Dedication and Discipline: Sing, Unburied, Sing Author Jesmyn Ward On Writing

Jesmyn Ward (Photo credit: Beowulf Sheeha)

Jesmyn Ward (Photo credit: Beowulf Sheeha)

By Adam Vitcavage

Jesmyn Ward is the only author I think about on a weekly basis. Her stellar Salvage the Bones is the only novel I recommend to nearly everyone looking for a new book. If I don’t murmur the words, “Jesmyn Ward’s Salvage the Bones,” in any given week, then I at least think about how much her bleak and beautiful novel punched me in the stomach while simultaneously uplifting my spirits. Now, there’s a new novel from her I can suggest: Sing, Unburied, Sing.

I recently interviewed Ward, and I felt aspiring writers and readers of Writer’s Bone might find her comments about her writing process both encouraging and educational.

Adam Vitcavage: What excites you in the undergraduate writers you teach at Tulane University?

Jesmyn Ward: The writers who take my courses write across multiple genres. Some are writing YA, fantasy, or surreal literary novels. It just depends on the student. I love it all. What really attracts me to my students work and what makes me appreciate them is the passion that they have. I think that comes out in the work even if the work is not that polished or developed as it could be. That’s what I’m there for. I’m there to help them develop and polish it. Their passion for writing, telling stories, and creating worlds is what attracts me to their work.

AV: Once you get going with a draft for a novel, do you have a set writing process?

JW: I am a very linear writer. I work from the beginning to the end. I start at the first chapter and end at the last chapter. I don’t revise as I’m going because I feel if I stop to revise the things that I’ve written that I will get bogged down and will never complete the book. So I don’t revise and I just write straight through. I try to write for at least two hours a day for five days a week. Sometimes that is easier. I have two children, so when I have child support for them or when they’re in school is when it’s easier for me to do that. Sometimes I have to patch those hours together. I’ll wake up early and work for an hour then work for an hour later in the day when I have time.

I feel like the more disciplined I am about writing for two hours a day five days a week then the easier it is for me to access my creativity. I think it takes less time to sink into the world and to do the writing I need to do when it’s something I do five days a week. That’s how you write a book: it’s something you work at every day pretty regularly for at least a year if not a year and a half or two years. And that’s considered fast. I know some people take a decade on a book. I understand why.

It’s all about hours of dedication and discipline.

AV: Once you get the draft done, what does your revision process look like? What do you look for?

JW: The way that I revise is a little weird. I finish the first draft and then I let it sit for a month. I’ll work on other small things during that time and then I go back. I’ll read through the rough draft. Just read and take notes about things that need to be revised, changes that need to be made, things that can be cut or moved around, or whatever. I make a list and go through that list. I’ll concentrate on one thing on the list while reading through the draft. I devote an entire revision to just one aspect or one correction.

If I need to develop a character, then I’ll go through and develop a character throughout a revision. I’ll cross it off the list and go back again to concentrate on another aspect. My list can have 12 or 13 items on it. That list is just things I’ve noticed. If I went into a revision with the aim of correcting all thirteen of those things I feel I would miss something. It’s easier for me to focus on one thing through a revision. I revise twelve or thirteen times before I feel confident enough to show my work to a group of first readers.

First readers are just people that I’ve gone to school with, other writers I met at Stanford or Michigan. I’ll email them a draft and ask for their help. After a couple of months, they’ll give me suggestions and I’ll go back in and revise based on their feedback. That might take six or eight revisions. Once I’ve done that I feel confident enough that I won’t embarrass myself and I’ll send it to my editor.

And then [laughs] we revise for months. I mean, it is definitely a process. I’m the kind of writer who feels nothing is ever perfect when it’s fresh. The first rough draft is never perfect. I actually enjoy revision because writing that first rough draft is difficult. It’s different work because you’re creating this world and characters from nothing. It takes a different literary muscle than going back in and revising.

Revising is more enjoyable and more fun for me. I already have something, so at least I have the security of knowing I have something to work with on the page. Then it’s all about shaping. I enjoy knowing the security of just having to focus on making something better.

To learn more about Jesmyn Ward, follow her on Twitter @jesmimiRead more of Adam Vitcavage’s work on his official website, or follow him on Twitter @vitcavage. Also check out Adam's full interview with Jesmyn Ward on The Millions

The Writer’s Bone Interviews Archive

Worth the Weight: 11 Questions With Author Emily Carpenter

Emily Carpenter

Emily Carpenter

By Lindsey Wojcik

The heat is on. By now, most of the country has experienced the familiar stickiness that comes with the summer season. The humidity has undoubtedly driven many to the beach or pool to cool off, and here at Writer’s Bone, no beach bag is complete without a sizzling new novel.

Emily Carpenter’s The Weight of Lies has all the makings of a classic beach companion. Vulture highlighted it as “an early entry in the beach-thriller sweepstakes.”

In her new book, Carpenter transports readers from New York City to a small, humid island off the coast of Georgia where Megan Ashley, the daughter of an acclaimed novelist, travels to discover more about her mother’s famous book, Kitten, for a tell-all memoir she has agreed to write. Kitten tells the tale of an island murder that fans believe may have been loosely based on a real crime. As the truth about where Megan’s mother, Frances Ashley, found the story for her infamous novel unravels, Megan must decide what is real and what is fiction.

Carpenter recently spent some time answering questions about transitioning from a career in television to writing novels, what inspired The Weight of Lies, and why it’s important for writers to appreciate their “customers.”

Lindsey Wojcik: You've been writing since a young age. What are your earliest memories with writing? What enticed you about storytelling?

Emily Carpenter: I’ve told this story a few times—the one about how I plagiarized The Pokey Little Puppy when I was 5. It’s my secret shame. I basically copied it word for word and illustrated it with crayons. I am not sure I actually finished it, so maybe I’m off the hook? After that, there were a couple of false starts on a novel about a girl with a horse when I was around 14. I’m not sure I had a handle on a coherent story, but I was definitely enamored by the idea of a girl (me) owning a horse. I absolutely lived for reading. I was an introvert, bookworm, a dreamer, and really imaginative. And while I didn’t really have a reference point for becoming an author, I was drawn to the whole world of storytelling.

LW: Who were your early influences and who continues to influence you?

EC: I read all of the Nancy Drew books, The Bobbsey Twins, The Hardy Boys multiple times over. Beverly Cleary and Laura Ingalls Wilder were early favorites. I loved those biography books with the orange covers, and there was another series where I remember reading about Madame Curie and Helen Keller. I read a lot of suspense books now because that’s the genre I write, but I enjoy all kinds of fiction. I’ve gone through periods when I read YA and literary classics, romance and horror. I’m really inspired by television writers right now. Noah Hawley, who writes “Fargo,” is immensely brilliant and funny. I also admire Ray McKinnon, a fellow Georgian, who wrote “Rectify.” Both those guys really inspire me.

LW: Tell us a little bit about your experience at CBS television’s Daytime Drama division. What did you do in that department? How did it influence your writing? 

EC: I was the assistant to the director of daytime drama, so I basically answered phones, did paperwork, that kind of thing. I also read all the scripts for upcoming shows and wrote summaries for the newspapers to publish. I got to take contest winners on tours of the productions and assist with a couple of promo tapings of commercials for the shows. Once I took a bunch of contest winners and some of the actors to lunch because my boss couldn’t do it. I had the company credit card and had to pay for the whole thing, and it made me really nervous. I was, like 24, or something, and I’d never seen a check for a meal that big. In terms of influencing my writing, I think I really soaked up the concept of how to write tension and cliffhangers. “Guiding Light” and “As the World Turns” had some really talented writers on staff who were great at writing really funny, snappy banter, and I picked up on that—the rhythm of dialogue is so important and they were such masters at it.

I remember something my boss told me once when the writers had brought in a secondary character who was a part of this new storyline. So one Friday at the end of the show, they ended the final scene with a close up on his face. She got so mad about it and said, “You don’t end a really important scene—especially a Friday cliffhanger scene—on a day player!” She understood that, bottom line, the audience cared most about the core characters of the show. They loved them, not this random guy they’d brought in to be a temporary part of this new storyline. She knew that the show needed to leave the audience anticipating, thinking about those core characters all weekend long until Monday rolled around—not this day player. That really stuck with me, how important it was to understand who your audience was and what they wanted and giving it to them.

LW: You assisted on the production of “As the World Turns” and “Guiding Light.” Both of those soaps were on daily in my household growing up—three generations of women in my family, including myself, watched both shows, which are no longer on the air, and soap operas in general have been on the decline. What do you think influenced the change in daytime television? 

EC: First of all, let me say, thank you for watching. I have a deep admiration and enduring fondness for those two shows. I watched them long after I left New York and moved back down South, and when they were cancelled, I cried. It really was such an end to an era. Although I’m sure there is an answer for why daytime TV changed, I’m not sure I know. I think, in the end, it’s probably to do with money, like everything else. And new technology and our capability to access streaming shows and binge watch really high quality programming. There’s no more appointment TV. We really have gotten out of the habit of showing up at a certain time to watch a show. I suppose the decline started with cable and cheap reality programming and TiVo. But I’m not sure what the deathblow was. And look, we still have four soaps running. I turned on “Days of Our Lives” the other day, and Patch and Kayla have not aged a whit since I watched them in the late ’80s.

LW: Tell us a little bit about your experience with screenwriting. What influenced your decision to change career paths from film production and screenwriting to writing novels?

EC: I was pretty naïve, hoping to break into the screenwriting business with zero entertainment connections or really any knowledge of the business at all. I think I had a good sense of story and structure in a general sense—I had some raw materials—but in terms of writing a kickass commercial feature, I wasn’t there. I didn’t know how to do it. And I think I was really sort of just learning the technique of writing as well. Learning how to write good sentences and evoking emotion with my words. I hadn’t majored in creative writing in school or even taken a single writing course in my life, I was just winging it. So really, it was audacious of me (or plain, old ignorant) to think I was going to write a spec screenplay that would sell to Hollywood.

But I just loved movies so much and writing and kept plugging away at it. I worked really hard and placed in a few contests, but ultimately couldn’t get an agent interested. After working on two indie productions with friends, I finally decided it was not going to happen. I took a break for a few years and hung out with my kids, enjoyed being a mom. Then one day, it suddenly occurred to me that there was this whole world of storytelling that I had overlooked. I started mulling over the idea of writing a book and researching the business side of publishing. It turned out to be much more accessible world. And I’ll say that my screenwriting experience, self-taught though it was, has formed the basis of my novel writing. I use a lot of the outlining and scene structuring tools that screenwriters use in my books.  

LW: How did the Atlanta Writers Club guide you as a writer?  

EC: They provided amazing access to a whole community of local writers, some of whom have become critique partners and dear friends. I found a critique group through them, which was where I read something I’d written out loud for the first time. And I attended several conferences the club sponsored and pitched my books to agents. I actually met my agent at one of the conferences.

LW: What inspired The Weight of Lies? 

EC: I love classic horror books and films—Stephen King is just the master, of course. Carrie is one of my all-time favorites. One time I read that he had based aspects of Carrie on this girl he knew in school who was awkward and bullied by the other kids. That fascinated me, and I wondered if she ever found out what he did, what she would think of it. I mean, can you imagine? I get asked that question a lot, as an author, is my book based on real events or real characters? My books aren’t, but it intrigued me to imagine a writer who had the audacity to base her novel on a real murder and maybe even a real murderer, and so now there’s this eternal question out there among her fans about whether it was real.

LW: When you were writing The Weight of Lies, was there something in particular you were trying to connect with or find? 

EC: Well, at the heart of the book, it’s really a story of this young woman who doesn’t feel like her mother has ever loved her or really even wanted her. And she’s so angry because she’s desperate to be affirmed and loved. She’s also a bit lost because she doesn’t have a whole lot going on career-wise, she hasn’t really been successful in the romantic department, and she’s getting older. She’s got a lot of resentment toward her mother to work through, but she’s really blinded by her pain. And her mother really is a monumentally self-centered diva, so there’s plenty of blame on both sides. That whole situation felt really compelling to me, that search to try to understand your mother as more than just the figure you rebelled against or had conflict with. Where you reach a crossroads at which point you have to decide whether you’re going to give your mother the benefit of the doubt and forgive her, or feed your childhood bitterness and hurt and go for the scorched earth option. Needless to say, Meg opts for earth scorching.

LW: How was the process of writing The Weight of Lies different from writing your debut Burying the Honeysuckle Girls?

EC: With Honeysuckle Girls, I had a lot of time. A lot of freedom. I was 100 percent on my own timetable. Then, once I signed with my agent and went on submission, it became a process of listening to my agent’s opinions and the opinions of the marketplace and deciding what to pay attention to and what to bypass. The great thing was that I had a lot of time to tinker with the book, which is a luxury. It wasn’t that much different writing The Weight of Lies because I didn’t sell the book until I had completed it. My next books, though, were sold on pitch, so that’s been an entirely new process, to deliver something you’ve already been paid for.

LW: What’s next for you?

EC: I’m writing my next book, which is about a young woman with a secret she’s kept since her childhood, who agrees to accompany her husband to an exclusive couples therapy retreat up in the mountains of north Georgia so he can get help for the nightmares that have been plaguing him. And then things start to go sideways, and she realizes that nothing at this isolated place is as it seems.

LW: What’s best advice you’ve ever received and what’s your advice for up-and-coming writers? 

EC: My agent told me once, “Remember, this is your career…” I can’t even recall what we were talking about exactly—it might’ve been a deadline, or what I was going to write next—but the point was, she wanted me to clear away all the noise from other people’s expectations and do what was best for me. To follow my heart. It was just what I needed to hear at the moment, especially because I have the tendency to go overboard to make other people happy and overlook what’s in my own heart. It really settled me down and gave me the confidence to go forward. 

I think one of the things I’d like to remind up-and-coming writers is that they are getting into a business and many of the decisions that editors and publishers make have to do with money. So when new writers encounter perplexing situations, I think they need to understand that financial bottom line motivates many of them. It’s sometimes a bitter pill to swallow, but it’s reality. And as writers, we have to be able to nurture our art in that atmosphere of commercialism.

The other day I heard Harrison Ford say in an interview that he doesn’t like to call people who see his movies “fans,” but “customers.” It was a really pragmatic, non-romantic way for an actor or artist to view what they do, but it did sort of speak to me because I tend to lean toward being really practical. I do see the artistic side of writing, and I can get really swept up in the magic of creating characters and a story. On the flip side, I also do really appreciate my “customers,” and I consider it an honor to have the opportunity to entertain them. And I think what the customers wants and expects should matter to writers. It’s not the end-all, be-all, but it is something to keep in mind.

