Think Music: Alden Jones on PJ Harvey

Alden_Jones_APAlden Jones is the author of the memoir The Blind Masseuse: A Traveler’s Memoir from Costa Rica to Cambodia, and the story collection Unaccompanied Minors.

 

I went to the Vermont Studio Center to work on my novel. There, I fell in love with a painter named Jomar and the musician PJ Harvey in quick succession. It would seem that falling in love would be a great distraction during one’s concentrated work time. But there was something about breaking out of my small, quiet writer’s room and entering painters’ studios filled with their chemical smells and the racket of tools and music blaring from pigment-speckled CD players that motivated me with the force of a great, chaotic wind. When I think of that time, the soundtrack is always PJ Harvey.

I was late to PJ Harvey. That September, her 4th album, Is This Desire? was released, and the single “A Perfect Day Elise” cycled through the playlist of the local Vermont station. I had taken to sitting in Jomar’s studio for my reading time, inhaling aphrodisiac paint fumes.

“I like this song that keeps coming on the radio,” I told Jomar.

“The PJ Harvey song?” he asked. “Of course you do.” I told him I didn’t really know PJ Harvey. He led me out of the studio to his dented silver hatchback and drove me to the nearest CD shop, where he bought me a used copy of To Bring You My Love and I bought a new copy of Is This Desire? Later, when I got my hands on the four-track demos, I was a goner.

I arrived at the Vermont Studio Center to work on the aimless, meandering novel I’d started in graduate school. Part of me had convinced myself that hard work would yield success. Another part of me knew the novel was doomed to be aimless and meandering. I didn’t know what I was trying to say, or where my plot was headed. I wasn’t having any fun writing it anymore.

While I worried that the novel project was petering out, my desire to create something real and impactful blasted between my ribs. My attention was on this new person, his creations were visible, you could touch them, they left sticky color on your fingers, and we worked together spurred on by the witchy, shrieking, crooning voice of Polly Jean Harvey. Sometimes I had no idea what she was singing about. But I couldn’t help but shriek back “Lick my legs, I’m on fire,” or “I wish I was Yuri G! I’d let her walk all over me.” I was late to PJ Harvey for a reason; back when her first albums were released, I wasn’t into the raw noise of real instruments or a voice that lacked restraint. I liked synth-pop and singers who carried perfect tunes. Imperfection was an idea I had to grow into. Something similar was happening to my own work—the abandonment of the quest for perfect polish—and I couldn’t tell if it was a step forward or backward, but it was clear how PJ Harvey would have voted.

Halfway through my time at the colony I put the novel aside and started a new story. This new story came out in a flood, with almost no punctuation, save commas. I wanted to return to writing mysterious, passionate, vocal female characters; I wanted to know them in the raw. I wanted their rawest selves expressed at the core. I had always wanted that, my characters were already like that, but I had this new brand of permission. I enjoyed writing this new thing so much that I worried it couldn’t possibly be good. But I also knew that it was good.

I already had a few stories like this one, with female characters like this one, a girl who ruffled feathers by refusing to stifle who she was for the sake of others. In the years after I left the Vermont Studio Center, I took the raw words and the raw emotion of this initial impulse and buffed it all to a nice shine. I wrote new stories with other young, impulsive characters. These stories became my first collection, Unaccompanied Minors.

The novel didn’t last, the romance didn’t last (though a pleasant friendship came of it), and PJ Harvey’s albums became increasingly produced, the edges softening. But these stories with their loud-mouthed and open-hearted characters proceeded out into the world. My stories were different in 2014 than they were during their first years of life, but if the characters from Unaccompanied Minors were to get up and sing their lungs out to something, it would be to Polly Jean.

For original stories, poems, art song, interview, and art, please visit our magazine at www.memorious.org.

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Big Loves: Tyler McMahon Discusses Russell Banks

other_headshotToday’s contributor to our Big Loves column is Tyler McMahon. Tyler has published two novels—How The K99_coverMistakes Were Made (St. Martin’s, 2011) and Kilometer 99, which releases today, June 17, 2014. Tyler is the editor of Hawaii Pacific Review and teaches in the English Department at Hawaii Pacific University.

