Interview with Kate Kerrigan

Kate Kerrigan is the author of Ellis Island, City of Hope, and Land of Dreams — a series of books I loved! She has two new books coming out The Miracle of Grace and Recipes for a Perfect Marriage.  Please give her a warm welcome today.

KerriganMiracleAbout The Miracle of Grace:

Grace’s mother Eileen is a great list maker, so when Grace walks into Eileen’s kitchen to drop off a postal package and sees her garish ‘To Do’ pad on the counter, she thinks nothing of it, until she sneaks a look. There, at No 8, ranked in importance well below bread, telephone bill and bins is ‘Tell G I have ovarian cancer, probably terminal’. Grace goes into shock, primarily at the thought that her mother is dying, but also at the fact that her mother simply couldn’t tell her to her face. Is their relationship really so bad?

Eileen has been brought up in rural Ireland in the 1950s, in thrall to the rules of her community – church first, then husband, then children. So she’s had little time for herself and even now finds it impossible to put her own problems and desires to the fore. It is only when Grace confronts her, that she is able to go back over her past, to her own childhood, her early marriage, and the birth of her cherished only daughter to find memories of happiness and unbearable tragedy that have coloured her life forever.

kerriganRecipesAbout Recipes for a Perfect Marriage:

Successful New York food writer Tressa Nolan has a great life — wonderful friends, a gorgeous apartment, and of course fabulous food — but the idea of turning forty alone scares her, so she marries the next man who asks: Dan, her building’s super. He’s handsome and he adores her, but soon after the wedding Tressa regrets her decision. Everything from Dan’s unsophisticated interests to his enormous (and intrusive) Irish-American family sets her teeth on edge. Why couldn’t she have the perfect marriage her grandparents had? What Tressa doesn’t know — what she only discovers when she reads her Grandma Bernadine’s journal-cum- recipe book — is that she’s following in Bernadine’s footsteps, and like all the best recipes, a perfect marriage calls for a long, slow simmer.

How do you come up with your ideas? Are they character or concept driven?

A bit of both. The concept comes first – but then once the characters present themselves and start to develop depth as they do in those early chapters, the story becomes theirs and they drive the narrative absolutely.

You often have dual timelines. Why is that? What is it about historical fiction that interests you so much?

I am fascinated by how the differences in our historical circumstances shape who we are and how we behave — especially in the way it affects our emotional landscapes. Stoicism, for instance, has gone way out of fashion as a way of being — yet it was a way of life for so many women, for so long — forced into unhappy marriages by religion for or utterly financially dependent on men they did not love. Yet — so much of what was good about value systems in the past: loyalty, a strong sense of identity, and place — still hold true today. I love drawing comparisons between how things were and how they are now and showing how while history may alter our circumstances, in the most real, important sense human beings never fundamentally change.

For all the freedom and money history has given us women in the western world — are we any happier now than our grandmothers were?

What’s your favorite part of the writing process?

Starting and finishing: one week at either end. Finishing is best. Honestly? The rest is pretty much just hard work: I write out of a compulsion to tell the story not because I enjoy the act of writing itself. The longer I do it – the less I feel I know about writing and the harder it gets! I get very close to my characters and I cry a lot. It’s an emotional rollercoaster — and I am always a bit sad to get off at the end — but relieved too.

Describe a typical day as a writer.

On a good day, I go into my accountants office, work from 9-5 and get 1,500 words written — this is what I intend every working day to be. However most days, I go into my accountants office, work from 9-5 and get 500 words written and know it’s not enough. On a bad day I get distracted by life. I chase around shopping, collecting kids, doing hideous admin., having lunch with my mother – I get nothing written and get whipped up into a state of blind panic at not having written anything. I have a lot of bad days.

Which authors inspire you?

People who write from the heart: Marian Keyes, Patrick McCabe – a lesser known but brilliant Irish writer called Frank Ronan. Probably the biggest influences over my lifetime as a reader and writer have been Agatha Christie for plot and PG Wodehouse for his vocabulary and use of language.  I never read historical fiction — I don’t have the confidence! However — for pleasure and relaxation I rarely read anything other than contemporary thrillers — David Balducci is my current thrill!

Do you have any advice for aspiring authors?

Just write, write, write – don’t be discouraged and keep going. Writing is 1% talent and 99% hard work and tenacity. I found writing groups and courses fantastic in my pre-published days. It’s not always easy to motivate yourself and a good writing group can really give you the encouragement and support you need.

What do you hope readers will take away from your books?

Identification with the characters and at least one lesson they can relate to their own lives.

Thanks so much, Kate, for stopping by and sharing your thoughts on dual narratives, your favorite authors, and writing.

Interview: A conversation with Juliette Wells for 200th Anniversary of Emma

Juliette Wells is the editor and introducer of EMMA: 200th-Anniversary Annotated Edition (Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition; on-sale September 29, 2015; 9780143107712; $16.00). Please give her a warm welcome.

When we celebrate the 200th anniversary of EMMA, what in particular are we celebrating? What’s new about this edition?

We’re celebrating the 200th anniversary of Emma’s original publication, in London in December, 1815. The date of publication is a little confusing because “1816” was printed on the title page of the first edition of the novel, but it was actually released in December, 1815. I think this gives us the right to celebrate for a whole year!

And what better way to celebrate than to re-read Emma, or read it for the first time? Our 200th-anniversary annotated edition has everything you need, all in one place, to help you appreciate this wonderful novel. You can immerse yourself in Austen’s world and also have, right at your fingertips, explanations of some of the elements of the novel that tend to trip up or puzzle today’s readers.

In the Austen canon, what would you say makes EMMA special and unique?

Emma is special because it’s the capstone of Austen’s career as an author. She had already published three novels (Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, and Mansfield Park), and she was at the very top of her game as a writer. She didn’t know it, of course, but Emma would be the last book she saw through to publication. When Austen died in July 1817, she left two essentially completed novels (Northanger Abbey and Persuasion), which her brother published at the end of that year. So Emma is the last Austen novel that was published in the exact form that she herself approved.

Emma is also special because it’s the most perfect example of Austen’s particular genius as an author, which is (I think) to create a recognizable, engaging fictional world from the slenderest of materials. She writes about everyday life and ordinary people—you won’t find kings and queens in her novels, or ghosts or vampires. Her effects are wonderfully subtle.

What was the publishing process like when EMMA was first published? How was the novel received critically? Was Austen as popular in her own day as she is today?

The publishing process was recognizable in some ways and very different in others. Austen didn’t have a literary agent; at that time, authors dealt directly with publishers. With Emma, she chose a new, more prestigious publisher—John Murray—than she had used for her three earlier novels, and she negotiated hard for a good contract with him. As authors are today, Austen was responsible for proofreading and approving copy before publication. Since being a published author was considered not so respectable for an unmarried woman, Austen chose to remain anonymous on her title pages throughout her lifetime. Emma identifies her as “the author of Pride and Prejudice.” Her identity wasn’t made publicly known until after her death.

Like Austen’s earlier novels, Emma was praised by reviewers, who appreciated Austen’s ability to convey a very realistic fictional world. Austen wasn’t a bestseller in her day; then as now, thrillers, adventure stories, and romances outsold quiet literary fiction. But Austen did have the satisfaction of knowing, in her lifetime, that readers appreciated her work. In addition to reading reviews, she kept track of the responses of her friends and family, which offer a wonderful glimpse into what everyday readers of Austen’s own time thought of Emma. Some of what they liked and didn’t like may be very familiar to us!

One of your specialties as a professor of English is how Jane Austen’s work continues to appeal to people, how it remains at the forefront of pop culture conversation. Last year, Alexander McCall Smith updated EMMA, “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies” hits the big screen in 2016, and movie and TV versions of Austen continue to draw viewers. Why do you think we keep updating and adapting Austen? What are your favorite adaptations or updates, and what makes them successful?

Austen really is endlessly adaptable, much like Shakespeare! You can transpose her stories and her characters to other places and times, and they still work. My own favorite creation inspired by Austen is Amy Heckerling’s Clueless, from 1995. Clueless is a joy to experience, and smart too, much like an Austen novel.

I’m also a big fan of Sense and Sensibility, also from 1995, for which Emma Thompson wrote the screenplay. Experiencing Austen through the eyes of a witty, thoughtful contemporary woman—it doesn’t get any better than that! I like Karen Joy Fowler’s novel The Jane Austen Book Club, from 2004, for the same reason—an experienced writer chooses to think about how Austen’s works matter to us today, and takes us along for the ride. Lost in Austen, the British miniseries from 2008, is also a big favorite of mine. A rabid Austen fan finds her way into the world of Pride and Prejudice and messes it up. It’s a hoot to see the Austen characters we know so well doing and saying things that they NEVER would have done or said in the original novel.

I think TV and movie adaptations of Austen are so popular for two main reasons. They’re beautiful to watch, no question. And they offer a respite—which a lot of people of all ages value—from the loud, fast, scary, stuff that much of mainstream entertainment is these days. The tricky part comes, sometimes, when someone knows and loves Austen through the films and then goes to pick up one of the novels, only to discover that the reading experience is a lot more complex and challenging than the viewing experience. I had those first-time readers of Austen very much in mind when creating this new edition of Emma.

What is it like to prepare a new edition of a book that’s so well-known and exists in many editions? What kind of research did you do? Did anything you learned during the process surprise you?

It was really important to me to create a truly new approach to Emma—a welcoming, reader-friendly approach. Excellent editions of Emma already exist for scholars and for devoted “Janeites.” With this anniversary edition, I wanted to open Austen up to people who hadn’t given her a try before, and to support their reading experience by using everything I know from years of teaching undergraduates and from talking with everyday readers. I certainly reached for plenty of scholarly and reference sources on my shelves, but I’d say my most important preparation was to have built up, over time, a sense of what readers are curious about and what frustrates them in their first encounter with an Austen novel. And, through my teaching, I’ve had a lot of practice at explaining historical concepts in an accessible way.

I also had the huge pleasure of re-reading Emma myself, slowly, with pencil in hand, making lists of topics to cover in my contextual essays and marking words that would likely be unfamiliar to present-day Americans. By doing this, I developed a much deeper appreciation of Austen’s artistry with words. This surprised and delighted me—I would have said I appreciated her artistry plenty before! But it wasn’t until I was trying to figure out how to convey the meaning of a particular phrase that I realized how much meaning she packs in with her clever, economical word choices.

Thinking about readers’ experience with Emma also shaped how the contextual material is presented in this new edition. In my experience, many ordinary readers, and even college students too, are put off by footnotes, or at best ignore them. So we decided instead to group topics together in contextual essays, which are easier—and, I hope, more fun—to read. Here too my experience explaining historical concepts And, there’s no question, the gorgeous cover by Dadu Shin is a beautiful invitation to pick up this Emma!

The illustrations for this edition are drawn from historical copies of Emma in the Jane Austen Collection at Goucher College, where you teach. Can you tell us more about that collection? What is it, exactly?

The Jane Austen Collection at Goucher College in Baltimore, Maryland began as the passion project of an alumna of the college from the 1920s, Alberta Hirshheimer Burke. Alberta loved, loved, loved Jane Austen’s writings and decided that her own purpose in life was to gather as much material as possible relating to Austen. So Alberta bought first and rare editions and even some manuscripts—such as letters in Austen’s handwriting—all of which she felt brought her closer to her beloved author. The images in our new edition reproduce turn-of-the-twentieth century illustrations of Emma by English and American artists, from books that Alberta owned, and which she bequeathed to her alma mater when she died in 1975. (Her manuscripts went to the Pierpont Morgan Library in New York.)

Alberta also cared deeply about ephemera with an Austen connection, such as newspaper and magazine articles, which she preserved in ten overstuffed scrapbooks. So our Austen Collection at Goucher is a terrific resource for popular culture studies as well as book history.

As a college professor, what’s your favorite aspect of teaching Austen? Do you face any challenges in interesting students in her writings?

Absolutely the best part of teaching Austen is that so many students are enthusiastic about studying her writings. She is an easy sell! Shakespeare is the only other English writer who has a draw like hers. And Austen has the advantage that her life story as a woman writer is especially appealing. Many of my students are creative writers themselves and find Austen’s confidence and perseverance to be very inspiring.

That said, I do often encounter people—students and ordinary readers—for whom Austen just seems unappealing. Maybe her novels seem girly; maybe they seem awfully full of privileged white people (not untrue); maybe the sentences or paragraphs are just too long. Stephen King said recently in a New York Times Book Review that he had never read any Austen, and I feel it’s a real shame that a great writer like him has missed a great writer like her! Maybe I’ll have to send him this new Emma and see if he can get into it.

I love it that everyone who reads Jane Austen has her or his own ideas about what’s important and what’s interesting. Some readers gravitate towards her humor, while for others, the morality really resonates. Pretty much all of us can find at least one character who reminds us of someone we know—and we’re lucky if it’s a character who’s nice!

Do you think we have a modern-day equivalent of Jane Austen? Or do you have any “further reading” suggestions for Austen fans who’ve read all of her books a thousand times and are looking for something new?

I love to read contemporary novels and memoirs, and I always keep an eye out for hints that an author is influenced by or interested in Austen. I recently re-read Allegra Goodman’s novel The Cookbook Collector and really appreciated how she weaves in elements from Emma as well as from her more obvious place of inspiration, Sense and Sensibility. I also particularly like that Alison Bechdel, author of the graphic-format memoir Fun Home and the Dykes to Watch Out For comics, gives several shout-outs to Austen. Flyover Lives, Diane Johnson’s hybrid family history / memoir, includes a fascinating account of what Johnson’s foremothers in America were up to at the same time that Austen was writing about much more privileged women in England.

I’d also warmly recommend the novels of Barbara Pym, a 20th-century English writer. Pym’s dry humor and close observation of everyday people ally her very closely with Austen. And it’s always rewarding to read, or re-read, 19th-century novels by authors who knew and loved Austen’s writings. In that category, I’d especially recommend Elizabeth Gaskell (start with Cranford) and George Eliot (outside of Austen, Middlemarch is my all-time favorite novel).

And, finally, I’d say that Austen lovers are the best people to ask about what to read next! Lately, I’ve been hearing a lot of shout-outs for the novels of Anthony Trollope, so I may have to get cracking on his enormous oeuvre . . .

Thank you, Juliette, for spending time with us today.  This is going to be a beautiful book with deckle edge — one of my favorites.

Interview with Carolina De Robertis, author of The Gods of Tango

If you’ve missed out on Carolina De Robertis’ books before, you need to check out Perla, which was one of my favorites. She has a new book due out in July, The Gods of Tango.

About the Book from GoodReads:

February 1913: seventeen-year-old Leda, carrying only a small trunk and her father’s cherished violin, leaves her Italian village for a new home, and a new husband, in Argentina. Arriving in Buenos Aires, she discovers that he has been killed, but she remains: living in a tenement, without friends or family, on the brink of destitution. Still, she is seduced by the music that underscores life in the city: tango, born from lower-class immigrant voices, now the illicit, scandalous dance of brothels and cabarets. Leda eventually acts on a long-held desire to master the violin, knowing that she can never play in public as a woman. She cuts off her hair, binds her breasts, and becomes “Dante,” a young man who joins a troupe of tango musicians bent on conquering the salons of high society. Now, gradually, the lines between Leda and Dante begin to blur, and feelings that she has long kept suppressed reveal themselves, jeopardizing not only her musical career, but her life.

Please give Carolina De Robertis a warm welcome.

1. In addition to writing your own fiction, you also translate books. Could you explain a little bit about the process of translating books and share what languages you translate?

I translate Latin American writing from Spanish into English—and I’m incredibly passionate about the world of translation, not only because it’s crucial to ensuring access to international literatures, but also because I find it to be an exhilarating process. There is nothing quite like taking a beautiful piece of writing and striving to render it in a different language. For me, it’s a bit like transposing a piece of music from one instrument to the other, like taking a work written for piano, say, and adapting it for the violin. There are things that the piano can do that the violin can’t do, and vice versa. The same is true for English, Spanish, and the other languages I speak (though not so well!). You have to be true to the original, and yet limber enough to ensure that the piece’s soul will sing out on your new instrument.

2. In The Gods of Tango, Leda finds herself alone in an unfamiliar country, Argentina, did you draw on any of your own personal experiences to flesh out the challenges she faced?

I feel deeply at home in writing the experiences of immigrants, even when their circumstances differ from the ones I’ve known. The way I see it, I was born an immigrant; I left South America in my mother’s womb, and then grew up in three different countries. I have always been an “other;” I don’t know any other way of moving through the world.

When I made my first extended trip to Uruguay and Argentina, my nations of origin, I was sixteen years old, and the experience was a dizzying blend of intense familiarity and desire for something that had long felt far away. And so, I am perennially drawn to writing stories of crossing borders, of belonging and not-belonging, of what it means to hold multiple cultures in your skin.

3. Tango is a very sensual and rhythmic dance, how did that music and dance inspire your writing for the book? And did you listen to such music while writing?

Absolutely! Once I knew that this novel was going to portray the early years of the tango’s evolution, and explore the communities that gave birth to it, it was obvious that I’d have to empaparme del tango, as we’d say in Uruguayan Spanish—drench myself in it. The tango had always been familiar to me, of course; I come from the land of tango, my own grandfather was a tango composer, and the music was present in my childhood home, from tape recordings to my parents’ absent singing to themselves.

In the research for this book, I took private dance lessons with an incredible teacher in Uruguay; studied the violin with a professional tango musician; interviewed tango musicians and dancers about their intimate relationships with the art form; studied a mountain of scholarly texts; and, of course, listened and listened to the music. All of it, from classic giants such as De Caro and Canaro to Piazzolla’s bold innovations, from the immortal Carlos Gardel to the twenty-first century fusions of Gotan Project. Happily, I am listening to tango as I write these very words.

4. Women dressing as men to live the lives they want is a theme in many historical fiction works and there are women in history who have done such things. What about this life inspired your story and how did it take on a life of its own when writing the novel?

I knew that I wanted to write about the wave of migrants that came to Buenos Aires in the early twentieth century, mainly from Europe, and the tremendous impact they had on the culture in their quest to survive. My great-grandmother was part of that wave, leaving her tiny Italian village alone, at the age of 17, to go marry her cousin.

But I also knew that I wanted this book to dive right into the heart of the birth of the tango, which was happening in those very tenements where those immigrants landed, a music born from poor people, working people, blending their cultures and sounds. The tango world was extremely gendered in the 1910s. It was a seedy underworld, the domain of men, where the only women welcome were prostitutes. How would a female character be able to penetrate that world on her own terms?

There was only one answer. An answer that many women have found throughout history—far more women than recorded history shows. Though I can’t prove it, I am absolutely positive that there were plenty of real women in 1910s Buenos Aires doing exactly what Leda did. Sadly, their histories have been lost. That’s what we need fiction for: to dramatically repair the silences of history.

5. Do you tango? And who are your favorite tango dancers?

As I mentioned, the tango is in my culture and in my skin, and I have danced at Buenos Aires milongas with my relatives, and studied the dance. But I’m not much of a natural dancer, myself. What I do have is something of a musician’s ear so I relate to it that way—and, like many ríoplatenses (people from Argentina and Uruguay), I don’t think of the tango as just a dance, but as much more than that: as a music, as a culture, as a way of relating to the world. This is a lens that is missing in the U.S. and beyond; I hope to offer it to readers.

That said, there are many marvelous tango performers, both dancers and musicians, here in the U.S., and I am in awe of what they do.

6. How important do you think it is to highlight the history of Latin American nations both good and bad, and what pieces of that history do you think should be told that haven’t?

Just as with any region of the world, I think it’s crucial to tell the whole truth, however complex or potentially uncomfortable. In The Gods of Tango, I strove to portray both the harsh and beautiful aspects of early tango culture.

There are so very, very many threads of Latin American history that are still undertold, and these, not surprisingly, are the narratives of those whose stories have been historically marginalized, including women, queers, and people of African descent. Very few people know that the tango has African as well as European roots, and that, at the turn of the twentieth century, Buenos Aires was one-third black. It was very important to me to include those voices in this novel. That said, there is still so much more tremendously rich Afro-Argentinean and Afro-Uruguayan history to be told.

7. Finally, how has your journey as an author evolved? Any tricks or tips you’d like to share?

Now that I’m working on my fourth novel, the arc of the whole experience is more familiar, so that, when I feel like I’m walking right into a moonless night without a flashlight and I can’t tell where I’m going next, it’s easier to stay calm and think, oh, look, here’s the part where I’m lost in the dark, that must be progress. There’s no trick, really, except this one open secret: persist, persist, persist.

Interview with Luanne Castle, Author of Doll God

Although today is technically the end of National Poetry Month, my poetry reviews for #NPM15 will continue into May because I read way more books than I thought for the month, thanks to the Dewey 24-hour read-a-thon!

To wrap up this year’s National Poetry Month tour, I’ve got a great interview with Luanne Castle, author of Doll God (my review).

“This emotional collection will take a toll on its readers, but the journey will leave them changed in terms of perspective and renewed in that they will want to live more fully and enjoy each moment in the moment.” — Savvy Verse & Wit

Please give her a warm welcome.

1.  Re-examining our childhood and our pasts is something that echoes throughout your collection, Doll God, and there is a deep sense of anxiety and loss tied to those reflections.  When did you first start examining your own childhood and past and how does anxiety and loss tie into that self-examination?

My childhood has always loomed over me, both for its anxieties and its imaginative qualities.  I also write and have published prose based on my childhood experiences. When I was a little girl my father built a bomb shelter in our basement. We were in the middle of the Cold War, and there was fear and tension in our lives because we thought “The Bomb” could drop at any moment.  So childhood has always crept into my poetry, although I didn’t start to examine it with purpose until about 6 or 7 years ago, which is when I began to spend more time writing.

2.  Dolls are prevalent throughout the collection.  Do you think dolls still play a pivotal role in young girl’s lives? And how do you think their role has changes with the evolution of technology?

Dolls are still important to society–and to many young girls. When I was a kid not all girls preferred dolls to other toys, and that is still true. Even I had as much fun with my cement mixer and “army men” as I did with my dolls at certain periods in my life. Actually, army men are really dolls, now that I think about it! But dolls have stayed close to the essence of my childhood. Boys also were given dolls when I was a kid. We were probably the first generation where boys like my brother were given G.I. Joe dolls. My brother had Chatty Cathy’s baby brother with a sweater and cap knitted by my grandmother. Since then, so many different dolls and doll-like figurines have been created for both boys and girls.

Technology has slightly altered the doll-scape in two ways. We have many “throwaway dolls.” By that I mean that the discretionary income and low-cost overseas production has created an abundance of dolls found on the shelves of Target, Wal-Mart, and Toys R Us. Dolls are often $5-10 birthday presents for girls. Too many Barbies? Lose one at the grocery store, pull off the head of another. For many fortunate children, there will always be another Barbie. The other way technology has affected the doll industry is that dolls are produced to capitalize on the popularity of movies, television shows, and computer games. While this trend started 100 years ago, it has grown as technology has grown. Now a huge portion of dolls at the major store chains are related to these technologies.

3.  How much of your poetry is autobiographical?  How far does it stray from your own life?  In other words, where is the line between fact and fiction?

Sometimes a poem starts out autobiographical and strays into the fictional without me even realizing it. Other times a poem might begin as fiction, but by the time it’s completed, it has incorporated a lot of elements from my own life experiences.  A reader would be hard pressed to find the “line” between the two in my work. And I think that is as it should be–to read poetry as confessional is dangerous and limits the reader, the poem, and the poet.

4.  Do you still collect dolls?  How many are or were in your collection?

I didn’t begin an actual doll collection until my daughter grew out of her dolls. When she was no longer interested in them, I became fascinated and still have all of hers. As a child I had baby dolls, but that was because once I was given a doll I didn’t lose it or abuse it, so over time I had a fair number. But never a collection. We didn’t have the money for that. I didn’t  even own a real Barbie. My Barbie was a Miss Suzette by Uneeda. But I did have a Ken doll and a beautiful toddler-sized walking doll who may or may not have ended up in Doll God. My husband and I love antiquing and in the past ten years I’ve accumulated quite a few dolls. I have a decent collection of Asian dolls, including Japanese hakatas. I also collect Magic Attic Club, Madame Alexander, cowboy and cowgirl, Red Riding Hood, literary, and Broadway musicals.

5.  Writing is a solitary endeavor for many authors.  How do you maintain contact with the outside, and how does that differ from the experience of reading your work aloud for an audience?

I maintain contact by connecting with my writing peeps, both in person and through email and phone calls. Then blogging and social media are other ways I feel a part of the outside world. These are important for social reasons, but also for educational purposes. I learn a lot from my fellow writers.

I am not fond of being in large groups of people, but I do enjoy the act of reading my poetry, which is a performative experience. I recently was interviewed on a morning television show and was asked to read one of my poems. That was fun. I have also been known to read to rescue kitties at the shelter once a week. In the past I’ve read my poetry at various events, but since Doll God was published, I haven’t been able to read publicly. I hope to change that in the near future.

6.  Doll God is your first collection.  How long have you been writing poetry, and how long did it take you to create your first collection?  Are you planning a second?

I first wrote poetry when I was in about 5th grade. My first poem rhymed and was about an old woman in a rocking chair. Chair is a good rhyming word.  I took up writing poetry again in high school and wrote very melancholy poems. I turned in a poem for an English class assignment and received a B+ on it–my lowest English grade. That’s when I decided that teachers shouldn’t really be putting letter grades on students’ creative writing attempts. I have a whole philosophy about the teaching of poetry.

When I started college I was encouraged to look ahead to getting a job, so I set poetry aside until my husband and I adopted our first child from Korea. I wrote a poem about picking him up at the airport and the floodgates opened. Soon after, I applied to the MFA in creative writing program at our local university and began studying writing in earnest.

My current project involves “genealogy poems” based on research I’ve done on female ancestors. I’d like to create a chapbook from these poems.

Thank you so much for hosting me, Serena. I loved that Doll God could be part of your book tour.  These questions were great fun and really made me think in ways I haven’t before.

Interview with Stephen G. Eoannou, Author of Muscle Cars

Please welcome Stephen G. Eoannou, author of the short story collection Muscle Cars, to the blog today. He and his book have been on a blog tour with Poetic Book Tours this month, and what a great way to cap off the tour with an interview.

In Muscle Cars is there one short story that you ever thought could be turned into a novel on its own? If so, which one and why?

Actually, “Slip Kid”, which really is the centerpiece of the collection, started out as a failed novel attempt. I had shoved the manuscript in a drawer, but I didn’t forget about it. I was certain there was a story there. I just had to dig through all the bad writing to get to it. I pulled the manuscript out as I was completing the collection to see if I could distill a part of it into a short story, and I did; I think “Slip Kid” was the second last story I wrote for the Muscle Cars. The mistake I made in the novel was twofold. First, there wasn’t enough at stake for the protagonist. I needed more conflict. I needed to make the situation more difficult for him with real consequences. Second, I wasn’t pleased with the novel’s language. It needed to be tougher, harder, full of more slang and vulgarity.

This was an easy fix. I just had to write the dialogue more the way my friends and I spoke in high school. I was pleased with the short story version of “Slip Kid”, but the story kept calling me back so I developed it into a short screenplay, which ended up winning the Best Short Screenplay Award at the 36th Starz Denver Film Festival. I thought I was finally done with it, but then I started thinking about developing it into feature-length screenplay. After I try that, who knows? I may go full circle and take another shot at expanding back it into another, better novel.

Could you explain a little bit about the process of entering the SFWP Literary Awards and what other contests you considered for your collection? Why enter a contest of this kind at all?

Writing contests are tricky things. There’s so many of them now and the entry fees can add up, so I was very selective of which ones I entered. I only entered contests where the awards were well-established and the judges were well known and well respected. That was certainly the case with SFWP, which is offering the awards for the fifteenth year now and have had past judges such as Chris Offutt, Robert Olen Butler, and David Morrell, who judged last year’s contest.

But I had another connection with SFWP that made me want to enter. At one time I shared an office and taught with Ken Cook at The College of Charleston, and he won the SFWP Awards back in 2002. I remember him telling me what a great experience it was and how it really jump-started his writing career. After I had finished Muscle Cars, I knew that SFWP was one of the contests I wanted to enter based on what he’d told me. Of course, I didn’t really think I would be named one of the winners. That was a wonderful surprise. I was very proud to have Kenny write a blurb for my book.  It brought things full circle for us: we both met as unpublished and hopeful writers in Charleston and we both had our first books published by SFWP as award winners.

If you had never gone to Queens University for an MFA, do you think you would have continued writing fiction or produced a collection of short stories? What did the experience do for your writing practice?

I had been writing for years in a vacuum with little success. I viewed applying to an MFA program as my last chance, my last swing at being a writer. I was more than a little surprised when I was accepted at Queens, to be honest with you. During my first residency, I went to the graduate readings and all the MFA graduates said that the program had been life changing. I remember sitting in the back of the auditorium and thinking no way is this program going to change my life, but it did. If I hadn’t gone to Queens, I still would’ve been writing but probably writing poorly. I would have been still stuck in that vacuum without a network of fellow writers to share work like I have now with my Queens alumni.

Would I have written a collection without going to Queens?

Maybe, but I suspect it wouldn’t have been as good as Muscle Cars. The collection contains two Pushcart-nominated stories, a winner of an Honor Certificate from The Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, and the collection is a Santa Fe Writers Project Literary Award winner. I couldn’t have done it without the MFA program at Queens; half the stories were written there and the other half was critiqued by Queens alumni after I graduated.

Many writers have been writing since a young age. What was your first piece about and what was the title? Do you still have it?

I vaguely remember being home sick from school and typing with two fingers a story about a doctor. This was maybe in the second or third grade. I don’t remember the title, but I had named my main character Dr. Weinstein after a local newscaster whose trademark was alliteration: Buffalo blaze busters battle a big one on Broadway.

I wrote a lot in the fifth and sixth grade and I gave those stories to my Aunt Helen. When she passed away, I found three of them: “The Falcon”, about a boy growing up on an Indian reservation; “What’s A Few Months More?” about a teenager in a juvenile detention center; and “The Summer of Riches” about a boy who spends the summer with his grandparents in Connecticut. Of course, I knew nothing in the fifth grade about life on a reservation, or in a juvenile detention center, or in Connecticut, but that didn’t stop me. Kids are fearless with their imaginations. By the way, I still type with two fingers. That typing class I took at Kenmore Junior High School didn’t stick.

Who are some of your influences that have informed your writing over the years? And who, if any, are your favorite poets?

When I finished reading The Hotel New Hampshire by John Irving, I remember wishing that I had written it. This was back in high school and it was the first time I remember feeling that way about a book. I loved how Irving was able to make me laugh out loud until I realized how sad it was and then my laughter stopped, like I had been slapped and slapped hard. I wanted to have that emotional swing in my writing, and was conscious of attempting that while writing stories for the collection like “Swimming Naked” and “Stealing Ted Williams’ Head”.  Soon after discovering Irving, I started reading William Kennedy. I loved his sense of place and how he made Albany come alive as a mythical place. I definitely wanted that in my writing. It was that same sense of place that drew me to Pete Hamill’s work.

When I started writing Muscle Cars, it was in the back of my mind that I wanted to do for Buffalo what those guys did for Albany and New York. Buffalo was my turf and I wanted to mine it for stories and characters. Even in stories where the city is never identified, I was thinking about my home town. People from around here will recognize the settings of “Ohio Street” and “The Wolf Boy of Forest Lawn” as Buffalo locations although I don’t think I named them as such. The city was definitely my muse for Muscle Cars.

The poetry question is interesting. I think reading poetry and becoming sensitive to rhythms, the music of words and conciseness always helps in prose writing, but I doubt the converse is true. I’ve always enjoyed Yusef Komunyakaa’s work. What’s interesting is that I heard him read his poetry before I read it.

This was in the late-eighties at a writing conference at Indiana University, I think. He is such a passionate, dramatic reader it was as if I was hearing poetry for the first time and I had to buy his books. I was mesmerized by his voice and the images he was creating in my mind. And even though I had no talent in writing poetry, I wanted my readers to “hear” and “see” my stories just as strongly as when they read and heard Komunyakaa’s poems. I tried to accomplish that by relying heavily on sensory detail. I want my readers to see “The Girl In The Window” and hear the engines in “Muscle Cars”, “Ohio Street”, and “Slip Kid”.  I want them to feel the cold and whipping wind in “Winter Night, 1994” and “Auld Lang Syne”.  If I accomplish that, I’ll have done my job.

Thanks, Stephen, for sharing your writing inspirations and influences with us today!

To check out the rest of the tour, click the image below:

Interview with Jeannine Hall Gailey, author of The Robot Scientist’s Daughter

2015PoetryMonthIn conjunction with Poetic Book Tours and the 2015 National Poetry Month Blog Tour, Jeannine Hall Gailey agreed to be interviewed about her poetry, including her new collection, The Robot Scientist’s Daughter.

I’ve read her poetry for several years, and I just cannot get enough.  I hope that you’ll not only check out her interview below, but also her April book tour.

A few of your collections — Becoming the Villainess and Unexplained Fevers — have reinvented and breathed new life into beloved heroines, myths, and fairy tales.  How do these stories inspire you to create the vivid and unusual narratives in your poems?  Which are some of your favorites?

At the time I was writing Becoming the Villainess, I was particularly interested in Ovid’s Metamorphoses and the story of Procne and Philomel, and more unusual fairy tales, such as the story of the French fairy Melusine, which I fell in love with after researching it after reading A.S. Byatt’s Possession, and the story of “the coat of thousand furs,” or Allerleirauh. I was not interested in the Disney versions of the fairy tales, as I knew even as a kid how much they differed from their Grimms’ origins, but I did enjoy sort of tweaking the clichés of those films.

Then of course I got really interested in Japanese folk tales a few years ago, when I was writing She Returns to the Floating World, and researched and found as many of them translated into English as I could. I loved the ones that focused on older sisters rescuing younger brothers, which is quite a common trope in Japanese folk tales, and of course the tales of transformations of women into foxes, cranes, peonies, etc. There are so many interesting tales out there. I also love Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Snow Queen” – it’s a fascinating, complicated, and unexpectedly feminist piece of work. I love re-working those characters.

Unexplained Fevers actually centers on the fairy tale characters I neglected in my first book, because I felt that they were too passive. But after reading the Snow White/Rose Red references in Haruki Murakami’s After Dark and the Rapunzel narratives in Osamu Dazai’s Blue Bamboo, I started thinking about how I could re-write characters like Sleeping Beauty, Rapunzel, and Snow White – and that’s how I started writing that book.

robotIn your new collection, The Robot Scientist’s Daughter, your subject matter is a little more concrete, including but not limited to the history of nuclear development, family, and nature. How did this collection come to be and did you find the process easier or more difficult compared to previous collections?

I think a seed for this collection was planted when I was working with Dorianne Laux at the Pacific University MFA program some years ago, and she encouraged me to write more about my own life. I considered my life too boring to write about. And Ilya Kaminsky, I remember, told me after reading my first couple of books that “now is the time for you to create your own fairy tale.” I held on to both of those things, but it took me a while to figure out how to incorporate my own experience into poetry.

The Robot Scientist’s Daughter was born in the series of “elemental” poems in the book—poems like “Cesium Burns Blue,” “Radon Daughters,” and “Elemental,” —and then I started thinking about ways to create a character that was like me but was not—and I came up with the Robot Scientist’s Daughter character. Those are more fantasy and sci-fi-based poems, and therefore more familiar to me and fun to write. The straight-up history/autobiography poems were probably the hardest to write—Oak Ridge’s history is fascinating—even the Wikipedia entry can sound like a weird prose poem—but making that history sound poetic was something I struggled with. I did include a series of poems about my childhood that were not as fun to write, but I wanted something that would give the reader sort of a child’s-eye view of the beautiful, mysterious nature of growing up on a farm in Tennessee, not just the “atomic history down the street” part.

Nuclear research, energy, and bombs are dangerous but yet humanity continues to engage in these activities despite the lasting risks. In “They Do Not Need Rescue”, the poem discusses the silence surrounding the consequences of these activities — that the people living nearby Oak Ridge National Laboratory signed away their family’s lives for a meager paycheck and a house — and it raises questions about why they would remain silent even years later and not speak out. Is it a question of fear vs. bravery, or something more?

I can’t really speak for the people who made those decisions, which are individual to each of them. But I do know that the contracts for people that work/worked at ORNL – a huge source of lucrative jobs in a region that even now doesn’t have a ton of great jobs – were pretty prohibitive and threatening, and people in that area signed a contract and stuck with that agreement. If they don’t feel comfortable speaking out today, it’s probably because of the wording of the contracts they signed. I don’t want anyone to get the impression that the people of Oak Ridge are victims – they certainly don’t think of themselves that way – and there’s a culture in Eastern Tennessee of individualism, hard work, patriotism, and a tendency towards the taciturn rather than the loquacious.

Also, the dangers of radiation were not really well known early on in the work of ORNL – as reading some of the memoir of one of Oak Ridge’s early “Safety Physicists”, The Angry Genie, would indicate. In the beginning, they were focused on winning World War II, getting the bomb before the Nazis, and not as worried about pollution and those kinds of “down the road” problems. There was a little bit about how they taped uranium to the wrists of some of the nurses there, to see the effect; I mean, they were very naive back then. The Chernobyl and Fukushima disasters, for instance, indicate that even today, how little prepared most companies and countries are for the kinds of problems that can happen with nuclear disaster, how little they understand the magnitude of something like nuclear pollution, how it stays around for multiple human lifetimes. It’s something to keep in mind as our nuclear power plants age here in the United States.

JeannineHighResHeadshotmediumWriting is a solitary endeavor for many authors. How do you maintain contact with the outside, and how does that differ from the experience of reading your work aloud for an audience?

I’ve belonged to a writing group for thirteen years, and that really helps. Also, Seattle and the surrounding cities have great writing communities. I volunteered with several terrific local journals for many years, which is also a great way to stay connected with the writing community—currently I’m on the Board at Crab Creek Review. Writing itself is work that must be done alone, but sharing it, getting it published, dealing with rejection, applying for grants or residencies—all those parts of the writing life really benefit from the help/encouragement of other writers. I also enjoying teaching, editing manuscripts, and a new venture—helping poets with PR for their books! I absolutely root for every single student and editing client to succeed!

I also think social media – Blogs, Facebook, Twitter, what have you – can really help you feel connected to the larger writing world in a way that just wasn’t possible when I was a younger writer. A lot of people hate them, but I absolutely think they are a gift (even if I haven’t exactly figured out how to be the greatest Twitter-er or anything yet.) You can see when different magazines have a call for submissions, or congratulate a friend on good publishing news, or follow writers you admire. I mean, you can’t spend all day on that stuff, but it’s great on a rainy Sunday to go to the Twitter #poetparty, for instance, and say hi to some writing friends and feel encouraged.

What poets you’ve read are making a difference with their poetry, either trying to influence societal, environmental, or political change? What other poets should we be reading?

For the first question: There are really so many! I think probably Carolyn Forché, Alicia Ostriker, Margaret Atwood, Pattiann Rogers, Sandra Alcosser, and llya Kaminsky have all been particularly influential in terms of the way they write their activism. But I am so excited about reading the younger generation’s take (do I sound super-old there? But it’s true!) on issues like racism, feminism, the environment, immigration—I feel that younger writers right now are unafraid of taking on big ambitious subjects than my generation was/is. Another few poets that I think tackle difficult and thought-provoking political subject matter with imagination and empathy: Jericho Brown, Eduardo C. Corral, Saeed Jones.

For the second question: There are so many good poets here in the Northwest that I think don’t get enough attention – in particular, I’d like to champion the first books by poets Annette Spaulding-Convy and Natasha K. Moni, which are both exceptional. And we have a wonderful group of female poets up here, people like Kelli Russell Agodon, Kathleen Flenniken, Kelly Davio, Elizabeth Austen, Martha Silano, Jenifer Lawrence, Marjorie Manwaring. They’re not just great poets, they’re great people who put time and energy into their poetry community. I love the work that my friends at local press Two Sylvias Press are putting out, too – definitely worth taking a look at. I discover great poets out here all the time, people I’ve never met that I’ll happen to hear at a reading. I try to highlight books I love in my reviews for places like The Rumpus, too. Reviewing is still something I try to do on a regular basis, especially for books that might otherwise get overlooked. Anything to bring more love to poetry!

Thanks, Jeannine, for sharing your thoughts with us and your poet recommendations.

Interview with Mingmei Yip, Author of Secret of a Thousand Beauties

Secret of a Thousand Beauties by Mingmei Yip is set to be published Nov. 25, 2014, and is the latest release from Yip.  I’ve reviewed Skeleton Women and The Nine Fold Heaven, which I enjoyed.

Here’s a bit about the book:

Spring Swallow was promised in marriage while still in her mother’s belly. When the groom dies before a wedding can take place, seventeen-year-old Spring Swallow is ordered to become a ghost bride to appease his spirit. Under her in-laws’ protection, she will be little more than a servant, unable to know real love or bear children. Refusing to accept her fate as a “bad-luck woman,” Spring Swallow flees on her wedding day.

In the city of Soochow, Spring Swallow joins a community of renowned embroiderers. The women work for Aunty Peony, whose exquisite stitching once earned her the Emperor’s love. But when Aunty Peony agrees to replicate a famous painting–a lucrative assignment that will take a year to complete–betrayal and jealousy emerges within the group. Spring Swallow becomes entangled in each woman’s story of heartbreak, even while she embarks on a dangerous affair with a young revolutionary. On a journey that leads from the remote hillsides around Soochow to cosmopolitan Peking, Spring Swallow draws on the secret techniques learned from Aunty Peony and her own indomitable strength, determined to forge a life that is truly her own.

MingmeiToday, Mingmei Yip has agreed to join us and answer some questions about her novel and her work.  Please give her a warm welcome.

Where do your story ideas come from?

Story ideas usually pop up in my mind, mostly triggered when I am reading, watching a movie, looking at art works in a museum, or just day dreaming. Not long ago I saw a book on embroidery in a bookstore and was inspired to write a novel about embroiderers and the painstaking efforts they apply to create their beautiful works. That novel is my newest, Secret of a Thousand Beauties.

The idea for my third novel, Song of the Silk Road – a romantic adventure on China’s fabled route with a promised reward of three million dollars — came to me in a dream.

The heroine of your latest book, Secret of a Thousand Beauties, is a strong and independent woman like the women in your other novels. Why do you choose to write about these women who live in cultures that tend to curtail their independence?

All my protagonists are brave and strong women who relentlessly overcome hardship and tragedy to live life on their own terms and achieve happiness. It is hard now even to try to imagine the miseries women had to endure in traditional China such as marriage to a dead fiancé, making them the slaves of the dead man’s parents, or being forced into prostitution, yet not being allowed to marry or keep their babies.

Some of my characters are inspired by the lives of actual women, including Camilla the singer-spy in my novels Skeleton Women and The Nine Fold Heaven, and the teenage prostitute Xiang Xiang in my debut novel Peach Blossom Pavilion (now in its 5th printing!) I feel honored to be able to give these once-silenced women their voices. Also, by writing about them, they have become my teachers of determination, courage, and compassion.

What are your first loves as a reader about novels? Do you prefer plot or characterization?

Both. But if I have to choose, insightful description of human nature are more satisfying to me than plots filled with twists and turns.

Do you prefer to write historical fiction and would you consider writing something more contemporary?

Among my seven novels (the 7th one will come out in 2015), four are historical – Secret of a Thousand Beauties; The Nine Fold Heaven; Skeleton Women; Peach Blossom Pavilion and two are contemporary – Song of the Silk Road; Petals from the Sky. I also wrote and illustrated two children’s books: Chinese Children Favorite Stories and Grandma Panda’s China Storybook, both published by Tuttle Publishing.

Who are some of your favorite authors/poets?

My favorite authors are Eileen Cheung and Echo, unfortunately both deceased. In the West, I read almost everything by Lisa See, Amy Tan, and Anchee Min.


What current projects are you working on? Care to share any details?

My next novel, which will be my seventh is The Witches Market, about a young woman who has suddenly acquired supernatural talents. After this realization, she travels to the Canary Islands, seeking witches against whom to test her own powers and calling.

MusicalMingmeiBesides writing, I perform on the guqin, a very ancient Chinese instrument which I’ve been playing for over thirty years. I also teach calligraphy workshops for both adult and children at many venues including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Lincoln Center, CUNY and others. All these activities help provide material for my novels.

Thank you, Yip, for joining us today.  Check her out on Facebook, Twitter, and GoodReads.

Check out the book trailer:

Interview with Syrie James, Author of Jane Austen’s First Love

Syrie James is a quintessential Austenite and her Jane Austen-related fiction is never a disappointment.  Her latest release, Jane Austen’s First Love, is a contender for the Savvy Verse & Wit Best of 2014 list.

Here’s a snippet from my review:

“James cannot be praised enough for her ingenuity and dedication to the spirit of Austen and her novels.  She pays tribute to a young Jane in the best way possible.  Jane Austen’s First Love by Syrie James is the author’s best novel yet, and a must read for anyone who loves historical fiction, Jane Austen, or coming of age stories.”

Other James’ books you should consider reading include:


Today, I have a special treat … an interview with Syrie James! Please give her a warm welcome.

As a writer of Austenesque fiction, you must have a favorite Jane Austen book and character, or at least a few.  What and who are they and why?

Like many readers, my favorite Austen novel is Pride and Prejudice. It’s brilliantly constructed, beautifully written, and the characters are unique, fun, and recognizable. Best of all, Elizabeth’s and Darcy’s character arcs as they go from intense dislike to admiration to love are so wonderfully drawn and so satisfying that the story has been endlessly imitated. Pride and Prejudice, unlike Austen’s other novels, also begins with a lively conversation that grabs your attention right off the bat. I am a huge fan of Persuasion as well, with its theme about second chances. It was written later in Jane Austen’s life, and her maturity as writer really shines through.

As for favorite characters, I have so many! I adore Elizabeth Bennet, with her bright eyes and feisty nature, and Anne Elliot, who is goodness personified. I think I fell in love with Mr. Darcy (along with the rest of the female world) when Colin Firth turned him into an icon. I am also mad about Captain Wentworth and Mr. Knightley, truly divine Austen heroes who feel very real to me on the page! And this may be heresy—but my two other favorite characters are Lady Catherine de Bourgh, who I love to hate, and the foolish Mr. Collins, who, with every re-reading and in every film version, always makes me laugh.

Syrie James headshot 2012 x 250Did you always love Jane Austen’s books and when did you first fall in love with them (how did you find out about them)?

I was first introduced to Jane Austen in a British literature course in college, when we read Pride and Prejudice and Emma. I don’t remember my first reaction to the books, and Jane Austen didn’t resurface on my radar again until the mid 1990s, when four Jane Austen films came out that quickly became my favorites: SENSE AND SENSIBILITY (Emma Thompson and Hugh Grant), PRIDE AND PREJUDICE (Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle), PERSUASION (Amanda Root and Ciarán Hinds), and EMMA (Gwyneth Paltrow and Jeremy Northam.) Yes, it’s true—I fell in love with Austen because of the movies!

I immediately read or re-read all her novels, then devoured the juvenilia, biographies, and her preserved correspondence. I was desperate to learn more about the woman who wove such incredible stories and showed such a deep understanding of human nature—and the obsession has never stopped. Because there were no Austen memoirs to discover, I wrote one myself: The Lost Memoirs of Jane Austen. Because there were no more new Austen novels to read, I decided to write one: The Missing Manuscript of Jane Austen. And because I was intensely curious to read about Jane as a teenager while experiencing her first romance, I researched and wrote Jane Austen’s First Love.

As a fan of Austen, you must have visited the various sites in which she lived and visited. Which of these places is your favorite, where is it located, and why? What advice would you give someone interested in touring Austen’s places?

I’ve taken two Jane Austen tours of England—one of them self-guided, the other as part of a formal tour group—and I’ve had the opportunity to visit nearly all the famous Austen sites, some of them twice. It’s hard to pick a favorite, but I guess it’d have to be Chawton Cottage, now known as Jane Austen’s House Museum. It was like a pilgrimage to walk through the rooms and gardens of the house where Jane lived during the nine year period when she wrote or rewrote all her masterpieces. And to see the little table where she sat by the window and wrote, was too thrilling for words!

The Austen tour that I took with my husband was absolutely wonderful, but took many months to research and plan. To see all the iconic Austen sites I’d recommend a guided bus tour, where you will enjoy the company of like-minded people, as well as guest speakers and other Austen-related events that you won’t get on your own. JASNA has such a tour every year; they’re run by Pathfinders, the same tour company I traveled with, and they’re fabulous.

For Jane Austen’s First Love, you did quite a bit of research into her mentions of Edward Taylor, who was the heir to a home in Kent. When did you know that you should stop researching and start writing? What part of the research did not make it into the book that you wish had made it in?

I continued researching the entire time I was writing the novel! Re-reading books by Jane Austen and biographies about Jane Austen while I was writing gave me an infusion of details to use here and there, and helped me to keep her voice in my head. Continuous research proved to be even more important where Edward Taylor was concerned. When I first began the novel, I hadn’t found much information about him, and had created an imaginary back story for him—but it never felt right. So I kept looking. And looking.

By a stroke of luck, I came upon Edward Taylor’s brother’s memoirs, which filled in so many details about the Taylor family and the unusual way in which all eight children were raised abroad. What I learned was far much more fascinating and remarkable than anything I could have made up! I put all that was pertinent into my novel. There were a few great scenes however that didn’t make the final cut. I had to delete one scene, for example, where Edward is telling Jane about a family excursion off the southern coast of Italy that ended in disaster. It was a great tale, but unfortunately it didn’t move forward the action of my novel, so it had to go.

A much bigger disappointment was when I felt obliged to delete a scene from Chapter One, in which Jane inscribes her name and the names of three imaginary suitors in the register at her father’s church at Steventon. I loved the scene I’d written, but once again, it didn’t move the plot forward, and the first chapter was too long. (The deleted scene may have a new life, however, as a short story.)

As the market becomes even more saturated with works about Jane Austen and her books, do you think readers will ever tire of these spinoffs, retellings, and fictionalized accounts of her life and work?

I hope not!

What keeps you returning to Jane Austen and her world?

I love Austen for so many reasons. I love immersing myself in the way the gentry class lived and loved during the Regency era, where we rarely see anyone working (other than the servants.) Austen’s characters lived in grand manor homes, were waited on hand and foot, drove around in elegant carriages, hunted on horseback, played cards and music, sang and read, sewed and drew, took walks on impeccable grounds, and danced at balls. What’s not to like? Not to mention the way they dressed! Tight breeches, tailcoats, and cravats! Gossamer, empire-waisted gowns! Hair pinned up like the ancient Greeks! It’s like something out of a fairy tale.

What I love most about Austen, though, is not the fairy tale setting—but the brilliant way her stories are plotted and the familiarity of her characters. We all know an overbearing woman like Lady Catherine de Bourgh, who believes she knows best and must be catered to. We’ve all met a sweet, kindly blabbermouth like Miss Bates. And while we laugh at Austen’s fools and love to hate the villains, we can’t help but fall in love with her heroes and heroines, who are all flawed—just as we are—and who must earn their happy endings by recognizing their missteps and working to correct them. That’s the real reason I keep returning to Jane and her world—because her tales of courtship and romance are perfectly structured morality tales, and the lessons resonate today.

Finally, do you read poetry, why or why not? And if you do, what are some of your favorite poems and who are some of your favorite poets? Also do you read contemporary poets or classic poets, why or why not?

I’ve been so busy reading novels over the last twenty years that I haven’t read much poetry—which I truly regret (I enjoy poetry.) While researching my three Austen novels and The Secret Diaries of Charlotte Brontë, however, I read all the poetry written by Austen and the Brontës. Jane and Charlotte wrote rather good poetry, but Charlotte’s sisters Emily and Anne outshone them. I’ve posted a selection of the Brontës’ poetry on my website, which were published together in one volume in 1846. Emily’s work is as darkly compelling as her novel Wuthering Heights. One of my favorites of this collection was written by Anne Brontë (under the pseudonym Acton Bell), when she was miserable and homesick while working as a governess for a wealthy family:

by Acton Bell

How brightly glistening in the sun,
The woodland ivy plays!
While yonder beeches from their barks
Reflect his silver rays.
That sun surveys a lovely scene
From softly smiling skies;
And wildly through unnumbered trees
The wind of winter sighs. . .

But give me back my barren hills
Where colder breezes rise;
Where scarce the scattered, stunted trees
Can yield an answering swell,
But where a wilderness of heath
Returns the sound as well. . .

Restore me to that little spot,
With gray walls compassed round,
Where knotted grass neglected lies,
And weeds usurp the ground.

Though all around this mansion high
Invites the foot to roam,
And though its halls are fair within-
Oh, give me back my HOME!

Many thanks for having me here, Serena, at Savvy Verse and Wit. I’m happy to answer any other questions you or your visitors might have, so feel free to leave a comment and ask away!

JAFL Banner v6Please check out the other stops on the tour.




Win One of Five Fabulous Jane Austen-inspired Prize Packages

To celebrate the holidays and the release of Jane Austen’s First Love, Syrie is giving away five prize packages filled with an amazing selection of Jane Austen-inspired gifts and books!

To enter the giveaway contest, simply leave a comment on any of the blog stops on the Jane Austen’s First Love Holiday Blog Tour.

Increase your chances of winning by visiting multiple stops along the tour! Syrie’s unique guest posts will be featured on a variety of subjects, along with fun interviews, spotlights, excerpts, and reviews of the novel. Contest closes at 11:59pm PT, December 21, 2014.

Five lucky winners will be drawn at random from all of the comments on the tour, and announced on Syrie’s website on December 22, 2014. The giveaway contest is open to everyone, including international residents. Good luck to all!

JAFL Grand Prize x 420

Click the image for more details

Interview with Khanh Ha, author of The Demon Who Peddled Longing

You might remember my review of Khanh Ha’s Flesh in 2012.  Ha’s prose is highly stylistic and transports readers into a dark world full of mythology, and I called Flesh a “stunning debut.”

He’s got a second novel coming out called The Demon Who Peddled Longing, which is likely to look at the dark side of humanity as well, and I’ll be reviewing that in December.

Today, I’ve got an interview treat for you.  Khanh Ha has agreed to answer some questions about his writing and his books.

Please give him a warm welcome.

What myths/legends of the Vietnamese culture appeal to you most and which do make you apprehensive?

As a child growing up in Vietnam, I had an indelible belief in animism. An unseen presence dwelling in an odd-looking rock by the roadside where people placed a bowl of rice grains and a stick of incense long gone cold. Those anthropomorphic images sown in a child’s mind began with the legendary origin of Vietnam when a teacher read a textbook story to the class: “The Dragon and the Immortal,” or Tiên Rồng, from whom the Vietnamese claim their lineage.

As a child, I lived in Huế, the former ancient capital of Vietnam, living in its mysterious atmosphere, half real, half magic. I used to walk home under the shade of the Indian almond trees, the poon trees. At the base of these ancient trees I would pass a shrine. If I went with my grandmother, she would push my head down. “Don’t stare at it,” grandmother said. “That’s disrespect to the genies.” Yet the one practice I deem mindless is the spirit medium-ship when a trance-induced medium lets herself be possessed by a spirit who claims himself a demigod, a deity, a medieval lord marshal; and the audience then make offerings to such spirit, asking for blessings, for their fortune foretold.

Your novels, Flesh and The Demon Who Peddled Longing, bring forth the darker sides of the humanity. What about those desires and dark secrets fascinates you as a writer?

I write dark fiction because of the dystopian world around me. But I want to come out of it alive and atoned for. My main character is like that. He is impetuous, single-minded and yet tender-hearted and loyal.

He hides his dark secrets of the love he has for his cousin, of his longing for the untouchable girl who is married to the overlord triple her age and sexually impotent. Writers are those who know how to fictionalize their dark secrets and desires, and allow readers to experience them secondhand.

If you were to offer one seed of advice to novice writers looking to get published, what would it be?

Find your own writerly voice! When you do, write as the only writer that exists, none before you, none after you. But write something, even if it’s just a suicide note. Somewhere I remember Toni Morrison once said, “I wrote my first novel because I wanted to read it.”

What was the best piece of advice you ever received as a writer?

None. Like every self-made man, I worship my creator. Because I taught myself how to write, I found it dreadful to sit and listen to someone trying to teach techniques in fiction writing. I always consider writing a private business, like lovemaking—you don’t learn how to do it, do you?

Do you read poetry?  Why or why not?  And if you do, who are some of your favorite poets or some of your favorite poems?

I love poetry. It’s the cadence and imagery in poetry that live in me when I write. I must have them to induce moods. I love poetry that’s down-to-earth, simple and sincere, crisp and elegant. For that, I love Charles Bukowski’s You Get So Alone at Times That it Just Makes Sense, and Maya Angelou’s Passing Time, which was used as the epigraph of my novel The Demon Who Peddled Longing.

Thank you, Khahn Ha, for answering my questions.  I look forward to reading your next novel.

Interview with Janel Gradowski, Author of Pies & Peril

Pies & Peril, a Culinary Competition Mystery by Janel Gradowski is a fun cozy that will have readers laughing out loud, but this heroine, Amy Ridley, is no dumb blonde.  She’s got a good head on her shoulders, but she’s also focused to win every culinary baking contest she enters.  Here’s the description from GoodReads:

When Amy Ridley decided to compete in the Kellerton Summer Festival Pie Contest, the last thing she expected was to find the reigning pie queen, Mandy Jo, dead—a raspberry pie smashed on her face! Mandy Jo made fantastic pies, but she accumulated more enemies than baking trophies. But when Amy receives a note threatening her own life, she decides to do some investigating herself.

Today, I’ve got a great interview from Janel, whom I met through book blogging, and now as an author of full-length and flash fiction, she’s here to share with us her writing and publishing experiences. Please give her a warm welcome:

1. What are your first loves as a reader about novels? Do you prefer plot or characterization? Do you love mystery or literary fiction better?

I love characters with interesting backgrounds and traits. Plot is the undercurrent that keeps all good books flowing, but I want to fall in love with the characters first and really care about them. I also love richly detailed books where the author describes the literary world they’ve created with their own, unique lens.

I will read just about anything. Different genres for different moods. I love a cozy mystery when I’m hanging out at our cabin or just want something light to read in the evening. If I really want to sink my teeth into a book I often turn to women’s fiction by authors like Barbara O’Neal and Erica Bauermeister.

2. When deciding to carve out time for your own writing, what was the catalyst for you, especially being a mother and having little time to yourself?

To be honest, my commitment to writing fiction over the last several years was a bit of a mid­life crisis. I designed and published beadwork patterns when my kids were little, so I knew I could juggle being a mom and a writer. While I loved seeing my patterns in magazines, I still wanted to be a published author in my first writing love ­ fiction. Over the past four or five years I have transitioned from writing patterns to writing fiction and I couldn’t be happier with the change.

3. What are some tips you’d provide to mothers looking to continue creatively writing if they have young children, school-­age children, and older kids?

The younger children are the less time mothers have for themselves. You need to learn to write in bits and pieces in whatever time you can grab. Just make sure to also rest when you have the chance. Exhaustion is never a good thing for moms or writers. I find that it helps to tailor the length of your stories to the time that you have available. When my children were younger I wrote flash fiction, ultra­short stories that usually have less than 1,000 words. As my kids got older I moved up to short stories, novelettes and novellas. Now my kids are pretty independent at 15 and 13­ years old. I was easily able to write Pies & Peril, my first novel, last fall.

If you are having problems “turning on” your creativity in the time you do have, I would suggest trying prompts. There are countless books and websites dedicated to writing prompts. Give yourself permission to play and get messy with your writing. Don’t worry about making it perfect, a common creativity killer, and have fun. You may be surprised at what ends up on the page.

4. Pies & Peril is your latest, full­-length published work, how long did the process take from the initial idea to finish? And how did this process differ from your previous experience with the Bartonville Series of books?

It took me about a month and a half to write the first draft of Pies & Peril. I started with a 2,000 word short story then expanded it, using subplots, into a novel. I did much more planning with this than any of the stories I’ve written for my Bartonville Series. It’s roughly twice as long as the longest Bartonville story, a novella.

I write using a program called Scrivener. It is made specifically for writers and has a virtual corkboard with wonderful virtual index cards. Each scene can be an index card in the program. For the Bartonville series I just plotted the stories using those virtual index cards. For Pies & Peril I broke out a real corkboard and index cards. I took a few weeks to jot down scene ideas on cards. Then I sat down, color­coded the cards by subplot and arranged them on the board, filling in gaps as needed. I am definitely what is called a “plotter” in the world of writing. There’s no way I would try writing a novel without plotting it out first, although I have written many flash fiction stories off the top of my head from just a tiny seed of an idea. Longer word counts take more planning. A lot more planning.

5. How happy are you about your publishing career so far, and what do you hope will happen in the future? Any new books in the planning or near completion stages and will they be food-­related too?

A year ago I never thought I would have a publisher or be writing a culinary mystery series! I wrote a short story for a contest. It turns out my publisher, Gemma Halliday, was running the contest to look for authors for the boutique publishing company she was starting. I didn’t win the contest, but I did get a publishing contract and I am thrilled! The publishing world is kind of like a gold rush right now. Everybody is scrambling to find readers and fans. Having a publisher and the other authors at Gemma Halliday Publishing help promote the book has made a huge difference in the success of Pies & Peril compared to my other self-­published books.

I am currently writing the second book in the Culinary Competition Series. It will definitely be food­-related with lots of food described in the book and recipes for some of the treats at the end. I am also working on a short story from the series that will be in a holiday anthology. I plan on adding more volumes to both of my self­published series, 6:1 and Bartonville, but those are on the backburner for the moment. There are only so many hours in the day!

Thanks, Janel, for talking with us today, and you know I love your writing and your books.  Stay tuned for my review of Pies & Peril tomorrow!

JanelGAbout the Author:

Janel Gradowski lives in a land that looks like a cold weather fashion accessory, the mitten­-shaped state of Michigan. She is a wife and mom to two kids and one Golden Retriever. Her journey to becoming an author is littered with odd jobs like renting apartments to college students and programming commercials for an AM radio station. Somewhere along the way she also became a beadwork designer and teacher. She enjoys cooking recipes found in her formidable cookbook and culinary fiction collection. Searching for unique treasures at art fairs, flea markets and thrift stores is also a favorite pastime. Coffee is an essential part of her life. She writes the Culinary Competition Mystery Series, along with The Bartonville Series (women’s fiction) and the 6:1 Series (flash fiction). She has also had many short stories published in both online and print publications.  Check her Website, on Facebook, and on Twitter.  Check out her books.

Interview with Beth Hoffman, Author of Looking for Me

LookingForMePaperbackLooking for Me by Beth Hoffman, which made my Best of 2013 list, is due out in paperback this month.  Her second novel weaves “a story that will enchant readers with not only its southern charm and hospitality, but also the mysteries of family connections and miscommunications.”

Today, Beth will regale us with her wit and charm in a short interview.

Thank you so much for inviting me to chat with you, Serena.

1. In Looking for Me (on Kobo), Teddi Overman has a gift for restoring old furniture, but she seems unable to cope with the past. How do you think her ability to restore furniture reflects her inability to address her own past or the life she leads after high school?

Teddi adores her brother, and her hope for his survival is a tangled mess of guilt, unbearable grief, and even anger. These feelings translate into how she believes even the most severely damaged piece of furniture can be resurrected. By immersing herself in her craft, each repair represents how she’s trying to mend herself and her past.

