WRITERS TELL ALL
Matthew Turbeville: Hi, Aimee. I have been such a big fan for so long. My first experience with your luck was reading Girl with the Flammable Skirt, a book I love so much but have to keep buying year after year, since many friends have “borrow” my copies pretty permanently. I wanted to discuss—before getting into detail about specific works—what your writing process is like. How many hours do you spend a day or week writing? Do you have word limits or goals? Do you write in a linear fashion or jump around a lot? Tell us how writing works for you!
Aimee Bender: Hi, Matthew! Thank you. I love hearing that about the borrowed books.
I’ve long been a big believer about time limits for writing—can point you to some pieces re that if you’d like, as I think about it all the time: http://www.oprah.com/spirit/writing-every-day-writers-rules-aimee-bender
These days I do 1.5 hours in the morn, and one hour in the evening on Mondays. The stricter the better. Jumping around, once in that strict time structure, is just fine.
MT: I really love your stories, and I’ve also really loved your novels. Your most recent novel was The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake. It’s such a unique and innovative concept. Can you start by explaining how you came up with the idea for the book? Also, while I don’t necessarily believe in giving all books labels, what would you categorize Lemon Cakeas being—both age levels and genre-wise?
AB: Let’s see. I think of Lemon Cake as adult fiction, literary, with some magic in it, but I’m fine with however others think of it. It won an Alex Award, which was unexpected and nice to get, which meant it was approved for readers 12 and up, and that was good, too—I’m happy when teenagers read it and find a home in it. But I also love it when they read it with their mom or dad and then the adult gets in there too.
The idea for the book is harder to track—one route was a friend of mine that always refers to feelings as something to ‘digest’; another piece was a composer who asked me to write on the seven vices, including gluttony, which led to a character that sounded a bit like Rose, and mostly just the daily wandering around on the computer until something starts to have some motion in it.
MT: Sometimes, I feel like you’re honestly at your best writing from a first person POV. How do you establish the voice of each character, and how do you make the novel so intimate and candid as you do? Every book and story feels like you’re opening the door for a new universe and allowing readers in.
AB: So glad to hear it! I love first person. I love reading it, love writing it. I find third very tricky, which is why I lean toward the fairy tale third person which has quite a bit of distance in it. Voice tends to just arrive, but there are many voices that fizzle, so it’s more about trying a lot and failing at a lot before arriving at something that works.
MT: When you were younger, what were your favorite books? What have been your favorite books in recent years, and what books do you feel have had the greatest impact on your literary career? Are there any modern authors—story writers or novelists or otherwise—who have had great impacts on your writing?
AB: I read a lot when I was little, and I’m a mom now and revisiting some of my favorites has been wonderful: William Steig’s Sylvester and the Magic Pebble, and E.B. White’s Stuart Little, where the prose is just crystal clear, and soon Julie Andrews’ The Last of the Really Great Whangdoodles, which has the best ice cream machine ever. I recently read my children Ozma of Oz (Baum) and was amazed and a little embarrassed to see how much those books have leaked their way into my writing. There are many current books thrilling me—there’s an abundance of riches these days. I just finished and learned so much from the Rachel Cusk trilogy. Adored the voice in Sour Heart, Jenny Zhang’s collection. I reread Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping during the election ramp up and it was the only thing I found soothing: the careful articulation of daily activities as a way to get into worlds beneath the world. Soon to read Victor LaValle’s The Changeling, and he is a usual favorite of mine. So weird and resonant.
MT: When was your first publication? How old were you, and is this a publication that is collected in one of your collections or is it something that you have steered away from? I know many authors tend to—not necessarily feel ashamed—but perhaps turn from their earliest work as it is extremely raw and unrefined. What do you feel is most important for potential future writers when dealing with publication?
AB: Oh, I have to say I do feel annoyed when writers diss their earlier work. It still counts. And it usually met some readers. I just think we don’t really need to be critics of ourselves so publicly that way—it’s not our job. My very first pub was a tiny magazine in San Diego that took a story as an undergraduate, but it had one issue and never did anything again. The first “real” one was “The Threepenny Review,” a Berkeley literary journal as encouraged by a teacher, the wonderful Jane Vandenburgh, and I was shocked and amazed to get that thing in print. And then I thought it would be easy after that, which it was not! It was a story called “Dreaming in Polish” that was in Flammable Skirt but does feel different than many of the other stories in that book. It came from an earlier era, where I was thinking more while writing. Now I try to think as little as possible.
MT: I’ve been witnessing the literary culture grow and change over the years. Do you feel that women and other marginalized people are finally taking a strong stance in the scene, or do you think full representation still has a long way to go for most marginalized people?
AB: I do see a change. A really important change in that representation is at the forefront of so many literary discussions now. There’s always a ways to go, but I think it’s on people’s minds and the amount of good material out there to find and to teach is stunning and very exciting.
MT: What is the highest praise you feel you’ve received for a work of fiction? Are there any negative remarks that you’ve been really hurt by—or even inspired by, hopefully pushing you forward in an effective way, even as an act of defiance?
AB: Fun to think of. Highest praise—I think when someone returns to a book, and when I feel it really got under their skin and lives with them, becomes part of them. I don’t want to feel like the work gets read and then is over. I want it to linger, and for someone to be moved and impacted, even if it’s unclear why or how. Early on, I felt really vulnerable to all reviews and would sit and deconstruct them with a couple key friends which helped. Now it’s a little easier, though still nerve-wracking, of course. I still want someone to catch the ball I threw.
MT: You haven’t released a book in several years. Of course, there are authors that release books every 1-2 years, and some authors—for example, Donna Tartt—who only release books every ten years or more. What is your next book going to be like, and how do you feel it will be different from previous works?
AB: I’m working away on a novel, and it has short chapters in a way that is a bit new for me, and a kind of distilled quality, I think, but it also circles around some similar themes because I have my treasure chest of preoccupations which does not seem to change!
MT: What’s the most astonishing reaction you’ve had by a fan? I’m assuming you have quite a dedicated fan-base, simply looking at my own friends and how quick they are to say “We never borrowed that book!” or “I’ll try and find it.” (Side note: Got both these responses from one friend, and when at her house and in her bedroom one day, saw it lying plainly on a shelf as if she’s in the middle of reading it—I decided to let it slide. I could get another copy. She needed this book.)
AB: (love hearing this btw!)
MT: Given today’s political climate, what is the one book or collection or story you’d recommend Americans and other humans to read? What would you recommend to our president—if possible, both one of your own works, and a work by someone else you highly value or covet?
AB: I lean toward poems as resources for us all—and the news cycle is so intense and so wearing that to spend some time with something small and intense and beautiful and made with such care seems helpful. I’ve been reading Terrance Hayes’ new book, and Wislawa Szymborska. But that same impulse is also bringing me back to Marilynne Robinson, for similar reasons. Anti-impulsiveness. True consideration of human experience, loss, beauty.
MT: What genres do you prefer not to go near? What are books you don’t care for, or simply cannot stand? What books have you found yourself surprisingly drawn to, and what book would readers find strangest to discover influenced your own work?
AB: There isn’t one! Because it’s all about voice and language and I’ll read anything at all if told in a way that feels fresh and interesting.
MT: What is the hardest book or story you’ve ever had to write? I remember Annie Proulx stating it took her twice or so as long to write “Brokeback Mountain” as an actual full-length novel? Have you ever completely given up on a work?
AB: Yes—I gave up on a novel about a teenage boy who was acting out left and right and the voice had some merits but the narrative drive was really, really not working. One story in The Color Master, called “Faces” was pillaged from that novel.
MT: Finally, what advice do you give in general—based on things we’ve discussed, or otherwise—to promising new writers, up-and-comers, etc, on how to tackle writing, and the best ways to go about finding their own voice and their own style of writing?
AB: There’s the writer who is you, and the writer you are pretending to be, and in my mind, finding out the writer who is you is a better route, will lead more clearly to voice. I ask my classes to write on a subject about which they know a lot, a kind of expertise. But not necessarily a proud expertise. What do they really know about? Barbecuing, celebrity dating profiles, their mother’s rules (which is essentially why Jamaica Kincaid’s “Girl” is so great), etc, and from that, see what shows up. Nothing shallow will remain shallow if pored over with care.
MT: Thank you so much for talking to me, Aimee. It’s been a pleasure—and fantasy, honestly of mine, ever since I was younger. I am really looking forward to whatever work you do next, and am constantly on the lookout for new writing of yours. If you have any other thoughts, commentary, suggestions, or wisdom, please let us know!
AB: Thank you so much!
"[Flavia] is whispering to me even as we speak": An Interview with the Brilliant, Incomparable Alan Bradley
Matthew Turbeville: Hi, Alan! It’s so nice to get to talk with you about your wonderful series of
novels revolving around your character Flavia de Luce. First, I wanted to ask, what came first
for you? The ideas of the books or the characters like Flavia? It’s always interesting to see the
author mould the story around a character, or create a character who fits into the story.
Alan Bradley: The idea of writing a mystery came first, although in the end, I never did complete the book I was planning. Flavia sauntered onto the page and hijacked my story lock, stock and plot. She brought the characters and settings with her. I didn’t have a chance.
MT: Flavia is such a brilliant, alive character. I have a lot of friends who are big fans. She’s
Nancy Drew but for adults, so much dark humour and general darkness it’s like entering a new
world when you write about her. How hard is it to get into Flavia’s mind when you are writing?
AB: It’s not hard at all. Flavia is always there, champing at the bit, just waiting for me to sit down at the keyboard so that she can occupy my hands and make herself heard.
MT: Flavia is such a specific girl. She starts off a young girl who wants to study Chemistry and
ends up studying the murders of dead people—solving their deaths, these crimes, with these
incredible skills. How did you decide who Flavia is, as well as her voice, and decide upon how to
really make Flavia a person herself. How do you decide about these brilliantly unique murders?
and do you think Flavia grows throughout the series?
AB: I can take no credit for Flavia. She appeared on the page – “jumped out of the inkpot” as they say – fully formed. I sometimes think that she might have been waiting centuries for someone with a suitably quirky mind. With each book, I have settled upon the unique theme (obsessive stamp collecting, curious religions, gypsy caravans, etc: something which will grip my interest long enough to write a book.) Turned loose within these frameworks, Flavia seems perfectly at home, and goes whizzing off in all directions. I had to learn touch-typing to keep up! And thanks to my beloved wife, who taught me.
MT: Before Flavia and success, how long did it take you to get a book published, and how long
before you felt you were successful, which has different meaning to different people?
AB: Although I had collaborated on an earlier book (Ms. Holmes of Baker Street) my first published book was The Shoebox Bible, a memoir of my mother. I don’t remember having any particular problem getting it published. I emailed the manuscript to an agent and received a blank contract the next morning. It was sold very quickly, with several publishers bidding for the rights. The first Flavia book, The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Piewon the Debut Dagger Award from the CWA (Crime Writers’ Association) in the UK. It was only when I flew from Canada to London to accept the award at a black-tie event in Park Lane and found that the book – and the subsequent series - had been sold in three countries on two continents (and later, thirty-eight!) that I began to realize how widespread was the readers’ love for Flavia de Luce. The most oft-occurring word in my mail and email is “love”, for which I am eternally grateful.
MT: What was the toughest book to write, and why was it a struggle? Was there ever a Flavia
book you nearly gave up on, or did you fight through no matter what?
AB: The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie was likely the toughest, because I hadn’t written a mystery before. I vividly remember my forefinger hovering above the ‘send’ button of the final draft – then stopping to change a word, a phrase…and then another…and another…and another. It was long after midnight before I got up the gumption finally to send it on its way. The book was written in the wake of a tragic forest fire, which we survived, but not unscathed. Several of the other books were written under trying circumstances, and only now do I begin to realize what a balm they were at the time to the soul. I hope this passion comes through to the reader.
MT: What was your favourite mystery? Who are your favourite characters? We certainly come
AB: My own personal favourite mystery is Dorothy L. Sayers’s The Nine Tailors. Exquisite! If I may indulge in one long answer, consider the following:
“The bells gave tongue: Gaude, Sabaoth, John, Jericho, Jubilee, Dimity, Batty Thomas and Tailor Paul, rioting and exulting high up in the dark tower, wide mouths rising and falling, brazen tongues clamouring, huge wheels turning to the dance of the leaping ropes. Tin tan din dan bim bam bom bo--tan tin din dan bam bim bo bom--tan dan tin bam din bo bim bom--every bell in her place striking tuneably, hunting up, hunting down, dodging, snapping, laying her blows behind, making her thirds and fourths, working down to lead the dance again. Out over the flat, white wastes of fen, over the spear-straight, steel-dark dykes and the wind-bent, groaning poplar trees, bursting from the snow-choked louvres of the belfry, whirled away southward and westward in gusty blasts of clamour to the sleeping counties went the music of the bells--little Gaude, silver Sabaoth, strong John and Jericho, glad Jubilee, sweet Dimity and old Batty Thomas, with great Tailor Paul bawling and striding like a giant in the midst of them. Up and down went the shadows of the ringers upon the walls, up and down went the scarlet sallies flickering roofwards and floorwards, and up and down, hunting in their courses, went the bells of Fenchurch St. Paul.”
It simply doesn’t get any better than that.
Of the Flavia mysteries, they are all my favourites, but for different reasons: the restoration memories, beliefs, friendships, mentors, and near-forgotten joys.
MT: What do you think is so important about writing mysteries and, for an adult audience, what
about Flavia being a child and solving mysteries do you think resonates with them?
AB: Everyone has been a child, and everyone can identify with the trials and tribulations of being a child. I firmly believe that all of us retain shards of childhood within us, some more and some less than others. Flavia appeals to whatever remnants of youthful idealism, of enthusiasm, of truth and justice lingers in our core. It is this which has kept me going till eighty.
MT: Can you talk about the journey Flavia has taken throughout her life in these books? Which
books or parts of books do you think showed her most, and where do you think Flavia was most
AB: Flavia gradually reveals herself only gradually, book by book. In The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, which is set in the summer of 1950, she is almost eleven. Ten books later, in The Golden Tresses of the Dead, she is a couple of years older, and there is a detectible difference in her outlook. As an avaricious learner, she has taken on board a frightening amount of practical and philosophical knowledge. It worries me sometimes that the adults around her don’t realize how truly dangerous she might well be.
MT: What do you think makes Flavia so interesting to fans? She’s a blooming chemist, a
detective, a young girl—and how did you make the part of her being so young work so well in
the books? Other people might discredit a novel based on the age of the character.
AB: I’ve heard that criticism, and all I can say is “Barn-liquorice!”Anyone who underestimates the intelligence of an eleven-year-old girl is living with their eyes and ears glued shut. Some of the most brilliant individuals I’ve ever met have been eleven-year-old girls. Any girl of that age – or boy, for that matter - possesses naturally all the attributes required of a great detective: intelligence, keenness, curiosity, acute senses, and the great advantage of being completely invisible to adults – if she or he wishes: and Flavia does.
MT: Looking back on the series so far, what was your favourite book to write? Did you always
have the mysteries and the books mapped out or do you think on them and write as it come to
you? Either way, you do it fast—sometimes, you put out a book a year!
AB: As above, The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie was the most consuming, partly because of the amount of research required and partly because I was a mystery neophyte. I knew about halfway through that there was a much longer story in progress: that I could not possibly squeeze it all into one book. At first, I thought there would be three volumes…then six…then ten. I’ve just completed the tenth, and Flavia still wakes me up in the middle of the night with strange snippets and intriguing insights.
