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Q&A with Isabel Wolff about her new novel, Shadows Over Paradise

Friday, February 13th, 2015

Shadows Over Paradise When young ghostwriter Jenni Clark agrees to pen the memoir of an elderly farm owner, she expects nothing more than the ordinary, quiet tale of a life well-lived by a woman well-loved. But Klara’s life has been far from quiet; and as she narrates her story of a family ripped apart by life in the internment camps of Java during World War II, Jenni finds herself forced to face her own ghosts, products of a long-buried, devastating childhood secret. In lovely prose, with humor and grace, Wolff creates a riveting tale of love and loss across generations.

Isabel took time to chat with Random House Reader’s Circle about what inspired her and what her research was like. Check out the full conversation here!

A Conversation with Isabel Wolff

Random House Reader’s Circle: What drew you to write about what happened in Java during World War II?

Isabel Wolff: When planning my novels, I always start with what the heroine does for a living, because from this, everything else will flow. Once I knew that Jenni would be a ghostwriter, I had to work out what the story that she “ghosts” was going to be. I decided that it would be a wartime memoir, not of the conflict in Europe, which has been written about so much, but of the war in the East instead. I’ve always been very interested in the Pacific war. I remember, as a child, learning that my parents’ friend Dennis had been a POW on the Burma-­Thailand Railway. My mother told me, in hushed tones, that Dennis had suffered terribly and seen “dreadful things,” although she didn’t want to say what those things might have been. As a teenager I used to avidly watch the TV drama Tenko, about a group of British and Australian women interned in a jungle camp on Sumatra. I was moved by their struggle against disease, malnutrition, and the capricious cruelty of their captors. I was also fascinated by their desire to help one another but also, at times, to betray one another. And I’d read A Town Like Alice, set in occupied Malaya, a novel that has stayed with me all my life. So I decided that my ghostwritten story would be a memoir of internment in the Far East. There were many locations in which it could have been set: civilian men, women, and children were interned right across the region, in Singapore, the Philippines, China, Malaya, and Hong Kong. I decided to set the novel in the Dutch East Indies, on Java, where the camps were most numerous. They were also, by and large, the worst.

RHRC: Parts of Klara’s and Jenni’s stories are very painful to read. Were they painful to write too?

IW: They were, largely because I write in the first person and so I have to “become” my characters in order to convey what they’ve been through in a believable way. Klara’s story required a great deal of research. First I interviewed two women who had been interned on Java as children and whose memories of the camps were still vivid, seventy years on. I also read the memoirs of Dutch survivors, whose accounts of the appalling conditions, cruel treatment, and the atrocious train transports were distressing. So I immersed myself in their remembered world of a paradise that had become a living hell, and into this I placed the fictional characters of Klara and Peter and their parents, the Jochens, and the vengeful Mrs. Dekker. Jenni’s story was also painful to write, but in a different way: She is a captive too, though her prison is an internal one of profound remorse at the fatal mistake she made on the beach that day.

RHRC: Was it difficult writing from two very different women’s points of view? Who did you feel closest to, Klara or Jenni?

IW: I didn’t find it difficult because I was so interested in them both. I knew that I’d simply have to inhabit their characters completely in order to summon their memories and feelings as though they were my own. In Klara’s case this meant doing the detailed historical research about her life in Holland and on Java, which would enable me to relate to what had happened to her in an authentic way. I felt close both to Klara and Jenni, because, like them, I have lost a brother, and know all too well their sense of irreparable loss, the feeling that a part of one’s very self has been wrenched away.

RHRC: Klara and Jenni are thrown together by a twist of fate, or by random chance. On the surface they seem to have little in common, but memories play an important part in both their lives. Was memory—­its function, its legacy—­something that you particularly wanted to explore in the novel? How powerful do you think it can be in forming personalities, forming lives?

IW: It’s true that these two women, one old, one young, seem to have little in common. However, as the interviews progress, they realize that they do. The twist of fate that reunites them is Jenni’s meeting Klara’s son Vincent at the wedding. Despite the mental terrors that Polvarth holds for her, Jenni decides to return, in order to confront the past, and to try and lay to rest the ghost that has haunted her for twenty-­five years. So yes, memory is a key theme, particularly how we cope—­or don’t cope—­with very difficult memories. Jenni has chosen a job that lets her take refuge in the memories of others, because her own memories are a source of such pain. The novel is also about the power of memory, in that we are our memories—­the sum total of all our experiences, held in our minds, to be retrieved and reflected upon, making us behave in this way or that. If dementia takes away our memories, it robs us of our personality too.

RHRC: Klara is quite literally a prisoner. Jenni is a bit of a prisoner too, in a prison of her own making. Do you think many people are trapped by the burden of guilt? How does one break free?

IW: Klara has been imprisoned by an occupying force, but Jenni has been imprisoned by her own conscience. She feels completely culpable for what happened to Ted. That tragedy and its legacy have shaped her personality, making her gravitate toward the shadows, concealing herself, happy that few people even know her name. It has also led her to shun family life, because she believes that she doesn’t deserve to have a child. I felt very sorry for Jenni. In real life, perhaps therapy would have helped her come to terms with what happened. But she exists in a novel, and I decided that Klara would help her start to break free of her past, enabling her to view the tragedy in a different way.

RHRC: You describe Cornwall and Java in great detail. Are these places you know well? Are some locations in the novel fictional?

