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


Q and A with Andy Mozina, author of the new novel CONTRARY MOTION

1. Tell us a little about your book.

Contrary Motion is about a divorced harpist living in Chicago getting ready for a principal harp audition with the St. Louis Symphony. In the months leading up to the audition, he runs a gauntlet of emotionally charged situations: his father dies; his ex-wife, whom he’s still in love with, gets engaged; his current girlfriend grows distant; his daughter starts acting out. As a pick-me-up, he starts moonlighting by performing for dying people at a hospice. It’s a lot of fun! Booklist went so far as to call it “rollicking.”

2. You have a knack for writing very funny prose.  Most writers would say that it's not an easy feat.  Who are some of your influences?  And, just curious, have you ever done stand-up?

That’s very nice of you to say! I love Stanley Elkin, Colson Whitehead, Aimee Bender, Jennifer Egan, Donald Barthelme, David Foster Wallace, George Saunders, Mary Gaitskill, Flannery O’Connor, etc.

I actually have five pretty polished minutes of stand-up ready to go. I’m waiting until I master my obliviate charm, so if my set goes horribly, I can erase it from the memories of all present, including myself. I think I’m getting close because when I use the charm on my wife, she just puts two fingers to her temples and looks down until I leave the room. 

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Q and A with Elizabeth McKenzie, author of the new novel THE PORTABLE VEBLEN


From the publisher:  The Portable Veblen is a dazzlingly original novel that’s as big-hearted as it is laugh-out-loud funny. Set in and around Palo Alto, amid the culture clash of new money and old (antiestablishment) values, and with the specter of our current wars looming across its pages, The Portable Veblen is an unforgettable look at the way we live now. A young couple on the brink of marriage—the charming Veblen and her fiancé Paul, a brilliant neurologist—find their engagement in danger of collapse. Along the way they weather everything from each other’s dysfunctional families, to the attentions of a seductive pharmaceutical heiress, to an intimate tête-à-tête with a very charismatic squirrel. 

1. You take on a number of serious themes in The Portable Veblen: mortality, the global pharmaceutical industry, warfare, dysfunctional families, mental illness.  Was one or more of these themes what propelled you to begin this novel?

I think they were converging at various subliminal levels, some more pressing than others. A close family member was sick and so I was really preoccupied with hospitals and spending weeks and weeks in one, full of dread and feeling very critical of institutions of all kinds. It was 2007, and there was also a strong anti-war sentiment in the mix. 

2. You move between different points of view throughout the narrative – did you start with one POV character or did you always know that the story would be told from multiple POVs?  

There was hardly anything I knew for sure at the beginning. But in early drafts I did go back and forth naturally between Veblen and Paul. There are several short parts in the novel where neither Paul nor Veblen are present, and I wondered if would be jarring, but it didn’t seem to be. And there’s a longer section from the point of view of Warren Smith, a veteran with TBI in Paul’s trial… which was indefensible structurally but felt essential to have as genuine testimony considering all the satirical stuff surrounding the trial and the VA and the FDA and so on. It wasn’t until things began to line up near the end that I could stand back and figure out if I could justify these detours into other points of view, and I think it’s the elasticity and inclusiveness of Veblen’s imagination that allows it.

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Q and A with Aspen Matis, author of the memoir Girl in the Woods

Adapted from Girls in the Woods’ jacket copy:

Girl in the Woods is Aspen Matis's true-life adventure of hiking from Mexico to Canada—a coming of age story, a survival story, and a triumphant story of overcoming emotional devastation. On her second night of college, Aspen was raped by a fellow student.  Overprotected by her parents who discouraged her from telling of the attack, Aspen was confused and ashamed.  Her desperation growing, she made a bold decision: She would seek healing in the freedom of the wild, on the 2,650-mile Pacific Crest Trail leading from Mexico to Canada.

