Friday, January 19, 2018

Q&A with Elizabeth Buchan

Elizabeth Buchan is the author most recently of the novels The New Mrs. Clifton and I Can't Begin to Tell You. Her other books include Revenge of the Middle-Aged Woman and The Good Wife, and her work has appeared in the Sunday Times. She previously worked in the publishing industry. She is based in London.

Q: Your two most recent books are set during World War II and its aftermath. Why did you choose that period to write about in these novels?

A: I am always intrigued how, even if the writer has already written about it, a subject sometimes refuses to die and nags away until something is done. But, then. who wouldn’t be fascinated by the women who worked in the Special Operations Executive (SOE) during the Second World War?

My second novel, Light of the Moon, was about a female SOE agent operating undercover in occupied France where she discovers, like Edith Cavell, that patriotism is not enough.

Researching for it proved to be addictive and I made many contacts and some cherished new friends who worked in the undercover agencies.

They told me about the beautiful and fantastically brave Violette Szabo (Carve Her Name with Pride), the equally splendid and intriguing Christine Granville, and the extraordinary Nancy Wake who they revered for their cool bravery and resourcefulness.

All of the agents, both the men and the women, knew that in going into the field, their life expectancy was very short, in some cases it was judged to be as little as six weeks. Many of them met gruesome ends.

Having written several contemporary novels, my obsession resurfaced with a splash when I was talking to Noreen Riols about her recently published memoir, The Secret Ministry of Ag. & Fish, which describes her work in SOE’s F-section.

I found myself going back into histories, biographies, memoirs and anecdotal evidence and it seemed there was no question of dodging the subject any longer. Thus, I Can’t Begin to Tell You, which is set in wartime Denmark, began to take shape.

This time around when I was doing the writing and the thinking, I found I was concentrating not just on the adventure aspect of the stories but on more fundamental questions. What does war do the spirit? How do you survive? What are you prepared to sacrifice? Or to betray? Is patriotism the only imperative?

All of which, after finishing I Can’t Begin to Tell You led me to think about The New Mrs Clifton and its subject: the aftermath.

Q: Can you say more about how you came up with the idea for The New Mrs. Clifton, and for your characters?

A: At the end of the Second World War my aunt married a German who she had met before its outbreak, a union which probably sent shock waves on both sides.

Getting married then must have taken courage and determination to survive the hostility. Their story has always inspired me because it’s an example of how, despite violence and unthinkable destruction on both sides, human beings refuse to give up their feelings for each other and continue to strive for harmony.

It’s curious to think that in 1945 both Europe and Great Britain, the victor and vanquished, were in an equally bad way. As one historian puts it: “hidden beneath the ruins, both literally and metaphorically, there was human and moral disaster.”

He was describing a Europe where chaos reigned – on the choked roads, in the broken towns and cities and in the daily revenges inflicted by families, friends and fighters on each other.

In Germany, most of men were either dead, wounded or elderly, children roamed like feral dogs and many of the women were on the edge of starvation.

The necessities of life had vanished. There were no banks, saucepans, aspirin, needles or nappies. The old foraged in bins, the young stole. Germany had become “a nation of rag and bone men.”

After the fall of Berlin in April 1945, the Russians swarmed in and unleashed an orgy of rape which few of the women escaped. The Germans called: Nulle Stande or Zero Hour.

Britain did not have it easy either. Yes, we had operational banks and aspirin, but fuel, clothing and food were in short supply and, if anything, rationing seemed more draconian had it had at the height of the conflict. 

Soap and shampoo were like gold bars and, if you fancied a lick of paint on your bomb-damaged house, you could think again. Housing was in short supply and outsiders were not welcome. If the truth be told, the Brits weren’t particularly saintly about it and there was racketeering and hoarding and much hardship as a result.

The novel opens in the 1970s with a skeleton being discovered in the garden of a house overlooking London’s Clapham Common. Forensics reveal that it belonged to a young woman who had been dead for several decades, who had given birth and had head wounds.

The action switches back to 1945 when Gus Clifton returns home to Britain with Krista, his new German bride. Their arrival comes as a complete surprise to his two sisters anxiously awaiting his return to the house on Clapham Common and even more of a shock to Nella, his fiancée, who had been happily planning her wedding to Gus.

Why has Gus done this? All three of the women feel instinctively there is something odd about this marriage, especially as Gus and Krista do not seem to know each other at all. And why would Krista wish to live in a hostile England? What mysterious hold does she have over him?

One of the women will end up dead. Revenge? Despair? An accident? As I wrote the opening disinterment scene, I felt a huge sadness for the waste of this woman’s life but also had to acknowledge that her fate – like so many others – was a consequence of the war.

I planned The New Mrs Clifton with the aim of keeping the reading guessing and I have had a lot of readers telling me that they had no idea who the victim was until it happened.

The intention was to show that war puts men and women in impossible and dangerous situations and it changes them, often brutalizing them. All of us. Pink, brown, black and yellow. Nice, good people end up doing terrible things. 

So, what is redemptive and optimistic about this situation? On reading contemporary accounts, one thing emerged clearly from the diaries, letters, reports and histories – which was a longing to be normal.  “How nice life would be,” reflects my Krista, “when the past is forgotten, washed clean of death and suffering.”

She is dreaming of a future when people would take light-heartedness as nothing unusual and there would be time and space to take pleasure in the small things. When the little niggle would be about frost on the dahlias and whether they had enough clothes pegs. When people could sit down to a family meal of sardines on toast and bit of butter and enjoy being alive.

Out of the rubble can grow great love. Despite the damage done by war, the novel is about a man and woman deciding to place love over hate, forgiveness over blame, compassion over brutality and to become normal.

Q:  Do you usually plot your novels out before beginning to write them, or do you make many changes along the way?

A: I know the opening and, almost invariably, the end. But what is in between is a mystery and I have to dig it out, word by word, page by page. It is slog and sometimes a despairing one but once I have erected the “architecture” of the story then everything is easier.

Q: Who are some of your favorite writers?

A: Novelists Anne Tyler, William Boyd, Robert Harris, Helen Dunmore: the biographer Richard Holmes: the historians Amanda Foreman and Simon Schama. 

Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre is one of the great novels which I reread often and there is a raft of brilliant young writers bubbling up to the surface. Every so often, I dive into one of Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander novels (I was briefly her UK paperback editor and like everyone else fell in love with Jamie Fraser).

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I am 50,000 words into a novel about broken promises which is set in Prague just before the Velvet Revolution, Berlin after the Wall has come down and contemporary Paris. The joy is that I shall have to visit all three cities in order to do some research…

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I wish everyone a fabulous 2018. I and very appreciative of all my readers and love it when they make contact.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Elizabeth Buchan.

Jan. 19

Jan. 19, 1969: Edwidge Danticat born.

Thursday, January 18, 2018

Q&A with Anna Snoekstra

Anna Snoekstra is the author of the new novel Little Secrets. She also has written the novel Only Daughter. Her work has appeared in The Guardian and other publications, and she is based in Melbourne, Australia.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for Little Secrets, and for your character Rose?

A: Believe it or not, the main premise of Little Secrets is actually based on a true story.

A few years ago I read an article about porcelain dolls that were found on doorsteps of family homes. The creepiest part was that the dolls looked just like the daughters that lived in the houses.

It turned out to be an innocent misunderstanding, but the whole idea of the dolls, and the way people reacted to them, was fascinating to me.

I love crime stories that don’t have a traditional detective as their main character, but instead feature a regular person with invested interest in the mystery.

When I first started writing this book, my first novel, Only Daughter, had been accepted by a publisher but hadn’t been released yet. I had spent the previous five years working nights at a cinema/bar, and spending my days trying to get my writing career off the ground.

I channelled those feelings of desperation and drive into the Rose character. She is a budding journalist who latches onto the story of the dolls as a potential story and ticket out of her dead-end job at a pub.

Q: In this novel, you tell the story not just from Rose's perspective, but from the perspectives of various other characters. Why did you decide to structure it that way?

A: Structuring the novel to include different perspectives felt like the only way to tell the story I wanted to tell. I was fascinated with examining the way the truth can be twisted and manipulated.

Everyone sees the same events in different ways, so therefore have different ideas of what truth is. They bring their own desires, prejudices and previous life experiences to any situation and I wanted to show how much they can colour what each individual perceives as the truth.

Q: The novel takes place in a small town. How important is setting to you in your work?

A: Really important. For me, it is on par with character as the most important part of a story. Setting is usually the first part of a new concept that comes to me. Colmstock in Little Secrets is more than just a town. I created it as a symbol of claustrophobia and dashed dreams.

Before Colmstock, I’d always set my works in real places. It was really liberating to create a whole new place just from my imagination. I wanted it to feel real, and to make sense spatially, so I created road maps and set out where all the buildings and important locations were in relation to one another. It was actually really fun!

Q: Who are some of your favorite authors?

There’s so many! I try and read widely, not just crime but literary fiction, young adult, graphic novels and literary fiction as well.

Some of the authors I love at the moment are Candace Fox, Elizabeth Jolley, Emma Cline, Maggie Thrash, Emily Maguire, Samantha Hunt, Francoise Sagan and Angie Thomas, just to name a few.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: At the moment I’m working concurrently on another crime novel as well as a young adult novel!

The crime novel is about a young woman who is sitting in a police interview room waiting to confess to a crime. She was the victim of bullying by a group of girls in high school and has spent the next 10 years tracking down each of her tormentors, infiltrating their new lives, and getting revenge.

My young adult novel is about a group of teenagers living in a mountain town who believe them selves to be adopted. As they work together to try and find the truth of their parentage, they discover that the situation is much more sinister than adoption. It is a secret that goes to the centre of the town itself.

Both of these novels are coming out this year and I’m so excited!

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Just a thank you for asking such interesting questions. I’ve really enjoyed answering them.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Anna Snoekstra.

Jan. 18

Jan. 18, 1882: A.A. Milne born.

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Q&A with Linda Williams Jackson

Linda Williams Jackson is the author of Midnight Without a Moon, a novel for kids, and its sequel, A Sky Full of Stars. They focus on a girl named Rose Lee Carter who is growing up in Mississippi in the 1950s. Jackson is based in Mississippi.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for Midnight Without a Moon, and for your character Rose Lee Carter?

A: I have always wanted to write a story about a sharecropping family in the Mississippi Delta because of the stories I heard about my own sharecropping family from that area.

Rose’s character is inspired by a cousin who was indeed left in Mississippi to be raised by my grandparents when her mother migrated to Chicago (the true story is VERY different, by the way).

Of course, children being left behind during this period was quite common, so Rose could have been any young girl who was raised in the South while her parents sought job opportunities up north.

Q: The book includes the story of Emmett Till. What did you see as the right blend of history and fiction as you were writing your novel?

A: I tried to make the story as historically accurate as possible. So for the tie-in, I fictionalized Rose’s grandfather as an “old friend” of Emmett Till’s great-uncle Mose Wright. Since Mose Wright was a tenant farmer in the Mississippi Delta, it is not too far-fetched to blend that fiction with fact.

What I did not want to do, however, is bring a “living” Emmett Till into the story and attempt to fictionalize his life in any shape, form, or fashion. I wanted the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but.

Q: How did you research the book, and did you learn anything that particularly surprised you?

A: Most of my research was done on the Internet. I read tons of articles, including archived copies of Jet magazine (which was quite fun actually). I did have to buy a few books, but most of what I needed was on the World Wide Web. I watched YouTube videos in addition to reading articles.

The thing that surprised me was how little I actually knew about the history of the Mississippi Delta and about my own African-American history.

Q: What do you hope readers take away from the book?

A: I hope readers will grasp an understanding of what type of environment Emmett Till stepped into when he got off that train and traveled to Money, MS.

Emmett Till’s death wasn’t just about a wolf whistle. It was about Brown versus Board of Education. It was about voting rights. It was about Jim Crow. It was about the White Citizens’ Council.

All of those things encompass “keeping people in their proper place,” and that is what the Emmett Till murder was all about—not a wolf whistle.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: Truthfully, I’m not working like I should be. But when I do, I will find myself telling the rest of Rose’s story, plus telling a story of about happenings in the Mississippi Delta during the ‘70s.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Hmmm. Nothing that I can think of except, thanks for the interview!

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Jan. 17

Jan. 17, 1706: Benjamin Franklin born.

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Q&A with Allegra Huston

Allegra Huston is the author of the new novel Say My Name. She also has written the book Love Child, written and produced the film Good Luck, Mr. Gorski, and is on the staff of the magazine Garage. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including Newsweek and Vogue. She lives in Taos, New Mexico.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for Say My Name, and for your main character, Eve?

A: I wanted to write a love story, and I wanted to base it on my fantasy—that one of the great songs would have been written for me. It’s my first novel, and I wanted Eve to be somewhat similar to me, so I made her 48. I didn’t want an old rock-and-roller, but a guy on the verge of making it big. That led into the story of an older woman and a younger man.

Q: Do you think attitudes have changed over the years regarding relationships between older women and younger men?

A: I think they’ve changed to some extent, though not enough. It’s still, "Ooh, an older woman"--a programmed-in response that older women are more knowing and experienced. There’s something predatory, lubricious, forbidden, edgy about the whole deal, though certainly as you look around, there are more relationships between older women and younger men.

The cougar thing drives me mad. What is a cougar? A beast. There’s a sense of desperation…It’s extremely demeaning. It’s annoyed me that women have bought into this. It’s another way to demean women.

I know a lot of people in relationships of that kind, and virtually without exception, it was the man who did the chasing. The idea of a predatory cougar chasing down a boy, or a man, helpless in her wiles is so offensive.

Q: How did you think of the unusual musical instrument that you feature in the novel?

A: I can’t remember how I cane up with the idea of an instrument bringing them together. They are hard people to bring together! I came up with the idea of her doing antique hunting.

I wanted him to be a reluctant rock star, with a close and authentic relationship to a kind of primal music. The music Micajah plays when he’s not being a rock star is the kind friends of mine play—Andalusian, Middle Eastern.

His journey at the end is a reverse of [the film] Latcho Drom…he’s following the evolution of music from the far desert to Europe. Micajah does it in reverse.

Q: Is it a real instrument?

A: It’s based on a viola da gamba, but it’s smaller. The viola da gamba, you play like a cello, but you hold it between your knees. I kind of made it up, but then I researched the viola d’amore, and I imagined something that [already] existed!

Q: How was the book’s title chosen, and what does it signify for you?

A: The original title for the book was "Night Blooming Jasmine"; that was going to be the name of the song. But the publisher felt it sounded like an epic set in the Far East.

We moved on to "For Eve" as the title…but we tried to come up with a name that would convey romance. "Say My Name" is not as accurate a title, but I hope it conveys the flavor of being intimate and close.

The relationship between the two of them is based on being seen. It’s wonderful when you have a relationship with someone who sees you for who you are. That’s what draws Micajah and Eve together…

Q: What are you working on now?

A: The screenplay of this. And my next book, which is going to be fairly different. It’s a psychological thriller.

I hope it will hit the same thing—what I wanted to do with Say My Name was to write a novel that has a popular storyline but is well written, thoughtful, and authentic: the thinking woman’s sexy novel. Maybe the next one will be the thinking woman’s psychological thriller!

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: For me, it is a love story, but it’s really the story of a woman’s self-empowerment through the medium of a love story. I didn’t want it to have a regular happy ending, “happily ever after” updated, because that didn’t feel real to me…

What is a happy ending for a 48-year-old woman whose marriage has ended isn’t finding a younger guy. That’s great, but the idea is to feel confident. She, having felt seen, can see herself…

--Interview with Deborah Kalb