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STEELE INTERVIEWS: Joanna Luloff

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While on assignment in India, Clare, an international journalist, becomes stricken by an illness which destroys her memory. Once back in the states she’s forced to rely on her husband Charlie and her best friend Rachel to reconstruct the past and her memories. Does she remember specifics of her marriage and her friendship, the things that sustain these relationships? Claire senses that something isn’t right but doesn’t know if it’s her marriage or her friendship or a combination. Can she even trust Charlie and Rachel. The novel is effectively told in different points of view and jumps back and forth from present to past and back again.

I spoke with author Joanna Luloff by phone earlier this month.

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Amy Steele: Where did you get the idea for this novel?

Joanna Luloff: My mom and I talked about her memory loss and how she had to borrow other people’s memories. A lot of years later when I was actually in graduate school, we started to have this correspondence where I would send her a photograph and I’d ask her what she saw in it and she’d do the same for me. I also did an experimental project for a class that I was taking.

I became more interested in the people surrounding someone with memory loss and how it affects them. To lose the confirmation from other people. The story got shifted away from just a person with memory loss to those people surrounding that person and it started to shift away from my family into fictional characters and what it meant to gradually recover their love for each other and the secrets and all this conflict.

Amy Steele: A lot of times you want to let things go from the past and live in the present but obviously there are certain connections which affect how you’re fitting in with certain people.

Joanna Luloff: The idea that memory is very subjective anyway. We frame the story as we remember it. My brother and I have very different recollections of the same event. As a fiction writer, I love to elaborate and add to the story. I know my stories are often changed through imagination.

Sometimes I think you can rewrite and event or create the situation you’d want to have or rework a situation/ investigate it.

Amy Steele: Did you prefer writing a certain character?

Joanna Luloff: I probably had the easiest time writing Rachel’s character because she gets to be an observer and be on neutral ground but she also has her own secrets. She sees so much so it was fun. And Charlie might have been the hardest because he’s a man from England. I lived in England for a really short time and I was really struck by the reserved politeness and stoicism. I tried to channel a bit of that restraint which British men seem to have.

Amy Steele: Do you think writing his character was the greatest challenge in the overall writing of the novel?

Joanna Luloff: I think the biggest challenge I had was not about character or voice but the structure. I needed to figure out the story’s chronology. For Claire, obviously her memories were super jumbled and the characters are constantly moving from the present to the past. My first drafts of the novel were disjointed.

Amy Steele: I was skeptical of everyone involved. How do you organize? How long did it take you to write the novel?

Joanna Luloff: It didn’t take me a long time to write the first draft. I was at least able to knock out the basic foundation of the book. It was a lot of revisions and layering in the mystery or base suspicion of what the truth might be.

I wrote it out longhand and it worked out well because I was able to rip out pages and lay them out on the floor and play around with what needed to go where and I think it helped to be able to see it in different forms. Once that was in place then I did some adding and subtracting where I thought there needed to be more questioning of the character. I was able to play a bit more with how much the characters were withholding from each other, why they were doing that, all the secrecies and the past injuries to layer in eventually.

Joanna Luloff received her MFA from Emerson College and her PhD from University of Missouri. She teaches at the University of Colorado.

She’ll be appearing at Harvard Book Store on Monday, July 16, 2018.

 

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STEELE INTERVIEWS: author Meredith Jaeger

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Boardwalk Summer is the perfect summer novel and not just because its title includes summer. The novel features two timelines of young women in Santa Cruz. In 1940, Violet Harcourt is crowned Miss California and wants to pursue a film career in Hollywood. In 2007, Marisol Cruz begins working for the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History for its Beach Boardwalk Centennial Celebration. While doing research she discovers Violet Harcourt’s obituary and becomes intrigued.

“With her light skin and dazzling green eyes, Lily likely wouldn’t experience the same level of discrimination that Mari had. In fact, most kids at Lily’s preschool thought she was white. Your father is white, Mari had offered to Lily in explanation. Her whole body tensed whenever Lily asked about her dad.”

As the novel unfolds, readers discover the connection between the women. Marisol learns that Violet knew her late grandfather Ricardo who worked as a performer on the Santa Cruz Boardwalk. Both women face varied obstacles in pursuing their goals. Violet’s possessive husband keeps close ties on her. She’d entered the pageant without his knowledge. The prize included a screen test. Marisol struggles as a Latinx single mother who had to give up her academic aspirations to care for her daughter. She also doesn’t have a relationship with her daughter’s father although they both live in Santa Cruz.

There are plenty of twists and the novel topically delves into domestic violence, sexual assault, immigration and racial discrimination. It’s the perfect novel to sink into at the beach or at a café. Author Meredith Jaeger takes readers to Santa Cruz during two different time periods and effectively links the women. As a graduate of University of California, Santa Cruz, Jaeger is familiar with the setting.  I recently spoke with her about Boardwalk Summer.

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Amy Steele: Where did you get the idea for this novel?

Meredith Jaeger: I got the idea for this novel from a newspaper article in the San Francisco Chronicle titled “Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk’s Lively History Lives on.” It featured a photograph of the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk archivist standing in a windowless room full of boxes and memorabilia collected over a century. The archivist was standing in front of a photograph of the first ever Miss California pageant held on the beach in Santa Cruz in 1924. That gave me the idea of Violet being a participant in the pageant. Also, as soon as I saw that windowless room, I had an image of my modern character, Mari, coming into contact with one of the artifacts from the Boardwalk (Violet’s obituary) and unraveling a 70-year-old mystery.

Amy Steele: You went to UC Santa Cruz and grew up in the Bay Area, how did that influence you? Were you drawn to the place and setting and then added the characters or did you come up with the characters first?

Meredith Jaeger: I love to write what I know and I’m influenced by the world around me. Growing up in the Bay Area, I often visited the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk. I have fond memories of riding the Giant Dipper rollercoaster and the Looff Carousel as a kid (and eating funnel cake!). It’s the oldest surviving amusement park in California, so any old timer will tell you all about their favorite childhood memories at The Boardwalk. I choose my setting first, and then the characters populate that setting. Because I set my first novel The Dressmaker’s Dowry in San Francisco, I wanted to set my second in Santa Cruz, a breathtakingly beautiful place I was once lucky enough to call home. I like to write dual narrative fiction, so Mari and Violet came into my head as soon as I knew where my story would take place.

Amy Steele: How much do you draw from your own personal experience do you bring in and how much research do you do?

Meredith Jaeger: I wrote two novels that were never published before I sold The Dressmaker’s Dowry. Those novels drew heavily from my personal experience because I think it’s natural to do that when you’re first starting out as a writer. My novels now are influenced by places I’ve lived and issues I’ve read about, but they don’t necessarily feature things that have happened to me in real life. I put a lot of research into my work, involving hours of reading historic newspaper articles which have been scanned into the California Digital Newspaper Collection online, watching YouTube clips of films, advertisements or anything I can find from the era I’m researching, reading library books and poring over old photographs.

Amy Steele: In your notes at the end you say that you weren’t initially interested in Hollywood’s Golden Age until your editor suggested it and then you became intrigued by its “dark underbelly.” Could you explain a bit more how that aspect captivated you and work into Violet’s journey?

Meredith Jaeger: My editor was the one to suggest that Violet should go to Hollywood. Growing up in California and being in close proximity to Hollywood, it never held the sort of magic for me that it might for other people. When I was eighteen, I took a Greyhound bus to West Hollywood with my friends to go to a Halloween party on Sunset Boulevard and I definitely saw the sleazy side of Tinsel town! (I made out with a B-list celebrity that night). I’m drawn to the gritty underbelly of cities in contrast to their glitz and glamour. With my first novel, The Dressmaker’s Dowry, which is set in Victorian Era San Francisco, the photojournalist Jacob Riis and his nineteenth century photographs of impoverished New Yorkers living in tenements inspired me.  With Boardwalk Summer, I took my memories of Sunset Boulevard and then combined them with research from a fabulous book called The Story of Hollywood by Gregory Paul Williams. Everything I describe about Hollywood Boulevard from the scam artist agents to the panhandlers, to the disheveled men wearing advertisements for plays and psychic shops posing as churches came from my research. The second aspect to Hollywood’s dark underbelly comes in the form of powerful men in the industry committing sexual assault. I worked this into Violet’s journey and it was very timely in terms of the #MeToo movement.

Amy Steele: You bring in many topical themes including the immigrant experience, domestic violence, single mothers. Why did you want to write about these issues?

Meredith Jaeger: Social justice is important to me. Though I’m not an immigration lawyer or a social worker, I have the ability to reach readers through my books and to potentially open their eyes to what’s going on in our country.  It can be so painful to watch the atrocities taking place that it’s tempting to look away. But I urge readers to look closely at themselves and how their actions impact the world. I’m the daughter of an immigrant, so the immigrant experience will always be important to me. The link between mass shootings and men with a history of violence against women is something I find very disturbing. According to the Bureau of Justice statistics, an estimated 45% of female homicide victims were killed by an intimate partner in 2007. I hope readers will be encouraged to read not only my books (I’m a white cisgender woman fully aware of my privilege), but also books by marginalized authors: people of color, LGBTQ authors and authors with chronic illness and disability. Reading opens your mind.

Amy Steele: Did the story unfold as you wrote it or do your map it out ahead of time?

Meredith Jaeger: I mapped it out ahead of time. I used to be a pantser (as in flying by the seat of my pants!) but because my first two novels never found me an agent and never sold, I have since turned into a plotter! I write out a detailed synopsis and chart out my story on butcher paper so that I can visualize the dramatic action. I use Post-Its for different character arcs and I have different colors for each character. I admire anyone who can successfully allow the story to unfold without plotting.

Amy Steele: I like the 1940/ 2007 connections and POVs. You used first person for Violet and third person for Mari. Why did you decide on that?

Meredith Jaeger: Before I signed with my agent, Jenny Bent, I sent her my dual narrative POV novel The Dressmaker’s Dowry. She suggested I change one of the voices to third person to help differentiate them. Jenny is a fantastic agent and she gives great advice, so it was a tip that I stuck with for Boardwalk Summer!

Amy Steele: What attracts you to writing historical fiction?

Meredith Jaeger: I’m a very nostalgic person. I find myself staring at old houses, or antiques, and wondering about the people who once lived there, who once owned these things, and what their lives were like.  I love how writing historical fiction gives me the opportunity to lose myself in the past. And the fashion! Though I’m grateful we live in an age where I can wear flip-flops and yoga pants to the grocery store, I love researching the incredible fashions of the late 1800s and early 20th century. I go a little nuts on Pinterest.

