Posts Tagged AMY STEELE interview


“When they finally reached the hill, Dani watched the rest of her female company mates zigzag across the valley, providing cover fire and dragging the rest of the guys in their platoon, with their various feigned injuries, up to the safe zone. Apparently the ambush had been swift and fierce. Bodies were strewn everywhere. The girls had all survived, while the boys in their platoon had all been taken out of the game. Apparently the boys had been a bit overly aggressive; the girls had the presence of mind to assess the threat before taking action.”

Beyond the Point is an intriguing and engrossing novel that focuses on three very different women—Dani, Avery and Hannah—who meet at West Point. Beyond the Point follows them through school and post-graduation. They’re such strong women and well-developed characters that it’s easy to invest in them. They attend the mostly male West Point in preparation for a male-dominated military career. As they navigate life, the women confide in, encourage and support each other. It’s fascinating, infuriating, inspiring and moving.

Dani is a competitive force, both intelligent and athletic. Dani’s happy to be at West Point and move beyond stereotypes –“Her small-minded suburban town of Columbus, Ohio, had tried to put her into a box.” She’s successful in many ways but struggles with romantic relationships–“Guys always loved to hang out with her, but they rarely saw her as ‘girlfriend material.’ It was her constant relationship kryptonite.”

Avery is the wild-child who would rather not follow the rules, difficult at West Point and in the military. She comes from a strict family and won’t find much relief. Gibson writes: “The Army, at times, infuriated Avery. All of its rules. Its demands. Its ladders of authority. The Army was a lot like her dad, actually—constantly providing new bars to reach, moving each bar higher every time Avery to close. It wasn’t that she needed to be coddled, but to hear that she was doing a good job every once in a while wouldn’t have hurt. She could handle being read the riot act for leaving a job unfinished or for not meeting the standards. But was she really about to be counseled about who she dated on weekends?” Her bohemian spirit often frustrates her friends. I found her the most relatable–“Relationships didn’t work for her the way they did for everyone else. She was either too trusting and got burned, or too suspicious and exhausted the guy’s patience. She either acted too serious and scared the guy away, or acted too cool, leaving the guy confused about her commitment.”

The West Point legacy, Hannah seems to have it easy. West Point and the military are her destiny. She’s quite religious and a bit more conservative than her friends. She ends up meeting her future husband at West Point. She faces the same sexism as her peers–—“Hannah had been one of the highest-ranking cadets at West Point—guy or girl. Now her ovaries were a flashing neon sign to everyone in the room that she couldn’t keep up.”

Author Claire Gibson completed extensive research and interviews with West Point graduates before writing the novel.  I recently interviewed her via email.

Amy Steele: Why did you want to write this novel about West Point?

Claire Gibson: Anyone that has ever been to visit West Point will tell you that it’s a magical, sacred place. I had the privilege of growing up at West Point right there alongside the Corps of Cadets, while my father was a professor.  I know it like the back of my hand. The only way I could have known it better was if I had attended myself — which continues to be something I wonder about all the time — how would I have handled the challenge? Should I have tried? But college choices aside, when I began writing full time, I couldn’t kick the gut feeling that I was supposed to write something about West Point or the Army. Then in 2013, a group of women West Point graduates asked if I’d be interested in interviewing them for a possible story. The more women I spoke to, the more confident I was that I was meant to write their experiences down as a novel — something that every person could engage with, whether they were familiar with West Point or not.


Amy Steele: What do you like about each woman—Dani, Hannah and Avery—and how did you decide to focus on these three characters?

Claire Gibson: All of the characters in Beyond the Point are composite characters — Dani, Hannah and Avery’s storylines are the product of more than 25 different interviews with women who graduated from West Point in the decade after 9/11. However, just because the characters are composite and the story is fiction, much of the content came directly from first person accounts. I love Dani’s grit, Hannah’s faith, and Avery’s boldness. They’re so different as women, and yet so complementary as friends.


Amy Steele: How is the Bennett’s house similar to your home growing up?

Claire Gibson: Wendy Bennett is loosely based on my mother, who is as kind and hospitable and wise as any woman I’ve ever met. Like our home, the Bennett’s house is full of antiques, and full of the smell of something fresh baked from the oven. There is always a pan of brownies on our counter and cadets coming through our front door. My family took pride in being a “home away from home” for those college kids in need of a break from the barracks.


Amy Steele: You packed a lot of events and details into this novel, how do you organize your writing?

Claire Gibson: I use a software called Scrivener which is so necessary for a long project like a novel.


Amy Steele: What was the biggest takeaway from the interviews you conducted in preparation for writing the novel? Particularly about striving in a male-dominated environment.

Claire Gibson: I don’t know if there was one great takeaway. However, I will say that these women learned how to hold their own amongst men starting at age 18. It’s no wonder many of them have gone on to excel in other male-dominated environments. By the time they graduated at age 24, the fact that they were a minority had faded in importance.


Amy Steele: What did you learn growing up at West Point?

Claire Gibson: At West Point, I learned the important of selfless service and kindness to others. I also learned to love America, which despite its many faults, is still a nation that strives for ideals that I deeply believe in.


Amy Steele: What challenges do women in the military currently face? Have there been any improvements in the military’s handling of sexual assault and sexual assault reporting?

Claire Gibson: Women in the military face the same challenges as women who are not in the military. They struggle to balance work with life. They want to find meaningful romantic relationships. They dream about the future and hope that they’re making wise choices in the present. I know the military is working to prosecute sexual assaults more stringently — and yet, we know now through things like the #MeToo movement that sexual harassment and assault are not limited only to the military. I hope that as a whole, our society will work to eliminate that stain from our culture. Rediscovering the sanctity of sex would help promote progress in that arena.



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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.


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: author Christopher Moore [Secondhand Souls]


Secondhand Souls By Christopher Moore.
William Morrow| August 25, 2015|352 pages |$26.99| ISBN: 978-0-061779787

In Secondhand Souls, the sequel to New York Times bestselling author Christopher Moore’s A Dirty Job, the souls of the dead are mysteriously disappearing in San Francisco. People are dying without their souls being collected. No one knows who is stealing them and why and most importantly where the souls are going. Death Merchant Charlie Asher, trapped in the body of a fourteen-inch-tall “meet” waits while his Buddhist nun girlfriend Ashley [“She was a Buddhist nun who had been given the lost scrolls of the Tibetan Book of the Dead and she could do things that no one else on earth could do, but she couldn’t do what Charlie wanted her to.”] finds him a new body to serve as host.

A diverse crew bands together to solve the mystery of the missing souls: the seven-foot-tall death merchant Minty Fresh; retired policeman turned bookseller Alphonse Rivera [“He’d peacefully taken an early retirement from the force, opened the bookstore, and set about reading books, drinking coffee, and watching the Giants on the little television in the shop. Nothing had happened at all.”]; the Emperor of San Francisco and his dogs, Bummer and Lazarus; and Lily, the former Goth girl [“She sighed, a tragic sigh that she didn’t get to use much anymore since she’d been forced by a brutal society to behave like a grown-up, and since she’d lost weight, most of her mopey Goth clothes didn’t fit, so she was almost never dressed for tragic sighing.”].

It’s zany and sharp with outrageous characters and a clever storyline and dark humor. I didn’t read A Dirty Job and perhaps I should’ve done. I’ll absolutely read another Christopher Moore. I’ve heard great things about Sacre Bleu.

Recently Christopher Moore took the time to answer some questions.

author Christopher Moore

author Christopher Moore

Amy Steele: Why did you want to write a sequel to A Dirty Job?

Christopher Moore: My readers kept requesting it and I was at a place in my schedule where I wanted to write another book set in San Francisco, since I live there and wouldn’t have to travel for research.

Amy Steele: Do you like writing series or sequels? You have the “love series.”

Christopher Moore: I don’t mind writing them, but in a way they feel more difficult than writing a solo book because I’m so conscious of not wanting to write the same book twice.

Amy Steele: What’s the most challenging aspect of writing a sequel?

Christopher Moore: To have new things happen to the characters, give them new problems to solve and not just replicate those I created in the previous book.

Amy Steele: How did you come up with this idea about death and soul collection?

Christopher Moore: I had been caring for my dying mother, then a couple of years later, helped with the care of my wife’s mother, and I thought I had something to say about death and dying. The transfer of souls was just something I thought was goofy, although it’s based a bit in Buddhist theology.

Amy Steele: Who is your favorite character in Secondhand Souls and why?

Christopher Moore: The Yellow Fellow, a mysterious and magical gentleman who is all dressed in yellow and drives a ’49 Buick.

Amy Steele: Where did the idea come for the Squirrel People?

Christopher Moore: From the work of an artist named Monique Motil. She actually creates sculptures like the squirrel people, making them out of real animal parts and making elaborate costumes for them. I saw her creatures in a gallery when I was researching A Dirty Job and I asked her if she’d be okay with me putting them in a book, giving them personalities. She loved the idea, so I created them.

Amy Steele: How did you get into writing?

Christopher Moore: I read a lot as a kid and was pretty good at writing stories for school from the age of 12 or so, so I just pursued it, on and off, until I started making a living at it.

Amy Steele: What do you like best about being a novelist?

Christopher Moore: Being able to pick a subject or a place I’m interested in and make that my job for a couple of years. I’ve been able to do some terrific things because I chose to write books about a given place or subject.

Amy Steele: San Francisco is very much a character in your novel. How do you incorporate the city in such a seamless, intriguing manner?

Christopher Moore: It’s not hard. San Francisco, like most of the great cities of the world, has a real personality, with all the different facets of a human personality, so I just treat the city that way. I also have great affection for the city, so it’s easy to write about it.

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

Christopher Moore: Sort of at the same time. A Dirty Job started with this line in a notebook about fifteen years ago. “A guy who’s a hypochondriac gets the job of being Death.” So you sort of have plot and character in that one line, or at least the start of it. Most of the books start with a similar notion. The minor characters are created because I need someone to do something or say something to make the story work.

Amy Steele: Do you write from an outline or free form it and allow characters and story development to be organic?

Christopher Moore: It depends on the story. Some of my books are based in history, and real historic events, so I have a timeline I have to work within. Sacré Bleu, my book about the French Impressionists, was that way. I had to figure where everyone was at any given time and thread the story through history, so those are pretty tightly outlined. Other books, like A Dirty Job, are way, more organic, and I’ll just have bits and pieces that will fit in somewhere. The structure will suggest itself as I go along, so I will end up with an outline for at least the last third. I don’t rewrite a lot, so I can’t afford to go down the wrong road for very long, so some planning has to be done as I work.

Amy Steele: An Instagram friend wants to know what Shakespearean play you will turn into a book next and will you write any more stories from the Bible?

Christopher Moore: I don’t know about doing anymore Bible stories, but I wanted to do a new book with Pocket. I can’t say the play, but it’s one of the comedies this time.

Amy Steele: Another friend Ashley asks if you prefer to write historically-based/literary characters or developing your own? I want to know about the challenges in writing both.

Christopher Moore: I like putting my own characters among historical characters or characters drawn from the Bible or Shakespeare. Although writing dialogue for Toulouse-Lautrec was great fun in Sacre Bleu.

Amy Steele: What’s on your nightstand to read now?

Christopher Moore: Savages by Don Winslow, World War Moo by Michael Logan, and If He Hollars, by Chester Himes.

Christopher Moore will be reading for Brookline Booksmith at the Coolidge Corner Theatre at 6pm on September 2.

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Several years ago I saw Sallie Ford and The Sound Machine (her then-band) at the Newport Folk Festival. Energetic, fun and eclectic. She’s got a cool way to combine retro with present mingling in jazz, folk, rockabilly and rock. On this new album, Slap Black, Ford’s steering away from the retro and charging forward with the altrock vibe. She also split with The Sound Machine and has a new all-girl backing band. Sallie Ford grew up in Asheville, NC always playing music. In 2006, she relocated to Portland, Ore. where she met her band The Sound Outside. Together they released three albums and an EP then parted ways in 2013.

I recently interviewed Sallie Ford via email, the worst possible way to conduct an interview because there’s an inability to connect, to ask follow-up questions or clarify one’s questions. But that’s the only choice I had. The result: some rather prickly answers.

SallieFord IMG_8328_JQuigley copy

Amy Steele: Absolutely fantastic that you have an all-girl band.
Rare these days. I did see the Retro Futura Tour
recently and Tom Bailey [Thompson Twins] had an all-girl band. I was
impressed. What effect has an all-girl band had on your music, on

Sallie Ford: I love my new band. The new effect they have on my music and touring
has nothing to do with how they are women, it’s ’cause they are awesome people and hard working!

[AS: I find this answer interesting and evasive. It’s clear women are still having issues as women in the music business. It’s rare to have an all-girl band. And I’d read that Ford intentionally formed an all-girl band. in fact here’s a quote from her publicist: “The beginning of this year Sallie fulfilled her dream of starting an all-girl rock n’ roll band and in February of 2014, the band went into the studio with producer Chris Funk to begin recording Slap Back.” ]

It worked out well that they are into being healthy on tour which I think is extremely important. We eat very well (lots of veggies and no junk food), and today we are gonna stop in
Theodore Roosevelt National park and do some hiking. Staying healthy on tour is so important, ’cause touring is an extremely difficult job. It’s very annoying to hear how most people romanticize touring. I know I’m lucky to do it and I love playing music, but I just don’t think
people have any idea how hard it is. As far as the music, it’s great to play with new musicians and learn from them.

Amy Steele: You say that this album is an “ode to all the babe
rockers.” Who do you admire and who has influenced your music over the

Sallie Ford: I have been influenced by sooo many different things over the years.
When I first started writing music, I loved Tom Waits, Regina Spektor,
Fiona Apple and more. Then, I remember I played with this band called Basemint from Tacoma,
like four years ago. They were a high energy garage rock band and I was
smitten. My guitar player at the time said “Well if you like that, you
should listen to The Sonics”. I did and discovered a bunch of other
music from the ’60s that I hadn’t heard before. So the second record I
made was more influenced by surf and garage rock. Same as the “Summer” EP I made with The Sound Outside.

The new record has lots of influences, like Skeeter Davis, The Monks,
Link Wray, T Rex, PJ Harvey, X, Heart, The breeders, The Pixies, Joan
Jett and I’m sure I’m forgetting some others.
It’s just _______ rock. Fill in the blank. It all has cross-over.

Amy Steele: Do you feel like a solo artist now with a new backing band
or as someone in a new band? What is your writing process and how does
the new band participate in songwriting?

Sallie Ford: Definitely feels like I’m in a band. [AS: yet going by your name like a solo artist would and not calling the band a band.] That’s why I’ve always gravitated
towards playing music as an art form, because it’s collaborative. This album was different ’cause we brought in Chris Funk to produce. I wrote all the lyrics, guitar chords and melodies, and the band
figured out their parts and Chris helped with the arrangements and
style of the record.

Amy Steele: Your sound was definitely retro and you can hear it on
some songs on your new album but you’ve brought in many other
elements. What made you decide to mix it up?

Sallie Ford: I will forever want to mix things up. That’s the point of creating
music. Challenging yourself to do something different and learn. I didn’t really like being stuck in the retro box either. Most bands are retro anyway, ’cause I bet a lot of their influences are from the past. I make my music, and that can be whatever I want it to be.

Amy Steele: How is your live show different from your album?

Sallie Ford: We play some of my old songs and the energy is different I guess. We
blend the old sound and the new I guess you could say.

Amy Steele: What makes a good song?

Sallie Ford: Honest lyrics and a catchy melody

SallieFordSlapBack Cover (2)

Amy Steele: Let’s talk about some songs on the new album, Slap Back. Tell me how you came up with
the following:

Sallie Ford: I’m guessing you mean lyrically? [AS: not necessarily. it’s whatever you want to tell me about the songs but it was email and I couldn’t explain that.]

“Coulda Been”

Sallie Ford: Is about games people play in new relationships.

“Workin’ the Job”

Sallie Ford: Is about being funemployed.


Sallie Ford: Is about the crush I have on the state I live in.

“Hey Girl”

Sallie Ford: Is a song for my best friend.

“Let Go”

Sallie Ford: Is about lettin’ loose and partying.

purchase at Amazon: Slap Back

Sallie Ford kicks off a North American tour tomorrow, November 5, in St. Louis and will be in Boston on November 12 at Great Scott.


11.05.14 – St. Paul, MN – Turf Club*
11.06.14 – Chicago, IL – Empty Bottle*
11.07.14 – Grand Rapids, MI – Pyramid Scheme*
11.08.14 – Toronto, ON – The Great Hall*
11.09.14 – Montreal, QC – La Sala Rossa**
11.11.14 – Northampton, MA – The Parlor Room*
11.12.14 – Allston, MA – Great Scott**
11.14.14 – Brooklyn, NY – Rough Trade**
11.15.14 – Philadelphia, PA – Milkboy**
11.16.14 – Washington, DC – Rock and Roll Hotel**
11.18.14 – Asheville, NC – Grey Eagle**
11.19.14 – Nashville, TN – Exit/In**
11.20.14 – St. Louis, MO – Off Broadway**
11.21.14 – Kansas City, MO – Record Bar**
11.23.14 – Denver, CO – Larimer Lounge*
11.24.14 – Salt Lake City, UT – Urban Lounge
11.25.14 – Boise, ID – Neurolux
12.02.14 – Arcata, CA – Humboldt Brews
12.03.14 – Felton, CA – Don Quixote’s International Music Hall
12.04.14 – San Francisco, CA – Bottom of the Hill
12.05.14 – Los Angeles, CA – Satellite Club
12.06.14 – Santa Barbara, CA – Velvet Jones
12.09.14 – Eugene, OR – Cosmic Pizza
12.10.14 – Seattle, WA – Tractor Tavern
12.11.14 – Bellingham, WA – The Wild Buffalo
12.12.14 – Vancouver, BC – Media Club
12.13.14 – Portland, OR – Wonder Ballroom
* with Crooked Fingers
** with Crooked Fingers & And The Kids

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STEELE INTERVIEWS: author Jennie Fields

Jennie Fields is the author of The Age of Desire, a novel that imagines the details of the affair between Pulitzer-prize winning author Edith Wharton and journalist Morton Fullerton when Edith was 45 years old. The affair took place mostly in Paris. It ultimately affected Edith’s relationship with her husband Teddy Wharton and her best friend and literary secretary Anna Bahlmann. The Age of Desire is told through Edith’s and Anna’s eyes.

Fields received an MFA in creative writing from the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop and is the author of three other novels, Lily Beach, Crossing Brooklyn Ferry and The Middle Ages. An Illinois native, she spent many years as an advertising creative director in New York and currently lives with her husband in Nashville, Tennessee. Jennie spoke with me by phone last week. Read more information on her website.

Amy Steele: When did you first become interested in Edith Wharton?

Jennie Fields: I was probably in my early 20s when I first discovered her and the minute I did, I felt this tremendous kinship with her. Her books thrilled me and I never tire of reading them and rereading them. I discover something new. There’s always something new. Now you can get e-books that haven’t been in print for years through the Guttenberg Project. I never ever run out of new things to learn from her work.

Amy Steele: Your agent gave you this idea for this novel when you were in Paris.

Jennie Fields: It’s all true. It’s one of those aha moments.

Amy Steele:She suggested you write about your favorite author Edith Wharton but how did you decide what to write about?

Jennie Fields: I knew only vaguely about her life at that point. I knew she’d had an affair. I immediately got every book I could find about her—there were a number of biographies. I just started reading everything. I narrowed down a part of her life. I clearly wanted to write about her relationship with Fullerton because not only were the letters available but her love diary was available. There was one part of her life where she wrote a diary on a daily basis where you could really get a sense of what she was going through.

Then I had a sense that you needed to see her from the outside as well. I decided I wanted a secondary character. I identified Anna Bahlmann and no one had really written anything about her. She clearly was important to Edith. She was with her for years on and off. It was serendipity that her letter came up for auction. I went to my computer and put in Anna Bahlmann and that week at Christie’s, letters that had been in an attic for over 100 years, that nobody had read from Edith to Anna, were going to auction. What a thrill. I ran over to Christie’s. They let me look at the letters. Everything I’d surmised about the relationship was true. It gave me insight into how Anna fit into Edith’s life. I loved that there was a counter-relationship not just with Morton (Fullerton) but with someone who loved Edith more than Morton ever did.

Edith couldn’t have been an easy person to live with. By many accounts Edith was very imperious and difficult. She was up against a world where women didn’t succeed and she was determined to succeed. Anna was a good way to look at that.

Amy Steele: I was confused with the finances in the novel. Edith married Teddy for money at the beginning but then he stole from her trust fund later on.

Jennie Fields: The majority of the money that built the Mount and that Teddy stole from was money from her books. She was tremendously successful with her books. People don’t really recognize how successful she was. Really stunningly successful. She had way more money than him. [Teddy] was never a wealthy man; he was just an appropriate man.

Amy Steele: That’s too bad because she should have married Walter Berry.

Jennie Fields: She really should have married Walter. And when you read the House of Mirth you know that Selden is based on Walter. He’s just a penniless lawyer. He clearly loved her but didn’t declare himself and he wasn’t wealthy enough. And when he was, she was married to Teddy Wharton.

Amy Steele: She did divorce Teddy.

Jennie Fields: She finally divorced Teddy, in 1911 or 1912, at Walter’s behest because he was so dangerous.

Amy Steele: Sounded like a manic-depressive with no treatment.

Jennie Fields: They said he had gout in the head. And hot springs was all they could recommend.

Amy Steele:Amy: So I’ve read A Backward Glance but no biographies on Edith Wharton.

Jennie Fields: What’s interesting about A Backward Glance is it’s how Edith wants others to view her. She cut out Anna. She said she taught herself everything and no one encouraged her to read. Now we know from these letters that Anna saved that Anna encouraged her to read all the time. Even her parents were much more encouraging of her as a writer than she ever let on. She wanted people to believe she was born from her own power and that nobody encouraged her. It really wasn’t true.

Amy Steele: What do you really like about Edith Wharton?

Jennie Fields: The thing that draws me to her is that she always writes about people who are caught in the net of society’s expectations. They fight against that and often they don’t win.

A good example of that is Lily Barth [The House of Mirth]. One of the reasons why that book is so beautiful is that the tragedy of it is it’s her better nature that kills her. If she was a better person she would have gone ahead and married someone wealthier. She was too bright and too good to marry these wretched people.

