WRITERS TELL ALL
Carter Sickels on THE PRETTIEST STAR, an unforgettable and tremendous storm of a novel (with a silver lining, definitely)
Matthew Turbeville: Carter, it is such a pleasure to get to talk with you. I really loved your newest novel, The Prettiest Star. Can you start by telling us a little of what it’s about and what drew you to both the subject and the story itself?
Carter Sickels: Thank you. It’s great to talk with you. The Prettiest Star, set in 1986, is about Brian Jackson, a young gay man diagnosed with HIV, who leaves New York to return to the small town where he grew up.The novel examines the AIDS crisis of the 1980s through the lens of rural America. It’s about queer survival, the violence of homophobia, and about the binds and fractures of family.
When I was young, I watched an episode of Oprahabout a gay man who was HIV+, and went swimming in his hometown public swimming pool in West Virginia; when he got in the pool, everyone else got out, and the mayor had the pool drained the pool. Oprah took the show to this small town in West Virginia. The man sat on a stage next to his sisters, while people from his own town and even other family members said the most hateful, ugly things. The story stuck with me, and was the spark for this novel.
MT: You write from three points of view—three very different points of view. How hard was it to find these voices, and what problems did you find along the way? Were there any times where you considered giving up this form and trying telling the story another way, or was the story originally told differently and wound up this way?
CS: I knew early on this would be a novel with multiple narrators. Brian’s story is at the center, but it’s also a story about the Jackson family and the larger community. It took some time to find the specific, individual voices, and part of that process required just spending time with the characters and inhabiting them and getting to know them. Sometimes particular details opened up the characters to me. For Jess, it was her love of killer whales. For Brian, the music of David Bowie helped me get closer to him. For Sharon, their mother, I had to step into the shoes of someone who experiences enormous internal conflict—loving and grieving her son, but feels locked up by a cocoon of conservative values.
MT: There are so many books about the big crises in the world—the Holocaust, the AIDS crisis, multiple genocides, etc—but few feel as intimate as this. Do you mind sharing what you brought to the book or applied to make the book so heartfelt and allow this story which might ultimately have been simply tragic to be filled with a lot of joy, and hope, and yearning for learning?
CS: Thank you. Maybe that intimacy partly rises from the novel’s focus on a particular family and one man’s experience, though I hope the novel also speaks to the national crisis, to the country’s response, or lack of response, to HIV/AIDS, this is a story about a single man, a single family. The first person voices also invite a certain closeness with the characters, an intimacy. And, in response to the second part of your question, I wanted to write honestly about the trauma and grief of the AIDS crisis, but also convey the love and resilience. For me, it always comes back to my characters. If they are complicated, flawed, nuanced, then it’s more likely the book will also be emotionally complex.
MT: Growing up, I was always afraid I’d get AIDS. I’m gay, just like the protagonist of The Prettiest Star, and also obsessive compulsive, admittedly, but this goes beyond that. I was conditioned in a small town to think AIDS was automatic: you have sex with a man, you get AIDS (just pass by the HIV illogically, pass by protection, pass by everything). It’s one of the reasons I hid who I was for so long. There’s a similar feeling in this town, and it’s so frighteningly familiar, even if the events in the book took place before I was born. Can you tell me about the stigmatization of gay men, AIDS, transmission, and how this has affected our country in your own way? Why was this so important to address?
CS: I’m certain many queer people who grew up during the 80s and maybe even the 90s experienced a kind of collective fear and shame. The government and the media used a homophobic framework to talk about AIDS, and people with AIDS were stigmatized, blamed, and abandoned. That’s what we saw all around us. If you were a kid during this time, you were likely terrified to come out. I believe this country still has not faced how queer people and people with HIV and AIDS were treated during this time—the intense cruelty, the failure to take care of a vulnerable population.
MT: I was drawn to the grandmother character in the book, who loves her grandson so intensely. Normally I write these characters off, but she feels so genuine. Is she based on someone, or a group of someones? I love that unlike novels from earlier this year (and the previous decade), the women aren’t perfect, but they are amazing, and sometimes vicious, sometimes destructive, sometimes powerful, and sometimes vulnerable, but they feel real and like women I want to know and women I want in my life. How do you manage to write outside yourself and also create a story for these characters to not just survive but thrive? It felt like a coming-of-age story for so many people.
CS: Thanks. I loved writing Lettie’s character. She’s very different from my grandmothers in terms of her personality and physical appearance. But, I was very close to both my grandmothers, and I’m sure my love for them influenced Lettie’s character. She’s the only one in the family who isn’t ashamed of Brian. When he was little, she took Brian with her to sell Avon, or encouraged him to twirl around the house singing Dolly Parton. One of the joys of writing fiction for me is getting the opportunity to walk in others’ shoes and inhabit their lives, and that I want the reader to feel this way too—to fully experience and get to know these characters .
MT: What was the hardest part of writing this book, both emotionally and mentally? What is your writing process like in general? Are you a morning, noon, afternoon, evening, night writer? Pen, typewriter, computer? Do you have any strange or interesting writing quirks?
CS: One technical challenge I had was writing multiple first person narrators; I wanted each of the voices to sounded unique and particular. I paid close attention to particular word choices and syntax for each character, but also listened to their deeper, interior voices.
I write in the mornings on the computer, but I also fill up “novel notebooks,” where I collect my questions, thoughts, and ideas about the novel. I filled up four of these while writing The Prettiest Star.
MT: How do you view revision and rewriting? There are many writers who hate it, and some who absolutely love it. What advice do you give to young and aspiring writers who are reading this now?
CS: I’m one of those writers who believes much of the writing occurs in the revising and rewriting – when I’m shaping the story, sentence by sentence, I’m learning what the story is about. I tend to prefer revising because I find it less daunting than facing a blank page, and by the time I’m revising, I usually possess a clearer understanding of where the story wants to go. I encourage aspiring writers to be bold and ruthless in their revision. You may need to change the point of view or verb tense, or cut characters or plot lines. Listen to what the story wants and needs, and it’s okay to let go.
MT: Who are the writers that shaped you in your formative years, and who do you think are the best writers now? Who deserves more attention than they get, and who do you feel are the writers often overlooked or not read enough these days?
CS: Queer books that came out in the 90s were certainly formative – Jeannette Winterson, Scott Heim’s Mysterious Skin, Michael Cunningham’s novels. There are many fantastic queer authors who’ve influenced me, and it’s such an exciting time for queer writing right now.Carmen Maria Machado, Melissa Febos, Ocean Vuong, Paul Lisicky, Garth Greenwell, Brandon Taylor, Andrea Lawlor, Chelsey Johnson are just a few of the many authors whose work I love. I highly recommend two recent, fantastic debuts: Passing With Careby Cooper Lee Bombardier and We Had No Rulesby Corinne Manning.
MT: Are you working on something new now? When can we expect something new from you? I know it’s early to ask, but I’m already addicted. Do you have a work-in-progress and, if so, would you share anything about it?
CS: I’ve started a new novel, but it’s still too early to talk about, and I have a few essays and short stories I’ve been working on.
MT: Thank you so much for allowing me to pick your brain. God, this book is amazing. I advise everyone to pick up a copy of The Prettiest Star by Carter Sickels immediately. Carter, if you ever need a proofreader, or just someone to cheer you on and read everything you write, it’s me. Please feel free to leave us with any thoughts, suggestions, feelings, or otherwise. I am so thankful I’ve gotten to interview you, Carter.
CS: Thank you so much, Matthew! I appreciate your support.
We Got to Talk to Omar El Akkad about his origin story and becoming a writer, AMERICAN WAR, and a future fairy tale that's sure to be a best-seller!
Meredith Davidson/Matthew Turbeville: Omar, we are so excited to interview you. We loved American War and have read it multiple times. Before we dive in, will you give us some history about your life as a writer, how you came to be a writer, and what publishing your first book—the struggles, the low points, the successes—were like?
Omar El Akkad: Thank you very much for your kindness. I was born in Egypt and spent the first sixteen years of my life in the Middle East before my family migrated to Canada. Later, in my thirties, I moved to the United States when my wife found work there. As someone who can’t really point to anywhere on a map and say, definitively, “This is home,” I took refuge in fiction from a fairly young age. Before American War, I wrote three other novels in my spare time while working as a journalist. None of them were any good, and I have no intention of trying to get them published, but I think of them now as a way to build the muscles. I wasn’t going to try to publish American War, either, and for months it sat on my hard drive, until one day I had a bad experience at work. I had one of those days that I think a lot of journalists go through, where you feel like you’re not doing much more than re-writing press releases. So I decided to take a chance and send the manuscript to a literary agent I’d met in passing many years earlier. To my utter shock, she decided to take me on as a client. She sent the book to Sonny Mehta, the late President of Knopf, and a couple of months later he bought it. This is not, generally, how the process works, and in many ways I won the lottery by getting a chance to work with one of the greatest editors in publishing history on my debut novel. I’m not sure I’ll ever have an experience that overwhelmingly positive with any of the books I publish in the future. It was, much more than a function of my talent, just immense good fortune. That’s not to say the process doesn’t entail all manner of valleys, and certainly I’m one of those people who instantly forgets any compliments about their work but obsesses endlessly about every criticism – and there’s been plenty of valid criticism of American War, a novel that is not by any means apolitical. But for the most part, publishing that book was a cascade of good fortune, certainly more than I deserve.
MD/MT: What books shaped you in your formative years? What books and authors do you love most now and do any influence your writing? Are there any authors or books you’d like to see gain more recognition?
OEA: I grew up in Qatar, a country that had essentially very few bookstores or libraries at the time, and where imported books, movies and music were routinely censored. As such, I didn’t really ever get a chance to choose which authors or genres I wanted to explore – I simply read whatever I could get my hands on, whatever a friend or relative managed to smuggle into the country from an overseas trip. I remember picking up a Stephen King novel at a too-young age because I was caught by the illustration of a skull or blood or something similarly gruesome on the cover, and subsequently devouring most everything else of his I could get my hands on. I remember Little Women having an outsize impact on me, because it was the first book I read, outside of the supernatural of fantastical, that depicted a life – on both an individual and wider cultural level – so entirely different from mine, so much so that I’ve been terrified of re-reading that book ever since, in case I find out I now can’t stand it. I felt and now feel the same way about The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck. It was only after I moved to North America that my access to literature suddenly widened, a million doors all opening at once in the halls of my local library. Song of Solomon was a life-changing novel, as was every other Toni Morrison book I went on to read. The work of James Agee was a heavy influence, especially the reportage of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, which the is the book that most impacted my thinking while I was writing American War. Agee’s only novel, A Death in the Family, which depicts the familial impact of a father’s death and which I read shortly after my own father died, is on a sentence level the most beautiful book I’ve ever read. More recently, I’ve come to greatly admire a number of writers who are my contemporaries, though I use that term only as it relates to age – they are all far more talented than I am. Garth Greenwell is the finest writer working in the English language today, I think, and his newest collection, Cleanness, contains a short story called The Little Saint which stands aside Herman Melville’s Benito Cereno and Tillie Olsen’s Tell Me a Riddle in the pantheon of the best short stories I’ve ever read. There are so many writers I think deserve far more attention than they receive, including the poet Sam Roxas-Chua, who manipulates the visual dimensions of text in the most profound ways. Leanne Betasamosake Simpson, a Michi Saagiig Nishnaabeg writer whose work has received too little attention in this country, is a writer of fierce power and a razor-sharp sense of humor. Her last novel, This Accident of Being Lost, is a masterpiece, and her newest novel, Noopiming, due out later this year, is unlike anything else I’ve ever read. There are a number of contemporary Arab writers who likewise receive almost no attention in this part of the world, but should. Basma Abdel Aziz is a tremendously insightful Egyptian writer whose book The Queue, about the bureaucratic nightmare that takes place should a state succeed in crushing a people’s revolution, should be required reading in 2020 America. Khalid Khalifa, a Syrian writer, has written beautiful, heartbreaking books about pre- and post-revolution Syrian life, most recently Death is Hard Work, and before that No Knives in the Kitchens of this City, a novel I think is a masterwork, even though I’ve yet to convince anyone I know in this country to actually read it.
MD/MT: It seems like young female protagonists bring something to speculative/apocalyptic/post-apocalyptic literature which adult and young male protagonists cannot. What are your feelings on this, and why did you choose a female as the primary character to live out a great part of this civil war?
OEA: My emotional education has come, almost exclusively, from the women in my life. As such, I find myself gravitating to female central characters as the emotional prism through which my stories pass, which is not to say I have any right to do this, or that I’m doing it properly, it’s simply the orientation my life has taken. In the case of American War, a book largely about radicalization, I wanted to veer away from the overwhelmingly male prisms through which such issues are discussed in the world, in part because I was more interested in the emotional component of radicalization, and also because – and I know I’m a hypocrite for saying this, given how overtly violent the novel is – I wasn’t that interested in centering the physically violent component of radicalization, which I feel is tied with a masculine flavor of toxicity. I had already been thinking about the world of American War for more than a year when Sarat Chestnut showed up in my head. But once she did, there was no doubt the book would be hers.
