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Author On the Bookcase: Liza Gyllenhaal



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:

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.



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"1-On-One" with author Theasa Tuohy




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.



Image previewTheasa Tuohy has worked for five daily newspapers and the Associated Press. She is co-book author of Scandalous: The Musical, an award winning show about the life of DH Lawrence, and has written a memoir about renovating her home in France. She is currently working on a mystery set in Paris. She lives in Manhattan.
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Author on the Bookcase: Santa Montefiore

The Woman from Paris by Santa Montefiore




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,, 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 MontefioreSanta 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.

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Author Squared: Téa Obreht & Ramona Ausubel

Author Squared




Téa Obreht
Ramona Ausubel



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 bNo One is Here Except All of Us by Ramona Ausubeletween 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.

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Author on the Bookcase: Margot Livesey


The Flight of Gemma Hardy


Please welcome author Margot Livesey to On the Bookcase! She tells us why she chose Jane Eyre as her muse when writing her novel, The Flight of Gemma Hardy.




My most recent novel, The Flight of Gemma Hardy, is a reimagining of Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre.  I never expected to embark on such a venture.  Writing a novel is hard enough anyway.  Why write in the shadow of one that has been widely beloved since it was published in 1847?

There are several answers to this question: that I hoped to get my work to a higher level, that I wanted to ask how a girl of no means and no family can come into her own, that I wanted to pay homage to Bronte’s novel.  But Gemma Hardy is also a homage to one of the most enduring loves of my life: reading.  My early years as a writer were spent waitressing and writing short stories.  Very slowly the stories improved, partly through practise and partly through my becoming a better reader.  If only Francine Prose had written Reading Like A Writer twenty years earlier. 

I still remember the excitement with which I read Jean Rhys’s novel Wide Sargasso Sea (1966).  Rhys doesn’t so much re-imagine Jane Eyre as extend the story in unexpected ways.  In the original Jane, an orphan, survives a ghastly school to become a governess at Thornfield Hall.  She falls in love with her employer, the much older Mr. Rochester, and he with her.  But on their wedding day Jane learns that the mad woman she’s glimpsed in the attic is Mrs. Rochester.  She flees.  After many vicissitudes, she and Rochester are reunited.

Rhys’s novel takes this plot for granted but shifts the point of view away from Jane, first to Mrs. Rochester before her marriage and then to the young Rochester.  In writing Gemma Hardy I did not borrow from Rhys in obvious ways – I was determined to create my own 1960s version of Jane – but I did try to emulate her freedom and her depth of characterization.  There would, I resolved, be no attics in Gemma Hardy.

Since Wide Sargasso Sea almost ever year brings a new crop of re-tellings but Jane Smiley’s A Thousand Acres (1991) remains a touchstone.  Her project is the opposite of Rhys’s.  She transposes virtually every scene of King Lear to a farm in Iowa, giving Shakespeare’s familiar characters twentieth century names and attitudes.  “We’re going to form this corporation,” Larry Cook tells his three daughters, “and then you girls are all going to have shares …. You’ll each have a third part in the corporation.  What do you think?”  (p.19)  Readers, happily, know the answer.

While Rhys steered me away from minor characters, Smiley made me realize that a faithful reimagining of Jane Eyre in 1960s Scotland would be wildly implausible.  Sexual manners have changed so much in the last century, not to mention the treatment of mental illness.  In the opening chapter of Gemma Hardy I signaled my homage, recreating Jane’s fight with her cousin, but in my second chapter, I left Bronte behind and gave Gemma an Icelandic father.  I wanted the reader to know I was not planning to follow every step of Jane’s journey.

Cynthia Ozick’s Foreign Bodies was published in 2011 so I can’t claim it as a model but rather an exhilarating companion in revision.  In her reimagining of Henry James’s The Ambassadors, Ozick manages to be both faithful and original as she transforms his hero, Lambert Strether, into her clever, courageous heroine, Bea Nightingale.  As I edited Gemma Hardy, I tried to emulate her wit and her keen sense of suspense.

Every reimagining has taught me a different lesson but they all reinforce the most important lesson: whatever its source a book must have a life of its own.  The best retellings include both readers who know the original and those who don’t.  However much I love Jane Eyre, Gemma Hardy has to make her own way in the world, fight her own battles and slay her own dragons.


Thanks for sharing with us Margot!


Margo LiveseyMargot Livesey is the acclaimed author of the novels The House on Fortune Street, Banishing Verona, Eva Moves the Furniture, The Missing World, Criminals, and Homework. Her work has appeared in The New Yorker, Vogue, and The Atlantic, and she is the recipient of grants from both the National Endowment for the Arts and the Guggenheim Foundation. The House on Fortune Street won the 2009 L. L. Winship/PEN New England Award. Livesey was born in Scotland and grew up on the edge of the Highlands. She lives in the Boston area and is a Distinguished Writer-in-Residence at Emerson College.

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Interview with Tracy Chevalier

The Last Runaway



Please welcome Tracy Chevalier to On the Bookcase! This Q&A reveals the secrets behind her novel, The Last Runaway.



Your previous novels were all set in Europe. What made you decide to choose America, and more specifically, Ohio, as the setting of The Last Runaway?

I moved to England right after I graduated from college, and have spent 28 years getting used to living in Europe. During all that time I’ve felt a bit of an outsider, even though I now have a British passport and an English husband and son, and have lived in England longer than anywhere else. That outsider status helped me when it came to writing: when you’re standing on the sideline rather than playing in the game, you perhaps have more perspective. Now it seems I’ve been away from America long enough to feel less attached, and more objective, so I am ready to write about it.

I chose Ohio specifically because it was the state where the Underground Railroad was the most active. It was also a crossroads state, with lots of movement from south to north and from east to west. Ohio served as a gateway for easterners heading west. It’s still an interesting state, with a curious identity different from the rest of the country. A mix of east and Midwest, it is often presented as the boring place everyone wants to leave, yet it has the power to elect a President. In fact, seven Presidents have come from Ohio, as well as Neil Armstrong, Orville Wright, Steven Spielberg, Toni Morrison, Gloria Steinem. I think it’s a fascinating state.

Of course it helps that I went to Oberlin College, so I know the setting a little. Since its founding Oberlin has been a radical place, admitting African Americans and women among its first students, flying the flag for progressive thought. It was an important stop on the Underground Railroad. In fact, there is one of Toni Morrison’s Benches by the Road in Oberlin, marking it as a place of historical significance for African Americans. I happened to be at Oberlin when she unveiled the bench in April 2009, and that was what first gave me the idea to write The Last Runaway.


Why did you choose to feature a young Quaker woman as your protagonist?

A couple days after I saw Toni Morrison unveil the Bench, I went to a Quaker meeting, where people sit together in silence. I went to a Quaker camp as a kid, and I still go to Meeting sometimes. There I kept thinking about the Bench by the Road, about the incredible journeys African Americans had to make to escape slavery and find freedom, and how Quakers helped them along the way. It made me wonder if I could make my main character a Quaker, and what it would be like to write a heroine who is very quiet and who always tells the truth (Quakers are not meant to lie).

Many readers might be unfamiliar with the role Quakers played in the Underground Railroad. Did women like Honor Bright really exist?

Honor herself is made up, but lots of Quakers worked on the Underground Railroad. The “President” of the Underground Railroad was a Quaker called Levi Coffin, who lived in Cincinnati and then Indiana.

Indeed, the abolitionist movement was largely begun by Quakers. Slavery went against their belief in the equality of all people, and in the 1820s they began organized protests that grew into abolitionism.


What do you think are the most common misconceptions about the Quaker religion/Quaker society?

People often mistake Quakers for the Amish. Both are Protestant sects, but the Amish are much different from Quakers, eschewing modern technology (electricity, cars, etc.) and keeping separate from society. When you think of a man with a beard and flat hat and a woman with a white cap, riding in a horse-drawn buggy: that’s Amish.

Quakers were and are much more worldly: they used to dress plainly but not radically (the Amish, on the other hand, prohibit buttons, using pins instead), they used new inventions, they often lived and worked among non-Quakers. Quakers were known to run honest businesses, and some English Quaker families (Cadbury, Sainsbury) became very wealthy, which is also not how most people would characterize them.

I expect people also think of Quakers as not being much fun, as they didn’t drink, dance, play games. (That has since changed!) It’s true they were rather more sober than other communities, but they had their moments.


What did you find most surprising during your research for this novel?

I spent a bit of time in Ohio, of course, and one of my favorite moments was visiting an Amish farm. As I mentioned above, the Amish and Quakers are very different, but I needed to look around a farm that was still run in a 19th-century way, and an Amish farm was perfect for that. A farmer woman named Maddie took me around all the farm buildings and to see the animals, and patiently answered my 21st-century city-girl questions. Bare feet, a huge family, bare rooms, hundreds of chickens, jars and jars of vegetables, mud, animal stench, the biggest damn barn full of hay, a massive corn crib: I was in heaven in terms of research. I couldn’t take photos, so I just stared.

The most surprising and upsetting part of my research was discovering that, as principled as they were, Quakers were as fallible as others. Early Quakers kept slaves: who knows how they justified that with their beliefs. Moreover, though there were some black Quakers, for a time they were expected to sit on the “Negro pew,” separate from white Quakers. I was stunned by the unquestioned prejudice. On the other hand, it made for a much more textured novel, since the book is really about principles compromised by reality. Quakers may have wanted everyone to be treated equally, but they did not want their daughters sitting next to black men, and didn’t consider this a contradiction. Curious. That sort of thing has made The Last Runaway more complicated, and more subtle, I hope.


Why does quilting play such an important role in the story?

I always look for things that characters can do in my books. People made stuff much more than we do now, and those activities can be quite revealing of character. Quilting is one of those skills that most women possessed, and it seemed the perfect activity to focus on, as English and American women both did it and yet came up with such different styles. English patchwork is sober and precise, American appliqué more garish and quicker to make. Then there are the African American-style quilts arising out of hardship and a make-do, improvised attitude that have found their apogee in the Gee’s Bend quilts now so celebrated. They couldn’t be more different from English patchwork, and it was a handy way of pointing up differences in the characters in The Last Runaway.

I worked hard to avoid making quilts into a metaphor – life as a patchwork, blah blah blah. Instead I tried to focus on the making itself, the planning and stitching, the social side of it, and the practical warmth. Also quilts as commerce: how many a bride needed, what they are worth in terms of time. I loved all that stuff, it’s gritty rather than sentimental.

Of course in order to write about quilts, I had to learn to make them myself. I do that with every book: fossil hunting for Remarkable Creatures, button-making for Burning Bright, painting for Girl with a Pearl Earring. It makes it easier to write about when you do it yourself.


What do you hope readers take away from The Last Runaway?

Though I try to avoid being prescriptive in my books, with this one I hope readers will have a better sense of how hard it is to live a principled life in the face of practical realities. We all like to think we will do the right thing when faced with injustice, but it can be hard to take a stand. Someone usually pays for it.

Also, people are not really “goodies” or “baddies.” Villains usually have a balanced side to them, and good people can be irritating and hypocritical. It’s not all black and white.


Any plans to return to America for the setting of your next novel?

I loved writing about America, but I am not yet sure where my next book will be set. I’m not entirely sure it will all be set in the past, either. All I know is that it will feature trees. I’m toying with the idea of following trees that were transported back and forth between the USA and Europe, but it’s still early days.



Tracey ChevalierTracy Chevalier is the New York Times bestselling  author of six previous novels, including Girl with a Pearl Earring, which has been translated into thirty-nine languages and made into an Oscar-nominated film. Born and raised in Washington, D.C., she lives in London with her husband and son.

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"1-On-One" with author Emily Colin




Advice, confessions, reflections, fantasies, delights and flashes of brilliance from Emily Colin, author of The Memory Thief.



Is it possible to be a good writer without being a good reader?

I really, truly don’t think so. I don’t have a BFA or MFA in creative writing, so a lot of my personal education about how to craft a sentence or build strong characters has come from reading. I’ve read voraciously all my life, and it’s had a huge impact on my ability to write, edit and revise. When I was younger, I wasn’t able to analyze why something moved me or didn’t—but I certainly took note, and I read my favorite books over and over, the way people will listen to a particular song or watch a movie that strikes a chord in their hearts. Today, I still read certain books repeatedly—to see how an author accomplished a plot twist, built suspense, or set a scene. Other writers are, I think, our best teachers; but we have to be willing to learn, to approach the page with an open mind and a critical eye.

Long ago I read a piece by Stephen King—I can no longer remember where or in what context—where he said that writers read others’ work with either ‘a grinding envy or a weary contempt.’ (I’m paraphrasing here, so forgive any liberties I’ve taken with the original prose.) I’ve found this to be true; there are times when I read something and find it to be unbearably clumsy, and other occasions when I know, with painful clarity, that I couldn’t have accomplished what someone else has set down on the page.

For me, reading other writers’ work is a crucial part of how I learn, how I expand my artistic horizons and deepen my understanding of language. And when I speak to groups of writers who are just starting out, this is what I tell them: Read, read, read. Find out how others make the magic happen; it’ll help you more than you know.

Have you ever belonged to a reading group?

I do belong to a reading group. I started a book club over ten years ago, when I first moved to Wilmington, NC—a small coastal city where I knew no one except my four-month-old Rottweiler mix. Unable to find a group of folks whose interests resonated with mine, I started a women’s group focused on volunteerism, music reviews and literary discussions. All these years later, the women’s group has dissolved, but the book club is still going strong—with several of the original members. In fact, the only folks who’ve left the club have done so because they moved away—and one of them misses it so badly, she’s planning to attend our meetings via Skype!

What advice do you have for reading group members when it comes to selecting books for discussion?

Hmmm. This is a tough one, because so much depends on the membership of the reading group and their focus, as a whole. I suppose I’d say this: Choose books that will make you think. Select titles that you wouldn’t normally read, because of their genre, subject matter, or something else entirely. Stretch yourself as a reader; expand your boundaries. In my book club, it works well to choose a mix of titles—heavy and light, fiction and nonfiction—so we don’t get burned out. We’ve read a very wide range of titles—everything from Twilight to The Color Purple to the graphic novel Persephone. Nothing’s off-limits, and I think that’s what makes our group so much fun.

What book(s) are you reading now or planning to read?

I am in the midst of Kim Harrison’s new book, Into the Woods: Tales from the Hollows and Beyond. My son and I are listening to the audiobooks of the Artemis Fowl series; right now we’re in the middle of The Time Paradox. On my to-read bookshelf are The Tiger’s Wife, by Tea Obreht, J.K. Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy. I’m finishing Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl. Oh, and on my wish list: FL Fowler’s Fifty Shades of Chicken. I need some new recipes!

If you were stuck on a deserted island and could only bring one book with you to read, what would it be and why?

Could I bring a series—does that count? Because if so, it would definitely be Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series—which has seven titles in it thus far, with an eighth slated to come out in 2013. For one thing, each book is so darn long; I’d be occupied for quite a while. And for another, her writing is layered and rich, with complex, intersecting storylines and a good deal of historical information. I’m not typically a history buff, so I’ll admit to skipping over those sections in pursuit of the story itself. Marooned on a deserted island, I’d have no excuse but to read every word!

If I couldn’t take Outlander—then maybe Brian Selznick’s Wonderstruck. The illustrations are amazing, and I’ve always loved the Museum of Natural History in NYC—my old stomping grounds.

Have you ever read anything you're too embarrassed to admit (except in this interview)?

Ha ha. Oh gosh, so many things. Let’s see. The entire Fifty Shades of Grey series, of course. Multiple books by Nicholas Sparks, even though I wind up more depressed when I’ve finished them than when I began. The latter volumes in Laurell K. Hamilton’s Anita Blake series, despite the fact that, for the most part, they have devolved into orgies featuring wereanimals of all descriptions, vampires and a zombie animator turned slut. I have a dreadful habit of needing to see a series through to the end, even if it’s degenerated horribly from its original incarnation. Case in point—having read all four Twilight books (there’s an admission for you) I just went to see Breaking Dawn in the movie theater. I paid over ten dollars to watch a movie with the following opening line: “We’re the same temperature now.” Seriously—I have a problem.

Favorite book when you were a child?

The Emily of New Moon series by L.M. Montgomery, hands-down. My middle name is Anne, and for my second birthday, one of my friends gave me the first Anne of Green Gables and Emily of New Moon books—in an effort to be cute, I suppose. I liked Anne, to an extent; but Emily mesmerized me. I still have those books, and I reread them from time to time—maybe I should’ve included this in the answer to your previous question!

If you have children, is this the same book you read to them?  If not, what is your favorite book for your children?

I have a seven-year-old son who is dyslexic. It’s very important to me that he loves literature, despite this—so we do a lot of reading together, and listening to audiobooks as well. My favorite books for him are the ones he adores, since it makes me so happy to see him engaged and spellbound by a story. So far we’ve had the best luck with The Lord of the Rings; Harry Potter; Artemis Fowl; and a series by Patricia Wrede called Dealing With Dragons.

Favorite heroine in literature and why?

Hmmm. I don’t tend to think about books this way—but maybe Emily of New Moon, since I’m thinking of her? She’s brave, she’s creative, she’s not afraid to be different; she finds strength in loneliness. Ask me again tomorrow; I might have a different answer.

Favorite hero in literature and why?

Today, Harry Potter. I have a habit of rooting for the underdog.

Favorite first line from a book?

From Stephen King’s The Gunslinger: “The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.”

Book that changed your life?

Anne Rice’s Interview With a Vampire, both for its own sake, and for the merciless ribbing I took from a literature professor in college when I admitted that I loved Anne Rice’s writing. This was in the first creative writing class I ever took, during my junior year at Duke, and the professor gave me such a hard time over the course of the semester that he succeeded in destroying my faith in my own writing and my judgment, to boot. I didn’t write again creatively for many, many years after that class—not, in fact, until I sat down to craft the first words of The Memory Thief.

Words to live by?

I’ve got a bunch. Here’s a quote by Albert Einstein that I love: “There are only two ways to live your life. One is as if nothing is a miracle. The other is as if everything is a miracle.” And one by Tolkien: “Not all who wander are lost.” I love this quote by Oscar Wilde: “We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.”

Here’s one by Mark Twain that always makes me laugh: “Go to heaven for the climate and hell for the company.” And then this one, by Cicero, which your readers might appreciate: “A room without books is like a body without a soul.”



Emily ColinsEmily Colin lives in North Carolina with her partner, their son, two reprehensible canines, and a betta fish. In her other life, she serves as associate director at DREAMS of Wilmington, a nonprofit organization that provides multidisciplinary arts programming for youth in need. The Memory Thief is her first novel.

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"1-On-One" with author Jessica Keener




Advice, confessions, reflections, fantasies, delights and flashes of brilliance from Jessica Keener, author of Night Swim.




1. Is it possible to be a good writer without being a good reader?

 Hard to imagine how--

2. 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?

The power of story.  Stories get us through our days, our weeks, our lives. When we talk with our friends, we share stories to help us understand a problem or overcome a challenge. This is why literature will never go out of favor. We need stories like we need blood and air.

3. Have you ever belonged to a reading group?


4. What advice do you have for reading group members when it comes to selecting books for discussion?

Pick books you truly want to read. Look for a feeling of community and excitement around your selection.  Also, consider a variety of sources for your choices—online book sites (like this one), recommendations from friends, local newspapers, Oprah, favorite book bloggers.

5. What book(s) are you reading now or planning to read?

I’ve just finished several books that I highly recommend: The Suicide Index, which is a memoir by Joan Wickersham; The Call, a novel Yannick Murphy; Moving Waters, a debut story collection by Racelle Rosett; Dawn Tripp’s third novel: Game of Secrets; A Free Life by Ha Jin; We The Animals by Justin Torres. New books in my reading queue include Maryann O’Hara’s debut novel, Cascade, and Ilie Ruby’s second novel: The Salt God’s Daughter.

6. If you were stuck on a deserted island and could only bring one book with you to read, what would it be and why?

The impossible question! But I think it might be Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, a novel I’ve read about seven times now. I’m a sap for stories that deal with emotional roadblocks and struggles in relationships and how individuals manage these obstacles that are either in their control or not in their control. Austen’s novel deals with complexities of family life, but also society’s constraints that interfere with freedom of choice—freedom to choose who we love and how we live.  Her characters are challenged to reach beyond who they are or think they are. There’s also a surprising wash of forgiveness in this story that’s riddled with people who, like humanity, are constantly tripping over their own foolish, impulsive, misinformed decisions.

7. If you could have dinner with 3 writers (dead or alive) who would they be and why?

I’ll choose three writers no longer living: Flannery O’Connor, Helen Arendt, and Shakespeare (if he is, in fact, one person). I admire O’Connor’s potent, visionary qualities that she brings to her fiction and her essays. She has a spiritual, otherworldly essence that I’m attracted to. Arendt is the person who helped me understand how genocide happens. In her seminal work: Origins of Totalitarian, she helped me see how group dynamics can lead to fatal social sickness and perversions. Shakespeare-well, he helps me understand different personality types and through drama has taught me how common emotions like jealousy can erode humanity’s spirit and destroy us. All three are passionate and unflinching about our human condition.

8. Have you ever read anything you're too embarrassed to admit (except in this interview)?

I don’t think so.

9. Favorite book when you were a child?

Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White; The Yearling by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings; Beautiful Joe by Marshall Saunders (aka Margaret Saunders); Grimms’ Fairy Tales; A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle; and Hurry, Hurry by Edith Thacher Hurd. (Sorry—I couldn’t pick just one.)

10. If you have children, is this the same book you read to them?  If not, what is your favorite book for your children?

No. My son (now nineteen) loved Paul O. Zelinksy’s The Wheels on The Bus. It’s been chewed on, ripped and wrinkled, but we have so many wonderful memories reading that book to him.

11. Favorite heroine in literature and why?

Elizabeth Bennett in Pride and Prejudice.  She has intelligence, wit, passion, and yet—she is flawed, stubborn, blind about herself when it comes to love, and able to make amends and forgive.

12. Favorite hero in literature and why?

David Copperfield.  He was also flawed and blind, too; yet honest and searching; and despite life’s difficulties, he never became bitter.  He maintained his dignity and faith in the goodness of others.

13. Favorite first line from a book?

”Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.”  David Copperfield

14. Favorite last line from a book?

Don’t have one.

15. Book that changed your life?

The Origins of Totalitarianism by Hannah Arendt.

16. Words to live by?

Be true.



Jessica KeenerJessica Keener has been listed in The Pushcart Prize under "Outstanding Writers." Her fiction has appeared most recently in Connotation Press: An Online Artifact, Night Train, and Wilderness House Literary Review. A recipient of a Massachusetts Cultural Council Artist's Grant Program, and second prize in fiction from Redbook magazine, her feature articles have appeared in The Boston Globe, Design New England, O, The Oprah Magazine and other national publications. Night Swim is her debut novel.


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Author On the Bookcase: Christopher Tilghman

The Right-Hand Shore



Please welcome Christopher Tilghman, author of The Right-Hand Shore, to On the Bookcase! He tells us how his upbringing inspired this novel.



I grew up in the Boston area, the son of a publishing executive, but from my first years my family spent the summers on our ancestral farm on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. This is a low, flat landscape where the land ends and the water begins almost seamlessly; all the vistas are longitudinal, broad fields, the sweep of rivers and inlets, near distant points of land where loblolly pines still cling to life on uncertain footings, and in the far distance, the Chesapeake Bay (above, the view across Chester River to Hail Point, 1910). The first Tilghman, a Catholic refugee from England, waded ashore in 1657, and Tilghmans have remained there ever since, fortunes rising and falling, clinging to their own part of the New World.

By the late 1940’s when we started going there, the farm — the main house, the dairy, the barns and outbuildings, the grounds — had fallen into decay. Indeed, it had fallen back into the nineteenth century, with farming done as much with mules as tractors, milking by hand with the iconic milk buckets set out in the sun for pickup, no electricity. When we summered in the main house, which was called the Big House, we scavenged a crude but comfortable existence out of the forgotten detritus of a once very fashionable estate. If we had any question about what had gone on there in the past, all we had to do was walk into the family graveyard, ten feet from the house. What information those gravestones did not provide was lushly and constantly filled in by the stories and the legends that seemed as much a part of this farm as the buzz of the locusts in the trees, the sting of jellyfish in the river, and the sweet tang of cow manure whenever the wind came out of the east.

In my new novel, The Right-Hand Shore, my character Edward Mason spends an entire day listening to tales and ends up feeling “mauled by the past.” For my brothers, and me this immersion in stories was a more gradual process, but all-pervasive. Some of these stories, about suicides and watchful ghosts and betrayed ambitions, were within the purview of the Big House and my privileged forebears. And some were tales of loved ones sold South during slaveholding times, of the rising tide of Reconstruction and the abyss of Jim Crow, all told in whispers by the black families that mostly in bondage and servitude, had shared every piece of the history, side by side, day in and day out, with the Tilghmans for 300 years.

The Right-Hand Shore opens with its own conclusion: a meeting on a porch in a vast estate on the shore of the Chesapeake Bay in1920. What is happening involves the same set of circumstances of my earlier novel Mason’s Retreat: the dying maiden owner of the estate, Miss Mary Bayly, is interviewing distant cousin Edward Mason in an attempt to determine whether she will bequeath the farm to him as a direct descendant of the original Mason immigrant. Mason’s Retreat moves forward in time from this meeting; The Right-Hand Shore goes back in time to discover how this situation has come to pass.

Of all the family tales I have drawn from in both these novels, this is the one that is most factually accurate. It was in this manner that my grandfather, a bit of a rogue and an infinitely self-centered man, secured the ownership of the farm in 1918 from his cousin, Miss Susan Williams. “Miss Sue” was a fabulously wealthy Baltimorean recalled to this day as reformer and philanthropist on both shores of the Chesapeake, but remembered less warmly by descendants of her servants and laborers as a harsh mistress. This sentiment was summed up in an insult scratched in a pane of glass: “Susan Williams 2-faced.” Miss Sue hung over my childhood experiences on the farm just as the trials and mysteries of Miss Mary hangs over The Right-Hand Shore: how did it come to this, a wealthy society lady from Baltimore running a dairy farm across the Bay?

In The Right-Hand Shore we learn that Mary had a brother, Thomas, who, as the son, was the designated heir to the estate. In the novel, had he still been on the scene, there would have been no reason for Edward Mason to assume ownership, and Edward and his family would have been spared some of the sorrows that occur in Mason’s Retreat. But the brother is no longer available, and in the novel, we discover why.

So it was in my family history that Miss Sue’s brother set in train some of the events in my life. The facts are in a clipping from the local newspaper: in September of 1895 a young man named Otho Williams, heir to the Tilghman estate, shot himself to death in a second-floor room overlooking the family burying ground. He was unmarried and left no issue.

The newspaper article suggests that this tragic event may have been a terrible accident whilst cleaning a firearm, but no one in my family and in the communities around us would have any of that: Otho Williams shot himself because he had fallen in love with a black servant and he was not allowed, by family or law, to marry her. As a child in the 1940s and 1950’s, the suggestion of a family suicide – complete with a bloodstain still visible on the floor under the straw matting – was rather titillating, but the theory that he had done it because of a forbidden love for a Negro woman just did not seem that remarkable. Falling in love seemed to me the sort of thing that might have happened on this place in the past, where blacks and whites, workers and owners, had lived and died in such intimate daily intercourse. What joined us was simply a matter of place, and the stories grew out of this land.

Visit Christopher's website for pictures!


Christopher TilghmanChristopher Tilghman’s life has revolved around his family’s farm on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. His new novel, The Right-Hand Shore and its sequel Mason’s Retreat tell the multigenerational story of a farm on the Eastern Shore modeled after his own. His other books include the novel Roads of the Heart, and the short story collections, In a Father’s Place and The Way People Run. Chris is a Professor of English and Director of the Creative Writing Program at the University of Virginia. He and his wife, the writer Caroline Preston, divide their time between Charlottesville and the Eastern Shore.

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Author Squared: Tatjana Soli & Meg Waite Clayton




Tatjana Soli
Meg Waite Clayton





Two Authors chat about writing, books, and everything in between...

I am so excited to welcome Tatjana Soli, author of The Forgetting Tree, and Meg Waite Clayton, author of The Wednesday Sisters, to On the Bookcase! Take it away ladies!


MWC: I can't tell you how many people I've told about meeting you on the bus up to Sewanee, Tatjana, and finding that not only were we in the same workshop, both working with Tim O'Brien, but also that we were both writing novels about female photojournalists at war. Were you as terrified of working with Tim as I was? My husband shamed me into it, saying if I was writing a war novel (which at the time I was) and I wasn't woman enough to risk serious feedback from such an amazing writer on the subject, perhaps I should turn in my pen. Or my keyboard, as the case may be.

TS: Terrified wasn't the word for it. Not only was I having difficulties writing a first novel — and worrying if I could do it — but I was writing about a subject that was very far from my own experience. This was Tim O'Brien's war, and let's face it, he has arguably written the best novel about that war. So I had doubts times a hundred. He's a pretty no-nonsense teacher and in the private conference I did what I always advise my students not to do — I asked him if I should trash the whole thing. If he had said yes, I would have burned (more dramatic than deleted) the manuscript and not looked back. The manuscript had serious structural issues, but he said stick with it, work it out if it's important enough to you. He gave me permission to use the material which is something I badly needed. I owe him an intangible — he gave me the courage to continue. It still took another five years to get the book published.

Okay, my turn. Meg, you impressed me so much with your attitude. You had already published a novel, but you were there to learn, no "I'm a published author and you aren't." I remember asking you something like, well, what do I do if I can't sell this book? In my mind, this meant I couldn't sell any future book. You said, write another! You are now publishing your fourth novel! What's your advice over the span of a career, for creating a body of work? And this is my personal question because I'm envious, how do you manage being so prolific? Give us an idea of your schedule.

MWC: I about spit out my coffee over a piece in the New York Times the other day suggesting that in the e-book era authors need to write two novels a year. I am such a slow writer. And even when I open my finished books, I can see so many things I could have done better if I'd just taken a little more time. So I don't feel prolific and I certainly don't feel body-of-workish. I still have so much to learn. And the blank page still terrifies me. Once I've got a first draft — no matter how terrible it is — I come to writing so much more easily.

I have these rules for myself for writing first draft. I used to say "8:00 to 2:00, or 2,000 words." When my sons were young, that was my writing schedule, accommodating their school schedule. I'd drop them at school, then sit down and write until I had 2,000 words or the clock clicked over to 2:00 and it was time to pick them up. If I had 2,000 words by 10 a.m., I could do whatever I wanted for the rest of the day. But if I had 2,000 words by 10 a.m., really I would never get up; the lit gods are really smiling on me when I'm writing that quickly, and I like to please them.

I see in retrospect how the limited time I had when I started writing helped me build a discipline. I remember when Nick started preschool and I had three hours three mornings a week just to write — what a luxury that was. Now, with my sons off at college, I wake up thinking about writing and make myself coffee and dive in, sometimes as early as 5 a.m. I take a break to read the paper with my husband, and then work till 2:00. I try to keep moving forward and get a first draft as fast as I can. I make notes for what needs to be fixed as I go along, but I don't usually do the fixes until after the first draft is done. I work longer hours when I'm editing. And still I can't produce a book a year, much less two.

I wrote my first two books without being under contract, my second two under contract. I have mixed feelings about writing under contract, but I do work faster under fear of deadline. How about you?

TS: Two novels a year is crazy. Okay, maybe if you are doing genre where the plot is fairly predictable but still. No. My goal is to have a novel out every two years, and I consider that extremely ambitious. See, I'm already trying to weasel my way out of it! A new book out every 2-3 years. Every project is so different in terms of time. If a book requires mountains of research, the months can really add up.

I've experimented with everything in terms of writing rules: in the morning first thing, a certain number of hours, a certain word count. I always tell my students that you have to learn your own creativity clock. All of us work differently. After breakfast, I get myself to the desk. Rough drafts at most three pages a day, six days a week. 2000 words a day, Meg!? Now I'm really jealous. In the past, when I tried to do, say, five or seven pages, I found the quality towards the end suffered. Then the next day was spent fixing the previous day's mess. The other scary thing is that I'd be empty the next day, and it would be hard to start up. Three pages is my magic number to give it my all, but still have fuel for tomorrow. When it comes to revision, eight to ten pages is doable. For revision, I use a trick I learned from Ellen Sussman in an article she wrote. I set a timer for an hour (she did 45 minutes which was too short for me), then take a break of twenty minutes. During that break, I always do something physical— housework (the glamorous life of a writer), exercise, or food (that's always a good one). I did lots of baking last summer. I try to do four hours a day of revision.

This all sounds so basic, but I find you have to trick yourself, or reward yourself, to spend time in the seat. I'm a great procrastinator, and of course much of that is due to fear. Fear that the writing won't match what's in my head. Fear about finishing it and having it go out in to the world (Will my friends, editor, agent, readers like it?). Keeping it at home until it's perfect (as if that will ever happen) is a great temptation. Writing a novel is about an accumulation of days as much as anything else.

Deadlines used to frighten me. With my first book, I literally worked day and night to make the deadline. On the second book, in addition to adding a bunch of new material, I had to travel for promotion on the first book. I wasn't going to make the deadline, and I told my editor that. She was wonderfully understanding, and I'm happier with the book because I took that time.

The Wednesday SistersSo, Meg, you definitely do have a body of work. You've gone deeper into the material of The Wednesday Sisters with the upcoming The Wednesday Daughters. Is this intentional or serendipity? Does an idea just grab you, and you go for it? How many novels are percolating in the back of your mind right now? How has the writing process changed for you from the first one till the latest?

MWC: I didn’t say I GET 2,000 words a day! Most days, I’m watching the minutes tick over to 2:00 so I can call it a day. I also wander from my desk regularly. I don’t set a timer, but I’m considering that now. Generally, I’m going in search of coffee or chocolate. The good news is new research suggests it’s much healthier to stand or walk for a minute every 20 minutes or so, and that chocolate is not only full of anti-oxidants, but may even help you loose weight!

On The Wednesday Daughters … I actually thought I’d closed the door on a sequel to The Wednesday Sisters with the epilog in that book. But I pitched a new book to Ballantine that, in synopsis, anyway, sounded very like Allegra Goodman’s The Cookbook Collector, which Dial (like Ballantine, a division of Random House) was releasing later that year. They asked me to toss out other ideas, and one I came up with was a sequel of sorts involving the daughters. It was almost an afterthought, but they loved the idea, and I loved the idea of exploring something that was both familiar and not.

One of the big differences in the process for me now is that when I wrote my first novel, I had no clue where an idea for a second would come from, or if it would come at all. So I was loathe to let go of the first. Now I want to chuck the one I’m working on for the new book idea standing at the edge of the dance floor, waiting for the music to change. I wish I could write faster, or there were more hours in the day.

The Forgetting TreeI LOVE the title of your new one, The Forgetting Tree, and just can’t wait to lay eyes on it. It looks like it might be very different from The Lotus Eaters?

TS: Chocolate to lose weight! That’s all I can concentrate on. I’ll take a quick trip to the kitchen and be right back… Okay, that was nice.

I laugh when you write that you had no clue where the second novel would come from. I was exactly the same. I thought maybe I didn’t have another novel in me, which is another scary thing people say, along with the idea that it is normal to get writer’s block at some point. Once someone plants these ideas in your head, they become self-perpetuating. So even though I’d written many short stories, after The Lotus Eaters I felt drained. Now I know that’s normal. I also know that no matter what you are writing, you should always have your antenna up for the next story.

When my first novel was finally under contract, I could think of nothing else. It felt sacrilegious to already be thinking of or writing the next book. All the people wiser than me (and they are many, including you, Meg) kept asking what was next. That question was exactly the right one — the greatest gift you can give yourself as a writer is to always be working on the next project.

The new book is very different than the first one. I had just finished my MFA and had the post-graduate blues. I wanted to set myself very different challenges than I had the first time — I didn’t want the research burden of another historical novel. After writing about war, I wanted to explore the lives of women. I wanted to narrow the action to take place mostly in a single location. These kind of arbitrary boundaries sometimes force you to push a story to a level you might not have gone to otherwise.

Book clubs often ask me if I’m going to write a sequel to The Lotus Eaters. You are kind of doing that with your next book, The Wednesday Daughters. There is a revisiting, but also moving on. Are you enjoying that process? What’s been unexpected about it? Finally, should we throw a big blowout bash when we’ve both published book number FIVE?! Of course I’m joking, but I also would never have imagined us having this conversation back on that bus going to Sewanee, would you? I never mind the hard work because I feel so lucky to be doing what I love.

MWC: Revisiting old friends in fiction turns out to be much like revisiting old friends in real life. Writing The Wednesday Daughters has been something like sitting down to talk with you, Tatjana. Familiar and comfortable, but also amusing and fresh. And “unexpected,” as you suggest. One of the unexpected things was how the daughters — young children and very minor characters in The Wednesday Sisters — are surprisingly formed as characters there. It’s much like you say about developing The Forgetting Tree: when you limit the choices in some ways, you open up your time to explore more deeply what is there.

Mac jokingly proposed that what I should write next is “The Wednesday Wedding”! We laughed, but I did find myself thinking… And I have learned never to say never in this world because honestly, like you, I never imagined I would be as lucky as we both are now.

And no joke about #5! Although maybe saying that will jinx us.

One of the luckiest things about being a writer, of course, is that I get to read some amazing books even before they are published. And with that, I propose we close this conversation so I can open The Forgetting Tree and dive in. The only question I have left is how many swanky awards it will collect!

: And I’m looking forward to The Wednesday Daughters next summer. It has breakout bestseller all over it.


Tatjana Soli lives with her husband in Southern California. Her New York Times bestselling debut novel, The Lotus Eaters, was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, a New York Times Notable Book, and won the 2011 James Tait Black Prize.


Meg Waite Clayton is the author of The Language of Light, a finalist for the Bellwether Prize. Her stories and essays have appeared in Runner's World, Writer's Digest, and literary magazines. She is a graduate of the University of Michigan Law School and was a Tennessee Williams Scholar at the Sewanee Writers' Conference. She lives in Palo Alto, California, with her husband and their two sons.

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