And Newland Archer in Age of Innocence. He is told he is supposed to marry May and stay with May and he falls in love with Countess Ellen Olenska. It’s not what he’s slated to do. But he can’t fight society. He’s exhausted and can’t fight society.

But Edith herself was told she couldn’t do what she wanted to do and she did it anyway. The only thing she never succeeded at was love until she was 45 years old. Of course how well did she succeed but at least she found passion.

Amy Steele: Do you think Edith was that insecure in her relationship with Morton Fullerton? It was so uncomfortable reading some of it.

Jennie Fields: Those were her real letters and if you read the diary and the letters just on their own you will find how she was tremendously insecure and she really abased herself in front of this man who was not worthy of her. It’s painful to read but it’s the truth. There were moments when it was hard to write that book because I had to make Edith less heroic. She also didn’t sleep with him for a very long time. Probably longer than I’d like to go with fictionally but I had to go with the truth.

A: She wrote such strong female characters. Vulnerable but strong.

Jennie Fields: It’s true. Her mother never made her feel she was attractive in any way which I think made her prey to his interest in her. She was extremely girlish in her figure. Had gorgeous hair and had tremendous bearing. She held her back straight, her neck long. And she was tall for that era.

Amy Steele: what do you think attracted her to Morton?

Jennie Fields: He was extremely charming, very intelligent and very attractive. He had lovers of both sexes who could hardly say goodbye to him and he kept the letters to prove it. He must have been incredibly charming. She’d never had anybody pursue her like that before. She was pretty intimidating as a woman. A lot of men were not attracted to a very intelligent woman. He was attracted to her, he wanted her. He paid attention to her. And that was pretty heady stuff to her.

Amy Steele: What do you think Morton saw in her?

Jennie Fields: She was older, successful. He was drawn to success, fortune, fame. He saw her as a mark.

Amy Steele: Why hasn’t much been written about Anna (Bahlmann) up until now?

Jennie Fields: Anna said in a letter to her friends and to her family that all she wanted in her life was to make Edith’s life easier. I started to wonder why Edith would say in one summer ‘I can’t function without Anna. Where is Anna?’ and then the following summer she sent her away and then she sent her away again. I had to make my own conjectures.

Amy Steele: How fun is it to do that?

Jennie Fields: Well it makes a whole cloth for those who want to read it. So I really enjoy that but I want to tread lightly and carefully because I don’t want to misinterpret things. I wish the whole story were there and I could tell it exactly as it was but I can’t. I have to create scenes that make you understand why something may have happened.

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

Jennie Fields: Trying to tell a story that was as close to history as possible but trying to make you feel it. Sometimes I had to create my own answers and had to make sure it was credible. It’s so telling that she could be so powerful in the world but in the face of love she was really cut down.

Amy Steele: From the novel it sounds like she left The Mount and became an ex-pat and wanted to live in Paris.

Jennie Fields: That’s what happened. They built The Mount and they ended up moving to the suburbs of Paris and she won the French Legion of Honor for what she did during WWI and was buried in Versailles. She spent the rest of her life in Paris. I think she believed that American life was stifling and so prescribed that there was no room for her especially after she divorced Teddy. She was afraid to go back to America. By the 20s things have changes tremendously and she went to Yale University to get an award and it was her last trip to America. She just thought it was provincial.

Amy Steele: How was she able to write about New York society so well?

Jennie Fields: In The Age of Innocence she writes about society in the 1870s so it’s the past. She asked her friends what was going on. But a lot of her later stuff she’s conjecturing and that might be why it’s not as popular because it’s probably not as accurate.

The Age of Desire
by Jennie Fields

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STEELE INTERVIEWS: author Jaden Terrell

Jaden Terrell wrote A Cup Full of Midnight, a mystery/thriller set in Nashville, Tenn and the second mystery focused on PI Jared McKean. When McKean starts working a case involving vampires and the occult it strikes close to home. His teenage nephew had been involved with the older victim. My review here.

In addition, Terrell contributes to Now Write! Mysteries, a collection of exercises published by Tarcher/Penguin for writers of crime fiction. Terrell is the executive director of the Killer Nashville Thriller, Mystery, and Crime Literature Conference and a recipient of the 2009 Magnolia Award for service to the Southeastern Chapter of Mystery Writers of America.

Jaden Terrell website

Jaden answered some questions via email.

Amy Steele: What appeals to you most about writing mysteries?

Jaden Terrell: I think we often write about things that frighten us or things we don’t understand. In real life, justice isn’t always served. Criminals are released on technicalities. Crimes can go unsolved, and even when they are solved, we’re left wondering why they happened. Mysteries explore both the motivations behind criminal acts and the effects of crimes on the victims and their loved ones. In the conflict between good and evil, good ultimately wins, though often at great cost. It’s reassuring to think there are strong, brave people standing between evil and the rest of us. Writing about Jared, the hero of my private detective series, reminds me that those people exist.

Amy Steele: How difficult is it to come up with a new storyline?

Jaden Terrell: It’s very easy to come up with new ideas. They’re everywhere. But developing those ideas into full-blown story-lines is harder. Plotting doesn’t come naturally to me, so going from the seed of the idea to the fully realized story takes a lot of work.

Amy Steele: Do you base your stories on anything you’ve seen or heard in the news?

Jaden Terrell: It would be more accurate to say they’re “inspired by” rather than “based on” actual events. My books incorporate elements of news stories, but the real-life incident is more of a jumping-off point or something that provides texture. In A Cup Full of Midnight, the second book in the series, I drew from several incidents in which young adults using vampire personae committed murder, but beyond the initial idea, there’s little correlation between the events in the book and the details of the original cases. The third book, which is in progress, explores human trafficking, and the fourth involves the practice of soring in the Tennessee Walking Horse Industry (soring is the use of pain to give a horse an exaggerated gait). Both issues have been in the news, but the plot is independent of any one case.

Amy Steele: Have you developed a working relationship with the Nashville police or with any private investigators so that you can bounce ideas off them?

Jaden Terrell: I attended Citizen Academies for the FBI, TBI, and Metro Nashville Police, which gave me some great contacts in all those agencies. I’m also friends with a former private detective, and I took a firearms course from a firearms instructor for Metro’s police department. Both have been extremely generous with their time and knowledge. When I was researching A Cup Full of Midnight, I took a medical examiner to lunch and interviewed him about what an autopsy would reveal about a murder described early in the book, and later, I met with a homicide detective to see what the on-site investigation would have been like.

Amy Steele: How do you describe the death scenes so vividly? Have you been to some crime scenes?

Jaden Terrell: Thank you for saying they’re vivid. I haven’t been to a crime scene, but I’ve seen a number of mock crime scenes staged by the TBI (Tennessee Bureau of Investigation), and I’ve read a lot about crime scenes and crime scene investigation. When possible, I’ve looked up photographs or interviewed professionals. I think one thing that makes a scene like this seem authentic is the reactions of other characters. For those, I relied on interviews with investigators and observations of how we behave when people we care about are sick, injured, or have passed away.

Amy Steele: How important is a title to a mystery?

Jaden Terrell: I think the title is very important. If a reader already knows and loves your work, they may pick it up regardless, but for a lesser-known writer, it’s often the title that first catches a reader’s attention. Since most print books are shelved with the spine out, the title is often the only thing a reader sees. If it’s catchy or thought-provoking, there’s a better chance a browser will pause to take a look. With e-books, it’s a little different, in that you see the whole cover and not just the spine, but since they’re usually just thumbnails, the effect is similar. Of course, you can’t always control your title. Publishers often change writers’ titles, sometimes for better and sometimes for worse.

Amy Steele: Have you always been a fan of mysteries?

Jaden Terrell: I’ve always been an eclectic reader. Mystery, fantasy, thriller, western, horror, literary…I’ve never been much for romance, but everything else has always been fair game.

Amy Steele: Who are some mystery authors past and/or current who you admire?

Jaden Terrell: Timothy Hallinan, Dennis Lehane, Robert Crais, Michael Connelly, John Connolly, John Sandford, Lawrence Block, S.J. Rozan, Jonathan Kellerman.

Amy Steele: You belong to several mystery and writing organizations, how do these help you in your writing?

Jaden Terrell: I’ve met so many exceptional writers through these organizations (and through my work with the Killer Nashville conference). We give each other support and encouragement, and I learn more about the writing craft by reading their books. I try to open doors for those whose work I admire, and those who have read and like my work do the same for me, so we end up reaching more readers than any one of us alone could do. So I would say both my writing and my writing career benefit from being a part of writing and mystery organizations like Mystery Writers of America and Sisters in Crime.

Amy Steele: Where did the idea for A Cup Full of Midnight come from?

Jaden Terrell: In the first book, Jared’s nephew, Josh, runs away from home and becomes involved with a dangerous fringe of the Goth subculture. Much of what happens to him occurs offstage, but there’s an indication that he’s become involved with an older man, Razor, who calls himself the Vampire Prince of Nashville. He was a Machiavellian character, and I wanted to explore both his ability to manipulate others and the consequences of his behavior. I also wanted to look at the difference between role players (since I’ve been one for years) and people who are not playing but rather living their personas. One day, I read a quote by Wayne Dyer describing God as a vast ocean of love and goodness; no matter how much you scooped out, the ocean itself was never diminished. I had the thought that evil was no different, and got an image of Razor standing beside a sea of darkness and dipping in a chalice to scoop out a cup full of that blackness. I knew then that Razor’s dance with the devil would end in his death and that Jared’s attempts to solve Razor’s murder would unveil layer after layer of machinations and lead him and Josh into danger.

Amy: What type of research went into this book?

Jaden Terrell: I did quite a bit of reading, both online and in books, about the “real” vampire culture, including blogs by people who believe themselves to be vampires. I knew a lot already about roleplaying and role players, so I didn’t have to do much in that area. In terms of Jared’s investigation, much of what I learned from my general research came into play (though I made a rookie mistake with one of the firearms—I changed Jared’s handgun from a Glock to a Taurus and back again, and when I changed back to the Glock, I forgot to remove the safety). One of the challenges in writing a PI novel is keeping the police on the sidelines without making them seem incompetent. I spoke to several police officers about ways to achieve that.

Amy: Why did you want to write about vampires and the occult?

Jaden Terrell: I didn’t think of it that way. I started with the idea that Josh was into the Goth subculture but involved with someone much darker. The vampire subculture is the darker end of that spectrum, so it seemed like a natural fit. Because I had played the vampire role-playing game, I was both interested and appalled by the real-life murder cases in which vampire wannabes committed murder. How do you cross that line from pretending to be a supernatural monster to becoming a real one? In the book, the Storyteller in the game, Chuck, describes players whose characters are “sharks in people suits.” My friends and I always played “superheroes with fangs,” the whole point of which was creating characters who resisted the monster inside. Why would someone deliberately embrace it? And what would make a group of seemingly normal teenagers allow themselves to be drawn into such a dark and elaborate web?

Amy Steele: Let’s talk about your main character, the P.I. Jared McKean. Why did you decide to write a man and from a man’s perspective instead of a woman? How did you come up with this character? He’s strong but very sensitive as he has a special needs child and his best friend has AIDS. What made you add those additional characteristics?

Jaden Terrell: I was trying to write about a woman, and it wasn’t working. She was a stereotypical feisty female PI, and no matter what I did, I kept coming up with bad Kinsey Milhone knock-offs. I always ended up making her so different from me that I couldn’t identify with her or so similar to me that she refused to take any risks (“No, seriously, I’ll stay here and lock the doors and call 911. YOU sneak into the basement and take on the bad guys.”). I kept getting the image of this tall, handsome man in jeans and a leather bomber jacket leaning on a whitewashed wooden fence in front of a horse pasture. “I’m your guy,” he’d say, and I’d say, “No you’re not. I’m writing about this feisty female detective.” Eventually, I sat back and said, “Okay, let’s see what you’ve got.” I wanted him to be very strong, but also to have a depth of compassion. Because I had taught special education for twelve years, I gave him a son, Paul, with Down syndrome, and because I had lost a close friend to AIDS, I thought it would be interesting to explore a lifelong friendship between a straight, tough-guy, former cop and a gay man with AIDS. Both these relationships soften Jared and—I hope—give him depth and dimension.

Amy Steele: What do you like best about Jared?

Jaden Terrell: That’s a hard question! I love his loyalty, the way he never gives up on anyone he loves. His horse is almost as old as he is. His dog is ancient and arthritic. He’s still in love with his ex-wife. His best friend is gay and may be dying. He finds a way to make relationships work, even when it’s hard, even when making them work means redefining them. He’s flawed, but he tries to do the right thing.

Amy Steele: What is your favorite aspect of A Cup Full of Midnight?

Jaden Terrell: Some of the characters have very complex motivations. They have conflicting emotions, conflicting desires. Depicting that complexity was both challenging and rewarding.

Amy Steele: Why do you write?

Jaden Terrell: The usual answer to that question is, “Because I can’t NOT write,” but that’s not the whole story. If I stopped writing, I would still enjoy watching the movies in my mind. I would still be writing in my head. Sometimes it’s hard to make yourself move past that stage and actually write the story. But the movie in your mind is never really complete and therefore, enjoyable as it is, is never totally satisfying. It’s not until it’s written down that you see its real potential. Then, as you edit and revise, the layers and subtexts reveal themselves and the story becomes so much more than it was when you were only imagining it. There’s nothing like reading a scene and realizing that, while it seems familiar, there’s also something alien about it. It’s almost like it was written by someone else, and by Jove, it works.

Amy Steele: I’m fascinated that you’re a writer and a certified horse massage therapist. When and why did you become one?

Jaden Terrell: I’ve always loved horses and, at the same time, been a little afraid of them. I’m uncomfortable with riding, partly because of the danger and partly because I’m overweight and it seems unfair to the horse. But I love to brush and pet them. I love their company. I love the way they smell. When I first read about equine sports massage and realized I could take a course in it, it seemed like the perfect way to enjoy the company of horses without having to get off the ground. I’ve never done it professionally, but my palomino quarter horse, like Jared’s, is in his 30s, and massage is a gift I can give him in return for all the years he gave me and his previous owners.

Amy Steele: What’s the best advice someone’s giving you about writing?

Jaden Terrell: This came from my friend and fellow writer, Philip Cioffari, who wrote Catholic Boys and Jesusville. He said, “Be ruthless with your writing time. Protect it with your life.” I have trouble saying no to other obligations, so I have this posted in my calendar, on the notepad on my phone, and everywhere I write.


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STEELE INTERVIEWS: singer/songwriter Sara Jackson-Holman

One of my favorite albums this year is definitely Cardiology by Sara Jackson-Holman. It’s theatrical, innovative and intricately creative. Jackson-Holman’s distinctive voice propels the emotionality in each song. She’s a classically trained pianist from Portland, Ore. I recently interviewed her via email.

Amy Steele: Your songs are so dramatic and have so many layers to them. How do you develop a song?

Sara Jackson-Holman: It depends. Sometimes, it starts with a beat, sometimes with a melody, sometimes with a piano pattern. I keep adding things until I feel that it is conveying the right emotion–which is when I feel like the song is complete.

Amy Steele: This entire album is all about the heart—it’s basically a theme-based album? How did you
come up with this idea?

Sara Jackson-Holman: The process was very organic. I was writing songs in these separate little moments of my life throughout the course of a year, and when I compiled them to one list, they created a sort of journey through my emotional experiences.

Amy Steele: You started playing classical piano at a young age. What do you like about classical music?

Sara Jackson-Holman: Its diversity, its complexity. Its sense of melody, use of countermelodies. I love the drama, and the universality of it. It’s foundational.

Amy Steele: How did studying piano and writing in college affect your songwriting?

Sara Jackson-Holman: I think songwriting became a sort of escape, really. At that point in my life, I was really done with structure and so songwriting allowed me to do something that was completely my own, and to be creative on my own terms. To experience music this way was freeing. The performance aspect was also drastically different. Performing classically, the room is silent, the applause polite, and there aren’t many allowances for mistakes– there is this sense of your performance and interpretation of a piece constantly being compared to others. It’s a very rigid environment, whereas performing pop music is more relaxed. People smile at you when you perform, they are enthusiastic. I love that.

Amy Steele: Is it a difficult transition [from classical music to alternative or pop music]?

Sara Jackson-Holman: Not really– if anything, the structure of classical music has been really helpful to me in my songwriting. It’s been this process of meshing what I know with what I love listening to (dark pop/hip hop). Incorporating classical music in a modern and relevant way is fun for me.

Amy Steele: You have unusual vocals. How did you learn how to sing and/or gain the confidence to sing?

Sara Jackson-Holman: I didn’t actually sing for a long time. After being too shy to sing in my younger years, I was extremely involved in my high school’s choir, but not really as a soloist. I think when I first started writing songs, I felt that I could express myself in a unique way. The support I received from family and friends as I ventured into songwriting gave me the confidence I needed to really pursue music. I’m grateful for that support, I’m very fortunate.

Amy Steele: What inspires you to make music?

Sara Jackson-Holman: Aside from writing music to work through my feelings, I write music to communicate with people. I’m shy, I don’t care for superficialities, but if I can connect with someone in a significant way, or write a song that resonates with someone, that they can claim as their own, I feel I’ve been successful.
There is the sweetest couple who come to many of my shows, and they say “their song” is “When You Dream” off my first album. Which is definitely inspiring.

Amy Steele: Tell me about writing the songs:

“Can’t Take My Love”

Sara Jackson-Holman: I wrote this song in January, about a week after my grandfather passed away. It was written as a way to process my grief– this was the first of a few songs that I wrote (followed by Come By Fire, Freight Train, then For Albert), and is definitely the darkest of them. I honestly couldn’t really identify what I was feeling at the time, except through music.

“My Biggest Mistake”

Sara Jackson-Holman: This was actually the first song I wrote on Cardiology. It’s about the stages you go through (or at least, that I go through) after a break up– sadness, wondering if you’ve just wasted a part of your life, wanting to move on.

“Empty Arms”

Sara Jackson-Holman: This song takes me to July– 90 degrees, blue skies, the languid feeling of summer. I felt very relaxed and content while writing this song.

“To Be Bright”

Sara Jackson-Holman: This song took me the longest of any of my songs. I think the garageband version of the song had something like 45 tracks. I wanted to write a heavy pop song with orchestral elements, and To Be Bright was the result.

Amy Steele: What has been your favorite part of your music journey so far?

Sara Jackson-Holman: I’ve loved everything. I love the song-writing process, I love the recording process, I love performing. During each of these separate processes, I always say, “this is my favorite part, this is why I’m a musician”. So it’s hard for me to choose a favorite– perhaps performing because of the people, I love singing to people.

Amy Steele: Thank you Sara! See you on twitter. . .

Sara Jackson-Holman: Thanks Amy!

Sara Jackson-Holman website

purchase at Amazon: Cardiology

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STEELE INTERVIEWS: singer/songwriter Alex Wong [A City on a Lake]

37-year-old Alex Wong started to play piano as a preschooler. He studied classical music at college. After being in several bands, the Brooklyn-based singer/songwriter/producer decided to form this solo-fronted project called A City on a Lake. Eclectic arrangements and instrumentation, particularly percussion, drive the subdued techno beats of A City on a Lake. The self-titled debut released today. I spoke with Alex by phone last week.

Amy Steele: It sounds like you’ve always been involved in music or wanted to be part of music in some way?

Alex Wong: I think I always wanted to be part of music but I thought it would be in a more orchestral way. I never thought I’d be singing and writing songs. I didn’t really start writing music until I was about 25.

Amy Steele: How does the classical music influence your writing today?

Alex Wong: Instrumentation-wise, the multi-tasking of the live show I’m playing lots of things and switching between instruments. It’s very textural.

Amy Steele: How is the live show different from the album?

Alex Wong: The live show is played as a trio. The record has a lot of instrumentation and we’re not trying to recreate one or the other. I want the songs to work great live and I want them to work great on the record.

Amy Steele: How did you move away from classical music to playing more alternative music?

Alex Wong: There’s nothing like playing in a symphony with all those people where there’s all that power. And creating all that great music. I couldn’t control the song and the arrangement. It just made a lot more sense to me to be in a band. I had a lot more freedom creatively.

Amy Steele: Where are you from and how did you end up in Brooklyn?

Alex Wong: I grew up in Northern California. Then I lived in L.A. for a little while. Then I moved to Brooklyn specifically for the music. I was working with somebody. I wanted to be there. I wanted to be pushed more. I wanted to be intimidated more. I really felt that I was being pushed the way I needed to be pushed at the time. It made me grown a lot personally and musically.

Amy Steele: Why did you want to do this solo project—A City on A Lake?

Alex Wong: It was the natural next step for me. I had done two or three other projects that were co- or duo-projects. I love collaborating. I love feeding off another person. But I was also frustrated that there was nothing that I wanted to move in the direction that I wanted. At that time I wasn’t ready to do a solo project on my own.

Amy Steele: How is it different from your other projects?

Alex Wong: Musically I don’t think it’s drastically different. I think it’s just an evolution. It was a way of expressing myself that became more involved.

Amy Steele: As a singer, you have a very soothing voice with hopeful vocals.

Alex Wong: I was trying to do something more grown up with this record. I never considered myself a singer. I was always an instrumentalist and it too me a long time to get to the point where I felt comfortable singing leads.

Amy Steele: What do you like best about the album?

Alex Wong: I feel like I got what I wanted and I feel it’s something I can stand by.

Amy Steele: What makes a good song?

Alex Wong: For me, all the elements of the song are working together– the instrumentation as well as the melody and the mood are all part of songwriting. It’s all part of the emotional aspect of the song. It’s just something that makes you feel a strong emotion that makes a good song.


July 18 NEW YORK, NY Rockwood Music Hall
July 19 BOSTON, MA Club Passim

A City on a Lake website

purchase at Amazon: A City On A Lake

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STEELE INTERVIEWS: author G. Willow Wilson

Alif the Unseen by G. Willow Wilson is a mesmerizing novel where politics, religion and technology collide in a complex setting. A 23-year-old Arab-Indian hacker in a Middle Eastern emirate simultaneously finds his computer breached by the state’s security force and jilted by his aristocratic lover. A jinn (or genie) and his kind, intelligent neighbor Dina help Alif find out how and why this happened to him. His problems deepen while he learns eye-opening information that will change his future. Alif the Unseen is a beguiling page-turner.

