Tag Archives: politics & prose

Q&A with Yaa Gyesi, author of HOMEGOING

I was fortunate to hear Yaa Gyesi answer questions about her new novel Homegoing at Politics & Prose a few weeks ago. (Here is my review of her book.)

Here is what she had to say about Homegoing and her writing process.

Q: What was the inspiration for writing the novel?

A: I went to visit Cape Coast Castle in Ghana in 2009 on a grant from Stanford. The inspiration for the book was instantaneous once I got there. I knew that’s what the book would center around. British soldiers would marry local woman and live upstairs, and slaves were kept in the dungeons below. The castle is majestic and beautiful, contrasted with what was going on downstairs.

Q: Did you feel the weight of a spiritual presence there?

A. Yes. The place is haunted. How many people died there? They had no light, air or food.

Q: Your book focuses on the experience of women.

A: It is very hard to erase the pain of these people’s lives. Very little has been done to make amends for what they went through. When you go there, you feel grief and rage. How could this have happened for so many hundreds of years?

Gyasi YaaQ: Homegoing is not a bitter novel. Were you conscious of the emotional demands you were making on your readers?

A: I did not want to ascribe blame. I wanted to show the complexity of the situation. There are no villains or heroes here; it’s a nuanced representation of how people came to evil circumstances.

Q: Do we all bear responsibility?

A: Yes, you’d have to wonder what would have happened if ethnic groups in Africa had banded together and fought back? We all had responsibility for stopping it before we did.

Q: What research did you do for Homegoing? How did you pick the Ashanti tribe? How did you establish the chronology for the book?

A: I picked the Ashanti tribe because they were central, inland and incredibly powerful. They were feared by both English and Africans. They won a lot of wars against the British. The Fanti are coastal, and would also sell people to the British. The two tribes would invade each other’s villages and sell the captives. I wrote chronologically, and would research what was going on in the background so that I could put it in the book. I didn’t want the book to feel stuffed with research.

Q: The book has one storyline in Africa and one in America, with 14 characters across separate sections.

A: I knew I wantd the book to end in the present tense, talking about the African-American experience. I made as many pitstops in between as possible. I needed it to cohere.

Q: Did you think of the different chapters as short stories?

A: No. The book always felt novelistic in scope. It felt complete and holistic. The chapters can be read separately but the point is what they all look like together.

Q: Did you ever second guess this structure and feel like you needed to write it in a more traditional way?

A: I started it in a more traditional way, but it wasn’t working. This structure suited me better.

Q You have a lot of different cultures in this book.

A: I grew up between cultures. I didn’t feel Ghanaian or African-American enough. This is the physical manifestation of straddling two worlds. I wouldn’t have written the book if I hadn’t been born in Ghana and grown up in Alabama.

Q: Who are your literary inspirations/heroes?

A: Toni Morrison – Song of Solomon totally got me started. Edward Jones. Jhumpa Lahiri.

Q: This is a story of disruption, where so much is lost. But there is hope too.

A: Diaspora is hugely important to me. My sense of self, racially, was confused. I was cut off from African culture and left for college asking a lot about diaspora. My trip to Ghana was a chance to connect with my own roots. The slave trade fractured families so completely. What did that mean for the future and our legacy?

Q&A with Jane Smiley, SOME LUCK

I attended a Q&A with Jane Smiley at Politics & Prose earlier this fall, and since I just reviewed her new book Some Luck, I thought I’d post the Q&A now.

Smiley calls Some Luck an “old person’s way of writing a novel” – with the years progressing evenly, as “happy and tragic events came and went”.

Q: A lot has happened since you started writing. Has it affected your writing or could you have written the same book 20 years ago?

A: I think so. I came up with this idea 5 years ago, decided on a setting, settled on Walter and Rosanna, gave the kids personalities, and set them on their way. The book is mostly made up of history and gossip.

Q: A lot of your books have an agricultural motif. Have you lived on a farm?

A: No, but I lived in Ames – what’s the difference? I moved to Iowa City at age 22. I was interested in farming, the ecology of farming in our lifetime. If I had gone to UVA, I would have gone down another path.

Q: You used to teach. When you taught, did it affect your writing, and did your writing affect your teaching?

A: Yes. Once I was writing a story, and teaching undergrads, and I was giving tips for storywriting and in the process came up with how to move on in the story.

Q: Do you write thinking about how the book will sound out loud? Do you ever wish you’d changed a word?

A: Yes, in fact I did tonight during my reading.

Q: A Thousand Acres had King Lear as its background. Did anything inspire Some Luck?

A: No, I just wanted to fill this title: A Hundred Years. This was much more free form. I knew where I was headed. I knew Frank would go to war and the farm would change and someone would stay on the farm. It had boundaries, but not structure like King Lear.

Q: Some Luck is the first of a trilogy. Are the other two books finished?

A: Yes. I need to fiddle with the last 5 years.

Q: Which books influenced you as a girl? Little House on the Prairie?

A: That series was read to me as a kid. The books that had the most influence on me were the ones I read as a 13-14 year old: Giants in the Earth, David Copperfield, The Web of Life.

Here is a video of the reading.

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 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!


Washington DC is U.S.’s Most Literate City… Again

I am proud to say that for the second year in a row, my hometown (and current town) of Washington, DC is rated as the most literate city in the U.S.  The ratings are based on data that includes number of bookstores, library resources, newspaper circulation and Internet resources.

I am glad to see that the closing of chain bookstores hasn’t had a negative effect here, and I credit Politics and Prose for helping to nurture and maintain this book-focused community.

Here are the other cities in the top ten: 2. Seattle;  3. Minneapolis; 4. Atlanta; 5. Boston; 6. Pittsburgh; 7. Cincinnati; 8. St. Louis; 9. San Francisco; and 10. Denver.

Did your city make the list?


Lionel Shriver at Politics & Prose

I had the privilege of hearing Lionel Shriver speak at Politics & Prose earlier this week. She is on tour for her new book, So Much For That, which I bought but haven't read yet. (I also heard her speak about The Post-Birthday World a while back – here's what I wrote then.) She was fascinating and entertaining, just like last time, and her reading definitely made me want to read the book.

Here is what she had to say.

Being here in DC the day after the embattled vote on health care and promoting a book about the U.S. health care system is good timing. But while that's the theme of the novel, it is a novel, not a treatise. It is about people, and it does have a plot. The timing may seem calculated, but she started writing the book before Obama was even a credible candidate. "Health care reform" wasn't even in the American lexicon yet.

Writing So Much For That was not the most commercial decision. Shriver doesn't want to write fiction so heavy that you don't want to go back to it, that you say "oh no" and go to sleep instead of reading before bed. She tried to keep the book entertaining and energetic, so that it passes quickly. She also didn't want to get weighted with politics, didn't want to write a long op-ed.

In the novel, the wife of the main character is diagnosed with an aggressive, fatal cancer – mesothelioma. The wife views death as a personal defeat, and won't face up to the fact that she is dying. Shriver based this character on a friend she had, who also died of cancer and never admitted, even up to the end, that she was dying. Shriver found it "alienating and distancing" that they never talked about her situation.

This type of denial can be very hard on a marriage, which Shriver explores in the book. First, it's impossible for the healthy spouse not to think ahead to what will happen when the sick spouse is gone, instead of being in the moment and appreciating the time left together. ("We are a forward-looking species.") Second, when one spouse is seriously ill, it upsets the power balance. The person who is sick has all the power, and the person who is well has no rights. He/she is totally dedicated to the needs of the sick person.

After the reading, Shriver answered questions.

Q: We Need To Talk About Kevin, tennis, The Post-Birthday World, and now this… these books are all so different. What is the connectivity? What makes you focus on these topics? Your writing style differs so much, too, from book to book.

A: I hate the idea of repeating myself. I try to keep myself entertained. So I have tackled different subjects. This variety is a source of pride for me. I don't want to churn the same thing out over and over. As for the connection, it's a sensibility, and a bit of perversity. I create characters who are famously difficult to like, though *I* like them. Why write about perfect people? I want to write about real people who have problems and sometimes disappoint. People who don't conform to stereotype. I don't want to write about people who obey the rules. I like to say the unsayable and bring subtext to the surface.

There is a place for niceness in the world – I do respect a certain moral order and people who do nice things. But I like moral complexity. In this case – how much is one life worth? Is it right to spend $2 million to extend a life by 3 months, if that life is miserable?

I try to vary my prose style, but I am stuck with myself – it is my voice, after all.

Q: There is a similarity between the marriage here and the marriage in Kevin. You seem to write about the powerlessness of good people, needy people. Is there a light at the end of the tunnel in this dynamic?

A: Yes. There is a paradigm where virtuous people get taken advantage of. People are all too happy for others to take responsibility for them. This is a social problem – in the U.K., 45% of families are net beneficiaries of the state. As for a light at the end of the tunnel – this book has a happy ending. The reader has earned it, and so has Shep [the main character].

Q: Tell us about heath care reform and this book.

A: I didn't jump on the health care reform bandwagon, but that doesn't mean I didn't have political motivations. I did want health care to change in this country. I wish the book had come out a year ago. The bill that passed is better than nothing, in that it adjusts some of the most egregious problems, but I wish it did more about the actual cost of health care. We are now stuck with private health care for the next 20 years. Most countries have universal health care, which is fairer and, more important, cheaper.

Q: You write a lot about food – would you ever write a novel about food?

A: I do write deliberately about food, which is a sensory business. I also think the way people cook says a lot about them. Food is very useful that way. I have strong feelings about food, and I cook a lot!

Q: What are your feelings about euthanasia?

A: It depends on the circumstances, and individual choice, up to a point. It also becomes an economic choice. Keeping people alive when they are not present is very expensive, and I am against it. We have to start answering these questions practically and brutally.

This is how I approach life: FEEL WELL, and don't take for granted how well you feel. So many people in the U.S. are "pre-sick". We should spend less money on end-of-life care, and we need a different way of living and regarding ourselves in our bodies. Let's appreciate that our bodies work, instead of being in a state of fear about our bodies.

Q. Who were your literary influences?

A: Richard Yates, Faulkner, and Dostoevsky growing up, but I can't read them anymore – they are too dense. Also, Robert Stone and Edith Wharton.

Q & A With Jonathan Tropper At Politics & Prose

Tonight I had the great pleasure of hearing Jonathan Tropper read from his latest book, This Is Where I Leave You, and answer some questions. I've been a fan of Tropper's for several years – in the three years I have written this blog, he is the only author I've reviewed three times. (Here is the review of This Is Where I Leave You, here is the review of How To Talk To A Widower, and here is the review of The Book Of Joe).

Tropper is as funny in person as he is in his books. Here's what he had to say.

Background: This Is Where I Leave You started out as a different book. Tropper had just gotten a new publisher, one that gave him a lot of leeway, and he set out to write a book about marriage seen through the prism of divorce. He decided to have his main character lose his wife and job on the same day - two of the things that defined him as a man - and set off on a downward trajectory, flailing at age 35. Tropper then wrote a scene where his protagonist went to his parents' house for a birthday party for his father, along with his messed up siblings, and Tropper found that his book really came alive then. He ended up throwing out everything he had written so far, and made the book more about the man's relationship with his family and less about the failure of his marriage. In the interim, he had to kill off the father, turn the birthday party into a funeral, and convert the whole family to Judaism, so that he could take advantage of the seven-day mourning period.

Q: Was Judd Foxman's name Judd Foxman before he became Jewish? No, he had a different name before. Tropper couldn't remember the old name.

Q: Would you ever write a sequel to This Is Where I Leave You? What happens to the characters after the book ends?No, he wouldn't write a sequel. He sees no value to that. Each book is about a specific journey, and there is no use revisiting the characters when the journey is over. There is no fun going back to the same guy to see how he is now. Also, the book got good reviews – no need to bring out another version!

Q: This Is Where I Leave You has been optioned for a movie. Have you thought about which actors should play the characters? No, he's bad at that. He sees his characters as he envisioned them during the year and a half he was writing the book. He doesn't see anyone particular in the roles.

Q: So what DOES happen to these characters in the end? Are you worried Hollywood will slap on a happy ending? All is not healed and redeemed, they don't all love each other in the end. Deep hurts will come out again, and will fester with bitterness. Since he's the screenwriter for the movie version, he's not worried that the ending will be different. He will have to edit, get rid of certain subplots and characters to get the book to fit into a two-hour movie.

Q. What's happening with the film versions of your other books? Everything Changes has been optioned, and Toby Maguire is either going to star or produce it. How To Talk To A Widower is at Paramount. The director and studio can't come to an agreement on the lead actor.

Q: This Is Where I Leave You is more than just a funny book. It really struck a chord with me, emotionally – it seemed like some of the characters came right out of my family. Is it true that you are working on a remake of Harvey with Steven Spielberg? Yes. He already wrote the script for the remake of Harvey, and Spielberg got interested and asked him to rewrite it, so he is doing that. It's an adaptation of the play as a 2010 film, rather than a remake of the original movie. He wanted to tell a contemporary tale – there is not much in common with the original movie.

Q: Have you heard from your former publisher since the success of This Is Where I Leave You? Yes, they have been very gracious. They know that they didn't do all they could with his last book, How To Talk To A Widower, which was a bestseller in four countries but didn't have parallel success here. He was sick of his wife calling him "Hasselhoff".

Q: When you write, do you think cinematically now? No, he tries not to. He has gotten accused of doing so before, but he has always written that way, and in fact tried to make his last two books "non-optionable". (They got optioned anyway). This Is Where I Leave You is hard to adapt – much of what happens does so in Judd's head; the book is episodic; and it's not a typical three-part story. Yet it got optioned anyway.

Q: Which writers influenced you, and which contemporary writers do you enjoy? When he was young, Tropper read a lot of Stephen King books, and wrote stories about vampires. Then he read Jay McInerney's Bright Lights, Big City, and it was like a bunch of light bulbs went off. He realized what you can do with writing. He commends that book, which is brilliant and economical – calls it one of the most brilliant books of the last 20 years. Kurt Vonnegut was also an inspiration. He used mini chapters and paragraphs and colloquial tone, and Tropper thought, "I could do that." (Which of course was wrong.) You don't have to be Charles Dickens or Henry James to write books. Favorite contemporary authors: Richard Russo, Jonathan Lethem, Michael Chabon, Joyce Carol Oates, and ____ Hedges (I didn't catch the name – Jonathan Tropper, if you're reading this, can you leave a comment with the name of this author??). People assume he's well-read – he isn't. He doesn't read when he's writing, and then he doesn't have time to read when he's touring, and then he's writing again, so the books pile up on his nighttable.

Q: Your books are incredibly well-paced. How do you achieve that? He doesn't chart out the plot beforehand. It comes naturally, and then he edits and moves pieces around and changes things when he feels as though the plot has come to a standstill.

I really, really enjoyed Tropper's talk tonight. He's very funny and down-to earth, and I also liked talking to him after the reading, when he patiently signed my four books. Thanks for a great reading!