• 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
    Portraits of a Few of the People I've Made Cry: Stories
    by Christine Sneed
  • Paris, He Said: A Novel
    Paris, He Said: A Novel
    by Christine Sneed

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


Q and A with Christopher Torockio, author of the new novel THE SOUL HUNTERS

1. Tell us a little about your novel.

The Soul Hunters is a multi-generational exploration of a family that has just lost its patriarch—the last member of his generation. Set mainly in contemporary small-town Pennsylvania, with subplots and flashbacks occurring in New York City and Verona, Italy, on the day and evening following the funeral, the narrative navigates between the perspectives of the three sons and their current wives in revealing the tensions and struggles—present and past, collective and individual—that this family is now forced to confront in the face of shifting expectations, and the demands of contemporary American society. 

2.  How did this novel begin?  Were you thinking about the effects of war and its aftermath on family? 

Actually, no. It started with my grandfather's funeral. He was the last of that generation. All of his sons and their families now lived out of state, and when we all were in town for the funeral it really felt like the end of something. As the characters to in the novel, we had a yard sale after the funeral and somehow the kitchen table was sold but not the chairs. At some point near the end of the day we all went inside and sat in the kitchen and it was so weird sitting as if around the table--only there was no table. My aunt said to me, "This should be a story." People say stuff like this to me all the time (as I'm sure you know!) but this time I thought, You know, yeah, it would. So thanks to Aunt Diane!

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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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