Saturday, October 21, 2017

Q&A with Jade Gibson

Jade Gibson is the author of the novel Glowfly Dance. An academic, writer, and visual artist, she has lived in the U.K., Africa, the South Pacific, and the Caribbean. 

Q: The novel is told from a child’s perspective—your main character Mai is very young at the beginning of the book and 14 at the end. Why did you choose that vantage point?

A: This is a true story, which I wanted to immerse the reader in, in order to convey the reality of a child's experience of such situations.

There were two main reasons - one was that, as it is based on my experience, a child only thinks in the present tense, and the way in which time is understood is very different from that of an adult. I chose to write in the child's present to convey this - and this means that the child's voice becomes older and older as one moves through the book.

The second was to place the reader literally within the child's body, to experience as she experiences. There is no third perspective explanation; you are only seeing as a child, yet as a reader, one perceives much more.

I also wanted to show how, despite the most difficult of circumstances, one that some readers describe as horrendous, a child does not lose sense of hope and can stay resilient. This means that other readers have found Glowfly Dance also, in another sense, uplifting, in that shows that a child can survive the most difficult emotional circumstances.

I also wanted to show normality in the face of adversity; I was tired of the tropes of the “misery memoir.” Partly for that reason I wanted to include moments of beauty, the very things that Mai, the protagonist (a subtle play on “me”) holds on to that enables her to survive.

Domestic violence is not just the misery story. There are moments of humour, love between parent, child and siblings, children, and adults, keep going. Perhaps that is the insidiousness of domestic violence, that we look for the ongoing misery story, whereas in reality it is often punctuated by both the light and the dark. 

The fact that the story is told in the present tense is also a strong part of the point at which, in a sense, we see Mai growing up, when she first realises that the past may be entirely separate from the present.

I think maybe when children realise that they have a “past” narrative, and identify themselves as such, it is a shift towards adulthood, at least, in Mai's case, it is. 

I also think that there is much written on women within the domestic gender violence situation. Yet the child as witness and documenter is less well dealt with. People often don't consider the ramifications and loss throughout a family, and the impact on children.

To this day I feel anger at how little the impact on the children was dealt with, and how the law did not consider the specific case of the siblings left behind in Glowfly Dance. I hear that little may have changed on this front, although this would need to be verified, as I am not a lawyer, but lawyers have told me so.

Also, the section on being a child living in a safe house, then called a “battered wives' home” - the fact that, to the children locked inside, it was a space of “freedom.”

Glowfly Dance plays on notions of “freedom” throughout - from Mai's first dances on her grandfather's feet, to the notion of home as a prison and outside as “free,” to being hidden in a refuge under false names, to the limits of the law to protect women, and the battle that women in these situations go through to get support from people outside, who often do not know how to respond.

All of these, I feel, are more so revealed when told through the innocence of a child, who merely records. And that is what I did. 

The book originally began and ended as an adult rather than a 14 year old with the flashback effect. However, it was already long enough, and the book “jumped” anyway from 14 to adulthood.

The majority of readers in my writers group felt that the book could end at 14, and that it would be better to extend the years between into a sequel, explaining what happened after. So that is what I decided. And am now sitting with a draft, needing editing. 

Q: How was the book’s title chosen, and what does it signify for you?

A: I was obsessed with fireflies as s concept as a child, or what we called “glowflies,” and pretty much anything that flew, which is fairly obvious when you read the book. Again, this as a symbol plays on notions of freedom; but it was also the idea of light in the darkness, the notion of hope.

At the beginning of the book, Mai is 14 (the rest of the story is told as if in a flashback, from three years old) and “flying” in a plane, in the air. You learn that everything in life goes in circles, yet when you come back, things change.

Mai is imagining the glowflies in Mexico, where her mother and unknown Filipino father met, and how they travel around and around in circles, writing an invisible calligraphy in the air, that if you don't catch and write down, is lost to darkness forever.

And that is how the book works - Mai tells her story because she is aware that the story of her mother's life, if not recorded and written down, will vanish, like so many women's lives that are lost to violence, and disappear forever.

In that sense, the book is resistance, a determination to counteract, what I see as being completely preventable with the right social information and awareness, the annihilation of a person who did everything she could to survive. 

The book itself oscillates between moments of darkness and light. That is why I think people say it is both beautiful, and harrowing, uplifting and dark. I wanted to show that life may be full of tragedy, but is also incredibly rich, and that richness of experience and vision carries Mai forwards.

It is, as Mai is told when still a toddler, “just how things are.” But we know, it does not have to be that way. 

Q: You wrote on your blog when your book was first published, “It is strange, to have created something so close to me, and then realise that we are in fact, strangers. Are all writers estranged from themselves?” Is that still how you feel about the novel?

A: I think it was a complete shock when I first saw the book on the table. I am pretty sure I took a step back when I saw it. It looked like a brick. I couldn't believe all those years of work and rewriting and angst could just appear as what seemed to be a tiny block of wood.

My first thought was, “what have I done?” It had taken a year to agree to publication after being offered, and the publisher actually wrote to me and said, it has been nearly a year since we offered publication, and you did not get back to us, are you sure you really want to publish this?

I was also scared that it might seem egoistic, or people would say, “we all know about gender violence, why write a book on it?”

But then, I realised people were thanking me for speaking out, at least those who realised it was a true story, as some to this day think it is fiction, as I changed names and places to protect some people.

I also wrote with different names, as if I wrote as “I,” I think it would have been too difficult to write it. Writing as “Mai” was a distancing technique, and it helped provide perspective.

Strangely, when I first wrote it, I wrote from a child place, exactly as I remembered. I had been writing it down seriously since 16 years old - in fact some early sections were written when I was still in my teens, and incorporated later.  

Are we estranged? I can only speak for myself, but one is able to take multiple positionalities, I think, as a writer. You are both inside, and outside.

I always say that writers are people who have entire other worlds going on in their heads, and are only sane, because they are aware of it. When you write about the past, or childhood, you are still outside yourself, in a way.

The other thing is, as someone who works as an anthropologist/academic as a day job, it was not something I spoke about openly. I would sit in seminars on domestic violence and think, “that was us,” and then wonder how many others present may have had that experience. Academia often does that too.

Suddenly, when the book was out, those two sides had to make friends. It was petrifying. Over the past one and half years, I have felt the two sides actually have become more integrated. It has been empowering in some ways.

I was worried some people would sensationalise the whole thing, and make it awkward for me. I have had one or two like that, but as is described in Glowfly Dance when Mai is confronted by schoolchildren about the fact she has slanted eyes and “looks different,” I have realised that it is more about them than me.

And in my daily life, apart from when I give talks, which can be emotionally challenging, even if rewarding, things are pretty normal. In fact, the book has often been a conduit towards deeper and more meaningful conversations with people I know, and people I don't, forming bonds rather than distancing me.

And it has helped people. Interestingly, young men, as well as women. I have had men opening up to me about the domestic violence they witnessed as children. I think writing about the child's experience does that. It surprised me at first, but even in Glowfly Dance, there are boy children who suffer.

I even had to speak as an inspirational speaker at a men's Indaba, many of whom I was told were from abusive backgrounds. I think the child perspective creates the universality of Glowfly Dance - I really thought I had written a women's book, but it seems to appeal across the board.

The other surprise was hearing women tell me that their 16-year-onwards teenage daughters read it. I thought the time period of Glowfly Dance would appeal less to them, but I guess the child voice may draw them in. So, as people often say, the book has a life of its own. You see your face in it, but you don't. It's like that. 

Q: In your acknowledgments, you write, “If even one woman looks at her children and is compelled to get out of a situation where her life is at risk, as a result of someone reading Glowfly Dance, then it will have done its work.” Can you say more about the reaction  you’ve had to the book?

A: Because I didn't know if the book would have any impact on publication, despite the fact that I wanted it to stir people up to make a real effort to change things and thus help deal with social violence, once they understood some of the factors that enable perpetrators (and it is the perpetrators we should be looking at) get away often with the most heinous violence regarding their partners, as has been the subject of major documentaries I have seen aired across the UK, Australia and US in the last two or three years on the very subject of Glowfly Dance, I told myself that even if it touched one person and inspired them to reach out and help someone, or to get out of a dangerous situation in their own relationship, then Glowfly Dance would have done its work.

I don't think Glowfly Dance can do the work alone, without a host of discussions and awareness and debate emerging around the book.

Glowfly Dance has so far to go still. It has only been published in South Africa to date, where I have been working for some 15 years, and I am British-born, so I kept the literary and film rights outside South Africa, and now have to find a publisher and agent for my book. 

Some of the work the book has done to date - apart from being shortlisted as a literary novel when unpublished in the Dundee and Virginia Prizes in the UK, and long-listed in the Sunday Times prize in South Africa, as well as being formally recommended by the South African Education Department as useful for education on domestic violence - is to contribute to awareness of issues of gender violence, particularly in breaking silences around people's own experiences.

I have had friends who read the book be inspired to talk to friends they know are in domestic violence situations to help them. I have seen women with tears in their eyes that are not about my story, but about their own.

I tell people who are overwhelmed and say it is impossible to stop, especially in South Africa, that change comes slowly, but like apartheid, with enough people's effort, it could end. But it takes that effort. 

The strangest thing was having a friend I knew reach out when her own life was in danger from her partner, having read the book. I am not saying that the book saved her life, but I think it snapped her out of a form of denial into facing a harsh reality. I wrote about it in this article

It was strange because suddenly I was on the other side, having to deal with my own incredulity at having to believe this could possibly happen to a friend of mine. It didn't seem real, yet I knew it would.

I hope that the story of Glowfly Dance will help people on the “outside” understand the reality of such situations. It is, as I state in the above article, a sad reality, is that half the women killed by their own partners did not believe it could happen. So we do, as uncomfortable as it may be, need to talk, as there are solutions, and some of them are very easy. 

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I have some fictional works that emerged from nowhere, related to the relationship between history and the present. And I have the draft of the sequel to Glowfly Dance, which I need to work through.

The problem is that I also have to make a living (which publishing locally so far has not provided) so I have to squeeze that around my academic work, although I am thinking of trying to find a long arts residency or grant.

The sequel deals with the aftermath of Glowfly Dance - being a foster child, who effectively has lost all her family, returning to the UK that never accepted her as “British” as a child, now after several years growing up as a teenager abroad.

As you can imagine, things did not get easier. I have always said, if fate exists, someone had a wry sense of humour - I was given the gift of writing, and a life that people say sounds like fiction. I really want TIME.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Glowfly Dance needs to travel further. I want its story to light up the world. As a child, I travelled around the world - across three continents, Europe, Africa and the Americas. This story should travel the path we took, and bring healing.

I have so much more to say. In South Africa, on average three women die every day at the hands of an intimate partner. How many children are left behind?

I also want to undo the idea of women in these situations being helpless, problematic or creating their own victimhood. There is enough research now to show that anyone in a domestic violence relationship is in a very difficult situation when it comes to leaving.

What we often fail to ask, is why is the perpetrator doing it in the first place, and why should they get away with it?

Having said that, I also want the reader to encounter the many women and places in the book, that shows a multitude of ways in which women experience life. Mai's slanted eyes were a witness to all of this. And today, they are writing these worlds, and there is so much more to do.

I also want people to think seriously about the many children who are witnesses and/or directly experience domestic violence and then grow up to be adults. I tried to look up what research had been done into child survivors of families where mothers had been killed by their intimate partners.

Despite the figures as to how many women die a year, there were documents stating that practically no work had been done on the impact on children. You see the reaction to Mai and her siblings' experience in Glowfly Dance.

My artwork also deals with aspects of gender and social violence, as well as some of my poetry and academic work. Apparently, I can also be very funny.

Perhaps that is what survival is all about - when people ask me, how did I get through it all, I often say, although you need to acknowledge and accept the dark sides, the best revenge for a difficult past is to be able to laugh and smile as an adult. 

Also, it would be great to link with organisations who could work with me in spreading awareness of Glowfly Dance and its story, or if people know of possible agents and/or publishers who might be interested outside South Africa, to put them in contact.

I want everyone to be talking about the content of Glowfly Dance, if possible. It is my life's work, since I was that 14 year old flying in the 'plane at the beginning of the book. 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Oct. 21

Oct. 21, 1929: Ursula K. Le Guin born.

Friday, October 20, 2017

Q&A with Nathan Englander

Nathan Englander is the author of the new novel Dinner at the Center of the Earth. His other work includes the novel The Ministry of Special Cases, the story collections For the Relief of Unbearable Urges and What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank, and the play The Twenty-Seventh Man. He is Distinguished Writer-in-Residence at New York University, and he lives in Brooklyn.

Q: You’ve said that your new book was inspired by your heartbreak over the end of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. How did your feelings about the peace process result in this novel, and what do you think the book says about the possibilities for Middle East peace?

A: I’ve always gone distant to write close. My story about dreaming about being a writer I set in a Stalinist camp. I’m a private person, though not a shy person. Over four books, I was able to write closer and closer. My first book was also about Israel, and the book about Argentina was about another disappeared person…

It’s a subject that obsesses me, and a personal heartbreak. Since [the peace process] fell apart, I wanted to talk about it on a personal level and explore that time. I know a Mossad traitor and a general seem distant to myself, but in one sense he is me…I’m seeking the big story with the personal story. They don’t separate.

This book is everything and its opposite. Every character is somebody else. That’s how my brain works. The further peace recedes, the more I’m grabbing onto it…People feel there’s no one to make peace with on either side; whether Israeli or Palestinian, [they think] we can have cycles of violence until somebody wins. I don’t see what winning is.

As a person in the world, the further peace recedes, the more I think it’s the only option. We can transplant a face. We’ll have self-driving cars. We make choices. We do the impossible all the time.

It’s clear to me with the structure of the book—I like books that ask questions and don’t offer answers. I wanted a book that allowed people to explore notions of a moral fiction. You don’t write a book about fly-fishing and come to it with a fierce position. If you’re coming to this book, you probably have a set position [on the Israeli-Palestinian issue]. I worked so hard to build just character, just story, a place to reflect. It’s hopeful about peace in some way—that’s not a position.

In America we now have dual realities like they do there. If your position is cycles of violence, that’s not a position. Not everything is a discussion. Not to be working toward peace—I don’t understand how that’s a position.

The American metaphors—Ivana Trump says I’m the real first lady. A newsperson says, Melania fires back, we will discuss this. I said, There’s not a discussion! It’s become almost bizarre. Offering children healthcare is one thing, but removing millions of children off it—children will die. You can’t argue that as anything but cruel and greedy. There’s no world where you can argue that’s right.

My position on peace is that I’m open to anything. I’m willing to hear everything…

Q: In an interview with NPR, you described the novel as a “turducken,” and some reviews of the book have called the novel an example of genre-switching. Did you envision the novel as something in particular when you started writing it and it changed as you wrote it, or did you know from the beginning how it would turn out?

A: I’m alone in a room all day. I compare it to sport. I’m obsessed with CrossFit now. You can have a genetic feeling—I’m 5’7”, I can keep training but I’m never going to dunk. With writing, it’s a weird craft where you don’t know where you can get to until you try. I call it executing the unexecutable.

It’s terrifying every time, and overwhelming. Every book feels like the first book. At 47 I’m a baby, really. I was ready to work; I waited almost 20 years to find the form for this book.

I wasn’t aware of the form…I’ve never written a Jewish book, my books are about people. I’m someone who grew up Orthodox and broke out. The normal way to be is Jewish. The idea that I should present myself as a hyphenate is ridiculous….

I think and talk in circles. I’m a Jew, I’m a New Yorker, I’m a yeshiva boy. I had to learn how to unravel my sentences. Marilynne Robinson taught me. The part I was aware of is that this conflict breaks my heart in its circularity…

It was in the paper [the other day]. If you can’t see things coming—I have the mapmaker in my book do reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas. It’s obvious to me, they’ll do it next time. I’m dreaming that back to 2012. It’s those crazy circles of history that break my heart. That’s what I was aware of for the structure of the book in a deep way…

It was the circles I was aware of and different stories. When they say the front part is a political thriller, then magical realism, then a love story, and an allegory, that I wasn’t too conscious of. That’s the subconscious part.

Even the names, “the General” and “the waitress”--it doesn’t work unless it’s an allegory. I must have been aware of that in my subconscious. Jonathan [Safran Foer] said the whole book is doubled. Everyone is someone else. He said the book doesn’t work without it—it comes together, and then there are the mirror dinners at the end.

It crossed both our minds—the book literally doesn’t work without the two dinners…everything matches. I’m very interested in the conscious and the subconscious.

Q: I was going to ask you about the names. One of your characters is called “Prisoner Z” and another—who resembles Ariel Sharon—is called “The General.” How did you decide on the naming of your characters?

A: I love titling but I picked a shorter title for the fourth book. I mumble it [with long titles]; I had to pick something shorter. I’m fascinated by how the process works…Now I’ve done a dozen cities, 30 or 40 events on the road, you start learning things. It’s what the brain can handle explanation-wise…

The double answer to your question—I have Arafat as Arafat, Olmert as Olmert, Ben-Gurion as Ben-Gurion. But the General—the people who embraced Sharon as the protector of Israel embraced him for the wars he fought, as the father of the settlements, and the people who loathe him loathe him for his wars and massacres. He’s too loaded for me, even as a fictional character. I have my General…

There was a guy who became a Mossad traitor. We know why people become traitors. We understand why people collude—knowingly, unknowingly, blackmail. In America there’s an investigation going on. We know people were in the room with Russian intelligence.

This guy was so close to my life [in his upbringing]. The guy adopted a foreign country’s ideology and became a traitor. It was what I was looking for for 20 years. What would it take to flip someone through empathy? [The real-life] Prisoner X became Prisoner Z.

Why not pick someone less extreme, like [Yitzhak] Rabin? I think Rabin adopted peace. Ehud Barak got in huge trouble—Israel was in Lebanon and he said, if I were a young Lebanese kid I would join Hezbollah. If America’s occupied by a foreign force, you’re going to be quiet?...

I think Rabin had empathy. With Sharon—his whole life, he was a fighter. It was the only way he understood the world. This is a fighter, the father of settlements, he’s unkillable. You see Arafat as an old man, his plane crashes in the desert, and he walks out. When Sharon got out of Gaza, he didn’t do it because he was suddenly heartbroken for the state of affairs in Gaza. Even a great warrior understands.

Prisoner Z is empathy. The General is coldhearted. Peace is the next war to fight. I can’t believe it was out of the warming of his aging heart. He wants Israel to exist and the way to do that was not to be an occupier. If [Rabin’s assassin] Yigal Amir had not voted with his gun, if Sharon had stayed close to the hospital, I see how right there [the prospect for peace] was. How many times, even the ones we didn’t even know about.

Q: So what are you working on now?

A: I feel like I haven’t slept in forever. It’s sodium pentothal. It’s just bananas. The nice thing about my life—it’s my Joyce Carol Oates [phase], there were only five years between the last book and this one. I’m working differently. I’m so close with the next book, the next play is drafted, I want to write about my time in Malawi. It’s a nice feeling.

Five years and counting, to have a novel so close to done—I’ve never had that. I disappeared for nearly a decade the last time. The play changed me so much. It’s a different way to write and execute… Everyone’s so delicate with you in fiction. [With the theater] we would finish a rehearsal, and we need a new scene the next morning. I was learning to be of the world that way. It freed me up.

As a parent, people would say, you’re never going to write until your daughter is in college. I said, You must have a better trust fund! It’s the freeing of time—I’ve always spent all my time writing.

Having a beginning and an end has cut out my ennui time, the time I would look out the window and think. It’s the play, age, and experience. It has to count for something! It’s a much more framed day, having a shape to it.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: With my wife’s Ph.D. research, we spent last year in Malawi. The book is drawing off my memory. I teach for NYU in Paris, and spent time living in Berlin. Memory is one reality, and then you have your book reality.

Then there’s time sitting on the Zomba plateau—it’s a reality that’s so different. I’ve been an expat—I spent time abroad, but to be in a place so foreign, working on the Zomba plateau was [yet another] reality, a day-to-day reality that’s more foreign than those in my head. I’d still be writing it now if not for that.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Nathan Englander will be participating in the Lessans Family Literary Series at the Bender JCC of Greater Washington on November 3.

Oct. 20

Oct. 20, 1940: Robert Pinsky born.

Thursday, October 19, 2017

Q&A with Gilly Macmillan

Gilly Macmillan is the author of the new novel Odd Child Out. She also has written The Perfect Girl and What She Knew. She lives in Bristol, England.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for Odd Child Out, and for your characters?

A: I have always loved stories about friendship, and particularly the intense sort of friendship which can develop when we are children and teenagers.

One day, I had an idea about a dreadful yet mysterious incident happening to two best friends. The incident leaves one of them unable to say what has happened and one refusing to say.

As is often the way with an idea that develops into a novel, this one wouldn’t leave me alone. What could possibly have happened to them, I wondered, to trigger such a heart-breaking outcome?

Q: Abdi, one of your main characters, is from a refugee family. Why did you choose to incorporate this theme into the novel, and given the political climate surrounding refugees and immigration issues, what do you hope readers take away from the story?

A: One of the things I like most about the crime and thriller fiction genres is how both have historically been unafraid to dig into contemporary society and its issues from a human angle.

My home city of Bristol, where all my books are set, has refugee communities from all over the world. For the most part Bristol prides itself on being an inclusive, welcoming city, but tensions still exist here, as elsewhere, around the issue of refugees.

I wanted the book to reflect that situation. I saw it as an opportunity to introduce tensions into the story that would resonate with many of us, by exploring the different ways in which a refugee family and a non-refugee family might react to the situation their loved ones are in, and how people around them – the police and the public – might react, too.

Writing from the point of view of the Somali-British characters in my book was inevitably a tremendous and daunting challenge. I did months of research to help me understand some of the experiences they may have gone through, but in the end, I left almost all of it aside and concentrated on developing their characters with empathy, above all else.

That is the message I would most like people to take from this book: that every person is deserving of our empathy first and foremost, not just in fiction, but in life.

Q: Do you usually know how your novels will end before you finish them, or do you make many changes along the way?

A: I usually have only a very loose idea of how I want my novels to end before I finish them. I might start a novel with just a compelling scene or character in mind and work out the rest as I write, though usually it’s not long before I begin to form a plan.

The plan won’t be much at first: it sometimes consists simply of major plot points and a rough shape of the ending for each of the characters. The rest of the detail will come as I write more. All my best ideas emerge then.

For me, there’s a certain intensity to the act of writing that creates much better ideas than those I might have when I’m sitting staring at a blank page where I’d like a plot outline to be.

The downside of my process is that it can involve an awful lot of rewriting and editing as my first draft can be a bit of a mess.  I don’t mind that too much, though, because that’s when you begin to shape your work into something that is – hopefully – a good book.

Q: You bring back your character Detective Inspector Jim Clemo in this novel. Do you think he’s changed since his previous appearance?

A: I think readers will certainly recognise the Jim Clemo they know from What She Knew, but there’s no doubt his time away has changed him.

At the start of Odd Child Out he is a man who is very much aware both of his potential for failure and of the fact that he must fight to regain the trust of his colleagues. Memories of the Ben Finch case linger for him, especially as his new case involves young people, too. Life is not straightforward.

However, he remains ambitious and determined to rebuild what he has lost both personally and professionally and he seizes on the case in Odd Child Out to help him do that.

The case in Odd Child Out tests whether Jim has learned to put aside his personal feelings and do his job with the professional detachment required.

As in What She Knew, there is a chance that Jim’s empathy for the victims and their families could affect his decision-making in Odd Child Out. It’s what I love about him but it can cause him problems, too. I hope readers will enjoy this new encounter with him.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I have just delivered my fourth book to my publishers and I’m waiting to hear what edits they will suggest – always a nervous time! The book’s working title is Time To Tell, but that might change.

It’s a standalone novel introducing a new detective. It tells the story of a podcaster, Cody Swift, who returns to Bristol 20 years after his two best friends were murdered to investigate whether the man originally convicted for the crime is guilty or not, after suggestions are made that his conviction could have been wrongful.

The book is narrated via the podcast itself, the mother of one of the victims and the detective involved both in the past case and a present-day investigation involving a skeleton dug up near the site of the boys’ murders. This book was so thrilling to work on! I hope readers are going to love it as much as I do.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I have exciting plans for my fifth novel! As I wait for edits on Book 4, I am turning my mind to research for the next one. It’s another standalone, and my agent has been working with me to develop a terrific idea for it.

Readers might recognise at least one of the characters from What She Knew and Odd Child Out in this book, though I’m not saying who that might be just yet!  Watch this space…

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Oct. 19

Oct. 19, 1931: John le Carré born.

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Q&A with Alix Rickloff

Alix Rickloff is the author of the new historical novel The Way to London, set during World War II. Her other books include Secrets of Nanreath Hall and Dangerous Magic. She lives in Maryland.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for The Way to London, and for your main character, Lucy?

A: Thank you so much for inviting me here to chat with you about my new release.

The Way To London very much grew from the character of Lucy Stanhope. She’d been referred to briefly in my previous novel Secrets of Nanreath Hall as the pampered, headstrong Yankee cousin of the main character who is living a life of luxury in Singapore.

So in telling her story, I had to dig into the wartime events of late 1941 on the Malay Peninsula and how they affected the Europeans living there at the time. It quickly became obvious to me that Lucy was one of the thousands who were sent home ahead of the Japanese invasion to a country not their own and relatives they barely knew.

Her traveling companion, Bill Smedley, took shape after I read No Time To Say Goodbye by Ben Wicks, which is about the evacuation of British schoolchildren during World War II.

A city boy who’s not been farther from home than Whitechapel, Bill finds himself uprooted to the wilds of the Cornish countryside where he’s handed over to indifferent people who regard him as nothing more than a nuisance and a source of a few extra shillings a week.

The idea of the spoiled little rich girl from Singapore and the street-smart bad boy from London’s East End pairing up on a journey across country appealed to me. On the surface, they are two very disparate characters, but as we get to know them we realize they are both in search of a home and a happy-ever-after.

The Way To London is much different from my first book in tone and style. This time, we experience war-torn England from Lucy’s rather flippant, world-weary point of view as she navigates her journey to London as well as her own internal transformation. It makes for a lighter more irreverent ambience, which was especially fun for me to write.

Q: The story takes place in Singapore and Britain during World War II. What kind of research did you need to do to recreate the time period, and did you learn anything that especially surprised you?

A: I love the research aspect of writing and can spend hours tracking down the most mundane and trivial of facts. I really enjoyed learning about Singapore and the Malay Peninsula, which was completely new territory for me.

I discovered wonderful newsreel footage of the city, as well as contemporaneous travel guides that included amazing researcher gems like street maps, retail advertisements, and hours and menus for hotels and restaurants.

I searched out memoirs and other first person accounts of the Far East both prior to and during the Japanese invasion as well as information regarding the dangerous shipboard journeys of those who managed to escape.

One of the more interesting facts I uncovered while writing about Lucy and Bill’s antics in London was the ability of those with funds to avoid the harsher deprivations faced by the rest of England.

Swanky hotels like the Savoy and the Ritz maintained lavish accommodations for their guests—even their bomb shelters boasted high-class staff and comfortable quarters. In 1942 the government capped the price and number of courses for a meal, but if one had the money, one could continue to eat like a gourmet in their restaurants.

Obviously, this doesn’t square with our overall impression of Britain’s collective patriotic sacrifice, which makes it all the more interesting to me as a writer.

Q: Did you know how the story would end before you started writing it, or did you make many changes along the way?

A: I’m very much a seat of the pants type of writer. I begin with a premise or a character and the story grows from there. I might have a few pivotal scenes in my head but otherwise I follow my characters where they lead.

Unfortunately they often lead me into blind corners, dead ends, and around in circles, but eventually they take pity on a poor author and show me how it’s all supposed to turn out in the end.

Q: Who are some of your favorite writers?

A: I have to give top billing to Mary Stewart, Rosamunde Pilcher, Georgette Heyer, and Lois McMaster Bujold. Four very different writers coming from four very different genres, but all can suck me in from the first sentence. They have pride of place on my keeper shelf, and I reread them regularly.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’m working on a new project set once more in England during World War II, though it’s much more a domestic drama rather than taking its cue from the wider conflict.

A young woman, recovering from the death of her child, inherits an old house in the country. Once there, she discovers the existence of an aunt she never knew she had; one who died under mysterious circumstances over 50 years earlier.

As she uncovers the truth about what happened, she is forced to confront the reality of her own troubled past. I’ve always loved those brooding gothics from such masters as Daphne DuMaurier and Victoria Holt so this is my attempt at writing one.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: It’s been wonderful having a chance to chat. If anyone wants to continue our discussion or keep in touch, they can connect with me on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram. Thank you again for the invitation.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb