I Have Never Belonged to a Book Club, and other confessions
by debut author Stephen P. Kiernan
I have never belonged to a book group.
For years, I thought I didn’t need one. I read so many books already, and knew what potentially fine reads were on the horizon, and followed the writing careers of friends (sometimes with cheerleading, sometimes with envy). Every month, I posted three recent favorites on Facebook and Twitter. I doubted that a book group would do much for me.
Then my friend Davis told me about his group. Unlike most, his was all male. They drank scotch. Two favored cigars, which would definitely put me out in the hallway. They gossiped, of course, and talked business, but fully seventy percent of their meeting time was spent hashing out the book of the month.
Davis said he loved it. These were smart guys. They gave serious thought not only to the current book, but to books in general. One lawyer in the bunch had read a ton of history. From him, Davis learned about the Civil War. Another, who owned a car dealership, read deeply on the topic of innovation, whether in technology or in human interaction. Davis said his ideas about the workplace were changing dramatically as a result.
So I asked: What are you reading now? Longitude, he said. Give it a try.
What? Longitude? How could that possibly be interesting?
Give it a try, Davis said. Open your mind.
The scoundrel knew exactly the sort of challenge I cannot resist. I bought it in paperback.
It was a small book, by Dava Sobel, about the challenge that sailors had faced throughout history of knowing precisely where they were on the globe. It’s easy when you’re standing at the intersection of 26th Street and Madison Avenue. Not so easy when you are ten days’ sail from the nearest land. Wars were won, lives lost, fortunes made – all by how well a seaman knew his location. The search for a device that could reliably determine longitude involved kings and peasants, navies and inventors.
The book was utterly compelling. I devoured it. There was a sea yarn, which I invariably love, and science, which intrigues my humanist mind. Best, it contained all sorts of displays of human nature – from the humble inventor to the conniving politician. Longitude was a masterwork.
I routinely recommend that book to friends, even if they don’t care in the least about sailing or technology. Now that I am deep in the writing of a sea novel, Longitude sits on my desk.
That was my first lesson in the value of a book group: Like a library, or a good bookstore, you find unexpected jewels, rare discoveries you had not even known you were seeking, and they enlarge you.
My second lesson came the first time I met with a group to discuss a book of mine. This time it was all women. They gossiped too, and drank wine, and spent perhaps forty percent of their time on the book.
But they had read it, every one of them. Conversing with them felt like it was my birthday. Every time someone spoke earnestly about a moment or a character, another metaphorical cake was set before me with the candles lit.
Nothing is better for a writer than readers who have engaged sincerely with his ideas, and in response have something meaningful to say.
Reading, like writing, is primarily a solitary act. The book is our bond, the place our imaginations meet. To bring that private experience into public air is an act of vulnerability and courage. You have to trust the people in the room. When that book group disagreed about one of my characters, debating energetically as though I were not even in the room, it was one of my favorite experiences of my life. It reminded me: In the world of ideas and imagination, we are all in this together.
Stephen P. Kiernan is the author of two books of nonfiction, as well as The Curiosity, his debut novel. Read an excerpt here, and be sure to enter the sweepstakes (which ends July 16) for a chance to win a visit by Stephen to your book club discussion.
Please welcome Kim Wong Keltner, author of Tiger Babies Strike Back, to On the Bookcase!
Hi Everybody! I’m Kim Wong Keltner and I’m here to tell you a little bit about my new book.
Tiger Babies Strike Back is for anyone who has heard or read about Tiger Mom parenting tactics and considers that strict style to be extreme. And NUTS.
For every straight-A student playing piano as a prodigy, there are hundreds of regular kids being shunted to the sidelines, being made to feel like we are not good enough because we got one A-minus or a few B-pluses.
Perfectionist Tiger Moms thrive on bragging that their wielding of absolute control gets results. Well, I’m here to say that there are consequences. There is a shadow side. And what might that dark, murky underbelly be? It’s very simple: Tiger Babies are grown up now. And we are PISSED.
We may have grown up to be traditional successes, but achievement has always been by someone else’s definition. At the risk of disappointing or shocking my elders or the Chinese community in general, I’ll say that in pushing relentlessly for the best grades and the highest test scores above all else, Tiger Parents have created generations of emotionally empty robots. I look around at my fellow Asians and see many successful materialists who wouldn’t recognize compassion or empathy unless it collided with their Mercedes-Benz S500.
Chinese culture emphasizes deference to elders at all times. Well, we are in America now, and have been for several generations. A Tiger Mom’s old-school posturing is now just an excuse to be a control freak who hides behind the unimpeachable concept of cultural tradition.
Chinese parents often hinge their own self-esteem on the insistence that their children are Number One. My cousins and I always grew up wary of each another because we were subtly and blatantly pitted against one another in GPAs and college acceptances. The children pay the price. We are tap-dancing as fast as we can to please our parents, and after we get spit out of our institutions of higher learning, maybe we wonder, “I went to Yale and all I got was this lousy T-shirt?”
It’s weird to be told all your life that you must strive for the best, or that you are inherently the best (because all Chinese people are better than everyone else, natch!). Meanwhile, inside you don’t feel all that confident about your superiority. Or maybe you feel nothing at all because no one ever asked you how you felt about anything. And no one ever treated you like an individual soul. As for me, the point of my entire existence up until age eighteen was to be quiet, get straight As and get into UC Berkeley.
Studying art and writing led me to think for myself, and to want for myself, too, eventually. How bittersweet it must be for my parents to now know that they paid for the tools that led me break the lock to my own cage, that is, their power over me.
And now I am a parent myself. As a result of my own upbringing, I want life to be different for my daughter. She is an individual who is more than just my appendage or mirror. I want to minimize for her the anxiety and emptiness I felt as a kid. I may not be able to shield her from all the lonely feelings in life, but I always want her to feel like our home is a hearth of safety for her, not catfight central where she only matters to me if she is a straight-A picture of perfection. She shouldn’t have to feel bullied at home by her very own mother.
And hence, I’m no Tiger Mom. I’m a Tiger Baby with a cub of my own. And here in the Wong-Keltner household, we do not eat our own young.
The only thing that keeps Kim Wong Keltner from writing is when she’s trapped under an avalanche of her daughter’s stuffed animals. Keltner is the author of The Dim Sum of All Things, Buddha Baby, and I Want Candy. Tiger Babies Strike Back is her first work of nonfiction.
Please welcome New York Times bestselling author Khaled Hosseini to On the Bookcase as he tells us a few secrets about traveling for his new book tour of And the Mountains Echoed.
What most excites you about meeting your readers across America?
Meeting the wide range and diversity of people who have responded to my books, people from all walks of life, all religions, races, cultures, from varsity wrestling team members to hipsters to CEOs to middle-aged accountants to octogenarians. It is always a reminder to me, when I meet these kaleidoscopic demographics, of the ability of fiction to connect people through the expression of basic, common human experiences.
You’ll be on the road for five weeks—what are you planning to bring to read on your tour?
I have already bought a few books for just that purpose and they are now sitting on my desk! Some are new, some are older books that I have always meant to read and never got around to. They are:
Birds of America by Lorrie Moore
The Twelve Tribes of Hattie by Ayana Mathis
Dear Life by Alice Munro
American Pastoral by Philip Roth
The History of Love by Nicole Krauss
Not sure I will get through all of them, but I will knock off a few.
What do you like to do with your downtime during your book tour?
I read. I exercise, if I can find the time. I watch parts of movies. I call home. I try to write but never can. I end up reading a lot.
What do you pack in your suitcase that might surprise us?
I always pack—though I never end up wearing it—my SF 49ers cap, which I consider my good luck hat. Also, I have started taking guitar lessons (as a show of solidarity, really, with my son), and sometimes I will pack a small travel guitar for practice on the road. (A bit of parental trickery is at work here, of course; i.e., if I can find time to practice on a national book tour, then my son can find twenty minutes in his day to do the same. Sometimes you have make people feel so bad that they’ll do the right thing.)
What are your children reading right now?
My daughter, who is ten, is reading A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle.
My son, twelve, just finished The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon.
With more than ten million copies sold in the United States of The Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns, and more than thirty-eight million copies sold worldwide in more than seventy countries, Khaled Hosseini is one of most widely read and beloved novelists in the entire world. The Kite Runner spent 103 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list, and A Thousand Splendid Suns debuted as a #1 New York Times bestseller, remaining in the #1 spot for fifteen weeks, and spending nearly an entire year on the bestseller list. Hosseini is a Goodwill Envoy to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, the UN Refugee Agency, and the founder of The Khaled Hosseini Foundation, a nonprofit which provides humanitarian assistance to the people of Afghanistan.
Please welcome the author of Garden of Stones, Sophie Littlefield, to On the Bookcase in an exciting interview!
Garden of Stones is very different from other books you’ve published. What led to your decision to write something new, and what inspired your ideas for the story and characters in the book?
When I began writing several decades ago, I found I loved the freedom of moving between genres—crime fiction, young adult, dark fantasy—trying to craft the most compelling story possible. There is great excitement in treading on unfamiliar ground, and I think risk-taking can lead to captivating and unforgettable stories.
Garden of Stones came about over a series of conversations I had with my dear friend, author Juliet Blackwell. She is a native Californian, and knew much more about the Japanese internment camps than I did, having grown up in the Midwest. I found this chapter of our nation’s history engrossing and horrifying, so I started thinking about how to explore it through fiction. My own novels often feature women—specifically mothers and daughters—at the heart, which led me to focus on their experience during this troubling era. Other story elements came about serendipitously, even small details like the Nancy Drew mysteries mentioned in the book—I’d unearthed an old copy of The Mystery at Lilac Inn, and I kept it on my desk as I wrote.
You’ve written about a very specific—and difficult—period in U.S. history. What drew you to this time and setting? What kind of research did you do, and what were the challenges you faced writing a historical novel?
When I began this project, I knew I had a daunting research challenge ahead of me. I read everything I could get my hands on: dozens of books, first-person accounts, journals, newsletters. I pored over photographs and covered the walls of my office with maps and illustrations.
I made the trip to Manzanar and spent a day at the restored camp, talking to the staff and viewing the exhibits. Walking among the ruins of the blocks and gardens I’d read so much about was inexplicably moving. I felt as though I was standing with the spirits of those who had lived there. I also visited a small museum in the town of Independence that had a wonderful collection of ephemera and memorabilia: letters, handicrafts, school photos, newspapers, dishes, clothes and furniture made by internees.
There are also many wonderful websites about the pop culture of the era; I spent an entire afternoon learning about 1940s cleaning products!
Did you find it challenging to write about a culture that’s different from your own? What sort of research did you do to ensure the authenticity of your characters and life inside the Manzanar prison camp?
I was concerned about this aspect of the book until I started reading the first-person accounts and interviews of internees. The perspective differed greatly between the Issei (born in Japan) and Nisei (born in America), and between those who were children and those who were adults. The accounts are rich with detail and helped me understand the values and priorities of the families and communities whose lives were affected by the war, which in turn helped me create credible fictional accounts. There was such a strong sense of patriotism among many of the internees, despite their treatment by our government and citizens. The determination to self-identify as American remained powerful in nearly every account I read, and I tried to reflect that in the novel.
In the book, you explore the lengths a mother will go to protect her children—even if it means hurting them. Some readers may find Miyako’s actions cruel and unspeakable, while others may feel the consequences of doing nothing would have been far worse. Did you intend for Miyako to be a sympathetic character? What do you want readers to take from her actions?
Despite Miyako’s struggle with her fragile mental health, she fights to hold herself together for the sake of her daughter. A woman with Miyako’s challenges in modern America might find effective treatment and be able to lead a full and rewarding life. During the war, that was nearly impossible, and yet Miyako did the best she could for Lucy.
I think the interesting question is whether she failed Lucy in the end. I spent a lot of time considering how a girl who had suffered what Lucy suffered would grow up—what kind of woman she would become, and whether she would be able to forgive. I must admit that I’m not entirely decided, myself.
What was your biggest surprise as you were writing this novel?
I am very surprised at how familiar the adult Lucy felt to me as I began to write her. I thought I would have been much more tentative in describing her attitudes, emotions and actions. But she arrived, as characters occasionally do, completely formed, and I felt no hesitation as I wrote her scenes.
Can you describe your writing process? Do you outline first or dive right in? Do you write scenes consecutively or jump around? Do you have a schedule or routine? A lucky charm?
I am still searching for my best process, and I’m getting the feeling that search will last a lifetime! True to my restless nature, I try lots of different things. I’ve written with detailed outlines and none at all; in chronological order and jumping around.
I do keep a detailed guide for every book and series. This includes a table of characters with their most salient characteristics, a time line and a list of significant places. As for schedule…I adore the fact that this job lets me set my own hours. I work throughout the day—from first sip of coffee through the glass of wine that marks the end of most evenings.
But I take breaks whenever I feel like it: to do chores, go to the gym or hiking, have lunch with friends, hang out with my daughter after school. I have a variety of talismans in my office. There are three little plastic penguins, a mini Etch A Sketch on which my son wrote “I Love You” when he was 8 or 10, a tiara given to me by a writing friend, and the card that came with the f lowers my brother sent to mark the publication of my first novel.
What can you tell us about your next novel?
I am working on a novel in which an affluent suburban family is forced to endure a terrifying event together. Over the course of two days, all of their relationships with each other are profoundly altered.
Sophie Littlefield grew up in rural Missouri and attended college in Indiana. She worked in technology before having children, and was lucky enough to stay home with them while they were growing up. She writes novels for kids and adults, and lives in Northern California.
Please welcome Karen Lee Sobol, author and illustrator of Twelve Weeks: An Artist’s Story of Cancer, Healing, and Hope to On the Bookcase!
“Why am I still here?”
When this question entered my mind, the answer followed at once.
“Write a book. Try to have my experience be useful to others.”
In 2005 I received shocking news. Waldenstrom’s macroglubulinemia, a blood cancer, raged through me. “Rare and incurable” defined it. Paralyzed with terror, I had this advice from a friend: “When you’re drowning in quicksand, reach for a different branch.”
Luckily, different branches began to appear in many forms. A Chinese herbalist and a kind stranger urged me to explore treatment options and to trust myself. A grandmother sent a tape about the mind-body connection. My husband found the physician who is the world’s expert on this lymphoma and who saw me as a person first, then as a patient. I learned all I could about the disease, approved treatments, and experimental ones. My background in architecture came into play, and I decided to manage the sickness like a project.
Hope banished fright. Not sure which moment might be my last, I began to truly live in the present.
Medicine, like art, is in large part a creative process. The physician might begin with a mysterious substance in a test tube; the artist might begin with a blank canvas and a set of paints. At the outset, each has an idea about a desired result, but neither is quite sure how to achieve it, much less what might happen along the way.
My journey from sickness back to health was a creative process, too. We—my family and I—faced hard choices. Were the potential benefits of enrolling in a clinical trial with an experimental, biology-based drug worth the formidable risks? Was I willing to experiment with my life? My decision: I would place myself in the test tube.
There is no doubt that the drug, and a superb medical team, annihilated the cancer. I also believe that holistic healing techniques supported my body and my mind, and contributed to my recovery. Through every phase, meditation anchored me. My mantra became “I am healthy and cancer-free.” I stated this in the present, and I felt it as if it were already true. Over time, I became cancer-free. My cure marks a breakthrough in medical science.
With infinite gratitude, I posed a question to my physician. “How can I help you, who have helped me so much?”
His answer was immediate. “Clinical trials. We need more people to be willing to enroll in them. It’s the only way we can advance the science.” His response may have been a subconscious motivator. Writing this book became my next project, with its own creative process.
Twelve Weeks seemed the logical title to choose since that was the time frame of the clinical trial in which I participated. People ask if writing was therapeutic; was it part of the healing? Because I’m so fortunate, I feel it was a moral mandate, the right thing to do.
As my health declined, then gradually returned, in my art studio I expressed unspeakable emotions, as well as humor and beauty. Images of my drawings, paintings, collages, and sculptures complement the text.
For the general reader, Twelve Weeks is a compelling tale. For book groups, it provides a platform for multi-tiered conversations about one of life’s toughest challenges.
Valuable as a medical, emotional, and spiritual guide for people experiencing cancer, treating it, or seeking to cure it, the book offers both information and inspiration. I’m happy to tell you that Twelve Weeks is making a difference in people’s lives.
To learn more, and for book group discussion questions, please visit www.twelveweeks-thebook.com
Karen Lee Sobol is a painter, printmaker and sculptor. An alumna of Radcliffe College and the Harvard Graduate School of Design, she has studied at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Karen Lee is a board member of the New England Aquarium and the Institute for Health and the Global Environment. As an advocate for the Bing Center for Waldenstrom’s Macroglobulinemia at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, she supports education and research and speaks regularly to share her story of healing and hope.
Please welcome Christine Trent to On the Bookcase as she tells us about the fascinating research about Victorian-era funerals and undertaking she discovered while wrting her novel Lady of Ashes.
The inspiration for this book came from an unusual place: my writer friend, Mary Oldham. Sitting together at a writing conference one day, I was musing about what kind of profession my next heroine would have. I was considering something in the Victorian era. Mary said to me, quite casually, “Do you know what I’ve always wanted to read about? A Victorian undertaker.” Wow.
After I got over the shock of that idea, my mind went crazy with possibilities, and the end result will be Lady of Ashes. Until the book’s release, I thought I’d share with you some of the fascinating research about Victorian-era funerals and undertaking I’ve discovered.
Coffin vs. Casket, what’s the difference? A coffin is a burial container in which it widens at the shoulders to accommodate a person’s shoulders. Think old Dracula movies and anything produced for Halloween. A casket, however, is the modern burial container Americans generally use today, made of steel or wood, that is designed as an even rectangle with a rounded top.
Did you know that Victorians did not embalm their dead? In fact, the practice only took off in the United States during the Civil War, in order to cope with preserving dead soldiers—on both sides—while being sent home on trains.
Do you know why the Victorians didn’t embalm their dead? They thought it an unseemly—and un-Christian—practice to fill a body with chemicals before placing it in the ground.
Guess why lilies are traditionally associated with funerals? Their scent is so intense that they masked the odor of decomposing bodies. While Prince Albert’s coffin stood inside Windsor Chapel in 1861, the profusion of lilies was so overpowering that the guards had to be switched out every hour to prevent them from fainting.
First class or coach? The Victorians were still a class-conscious society, even if some of those barriers were breaking down. In planning your funeral, the undertaker—wearing a top hat swathed in black crape—would offer your family options appropriate to your social status. For example, if you were of high enough rank, you might have a funeral car with glass sides, interior curtains, and plumes adoring the top. Were you just middle class? Well, a smaller carriage then, no curtains and no plumes. For those of little means, your funeral carriage was more like a long, black open cart.
What’s a professional mourner? Depending on your social status, your undertaker might hire professional mourners to walk alongside your funeral car. Dressed in black, the number of them helped demonstrate how important or wealthy you were. The same is true for the number of horses pulling your funeral car, the number of ostrich plumes adorning the horses’ heads and your funeral car, and in what part of the cemetery you were buried.
Parade routes aren’t just for floats. In America, the hearse (or, in Victorian parlance, funeral carriage) drives from the funeral home to the church to the cemetery. In Victorian England, the funeral carriage went from the home of the deceased to the cemetery’s chapel. Except, it didn’t always go directly there. For society people, the funeral procession would frequently detour through busy or fashionable streets, so that everyone could get a glimpse of what important person had died.
Fascinating, isn’t it?
Christine Trent writes historical fiction from her two-story home library. She lives with her wonderful bookshelf-building husband, three precocious cats, a large doll collection, and over 3,000 fully cataloged books. She and her husband are active travelers and journey regularly to England to conduct book research at historic sites. It was Christine's interest in dolls and history that led to the idea for The Queen's Dollmaker.
Please welcome Liza Gyllenhaal to On the Bookcase in an interview about her novel, A Place For Us!
Where did you get the idea for this novel?
A few years ago I heard a news story on our local public radio station in Massachusetts about a married couple who were being arraigned under the Social Host Liability law. Two teenagers had been seriously injured in a car crash after drinking with the couple’s son at a party in the family’s basement. Though the parents had been asleep upstairs and unaware of the underage drinking, one of the injured teenager’s family was bringing a law suit against the couple. Understandably, the rural community where the accident occurred was upset about the incident — but also divided about where the responsibility rested. As someone who loves writing about families and small towns, the story couldn’t help but capture my imagination.
I began to think about how I might turn this basic premise into a convincing work of fiction. I let the idea simmer while I finished my most recent novel So Near, but then started to outline a plot and flesh out the characters.
Coincidentally, as I began writing the novel, a very similar incident took place in a town not far from us in the Berkshires. In this case, tragically, one of the teenagers involved in it was killed. This senseless death brought home to me how serious and pertinent the problem of underage drinking remains.
The story is told from the different points of view of four main characters. Did you find that difficult to pull off?
Both of my last novels Local Knowledge and So Near were written in the first person, though in So Near it was a husband and wife who, alternately, told their stories. I thought it would be interesting to try more points of view with this novel, but I also realized that using four different first person voices would probably drive me — and readers — crazy. So I decided to write the novel in what is sometimes called the close third person which means that the story is being told by “he” or “she” rather than “I” but, hopefully, from pretty deep inside the head of the character in question.
In the first person, you can write “I did this” or “I felt that” which gives the story an automatic believability. For me, the third person—which puts readers a little more at a distance—is more of a challenge. I think that to write convincing fiction you have to be able to empathize with your characters. You need to know them deep down. You have to believe in them. But you also need to step back and give them breathing room to be themselves and make their own choices. It’s very tempting when you’re writing in the third person to manipulate your characters and force them to do what the story line dictates. But I think readers can always tell when a character is acting and talking—well … out of character. The most important thing I learned from writing this novel in the third person is that if something doesn’t seem to be working, it probably isn’t the fault of the character—instead, there’s something wrong with the plot.
Two of your main characters are teenagers. How did you manage to empathize with them?
Though I don't have children myself, I am lucky to have a number of wonderful teenage nieces and nephews in my life. I listen hard to what they say—and, perhaps more importantly, wonder about what they keep to themselves. But, as I started to write the first chapter from Phoebe’s point of view, I remembered a relationship I had when I was about her age. It was with a boy who, like Liam, was going through a very hard time. He also happened to be the most popular boy in our class and, when it became obvious to everyone that we were spending a lot of time together after school, it was assumed that I was his new girlfriend. So I suddenly became very popular, too! But, in truth, all we were doing together was talking. Actually, he was talking and I was listening. More than anything else, I think I drew from that memory to create the strong bond that Phoebe and Liam share.
Is there an underlying theme in A Place for Us?
Yes—and it’s right there in the title. It’s the age-old yearning to fit in and be accepted. In my novel Local Knowledge, I wrote about a woman raised in a small town who is befriended—and ultimately betrayed—by a wealthy female weekender whom she longs to emulate. My character Maddie wanted to be accepted by this glamorous new friend so much that, as a result, she ended up sacrificing everything truly important in her life.
The natural human desire for acceptance has always interested me as a writer. We’ve all felt that longing at some point, and very often the power of it has made us act in ways that we later regret. In A Place for Us I decided to turn the tables on the social situation I’d set up in Local Knowledge and have my character Brook be a very wealthy transplant from New York City who longs to fit into the small town where her husband was raised and to which her family relocates after 9/11. Brook’s struggle to fit in as well as her son Liam’s yearning for acceptance propels the story along and acts as the novel’s thematic underpinning.
What sort of research did you do in writing the novel?
I spent a lot of time on the internet reading up on the Social Host Liability law and the many cases in Massachusetts that have resulted from the law’s passage. The more time I spent researching different stories and exploring various sites, the more the name of Richard P. Campbell kept cropping up. Digging a little deeper, I discovered that Mr. Campbell is the founder of a prestigious law firm in Boston, President of the Massachusetts Bar Association, and a driving force behind Social Host Liability legislation. He created a multi-media program, Be A Parent, Not A Pal, to educate students, parents, teachers, and members of the community about the Social Host Liability law. It’s a first-rate tutorial on the subject. For more information, please see: http://www.socialhostliability.org/programs/beaparent.php.
I was very lucky to have the opportunity to interview Mr. Campbell by phone one afternoon. He had agreed to a one-hour session, but we ended up talking for much longer than that. He was outspoken and full of great anecdotes. And he was tremendously helpful, clarifying many complicated legal issues for me. He was also a passionate spokesperson for a cause he obviously believes in very deeply. At the end of the conversation, he said, “Whatever else your novel does, please have it make a case for how deadly underage drinking can be.” I hope I’ve done that!
What authors do you like — and would like to recommend?
I read a lot — poetry, fiction, history, memoir. I spent last winter in 18th century Russia with Robert Massie’s fascinating biography of Catherine the Great. This spring, I relived the Kennedy assassination and Lyndon Johnson’s remarkable early achievements as President via Robert Caro’s latest installment of Johnson’s life. I loved Ann Patchett’s most recent novel State of Wonder and Edith Pearlman’s collection of short stories Binocular Vision. I’m thinking about trying my hand at writing something that revolves around a mystery, so I recently reread all my favorite P.D. James novels and I’m currently working my way through Agatha Christie. After Nora Ephron’s death, I read everything she wrote in book form—and laughed out loud for a couple of days.
Do you have a set writing routine?
I usually wake up early and reread whatever I’ve been working on. I revise constantly on the computer. (It continues to amaze me how Tolstoy could have written War and Peace in longhand!) Then I let the demands of daily life intervene for several hours and pick up again in the afternoon. Most days, I don’t hit my stride until three o’clock or so, and then if I’m lucky get two or three good, productive hours in. I think a lot about what I’m working on when I’m not actually writing. When I’m running, for instance, or driving in the car back and forth between the city and our weekend place in Massachusetts. I try to work out problems—a scene I can’t get off the ground, a character who refuses to behave—during that two-and-a-half hour stretch.
Where do you write?
In the city, I usually write in a beautiful old Eames chair that I commandeered from my husband. But 16 years ago, we brought a place in the beautiful Berkshire Hills of Western Massachusetts. It included a small farmhouse and an old horse stable which became my “writing studio.” It still has the old iron stall feeders and leather harnesses on the walls. It remains permeated by a wonderful smell of animal and old hay.
When we’re in the country, I wake up early and reread and rewrite on my laptop in the house, but in the afternoon I go out to the studio, bolt the door, and start the hard work of writing the next new word, sentence, paragraph, chapter. In the winter I have a fire going in the Jotul stove, in the summer I have all the windows open and can hear the seasonal brook and birdsong. This summer, I watched a family of wild turkeys—seventeen in all—parading up and down in the old paddock. Other sightings: woodchuck, coyote, fox, and early last spring, when the trees were just greening out, a big black bear.
Are you working on anything new?
As I mentioned earlier, I’m interested in trying to write something with a mystery at its heart. I don’t think it will be a traditional police procedural, though someone will be murdered and the story will explore the reasons why—and probably end with the discovery of who did it. But I’m hoping the novel will be more about the characters and the small New England community where they live. I’m an avid amateur gardener and I loved writing about gardening in So Near and talking about my garden on my blog, so I’m pretty sure I want my main character to be a landscape architect/professional gardener. I also know who gets killed—and when. But that’s all I really have figured out so far. A lot of the joy of writing—just as it is in reading—is discovering what’s going to happen next.
Advice, confessions, reflections, fantasies, delights and flashes of brilliance from Theasa Tuohy, author of The Five O'clock Follies.
Is it possible to be a good writer without being a good reader?
That's hard to imagine. But I'm not sure I know what a "good" reader is. Someone who reads a lot of books? Someone who lives inside what they read? Someone who becomes the characters, understands their joys and sorrows? Someone who can rattle off plot lines, and author's names, and has read everything on the best seller lists?
According to a report of the Independent Book Publishing Association, over five million American adults belong to reading groups. What, do you believe, is the basis for this country’s love for literature and books?
When you lose yourself in a book, it's your own makebelieve. In movies or theater, it's someone else's vision.
Have you ever belonged to a reading group?
No. For me, reading, again, is my own personal world. lt belongs to me. Someone who read my novel recently and said she loved it, demurred when I asked her to go on a book site and say so. She said that once a reader loves a book, it becomes their personal possession and no longer belongs to the author. Interesting concept!
What advice do you have for reading group members when it comes to selecting books for discussion?
I should think it would be ideal to talk about complex issues, things that one can't quite grasp on one's own. On the other hand, also great fun to chit chat about the characters, sort of like backfence gossip. I found it fascinating to sit back and hear what several readers were saying about the characters in my novel. They really got into it, should she have done this? Why did he do that? Come to think of it, maybe I am missing something by not signing up and sharing more tete-a-tete!
What book(s) are you reading now or planning to read?
I'm embarrassed to admit that after all these years of researching the press in Vietnam for my novel, I'm still drawn to books about that war. I'm carrying around with me, and keep reading snippets, of Once Upon a Distant War, by William Prochnau. It's a very detailed account of several reporters in Saigon. Also reading, by Tamin Ansary, Games Without Rules, very interesting history of Afghanistan. I've always thought of it as such a wayward and lawless country, and Tamin gives it an entirely new prospective. But that's what reading is about, isn't it? I keep thinking I should pick up something for just a read, like Gone Girl, but never seem to get around to it. Can never pass up a new Stephanie Plum by Janet Evanovich. But embarrassed to read them on planes, because I keep laughing out loud.
If you were stuck on a deserted island and could only bring one book with you to read, what would it be and why?
That's difficult, but probably The Ginger Man, by J.P. Donleavy. I read and reread that book so many times because No. 1, I just loved it. But also, I kept trying to figure out how he handled his point of view switches – going from one character's head to another. Fascinating.
If you could have dinner with 3 writers (dead or alive) who would they be and why?
Tobias Wolff, because I loved his In Pharaoh's Army. Sorry, I keep going back to Vietnam. Agatha Christie because I'd delight in seeing if she's as much like her quick witted, droll characters as I imagine her to be. Shakespeare because I'd love to ask him how much manuscript he had before handing the script over to actors. Plays are such collaborative projects, I'd grill him on how much, how often things changed once a show got into rehearsal.
Have you ever read anything you're too embarrassed to admit (except in this interview)?
No. Because when they are badly written, I simply can't go on. I've tried, more than once, to force myself into something that is badly written but wildly selling, and I just can't do it.
Favorite book when you were a child?
It's hard to remember, because I read a lot. Little Women leaps to mind. But I also devoured Nancy Drew.
Favorite heroine in literature and why?
Probably Lady Ashley – Brett – don't you think? From The Sun Also Rises.
Favorite hero in literature and why?
That is so hard to say, because one's tastes change so much as one gets older. Swashbucklers, then sweet thoughtful men. Then there's Sebastian Dangerfield (The Ginger Man), hardly what one could call a hero. But, wow, what a fascinating, complex character. How about Holden Caulfield? Who knows?
Favorite first line from a book?
I hate to be trite, but probably the ones that stick are the ones everyone talks about – "It was the best of times...." "Call me Ishmael." My very own favorite, I don't even know what book it's from. Would love it, if someone could help me solve this mystery. When I was young, I read a book that started out: "I'm sitting here writing this in the kitchen sink." That blew me away, and made me think that maybe being a writer would be fun after all. Up to that time, I would comment to myself that it would be awful to be a novelist because, as I would say in my head, "you'd know how the story is going to turn out." That seems to carry over to this day, because I work without an outline, just sort of make it up as I go along. Most of my writer friends say that's totally nuts, they all seem to work with outlines.
Favorite last line from a book?
I don't know. Last lines are always sad because the book is over.
Book that changed your life?
Don't know. Maybe the one that started out "I'm sitting here writing this in the kitchen sink." Or maybe Big Story, a research tome by Peter Braestrup about the press and the Vietnam War. I found it in a slush pile in the newsroom and dug into it and it got me started on The Five O'Clock Follies.
Words to live by?
I read somewhere that Scott Fitzgerald wrote to his daughter upon hearing she was going to major in literature: Why do you need to go to college to learn how to read? Reading for me is each person's own thing. A personal, secret pleasure.
Please welcome Santa Montefiore, author of The Woman from Paris, to On the Bookcase in this interview!
What was your inspiration for The Woman from Paris? Did you begin with a specific character or plot idea?
I started with the house! I fell in love with a beautiful Jacobean house near where I live in the country and worked the plot around it.
In the “Biography” section on your website, www.santamontefiore.co.uk, you write: “We have all had moments that we would give anything to live again.” What is one moment you wish you could relive?
Without doubt I would return to 1989 and relive the year I spent in Argentina as a nineteen-year-old. Inspired by the beauty of the pampa and the colourful people I met there, I wrote Meet Me Under the Ombu Tree, my first novel. I still have loads of friends there and return when I can. In my heart I feel it is my second home!
Phaedra deceives the Frampton family in the hopes of protecting them from the truth. Do you think good intentions ever justify a lie?
I think lying is acceptable in certain circumstances, one of those being when the truth would cause terrible pain. The trouble is you always risk getting found out and being exposed! Perhaps if Phaedra had lied and disappeared afterwards, she might have got away with it. Her troubles began when she allowed herself to become part of the Frampton family and of course when she fell in love with David. There was no way it was all going to end well!
The novel stresses the necessity of forgiveness. Why did you want to emphasize this theme in The Woman from Paris? Do you find it easy to practice forgiveness in your own life?
I think forgiveness is the hardest thing to find in our hearts, and yet it is the only way to diffuse our suffering. By holding onto resentment we hold onto pain. When we truly forgive we allow love to burn away all negativity. Love frees us from suffering, but goodness, I’ve had times in my life where I knew the theory and yet my heart remained as hard as stone. Sometimes, time is the only thing that softens the heart, which is why I think old people often make peace as they near the end of their lives. They grow wise and see the bigger picture.
Where is your favorite place to ski?
My favourite place to ski will always be Klosters in Switzerland, where I base the ski scenes in my novel. My great-grandmother, who was Swiss, used to go there with her family, way back, and her descendants have called it home ever since!
Did you model the beautiful setting of Fairfield Park after a particular place?
Yes, I went to visit friends in Hampshire who have the most beautiful Jacobean house, set in spectacular grounds. I have always loved houses, especially old ones, and I adore those summer houses built on hills or beside lakes, they’re very romantic. I used the house but made it my own, as the real one is not positioned by a lake nor does it have a hill with an ornamental summer house (folly) on the top. The houses in my novels are characters, too!
Your husband, Simon Sebag Montefiore, is also a successful, internationally bestselling author. Do you ever edit or read each other’s early drafts? How do you influence each other as writers?
Absolutely, we help each other all the time. We consider ourselves a business and share everything. He helps me with plots. Usually, I come up with the idea and then we sit over a bottle of wine discussing it and working out all the possible scenarios. It’s fun! I read the first draft of his novels, but not his history books. I can’t help with those. The novels I do feel qualified to critique. His new one, which comes out next year, is gripping and I really didn’t have to do much!
The Woman from Paris is your eleventh novel. Was there any element of writing this novel that differed from your previous novels? How you do you think you have grown as a writer from your first novel, Meet Me Under the Ombu Tree?
I think the key to success is loving what you do, whatever field you are in. I adore writing. I can’t look out of a window without feeling the urge to describe what I’m seeing. I think that enthusiasm is infectious. I have learnt a lot in the twenty years since I started writing my first novel, not only technically but from experience. The older I get, the wiser I become and the better I understand human nature. Writing about characters is much more interesting if those characters are complex. I think plot is important and it’s fun to keep the reader guessing, but I think it’s well drawn characters that keep the reader coming back for more. Is this novel different from the others? I think everyone is different, like children, but I love them all equally!
What was the last book you read?
Me Before You by Jojo Moyes. I found it moving, touching and funny. A very heavy subject told lightly.
What are you working on now?
I’m editing the one for next year. It’s based in Ireland and is a mystery, love story with lots of twists and turns. I have loved writing about Connemara, it’s very wild and romantic! I shall start my fourteenth novel straight after.
Santa Montefiore is the internationally bestselling author of several novels, including The French Gardener and The Last Voyage of the Valentina. She lives in London with her husband, historian Simon Sebag-Montefiore, and their two children.
Téa Obreht is the author of The Tiger’s Wife, a New York Times bestseller and National Book Award finalist. Here she talks with novelist Ramona Ausubel about her experiences writing No One is Here Except All of Us.
Téa Obreht: I’m always interested in how projects of this magnitude begin. It seems like a novel “about” one’s family, or projecting one’s family into a fictional sphere, almost always ends up being an endeavor of self–discovery. Tell me a little bit about how you came to it, about what inspired you to take this journey and why.
Ramona Ausubel: The project started out as a desire to record the family stories while my grandmother was still alive and well (happily, she remains so at ninety–one). I didn’t know it would become a novel until later, when, having collected dozens of individual stories, I was frustrated that the complete picture was still foggy. It felt like having a lot of scraps of fabric, but if I wanted to see the quilt, I was going to have to sew it myself.
Téa Obreht: So much of this incredible book relies on fable, on the creation and acceptance of a particular reality in order to survive. At the end of the book, in a note to the reader, you even say “facts aren’t important” and that “the truth is in the telling.” What draws you to this idea of fable? What is its place in the modern world?
Ramona Ausubel: When I first started writing, I was trying to stick as closely to the “facts” as possible. Soon, I realized that facts were not what I really cared about. The reason it mattered to my grandmother to tell the story and the reason it mattered to me to hear it and tell it again was not that we were trying to reconstruct history, it was that we were trying to fold the characters, places and lives from the past into our world. As long as a story is being told, it stays alive, even as it changes. Each fable is a version of what could have happened, and between all those versions, maybe we come close to the truth. I think that, no matter how modern our world gets, we will always have a need to tell stories about the past.
Téa Obreht: I was fascinated by the point of view shifts in No One Is Here Except All Of Us; it seems that the novel begins rooted in collective consciousness and then, as the experiment of isolation fails, and tragedy upon tragedy is unleashed onto the characters, this shared perspective splits up until, in an ironic twist, outside communication becomes the only way the characters receive fragmented information about each others’ lives. Why did you choose this particular narrative style? How did you settle on Lena as the primary voice?
Ramona Ausubel: It took many drafts to find the right point–of–view for this story. Lena is based on my great–grandmother and I knew she would be the protagonist, but I wanted it to be about everyone together as well, for there to be a kind of Greek chorus. Finally, I decided to give the story to Lena to tell, and to allow her to speak both for the village and for herself, to speak to the ideas of collective struggle and imagination in addition to one person’s loneliness and isolation.
Téa Obreht: This novel was obviously inspired by family legends, but tell me more about your own life as a writer. When did you know you wanted to write? Who are some of your literary influences?
Ramona Ausubel: I have wanted to write for as long as I can remember. My mom recently came across the poems I wrote in fifth grade, and I was a little embarrassed to admit that not only did I recall writing them, but I had been so proud of them that I still had them memorized twenty years later. I still feel the same sense of excitement and satisfaction when a piece of writing starts to come alive.
Some authors and books that matter to me are Pastoralia, by George Saunders, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, by Michael Chabon, Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Gilead by Marilyn Robinson and Florida by Christine Schutt.
Téa Obreht: You already have numerous illustrious publications under your belt, but No One Is Here Except All Of Us is your first novel. What were some of the challenges you had to overcome, and what surprised you most about the process?
Ramona Ausubel: I have written short stories that mattered a lot to me, but writing this book was different because I spent so many hours in the world of the novel––some days I spent more time there than I did in the real world. Though the characters are different from the relatives on whom they are based, I still feel that I got to know my ancestors in a way I never could have otherwise. Those old family stories became my own, and they became part of my everyday life.
In November, I became a mother. As I gaze down at my new baby, a tiny, beautiful little boy, I think, “I’m glad you’re here. I have so many stories to tell you,” and I realize that in many ways I have been writing this novel for him.