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

‘Writing Is Re-Writing:’ 11 Questions With Author Anne-Marie Casey

Anne-Marie Casey (Photo credit: Brigid Harney)

Anne-Marie Casey (Photo credit: Brigid Harney)

By Daniel Ford

Liddy James, the “modern-day superwoman” featured in author Anne-Marie Casey’s recently published novel The Real Liddy James, has more job titles than most caped crusaders: top New York City divorce attorney, best-selling author, and mother.

Casey, who is also a screenwriter and playwright, dramatically explores what happens when James’s world beings to unravel. Author Elin Hilderbrand calls The Real Liddy James a “whip-smart and crackling with energy,” and author Marian Keyes says the tale is, “witty, clever, elegantly-written, fascinating, and wise.”

Casey talked to me recently about being a vociferous reader, what inspired The Real Life Liddy James, and, of course, beef stew!

Daniel Ford: My fiancée and I recently traveled to Ireland and fell in love with the country. Before anything else, I need to know where to go to find the best beef stew the next time I’m there! 

Anne-Marie Casey: I think it’s hard to find a good beef stew in a restaurant anywhere (I recommend my own really) but people tell me the best is to be found in The Quays Irish Restaurant in Temple Bar, Dublin.

DF: Did you find writing or did writing find you?

AMC: I was always a vociferous reader and studied English at University, so I suspect a career involving literature was somehow inevitable. But in my twenties I was very focused on being a television and film producer and running my own production company, so becoming a writer evolved when my life priorities changed and, bluntly, I got married and had kids. So the answer to your question is that it was a combination of both.

DF: Who were some of your early influences?

AMC: From a young age I adored the Brontës, then at University I became obsessed with George Eliot and Virginia Woolf. In terms of contemporary writers who have influenced me as a novelist, of course, Norah Ephron, Melissa Bank, Rachel Cusk, and, my current top favorite, Elizabeth Strout.

DF: Since you’re also a screenwriter and playwright, I’m curious to know if your writing style differs widely when you’re writing fiction.

AMC: Because I started my career as a script editor, then producer, then screenwriter I am a natural plotter and find structuring a story comes relatively easily to me. I also tend to rely heavily on dialogue. When I decided to write fiction, my challenge was to loosen up a bit and allow space for character description and interior monologue.

DF: What is the premise of The Real Liddy James and what inspired the tale?

AMC: Liddy James is one of New York City’s top divorce lawyers, a successful author and a single mother of two, who seems to juggle her complicated life with ease. But it turns out that she doesn’t! The inspiration for the book was the Anne-Marie Slaughter article from 2012, “Why Women Can’t Have It All,” and that became its main theme.

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

AMC: Inevitably, I draw on my own experiences and those of my friends when I am writing. It happens that my first two novels have been contemporary and feature characters more or less around my age (at least when I started writing them!) But I know from writing plays and screenplays that emotional experience is valid whatever the setting. When I am developing a character I always consider the person’s flaws, as I think that is the best way to make them interesting.

DF: When you finished your first draft, did you know you had something good, or did you have to go through multiple rounds of edits to realize you had something you felt comfortable taking to readers?

AMC: I knew there was a compelling character in the first draft, but it took a few drafts to ensure that I was telling a story rather than dramatizing the issue of work/life balance for women.

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

AMC: Yes. Every time one person likes your work you know some other people will too. I want readers and I want them to enjoy what I’m doing. However, I think it’s important that all writers step back and view their careers over the long haul. In a lifetime of writing there will be some projects that are better received than others, some even may be disastrous, the point is to keep going.

DF: What’s next for you?

AMC: I am currently writing a screenplay based on a novel The Master by Jolien Janzing about Charlotte Brontë’s time in Brussels and her secret love for her professor, which inspired Villette and Jane Eyre.

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

AMC: If you are determined to write something keep going, however dreadful you think your first draft is, as writing is re-writing. And always stop writing when you are in the flow so you have something to pick up on the next day.

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

AMC: I love cooking and if I weren’t a writer I’d work in a restaurant kitchen.

To learn more about Anne-Marie Casey, visit his official website or like her Facebook page.

The Writer’s Bone Interviews Archive

Literary Agent Sharon Pelletier Explains How Research and Twitter Can Advance A Writer’s Career

Sharon Pelletier

Sharon Pelletier

By Lindsey Wojcik

Literary agent Sharon Pelletier loves Twitter.

I know this because I’ve followed her for years and have always appreciated her witty take on "The Bachelor," plus our shared obsession with wine, and love and appreciation for Justin Timberlake. She also happens to hail from my home state of Michigan.

While I appreciate following her commentary on our shared interests, I also find her tweets offer important information for writers looking to land a literary agent or anyone seeking information on the publishing industry in general. Pelletier currently works as a literary agent at Dystel & Goderich Literary Management in New York City. She counts Amy Gentry, author of Good as Gone, which The New York Times recommend as one the best nine thrillers to read this summer, as a client.

Recently, I noticed Pelletier tweeting with the Manuscript Wish List hashtag (#MSWL), which inspired me to dig deeper and find out more on her manuscript wish list, what she looks for in query letters, and her advice to aspiring writers.

Lindsey Wojcik: How did you get your start in publishing? 

Sharon Pelletier: I moved to New York City at the ripe old age of 25 and applied ceaselessly to every publishing job I could reasonably fit my resume into until I got an internship at a small press. Then I went to every mixer, event, and happy hour I could to meet people, collect business cards, and hustle up interviews—all while working 40 hours a week at Barnes & Noble and freelancing like crazy, mind you! It was a very exciting, exhausting, and skinny time in my life. Eventually my internship led me to a full-time position as an editor at another small publishing company, and I was off to the races.

LW: You've worked in many facets of the industry, from bookstores to a small press to a self-publishing company and now at an agency. How have those experiences shaped your role as agent? 

SP: I’m glad I made a few stops on the way to being an agent because I have a full understanding of the whole publishing process! I’ve worked in editorial, production, and marketing, in addition to my time as a bookseller, which has made me better able to answer clients’ questions, evaluate publishers, or offer suggestions if a book needs to be jumpstarted. Of all of these jobs, being a bookseller might be the most useful, in a way, because I learned how different readers make buying decisions, from the hardcore readers who go through 50-plus books a year to genre devotees to folks who pick up one or two books a year from the nonfiction categories. Learning the reading tastes of customers who came in regularly for recommendations was good practice for profiling an editor’s taste.

LW: What steps do you recommend an author take when trying to land an agent?

SP: Step one: research! You’ve put a lot of time into finishing your manuscript and polishing it until it’s the best you can be, right? Writers are often eager at this point to start launching their work out there, but it’s best to put the extra time into learning how to query effectively. If you’re brand new to the process, seek out blog posts and other resources online to learn how to write a strong query letter and how to find the agents seeking your kind of manuscript.

Twitter is another great way to get to know agents’ individual preferences, both what they’re looking for their list, and their favorite television shows, pet peeves, etc. Twitter is also perfect to connect with other writers at the same step of the process for support and tips. 

LW: How can writers develop a quality query letter that catches an agent’s eye?

SP: Again, research! The things we ask for like word count, genre, comp titles, show that you’ve researched your market and understand your readership—and that you know we work in that category. Writing is about art, but being an author is also about business, and as much as we’re looking for manuscripts we love, we’re also looking for authors with career potential who will be a strong partner for us. So a well-researched, carefully crafted query that follows industry standards and our specific agency guidelines shows that you’re taking the business side of writing seriously and putting the time into careful research. 

There’s a lot of info online (including on the DGLM blog) about the components of a strong query letter, but here’s the short version: 

  • Opening: 1-2 sentences with genre, word count, comp titles, and mention of why you’re querying this agent (I follow you on Twitter, we met at X conference, I read your client X’s book and loved it, etc., for example)
  • Story pitch of around 200 words. Highlight characters, world, and stakes—think about what would be on the back of your book’s cover in the bookstore.   
  • Bio: 2-3 sentences about who you are, including publication credits, experience you’ve had that informed this book, etc.

Rather than querying every agent whose email address you can find, put the time in to query a handful of agents who seem like the ideal fit—take the time to seek out details on their website, their #MSWL, interviews they’ve done, books they represent, etc. Then you can write a strong personal query mentioning why you’ve queried this agent in particular.

LW: What is the most common mistake you see from first-time authors?

SP: If you’re speaking of the query process, I gotta spout my favorite word again: research—or the lack thereof.

If you mean in the writing itself, one common rookie mistake is to open with your character waking up in the morning or some variation on “The day that changed her life started like any other day.” Don’t tell us that—show us! If your plot starts with a weird email when your character gets to her office, show us her sitting down at her desk with a mug of hot tea, or checking her email on the phone while sipping a smoothie on her way out of the gym. In either scenario, you’re showing us something about the character’s personality and lifestyle that is more important than us knowing what color her hair is or what she’s getting dressed in. You’re setting the character’s “normal” just before the unusual interrupts to start the story.

LW: What do you look for when you're reading a manuscript?

SP: I want to be absorbed in your story to the point that I forget I’m reading a submission and am just reading. And this usually comes down to voice, which is an easy term to throw around and harder to define or teach. It’s not about splashy, lavish descriptions or sassy dialog. Does your main character seem real and alive, like I could picture her walking around in the real world outside the page? Do her obstacles have stakes? Am I invested? Have you created a time and place for the story and drawn me into them? All of these questions matter whether you have a fast-paced crime thriller or a quiet family story set in familiar suburbs.

And the best way to develop your voice as a writer, paradoxically, is to read widely and deeply. Reading teaches your brain quietly how to pace a story, how to seed in details without drowning the reader in description or back story, so that your distinctive voice can emerge.

LW: Speaking of manuscripts, you've been active on Twitter using Manuscript Wish List's #MSWL hashtag. What's your involvement with Manuscript Wish List and what benefit does it offer agents, editors, and authors alike? 

SP: Manuscript Wish List existed for a long time on Twitter as a hashtag where agents could tweet genres they’re interested in or story ideas they’re dying to represent. Sort of the reverse of a Twitter pitch event, it is the brainchild of an agent named Jessica Sinsheimer. In the last year or so, it’s taken on even more momentum with a very snazzy website where agents and editors can post profiles about what categories they represent and the kinds of stories within each category they’re most eager to see—and perhaps most handy of all, update those profiles as often as they like as their lists change. It seems to be a great help to authors in finding agents hungry for manuscripts like theirs.

And on my end, my eyes perk up when I see someone reference my MSWL in a query! It’s a nice shiny sign of an author who’s putting in the research and is plugged in to the latest in the writer community. I don’t think I’ve signed a project that way yet, but I’m sure I will soon!

LW: What's on your Manuscript Wish List? 

SP: Right now I’d love to find some smart narrative nonfiction that brings that perfect combo of gripping storytelling and merciless research—something like Brain on Fire or Five Days At Memorial. I’d love to work with journalists who have a long-form book project. I’d also be interested in working with cultural voices with a growing platform—the next Lindy West or Ta-Nehisi Coates. And I think I’ll always be eager for smart, upmarket suspense (think Tana French or Gillian Flynn) and book club fiction that’s warm and earthy but not sappy—Ann Leary and Delia Ephron are two writers I’ve loved lately.

LW: What's your advice for aspiring writers? 

SP: Find a community of writers to connect with! Whether it’s in your local area or online, find other writers in your category who take their writing seriously. They’ll be valuable as critique partners when you’re in the early stages of perfecting your manuscript, and more importantly, you’ll have a built-in fan club when you’re moving toward an agent and a publishing deal. There’s a lot of waiting, a lot of struggle, and a lot of disappointment along the way to a successful career with adoring readers and having support from writers who know what’s it’s like is key for boosting you during the hard patches. Finding writer friends at different stages of the process can be especially helpful for advice and encouragement! Even if your loved ones are your biggest fans, they don’t really know how it feels when you have writer’s block or have to cut out a scene you absolutely love.

LW: What is a random fact about yourself?

SP: Wow, this is the hardest question of all, I think! Hmmm, I’ll give you a few to choose from: I’m the oldest of seven, never went to school, and would choose mashed potatoes over pie any day of the week.

To learn more about Sharon Pelletier, follow her on Twitter @sharongracepjs.

The Writer’s Bone Interviews Archive

Author Unplugged: 10 Questions With Liz Moore

Liz Moore (Photo credit: Olivia Valentine)

Liz Moore (Photo credit: Olivia Valentine)

By Daniel Ford

Liz Moore’s recent novel The Unseen World defies easy categorization. It’s a story about family—specifically the bond between a daughter and her father—humanity’s relationship with technology, and how love, communication, and identity can span decades.

Booklist called The Unseen World “a stunner,” and author Alex Gilvarry praised it as “beautiful, redemptive, and utterly devastating.” The novel has also received positive reviews from the likes of The Washington Post, The New York Times Book Review, and The Boston Globe.

Moore recently discussed with me what inspired The Unseen World, how her writing process involves writing between the cracks of life, and why writers should completely unplug from technology while they’re writing.

Daniel Ford: Did you grow up knowing you wanted to be a storyteller or was it a passion that developed over time?

Liz Moore: I definitely always wrote. At first it was mainly poems, and it was mainly in a journal. I actually didn’t discover how much I wanted to write fiction until well into college.

DF: Who were some of your early influences?

LM: Flannery O’Connor, Katherine Mansfield, Russell Banks, Zora Neale Hurston, Stephen King, Virginia Woolf, James Joyce’s Dubliners.

DF: What’s your writing process like?

LM: I take four or five years to write a novel. I don’t have an outline of the story; rather, I begin with characters and really get to know them over the course of dozens of false starts. Once I’ve found the beginning of a problem or a plot for them, I move forward, slowly, with lots of backtracking and starting over.

I usually turn off all technology when I write, and try to set aside at least four consecutive hours for a writing session, but as my life gets busier and my family gets bigger I have to squeeze writing into the cracks of life more.

DF: In addition to being a novelist, you’re also a short story writer. We’re huge fans of the short story genre here at Writer’s Bone. What is it about the format that appeals to you?

LM: I love thinking of short stories as gems to polish; I go over and over and over them, trimming excess words from them, substituting language that is more precise or beautiful when I can think of it.

DF: What inspired your recently published novel The Unseen World?

LM: My father is a scientist, and I grew up surrounded by “lab culture” and by computers that evolved from the earliest personal Macs to fairly sophisticated machines over the course of my childhood. Unlike the novel’s protagonist, Ada, I was never strong in science, and I went to public school and had a more traditional upbringing than she has in the book; unlike her father, David, my father is a physicist, not a computer scientist. Also, as far as I know, he has no secret past, which David decidedly does. However, as a child, I had fantasies about being a prodigy like Ada—unfulfilled fantasies, of course—and today I have fond memories of spending time with many of my father’s colleagues and with their spouses and families. Finally, my father works in Boston; I grew up in the suburbs of Boston; and I have an aunt who lives in Dorchester. These are the parts of my upbringing that were most resonant as I was writing this book.

I’ve also always been interested philosophically in the fraught relationship between humans and machines. I first heard the so-called “Turing Test” described as a child, and that concept—combined with the many hours I spent in my youth talking to the Eliza program, a primitive chatbot that came pre-loaded on many early Macs—sparked my curiosity about what truly intelligent machines would act like.

DF: The novel not only spans several decades, but also has interweaving plotlines and a fresh take on artificial intelligence. Did you have all of these elements planned out beforehand or did they flow organically as you were writing?

LM: I didn’t have any of them planned out in advance, which is part of why the novel took so long to write!

DF: I know writers hate talking about themes, but I’ll ask this anyway. Did you want to touch on specific themes in The Unseen World?

LM: I never write “to theme,” and I tell my students not to either. In my opinion, having particular themes in mind when one begins writing results in flat characters that act in unnatural ways. At the end of a strong first draft, I might look back and ask myself what themes happen to be in it, and then try to pull them out in certain ways, but that’s about it.

DF: This being your third novel, I imagine you find yourself putting less and less of yourself, and those in your orbit, into your characters and plot. Is that true or do you still find pieces of your real life that fit perfectly into your narrative?

LM: I’m not sure that’s true; in many ways, this novel is very autobiographical, as it’s set for the first time in Boston (near where I grew up) and deals with a lab (around which I grew up).

DF: What’s your advice to aspiring authors?

LM: Disconnect from technology! Leave your phone behind while writing, and turn on a program like Freedom while you’re writing. If your writing requires research, do your research in separate sessions.

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

LM: I was born in the early hours of May 25, 1983, the day after the centennial celebration of the Brooklyn Bridge. My grandfather was president of the Brooklyn Botanic Garden at the time, and was in attendance at the celebration. He made a deal on the spot with the then-borough president that if I’m alive for the bicentennial (the day before my hundredth birthday), I’ll speak at the ceremony. Apparently there is a letter to this effect on record someplace in Brooklyn, but presumably it is a paper record and it’s buried very deep in an archive!

To learn more about Liz Moore, visit her official website, like her Facebook page, or follow her on Twitter @LizMooreBooks.

The Writer’s Bone Interviews Archive

Discovery and Determination: 11 Questions With Author Camron Wright

Taj Rowland and Camron Wright

Taj Rowland and Camron Wright

By Daniel Ford

Author Camron Wright’s recently published novel The Orphan Keeper dramatizes the true story of Taj Rowland, who was kidnapped from his village in India when he was 7 years old and eventually adopted by a couple in the United States.

Booklist called The Orphan Keeper “a novel that is sure to be a book-club favorite,” and author Richard Paul Evans said it’s “an enlightening book that gently reminds us we are all searching for home.”

Wright talked to me recently about how writing found him at a later age, his research process for The Orphan Keeper, and his advice for social media-addicted authors.

Daniel Ford: When did you know that you wanted to become a storyteller?

Camron Wright: My background is in business, not English. I found writing (or did it find me?) as I was approaching 40, passing through a midlife crisis of sorts. (It was strictly career related—no girlfriend or sports car involved.) We had just sold our business, and I was struggling to find a new professional direction for my life. I thought it would be easy to jump into corporate America, but I’m the type of person who needs to wake up and feel like I’m making a difference and I was struggling to find that. My wife happened to be in a couple of book clubs at the time, and I remember picking up her books, reading through them, and then exclaiming, “I could write this stuff!”

Weeks later, as I naively attempted to pen my first novel, I learned it was an agonizing, insufferable, forlorn occupation—and yet equally magical. I couldn’t get enough.

DF: Who were some of your early influences?

CW: I love Nick Hornby’s early work. I remember being mesmerized by his dialogue in About a Boy. Yann Martel’s The Life of Pi is also terrific. One of my favorite early books on writing is Secret Formulas of the Wizard of Ads, by Roy Williams. I stumbled across it while working on an ad campaign for a client and found it to be one of the most profound books on fiction writing I’ve ever read.  

DF: What’s your writing process like?

CW: I don’t write chronologically, but rather in scenes as I see them in my head. It means each story turns into an array of puzzle pieces that eventually need to be assembled.

When I write, the door to my den has to be closed, even if I’m the only one home. I wish I could say that as I sit at my computer, brilliant prose spews out. Sadly that’s seldom the case. I write and revise, write and revise, write and revise. By the time I have a manuscript ready for another person to read, I’ve read and revised it easily more than a hundred times.

DF: What inspired your recent novel The Orphan Keeper?

CW: The Orphan Keeper is based on the journey of Taj Rowland. As a 7-year-old boy, he was kidnapped from his village in India, driven three hours away, sold to an orphanage, and then adopted by an unsuspecting couple in the United States. It took months before he could speak enough English to tell his parents that he already had a family back in India. Horrified, they tried their best to track down his Indian family, but all avenues led to dead ends. So they did what adoptive parents do best—they loved him.

His name was changed to Taj. He was enrolled in school, involved in sports—and his story might have ended there had it not been for the pestering questions in his head: Who am I? Why was I taken? How do I get home?

More than a decade later, the answers came in remarkable ways. In short, The Orphan Keeper is a story about Taj’s journey—both physical and emotional—to reconcile the circumstances of his life. It’s about discovery and determination as it explores how we find our place in the world.

DF: Since the book is based on a true story, how much research did you do before you actually started writing?

CW: With The Orphan Keeper, the process started with extensive interview sessions with Taj, each providing new insight and information. Once the story began to breathe, I moved to other players, mainly Priya and then Taj’s adoptive parents, Linda and Fred Rowland. It was important to understand all perspectives, since the writing needed to reflect varied character viewpoints.

As for the culture and backdrop, I read books about India, both novels and guidebooks. I watched movies, both documentaries and dramas. Taj also felt strongly that I needed to walk the actual roads where his story took place and so I traveled to India to view it all firsthand. The trip turned out to be crucial. In India several critical story elements fell into place. 

DF: Adapting real-life stories can be a challenge, and there’s a fine line between capturing the tale accurately while still providing readers a compulsive read. Was that something you thought about during the writing or editing process? Was there anything you had to exclude or tweak?

CW: Absolutely, though as a fiction writer, I weigh reader interest more heavily than I do exactness. That said, I felt oddly compelled with The Orphan Keeper to remain as true to the actual story as possible. Certainly there were cracks that needed to be puttied, but generally it’s a story that took very little sprucing. Taj’s journey is astounding and could easily have been written as non-fiction.

As for exclusions or tweaking, many of my changes related to timing. For example, Taj’s mother in India actually visited with an astrologer a few months before Taj returned. The astrologer told her, “Your son will return, and when he does, he will fly.” Eight months later Taj flew to India to find his family.

In my story the scene had already shifted from the family in India to Taj’s experience in the United States. Putting this event in its proper place on the timeline would have meant shifting focus back to the family in India, and that wouldn’t have worked.

Instead, I included it near the beginning, shortly after the child was taken. It’s still there. It’s still accurate. It’s just technically in the wrong spot. These are the types of decisions I made for the sake of story.  

DF:  I’ve come to find out that authors hate talking about themes, but I’ll ask this anyway. Were there specific themes you wanted to explore in The Orphan Keeper? And did those themes change at all once you starting writing or editing?

CW: With my previous book, The Rent Collector, even before writing the first word, I knew of specific themes I wanted to address. The Orphan Keeper, however, was different. Because I was writing another person’s story, existing themes were inherent. Early themes that began waving their arms, demanding they be noticed included chance, perseverance, coincidence, belonging, and the power of a mother’s love (two mothers, actually).

DF: All of your works, including The Rent Collector and Letters for Emily, receive rave reviews from readers and critics alike. Have those reactions made you more confident in your writing and publishing processes?

CW: I think it’s fair to say that positive feedback nurtures confidence. However, it was Hemingway who said, “We are all apprentices in a craft where no one ever becomes a master.” At times I feel the weight of those words. As I slog through the never ending process of improving my writing, I suspect there will always be moments of doubt and worry. Mostly I find the praise humbling and I can’t help but be grateful.

DF: What’s next on your writing agenda?

CW: There are always a handful of stories swimming around in my head. That said, I’m one that gets very involved in the marketing side of a project. As such, it’s likely I won’t start the next book until The Orphan Keeper is well on its way (or until Oprah calls, whichever comes first).   

DF: What’s your advice to aspiring authors?

CW: Spend more time writing your story and less time on social media talking about writing your story.

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

CW: When I was 15, I accidently knocked out my older brother’s two front teeth with a hammer.

To learn more about Camron Wright, visit his official website or follow him on Twitter @AuthorCamronW.

The Writer’s Bone Interviews Archive

Author and Photographer Jenn LeBlanc Brings Historical Romance to Life Through Illustrated Series

Jenn LeBlanc

Jenn LeBlanc

By Lindsey Wojcik

While some feared the rise of e-books would contribute to the downfall of publishing as the industry once knew it, Jenn LeBlanc recognized the popularity of e-books as an opportunity to combine two of her passions: photography and writing. Through e-books, the documentary photographer turned romance-cover photographer turned historical romance writer has created a genre of her own—the illustrated romance.

Designed specifically with the digital book reader in mind, the illustrated romance brings the book’s cast of characters to life on the page or screen. LeBlanc has incorporated illustrations in her latest series Lords of Time, which follows love affairs in Victorian-era England. The illustrated versions of The Trouble with Grace and The Spare and The Heir, books four and five in the series, will be released on Sept. 13 via iBooks. A limited print edition will be available exclusively at the romance-only The Ripped Bodice bookstore, based in Culver City, Calif., where LeBlanc will celebrate the release of the books with the cast on Sept. 17.

Ahead of the release of books four and five, LeBlanc set aside some time to answer questions about the research involved in writing historical romance, the differences between writing and illustrating a book, and the secret to capturing an alluring romance cover.

Lindsey Wojcik: What made you want to pursue writing, specifically historical romance?

Jenn LeBlanc: I was born to be a storyteller, both visually and in words. I absolutely adore people and what makes them who they are, and I'm fascinated by what may bring two people together. I grew up watching the BBC with my mother and always loved the period dramas with their sweeping landscapes and beautiful dresses. What I love about writing stories set in the Victorian era specifically is that there are distinct rules about etiquette and logistics that you have to take into consideration when putting the story together. Technology as we know it simply didn't exist. There were no cell phones, and in most cases, no phones at all, no cars, no rapid transit, and it could take months to travel or send messages. I need to factor in all these restrictions and complexities when I write my stories, which makes the process even more satisfying. The Victorian era is also not at all what it seems on the surface—many think the people were buttoned up and repressed, when in fact they were quite the opposite.

LW: What kind of research goes into outlining and writing historical romance novels?

JL: There's an inordinate amount of research required for a good historical novel. You not only need to research the time period in general but also specific incidents that will color the specific point in time in which the story is set. The research required for my latest novels included a great deal of information on India, timetables for trains and ocean steamers, the Paris Opera, a particular bill that was passed in England in August of 1885, and quite a few other things. I also researched Ashoka, who was an Emperor in India from 268-232 BCE. He changed the path of India in some amazing ways.

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

JL: I am a panster, which means my stories are character driven. My process takes a lot of time in the planning stages simply getting to know the people who will be in the book. My ideas come from all sorts of sources. Sometimes I'm not even aware something will influence a character until much later. It's a very organic style of writing, but it makes it much more difficult to work on specific deadlines.  

LW: What inspired your latest series Lords of Time?

JL: There are quite a few things that inspired the series. The way women were treated in the Victorian era and that juxtaposition with our modern world. You may be surprised how little has changed. The other main factor was the clothing. 1885 was the era of bustles and boots and beautifully detailed garments. The series begins in 1880, and the latest novel takes place in 1885, when the Criminal Law Amendment Act of 1885 was passed. It included a list of provisions specifically written to protect women and children. Just before it was sent to vote, a man by the name of Henry Labouchere added another provision criminalizing homosexuality. This is the amendment that Oscar Wilde and Alan Turing were prosecuted under, and it was in effect for more than 80 years.

LW: What themes or character developments did you want to explore in your two latest installments of the series, The Trouble with Grace and The Spare and The Heir?

JL: Calder, one of the heroes, has been a part of the series since its inception. He's been running around in my head for more than seven years, and his story was of the utmost importance to me. As a gay man in Victorian England, he could face a great deal of issues by simply being alive. As a man of the peerage (he's the heir to a Duke), there was also no possible way for him to get around marriage. Calder is one of the most brave and true heroes I've ever had the honor of knowing. He puts everyone before himself, even to his own detriment at times. I wanted to give him his own happily ever after while showing the reality of being a gay man not just in Victorian England, but today as well. Again, as with the themes of women, we think we've come so far, but in so many ways, we really haven't come that far at all.

LW: How do you define illustrated romance and what inspired you to illustrate your novels?

JL: Illustrated romances are stories told not just with words but also with images. I was inspired to illustrate my novels when I saw the birth of e-books, and I recognized that with such a fantastic medium, it would be easy to create illustrated books without any significant production expenses. Since I'm a photographer, I can do all of the imagery myself, which not very many people are able to do. When the first iPad was introduced, I knew this was something I wanted to explore. It also fit very well with the Victorian era, as many novels were serialized and illustrated at the time. It just seemed like the perfect time to try something new.

LW: How is the process of illustrating your novels different from the writing process?

JL: It's quite extensive. After the novel is finished and headed for edits, I start going through scene-by-scene to pick out the most visual moments that I feel really lend to telling the story. I compile a shot list, which must be organized by costume, setting, hairstyle, the amount of dress/undress, props needed, and lighting setup. It's a completely different art form compared to writing, and there's quite a bit that goes into overall production.

LW: What's #StudioSmexy and what's the mission behind it?

JL: My primary mission with Studio Smexy is simply to provide beautiful imagery for romance novel covers. I started out with a stock site and focused on filling content gaps in the cover photography industry, including interracial romance, gay and lesbian romance, and historically accurate costuming, with images that are intimate, intense, and passionate. It grew much bigger than I expected, but it also took away from my writing. I've pared back, but am still dedicated to shooting covers with an eye for diversity in romance. I never expected to find myself in this field of photography, but I absolutely adore the work I do.

LW: You've shot more than 1,000 romance novel covers. What's the key to a creating an enticing cover image?

JL: Intimacy. There are a number of factors that I take into account when it comes to the creation of an image, but at the very core of each and every image I create is a level of intimacy that goes beyond what we're accustomed to seeing. It isn't about how clothed or unclothed the models are, or even whether or not the clothes are appropriate. If you're nitpicking the details of the image, I've already failed in my mission. My mission is to make you feel, not see.

LW: What's your advice to aspiring writers and photographers alike?

JL: Simply to create every single day. Challenge yourself. If you're a photographer, you need to be able to see, and you do so by making images constantly. If you're a writer, you need to be able to write convincingly, and you learn to do so by writing.

To learn more about Jenn LeBlanc, visit her official website, like her Facebook page, or follow her on Twitter @JennLeBlanc.

The Writer's Bone Interview Archive

Literary Machine: Detroit Community Center Spreads Literacy With Free Kids’ Books

Photo courtesy of Fox 2

Photo courtesy of Fox 2

By Daniel Ford

Earlier this month, I ran across a feel-good news story about Detroit’s Northwest Activities Center distributing free summer reading to local kids through a nifty book vending machine.

The vending machine is courtesy of JetBlue’s “Soar With Reading” program, which aims to “encourage kids’ imaginations to take flight through reading and get books into the hands of kids that need them most.” According to the airline’s website, $1,750,000 worth of books have been donated to kids in need by JetBlue and its partners.

The Center, which opened its doors in 1975, serves more than 250,000 Detroit residents annually, and offers “programs and activities for youth, families, and seniors that enhance the quality of life in the Detroit community.”

Norris J. Howard III, the Center’s social media manager, graciously talked to me about the community’s reaction to the initiative and how it has helped give local youths access to books and literature.

Daniel Ford: How did the Northwest Activities Center become involved with JetBlue’s summer reading program, “Soar With Reading?” What are some of the objectives of the program?

Norris J. Howard III: JetBlue actually reached out to us based on our proximity to schools and our central location. Our objective with this partnership is to increase literacy in our area. Many Detroit youth have limited access to bookstores and libraries, and this was a way for us to make books (especially Early Childhood material) available to our community.

DF: What has the reaction been like from kids and their parents to this year’s book vending machine?

NJH: Overwhelmingly positive! The community has responded in an amazing way to the program. We have to restock the machine two to three times a day during peak hours and sometimes overnight due to our evening events.

DF: According to your executive director, Ronald Lockett, you’ve distributed more than 7,000 books in six weeks through your book vending machine. That’s a lot of books! Did you ever imagine restocking the machine so much?!

NJH: No, we had no idea the program would be so successful. We are absolutely thrilled that the community enjoyed the books so much.

To learn more about the Northwest Activities Center, visit their official website or like their Facebook page.

The Writer’s Bone Interviews Archive

Never Stop Learning: A Conversation With Author Jason Pellegrini

Jason Pellegrini

Jason Pellegrini

By Daniel Ford

Author Jason Pellegrini got out attention in one of the more innovative ways that we’ve seen:

One of his readers even started a poll!

The Internet had spoken, so we agreed immediately!

Like any good author, Pellegrini had a good hook, but an even better follow through. His debut novel The Replacement is beloved by readers on Amazon and Goodreads, and he’s hard at work on his next book. He took the time to chat with me about his path to writing, his inspiration for The Replacement, and why writers can never stop learning.

Daniel Ford: Did you grow up knowing you wanted to be a storyteller or was it a passion that developed over time?

Jason Pellegrini: I would say it was always there, but it took some time to surface…

I didn’t know that I wanted to be a storyteller, but I’ve always been creative. I guess the desire to tell stories started to surface in 2003 when “Buffy: The Vampire Slayer” ended. I didn’t think it got the ending it deserved, so I wrote an entire 22-episode season. It wasn’t anything impressive. Just episode highlights. But it was certainly a start. Then in college I took a creative writing course, and really enjoyed it. I wrote a short story about a modern day take on the Headless Horseman that really sticks out to this day. I think that was when I really noticed my ability to create. It was a few years after college that I decided I wanted to give writing a go.

DF: Who were some of your early influences in the crime genre, and which modern crime writers are you currently hooked on?

JP: If I’m being totally honest, I’m not the biggest reader of crime/mystery/thriller novels. I know that comes as a shock, given my first novel was a thriller. It was just the idea I had that I decided to go with.

As far as authors that I enjoy go, I’m a fan of Dennis Lehane. I’ve really enjoyed what I’ve read by him. I also just finished Stephen King’s Mr. Mercedes trilogy, which I’ve had mixed emotions about.

DF: What’s your writing process like?

JP: It has certainly changed drastically from when I wrote The Replacement to writing this upcoming novel. I guess that part of evolving as a writer. The thing that has remained the same, though, and will likely always stay the same, is that I always sit down with