Interview with Christina Chiu, Author of BEAUTY

Posted by Jocelyn on July 3rd, 2020

Tell us the story behind the story. How did BEAUTY come to be?

Beauty” is a short story from my first book Troublemaker and Other Saints. When I finished the collection of stories, I started writing a novel, but Amy kept insisting her story be written. It was like she was sitting on my shoulder. Anything I wrote, she’d say, “That sucks because the story’s over here with me.” Finally, I set that novel aside and started writing Beauty. 

What was the most challenging aspect of writing BEAUTY?

There were different kinds of challenges. Motherhood interrupted my work; I never realized I needed so much emotional space and energy in order to write. I found out after my first child was born. In terms of the craft, I had a very difficult time figuring out the structure. It wasn’t until I realized how important karma was to the story that I understood what to do.

What is the message you want readers to take away from your book?

Don’t ever give up. It’s easy to see life rolling past and think you missed the life you wanted. But you haven’t. Always hold onto what you want. Work toward it. You may get there or you may not, but if you don’t try, you definitely won’t. Often it’s the process of moving toward what you want that is so rewarding. 

Describe your background. Did your background play a part in your book?

As a Chinese American woman, I find that my background is inseparable from my work. I like to examine stereotypes—really delve into them—to realize the complex people beneath. The systemic natures of racism and sexism are important to identify, explore, and understand. Only by confronting them can we change them. Beauty is an intersectional literary work, one that is American with American characters rooted in the U.S. I can’t tell you how many people ask me where I’m from, and when I say, New York, I get back: “No, where are you really from?” 

Describe your writing schedule. Do you outline? Any habits? 

I don’t have a schedule, but I’ve noticed that I write best under two conditions: when I have a lot going on and if I have real deadlines that need to be made. Often, the night before my chapter or story is due, I’m up all through the night writing. Sometimes my children wake for breakfast and I’m still at the computer.

What books are on your nightstand? What are you currently reading? 

I’m currently reading a lot because I’d like to help review books for authors who are either launching now like I am during Covid, or review novels from the past that I feel people should be reading now. I just finished reading a memoir called The In-Betweens by Davon Loeb. I’m about to re-read the novel Pym, by Mat Johnson (the first time didn’t count because I was a new mom and delirious from fatigue) and a memoir called Uncomfortably Numb, by Meredith O’Brien. I’m also about to start The Resisters by Gish Jen, which I’ve wanted to read since it came out.

Which authors do you admire? 

Gish Jen, Elissa Schappell, Michael Cunningham, Mat Johnson, Toni Morrison, Sherman Alexie, Helen Schulman, Marie Lee, Junot Diaz, Sergio Troncoso, Lan Samantha Chang, Helen Benedict, Maxine Hong Kingston, Denis Johnson

What have you learned from this experience?

I’ve learned to have fun and love life. I started shoemaking because of this book. It was research. But somewhere along the line, I fell in love with the process. The more fun I had, the more flowed out of me onto the page. I also learned what a beautiful and courageous person I am and that my work deserve to be appreciated.

What is the best piece of advice you have ever received? What is one piece of advice you would give your younger self?

The best piece of advice I ever heard was from Sherman Alexie. It was more than 20 years ago, back when we had to snail mail submissions to journals. I had gone to one of his readings. When someone asked this question about best advice, he said, “postage.” Just keep sending out your work. Every time you get a rejection for a story or book, just send it back out.

I would tell myself there’s a lot I don’t know, but there’s also a lot that others don’t know, too. So it’s okay to be in your power, even if it makes others uncomfortable or angry. You have so many things in your heart that need to be said. Say them. Not just for your sake, but everyone’s, especially for the children you will be having.

What are you working on now?

I’ve been working on a memoir and I just started another novel. The memoir is about 75% done. I’m hoping to finish a full draft soon. It’s pretty exciting. The novel I just started is really fun, so I’ll be working on that a lot this summer.

To learn more about Christina Chiu, visit her website.

Interview with Susan M. Gaines, Author of ACCIDENTALS

Posted by Jocelyn on June 23rd, 2020

Tell us the story behind the story. How did ACCIDENTALS come to be?

For me, the genesis of a book is sort of like making a soup: it’s messy, and it involves lots of ingredients that you may not recognize when you finish. I first started thinking about this story way back in 1999. I was trying to coming to terms with the end of nature as I’d understood it coming of age in the 1970s. I had been thinking about climate change, trying to understand an economic system whose well-being depended on perpetual exponential growth and resource consumption, trying to comprehend why we hadn’t done anything to change it. I was thinking about my father’s Sierra Club activism when I was a kid, and about my own political inertia. I was yearning to start birdwatching again, a hobby I hadn’t indulged since I was a teenager. 

I was surprised to find these seemingly disparate interests merging with the stories I’d been hearing for years from one of my closest friends, who’d grown up in Uruguay. More surprised still, when I accompanied her on a family visit and discovered that the wetlands I’d dreamed up were real—and teeming with birds. Of course, I couldn’t write a novel set in a country I’d never lived in, so I found a job teaching English, adopted new friends and family, and made myself at home in Montevideo and Rocha for the next three years. 

That was just the beginning of the saga that produced Accidentals. It’s almost as if I lived, rather than wrote, this novel, which was entwined with my life and its ever-shifting maze of homes, day jobs, families, friends, deaths, and other writing projects for over fifteen years. Like history, the issues I was writing about kept reappearing with new masks over the years, and even now, as the book stumbles out into the world, they fester unresolved, their urgency newly masked by Covid19.

What was the most challenging aspect of writing ACCIDENTALS?

My answer to this question would have been different at different phases of working on the book. But the challenge I grappled with from beginning to end, through all the myriad drafts, is one that actually mirrors one of the novel’s underlying themes. The birds and ecology in Accidentals are not just setting, but essential characters, and I struggled to keep their quiet, science-based story in the foreground, even as the dramatic, gut-wrenching story of love, politics, and family escalates. I wanted readers to be turning pages, of course, but not so quickly that they miss the birds along the way! 

What is the message you want readers to take away from your book?

Reading a novel is a complex, individual experience, and I’m loath to dictate what readers should take away from it. My hope, rather, is that Accidentals provides a space in which readers can reflect deeply and critically on how the past informs the future; on the current mass extinction of species; the nature of altruism; what it means to emigrate and to immigrate; and on the ways that science, with all its uncertainties, illuminates the natural world, and our future. 

Describe your background. Did your background play a part in your book?

I grew up and came of age in California, where many of my closest friends were daughters and sons of Latin American immigrants—from Chile, Uruguay, Mexico, and Venezuela. My family spent every vacation camping in the West’s national and state parks, and I was close to an older cousin, who was an accomplished birder and biologist. I spent my preteen years birding and backpacking, went to a state college in the redwoods of northern California, wandered off with friends to southern Chile—where I acquired my second language—and dropped out to travel by bicycle through Southeast Asia and Europe (living out of a tent, financed by odd jobs, and an occasional company sponsor). 

In college, I got interested in organic chemistry, and I eventually ended up researching the chemistry and geochemistry of the oceans and sediments at Scripps Institution of Oceanography. I quit when I realized I would never find time for creative writing if I continued—I hardly found time to read a novel—but my scientific training deeply informs both my world view and my fiction. 

Accidentals embodies the emotional connections to wild places forged during my childhood in California, the scientific view of nature I acquired in my studies, and the complex feelings about Uruguay I inherited from my friends. 

Describe your writing schedule. Do you outline? Any habits? 

My writing schedule and habits have changed over the years, as they depend on my (paid!) job and family responsibilities, but I generally work best in the mornings, straight out of bed with a cup of coffee in hand. I like to eat at my desk, drink lots of coffee or mate, and go for a run in the afternoon (good thinking time). 

I write the same way I cook: without a recipe. It’s slow and messy, with a lot of trial and error, lots of “wasted” pages. I don’t outline at the beginning of a novel, but as I work my way into it, I start making loose outlines of the next scenes and events—which may then shift around as I work towards and past them. Sometimes I draw little graphs to illustrate the book’s pacing and tension, but these wouldn’t make sense to anyone else. Since my work is often tied to the seasons, I use calendars from the years when they’re set to keep track of the days. I usually make diagrams showing the characters and their relationships, ages, etc, and these diagrams also tend to change as I write my way into the book. 

What books are on your nightstand? What are you currently reading?

I usually have several novels going at once, flitting between them, depending on my mood—unless one is particularly good and takes over. A recent book-buying spree–part of the desperate attempt to support independent bookstores and new releases during the pandemic—means the pile is particularly large at the moment, and not very well curated. 

  • The Study of Animal Languages a novel by Lindsay Stern (just finished)
  • Her Sister’s Tattoo by Ellen Meeropol (just finished)
  • Animalia by Jean-Baptiste del Amo
  • Disappearing Earth by Julia Phillips
  • Glorious Boy by Aimee Liu
  • The Golden State by Lydia Kiesling
  • Weather by Jenny Offill
  • Family of Origin by C. J. Hauser
  • Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari
  • Fear Itself: The New Deal and the Origins of our Time by Ira Katznelson

There’s another pile of non-fiction that I’m collecting up as I muddle around with the background for my new novel, but I’m not going to list that.

Which authors do you admire? 

My taste has changed over the years, and there are too many to name (or remember), but here are a few that always come to mind, in no particular order: Toni Morrison. Wallace Stegner. George Elliot. A.S. Byatt. Marilynn Robinson. Margaret Atwood’s literary fiction. Richard Powers. Franzen’s first and last novel, but not the ones in between. Christian Kiefer, among younger authors. I’m leaving out all the 19th and mid-20th century authors I loved when I was younger, because I haven’t reread them and don’t know what I would think now. Except George Elliot, of course.  

What have you learned from this experience?

As with all my books, I became an expert on a lot of things—ornithology, Uruguayan history, rice farming, microbial ecology—which I am now quickly forgetting as I begin the next novel!  

What is the best piece of advice you have ever received? What is one piece of advice you would give your younger self?

No advice from me–I’ve done it all wrong, but I still don’t know what right would be! At least I was never bored with life! 

What are you working on now?

I’m in the early conceptual and research stages of a new novel, but I’m not ready to out it yet. 

You can learn more about Susan M. Gaines and her novel, ACCIDENTALS on her website.

James Patterson’s Newest Non-Fiction Release Tackles Kennedy Family Tragedies

Posted by Jocelyn on April 17th, 2020

Nonfiction is the new line in the Patterson program with Little, Brown. His latest release, THE HOUSE OF KENNEDY, fixes its lens on the tragic family legacy of the Kennedy’s. With his focus on strong storytelling, dramatic scenes, and narratively entertaining treatment of nonfiction subjects Patterson’s THE HOUSE OF KENNEDY will likely follow the success of FILTHY RICH and ALL-AMERICAN MURDER.

USAToday sat down with Patterson to discuss his latest release.

Summary: The Kennedys have always been a family of charismatic adventurers, raised to take risks and excel, living by the dual family mottos: “To whom much is given, much is expected” and “Win at all costs.” And they do–but at a price.

Across decades and generations, the Kennedys have occupied a unique place in the American imagination: charmed, cursed, at once familiar and unknowable. The House of Kennedy is a revealing, fascinating account of America’s most storied family, as told by America’s most trusted storyteller.

J. Herman Kleiger on The 11th Inkblot

Posted by Jocelyn on April 16th, 2020

Tell us the story behind the story. How did THE 11th INKBLOT come to be?

I love inkblots and mysteries!  I love being moved and surprised. Hermann Rorschach’s creation of his eponymous test has fascinated me for 40 years.  As a psychologist and psychoanalyst, I’ve immersed myself in the science and art of using the Rorschach Test as a diagnostic instrument.  As a writer, I’m drawn to the layered meaning of the inkblot – the appeal of complexity, ambiguity, and navigating the unknown reaches of our personal experience.  

When I completed my first book, Disordered Thinking and The Rorschachtwenty years ago, I was struck by the idea of an “11th inkblot.”  Rorschach’s test has 10 blots, administered according to standardized instructions for the last 100 years.  I thought that someday I would imagine a story about “the 11th inkblot.”  So the concept percolated for decades but came to fruition a couple of years ago.  Much of my professional life has involved in writing clinical reports, which, in some ways, tell stories about an individual’s inner life.  I’d authored three books about the Rorschach and wanted to create a story about the origin of the test.  

A confluence of events in my personal life gave birth to the story.  Long fascinated by my ancestry in Ukraine and the number of watch makers in my family, Eastern Europe and the centrality of timepieces became an important theme in my story.  While writing The 11th InkblotI lost my father, a WW II combat veteran. Although I dismissed decades of his war stories, they snuck into in my book as I was preparing for his death.  In some ways, The 11th Inkblot is an homage to my fathers – Pvt. Ralph Kleiger, my dad, and Hermann Rorschach, my professional father.  I don’t think the story would have ever found life without a third father-presence, that of my analyst, Irwin Rosen. 

What was the most challenging aspect of writing THE 11th INKBLOT?

“Killing the darlings.”  The often used phrase for writers helped me prune the manuscript and cut characters or storylines that got in the way.  Working with my editor, my wife, was challenging as her reasoned, objective perspective pushed me to see what I could not see on my own about my writing.  

Researching many content domains was both work and fun.  Learning elementary details about the history and mechanics of horology, studying maps of battles in the Easter Front of WWI, and learning about the Romani culture were challenges that I embraced.  

What is the message you hope readers take away from your book?

More of an experience than a message.  Beyond anything else, I want readers to enjoy this story, which is a journey in a man’s life, across time, and space.  Moreover, I hope to touch the reader – move them to laughter and, in some places, tears.  In the end, I hope to leave the passengers on the reading journey with a warm feeling, but also, with a sense of mystery, with questions that remain unanswered.

Describe your background. Did your background play a part in your book?

Clearly, my 40+ years as a clinical psychologist and psychoanalyst provided a personal and professional canvas for my story.  My work as a therapist and psychodiagnostician paved the way for writing a book that took fact and history as a basis for imagining people and events. Having written over 30 professional papers and book chapters and 3 nonfiction books, I learned that writing provided a creative space for describing concepts and telling stories about people’s inner lives and experiences. 

Describe your writing schedule. Do you outline? Any habits? 

My friend and mentor told me, “research cold and write hot.”  I think that meant spend lots of time reading about the background topics and content that will inform the story and then, write!  I wish I wrote on schedule.  That is hard because I am still working and writing professional reports and papers.  When I’m writing fiction, I usually begin with an idea or premise that draws me in.  The scary, yet exciting, part of the writing process is discovering where the story is going as I’m writing it.  I usually have a broad-brush sense of where I want to end but the pathway leading there evolves as I write.

What books are on your nightstand? What are you currently reading?

I’m finishing Topeka School by Ben Lerner.  My roots at the Menninger Clinic in Topeka, KS make this an especially appealing read.  Plus, Ben Lerner is a poet, turned writer of fiction, who writes prose like poetry.  Cutting for Stoneby Abraham Verghese is another book I want to finish.

Which authors do you admire? 

Anthony Doerr and Richard Powers.  Wish I could write like them.  

What have you learned from this experience?

Writing fiction is hard work but brings me ultimate joy.  Writing will be my 4th quarter passion.  I love writing about odd and interesting people, inventing characters and their back stories, tinkering with the details of their behavior and inner lives.  

What is the best piece of advice you have ever received? What is one piece of advice you would give your younger self? 

Some of it crept into the novel in the voice of several wise characters – the power of memory and holding onto the most important people in your life during hard and sad times.  My wife, my children, sister, family, and friends.  

What are you working on now?

I’ve begun a story about another psychologically damaged character, who becomes caught up in a mystery, wrapped in the genome, but neither he nor the readers know how much of this is a product of actual events or the mutterings of his own confused mind.  

Books to Read During a Pandemic

Posted by Jocelyn on April 16th, 2020

Severance by Ling Ma is becoming one of the hottest novels right now despite being published in 2018. The reason for its recent rise in sales is because the novel’s pandemic, Shen Fever, mirrors our own struggles with Covid-19. Ling Ma explores how it affects life around the world and specifically New York City. Not sure if reading about a pandemic while living through one will provide much solace, but it’s worth a shot.

Jane Hu at The Ringer discusses this and more in her essay. Also if you’re looking for another book about loss and epidemics, Joshua Keating has an article on Slate about how the Orwellian novel The Memory Police by Yoko Ogawa mirrors how things we’ve taken for granted are disappearing in the age of Sheltering in Place and Social Distancing. Another dystopian tale that mirrors our current reality.