Occasionally our interviewers give us a peek behind the scenes of their chats with authors. Here, longtime BookPage contributor Alden Mudge talks about some of Pulitzer Prize winner Jane Smiley's more unusual writing habits, revelealed during their discussion of her latest book, Some Luck.
Out of curiosity, I often ask writers to describe their workspaces. I blogged about this once before for BookPage, when, to my surprise, I discovered that several young writers I interviewed in close succession told me that they write in public at their favorite coffee shops.
Jane Smiley’s description of her workspace interested me in a different way. Yes, she has a dedicated writing space, a room of her own, if you will. She mentioned a window looking out on the hillside behind her home in Carmel Valley and stacks of books sharing floorspace with “a lot of dog beds.” Nothing about a desk, a notebook, a computer, a favorite picture on the wall. Instead, what seemed to matter most was that her writing room had doors that connected to other parts of the house. “So I can jump up and run and see what’s going on at any time.”
Smiley once said she has “a basically sunny personality." That was my experience of her. She laughed often throughout our conversation and seemed very much at ease with herself. For her, writing seems to be as natural as a sunrise.
Not that writing doesn’t present its challenges, even after all these years and more than 20 books. Smiley said she “was tearing my hair for years” over her novel Private Life. And for Some Luck, the captivating first novel in her The Last Hundred Years trilogy, the difficulty was deciding what to leave out.
“What I had do was cut, cut, cut. . . . This was an effect of having to do the research. I would learn something and then I would sort of yack about it a little too much. So I would come back and cut the section so that it was just about what was happening rather than about what I was thinking about as I was writing it. That was a good lesson for me, this idea that part of your writing process is talking to yourself about what you’re writing and then eventually having to cut it so that you just have the narrative.”
I was still curious about her workspace. So I asked her whether it was also her library, the place where she did most of her reading.
“Oh no!” Smiley said. “I usually read in the hot tub.” She laughed. “It’s a California tradition, you know.”
Celebrated author Deborah Harkness’s All Souls trilogy comes to a thrilling conclusion today, when the final book in the series, The Book of Life, is released in bookstores.
Following a witch named Diana Bishop and her vampire husband, Matthew De Clairmont, and their hunt for an enchanted manuscript whose secrets contain the secrets to the survival of their species, the series has enchanted readers the world over and won Harkness millions of fans. Recently Harkness sat down with BookPage to talk about the release of The Book of Life; we wound up with more material than we could fit in our print interview, but these tidbits were too good to keep to ourselves!
On the appeal of alpha males: “I think there is a level at which [alpha males are] a fantasy that is just about being able to imagine, within the safe parameters of a fictional world and fictional relationship, that you could absolutely give up all control. I think what it really stems from is that so many of us are so very busy and pushed and pulled in so many directions. We're asked to make so many decisions and choices in a day, from what size your coffee is all the way up to putting food on the table and getting your kids to soccer practice in between your job and cooking dinner for six people. So there's this kind of sense that it would be nice if someone just walked in and said, ‘Put down your purse, no questions, we're going to dinner.’ You don't have to discuss it, you don't have to think, it would just be done. I think it's a fantasy, weirdly, of a deep breath.”
On challenging traditional gender assignment for witches and vampires: “I never considered flipping the standard gender assignment of male vampire and female witch because with the character of Diana, I was committed to the idea of a female witch in large part because one of the things I wanted to really explore was there is this general sense that it would be great to be a witch and I've always thought, ‘Really?! You would be unequivocally happy to have strange supernatural powers?’ I don't really think having bizarre supernatural powers would necessarily be a ‘thumbs up’ experience. So, once I had Diana and she was a witch and she was a female then Matthew had to be a vampire.
I do think, though, that Stephen Proctor, Diana's father, has been much more of a presence than Rebecca, because I did want to have a male witch. In much the same way, I wanted to show a female vampire in Isabel and Miriam as two of the other creatures in this world.”
