Thursday, September 29, 2011

Her Story: Elizabeth Miles

One look at the cover of Elizabeth Miles' YA novel FURY and you know it's no ordinary read. It's the story of two teenagers who bring the wrath of three mysterious Furies down on their heads, and the first in what sounds like a delicious trilogy. After listening to Elizabeth speak at an event, I knew I wanted her on the blog to talk about getting readers to embrace challenging characters; how she, a reporter, came to write fiction; and her idyllic life in Maine.


How did you come to writing? Did you start writing shortly after emerging from the womb or did you come to it later in life?

I have always written. Short stories and journal entries as a child, essays and news stories as an older student, creative non-fiction and alternative journalism as a young adult. I always knew that reading, writing, and words would shape my profession. BUT, I didn’t always expect to become a fiction writer. FURY contains the first words of fiction I’d written since I was a kid. 

Were you influenced to begin writing by any writers/books in particular?

Well, this opportunity wouldn’t have come to me without the prodding and influence of Lauren Oliver (author of Before I Fall, Delirium, and Liesl and Po and a childhood friend of mine). When she co-founded Paper Lantern Lit, a literary development company that collaborates with authors to turn sparks of ideas into full-blown books, she encouraged me to get involved. So it’s safe to say I would never have entered this world if it wasn’t for her.

Whose works do you most enjoy reading?

So many - Stephen King, Henry James, Lydia Davis, Anne Carson, Dave Eggers. Plus too many YA authors to list here.

Tell us about your book.

FURY is the first book in a young-adult trilogy. It is a paranormal thriller with elements of horror, contemporary realism, and mythology. It tells the interwoven stories of Emily Winters and Chase Singer, two high school juniors who make typical teenage mistakes (hooking up with the wrong guy, bullying). However, their punishment is atypical - they draw the (unfortunate) attention of the Furies, three mysterious young women who, like the Furies of ancient mythology, are obsessed with vengeance. The Furies show up to make Em and Chase pay. 

How the heck did you come up with the central idea/plot?

I’ve always been interested in fables, myth, and folklore. I also have a longstanding love-hate relationship with the horror genre - I’m easily freaked out, and I kind of enjoy that heart-pounding, goosebumps-raising feeling.  I’ve always loved teenage drama - 90210, Gossip Girl, The OC, whatever. AND some, ah, personal experiences made me start asking myself if what goes around really does come around...These ideas laid the foundation for some productive and fruitful brainstorming with the folks at Paper Lantern Lit, and later with Simon Pulse.

I feel that FURY and The TAKER are kindred spirits in that both have main/major characters who are not “irreproachable.” (I love your term, btw.) They have done things that are wrong, bad or could be considered poor choices, but this flaw in their character is central to the book. Why did you choose these character/this theme for FURY, or conversely, why do you think the themes of FURY resonate with you? 

I am drawn to flawed characters - I think they are more real and more enjoyable to read about. In this story, specifically, the characters HAD to make mistakes - those transgressions are the catalyst for the rest of the plot. So it was kind of a given that I would have characters that were, on some level, difficult to like.

This has been a real struggle for some readers, however. It’s hard to root AGAINST the Furies (even though you might want to - their sense of justice is disproportionate and anyway, should THEY have the power to decide others’ fates?) when the supposed “good guys” are doing bad things.

But isn’t that interesting? Gray areas? No black or white, right or wrong? Or at least, no OBVIOUS categorizations? I think so.

Plus, with regard to Em in particular, I know it’s terrible that she hooks up with her best friend’s boyfriend. I’ve been in the best friend position of that situation, years ago. It sucks. But it happens. And she learns from it, and grows. Sometimes you make really bad choices, especially when you’re 16 years old. Luckily, we don’t all have the Furies to reckon with when we make those types of decisions.

Lastly, I think it’s interesting to point out that ancient myths and Greek dramas were full of multifaceted characters whose intricacies made their tragedies richer.  
           
At what point in the writing process did you think you might give up on it? Were you most inspired? What kept you going through the long dark nights?

I was lucky to fall in love while writing the first book. This was a challenge (the dark stuff was slightly less accessible at times, as was finding the motivation to write when all I wanted to do was lie in bed and make googly eyes at this new and exciting fellow!) and a relief (said fellow, Keagan, is a ball of optimism who deals with my deadline meltdowns gracefully) and an inspiration (helping to color the arc of the series’ love affair, boosting my confidence).  He continues to be a source of joy, generally and in my writing life. He’s a carpenter and recently made me a beautiful desk out of walnut wood!

What have you read lately that you love and think everyone on the planet should read?
Honestly - and I’m not just trying to earn brownie points here - I am REALLY enjoying your book. It’s so gripping, I love the time period it takes place, and the characterizations are quite intriguing. Kudos!

What is the most surprisingly thing you’ve learned about yourself since getting published? The most unexpected?

I can do this. I can deal with public criticism and public accolades and a lot of talking to strangers ABOUT MYSELF (as opposed to about THEMSELVES, which is what I’m used to as a journalist) - without melting into the floor and completely dying.  I mean, I’m still learning. But I’m getting there. 

Elizabeth Miles grew up in Chappaqua, New York, not far from New York City. She graduated from Boston University in 2004, and has worked ever since as a journalist for alternative newsweeklies. Today, she lives in Portland, Maine. She loves pizza; she lives with a carpenter and two cats; she can often be found running around on stage while scantily clad; and a cold winter night in Maine is one of the creepiest and most beautiful things she can think of. Fury is Elizabeth’s first novel.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Her Story: Rebecca Coleman

I knew I had to meet Rebecca after I saw the ad for her novel, The Kingdom of Childhood, in which her publisher, Mira Books, named it "the most controversial book of the year." It guaranteed that Rebecca was a writer who wasn't afraid to take risks, and that's what the publishing industry needs more of these days: writers who create works that challenge readers, not offer more of the literary equivalent of comfort food for readers. Since we're both from the DC-area, it was inevitable that we would meet at a booksigning: in this case, at one of Keith Donohue's events for Centuries of June. Turns out Rebecca is sharp, friendly, brave and yes, pretty feisty and while her characters may be "complicated," Rebecca is a straight-shooter. Kingdom, which publishes on the 27th, already has a lot of people talking and may be able to shed its "controversial" label to become one of the most widely discussed books of the year.


How did you come to writing? Did you start writing shortly after emerging from the womb or did you come to it later in life?

"From birth" is about accurate, yes. I remember at the end of my second-grade year, I brought one of my teachers a picture I had drawn of a bunch of characters from my stories, who I thought about constantly. As a teenager I behaved badly, and my excuse was that I was going to be a writer so I needed to Experience Life. So remember that, kids. You can justify all your juvenile delinquency as long as you get published one day.

Tell us about your book.

"The Kingdom of Childhood" is, on the surface, a story about a middle-aged kindergarten teacher who has an affair with her son's 16-year-old friend. But as the story unfolds, you find it's about a lot of bigger, deeper things, such as our struggle not to repeat our own parents' mistakes, and about power and trust and what happens when those things are violated. It's about how much our childhoods inform who we become as adults, and how hard it can be to find your way when your inner child feels wounded or betrayed. Some people feel it's dark or disturbing, and darn right it's dark and disturbing. But it's not without hope or redemption. I'm a reader as well as a writer, after all. I never want to read a book where at the end I feel like, gee, I want to slash my wrists now. So I wouldn't do that to my own readers.

At what point in the writing process did you think you might give up on it? Were you most inspired? What kept you going through the long dark nights?

All along the way I was determined to write this story, which I felt had great promise, and to get it finished. But at one point I caught an episode of "The Secret Lives of Women" called "Robbing the Cradle," about women who had been convicted of statutory rape or similar crimes with underage boys. And I was absolutely fascinated to listen to them. The women they chose were very self-aware, and admitted they had been manipulative and obsessed and kind of out of their minds-- they could admit that at the time they didn't necessarily understand their own motivations. But they were complicated people. And I like 'complicated'-- I like to explore why you should like and dislike someone simultaneously. A lot of agents and editors don't like it, but I do. So seeing the reality of those women in some respect, and hearing their voices, was very motivating.

What have you read lately that you love and think everyone on the planet should read?

Definitely "The Lonely Polygamist" by Brady Udall. That book broke my heart several times along the way. Now, that's how you know you're reading a hell of a novel-- when you're not sure at some points whether you're going to survive the reading. That author-- I don't know him, but he's got some incredible cojones. Everything in the book is larger than life, in Technicolor, and he pulls it off with style. I suppose that having been Mormon-- and having a relationship with the church that's both critical and affectionate-- I really appreciated the approach he took toward Mormon culture. I found it hilarious and beautiful even as he was ripping my  heart out.

What have you read that, surprisingly, didn’t grab you?

"The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo." I'm the dissenting vote there-- just couldn't get into it, and I really tried. I did name my blog after it, though-- I called it "The Girl With the Milton Tattoo," after this tattoo I have of a wing and a quote from "Paradise Lost." Kind of nutty that I can be a fanatic for a 17th-century epic poem but I can't get through the most popular book in America.

Do you have a “path to publication” story that you’d like to share? Funny agent/editor encounter? Publishing etiquette you didn’t know until you entered the business? Tip for newly published or aspiring writers?

Sure-- to the aspiring writer I'd say, be flexible and friendly and work every day at being better. Believe in your talent but avoid the extremes of egotism or despair. If you're trying to get published, a lot of days you'll feel like the Black Knight in "Monty Python and the Holy Grail," but don't sweat it. It's just a flesh wound.


Rebecca Coleman is the author of The Kingdom of Childhood. She received her B.A. in English from the University of Maryland at College Park and speaks to writers groups on the subjects of creative writing and publishing.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

His Story: Todd Ritter


One of the qualities I admire most in a writer is the ability to find a compelling story in the smallest thing, a throwaway detail, a otherwise unremarkable event. I met TODD RITTER at Thrillerfest this year. We were both part of the debut author class presenting to an auditorium of 700 thriller writers, readers, editors and agents, under pressure to use our precious allotted minutes to try to quickly hook the audience with our story.

TODD RITTER hooked everybody. A newspaper reporter by day, Todd told how two real-life events--a coffin turning up on the side of the road, and a typo in an obituary--gave him the idea for this first novel, DEATH NOTICE. (Imagine the possibilities of a story springboarding from these two points, then multiply by ten.)

Todd's second novel, BAD MOON, is coming out on October 11, and it comes from an equally enigmatic and tantalizing premise. Read about it below, along with how he initially resisted but finally answered the siren call of storytelling to become a novelist and how he is like a superhero.


How did you come to writing? Did you start writing shortly after emerging from the womb or did you come to it later in life?

I was lucky enough to grow up in a household that valued reading. My mother was never without a book. She read all the time. Even while watching TV. (To this day, I’m not sure how that’s possible, but she still does it.) So I was always a huge reader. There was something magical about falling completely into a world of words that someone else created, emerging hours later as if no time had passed.

With that reading experience under my belt, I guess the idea was always in the back of my head that I wanted to tell stories. I wanted to create a world that other people fell into. But it seemed like so much work! So over the years I dabbled in acting and playwrighting and screenwriting. Basically anything that didn’t require me to write hundreds and hundreds of pages. But I eventually came to terms with the fact that I needed to at least try to write a book.

Were you influenced to begin writing by any writers/books in particular?

As a child, I loved THE WESTING GAME and CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY. I also loved Judy Blume and the Bunnicula books, and I devoured my mother’s set of Trixie Belden paperbacks. Then it was on to Agatha Christie, who for some odd reason was hugely popular with kids when I was in sixth and seventh grade.

Whose works do you most enjoy reading?

Louise Penny, Laura Lippman, Dennis Lehane, Stephen King. But I’m also a big fan of more literary works. Jeffrey Eugenides is amazing, as is Donna Tartt. One of my favorite books is SPECIAL TOPICS IN CALAMITY PHYSICS by Marisha Pessl, which, to my knowledge, is the only thing she’s ever written.

Tell us about your book.

My second book, BAD MOON, is about the present-day search for Charlie Olmstead, a boy who vanished during the Apollo 11 moon landing on July 20, 1969. Police found his bike at the base of a waterfall behind his house and assumed he had drowned and been washed away.

Fast-forward 42 years and the boy’s brother, Eric, now a famous mystery writer, is back in town. His mother recently died and her final wish for him was to find out what happened to Charlie. For help, he enlists police chief Kat Campbell, his high school sweetheart, and Nick Donnelly, a former cop turned private investigator. Kat and Nick were two of the protagonists from my first book, DEATH NOTICE. And while much of the characters and setting are the same, BAD MOON isn’t really a sequel. It’s just another crazy case that falls in their lap. Needless to say, there’s more to Charlie’s disappearance than anyone ever suspected. Much more.

How the heck did you come up with the central idea/plot?

It came to me while I was watching a Discovery Channel documentary about the moon landings. There was a shot of a cute blonde kid waving a flag while watching the launch of Apollo 11. As soon as I saw it, a morbid question popped into my head: What would happen if that kid vanished? The story eventually grew from there.

At what point in the writing process did you think you might give up on it? Were you most inspired? What kept you going through the long dark nights?

Um, would it be bad if I said the entire time? Probably, but I’m just being honest. BAD MOON was tough to write, for several reasons. First was the fact that I was contractually obliged to finish it by a certain date. I had never, ever written something so large and unwieldy under pressure of a deadline. So that was hard for me to get accustomed to.

Second was the way I structured the story. It starts in 1969 before jumping to 2011. The rest of the book is the characters digging up what happened during those intervening 42 years. That’s a large chunk of time, and the characters uncover a lot of secrets and lies and deceptions. It was a challenge, which is what kept me going. I’m nothing if not stubborn, so I decided I was going to finish that book or die trying.

What have you read lately that you love and think everyone on the planet should read?

I already mentioned SPECIAL TOPICS IN CALAMITY PHYSICS by Marisha Pessl. It’s brilliant in every respect.

What have you read that, surprisingly, didn’t grab you?

THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO. Everyone in the world has read it and loved it, so I know I’m alone in this. But it didn’t grab me. I think I gave up around page 75. Maybe I’ll try again at some point.

What is the most surprising thing you’ve learned about yourself since getting published? The most unexpected?

I’ve learned that being a published writer is strange. A good kind of strange. But it’s still odd to receive e-mails from people who read and loved my work. Or sign copies of a book with my name and picture on it. And at readings and panels, it still floors me that people actually want to hear what I have to say.
My life hasn’t changed much since being published. I’m still just a working stiff, commuting to my job every day. I still do dishes and take out the trash and crash on the couch to watch Modern Family and 30 Rock. The only difference is that now I have far less free time than I used to.

In a way, I feel like a superhero with a secret life. Todd Ritter, Average Joe by day, crime writer at night.

Todd Ritter was born and raised in rural Pennsylvania. An editor and journalist for more than 15 years, Todd began his career as a film critic while attending Penn State University. Currently, he works for The Star-Ledger, New Jersey’s largest daily newspaper and a three-time recipient of the Pulitzer Prize. His first mystery, DEATH NOTICE, was released last year by Minotaur Books. His second, BAD MOON, will be published on October 11. Visit his website at www.toddritteronline.com.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

When Being a Writer is Social

When most people think of book tours, they probably think of authors going to book stores, where the writer gets to connect directly with people with an interest in their book. Maybe they think of book festivals, where the writer is part of a a larger event and has the opportunity to talk about their book in front of a potentially broader audience.

What people who aren't directly in the book business may not know about are events geared toward booksellers. I've been lucky enough to have participated in two recently: a one-day event of the New England Independent Booksellers Association (NEIBA) and, on the 17th, to the Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance's (SIBA) annual conference.

These really are special events. You have the opportunity to meet the people who help your book find its audience in the world. They want to learn about your book. You can see in their eyes that they're figuring out which of their customers for whom it would be right. Whether the resident book club might be interested. Whether you might be a good addition to a special event. They tell you about the books they've read that they're excited about. They tell you what the environment is like in their stores, what they're doing to keep book culture alive.

You also have the opportunity to meet with book bloggers, the wonderful readers who also help you connect with people who might like your book. I had the good fortune to meet up with some book bloggers I've followed on Twitter for a while (in the photo above, left to right): Kathy/BermudaOnion, Swapna of S. Krishna's Books (this doesn't qualify as 'meeting for the first time' because Swapna & I see each all the time in DC), Sandy/You Gotta Read This! and Heather/Raging Bibliomania. We had a wonderful time relaxing between panels, talking books and cooking and husbands, the stuff of our lives.

You also have the chance to meet other authors, and this is always amazing. I've tweeted about the awesome experience I had at the NEIBA event, getting to meet Joseph Monninger (THE WORLD AS WE KNOW IT) and Bill Landay (DEFENDING JACOB) and personal heroes Kelly Link and Gavin Grant of SMALL BEER PRESS, an excellent publisher of speculative fiction, and Judy Rosenberg of the ROSIE'S BAKERY COOKBOOKs, which I adore & use all the time.

These trade industry events have really been a revelation to me, as I'm by name very introverted and find it hard to meet new people, but these are such great social experiences that I'm already going through withdrawal and hope I get sent to another one soon.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Her Story: Ann Hite


Ann Hite's novel, Ghost on Black Mountain (Gallery/Simon & Schuster), is a marvelous treat for lovers of Southern Gothic, ghost stories, strong women and "unspeakable secrets" (Joshilyn Jackson). The book has been praised to the heavens by a number of NYT bestselling authors, including Beth Hoffman ("Saving Cece Honeycutt"), Joshilyn Jackson ("Gods in Alabama") and Caroline Leavitt ("Pictures of You"). 

From Publishers Weekly: "Seduced into marriage by the charismatic Hobbs Pritchard, 17-year-old Nellie Pritchard moves with him to Black Mountain, where she discovers her handsome, amiable husband is really a vicious, murderous bootlegger feared by the entire community. Worse still, Hobbs is haunted by the spirits of his victims, who soon begin to haunt Nellie, too. After Hobbs nearly beats her to death, she kills him and flees the mountain, journeying to Darien, Ga., to make a new life for herself. However, Hobbs isn't done with her, or with Rose Gardner, who was pregnant with Hobbs's baby before he disappeared."  

How did you come to writing? Did you start writing shortly after emerging from the womb or did you come to it later in life?
Every year my grandmother would visit for two weeks with my family in whatever state or country we might be living. I remember looking forward to this like a child looks forward to a visit from Santa. She was the booklover and storyteller of our clan. Each evening she would gather me on her lap and tell me episodes from her childhood. As I grew older, the tales became more revealing. After years of moving around the country and five years in Europe, I finally returned to the South. I was ten and it was the mid-sixties. This was enough to make a writer out of most book loving girls.  My mother had brought my brother and me to live with my grandmother in Atlanta. It was then I began to absorb both the wonderful and eerie tales told by my extended family. Every weekend we piled into my grandmother’s Oldsmoblie and drove to ‘the country’ to visit with my great aunts. I would sit among what I considered very exotic women. One aunt was always on the verge of a nervous breakdown, wringing her lace hanky in her fingers. Another wore a scarf around brush curlers wound tightly into bleach blonde hair, a cigarette hanging from her fingers. And of course there was the cousin, who went and married out of the faith. Her husband was Catholic.  If I was quiet, they forgot I was there and began to tell the old mountain tales. These were not for the faint of heart. Believe me. I loved each story and memorized them. This atmosphere of tall tales, spells, and spirits gave birth to Black Mountain, even though I didn’t have a name for the community back then. I spent many hours writing and forcing my little brother to sit on the back stoop of my grandmother’s home and listen to my stories of ghosts and goblins. I can’t tell you how many times I got in trouble for scaring him silly.

Were you influenced to begin writing by any writers/books in particular?
If I had to choose one book that put the idea of writing a book in my head, it would be Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird. And if I had to choose one short story, the choice would be a tie between William Faulkner’s A Rose For Emily and Flannery O’Connor’s A Good Man’s Hard To Find.

Whose works do you most enjoy reading?
I’m a book junkie, so that’s a tough matter. I love The Help and so look forward to reading Ms. Stockett’s new book. Bloodroot by Amy Greene is awesome. I have all the Harry Potter books. And I cut my teeth on Ellen Gilchrist.

Tell us about your book.
Ghost On Black Mountain is a book about strong women. The story begins in 1938 when Nellie meets Hobbs Pritchard in a soup kitchen in Asheville, North Carolina. She marries him, even though her mother warns her not to, and goes to live on Black Mountain. There are ghost aplenty, but the book is layered and has a strong message. Every piece I write organically grows from questions. The questions for Ghost On Black Mountain were: What happens when a person makes a decision that radically changes lives and then keeps it a secret? How does this ripple through the generations?

How the heck did you come up with the central idea/plot?
 I’m a blank page writer, so I never know when I sit down to write what the plot will be. The idea comes to me in the voice of a character. This character will begin to show up in my head. This character always has a story to tell. I write it. In this process I find the plot of the story or it finds me.  

At what point in the writing process did you think you might give up on it? Were you most inspired? What kept you going through the long dark nights?
 In 2007—six months after Ghost On Black Mountain was finished—a small press here in the South wanted to offer me a book deal. It was a small press, but I was so thrilled to have my book published I didn’t care. A month later the deal fell through. I kept a smile on my face until I was alone, and then became angry. I promised never to write again, ever! I then proceeded to paint my writing room purple. It would become a playroom for my daughter. I finished one wall and stopped. The room never became a playroom, and I didn’t stop writing. The purple wall still remains to remind me that all good things happen in their own time. Had I gotten what I so desperately wanted, Gallery/Simon & Schuster would never have offered me a deal on Ghost On Black Mountain in 2010, and—here’s the best part—the book wouldn’t have been the best it could be. I used the three years between offers to make Ghost the best book it could possibly be. 

The pure love of writing pushed move forward through the darkest of times. I think a writer has to love writing so much they will do it for free. In other words they are not writing for money. It’s then I began to grow in my art.

What have you read lately that you love and think everyone on the planet should read?
 The Taker of course. Loved, loved, loved it. Kingdom Of Childhood by Rebecca Coleman which will be released this month by Mira. Stunning books.

What have you read that, surprisingly, didn’t grab you?
 I’m thrilled to say I haven’t had this experience in a long time. I’m picky about what I read because my time is so limited.

Do you have a “path to publication” story that you’d like to share? Funny agent/editor encounter? Publishing etiquette you didn’t know until you entered the business? Tip for newly published or aspiring writers?
Aspiring writers: write every day. Do not give up. Push your work and believe in what you’ve put on paper. If you do this, you will be published. Of course only when the time is right.

What is the most surprisingly thing you’ve learned about yourself since getting published? The most unexpected?
 I’ve found I can relax in front of a crowd. This was amazing to me.

The most unexpected thing I’ve learned about me is the fact that I obsess on each review that comes out for Ghost On Black Mountain. I keep attempting not to pay the reviews any mind, but I go right back and search them out. 

Ann Hite has published more than sixty stories in publications such as: Literary House Review Anthology, Espresso Fiction, and Skyline Magazine. Her Black Mountain story, Circle of Light, was nominated for Sundress Best of 2008 where she appeared along side Ron Carlson, the great short story writer. In addition, Ann has published more than forty-five book reviews. She teaches workshops throughout the South specializing in writing voice. Ann lives with her family in Atlanta with her ever expanding library, a butterfly/hummingbird garden, and her laptop. She is hard at work on the next BLACK MOUNTAIN novel, SIGHT.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Her Story: Caroline Leavitt

I'm thrilled to start a new feature on my blog: bringing authors' stories to you. And I can't think of a better way to start than by interviewing Caroline Leavitt. Her most recent novel is Pictures of You (Algonquin), which came out to rave reviews and quickly became a NY Times bestseller. I had the pleasure of meeting Caroline at a book festival and we correspond online: she's funny, fearlessly honest, and generous to a fault on top of being a knock-out writer. Below, she explains how that fearless honesty made Pictures of You possible, and her tale of getting this book to publication is an inspiration for us all.

How did you come to writing? Did you start writing shortly after emerging from the womb or did you come to it later in life?

I was a lonely little girl with very bad asthma who spent a lot of time in the library, escaping in stories. I discovered early on that I didn’t just want to read stories—I wanted to write them! Writing saved my life, opened up my world, and once I started, I never stopped.

Were you influenced to begin writing by any writers/books in particular?

As a child, I adored this book Mrs. Mike, about a young woman who goes off to Alaska with her husband, and A High Wind in Jamaica, about British kids taken aboard ship by pirates! I read everything—fairy tales, Oz books, my mother’s books, too. When I read A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, it cemented it for me. I had to be a writer!

Whose works do you most enjoy reading?

I’m a book critic for People and The Boston Globe, and I have a column at Shoptopia, so right now I love it when I’m surprised. I’m partial to debuts. I love F. Scott Fitzgerald (The Great Gatsby is my favorite book) and there are so many wonderful writers out there!

Tell us about your book.

Pictures of You is about a car crash and how it impacts the lives of four different people: Isabelle, a photographer fleeing her philandering husband; April, a wife and mother fleeing her life; Charlie, a husband who comes to realize he never really knew his life; and Sam, a young asthmatic with a terrible secret.

How the heck did you come up with the central idea/plot?

I’m totally phobic about driving. I have my license (all they made me do to get it is drive around the block), and I keep renewing it, but I gave up driving years ago after the third driving instructor sighed and said, “Caroline, some people just aren’t meant to drive.” I kept thinking how would I function if I got in an accident and killed someone? And what if it wasn’t my fault?


The asthma theme came later. Sam just appeared on the page. I had had a very shameful childhood being sick and the last thing I wanted to do was write about asthma. I never talked about it to anyone (I have very, very minor asthma now) and I certainly didn’t want to write about it. But Sam kept coming back. A writer friend of mine told me, “If you don’t want to write about it, it means you should.” So I did. And in giving this little boy my compassion, I ended up healing my own shame!

At what point in the writing process did you think you might give up on it? Were you most inspired? What kept you going through the long dark nights?

I had a first chapter that I thought worked that was obsessing me and that kept me going. I always start novels needing that first chapter because it becomes my lifeline, my proof that yes, I can do this! But of course, I felt despair and I always worried that the book was not going to work and that my career was over! I’ve come to realize that’s just part of being a writer.


Do you have a “path to publication” story that you’d like to share? Funny agent/editor encounter? Publishing etiquette you didn’t know until you entered the business? Tip for newly published or aspiring writers?

I’m a rags to riches story. Pictures of You was my 9th novel and although my previous novels have all had stellar reviews, the sales were so small that I probably could have bought groceries with them and that would be that! My last publisher rejected Pictures of You, saying, “We don’t get it. It’s not special enough.” I cried, of course. I knew, too, that after 8 books that didn’t exactly sell well, my chances of getting another publisher were nil. But my beloved agent kept telling me not to worry.

And then three weeks later, Algonquin bought the book. They told me they were going to change my life. Right from the start things were different. They not only returned my calls and emails right away, they made them to me! The whole place is brilliant, from my beloved editor to my beloved publicists to every beloved person there. They gave me my first tour—30 cities! Six months before the book came out they were pushing it, and the book went into 3 printings months before publication, into a 4th printing shortly after, and it was on the New York Times Bestseller list, the NAIBA bestseller list and it became a San Francisco Chronicle Lit Pick and a Penny’s Pick at Costco—and it sold to seven countries. I was used to publishers working for me halfheartedly for three months and then stopping, but Algonquin never stopped. The book came out in December and they got me on summer reading lists and they are still working for me! My next novel is with them, and they truly are an Edenic paradise for writers.  I tell everyone I am the poster child for second chances, but I know I couldn’t have done it without the amazing gods and goddesses at Algonquin. (The tip is that your publisher DOES matter AND never, ever give up.)

What is the most surprisingly thing you’ve learned about yourself since getting published? The most unexpected?

I used to think of myself as a very private person—but I discovered while on tour that I love to get in front of people and talk about my life!
What have you read lately that you love and think everyone on the planet should read?

Birds of Paradise by Diana Abu-Jaber.  She’s just a brilliant writer.


Caroline Leavitt is the New York Times bestselling author of Pictures of You and eight other novels. A book critic for People and The Boston Globe, and a book columnist for Shoptopia.com, she is a senior writing instructor at UCLA Writers Program online and she mentors private clients. She can be reached at www.carolineleavitt.com




Saturday, September 10, 2011

9/11: Memories of the day from an intelligence analyst


            Like many people in DC, I have very specific memories of where I was when the planes flew into the Twin Towers. My experience was a little different than most (anywhere except this town), as I was a senior analyst at one of the three-letter intelligence agencies at the time.
I was in my office when the first alert flashed across my computer monitor, informing us that a plane had just crashed into one of the World Trade Center towers. By the time the second plane hit, we were standing in front of a television watching what was happening with the rest of the world. I had been getting ready to drive to a 10 AM meeting with directors at the National Security Council in the Old Executive Office Building, but needless to say that didn’t happen.
            Within the hour, we were told to evacuate. After the Pentagon was hit, senior management worried that there would be more attacks on government buildings. Intelligence agencies make good targets: you can leave the government deaf and blind with just a couple of strikes. But no one wanted to leave. Some volunteered to man the watch—the essential personnel who keep operations running after regular hours—to relieve those who had children, but no one on the watch accepted the offer. 
            We ended up staying home for several days. A lifetime, in intelligence work.  Whether it was the right decision or not, it’s hard to say. I can tell you that in my office, the desire to remain on the job was palpable. No one wanted to let down the American people, or not be there to respond to the policymakers and military leaders who needed to make difficult decisions.
            A lot changed after that day, and few worlds changed as drastically as the Intelligence Community.  This blog post isn’t the place to debate whether or not those changes have been successfully implemented: that could be the subject of endless discussion. It is remarkable to see how much has changed in a community that traditionally changes very slowly.
            A year later, I was detailed to the Pentagon, right around the first anniversary of 9/11. The office to which I was assigned had been in the wing that had been destroyed—but as luck would have it, they had been moved to temporary quarters in another wing a few weeks before the attack. So rather than having been wiped out when the plane hit the building, many of them helped get the wounded out, including one doctor who treated the victims on-site.
            On the first anniversary, jets flew over the Pentagon as part of the commemoration. I was in a meeting with teammates who had been in the building, and you could see the terror pass over their faces as the low-flying fighters shook the Pentagon, remembering what had happened that day. You never expect a building as massive as the Pentagon to move but these people had felt it not once, but twice. 
            Ten years later, I’m no longer in intelligence, having recently separated to start a new career. This is one reason why I’m wrote this post: because I can, while my colleagues still working can’t talk openly about their personal experiences. I wanted to give readers a taste of what it was like to be inside the compounds when the planes struck, and to let you know about the commitment and courage of your federal workforce.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Backlash: You Don't Have to Have Written a Vampire Book to be Considered One

A few weeks ago I was at a writers conference sitting in on a panel about (in a nutshell) whether literary fiction should accede to commercial tastes, but the example everyone used was the supernatural (vampires, werewolves, magic) as a stand-in for everything that sells these days. One of the panelists, a literary agent, started praising The Last Werewolf, a recent work by a literary novelist that seems to be the poster child for the trend, when one of the other panelist said (paraphrasing), "I'm glad you told me it was serious because otherwise I'd never read a book with that word in the title."

I think that about sums up the current state of deathmatch smackdown that exists between the worlds of literary and commercial fiction. Not that everyone on the literary team is taking sides, but I get the feeling that most people who consider themselves "serious" readers would sooner eat Spam that's been left in the sun for two days than pick up a book with vampires, werewolves or zombies. Recently, this blog post on the trend of literary writers tackling commercial fiction prompted at least one person to add the subtitle "with the implication that genre writers aren't getting it right."

I expected to suffer some confusion with my own novel, The Taker, given its completely ambiguous supernatural element. Imagine my surprise to find that reviewers aren't even bothering to read the book--they're assuming it's a vampire novel and dissing it without reading the book. Getting tarred by the brush of disdain without even being a member of the party, as it were. You really can't win for losing. The part that slays me is that the reviewer claims to have read the book yet says it's a vampire book. Never mind that the premise for the supernatural element is dealt with at length, that there's about 75 pages of backstory dealing with the evil one's origins plunk in the middle of the book. That the word 'vampire' is never used and there isn't so much as a neck being nuzzled, we were so careful to avoid all things vampiric.

It's hard not to become cynical when you're surrounded by these attitudes. Writers are advised to write the best story they can, but what chance does it have when people aren't even going to read it to decide they hate it?

So, more on The Last Werewolf: I haven't read it yet but plan to. But several people whose reading taste I respect have told me they didn't think it lived up to the hype. They felt that reviewers who don't read much supernatural fiction got hot for it because it seemed new to them, but that the same material was handled as well or better by other writers. Food for thought as you're contemplating the hypecycle of books.

Monday, September 5, 2011

The Taker in ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY

The Taker doesn't office pub until tomorrow, 6 September, but it's off to a great start with a full-page ad in the current issue of ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY! I saw it at the airport as I was flying to the Decatur Book Festival. If you work in a doctor's or dentist's office, this is the issue you should keep in the waiting room forever. Okay, maybe just for the next 2-3 years...