• Little Known Facts: A Novel
    Little Known Facts: A Novel
    by Christine Sneed
  • Portraits of a Few of the People I've Made Cry: Stories (Awp)
    Portraits of a Few of the People I've Made Cry: Stories (Awp)
    by Christine Sneed

BLOG-O-RAMA (not to be confused with Illinois's disgraced governor)

Friday
Sep122014

Q & A with Louise Aronson, author of the story collection A History of the Present Illness

1. Tell us a little about your book.

With A History of the Present Illness I wanted to take readers into the real lives of real and often overlooked people - all of whom might be described as either patients as doctors, among many otherm mostly more important characteristics - in the hugely varied neighborhoods, hospitals, and nursing homes of San Francisco. Among the stories are: the elderly Chinese immigrant who must sacrifice his demented wife's well–being to his Americanized son's authority, the busy Latina physician whose eldest daughter's need for more attention has disastrous consequences, the psychiatrist who advocates for the underserved but may herself be crazy, the gay doctor who learns very different lessons about family from his life and his work, and the young veteran whose injuries become a metaphor for the rest of his life. I wanted to show the humanity of many different sorts of people, to be honest about life and medicine, to make people laugh and cry. I also wanted to explore the role of stories in medicine and offer a portrait of health and illness in American today that was different from what was already out there, and completely honest.

2. You write with extraordinary sympathy about so many different people  - the elderly and the very young, immigrant families from all over the world, young medical students, experienced physicians.  I'm guessing that as a practicing MD, you have treated people who might or might not resemble your characters.  How do you immerse yourself in these different perspectives and voices? 

I write about all the different sorts of people I have met as a medical student, resident and practicing doctor, though my characters are never representations of those people. The characters often start because of a real person or event but then they take on a life of their own informed by all the other people I’ve met and by what’s going on in the story. It is a total privilege to have had such intimate access to so many different people’s lives; it’s one of the most incredible and wonderful things about being a doctor, at least for me. I wanted to capture that and use it to tell true stories through fiction.

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Tuesday
Sep022014

Q & A with Karin Lin-Greenberg, author of the new story collection Faulty Predictions 

In Karin-Lin Greenberg’s excellent first book, the Flannery O’Connor Prize-winning short story collection Faulty Predictions, young characters try to find their way in the world and older characters confront regrets.  In “Editorial Decisions,” members of the editorial board of a high school literary magazine are witnesses to an unspeakable act of violence. Two grandmothers, both immigrants from China, argue over the value of their treasures at a filming of Antiques Roadshow in “Prized Possessions.” In “A Good Brother,” a sister forces her brother to accompany her to the Running of the Brides at Filene’s Basement. A city bus driver adopts a pig that has been brought onto the bus by rowdy college students in “Designated Driver.” 

The stories in Faulty Predictions take place in locales as diverse as small-town Ohio, the mountains of western North Carolina, and the plains of Kansas. The collection provides insight into the human condition over a varied cross section of geography, age, and culture. Although the characters are often faced with obstacles and challenges, the stories also capture moments of optimism and hope.

I was so impressed by the many different characters and situations in these stories - you're clearly not writing the same story twice.  There's the son of a talk show host, a recovering alcoholic who drives a bus, a man who opens a trendy restaurant in a small, Midwestern town.  Which story was the most fun for you to write? 

KLG: Thanks, Christine. I love writing short stories because they allow me to jump into the lives and minds of so many characters who are different from each other. The most fun story to write was probably “Half and Half Club” because of the shifting point of view and how I had to figure out how to balance telling the overall story of this group of kids with individual stories of each character’s struggles. I had fun choosing what scenes to depict from each character’s life.

 

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Sunday
Aug242014

Q & A with Ru Freeman about her second novel On Sal Mal Lane

In the tradition of In the Time of the Butterflies and To Kill A Mockingbird, On Sal Mal Lane is a tender, evocative novel about the years leading up to the Sri Lankan civil was. 

On the day the Herath family moves in, Sal Mal Lane is still a quiet street, disturbed only by the cries of the children whose triumphs and tragedies sustain the families that live there. As the neighbors adapt to the newcomers in different ways, the children fill their days with cricket matches, romantic crushes, and small rivalries. But the tremors of civil war are mounting, and the conflict threatens to engulf them all. In a heart-rending novel poised between the past and the future, the innocence of the children—a beloved sister and her over-protective siblings, a rejected son and his twin sisters, two very different brothers—contrasts sharply with the petty prejudices of the adults charged with their care. In Ru Freeman’s masterful hands, On Sal Mal Lane, a story of what was lost to a country and her people, becomes a resounding cry for reconciliation.

1. You’ve structured On Sal Mal Lane into five sections, each a consecutive year, beginning with 1979, which works so well to show the changes in Sri Lanka and the families on Sal Mal Lane that you write about during a period of civil war.  Was this a structure you conceived of before you began writing or did you try others first?

RF: No. The story was first written start to finish with numbered chapters. Then it became divided by character, with each chapter focusing on one or the other of the Herath children, and the story moving forward within each of those sections. Eventually I divided it into the five years and titled each chapter. It was an organizational structure that presented itself after the book was written. During each successive set of edits I would add a new chapter, or divide one chapter into two or more chapters, but the years framed the whole. 

2. Your first novel, A Disobedient Girl, is also set in Sri Lanka, and in it you also write beautifully and candidly about powerful themes: class, poverty, war, family, and friendship.  Was one novel more challenging to write than the other?  

RF: Not really. If anything was a little more intentional, it was writing the story of Biso (the older woman in the first novel). Her story was so full of need - for a better, safer, life - and yet so hopeless due to circumstance and, to a certain extent, the content of her own character, that it was sometimes hard to return to her story when I’d finished writing a chapter that dealt with the young girl, Latha. And yet, in order to give them equal space and equal attention - in order not to get carried away with one over the other - I had to force myself to get back to her story. 

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Sunday
Aug172014

Q & A with Rebecca Makkai, author of the new novel The Hundred-Year House

1. Tell us a little about your new novel.

It’s the story of a haunted house and a haunted family, told backwards over the 20th century. We start in 1999 with Doug and Zee move into the grand estate’s coach house. (Zee’s mother owns the whole place.) Doug is fascinated by the house’s previous life as an artists’ colony, and hopes to find something archival there about the poet Edwin Parfitt, who was in residence at Laurelfield in the twenties (and whose work happens to be Doug’s area of scholarship). When he learns that there are file cabinets full of colony materials in the attic, Doug is anxious to get to work and save his career—but his mother-in-law refuses him access. With help from friends, Doug finally does access the Parfitt file—only to find far stranger and more disturbing material than he bargained for.

Doug may never learn all the house’s secrets, but the reader does, as the narrative zips back in time from 1999 to 1955 and 1929. We see the autumn right after the colony’s demise, when its newlywed owners are more at the mercy of the place’s lingering staff than they could imagine; and we see it as a bustling artists’ community fighting for survival in the last, heady days of the 1920s.

Through it all, the residents of Laurelfield are both plagued and blessed by the strange legacy of Laurelfield’s original owners: extraordinary luck, whether good or bad.

2. The Hundred-Year House is so different from your first novel, The Borrower (though in both you balance both the serious and the comic with such aplomb) - what was the inspiration for The Hundred-Year House?  Were there any novels (mysteries, for example) you were thinking of when you began drafting it? 

I did think a lot about books like The Haunting of Hill House and The Turn of the Screw and Rebecca – ones that are more about rattled people than rattling chains. I love that space between skepticism and fear that allows so much to happen. It’s the same space where there’s room for us as readers.

These books weren’t the original inspiration for the novel, though, so much as touchstones. In the beginning there was no mystery at all, and no legend of a ghost. I just had this idea of two couples crammed together in the little coach house of a huge estate. And I wanted it to be a short story. (Oops.) As it grew into a novel, these other themes emerged and became the keys to the book: the artists’ colony, the ghost, the reverse chronology, the question of fate.

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Monday
Aug042014

Q & A with Lisa Lenzo, author of the new novel-in-stories Strange Love

Lisa shared this synopsis of her new book: Strange Love is a novel-in-stories about a mother and daughter and their relationships with an odd and challenging cast of boys and men. It begins when the daughter, Marly, is eight years old, and the mother, Annie, is 31, and it follows these two for a decade and a half. All of the stories are told by Annie, but they alternate between mother and daughter, beginning with Annie in the first story, then switching to Marly in the second, then back to Annie in the third, and so forth. Each story stands alone, but together they make up a larger whole. Besides the romantic relationships, the book focuses on the relationship between mother and daughter as Annie tries to protect her child and find a lasting relationship with a man and Marly learns how to navigate and survive the romantic and sexual arena and find her place in the larger world. I've found that most women relate to the romantic relationships or the mother-daughter relationship or both, and that a lot of men like the book, too.

 

1. I've read that many of the stories in this book are based on events that have happened to you, and I was so struck by your main character Annie Zito's extraordinary patience with the different men she dated in the years after her divorce.  I kept wanting her to tell some of these men where to stick it!  I'm assuming that if you lived through much of what Annie did, you too were very patient too.   Of course I'm curious - did you go off script as you wrote, i.e. change events quite a lot for the sake of the narrative arc?  (...did you let some of these men have a big piece of your mind once or twice?)

LL: Some stories are more true to life than others, but all are mainly autobiographical. It's funny that you ask if if in my actual life I was angrier than I show here. Actually, it was more the opposite, in my life and in my writing, and writer friends told me I needed to make Annie angrier. So, for instance, in one scene, I have her hurl the vase one of her boyfriends gave her into her neighbor's pond, when really I still have that vase and use it from time to time, even though I'm now happily remarried. (My husband, a designer and photographer, read and critiqued my book several times, photographed and designed the cover, created my website, and helps me out in so many other ways.) But back to these relationships: I tend to get sad rather than angry when relationships aren't working out. And I tend to empathize with everyone, and in doing so, make excuses for them. My dad used to call my mom, whose name is Susie, "Second-chance Susie" because she was always giving us kids a second chance when we misbehaved rather than punishing us, and I guess I've inherited some of that trait. And I don't find these guys as infuriating as many readers find them. They are certainly flawed, but aren't we all? None of Annie's men were intentionally hurtful, although one of Marly's was, and Annie does consider murdering him--as I did in real life. 

 

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