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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: 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.

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

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STEELE INTERVIEWS: author Christopher Moore [Secondhand Souls]

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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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