Monday, January 22, 2018

Q&A with Ken La Salle

Ken La Salle is the author of the new novel An Intention of Flowers, the first in a series called Work of Art. His other books include Illumination and Dynamic Pluralism. He is based in Southern California.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for An Intention of Flowers, and for your character Andy Hollis?

A: 1. The idea for An Intention of Flowers entered my noggin one day as my wife, Vicky, and I were driving across the old 6th Street Viaduct in Los Angeles, which is sadly no longer with us. From atop that bridge, I looked down and witnessed children painting a parking lot with all sorts of wild, colorful flowers.

My writer's mind began doing what it always does, looking for the story there. At first, I thought it would make an incredible setting for a fantasy novel. But upon reflection I considered it on a smaller, more intimate scale, which eventually became my story.

But what did I know about that kind of story? Sure. I had been a teenager who dreamed of being an artist - but not that kind of artist. Honestly, I know very little about painting or that kind of art.

Understanding this, I knew that my point of entry could only be with someone who didn't know very much. Enter Andy Hollis, someone finding his way later in life, a little lost, just a step behind, a guy who thinks he's not hung up on doing the right thing although he kinda is.

Decades of writing have taught me that, while I could write stories from a place of authority, it's a lot more fun to use my characters’ ignorance as well as their knowledge, to jump in the deep end with them and help them find their way.

Q: This is the first in a series--have you planned out what will happen throughout the other books?

A: Yes and no.

As a writer, I tend to look at stories as a series of whats and whys. Whats are facts about the story. Whys are avenues toward those facts: intentions, motivations, and so forth.

So, I plan out my whats but I leave my whys to the writing.

Because if the story is no fun for me to explore, how is it going to be fun for the reader?

But there are some really great moments and events (also known as whats) on the horizon. And I can't wait to unearth the whys.

Q: The novel takes place in Santa Ana, California. How important is setting to you in your writing?

A: When I was in my 20s, sometime back in the Mesozoic era, I heard about this author who often set his books in Orange County, California, where I'm from.

I had never heard of such a thing, having read many fantasy novels that were set worlds away and literary fiction that hardly took place near the west coast. The author's name was Dean Koontz and I thought, "If he can do it, so can I!"

This proved to be especially helpful and, as it turns out, most of my books start near here.

The Work of Art series takes place at Santa Ana High School. I didn't attend Santa Ana High but I set the story there because I wanted the setting close but unfamiliar.

I wanted the feeling of home - and, in fact, I lived in the neighborhood near Washington Avenue for many years - but I also wanted it just outside of my comfort zone. And I know how strange that might sound but, in a way, geographical setting often equates to where my mind is at as well. This is why setting is important.

Q: What do you think the book says about the importance of art, especially for young people?

A: Work of Art is fun to write because it’s filled with the kind of people I like spending time with: passionate, engaged artists. So, it would be strange to say that Work of Art doesn’t say anything about the importance of art.

And yet, in a way, I think these books are about something bigger, set against the backdrop of art. My hope is that art will help expose these characters, their desires and their weaknesses. Work of Art is never about just one work of art but, rather, it exposes the work of art that is our lives.

Having said that, my reason for choosing artists, young and old, comes right down to that passion and engagement. This passion that infects us, that wrests our lives almost completely out of our hands, that is more powerful than any of us can know, also connects us in ways we can't quite understand. And that connection, too, can be seen as a work of art in itself.

Perhaps, if Work of Art says anything about the importance of art, it speaks to this connection that so many of us share, this connection that drives us and moves us.

It is, perhaps, a reminder that those who allow art to change them and change their lives may pay a terrible price. But it is a price we must acknowledge for the many riches art also provides.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: At the moment, I'm working on two projects simultaneously.
First, I'm recording the audiobook of another novel, Heaven Enough. I'm recording with a wonderful actress named Brenda Kenworthy and I cannot wait for people to hear it. My own reading aside, she brings a depth and compassion that honestly make my words sing.

The other project is more difficult to describe but it is a work of political satire to say the least. After one year of Trump, my rage at the harm he is doing and has done to both our country and our world has now been released into the third book in my Fun To Grow On series of "children's books for adults."

And I suppose you might get the idea of just what kind of absurdist rage I'm talking about when I tell you the title...Pussies: Disemboweling Trump.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I am an independent author with a lot of passion and dedication to wherever my art is taking me. I don't write in any one genre but I like to think that if you connect to one of my books you may find that you like some others as well. I don't write the usual stories in the usual ways; I am unapologetically me.

And you can find me at www.kenlasalle.com.

Thanks to all of my readers for their support. I need all I can get.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Jan. 22

ON THIS DAY IN HISTORY
Jan. 22, 1788: Lord Byron born.

Sunday, January 21, 2018

Q&A with Rachel Braun


Rachel Braun, photo by Rabbi Gilah Langner
Rachel Braun is the author of Embroidery and Sacred Text: New Designs in Judaic Needlework. A high school math and statistics teacher, she lives in the Washington, D.C., area.

Q: How did you first get involved in embroidery and needlework, and why did you decide to focus on Jewish texts?

A: I think I need to answer that question in reverse order! I have engaged with Jewish texts (Bible, liturgy) since I was a little girl. Enhancing sacred texts via the arts is common to so many cultures. 

In Jewish culture (and others!), visual expositions such as micrography, illumination, and embroidery, literally bring the texts to light.  Art provides one of many ways to immerse ourselves and reveal truths in text.

I turned to so-called “blackwork” embroidery because it is a very mathematical type of art, and I love math. (I had a first career as a statistician and now teach high school calculus and statistics.) 

Counted thread embroidery is executed on Aida cloth, an even-weave fabric that essentially looks like an x-y grid. My embroidery designs are first created on graph paper. That medium is very intuitive and meaningful to me. 

(Fun fact: I am the Guinness Book of World Records holder for largest graph paper collection in the world. I have 1000+ pieces of distinct graph paper!) 

Blackwork embroidery uses pattern and symmetry extensively, and it struck me that some of the interpretations of text that I wanted to convey reflected those attributes. Much of Jewish practice involves patterns, repetition, symmetries, and beauty -- elements easily translatable from blackwork embroidery.

Q: How did this book come about?

A: Three years ago, my friend and fellow fabric artist Christine Spangler visited me one afternoon after I had finished an embroidery piece, and announced, “You are ready for a book.” She ultimately became the book’s designer and editor. 

Her suggestion was a real gift -- it gave me motivation to spend an intense period of many months thinking about what the discipline of embroidery meant to me and verbalizing what the designs elucidated about illustrated Biblical and liturgical texts.

Q: Some of the art you include in the book was inspired by events in your family's life. What are some of your favorite pieces?

A: In 2000, I created a piece, “LeDorotam: Throughout their Generations,” to celebrate our son Hannan's bar mitzvah. The text is from the Hebrew Bible, Numbers 15:38, “and they shall make themselves tzitzit (fringes) on the corner of their garments, throughout their generations.”

This commandment is the source of the fringed prayer shawls, called tallit or tallis, that many of your blog's readers may be familiar with. Many Jewish children start wearing the tallit for prayer at the age or bar or bat mitzvah.

Hannan is named for my husband's grandmother of blessed memory, Hannah, and remarkably, I was able to use some of her own needlework in the piece.

She had crocheted a medallion doily, and I carefully separated the individual medallions and used four for the “corners” of a mini-tallit (16” x 6”) that I stitched and framed in a shadow box. 

(Some of your readers may, in their mental image of a tallit, recall that the corners of the rectangular shawl, throughout which the fringes are threaded, are often reinforced with patches.) 

Her medallions became the patched corners of the embroidery work.

In designing and stitching this piece, I felt that the Biblical words had sprung to life in the embroidery piece. The original Biblical text, the sharing of Jewish practice, and even the cloth materials had indeed prevailed “throughout their generations.”

I have the same sense about “God Counts the Stars” (2015), on the cover of the book. The text comes from Psalm 17:4-5: “God counts the stars, giving each a name....” The verse is interpreted in the embroidery as each star has its own set of blackwork patterns, its own embroidery name.

“Bamidbar: In the Wilderness” (2011) is a favorite, too, because it is one of the most mathematical in design, with strong symmetry elements. This piece was in a juried art exhibit of the American Mathematical Society in 2014.

Q: How did you decide on the order in which to place the art in the book?

A: It was a mixture of chronology -- critical, because my designs have increased in complexity over time -- and simply, making the work fit! 

Most sections, consisting of a photo of the piece plus commentary, took two pages, with a natural layout of photo on left, interpretation on the right. Longer sections, with a photo on the left followed by two pages of text, were paired with one-pagers (a small illustration matched with a paragraph of text).

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I am sketching a design based on a Mishnaic text from late antiquity, that enumerates the 48 ways that Torah is “acquired” -- that is, a list of methods by which Biblical wisdom and knowledge can grow. 

As an educator, I find this acknowledgement of many paths/intelligences for embracing Torah knowledge to be wonderfully timeless. As a blackwork embroiderer, the graph paper has become a elaborate playing field -- I am writing out the text in an ornate Hebrew alphabet I developed, and surrounding each of the 48 ways with a distinct blackwork embroidery pattern. 

That is how I am using the medium of embroidery to honor the ancient text and to illuminate the concept of 48 distinct methods of absorbing Torah knowledge. The art medium is becoming one with the text – fascinating to experience as I work the designs.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Writing the book allowed me to immerse in gratitude in so many ways -- to my husband Steven Braun for planning with me to take a year off from school to collect my thoughts; to Christine Spangler for her stewardship and wise counsel; to Philip Brookman of the Smithsonian Institution for scanning my art over many, many years; and to family members and friends who cheered me on, shared ideas for improving the book, gave me leads for book talks and shows, and celebrated its success with me.

Writing a book is a fabulous experience. It at the same time expands your experience of your subject AND sharpens the acuity with which you understand its core ideas.  

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Jan. 21

ON THIS DAY IN HISTORY
Jan. 21, 1925: Eva Ibbotson born.

Saturday, January 20, 2018

Q&A with McKelle George


McKelle George is the author of the new young adult novel Speak Easy Speak Love, an updated version of Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing that takes place in the 1920s. She is a reference librarian at the Salt Lake City Public Library, and she lives in Salt Lake City.

Q: How did you come up with the idea of a young adult version of Much Ado About Nothing set in the 1920s?

A: Even though I hated Shakespeare in high school, I saw some amazing adaptations on a study abroad in the UK at the RSC and the Globe.

Much Ado About Nothing has always been my favorite play–and deals with feminism in different ways with the parallels of Hero and Beatrice, and because women had just gotten the vote before the 1920s and there was a new idea of what it meant to live and be alive, it’s a great decade to play around with those themes.

Q: What kind of research did you need to do to recreate the era, and did you learn anything that especially surprised you?

A: I could research all day long. The 1920s are great because there are still some original film reels and records from the actual time. I find that letters are a better way of gauging how people spoke to each other than novels, if you can find them.

Once in a while, real-life facts helped inform the plot, or a detail I unearthed helped solve a minor plot problem, so it worked out! My favorite thing was definitely unearthing real life Prohibition agents Izzy and Moe—who became Dogberry and Verges. I would also add that when doing a retelling, it’s helpful to look up adaptations of the original source material.

Q: What did you see as the right balance between Shakespeare's original play and your updated retelling?

A: Well, as is typical in a Shakespearean comedy, everyone ends up married at the end. And a crucial part of the plot centers around Claudio and Hero trying to get married the first time . . . None of that really works for a book focused on teenagers (though they were often teenagers in Shakespeare’s time).

There were also questions I had about the play (for example, what is Don John’s deal, really? And why would Hero take Claudio back?) that I wanted to answer.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: Right now I’m working on a gothic fairytale, and also a sail-punk reimagining of the Arthurian legend with a few twists.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Thanks for having me on the blog!

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Jan. 20

ON THIS DAY IN HISTORY
Jan. 20, 1910: Joy Adamson born.

Friday, January 19, 2018

Q&A with Elizabeth Buchan


Elizabeth Buchan is the author most recently of the novels The New Mrs. Clifton and I Can't Begin to Tell You. Her other books include Revenge of the Middle-Aged Woman and The Good Wife, and her work has appeared in the Sunday Times. She previously worked in the publishing industry. She is based in London.

Q: Your two most recent books are set during World War II and its aftermath. Why did you choose that period to write about in these novels?

A: I am always intrigued how, even if the writer has already written about it, a subject sometimes refuses to die and nags away until something is done. But, then. who wouldn’t be fascinated by the women who worked in the Special Operations Executive (SOE) during the Second World War?

My second novel, Light of the Moon, was about a female SOE agent operating undercover in occupied France where she discovers, like Edith Cavell, that patriotism is not enough.

Researching for it proved to be addictive and I made many contacts and some cherished new friends who worked in the undercover agencies.

They told me about the beautiful and fantastically brave Violette Szabo (Carve Her Name with Pride), the equally splendid and intriguing Christine Granville, and the extraordinary Nancy Wake who they revered for their cool bravery and resourcefulness.

All of the agents, both the men and the women, knew that in going into the field, their life expectancy was very short, in some cases it was judged to be as little as six weeks. Many of them met gruesome ends.

Having written several contemporary novels, my obsession resurfaced with a splash when I was talking to Noreen Riols about her recently published memoir, The Secret Ministry of Ag. & Fish, which describes her work in SOE’s F-section.

I found myself going back into histories, biographies, memoirs and anecdotal evidence and it seemed there was no question of dodging the subject any longer. Thus, I Can’t Begin to Tell You, which is set in wartime Denmark, began to take shape.

This time around when I was doing the writing and the thinking, I found I was concentrating not just on the adventure aspect of the stories but on more fundamental questions. What does war do the spirit? How do you survive? What are you prepared to sacrifice? Or to betray? Is patriotism the only imperative?

All of which, after finishing I Can’t Begin to Tell You led me to think about The New Mrs Clifton and its subject: the aftermath.

Q: Can you say more about how you came up with the idea for The New Mrs. Clifton, and for your characters?

A: At the end of the Second World War my aunt married a German who she had met before its outbreak, a union which probably sent shock waves on both sides.

Getting married then must have taken courage and determination to survive the hostility. Their story has always inspired me because it’s an example of how, despite violence and unthinkable destruction on both sides, human beings refuse to give up their feelings for each other and continue to strive for harmony.

It’s curious to think that in 1945 both Europe and Great Britain, the victor and vanquished, were in an equally bad way. As one historian puts it: “hidden beneath the ruins, both literally and metaphorically, there was human and moral disaster.”

He was describing a Europe where chaos reigned – on the choked roads, in the broken towns and cities and in the daily revenges inflicted by families, friends and fighters on each other.

In Germany, most of men were either dead, wounded or elderly, children roamed like feral dogs and many of the women were on the edge of starvation.

The necessities of life had vanished. There were no banks, saucepans, aspirin, needles or nappies. The old foraged in bins, the young stole. Germany had become “a nation of rag and bone men.”

After the fall of Berlin in April 1945, the Russians swarmed in and unleashed an orgy of rape which few of the women escaped. The Germans called: Nulle Stande or Zero Hour.

Britain did not have it easy either. Yes, we had operational banks and aspirin, but fuel, clothing and food were in short supply and, if anything, rationing seemed more draconian had it had at the height of the conflict. 

Soap and shampoo were like gold bars and, if you fancied a lick of paint on your bomb-damaged house, you could think again. Housing was in short supply and outsiders were not welcome. If the truth be told, the Brits weren’t particularly saintly about it and there was racketeering and hoarding and much hardship as a result.

The novel opens in the 1970s with a skeleton being discovered in the garden of a house overlooking London’s Clapham Common. Forensics reveal that it belonged to a young woman who had been dead for several decades, who had given birth and had head wounds.

The action switches back to 1945 when Gus Clifton returns home to Britain with Krista, his new German bride. Their arrival comes as a complete surprise to his two sisters anxiously awaiting his return to the house on Clapham Common and even more of a shock to Nella, his fiancée, who had been happily planning her wedding to Gus.

Why has Gus done this? All three of the women feel instinctively there is something odd about this marriage, especially as Gus and Krista do not seem to know each other at all. And why would Krista wish to live in a hostile England? What mysterious hold does she have over him?

One of the women will end up dead. Revenge? Despair? An accident? As I wrote the opening disinterment scene, I felt a huge sadness for the waste of this woman’s life but also had to acknowledge that her fate – like so many others – was a consequence of the war.

I planned The New Mrs Clifton with the aim of keeping the reading guessing and I have had a lot of readers telling me that they had no idea who the victim was until it happened.

The intention was to show that war puts men and women in impossible and dangerous situations and it changes them, often brutalizing them. All of us. Pink, brown, black and yellow. Nice, good people end up doing terrible things. 

So, what is redemptive and optimistic about this situation? On reading contemporary accounts, one thing emerged clearly from the diaries, letters, reports and histories – which was a longing to be normal.  “How nice life would be,” reflects my Krista, “when the past is forgotten, washed clean of death and suffering.”

She is dreaming of a future when people would take light-heartedness as nothing unusual and there would be time and space to take pleasure in the small things. When the little niggle would be about frost on the dahlias and whether they had enough clothes pegs. When people could sit down to a family meal of sardines on toast and bit of butter and enjoy being alive.

Out of the rubble can grow great love. Despite the damage done by war, the novel is about a man and woman deciding to place love over hate, forgiveness over blame, compassion over brutality and to become normal.

Q:  Do you usually plot your novels out before beginning to write them, or do you make many changes along the way?

A: I know the opening and, almost invariably, the end. But what is in between is a mystery and I have to dig it out, word by word, page by page. It is slog and sometimes a despairing one but once I have erected the “architecture” of the story then everything is easier.

Q: Who are some of your favorite writers?

A: Novelists Anne Tyler, William Boyd, Robert Harris, Helen Dunmore: the biographer Richard Holmes: the historians Amanda Foreman and Simon Schama. 

Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre is one of the great novels which I reread often and there is a raft of brilliant young writers bubbling up to the surface. Every so often, I dive into one of Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander novels (I was briefly her UK paperback editor and like everyone else fell in love with Jamie Fraser).

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I am 50,000 words into a novel about broken promises which is set in Prague just before the Velvet Revolution, Berlin after the Wall has come down and contemporary Paris. The joy is that I shall have to visit all three cities in order to do some research…

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I wish everyone a fabulous 2018. I and very appreciative of all my readers and love it when they make contact. www.elizabethbuchan.com

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Elizabeth Buchan.

Jan. 19

ON THIS DAY IN HISTORY
Jan. 19, 1969: Edwidge Danticat born.

Thursday, January 18, 2018

Q&A with Anna Snoekstra


Anna Snoekstra is the author of the new novel Little Secrets. She also has written the novel Only Daughter. Her work has appeared in The Guardian and other publications, and she is based in Melbourne, Australia.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for Little Secrets, and for your character Rose?

A: Believe it or not, the main premise of Little Secrets is actually based on a true story.

A few years ago I read an article about porcelain dolls that were found on doorsteps of family homes. The creepiest part was that the dolls looked just like the daughters that lived in the houses.

It turned out to be an innocent misunderstanding, but the whole idea of the dolls, and the way people reacted to them, was fascinating to me.

I love crime stories that don’t have a traditional detective as their main character, but instead feature a regular person with invested interest in the mystery.

When I first started writing this book, my first novel, Only Daughter, had been accepted by a publisher but hadn’t been released yet. I had spent the previous five years working nights at a cinema/bar, and spending my days trying to get my writing career off the ground.

I channelled those feelings of desperation and drive into the Rose character. She is a budding journalist who latches onto the story of the dolls as a potential story and ticket out of her dead-end job at a pub.

Q: In this novel, you tell the story not just from Rose's perspective, but from the perspectives of various other characters. Why did you decide to structure it that way?

A: Structuring the novel to include different perspectives felt like the only way to tell the story I wanted to tell. I was fascinated with examining the way the truth can be twisted and manipulated.

Everyone sees the same events in different ways, so therefore have different ideas of what truth is. They bring their own desires, prejudices and previous life experiences to any situation and I wanted to show how much they can colour what each individual perceives as the truth.

Q: The novel takes place in a small town. How important is setting to you in your work?

A: Really important. For me, it is on par with character as the most important part of a story. Setting is usually the first part of a new concept that comes to me. Colmstock in Little Secrets is more than just a town. I created it as a symbol of claustrophobia and dashed dreams.

Before Colmstock, I’d always set my works in real places. It was really liberating to create a whole new place just from my imagination. I wanted it to feel real, and to make sense spatially, so I created road maps and set out where all the buildings and important locations were in relation to one another. It was actually really fun!

Q: Who are some of your favorite authors?

There’s so many! I try and read widely, not just crime but literary fiction, young adult, graphic novels and literary fiction as well.

Some of the authors I love at the moment are Candace Fox, Elizabeth Jolley, Emma Cline, Maggie Thrash, Emily Maguire, Samantha Hunt, Francoise Sagan and Angie Thomas, just to name a few.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: At the moment I’m working concurrently on another crime novel as well as a young adult novel!

The crime novel is about a young woman who is sitting in a police interview room waiting to confess to a crime. She was the victim of bullying by a group of girls in high school and has spent the next 10 years tracking down each of her tormentors, infiltrating their new lives, and getting revenge.

My young adult novel is about a group of teenagers living in a mountain town who believe them selves to be adopted. As they work together to try and find the truth of their parentage, they discover that the situation is much more sinister than adoption. It is a secret that goes to the centre of the town itself.

Both of these novels are coming out this year and I’m so excited!

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Just a thank you for asking such interesting questions. I’ve really enjoyed answering them.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Anna Snoekstra.

Jan. 18

ON THIS DAY IN HISTORY
Jan. 18, 1882: A.A. Milne born.

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Q&A with Linda Williams Jackson


Linda Williams Jackson is the author of Midnight Without a Moon, a novel for kids, and its sequel, A Sky Full of Stars. They focus on a girl named Rose Lee Carter who is growing up in Mississippi in the 1950s. Jackson is based in Mississippi.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for Midnight Without a Moon, and for your character Rose Lee Carter?

A: I have always wanted to write a story about a sharecropping family in the Mississippi Delta because of the stories I heard about my own sharecropping family from that area.

Rose’s character is inspired by a cousin who was indeed left in Mississippi to be raised by my grandparents when her mother migrated to Chicago (the true story is VERY different, by the way).

Of course, children being left behind during this period was quite common, so Rose could have been any young girl who was raised in the South while her parents sought job opportunities up north.

Q: The book includes the story of Emmett Till. What did you see as the right blend of history and fiction as you were writing your novel?

A: I tried to make the story as historically accurate as possible. So for the tie-in, I fictionalized Rose’s grandfather as an “old friend” of Emmett Till’s great-uncle Mose Wright. Since Mose Wright was a tenant farmer in the Mississippi Delta, it is not too far-fetched to blend that fiction with fact.

What I did not want to do, however, is bring a “living” Emmett Till into the story and attempt to fictionalize his life in any shape, form, or fashion. I wanted the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but.

Q: How did you research the book, and did you learn anything that particularly surprised you?

A: Most of my research was done on the Internet. I read tons of articles, including archived copies of Jet magazine (which was quite fun actually). I did have to buy a few books, but most of what I needed was on the World Wide Web. I watched YouTube videos in addition to reading articles.

The thing that surprised me was how little I actually knew about the history of the Mississippi Delta and about my own African-American history.

Q: What do you hope readers take away from the book?

A: I hope readers will grasp an understanding of what type of environment Emmett Till stepped into when he got off that train and traveled to Money, MS.

Emmett Till’s death wasn’t just about a wolf whistle. It was about Brown versus Board of Education. It was about voting rights. It was about Jim Crow. It was about the White Citizens’ Council.

All of those things encompass “keeping people in their proper place,” and that is what the Emmett Till murder was all about—not a wolf whistle.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: Truthfully, I’m not working like I should be. But when I do, I will find myself telling the rest of Rose’s story, plus telling a story of about happenings in the Mississippi Delta during the ‘70s.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Hmmm. Nothing that I can think of except, thanks for the interview!

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Jan. 17

ON THIS DAY IN HISTORY
Jan. 17, 1706: Benjamin Franklin born.

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Q&A with Allegra Huston


Allegra Huston is the author of the new novel Say My Name. She also has written the book Love Child, written and produced the film Good Luck, Mr. Gorski, and is on the staff of the magazine Garage. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including Newsweek and Vogue. She lives in Taos, New Mexico.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for Say My Name, and for your main character, Eve?

A: I wanted to write a love story, and I wanted to base it on my fantasy—that one of the great songs would have been written for me. It’s my first novel, and I wanted Eve to be somewhat similar to me, so I made her 48. I didn’t want an old rock-and-roller, but a guy on the verge of making it big. That led into the story of an older woman and a younger man.

Q: Do you think attitudes have changed over the years regarding relationships between older women and younger men?

A: I think they’ve changed to some extent, though not enough. It’s still, "Ooh, an older woman"--a programmed-in response that older women are more knowing and experienced. There’s something predatory, lubricious, forbidden, edgy about the whole deal, though certainly as you look around, there are more relationships between older women and younger men.

The cougar thing drives me mad. What is a cougar? A beast. There’s a sense of desperation…It’s extremely demeaning. It’s annoyed me that women have bought into this. It’s another way to demean women.

I know a lot of people in relationships of that kind, and virtually without exception, it was the man who did the chasing. The idea of a predatory cougar chasing down a boy, or a man, helpless in her wiles is so offensive.

Q: How did you think of the unusual musical instrument that you feature in the novel?

A: I can’t remember how I cane up with the idea of an instrument bringing them together. They are hard people to bring together! I came up with the idea of her doing antique hunting.

I wanted him to be a reluctant rock star, with a close and authentic relationship to a kind of primal music. The music Micajah plays when he’s not being a rock star is the kind friends of mine play—Andalusian, Middle Eastern.

His journey at the end is a reverse of [the film] Latcho Drom…he’s following the evolution of music from the far desert to Europe. Micajah does it in reverse.

Q: Is it a real instrument?

A: It’s based on a viola da gamba, but it’s smaller. The viola da gamba, you play like a cello, but you hold it between your knees. I kind of made it up, but then I researched the viola d’amore, and I imagined something that [already] existed!

Q: How was the book’s title chosen, and what does it signify for you?

A: The original title for the book was "Night Blooming Jasmine"; that was going to be the name of the song. But the publisher felt it sounded like an epic set in the Far East.

We moved on to "For Eve" as the title…but we tried to come up with a name that would convey romance. "Say My Name" is not as accurate a title, but I hope it conveys the flavor of being intimate and close.

The relationship between the two of them is based on being seen. It’s wonderful when you have a relationship with someone who sees you for who you are. That’s what draws Micajah and Eve together…

Q: What are you working on now?

A: The screenplay of this. And my next book, which is going to be fairly different. It’s a psychological thriller.

I hope it will hit the same thing—what I wanted to do with Say My Name was to write a novel that has a popular storyline but is well written, thoughtful, and authentic: the thinking woman’s sexy novel. Maybe the next one will be the thinking woman’s psychological thriller!

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: For me, it is a love story, but it’s really the story of a woman’s self-empowerment through the medium of a love story. I didn’t want it to have a regular happy ending, “happily ever after” updated, because that didn’t feel real to me…

What is a happy ending for a 48-year-old woman whose marriage has ended isn’t finding a younger guy. That’s great, but the idea is to feel confident. She, having felt seen, can see herself…

--Interview with Deborah Kalb