To learn more about Emily Carpenter, visit her official website, like her Facebook page, or follow her on Twitter @EmilyDCarpenter.

The Writer’s Bone Interviews Archive

Cambridge Public Library Party

cambridge-public-library-logo

By Daniel Ford

The Cambridge Public Library announced earlier this week that it is hosting literacy-themed library parties at locations across Cambridge, Mass, this summer and fall.

These parties—hosted in partnership with the Cambridge Housing Authority (CHA), the Department of Human Services, and the Cambridge Public Health Department—aim to increase awareness of the library system in Cambridge, get more children signed up for library cards, and generate excitement for the library.

On July 19, the library (partnering with Agenda for Children) will participate in the Cambridge Story Walk. It will also host a party at the Corcoran Park Housing Authority on Sept. 30 that will focus on signing children up to get a library card and explain services that are offered at the library (snacks will be served, of course!).

Maria McCauley, director of libraries for the Cambridge Public Library, graciously answered a few of my questions recently about the initiative.

Daniel Ford: Where did the idea for these literary-themed library parties you have planned for this summer and fall originate?

Maria McCauley: This program is part of a national framework to encourage grade level reading through the Urban Libraries Council (ULC) who encourages member libraries to create their own local initiatives around this theme. We reached out to the CHA and they were excited to work with us.

DF: How important is it for children living in HUD-assisted housing to do so in a “book-rich environment?”

MM: Research has shown that all children thrive by living in a "book-rich environment" and the Cambridge Public Library is committed to serving all youth in Cambridge. We're especially eager to focus on initiatives that will help to close the achievement gap.

DF: How excited are library employees, as well as the local agencies you’re partnering with, to help spread literacy in a fun way?

MM: Our library employees and local partners are extremely committed to supporting literacy in fun and creative ways. If you asked our employees, I think they would say that it is programs like this one that inspires us to do what we do.

DF: Are there plans for future programs like this in the future?

MM: We're always looking for new ways to partner with various agencies and for opportunities to promote literacy. Because this is a pilot program, we will assess the program for future expansion. We're excited by the possibilities!

To learn more about the Cambridge Public Library, visit its official website, like its Facebook page, or follow it on Twitter @cambridgepl.

The Writer’s Bone Interviews Archive

Giving Back to the Universe: 8 Questions With Fantasy Author Mackenzie Flohr

Mackenzie Flohr

Mackenzie Flohr

By Sean Tuohy

Adventures are meant to pull readers away from their day-to-day lives and introduce them to a world of infinite possibilities.

Mackenzie Flohr does just that in The Rite of Wands, a novel filled with deadly secrets and heart-pounding danger.

Flohr sat down to talk with me recently regarding her writing process, how the book’s plot found her, and why writing is a lot harder than it seems.

Sean Tuohy: When did you know you wanted to be a writer?

Mackenzie Flohr: I have had interest in writing ever since I was young, but honestly never thought of it as a career. Growing up, my best friend and I would create our own stories and critique each other’s work. In my teen years, I attended the Beck Center for the Cultural Arts in Lakewood, Ohio. There, I studied about the entire process behind a production including the writing, casting, building, lighting, directing, etc. It was then when I started to realize I was meant to be a writer.

ST: Which authors did you worship growing up?

MF: Michael Ende, Gertrude Chandler Warner, and Laura Ingalls Wilder. 

ST: What’s your writing process like? Do you outline or just vomit out a first draft?

MF: I actually do a bit of both. Some of my characters require me to write by the seat of my pants so it keeps the writing process intriguing!

ST: Where did the plot for The Rite of Wands originate?

MF: That’s a good question! I wouldn’t say I came up with the plot, it more like came to me! When I’m traveling, I often stare at road signs to see if I will come across any names that just kind of jump out at me, and this one particular sign did more than just that. It helped to create a story!

ST: Can the reader find any of your traits in Mierta McKinnon?

MF: Definitely! I’m eccentric like he is, have a ridiculous lot of energy, and have a bad habit of obsessing over things.

ST: What’s next for you?

MF: I am working on a special hardbound edition of The Rite of Wands and my audiobook narrated by Jake Dudman. Stay tuned!

ST: What advice do you give to young writers?

MF: Writing is a lot harder than it looks. If someone tells you that writing is easy, don’t believe them. It’s one thing to write a story, it’s another thing to actually finish it. There are so many people out there who falsely believe they will write the next best-seller on the first try. But don’t let that discourage you. Don’t give up, keep pressing on, and if someone tells you can’t do something, don’t believe it. As one of my dear friends has said, sometimes in order for something to happen, you have to give to the universe, and the universe in turn, gives back.

ST: Can you tell us one random fact about yourself?

MF: I used to be the Web designer for actress Melody Thomas Scott, who currently plays Nikki Newman on “The Young and the Restless.”

Learn more about Mackenzie Flohr by visiting her official website, liking her Facebook page, or following her on Twitter @MackenzieFlohr. You can also find her on Instagram, Goodreads, and Amazon.

The Writer’s Bone Interviews Archive

Exploring the Human Animal With Crime Fiction Novelist Nick Kolakowski

Nick Kolakowski

Nick Kolakowski

By Sean Tuohy

Author Nick Kolakowski loves crime fiction. From his work with ThugLit, Crime Syndicate Magazine, and his upcoming novel A Brutal Bunch of Heartbroken Saps (out May 12), it’s easy to tell that the author truly values the hardboiled crime-fiction genre and knows how to write it well.

Kolakowski sat down with me recently to talk about his love for the genre, the seed that created the storyline for his new novel, and “gonzo noir.”

Sean Tuohy: What authors did you worship growing up?

Nick Kolakowski: I always had an affinity for old-school noir authors, particularly Raymond Chandler and Jim Thompson. What I think a lot of crime-fiction aficionados tend to forget is that a lot of the pulp of bygone eras really wasn’t very good: it was all blowsy dames and big guns and writing so rough it made Mickey Spillane look like Shakespeare. But writers like Chandler and Thompson emerged from that overheated milieu like diamonds; even at their worst, they offered some hard truth and clean writing.

ST: What attracts you to crime fiction, both as a reader and a writer?

NK: I feel that crime fiction is a real exploration of the human animal. You want to explore relationships, pick up whatever literary tome is topping the best-seller lists at the moment. You want a peek at the beast that lives in us, crack open a crime novel. As a reader, it’s exciting to get in touch with that beast through the relatively safe confines of paper and ink. As a writer, it’s good to let that beast run for a bit; I always sleep better after I’ve churned out a lot of good pages. 

ST: What is the status of indie crime fiction now?

NK: I’d like to think that indie crime fiction is having a bit of a moment. A lot of indie presses are doing great work, and highlighting authors who might not have gotten a platform otherwise. Crime fiction remains one of the more popular genres overall, and I’m hopeful that what these indie authors are producing will help fuel its direction for the next several years.

Not a whole lot of authors are getting rich off any of this, but writing isn’t exactly a lucrative profession. There’s a reason why all the novelists I know, even the best-selling ones, keep their day jobs. We’re all in it for the love.  

ST: What is your writing process? Do you outline or vomit a first draft?

NK: I keep notebooks. Over the years, those notebooks accumulate fragments: sometimes a line of two I’ve overheard on the subway, but sometimes several pages of story. Usually my novels and short stories start with a kernel of an idea, and I start writing as fast as I can; and as I start building up a serious word count, I begin throwing in those notebook fragments that seem to work best with the scene at the moment. It’s a haphazard way of producing a first draft, and it usually means I’m stuck in rewrite hell for a little while afterward as I try to smooth everything out, but it does result in finished manuscripts.

I simply can’t do outlines. I’ve tried. But outlining has always felt very paint-by-numbers to me; once I have the outline in hand, I’m less enthused about actually writing. But I know a lot of other writers who can’t work without everything outlined in detail beforehand.

ST: Where did the idea for A Brutal Bunch of Heartbroken Saps come from?

NK: A long time ago, I was in rural Oklahoma for a magazine story I was writing. It was early February, and the land was gray and stark. Near the Arkansas border, I saw a Biblical pillar of black smoke rising in the distance; as I drove closer, I saw a huge fire burning through a distant forest. This would be a really crappy place for my car to die, I thought. It would suck to be trapped here.

So that real-life scene rattled around in my head for years. Eventually I began depositing other figures in that landscape—Bill, the elegant hustler, based off a couple of actual people I know; an Elvis-loving assassin; crooked cops—to see how they interacted with each other. The result was funny and bleak enough, I thought, to commit to full-time writing. 

ST: You referred to A Brutal Bunch of Heartbroken Saps as “gonzo noir.” Can you dive into that term?

NK: I love crime fiction, but a lot of it is too serious. That seems like an odd thing to say about a genre concerned with heavy topics like murder and misery, but more than a few novels tend to veer into excessive navel-gazing about the human condition. As if injecting an excessive amount of ponderousness will make the authors feel better about devoting so many pages to chases and gunfire. 

But real-life mayhem and misery, as awful as it can be, also comes with a certain degree of hilarity. You can’t believe this dude with a knife in his eye is still prattling on about football! A reality television star might dictate whether we end up in a thermonuclear war! And so on. With gonzo noir, I’m trying to blend as much black humor as appropriate into the plot; otherwise it all becomes too leaden.

ST: Your main character, street-smart hustler Bill, is on the run from an assassin and finds himself in the deadly hands of some crazed town folks. Why do writers, especially in the crime fiction genre, like to torture their characters so much?

NK: Raymond Chandler once said something like: “If your plot is flagging, have a man come in with a gun.” I think a lot of current crime-fiction writers have a variation on that: “If your plot is flagging, have something horrible happen to your main character. Extra credit if it’s potentially disfiguring.” It’s an effective way to move the story forward, if done right, and how your protagonist reacts to adversity can reveal a lot about their character through action.

Done the wrong way, though, it becomes boring really quickly. Take the last few seasons of the TV show “24.” Keifer Sutherland played a great hardboiled character, but subjecting him to the upteenth gunshot wound, torture session, or literally heart-stopping accident got repetitive. When writing, it always pays to recognize the cliché, and figure out how to subvert it as effectively as possible—the audience will appreciate it.

In A Brutal Bunch of Heartbroken Saps, Bill has done a lifetime of bad stuff. He’s ripped people off, stolen a lot of money, and left more than a few broken hearts. I felt he really needed to really pay for his sins if I wanted his eventual redemption to have any weight. Plus I wanted to see how much comedy I could milk out of a severed finger (readers will see what I mean).     

ST: What’s next for you?

NK: I’ve been working on a longer novel (tentatively) titled Boise Longpig Hunting Club. It’s about a bounty hunter in Idaho who finds himself pursued by some very rich people who hunt people for sport. I’ve wanted to do a variation on “The Most Dangerous Game” for years, and the ideas finally came together in the right way. It’s an expansion of my short story, “A Nice Pair of Guns,” which appeared in ThugLit (a great, award-winning magazine; gone too soon.) 

ST: What advice do you give to young writers?

NK: A long time ago, the film director Terrence Malick came to my college campus. He was supposed to introduce a screening of his film “The Thin Red Line,” but he never set foot in the theater—unsurprising in retrospect, given his penchant for staying out of sight. However, he did make an appearance at a smaller gathering for students and faculty beforehand.

All of us film and writing geeks, we freaked out. Finally one of us cobbled together enough courage to actually walk up to him and ask for some advice on writing. He said—and you bet I still have this in a notebook—“You just have to write. Don’t look back, just get it all out at once.”

I think that’s the best advice I’ve ever heard. It’s easy to stay away from the writing desk by telling yourself that you’re not quite ready yet, that you’re not in the mood, that somehow the story isn’t quite fully baked in your mind. If you think like that, though, nothing is ever going to have to come out. Even if you have to physically lock yourself in a room, you need to sit down, place your hands on the keyboard, and force it out. The words will fight back, but you’re stronger.  

ST: Can you please tell us one random fact about yourself?

NK: I like cats and whiskey.

To learn more about Nick Kolakowski, visit his official website or follow him on Twitter @nkolakowski.

The Writer's Bone Interviews Archive

Surprise and Discovery: 10 Questions With Spaceman of Bohemia Author Jaroslav Kalfar

Jaroslav Kalfar

Jaroslav Kalfar

By Daniel Ford

I have so many thoughts about Jaroslav Kalfar’s truly terrific debut novel Spaceman of Bohemia, but, alas, I must wait for next Friday’s #NovelClass discussion with Dave Pezza.

In the meantime, enjoy my interview with the author, who graciously talked to me about how he caught the writing bug, listening to his characters shout over each other in his head, and what inspired Spaceman of Bohemia.

Daniel Ford: What led you to storytelling?

Jaroslav Kalfar: I caught the bug early on, when I was about six. My father had an extensive collection of horror and sci-fi videotapes, and those were the gateway to books. I was in awe of how much stories could move and shape a person (even the small, undeveloped person I was back then!), and I wanted to try my hand at creating stories myself. I started with “X-Files” fan fiction, and soon gathered the confidence to make up my own narratives.

DF: You’ve been an avid reader since you were a kid. Who were some of your early influences?

JK: The above-mentioned videotapes and “X-Files” led me to exploring the small library of my grandparents—Robinson Crusoe, any Jules Verne I could find. Those were the early days. Then I discovered Tolkien, Pratchett, and LeGuin in middle school, and eventually reached the likes of Kundera, Dostoevsky, Dickens, the truly “serious” stuff. I’m so grateful now that my reading diet was so varied right from the start. I didn’t care about “genre” or “literary,” I just wanted to get my hands on any good book.

DF: When you actually sit down to write, what’s your process like? Do you outline, listen to music, consult with cosmic spider?

JK: I’m not a big fan of outlining. I mark the spot on the map I need to get to with light pencil, maybe. But the joy of writing for me is in constant surprise and discovery. If I know exactly where I’m going, I will lose interest quickly. As for the physical act of writing, most of time it’s in my office, with shades drawn, and in complete silence so I can hear the characters in my head shout over each other. I absolutely consult with a cosmic spider, even though he eats all my food, the glutton. 

DF: What inspired Spaceman of Bohemia?

JK: I’ve always been fascinated with loneliness, its contradictions, how people experience it so differently. It seemed like there was no greater place to study loneliness than within the confines of space. But I also wanted to write about my country, its democratic aspirations and historical hang-ups. Astronaut as character seemed so well poised for both. In space, the astronaut is subject to inconveniences, anxieties, perfect isolation, but on Earth, the astronaut is thought of as hero, symbol, embodiment of aspiration and progress. Within Spaceman were summarized my biggest obsessions, those I wanted in the first book.

DF: Space can offer an endless canvas, but you illustrate perfectly that humans are still bound by their limitations even if they’re soaring through the heavens. How did you decide on the structure of the novel?

JK: The structure was bit of an accident, as it sometimes happens. Initially I was not going to dedicate whole scenes to Jakub’s past on Earth, only include small fragments here and there. But the past became so crucial to why Jakub had undertaken the mission, and it became equally important to me that the Czech Republic and Jakub’s life there was as alive, vivid, and exciting as anything happening in space. There just comes a point when the book dictates exactly what it needs, and everything comes together (this makes the process sound mystical and somehow automatic, but, of course, to come to that point, one must undergo hundreds of hours of frustration and discarded drafts).

DF: Letting go of characters and stories can be hard, especially for debut novelists. Was it tough saying goodbye to them?

JK: The hardest part was making the decision of “this is the final draft, time to take my hands off.” There is always something to fix, a different way to express something about a character. I also had some tough times while writing the novel, personal troubles, health issues, and Jakub, Hanus, and Lenka certainly became a way for me to be elsewhere away from those problems. I miss that, the act of just sitting in a room and talking to them (particularly to Hanus—he provided the same comforts for me that he provided for Jakub, that clever spider), but I am even more excited that their story is out in the world now, existing independently of me. That’s the dream.

DF: You can’t read your novel or your backstory without thinking about the current political situation in the United States. You say in your promotional material that “America felt limitless” when you came here when you were a kid. Do you still feel that way or are you as disillusioned as the rest of us trying to figure this mess out?

JK: I’m grateful for my Czech upbringing, as it taught me to face history with good humor. But I have to say that this is the least good humor I’ve ever had. America is certainly not limitless, in fact, it is victim to its own insistence on exceptionalism. It was interesting to at once watch Donald Trump’s ascent to power, Russia’s new machinations in Europe and Middle East, and the beginning of fragmentation in the EU after Brexit. It’s an unexpected U-turn toward an uglier, messier time, and I was as caught off-guard as everyone else. But I will say one thing about America: the people, the artists, the thinkers who have been coming forward to resist the new political reality are giving me great hope. Perhaps I’ll gain some of that good humor back.

DF: Now that you have your first novel under your belt, what’s next?

JK: Working on the next one! Focusing on new projects has helped a great deal with the publication anxiety. I’ve two big things on the docket—one a sprawling novel cutting across history (much further back than Spaceman), while the other is a small, intimate book about modern love and the multiverse. We’ll see which one I finish first.

DF: What’s your advice for aspiring authors?

JK: Write the damn thing, then check to see if it’s the best version of itself. If not, write a better version, or write something else. Readers are amazing and we owe them this much.

DF: Can you name one random fact about yourself?

JK: I genuinely dislike coffee. I think it’s just awful. It has been surprising to some people, since the Spaceman cover features a giant beautiful coffee cup.

To learn more about Jaroslav Kalfar, visit his official website, like his Facebook page, or follow him on Twitter @JaroslavKalfar. Tune into #NovelClass next Friday to hear our discussion about Spaceman of Bohemia.

The Writer's Bone Interviews Archive

YA Author Tammar Stein Searches for a Hero in The Six-Day Hero

Tammer Stein

Tammer Stein

By Lindsey Wojcik

Nearly 50 years ago, Israel and the neighboring Arab states fought in what is now known as the Six-Day War. Just in time for the 50th anniversary in June, young adult author Tammar Stein's The Six-Day Hero will officially be released (it is currently available on Amazon).

While The Six-Day Hero is not directly about the conflict, it does aim to transport readers to the sounds, sights, and events of West Jerusalem during that time. The story follows 12-year-old Motti, a boy who dreams of being a hero, and thinks the only way to become one is by being a soldier like his older brother (who serves in the Israeli army).

Stein, the daughter of Israeli Defense Force soldiers, recently talked to me about her writing process, what inspired The Six-Day Hero, and her advice for other authors. 

Lindsey Wojcik: What made you want to pursue writing, specifically young adult fiction?

Tammar Stein: I love books, the physical feel of them, the look of them, the way that they’re gateways to making connections and getting lost in adventures. Even as a young child, I remember my mother scolding me to go outside and get some fresh air because I had been inside reading for hours. It felt inevitable for me to try and create that same kind of magic for someone else.

I never set out to write for young adults, but when my agent read my manuscript for Light Years, she felt it could be a great young adult title. The character was 20 years old; it never crossed my mind that that could be a YA title. But the themes were classic YA: figuring out who you are, who you want to be. We got great response from the YA editors and I never looked back.

LW: What is your writing process like? How has it evolved over time?

TS: My writing process used to be: sit, write, delete, and repeat 50 times. This is not the most efficient way to write a novel. Light Years, my first book, took me five years to write. It turns out that just because I knew a great book when I read it, didn’t mean I could just write a great book myself. My second novel, High Dive, was also kind of a pain to write. I wrote the whole draft of it, almost 300 pages, before realizing it just didn’t have that magic spark. And I started back on page one.

By my third novel, Kindred, I wised up. I outlined. Now I do that for all my books. Not necessarily a detailed breakdown of each chapter, but a strong, two-page outline so I don’t get lost getting from the beginning to the end. It’s harder than it sounds, but it’s helped me so much.

LW: What kind of research went into outlining and writing The Six-Day Hero?

TS: The first thing I did was read. Other than the fact that it lasted six days, I really didn’t know much about the war. So I read dozens of books on the subject. I read newspaper articles from the time period. I watched documentaries. I'm also the daughter of Israeli Defense Force soldiers, and once I had a good sense of the events, I started interviewing Israelis who had experienced the war. Some as soldiers, some as children. I ended up speaking with half a dozen Israelis, including my parents, whom I pestered on a weekly basis for more details.

LW: What made the Six-Day War an intriguing and important topic for you to write a fictional story about?

TS: In 1967, Israel teetered between existence and annihilation. By winning the Six-Day War, it averted annihilation…and began the modern dilemma of the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. This summer (June 5-11) marks the war’s 50th anniversary.

The West Bank, the Gaza Strip, and the Jewish Settlements are constantly in the news. If you’ve ever asked yourself, “How in the world did we get into this hot mess?,” the answer is, the Six-Day War. That’s the war that started all this. This is a 50-year-old hot mess. In this book, I look at the history of the war through the eyes of the people living through it. And it's the first English book for younger readers set during the Six-Day War, giving context and perspective to the complexity the world is still trying to solve. I do believe this is a situation that will be resolved one day. We will move on. We will find a way for all these millions of people to live in peace with one another. But to do that, we have to understand how it got started.

You cannot shape the future without knowing the past. But because there are so many hard feelings, because people are tired of constantly hearing about the same conflict, there’s this tendency to just want to move on, to ignore it. Especially when it comes to kids. So there’s no one writing about it, no one publishing about it. And kids are just left in this vacuum. They hear the news, but they don’t have any basis for truly understanding it. I wanted to change that.

To be clear though, the book is not about the war. The book is about Motti, a 12-year-old boy, who wants to feel heroic. But when you read the book, you learn about the history of the war through his eyes. The violent details of war didn’t strike me as the best way to tell a kids’ story. Rather, I wrote a book about the struggles of a 12-year-old, struggles shaped by the same forces that shaped the war. I hope the book will transport young readers to the sounds, sights, and events of West Jerusalem 50 years ago.

LW: What inspired you to write it from a 12 year-old’s point of view?

TS: Motti just came to me. It’s one of the moments that felt almost mystical. I just had this scene pop into my mind: a restless, bored kid forced to sit through an assembly, desperate to get away. Motti is a scrappy boy, always looking for mischief and fun. He struggles to shine in the big shadow cast by his successful older brother, Gideon. Straight-arrow/Gideon is now a soldier in the Israeli army, and Motti is equally proud and jealous. Over the course of the next month, everything Motti knows about Israel, his brother, and himself will be put to the test. He will realize that war is not a game, and he will face harsh challenges to be the hero he always dreamed of.

LW: The Six-Day Hero will be officially released in time for the 50th anniversary of the war. How does the book honor its history?

TS: When you hear that something happened 50 years ago, there’s this reflexive feeling that it’s ancient history. That it barely matters. But I spoke with people who lived it, fought through it, and are still haunted by what happened. The whole world is still being shaped by what happened. It’s far from ancient history, and I wanted to make sure that there was something there for kids to connect to.

LW: What's next for you?

TS: The Six-Day War was just one in a chain of wars for Israel. The history of an Israeli family can really be told by tracing the family’s lives through the wars they fought. Six years later was the Yom Kippur War, and my next book is about Beni, Motti’s younger brother, with the Yom Kippur War as the setting.

LW: What's your advice for aspiring authors?

TS: My best piece of advice is to try to balance a sense of urgency with lots of patience. Both are absolutely necessary to write a book. If you don’t feel urgency, you’ll never write. It’s always much nicer to plan to do it later, in the evening, tomorrow morning, over the weekend. If you don’t feel urgency, you’ll always put it off. But you have to be patient with yourself and your work as well. Your first draft will be terrible. Your sense of urgency will shout at you to share it with your family and friends, to start sending it out to agents, to publish it as an e-book. Don’t do that. You need to go back and revise. Then you let it sit for a month (or three) and come back to it with fresh eyes. And just as you get comfortable with your patience and want to keep tinkering with your manuscript forevermore, your sense of urgency needs to rise up again and urge you to send it out and share it with the world.

To learn more about Tammar Stein, visit her official website, like her Facebook page, or follow her on Twitter @TammarStein.

The Writer’s Bone Interviews Archive

Don’t Say Yes to the Stress: 7 Questions With Former 'Bachelorette' Star Desiree Hartsock

Desiree Hartsrock

Desiree Hartsrock

By Stephanie Schaefer

Ever since my fiancé (Writer’s Bone co-founder, Daniel Ford) and I set a wedding date, I haven’t had as much time to read or contribute to the blog as I would like to. My free moments are filled with comparing color palettes on Pinterest, emailing wedding vendors, and traveling to trunk shows in hopes to find the perfect dress.

For these reasons, I was eager to get my hands on Desiree Hartsock’s wedding planning book and was even more thrilled when the former reality television star accepted my interview proposal. Below, Hartsock talks about her process for writing her first book, what attracted her to the wedding industry, and her advice for aspiring bloggers.

Stephanie Schaefer: First off, what inspired you to create a wedding planning book and what attracted you to the wedding industry as a career?

Desiree Hartsock: I first fell in love with the wedding industry while I was in design school and discovered my love for designing wedding dresses. I then went on to work at various bridal salons where that love grew and experience formed. I was inspired to write my book to help brides plan their wedding without any distractions or stress. I would constantly see brides so stressed out during the wedding planning and it should be a special time that doesn't create anxiety or worry. Also after planning my own wedding I was able to experience it for myself and wanted to share what I learned through it all.

SS: While working on your book, did you notice any similarities between writing and dress design?

DH: I suppose they are both creative pieces of work and have to go through a similar thought process. Just as a design comes to fruition by inspiration and thought out detail the book had to be planned out like a pattern to ensure it came together as a whole.

SS: How did writing for your blog and website prepare you for your book?

DH: The blog is an outlet to help brides with all aspects of wedding planning and wedding style so it definitely prepared me to write the book. The experience of writing for my blog allowed me to condense information in an easy to read and follow format that every bride needs to prepare for her wedding.

SS: What advice can you give others who want to launch their own blog?

DH: Running a blog is extremely time consuming and requires much attention to detail so I would say to make sure you want to and have the time to cater to the blog to make it successful.

SS: Much like launching a new project, planning a wedding can be overwhelming. Are there any stress-busting tips you can offer future brides (like myself)?

DH: The best stress busting tip I can offer is to take it day by day and moment by moment and to keep the end goal in mind: marriage. At the end of the day no one will know if the color of the flowers is slightly off or if a bridesmaid wore the wrong shoes.

SS: By the way, congratulations on your first child! Do you foresee writing a baby-related book in your future?

DH: Thanks! We will see. I have learned so much already as a new mother and hope to share some of that with other new moms.

SS: We ask all of our contributors to share a fun-fact about themselves. Care to share an anecdote?

DH: Fun fact…hmmmm. I can throw a football like no other (used to be a tomboy as a child). ;)

To learn more about Desiree Hartsock, visit her official website, like her Facebook page, or follow her on Twitter @DesHartsock.

The Writer’s Bone Interviews Archive

Modern City Scribe: 6 Questions With Historian and Author Wade Graham

Wade Graham

Wade Graham

By Adam Vitcavage

Wade Graham is a Los Angeles-based historian who has written two books exploring urbanism, landscape, and architecture. His first book, American Eden, entwined gardening and history into an insightful exploration on what gardens throughout history can reveal about our culture. His second book, Dream Cities, explores seven concepts, ranging from castles to malls that shaped the modern world.

While these ideas may sound tediously specific, Graham’s writing is engaging and welcoming. You don’t need to be an expert or academic studying these topics to enjoy the books. In fact, they weren’t written for that purpose. Dream Cities gives a person walking down the street an insight into why the world is the way it is.

Graham was kind enough to offer a primer on his book, what it’s like to write nonfiction for the general public, as well as briefly discuss his next project.

Adam Vitcavage: I wanted to start with your background. You seem to have a lot of titles, but they all seem to work hand in hand.

Wade Graham: I have done a series of things in life and still do a series of things. One of them is as an academic. I’m a historian; my PhD is in U.S. History and with a master’s degree in the History of Science. I teach at Pepperdine University’s graduate School of Public Policy. I teach Urban and Environmental Policy.

I also design gardens, which led to my first book American Eden. I’ve also done journalism, which is recently been about environmental and cultural topics.

Those things just are just a mix of cultural history and policy analysis.

AV: The structure of this book are the seven major trends of cities. There’s a little bit of biography and history. How did you come up with these seven trends?

WG: I was trying to answer a baffling question. If you look at modern cities—built since 1850—there are two things that are irreconcilable about modern cities. First, they are very chaotic. They’re made of all different parks; they’re not coherent. Pre-modern cities tend to have one type. You go to Venice and all of the buildings are the same height except for the churches. Everything is made out of the same stuff. Modern cities you don’t get that coherence. You get things banging into each other. There’s a skyscraper here, there’s a freeway there, there’s a mall over there, and a weird suburbia here.

Everywhere you go in the world, you see the same things. You can be in Mongolia and you can see skyscrapers that look the same as the ones you’ll see in Australia, Russia, and Detroit. You’ll see malls that look the same in Singapore. They’ll look a little different, but at the same time there are what architects call typologies. Which are not what buildings look like on the surface, but their basic form. Those are the same all over the world. That struck me as an odd fact.

Why would Melbourne look exactly like Moscow and exactly like Atlanta?

I tried to boil it down to what the basic types were and I got seven. I gave them names to treat them like types of birds. That way you can look out at any modern city and point at something and say that’s a mall or that’s a skyscraper.

In every case there was one person behind each idea who either invented it or built its example and sold it to everyone in the world. I had to begin with the biography of one—or sometimes a cluster—of architects, designers, and thinkers. Then I had to explain what the idea was. Each of these carries intention and an idea forward. In some cases these were very utopian ideas. Even in the case of slab high-rise skyscraper housing. It started as a utopian idea, but ceased being that. This book is my way to understand to see where these ideas came from and how they changed people.

AV: You wanted to know about this, but when did this idea first seep into your mind?

WG: It seeped into my mind when I was trying to understand landscape and how it structures space. One thing interesting about people in the west is that we notice a lot of things. I could look at your car and know a lot about you. I can look at your handbag and know even more about you. I can psychoanalyze you. But we’re pretty stupid about our physical environment. I can put a very well educated person in the street and ask them what they see and where it came from and they come up blank.

We’re trained in our culture to notice certain kind of objects and ignore the context we’re in. That struck me as interesting because context has a lot of meaning.

I live in a little 1921 wooden bungalow. It’s kind of unremarkable for my neighborhood, but it was utopian form. It was built by white Methodists from Iowa to build with the strict intentions to build a white, religious community on the west coast that was going to be different than the cities that they came from. Most of modern cities are a rebellion against cities at all. They’re anti-urban. The way we build cities is a rejection of the idea of a city. Even the skyscraper has its roots in the rejection of the city. Cities were thought to be chaotic and have too many things going on, too many mixes of people going on. They were meant to bring order and control to the city.

AV: How was the research for this conducted?

WG: It was really research intensive. Training as a journalist and as a historian makes you not question how much research needs to be done to get to the bottom of something. A huge amount of my research was based around going to the Los Angeles Public Library and going through their catalogue and making notes.

The way I write nonfiction is just to collect all of the footnotes you’re going to end up having and put them in order. Then you put sentences in between them. It’s a bit like building a building out of bricks. You go get all of the bricks and put them in the write order, then you stack them up one by one.

It was very methodical research: finding a clue then being led to another clue. The story just builds itself.

AV: I found your book’s voice very friendly. I’ve read some nonfiction that is a lot of academic, dry jargon. Yours was very intellectual, but very accessible. When you’re writing a heavily researched book like this, is it ever for the academic or for the general public who just happens to be interested in the subject?

WG: Absolutely not for the academic. I’m a reformed academic in a lot of ways. I learned as a journalist that you need to speak simply and clearly so that people get what you’re saying. To be honest with you, these books have been written for non-academic people. For smart people, yes, but for people who are generally interested in their culture. I have to hit my academic knuckles with a ruler to keep that type of writing out of the book. It’s difficult, but it’s required.

AV: Moving forward, are you working on another book?

WG: I am researching another book. I found myself really tired of all of that footnoting and the careful legalistic way of writing where you care about facts more than anything else. Also as a historian you’re taught to write from 30,000 feet. You see the big picture, you use statistical layers of proof, and that’s how you proceed.

When I moved to where I live now, which is three blocks from Dodger Stadium, one block from Sunset Boulevard, on a two-block long street that was put together in the 1910s and 1920s. It suffered white flight and gang infestation and now is reviving the way many of our central cities are.

I realized on this two-block long street that there were thirty different nationalities. Most of them were refugees from American wars. There are Cambodian refugees, Vietnamese boat people, Guatemalans whose families were killed by American bullets in the 1980s, there are Latvian refugees from World War II, and so on. I thought about how this is the history of the world on two city blocks. It’s also the history of the American cities rise then decline and rise again.

What I’ve been doing is interviewing every type of person in my neighborhood I can find. I mean every kind: homeless, prostitutes, gang members, prosecutors, old ladies, hipsters, skate punks, everybody. I’m trying to layer a story like a journalist would. It’s a collection of different stories, how they intertwine and how they coexist.

I’m trying a textured, more human thing than flying overhead way of academic writing. I’m writing the history of Echo Park. Through Echo Park, a history of Los Angeles. Through Los Angeles, a history of American cities over a hundred years.

To learn more about Wade Graham, visit his official website or follow him on Twitter @wadelgraham.

The Writer’s Bone Interviews Archive

Author Boris Fishman On Immigration and Identity in Fiction

Boris Fishman (Photo credit: Stephanie Kaltmas)

Boris Fishman (Photo credit: Stephanie Kaltmas)

By Adam Vitcavage

Boris Fishman’s latest novel, Don’t Let My Baby Do Rodeo, is about a young Jewish-American couple that immigrates to the United States from Eastern Europe. (You can read my full review in March’s “Books That Should Be On Your Radar.”)

While traveling abroad to participate in panels for the London Jewish Book Fair, Fishman was kind enough to answer some questions via email about his perspective on immigration, global affairs, and his new writing project about food.

Adam Vitcavage: You immigrated to America at a young age. You’ve also been in American longer than I have—I was born a year after you came to the country as a boy. Now, I’d say you’re probably more “American” than I am because, technically, you lived here longer than I. Whatever that means. What has it been like being an immigrant in America in 2017?

Boris Fishman: I’m more curious about your question than my answer. In what way do you feel less American than you imagine I do? My own condition on this is all over the place. Despite having very strong sympathies with their side, I don’t feel like one of the immigrants who are centrally affected by what’s going on in this country right now. But I couldn’t feel less “American” than you imagine me to. (Equally curious why you do.) Perhaps because I was born in another country—and continued to live in it, so to speak, emotionally and psychologically as I grew up in my family home here in the States; the immigration shouldn’t be dated to 9 years old but my post-college twenties, if that—I have very different values when it comes to certain things. More Russian values, more European values. The two areas in which I am proudest to be an American—now under attack—are its rule of law and civil liberties. There are many other issues where that’s less the case. But that doesn’t make me feel like an immigrant. It makes me feel like a foreigner.

AV: In a recent interview you said, “The problem with Russia reporting—just like, say, Iran reporting—is that the political tension makes non-political stories rare.” I’ve noticed a trend since the election that a lot of topics have become politicized in America. Do you feel American rhetoric is shifting in tat direction? Or are we just in a wave of tension right now?

BF: In the Soviet Union, we used to have three television channels. At American airports—I’m writing this at JFK—it feels like there’s only one: CNN. I travel a lot, and there’s no airport gate that isn’t besieged by poor Wolf Blitzer droning on about the same things over and over. (I have to imagine that the airport people are trying to split the difference between Fox and MSNBC.) Meanwhile, serious newspaper journalism—an indispensable safeguard, a civic necessity—is dying. And social media makes it too easy to gaze at no navel other than one’s own, and heap scorn on the other side that one would never dare heap were one doing it to someone’s face. So I’d say not so much that we’re becoming more politicized, but that the loudest among us seem to be eagerly, rapidly becoming stupider and lazier. Less interested in nuance. Less tolerant of dissenting opinion. Less thoughtful before we speak. More gratuitously provocative. More indulgent of our baser instincts. The dominion of social media is one of the reasons it’s so hard for me to feel at home here right now. This country is full of thoughtful, moderate people. But they’re not the ones shouting at us everyday. I’m not on Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram. I don’t have a television. But I still can’t escape it.

AV: You recently traveled to Estonia and Latvia to discuss creative life in America. What can you share about the arts and literature in Eastern European countries like those?

BF: There are lots of fascinating things going on there. Estonia, a country the size of your fingertip, is so much more technologically advanced than America is, it’s embarrassing. Riga, in Latvia, is an enchanted place—the best of Europe at a third of the price. Latvia is in a real nationalist mood, which leads them to cut off their noses to spite their faces politically, but on the other hand, it’s so nice to see a capital city untouched by the globalized sameness you see in so many places around the world, from Brooklyn to Moscow and even Tallinn, whose proximity to Finland is curse and blessing both. Latvian food, Latvian fashion designers, Latvian jewelry designers—you get a very strong sense of place. But there’s no way to be in either country without feeling the political shadow cast by Russia next door, and Trump’s abdication of NATO guarantees to the Baltic states. It takes real effort to see past, indeed, the swarming political questions.

AV: This novel explores themes of immigration, acculturation, assimilation, and more. Your first novel touched on similar themes What entices you to explore these topics?

BF: They’ve affected every moment of my life.

AV: When you’re crafting a story to tell, do you write for a particular audience? For Americans? For Jewish immigrants?

BF: I want to write the smartest possible book for the broadest possible audience. What this means is that in my books there are no sinners or saints; no easy feelings; no straightforward answers. Because those things exist in real life very rarely. But that ambiguity, ambivalence, and complexity can never be an excuse for vagueness, diaristic philosophizing, or gratuitous difficulty in the writing. I am fanatical about giving my reader as many tools as I can to help him or her make sense of the human mess I’m describing. So to the extent I imagine an audience, I imagine smart people reading carefully, and I thank them by making it as easy on them as I can. But I’m incapable of doing that by simplifying the story, by making the ideas simpler, the language homelier. And that isn’t for everyone. Someone told me recently, “I was really affected by your book, but I really couldn’t do anything else while I read it.” As far as compliments go, it was a begrudging one. For my part, I don’t want to write a book that would be simplistic enough to make full sense of while watching television or doing the laundry. That book would be a lie, as I see it. But some people read to escape into a better, or easier, world. And that’s okay. We all worship different things.

AV: Writers often embed truths about themselves in their own writing. Did you do that with your last novel? Did you discover anything surprising about yourself?

BF: Yes. I thought I was writing a novel about the many women of my mother’s generation who have given their lives to taking care of the men around them, and then I realized that in writing about an adopted child I was writing about myself. Immigration renders you so foreign to your elders that you might as well be adopted.

AV: Your first novel came out in 2014. This came out in 2016. Can we expect the next book like clockwork for early 2018? If so, can you share a little bit about the project?

BF: I’m in the last third of the first draft, so very possibly! It’s a food memoir. The first part is the story of our Soviet lives, and immigration, told through food—Soviet food was way better than its reputation suggests because it was, by necessity, local, seasonal, and organic, at a cost of next to nothing. Refrigeration technology came late; supply chains were inefficient; agriculture didn’t make industrial use of pesticides in the same way; and so on.

The second part is the story of a woman who came into my family’s life after my grandmother passed away in 2004—a home aide from Ukraine who took care of my grandfather. She was a phenomenal cook, and her tables, not to put too fine a point on it, ended up bringing me back to a family and culture I was trying very hard to abandon. I followed her to Ukraine, and learned to cook from her, and then ran with it on my own: I worked in a restaurant on the Lower East Side for five months.

So Part 3 is all the ways my own time in the kitchen has saved me. I had a very difficult personal experience several years ago; cooking brought me out of it. It was also how I met the woman with whom I now live. And it was our proving ground. We spent the first week of our courtship using some very inadequate tools to cook for 40 screaming Lakota Sioux kids on the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota, part of a traveling summer camp for which she was a counselor and I, somehow, a chef.

To learn more about Boris Fishman, visit his official website.

The Writer’s Bone Interviews Archives

Inside Trypod: NPR Tackles 'Podcast Unawareness'

By Daniel Ford

Sean Tuohy and I have voraciously listened to podcasts for years (so much so, we decided to start this humble literary podcast in 2014!). We’re constantly looking for innovative storytellers that use the format to broaden our understanding of the world.

We’re also constantly recommending the podcasts we love (as well as shamelessly promoting our own) to others, so we couldn’t have been more excited to see NPR start up a hashtag (#trypod) in order to combat “podcast unawareness.”

Edison Research found that “one in five Americans listened to podcasts every month as of early 2016 – a number that has grown by double-digits for five years,” according to NPR. The #trypod initiative brings together a wide range of the top podcast hosts who will attempt to make people curious enough about the format to download new shows.

Israel Smith, NPR’s senior director of promotion and audience development, graciously talked to me about how the idea for the program originated, how podcasters can participate, and why podcasts are becoming more and more popular.

Daniel Ford: How did the idea for the #TryPod initiative originate?

Israel Smith: At a meeting of major podcasters late last year. We were talking about audience building, and I suggested a collaborative “tell a friend” campaign that became Trypod.

DF: What has the response been like from some of the podcasts that are already involved?

IS: Everyone has been extraordinarily generous and supportive. Things will really kick into gear tomorrow when the project goes live and wide. An example of collaboration: What happens when WBEZ makes kick ass audio promos, and then Jeff Gross and Bill Irwin at Midroll make a video based on that audio and use graphics made by the NPR Marketing team? This:

DF: How can podcasters participate?

IS: Email ismith@npr.org for the project guide.

DF: You mention research that shows that more and more listeners are tuning into podcasts every month. Why do you think the medium is getting more traction?

IS: Podcasts are easy, they’re personal, and they always waiting for you when you’re ready to listen.

DF: NPR has more than a few podcasts that would be on our #TryPod list, but we want to know what you are listening to!

IS: I’m listening to “Bullseye” with Jesse Thorn, “The Daily,” “LPR Live,” and looking forward to the new season of “Embedded” on March 9.

For more information on #trypod, visit NPR’s website.

The Writer’s Bone Interviews Archives

Magic City Scribe: 9 Questions With Author Alex Segura

Alex Segura

Alex Segura

By Sean Tuohy

As I’ve said before, South Florida is a sunny place for shady people. Author Alex Segura explores the Magic City and its seedy side with his main character Pete Fernandez. Much like the city he lives in, Pete is on the edge. He’s a burned out reporter with a drinking problem. Segura uses this broken but compelling character to explore the culture of South Florida.

The Miami native took a few minutes to talk to me about his writing process, his love for the city, and what his main hero is up to next.

Sean Tuohy: Which authors influenced you?

Alex Segura: Too many to list. But I regularly go back to the work of George Pelecanos, Dennis Lehane, Laura Lippman, Lawrence Block, Reed Farrel Coleman, Megan Abbott, Ross Macdonald, Margaret Millar, Charles Willeford, Vicki Hendricks, Duane Swierczynski, Henning Mankell, Raymond Chandler, Ian Rankin, James Ellroy, and Don Winslow, each for different reasons. I value stories with strong settings and protagonists that are far from perfect. I also appreciate vivid language, and all of these writers have that in spades.

ST: What is your writing process like? Do you outline or just vomit up a first draft?

AS: I start with an idea, and then I proceed. Sometimes that involves writing a few chapters to get a feel for the story followed by a bare bones outline, other times it means jumping into a structural doc if the story is more complicated. I’m trying to move away from planning too far ahead, so I’ve settled into this gray area between writing and outlining, where I give myself a few crumbs to follow, but I also leave a lot of breathing room to let the characters and story take me where they want to go.

ST: Does your writing process change between novels and comic books?

AS: A bit. Comics are much more collaborative—you’re the screenwriter writing for the artist, who’s in many ways the director and sets the visual tone for the story. So, you have to be open and willing to lose some things and gain others because you’re working together. With a novel, even though you do get some guidance and feedback, it’s all you. You’re sitting alone in the dark pecking away at your keyboard. You’re also creating from nothing, where in comics, you may be writing pre-existing characters that come with rules and existing issues. For me, prose is more liberating and comics are akin to putting a puzzle together, especially in terms of making sure you complement the art, don’t over-dialogue and hit the right beats.

ST: For the most part, Miami is rarely visited in detective fiction world. What attracts you to the city? What makes the Magic City a great landscape for fiction?

AS: I’m from there, born and raised, so there’s a lot of knowledge about the city and its history that I carry with me. It’s always struck me as a great setting. You have this beautiful, tropical veneer that masks something darker. Miami is no stranger to scandal, crime, and weird mysteries. It’s also a big place—sprawling, with lots of nooks and crannies that have their own personalities. It’s diverse, complicated and lovely. It’s like a femme fatale in metropolitan form, if that makes any sense. I never get tired of writing about it.

ST: How much of you ends up in your main character Pete Fernandez?

AS: A bit. I like to describe Pete as a guy I knew growing up. We went to similar schools, had similar experiences, but at a certain point, he went one way and I went the other. He also has great taste in music!

ST: Pete is a flawed character but the readers continue to root for him. As a writer, how do you balance keeping him imperfect, but not so much that you lose your reader?

AS: It’s tough. I want the stories to feel realistic but I also know Pete is the hero and you want readers to root for him. His problems are twofold—he’s an alcoholic and he’s also put himself in this position, where he’s investigating these terrible crimes with minimal experience. So the reader sees him try to succeed at not only solving the crime, but being a better person. Success with one does not guarantee success with the other. But, like you said, you don’t want to be completely doom and gloom. I try to show some character progression from book to book, otherwise I’m just writing a bunch of static standalones, which doesn’t interest me. I want to feel like he’s moving forward, that his world is evolving and he’s becoming better at his job and at his life. But for every step or two forward, we’ll see him stumble. Because that’s life.

ST: The third Pete Fernandez comes out in April. What can we expect from Pete’s new adventure?

AS: When we see Pete in Dangerous Ends, he’s established himself more and moved past the wreckage of his last adventure, Down the Darkest Street. He’s trying to make it as a PI, he’s trying to live a simpler, cleaner life. But that all goes out the window pretty fast. His partner, Kathy Bentley, wants Pete to help her reopen an old cold case. A saga that’s been a true crime staple for Miami residents for a decade—the saga of former Miami cop Gaspar Varela, who’s doing life in prison for the murder of his wife. Varela’s daughter, Maya, has hired Kathy and Pete to hopefully find some lost piece of evidence that would exonerate her father. Hesitant at first, Pete finds himself hooked by the case. But the deeper he goes, the more dangerous it becomes, and he finds himself in the sights of a deadly Miami street gang known as Los Enfermos and an even older case that dates back to the early days of Castro’s regime in Cuba. It’s a bigger, more ambitious book—dealing with more stuff and adding a lot of history and texture to not only Pete, but his world. I hope people enjoy it.

ST: What advice do you give to aspiring writers?

AS: It sounds simple, but it’s true: you have to read a lot to write well, and you have to write a lot to hope to write well. Get into a routine. Write every day or as close to that as you can manage. Finish stuff. Then revise. Then start something new. If you don’t treat the craft of writing seriously, you can’t get upset when people don’t treat your work seriously.

ST: Can you tell us one random fact about yourself?

AS: I have a cat named David Byrne.

To learn more about Alex Segura, visit his official website, like his Facebook page, or follow him on Twitter @alex_segura.

The Writer’s Bone Interviews Archive

A Conversation With Girl Through Glass Author Sari Wilson

Sari Wilson

Sari Wilson

By Adam Vitcavage

Editor’s note: this interview originally appeared on www.vitcavage.com, shortly before Girl Through Glass was originally released in January 2016. You can now purchase the novel in paperback.

Sari Wilson’s debut novel was about a decade in the making. Wilson’s head was filled with images from her childhood as a ballerina: her hair up in a tight bun, blistered feet, and countless leotards. She knew she wanted to write about the world she spent so much time in, but, more importantly, wanted to write about the emotional truth of her time training in ballet and her childhood.

The story grew and grew and became the fanciful novel Girl Through Glass. In the debut, a young rising star in the 1970s ballet world meets a shadowy middle-aged man named Maurice who becomes fascinated with her. In the present, a dance professor deals with her past as a dancer, and must confront what happened to her all of those years ago.

I spoke over the phone with Wilson for what was, according to the author herself, her first interview as an author.

Adam Vitcavage: I know this book came about after you had thought of a short story about ballet. Can you talk about the genesis of how this book came to be?

Sari Wilson: It was a long process. I would say 10 years or more, depending on how you count. I got the image of these girls—which actually became one of the first images in the novel—these young girls putting on their leotards and tights like they’re putting on armor, getting ready for battle. That image came back to me very strongly. It was from my childhood, but I hadn’t thought of it in many years.

It was emotionally powerful to me, but I didn’t know what to do with it. I tried to make it into a short story. It never worked. It just kept getting bigger and bigger. It was so different than anything I had been writing at the time.

I had my own experiences as a young girl in the ballet world that wasn’t so different than a lot of girls’ experiences. I felt that I touched on something that was related to the time period too. New York City, the late 1970s, the early 1980s, all of those Russians. Even though I never studied with the Russians, they were everywhere.

I became very fascinated with all of this, in a writerly way. I went back to the material in that capacity. I interviewed people whom I danced with. I read a ton. That’s when these characters started emerging. They took me over. The girl Mira came first. Her story is not mine, but it’s informed by my experience—people I knew, places I danced. I came to really love her and feel for her. I feared for her, but I had to follow her story until the end. I actually wrote the whole Mira storyline first. The character of Kate came later. I added Kate because I felt it needed an adult frame. She’s a very complex character. I learned—as I wrote—that they were the same person.

AV: So, you didn’t intend for them to be the same person. How and when did you decide that they needed to be the same?

SW: I already had the structure of the book. My job became figuring out who this Kate character was and what her story was. Especially how it related to Mira’s story.

AV: As I was reading the book, it became fascinating to me about how this lovely girl became this fraught middle aged woman.

SW: Yes, it became an exploration into the past. Can we ever escape from our past? How does it transform us?

AV: Speaking of the past. You say that you “stole liberally” from your childhood. How many experiences of yours found their way into Mira’s life?

SW: A lot of the setting was taken from my childhood. For example, the New York City blackout in 1977. I remember that very distinctly. A lot of the description of the ballet studios I danced in. I loved these spaces–they were windows into other worlds. A lot of the girls were based on girls I knew and danced with.

Many of the images and the feelings are drawn from my childhood. Mira’s emotional truth is my emotional truth. Her emotional experiences in the dance world were mine. At the same time, pretty much everything that happens to her is fictional.

AV: How did a character like Maurice come into Mira’s life?

SW: He is completely a fictional character. There was no Maurice in my life.

AV: But are there these types of men who are interested in these young girls? Or was that completely fictional?

SW: Historically, there have been men like this in the ballet world. There are passionate fans known as balletomanes. Ballet lore is filled with balletomanes—and examples of the extremity of their passion for this ballerina or that ballerina. If you look at the [Edgar] Degas ballet paintings, there’s often a shadowy figure. A man, shadowy and hiding behind the curtains.

Maurice is also drawn from some storybook characters. I wanted the book to have some element of a fairytale-feeling in terms of tone. Maurice came out of that. The ballet world is filled with this idea of the mysterious lurking man, and also these passionate, often obsessive balletomanes. To me, Maurice came as part of that world: the story of ballet.

In my life: there were not these men. But, I will say that to be a dancer means to always be watched. There were always people coming into the classrooms and we never knew why. They’d be standing and watching us with clipboards and then whispering and leaving. As I was remembering this world and my childhood experiences, I also remembered girls were chosen for roles in this way. Things happened because you were seen. You didn’t have a voice as a young dancer; only your body. Your body was everything.

AV: It’s just crazy to hear about these types of people. There were moments in the book that were left up to the reader’s imagination. Why was it important to leave out some details?

SW: I would say there were probably 1,000 pages that aren’t in the book—edited out over the years.

AV: That’s fascinating. I wanted more, but I’m not sure I know what I wanted of. I mean this as a compliment. I just needed more of these characters.

SW: I write from images. I write setting and characters, and the plot comes with me later. I have to throw out a lot of what I generate. One of my professors in graduate school was Tobias Wolff. Working with him taught me something about the art of leaving things out. How when you leave something out, you can create more tension and more mystery.

AV: I definitely felt that tension.

SW: I worked a lot in the later stages on the structure. How to create dramatic tension by withholding information. That was always a question I asked myself. Maybe I left out too much in the end. I don’t know. I’m going to need my readers to tell me.

AV: I appreciated the tension. I wanted these characters in my life. I need to read more about ballet because of this book.

SW: That’s awesome. I could not be more thrilled to have someone who basically didn’t know anything about ballet being captured by the mystery of it—as I was as a child. It’s a strange world, it’s a dangerous world, it’s a magical world, and largely it’s a province of girls. I’m thrilled a man would find it compelling.

AV: I read your opinion piece for The New York Times about how it is a dangerous world.

SW: I actually think it’s a good moment for ballet right now. In terms of mainstream culture at least. Misty Copeland is someone everyone is so excited about. She’s a revolutionary dancer who is really shaking things up. Then there’s also a [television show on Starz] called " Flesh and Bone" that covers a lot of the same themes as my novel.

But as much as this book is about ballet, I wanted to write a book about the human condition. Not just a ballet book. I wanted to find what was compelling and tragic and deeply human in all of these characters—and set it in the world of ballet.

AV: You did a good job with these characters. I know nothing about ballet, but I completely understood that attention that Mira wanted. Other than that human connection and the building of tension, what other things do you try to implement stylistically into your writing?

SW: I think my style comes from a lot of years of very hard work. I write a lot, but I haven’t published that much. That’s because I have to be really honest with myself. Am I putting on paper what is absolutely true? Is it the emotional truth? If it’s not then I have to keep going. I do a lot of freewriting, and then I edit most of it out. What remains is the writing that has the most energy and speaks to me the most.

It’s images and character’s voices that come to me first. I do a lot of writing to find who these people are and to figure out where they’re coming from. Then my job becomes the story. Putting everything together is actually the last piece for me. It’s a layered process.

AV: So what’s a normal writing day for you?

SW: Usually, I start where I left off. I leave a note for myself about what questions I have. I usually start out doing free writing to get underneath my conscious mind.  When I start to surprise myself is when I think something is moving and interesting. If I’m just trying to generate material, my goal will be a certain number of pages in a day or a session. If I’m in the editing process, I’ll give myself a similar goal of pages to edit.

AV: Are you already onto processing the next project? Hopefully, it’s not another 10-year process for you.

SW: I hope it’s not another 10 years (laughs). I started another one. I started it last spring, and I’m very excited for it. I’m trying to do more advanced planning for this one so it doesn’t take as long. Doing more outlining ahead of time, though I’m sure it will be another layered process.

AV: Can you talk about anything of the book? The characters or emotions you’ve come up with.

SW: I really can’t. It’s too early. I just have some characters and some situations. But it’s too early.

AV: I totally get it. Is that all you’re working on, or do you have any short stories or essays?

SW: I am working on some essays related to the book and ballet. As far as short stories: not at the moment. I’m really compelled by the novel form. I think it has a lot of energy right now.

AV: What about comics at all? I know your husband is a cartoonist.

SW: My husband is a cartoonist, his name is Josh Neufeld, and we are publishing an anthology of linked short stories and comics this spring. It’s called Flashed: Sudden Stories in Comics and Prose. It’s all flash fiction. Some of it is prose and some of it is comics. They’re all in dialogue with each other. There are some great comics and great fiction writers involved. We loved putting them together.

To learn more about Sari Wilson, visit her official website, like her Facebook page, or follow her on Twitter @sariwilson.

Read or listen to more of Adam Vitcavage's interviews by visiting his official website or subscribing to his podcast "Internal Review."

The Writer’s Bone Interviews Archive

Journalist and Author Tom Teicholz Shares His Early Archives in Being There

Tom Teicholz

Tom Teicholz

By Lindsey Wojcik

“It is hard to describe the delirium that accompanied each of those first publications. Each was some great victory and validation. Each felt like, in the words of the poet Charlie Sheen, ‘winning.’ It was as if I was climbing some imaginary mountain face and each published story was a new peak.”

Tom Teicholz nails the emotions that most journalists experience during the first few years of their career in the introduction to his collection of articles, Being There: Journalism 1978–2000. As a law student at Columbia University, Teicholz seemingly stumbled into his first assignment to interview Jerzy Kosinski for a free community newspaper that was distributed in Manhattan’s Upper East Side neighborhood. From there, his connections with editors and writers expanded, and essentially, his journalism career was launched.

Being There features articles with entertainers, literary, and film figures, as well as pieces on President Reagan’s trip to Bitburg, and the first Iraq war—among others. Teicholz recently took some time to talk to me about his writing process, his criteria for selecting which pieces to include in the collection, how journalism has changed since started in the industry, and why writers should “marry well.” 

Lindsey Wojcik: What enticed you about being a writer? Did you always want to write or did something specific inspire you to pursue it?

Tom Teicholz: I’ve always been someone with a great memory who can record and report events, never been shy about expressing my opinion, and always been interested and loved to talking to new people. Starting around fourth grade friends of mine started forming bands and at first, I wrote songs for them. Later (around like sixth grade) having no musical or singing ability, I started to write poems. I had wonderful teachers in ninth grade (Wilson Alling) and in eleventh (Jane Bendetson) who encouraged me, and I went to college writing short stories and with the ambition of writing a novel. While at college, I started writing book reviews, in part because when I read a novel I had opinions and questions I wanted to ask the author, and that pretty much leads to where Being There starts…at the beginning of my career in journalism.

LW: What is your writing process like?

TT: It has evolved over the years—and in some ways remained the same. At first, for the interviews I did in Andy Warhol’s Interview magazine, it was all about preparing the questions so that the story would have a beginning, middle and end; and then editing the transcripts to maximum effect. When I started writing articles, at first I was just winging it, and they were somewhat more formal than necessary. Over the years, I found a voice (or voices) that I’m most comfortable using. I always try and focus on: What’s interesting about this to me and why should anyone else care? And equally important, or more, is: Tell the facts. When I’m not sure about the former, I do the latter, and once I do, I always figure out what it is I want to say.

LW: What was the drive behind creating the Being There: Journalism 1978-2000? What were you looking for when you were putting it together?

TT: I’ve been living in Los Angeles for 20 years and most of my friends—and readers—know me from my work here, but most of them don’t know all this great work I did at the start of my career when I was living in New York. Also, most of these articles appeared before there was Google, or even the Internet, so I wanted to collect them and put those stories back in circulation—many of which feature artists at the start of their career (Jeff Bridges, Roz Chast, Ian Frazier) or who are no longer living (Isaac Bashevis Singer, Jerzy Kosinski, Bill Graham) or have become masters of their craft (Tom McGuane, Cynthia Ozick).

LW: The book features essays about an eclectic mix of subjects ranging from A-list celebrities to politicians. How did you select which essays to include in the book?

TT: My criteria was simple: Does it still hold up? Is it interesting? Are you learning something you otherwise might not know? 

LW: Were there any particular subjects featured in the book that you were intimidated by when you first started covering their stories?

TT: Of course! It takes a certain chutzpah to go head-to-head with Nobel Prize-winning authors or do a Paris Review interview with the august Cynthia Ozick, or be Michael Milken’s first interview after his time in prison. Each was intimidating in its own way. Also to write about the testimony of Holocaust survivors, about Treblinka, about Nazi War criminals being brought to justice, was daunting, even overwhelming. But I just kept telling myself that if I could build what I called a “Cathedral of Facts,” I would be okay.

LW: You've picked up some awards over the course of your career. How did the process of putting together this collection of essays allow you to reflect on your career?

TT: It’s funny: Each piece is its own adventure, but then they are published and they fade from one’s consciousness. Pulling all these articles together, re-reading them, and having them stack up into a book was tremendously gratifying. It is the satisfaction of putting (at least the first part of) your house in order. The second part is The Best of Tommywood, which will be published next year.

LW: Journalism has undergone quite the transformation since you first got in the business. What has impacted you the most from that change and how have you adapted?

TT: A combination of the Internet, in all its Shiva-destroyer-of-industries power, the bust-and-booms of the Internet bubbles, and the recession changed everything. At one moment, it seemed like those changes were for the worst: Publications went away and those that remained were paying a fraction of what they did—same for book publishers. And people started saying things like “Content wants to be free.” And there were all these startups—content farms among them, that believed mass producing stories at below minimum wage amounts was “good enough.”

I spent about a year complaining and despairing of being able to make a living writing. Then when the dust settled, a few things became clear. Not all content is created equal. People (and the advertisers and brands who are trying to influence them) want authenticity and they want quality—and that is something that, once again, magazines, book publisher, websites, and brands are willing to pay for. Moreover, one of the things that the Internet leveled was the walls that existed between different types of paid writing—journalism, advertising, publicity, not-for-profits, museums—everyone understands now that you need to make a living. There is no selling out: You are your own brand and you take your integrity with you to each assignment. And as long as you are transparent about any potential conflicts, no one minds. Although it now takes three times as many gigs to make one paycheck from the glory days, that’s okay because today there are more places to write for and places to publish than ever before. There is no piece that you write that you can’t publish—even if you have to publish it yourself. And today, “Content is King.”

LW: You do quite a bit of freelance work. How can young journalists become a successful freelancers in this market?

TT: Same as ever: Write a lot, pitch a lot, hang out a lot, follow up a lot, be opportunistic, entrepreneurial, find a home for your work (even if you have to create it yourself), and let people know about your work.

LW: Where do you think the future of the trade is going? 

TT: I can’t say. I don’t know how long-form investigative journalism, particularly foreign stories, will continue to be supported. And if publishers don’t pay writers enough to live on while they are writing a book, that too will have an impact. However, there will always be people who see a story, or have a story to tell, who feel they have no other choice than to tell it on whatever platform in whatever media they can. And writers will continue to have side-gigs, or teaching gigs, or commercial writing gigs to support writing those stories that they would be happy to publish for free (even if they have to).

LW: What's the best advice you've ever received and what advice do you offer up-and-coming journalists?

TT: The best advice I received about freelancing was: Be your own bank. Income as a writer is irregular and the rent is due the first of the month. You have to learn how to finance your writing career via credit lines, savings, etc. You have to live a sustainable life to have a sustainable career.

And the advice that I sometimes give up-and-coming journalists is: Marry well. By that I don’t mean marry for money. What I mean is that the writing life is hard, sometimes lonely, and requires a certain selfishness, as well as moments of grandiosity and self-delusion. You need a great partner to be your support, your inspiration, your motivation, and your reality check. I am fortunate that my wife, Amy Rappeport is mine, and I wish such good fortune on all writers.

To learn more about Tom Teicholz, visit his official website or follow him on Twitter @TomTeicholz.

The Writer's Bone Interviews Archive

Student of Crime Fiction: Author Joe Lansdale Returns to Talk Hap and Leonard

Joe Lansdale

Joe Lansdale

By Sean Tuohy

Author Joe Lansdale’s characters Hap and Leonard have been thrilling readers for years with their mix of sly East Texas humor and violence.

Lansdale swung by to talk about the latest entry in the series, Rusty Puppy, which follows the pair as they investigate a racially motivated murder that could tear their town apart.   

Sean Tuohy: In Rusty Puppy we find Hap and Leonard investigating a racially motivated murder? Where did this plot line come from?

Joe Lansdale: Racially motivated murders are nothing new, but there has certainly been a lot of it in the news lately, so it seemed like the right background for a story with concerns about police corruption. I think it was an idea in the back of my mind for a long time, but there just wasn't any plot to stick it to. I don't plot. I get up and write, but my subconscious surely does, and I would guess it was one of the man stories it was working on, and when I sat down to write, that was the door that opened.

ST: Rusty Puppy is a stand-alone that is great for new fans of the series. As the creator, what would you like new readers to take away from this novel?

JL: It's part of the Hap and Leonard series, but like all of the books, it stands alone. You need not have one to read the other. You can start anywhere. Sure, there is information from previous novels, but it's nothing that would cause you to be lost.

ST: This is the latest entry in a much loved and long-running book series. As a writer, how do you keep yourself interested in the characters after all these years? 

JL: I don't write about them all the time. I have bursts where I do a couple Hap and Leonard novels, and as of late stories and novellas about them, and then I move on to other things. I love coming back to them. For me, I stop their aging process when I'm not writing about them. I've had eight years between their adventures, and I've had four years. And so on. I write them when I feel driven to do so. I was happy with the television series, so that may have inspired me more. But it's the books that matter.

ST: You’ve been writing Hap and Leonard stores for a while. Do you learn something new about the characters with each passing story? If so, what did you learn about them in Rusty Puppy?

JL: I do learn something new. I think in some ways they are becoming closer than ever, and both of them are developing new relationships in their lives, and they are dealing with growing older. I visualize them both about 50 or so. Again, I stop their aging when I don't write about them.

ST: Rusty Puppy—like the other Hap and Leonard novels—features a great mix of snappy dialogue, violence, and sly humor. Is this unique form of storytelling from East Texas?

JL: It is part of the tradition of crime fiction, snappy dialogue, and it goes with a lot of East Texas culture as well. I'm a student of both.

ST: Where can readers pick up Rusty Puppy and where can they see you to get a signed copy?

JL:  I will be doing a lot of signings in late February and early March, those will be posted on my website, my fan page, and Twitter, as well as other places.

To learn more about Joe R. Lansdale, read our first interview with the author. If you need even more Lansdale, listen to Sean’s podcast interview with the talented Kasey Lansdale.

The Writer’s Bone Interviews Archive

Early Morning Paperback Writer: 12 Questions With Author Nicholas Mainieri

Nick Mainieri

Nick Mainieri

By Daniel Ford

I plan on gushing about Nicholas Mainieri’s debut novel The Infinite in greater detail in December’s “Books That Should Be On Your Radar,” but I’ll say this: It's one of the best debut novels I’ve ever read. Everyone should buy the book and read it while scarfing beignets and downing coffee.

Mainieri talked to me recently about his early love of storytelling, how his writing process has evolved, his decision to get an MFA, and what inspired The Infinite.

Daniel Ford: Tell us about your origin story. How did you become a storyteller?

Nicholas Mainieri: I always liked to write stories. I liked that more than speaking them. We had an old typewriter in the house when I was a child, and I found myself retelling stories I’d seen in movies, that sort of thing. Then, when we were given free time to draw or read or whatever in grade school, I’d spend it writing in the back of my notebook. I remember mentally planning stories during recess, knowing I’d have a half hour at the end of the day to write them down. It was just a fun thing, I thought. I imagine a lot of writers had those impulses, growing up. I didn’t discover that storytelling was something one could take “seriously” until I was in college. I’d heard somewhere that to be a writer you just had to get up and do it every day, so that’s what I started doing.

DF: Who were some of your early influences?

NM: For a good few years of adolescence, I read Stephen King almost exclusively. Character, conflict, structure—King’s work was instructive before I realized it. Cormac McCarthy, Leslie Marmon Silko, Ralph Ellison, Antoine de Saint-Exupery, Sandra Cisneros, Junot Díaz, Raymond Carver, Breece D’J Pancake, Stuart Dybek—these were some of the writers I discovered right around the crucial time when I was turning to storytelling as a way of life. Once I had some idea of what I was looking for, my reading tastes tended to especially gravitate toward writers I thought of as interesting stylists.

DF: When you actually sit down to write, what’s your process like? Do you outline, listen to music, devour beignets?

NM: I had some beignets just the other night! Highly recommend Morning Call in City Park when you come to town. Sadly, beignets would likely be an unsustainable part of my process (though I’m willing to give it a shot). I’m an early morning writer. When it is still dark outside, when I am still a little fuzzyheaded from sleep. The voices of doubt are quietest then. When things are going well, I’m up and writing every day. I don’t outline because I like the process of discovery, but I usually keep an open notebook beside the keyboard and fill it with barely legible notes and reminders as I go. When it comes to rewriting, I can do that any time of the day. But for creation, early mornings are best.

DF: There’s an ongoing debate about whether it’s worth it or not to pursue an MFA. You earned yours from the University of New Orleans, so I’m interested to know how you made your decision.

NM: At UNO, I was welcomed into a place that wasn’t pettily competitive or designed to turn me into someone’s cookie-cutter idea of a writer or anything like that; I found a community of hard-working artists that cared about one another and one another’s work. Even while applying to MFA programs, I was pretty uneducated in terms of what they actually are. But UNO turned out to be exactly what I needed, and I imagine that my development as a writer was expedited by such an intensive, artistically focused environment with a built-in audience. I think it would’ve taken me much, much longer to learn certain things about the relationship between the written word and the reader had I not been through an MFA program. And all this before mentioning the many peers and faculty members who became great friends and mentors. As far as the whole MFA debate goes, I don’t know. It’s nice, certainly, if a grad program will provide funding or a tuition break, as that amplifies the worth of the MFA as I see it: an amount of time that one isn’t likely to find otherwise.

DF: What’s the premise of The Infinite and what inspired the tale?

NM: Jonah and Luz, two young people whose histories are informed by loss, meet and fall in love in New Orleans. Luz, who is from Mexico, came to the city with her laborer father in the post-Katrina construction boom; Jonah is born and raised. Both of their lives have been largely shaped by loss, and they find both refuge and hope in each other. When Luz becomes pregnant, however, her father sends her back to Mexico and her grandmother. When Jonah doesn’t hear from her, he sets off on a road trip to visit. Unbeknownst to him, Luz’s homecoming has derailed amid drug war-related violence, and she is fighting to survive.

I had observed a teacher-friend’s classroom in a local high school that had been marked for closure by the city. The school was a pretty chaotic place, the drug trade and attendant violence spilling into the hallways dramatically and often horrifically. In those hallways, though, I met a bunch of funny, smart, and resilient kids who were simply caught amid some tough circumstances. The characters started chattering in my head soon after that.

DF: How long did it take you to write the novel and what was your publishing journey like?

NM: I wrote the first words in the fall of 2010 (the novel is set, mostly, in the spring of 2010). All told, I think the first draft and a bunch of rewrites took me about five years, including finding a home for it. I’m very lucky to have an agent and editor both who understood the novel from the beginning, who saw it as I saw it. It all took as long as it needed to take, the book somehow winding up in the hands of its perfect caretakers. And seeing the final thing in print is a real joy, but it’s also an extraordinary relief—to know that all that time spent writing, and thus separated from my wife and friends and family, amounted to something.

DF: You tackle some pretty big issues for a debut—both post-Katrina New Orleans and the Mexican drug war. How much research did you do before writing the book, and how did you decide on the themes you wanted to explore?

NM: The key experiences that informed the writing can’t be considered research because I had them before the idea for the novel ever occurred to me (a couple summers spent studying in Mexico, moving to New Orleans, visiting the local high school, etc.). But, they created for me a number of memories, impressionistic and backlit with emotional pulse, that lingered and resulted in questions. I wondered about what I’d seen or heard from people. Somewhere in there the novel was born, and so I talked to people and, chiefly, read many things—about the drug wars, about American appetites, about the immigrant experience in New Orleans after the flood.

DF: I love your main characters’ dynamic, which is established right from the get-go. How did you go about developing Jonah and Luz, and how much of yourself ended up in them?

NM: Thanks! In writing young characters I thought an awful lot about how we discover things like love and violence and loss in the world—discoveries we often make when we are young. So, in the abstract, that feels derived from my experience, what I know of these things. In the details, however, neither character has a life that resembles my own. I’m a believer in putting characters on the page and letting them act and interact. I try to bring as much imagination, intelligence, and respect as I can to them, and go from there. The opening pages were written later on in the process (maybe even after a draft had been completed), after I’d discovered the kinds of things that were important to both Jonah and Luz.

DF: The Infinite has generated praise from authors (including Writer’s Bone favorites M.O. Walsh and Philipp Meyer!) and plenty of media outlets. What has that experience been like, and does it give you more confidence as a writer going forward?

NM: It’s exciting! But it is also a scary thing when the first people who are reading your book are authors you love! I was fortunate enough to receive kind blurbs from a handful of them—and that remains one of the more meaningful parts of the whole process. I’m still searching for adequate ways to say thank you. Confidence…maybe I feel more confident, I don’t know. Blurbs or reviews or whatever, they at least give me a bit more to combat those negative voices that arise inside my own head while writing.

DF: Speaking of going forward, what’s next for you?

NM: Well, two things. I’m working on a new novel and happy to be doing so. Transitioning out of the headspace required by The Infinite was difficult in some respects, but finding a new story to tell is exciting. I’d say more about the project but it is still early yet and I’m superstitious about that sort of thing!

Secondly, my wife and I have been working on another fun project that is based on her experience tending bar in a few iconic barrooms and my experience drinking in them. We’re hoping to be able to do something with that book soon.

DF: What’s your advice to aspiring authors?

NM: Get up every day and do the thing. Don’t rush. Every word you write is necessary, regardless of which ones end up in print.

DF: Can you please name one random fact about yourself?

NM: Crystal Hot Sauce is my favorite hot sauce.

To learn more about Nick Mainieri, visit his official website, like his Facebook page, or follow him on Twitter @NickMainieri.

The Writer’s Bone Interview Archives

A Conversation With Christodora Author Tim Murphy

Tim Murphy (Photo credit: Chris Gabello)

Tim Murphy (Photo credit: Chris Gabello)

By Daniel Ford

As I wrote in November’s “Books That Should Be On Your Radar,” I was completely enthralled by Tim Murphy’s novel Christodora.

Murphy graciously answered some of my questions recently about his addiction to reading and writing, nonlinear storytelling, and what inspired Christodora.

Daniel Ford: Did you find writing or did writing find you?

Tim Murphy: Back in third grade I wrote a cheesy pastoral poem called "Nightfall" that made it into the local paper and when I saw my own words there set in type with my name on it, that was it. My bottomless need to be published began and it hasn't abated. But I would say the other addiction has been with reading. I was a bullied, lonely gay kid and gigantic social novels saved my life and I would like to think that I am one of the few people out there to read most of Edith Wharton before puberty.

DF: What’s your writing process like? Do you outline or listen to music?

TM: Neither. I guess I storyboard it in my head and start shaping it on the page. It's very filmic for me and I move a camera around in my head and I score it in my head while I'm writing, thinking about what the tone would feel like on film, where the camera would pull back, close in, cut, etc. And also when discursiveness breaks in and gives you something you can't necessarily get from film or television. I can't listen to music while writing, even without lyrics. Too distracting. You have to hear the story. I can't write in very long increments anymore. Sometimes I don't get past a paragraph.

DF: What’s the premise of Christodora and what inspired the tale?

TM: I guess the short version would be that Christodora is about 40 years in the life of three generations of one blended New York family as they get banged around by the AIDS epidemic, adoption, drugs, mental illness, and also the city as it changes dramatically from the 1980s to the 2020s. I've lived in New York City since 1991. My entire 25 years here informed Christodora, not just things that happened specifically to me, like bouts of mental illness and addiction, but also the bigger events of the city—the AIDS crisis, the literary and art scene, the insane increase in wealth after 9/11.

DF: Non-linear storytelling has been a literary trend of late, and can be tough to pull off. You made it look easy! When did you decide that you wanted to jump around from decade to decade while telling this family’s story?

TM: Isn't there something a bit flat about a story that just plods forward in time? Narrative isn't just a succession of events. It's also memory, hindsight, knowing more than the characters know, nostalgia, regret, dread, anticipation. It's hard to get those things when you're just moving forward in time. Someone told me that reading the book was like an elevator where you never know what floor you'll be left on next, and I like that metaphor. I like that it does add up linearly ultimately, but you sort of have to work for it and pick your way through puzzle pieces, and also through the shards and ghosts of the past.

DF: Christodora features deep, well thought out, damaged characters that were hard to let go once I finished the novel. In a lot of ways, they are still in my head, which speaks to great characterization. How do you go about building your characters, and how much of yourself ends up in them?

TM: I think you're building characters at their best when you are fluidly thinking of several people you know at once, including yourself, some of them not even that well or recently, and you can't fully account for where the characters' words or motivations are coming from. Just think about how much you and one other friend can talk about a third friend, how many facets of their character, how many contradictory traits and choices. I don't think it's that hard to create characters that feel real and contradictory if you actually stop to think about the complexity and texture of people you actually know, all the things that go into making someone who they are.

DF: Speaking of characters, the building that the Traum family inhabits is just as much a character as Milly or Jared, and really anchors the narrative while it sways in and out of each decade. Why the decision to focus on one building rather than have these characters bounce around the city? 

TM: Originally the story was not set at the Christodora but at a somewhat similar building with a staff in the East Village that a good friend lives in. I guess just because in New York City a building like that is a microcosm of the city, where you may or may not get close to people you live in close proximity to for several years. And to me, the novel is all about fate determining whether or not a certain number of people get to know each other, or not. Our patterns around the city every day—where we eat, work, shop, live, etc.—are so fateful. They can determine who we marry or who becomes our chosen family or our next job, or conversely whom we barely know for decades even though we see them every day.

DF: In a feature with Interview, you said that, “Throughout my twenties I really felt that AIDS was the defining shadow hanging over the gay community.” You’ve also been writing about LGBT issues throughout your career. In Christodora, you tackle all of these issues in a way that felt so personal and so insightful. Considering all of your past experiences, was it difficult putting these ideas to paper or was it cathartic?

TM: It was cathartic and it also felt like a chance to write queer characters that feel like people I really know, or have known. I feel like on TV or what you have you we still see a kind of squeaky-clean corporate Banana Republic gay who is very consumerist, suburban, and unthreatening. A lot of gays I know, including myself, are quite political and wonky and angry and weird and have been a hot mess at one time or another, and those are the kind of gay lives I wanted to portray. I had faith that if I made them human, then straight readers would relate to them even if they weren't out of "Modern Family."

DF: I’m also thankful that you gave me a refresher in the early AIDS fight, as well as explaining issues that those with HIV and AIDS still battle with today. You put a real human face on the epidemic and, for me at least, kicked away some of the complacency I felt toward the medical breakthroughs and whatnot. Was that something you wanted to accomplish when you started the novel?

TM: I feel like, for the most part, with some exceptions, the story of AIDS is only ever told in media boilerplate, the same tropes and clichés over and over again. In the shorthand telling, it's all just victimhood and death until the breakthrough medications come along and then everything's fine. Not to minimize the devastation of the 1980s and the first half of the 1990s, but there was so much fierce pushing back against death and victimhood up to that breakthrough, and so many complications and so much fallout after the breakthrough. That's what I wanted to show a little of, to get granular and get past the broad brushstrokes.

DF: Writing anything set in New York City runs the risk of devolving into cliché (which your novel avoids). Was that something you were conscious of during the writing process?

TM: Not really. I just wanted to convey New York as I've known it, like what the garbage smells like on a steamy summer day, or what it feels like to walk home late at night when the streets are quiet and it feels like the city is all yours. I didn't feel like I was writing clichés, but just how it feels to live here day in and day out.

DF: Christodora has garnered praise from critics, your fellow authors, and readers. Do those reactions give you more confidence as a writer?

TM: In some ways, less, actually. It is a luxury to write in a bubble with no expectations. Once a book is out there, reviewers etc. tell you what kind of a writer you are, what your weaknesses and strengths are, and that can make you self-conscious. And I am definitely not the type to say I don't read the reviews, because actually, after working on this book for so long, I am actually interested to hear what people have to say about it. Sometimes they have insights that never occurred to me. But I think that might come from being a journalist and thankfully being far more interested in hearing new things from other people than hearing myself say the same things over and over again. That gets a bit dull.

DF: What’s next for you?

TM: I am working on a new novel but it's way too early to talk about. I will say that essentially none of the themes that drive Christodora, except for family, are in it.

DF: What’s your advice for aspiring authors and screenwriters?

TM: The first thing would be to read everything, constantly. And think about why it works or not. About the choices the writer or writers made. And the other is to make yourself write, even a little bit, every day, and to try to actually enjoy it instead of thinking of it as a chore. Spending a year talking over the pros and cons of getting your MFA is not writing.

DF: Can you please name one random fact about yourself?

TM: After having a strong coffee I often end up overly talking to strangers.

To learn more about Tim Murphy, visit his official website or follow him on Twitter @TimMurphyNYC. Also read our review of Christodora in November's "Books That Should Be On Your Radar."

The Writer’s Bone Interviews Archive

L.A. Devotee and Author David Kukoff Examines 1970s Los Angeles in New Anthology

David Kukoff (Photo credit: Natalie Crane)

David Kukoff (Photo credit: Natalie Crane)

By Lindsey Wojcik

When Hassel Velasco launched his essay series "To Live And Write in L.A." on Writer’s Bone earlier this year, he was inspired because he thought, “documenting the craziness of [the] city and its inhabitants might make for a good read.” Turns out, Velasco wasn’t the only writer that thought scribing about life Los Angeles would captivate an audience.

Author and screenwriter David Kukoff—a lifelong Angeleno—had a similar thought after completing his first novel Children of the Canyon, a story about a boy growing up during the Laurel Canyon counterculture in the 1970s. A brainstorming session with Kukoff’s publisher birthed the idea for a collection of essays that examine life in Los Angeles during the ’70s, a formative decade in the city’s history.

Los Angeles in the 1970s, edited by Kukoff and out in stores Nov. 15, offers an insider’s glimpse into a time when Hollywood was being revolutionized, the music business was booming, and authors like Joan Didion wrote novels about the realities of living in the land of eternal sunshine. The collection of 29 essays features pieces from literary figures in Los Angeles, including Dana Johnson, Deanne Stillman, and Lynell George, to poets, including Luis Rodriguez, Susan Hayden, and Jim Natal. Journalists, award-winning film and television luminaries, academics, art scenesters, musicians, and other Los Angeles insiders also contributed to the anthology. 

Kukoff recently talked to me about what life was like growing up in La La Land, what he aimed to achieve with the collection, and how he rallied a diverse group of writers to contribute to Los Angeles in the 1970s.

Lindsey Wojcik: What enticed you about being a writer? Did you always want to write or did something specific inspire you to pursue it?

David Kukoff: It’s often said with writing that “you don’t choose it, it chooses you.” I remember being young and compulsively writing stories. Somehow, the endings would come to me before I was finished, and I’d set up the narrative pieces along the way so they’d pay off in the end. Somehow, the process of writing and everything about it just always felt right to me.

LW: You've worked in film, television, and have published a novel. How is your writing process different for each medium? 

DK: At this point, not much. When I wrote Children of the Canyon, I used a lot of television structure to help me. I envisioned the book as a limited series, and each of the chapters as episodes, which was immensely helpful. I do believe that every writer should learn some of the principles of film and television writing, as it’s immensely helpful where economy and structure are concerned.

LW: What was the drive behind creating the Los Angeles in the 1970s anthology? What were you looking for with it? 

DK: My publisher, Tyson Cornell, and I were discussing a companion piece for Children of the Canyon, and he told me that their anthologies tended to do well. We were talking about the time period in which Children took place—namely the singer/songwriter haven of Laurel Canyon of the ’70s—and I mentioned that, to the best of my knowledge, no one had done a collection of essays about this time period in the city’s history.   

I think what I was looking to do was explore the last period in the city’s history when it still felt like the Wild West. When Los Angeles still felt like a wide-open frontier, before it became as world-class a metropolis as it is today, which most Angelenos trace back to the Olympics. And I think the essays in this collection reflect that.

LW: What was your experience in Los Angeles like during the 1970s?

DK: I was actually pretty young; I turned 14 years old in 1980. My experience wasn’t all that different from the experiences a lot of my peers had elsewhere: I rode my bike around, we took the bus to the beach, we went to the movies or friends’ homes, and generally made our own adventures throughout the city. The thing was, that kind of freedom simply doesn’t seem to be experienced by kids that young in Los Angeles today. And that’s a shame.

LW: How do you think the decade shaped Los Angeles into what it is today? 

DK: One of the things I loved exploring in Children of the Canyon was the idea that the 1970s were something of a “bridge” decade, in which the country went from the “We’re all in this together” ethos of the ’60s to the “I’m getting mine” of the Reagan ’80s. Somewhere in that time span, something palpably changed. And Los Angeles seemed to be very much at the forefront of all that, supplying everything from counterculture icons to even the key politician: Ronald Reagan.

LW: The anthology features writers with expansive backgrounds including musicians, journalists, and television writers and producers. How did you assemble the group of writers for Los Angeles in the 1970s?

DK: I was fortunate enough to be friends with a lot of great writers, and I started putting the word out. Fortunately, Los Angeles, in addition to being chock-full of amazing writers, is also home to one of the most inclusive literary communities on earth. Once word got around, I started hearing from people who had wonderful stories to tell. There were a few subjects I solicited that I felt were a must, but by and large, I’m fond of saying that this collection came together as though it were almost guided by a divine hand.

And that divine hand gave us a fantastic, diverse array of stories. I like to say that this collection, even the pieces that aren’t from a firsthand perspective, truly feel lived-in rather than merely observed or reported-on.

LW: What were you surprised to learn as you wrote and edited the anthology? 

DK: How much you truly function the same way a producer does for a movie: generating the project, putting together the creative pieces, wrangling and working with the talent at every turn, overseeing the finishing touches, and then hitting the promotional trail.

LW: How was the process of putting this anthology different from writing your first novel Children of the Canyon?

DK: The latter was solitary, the former was far more collaborative. Even my contribution to this collection involved collecting over a dozen interviews and culling them into an oral history.

LW: What's next for you?

DK: I’m two-thirds of the way done with another novel. I have a script that was optioned by Film Nation and is being packaged right now, plus a couple of television pitches.  

LW: What's your advice for up-and-coming screenwriters and authors? 

DK: More than just writing what you know, write what you love. Write what you yourself would want to see, or read.  

To learn more about David Kukoff, visit his official website, like his Facebook page, or follow him on Twitter @DavidKukoff.

The Writer's Bone Interviews Archive

Open to Accidents: 12 Questions With Blitz Author David Trueba

David Trueba

David Trueba

By Daniel Ford

Author David Trueba’s novel Blitz starts with every Millennial’s nightmare: The main character (the lovably damaged Beto) receives a text message from his girlfriend that was meant for someone else and makes clear she’s about to break up with him.

Beto’s subsequent plunge into self-sabotage would be tragic if Trueba didn’t employ the same kind of dark humor found in Tony McMillen’s Nefarious Twit or Raphael Montes’s Perfect Days.

Trueba, who is also an accomplished screenwriter and director, talked to me recently about his early influences, his writing process, and what inspired Blitz.

Daniel Ford: Did you find writing or did writing find you?

David Trueba: In my case, the writing came to me and found me.

DF: Who were some of your earlier influences?

DT: Scott Fitzgerald, Joyce, and Salinger. And Bohumil Hrabal and Pio Baroja.

DF: How did you get into screenwriting and film directing?

DT: By accident, my literature teacher accepted short films as class material, so I started to write short films to shoot with my friends at school.

DF: Does your writing process change drastically when you’re writing fiction as opposed to scripts?

DT: Completely. The writing in the literary process is the end of the game. In the film process, the writing is just the beginning.

DF: What inspired your recent novel Blitz?

DT: The inspiration was something that happened to me when I was 22. But I didn't understand the meaning of it until 20 years later. That's a very typical process of inspiration.

DF: I love reading fiction from screenwriters because I think they do such a good job of setting up scenes and putting characters into intriguing situations. How did you go about developing your characters and did you have their actions before or after you really knew who these people were?

DT: In a film, the character is the action. In a novel, you have to construct the character from an inner perspective, so you start to understand your character and to complete his personality, and then you design his actions.

DF: Your novel deals with something all of us have been through: A messy breakup. A breakup aided by an errant text no less! But your novel really is about human connections and what happens when they get severed or crossed up unexpectedly. What were some of the other themes you wanted to explore in the novel?

DT: I was attracted to the idea of how accidents, even minor accidents, are decisive in our lives. If you are not open to these accidents, you close your life, your possibilities of happiness and growth. Apart from that, the idea of the novel was the reconciliation with nature, with time, with our humanity. We despise ourselves under the dictatorship of plastic, superficiality, and the advertisement idea of beauty.

DF: In real life, you’re older than your main character. Despite that, how much of yourself and your experiences ended up in Blitz.

DT: A lot. I used to put myself in every character, some of them by similarity and other by projection, but I need to understand them, to accept and even to respect them.

DF: Instead of breaking out the dialogue into a traditional structure, you just weave it into your narrative without punctuation. Was that a conscious choice when you were writing or something that came out of the editing process?

DT: That is something that I did in my prior novel Learning to Lose and worked it great. For me, the idea of not breaking the flow of narration is very important. Literature is observation, and I want my readers to be close to the words, to the emotions.

DF: What’s next for you?

DT: I am writing a new novel now. Something that I started even before Blitz. But Blitz came to me with an incredible force, and I had to stop all my projects to write it.

DF: What’s your advice for aspiring authors and screenwriters?

DT: Be faithful to your instincts as a reader and writer. Don't manipulate yourself for the market, other people’s opinions, or the waves of fashion. It has to always be personal, even if it hurts.

DF: Can you name one random fact about yourself?

DT: I am the youngest of eight children, which helped me to survive as an independent person and allowed me to try to understand others. It was the best gift of my life.

To learn more about David Trueba, visit his official website.

The Writer’s Bone Interviews Archives

What Lies Beneath: 10 Questions With Author Nicole Blades

Nicole Blades

Nicole Blades

By Lindsey Wojcik

Author Nicole Blades wanted to examine compassion and the human condition that people can so often forget about in her new novel, The Thunder Beneath Us (out Oct. 25), which follows the story of international style magazine writer Best Lightburn.

On the outside, Best seems to have it all. Not only is she a rising star in the magazine world, she’s dating a gorgeous up-and-coming actor and counts New York City’s fabulous socialites as her friends. Yet, beneath the surface of her seemingly amazing life, Best is struggling with the burden of an accident that happened on Christmas Eve a decade ago. While taking a shortcut over a frozen lake with her two older brothers, the ice cracked, and Best and her brothers fell in. However, Best was the only survivor. The guilt Best has carried with her for 10 years resurfaces after every aspect of her life starts to unravel. As the obstacles arise, Best has to learn to carry her loss without breaking, so she can heal and forgive.

Blades recently chatted with me about what inspired The Thunder Beneath Us, how her journalism career helped prepare her for writing fiction, and how the experience of scribing her second book was different from the process of writing her debut novel, Earth’s Waters.

Lindsey Wojcik: You've been writing since a young age. What are your earliest memories with writing? What enticed you about storytelling?

Nicole Blades: Yes, I’ve been writing stories since elementary school. My third grade teacher, Mr. Polka, was very supportive of creative writing. He encouraged us to dream up stories and put them down in our notebooks. I can still see those Hilroy 3 Hole Punched Exercise Books so clearly, without even closing my eyes. And he showed remarkable interest in what these eight-year-olds had to say. He put a lot of stock into our imaginations.

Storytelling has always intrigued me. It’s at the core of being a human being. It’s what makes us, us. Through it, we can learn about ourselves, about the world, and our place in it. My father is an excellent storyteller. As far back as I can remember he would have us rapt, just enchanted by these tales about his life growing up in Barbados—all the funny, quirky sayings and characters in the neighborhood and his crazy adventures. All of it came alive through his words, and I found it completely fascinating, even back then as a child. To be honest, I’m also really curious (fine—some might call it nosy!) and like being able to get a glimpse into someone else’s world, see how they make certain choices, good or otherwise.

LW: Who were your early influences and who continues to influence you?

NB: There are so many! It’s always tough to winnow it to a few names, otherwise I would be writing long, 3,000-word term papers on my influences for you right now.

Early inspiration definitely came from my dad, my third grade teacher, and authors like Judy Blume, Jamaica Kincaid, Margaret Atwood, Maya Angelou, Toni Morrison, Derek Walcott, and—this might sound a tad odd—the World Book Encyclopedia. We had the full set, including the year in review specials, and I would sit in our basement for hours reading up on an insect with a strange name or some human organ’s superior function or about the phases of the moon. I read those books a lot, plus we also had this crazy-thick, atlas-like book that laid out all these cultural tidbits along with facts about the different countries of the world. I just loved it.

For those who continue to influence me now, the list is exceedingly long. It’s the early influences, plus authors like Alice Munro, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Jhumpa Lahiri, Junot Díaz, Edwidge Danticat, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Kazuo Ishiguro, Octavia Butler Zadie Smith, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and magazine writer Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah. Then there are screenwriters and artists like Issa Rae, Donald Glover, Sarah Polley, Ava DuVernay, and Vince Gilligan. And then there’s another jumbo list of one-off books or short stories that I could re-read every year—if somehow we tacked on extra months to the calendar.

LW: What is your writing process like?

NB: I can see certain aspects of my fiction writing process that stem from my career as a journalist. How I approach a story is quite similar to how I would a magazine feature. For example, I do a lot of research, ask questions, interview people, and venture down plenty of rabbit holes to try to understand something from all sides. Also, I take writing seriously. It’s my vocation. And when I’m actively writing, I’m very focused on it. That means devoting large chunks of the day to writing and editing and re-writing and working on it. I write even when I’m not writing. That might sound corn-dog, but it’s the truth. If I’m in the middle of a story, it’s parked on the brain all the time. While I’m out running or eavesdropping on two people at a café (come on, who doesn’t do this?) or acting out dialogue in the shower or just letting my mind float free—I’m always thinking about the story and writing it.

That’s the bulk of my process: writing it down, getting words on the page. I like to edit as I go instead of waiting until I’m completely “finished” with the first draft. That comes from being a journalist and editing other people’s work. I don’t typically do a full-on outline, but I did write a very detailed synopsis for Book No. 3 that I just finished in September, and I found it so very helpful. Knowing where I wanted to end up and the specific plot points and being able to manage the pacing, it was all due to having that synopsis on hand. So, this is me saying I might just go sit with the outline or bust people’s table.

LW: What inspired The Thunder Beneath Us?

NB: Five or six years ago, I read this magazine story about these three brothers who went duck-hunting as part of their Christmas tradition. But it all turned tragic when the family dog accidentally punched a hole in the lightly frozen lake. And while trying to save the dog, all three brothers were sucked down into the freezing water. Two of the brothers drowned and one survived. 

The story stayed with me. I kept thinking about the level of guilt and second-guessing and why-me that the surviving brother carried with him. I also thought about how that psychological torment could influence—and not in a good way—how he saw himself moving forward. In that real life story, the men were in their 30s at the time of the ice accident, but then I wondered how the heaviness and utter despair around what happened would be different if the survivor were just a teenager when, after one horrible night, their entire world fell apart.

LW: How much of yourself—and the people you have daily interactions with—did you put into your main characters in the novel? How do you develop your characters in general?

NB: I think many writers fold some facets of their real world into the ones that they create. Whether it’s a particular sentiment or experience that they’ve lived or observed someone else go through, it gets embedded in their creative skin and finds a way to seep out. With this story, there are definitely certain aspects drawn from real people and real issues in my life and experience. I took some of that and pulled it apart and refashioned into other fresh storylines and characters that become their own new thing.

As for developing my characters, I don’t think I have a set formula. Sometimes it’s based on someone that I’ve met or observed, and then I start wondering about their lives beyond the slice that I was allowed to see. For example, in Thunder there’s a character that was in this horrible car accident where her taxicab crashed into a double-parked delivery truck and she suffered serious facial wounds. The horrible cab accident actually happened to someone I know long before I met them, and I’ve always wondered about the recovery and dealing with the trauma of it and having your face basically rebuilt. So I used that pivotal moment in this character’s life and built on it to develop who she is and why she’s so bitter and feels blighted. Other times a character emerges from a wholly dreamed-up place, based on something that I’ve long been curious about, and then I dive into that world, researching it and “reporting it out,” like I would a freelance magazine feature. Yes, yes, we’ve all been told write what you know. But you can also write about what you don’t know; just research it and peel back the layers to it.

LW: When you were writing The Thunder Beneath Us, was there something in particular you were trying to connect with or find?

NB: I’m very interested in compassion, in general, and with this book I wanted to look in that. We have no idea what’s rumbling beneath the surface of someone’s life, no matter how filtered and fabulous and hashtag blessed it may appear. We all need to feel valued and heard and supported as we make our way through this life. I’ve said it before: The human condition can knock the wind out of you. It’s crucial to understand that we’re allowed to make mistakes. We can have a misstep or even a total wipeout and still get back up, knowing and believing that we are all worthy of honest love and acceptance and compassion.

Another central theme in the book is forgiveness. Everyone in it—Best Lightburn, her parents, her actor boyfriend, her best friends—they all have to forgive someone or themselves (or both!) in order to move forward and begin living a full and real life. 

LW: How was the process of writing The Thunder Beneath Us different from writing your debut novel Earth's Waters?

NB: One major difference is that I became a mother in between writing when my debut novel and now Thunder. And parenthood changes every single process or routine you thought you had, basically overnight! I went from “me” to mom, and that meant settling into this new identity while trying balancing it with the other parts of myself, and ensuring that those other vital parts don’t get tucked away. It’s a lot. But it had allowed me to learn so much about myself and develop an even finer sense of compassion.

The other big difference is social media. Back when I was writing my first book, Twitter had just launched. My friend Larry Smith (of Six-Word Memoirs fame) actually introduced me to Twitter while I was working on edits for Earth’s Waters. I was in that early crew that joined, but I was like, “What even is this??” I didn’t get the point of it. So I hopped out only to return several years later, and now I’m all in. Social media definitely changed the process of writing books for me. The procrastination element aside, it’s an incredible tool for research and interaction, and getting a peek through other people’s lenses and lives.

LW: How did your journalism career prepare you for writing and publishing fiction?

NB: One word: deadlines. I met one of my good friends when we were both editors at a women’s magazine. She moved out of journalism a few years back, but we often laugh about how the deadline anxiety is still there, soaked into our bones, so much so that no matter what we’re doing, if you give us a deadline, we are compelled to meet it. More important, journalism has also forced me to pay close attention to details. It’s the details that make something feel authentic or relatable. And those details are what help a fiction writer draw the reader in and, often, keep them there.

Being a journalist has also taught me to appreciate the anatomy of a story and making sure I honor those different parts of it so that I don’t lose my audience. I’ve also learned that all stories—fiction or non—are essentially about conflict. It’s the essence of storytelling, and I make sure I fully understand what that conflict is in what I’m writing. Trying to resolve it—or not—that helps drive the story forward.

LW: What's next for you?

NB: Next up for me is promoting Thunder and getting folks excited to buy the book and talk about it with their friends and book clubs. I have a few book events coming up, and I’m really looking forward to it! Then, there’s book number three. I just finished writing that one in early September. It’s another story about secrets and family and working through knotted relationships, but this story has a big race piece to it that I find fascinating and hope others will too. At its heart, this next book is about identity and the lengths that we’ll sometime go to create and protect our ideal selves. It’s being published by Kensington again and will be out in November 2017.

LW: What's your advice for aspiring journalists and authors alike?

NB: First, I would say read. I know, I know. It feels like there’s not enough time to read this link and that news story, plus this book as well as the other nine that everyone is screaming about on social media. But you have to make the time. You do. Writers read and read and read. That’s just how it goes. Next, write. Writers write. Find a schedule that works with your life—getting up before the sun or blocking off two hours at night after everyone’s gone to bed—and write, and try to do it every day. Storytelling is a craft, and you have to continue to work on it.

Lastly, find your voice and rock with that. Don’t bother emulating your favorite writer. That’s their voice. Use yours to tell the stories you want to read. Getting your mind tangled in what sells or what other people are doing is just not worth it. Focus on one goal: telling a great story. All the other stuff—genre, loyal readers, book deals—they are byproducts that often show up when you’re fixed on telling a good story in your voice.

To learn more about Nicole Blades, visit her official website, like her Facebook page, follow her on Twitter @NicoleBlades, or follow her on Instagram @nicole_blades.

The Writer’s Bone Interviews Archive