Please welcome Mette Jakobsen, author of The Vanishing Act, to On the Bookcase! Mette tells us how a documentary inspired her new novel!
When I started writing The Vanishing Act, a twelve year old girl named Minou appeared in my imagination as a fully formed character. I had her voice from the moment I realized that she was knitting scarves in a lighthouse tower at night. I fell in love with her straight away.
Of course a writer makes conscious choices when creating a work of fiction, but the process also contains a wonderful element of surprise.
The earliest thing I remember authoring was a very long story for a year five assignment. It was about a migrating bird and it filled an entire notebook. The story was so sad that I sobbed as I witnessed, with an equal amount of horror and fascination, the poor bird lose its entire family one by one, all through tragic circumstances.
Inspiration still arrives as a wonderful gift. Characters, snippets of storyline, and ideas come to me frequently. Some of these ideas might fit into what I am working on, others are put into a file I have named ‘Storeroom.’
I had been working on The Vanishing Act for a while when Minou appeared. Her arrival helped develop the rest of characters: her philosophizing papa, her imaginative mama, the pretzel making priest, as well as the magician and his scruffy circus dog No Name. With Minou’s arrival the plot developed, and so did my idea for the location of the story; a tiny island in the middle of an endless sea.
In addition to my cast of characters I added a dead boy who washes up on the beach. The boy has to stay with Minou and her papa for three days until the weekly delivery boat arrives.
This idea came from my ‘Storeroom.’ A few years earlier I had seen a documentary called Black Sun, featuring a painter who lost his sight during a violent break-in. The burglars threw acid in his face.
The painter recalls recovering in hospital, head and eyes bandaged up. He said that strangers came and sat at his bedside. They told him intimate things, confessions of sorts. In his reflections the painter puts it down to the fact that he wasn’t able to see.
I found this interesting at the time and wrote a few notes around it. Later, when writing The Vanishing Act, I used the idea of having a non-seeing, as well as non-responding character, who brings out confessions and deeper longings in Minou and her papa.
Writing to me is such a wonderful profession. It’s demanding and requires a lot of planning and strategizing, but a very pleasurable part of the process is being open to inspiration when it arrives; fleeting and sometimes ethereal.
My writing has changed since I filled an entire notebook as a child, but the element of surprise is still there. I still get up in the morning thinking ‘I wonder what my characters will do today?’
Thanks Mette! With themes of mystery and coming-of-age, The Vanishing Act makes for a great book club discussion.
Mette Jakobsen was born in Denmark in 1964. She holds degrees in philosophy and creative writing and is the author of several plays. The Vanishing Act is her first novel. She lives in Sydney, Australia.
Please welcome Oksana Marafioti, author of American Gypsy (July 2012)! She encourages everyone to write, whether it is just thoughts or a full length novel.
Most of us have written since we were kids. We hoard journals in shoeboxes at the backs of our closets, unfinished manuscripts rubber-banded and hushed under our beds, stories we rediscover accidentally that remind us we always wanted to write.
And have you noticed that when the inspiration strikes, you often talk yourself out of it? Maybe you jot down a few notes, several pages, but in the end find a way not to finish?
Just when you think it’s gone for good, the inexplicable desire to write returns. It haunts you like a poltergeist, so volatile that you must give in and write a little to draw a semblance of peace back into your life, to prevent your family from dumping you at the nearest asylum. The urge never goes away, though, because you can’t exorcise it, and for a good reason.
This is something you absolutely must do.
If not, you’ll just keep getting signs (forgotten journals underfoot, irksome cravings, stories circling like vultures inside your head in the middle of the night.) And the source of this continued unrest dwells within that very first time you felt the need to create. What was it? Can you recall? You might have to dig very deep and very far back to the recesses of your memory, but you’ll find it eventually. It wasn’t about the money or fame, but something more complicated and remarkable and therefore, more like you.
Once you locate the source all the excuses in the world will seem fickle, and, hopefully, you will resign yourself to the fact that you really don’t have any other choice but to write something. And finish it.
To someone else your voice is hope, wisdom, truth, imagination, happiness. At times that someone is you, but no matter. The important thing is you’ll sleep better at night once you’ve surrendered. And your loved ones will get back the now completely sane rational you!
For a little while, that is…
Oksana Marafioti moved from the Soviet Union when she was fifteen years old. Trained as a classical pianist, she has also worked as a cinematographer. She lives in Las Vegas, Nevada.
Please welcome Jyotsna Sreenivasan to On the Bookcase! Jyotsna tells us why she wrote her latest novel, And Laughter Fell from the Sky, with Edith Wharton's The House of Mirth in mind.
My new novel, And Laughter Fell from the Sky, was inspired and influenced by a classic novel first published in 1905: The House of Mirth, by Edith Wharton. While some readers find this connection to a classic novel fascinating, others question why an author would base a new novel on an existing novel.
Why, indeed? Why not make up something completely new?
Here is my answer: writing is a form of communication, just as talking is. We don’t learn to talk in isolation. We learn to talk by listening to others speak, practicing speech ourselves, receiving feedback, listening some more, and practicing some more. We are influenced by the speakers around us to adopt a certain accent, vocabulary, and choice of topics.
It’s natural that, as writers, we are influenced, consciously or not, by other books and written materials. We learn to write by reading, practicing writing, receiving feedback, reading some more, and writing some more.
We all know that many of Shakespeare’s plays were inspired and influenced by the work of other writers. Romeo and Juliet was probably based on a long poem called The Tragicall Historye of Romeus and Juliet by Arthur Brooke. King Lear was likely influenced by another play called The True Chronicle History of King Leir. In turn, Jane Smiley based her novel A Thousand Acres on the King Lear story. And of course there are zillions of books out now based on Jane Austen’s work.
I recently read another new novel based on The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton. The Innocents by Francesca Segal follows Wharton’s novel very closely in terms of characters and plot. Segal even imitates Wharton’s introspective, leisurely writing style. Still, Segal manages to infuse her characters – part of a close-knit Jewish community in London – with their own souls, and for me the story was brought alive in a new way in Segal’s book.
My novel is not as close to The House of Mirth as The Innocents is to The Age of Innocence. For one thing, I did not aim to imitate Wharton’s prose. I wanted to include more dialogue and fewer inner thoughts, and I wanted to avoid authorial explanations. My characters are based more loosely on Wharton’s characters, and in some cases offer a contrast to the corresponding Wharton character.
*If you’re interested in pairing modern novels with classics, here are some resources:
The daughter of Indian immigrants, Jyotsna Sreenivasan was born and raised in Ohio. Her short fiction has appeared in numerous literary magazines and she has received literature grants from the Washington, D.C., Commission on the Arts and Humanities. The author of several nonfiction books published by academic presses and the creator of the online Gender Equality Bookstore, she lives in Moscow, Idaho, with her family. And Laughter Fell From the Sky is her first novel.
Choose Kind is an anti-bullying campaign inspired by R.J. Palacio's debut novel, Wonder. Random House Children’s Books invites you to share your story and pledge to Choose Kind every day.
I won't describe what I look like. Whatever you're thinking, it's probably worse.
August Pullman was born with a facial deformity that, up until now, has prevented him from going to a mainstream school. Starting 5th grade at Beecher Prep, he wants nothing more than to be treated as an ordinary kid—but his new classmates can’t get past Auggie’s extraordinary face. Wonder, now a New York Times bestseller, begins from Auggie’s point of view, but soon switches to include his classmates, his sister, her boyfriend, and others. These perspectives converge in a portrait of one community’s struggle with empathy, compassion, and acceptance.
In a world where bullying among young people is an epidemic, this is a refreshing new narrative full of heart and hope. R.J. Palacio has called her debut novel “a meditation on kindness” —indeed, every reader will come away with a greater appreciation for the simple courage of friendship. Auggie is a hero to root for, a diamond in the rough who proves that you can’t blend in when you were born to stand out.
Maybe Mother-Daughter book clubs will choose the book for their next discussion!
R.J. Palacio is a graphic designer by day and a writer by night. She lives in New York City with her husband, two sons, and a black dog named Bear. Wonder is her first novel.
Please welcome Patricia McArdle, author of Farishta, to On the Bookcase! She explains why she wrote her novel as well as why she thinks it is it important.
The paperback version of my novel Farishta is has been released on line and in bookstores. No fanfare, no parties, no interviews—but I have received several more requests to meet with book clubs in person—and I’ve also started meeting with book clubs via Skype, which means I can attend meetings anywhere in the world.
A big thanks to “Reading Group Choices” for recommending Farishta as a book club selection.
I understand that a lot of Americans are tired of hearing or even thinking about our long involvement in Afghanistan, but I believe we must learn as much as we can about that nation, it’s people, and the foreigners who have gone there to fight, to help rebuild Afghanistan, to make money or to further their own national interests.
This war is not over. Today I am in Oceanside, California. Farishta is a finalist in the 2012 San Diego Book Awards competition and I attended the awards dinner Saturday June 9th with my family and with my fingers crossed. As I sit here writing, I can hear (even feel) the explosions coming from nearby Camp Pendleton Marine Corps base, where men as young as 18 are training for combat. Some of them will go to Afghanistan in the coming year. Some will be injured. Some will die. Some will come home with hidden psychological wounds that won’t manifest for years. We must understand why this war is happening and we must understand the consequences each time our nation decides to go to war. It is my hope that Farishta can help contribute to this understanding.
Farishta takes readers to parts of Afghanistan they won’t hear about in news reports. It introduces a cast of characters: American, British, Russian, French and Afghan, all of whom are fighting their own inner battles. I was deeply moved by many things I saw and experienced during the year I spent in northern Afghanistan with a British Army infantry unit. I discovered solar cooking, which has become my obsession. I met Afghan women who are battling for basic survival and dignity, whose children spend their days gathering twigs for their mother's cooking fires and whose daughters are still being married off far too young and against their will. I witnessed the incredible waste in many of our reconstruction efforts. I saw a country blessed with abundant solar and wind resources, which remains dependent on the millions of gallons of diesel fuel that must be trucked in across the Amu Daria River in the north or through the Khyber Pass from Pakistan in the south.
When I came home after a year in that country, I was afraid for almost six months to take my dog out for a walk after dark in our very safe neighborhood, something I had done for years before I went to Afghanistan. I was even afraid to pick up litter on the sidewalk, because I thought it might explode in my hand. My problem was minuscule compared to the serious PTSD suffered by thousands of our soldiers and by Afghan civilians—all of whom have been touched by the violence of this war.
One of the inspirations for Farishta was James Mitchner’s Caravans. In that novel he wrapped mountains of information about the Afghanistan of the 1940s inside an exciting story of conflict, love, loss and adventure. My goal with Farishta was, like Michener, to attract readers who might never pick up a non-fiction book about Afghanistan. Last year one of my daughter’s friends wrote this: “Pat, I have been reading your book and it is wonderful. I love being able to tie your life into your characters. Truthfully, I thought no one would ever get me to read a book related to Afghanistan or the war, let alone the government! I couldn’t be more interested in what I am reading!” This comment makes me think I may have succeeded.
I hope many more readers will find and enjoy Farishta. It’s in more than four hundred libraries, and it’s available in paperback at bookstores and online. Please go to the contact page on my website if you’d like to invite me to join your book club for a discussion of Farishta.
Thanks Patricia! With themes of women's lives, personal challenges and history Farishta is a great book club pick!
Patricia McArdle is a retired American diplomat. Her debut novel Farishta, which won the 2010 Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award Grand Prize for General Fiction, was inspired by events that occurred during the year she spent in northern Afghanistan with a British Army unit. From 1979-2006 she worked overseas and in Washington D.C. as a member of the U.S. diplomatic corps. Before joining the Department of State she served for three years as one of the first two female Naval Officers at a remote U.S. communications base in Morocco. Prior to her military service, she spent two years as the only Peace Corps volunteer in a small village in central Paraguay.
Hystera by Leora Skolkin-Smith is a finalist in the 2012 International Books Awards in the "Literary Fiction" category!
“In language with the wild power of accuracy, Hystera maps a path through the landscape of trauma and illness, the feverish news of the seventies, and a character’s own indelibly vivid imagery of alarm and comfort. An eye-opening novel."—Joan Silber, author of Ideas of Heaven: A Ring of Stories, finalist for the National Book Award
“Hystera is a haunting, mesmerizing story of madness, longing and identity, set against one of the most fascinating times in NYC history. Skolkin-Smith’s alchemy is to inhabit her characters even as she crafts a riveting story that is nothing short of brilliant.”—Caroline Leavitt bestselling author of Pictures of You
“Inside a psychiatric ward in the 1970s, Leora Skolkin-Smith’s Hystera takes you on a ride through the wilderness of a young woman’s emotional trauma and breakdown, and seizes upon the intricacies of mental health, our phobias, and fears around it. Brilliantly envisioned, this story of passion, and familial dysfunction, bears witness to an exquisite reknitting of a young woman’s soul, told in language that is brave, startling and ultimately tender and wise.”—Jessica Keener, author of Night Swim
“Leora Skolkin-Smith’s new novel, Hystera, provides a very vivid sense of being in the head of someone having a psychotic breakdown, and is a powerfully useful reference book for dealing with the mental-health system. It also pungently evokes the gritty New York of the ’70s.”—Robert Whitcomb, reviewer The Providence Journal
In June’s LHJ Book Club pick, Next to Love, author Ellen Feldman tells the heartbreaking, but hopeful story of three women’s lives during the paradigm shift of the Baby Boomer generation—1944-1964, spanning WWII and the war in Vietnam.
Babe, Grace and Millie are young wives whose husbands have been drafted to fight in WWII. When the trajectory of their future is forever changed by war’s tragic events, their imperfect, yet steadfast, friendships prove the only constant in their lives.
In the excerpts from the book below, Feldman illustrates a woman’s instinct for survival—the ability to adapt to whatever twists and turns life may present.
Work: Women are constantly breaking through the barriers of perceived gender inferiority, especially when taking on jobs traditionally (and stereotypically) held by men.
“…her father laughed at her for applying. Who did she think she was? He said the same thing when she went to work at Diamond’s rather than a five-and-dime. Who did she think she was? It was the refrain of her life.”
Marriage: In the thick of a long marriage, there often comes a point at which we recognize our original expectations were somewhat idealized.
“Babe thinks of Claude. It always comes back to Claude. Love may endure a lifetime, but it is less reliable on a day-to-day basis.”
Friendship: Long-lasting friendships are often our greatest source of support, but can also be complicated and painful.
“And here they are all these years later. They love one another with atavistic ferocity, though it occurs to Babe sitting in the sunporch, these days perhaps they do not much like one another.”
Motherhood: As we move from childhood into adulthood, we grow to know our mothers not only as mothers, but also as humans—flawed and imperfect.
“The scene is picture perfect, a spread in one of the women’s magazines she and Millie subscribe to. Except it can’t be because in the world of those glossy pictures, mothers do not ask their daughters to keep secrets.”
Society: Many women struggle to meet the expectations society places on us.
“She is ashamed of being a woman alone in the world without a man, unclaimed, unvalued, a reproach to the laws of society and nature. When she found Charlie, she thought she had taken care of all that for life.”
Book Club Bonus! Ask members to discuss expectations pertaining to each of the topics above: work, marriage, friendship, motherhood, society. What does it means to be in a relationship (romantic or platonic) without imposing your own expectations? How we can find more personal fulfillment through expectations we place on ourselves, instead of through our expectations of others?
Please welcome Ken Ballen, author of Terrorists in Love: The Real Lives of Islamic Radicals, to On the Bookcase! Use this interview in our book club meeting to help your discussion by delving deeper into his research for his new book.
- As an American Jew, did you ever fear for your safety during your time in the Middle East, South Asia, and Indonesia? Did you feel explicitly targeted or in danger due to your nationality and/or your religion?
The danger is real. One of the journalists who helped me in Pakistan was subsequently targeted and killed. As a former federal prosecutor, I took as many safety precautions as possible.
- What was it like to interview convicted killers and terrorists? How did you ultimately select the six men to profile?
I have spent nearly two decades of my career interrogating criminals and terrorists, from organized crime and Mafia hit men, to drug dealers, child molesters, con artists, corrupt politicians, murderers, and terrorists themselves. The six individuals profiled had the most compelling stories, defying conventional wisdom. Their life stories are also broadly representative of the more than one hundred other terrorists and radicals I interviewed over a five year period.
- Did your interviews change the scope of what you’re trying to accomplish with Terror Free Tomorrow, the non-profit research organization you chair?
As a federal prosecutor, Congressional investigator and President of Terror Free Tomorrow, I have often been cited as an “expert” on terrorism. Conducting these interviews, particularly of the six people featured in the book, changed everything I thought I knew.
- Was there a particular story or interviewee that you found most compelling? One that you were especially moved by?
All in different ways moved me—that’s why I write about them. I would say that my dinner dream with Shaheed, which led him to renounce terrorism, had to be the most moving encounter. To see someone renounce terrorism from a meeting with you is a profound experience.
- After talking with these former and current radicals, do you give greater meaning to your dreams? Did your interactions with Shaheed make you reconsider their importance?
I’m not sure I give greater importance to my own dreams. Even though my experience with Shaheed was dramatic, it could have ended up quite differently for me, even possibly putting me in danger. Certainly, I would now think twice before sharing my dreams with radical Muslims!
- Do you see hope or viability in Kamal’s more humanistic interpretation of the Quran? Do you think this religious message has the potential to spread and overtake the extremist view?
Whether or not I see hope, more importantly, Kamal does. As I write in the book, change must come from within.
- What are your feelings about Pakistan and their relation to the U.S. in the war on terror?
I was able to corroborate the essential elements of Zeddy’s account. It should deeply terrify anyone who cares about not only the United States but also the future of humanity.
- Do you plan to keep in touch with your acquaintances in Saudi Arabia and Pakistan? Have you heard from any recently?
Yes, I keep in touch with about half of those profiled in the book.
- In your Afterword, you outline a position on American policy in the Middle East. How can someone who’s read your book help spread the message about Middle Eastern democracy “under a Muslim vision”? Can you suggest any ways to get involved?
There are many ways to become involved. I believe that inter-religious dialogue is essential. Of course, any reader is also free to support the work of Terror Free Tomorrow.
Kenneth Ballen is President and founder of Terror Free Tomorrow, a non-partisan, not-for-profit organization, which investigates the causes of extremism. Ballen has spent two decades on the frontlines of law enforcement, international relations, intelligence oversight and congressional investigations. As a federal prosecutor, Ballen successfully convicted international terrorists. He also prosecuted major figures in organized crime, international narcotics, and one of the first cases in the United States involving illegal financing for Middle Eastern terrorists. Ballen has regularly contributed to CNN, and its companion website CNN.com.
"Announcing: A great promotion from our friends at Books for Better Living.
Click to like their Facebook page and Random House will give a dollar to READGlobal. READ is the nonprofit for which I and a number of friends have been working to raise money; it’s a great organization that builds libraries in the Himalayas and most recently in Bhutan. Please spread the word!"
With Mother's Day right around the corner Alexandra Fuller's memoir Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness would be a great pick for a Mother-Daughter book club or a Mother's Day themed book club meeting.
In this sequel to Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight, Alexandra Fuller returns to Africa and the story of her unforgettable family.
In Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness Alexandra Fuller braids a multilayered narrative around the perfectly lit, Happy Valley-era Africa of her mother's childhood; the boiled cabbage grimness of her father's English childhood; and the darker, civil war- torn Africa of her own childhood. At its heart, this is the story of Fuller's mother, Nicola. Born on the Scottish Isle of Skye and raised in Kenya, Nicola holds dear the kinds of values most likely to get you hurt or killed in Africa: loyalty to blood, passion for land, and a holy belief in the restorative power of all animals. Fuller interviewed her mother at length and has captured her inimitable voice with remarkable precision. Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness is as funny, terrifying, exotic, and unselfconscious as Nicola herself.
We see Nicola and Tim Fuller in their lavender-colored honeymoon period, when east Africa lies before them with all the promise of its liquid equatorial light, even as the British empire in which they both believe wanes. But in short order, an accumulation of mishaps and tragedies bump up against history until the couple finds themselves in a world they hardly recognize. We follow the Fullers as they hopscotch the continent, running from war and unspeakable heartbreak, from Kenya to Rhodesia to Zambia, even returning to England briefly. But just when it seems that Nicola has been broken entirely by Africa, it is the African earth itself that revives her.
A story of survival and madness, love and war, loyalty and forgiveness, Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness is an intimate exploration of the author's family. In the end we find Nicola and Tim at a coffee table under their Tree of Forgetfulness on the banana and fish farm where they plan to spend their final days. In local custom, the Tree of Forgetfulness is where villagers meet to resolve disputes and it is here that the Fullers at last find an African kind of peace. Following the ghosts and dreams of memory, Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness is Alexandra Fuller at her very best.