Posts Tagged author 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.
Boardwalk Summer is the perfect summer novel and not just because its title includes summer. The novel features two timelines of young women in Santa Cruz. In 1940, Violet Harcourt is crowned Miss California and wants to pursue a film career in Hollywood. In 2007, Marisol Cruz begins working for the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History for its Beach Boardwalk Centennial Celebration. While doing research she discovers Violet Harcourt’s obituary and becomes intrigued.
“With her light skin and dazzling green eyes, Lily likely wouldn’t experience the same level of discrimination that Mari had. In fact, most kids at Lily’s preschool thought she was white. Your father is white, Mari had offered to Lily in explanation. Her whole body tensed whenever Lily asked about her dad.”
As the novel unfolds, readers discover the connection between the women. Marisol learns that Violet knew her late grandfather Ricardo who worked as a performer on the Santa Cruz Boardwalk. Both women face varied obstacles in pursuing their goals. Violet’s possessive husband keeps close ties on her. She’d entered the pageant without his knowledge. The prize included a screen test. Marisol struggles as a Latinx single mother who had to give up her academic aspirations to care for her daughter. She also doesn’t have a relationship with her daughter’s father although they both live in Santa Cruz.
There are plenty of twists and the novel topically delves into domestic violence, sexual assault, immigration and racial discrimination. It’s the perfect novel to sink into at the beach or at a café. Author Meredith Jaeger takes readers to Santa Cruz during two different time periods and effectively links the women. As a graduate of University of California, Santa Cruz, Jaeger is familiar with the setting. I recently spoke with her about Boardwalk Summer.
Amy Steele: Where did you get the idea for this novel?
Meredith Jaeger: I got the idea for this novel from a newspaper article in the San Francisco Chronicle titled “Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk’s Lively History Lives on.” It featured a photograph of the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk archivist standing in a windowless room full of boxes and memorabilia collected over a century. The archivist was standing in front of a photograph of the first ever Miss California pageant held on the beach in Santa Cruz in 1924. That gave me the idea of Violet being a participant in the pageant. Also, as soon as I saw that windowless room, I had an image of my modern character, Mari, coming into contact with one of the artifacts from the Boardwalk (Violet’s obituary) and unraveling a 70-year-old mystery.
Amy Steele: You went to UC Santa Cruz and grew up in the Bay Area, how did that influence you? Were you drawn to the place and setting and then added the characters or did you come up with the characters first?
Meredith Jaeger: I love to write what I know and I’m influenced by the world around me. Growing up in the Bay Area, I often visited the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk. I have fond memories of riding the Giant Dipper rollercoaster and the Looff Carousel as a kid (and eating funnel cake!). It’s the oldest surviving amusement park in California, so any old timer will tell you all about their favorite childhood memories at The Boardwalk. I choose my setting first, and then the characters populate that setting. Because I set my first novel The Dressmaker’s Dowry in San Francisco, I wanted to set my second in Santa Cruz, a breathtakingly beautiful place I was once lucky enough to call home. I like to write dual narrative fiction, so Mari and Violet came into my head as soon as I knew where my story would take place.
Amy Steele: How much do you draw from your own personal experience do you bring in and how much research do you do?
Meredith Jaeger: I wrote two novels that were never published before I sold The Dressmaker’s Dowry. Those novels drew heavily from my personal experience because I think it’s natural to do that when you’re first starting out as a writer. My novels now are influenced by places I’ve lived and issues I’ve read about, but they don’t necessarily feature things that have happened to me in real life. I put a lot of research into my work, involving hours of reading historic newspaper articles which have been scanned into the California Digital Newspaper Collection online, watching YouTube clips of films, advertisements or anything I can find from the era I’m researching, reading library books and poring over old photographs.
Amy Steele: In your notes at the end you say that you weren’t initially interested in Hollywood’s Golden Age until your editor suggested it and then you became intrigued by its “dark underbelly.” Could you explain a bit more how that aspect captivated you and work into Violet’s journey?
Meredith Jaeger: My editor was the one to suggest that Violet should go to Hollywood. Growing up in California and being in close proximity to Hollywood, it never held the sort of magic for me that it might for other people. When I was eighteen, I took a Greyhound bus to West Hollywood with my friends to go to a Halloween party on Sunset Boulevard and I definitely saw the sleazy side of Tinsel town! (I made out with a B-list celebrity that night). I’m drawn to the gritty underbelly of cities in contrast to their glitz and glamour. With my first novel, The Dressmaker’s Dowry, which is set in Victorian Era San Francisco, the photojournalist Jacob Riis and his nineteenth century photographs of impoverished New Yorkers living in tenements inspired me. With Boardwalk Summer, I took my memories of Sunset Boulevard and then combined them with research from a fabulous book called The Story of Hollywood by Gregory Paul Williams. Everything I describe about Hollywood Boulevard from the scam artist agents to the panhandlers, to the disheveled men wearing advertisements for plays and psychic shops posing as churches came from my research. The second aspect to Hollywood’s dark underbelly comes in the form of powerful men in the industry committing sexual assault. I worked this into Violet’s journey and it was very timely in terms of the #MeToo movement.