IW: The rubber plantation, Sisi Gunung, is made up, but all the other places on Java are real and are described from my research, and from a trip I made to Java. Polvarth is fictional but is based on the coastal hamlet of Rosevine, where I spend many holidays. Trennick is modeled on the fishing village of Portscatho, nearby. The Cotswold village of Nailsford and the Church of Saint Jude are invented, and I created one or two of the characters that feature in Tjideng. Lieutenant Sonei, Mrs. Cornelisse, Mrs. Nicholson, and the Korean guard Oohara all existed, but I have invented Sergeant Asako and Lieutenant Kochi. I have also transposed the worst punishments from camps Kampung Makassar, Banyu Biru, and Ambarawa to Camp Tjideng.

RHRC: How long did the novel take you to write, and were you consumed with thoughts of the Second World War in the Far East all the time you wrote it?

IW: The novel took eighteen months to write, largely because of all the historical research that I had to do. I was fairly obsessed by thoughts of the war in the Far East. I’d close my eyes and try to imagine what it must have been like to be in a house with eighty or even a hundred other people, with no possibility to be alone, in peace and quiet. I tried to imagine the hunger that prompted these desperately thin women to write out recipes for delicious dishes that they knew they would never get to eat. I tried to imagine what it would be like to have my head shaved, or to stand at tenko for hours at a time with a child in my arms. What these many thousands of women endured is not widely known; I wanted to write a novel that would have their ordeal, and their courage, at its heart.

RHRC: In some ways Shadows Over Paradise is a departure from your previous novels. For one thing, the main thrust of the novel isn’t a love story. Was this intentional?

IW: Shadows Over Paradise is first and foremost a story of survival, and so to have focused on romance would have felt wrong. Having said this, there is some romance—­the growing love between Arif and Susan, for example, and the faltering relationship between Jenni and Rick. But the main thrust of the novel is about how women coped in such atrocious conditions, how they kept sane, not knowing where their husbands and sons were, or if they were even alive. It’s also about how they tried to maintain decent standards of behavior when they were living with so much fear, and when every basic comfort had been taken away. As for Shadows Over Paradise being a departure from my previous novels, this is true. The earlier romantic comedies such as The Making of Minty Malone, Out of the Blue, and Rescuing Rose have given way to stories in which I blend present and past. This is something that began with A Vintage Affair and continued with
The Very Picture of You. Shadows Over Paradise maintains that process of change. I very much hope that the readers of my earlier books will enjoy these later, semi-­historical novels too.

RHRC: For those who would like to get to know more about Java in the time of the Second World War, what resources would you recommend?

IW: I’ve listed many books on the subject of the Japanese occupation of Java. Of these, I particularly recommend Jannie Wilbrink’s Java Lost, Boudewijn van Oort’s excellent and scholarly Tjideng Reunion, and Ernest Hillen’s moving memoir, Way of a Boy. There are also some very informative websites, notably Elizabeth van Kampen’s Dutch East Indies site, www.dutch-­east-­indies.com; the East Indies Camp Archives, www.indischekamparchieven.nl; and the Tjideng Camp website, members.iinet.net.au/~vanderkp/tjideng.html.

Discussion Questions: New Life, No Instructions

Wednesday, February 11th, 2015

New Life, No Instructions cover tpNew Life, New Instructions by Gail Caldwell

Readers of Anne Lamott, Kelly Corrigan and Mary Karr, will love this moving, exquisitely written memoir about how life can begin again when we least expect it, by the New York Times bestselling author of the beloved Let’s Take the Long Way Home.

1. New Life, No Instructions resonates with the theme of life beginning anew, with the chance to start over, at no matter what age. What was a moment in your life when you were able to start fresh? What was the best part of that moment? The most difficult?

2. As Caldwell watches Tula in the backyard, she writes, “We love what we love in spite of ourselves, toward something larger and more generous than the velvet prison of self.” Has there ever been a time when you’ve grown to love something or someone through difficulty? Did the hard times make your relationship stronger? Did you feel that you’d grown, as a person, because of it?

3. “We attach ourselves to our familiar miseries, an easier act sometimes than striking out for the territory.” How did Caldwell’s attachment to her old leg, and her old self, create issues for her in the healing process? Have there ever been times when you’ve been unable to let go of something that was painful to you?

4. Throughout the book, Tula is the catalyst Caldwell needs to keep pushing forward, to keep improving her life. Think about the people or animals in your own life who give you inspiration and purpose. When did you feel most grateful to them?

5. Caldwell describes her relationship with S. and the many problems it created. In the midst of it, though, she discusses her mother and writes, “She stopped my free fall. The ledge of my mother, as I dropped through space.” Has there ever been a time when your own mother helped you get through a major turning point in your life? Did you ever feel that she knew you better than you knew yourself?

6. Caldwell tells us that she doesn’t believe much in miracles—“Too flashy, too little empirical evidence that the glow lasts. Instead I’ll take the slower route: an apple a day, a thousand leg lifts.” Think about a time in your life when you’ve worked diligently for something. Was the outcome worth more than gains that came easily?

7. One of the major themes of the book is the unconventional family that Caldwell creates with her neighbors: “I felt blessed by the tribe I was part of. . . . Here I was, supposedly solo, and the real truth was that I had a force field of connection surrounding me.” Who are some of the people who belong in your own unconventional family? Have there been times when they were able to help you when no one else could?

8. Caldwell also realizes that “solitude itself makes you stretch your heart—the usual buffers of spouse and children are missing, so you reach toward the next circle of intimacy.” Has there ever been a time when you’ve lived on your own, away from family and friends? If so, who were the first people to reach out to you? Who were the ones you connected with the most?

9. Caldwell describes her journey as a reigniting of hope: “I wanted to say something about hope and the absence of it, and how we keep going anyway.” When have you felt the most hopeless? Who helped reignite the flame of hope for you?

10. Caldwell describes her journey as a reigniting of hope: “I wanted to say something about hope and the absence of it, and how we keep going anyway.” When have you felt the most hopeless? Who helped reignite the flame of hope for you?

Discussion Questions: Remember Me Like This

Monday, February 9th, 2015

Remember Me Like This TR coverFour years have passed since Justin Campbell’s disappearance, a tragedy that rocked the small town of Southport, Texas. Did he run away? Was he kidnapped? Did he drown in the bay? As the Campbells search for answers, they struggle to hold what’s left of their family together.

Here are some discussion questions below to guide your book club,
 
 


1. Remember Me Like This is rendered from the perspectives of various characters, but never Justin’s. Why do you think Johnston decided not to include his point of view? What do the alternating perspectives do for the story?

2. The novel opens with a body floating facedown in the ship channel, then flashes back and shows the events that led up to the discovery. Who did you think was in the water at first and why? Did your feelings change throughout the book?

3. The novel opens with a body floating facedown in the ship channel, then flashes back and shows the events that led up to the discovery. Who did you think was in the water at first and why? Did your feelings change throughout the book?

4. The novel takes place during a humid summer in South Texas, and Johnston asks the reader to pay a lot of attention to the heat and weather. How does this setting relate to the themes of the book?

5. Early in the novel, the reader learns that Cecil believes love can be shown through not disclosing what you know. Do you agree with him? What role do secrets play in the book?

6. Are Eric and Laura good parents? In what ways do their actions support or undermine each other’s? What would you have done differently in their shoes?

7. Each of the Campbells seeks different kinds of shelter in the book: Eric is involved in an extramarital affair; Laura spends much of her time volunteering at Marine Lab; Griffin devotes most of his energy to skateboarding and Fiona; and Cecil retreats deeper into the grooves of his life. What do these shelters offer the characters? What do the shelters reveal about them? Do the shelters hold up?

8. Most of the novel takes place in Southport, a small coastal town with a tightly knit community. How does that sense of closeness and isolation play into the story? How does the realization that, geographically, Justin was never that far away affect the Campbells?

9. Which character do you identify with the most and why?

10. In your own family, do you think you’re more like Eric or more like Laura?

11. Had Cecil’s plan worked, what do you think he would have done with Buford? Did you believe the story he tells Eric about taking Buford into Mexico? Did he ever intend to include Eric in the plan? Why does he decide against including him?

12. Do you think Buford’s father is being honest with Cecil about just wanting one last day on the water with his family? Why or why not?

13. The novel ends with Eric imagining what might have happened to Buford. What do you think happened to Buford? Do you think Laura had anything to do with it?

14. Where do you imagine each of the Campbells in a year? In five years? In ten?


Five Things I Wish I Could Tell My Younger Self by Gail Caldwell

Friday, February 6th, 2015

New Life, No Instructions cover tpFive Things I Wish I Could Tell My Younger Self by Gail Caldwell

The author of New Life, No Instructions gives advice for young women based on her own experiences. Her new memoir is about the surprising way life can begin again, at any age.

Originally published on Oprah.com

 
 
 
 
 
 

1. Your father was saying something that you couldn’t hear.

My dad was a tough, sometimes domineering Texas patriarch, and his idea of protecting his two adolescent daughters was to scare hell out of the boys in the ’hood. Granted, it was the Texas Panhandle in the 1950s: When a kid came to my or my sister’s window late at night, Wild Bill would do a patrol around the block with an unloaded rifle on his shoulder.

Why couldn’t he just tell us to watch our backs, or say how much he loved us? Now I know that he was telling us, but too often the greatest generation translated love into laconic shows of strength. I wish he could have said, “You are the most precious cargo in the world and I will do anything to keep you safe,” which might have helped me learn to say it to myself.

2. Live inside your body.

You have muscles and brain cells that are poised for amazing possibilities—childbirth and mountain climbing and dancing until 3 a.m. You can learn calculus or walk across half of Spain and your body and brain will barely flinch. Then you can sleep it off and start again. You will be able to do this for many, many years, particularly if you forgo stupid drugs and too much booze and seven helpings of cheesecake and walking in front of speeding vehicles, or, for that matter, getting into them.

3. Walk tall, even—especially—when you are afraid, or cowed, or insecure.

If you assume you are too good to be taken advantage of, the bullies of the world will usually believe you, and move on.
This skill involves daily practice, like sports or meditation, and, as my gun-toting, poker-playing dad would say, a little bluff at the right time. I had a creepy guy twice my size acting inappropriately in an airplane aisle recently—he reached his hand around my waist—and without thinking, I looked him in the eye, moved toward him with my hand up, and said, “Sir, you’re going to need to step back, now.”

I think I’ve been watching too much Matthew McConaughey in True Detective. But hey, the man got out of my way, fast.

4. Everything—I mean everything—matters.

The friend’s kid brother you were nice to when no one else was; the parking place you got into a screaming match over; the bearable, or awful, breakup you had. What matters is not the parking place, but the way you react: the kindness you display, and the mercy and the poise to be your own best self when you can. Everything matters because it morphs into this giant thing called history, or experience, and eventually life itself. Even the murderous Hound in Game of Thrones tells Arya, “A man’s got to have a code.” Find yours and live by it.

5. Remember the gulping-air surprise of being alive.

Love, color, music, the beauty of the planet—all these things will serve you later, decades later, when you are walking down a street in St. Louis, or a beach on Cape Cod, and you hear a song that sends you spinning. You hear “Night-swimming” and want to weep because it takes you back to Point Reyes in California, or a sunset over Mount Bonnell in Texas. Your memory is the motherboard. Feed it the experience and it will always give it back.

P.S. You will note that I have left out much counsel about the bad times in life. That’s because they will always be there, the worry and sorrow and little hells that we can do nothing about. No prep book for those. Do the good stuff, see above, and it will cushion the rest.

Q&A: Bret Anthony Johnston and Elizabeth McCracken

Thursday, February 5th, 2015

Remember Me Like This TR cover

Four years have passed since Justin Campbell’s disappearance, a tragedy that rocked the small town of Southport, Texas. Did he run away? Was he kidnapped? Did he drown in the bay? As the Campbells search for answers, they struggle to hold what’s left of their family together.

Then, one afternoon, the impossible happens. The police call to report that Justin has been found only miles away, in the neighboring town, and, most important, he appears to be fine. Though the reunion is a miracle, Justin’s homecoming exposes the deep rifts that have diminished his family, the wounds they all carry that may never fully heal. Trying to return to normal, his parents do their best to ease Justin back into his old life. But as thick summer heat takes hold, violent storms churn in the Gulf and in the Campbells’ hearts. When a reversal of fortune lays bare the family’s greatest fears—and offers perhaps the only hope for recovery—each of them must fight to keep the ties that bind them from permanently tearing apart. Read a Q&A between author of Remember Me Like This, Bret Anthony Johnston and author of Thunderstruck, Elizabeth McCracken.

Elizabeth McCracken: In Remember Me Like This you write beautifully about Corpus Christi, your hometown. How did you manage to evoke a place you knew so well without becoming overwhelmed with details and memories?

Bret Anthony Johnston: As a reader and writer, I’m interested in stories that can only happen in a specific place. If I can imagine a story taking place anywhere else than the place I’m writing or reading about, then something feels off. In some ways, for me, place is the story.

The only thing I knew was that the heat would be relentless, inescapable. Chekhov advised writers to make sad stories cold, and I wanted to flip that logic. I wanted the summer heat of South Texas to exact the kind of pressure on my characters that the Russian winters exacted on his. Beyond that, I waded into the story with nothing more than curiosity. I didn’t aim to render a landscape that I know well, but rather to dismiss what I know and perceive the place solely through the senses of the Campbell family.

In each subsequent draft of the novel, the setting insisted itself in a more significant way and I worked hard to empathize with the characters, to see the place as only they would. A mother who feels estranged from her family will view a barrier island differently than a boy who was kidnapped and living within forty miles of his parents. They will both view the bay, the green-gray water that would have been visible from their respective windows every day of the ordeal, through revelatory lenses. Getting the place right mattered far less to me than making it interesting. Any resemblance to the actual geography of the area is almost coincidental.

EM: The switching point of view in Remember Me Like This is so intimate with each character, while never seeming claustrophobic or narrow. Was there one character who came easier, whom you were gladder to be with?

BAJ: I knew the novel needed multiple perspectives, knew that it had to be refracted through different consciousnesses, if I had any hope of rendering the story in a way that rewarded the reader’s attention. The characters needed to have blind spots and secrets, and I wanted the reader to feel both part of the family and estranged, which is how they feel toward each other and toward Justin. What characters notice and don’t notice is endlessly interesting to me, and regardless of what’s included or neglected, I see point of view as an invitation. I wanted the reader to care for these characters, to empathize with them. I wanted them to see that the characters were facing choices where no answer was clearly right, and I wanted them to embrace the characters after they’d made a decision that was clearly wrong.

None of the characters were easy to inhabit, not even close, but the one I enjoyed and identified with the most is Cecil. That I have so much in common with a widowed grandfather who hides a pistol under the seat of his truck was news to me. But I really did cotton to him. We’re both methodical and patient to a sometimes infuriating degree, and while I was writing the novel, I came to have very real compassion for him. I wouldn’t have handled all of the trouble the way he does, but I understand his reasoning. When I was working on his chapters and scenes, I felt a sense of following around an older, braver, and more desperate version of myself. In a complicated way, I might have even looked up to him.

EM: What was the earliest inspiration, the earliest glimmer, of the book?

BAJ
: When I was much younger, living in South Texas, I volunteered to help rehabilitate a beached dolphin, exactly as Laura does in the novel. I always wanted to volunteer for one of the overnight shifts, but despite the rescue coordinator saying how difficult they were to fill, none were ever available. This really made an impression on me, and for years I wondered who was volunteering for these notoriously hard shifts. Little by little, the character crystallized in my imagination. I thought of a woman with insomnia, a woman who wanted to volunteer when no one would see her, a woman who longed to serve in private.

But I didn’t know why she couldn’t sleep, what was keeping her up, and I started thinking about a beach ball that someone had brought in for my dolphin when I was volunteering. I realized that this character that I’d been imagining for decades would be the kind of woman who’d bring in a beach ball for the dolphin. The problem was that I associate beach balls with children, and in all the years of thinking of Laura, I’d never conceived of her having children. That’s when it clicked. I realized that her son was missing—in my mind, though certainly not in hers—and it was his beach ball. It was his breath inside of it, not hers, and she was trying to save the dolphin because she thought she’d failed to save him. Suddenly, I knew I had a book. I never wanted to write a book about kidnapping or being lost, but through the writing, I realized that I was very interested in the complexities of a story about being found.

EM: When you were writing this book, did you have a clear vision of how everything would unfold, or were there moments when the characters surprised you?

BAJ: I’m a writer—and a reader—who craves surprise. I write toward it. If I know how a story will unfold, let alone how it will end, I can’t bring myself to start writing it. For me to enter a story, I have to sense the potential for discovery, for illumination, for surprise. I want stories to be smarter than I am. I want them to know more than I do, as both a reader and a writer. I want them to lead me toward revelation. I fear all of that sounds fancy and highfalutin, but practically speaking, it translates to countless hours of writing and rewriting and hundreds of pages being discarded.

But, yes, Remember Me Like This surprised me at almost every turn. I had no idea how the book would end, or what roles the characters would play in how everything unfolds. I was as surprised by the characters’ potential for violence as I was by their potential for grace and compassion. Each surprise felt like a gift to me, even when it required months of rewriting, and I hope the readers feel equally rewarded.

EM: The only character whose point of view we don’t see is Justin’s. What informed your choice to focus on the other family members?

BAJ: A few critics, bless their hearts, have very kindly suggested that I avoided Justin’s point of view (and thus the raw, firsthand descriptions of what he endured) to intensify the reading experience—the idea being that, by leaving out his perspective and the details of his abuse, I would force readers to imagine what happened to him, and what they could imagine would be far worse, far more terrifying and disturbing, than what actually happened. I don’t think there’s a shred of truth to this line of thinking. What happened to Justin is infinitely worse than most of us could ever conceive. But, like his family, the reader is trapped in the not-knowing, which is its own particular kind of menace. They aren’t allowed to ask him the questions they want to, aren’t allowed access to his thoughts and feelings, so neither are we. I wanted the reader to occupy the same space that his parents and grandfather and brother do. I aimed to initiate the reader into that community.

And, speaking of surprises, I will say that when I first started writing the book, I assumed Justin would get a POV. I thought he would be in the mix, but it soon became clear that he wasn’t ready to talk about what had happened. He wasn’t offering anything of that nature to anyone except Griff, and I didn’t want to pry. I refused to invade his privacy. He’s been through enough already.

EM: Griff and Justin are both skateboarders, and I know that you have been a serious skateboarder for over twenty years. What was it like to bring a culture you know so well onto the page?

BAJ: Extremely difficult! The skateboarding sections were shockingly hard to write for exactly that reason—because I know that culture so well. In one draft, I would have pages of unnecessary (but awesome) descriptions of skating; I would get drunk on the language and material and just throw in everything I knew, things that the reader would neither understand nor enjoy. It was indulgent and digressive. In the next draft, I’d cut the sections down to the bone, so that even if the reader didn’t have this lifelong history as a skater, the scenes would still make sense. Finding the balance was one of the biggest chores of the book. And yet I always knew that skating would play a part in the boys’ lives. Depending on where you are in the book, skateboarding serves as an escape hatch or a source of confusion, a place to take shelter or a source of pain. It’s also, of course, a solitary endeavor. There are no teams in the typical sense, so you’re fundamentally on your own when you’re learning tricks or choosing whether to get back on your board after a hard fall. To some degree, there’s still a stigma attached to being a skater, too. You are, especially in places like Southport, still viewed as an outcast or misfit, someone who doesn’t fit into normal society. All of these things resonated with me in light of what the family has survived. A number of really savvy readers have pointed out that the book pays a fair amount of attention to the coping at the top of the Teepee Motel pool. In reality, pool coping is the row of cement blocks that form the lip around the uppermost edge of the bowl; it’s what you hold on to as you pull yourself out of the pool after swimming. But in the book, according to certain readers, the word “coping” takes on a more nuanced definition. It’s a word I’ve heard all my life as a skater—coping, coping, coping—but the novel was almost done before I started hearing that piece of language as it would apply to Griff and Justin and their family. Who knew? Not me. I couldn’t have planned something like that. I wouldn’t want to. I’d rather wait for the book to surprise me, to change the way I view—and hear—the life around me.

EM: What surprised you most about the book, both writing and afterward?

BAJ: There were a lot surprises while I was writing Remember Me Like This. The characters surprised me often, which was exhilarating and comforting, and the ending of the novel was a huge surprise. I absolutely thought the book would end differently. I’d been writing toward a different conclusion, and when the book went in another (and altogether better) direction, I felt that rare and beautiful rush of surprise that comes when you think you’ve been lost but realize you’ve been on the right path all along.

Maybe the biggest surprise, though, has come from the reaction of the booksellers, reviewers, and early readers. People have been so incredibly supportive and, well, interested in the book. I’ve always been enormously grateful to the people who’ve read my work, but I would never risk the dream of such an enthusiastic response for the novel. I’m always surprised to have any readership at all, so to have so many people, so early, support the book in this way feels outlandish. For all the years that I was working on the book, my only goal was to write the book that I’d want to read. That so many others seem to want read the same book isn’t just surprising, it’s humbling. It’s the kind of response that makes you feel less alone in the world, and I’m not sure we can ask our books—the ones we write and the ones we read—for anything more.

Discussion Questions: Weight of Blood

Monday, January 26th, 2015

Weight of Blood The town of Henbane sits deep in the Ozark Mountains. Folks there still whisper about Lucy Dane’s mother, a bewitching stranger who appeared long enough to marry Carl Dane and then vanished when Lucy was just a child. Now on the brink of adulthood, Lucy experiences another loss when her friend Cheri disappears and is then found murdered, her body placed on display for all to see. Lucy’s family has deep roots in the Ozarks, part of a community that is fiercely protective of its own. Yet despite her close ties to the land, and despite her family’s influence, Lucy—darkly beautiful as her mother was—is always thought of by those around her as her mother’s daughter. When Cheri disappears, Lucy is haunted by the two lost girls—the mother she never knew and the friend she couldn’t save—and sets out with the help of a local boy, Daniel, to uncover the mystery behind Cheri’s death. These discussion questions can guide your book club conversation about this heart pounding thriller!


1. The Weight of Blood alternates narrators, giving us many of the characters’ perspectives, but mostly going back and forth between Lila and Lucy. What did you think of this dual narrative? Did it confuse you? Could the story have been told in one voice?

2. How do you interpret the relationship between Crete and Carl? Carl consistently turns a blind eye toward Crete’s questionable behavior. Do you think this is a weakness of Carl’s character, or do you believe that Carl is rightly loyal to his brother? If you were Carl, how would you handle your relationship with Crete? Would you have covered up Cheri’s murder?

3. The Weight of Blood ends with Lucy and Daniel together on a blanket, lost in their own world. Lucy tells us, “I let myself get lost in the moment, looking neither forward nor back, seeking nothing absent but embracing what was right in front of me.” How does this ending resonate with the rest of the story and the struggles Lucy has had to face?

4. The novel is set deep in the Ozark Mountains of Missouri, in a sparse and wild, dreary and deserted landscape. Describing the valley where her family first settled, Lucy tells us, “What was left of the homestead now was a cluster of tin-roofed out-buildings in various states of decomposition, a collapsed barn, a root cellar with its crumbled steps leading into the earth, and the stone foundation and chimneys of the main house. Walnut trees had sprouted in the spaces between the buildings [and there was] a single-wide trailer that looked out of place among the ruins but every bit as forsaken.” Discuss the role the setting plays in the novel.

5. Discuss the book’s title, The Weight of Blood. Ultimately, what does the novel have to say about “blood,” and the meaning of family? Did your interpretation of the title evolve from the beginning to the end of the novel? If so, how?

6. Throughout the novel, Lucy carries around the necklace she finds, a broken blue butterfly on a chain, until she leaves it with the flowers in the cave. Discuss the significance of the necklace.

7. Throughout the novel, Lucy carries around the necklace she finds, a broken blue butterfly on a chain, until she leaves it with the flowers in the cave. Discuss the significance of the necklace.

8. Discuss the friendships between Lila and Gabby and Lucy and Bess. How were they similar across the generations, and how were they different?

9. The novel leaves the question of who is really Lucy’s father unanswered. Who do you think it is? Do you think it matters? Why or why not?

10. What did you think about Ransome’s role in Crete’s operation? She did whatever she could to help the girls, without actually trying to stop Crete. Do you think her actions were cowardly? Do you think she had a choice?

Discussion Questions: Behind Closed Doors

Thursday, January 22nd, 2015

Behind Closed Doors coverDetective Sergeant Andrea Lawrence is reluctant to take this emotionally charged case, but she can’t help herself. In a small British seaside community, a fourteen-year-old girl has vanished. Sophie Monroe hasn’t been seen since she fought—loudly, miserably—with her stepmother and father more than a week before. But her frantic parents seem to be the only people concerned about Sophie’s disappearance. Everyone else just assumes that an angry teenager is acting out by hiding for a while.

Did someone help Sophie run away, or abduct her? Either way, Detective Andee is certain something bad has happened. As Andee investigates, two men jump to the top of the list of suspects—but neither of them can be located. And the deeper Andee delves into Sophie’s life, the more she struggles to keep her own darkest fears at bay—because Andee knows all too well what happens when young girls are lost and never found.

Discuss Behind Closed Doors with your book club and dive into this this captivating family drama!

1. This book tackles a sensitive topic. What was the most difficult part for you to read? Why?

2. Do you think Andee should have been removed from the case? Do you think she was a reliable investigator? Is it ethical for a detective to continue to work on a case that he or she has a close personal connection to?

3. Did you lose faith in Tomasz at any point? What triggered that loss of faith?

4. How do you think you would have reacted if you were in Heidi and Gavin’s position?

5. What do you think could or should have been done to prevent Sophie’s downward behavioral spiral?

6. Which character do you sympathize with the most? Why?

7. Were you ever curious about the robberies? Or was it a surprise that they were linked to the broader plot?

8. Did you suspect the parents all along? Were you surprised?

9. Do you think Andee should have forgiven Martin? What if they didn’t have kids? Would you have forgiven him?

10. In many instances this novel presents adults who maybe aren’t paying enough attention to their teenage children. Think about Andee and Martin’s behavior too, not just Heidi and Gavin’s. Are they allowing their children a taste of independence and adulthood, or simply being negligent?

11. Many characters experience heartbreak of some form or another during this novel—Andee, Sophie, Gavin, Heidi, Kasia. Which character’s shoes would it be the hardest to walk in?

12. This novel explores themes of grief, broken homes, human trafficking, betrayal, and more. Which did you find the most powerful?

Q&A with Weight of Blood author, Laura McHugh

Tuesday, January 20th, 2015

Weight of Blood A Conversation with Laura McHugh

Originally published on BookPage.com. Interview by Trisha Ping.

You’ll never think of small-town life the same way again after reading Laura McHugh’s chilling debut, The Weight of Blood. Part Twin Peaks, part Tana French, the novel opens just after the body of eighteen-year-old Cheri has been found stuffed into a tree trunk. Lucy Dane may have been the troubled Cheri’s only friend, and after turning up some disturbing evidence she becomes determined to track down Cheri’s killer—especially since her own mother’s disappearance some fifteen years earlier has still never been solved. As Lucy’s quest proceeds, she begins to unearth the town’s darkest secrets, some of which involve her own family.

We asked McHugh, who lives in Missouri with her family, a few questions about her new book.

Trisha Ping: As a former software developer, you took an unconventional path to becoming a writer. Is it something you’ve always wanted to do?

Laura McHugh: I wanted to be a writer all along, but I had no mental road map of how to make that happen. I was a first-generation college student—my dad was a shoe repairman, my mom worked at Waffle House—and I had never heard of an MFA. We viewed higher education in a very practical way, as a ticket out of poverty. I studied creative writing as an undergrad, but for grad school I chose more technical degrees, ones that I thought would result in steady employment. I was a software developer for ten years, and then suddenly I lost my job. That’s when I completely reevaluated my life. I’d been writing short stories, had published a couple, and dreamed of writing a novel. I didn’t want to regret that I never tried. I feel incredibly lucky that things worked out the way they did.

TP: How did you come to write this particular story?

LM: My family moved to the Ozarks when I was a kid. The community was close-knit and wary of outsiders, and the surrounding area was home to groups that wanted to isolate themselves from the rest of the world. We lived down the road from the East Wind commune (a woman would sometimes jog topless past our school bus stop), and not far from the compound of a militia group called The Covenant, the Sword, and the Arm of the Lord. I was haunted by the place long after we left, and I wanted to capture what it was like to grow up in such an insular place, and also to show it from an outsider’s viewpoint.

In the midst of writing the novel, I came across a news article from the small rural town where I’d attended high school. A local teen had been victimized in a shocking crime, and the people involved had kept it secret for years. That crime was the inspiration for Cheri’s story.

TP: Small towns are usually associated with words like “peaceful,” “idyllic,” or “friendly.” Henbane is none of the above. Why were you drawn to depicting the darker side of rural life?

LM: For one thing, it’s in my nature—show me a seemingly idyllic town, and I’ll instantly wonder what’s hidden in the shadows. I grew up in a series of small rural towns, and they’re grittier than people might imagine. I’m also fascinated by the way crime plays out in these tight-knit communities where everyone knows (or is related to) everyone else. No one wants to speak out against their neighbor or their kin, or maybe they’d rather not involve the law. A good example is the murder of Ken McElroy in tiny Skidmore, Missouri. He was a bully and had gotten away with some serious crimes. The townspeople were fed up and decided to take action. McElroy was murdered in broad daylight in the middle of town, in front of nearly fifty witnesses, and not a single person would rat out the killers. (Also, no one called an ambulance.)

TP: On a similar note, thrillers are often very black and white—but your book definitely deals in shades of gray. Does that present challenges when writing suspense?

LM: I didn’t find it problematic while writing this book. Maybe it helped that I didn’t set out to write a thriller. I wanted to tell Lucy’s story, and I wanted the reader to keep turning the pages, and the story naturally became more suspenseful as it developed. I enjoy books with those murky shades of gray, but I’m not biased one way or the other—I like all sorts of thrillers, and I’ll read anything that grabs my attention and won’t let go.

TP: Without giving too much away, Lucy makes some dark discoveries about the adults in her life—people who care deeply for her might be capable of bad things. The novel is also a coming-of-age story, though, and these revelations mirror one of the rites of passage of growing up: learning that adults are people, too.

LM: You’re right, that’s an important part of growing up. I clearly remember having that revelation as a kid. It’s scary to realize that the grownups in charge are not necessarily making good decisions. For Lucy, as for most people, it’s difficult to process and accept the idea that a loved one might be capable of grave wrongdoing.

TP: You tell this story from several different perspectives. Which character was your favorite to write? Which was the hardest?

LM: Jamie Petree, the drug dealer who is obsessed with Lila, was my favorite. I’m not sure what this says about me, but I have always loved to write creepy characters—they come naturally to me. I liked being able to show Jamie from two different perspectives. We know how Lucy views him, and we also get to go inside his head and get a sense of who he really is.

Lucy’s mother, Lila, was the hardest. She started out a bit more innocent and naïve, but that wasn’t working. I had to let go and let her be a bit more troubled and troublesome.

TP: Although the violence is not at all sensationalized, bad things happen to girls and women in this book. I assume that’s something you thought about, as the mother of two young daughters. Do you think there are lines that fiction writers should not cross in this area?

LM: Truth is always stranger and more disturbing than fiction, and the things that happen to Cheri in this book don’t compare to what happened to the real-life victim who inspired her character. I did not want to portray violence against women in a way that was titillating or sensational, and I was careful about how I approached it in the book. That said, I wouldn’t put any limitations on fiction writers. Real life is so much more dangerous than a book that you can close and put away.

TP: What are you working on next?

LM: I am finishing up my second novel, which will also be published by Spiegel & Grau. A young woman witnessed the kidnapping of her sisters years ago, and now a terrible discovery forces her to question everything about her past, including her own memory. The novel is set in a decaying Iowa river town—I do love small towns and their secrets.

Exclusive Q&A with Susan Lewis, author of Behind Closed Doors

Friday, January 16th, 2015

Behind Closed Doors coverDetective Sergeant Andrea Lawrence is reluctant to take this emotionally charged case, but she can’t help herself. In a small British seaside community, a fourteen-year-old girl has vanished. Sophie Monroe hasn’t been seen since she fought—loudly, miserably—with her stepmother and father more than a week before. But her frantic parents seem to be the only people concerned about Sophie’s disappearance. Everyone else just assumes that an angry teenager is acting out by hiding for a while.

Did someone help Sophie run away, or abduct her? Either way, Detective Andee is certain something bad has happened. As Andee investigates, two men jump to the top of the list of suspects—but neither of them can be located. And the deeper Andee delves into Sophie’s life, the more she struggles to keep her own darkest fears at bay—because Andee knows all too well what happens when young girls are lost and never found.

Random House Reader’s Circle sat down with Susan to talk about her inspiration and research for Behind Closed Doors.

Random House Reader’s Circle: What inspired you to write about a missing-person case?

Susan Lewis: I think like most people I am fascinated—and terrified—by the thought of someone I love simply vanishing from the face of the world. I have explored this subject in other books, and I imagine it will come up again in the future, since there are so many possible reasons for a disappearance, and just as many possible outcomes.

RHRC: In the past you’ve traveled extensively, immersed yourself in the social work system, and gone to great lengths to build context for the stories you write. What was the most important part of your research for Behind Closed Doors?

SL: It was obtaining police cooperation. The book couldn’t have been written without it.

RHRC: Was there anything you learned that really surprised you during your research?

SL: The biggest surprise was just how many teenagers go missing. Most, thankfully, show up sooner or later, but some never do.

RHRC: Was Andee inspired by a real person? Why did you decide to make her have such a special connection to the case?

SL: Andee is purely fictitious. I don’t like to invade real people’s personal stories to the point of such brutal exposure.

RHRC: Did you always plan for Sophie’s parents to be guilty? Why or why not?

SL: Yes, that was always the plan, the reason being that Andee wouldn’t want to believe it of them, any more than she believed it of her own father. The blow of discovering it was them tips her into a new and necessary grief for her sister.

RHRC: Which character do you most connect with or have the most sympathy for? Why?

SL: Actually, it’s probably Gavin, Sophie’s father. He was doing his best after his wife died and he loved his daughter unreservedly, yet he still managed to get things wrong. Sometimes bad things just happen.

RHRC: What was the most challenging part of writing this novel?

SL: Police procedure.

RHRC: In what way(s) do you feel Behind Closed Doors is different from your previous novels? In what way(s) is it similar?

SL: I usually write from the heart of a family; this time I’ve written from an outsider’s point of view. Having said that, Andee’s family is as key to the story as Sophie’s is.

RHRC: How does writing about such heartbreaking lives affect you as a person? As an author?

SL: It affects me deeply while I’m writing the story—if it didn’t, I couldn’t expect to connect with the reader. Many tears are shed during certain scenes, but I’m glad to say that laughter often gets me up from the computer as one of the characters does or says something I really wasn’t expecting.

RHRC: Is there a message that you hope readers will take away from the book?

SL: That even people who do bad things aren’t all bad.

Reader’s Guide: The Dress Shop of Dreams

Tuesday, December 16th, 2014
RHRC: What do you love most about writing?
MVP: While I fall absolutely in love with my characters, losing myself in their stories (these are often as much a surprise to me as to anyone), most of all I love the words: the way a beautiful sentence feels on your tongue, the delightful surprise of a startling and lovely simile or metaphor. I simply love words.
RHRC: What are some of your favorite books and authors?
MVP: Magical realism has always been my favourite genre. I like to think there’s more to reality than our five senses show us. My favorite author, above all others, is probably Alice Hoffman. I love the magic in her tales, along with the acute realism of the worlds she creates. Other favorite magical-­realism authors include: Isabel Allende, Laura Esquivel, Sarah Addison Allen and Barbara O’Neal. Other favorite authors, who don’t write specifically in that genre, include: Erica Bauermeister, Maggie O’Farrell, Ann Patchett, Tracy Chevalier, Carey Wallace, Anita Shreve, Kate Morton, Anne Lamott, Anne Tyler, Neil Gaiman and Sue Monk Kidd. I’ve just finished The Age of Desire by Jennie Fields, which I found to be a beautiful book. I’m always on the look out for new authors, so if we share similar tastes and you have any recommendations, please get in touch!

9780804178983Meena Van Praag’s new novel The Dress Shop of Derams is a captivating story of enduring hopes, second chances, and the life-changing magic of true love.

Since her parents’ mysterious deaths many years ago, scientist Cora Sparks has spent her days in the safety of her university lab or at her grandmother Etta’s dress shop. Tucked away on a winding Cambridge street, Etta’s charming tiny store appears quite ordinary to passersby, but the colorfully vibrant racks of beaded silks, delicate laces, and jewel-toned velvets hold bewitching secrets: With just a few stitches from Etta’s needle, these gorgeous gowns have the power to free a woman’s deepest desires. Etta’s dearest wish is to work her magic on her granddaughter. But magic spells—like true love—can go awry,, and Etta realizes she’s set in motion a series of astonishing events that will transform Cora’s life in extraordinary and unexpected ways.

Read Random House Readers Circle’s exclusive conversation with Meena below!

Random House Reader’s Circle: What do you love most about writing?

Meena Van Praag: While I fall absolutely in love with my characters, losing myself in their stories (these are often as much a surprise to me as to anyone), most of all I love the words: the way a beautiful sentence feels on your tongue, the delightful surprise of a startling and lovely simile or metaphor. I simply love words.

RHRC: What are some of your favorite books and authors?

MVP: Magical realism has always been my favourite genre. I like to think there’s more to reality than our five senses show us. My favorite author, above all others, is probably Alice Hoffman. I love the magic in her tales, along with the acute realism of the worlds she creates. Other favorite magical-­realism authors include: Isabel Allende, Laura Esquivel, Sarah Addison Allen and Barbara O’Neal. Other favorite authors, who don’t write specifically in that genre, include: Erica Bauermeister, Maggie O’Farrell, Ann Patchett, Tracy Chevalier, Carey Wallace, Anita Shreve, Kate Morton, Anne Lamott, Anne Tyler, Neil Gaiman and Sue Monk Kidd. I’ve just finished The Age of Desire by Jennie Fields, which I found to be a beautiful book. I’m always on the look out for new authors, so if we share similar tastes and you have any recommendations, please get in touch!

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