Posts Tagged Concord Festival of Authors


 Skeletons at the Feast Paperback

The very kind Chris Bohjalian managed to answer some questions via email between radio interviews [he’s currently off on tour].

Amy Steele: You mentioned finding a journal that sparked the idea for Skeletons at the Feast. What interested you about writing a book about WWII?

Chris Bohjalian: I have always loved reading big, sweeping, epic World War II love stories – novels such as Sophie’s Choice, The English Patient, and Atonement. That was one factor.

But there was also this: In the past my novels have had, by design, a ripple of moral ambiguity to them. Not this time: World War II was a conflict without moral ambiguity. There was good and there was evil, and good triumphed. That was a factor that drew me to the subject, too.

Finally, there is the reality that the women and men who survived the Holocaust are now in their 70s, 80s, and 90s. Many of the people I interviewed – the Holocaust survivors and the Germans – were telling their story for one of the last times in their lives.  It was important to me to get their memories down for subsequent generations.

STEELE: It amazes me that there are so many untold stories of WWII still to be told. The Russian invasion of Germany is not talked about often. What do we learn from the past and WWII in particular?

CB: Well, we learned that the Greatest Generation really was pretty great.  That’s one thing.

We also learned that some people’s fortitude and courage and resilience are profound.

But, sadly, we also saw that the human capacity for barbarism is limitless, too. 

And, sadly, as we gaze around the globe and look at the post World War II world – Cambodia, Bosnia, Rwanda, Darfur – we just don’t seem to be evolving in that regard.

STEELE: It’s such a difficult subject and you add all these crucially integral details: the basic disregard for humanity—raping young girls/pillaging, Uri who steals SS officer’s identity, discussion of literature/ listening to the BBC, the Hitler youth, Cecile in the camp, the friends who are so verbal in hatred of the Jews… How much research goes into a novel like this? Do you research before you write or as you go?

CB: I do an enormous amount of research, both before writing and as I am writing.

And I do all of my interviewing myself. In this case, that was especially important. I wanted to hear firsthand the stories of the Survivors and the stories of the German refugees.  There is often an inflection in an answer or a small gesture that teaches a person more than a transcript of an interview.  Moreover, by doing the interviews myself I have the chance to ask follow-up questions I might not have thought of, and to explore avenues I hadn’t anticipated.



STEELE: What is most important to you when writing a novel?

CB: Giving readers a good story – one that makes them really want to keep turning the pages.

STEELE: What is your favorite aspect of this story?

CB: This novel has some of my favorite characters – people like Anna and Cecile and Uri and Theo.  This is the first time I have finished writing a book and been sad that it was done.  I missed those characters and wanted to spend more time with them.

And, of course, I always think of the extraordinary people I met in my research, and my friend’s mother – the diarist’s daughter.  She was a 16-year-old when she and her family made that unbelievably arduous trek west across Poland and Germany in 1945.  She’s a remarkable woman.

STEELE: You have a beautiful old house in Burlington, Vermont which seems like an idyllic setting in which to create novels. Why do you like living there and how has it affected your writing?

CB: Actually, I have a beautiful old house an hour from Burlington. I live in a village of barely a thousand people halfway up Vermont’s third highest mountain.

Writers talk with an agonizing amount of hubris about finding their voice. I found my voice in rural Vermont. I never would have written books such as Midwives or The Double Bind had I not moved there.

And while I might have written a World War II love story, it wouldn’t have been Skeletons at the Feast because I wouldn’t have become friends with a wonderful guy (and his family) whose mother and grandmother made that long walk across Europe, and whose grandmother kept a diary.

STEELE: You’ve written novels about vastly different topics. How are you able to switch from one to another? What do you do for down time between novels?

CB: There is no down time between novels.  I finish one and embark on the next.  Really, I write every day, and I have to write something.

STEELE: Why do you write?

CB: The mortgage. 

I’m kidding – sort of.  There is a certain artistic passion that drives any novelist or poet (recall Rilke’s inspiring words on this subject), but it is also a lovely way to make a living. 

STEELE: What is the greatest challenge of being a novelist?

CB: In my case, it is battling back an ever present inferiority complex – that sense of my own mediocrity.  Every month I seem to read a novel that is better than anything I will ever write in my life.

STEELE: What is in your to-be-read pile?

CS: A forthcoming collection of short stories by Jabari Asim, A Taste of Honey, and Audrey Niffengger’s Her Fearful Symmetry

STEELE: What advice do you give to someone who wants to start a novel and just cannot start writing?

CS: Aspiring writers can find my thoughts on this at length on my blog

STEELE: Where do most of your ideas come from?

CS: Usually from people I meet.  They tell me a story or show me a photo or ask me to look at a diary – and I am off and running.

 STEELE: Your publicist sent me an ARC of Secrets of Eden— another topical and potent subject—domestic violence. Cannot wait to read this one. How did this novel come about?

CS: Thank you.  Secrets of Eden is a literary thriller in the tradition of The Double Bind and Midwives.  It’s about a domestic abuse murder-suicide with a twist; it seems the husband did not shoot himself after he strangled his wife, as everyone initially assumed.  Someone else shot him. 

The idea grew from the stories women told me after The Double Bind was published.  The reality is that violence against women in this country is absolutely epidemic.

Chris Bohjalian will be  at the Concord Festival of Authors Breakfast with the Authors on November 7.

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STEELE INTERVIEWS: author Katherine Howe

the-physick-bookTitle: The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane
Author: Katherine Howe
ISBN: 978-1401340902
Pages: 384
Release Date: June 9, 2009
Publisher: Voice
review source: publisher
Rating: 4/5

Before retiring to one of the four-poster beds discovered upstairs, Liz had managed to crank open one of the windows in the sitting room, so the room’s overpowering mustiness was now tempered somewhat by the soft breath of summer. Outside Connie heard only the occasional sawing of crickets. After her years in Harvard Square, she found the quiet strangely foreboding. It roared in her ears, demanding her attention, where sirens would have passed by unheeded. She was accustomed to being kept awake by the whispering of her anxieties, but here the whispers sounded even louder than the pervasive, disquieting silence.

Phenomenal writing and splendid imagination propels The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane. History collides with present day [in the novel’s case that being 1991] through author Katherine Howe’s lovely storytelling and intricate details about the Salem witch trials of the 1690s and academia at Harvard University in 1991 [she painstakingly depicts the oral qualifying exam of a doctoral student]. The novel weaves back and forth between the past and present. In the past, ardent and empathetic Deliverance Dane is accused of witchcraft. In the present, rational and straightforward Connie Goodwin has been dispatched to Marblehead to prep her grandmother’s long-abandoned house for sale. Perchance, Connie discovers mysterious information about Deliverance Dane that causes her to launch into full-fledged historian mode. Connie delves into researching the often forgotten true frenzy that was the Salem witch trials. Interwoven with Connie’s unique challenges, Howe adeptly depicts the accusations of heresy, the societal fears, the strange “witch” tests and trials based on little more than rumors and innuendo. The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane chronicles Connie’s journey of self-discovery and illuminates the powerful connection between women and nature [whether external or internal].

I recently met Katherine Howe at Boston University where she’s completing her PhD in American and New England studies. I’m an alumna of BU. About a decade ago I received my masters in journalism.

author Katherine Howe/ photo from author's web site

author Katherine Howe/ photo from author's web site

In 2005, Howe was studying for her orals at BU. “And the orals are just colossal, really stressful. The way that they are represented in The Physick Book is 100% accurate. Most people get a little worked up before they take the exam. To chill myself out a little bit, I started to tell myself the story of The Physick Book just as a distraction. It was just that special project that I had on the side so I wouldn’t totally freak out about my real work.”

A former college roommate, who lives on the West Coast, e-mailed and suggested that they sign up for National Novel Writing Month. Though Howe liked the idea to do something fun and constructive with her friend her orals fell during the same month.

“The existence of National Novel Writing Month made me think that I could write a novel if I want to. [Writer’s note: must look up National Novel Writing Month] It’s funny that we sometimes need to give ourselves permission to do something.”

Once a week, Howe and her husband gathered for a literati/academia-filled poker game with a $10 buy-in. Author Matthew Pearl [The Dante Club, The Last Dickens] was part of the group. Her husband suggested she tell Matthew her idea for a novel. After some initial hesitation [“He’s a real novelist,” she recalls telling her husband.] she told Pearl her idea. Pearl liked it and encouraged Howe to work more on it.