I saw Russell Banks speak at a theater in Boise, Idaho. It must have been 2004. I seem to remember him talking mostly of Hemingway; he showed a certain giddiness at the fact that Papa had shot himself not so many miles up the road from where we sat. “Hemingway Country,” he called it.

I’d always liked Banks’ work, and had read several of his earlier novels. I thought I had him pegged as an author who wrote about working-class New Englanders, often with father and brother issues, sometimes caught up in misadventures that drew them towards the Caribbean. Hemingway’s influence seemed about right.

But that impression was cracked open once he read a passage from his new novel, The Darling. The story was narrated by a female protagonist—a decidedly un-Hemingway approach. And while it took place in Africa, it was not the Africa of wealthy mountain climbers or half-drunk safaris.

Indeed, Hannah Musgrave is an American expat narrator unlike the midcentury tropes. A sixties radical and member of the Weather Underground, she’s wanted by the FBI and hiding out in New Bedford, making small explosives and forging documents for other fugitives. On the run, she winds up in Liberia, marries a bureaucrat, and witnesses the country’s descent into civil war.

As the trophy wife of a low-level government minister, Hannah becomes the opposite of the independent woman she’d always aspired to be: “I was a different woman. You probably think of me as strong and independent, and I believe that I am—now. I was strong and independent when I was young, too, back before I came to Africa. But in the years between? No. Emphatically no. I was different then.”

In the novel’s most superb turn of plot, Hannah’s three young sons become boy-soldiers aligned with Prince Johnson’s guerilla force. Renamed Fly, Demonology, and Worse-Than-Death, they commit grotesque acts of torture. Even this move is treated sympathetically. The leap from privileged youngsters to violent killers is bridged by Banks’ careful detailing of tribal values regarding family a512JMEG3WVLnd the sons’ reaction to their father’s murder. In this novel, it is violence that begets more violence, and at the end of the chain is a colonial political structure, brutally and stupidly imposed in the first place.

Though it’s set not so many years ago, The Darling is first and foremost an historical novel. It is a long and unflinching immersion in a dark and nearly ignored chapter of the twentieth century. In that sense, the book demonstrates the enduring need for fiction in our time.

Toward the end of the novel, Hannah says: “Mine was merely the story of an American darling, and had been from the beginning.” This may be the fundamental epiphany available to Americans abroad, fictional or not: that their stories are small and occur among bigger, more terrible sweeps of history. Through Hannah, Banks allows us to imagine an America to whom the rest of the world is equally darling.

 

 

 

 

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Fiction Spotlight: Ellen Litman

photo-35Ellen Litman’s debut novel Mannequin Girl (Norton 2014) follows her memorable story collection The Last Chicken in America, which was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times First Fiction Award and for the Young Lions Fiction Award. Her turn to the novel brings us the protagonist Kat, a young Jewish girl growing up in the Soviet Union whose life changes course after a diagnosis of scoliosis sends her to a new school/sanitarium. This is a coming age story that unravels layer after layer, from the complexities of mother-daughter relationships, to the discovery of a creative self, to the bonds and battles built between young girls removed from their families, all while bringing to life the 1980s in  Soviet Russia. While the character of Kat and the world she lives in are compelling, it is Litman’s wit and fine-tuned language, all as sharp as that found in her story collection, that makes this a top read for 2014. You can read an excerpt from the novel in Issue 21 of Memorious.

Litman’s stories have appeared in Best New American Voices 2007, Best of Tin House, American Odysseys: Writing by New Americans, Dossier, Triquarterly, Ploughshares, and elsewhere. Her awards include first prize in the Atlantic Monthly 2003 Fiction Contest, the 2006 Rona Jaffe Foundation Writers’ Award, fiction fellowships at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the Fine Arts Center in Provincetown. She is an Associate Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Connecticut. She generously answered a few questions about Mannequin Girl for us.

