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Author Q&A: Charlotte Williams

I hope you enjoyed this month’s featured author week! If you haven’t yet already, be sure to pick up a copy of The House on the Cliff from wherever you buy books. Also, check out the excerpt and review from this week, or the review from earlier this year.

Q: What inspired The House on the Cliff? Tell me about the writing process

A: I wanted to write a mystery set in Wales, with gothic aspects but also a sense of domestic drama. For some time, I’d been thinking about a novel with a female protagonist who solves crime, but also has an ordinary home life. The setting for the house was inspired by an actual house on the coast in West Wales.

Q: I noticed Jessica went into a lot of psychological detail in her thoughts regarding other characters, and even in the places she traveled to. What led to your decision to make her a psychologist?

A: I liked the idea of a psychotherapist detective–solving crime through an understanding of human motivation and behavior. I also liked the idea of the set-up, rather like Chandler, where Jessica sits in her office, and a devastatingly attractive but untrustworthy client walks in with a story to tell, which she unwisely becomes caught up in. It was also an opportunity to show how a psychotherapist works, and to discuss what psychotherapy is, which I think many readers will find interesting.

Q: How is writing a novel similar–and different–from writing for television or radio? Did you expect them to be different?

A: I do write for radio. I think the difference is, a radio script has to be ‘dramatic’–it is drama after all, and the pace has to be fast; whereas in a novel there’s more space for the author’s voice, and it can afford to be more reflective. A script is really just a blueprint for the action, and it’s always wonderful to see the characters ‘come alive’ in reality, through the actors; in a novel, you have to make the characters come alive through words on the page!

Q: Do you have any advice for aspiring writers?

A: Keep to a writing schedule, even if you don’t feel you’re getting very far. I also try to write a scene a day, with a rough word count of about 600-1000 words. Plot carefully in advance, but if the characters don’t fit, you may have to change your plot–or your characters–so don’t be rigid about it.

Q: What is your favorite book (or few books)?

A: Hard to say. From childhood, Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca; also Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle. As an adult, Jean Rhys’ books other than Wide Sargasso Sea, such as Voyage into Darkness. In recent crime fiction, I admire Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl.

Q: What are you reading right now?

A: The Light Years by Elizabeth Jane Howard, who recently died, and who was Martin Amis’ stepmother.


Author Q&A: Julie Kibler

I love this part of featured author week. I love connecting with authors about their books, and hearing how their stories made it from idea to paper and ink. Maybe it’s just me, but I think it rocks.

So, naturally, I’m so excited to bring you a Q&A from Julie Kibler, the author of Calling Me Home. If you’ve been following lifebythebooks this week, you’ve likely already read the excerpt and review of the book. If you haven’t, you should check them out (I’ve linked to the words “excerpt” and “review”.)

And now, without further ado, here is my Q&A with Julie Kibler.

Q: You mentioned that the idea for Calling Me Home came to you after learning of your grandmother’s history. What was it about her story that compelled you to write this novel?

A: My grandmother was emotionally distant and never seemed very happy when I was a kid. Learning that she fell in love with a black man when she was a young woman in 1920s Northern Kentucky, where continuing the relationship was virtually impossible, not to mention, illegal, was a big surprise to me, and a potential explanation for her personality and outlook on life. She was already gone by the time my father told me, so I wasn’t able to ask her the questions I would have liked to. I decided the best way for me to explore that was through fiction. Weirdly, I feel as though our relationship changed long after she died as a result of writing Calling Me Home, which has been a really good thing for me.

Q: What inspired the Dorrie and Isabelle story? Why not just tell the story of Robert and Isabelle?

A: I’ve always enjoyed books that look at a subject from both the past and present. I like to contemplate how things were, how things are, and how things might go in the future. Writing Calling Me Home from two different points of view, both past and present as well as from the perspectives of characters who might be considered extremely different, allowed me to explore racism and interracial relationships from many angles. I didn’t want it to be a white story or a black story, or a story that dwelled in the past or the present. It became not just a love story about Isabelle and Robert, but a love story about Dorrie and Isabelle–a story of how we find love and family in unlikely places and people.

Additionally, while some of my own experiences as a single mom over five years were instrumental, my hairstylist and friend of more than a decade very much inspired Dorrie’s character. While their stories are not the same, my friend’s remarkable sense of humor and compassion were a beacon for many of Dorrie’s words and actions.

Q: Talk about the experience of researching and writing Calling Me Home. Have you written/attempted to write a novel before? How was this experience different from the others?

A: Calling Me Home had been brewing in my mind for several years. By the time I started physically putting words to paper, it flowed out of me pretty quickly. It was different from previous manuscripts in that I had a strong gut feeling it was going to be the one that finally got published. When emails and texts started coming in from my critique partners and early readers, sometimes in the middle of the night, that feeling was confirmed. That was different from the previous ones, for sure.

I tend to research briefly, write a first draft as quickly as I can, then go back and do additional research and revision as needed. From initial research to sending agent queries, Calling Me Home was completed in about 18 months, with the second half being the revision phase. I think I could potentially pare down the process to about a year now, applying what I learned in writing a book that went on to be published–but only once I’ve found the right project. I had written a few full manuscripts and several partial manuscripts before I wrote Calling Me Home. I’m easily distracted, quickly bored, and struggle to focus a lot of the time, but when the right one comes along, I’m all in. At that point, I eat, breathe, and sleep what I’m writing. After some wandering in the writing desert over the last few years, I think I’m there now and it feels good.

Q: Do you have any advice for aspiring writers? Is there a resource you found helpful in writing this book?

A: I always tell aspiring writers: Take your time. Take the time to learn your craft, take the time to revise your manuscripts, and be slow in sending them to the world–to early readers, to agents, to editors, to publishers. Time really does fly. What feels like forever during the process will seem like no time at all in retrospect. And often, if you look back on something you rushed, you will likely have big regrets and kick yourself over missed opportunities or burned bridges. I started writing fiction in 2005, and Calling Me Home was published in hardcover in 2013. That seems about right now. There was some rushing along the way, but a few things I probably did right.

I like Donald Maass’s Writing the Breakout Novel and The Fire in Fiction. I don’t do every single thing he recommends–there are vast numbers of helpful exercises in each book–but the ones that floated to the top while I was reading and thinking made a big difference in my writing. I’m looking forward to attending an in-person workshop with him this spring. Each book written is brand new, and you never stop learning how to write.

Q: What is your favorite book (or favorite few books)? What are you reading right now?

A: I really don’t have a favorite book of all time, unless you count my childhood favorites, and there are a lot of those. I tend to have a few favorites each year. In 2013, the two that topped my list were The Husband’s Secret by Liane Moriarty and Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell. I’ve been talking about them to everyone. Right now, I’m reading The Painted Girls, by Cathy Marie Buchanan.


Thanks again to Julie (and to her publicist, Katie) for working with me on this featured author week. I love her advice to aspiring writers, as well as her favorite books for 2013. You can find reviews for both Eleanor & Park and The Painted Girls here, and be sure to also check out the excerpt and review of Calling Me Home.


Author Q&A: Robin Sloan

I’ve had so much fun with my featured author week! It’s been so great to give you a little view into Robin Sloan and his book, Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore. Be sure to check out Sloan’s book, as well as his story. In addition, he’s got a companion e-book, titled Ajax Penumbra 1969I haven’t read that yet, but I’m going to go out on a limb and suggest that one too. ajaxpenumbra FINAL[6]

To wrap up the Mr. Penumbra package, I’m excited to offer a Q&A with Robin himself. Many thanks to him for his willingness to answer these questions (and to his publicist for setting this all up).

Q: You write that you studied economics and that many of your jobs dealt with “figuring out the future of media.” How did you move from economics to working with media and then to writing fiction?

A: For me, the internet was the bridge. All throughout college, I was tinkering with web pages; by the time graduation rolled around, I wanted to do internet journalism. The internet led to blogging, and then writing longer things, and that led me back to fiction, which was an interest I’d long neglected. There were a lot of other things along the way, too. I worked at a TV network, and at Twitter here in San Francisco. My path definitely wasn’t a straight line.

Q: “Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore” began as a short story. What made you want to turn it into a novel? How was the process for writing the novel different than writing the short story?

A: Of all the short stories I’ve yet published on the internet, Penumbra generated the strongest response by far. It was just on a whole different level. I think of it now almost as a prototype; I put it out there, and it succeeded in a way that the others didn’t, so it was clear that there was more to explore some way to develop the prototype into a complete product.

Q: I get the feeling you have a passion for things that stand the test of time, not only from the story (which I won’t give away), but also from your bio. What do you think influenced this?

A: There’s an old Buddhist line that goes: “Since death alone is certain and the time of death uncertain, what should I do?” I think it’s a pretty compelling question, and I think the answer–I mean, there are plenty of good answers, but the answer for me–is “Try to make things that last.” Durability is about honoring the past all the things, mostly art and culture, created centuries ago or more, that we still enjoy today and also about trying (hoping) to send something forward into the future of our own.

Q: Your short story is so whimsical, and I loved the description of the bookstore. Was there anything that inspired you to create the bookstore in this way?

A: The original inspiration actually came from a tweet and not even my own! Years ago, my friend Rachel tweeted:

Just misread ’24hr bookdrop’ as ’24hr bookshop’. The disappointment is beyond words.

It made me laugh, and I wrote it down. Later, when I was starting a new short story, it was waiting there in my notes, and it seemed obvious to me that something interesting must happen in a 24-hour bookstore …

Q: Do you have any advice for aspiring writers? Is there a resource you found helpful in writing this book?

A: My advice is pretty simple: start small and finish things. Before I wrote a novel, I wrote a novella; before that, I wrote short stories; before that, I wrote blog posts. I think it’s hugely helpful to take that step-by-step approach, winning small victories along the way.

Q: What is your favorite book (or favorite few books). What are you reading right now?

A: I can’t pick a single favorite, but I will say that I love science fiction, and right now I’m reading Kim Stanley Robinson’s 2312. It’s fantastic; a really stunning feat of imagination. It relates to your question about durability, too: I think if you spent any time imagining the future, the year 2312 and beyond, you can’t help but get interested in making something that might have a chance–a slim one, but still, a chance–to last that long.

That’s it for featured author week this month! I hope you enjoyed reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it. I’m working hard at getting an author lined up for November, and I can’t wait for the opportunity to do this once again.

Again, be sure to check out Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, as well as the companion e-book, Ajax Penumbra 1969.

Author Q&A: Douglas Lain

I’m so excited to introduce you to Douglas Lain, the author of Billy Moon, which was the Book of the Week at the end of last month. In the future, I’d love to include author interviews as a regular feature of lifebythebooks, and as my inaugural interview, Lain was gracious enough to answer a few questions about his writing and about Billy Moon.

For more information about Douglas Lain and about Billy Moon, check out his website at To read the first paragraph of the book, check out my Sneak Peak. Other than that, enjoy the interview!

KP: What inspired you to write ‘Billy Moon’? Why write about Christopher Milne?

DL: In 1969, after the student/workers strikes of May 1968 were defeated, people in government asked the question: “Why did that happen? What inspired that madness?” The students were asking themselves the same question. “Why did we do that?”

Writing a novel is not as much of a mystery as a spontaneous uprising, but it is a bit of a mystery.

What inspired me to write Billy Moon? Somehow, as I grew up in the 80s and struck out on my own in the 90s I became interested in the events of May 1968. I read books like Greil Marcus’s “Lipstick Traces” and Sadie Plant’s “The Most Radical Gesture” and ended up siding with the people who asked “Why did that happen?” because they wanted it to happen again.

Christopher Robin Milne was the right person to insert into a story about ’68 because he was a real man who was conscious of how a fiction had influenced and changed his life. One of the prerequisites for a mass movement, like the one that happened in ’68, is that a widespread understanding of the fictional nature of the current social order takes hold.

KP: What was the writing process for this book? Is there a resource that helped you in your writing/editing?

DL: My writing process is pretty much the same for most all of my writing. First I create an outline using images I Google up to create sets of juxtapositions that I think illustrate the idea in the section I’m working on. For instance, when I was writing about Christopher Robin’s first meeting with the young student who invited him to Paris, a meeting that took place in jail, I set photos of a middle aged Christopher Robin beside photographs from the Free Speech Movement at Berkeley in 1964. I found snapshots of the young men and women who’d been taken from a campus sit-in to jail. Underneath these photos I wrote something like: “Christopher might be the only one who isn’t proud to be in jail.”

KP: What parts of Christopher Milne’s life did you include in your character? How did they influence the overall story?

DL: There are several scenes in the novel that are fictionalized rewritings of moments Christopher Robin wrote about in his memoir “Enchanted Places.” For example, Christopher wrote about his cat Hodge, but in my account Hodge becomes a bit menacing and unreal.

KP: What is the significance of the moments of magic realism? How did they play into your vision for the book?

DL: The book is about two characters who understand the fictional nature of the society or world that they’re living in. The first is Christopher Robin, and he understands that he’s living in a fiction because he grew up in the shadow of his father’s fictional version of him. The student Gerard, however, understands the fictional status of the world because he has a peculiar precognitive power, some type of mystical ability that allows him to see the past inside the present. What Gerard understands at the outset is that we are the authors of our own fictions, or that we are the authors of the authors of our own stories.

KP: What is your favorite book/favorite few books? What are you reading right now?

DL: My favorite novels and short story collections include: “Slaughterhouse Five” by Kurt Vonnegut, “VALIS” by Philip K. Dick, “The Trial,” by Franz Kafka, “The Dream Years,” by Lisa Goldstein, and “Lost in the Funhouse” by John Barth, and many others.

I am currently on my book tour for Billy Moon and I’m reading Terry Bisson’s “Any Day Now,” McKenzie Wark’s “The Spectacle of Disintegration,” Mary Ann Mohanraj’s collection “Bodies in Motion,” and “The Phenomenology of Spirit” by GWF Hegel (a book I’ve been slowly making my way through for over a year.)

KP: If you could offer one piece of advice to aspiring writers, what would you suggest?

DL: Write the stories that you’d want to read and ask the questions that plague you because you can’t quite answer them.

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