Friday, October 31, 2014

A Conversation With Bestselling Author Alyson Richman

By Kim

In my last post, a review of Alyson Richman’s latest novel, The Garden of Letters, I mentioned that I had the privilege of meeting her when she recently came to Dallas. She graciously allowed me to record the interview part of our conversation. Below is a transcription of what she said, with minor adjustments made to remove the inevitable tangents in the discussion.

Alyson had no prior knowledge of what my questions would be, and her answers are completely and refreshingly candid.

This interview took place at the Hilton at Lincoln Center in Dallas on October 14th, 2014. Thank you again, Alyson!

KB: You have set a couple of your novels during WWII. What draws you to this era?

AR: I think one of the reasons why I love writing about WWII is because when you undertake the research for that period you can still find people who were living at the time and obtain their oral histories. Being able to use them as a resource for the fine details for the story-line is really a gift and so I love that. I love being able to travel to the different countries and interview people. With The Lost Wife I interviewed several holocaust survivors who were at Terezin. In The Garden of Letters I was able to interview 90- year-old partisans who lived in the mountains storing ammunition, fighting against the Germans. I was able to meet 85-year-old female messengers who worked for the Italian resistance, who hid grenades in their fruit baskets as they walked to market every day, and musicians and composers who were alive during that time period. So, all of those people gave me another layer of research and that’s transferred into the writing of the story.

Photo by Deborah Downes
KB: Your characters often have some sort of artistic passion. There was Van Gogh, of course, in The Last Van Gogh and in The Garden of Letters we have Elodie, a musical prodigy. What amazed me in both books was how clearly and passionately you describe the artistic process. Do you paint or play a musical instrument? If not, how do you get so clearly into the mindset of an artist?

AR: Well, I always aspired to be a painter. My mother is an abstract painter and from very early on in my life my mother taught me to see the world through an artistic lens. She was the person who took my painting and turned it upside down and said, “How does it change when I move the direction of your composition?” She was the one who taught me about negative and positive space, how everything that you look at has its own palette, has its own color and texture. When you grow up with a mother like that, you see the world from a unique perspective than your peers. I think that’s transferred in the way I write, the way I craft my sentences. I always tell people that I imagine my sentences are like brush strokes that move you through a canvas, but they move you in this case through a story. Every chapter I imagine as a composition, so even if I’m writing about a painter or if I’m writing about a musician, I’m using my artistic background to make the scene as vivid as possible. 

Having a character who is rooted in the arts is especially thrilling for me. I love describing the character involved in their own artistic process.  That said, The Garden of Letters was my first book that actually involved a musician. I played the piano for ten years, but I had very little talent.  Luckily, my husband is a violinist, so he was a great resource when I was writing the novel.  At first, I was nervous about accurately capturing the mindset of a musician, but I was relieved when I started interviewing musicians and composers and they described how they heard music in similar ways that a painter sees color. For them, notes have color and texture, as well as light and shadow.  And a musical score has positive and negative space, just like a painted canvas. When I knew that they spoke the same language and it was just something with music rather than with paint, I felt I was able to undertake the story. 

Photo by Deborah Downes
KB: You do not shy away from the gritty realities of war in your novels. How difficult is it for you to write those scenes?

 AR: No one’s ever asked me that before. Great question! It’s very, very difficult. I think that at some point in every book I have to stop and say, “not everything can be as beautiful as you want it to be.” I get very wrapped up in describing the beauty of nature, or the emotions that are more attractive than the ones that are going to make a reader uncomfortable. In order to write realistic fiction, especially with a historical backdrop, you have to be show the tragedy in life, how there are conflicts where people have inner turmoil and have to make choices and sacrifices, when terrible things happen to good people. I definitely did this in The Lost Wife, where I felt like it’s not all about love and protecting the people that you love, or creating artwork from stolen supplies, but showing how brutal war is. In The Garden of Letters, there’s a scene that really encapsulates how tragic and difficult things got for people who undertook dangerous missions for the Resistance.  I created that particular scene from a diary that I found about someone, a messenger whom this happened to, a woman who had particularly beautiful eyes and how her most beautiful feature was destroyed when she was discovered to be working for the Resistance. It had to be in the book because otherwise it doesn’t seem like a very realistic portrayal of what was happening at that time period.

KB: Your love stories are achingly beautiful and often doomed. Is this an intentional theme, or just something that falls into place as you flesh out your novels?

AR: I don’t think that it’s intentional, but in order to create a story that has emotional resonance you have to show contrast. It’s like a painting. I’m consciously always thinking about how to show beauty and sadness, how to show redemption after a great loss, how to show the resilience of the human spirit after great tragedy. Those two dialectics—I’m always playing one against the other, so there’s typically one love story which is going to be tragic, but then there’s a second love story which isn't maybe as pure and naïve as the first love story, but it reflects what happens to us in the arc of a life. We build from those early experiences, and we are more layered when we come to love a second time than we were with our first love. I’m kind of fascinated with that. To me it seems very naïve to believe there is only one great love in a lifetime. In The Lost Wife what I really wanted to explore was the different shades of love, how we love our parent, our children, the fraternal love between siblings, the second love after a great loss. All those things that really make up a full life. With The Garden of Letters, again, there is the story of Elodie’s first beautiful love in the beginning of the war, but she experiences another form of love later on in the novel. I wanted to explore how many things in life- often events outside of our control- bring us together with the most unlikely people and that there can be beauty and healing even after great loss.

Photo by Deborah Downes
KB: Writing historical fiction involves a lot of research. What is your favorite part of this process?

AR: My favorite part is travelling to the countries I write about. I make more than one trip. For me, the first trip is always about seeing the country, seeing what the landscape looks like, so I have a very strong visual of what I’m going to be describing. I look at the bone structure of the people from that particular place to see if there’s a particular symmetry to their faces, is there a certain look to the eyes or their coloring or how do they interact with each other. What food do they eat? How do they display affection? In the second I really try to locate people who were alive during the time period who might be able to provide me with first-account details. 

KB: Do you have a least favorite part?

AR: (Laughing) My least favorite is the first draft because I always go through this sense of wondering if I can pull this off. I always feel I come up with a great idea and then midway through I think there’s no way I’m going to be able to do this. I get panicked that I’m going to fail. I have a great fear of failure, which I think propels me to work harder. It’s probably something you see in a lot of people who end up achieving what they want to do. I never rest on my laurels thinking that I’ve achieved success. I always think that no one is going to read my book, so I’m always quietly relieved when I meet someone who says they love reading my novels. This doesn't ever get easier. I always feel that I’m writing my last book.

KB: To me your stories read as though you write in layers almost as a painter paints. Do you power through your first draft and then go back and edit, or edit as you go?

Photo by Deborah Downes
AR: I don’t ever power write. I wish I could do that. I will write the detail over and over before I can move on to the next paragraph. I re-write what I wrote the day before. I'm constantly re-editing. I won’t move forward until I think it’s as good as it can be. At the end I will go through a read of it and think, is this working? Should something be taken out?  I imagine it’s like the way Van Gogh took from his impasto and carved out light in a particular place. I write densely and then look in the final phase for ways to bring space into the story. I also don’t work with an outline which I think is very unusual with most writers.

KB: I don’t either.

AR: That’s interesting. I know we're one of the few who work this way and possibly because we both come from a background in the arts. For me, writing is very much an organic process of adding and subtracting. What happened in The Garden of Letters when the room full of letters is created – I didn’t plan that! I was writing it and I was like “what is she going to do with Angelo's letters?” and then something beautiful came to mind, something I hadn't expected.  For me, that spontaneity is part of the magic of the process.  

KB: How long does it generally take you to write a novel?

AR: Typically it took me three years. Now I’m under contract for two years, but my children are older and so I feel like I’m going to be able to do that. Ideally, it would still be three years.