 Q: Kirkus Review referred to Kat, the protagonist of Mannequin Girl, as “a vulnerable and crankily appealing heroine.” How did the character of Kat emerge for you? Where did her story begin?9780393069280_198-1

A: When I started working on Mannequin Girl, it was very autobiographical. Like Kat, I was diagnosed with scoliosis as a child (though I was even younger at the time); like her I spent my childhood and early adolescence at a “special” school for children with scoliosis (though the real school was much nicer than the fictional one); and like her I was a teacher’s daughter (my mother taught Math). In fifth grade I became enthralled with our local drama club and with the two wonderful literature teachers who ran it. This was my starting point, and at first, I was cleaving pretty close to the actual facts of my childhood. But pretty quickly I grew bored with this fictional version of myself. And then I thought: What would happen if Kat grew up in a different sort of family? Once the bohemian Anechka and Misha became Kat’s parents, she began to come into her own and develop her own interesting traits, like, for example, her crankiness and her desperate need to be exceptional.

Q: How much of Mannequin Girl draws on your own experience growing up in the Soviet Union? What was it like to revisit your childhood home on the page?

A: I wanted to write about growing up (and coming of age) in the Soviet Union. It was such a different world from the one I inhabit now, and the longer I live in the United States the more strange and far-away it seems. I didn’t want my vision of it to become a collection of anecdotes. I wanted it to feel real and vivid and complex, even to a reader who’d never been to Russia. So it’s inevitable that much of what went into Mannequin Girl came from my own experiences: places, events, poems, music, jokes. I also did some “research” for this novel, and that was possibly the most fun part of the process. I would re-watch movies I saw when I was Kat’s age; go through old magazines we used to have in our apartment; listen to the music from the seventies and eighties; re-read articles, stories, and books.

Q: You write in English, which is your second language, and you didn’t move to the United States until you were college age.  What does your movement between two languages bring to your writing?

A: Although I write in English, I still read a lot of Russian literature (both classic and contemporary), and I dabble in translations. I think — though I can’t be sure — that reading in Russian makes my writing richer, or at the very least it makes the process of writing more exciting. It’s as if the two languages bumping against each other in my head create a spark, and suddenly the possibilities of language seem endless.

Q: What were some of the first novels you first fell in love with?

A: I read War and Peace for the first time when I was twelve. I was at home with chicken pox, heartbroken because I was supposed to be in a play and now the play would have to go on without me, and the great novel managed to sooth me. At the time I mostly skipped “war” and read the parts about “peace” (i.e., love). Of course, I read it again at the later age, probably 4 or 5 times in total, and I’ve come to appreciate the “war” bits, or rather the way this novel is as much about history and time as it is about people and human nature.

Another beloved childhood favorite was The Road Disappears Into the Distance by Alexandra Brushtein, a coming of age novel about a young girl growing up in pre-Revolutionary Russia. (I wrote about it here. )

Q: What’s in your reading queue now? Are there fellow debut novelists you think our readers should be looking out for?

A: There’s always so much that I barely know where to begin. All the big novels and collections that I’ve been hearing so much about but not getting around to. All the Russian classics I need to re-read for the Russian Short Story class I’ll be teaching in the fall. My plan is to start the summer with some contemporary Russian authors. There’s a collection of short stories by Anna Matveeva that I am reading now, a couple of new books by Anna Starobinetz, a novel by Vladimir Sorokin.

This year continues to be particularly good for my fellow Russian-American authors. I am looking forward to reading Lara Vapnyar’s most recent novel, The Scent of Pine, and I can’t wait for Lena Finkel’s Magic Barrel, a new graphic novel by Anya Ulinich that will be out at the end of July.

Q: Can you tell us about what you plan on working on next?

A: I’ve missed writing short stories, so that’s one of the things I’ll be doing this summer. I have two projects in mind, both of them story-based. And I am hoping to translate a couple of short stories by contemporary Russian writers.

For original poetry, fiction, art, interviews, and art song, visit our magazine at www.memorious.org.

 

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Poetry Spotlight: Chloe Honum

 ChloeHonum

I first met Chloe Honum in a summer workshop, after which the teacher asked me who I thought the most talented poet in the room was. I immediately named Chloe, whose poems haunted me long after we left the workshop room, and whose poems I hoped to publish in Memorious.  Since then, she has been awarded a Ruth Lilly Fellowship and her poems have appeared in such places as Poetry Magazine and The Paris Review. She has been awarded fellowships to the MacDowell Colony, the Kerouac House, and Djerassi. Three of her poems appeared in Memorious in 2011, and now, three years later, those poems have a home in her beautiful debut collection The Tulip Flame, which Tracy K. Smith wisely chose as the winner of the  2013 Cleveland State University Poetry Center First Book Prize.

This is not an erratic collection of a new poet cutting her teeth: this is a book to be read in one sitting, so that you can be held in Honum’s delicate and gripping spell of language.The collection is a highly lyrical reach back into personal history, circling around her mother’s suicide, and Honum draws on the natural world and the world of ballet for her sparse and memorable imagery.  The Tulip Flame is one of the must-read collections of 2014.

Chloe generously answered a few questions for us.

Can you tell us about the process of writing The Tulip Flame and finding a home for it?

The submission process can be daunting, and I think it’s important to trust that the work will find its way. I began sending the manuscript out in 2012, and I tried to greet the process with a lot of patience and trust. I’m honored to have landed at Cleveland State University Poetry Center. My editor there, Frank Giampietro, let me into all sides of the process; he was amazingly attentive and giving with his time.

You repeatedly return to the world of ballet in this collection. What was it like to bring this art into language? Has your study of ballet influenced your approach to writing?

I hope I carry into my writing some of the discipline I learned from studying ballet, especially in regard to pushing through the discomfort of facing my inadequacies. Practice could be draining, but I’ll never forget the first time I mastered a triple pirouette. It gave me a sensation of transcendence, and I’ve been so thankful to continue to find that sensation—however fleeting and rare—in writing poetry.

You were raised in New Zealand. Did the literature and landscape of New Zealand shape your writing at all?

I was raised on the North Shore of Auckland, where both my parents were born. The beauty of that landscape is staggering, and it was deeply intertwined with our lives, with all our joys and sorrows. In The Tulip-Flame, I’m interested in the relationship between beauty and pain, in the spark that happens when the two cohere.

This is a book that holds grief at its core. Are there poets you have turned to for their handling of grief, of loss?

 Over the years, I returned often to certain poems about loss. Here are a few of them.

 “The Voice,” by Thomas Hardy

“The Dream,” by Marie Howe

“Separation,” by W.S. Merwin

“Requiescat,” by Oscar Wilde

“To the Young Who Want to Die,” by Gwendolyn Brooks

What question would you want someone to ask about your book? And would you answer that for us?

How about: What do you keep near your writing desk?

This photograph of my mother and me, taken in 1985.

desk_picture

What are you are working on now?

It’s a bit early to say. I’m drafting a lot these days, seeing what comes.

-Rebecca Morgan Frank, Editor

 

For original poetry, fiction, interviews, art, and art song, please visit our magazine at www.memorious.org.

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Fiction Spotlight: Contributing Editor Laura van den Berg’s Isle of Youth

Memorious’s contributing editor Laura van den Berg has had an exciting few months. Her story collection The Isle of Youth, published in November by FSG, has been celebrated by The New York Times, The Boston Globe, The New Republic, O. Magazine, and dozens of other newspapers and magazines. Just last week, Laura was named the winner of the Rosenthal Family Foundation Award from The American Academy of Arts and Letters. And in other fantastic news, her story “Antarctica” from Isle of Youth has been included in both Best American Short Stories 2014 and Best American Mystery Stories 2014.

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The Isle of Youth is a mesmerizing collection of stories that are wrapped in small and large mysteries. Van den Berg’s protagonists are often young women attempting to navigate the unknown in their everyday lives – from disappearing fathers and brothers to the disorientation of failing relationships. The stories take on the styles of noir, mystery, and detective fiction, but van den Berg always brings her own, unique and sympathetic lens to her characters’ lives. Laura was generous enough to answer some of our questions about her latest story collection.

