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

March 18

March 18, 1932: John Updike born.

Saturday, March 17, 2018

Q&A with Daria Peoples-Riley

Daria Peoples-Riley is the author and illustrator of the new children's picture book This Is It. A former teacher, she lives in Las Vegas.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for This Is It?

A: I wrote This Is It after my family’s first trip to New York City. My daughter is an aspiring classical ballerina, and after we visited Juilliard with her, I was inspired to write her a poem to give to her on the day of her first audition.

After I enrolled in an online picture book class, I was asked to illustrate a manuscript. I didn’t have a manuscript, so I pulled out the poem to illustrate, and it became a picture book. I was able to read it to my daughter about a year after I wrote it when she auditioned for admittance into a pre-professional ballet program.  

And, though I thought I was writing a poem for my daughter, it continues to deliver me from some of my biggest fears. And yes, she was accepted into the program! 

Q: Do you tend to work on your illustrations first or the text first, or did you work on them simultaneously?

A: Once This Is It was acquired, my editor and I settled on the text first, and then I revised the illustrations. As far as new projects, illustrations and text come simultaneously. I will illustrate some spreads first, and then only write text for other spreads. Eventually, as I continue the revision process, I add text or illustrations where they are missing in the dummy.

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

A: I hope young readers are encouraged to learn how to speak life into their thoughts, and empower themselves through positive affirmations. It’s important that others believe in us, but it’s most important that we are brave enough to believe in ourselves. 

Q: Who are some children’s book authors and illustrators that have inspired you?

A: Gosh. There are so many, but most recently, I’ve been inspired by the work of Ashley Bryan. His work is rich, deeply rooted in the African Diaspora, authentic, simply profound, hopeful, and important for all generations of readers. I hope to grow into an artist who invokes his freedom of expression in both my art and in my life. 

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I am finishing the art for Gloria Takes a Stand (Bloomsbury, 2019) written by debut author Jessica M. Rinker, and I am also working on my second picture book due to be released during the summer of 2019. 

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Doing this work is a dream come true for me. Before this happened, I’m not sure I believed dreams came true. Now, I can tell the children I meet, dreams can and will come true. With a lot of hard work, determination to never give up, and a little faith tucked deep down in their heart, dreams definitely come true. 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

March 17

March 17, 1933: Penelope Lively born.

Friday, March 16, 2018

Q&A with L. S. Gardiner

L.S. Gardiner is the author of the new book Tales from an Uncertain World: What Other Assorted Disasters Can Teach Us About Climate Change. She works at the UCAR Center for Science Education, and she lives in Boulder, Colorado.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for Tales from an Uncertain World?

A: Several years ago I was at a meeting to learn about the latest climate research and what I was hearing was that the catastrophe was looking more insurmountable than ever.

It’s part of my job to help people understand this science, and I’m aware that it can fill people with worry. Realizing that climate change is a problem comes with a possible side effect of feeling helpless and uncertain about what to do.

This meeting was in San Francisco and it struck me that that city was no stranger to environmental catastrophe. In 1906 a massive earthquake and fires decimated San Francisco. I wondered what people in the city did then, whether they felt helpless and uncertain, and whether there was a parallel to our current situation with climate change.

I wanted to write this book because I wanted to know how people handle other sorts of environmental change. In some ways, climate change is unique, but, when it comes to coping with environmental change, this is not our first rodeo.

We have experience with change on earth and it can be helpful to understand our strengths, blind spots, and emotions when it comes to dealing with catastrophe. I wanted to learn from these other experiences to understand why we are slow to act on climate change.

Q: You describe climate change as "the catastrophe of our time." What do you see looking ahead, and what role do you see the Trump administration playing?

A: Looking ahead I see more strife in the short term - more weird weather, more failing crops, more challenges.

But I see better news in the long term, a paradigm shift in the way we create and use energy that stops adding greenhouse gases to the atmosphere - new ways to live. It might feel a bit painful but, like pulling off a bandage, it has to happen and we’ll feel better once it does.

In the meantime, we will need to find better ways to deal with the disasters that are caused by the impacts of climate change. We’ll need to find ways to adapt.

