Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Q&A with Rebecca Kauffman

Rebecca Kauffman is the author of the new novel The Gunners. She also has written the novel Another Place You've Never Been. She lives in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for The Gunners?

A: Early thoughts about the book were inspired by the question of whether or not people are capable of change. Most of us have probably had the experience of being very close to someone at one point in life, setting out in different directions and falling out of touch, and then eventually reconnecting.

I think the instinct at that point is to make a snap judgment as to the extent to which the other person has changed. (ie I can't believe how much you've changed! Or, Why, you haven't changed at all!)

I wonder how often what we identify as change - in others or ourselves - is not actually change at all, but simply an adaptation to changing circumstances, or the result of incremental adjustments made over time to suit the people around us. Or how often what we identify as change is not actually a person fleeing from their essence or true self, but drawing closer to it. 
This curiosity was the basis for The Gunners, in which the main characters were very close friends as children, disbanded as high schoolers, and are reconnecting in person for the first time in many years, when they are in their thirties.     

Q: You tell much of the story from Mikey's perspective, but also from the perspectives of several other characters. How did you decide on the novel's structure?

A: This structure allowed me to more fully explore the dynamic described above.  Allowing various characters (in their own POVs) to express opinions about one another is a way for the writer to more fully inform the reader about both the observer and the observed.    

Q: The story is set in Lackawanna, New York, a suburb of Buffalo. How important is setting to you in your work, and could this novel have been set elsewhere?

A: Setting is very important to me - details of place add richness to a story and inform that intangible "feel" of it.  To me, there is a really exciting complexity and precariousness to upstate New York, and I think it's only because I lived there for several years that I can write about Buffalo with energy and specificity. 

In other words, I suppose the story could have taken place elsewhere, but I don't think I could have written it in the same way.

Q: Who are some of your favorite authors? 

A: Denis Johnson, Annie Proulx, Ottessa Moshfegh, Colson Whitehead, Marilynn Robinson, Haruki Murakami, Louise Erdrich, Valeria Luiselli.

Q: What are you working on now? 

A: I'm working on a novel about the unreliability of feelings, and some short stories that involve music. 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Rebecca Kauffman. 

Q&A with Viola Shipman

Viola Shipman, the pen name of writer Wade Rouse, is the author of the new novel The Recipe Box. Rouse's other books include The Charm Bracelet and The Hope Chest, and his work has appeared in a variety of publications, including People and Coastal Living. He lives in Saugatuck, Michigan, and Palm Springs, California.

Q: You note that your grandmother's kitchen helped inspire this novel. How did you create your character Sam and her family?

A: Yes, I grew up in her kitchen, asking questions as I tugged at the hem of her crisp white aprons embroidered with bright strawberries or pretty flowers.

My tiny grandma and her little kitchen seemed larger than life to me as a child: A vintage oven anchored one side, while sparkly countertops were engulfed by a bread box that held Little Debbies and Wonder Bread slices.

But the most prized possession in her kitchen was her recipe box. After my grandma died, my mom inherited my grandmother’s recipes. After my mom passed, I became the keeper of those recipes and memories.

Her original recipe box – which my grandfather, a woodworker, made for her – helped inspire the family in the novel because I learned about our family through the food my grandmother made. A brilliant baker, my grandma told stories as she cooked.

The character of Sam is based not only on myself but also on many of the daughters of dear friends: Young women who are defined by others and told who and what they should be before they’ve even had a chance to figure it out themselves.

Moreover, I grew up in a small town, and ran away from it because I felt like the big city would be the answer to all of my dreams. But I ended up returning to a small town once I defined who I was on my own terms. All of that is the basis for Sam.

Willo, Sam’s grandmother and the matriarch of the Mullins family and pie pantry-orchard, is based not only on my own grandmas but also on the mother of dear friends of mine who own Crane’s, a century-old pie pantry and orchard just a short bike ride from where I live in Michigan.

Bob and Lue Crane’s love story – including their struggles keeping a family business going even in the hardest of times – served as the foundation and heart of the novel. And my own mom is present in Deana, Sam’s mother, the quiet strength of the family.

I’m very proud of the three generations of women – and their individual stories, strengths and struggles – represented in The Recipe Box.

Q: The novel takes place mostly in northern Michigan. How important is setting to you in your work?