Amy Steele: What’s your greatest writing challenge?

Meredith Jaeger: Finding the time! I worked full-time for a San Francisco startup when I wrote my first novel, so I was only able to write on weekends. Now I’m the mother of a very feisty almost two-year-old, and that presents its own challenges. I plot so heavily because it means I don’t get writer’s block, and I can make the most of the time I do have, when I get a few hours during my daughter’s nap, or I have a babysitter.

Amy Steele: When and where do you write?

Meredith Jaeger: I write at home, in the library or in a café, and I write whenever I can! I write when I have a babysitter for my daughter, and I write whenever I have an uninterrupted stretch of free time, like getting my car serviced. They have Wi-Fi at the dealership and coffee, so what’s not to love?

Amy Steele: What’s on your summer TBR?

Meredith Jaeger: Something In The Water by Catherine Steadman, The Lost Family by Jenna Blum, The Masterpiece by Fiona Davis, Sold on a Monday by Kristina McMorris, Fruit of the Drunken Tree by Ingrid Rojas Contreras and If You Leave Me by Crystal Hana Kim. (And the other books on my shelf I haven’t gotten to!)

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STEELE INTERVIEWS: Hallie Ephron

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“Vanessa looked back and forth between the photograph and the doll. The doll in Janey’s arms was the right size. It had on a similar long while dress and what was left of its blond hair was tied with a thin ribbon. But the resolution was nowhere near sharp enough to see whether the doll in the picture had a dimple like the one on the mantle, and the wig on the real doll was too threadbare to make a comparison.”

While playing in the yard forty years ago, Lissie’s younger sister Janey went missing. Lis feels guilty and responsible. They’ve never found out what happened to Janey that day. Every year on the anniversary of the sister’s disappearance, their mother, Miss Sorrel, places an ad in the local paper with a picture of the one-of-a-kind porcelain doll Janey had with her when she went missing in hopes that she’ll find answers. This year, the doll returns and it sets off new theories and a few leads into Janey’s disappearance. Someone must know what happened to Janey decades ago.

Set in a fictional South Carolina town, Hallie Ephron’s latest novel–You’ll Never Know, Dear— explores three generations of women and the aftermath of a devastating event. Miss Sorrel makes dolls which look like the little girls who own them. There’s a certain creepiness to porcelain dolls. Her daughter Lis moved home after getting divorced. Lis’s daughter, Vanessa, conducts research on dreams and PTSD in graduate school.

I spoke with Hallie Ephron last month by phone.

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Amy Steele: As the book’s set in the south, what kind of research did you do?

Hallie Ephron: I’d been in the south very little. In South Carolina you find a lot of wealthy northerners there for the warmth of the winter season. I‘d been to Beaufort– a beautiful riverfront southern town– it’s where they filmed Forrest Gump. It’s a very colorful and beautiful place. I wrote half of it coasting on my memories and then realized I needed to go down and spend a few days with my camera and tape recorder. I spent four days absorbing it. The way that the marsh grass is a matted surface on the water, pecan trees … all the details went into the book. I’d already created my characters and I added details. The big thing I learned is that Beaufort has its own storied past. I fictionalized it so I wouldn’t be tethered to the true history of the place.

Amy Steele: Your parents being screenwriters, how did that influence your writing?

Hallie Ephron: I spent a lot of time not writing. I have three writing sisters and I was going to be the one who wouldn’t write. It took a long time to cave and I don’t think I would have if I didn’t have the genes. It’s a hard slog getting good enough to be published. I think my books are fairly cinematic. That’s from a kid growing up in Hollywood in a house that was movie-oriented. I was afraid I wouldn’t be good enough and I had to be old enough not to care. It took me a lot of time to get confident. There is a story in being a sister and a mother, in the everyday.

Amy Steele: You wrote about three generations of women. What did you like about that?

Hallie Ephron: I like writing about family and generations. I think we’re each so formed by our generation but you’re also formed by your relationship to your family. I particularly like writing older women. I think they’re often caricatured. Especially women over 60 or 70. I take a special pleasure in writing them as human beings with weaknesses. I liked writing Miss Sorrell. She’s kind of a tart individual.

Amy Steele: What do you like about writing in the mystery/thriller genre?

Hallie Ephron: I like figuring it out. I like the click when I figure it out. I usually don’t know the ending when I begin.I just know the set-up. Then I write all the complications, setbacks and challenges and all the while I try to think what does it look like is going on and what do I think is going on. I think in this book the mystery isn’t so much whodunit. I think the reader will realize halfway through who the villain is. But what are the motivations? What are the secrets they’re hiding? That’s what I try to figure out as I work my way to the end.

Amy Steele: How do you organize the novel or your writing?

Hallie Ephron: I have multiple time lines. I think of each character as having a life before the book began and after the book ends. I make a table where each character has a column and the rows are years. I plot the characters in their slots– when they were born and where they went to school– and see where the characters are as their lives progress as well as as the novel progresses. This novel I think takes place over three or four weeks so I do a drilled down version so that I know where the characters are. Even if the reader doesn’t know, I know.

Amy Steele: Do you come up with the characters first or the plot idea?

Hallie Ephron: The first thing I knew is that there would be doll parts. What does that mean? If there were doll parts there would be a doll maker. And who would she be. The story and the character go back and forth as I go along.

Amy Steele: What was the greatest challenge in writing this novel?

Hallie Ephron: I started with two narrators: Lis and Vanessa. I knew I couldn’t be in Miss Sorrel’s head because she knows too much. That was the 20someting and the 40something. I started to ask myself who’s story is this, who’s the protagonist and the answer can’t be both of them. I realized it had to be Lis. She’s the one who lost her sister. She’s the one who had to find her. Lis is the hero. It worked.

Amy Steele: What kind of books do you read?

Hallie Ephron: I read lots of books. I’m reading The Mothers. I just finished Joe Finder’s book. I read lots of books on South Carolina. I powered my way through Pat Conroy’s books. I don’t like horror. I don’t like romance.

You can catch Hallie Ephron speaking about You’ll Never Know, Dear at these events [for more events see her website]:

July 9, 2017
Rockport Public Library
Rockport, Mass.

July 11, 2017
Ferguson Library
Annual Women’s Fiction Night
Stamford, Conn.

July 27, 2017
Maynard Public Library
Maynard, Mass.

August 22, 2017
Bacon Free Library
Natick, Mass.

 
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STEELE INTERVIEWS: singer/songwriter Kathryn Claire

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The songs on the latest album, Bones Will Last, from Portland singer/songwriter Kathryn Claire exude gorgeous melancholia through violin and strings-based arrangements. Lovely, bold chamber/folk music. The opening track reminded me of the heartbreaking violin melodies played by a character on the television show Treme.  Meaningful, profound lyrics delve into existentialism and our place in the world. Just the type of songs to which I most connect. Claire’s deep vocals combine with exquisite layered orchestrations. These dark, provocative, thoughtful songs engage the listener and elicit deep emotions. Claire collaborated with Portland musicians Zak Borden (mandolin), Allen Hunter (upright bass), and Don Henson (piano) on this album.

I spoke with Kathryn Claire by phone last week.

Amy Steele: What do you like about the Portland music community?

Kathryn Claire: So many people are playing music. A lot of people are based out of here and touring extensively. It’s great when I am home because it’s such a thriving scene. It’s a great place to write, perform and record. and be inspired. I love it when I’m out in the world because people are aware of Portland and in the last ten years it has become a popular well-known city. It’s cool to be from Portland. I’m proud of the scene we have here.

Amy Steele: When did you develop an interest in playing music and in songwriting?  I think you had some classical training when you were younger

Kathryn Claire: I’ve always been drawn to music and have been very musical from a young age. There was a lot of music in my family growing up. I’m the first person in my family to be a professional musician. My mom was a public school music teacher. My father was a gypsy jazz violinist as a hobby so that is what got me into that instrument. I started studying violin at the age of seven and singing in choirs. I taught myself guitar as a teenager and I started writing. I’ve always been a journal writer and a creative writer. I can’t remember my life without music in it. It is always a vital part of my life. It developed into something that I now do as a career.

Amy Steele: Have you always been a solo artist?

Kathryn Claire: I’ve always enjoyed collaborating. My career has been interesting. Part of what has allowed me to do this full time, to make a living, is that I’ve worked as a side person a lot. The violin is a versatile instrument in that way. I read music. I also have a really strong background in harmony singing. I’ve been hired by a lot of groups and to sing with other singer/songwriters. I like playing solo but I love having a few different instruments and sounds to work with and the energy for collaborating has always been inspiring to me.

Amy Steele: How did the (music) experience you had, working on other people’s projects, help with your own?

Kathryn Claire: I’ve been doing this for a long time and I’ve put out solo albums but this album has been huge for me. It really is my own. I’m totally fronting it. I wrote everything on it. It was my vision. I made all the decisions. I didn’t even work with a producer. I had this vision that evolved. It was my own and my own voice. I feel that the way I arrived at such a clear place was from working as a side-person for so long because I really have developed an ear in how to accompany other people. I have developed my own clear voice as far as being a side-person and I’ve developed a good ear for listening. I took a lot from other people and I’ve been influenced by my classical upbringing. I’ve played a ton of Celtic music. I’ve played with amazing songwriters. I’ve played in a rock band. I think that gave me an eclectic base and I synthesized that into this album. I feel like it’s a unique sound, totally my own, but inspired by all this work I’ve done with other people.

Amy Steele: What do you think makes a good song?

Kathryn Claire: Lyrically I tend to like it when you have a personal connection to the imagery and poetry of the connection. You’re writing from something that’s touched your heart but you’re not overly explicit so it allows the listener to make their own connection to the words and images that’s completely their own. I tried to be specific and close to me but letting there be openness to it so there can be some universality.

I think over time I’ve learned how to edit. Not trying to cram in so many words. Editing down so there’s a bit more simplicity in it. I’ve come to value that in a song.

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Amy Steele: It seems that a lot of the songs are sad and a bit darker. Is it an outlet or your general mood and temperament? I listen to a lot of dark music but I think I’m very dark and gravitate towards that music. I was wondering what draws you to make that type of music.

Kathryn Claire: I definitely do have a darkness or a pensive side to me but as a performer I have a lot of energy and joy on stage and I really do feel that in my own life. I have a more positive and joyful energy. This music has been a way for me to express sadness and melancholy. The world is really beautiful and really sad. I tend to be compelled especially on this album in tapping into that darker nature in myself and in the world. I put the violin at the center of the album in the sound –it’s a violin/strings-centric album—and the violin has a deep sad melancholy to it as well. I tend toward darker music. I like minor keys. I like haunting melodies. I can get behind a major up-tempo song but my heart is really with the darker music.

Amy Steele: The song “Bones Will Last” you wrote about thinking about death and dying. How did you write that?

Kathryn Claire: It’s a really personal song that I initially wrote reflecting upon a loved one. The chorus got written a little bit later. I was just thinking of that image –“we’ll be gone but our bones will last.” The passing of timed. The ephemeral nature of life. That was central to what I’ve been thinking about. I’ve been thinking about death a lot and trying to be present while I’m here. I’ve had a lot of people pass away. Not just grandmas and grandpas but people my own age. You never know when it’s our time. In holding that and looking at that I think what are those things that last? That we leave behind? What are the bones of who we are? It became the theme of the album overall.

Amy Steele: What about the song “Sweet Chariot?” What inspired that song?

Kathryn Claire: One of the famous cemeteries in Paris where Jim Morrison was buried [Père Lachaise Cemetery]. I was in Paris in the fall of 2013 walking through that cemetery just reflecting on all these people that have gone before us. In the end that’s where we all go. The first verse of “Sweet Chariot came”—when I was imagining Jim Morrison. What would it look like to see his skeleton? Just ruminating on our bones. I wrote that first verse there and worked on that song for over a couple of years. I got to be in India doing some work [artist-in-residence at the American School of Chennai in 2015] there and I finished some more there. I wrote it in my journal and I’d sit with it and find a melody for it. I’m also grateful for our iPhones because I can collect these little pieces. That first verse felt like it came though me. It’s an interesting song and people have responded to it on such a deep level.

Amy Steele: What about the song “Never Be?”

Kathryn Claire: That is such a heartbreaking song. That was a breakup song. That one I wrote super fast. I was looking at this person I’d gone through a difficult breakup with. I’d seen some stuff on social media. You see images you don’t want to see. Unfortunately these are aspects of our time. Breaking up is even harder because you have all this access to people’s lives. I wrote the whole thing in a sitting.

I started playing around with my violin and a little loop pedal and that’s where I came up with the actual orchestration of that song. It starts with the pizzicato. It’s so strings-central. That was built on this loop pedal. Everything on that track is me. I’m playing the guitar and the violin and there’s no other person on that track. In the end I love that song so much.

Amy Steele: Over the years how has your music evolved?

Kathryn Claire: As a writer I have become a better editor. I went to Boston University for my freshman year and that’s when I got into writing and going to Club Passim and hearing singer/songwriters. I wrote a lot that year in Boston but I never edited. The songs were like journal entries. I’m now able to write a lot more universally. My voice is deeper and relaxed. My voice sounds like is has dropped into itself. It’s settled. The orchestration of the violin has evolved and grown and changed. I’ve just gotten to be such a better musician by playing with other people.

Amy Steele: Aren’t there fewer music programs in schools now? I played the violin and then I played flute. I didn’t continue it because in my high school it was required that you play in the marching band and I rode horses and it conflicted and also I just didn’t want to play in the marching band. Music and arts are so important in public schools.

Kathryn Claire: I will continue to do work in that direction throughout the course of my career. I believe in music education. We had such a killer music program in Eugene, Oregon. I grew up in the 80s and 90s. In that era you could join orchestra in fourth grade and by the time you’re in high school you’re playing symphonies with your friends. That was normal.

It becomes this elitist thing. Portland is cool to have these alternative programs. I’m grateful to have done that basic classical training.

Amy Steele: What type of challenges have you faced as being a woman in the music industry? I listen to a lot of female artists. I try to support women in music and all arts. women are still not the majority.

Kathryn Claire: It is challenging. The thing is like any work environment is still very male-centered. I get to collaborate with women but when I started out I played in a band and didn’t know how to set up a PA. It has been so important to me to work a PA, to know how to speak the lingo when you go into Guitar Center and there are all these dudes and they make you feel stupid because you don’t know what an XLR cord is. I went through the time to learn all the technological jargon to function. It was important to me to know it. I was talking to a female musician friend and I asked her if she knew of any well-known female music producers. In the studio I’ve never worked with a female engineer. These things make you realize that the music industry is really still male-dominated.

Amy Steele: I’m curious how many women study the business side of music/ the production side of music at Berklee or other schools. [note: Fader piece: Why Aren’t More Women Becoming Music Producers?]

Kathryn Claire: I’m in my late 30s. There probably is a lot of movement forward. I’m basing this on my experience as coming up in this 15 or 16 yrs ago. In that time it is changing but it is also women being able to shred and own it and front-women and to speak the language of music. I know for me in high school so many guys were in bands.

It can be intimidating and that’s where Girls Rock Bandcamp and other programs can get girls past that. I would have loved to have played in a rock band but I was intimidated. Where does that come from?

Amy Steele: our patriarchal society and assumed gender roles.

Bones Will Last is available now.

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STEELE INTERVIEWS: Dan Chaon

Reasonably settled in Cleveland, Ohio, psychologist Dustin Tillman learns that his adopted brother, Rusty, will imminently be released from prison. DNA evidence cleared Rusty, who received a life sentence for the murder of Dustin’s parents and aunt and uncle. While mentally preparing himself for Rusty’s release, a patient draws Dustin into a potential serial murder case involving the drowning of drunk area college students. Dustin becomes progressively focused on this case as memories churn from that evening he violently lost his parents. What does Dustin remember and how accurate are his memories? How did this sensational murder and trial in the 1980s affect Dustin and his surviving family members? Ill Will is a riveting, contemplative thriller about memory and deception. Past and present collide in a dark, disturbing and creepy manner.

Dan Chaon is the author of Stay Awake, Await Your Reply, You Remind Me of Me, Fitting Ends and Among the Missing.  He teaches creative writing at Oberlin College.

We recently spoke by phone about Ill Will.

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Amy Steele: Where did you get the idea for this novel?

Dan Chaon: There was an urban legend in Minnesota and Wisconsin. My brother-in-law went to school at the University of Wisconsin and he told me the there were all of these mysterious drownings of these drunken bros and the college kids all thought it was a serial killer. I thought it was cool. I put it on the back burner. It was the early 2000s that I heard that story. It got tangled up in this other story I was writing—this  brother that gets out of prison. Then I thought: ‘can I have two murders in the same book or not/’ and they start to knit together after a while.

Amy Steele: You write from different points of view. Is that difficult and why did you decide to write in that way?

Dan Chaon: I have always liked novels that do that. Kate Atkinson’s Case Histories or Tom Perrotta’s Little Children. It’s a really good technique and for someone who came to the novel having started out as a story writer, that makes sense to me because it helps me to compartmentalize. Thematically because this book is so much about deception and multi-bookends of the same story, it made sense that we saw the story from different eyes.

Amy Steele: You went from writing short stories to writing novels and you also teach writing. How did that influence you? It’s a long novel but a page-turner. I read it quickly and I read it on the Kindle which I don’t like that much.

Dan Chaon: And it looked okay on the Kindle with the weird things. The typographical things. Random House put a front note on the Kindle edition so people know the Kindle isn’t glitching.

Amy Steele: I still don’t understand the columns. I don’t understand why you did that.

Dan Chaon: I wanted to create this effect where multiple things were happening at once. I liked that idea of having almost a split-screen thing. The sophomore in college in me was really thrilled by it. I thought it looked cool. It has parallels across and down. I feel good about it. I know some readers will be like: ‘Hmm. Pretentious. Weird.” But I don’t care.

Amy Steele: It provides more information. You have the text messages and all this other stuff.

Dan Chaon: That felt organic. It’s part of our daily life. Sometimes you shouldn’t do things that are too contemporary and date the book and make it less universal. It’s true to some extent that texting maybe in five years won’t be a thing or people won’t use Facebook as much any more. If you leave it out you’re leaving out a big chunk of what it’s like to be alive today.

Amy Steele: You have to stay true to the time period and be representing whatever time it is.

Dan Chaon: I also feel like there’s something about that mode of communication that fits with the elliptical quality of the book. It feels like it fits with the mood of the book. All those ghostly floating balloons on the page.

Amy Steele: It’s really dark. How did you get to that point? [note: asks the woman who is extremely dark in mood and interests]. I feel like your other work wasn’t as dark.

Dan Chaon: Oh really. You think this is the darkest?

Amy Steele: It’s pretty dark. Have you read David Vann?  I really like David Vann. Very dark.

Dan Chaon: David Vann’s dark feels heavier and more serious in some ways. There’s an element here that’s a little more playful. I think Aaron is often funny and Rusty’s funny. There’s still a more playful quality to this than any of my other novels. It’s both darker and a little more comic in some weird way.

Amy Steele: How do you keep track of different characters and flipping back and forth with the time? Did you know how it would end up?

Dan Chaon: There were definitely surprises along the way. I did a timeline for when everybody was born and different stuff happened because it’s covering 30 years. I knew I wanted to have multiple points of view so I blocked it out so each character would have their own section. And then I started to write the different sections and see how they rubbed up against each other. The second section with Dustin as a kid was the first section I wrote. Aaron came late in a weird way and I wasn’t expecting him to be such a huge part of the story until I feel in love with his voice.

I also felt really compelled to write about heroin addiction. It’s really been a scourge here. My students have friends that are overdosing and it seems like it suddenly has become this middle-class thing and it wasn’t when I was growing up it– like Kurt Cobain but not college kids. Something about Aaron’s voice and the way he was dealing with grief was really compelling to me. In the end I ended up giving him half the book when I was originally just planning on him having one section.

Amy Steele: You came up with the idea and dropped the characters into the situation.

Dan Chaon: The premise or idea is there and then the characters grow up around that. The twins–Kate and Wave–there’s a lot of various places that they come from and to some extent my family makes fun of me because there are avatars or parallels. I am a widower. I was raising two teenage boys. My sister said, “You just did this weird thing where you killed your whole family and turned yourself into this creepy sucker.” And I said, “Yeah that’s how fiction works.”

Amy Steele: You based a lot of this on people you know?

Dan Chaon: I wouldn’t say it’s based on their personalities. If you’ve been to my house, Dustin clearly lives in my house. Aaron clearly lives in my younger son’s bedroom. Dustin is not me and Aaron and Dennis aren’t my sons in terms of personality. Kate is definitely not my sister in terms of personality. There’s an element of me and my family in this even though the whole thing is fictional. You always have to have a touchstone of some sort.

Amy Steele: What did you like best about writing this novel?

Dan Chaon: I always wanted to write a straight up crime novel. I read a lot of serial killer books when I was in college. It was during that time that every other book was a serial killer book. I thought I really want to do this. It was fun to take that form and mess around with it and play in that playground. That was exciting and fun for me.

ill will

Ill Will by Dan Chaon. Ballantine Books | March 2017| 480 pages | $14.99| ISBN: 9780345476043

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STEELE INTERVIEWS: Furniture Girls

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Seattle, Wash. electro-rock band Furniture Girls formed in 2007 and creates raw, energetic and thoughtful music. The band infuses a soulsy, bluesy sound into its already cool, funky eclecticness on the new album In Shadows—released in August. It’s a fantastic album—superb arrangements and emotive vocals. I played over and over in my car for weeks. It’s skipping which happens with CDs. Cool opening bass riff on the first track “Doobius” and I particularly connected with the songs “My Time” [of course I like a song with the line: “Nothing’s quite as dark as a bright sunny day.”] and “Heirlooms.” Hoping the band will be able to tour the East Coast in the near future.

Furniture Girls is: stayC Meyer [lyricist/lead vocalist], Jim Watkins [bassist/producer], drummer Thane Mitchell [drummer], guitarist Jason Lightfoot [guitartist] and vocalist Kate Bradley [vocalist].

I sent a few questions over to stayC and Jim via email.

Amy Steele: How did you get together?

stayC: I was in another band at the time with fG’s current guitarist, Jason Lightfoot, called Gracie Law & the Pork Chop Express. My high school friend, Nikki Wolgamott, approached me to start an electronic side project. In the beginning, it was just me & Nikki, 2 drum machines, & I was playing a little guitar. Nikki brought in Bubba Jones, who then brought in drummer Thane Mitchell and then bassist Jim Watkins. After Nikki and Bubba left for other endeavors, we brought in Jason Lightfoot on guitars and eventually Kate Bradley on.. well, a lot of stuff.

Amy Steele: Why did you name the band Furniture Girls?

stayC: The name is taken from the 1973 Sci-Fi classic Soylent Green, in which the high-priced call girls of the “future” were referred to as “furniture.”

Amy Steele: What is the Seattle music scene like these days?

stayC: Vast. Diverse. Massive. My only complaint about the Seattle scene is that there is so much going on, it’s impossible to be aware of it all. There’s a lot of good stuff going on in this town right now.

Jim: At the same time – and this probably true of any big city – you really have to get out to live shows to discover what’s happening. For example, Seattle’s got a (well-earned) reputation for producing alt-rock bands, but an incredible improv funk/soul scene has been thriving here for years as well, and it’s barely talked about. On the one hand, it’s cool that there’s an “underground” scene than only locals are aware of, but it’s a shame that some of these bands aren’t more well-known.

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Amy Steele: There are bluesy elements to the songs on In Shadows. The opening for “Doobius” grabs listeners immediately with that intense drumbeat and then that grooving bass throughout. What a superb sound. It’s a very cool album. The melodies are lush and eclectic. What was the creative process like?

stayC: The creative process for In Shadows was unlike any of our previous albums. This was the fastest we’d ever written, recorded, and put out an album. We were less concerned with a cohesive concept, per say, and more concerned with just getting out what we felt was a worthy body of work.

Jim: Working on this music was honestly the most fun experience I’ve had in my eight years with this band. The five of us started from square one (with a marathon writing/jam session) in August of last year, and by January we had eight new songs ready to record. By contrast, some of the songs on our previous releases were a year or two old before we ever took them into the studio.

 

Amy Steele: I’ve already mentioned [via Twitter] that I love the songs “My Time” and “Heirlooms.” Listening to them in my car when I often get anxiety has been super effective. Such outstanding lyrics. Plus gorgeous vocals. What inspired these songs? How about the songs “Solitary” and “The Want.”

stayC: Ok, lets see – first of all… anxiety sucks. It is no fun at all. So to think anything we’ve done can actually help lessen the effects of anxiety is hugely flattering and incredibly satisfying. An artist always hopes to bring joy to the listener, but relief? Well, that’s just huge.

I’ll go one at a time on the song inspiration. “My Time” actually came to me while laying in a hammock on a lovely summer day. For whatever reason, I began imagining a body lying in a field enjoying that same beautiful blue sky for the last time. Morose, I know, but that’s just where my mind goes sometimes.

“Heirlooms” was written the morning after I had to go through a bunch of my grandmother’s things after she passed. I was fortunate to have 2 strong grandmothers and I wrote this song for them and all they left behind. I also reflected on what was important to me and what I would leave behind.

Funny you should mention “Solitary” and “The Want” in the same breath. They were both inspired by my current beau, a touring musician who’s away a lot.

Amy Steele: When did you decide you wanted to be a singer or could sing? Have you had vocal training?

stayC: I did take a vocal lesson. Once. The very first time I tried to perform solo, I choked. Big time. Couldn’t control my breathing. I ran out of air and couldn’t figure out how to make the sounds I knew I was capable of making. The vocal coach I went to in my early twenties was awesome. She specifically told me, “I can teach you to sing. I can train you to sound like everybody else. But I don’t want to do that. I want you to sound like you. I’m just going to give you the basics and teach you how to breathe.” I really appreciated that advice and coaching. I first “thought” I could sing when I was very young, but I never had the confidence. It’s all about confidence. That didn’t come for me until I was 22 years old.

Amy Steele: You write the lyrics and then have the band put music to them or does the music come first and you put lyrics to it or a little of both?

stayC: Both. Some songs I’ve written with lyrics, melody, and complete arrangement. I record all of that to a click track and Jim (bassist) composes around it. Other songs start out as (mostly) finished instrumentals that Jim composes, and then I’ll write to that. There are a few songs we’ve all written in the same room together as a band. Those are more rare, but we enjoy that process equally.

Amy Steele: Have you faced any particular challenges as a woman in music? What do you think about the state of women in music today?

stayC: We have a fantastic and talented group of female musicians in this town who support and promote one another. I have never felt like an outsider or like I wasn’t respected as a woman in music. I feel like the men in the scene give equal weight and respect to the women in the scene. Sure, there are pressures to look a certain way as a woman, but I feel that’s just as much self-imposed. Really, if the music is good, you should be able to look any way you want in this day and age.

Amy Steele: What makes a good song?

stayC: What makes a good song is anything that grabs you. Anything that pulls at your soul and won’t let go. Anything that makes you hunt all over to find it so you can listen to it over and over again. That can be a musical hook, a lyric, a vibe. Right now – I’m pretty obsessed with Tame Impala’s “Let It Happen.” Something about the keyboard line in that song. I dig it.

Amy Steele: What new music are you listening to?

stayC: My tastes are all over the map. I’ve been listening to Sleigh Belles, Elephant Gun Riot, The Adarna, and American Pinup, to name a few. But also, I listen to a lot of not so new stuff.

Amy Steele: What show are you currently binge-watching?

stayC: My recent binges include Stranger Things, Between, and Penny Dreadful (really bummed it got cancelled). I also have been watching American Horror Story since the beginning. Oh, and I recently got into Roadies.

Amy Steele: Come play this way. The Middle East in Cambridge would be a perfect venue.

stayC: I would absolutely love that!! Furniture Girls have yet to make the East Coast, but I have a lot of family there so it’s just a matter of time.

 

 

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STEELE INTERVIEWS: L.A. Witch

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All-female alt-rock trio L.A. Witch is currently on tour supporting The Kills. On its Facebook page the band describes its genre fittingly as reverb-soaked punked out rock. Gutteral, churning, expressive. The band plays tonight at The Paradise Rock Club, Boston. The show is SOLD-OUT.

L.A Witch is: Sade Sanchez [guitar/vocals]; Irita Pai [bass], and Ellie English [drums]

 Recently I asked the band a few questions via email.

Amy Steele: How did you get together?

Irita Pai: I had been jamming with some girlfriends and a mutual friend introduced us to Sade.

Ellie English: I knew Sade from high school. We used to play in a band together, so it was really cool when she asked me to play drums for L.A. Witch. I met Irita a few months before I joined the band. I actually went to see L.A. Witch play 2 times before joining the band.

Amy Steele: What do you like about being an all-female band? What are the challenges of being an all-female band?

Irita Pai: We get to share stuff when we go out on the road, like shoes and clothes and toiletries. Sometimes there are sound guys who will be a little standoffish, or maybe address us like we don’t know what we’re doing. Not sure if that’s a female thing though.

Amy Steele: Why did you decide to name the band L.A. Witch?

Irita Pai: Witch was taken!

Amy Steele: Who are some of your musical influences?

Irita Pai: Gun Club, BJM, Stooges, Wipers.

Amy Steele: When will you release a full-length album?

Irita Pai: When we get back from this tour, we’re going to work on putting that out. We’ve waited because we want the album to be really representative of us as a band, and I think that we’re constantly changing and evolving so it’s been difficult for us so far.

Ellie English: We are definitely hoping to release the album sometime this year.

Amy Steele: How is your live show different from the recorded music? What happens up on stage?

Irita Pai: Our live shows are definitely different. The first EP we recorded was with our old drummer, and I think that’s what a lot of people expect when they come out to see us. The sound has definitely evolved a lot since then.

Ellie English: The live shows have a lot of energy.

Amy Steele: What makes a good song?

Irita Pai: For me, something that’s catchy and interesting and tells a story.

Ellie English: I really like songs that you can tell have a lot of feeling behind them.

Check out the video for “Get Lost” on YouTube.

TOUR DATES:

05.20 – L’Esco – Montreal *
05.21 – Danforth Music Hall – Toronto *
05.22 – St. Andrews Hall – Detroit, MI *
05.23 – Riviera Theatre – Chicago, IL *
05.25 – First Avenue – Minneapolis, MN *
05.26 – Midland Theatre – Kansas City, MO *
05.27 – Ogden Theatre – Denver, CO *
05.28 – The Depot – Salt Lake City, Utah *
05.31 – Commodore Ballroom – Vancouver, BC *
06.01 – Showbox SoDo – Seattle, WA *
06.02 – Roseland Theater – Portland, OR *
* dates with The Kills 

 

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