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A Conversation Between Sarah Blake and Priya Parmar

Thursday, October 8th, 2015

Vanessa and her Sister_ParmarWhat if Virginia Woolf’s sister had kept a diary? For fans of The Paris Wifeand Loving Frank comes a spellbinding new story of the inseparable bond between Virginia and her sister, the gifted painter Vanessa Bell, and the real-life betrayal that threatened to destroy their family. Hailed by The New York Times Book Review as “an uncanny success” and based on meticulous research, this stunning novel illuminates a little-known episode in the celebrated sisters’ glittering bohemian youth among the legendary Bloomsbury Group.

Sarah Blake is the author of Grange House and  The Postmistress (winner of South Africa’s Boeke Prize and a New York Times bestseller).

Sarah Blake: I first heard the famously dismissive (and apocryphal?) admonition from Virginia Woolf to her sister, Vanessa Bell—-You will have the babies, and I will write the books—-when I was in college and beginning to think of myself as a writer, and I’ll never forget the firestorm of debate and despair those words caused. Did a woman writer have to choose? And if we didn’t, did that make us less of a writer (or an artist)? Vanessa and Her Sister is a powerful answer to that question, but I’d love to know what drew you, as a writer and as a woman, to the two Stephen sisters and their story to begin with?

Priya Parmar: That remark might be apocryphal, but that specific, resentful sentiment pervaded Virginia Stephen’s correspondence in the months after Vanessa Bell gave birth to her first son, Julian. Virginia was desperately afraid of being left behind as Vanessa moved into her new life as wife and mother. Virginia’s letters are salted with spikey, barbed jabs aimed at her happily married sister.

Virginia Woolf was not an easy person—-gifted, charismatic, quixotic, charming, and brimming with creative genius—-but never easy. She believed in possession and in relentlessly coming first in the affections of those she loved. So what would it have felt like to be the person she loved best in the world?

That question kept surfacing as I tumbled deeper and deeper into the research. Vanessa Bell must have experienced a web of contradictory and shifting feelings. She must have felt trapped, exhilarated, exhausted, frustrated, proud, and protective when she dealt with her brilliant but selfish sister. And while Virginia adored Vanessa, she deliberately set out to destroy her sister’s marriage. As a novelist, I found this nexus of conflicting emotion irresistible. There is so much juicy humanity in the contradictions.

SB: And why did you choose to write the story from Vanessa’s point of view?

PP: Vanessa was the shadowy linchpin of the Bloomsbury Group. She was at the emotional, romantic, creative, social, and artistic center of the circle, and yet in many ways she left surprisingly light historical footprints. Many of her early paintings from this period were destroyed in the London Blitz, she did not keep a diary, and aside from a brilliant selection edited by Regina Marler, her letters are largely unpublished. So I began with the thought that this was a wonderful, underexplored vantage point for a novel. And then I spent some time with her.

I look for a historical figure with a magnetic core, someone who can draw the narrative to her and drive it forward with equal force. Vanessa astonished me with her humanity, her boldly lived life, and her canny self–deprecating voice. The story curved to fit her and then surged forward at her encouragement. Her archival letters are immediate and modern and Vanessa emerges as a woman who is flawed, magnificent, and relatable. As soon as I read them, I could not imagine telling the story from another point of view.

SB: One of the reasons I love writing historical fiction is the chance it gives me to take up the language of other times like a cloak I can wrap myself in and then walk around. There is the heady thrill of ventriloquism, and what you have achieved here is breathtaking. One can’t help but feel this must be just how Vanessa Bell thought and spoke and saw. When did you know you had Vanessa’s voice in your head? At what point did you start to become fluent in her? And how did that shape the course of the novel?

PP: I am so pleased you feel the voice rings true! “Fluent in her” is a lovely phrase. That is just how it felt. Vanessa’s voice did not creep up on me as Lytton’s and Virginia’s did. It arrived all at once and knocked on the door with a suitcase in hand. Choosing a historical figure is a dicey thing. The research is an invitation. I cook the dinner, set the table and light the candles in the hope that if I immerse myself fully into the historical documentation, her voice will arrive.

In 1905, Clive Bell proposed to Vanessa Stephen. She wrote a letter refusing him. But she did not write in the accepted, expected vocabulary of an Edwardian woman of her class. She told the truth. The whole truth. She liked him but not enough to marry him, but perhaps if he left the country for a bit she would like him more? She began the letter at home but finished it in pencil at the dentist’s office. With that letter, her voice galloped in. And the voice is everything. For me, the character flows from the voice and the narrative flows from the character. Once her voice moved in, the story began to crackle with life.

SB: What was your relationship to Virginia Woolf before beginning this book? Did you find that it changed over the course of writing it?

PP: I went to Mount Holyoke College—-all women, Seven Sisters, very big on Virginia Woolf. And then I majored in English. So I was steeped in the brilliance of Woolf’s novels from a relatively young age. I had roving Woolf favorites. Sometimes To the Lighthouse, sometimes Orlando. Always Mrs. Dalloway.

I knew that Virginia was difficult but felt that her personality took a backseat to her overwhelming genius. My mother has copies of all of the letters and diaries and I had dipped in and out of them over the years but never read them straight through. Once I began to research in earnest, I read the diaries, novels, essays, and letters concurrently in chronological order and my perception shifted. I began to separate the Virginia Woolf who was able to write with such enormous self–awareness and perception from the Woolf who was able to callously belittle a beloved friend or enter into an emotional affair with her sister’s husband.

My Virginia Woolf is very much a fictional creation. Her roots grip the historical facts of this early part of her life but her character is imagined. As I was writing, I found myself furious with Virginia. Hopelessly partisan, I sympathized with Vanessa unreservedly. It was only after I finished the novel that the balance restored itself and the genius of Woolf as a writer stepped back to the foreground.

SB: The novel begins with a letter from Virginia Woolf hoping that someday Vanessa will forgive her, and ends with the letter that is Vanessa’s answer. In between lies the story of these sisters as it unfolds over seven years. Vanessa’s last letter expresses one sister’s triumph at having pulled herself clear of the other, and into her own life. I couldn’t help but recall the end of To the Lighthouse when Lily Briscoe, the painter—-who has survived Mrs. Ramsay and all the intervening years—-puts down her brush and thinks to herself, triumphantly—-There. I have had my vision. Can you talk a little about how your book is haunted by Virginia Woolf’s novels, and which ones in particular?

PP: It is interesting. Most of the references were unintentional. I did purposefully include a few elements from the novels such as opening with a party to call up Mrs. Dalloway (Clarissa Dalloway is a character thought to be based upon Vanessa Bell) and tailoring aspects of Thoby’s character to suggest Jacob Flanders from Jacob’s Room. But since my novel is set in the years before Virginia published her first book, I tried my best to limit the Woolf references.

But my efforts failed. Virginia drew heavily upon her childhood and family in her writing, and I was stitching my narrative to her same -family history. One by one, her novels came marching obliquely in and echoed through the hallways of this story, pulled along by their historical origins. Lily Briscoe, Rosamund Merridew, Katharine Hilbery, -Godrevy Lighthouse, Clarissa Dalloway. I love the organic, grassroots way they found their way here.

SB: Vanessa writes to Lytton Strachey at the height of the affair between Clive and Virginia, “I think in color, in paint and pen and ink and shape. It is safer, and there are fewer lies.” Did you find that your writing, or your thinking about your writing, shifted because you were thinking about your scenes as a painter would?

PP: I cannot paint. Not even a little bit. So it was difficult for me to think as a painter would. I had no contextual foothold and had to rely even more heavily on historical sources to understand Vanessa’s particular artistic experience of the world. Here, I was lucky. While Vanessa kept silent on many subjects, she wrote frequently and expansively about her painting, exchanging letters with Roger Fry, Margery Snowdon, Duncan Grant, and Clive Bell among others.

I also spoke to several artists and art historians to better understand the emotionally freighted journey a painting makes from inspiration to studio to gallery to new owner. Vanessa’s artistic voice began to ring true when I realized how profoundly isolated she was growing up. In a family of writers, her medium was visual. No one spoke her language and that told me so much.

SB: Over the course of reading Vanessa and Her Sister, I found myself falling deeper and deeper under the thrall of Vanessa’s diary, to the point at which you could easily have told me that this was a lost diary, something just discovered—-it rang so true. What made you want to write the novel as a diary interspersed by letters? What were the constraints and freedoms that choice gave you? Are there any other diaries that have particularly inspired you?

PP: I have always been fascinated by diaries. From Tsarina Alexandra’s poignant last days in 1918 to Samuel Pepys’s rowdy love affairs in 1660 to Cecil Beaton’s cutting comments about his friends in the mid–twentieth century, diaries have a “cannot look away even though you know you should” quality to them. There is a backstage thrill. We are reading something that was not meant for us. Something that the author did not edit and shape in the way a writer does when a work is destined for public consumption. Instead it is raw–edged, unfinished, and so very personal.

As for the format of the novel, it did not feel as though I had a choice. The narrative arrived in this shape and refused to budge. Perhaps it was because I had spent years reading diaries and letters from the period, but when I tried the third person, it came across as forced and awkward and the characters packed up and went home. From the start, this format felt natural. The saddle fit the horse. I had been warned about the dangers and limitations of a first–person narrative, but because other voices were able to weave in and out with letters and postcards and telegrams, the form felt open and airy and never restrictive. Instead it felt endowed with huge built–in narrative tension. The author of a diary does not know what will happen next week or next month or how it will all end, but we do. So the format was rich with possibility.

SB: In her essay “Women and Fiction,” Woolf writes: Often nothing tangible remains of a woman’s day. The food that has been cooked is eaten; the children that have been nursed have gone out into the world. Where does the accent fall? What is the salient point for the novelist to seize upon? I thought of this as I read your book and wondered what were the moments while you were doing your research—-the salient points—-that you knew were pointing you in the direction of your novel? Where did you hear the accent fall?

PP: “Women and Fiction” is such a brilliant essay. It is interesting that Woolf writes these lines but she herself led a life where she pursued none of these activities. Her accents all fell in other places.

As I was carving the narrative from the research, there were several moments that stepped forward and declared themselves to be seminal and crucial. Surprisingly, they were not the moments anchoring the central betrayal of Vanessa’s life. Instead, they were the defining landmarks along her personal, emotional trajectory. A family’s understanding of who you are can be a binding, limiting thing. The moment when Vanessa peels away these long unquestioned beliefs, sheds that understanding of herself and leaps into the current of her own life, is for me the bone–deep engine of the narrative.

SB: This novel holds so many riches—-bringing to life Vanessa Bell, letting us eavesdrop on the Bloomsbury Group, a deeply satisfying portrait of an artist becoming herself—-but in some ways, the richest vein of all is the story, rarely told, of the relationship between artists who are sisters. Little has been written about the vital mix of competition and support (where, for instance, is the novel Anne and Her Sisters, depicting the Brontës?), and I wonder if you could talk a little about sisters and that bond and how it informed the writing of this novel?

PP: My own experience of having a sister has been unequivocally happy. But I know that I am lucky and that is not always the case. Affection, rivalry, competition, warmth, support, beauty, charisma, interest, similarity, and talent are all ingredients that mix together to form unique and sometimes difficult bonds, but the effect seems to always be one of particular intensity.

At the start of the research process, I began asking women a single question. I asked friends and strangers and women sitting next to me on planes and buses and women I met at dinner parties and in line at the DMV. “Do you have a sister?” If she answered yes, I would explain my novel, apologize in advance, and then ask that if her sister and her husband had an affair, which would be the greater betrayal? I asked this question again and again over the course of four years and the answer was always the same. The sister’s betrayal was greater. There is a magical alchemy in a sister relationship.

SB: What was the most surprising thing you learned about the members of the Bloomsbury Group over the course of writing this novel? What did you learn in researching, but then further, what did you learn in writing them, in inhabiting their voices?

PP: I was constantly surprised by how hard they worked to make their lives match their ideals. I had always had the impression that their bohemianism was clear and effortless, but I found that was not the case. It was an ongoing choice. A decision to follow an inner directive and live by their deepest convictions, and I do not think it was always easy. Conflicting, untidy, unruly emotions were tricky to navigate.

They all fervently believed in the importance of personal relationships and felt that friendship should be preserved at all cost, but sometimes the cost was immense. For a heartbroken Lytton Strachey to stay close to Duncan Grant and Maynard Keynes as they entered into a romantic affair was a bold and pricey decision. For Leonard Woolf to understand and accept that his dearest friend Lytton had accidentally proposed to Virginia, and she had accepted, must have been terrifically uncomfortable. For Vanessa Bell to create an affectionate and respectful lifelong co–parenting friendship with an unfaithful Clive Bell must not have been easy or straightforward. And it must have taken huge strength for Vanessa to shape a loving if not a trusting relationship with Virginia.

Each character and storyline held surprise as they slid out of their neat chronological confines. The fiction blurred the history as my novel and its characters became more and more real. These people lived courageously and they accepted the sometimes painful consequences of their choices with extraordinary humanity and grace.

A Conversation Between Christina Baker Kline and Amanda Eyre Ward

Friday, September 18th, 2015

The Same Sky_Ward_No TargetChristina Baker Kline chats with Amanda Eyre Ward about The Same Sky, Ward’s  beautiful and heartrending novel about motherhood, resilience, and faith—a ripped-from-the-headlines story of two families on both sides of the American border.

Christina Baker Kline is a novelist, nonfiction writer, and editor. She is the author of the #1 New York Times bestselling Orphan Train, a novel about an unlikely friendship between a seventeen–year–old Penobscot Indian foster child and a ninety–one–year–old Irish American widow who was one of several hundred thousand orphans to be transported from crowded East Coast cities to foster homes in the Midwest during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Christina’s other novels include Bird in Hand, The Way Life Should Be, Desire Lines, and Sweet Water.

Amanda Eyre Ward is the critically acclaimed author of five novels, including the bestseller How to Be Lost. She has spent the last year visiting shelters in Texas and California, meeting immigrant children and hearing their stories. This novel is inspired by them.

Christina Baker Kline: I read The Same Sky six months ago and still carry it around in my head. Your writing is vivid and immediate; you tell a complex story in such an accessible way. The reason I think it’s so memorable is that you build scenes with vivid specific details, use humor as a valve, and write about your characters with compassion and depth. They are fully human. Tell me—-how did you pull that off?

Amanda Eyre Ward: I know that some writers start with a plot or setting, but for me, everything begins with my characters. I see them in my imagination, and follow them wherever they want to take me. (I have learned from experience that trying to force them to go where I want them to is a futile and wasted effort.)

I spend a lot of time taking care of my children and not getting words on the page, so I try to use this time to gather details about my characters: If I’m grocery shopping, I ask myself, What would Alice buy for dinner? If I’m driving to a birthday party, I think, Which street might lead to Evian’s house?

I’m a huge reader, and if I’m invested in a character, I won’t put down the book. So when I wanted to write about unaccompanied minors and their journey to the U.S. border, I knew that Carla’s character was key. Luckily, her voice came to me. Carla’s voice mirrors many of the unaccompanied minors I met: feisty, funny, brave, hopeful.

CBK: How did you come to be interested in unaccompanied minors?

AEW: I had been working on my fifth novel for two and a half years when my agent told me it was terrible. For months, I stumbled around in a haze of misery. During the hours I’d previously spent working, I read everything I could get my hands on.

I read Enrique’s Journey, the nonfiction account of a boy traveling from Honduras to reach his mother in America, after reading a profile of Sonia Nazario in the alumni magazine of Williams College, which we both attended. The book grabbed me immediately—-Nazario’s research was dangerous and important, and I wanted to read more about children like Enrique. I searched the Web for stories, transfixed by kids my own children’s ages who were walking away from everything they knew to try to reach their mothers and fathers in America. As I tucked him in at night, I tried to visualize my own ten–year–old son bringing my six–year–old (and one–year–old!) on such a dangerous trek. It was impossible to imagine.

I met Alexia Rodriguez, whose organization, Southwest Key, runs many of the shelters at the border. Alexia brought me to Brownsville, Texas, where she introduced me to unaccompanied minors and I spoke to them about writing.

I also talked to the children about why they had left, what horrors they had faced along the way, and what they hoped to find. One girl told me about watching her friend being attacked by an alligator and being forced by her -coyote to leave the ailing girl behind. I met a five–year–old whose parents had left him when he was an infant. They lived in New Jersey, and he was due to be reunited with them in the morning. I heard about boat trips, plane trips, and how hard it is to sleep on The Beast.

And I met children who had been assaulted. Some of the girls were pregnant—-their eyes dark and flat, their hair clean from the shelter showers. They wore pink sweatsuits and told me stories I will never forget.

That night, I lay awake, unable to sleep. It was excruciating to think about the kids just a few miles away. They were so brave and so alone. They were filled with a faith I envied, the belief that God was with them and that they would find peace (and be loved) in America. I tried to think of what to do to help them but came up with nothing.

In the middle of the night, I heard a voice, the first sentence of a new novel: My mother left when I was five years old. And though I never thought I’d hear the voice of a young Honduran girl in my imagination, I listened. In the morning, the entire arc of the novel was clear to me. I could get one fictional girl to her mother, and that was a small something.

CBK: Since Carla’s voice and story arc came to you so clearly, why did you decide to incorporate Alice into her story?

AEW: During my research, I watched some videos of Father Alejandro Solalinde Guerra, who runs a shelter for migrants in Ixtepec, Mexico. (Carla and Junior come to this shelter in the book.) Father Solalinde Guerra said something that resonated deeply with me: these children have the spiritual capital that Americans need. I was very struck by this thought, and found it to be true. The children I met at the border, who literally have no material goods, have a sense of faith and hope—-a belief that they are and will be taken care of—-that I am often lacking.

I wanted to create a character who has the trappings of the American Dream—-a successful business, a house, even a kind and supportive husband—-but who yearns for something else, something deeper. She needs the spiritual capital that Carla possesses in abundance.

The main characters in your novel Orphan Train come from very different backgrounds as well. In your mind, how do you see their stories as fitting together?

CBK: Similar to what you were saying about how Carla’s character came to you, I find that when you write novels you go on instinct much of the time. As I began writing about Molly, a seventeen–year–old Penobscot Indian foster child, believe it or not I didn’t immediately notice parallels to Vivian, a wealthy ninety–one–year–old widow. But as I wrote my way into the narrative I could see that in addition to some biographical parallels—-both characters have dead fathers and institutionalized mothers; both were passed from home to home and encountered prejudice because of cultural stereotypes; both held onto talismanic keepsakes from family members—-they are psychologically -similar. For both of them, change has been a defining principle; from a young age, they had to learn to adapt, to inhabit new identities. They’ve spent much of their lives minimizing risk, avoiding complicated entanglements, and keeping silent about the past. It’s not until Vivian—-in answer to Molly’s pointed questions—-begins to face the truth about what happened long ago that both of them have the courage to make changes in their lives.

AEW: As I read Orphan Train, I was struck with the thought that unaccompanied minors have a great deal in common with the children you write about. Do you think?

CBK: I do. There are so many parallels in these stories of the orphan train riders and the border kids. One thing that I’ve learned in my research is that every immigrant group that comes to this country faces some kind of hazing process. When people are assimilated, they tend to forget that their ancestors (or even near relatives) were once poor, dispossessed, and alien. These stories force us to face that fact.

AEW: I finished reading Orphan Train, closed the book, and continued to think about the strength those children found in the face of such profound disappointment. The unaccompanied minors I met were also incredibly courageous. . . . I hope that readers can listen to Carla’s story and be inspired.

A Conversation Between J. R. Moehringer and Tom Rachman

Friday, July 17th, 2015

The Rise and Fall of Great Powers_RachmanJ. R. Moehringer, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for feature writing in 2000, is a former national correspondent for the Los Angeles Times and a former Nieman Fellow at Harvard University. Moehringer is the author of the bestsellers Sutton and The Tender Bar, and co–author of Open by Andre Agassi. Here he speaks with Tom Rachman, author of The Rise and Fall of Great Powers.

J. R. Moehringer: Your new novel, The Rise & Fall of Great Powers, is wonderfully Dickensian. There’s a quasi–orphan protagonist thrown in among lovable scoundrels, some of whom become parental surrogates, plus a slew of eccentric minor characters with names like Mr. Priddles and Fogg. And of course there are sly mentions of Nicholas Nickleby sprinkled throughout. Having grown up in a bar called Dickens, I have to ask: How much were you reading Dickens, or thinking of him, while plotting and writing? And is Nickleby your favorite of his novels?

Tom Rachman: I do love Dickens. His characters were among the    first to imprint themselves into my imagination when I was little. I remember listening on audiobook during family vacations, while my sister (three years older) raced ahead in print, burning through another huge paperback. The main character in my novel, Tooly, is a bookworm like my sister—-the type who spends daylight in the -company of fictional characters, only to glance up hours later, startled to find a mere room. I wanted to show, as Tooly’s life unfolds, how one’s earliest stories condition how one encounters the world: what one -expects of strangers, whether one counts on justice, whether one veers into cynicism or veers back again. I chose to have Tooly reading Nicholas Nickleby because that book so memorably describes a wretched school—-and the joy of fleeing. All of which informs Tooly’s path in life. Or the path she thinks she’s taking.

JM: Clearly you have issues with the concept of linear time. As do many of your characters. (As do I.) I’m thinking of Gerda Erzberger, in your first novel, The Imperfectionists, railing against the “illusion of continuity” in our lives, lamenting that the past “won’t hold still.” It doesn’t hold still in your plots, either. In both your novels, the past is ever lurking, ebbing and flowing—-particularly for Tooly. Are you instinctively drawn to stories with this fluid and fractured sense of time, or is the choice more deliberate?

TR: I’ve sometimes used a collage effect, placing times side–by–side in a story, to investigate how personalities form, how they change, how they misunderstand one another. In life, we rarely contrast now and then with clarity. I’m thinking, for example, of when you encounter old friends after years apart. You find yourself noting how different they are, or how the facets which defined them are still present yet unexpectedly different in proportion, so that the giggliness has turned into giddiness or the determination has become courage. What you rarely consider is that, if your friends have changed, then surely you have too. Instead, we assume ourselves fixed in nature—-that only the rest of humanity shifts! But maybe we’re all ongoing stories, defined at various stages of life, or whenever people oblige us to declare ourselves. Fiction is marvelous for studying this, allowing the writer and reader to leap decades in a sentence. No other art lets you bend time as much.

JM: It strikes me that nearly every character in Rise & Fall has a powerful longing for home, and each of them has a radically different idea of what home means. Some are never quite sure what it means, though that doesn’t ease their longing. Is this just me projecting some of my own inner drama, or was the deep human desire for home running through your mind while you wrote?

TR: You’re right. In this novel, Tooly travels the world, watching all the stationary citizens, and wondering—-sometimes enviously—-what that life would be like, whether belonging can be attained, whether it’s a fallacy, and if you suffer by having no place. These are all thoughts that have occurred to me. I was born in London, raised in Vancouver, studied in Toronto, worked in New York, Rome, and Paris, and presently live in London again. I have family scattered from Canada to South Africa to China to Switzerland and places beyond. So what is home for me? It depends what one means by “home.” There’s the apartment or house or room that contains one’s bed. Then there’s the neighborhood or city or country that contains one’s identity. The first sense of home I establish easily. The second sense remains elusive to me after thirty–nine years. When I was growing up, this bothered me. I yearned to be from somewhere, and confident of it. But I’ve shifted. Now I prefer to adopt admirable features of the cultures I’ve passed through, without restricting myself to just one.

JM: Because of your background in journalism, and your years working overseas, it was easier for readers to imagine, rightly or wrongly, possible inspirations for certain characters and events in The Imper-fectionists. But I can’t imagine what the spark was for the remarkable character of Tooly, or her odyssey. (Unless maybe The Tempest? She and Humph have a strong Miranda–Prospero vibe about them.) I really want to hear that you met someone like her on a long flight or at a dinner party.

TR: I’m very fond of Tooly, but I’ve never met her. Despite what they say about writing what you know, I’m poor at converting real people into fictional ones—-whenever I’ve tried, they are the least credible parts of the story! My characters start from imagination and gather small traits from actuality as they (and I) go along. If people recognize a real–life feature or anecdote in a character, they might falsely assume that this means the entire character was torn from reality. But mine are hybrids, predominantly fantasy, with a few purloined chromosomes, and a good number of my own in each character. The settings, by contrast, I try to reproduce as authentically as possible. For The Imperfectionists, which is set at an international paper in Rome, I mined my past at various news organizations in various cities. For Rise & Fall, I had to research a lot more—-everything from U.S. embassy security in the 1980s, to international schools in Bangkok, to the look of the Welsh countryside.

JM: I also wish I could go to Tooly’s lovely bookstore, World’s End. Based on your previous answer I’m going to assume it’s not modeled on any real bookstore, alas, but maybe it combines some qualities of your favorite bookstores? And are you the type of person who feels a fierce loyalty to bookstores, who can’t visit this or that city without also visiting its landmark bookstore—-the Strand in New York, Another Country in Berlin, Daunt in London, Tattered Cover in -Denver?

TR: The bookstore in my novel is inspired by many that have given me hours of pleasure over the years—-be they wondrous giants (say, Powell’s in Portland) or cramped establishments that require you to edge sideways past the stock (say, the Community Bookstore in Cobble Hill, Brooklyn). Another influence was Hay–on–Wye, in Wales, a town devoted to bookstores: It’s just one after the other. When I first went there, I was agog. It’s an amusement park for bibliophiles.

JM: In your first novel, a dying newspaper is the emotional anchor for your characters; in the second novel, it’s a dying bookstore. Is it reasonable to accuse you of chronic nostalgia? Do you perhaps feel that you were born at the wrong moment in history?

TR: I consider myself a realist—-with a sprinkling of nostalgia. I’m fascinated by our times, all these amazing technological and political and cultural changes. And I’m not one of those woebegone fellows yearning for the good old days—-there was too much brutality and drudgery in the past to imagine it was all doilies and Chopin. The era we’re in contains betterment in many respects, and this leads people to assume that all tech–driven change is progress. Not so sure. The value of a smartphone is indisputable—-but who hasn’t felt slightly more harried, slightly more distracted, as a result? I don’t want to -declare contemporary changes either good or bad. I’d rather record a glimpse of them in my fiction, and encourage readers to ponder the torrent of change. Does our epoch define us? Or does one’s unique personality assert itself regardless of the period? In the background, the great powers of the world rise and fall, in politics, tech, everything. But one’s own strengths and influences rise and fall over the course of one’s life. That contrast is at the core of Rise & Fall: a tale of a book–besotted world traveler trying to figure out where and how and when she fits.

Originally published by Salon in June 2014

A Conversation Between Mira Jacob and Joanna Rackoff

Wednesday, June 10th, 2015

Sleepwalker's Guide to Dancing_JacobsWith depth, heart, and agility, debut novelist Mira Jacob takes us on a deftly plotted journey that ranges from 1970s India to suburban 1980s New Mexico to Seattle during the dot.com boom. The Sleepwalker’s Guide to Dancing is an epic, irreverent testimony to the bonds of love, the pull of hope, and the power of making peace with life’s uncertainties.

Celebrated brain surgeon Thomas Eapen has been sitting on his porch, talking to dead relatives. At least that is the story his wife, Kamala, prone to exaggeration, tells their daughter, Amina, a photographer living in Seattle.

Reluctantly Amina returns home and finds a situation that is far more complicated than her mother let on, with roots in a trip the family, including Amina’s rebellious brother Akhil, took to India twenty years earlier. Confronted by Thomas’s unwillingness to explain himself, strange looks from the hospital staff, and a series of puzzling items buried in her mother’s garden, Amina soon realizes that the only way she can help her father is by coming to terms with her family’s painful past. In doing so, she must reckon with the ghosts that haunt all of the Eapens.

Joanna Rackoff: This novel, I know, was a decade in the works. What was it like to work on a project of this scope? Did you ever despair of finishing it? Or was it more the opposite, that working on it sustained you?

Mira Jacob: Oh, those questions really get to everything all at once. Let me answer the easier question first. Yes, I did despair of finishing it at several points. I worked a series of corporate jobs while getting this book done, and most of the time I wrote from 11 p.m. to 1 a.m., when my young son (and the rest of the world) was asleep. I’m pretty up front about the fact that this book took me ten years to write, because I think there are a lot of people like me—-people with dreams bigger than their day jobs—-and I want them to know they are not crazy for keeping at it.

As for the scope and the scale—-the spooky truth is that when I started the novel, I thought I would be writing a purely fictional book about a father receding from the world. I imagined him -having -Alzheimer’s, or maybe just some kind of nonspecific dementia. I had a great father character in the original draft, and I was putting him through those paces when my real–life father was diagnosed with cancer. You know what isn’t the easiest thing in the world? Writing a father character into demise while your own father is growing weaker every day. So I put the book away for three years, and in those years I watched my father die slowly and painfully, and, well, it took a toll. Just how much of a toll it took became evident a year after he died, when I tried to go back to the book I had been writing, and instead of writing the father as a character, I kept writing my father—-his mannerisms, his way of moving through the world. At first I tried to resist it, but then I just gave in, and it was cathartic. I realized much later that it was my way of getting to say goodbye on my own terms.

JR: Most annoying question ever: You mention, in the acknowledgments, that you hope no one will mistake your mother and brother for Kamala and Akhil. Does the novel draw from your own cultural, geographical, or familial background? Is the world of the novel the world from which you come?

MJ: The world of the novel is absolutely where I come from: Syrian Christian South Indian living in the American Southwest, to be specific. Given that, and the fact that I put my actual father in the book, I felt like I needed that disclaimer in there, especially for my mother, who was a very cool force of culture and feminism and political thought in my life—-quite the opposite of Kamala. And my brother, while heavily into metal, never had the identity problems Akhil had.

JR: The story arc of the novel is somewhat unusual. What novels, or other works, influenced you in its development?

MJ: I like a novel with an emotional mystery at its center. To that extent, books like Kate Atkinson’s Behind the Scenes at the Museum and Junot Díaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao were great guides. But as far as the structure goes—-the unwinding of parallel story lines—-that was something I stumbled into when initial drafts weren’t going over well. In short, I was told to remove the entire high school section of the book because it came as one big, long chunk in the middle of the narrative and slowed down the pace. I talked to my husband, who is a filmmaker, and he told me about storyboarding, which is something I had never tried before. I sat down one day with a bunch of colored Post–its and the tandem story lines became beautifully clear.

JR: This is obviously a story about first–generation Americans, their struggles and conflicts. Do you see this as a universal story or a specifically Indian one?

MJ: It’s funny, because I know that reviewers have latched on to this as an immigrant story—-which it is, of course—-but in my mind, it’s mostly a people–dealing–with–loss story. That was at the heart of this for me: how to move forward in a world that keeps erasing itself behind you, how to find your footing in a slippery future when you haven’t made peace with your past. It’s also about relationships in families, those very specific dynamics that happen between people you can never get away from. And the reaction from readers has been surprisingly gratifying in this respect—-the number of nonimmigrants who have reached out to say, “You told the story of my family,” has been stunning.

JR: The novel, of course, is very much about sleep, and tries to get at the complex dynamic between our sleeping and waking lives. One character sleepwalks and, in doing so, finds the courage to do all he can’t in his waking life. Another, similarly, falls asleep when tensions rise. How did you become interested in sleep? How does sleep function in the novel?

MJ: Sleep is a human universal, something we all have to do to function no matter where we are located or what else is going on in our lives. In its best moments, it’s restorative, regenerative, and in its worst, it becomes a subconscious reckoning. All of the Eapens on either side of the globe spend their days contorting around their realities—-whether that’s being stuck in a life they can’t stand or a country that won’t see them—​so it made sense to me that at night, when their guards are down, sleep would wreak havoc on their lives.

JR: This is also very much a novel about the complex emotional web between parent and child. You became a parent while working on the novel. Did this affect your depictions of the parents and children in the novel?

MJ: Both my father’s death and my son’s subsequent birth had enormous ramifications on my perspective while writing the novel. It’s a little simplistic to say one devastated me and the other rebuilt me; the truth would be closer to saying that both of them were deeply untethering and also very bracing. They put me in my current bones. So, yes, it very much affected the novel, adding new layers of perspective, disappointment, fury, and forgiveness. You know, life.

Hausfrau by Jill Alexander Essbaum

Thursday, March 26th, 2015


Hausfrau is a daring novel about marriage, sex, fidelity, morality, and most especially, self. Anna Benz, an American in her late thirties, lives with her Swiss husband, Bruno – a banker – and their three young children in a postcard-perfect suburb of Zürich. Though she leads a comfortable, well-appointed life, Anna is falling apart inside. Adrift and increasingly unable to connect with the emotionally unavailable Bruno or even with her own thoughts and feelings, Anna tries to rouse herself with new experiences: German language classes, Jungian analysis, and a series of sexual affairs she enters with an ease that surprises even her.

Here are some discussion questions to help guide your book club conversation.

1. That Anna. So—really—what’s her deal? Her thoughts loop on a script of immutable passivity, but is that her whole story? From the onset we know she is a flawed protagonist, a damaged character, a woman who is “nothing but a series of poor choices executed poorly.” Taking into account Anna’s personal history, her psychic and spiritual makeup, and those aforementioned poor choices, is there any part of this tragedy that somehow isn’t her fault? What should she be held accountable for? Of what, if anything, are you willing to absolve her?

2. Bruno proposes to Anna with the words “I think you would make a good wife for me.” What, in your opinion, would make him think that? They’ve been together for over a decade. By book’s end it’s clear that Bruno has either known about or suspected Anna’s infidelities the entire time. Why would he tolerate them? Why would he tolerate her? Is this a sign of his weakness or his strength? What does he “get” out of this marriage?

3. Mary, in her decency, stands in direct opposition to the self-centered narcissism of the majority of Anna’s actions. Simply put, Mary seems to be everything that Anna should be but isn’t. But the book suggests that Mary’s two-shoes aren’t altogether goody, so to speak. In three separate instances, she “spills” herself in front of Anna: when she drops her purse and blurts out a more-Anna-than-Mary expletive, when she drops her purse and the erotic novel (and the wistful truth that she regrets not exploring her sexuality) tumbles out, and, finally, when she admits to the bullying and setting the fire. In these ways, Mary has more in common with Anna than Anna is open to recognizing. Do you think Mary can see past Anna’s façade? Do you think she understands Anna on a fundamental level? If not, then do you think she would ever be able to? What do you think will happen to Mary after the book ends?

4. Anna’s lack of morality is almost shocking. What do you think is her gravest mistake? Is there any point during the course of the narrative where she could have stopped the progression of events?

5. Anna rarely tells Doktor Messerli the whole truth. Why, then, do you think she continues the analysis?

6. Anna has never learned to speak German, and yet she exhibits an unmistakable talent for language: she plays with words, turns puns, thinks in entendre—though rarely does she speak these things aloud. Is it shyness that prevents her from showing this side of herself? Fear? What would it look like if Anna could tap into her “voice”? What would it change?

7. Of all the children, Charles is the most dear to Anna. Victor is too much like Bruno for Anna to fully trust. But as the sole memento of the relationship with Stephen, one might assume that Polly Jean would hold the spot closest to Anna’s heart. Discuss Anna’s relationship with her children. She won’t win mother of the year in anyone’s contest—but is there any way in which she can be commended? Is there anything she does as a mother that is correct? Good? Nurturing?

8. Anna confesses she majored in home economics in college. Couple this with the perfect memory of sewing with her mother, and the seed of Anna’s present psychology begins to form. As her station as a wife and a mother starts to fail her (or rather, she, them), we are able to understand that somewhere in Anna’s fundamental self she was raised to be these things. Why does she cling to this fantasy if it doesn’t seem to suit her?

9. At the end of chapter 6, Anna thinks, “I wish I’d never met the man.” Which man do you suppose she means?

10. Doktor Messerli warns Anna that “consciousness doesn’t come with an automatic ethic,” and Anna’s choices seem to bear this out. Taking into consideration Doktor Messerli’s explanation of the Shadow, her story of the Teufelsbrücke, and the final events of the book, is it possible to argue that, ethics aside, Anna has come into complete consciousness?

11. Archie says to Anna that a man can smell a woman’s sadness. In the same vein, Anna talks herself through the morning after the physical confrontation with Bruno with a “You had this coming” speech to herself (“I provoked this. . . . I brought this to myself. . .”). By this reasoning, Anna is an active participant in her own downfall. But Anna claims to be almost entirely passive. Do you consider Anna to be more passive or more active? How does this complicate your understanding of Anna’s psychology?

12. In terms of the structure of the novel, the analytic sessions with Doktor Messerli serve to explicate, illuminate, underscore, and complicate the plot of the book and any conclusion that Anna believes she’s arrived at. Are there any places in the book where this is particularly meaningful to you?

13. There’s an intriguing symmetry to the way that the grammar of the German language—the tenses, moods, conjugations, false cognates, infinitives, et cetera—lays itself out in a pattern that easily overlays the poignant heartbreak of the novel. And yet, one of the themes of Hausfrau is language’s ultimate inadequacy. Is that tension resolvable? If so, how? Is this something you have encountered in your own life?

14. The book depends upon the coolness of the Swiss, the impenetrable nature of the landscape, and the solitude of nighttime in order to fully call forth Anna’s deep despair and alienation. Could this book take place in another setting? Anna’s everyday environs—the hill, the bench, the trains, the Coop—become characters in their own right Are there other functions the novel’s setting serves?

15. Hausfrau is in some sense a study in female sexuality. What might the author be suggesting about the sexual appetites of a woman at midlife? What might the author be suggesting about a woman’s emotional needs?

16. An entirely speculative question: What do you think will happen to Bruno and Victor and Polly Jean? Can you imagine their lives post-Anna?

Q&A: Lisa See, author of China Dolls

Friday, March 6th, 2015

China DollsSan Francisco, 1938: A world’s fair is preparing to open on Treasure Island, a war is brewing overseas, and the city is alive with possibilities. Grace, Helen, and Ruby, three young women from different backgrounds, meet by chance at the glamorous Forbidden City nightclub. Grace Lee, an American-born Chinese girl, has fled the Midwest with nothing but heartache, talent, and a pair of dancing shoes. Helen Fong lives with her extended family Chinatown, where her traditional parents insist that she guard her reputation like a piece of jade. The stunning Ruby Tom challenges the boundaries of convention at every turn with her defiant attitude and no-holds-barred ambition.

The girls become fast friends, relying on one another through unexpected challenges and shifting fortunes. When their dark secrets are exposed and the invisible thread of fate binds them even tighter, they find the strength and resilience to reach for their dreams. But after the Japanese attack Pearl Harbor, paranoia and suspiscion threaten to destroy their lives, and a shocking act of betrayal changes everything.

Read the insightful Q&A below between Lisa and the real life China Dolls!

I first met Jodi Long, an actress who made her Broadway debut at age seven in Nowhere to Go But Up and now stars in Sullivan and Son on television, when she came to one of my book events. She gave me a copy of Long Story Short, a documentary she produced about her parents, who were nightclub performers. Larry Long was from Australia. He danced as a solo artist, teamed up with Paul Wing, and later married Trudie Kim (née Kimiye Tsunemitsu), who had been interned at the Minidoka War Relocation Center. After they married, they put together their own song, dance, and comedy act. On May 7, 1950, they were among the first Asian-American performers to appear on The Ed Sullivan Show. In 2011, I did two interviews with Jodi and Trudie together. I offer these excerpts so you can get a sense of how I do research and then how the truth and details of real-life stories inspire me.

Lisa See: How old were you when the war started?

Trudie Kim: I was nineteen. I celebrated my twenty-first birthday in New York City when I got out of the internment camp in Idaho.

LS: When you were in the camp, you wrote letters to people, asking them to sponsor you to leave. How did you know who to write to?

TK: I knew that several people were writing for newspapers in New York; they were nightlife people. Not Walter Winchell, but others. So I
wrote, and I said I was in camp and I didn’t want to stay there. I said, “Why am I here? I’m an American citizen.” I couldn’t get out of camp unless someone agreed to give me a job.

LS: Your parents let you go?

TK: We were in camp! We lived in barracks. The whole family lived in one room. They evacuated us from the West Coast. A lot of people lost property, farms, and so forth, but we didn’t own anything like that. They sent us there, and when we got out of the train, we put our hands up like this and we couldn’t even see our hands because that’s how dusty it was. When I got there, I said, “How in the hell do I get out of this joint?” I spent all of my days going up to the placement office, which wasn’t even settled at that point, in a spot two or three miles away. I’d walk up there, and I’d say, “How the hell do I get out? Give me the papers.” It took me weeks. Lee Mortimer finally answered. He was a writer for the New York Daily Mirror. He was the nightlife editor, or whatever. He used to take out Asian girls. He used to take out Noel Toy. She was a bubble dancer. I think he took out Florence Ong. She was Korean, and she was sort of an opera singer.

LS: What did you think when you first got off the train in New York?

TK: I didn’t have a soul to help me. I got off at Penn Station. I had read about the Barbizon Hotel for Women, which was on Lexington and Sixty-third. I stayed there for a couple of weeks. I started to look for a job. I went to Macy’s, Lord & Taylor, Best & Co., Arnold Constable, and Gimbel’s. No one would hire me as a saleswoman.

LS: Do you think that was because of the war?

TK: Probably. But they probably weren’t hiring any Asian people, anyway, at that time. No one said that. That was just my intuition. No one offered me a job—not even in the storeroom. I wasn’t fussy. I just wanted a job.

Jodi Long: I think what’s really interesting is that she couldn’t get a job in any of those places, but the one place that gave her a job was the American Bible Society as a file clerk and a typist.

LS: [To Trudie] You must have been a bit of a dreamer.

TK: I thought, Gee, I might be a singer. When I first came to New York, someone said, “Let’s go to the Hurricane Nightclub, where Duke Ellington is playing with Johnny Hodges.” Someone said, “Go up and sing.” I sang a few bars. Duke Ellington didn’t really listen to me, but it was an entrée.

LS: How did you get your job at the China Doll?

TK: Lee Mortimer took me out. That’s how I met everyone. He used to call me at the American Bible Society and say in a very low voice, “You want to go out tonight?” I used to go to nightclubs with him. When the China Doll opened, he had some pull in trying to get Asian people into the show. He is the one who suggested that I go down there to audition. “Go down there and audition. Maybe you’ll get a job!” I wanted to try out, but I was afraid that I might lose my job at the ABS, even though the pay was only seventeen dollars a week. Let me put it this way. The girls at the China Doll were making seventy-five dollars a week, so I talked to my boss at the ABS. “They have an open call for chorus girls. They make much more money than I do here. Would I be able to go down there and not lose this job here?” She said, “Go and try for it. Don’t worry about your job here. If you get it, fine. If you don’t get it, come back. I’ll hold the job for you.”

LS: So this was your first experience dancing?

TK: You go in, and he looks at you. The next day, they show you—do this and do that—which is absolutely nothing much. I guess he wanted to see how I looked onstage—presence, walk, and so on. It wasn’t too long, otherwise my boss wouldn’t have let me go. And then he decided. “Okay. I’m going”—like in the movie The Black Swan—“I’m going to pick you, pick you, pick you. The rest of you, thank you very much for coming.” When I went back to the dressing room, I said, “I got the job!” The other girls said, “You did?” I shouldn’t have bragged, but I was so excited. I wasn’t that clumsy, I guess.

JL: This was so much about survival. Performers like my mom and dad grew up in the Depression era. They saw Hollywood movies and somehow they got in their minds that they could do that, whether they had any formal training or not. Like my mother—​she didn’t have any formal training. Some of them did, like my father, who was taught how to tap by a Caucasian woman in Australia. The person who really took him under his wing was an African American man who was putting on music-hall shows in Australia. How interesting that that guy got from Africa to America, learned tapping, and then went to Australia and gave it to a little Chinese boy. I think it was really, “Oh, I can do this, and who cares what anybody thinks? I can make more money doing this.”

TK: Back home I used to work for fifty cents an hour in a grocery store. The big thing for me was, God! I can make seventy-five dollars!

JL: Tell Lisa the story about the guy, who, when you girls sat with him at the China Doll, he always took the money out of his socks.

TK: He was a Chinese guy. He worked on a big boat, going back and forth, with lots of passengers. I don’t know what his function was. I know he wasn’t just a sailor. I don’t think he was a cook, either. Maybe a steward. He used to come in regularly when he came back to shore. He would have all the girls sit at his table. When I say “girls,” there were a lot of us—six or so. We’d order food and drinks. That’s what we did after the first show. We used to sit and eat!

LS: What was your favorite thing to eat?

TK: I just wanted food. We didn’t go home and cook. When the tab came, he used to get cash from his shoe, from the heel, and pay for it. There were no charge cards back then. One time, he came in and said, “Oh, you girls want some shoes?” About four or five of us said, “Sure.” We went to his hotel. I thought, Oh my God. What’s going to happen? Let’s go get them and get out as fast as we can. He gave us shoes and some of us went home. I don’t know if anything happened with other girls. We used to stick together because we were all so young.

LS: It sounds like there was a lot of camaraderie with the other girls. Were there rivalries and jealousies and competition too?

TK: I don’t think so, not rivalry. The only thing I really didn’t care for and I really didn’t like was that three-quarters of them were Chinese, and they spoke Chinese most of the time in the dressing room. I didn’t like it.

LS: Did you feel they were doing that to leave you and the others out? Did you feel they were gossiping?

TK: I felt sometimes they may have been talking about us. I just didn’t like it. They probably weren’t talking about us, but who knows? When you’re young, you always think someone’s talking about you. Still, that was one thing I detested.

LS: All this time, were you writing to your parents? What did they think?

TK: I didn’t write to my parents. They didn’t read English, and I couldn’t write Japanese. Who used the telephone in those days? But they might have thought, Ah! What is she doing? It’s not traditional. The only worry they probably had was, Is she getting along?

JL: My grandparents couldn’t provide my mother with anything. They were in an internment camp, after all.

TK: I don’t know how my mother felt. She used to iron shirts in the Laundromat and she would work really hard, and she would send me ten dollars every once in a while.

LS: When you were working at the China Doll, what did you do when the night was done? Would you just go home or did you go out with everyone?

JL: Tell her about how you used to go to the drugstore after the show.

TK: Hanson’s Drugstore was across the street, and everybody hung out there. It was on Seventh Avenue, right across Fifty-first Street. [To Jodi] Your father always used to be there.

LS: Was Larry considered a headliner, a big star?

TK: Yes, he was a headliner at the China Doll.

LS: So he saw you and thought you were cute?

TK: I was the only one who listened to him! He hung around. I used to take a cab home to Seventy-fifth Street, but he’d make me walk all the way up to Seventy-fifth Street. I’d say, “Cryin’ out loud. I could have taken a cab.”

JL: Because he couldn’t afford a cab? Right?

TK: Right. Exactly. Sometimes we used to stop at Reuben’s, which was a pretty big restaurant; a lot of people used to go after the shows. Lena Horne was there one time, in the next booth. That was on Fifty-seventh Street.

LS: So Larry comes to the club; he’s got an act; he starts following you around . . .

TK: No. He was in an act.

JL: We should back up a little bit and give the backstory to that. Paul Wing was in a dance act with his partner, Dorothy Toy. [Wing & Toy were considered the Chinese Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers.] They were married at one point. Dorothy, even though her last name was Toy, was Japanese. According to the stories that I’ve heard, and I think it was Dad who told me, Wing & Toy had a Hollywood contract and another performer, who will remain nameless, ratted her out and told the people that they were hiring “a Jap.” The other performer was Chinese, and she got the job instead. That’s when Paul and Dorothy split up their act, because now that her cover was blown, she went on the road with her sister. Paul was on his own in San Francisco, and that’s when my father got up to the Forbidden City and they formed the Wing Brothers. Paul went from being Wing & Toy to the Wing Brothers. Even though all the pictures make them look like they were like the Nicholas Brothers—with all this tap dancing—my father was a tap dancer, but Paul didn’t really tap.

LS: He was more like a ballroom dancer.

JL: Yeah. Exactly. They did lots of jokes and patter and that stuff. They brought that to the China Doll, and that’s when my mother met my father. The Wing Brothers broke up somewhere in there, and my dad stayed in New York. I think because he gambled all his money away and couldn’t get it back!

TK: That’s true, because after work, not every night, but on certain nights they would play pai gai.

JL: They would stay after the show—not just at China Doll but also at the Forbidden City—to play cards or mahjong or whatever.

LS: [To Trudie] What was it like working with your husband?

TK: Putting the act together wasn’t just overnight.

JL: My father was a real stickler. He’d come see me at my show. “Did you know somebody was moving during your punch line? Tell them to stop moving.” He probably did that with my mom too.

TK: He’d say, “You moved!” “I moved?” I did move. [To Jodi] You went through that too? I didn’t dance, so I was faking when we did the tap dancing.

LS: I’ve seen the clip of you on The Ed Sullivan Show. You looked like you were dancing to me.

JL: If you really watch her feet [on The Ed Sullivan Show], she’s really good from here up. If you really watch my father’s feet, he’s tap dancing. My mother’s just stepping. It’s really funny to go back and watch it. She’s just doing the moves. She’s a good faker.

TK: I’m a good faker!

JL: Yes, you are!

LS: [To Jodi] What’s your earliest memory of being in a nightclub?

JL: I remember the waitresses. They used to take care of me when my parents were onstage. I remember I would sit sometimes in the audience, if it wasn’t too late. I specifically remember that you had to go through the kitchen to get to the dressing rooms. We’d be going through the kitchen with all those cleaver-wielding chefs, and that was scary. They’re all barking Chinese and wanting to pinch your check, and you’re like, “Ugh!” You’re running through the kitchen and getting backstage. The backstage area is still so clear in my mind. There were two staircases that went up. One to the women’s dressing room and one to the men’s dressing room. I also remember a stripper at the Forbidden City. She used to babysit me backstage. I used to play with paper dolls, and I liked to cut out the dresses myself. One day, she cut all the paper doll dresses out of the book. She thought she was doing me a favor. I was so upset. And I remember as a child thinking, “Why is she doing that?” Thinking about it later, she was giving my dolls clothes, even though she didn’t wear them. That’s pretty strange. She was putting clothes on my paper dolls!

TK: You used to run around backstage with Michael.

LS: Another boy?

JL: Yes. Larry Ching’s son. [Larry Ching was billed as the Chinese Frank Sinatra.] He was my first crush. A few years ago, we did a movie together up in San Francisco. It’s six in the morning, I’m in the makeup chair, some guy’s supposed to be playing my brother-in-law and I’m hearing him talk about how his father was a -performer at the Forbidden City. I’m like, What? I look at him, and I say, “Your father worked at the Forbidden City? So did mine.” He goes, “Oh, yeah. What was your dad’s name?” I say, “Larry Long.” I say, “What’s your dad’s name?” “Larry Ching.” “And what’s your name again.” He goes, “Michael.” I go, “Wait a second. You’re not the Michael I went to the San Francisco Zoo with?” He goes, “Oh my God! You’re Jodi.” It was unbelievable. It was just too weird. We’re still friends.

LS: One thing that struck me was how people were billed: The Chinese Fred Astaire; the Chinese Sophie Tucker. What was the reason or thinking behind that? Why would they get those labels?

TK: They called Toyet Mar the Chinese Sophie Tucker because she was heavy, I think.

LS: And she had a big voice.

TK: Yeah. Kind of. With the Wing Brothers, when your father and Paul Wing danced together, the newspapers used to call them the Chinese Nicholas Brothers.

JL: I always thought they did that for the Western audience to go, “Oh, I know what that is!” You look at certain actors, and they’ll look like Errol Flynn or whomever, and there’s a context already when you see them on the screen. You recognize what that stands for. It contextualizes the performer. I think in the performing arts that’s somewhat useful. But it’s also why it’s been hard for Asian Americans when you get to that other level of breaking into television or film. There’s not quite been a context for it. “Now I know what that is and I’m not completely shocked.” Seeing my parents on The Ed Sullivan Show, what’s always so amazing to me is that they start out doing the chinky-Chinaman kind of thing, but it contextualizes them and it makes their act almost acceptable for the audience, because that’s the way the audience is looking at it. When they take off their Chinese robes and they’re just Western-style performers, it’s like, “Oh!”
LS: How did that come about—being on The Ed Sullivan Show?

TK: I have no idea. I didn’t handle any of that stuff. All I know is we were going to perform there.

JL: Ed Sullivan had scouts who would go to all the nightclubs and all the vaudeville places, and that’s how they would see you and then they would want to book you.

LS: I would have been excited and terrified too.

TK: I really can’t remember if I was excited or not. I was trying to be very careful of what I wore. I had something I had already made. Everything matched. I even had green hose.

JL: Mom made all her own costumes. But it was always about the career and putting it out there. It was the only way you were going to get ahead. That’s the performer’s dilemma. There will always be that Broadway show, that television show, that movie part that will put you over.

LS: But maybe people really did think there was a chance. “I’m at the top of what I’m doing as queen of the nightclub acts.”

JL: You’re right. There is that glass ceiling. Completely. And it is still here for us now. There’s always that vague hope that one day that one thing is going to happen that’s going to change something. Sometimes it does, and sometimes it doesn’t. Maybe it does for half a second, and then you’re back to square one. That was really what I wanted to say about these performers and how they were perceived. The times were different. In those days, you could make a lot more money in entertainment than the average Joe putting wires into a transistor, slinging hash, or typing.

Jodi Long brought her memories of the Forbidden City, her parents, and all the amazing performers she grew up knowing to her narration of the audio version of China Dolls. On June 13, 2014, Trudie Kim Long passed away at the age of ninety-one, exactly two weeks before the publication of China Dolls. In the memorial card Jodi sent to her friends, she used the following lines from an Eskimo legend:

Perhaps they are not stars in the sky. But rather openings where our loved ones shine down to let us know they are happy.

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.

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?

: 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.

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.

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