Historian-turned internationally bestselling author Jennifer Robson talks about the lovely behind-the-scenes women who created the Queen’s wedding gown in her novel THE GOWN

By Leslie Lindsay

Warm, glimmering tale of friendship, legacy, loss, and love featuring the women who helped sew the royal wedding gown, THE GOWN will immerse and capture your heart. 

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I fell into the folds of THE GOWN (William Morrow, December 31 2018) immediately. The writing is wholly immersive, the attention to detail superb, and the overall execution came across as meticulously researched with compassion; I loved every minute. 

Royalty has become an obsession in our culture and around the world. Every event is anticipated (and critiqued)…but what of the people who act behind-the-scenes? For example, who designed the Queen’s wedding gown? Who sewed it? Who were the embroiderers? That’s what THE GOWN sets out to discover and I fell in love with these characters–they became like my own friends.

It’s 1947 in post-war London and times are a little bleak. Folks are adjusting. And rationing. Ann Hughes works at the famed Mayfair fashion house of Norman Hartnell and everything there is pretty ho-hum until they get the commission to create the famed wedding dress for the then-Princess Elizabeth. The women are overjoyed, if not a bit anxious. During this time, a new embroiderer, Miriam Dassin, arrives in London from war-torn France and has her own secrets and worries.

Meanwhile, in 2016, Heather Mackenzie seeks to unravel the mystery of why her late grandmother left behind a collection of embroidered flowers with her name on it. These two storylines are meticulously braided into a complete whole, bringing with it a legacy of loss and love, connecting families through generations, as well as a warm tale of friendship.

Overall, THE GOWN is an uplifting story of resilience and ingenuity, art, and so much more. It’s beautifully and lovingly rendered and I fell right in step with Ann and Miriam.

Please join me and Jennifer Robson in conversation:

Leslie Lindsay:

Jennifer! It’s wonderful to have you. This book—what a sweeping tale! I understand it was a tiny bit of a challenge—you wanted a book set in post-war London, but what would your hook be?  You weren’t entirely sure…until …[fill-in-the-blank]

Jennifer Robson:

It’s not often that writers get to have that wonderful A-HA moment (at least I don’t often experience them), but when the idea for THE GOWN came to me it really did feel like a lightbulb switching on. I was having lunch with my editor and literary agent, we’d each had at least one enormous glass of wine, and we decided to do some brainstorming. What was the singular event of the immediate postwar period, they wanted to know. What was important to people then? And that’s when it came to me: Britain’s royal wedding in 1947 captured the attention, and hearts, of people around the world.

From there it was a short leap to the notion of focusing on the women who made the wedding gown, since that’s something I’ve always wondered: who are the people who do the actual work of making the royal wedding gowns we all obsess over? We know the designer’s name, but the seamstresses and embroiderers are invisible. I wanted to make them visible. I wanted to learn their stories.

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Photo by Dmitry Zvolskiy on Pexels.com

Leslie Lindsay:

But that wasn’t the end of your challenges with THE GOWN. You’re a historian by training and wished the story to be accurate, but fictional. Can you tell us how the research played out and what difficulties you bumped into?

Jennifer Robson:

THE GOWN is set in the recent past, comparatively speaking, and I naively assumed it would be easy to research. How wrong I was! My main difficulty came when I tried to learn more about the people who worked at Hartnell – their backgrounds, their training, their working lives, and so on. But that’s where I ran into one brick wall after another.

The curators at the Royal Collection weren’t able to put me in touch with anyone from Hartnell, since the people they’d relied on for information over the years had become too elderly and infirm to be interviewed. On top of that, I wasn’t able to gain access to Norman Hartnell’s archive, which is privately held, and so I wasn’t able to find out more than the barest details of who worked in the embroidery workrooms, what the interior of the premises looked like, how a working day would unfold for the women, and so on. I’ll admit to a moment – actually many moments, if I’m honest – of anxiety. If I couldn’t get inside the Hartnell workrooms, even at a distance, how could I write my book?

That’s when I decided to try a different approach: I’d talk to someone who does the same sort of work today and learn from her. That led me to Hand and Lock, a bespoke hand embroidery atelier in London, where I spent a day with master embroiderer Juliet Ferry. And it was at Hand and Lock that I met a documentary film producer who offered to introduce me to a woman who had actually worked on the gown. The next day I was on a train to Essex for my visit with Betty Foster.


“A fascinating glimpse into the world of design, the healing power of art, and the importance of women’s friendships.”

–Kirkus Reviews 


Leslie Lindsay:

I am so taken with the fact that you were able to connect and interview one of the women who worked as a seamstress back in 1947. Betty Foster graciously allowed you to chat with her at her home in the south of England. What can you tell us about Betty—and are any of your characters a composite of Betty?

Jennifer Robson:

Historians rarely get to meet, let alone interview, people with a first-hand knowledge of the events they’re studying, and that’s particularly true for anything set more than fifty years in the past. Betty is now 91, she worked on the gown more than 70 years ago, and yet she has the most vivid memories of her time at Hartnell and the events surrounding the royal wedding of 1947. Talking to her was pretty much the most satisfying and enjoyable moment of my life as a historian. The doors of Hartnell had been closed to me, figuratively speaking, and I’d begun to think I’d never get a peek inside. And then I met Betty, and she took me by the hand, and led me inside. It honestly felt that \ real to me.

Betty herself is a lovely person in every way – she is so warm and friendly, and so willing to share her extraordinary experiences with others. She’s now the matriarch of a large and extended family, many of whom live nearby, and she and her husband, Bill, recently celebrated their 65th wedding anniversary.

I was nervous about including Betty in THE GOWN, but I also felt really strongly that she ought to be present in its pages, so with her permission I added her to several scenes. On the day of the royal wedding, Betty accompanies my character Miriam to Buckingham Palace with some other people from Hartnell, and together she and Miriam look out the windows of the palace and are awestruck by the thousands of people stretching back along the Mall. Here I’ll admit to some creative embellishment (done with Betty’s permission): on the morning of the royal wedding, Betty wasn’t inside the palace but rather just outside, in a special area reserved for people who’d worked on the gown, and her central memory of that day is seeing the princess go by in her carriage.

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Leslie Lindsay:

I felt like I knew all of these women—Miriam, Milly, Ann, especially—but I also felt for Heather [in 2016]. Can you give us a few hints and tips for character development? Because the last thing we want—as readers (and writers) is to hear that the characters were ‘cardboard.’

Jennifer Robson:

When I’m first discovering a character, I let them talk to me – I hope this doesn’t sound too ridiculous, but it’s only by living with characters and really letting them get under my skin that I can write about them in a convincing fashion. Sometimes I hasten the process by having my characters answer a shortened version of the Proust Questionnaire, but just as often it’s by letting them noodle around in my head for a while.

In the case of Heather, I’ll admit to her being a younger (and significantly cooler) version of myself – and there are certainly elements of my own life that I drew upon when writing her story. Even the hotels she stays at in London and New York are based on hotels I know and love: Hazlitt’s in Soho and The Marlton in the West Village.

Leslie Lindsay:

There’s some darkness to the story, too. And I think that’s indicative of just about any time period…any book, too. We live for art and goodness when there’s a bit of emotional, political, and social upheaval. Can you talk about that, please?

Jennifer Robson:

THE GOWN is set in a dark time. The war had been won, but at such a cost, and Britain—most of the world, really—was on its knees. People really weren’t certain if life would ever get better, and that is certainly true of my characters Ann and Miriam. Both have suffered so much, both are scarred in ways they are only just beginning to understand, and my instinct was to wrap them both in cotton wool and feed them delicious things and wrap up their stories in a big, red bow. But that wouldn’t have been fair to the time in which they lived, nor to the past they’d endured. THE GOWN isn’t a sad book—far from it. But I do believe it’s an honest book, and part of the honesty comes in my refusal to sugar-coat the fairly grim reality of life in 1947.

I think that’s why the royal wedding, and the princess in her beautiful gown, resonated so deeply with people in 1947. Life was the farthest thing from a fairy tale for most people, but they were still drawn to beautiful things and happy stories and the prospect of fairer days ahead. We all want to feel hopeful. We all need to believe that tomorrow will be a better day.

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Leslie Lindsay:

Here we are at the first of the year. I am thinking about how I’m going to be proactive. Doors and windows…coincidence, opportunities…in fact, much of THE GOWN came together due to tiny little pieces falling into place. If you had a word or phrase to describe what you most hope for in 2019 (personally or globally), what would it be?

Jennifer Robson:

I would be very grateful if people in general, and our leaders in particular, would open their hearts to the suffering of others. Ann and Miriam’s friendship is grounded in their empathy for each other’s sorrows, both past and present; and their experiences as victims of violence and prejudice, as migrants, and as women—which is to say, groups who are often overlooked, ignored, and abused—are mirrored in the stories we see in the news every day. So what I really want for 2019 is empathy, and plenty of it.

Leslie Lindsay:

Jennifer, it’s been most delightful. Is there anything I should have asked, but may have forgotten?

Jennifer Robson:

I’d like to mention my late mother-in-law, Regina, who died as I was finishing work on THE GOWN. I didn’t realize how much she’d influenced me in its creation until after she was gone. Like my characters, she was an immigrant (from Italy to Canada in the early 1960s), a seamstress, and a beloved grandmother whose life was centered on her granddaughters and grandson. Like my characters, her life was difficult at times—she left her family behind when she came to Canada, and she was often lonely and homesick—but she persevered, and made a wonderful life for herself, and taught me most of what I know about cooking and gardening and needlework and being a mom. I miss her more than words can say.

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For more information, to connect with the author via social media, or to purchase a copy of THE GOWN, please visit:

Order Links:

Jennifer Robson Credit Natalie Brown-Tangerine PhotographyABOUT THE AUTHOR: Jennifer Robson is the USA Today and #1 Toronto Globe & Mail bestselling author of Somewhere In France and After The War Is Over. She holds a doctorate in British economic and social history from Saint Antony’s College, University of Oxford, where she was a Commonwealth Scholar and an SSHRC Doctoral Fellow. She lives in Toronto, Canada with her husband and young children.

You can connect with me, Leslie Lindsay, via these websites: 

LOVE IT? SHARE IT!

#historicalfiction #Royalty #England #London #fashion #embroidery #TheGown

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[Cover and author image courtesy of William Morrow and used with permission. Artistic cover photo designed and photographed by L. Lindsay. Follow her on Instagram: @LeslieLindsay1]

Small towns, changing seasons, finding oneself, going back yet moving forward–Susan Bernhard discovers this & more in her debut WINTER LOON

By Leslie Lindsay 

A coming-of-age tale of one young man’s family tragedy about resilience, family secrets, dysfunction, and forging a new path. 

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WINTER LOON is a beautiful as it is stark.
 Debut novelist Susan Bernhard turns a graceful hand to an emotionally harrowing and highly dysfunctional family using the weather and the natural world as a backdrop.

Through the retrospective lens of Wes Ballot, we follow along as his childhood comes to a dreadful end when his mother is drowned in an icy Minnesota lake. Wes is left with his drifter father, who, for the moment isn’t really around. At 15, Wes can’t be left alone in the family’s abandoned cabin in the woods, and so he is shipped off to live with his maternal grandparents in Montana, who aren’t too thrilled he’s there.

Grandparents Ruby and Gip have remained embittered and cold to one another–and the world–what’s worse, Wes is forced to live in his mother’s old bedroom, still decorated as if she were 15 and living at home. But she’s dead and Wes misses his mother. Wes meets other kids his age who are also struggling with their place in the world–Jolene who is also grieving the loss of her mother, plus American Indian teens who must deal with not feeling welcomed in ‘white man’s land,’ thus a cultural aspect of the story is introduced. Keep in mind, too that WINTER LOON TAKES place in 1978.

