Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Q&A with Kaira Rouda

Kaira Rouda is the author of the new psychological suspense novel Best Day Ever. Her other novels include Here, Home, Hope and The Goodbye Year. She spent more than 20 years in the marketing field and created the real estate brand Real Living. She is based in California.

Q: You note that your character Paul in Best Day Ever "popped into my subconscious almost fully formed." What did you think when he appeared there, and how did you decide on what you'd do with him?

A: Honestly, it was both fun and a little terrifying. The interesting thing about Paul is that he told his story, I just wrote it down. I know that sounds crazy, but it’s true. I’m not a plotter, so it’s up to my characters to tell their stories. Paul was happy to oblige.

Q: You write that "we are all unreliable narrators of our personal stories." What do you think the role is of an unreliable narrator in a story like this one?

A: I do think we’re all unreliable, but to varying degrees. Paul is completely and utterly unreliable because his version of who he is as a husband, dad and provider are completely opposite of reality. But, on the flip side, he truly wants the reader to think he’s a great guy. He likes himself a lot and wants you to as well.

Q: Did you know how the novel would end before you started writing it?

A: I didn’t know the ending. But Paul did. Almost. I did have a general sense of what Mia, his wife, would think of allowing her husband to dictate the story and only provide his version of their life together.
Q: How was the title chosen, and what dos it signify for you?

A: I typically start with the title when I’m working on a new novel, and this book was no exception. We often told the kids a version of “make it a great day” or have the “best day ever”. As they were walking out the door to middle school, for example, it might have been a bit optimistic.

There’s an irony in the word “best.” How do you ever know if it is truly the best day, or if tomorrow may be?

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’m working on another psychological suspense, which will publish in September of 2018. I’m excited about it!

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I really appreciate readers, and reviewers. Thank you for taking the time to read Best Day Ever, Deborah!

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Joel Gordonson

Joel Gordonson is the author of the new novel The Atwelle Confession. He also has written That Boy from Nazareth. He is an international attorney, and he lives in the Pacific Northwest and Southern California.

Q: You write that part of the inspiration for The Atwelle Confession came from the discovery of some wooden carvings in an English church. How did you learn about this discovery, and what role did it play in the creation of the novel?

A: The genesis of the book came from a dinner with a good friend, a medieval historian, who told me about her discovery of mysterious, rare gargoyles in a remote church in Norfolk, England. 

Later that evening, after two hours of creative staring at the bedroom ceiling, I got up and wrote down the rough outline of the plot. It was the kind of plot I like to read—lots of characters and scenes that seem unrelated at first and then come together to a surprising conclusion. 

So I kept at it, with my friend helpfully educating me on the mystery of the carvings as well as additional unusual facets in this unique church off the beaten patch. The Atwelle Confession was the result (and we’re using the book to help raise money for restoration of the carvings).

Q: The novel alternates between chapters set in the present day and chapters set in 1532. Did you write them in the order in which they appear, or focus on one time frame and then move to the other?

A: The Atwelle Confession involves two separate but related murder mysteries occurring 500 years apart that have a single solution in the last chapter. 

I wrote both parallel story lines at the same time in the order of reading since the vertical story lines in each of the two centuries had to fit and complement “horizontally” the related action in the other century’s plot. A friend of mine called that approach “the double helix,” two plots ascending in parallel curves but closely connected in each chapter as they rise. 

However, in the editing process, I made sure that the story line of each century flowed coherently as a free-standing plot.

In the middle of the manuscript with all its numerous characters and subplots in the two centuries, I finally had to resort to visual “story boarding” involving two lines of recipe cards with plot points positioned up and down and left to right on a long cedar chest, with a blood red cherry lifesaver on the recipe cards wherever there was a murder. 

Not surprisingly, the “story board” looked like a double helix with red polka dots neatly pressed on an ironing board.

Q: Did you know how the novel would end before you started writing it, or did you make many changes along the way?

A: My professional training is in the law, where one’s writing typically starts with a clear idea of where one is ultimately going and how to get there. 

Similarly, in my fiction writing, I don’t start writing until I have a pretty firm grasp of the entire concept, the theme or message I want to convey, the plot points where the action rises and falls, and a surprise ending. That approach helps me write a tighter first draft that logically connects the dots in a way that keeps the reader interested and entertained.   

After that, it’s all about editing, more editing, further editing, and then additional editing after that.  As Justice Brandeis said, “There’s no such thing as good writing, only good rewriting.”  

So while I start with a very detailed idea of where I’m going in a plot, some changes are made all along the journey. In fact, I unexpectedly changed the ending about half-way through The Atwelle Confession after rereading the ending of an Agatha Christie classic, which I adapted to my use.

Q: Who are some of your favorite writers?