MD/MT: How do you manage the news of the day and does it ever affect your writing? Do you draw from the real world writing fiction? How do you retain a clear vision and purpose with your writing when we know so many writers are urged to be topical and fit into what’s popular in the fiction market? How important is it to you to be relevant—do you write for yourself, for readers, or for critics?
OEA: I steal almost everything in my fiction from the workings of the real world, in part because I spent a decade working as a journalist. That said, a novel is a slow slog through time, and it takes many years between when a book is conceived and when it reaches the world. In the case of American War, I simply got lucky – a book very much concerned with the war on terror years just happened to come out in a moment where it could be read as a prophecy of how the Trump years would end. This has been great for my book sales, but in truth I had no idea Trump would win, and the novel was completed before he even declared his candidacy. With my next novel, a book about refugees, I’m likely to experience the opposite phenomenon, given that the world will be three or four global crises removed from that moment by the time this novel shows up next year, and everything that isn’t happening right now will feel like ancient history. Regardless, though I set my books in the present or the future, I’m almost always writing about something that already happened. Relevancy is a crap shoot – even the publishing industry has no idea, most of the time, what’s going to sell. You may as well write what moves you, say the things you need to say.
MD/MT: Do you think futuristic and speculative literature like American War has a purpose in mobilizing people, and if so, how? Did you start writing this novel with the hopes of changing minds and perhaps changing parts of the world?
OEA: I always hope to change minds, and I hope the book is read as an indictment of endless war and the privilege of looking away from the suffering of others. I hope it forces readers to confront the immense violence so often carried out in their names, but from which they are lucky enough to maintain great distance. But I don’t measure the success or failure of my novel, or indeed any novel, by whether it manages to change people’s minds. Orwell’s books are no less masterpieces because nobody listened, and we still march toward the dystopian surveillance state. Morrison’s novels are no less masterpieces because America has yet to rid itself of its endemic institutional racism. Conversely, Atlas Shrugged is no less of a garbage fire because hyper-capitalism prevailed. Writers should try to change the world, but the writing is to be measured on its own merits, not the willingness of the world to listen.
MD/MT: Was there anything you read or experienced that propelled you to tell this story when you did? What was the reason for the story to be told when it was written and published? Why do you think it resonates so much with people?
OEA: The story I always go back to is a memory I have of watching an interview on one of the cable news networks, many years ago. A foreign affairs expert was being asked about Afghan villagers protesting against the US military invasion, and why it seemed these people hated America so much. The expert noted that sometimes the US special forces will raid these villages, looking for insurgents, and that during these raids they will sometimes ransack the houses or hold the women and children at gunpoint. “And you know, in Afghan culture, that sort of thing is considered very offensive,” he said. I remember thinking, name me one culture on earth that wouldn’t consider that sort of thing offensive. That’s when I first started thinking about taking the defining markers of these conflicts and recasting them in the heart of the empire, and the idea behind American War was born. In truth, when it came time to publish the book, it benefited greatly from the phenomenon of a fractured America, as seen through the prism of Trump and this ugly resurgence of overt white supremacism as a governance and election strategy. It’s certainly not a blockbuster book, but I think the folks who’ve gotten something out of it have read it a variety of ways, from a dystopian thriller to an anti-war polemic to, simply, a novel about the many meanings of survival and loss.
MD/MT: You intersperse narrative chapters in American War with fictionalized excerpts of nonfiction documents, written several years from now. While writing, did you write these and insert them chronologically, or did you compose them outside the story and place them in after the narrative was already constructed? What does your structural composition process look like?
OEA: I originally didn’t intend to put them in the novel. It was simply my way of keeping track of all the moving parts of this invented world. I spent a decade as a journalist, so I’m fairly well-versed in this kind of institutional composition – government documents, legal writing, bureaucratic double-speak. I would create these documents to keep track of key dates and events. It was only later in the process of writing American War that I realized I could insert them into the narrative and get an element of texture that I otherwise couldn’t produce. There are actually quite a few more that never made it into the book, some of them fairly convoluted, with footnotes and references and what not. During the re-writing process, I moved them around quite a bit, even though the rest of the narrative I wrote pretty well start-to-finish in the order it appears in the book.
MD/MT: This book feels wildly relevant and topical to the current moment, even more so than when it came out in 2017. How, as an author, do you prepare yourself to see your work expand beyond its original expectations? How do you witness your work extrapolate through history in real time and what does that mean for you? When writing fictionalized works and actions which changed certain aspects of the future, were you aware your novel would do the same in the real world?
OEA: I subscribe to Borges’ view that the writer’s intent is subservient to the reader’s impression. It just so happens that a book I finished in the summer of 2015, a few weeks before Donald Trump announced his presidential candidacy, came out two years later in a wildly different political climate (or, at least, a political climate wherein America’s ugliest face was free to shout what in previous years it may have only whispered). And so I’ve had to deal with this overwhelming impression among my readers that I wrote an attempt at prophecy, when in fact I see American War not only as a book about this country’s future, but about someone else’s past – I don’t think of it as a novel chiefly concerned with America, so much as the consequences of what America has done to and in the world.
MD/MT: This story is set in a near-future American South. Why the American South over any other region in the United States and how does this inform your story? What drew you to writing about the South in the first place, and how much research did you have to put into writing about a future which could possibly take place?
OEA: I spent about a year researching the places in which the book is set, mostly so I had a good sense of the landscape I planned to obliterate in the novel. Hardly any of the places in which American War is set appear as they are today. I’ve superimposed massive geographical change in the form of warfare and climate change. But I wanted something of the land as it is, so I spent a lot of time in places such as southern Louisiana. I think I’m drawn to the South because it reminds me in certain ways of the part of the world where I grew up, the Middle East. There’s a kind of ingrained violence of warped remembrance, an almost optional relationship with the truth of history. All these things felt similar to me, even if the specifics are wildly different. To be perfectly honest, the last thing I was concerned with was whether any of what takes place in American War could plausibly happen in the future, at least in any literal sense. I don’t think the events of American War are how a second civil war would go down. It’s hard to even think in those terms, because every day I wake up in this country I’m faced with fresh evidence that the first civil war never ended.
MD/MT: In writing fiction that takes place in the future, what do you feel is the value of providing a recognizable setting for modern readers (perhaps an evolution of places they are currently familiar with), as opposed to a renamed or nameless land not specific to an existing or familiar place? If this was a completely different and fabricated world, do you think it would have the same impact it does today?
OEA: A lot of what I do as a writer is dislocative. Privilege is in many ways a disease of perpetual forgetting, and the central trick in a lot of my fiction is to take what the privileged class can forget without consequence and relocate to a narrative setting where the markers of place fight against that forgetting – these drones are bombing yourtown, this agent of the state is torturing yourneighbor, this injustice targets yoursociety. In that sense, if I had written the same book a hundred years ago, it would have been titled British War. What matters is not to depict some pathway to an American future, but to invert the agency of American calamity, to make the bad things that happen all the way over there happen here – and in doing so, hopefully make it a little more difficult to ignore, to forget.
MD/MT: American Warat times feels a bit like a frontier story, or perhaps the reverse of a world that evolving but in many ways shrinking and, in doing so, limiting the characters. What does frontier mean when the land has already been claimed and discarded? Can land be reclaimed, now or in the future, or even in your novel?
OEA: Certainly, in a very real sense – one our interpretation of time makes us particularly bad at grasping – land can be reclaimed. A couple hundred thousand years ago, the place we call Florida was twice as wide. All that land is underwater now, the sea reclaimed it. The very notion of a frontier is, at its core, an ordinal thing – on this side of the line is us and on the other is them and if one of us is not better than the other, why even frame the world this way? It is a matter of historical record that the United States is a country that gained its geographic expansion aided by the fruits of genocide and its economic expansion aided by the fruits of slavery. In my mind, the frontier story serves a vital purpose in offsetting the immense and terrible weight of these crimes, because it imposes on the whole undertaking a kind of temporary wildness, wherein any crime is only a momentary lapse of judgement in a state of otherwise perpetual innocence – yes, we wiped out that village and enslaved those people but it was all so chaotic in these places where our civilization and their savagery collided and once things settled down we went back to being good. It is a storytelling tool that persists to this day – almost every American book and movie about the Iraq invasion is in its own way a frontier story. Jack Nicholson’s monologue at the end of A Few Good Men is a frontier story. James Baldwin once said of difficult books: yes, it might hurt you to read it, but it hurt me more to write it. The mediocre frontier stories – which as far as my limited reading goes, I’ve found to be the majority – do the opposite. They placate a certain kind of reader, and placate the writer even more. I’m all for anything that obliterates this particular use of the form, or at the very least inverts it.
MD/MT: Have you listened to the protest album by ANOHNI, HOPELESSNESS, she depicts how these stories—war stories, youths involved in war, the lasting effect it has on the young people—all beginning with the deaths of family members, significant family members like parents or siblings. Why do you think this is so important in pushing the narrative and life of a character forward?
OEA: There’s a track on that album titled, “Why Did You Separate Me from the Earth?” which is a thing that can be said about the effect of brutality long before the brutalized are physically separated from the Earth. A lot of what we call injustice takes place along the axis of agency – the basic human need to have some say over the things we do and the things done to us. To take away someone’s agency is to create a vacuum anything may then fill – fear, anger, violence. One of the most admirable aspects of American history is the extent to which its most brutalized communities have overwhelmingly responded with calls to justice rather than violence in kind. I hope that measure of goodness, our capacity to respond from a place of love, is stronger than the forces lined against it, but I don’t know if I’d be able to maintain that emotional posture after watching my loved ones killed by a drone or a special forces sniper, my community wiped out by war or the ruin that follows war. I don’t know how others order their lives, but my personal ordering has always reacted to the lives of the people I love. I know of no other way to move a life forward, not simply when talking about the ugliest of our human faces, but all of them.
MD/MT: Can you tell us if you’re working on anything new, and if so, would you share any information on the work-in-progress? American War was and is a major success, and I know anyone reading this would love a teaser of what’s to come!
OEA: I submitted my new manuscript to my editor a few days before the country went into Coronavirus lockdown. It’s a repurposed fairy tale, very short and very much unlike American War. I have no idea if readers who liked my first novel will like it, but it’s the book I felt compelled to write in the moment I wrote it. It’s tentatively due for publication next year, but of course I have no idea what future calamities the world has in store for us between now and then.
MD/MT: Omar, thank you for allowing us to interview you. We are such big fans of your writing and we can’t wait to see what you come out with next. We’re so thankful we got to pick your brain, and feel free to leave us with any lingering questions or thoughts, comments or otherwise. Thank you so much again, and we hope everyone will go pick up a copy of American War and read it as soon as possible. The few who haven’t already, we mean.
OEA: Thank you, I really appreciate you taking the time, and the thoughtfulness of these questions.
Silvia Moreno-Garcia on gothic romances, STATION ELEVEN, horror writing, and what people need to understand about Latin American Writers (She's so brilliant!)
Matthew Turbeville: Silvia, I am so excited to interview you, especially about your new book Mexican Gothic. Can you tell me about what attracted you to gothic novels like these (Wuthering Heights, Jane Eyrefor examples for our readers) and how you conceived this brilliant idea for a modern modernized gothic novel with its own twist?
Silvia Moreno-Garcia: Poe was the first horror writer I ever read. Afterwards, I made my way through many classic horror novels, like The Phantom of the Opera. I never much liked the other type of Gothic novels, the non-supernatural ones, such as Wuthering Heightsor Jane Eyrebecause they were too romantic for me. But I ended up really enjoying Rebecca and My Cousin Rachelpartially because there’s something perverse in them. I now understand Wuthering Heightsbetter than I did as a teenager, when I loathed it, but I’m still more of a du Maurier fan.
I used to collect what are called New Gothic Romances, which were the Gothic novels that were published from the 1950s to the 1970s in paperback form. I collected them for the covers, to be frank, because they had an interesting aesthetic: that pervasive image of a woman running from a house at night. And again, there’s an element of perversity in these books. The image on the cover, after all, is a woman in danger.
MT: The novel’s brilliant, and deals with a lot of heavy hitting issues our world’s looking at (I would say “dealing with” or “learning about” today, but I feel like both those phrases are untrue) in today’s world. One of these concepts is eugenics—I remember talking with my ex, a first generation Mexican American, about how he was mostly Native American, which is brought up early on in the novel. Not to mention, there’s been a resurgence of interest in the issue, and I have to ask if you went into this novel knowing you’d talk about these issues, or if they just came to the surface as you were writing them.
SM-G: My Master’s degree is in Science and Technology Studies and my thesis focused on eugenics and literature. I know about the topic and it seemed to fit the concept well because eugenics was a popular scientific pursuit in the 19thcentury and way into the 20thcentury. Most people think of it as something Nazis invented, but it was a widespread practice that was taken up all over the globe. Of course, the way it was applied varied by the location. Eugenics did not always deal with race – disabilities, alcoholism, prostitution and other topics might also be a topic of eugenics studies – but white elites in the USA and England were very concerned about race and also about miscegenation. Eugenics also lasted much longer than most people think and certain ideas did not die off, they simply morphed a little or were not called eugenics any more. Up until the 1970s, in the USA, people were being sterilized using laws passed during the heyday of eugenics.
MT: What do you think, with horror, suspense, thrillers, is the secret to maintaining interest in the audience, to keep the reader flipping through the pages, and powering towards the end of the novel and seeking out answers to pressing questions? How do you keep momentum going when you write? What is your writing process like?
SM-G: Horror, suspense and thrillers are not the same thing though they can sometimes bleed over. Thrillers in general deal with high stakes and are more action packed. I’m not sure what allreaders like, but looking at some of the classic Gothic horror novels you can’t rush the narrative and it’s not a high stakes game, it’s very personal, it’s one person facing against something and often someone who is isolated. The Turn of the Screwis not a spooky book because a ghost pops up every two pages. It’s a slow novel that rewards the reader who takes their time with it. Same with psychological suspense works such as She Who Was No More, which was famously adapted as Les Diaboliques. Not everyone has the patience for that but then not everyone should be reading these types of books. If you want pulse-pounding action, there’s other kinds of media that do that. You’ve got to be there for the journey, basically.
MT: This novel is so much more terrifying than so many great gothic novels, and more recent entries to the genre, like with books like the film Crimson Peak. What do you think are the scariest things to read about, and what were you most scared by growing up and, in all honesty, what are the things that scare you most today?
SM-G: The things that scare me are very mundane. Not paying my bills, getting sick, that kind of stuff. The particular fears of a writer are often dull.
MT: You work inside a lot of different genres. With the book referencing this family that doesn’t seem to be moving forward at all, and with characters who are stuck in the past and unable to really move forward, what do you think of the different genres you work with today? Are the genres moving forward, stylistically and in a diverse way, or does writing inside these genres ever feel stagnant or like nothing is progressing? I hear a lot of input on the issue from multiple writers, and would love to hear your thoughts.
SM-G: There’s a trend in publishing towards what is called upmarket fiction. It’s the holy grail. It’s a book with a literary feel but that incorporates genre elements. This is leading to a lot more blending of categories. Is Station Elevena literary book or a horror novel? In the 1980s, it would have been placed in bookshops next to The Stand. Audiences are much more permissive of this crosspollination and writers are also more interested in it because they have grown in a world in which their influences are varied. They’re taking their cues from comic books, video games, movies, TV shows, even memes. Otherwise, genres are also dividing and changing and sometimes dying (Westerns don’t have their own shelf anymore). If you’ve ever picked up a romance novel from 1977, one from 1997 and one from this year you can see they’re not the same. Evolution is never fast and furious, but books are not caught in an eternal stasis. Neither are readers.
MT: What was your favorite thing to write in Mexican Gothic? The setting(s), the character(s), any scenes in particular?
SM-G: I was trying to hit may Gothic elements and I had a list next to me, so every time I hit something it was quite fun. I don’t think I had quite enough swooning. In The Mysteries of UdolphoEmily swoons more than half a dozen times and Agnes takes at least two swoons in The Monk. But as much as I had fun using a baker’s dozen of Gothic literature, the thing I enjoyed the most was twisting things slightly askew.
MT: What were your favorite gothic novels to study for this book? Did you review them at all? And what is research, planning, and later editing like for you? Are you a morning, noon, afternoon, evening writer? What do you think is the hardest part of writing a novel?
SM-G: I write at nights, after I get back from work and finish with whatever chores I have around the house. I work on the bus, I plan dialogue in the shower, I think through plot points while I’m cooking. Writing, when you have a dayjob, is learning to use the wasted time I have available effectively.
MT: Who are your favorite novelists, past and present, the ones living today you feel are underrated, the ones you feel need more recognition, and the authors who shaped you during your formative years and made you into the writer you are today? Were there any other sorts of media which helped create you into the author you are today?
SM-G: Hard to say. I read a lot and I was a huge film buff as a kid. I watch less movies these days, but I still have a subscription to the Criterion Channel. I always liked to fish for obscure stuff, more so in the pre-Internet days because it was a great challenge. Obscure bands, obscure films, books that were impossible to find. That’s what I liked. Now, everything can be found, probably with a few clicks of the mouse. But I still enjoy kicking and digging and finding things that are a bit odd. Sometimes I become obsessed with them for a while. That happens often with old books and with music. I’ll play the same album over and over again when I’m writing. If I’m not wearing headphones, it can be quite annoying for my family. For most people, “Eye in the Sky” loses its charm after the 20thtime. But you need to be obsessed about something to write. It’s the fuel for any good writer.
MT: What do you hope Americans, readers in general take away from this novel and from your novels as a whole?
SM-G: Latin American writers are normally allowed to produce two kinds of narratives: the suffering immigrant or the quaint magic realist tale. There’s more to the world than that.
MT: What are you working on now? Can you give your fans any hint at what’s to come next? Your work is so incredibly diverse and complex, and we can’t wait to see the next book you come out with.
SM-G: I wrote a noir that came out this year, Untamed Shore, set in 1970s Baja California and I have a different noir that my agent is trying to shop around. And I just delivered a sword and sorcery novella to a publisher.
MT: Thank you so much for allowing me to interview you, Silvia. It was so great to be able to pick your brain and learn a little bit about your writing process, your novel, and the books you love in general. Please feel free to leave us with any pressing thoughts, feelings, or ideas, and thank you so much. We love you, Silvia!
Steph Post on what it means to be a Southern writer (and what it means to those we've marginalized), religion, planning out series, and so much more--she's a genius, and the Judah series is genius. A must read.
Matthew Turbeville: Steph, it’s so great to talk to you about your books and your writing and everything else. I am and have been fascinated with the Judah Cannon trilogy. First, I love his name, but most of all I love how honest it feels—not just Judah, but also Sister Tulah. Few people—few Southern writers—write about religion in such an honest way these days, not since books like Wise Blood maybe. What do you think the role of religion is in Southern literature (and Southern noir) and why is it so essential to talk about?
Steph Post: First of all, thank you! For reading and your support. As for religion, I’m not sure I can speak for all Southern writers as a group. For sure, the South is steeped in religious tradition- I think there’s a strong level of belief, but also of disbelief, because so much of the power of religion has been abused in this region. For me personally, I have always been interested in the role religion has to control people and to create their identities, as I’ve witnessed much of this firsthand.
MT: The trilogy is great, sprawling, epic. Did you have the whole series planned out from the beginning? What was writing the series like for you? What kind of writer are you—feel free to share anything you feel comfortable with!
SP: I didn’t have the series planned out all- I only knew that I wanted to write a trilogy. Most of the planning came naturally. As I’m working through a novel, I can be very organized, but I don’t plan it out ahead of time. I like to be surprised all the way through the first draft.
MT: Who or what inspired Sister Tulah (I know I’m obsessed but, well, I’m obsessed—she’s a brilliant villain in so many ways). She’s the ultimate villain for the series, and she’s one of the best villains (and her juxtaposition against and alongside Judah) I’ve come across in years. Please tell me about her and the inspiration and what about religion and problems in the South Judah is facing and fighting against? (And who are your favorite villains?)
SP: Again, thank you! Sister Tulah comes from, again, different experiences with religion I had as a child. Control and fear can be a tremendous factor in organized religion and I wanted a villain who clearly understood how to use these elements. One of things I love about Sister Tulah is that she IS a true believer- just not in the religion she is a figurehead for. On the one hand, she’s the ultimate villain. I’ve created villains (say, Daniel from Miraculum) who have a sympathetic side to them, but Sister Tulah does not. However, that doesn’t mean she’s not complex. If you go all the way through Holding Smoke, things begin to come clear about who she is and why. Yet, she never falters in the path she’s chosen.
MT: Did you ever decide to change Judah’s path along the way? Was there anything which came up and helped you decide to switch directions and try something new, or did you always stick to strict guidelines? Was there anything about Judah or any of the other characters which surprised you when you were writing the novel?
SP: So much surprised me as I went throughout the series. I was particular surprised at how minor characters came to take center stage by the last book. Characters like Shelia, Felton and Ramey. By the end, the story is more about Felton and Ramey than Judah and Tulah and I thought that was important. In many ways, this change reflected back my development as a writer and the themes I became interested in during the four years of writing the series. For example, Ramey goes from being the tough-chick-sidekick to a woman caught by her own strength. I wanted to be able to use her in the final book to explore a different side to the ‘badass woman’ motif. And to show how complicated life can be for someone in her position.
As for Judah himself- the biggest surprise came at the end of the series. Without giving away any spoilers, I’ll just say that I didn’t know how it was all going to turn out with him until I actually wrote the ending.
MT: I come from a family of crime, so maybe I relate too much to Judah, but what inspired his family for you, and how did each character in the family—and outside the family—come into being? When killing off someone, when losing another character in another way, were you ever hurt as writer in losing them? I know I’ve tried to cling on to characters myself.
SP: Let’s just say that all of the characters are inspired by people I’ve known, but on a general level. No one is a direct inspiration, but the world of the Cannons is one that I feel a certain kinship with.
MT: Was there ever a different ending to the series? Was there ever a different fate for Judah? Do you feel—I read an author talk about this recently, and am not sure I agree—that there’s only one way a book (or in this case, a trilogy) can end?
SP: I think Holding Smoke could have ended in several different ways. Sister Tulah’s fate was always sealed, but things could have gone very differently with Judah and Ramey. I think often authors are set on an outcome when they start writing, but I don’t agree that there’s only one way a story can end. The plot of a story is built up by the choices of the characters- so change any of those choices and the entire outcome can be different.
MT: What books and movies and tv shows helped inspire this series? I’m assuming Wise Bloodand other Flannery works came into play (I say Flannery as if I knew her in a previous life and we were best friends, and I wish that was true), but what else helped inspire this amazing trilogy?
SP: The television shows Justified, Sons of Anarchy and Peaky Blinders were all inspiration.
MT: Before you wrote Holding Smoke(or released it, I have no idea if, perhaps, it was written first), you released Miraculum, a very different book from the Judah series. Can you tell me about what inspired this change (which I loved) and what brought you back to Judah for a grand, if not explosive finale?
SP: So, Miraculum was written in-between Lightwood and Walk in the Fire. I like to switch genres with every book, but I knew I had to go back to wrap the series up. In some ways, I had already veered off in another direction with my writing, but I felt I owed it to the story, the characters and the readers to give it my all for Holding Smoke.
MT: Who are the Southern writers—especially marginalized Southern writers—you read and love today who you think are the best at their jobs? What do you think are the most overlooked writers or books people need to pay attention to, in your opinion?
SP: I’ll just stick to the Southern genre here- I think everyone needs to keep an eye out for Beth Gilstrap and Meagan Lucas. They are two of the most badass writers I know and both are poised to take the literary world by storm. They’re both brilliant in their own way and are going to shake up the Southern literary establishment.
MT: Do you think you will ever visit the characters from the series again, or its world in general?
SP: Possibly the world, but I don’t think I’ll ever go back to these characters. I know when a character has gone to bed, and these have said goodnight.
MT: What is your favorite part about writing a series, about writing a Judah novel, about writing in general, other than gaining crazed super fans like myself?
SP: Ha! My favorite part is just that- the writing. Being completely immersed in a world I’ve created. When I’m really in the zone, focused, writing 6 hours a day, it’s hard, but it’s the best feeling in the world.
MT: Are you working on anything new? Is there a work-in-progress? You tend to move fast, so I’d love to know and see what’s up for you next! And I’m sure your fans and anyone reading this would love a hint at what the next great work from Steph Post will be, if you’re willing.
SP:I am Always working on something new. I’m also incredibly secretive about new work. So, I’ll just say that you can expect me to keep changing up genres in the future.
MT: Steph, thank you for stopping by Writers Tell All. I love you, we love you, and we are so thankful to have you writing today. You are such a necessary talent. Please feel free to leave us with any thoughts, remarks, lingering issues or problems or anything else, and know that we are so thankful to have read your novels so far!
SP: Thanks so much for having me! And for all your support to myself and all the authors you champion. J
"That Dog Can Hunt!": S.A. Cosby on Expanding Characters, Minorities and Crime Writing, and the Paths We Choose
Matthew Turbeville: Hi Shawn! I really loved My Darkest Prayer, and with Blacktop Wasteland, your newest book, you’ve really shown more of your skills, taking this popular storyline—a poor younger man with a tragic background is an amazing driver and becomes involved in crime—and you help reinvent the story and add to it in so many ways. How did this book idea come about, and why do you think so many people will relate to it and love it with a book like Drive and movies like Baby Driver? How do you think being a black man in America complicates the narrative, drives it forward, and brings it to new heights?
S.A. Cosby: First thanks for having me. The idea for this book began as a short story that was published in the last issue of ThugLit ( shout out to Todd Robinson). The main character in that short story refused to go gently into that good night after I finished writing the tale. Eventually I decided I wanted to know more about him and that idea eventually became Blacktop Wasteland. I grew up in a small town in Virginia with limited entertainment options. Most times we ended up drinking cheap liquor, hanging out at a bonfire and souping up our rolling wrecks. Cars and the freedom they represent have always been a huge part of my life. My cousin used to take me with him to illegal street races where his Maverick would blow the doors off everyone else. I wanted to recreate the visceral thrill of doing 0 to 90 down a quarter mile.
I think being a black man in America doesn't so much complicate that narrative as gives me an opportunity to expand it. I can explore areas in my story that are often ignored.
MT: The protagonist in your new novel, Beauregard, is no stranger to crime, but he’s also got this amazing mystery, along with several other characters and their points of view at play. How hard was it to wrestle different points of view, timelines, and storylines in this tour de force novel?
SAC: Its challenging because I wanted to create a tight narrative with one POV but other characters wanted their time in the limelight. In the end I tried to give them strong supporting roles but i did my best to keep the main camera on Bug. In the end it’s his story but the other characters are like threads in a tapestry. they help to complete the picture.
MT: What books and movies do you feel inspired this? What books were your formative books, the ones that shaped you most, and what are your favorites now? What about authors? What authors and books really deserve more attention than they’ve been receiving?
SAC: As far as movies that may have inspired me one of the most important ones was HEll OR HIGHWATER. The way it talks about poverty and how it affects generations really struck a nerve with me. That being said it was still the story of two poor white men and in America there is a wide chasm between being poor and white and being poor and black. I wanted to tackle some of the same themes HOHW did but through the eyes of the people I knew and loved growing up back in my small town. Another film that really inspired me was Greased LIghtning The Wendell Scott story. Not so much narratively but because it told the story of the first black NASCAR driver in history. It talked about the hope and dreams of rural black Americans. As far as books I studied the modern masters. Walter Mosely, Dennis Lehane, Gillian Flynn , Daniel Woddrell, Ernest J Gaines, Zora Neal Hurston and so many more. My reading tastes are varied but I love stories that examine the dichotomy between who we are and who we think we are.
Right now I’m reading a couple of really good books. I’m reading Where The Light Tends to Go by David Joy. It’s truly a moving and lyrical book . I’m alternating between that and Chuck Hogan Prince of Thieves. But I tell you the writers that i look up to , the ones that are really pushing the definition of what crime fiction can be are Legion. Eryk Pruitt, Kelly J Ford, Kellye Garrett, Angel Luis Colon John Vercher, Jennifer HIllier Donald Ray Pollock ...these are just some of the writers that I look at and shake my head with wonder and awe at what they are able to achieve with the same 26 letters in the alphabet that are in front of me.
MT: There are so many tragic elements that come to play in the novel, dealing with so many different stories—all somehow connected to Beauregard. I don’t want to give away any spoilers, although we do know his father isn’t in the picture from the novel’s beginning. Can you talk to us about what role tragedy and intense traumatic events play in this novel, and how that might translate into real life and your worldview?
SAC: A lot of my work uses pain as a central motivator because pain is universal. Whether it's physical or emotional we all understand pain. Like REM said Everybody hurts. So when I write I tend to create stories that are centered about pain and our responses to it. How it shapes up and molds us even as we try to move through it and get over it. I think it’s the one thing that crosses all the cliched boundaries and hierarchies.
MT: At some point in the novel, the criminal becomes the victim—again, I don’t want to go into spoiler territory, but it’s so interesting how we think this will be a normal heist novel, but that’s barely half of Beauregard’s story (if that much—really barely half of what we see). Can you talk to us about repercussions, consequences, and how that’s played a part throughout the lives of Beauregard, his father, and other characters in the novel?
SAC: Well its all about the sins of the fathers being visited upon the sons right? We are all recipients of an emotional inheritance. If you are lucky it’s one of growth and maturity. But for a lot of people we end up paying for the mistakes of our fathers and mothers. Our forefathers sometimes inure debts that come due on our watch. How we deal with those repercussions reveals our true character.
MT: Who do you feel is the real victim in the novel? Do you feel there are clearly defined roles, both in real life and in great fiction, including your own? What makes a character like Beauregard relatable and lovable despite planning and executing crimes, and what do you think is the appeal of the criminal world and dark side of people to readers?
SAC: I think everyone in the book is a victim to a certain degree but they also have varying degrees of agency. I think , or rather i hope readers are drawn to Beauregard because he is a fully realized complex character with a multitude of layers. Ultimately this is what the book is about. Can you be “ two types of beasts.” ? Or do you have to choose a path and follow it to the exclusion of all other roads? I don’t know if the book answers that question but i really enjoyed asking it.
MT: You’ve written really different novels—so very different—and also so very wonderful. What do you feel, when creating these incredibly diverse novels, is the most important aspect of writing? What really puts your writing above the rest, and ensures that this book will count, this book will be different, and this book will matter? What is most important to you?
SAC: I don’t if I think my books are that much better than anyone else’s but I will say I do my level best to tell an engaging story. No one is gonna care about your metaphors and symbolism if the story is boring. The story is everything. It’s the motor that drives the car. Whether the car is a hoopty or a boss high toned work of art depends on the individual writer but I try to make sure you are never bored reading one of my books.
MT: Diversity in crime fiction has come a long way (with writers of color, different sexes, sexualities, etc) but it’s also got a long way to go. You touch on a lot of hard and important points about being marginalized in America—not just about race—but why do you think that of all genres, crime fiction, mysteries, thrillers, etc, are the books that allow room for growth? Do you think anything we’ve talked about so far comes into play?
SAC: Because the desperation of living on the margins is tailor made for crime novels. The feeling of looking down the barrel of an electric that has to be paid or a medical procedure that you can’t afford lends itself to tales about our darker impulses. I like to say some novels that people would classify as “literary” like to do a lot of talking about how miserable their characters are. Crime novels have their characters do something about it. Now what they do may not be the best solution but by acting , by moving they determine their fate. As a black man growing up in the South so much of my life for so long was determined by someone else. Taking that power back is at the heart of a lot of crime novels regardless of the color of the protagonist but I’d be lying if I didn’t say I yearn to tell the stories of my people where we are sidekicks or magical wisdom spouting caricatures. Where we determine our fate even if its tragic.
MT: When you write, who do you write for? Yourself, a certain type of reader, critics? Do you think writing for different types of readers, or for yourself, affects how you write, and changes your writing?
SAC: I guess if I’m being honest I write for myself first. If I’m not into the story I’m not gonna finish writing it. But as I grow as a writer I do seek to write for a broader audience but in the beginning it’s for me. I gotta have fun with it. The thing about being a writer is that its such a solitary endeavour. It’s you and the computer or notebook and no one else. It’s like telling a nine month long joke then waiting a year to see if anyone laughs. You have to trust your instincts. You have to believe no matter how hard it get that you’re on the write track.
MT: When you were going through the writing process for this novel, what was it like? How many drafts did you complete and how many times did you have to go through revisions, story edits, anything? Can you give us a peek inside your creative process?
SAC: i think the main thing i want people to take from Blacktop Wasteland is an understanding of how hard it is to be the person you tell yourself you should be when the whole world seems to be telling you that you can’t.
MT: I know that I, for one, am dying to know what you’ll be releasing next. Can you tell us what book you’re working on now, or what your current work in progress is? I know that if they aren’t already hungry for more, fans will be ready after Blacktop Wasteland’s release for another S.A. Cosby novel.
SAC: I’m working on a rural revenge novel tentatively titled Razorblade Tears. its about two fathers one black one white both ex cons who seek revenge for their gay sons who were murdered in what at first appears to be a hate crime. As they seek revenge and learn to coexist they also seek redemption for not accepting their sons and their sexuality. it’s also violent as hell. LOL
MT: Thank you so much for talking with me, Shawn. I really loved reading your book, and I really loved getting to know Beauregard and really everyone in the novel. It was a joy getting to ask you these questions. Feel free to leave us with any lingering questions, thoughts, feelings, or anything else, and I really look forward to fans getting to know your book so well. I’m so excited for its release.
SAC: I just want to thank you for giving me the chance to talk about Blacktop Wasteland. I’m proud of the book. As Bug would say I think “that dog can hunt!”
Matthew Turbeville: Hi Susan! I’m so excited to talk about your upcoming novel, The Silence. Before we begin talking about the novel, would you mind telling me a little about how you got into writing, and how hard it was to sell your first book? What were some obstacles you faced, and which were the toughest? Did you ever almost give up on writing all together?
Susan Allott: Hi Matthew! I started writing The Silencethe year I turned 40, which was also the year my youngest child started school. I’d been trying to write before that, and had always wanted to write a novel, but it was the peace of the empty house that allowed me to finally get started. The obstacles included trying to keep going with the book during those busy years when I was working part time and raising my kids. Writing requires you to be selfish, to forget about everyone and everything apart from your fictional world, for long stretches of time. Sometimes it’s hard to justify that, especially when you doubt you’ll ever be published.
I never wanted to give up on writing altogether, but I came close to giving up on The Silence once or twice! It’s the first novel I wrote, as well as my first published novel, and I taught myself to write with this book, making all sorts of mistakes in the process. It took me 7 years to write The Silence,and I guess all the hard work paid off because when my agent submitted the manuscript to publishers we had interest from Harper Collins within 24 hours, and they went on the buy the book.
MT: Will you tell our readers about The Silence—a novel about multiple crimes, even though you manage to stick to a phenomenal story with so few characters? What inspired this story, and how did you come about developing this novel in its complex, emotionally riveting, expertly spun form?
SA: The Silenceis about the investigation of a missing person which brings all sorts of secrets to the surface; family secrets but wider historical ones too, all of which have been hidden in plain sight for a long time. The novel was inspired by my failure to immigrate to Australia in the nineties. I left and went back to London, and promptly fell in love with an Australian man who I went on to marry! So the Australian setting came out of those experiences. It felt sometimes like Australia was forcing me to make my peace with it, like it wouldn’t let me go.
I’d written several chapters of The Silence, and had a whole cast of characters, when I read a book called Australia, the History of a Nationby Philip Knightley. He mentions a policeman living in Victoria, a southern Australian state, who gets home from work and cries on his veranda because part of his job is to remove Aboriginal children from their families and take them to state institutions. I already knew about the Stolen Generation but hadn’t thought of writing about it. But this policeman and his personal conflict felt like a way in. I wanted to know how someone would cope with realizing that something they believed to be right was in fact wrong, and had caused untold pain. It also helped me to develop the theme I was already tackling, about the enormous pull of home.
MT: What was it like writing from not just multiple points of view, but multiple timelines and managing to keep the mystery alive and the tension high? You do everything so expertly, and I was amazed at how despite jumping around to different decades and people, I was glued to the book. That takes real talent.
SA: Thank you! I wrote the 1967 timeline first, and for a long time I thought it would all be set in that time period. It dawned on me quite late in the day that I needed the 1997 timeline to give the book the mystery and suspense I wanted. When I came to write Isla as a 35-year-old I found that I knew her already, because I knew her so well as a child. I knew all her formative experiences. So it all came together at that point.
I used a program called Scrivener to plan out the book, and I think I’d have been quite lost without it. It helped me to manage all the different points of view and fit the 1997 chapters around the 1967 ones. It also allowed me to move chapters around so the reveals came in at the right place, and to make sure the timelines were balanced correctly.
MT: While set in multiple places outside of the U.S., what do you think U.S. citizens could learn from The Silence? I imagine a lot of people may read the book and finish feeling they understand the world in different ways, or are at least thinking about the world when the book was set and now in different lights.
SA: I think a lot of the themes inThe Silenceare universal. The characters are all trying (with varying degrees of success) to manage the good and bad in themselves, learning how to face up to their flaws; these things aren’t country-specific.
But quite a few reviewers outside of Australia have commented that they didn’t know about the Stolen Generation and they were shocked that it happened at all, and that it continued right through the 1960s. I think there’s a commonly-held idea of Australia as a country blessed with good weather and space and abundance, where the common man can have a high standard of living and enjoy the great outdoors. But there is a much darker side to Australian history, which is inextricably linked to the legacy of British invasion and colonial influence. I think it’s an interesting aspect of history and it provides a good backdrop to a story about shameful secrets.
A few U.S. reviewers have also commented that there are some parallels with the way native Americans were treated by white settlers, so I think there’s a lot for U.S. readers to connect with and reflect on.
MT: You did not set the book in today’s world, but instead in many other different time periods, from the late 60s and 90s mostly. Were you able to remember or know enough about these times in order to write about them successfully, or did you ever have to research to get a particular fact or issue with the story straight?
SA: The 1960s timeline needed a lot of research as I wasn’t born then, but luckily there’s a lot of material to draw on and I was able to find a large number of books, films and images from that period. I also went back to Australia a few times to visit my in-laws and took dozens of photos and visited places that were significant to the book. My husband’s paternal grandparents immigrated to Australia in the 1950s so the family history was quite helpful.
In comparison the 1990s timeline was much easier as I lived in Sydney for a while in the ‘90s and had some strong memories of that time. But I still had to research things like what an Australian police uniform looks like, for example. I spent a lot of time on google earth mapping out the route from Sydney to Ropes Crossing; things like that. And I had it all checked by several Australian readers too, including an Aboriginal man based in New South Wales who gave it his approval.
Easily the most important source while writing The Silencewas the National Library of Australia oral history project, where Aboriginal people who were removed as kids, or whose family members were removed, talk about that experience. There are hundreds of recordings and I listened to some of them several times.
MT: Is it ever hard to kill off a character, or give a character a particularly unfortunate ending, history, etc.?
SA: There were a couple of scenes that I found hard to write. I knew what I needed to happen so I wrote those scenes relatively quickly with the help of some strong coffee which, combined with what I was writing, made my heart pound! I did go back and edit those scenes but actually they didn’t need too much revision. I think it’s important to let bad things happen to characters sometimes, if that serves the story. A few reviewers have said there’s a particular scene that made them cry and I’m quite proud of that.
MT: Did you always know the solution to the mystery, or the end of the novel? If not, when did the answers present themselves to you?
SA: I didn’t know the solution to the mystery from the outset. I allowed myself to be open minded about it, and for a while there were a few possible outcomes in my mind. Once I’d made my mind up I was able to steer everything in that direction. The reader has come a long way with these characters by the time they get to the closing chapters, and I wanted them to have a rewarding finale. An ending needs to answer the questions that the book sets up at the outset, to hold some surprises but also to have a sense of inevitability to it, so the reader thinks, ‘of course!’
I re-wrote the ending a few times, without changing anything from a plot perspective, but just trying to get the pace right. I wanted the ‘what happened to Mandy?’ question to be resolved at the same time as the questions Isla needs to answer about her family and herself, and I needed Isla to figure it all out in a way that held the tension between what she knows and what the reader knows. I was still re-writing those chapters in the very final round of edits with my publisher.
MT: Other than books, are there major things which influence your writing? How do you write or edit to avoid being influenced by these issues, or to rewrite scenes or whole chapters, etc., to keep the book flowing seamlessly?
SA: I don’t really have a problem being influenced by external things. It’s good to be inspired by books, movies, music and so on, but once I sit down to write I can usually trick myself into believing nobody else exists (not even me). I do it by absorbing myself in my fictional world, and the deeper I get into that world the easier it is.
The thing I found very difficult was the transition I had to make once I knew my book was going to be published. There was a period of about a fortnight during the first round of edits with my publisher, where I was totally frozen with fear and self-consciousness. I couldn’t get myself into that zone of believing entirely in the world of my book. I kept thinking ‘what will my dad / friend / sister think of this?’ It was awful! I got through it by going to a friend’s house and editing for a day in a new location. It got me into a different mindset, just by physically leaving my kitchen table. It got gradually easier after that.
MT: What was your worst fear and greatest hope when writing the book? Did you write for yourself, something you knew you would like, or were you ever pressured to write something you, your agent, your editor, etc. might think would sell? I know it’s a tough question, but would you mind talking about the two, and which might be harder for you or other writers?
SA: I did write for myself, and focused on trying to write the kind of book I was always looking for as a reader, which I could only describe as ‘a well-written page-turner.’ By which I meant a good plot andgood prose. I love literary fiction, but it does frustrate me when nothing happens at all for pages and pages, with no suspense or jeopardy. And I do sometimes find that plot-driven books lack the quality of prose that I love. So I wanted to write something that brought those two things together.
Luckily the kind of book I love to read turned out to be the kind of book that sells, so I didn’t have that conflict between what I wanted to write and what my agent / editor wanted. I don’t know what I’d have done if they’d wanted me to change the book in a way that I wasn’t comfortable with. It was always just a matter of bringing out the potential of the book, and I agreed with everything they suggested.
Regarding my hopes and fears. For such a long time all I dreamed of was to get an agent! It’s so hard to get an agent that for years I honestly couldn’t imagine anything beyond that goal. Now that I’m on the brink of publication I guess my dream is that I’ll get reviewed favorably and that readers will connect with it. My fear, conversely, is that it will sink without trace. Publishing into a pandemic is unchartered water so that fear isn’t without substance.
MT: Which character did you identify with most? I know you’ve had experience living in many places, correct? Did you feel the same sort of disconnect a lot of the characters felt when writing the book, a displacement, along with the feeling some characters have of not being able to return home again?
SA: The character I started with was Louisa, Isla’s mother, who is a British woman living in Australia, suffering terrible homesickness and unable to convince her husband that they should return home. I identified with that, having gone through something similar myself, and in the early drafts Louisa’s story was more central to the book. I came to the conclusion in the end that Louisa wasn’t working as a Point of View character, perhaps because she had too much of me in her. My most convincing characters are the ones who are less like me; I imagine them more fully.
Having said that, I think they all have a bit of me in them. I loved writing the chapters where Isla returns to Sydney after ten years in London, because I was able to describe the culture shock that I’d experienced myself as a Londoner in Sydney, feeling that my clothes and my temperament weren’t suited to this bright, upbeat city that was so incredibly far from home.
MT: What inspired you to keep writing the most? When you were having a bad day, writer’s block maybe, or just felt you were done, what kept you going? What is your writing process like generally? Are you a morning, afternoon, evening, night writer? Do you mind letting us in a little on your craft—and, hopefully, some secrets?
SA: I did quite a few creative writing courses and retreats over the years, and they were amazingly helpful for my confidence as well as for my writing. A good teacher or fellow writer telling you that your work is good is such a tonic. I have some good writer friends who I met along the way and we keep each other going.
I’m definitely a morning writer. I don’t have my usual routine at the moment because we’re in lockdown, which is a challenge, but usually I start work once everyone’s left the house, drink a gallon of tea, and don’t look up until they get home. On a good day I’ve forgotten to eat or get dressed. On a bad day the house is clean and I’ve made a casserole.
MT: If you have writer’s block or a bad day, who are the authors or what are the books you turn to in order to inspire you? What are the books which defined you most growing up, during your formative years, and as a writer?
SA: I’ve always been a big reader, and I studied English Literature at University, but I didn’t discover the books that got me writing until I was in my late twenties. My most re-read book is Behind the Scenes at the Museumby Kate Atkinson. I remember when she won the Whitbread prize (now the Costa) in 1996 and I thought, maybe it is possible for someone like me to do something like that. I didn’t gather the courage to try for a few more years, but it stayed with me. I was also inspired and influenced by Gillian Flynn’s early books, especially Sharp Objects. And The Slapby Christos Tsiolkas, which I admire for his incredible empathy, his skill at getting under a character’s skin. Beyond that, I devoured everything by Tim Winton when I was writing The Silence, because of his genius use of the Australian vernacular and the incredible sense of place in all his books. I was just starting to write about Australia when I discovered his writing and it was a huge inspiration.
MT: What do you feel is the most important trick to writing a mystery other people haven’t figured out yet, or perhaps may not know of? What are the mystery novels which have particularly blown you away, and what do you think made them so interesting and well done? Do you think you need a complex plot to write a great crime novel?
SA: I think the most important things with a mystery are atmosphere and pace. It should feel totally immersive. Certain questions need to be dropped in at the start and resolved slowly. You have to unwind the plot, dropping hints that are subtle but not too subtle. And I do think a mystery needs strong characters as the pace won’t be as fast as a thriller; we need to spend a bit more time with these people so we really care about their world and the questions the plot is building up around them.
I’ve already mentioned her but I think Kate Atkinson writes superb mysteries and she knows how to layer her plot, giving us depth as well as momentum. I also have a soft spot for Barbara Vine, which is Ruth Rendell writing under a pseudonym. A Fatal Inversionis possibly my favorite of hers. And I loved Elizabeth is Missingby Emma Healey, which was made into a brilliant TV drama starring Glenda Jackson. Personally I don’t need a complex plot, in fact simplicity can be very striking. But I do need to be compelled to keep turning the pages, and a pervasive sense of unease.
MT: Can you give us any clues as to if you have a work-in-progress, and what it might be about? This is such a great novel, and I imagine people cannot wait to see how you follow it up!
SA: My current work-in-progress is a spooky mystery set in London about a young couple whose house renovations unsettle the history of a building, unlocking a pocket of time that starts to bleed into the present. They need to stop history repeating itself if they want to avoid the fate of the previous inhabitants. I’m enjoying writing about my own local area this time around – no need for google earth! – but it’s just as challenging as writing about the other side of the planet in many ways!
MT: Thank you so much for letting me interview you, Susan. I loved The Silenceso much. It’s sure to be a hit, and I encourage all of our readers to preorder the novel immediately. The book sucked me in. Please feel free to leave any lingering thoughts or questions you have, or anything you might want to say to the readers. Thank you again. It was such a pleasure reading your work!
SA: It’s been a pleasure for me too! I’m very excited to be published in north America. I hope you all enjoy the book! If you want to be kept up to date you could sign up for my newsletter on my website: www.susanallott.com
Kimberly McCreight (A GOOD MARRIAGE) is a damn fine writer with incredible talent, taste in books, and all the right answers!
Matthew Turbeville:Hi Kim! It’s so nice to talk to you about your new blockbuster of a novel, A Good Marriage. I devoured the book—it was amazing, and I highly encourage everyone reading this to buy a copy.
Can you tell us a little about the background of the novel, and your writing career? How did you become a writer, and how hard was it to get your foot in the door to publish your first novel?
Kimberly McCreight:A Good Marriageis set in Park Slope, Brooklyn, and takes place over a week in the summer when most of the kids are at sleepaway camp and their parents are gearing up for the event of the summer—an adults-only party with a sexually adventurous side. The party has always just been in good fun. Until this year, when a woman turns up dead afterward. When her husband is accused, he calls on an old law school classmate for help. Lizzie, the lawyer, is an outsider to Park Slope, and as she’s drawn into the neighborhood she quickly realizes that neither her friend nor his wife were who they appeared to be. But then neither is Lizzie’s own husband. Part domestic suspense, part legal thriller, A Good Marriage is also a genuine exploration of what it means to sustain a marriage over time—the secrets couples keep and the compromises they make in order to stay together—whatever the cost.
As for getting published, like a lot of writers, my road to publication was pretty long and awfully dark. It took me 10-plus years, four unpublished novels, and three agents to sell my debut novel, Reconstructing Amelia. And, no, it was not easy not to lose hope in the face of so much rejection.
MT:What is your writing process like? Are you a morning/evening/night writer? Do you have any strange practices or methods in writing, and would you mind sharing them with us? What about revision? Do you love it or hate it?
KM:I write every day, regular work hours, usually 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. Of course, depending on the day, some of that time is spent on administrative tasks. I think the biggest quirk to my writing habits is how rigid they are and how many hours I write every day. To be clear, this isn’t because I am better than other writers—I am just slow. Or, rather, my process is. It can take me a dozen drafts to get to a version of the book that can be handed in to my editor. As for revision, my opinion of revision varies depending on what kind of revision you are referring to. For me, the hardest stage of revision is getting from the free-wheeling, book-length extended outline I create first to some semblance of a real first draft. That’s where the real heavy lifting is. It’s also the place where I’m most often convinced I may not pull it off. The later stages of revision are a lot easier, and more fun—when you’re just going in to make surgical changes.
MT:You’re also a lawyer. Another author I admire who’s a great lawyer is the amazing and wonderful Alafair Burke (shoutout to Alafair, my friend). Outside of actually knowing the law, what do you think you bring to writing through being a lawyer, and is there anything you get out of writing for practicing law?
KM:I love Alafair! She’s such a fantastic writer (and a really nice person)—her plotting and character development are equally deft and always so perfectly balanced. Her books are all fabulous, but I especially loved The Ex andThe Wife!
A Good Marriage is part legal thriller, so being an attorney was directly relevant. I certainly wouldn’t have been able to write A Good Marriagewithout having gone to law school. But I was a corporate litigator, so I had only basic knowledge of criminal law. But at least I knew what I didn’t know. From there, I consulted a lot of experts to fill in the blanks.
More broadly, my law school training always helps me with structure and story, particularly because I write mysteries. What you learn in law school is to anticipate the opposing argument and solve against it. It’s similar to the misdirection required of a mystery—you have to anticipate how the reader will interpret certain facts and craft your red herrings accordingly.
MT:I love how you use transcripts and other ways of telling the story, including multiple points of view, to increase suspense and dread, and draw the reader forward. Were these parts included in the first draft of the novel? How did you decide to use multiple ways of telling the story, and how did you choose how to tell what?
KM:Every adult novel I’ve written has been from different narrative points of view, often different timeframes, and includes several different non-narrative elements. It’s just the way I see a story. And, believe it or not, there were even moreof these elements in early drafts of A Good Marriage! In the end it was way too complicated—my terrific editor, Jennifer Barth, was right about that. I ended up paring down the different elements, combining some and ultimately discarding others. The goal, of course, is to have those elements add suspense but not bog down the narrative. It’s a very tricky balance that you really need outside insight to get right. I was lucky to have the help of my amazing editor and wonderful agent, Dorian Karchmar, in getting the book there.
MT:When you write about a lawyer, do you ever feel you’re projecting any parts of yourself onto her character? What about the other characters, including the initial victim in the novel and the male characters? Do any of them seem to have a lot in common with you?
KM:For sure I have a lot in common with Lizzie, the main character in A Good Marriage. As a result, she was the hardest character to write. I had to work hard to separate her from me so that she could have a unique and fully developed personality of her own. But I share something in common with almost every one of the major characters. Without some connection, it’s hard to render characters in a believable way.
MT:There are amazing twists throughout the novel, including some pretty huge twists at the end. Did you start the novel with the ending in mind, or knowing the twists, or did the twists come as you wrote them?
KM:Well, first off, thank you! And I usually know the “who done it” or at least the “who didn’t do it” at the very beginning—because that does help to ground the spine of the story and it’s usually inextricably linked to the major themes. But in many ways “who did it” is much less interesting to me than the “why it happened.” The many twists and turns that get the reader to understand why are most definitely things I figure out along the way. Often those small plot discoveries end up being some of the most satisfying twists.
MT:A lot of thrillers depend on constant murders, bodies showing up, etc., to prove the writer can leave the reader in suspense and wonder. You use different techniques—would you mind talking about how you create conflict in the novel between multiple characters, and what’s necessary to keep the reader hooked?
KM:To me the greatest mystery in life is whypeople do the things they do—yes, including acts of physical brutality. But so much violence done between people never leaves a physical mark. I’m drawn to understanding why people hurt one another, but, more importantly, how they find the strength to keep on loving others despite that. In my books, the good and bad of all that often takes place between several different characters. Again, these aren’t things I work out in advance. Rather, they develop organically from the characters.
MT:What do you hope readers take away from this book?
KM:That a good marriage isn’t just one thing. It can, and does, mean different things to different people. And that’s okay.
MT:Are you working on anything new? A new work-in-progress you can maybe hint about to our readers? We’re dying to know what’s coming next. A Good Marriage was so fantastic, and I know that I for one cannot wait for your next book.
KM:Thank you! Yes, I am hard at work on my next book. Still first-draft territory, which means that terrible heavy lifting of first-round editing still lies ahead of me, unfortunately. But the fact that I love my work-in-progress anyway says something. My new book is about a group of college friends with a troubled past who reunite to head upstate from New York City for the weekend. While there, violence erupts, and soon the question becomes where the real threat lies—with the less-than-welcoming locals, or maybe somewhere much closer to home.
MT:Thank you so much for speaking with us at Writers Tell All. We loved your book so much and are glad we got to pick your brain for a moment. We can’t wait for whatever you release next. Please leave us with any lingering thoughts, ideas, or objections, and thank you again, Kim. The book was a total thrill ride and I promise readers it’s worth every cent.
KM:It was such great fun! It’s always a treat to talk with people who read the same book you wrote. And you asked the absolute best questions. Thanks for having me!
Matthew Turbeville: You’ve written so many books, and they are, frankly, amazing. What do you think the purpose of writing really is? If you had to leave everything to one answer, what answer would you give to the question: “Why should someone write?”
Marcus Sedgwick: Well, I can see from your question that you know there are far too many responses to the matter of what writing is all about, so you’ve limited me to one answer. This is a low, underhand trick, so let me pull a low-down dirty trick in reply. To ‘Why should someone write?’ I would say ‘Why shouldn’t they?’
But now I look at that reply, although I have side-stepped answering your question, I think the possible answers to my reply might be able to tell us something. Although it was meant rhetorically, if you were to answer ‘why shouldn’t they write?’ with an actual answer, we could learn something from that answer. For example, if we said, ‘because you’re not good enough’, we might wonder, ‘oh yeah? Who says? And what do you define as good anyway?’ Or if we replied, ‘because you can’t make money out of being a writer’, we can wonder if we have a good motivation to try to be a writer in the first place. Or if we replied ‘Because all the good books have already been written’, we might release that every writer since writers weren’t writers but oral storytellers has probably had the same worry. And yet done it anyway. All these answers expose our fears and worries about what writing can’t be, or isn’t, and so their reverse therefore tells, frees us, to actually try.
MT: Your book deals a lot with time, and I’ve been thinking about some of my favorites of yours, and also Proust, now that I’ve reached a period in my life where I’m experiencing tremendous loss. How do you incorporate ideas of time, and being, into these great work for the youth of the world?
MS: It’s not something I consciously do for the most part. I think this is true of lots of aspects of writing, in that the stuff that really ‘means’ something to people comes along for the ride. It hitchhikes on the back of the story. The most important thing is to tell a good story (and we can argue for days over what that might be) and then, if you have done that well, you get the chance for people to read some thoughts about Being and Time, and now I sound like Heidegger. So for the most part, I trust that these things will emerge naturally from the story, though I might on occasion deliberately pull at one cord here, or push one lever there, in order to emphasize some existential thing like time. I’m talking about on the level of an individual sentence or short paragraph perhaps. That can be fun, but you mustn’t get carried away, because the story must always come first. Finally, I trust that notions of being and time willemerge naturally since I have felt a strong connection, awareness to these things since childhood; I have always questioned my/the sense of time (for example, with my own age, even when I was tiny I also felt very old) and since they are deep preoccupations, you cannot help but that they will emerge spontaneously in a book.
MT: Your books never belittle young people. You write amazingly, with style and plotting that’s sharp and near perfect. Why do you think it’s important not to somehow change books to fit into a young adult or child’s world? Do you think children and young adults are often underestimated, or what are your reasons for writing the way you do? What audience do you believe you are writing for?
MS: To take those questions in reverse order. Like many writers I know and have heard, I am not writing for any audience other than myself, and maybe simultaneously some detached observer version of myself, who might be me in other people, at a variety of ages. But basically I write to please myself, to scratch whatever itch is in the depths of the mind. Now, I am always saying that writing contains many, many contradictions, and here’s one of them, because it is possible to write simultaneously only for oneself, and yet still have thoughts about readers too. But if the White Queen can believe in six impossible things before breakfast, so can we. That’s why we’re people and not computers, we can run two pieces of conflicting software at the same time, and contradictions, even apparently mutually exclusive ones, are all part of what people are and therefore what writers are. (It’s why a computer won’t ever write a good book. I hope.)
I fully believe that we constantly underestimate children and teenagers and it mystifies me why we do. I mean, how many years really is it since we were children? Is it really so hard to remember that time when you heard something, felt something, read something that people thought you didn’t understand but you did? Why are we so quick to put childhood behind us? Or try to, because, you basically can’t. Is everyone so arrogant as to think, well, I remember being a kid and everyone thought I was dumb and they were talking in front of me like I wasn’t there but I knew what was going on, but that no one else had that experience? I can remember being pre-verbal and having a tantrum because I couldn’t explain to my mother what was wrong and what I really wanted, and she was talking back to me like I was a toddler. Because I was. I didn’t even have the words, but I knew, my thoughts were wordless, but clear. And so I always talk to teenagers, children and eve babies as if they are adults. (I even talk to adultsas if they are adults though I am not sure I’ve met many in my life.) We constantly underestimate young people for what they can understand, what they want to deal with, what they can deal with, what they are ‘ready for’ (another thing which drives me insane) and so on. All I have tried to do in my books is be true to my belief about that. I know it might sound arrogant at first sight to say writing is for me, and not for anyone else; but it isn’t arrogant. It might be selfish(and there’s another contradiction of writing – it is the most self-ishthing I can think of, and yet, if done well, it can be shared and mean enormous amounts to many other people). But what would be more arrogant would be to say, okay, I’m a 52-year-old Briton, what would a 13-year-old girl in Brazil want to read? Or a 16-year-old boy in Berlin..? And then assume you know and actually be arrogant enough to ‘write them a book’.
Finally, why all this is important is because if you don’t do these things, and if you treat your readers like idiots, then you will have an idiotic book.
MT: Short stories are a major weakness for me. I love reading them but am terrible with writing them. Many of your books aren’t literal collections, but are novels that contain something like stories, these complete visions of people and places and actions that bleed into others. What do you think the trick is to writing a great short story, and why do you write books like the ones I described earlier, the bleeding kind?
MS: I like the sound of bleeding books, in that that’s what a good book does, and what you aim for, something that forces or seeps or crawls or steals into someone’s (sub) consciousness and makes them feel and think things they weren’t expecting. If some of my books bleed in a different way – within themselves - I’m thinking Midwinterbloodor The Ghosts of Heaven, it’s because I wanted to give somewhat separate stories a unified power. I’m not sure I can say what the secret to writing great short stories is, but I do know this: whenever I have an idea for a story, I send some time looking at it, and one of the questions I ask myself is what kind of story would serve this idea best. Should it be a novel, or maybe it would be better as a radio play? Since I don’t write radio plays, I would then abandon it. Maybe it ought to be a film, or maybe the idea would be best served, given its best expression, as a short story, in which case I would put it away in a drawer for that increasingly rare day when someone invites you to write a short story. My wife just read a novel, I won’t say what, that wasn’t great, and at the end she concluded it might have been better off as a short story. So I know I’m not alone in this.
MT: What excites you most about writing a book? Have you ever disposed of a book, falling out of love with it or not wanting to write it? Have you ever come back to a book you thought you were done with?
MS: You never quite know what’s going to be exciting about a book, that in itself is one of the most exciting things about it. I don’t think I can give a short answer to that question apart from that. I have abandoned books, yes, often 10,000 words in (it’s pretty easy to put out 10,000 words without knowing what you’re doing) and a couple of times I’ve written whole books and thrown them away. That is not fun, and I try to avoid it happening. With my first ‘adult’ novel, which I wrote without contract in between other things, I wrote about half, then didn’t know whether it was worthwhile. And I had other things to do for six months or more, so I left it alone. When I came back to it I found it to be good enough for me to continue to the end.
MT: What is your dream book? Has it been written by someone else, have you written it, or is it still to be written, perhaps by you?
MS: I have several dream books; the one that means the most to me is The Magic Mountainby Thomas Mann, sadly not as widely read as it used to be, which is a shame as it still has so very much to offer. As for me, I think one of the thing about being a writer, a thing that forces you on, is the idea that one day you will write your dream book. But you never do. Or maybe, if you did, you would stop writing thereafter. But the chimerical illusion of perfection attracts you and draws you in to have another try.
MT: Who are your favorite writers living today (or perhaps deceased)? Children’s books, young adult books, new adult books, adult books, whatever—and any genre, please. I love how you mix so many genres and forms of writing, and wonder what authors you admire with new and different ways of writing.
MS: I meant to meant to say that I really appreciate your cross-genre/age notions on this site. I hate that we categorize stuff, I know we kind of have to, and it’s human nature to do so, but it’s not how a writer thinks, well not how this writer wants to think. That being said, I don’t have many favorite writers who are still alive! One or two, like Susan Cooper, Max Porter, Alan Garner, S E Lister – I would read anything they wrote. But I have trouble with a lot of more recent fiction, and by this I mean anything after about 1935 or something of that nature. Last year, someone sent me the transcript of an interview between the great Alan Garner and Aidan Chambers, an interview that took place in the 70s. In it, Garner also states he doesn’t like modern fiction for the reason that it has forgotten to say something important to the reader. It has, he says, forgotten to say ‘I love you’ to the reader. I am very touched and fascinated by this viewpoint and I guess, by extension that my problem with much modern fiction is that not only has it forgotten to say I love you but is instead saying ‘look how clever I am’. So my favorite writers at the moment are long dead: Artur Schnitzler, Adalbert Stifter, Willa Cather, Daphne Du Maurier, David Jones and of course, my hero, Thomas Mann. The writings of all these people say ‘I love you’. (I’m guessing David Jones isn’t so well known in the US? His book In Parenthesis, is for me, the best thing ever written in the English language. Forget the fact it’s ‘about’ his experiences in the first world war; it’s simply about being a frail, very human, loving being.)
Oh, and I must mention my new love; a fantastic book called The World of Henry Orient. It was the debut novel by Nora Johnson, and it was published 64 years ago. Were it to be published today it would be published as a YA book, I feel sure, but at the time, since that category didn’t exist, it was an adult novel. This is why I hate classifications. It’s also one of the few reasons I am happy to be 52 years old, because the YA thing didn’t exist when I was its target demographic, and I firmly believe that the YA concept inhibits as many readers as it liberates. Anyway, to return to The World of Henry Orient. It is a sublime book, and wereit to be published today (which it practically could be, without a word changed) as a YA book, it would blow most of that field out of the water. It’s a small masterpiece, and yet again, it makes me wish we could dispense with categories for books, and just sort them into ‘good ones’ and ‘bad ones’, and then we could just spend our time arguing about what those terms might possibly mean.
MT: You’re a literary superstar. I really do mean this—so many people are in awe of your books, of you, so much that you’re more than a person, even more than a legend. What responsibilities do you feel come with this, and do you ever feel there are parts of your life, or your writing, or your process that you have to keep to yourself?
MS: I don’t mind sharing most of my thoughts, because, if we’re honest, they are to be found in my novels anyway. It’s all out there, so why hide it? But of course there are some things that are only for me, or my close family. Your words are very flattering but I am just someone who has enjoyed putting words together, sometimes it has been easy, sometimes hard, and along the way, you cannot help but learn stuff. A little about writing, a lot more about yourself.
MT: Which book was hardest for you to write? Which book was your favorite? And which book are you most proud of, and why?
MS: The books seem to be getting harder the longer I go on! I don’t want to sound like I am complaining, but really, most things get easier in life, the more you do them. Writing books is definitely getting harder. Some books have driven me crazy, because of plot, for example, She Is Not Invisible, which doesn’t appear to have a complex plot, but that’s because it’s all hidden underneath, invisible, in order for the ending to work. Mister Memorydoes have an on-the-surface complicated plot, and that took a lot of figuring out, over many years. Snowflake, AZwas hard to write because I had to put a lot more of myself in than usual, and I was scared.
MT: Is there a genre or type of book you haven’t written, but feel you would love to write someday?
MS: I have written lots of different things, and if there’s one thing I am proud of about my writing, it’s that if people know me at all, they probably know that every book is different. More or less. As I hinted at above, though, I don’t really like to think in terms of genre. I just like to write a book, and let publishers worry about what it is and where it goes. Having said thatthough, one thing that drives me on is the desire to write the ‘kind of book’ (whatever that is) that I haven’t yet written. With Snowflake, AZI wanted to write the sort of book where nothing much actually happens (apart from the end of the world quietly taking place in the background). I wanted the book to work because of the characters’ interactions, and not much more. And for the last few years, I have been wanting to write a funny book. I intended to before I wrote Saint Death, and then that story came along, and that’s the exact opposite of a funny book; it’s an angry book. But I keep hoping I will write a funny book, because I think genuinely funny books are very, very few, and that’s because they are very, very hard to write. If they were easy, there would be many more of them. I still would like to try, but we’ll have to see.
MT: What do you hope your readers will take away from your books? Are there any of your books—because you’re quite prolific—which you like to think affect people most, and what do you hope readers take away from these books?
MS: Oh golly, now that is a surprisingly hard question to answer. Maybe I am not the right person to answer that question, and yet I suppose no one else can answer it for me. Um. Let me just say that I get more letters about some books than others, and those books are Revolver, Midwinterbloodand The Ghosts of Heaven. I have had the nicest letters about that last book, ones that prove the point we were discussing above, that teenagers are perpetually underestimated by most of the adult world. I have letters that would make you cry with joy as a someone who promotes reading in young people, ones that would make you punch the air and say ‘yes! See what I mean?’
MT: You often write “linked stories,” and I wonder how you feel about the way people are connected in real life, since you write so often about, as described in relation to The Ghosts of Heaven, “the spiral of time.” How are we connected to the past, and what do you think, as with the nature of a book like Midwinterblood, we could and should learn from the past in order to move forward with the future? What’s so great about presenting a book like Midwinterblood to young people as well as adults?
MS: Well, in the words of that famous quote by one of your countrymen, the past isn’t dead, it isn’t even past. It is very easy to each the conclusion that many if not all of the world’s problems are because we never fucking learn anything. Perhaps this is banal, but if so, it’s because it’s beyond cliché. People are forever being trapped by their past, the past of their families, the stories they told, the ones they didn’t tell, the words their family uses, their culture uses, their peers. And sitting inside everyone is that child they once were, who is also not dead, not even no-longer-a-child. So many people flee from their childhoods and maybe even more from teenage-hoods, and are doomed to fail because they never step out of the software that they have been running, that they were given by others, who were in turn given that programming by others. That’s why writers who do what I do are fascinated by the meaning of this time of life, and why it’s so challenging to work with, beyond what most people might imagine.
MT: Some of your books contain parts that approach horror (and fantasy, too). What books scare you most, and what scares you most in real life? You write from so many genres, but are there any genres you wouldn’t venture into?
MS: The books that scare me the most are 800 pages long and full of pretentious rubbish. As far as horror goes, I don’t tend to read horror so much these days. The creepiest thing I read in recent years would be Fever Dreamby Samanta Schweblin. That’s a good book. And it’s even modern. What scares me most in real life? That would be almost anything. I have been filling myself with real life horror for years, and I am coming to a few conclusions. One, in general, people don’t want to know about real life horror, it’s just too much. (Recently I had a professor of Societal Collapse write to me, after reading Snowflake, AZ - we got chatting over email and he ended up telling me how hard he is finding lockdown, mentally speaking. And he studies this kind of scenarios for a living!) Two, it’s extremely damaging to your physical and mental health to fill your head with the evils of Monsanto, or Bayer, or Unilever, or Nestlé, or the Koch brothers, or Facebook, or YouTube, or ExxonMobil, or BP whoever it might be, so maybe the people who don’t want to know have it right. Three, I am, therefore, trying not to be scared any more. Big ask, but I like a challenge and I only have so long left to live.
MT: What are you writing next? Is there anything you’d want to share with our readers about a work in progress, or a book which isn’t published in the US, or is currently on the way to being published now? Can you give us any teasers, information that really will help keep us satisfied until the publication of your next work?
MS: Ah, I was hoping you weren’t going to ask that, but I will answer as honestly as I can. I am not writing anything, and I am not sure why. It’s been three years now since I wrote anything that meant anything to me. I have had block in a serious way before, once for two years, and I came out of it, so I hope that will happen again. Since I always laugh at writers who have loudly and pompously declared that they will never write another book (who cares?!), only to promptly chug out a few more a year or two later, I would be a hypocrite if I did the same thing. (And anyway, who cares?!) And I understand the impulse when a writer makes this big declaration, to say this – because it really doesfeelright nowlike I will never write anything else. But this may of course quietly change one day, without fanfare or proclamation of any kind. I will be happy if it changes, but I will not die if it doesn’t.
Since that isn’t going to please any readers of mine, the best thing I can suggest since you’re US based, is that I had a short book published in the UK a couple of years ago that for long and boring reasons didn’t get published in the States. So you could hunt that down. It’s called The Monsters We Deserve, and it’s to do with creativity, the lack of it, and who owns and owes what in the creation of a book.
MT: Marcus, thank you so much for agreeing to be interviewed with Writers Tell All. We love your writing here, and I hope that our readers will go and pick up one or all of your books. They won’t regret a single read if it’s authored by you. Feel free to leave us with any comment or lingering thoughts or questions, or suggestions even. Thank you so much for stopping by, and we cannot wait for what you write next!
MS: Thank you so much for having me. I saw that you ask great questions on your site and you certainly did, it’s a pleasure to be given the chance to get deep into question such as these. Thanks again, all the best, and I’m not sure I have anything else to add, apart from the fact that reading is even more important than ever right now, so please keep doing what you do.
"I can't speak for anyone else, but for me this just felt normal": Akemi Dawn Bowman on the brilliant HARLEY IN THE SKY
Matthew Turbeville: We are so excited to talk to you about Harley in the Sky, an amazing book about a girl who may give up everything to pursue a dream. Can you tell us about how you came up with the idea for this novel and why you felt it is necessary to be told now? What do you feel when you know something—a book, a story—is necessary to be told?
Akemi Dawn Bowman: My first two novels revolved around abuse, trauma, and grief, so when it was time to draft my third book, I really just wanted to write something that would allow me to emotionally recharge. I wanted it to feel magical, while still being grounded in the real world. The circus felt like the perfect setting. And for me, I know a story needs to be told when it makes my heart light up. I’m someone who has a million ideas floating around, but for me to start working on one, I need to feel that spark. I like to think that if it feels important enough for me to want to write, then hopefully it will feel equally important to someone out there who eventually reads it.
MT: The book is a mixture of genres, just like how Harley is a combination of so many races, backgrounds, cultures, and so on. What do you think this says about American youths today, and how does it reflect where our culture is or is headed?
ADB: I can’t speak for anyone else, but for me this just felt normal. I’m multiracial, like Harley, and I’ve often struggled with feeling like I don’t “belong” to the cultures of my family. I’ve always felt like I wasn’t enough of any of the parts of my heritage, and that made it difficult to feel like I fit in anywhere. But I think maybe that’s the point—people similar to me don’t haveto fit in a box. We have a unique cultural experience, and we get to navigate that in new and personal ways. I think there are probably some interesting conversations to be had about what it means to have ownership over a culture, and how cultures grow and change over borders, generations, and time.
MT: There are so many betrayals in the first part of the book. Some are heart wrenching, even when we dislike certain characters—perhaps every character—for deceit and a lack of loyalty on their part. Why do you think this is so important to a story about circuses, coming of age, and the other adventures associated with this?
ADB: I like to think everyone has their own version of messy. It’s what makes us human. I write about characters making mistakes who are also trying their best because it feels real to me. Nobody in this world is perfect, and sometimes I think there’s too much of a spotlight on the mistakes people make rather than the journey that follows as a result of that mistake. People should be held accountable for the wrongs they do, but it’s also important to allow people to grow. Particularly when we’re talking about teenage characters, who are mostly still figuring things out as they transition into adulthood. I don’t expect my characters to be any more perfect than people in real life. And I think those coming of age themes will always feel timeless for that exact reason, regardless of whether they’re set in the circus or some other kind of adventure.
MT: The beginning starts with family of many kinds—I believe Harley refers specifically to the biological family and the found family. Why is family so important in your novels, and is family important to you as a person? Do you think, in some ways, so many young adult novels are about family for a certain reason?
ADB: Family is very important to me. The most important, really. But I also know that having a family is a privilege not everyone has. And I’m particularly aware of how that can feel for young people, who maybe don’t have parents who love them or a support system at home. It can be lonely, and extremely difficult to navigate, because there are so many emotions that come into play when you don’t have the kind of parental love that seems so normal to everyone else. Family is an important part of my novels because I want to give people hope, and let them know that even if they weren’t born with the family they needed, they can still find family through friendships. And I can’t speak for other authors, but it’s possible many of them write about family for similar reasons. Because whether someone has a family or feels the absence of a family, there’s a pretty good chance it plays a big role in that person’s life.
MT: Harley’s parents come across as truly loving and caring for her and her future. Do you think there’s a right or wrong answer on either side, with Harley or her parents, and what do you think is so great about the way you write things and present all of these conflicting views?
ADB: I think there are a lot of ways to be right and wrong. Sometimes what’s right for one person is completely wrong for another. And sometimes people can disagree, but both parties can still be right in how they feel. Not everything in life is black and white; maybe most things exist in a gray area. Hopefully this comes across through Harley and her parents, and the complicated relationships they have with one another (and Popo, too).
MT: The ending also has a lot to deal with family, with dreams, and with both disappointment and success. Can you talk about the ending—perhaps without giving away too many spoilers—but essentially whether or not you think we find ourselves in a sort of reflection of the beginning of the novel, or what the ending means to young people pursuing their dreams?
ADB: I’ll try to remain as spoiler-free as possible, but I like to think Harley fought hard to chase her dreams, and although the outcome wasn’t exactly what she’d planned in her head, she learned a lot about compromise and adjusting along the way. Even when we imagine our goals, it would be very hard to imagine the journey. Because the journey is often out of our control. Hopefully Harley’s story is a reminder for some people to be flexible, and to not be so hard on themselves and the people around them if things don’t go to plan.
MT: My heart still breaks, even after finishing the novel, of a really horrible (in my opinion) betrayal Harley commits to get what she wants at the beginning of the novel. Do you think there are certain betrayals we cannot see past, and do you think it’s realistic for those affected by this portrayal to even want to have anything to do with Harley? While it makes sense in the book, obviously certain characters (and readers) my take issue with Harley’s actions, and I wonder what you think her actions say about Harley.
ADB: Nobody gets through life without messing up. Sometimes it’s intentional, and maybe more often it’s by accident. But how we make amends, and how we turn the mistake into an opportunity to learn is so much more important, I think. Everyone gets to decide for themselves what they’re willing to forgive, and I could never make that decision for someone else. But Harley’s parents love her, and Harley knew she did something wrong. They worked through it in a way that felt right to them. I think perhaps any judgements towards Harley by the end of the book says more about a reader’s tolerance or limitations to forgiveness than they do about Harley.
MT: What were the really formative books in your life, and what books and happenings in the real world and other media you’ve consumed that have helped informed Harley in the Sky? The book is brilliant, and I’m so interested into what books really affected this, even if they had nothing to do with circuses at all!
ADB: I don’t know if this is just a “me” thing, but I’m not someone who can read other books when I’m drafting. I find it incredibly distracting, and I actively don’t want my writing to be influenced by anything else. I really lean into my own style of writing, because it feels natural to me. I have no idea if that’s a good or a bad thing, but it works for me. I will say though that there have been books over the years that have most definitely inspired me to want to be an author. Sometimes it’s the incredible worldbuilding, sometimes it’s the lyrical way someone can tell a story, but mostly it’s that magical feeling when a book comes to life, and characters feel real.That’s when I know a book is a gem. And it makes me want to write books that can be gems for other people. A recent favorite of mine that I will never stop talking about is THE PRIORY OF THE ORANGE TREE by Samantha Shannon. It’s truly a masterpiece.
MT: What is editing like for you—well, really, the whole writing process? Do you write in a certain way, space, or place? Do you need to clear your mind or do you just write freely, not letting anything affect you? How is editing for you, and how many drafts do you go through before completing a novel? For books like Harley in the Sky where circuses are involved, how much research did you have to go into?
ADB: I’m trying to be better at fast-drafting, mostly because I have multiple projects going on at once. My default style of drafting would slow everything down, as I’m someone who likes to edit as they write. In the past, I’d write a chapter, and then go back and edit line by line. But it isn’t necessarily the most time efficient work style, because I’m constantly making adjustments. Nowadays I try to just write as much as I can when I have the time available, because I know I can always go back and fix things. But I need to get the words down first. I tend to have a very skeletal outline, where I only really know the beginning, middle, and end. And HARLEY IN THE SKY went through many rounds of revisions—several on my own, and then several more with my editor. I also did alot of research when it came to the circus life aspect in Harley’s story. Originally, the circus was meant to travel by train, and I watched an entire documentary on what that looked like. But ultimately it didn’t feel right for the story, as I wanted the characters to explore the world a bit more. I also watched more trapeze clips on YouTube than I can even count, and read many, many articles on circus life. It was a lot of fun to research!
MT: What other young adult, and perhaps adult or middle grade books and authors would you suggest to readers of Harley in the Sky? I’m sure this book is developing quite the fanbase, especially with such high praise from critics including myself, and I wonder if there are any other authors you might recommend while we wait on the next great novel from you!
ADB: DON’T READ THE COMMENTS by Eric Smith, I’LL BE THE ONE by Lyla Lee (which comes out later this year!), THE ASTONISHING COLOR OF AFTER by Emily X.R. Pan, and anything by Ashley Herring Blake, Sara Barnard, and Brandy Colbert.
MT: What do you think this says about young women too, throughout the book, and in the many compromising positions Harley is forced to deal with as she navigates her way through this part in her life? What about seeing the world and really trying to commit to something affects Harley as a young woman?
ADB: I think there are a lot of important discussions about how we view women when it comes to having aspirations or goals that are long overdue. It’s also why I find it interesting that people would feel so unforgiving towards Harley. Because I’m not sure male characters are held to the same standards of morality and perfection. There are countless novels that exist where male characters make mistakes, are morally gray, or are even unapologetically the villain, and yet there are people who love them despite their flaws. And then there’s someone like Harley, who makes a mistake, acknowledges it, and tries to make amends in ways that feel right to her, but is put into a category of unforgiveable behavior. I think that speaks to real-life, and the double standards that exist when it comes to gender.
MT: Do you have another work in progress? Can you tell us anything about it, and what we can expect in your next work, and when to expect it?
ADB: I do! I’m actually working on two projects at the minute. The next book that’s set to publish is my sci-fi debut called THE INFINITY COURTS. It’s about a girl who dies and wakes up in the afterlife, only to discover it’s been taken over by an artificial intelligence posing as a queen. It combines my love of robots and superpowers with Jane Austen and period dramas, and I’m seriously so, so excited to share more soon. I also just turned in edits on my middle-grade debut called GENERATION MISFITS, which is about a group of sixth graders who meet through a shared love of J-Pop. It has Breakfast Club vibes, but with all the heart and worries of being eleven years old at a new school where all you want is to make friends. It’s very close to my heart! Both are set to publish in 2021.
MT: Thank you so much for joining us and talking to us about Harley in the Sky. We at Writers Tell All truly loved the book and cannot wait to read more from you. Please feel free to comment on anything you feel we didn’t touch on, or you want to elaborate on below. Thank you so much for agreeing to talk to us, and thank you for this book. It is phenomenal and we hope all of our readers will pick up a copy and dig in to Harley’s story!
ADB: Thank you so much for chatting with me, and for all your thoughtful questions!
"I’ve always thought that detective stories and ghost stories are basically the same": An illuminating interview with Yangszee Choo!
Matthew Turbeville: I am so excited to get to talk to you about these genre crossing, nail-biting, beautiful and unforgettable novels with you. My first question regards your actual writing style though: when do you decide an idea is right, how do you decide it’s something you want to pursue longform and long-term and what is your writing process like? (Morning/night writer, how your revisions go, where you like to write, by hand or computer or otherwise?)
Yangsze Choo: Thank you so much for having me! I wish I could tell you that I get up every morning at five, exercise enthusiastically, and then sit down to write, but the truth is far more mundane and disorganized. Mostly, I feel that I’m bumbling around, doing housework and making repeated visits to the refrigerator for “inspiration”, all while yelling at my kids to pick up their clothes…
In order to write, or perhaps be any kind of creative (which includes drawing/painting/building bicycles etc.) I think one needs a lot of blank, empty space. For me, that translates to silence, so unfortunately I have been relegated to writing late at night after the house is quiet and my kids have gone to bed. This is terrible because I’m actually a morning person and don’t like being up late at night. There have been times when I was writing certain ghostly passages in The Night Tiger when I frightened myself and had to eat large quantities of chocolate in order to recover.
I write organically (that is to say by the seat of my pants) and often discover the story as I write it. This is why it takes so long for me to write books. The Ghost Bride took about five years, and The Night Tiger four years.
MT: What authors inspired The Night Tiger and The Ghost Bride? What authors today helped you develop your own voice as a writer and author these great, now well-known novels? What book or author do you feel helped you grow most as a creator?
YC: There are so many writers that I adore—Haruki Murakami, Isak Dinesen, Susanna Clarke, Yoko Ogawa, Tana French—to name just a few. I think what they all have in common is the ability to transport the reader to a completely different world, where snow is falling outside a grand house in Copenhagen, or a professor who has lost his memory and experiences each day anew. When you read a really good book, there’s this frisson of excitement when you snuggle in deeper into the story and fall into another world, forgetting all that is before you and becoming someone else for a little time. That’s the magic of reading. I hope we never lose it.
MT: You have a lot of the mystical and magic in your writing—there’s horror, there is this place between magical realism and fantasy, and you balance everything so well. How do you feel this differs from other writers, and how do you manage to balance so many elements so well? You can easily move from one genre to another, combining all into one supergenre, the great Yangsze Choo novel. How did your own type of novel come about?
YC: Thank you for your kind words—I’m so delighted and honoured that you enjoyed my books! Actually when I started writing, I just wanted to write a story that seemed interesting to me. So I put in all these elements, including dreams, ghosts, and promises. Also, murder mysteries! I’ve always been fascinated by the idea of parallel or mirror worlds—places where things are not what they seem, whether that’s the Chinese world of the dead, or a dream world where people talk to you in deserted railway stations.
Speaking of railway stations, I remember very clearly traveling by train from Kuala Lumpur to Singapore, in those days when we still had the old trains and it took about eight or nine hours, rattling along very slowly and stopping at all these small towns. There was something both magical and tedious about such a journey, watching the towns appear and disappear, and long stretches of the track winding through green jungle, all while looking out for interesting landmarks. That, and my own nostalgia for a historic Malaya long gone, led to many of the elements in The Night Tiger.
In some ways, you could say that all novels are a journey of some sort, and The Night Tiger in particular does remind me of one. The strange occurrences in the book are like landmarks or signals that you watch out for from a train window. And from time to time, a door opens or closes to somewhere new.
MT: Speaking of your own type of novel, how hard is it for someone—an author, any author—to invent a way of writing all their own, and outside of yourself, who do you think is the most creative and unique in telling stories today?
YC: I am a huge, huge fan of Susanna Clarke (Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell). The first time I saw that book, it was in huge pile stacked in the front of a bookstore. I didn’t know anything about her or the book, which had just been published. They had two colours of the hardcover, so I seized one, flipped through the first page, then bought it to take home, where I spent the next two days devouring it. That is a very happy memory and one that I’m sure fellow book lovers have also experienced with different novels—that sensation of discovering something new and wondrous, a world that you had no idea existed. That’s the kind of feeling that I would love to give readers in turn.
MT: You talk a lot about curses, ghosts, magic, fate—what draws you to these ideas, and why do you think they’re important today? When looking at these recurring ideas and themes in your novels, what do you feel you want the reader to take away from the novel upon finishing the book?
YC: Sometimes I wonder whether we are continuously writing the same book, or the same story: exploring, turning, and examining it anew. I’m a huge fan of Haruki Murakami’s, and I get that feeling from his novels. Yet I really enjoy them and love being immersed in his world and prose. Mirror or parallel worlds has been a theme for my own writing, and how we as humans can accept the existence of completely contradictory ideas (ghosts and dream messages, interspersed with scientific data!) and be emotionally ok with all of them.
Part of this is the world that exists in your own head; one where events move towards a purpose that may exist or not—who is to say which one feels more real to you? That is the dream-like feeling that I think we all occasionally get and that I’ve tried to capture in my books. It is an escape and also a terror and delight.
MT: Which book was the hardest to write? What do you find makes things hardest to write for you, and how do you get over these hurdles and to the finish line—and so well!
YC: I’ve only written two books so far (though I’m working on a third right now), but I’d say that The Night Tiger was harder to write than The Ghost Bride, partly because it was such a complicated and ambitious narrative, weaving two storylines together at once. It also covered a number of subjects—colonialism, men and women, foreigners and locals, dreams and reality—that I’m still vaguely shocked that I managed to squeeze them in!
People have asked me whether I wrote each story out separately, and then put them together. The sad reality is that I’m not organized enough to do something like that. I wrote the whole book pretty much as the reader experiences it—one chapter at a time, swapping out the narratives. Part of it is that I didn’t know what was going to happen next, so I really couldn’t plan. This absence of outlining has been both my bane and a source of unexpected joy.
MT: There are also elements of lots of crime, intrigue, and mystery in your novels. What do you think is so important about writing of crime in today’s world? What are your favorite crime novels, and do you believe every novel is, essentially, a mystery?
YC: My youth was spent reading pretty much every Agatha Christie novel I could get hold of, and later on, other favourites include PD James, Ian Rankin, and Tana French among others. I do think that all good books contain some sort of mystery, though it appears in different guises. Whether it is the unraveling of a relationship, the demise of a dream, or the discovery of a dead body… the mystery is what calls out to us as readers to examine and explore, not just the world of the novel, but our own hearts as well.
MT: What are the connections between your novels? How do you feel they play together versus separately? Do you feel like you made a natural transition from one book to another easily? Which book is your favorite, and which was hardest to accomplish?
YC: I once heard a great quote from Elmore Leonard when he was interviewed on NPR. When asked which was his favourite book, he replied “the one I’m working on”. I thought that’s so helpful—you have to love the book that you’re currently working on, otherwise you’ll be tempted to give up (I know I often am!).
In terms of the two books I’ve completed so far, I’d have to say The Night Tiger is my favourite, and was also the harder one to write. As I mentioned earlier, that’s partly because it was much more ambitious than The Ghost Bride. Also, I noticed later that I tried to write each novel in very much the historic vein appropriate to its time period, so The Ghost Bride is written as a Victorian Gothic novel, with vocabulary and imagery.
One thing that I enjoyed about writing The Ghost Bride was being immersed in the Chinese world of the dead, with its antiquated imagery (even for that time), and burned paper offerings. It’s a world rich with superstition and ritual, where cultural expectations constrain behaviour. Yet that was also a little difficult to deal with in terms of plot, as I tried to keep my protagonist, Li Lan, historically accurate to a sheltered girl from a once-wealthy family. I was also learning about pacing and plot as I wrote that book, and there are definitely things I would have done differently if I had to rewrite it today! But I suppose all writers feel like that to some extent—a novel is never quite “done” or good enough.
The Night Tiger is set in 1931, when they had electricity and trains, so that was a lot more entertaining to write about! I’d read Somerset Maugham growing up, which helped with the background of colonial Malaya, and I have also always loved the crumbling, gracious colonial bungalows left over from that era in Malaysia. One thing I noted was that 1931 was closer to the 1920s in terms of fashion and popular culture. Beyond that, the fact that The Night Tiger is a dual narrative allowed me to play around with characters and setting in a faster and more complicated way. I really enjoyed that, though it was also rather challenging.
MT: Some authors are outspoken about the number of books a writer should author in a certain period of time. Do you ever say, “Hey, I’m moving too fast” or have any beliefs of your own? How long does each book take you, and how many more books do you have in you currently? I know I have a thousand books fighting in my own head, waiting to be written.
YC: Oh dear, I’m afraid I’m a very slow writer. I often feel terribly guilty about that. It took me about five years to write The Ghost Bride, and four for The Night Tiger. In between, I got stuck and had to put each novel aside for a while when I ran out of ideas.
A great deal of fiction writing for me occurs off the page, when I’m walking around or doing something mindless, and an idea will pop up. That’s the best feeling, though it doesn’t always happen and sometimes I go for long periods of drought. It’s very hard to sit down and write. I know other people who are much more disciplined and can do this, but for me, the creative process requires a lot of empty space, including silence. That’s very hard when you have kids barreling around the house and shouting!
MT: With violence, with crime, we also see magic related between the two, and controlling the two, in your novels. What do you feel is the connection between these elements, specifically magic and mysticism and crime?
YC: I’ve always thought that detective stories and ghost stories are basically the same, except that they start at different ends of the tale. Both address the mystery of a crime or someone’s passage into death, and both require an audience or a detective to unravel what happened. And in the end, there is some sort of resolution or reason. The magical part, I suppose, comes from our wishful desire to know exactly what happened, and that can manifest in many ways, from a talking crow to a message from the dead. Or perhaps, it is simply the possibility of a neatly wrapped answer.
MT: What do you have planned next? Is there a book being published, a work in progress, or some other book we should be looking forward to which is only in your head for now?
YC: I’m currently working on a third novel, which I’m excited, hopeful, and despairing of, depending on which day (or time of day!) you talk to me. The story itself is still being formed, but I wanted to write about snow and a cold climate. I spent part of my childhood in both Germany and Japan, and some of the most vivid and poignant memories I have are of snow falling. The silence, the soft cold, and the feeling that the whole world was being made anew when you woke up to a thick blanket of snow. So I started off by setting my new book in Manchuria (northern China) in 1908, but we’ll see where it goes. I’m still trying to figure that out!
MT: Thank you so much for being interviewed by us at Writers Tell All! We are so happy to have read your books and look forward to reading much more from you in years to come. Please feel free to stop by any time, as we will always be fans, and please let me know below if you have any thoughts, questions, concerns, or comments you want to share with our reader. Thank you so much!
YC: It’s been my pleasure and honour. These were such fun and wonderful questions. Thank you very much for having me!