Amy Steele: You bring in many topical themes including the immigrant experience, domestic violence, single mothers. Why did you want to write about these issues?
Meredith Jaeger: Social justice is important to me. Though I’m not an immigration lawyer or a social worker, I have the ability to reach readers through my books and to potentially open their eyes to what’s going on in our country. It can be so painful to watch the atrocities taking place that it’s tempting to look away. But I urge readers to look closely at themselves and how their actions impact the world. I’m the daughter of an immigrant, so the immigrant experience will always be important to me. The link between mass shootings and men with a history of violence against women is something I find very disturbing. According to the Bureau of Justice statistics, an estimated 45% of female homicide victims were killed by an intimate partner in 2007. I hope readers will be encouraged to read not only my books (I’m a white cisgender woman fully aware of my privilege), but also books by marginalized authors: people of color, LGBTQ authors and authors with chronic illness and disability. Reading opens your mind.
Amy Steele: Did the story unfold as you wrote it or do your map it out ahead of time?
Meredith Jaeger: I mapped it out ahead of time. I used to be a pantser (as in flying by the seat of my pants!) but because my first two novels never found me an agent and never sold, I have since turned into a plotter! I write out a detailed synopsis and chart out my story on butcher paper so that I can visualize the dramatic action. I use Post-Its for different character arcs and I have different colors for each character. I admire anyone who can successfully allow the story to unfold without plotting.
Amy Steele: I like the 1940/ 2007 connections and POVs. You used first person for Violet and third person for Mari. Why did you decide on that?
Meredith Jaeger: Before I signed with my agent, Jenny Bent, I sent her my dual narrative POV novel The Dressmaker’s Dowry. She suggested I change one of the voices to third person to help differentiate them. Jenny is a fantastic agent and she gives great advice, so it was a tip that I stuck with for Boardwalk Summer!
Amy Steele: What attracts you to writing historical fiction?
Meredith Jaeger: I’m a very nostalgic person. I find myself staring at old houses, or antiques, and wondering about the people who once lived there, who once owned these things, and what their lives were like. I love how writing historical fiction gives me the opportunity to lose myself in the past. And the fashion! Though I’m grateful we live in an age where I can wear flip-flops and yoga pants to the grocery store, I love researching the incredible fashions of the late 1800s and early 20th century. I go a little nuts on Pinterest.
Amy Steele: What’s your greatest writing challenge?
Meredith Jaeger: Finding the time! I worked full-time for a San Francisco startup when I wrote my first novel, so I was only able to write on weekends. Now I’m the mother of a very feisty almost two-year-old, and that presents its own challenges. I plot so heavily because it means I don’t get writer’s block, and I can make the most of the time I do have, when I get a few hours during my daughter’s nap, or I have a babysitter.
Amy Steele: When and where do you write?
Meredith Jaeger: I write at home, in the library or in a café, and I write whenever I can! I write when I have a babysitter for my daughter, and I write whenever I have an uninterrupted stretch of free time, like getting my car serviced. They have Wi-Fi at the dealership and coffee, so what’s not to love?
Amy Steele: What’s on your summer TBR?
Meredith Jaeger: Something In The Water by Catherine Steadman, The Lost Family by Jenna Blum, The Masterpiece by Fiona Davis, Sold on a Monday by Kristina McMorris, Fruit of the Drunken Tree by Ingrid Rojas Contreras and If You Leave Me by Crystal Hana Kim. (And the other books on my shelf I haven’t gotten to!)
“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
July 11, 2017
Annual Women’s Fiction Night
July 27, 2017
Maynard Public Library
August 22, 2017
Bacon Free Library
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.
Amy Steele: Where did you get the idea for this novel?
Dan Chaon: There was an urban legend in Minnesota and Wisconsin. My brother-in-law went to school at the University of Wisconsin and he told me the there were all of these mysterious drownings of these drunken bros and the college kids all thought it was a serial killer. I thought it was cool. I put it on the back burner. It was the early 2000s that I heard that story. It got tangled up in this other story I was writing—this brother that gets out of prison. Then I thought: ‘can I have two murders in the same book or not/’ and they start to knit together after a while.
Amy Steele: You write from different points of view. Is that difficult and why did you decide to write in that way?
