Out of Twenty, Genni Gunn, Author of Solitaria, Answers Nine Questions

In this version of twenty questions, I send a list of questions to a willing victim author and they choose their own interview by choosing which questions, and how many questions, they want to answer! As I awaited the responses to this interview, I heard that Genni Gunn had been long listed for  Canada’s prestigious Scotiabank Giller Prize. This, quite frankly, came as no big surprise to me as Solitaria exhibits gorgeous writing and characterization. Genni was gracious enough to answer nine questions.  Here is what she had to say about reading, writing and her daily three page minimum.

Would you give us a bit of introduction and let my readers know who you are, how you got started writing, and what kind of books you like to write?

I’ve been writing for as long as I can recall, although I’ve also had a parallel life as a musician. As a child, I wrote and bound little books of stories, which my sister illustrated, and we sold these to our indulgent parents, who praised us with unrestrained abandon. (Incidentally, my sister Ileana Springer is the artist whose painting is on the cover of Solitaria.) As an adult, after a number of years of working as a musician, I returned to writing – not that I had ever stopped – but I returned to it with serious dedication. I did not want to spend the rest of my life in bars, playing music, but I could see myself writing stories forever more.

I write in multi-genres, and I enjoy them all immensely. Some ideas are perfectly rendered as short stories, others are much too large and become novels; some only make it to poems. I work on several projects at once, so I’m never bored or stuck. I write books about things that intrigue me, about questions that I’m trying to answer. I’m interested in human dynamics, relationships, in the function of memory in our lives, and in how we distort memory and recreate ourselves as we age. At their core, I think all my books contain a secret, something to uncover to arrive at a greater truth.

I am often struck by the different ways writers respond to the process of writing a book. Linus’s Blanket refers to my use of reading and other activities as a means of escape and comfort, can you share with us any routines, food or recipes, or favorite books or rituals that help you thorough the writing process?

I’m very disciplined, in that I write at least five or six hours each day. When I’m working on a novel, at the end of the day,  I stop writing mid-scene. That way, when I begin the following day, the writing comes easily, because I know what’s coming next. When I’m in the first draft of a new novel, I give myself a 3-page minimum to achieve each day, and I include notes and research in this count. Of course, not every day is a perfect writing day. So, when the writing is not going so easily, I find hundreds of banal things that must be done, such as tidying my desk, or weeding the garden or washing the car, etc. And I’m perfectly capable of convincing myself that these things must be done now. I think we can call it an avoidance tactic. This seems to be germane to the creative process.

Are you able to read when you’re writing and if so what books inspire you when you’re working your own book(s)?

I absolutely must read while I’m writing. In fact, I often judge how well the work is going by how much I’m reading. Although I normally read literary fiction, writers who dazzle with their craft, when I’m writing, I’m not particular at all. Anything will do: books of all types, magazines, newspapers, flyers that come in the mail unsolicited, trashy magazines in the checkout aisles, almost anything that has text on it will have my attention. It’s as if I’m replenishing the words that daily spill out of me onto the page.

What was the most interesting thing that you found out while researching this book that you ultimately decided not to include?

I discovered an interesting wartime incident that is rarely mentioned, yet is one of the most disastrous air raids that occurred during WWII: On December 2, 1943, a German air raid destroyed ships in the Bari,Italy harbour. The 17 vessels sunk were Italian, British and American. It is not the raid or the destruction that is surprising to me, but the fact that one of the American ships was secretly carrying mustard gas (which killed all the crew). The Americans claimed it was there as a deterrent. However, seeing as no one knew about it, how could it have been a deterrent?

I constructed a scene in which two of my characters just happen to be in a restaurant overlooking the harbour when the raid occurs. In the end, however, I took out the scene, because it wasn’t adding to the story I was telling, and came across as a blatant author intrusion.

In the past I have visited a blog called Daily Routines and it’s all about the schedules of writers and creative people.  What does a typical day look like for you and how do you manage a busy schedule?

A typical day – if I’m not traveling, and I really really love traveling– would begin around 7:30 or 8:00 a.m.with a latte and the newspaper which I read standing up in the kitchen, for no apparent reason, other than habit. Then I go up to my office on the second floor, and I sit at my desk and write. Of course, I multitask like everyone else these days, by answering email or phone at regular intervals. I often work on several things at once, so I might work on one project, then take a break, replenish the coffee, and go to another. I’ll do this till 4:00 or 5:00. Interspersed with the writing are all the other commitments that come with being an author, such as interviews, readings, festivals, bookclubs, blogs, etc. and all of this requires organization. Somehow it all gets done, often to deadline.

Did you know what you wanted the title of the book to be?  How involved were in choosing the name of the book?

I wish I could tell you that I had the title right from the start, but actually, other than one of my books (Mating in Captivity) I’ve never had the title until the end, and even then, it’s been a teeth-biting experience settling on one. For Solitaria, I had about three working titles, all of which really did not work. I came up with endless possibilities that were nixed (and I’m glad they were) until one day, suddenly, the word, Solitaria, came into my head, and I knew it was perfect, not only because it was in Italian, and because in Italian, the word solitaria not only means solitary, but shut-in, and lonely. These descriptions suited all my characters.

 Did you have to do much research when working on your books, and do you tend to write first or research first?

I usually begin with an idea and then, I research that idea until something concrete comes from it. The writing of Solitaria, for example, was quite a long process. I went back to Italy every year for five years and interviewed a lot of people, some my relatives, others people who were of the same era, and who would have lived through similar times.

As well, I read a lot of books and researched the times for about a year. I particularly chose books written by Italians during the Mussolini regime, because I wanted to know what people thought about. History books give us someone’s 20/20 hindsight version of events, but literature gives us what people were thinking about during those events. For example, Christ Stopped at Eboli, a memoir by Carlo Levi is an essential work about that era.

Turning all this research into a story was the difficult part. I had to invent a story that would explore the issues I was interested in. Sometimes, historical facts can direct the narrative in surprising ways. I keep myself open to possibilities, and I continue to research while I write.

If you could have everyone read five books, which ones would they be?

I will name five books, but my list could change daily.  There are so many categories of books, and I could pick five out of any of them. For example, mythology. I think everyone should be familiar with the mythology of their own culture. So much of what we read is infused with it.  Poetry. I can’t even begin to single out five poets.  Short Story collections. Classic 18C novels. Classic 19C novels. Creative Non-Fiction. I could go on forever. Too many books, too little time. However, having said this, here are five books that have stayed with me years past the reading of them: The Good Doctor by Damon Galgut, In the Lake of the Woods by Tim O’Brien, Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee, The Body Artist by Don DeLillo, and The Road by Cormac McCarthy.

What’s next?

I’m about two-thirds of the way into a new novel, and am also working on a collection of stories set in exotic locations, with gothic elements to them.

I have a copy of Solitaria to giveaway to readers of Linus’s Blanket. Just fill out this form, and I will pick a winner (to be notified by e-mail) sometime next Thursday.

1DA652C2516038AE4D02F55645591F39 Out Of Twenty: Susan Gregg Gilmore, Author of The Improper Life of Bezellia Grove, Answers Nine Questions

About: Genni Gunn is a writer, musician and translator. Born in Trieste, she came to Canada  when she was eleven. She has published nine books: three novels—Solitaria, Tracing Iris and Thrice Upon a Time; two short story collections—Hungers and On The Road; two poetry collections— Faceless and Mating in Captivity. As well, she has translated from Italian two collections of poems—Devour Me Too and Traveling in the Gait of a Fox by renowned Italian author, Dacia Maraini. One of Genni’s books, Mating in Captivity, has been translated into Italian. Two more are forthcoming next year.

Genni’s latest novel, Solitaria, is on the Scotiabank Giller Prize longlist.



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“In Malice, Quite Close” by Brandi Lynn Ryder

I started reading but have not finished (and probably won’t finish) Brandi Lynn Gardner’s In Malice Quite Close. It is really good, engrossing and very well-written. If you like art, drama, intrigue and Humbert Humbert, then all of those elements and more exist in Brandi Lynn Ryder’s debut novel.

So why am I not going to finish, since it’s so good? Timing. This book comes on the heels of my reading two books (The Beginners, by Rebecca Wolff & The End of Everything, by Megan Abbot) concerning ambiguous and dodgy sexual relationships between either confused or downright non-consenting teenage girls and the males in their lives. Reading about a much older man abducting a vulnerable teenage girl and reshaping her life puts me over my tolerance threshold for this particular brand of female exploitation.

If Lolita-esque novels appeal, then this book will have a lot to offer. Frenchman Tristan Mouralt spots fifteen-year-old Karen on the streets of San Francisco, and decides that he just has to have her, so he takes her. Of course. Befriending the unhappy girl he makes her complicit in her own disappearance and renames her Gisele. When Gisele is eighteen he marries her off to unsophisticated Luke in order to mask the nature of their relationship to each other. Gisele and Luke have a ten-year-old daughter who figures prominently in the story – she discovers a basement full of nude paintings, all of Gisele. Luke reluctantly takes credit for the paintings, even though he knows that he isn’t capable of such exquisite and provoking work. The plot thickens further and unfolds from there as secrets threaten to expose the life Tristan has built for them all. Though I wasn’t in the head space for this novel, but I it was definitely worthy of a mention for those who might be.

1DA652C2516038AE4D02F55645591F39 The Invasion, by K.A. Applegate   Book Review

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Out of Twenty: Sophie Hannah, Author of The Cradle In the Grave, Answers Twenty Questions

In this version of twenty questions, I send a list of questions to a willing victim author and they choose their own interview by choosing which questions, and how many questions, they want to answer! Sophie Hannah’s new book, The Cradle In The Grave, is a pyschological supense thriller exploring the murders of women mistakenly implicated in the deaths of their own children. Here is what Sophie had to say about reading, writing and her definitive prroof that there is a God!


Would you give us a bit of introduction and let my readers know who you are, how you got started writing, and what kind of books you like to write?

I am Sophie Hannah, an English poet and crime fiction writer.  I’ve published five collections of poetry (most of it rhyming, metrical and about dodgy ex-boyfriends!) and six best-selling psychological thrillers, the latest of which is The Cradle in the Grave.  All my novels are about human relationships, warped psyches, emotional anguish and the virtual impossibility of truly knowing other people.  In my books, most of the sinister goings-on take place within marriages, within families, behind closed doors.  This is because I think most people are damaged far more by those close to them – those who supposedly love them and have their best interests at heart – than by passing serial killers or FBI conspiracies!  I try to write thrillers that are so gripping, readers cannot put them down – I do this because the main thing I look for as a reader is grippingness and unputdownability.  I’m 40, and I live with my husband and two children in Cambridge, England, where I am a Fellow of Lucy Cavendish College. My website is www.sophiehannah.com.
I am often struck by the different ways writers respond to the proccess of writing a book. Linus’s Blanket refers to my use of reading and other activities as a means of escape and comfort, can you share with us any routines, food or recipes, or favorite books or rituals that help you thorough the writing process?

My main routine is that I tidy up before I start writing every day.  I can’t concentrate if any part of my house is a mess. Towards the end of a first draft, I sometimes take up smoking again and eat rather a lot of takeaway pizza.  Around this time, also, I start to resemble a life-term prisoner – baggy sweat pants, sallow skin, saggy T-shirts.  Then when the first draft is finished, I make myself presentable again!

Write the question you would most like to answer in an interview, and then answer it?

Question: What, out of everything in the world, most decisively proves that there is a God?
Answer: The TV series House MD, starring Hugh Laurie, Robert Sean Leonard, Lisa Edelstein etc.  Too brilliant to have been invented by mere human beings alone. (If atheists aren’t convinced at this point, I might also mention Seinfeld.)
People live in stories, we are surrounded by them. What was it about this the story that made it the one you had to tell at this time? What impact did telling this story have on your life? Did you find that it had changed you?

Three women in the UK – Sally Clark, Angela Cannings and Trupti Patel – were accused of murdering more than one each of their babies.  All three protested their innocence, and their supporters believed the deaths were SIDS (Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, or crib-death).  I became obsessed with these three cases because they seemed almost identical, and yet these women didn’t know each other or have anything in common.  Their trials were very newsworthy, and everyone seemed to be on the side of either ‘the doctors’ or ‘the mothers’ – as if it were a team sport!  I was fascinated by the way the public consciousness seemed to need to lump these women together, as if they were one entity that must be either guilty or innocent.  Suddenly I was desperate to write a fictional version: three women’s stories, three life situations that, on the face of it, seemed similar, but were in fact very different.  Which were guilty and which innocent?  Telling the story changed me quite a lot; I realised it was more important to be compassionate than to be right. 


As a novelist writing in the crime genre, I am expected to save goodies and punish baddies in my books.  That’s what readers love about crime fiction – that the moral order is upheld.  In The Cradle in the Grave several people commit murder, others make terrible mistakes, and much harm is done by one human being to another.  However, I wouldn’t describe the novel as a battle between goodies and baddies. All the characters in the book, without exception, are doing their very best in painful circumstances, even the killers.  Especially the killers.  Which doesn’t mean society doesn’t need to be protected from those who are a threat to others’ safety – obviously it does.  But does it need to put all its venom into moral judgements of ‘evil’ and ‘monster’?  Who is that helping?  The Cradle in the Grave wasn’t supposed to contain any kind of moral message – it was supposed to be a gripping story, that’s all.  But, without my having planned it, the moral grew as the story did, and became this: do not lump individuals together and judge them – everybody’s situation and reasons are different. 
What are you reading now? What are some of your favorite books and authors? Has writing your own book changed the way that you read?

I’m currently reading Val McDermid’s new novel The Retribution. It’s very gripping, as all her books are.  My favourite authors are Ruth Rendell, Nicci French, Tana French, Val McDermid, Iris Murdoch, Wendy Cope, Douglas Kennedy, Jesse Kellerman – among others.  Yes, writing has changed the way I read.  I often guess the outcomes/endings of mystery novels, which is infuriating.  I am rarely surprised by twists – I feel like the literary equivalent of Christopher Walken’s character in the film The Dead Zone!


 Are you able to read when you’re writing and if so what books inspire you when you’re working your own book(s)?


Yes, I read all the time.  Anything brilliant inspires me, whatever the genre.  And, actually, reading bad books is inspiring in its own way too – you think, ‘Well, I can certainly do better than this!’
In the past I have visited a blog called Daily Routines and it’s all about the schedules of writers and creative people. What does a typical day look like for you and how do you manage a busy schedule?

I tidy up and do chores/emails/admin between 8.30 and 11.  I then have a very early big lunch (often I haven’t had breakfast – I know, skipping breakfast is bad and unhealthy!) at about 11.  At 12, I start writing and write until about 6.30 pm, when I stop to say hello to my family and cook dinner.  I write the first drafts of my books between November and end of May every year. 

If you could have everyone read five books, which ones would they be?


The Black Prince by Iris Murdoch – the best novel I have ever read
Coming From Behind by Howard Jacobson – the funniest novel I have ever read
A Dark-Adapted Eye by Barbara Vine – the best psychological mystery I have ever read
The Body Never Lies by Alice Miller – stunning psychological insights into the human tendency to self-sabotage
The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle – philosophy book of unparalleled brilliance

Did you know what you wanted the title of the book to be? How involved were in choosing the name of the book?


In the UK, The Cradle in the Grave is called A Room Swept White.  I chose both titles, actually.  I knew my US publisher would think A Room Swept White was too cryptic, so I set myself the challenge of thinking of a US title that I liked as much. The Cradle in the Grave is clearer in terms of signalling the subject matter of the novel, and I think it’s got a good rhythm to it – and of course it’s sinister, which is always a good thing!

What were your experiences with reading when you were growing up? Was there a pivotal moment in discovering literature when you knew that you wanted to be a writer?


I was an avid reader as a child.  I loved Agatha Christie mysteries – any mysteries, really. And I always wanted to write – not ‘be a writer’, but just write, as a hobby. Actually, it was more of a compulsion – it has been all my life.  I never for one moment imagined I might ever earn a living from it!  That’s an added bonus!

How many works in progress do you have going at any one time? How do you know when one has potential and when one just needs to be scrapped?


I can only work on one thing at a time, though vague thoughts of other (easier, more brilliant) projects float around in my brain while I’m wrestling with the intransigent current novel-in-progress.

As a published author, what’s been the biggest surprise about life after the publication of your first book?


By far the biggest surprise was when my first psychological thriller Little Face became a word of mouth best-seller.  No one expected it to, least of all me.  But it just kept selling and selling.  By Christmas, it was no. 1 on Amazon.co.uk.  Nos 2, 3 and 4 were John Grisham, Thomas Harris and Ian Rankin.  I couldn’t believe it – I thought my husband must have rigged the computer somehow.

Where do you most love to write? Are there places where it comes to you easier than others?


I love to write in my writing room at the very top of my five-storey house in Cambridge.  It’s almost completely empty and almost completely white – I like to think of it as the room version of a clear, fresh mind.  It has a fab roof terrace and views from my desk of the church towers of Cambridge.  Annoyingly, I can’t really write anywhere else unless I’m in deadline panic mode and needs must!

What’s next?


Another psychological thriller, a TV series, a self-help book, a memoir – or else I will die of exhaustion in the bath, a bit like Jim Morrison!

1DA652C2516038AE4D02F55645591F39 Out Of Twenty: Thomas Mullen, Author of The Revisionists, Answers Six Questions

About: Sophie Hannah is an award-winning poet and crime fiction writer whose novels are international bestsellers.

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