Out of Twenty: Denise Mina, Author of Red Road, Answers Seven Questions

In this version of twenty questions, I send a list of questions to a willing  author and they choose their own interview by handpicked which questions (and how many!) they want to answer. Denise Mina is the author of  Red Road, the fourth book in her Scottish detective series featuring Alex Morrow.  Here is what Denise had to say about reading, writing, and taking the reader into a different world.

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

 I’m a Scottish woman who lucked out! I started as an incompetent legal academic, doing a PhD in The Ascription of Mental Illness to Female Offenders. I realised that I’d probably spend the rest of my life trying to get people to listen to the things I’d discovered and I’m not that pushy. To be an academic you have to really sell yourself and I’m not the best at that.  So, I started writing a crime novel with all of the ideas in it, thinking that people would read for the mystery but come across all of the ideas in there. That book was Garnethill.

The books I like to work on have pace and take the reader into a different world that they having imagined before. I like heroes and heroines that are unexpected: psychiatric patients, rude women, the fat girl in the office.

I am often struck by the different ways books can be interpreted by who read and how they read it. Can you share with us any routines, food or recipes, or favorite books or rituals that help you get into character, and prepare to read narrate a book?

Honestly, I’ve got kids, a lot of elderly relatives and a man who couldn’t find his arse with both hands so I don’t have time for routines or rituals. I just look at the calendar, weep softly and get on with it. Panic is a good motivator. Working in the morning is good too: there’s a period of about two hours just after I’ve woken up when I don’t have a head full of other things, so I often get up a couple of hours before everyone else and work then.

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

Does being lauded as a writer make you feel like a bit of a phoney?

All the time. I see other writers talk about their work with total certainty and confidence. Maybe they don’t feel that way but I can’t even put it on. I always think of Philip Larkin and Ted Hughes. Larkin was constitutionally questioning  and Hughes was certain. I feel like Larkin. I wake up a little bit embarrassed.  I used to be embarrassed about feeling embarrassed but now I think of it as the ability to have two feelings at the same time. It’s my super power.

Red RoadWhat was the most interesting thing that you’ve found out while preparing to read a book that you’re working on?

Reading a lot of the research on women who marry men in prison or on death row for Deception. The dynamic in those relationships mirrors that between fan and pop stars: you can be completely over the top because you’ll never meet really, it’s the distance that causes the erotic tension. There’s a great book about Australian women who married men in prison and followed them after they got out. Terrifying! One guy took all of his wife’s teeth out to punish her.

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 get up before the kids and write for one or two hours before they get up. Then an hour and half of nagging, feeding, shouting, walking and get everyone to school. Then back to the desk, re read what I’ve done, decide what I’m going to do today. Batter into it. By about 11 am my concentration is fading and I spend about an hour and a half refusing to admit it has. I check my email, facebook, twitter. I empty the dishwasher. I sweep the hall.

Then I give up and have lunch early. Then I come back, work for a bit more, set out the work for the session and get on with interviews, admin, phone calls etc. The kids get out of school at three o’clock so I usually think of something great at 2:30, just as I have to set off. Jot it down, go get the kids. Get everyone back home, feed, nag, homework, nag. If I have child care which is about two afternoons a week I sit down and work until 5.

How jaw dropping dull is all of that?

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All Day And A Night by Alafair Burke

All Day and a Night by Alafair Burke

Generally speaking, character likability isn’t all that  high on my list of priorities in enjoying, or even choosing a book to read. Numerous factors are considered ahead of that (setting, tone, atmosphere, subject matter, whether I think it’ll be a compelling read). However, there are some natural exceptions to those rules—romance for one. Have you ever read a romance novel where you didn’t like either of the lead characters? Doesn’t happen very often.

I would also hazard a guess that murder mysteries, detective stories and suspense novels, where the tensions and stakes are high, are another place where it doesn’t hurt to have a character with whom you are comfortable, understand, and can root for. Ellie Burke is one such character, and with her, readers can comfortably navigate the world of violence and criminality.