The Trump administration has been making decisions that will make climate change worse. Thankfully, the rest of the world and many people in the United States are making smart decisions that are helping quell the catastrophe.

Individuals and organizations are divesting from fossil fuels, solar panels now cover roofs in many areas, and hundreds of cities in the U.S. have adopted the Paris Climate Accord and are planning ways to limit carbon emissions. I hope that momentum keeps increasing. It’s all about the decisions we make.

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

A: I searched for examples of different types of environmental change - slow and fast, caused by humans and not, geologic, atmospheric and biologic. I found locations to make observations of phenomena or their aftermath and perused published research from various disciplines and history archives.

So many things surprised me as I researched the book. I was surprised how many of the historic stories of individuals I found were humorous and heartwarming. Even in scary times, people can be very amusing.

But I was most surprised to find myself in a catastrophe. Right about when I thought I was finished with my book research, flash floods plowed through my city. I took this as a sign that one more chapter was needed and it was time for more observations and research.

Q: What are some lessons you took away from the other disasters you studied?

A: Looking into other disasters helped me understand why we aren’t all reacting to climate change in the same way. That in no way excuses people for making bad decisions when it comes to climate change, but it is an explanation of why it’s so hard for us to get on the same page about what to do.

None of us are immune to making decisions that turn out to be unhelpful. For example, in the research for this book, I found one person who ran towards an erupting volcano and another who leisurely enjoyed a glass of wine as his city lay in ruins.

But all of us alive today have the ability to learn from decisions and improve. By being aware of how we are living on earth and the impact we have, we can do our best to minimize climate change by making decisions that add less greenhouse gases to the atmosphere, by choosing products and services that have a low carbon impact, and by voting for candidates who recognize the climate catastrophe and are ready to take action.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I have a book in the early stages that will weave together science, history, humanity, geography, and first-person narrative in a way that’s similar to Tales from an Uncertain World.

In addition to writing books, I create educational resources at the UCAR Center for Science Education to help people of all ages better understand how the earth works.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

March 16

March 16, 1920: Sid Fleischman born.

Thursday, March 15, 2018

Q&A with Allen Eskens

Allen Eskens is the author of the new novel The Deep Dark Descending. His other books include The Heavens May Fall and The Guise of Another. He worked as a criminal defense attorney for 25 years, and he lives in Minnesota.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for The Deep Dark Descending, and how do you think your character Max Rupert has changed over the course of the novels you’ve written about him?

A: The Deep Dark Descending is the third book in a three-book arc for the character of Max Rupert. The three books, The Guise of Another, The Heavens May Fall, and The Deep Dark Descending are stand-alone novels, but they chart a change in Max Rupert. The Guise of Another is a good-brother, bad-brother story in which Max is the good brother. He is a man with a strong moral code.

In The Heavens May Fall, Max is faced with a decision of whether to follow his conscience or follow the rules. This is the first break from Max’s Boy-Scout nature, and is the first step in opening the door to his dark side. This theme, and the title of the novel, comes from an adage “let justice be done though the heavens may fall.”

The Deep Dark Descending is a revenge novel and is the logical end of Max’s journey. In this novel, he is struggling with his darkest nature. It is a novel written to explore whether Max, a man who has had a strong moral compass his whole life, will follow through on his desire to kill the man who killed his wife.

This novel also springs from the notion that people find it easy to say. “If anyone ever hurt my loved one, I would have no problems hitting the switch on their electric chair. But I wanted to explore that notion up close, with a character who has to look his victim in the eye and deliberate the final outcome.

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

A: I tend to draw my titles from the themes of my novels. The Deep Dark Descending represents Max being drawn to his dark side. It also has a more palpable tie to the novel as one third of the novel takes place on the surface of a frozen lake on the Minnesota/Canadian border.

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

A: I outline all of my novels and know the endings before I start to write. But with The Deep Dark Descending, I went back and forth as I worked my way deeper into that first draft. The book ultimately ended as I had planned, but I had doubts about it at times.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I am currently editing The Shadows We Hide, the sequel for my debut novel, The Life We Bury. It is six years later and there are old ghosts that need to be dealt with—and some new ones as well.

My protagonist in The Life We Bury, Joe Talbert, never met his father, although he was named for the man. The Shadows We Hide begins with Joe learning of a man named Joe Talbert being found dead in southern Minnesota. Joe goes to that town to figure out if that was his father, and if so what happened to the man?

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I will be writing my sixth novel later this year which will be a story that I began writing 25 years ago. In a way, it is the story that I became an author to write. It is the backstory of Boady Sanden, the law professor and attorney who featured prominently in both The Life We Bury and The Heavens May Fall. This story will take my readers back to 1976 and the events of a summer that made Boady Sanden who he is. 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Allen Eskens.

Q&A with Francis Levy

Francis Levy, photo by Hallie Cohen
Francis Levy is the author of the new novel Tombstone: (Not a Western). He also has written the novels Erotomania and Seven Days in Rio. His work has appeared in a variety of publications, including The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The New Republic.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for Tombstone: (Not a Western)?

A: I have always been obsessed with death and the notion of the way that life and matter comes into being and then falls into oblivion. It’s the old philosophical question of something out of nothing and the reverse. 

Birth and death are both inexplicable mysteries that it’s impossible to fathom. The other is divinity and whether from a teleological point of view there is a first cause and prime mover.

I’m a rationalist and have trouble with the notion of an anthropomorphic conception of God—God as some cosmic telephone operator fielding requests. On the other hand the notion of the indifference of the universe, of the cosmic yawn is a little difficult to countenance for a weak and fearful creature like myself.

On a more pragmatic basis I simply had to deal with what my survivors would do with my remains, as everyone does. And before I knew it I had a novel.

Q: Did you know from the beginning how the novel would end, or did you change things around as you wrote?

A: I always think of Dante, but that didn’t lead me to the notion of an ending. The paradigm of paradise, hell and purgatory, however, present signposts and provide a map, along with way stations, particularly when it comes to suffering.

And so I envisioned a whole journey beginning on a lower level of pragmatic considerations, which I tended to dispose with humorously and then proceeding to other levels. Along the way, there would be obstacles, like the financial crisis and there would be teachers like the gurus you meet at the all-inclusive resort whose guests deal with death related matters.

I glommed onto the notion of the retreat, the sanitarium, a la Mann and The Magic Mountain, and that led me closer to the idea of the kind of ascendance you see at the end of the novel when the characters cross over into the afterlife.

Q: You've noted that you wrote about death before, including writing your own New Yorker obituary and a parody of Sherwin Nuland's book How We Die. Are there similarities in the approach you take to writing about death in Tombstone?

A: Yes, it’s very similar. I have a tendency to use humor to deal with issues that I actually take quite seriously. I can’t make a joke out of something unless I'm truly attracted to it. Again the resort dealing with afterlife issues exemplifies this.

On the one hand all the characters are imposters and frauds modeled on Moliere’s Tartuffe. On the other, I take them totally seriously. Just like my most deluded characters, I’m a seeker. The difference is that I’m a trifle more defended and that’s reflected in my use of parody.

Q: You describe the funeral industry as "a total rip-off." Why?

A: I was rather young when I arranged my first funeral. By the way, the original title for this book was “The Arrangements.” I guess I was kind of traumatized by what a business it turned out to be. You pick out caskets the way you do cars, only there are no trade-ins and you can’t buy a used one.

Jumping to the chase, I have a deep aversion to memorial services, the chapel, the sacrosanct speaker who receives his or her gratuity, the whole commodification of something which is ineffable. It’s more expensive to be buried than cremated since you have more paraphernalia and you have to buy real estate, i.e., a grave.

But after all is said and done what drives me crazy is the fact of the congregating. It’s supposed to be for the survivors, but every time I attend a funeral, people are in a rush. They're in a rush to get to their yoga and therapy appoints or to their trysts and they’re actually impatient.

I personally don’t want to be responsible for forcing people to come to some event that's going to cost my estate money and that they feel they have to attend to save face.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: My next novel is The Wormhole Society. It’s a kind of reversal of classical therapy. Instead of working inside out. I propose the sci fi idea of traveling to a parallel universe in which you can attain a more adaptable mode of living.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb