WRITERS TELL ALL
Matthew Turbeville: Hi Lou! I’m so happy that, since the publication of The Long and Faraway Goneand Megan Abbott having recommended it to me, we’ve gotten to know each other and become friends. I’m constantly in awe of your talents and writing abilities. The first question I’d like to start off with is this: how did you come up with the idea of November Road, and why did you decide to set it during, or sort of revolving around, the death of President Kennedy?
Lou Berney: One of the main characters in the novel was inspired by my mother, who passed away about ten years ago. My mother grew up poor, during the Depression, and never went to college, but she was one of the smartest, most resilient, most intellectually curious people I’ve ever known. A couple of years ago I was going through old photos from before I was born and something just started stirring. I started thinking, like every writer does, What if? What if, at a certain point, my mother had made a different choice? Would it have been the bestchoice of her life, or the worst?
As for the Kennedy angle, I’ve always been fascinated by the assassination. I grew up in Oklahoma City, only a few hours from Dallas, and we’d drive down every summer to visit. My dad would always drive us through Dealey Plaza, slow down right where Kennedy was shot, and point up to the sixth floor window of the Texas School Book Depository. I always felt a chill. Still do!
MT: You really do a lot in this book—a lot of really great things, from vivid and glorious prose, to creating dynamite characters and a story that fizzles and pops with dread, suspense, and even love. When you approach these different elements, and work to keep the reader hooked, how do you go about executing everything so perfectly that you both draw in reader and keep them glued to the page?
LB: Well, I’d love to say it comes easily and naturally, but wow, does it ever not. It’s a lot of trial and error, a lot of banging my head against a brick wall until a chink opens up (in the wall, hopefully, not my head) and a little ray of light shines through. Basically, I just write and re-write a scene until it starts to feel right. I think there are probably much more efficient and painless ways to write, but that’s what works for me.
MT: This book is really taking off and it hasn’t even been published for the greater public yet. Rave reviews from everyone and I think it’s really becoming obvious how important and integral a member of the crime community you are, if that wasn’t established with the publication and success of The Long and Faraway Gone. When you look back on your career years from now, what do you think will be the book you view at the taking off moment for you—which book do you believe is the book that changed you from a crime writer to a household name?
LB: I don’t think any writer is really ever a household (well, maybe Stephen King, deservedly so), and I have no expectation of ever being even mildly famous. But I do think with The Long and Faraway GoneI finally figured out the kind of book Iwant to write. That felt like a huge step and I was so grateful that readers seemed to agree.
MT: In The Long and Faraway Gone, and again in November Road, you explore this idea of characters whose lives intersect, who are all trying to fight their way towards whatever they want. What do you think is so important in your books and in real life about acknowledging the way in which we all intersect with one another, and the profound impact we can have on each other’s lives?
LB: I think the idea of intersecting characters just comes from personal experience, and being at a point in my life when I can look back and see clearly how much other people have meant to me, how important even fleeting relationships (good and bad) can be. You brush against thisperson instead of thatperson, and your whole entire life could have played out in a radically different way.
MT: Who are the authors, past and present—especially contemporary—who you admire, and who have shaped you as a writer? Which are the books that have really grounded you and made you who you are? What is the books or what are the books that you return to again and again for inspiration?
LB: Kate Atkinson is my favorite living writer, and the writer who’s influenced and inspired me the most, probably. I’m also a fanatic admirer of Megan Abbott, Laura Lippman, Ivy Pochoda, Viet Than Nguyen, Louise Erdrich, John Edgar Wideman, Don Winslow, Kelly Link, the cartoonist Lynda Barry, Rachel Kushner, and…I could go on and on and on. There are lots of younger writers I really love too, like Rachel Khong, Lori Rader-Day, Elizabeth Little, Steph Cha, Chris Holm, Sheena Kamal…I’m going on and on, aren’t I? And I know you said contemporary, but I’m going to throw in Flannery O’Connor because I wouldn’t be a writer without her.
MT: When you begin a book, what is your usual jumping off point? Where do you start, and how do you proceed? Do you believe in firm outlines, and how many drafts do you usually go through before you reach the final product you may or may not have envisioned all along?
LB: I do a lot of brainstorming, just jotting down notes in a notebook, playing around with ideas. Once something solid starts to emerge from the mist, I get more analytical and start planning. I rough out a map, fill in blanks. After that I start drafting, but then usually go back to Stage 1 and Stage 2 often. The process for me is kind of non-linear, even though the story I’m telling isn’t.
MT: How do you go about developing characters, especially the incredibly complicated and complex women you write about? There are so many male writers who won’t read women writers, let alone write about women. What pushes you in this direction, and why do you think it’s essential for men to read and write about women, or really any person to read and write about someone or something outside themselves?
LB: I absolutely think it’s essential to read about people different than yourself. I mean, it’s fun! It’s illuminating! It’s challenging! It’s transforming! It’s everything that reading (and life) should be!
As for what draws me to female characters, for sure a lot of it has to do with the women writers I read and love. Plus, I’ve been unbelievably fortunate to have been surrounded my whole life by amazing women: my mother, my sisters, my wife, my nieces, dear friends. Leaving women out of my fiction would be like living on the dark side of the moon for me.
MT: Who do you write for when you are working on a novel? Yourself? An editor, an agent? The future readers? Once, a mentor told me to never give the reader what he or she wants. How do you feel about this, and how much do you try to cater to the reader when writing?
LB: I write for my wife, as silly as that might sound. She’s the person I imagine opening one of my books and starting to read. All readers matter to me, but she matters most.
MT: I tend to ask this question frequently for writers, and I would love to know your answer.. There’s a quote attributed to many great writers, including and especially Toni Morrison, about how you should write the book you’ve always wanted to read but have never had the chance to find. Do you feel you’ve written this book in the past, or is this book still to come?
LB: I think that’s a good quote, a fascinating notion. I think with these last two books, The Long and Faraway Goneand November Road,I’m finally writing the novels that I should be writing. That doesn’t mean they’re perfect or anything like that, but they feel fully mynovels, for better or worse. And that makes me happy.
MT: How has your process in rising to crime writing fame been like? What was it like trying to get published at first? Was it difficult, and did you have to go through more than one book in order to get your first novel published? What advice would you give to aspiring authors, young and old, who want to write things like you, in order to get to a position where they can not only succeed, but excel as well?
LB: All the best writing advice has already been given, so I doubt I have anything useful to add. But I guess I’d tell an aspiring writer to read a ton and write a ton and use rejection as motivation to get better.
MT: What are your writing habits like? Are you a day or a night writer? Somewhere in between? Do you set aside a certain number of words or pages per day, or do you just wing it? How long does it take on average to finish an entire draft of a novel? Please feel free to elaborate on any of your other processes and habits as a writer, as I’m sure we’re all dying to know, and it would benefit many of us aspiring writers.
LB: I write for five or six hours a day, six days a week (and usually half a day on Sunday). I’m a slow writer is the problem, and I screw up a lot – I write entire chapters that I end up cutting, etc. But I’ve learned to live with my inefficiencies. Usually I write outside the house, at a local coffee shop. I find the routine is helpful – to get up, put on pants, get out of the house. I like the clamor and clatter around me too. Somehow it makes it easier for me to focus.
MT: This book, November Road, which is receiving rave reviews from everyone, combines so many different characters and backstories and plotlines. How did you keep track of all of the different stories and characters and how did you make sure they would combine or clash or possibly even explode at the times they were needed?
LB: I use software called Scrivener, which makes it easy to break down chapters and POVs. It’s basically a digital corkboard. But still, in the early stages of drafting, I get stuff mixed up. And you should see my timelines. I like to switch POV and overlap, and sometimes I go way off track. My editor at William Morrow is great at, among other things, straightening me out on that.
MT: The ending seems very important, and I’m trying to avoid any spoilers, and if you avoiding any spoilers too, could you elaborate on why the novel ends as it does, and the significance of the ending, which I’m sure our readers will be interested upon finishing reading their own copies of the books? Endings are always so particular, and I’m so interested in why this novel ended or had to end the way it did.
LB: A good ending to me has to feel authentic andsatisfying. I can nail authentic that’s not satisfying, and satisfying that’s not authentic, but both at the same time – that’s extremely hard for me to do. So there’s a lot of trial and error, hit and miss, sleepless nights.
MT: Lou, I’m sure our readers are dying to know, what’s next for you? Are you already working on another novel? If so, can you give us any hint or hints as to what it’s about, maybe even a teaser of what the book will be like?
LB: I’m working on a psychological thriller about marriage, and that’s really all I can tell you because that’s really all I know about it right now (even though I’ve been working on it for a while).
MT: Lou, thank you so much for stopping by Writers Tell All and letting me talk to you about your new book, November Road. It’s a miraculous read and I’m sure our readers will be more than willing to go and pick up a copy of the book for themselves. Please let me know if you have any comments, suggestions, concerns, or questions, and again, thank you so much for stopping by to talk November Road.
LB: Thanks for having me! These have been awesome questions, and I appreciate how thoughtful and specific they’ve been.