In All Day and A Night  (a.k.a. prison slang for life without parole) Ellie Hatcher and her partner JJ Rogan are tapped to head  up a “fresh look” team on a serial murder case which was believed to have been solved years ago. The duo isn’t happy about the assignment which is one that is usually reviled within department because investigating officers are principally tasked with questioning the police work of their colleagues. It’s one step away from participating in an internal affairs investigation. It’s not by accident that Ellie and her partner have been assigned this task; it comes at the  request of Ellie’s now live in boyfriend, Max Donovan, who is an ambitious lawyer working for an even more ambitious DA in an election year. The heat is on, and though  no one wants to question the former police work, it’s clear that some things were missed.

Burke writes intriguing mysteries and this one is no exception. I had my ideas about how it would all end but I wasn’t sure, and that is saying quite a bit in her favor. The character interactions and back-stories, strong female roles and complex mystery made for a clever and engaging read. I’ve read one of Burke’s stand-alones, but this was my first novel featuring Ellie Hatcher and I would love to catch up with the other four novels in the series. Barring that, I’ll definitely be picking up and following where the next Hatcher mystery leads.

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Weekend Reading: Michel Laub, Bich Nguyen, & Elizabeth Cooke – July 18, 2014

Pioneer Girl, The Dark Wild Flowers & Diary of the Fall

Current Reads

I have plans with a friend this evening and an afternoon seminar set for tomorrow, but I am also planning on some quality time with my books. I’ve got three going at the moment.

Diary of the Fall by Michel Laub – This is I picked up from Other Press at BEA. Set in Brazil, it so far tells the story of  a young Jewish man who is examining his identity as a Jew in the aftermath of cruel bullying and serious injury of one of his non-Jewish classmates (which he participates in). His decisions and their eventual friendship are predicated on the examination of the lives of his father and grandfather and how both men deal with their own Jewish faith and identity.

The Wild Dark Flowers by Elizabeth Cooke – I had no idea that this was a sequel when I first started reading, but so far it has in no way affected my enjoyment of the story about the changes occurring on an English estate in the midst of the war. Sound familiar?

Pioneer Girl by Bich Minh Nguyen – I’m listening to this on audio and it’s a little slow going for some reason. Still, the story of a young woman of Vietnamese descent discovering her own story in the midst of exploring Rose Wilder Lane’s, is appealing and full of interesting history.

1DA652C2516038AE4D02F55645591F39 Bring Up The Bodies by Hilary Mantel, Simon Vance (Narrator)  Audiobook Review

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Out of Twenty: Kimberly Elkins, Author of What Is Visible, Answers Six Questions

In this version of twenty questions, I send a list of questions to a willing  author and they choose their own Kimberly Elkinsinterview by handpicking which questions (and how many!) they want to answer. Kimberly Elkins is the author of  What is Visiblea fictionalized account of the life of Laura Bridgman—the blind and deaf woman who first learned sign language, paving the way for Helen Keller. Here is what Kimberly  had to say about reading, writing, and the books that gave her the courage and inspiration to write her own novel.

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?

Hi there, I’m Kimberly Elkins, a writer and professor living in Cambridge, MA, although I spend part of the year as a Visiting Lecturer in the MFA program in Creative Writing at the University of Hong Kong, the first program of its kind in Asia.  I grew up in the Appalachian Mountains of Virginia, then got a degree in English at Duke University, followed by an MA in Creative Writing from Florida State, and an MFA in Fiction from Boston University.  Too much school!

I write literary fiction and nonfiction, including short stories and personal essays. My work has been published in the Atlantic, Best New American Voices, the Iowa Review, the Chicago Tribune, and Glamour, among others.  My first novel, What is Visible, just came out in June 2014.  It’s based on the real-life historical figure of Laura Bridgman, the first deaf-blind person to learn language, fifty years before Helen Keller.  Laura also couldn’t taste or smell, having lost four of her five senses to scarlet fever at age two.  In the nineteenth century, she was considered the second most famous woman in the world, second only to Queen Victoria. Thousands flocked to Perkins Institute to visit her; Darwin and Dickens wrote about her, and there were even Laura dolls worldwide with their eyes poked out and covered with her trademark green ribboned shade.  The book explores the complex reasons why Laura has been virtually erased from history, which include debates about religion, ideas of female beauty and sexuality, and the exploitation of the disabled.  We remember only Helen Keller as the first deaf-blind person to learn language, and with What is Visible, I aim to set the record straight.

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?

