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NinaRevoyrMost of your earlier books take place in urban environments and deal with race and culture. What’s with the mountain adventure novel?

I love mountains and wilderness as much as I love the city, and I’m a big fan of adventure and survival stories. When people’s lives are at stake, you get to see who they really are. Besides, questions of race and class don’t disappear when you go from urban settings to rural ones. In some ways, they may even be more heightened.

LostCanyon1-136x200The picture opened on Gwen’s computer, revealing a lake framed by pine trees, a backdrop of snow-covered peaks. A small stream flowed from the lake and when she looked very close, Gwen could almost see the water moving, the clouds drifting over the mountains. She imagined herself in the scene—the warm sun on her skin, the smell of pine—and felt her breathing slow, her shoulders ease. Just for a moment she forgot where she was—in a dingy building on 103rd Street in Watts.

SusanBarker_Credit Derek Anson (small)So, a self-interview… this is odd isn’t it?

Very.

 

Well, let’s start at the beginning. What’s your novel about?

A taxi driver in Beijing, who finds a letter from an anonymous sender in his cab, informing him that he’s had several past lives.

 

Past lives? Like, reincarnation?

Yes, the letter writer claims that the taxi driver, Wang Jun, has lived before as:

1. A eunuch during the Tang dynasty.

2. A slave during the invasion of Genghis Khan

3. A concubine of the Emperor Jiajing during the Ming dynasty

4. A fisherboy during the Opium War

5. A student during Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution

The letter writer then sends the taxi driver more letters – stories about these turbulent past lives.

9781501106781Chapter 1

The First Letter

 

Every night I wake from dreaming. Memory squeezing the trigger of my heart and blood surging through my veins.

The dreams go into a journal. Cold sweat on my skin, adrenaline in my blood, I illuminate my cement room with the 40-watt bulb hanging overhead and, huddled under blankets, flip open my notebook and spill ink across the feint-ruled page. Capturing the ephemera of dreams, before they fade from memory.

I dream of teenage girls, parading the Ox Demons and Snake Ghosts around the running tracks behind our school. I dream of the tall dunce hats on our former teachers’ ink-smeared heads, the placards around their necks. Down with Headteacher Yang! Down with Black Gangster Zhao! I dream of Teacher Wu obeying our orders to slap Headteacher Yang, to the riotous cheers of the mob.

n.jackson_headshotJust before your debut novel was published, someone told you that Bhanu Khapil refers to creative projects are “a complete gesture.” Is yours?

Ah, the kindness of strangers and friends. I’ve been lucky enough to receive both recently. Hearing about Khapil’s notion of “a complete gesture” was helpful when I was struggling to let the book go and let readers and the world do with it as they will. I wouldn’t call myself a perfectionist, but I do have high standards for myself and my writing. Which means that I’m still making corrections to the book as I’m reading it aloud from it these days, even though it’s already printed and between hard covers. Some friends, the Shutes, sent me a copy of Ann Patchett’s essay about being on book tour in The Story of a Happy Marriage, and that’s been a balm too. So has sleep and spending time with friends and family who keep me grounded.

51T6EkMTIlL._SX333_BO1,204,203,200_The people on the hill liked to say that God’s smile was the sun shining down on them. In the late afternoon, before scarlet ibis bloodied the sunset, light flooded the stained glass windows of Bird Hill Church of God in Christ, illuminating the renderings of black saints from Jesus to Absalom Jones. When there wasn’t prayer meeting, choir rehearsal, Bible study, or Girl Guides, the church was empty except for its caretaker, Mr. Jeremiah. It was his job to chase the children away from the cemetery that sloped down behind the church, his responsibility to shoo them from their perches on graves that dotted the backside of the hill the area was named for. Despite his best intentions, Mr. Jeremiah’s noontime and midnight devotionals at the rum shop brought on long slumbers when children found freedom to do as they liked among the dead.

Buchner_Craig - Author Photo1The porch looked empty, but when I opened up the screen door, a man rushed at me, arms raised.

That’s what I’d told the jury. They’d questioned me for what seemed like days. A surgeon who took the stand said the bullet had entered the man’s abdomen, burst his spleen, and lodged between his seventh and eighth vertebrae. The jury determined I couldn’t be charged with any wrongful doing as the act was declared self-defense. The man survived, but he wasn’t going to walk right ever again. Social media interpreted the event differently because the man who was trying to attack me was doing so with a very large carrot that he’d stolen from Safeway only an hour earlier. Everybody with an opinion screamed about our country’s failure to help those with mental illnesses, that people like me had no tolerance for the less fortunate. But I’d sworn he had a steak knife covered in what I thought was fresh blood, but it was only the carrot’s hue turned reddish under the dim porch light. My testimony, however farfetched, was convincing enough and nine out of twelve jury members determined it was a no fault case. Reports showed that the man was not mentally ill but high on a psychedelic called Gator Grip. Apparently the drug made you feel like you were drowning. I didn’t know what people saw in it, except it made you think that every second was your last one alive. I guess there’s something beautiful about that.

chanse-headshot2015Why are you afraid?

Um. What?

 

You seem nervous. Are you worried about something? Unsettled maybe?

I usually am—worried about something—so yeah. I guess probably.

 

Just relax. You have nothing to worry about.

Okay.

LFV FRONTACT 2

SCENE 4

A laundromat/coffee shop hybrid establishment.

Day 10.

 

     We hear the sounds of a busy coffee house: 

     The hissing of an espresso machine, the clattering of ceramic dishes, conversations being carried on at low, and not-so-low, murmurs.

     There is a smattering of applause—not the most enthusiastic.

     An open mic is in progress.

     The HOST of the open mic is at the microphone.

 

And our next comic is new to the room, and she looks a little nervous. So please give a warm welcome to our first female comic of the night, Lydia Clark-Lin, everyone. Come on, make some noise.

photoHere’s the good news, Dr. Susan: I’ve made a real breakthrough since our last session. I was listening to a story on NPR yesterday about adults on the autism spectrum, and it made me realize I might be one of those adults. I’m not sure I recognize social cues. How else could I have not seen Bret was emotionally unavailable even after being so serious with him? Don’t you think that explains a lot? Yes, I can see you’re still with a patient. I just thought this was important. I’ll come back…

Brelinki Author Photo_Credit Tim Brelinski and Max BoydWhat’s with all the hoopla concerning your upbringing?

Well, it’s a little difficult for me to understand the interest in my background since evangelical Christianity is as familiar to me as my own name, but evidently that’s not the case for everyone. I grew up in rural Idaho during the 1970s, which made my childhood and adolescence conservative to the extreme, and since my parents were fundamentalists, my sisters and I were even stranger than most Idahoans (sorry Idaho!). We weren’t allowed to bowl or play cards or pool, or go to circuses or dances, we couldn’t swim with members of the opposite sex (no “mixed bathing” in church lingo) or watch movies or frequent restaurants that served alcohol. We couldn’t wear makeup or earrings or nail polish or skirts that didn’t reach our knees. In other words, the things we weren’t allowed to do was a vastly longer list than the things we were.

9780525427421On the last day of August in 1970, and a month shy of her fourteenth birthday, Jory’s father drove his two daughters out to an abandoned house and left them there.

The trip had not taken long. Her father piloted the car with resolute determination toward the very edge of town. He drove past the railroad tracks and the fish hatchery and the rodeo grounds, past the sugar beet factory and the slaughterhouse and the meatpacking plant; all the while Jory stared out the window in a silent fury. Next to her in the Buick’s backseat, Grace was practically unconscious. She lay slumped over with her head resting accidentally on Jory’s shoulder, her drool dampening the upper portion of Jory’s T-shirt. Jory gave her sister a shove and then turned toward the window. Black Cat Lane and Chicken Dinner Road and Floating Feather rolled past—long, twisty lanes sided with fields of sugar beets and alfalfa and corn. Jory watched a lone mallard drop and skid like a bomber onto an irrigation ditch while three goats perched king of the hill–style on a salvaged roof a farmer had put out for them. Her father continued on past several vast silagey-smelling feedlots, and then the fields grew even larger and the scenery more sparse and the houses less frequent, and finally he turned down a narrow unpaved lane that Jory had never seen before. Then he stopped the car and opened the door. Jory refused to look up at the strange house where she and her sister were now to live. She sat in the backseat with her hands between her knees until her father pulled her forcibly out of the car and set her on her feet in the dirt.

ChristineSneedauthorphoto1Why did you think you had the right to write about Paris?

I don’t think that fiction writers need to ask permission. I used to think that we did, but eventually, probably sometime in my mid-20s, I realized permission wasn’t going to arrive at my doorstep from anyone, and so the best tack to take was to go ahead and write whatever I wanted to. If I was going to write about people I knew, however, perhaps then I’d need to ask permission, but I wasn’t planning to. Nonfiction writers do need to worry more about permission than novelists do.

Paris He Said_coverAs Jayne made final preparations to leave New York for Paris during the first few days of June, a heat wave turned the sky ashen with trapped pollution and unshed rain. The people she passed on the street seemed more short-tempered than usual, and no one met her gaze other than schoolchildren who glanced up at her with innocent apathy. For a long time she had assumed that poverty or loneliness, or both, would force her to flee the city, but instead she had met an older man who invited her to trade Manhattan for his home in Paris. She said yes with little hesitation.

Shemkovitz author_picThis being your debut novel, what have you found to be the most eye-opening part, if any, of publishing a book?

I guess I’m amazed by how much goes into making a book and all the many moving parts involved. I could never be a publisher. I had so little to do with what went on beyond writing this book, and that was enough work for me. But maybe the most eye-opening part was revising a book that I knew was going to be published. The whole process felt much more important then.

 

There was finally something at stake. Was that it?

Kind of. But it’s also that editors aren’t just making suggestions as readers but are helping to shape something they too are invested in. And I think that reframed the way I considered more drastic changes with my novel. For instance, my editors, Brian Mihok and David McNamara, both agreed that I should cut the last chapter, which is sort of an ambiguous two-page moment that could fall anywhere in the story. David and Brian were kind in suggesting that I could completely rework the chapter to make it fit somehow, and that the decision was entirely mine. But after much contemplation (and weeping), I ended up cutting the chapter because I agreed with their reasoning. And now I think it’s a much stronger ending. But, man, was that a tough decision.