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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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

joshuamohrIs it true that you went to see “Jurassic World” by yourself this morning?

Shit.

 

Yeah.

Let’s not talk about that.

 

GallagherLawsonAuthorPhotoThe interview was conducted at the Central Library, in the area of Los Angeles known as downtown. When I arrived, the writer was already on the second floor perusing scores of old piano music. After quiet introductions and an awkward handshake, we went up by escalator to a spacious, well-lighted hallway on the top floor that overlooked the massive interior of the library. From where we sat, three levels above ground, we could see four more levels below and the networks of escalators that formed the spine of the building. We were discussing the merits of this magnificent view when we recognized we should not be speaking in such a quiet space. Each of us was afraid of disturbing those around us, and so the interview commenced in silence, using handheld devices to send each other the following.

authorphoto2So you’ve published your second collection of stories, Big Venerable (CCLaP Publishing, 2015), after publishing one a while ago called Why God Why. The people who read Why God Why (Love Symbol Press, 2013) seemed to like it. Why not finish on a high note? Why write another book and risk failure again?

Because I’m greedy. I want to write all the books. Unfortunately there isn’t enough time. Maybe one day…

 

That’s nonsense, that’s a nonsense answer and you know it. Give me a real answer.

Yes, it is nonsense. You know me so well! But here’s something that is true, I wrote some of the stories from Big Venerable much earlier than any that appeared in Why God Why. So really, Big Venerable, as a book, is just the culmination of that effort. It’s interesting to see how your work evolves. especially with respect to character development, something that was largely absent in the flash fictions of Why God Why.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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?

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.