Alif the Unseen by G. Willow Wilson. Publisher: Grove Press (July 2012). Fiction. Hardcover. 440 pages. ISBN: 978-0082120205.

A graphic novelist and author of the memoir The Butterfly Mosque, A Young American Woman’s Journey to Love and Islam, Alif the Unseen is G. Willow Wilson’s first novel. She studied history at Boston University then taught at an English language school in Cairo for several years at the request of a retiring professor. I spoke with my fellow BU alumna by phone recently.

Amy Steele: Did you convert to Islam when you were in Egypt?

G. Willow Wilson: I had thought about converting [well before going to Egypt] but then 9/11 happened and I couldn’t seriously convert when these people had done this to my country in the name of religion. It took me several more years of research and study to reassure myself that they had acted in a way that Islam would consider abominable and that Islam rejected. I thought I could keep it a secret. But I didn’t know how I was going to get through 30 days of fasting every year without anybody finding out.

Amy Steele: Religion is a private thing but then there are so many facets of it that are impossible to keep private.

G. Willow Wilson: Especially in the Middle East, religion is not private in the way we think of it in the United States. Here it would be illegal to ask someone their religion on official documents such as a driver’s license or anything like that. But in the Middle East your religion appears on everything. So I was going from a place where it’s mostly private to a place where the state gets involved.

Amy Steele: In your novel, Alif is non-practicing isn’t he?

G. Willow Wilson: At least ambivalent. The Middle East is the birth place of so many world religions that religion becomes intertwined in almost every facet of life. He probably has small bits of the Quran memorized that most people have memorized who are practicing Muslims but he’s very ambivalent about religion. He’s not really practicing.

Amy Steele: I think when Americans and Westerners think of the Middle East you think of religion and the people and the government hand in hand.

G. Willow Wilson: There’s a lot of secularism in the Middle East and I don’t think people realize it. Some people would rather that religion play no part in public life and you see these debates unfold in places like Egypt where there’s a big secularist contingent.

Amy Steele: Alif is bi-racial. Would that be unusual?

G. Willow Wilson: It would be somewhat unusual. The book is set in the Persian Gulf and the Persian Gulf plays host to literally thousands of guest workers from Bangladesh, the Philippines and other parts of Southeast Asia. The guest workers actually outnumber the native-born Persian Gulfers and it’s created a very interesting social dynamic. For Alif, I imagined if a wealthier businessman had a secret or unsanctioned marriage with a woman who was a guest worker from the Indian subcontinent. I think that sort of marriage is still pretty unusual. People do see those two groups as being very separate.

In this case, I wanted him to be both an insider and an outsider. It seemed like an interesting way to have it play out.

Amy Steele: How did you get the idea to write Alif the Unseen?

G. Willow Wilson: It came to me in certain parts. The big driving force for me was the fact that there was so much interesting stuff going on in the social media world in the Middle East among activists online in how they were using the internet to get around censorship in print media. The internet was really allowing different factions of people who normally had no reason or method to talk to each other [secularists, traditionalists, feminists] to share a common platform and communicate with each other.

It was a very exciting thing for me to see it happening because instead of what you’d expect to happen which is that they were all at each other’s throats because they had different beliefs, they were struggling to find common ground because they had common enemies in these horrible, entrenched, dictatorial leaders in places like Egypt who’d been in power for 30 plus years.

It was at the time a very hard sell in the United States. People were very dismissive of social media. I could see the potential of what was happening in the Middle East and I wanted a way to highlight that. And that formed the basis for Alif the Unseen.

Amy Steele: When you say that this novel takes place in an undisclosed Gulf emirate, what type of government is in place? A dictatorial regime like Egypt?

G. Willow Wilson: It’s vague. There’s a point in the book when someone says he can’t believe the government has this sophisticated digital surveillance but no mail service. That is something I pulled straight from Egypt under Mubarak where if you were a blogger and talking about politics, eventually state security would show up at your door and that would be the last that people heard of you. But try to get a letter delivered. I didn’t want to set it in a specific country or tie it to a specific country so I set it in a fictional country.

Amy Steele: Can you tell me about the Arab hierarchy among the various countries—the Gulf states being at the top– that you describe in the novel?

G. Willow Wilson: They certainly see themselves that way. There seems to be a perception among certain people—I don’t want to paint too broad a brush—who think that they have the oil, they have the money, so that people that show up to work in the Gulf are there to serve them. It’s a very feudal mentality where you’ve got the Lords and the Ladies on the top and the serfs on the bottom. Poorer countries, like Egypt and Libya, aren’t seen as existing at the level of the wealthier nations along the Gulf. It makes for an interesting dynamic and it’s the cause for a lot of frustration for a lot of people who work in the gulf.

Amy Steele: In the novel, you also speak of old money, new money and no money. That there is no middle class. Immigrants send money home as they do in the United States too.

G. Willow Wilson: It’s true. It’s really a commentary for globalization.

Amy Steele: How much did you know about the grey hat world before writing this?

G. Willow Wilson: Very little. I’m a very picky end-user of technology. I’m one of these people who bugs my tech friends a lot for advice and I also like to know what makes [computers/technology] work. I picked their brains about Alif. I knew I’d have to break some rules in the world of fiction but I did go in with some basic understanding of computer culture.

Amy Steele: How did the fantasy aspect, the jinn and Vikram come in?

G. Willow Wilson: I wanted to write about how we think about the unseen whether it’s the unseen world of computers and technology and things we don’t understand. Or if it’s the unseen world of spirits and things we don’t talk about. The parallel between the unseen world of technology and the unseen world of spirituality provided some really interesting fodder for storytelling.

Amy Steele: Did you influence the character “the convert”?

G. Willow Wilson: She’s not me. As a white Western writer writing a character in the Middle East and thinking of all the foibles and the shortcomings and the heroism, it behooves me to turn around and be able to reflect myself as well. The convert is the kind of person I try not to be in many ways. She’s very academic, very rigid and she’s very earnest but it kind of gets in her way. She’s living in this country so very different from her own and she’s making a lot of mistakes and that’s something I can relate to. She’s my way of having a sense of humor as an outsider about these issues.

Amy Steele: What do you like about Alif, Dina and Vikram?

G. Willow Wilson: Writing an ensemble cast, I made sure each character had its own arc and went through its own issues that pertained to that character. In a way it was a lot like writing comics, which I do a lot of, it was a lot of fun for me. You’re able to do that, have such a wide range of characters and have them interact in a dynamic way. I don’t really have a particular character who’s a favorite.

Amy Steele: What is a particular characteristic about them that you like?

G. Willow Wilson: I thought Dina would be the most difficult character to write but she ended up coming really naturally. I liked her stubbornness. For Alif, I like his impulsiveness. I like that he grows up. He’s transformed by his experiences. Vikram was the most fun to write because he’s a genie. He’s not bound by our rules and moralities. It gives him an opportunity to tell the truth. I tried to make them all true to themselves.

Amy Steele: What’s your favorite aspect of the novel?

It was really fun writing the car chase. As writers of literature we’re supposed to take ourselves so seriously. Putting characters in a car and in a car chase across the desert was the most fun thing to write.

G. Willow Wilson website

Shop Indie Bookstores


Friday, July 13, 2012 – Saturday, July 14, 2012
Comic-Con, San Diego, CA

Monday, July 16, 2012
6:00 pm
Busboys and Poets
1025 5th Street NW
Washington, DC 20001

Tuesday, July 17, 2012
7:00 pm – 9:00 pm
Powerhouse Arena
37 Main Street
Brooklyn, NY 11201

Wednesday, July 18, 2012
7:00 pm
Harvard Book Store
1256 Massachusetts Avenue

Cambridge, MA 02138
(617) 661-1515

Thursday, July 19, 2012
7:30 pm
Tattered Cover Book Store
2526 East Colfax Avenue
Denver, CO

Friday, July 20, 2012
7:30 pm
Boulder Bookstore

1107 Pearl Street
Boulder, Colorado 80302

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Skyline Pigeons is one of my favorite new bands. Centered on intelligent, strong and talented sisters Roxanne and Caroline Teti, Skyline Pigeons erupts with an edgy emotionalism and rich tapestry of melodies and instrumentation. The band’s debut album House of Mysteries came out earlier this month. I recently interviewed Roxanne via email.

Amy Steele: Thank you for taking the time to answer some questions. I love Skyline Pigeons. The breathy, sultry vocals mixed and darker melodies on some songs and then more emotional, harder vocalizations with churning, stronger chords on others is fantastic. It’s layered, intense and wonderful.

Roxanne Teti: Thanks for your kind words and interest. It means a lot to us.

Amy Steele: When did you first become interested in music and when did you decide to form a band and really pursue writing and recording music?

Roxanne Teti: We are classically trained musicians and so we’ve been playing music since we were five years old. As we approached teenage adolescence we started writing songs together and really exploring original creativity. I think it happened about four years ago, while I (Roxanne) was a freshman in college and Caroline was a freshman in high school when we really started to take our musical and lyrical collaboration seriously. I think the desire for this was feeling the need to want to communicate our personal emotions and concerns about society through song and then finally gathering the courage to do it.

Amy Steele: How long have you been in music? Did you study music or learn on your own?

Roxanne Teti: Caroline has played piano since she was five years old and continues to teach herself new additions to the instrument by learning organ, analog synthesizers, and different electronic keyboards. She also is teaching herself how to play guitar now and is really into slide guitar and alternate tunings. Growing up I began with piano but then switched to flute. I played flute for about 13 years. About five years ago I picked up the guitar and the harmonica, and taught myself how to play. My main inspirations to learn guitar were Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Ani Difranco, PJ Harvey, and Johnny Cash.

Amy Steele: So sorry to hear about the fire and destruction of your house. Had you already started writing songs or was that even an impetus to writing these songs?

Roxanne Teti: We were always writing songs before the fire and so the fire acted as sort of catalyst in really forcing us to sit down and record a full record. Yes, many of these songs are directly inspired by the traumatic experience, but songwriting was our rock before and especially during the fire. It became the one thing in our lives (at that moment) that didn’t “change.” In effect, it became a part of our lives we place more value on.

Amy Steele: What is your writing process?

Roxanne Teti: Caroline and I write songs together as a collaborative unit. We usually guide each other in nailing a melody or following a song’s arrangement to finish. We usually write together or sometimes work on songs individually and then show them to each other and then continue writing more. Most of the time we are pretty open to each other’s ideas but when things are super personal, it’s kind of like okay, we won’t touch it.

Amy Steele: Where do song ideas come from?

Roxanne Teti: We draw from personal inspiration in our romantic lives as well as social issues that involve realities around us. I studied sociology and so I’m also thinking about other people’s realities as well as my own and often look for inspiration in dire places like the news or just by looking out my window. Most of the time, ideas take flight from a current emotion or following a moment to where it satisfies. Honesty is also a big part of inspiration—as recognizing truth and communicating that truth is difficult to do but incredibly gratifying to sing about if done appropriately and without regret.

Amy Steele: As sisters what are the challenges of working together?

Roxanne Teti: We are siblings and so we definitely know how to push each other’s buttons if we want to. But importantly we want to write good music together and have fun doing it and so confrontation like that rarely comes up. I think some of the challenges can come up in debating over a song and its stylistic direction but what is so great about being sisters is we usually have similar taste on issues but when differences of opinion do come up the differences add more dimension and complexity to the tune.

Amy Steele: How do you support one another?

Roxanne Teti: We always have each other’s back and always put our relationship in front of the music. In that sense we keep each other calm, focused, and happy. We try to provide a calm setting emotionally for whenever life gets stressful. Caroline and I are both finishing up college right now. Caroline is an undergraduate majoring in classics at UCLA and I’m a graduate student in film school at USC and so we try to accommodate each other’s schedules and create less stress for when we have to tour or record a song.

Amy Steele: Why do you think there still are not that many female-fronted bands or all-female bands?

Roxanne Teti: I think more women at a younger age need to be encouraged to follow their musical ambitions and have the confidence to be proud of their abilities. I think insecurities for female musicians are often formed in adolescence. Like the old – “girls can’t play guitar” or “it’s just a girl band.” Many women are intimidated and unfortunately end up quitting. I think the distinction between genre and gender gets in the way of women just being musicians instead of female vocalists or girls who are in a ‘chick band.’

Amy Steele: One hears many eclectic sounds and emotional range in your beautiful music. What influences you?

Roxanne Teti: We are very much influenced by memories and the recognition of capturing a moment through song. We tend to write most freely when we let the creative juices flow like a stream of consciousness without placing any boundaries on the song’s structure or lyrical content. We like recording these processes and labeling them with dates and times just as one would do with items of nostalgia. This also helps us try and remember what we’ve written while in a transcendental mindset that lacks hesitation and promotes a “sonic libido” or a notion that feels gratifying to the senses.
 In terms of style and vibe I feel like we are mostly influenced by the harmonies and melodies of the late 50’s and early 60’s and psychedelic rock and folk music.

We’re inspired by the cultural consciousness and atmospheric projections of Bob Dylan, The Doors, The Velvet Underground, Elton John, and Leonard Cohen. The way Leonard Cohen grasps and chills an audience with such undying resolution and delivery is so consuming and inspiring. Mazzy Star, PJ Harvey, and Cat Power are more contemporary groups/songwriters we have grown up listening to as budding songwriters and have been influenced by their husky reverb meshed voices, instrumental choices, and simplistic and atmospheric musical arrangements.

Amy Steele: This is hard to do via email but can you tell me how you came up with a few of these songs:

“The Cycle”
“ The continuous rekindling of a fun but dying past relationship and a standard chord progression in the key of A. We just kept playing around with a sound that felt sexy but also a little edgy.”

“Get Up”
“This is our “feel good” anthem. Caroline came up with the verse melody while studying for a geology test. Then she was like “look how fun this is Rox”, I said, “great lets finish the rest of the song, I’ve got these lyrics about embracing one’s identity”. We put two and two together and so came “Get Up”.”

“Lucid was a song Caroline wrote six years ago. When we decided to make the record, we revisited this old gem and really flushed out the arrangement and the lyrics.”

“Take Me Back”
“ We wrote the lyrics to “Take Me Back” within days after our house burned down. Everyone was angry, upset, and not rational. We were sick of the fighting and the mixture of emotions. Then we wrote the music to this song about two years after the fire. We were practicing in a rental home’s pool house and it sort of came out around 3 am.”

Amy Steele: What do you like best about this album?

Roxanne Teti: We like how everyone song is different but is still somehow unified by our sound.

Amy Steele: Why did you name the band Skyline Pigeons?

Roxanne Teti: We are huge Elton John fans and the band name came to us while listening to Elton John’s first record Empty Sky (1969). There was a harpsichord version of the song on the record called Skyline Pigeon. The song is one of Elton and Bernie Taupin’s first really beautiful lyrical and musical collaborations. This collaboration reminded us of the way Caroline and I work together as songwriters and so came the band name—The Skyline Pigeons.

Amy Steele: Thanks! Hope to see you in Boston soon.

purchase at Amazon: House of Mysteries

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