MT: What is the greatest writing advice—editing, revising, writing—that you’ve ever received
and how do you think it changed the way you write? Would you mind sharing it with our
AB: These elements are all equally important. I revise constantly as I write: a word here, a paragraph there, mostly the recasting of sentences to make them more graceful; to force them to flow more gracefully. Over the years, I’ve received many bits of writing advice from professionals, but the one which sticks forever in my mind was given me by the Governor General’s Award-winning poet, Anne Szumigalski, who once told me: “Just because it happened doesn’t mean you have to put it in.” Over the years, she saved me more grief than I knew. Bless you, Anne!
MT: Do you think you’ll have a set number of books for the series? How many mysteries will
Flavia solve before the series is over? And do you think the ending will be big and epic?
AB: I don’t think that Flavia or I will ever run out of ideas. She’s whispering to me even as we speak. Like life, I don’t think we can never know the ending. The great thing is not to worry about it and enjoy what we have and what we have done.
MT: The Grave’s a Fine and Private Placeis the most recent Flavia book. Do you mind
telling us about this book, and after almost ten Flavia books, how you feel you writing has
changed, Flavia has changed, and maybe even your life has changed?
: The tenth book, The Golden Tresses of the Dead, will be published in January. Having now written nearly a million words of the series, I’m beginning to feel I’m getting the hang of it. My wife, whose opinion I treasure, tells me that I’m a better writer than I was ten years ago. “Gee, thanks!” I think, but I know she means it honestly. My life has certainly changed since I sat down to write that first book: it couldn’t be more different. The main difference? The lovely people I’ve met.
MT: Can you tease us with what your next book will be about? Where will we find Flavia next?
AB: The Golden Tresses of the Dead (January, 2019) brings us (at last!) to sister Feely’s wedding day. As expected, there’s much ado in the village of Bishop’s Lacey as a corpse – or at least parts of one – turn up at the wedding feast. Before you can say “Pass me the poison”, Flavia and Dogger are on the case.
MT: Thank you so much for agreeing to talk with us, Alan. It was more than a pleasure, and we
at Writer Tell All as well as a lot of our readers are big fans. Please do let us know if you have
any thoughts or lingering comments you’d like to get out! Thank you again!
AB: Thanks, Matthew, for the opportunity to talk about Flavia. She is quite chuffed to think that she’s going to be mentioned on Writers Tell All. Our best regards to readers near and far.
Gwenda Bond is a Superhero Feminist Writing Powerhouse, and the Perfect Writer for Adults to Admire and Young People to Look Up To
Preface to one of my favorite interviews: I'm not really sure how I came across Gwenda Bond, a writer who is a powerhouse, a superstar in her own write, able to write for any generation but also treating them as intelligent as they are, and never writing down or up to them. I do know that I am, so far (I still consider this fairly early in her career--as I hope we get much more of her work) a very big fan of her Lois Lane series. In the trilogy, she does this strange and miraculous thing of both including and removing Lois from the superhero universe she is a part of and making Lois Lane a mystery-solving superhero of her own, outside of Clark Kent. One great thing about the series is how Gwenda is so talented and able o take all the major feminist aspects of Lois and magnify them, then couple this feminism with modern day America, with issues girls are facing, with their language and their technology and never once hesitating or compromising the need for perfect, refined storytelling that seems to come so natural to Gwenda. I think it's incredibly important to follow Gwenda's career--she's one of the most diverse writers I've ever had the pleasure of knowing. And do read everything by her, including her upcoming official Stranger Things novel--the idea of a genius like Gwenda contributing to such a major and magnificent world like that of Stranger Thing's is an amazing thing unto itself. I'm very excited for all the books Gwenda has to come, and I hope you are too.
Matthew Turbeville: Hi Gwenda, it is such an honor to get to talk with you, one of the trail blazing leading ladies of young adult literature, and about one of my favorite young adult series, your Lois Lane trilogy (so far). The books—other than having stunning characters—are remarkable with or without their ties to the Superman comic franchise, and while Lois’s relationship with Clark is certainly one of the central points of the series, it’s certainly not the beginning or ending of her story. Would you mind tell us how this series came into being, and how it worked out that you were able to virtually reinvent the legacy of Clark Kent, the man only crippled by Kryptonite (although in many pages of the books it feels like his love for Lois could weaken him as well)? How did you find yourself setting out on the path to write young Lois’s story?
Gwenda Bond: Thank you so much for your kind words about the series! Like many things about my career, the answer is that’s it’s still somewhat of a mystery to me. I’d published a couple of novels that had gotten some attention and been generally well-recieved, but which did not set the world on fire. Somehow the right person at DC Comics’ parent company Warner Brothers and the publisher Capstone decided I was a good choice to write a new series about a teen Lois Lane and approached my agent to see if I’d be interested. That it came together kind of randomly is funny, because I always say -- only half-kidding -- that the Lois books were something I’d been training to write my whole life. I got a journalism degree partially because of my childhood love of the character (and also because I thought that’s how writers made money ;) ). My day job of 17 years, which I still had when I got the gig, was working with reporters as a government public information officer, and of course I’d done some freelance journalism myself. And obviously I’m a huge comic book nerd who has always been Team Superman.
So my only question when I was approached was whether I’d have freedom on the project. The last thing I wanted to do was get the opportunity to give Lois Lane an origin story and have it be terrible for reasons outside of my control. I was told yes and everyone was very much true to that.
MT: Before digging into Lois Lane—the Lois Lane and the Lois Lane of the future you’ve created—what is your writing process like? Do you have a certain number of words or page counts a day? What is an average day like with you and your job writing the great American young adult novel?
GB: Ha! Flatterer! My process tends to change a little bit book by book, and working on something like Lois Lane or the Stranger Things book that’s my next project is different than working on one of my original ideas -- a little bit. For one of those “intellectual property” or IP projects, obviously I don’t own the characters or idea and there’s a third-party in the mix. The main way that changes things is two-fold. The first is that it works much better for everyone if you can all get on the same page up front, which means a detailed outline is absolutely key. And it’s also key for the second reason: these kind of projects tend to have a much quicker turnaround than what we usually think of as normal in publishing, which can be slow. So you’ll typically have less time for deadlines, and the book will also go through production faster and come out quicker. I actually really like all these parts of doing IP, and I only say yes to things that I will be as invested in as anything else I might write.
I wish I could bring the efficiency of my IP process over to my original work, but that tends to be much messier. I outline, but not in anywhere like the same detail and there’s a lot more trial and error. But in terms of the everyday mechanics once I start writing a book, they’re not so different -- I’m trying to hit a certain goal most days. I will tend to write in the mornings or the afternoons, a specific time that shifts for every book. I try not to work at night unless it’s absolutely necessary, because it can be really easy to work round the clock when you live in your office and that’s not healthy for you or the work. I also might take off a week just to read when I’m not actively writing something. But in general I’m happier when I have a book in progress, so I almost always do.
MT: The most boring question of all, but I hope it’ll help any of our readers who want to be the Gwenda Bonds of the future: what is editing like for you? Can you describe your editing process to us? How essential is it in writing any of your books?
GB: So. Essential. Drafting is my least favorite part of the process. If I’m any good as a writer, it’s all down to my strength as a reviser. I love revision. I love working with an editor who sees where I’ve fallen short and helps me get where I wanted to go or didn’t even know I wanted to go. It’s the part of the writing process I look forward to most. When I’m drafting, I’m just trying to get a thing that can be fixed. The fixing is the fun part.
For me, revision is all about clarity. Being able to step back enough to see exactly how to reshape something to make it work better. In a mechical way, I tend to take an edit letter, avoid the ms. for a couple of days after reading it, then dive in and work my way through in a very linear fashion. I did something new with Stranger Things: Suspicious Minds (which is an adult book, not a YA actually -- though I’m sure teens will read it) that I think may become part of my revision process, because it was so helpful. I took the art off one office wall and got colored index cards for various POVs and double-sided wall-safe sticky things and then I made a heading for each chapter and gave every scene an index card where I spelled out the major action, any changes that needed to happen, if it was an added scene, etc., and which also allowed me to see the distribution of scenes in various characters’ POVs. Then I put a sticker on each card as I finished revising it. It was great to be able to see the whole book, but also to see my progress as I progressed toward the end.
MT: In this book, you represent Lois as a sort of feminist icon. You see her relationship with Clark Kent, starting as an online romance that everyone in Lois’s life seems to respect because they know Lois is smart and competent and able to make grown up decisions for herself. How did you decide who Lois was—no matter what age, but especially as a sixteen-year-old—in order to write these books?
GB: This is such a good question! I did a lot of thinking up front about just that, who Lois is, what makes her, well, her. What parts of her core self have to be there or it’s either not a Lois Lane story or a bad Lois Lane story. Lois and I have some similarities in personality, which I definitely think helped me get a handle on her. But a lot of it came from her voice -- once I could hear that voice, she was there. This is how it usually works for my characters.
I always joke that Lois is a gift to write because you could put her in a room and she’d create a story. She is a plot-machine. Because she’s a character who is never going to be finished, she’s not going to sit still or do what she’s expected to do or what she’s told. She’s going to do what she thinks is right, always. And, to me, the biggest key to understanding Lois is understanding the difference between what she’s like outwardly and what she’s like inside. Lois is vulnerable, she second-guesses herself, and has worries and anxieties just like anyone… But she shows them to almost no one. Except Clark.
MT: What were the biggest hindrances to writing this series, especially considering it’s a reinvention of a decades old comic book story with innumerable film and tv adaptations? Were there ever times when you found that the history of Superman and Clark Kent as well as his relationship with Lois Lane were interfering with your own artistic integrity? In an even more direct question, did you ever feel that however Lois had been limited in the past would affect how you presented her to young adults in the novel?
GB: I definitely feel there have been bad Lois Lane stories. Sometimes whole decades of them! For anyone interested in the character’s history, I highly recommend Tim Hanley’s excellent book Investigating Lois Lane (and all Tim’s books are wonderful).
I approached this as a fan, and so part of my job was to tell the kind of story that would delight me as a fan of these characters. I was very lucky in that I was presented with a barebones concept (Lois as a teen, working for a younger Perry White) that I had the freedom to flesh out. Warner Brothers and Capstone were on board from the beginning with my vision for the books and I can’t think of anything I wanted to do that I wasn’t allowed to do, honestly. In the few cases where they had issues with minor things, I feel like the solutions ended up making for stronger stories.
It’s always nerve-wracking when you’re working with characters that people have a strong emotional attachment to already, knowing that if you get it wrong or if people don’t like what you do, you will hear about it. But at the end of the day, you can’t write with those voices in your head. You have to tell the story your way and hope for the best. That said, I am extremely grateful to the long-time fans of these characters who became the fiercest supporters of these books. It means so much to have people who care about them feel you’ve added something important to the history of characters that have been around so long and carry so much cultural weight. These books were an absolute honor to get to write.
MT: I know I’m not the first person to bring this up with the Lois Lane books—I’ve read reviews, there are people comparing the series to another favorite of mine--Veronica Mars—but how did you decide to set out and make Lois a feminist icon, especially for a new generation of impression of young people, young women and men alike, who needed this somewhat mythical figure to be humanized but also grounded in a very strong moral stance? While it can be argued about the morality of Lois’s actions at some points in the novel, do you feel that you wanted to set her as an example for her young readers—your young readers—in an effort to try and, perhaps, rewrite history, as much as many people may frown upon that today? Do you think there’s something important in correcting the views and issues minorities like women of all color, sexuality, etc, face today when facing issues of women in media in the past?
GB: Lois is a feminist icon. She’s one of the best known pop culture characters in history, not just as “Superman’s girlfriend” but for her job. That’s very rare. So, I absolutely wanted to preserve that and amplify it. I tried to load in as many references to exceptional women -- and especially female reporters -- as I could. When a teen tweets that they got the Nellie Bly google doodle because they read my book, I’m so happy (especially because she was one of the original inspirations for Lois’s character). And so on. At the same time, I’m a huge romance fan and a fan of the Lois and Clark relationship as a relationship of equals (the swooniest variety of romance). But I also wanted Lois’s relationships with her new friends, especially Maddy, to be important.
Anytime you’re writing a 16-year-old (or, for that matter, someone much older), they’re going to make mistakes. They’re going to be figuring out their moral compasses and what is okay and what’s not. Lois would never claim to be perfect, but she will figure out a way to get the job done and protect people.
Comics are a living part of pop culture history. Our images of these characters and how they’re portrayed will always reflect our cultural times, whether intentionally or unintentionally. To me, there’s always a way to preserve what’s important about the characters, what makes them who they are, while moving the depictions forward to reflect the world around us and how it has changed. It’s important that we keep adding components and telling new stories in these universes. I can’t think of anything better to do with stories about heroes than righting wrongs.
MT: One of the most enchanting aspects of you young adult writing—and do not take this the wrong way, I mean this in the best way—but it’s often hard to tell if you are writing an adult novel for young adults or a young adult novel for adult. How do you feel your actual writing style plays a part in benefiting all sort of marginalized youths, and how do you think it will continue to benefit these youths from generation to generation by not writing down “on their level” but understanding, in a way you seem to do, that you can write a young adult book without having to explain every other word, phrase, or character action, like I’ve read in so many less capable hands?
GB: Well, thank you. I really feel we’re in a golden age of YA and have been for more than a decade now. So I personally feel like I could list authors I think are excellent at this for days. ;) Teenagers can see through bullshit. They aren’t only reading YA and they have many and varied interests and complicated things going on in their lives. I would never talk down to a reader, no matter their age. When I’m writing, I’m thinking about the story -- that does mean sometimes thinking about how to make sure scenes land a certain way with the reader, provoke a certain reaction… But usually if I’m doing something that I like in a scene, I can be fairly confident it will also work for the reader or a certain subset of readers. I just tell the story and I load into it the things that interest me, and I hope will also interest readers.
And I am not afraid of using references in stories, because many of the things I love most I came to through looking it up after a writer referenced it in a story whether it’s TV or movies or books. In the age of streaming, everything lives forever. I feel like art is a conversation and it serves no one to pretend you’ll make it timeless by cutting your story off from that. (YMMV.) And now having written YA, middle grade (with my husband), and for adults (Stranger Things), I can say that the story dictates any difference in approach for me, not the audience.
MT: What did you think was the importance of introducing all of these characters as young adults, sort of as a prequel to the comics, especially when you’re introducing characters as iconic as Lois Lane, and on an ironic level in the sense that she has no idea how important these people will be in her future, Clark Kent and Lex Luther? More importantly, what do you think is the importance of having Lois believe so strongly in her future as a writer and journalist, and why do you think it is important for Lois to have such a strong—if not protective—support system?
GB: Part of the fun of writing these books for me is just what you say -- the reader knows things that the characters don’t about what’s ahead for them. You can use that to create tension and expectation, which I hope I did. There’s a playfulness to that element that feels like it fits with the way I see the Superman mythos, more light-filled, a place with banter and goodness.
It’s kind of astonishing to think about the fact that Lois has been around since Action Comics #1, just like Superman and Clark, and yet we really never had an origin story for her. Sure, we know a little about her backstory and there are a couple of stories where she and Clark meet as young people. But we tend to meet Lois as an adult woman who’s already a Pulitzer Prize-winner. The character of Lois still has so much room left to explore, even after 80 years. That does seem to reflect the ways in which male characters and their stories have traditionally been valued more than those of women. This is why it’s particularly rewarding to get to be a part of the work so many people are doing trying to correct that and not just for women’s stories, but for all the stories that have been underrepresented. I want everyone to be able to see themselves in these stories, and I want every young girl with a story to tell to know who Lois Lane is. Because Lois is a hero we can all be -- the kind of person who uses her talents and skills for the good of others, who doesn’t have superpowers, but who has a commitment to justice. And, written well, Clark Kent and Superman are the opposite of toxic masculinity, modeling respect for women and other people as strength.
MT: You carefully navigate the waters of how Lois wades into the areas of danger the novels present and how she gets herself out and save rthe day—and how she must sometimes be saved. I think that some feminists, myself including, want to believe women are able to fight and complete every mission entirely on their own, but I think what you’ve done often enough in the book, which is so important for young people to understand today, is walk a dialectic between Lois wanting to venture out and find the truth on her own and her need for companionship and help every now and then. After all, no man is an island, right? I’d love to hear your thoughts on this.
GB: One of the things that makes me angriest is when people call Lois a damsel in distress or act as if that’s all there is to the character. Sure, Superman has to save Lois sometimes. Guess what? Superman also has to save the world sometimes! But because of sexism it’s only an issue when it’s Lois, and ignores the fact that usually the reason she needs saving is because she’s a hero without any powers. Lois gets in trouble because of her commitment to helping other people, to getting the truth, to fighing for what’s right. If I were in trouble, I’d 100 percent trust Lois to help me out of it. Needing help is not the same as helplessness. We do all need people, and learning to be okay with that is an important skill. That’s definitely something I wanted to explore with Lois.
I also wanted to reflect on the ways in which Lois shapes Clark’s idea of what a hero is. He’s learning from her already about what it means to be Superman, what to do with the powers that he has.
MT: Would you ever consider writing an adult version of the Lois Lane books—I have no idea if you have ever written an adult book before, or if you would consider writing an adult book, but I would love to see, I don’t know, jumping twenty years into the future how Lois Lane is with and without Clark Kent, her love interest and partner, and who she becomes after you have reimagined her as a young adult heroine. Do you think you’d ever write a book like this, a bridge between young adult and adult, a way to show how Lois Lane is still an independent, career-and-moral-driven woman who won’t stop at any costs?
GB: I just wrote my first book for adults, Stranger Things: Suspicious Minds, and I already have an idea for another one. I like to write all the things. And I’d love to write these characters again in any incarnation. Actually, I did have an idea of a scene of the first time Lois and Clark are in a newsroom together as adults in my mind from before I even started the first book in this trilogy. I know exactly what I’d do with them there.
MT: Do you think there will ever be another Lois Lane novel in the future? Do you already have one in the works? As far as work-in-progress events go, you’ve got a pretty big one coming up—I don’t know if you want to share any information on that with our fans, but I’m sure they’d love hearing about your future work in general!
GB: For now, I’m afraid the Lois Lane series is a trilogy. I’m glad I was able to end at a place that felt right for an ending. But you never know! I also know precisely what the plot of a book four would be, whether as a novel or a graphic novel format.
Next up is the Stranger Things book, which will be out in February, and you can look forward to a whole new friend squad I got to create for Eleven’s mom Terry in it. And I’m hard at work on an unannounced YA that I’m having entirely too much fun with.
MT: Thank you so much for joining us, Gwenda. It was such a pleasure interviewing you and getting to know more about your writing, Lois, and yourself. Please feel free to stop by Writers Tell All at any time in the future. We love you and your work here. And please feel free to leave us with any commons or thoughts! Until next time, Gwenda.
GB: Thank you so much for this interview, Matthew. I appreciate your support and enthusiasm so much, and I can’t wait until I’m interviewing you about your own novels someday!
Jeff Abbott's Biggest Competition is Himself, and He's Blown Us Out of the Water with THE THREE BETHS--DON'T MISS OUT
Matthew Turbeville: Hey Jeff! I am so excited to talk to you on Writers Tell All, as you are one of my many mentors, writing friends, and someone who has helped me whenever you could. I was especially looking forward to The Three Beths, which extended my expectations. You’ve had a very rough year for anyone, and still managed to produce a book despite that. Do you mind discussing what it’s like to throw yourself into work and really produce a great work of fiction on a very narrow time schedule?
Jeff Abbott: Thanks for having me as a guest and for the very kind words.
I took more time than usual for a book, given that our house burned down and dealing with the aftermath and the rebuild is like having another full time job. So. . .I don’t know that I did this in a narrow time frame. I think I did throw myself into it as much as I could, because writing the book was an escape from dealing with the headaches of the fire. And frankly, this is my job, and I had to keep doing it regardless of there being a fire. I’m grateful that my editor and my publisher were so understanding, since I took more time than usual and the publication date had to be moved back a few months.
MT: Where did your idea for The Three Bethscome from, and would you mind talking about what it’s been like writing more everyday thrillers about women characters, especially starting with your last novel Blame,which was also welcomed with amazing acclaim from your peers and critics alike? What made you decide to go outside yourself and write about these women characters, and do you have a favorite?
JA: Well, first, the idea for The Three Bethscame from a couple of different places. I thought about those missing persons cases you sometimes hear about where the police are convinced that a loved one or a relative had a hand in the disappearance, but they can prove nothing. So the accused, and the rest of the family, has to go on with their lives. What would it be like to be living inside that family, to be loyal to a missing parent and yet to also be loyal to the parent who is accused of murder? What goes on behind those walls? And then the other idea came from doing a search on social media once for an old friend, and seeing exactly how many hits I got just typing in her very common first name. . .it struck me that if I wanted to find a number of Beths, or Jeffs, or Michelles, that was easy to do. And then, because I write crime fiction, I wondered what kind of crime or deceit might involve people with the same name. Sometimes my ideas are like Lego blocks that snap together into a bigger something or shape. . .that was where the two driving thoughts of the book came from. I get the idea, and then I start fleshing it out by asking myself a lot of questions of the who, why, what variety.
Re writing female characters, I don’t know that I am going outside myself. I write them as human beings. For years in writing the Sam Capra series, the character of Mila Court got such a huge response from my readers, so I felt like I could try to write a female protagonist, and there were female colleagues in the crime fiction world who encouraged me. And as writers we’re supposed to use our imaginations, our experiences, our empathy. I don’t think I have a favorite. I think Jane in Blameand Mariah in The Three Bethsare two of my strongest characters. They are damaged but brave and persistent and determined, which is what I try to be as well.
MT: This novel, The Three Beths, really feels like a natural and effortless evolution (which usually means it required a lot of effort on your part). Do you mind elaborating on how you feel your writing and actual process and methods of producing a book have changed in the past few years? What was it like publishing your very first novel compared to now?
JA: I have never used one exact process. Sometimes I think of the main character first; sometimes I think of the plot first. I try not to be overly regimented about how I start. Sometimes I outline, sometimes I just start writing a few scenes. I do think that as time has gone on I take more time to plan and plot now than I did in the past. I spend more time thinking. And when I’m in the last hundred pages, I tend to re-outline the whole book, to make sure that I’m paying off expectation, wrapping up subplots, bringing the protagonist to face their greatest threat. It helps me to finish the book with more confidence.
My first novel was published in 1994 and the business has changed so much I’m not sure a comparison to know is useful. I will say it remains as much a thrill to see my book on the shelf now as it did all those years ago. I think it is a challenge not just to get published but to stay published.
MT: The escalation of the plot of The Three Bethsfeels both rapid and casual, building and building to the epic climax in a way that feels very natural for the reader. We don’t jump from everyday domestic thriller to something outrageous with The Three Beths. It all feels so planned out and very calculated in the best way. What was it like—the journey to The Three Beths—and how much of the novel’s ending did you have planned out before you actually began writing?
JA: I really believe writing is rewriting. And this was a book that went through a lot of rewrites. I finished a draft of it right after the house burned and was very pleased with myself that I had done that in the midst of disaster but then I read through it and it wasn’t working for me. It didn’t feel like my best work. So I merged characters, slashed subplots, tightened my focus on Mariah and her father Craig, and then the book started to take on a stronger shape and drive. I pared down tremendously. So if it feels calculated in a good way, it came from a place of panic and fear that I had to get the book under control. The thought that I could fail on a big scale was a huge motivator.
Re the ending, I thought a lot about it before I wrote it or even committed to it, and how these characters reach that moment of twisted fate, and I finally embraced it. I won’t say more than that.
MT: You told me some of our mutual favorite female writers encouraged you to write from the point-of-view of a female protagonist, or rather two female protagonists inBlame. What was the conception of The Three Bethslike and did you have any women cheering you on in particular here?
JA: Well, I think I answered how the book was conceived before, but as to writing a female protagonist, it was something I discussed briefly with some other writers, mostly women, but also men, and they all gave me a vote of confidence that I could handle it. Writers such as Laura Lippman, Alison Gaylin, JT Ellison, Meg Gardiner, and Megan Abbott, were all encouraging when I would express concern or doubt. That was more at the beginning of the process; I was fine once I really started writing.
MT: While we’re talking about great female writers, who are your favorites in and out of the genre—the authors who really move you and change the way you think about writing? What are some books you turn to again and again if you get stuck, or need some inspiration?
JA: Well, all the amazing writers just listed above. I also enjoy Alafair Burke, Lisa Scottoline, Laura Benedict, Karin Slaughter, Kate Atkinson, J. K. Rowling, Celeste Ng, N. K. Jemisin, Margaret Atwood, Lori Roy, Terry Shames, Ursula Le Guin, Madeleine L’Engle, Patricia Highsmith, Agatha Christie, Sue Grafton, Ngaio Marsh, Josephine Tey, Ruth Rendell, Helen MacInnes…and I’m sure I’m forgetting several more. I think at different points they’ve all inspired me.
MT: What was the hardest part about writing The Three Beths? There are a lot of characters you juggle around, and you do it well but when I imagine taking on such a broad cast of characters, all of them hiding their secrets and with their unsaid motives—I can’t imagine trying to do what you did with this book. What would you say was the hardest part of writing this book, and what is the hardest part of writing any book?
JA: The rewrite I alluded to earlier was the hardest part. I was savage in the cutting and reordering and rewriting. Asking myself on every page, does this scene work? How can I make it stronger? How can I make the story tighter? How can I make this character more compelling? How can I build more suspense? How can I avoid making this confusing to the reader? I wondered if I would have a book left at certain points. And I hate throwing away scenes, but you have to. You must. That’s also for me the hardest part of writing any book. Ideas are easy, the execution is hard.
MT: What do you think are the key aspects of suspense and mystery to keep a plot going? What are your own little secrets, if you don’t mind sharing? What do you feel is the most important piece of writing advice you’ve ever gotten—from another writer, a mentor, a friend, etc?
JA: Well, the key aspect is emotional involvement. No one will turn the pages if they don’t care about the characters. So even with a character like Mariah, who is damaged and difficult and a reader could turn away from her. . .she wants her mom. She wants her family back. She wants to be loved and understood. So every reader can hopefully relate to that. And beyond that empathy, you have to put the characters in a dire situation that threatens what they want most from their lives. As far as secrets, I only have one. . .I often finish a day’s writing in the middle of a sentence. For me, it’s easier to get started again the next say if I finish that sentence and then write the next one. As far as good advice, an artist friend—who makes his living as a painter—once told me to be prolific. I think he is right. I’m happy when I’m producing work.
MT: What is your next book like? Do you already have a work in progress, and would you mind hinting at what it might be about with our readers? You are pretty good about putting out books often and prolifically, and you never settle for less than the best quality. What do you think is the best motto or piece of advice you can take or give when writing so constantly, so regularly?
JA: The next book I’m writing is another suburban suspense novel set in Lakehaven, same as Blameand The Three Beths. It’s a drama about a family starting to come apart at the seams after a member of the family discovers a body. I don’t want to say more than that. I also really need to start on the next Sam Capra project, as I’m asked about it regularly by readers. I don’t know if I have special advice about be prolific. I mean, this is my job. I do it on a very regular basis, as we all do our jobs. If I don’t have an idea, I look at my mortgage payment or my son’s college tuition and boom, an idea! Boom, I feel like writing. I’m not very precious about the writing part of this work. You have to sit down and type the words and fix the words and make them stronger.
MT: Jeff, I am so excited to see what comes next for you. As an avid reader of your books, I’m excited to see how you’re never afraid of change and trying new things. I am more than excited to see where writing takes you from here on out. Feel free to leave us with any comments or suggestions, and know that you’re always welcome here at Writers Tell All.
JA: Thank you Matthew, for your interest in my work and for your kind encouragement and support.
"I Just Don't Know Anything Else": The Brilliant David Joy on Writing Crime Literature--Where Place and People Are So Important
David Joy's novel THE LINE THAT HELD US is just the latest in a series of novels by the author that test the boundaries of the genre, reinventing some of the genre and reinvigorating other tired areas of the genre that feel tired and used up in other hands. Joy's track record is nearly spotless and every one of his novels feels like a great event, a book to build upon the history of his home and his own personal history chapter by chapter. We are thrilled to feature an interview with the remarkable and endlessly talented David Joy. The photos here are provided by Ashley T. Evans (Joy's photo) and Putnam (the novel cover).
Matthew Turbeville:David, I have been a big fan of your work ever since the publication of your novel, Where All Light Tends to Go. You have a gift for language and story, matched with a certain rawness and intensity that reminds me of Daniel Woodrell combined with Christa Faust, except closer to home. I’m from South Carolina and, obviously, am familiar with the settings of your books. The first question I’d like to ask you is how do you come to decide to write a novel? Where does the idea of a novel come from for you? Are you more character or plot oriented in early stages? Could you describe this process?
David Joy:I think most of the time story for me begins with an image, or maybe a fragment of an idea. Typically that image or idea contains at least one character and when it first arrives I have absolutely no idea who they are so really that’s the first question. Who are they? How did they get there? Why are they there? Where are they going? That’s probably the longest part of the process for me is just getting to know those characters intimately, to the point that I know damn near everything about them. Sometimes I might live with a character in the back of my head for years. Right now I’m in the middle of a novel and there’s another character that will probably wind up being the focus of the next book and he’s constantly tumbling around in the back of my skull, just sort of evolving into whatever he’s going to become. I always make this same tired joke, but it’s the truth, and it’s that even if one of my characters doesn’t go to Waffle House in the book, I know how they would’ve ordered their hashbrowns. You get to know them in that way and then it’s just a matter of dropping them into situation. You can drop them into anything and you know how they’re going to react, you know what they’re going to say. Novels develop that way for me. I’ve never plotted anything going in. I tend to drop them into a situation and follow blindly until they take me to the heart of the story.
MT:What about Appalachia and the South in general makes it such a great and compelling setting for crime and noir novels?
DJ:I don’t know that I think Appalachia or the South is better cut out for crime and noir than other settings, or at least I’ll say that there’s incredible crime and noir being written all over the place. But I do think there’s a certain mystique about rural settings. Part of that is just the abundance of empty land. There are a lot of places to hide a body. I think about the county where I live and right this minute there are places in Jackson County that you could call 911 and it might take an hour for a deputy to get to your house. When you live in a place like that it sort of develops its own capacity for order. A lot of folks think of it as lawlessness, but it’s the opposite of lawlessness. It’s law and order driven by self-preservation and necessity. The other thing about crime here is that it’s rarely a random act of violence. Someone gets shot and it’s familial. It’s their cousin. It’s their brother. When crime happens in this place, you know the person who did it. You went to school with him. You go to church with his aunt. The degrees of separation that exist in places like cities, that doesn’t happen here. Everything is just closer and more personal. I think those realities can be really advantageous on the page.
MT:Your novels, while sizzling and electric, are also compact and demanding the reader to pay attention to every single detail. In many ways, you’re able to fit much more story and character than writers who author novels twice your length. How do you construct such elaborate and bone-chilling stories while fitting them into such small spaces?
DJ:I love novels that are really contained. A lot of the writers I admire most are just really good at that. I think about someone like Daniel Woodrell and what he was able to do with Tomato Redor The Death Of Sweet Mister. There’s so much happening in those books and yet you can devour them in a single sitting. Jim Harrison was maybe the master of that, take a novel like Farmer, or distill it farther and think about all those novellas. He owned that form. We’re talking about stories that are sometimes only 30,000, maybe 40,000 words, and yet you never leave the table feeling hungry. It’s like cooking stock. You start with the bones and cook them down for hours, and when the bones are out of the pot you reduce the stock by half. That’s the way I want a novel to work. I want it to be rich. I don’t have any interest in leaving all of that extra water in the pot.
MT:What was it like, being a Southern writer authoring books about Appalachia and trying to get into the publishing industry? How long did it take you to secure an agent and later publisher? Do you think the area you write about as well as the strong voices of your character helped encourage agents to take on your novels or is your story more complicated than that?
DJ:I don’t think I experienced any set backs or hurdles as a result of being where I was from. The hope is that the work stands for itself and I think that’s what got me where I am is the work. I do think some of the things that may have been harder for me boil down to the fact that I didn’t come out of any sort of MFA program. That’s not to say looking back I would’ve wanted to, but that is to say that those writers tend to have a much better understanding of how publishing works in general. They leave those programs with a lot of knowledge about the industry and a lot of connections that I just didn’t have. Truth be told, I just sent a letter to an agent and she happened to fall in love with the story. Before I sold a book I’d never traveled anywhere. I’d never really left North Carolina. I’d certainly never been on an airplane. I remember when I was in New York City for the second time—I think it was for a tour Putnam did with me, M.O. Walsh, Ace Atkins, and CJ Box—but I can just remember staring out of the window of that high rise hotel room looking out over that city and I just started crying. I was overcome with emotion. And what it boiled down to was the simple fact that all I did to get there was to write a letter. I wrote a letter and sent it from the mountains where I live to a woman in New York City who I’d never met and my world changed forever.
MT:Your novels are so original and so wholly themselves, not echoing back to any author in particular, other than perhaps Daniel Woodrell, who seems to write about similar characters in a very different setting. Who were your greatest influences both growing up and now writing as an adult? What books shaped the way you see the world and write the most?
DJ: Early on it was the typical suspects for someone like me—Faulkner, O’Connor, Eudora Welty, Cormac McCarthy, Larry Brown, William Gay, Daniel Woodrell. Those were the first novels I really fell in love with and it’s because those writers were writing about places I knew and the people I loved. It’s pivotal that you fall in love with a single book for you to become a lifelong reader. What seems to happen is that the one book leads you to a second and the second to a third and before long you’re snatching everything off of every shelf that you can find. My tastes have evolved and broadened. I’m still interested in telling the same kinds of stories, but the stories I enjoy reading are different. I read a lot more poetry than I do fiction. I love Maurice Manning and Rebecca Gayle Howell and Ray McManus and Frank X Walker. My favorite book of poetry I’ve read this year was Kevin Young’s collection Brown. Some of my favorite things I’ve read this year were manuscripts. I read a new story collection called Sway by a Kentucky writer named Sheldon Lee Compton. A few years ago he had that brilliant collection The Same Terrible Storm. I also read a debut novel manuscript by a writer I love named Leigh Ann Henion. The novel’s called Behold That Vanishing Graceand it’s this sort of Edward Abbey meets Barbara Kingsolver eco-thriller. She’s one of the most talented voices in Appalachia, in America for that matter. I loved this book of nonfiction called The Man Who Quit Moneyby Mark Sundeen. I usually mix up the nonfiction with the novels. I read John Branch’s The Last Cowboys, and that’s an incredible story. I also loved Michael Finkel’s The Stranger In The Woods, just the pacing he was able to create in a book of nonfiction. I think it’s been a really great year for the novel. There’ve been a lot of books I enjoyed: Steph Post’s Walk In The Fire, Laura Lippman’s Sunburn, Chloe Benjamin’s The Immortalists, Taylor Brown’s Gods Of Howl Mountain, Robert Gipe’s Weedeater, Leesa Cross-Smith’s Whiskey & Ribbons, Thomas Pierce’s The Afterlives, Silas House’s Southernmost. I think my two favorite novels I’ve read this year are Richard Powers’ The Overstoryand Tommy Orange’s There There.The Overstory is almost biblical in scope. From those opening lines of, “First there was nothing. Then there was everything,” to just the sort of layered storytelling. That book’s a tremendous accomplishment. Then Orange’s book came out of nowhere. It’s one of the richest debut novels I’ve read in a long, long time. I reread that novel as soon as I finished. I think that book is damn near perfect. Right now I’m reading a new novel by Gabino Iglesias called Coyote Songs, and that son of a bitch is just getting better and better! I’m also rereading a book by Rick Bass called The Deer Pasture, which is obviously wonderful because everything he’s ever written has been wonderful, but ultimately it boils down to the fact that it’s deer season and I’d rather be up a tree than sitting here behind a computer.
MT:I’ve always viewed you as a fairly successful author—so many people I know, novelists and not, not only read your books but relish them. A David Joy publication is something of an event. Did you feel with the success of Where All Light Tends to Gothat you were a success? Which of your books to date is your favorite, and would you mind elaborating on why?
DJ:I think what you or I would consider success and what the publishing industry considers success might be pretty different, but that said I’ve been very fortunate to have the readership I’ve had. At the end of the day that boils down to all the hard work of my publisher. I’ve got an editor I’d follow into a burning building. I’ve got an incredible publicist who consistently gets my work placed in the right hands. I’ve got an entire marketing team that’s always working their ass off to think of new ways to push a book. I’ve just been very fortunate to work with the people I’ve worked with. I still don’t know that I’ve ever felt successful. Maybe I just don’t know what that looks like. I’d love if I hit some sort of big list or if I took one of the larger prizes or something like that, but if that happened I still don’t know that I’d be able to say, yep, I’ve made it. I don’t spend much time thinking about any of that. I focus on the work. I just want to tell a good story. As far as my personal favorite, it’s The Weight Of This World, and that’s definitely the book that has sold the least. I just really like the language in that novel. It’s rich. I also know what I was trying to do with it and I think it was ambitious. I admire that. I don’t want to write simple books. That said, the book is incredibly dark and maybe that’s why it didn’t do as well. I think it takes a brave reader to engage with and embrace that type of story. Most people aren’t willing to take those sorts of risks. Most people are scared of being uncomfortable.
MT:What continues to drive you to write? Your home? Your family? The people—friends and acquaintances and otherwise—you know? Or something bigger, greater—possibly hard to define in just a few sentences? What pushes you through first drafts and second drafts and revisions, and have you ever almost given up on a novel?
DJ: I’ve always been rooted to story. I grew up in an oral storytelling tradition where adults expected children to be seen but not heard. That sounds strange to some people, maybe, but what it taught you as a child was the value of listening. I grew up listening to uncles and aunts and grandparents and church elders tell stories. I grew up hearing oration and learning to recognize that moment when a story turns. My grandmother remains the greatest influence and greatest storyteller I’ve ever known. So I think I just grew up believing in the importance of story and the power of story. That’s the same thing that pushes me today. I absolutely wholeheartedly believe in literature as a vehicle for social change. George Saunders had that beautiful idea that prose when it’s done well has the ability to serve as empathy’s training wheels. I love that thought and I believe that idea to my bones. That’s what I love about reading books, it’s that ability to walk in someone else’s shoes for a little while. More than anything else, that’s what I’m striving for.
MT:I’m very rarely a fan of male writers, both for personal and aesthetic reasons, but yet you and Daniel Woodrell and a handful of other spectacularly gifted male writers have caught my attention and held it through many years. Even though I often prefer female writers, I’ve never read any writer other than you who has caught the South I know so well in such an accurate and particularly truthful light. Why do you think your portrayal of this region of the country comes across as so true and honest?
DJ:Quite simply, I just don’t know anything else. I’ve spent my entire life in North Carolina. I’ve spent half of it here in the mountains. People always tell young writers that old cliché of write what you know and I don’t know that I think that’s a necessity. There are piles of writers writing about things they didn’t know. There are piles of writers who write to know. I’m just someone who has always found everything I needed right here in this one place. It’s that Eudora Welty idea of one place understood helps us understand all places better. It’s what James Joyce meant when they asked him why he always wrote about Dublin and he told them, if I can get to the heart of Dublin I can get to the heart of all the cities of the world. I think every story I ever want to tell can be told right here with the people and place I know. I don’t feel limited by that in any way. As far as the honesty, I’m just incapable of anything else. I think my give-a-fuck is broken.
MT:Your most recent book, the recently published The Line That Held Us, at once carries the beauty of poetry and the brutality of crime. What drew you to this premise and what was your favorite part about writing this book? Similarly, what the hardest or most grating part of writing or finishing this novel?
DJ:That balance, I think, comes from studying writers like Cormac McCarthy and William Gay. I think both of them were capable of making incredible acts of violence palatable through language. You’d read these horrifying scenes, something like that moment in Gay’s short story “The Paper-Hanger” where the child’s body is in the freezer, and the language would just be so astonishingly beautiful and poetic that you’d find yourself relishing moments that would otherwise turn your stomach. I love that sort of balance. With The Line That Held Us, my favorite thing about that book was just developing the character of Dwayne Brewer. I wanted to write a really memorable antagonist, someone like Lester Ballard in McCarthy’s Child Of Godor Granville Sutter in Gay’s Twilightor The Misfit in Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man Is Hard To Find.” It was incredibly satisfying to bring that character to life and to paint him in such a way that people fell in love with someone they’d normally despise. There was so much opportunity for ambiguity with Dwayne, so much space to paint the walls gray.
MT:In the South, or in crime fiction in general, what would you like to see more of? What sort of people would you like to see more represented by crime writers like these people, or characters similar to these people written by existing crime writers? And are there any genres, tropes, or plotlines in crime fiction you feel tired of and are ready to see writers move on from?
DJ: I think what I want is a stage inclusive of more voices. I want the microphone to be handed to people who have historically been silenced. I want to hear the stories of marginalized people. And as bad as things seem some time, I think we’re getting to a place where that’s happening more often. I think we’re at a really interesting time in literature. People are paying attention to voices and stories that weren’t getting that same recognition even ten years ago. That’s comforting. Now obviously we’re not where we need to be and there is still an incredible amount of work to be done, but I do find solace in the direction we’re headed. As far as tropes, I’m tired of people, identity, class, and region being written as tropes. Appalachia is not a trope. The rural, working poor are not tropes. Homosexuality is not a trope. Misogyny is not a trope. Racism is not a trope. And yet we continue to allow people in privileged places to use them as such. So what I’m sick of are people who don’t know a goddamn thing about any of it capitalizing off of the current relevancy. I’m sick of the publishing industry rewarding people who don’t know a fucking thing about what they’re writing about, and I’m sick of readers gobbling that shit up at the trough. I’m sick of people being disingenuous.
MT:What are the keys to creating tension and dread in a novel, which you have done so masterfully for a while now? What do you think are the most important rules and guidelines up-and-coming crime writers should know and stick to? Do you have any advice for aspiring crime writers?
DJ: I don’t like the idea of rules. I think there are things that you can notice a writer doing, or a group of writers doing, that makes something work, but then there will be another writer doing something so differently and they’re accomplishing the same thing. I think a lot of young writers or people who are just aspiring to write look for answers to variables as if there’s some sort of equation. As if, once I know the answers for a, b, c, and dI can plug those into a2+b(c)/d=ewhere e represents a good book. The truth is that it just doesn’t work like that. What works for me might not work for someone else at all. I say this because I spent a lot of time when I was younger trying to emulate what writers I admired were doing believing that if I just did that then I could write the book. What eventually happened was that I started to notice that there were things I did that maybe other people didn’t do, couldn’t do, and that there were certain things that helped me work. Once I was able to recognize that and focus on that and trust in that, the work has been a lot easier. There are no universal rules for creating meaningful art. The only common thread that ties every single artist I’ve ever known together is an unrelenting compulsion to create.
MT:What do you think is the biggest misconception about Appalachia and the people who live there? If you have addressed this issue in your work, what have you done or if you could what would you do to correct this issue through the course of a novel?
DJ:I don’t think that I could narrow the misconceptions down to anything singular, because there are just so, so many. That said, I think people continue to talk about this place as if it’s just some small town you can hop in a car and drive through. “Oh, I’ve been to Appalachia,” they’ll say. The truth is that we’re talking about a region that stretches across 13 states, 420 counties, covering some 205,000 square miles. That’s 40,000 square miles bigger than the entire state of California. So imagine trying to narrow California down to any sort of singular image. You can’t. You just can’t. And that’s what people don’t get about this place. They keep wanting to present the region as this narrow image because I guess it’s easier. Maybe because it reinforces the narrative they want to hear. I don’t know. What I do know is that this place is incredibly complex and diverse, and none of that is being shown by bullshit books like Hillbilly Elegy, which seems to be the only thing anyone has read from this place in the past decade. If you want to know what this place is like, if you want to have any sort of understanding about this region as a whole, read broadly. Read Wendell Berry and Maurice Manning and Frank X Walker and Crystal Wilkinson and Rebecca Gayle Howell and Ricardo Nazario y Colon. Read Silas House, Ron Rash, Lee Smith, Denton Loving, Darnell Arnoult, Robert Gipe, Ron Houchin, Pam Duncan, Elizabeth Catte. Read Charles Dodd White and Mark Powell and Jane Hicks and Karen Salyer McElmurray and Gurney Norman and Leigh Ann Henion and Sheldon Lee Compton. Read all of that and you might start to have some sort of grasp of the complexities of this place. Read all of that and if you want more names I’ll be happy to lengthen the list.
MT:David, I think I’ve taken up enough of your time and energy, and I really appreciate you taking the time to engage in this interview with me. I am, of course, interested to know what your current work in progress is like, if there is one. I’m sure our readers are dying to know. As for anything else, feel free to close with any questions, comments, suggestions, or thoughts you feel necessary before ending the interview—and thank you again so much.
DJ:I’m currently finishing up a novel titled When These Mountains Burn. I don’t know when that book will release, but I’d guess sometime in 2020. The novel is the story of these two lives—one an old-time Appalachian father whose son dies of an overdose, and the other a 30s something heroin addict—that run unknowingly parallel. Eventually those lives twist together and get tied into a knot. I think largely it’s a book about a shifting culture, the extinction of old mountain ways. The story is set during the 2016 wildfires because that time just felt so volatile. There was the election on the television, the sky was yellow with smoke, the world was literally burning down outside our windows. I just remember it felt like the end of something. That’s probably not a very good elevator pitch for folks wanting plot synopsis, but that’s what I’m working on and I’m awfully proud of what it’s shaping into.