The setting is stark and yet very tangible, lending itself effortlessly to the overall emotional resonance of WINTER LOON. The writing is more literary, poetic at times, and powerful, but also disquieting.

Wes learns a great deal of the family secrets, and much is resolved–though not always in the most ‘warm-fuzzy’ manner, but authentic.

Please join me in welcoming Susan Bernhard to the author interview series.

Leslie Lindsay:

Susan, I read with such careful notes to Wes’s father, Moss Ballot—mostly because my own uncle was a drifter—leaving behind his son (my cousin) and his mother. But WINTER LOON isn’t just about leaving—it’s also about returning. Can you talk about that theme a bit and also what inspired you to begin?

Susan Bernhard:

There’s a sentiment about returning and regret that’s been expressed in a number of different ways—you can’t go home again, you can’t step in the same river twice—the idea being that the past is in the past. Yet we still try to recapture moments, dip into memory, try to bring the ghosts back. In some ways, WINTER LOON is all about returning since the narrator, Wes Ballot, is reminiscing about this particular year in his life, after his mother’s death. At one point he comments that he has turned that year over and over in his mind, pulled on the memories, like he’s trying to get clarity, revisit the decisions that led to his narrative moment.

In her poem Hope Is The Thing With Feathers, Emily Dickinson makes hope into something light and graceful. But Wes tells us at one low point that hope is heavy, that it’s easier to carry nothing at all. I wonder if that’s what makes Moss leave, what Wes is ultimately fighting against. WINTER LOON started as a short story about a woman fleeing with her child from an abusive relationship. I guess in some ways that goes back to what you’re asking—when do you stay and when do you leave? That goes to that idea that hope is heavy, that it can be a burden. How many people do we know who stay in loveless or abusive relationships because they hold out hope that things will get better when the best course of action may be to move on? I’m sorry that your cousin had to endure an absentee father. Like Wes said:

“Fathers should love their children right.”

I can’t help but feel sorry for Moss, though too, thinking about what he missed, the loneliness he might have experienced, his inability to fight to keep what should have mattered most to him.

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Photo by Radu Andrei Razvan on Pexels.com

Leslie Lindsay:

And the setting! Again—this resonated—we lived in Minnesota for five years and the starkness of winter really plays into the overall tone. It’s as if it becomes a character in itself. Can you tell us how you chose Minnesota as a partial setting (also nods to South Dakota, Montana, Topeka, KS)? You’re not a native Minnesotan, right?

Susan Bernhard:

As I mentioned, WINTER LOON started as a short story centered around a grisly moment on a frozen lake and the call of a stranded loon. Everything about that story was cold—I was even listening to music by Lia Ices when I started writing—so the Minnesota setting sprung up organically from the situation my characters were in. I grew up in a small town in the Bitterroot Valley of western Montana so much of WINTER LOON is an homage to that kind of upbringing. My fondest childhood memories are summer ones spent by lakes and rivers. One of the characters in WINTER LOON tells a story about winter and spring, the tug-of-war between the two, how one represents hope and potential, the other stamina and necessity. Maybe that’s why I loved summer so much; I knew winter would return and I needed to build up my stores. Small towns and changing seasons are as much centerpieces as which particular state the novel is set in, though Minnesota is indeed the land of lakes and loons.

Leslie Lindsay:

One piece I liked in WINTER LOON was when Jolene is talking with Wes and she says,

“You’re always waiting for something to happen to you. You need to go make this happen so you know once and for all what the deal is. Otherwise, you’re stuck. I don’t want you to be stuck. I don’t want to be stuck with you.”

That’s powerful and insightful for a teen. Can you talk a bit about the role of agency in WINTER LOON—and in Wes himself?

Susan Bernhard:

We don’t get to see the conversations Jolene has with Mona, her aunt, but I imagine Mona trying to rebuild her sister’s daughter, this girl who has endured so much. I could almost imagine Mona saying something like this to Jolene, then Jolene repeating her own version of it to Wes. One of the themes in WINTER LOON is about what we inherit and what we learn from our parents. Wes has had to live in the tumult of his parents’ marriage, bounced around there with little control over his direction or destiny. When Moss strands him with Gip and Ruby, he’s not tied to anything. Will he continue to let other people, outside forces, dictate where he goes and when? Can he become his own person, his own man, stepping out from the shadows of his parents and grandparents? For me, the three characters who most dramatically express their agency are Wes, his grandmother Ruby, and his father Moss. They each make crucial decisions they think are “what’s best” for themselves and maybe for the people they love or at least should love. When I was writing WINTER LOON, I didn’t always know what the characters would do once I put them in a particular situation. There’s a scene near the end of the novel, when Wes is sitting on a bed preparing to go down a familiar and inherited path. That moment of clarity for him felt so real for me. I imagined him looking into the past, then toward the future. He became a man when he stood, his decision made.

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Photo by Irina Iriser on Pexels.com

“I lost myself in WINTER LOON, its rugged heart, its dark secrets, the honesty and vulnerability of its characters. With prose both taut and lush, Susan Bernhard has created the quintessential coming-of-age story: raw, tender, and completely spellbinding.”

— Mira T. Lee, author of EVERYTHING HERE IS BEAUTIFUL


Leslie Lindsay:

Moving over to genre: I was describing WINTER LOON to my husband who said, “So it’s YA?” No, it’s not. The narrator is older, but reliving his youth in a retrospective story. There are adult themes, but most of the characters are younger. How do you reconcile the two genres: YA and coming-of-age?

Susan Bernhard:

WINTER LOON is Wes’ bildungsroman so naturally readers who gravitate toward stories about the journey into adulthood will be drawn to it. And of course, coming-of-age stories have long been a part of adult fiction. I never put much thought into where the book would land on a bookshelf. What I set out to do was write with an emotional honesty I hoped would resonate with readers. There have been so many successful novels recently with young characters that probably could have been marketed as YA but also fit squarely in adult literary fiction. I’m thinking specifically of books like The Round House by Louise Erdrich, Salvage The Bones by Jesmyn Ward, or The History of Wolves by Emily Fridlund. It’s important to note that children and young adults in these novels often deal with difficult circumstances and themes because that reflects what’s really happening in the world. I don’t think it’s necessary to shield readers from this kind of truth. In fact, I think exposure to these kinds of narratives helps create empathetic adults. My writing style might be a little off brand for a young adult audience—the reminiscent narrator, the economy of language, the sometimes bleak tone. But if WINTER LOON crosses over and appeals to traditional YA readers, that works for me.

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Leslie Lindsay:

I have to ask about houses, because they are my all-time favorite and encapsulate so much of a character. WINTER LOON describes Ruby and Gip’s house and I so enjoyed this description,

“I knew the cracks and warts of that house, the gurgles in the pipes, the droop and creak in the hallway outside the bathroom where leaking had warped the floorboards. I’d grown accustomed to heat that didn’t always work in the winter and the damp, medicinal smell of mold in the summer.”

Was this a house familiar to you or excavated from collective memories of multiple homes?

Susan Bernhard:

Gip and Ruby’s house was kind of an amalgam of places I knew growing up. I married floor plans with details to come up with a place I thought Gip and Ruby might live, how they might live. Same for some of the other houses in WINTER LOON. The Hightower house was a mashup of a couple of places I knew—the outside of one house and the inside of another. The sweetest house for me was Mrs. Blue’s. When I was little, one of my best friends was an elderly woman who lived across the street. She had an organ and a piano and her house was always so tidy. She would give me hard candies and I would sit in her living room and listen to her play. And she had an amazing horse chestnut tree in her front yard. Other neighborhood kids and I would wait for the spiny pods to drop from the tree, then peel the chestnuts out and corral them like horses. I still love chestnuts and think of my friend whenever I find a chestnut tree.

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Leslie Lindsay:

Susan, I could probably ask questions all day, but alas we both have other things to do. Is there anything I should have asked, but may have forgotten? Like—what’s it like working with the GrubStreet Novel Incubator Program, what it’s like being a first-time novelist, what you might have done differently, if you’re working on anything new, how you’re spending the holidays….

Susan Bernhard:

You fired off questions so I’ll fire off answers!

  1. The GrubStreet Novel Incubator Program is intense, frustrating, illuminating, humbling, and rewarding. I was exhausted at the end of it and would do it again in a heartbeat.
  2. I’m so grateful to have the experience of holding my published novel in my hand and I understand how rare that is. Quite amazing, really.
  3. If I had it to do all over again, maybe I would have committed to writing earlier in my life. But I’m not one for regrets. This is my path and I’m happy to be on it.
  4. I have a new novel in the works about four people whose lives collide when a child suddenly appears in the small town where they live.
  5. I love Christmas and but it does make me a little melancholy, too. A lot of my ornaments and decorations remind me of my mom who passed away in 2006. One of the traditions I keep alive from my childhood (read: force upon my kids) is a brisk walk on Christmas Eve. We usually stop by our neighbors’ house for the Italian Feast of the Seven Fishes. Christmas Day we spend at home with family and friends, eating lots of food and drinking lots of prosecco.

Leslie Lindsay:

Thank you, Susan. It’s been a pleasure!

Susan Bernhard:

It’s clear from your questions that you’re a devoted and careful reader so the pleasure was truly mine!

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Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

For more information, to connect with the author, or to purhcase a copy of WINTER LOON, please see: 

Order Links: 

sdbauthorABOUT THE AUTHOR:Susan Bernhard is a Massachusetts Cultural Council fellowship recipient and a graduate of the GrubStreet Novel Incubator program. She was born and raised in the Bitterroot Valley of western Montana, is a graduate of the University of Maryland, and lives with her husband and two children near Boston. WINTER LOON (Little A, December 2018) is her debut novel.

You can connect with me, Leslie Lindsay, via these websites: 

LOVE IT? SHARE IT!

#winter #family #secrets #Minnesota #amreading #resilience #comingofage

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[Cover and author image retrieved from S. Bernhard’s website on 12.15.18. Author photo credit: Miles Bernhard. Cover image photograph  designed by L. Lindsay and can be accessed via Instagram @LeslieLindsay1. Footer image retrieved from S. Bernhard’s Twitter page, 12.15.18]

Emma Healey talks about her most recent book, WHISTLE IN THE DARK, inner demons, missing girls, mothers & daughters, unique structure, more

By Leslie Lindsay 

Stunning, psychologically complex atmospheric tale about mothers and daughters, inner demons, and piecing back the shards of a fragile psyche. Emma Healey pops by to chat about her favorite podcasts, how her teenage breakdown–and subsequent depression–informed Lana’s character, and so much more. 

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I am overwhelmed with the subtle absorption of WHISTLE IN THE DARK
(July 2018, Harper), which explores the complexity of mother-daughter relationships, with a wry, poignant, sharply observed style. Emma Healey’s prose is both taut and lush and I was immediately drawn into her atmospheric underworld of 15-year-old Lana Maddox’s teenage depression, unaccountable days, and her eventual reappearance. 

Plus, that cover!

Told in a unique noir style in which we begin with the end, delve into a murky (in a good way) middle ground, and then reemerge on a brighter, more hopeful side, WHISTLE IN THE DARK is written in titled sections that aren’t exactly chapters, but present-day vignettes/memories/back flashes, while also propelling the narrative forward. I have to say, I loved this! I found the smaller sections easier to read (as opposed to an entire chapter), offered just enough information to leave me happily brooding in the past while also forcing me forward. I wanted to savor WHISTLE IN THE DARK.

Ultimately, WHISTLE IN THE DARK sets out to discover: 1) Where was Lana during those four days? and 2) Does she really want to be saved? 

But there is so much more. The psychological complexities, the emotional depth and the astute observations from Healey made my jaw drop. Plus, there’s a slight religious/spiritual/mystical aspect to the narrative twining through as if a glimmering thread.

Please join me in welcoming the lovely Emma Healey to the author interview series.

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Leslie Lindsay:

Emma, I am in awe. Your storytelling in A WHISTLE IN THE DARK is brilliant and yet dark, and so well done. I’m curious what the original seed was that propelled you into this particular world?

Emma Healey:

Firstly, thank you very much indeed for your lovely comments about the book. I’m ever so glad you enjoyed it.

The initial inspiration for the plot came when I was in Australia in 2015 and I heard about a woman who had gone missing in the rainforest in Queensland for 17 days. She was found, not far from where she’d disappeared, suffering from sunburn and heatstroke, but essentially okay. She said she’d just got lost and had quickly become too weak to alert searchers to her whereabouts. The part of the story that really interested me though, was that the press seemed suspicious of her, hinting that she had deliberately gone off, hadn’t really been lost, was lying. I didn’t know what to do with that for about 10 months, but I knew I wanted to use the elements of that story in a smaller way. So eventually Australia became England, 17 days became 4, the media became a mother. Once I had those parameters I realized it was also going to be a book about teenage depression.

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‘…a psychological thriller that meshes the homely with the gothic… Healey broadens the remit of the thriller.’

~ Literary Review


Leslie Lindsay:

There is a slight ‘underworld’ theme, which can be interpreted on several levels. The title, of course, plays on this, too. Can you share how WHISTLE IN THE DARK is both an interior and exterior read?

Emma Healey:

Without giving anything away, I knew that a kind of underworld was the solution to the book very early on, so that physical detail was one layer. And then other features of the book suggested others – it’s about a mother who is afraid of losing her daughter, which of course made me think of the myth of Demeter and Persephone. The book focuses briefly on social media and internet research – something that we describe as being like a rabbit hole (especially when we’re procrastinating writers!). Jen is worried about her daughter physically and emotionally, and the action is about reacting to a physical absence, but really the book is about a mother trying to excavate her daughter’s mind – so there’s a tension between exterior and interior there.

I also love adding a hint of the uncanny to my writing. I think most of us find ourselves spooked or chilled by strange things at various times – an unidentified noise in an empty house, a shape that seems to change in the dark, etc. Those moments are a kind of pure drama and are full of possibilities. And they all suggest another kind of underworld. I’m hugely influenced in this by my teenage obsession with Ann Radcliffe’s books – her eighteenth century gothic novels are full of the possibility of something supernaturally dark, but always have frighteningly real-world solutions.

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Leslie Lindsay:

I want to talk about structure a bit. WHISTLE IN THE DARK is told in told in sections ranging from a few lines to a few pages, a technique that really propels the narration, whilest, giving readers plenty to think about. How did this structure evolve? Was it conscious on your part? I fond it very effective.

Emma Healey:

I write in unconnected sections, often only 500 words at a time, and then when I have collected a good number I try to see how these might fit into a narrative. And then I repeat the process – writing another set of unconnected scenes, but with a more definite voice, or perspective, and with a knowledge of the purpose of the story / narrator. And then I carry on like that till I have a first draft. So, in some ways the structure was unconscious, but when I was halfway through I started thinking of Evan S Connell’s novel Mrs Bridge. I love that book, which is written in very short, titled chapters and gives the reader a series of glimpses into the life of Mrs Bridge and her family. It works because Mrs Bridge, her inner life, is kept at arms length, but we get enough (clever, surprising, funny) details to make us think we know her. In fact the overlapping stories act like a series of private jokes – bringing us closer, making us feel like part of the community. I wanted to do something similar, and realized I could formalize my short sections, reduce the span of the novel to include just a few months (rather than a whole life), and also add in a kind of mystery.

Leslie Lindsay:

Many authors (and writing instructors) suggest that you should always know the end [of your story] before even beginning. Where do you stand on this? Did you know how WHISTLE IN THE DARK would end ahead of time?

Emma Healey:

I knew the very very end image and the final bit of dialogue, but actually the plot changed several times while I was writing it. I wrote my first novel in the same way. I’ve only once fully worked out the end of a novel and I ended up abandoning that project after thirty thousand words! I have to feel there is something for me to explore, something to discover, to make the process worthwhile. If I know too much I lose interest. I’m not a ‘pantster’ because I keep a very detailed plan, but I let that plan develop with my book, rather than dictate the content.

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Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Leslie Lindsay: 

I also really admire the psychological complexity and depth presented in WHISTLE IN THE DARK. Lana is fifteen and is struggling with depression and anxiety. She has a therapist and also some self-injurious behavior. Can you talk about how this piece found its way into the story? And did you have to do any research?

Emma Healey:

I had a breakdown when I was 15 and was suicidally depressed. I dropped some of my exams at 16, and didn’t go on to sixth form college (for 17 & 18 year olds). Instead I spent a year barely leaving the house and reading romance novels, one after another, in order to shut out the real world. I didn’t think I would ever explore that time in my life through fiction, and I still wouldn’t write about it in straightforward detail, but approaching the subject from a parent’s point of view (using my mother as a very very rough template) made it possible to find something new and useful and even entertaining in it.

Having gone through that experience, I was really keen to pose rather than answer questions – I wasn’t interested in providing a reason for Lana’s depression, because I know there isn’t always a reason. The book hints at exam pressure and body issues, and difficulties within friendship groups, but doesn’t use any of them as a solution. Similarly I wanted Jen and her husband Hugh to have a good relationship so the reader couldn’t mistake my purpose and think that I was trying to show how divorce leads to depression, etc. I’m also quite hard on Lana – I don’t paint her as an angel! But was always acutely aware of her suffering while I was writing the book.

Leslie Lindsay:

Emma, it’s been a pleasure! Thank you so much for taking the time. Is there anything I should have asked, but may have forgotten? What you’re binge-watching, if you’re working on something else, if you have a guilty pleasure, what’s on your TBR pile? Something else?

Emma Healey:

Thank you so much for your questions!

I’m unfortunately not binge-watching anything at the moment as I have 16 month old, so we only ever have CBeebies playing on the television. I do listen to lots of podcasts though, my favourite about books and writing are: Slate’s Audio Bookclub, Death of 1000 Cuts, Backlisted, and of course the New Yorker Fiction podcast. I’m also keen on true crime podcasts, especially: Death in Ice Valley, The Doorstep Murder, In the Dark, and Trace.

I’m working on the beginning of a new book, with lots of chapters set in woodland. At least I think I’m working on a new book, I might just be using that as an excuse to get out into the countryside now that autumn is here (I love the autumn).

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Photo by Lisa Fotios on Pexels.com

For more information, to connect with the author via social media, or to purchase a copy of WHISTLE IN THE DARK, please visit: 

Order Links: 

Emma Healey, photographed at the UEA campus, Norwich.ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Emma Healey grew up in London and is a graduate of the MA in Creative Writing at the University of East Anglia. Her first novel, Elizabeth is Missing, was published to critical acclaim in 2014, elizabeth-is-missing-us-coversold over a million copies, and won the Costa First Novel Award. Her second novel, Whistle in the Dark was published in 2018. She lives in Norwich with her husband, daughter and cat.

 

You can connect with me, Leslie Lindsay, via these websites:

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[Cover and author image courtesy of HarperCollins and used with permission.]

Stunning fictional portrayal of the French Revolution, Marie Tussaud, & so much more in this glimmering historical fiction, LITTLE–with amazing illustrations–by the immensely talented Edward Carey

By Leslie Lindsay 

Richly imagined novel of the woman who would one day become known as Madame Tussaud is charming as it is eccentric. 

And I was mesmerized.

IMG_0682Edward Carey is here chatting about how the cast  of characters was ‘exhausting and worrying,’ how LITTLE is like a ‘very dark fairytale,’ how Louis XVI was really a ‘pretty bad king, but a great locksmith…and would often go to the top of Versailles to shoot feral cats,’ and so much more. 

Narrated by Marie Grosholtz, the ‘tiny,’ bright and ambitious orphan, apprenticed to a wax sculptor, readers fall easily into her charm, her wonderful, strange, and fascinating world of wax modeling. 

I so loved LITTLE (Riverhead, 2018), which is tumbling with drama, from the challenging early years of Marie’s life (her father died from the Seven Years War) and her mother’s suicide, through her apprenticeship at to Doctor Curtius (who was a physician but also a wax sculptor), the streets of Paris, Versailles, and through the French Revolution. Seriously, LITTLE has so much going for it–love and loss, sharp eccentricities, morbidity, but also hope and art.

I was completely taken and wrapped in this wholly original and immersive narrative. In fact, I found myself reading more slowly than usual because I wanted to savor the spirit of persistence and enchanted rendering of such a special soul.

Scattered throughout the text are pencil drawings by the author as if he were channeling Marie. This really enhances the storytelling and brings such life to the words. 

In short, I loved LITTLE. sLQBjcaM_400x400

But I’m not the only one.

Margaret Atwood says this about LITTLE:

“Don’t miss this eccentric charmer! LITTLE, by Edward Carey, narrated by Madame Tussaud of waxworks fame [on] her strange life and times, including the almost fatal French Revolution, a prime season for heads.” ~via Twitter.

And LITTLE receives a starred review from Kirkus:

“Carey channels the ghosts of Charles Dickens, Henry Fielding, and the Brothers Grimm, to tell Marie’s tale, populating it with grotesques and horrors worthy of Madame Tussaud’s celebrated wax museum…A quirky, compelling story that deepens into a meditation on mortality and art.”

Library Journal selects LITTLE as a Fall Editors’ Pick and says this about it:

“Lavishly illustrated with Marie’s strange and compelling drawings, Edward Carey’s Little is a boldly original reimagining of the life of the woman who would become the legendary Madame Tussaud.”

Please join me in welcoming Edward Carey to the author the author interview series.

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Photo by Min An on Pexels.com

Leslie Lindsay:

Edward, it’s such a pleasure. I loved this book. I know you say LITTLE took ‘a really long time’ to finish. Fifteen years, in fact. But you’ve published other things in the interim. Can you talk about the original spark for LITTLE, and then a bit about why this one was slow to formulate?

Edward Carey:  

In my early twenties I had a wonderful very bad job as a guard at Madame Tussaud’s in London. The job was basically: look after the wax people, protect them from the flesh people that came to visit. The public came in and pointed and prodded and were not especially courteous to the wax populace, but it was fascinating watching people reacting to these full size dolls. It was while I was working there that I learnt about the real life of Marie Tussaud, that she had been in Paris before after and during the French Revolution and that she had cast Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette from life and then, later, their heads after they had been guillotined. She seemed to know everyone, Marat, Franklin, Robespierre, Rousseau, Napoleon. The most fascinating figure in the waxworks was a self portrait she made of herself when she was an old woman. She put this waxwork at the till and would sit down beside it. She had such a wise, winning face. I knew then I would love to write about her someday, her story seemed like a very dark fairy tale…and slowly it seemed to me that I should try to write a novel about her. So this was the original spark. And then, later, when I started to work on it I became a little nervous about how to approach her, about how to properly shape the story. Getting her voice right was probably the hardest part, giving her enough emotion, making her love. To begin with she was too uncanny, something like a doll herself and that didn’t work. So the novel changed size over the years, sometimes it was enormous, at others it was much, much smaller. I had to leave it alone for many months at a time before I could finally see it properly.

Leslie Lindsay:

In publishing, there’s this notion of, ‘write book at the right time,’ and so I’m curious—what pieces had to be orchestrated for LITTLE?

Edward Carey:  

There was no time factor involved really – except the fact that the book took me fifteen years to finish, which is obviously an alarmingly long time. It was under no contract as I wrote it and so I had only myself to spur me on. I think her story is good for all times. She’s a mirror to what human beings are capable of, both the best of humanity and the cruelest.

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Photo by Lukas Hartmann on Pexels.com

Leslie Lindsay:

Your research is evident. I mean, wow. Can you talk a bit about that, please? What advice might you give to writers so they don’t become too bogged down in the minutia and just write?

Edward Carey:

I spent many months doing research in the British Library in London and I spent two six month sessions living in Paris, researching and writing there. This was all at the beginning. My other novels are mostly set in cities that don’t exist so I could make up whatever I wanted to. But here I was writing about Paris and one of the most famous pieces of European history. That often intimidated me. I was so eager that my Louis XVI was credible, likewise Marie Antoinette and  Napoleon[Benjamin] Franklin and Voltaire and Rousseau and Jacques Louis David…all of them! And, at times, I found the fame of the cast of my book exhausting and worrying. So I read a great deal and visited archives. To be honest, living in Paris and London intimidated me even more when writing the book. Moving to Austin, Texas, was incredibly useful! Suddenly Paris and the eighteenth century seemed so far away. I began to relax. And at last began to feel freer with the material. But chiefly what helped me was the writing of Louis Sebastien Mercier, he lived in and wrote about Paris in 1700s but what was so exciting about his writing was that he only wrote about ordinary life, not about the famous people but about the average bloke on the street and how it was to live in Paris then. This was a liberation for me, I adored his writing so much I made him an important character in the book – and the person who guides Marie around Paris (telling her about it, when she’s forced to stay in one house and never leave it).

Leslie Lindsay:

I love the art interspersed throughout the narrative. You’re also a visual artist and these drawings are ultimately your creation, but channeled by Marie. How did this piece come into the story? It really enriches the reading experience.

Edward Carey:

For LITTLE very early on I carved from wood a mannequin of Marie (which features in the book), I wanted to know her size exactly, and this wooden mannequin is her exact size. I also painted a portrait of her in oils that I pretended was painted by the great artist Jacques Louis David, I wanted to have David – who was Robespierre’s chief propagandist – in the book right from the start. I also wanted to know how to make a waxwork so I could describe the process properly, so I made a wax death mask of Marie’s teacher Doctor Curtius. But mostly the artwork involved drawing. I tried to see the world through Marie’s eyes not just with words but with her pencil – I had her sketching fish heads in the kitchen, Mercier’s shoes, Curtius’ tools, extinct monkeys, and also the two people she loved. I tried to litter the book with her observations. Slowly these drawings mounted up. I tried also, when she couldn’t face drawing the actual awful event before her, for Marie to make substitute: for example when Marie’s mother commits suicide she sketches a wood pigeon from the butcher’s; when she sees a dead woman on a Parisian street she draws a deceased rat; when Louis XVI is guillotined she draws the mold she makes of the dead king – so that you see the dead king’s head in negative not the actual head, a sort of ghost of it. I also thought that Marie would never draw herself, so you never see her actual face in the book, you see everyone else, and you have her voice narrating the story, but Marie’s own features are kept a little aloof.

Leslie Lindsay:

I loved Marie. Her spunk, her voice, her brilliance. But there are so many other characters presented in LITTLE. Doctor Curtius, Edmond, the widow Picot, Princess Elisabeth. Aside from Marie, did you feel a particular affinity for anyone?

Edward Carey:

I do love Mercier, and I owe him a lot, his prose is simply stunning and I tried to write something in his voice – and I tried to make him the conscience of the novel. As I went about my research I discovered that Louis XVI was rather a shy fellow and that he was much happier tinkering around with locks on his own – he was actually a very accomplished locksmith – I also discovered that he used to go up on the roofs of Versailles to shoot at all the feral cats that lived around the palace (this seemed so extraordinary to me I had to put it in the novel). Louis XVI was not a good king and was often paralyzed with indecision, but also he never expected to be king, his father and brother died before him and so he, unhappily I think, found himself on the throne. Some characters in the book are made up. Jacques Beauvisage (christened by cruel nuns) is a street urchin, an orphan, a frequenter of public executions, and he acts as the human guard dog to the waxworks house in the novel – I tried to make him represent all the bloodiest aspects of Paris at the time. To have the Revolution appear even closer to Marie, I had Jacques be one of the principal actors in the September Massacres where priests and monks were murdered by the hundreds. Suddenly, the Revolution had come home to Marie at the waxworks, formerly they were merely observers but now one of their number was taking part.

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Photo by Daniel Frank on Pexels.com

Leslie Lindsay:

There’s no getting around the macabre. And it is Halloween after all, so let’s talk about the guillotine for a moment.  And those murders and severed heads in Marie’s lap. Of course, this scene is quite visceral. What two or three scenes stand out in your mind as some of the most memorable?

Edward Carey:

The first (in chronological order) would be the bloody head of the Comte de Launay, Governor of the Bastille. When the prison was stormed de Launay was killed by the mob and his head severed from his body. This was no neatly sliced neck delivered by the guillotine but rather one that was hacked about and then thrust on a pike. I thought of the shock of that, a human head so misplaced, and Marie being forced by the mob to cast it. The second would be the king’s head after his execution, now Marie had in her lap the head of someone she actually knew, and so she must have been both tender with it but also revolted. The third is Jean Paul Marat murdered in his bath. Marat, who was one of the most fanatical and vile of the personalities of the French Revolution, suffered from a bad skin complaint and to soothe this he sat in a slipper bath and worked as he bathed. Charlotte Corday, a beautiful woman from Cannes, pretended to give him information on enemies of the state, instead she thrust a knife into his chest. It was an unusually hot summer at the time and Marat’s body began to decompose with alarming rapidity. Jacques Louis David, great painter and Robespierre’s chief propagandist, wanted to eternalize this ‘martyr’ in oil paint but the body was disintegrating too fast. And so Marie was ordered to cast the body so that it might be preserved and so that he could paint it after Marie had cast it in wax. She did as she was told (which can’t have been pleasant) and the two Marat portraits were in the end strikingly different. Marie’s shows a pock-marked man with sallow skin and mouth and eyes open, the body twisted in agony. David’s shows a beautiful Christ-like figure at peace.

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Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Leslie Lindsay:

I could probably ask questions all day, but we both have other things to do. What might I have asked, but may have forgotten?

Edward Carey:

I just want to add, if I may, that this is a fictional account of Marie Tussaud’s life. She took liberties with her own autobiography and embellished her story, this gave me the freedom to invent also. The novel is a dark fairytale about history and being dragged into it, but also it’s two love stories (Marie had two enormous loves in her life) and, most of all, it’s a survivor’s tale. About how a small foreign girl managed, despite everything, to walk through a bloodbath and to come out on top in a very masculine world. To me Tussaud is an almost fantastical person, a kind of small, beautiful sprite, a mythical figure: the little woman who collected history.

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For more information, to connect with the author via social media, or to purchase a copy of LITTLE, please visit: 

Order Links: 

IMG_0025ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Edward Carey is a writer and illustrator whose books include The Iremonger Trilogy: Heap House, Foulsham, and LungdonObservatory Mansions; and Alva & Irva: The Twins Who Saved a City. His artwork has been exhibited in Florence, Collodi, Kilkenny, Milan, London and Austin; his essays and reviews have been published in The New York Times, The Guardian, The Observer, Corriere della Serra, La Repubblica, and other places. In addition to his own work, he illustrates other writers, including Bill Wittliff and Jessica Frances Kane. His new novel, Little, is published by Riverhead.

You can connect with me, Leslie Lindsay, via these websites: 

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[Cover and author image courtesy of the author and used with permission. Color illustration retrieved from Edward Carey’s Twitter account and is his original art. Artistic photo of book cover from L.Lindsay’s personal archives and can be viewed via Instagram @LeslieLindsay1]

Does our environment shape us? Mindy Mejia is here chatting about the pull of setting and how it can shape or destroy, loss, reinvention & more in LEAVE NO TRACE

By Leslie Lindsay

The mysterious disappearance of a father and his 9-year-old son into the Minnesota wilderness and then the return of that son a decade later on grief, abandonment, family, and more. Mindy Mejia is here chatting about her newest book, LEAVE NO TRACE (Emily Bestler Books/Simon & Schuster, October 2018).

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Mindy Mejia’s 2017 domestic thriller, EVERYTHING YOU WANT ME TO BE introduced gritty small-town secrets and the precarious Hattie Hoffman, sending readers in search of ambition, obsession, and the elusive one-day read.

She’s back with another compelling thriller, this time set in the wilderness of Minnesota’s Boundary Waters Canoe Area.

Maya Stark is 23-years old and beginning her career as a speech pathologist at Congdon Psychiatric Facility. Her boss/mentor, Dr. Mehta suggests Maya work with the young ‘back-from-the-dead’ Lucas Blackthorn, who, after ten years of missing (presumed dead) in the wild of Minnesota is back, largely non-verbal and fighting demons. Maya isn’t sure. She’s young and relatively inexperienced.

Yet Maya has secrets, too. Her mother abandoned she and her father years ago and she’s had a series of run-ins with the law. And might Dr. Mehta be more than just her boss?

The prose is gorgeous and alternates in POV, reading much like a slow-burn mystery: why did the father and son disappear? Where have they been all this time? But these other elements meld to bring a more complex narrative to the table. There’s love and loss, family ties, friendship, all wrapped in the tender, delicate cocoon of the fragile shell of Minnesota’s wilderness.

Mindy Mejia spins a tender tale with an ending that is ultimately intrinsically serendipitous and I am thrilled to welcome her to the author interview series.

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Photo by Rudolf Jakkel on Pexels.com

Leslie Lindsay:

Mindy, thanks so much for popping over. I’m always so intrigued with books set in Minnesota, maybe because I lived there for awhile, maybe something else. Can you tell us why this book, why this setting?

Mindy Mejia:

This book was inspired by a story I read about a father who escaped the Vietnam War with his infant son and they lived in the jungle, completely cut off from the human world, for forty years. I’m a Minnesotan and the US Midwest is the landscape in my head, so one of my first reactions was to wonder if something like that could happen here. And the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness was the first place that came to mind.

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Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Leslie Lindsay:

LEAVE NO TRACE is a complex, multilayered narrative, dredging up pieces from the past, secrets, and mental health issues. But there’s more: friendship, love, loss, and the wilderness (which almost becomes its own character). At the core, LEAVE NO TRACE seems to be a novel of re-invention and rehabilitation. Can you talk about that, please?

Mindy Mejia:

Both of the main characters in this book have lost their parents in some way, and that shared sense of loss is what initially draws them together. My mother was very sick when I was a child, and I grew up in constant fear of losing her. The first story I wrote when I was five years old was a detailed account of her death and funeral, which naturally got me sent straight to the school guidance counselor. Crime writing, for me, is a way to write into my deepest fears, to walk straight into that worst case scenario, because by writing into it I can write past it and process the fear. That’s where we see the re-invention and rehabilitation. There’s no way for Maya and Lucas to avoid these devastating losses, but they have to dig into themselves and discover how to survive them.


“Mejia’s thrilling tale works both as an engaging mystery and a haunting meditation on grief, abandonment, and the lost places within ourselves. Brutal, devastating, and utterly riveting.”

~Kirkus Reviews (starred review)


Leslie Lindsay:

Your first book, THE DRAGON KEEPER, was published by Ashland Creek Press. I’ve read some of their books and have always loved the environmentalist approach, the soft touches of nature. Do you consider yourself an ‘eco-fiction’ writer?

Mindy Mejia:

I love their catalog too! It is eco-fiction, but that’s such a broad category—more of a guiding principle than a genre. Ashland Creek Press offers books for every reader: mysteries, YA, thrillers, romance, and short story and nonfiction as well. In my own approach as a writer, I’ve always viewed setting—which is both the natural and constructed world, the entire ecosystem of our lives—as greater than character. Setting plays a foundational force, it can allow a character to flourish or it can destroy them. Sometimes my characters are oblivious to this, but I never am.

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Photo by invisiblepower on Pexels.com

Leslie Lindsay:

I dog-eared a page where you talked about other families who cordoned themselves off from society. The Ho Van’s, Chris McCandless of Alaska, Christophe Knight, and the Lykovs. Can you tell us a little about them—and your research in general?

Mindy Mejia:

As I mentioned, the Ho Vans were my initial inspiration for the book and soon afterward someone told me about the Lykovs of Siberia, another family whose lives were in danger in the 1930’s. They escaped to the taiga and lived out their lives in that endless subarctic forest. When I was researching these families, their stories seemed to have a fundamentally different narrative than the accounts of individuals who had left society, such as the Grizzly Man and Alexander Supertramp. Those individuals sought freedom from the constraints of human society, but these families—the Lykovs and the Ho Vans—were afraid for their lives. Their stories were about sacrifice and love; these parents gave up the world to keep their children safe. Maya discovers these stories as she’s trying to find a way to connect with Lucas, and she realizes something must have similarly driven the Blackthorns out of the human world, and that becomes the central mystery of the book.

Leslie Lindsay:

The page is blank. What’s calling to you and how do you fill your time when you’re between projects?

Mindy Mejia:

I’m working on my next book right now, which combines accounting and kickboxing! When I’m between novels and the page is truly blank, I like to work on side projects. I’m planning a blog series right now called Tax Advice for Writers, since I’m also a CPA, in order to help my fellow authors handle the business end of their writing. I also review books, read as much as possible, and catch up on administrative stuff. After I finished LEAVE NO TRACE and was waiting on my editor’s comments, I wrote a 20,000-word piece of fan fiction just to blow off some steam. I’ve never done that before and it was embarrassingly fun.

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Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Leslie Lindsay:

Mindy, it’s been a pleasure. Is there anything I should have asked, but may have forgotten?

Mindy Mejia:

I can’t think of anything. Thank you so much for letting me share a bit about LEAVE NO TRACE! It’s been lovely chatting!

For more information, to connect with the author via social media, or to purchase a copy of LEAVE NO TRACE, please visit: 

Order Links:

Mindy MejiaABOUT THE AUTHOR: Mindy Mejia is an internationally acclaimed thriller writer whose work has been translated into over twenty languages. She’s the author of THE DRAGON KEEPER and EVERYTHING YOU WANT ME TO BE, which was a People’s Best New Books Pick and listed in The Wall Street Journal’s Best New Mysteries. Her latest novel, LEAVE NO TRACE, is on sale now. You can find out more at MindyMejia.com.

You can connect with me, Leslie Lindsay, via these websites:

LOVE IT? SHARE IT!

#Minnesota #BWCA #amreading #authorinterview #fiction 

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[Cover and author image courtesy of Emily Bestler Books/Simon Schuster and used with permission. LEAVE NO TRACE cover image with ‘read’ from L.Lindsay’s personal archives and can be retrieved via her Instagram account @LeslieLindsay1]

 

 

Fragile 9-year-old boy misses his mother dearly in THE BOY AT THE KEYHOLE, plus Stephen Giles talks about writing for adults vs. kids, his love for isolated homes, more

By Leslie Lindsay

Sinister and intense story of melancholy and loneliness with an imaginative 9-year-old boy at the center in THE BOY AT THE KEYHOLE. Plus, it’s just been picked up by New Agency for film! 

Stephen Giles is here chatting about his love for country homes, his distaste for the dentist, and how he misses an old cubby house  in the backyard when he was a kid. 

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Locked doors. An atlas. Attics. Cellar. England. Mystery and, maybe murder. 

Samuel Clay is living in a crumbling old estate in England with his housekeeper, Ruth Tupper. He’s missing his mother terribly, who has ‘gone away’ to America for the last 119 days (he’s been keeping count). Mrs. Clay is now widowed and the family’s finances have fallen to disarray–perhaps there’s some money or bankers in American who will help her get the ‘capital she needs.’ What’s worse, is Samuel’s mother left in the middle of the night, without so much as a word of good-bye to her son, leaving him in the care of the housekeeper.

Beyond sporadic postcards from his mother in America, Samuel hears virtually nothing of his mother. He’s lonely, yet highly imaginative and inquisitive. Samuel’s only friend is Joseph and a little rabbit in the garden he calls Robin Hood.

THE BOY AT THE KEYHOLE is a precarious dance between truth and perception, childhood and adulthood, ‘there’ and ‘not-there,’ and so much more.

I found the writing absolutely glimmered. I was immediately thrust into this drab world created by Stephen Giles and wanted to know what happened to Samuel’s mother. This is a perfect, swiftly-paced novel for this dreary time of year as we become a little more turned inward, a little more contemplative, and the fear of little deaths around.

Please join me in welcoming Stephen Giles to the author interview series.

Leslie Lindsay:

Stephen, it’s a pleasure. I always want to know—what question were you hoping to answer in THE BOY AT THE KEYHOLE—and did the answer satisfy or lead to more questions?

Stephen Giles:

This is such an interesting question. I suppose the most elemental question I had to ask myself was  why. I had the basic plot outlined and I knew where I was heading but I didn’t know all the whys. Why did Samuel’s mother go away? Why is the housekeeper Ruth the way she is? Why is Samuel so psychologically fragile, so fixated on his mother’s absence? The wonderful thing about questions like these is that they often lead you into places that take you by surprise and demand more of the narrative and that is incredibly exciting for a writer. I think ultimately I was satisfied by the questions though there is no doubt that this is a story that throws up more questions than concrete answers. Rather like life, it seems to me.

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Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Leslie Lindsay:

I understand this is your first book for adults. In what ways do the forms differ? Plus, I can see a nice cross-over between readership. I’d imagine some ambitious YA readers might be intrigued. Can you speak to that, please?

Stephen Giles:

I think the primary difference between adult and middle grade fiction is one of tone. My middle grade books were primarily comic adventures and writing for a readership of 9 – 12-year-olds informs both the type of story I am telling and the way I tell it. So the tone is light and breezy. The challenge with writing my first book for adults with a child as one of the main protagonists, was telling a much darker and very adult story through the eyes of nine year old boy. Your observation about the book crossing over into YA is very interesting and I did wonder about that as I was finishing the book. It’s always hard to know what will appeal to YA readers but I’d be delighted if that happened.


“A fiendishly efficient, gorgeously written, nasty little thrill ride of a psychological thriller. I couldn’t put it down, and it’s entirely possible that I’ll never sleep again. A true tour-de-force of a debut novel.”

—Lyndsay Faye, author of The Gods of Gotham and Jane Steele 


Leslie Lindsay:

I’m a sucker for old homes, estates, mansions…you name it! Was the house in THE BOY AT THE KEYHOLE modeled after any actual estate? Did you play around with setting, or was it always to be set in England?

Stephen Giles:

I’m a sucker for isolated country houses too and I’ve written one into every book I’ve ever written which is probably a little excessive. The house in THE BOY AT THE KEYHOLE wasn’t modeled on any particular estate, it only lives in my imagination, but I’m sure it was informed by countless 19th century novels like JANE EYRE or UNCLE SILAS. In terms of the English setting, I did toy with a few other locations including the Hudson Valley but having just finished a middle grade trilogy set largely in England, I felt more comfortable sticking with the same setting. Which is incredibly lazy!

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Leslie Lindsay:

Samuel is a 9-year-old boy longing for his mother. But also his father’s old toys and things are in the attic—which he sometimes drags down into the house to play with. Is there anything from your childhood that you long for, even occasionally—and what is it exactly about these old things that stirs such nostalgia?

Stephen Giles:

It’s not a toy but the house I grew up in had a cubby house in a far corner of the backyard – it was a ramshackle structure that was barely standing but it had a blackboard along one wall and a bunch of old discarded bits and pieces and I spend countless hours playing there. I can still picture it in great detail and sometimes as the adult world crowds in on me, I long for the simplicity and comfort of that cubby house. I think the power of old things or old memories is that they are assure us that there once were better days or less complicated times. Which probably says more about the deceptively warm glow of nostalgia than anything else.

Leslie Lindsay:

What’s on your to-do list this week? What are you most looking forward to and dreading? It doesn’t have to be literary.

Stephen Giles:

This week I have a bunch of interviews to get through in my hometown and I’m also up to my neck in writing a new book, so that is where my real focus is. I’m most looking forward to seeing Crazy Rich Asians and catching up on my reading. I’m dreading the dentist and the feeling of utter defeat at week’s end when I realize I’ve failed yet again to live mindfully or be even slightly in the moment.

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Photo by Stephen Paris on Pexels.com

Leslie Lindsay:

Stephen, it’s been a pleasure. What question should I have asked, but may have forgotten?

Stephen Giles:

I’ve enjoyed all of your questions, so thank you. What should you have asked me? Well, if you were like every other interviewer on the planet you would have asked me what advice I would give to aspiring writers. And as I’m never sure how to answer that adequately, I’m very glad you didn’t!

For more information, to connect with the author via social media, or to purchase a copy of THE BOY IN THE KEYHOLE, please visit:

Order Links: 

31kedQKjMqL._US230_ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Stephen Giles is the author behind the Ivy Pocket children’s series, which has been translated into twenty-five languages. He lives in Australia. The Boy at the Keyhole, now out from Hanover Square Books, is his first work for adults.

You can connect with me, Leslie Lindsay, via these websites: 

 

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Debut Novelist Julie Clark talks about science, motherhood, love, and so much more in her dazzling good read, THE ONES WE CHOOSE

By Leslie Lindsay 

Shattering original and beautifully written book about secrets, science, DNA, mothers, and the trauma of our ancestors living in each and every one of us. THE ONES WE CHOOSE is such a glimmering debut by an author to watch. 

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You’ll read Julie Clark’s debut and think, “this woman has got to be a scientist,” but she’s not. She’s a 5th grade teacher and mother, and while those skills and traits come through in THE ONES WE CHOOSE, it’s her effortless blend of genetics that made me swoon.

Geneticist Paige Robson is struggling. She’s always had everything together, until her son starts asking about his biological dad. Eight-year old Miles was conceived via sperm donor and while he knows this, he can’t help but feel disconnected. He doesn’t fit in with the other children at school, who all seem to have active, engaged fathers. Plus, Paige’s romantic life isn’t all that great (she has difficultly being open), and her father has just returned; attempting to make up for lost time.


“How could I not love a debut about science, secrets, DNA, and how the traumas of our ancestors still live within our very cells? With gorgeous prose, and a deep emotional resonance, The Ones We Choose is about the science of love, how our DNA shapes us, and a mother’s fierce battle to protect her son while confronting what really makes our identity ours, what and who we choose to let in, and what and who we don’t.  An absolutely dazzling, profound ruby of a novel.”

– Caroline Leavitt, New York Times bestselling author of PICTURES OF YOU and CRUEL BEAUTIFUL WORLD 


I was so taken with the breadth of science explored in this work of literary fiction, but don’t worry–it’s all infused with a gentle, almost conversational tone 
(ala Jodi Piccoult style) making for a rich, engaging read. I’m an R.N. by training (it’s been years and years and I no longer practice), but I found the information presented in THE ONES WE CHOOSE riveting(and in some cases, new to me) and so enjoyed this piece of the narrative.

I found the piece of artificial insemination fascinating–I don’t know anyone who has gone through this process and so have always been curious as to how it works. THE ONES WE CHOOSE will give the reader a fictional account of one woman’s experience.

Seriously, a fabulous, well-written, thoughtful debut about mothers, science, love, secrets, and ancestors. 

Please join me in welcoming Julie to the author interview series.

Leslie Lindsay:

Julie, welcome! I am so in awe of your debut. I know you didn’t start out writing a book about genetics—you really knew nothing about it—but lo and behold, your character is a geneticist. What was the jumping-off point for you on this narrative and why science?

Julie Clark:

First, thank so much for reading and inviting me onto your blog today! The idea that my main character, Paige, would be a geneticist evolved slowly. At first, she was a manager of a dog rescue! But the more I wrote scenes between Paige and her son, Miles, the more I realized that this is a story of genetics…the things we pass down to our children. And that there are many people in the world – whether conceived via donor or adopted – who don’t have access to this information. The first thing I did was to start reading about genetics, and find myself an expert in the field.

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Photo by Life Of Pix on Pexels.com

Leslie Lindsay:

You’re a 5th grade teacher and a mother to two boys. This definitely comes through in THE ONES WE CHOOSE; how did those experiences and roles inform your writing? Or did they? In fact, there’s a section on the book in which Paige is chatting with her friend, Jackie about being a working mother and says, “In fact, I think I’m a better mother because Miles sees me following my passion. He watches me set goals and achieve them.” Can you talk about that, please?

Julie Clark:

Well, I love my job as a teacher. It’s the perfect balance to writing. It allows me to get out of my head and focus on something bigger than myself, bigger than my books or my writing career. Working with students every day reminds me of the obligation we all have to invest in future generations. And teaching really prepared me for writing a book about genetics. My job requires me to constantly take complex concepts and break them down into pieces that others can easily understand. In writing my genetics chapters, I relied heavily upon those skills.

Leslie Lindsay:

The research you most have done to craft such a well-rounded (and informed!) narrative must have been daunting. What was your process like? Did you enjoy the research?

Julie Clark:

I really did enjoy it! As I said earlier, I spent a lot of time reading up on genetics and ancestry. I also connected with a geneticist, Dr. James West, at Vanderbilt who was so generous with his time, answering emails, chatting on the phone, over the course of two years. The genetics chapters came late in the game, and originally I only had about four or five. My editor at Gallery wanted something between each chapter, so I just sat down and started making a list of everything I could think of: chromosomes, DNA, cells, the genome…and once I got that list, I started thinking about how Paige might think about those topics, in relation to what was going on with her at the time. Some of the chapters are more narrative, others are short and informative. But overall, they were a lot of fun to write.

Leslie Lindsay:

The oxytocin inhibitor gene in men…is that a real thing? Can you tell us more about its appearance in THE ONES WE CHOOSE?

Julie Clark:

What is real: Oxytocin is a bonding hormone. Both mothers and fathers produce massive amounts of it at the birth of a child. What isn’t real: an inhibitor gene that precludes some men from releasing it. I worked closely with Dr. West to figure out the best way to present this…and he assures me that while such a thing doesn’t exist to our knowledge, that doesn’t mean it’s not possible.

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Leslie Lindsay:

And the whole piece of artificial insemination is so fascinating. I’ve been curious about the process before, but never had any reason to look into it or knew anyone who had gone through it. How did this piece work its way into the novel for you?

Julie Clark:

This was the jumping off point for me for the entire book. I wanted to write about a single mother, because I’m a single mother. But I wanted a different take on it. I wanted to write about someone who chose it for herself, deliberately and lovingly. I have many friends who have used a donor to conceive their child/children, and I wanted to see their families represented.

Leslie Lindsay:

What do you feel you did ‘right’ as a first time novelist and what do you wished you had done better or known more about? Can anyone truly prepare for the task?

Julie Clark:

The best thing I did was to allow myself to enjoy the process, and not get caught up in the details. I was writing my second book throughout most of that time, and that really helped keep me grounded in the belief that while I wanted THE ONES WE CHOOSE to do well, it wasn’t going to be my only book. This is what prepares you for the task of releasing a book – keeping focused on doing it again.

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Photo by rawpixel.com on Pexels.com

Leslie Lindsay:

What’s keeping you awake at night? It doesn’t have to be literary. [But if it is, ignore the next question]

Julie Clark:

I sleep pretty well! I feel so fortunate to have had such a great experience with such an amazing team. If I’m awake at night, it’s because I’m feeling grateful.

Leslie Lindsay:

What’s next for you?

Julie Clark:

I’m working on revisions for my second book, tentatively titled WHEN I KNEW YOU. But most of that is under wraps for the time being!

Leslie Lindsay:

Julie, it’s been wonderful. Is there anything I should have asked, but may have forgotten?

Julie Clark:

Thank you so much for having me on the blog! I’m so glad you loved THE ONES WE CHOOSE, and thank you for reading!

For more information, to connect with the author via social media, or to purchase a copy of THE ONES WE CHOOSE, please visit: 

Order Links:

Julie Clark Photograph by Eric A. Reid PhotogtaphyABOUT THE AUTHOR:  Born and raised in Santa Monica, California, Julie Clark grew up reading books on the beach while everyone else surfed. After attending college at University of the Pacific, and a brief stint working in the athletic department at University of California, Berkeley, she returned home to Santa Monica to teach. She now lives there with her two young sons and a golden doodle with poor impulse THE ONES WE CHOOSE is her first novel.

 

 

 

You can connect with me, Leslie Lindsay, via these social media platforms: 

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[Cover and author image courtesy of Gallery Books/Simon & Schuster and used with permission] 

 

T. Greenwood transforms the true-crime story that inspired Nabokov’s LOLITA in this this shattering gorgeous novel, RUST & STARDUST

By Leslie Lindsay 

Darkly brilliant imagined rendering of Florence “Sally” Horner and her mysterious disappearance in 1948 at the hands of a ‘moral abuser,’ RUST AND STARDUST glitters. She’s here chatting about her charming Golden Retriever, Phoebe, the rabbit hole of research, how she cranked out the first draft of RUST & STARDUST in only a month (and then revised for many more), and so much else.

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It’s 1948 in Camden, New Jersey when shy, lonely, awkward Florence “Sally” Horner is given a dare from a group of girls to steal something from a Woolworths. She’s desperate to join their club and so goes along with them. Just as she’s leaving the store, a man (Frank LaSalle) grabs her and catches her stealing. He says he’s with the FBI and she must go to their headquarters to confess her sins. But really, Frank LaSalle is fresh out of prison.

As the story unfolds, Frank’s lies become deeper and more brutal. Sally is scared but feels she has no way out of her situation. He takes her from Camden to the shore, Baltimore, Dallas, and California. RUST & STARDUST is a true story that has been fictionalized by the author to give it a novel appeal.

And so you wonder…the connection between this book and Nabakov’s LOLITA? The way I understand it, Nabakov was struggling with the manuscript that would eventually become LOLITA while Sally’s case was exposed in the media. It caught his attention and inspired characters in his book.

RUST & STARDUST is gritty but not obscene. Greenwood takes a gentle hand with the brutal aspects of physical, emotional, and sexual abuse in the narrative. Readers get a sense of what is going on, but never is it blatant. Her words flow and glimmer and while the tale is disturbing, I felt such a soft spot for Sally and worried for her fate.

Greenwood’s research and intrigue with the case is evident in these pages, but so, too is her imagination. We ‘meet’ a colorful cast of characters, including a traveling circus at The Good Luck Motor Court in Texas as well as migrant workers in a citrus field in California. I found I simply could not put this book down. The chapters are short and told from the POV of several characters fully bringing the narrative–and Sally–to life.

Please join me in welcoming the lovely Tammy Greenwood back to the author interview series.

Leslie Lindsay:

Oh, this book! It’s shattering and gorgeous and ruinous and everything else. I know you researched this story for over two years. But I have to ask—what prompted your interest?

T. Greenwood:

I was introduced to Sally Horner as a teenager when I read Lolita for the first time, though I didn’t realize it. A reference to her is embedded in one of Nabokov’s famous parentheticals: (Had I done to Dolly, perhaps, what Frank Lasalle, a fifty-year-old mechanic, had done to eleven-year-old Sally Horner in 1948?). It wasn’t until nearly twenty-five years later when I read an essay by crime writer, Sarah Weinman on Sally (and the connection to Lolita), that I encountered her again. Sally’s story, the tragedy of it, resonated with me, and I tumbled down the rabbit hole of research.

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Photo by Mikes Photos on Pexels.com

Leslie Lindsay:

Can you lead us into your research a bit? Where did you start and how did you stop yourself from getting too entrenched and still allow the fiction to flow?

T. Greenwood:

I began by looking at every archived newspaper article I could find about the kidnapping. I also studied genealogy sites and census records to determine familial relationships and addresses and occupations of her family members. I haunted obituaries.

This novel covers a large geographical terrain; La Salle took Sally from Camden, N.J. to Atlantic City to Baltimore, then on to Dallas and eventually San Jose. In the 1970s when I was a little girl, my family often drove to Atlantic City in the summer, where I performed (singing and dancing) on the Steel Pier. I have always wanted to write about this old Atlantic City, and so the fact that Frank and Sally spent time there felt almost serendipitous to me. I did a tremendous amount of research about Camden. (I am forever indebted to a marvelous historical website) I read extensively about the neighborhood in Baltimore where she was enrolled at a Catholic School. I also studied the history of their Dallas neighborhood, discovering that the traveling circus often stayed at their trailer park when they were passing through town. I also learned about a neighboring night club which was host to a shady cast of characters at that time. And then, when I had exhausted every resource I could find, I gave myself permission to fill in the blanks. I dreamed up the rest – including several characters. I tried to stay as true to the facts that I did know, but exercised my full creative license in imagining what life must have been like for Sally during this ordeal, as well as for those she left behind.

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Leslie Lindsay: 

You chose to tell RUST & STARDUST from the POV from several characters—Sally, her sister, Susan, brother-in-law Al, her mother Ella. I like this because it gave me a sense of what was going on ‘back home,’ when Sally was in the grips of Frank. Was this telling deliberate on your part, or did it arise organically?

T. Greenwood:

At first the story belonged almost exclusively to these characters. For the first couple of drafts, I wrote around Sally. I think it was too daunting and scary to inhabit her consciousness given all that she went through. But I knew I needed to go there eventually, and when I finally did, I realized that while the narrative was kaleidoscopic, that Sally was always that bright bit of light at the center.

Leslie Lindsay:

I have an eleven-year-old daughter. I think you once mentioned that your youngest daughter was eleven when you started RUST & STARDUST. How did that affect your telling of this story?

T. Greenwood:

I think it was, in part, what drew me to her. Eleven is a magical age. It’s that odd cusp between childhood and adolescence. Everything about eleven is fragile. I wanted to capture that in Sally’s character. Of course, Sally isn’t nearly as savvy as my own twenty-first century daughter – the book opens in 1948 – but there were more similarities than differences, I think: that longing to fit in, that push and pull with her mother, that precarious innocence.

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Photo by Fancycrave.com on Pexels.com

Leslie Lindsay:

Ella, the mother of Sally…I think she had a really tough, bitter life. Not only had she been widowed twice, but she suffered from rheumatoid arthritis and scraped by on her sewing and piecework. And then this awful thing happens to Sally. Can you tell us a little more about her character? Do you think she had any psychiatric issues?

T. Greenwood:

It’s important to state first that Ella’s character is fictional. I was inspired by what I knew about her (her occupation, her economic status, her having been widowed by a man who committed suicide). But everything else I gleaned solely from the multiple photographs I located of her and the brief commentary that she offered to the various reporters who interviewed her.

One of the most difficult aspects of this story for people (myself included) to understand is how Ella could have put her daughter on a bus with a stranger. And so, my biggest challenge was creating a character and a scenario in which this would be plausible.

In 2015, I was diagnosed with psoriatic arthritis (the symptoms of which are exactly like rheumatoid arthritis). For nearly six months, before my rheumatologist found a medication that worked, I was in crippling pain. Chronic pain is not only physically but mentally debilitating. Pain becomes, quite literally, a cage inside which you exist. I knew right away, that I wanted Ella to be inordinately preoccupied – by grief, by financial struggles, and by physical pain. It was the only way I could justify – to myself anyway – the ease with which Frank was able to snatch her child right out from under her.

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Leslie Lindsay:

I understand there’s a true crime book coming out this September about the ‘real’ LOLITA. Sarah Weinman THE REAL LOLITA: The Kidnapping of Sally Horner and the Novel that Scandalized the World, Ecco]. Are you familiar with it? I so fell in love with Sally through RUST & STARDUST, I feel I’ve got to read it. Thoughts? Also, can you tell us more about that LOLITA connection?

T. Greenwood:

Yes. At the time that I read Weinman’s essay, I was unaware that she had plans to write a book-length non-fiction account of Sally’s life (and her ordeal’s influence on Nabokov). I actually found out about Weinman’s book proposal just as I preparing to submit my own for publication. I worried a little that there would be no need for two books about Sally. However, in the end, I think they are nice companion pieces. Weinman’s research is comprehensive. She interviewed surviving family members and others who knew Sally, and her book provides an ample overview of the crime. She also explores the connection between Sally’s ordeal and LOLITA as well as Nabokov’s reluctance to acknowledge this influence. But while our agendas are similar – to give a voice to this forgotten child – our respective approaches are fundamentally different. She is a journalist, and I am a novelist. THE REAL LOLITA is a work of reportage, RUST & STARDUST is not true crime, but a fictional rendering of this crime. My hope is that my work not only offers information about Sally’s life, but – through Sally – touches on the larger themes of vulnerability and abuse, of motherhood, and of survival. My goal has always been to offer the reader a glimpse inside what it must have been like for Sally and those who loved her. I would say, if you don’t want to know what happens to Sally, you might want to wait to read the factual accounts of her life until after reading the novel so as not to spoil anything.


“Greenwood’s glowing dark ruby of a novel brilliantly transforms the true crime story that inspired Nabokov’s Lolita. Shatteringly original and eloquently written, Rust and Stardust is a lot about how what we believe to be true can shape or ruin a life, and the bright lure of innocence pitted against the murk of evil. So ferociously suspenseful, I found myself holding my breath, and so gorgeous and so unsettling in all the roads it might have taken, I kept rereading pages.” 

—Caroline Leavitt, New York Times bestselling author of Pictures of You and Cruel Beautiful World


Leslie Lindsay:

Can you tell us a bit about your writing routines and rituals? Any cute dog stories?  Mine is curled up under my desk. She thinks she’s helping…

T. Greenwood:

Mine (Phoebe – a golden retriever) is curled up next to me right now! When I am working on a book, I wake up early (5:30 or so) and after grabbing a cup of coffee go straight to my home office. I try to avoid email and social media (try being the operative word) and just begin working. I only write for a couple of hours each morning, and then have the rest of the day to do all those other things I need to do: teaching, researching or reading, and driving back and forth to my daughters’ school and the ballet studio where my oldest daughter spends most of her time. I like to write my first drafts rather quickly – usually in four to six weeks. The revision process is the agonizing and lengthy one for me. I wrote the first draft of RUST & STARDUST in a month. And then I revised it for another eighteen months.

Leslie Lindsay:

What’s on your fall reading list?

T. Greenwood:

Probably all those books I didn’t get around to this summer. I am researching a new book, which means lots of reading for that project. But I am looking forward to playing catch up: A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara is on my list, as is The Summer I Met Jack by Michelle Gable, The Mars Room by Rachel Kushner, Sold on a Monday by Kristina McMorris, and Self-Portrait with Boy by Rachel Lyon. Those are just a few in an enormous, teetering stack.

Leslie Lindsay:

Tammy, it’s been a pleasure, as always. Is there anything I should have asked, but may have forgotten?

T. Greenwood:

Only, “What next?”! My next book,  KEEPING LUCY, will be out next August. I won’t say too much about it yet – except that it explores the lengths to which a mother will go for her child. It’s also about one woman’s staking claim to her own life. Like RUST & STARDUST it’s a period piece – this time set in 1971. The novel begins in a tony Boston suburb and ends at a roadside mermaid show in Weeki Wachee, Florida.

For more information, to connect with the author via social media, or to purchase a copy of RUST & STARDUST, please visit: 

Order Links:

  • Amazon
  • Barnes & Noble
  • BAM!
  • IndieBound
  • iBooks

TAMMYABOUT THE AUTHOR: T. GREENWOOD’s novels have sold over 250,000 copies. She has received grants from the Sherwood Anderson Foundation, Christopher Isherwood Foundation, National Endowment for the Arts, and the Maryland State Arts Council. Her novel Bodies of Water was a 2014 Lambda Literary Awards Finalist; Two Rivers and Grace were each named Best General Fiction Book at the San Diego Book Awards, and Where I Lost Her was a Globe and Mail bestseller in 2016. Greenwood lives with her family in San Diego.

 

 

 

You can connect with me, Leslie Lindsay, via these websites:

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[Cover and author image courtesy of St. Martin’s Press and used with permission]. 

 

The horrific reality of cybercrime, property fraud, and so much more in OUR HOUSE from brilliant UK author Louise Candlish

By Leslie Lindsay 

What if you were to come home and find your beloved home was being emptied of all its belongings and new owners were moving in? That’s what OUR HOUSE sets out to discover. Plus, Louise talks about how sometimes our demise is at our own hand, writing herself into ‘knots and tears,’ and being published for the first time in the U.S.

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I’m a big sucker for books about houses. Seriously, two of my favorite things. So when I stumbled upon OUR HOUSE (Berkley, August 7 2018), I knew I had to read it. I’m new to Louise Candlish, too and her writing is quite beautiful and darkly brilliant, well-plotted, and compelling.

Fiona (Fi) and Bram are at the end of their marriage. Bram has been unfaithful one too many times and Fi is done. But what about the kids and their beautiful home in a desirable London suburb? They couldn’t possibly sell it and split the family, send the boys to a different school. So Fi devises a plan to keep the house and the family as intact as possible in the bird’s nest arrangement: the children will stay in the home and the parents will take turns caring for the boys in the house (while the other parent stays in a nearby flat). Everyone is in agreement that this is the best possible scenario.

But. 

Fi comes home from a few days away with her new beau and lo and behold, there’s a moving van out front, a new couple giddy with their purchase. This couldn’t be happening…could it?

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We hear both sides of the story via Bram (Word Document) and a podcast from Fi
 so it’s a bit ‘he-said, she said;’ plus there are as interspersed newspaper articles, and yet still such a mystery. This technique lends to the overall frantic feel of the narrative.

Overall, OUR HOUSE is a very fresh, darkly disturbing, brilliantly plotted domestic
suspense about property fraud, murder, adultery, secrets/lies, double-crossing, and so much more. The killer ending is a fast-paced rush to the finish line.

Please join me in conversation with Louise.

L.L.: Louise, it’s great to have you! First, the cover is stunning and the writing very gripping, but before we get to all that, what was your inspiration when you set out to write OUR HOUSE?

Louise Candlish: Thank you for having me! The main source of inspiration for the book was the increasing problem of property fraud here in the UK. There’s a perfect storm of rising house prices and burgeoning cybercrime that’s truly terrifying. I wanted to write about a crime I hadn’t seen before in fiction and I knew this was it. One particular real-life case caught my eye in the Daily Mail: a woman was almost defrauded of her million-pound home by a criminal gang, one of whom had even changed her name legally to the owner’s. It was stopped at the last minute.

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Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

L.L.: I have to admit to liking the bird’s nest concept. I haven’t actually seen it in practice, but I can see the appeal. Can you tell us more about how this came to your attention? Do you know others who have done this successfully?

Louise Candlish: It’s fascinating, isn’t it? Emblematic of our age of conscious uncoupling. I read about it in the Telegraph here and a lightbulb flashed: perfect for my domestic crime set-up! It’s evidently quite a successful custody arrangement, but tends to be an informal thing (as Bram and Fi’s is), rather than a court-ordered one, so it’s impossible to quote data. I would do it myself (while keeping my passport and personal documents under lock and key, of course).

L.L.: Bram is kind of a bad-boy. He’s charming, charismatic, and well-liked by the ladies. And he has a bit of a reckless streak. At some point in the novel, there’s a passage about our undoing being completely on our own accord. Can you elaborate on that, please?

Louise Candlish: It’s so interesting that you picked up on that, because it’s one of the central concerns of the novel. What’s the difference between things going right and things going wrong? It’s one bad call, basically, one unfortunate little bit of poor judgment. Then life can spiral dangerously quickly. Of course it’s not quite that simple. There are complex links between mental health issues and crime and Bram’s got a lot going on in his head. He isn’t in a position to make a good decision.

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Photo by Joe Fitzpatrick on Pexels.com

L.L.: There are a lot of characters in OUR HOUSE, most notably Fi and Bram but also neighbors, as well as Mike and Wendy and the various storytelling techniques used [Bram’s Word Doc and Fi’s podcast]. Was there a character or technique you enjoyed more—or felt most aligned with?

Louise Candlish: I enjoyed writing Fi’s (transcribed) podcast interview, because by definition when you’re giving a interview meant for public broadcast, you have an agenda. She’s quite controlled, but then occasionally she’ll allow some emotion or grievance to burst through. That was fun to write. Bram was a different experience because his account is so raw and confessional. He made me feel quite sad. For me, their narratives exemplify one of the points the book makes: men are straightforward, their faults on the surface for all to see, whereas women are more multi-layered, more ambiguous. I had an inkling readers would find Fi irritating at times, so I used the tweets to provide some human reaction to her.

L.L.: OUR HOUSE is so intricately plotted—or at least it reads that way!—what was your process like and did you ever write yourself into a corner?

Louise Candlish: I was in corners a lot. In knots in corners, weeping. The main problem was how interconnected everything was, so every tiny alteration had its own ripple effect and I had to chase the ripples until they disappeared. It’s been interesting to see the reaction of other writers to this book: to a man (and woman), they have remarked on how hard it must have been to structure. They totally understand my pain. For the reader, of course, I hope it’s seamless!

L.L.: The page is blank. What’s calling to you now?

Louise Candlish: I’m in the late stages of my next novel, about a terrible neighbour who inspires the worst instincts in those who cross his path. Could you hate your neighbour enough to plot to kill him? If the newspapers are anything to go by, yes. I’ve yet to discuss this with anyone who doesn’t offer up a horror story of their own. Bad neighbouring is universal and yet somehow we all think we’re great neighbours. Interesting.


“A high-stakes domestic thriller that is utterly absorbing. Twists and turns abound; OUR HOUSE will have you locking your doors and checking your windows . . . Trust no one!”

HEATHER GUDENKAUF, NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLING AUTHOR OF NOT A SOUND


L.L.: What’s obsessing you these days? It doesn’t have to be literary.

Louise Candlish: I’ve always been a big tennis fan and I annually down tools for Wimbledon, but in this digital age I can watch any tournament I like – a terrible temptation. I will be one of the millions who will wear black for a month when Roger Federer retires. Same for Rafa Nadal. If they retire at the same time, well, that will be the end of me.

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Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

L.L.: Louise, it’s been a pleasure. One last question: is Alder Rise/Trinity Avenue a real place? Is there anything else I should have asked, but may have forgotten?

Louise Candlish: The pleasure is mine. No Alder Rise is fictional, but many people know I live in South East London and know certain areas better than others. Alder Rise is a composite of those areas. It’s the hidden gem with the park and the great school and the farmer’s market and the artisan bakery. These houses never come on the market (at least not to the owners’ knowledge!).

I guess you could ask what it’s like for a British author to be published for the first time in the US?

The answer: so far so delightful. So I thank you.

For more information, to connect with the author via social media, or to purchase a copy of OUR HOUSE, please visit: 

Order Links: 

Louise Candlish (c) Jonny RingABOUT THE AUTHOR: Louise Candlish attended University College London and worked as an editor in art publishing and as a copywriter before becoming a novelist. She lives with her husband and daughter.

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You can connect with me, Leslie Lindsay, via these websites: 

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[Cover and author images courtesy of Berkely and used with permission] 

Susan Henderson talks about her luminous novel, THE FLICKER OF OLD DREAMS, taking chances, her favorite movies, & writing advice

By Leslie Lindsay 

A haunting tale of a dying town, THE FLICKER OF OLD DREAMS is tender, lyrical, and poignant in a very illuminating manner about a female mortician, a horrific accident, and taking chances. Susan Henderson is here chatting about so many wonderful things it’s impossible to list them all…seriously, you want to read this interview and then you’ll run out and buy this book. It’s that good. 

TFOODcover with blurb
I was absolutely ensnared with the vivid bleakness of that swell of blue and green of the cover and then the title, THE FLICKER OF OLD DREAMS called to me from some place far away and I had to get my hands on the book. I’m so glad I did.

Susan Henderson is a writer with tremendous grace and empathy, plus she seems to really ‘get’ small town American life, the human condition, and so much more. I read this book on a driving trip through Iowa. And while the story is actually set in a dying Montana town (which goes by the fictional name of Petroleum), I couldn’t help but feel I was there, smack in the middle of this book cover.

Mary is thirty years old and the town’s female mortician. She grew up the only child of Allen (whom is mostly referred to as ‘Pop’) because her mother died in childbirth. There was no funeral home in Petroleum, so Pop studied and took classes to become certified in the art of bereavement and embalming. Mary really had no choice but to follow in her father’s footsteps. Together, they live in the funeral parlor and put the town ‘to rest.’

But years ago, before the story really begins, a horrific accident occurred at the grain elevator, killing the town’s star high school athlete. The granary is closed for good, and the train no longer stopped in town, plus the brother is blamed for the tragedy and shipped off to live elsewhere.

Please join me in welcoming the lovely Susan Henderson to the author interview series.


“This novel is so breathtakingly good, so exquisitely written. About a female mortician, about a childhood tragedy that still haunts a damaged young man, about the endless landscape and about those tiny sparks of possibility. Oh my God. Trust me. This book. This book. This Book.”

 —Caroline Leavitt, New York Times bestselling author of Cruel Beautiful World


Leslie Lindsay: Susan, I am so, so honored. First, I was so completely struck by the beauty of the prose, the obvious research you did to paint such an authentic portrait of small town life. But it came at a bit of a price. You spent an entire month living in a hotel of the town that became Petroleum. Can you tell us about that experience and was that sort of the ‘birth’ of this tale, or was it something else?

Susan Henderson: My intention with the book was to grapple with the current division in America—between those who want change and those who feel things are changing too fast, and I wanted to do that in a way that was removed from politics and might get each side listening to each other again.

So I was not trying to write about the people from this particular town. In fact, I only desired to set the story in a small, rural town, and chose to spend a month in this one because I was emotionally attached to it. It’s where my father grew up, and I knew how physically unique it was.

Of course, the real town managed to seep into the novel a good bit—particularly the tactile details of homes and weather, the sounds and rhythms of ranchers, the stark beauty of the land, the isolation from other towns and conveniences.

But this is definitely a work of fiction, this is me grappling with a conversation that has become uncivilized in the real world, so I put it into story form. I wanted to dig down deep into the grief and rage and pride of people whose identities are tied to jobs and a way of life that are slipping away. And yet there are some people in the town, and the narrator’s one of them, whose passions and dreams for themselves are not found in the town’s traditions.  My hope is that we might start to hear each other, that we might get tired of being stuck.

L.L.: While there are some elements in THE FLICKER OF OLD DREAMS that are drawn from memory and experience, it is in no way autobiographical, a memoir…yet there are so many truths in fiction. Can you talk about that, please?

Susan Henderson: Fiction is where I tell the truth.

If I were to tackle the issues of death and dying and what happens to the body in non-fiction, I would worry too much about exposing another’s privacy and harming them in some way. And that instinct to protect others would make me pull back from the hard truths and create a story that’s much too tepid for my taste.

Fiction allows me to talk about the things polite people avoid in real life. I can walk right towards rage and fear and our imperfect bodies. And whenever I need to buffer some sort of psychic pain, I can add another character or a bridge or completely imagined moment that can heal more deeply than what the non-fiction moment might offer.

The great gift of fiction is that we can see the truth more clearly when we see it from a different angle, when we can climb deeper inside the story and the characters. And when the great writers of our time are at their best, fiction can both reexamine and change the world. Think: Animal Farm, A Handmaid’s Tale, Beloved, The Lottery, Invisible Man, All the Light We Cannot See.

L.L.: Regarding truth, it’s elusive, much like the wind in THE FLICKER OF OLD DREAMS, which I noticed came up a good deal, but wasn’t overdone. We can’t see the wind, but we can feel it. We can see the devastating effects the wind can cause land, on buildings. And the wind can provide energy, motion. Did you intentionally make it a metaphor or was that something that grew organically?

Susan Henderson: When I stayed in the real town for a month, it was the wind that made me worry I might lose my mind. It was so loud, I felt like I had to shout over it. When I was inside my motel room, it crashed so hard against the room, I sometimes wondered if the windows would break. And when I walked out of that room, I felt almost tormented by it, like it was purposefully pushing me. So it just became more of a character in the book, like this mischievous soul messing with people’s hair, knocking down signs, slamming doors.

What was so clear to me while I lived there was that the weather and the land were interconnected with the lives there. It would physically change you—your skin, your hair, your ability to hear and be heard. And your isolation from other towns, from others who might help, would force you to become self-sufficient, or you simply wouldn’t survive.

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Susan took this photo while staying in the small town that would become the fictional Petroleum. And the cover. Isn’t it gorgeous?!

L.L.: Of course I have to ask about Mary’s role as an embalmer. This might make someone squeamish, but you took such a gentle, comforting approach, it didn’t bother me. Can you tell us a bit about your research to get Mary’s character ‘just right?’

Susan Henderson: So, the eventual concept of the book, was to tell the story of a dying town via a narrator who could look at death without flinching. She could take us to that conversation that’s so uncomfortable for us to have. She’s seen all manners of grief—raging against the inevitable, going submissively, pretending it’s not happening.

But this meant that I would have to learn how to run a funeral home and how to embalm dead bodies. I learned everything I could about the dead and dying, about mortician’s tools and burial practices. I learned from books and from talking with folks in the funeral and hospice industries.

And then I dreamed up Mary Crampton, kind of a quirky loner who is more comfortable with the dead. And I gave her a story line which would force her into the living world, where she is less confident. And I put her smack in the middle of the conflict I wanted to explore—between an agent of change and those who are trying with all they have to hold on to their traditions.

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Photo by rawpixel.com on Pexels.com

L.L.: In the end, the very end, you talk about your writing ‘tribe,’ how writers are a ‘bunch of introverts, misfits, observers, and deep thinkers.’ This really resonated with me as I read your words. You went on to say how we share the scars of rejection, hounding questions about how long the writing is taking, and so much more. I get it, oh, how I get it. What other writerly things have you learned along the way and how might one keep swimming?

Susan Henderson: I get as much mail about the Acknowledgments section as the book itself. I really felt like I needed to write that note to my fellow writers because it can be such a bruising business.

How to keep swimming… well, for starters, I created my website, LitPark, just for that purpose. It’s where we all share our struggles and successes and tips. I also added a new feature called Words for the Weary, where authors share their advice about surviving in this business.

Beyond that, I think the reality is that we would all have quit by now if we could or if we were being reasonable. But somehow, in spite of the rejections and the uphill climb, we keep waking up with ideas, we keep observing and eavesdropping and dreaming. What that says to me is that we’re writers. It’s in our hardwiring. For whatever reason, we’re driven to tell stories, to look closely at the world, to find music in words.

Once we realize that, there’s only one thing to do, which is to build the support we need to stay in the game. Follow the writers who are emotionally available, attend readings and greet the authors afterwards, find the nearest indie bookstore and get to know the owners. This is how we find our tribe and, some days, this will be lifesaving.


“Great sentences expounding on the complexities and fragilities of the human heart, one that echoes John Steinbeck, Flannery O’Connor, and William Faulkner.”

 —Lou Pendergrast 

on THE FLICKER OF OLD DREAMS


bright countryside dawn daylight
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

L.L.: Susan, it’s been wonderful. Is there anything I forgot to ask, but should have? Like…your summer plans, what you’re writing next, what you’re reading, what movie you last saw, or a favorite guilty pleasure?

Susan Henderson: You know, people always ask me about books but never ask for movie recommendations. Here are a few I’m looking forward to: Won’t You Be My Neighbor? (because I could use a little Mister Rogers in my life these days), American Animals (because I’ve heard it’s brilliant), and BlacKkKlansman (because I’m a crazy-huge fan of Jordan Peele and Spike Lee).

What have I seen lately that’s memorable? I loved the animation in Isle of Dogs. The movie itself is uneven but worth it for the visual artistry. Moonlight is a gorgeous coming of age story that feels like you’re watching a poem. I don’t know that I’ve ever seen a movie that felt so much like a literary masterpiece. I, Tonya surprised the hell out of me by how terribly funny, poignant, and deep it was, especially in exposing our prejudices about class. The Stanford Prison Experiment was painful to watch but a eye-opener at how quickly we are corrupted by power. I Am Not Your Negro is a documentary about my favorite writer, James Baldwin, and his words are more relevant today than ever. The Zookeeper’s Wife made me want to go home and write. And Get Out made me want to talk about it for hours because Jordan Peele is a genius at getting you to look at society and self from another angle.

For more information, to connect with the author via social media, or to purchase a copy of THE FLICKER OF OLD DREAMS, please visit:

Order Links: 

Susan_Henderson.2ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Susan Henderson is a five-time Pushcart Prize nominee and the recipient of an Academy of American Poets Prize. She is the author of two novels, The Flicker of Old Dreams and Up from the Blue, both published by HarperCollins. Susan lives in Kings Park, New York and blogs at the writer support group, LitPark.com. 

 

 

 

 

 

You can connect with me, Leslie Lindsay, via these websites: 

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#literaryfiction #smalltowns #grief #amreading #identity #ruralAmerica #mortician #funeralhome

 

[Cover and author image courtesy of HarperCollins. Image of rural fence from the archives of S. Henderson; all used with permission]