 “Then what happened was strangely cinematic. I took my orals and passed them. I started to work on my dissertation prospectus and sent it to my advisor and she emailed and said I had to think of another topic. It was like the rug being pulled straight up from under me. That very day Matthew called me from the train. He said: ‘Oh hey, I was just in New York; I hope you don’t mind but I told my literary agent about your novel idea and she’d like to talk to you.’ It was poker night that started it off.”

 AS: How did your own studies influence the research involved for the Physick Book?

KH: My background is actually in Art History and material culture. It was only after I finished a draft of the book that I realized how many paintings show up. There are at least three or four that have some sort of plot element. I was very interested in the details of everyday experience and of the visual and architectural world of that time period. I think it’s also one of the great pleasures of historical fiction. I think a lot of us read it because we want to know what it really felt like in a different time. I feel like having a mastery of those kinds of details makes for a lot of the pleasure of history. I knew the basic grounding in the Salem episodes because of my background work so I just read a lot more of the secondary sources of witchcraft in North America and magic and religious belief in England. For me, being an academic at heart, stopping research was a really hard thing to do.

There’s a scene where a judge is distracted because of the infection in his toe. And all he can think of is that he’s got this terrible ingrown toenail. And I kind of think about history that way. One thing I was trying to do with The Physick Book is restore some of the muck to history.

AS: Why did you set the present day in 1991?

KH: Two reasons. We use a different calendar system now than they did in the 17th Century. So if you ever run across early modern dates that are written with a slash, that’s because the New Year started in March instead of January. So for the first three months the date would be written 1691/92. This is just nerd ephemera but I enjoyed it when I found it out. I liked that there was the 300 year symmetry between 1691/92 and 1991. 

The other major and more important reason was that 1991 feels like it’s the present but it’s really the past. [Writer’s note: I graduated from college in 1991] For what Connie had to do I need her to not have cell phones. I needed her to actually have to go into the archives. I also wanted to have more liberties with the academic universe. I represent it as more byzantine than it really is today.

AS: You have what some might say is a quickly developing romance between Connie and Sam in the novel. Why did you feel like you had to put that in there?

KH: I didn’t feel like I had to put it in there. I felt like it belonged there. One of the things I was thinking of is: what are the things that really motivate us? And for most of us, I think those things are very simple. I think that ambition is a motivating factor in the story and in our everyday lives. But I feel like that’s vague and amorphous. When I thought of what would persuade Connie that much is love for somebody. Sam’s not just an object for her. He changes the way she thinks. I needed him to bring her into contact with history in a different way. To get her out of her head and more into the world. Also I could give a shout-out to the BU Preservation Studies department.

AS: Do you think that as Connie has these powers and uses them to save a guy that it can be perceived as being anti-feminist?

KH: Why would that be anti-feminist?

AS: Because she’s not empowering herself completely but is helping a guy [Sam].

KH: I think she empowers herself quite a bit and helping Sam is a pleasant after-effect. A lot of people have asked me outright if this is a feminist book. And it’s a loaded word so I tend not to supply it myself. But I think it absolutely is. I’d be a little disappointed in myself if it weren’t.

AS: I really like what you wrote in the postscript: I was moved both by how fully the past in New England still haunts the present, especially in its small, long-memoried towns, and also by how the idiosyncratic personhood of the early colonists seems to have been lost in the nationalist myth. Can you elaborate on that?

KH: The one thing I enjoy about New England is that it’s very old. And I am comparing it to New York which is just as old. But I feel like New York is focused on the future. I feel like New England clings assiduously to its past which I think can be both a strength and a weakness. I prefer to see it for these purposes as a strength. It gives you a sense, as you move through these spaces, that we are a part of a longer continuum than just ourselves right now.

AS: How do you feel about personally being connected to the Salem witch trials?

KH: I found out about it when I was a teenager because my aunt did this genealogy. Of course I was a 15-year-old girl so my response was, “Awesome!” It wasn’t really until we found ourselves in Essex County and I was living in this house in Marblehead. We were living on the second floor of a fisherman’s house that was from 1705. I was cooking dinner one night and everyone was in the other room. It was summer and I was boiling hot. We didn’t have air-conditioning. I had sweat dripping off me in sheets. I’m at the stove and there’s a fire going because it’s a gas stove and I’m holding a wooden spoon. I had this moment where I realized “This is how it feels. This is what women have been doing in this space forever.”

Katherine Howe will be part of the New Literary Voices Panel on November 1 as part of the Concord Festival of Authors.

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STEELE INTERVIEWS: author Courtney Sullivan [Commencement]


Title: Commencement
Author: J. Courtney Sullivan
ISBN: 978-0307270740
Pages: 336
Release Date: June 16, 2009
Publisher: Knopf
Review source: self-purchase
Rating: 4.5/5






When her friends began to get engaged, instead of feeling jealous or antsy to do the same, Celia realized something: There was a very real possibility that no one was coming to save her. She would have to make her own plan. If she wanted to someday leave her job and write books, then she’d have to write books to do it, not wait around for some hedge fund guy to finance her fantasies.

During their first year at Smith College, Celia, Bree, Sally, and April are thrown together by proximity. These young women are assigned to the same dorm. They seem as disparate in personality, interests, and backgrounds as anyone can be. Celia is a lapsed Catholic who lives on the edge. Bree is a Southern Belle with a fiancé at home in Savannah. Wealthy and emotionally drained Sally’s mother recently died. April is the radical feminist who constantly feels like an outcast. The 18-year-olds who arrive at Smith are not the same 21-year-olds who graduate from Smith College four years later. After weathering many ups and downs at Smith, by the time the women graduate, they are the best of friends and closer than many family members. By creating smart, layered characters and writing thoughtful, entertaining and moving prose, debut novelist J. Courtney Sullivan gets it right. She has created memorable, vastly different women who are intelligent, independent and devoted to each other. Although they are now spread out throughout the country, Sally is getting married and the girls will reunite at Smith for the ceremony.  Commencement is not merely a story about the experience of four twenty-something women’s college graduates. Commencement is an unabashedly feminist novel about the importance of female friendship and personal choices.

I recently spoke by phone with Courtney Sullivan. I decided to leave it in its question and answer format as we talked about feminism, sex trafficking, writing and her novel Commencement—making it difficult for me to put it into a profile format.

If you live in the Boston area, Courtney will be at New Literary Voices as part of the Concord Festival of Authors in Concord, Mass on November 1.

Courtney Sullivan [CS]: When I started writing the book, I was at the age where I had enough distance from the place but was feeling nostalgic about it. I had been re-reading The Group [by Mary McCarthy], which is one of my favorite books, and I was thinking about my group of friends from Smith who’d gone in very different directions. Some were at home taking care of parents who were ill, some were getting married and moving out to suburbia and some were in the city working and dating dealing with all that. It sort of in some ways was a challenge to our friendships. I thought ‘how do you stay close to someone when you may have a lot less in common with them then you did when you were in school.’ I thought we had formed these really close friendships at Smith in part because it was a women’s college and there’s a pretty unique bond that develops there. But we were still feeling like we could openly judge and critique each other’s life choices even though we were very far flung at this point. So I wanted to explore that and explore this generation of women who have so many choices– benefitting from the legacy of feminism that came before them in our mother’s generation– but sometimes feeling very overwhelmed by all the possibilities and not quite knowing where to start.
photo by Jerry Bauer

photo by Jerry Bauer

Amy Steele: Why did you decide to write a novel about Smith and female friendships?

AS: Why do you think a women’s college education is important for women? I think it is. I went to Simmons, which isn’t Seven Sisters…

CS: Oh my sister and my grandmother went there. For me, it was more about what happened outside the classroom. In the dining hall, we’d have these big debates about politics or literature. The nature of the friendships that developed in the absence of men was pretty interesting too. I think these things are pretty unique and I think that in a culture where sexism is alive and well, there’s something really special and necessary about having this place carved out for just women.

AS: I read an interview you did a while back with the Boston Globe and you were asked about feminism. For me, I was involved in the Feminist Union and an internship at the State House and other activism and never shied away from calling myself a feminist. But there were a lot of students who wouldn’t associate themselves with the term—“No, if I’m a feminist it means I hate men.” I just still cannot believe that’s there is a negative connotation with feminism. Why do you think there’s such a negative connotation? [author’s note: I’m ten years older than Courtney]

CS: We live in a culture that has historically been, if I may drop the P word, patriarchal. There’s this sense that change for women is a scary thing. Maybe women can go into the work force. We’ll allow that but they need to do every thing they used to do on the home front still. We live in a culture that it’s to the benefit of this patriarchal thing to make feminism seem like a bad thing or unnecessary or trivial. On the one hand, it may seem outdated and unnecessary. On the other hand, they make it seem really scary and ugly. So really it’s a fear of what the power of that movement can do and has done. And a lot of women have internalized it. Many young women live their lives as feminists but don’t want to take on the word and it’s pretty disheartening. It’s pretty strange. At the same time, there are a lot of women who do use the word. It’s really alive and well in a lot of places too.

I’m working on this anthology [as co-editor] about the “click” moment, the moments when young women decided that they were feminists. So the essays in the book are by women in their teens, twenties, and thirties writing about what was the moment or person or place or thing that opened their eyes and made them think “this is something I want to take on” or “this is the name I want to use.” They run the gamut from a girl who had ADHD but it was never properly diagnosed until much later in life because it was really a diagnosis mostly given to boys. And we have someone who always wanted to play the tuba in the marching band but had been forced to play the piccolo. It’s quite a range. It’s not just Women’s Studies 101. A lot of it is real life happenings.

AS: When you define feminism how do you define it as everyone seems to have a different definition?

CS: I think what is comes down to is equal rights for men and for women.

AS: That’s what I think too.

CS: I think men benefit from feminism too. I think we live in this culture where men are expected to provide a certain way so that most men [or a lot of men] can’t take off as much time to be at home with their children or if their wife has a baby they are expected to be back to work on Monday. I think to break down this idea that we’re in this very binary sort of structure– men do these things, women do these things– and make it more people do these things will benefit everyone.

That’s what I wanted to get at with Commencement. Obviously these bigger issues like sex trafficking, but how does feminism play out in our day to day lives? I think it comes down to these things like: do you change your name after you get married, do you pay on a date or let the man pay, all these things that may be trivial but that make up what it is to place yourself in this world and say ‘how can I be a feminist and stand up for these beliefs and also just live a normal life?’ What does that look like?

AS: It was great to bring sex trafficking into a novel because people think of it as a thing that’s going on everywhere but in U.S. cities. It seems to people that it only goes on in these remote, foreign places like Ukraine. Unless you’ve seen Very Young Girls, the documentary with GEMS. 

CS: I think that documentary is amazing and I’ve been involved with [GEMS]  a little bit in New York. That documentary is really telling it like it is. But so much of the time when someone writes about domestic trafficking it really never gets any attention. And if it does it’s in this sort of creepy hyper-sexualized way. I always get enraged when I see on Law & Order or a show like that where they’re talking about trafficking but they’re really trying to make it almost seem sexy when it’s actually, in fact, the exact opposite.

AS: What is your writing process?

CS: Well, I have a day job in the editorial department of the New York Times. I can’t get up in the morning to write. The hardest part for me is getting my butt in the chair. I usually write for several hours on a stretch on a weekend day. It always ends up taking a lot of time depending on what I’ve written. Before I work on the chapter I’ll read what I’ve written from beginning to end and ideally read the whole book from beginning to end for what I have so far before adding on to it because I feel like when you’re writing something at that length if you said that character is really shy in Chapter 2 but in Chapter 4 she’s dancing on a table, then you really need to remedy that. The characters take on their own behaviors and then you have to go back and tweak as you are creating. I always start there and write through for as long as I can.

AS: Why do you like to write?

CS: I’ve always written fiction from the time I was maybe five or six. I’ve always enjoyed reading fiction and writing it. I think writing it is even more of an escape factor. You’re in the head of these characters. It’s kind of funny to come out of it for me sometimes. I’ll be writing all day Sunday and then I’ll go to work on Monday and the characters I’ve been trying to work on will still be in my head. So I’ll be scribbling frantic notes to myself. I just think it’s very enjoyable. I’ve always loved theatre. When I was in high school I used to do a lot of theatre as well. I think there are similarities between the two. Except with writing you get to sit in your pajamas and drink tea and with acting you have to stand up in front of a bunch of people. So I’ll choose writing.   

AS: What is your favorite aspect of Commencement?

CS: I find that going around and doing readings most of the people that the book resonates with or who read the book tend to be women. So my readings tend to be chock full of women. Women who went to Smith or who didn’t, women in my age group or much older or younger, they can all relate even if their personal story was different. They can all relate to the friendships in the book and the idea of these friends that you keep around forever- who know you in this way that no one else can. I certainly have those friends in my own life so I’m happy when it resonates with readers.

**note to FCC or anyone who cares: I bought my own copy of Commencement**





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