2. Have you ever restored furniture or found a piece that just spoke to you?

Though I’ve restored a few pieces, I don’t have the patience to do what Teddi did. She was a master. Yes, certain pieces speak to me, and when they do it’s like being reunited with an old friend. Years ago I walked by an antiques shop and saw a circa 1908 Herschell-Spillman carousel horse in the window. My reaction was so powerful that nothing could have stopped me from having him. He was far outside my budget, but I found ways to scrape together enough to finally bring him home. I named him Ziggy.

3. When we leave home, we often leave behind who we were or were expected to be, how is this true of Teddi and do you think those pieces we leave behind can ever be recaptured?

The best way I can sum up my feelings is to quote Teddi: “I thought about that old saying, how we can never go home again. But I think it’s more like a piece of us stays behind when we leave—a piece we can never reclaim. One that awaits our next visit and demands that we remember.”

4. Between Saving CeeCee Honeycutt and Looking for Me, could you describe your experience in publishing and editing the books? How were they the same and how were they different?

CeeCee’s story was my debut, and I had no idea what to expect once it was acquired.

I had edited the manuscript with a ruthless hand, so the re-pub editing was minimal and easy. But when the book published I felt like I’d been shot out of a cannon! I’m an introvert, so having a big spotlight shined on my face was frightening. Plus, I didn’t know how grueling a book tour could be. But it was an amazing experience that I wouldn’t trade.

When Looking for Me published I knew the ropes and had my feet beneath me, so I was better prepared.

5. What current projects are you working on? Care to share any details?

I recently started a new novel, and so far I’m enthralled with the characters. The story takes place in two historic districts that sit back-to-back in Northern Kentucky (Newport and Covington). The two female main characters (one in her early 30s and one in her silver years) are both hiding something. It’s through their unusual friendship that their mysteries unfold.

Thanks, Beth, for sharing a little bit about your books with us and about your new work. I know I cannot wait to read it!

****Enter to win a copy of Looking for Me by Beth Hoffman by leaving a comment here.  You must live in the continental U.S. to enter.  Deadline to enter is May 9, 2014, by 11:59 PM EST.***

Emma Eden Ramos Interviews Poet Brooke Elise Axtell

Emma Eden Ramos is a poet, middle-grade, and young adult novelist, and I’ve featured her a few times on the blog.  We’re Internet buddies who have a “poking” war from time to time, and we talk poetry and books all the time.  Check out my reviews of Still, At Your Door, The Realm of the Lost, and Three Women: A Poetic Triptych and Selected Poems.  Check out the interviews, and her guest interview.

BRK2Emma will be interviewing poet Brooke Elise Axtell, and we’ll share one of her poems.  Please give them a warm welcome.

be careful with a woman like me 
by Brooke Elise Axtell

be careful with a woman like me
who lives like a drunkard 
for the grey honey of the sea
who sends her singing voice to distant coves
like a hurricane trapped in a green bottle just to see 
if shrouds can be ripped & the dead raised.

be careful with a woman like me
who sharpens her heart like an ivory dagger
& howls her monsoon music to the moon
who wraps her secrets in silver cloths
to hide beneath deck & makes no promises
who is a cloud no hammer can nail to the bed
who will keep you restless & well fed on blackberries.

be careful with a woman like me
who dances in with a brass band
then slips away like a line in the sand
when the slightest wind moves.
it is not that i can't be true.
it is not that you are a red lacquered door
to open & quickly pass through.

but what appears to be 
a delicate locket hanging
from a gold chain at my neck
holds a private tempest & the shipwreck
of every storm-torn night my skin eats.

be careful of a woman like me.
i am true the way rain is true.
i am pure & vanishing. 
when the thirst of brittle leaves is quenched
when the land is a screaming emerald
it is clear. i am no longer here.

i am as restless as a sloop at bay, 
swaying with the seducing wave & her dark granite gaze.

i secretly flunked the school of manners
though i held my spoon at such a graceful angle.
i disguised my dissent behind the careful lifting 
of the teacup & memorized the map of their make believe.

i breathed heavy in the bed of my enemy
so i could overturn the twist of the sordid fist. 
i oiled the gears of my mind like a pleasing machine.
you should be careful with a woman like me.

all the while i trained in guerilla warfare 
chewed rabbit stew, sank my teeth 
into the neck of a god who does not topple 
at the earthquake of the shrine.

i crossed seven purple mountains on my knees.
i sucked on stones until they turned to bread.
i gave my heart to a hungry harlot to eat for breakfast

& you will find only the grey honey of the sea 
rocking, rocking 
in a woman like me.

Emma: The ability to write isn’t always all inclusive. Someone who composes beautiful prose may find that they’re completely hopeless when it comes to writing verse. You, however, are an award winning poet and short story writer. What, for you, is the link that makes both mediums accessible?

Brooke: I start with an initial instinct, a visceral energy that inevitably gives way to a particular form. When I begin writing I know that there is an underlying architecture that will reveal itself, but the line between verse and story in not absolute. Hybrid forms fascinate me. The intersection of text, song, performance and story yields such a rich alchemy. Lately, I’ve been intrigued by journalism as a site of beautiful protest.When you watch the boundaries between genres breed and dissolve, you begin to feel that every form is open to you.

Emma: You are also a very well-established singer/songwriter. You’ve worked with artists such as Terry Bozzio (of Missing Persons and Frank Zappa), Charlie Sexton (guitarist for Bob Dylan), Mitch Watkins (guitarist for Leonard Cohen), and a number of other great musicians. How do you find the collaborative process?

Brooke: It is an incredible honor to collaborate with such powerful musicians. I grew up dancing with a professional ballet company, so I approach the songwriting process as both a poet and a dancer. Music connects language and movement in a way that is completely transformative for me.

Emma: Which do you prefer, collaborating with other artists on a project or creating on your own?

Brooke: I appreciate both modalities. I crave solitude and connection. I am most alive as an artist when I create space for each side of the process. Collaboration challenges me to expand and grow. Solitude renews me and helps me reconnect with my courage. In a media-saturated climate I am vulnerable to distraction. I need to set aside moments to honor the interior life as well as cultivate authentic community.

Emma: Some time back, you won first place in the Young Texas Writer’s Awards for your short story “Maya’s Mirror.” Have you been writing since you were a young girl?

Brooke: Yes. As soon as I could write I started inventing stories about aliens, ghosts and unknown planets. I also wrote mystical poems about nature with themes of isolation. In retrospect, I see that I was working with creative codes to process the trauma I experienced.

Emma: Are there a few poets, fiction writers or lyricists who have deeply influenced you?

Brooke: I am nourished by many sources. As far as poets, I am reading the work of Akilah Oliver, Alice Notley, Bhanu Kapil and countless others. As far as songwriting, I am drawn to the work of Tori Amos, Bjork, Ani Di Franco, PJ Harvey, Billy Holiday and Sarah Vaughan. Fierce, imaginative women who tap into multiple states of consciousness. I am also grateful for the rich legacy of feminist writer/activists such as Audre Lorde and Adrienne Rich.

Emma: What would you say is your greatest inspiration?

Brooke: Mending the aftershocks of violence, honoring the body, healing ruptures through creative alchemy, a fierce hunger for social justice, my love of women, blues and jazz.

Emma: Do you have any advice for aspiring writers?

Brooke: Set aside time to write consistently. It has to become your way of life. This is a core decision, a sacred space you create, a ritual. You write because it is who you are and silence feels like a form of erasure.

I keep a hand-written journal to collect all the fragments: streams of consciousness, postcards of films, research, drawings, poetry. Recently, I found a gorgeous photograph of an anatomical heart and taped it inside. It is important to have private places as a writer, where there is no pressure to perform.

Immerse yourself in writers who speak to you. Join some form of creative community with writers who are more experienced than you. Ultimately, trust the value of you own voice, honor your instincts and stay open to wise counsel.

If you do not connect to someone else’s work they may not be an ideal mentor for you. Teachers and professors can be helpful, but take a look at their body of work before you invest too much in their critiques.

Going to open mics and public readings is a powerful way to come into your voice. For my poetry collections, I engage with performance as part of the editing process. I listen to what resonates and what feels like excess. It brings me back to the original energy of a piece.

Keep writing and refining your process. You deserve to be heard.

Thanks to both Emma and Brooke for this great interview today, as we wind down the April National Poetry Month celebration.

Description from GoodReads:

Brooke Axtell’s mesmerizing poetry explores the thirst for solace in desolate spaces. It is a thirst for cleansing, healing and rejuvenation. In her third collection of poems, she plunges the body of pain, the “remembering body,” into the renewing element of water. With fierce elegance, she reveals the core thirst of life: to experience all as sacred. Her gift of striking imagery and stunning, musical language has the power to haunt and heal. She transmutes pain into incantation. This is the alchemy of the artist.Just as Kore of Greek myth was forced into the underworld and initiated into a cycle of ascension, Axtell investigates a realm of ruin and rises to share a new vision of life. Her poems confront the ravages of violence with the relentless hope of the creative process. She explores the archetype of the wild woman, the sacred marriage of the soul, the cost of injustice, the modern sex industry, the Divine Feminine and the gift of intimacy that honors the emergence of the true untamed nature. Here is the map of one woman’s spiritual journey. You will find solace in these waters, “the healing waterfall behind the ancient wall.”

For today’s 2014 National Poetry Month: Reach for the Horizon tour stop, click the image below: