Category Archives: Q&A

Q&A With Audiobook Narrator Patrick Lawlor

Patrick-LawlorI have had the pleasure of meeting audiobook narrator Patrick Lawlor twice, at BEA 2013 and 2014. He’s an incredibly friendly, interesting guy who has recorded over 300 audiobooks in just about every genre. He has been an Audie Finalist 3 times, and has received several AudioFile Earphones Awards. He has won one Publishers Weekly Listen-Up Award, Numerous Library Journal and Kirkus Starred Audio Reviews, Multiple Editors Pick, Top 10 and Year’s Best Lists.

Patrick has helped fuel my obsession with audiobook narrators by answering my questions here on EDIWTB as part of June is Audiobook Month. Thanks, Patrick! You can follow Patrick on Facebook here.

Q: How did you get into audiobook narration?

A: I started out as an actor, primarily on stage. Actually, my MFA is in Classical Acting, primarily Shakespeare. I have done all I can to make a living as an actor, and part of that has been expanding my definition of what it means to be a working actor. Subsequently, over the years, I have done stage, film, television, radio plays, theme parks, renaissance faires, murder mystery weekends, corporate training projects, industrial films. I’ve been an actor, director, stuntman, fight choreographer, teacher, tour guide, dancer, pub singer, bad mime, and yes, waiter, bartender and LOTS of file clerk gigs.

I was very lucky to get into audiobooks at a time when there were a lot less people trying to do this for a living. The Audio Publishers’ Association held a yearly job market, which was, in essence, a chance for prospective narrators to audition for a bunch of publishers at once, and then have several opportunities to socialize with them and start to get to know them. I was able to make several lasting relationships and got my first gig halfway through the day! I did 5 books my first year, 9 my second year, and about 12 my third. Since then, I average between 25 and 30 books a year. This has become my full-time job and I couldn’t be happier about it. I still do theatre when I can, but mainly I record. I have a studio in my home in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and these days, record most of my work there, though I still travel to studios all over the country.

Q: How do you prepare for a new narration role? Do you read the whole book through to get a sense of the characters and story?

A: As far as my preparation is concerned, I have a fairly flexible routine. Each book is unique and presents unique challenges. Some have a lot of technical, foreign or invented words that need pronunciations. Some need a lot of character voices and/or accents or dialects. Sometimes I have to learn a whole way of talking, for instance if I’m reading military nonfiction, business books  or any number of things I don’t personally know about. Nothing is worse than listening to an authority who obviously doesn’t really know what he’s talking about! Generally, though, I always read the book (well, almost always. Sometimes time prohibits a pre-read). I make a list of all words I don’t know how to say. You’d be surprised how many everyday words you think you know that you’ve never actually said aloud. I pay special attention to real people’s names, regional pronunciations, odd words and technical words and phrases. If possible, I talk to the author to get her/his take on pronunciations and anything else they might find important. If it is a nonfiction, I then start to record. I normally do not do any distinct voices for nonfiction, unless they are specifically called for or the person has a famous voice. If it is fiction, this is where the fun starts. Character work! I come up with voices, accents and dialects for every character in the book. I draw as much as possible from clues in the text – accent, stutter, quiet, fast talker, etc. Once this is done, I hit the studio!

Q: What is your favorite genre for narrating?

A: Honestly, I love all genres. I really like the diversity of the material I get to read. If I had to pick a favorite genre, though, I’d have to say its a tie between Crime Thrillers and Young Audience books. Oh, and Dog Books! I LOVE Dog Books! And Romance. I’ve been doing a lot more of that lately and really enjoying it! Oh, heck! I like most of the stuff I read! Which is a good thing, because what I read for work is pretty much all I read. I don’t really get the opportunity to read much outside of what I’m recording, so I’m lucky I enjoy it! Mostly, when I do get the chance to look at outside stuff, it’s Runner’s World magazine, or stuff like the Harry Potter books. (Which should tell you how long its been since I read as a leisure activity!) My 13 year old niece is after me to read the Divergent books, so I foresee those will be next.

Q: How much interaction, if any, do you have with the author while you’re recording?

A: I really value interaction with the authors whose work I record. Unfortunately, I don’t get to do it enough. Whenever I do, I get fantastic insight into the work, and am able to craft my work to better serve what they have done. I feel that, with very few exceptions, narrators and authors should do everything they can to develop a working relationship. It only helps the work. This is especially true when dealing with a series. I have one author that I have worked with now for 10 years, recording over 20 books. Her name is Suzanne Brockmann and she writes mainly Romance. But FUN, action-adventure, Navy SEAL, high-octane Romance. Lots of humor, action and really good writing. They are the most fun books I do. I look forward to working on them. Generally, I read them with a female partner, as Suz writes in a deep POV style that lends itself to dual reads. I have had great partners in these reads, mainly Melanie Ewbank, but also Renee Raudman and one book with Angela Dawe! With that kind of talent, really, all I have to do is show up! Suz and I hit it off right away, and over the years we have gotten to the point where we are in each others’ heads. I know what she is going to say as I’m reading, and she knows how I’m going to sound as she’s writing! Mel and Renee and I have bonded with Suz in a way that is remarkable and fairly rare. It has gotten to the point where she knows us and writes characters specifically for us to read.  We have developed a shorthand that makes our jobs much easier. There is always a real team feel when we do a Suzanne Brockmann book. In addition, Suz and I have gotten to be friends, though I just met her face-to-face for the first time last month in New York. Our relationship allows us to cut to the chase when we’re working. I like to think we both do better work because of it. I know it’s more fun!

Q: Anything else you would like my readers to know about you?

A: What else can I tell you about myself? I have won 4 Audiofile Earphones Awards and a Publishers Weekly Listen-Up Award. I have been an Audie Award Finalist 3 times. I have several starred reviews from Library Journal and Publishers Weekly. I have been featured in numerous Best Of, Year’s Best, Editor’s choice, Fan Favorite and other similar lists. I am the only working male audiobook narrator in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. (There ARE two female narrators, but one of them lives in a suburb, and the other does mostly theatre). I’m happily married to the very talented filmmaker, Karen Erbach (check out the Girl Scouts of America’s 100th Anniversary commercial, To Get Her There. It still airs all over the country! I’m a huge fan!) We have a fantastic 4 year-old American Staffordshire (Pittie) Mix named Charlie, who is, quite possibly, the best dog in the world, and we foster a 1 year old Boxer/Pit mix named Billy who is… stinking cute and trying really hard to be a good dog. To relax in our spare time, we run marathons.

Q&A With Audiobook Narrator Therese Plummer

Last week, I was in NY for BEA 2014. One of my favorite parts of BEA is the annual audiobook narrator-blogger lunch. Last year was my first one, and I was very excited to go again this year. It’s an amazing opportunity to sit down with a bunch of very talented narrators and talk to them about the process of bringing a book to life via audio. I was in heaven.

Therese

Therese Plummer (r) and me (l) at the narrator/blogger lunch at BEA 2014

I met a number of new narrators this year and also got to catch up with some friends who I met last year. At one point, I told Tavia Gilbert (who will be interviewed on EDIWTB later this month) that I had written a Top 10 Best Audiobooks post last June for June is Audiobook Month (JIAM). I read her the list of audiobooks, and she told me that one of the narrators – Therese Plummer, who narrated Faith by Jennifer Haigh – was sitting down at the other end of the table. I totally geeked out and had to go down to meet Therese in person. We hit it off instantly and bonded over our love of Jennifer Haigh. A week later, we’re connected on social media and she has answered a Q&A on EDIWTB.

So here is the Q&A with Therese, who is a FANTASTIC narrator. You can really get a sense of why she loves what she does, and why she’s so good at it. There is a lot of dedication there to making an emotional connection with the material and being faithful to the author’s story. I will definitely be seeking out more of Therese’s work.

Q: How did you get into audiobook narration?

A; I took a class with Robin Miles about 8-9 years ago and auditioned for something with BBC at what was then Talking Books in midtown Manhattan. Mike Charzuk, Executive Producer at Audible, Inc., heard my audition and called me at my day job. I was working as an assistant in a financial firm to pay my bills while auditioning and trying to make it as an actress. Mike mentioned hearing my audition and wanted to know if I was willing to come in and audition for him as a narrator? I had no idea who Audible was or what he was asking me but I said yes of course I will come and audition. I read and landed two contracts with Audible. I took a week’s vacation from my day job and that week I worked every day recording my first Audiobook, Susan Mallery’s “Delicious.” At night I was rehearsing for an off-off Broadway show. I was in heaven and knew this what was I was supposed to be doing. Working as an actress! The day I returned to my day job my boss called me into his office and said they had to let me go as there was not enough work to justify my position. 5pm that same day Mike called me and asked if I was available to start narrating earlier as his other narrator could not finish her contract due to pregnancy. I said, “Yes that should work out just fine, thank you so much!” Since then I have been so blessed to work for so many amazing publishers around NYC.

Q: How do you prepare for a new narration role? Do you read the whole book through to get a sense of the characters and story?

I absolutely do. I have to. I read the entire story and I learn about my characters and arcs and tones and moods and flow of the story. I go back and underline in different colors my characters so my brain registers once I am in the booth whose voice is coming up. I record off of an iPad these days and I use a program called iAnnotate that is a godsend in prepping my stories. The author tells me everything I need to know. I do not have to reinvent anything. My job is to honor the text and bring his/her words to life through my acting. It is such a gift to do this.

Q: What is your favorite book that you’ve recorded? Any books on your dream list?

A: My favorite book I recorded to date was Faith by Jennifer Haigh. I am not sure if it was because I grew up Irish Catholic and found the entire story so completely fascinating but I was able to connect to Jennifer’s characters in such an intimate way that I felt like I was in the living room telling this story to my sisters. It felt like family. She is a superb storyteller and my job felt so easy as she gave me such descriptive and palpable characters that to bring them to life was a joy for me. I told my producer, Paula Parker, the last day of recording that I didn’t want it to end. It is my Mom and Dad’s favorite audiobook to date. That makes me happy!

I’ve always wanted to record To Kill a Mockingbird or One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest.

Q. Where do you do your recording?

A: When I am working for Audible I travel to Newark, NJ to record in their booths. I record in NYC for Recorded Books, Harper, Penguin and Hachette.

Q: What is your favorite genre for narrating?

I actually LOVE YA books! Julie Kagawa’s vampire series that I have been so lucky to narrate rocks my world with every book. I don’t know if it’s because I am emotionally 16 on a good day or what but I love those characters and stories so much! I also love Literary Fiction. Besides Faith my other favorites have been Return To Me by Justina Chen, Tender is the Night by F. Scott Fitzgerald, Want Not by Jonathan Miles and The Family Fang by Kevin Wilson. And I will admit I adore recording Romance. I have been working on a series for Robyn Carr for the last five years. I was lucky enough to do her Virgin River and Thunder Point series and I literally built this town in Northern California with each book adding more and more characters until I literally felt like they were my family.

Amazing!

Q: How much interaction, if any, do you have with the author while you’re recording?

I have adopted Robyn Carr as a second Mom and she has accepted. She and I were able to do an event together at the Mid-Winter Library Conference in Seattle for Recorded Books and it was amazing. I could sit and talk with her for days. She is literally the sweetest, nicest and funniest woman I have ever met. Recording Justina Chen’s Return To Me was another incredible experience for me. She was able to call us with input during the recording and was just so excitedI was narrating all I wanted to do when the book was over was give her a hug. The story was incredible. I realized she was in Seattle and I reached out to her the weekend I attended the conference with Robyn Carr asking her if she wanted to get tea. She said I am going to throw my book release party the weekend you are in town and would you be my guest of honor and read a section of the book? Well after getting off the floor I shrieked “Yes of course!”. The book party was hosted in a bookstore and was packed with all of the people she had based the characters in her book off of. As I realized this I became very emotional. I said to her and the audience when I was finished reading, “Thank you for allowing me such an intimate seat on your life story. I realize at this moment why what we do as writers and narrators is so powerful.” That day shifted something in me about the work I do on such a fundamental level. What a gift it is to tell people’s stories and be a part of their healing journeys. I felt connected to the human race in such a deep way.

I will reach out to authors especially when working on their book has changed me in some way. I sent Jennifer Haigh and Jonathan Miles emails thanking them for choosing me to record their books and shared with them what the experience was like for me. They were both very grateful and gracious.

Q: What do you like to read in your spare time?

Ha! The joke is that I have started seven different books five years ago and can’t finish any of them because of needing to prep my Audio books. But on my nightstand right now is Her by Christa Parravani. I read a few pages before bed each night.

Q: Anything else you would like my readers to know about audiobooks?

I always heard my mom talk about audiobooks and how amazing they were and I was like yeah yeah just read the book! Little did I know how transformative a story can become with the right voice narrating it. I like to think I am able to bring some joy to someone listening to my narration. That service is why I do what I do but also because there are so many great stories to be told. It is the oldest form of entertainment and I am blessed and lucky to do it almost every day.

Q&A With Debbie Stier, author of THE PERFECT SCORE PROJECT

I recently reviewed (and loved) Debbie Stier’s The Perfect Score Project, a book about her year spent studying for and taking the SAT seven times. Debbie graciously agreed to do a Q&A on EDIWTB. Here it is:

debbie-stierQ: At what point in the project did you decide that you would write a book about it? 

A: I started poking around the SAT in the summer of 2010 and was instantly hooked. It took a few weeks before I declared on my blog that wanted to try for a perfect score.  At the time, I was thinking I’d take one SAT!

But then a publisher called and said, “that’s a book,” at which point I came up with a “book structure” i.e. taking every test every time it was offered in 2011 (7 times) at different test locations (5, because I had to repeat a few), and trying out 12 different methods of test prep (i.e. 1 per month).

I was going to write a “consumer report” on the SAT and test prep.

Then, my kids rebelled halfway through and an unanticipated layer was added to the story: how to motivate a teenager to care about the SAT.

Q: This must have been a difficult book to organize, considering that you had so many concurrent efforts going at once. How did you keep everything straight so that you could divide up the topics so neatly into chapters?

A: An author told me to have the structure down before starting to write, which I took seriously and spent months figuring out. The story part of the book is written chronologically, which was easy; trying to figure out the point of each chapter took months of sorting through notes.

After the first draft, I pulled out the “hard [SAT] info” and put it into boxes within the narrative, which freed me up and I was able to tell the story more easily.

Q: Was it difficult to isolate the distinct impact that each study method had on your test-taking ability? 

A: Yes, though I always knew the project was an anecdotal experiment, not scientific.

Q: Has your audience been mostly parents, students, or educators/test industry professionals?

A: I wrote the book with parents in mind and have been surprised that many have given it to their kids to read after finishing. I probably wouldn’t have shared all my “secrets,” had I known there would be teenagers reading!

I also get a lot of email and calls from educators and test industry professionals, which is gratifying. From the reader reviews on Amazon and Goodreads, the audience seems to be evenly divided between parents, students, educators and test industry professionals.

Q: Did you take time off from your publishing job to do The Perfect Score Project? 

A: Yes! There is no way I could have written a book and held a job at the same time.  I couldn’t even look at the Internet while writing. It took total and utter focus.

Q: You love the SAT, but for most kids it is a dreaded experience that they are happy to put behind them. Given your perspective on the test, do you think it is a useful barometer for colleges to evaluate achievement, ability, and the likelihood of success?

A: I think the SAT is an accurate barometer one’s mastery of the skills tested: reading, writing and math – at one moment in time.  I’m living proof that you can improve significantly, so it’s definitely a test of ability, which is why I don’t think it’s an accurate predictor of “success in life.”

I read one study that said your high school’s SAT average is a better predictor of success in life than your personal SAT score. That seems more accurate to me.

Q: Any more books on the horizon or are you back to your day job?

A: Not sure!

I’m in the midst of writing another book about educating my daughter Daisy (now home schooled), and, she is writing a novel that I’m in the midst of editing.

My guess is that her book and proposal will be finished before mine.

Q: Did you enjoy recording the audio of The Perfect Score Project?

A: I loved it!  I’d do it again in a heartbeat, though I wish I’d taken diction lessons before I recorded it!

Next time!

Q&A With Ann Patchett, “THIS IS THE STORY OF A HAPPY MARRIAGE”

Last week, Ann Patchett came to my local indie, Politics & Prose, for a reading and Q&A around her new collection of essays, This Is The Story Of A Happy Marriage. Patchett’s talk was smart, irreverent, and very entertaining. From what I learned of Patchett by reading Truth and Beauty, I was expecting someone shy and retiring. Not so – she’s feisty and funny and confident.

Here is a writeup of the talk and the questions from the audience.

AP: Here is how This Is The Story Of A Happy Marriage came about. In my house in Nashville, I had bins full of hard copies of essays I have written over the years for various publications. A young woman that I had worked with before [and who now lives in Nashville and is the head of events and marketing at Patchett’s bookstore, Parnassus Books] decided that it was time to digitize them. She scanned them all, and then decided that I should put out a book of essays. I said no, but she’s a bossy type and said yes.

I don’t read my own work. I can’t read my own books, nor do I read interviews with me. But every time something important happens to me, I write about it, and then I put the article in the bin. It took me a long time to read through this collection of essays, and when I did, I hated it. I took out everything that was bad, and then thought about what I wanted to include. So even though I thought I couldn’t do it, I worked on the book. I had published articles in such random places that I figured no one could see all of them, and now here they were in one place. Put together, it all seemed embarrassing, exposed.

What changed everything for me was opening Parnassus Books. I went from being an indoor, private, controlled person to an outdoor person. All of a sudden, I was doing a lot of interviews and speeches about the importance of independent bookstores. I was reluctant to open the bookstore, but now I know that it has been good for me. I have a lot of friends at the store; I see a lot of authors there on book tours; my dog hangs out there; and I get to force people to buy the books I love. I’ve been doing that to friends for a long time, and now I am doing that to strangers. People are scared of me, so they buy what I tell them to buy. I take books out of their hands and say, “Can we talk about this?” I have become a spokesperson for independent bookstores. The lowest price may not necessarily be the best value.

This Is The Story Of A Happy Marriage should read like a novel – it is about all the things I am married to: my dog, my store, my husband, writing.

Q: Why Nashville?

AP: I am from there!

Q: How do you balance writing with the rest of your life?

AP: It was easy with this book of essays, which I could start and stop. There is a novel I want to write when I get home. But the reality is that everything changes – my life has changed, and this is where I am now.

Q: When did you know you wanted to write?

AP: Before memory – age 4 or 5. There is a long essay in this book, “The Getaway Car”, which contains all of my advice about being a writer. Whenever someone is referred to me for advice about writing, I tell them to read that essay. It’s all in there. It’s the smartest thing I have ever written, because no one comes back with questions. It’s the “anchor store” of my essay collection.

Q: Was Truth And Beauty the hardest book you’ve written? Did you decide not to write any more non-fiction after that?

AP: It was actually the easiest book to write. What was hard was that the book caused a lot of hurt feelings and I got a lot of flack for it. There are friends of Lucy [Grealy’s] who are not in the book. I have had to overcome and forget.

Q: How did your Catholic background affect you?

AP: It affects everything. I follow a nice brand of Catholicism. I disagree with pretty much everything the Catholic Church stands for, but it is still my religion. It is all about taking responsibility.

Q: You have said that writing a book is like pinning down a butterfly.

AP: Yes. When I have an idea for a book in my mind, it is the most beautiful, perfect novel in the history of the world. When it’s completely in my imagination, it is full of movement, color, and dimension. As soon as I write it, it becomes flat. Writing is “a death of dreams”.

Q: Bel Canto is one of my favorite books. How did it come about?

A: Like most of my books, Bel Canto is about a group of strangers thrown into confinement. I write about this theme over and over. This was my fourth book. It came out in May 2001, and after September 2001, people were very interested in terrorism. A lot of people thought I set out to write a book about terrorism – not true. Like The Kite Runner, the stars were aligned.

Q: Which books are you recommending in your store?

A: A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra,  We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler, The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt, The All of It by Jeannette Haien.  A book of essays that is better than mine is A Day at the Beach by Geoffrey Wolf. Books are like lemmings – they are always being pushed off the shelf by other books. I try to save the ones that I love.

Q&A with Ben Dolnick about AT THE BOTTOM OF EVERYTHING

photo-ben

Ben Dolnick, courtesy of his website. Photo credit Michael Lionstar.

One of my favorite things that has come from writing this blog is the great fortune I’ve had to interact with authors after I’ve read their books (and sometimes even while I am reading them).  Luckily, authors answer my emails and tweets, and they take time from their busy lives to answer my questions and indulge my amateur theories about their books.

This time, Ben Dolnick, author of At The Bottom Of Everything (reviewed here) responded to my questions with some fascinating and very satisfying answers. They really enhanced my understanding of the book, and were a lot of fun to read. Thanks, Ben, for taking the time and sharing your thoughts.

(And, EDIWTB readers, if you haven’t already, go read At The Bottom of Everything!)

Here is the Q&A:

Q: I’ve been noticing a lot lately that sometimes authors isolate their characters from modern conveniences like cell phones and computers so that they can make their characters truly “lost”. In At The Bottom of Everything, email plays a limited but important role. Did you think about how much access you wanted Adam and Thomas to have to email throughout the book? How did you decide when to let them communicate with others?        

A: That’s very interesting about authors having to cut their characters off from electronics — I’d never thought of that, but it makes a lot of sense, plotting-wise. There are those funny Geico commercials about Christopher Columbus having a speedboat, or Paul Revere having a cellphone: good for convenience, bad for storytelling (for which obstacles and misunderstandings are crucial). As for my book, I didn’t think consciously about cutting them off from modern means of communication (though the plot would certainly have worked differently if they could just have called each other in India). I did decide to include emails, because I liked the density of information they could convey and time they could cover. Also, and just as importantly, the standard style of email — the informality and relative brevity — provided a contrast I wanted with the main narrative of the book.

Q: The part in India, when Adam goes in search of the cave… how did you research it? Did you go to India? To a remote village? To a cave? 

A: I have been to India, though I didn’t go specifically for research. What happened was, I was already working on this book — I wasn’t yet sure what country I wanted to have Thomas disappear to — and I happened to visit my brother, who was working for the Associated Press in New Delhi. Within hours of getting off the plane I think I realized: it would be very easy to get into deep trouble here.

Q: You have an amazing eye for detail. You drop in little descriptions –of people, of objects, of sights – that seem random but are so uncannily accurate that whatever is happening becomes very real and immediate to the reader. Um.. how do you do that? I am in awe. 

A: Thank you! To the extent that there’s something that comes naturally to me about writing — and there are huge number of things about writing that I find bewildering and agonizing and impossible — it’s probably describing stuff. I have no idea why this is so, or what good it does me, but it is, for the time being anyway, one area in which my brain seems to fire away happily, so I don’t ask too many questions about it.

Q:  On a more serious note, around p. 214, Adam truly believes he is about to die. He starts experiencing “life flashing before his eyes”, but it is different from what he expects. Did you base this chapter on something that has actually happened to you, or did you conjure up what you thought he must have been feeling? (I guess that is what writers do…). 

A: No, happily, nothing like this has ever happened to me. I have, in I’m sure the ways that everyone has, felt myself in danger at various points — near-miss car accidents, standing too near a drop-off, etc. — so I think I probably just extrapolated a bit from what that sort of situation can bring up. But mostly it was just guess-work and a question of what felt right to me, for better or worse.

Q: Why did you pick India as the setting for the second half of the book? The combination of chaos and spirituality?

A: Yes, chaos and spirituality sums it up pretty well. Because my brother happened to be working there, there was also a certain amount of arbitrariness/serendipity in the book being set in India, but it ended up being very much in keeping with what I was after.

Q: Who is the “real” Thomas – the one desperate yet lucid lying at the bottom of the cave, or the one from the hotel and the final email? 

A: I don’t know! I know that’s an unsatisfying answer, and if I were a reader of my book, rather than the writer of it, I would certainly expect me to have something more intelligent to say about it, but I really don’t think I do. Part of what I wanted to do in the book was to write about what it would be like if there were an actual, enlightened being alive today, and to some extent that I think the two Thomas’s you describe represent two phases of his development in that direction.

Q: Ok, I have to know – have you read Elliott Holt’s You Are One Of Them, and have you two compared notes at all? Your books are so similar in many ways, and I loved them both. I keep imagining the conversations you two could have.

A: I did meet Elliott at the Brooklyn Book Festival, and she seems so totally great that I’m delighted to have my book overlap with hers, but I actually haven’t read her book yet, and most of our conversation was about where we went to high school (we both grew up in DC) rather than anything literary. I’m eager to read it, though!

Q:   What can we expect next from you?  More novels, I hope.

A: I’m still in that early phase of sorting out the shape and direction of my next book — it feels like a very prolonged period of dating someone, getting to know their personality and interests and etc. — but I’m hoping that we’ll commit to each other soon.

Q&A with Elliott Holt, author of YOU ARE ONE OF US

Earlier this summer, I read You Are One Of Them, by Elliott Holt (reviewed here). I really enjoyed it, and got in touch with Holt to see if she’d be willing to do a Q&A on EDIWTB. She agreed, and gave me some excellent answers to my questions. It was a very satisfying Q&A – thanks so much to Elliott Holt for taking the time to respond to my questions!

Q: I have a theory that some authors deliberately set their books in extremely remote settings or earlier time periods in part so that social media and technology won’t play a role in their characters’ lives. Do you think that the hyperconnected-ness of today’s society, and the fact that many of us communicate not by words or actions but by texts, posts, and tweets, has complicated modern fiction?

It’s true that technology has changed the way we communicate and those changes are starting to infiltrate literature. (I’ve read quite a few novels featuring email, for example.) I don’t think that technology has complicated fiction, but there are certain plots that would no longer work. (Nowadays, if a bad guy cuts the phone line in a horror story, the potential victim could just call the police from her cell phone.) But even with all these new ways to connect, we humans still fail to communicate sometimes. And the tension between what we say and what we mean is still rich material for fiction to explore. There’s still subtext and longing. There will always be subtext and longing.

Q. You basically nailed my middle school experience in You Are One Of Them (minus the friend who went to Russia). What is it about that time of life that provides such fertile ground for fiction?

I think that a lot of what girls experience between the ages of 10 and 13 is universal. No matter where you grow up or go to school, you’re dealing with a lot of the same issues: puberty and cliques, the need to belong and the struggle to define yourself. That age is full of conflict (internal and external). And conflict is essential for fiction!

Q. The ending of You Are One Of Them is a bit controversial, because it could go one of two ways. Do you have a strong opinion about which way it goes?

Was it all a brilliant con created by Svetlana? Or was Sarah’s best friend really a defector? I know the answer. As the author, I had to decide. I know what happens in the end. But this book is a character study of the narrator, Sarah. And Sarah decides to finally let go of her obsession with her friend and to let go of the paranoid  “us versus them” Cold War mindset. So although the surface mystery is not fully resolved (though there are plenty of clues), the book still has resolution in terms of Sarah’s character. And the book is about the way we believe what we need to believe, so readers can choose to believe what they want.

Q. I loved your descriptions of Russia in 1995. I was there for the first time two years ago and found some similarities with your 1995 descriptions – no one smiling, for example. When is the last time you lived in Russia, and does it differ much from the Russia Sarah visits in search of Jenny?

I first visited Russia in 1993, then went there again in 1996. Then I lived there from 1997-1999. I haven’t been there since 2000, though I’m dying to go back. I love Moscow. It’s an amazing city. I know it’s changed a lot since I lived there in the 1990s, but I’m sure there are some fundamental aspects of Russian culture that will never change.

Q. I read an interview in which you said that “there seems to be nostalgia for the Cold War, which is probably about longing for a time when our enemy was easy to place”. I remember the gloomy Cold War 80s, with the threat of nuclear war and the nightmares that came from watching “The Day After”. Do you think we live in a scarier time today?

I don’t know if it’s scarier, but it’s scary in different ways. When I was a kid, my peers and I were really worried about nuclear war. Now I worry about chemical warfare and about cyber warfare. And about various doomsday scenarios involving global warming. There’s always something to worry about if you’re the worrying kind.

Q. I am amazed that You Are One of Them is a debut novel. When can we expect something new from you, and what will it be about?

I’m very superstitious, so I never talk about what I’m working on. I’m writing a couple of short stories right now–I love short fiction–and then I’ll get back into the next novel. I wish I could tell you when the next book will be done, but these things are hard to predict!

Q&A with J. Courtney Sullivan, Author of THE ENGAGEMENTS

J. Courtney Sullivan came to Politics & Prose in DC this summer to read from her book The Engagements, which I reviewed yesterday on EDIWTB. It was a really fun discussion – she’s funny and sweet and shared a lot about the process of writing The Engagements. Here is a summary of the reading.

Opening by J. Courtney Sullivan:

This is my third novel, and it’s about marriage. I’ve been married for four weeks, but I started this book two years ago. I was interested in how the institution of marriage has changed over 100 years, and how it has stayed the same. Same sex marriage is so recent, and as recently as 40 years ago interracial marriage wasn’t allowed in every state. It wasn’t that long ago that wives weren’t allowed to have a credit card.

I’ve had these characters in mind for a long time. I always wanted to write about a paramedic, so I created James, a paramedic in Boston in the 80s who is just getting by . Evelyn and Gerald are in their 70s and have been married for several decades. They’re affluent but not happy about their son, who is getting divorced. Delphine is a French woman who is married to her business partner. They started as friends and the passion has gone away as the marriage has gone on, and there is a new handsome man in her life.

I wrote about these three marriages, and decided that if I am going to write about marriage, I needed a couple who wasn’t interested in getting married. I created Kate and Dan, who don’t want to get married. Their best friends are getting married and one of the grooms has turned into a bridezilla, so Kate is dealing with that.

There was someone missing. I added many 5th characters but no one worked. I was writing about diamonds a lot, and read about the DeBeers advertising. Frances Gerety wrote the line, “A Diamond is Forever” – and she turned out to be the missing piece. She’s the connection between all the characters. She’s the first real person I’ve ever put into fiction.

I ended up interviewing 12 of Gerety’s former co-workers from the Ayer agency, where she worked. The agency became a character too. I interviewed 10 men and asked them, “Why didn’t Frances ever become more than a copywriter?” She was the only one who worked on the copy for DeBeers from the 40s to the 70s. She transformed the industry – before the campaign, people didn’t wear diamond engagement rings, and after the campaign, 8 out of 10 women do. That number has never dropped.

I spent two years looking for the memos that the Ayer agency prepared about the campaign. On the day the book was due, I found a box with the memos in the attic of Gerety’s house. They really infused the story. (The deadline for the book was extended.)

And here is the Q&A.

Q: The characters were so different, so fully drawn. Who was the inspiration for the characters?

A: The biggest challenge and most fun of writing fiction is getting into the heads of people who aren’t yourself. Commencement and Maine were set in worlds I know well. For The Engagements, I had to get out of my comfort zone. Each of these characters lives in a world uncommon to me. I used to be a researcher at the NYT and I know all about researching and figuring out who characters will be. I went to Cambridge and met with paramedics, went to trainings, and did ambulance ridealaongs. 1987 was different from now, so I interviewed medics from then and pulled from their experiences. For Delphine, I didn’t know Paris that well. It was unusual for me. I had to go to Paris, where I hired a guidee and walked and walked until I found Delphine’s house and her store. I interviewed a violin prodigy. I did a lot of research.

Q. Your writing and development of characters – and women in particular – is masterful. I am particularly impressed with how you write women of age and experience. How are you mature enough to identify with them?

A: I’m really 62 with an amazing plastic surgeon… My first book was about a group of friends, the second about women in a family. The next one was obviously going to be about marriage. I’ve seen my friends getting married and how it played out. What makes a good marriage? Luck? Is the success predestined based on who you are? What if one person changes? I like to peer into parts of life that I am not invited into.

Q: From a writing perspective, do you know your characters’ whole lives before you write? The Engagements unwrapped slowly – did you write a biography for each character first or write as you go?

A: With Commencement and Maine, I just started writing. I made some changes to the main character in Maine – Alice – halfway through and changed her from a sweet grandma to a someone who was bitter and scary. With this book, I really needed to know the characters first. But an outline was too rigid. I did a lot of theater in high school, and we had to answer 50 questions about our character – what is his/her favorite color, most painful childhood experience, nickname, etc. For The Engagements, I answered these questions for all four main characters. I had a sense of who they were before I started writing.

Q: Talk about the challenges of writing James, a male character.

A: I had as much in common with James as I did with Alice from Maine. I thought I’d try to write a man. Over time, I realized that it’s not so black and white – we aren’t a different species. James is just a man; I thought – “I can do this”.

Q: What do you read?

A: I read non-fiction to inform my books. As for fiction, recent favorites are Jennifer Close, Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life, Maggie O’Farrell’s Instructions for a Heatwave.  A teaser: Love, Nina, by Nina Stibbe, which is a collection of letters written by a nanny for a family in London to her sister.

Q: Did your parents’ marriage inform your characters here?

A: You can’t mother children without thinking of your own mother. Either you want to be like her or you don’t. It’s similar here – the marriage you observed growing up will inform how you think about marriage. Kate grew up in the 80s with divorced parents, so she’s cautious. I identified with Kate – her opinions were mine. I wasn’t engaged when I started the book and was a curmudgeon about weddings (though I did think I’d get married). Then I got engaged and turned into a bride.

Q: What’s next for you?

A: I am in the early stages of something new, but I am not getting into that yet.

Q&A With Roxana Robinson, Author of SPARTA

Earlier this month, I attended a Q&A with Roxana Robinson, author of Sparta, at Politics & Prose. I read her novel Cost a few years (reviewed here) ago and was very impressed with her writing, and I wanted to check out what she had to say about her new book.

Sparta is about a 26 year-old veteran of the Iraq war, returning from his second deployment. From Robinson’s introduction to the Q&A:

Robinson_JoyceRavidSparta is a departure in a way from her previous novels. She started it five years ago after reading an article in The New York Times about soldiers in Iraq in unarmored Humvees driving over roads with bombs. She was also outraged about soldiers with PTSD not being removed from combat. She felt that we weren’t doing well by our troops. She wasn’t a fan of the war. She wanted to know what it would be like to be on the ground in Iraq, so she read everything she could about it.

Robinson found this topic more difficult than writing about some of her previous topics – Alzheimer’s, heroin – and the research took over her life.  She read military blogs, which provided more than the journalists did, who simply reported facts. The first person narratives from soldiers showed them doing their job – fighting – rather than writing. She also watched YouTube videos of soldiers wearing mini cams on their helmets, so that she could experience what it was like to be in a firefight.

She talked to vets, which was most influential. She found it hard because the vets didn’t want to talk to a novelist or a woman. But she started a network and talked to vets at houses, cafes, and on the phone. These stories let her into the life of Conrad Ferrell, her main character.

Q: Do you deal exclusively with PTSD? How do you weave it in and out?

A: PTSD is very much a presence in the book. It presents in a variety of ways, and is stronger in some places than others. PTSD is an ambiguous condition. It is part of a lot of returning vets’ experiences. This is the story of someone coming home who is revisited by experiences with explosives. There are psychological as well as physiological injuries.

Q: How did you end up writing Cost?

A: By accident. I didn’t mean to write about heroin addiction. I was curious about why it is so hard to be a good adult child. Once could be an adult but turn into a 6 or 13 or 21-year old in the presence of one’s parents. When does that go away? I was writing a novel about parents and children of different ages, but realized as I was writing that the younger brother was a heroin addict. From there, the book exploded.

Q: Did you hear from or talk to the VA since you finished Sparta?

A: I didn’t. I went to the VA in NY but wasn’t allowed in. I hung around and saw people going in and out. I saw notices and talked to someone who worked there, and got testimony from vets who have been there. I don’t expect to hear from them.

Q: Has the government admitted anything?

A: The book is not an accusation. It is based on serious, published facts and the public record.

Q: How was it turning non-fiction into fiction?

A: With the novels I have found myself doing, there has been a lot of research. Characters in those worlds are not in my world. I have to live someone else’s life. This was the hardest book I’ve written.

Q: Did anything surprise you in your research?

A: I started at such a low level of knowledge that everything was a surprise. I only felt outrage. I learned that war is about emotion, not strategy, weapons or weather.

Sparta sounds like a very powerful read – I hope to get to it soon.

 

Q&A with Lionel Shriver, “Big Brother”

Yesterday, I reviewed Big Brother by Lionel Shriver. Here are my notes from a Q&A with Shriver about Big Brother that I attended last month at Politics & Prose here in DC. I hope this helps provide more color around Big Brother – I certainly found that it did.

Her commentary about Big Brother:

Big Brother by Lionel ShriverThis is a book about a sibling relationship – an intense relationship together as children that bonded them. Pandora wants for herself the wholesome solidity she identified with her father’s parents in Iowa, where the book is set. She likes modesty and authenticity. Edison is competitive with their father, and wants to see his name in lights, make a name in the world. There is a different trajectory for these two.

Edison is handsome, but has now fallen on hard times. Pandora, on the other hand, became accidentally successful. Career success is a running theme in the book, as is obesity.

This is a book that looks at the larger issue of appetite. Career success and food themes come together. In the book, Pandora concludes, “we are meant to be hungry”, and that the state of satiety is not to be envied. Desires give us a sense of direction and energy, a place to go toward. When you have you what you want, life becomes a static experience.

Success is an absence of pain, but it’s pleasant and mild. “Suffering, though, has an intensity that contentment doesn’t. Sometimes I miss the drive that the other gave me.” As far as being successful, Shriver is “doomed to consider myself very lucky”.

The small sacrifice that having a higher profile has brought: attention has shifted from the book and her brother (whom the book is loosely about) to her. Book reviews talk about her diet and her exercise routine. This has illustrated what the book is about: the excessive importance we place on physical size. We’ve gone existentially backwards.  The observations on people’s size has become “a sick spectator sport”. She was exposed to it for weeks.

Q&A:

 Q: Why make your home in London? Most of your books are set in the U.S.

A: I was living in Belfast, and was going to spend one year there and instead spent 12. My partner there got a job in London, and I owed him, so we moved. We split up, but I have career reasons to be in London – a large readership, and I am better known there. I’ve been in the U.K. for 26 years. It has become a big part of my identity. I do think about what it would be like to move back to the U.S. – it would be relaxing but would cause an identity crisis.

Q: This book is deeply personal and different from your other books.

A: Not exceptionally so. There is usually some personal element that has drawn me to a topic. I lost my brother [to obesity], so it makes sense that this book would come now. But I am not an autobiographical writer. I find that when I am forthcoming, I get the “autobiographical” tag thrown in my face. Especially with female writers – the term is meant to be diminishing, like you can’t make stuff up. With Big Brother, it helped to have something to work through. With So Much For That, I had lost my closest friend to the disease in the book, and was contending with my own mortality.

Fiction can combine abstract/social issues with something personal and close to home. It is the illustration of the minutiae of an issue.

Q: Has writing books gotten easier?

A: Writing books hasn’t gotten any easier, which seems unfair. I had no confidence in this book for its entirety. I only decided I liked it at the final draft. It was very anxious-making.

Q: Why did you change your name at 15 years old?

A: I hated it; it wasn’t the right name for me. I am glad I did it when I did. The longer you put it off, the harder it is.

Q: What did you learn about out-of-control appetite? Did writing the book give you any understanding into our celeb-obsessed culture?

A: We turn to food to satisfy other appetites that food can’t satisfy. If you’re eating because you’re lonely, you can eat the whole fridge and you will still be lonely. “Comfort eating” is a weird expression. You won’t feel better at the end – eating comfort food generally makes you feel dumpy and irritated with yourself.

As for celeb-obsessed culture: Why don’t young people have more ambition to achieve, or make something? We have blurred career success and celebrity. Why is it interesting or exciting to get a picture in a magazine? I think it has to do with the prevalence of visual images. I deliberately made Pandora, the narrator of Big Brother, a little overweight. It is important that she has her own food issues. She is able to speak candidly, and get a little further under the surface.

Q&A with Curtis Sittenfeld

In June, I attended three great Q&As at my local independent bookstore, Politics & Prose: Curtis Sittenfeld, Roxana Robinson and Lionel Shriver. I have gotten a little behind in writing them up for EDITWB, but here is a start: a summary of Curtis Sittenfeld’s Q&A about her new book, Sisterland, which I reviewed here. While I didn’t love Sisterland, I found that her answers gave me some good perspective on how she wrote it.

Intro: Sittenfeld had a memory growing up of someone who had predicted an earthquake. She thought it was a “juicy premise” for a novel, because there is built-in tension around whether the quake will happen or not. She decided to base Sisterland on this premise, told by someone who is close to the person making the prediction. “Oh, and they’re psychic.”

Q: Now that you have a national audience, does that change your writing process? Does being famous make you focus more on how people will receive your work?

A: My last book was 5 years ago. I had written three close together, and then had 2 children. I don’t think about how a book will be perceived until it’s closer to publication. Then I get fretful, especially about the sex scenes. With this book, and my new life as a mother, I was more conscious of the sex scenes!

Q: Has your writing process changed from novel to novel?

A: Yes, because my life has changed. With Prep, I was not under contract, so writing it was a leap of faith. I hoped that someone would want to publish it. Since then, I had three book deals. I’ve needed to be saved from myself, from writing books that are “good enough to publish but not that good”. My goal is not just to sell books but to be proud of what I’ve done. Also, being a mother has made me much more efficient. It used to be that I would only write if I had at least 4 hours. Now, I will write if I only have 90 minutes.

Q: There is a gay character in all of your books. What is your inspiration?

A: My oldest friend from growing up married another woman, and she once told me that she loves my “strong lesbian characters”. Some people think that there are characters in my books for diversity’s sake, but the fact is that this is the world I live in at age 37. Characters can have biases/prejudices that are not the same as the author having them – there can be an “uncomfortable overlap” there.

Q: Did you expect Prep to be as popular as it was?

A: No. I went to the Iowa’s Writer’s Workshop, so I did know of people who’d had books published, people who enjoyed bidding wars over their books. For Prep, out of 15 publishers, only one wanted it. I got a $40,000 advance, which isn’t that low. With Prep, I was lucky – I had young publicists who were really into the book and found all kinds of creative ways to promote it. This made me a little spoiled and I didn’t appreciate how great an experience that was. It made me have an illusion about publishing. With The Man of my Dreams, that experience put the first one in context. I realized that it is not all automatic.

Q: How is it different writing about a real person vs. making up characters completely?

A: When you write non-fiction, people try to prove it isn’t true, and if you write fiction, people try to prove it is. With American Wife, I focused on the broadest parts of Laura Bush’s life. I borrowed the irresistible details, and made up the rest. It is hard because there was a lot of public awareness of her life, and people wanted the book to match up to that.

Q: What impact have women writers had on your success?

A: That’s a good question, but a fraught one. I’ve gotten away with writing “lady books that are still taken seriously”. Some people call it chick lit, but I think it is in the eyes of the beholder. We all live in the world and have impressions of which books are “serious”. I think of myself as being my own demographic: I write books that I would want to read. I want covers that looks like books I’d want to pick up, though the publisher decides how to market the books. “If I had to choose between sales and prestige, I’d choose sales.”

Q: Race is an integral part of the story. How much was drawn on personal observation?

A: I compare writing a book to building a nest; I borrow people, places, etc. from many different places to create the story. Sometimes I take things that I read in the papers (I had read about an incident in Wal-Mart that was similar to what happened at Target in Sisterland.) I also make things up. I tend to write about upper-middle class white women because that’s the world I live in. “I’d rather have someone be engaged with my book and find shortcomings in it than not be able to get past page 3.”

I was happy to have had the chance to hear Curtis Sittenfeld talk about her writing process. Stay tuned for more write-ups!