Thursday, July 2, 2015

Lisa Gornick talks about LOUISA MEETS BEAR, being a psychologist and writing case studies for characters, turning linked stories into a novel, and so much more

 Extraordinary writing; I fell in love on the first page.
–Barbara Hoffert, Library Journal

 Of course I had been hearing all the buzz surround the book Louisa Meets Bear, a complex, dazzlingly original story about love and loss, but when I met Lisa Gornick at a panel we were doing together, I found that I liked her as much as I liked her book, which made me want to interview her even more. She is also the author of the novels A Private Sorcery and Tinderbox, and her stories and essays have appeared in Agni, The Huffington Post, The New York Times, Prairie Schooner, Slate and The Sun, and have received many honors including Distinguished Story by the Best American Short Stories. Lisa, thank you!  Let's have coffee soon!

 I always want to know what sparks a book? What was haunting you at the time that made you want to write this?

This book started as individual stories--some of which date back in their earliest versions several decades.  Originally, I set out to put together a collection, but as I reread the pieces, I had the uncanny feeling that together they told a larger story about some of the social and psychological transformations that have taken place over the past fifty years.  Threaded throughout the book are characters who move from working-class communities into upper-class ones, struggle to find the place of work and children in their lives, and traverse different phases and kinds of love.  
What’s your writing process like? Do you map things out or just follow that pesky muse?

With poems, stories and essays, I can, for the most part, hold the piece in my mind, beginning with a strong impulse and seeing where it will take me. It's only after I have the first draft that I step back and look at it with a cooler, editor's eye, searching for what's missing, what's superfluous--what are the themes. By contrast, I can't hold a novel in my mind save with the broadest strokes. With both of the novels I've published and with the one I'm at work on now, I've done an enormous amount of preliminary work. What that preliminary work consists of has evolved as I've evolved as a writer. For my first novel, A Private Sorcery, I wrote case studies for each of the characters with the aim of knowing them as well as my closest intimates. With my second novel, Tinderbox, I did the same, but I also spent a great deal of preliminary time working out the storyline and how it would unfold so as to allow for dramatic tension and elements of mystery. With my new novel, I've added the goal of trying to create an elegant structure such that the aesthetic experience of the book moves beyond language and includes its form, as is the case in some of my favorite novels.

I deeply admired the structure of Louisa Meets Bear., the way the stories are linked, the connections made between the characters and unmade. Did you know this was going to be the structure when you started, or did it evolve?

I started with two independent sets of linked stories, one of which is the title story, "Louisa Meets Bear. It was clear to me that this story, with its four main characters--Louisa, the skittish daughter of a molecular geneticist, raised in the wake of her mother's mysterious death; Bear, the hot-tempered son of a plumber, who has made his way to their elite college on an athletic scholarship; Andrew, the son of a radical political science professor, who is attempting to define himself through his risky travels; and Corrine, Louisa's once babysitter and now sexually adventurous best friend--was the heart of the collection, and that the story about a mother and daughter (transformed in the book into Louisa's aunt and her cousin Lizzy) that begins in 1961 should be the prequel.  Four of the other stories, originally written without any of these characters, could, it occurred to me, become later chapters in the lives of Bear, Andrew, Corrine, and the daughter who Lizzy gives up for adoption.

The idea about how to link what was now eight stories was the easy part; effecting the transformation--fitting the pieces together chronologically and psychologically--then took a great deal of work and rewriting. This left a long story, "Priest Pond," what has been called the most Alice Munroish piece of the collection, both in terms of its themes and the wide lens it casts on its rural protagonist.  I knew "Priest Pond" was a thematic fulcrum in the larger narrative, but it took me a while to discover how and why it connected. The only character whose future remained open was Louisa, who returns in the final story (or chapter, for those who experience the book as a novel)--a story that stands alone, as do the others, but was written specifically as the ending of this book.

I always want to know if anything surprised you in the writing?

I was surprised by the many ways a story can be simultaneously told. In the opening chapter, Lizzy narrates a traumatic event in her mother's life as she imagines her mother having experienced it, as her mother tells it to her, and as it shapes each of their futures outside their dyad in different ways. Similarly, in the title story, Louisa moves between an imagined narration to Bear of the events they've lived out together, an actual narration of these events to her friend Corrine, and her own ultimate self-reflection about them.  

You’re a former psychotherapist, which I find fascinating, since to write a great novel, you really have to understand people. But did you find that working as a psychologist, exploring other  peoples’ lives, made you yearn to create lives on the page?
The link went the other way.  I was both a voracious reader as a child, the kind of kid who could spend an entire summer primarily with books, and an early scribbler of journals and poems. It was on account of the storytelling on which psychotherapy is based that I became interested in psychology.  My first exposure to psychotherapy was actually in a prison, where I worked during college as a volunteer tutor. The program was run by a charismatic ex-con who (strangely, it seems to me now) invited me to sit in on the group therapy sessions he conducted with some of the prisoners.  I was fascinated not only by the stories the prisoners told, but by the ways they unfolded within the group therapy context -- and the transformative power of the experience for both the narrator and his listeners.   

What’s obsessing you now and why?

I have a first draft of a new novel, replete with its own obsessions, both technical and thematic. On a technical level, I'm obsessed with what James Wood calls "free indirect style"--the economical and elegant way an author can slip in and out of interior monologue--and how far a writer can safely assume a reader can follow this undulation.  I'm also obsessed with how tight-frame novels--books that take place in a circumscribed time frame--can simultaneously tell the story of an entire life without clunky flashbacks so that the narration of the story outside the frame feels as fresh and alive as the story within the frame. On the thematic level, I continue my obsession with the tyranny of perfect surfaces as a sadistic denial of the inevitable processes of decay and death, and with the tragic way that we limit possibilities for joy in our lives. 

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

You've covered a lot of ground!  Thank you, Caroline, for your wonderful blog and for this interview...

Internationally bestselling author Sophie Hannah talks about WOMAN WITh A SECRET, the dangers of social media, pathological liars, writing and more

 Sophie Hannah not only a commerical success (her books are in 32 languages and 51 territories), she's a critical one, compared to Ruth Rendell, Tana French and more. 32 languages and 51 territories. 

In 2013, Sophie’s novel, The Carrier, won the Crime Thriller of the Year Award at the Specsavers National Book Awards.  Two of Sophie’s crime novels, The Point of Rescue and The Other Half Lives, have been adapted for television. Sophie has also published five collections of poetry. Her fifth, Pessimism for Beginners, was shortlisted for the 2007 T S Eliot Award. Her poetry is studied at GCSE, A-level and degree level across the UK. From 1997 to 1999 she was Fellow Commoner in Creative Arts at Trinity College, Cambridge, and between 1999 and 2001 she was a fellow of Wolfson College, Oxford.