Your stories travel to so many different settings—Patagonia, Paris, Missouri, Antarctica, and Florida. Can you talk a bit about the relationship between place and plot. Or, in other words, does place become a jumping off point for you as you start constructing your narratives?

I’m interested in the way landscapes can apply pressure to characters—and how, in turn, that pressure can crack open something inside and compel a character to action. All the narrators are outsiders in the landscapes you mention, and I think the pressure of that outsider-ness, the unfamiliarity, allows them to see their own inner faultlines with a sharper clarity, to feel their loneliness more acutely.

Since we’re talking about place, I know you have lived in many different places—Florida, Baltimore, Boston to name a few—but I imagine that you’ve never been to Antarctica. Can you tell us a bit about the role of research in your fiction?

My favorite way to research is to pick up a travel guide, like Lonely Planet, and read it cover-to-cover. I pretend like I am going away on a very long trip and trying to prepare. What will I need to know? What will I want to see? What is the weather like? The landscape? This is how I researched for “Antarctica.”

That said, I had been trying to write a story set in Antarctica for years—years!—and kept failing at it. And then, in 2012, I saw a news segment on the Comandante Ferraz research base in Admiralty Bay. There was an explosion; two men were killed. The story stayed with me, and as soon as I began work on this new version, the story felt different, for two reasons:

First, I had originally tried to write from the perspective of a research scientist, but now my narrator was an outsider in Antarctica. I no longer felt limited by all that I didn’t know—outsider, I understood. Second, part of the story is set in Cambridge, place I know intimately, and that familiarity became a counterpoint to the radical foreignness of Antarctica. So I learned that the choices I made in approach and technique are just as important, if not more important, than the research when it comes to crafting a convincing world and voice.

Many of your stories focus on passive characters who are thrust into adventure, chaos, conflict, etc. via outside forces. Can you talk about how passive characters make good protagonists?

I think the passive protagonist has the potential to be particularly observant about the world around her, a kind of seer if you will. But I also think the force of inaction is often undersold. Of course, the inaction has to be rooted in something truthful about that character’s inner life, but in the right context inaction—a character’s refusal to change course, speak up, run away—can in fact be as powerful and ruinous and brutal as action in the conventional sense; I would argue that, in the fact, inaction has the potential to be quite a radical form of action.

ISLECover

Your characters seem haunted in your stories — by absent parents or missing siblings or lost love. I know you’ve talked about the influence of noir and detective stories on your work, but is there a way we might see your narratives as ghost stories?

Interesting question! Yes, I think so—as you say all the characters are haunted by the missing, in one way or another, and the shadows of ghosts are hanging over them.

I know you’ve spent a bunch of time at residencies and conferences and that you keep in good touch with your friends and fellow writers from grad school. You’ve also been a contributing editor at Memorious. Can you talk a bit about the importance of community to you?

Writing can be a lonely job—you spend a lot of time working in solitude, in your own head—and so community is such an important reprieve from that isolation and I like the energy of being around people who are all engaged in their own art projects—the solidarity, the common pursuit of art, can be hopeful and motivating.

Are there some books you’ve read recently that you’ve found exciting, inspiring, challenging, and/or impressive that you’d like to share with other readers?

Yes! So many, but right now I’m reading J. M. Ledgard’s Submergence and it is insanely good—truly one of the best novels I have read in a very long time.

 For original poetry, fiction, art, interviews, and art song, visit our magazine at www.memorious.org.

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Big Loves: Andrew Ladd Discusses James Morrow

UnknownToday’s contributor to our Big Loves column is Andrew Ladd, the book reviews editor for the Ploughshares blog. His first novel, What Ends, won the AWP Prize in the Novel and is available now from New Issues Press.

For many years, I had an instant answer when people asked me about my favorite book. For many more since, I’ve mostly stopped giving it.

I fully admit that there are some silly, superficial reasons for my reticence. Like: a college friend whose literary chops I admire greatly read the book, on my recommendation, and was underwhelmed. Or: it’s generally shelved under Sci-Fi/Fantasy, and though I actually disagree with that classification, my years in an MFA program have made me wary of copping to this sort of thing. (Admit it: when I mentioned the dreaded genre you almost stopped reading.)

abaddonA slightly less silly reason for my reticence, perhaps, is that the book, James Morrow’s Blameless in Abaddon, doesn’t lend itself well to brief summary. In it, the comatose body of God is the main attraction of a Baptist-run Florida theme park, until a small-town justice of the peace named Martin Candle—distraught by a cancer diagnosis and the untimely death of his wife—decides to put the deity on trial, in the Hague, for crimes against humanity. What ensues is a satirical theology in which the prosecution’s discovery takes places on a riverboat inside God’s brain, and monks take the stand to discuss the difference between doughnuts and Heaven—among other things.

So yes, it sounds kind of hokey, rife with opportunities for clumsy didacticism. It sounds, to paraphrase someone I once described it to, like the sort of thing you would give to high school kids to get them interested in religion. And certainly, there’s a lot of exposition in it that, if I were in an MFA workshop and feeling less charitable, I would probably cut.

Yet considering the book in terms of its major plot points and/or theological content does it as much a disservice as dismissing it for being Sci-Fi/Fantasy. Better, I think, to call it Vonnegutesque, or better still to forgo such characterization altogether and appreciate more comprehensively all that James Morrow accomplishes, here and in his other books, as an author of good fiction. Because so many of those cliché things that happen to people when they really, truly, love a book? They happened to me for the first time—and in some cases the only time, even fifteen years later—when I read Blameless in Abaddon.

I re-read it, for one thing, which I never did. The only other book I can remember re-reading before that was a Hardy Boys mystery, and that was just because I was on holiday in Italy and hadn’t brought any others. Equally unusual for me, when I first read it, visiting my uncle’s house during my spring vacation, was the way I would wait impatiently for my cousin to come home from school, just so that I could re-read him whole passages, pages at a time, because I thought they were that good. And yet in grad school, by comparison, when it was basically my job to find noteworthy passages in books to share with my peers, I struggled to do so or to even see the merit in the exercise. Blameless just got to me in a way few others have.

More than anything, though, the book sticks with me because it was the first one to make me cry. Up until then, I think, I had always looked at books as light entertainment—witness The Hardy Boys. Reading about Martin Candle, though, a man so consumed with grief and rage, so desperately in search of a reason for his suffering that he ignores the real sources of solace in his life and instead hooks all his hopes, delusional, on a grand scheme that any rational person can see will end in disappointment: I was moved to tears. (And by the way, stripped away of all the Sci-Fi/Fantasy particulars, how’s that for a literary fiction plot?)

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James Morrow

Nowadays, of course, Blameless is no longer the only book I’ve quoted or re-read; I returned to Invisible Man and Crying of Lot 49, and I know I pushed passages of Franzen on unsuspecting bystanders; I recommended The Corrections to so many people it became a running joke among my friends. I got a little choked up at The Moonflower Vine, too, even if I’ve never actually cried at another book since. And these are all reasons, too—good reasons, actually—why I’m no longer so quick to tell people Blameless is my favorite book. The more I’ve read, the more I’ve found the things I loved about it elsewhere.

But your first time is always your most memorable, right? So let me say it once more, for nostalgia’s sake: Trust me. You just have to read this book.

For original poetry, fiction, interviews, and art song, please visit our magazine at www.memorious.org.

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by | March 13, 2014 · 4:26 pm

Fiction Spotlight: Contributor James Scott’s The Kept

Unknown-4Contributor James Scott’s debut novel, The Kept, has been getting outstanding reviews from The New York Times, The Washington Post, the Boston Globe, and more, as well as starred reviews from Kirkus and Publisher’s Weekly. But here at Memorious, our interest in Scott goes back to 2009/2010 when Scott’s story “Salt Air” appeared in Memorious 13. In an interview with contributing editor Laura van den Berg, who asks what he is working on at the time, Scott says, “I’m writing a novel set in 1897. It’s been a long haul.” That long haul ended this year in a rich and dense novel that is a coming-of-age story, a murder mystery, and a story of family; this is the story of a mother, Elspeth, a midwife who is a thief of children, and her journey with her 12-year-old stolen child, Caleb, who seeks to avenge the murder of the only father and siblings he has known. The novel’s settings are vivid and lasting, from the homestead the novel begins in to the corrupt town where it ends. To champion a young protagonist in his battle through a largely unforgiving world may be a familiar, albeit satisfying journey for a novel, but to simultaneously bring us into the world of the mother who is this boy’s own only through a terrible crime with violent ramifications takes an art that Scott masters. James Scott has been kind enough to answer a few questions for us about the novel.Unknown-5

What was it like to leave behind Caleb and Elspeth after spending so many years with them? Have you imagined what becomes of the characters beyond the ending of your book?

You spent so much of your mental energy and reserve so much mental space for a couple of people and then all of a sudden they’re gone– it’s strange. I’d find myself thinking, “Oh, this is something Caleb would think” or “This is something Elspeth would do” and it would make me sad, honestly. I miss them. I really do.

So many of your characters are difficult yet compelling. (I’m thinking of Jorah and Elspeth for example, but there are others.) Who did you find most challenging to create with this level of complexity?

Thank you for saying that. The toughest character to write, actually, was the one who you would expect is the closest to me: Caleb. After all, I was once a twelve year old boy in upstate New York. However, Caleb hasn’t experienced the world, and I was quite precocious, and something about depicting his survivor’s guilt at witnessing his family’s murder while maintaining his innocence and inexperience proved really difficult for me.

What drew you to the particular landscape you chose for this novel?

My grandparents lived most of their lives in upstate New York and my father bought a house on the St. Lawrence River, and on those long drives, I would read. As a teenager, I fell in love with Southern Gothic, and because I’d never been to the South, I could only picture those stories happening in a place I was familiar with: those barren stretches of the New York State Thruway. Or, rather, what I imagined took place once you got out of view of the highway.

What kind of research did you do for this book?

I saw a panel with Tom Franklin many years ago, in which he advised anyone writing historical fiction to get a Sears catalog– and he was right. Everything is in there: medicine, guns, clothes, toys. I read newspapers, and looked through a lot of photo banks and museum databases. The toughest research in every way was looking into the history of midwifery and childbirth, but I fortunately eventually found someone who helped me out immensely with all that. She was not only a midwife but a student of history.

What’s the most surprising thing that’s happened for you with this novel’s entrance into the world?

To be perfectly honest, it’s all surprising. I worked on this book for so long while purposefully ignoring what might happen when it was finished and then what might happen if it was published, that once those things happened, I had no expectations. It runs counter to how I usually am, because I usually try to map out all options and possibilities, and so it’s kind of nice to take everything as it comes.

Are you working on another novel and/or do you see a return to the short story? Can you tell us what you’re working on now?

I still write short stories in breaks in the novel action, and I think that’s how I’ll continue. I’ve started another novel, though it’s been tough to work on it with everything that’s going on, that’s set in the 1990s in Vermont.

Last question: what’s in your reading queue? And fellow debut writers our readers should be looking out for?

I loved Molly Antopol’s collection of short stories, The UnAmericans, Rachel Cantor’s A Highly Unlikely Scenario, and Rachel Urquhart’s The Visionist, all of which are debuts, and all of which are fantastic, and I’m looking forward to Jesse Donaldson’s first book, but on my to-read shelf right now is Orfeo by Richard Powers, The Last Days of California by Mary Miller, At Night We Walk in Circles by Daniel Alarcon, All That Is by James Salter, On Such a Full Sea by Chang-rae Lee, and For Today I am a Boy by Kim Fu. There’s never enough time, is there?

For original poetry, fiction, art, interviews, and art song, visit our magazine at www.memorious.org.

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