Saturday, February 28, 2015

Q&A with Dionne Peart

Dionne Peart is the author of the novel Somerset Grove, which takes place in Jamaica and Canada. She lives in Washington, D.C.

Q: Your novel focuses on three generations of women. How did you come up with your three main characters, Ruby, Angelique, and Carmen?

A: I knew I wanted to write a multigenerational story. The first character that came to me was Angelique. She’s a compilation of many women I’ve known—she’s savvy but she keeps people at arm’s length…

Growing up in Winnipeg, there were a lot of first-generation Canadians there. A lot of people came without their parents, or their parents came and left them in their country of origin. Some of the girls I grew up with had distant relationships with their mothers.

[Angelique’s daughter] Carmen is the character many people identify with. She’s a first-generation Canadian, and is inspired by a lot of the people I’ve grown up with—trying to walk the line between a new life in Canada and connecting with their culture.

[Carmen’s grandmother] Ruby was not supposed to be a main character, but about two-thirds of the way through, I knew I needed to bring in another main character, and Ruby was in the background screaming and protesting that she needs to be a main character!

She turns out to be one of my favorite characters. She’s a typical Jamaican mother—they want to be sure you don’t shame them. She starts out hard at the beginning—people don’t like her…until they read her story.

Q: I was going to ask you if you make changes as you write, and it sounds as if you do—but did you have the ending in mind as you started writing?

A: I didn’t. Again, about two-thirds of the way through, because there were so many conflicts, I knew I couldn’t wrap it up as a happy ending. I needed something to bring them together, and the idea of tragedy came to me—[that’s] how the three women came together.

Q: Somerset Grove is set in Jamaica and Canada. What do you think those two countries mean to your protagonists?

A: My story is that my parents grew up in Jamaica and went to England to finish high school, and after they were married and had [children] they moved to Canada. Jamaica is a former British colony, so a lot of people [move to those countries] and a lot of people could identify with that. There’s a large Caribbean population in Canada.

Q: So some of this was inspired by your family?

A: The journey. Picking up when you’re in your teens, and going to another country by yourself. It’s a very common theme for a lot of Caribbean families….

Q: You’re also a lawyer. How does your legal training fit into your work as a writer?

A: My legal training has really helped me with technical writing, how to analyze story and characters. I did a lot of litigation…and was fortunate to work for a partner who was very meticulous. You would write a 30-page brief and he would find the one typo! He also taught me that you have to tell a story…to convince the judge to rule in favor of your client.

Q: Did you always know you wanted to write fiction?

A: When I was very young--creative writing was my favorite class in elementary school and junior high. Then they stopped offering that class, and I put it on the back burner. A few years into my practice…the idea of writing a novel came to me.

Q: Which authors have inspired you?

A: Toni Morrison was probably the first African-American author I discovered--I loved The Bluest Eye. And Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston. With Toni Morrison, I loved the way you have to read at her pace. I love the way she can make something beautiful out of something tragic. Recently I’ve started to enjoy Marlon James…and Edwidge Danticat.

Q: I saw that you’ve finished your second novel and you’re working on your third?

A: Correct. The second one is called Butterfly, and it’s about an attorney in the middle of a personal and professional transformation…she starts to look at things in her private life, and examines her relationship with her best friend—and discovers something that could derail the friendship and her career.

Q: Can you say anything about the third novel yet, or is it too early?

A: It’s called Blackheart Man, and it’s based on a Jamaican legend. It was supposed to be my second book, but I write on a Netbook, and I put it on a flashdrive…and I lost the flashdrive. It was a real tragedy for me! I tore up my house, my car, every coffeeshop I visited, and I couldn’t find it. I tried to start writing it again, and I couldn’t. Only since my trip to Jamaica was I inspired to write it again.

Q: Anything else we should know about Somerset Grove?

A: I like to read books that explore a time, space, and culture. Somerset Grove did that for me when I wrote it, and [for people who also like that] it’s one that will take you there!

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Feb. 28

Feb. 28, 1894: Ben Hecht born.

Friday, February 27, 2015

Q&A with Ruth Kassinger

Q: You write that A Garden of Marvels was initially inspired by your experience with your kumquat tree. How did that come about?

A: I don’t think I’m alone in forming a sentimental feeling toward a plant. I really loved this little plant—she was just perfect, except her leaves dropped off. I did a poor job of pruning!

It occurred to me—I had had the thought before—that I don’t know much about how these [plants] work. You can follow the instructions in a book or on the hangtag, but sometimes it helps to know what’s going on in a plant. I got a book, Botany for Gardeners, but it was really boring. All my writerly instincts kicked in—“I can do a better job than this!”—and that’s what I did.

Q: Was there anything that especially surprised you in the course of your research?

A: The story of Sebastien Vaillant. On June 10, 1717, he gave an incredible, sexy lecture that crystallized it for me—there was so little known about plants! In 1717, this was an amazing moment. He was a very appealing character, but he was so stopped in his career by who he was, a son of a tradesman—there was no chance of his becoming a professor. That was one of the most engaging moments.

Also Marcello Malpighi. There was very little written about him, but there was a wonderful five-volume collection of his letters, so I had this sense of doing primary research. I found the particular day when he had written about being at a particular anatomy lesson. It was one of the last times he did something with human anatomy; he was about to leave for the country to work on plant anatomy.

Q: One particularly interesting plant in your book is the fruit cocktail tree that you named Dorothy. What more can you say about that?

A: It started with [my previous book,] Paradise Under Glass, going to a greenhouse complex, Logee’s, in Connecticut. In one of the greenhouses, there was a giant cocktail tree, with so many different kinds of fruit hanging off it. The tree was growing in the dirt, not in a pot, which tells you how big it can become. I just really wanted one! I loved the idea of one tree that could bear different kinds of fruit. It set me off on a quest that took me to Florida.

Q: What about the giant pumpkins you write about, and the pumpkin boats?

A: As I did research on pumpkins, I spent a lot of time talking to people who grow giant pumpkins, and someone said, Go to the Giant Pumpkin Regatta [in Damariscotta, Maine]. It’s a beautiful place. I could hardly hold my camera, I was laughing so hard. It was a fun vacation!

Q: How did you decide on A Garden of Marvels for the book’s title?

A: It just came to me. I really struggled with the subtitle—it captures part of the book, but not the other part, talking to people about their extraordinary plants. The cover was painted by a friend who lives across the street, Eva-Maria Ruhl.

Q: Your book includes information on early botanists as well as current scientists and your own life. How did you blend those elements as you worked on the book?

A: I was very conscious of keeping people’s interest and slipping in the science as easily and gently as I could. I had the story of botany in mind, but I knew I needed to chop it in small pieces, and only focus on the botanists who were the most interesting.

I was going to alternate as much as I could: the story about me, the story about someone in the here and now, and the story about someone in the past. It was hardest for me to write about myself. [Looking at an early draft], my editor said, “It needs more Ruth-ness!” She said people are really interested in who is telling them the story.

Q: What has the reaction been to A Garden of Marvels?

A: The reaction to the book has been gratifying. One reader wrote to me that A Garden of Marvels was the first science book she'd read. The book is really a combination of history, science, and contemporary stories, but I'll take it! A Garden of Marvels recently made the New York Times bestseller list for science.

Q: You’ve also written for young adults. Do you have a preference when it comes to writing for younger readers or adults?

A: Adults. What I find fascinating is the science. What inspired the kids’ books, and the adult books, is to bring what I find so entrancing about science [to the readers].

There’s only so much complexity you can go into with the young adult books. A lot of the humor and irony would be lost.

Q: Do you have any writers who have especially inspired you?

A: Michael Pollan, The Botany of Desire. I love books by Nick Lane, a really great popular science writer. Stephen Jay Gould. George Johnson, who wrote The Ghost Map--in England, in the early 1800s, figuring out cholera and how it was transmitted. These are people who are really good at communicating science in a narrative form.

Q: Are you working on another book now?

A: Yes, I'm well into a new book. The subject is algae. No doubt, you'll think "Ew!" and wonder if I'm crazy for choosing such a subject.

But consider that half the oxygen you are breathing right now is made by algae. It's also a fantastically nutritious food, and is 10 percent of the diet of East Asians. It is certainly a factor in the long lives of Japanese and Koreans.

Algae could well be an important part of our transportation future. Some exciting new companies are genetically engineering algae so they excrete ethanol and even gasoline.

Grown in plastic bioreactors, these algae take up carbon dioxide, use no fresh water, and require no arable land. And the product is below the cost of fossil fuels.

Of course, algae are also causing major environmental problems in the Gulf of Mexico and other bodies of water. They grow out of control when too much nitrogen enters the water from farm run-off. The "dead zone" in the Gulf is the size of the state of Connecticut, and that's all down to algae.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I really feel so strongly that understanding science should be fun, and it’s not that hard to make it fun and plot-driven in some way, so you don’t feel like it’s a job [to read it], you feel like, “What comes next?”

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Ruth Kassinger will be participating in the Temple Sinai Authors Roundtable on February 28, 2015. For a previous version of this Q&A, please click here.

Q&A with Brendan Simms

Brendan Simms is the author of the new book The Longest Afternoon: The 400 Men Who Decided the Battle of Waterloo. His other books include Europe and Three Victories and a Defeat. He is a professor in the History of International Relations at Peterhouse College, Cambridge, and he lives in Cambridge, England.

Q: Why did you decide to focus your book on one particular aspect of the Battle of Waterloo?

A: I have been fascinated by Waterloo since I was a little boy and my father gave me a book on the battle. It always seemed to me that the defence of the farmhouse of La Haye Sainte by the Second Light Battalion was crucial to the outcome because they blocked Napoleon's main line of advance long enough to give the Prussians time to come up and decide the issue.

More recently, I returned to the battlefield with my son - to whom the book is dedicated - and I was reinfected by his enthusiasm for matters Napoleonic. Then I had a stroke of good luck in that the owners of La Haye Sainte were friends of friends of ours. So the idea of chronicling this remarkable story was born.

Q: Who exactly were the King's German Legion, and what role did they play at the Haye Sainte farmhouse?

A: The King's German Legion were a unit in the British army, after Napoleon overran the Hanoverian territories of King George III of England in 1803. They had a profound ideological antipathy to the French, who had despoiled their homeland.

The riflemen of the Second Light battalion were among the Legion's best troops, who had fought all the way from the Peninsula into France before Napoleon's return from Elba brought them to Belgium.

As seasoned skirmishers, they were well-suited to defend La Haye Sainte, which they did with great courage until finally forced to withdraw in the early evening when they ran out of ammunition. Their resistance was in the face of terrible odds and brought forth some incredible displays of courage.

Q: How were you able to research all the details about the battle that you include in the book?

A: I consulted documents in several British and German archives, many of which had not been used in connection with the battle before. 

I also walked the battlefield itself on several occasions, though one has to be careful because the terrain, as I remark in the book, has changed in important ways over the course of time. It was also a great help to know the owners of the farm who helped me in every way.

Q: It's been two centuries since the Battle of Waterloo. What is its legacy today?

A: Waterloo was fought and won as a coalition victory against Napoleonic tyranny. As Europe faces increasing perils, especially in the east and south, and struggles to mount a response, the legacy of the King's German, which mobilised Germans and other Europeans under English as the language of command, can surely serve as a model for a future united European army.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I am writing a strategic biography of Hitler.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: My mother is German, and I work in Britain, so it seemed to me after all the hubbub around 1914, that 1815 was worth commemorating as an Anglo-German success story.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Feb. 27

Feb. 27, 1902: John Steinbeck born.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Q&A with Gary Krist

Gary Krist, photo by Timothy Greenfield-Sanders
Gary Krist is the author of the new book Empire of Sin: A Story of Sex, Jazz, Murder, and the Battle for Modern New Orleans. His other books include City of Scoundrels and The White Cascade. He lives in Bethesda, Maryland. 

Q: Why did you decide to focus on the history of New Orleans from 1890-1920?

A: I’ve made a specialty of the Progressive era in my recent work, and the social issues of that time played out in New Orleans in particularly interesting ways, most notably with the grand reformist experiment of the officially tolerated red-light district known as Storyville.

But the 30-year period from 1890-1920 encompasses a thorough and coherent campaign by local reformers to clean up the city on many different fronts.

The period began with the shocking assassination of police chief David Hennessy in 1890 – an event that galvanized the so-called "better half" to finally take arms against the city’s various underworlds.

And the period ended in 1920, with the ultimate triumph of reformers over vice lord Tom Anderson, corrupt mayor Martin Behrman, and the political machine (known as "the Ring") that had controlled the city for decades. 

Q: Your previous book focused on the history of Chicago. Did you find any common ground between New Orleans and Chicago, or were they completely different during the periods you cover? 

A: In some ways, of course, Chicago and New Orleans couldn't be more different. Chicago was (and is) a middle-American industrial giant representing the epitome of no-nonsense businesslike practicality; New Orleans was (and is) not a giant, not industrial, and certainly not middle-American.

But the two cities were actually going through some very similar conflicts in the Progressive era. In each city there was the same kind of struggle between educated, well-heeled good-government reformers on the one hand and the more working-class, less educated, but more practical machine politicians on the other.

And in both cases, the machine politicians seemed to have the more durable success. Reform candidates in both cities had a tendency to win the occasional election and then be voted out in the next election, when they'd be replaced again by machine politicians, who had a much better grasp of political organization at the grass-roots level.

And one of the recurring themes in my books is how political machines, for all of the corruption they fostered, actually addressed the needs of their constituents better than did the more high-minded reformers. 

Q: You write, “In nineteenth-century New Orleans…respectability was arguably more difficult to achieve and maintain than in almost any other place on the continent.” What were some of the main reasons why that was the case? 

A: New Orleans had a reputation as a den of iniquity long before the time I write about. As a port city--full of transient males who spend months on end at sea--it was naturally a prime marketplace for prostitution. Also, given the city’s roots as a Franco-Latin city, it had a somewhat more tolerant attitude toward sex and vice.

But things had truly gotten out of hand by the late 1880s; gambling, bawdy entertainment, and brothels had started to spread from traditional vice districts into so-called reputable neighborhoods all over town, so local reformers decided that something had to be done about it.

A lot of people don’t realize that it was reformers, not venal machine politicians, who created the Storyville district. Reformers hoped that the district would lower the profile of vice in the city by concentrating and isolating it in one out-of-the-way neighborhood. 

Q: Your book is filled with a variety of fascinating characters. How did you decide which people would play especially large roles in your narrative? 

A: I look for the people who were at the center of the important issues of the day, but I also need people who were well documented in the historical record.

Since a lot of the characters I write about were criminals, I often had plenty of court documents to give me the kind of information I need to write detail-rich narrative history.

My main character, for instance—Tom Anderson, the principal vice lord of the city who was so dominant that he was called “the Mayor of Storyville”—went through numerous court cases that generated hundreds of pages of testimony. 

Q: What surprised you most in the course of your research? 

A: Some of the beliefs held by the reformers surprised me. One of the leaders of the anti-Storyville campaign, for instance, was a woman named Jean Gordon.

She was firmly convinced that she was on the side of virtue, but as with many self-styled moral champions, her idea of “virtue” was often distorted by class and racial prejudice.

So while she did fight for things like female suffrage and child labor regulation, she also lent her support to the rise of Jim Crow discrimination and the disenfranchisement of African Americans.

Even worse, she held some astounding beliefs about eugenics, advocating for the forced sterilization of children who showed signs of a future in crime, prostitution, or alcoholism. “[I] took Lucille Decoux to the Women’s Dispensary July 17 [for an appendectomy],” Jean once wrote in her diary.  “This was an excellent opportunity to have her sterilized…and thus end any feeble-minded progeny coming from Lucille.” 

Q: Do you see anything in common between the New Orleans of today and the city of 100 years ago? 

A: I do think that New Orleans today has a lot in common with the city of Empire of Sin. I've often thought that Storyville in 1915 was probably a lot like Bourbon Street is in 2015--only now the city realizes that it should promote the sinful aspect of its reputation, rather than try to suppress it.

It's also still a city of ubiquitous music, which is one of its greatest charms. And, of course, some of the old New Orleans problems – municipal corruption, high crime, and tension between residents and police – have not gone away either.

Q: What are you working on now? 

A: I’m working on a book about Los Angeles in roughly this same time period. The book will center on the Hollywood of the silent-film era and weave in a few other elements. But the idea is still taking shape in my mind, so I’m not sure yet how it will all come together. 

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Well, Empire of Sin is a heavily populated, wide-ranging book, covering everything from Storyville to the birth of jazz to the growth of the Mafia. There’s even a serial ax-murderer in the mix, the so-called Axman of New Orleans, who terrorized the city for about 18 months in 1918-19. I really worked hard to make this as rich a chronicle of New Orleans as I could.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Gary Krist will be participating in the Bethesda Literary Festival, which runs from April 17-19, 2015. For a previous version of this Q&A, please click here.


Feb. 26

Feb. 26, 1802: Victor Hugo born.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Q&A with Casey Walker

Casey Walker is the author of the new novel Last Days in Shanghai. His work has appeared in The Believer, Boston Review, and The Los Angeles Review of Books. He lives in Brooklyn.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for Last Days in Shanghai?

A: The initial inspiration for the book was China itself, which I first visited in 2007. Though I’d lived in New York City for several years, I found myself entirely unprepared for the scale and energy of cities like Beijing and Shanghai, utterly amazed by their speed and intensity and size.

I knew that I couldn’t write about China as any kind of insider, but I also knew that part of what I wanted to capture was the shock of outsiderness that hits a new visitor.

So I decided the book should be narrated by an American who has never been to China and doesn’t really understand it. It felt honest to write out of that sense of confusion and awe and distress. 

What took me some time to figure out was a story I could tell that would be able to collect together the aspects of China I was so interested in.

I settled on a political junket because it allowed my characters a great deal of motivated movement through the country, as well as a glimpse of China’s political workings, at the processes that were driving all this upheaval. 

Q: The book paints a grim picture of politicians, both in the U.S. and China. What inspired your main characters, and why did you decide to focus on corruption as one of the themes in the book?

A: The more I read about China, particularly with regards to its urban development, the more it became clear that much that was happening in these cities was happening through a mostly secret, and often deeply corrupt, political process. 

Ordinary residents were being, quite literally, bulldozed out of centuries-old homes in Beijing, and the dislocation in Shanghai was just as staggering.

Sometimes whole neighborhoods would be destroyed but the building project slated for the site would be so spectacularly corrupted by developers and government officials that what would be left was just a hole in the ground or a few empty buildings.

But this is an old story, and not just a Chinese problem—if you look at any comparable project in the United States, like the building of the railroads, you encounter corruption and deception every bit as awful.

A few people in positions of power get spectacularly rich and a lot of other people suffer—that seems to me the essence of corruption. 

I spent plenty of time reading court papers about American congressmen and senators who’ve been prosecuted on corruption charges, and most of those stories are so shameless and stupid that they’d be scarcely believable in fiction—readers would dismiss it as cliché. And yet, it’s all true: the money in freezers, the golf junkets, the shady business associates.

Our political system has plenty of virtues the current Chinese system lacks, but no one has a monopoly on corruption.

Americans are very quick to acknowledge a rigged election abroad or something as hilariously corrupt as the infrastructure building in, say, Russia before the Sochi Olympics. But when it comes to our own politicians, we still treat it as a problem of the corrupt individual, and are slow to recognize the systemic nature of the fraud.

I wanted the novel to show characters embroiled in a system that can defeat even well-meaning impulses.

Q: On a somewhat related note, the novel also highlights the dynamics between powerful bosses and those who work for them. Why did you choose to include that as an important topic?

A: There was a time in my mid-twenties in New York City when it seemed all my close friends were assistants to vaguely tyrannical (or actually tyrannical) bosses. And this was true across industries—in finance, in the arts, in politics. 

You can tell an immense amount about a person by how they treat the people they’re not obligated to be nice to, and horrid boss behavior struck me as a mark of low character that would be useful for a novel. The assistant role is also interesting because the boundaries blur so quickly and professional responsibilities bleed into personal ones. 

So, I used the experience of certain friends, and I also read memoirs by people who had been assistants to powerful people. (Chairman Mao’s personal doctor, for example, wrote an outstanding one called The Private Life of Chairman Mao.) 

As it happens, I had a very close friend who worked for a long time as an assistant to a congressman—though I want to be very clear that the man he worked for was a more decent person than the congressman I invented.

Q: Did you know how the book would end before you started writing, or did you make many changes as you went along?

A: The very end of the book—the last chapter—stayed more or less the same across drafts. I knew where I needed the character to end up and I had a sense very early on of where his own corruption and complicity would finally lead him. It takes a long time for the narrator to finally correct his own self-image and acknowledge in some way what he’s done. 

But while the last chapter never changed much, the events that lead the narrator to his final self-reckoning, especially the events from the middle section of the book onward, changed nearly constantly. It was a difficult process. I was still finalizing and rewriting fairly large changes until very late in the editing process.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: The novel I’m working on now will sound much different than Last Days in Shanghai, but it’s more a geographic departure than a thematic one. 

I grew up along the California-Mexico border, and I’m finally starting to write about the towns and communities that are separated by that international line.

I can’t say too much about it yet, just from superstition on my part, but I will say it continues my interest in corruption and accommodation in chaotic places.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Feb. 25

Feb. 25, 1937: Bob Schieffer born.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Q&A with Laura Lippman

Laura Lippman, photo by Jan Cobb
Laura Lippman is the author of the new mystery novel Hush Hush, featuring private detective Tess Monaghan. Her many other novels include After I'm Gone and The Girl in the Green Raincoat. A former reporter for The (Baltimore) Sun, she lives in Baltimore and New Orleans.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for your new Tess Monaghan mystery, Hush Hush? 

A: It started with a column Anna Quindlen wrote about Andrea Yates, the Texas woman who killed five of her children. I don't remember the exact wording, but Quindlen shared a personal story, about her own life as a young mother, and said that she could understand how such things happen. I wasn't a parent at the time, but it stuck with me. And I have a long-standing interest in the insanity plea.  

Q: Tess Monaghan is based in Baltimore. How important is Baltimore to her essence as a character? 

A: Tess is Tess because of Baltimore. The city has formed her. She has a bit of a chip on her shoulder, claims not to care what others think about her, but she obviously does. That's pretty Baltimore, in my opinion.  

Q: When you wrote your first mystery featuring Tess, did you think it would turn into such a successful series? 

A: I just hoped it would turn into A series. Seriously, I didn't think much farther down the road than that. I hoped to do well enough to leave my newspaper job. And I did -- seven years later.  

Q: Which writers have inspired you? 

A: So many writers inspire me, pretty much every writer I read. And now I have a lot of writer friends, who are doubly inspiring. One of them, Ann Hood, is constantly on the go; I was just looking at her Instagram photos from Jerusalem today. I like writers who, unlike me, have incredibly diverse backlists.  

Q: What are you working on now? 

A: Working on the next novel, not a Tess, set in the present-day and Columbia, Maryland, in the '70s and '80s.  

Q: Anything else we should know? 

A: I break out in hives shortly before publication. Seriously. 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Laura Lippman will be participating in the Temple Sinai Authors Roundtable on February 28, 2015.

Feb. 24

Feb. 24, 1786: Wilhelm Grimm born.

Monday, February 23, 2015

Q&A with Susan Coll

Susan Coll is the author most recently of the novel The Stager. Her other novels are Beach Week, Acceptance, Rockville Pike, and She works at Politics & Prose bookstore, and she lives in Washington, D.C.

Q: Why did you choose a home stager as one of your main characters in The Stager?

A: I’ve long been obsessed with trying to capture the way we live in contemporary suburbia, and the idea of home staging seemed especially rich with metaphor. The Stager’s goal is to create illusions about the way we live---or more accurately perhaps, the way we want to envision ourselves living.

I also love the symbolism of neat exteriors masking messy interior lives. Essentially a stranger comes into the home to strip it of personality, to symbolically declare that the house is no longer the emotional property of the homeowner.

Add to this already volatile emotional situation the fact that the Stager is presumably a complete stranger who has access to the very private realm that is one’s home.

When I had my own home staged at the behest of a Realtor, my admittedly dark imagination began to churn: what if the Stager was not a stranger? What if she had her own agenda? What if she was a person with no boundaries? What if she was an unreliable narrator, to boot? It seemed a delicious set up.

Q: Do you know how your novels will end before you start writing, or do you make many changes as you go along?

A: I don’t know where I’m going as I write, and that includes the end. I usually have a general sense of how it will all wrap up, but I can’t articulate the details until I get there.

That means I revise and revise endlessly. Some days when I sit down to write it’s a struggle to not start at the very beginning again; I feel like I need to have every detail right before I move forward. It’s not the most efficient process, needless to say.

Q: Another important character is a rabbit. How did you come to write about him?

A: Oh Dominique! The rabbit really began as a comedic sidebar. There was a bad smell in the house, and it was caused by the rabbit chewing through the electrical cord of the freezer. This had happened to a friend, who had a destructive pet rabbit who kept chewing on things, including the carpet.

But as I wrote, the rabbit took on an increasingly important role. By the time I got to the end of the book this rabbit just inserted himself into the narrative. He wanted to tell his story. I stepped aside and let him do his thing.

Q: You wrote the book from the perspectives of some--but not all--of your protagonists. Why did you pick those particular perspectives?

A: I struggled with the point of view in this book through many drafts. Originally Elsa, the 10-year-old, did not have a speaking part. She was just a child in the room, sitting on the floor playing with her dolls.

I had written part of the narrative from Bella’s point of view, but at some point I decided I was less interested in what in what she had to say. I didn’t want to pass judgment on Bella, and in some ways I didn’t even want to know what was going on in her head, I was simply more interested in her as an archetype, and in the destruction she was wreaking on others.

But once I dropped Bella’s POV, I lost my way into certain important elements of the narrative. This led to one of the key comic conceits of the novel---Lars’ omniscient point of view, which is caused by mixing too many medications with the letters x, y, and z. I invented this side effect in order to get the reader into Bella’s head to tell us what was happening in real time.

Q: What about the D.C. area makes it a good setting for your novels?

A: Every novel I’ve published has been set in the Washington, D.C., area, which is surprising even to me since I am not from the area. I suppose I began writing about D.C. and Montgomery County because I was viewing it through the lens of an outsider, and everything seemed fresh and interesting.

But part of what continues to fascinate me about Bethesda in particular is the ideal nature of the place. There’s an unusually high level of affluence and education among the residents, and they are all trying to live examined lives.

In my mind I often equate Bethesda with Plato’s republic—how do you set about creating a perfect society? And then once you have achieved that, just sit back and see what happens. 

Q: Which authors have inspired you?

A: At times I feel I am nothing more than the sum of what I have read: Everything I’ve ever read is lodged inside me somewhere, which is part of why I can’t give any of my books away, and my house may soon buckle from the weight.

But the simpler answer is that I love to read dark comedy. William Boyd’s A Good Man in Africa, Graham Greene’s Our Man in Havana, George Orwell’s Burmese Days, Zoe Heller’s Notes on a Scandal. I’m a huge fan of Cathleen Schine, who writes very smart but accessible fiction, so I was honored to have her write a blurb for the book.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I feel quite fortunate right now to have a life and a job where I’m surrounded by books. 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Susan Coll will be appearing at the Bethesda Literary Festival, which runs from April 17-19, 2015. For a previous version of this Q&A, please click here.

Feb. 23

Feb. 23, 1868: W.E.B. Du Bois born.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Q&A with Neely Tucker

Neely Tucker is the author of the novel The Ways of the Dead. A longtime reporter at The Washington Post, he also has written the memoir Love in the Driest Season. He lives in Bethesda, Maryland.

Q: The murders in your book were inspired by a real set of murders. Why did you choose to write about that, and why as a novel?

A: The novel allowed me a lot more room to write about things in D.C. that are hard to get on the record. The journalist in the book has the problem of what you know vs. what you can print. [There are things] you can’t explain in nonfiction because you would have the same problem.

I came to D.C. in 2000 after being based abroad, and this particular set of killings, on Princeton Place, was just getting into the courts. I was fascinated by it, that a guy was able to get away with it as long as he had because nobody was looking.

In defense of the police department, the victims were women who wouldn’t necessarily be missed for a while—a lot of time went by, which made the cases much harder to follow.

The D.C. coroner’s office was very incompetently run. The cause of death would be listed as unclassified. With one of the victims, the woman’s torso was found, and the coroner’s department called it undetermined.

My frustration was that I was set to do a lengthy story about it, and then I went on book leave to write my first book, so I never wrote about it.

Q: So you always had it in the back of your mind to write about it?

A: It always hung around there. I always wanted to do fiction—I’m a slow starter, I guess!

Q: How did you come up with your main character, Sully?

A: He’s an amalgam of mine and other people’s bad habits. [One explanation for his name is that] I named him after my dog, a 145-pound Rottweiler named Sully. Also, Sully Carter is the name of a distant relative of mine that I never met. At my great aunt’s funeral, my uncle’s wife kept going on about Sully Carter did this, and Sully Carter did that—I just thought it was a great name!

The character is slightly larger than life. He’s had some of my personal experiences—the war in Bosnia; I had covered it. He works at a great big metropolitan newspaper—I knew a little something about that. He drinks Basil Hayden’s and I knew a little something about that. He’s from Louisiana, and I grew up next door in Mississippi.

Q: Your novel takes place in D.C. Could it take place anywhere else?

A: I think it might could take place in any large metropolitan American city. In New York, everybody wants to be the richest. In D.C., everybody wants to be the most powerful and the smartest. That’s one of the things I liked playing with in the book. Maybe nobody is as smart as they think they are.

Q: How has journalism changed since the Clinton era, when this book is set? Could this take place today?

A: I don’t think it could. That was the last of the glory days in newspapers—when a newspaper wrote something, it determined the conversation. Now there are so many websites. Now, this case would just explode. It wouldn’t have the almost stately pace of working on the daily. Now, a reporter would be under pressure to tweet and blog and slap something on the web as fast as they could. You could go off on the wrong track [with a story] now, but not where the rest of the media is in the background and Sully has the inside track.

And I didn’t want Sully to tweet!

Q: You’ve also written a memoir. Do you prefer fiction or nonfiction?

A: I just finished the second book [about Sully], so there will be a sequel.

I kind of like fiction more, but ask me 25 years after I’ve been doing it. I like the freedom to explore things with dialogue that’s very hard to do with nonfiction or journalism. That was a lot more fun [to be able to say,] It would be funnier if he said this—and I could do that and I wouldn’t get into any trouble!

But there are still some challenges. You really have to keep everybody straight. What the bar looks like—it has to look exactly the same [from scene to scene]. A secondary character has to [consistently] have glasses. I did develop a very lengthy bible of the book, where anybody or place is described.

Q: Which writers have especially inspired you?

A: We’re all just an amalgam of stuff [we]’ve read. Elmore Leonard was personally and professionally a huge influence. The Friends of Eddie Coyle [by George V. Higgins] is a bible. Richard Price has the best dialogue going. Anybody out of Mississippi has Faulkner—the deep mindset of how you approach the world. Toni Morrison. I think that would be the standard.

Q: You say you developed a very lengthy bible of The Ways of the Dead. Do you plot out the entire book before you start writing a novel, or do you make many changes as you go along? 

A: I plot it out, for what it's worth, but that never lasts past the first 30-40 pages; then the characters start taking over. I stop, replot...and 30-40 pages the characters start taking over again. It goes like that until I get to the end.

Q: So you said you’ve just finished the second book, and you also have your regular job—are you working on another book?

A: I’m starting book three. Hopefully this will be a series of books. Sully has a lot to do! The Well of Time is the working title for the second book. It picks up Sully six months later [after the end of the first book]. Book three will take place about three months after that.

Q: How have readers responded to Sully?

A: Readers tend to love Sully -- even if they think he's a piece of work. Which I do too! He softens in Book II, though, and becomes much more of the leading man by Book III. That was our trajectory.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: It’s a story about Washington set in the last glory days of the American newspaper. You have a guy trying to make sense of the very violent world he lives in. [He decides that] you more or less have to be enmeshed in it—and it bothers him. He makes some decisions that are right, and some that are wrong.

I covered a lot of war and violence, and I was always struck by, you get on a plane, you leave Bosnia or Sierra Leone, and all the rules are different. It took a while [to adjust]—airplanes can travel faster than your morality.

I was back in D.C., and I went to a trial where a boxer had been shot. I asked the prosecutor, So, how many people were killed? [The answer was] one. I said, Really? That’s it? I wasn’t trying to be cute or flip, but I was struck by the whole process [in the courtroom]. Everybody was so focused on one homicide. I remember that sense; my radar was off. I tried to give Sully some of that sense of dislocation.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Neely Tucker will be participating in the Bethesda Literary Festival, which runs from April 17-19, 2015. For a previous version of this Q&A, please click here.