Amazing Author: Elizabeth Brundage

It's Tuesday and I am bringing you another amazing author interview courtesy of amazing author Caroline Leavitt!

Caroline is the award winning author of eight novels, most recently Girls in Trouble, which was a Booksense Selection and is now in its third printing. Look for her new book Pictures of You coming out from Algonquin this November 2010.

Elizabeth Brundage (author of The Doctor's Wife and Somebody Else's Daughter) emailed me to ask if I'd be interested in a book that combined dark character study and the world of film. (That's like asking me if I like Junior Mints!) I knew and admired her previous novels, and this one, A Stranger Like You, which pubs today (order or buy wherever books are sold!) is truly wonderful. I'm pulling out all the best adjectives here: quirky, dark, full of unexpected surprises, and oh yes, a wonderful, thorny portrait of Hollywood. Thanks so much, Elizabeth for offering to do this.

I loved how the story fit together, which I think might owe something to your screenwriting abilities. How hard is it to switch gears from novel to script? Do you prefer one format over the other?

I much prefer writing novels to screenplays and I think that being a novelist is more like being the producer and director of a film in that you have complete control over the eventual product. There are few limitations in fiction – you can create an entire world without having to think about what it’s going to cost to make it “real.” What interests me about writing fiction in particular is how the words take effect on the reader, almost like a drug, and the reader succumbs to the story (we pray) and invents the narrative in his or her own mind, thus taking an active role in its creation. That really interests me, because I don’t believe that reading is necessarily passive. Going to see a film perhaps is more passive than reading a book, because you are being fed the images. In reading a book, one brings one’s mind to it, creating pictures to go along with the story and in some instances mustering a host of important memories to assist in decoding one’s feelings about what is taking place. Therefore, reading a novel is a fairly active experience when compared to watching events unfold in a movie – although movies are marvelous, magical creations, there is something incredibly satisfying about holding a book in your hands, the quiet intimacy that evolves between the writer and the reader.

I also love, as a novelist, the sense of really knowing a character. A character can take up residence in a writer’s mind for months or years – often several years – until the writer can properly translate his or her story. I truly believe that writers are translators….first the story is whispered into our ears. We have to decipher the spirit’s language and translate its emotions. I like researching a character’s life, attempting to create that sense of authenticity on the page.

Before the first page there is one shocking page, all in caps, about what emotions and feelings lead to others. (Greed leads to destruction, decadence leads to ruin). Based on a screenwriting character’s theories about how one thing leads to another, it seems to echo through the novel for me, but I wanted your take on why that page is there, and why in caps.

In life, one thing generally leads to another – the same goes for a script or a novel. Ever since the Brothers Grimm and I suspect before that, consequence has played a role in story-telling. I began my writing career as a screenwriter and studied at the American Film Institute in Los Angeles where the first order of business for all the screenwriting fellows was to understand what a premise was, and why it was so essential to have one in your screenplay. Life is not without consequence. A character confronts a challenge and changes as a result, or, at the very least, meanders toward some resolution. The page of “premise tags” at the beginning of the novel comes from that fundamental construct and sets the tone for the thematic underpinnings of the story. So too, the headings for each part of the novel are screenwriting terms, for example: Suspension of Disbelief, which refers to the viewer’s submission to the unfolding story, setting aside the reality of what might be actually possible, which, in the context of the novel, ties into the idea that, in life, your destiny, to some degree, depends upon your perspective, your trust, and your ability to accept mystery or to rely on fate.

You’ve tunneled so deeply into the character of Hugh Waters, who makes his life a terrifying facsimile of his script, that I’m wondering what it was like for you to inhabit someone so disturbing for so long.

It’s funny sometimes being a writer. Your characters surprise you. They remind you that, on some basic level, we all have the capacity for weirdness and evil. I do believe this is true. Hugh Waters first came to me after I received a nasty review on my first book, The Doctor’s Wife. I was an innocent at that point and I felt so violated by the reviewer that I couldn’t help taking it personally. Those feelings fermented for a while – years passed – and low and behold Hugh Waters was born, hell bent on revenge. In writing Hugh, I wanted to explore how a guy who’s not quite the sum of his parts – not quite in sharp focus or full color – a hue – transparent as water – begins to fill in. And when that happens, when he begins to understand the true dynamics of his power, he becomes a very dangerous individual.

I think nearly every writer takes some tiny aspect of his or her life and uses it, exploits it, challenges it, then shapes it into art. In that first novel, the character of Lydia Haas goes completely mad. We were living in Richmond, Massachusetts at the time, in a wonderful old farm house, and she had pretty much possessed me. When I was inside the house, I looked mad – but then I’d have to go pick up my kids at school and do the marketing and would somehow get her to simmer down while I was in my real life – so that nobody would think I was…well, mad.

I wrote A Stranger Like You in a rented house in Williamstown, MA, that had very little furniture in it and just this tiny TV – there was nothing to do but work and it was a good thing and this book just poured out of me in a kind of frenzy. I’m glad I wrote it quickly because, when it was done, I was very glad to get rid of Hugh Waters.

I loved the three voices, the screenwriter, the studio exec who fights to make the kinds of films she wants (which has a price tag) but I also loved how deeply sympathetic each was in their own worlds. They each want to prove that they can be someone, in particular a hero in their own worlds, but once you buy into a certain life, do you think it’s possible to escape it?

That’s a good question and I’m not sure I have the answer to it. I don’t believe anyone can fully ignore their past. I like that you picked up on the fact that each character has their own idea about what a hero is – I tried to present the question about what a hero is and how there’s always a hero in a Hollywood movie. I think that’s true. I think it’s an American phenomenon. We celebrate heroes, even unlikely ones, and they are somehow essential to who we are as a nation. And yet I suppose most nations rely on heroes (or dictators – or villains) in order to define or characterize themselves as countries. When I first met Sean, the Marine who helped me to shape the character of Denny Rios, I knew within the first five minutes of interviewing him that he was a hero. There was just no doubt in my mind. He’d been to Iraq with the first invasion in 2003 and he’d seen things – he’d done things – that we couldn’t discuss; I knew not to ask. There are some things that you don’t talk about with veterans because what happens during war may be out of the realm of ordinary behavior – it is something else entirely and difficult to put into words. Even if you can imagine it in your own mind, it’s not the same as saying the words out loud to a stranger. I respected that. But still – there is some quality that I saw in each of the vets I spoke to. It was a kind of emotional scalding, I felt, that they had each experienced. It’s hard to explain. In the novel, Denny Rios is in the throes of PTSD when we meet him – he can’t quite shake the images of horror that he carries around inside his head. And it’s not until he meets Daisy, a teenage runaway, that he can challenge his demons and begin to let them go. As heroine, Hedda Chase, grappling with her own ideals, agrees to make a film about an Iraqi woman who is stoned to death, knowing that it will be a risky venture that could, quite possibly, diminish her status in the industry and ultimately change her life. Hugh Waters asserts himself heroically when he, in a gesture of paternal compassion, attempts to help Daisy and, later, when he assumes the role of a terrorist – but his version of heroic behavior could be interpreted as psychopathology – it all depends on your perspective, your values, your religious beliefs – and this is, at least in my mind, the heart and soul of the novel.

I absolutely adored all the insider tidbits about Hollywood and Filmmaking. I’m hoping you are going to say you exaggerated, but did you?

I don’t think I exaggerated. Of course my take on Hollywood is subjective – watch one episode of Entourage and you’ll see sexist – even though it’s a terrific show. They know it’s sexist, but that doesn’t mean the business will change, and I’m not sure that a few key women in powerful roles designates real change either, although it helps – it is certainly a step in the right direction. When you talk about sexism it’s a big subject and you can’t attribute blame to either side because we all contribute to sexism, men and women alike – we are all responsible for the way things are. Partly because of how we were raised, partly because of what we see all around us, the advertisements – the way women are encouraged to dress or act – the way men are pushed to project a kind of resolute strength – the reality that seeing a woman undressed is fairly routine. It’s a huge, multi-layered subject and, again, it has a lot to do with perspective. I wanted to talk about sexism in Hollywood as part of a larger conversation about the global perception of women. I wanted to consider the war in Iraq as a kind of theater – a very expensive production – machinated by a strategic few. I’m not convinced that it is possible to negotiate for peace with a country that condones and even encourages husbands to beat their wives when they “disobey” them – not to mention stoning a woman to death as a practice of law. To even imagine for one moment that our Americanism, our diplomacy – the freedom we so proudly champion – might influence and even change behavior that has prevailed for generations is preposterous and foolish. I don’t believe it is possible to negotiate when there are such profound philosophical differences such as these between nations. I don’t believe that either side can relate on any score to the other. War is, of course, not the answer, because even war can’t influence the core issues that motivate the behavior. But perhaps I am too cynical. In any case, these are some of the ideas I wanted to explore in the novel.

What’s obsessing you now in your work?

I’m obsessed with a murder case that has gone unsolved for over twenty years.

What question didn’t I ask that I should have?

What do I want readers to know about my work? I want readers to know that I’m trying to write a different kind of thriller – one that reads like a literary novel, but moves at the pace of drugstore pulp. I don’t like the word “genre” because I think it undermines what I and many writers are trying to do. I don’t ever want to be pushed into a publishing category. I don’t want to limit myself to one kind of writing. I want to write every kind of story – thrillers – love stories – science fiction – great literary epics! Writing is an art, but it is also a craft – it is a practice – it is something that must be done day after day and it never really gets any easier. Starting over is starting over, plain and simple. You must confront the white page and in doing so you are confronting many things at once, many problems, few of them easy. It’s important to experiment, to try new things. Writing is this: words on the page. That’s all it is. You don’t need batteries to turn it on.


My mind is a blender...

That's my brain in there! A gaggle of ingredients that hopefully will make something delicious and greater than the sum of its parts. I am guessing by this picture that the end result is salsa...yum.

Right now, I am beyond swamped. I have a naming project with a super speedy turn around, a novel that I am revising, a screenplay that I am outlining and every week, I think...already? Another week over so quickly?

As I have written in the past, when things get super hectic for me, I turn to my cookbooks for comfort. Lately, I have really been into my vegetarian and vegan cookbooks and have been frustrated that almost all of the recipes call for a food processor! So I did what any sensible, deadline challenged writer would do...I wasted time on line looking for one, and then I bought it...on sale from Amazon. I got the one you see here. It came in two days, and that is how long it has been in the box. I haven't even had time to open it!

But all that is going to change. I am taking Sunday off, going to the Farmers Market and cooking for some friends. I will be blending and processing and yes, shaking a martini mixer too, and enjoying one of the last days of summer.

In the meantime, the blending and mixing and cooking in my brain will have to take priority...let's hope that the final product is something glorious!

Any favorite recipe books for me to read at night? Let me know!


When you pull one thread...

I am deep into Revision Land on my second novel. For the past week and a half I have been obsessing over two details in my novel. Two details, which seem to be very important to the reader, more important than I intended them. Of course my first impulse was, okay, I'll take those two details out! Then a moment later, my brain kicked in and reminded me that I had nothing to be afraid of, and I could make the changes work. And so I started, and each time I shifted one detail, something else changed, and then I had to address that, and then the next thing, and like a house of cards, if you move one....they all fall. And then you have to rebuild.

So that is what I have been doing, rebuilding, and re-ordering and revising, and it is making my head hurt. I have now done 4 different openings to my book. And I love the opening! But it has to be done. I actually strongly believe in revising. I think it is necessary. But I also think that one must have a plan, no point in just changing things for the sake of changing, but change in order to sharpen and strengthen the writing is a great idea. And it isn't easy. Having people whose opinions you respect and trust are essential, because after living with a novel for 2-3 years, to pull it apart again for closer inspection is a difficult thing to do. I have to see my work as someone else's, I need to look at it with fresh eyes, and I need to be critical and merciless.

I have a dear writer friend who re-wrote her last book 7 times. And another who rewrote his, 13 times. Whenever I get frustrated, I just think of that. And I remind myself that months of revising will still not be as hard as those initial years of writing. I hope.

Back at it!


To British Mini Series....

As I have been recuperating from my cold, I have been watching a lot of movies at night. I am still writing all day, but after dinner, I have been watching Romantic Comedies as I am writing one. Now as is always the way with me, I have to balance my comedic side with my dramatic side, when I am working on one I need the other, and so this week I watched the British mini-series, State Of Play.

You may remember that there was an American movie version done with Ben Affleck, Russel Crowe, Rachel MacAdams, and Helen Mirren...all fine actors, but it pales in comparison to the British version. The original British version that you see here, is so complicated and intricate and there is great dialogue and terrific acting from Bill Nighy, James MacAvoy, Kelly MacDonald, David Morrissey, John Simms and so many others. I watched three in one night on Net Flix, and then unable to wait, raced out to Rocket Video the next night for part 2, and watched the remaining 3 episodes in one sitting. I was sad when it was over and shared it with my friend and neighbor Tiffany, who returned it saying..."More State Of Play!!". But there is no more. That's the great thing. It was a great story, done right and the writer knew when to stop. No milking it out, or watering it down, or pandering to the audience. Just great storytelling that leaves you wanting more.

This is a great lesson for me this week, and weekend, as I am up to my eyeballs in novel revisions and am trying to write the cleanest, meanest screenplay outlines.

If you love a good plot driven, political/newspaper/government scandal/intrigue story...then check this one out!

Have a great weekend!


Sorry for the quiet...

I haven't blogged in a week! To be honest, I haven't done much except, cough and sneeze, and splutter! I caught a terrible cold and it has lasted just over a week, and is still going, although thankfully I can now swallow, and my fever has finally broken.

I hate getting sick, but then again who doesn't?! But I really have a hard time being sick when I have so much work to do! I did manage to hammer out my macro outline for a screenplay that I am working on, and I did start revisions on my second novel, but then I lost two entire days, when the cold meds wouldn't work, the natural oils and capsules wouldn't make a dent, and my eyes and nose were streaming so much I couldn't see and just had to lie down.

I even went to the doctor, when I couldn't swallow anymore, convinced it must be strep...and he assured me that it was just a summer cold. A really, really bad summer cold. Thankfully I am on the mend, and trying to make up for lost time. I hope that my waste paper basket will be full of waste paper once more, and not kleenex.


Amazing Author: Beth Kephart

It's Thursday (not Tuesday, when I normally post these, but still!) and I am bringing you another amazing author interview, courtesy of the amazing author Caroline Leavitt!

Caroline is the award winning author of eight novels, most recently Girls in Trouble, which was a Booksense Selection and is now in its third printing. Look for her new book Pictures of You coming out from Algonquin this November 2010.

Beth Kephart's A Slant of Sun was a finalist for the National Book Award. She's written countless books for young adults, and poetry, and her latest, Dangerous Neighbors, about loss and love, was mesmerizing. (Plus, I have to add, she's hilarious and warm.) Thank you, Beth, for answering my questions.

What were the challenges of setting your book against the 1876 Centennial? Do you enjoy research or did it make you feel as if your head were about to explode?

I smile at the question, for it is a great one, as all of your questions are. The truth of the matter is that my greatest challenge lay in caging my obsession with this era so that I would not overwhelm readers with the high parade and cutting details of a time and place that I love. I did not study English or writing at the University of Pennsylvania (or anywhere else, to be honest). I studied the history and sociology of science—cities, technologies, the thrusting forward of time.

The Centennial was such a high note in my city’s past. Ulysses Grant was there. Walt Whitman. The emperor and empress of Brazil. The first kindergartner teachers. Profoundly fierce feminists. George S. Childs, the greatest philanthropist Philadelphia has ever seen. Caroline, it was irresistible stuff. My head wasn’t exploding. My heart was.

The book begins, astonishingly with a young girl, devoid of all hope, planning on killing herself because her beloved twin has died, and you set it in the midst of the Centennial, which seems emblematic of hope itself. What sparked this idea?

Another confession: When I first started writing this book, I had the idea of telling the story through the vehicle of the Shantytown fire that plays such a pivotal role late in the tale (and in real life threatened to destroy the Centennial grounds). I had previously written and published an autobiography of Philadelphia’s Schuylkill River, Flow, and I loved living with the river as soul-bearing narrator.

In this case, the fire did not work as a narrator (too angry, too one note, too contained to see enough of the story), but the characters that the fire had glimpsed in early drafts—Katherine, the bereft twin, and William, the boy who rescues lost animals for a living—were compelling, demanding, commanding. That said, I only write characters whose inner lives are familiar to me. Katherine, in Dangerous Neighbors, is a character I wholly understand—the responsible one, the less-than-glamorous one, the one who never has figured out how to forgive herself. As I started to get to know Katherine, to shape her, I felt blessed by the possibilities that the Centennial backdrop offered. World futures versus personal ones. Technology versus the soul. Sweeping, generalizing promises versus the promises sisters make to one another. And, as you mention, hope versus hopelessness.

What were the challenges of writing a YA as opposed to an adult book? In your end notes (which I loved), you talked about the “gritty faith” required to keep you going. Although as a novelist, I know far too well what you mean, would you talk more about it here?

I have always tried to write outside of category—to write books for any age, to transcend. In my teen books, my protagonists are smart, soulful, thoughtful, and language steeped because this is exactly what I experience in the young people to whom I teach writing, or with whom I spend time. I refuse to write “down,” because I look up to teens. I, in fact, adore them. YA does require one to move a story faster, and of course, being the poetic, meditating, memoir-writing type, I need that kick in the literary butt.

Dangerous Neighbors could have gone in either direction—to an adult house or to a YA house. It went with Laura Geringer and Egmont USA for many very excellent reasons. Chief among them, however, is this: Laura (with whom I had worked at HarperTeen) and Egmont chose to believe in this book. They said, among themselves: Yes, it is an historical novel, and yes, it is literary, and yes, wouldn’t it be lovely if Beth Kephart had a larger following, and nonetheless, Yes. We will buy this book. They made a choice, they took a risk, I stood out here hoping against hope, gritting my teeth, scanning the skies for smoke signals, and my hopes were answered.

Egmont USA did not just buy this book. They have supported it in ways I’ve never been supported before; they have made me feel like family. It is a heck of a beautiful way to have one’s very lonesome faith answered. A few years ago, it seemed I’d written or, at least, published, my last book. Then Laura returned to my life and she brought Egmont with her, and I was given another chance.

The novel meditates on what it means to have “dangerous neighbors” or to feel lost in a new country (or new way of being) where everything is so rapidly changing. There is also the sense that Katherine wants ownership of her sister in terms of loving her. She wants to keep that world small, even as the world around her--and her sister's world--are expanding. In the end, despite the losses in the book, Katherine actually finds surprising connection and hope. (There’s a spectacular few scenes of her carrying a stranger’s baby all over the Centennial.) Even though this novel is set in 1876, the whole idea of dangerous neighbors is remarkably current to me. Would you agree or is this simply my own interpretation speaking?

I think it is your high intelligence speaking. I wanted to write history that feels like right now. To make it pressing, to make it urgent, to make it relevant. These characters might wear different clothing, and they might walk through places that no longer exist, but they love like we do and they hurt like we do and they want like we do, and, Caroline, the human heart is the human heart. Prejudices still haunt us. Fears hover over our borders. Otherness and differentness and un-knownness are modern dilemmas. What do we hold onto? Who do we trust? How do we love against and love for and let go and hold on? It’s then. It’s now. It pulses.

In your end notes, you talk about dreaming the novel, about the images that sprang up and then began to thread themselves into a novel. Is this always your process or was there something very different about this?

Color, swirl, contrast—my books start there. I was a poet first. I was a skater. I love, now, to dance. I feel things first, long before I think them. I know the mood, I know the skies, I know the weight of things, I know what something will mean. Story pieces its way in. Plot follows.

All of that said, Dangerous Neighbors did feel different. It was a new step for me—more daring, more assertive in idea and manner. Flow, my river book, had set me free in many ways. It had also, for me, raised the standard. I don’t want to write books that can be easily classified. I want to keep breaking free, want to be surprised, want to be challenged.

What is obsessing you now?

Two books obsess me now. One concerns, among other things, the mind of a young woman following a devastating loss. What happens to that mind? How does it reconstitute itself? The other takes place on a cortijo in Spain. Both books are huge for me. Both require more of me than, at times, I have to give. I fight to bring them to wholeness.

Caroline, I thank you for the honor of these questions. You have made me think. I love that.


6 week deadline...

Another week begins as does another writing project! My last screenwriting project got shelved last week, but there was no time to dwell on it as I decided to just keep on writing! Once I was in the groove, why stop? I am loving learning so much about screenwriting and how different it is from my usual novel writing and how the two can really help each other. I am also loving the challenge of trying to sum up entire stories in a single logline. Not easy. I prefer 300 pages to get my point across!

But screenplays adhere to a pretty set schedule and it is one that we have come to intuitively expect when watching movies. My own schedule for this screenplay is pretty tight too...6 weeks from start to finish, which means I will be eating, sleeping, dreaming writing...bliss! This is the perfect way to spend the rest of my summer and transition into fall. And it will make my mid October trip to NYC seem even sweeter!!


Amazing Authors...Who are yours?

It's Tuesday, and today I am going to ask you dear reader who your amazing authors are and why. Who keeps you up at night, who makes you yearn to call in sick, miss work, cancel plans, ignore your phone and hole up with a great book?

What book have you read lately, that had you missing the characters the second you read the last line, had you dreaming of what they would be doing now, if the author could only have written more about them.

I've made my way through all of Stieg Larson's Girl With A Dragon Tattoo books this summer, and I miss Lisbeth and Blomqvist and have even gone to see the Swedish movies in an effort to hold onto my radical friends a little bit longer.

Now I am keeping company with Nina Zero, the kick ass heroine of my friend Robert Eversz's series. I am finishing up Killing Paparazzi and thankfully have two more to enjoy. Check out what Nina is up to at her website. And please share your favorites...a good book is one that should be recommended!
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