Author Interviews & Guest Posts | Linus's Blanket

Out of Twenty: Brian Payton, The Author of The Wind Is Not A River, Answers Seven Questions

In this version of twenty questions, I send a list of questions to a willing  author Brian Paytonand they choose their own interview by handpicking the questions (and how many!) they want to answer. Brian Payton is the author of  The Wind Is Not  River. Here is what Brian had to say about reading, writing, and the relevance of historical fiction.

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’m a writer of both fiction and nonfiction. My latest book, The Wind Is Not A River, is both a survival story and a love story set in the wilderness of Alaska’s Aleutian Islands leading up to the only battle of WWII fought on American soil. My previous books, The Ice Passage and Shadow of the Bear: Travels in Vanishing Wilderness are narrative nonfiction books dealing with history and conservation respectively. My first novel, drawn from events in my own life, was Hail Mary Corner. I live in Vancouver with my wife and our two daughters. I’ve been writing since my late teens.

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 am resolutely non-superstitious so I have no writing rituals. Whether I’m writing fiction or nonfiction, I approach it much the same way: I treat it not like “a job” but as a vocation and a call to action. With fiction, once I have an idea, I chain my ass to a chair for a few weeks to see if a character and story begin to show signs of life. I do not wait for the muse; I follow my interests and get to work.

Write the question you would most like to be asked and answer it.

Your latest book is historical fiction. What makes this story relevant today?

Great survival stories can tell us something elemental about what it means to be alive. This story is primarily a story of survival and devotion set against a history that has been lost in the popular culture—a history I hope to help reclaim. Great love stories can tell us something about the human experience, what it means to live with, without, and for one another… who we are in the presence or absence of love.

With this book, my goal is to transport readers to a stark, beautiful, and unforgiving landscape, then challenge them to ask themselves: How far would you go in search of the truth, or to honor a lost loved one? What are we willing to do to survive, or risk for the sake of love?

The Wind Is Not  A River by Brian PaytonAre you able to read when you’re writing and if so what books inspire you when you’re working your own book(s)?

When I’m writing fiction, I allow myself to read nonfiction. Conversely, I read fiction when I’m writing nonfiction. Although I have no writing “rituals” per se, each day before writing I try and read some poetry no matter what I’m working on. During the writing and editing of The Wind Is Not A River, I immersed myself in the poetry of Seamus Heaney, particularly the bog poems.

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

From the beginning, I had the title of this book in place: The Wind Is Not A River. I realize the title is a head scratcher, a koan, but it evolved naturally out of the course of the narrative and the struggle of one of the two main characters. It is of the place in which the book is set and is appropriate. I realize that some people might find it too cryptic and therefore may be inclined to give it a pass, but many readers are intrigued and curious to take part in solving the mystery. I’m more interested in telling this story to the second group of readers.

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?

Honestly, I can’t remember much of what I read as a child, beyond the Hardy Boys mysteries, ghostwritten by authors collectively known as “Franklin W. Dixon.” Then, as now, I loved being read to. I remember being mesmerized by my stunningly beautiful third grade teacher, who read E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web to the class. I was hooked on every word.

And then I read Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath when I was 14, and it shook me to the core. I vividly remember savoring the final scene while on the road, curled up in the hatchback of our Ford Pinto (infamous for having its gas tank behind the bumper!) because there were not enough seats for all us kids. By the time I reached the ending, I was sobbing loud enough to require explanation. I knew then that I had magic in my hands and wanted to become a magician.

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

About the Author: Brian Payton is the author of The Wind Is Not A River, which was chosen as an American Booksellers Association IndieNext “Great Reads” Pick, an American Library Association “Library Reads” Pick, an Amazon Book of the Month, and a BookPage Top Fiction Pick (Jan. 2014). Payton is also the author of the novel Hail Mary Corner and two acclaimed works of narrative nonfiction: Shadow Of The Bear: Travels In Vanishing Wilderness, which was a Barnes and Noble Book Club Pick and a U.S. National Outdoor Book Awards Book of the Year; and The Ice Passage: A True Story Of Ambition, Disaster, And Endurance In The Arctic Wilderness, which was a finalist for the Hubert Evans Nonfiction Prize. Payton lives with his family in Vancouver.

Photo Credit: Alison Rosa, Doug Rosa

Out of Twenty: Martha Woodroof, Author of Small Blessings, Answers 6 Questions

In this version of twenty questions, I send a list of questions to a willing  authorMartha Woodroof and they choose their own interview by handpicking the questions (and how many!) they want to answer. Martha Woodroof is the author of  Small Blessings. Here is what Martha had to say about reading, writing, and making a bucket list helped her publish her 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?

I got my first rejection letter at the age of twelve from the poetry editor of The Atlantic Monthly. As it was a personal letter asking me to send in more stuff, I took that as encouragement. I’m both a college dropout (Mount Holyoke) and a grad school dropout (the University of Virginia). My first real job was as a teacher’s aide in a pilot Head Start program in Greensboro, North Carolina. Since the turn of the century, I’ve been attached to WMRA, the Little Public Radio Station that Can, in Harrisonburg, Virginia, and actively freelanced for the NPR Culture Desk and for npr.org.

Before that – among a lot of other things, I co-owned restaurants, did a bit of acting, was fired as a magazine editor, hosted local TV talk shows and anchored the news, wrote a book called How to Stop Screwing Up: 12 Steps to a Real Life and a Pretty Good Time, cooked for an artist’s colony, was a country music disc jockey and a psychiatric occupational therapy aide, taught preschool, published a bunch of essays, was a morning drive-time personality on a tiny AM radio station, ran a college bookstore coffee shop, directed a college’s co-curricular programming, and failed to sell cars.

I finished an early draft of Small Blessings a couple of years ago and then put it away to work on some radio and non-fiction projects.
I’ve never been all that frightened of failing (which is lucky, as I have failed a lot). It seems to me we are each responsible for living our own lives kindly, productively and well; figuring out what we need and want to do with our time and our talents, and then going after those things full-tilt. With this in mind, when I hit my early sixties, I made a bucket list. As I’ve done (and failed to do) a lot of very different things, my bucket list had one item on it: Publish Small Blessings! I’d recently reread the novel, re-fallen in love with its people, and the one thing I really wanted was to land them a better gig than life in a cardboard box in my home office.

How Small Blessings came to St. Martin’s is a long, funny story involving some more major non-shyness on my part and (as any first novelist will tell you) a giant helping hand from the serendipity gods. One auction later, Small Blessings and I had fetched up at St. Martin’s, which is publishing heaven as far as I’m concerned.

Small Blessings by Martha Woodroof - JacketAs to the stories I want to tell: I want to explore the lives of ordinary people who have ordinary problems and somehow things happen that bring out the best in them. I am, and have always been, an optimist!

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?

My process is not very mysterious; it’s what I think of as the Just Do It school of writing. I get up every morning and write for a couple of hours before I do anything other than give my email a cursory look. As soon as I start to interact with the outside world, the inside of my head turns a pinball machine and I lose my ability to hang out in my imaginary worlds.

As to rituals and food: Coffee. Brought to me in continuous supply by my husband, Charlie, who is bucking for sainthood.

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

Q: Is writing fiction fun?
A: Yes!

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’m a long-term sober alcoholic/addict (hallelujah!). Sobriety has taught me that there’s always another chance. Or conversely, as the Doobie Brothers once put it: “You always have a chance to give up. So why do it now?”

If I had to be stuck on a desert island with only one book, it would be The Habit of Being: Letters of Flannery O’Connor, edited by Sally Fitzgerald. In one particular letter, someone asks Ms. O’Connor (who was a seriously devout Catholic) what our duty in prayer is. Ms. O’Connor replies something to the effect that our duty is to figure out what we want and ask for it. The italics are mine, as I read this at a point in my life when I was not yet sober and so was really floundering. And even though I wasn’t even a person of faith at the time, I remember those words hitting me like a blow. Our duty is to figure out what we want…

At the time I was clueless about who I was, let alone what I wanted. That moment with Ms. O’Connor began an ongoing process of learning to accept myself exactly as I am in the world as it actually is. This has been both challenging and, at times, very scary. But – yowza! – it’s also, in my opinion, the most alive way to live. How can we possibly be happy without first being our real selves? So – back to Small Blessings – in general, I think I’m interested in writing about nice, well-meaning people who are willing to face the extreme challenge of accepting themselves as they really are and, in the process, learning what it is they really, truly want.

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?

My mother read aloud to me way past the age when I could read on my own. She was an English professor who loved literature, and she made Dickens and Shakespeare and Jane Austen as real to me as second grade. I think that’s when I fell in love with words and their power to tell other people’s stories.

Long years reporting in the NPR system only fueled this love. Stories allow us to inhabit the lives of people we will never meet (or who will never exist, in the case of fiction), try on their viewpoints, experience their struggles and triumphs, feel their emotions. I can truthfully never remember not wanting to be a story teller in some form or other.

Who was your favorite character to write, and why did you have an affinity for that character in particular?

I love all my characters, and I was surprised by how much I missed their company once Small Blessings was finished. Writing Agnes Tattle (Tom Putnam’s mother-in-law) was a real blast, because she is so no-nonsense and straightforward.

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

About the Author: Martha Woodroof was born in the South, went to boarding school and college in New England, ran away to Texas for a while, then fetched up in Virginia. She has written for NPR, npr.org, Marketplace and Weekend America, and for the Virginia Foundation for Humanities Radio Feature Bureau. Her print essays have appeared in such newspapers as the New York Times, The Washington Post, and the San Francisco Chronicle. Small Blessings is her debut novel. She lives with her husband in the Shenandoah Valley. Their closest neighbors are cows.

Out of Twenty: Thrity Umrigar, Author of The Story Hour, Answers 12 Questions

In this version of twenty questions, I send a list of questions to a willing  author and they choose their own Thrity Umrigarinterview by handpicking the questions (and how many!) they want to answer. Thrity Umrigar is the author of  The Story Hour.  Here is what Thrity had to say about reading, writing, and whether talking solves problems.

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

Honestly, it’s been the kindness of readers.  People who make the time to come to my readings.  Or write to me on my fan page on Facebook.  Or write me long, detailed emails that sometimes break my heart but always remind me that words matter, that literature matters.  That there is a good reason to spend months at a time lost in writing a book, neglecting friends, family, house, pets.

Who was your favorite character to write, and why did you have an affinity for that character in particular?

Honestly, I have loved writing all my characters.  Each one is different, each one carries his or her own history, and I’m intrigued by them all.  I love trying to figure out why they behave the way they do, what in their past tugs at their present.  I have to confess that Lakshmi was probably the most challenging one to write because of her ungrammatical, idiosyncratic English and the way she would turn a phrase.  In many ways, Lakshmi was a stranger to me—she grew up in the Indian countryside, she was the daughter of peasants, she had an eighth-grade education.  She had very little in common with me.  And she insisted in speaking in this very non-standard English.  So I had to get to know her in the course of writing this novel. Read more

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 Denise Minainterview 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? Read more

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