

At one point, Calamity says, a lie is a thing. Can you talk about that? 

Yes, thank you for asking! A lie here means something told that comes to have a life of it’s own, like a story in a book, or a story you tell about your own life in conversation, or a speech given. It’s not a bad thing but it has no responsibility to you once it is out in the world. And it matters; it has a reality. If Calamity Jane was or was not everything that was said about her, it’s not her fault and it does not matter. The biographers will suffer but the arrangement they make of facts is a lie as well. Stories act in the world. They represent some need in the telling. All stories, no matter how close to detailed events, are arrangements that help us communicate something going on inside of us that wants to move out of us into the world. We tell stories to make things happen or to make them make sense. So a lie is a thing, a real thing, that effects people and the culture and becomes real when it does so. A lie can help you envision a future that you can then strive for, for example. I only use the word lie because Calamity Jane has been so abused by those who seek to debunk her as a hero and make her seem weak and unwholesome, pathetic for being poor and human.

Let’s talk about craft. What kind of writer are you? How do you go about figuring out your story, and what were the perils--and the delights--of this one.

I play a lot. I play with ideas and I follow odd leads in research and think about all the different ways a story can be told and what it means to tell it one way versus another. I’m a feminist writer so I’m primarily interested in women characters who show how complex women’s histories are. I follow Helene Cixous in seeing women’s absences in stories as opportunities to re-engage with genres I have loved since childhood. My writing is me engaging with the world and thinking through the landscape, the animals, the people around me as if I could change myself enough to see everything again through some other perspective. Writing is also the place where I work through how to be human in the face of terrible evidence of human cruelty, human ignorance, human damage. I start with a joke, often. And then I look for pictures, I walk the landscape, I watch movies, I draw, I look up recipes – it’s a very immersive process most of which is only known by me. But when the writing is going well I feel like a beast doing the thing it does, very alive.

What’s obsessing you now and why? 

Women pirates. My husband bought me an old non-fiction book about women pirates for Christmas and I can feel that flame catching.

What question didn’t I ask that I should have? 

Hmm, you asked great questions so I don’t know. I can tell you that when I was writing In Calamity’s Wake my cousin Heather was murdered by an eighteen-year-old boy who wanted to kill someone in front of his friends. I lost contact with humanity at that point. I just kind of fell off the world and I decided not to finish the novel. Art seemed useless against the violence that could just come from anywhere at any time. But I had to finish the draft to fulfill my promises (grants had been given, it was part of my PhD). So when I went back to work I was miserable, sifting though photos and notes. Once day I saw picture of Calamity Jane and she looks – it’s eerie – she looks just like Heather. And they don’t have faces that you see everywhere; they have unusual faces. But they look the same. I just started crying and I knew that I could go back in and write a Western that could be profoundly anti-violence. That’s when Calamity Jane became Heather for me.

Friday, September 13, 2013

Lionel Shriver, Louise Erdrich, and Me! IS THIS TOMORROW is a 2013 Great Group Reads Pick

National Reading Group: GREAT GROUP READS

2013 Selections

I am thrilled, honored and totally jazzed that my novel IS THIS TOMORROW has been selected as one of the Women's National Book Association's National Reading Group Great Group Reads. These selections will be promoted in ten cities, through bookstores, libraries, and press releases and in October, for National reading Group Month, WNBA chapters around the country will be hosting author programs to celebrate the event, reaching out to their book groups and to the reading public.

Thank you, WNBA! And thank you, Great group Reads!

Sunday, September 8, 2013

The very wonderful John Searles talks about Help for the Haunted, terrifying demon dolls, his puppy Ruby, staring at the ceiling while working, and so much more

John Searles is one of those people you can't help but adore. Not only is he a fabulous writer, he's generous to other writers, he's hilariously funny,  and you're just glad he's out there in the world. Books editor at Cosmopolitan and NBC'S Today Show, he's also the author of Boy Still Missing and Strange But True, and his newest novel, Help for the Haunted is already racking up the raves (it's got starred reviews just about everywhere and is already on many Best Of lists) and justifiably so. Literate and terrifying, the novel is about Sylvie Mason and her parents, who help "haunted souls" find their peace. But the book is also about mysterious family secrets, with an ending you'll never see coming. Unsettling, scary and unforgettable, it makes you see the world differently. I'm so honored to host John here. Thank you, John!

It’s been a few years since you published your last astonishing novel, Strange But True. You seem to do just about everything on the planet, from being the books editor at Cosmopolitan and NBC’s Today Show, and writing. How do you ever find time to write--and to do it so brilliantly?

If only it were a few years since Strange But True. Recently, at lunch with my editor, I made the same comment about it being a few years and she stopped me to ask, “Do you really want to know how long it has been?” I promptly put my napkin over my head to hide then gripped the table and told her to lay it on me. Well, it’s nine years. Let me repeat: NINE YEARS since Strange But True! I almost died. 

So to answer your question, the way I am able to do so many things is that I take my time. But I have accepted it. The first two books came quickly and this one came very slooooowly. What matters most is that I’m proud of the story and the way it came out.

I always want to talk about craft, so tell me how this novel sparked. Did you have it all mapped out, or do you follow your muse (mine always seems missing in action). At what point did you know how the book was going to end, and what pieces of the story to withhold for maximum drama? 

Originally, I was writing a novel about a girl in her twenties who goes away to an island to take care of a reclusive mystery writer. There was so much about that novel I loved, but it just never came together. Thankfully, my literary agent had the good sense to intervene. One day, she showed up at my house with the whopping 500 pages I’d written and broke it to me that it was not working. We spent the entire day and well into the night discussing what the problems were and what, if anything, could be salvaged. In the end, the only thing I kept was the main character’s name: Sylvie Mason. I had this idea about her being orphaned and left in the care of her troubled older sister. So I started writing that story and stuck with it. I’m lucky it worked out on the second go-round!

The novel is also many things at once--a terrifying thriller, a creepy scarefest, and an astute psychological drama about the coming of age of one remarkable narrator.  How did you manage such alchemy?

Thank you for saying that. This story was way more challenging than anything I’ve ever done creatively. I guess that’s because I was trying lots of things: telling the story from the perspective of a young girl, combining a murder mystery with a ghost story with a coming of age tale and a family drama. Believe me, there were times when I’d just lay on the floor and stare at the ceiling trying to figure out how to piece everything together. When that didn’t work I’d do push-ups—I do so many of those writing this book I should probably start wearing a bra by now because my chest got so big…haha! I’d also go for crazy long runs to puzzle things out.

Help for the Haunted has one of the most cinematic openings I’ve read. Was this always the way you knew the book would start? 

Well, I started Strange But True with a phone call in the middle of the night as well, so I guess I’ve hit my quota on that sort of opening. But think about it: is there anything more startling than your phone ringing late at night? It just gets your attention and cranks up your fear right away. So that’s how I saw this story beginning….and then came the snowstorm and the drive to the church. Originally, I wrote the scene with Sylvie inside the church, but I realized at some point that it was more compelling to stop at the point when she reaches the door.

The novel is both truly terrifying, undeniably creepy, and it has that DOLL, Penny.  Did you do research into the supernatural at all, and what about your research surprised (or even better, scared) you?

I read lots of books about the history of demons and spirits. It was fascinating to learn about some of the unusual things that “believers” have done in different cultures at various times. Mostly, though, I just used my imagination. I never wanted the story to cross over into the sort of fiction where suddenly people are moving objects with their minds or they sprout fangs or fly through the air. Nothing wrong with those kinds of stories but that territory seems so well-tread by now. Once things cross over into that sort of situation, things feel weirdly familiar since readers have seen so much of that in fiction. As a result, the familiarity makes it way less scary. But how much scarier to keep things grounded in reality and let the reader wonder what the hell is going on? 

What’s obsessing you now and why?

Right now, I am obsessed with my puppy Ruby, who arrived on my birthday this year in June. I started her own Twitter page so if people want to share my obsession check her out at @ohmygoditsruby.

What question didn’t I ask that I should have?

How am I so handsome? Hahaha. Just kidding. No, I think you covered it all, Caroline. Thanks for having me on your blog!

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Sneak Peak of the sublime Lizzie Skurnick Books List!

Lizzie Skurnick Books

Sneak Peak: Spring 2014

We're no good at sitting on our hands. We hope you'll love these as much as we do.

WRITTEN IN THE STARS, by Lois Duncan. APRIL 2014
A completely original collection of author's earliest stories, published when she was as young as 18 in magazines such as Seventeen and American Girl. With the author's introduction and accompanying essays.

MORE ALL-OF-A-KIND FAMILY, by Sydney Taylor. MAY 2014
The first sequel to the beloved ALL-OF-A-KIND FAMILY series, following our favorite five Jewish girls on the turn-of-the-century Lower East Side. With an introduction by Taylor scholar June Cummins.

LUDELL, by Brenda Wilkinson. JUNE 2014
Growing up in the 1950s South with her grandmother, Ludell is a budding writer, dreamer, and keen observer of the changing world around her. With an introduction by the author.

ALL-OF-A-KIND FAMILY UPTOWN, by Sydney Taylor. JUNE 2014
When the family moves uptown, Mama gets sick. But there's wonderful new neighbors, new responsibilities, and, of course, the obsession of decades of readers: a mysterious TEA-DYED DRESS.

AND THIS IS LAURA, by Ellen Conford. JULY 2014
Being the least talented member of your family seems like the most annoying fate in the world. That is, until you can see all your relatives' futures, your classmates' futures -- and your own.

Tatiana, a teen sophisticate on New York's Upper West Side, is grown up enough to handle her parents' divorce, becoming a movie star, sex, and young love. Almost. With an introduction by Judy Blume.

September: Lois Duncan in NYC

We could not be more thrilled to announce that Lois Duncan is coming to New York to celebrate the release of DEBUTANTE HILL! You can catch her Sunday, September 15, 1:30 p.m. at YA Lit at 92nd Street Y: Lois Duncan in conversation with Maureen Johnson (INFO)Monday, September 16th, 5:30 p.m. at McNally-Jackson Books, signing and reading (INFO); and Tuesday, September 17th, 7 p.m. at the Lizzie Skurnick Books launch party (INFO). Live very much elsewhere? Read this greatQ&A with Lois in Publishers Weekly, or look out for her upcoming appearance on Sirius XM's Bob Edwards show.

Shelfie alert: Win one of 5 free copies of Debutante Hill!

We want to see your YA shelves! The collection at LSB HQ takes up so many bookcases it is literally impossible to accurately or comprehensively photograph. HOWEVER, whether you are an obsessive hoarder, a picky preservationist, or simply keep your battered copies in your childhood bedroom, send us a Shelfie of your collection! The first 5 will win a free copy of DEBUTANTE HILL signed by the author, and one lucky winner will get A TOTE AS WELL. 

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Joyce Maynard talks about AFTER HER, working through a story problem, using a true story, why she sets her novels in other times than our own, and so much more

Joyce Maynard became famous at 18. That’s right, 18. When she was a freshman at Yale, she published “An 18-year-old Looks Back on Life” in the New York Times, which caught the attention of J. D. Salinger. Known for her extraordinary honesty, (I've never met anyone with such an open heart), she’s the author of fifteen novels, including To Die For, and her stunning memoir, At Home in the World, has been reissued with a new preface, and recorded by Joyce for the first time in its entirety. Her novel Labor Day will soon be out as a major motion picture directed by James Reitman. Joyce teaches writing workshops, performs as a storyteller at The Moth, and her work has appeared just about everywhere. (I know, you’re asking, is there nothing this woman can’t do?) 

Her newest novel, After Her, is about the loss of innocence, the enduring love of sisters, and the persistence of hope. Based on a true story, After Her follows two sisters living in an area where a serial killer is at large, their determined homicide detective father, and the killer himself.

I'm so honored to have Joyce here. Thank you so, so much, Joyce.

I love the story of how you came to write this novel, and how you changed the original story to craft something so dazzlingly original. Can you talk about this please?

I was hosting one of the memoir workshops i teach now and then in the living room of my house in Marin County, California.  Among the women who'd shown up that day to work with me that day were two sisters, now in their forties. Laura and Janet. 

I liked these two women right away, and I felt moved by something about them that was both very strong and very vulnerable at the same time.  I felt, immediately, the extraordinary closeness between these two. I knew something had happened to them, when they were young, that had made them very, very close. As one of two sisters myself, I felt I was in the presence of a rare and powerful bond. 

My living room--where we'd gathered to work on the true life stories of the group--looks out on a pretty dramatic view.  My house , which is situated about ten miles north of San Francisco, sits very close to the peak of a mountain known as Tamalpais.  It’s a beautiful place, but haunting too.  And it is this mountain that I'd seen first every morning when I got up, for over fifteen years, and that I’d seen throughout my writing day, from the window over my desk as I write.  I hike a lot , alone on this mountain.  It’s a big presence in my life.

I had been aware for years that a series of murders of women had taken place on the hiking trails of this mountain, back in the seventies and early 80's.  More than thirty years later, people who lived in the area were still haunted by the two-year period in which the killer had remained at large.  But the story of those long-ago events took on a new power for me that day at my writing workshop, meeting those two sisters, Laura and Janet, when they told me that back when they were young--age 13 and 11-- their father had been the homicide detective in charge of the investigation of those killings.  This was known as the Trailside Killer case.

The two sisters spoke that day of the weight their father had felt, and the sorrow, as months passed --and then years--in which he failed to apprehend the Trailside Killer.  Eventually, the killer was arrested by a different police officer, in a different jurisdiction, and brought to trial.  But it was the belief of the two sisters that their father had never gotten over that case.  He died, in his early forties, not long after the trial. 

Though I love a good story (and try, with every novel I write, to give one to my readers ), I am not a writer of crime fiction. And I am not ultimately as interested in the mind and actions of a psychopath as I am in the lives and relationships of so-called ordinary people:  Husbands and wives.  Parents and children.  Brothers and sisters.  Or…sisters. 

But the moment I knew I wanted to tell this story --a fictionalized version of it--occurred in my kitchen, later that day, as I was washing dishes after the workshop.  The other people who’d come to my house that day had gone home, but Laura and Janet had stayed on after , to help clean up.  This was when Laura told me the story of how--years after the death of her father, when in her forties--she had written a letter to the prison where the killer remains incarcerated , asking if she might visit him. 

Her goal for that visit sounded like that of a very young girl.  She had this dream that if she went to see the killer on Death Row in San Quentin, she might actually extract from the killer the confession her father (and all the other police officers) had never managed to gain from him. More simply, she told me, she wanted to look into his eyes, see what her father had seen, and maybe --by doing this--locate some understanding of her father's experience in those last years he spent, chasing the man. 

And she went to visit him, on Death Row in San Quentin.  And the experience had not provided any of the answers or resolution she’d sought.

I imagined what it would be like, to be haunted, into adult life, by events that had taken place decades before. Well, in fact I know a thing or two about this feeling—as, in some form or other, I think many of us do.  I wanted to imagine how a person like Laura, but a fictional character, created by me, might, in a novel I’d write, locate the resolution real life had failed to provide for her.

So--knowing they had no further interest to write about this themselves--- I asked Laura and Janet if they'd be willing to let me write a work of fiction that would portray some of what they'd experienced (but with a lot of invention, too.)  They gave me their blessing.  And over the course of the nearly two years that followed, while I was writing After Her, they tirelessly offered their assistance . 

In the novel I wrote, I wanted to look at how the lives of two young girls--at a crucial moment in their own coming of age--would have been affected by growing up in the shadow of a series of serial killings in their back yard.  I wanted to explore their relationship with their father, a handsome and utterly charming, irresistible hero figure (a man I would have fallen in love with myself, in fact, if I’d known him), whom they watched slowly being crushed by the weight of his failure to resolve this case.  

And I wanted to explore the inner life of a thirteen year old girl, who actually believes (as only a thirteen year old can, perhaps) that she possesses the power to channel the feelings of the killer , to identify who he is, and then to trap him.  Using herself as bait.  

I wanted to understand the bond of these two sisters, and their deep love for their larger-than-life and deeply-flawed father.  And I wanted to go deep into the world, and sexuality, of young girls , at the moment they're trying to make sense of so much in the world around them.  Sex being high on the list. At its core, that's what my novel is about:  girls trying to make sense of the dark, sometimes violent world around them.  And to make sense of their own sexuality. 

The novel has this unsettling and growing power that keeps you in its grip. In fact, while reading on the train, I was so upset, the conductor actually came by and asked me, "Are you all right?" And I wasn't. Because of your book. How did you figure out the structure of the book so that it would slowly and powerfully grab readers like that? Was it a totally conscious choice on your part, or did it surprise you, too?

First off, Caroline:  I want to say I love it that I pulled you so deeply into my story.  As a writer, it's my goal to take a reader so far outside of her own self that she might inspire a train conductor to ask if she needed help.  

As for how I accomplish the suspense in my novel:  It's never a consciously constructed thing.  Although I name many writers among my friends, who plan out every beat of a story, my own way when writing is to bring to life the most authentic and moving characters I can render on the page, and then let them determine what they will do.  I know this may sound a little crazy, but I often end up feeling (and did, writing After Her) that I am not so much constructing a story as experiencing it unfolding, in the voices of my characters.  Often this involves watching a story unfold in ways I could never have predicted. 

The novel is also stunningly filmic. Having had your novels turned into films, do you feel that you are more conscious now of story as it translates to film--or does that never enter your mind?

Well, just the other day I got to sit in a dark movie theater and watch the first-ever screening of the absolutely terrific film adaptation of my novel Labor Day.  (It won't be officially released until Christmas Day, but there was this advance showing of the movie, and people were just loving it .  You could actually hear people weeping, in the theater, at a couple of places in the movie (an actually , though I'd seen the film before,  I wept a little myself.)

Did I set out to write a story that would be adapted by film, or sit down and say to myself “Go write a role for Kate Winslet and Josh Brolin”? 

No.  But I saw this movie in my head, before I’d written the first line.

I don't consciously set out to write novels that could be turned into movies.  But I certainly love a good story, and I am a lover of movies.  So when I write, I am actually describing the movies I imagine, projected inside my head.  (I am the screenwriter.  But I am also the director.  The lighting person.  I compose the soundtrack.  Imagine the wardrobe choices of my characters.  I hear the soundtrack.  And of course, I am the editor.  And I am the woman who buys the ticket and sits in the front row as the projector begins to roll.

The budget for these movies in my head is just a whole lot lower than the budget for even a small indie film, by the way.  I have said this before, but it's really true:  I am sitting there at my keyboard, typing as fast as my fingers can go, to keep up with the movie going on in my head. I am right there with my reader:  longing to find out what will happen. 

There are so many unexpected reveals and revelations in the book, that I was as unsettled as I was stunned. How much of this is planned out in advance?

None of it.  I let my instincts and knowledge of human nature direct me in my writing. 

I'll tell you a story here, about a place where I got stuck for a while in the writing of After Her.  I need to tell you this without giving anything away for your readers who haven't read my novel yet, because of course I hope they will want to.  But you'll understand what I'm talking about, as will any reader of the novel, when she gets to a certain point in the story. 

So….There is this point in the story where the two sisters --having worked to lure the killer to a place where they might actually confront him—do in fact encounter the murderer.  Only they get more than they  bargained for.  They find themselves totally alone on this mountain, with a serial killer coming towards them--a man who has killed many times before, and one who would have no problem doing so again. 

I needed to get these girls out of this terrifying situation.  But I didn't want to have some big strong man with a gun saving the day. I wanted them to be the architects of their own survival, and triumph over the killer.  

But how?  I racked (WRACKED? SP?) my brain for weeks.  Months, I think.  Sometimes I'd wake up in the middle of the night, to try out some new scenario on the  endlessly patient man lying next to me, who was my boyfriend at the time.  (He's now my husband.  We got married this summer.  He didn't run the other way, even after being awakened in the night more times than I can remember, to talk this through.)

But my breakthrough in figuring this out came when I was all alone, renting a little cabin on the Russian River this last winter.  I'd gone there to work on After Her, and I was stuck on this problem of the girls on the mountain with the killer. 

It was the middle of the night.  I'd been up in the night once again, trying to figure out not simply "a plot device" but what two girls like the sisters in my novel might actually do in a situation like the terrifying one in which I'd placed them. 

And then it came to me.  You know what they do, of course. I won't say it here (because I want the people reading this to read my book).  I will just tell you that the action they took came directly out of a game the two real sisters, Laura and Janet, had told me about, that they used to play a lot, growing up.  The kind of game a couple of young girls would not play in the year 2013, if they were spending their lives texting and going online, instead of being out on their own, cooking up their own adventures as my two  characters do, living in an era that predated all this technology. )

And when I came up with this solution for my girls, I have to tell you what i did .  In the middle of the night, in the darkness of my little cabin, I burst out laughing.  It was so perfect for these two.  It felt like just what an eleven year old and a thirteen year old would cook up , if they were facing a serial killer.  (This eleven and thirteen year old, at least.)  

And so I burst out laughing. 

What's obsessing you now, and why?

I always want to tell a good love story.  There's a great one in my novel, Labor Day, and actually--though this is not the central story in my new novel--there's a love story that made me cry a little in After Her too.  I go back and back to love. And to families, and family secrets.  And the longing I think we all feel , or felt , if we didn’t have this growing up, to be part of a happy family. 

My obsessions don't change, in fact.  They resurface in every novel I write --just in different forms.  

You know, there's this image that appears, in some form or other, in several of my novels (as it does, in this new one.)  I didn't even realize this until I sat down a few months back, with my first bound copy of After Her in hand, and read it start to finish for the first time.  It's the image of a character looking through a window somewhere, and imagining that the people on the other side of the glass are having this wonderful, happy life.  

I remember doing that myself, when I was young.  (Or maybe as recently as a few weeks ago?  )   Looking in a window at night, maybe, at this warm and glowing scene….

In After Her, my two young girls engage in a variation on this behavior.  Children of divorce, whose mother has checked out, whose father is off somewhere with a woman who isn't their mother, and left to their own devices, they actually position themselves on a hillside, outdoors, at night--huddled together under a blanket-- and look in their neighbor's picture window, to watch soundless reruns of The Brady Bunch.  And imagine what it might be like, to be those characters.  

That a was me, at their age, more or less, though the television shows I watched, and the fantasy families I pictured myself part of, came from an earlier time.

What question didn't I ask that I should have? 

You can ask me why my last four novels have been set in times other than those we live in now.  (After Her takes place mostly in 1979 and 1980.  Labor Day is largely set in the year 1987.  The Good Daughters goes from the fifties to the present , but my main characters are young in the sixties and seventies.   And The Cloud Chamber is set in 1967.)

Here's why:  Although in my daily life I avail myself of the usual technology (laptop , iPhone, iPad), I find these devices singularly soul-less to write about.  There's something brittle and cold about a scene in which a character--instead of talking with a character, or picking up the phone, or writing a letter--sends a text.  And there is nothing remotely dramatic, or visual, or romantic--nothing to get the heart beating faster--about a character sitting at a desk somewhere, typing on a keyboard. 

I want to get my characters out into the world, in nature, on a mountain, under the stars.  I wanted to give the characters of my two sisters the kind of adventures few young people get to have any more.  I think, here, of one of my favorite movies of all time:  Stand By Me.  In some ways, I wanted to write a real life Little Red Riding Hood tale.  I wanted to write a story with some of that feeling, of setting young people out into the world --one not wholly safe, or free from anxiety, but a real world--and then watch how they navigate their way out of the woods.  The darkest woods being the territory of sexuality, of course. That's the place they're wandering around in.  It's a place of beauty and terror, all at once.  I wanted to capture both .