Category Archives: Author Interviews

Interview & Giveaway: Naseem Rakha, Author of The Crying Tree

Yesterday, I posted my review of Naseem Rakha’s The Crying Tree. Today I’m excited to present you with an interview with Naseem :

Irene Stanley goes through a tremendous cycle of pain and grief in The Crying Tree.  You were able to capture these emotions so perfectly.  What sort of research did you do in writing this book that allowed you to capture this pain so accurately?

It would probably be a good to say I did a great deal of research into the emotional world one enters when they lose a child, but that would not be true. My exposure to the topics in The Crying Tree, were minimal. I did cover an execution as a reporter and I have interviewed many inmates, prison officers, and staff for a variety of stories. I have also talked with crime victims about their experiences. But the real energy behind my characters’ emotions came from plumbing my own imagination and the terror, hate, pain and upheaval I know I would feel if I were to lose someone I loved to a  violent crime. My goal was to create authentic characters with struggles that felt both tangible and believable, and for me, it was best that the research came from my own soul’s voice, versus others.

The Crying Tree was quite the emotional roller coaster of a book, very difficult for me to read at times.  How difficult was it for you to write?

Some people are afraid of roller coasters, I find them exhilarating. I was driven to write The Crying Tree – like a locomotive without breaks. Nothing could stop me. I would wake every morning filled with ideas and inspiration. I had no idea what “writer’s block,” meant. Even in times when I felt utterly confused and baffled, I had to write. Yes, The Crying Tree has some difficult moments, but I worked hard to make sure this book was not a melodrama. I wanted to create something life giving. Odd to say for a book about murder and the death penalty, I know. But I always knew what I was aiming for and that target was to create a book that would make people want to turn around and find someone to share it with. That is what I felt like with every chapter I completed, and that is what I have heard from many readers.

The song Silent Night plays a pretty big role in the book. Does it have a particular meaning  to you personally?

The character of Shep, the young boy who is murdered in my novel, is a gifted musician who plays silent night every night of the year. “It is his closing piece to the end of the day, and he would either play it outside on his horn when the weather was good, or inside on the piano.” It is a famous piece, known throughout the world, and it resonates, stirring deep emotions and memories for most listeners. This was important.

As you point out, Silent Night almost becomes a theme in my novel. Silence is one of the underlying tensions in The Crying Tree – the silence between family members, the secrets they hold and what they do to the people that hold them. And of course another theme is that of the relationship between “mother and child.” The song Silent Night, brings both of these themes into the folds of the book, while triggering personal emotional connections for most readers.

The characters in The Crying Tree are all very complex with their own share of flaws.  Did you have inspiration for any of the characters or did they just create themselves as you wrote?

I don’t think it is accurate to say characters create themselves, though I know that is how it is often described. Instead, I think creating characters takes hard work and persistence. It takes both halves of the brain, the right-side must bundle unlikely characteristics together, while the left side must be the objective observer, editing and managing character traits like an artistic director. My characters grew from those two halves of my brain doing twenty-four hour a day duty. If I was not actively writing about my characters, I was thinking about them, testing them, putting them in different scenarios, seeing how they reacted, and checking out their past. If I was not actively thinking about them, I was passively ruminating – day dreams in the shower, while driving, or making dinner. The characters in The Crying Tree were a product of trial and error and occasional hits of brilliance – those moments when the things that come out of the pen are not at all what you expect – but never-the-less ring true. It is from those moments, I think, that people say their characters “create themselves.” But they don’t really. They are the writer’s children, born of our own sweet, and sometimes not so sweet dreams.

The book deals with a number of sensitive/controversial subjects.  Have you received any backlash/negative feedback based on the actions/opinions of some of the characters?

Nothing significant.

Music was an important element of the book.  Is music important to you, to your writing process?  If so, what sort of music do you listen to as you write?

Music has always been important to me. It flows into my subconscious creating an emotional ambiance from which I can pull images and actions and words. I always write to music. Right now I am listening to Time Without Consequences by Alexi Murdoch. The weather outside is gray, the trees bare, the music sparse. The setting, the music, the time of day, the season, they all make me feel emotionally vulnerable, and it is from that point that I most like to write. In writing The Crying Tree, I created a specific playlist of about 60 songs – ranging from Bach to Rosanne Cash. I have a partial list of them on my website at http://naseemrakha.com/pages/links.html

While this is your first novel, you have an extensive history in broadcast journalism.  How was writing The Crying Tree different?

The biggest difference between being a journalist and an author is the amount of faith it takes to write a work of fiction. Unlike journalism, where the characters come already created, and the beginning, middle and end of a story is all laid out somewhere for you to find – the art of fiction requires the writer to develop all this on their own. This was a challenge for me. The uncertainty of what would happen next, how my characters would get from point A to B, how the plot would move forward through time — all this and so much more were very perplexing questions that could only be answered in one way. By writing. Every day, I had to sit down with my doubts and continue to write though them. I like to point out that to get a book of about 103,000 words I had to write about 150,000 words. The unseen scenes were created for me to better understand my characters. Writing fiction, I learned, is to walk in an unknown land, with no map and no idea what lays around the next bend. It takes faith. Journalism takes drive, focus, fast fingers, and the ability to track down the people who will later become characters of your story. Both, I might add, require good editors.

What’s next for you? Do you have any other novels in process?

I am working on my second novel. It is about the complexities of love and loss.

Tell me about your writing process.  Do you have any rituals, i.e. time of day you write, certain tools you use to write?

I write whenever and whereever I can. I tend to write on my computer, as I can get in more words per minute. I use an Apple lap top and I bring it wherever I go (including Yoga class – which upsets some. “That’s not very yoga-like,” I have been told as I type before class starts.)  I do like to get up early to write. I try not to write at night, as it is very hard for me to get to sleep if I get my characters all stirred up. I also like to write in coffee shops. Or wine bars. Or train stations. Or parks. Places I can be around people without having to be with people…. I try to leave my writing when I still have ideas in my mind. This creates momentum for when I return to the page.

I love to see where the magic takes place.  Do you have a favorite reading/writing spot?

Here is a photo of my kitchen writing area. A place I tend to migrate to early in the morning. The painting in the corner was done for me by local artist Ann Altman. It is on my web site. On it is my motto: “I think therefore I read. I read therefore I think.”

Thank you, Naseem!

I have a copy of The Crying Tree to give away to one lucky individual. To enter, please fill out the form below. Open to US & Canadian residents only, please. Winner will be contacted on Friday, February 4.

Interview & Giveaway: C.M. Mayo, Author of The Last Prince of the Mexican Empire

Yesterday, I reviewed C.M. Mayo’s The Last Prince of the Mexican Empire. Today I’m pleased to welcome C.M. to my blog today!

Q: What made you decide to write about this topic?

A: I was so surprised to learn that the mother of the prince of the title– Agustin de Iturbide y Green (1863-1925) was an American. I am also an American married to a Mexican, one very distantly related to her mother-in-law, so I was curious to learn more about her, how she came to Mexico and what made her agree, at first, to collaborate with Maximilian von Habsburg. When I started to delve into reading about the period and about her, however, I quickly found so many contradictions, mysterious distortions and vagueness, that I realized her story, and that of her son, had never been properly researched. I also felt it is an important story, for both Mexicans and Americans.

suggested links:

Agustin de Iturbide y Green

Maximilian

Q: On your web site, you write about how difficult it was to make the leap to writing “serious fiction.” What happened that allowed you to make the leap from writing non-fiction?

A: I made an effort to learn the craft of fiction through taking workshops, reading books on craft, and then re-reading novels, not as consumer wanting to be entertained, but as as a fellow craftsman, actively noting, for example, how does Chekhov describe the snow? Or Tolstoy, a dress? Lampedusa, a dance? Flaubert, a sense of joy or despair? How do they handle dialogue, transitions, building suspense? And so on. It was really as simple– and as difficult— as that.

Suggested link:

books on craft

Q: Describe your writing routine: Do you write at a particular time of day?  Particular setting?  Is there anything you have to have in order to write (music playing in the background, complete silence, special socks?)

A: I’m not big on routines. I do make use of music, and I find soundwork fascinating. I can heartily recommend Don Campbell’s CD set, “The Power and Sound of Music” and Joshua Leed’s book, Sonic Alchemy: Conversations with Leading Sound Practioners.

Q: What sort of books do you like to read in your spare time?

Now that the novel is out I have been reading mostly literary nonfiction, or “creative nonfiction,” as it’s often called, and what interests me, now that I think about, is all over the map, both literally and figuratively. Recent reads include Finding Iris Chang by Paula Kamen; The Big Short by Michael Lewis; Cognitive Surplus by Clive Shirky; and The Permit That Never Expires by Philip Garrison. I love recommending books: a good one is too much of a treasure to keep to oneself! I keep a list of my annual top 10, as well as other reviews here:

http://www.cmmayo.com/pubs-bookrev-home.html


Q: What author (alive or dead) would cause you to go speechless, should you meet them in person?

I think I could manage to croak out a “hello,” for just about anybody.  I might go speechless if they shot purple stars out of their nostrils, or something like that. I don’t mean to be flip. I think I have an unusual sense of groundedness about the famous, wealthy, powerful, unusually accomplished, etc, because my novel is stocked with a large cast of precisely such characters. I had to live with the likes of Maximilian von Hasburg and John Bigelow for so many years, I couldn’t help but notice that they are, after all, human. And we are all, whether we realize it or not, connected to one another.


Q: Are there any authors who have influenced your writing?

A: For this novel, the most influential were Guiseppi di Lampedusa, whose richly splendid novel, The Leopard, covers a similar period in Sicily. For the flexible narrative voice and language I learned from Henry James’s Portrait of A Lady and Edith Wharton’s The Custom of the Country and for structure, her tragic novel The House of Mirth. Contemporary influences include A. Manette Ansay, Kate Braverman, Bruce Chatwin, Ted Conover, Douglas Glover, V.S. Naipaul, and oh, so many others. Everyone in Mexico asks me if I’ve read Fernando del Paso’s Noticias del Imperio. The answer is, other than a very few pages which I translated for my anthology, Mexico: A Traveler’s Literary Companion, no, and not because I am unaware that it is considered one of Mexico’s greatest novels. Del Paso covers the same period and many of the same characters, and I wanted to have a clear consience that my novel is my own. So now I have to read it!


Q: Fondest book tour moment?

A: For me the best part of a book tour is meeting other writers and historians. Tony Arthur showed up at my reading at Vroman’s in Pasadena. He and I had been corresponding via e-mail for time about our research. He was then working on a book about General Shelby and the other Confederates who came to Mexico during Maximilian’s reign. Tony had recently been diagnosed with cancer and so I can only imagine what an effort it must have been for him to come to the reading. He passed away recently; I was so glad to have had the chance, however briefly, to have met him in person.

That concludes the “official” part of the interview.  As typical, I asked C.M. for a picture of her favorite spot to read or relaxed.  Following is a picture taken of the view from her desk, with muse, Picadou (her pug).

Adorable!!

Now, on to the giveaway!  One lucky individual will win a copy of The Last Prince of the Mexican Empire. To enter, please fill out the form below.  Open to US & Canadian residents only, please.  The winner will be announced on Friday, November 19th.  Good luck to all who enter!

Inteview with Isla Morley, Author of Come Sunday

It’s not often that I do author interviews, but after reading COME SUNDAY I couldn’t help myself, the questions just flowed right out of me.  I hope you enjoy!

Photo credit: Molly Hawkey

You grew up in South Africa during apartheid.  Do you think this changed they way you looked at life? At people? How did it affect your writing, specifically what you wrote about?

When I moved to California in 1994 after marrying my husband (an American), the big news was then-First Lady, Hilary Clinton, had said a bad word.  I thought, “Wait.  What?  This is a big deal on this side of the word?”  In South Africa, we’d just been through the first free election without any assassinations.  Many still feared the kind of bloodbath that had happened in other African countries.  A new constitution was being hammered out, and the Truth And Reconciliation Commission was about to be established, a system seeking justice for victims and perpetrators of atrocities through repentance and forgiveness.


Growing up in South Africa meant being immersed in complexities, and so it’s really no surprise that I’m drawn to stories and characters that are complex.  The abiding themes of suffering, forgiveness, and redemption have made their way from my childhood memories to the pages of my manuscript.

You’ve lived all over the world, including Johannesburg, London and Honolulu, and now Los Angeles. All of these locations have vastly different cultures.  Which location was your favorite, and why?

I like places where there’s a diversity of cultures.  Honolulu was probably my favorite, but not for the typical reasons.  It was there that I made friends with three amazing women, each from a different part of the world – Singapore, Tonga and the Seychelles.  They’re all different colors, too, and for a white girl who grew up in a segregated society, these friends represent a power no government can corral.

You literally left behind everything you had when you chose to leave South Africa and move to the US.  How did this change/effect you?

I left my country with two suitcases and enough naiveté to fill a hundred Harlequin novels.  I had no idea how hard being a foreigner was going to be.  To my husband’s congregation, I was Mrs. Reverend Morley, to the IRS I was ‘Resident Alien.’  It was as though I’d been stripped of my identity, but everyone kept smiling and saying, “Gee, what a pretty accent you have.  Are you from Australia?”  Amid the daily stresses of driving on the wrong side of the road, deciphering recipes that called for ingredients in ounces and pounds instead of milliliters and grams, and decoding cultural in-jokes like Seinfeld, I built up a big reservoir of empathy for those who are considered “outsiders.”

Abbe Deighton, the main character in Come Sunday has lost her bearings after moving from Africa to Hawaii.  Were aspects of Abbe’s life taken from your own?  Did you lose your bearings after leaving your home? What did you do to overcome this?

Losing one’s bearings, whether by choice or by circumstance, is probably something each of us should go through at least once.  It gives you a chance to examine what’s really important.  It’s easy to become defined by stuff.  But when you’re lost, physically and spiritually, when you’re emotionally disoriented, you’re in the best position to latch on to what is real and lasting.  Love, of course, but also friendship, loyalty, hope, God.  Finding out your bearings have nothing to do with compass coordinates is a liberating experience.

Abbe experiences a pretty traumatic loss in Come Sunday. How difficult was this to write, being a mother of a daughter yourself?

It was hard to imagine myself in Abbe’s situation.  I used to avoid movies and books where children get hurt, because that’s a deep scary cave.  But this was a story that wanted telling, and it was as if I was the sucker who showed up on the day that particular assignment was handed out.  Soon after I started writing the story, though, I knew it wasn’t going to be all about grief but more about the redemptive power of forgiveness.  It was going to be about the nature of marriage and motherhood and interracial friendships.

Before making the leap to fiction, you were a journalist.  How did the two roles differ? Did your role as a journalist help/hinder your role as a fiction writer?

When I wrote for the magazine, it was challenging and demanding, but ultimately soulless.  After I quit my job, I pledged never to write again.  Ten years later, after Abbe materialized at my bedside one night, I encountered something entirely different.  When I sat down to write, it felt as if there was a great invisible river running above me and I was sticking my finger in it, and the undercurrent coursed through me and spilled out onto the page.  It was immensely fulfilling and life-changing.

Your work has been compared to authors like Barbara Kingsolver, Bohjalian, Sue Miller, and Anita Shreve. I say I have to agree! Who are some of your favorite authors?

Thank you.  It’s very humbling, those comparisons, and I’m sure they’d stop if people were to see me hacking away at the weedy undergrowth of my latest story.


Among my favorite authors are Cormac McCarthy, Tim O’Brien, Anne Lamott, Bill Bryson, Roxana Robinson, Doris Lessing, Jon Krakauer and Alan Paton.

Who/what is your inspiration as you write? Is it always the same, or does it change depending on what you write about?

The inspiration for a story tends to come from a particular character, rather than an event or place.  And whatever inspired the character – who can say?  I tend to believe it’s the great Creative Spirit who is the author of all stories.

I’m anxiously awaiting another book from you. Can you give us a hint on what you are working on now?

The reason why I wrote secretly in a closet (literally) for two years was because I needed to write and write with permission to fail.  I didn’t want to disappoint anyone.  For this reason, it’s hard to talk about what’s next.  But I can tell you it will tackle deep themes and include events that challenge and change lives.

I’m nosey…I like to see where people work.  Can you share with readers  a picture of your desk, office, etc?
Here’s where I’ve been doing my writing lately… I have an office, but it’s out on the deck with the view of the San Gabriel Mountains that I spend much of my day.  I’ve also traded my computer for old-fashioned notebooks and a ballpoint pen.  There’s always a pot of tea and the sound of the mockingbird and grand thoughts drifting along on the morning breeze.

What a breathtaking view! Ahh…and do I spot post-it notes? A woman after my own heart!

Check back later today & enter to win a copy of COME SUNDAY by Isla Morley!

Interview with John Shors, Author of The Dragon House

On Tuesday, I posted my review of  Dragon House by John Shor. I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to interview John as well.

John_Shors-105I was reading your biography and learned that you took a backpacking trip through Asia when you were in your twenties.  What inspired this trek?

After graduating from Colorado College, I flew to Japan, where I taught English for two years. I loved this experience, and wanted to see more of Asia. Fortunately, I was able to save up enough money in Japan to then go on a year-long backpacking trip around Asia. I visited about ten countries, and had a life-changing adventure. I was profoundly influenced by my experiences with foreign people and cultures. Suddenly the world seemed like a smaller and better place.
 

The characters in Dragon House are very complex and multi-dimensional.  When writing, did you already have the characters created in your mind, or did they evolve as you wrote?

At the outset of a book, I always have certain characters in mind, and I write from their perspectives. However, it’s not until late in a project, say when I’m working on my tenth draft, that I really begin to feel a rapport, an intimacy, with my characters. At that point, they begin speaking on their own behalf. That’s when writing, at least for me, is really fun, because the words seem to flow so well.

Were any of the characters in Dragon House inspired by actual people?

I’ve been lucky enough to travel to Vietnam three times (in 1993, 1999, and 2007). During those trips, I spent a lot of time speaking and interacting with street children, who are so common in areas populated by tourists. I found these children to be remarkable in so many ways. They were bright, articulate, hopeful, and resilient. And they definitely inspired the characters in Dragon House. For instance, over the course of a month in northern Thailand, I played Connect Four every night with a seven- or eight-year-old boy. He played tourists in Connect Four, betting a dollar a game, and this is how he survived. He was a brilliant boy, and he inspired the character, Minh, in Dragon House.
 

The children of Hanoi are obviously very important to you.  How did you become involved with Blue Dragon Children’s Foundation?

Well, I wanted Dragon House to not only benefit me and my family, but the children who I drew such inspiration from. So I went looking for a group that supported such children. Blue Dragon Children’s Foundation is a wonderful group that helps educate and shelter hundreds of street children in Vietnam. I feel so blessed to be able to draw attention to the work that BDCF is doing. It’s been gratifying to help try and raise money for BDCF, and what’s really neat is that after finishing Dragon House, a number of readers have emailed me, asking how they could make direct donations to BDCF.
 
Do you have any idea of much money Dragon House has generated for Blue Dragon Children’s Foundation?

At this point Dragon House has generated around $5,000 for BDCF. That’s in the three months since the publication of Dragon House. And while that’s not a vast amount of money, the money does go a long way in Vietnam. In fact, it was used to buy complete sets of school books for 500 street children. I’m still trying to raise a lot more money for BDCF, and hope to do so.
 
Can you tell us more about your next novel, The Wishing Trees? Can we expect something similar to Dragon House?

Funny you should ask, as my editor and I have been working on the back-cover copy for The Wishing Trees. It will read something like this: Almost a year after the death of his wife, Kate, former high-tech executive, Ian, finds a letter that will change his life. It contains Kate’s final wish—a plea for him to take their ten-year-old daughter, Mattie, on a trip across Asia, through all the countries they had planned to visit to celebrate their tenth anniversary.
 
Driven to honor the wife and mother they still deeply mourn, Ian and Mattie embark on an exotic journey that retraces the early days of Ian’s relationship with Kate. Along the way, they leave paper “wishes” in ancient trees, symbols of their connection to Kate. Through incredible landscapes and inspiring people, Ian and Mattie are greeted with miracles large and small. And as they grieve over what they’ve lost, they begin to find their way back to each other, discovering that healing is possible and that love endures—lessons that Kate hoped to show them all along…

Thank you, John, for taking the time to answer my questions.  Remember, you still have time to enter to win a copy of John Shor’s Dragon House.  To read more about the author, please visit his web site.