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


Q and A with Chrissy Kolaya about her new novel CHARMED PARTICLES 

1.  Tell us a little about your new novel.

Short: It’s about high-energy particle physics, gentlemen explorers, gifted and talented teenage girls, Mary Kay ladies, and one South Asian woman’s assimilation to 1980s suburban Chicago, with a special focus on her fascination with American novelty convenience foods.

Long: Rural Nicolet, Illinois, is a city anchored between two opposing forces, a living history museum devoted to the American frontier and a laboratory for experiments in high-energy particle physics. When a proposal to build the Superconducting Super Collider under the town sparks debate between the scientists and the locals, two families find themselves on opposite sides of a controversy that fractures the community, exposing deep cultural rifts between longtime friends.

Abhijat, a scientist from India now working at the National Accelerator Research Laboratory, has a sole obsession: making a name for himself as one of history’s great theoretical physicists. The search for answers to questions about the creation of the universe blinds him to the burgeoning distance between him and his wife, Sarala, who devotes herself to their daughter, Meena, and to assimilating into suburban America. In the same neighborhood, Rose Winchester strives to raise precocious Lily, stitching together an unconventional marriage from the brief visits and vibrant letters of her husband Randolph, who fancies himself the last great gentleman explorer.

Based on real events surrounding the Superconducting Super Collider, a facility begun in the U.S. but never completed, Charmed Particles traces the collisions of past and progress, science and tradition.

2.  You must have had to do quite a bit of research for this book - what were the rewards and challenges of the research experience?  I know you made a visit to the FermiLab, for example.  

Yes, this project involved a lot of research, which I loved getting to do. I spent time at Fermilab in 2010—it’s the inspiration for the book’s fictional National Accelerator Research Lab. There, I interviewed theoretical physicists, tagged along on a field trip, and worked in their archives. I also got to tour a living history facility in the area and read lots and lots of books, articles, and government documents (Environmental Impact Statements, transcripts of public hearings, etc.). While the latter may seem like they’d be dry, they really helped bring the conflict over the Superconducting Super Collider to life for me. Here were the actual voices of the people whose lives were being impacted by this potential project. Here were the things they worried about, the things they hoped for. It felt like I was listening in on a conversation my own characters were having.

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Q & A with Scott Nadelson about his new novel BETWEEN YOU AND ME. 

Tell us a little about your new novel.

I think of Between You and Me as the chronicle of a nebbish, a nobody; it’s a combination of episodic comedy—a Quixote of the New Jersey suburbs—and existential exploration of a very ordinary life. The novel tells the story of Paul Haberman, lifelong city-dweller and bachelor, who, at forty, finds himself thrust suddenly into family life, marrying a divorced mother of two young children and moving to the suburbs. There, he confronts enraged teenagers and shady mechanics, sadistic comedians and obese rabbis, discovering in each of these encounters unacknowledged fears, conflicted desires, and the mysteries that come with living among the human race. The book follows Paul over twenty years, through a series of misadventures and ethical quandaries, from the uneasy onset of middle age to the first hint of approaching autumn.

I love the way you've structured Between You and Me, with each chapter set in a different year. Did you know you would employ this structure before you started writing this book? 

This structure evolved over a long period of time. When I started writing, I had no idea what shape it would take, or even that it would be a book. I wrote an initial draft of what would become the first chapter about six years ago, as a stand-alone story, and though when I finished it I knew I wanted to write more about Paul, I was in the middle of another project and set it aside for a while. When I came back to it, I wrote another episode about Paul and his family that took place two years later. It was as if I needed to catch up with these old friends and see how they were making out. The next piece I wrote took place when Paul’s stepkids were off at college, and only then did I realize I was writing a chronicle, examining the lives of these characters over a long period of time rather than in a concentrated dramatic arc. After I had about eight or nine episodes, I started looking for gaps, stretches of time that needed filling in.

The structure that eventually developed arose partly from the desire to explore Paul’s life from different angles and partly from obsessively re-reading some of my favorite chronicle novels and linked story collections—Leonard Michaels’s Nachman Stories; Wright Morris’s The Works of Love; Alice Munro’s The Beggar Maid; Laurie Colwin’s Another Marvelous Thing; Richard Yates’s The Easter Parade; Evan S. Connell’s Mrs. Bridge; V.S. Naipaul’s A House for Mr. Biswas.


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Q and A with Michelle Falkoff about her novel Playlist for the Dead 

Tell us a little about your book. 

Playlist for the Dead is about a boy named Sam whose best friend Hayden commits suicide and leaves behind a playlist of songs to help him understand what happened. While Sam is delving into the playlist, he learns that Hayden had secrets and meets a girl who helps him uncover some of them.

You divide the book into 27 chapters, each paired with a song that's a part of Hayden Stevens' playlist for his friend Sam Goldsmith, who is the person who finds Hayden, after Hayden has taken his life.  (A very sad story but at the same time, also a witty, romantic, unsentimental, and wise one).  Did you know from the beginning that you would structure the novel this way?

Yes, that was kind of the central conceit from the beginning. But the playlist originally was going to be a little more straightforward--it was initially all about suicide in a much more literal way, and eventually I decided it would be more interesting if the songs themselves hinted at some of the things going on with Hayden. Of course, the playlist ultimately doesn't have the answers Sam is looking for--he has to find them by actually talking to people, and that was always the plan.


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Q & A with Ken Kalfus about his new story collection Coup de Foudre

1. The title story is a riveting feat of imagination.  What initially drew you to the story of Dominique Strauss-Kahn and the alleged events at the Sofitel of a few years ago?  What are some of the sources you used while writing and researching this story?

I was fascinated by the Dominique Strauss-Kahn affair, as was much of the world in May 2011. Some of that interest was the product of simple prurience and curiosity about what actually happened in the hotel room. In fictionalizing the story, however, I was drawn to the familiar specter of the progressive politician brought to ruin by personal actions that seem to run counter to his beliefs and life work. I'm thinking of course of Bill Clinton and Elliot Spitzer, men sensitive to gender, poverty and race. Which shows, to me at least, that good political sentiments don't guarantee the goodness of the people who adhere to them. It's not a matter of hypocrisy; it's weakness and the fact that life is more complicated than ideology.

Again, I wish to stress that this novella is fiction, but I obviously drew from events reported in the press. Particularly useful was Edward Jay Epstein's Three Days in May and John Solomon's DSK. I also visited the lobby of the Sofitel on 44th Street in New York to get a sense of the layout, and in Washington I looked down from the roof of the W hotel into the garden of the Treasury building. I studied the macroeconomics of the European debt crisis and checked that month's price of a New York City taxi ride.

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Q & A with Suzanne Clores about Memoirs of a Spiritual Outsider

Tell us a little about Memoirs of a Spiritual Outsider.

It's a book about my personal quest as a twenty-something to bring spiritual connection and sacredness into my life. Like many members of Generations X, Y, and particularly of the Millennials, I wasn't willing to whole-heartedly embrace my religious upbringing, but still felt a longing for some divine connection that I couldn't quite articulate. The book is my pilgrimage through various "outsider" spiritual traditions, such as Wicca, Shamanism, Voodoo and Sufism, in hope of finding my own path that felt more authentic and experiential than what I knew. It's a universal story.

You wrote this book when you were still in your 20s and I've heard you say that you view it from your present vantage as the work of a young writer who is quite different from the writer and person you are now.  How has your relationship to this book and to who you were while writing it changed since its publication in 2000? 

Every writer I know cringes a bit when asked about their first published book, and while that used to be me, I think I've softened a lot and have come to love and embrace the 25 year old who wrote MOASO. I love that the book is a memoir from such a curious, vulnerable, and undaunted narrator. The interviews, research, and other field work I performed to accompany the personal narrative are still solid. Most of all, I'm grateful to the many incredible people who were willing to help with my pursuit of such earnest questions: how do we live without a religion but with a sense of the spiritual, and a greater wisdom and understanding of our world and ourselves? I think the question of the book is still relevant, maybe even more so now. The quest for meaning and connection in an increasingly disconnected life has become a familiar theme to just about everyone. It has also become a billion dollar marketplace, from ten minute guided meditations in the cubicle to soul-inspiring home decor. Ironically, I think the marketplace helped the conversation along.  I think people are more willing to engage with the question of their own spiritual needs, and examine their own lives for evidence of sacred things.

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