Tag Archives: author interview

Welcome Jenna Blum, Bestselling Author of The Stormchasers

Go get him, Karena, he said. You’re the only one who can.

And Karena knew this to be true, from the nights she was the only one who could sing Charles to sleep, the only one who could coax him off the roof, keep him from climbing the water tower, make him stop chanting that song, stop bouncing that ball, stop kicking that door. She ran out into the lot, tasting the dirt in the air, positioning herself…where Charles would either have to stop or run her down….
~ from The Stormchasers

More than once, I’ve fallen victim to the belief that I could save someone: a friend in despair, a parent on the brink, a loved one chasing a false god down a dark road. I’ve set my voice on an uncomfortable high note in hopes that enthusiasm was contagious, played counselor during marathon phone calls,  stood in the way of the inevitable and gotten pinched in the middle. Painful lessons are never pretty.

But in Jenna Blum’s amazing novel, The Stormchasers, we find a story that mixes the agony of mental illness with the beauty of landscape, the power of devotion, and the miracle of unexpected healing. A novel as much about mental illness as it is about storms, The Stormchasers gives readers vivid images of how both phenomena mirror each other in the way danger brews and crescendos, then crashes and leaves a path of destruction.

The main character, Karena Jorge, is driven in her work as a journalist and in her search to save her twin brother, Charles, from himself. She sets out on a stormchasing expedition, one that puts her in danger at times and brings her closer to a different discovery: Charles is not the only one who needs saving.

The Stormchasers, touching and poignant, is a story that I will read again. I’m so honored to host Jenna Blum today for an interview about her novel, about writing, and about karma. At the end of the interview, leave a quick comment to be entered into the drawing for a copy of The Stormchasers. Random.org will choose the winner on Tuesday, August 30th, at high noon.

**UPDATE: Because of Irene’s visit to the East Coast, and subsequent power outages over the weekend, I’m going to postpone the drawing for a copy of Jenna Blum’s novel until Thursday, Sept. 1st.**

CC: In a recent and compelling essay on the website, Style Substance Soul, you talk about a childhood fascination with tornadoes and reasons why you chase storms (even after the novel has been published). Did the idea for THE STORMCHASERS stem from your personal experience on the road with Tempest Tours, or was it your research with them that took root and sealed your strong connection with the chasing community?

JB: That’s a great question! I had the idea for THE STORMCHASERS–a novel about a bipolar young man who chases tornadoes when he’s manic and his twin sister, who basically chases him–long before I started chasing storms with Tempest. In fact, I wrote an abbreviated draft of the novel in my graduate MA program at Boston University, back in 1996.  I didn’t have a stormchasing community before I started chasing with Tempest to research subsequent drafts of the novel, and what I didn’t expect were the lifelong friends I would make chasing.  I chase with the same people every year, my esteemed mentors and friends like me who are still learning, and they are my storm family. THE STORMCHASERS continues to introduce me to new folks in the chasing community, for which I’m profoundly grateful.

CC: All of the characters in your novel are written in such a way – authentic and relatable – that readers will think of them long after they close the cover of your book. Do you have a special technique you use, early on in your writing, for developing characters?

JB: Thank you for the generous comment about my characters!  I suppose they come off as real because to me, they are real.  They just happen to exist in a dimension halfway between the ether and the paper, hovering somewhere above my head.  My first job as a writer is to get them out where others can come to know and love them the same way I do.  I’ve been told that my characters are lovable despite their flaws–or sometimes hateful because of them or sometimes just plain flawed–and I take that as proof I’ve succeeded in getting them down as real people.  Because who among us isn’t flawed?

When I’m first getting to know the characters, I start by writing down everything I know about them, which ranges from macro big-picture stuff–basic family history–to the fact that Charles Hallingdahl, for instance, the brother in THE STORMCHASERS, ate only green food as a child. Not all the details make it into the novels.  But because they’re part of the character, I write them down.  More details reveal themselves as I go along, and the biggest struggle is to remain true to the characters’ characters, to not graft behaviors onto them because it suits the plot or it’s something I myself would do.

CC: In your career, you’ve traveled all over and seen a variety of landscape. Do you have a favorite place that you’d love to call home or visit time and again?

JB: Again, a great question, and one that strikes a poignant chord with me these days, because although I’m proud to say I have a home in Boston and a house in rural Minnesota where my mom and grandmother were born, I’ve been on the road at least 300 of 365 days in the past year.  One night, when I was checking into a hotel in Florida, the desk clerk looked at my MA license and said, “Wow, you’re far from home.” I thought: Yes, I sure am, both literally and metaphorically. I’ve traveled and divided my geography so much that I’m not sure where my central home is.  But I love my writing community and friends in Boston.  And geographically, my heart belongs to the heartland.  The landscape of the Midwest and the High Plains makes sense to me and allows me to breathe freely–all that space and big sky.

CC: What are you reading these days?

JB: Galleys!  I have the privilege of reading books before they’re published to supply authors with quotes for their book jackets (you’re like Ah-ha, *that’s* where those come from). It’s a great kind of sneak preview.  I read Rebecca Rasmussen’s incredible debut THE BIRD SISTERS and Kaira Rouda’s inspiring novel HERE, HOME, HOPE.  Three novels I highly, highly recommend for 2012:  Anna Solomon’s THE LITTLE BRIDE, about a Jewish mail-order bride who ends up in the Dakotas.  Nichole Bernier’s THE UNFINISHED WORK OF ELIZABETH D., about a woman discovering her best friend’s secret life after that friend’s death.  And Jami Attenberg’s THE MIDDLESTEINS, which is about food, family, love, life, and loss–all the important stuff–and will tell you why it’s vitally important to include cinnamon in pastry.

CC: What advice do you have for writers on the rise?

JB: Usually I would cite Winston Churchill here:  “Never give in, never give in, never give in.” And that’s still true. But in today’s swiftly changing publishing landscape, it’s also important to be open to new ways of doing things. There’s no room for a lazy writer these days (if there ever was!).  Expect to do your own legwork, your own homework, your own promotion.  Use social media. Reach out to and support as many other writers as you can.  It’s good karma, and that must always come back to help you in the end.

Thanks, Jenna. And, for all you readers out there, don’t forget to drop your name in the comment section for a chance to win a copy of The Stormchasers.

JENNA BLUM is the New York Times and # 1 international bestselling author of THOSE WHO SAVE US and THE STORMCHASERS.  She is also one of Oprah’s Top Thirty Women Writers. For more information about Jenna Blum and her bestselling novels, visit her website, follow her on Twitter, or Like her page on Facebook.

Welcome Sean Keefer, Author of The Trust

“…I don’t specialize. I don’t work for a huge firm with posh offices, and I don’t turn the television on at night hoping to see my latest commercial. I just practice law….” ~ from The Trust

Often, a Lawyer is the last person you want to call, because it means you’re either in trouble or in for a big bill. But, Noah Parks – an attorney and the main character in Sean Keefer’s debut novel The Trust – is an unassuming lawyer, a gentleman, and not really in it for the money.

He’s the perfect man, then, to handle the probate of Leonardo Xavier Cross’ will. However, a simple probate quickly turns into a case of murder, and Noah Parks finds himself sleeping in the same house as the number one suspect. And, she parades through the house in his boxers and tee shirt.

How’s that for a tease?

In real life, Sean Keefer is a practicing attorney in Charleston, South Carolina where he lives with his wife and two Australian Shepherds. Today, he stops by to talk about The Trust, about marketing and promotion, and to offer his key advice for others working toward publication.

Oh. You wanted more on the boxers and tee shirt character? You’ll have to read the book. Better yet, leave a comment after the interview, and you’ll be entered for a chance to win a copy of The Trust. Random.org will choose a winner on Tuesday, August 16th.

CC: Writers often debate the pros and cons of using real versus imaginary cities for settings in a novel. The story in your novel takes place in Charleston, South Carolina, your home town. Were there any challenges (or perhaps big perks) you encountered in rooting THE TRUST in such a familiar place?

SK: It was an interesting thing, setting The Trust in Charleston.  I consider Charleston my “adopted” hometown as I am actually from a ways up the SC coast.  That being said I’ve always loved the city.  I had the opportunity to visit several times during my childhood and, in many ways, I feel I was destined to end up here.

Something about this area just motivates me to write and while I discover new things about the city on a daily basis, it felt only natural to set the book here. The most challenging part of the process was taking the time to describe the area and remembering that not everyone knows the area as I do.  Many times I was tempted to simply jump ahead in the plot, but I found it fit the character of Charleston to blend the setting into the story.

CC: Your novel has received some exciting recognition – Honorable Mention in the 2011 Beach Book Festival Awards and The Bronze Medal in the Mystery-Suspense-Thriller category of the 2011 Independent Publisher Book Awards – which I imagine helps promote your book. As an indie author, what are some other routes of promotion that have helped spread the word about your debut novel?

SK: A writer friend told me something recently – Anyone can write a book, that’s the easy part, it actually can be harder to read a book. The real challenge comes in marketing what has been written. No one told me, or should I say, made me believe the true challenges of book marketing.  Particularly as an indie author.  While I have perhaps a stronger desire to have my book succeed than any marketing professional may have for any book they are marketing, the professionals typically have large bank rolls behind them.  I just have little ol’e me.

I’ve learned that to successfully market a book you have to do it everyday and you can’t get upset at rejections or failures.  I make daily use of a variety of social media, but my most successful efforts have been when I get out and meet people and talk to them about my book.  People don’t get to meet a lot of writers and I’ve been humbled and flattered by the reception I have received (and continue to receive). The more people you talk to, the more people that will perhaps want to read your book. Of course the awards help too.

CC: I’m a believer that life informs writing (and vice versa). Since you are a lawyer in real life, I’m curious as to how that experience translates into your work as an author?

SK: As an attorney I am amazed by the fact that truth is always stranger than fiction.  I find inspiration on a daily basis from what I see in my work.  Many of my characters are amalgamations of people whom I meet in my work.  The struggle is to make sure that my writing doesn’t imitate my work life.

CC: What are you reading these days?

SK: Recently, I read In Leah’s Wake by Terri Giuliano Long.  I also just finished Iron House by John Hart.  I make sure to read Confederacy of Dunces, by John Kennedy Toole, at least once a year.

CC: Do you have any advice for writers on the rise?

SK: My advice for anyone starting out writing is simply to write.  If you don’t write something, you don’t have anything to read or even edit.  My motto when it comes to writing is “Write, Edit, Repeat.”

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For more information on Sean Keefer and his novel, THE TRUST, visit his website, like his page on Facebook, and follow him on Twitter. Also, don’t forget to leave a comment to be entered to win a free copy of his debut novel. Check back on August 16th for the winner.

Welcome Ilie Ruby, Author of The Language of Trees

The willows here grow to enduring heights of one hundred feet, their narrow leaves and long branches bent toward the ground, never forgetting their home. ~The Language of Trees

Trees are a life force around us. They lay claim to a land, bear the weight of change with the seasons, and, as they grow, become living evidence of the history of a place.

And sometimes, trees harbor secrets.

Ilie Ruby’s debut novel, The Language of Trees, is a story about place, as much as it’s a story about the people who live there. It is the sight of the Diamond Trees along the shore of Canandaigua Lake that draws three small children to the scene of a tragic accident. And, it is the power of that place that implores two of the main characters, Grant Shongo and Echo O’Connell, to return home to Canandaigua.

While Grant and Echo travel back to Canandaigua separately, their past, and the mysterious disappearance of a young woman named Melanie Ellis, brings them together. As they help search for Melanie, Grant and Echo find  healing, they rediscover their faith in family and in love, and they uncover the truth behind a secret that has haunted Canandaigua for years.

The Language of Trees is full of surprises and revelations — about the characters and about life. Ruby masters the craft of imagery and prose throughout her novel, hinting at answers but keeping the reader guessing. I’m honored to host Ilie Ruby here today.

At the end of the interview, leave a comment and you’ll be entered into a drawing for a copy of her novel, The Language of Trees. *Random.org will choose the winner on Tuesday, May 17th.*

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CC: One of my favorite scenes in your book is between Lion and Melanie on their first date: Lion realizes that “memories were something you could decide to make, rather than the results of things that just happened to you.” That scene is such a sweet moment between two people and one of healing for them both. Do you have a scene that was your favorite to write?

IR: I’m so glad you like that scene. It takes place during a blizzard and it was one of my favorites to write. You know, I spent half of my life learning how to navigate a world of snow and ice. It will come as no surprise then that many of my childhood memories took place during blizzards. Blizzards are, come to find out, a good time to be inside with people you like (although when you’re a teenager you want to be out there in the midst of them). With everyone in an atmospherically-compressed space, lovers collide; intense family bonding or strife is created.

It’s hard to pick a favorite scene because all the characters came alive for me and have their own voices, magic, and sense of urgency and purpose. But Joseph’s scenes were especially meaningful because I based his character on a magnificent friend who has passed on, who had a way of enveloping those he held close in what can only be described as immense grace, perhaps the most powerful feeling of warmth, love and protection that I’ve ever felt in my life. It both startled and comforted me as I re-experienced that grace while writing Joseph’s scenes. I still feel that sense of comfort when I re-read the book and any scene that has Joseph in it. I hope others do, too.

CC: What was the inspiration behind writing a character that is a spirit? 

IR: I think one reason I write is to learn about things I’m compelled by or exceedingly interested in. Part of what fuels the desire to write about spiritual things is a wish on some level that we exist in a benevolent universe, that there is a rightness to it that can be defined in human terms. From the age of about nine onward, after learning about the loss of so many of my relatives in the Holocaust, I voraciously read everything I could find about religion and spirituality. In this novel, I wanted to show how the dynamic coexistence of light and darkness is reconciled through generations—ultimately, how a child can bring healing and triumph over a painful legacy. The character of Luke, a healing spirit, must transcend the darkness of his father, a hunter, both on this plane and from the spirit world. There is a wheel of energy at work. The character of Melanie fights addiction in order to mother her own child, becoming a person that uses art to transform pain into beauty so in my mind hers is a spiritual gift as well.

CC: What are you reading these days?

IR: I’m re-reading The Giant’s House because Elizabeth McCracken has an incredible gift for making the unfamiliar relatable. She’s a writer that takes chances and I’m awed by her creativity and her ability to render the human heart and the complexity of relationships so uniquely and beautifully.

CC: What is your advice to writers?

IR: Write truth. Write where there’s “heat”. Follow your questions and relate them to universal themes. Know that if you’re wondering about something, it’s likely other people are, too. If your book evokes questions and discovery, that’s a good thing.

Ilie Ruby grew up in Rochester, NY and spent her childhood summers on Canandaigua Lake, the setting for her debut novel, THE LANGUAGE OF TREES. She is the recipient of several awards and scholarships, including the Edwin L. Moses Award for Fiction and the Phi Kappa Phi Award for Creative Achievement in Fiction. In 1995, she graduated from the Masters of Professional Writing Program at the University of Southern California, where she was fiction editor of The Southern California Anthology. Ruby is a painter, poet and proud adoptive mom to three children from Ethiopia.

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For more information about Ilie Ruby, her book, and her upcoming events, visit her website. Also, check out her fan page on Facebook, follow her on Twitter, or keep up with her on Goodreads.

And, don’t forget to leave a comment to be entered into the giveaway!

Welcome Rebecca Rasmussen, Author of The Bird Sisters

“Milly placed her hand on the girl’s curls. Their softness and the scattering of freckles at the girl’s neckline, the sudden camaraderie she felt with the mother, opened up something inside her that hadn’t been opened in a long time.”
~ from The Bird Sisters

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We all experience those moments in life, when a simple gesture, or a glimpse of something familiar, stirs up memories, emotions, and reminders of a time when we sat at the crossroads, when choices made and actions taken determined who we became.

The Bird Sisters, Rebecca Rasmussen’s newly released debut novel, is a story about such a time for two sisters, Milly and Twiss. Set in Spring Green, Wisconsin, The Bird Sisters opens with a visit from a stranger and unfolds into a recollection of the summer of 1947, when Milly and Twiss discovered truths about their priest, their parents, and their cousin Bett. In her novel, Rebecca transports readers back and forth in time with ease, closing each chapter with an image that leaves the reader thinking and wanting more.

The Bird Sisters is a beautiful story that will connect with readers on so many levels. I’m honored to host Rebecca here, where she shares about the inspiration for her novel and talks about writing. At the end of the interview, leave a comment and you’ll be entered into a drawing for a copy of her novel (complete with an autographed book plate!). I’ll announce the winner on Tuesday, April 19th. Also, read more of Rebecca’s writing here and here. She’s an author to follow!

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CC: Under “Behind the Story” on your website, you mention details from your family history that served as inspiration for The Bird Sisters. How much of that history informed your novel, and at what point in your writing process did your main characters, Twiss and Milly, take over?

Rebecca Rasmussen

RR: For several years after my grandmother passed away, I kept trying to figure out how to create a story that honored her based on the journals she kept over a forty-year period. There was a lot of unhappiness in her journals—to be frank—and a lot of wishing her childhood had been different. Both of her parents passed away within a year of each other when she was a teenager and she was constantly torn between making martyrs out of them and seeing them as real people capable of the very grave mistakes that each of them made. Once I took the pressure off of myself and let Milly and Twiss take their own breaths (mostly by putting away my grandmother’s journals), the story came to me very quickly, and I fell in love with the sisters; Twiss for her adventurous spirit, and Milly for her family-bound one.

The two sisters in the novel are different from my grandmother and her sister in that they cling to each other when the going gets rough, whereas my grandmother and sister invested in their new families and children. They invested in moving on. If there is a reckoning in the novel, it’s that while familial love can harm you, it can also save you. The older I get, the more I am tuned in to the sacrifices—large and small—that people make daily for the good of their husbands and wives, their children and grandchildren, and even the animals they love. I am drawn to the idea of sacrifice because it often goes against our instincts, and because it can be one of the most beautiful things in the world, and yet its consequences can be devastating to have to survive. The sacrifices Milly and Twiss make in the novel are part of why they have my love and always will.

CC: You are one of those authors who create a wonderful sense of place in a novel, sometimes shown in brief but powerful descriptions. Set in the real town of Spring Green, Wisconsin, I imagine many of the specifics in the story are real. So, I wonder, does the “enchanted purple meadow” truly exist? If it does, I want to go there and bask in the sun.

RR: I am deeply attached to Spring Green, Wisconsin, which is where my father has lived since I was a girl. My brother and I would go back and forth between his house and my mother’s, which was located in a small suburb of Chicago. For us, Wisconsin was magical. There we were able to swim in the river, cover ourselves in mud, and tromp through the woods. There we played with barn cats and snakes, lightning bugs and katydids. I’ve always preferred rural landscapes to urban ones. Wild over tame. It’s like the old bumper stickers from the 80s used to say: “Escape to Wisconsin.” As for the enchanted purple meadow, it exists in my imagination—it’s a place of love and magic, where life can change after opening one’s self up to those internal possibilities we alternately hope for and are afraid of throughout our lives. For me, without places like that purple meadow, story simply doesn’t exist.

CC: In your novel, which section was your favorite to write?

RR: I really loved writing about the priest who renounces his priesthood early on in the novel: Father Rice. Although his story isn’t rooted in fact, there is a little country chapel in the hills outside of Spring Green that I went to a few times as a girl. Instead of the incendiary language used by priests in other churches I had been to, this priest talked about fishing the river and farming the land in order to convey messages from the Bible. I remember one day he ended mass early because it was still cool and the fish were biting. He was the first priest I ever met whom I wasn’t afraid of and whom I understood had hopes and dreams like the rest of us. I loved writing about faith in an untraditional way, through a priest who questions his faith and almost loses everything. Almost.

CC: What are you reading these days?

RR: I have been reading wonderful books lately. The first one I want to mention is Susan Henderson’s novel, Up From the Blue, which is a wonderful synthesis of what’s it’s like to be child in a highly dysfunctional family. It’s sad and beautiful and wonderfully written. I’ve also been reading Alan Heathcock’s story collection Volt, which does indeed electrify me somehow. Alan and I navigate on different ends of the spectrum: his stories are tough, gritty, and very Cormac McCarthy-esque. I love this collection because it breathes life into my imagination, and I only hope it gets the attention it deserves. Other wonderful books I’m reading are Siobhan Fallon’s You Know When the Men Are Gone, Melissa Senate’s The Love Goddess’ Cooking School, Kate Ledger’s Remedies, and Therese Fowler’s forthcoming novel Exposure. All are major nightly treats for me.

CC: Do you have any advice for writers on the rise?

RR: Have faith in yourself and your work. If you don’t have it, no one else will. Also, be kind to yourself. When you face rejection, treat yourself to something small that you love. Send yourself flowers or chocolates or go find a little trinket. (My husband bought me a sweet little bird charm necklace.) Pick yourself up. Keep writing.

Rebecca Rasmussen is the author of the novel The Bird Sisters, released from Crown Publishers on April 12th, 2011. She lives in St. Louis with her husband and daughter and loves to bake pies. Visit Rebecca at http://www.thebirdsisters.com for more information.

You can also find Rebecca on Twitter (@thebirdsisters) and Facebook.

Don’t forget to leave a comment to be entered into the giveaway!

On Stiltsville: A Novel — An Interview with Susanna Daniel

“This is what it means to be part of a family. There are no maps and the territory is continually changing. We are explorers,
traveling in groups.”
~ From Stiltsville

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Seconds after I read the first page of Susanna Daniel’s debut novel, Stiltsville, I closed the book quick. I was in the middle of the after-school hustle (homework, dinner, baths and bed), and after taking in the opening paragraphs, I thought, This is gonna be good. I didn’t want to start the story until I could do so with the least amount of interruptions.

I should back up. The cover of Stiltsville is what hooked me first, with its beautiful image of a house on stilts — a dream-like vision of something mystical and maybe unreachable. Daniel’s story inside follows suit. Stiltsville is a tale of relationships and marriage, and the house on stilts serves as the backdrop, as a reminder that much in life is magical, and sometimes fleeting. Daniel writes about this sense of place with authority and vivid detail, so that I felt not like a reader looking in, but as if I were actually present.

I loved so much in this book, from the beginning when Frances and Dennis first meet, through to the end when I became witness to endearing moments between husband and wife. There are passages in the book, like the quote at the top of this post, that gave me pause and insisted I read them again. I am honored to interview Susanna Daniel here today, where she talks about her novel and writing.

(For a chance to win a copy of her book, leave a comment at the end of this post. I’ll draw a winner on Tuesday, March 15th.)

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CC: Your biography on the back flap of your novel mentions that you spent much of your childhood at your family’s own stilt house in the Biscayne Bay, and the setting in your novel plays a strong role in the story — both literally and  metaphorically. How much of your experience with the real Stiltsville  informed your novel?

Susanna Daniel

SD: I think often with first novels, the most vividly autobiographical element of a novel is the setting – and this is true of STILTSVILLE. As a child, my family visited our stilt house monthly, for the weekend, and I had many of the same experiences there that the family of a novel does: jumping off the porch at high tide, slinging water balloons at  sailboats, walking the flats in old shoes and avoiding all the dangers that lurk there, sleeping on the porch, watching storms from inside, and so on.

CC: In an essay you wrote for Slate.com, you talk about the time it took to get Stiltsville from its “conception” to its place on the shelves, “a staggering 10 years.” Now that you are working on your second novel, has your writing process changed? Are there any new techniques or rituals that you practice?

SD: The actual act of sitting down and staring at the computer screen hasn’t changed much, the gritty work of laying down the story — but with the first novel I earned the luxury of time, at least for a little while. So instead of squeezing my writing sessions into the mornings before work and late nights, I work regular hours, four days a week  (my son is home with me the fifth day), and on the weekends, I usually manage to let one good session in when my husband takes our son skiing or sledding or  errand running.

I don’t think writing one novel taught me much about writing another, but it did give me some confidence that I’m able to do it, at least. I am better organized this time around, and I have a stronger grip on where the story is headed at any given time. With STILTSVILLE, I had written several chapters late in the novel  before I’d written the second or third. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it meant that I was doing a lot of gutting of the manuscript that, if I’d written from start to finish, I might have avoided.

CC: Writers work in isolation, but we thrive in communities, local or online. Where have you found the greatest community of writers who support and encourage your work?

SD: For a lot of writers, there’s a fine line between too many cooks in the kitchen and too few. I have one close friend from graduate school who has published extensively, who is invaluable to me as a reader. I also participate in a small writing group here in my adopted hometown of Madison, Wisconsin, which is home to many excellent published novelists — these women act not only as my readers, but as a support group as we navigate the pressures, disappointments, and jubilation of publishing.

CC: What are you reading these days?

SD: I’m reading Karl Marlantes’ excellent MATTERHORN, a classic South Floridian historical potboiler called A LAND REMEMBERED (this is research), and Leah Stewart’s wonderfully compelling HUSBAND & WIFE. I’ve been writing a lot, which means my reading is slower than usual.

CC: Do you have any advice for writers on the rise?

SD: My advice, always, is not to worry at all about publishing, and to concentrate completely on the story you want to tell and the voice in which you want to tell it. Find a workshop or graduate program or trusted reader — whatever one suits you — and get as much feedback as possible from other writers. Be ruthless with yourself.

*****

To learn more about Susanna Daniel and  Stiltsville, visit her website or her Facebook page.

To enter the drawing to win a copy of her debut novel, DON’T FORGET to leave a comment here. The winner will be announced on Tuesday, March 15th.

On Themes, Characters, and Creative Spaces: An interview with Author, Danielle Evans

“Tell your mother she has never had any idea
how easy it is for something to be destroyed.”
– from “Snakes” in Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self

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I’ll admit, I was first attracted to Danielle Evans’ collection of short stories, Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self, because of the title. But, it was the stories themselves, and the characters within, that held my attention.

Sana Krasikov (author of One More Year: Stories) calls Evans’ writing “quietly magnetic.” I love this description; it’s so true. Evans creates characters who are within my reach, even when their experiences differ from my own. I slid easily into their lives and found myself in the middle of deep loss, heartache, and threat. Yet, I didn’t want to look away. Instead, I was compelled to sit with the characters, even after the story ended, and then go back and read about them again.

After so many great reviews,from people like Lydia Peelle in the New York Times and Ron Charles at the Washington Post, I’m honored to host Ms. Evans here, where she answers a few questions about her collection and about writing.

For a chance to win a copy of her book, Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self, drop your name in the comments section. I’ll choose the winner on Tuesday, February 1st.

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CC: The opening story in your book, “Virgins,” first appeared in The Paris Review three years before this book was published. Did you discover an emerging theme in your writing early on that led you to publish a book of short stories? Or, did you consider a theme and then craft the stories?

photo by Nina Subin

DE: “Virgins” was actually one of the last stories in the book to be written. It was published in 2007, just about a month before I sold the collection to Riverhead. Typically there’s about a year between selling the book and publication, but various things can slow that process down—in this case, my editor’s maternity leave, and my first full time teaching job, which coincided with the start of the editing process and meant I had to learn to divide my writing and editing time from my teaching time. I didn’t write most of the stories with any end goal in mind. By the time that I wrote the first draft of Virgins, in 2006, I had a sense that most of the stories that I was happy with belonged together somehow. The only story I wrote with the collection in mind was “Wherever You Go, There You Are,” which I thought tied together the themes of various stories, but took them someplace new. In the editorial process, a lot of what I had to think about was how these stories, which I’d always thought of as somewhat separate, could become one thing. At points I’d find that, for example, a particular story could survive having an element cut and still work, but cutting that element would take something away from the collection as a whole. There was a story that went in after the collection was sold, because it seemed to add some balance after a few stories were cut from the original version of the manuscript, and another that almost went in, but that in the end I couldn’t make claim its own territory—it seemed too similar to work I’d already done. So, there was a lot of thought about the book as a book, and not just a series of stories, but mostly I was thinking about topic and form and organization. Questions of theme I think are generally best left to readers and reviewers—at least personally, I find they can crush my writing if I let them guide it.

CC: Each of your stories is written with such strength and emotion. I especially love, “Snakes,” where you tackle issues of race, family, and failed expectations head on through the lives of Tara, Allison, and their grandmother, crafting each character’s emotional depth or shallowness with great skill. How do you approach character development? Do you spend more time getting to know each one before you write? Or, do you write more organically, allowing the characters to reveal themselves throughout the first drafts?

DE: I generally try to write organically, at least at first pass. The good thing about working in shorter forms is that if it doesn’t work, you can just throw it out. There isn’t that sense of pressure that you have with a novel that you’ve been working on for two years, or that you realize will be a decade long commitment. So, if I have an idea for a story, or I feel drawn to a particular character, I just write it, and if it doesn’t come together, I can abandon it, or I can leave it alone indefinitely and return to it months or years later, because a story is short enough to easily drop back into if there’s anything redeemable in it. “Snakes” is an example of that. The first draft of the story was one of the earliest things I wrote—it was actually something I wrote in one of my first college creative writing courses. For years I’d revisit it and not quite know what was off. I knew Tara was withholding something—there was always a kind of secrecy and repression built into the story—but I had no idea what. Then my editor read it, and in her critique asked some smart questions about Tara, and suddenly I had an answer. Once I had that answer it was easy to go back into the story and tear out most of what was there so I could rewrite it with greater clarity.

CC: In the Acknowledgments, you say, “The Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing is one of the best places a writer could ever call home.” I’d love to hear more about your experiences there and how they shaped you as a writer.

DE: I think if most early writers were to make a list of ideal gifts, those gifts would include time, money, and faith—not necessarily in that order. There are many institutions that are good at providing one or two of those things, but The Wisconsin Institute of Creative Writing really provided all three. There was a teaching commitment that was enough to keep you grounded, but not so much pressure that it cut into your writing time, there was a stipend that was enough to live comfortably on in that part of the country, and there was a real sense of community, a sense that we were there to do our work because someone genuinely believed in it. There are a lot of writing spaces where people feel like admitting that they don’t know something or need help navigating something is akin to failure, and I think the creative writing faculty at UW-Madison really worked to create a space where that was not the case, where it was safe to ask questions and you could expect thoughtful answers. Once you are in a position where people think you know the answers to certain questions, procedural or existential, about writing, you realize how much time it takes to answers those questions, and exactly how generous the people who kept their doors open for you were. Madison is also, hands down, the prettiest place I have ever lived.

CC: What are you reading these days?

DE: Student journals, forever and ever. But, I am amassing a collection of books to read during the summer: Gary Shteyngart’s Super Sad True Love Story, Jane Brox’s Brilliant, a history of artificial light, Paul Murray’s Skippy Dies. I am looking forward to Tayari Jones’ forthcoming book, Silver Sparrow, which I had the pleasure of hearing her read from last Fall. Last year I read and loved many books, but especially Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From the Goon Squad and Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns. And, I exaggerate a bit about the journals. In the context of teaching, I also get to reread some of my favorite books and poems and stories—among them Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, Colson Whitehead’s John Henry Days, and Edward P. Jones’ The Known World. I’m teaching an independent study this semester where some of the books are chosen by the students, so I’m reading Blood Meridian for the first time, which I’m looking forward to.

CC: Do you have any final thoughts or advice for writers on the rise?

DE: My main advice is to do the work that you believe in, because that’s the only part of the process you can predict or control.

~

You can find Danielle Evans on her website, Facebook, and on Goodreads. You can purchase her book at Indiebound.org and on Amazon. Don’t forget to leave a comment for a chance to win a copy, then check back here on February 1st.

Welcome Author, Jody Hedlund

“We aren’t just fighting a battle for religious freedoms…[w]e’re struggling for human liberty as well.”
~ From The Preacher’s Bride, by Jody Hedlund

*****

Writers are compelled to categorize novels into genres. We can’t help ourselves, since it’s one of the signs of a good query. But a skilled author will write a novel that stretches beyond the limits of genre.

A great story captures readers from outside one set audience, anchors them into the lives of the characters, and makes them forget they’re reading Historical or Women’s or Christian Fiction.

Jody Hedlund’s debut novel, The Preacher’s Bride, is that type of story.

Based on details from the life of John Bunyan (the writer of Pilgrim’s Progress), The Preacher’s Bride is rooted in the Christian Faith. However, readers who might not normally be interested in Christian Fiction will still find Jody Hedlund’s novel compelling.

Hedlund weaves struggles with religion, class, and politics in and around an irresistible love story between John Costin and Elizabeth Whitebread — two kindred spirits who fight for their beliefs and convictions, no matter what the cost.

Once I dipped into chapter one of The Preacher’s Bride, I began to steal moments during my day to read more — to find out what might become of mean Mrs. Grew, to look for clues about the mysterious man in the black hat, to encounter the next moment when John and Elizabeth stood in the same room. Hedlund’s descriptions of those moments between John and Elizabeth, along with deeper conflicts that surround their daily existence, lends such power to the story that I simply didn’t want to put The Preacher’s Bride down.

Today, I am honored to host Jody Hedlund here, as she answers a few questions about her debut novel and her writing. For a chance to win an autographed copy of The Preacher’s Bride, just leave a comment at the end of the interview.

*****

CC: In the Author’s Note in The Preacher’s Bride, you mention that history “fails to recognize the woman who stood by [John Bunyan's] side and helped shape him into the hero we all know and love.” How and when did you discover that Elizabeth Bunyan had her own story to tell?

Jody Hedlund

JH: During the course of teaching my children world history, I began to learn more about some of the great heroes of all times—especially faith heroes. I was particularly fascinated with the little-known women who helped shape the great men. These wives were strong, courageous, and faithful. I decided their inspiring stories needed to have a voice.

As I was reading a biography about John Bunyan, I ran across a small excerpt about Elizabeth, his second wife. I loved the brave way she defended John during one of his trials when he was under arrest for his “unlicensed” preaching. Her strength to face a court of persecutors and her determination to faithfully support her husband touched me so deeply, that I decided her little-known story needed to be told to the world.

CC: The Preacher’s Bride takes place in England in 1659. Historical fiction presents several challenges, such as time-relevant details like setting, dialogue, and cultural norms — all of which you master with ease and grace in your novel. How did you conduct your research, especially in the midst of your busy days of mothering and home schooling, and did your research guide you in unexpected ways?

JH: I generally spend about eight weeks or more immersing myself in the research of my novel before I begin the actual writing. When I’m in research mode, I consider it part of my daily writing work, which I block into my schedule. While my writing time is hardly ever uninterrupted or perfect (when I’m at home surrounded by my kids!), I make a commitment to it every day, rain or shine.

For The Preacher’s Bride, I tracked down quite a number of biographies. I also drew extensively from the writings of John Bunyan himself—especially from his autobiography. After studying original church records, street maps of old Bedford, and learning as much as I could about the time period, I finally began the writing.

Having the upfront research helped me to be able to delve into the story and feel like I was already living in England in the 1650’s. Of course, I still needed to do plenty more research as I wrote, but I tried not to let it bog me down from telling the story.

CC: What impressions about John and Elizabeth’s story do you hope The Preacher’s Bride will leave with readers?

JH: Sometimes life can throw incredible challenges into our paths. It’s easy to want to give up or look for the easy way out of difficult situations. But real growth comes when we push ourselves to stay on the path, fight through the challenges, and persevere, no matter how hard.

CC: On your blog, you’ve published great posts on finding an agent, creating an online presence, and the roller coaster effect of writing, all in the midst of promoting one book and working on a second. What advice do you have for writers-on-the-rise who also juggle blog posts with novel or short story writing?

JH: A well-written, compelling story is THE most important thing to an author’s career. No matter where we’re at in the publication process, there will always be other responsibilities that clamor for our attention—social networking, querying, editing, answering emails, etc. We can and should budget time into our writing work days for those kinds of things. BUT, ultimately, the story itself is what counts the most and so we need to remember to give it our best time and energy.

CC: And finally, what are you reading these days?

JH: Currently, I’m in the middle of extensive in-house editing for my second book, The Doctor’s Lady (which is releasing in Sept. 2011), so my face is buried in papers lined with red ink. But when I squeeze in time for reading, I tend to gravitate toward the books of writer friends that I’ve come to know and appreciate.

Thanks again, Jody, for your interview! For all you readers, don’t forget to leave a quick comment to be entered into a drawing for an autographed copy of The Preacher’s Bride! I’ll draw the winner’s name on Tuesday, November 9th.

To find more information about Jody Hedlund visit her website. You can also follow her on Twitter or become a fan on Facebook. If you’d like to purchase a copy of The Preacher’s Bride click on over to www.christianbook.com or Amazon.