 I always ask writers what the “spark” moment was for his or her book. What was haunting you that led to this story?

There were two sparks for Woman With a Secret really - a plot spark and a thematic/psychological spark.  The first was that I was out walking in the country one day, rehearsing in my mind a fantasy argument with someone who had annoyed me - an argument I knew I'd never be brave enough to start in real life.  I imagined myself making many astute points and totally winning the argument - and then I realised that, as a direct result of this chain of thought, I had a brilliant idea that I could put in a crime novel - a reason why a killer might need to murder someone with a knife, but not by stabbing them.  So, the murder victim in Woman With a Secret has had a sharp knife taped over his mouth, and he's suffocated to death - and the first question police have to answer is: if you want to murder someone, and you have a sharp knife to hand, why not simply stab them?

The thematic spark for the novel was my growing awareness that for many people, our online lives are increasingly important.  More and more, our virtual selves are equal counterparts to our actual selves, existing side by side.  This creates huge potential for the leading of double lives that are secretive and deceitful - all of which is a fantastic opportunity for a thriller writer! I was and am fascinated by questions like: which is more real, our secret online identity or the person we pretend to be in our real, public lives? How do we trust people we meet only online - or should we never do so?  Is anonymity - for ourselves and others - threatening or liberating?  Nicki, the heroine of Woman With a Secret, is a respectable, apparently happy wife and mother on the surface, but her more complex true self seeks an outlet online, which lands her in the middle of a high profile murder case...

Writing a mystery as taut and gripping as this one requires skilled planning--so, how do you do it? Do you map everything out? Do you follow your pen and hope the answers will reveal themselves?

I always plan meticulously.  Before I start writing the book, I have a 30 to 40 page chapter-by-chapter, scene-by-scene plan.  I think of it as the equivalent of the architect’s drawing of a house.  It's no substitute for the real thing, but it enables you to see and conceptualise the whole construct in miniature, and think, 'Hang on - there aren't enough bathrooms, and the kitchen window's in the wrong place.'  This then enables you to make corrections at the planning stage and avoid writing things that don't work into the novel itself.  I think you can tell, when you read a novel, especially a crime novel, whether its story architecture is sound or not.

I was fascinated that Nicki’s connection with the victim was all online. How dangerous do you think social media really is?

Very.  Dangerous but also exciting - how many wonderful relationships have started online, with just words on a screen?  But yes, very dangerous too.  We only have to look at Twitter to see how cruel people can be. Jon Ronson’s wonderful and important book So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed describes the problem very movingly and eloquently.  Online life can be punitive and compassionless, with not enough thought given to how our certainly that we're right and virtuous might affect the frail egos of other flawed but essentially well-meaning humans.  This is one of the major themes of Woman With a Secret.  Damon Blundy, the murder victim, is a controversial journalist who makes it his project to defend, against a mob of online detractors, an athlete who has been banned for life after taking performance-enhancing drugs.

I want to quote this line from your fabulous Kirkus Review:  “Hannah, who plots rings around most of the competition, shares Ruth Rendell’s shivery conviction that there are still darker secrets than whodunit, how and why.”  Can you talk about those darker secrets:

The most dangerous secrets are the ones that we keep from ourselves: who we really are versus who we think we are.  How many inadequate bullies prefer to think of themselves as kind and wise? How many desperate sex addicts imagine they are simply normal people looking for love, who just haven't found the right person yet?  We all delude ourselves to a certain extent, and the more deluded we are, the darker are our secrets and our secret lives.

What’s obsessing you now and why?

At the moment I’m thinking about pathological liars and the condition known as Pseudologica Fantastica.  My next book, A Game For All the Family, is all about that.  Pathological lying is really fascinating, and very different from ordinary lying, where you lie to improve your situation or protect yourself.  Compulsive liars are different - they lie even when there's not a chance anyone will believe them, when they've been proved to be lying, and when it will actively harm them to lie.  They're addicted to deception, basically, even when the truth would serve them better.

On a more simple level, I’m also always obsessed with my gorgeous Welsh Terrier, Brewster. I’ve attached a photo here. As you can see, he is gorgeous.  I adore him.

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

Most people ask me about Agatha Christie and her influence on my writing, since I've just written The Monogram Murders, the first Hercule Poirot novel since Christie’s death.  Her work has been a huge influence on my crime writing. I’ve been interested in twisty plots and storytelling above all else since I first read her books at the age of twelve. Her stories are enormous fun yet dark and wise, addictively simple yet absorbingly complex. Agatha Christie created my blueprint for the perfect crime novel and I've followed it ever since. Her books nearly always involved outlandish mysteries - unlikely but possible, and truly baffling.  Hence I now write novels like Woman With a Secret in which people are killed with knives, but not stabbed, and have the words 'He is no less dead' painted on the wall behind their dead bodies - not in blood but in red paint.  I like to think Agatha Christie would have approved of such a baffling scenario as the opening for a crime novel!

Polly Dugan talks about THE SWEETHEART DEAL, grief, moving from writing short stories to novels, and so much more

Library Journal compares her to Anne Tyler, and in The Sweetheart Deal, Polly Dugan  has crafted an unforgettable story of grief loss and love. I'm thrilled to have her here. Thank you, Polly!

I always have to ask, what sparked this book? What was the question or image that was haunting you that led to the novel?

In early 2013, I queried my now agent, Wendy Sherman, with my story collection and early in our discussions she asked me if I was working on a novel. My answer wasn’t so much No as it was No, why would you ask me such an outlandish question I’m a short story writer. But I knew the answer she was hoping for was yes. I swear the idea came via the grace of the muse because when Wendy brought it up, writing a novel was the furthest thing from my mind.

A long time ago, in 2000 I think, my best friend from college came to visit my husband, Patrick, and me in Portland. During that visit, because she and I are so much alike and because she and my husband are friends in their own right, the three of us somehow came up with the very morbid joke that if I died, she had to marry Patrick. I have a lot of anxiety about death and dying as people close to me know well, including this friend, and my fear is fair game for people who love me and it really was just very silly, like, Sorry you’ll be dead, Polly, but Patrick won’t not only be alone, he’ll be with someone you love and approve of.

For the three of us, that joke didn’t extend much past that visit but for whatever reason I remembered it when I realized I’d better come up with an idea for a novel in order to maximize the possibility for a book deal.

Because of my obsession with death, it’s invariably the foundation, or part of the foundation, of all my writing. And relationships—between men and women, families and friendships—they’re interesting to me, so I keep banging on those over and over too. So when I recalled this joke in my own life, I wondered, what if it came up between two men and one seriously asked of his friend the favor to marry his wife if he died, and then the guy did die? The premise was compelling to me on all kinds of levels because of the opportunities for potential conflicts it offered—both the interpersonal and intrapersonal ones. And, ultimately, the idea sounded like a book I’d want to read myself, so that alone justified going with it.

This is your first novel after an acclaimed short story collection. What was it like moving from one form to another? (I was nauseous and anxious when I moved from short stories to a novel!)  What surprised you about the whole process?

My God, I was anxious too. The idea was very intimidating and I felt like a fraud even thinking and especially sharing with anyone, I’m writing a novel. It seemed like such a lofty and unattainable goal for me, but something other writers, no question, were capable of accomplishing. I didn’t think it was easy for other writers—I knew it wasn’t—I just thought it was an achievement that wasn’t meant for me.

So what I ended up doing—I thought this at the time and in hindsight it seems pretty accurate—I sort of snuck up on writing the novel by approaching all the various elements of the book like I would have the short form. I knew each character’s blueprint and their story arc, so wrote what I knew about each one first, all the ‘big rocks’—one son’s obsession with a friend’s mother, his brother’s night terrors, another’s getting in trouble at school; the back story of the friendship between Leo and Garrett; the story of Audrey and Leo; the intimacy between Audrey and her best friend; the insular quality of the firefighter culture that challenges Garrett; the development and tensions in Audrey and Garrett’s relationship. By taking on all of these smaller narratives, which seemed manageable, I felt like I tricked myself into generating a viable volume of work and by then connecting the narratives and making them a cohesive larger whole no longer seemed insurmountable. It was a great relief to stop feeling like an imposter when I told people I was writing a novel.
What made you decide to tell the story in different points of view? (It works really well, but I was wondering if you knew that this was the way you wanted to tell the story right away, or if it came through trial and error.)

Thank you for saying so! I wrote the first 20 pages, the beginning of the book, from Leo’s first person POV. It was my initial instinct, and it felt authentic and effective so I stayed with it for the other characters, but I was open to making changes if they seemed like better choices to serve the story. I actually wrote several sections in close third to see if the change made them stronger and I didn’t think it did—although it created a different dynamic—and it was interesting to notice the effect of changing the POV, as it always is when I play around with it. When I compared the two, first seemed like the obvious way to go for all the characters, for them to all ‘have their say.’

Ultimately I decided on the different first person points of view for two non-negotiable—technical or creative?—reasons: first, by putting myself as much as I could in all the characters’ skins, each narrative felt like I was telling ‘my’ story about ‘myself’ (times five plus Leo) rather than ‘their stories’ (times five). Even when I wrote with the greatest care and compassion I could, close third had an unavoidable element of distance, which blunted the emotions I wanted to honestly portray; I couldn’t overcome the sense that I was an outsider intrusively reporting on a struggling group of ‘them.’ The second reason is that although the five characters are all grieving the loss of Leo—they are in the same boat if you will—but despite that commonality, each person’s grief is private and isolating; their shared circumstance doesn’t unify them. I thought the POV choice accentuated that isolation, made it more acute and conveyed that to the reader.

The Sweetheart Deal says so much about how and why we love and how we grieve. Could you talk a bit about that please?

My God, these are such vast, elusive and complicated topics. Love and grief are at the center of many of my own deepest questions, or experiences really, since there aren’t ready, easy answers to the hows and whys of both those things. At least I haven’t found them yet and I’ve been pondering them for a long time.

Anne Lamott is one of my greatest influences for spirituality, the doggedness required for a writing life, the messiness of being a human being living among other human beings, forgiveness, so many things. There’s a story in one of her books, I think one of the ones on faith, where she talks about her son Sam, whom she raised as a single mom, and his friend, also named Sam, whom I believe, if I’m remembering correctly, because of a birth defect, was born with only one arm. Anyway, she writes about overhearing the boys talking to each other in the unabashed, guileless way of children and her Sam asks the other Sam, “Where’s you arm?” and friend Sam answers, “I don’t know. Where’s your dad?”

What struck me when I read that piece the first time was how we are all without something, or multiple somethings, in our lives at different times, or throughout our lives, and those various losses, whatever they are, and certainly the death of a loved one, have the potential to make us all so much kinder and more empathetic to each other than we typically are. Like, sorry about your arm. Yeah, sorry about your dad—everyone is missing something. And losses always make us capable of greater love, of loving better, because they remind us not to take anyone, anything important to us, for granted.

I have only one sibling, my sister Nancy, who is disabled. As a result I have always—since childhood—been hungry for a sibling relationship I never had. My best friend growing up was one of six kids and I loved spending time at her house to get that sibling fix. Of course the very thing that drew me to her house was what drove her crazy and pissed her off the way brothers and sisters will. Yet, her mother was raising her six kids on her own after her husband left them, so my friend had all these siblings but no father, and back at my house, I had both my parents but was lacking in the sibling-as-peer department. The story of the two Sams remind me of my friend and me.

As far as love goes, there are so many different kinds—romantic, familial, between friends—and they’re all in the book. One of the things about all these relationships that I’ve found to be true, and didn’t fully understand or believe as a younger person, is that when we love someone, that love has to account for all the parts of a person—the flaws as well as the fabulous parts that got our attention in the first place. And, in any kind of relationship, we don’t get to discover the flaws until a certain level of intimacy is reached. Most of us go through the world in a certain public persona way, but the people closest to us know the entire list of best and worst and love us anyway. I would never assume to give people relationship advice, but in the book I really put my characters through the 360-degree paces of love. You can’t just take what you want—the good stuff—and leave the rest.

I always want to know about craft, so tell us what kind of writer are you? Do you outline or use Post-its (my fave!) or do you wait and see what happens and let the characters lead you?

I wrote the novel in a completely different way than I wrote the story collection, which I wrote over several years, and what I discovered in the process during the year I wrote it is that I’m a binge writer. At my luckiest, after I’ve sat down to write and I’ve started the story rolling, if things are working at all optimal levels, the characters will take over and I’ll feel like I have to keep up with them in the way of William Faulkner’s famous quote about trotting along behind his characters once they stand up and move around to not miss anything they say and do. When this happens it’s the greatest gift I’ve experienced from writing, but when those characters show up in all their three-dimensional glory when I’m not at the computer, it’s a challenge to strive to not miss something.

The times that happens—in the car, when I’m cooking, picking up my kids at school, at a friend’s house—I must jot the idea, lines of dialogue, whatever, on a Post-it, or scrap of paper, or put it in my notes app on my phone or write it on my hand to not lose the thought. (If you like I can email pictures of my pile of ‘material’ that when I was working on the final drafts, as I incorporated, or rejected, each piece of information into the larger project, they systematically got recycled. It was very cathartic and effective and a genuinely physical aspect of writing I hadn’t expected.)

I admire writers who outline and I wish I could because it seems like a wonderful tool for them. I wrote a piece for about never having been good at understanding and creating and using outlines from my earliest experiences in school. But in the early stages of writing “The Sweetheart Deal,” there was one morning that I had so many ideas coming to me all at once that I jotted down a diagram, a drawing really, to not forget any of the intricacies that were swirling, and I followed it like a road map to write the novel. It seemed like such a simple thing at the time, just a mess of words and arrows and lists of emotions and conflicts for each character and what I envisioned happening during the course of the book, but I needed that diagram, and I couldn’t have written the book without it. (I can send a photo of this too.)

What’s obsessing you now and why?

As far as work goes, how to fully envision and commit to writing the next book. In “Legacies,” one of the stories from my collection, Joan Cavanaugh, a character I love, is dying and shares a revelation with Peter, her daughter’s ex-boyfriend, whom she’s asked to come visit just before Christmas. The story is told from Peter’s point of view, and without realizing it at the time, although the story stands alone, the conclusion leaves a door ajar for Joan’s side of the story, more of the story, and a secret that she takes to her grave. Decades later, in Portland, because of two women who are the closest of friends and next-door neighbors, Joan’s family uncovers her secret.

No surprise, death again. And secrets are another obsession I have; along with death, a secret comprises the backbone of this story. And, I don’t know if this occurs in other cities, but I’m constantly intrigued by what a ‘small town’ Portland is, evidenced by how people’s lives overlap, and by extension, because of how mobile people have become, how small our country can seem, and the world, especially when uncanny connections or coincidences happen. All these elements are at play, wooing me toward the next book, trying to convince me they’ll work together to pull it off.

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

They’ve all been so thorough and thoughtful, thank you, that it’s tough to come up with one. How about this: “If you had one wish for your books, what would it be?” My answer: “That my mom were alive to read them.”

Maggie Mitchell talks about PRETTY IS, ghosts, little girls, and why memory is so tricky

 What's more exciting than a debut? In Pretty Is, Maggie Mitchell  tells the story of two young women who have to remember when they were abducted at twelve.  I'm thrilled to have her here. Thank you, Maggie!

I always want to know what sparks a book? What question was haunting you that propelled you into this particular story?

“Haunting” is a good word for it! I was haunted by a newspaper article I read long ago. Over the years, all of the details were stripped away, but the skeleton story that remained was this: two young girls who have never met are abducted by a strange man. After a period of time in captivity, they escape. And that’s all.
I don’t remember when I read the article. I think the abduction might have taken place in California, but I wouldn’t swear to it. I have a glimmer of a sense that the man treated the girls appallingly; maybe they were kept in a basement; probably they were held prisoner for days rather than weeks. But all I could think was: And then what? Had they become friends? Would their parents let them keep in touch? What would they come to mean to each other, over the years? What would they remember? Would their memories differ? How would their relationship mediate the experience itself? Eventually these questions began to produce a story that had almost nothing to do with the original fragment of disturbing news. It became, for me, a story about female friendship, the intensity and unruliness of adolescent desire, the fraught relationship between past and present. When I decided that the time had come to write a novel, I tossed around a few different ideas—but this was the one the clawed its way to the forefront and wouldn’t let go.

This gripping novel falls under the category of “my worst nightmares”--it’s stunning, shocking, and it delves into how the past makes our futures. Do you think we ever can escape that?

I don’t think any of us can escape the past altogether, and of course it irrevocably shapes the future. For Lois and Chloe, there’s no escaping the event that defined their childhoods, though you could say Lois’s novel is an attempt to rewrite it. The only way forward for them is to seek to understand it, and try to seize some measure of control over how it will shape their lives. That it will shape them is unavoidable, but it doesn’t have to doom them to sadness or solitude.

The book is so much about memory--what we choose to remember and what we wish we could forget. Can you talk about that please?

One thing that interests me about these characters is that they are profoundly connected by their shared memory of their weeks in the cabin—and yet, at the same time, their memories aren’t identical. Intentionally or unconsciously, they have created different narratives of that summer. The novel’s structure arose, in part, from my fascination with the subjectivity of memory: I wanted to juxtapose Lois’s version of events with Chloe’s, and both with Lois’s novel; and I wanted to place all of these narratives, full of partial truths and omissions, on a sort of collision course, and see what happened.
When I first read Marilynne Robinson’s beautiful novel Housekeeping, many years ago, I was struck by a passage in which the two sisters at the heart of the novel disagree as to what color their mother’s car was. It’s not an especially significant detail, but it’s a small part of their picture of the day on which their mother committed suicide, and from that association it acquires significance. If they can’t agree on something so simple, in what other, more profound ways will their memories of their childhood differ?
Memory is narrative, as selected and distorted as any work of fiction. And yet to a considerable extent we are our memories. Are we fictions, too?

What kind of writer are you? What’s your daily writing life like?

Oh, I so want to say that I rise before the sun every morning and write so many thousands of words before the house stirs! But I’m not that kind of writer, and I’ve decided that it’s okay. Sometimes I write in crazed bursts. Sometimes I don’t seem to be writing at all, though I’m actually working hard, imagining characters and sorting out plots and shapes and moods in my mind until at last it feels safe to entrust them to the page. I’m always working, but it would be hard, sometimes, for me to prove it.

What’s obsessing you now and why?

I’ve been thinking a lot about ghosts. I don’t believe in them—I’ve tried, but I can’t do it!* Conceptually, though, ghosts are such a dramatic embodiment of the endlessly fraught relationship between the past and the present. I want to figure out a way to write about ghosts that avoids all the traps—cliché and predictability and silliness. It’s a challenge. I’m in the very early stages of working on a novel that deals with insane asylums and ghosts and history. I’m gently untangling the threads.

*(As a teenager I once even conducted a weird ceremony designed to persuade any resident ghosts to announce their presence. Our house was a century or so old and had seen better days and I really thought it should be haunted. Nothing happened, of course, and in my disappointment I wrote an angry letter to the house, basically accusing it of being soulless. I wrote it in calligraphy and rolled it up in a scroll and tossed it into the space between my bedroom’s drop ceiling tiles and the original crumbling ceiling. Years later my mother found it and mailed it to me without comment.)

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

I keep expecting someone to ask me about the novel’s title. I had it in mind from the very start, before the story had fully taken shape. “Pretty is as pretty does” is something my mother said to me, and her mother said to her; lots of women I’ve talked to remember the same thing. It taps into our anxiety about the connection between beauty and “goodness” or virtue, which is something I wanted to explore in the novel. It’s also a warning, I think, and a specifically gendered one, at that: it raises the possibility that beauty and goodness are actually mutually exclusive; that if you’re one, you can’t be the other. It also forces you to contemplate the bad things you haven’t even done yet: if pretty is as pretty does, then prettiness is inherently unstable—something you have to keep earning. Lois gets caught in this moral conundrum when Zed asks her if she thinks she’s a good person and she doesn’t know how to answer; Chloe confronts it when she’s forced to play a character who is unrealistically unaware of her prettiness. If the character were conscious of her beauty, the director explains, she would lose the audience’s sympathy. Chloe understands that this equation is deeply flawed, but it’s an argument she can’t win.
By seeking the spotlight as children—Chloe through her pageants, Lois with her spelling bees—both girls have already expressed a desire to be seen and admired that could be construed as vain or superficial. Their “pretty does” credentials are already in danger. Their abduction only complicates the issue: did Zed choose them for their pretty faces or for their talents? Or both, or neither? And to what extent does this define who they really are, who they’re going to be? Even as adults, these questions remain central to their troubled identities.
In our culture, little girls are pressured to be pretty, praised for being pretty—and at the same time taught to associate prettiness with shallowness and frivolity. I’m sure our mothers mean well when they shake their fingers at us and intone “pretty is as pretty does”—of course the actions we choose are more important than the way we happen to look!—but they’re also contributing to a strange network of mixed messages girls have to navigate as they figure out how to define themselves.

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Caroline Zancan talks about LOCAL GIRLS, celebrity worship and its discontents, Amy Schumer and more.

I am a sucker for debuts, and I was quickly engrossed in Caroline Zancan's phenomenal LOCAL GIRLS. About celebrity, coming of age, and growing up in the swampy heat of a beach town, the novel is powerful and profound. Caroline is also an editor at Henry Holt, and she loves Hanya Yanagihara's A LITTLE LIFE as much as I do. Thank you so much, Caroline for coming on my blog!

 I always ask writers what the “spark” moment was for his or her book. What was haunting you that led to this story?

The idea came to me when news hit that a young, very well-liked celebrity—one very different from Sam Decker in many ways, I should addhad overdosed. He had a pretty clean image, and I, at least, was totally surprised when I heard. It was reported that the night he died was drinking in a bar in mid-sized city. And I just kept thinking about how much meaning we put on our celebrity sightings these days—we exchange them with each other like personal trivia about ourselves, and almost feel a sort of kinship with the celebrities we've crossed paths with. I associate certain celebrities with the friends of mine who have seen them, or have stories about them. And in addition to just being really sad for this particular celebrity's family and friends, I kept thinking about the patrons of that bar, imagining how crazy and sad and profound it would be to hang out with a celebrity--drink with him across the night--only to learn the next morning, along with the rest of the world, that he had died. Incredible excitement giving way to something much darker and sadder, and the kind of meaning it would be tempting to place on the whole thing. I just kept thinking, "Man, imagine the story those people have." Originally it was going to be a short story set just in the present of the bar, but the more I kept writing, the more drawn I was to the girls. The story ultimately belongs to them, and I think my hope is that people's reading experience will mirror the writing experience a little--at first you're leaning forwarded to hear what this celebrity has to say, kind of giddy from the proximity--but by the end you realize the girls' lives are just as interesting and profound and worthy of your attention.

And then on the total flip side of that, F. Scott Fitzgerald has always been my favorite writer, and
his story “The Freshest Boy” is one I return to again and again. It’s about a young boy who witnesses a loaded moment between his heroes and makes a major life decision based on what he overhears. This book is by no means an adaptation or retelling of that story—the boy was way younger and a lone wolf, bullied at his upper crust East Coast boarding school, and his heroes were a college baseball star and a theater actress, and he never speaks to them. (And they fare better than poor Sam Decker!) But I've always loved that idea of a brief encounter with someone you’ve loved from afar that changes your life forever.    

There’s such a riveting sense of place in the novel--the beach, the bar, the killing heat--the sense of it all being a dead end. Did you grow up in a town like this?

I'm not from Florida but I grew up going there, and lived there for a summer in a college. It’s a wild place, and I say that lovingly and with awe. I find it fascinating—the creatures and landscape there are stranger than fiction or legend or fairytale. I started visiting regularly when I was 11 or 12 and as my brother and I were pedaling off on our bikes that first day my dad was like “watch for gators!” and I was like “Haha, DAD.” But truly, gators are the least of it. It feels a little like anything could happen at any moment, and when you pair that ruggedness and that wildness with the cheerfulness of the vacation culture, it’s just kind of like “how is everyone not writing about this place all the time?”

I’m from a small town, about an hour outside of Cincinnati, one that I love, and still go home to often, but the thing I shared with these girls at that age more than that is that sense of restlessness. The epigraph I chose for the front of the book, by John Steinbeck, is “All of them had restlessness in common” which is true of my own experience as a young person. I remember being 18, just so ready for whatever was going to come next to arrive, even if I wasn’t sure exactly what that was going to look like, and then again after I graduated from college. It’s that slice of time when you suddenly have some agency over the course of your life—any complaints you have about your life are kind of on you; you’re no longer under anyone’s thumb--but you aren’t quite sure what you want to do with it yet.

These girls--19, not off to college--are both best friends and worst enemies, and they’re so alive, they snap off the page.  How did you go about crafting them and why?

I love the company of women--I've never been one of those "Oh, most of my friends are guys, I'm a guys' girl" despite how much I also enjoy the company of men. And it never fails to surprise me, the levels of intensity and the complexities--some thorny, some delightful--that relationships between women can bear over time. And I think this is particularly true when we're young, in high school or just after, because there are so many additional emotions and complications--it’s a pressure cooker of a stage of life, and close female friendships exist within that. Not to mention that the older you get, the more outlets you have to discuss problems or seek advice through, whereas teenage girls often turn in to each other instead of outside to the rest of the world when it comes to coping or exploring something they're thinking or feeling. As a result, I think we've all had our Nina or our Lila, or both, and I think it does have an impact on our lives, one that I've been surprised to discover is quite lasting. While these characters are all fictional, they're meant to capture a dynamic between girls that is very real.

I was fascinated that the girls found their outlet in reading about celebrities--and even more astonished when they actually got to meet one in their town.  Why do you think we actually need our celebrities, our royals, our heroes--especially when a part of us knows they must be very different than whom they pretend to be?

Storytelling held a sacred place in my childhood--when I wasn't reading books, I was watching movies. I grew up wanting to work in book publishing because it's one way to immerse yourself in stories for a living. And while not everyone makes a career out of it, I think I share that passion for a well told story with a lot of people--I think it's a way of trying to make sense of the world, or give it meaning. I think every culture in the history of human kind has incorporated storytelling into their way of life in some form or another. And these days celebrities are the face of a lot of the stories we hold most dear. I would die if I was ever in a room with Christian Bale not because I actually think he's a magical person, or better than any other person I pass on the streets on any given New York afternoon, but because to me he will always be Jack Kelly, one of my childhood companions. It feels personal. It's funny, living in New York City for the last decade and working in publishing, I actually will meet or interact with celebrities, and while it's exciting, there's always that moment of "please don't be a dick, please don't be a dick," because you never want to discover someone you admire is actually terrible. It would be like breaking up with a longtime friend. And at the end of the day, they're just people, which sounds obvious, but there is that strange juxtaposition of being like "holy shit, it's you"--total titillation--and hearing them talk about the most ordinary things. And I think it's that dichotomy that drives the weird celebrity culture of the 21st century--we place so much importance on these celebrities we all revere, we've elevated them to such a vaunted status in our society, and yet at the end of the day, people are people. I don’t think anyone could live up to the expectations we’ve set for them. Camera men follow some of them around all day, and sometimes they really are just buying toilet paper or taking their dog for a walk.      

I always want to know about process. What kind of writer are you? Do you outline? Do you write in stages or every day?

I find that I'm a different writer with every project I take on. This book kind of came out in a burst--it's taken me longer to write a lot of short stories I've done than it took to write this. I was kind of never not writing it. I scribbled notes on cocktail napkins in bars, and sent myself stray lines or plot developments in email form as I was going over the bridge during my morning commute. It became a little bit of an obsession, which my poor husband had to suffer through--we'd be sitting in front of the TV at the end of the night before going to sleep and I'd say "urg--why am I not working on my novel right now, I'm being so lazy." And he'd be like "What are you talking about? You've been working on that thing all day." I kept talking to him as if the characters were real, which he was a very good sport about. I remember when I finished my last revision before my agent sent it out to editors, I turned to him as I shut my lap top and said "Well, I guess Sam Decker's really dead now" as if it was the saddest thing in the world.    

In general, though, I always carry an idea around in my head for awhile, letting it marinate, before I try to put it down on the page. There's nothing more frightening to me than a blinking cursor at the top of a new word document, so if I'm going to sit down in front of a computer, it's because I’m ready to go; I know what I want to say and I have a general sense of how I'm going to say it.    

What’s obsessing you now and why?

I’m not sure I’d call it an obsession, but a book that I’ve found really hard to shake—in a good way—is Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life. It’s the first book I read in 2015, and nothing has really been able to capture my attention in quite the same way since. Because I am almost constantly reading for either work or pleasure, things tend to come and go quickly, but this one seems here to stay. It’s a remarkable, stunning book that’s so big and powerful I almost don’t know how to talk about it. I had lunch with Hanya’s agent and she gave the galley to me and was like “I don’t really know what to say about this one, just read it” and that’s pretty much how I feel about it.

And then on the other end of our culture, I could binge watch Broad City and Amy Schumer all day. It’s a great time for women in comedy, and I love to laugh.  

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

I think you were pretty thorough—I loved these questions!

Jenny Milchman talks about AS NIGHT FALLS, acknowledgement pages, prison research, and more

Two desperate escapees from prison. A secluded house with a family and secrets. Both collide in Jenny Milchman's tense, nervy new novel, As Night Falls.  She is also the author of Ruin Falls and Cover of Snow, which won  the 2013 Mary Higgins Clark Award for best suspense novel of the year. I'm honored to have her here. Thank you, Jenny!

This novel is really like the threat of a razor against your throat--tight, suspenseful and terrifying. What sparked the idea? (I always think there is something that haunts an author and leads to a book.)

I do, too, Caroline—I call those genesis novels. Ones that have a clear creation story. I’m writing one now, in fact—my fourth book. It came to me at such a distinct moment in time, with such a specific trajectory, that I get goosebumps when I imagine telling the story-behind-the-story on tour. And actually, come to think of it, I know the origins of both my other published novels as well.

But not As Night Falls. This book is an enigma to me, and always has been. I can’t remember when or why I began telling the story to myself—a process that has to take place before I sit down to write. I have no idea how those two prisoners appeared to me, and still less how I came up with the reason they would invade my heroine’s home.

Here’s what I do know: This book seemed to write itself. Scene after scene, like a row of dominos, falling into place. It felt effortless. (Well, until the revising anyway. But that’s for another question). Although the story takes place in one night—about eight hours—there is a novel-within-the-novel that flashes back four decades before catching up to the present day at the end. And I was deeply inspired by one book when fashioning this part of the novel: Lionel Shriver’s We Need to Talk About Kevin.

I was working as a psychotherapist when I read Shriver’s Orange prize winning tale, and I specialized in treating children. I remember feeling that Shriver got the process so exactly right—she brought to fictional life a dynamic I was seeing again and again in reality. In short, kids look to parents to put a lid on their natural aggressive impulses, and when parents turn a blind eye—for various reasons—that aggression will escalate. With As Night Falls, I wanted to write about a similar family structure—but one that would, arguably, have a happier ending.

And that is my—I hope not too frustrating—answer for how the story came to me!

Please tell us what the research was like? What surprised you?

I was lucky to be teaching at the time with an author I deeply respect, Les Edgerton. Les has an incredible grasp of story structure—and a dark, gritty voice—but I turned to him for help with neither of those things while writing As Night Falls. Instead, I asked Les to make sure I got my prison details right. That was the bulk of the research I did, since I knew about my heroine’s psychotherapy career from personal experience, and as I mentioned, most of the rest of the book just seemed to appear out of the ether. But I did want to make sure I didn’t put forth either a stereotyped or unrealistic portrayal of what it was like to be a convict.

What surprised me? That prisoners and guards usually maintain a balance of respect while inside. I thought I had this relationship down pat—hey, I read Stephen King’s “Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption” a hundred times like every other writer. (Wait, has every other reader read that novella a hundred times?) But in most cases, apparently, the guards are not abusive, and they know that behaving aggressively will only cause a state of unrest that makes their job harder. I had to go back and do some rewriting when I learned that!

So much of the book is really about our strengths, what makes someone strong, and what reservoirs we sometimes find inside of us and how we use--or misuse those. Could you talk about that please?

I think you hit upon a theme in all my books, and one that comes from the very depths of me. To a certain extent, every character I write is a terrified kindergartener, getting dragged along the street by a bully. Or an ostracized sixth grader, afraid to speak up, let alone fight back. All of my protagonists come from places of weakness at the beginning.

And what does such a person do when catapulted into a situation that threatens everything she’s now come to have? What lengths will she go to, which pinnacles will she reach?

One criticism I fear being made of my work—although it hasn’t happened yet—is that it falls into something of a Disnified trap. Might doesn’t make right in my books. The scales of justice can balance as a character approaches her own version of happily ever after.

Because isn’t that a world we’d all like to live in, if we could? There are authors whose work I respect enormously because they are able to face in their fiction the lack of closure we live with day to day. I marvel at these writers’ bravery—as great as any my protagonists possess. That isn’t the place I want to go to for the length of time and depth of commitment it takes to write a novel, however. In my books, the mice can speak, if not dance and sing. The trapped princesses go free.

I don’t want to oversimplify because another dimension I feel compelled to explore is the fact that each villain is the hero of his or her own story. My bad guys have virtues, or at least reasons; my good guys have flaws. But the fact that in the books there are good and bad guys speaks to what you’re getting at, I think. What makes someone strong in a Jenny Milchman novel? It’s less genetics or environment or past experience or intention or any of a dozen other sources, and more this: they deserve to find strength.

I also want to talk about your stunner of an ending. How did that come to you? Especially that killer of a last line.There’s the climactic sequence, which was really an action scene to write. To me it felt inevitable—things had to go that way from the moment Sandy faced two prisoners entering her home that night. Things probably had to go that way from the moment Sandy was born. I don’t know that this sequence necessarily followed the right succession of events, or the best one. Only by a rather bizarre reckoning could the ending of As Night Falls be considered wholly happy. But I do think it was inevitable; at least, I couldn’t envision a more fitting alternative.

And then there’s what I think of as more of a denouement or epilogue. It’s told from a secondary character’s point of view, although this person is the source of the whole story in a way. She’s watching the main characters at a distance, seeing where they wound up.

When I was in the thick of writing As Night Falls, I woke up in the middle of the night, and wrote that entire epilogue scene down on a few scraps of paper. It changed a fair amount in the rewriting, but the essence of that ending was captured at 3 a.m. one morning. And the last line of it stayed exactly as jotted down.

I think the line may have the most resonance for people who have read all three of my books and have come to know the fictional Adirondack town in which they are set. In Wedeskyull, winter closes in like a claw and doesn’t release its grip for a long time. In As Night Falls, the weather becomes one domino in the row that causes everything to fall. And in the final line, the weather is a metaphor for the fact that no matter how ghastly things may get, the sun does come out and shine, however briefly.

There also are some surprising (and heartbreaking) revelations about family, how a mother shapes a son, how a sister grapples with a damaged brother. Do you think family can heal as much as it hurts?

I think family is probably the healing property of life—but I don’t necessarily mean the families we are born with. There are also the families we construct. Those families may include spouses, partners, children. They may include aging parents or parental figures who need care. They may be made up entirely of fur babies, beloved pets. They may be our students if we’re teachers, our patients if we’re nurses or therapists or physicians or PA’s, our troop members if we’re Girl Scout leaders, the people we encounter as volunteers at a soup kitchen or shelter, or as members of a church or temple or mosque. The possibilities for family are endless, and by being around them, yes, I do believe we can heal. Ourselves and others.

In As Night Falls, Sandy has created a new family because the one she came from was so annihilating, so damaging. And when that new family is threatened, it’s the one thing Sandy can’t stand to lose. In a way, she’s escaped her family of origin, but she hasn’t really. It still has the power to fell her, to suck her down. Only by becoming strong enough to save her husband and daughter can Sandy fully inhabit the life she has built versus the one she was given.

And we all have the power to do that—it just may happen in less dramatic ways.

This might seem like a weird question, but I always read acknowledgement pages and yours, at seven pages long, was fascinating. Not only did you give us a window into your life, but there was such a generous spirit, especially to other writers. (“Writers need writers,” you write, and they do indeed.) Can you talk about all of this? I think the writing community, when it is cooperative, rather than competitive, saves lives, spirits, and enriches our work.

It doesn’t seem weird at all! I love reading acknowledgments too, and I take great care in writing mine. (The horror at the thought of leaving someone out!) Anyway, I’m so glad you enjoyed them.

The writing community is how I finally got published after an eleven year journey/struggle/battle. I’d gotten close a lot of times—and I do mean a lot: Over the course of those years, I worked with three different agents and we had fifteen “almost-offers” on novels that were submitted. (An almost-offer happens when an editor wishes to acquire a book, but doesn’t get buy-in from her editorial board or someone else at the publisher). My first published novel was the eighth one I had written.

What made it happen in the end was that an author whose work I love—but whom I didn’t know except as a fan—agreed to read my unpublished manuscript. As if that wasn’t enough of a leap, after reading it she handed it over to her own editor. This author’s editor became my own weeks later. So it took me eleven years and a few weeks to get published. When it happens, like love, it happens.

Dennis Lehane talks about writers “sending the elevator down” and that is what I’ve been lucky enough to experience in the writing world. Unlike the music or film or theater industry, which seems to be rife with competition, I haven’t seen that in publishing. Perhaps it exists and I’m not privy to it. But I think by putting a great deal of support out there—as you do, Caroline—we invite support and good will back into our lives and our creative processes.

If anyone reading this column is running for the elevator, shout out to me. I’ll hold it for you.

What’s obsessing you now and why?

My book-in-progress! Well, I’m also headed out on tour for As Night Falls this summer, and planning a three month, 100 stop tour is pretty consuming. But the story I’m currently writing is always the most blissful, and right now, I am lost in its world. I wonder if my heroine will triumph? I wonder if she’ll be able to find one of those families-of-her-construction?

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

Your questions were all so incisive and penetrating. You spoke to how we dig deep as writers, and what that kind of mining brings to our work. Completing this interview, carrying it around with me (figuratively) for a few weeks, was such an empowering experience.

But I’ll address one less optimistic dimension lest people who are struggling in their journeys—towards publication, or towards a completed book—feel alone. I’ll ask myself, What is the hard part?   There are two, and they both start with the letter R, and they both cause me fits and pain and grief at times.  Revision.  Rejection

None of us gets out of this game alive, right? But by encountering writers like you, Caroline, who build a web of connections and offer insight into each one, we can sure play a few fantastic rounds.  One more R word, and it’s the name of this author game—we do it with every book we write, friend we meet, story we tell—not to mention the overarching theme in As Night Falls.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Svetlana Grobman talks about growing up in Cold War Russia, writing, and so much more

I love discovering great small presses. Musings Publishing is based in Missouri, and they sent me a book with the provocative title, THE EDUCATION OF A TRAITOR, complete with a haunting cover photo.  Kirkus Reviews calls this "an intimate look at a young woman's struggle to find her own truth in a repressive society." Midwest Book Review calls the memoir, "Hard-hitting and involving." I'pm honored to have Svetlana, who grew up in Moscow during the Cold War, on my blog. Thank you, Svetlana.

I always want to know what sparked a book. Why write a memoir now?

It was my American husband who “sparked” my book. It happened five years ago. At the time, I was working on a book describing my coming to Columbia, Missouri, which for me, then a 39-year-old Jewish immigrant with no English and no knowledge of American life, was as disorienting as if I had landed on the Moon. I had a good time writing that book, because the most difficult period of my immigration was already over, and I could have fun describing my learning English -- mixing up words “desert” and “dessert,” “hair” and “hare,” and getting puzzled by expressions like “keep me posted” when no postage stamps were in sight.

My husband, however, thought that my life in Russia was a more important subject to write about, and, eventually, I agreed with him -- not because I believed my past life to be exceptional, but because it was representative of other lives spent under an oppressive regime. 

Why now? For one thing, it took me a long time to improve my English, and it took me even longer to feel strong enough to relive my past. This does not mean that everything in my Russian life was painful. Some things were so absurd that they were actually funny.

I love the title of the book. Can you tell me how that came about?

I was born six years after WWII ended, and I grew up reading numerous books and watching movies about the war. Their main characters (Soviet soldiers and civilians, for we never cared about the allies) were divided into two categories: those who died for our country – we called them heroes, and those who didn’t – we called them traitors. Yet one thing always bothered me. The heroes, it seemed, had to die to prove their worth, while the traitors had no excuse for what they did – of did not do -- even if their only crime was being captured by the enemy. I was in awe of the heroes, and I hated the traitors. Still, I often wondered if I’d be able to die for my country if circumstances demanded it.

As it turned out I didn’t have to face death to become to a traitor. The first time I was called that was the time when I, then fifteen years old, tried to transfer to another – much better – school, and the person who called me a traitor was the principal of my current school.

Later, when I applied for an exit visa to Israel, which was the only legal way Jews could leave the country in those days, and after I was stripped of my Soviet citizenship, many people called me a traitor – some out of hate and some out of jealousy, since that way out was closed to ethnic Russians.

In any case, I wanted my book to depict the transformation of a naive girl into a young woman who realized that everything she had been told and believed was a lie, and she had to “betray” these false ideas in order to survive.

It's fascinating to read about your time as a Young Pioneer. What do you wish you had known back then that might have helped you?

The way I was then, nothing could have helped me, unless I had been a different person – less bookish, less impressionable and sensitive, less gullible about brainwashing, and, most of all, not Jewish, for in the Soviet Union anti-Semitism wasn’t just a private matter but also a government policy.

To make this policy work smoothly, all Jews had a line, “Nationality -- Jewish" written on all of their documents--school, work, library, and medical records, and, of course, on the most important document of all, our Soviet passports.  Our "Nationality" was always on the fifth line, which made it easy to spot.

When my daughter was born, the first question the nurse asked me after my (rather difficult) delivery was, “Nationality?”-- even before she asked if I had picked a name for my baby.

From your memoir, Soviet Life seems very, very difficult. Do you think much has changed there? 

Well, I never went through a war (my parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles did). I wasn’t a victim of Stalin’s purges (many prominent Jews were). I was never arrested by the KGB and sent to a Siberian gulag (my grandfather was). Nothing that dramatic. Yet, I – and millions other people – lived under an oppressive, anti-Semitic, and corrupt regime, cut off from the rest of the world and constantly brainwashed about the superiority of our country. If I had to describe
 my childhood, I would describe it as colorless. It was also stifling.  

As for Russia of today, I haven’t been back since 1990, the year I left Moscow’s Sheremetyevo International Airport, accompanied by the hateful glances of its customs officers who had thoroughly searched our belongings but had not found any diamonds hidden in the double bottoms of our suitcases, foreign currency over the allowed amount of $60 per person, or valuable books and documents. (They did strip us of three of our gold-plated teaspoons, proclaiming that “according to government rules” we were allowed to take only one teaspoon per person.)

Yet from what I hear from people who do travel to Russia or from the things I read about my former Motherland, I get the impression that although some of Russian citizens have become much richer, the main traits of the country are, unfortunately, the same. It is still a country where brainwashing is a high art, it is still extremely nationalistic, and it still has no respect for international laws – or any laws for that matter.

What kind of writer are you? Do you outline or simply follow your pen?  Do you write at the same time every day?

I do not outline. I wouldn't say that I follow my pen either. I follow my stories, for things come to me as stories, which I later need to put together. Also, I am a night person, and no matter how much I’d like to change that, I am never productive before 7 or 8 pm (I have a full-time job, tooJ).

What's obsessing you now and why?

Well, I’m obsessive by nature, so I always have a variety of things to obsess about. Yet if I must prioritize my obsessions, then my book – or its “fate," so to speak – is my number one concern. I spent five years writing this book, so it is important to me to share it with the reading public. And not just because of vanity or financial concerns. I believe that The Education of a Traitor is the most important work I have written or am likely to write in the future. Why? Because, to me, it has historical as well as personal significance. It does not describe the ravages of war or other horrendous events, but it does describe what everyday life was like, at that time, in that place, for millions of people like me who lived in the former Soviet Union during the Cold War. Also, I believe that to understand the Russia of today, people need to learn more about the Russia of yesterday.