A: As a younger reader, I was heavily influenced by Dumas, Twain, and Dickens, and later by LeCarre and Heller -  all authors of fiction classics comprised of original, captivating, multi-faceted plots with a fitting message for our times as well as theirs. 

I am compelled to name Abraham Lincoln as well, though he may not be remembered foremost as an author. His collected letters and speeches contain some of the most elegant and inspiring phrases ever written about some of the most emotional and difficult burdens ever borne, along with courageous and instructive self-deprecating humor. 

There’s an insightful analysis of his writing skills in Fred Kaplan’s Lincoln: The Biography of a Writer.

My enjoyment and appreciation of writing with surprise endings came, not surprisingly, from O. Henry and Guy de Maupassant.  I can now confess, before God and the world, that I used to read their short stories on the sly as an altar boy in the sacristy during the sermons.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: My next (almost finished) manuscript involves Buddhist themes of present awareness, conscious action, self-actualization and self-forgiveness, all in the unlikely settings of L.A. gang violence and a remote Indian reservation. 

I also have a pile of plot outlines from spending too much time in airports and airplanes. Because they remain unwritten, they all still seem like inevitable literary and commercial successes. 

In the queue, I have a detailed outline of another murder mystery set in a unique medieval village church I discovered, and am working on a murder mystery concept in which a London solicitor cuts through the Gordian knot of several interrelated intrigues with a masterful single solution that relies on Greek and Roman mythology.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I’m also having great fun writing the book and lyrics for a musical with a dear friend who is a supremely talented jazz pianist.  Wine and cheese are often involved in our working sessions, so my lyrics occasionally rhyme.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Sept. 19

Sept. 19, 1889: Sarah Louise Delany born.

Monday, September 18, 2017

Q&A with Marcia Falk

Marcia Falk, photo by Cathleen Maclearie
Marcia Falk is the author of The Book of Blessings: New Jewish Prayers for Daily Life, the Sabbath, and the New Moon Festival, now available in a 20th anniversary edition. Her other books include The Days Between and The Song of Songs. She was a university professor for 20 years and also is a painter.

Q: Why was this new edition of The Book of Blessings published, and what has been updated in the book?

A: The main purpose of this new edition is to introduce the book to a new generation who may not be as familiar with it as those who came to know it when it first appeared, in 1996.  

This edition contains a new preface in which I address, meditatively and poetically, several of the issues that have been brought up by readers over the years.

Also, for this edition, my publisher, the Central Conference of American Rabbis Press, enlisted four Reform rabbis—two from the United States and two from Israel—to write afterword essays about the history of feminist liturgy and how they felt the book had influenced various communities in America and Israel.

Q: What changes have you seen since the first edition of this book came out when it comes to attitudes toward gender-neutral language and a feminist approach to prayer?

A: Gender-neutral language is far more commonly accepted today than it was 20 years ago. Feminists, of course, have been largely responsible for this shift in attitudes.

My own understanding of feminism has led me beyond the idea of gender neutrality. My liturgy challenges theological hierarchies and seeks to give voice to the relationship between humanity and the whole of creation.

Q: What impact do you think the book has had over the years, and what do you hope readers take away from this new version?

A: The American rabbis who contributed afterwords to the new edition wrote about how the book has influenced the development of new liturgies and prayer books within the mainstream denominations of Judaism, as well as within newer movements and communities seeking a more spiritual approach to prayer.

I was very moved to hear, from the two Israeli writers of afterwords, that progressive Jewish communities in Israel have adopted sections from the book, in their services and that it has influenced the Movement for Progressive Judaism that is creating new Hebrew liturgy.

Israelis are particular about their Hebrew, and I’m thrilled that the Hebrew blessings and poems in the book speak to them.

Q: Who do you see as the readership for this new version of the book?

A: I hope The Book of Blessings will continue to speak to individuals and communities dissatisfied with the patriarchal liturgy and looking for fresh language and theology they can relate to. Beyond this, it’s my wish that readers, especially younger readers, will find the book responsive to their own visions, needs, and concerns.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I have two projects in progress.

One is a book for Passover, similar to my book for the High Holidays, The Days Between (published by Brandeis University Press in 2014). The Days Between provides blessings, poems, and meditations for Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and the 10-day span between them.

The Passover book will include blessings and meditations for the Seder as well as poems and meditations for the whole of Passover week.

The other project I’m working on, which I hope to publish this fall, is a book of blessings and poems accompanied by my paintings.

It’s called Inner East and is based on the traditional Jewish mizrach (the word means “east”), a decorative plaque to be hung on the eastern wall of the home, indicating the direction to face in prayer. My mizrach is intended to guide us to an inner focus of contemplation and the prayer of the heart.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Poetry and painting are the twin passions of my life, and I have worked to make my blessings the best poetry I could. I believe that all prayers should be poems because the rabbis considered authentic prayer to be “the worship of the heart,” and poetry is the genre quintessentially directed to the heart.

Visual art can stir us in similar ways, and so I have joined poetry and prayer in my re-creation of the mizrach form—a relatively new creative project for me.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Sept. 18

Sept. 18, 1709: Samuel Johnson born.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Q&A with Julie Lawson Timmer

Julie Lawson Timmer is the author of the new novel Mrs. Saint and the Defectives. She also has written the novels Untethered and Five Days Left. She lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for Mrs. Saint and the Defectives?

A: This book sprang not from a single thought but from a collection of ideas and images, all of which I was ruminating about at the same period of time. None seemed big enough to carry an entire novel on its own, but combined, they formed the story.

As for the three ideas or images that formed the plot, the first came from a riveting NPR story I heard one day, about a woman who had hidden her past from everyone in her life, other than her husband. It was only when she died that her son, then in his 40s, learned about her history.

The second idea—really a collection of memories—came from my own experiences as a divorcee and single mother. I wanted to write about what it’s like for a single mom to navigate the challenges of raising a son. I also wanted to address the responsibility some single mothers feel with regard to the emotional health of not only our children, but our exes.    

Finally, the third idea—or image—was that of a former neighbor of ours, whom my children, husband and I adored. She was a wonderfully generous, caring person with a last name that began with “St.” and she told us to call her “Mrs. Saint.”

There is a low wooden fence that separates our two properties, and with regularity, Mrs. Saint would step over the fence to see us. She was often dressed very formally, but this never kept her from coming into our muddy yard, where she would be set upon immediately by our two big, slobbery, dirty Labradors.

She frequently brought them bones that she had picked up especially for them at the butcher, and when I would shriek at the dogs to get their muddy paws off her expensive, cream-colored slacks, Mrs. Saint would wave off my concern and say she cared far more about the dogs than she did about her clothes.

She was older—her children are my age—and she was a wealth of information about raising children and keeping up a household. (I have borrowed at least one of her pieces of advice for the fictional Mrs. Saint to use in the book.)

But she didn’t help only my family--she assisted many, many others in our city as well, through volunteer work and other activities.

Our beloved Mrs. Saint died suddenly about five years ago, and although I didn’t realize it until this book came to me, I have for some time, subconsciously, wanted to write something that would honor her. I dedicated the book to her, and because I knew from the beginning I would do that, writing the novel felt like a labor of love from the start.

Q: Did you plan the entire storyline out before you started writing, or did you make many changes along the way?

A: I did less deliberate planning for this novel than I have for my others. The three ideas/images I mentioned all fit together in my mind so seamlessly that once I realized they could work together to form a book, the entire plot sprang to mind.

Suddenly, I saw this fully realized story in my mind, almost like a movie, and my task was simply to write it all down frantically before the image reel faded.

Of course, there was tweaking and tinkering along the way, and as usual, I went through many drafts before I was satisfied with the final piece. But I have never had an entire plot drop into my mind as fully as this one did. I am grateful to have had the experience—it was an absolute joy to write.   

Q: Did you need to do any research to write the novel?

A: Oh yes. I do a lot of research for all of my books, and this one was no exception. It didn’t occur to me until after I started answering questions about the book, but if I talk about the exact research I did for Mrs. Saint, it’ll give away part of the story. So, I’ll just say I did a ton of research and leave it at that.

Q: Who are some of your favorite authors?

A: I have many, but my top ones would be: Anne Tyler, Ann Patchett, Elizabeth Strout, Fredrik Backman, Jonathan Tropper, Richard Russo, Jess Walter.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: My fourth novel, scheduled to come out in October 2018, is about a quirky cast of characters who live in Flint, Michigan, at the time of the water crisis.

Like Mrs. Saint and my other novels, it’s a novel about families of choice (vs. ones created by common DNA), domestic drama (parenting, marriage) and thorny ethical issues.

My research has taken me often to Flint, a lovely city filled with some wonderful, artistic, generous people.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I just sent my “baby” away to university! I always knew this day would come of course, but it’s still unbelievable to me. I have heard about people who go on trips at this point, to reward themselves for successfully nudging their chicks out of the nest, and to cheer themselves up a bit about their empty nest.

Instead, I decided to sign up for training to answer a hotline at a local nonprofit that serves youth in need. I have always wanted to do this, but the training and weekly call commitment are such that I didn’t feel I could take that time away from my kids.

So, I told myself that once my daughter (the youngest) was off to university, I’d join the hotline. I signed up for the training the day after we moved her into her dorm. I may still take a trip, but for now, this is my reward and I’m thrilled about it. 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Sept. 17

Sept. 17, 1935: Ken Kesey born.