Tag Archives: Q&A


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


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: 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!


Q&A With Audiobook Narrator Anne Flosnik

This has been quite a month for Q&As! Two great author Q&As at Politics & Prose – Curtis Sittenfeld and Lionel Shriver – which I will be posting about here on the blog. And three great audiobook narrator Q&As in honor of June is Audiobook Month! Here is the third one, with narrator Anne Flosnik, whom I met at the BEA audiobook narrator breakfast I attended in May. Anne narrated The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox, which I enjoyed on audio despite the fact that the discs were skipping. And I have her Little Bee on my to-listen list. Thanks to Anne for taking the time to answer my questions!

Anne Flosnik audiobook narratorQ.  How did you get into audiobook narration?

A. I got into audiobook narration via joining a local women’s networking organization in order to try to make a success of a side business in cosmetic sales. Through it, I met a lady who was a guest on a local TV show, and she invited me to take part on the show. Through being on the show I met other other performers, and heard about the Actor’s Center, an excellent “one stop” resource for actors. I joined, and found a voice teacher through it, and also through its audition hotline I found my Library Of Congress job. I was a Studio Narrator at the Library of Congress from 1996 – 2008, when I left because my commercial audiobook career had taken off with my narration of Little Bee by Chris Cleave, for Tantor Audio.

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. I prepare by reading the book from cover to cover, and I make notes concerning the character descriptions, age, personality, accents if any. I also have a page to list any pronunciations I need to look up, and this also helps me to keep pronunciations consistent. I keep all my notes, which are on paper, and in stacks, and they have saved my life on many occasions, especially when doing a series that evolves over time.

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

 A. That’s a tough question. I am keenly aware that each and every book is the author carefully crafted creation, and in a sense their “baby.” It is my responsibility to ensure with every project that I give the highest quality narration I am capable of, and be as true to the author’s intent as possible. Some books have stayed with me however, and each of them has something unforgettable about them, that has remained with me, for different reasons: The Vanishing Act Of Esme Lennox, Little Bee, and Anna And The King Of Siam.  All were award winners, and all were self directed and researched. Other extra special books include the classics I have narrated such as Pride And Prejudice, Sense And Sensibility and The Turn Of The Screw.  I have a great fondness for Long Lankin, a chilling, multi-point of view YA title, and children’s books such as The Wheel On The School and The Secret Garden. I also loved the intricate Kushiel’s Dart set in an alternate medieval Europe part of the Kushiel’s Legacy series by Jacqueline Carey. This was a challenging, and satisfying series. The books I read by Robin Hobb were outstanding, and the many romances it has been my honor to narrate.

Q.  Where do you do your recording?

A. I record Tantor projects at home. All others I take to a local engineer, and I also travel on occasion, or indeed whenever asked, if I can fit it into my schedule. It’s lovely to get to see old friends and make new ones. This life can be solitary at times. Usually I am directing myself, and do all my own research, which is an integral part of the narration process, and I find deepens my understanding and appreciation of the text.

Q. Do you ever find that your voice changes from session to session? (Sometimes I think I can tell when one session ends and another starts because the narrator’s voice gets lower, for example.)

A. Yes, I do find my voice changes from day to day, and even over the course of a day. For me it has as much to do with the time of day, or when I last ate, as tiredness, or just not feeling well. I think audiobook narration can be somewhat of an “athletic exercise,” in that the fitter I am physically, the better I perform, as my breath control, stamina and endurance are all increased. Being well-rested is an extremely important component of how I sound. I make great efforts however, to keep the sound quality as consistent as possible, and am very aware of it, along with the many other things I am listening for, and course correct to keep things on an even keel.

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

A. Most times I don’t have any interaction with the author. If I do it is usually concerning pronunciation issues. Sometimes, as I have narrated for authors over the course of a series, or even years, we keep in touch, and I am always excited to be narrating their latest work, or even doing several of their  backlist books one after the other. It is a very special bond to get to work this closely with another person’s creations.

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

A. I am finding I have less and less time to read for pleasure, but when I do I will often read something that is current. I usually have an audiobook on the go though, and for recommendations I look to AudioFile magazine for inspiration. I love literary fiction and mysteries best, along with some non fiction. I enjoy “how-to” books, and historical fiction and nonfiction are also favorites. 

Thank you to the wonderful narrators who have participated in this Q&A mini-series on EDIWTB: Robert Fass, Karen White, and Anne Flosnik! And hooray for audiobooks, which have changed my life.

Q&A with Audiobook Narrator Karen White

web_karen_5195It’s still June is Audiobook Month (JIAM) here at EDIWTB!

I was lucky to meet three audiobook narrators at BEA last month who were willing to spend the time to answer some of my questions about narration. I posted the first interview, with Robert Fass, last week. Today’s interview is with Karen White. Karen White is a classically trained actress who has been recording audio books since 1999 and has well over 100 books to her credit and is a proud member of SAG-AFTRA.  Honored to be included in Audiofile’s Best Voices 2010 and 2011, she’s also an Audie Finalist and Best Audiobook of the Year winner for 2009, 2010 and 2011.

Q.  How did you get into audiobook narration?

A: Although I am a trained actress, I actually started as an editor in audiobooks.  Back in 1999 here in Los Angeles, most audiobook production involved celebrities and abridged books.  When calling around trying to get narrating work, I was offered a job editing audiobook recording sessions on ProTools (which I quickly taught myself to use).  My supervisor there was hired about six months later to open a Los Angeles recording studio for Books-on-Tape, and he hired me as his assistant.  At that studio I started narrating as well as casting, directing and editing.  It was an amazing immersion in the craft!  When I had my first child, I chose to work less and only as a director and narrator.  (I think mommy-brain and editing-brain could not co-exist in my head.)  About five years ago, I built a home studio and now I work almost full-time for publishers 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?

Only a couple of times have I been unable (due to last minute scheduling) to read the whole book before beginning recording.  And I really hated it.  No matter the genre, I find that it’s really important to read the whole thing through to “get” the narrative voice: the tone, mood, style, etc.  And inevitably, if you start a fiction title before reading the whole thing, you’ll find out on p. 298 that Uncle George spent time in New Zealand and picked up a bit of an accent.  And it can be a lot of work to replace all of Uncle George’s dialogue with the proper accent!

When I read the book, I am paying attention to the above narrative stylistic elements, and I’m notating all specifics on the characters (if it’s fiction) and any word pronunciations I’m unsure of.  I then organize all this info so I have it at my fingertips when I start recording.  I like to get the right brain work done ahead of time so I can cruise in the left brain and work instinctively as I record.

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

A: Asking about my favorite book is like asking me which of my kids is my favorite!  But I have to say that one of my all time favorites was Sue Monk Kidd’s The Secret Life of Bees.  (I did the Library version, but not the retail version — not sure why or how that happened).  I’m from North Carolina originally, so I loved being able to work in my home accent.  And I connected personally with the material on so many levels – not so much literally but emotionally.

I think my dream is to record something by Edith Wharton.  I actually lived in her summer home one spring and summer while acting at Shakespeare & Company in Lenox, MA (it is definitely haunted) and I read most of her books then.  I chose a Louisa May Alcott story for our narrator driven fund-raiser Going Public…in Shorts because she was on my mind.  But maybe next year I’ll do a Wharton!

Q.  Where do you do your recording?

I have a “Whisper Room” which is a not-quite-but-pretty-close-soundproof modular booth.  (Meaning if my kids are screaming on the trampoline right outside, I can still hear them.  And I can hear the neighbor’s gardener’s leaf blowers.)  I think I disappoint my booth a bit.  I’m its 3rd owner.  The 1st owner did movie trailers and the 2nd did sports promos. When I bought it, I was told that a million dollars a year of voiceover work had been recorded inside it.  Unfortunately, very few audiobook narrators are making that kind of money!  But I spend a LOT of hours in my little booth and hopefully she’s at least appreciative of the quality of writing I’m working with, if not the quantity of dollars coming in J

Q. Do you ever find that your voice changes from session to session? (Sometimes I think I can tell when one session ends and another starts because the narrator’s voice gets lower, for example.)

A: Because I’ve also worked as a director and I’ve studied to teach vocal production, I am very aware of this possibility, and I try to avoid it.  It’s a good practice to take breaks at the end of a chapter, especially at the end of the day.  It’s also important not to overwork the voice, either by working too long of a day, or by straining or abusing it.  But it can be a challenge to honor an author’s specific descriptions of a gravelly voice or a smoker’s rasp and protect your voice at the same time.

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

That all depends on the author and the publisher. Unless I happen to know an author prior to being cast (this happened when I read a book for pleasure and contacted author Anna Jean Mayhew to tell her how much I loved it, and later she requested me to narrate when the audio rights were sold).  Sometimes authors just don’t have time to interact, but for the most part I’ve found authors to be very helpful in terms of pronunciation help if the information can’t be found easily online. (Author Jilliane Hoffman was very appreciative when I checked in with her on character name pronunciation as she names all her characters after her friends!)  I also tend to promote my books on social media; most authors are appreciative of that.  I had a great time reading with Meg Waite Clayton when she was in town for a bookstore event and I’d love to do more of those.

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

Although I always seem to have a half-read parenting book on my bedside table, women’s fiction is definitely my pleasure reading genre of choice.  In fact, I’ve had a little rule since I was in my late twenties that I only purchase books and music written by women, for solidarity.  (If I really want to read a book by a guy, I will get it from the library or borrow it.)  My book club recently read Me Before You by Jo Jo Moyes, which I noticed on your sidebar.  I loved that it made me cry very snottily for the last 20 pages, which would have been tricky if I’d been narrating it.

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

I’m just happy people are buying them!  Changes in technology have meant that a much larger percentage of published books are recorded in audio than were even five years ago.  I haven’t seen any numbers which would prove my theory, but I believe that the percentages of female writers having their work published in audio has increased as well.  Selfishly, that’s good because it’s more work for me, but personally, I prefer the woman’s perspective.

Thank you, Karen, for another wonderful audiobook interview! I appreciate your taking the time to answer my questions.

Karen has very generously offered to give away an Audible credit for one of her audiobooks. To win one of the books that she has narrated on audio, leave me a comment here about where you listen to audiobooks. I will select a name at random on Friday, June 28.

Q&A With Audiobook Narrator Robert Fass

I wrote earlier this month about the wonderful breakfast I had at BEA with a group of audiobook narrators. It was a fascinating breakfast, and while I was able to talk to a few of the narrators about their work, I still had a lot of questions when we were done. Thankfully, three narrators – Robert Fass, Karen White, and Anne Flosnik – agreed to do a Q&A here on EDIWTB about being an audiobook narrator. I am very grateful to them for taking the time to answer my questions!

Rrobertfassobert Fass is a tough man to pin down this month; he is currently en route to Kansas City, MO for the Hear Now Festival, a “film festival for contemporary audio story-telling in all its forms”.  He will be among a group of narrators reading Mark Twain stories live over the radio on Friday, as well as appearing with the Golden Voices reading on Saturday.

Here is Robert’s Q&A:

Q:  How did you get into audiobook narration?

A: I’ve been an actor all my life – classically trained, including several years with the legendary acting teacher Uta Hagen in NYC – and a working professional union member for nearly 30 years.

I’ve also been listening to voice recordings since I was a child, haunting my public library’s spoken-word and comedy sections all through my formative years. I had a radio show at Macalester College in St. Paul, MN, which was mostly music, but on which I also occasionally would corral friends to read plays with me over the airwaves unrehearsed. In the late 1980s I created and hosted a live improvised radio drama series entitled Radio Free Association, which invited kids to call in answers to questions I would pose, which the players and I then used on the spot as the building blocks of an improvised audio drama with music. So the possibilities of audio have always fascinated me.

I have to credit my parents as well. My mother was a research librarian who turned me on to books from an early age and helped me get my first job at age 15 shelving books in our local public library. My father was a volunteer reader for the blind for over 25 years at Recording for the Blind and  Dyslexic in Washington, DC. When he passed away in 1997, I began volunteering in his honor at the InTouch network in NYC, an amazing organization where I was lucky enough to be one of two regular readers of The New Yorker magazine every week. That gave me solid grounding in narrating well-written essays, fiction, poetry, humor, etc.  Somewhere along the way, a fellow volunteer – an actress named Katherine Puma – offered me her spot at a seminar on audiobook narration given by the Audio Publishers Association (APA). At that time the APA was looking to bring more trained professional actors into the industry and gave the attendees the chance to submit a sample to a producer for feedback. I received enough encouragement that I pressed forward and created a full demo CD which I sent to every publisher and producer in the APA. It caught the ear of a couple of folks who gave me a chance. The reviews were good, and things built – slowly – from there. It took several years before I began to make most of my living at it.

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: It’s critical to read the whole book! For fiction it’s especially important because you need to make choices about the various characters’ voices – the author often provides clues somewhere along the way and the narrator community is full of tales of having recorded a whole bunch of pages with a character in one kind of voice only to discover on page 297 that he speaks in a completely different voice – a heavy Welsh accent, for instance, when you’ve done a perfect Surrey gentleman. But regardless of the genre or the complexity of the writing, as a narrator you have to understand the author’s voice, point of view, narrative style, and, most importantly, the dramatic arc of the book. You’ve got to know where you’re going.

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

A: There have been so many favorites, it’s hard to pick just one. I’d have to point to SAY HER NAME by Francisco Goldman as a highlight. It won all kinds of print awards for the author and I’m proud that it was awarded an Earphones award and named one of the 10 Best Audiobooks of 2011 by AudioFile magazine. I loved narrating NO ORDINARY JOES, a deep dive into the story of four submariners captured by the Japanese in WWII and their lives and loves after returning to civilian life. That’s by Larry Colton. And I got to record a beautifully written memoir by Carlos Eire, LEARNING TO DIE IN MIAMI.

Most recently, I was blown away by the gorgeous writing in THE UNWINDING, George Packer’s real-life account of a disparate group of ordinary Americans struggling to stay afloat amid the dismantling of the social contract in this country over the last 30 years. It’s a brilliant mosaic, a great book that deserves to be widely read – and, of course, listened to!Most of my dream list, unfortunately, has already been recorded. Some of Stanley Elkin’s novels are among my favorite 20th century works of fiction and I feel a great affinity with his protagonists and delight in his loopy, verbal jazz. But the great George Guidall’s recorded them, so how can I regret that?

There is a favorite book of mine which shall remain nameless for the moment, a unique mystery with a cult following that’s never been recorded, a book I’ve long dreamed of narrating. I’m currently in conversation with the author about it and am hopeful of having the joy and privilege of producing and narrating it sometime this year.

Otherwise, I’ve had the great good fortune to narrate works by some of the world’s best authors and my dream list consists of any books that allow me to continue to be a part of bringing great writing to audio.

Q: Where do you do your recording?

A: These days I work mostly in my home studio. I still get out to publishers’ studios now and then, where I get to work with an engineer – sometimes even a director, the best of all possible worlds – and just focus on the read. But the industry has moved decisively in the direction of home studios over the past couple of years, in which the narrator is now also engineering and self-directing; so I made the investment to set up a high-quality booth in a spare bedroom of our apartment and refine my technical skills as well.

Q: Do you ever find that your voice changes from session to session? (Sometimes I think I can tell when one session ends and another starts because the narrator’s voice gets lower, for example.)

A: Not often. That kind of distraction shouldn’t happen if it can be avoided, and typically I (or my engineer) will compare the first few minutes of the day’s recording with that of the day before to ensure that the sound matches – that my voice has the same energy and pitch range, my mic placement hasn’t changed, etc.

This is, I believe, to a large extent a by-product of the move toward home studios. Whereas there used to be three sets of ears on a recording session (narrator/engineer/director), now there tends to be just one: the narrator’s. So more of those kinds of inconsistencies are going to get through. Like a lot of narrators, I do a series of physical and vocal warmups before entering the booth so that my voice is ready to start recording and, hopefully, it will be consistent from session to session within any given project.

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

That varies considerably. Some publishers connect me with the author (or, in some cases, the author’s representative) from the start. Others maintain a strict separation policy between the author and narrator. You may need to tread lightly sometimes, but I find it has always been helpful for me to be able to connect with the author in order to discover as much as I can about the spirit and intention of the work, any specific overarching idea they may have about the narrative, as well as to get pronunciation guidance on names, places, and other terms that may not be findable by conventional means. The authors I’ve dealt with have always been grateful for the amount of care and interest I’ve taken in approaching the narration of their work. I recently produced and narrated PULP AND PAPER, a collection of beautifully written, prize-winning short stories by an author named Josh Rolnick; his input was essential in giving me the understanding I needed to get into the hearts of those characters.  Our job as narrators is to get out of the author’s way, and I think dialogue with them helps a great deal in that regard.

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

A: I’m not familiar with this concept, spare time. Please explain.

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

A: That narrating is a craft. The majority of professional narrators, the ones who regard it as a craft and invest their time and talent in order to make a living at it, are members of the performers’ union, SAG-AFTRA.  As the audiobook listening community continues to grow by leaps and bounds, it is helping to drive a number of shifts within the industry itself. One of those shifts is a large influx of new narrators, some of whom may be capable of great things, but some of whom do not have the necessary tools to be able to make a good audiobook (which goes far beyond having a laptop with a microphone, being told you have a nice voice, and having the notion of, “hey, I’d like to narrate audiobooks”). So it’s important that listeners be discerning.

A related shift is that social media has lowered or even eliminated the barriers to communication between audiobook listeners/fans, publishers, authors, narrators, reviewers, and bloggers like yourself. So it’s important to the ongoing health of the industry that discerning listeners let publishers know their preferences for quality narration and quality production: that it matters to have a voice that matches the material; that the book is read well; that there aren’t sirens, helicopters, kids’ footsteps, and other intrusions on the audio; that names and terms aren’t mispronounced; that the listening experience of any book is the best it can be.


Lastly, a big thank you to you and your readers for being audiobook fans and for giving me this opportunity to speak with you. I really appreciate it!

Thank you again to Robert for the thoughtful answers he gave and for taking the time to chat here on EDIWTB. I especially liked what he had to say about listeners letting publishers know what they think of the recordings, so that the emphasis on quality narration is maintained throughout the industry. Hopefully EDIWTB is helping on that front!