Posts Tagged STEELE INTERVIEWS

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: Furniture Girls

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

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

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

Amy Steele: How did you get together?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amy Steele: What makes a good song?

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

Amy Steele: What new music are you listening to?

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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STEELE INTERVIEWS: Illeana Douglas

book cover. I blame Dennis Hopper

Do not expect to find gossipy stories in Illeana Douglas’s memoir I Blame Dennis Hopper: And Other Stories From a Life Lived In and Out of the Movies . Instead this reads as a genuine love story with film. Infused with passion and enthusiasm, actor/director/producer Illeana Douglas discusses her journey to become an independent voice in cinema. Illeana reveals disappointments and achievements with equal parts humor and honesty. She recounts her early and ongoing love for classic films and the art of film-making itself. She writes: “That’s how movies change us: in ways we cannot even remember. Those images of movies stay in our brain; those fragments become shards in our memories.” She recalls working with directors such as Gus Van Sant, Martin Scorsese and Allison Anders. Illeana has starred in a ton of  films including Grace of My Heart, Picture Perfect, To Die For, Goodfellas, Wedding Bell Blues [check this one out. it’s so much fun], Ghost World, Return to Sender, She’s Funny That Way, Factory Girl, Happy, Texas, and Cape Fear. She directed Illeanarama and Easy to Assemble as well as several short films.

Not only did she study acting but she questioned every moment while on a film set and dissected various films to completely absorb and comprehend the film-making process. She voraciously read books about film. Illeana explains: “To me, a movie is like a roulette wheel with a series of problems where the numbers should be. The wonderful mystery of a movie is that you can never predict those problems, so fixing as many things beforehand as possible, such as answering questions in the script, is a good idea.”

I truly enjoyed this memoir. It provided so much insight and Illeana possesses such a passion for film and a respect for the entire process. She’s a great storyteller and she remembers details about everything. We met briefly when she screened Devil Talk at The Coolidge Corner Theatre in Brookline. Grace of My Heart is my all-time favorite film so I ask Illeana lots of questions about it.

Illeana took the time to answer some questions by email.

Amy Steele: Why did you decide to write this book now?

Illeana Douglas: We are in a period where-although movies are readily available to see-we have no context with which to talk about them. I was lucky that I had my grandfather Melvyn Douglas talking to me about working with Greta Garbo and Peter Sellers. Now that’s context! I always saw and wrote about movies-but it wasn’t until I started working with Turner Classic Movies that folks became aware of it. Yes, I’m an actress, and I do talk about my own career/life story in the book but the focus is that I am a fan of movies as much as being in them. These are 15 stories about movies or movie stars that changed my life.

Amy Steele: Why the title?

Illeana Douglas: It’s called I Blame Dennis Hopper because I wanted to tell a memoir through the movies because the movies have defined who I am. In 1969 my parents saw Easy Rider. After seeing the movie they rejected their middle class life style and became hippies. The title pays homage to him because it’s how the power of that film– Easy Rider— changed my destiny. I am an actress because of Dennis Hopper—because as a child I was raised on his philosophies—which were based on the film Easy Rider. Later on of course I met and worked with Dennis Hopper—in the movie Search and Destroy— and had my own profound experience which is what I write about in the book.

Amy Steele: You talk about films at the drive-in being a major part of your childhood and teen years. Is that how you developed such an interest in classic film and film-making in general?

Illeana Douglas: I learned about classic film I think because I was spending time with my grandfather and sitting across from Myrna Loy or Robert Anderson or Diane Baker at the dinner table. I knew they were in the movies. I wanted to be able to impress my grandfather so I started reading more about classic film so I would have something to say at the grown ups table! Then when he brought me to the set of Being There I started to get an interest in the behind the scenes making of films. He picked up on my eagerness to learn, and started sending me movie books.

Amy Steele: Your childhood did surprise me. The hippy factor and uncertainties. How did this influence your acting and shape you as a person?

Illeana Douglas: My childhood seemed like a movie. It was all out of my control. I became obsessed with movies—somehow I knew this was my way out. Movies were—when I was growing up—how you could define yourself. You looked to the movies. I wanted to be Liza Minelli, or Ruby Keeler, or Richard Dreyfuss. I looked up to these icons– still do. I knew if I could be in the movies I would be happy and that has been very true!

Amy Steele: Your grandfather [Melvyn Douglas] was a well-known and Academy-Award winning actor [Being There, Hud]. What kind of relationship did you have with him and how did he influence your decision to act? Did he know that you wanted to act and what kind of advice did he give you?

Illeana Douglas: He was of course my first mentor and my first fan. He believed in me. He gave me structure. He encouraged me to read and to learn. He said, “When you find someone to learn from don’t let go of that person”. I have tried to honor that. To respect the craft and the history of acting. He also pushed me to write. So writing has been my way of making him happy.

Amy Steele: Then your grandmother was the first democratic woman elected to Congress from California. What did you learn from her?

Illeana Douglas: She was so confident. She believed strongly in her principles-which were very liberal. Politically- it was her opinion or you were on the wrong side. She also had great taste in art, music, and antiques. These are all qualities I admire. She also loved to hear little poems or songs I had written. Pictures I had painted. She created a world that I very much wanted to be a part of.

Amy Steele: How has acting influenced your directing?

Illeana Douglas: I love acting-love it-but my heart lies in directing. Acting made me want to be a director. When I work with actors I obviously know through experience what they are going through. I have a certain empathy. They are not in control. My goal as a director is to tell the stories of emotional triumph.

Amy Steele: As with many industries (journalism for one), film is quite white-male dominated, what has been your greatest challenge as a woman in the industry?

Illeana Douglas: The greatest challenge is that an “actress” will always be treated with gender bias. It’s sad because I love acting and actresses but you will never get respect as an actress if you have opinions. Shirley Maclaine has said she’s played a hooker 8 times in movies. What does that tell you about being an actress in Hollywood?

Amy Steele: Hollywood also has issue with aging actresses. Seems once you’re over 40 you get the mom roles. What do you think could change that?

Illeana Douglas: I don’t think generally it will change. All you can do as a woman is write a great part for an older woman and try like hell to get it made. In the meantime there are other areas in show business you can work in and a lot of actresses—I’m one of them have branched out to writing and directing.

Amy Steele: As Grace of My Heart is my all-time favorite film, I adored that section and found out many things I didn’t know like that you and Allison wanted to make a film about Anne Sexton. Is there no possibility to make that film?

Illeana Douglas: We would love to collaborate on a film. I don’t think it will be Anne Sexton.

Amy Steele: Of you and Allison you said: “Allison and I both felt like female artists who didn’t quite fit in a mold.” I would think that’s a good thing. Can you explain how that shaped the film as well as your relationship with Allison?

Illeana Douglas: I wanted a collaboration with a female director in the way that male actors did with male directors. Allison is so knowledgeable about films. That was the surprise. We just clicked because we both loved movies—especially melodramas. We wanted Grace of My Heart to be a musical melodrama and I think we achieved that. We got that movie made, and I am awfully proud of it. We are friends to this day. I love her. I loved co-hosting with her on TCM and the Trailblazing Women series.

Amy Steele: You’ve worked with mostly male directors. How are things different working with a female director?

Illeana Douglas: I have actually worked with many female directors. Allison Anders, Nancy Savoca, Kathy Bates to name a few. I sought a collaboration with Allison Anders. She was the quintessential female director I wanted to work with because I felt she would bring out the best in me and she did. What I have found is that once you are on set everyone is very supportive– it’s getting to the set.

Getting a female-driven film set up and made that is the challenge. I know when I am directing a project—I get more personally involved in the hiring of women in all departments. There are more women physically on set. I have also worked with two female D.P.s [cinematographer/Director of Photography and I have found no sexism directed towards them once they are on set. Again it’s getting the job that is the problem.

Women directors tend to write their own material. It usually feels, as in the case of Grace of My Heart that the story is very personal and very real. Everything I have written for film and directed—my shorts etc. are all based on real experiences or feelings and I have turned them into a narrative. I’ve said this before and it’s widely quoted but I believe women shoot better sex scenes than male directors. They are just prettier to look at, and certainly more arousing. Some of the male depictions of sex scenes turn my stomach a little—they seem about power—not so much about love.

Amy Steele: As you worked in the Brill Building for one of your first jobs how cool was it to make a film about its history?

Illeana Douglas: I worked in the Brill Building in 1987 and continued to work there throughout the 90’s and became fascinated by its history. I’m a big music buff—so the idea that this was Tin Pan Alley fascinated me. I started to read a lot of books about it as my grandfather’s parents were actually song-writers themselves. There were so many stories of these great song-writing teams at the Brill Building. Of course the Carole King story resonated with me—as it did Allison Anders. She’s an expert on the girl groups. I was merely a fan. We would have loved to film in the actual Brill Building.I did film there with the movie Picture Perfect. The halls are square and have linoleum on them so you could move pianos around. I liked the idea of that much creativity happening in one building. We tried to create what it would have felt like to be a singer/songwriter in that era. One of my favorite scenes is writing a song with Howard (Eric Stoltz). It felt very organic. Of course it helped that Elvis Costello had written the song for us.

Amy Steele: You also stated that the 90s was the “height of independent film-making”—how and what has changed with independent film since then?

Illeana Douglas: We don’t have enough time! The 90s represented the best of that mid-range indie film—3 to 5 million dollars. Now you can either make a big budget movie that will have to have big big stars or make a movie for under a million. It might get into a festival and it will not be released in theaters, it will be VOD. We are making a lot of movies– not as many people are seeing them. Also it was filmed. Everything now is digital. Doesn’t have the warm quality of film.

Amy Steele: Why do you think you’re more of a comedic actress than a dramatic actress?

Illeana Douglas: I enjoy satire and irony. I think funny. Situations in life I find comic. I find life absurd—like a Fellini movie. I really enjoy making people laugh, it makes me happy.

Amy Steele: Illeanarama is so funny and so is Easy to Assemble –where did those ideas come from and what has doing a web series allowed you to do these days?

Illeana Douglas: I had a couple of pilots that I made that didn’t go anywhere and then I was approached by IKEA in 2007 to create some branded interstitials. Easy to Assemble came out of my feeling of wanting to do more comedic writing. I had made a number of shorts but my directing was always put on hold so I could act. Easy to Assemble which came out of Illeanarama was a way to act in projects I had written and to have a voice comedically. I had five years to write/produce/direct because of IKEA. I was able to learn how to produce, handle budgets work with actors and write scripts without the pressure of failing. I knew I would be writing and directing films and this was a fantastic training ground. We were pioneers and I will always be proud of that and thankful to IKEA.

Amy Steele: You stated: “I’m a bit of a rebel. It’s true. I challenge the system and I question authority.” I am the same way and it hasn’t helped me much. People don’t appreciate that. Has this been problematic or beneficial for you?

Illeana Douglas: I do not like unfairness, and when something is wrong I will speak up. Does it rub people the wrong way to be outspoken– yes it does. You also have to question authority because they want to corral everyone into the same thinking. I am for the individual. Women have to rebel and risk not being liked. There is no other option for a woman than to have the attitude of “I got this” but that rubs folks the wrong way.

 

2014 TCM Classic Film Festival - A Conversation With Richard Dreyfus at Club TCM at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel

HOLLYWOOD, CA – APRIL 11: Actors Richard Dreyfuss (L) and Illeana Douglas attend a conversation with Richard Dreyfuss at Club TCM at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel during the 2014 TCM Classic Film Festival on April 11, 2014 in Hollywood, California. (Photo by John Sciulli/WireImage)

Amy Steele: Richard Dreyfuss seems to be the actor you’ve always admired. What do you like about him?

Illeana Douglas: Everything. He’s one of our finest amd most thoughtful actors. His films in the 70’s shaped a generation. There is no performance like Jaws or The Goodbye Girl. His energy and drive is palpable and yet underneath is strong vulnerability. And he’s DAMN funny. I like what I wrote about Richard Dreyfuss, “Was he cocky… yes… was he right? Always.”

Amy Steele: You developed a special relationship with Roddy McDowall. How much did he mean to you?

Illeana Douglas: Roddy got me into keeping journals and autograph books. He was a student of film history and was one the first people to talk about film preservation. He was gracious and kind and just the epitome of class. Everyone loved him, and he was also a very talented photographer. I never saw him complain or be sad about any blow that life dealt him. His picture is on my desk, and he is always in my thoughts.

Amy Steele: What do you like best about working at TCM?

Illeana Douglas: Working with Turner Classic Movies is a dream. There is not a person who works there who has an agenda other than to celebrate movies, movie makers and to put on a pedestal the giants of the cinema. I have great respect for Robert Osborne who gave the channel a face. They are also in tune with the fans. The fans make TCM a family, and I don’t know a TV channel today that actively thinks about pleasing the fans. I have had the opportunity to interview luminaries like Richard Dreyfuss, Jerry Lewis, Eva Marie Saint.

When I was going to write a book it aligned with what I was doing with TCM—which was shining a light on the importance of films. Our Trailblazing Women series set the agenda for female filmmakers and the contributions of female filmmakers going back to 1896. Many of the films we highlighted are now being recognized –Ida Lupino, Shirley Clarke, Barbara Loden– no one was talking about them– now their films, and the films of many other female filmmakers are being recognized.

Amy Steele: What inspires you?

Illeana Douglas: Amarcord means “to remember” I am the rememberer.

purchase at Amazon: I Blame Dennis Hopper: And Other Stories from a Life Lived In and Out of the Movies

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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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STEELE INTERVIEWS: Beth Bombara

Credit: Nate Burrell

Credit: Nate Burrell

St. Louis, Missouri-based musician Beth Bombara creates Americana/folk songs with bluesy undertones and earthy vocals. Growing up in Grand Rapids, Mich., Bombara played in a punk band in high school The 32-year-old singer/songwriter moved from Michigan to St. Louis in 2007 to embark on a solo music career. Her musician/producer husband Kit Hamon collaborated on her moving and diverse self-titled fifth album. The recurring themes are existentialism and travel. Quite thoughtful and provocative. She’s currently on tour and plays Club Passim in Harvard Square tonight.

I spoke with Beth Bombara during one of her days off.

Amy Steele: How’s the tour going?

Beth Bombara: It’s been a lot of fun so far.

Amy Steele: How did you get into music and singing and playing instruments?

Beth Bombara: There were always instruments around my house. We had a piano and my mom had a guitar. I was just really into music and teaching myself how to play guitar. I met some kids that wanted to start bands and it was something I always remembered doing.

Amy Steele: What do you like about being a solo artist?

Beth Bombara: I like both but I like playing with a band, in terms of having more band members to play with. In some ways it’s more fun because I don’t have to carry as much weight. I can just focus on singing more and maybe move around stage a little more. I like both. They’re just different. The band aspect there’s more collaboration. Solo. I’m rarely just playing me alone. Usually I have at least my husband playing bass with me.

Amy Steele: You moved to St. Louis in 2007. How has the music scene had an influence on your music now?

Before I moved to St. Louis I was in rock bands and went to a lot of sweaty basement shows and it was fun. I guess that can tie back into why I got into playing music in the first place. It was so fun to go see live music as a teenager. There’s a raw energy and getting to be part of that was fun. I was enamored with instruments and melody. When I moved to St. Louis, I really started experiencing music in the Americana roots music genre and even some blues. It was this perfect evolution of these things coming together. Moving to this place that roots and blues and heritage. A lot of folk coming out of the Ozark mountains. Banjo players and things like that. It definitely had a big influence. Examples of bands that played a part in my evolution after moving to St. Louis: Wilco; Uncle Tupelo; and more underground bands like The Rum Drum Ramblers (who are now a part of Pokey LaFarge’s band); and the Hooten Hallers.

Amy Steele: What makes you work well with your husband, to produce and collaborate on the album?

We have different ideas about things. We come at things from different perspectives. We might not always agree but we realize each perspective is valid. Having a certain respect enables us to use that different perspectives to find the best thing for the song.

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

Beth Bombara: I feel like the best songs are deceivingly simple if that makes sense. It can’t seem too forced. Simplicity makes good songs. Lyrics that are simple and a melody that is simple but also says something in a brief way .

Amy Steele: Let’s talk about some songs. What they’re about or what the writing process was like.

Amy Steele: “Promised Land”

Beth Bombara: It describes a point in life where I thought that a lot of things are unknown. It’s kinda scary when you don’t know, to plan things, to get a vision for what you’re doing. That definitely came from a place of uncertainty. Feeling this is kind of scary but we have to go into this darkness, unknown and it’s good to do with someone who supports you.

Amy Steele: “Give Me Something”

Beth Bombara: The writing of that was interesting: I did that as a writing experiment where I gave myself only a couple of days to write and record it. It’s kind of an anomaly in my songwriting. I didn’t have a specific idea. It was more stream of consciousness. It speaks to that whole cycle of getting to know somebody and feeling like you’re close and then that’s gone and navigating that.

Amy Steele: “Great the Day”

Beth Bombara: It kind of embodies my mantra. My philosophy. My life philosophy. So many things happen in life that we can’t control. We’re going to experience happiness, we’re going to experience sadness and you have to take that all with a grain of salt and support each other.

Amy Steele: “It Slips Away”

Beth Bombara: I feel like I was in the same emotional state with that song as I was when I wrote “Promised Land.” You’re on a journey and things are a little bit uncertain. Questioning yourself. Did I do the right thing? Am I headed in the right direction?

Amy Steele: What are your greatest challenges?

Beth Bombara: It’s challenging to be a singer/songwriter but not to get stuck in that box. Especially as a female singer/songwriter people have expectations about that. I’m going to show up to a gig with an acoustic guitar or a piano. And those stereotypes are hard to shake off. It’s only hard for me in my mindset. I don’t think it effects how I write songs. It’s just something I run into sometimes.

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

Beth Bombara: I like the spontaneity. There are a lot of different areas where being a musician is spontaneous whether on stage playing a song and something happens you didn’t expect to happen. Collaborating with other musicians. I always enjoy that. Getting to meet a lot of people.

I enjoy creating songs. I think that speaks to my personality. I think I’m a maker. I like to make things. I like to garden. I like to screen-print. All these things I like to do have to do with building things. Creating something from nothing.

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STEELE INTERVIEWS: Shireen Jilla

unpacking

I recently wrote a review of the wonderful novel The Art of Unpacking Your Life by Shireen Jilla. It centers on a group of college friends who take a trip together 20 years after college. Much happens while they’re on holiday–births, deaths, love, scandal and affairs. It’s a topsy-turvy read. Highly recommended. Ms. Jilla worked as a journalist before writing novels. This is her second novel. Her first is a psychodrama called Exiled.

Recently Shireen Jilla answered a few questions via email.

photo by Francesco Guidicini

photo by Francesco Guidicini

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

Shireen Jilla: I was like a schizophrenic for years, muttering to the main characters, who wouldn’t leave my mind.

I wanted to write about a generation that didn’t all end up married with 2.4 children. By 40, some are single, divorced, gay, with children, without. To me, it is no longer clear cut.

Amy Steele: It’s your second novel. What did you do differently in writing this one than the first?

Shireen Jilla: My last novel, Exiled, was a psychological thriller set in New York. Like Rosemary’s Baby. So the plot came first. It was the very immediate story of one woman, so I decided to write it in the first person.

With Unpacking, my starting point was altogether different. I had been thinking about the six main characters for a long time. I was equally interested in each of their stories. So I eventually decided to use a ‘roving’ third person perspective inspired by Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway.

Amy Steele: How does your work as a journalist affect your novel writing?

Shireen Jilla: It makes it easier and harder. I am used to settling down to write, but a 1,00-word newspaper feature with a clear beginning, middle and end, is ver different from facing the mountain of 100,000 words of fiction. Once I had worked out what I wanted to do with Unpacking, I wrote it very fast.

The first draft was completed in five months. I spent six weekends working from Friday through to Monday, practically without sleeping.
I am not precious about getting the scenes down and I don’t prevaricate. I think that’s because I am also a journalist.

Amy Steele: Why did you decide to set this in the Kalahari? How did you recreate the settings?

Shireen Jilla: I tried setting it in Sardinia, but it wasn’t a remote or extreme enough to allow the characters to unravel in such a short space of time. When my brother took me on this trip of a lifetime to the Kalahari, my first ever to Africa, I realised it was the perfect setting.

I kept a diary, took hundreds of photos, some of which are on my website, bought books, and talked extensively to the guides. All the detail is accurate.

Amy Steele: As they seem to be the main characters, what do you like best about Connie, about Luke and about Sara?

Shireen Jilla: I am incredibly fond of all the characters in the book. I admire Connie’s strength, love her doubt. I was drawn to Luke because of his unspoken vulnerability. And Sara is highly intelligent and funny, but ultimately a loyal friend.

Amy Steele: Why did you pick three guys, three women?

Shireen Jilla: I wanted Unpacking to be about a group of friends, close but disparate. And I wanted it to be written from a male and female point of view. Both reasons led me to have six main characters. In a literary sense, six main characters is considered a handful. And the editor at my literary agency encouraged me to reduce them.

Amy Steele: Are you still close friends with college friends? Would you take a safari trip together?

Shireen Jilla: Yes! I would love to do it.

Amy Steele: What do like best about writing novels?

Shireen Jilla: I love the actual process. It’s probably escapism. Still, I am never happier than when I am in the middle of writing a novel.

The Art of Unpacking Your Life [Bloomsbury Reader] by Shireen Jilla is available now.

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STEELE INTERVIEWS: Hallie Ephron

night night

When she discovers her screenwriter father dead in his swimming pool, Deirdre Unger finds herself at the center of the suspicious death. It’s 1985 and old Hollywood secrets resurface. Decades ago Deirdre’s best friend killed her mom’s boyfriend and a terrible accident left Unger walking with a limp and crutch. Deirdre now lives in San Diego and runs an art gallery. She and her brother drifted apart years ago. He dropped out of school, lives at the family estate and runs a motorcycle dealership. Their mother took off to join a cultish monastic life. When Deirdre begins sorting through her father’s papers the past swings back in full force. Hallie Ephron’s newest novel Night Night Sleep Tight weaves together present day-1985 with the 60s with fierce suspense and superb details. She delves into the anachronisms of Hollywood celebrity and the fame that many want and few realize. Ephron grew up in Beverly Hills with screenwriter parents so this covers familiar territory. A New York Times bestselling author, Ephron also wrote Never Tell a Lie, Find Me and There Was an Old Woman.

Night Night Sleep Tight By Hallie Ephron.
William Morrow| March 24, 2015.|287 pages |$26.99| ISBN: 978-0-0062117632.

Hallie Ephron took the time to answer a few questions.

author Hallie Ephron; photo by Lynn Wayne

author Hallie Ephron; photo by Lynn Wayne

Amy Steele: I really enjoyed the new novel Night Night, Sleep Tight. How did you come up with the characters?

Hallie Ephron: The book is a hybrid, one part based on my own experiences growing up in Beverly Hills, and another part riffing on the Lana Turner/Johnny Stompanato murder scandal. So, for instance, Deirdre Unger’s screenwriter father (Arthur) who gets murdered in the opening chapter is inspired by my dad; Deirdre’s old friend Joelen Nichol who turns up is based on my best friend in junior high, but her situation (her mother, mother’s Latin gangster boyfriend) is, as they say, ripped form some very old headlines.

Amy Steele: Why did you want to focus on a brother-sister relationship?

Hallie Ephron: Good question. I don’t have a brother, so I guess giving Deirdre a brother freed me to make stuff up. And I’m interested in how two people who grow up in the same family end up feeling as if they grew up in alternate universes.

Amy Steele: Do you generally start with characters or a story idea?

Hallie Ephron: It’s really both. Which is why my process is so messy. As I write the story the characters shift under me.

Amy Steele: You said that you used Lana Turner’s boyfriend’s murder by her daughter as a jump-off point. What appeals to you about that case?

Hallie Ephron: It happened when I was 10 years old (Cheryl Crane was 14) and the house was around the corner from where I lived. I pored over the pictures in the paper. I identified with Cheryl, sympathized with her enormously.

Amy Steele: What do you like best about your central character Deirdre?

Hallie Ephron: She’s a survivor. She had a terrible accident that left her crippled but she hasn’t an ounce (well, maybe an ounce) of self pity. And more than anything she wants to know the truth.

Amy Steele: Why did you decide to set this novel in 1985 and the 60s? Was it challenging to go back and forth time-wise?

Hallie Ephron: I was interested in writing about what was happening in Hollywood in the ‘60s – the studio my screenwriter parents worked at nearly went bankrupt and writers who had been on contract for decades were suddenly out on the street. I wanted the characters to be teenagers in the ‘60s, as I was, and then revisit the place twenty years later to see how it had changed. To keep myself sane, I had kept separate timelines for past and present for each of the characters. The writing itself was the easy part.

Amy Steele: What do you think is the best part of the earlier days of the entertainment industry versus today? Why do believe people like to read about it?

Hallie Ephron: So much glamour! It was before Facebook. The tabloids had barely gotten started. So it was a kinder, gentler time and the stars were protected by the studio system. So as far as the world at large was concerned, they lived a sort of fantasy existence.

Amy Steele: How did growing up in Beverly Hills with screenwriter parents influence your writing career?

Hallie Ephron: I’m a child of the movies, and though I don’t write screenplays my novels are very cinematic. When I write a scene, I imagine I’m writing from the viewpoint of a camera anchored in one of the character’s heads, but with access to that character’s thoughts and feelings and senses.

Amy Steele: How did you start writing?

Hallie Ephron: My first attempts were memoir. In fact, chunks of an early unfinished manuscript (full of lovely little episodes but no overarching story arc) found their way into Night Night, Sleep Tight. I always tell writers: Never throw anything away!

Amy Steele: Why do you like the mystery/thriller/suspense genre?

Hallie Ephron: I love reading the genre and it plays to my strengths as a writer. I’m good at creating a sense of place, building tension, and suggesting what’s going on with subtext. I love the intricacies of plotting out a mystery.

Amy Steele: What kind of research did you have to do?

Hallie Ephron: Hollywood and Beverly Hills in the 60s and 80s are so well documented – so many old pictures are found on the Internet and there are the movies that defined the styles of the times (Sandra Dee Gidget hair in the ‘60s; Jennifer Beals Flashdance hair in the ‘80s.) Between that and newspaper archives and my own memory, it was one of the easiest novels I’ve ever researched.

Amy Steele: Do you have any particular writing habits—time you write, place, outlines etc.—that you could share?

Hallie Ephron: I write every day, in my home office, on the computer, and I do create an outline though I never follow it. The outline is like training wheels that give me permission to write. As I write I revise the outline and make a feeble attempt to get ahead of myself, planning-wise. But it usually turns out to be hopeless and I constantly find myself second guessing myself and circling back. Along the way it’s a mess, but I’ve surrendered to the chaos. I’ve learned that if I keep at it long enough, eventually it comes together.

Amy Steele: Thank you so much Hallie! Tell Delia and Amy I send my regards.

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purchase at Amazon: Night Night, Sleep Tight: A Novel of Suspense

BOOK EVENTS

Tuesday, March 24 at 7pm
Brookline Booksmith
Launch event

Wednesday, March 25 at pm
Milton Public Library

Thursday, March 26 at 7pm
Wellesley Books

Saturday, March 28 at 2pm
Newport Public Library
Newport, RI

Tuesday, March 31 at 7:30 pm
Melrose Public Library
Melrose, Mass.

Thursday, April 2 at 7pm
BOOKENDS
Winchester, Mass.

Saturday, April 4 at 2pm
Brookline Public Library
Brookline, Mass.

Monday, April 6 at 7pm
Tufts Library
Weymouth, Mass.

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