On the importance of publishing her works under her own name: “[As a historian], I study a period where we say Anonymous was a woman and I think that's a double-edged sword, to protect yourself under a pseudonym. The number of cases of academics publishing popular novels rather than scholarly works is small, and most people who do publish fiction publish it pseudonymously. . . . One of the things that I think has been great is that I have seen an increasing number of academics writing under their own names.”
On her favorite book in the All Souls trilogy: “Shadow of Night, because it was on my home turf. It was the world that I knew very well and had the great pleasure and joy to show to other people. It was so much fun to go through all of my research outtakes and know I could use them.
It is really hard to choose among them, because I'm fond of each one for very different reasons. In some ways, nothing will match the sheer pleasure and joy of writing A Discovery of Witches, or the fun of writing Shadow of Night, or the satisfaction of bringing the whole thing into port with The Book of Life.”
On her favorite characters: “I am particularly attached to Philippe. He is my favorite character, because Matthew—for all his growling and moodiness—it’s Philippe who is just basically is master and commander of everything. I find him fascinating because he is this character who watches and waits and maneuvers people around. He's very ruthless but very genial and he's kind of got the alpha male thing down to a science, so much so that you don't really notice that he's running the world and everyone in it. He's sort of the un-Matthew and that was very interesting to me to be able to explore that.
However, the character who is the most fun to write is Gallowglass. No question!”
On the greatest unexpected reward to arise from writing these books: “One of the things that I hear a lot and is such an enormous privilege is when people say to me that they read history now or go to museums now or have even started rowing or they want to go back to school to get their BA or MA. People whose love of learning has been piqued, now they're starting to travel when they never did before. To somehow be able to have people read these books and to get all of these things out of them is kind of unimaginable and is the gift that keeps on giving.
It's not probably as important to every author, but as a teacher, this is why I do what I do and to be able to do it on the scale of fiction is very rewarding.”
On her favorite “big books” and long reads: “A series that has [really allowed me to inhabit a world] is an older series by a woman named Dorothy Dunnet. She first wrote the Crawford of Lymon series and then the House of Niccolo series, which was a prequel. I just adored those books!
I also remember buying Anne Rice's The Witching Hour, and it was the only book that I just simply couldn't go to sleep until I had finished it. Also, that was my introduction to Anne Rice, and it just transported me because I didn't really know where I was when I was reading it; I was in L.A., but I wasn't.”
On whether she’d rather be a witch, a vampire or a demon: “Demon, no question! I think I'm most temperamentally like a demon—I'm a little bit like a maniac and I'm a lot disorganized; you can't even walk across the floor of my office right now! I think that really what the demons are in this story is the principle of chaos and creativity—that's what they are alchemically and that's where new things come from—and I think it's way more exciting to be there than to have the weighty responsibility of supernatural and preternatural power. I'll take creativity any day.”
RELATED IN BOOKPAGE
Read our complete interview with Deborah Harkness.
Read about the previous books in the All Souls Trilogy.
BookPage contributor Alden Mudge has been interviewing authors for more than 20 years. In a guest post, he gives us the story behind the dedication of the book The Cove, the subject of our April cover story interview with North Carolina author Ron Rash.
Ron Rash dedicated his new novel, The Cove, to his sister, Kathy Rash Brewer.
Why? Not because she has experienced anything like the dark fate endured by the novel’s heroine, Laurel Shelton. Quite the opposite, in fact. Rash’s sister’s story is one of remarkable, open-hearted generosity.
“Beside the fact that we’re very close,” Rash says, explaining why he chose to dedicate this book to her, “my sister kind of bought me out of bondage. I mean when I was in my 30s and really starting to write seriously, I was teaching at a community college. I was teaching five or six classes a semester, most of them composition classes. Obviously it was very hard to [find time to] write. What my sister did—you know it’s funny, my brother and I are English majors; she’s a ceramic engineer—was she paid the school to allow me to teach only three classes in the spring semester. In a sense she paid the difference to the school, essentially to get them to bring in somebody as a part-time adjunct.”
All of this so that Ron Rash could have time to write.
“And she did that for, I think it was, three years. Actually that is why I really started writing novels. I started writing the first novel I ever published, One Foot in Eden, then. That was such a generous thing to do. And this is a way of thanking her.”
Happy New Year! One of the lead stories in our January issue is an interview with novelist Adam Johnson, whose new book set in North Korea became even more topical after the sudden death of the "Dear Leader" whose regime it details. Johnson was one of the few Westerners to visit the country. He spoke about the trip extensively during his chat with our interviewer Alden Mudge; here, Alden shares a few extra details from their conversation.
An American novelist in Pyongyang
guest post by Alden Mudge
During the seven years Adam Johnson spent writing his spellbinding new novel about North Korea, The Orphan Master’s Son, he became pretty knowledgeable about the country and its Dear Leader. Or as knowledgeable as an outsider can be about the place. As the news coverage of Kim Jong Il’s death shows, very little is known about what really goes on in North Korea. And what does leak out tends toward the crazy preposterous, as in this funny New York Times article about Kim Jong Il’s outlandish sporting achievements.
Ridiculous? Yes, but North Korea is no joke for its citizens. During our conversation about the new novel, Johnson told me that he worried about his safety before his trip to North Korea in 2007. But his sponsor assured him that North Korea was probably the most crime-free nation on Earth. Even the slightest infraction landed you in the Korean gulag, where life was at best nasty, brutish and short.
“Another thing that was terrifying to me,” Johnson said, “was this notion that no one has written a literary novel there in 60 years. You cannot write anything that doesn’t glorify the regime, so the novels are state-sponsored. They’re approved and distributed. And even of those, there are very few. People don’t have much reading time. It’s bizarre. There’s no other subject matter besides the glorification of the Kims. That means that not only has no one written a literary novel, but no one has read a novel whose goal is to enlighten the human condition in three generations.”
To explain the hierarchical mindset promoted in North Korea, Johnson told me about the national airline. “I discovered in my research that the reason North Korea’s Air Koryo is the most dangerous airline in the world is not because of its ancient planes—mine was from 1963 or 1964—or poor maintenance, but because the copilots weren’t allowed to correct the pilots. An FAA study I read concluded that in three big crashes North Korean copilots hadn’t felt able to point out a pilot’s mistake. They had inherited that dictatorial sense of top-down power that an obvious reality could not be contradicted.”
Johnson also noted that North Korea is slowly opening up the country to tourism (under very tightly controlled conditions) to attract hard currency. I’m very curious, but I think it will be a longish while before I apply to go there.
Don't miss the full interview with Adam Johnson.
BookPage contributor Alden Mudge has been interviewing authors for more than 20 years. In a guest post, he reflects on his March cover story interview with debut novelist Téa Obreht, author of The Tiger's Wife.
By the time I came to ask it, it was a silly question, an embarrassing question.
But I had read Téa Obreht’s abbreviated bio: She had been born in Belgrade in 1985. Her family left in 1992 as the conflict in the former Yugoslavia heated up. They moved to Cyprus, then Egypt and then finally came to the United States when she was 12. That meant she had been in the country just a little over half her life.
I had also read Obreht’s remarkable first novel, The Tiger’s Wife. It is set in an unnamed country in the Balkans after a prolonged civil war. Of the many things that impressed me about the book one of the most prominent was its powerful evocation of place. Not simply in a travelogue sort of way—though the landscape is vividly rendered—but in a deeper, more elusive, more heartfelt way, as though Obreht had captured the very essence or spirit of the place.
So I wondered as I finished the book, did Obreht see herself as an American writer or as a writer in exile?
Then there was our conversation. I learned that the family had moved to Palo Alto, that she went as an undergraduate to the University of Southern California. And there was that lilt of a California 20-something in her voice. Her humor, her intonation—as American as apple pie. So I hesitated.
“Oh, go ahead,” she said.
So I asked Obreht if she felt she was an American writer.
Her response was immediate: “Yes. Definitely.”
And what did that mean?
“Oh gosh, that’s a question,” she said. And after a pause she continued. “The fact that I am able to call myself a writer at all, the fact that I am able to be a writer at all makes me an American writer. To be in an environment where one can without hesitation—without constriction or fear—write about anything—one’s past, one’s projected future, whatever you want—is the luxury of American writers. And in that regard, I am an American writer. And very happy about it.”
What’s that they say about no silly questions?
Author photo by Beowulf Sheehan.
BookPage contributor Alden Mudge has been interviewing authors for more than 20 years. In a guest post, he reflects on a common thread among his three most recent interviews: Starbucks.
As a standard-issue Berkeley resident, I am a fierce loyalist of Peet’s Coffee. French Roast, to be exact. So of course I look with snifty disdain on the thin brew served at a-Starbucks-on-every-corner.
But credit where credit’s due. In the past three months, every novelist I’ve interviewed has mentioned writing some chunk of her novel at a local Starbucks.
Téa Obreht, whose remarkably assured first novel will be featured in next month’s issue of BookPage, usually writes on a desk she’s carted around from house to house over the last five years. But, she says, a portion of The Tiger’s Wife was composed at a corner table in the local Starbucks in Ithaca, New York.
Lisa Genova, who was interviewed about her second novel, Left Neglected, last month, has a “beautiful writing room. It’s the sunroom of the house. It’s all windows and we overlook a saltwater creek that leads out to the ocean.”
But as a mother of young children, she says she can’t write there. “There are too many distractions. I think, I’m home, I should throw in a load of laundry. I should call the repair guy. Household duties loom heavy over me when I’m here.” So what does she do? She goes to the local Starbucks in Chatham on Cape Cod. “There’s nothing else to do there but write the book.”
And then there is the very funny Karen Russell—author of Swamplandia!, and, like Téa Obreht, one of the exceptionally talented young writers named to the New Yorker’s 20 best writers under 40 list. Russell says she has to leave her apartment to write because it’s so teeny, tiny. So a lot of her debut novel was composed at a Starbucks on 181st Street in Manhattan.
A year ago she won a Cullman Fellowship at the New York Public Library, where they gave her “this beautiful office space to write in. It was like getting this amazing promotion. I think I embarrassed everyone. I was like, ‘look at this! The drawers open soundlessly!’ They looked at me like they were wondering if I’d been homeless or something.” Now she’s back writing at her Starbucks again. “I was away for a year writing in my fantastic library office and now I’m back. We never exchange words but I just feel like the vibe is ‘Oh, look who has come crawling back. Guess it didn’t work out so well, so you’re drinking your vente in the corner again.’ ”
So credit to Starbucks. But a query: Whatever happened to that old, ideal image of the writer in his garret or a room of her own? What could it mean that so many writers now prefer to work out there in public, in front of everyone?
Longtime BookPage interviewer Alden Mudge talked to Greg Mortenson for our December issue. Here, he shares his impressions of the best-selling author and a few of the more memorable quotes that didn't make it into the finished piece.
I am by temperament knee-jerk skeptical of heroes and hero worshipers. So for several years I resisted the Three-Cups-of-Tea fever that had infected a good number of my intelligent, well-read friends. Then I was assigned to interview Greg Mortenson about his new book Stones into Schools. Call me a believer.
During a long phone call, I was utterly convinced and charmed by Mortenson. He was both forceful and self-effacing, remarkably candid, completely dedicated to his cause, and very opinionated. Not all of his opinions fit in the BookPage print interview, so I thought I’d offer a few outtakes here:
“I love to talk with students around the country, and one of the main topics we end up talking about is failure. As a society we’re very loath to talk about failure. When I ask an adult audience ‘who can tell me what the first chapter of Three Cups of Tea is called?’ not one hand goes up. But if I ask college kids or high school kids, nearly all their hands go up. They know it’s called “Failure.” Kind of interesting. I think in order to succeed you need failure. If we could admit that we failed a little bit once in a while—especially our government—we’d be better off. I think the military actually gets this. They’re willing to admit that in many ways they failed originally in Afghanistan.”
“The Afghanistan government was set up at the Bonn Conference in December 2001. Eighteen countries met and decided how to rebuild Afghanistan. The problem was that it was set up as a centralized, deprovincialized system, very U.S.-oriented, very bureaucratic. But Afghanistan is a feudal, multiethnic society. Power is really with the shura, the elders. I’ve studied the Marshall Plan extensively. It was quite a brilliant plan. The main component was that it was provincialized and decentralized, especially in Italy and Japan. In Afghanistan the U.S. completely flipped it around, made it exactly the opposite. Only in the last two or three years—ironically through the military—has this started to change.”
AFGHANISTAN, THE POSITIVE AND THE NEGATIVE
“What I try and tell the public is here’s what you have to look at, the positive things and then negative things in Afghanistan. The positive things are: In 2000, which was nine years ago at the height of the Taliban, there were 800,000 kids in school, ages 5 to 15, and 99 percent were boys. Today there are 8.4 million in school, including 3.5 [million] females. The goal is 13 million, so that is like 60 percent of the way there. The Afghan army is at 80,000 and the goal is 180,000, so that’s 40 percent of the way there. There is now a central banking system in the country, which started in 2006, which is huge. There’s an Eisenhower-era road building program; the road now from north to south is completely done and the road from the east to west is about half done, so the roads are about 70 percent finished—the main trunk roads. If you go into a district court, the amount of women and men, but especially women, filing titles and deeds for landownership is just skyrocketing. So those are the positive things.
And the negative things are: the U.S. is taking more hits. A lot of that is because starting two years ago—it was actually General McKiernan and now General McChrystal—have put a huge emphasis on cutting down on bombings. There have unfortunately been some deaths from bombings, very tragic. But the amount of bombings has gone down 70 percent in the last three years—the number of bombs and the frequency and the weight. Two years ago the U.S. started deploying forward operating bases out into the very rural areas. Their job was to embed with villagers or with the Afghan army and build relationships. Unfortunately what that does is exposes the U.S. so we’re going to take more hits, more casualties. But the alternative is to do more bombings. One thing that all the shura agree with—and they’re very vehement about it—is that the top priority is not to kill innocent civilians. And their message is being heard quite loud and clear in the military. The military kind of has a choice—pull back our troops, put them in garrisons or compounds— but if they do that they’re going to have to do more bombing and then the civilian casualties will go up and there will be public outcry both there and here at home. The other thing that I think the military and our government has done a very poor job at is telling the public that nearly half of these troops are trainer troops, or brainpower; they’re not firepower. Eight thousand of the 22,000 troops that the U.S. put into Afghanistan this year are dentists, engineers, agronomists, horticulturalists, civil engineers, nurses, doctors, trainers, police trainers, anti-mining personnel. Of these 40,000 new troops they’ve asked for, they want approximately 15,000 of them to be what I call brainpower or trainer troops. I don’t know if the public is aware of that.”
ON BOOKS THAT SHAPED HIM
“The first real relevant book I read—I was about eight—was called Reverence for Life by Dr. Albert Schweitzer. He was a medical missionary in the Congo. He talked about how all living things are sacred—animals, plants, and humans. It actually had a big impact on me. My first big book—I read it at about 11 or 12—was called The Territorial Imperative which looked at the animal kingdom and at how humans also are territorial. It was a pretty heavy read but it had quite a dramatic influence on me. So did Jonathan Livingston Seagull—remember that book?—about thinking out of the box. After I read those books I was really inspired.”
Alden Mudge has been interviewing authors for BookPage for more than 15 years. He lives in Berkeley, California.