Amazing Author: Jennifer Haigh

Another Amazing Author Interview from Amazing Author Caroline Leavitt!!

Jennifer Haigh talks about FAITH

Jennifer Haigh has long been one of my favorite writers--and I have the dog-eared, oft-reread copies of Mrs. Kimble, Baker Towers and The Condition to prove it. Mrs Kimble won the 2004 Pen/Hemingway Award for debut fiction; Baker towers was a New York Times bestseller and won the 2006 Pen/L.L. Winship Award for an outstanding book by a New England author. Faith is an astonishing novel about family, loyalty, and what we choose to believe and why--and there is also a fascinating book trailer that goes along with it. Thank you so much, Jennifer, for being here.

Let’s talk about the narrator in Faith. She’s not sure what to believe about her brother, or her church. Why did you decide to have her be the one to tell the story?

I found Sheila’s voice by accident. I’d never written a novel in the first person. I’d always considered it too limiting: in my experience, it’s rare for any one character to know all the interesting parts of a story. But when I began reading about priests suspected of abusing children, I was struck by how difficult it is to get to the bottom of the story. There are never any witnesses. The only people who know the truth of the story are the priest and the child, and often neither will talk about it. The rest of us can only speculate about what went on behind closed doors. That’s exactly what Sheila does in Faith. She’s neither a devout Catholic nor an atheist. Instead she is a seeker, a person who’s still figuring out what to believe.

On the surface, Faith is about sexual abuse and the priesthood, but it’s really about so many more deeper issues about the faith we have in our clergy, in each other and in ourselves. It’s also, to my mind, about connection and love. What’s the backstory behind the writing of this novel?

Like a lot of writers, I write to make sense of the world, which sometimes means writing about things that disturb me. I moved to Boston from Iowa in 2002, just as the city was reeling from revelations that Catholic priests had molested children, and that the Archdiocese had covered up the abuse. Like everybody else, I was horrified. I was raised in a Catholic family, spent twelve years in parochial schools and had extremely fond memories of my interactions with Catholic clergy. It’s no exaggeration to say that nuns and priests were the heroes of my childhood. As I read about what had happened in Boston, I found it impossible to square it with those tender memories of my Catholic childhood. Faith was my attempt to explain the inexplicable, to understand what I couldn’t make sense of in any other way.

Without giving anything away, what I loved was how often expectations were reversed. I thought I knew where the story was going, and it almost always veered in another direction. How carefully do you map out where you want to go? When you started writing this novel, did you know whether you wanted Art to be guilty or innocent?

I wanted Art to be innocent, but suspected he might be guilty. Like Sheila, I figured it out gradually. All of the surprising events in the story were surprises to me too. I never write with a fixed idea of how the story will end. The suspense is what keeps me going. Basically, I write novels for the same reason I read them: to find out what happens next.

What was the writing of Faith like? Your last novel, The Condition, was this wonderful expansive novel, but Faith seems leaner and tighter on some levels. Was this a deliberate choice?

Not deliberate – it came about organically, probably as a result of writing in the first person. The Condition is told from multiple points of view; and the same event is often seen through different characters’ eyes. The story lies in the contrast: how differently Paulette and her ex-husband remember their marriage, for example. In Faith everything is filtered through Sheila. There’s none of that interplay between perspectives, and the result is a tighter structure. We are limited by what she knows and what she understands.

What’s obsessing you now in your work?

I’m nearly finished with a collection of short stories I’ve been working on for seven years. They’re all set in Bakerton, the western Pennsylvania coal town where my second novel, Baker Towers, takes place. A few of the characters from Baker Towers actually reappear: Miss Peale, the schoolmistress; Joyce Novak and her mysterious younger brother Sandy, who runs off to California and is rarely seen again. Readers have been asking me for years what became of Sandy Novak. The story collection will finally answer that question.


Writer friends you can trust...

I think that one of the most important things a writer can have is someone, they trust to read their work. I don't mean a fan, or a relative who loves you no matter what you do, or even a harsh critic who hates everything anyone does and is always sure that he/she can do it better...but never does. I mean a talented writer, who knows your work, what you are trying to say, and how you want to say it. It may not sound like a lot, but it really is a tall order. This person has to be able to give feedback based on the work that you wrote and not the novel they would've written. They have to be able to put aside personal taste, and feelings for subject matter and offer guidance that will help you, the writer, get to where they see, you are trying to go.

I am lucky, so incredibly lucky to have someone like this in my life...and a terrific agent and assistant who fit this bill too! As a result, I think that my manuscript, after 6 revisions, is pretty close to done. It is stronger and richer than it was when it started, and it is even longer too! Which is also nice, as it was a little on the short side. I have spent days and nights revising and this week, will polish, tweak, and polish some more, and then send to my fabulous agent with the hopes that they too, will love the changes.

Fingers and toes are crossed...eyes too, at this point! But that's from all the time on the computer!


New office!

I am always trying to make room in our place. It's a great size, but we often have family visiting and an extra bedroom would be amazing. Unfortunately we can't build one, so I decided to bring my office out into the dining room, and I love it!! Everything fits perfectly, and my dogs have already taken to sleeping under my desk or resuming their rightful place on my lap. I am loving the coziness of it all, and just the fact that it is different is shaking things up for me, right when I need an extra jolt of energy. It's amazing what you can do with just a little space and some editing! Love it.


Novel Surgery...

For the last two weeks, I have been doing surgery on my novel. As a result of some editing, I have been playing with the order of things; rearranging chapters, moving paragraphs, and flashbacks, all while trying to maintain the integrity of the story. As my cousin who is an architect noted when she heard me say that you change one thing, and everything changes..."just like a building". And it's true. A novel and a building have a lot in common. Both need a solid structure, both require skilled and solid framing before you can start putting up walls and decorating. And both are a result of inspiration and careful planning with meticulous execution.

Right now, my novel, or building is under going a major renovation, and I am exhausted. But I am starting to see my way through it, and that is a glorious thing.


Hot days...cold lunch

I am so grateful for air conditioning. The first few years that we lived in Los Angeles, we didn't have any, and I found it so hard to get anything done in the afternoon heat! Mind you, we also had sun beating down on us on all sides of the apartment, all times of the day. Now I blast the a/c in the middle of the day and am actually able to stay working at my desk, rather than nap! Even with all that cool air, I still need a cool lunch. Lately I am loving all things quinoa, like this dish, made with nectarines, mint, lemon, white beans, and tomatoes. Fresh and delicious!


Loving Lonny

When I am writing as much as I am these days, all I want to do on my break is look at pictures. Although the idea of actually tearing myself away from my desk to flip through a magazine, gives me hives and pangs of guilt that I should be working harder. Alas, this was all before I discovered Lonny... a great on line home design magazine. Lonny stands for London and New York, and it is gorgeous eye candy all the way. It also provides some great inspiration and shopping help, as you can click on a picture and link to where that item is available. Fabulous! I spent today's break looking at their office reno, and imagining how I could improve my new office-in-the-dining room. I think I now know how. And I think it's a good thing that Lonny only comes out every two months, as I have way to much work to do, to be drooling over its pages!!


Amazing Author: Thelma Adams

A day late from holiday weekend jet lag...but here it is! Another Amazing Author interview from amazing author, Caroline Leavitt!!

Thelma Adams has been the film critic at US Weekly since 2000, following six years at the New York Post. Her work has appeared in The New York Times Magazine, O: The Oprah magazine, The Huffington Post, Marie Claire, the New York Times, and more. Her debut novel, Playdate, is an Oprah pick, and I'm honored to have her hear on my blog. Thanks, Thelma!

As a former tortoise owner myself, I was in love with the box turtle in the book. Why a turtle in the book?

When we first lived together in Chelsea, my husband always had turtles. He is a turtle-lover, and we have a very turtle-and-the-hare relationship. (I’m the rabbit, always leaping.) What this means is that I spent a lot of time with turtles – red-eared sliders, box, but nothing bigger than a breadbox. We had an Asian Box Turtle that we named Buckethead. And, amazingly, if we played Stevie Winwood’s “Higher Love” the turtle would actually dance, moving his bucket head back and forth to the music. Because of that, we played “Higher Love” a lot. Now, we live in the country, and there’s an ancient one-eyed snapping turtle that lives in our stream. We’ve named her Cyclops. She doesn’t dance that we know of, but she does lay eggs. We’re very protective of her without getting very close.

But why a turtle in the book? Because, as clever as they are, you can’t get affection from a turtle the way you can from a cat or a dog; they don’t hop onto the bed and curl up beside you. Belle, the daughter in the book, wants that connection from a pet, the uncritical affection. And it just wasn’t going to come from “Boxy,” or even from the mother that allowed her to get a turtle, but said “no” to a puppy.

The wildly comic ride of your novel’s been compared to Little Children, but where would you say your inspiration lies?

My inspiration lies in P. G. Wodehouse and Evelyn Waugh (think Scoop), in creating a surface lightness in dialog that belies the darkness, or the complications, beneath. Or acknowledges the darkness playfully, with a sting, like the Jewish humor I grew up with – The Marx Brothers, Woody Allen, Mel Brooks (think his wonderful song and dance “The Inquisition”). The fiction writer Paula Bomer compared Playdate to Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint, and I liked that, and felt honored by the comparison, because Roth’s early writing was sexy, funny, and painfully honest. He broke new ground.

I loved the whole backdrop of the wildfire, which gave your novel this incredible cinematic quality, which brings me to your job as film critic for Us Weekly. Does being a novelist inform being a film critic and vice versa?

It runs both ways. As a critic, I think I always look at story first. Does the script deliver? Does the dialog pop? Are we moved to laughter or tears? Does it have narrative drive? And, as a creative writer myself, I also recognize that the movie is an artistic collaboration, and even the worst movie was somebody’s baby at one point.

On the other hand, the first kernel of this project started as a script idea: a cross between “Shampoo” and “Mr. Mom.” But then I realized that I knew nothing about writing scripts, and it was an entirely different skill set. So I fell back to what I knew and wrote a book. In “Shampoo,” the movie is set against the backdrop of an election. I wanted this book to be set against the backdrop of a larger event. Enter the fires. But it wasn’t until a much later revise, after the Witch Creek Fires, that the Santa Ana winds became a much larger determining force in the book.

In the final draft of my novel, my editor Katie Gilligan at St. Martins/Thomas Dunne Books pointed out all my cinematic transitions that began chapters – meanwhile, over at the playground – and suggested (only suggested) I try another way in. I hadn’t realized that I was doing that, that I was wasting an opportunity to go deeper at the beginning of chapters, and I appreciated her fresh eyes. And dug deeper.

From the “playground fabulousness” to the kiddie diner with gourmet food, you skewer the pretentions of upper class suburbia with gleeful aplomb. Do you think there’s a solution for this kind of living?

Yes. Love your children and don’t turn them into status objects. In my book, I call it the Disneyland Syndrome – the misconception that if you take the kids to a theme park, and buy them every thing they want, and go on every ride, they will remember that as their childhood. Childhood is also in the rest between beats. It doesn’t take any money to have a real connection with your kid, just an open heart and a willingness to listen to them, really listen.

Tell us what your daily writing life is like?
Because I’m a film critic, and movies get scheduled on a very short lead time that the studios control, every day is different. Two or three days a week, I take Metro North to NYC to see movies. Seeing new movies remains a pleasure for me, and I think always will be. I love that moment when the lights come down in the theater, and the screen lights up. But my schedule’s unpredictability makes it hard to get a fiction-writing routine together. And I love a writing rut. I’m a morning writer, and write best in a few compact hours of very high concentration, without internet if I can control myself. What I’m trying to do now is string together three or four or five days running – including weekends – when I can get my head in the novel and keep it there. Writing for Us Weekly always comes first, and interviews for Marie Claire. That’s how I pay my way, and it’s a lovely way to do it.

The biggest break for my writing life (after publishing my first novel) just happened: after years of putting my kids on the school bus and getting them ready, my son is now at boarding school and my daughter suddenly this week began to get up and dressed and out the door by herself. That means when I wake up, I can just caffeinate and go without the distractions of lost homework, missing socks, sleepy children and scraping ice off the windshield.

What’s obsessing you now?

My next book. I’m writing a novel about Upstate New York mothers. I have an outline, and a string of incidents, and I’m trying to get it to cohere. Really, I’m just trying to write from beginning to end to see what I have without judging it along the way.

When you’ve completed a book, there’s a tendency to see it as a finished product, and forget all the many, many drafts that got it there. So, it can be a challenge to start afresh, and write through the crap, and the indecision, so that later you can cut back and dive deeper and play with the prose. It’s a marathon – and it helps to have marathon buddies to remind you that the large overwhelming project is put together in a string of days spent with your butt in the chair and your fingers racing. And that every day you get your butt in that desk chair, every 500 words chipped away, is a small triumph.

What do you wish you knew five years ago?

That I would get a novel published. Whew! If I had known that five years ago, I could have discarded all the time spent and wasted worrying that I was writing fiction into the void, rather than taking the kids to sports activities or getting my house in order or just plain chillaxing.

And, secondly, that even though my wish would come true, that I would publish a novel, life would go on with all its ups and downs, births and deaths. Becoming a published novelist wouldn’t change every thing like a magic pill, and it would even create some new problems. But nothing could knock the giddy happy feeling to see my hard work realized: my book in print and lined up with its gorgeous blue cover beside my desk; and strangers across the country (Ok, mostly in NY and LA) laughing at my jokes, and seeing the world through my eyes.
Template created by Hughes design|communications