Sunday, August 20, 2017

Q&A with Terry Newman

Terry Newman, photo by Pippa Healey
Terry Newman is the author of the new book Legendary Authors and the Clothes They Wore. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including The Guardian and The Independent. She has worked in the fashion industry for many years, and she lectures at the University for the Creative Arts in Epson, England. She lives in London.
Q: How did you pick the 50 authors you included in the book, and the order in which they appear?
A: Of course there are authors who are well known for their style and to a large extent I wouldn’t have done this book without, say for example, the Fitzgeralds, Oscar Wilde, or Joan Didion. 
However, to begin with I sat down and made a list of my favourites and tested a theory that perhaps there was something to say about all of them clothes-wise….and for me there was.  This is a book that isn’t completely exhaustive: that would have been impossible, but I hope there is a breadth of legends in there to intrigue. 
The book runs and flows organically: I started off with Beckett as for a lot of folk he probably is the most curious author to address on this subject, but as I delved in there was so much to say about him. From the Wallabies and Gucci bags he wore to his amazing quiffed hair. 
I wanted the book to have a pace and flow and I worked hard on trying to juxtapose and connect authors as I went along so that it’s a fab read from start to finish…!!
Q: Joan Didion is featured on the cover. Why was she selected for the cover, and what do her clothes say about her and about her writing?
A: Joan Didion is an icon in the fashion industry and the cover image by Julian Wasser is timeless. There is a message in my book that finding a style and being yourself is important. 
The quote I found from Maya Angelou sums this up: “Seek the fashion which truly fits and befits you. You will always in be in fashion if you are true to yourself, and only if you are true to yourself.”
Didion’s effortless and amazing style stems from her being herself and the shot I used has a simplicity and elegance to it that is perfect.  The photo was an obvious choice for me and the first one that came to mind when I started the book. Luckily Julian was keen and let me use it. 
Didion uses clothes a lot in her writing – as a way into a subject. For example, when she wrote about the Manson murders in The White Album she uses Linda Kasabian and the story of buying her a dress to go to court as a foil for the horror of what she is talking about.
Q: Can you say more about Samuel Beckett and your sense of his style?
A: Beckett is a template for the modern, stylish man, I think! He has a classic elegance that is cool and timeless: a male Didion. He worked a seductive utility-wear look that is unfussy and testimony to the enduring appeal of a capsule wardrobe of essentials. Now I’m sounding like a glossy magazine, but for me he is the perfect GQ man.
Q: You end the book with Tom Wolfe. Why did you make that choice, and how do his clothes connect with his writing?
A: Tom Wolfe is smart, sassy, and detailed in his writing. He makes a loud statement in his work about his characters and the clothes they wear. He pays particular attention to this in the narrative of all his books and essays.  
In the same way, he is a meticulous dresser himself and is famed for his white-suits. I say in my book that dressing in white is a serene and unflappable wardrobe choice, and to a large extent Wolfe has spent his life sitting on the edge watching others get embroiled in life and writing about it. He is a mighty author to finish the book with, I think!
Q: What are you working on now?
A: More books about the stories clothes tell. I’ll keep you posted!
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: The book is available to buy now….!!  
--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Aug. 20

Aug. 20, 1932: Vasily Aksyonov born.

Saturday, August 19, 2017

Q&A with Fiona Davis

Fiona Davis, photo by Kristen Jensen
Fiona Davis is the author of the new novel The Address. She also has written the novel The Dollhouse. She has worked as an actress, editor, and writer, and she lives in New York.

Q: Your last novel focused on the Barbizon Hotel, and this novel focuses on the Dakota apartment building in New York. What made you choose the Dakota this time, and do you see any similarities in the role these buildings played in the history of the city?

A: I chose the Dakota as the Barbizon book was in the pipeline for publication. I was looking around, and nothing was clicking. One day I came up from the subway, and it was glowing, as if it was saying, “Pick me!” [But] with John Lennon, [who lived at the Dakota and was killed outside the building in 1980,] there’s a lot as an author that you don’t want to get into.

Both buildings have changed over time, and both were places of refuge. The Barbizon Hotel was a place young women went to stay as they pursued their careers, and the Dakota was a place for the merchant class to live for upward mobility but they couldn’t get it.

The elite only lived in brownstones, and were not interested in living communally. It was people who were willing to take a risk in an apartment, and the Upper West Side was the Wild West of New York City at that time.

Q: The Address features two main characters, Sara, in 1885, who manages the Dakota, and Bailey, who lives in the building 100 years later. How did you come up with these two women and the idea of setting them a century apart?

A: I knew I wanted to set it in the 1880s. It was when [the Dakota] opened. In the 1930s, there was a lady managerette, and I thought why don’t I put her into 1884. It was inspired by true history. 1985 was good because it was a Gilded Age of its own, and it was five years after John Lennon’s death so I could have a little distance. It was right around when I came to New York, and I remember how dangerous Amsterdam Avenue was.

Q: How did you research the book?

A: I read lots of books on the Dakota. I was able to get a tour of the building, from the basements to the servants’ floor. It’s an unusual building—the hallways are very narrow and the ceilings are very high. It’s eccentric. It becomes another character.

Q: Was your research mostly on the 1880s?

A: Yes, I had to do a lot of research about the Gilded Age for the 1880s section, but for the 1980s section it was a little easier, as that was right around when I came to New York City.

Q: The journalist Nellie Bly turns up as a character in the novel. What did you see as the right blend of fiction and history as you wrote the book?

A: I feel like history is the framework of the story and fiction is a way to bring it to life. With Nellie Bly, I knew I wanted to write about the [Blackwell’s Island] asylum—it was such a contrast from the luxury of the Dakota.

Having her show up was so much fun! There are books written about her, and I didn’t want to make her a main character, but I love books where you see events from a minor character’s point of view.

Q: Was the case you write about in the book based on anything real?

A: No, the owner of the Dakota died two years before the building was finished—of natural causes! I had the characters and created an interesting environment for them to exist in. I love mystery novels—I love having something like that in every book I write.

Q: Who are some of your favorite authors?

A: Geraldine Brooks, Jo Baker, Jane Smiley, Ann Patchett. Tom Perrotta—his writing is so fascinating for me.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: A draft of a book set in Grand Central Terminal. I’ve discovered amazing things about it that are surprising. It’s fun to see if I can pull it off!

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Fiona Davis. 

Aug. 19

Aug. 19, 1930: Frank McCourt born.

Friday, August 18, 2017

Q&A with Sarah Shoemaker

Sarah Shoemaker is the author of the new novel Mr. Rochester, which recounts the story of Jane Eyre from Rochester's point of view. A former university librarian, Shoemaker lives in northern Michigan.

Q: How did you come up with the idea of telling the story of Jane Eyre from Mr. Rochester's perspective?

A: My book group was discussing Jane Eyre, and eventually got around to talking about the Mr. Rochester character, the sometimes dark and angry, and sometimes pleasant or even playful man with whom Jane falls in love.

Who is this guy? we wondered. How are we supposed to understand him? What did Charlotte Bronte intend us to think about him?

One of us said, “People occasionally make mistakes in love; maybe Jane did that.” Another responded, “Not Jane. She’s too intelligent, too independent to fall in love with someone she couldn’t respect.” There must be something about him that we are not seeing, someone said.

I began thinking that it was too bad that no one had written a book about Rochester, so that we could better understand where he was coming from. And then I thought, I ought to write that book. I ought to write Rochester’s backstory. By the time I returned home that day, I had challenged myself to write Rochester’s story.

It was much later, only a month before Mr. Rochester’s publication, that I ran across a quote from Toni Morrison: “If there is a book that you really want to read but no one has written it yet, then you must write it.”

Q: What did you see as the right balance between Charlotte Bronte's original story and your own inventions?

A: My intent was to write Rochester’s full story, from his earliest memories to the approximate time that Jane Eyre ends. Since Rochester is nearly 20 years older than Jane, that means that the story of his life before Jane takes more space in the book than his life with Jane does.

I used everything I could find about him that Bronte tells us in Jane Eyre (which is more than a casual reader might think) and then filled in with my own inventions.

My intention, of course, was to show the development of his character. I wanted it to be his story, and so I wasn’t thinking so much of a balance as I was in exploring his character and the events of his life that shaped it, in order to help the reader (and myself) understand him more fully.

Q: Did you need to do any research to write the novel?

A: Lots. Lots and lots. I began by re-reading Jane Eyre, underlining, writing in the margins and using color-coded Post-Its to mark things I thought I might want to go back to.

Then I read another Bronte novel, Shirley, from which I took the idea of Luddites attacking a mill. I went on from there to other contemporary novels, looking for language, rhythms, terms, descriptions, expressions, trying to immerse myself in early 19th century England.

From there I read a multitude of books, papers, journal articles about subjects and issues with which I needed to acquaint myself. All in all, I read all or parts of 60 books, plus several journal and internet articles.

Q: What accounts for the ongoing fascination with Jane Eyre, and has the book always been a favorite of yours?

A: I think that the mystery of Mr. Rochester himself has a lot to do with the ongoing fascination with Jane Eyre---there is so much to wonder about him.

And then, Jane herself is a very fascinating character: she is intelligent, independent, with a strong moral compass. Why does she fall in love with him? These two together are a pair about whom readers have wondered for years and years, because Bronte has left us so much to wonder about.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’m still quite tied up in events and writings having to do with Mr. Rochester. I do have an idea, but I don’t think I’m ready to talk about it yet.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I thought that much of the difficulty between Jane and Mr. Rochester lay in their very different social positions. Of course we know those differences existed, but readers of Jane Eyre often fail to fully realize the difficulties that those differences present to the two of them.

He cannot be seen to be romancing her, for it would appear to be a case of the master of the house taking advantage of an underling. She cannot be forward in her feelings for him, as it could so easily be misunderstood---and she is too proud to shame herself in that way.

Much of his energy (in my thinking) is spent on trying to get her past that reticence to finally in some way declare herself (which he thinks must come first), and he almost doesn’t succeed. Those scenes, as Charlotte Bronte wrote them, are marvels.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Aug. 18

Aug. 18, 1944: Paula Danziger born.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Q&A with Claire Douglas

Claire Douglas is the author of the new psychological thriller Local Girl Missing. She also has written the novel The Sisters, and she has worked in journalism for 15 years. She lives in Bath, England.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for Local Girl Missing, and for your characters Frankie and Sophie?

A: When I was about 21 (in the mid-1990s) a girl from my street went missing after walking home from our local nightclub. It was a huge thing in our town - the police even came and interviewed me and the friends I was with that night as we would have arrived home around the time she went missing.

A few months later, in a different town not too far away, another young girl was murdered after leaving a club. Both these incidences really affected me and my friend and we promised each other that we would always make sure to leave a club together.

But it got me thinking about how I would have felt if it had been my friend who had gone missing. How would it have affected me all these years later? Would the guilt eat me up? Would I be desperate to know what had happened to her? The idea stemmed from there and the characters grew out of the story.

Q: The story takes place in a seaside town. How important is setting to you in your writing, and why did you choose this type of setting for the novel?

A: I wanted to set the novel in a small town - the sort of place where everybody knows everybody else and you yearn to escape. The sort of place I grew up in.

I loved the idea of a seaside town because, out of season, I find them very atmospheric, almost creepy, particularly in contrast to how they are in the summer when they are full of tourists holidaying and having fun.

I’ve always enjoyed reading novels with a strong sense of place and I wanted to create the same in my own stories. Oldcliffe-on-Sea is based on Weston-Super-Mare, a seaside town near where I grew up and where we used to visit often.

It also has an old, run down pier that sparked my imagination as soon as I saw it again. I just knew that this pier had to feature in the book and be the place where Sophie disappeared.

Q: Did you know how the book would end before you started writing, or did you make many changes along the way?

A: I don’t like to plan too much, but I can’t start a novel until I have worked out a) who the culprit is, b) how it’s going to end and c) what the main twist will be. I let the smaller twists, turns and sub-plots come to me as I write.

Saying that, I did make a last minute change to Local Girl Missing right at the end - the epilogue was initially from a different character’s point of view. I don’t want to say anymore just in case I give the ending away!

Q: The story includes the perspectives of both main characters. Did you switch back and forth between them as you wrote, or did you write one character's scenes first?

A: I really enjoy writing in two perspectives, as it gives me the chance to explore different voices. I wrote each character’s section in order, mainly because I find it really difficult to write a story out of synch so I switched back and forth as the novel progressed.

But in the editing stages I made sure to read through each character’s chapters separately to refine each voice and make them sound different.

One of the ways I tried to distinguish the two voices was to have the Frankie chapters in the second person and Sophie’s chapters as diary entries - I wanted them to feel young and chatty. I always kept a diary when I was Sophie’s age and I enjoyed reading mine back to remind myself of the songs, the styes and the phrases I used around that time.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: Last Seen Alive - my new psychological thriller - has just come out in the UK. It’s about a married couple who decide to do a house swap but they soon realise they’ve made a mistake when they find something very disturbing.

I’m currently writing my fourth novel which is about a family that relocate to the Brecon Beacons in Wales to set up a guest house, but it all goes wrong when one of the guests is found murdered.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I live in Bath with my husband and two children. I write from my kitchen table on a laptop and I drink too much tea!

--Interview with Deborah Kalb