KB: When you start a new novel, what is fleshed out first for you – the characters or the plot?

AR: The characters – 100%. To be quite honest, the plot isn't so interesting to me. It’s the development of the characters and what happens with them against the historic backdrop.  I can see their faces. I can see where they live and imagine their childhoods. I can see those details quite vividly and when I start writing them it is almost like I’m giving them life. They become the seeds for the novel, and from them the story begins to grow.

In addition to The Garden of Letters, Alyson Richman is the author of The Mask Carver’s Son, The Rhythm of Memory, The Last Van Gogh and The Lost Wife

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

A Ghost Story

by Elizabeth

Walking out of the gym last night, I looked up from un-muting my phone and saw a ghost. A white-haired woman sat in a chair near the door, her head down in a book, and for a moment I was again in the presence of my grandmother who died almost twenty-five years ago. As I vacillated between gladness and fresh mourning, I debated whether to tell her or not. I decided to tell her, assuring her that while my grandmother would now be over a century old, she did not look so but simply reminded me of the woman I have never stopped missing.

In the parking lot, my mind flipped to the stories I could write based on that simple encounter. What if that woman weren't a stranger at all, but in fact my ancestor, placed before me for just one more evening to answer the lingering questions I'll forever ask? What if she were indeed the stranger she was, but our short exchange extended to a cup of coffee, an email address, a friendship, a life? What if she had been offended by the comparison and punched me in the mug? The possibilities of imagination are literally infinite.

Last week, the faucet handle fell off our shower. Turns out the screw inside was stripped, and try as he might my husband just couldn't get it out. A trip to the major retailer proved fruitless, and it looked like we were staring down an expensive plumbing bill to again enjoy the luxury of cleanliness. Then inspiration, maybe, struck: our local specialty hardware store might be able to fix the problem. Off I toddled to Elliott's Hardware, and upon entering brandished the hardware of woe, and was sent to talk to one of two gentlemen in the plumbing department. The first man took a look, then called over his partner whose eyes lit up with delight. "I'll get to this as soon as I help this lady," he said, and disappeared with my handle. A few minutes later, he was back, holding $1.67 worth of parts to re-install the handle and the old screw cleared out. "I love this kind of problem!" he said, gave me the incredibly simple instructions to fix the thing ("Don't booger it too hard"), and when I asked if I should bring him all my knotty plumbing issues, I thought he was going to drop to one knee before he practically shouted yes. This is a man who loves his job. This is a man for whom work is play.

And why not? Who amongst us can't summon a mental image of an astronaut turning somersaults in zero gravity; of a high school coach running alongside her students, her grin wider than her stride; of a waiter throwing back his head to laugh with the party he's serving, clearly enjoying the job? Work is serious business, but it's also fun, or at least it should be.

Seeing that woman in the gym, and then imagining the possibilities springing from that encounter--that was fun. Writing about them would be fun. Resurrecting one of the most important people in the world to me, that is just fun. And remembering when the going is tough, in this job or your job or any job, that work is work but at its best it is also fun, is the best kind of story I can imagine. I called this a ghost story, but you know what? The only scary part is if it were not true.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Spooky ghost stories

by Joan

I don’t know about you, but I’m a big fan of Halloween. Always loved trick-or-treating on chilly Maryland nights, pillowcase growing heavier as we traipsed long blocks and avoided creepy houses. I especially enjoyed spilling my haul on the avocado green carpet, trading and sorting and savoring (but not so much the next day stomachaches). 

For years we hosted an annual spook fest, complete with eerie decorations, scary yummy treats and friends who took costuming seriously.

I’m also a big fan of cemeteries. This morning on a long walk in perfect 70-degree weather, we found ourselves on Cemetery Hill Road. I can see how the name might put the slightest bit of decoration pressure on its residents.

Here were a few of our favorites:

And what Halloween post would be complete without a few reminders of some classic scary stories such as Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book, Stephen King’s The Shining, Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting at Hill HouseSarah Waters’ The Little Stranger and Diane Setterfield's The Thirteenth Tale, and a nod to the fun new short story, The Stone Wife, by writing pal Bethany Snyder.

What are your favorite spooky tales or locales, real or fiction?

Friday, October 24, 2014

The Organized Mind

By Susan

October is almost behind us and I'm starting to hear chatter about NaNoWriMo—National Novel Writing Month—in which writers commit to 50,000 words on paper during the month of November. There's a certain beauty in this notion: write a novel in a month! It's that easy! Several successful books have begun as NaNo manuscripts (Water For Elephants, by Sara Gruen, for one) so there's something to be said for the concept.

Here's why it can work: the first step toward success as a writer is to be organized, and NaNo, despite its other potential flaws, organizes the writer with short-term goals, long-term goals, a community with accountability, and a sense of urgency. This is a very good thing.

This week, I've felt a lack of all of the above: My system of setting goals for myself felt weak, I wasn't communicating with other writers, and my sense of urgency, on a scale of 1-10, was in the negative. I've never felt a burning desire to participate in NaNo, but I knew I needed a change.  I began to consider it.

Happy Bookcase.
I started with something simple. Organizing the mind is part brains and part brawn, and I already felt as though I'd over-thought every possible way through my plot  and character blocks. I decided to start with the physical and took my favorite bookcase and stripped it of its books. As I worked, I thought about what I wanted to fill my brain-space with, the same way I'd fill a book space.

This bookcase had been a gift to myself after I left the world of corporate sales management. It's a solid piece of furniture—no particle board here. At this point, three years after leaving the working world, it was littered with do-dads and out-of-date photographs, crammed with books and papers, and stuffed with tchotchkes that have lost their significance to me. My brain felt the same way--cluttered and outdated.  I took everything off the shelves, dusted them clean, and looked around me.

I had over 35 books about corporate sales, executive management, and women in business. They were no longer important to me and mostly brought me a feeling of dread. I thought about the shelf space these books took up, and it was an easy decision: They all went to the used bookstore the next day. (The total I received for the reading material associated with my former 17 year career? $8.) My brain needed that same clearing out—no space for anything other than the writing in front of me. The photos and mementos went into my grandfather's whiskey barrel. (Also in this picture. What? You mean everyone doesn't have a whiskey barrel coffee table?) I decided I wanted nothing on this bookcase that didn't connect me to my work.

I organized the books my own way: top shelf belonged to Kentucky writers and my friend's books. The second and third shelf went to signed books and a ceramic whiskey decanter shaped like a Kentucky Wildcat from my grandfather's collection (yes, seriously), and the fourth shelf now houses important books from Southern writers or literary writers I admire. The bottom shelf, one that's harder to reach, is loaded with some non-fiction good for research purposes for my novel but not something I'll touch daily.

Mercado Juarez: best tortilla soup in Texas.
The case was clean and simplified now, and my brain felt lighter, too. By organizing my surroundings, I freed myself up to organize my own interior. The day after I cleaned the bookcase, I set out to journal about my current mental block with the manuscript. I needed to do this by hand, unplugged, and without distractions, so I went to my favorite Mexican restaurant for soup. They know me there, and gave me a quiet table where I could work.

I was thinking about NaNo and why I should write 50,000 words in a month, but instead, I cracked the code on a major character and what I need to do with her. I wrote furiously for an hour, and things clicked into place.  By pushing away other distractions, I was able to move forward.

I'm still writing, and I'm still working, and no—this draft won't be complete at the end of November. But I'm energized again and feeling lighter. I'm relighting some passion for the characters, and those are all good things.

A little organization can go a long way.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

The Most Interesting Man on the Plane

By Pamela

I'm not a frequent flier by most people's standards, but I do love to travel. After one trip, I told my husband about a conversation I had with my seatmate. His response was: "People don't like to talk on the plane. That's why I wear my headphones and pretend to fall asleep--because I don't like people to talk to me."

U.S. Air Force dog Venice and her handler. 
Humbug, says I, but from then on I applied the "do not speak unless spoken to" rule when flying. Usually. Last year on a flight, I was seated next to an Air Force soldier and his bomb-sniffing dog Venice. So, of course, I had to talk to him--and he allowed me to take a photo. On a flight this time last year, after leaving my gravely ill mother's bedside, I was grateful for a lighthearted conversation with my seatmate. I can't remember what we talked about, but he was exceedingly kind for not mentioning that I looked like an emotional wreck.

Then earlier this month, I traveled to Denver to visit my niece. On the way there, the guy next to me completely ignored me and I returned the favor, catching up on some reading and attempting to complete the Mensa challenge in American Way magazine. On the return flight, my new seatmate had his headphones in, so I took that as code for "don't talk to me" and I didn't. Then as I unwrapped a sandwich I knew I'd only eat half of, I noticed he was headphone-free and so I offered him the other half. Over the next 45 minutes, we talked over our shared sandwich.

After the perfunctory "why are you headed to Dallas?" exchange, he started telling me about his recent discovery: At the age of 45, he found out he's adopted. I won't share all the details about his story because I'm hoping to see it in print one day, but what I took from our conversation seems pretty profound. Along with "everyone has a story to tell" being a generality, the circumstances surrounding his adoption, upbringing, revelation, reunion and reconciliation were nothing short of amazing and made me appreciate how real life is often more compelling than any novel.

Our encounter made me excited about storytelling. Years ago after a trip to meet his mother's extended family in India, he returned with photos. His wife said then, "You're adopted. You look nothing like these people." It would take a health scare and subsequent blood test to reveal a genetic condition that led him to ask his father if he was adopted. His father held fast and denied it, even when my seatmate said he threatened to submit a DNA sample for testing. When the results confirmed he wasn't even the same race as his parents (his mother was now deceased), his father finally acquiesced with "I guess the cat's out of the bag now." Apparently his adopted mother made his father swear to take the news to the grave.

Having discovered his birth-family only within the past few weeks, his enthusiasm was palpable, and it reignited in me the notion that you can have extraordinary circumstances in a story as long as you can tell it so others believe it could happen. I'm a huge fan of a well-told memoir. This time, I got to hear someone tell theirs to me in person. The next time someone has a story to share, will you be a good listener? The next time you have a story to share, will you be a good writer?

Friday, October 17, 2014

A Review of Alyson Richman’s The Garden of Letters

By Kim

It’s no secret to regular readers of our blog that Alyson Richman is one of my all-time favorite authors. Click here to read my gushing review of The Lost Wife, which is the first book of hers I had read.

I recently purchased Alyson's new novel, The Garden of Letters and made a passing comment on one of her Facebook posts that if she ever came to Dallas I’d love to get it signed. She wrote back within an hour and said that she would soon be in town for a luncheon and would love to meet me.

I spent well over an hour chatting with Alyson in the lobby of her hotel a few days ago and she graciously allowed me to record our interview for What Women Write. Check back on Halloween and I’ll post a transcript here. (There’s nothing spooky about our conversation other than the number of times I nodded my head in complete agreement—that just happens to be the day of my next post.)

In the meantime, here is my review of The Garden of Letters.

Synopsis (from the book jacket)

Portofino, Italy, 1943

A young woman steps off a boat in a scenic coastal village. Although she knows how to disappear in a crowd, Elodie is too terrified to slip by the German officers, while carrying her poorly forged identity papers. She is frozen until a man she’s never met before claims to know her. In desperate need of shelter, Elodie follows him back to his home on the cliffs of Portofino.

Only months before, Elodie Bertolotti was a cello prodigy in Verona, unconcerned with world events. But when Mussolini’s Fascist regime strikes her family, Elodie is drawn into the burgeoning resistance movement by Luca, a young and impassioned bookseller. As the occupation looms, she discovers that her unique musical talents, and her courage, have the power to save lives.

In Portofino, young doctor Angelo Rosselli gives the frightened and exhausted girl sanctuary. He is a man with painful secrets of his own, haunted by guilt and remorse. But Elodie’s arrival has the power to awaken a sense of hope and joy that Angelo thought was lost to him forever.

Written in dazzling prose and set against the rich backdrop of World War II Italy, The Garden of Letters captures the hope, suspense, and romance of an uncertain era, in an epic intertwining story of first love, great tragedy, and spectacular bravery.

Author photo by Deborah Downes
About Alyson Richman (from the book jacket):

Alyson Richman is the author of The Mask Carver’s Son, The Rhythm of Memory, The Last Van Gogh, and The Lost Wife, She lives in Long Island with her husband and two children. 

My review:

The Lost Wife still resonates so deeply with me that I worried I’d be subconsciously comparing the two books while I read. The novels have some elements in common, after all. They both take place during WWII. They both contain a tragic love story, but are about far more than love. They both have a protagonist with a passion for a form of art. Lenka, from The Lost Wife, was an artist. Elodie, from The Garden of Letters, was a cellist. Both women possess a level of courage that is awe-inspiring.

The similarities end there, however, and I can honestly say that I never once thought of Josef and Lenka while reading about Elodie and Luca. I thought of very little beyond my need to find out what happened next. I did not tear through the book—reading an Alyson Richman novel too quickly would be a bit like gulping down an expensive bottle of wine in ten minutes. The prose is lush, each scene having been crafted with obvious care. It should be savored, even in those moments that leave a bitter aftertaste.

The Garden of Letters contains the most beautiful and sensual love scene I’ve ever read, and I read a lot. It’s a many-layered painting that is neither graphic nor gratuitous. It also contains an act of brutality that makes me shudder every time I think of it.

Highly recommended.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Got Pitch?

by Elizabeth

So I sent my first queries. And now I wait.

Every spring for the last six or eight years I have doubled up on Pilates in preparation for bathing suit season. Which is funny, because the most bikini action I see is usually on a river, with a t-shirt covering my midriff and water shorts covering my rear but still. It's good to tighten up, increase my strength, prepare. This year, and maybe it was I knew we weren't getting on a river, I somehow just didn't. Instead of my four classes a week being a combo of yoga and Pilates, two and two starting in March or April, it was all yoga. Which was useful in a lot of ways, but my stomach noticed. And I'm noticing my stomach all these months later, and enough is enough.

So last night I went to Pilates again, vowing to do so twice a week until Thanksgiving or so at least. Besides, it was good to see the teacher, a woman I really like, and whose name I wanted to add to my acknowledgements list since yoga teachers are definitely due my gratitude with this novel. She incorporates plenty of yoga into her classes, and I asked if she also teaches that. Nope, just practices it herself. So what? She gets the nod anyway, both for what she's done for my core over the years and also for what she made me realize last night. When I asked for her last name, I told her I'd written a book, and of course she asked what it's about. And I ... flailed!

I don't have an elevator pitch! Wow. I wrote and polished a query, spent hours with synopses of three different lengths, wrote the dang book, but a succinct and interesting thirty-second summation without the word "umm" in it? Don't have it.

I've blogged before about coming to terms with admitting out loud I'm a writer. I've even gotten fairly good at that. But now that I'm querying, and hopefully publishing in the not-too-distant future, that line "I'm a writer" will of course be followed by the question, "What's it about?" And I'd better be ready.

So today, instead of obsessively checking my email, I'm going to work on my pitch. Write it out, polish it, cast it to memory, maybe practice it on unsuspecting Target clerks. And then next week, when I'm again gearing up for Hundreds and Saw and Rolling Like a Ball, I'll be ready to tell my teacher what it's about. Ready for the season. Ready for the world.
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