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North author photo 1_by Jenny ZhangI was having a hard time interviewing myself, so I decided to let my book interview me. These questions are all taken verbatim from dialogue in the first chapter of The Life and Death of Sophie Stark, posed to/by Sophie or another character.

9780399173394_large_The_Life_and_Death_of_Sophie_StarkThis excerpt comes a few pages into the second chapter — Sophie Stark is making a film based on an exaggerated story her new girlfriend Allison told about her life, starring Allison herself. Bean and Stacey are characters in the story. Allison narrates this section.

I was still working at the bar then, and Sophie did all the casting without me. So I didn’t meet the guy she picked for Bean until our first day of shooting. He hadn’t come to the read-through—Sophie’s assistant director, a stuck-up girl named Susan who I already didn’t like, read his part in a schoolteachery voice. But there he was the first day, at the community center that was supposed to be my high school, wearing a white T-shirt that looked like it had been dipped in pee.

IMG_0495Every damn day in Religion Class, Sister Anna Banana yapped about the Soviets revving up to start a nuclear war with the new president, Ronald Reagan. She said after the cities burned to Holy Hell, there’d be something called “nuclear winter” that would kill all the plants and food, and it would last a million years. I’ll tell you what, a little bad weather, nuclear or not, wasn’t going to make me go extinct.

I’m already semi-super strong and fast, and I’m the best fighter in the sixth grade. But once World War III kicks off, I’ll need to be impervious to the nuclear wind-chill factor. Even though I was a whole year older than him, my little brother, Jaggerbush, was already immune to freezing weather, drinking sour milk, and the Ten Commandments. I had to practice up. I had a cold war to fight.

DSC_2150You’re a hard guy to track down.

I know, I know. I’m sorry. I just have a lot of obligations and duties—many roles to play.

 

What roles?

Husband, father, son, brother, department chair, mentor, friend, book reviewer, writer, etc.

 

So, mulattos, eh?

Yup.

Wild Mulattos Cover (New Blurb)Not long ago, at the beginning of this new century, I received from my maternal uncle a rather fateful phone call. I hadn’t spoken to Uncle Dalton in years, hadn’t seen him since my high school graduation, when he whispered that if I moved far enough away from my parents’ northeastern home, with my complexion, manner and intellect, I might pass for white. His calling surprised me, as did the frantic tone with which he relayed a curious adventure. He and some friends had been drinking and duck hunting in the Arkansas Delta, and through some sequence of events he could not fully explain, he got lost among the oxbow lakes, sloughs and uninhabited woods along the Mississippi River. For two days he wandered, convinced he’d die, with no map and his ammunition depleted from shooting at canvasbacks and trying to signal his companions. But on the third day, when he was making peace with God—in large part requesting forgiveness for the execrable treatment he’d given my mother for marrying my father—while falling to his knees he saw a slim youth in what looked like a gray sweatsuit, stepping into a gap among trees and thigh-high weeds. Stumbling forward, my uncle called for help, and the boy emerged, told my uncle to break his rifle, toss it to the ground and wait right there. In a few minutes the youth returned with venison jerky, a rough ceramic jug of fresh water, and a hand drawn map on homemade paper that steered Uncle Dalton to a gas station several circuitous miles down a dirt road. “And he looked just like you,” my uncle insisted. “Just like you.”

grow2Your debut collection is titled, My Life as a Mermaid, but there aren’t any mermaids in your book. I’m guessing you haven’t actually lived as a mermaid?

Only in my head. I love to swim, though, so that counts for something. Had I known about Weeki Wachee Springs when I was younger, I may have spent a summer or two getting paid to wear a mermaid costume and performing in an underwater theater. But if that had happened, I’m guessing this book—and my life—would’ve turned out differently.

 

Speaking of “my life,” where did the title come from? If the book is not about mermaids, then what part of it, if any, is about your life?

Before it became the title of a story in this collection, it was a joke I made about a particular way I flip in the water to make myself dizzy, something I’ve been doing since I was eight years old. It doesn’t look like much, and I admit it’s highly ridiculous (or refreshingly uninhibited?) that I still do it as a forty-something woman. Somehow the phrase, ‘my life as a mermaid,’ stuck. I always thought I’d use it as the title of my memoir, but it took on fictional proportions after that.

41bKsL5ED+L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_OK, Goodbye

Let’s say the first time she tries to walk out she loses her car keys in the front yard at night. She’s sassy, maybe a little drunk. She tosses her keys in the air but misses them on the way back down. The next thing she knows, she and her husband and the neighbors’ kids are on their hands and knees on the front lawn, feeling around for keys. Wet pieces of mowed grass stick to her legs as she crawls in the dark. She’s cussing to herself and dizzy and hungry. She’d like to stay angry enough to leave once she finds her car keys, but she’s also tired.

Then there’s the scene outside in which the neighbors are loading their truck to move. It’s a hot afternoon, and Vivie says, “You probably won’t be here when I get back, so I want to say goodbye now and tell you how nice it was to have you as neighbors. I mean it—we won’t ever get neighbors as good as you,” and she starts to tear up.

Everyone hugs. They laugh and say, “Keep in touch.”

“You keep in touch, too.”

Vivie gets in her car and pulls away. She drives slowly and waves. They wave, and she honks and waves some more. At the corner she turns to go to the store, and they’re out of sight.

Photo_ Shane Hinton_credit Keir MagoulasThere are a lot of fictional Shane Hintons in your book.

Like you, for one.

 

Exactly. What’s that about?

Well, I think it’s important to blur the lines between fiction and nonfiction. We feel betrayed when we find out something that has been sold to us as “real” is actually some combination of fact and fiction. I want to play with that distrust.

 

You’re saying the stuff in this book didn’t actually happen?

Some of it happened. Some of it didn’t. If the reader ever starts to wonder what’s real and what’s not, I think that’s a pretty special area of possibility.

Pinkies-Cover_main

Miguelito

When my first wife moved out, she took the pictures of our basset hound and left the pictures of our honeymoon. She took the kitchen appliances we received as wedding presents. She took the bed we bought with our first tax return.

It was the end of summer. There were papers scattered around the front room. Our health insurance statement, our car insurance statement, and our homeowner’s insurance statement were in a loose pile where our desk used to be. I pulled the twin mattress from the guest bedroom into the middle of the living room. The dog sat by the front door, whining.

I slept with the lights on. The ceiling fan spun overhead, casting shadows on the ceiling. I woke up around midnight and let the dog outside. When I woke up again to his scratching at the back door, the sun was coming up.

I rubbed my eyes as he walked in the door, the fur on his paws and long ears wet with dew. He had never stayed outside all night. I figured he must have been waiting for my first wife’s car to pull into the driveway. “Sorry, boy,” I said. “I don’t think she’s coming home.” The dog shook the dew out of his fur and looked up at me, drool collecting in the corner of his mouth.

Ann Packer by Elena SeibertYour new novel, The Children’s Crusade, is about the life of a California family over the course of five decades. The parents are mismatched, and the novel traces the effect of their troubled marriage on their four children. The mother has a certain amount of antipathy toward the youngest, and the book focuses to a large degree on that. Kind of depressing, no? What made you want to write such a novel?

The Children's Crusade by Ann PackerAll afternoon the children avoided their mother: moving from room to room, or from indoors to outdoors, a step or two ahead of her. They joined together occasionally, all except Robert, but they didn’t gather again until their father returned. By then it was late afternoon; when they stood on the driveway, their shadows stretched from their feet nearly to the house. Robert’s stomach hurt most when he stood up straight, so he walked bent over at the waist, hobbling like an old man. Their father had eight bags of ice, and they each took one from the trunk of his car and carried it to the deep freeze in the garage—each except James, who ran from one sibling to another, touching the bags of ice and yipping with something that wasn’t quite shock and wasn’t quite laughter.

Michael DowningGiotto?

Giotto di Bondone. Greatest painter in the history of the world.

 

Says who?

For starters, Dante.

 

What about Michelangelo?

He thought so, too. The very first drawings we have by Michelangelo are copies of figures from Giotto’s frescoes.

The Chapel_FINALBlue.

Had Mitchell, my dead husband, been standing beside me, where he belonged, he would have whispered, First impression?

My first and enduring impression of the chapel was blue.

The ceiling was a deep azure evening sky flecked with golden stars. The residents of the heavens were provided with golden portholes on either end, and from the smaller of these windows on the world bearded saints and patriarchs looked down approvingly. The bigger, central lookout above the altar end was occupied by Jesus in his middle age, and near the original entrance, above the Last Judgment, the Virgin Mary held her infant son for all to see.

ElizaFactorAfter reading Love Maps, Joe Weisberg says he finally understands women.

Yes. You, too, can understand women for only $15.

 

Does Joe’s wife agree about him understanding women? 

No, but that’s just Joe’s wife.

 

Why do people get married in the first place?

I don’t know. Why do we fall in love? Why do we bomb each other, or stab people we love/don’t love/could love in the heart? My son, who is considered nonverbal by the experts and tabulators of our world, still taught himself how to say: Why do we do?   

LoveMapsThe funeral parlor is indeed in a strip mall. A single-story stucco with a shoe store attached to one side and an office-supply place on the other. Sarah parks the car and sits behind the wheel, staring at the double doors of the funeral parlor, not wanting to go in. Twenty percent to Tori. Twenty percent to this Philip Clark. Sixty percent to Conningsby’s biological family. What does any of that mean? As if you can prove your claim by the mass of ash you carry around. She imagines the funeral director standing by a table, and on the table is a scale—an old-fashioned, double-plated one, like the scales of justice. He’s wearing a butcher’s apron over his undertaker’s black, and he’s scooping Conningsby’s ashes onto the plate, his glasses halfway down his nose, frowning, shaking his head in holy disgust.