Dan Chaon: I have always liked novels that do that. Kate Atkinson’s Case Histories or Tom Perrotta’s Little Children. It’s a really good technique and for someone who came to the novel having started out as a story writer, that makes sense to me because it helps me to compartmentalize. Thematically because this book is so much about deception and multi-bookends of the same story, it made sense that we saw the story from different eyes.
Amy Steele: You went from writing short stories to writing novels and you also teach writing. How did that influence you? It’s a long novel but a page-turner. I read it quickly and I read it on the Kindle which I don’t like that much.
Dan Chaon: And it looked okay on the Kindle with the weird things. The typographical things. Random House put a front note on the Kindle edition so people know the Kindle isn’t glitching.
Amy Steele: I still don’t understand the columns. I don’t understand why you did that.
Dan Chaon: I wanted to create this effect where multiple things were happening at once. I liked that idea of having almost a split-screen thing. The sophomore in college in me was really thrilled by it. I thought it looked cool. It has parallels across and down. I feel good about it. I know some readers will be like: ‘Hmm. Pretentious. Weird.” But I don’t care.
Amy Steele: It provides more information. You have the text messages and all this other stuff.
Dan Chaon: That felt organic. It’s part of our daily life. Sometimes you shouldn’t do things that are too contemporary and date the book and make it less universal. It’s true to some extent that texting maybe in five years won’t be a thing or people won’t use Facebook as much any more. If you leave it out you’re leaving out a big chunk of what it’s like to be alive today.
Amy Steele: You have to stay true to the time period and be representing whatever time it is.
Dan Chaon: I also feel like there’s something about that mode of communication that fits with the elliptical quality of the book. It feels like it fits with the mood of the book. All those ghostly floating balloons on the page.
Amy Steele: It’s really dark. How did you get to that point? [note: asks the woman who is extremely dark in mood and interests]. I feel like your other work wasn’t as dark.
Dan Chaon: Oh really. You think this is the darkest?
Amy Steele: It’s pretty dark. Have you read David Vann? I really like David Vann. Very dark.
Dan Chaon: David Vann’s dark feels heavier and more serious in some ways. There’s an element here that’s a little more playful. I think Aaron is often funny and Rusty’s funny. There’s still a more playful quality to this than any of my other novels. It’s both darker and a little more comic in some weird way.
Amy Steele: How do you keep track of different characters and flipping back and forth with the time? Did you know how it would end up?
Dan Chaon: There were definitely surprises along the way. I did a timeline for when everybody was born and different stuff happened because it’s covering 30 years. I knew I wanted to have multiple points of view so I blocked it out so each character would have their own section. And then I started to write the different sections and see how they rubbed up against each other. The second section with Dustin as a kid was the first section I wrote. Aaron came late in a weird way and I wasn’t expecting him to be such a huge part of the story until I feel in love with his voice.
I also felt really compelled to write about heroin addiction. It’s really been a scourge here. My students have friends that are overdosing and it seems like it suddenly has become this middle-class thing and it wasn’t when I was growing up it– like Kurt Cobain but not college kids. Something about Aaron’s voice and the way he was dealing with grief was really compelling to me. In the end I ended up giving him half the book when I was originally just planning on him having one section.
Amy Steele: You came up with the idea and dropped the characters into the situation.
Dan Chaon: The premise or idea is there and then the characters grow up around that. The twins–Kate and Wave–there’s a lot of various places that they come from and to some extent my family makes fun of me because there are avatars or parallels. I am a widower. I was raising two teenage boys. My sister said, “You just did this weird thing where you killed your whole family and turned yourself into this creepy sucker.” And I said, “Yeah that’s how fiction works.”
Amy Steele: You based a lot of this on people you know?
Dan Chaon: I wouldn’t say it’s based on their personalities. If you’ve been to my house, Dustin clearly lives in my house. Aaron clearly lives in my younger son’s bedroom. Dustin is not me and Aaron and Dennis aren’t my sons in terms of personality. Kate is definitely not my sister in terms of personality. There’s an element of me and my family in this even though the whole thing is fictional. You always have to have a touchstone of some sort.
Amy Steele: What did you like best about writing this novel?
Dan Chaon: I always wanted to write a straight up crime novel. I read a lot of serial killer books when I was in college. It was during that time that every other book was a serial killer book. I thought I really want to do this. It was fun to take that form and mess around with it and play in that playground. That was exciting and fun for me.
Ill Will by Dan Chaon. Ballantine Books | March 2017| 480 pages | $14.99| ISBN: 9780345476043
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.
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.
covering mostly music and books. focus on alternative/indie and women in music, literature and the arts. feminist. vegan. mostly alternative, a bit bohemian. Masters in journalism from Boston University. BA from Simmons College.
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