A: VERY important. I work to make the coast of Michigan a living, breathing character all its own in all of my novels. I want the setting to be as memorable a character as my protagonists. I want the place to play a large part in the narrative and even impact the decisions characters make.

And I do that because it’s done so in my own life. I moved to the resort town of Saugatuck, Michigan, at the age of 40 after quitting a stressful job in the city and starting over as an author.

The first time I set foot in Saugatuck, I was stunned by its natural beauty: The grandeur of Lake Michigan, the sweeping dunes, a town that seemed as if it came straight from a vintage postcard. The setting calls to me and inspires me, and it changed my life.

The Recipe Box is set in Suttons Bay, a gorgeous resort town in northern Michigan set on Lake Michigan and a stunning bay. It’s filled with farms, orchards and wineries, and the town is cute as a button. Dear friends live in Suttons Bay, and my aunt lives in a cute town close to there, so I’ve spent much time there.

In addition to The Recipe Box, each of my novels – The Charm Bracelet, The Hope Chest and my upcoming novel, The Summer Cottage – are all based in a coastal resort town of Michigan. I move the setting around from town to town in each novel.

My goal is to do for the Pure Michigan-Up North-Great Lakes area of the country I love and call home what some of my favorite authors – like Elin Hilderbrand, Nancy Thayer and Dot Frank – have done for Nantucket and Lowcountry South Carolina. I’m honored that The Charm Bracelet was chosen as a Michigan Notable Book last year.

Q: Why did you choose to write under the name Viola Shipman, your grandmother's name?

A: I like to say the pen name chose me. I chose my grandmother’s name, Viola Shipman, as a pen name for my fiction to honor the woman whose heirlooms, life, love and lessons inspire my writing and who inspired me to become a writer.

My Grandma Shipman – along with all of my grandparents – were working poor, but they made incredible sacrifices for my family, and I would not be where I am or doing what I am today without their support. And I’m honored that readers will be saying my grandma’s name forever. It’s the smallest thank-you I could give to her and all of my elders.

My novels are meant as a tribute to our elders, as well as the women in our lives whose voices were often overlooked but whose love and strength united us.

Q: How did you select the recipes to include in the book?

A: By gaining about five pounds, lol!

I actually thought this would be the easy part, but selecting just the right recipes for the novel turned out to be one of the most difficult parts. Each recipe not only had to fit the setting of northern Michigan (and its bounty) but also the novel’s narrative (and arc) as well as the backstories and evolution of each character.

I had my grandmothers’ recipe boxes and recipe cards and had SO many wonderful recipes from which to choose, but I had to narrow them to fit. When I had the location and specific setting (a family orchard and pie pantry), I knew I wanted to focus on desserts.

And by timing the novel for summer, I could focus on summer fruits; many of the backstories go back in time to show each of the characters, so I could fit in winter/fall desserts this way.

The majority of recipes in the book are my family’s and come directly from my family’s own recipe boxes, but there were a few that I asked friends to contribute.

There is a peach-blueberry slab pie that my friend who is an editor at Taste of Home magazine contributed (and it’s insanely good!), and dear friends who own the century-old orchard and pie pantry near where I live that inspired the setting and characters contributed their beloved cider donut recipe (people from all over the country head to this pie pantry to get their donuts and desserts)!

Q: What are you working on now?

A: My next novel is The Summer Cottage, and it will publish in May 2019 from Graydon House Books/HarperCollins. The novel follows a woman who, in the wake of her divorce, quits her job, abandons city life, and attempts to convert her parents’ aging lakeside vacation home into a bed and breakfast.

The renovation unearths a surprising history, and myriad guests make her doubt her sanity and decision. I just love this novel, its characters and story, and it is set in my hometown of Saugatuck, Michigan.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: My previous novels just released in new formats: The Charm Bracelet in mass market paperback, and The Hope Chest in trade paperback. Both are beautiful, heartfelt novels that are inspired by my grandma’s heirlooms and are a tribute to family, love and kindness, things we could all use more than ever in today’s world.

I also have a wonderful website and quarterly e-newsletter, and am insanely active on social media, both of which are chock-full of wonderful stories, information, recipes, home/gardening tips and giveaways. Thank you! Happy Reading & Baking!

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Mara Rockliff

Mara Rockliff is the author of the new picture book Born to Swing: Lil Hardin Armstrong’s Life in Jazz. Her many other children’s books include Anything but Ordinary Addie and Around America to Win the Vote. She lives in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.

Q: Why did you decide to write a picture book about jazz pioneer Lil Hardin Armstrong?

A: It started when I brought home a documentary about high school jazz bands to watch with my family. My daughter played trumpet, and I thought a film about older students would inspire her. Instead, it made us all angry, because although both boys and girls played in those school bands, the filmmakers focused only on boys. The one girl they showed (briefly) was a singer. It was as if girls with instruments didn’t exist.

This is how the story of jazz is told. We hear about women singers, but the great musicians are all men. It’s not true now, and it was never true. There were always women jazz musicians, band leaders, and composers. Lil Hardin Armstrong was all three. And she was there right at the start.

Q: What kind of research did you do for the book, and what surprised you most?

A: I dug into primary source material: oral histories, interviews, newspaper articles from the time. One thing that surprised me was the contrast between how Lil has been dismissed by historians and how she was admired and respected by the men she played with—including her husband, Louis Armstrong, who pretty much owed her his career. In 1925, the Chicago Defender asked, “Louis Armstrong. Who is he? ...Louis is the feature man in Lil’s jazz band at the Dreamland.” Nobody had heard of Louis Armstrong then, but everyone knew Lil.

The most fun for me was listening to Lil’s recorded voice. She had a great way of talking, full of energy—lots of “oh, gee” and “boy, oh boy!” When I wrote her story, I tried to capture that authentic voice.

Q: What do you hope young readers take away from Lil's story?

A: I want kids to know that women can do anything, and women have done so much more than we’ve been told. A swinging jazz musician, an astonishing magician, a pair of daring suffragists dodging bullets and driving through blizzards—I love digging up the stories of forgotten heroes and giving them back their place in history.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: Lights! Camera! Alice! The Thrilling True Adventures of the First Woman Filmmaker, illustrated by Simona Ciraolo, will be published by Chronicle Books in fall 2018. Alice Guy Blaché was one of the very earliest pioneers of film. Decades before silent black-and-white films started coming out of Hollywood, Alice made movies with sound, color, special effects and crazy stunts, from jumping onto the roof of a speeding train to blowing up a pirate ship. And anything she asked her stars to do, Alice did first. She even climbed into a tiger’s cage!

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Both Lil and Alice are easy to get to know online! If you’d like to listen to some of Lil’s songs, try "Chimes Blues," "My Heart," "Perdido Street Blues," "Brown Gal" (later remade as "Bad Boy" by the Beatles’ Ringo Starr), "Just for a Thrill," "Born to Swing," and "Eastown Boogie."

A couple of short, funny films by Alice Guy Blaché: La Glu (The Glue) about a mischievous boy who ends up caught by his own prank, and Le Piano Irrésistible (The Irresistible Piano), in which no one can hear the sound of the piano without dancing. (Speaking of irresistible, don’t miss the little clip at the beginning, in which Alice herself turns to the camera and smiles!)

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Mara Rockliff.

March 20

March 20, 1928: Fred Rogers born.

Monday, March 19, 2018

Q&A with Mario Giordano

Mario Giordano is the author of the new novel Auntie Poldi and the Sicilian Lions. His other books include 1,000 Feelings for Which There Are No Names. He lives in Cologne, Germany.

Q: You’ve said that your character Auntie Poldi was based on your own aunt. What did you see as the right blend of reality and fiction as you wrote this novel?

A: I always had this mantra for writing: “Never private – always personal.” I never wanted to write about my private life, my family or my friends, but all my writing had to be personal in terms of feelings and authenticity.

With Auntie Poldi I broke this rule. My Aunt Poldi was just the perfect blueprint for the protagonist I needed for this series. But of course, I had to make her a fictional character. I added contrast and hue to her personality and gave her all the necessary aspects for her character. Unfortunately, she died in 2006 so I can’t ask her what she thinks about the fictional Poldi.

I didn’t actually have too much personal contact with my real Aunt Poldi, which is probably good because it freed me up to create a fictional character. (Though I found out much later that Poldi’s father was indeed a detective.)

But since the first book came out in Germany, she’s been sending me little signs of approval from above: once in a while former colleagues or neighbors of hers write to me after they discover the book. They say that the character in the book pretty much matches the dramatic, caring and kind personality of my real aunt.