When I’m writing, I usually stay up very late, until about 4:00 a.m.  That’s my best writing time.  Then I get up around 8:00 or 9:00.  That leaves only four or five hours of sleep, so I make it up by luxuriating in usually two naps a day, one in the early afternoon, and one in the evening.  Research indicates that napping is a great boon to creative thinking, especially problem-solving, and I always wake feeling revitalized creatively.

What is Visible Book Cover Hard cOver EditionThe other main thing I do is to keep a huge poster board I’ve made on the wall above my desk that is specific to the project I’m working on.  For my novel, What is Visible, it was decorated with pictures of the real-life historical characters to keep them always in my sight.  The board was also divided into small boxes for days, month by month, as many boxes as the board allowed, and for every day that I wrote (which was every single day for the last two-thirds of the novel), I stuck a lovely little flower sticker in the box, the equivalent of giving myself a gold star.   I also noted the word counts at the end of every week in gold ink with many encouraging exclamation points.  As silly as it might sound, having that board above the desk, with all its pictures, reminders, goal-setting and encouragement really did help psychologically as I sat down each day to work.

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?

I first read about Laura Bridgman in a 2001 New Yorker article, and was amazed that I’d never heard of this remarkable American icon.  But more than the article, it was the photograph accompanying it that cut right through to my heart:  a frail, almost emaciated, and yet somehow fierce-looking young woman with a ribboned shade tied around her eyes, sitting ramrod straight with a stubborn dignity, and balancing an enormous, raised-letter book on her lap. As someone who has suffered on and off from severe depression all my life, I immediately identified with that profound sense of separateness and isolation, and knew immediately that I had to find out why she had been virtually lost to history.

Although Laura and I would seem to be wildly different to the naked eye, in writing her story, I was able to let go and share a piece of myself through this book.  I am also very proud to have brought this incredible woman back into the public eye to reclaim her rightful place in history.

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 keep books that relate in some way, either in terms of research or theme, close by, and dip into them randomly when I feel the need for inspiration. For example, with What is Visible, I kept on my desk biographies of all the main characters, plus the fantastic historical novels that inspired me and gave me the courage and vision to write my own:  Property by Valerie Martin; Gob’s Grief by Chris Adrian, and A Brief History of Women by Kate Walbert.  And for general good artistic and spiritual advice, I often refer to The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron, especially the inspiring quotes from master artists, writers and philosophers on the side of every page.  Other than those and more research materials, I’m really not able to read much for pleasure when I’m deep in the throes of writing.

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

I always knew the title; it was the same title I gave the short story, published in the Atlantic in 2003, which begot the novel of  the same name.  No one else ever had any say in it.  What is Visible most literally refers to the narrative itself:  at the end of “telling” her story to the young Helen Keller, who is being groomed to be “the second Laura Bridgman,” Laura says that while she will not be able to read what she has written, she prays that “what is invisible to man may be visible to God.” The idea of what is visible versus what is invisible, or below the surface, and also what it means to be truly visible to others–emotionally, physically, intellectually, spiritually–has always fascinated me.  So the phrase “what is visible” is all-encompassing; it’s not just about Laura’s handicap, but about the myriad ways in which we all perceive and misperceive the world and each other.

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

I generally research fairly exhaustively first, and then write.  For What is Visible, I spent two years immersing myself in the letters, journals and enormous historical coverage of Laura and my three other narrators: Dr. Samuel Gridley Howe, the founder of Perkins, who took Laura in at age seven and taught her language; Julia Ward Howe, his famous poet and suffragist wife; and Sarah Wight, Laura’s beloved last teacher.  Besides the archives at Perkins School for the Blind, I was fortunate to get fellowships at Harvard, Radcliffe, the Massachusetts and Maine Historical Societies and the American Antiquarian Society, the last of which was most useful in simply acclimating myself to the 19th-century sensibility.  I learned quickly that it was better to read from the period than about the period, a strategy I strongly suggest for anyone writing historical fiction.

1DA652C2516038AE4D02F55645591F39 Bring Up The Bodies by Hilary Mantel, Simon Vance (Narrator)  Audiobook Review

About the Author: Kimberly Elkins’ fiction and nonfiction have appeared or are forthcoming in The Atlantic MonthlyBest New American VoicesThe Iowa ReviewThe Village Voice,The Chicago TribuneMaisonneuveGlamourPrevention and McGraw-Hill’s college textbook, Arguing Through Literature, and Slice, among others. 

Photo Credit: Sarah Shatz
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