Friday, May 18, 2018

Book Bites: Berit Ellingsen, author of Now We Can See the Moon

Book Bites: Short and Sweet Interviews for Readers on the Go

Today, I'm excited to bring you an interview with Berit Ellingsen, one of my favorite authors. Now We Can See the Moon debuts May 28th and like all of Ellingsen's previous work (including her novel Not Dark Yet and her short story collection Vessel and Solsvart) it is quietly brilliant, foreboding and stylistically gorgeous. Ellingsen's latest offering, full of haunted landscapes, weighted characters and the struggle between nature and civilization at the hands of humanity, is not to be missed.
“This is the best work yet from a truly unique writer who clearly will be a name to conjure for decades to come.” – Jeff VanderMeer

Were they any parts of your novel that were edited out, but which you miss terribly?

In Now We Can See The Moon I had other parts with the rescue/ID-team searching the city for dead people, but these parts were cut because they didn't add much to the story and slowed down the pace.

There was one part I regret cutting, though. I wanted to show that society had started to break down in various ways long before the hurricane arrived.

In the cut section, Jens, the emergency physician, describes how he used to work as an ambulance doctor, but quit because the ambulance would be attacked by mobs when it arrived in certain areas of the city. The people there would call the emergency services to lure them into ambushes.

Emergency service personnel have nearly been killed in such attacks, even here in Scandinavia. I wanted to hint that these experiences were the reason Jens started working as a rescue physician in the distant Southern Ocean instead, before he joined "The Corpse Counters".

What is the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever received?

Right when I started writing novels, which was a very different process than the short stories I had been writing until then, I was discouraged by seeing how bad my first drafts were and how much editing they needed, to even get close to how I wanted them to be.

But a coder friend told me: "First you write it. Then you tweak it. Then it becomes perfect".

As a coder, he was familiar with the process of getting the ideas down on paper first, and then slowly refining it into a working whole. I wrote down those words on paper and had it over my desk until I changed writing spot and unfortunately lost the note.

But by that time I had gotten used to the slow process of novel writing and multiple rounds of edits. Today I really enjoy the first draft as it mostly feels like reading a book for the first time. Was it you who said that "The first drafts are for me"?

I feel like that too. The first draft is opening a book you didn't know you had and reading it for the first time.

How important is the setting in your novel?

I love to write settings. To me, the setting is a character of its own, and more, because it determines much of the tone and feel of the entire story.

In visual design they say that form follows function and that the two must work together for the same purpose. That's how I think of setting, too. It must work together with the rest of the story to enhance or emphasize the atmosphere and feel of the story. And sometimes the plot and characters, too.

Or you can do the complete opposite and use setting and plot that really clash or contrast with one another, on purpose for an interesting or unsettling effect.

I love to write weird settings, rarely used settings, or realistic settings but viewed in unusual ways. I think the reason is that I love landscapes as well as interiors, and environments that are either completely wild and natural, or 100% designed by human minds.

Are there any symbols running throughout your novel? Do readers recognize them?

In Now We Can See The Moon, animals such as snakes, leeches and eels appear, and hummingbirds, herons, seagulls and sparrows. Maybe interestingly, many of the creeping animals appear in the first half of the story while many of the flying animals are mentioned in the second half.

I enjoy adding animals to my stories, both as part of the setting but also as symbols or archetypes. Humans share so many of our basic reactions and behaviors with the other mammals, and to a smaller extent, reptiles and birds, so it's very interesting to have animals in stories.

Like you, I share my life with an animal, and I've learned so much about communication, intelligence and humans and animal life from that.

When you get to know an individual animal, you discover they have a wholly individual and sometimes very strong personality. That we can recognize personality and specific demeanors in animals show how much we share with them.

I always assume readers will get symbols, if not all of them, then most of them, on a conscious or unconscious level. And if they don't, it's not a disaster. They'll see other parts of the story that are important to them.

What single book has been the most influential to you as a writer?

In 1967, Swedish-Finnish writer Irmelin Sandman Lilius, published Bonadea, a collection of short stories set in a fictional Finnish town during the Crimean War (1853-1856). These stories are not typical historical fiction, nor are they the entirely realistic, but somewhere in between. A mix of historical fiction, speculative fiction, and literary fiction.

The book's title refers to the name of the young girl who is the main character in the stories. Their plot and structure are quite simple, but also wise and have a very home-like atmosphere. Maybe because they are very Scandinavian/Nordic in a way I can't explain.

I guess these stories would be considered Young Adult today, but to me they seem to be written for adults in mind, but at the same time being accessible to younger readers.

Something about the setting and the mix of the fantastical and the poetical realism really makes me treasure these stories. It's a slim volume, just 155 pages, but I take it out at least once a year to re-read one or two stories from it.

Unfortunately, this collection has not been translated to English. But a novel trilogy, called Gold Crown Lane, which this collection is strongly connected with, was translated to English. These novels are set in the same village as Bonadea and are about three sisters and their mother's life in the village. Like the collection, the novels are a poetical mix of realism, historical fiction and fantasy. Sadly, all of these books have been out of print for years.

The closest I can compare Lilius' style and sensibility with is Ursula LeGuin. Her collection Orsinian Tales, one of her less known works, which are realistic stories set in an imaginary country, is also one of the books I keep returning to.

Monday, May 14, 2018

Sunshine Noir: An Interview with Jeffery Hess

So, Jeffery Hess, one of my favorite author-people, has a new book out! Check out my interview with Jeff over at LitReactor and then be sure to pick up a copy of his latest: Tushhog. Happy Reading!

Grit Lit: An American Phenomenon Goes Global

So many thanks to CrimeReads for publishing my recent interview with author Robert Parker (Crook's Hollow and more) on the Grit Lit genre, both in America and England. Cheers!

Saturday, April 28, 2018

Book Bites: Marietta Miles, author of May

Book Bites: Short and Sweet Interviews for Readers on the Go

Today, I'm fortunate enough to bring you an interview with the badass Marietta Miles, author of May, a dark thriller that is as raw-boned and gritty as it is atmospheric and brimming with a quiet, dangerous tension. Enjoy!
“Every page has a lovely line, something to savor, even as the story uneasily slips under your skin. There’s beauty in the violence in this novella about loneliness and the lengths people go to free themselves from its grasp." —E.A. Aymar, author of You’re As Good As Dead

Which character in the novel gave you the most trouble?

Oddly, the decent characters are a real challenge. To me, they are the most unbelievable and I strive to make them more credible. If there is one type of person I do not trust, it is a perfect person. Everyone has a nick or divot in their armor and what that weakness is can be really important. It can tell you quite a bit about that character. In May we meet Aunt Madison, one of the more thoughtful characters in the story. She’s the main mother figure, however we watch as she takes short-cuts here and there. When May’s mother dies, Maddie begins giving May cough syrup to help her go to sleep. Coffee to get her through the days. It seems small and even well-meaning at first, but it leads to May becoming dependent and unable to handle the real world because she doesn’t know how.

Who was your intended audience for the novel?

I’ve never had a set audience in mind, but I have always been very interested in what women have to say about my work. I want to hear if I get it right. Even when I get acceptances or edits from publishers or editors who are men, in the back of my mind, I’m always wondering what their female friends, wives, moms, or sisters might think.

But, but, but…I have been so pleasantly surprised with the amount of support from male writers. It’s been very encouraging. And when I say support, three of these gentlemen, quite literally, put together a public relations blitz for May out of the goodness of their busy hearts. Their efforts were priceless. They continue to recommend and review and that is the best compliment I could hope for.

How do you handle writer’s block?

When I come to a point where I cannot see the next passage or imagine the next part of the story, I try to flip my perspective. Particularly if I’m super committed to the work, say I’m several thousand words in or my mind can’t quit the character or story. For instance, in May, she and Tommy have a fairly uncertain ending. I knew as I started the follow-up I wanted it to be the end of their story, but I couldn’t shake the fog from my brain enough to get a clear storyline. After a few days of not writing I tried again, but from Tommy’s point of view. It was a shot of adrenalin, the words flowed much easier.

What piece of your own writing are you most proud of?

“Tell Her.” It’s a piece of flash fiction from 2014. Joe Clifford published it at Out of the Gutter online. When he emailed me to tell me he was publishing it I was walking into the coliseum with my girls to see Frozen on Ice. His enthusiasm and the kind things he said in his message made me cry. Everyone around me thought I really, really liked the show. Before that, when I initially wrote the piece, I asked a friend to read it for me and she told me I made her throw up. Made my day. Even now, Will Viharo and Joe still recommend the story to people. Nothing better.

Have you ever given up on a writing project?

I really try not to. If something is just not working, it doesn’t make my heart race or my hands shake, I’ll dissect pieces of that story and parcel it out to other projects before I give up. I don’t get a huge chunk of time to write, so when I sit down and actually start working, what I’m writing is something that I have quietly obsessed over for some time. I trust that the story or character matters too much to give up. There have been times when I’ve cut a short story down to a single passage in a full-length piece because I thought it would work. Several secondary characters from Route 12 started with their own short or novella.

Friday, April 20, 2018

Book Bites: Alex Segura, author of Blackout

Book Bites: Short and Sweet Interviews for Readers on the Go

I'm so excited to bring you an interview with Alex Segura today! Segura is both an uber-talented crime and mystery writer and one of my favorite people to 'event' with. (He's also one of the nicest and most hardworking guys in the business...) Blackout, Segura's fourth novel to feature Miami PI and anti-hero Pete Fernandez, keeps the hits coming as Pete now finds himself entangled with both cult leaders and politicians, all set in front of a steamy South Florida backdrop. When you're done reading, be sure to check out Segura's website for information on his upcoming tour dates, including a stint with me at Books & Books on May 23rd. And be sure to pick up a copy of Blackout, hitting shelves May 8th.
“Alex Segura one of the writers who reminds me why I fell in love with PI fiction and wanted to write it.” ―Laura Lippman, New York Times bestselling author of Sunburn

What drew you to the genre you write in?

That’s a great question. I’d always been a fan of mysteries and crime novels – I think Mario Puzo’s The Godfather was one of my earliest pulp novels, at the tender age of eight or nine. So that kind of set the tone. I was also an avid comic book reader. By the time I was in my mid-twenties, I’d moved to NY from Miami and was working in comics, doing PR. When your hobbies become your job, the tone is different. I was now working in what was once a realm of fantasy. I turned to crime novels as a form of escape – building off masters like Chandler and Jim Thompson and discovering people like George Pelecanos, Laura Lippman and Dennis Lehane. Those novels were so seeped in setting, too, that it got me to thinking about Miami – a place I was very homesick for – and how cool it’d be to have a Miami PI that was as flawed as Tess Monaghan, Nick Stefanos, Pat Kenzie or Moe Prager. I didn’t have any luck right away, so in an act of hubris, I though, “I’ll write one myself!” That’s kind of how Pete Fernandez was born. To more directly answer your question – I think crime fiction, if we have to get into the genre debate – is the most authentic space if you really want to showcase the world as it is, and present it in an honest way, warts and all. The best bits of social commentary and reality have come to me by reading crime fiction, which often presents us with a raw, unfiltered look at the world around us, and I find that really appealing as a writer.

Is there anything in the novel that you wish more readers noticed?

I put a lot of little hat tips and in-jokes in the Pete books to keep me entertained, so it’s always fun when people catch them. I gave a sleazy lawyer the same name as a reporter friend and one of the baddies shares a surname with an editor I worked with at DC Comics.

In terms of bigger picture stuff – I hope the themes are clear. That’s the struggle for all writers, right? That your message comes across? All the Pete books have been about Pete’s personal struggle as he tries to solve a case. Some of the cases are direct pulls from his father’s files. Others tie into his family’s life in Cuba. This one – Blackout – is all him. A case he failed to solve, because he was a raging drunk, has come back to haunt him and it’s collected a ton of deadly baggage on the way. This book is about Pete’s realization that there’s more to recovery than just not drinking – it’s a pass to a new life, and in this book, hopefully, he realizes that and takes it. At least that’s what I was going for. Fingers crossed people get it, too.

Do you have a set routine as a writer?

My only routine is that I jump on pockets of time when they arise. I have a full-time job, I have a family (including a rambunctious toddler) and everything else that keeps people busy – so I do my best to prioritize writing. I was listening to Attica Locke speak at the Virginia Festival of the Book last weekend and she said something I completely agree with and will paraphrase, but basically – you don’t have to write every day. But you do have to write. Don’t let the idea that you have to write every day prevent you from writing, because there is no one, clear method to succeeding as a writer. That said, you should stay engaged as a reader and think about your writing as much as you can. My routine, then, is to be mindful of when I have time to write – usually at night, after dinner and after the kid is asleep – and make the most of those times. It’s worked for me so far.
What is the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever received?

Stephen King’s On Writing is invaluable – a heartfelt memoir of the craft that is loaded with good advice and lots of humanity. I reread that book every few years and always feel reborn after. So, that’s a cheat, but there you go. Elmore Leonard is spot-on when he says not to spend too much time describing places and people. A book is a mental contract with a reader and, I feel, you have to meet them in the middle – give them just enough to paint a picture in their head and go on this journey with you. If you bog the book down by describing how many notches a belt has or the kind of soda bottle you’d find in the backseat of a car, you might lose them. Especially if you’re writing a crime novel that relies on the propulsion of plot.

Another bit of advice that comes to mind, that I’ve been going back and forth with fellow authors and thinking about a lot lately is “focus on the work.” There are so many damn distractions in life today, especially for writers – promoting your book, building a brand or platform, campaigning for awards, creating the right look for your website, whatever…but none of it matters if the book isn’t good. That should be the focus, first and foremost. You have to hope the rest will fall into place, but your main concern as a writer should be the work.

What do you wish more readers would ask you about?

I’d love to talk about Pete’s supporting cast! I really enjoy writing them – sometimes more than Pete, to be honest. Kathy Bentley, Pete’s partner, is a big part of the series and really interesting to me. I hope readers enjoy how we push them forward – Kathy, Dave, Harras, Jackie – in the next book and beyond.

Friday, April 13, 2018

Book Bites: D. Michael Hardy, author of Pain and Longing

Book Bites: Short and Sweet Interviews for Readers on the Go

This Friday, I'm bringing you something new: an interview with author and photographer D. Michael Hardy. In his debut collection, Pain & Longing, Hardy combines unflinching, soul-searching poems with gorgeous black and white photographs in a compelling exploration of the razor's edge of solitude. Just in time for National Poetry Month!

How do you handle writer’s block?
Whenever I’m feeling stuck I put on music – jazz, darkwave, trip hop - something that conveys the mood of the piece I’m working on. Music has saved my life on countless occasions, and it almost never fails to trigger the flow of words when I start thinking I’ll never be able to write another word again. Going for a long walk, especially after dark, when there’s nothing but you and the stars and the creatures of the night, also helps clear my head of all the distractions life throws at you and get my head back in the game.

In your eyes, what does it mean to be a “successful” writer?

I think for me, being a successful writer means putting out the best work I possibly can, something I can look back on after six months or twenty years, and be proud of, and hopefully enough people enjoy it. And I’d like to make enough money to live without having to work a day job. I think that’s the more realistic dream for most writers. I’m not really interested in making six-figure book deals or winning awards. If those things happen that would be amazing, but it’s not why I write.

Do you have a set routine as a writer?

In a way. I mean, I write whenever I can, but because of my day job I usually write from around ten p.m. to midnight or a little later on the weekdays, unless I go out, which I rarely do these days. I like to write at that time because everything else has been taken care of, work and emails and chores, and I can focus solely on the writing. Sometimes that involves some whiskey or wine, and knowing I don’t have to go anywhere and can just crawl into bed when I’m done is a huge comfort. I also like to write early on Saturdays, for a couple hours between breakfast and dinner, and then the rest of the weekend I can be free to enjoy at my leisure.

What is the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever received?

It’s not advice I’ve received personally, and I’m sure most every writer has already heard this, but it was to write the book you want to read. I’ve held onto this piece of advice more than any other, and it’s almost like my mantra when I sit down to write. The stories and poems in my head are what I want to read most, so I do my best to transfer them to paper. Ultimately, at the end of the day, you have to be proud of the work you put out because once it’s published it no longer belongs to you and your name is on it, and you have to be able to stand behind it. And whether people like my poetry and forthcoming novel and whatever else I write in the future, or they hate it, I know I need to be proud of it. And I’m proud of this book I’ve just put out, so that’s what truly matters to me.

What single book has been the most influential to you as a writer?

For poetry, hands down it would have to be Charles Bukowski’s The Pleasures of the Damned. I think his greatest poetry is in that collection, and if you’ve never read him before it’s a perfect book to start with to truly get a feel for his poetry. He’s my biggest influence when it comes to poetry, so I can’t recommend him enough. His poem “Eulogy to a Hell of a Dame” is beautiful and never fails to bring me close to tears. Of course, Less Than Zero by Bret Easton Ellis was the book that, when I was young, convinced me that I wanted to be a writer. That book completely changed my life.