In this inspiring memoir, Aspen chronicles her journey, a five-month trek that was ambitious, dangerous, and transformative. A nineteen-year-old girl alone and lost, she conquered desolate mountain passes and met rattlesnakes, bears, and fellow desert pilgrims. Exhausted after each thirty-mile day, at times on the verge of starvation, Aspen was forced to confront her numbness, coming to terms with the sexual assault and her parents' disappointing reaction.

1.  I remember reading the NYT’s Modern Love column that began the writing odyssey that eventually became Girl in the Woods.  What have you learned about book publishing and your own writing since those beginnings?

That's right! I published a piece in The New York Times' Modern Love column, and a handful of editors and agents emailed me to ask if I had written a memoir. But I hadn't! I was terribly excited and nervous, I asked my professor Susan Shapiro what to do; she told me, "Tell them yes! Tell them - 'I am not yet ready to show you pages.'" So that's what I did.

And then I had to write!!

I wrote 50 pages in the next six weeks. Then I worked with the editor Jill Rothenburg to compose a detailed "book proposal," which was my summer of 2012; I spent about 3 months before I was satisfied with it. THEN I sent the proposal to my first-choice agent, who had contacted me after my Times story, all those months ago — Andrew Blauner. By some miracle, he signed me. Within weeks he had used the proposal to sell my book to HarperCollins. Then I really had to write it.

I write to figure out the things I truly wonder and need to know. I want to find the answers to my questions — why I do that thing I always do; if this is the way our memories can misguide us, or if that is — or if I can notice better when mine wants to lead me to follow an unrewarding path of fear/judgment/whatever unhealthy dangerous or fruitless thing, and I can find the junction, and save myself from following. What I didn't expect was that writing a book would clarify not only my vision for the future, but also my perspective on my past. I thought those stories were over, but now I see them newly; I can no longer see myself as a victim. In a way, I grew up writing this book.

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Q and A with Heidi Pitlor, author of the new novel The Daylight Marriage

I had trouble putting down this harrowing, moving novel, which Heidi Pitlor was kind enough to talk to me about recently via email.

The Daylight Marriage is “[a] page-turning exploration of unexpressed love and unnecessary loss.  Riveting and heartbreaking.” – Geraldine Brooks, author of Caleb’s Crossing and March

And from Tom Perrotta, author of Nine Inches and Little Children: “In The Daylight Marriage, there are two mysteries--the whereabouts of a missing woman and the vagaries of the human heart. Heidi Pitlor explores both of these enigmas with equal mastery, merging a shocking crime story with an incisive portrait of a failed marriage. The result is a novel that is fast-moving, emotionally complex, and ultimately heartbreaking.”

1. I was very taken with how sensitively you wrote about a family under extreme psychological duress in this novel.  It must have been emotionally painful at times.  Tangentially, would you describe your process a bit, e.g. how many drafts The Daylight Marriage went through, how much input from trusted reader(s) did you seek as you wrote it?

Thank you! I began this book during an extremely hectic time in my life. I'd recently had twins and switched jobs, so I was looking to write a story that would be, in fact, intense and immersive enough to hold my attention and interest.   

Writing can feel similar to acting. The Daylight Marriage is told from the close third person points of view of a husband and a wife. After a blow-out fight, the wife goes missing. I tried to inhabit my characters, to experience the duress of the story as they would. Lovell Hall, the husband, is an academic at heart. He stows away his emotion, although it does seep out at times. I faced his narrative as he would have: armed with denial. I think intensity and catharsis are more effective for readers when delivered obliquely, and Lovell’s preoccupation with his work and anger about his marriage and frustrations with his daughter show a man who is actually in great pain about something else—the fact that he may have been, if indirectly and unknowingly, culpable for something horrific. In a sense, his denial became my denial (or vice versa?) and allowed me to render some difficult moments from a safe remove. Hannah, his wife, is a completely different beast. She lives so far inside her emotions that she can hardly see beyond them. I am not a stoic person. Her sections came more easily to me. I tapped into the isolation that I felt at the time, working from home and raising young twins, the strange sensations of feeling separate from the world after having worked in an office for so many years.

The book was initially longer and the plot more disperse, the intensity muted. It took me years of revision to peel back all that was obscuring the heart of the conflict. When I began what would be the final revision, a major restructuring of the plot and timeline, I worked quickly. Overall, this short book took me about eight years to write. It went through countless drafts and changed dramatically in the end. I relied heavily on input from reader-friends, my agent, Bill Clegg, and my editor, Kathy Pories.

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Q and A with Ross Ritchell, author of the debut novel THE KNIFE

Tell us a little about your novel.

The Knife follows an unidentified team of Special Operators on their deployment to an unidentified country in the Middle East. I chose to make the unit a fictionalized, anonymous group of men traveling to a fictionalized, anonymous country because Special Operations units operate under classified doctrines and oftentimes even the families of the Operators do not know when, or where their Operator family members deploy; I aimed for an authentic look at modern warfare and, at the risk of coming across as too ambiguous, I’m proud of the end result. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are startlingly different, so I tried to incorporate pieces of each unique theater in a cohesive, fictional entity. Norman Mailer’s “The Naked And The Dead” was the first instance in which I saw this idea formed, and I appreciated his attempt. Likewise, I was always struck by the concept of “Telling a true war story”, which is something Tim O’Brien touches on in his work, The Things They Carried. I saw that concept as requiring honesty and authenticity from the author, so I certainly tried to achieve this with my work.

You were in the Special Forces division of the military in your early 20s and that experience intimately informs The Knife.   How did this book first take shape - from an experience you had in the field, for example?

This book took its form as I took stock of my own experiences upon attempting to “reintegrate” into society. Finding myself in a world of ultimate extremes—which combat certainly is; the margin for error is oftentimes life and death—brought out intense emotions and opinions. If you had asked me right after I finished my military service how I felt about the war and my small, humble place in it, I probably would’ve shrugged it off and changed the subject. It wasn’t until after I had some time to watch the wars play out from the sidelines, and deal with my own experiences in the past tense, that I truly understood what I had been a part of, and thus started deciding what I was proud of and what I wished I could’ve changed. I hoped to create a novel that those indoctrinated to combat, and the military at large, would acknowledge as being authentic and real. I didn’t want to create scenes that I would read as a veteran and say, “That would never happen.” In this sense, I simply took personal experiences and didn’t let them end with my service. I let my imagination run and for a long time I struggled with leaving the military “early”—I lost hearing and received and honorable, medical discharge—so it probably wouldn’t be too far fetched to say the novel helped me live out my war after I couldn’t fight it. It would be fair to say that my novel changed me, and my views of the war, more than most anything else—besides marrying my best friend and having children. I felt I could truly see war for what it really was, and is, when I was no longer in it, but writing about it.

"Dutch" Shaw, your POV character, is calm, charismatic, sympathetic, kind of an ideal man (and soldier). Some of the other important characters, Hagan, Massie and Dalonna, are all so different from Shaw but well drawn.  Is characterization your favorite part of fiction writing?

I love characterizations because they are everywhere in life and probably the easiest thing to create. We live in a free world as long as our eyes, ears and hearts are open, where “inspiration” can come to us on the train of our morning commute. As long as you’re a perceptive human being with an eye for sensory details, characterizations should come with time and effort. Of course, we all have extensive pools of creativity to draw from in our acquaintances, both good and bad, and ourselves as well. Sometimes drawing unsavory characteristics in a fictional character is just another way of exploring parts of ourselves we’re curious about or afraid of—and the same goes for good/endearing traits and characters. A fun part of writing is figuring out what you want to say and figuring out how to do it affectively, and characters are the vehicles by which this is done. Effective characters, and especially their dialogue, truly help deliver your authorial message.

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