Same with my other aunts and same with the other side-kicks in the story. It’s like a walk on thin ice sometimes but a lot of fun too, because as always fictional characters develop their own lives during writing and emerge with particular personalities.

With the funny effect that the originals in real life see themselves a bit like my characters now. My Aunt Nuccia, for example, answers my phone calls with “Luisa” now and is always demanding more action for her character. So, I always have to explain, “Cara zia, sorry, this is not a contest. Your character has its own life and she’s not even asking me for permission.”

Q: You’ve written in a variety of genres—why did you decide to write the story of Auntie Poldi as a mystery?

A: Well, I was a little bit like the nephew in Auntie Poldi. For many years I too wanted to write a big multi-generational family saga about Sicily, Germany, immigration, history, whatever. But it just wasn’t working, I didn't have a real story nor protagonist.

So, I thought, let me try this again, this time with a genre I am familiar with: mystery. And I wanted to make it funny. Then I remembered my Bavarian Aunt Poldi, who moved to Sicily when she turned 60 in order to drink herself to death, which she managed to do. She was a very funny, glamorous and dramatic woman. We all loved her.

At that moment I immediately knew I would write a funny mystery with Auntie Poldi as a protagonist and myself as a clumsy, nerdy narrator. 

Q: Do you usually know how your novels will end before you start writing, or do you make many changes along the way?

A: It’s tricky. I need to know beginning, middle and end. And when writing a murder mystery, you always need a lot of structure beforehand. But then during the writing process I dump most of my structure and just go with the flow, improvise a lot, follow my characters and embrace everything that’s coming to me.

The magic thing is, it only works out when I did a lot of preparation even if I dump it later.

Q: This novel is set in Sicily. How important is setting to you in your writing?

A: I see setting not only as some sort of narrative decoration but as another character. Which means that the setting has to become alive, has to interact with the other characters and has to add conflict to the story. But with Sicily, that’s easy. Sicily is always adding a lot of conflict.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: Well… Poldi’s next case, of course.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: You should definitely know where to get the best pistachio ice cream on the planet. So, go to Cipriani’s in Acireale in front of the church of S. Sebastiano. Have gelato or granita and order a brioche on the side or try the roasted almond ice cream and the incredible arancini al ragù.

If you’re into red wine, try the Cisterna Fuori by Vini Biondi. It’s stratospheric.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

March 19

March 19, 1933: Philip Roth born.

Sunday, March 18, 2018

Q&A with Christopher J. Yates

Christopher J. Yates is the author of the new novel Grist Mill Road. He also has written the novel Black Chalk. Born in London and raised in the UK, he lives in New York City.

Q: You've written about how the New York Post inspired your character Hannah. Were there particular inspirations for your other two main characters, Patrick and Matthew?

A: Patrick is very much based on me, in many ways—although, at the same time, not really me at all, if that makes any sense.

However, he has very similar experiences to me. I really did have a spear thrown at me by a best friend when I was young (I write the experience almost word for word in the first chapter of Grist Mill Road) and I learned to cook, just like Patch, when my parents got divorced and I got bored of microwave meals.

Matthew is a whole different kettle of fish, however. I don't know exactly where he came from, but his section is the last third of the novel, so I had a few years for my subconscious to work on him before I had to write him down.

Q: Do you know the endings of your books before you start writing, or do you make many changes along the way?

A: I had absolutely no idea about the ending—or many other of the important details in the novel. I think I like to come up with an interesting beginning to a novel and then work out how and why that beginning happened later on. But that's just me. I think knowing the ending is another very valid way to write a novel. Valid, but just doesn't interest me at all.

Q: Some sections of the book are in first person while others are in third person. Why did you choose to write it that way?

A: I write very instinctually. It felt right at the time. I can justify it now, and explain it now, but I prefer the instinctive approach. I like going at it this way—write write write write write write write write... and then throw away the stuff that isn't working, keep the stuff that is.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: Nothing, or 10 different things, depending upon the number of minutes past the hour at which you ask me this question. I write, I throw away, I go back to stuff that's 10 years old, and at some point in this process I hope for clarity. It hasn't happened yet. If you never see a third novel from me, it'll be a pretty good sign that this is a very flawed way in which to work.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb