Out of Twenty – Jon Michaud, Author Of When Tito Loved Clara, Answers Nineteen Questions

jon michaud

In the Linus’s Blanket version of twenty questions, I send a list of questions to a willing victim author and they choose which questions and how many questions they want to answer. Jon Michaud, who wrote When Tito Loved Clara: A Novel, played along and answered nineteen questions (which were all the questions that I sent along, so bravo!).  Here is what Jon had to say about reading, writing and Harry Houdini almost making an appearance in his 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?

My name is Jon Michaud. I’m forty-three years old. I was born in Washington D.C. and raised in the suburbs of Maryland and in Belfast, Northern Ireland. I’ve been writing fiction since I was a teen-ager and it was my goal from that early age to be a novelist. It took me a long, long time to learn how to write well enough to have my work published, so, after graduating from college and graduate school and spending a decade working retail and entry-level jobs, I abandoned the idea of ever making my living as a writer.

I went to library school and got a professional degree, but I continued to write in my spare time. I’m now the head librarian at The New Yorker magazine and Algonquin Books recently published by first novel, When Tito Loved Clara. The novel is set in northern Manhattan and suburban New Jersey and tells the story of a Dominican-American woman (Clara) whose settled suburban existence is upset by the re-appearance in her life of her former high-school boyfriend (Tito). I love to read all kinds of books—literary fiction, sports, experimental fiction, history, science fiction, hard-boiled detective novels, biographies, memoirs, etc.—but my strength as a writer seems to be realistic, literary fiction.

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?

Ideally, I would get up each morning, see my wife and children off to work and school, make myself a hearty breakfast, and ascend to a clean, well-lighted study to read and write the day away. In practice, it doesn’t work that way. I write in a cramped basement room for an hour a night after my children have gone to bed. For a time following the birth of our second child, I didn’t even have that lonely midnight hour, so I bought a laptop and wrote on the commuter train going to and from work.

Perhaps the closest thing to a necessity for me is music, mostly to block out the other noises around me. I wrote much of “Tito” while listening to Thievery Corporation’s Mirror Conspiracy album. For the new book, I’ve been listening to Pete Townshend’s White City. I’m not exactly sure why, but it seems to be helping. When I’m writing at home, I’ll often have either a cup of coffee or a glass of whiskey next to my computer.

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

Q: Is there a secret code or pattern of symbols buried in your novel?

A: No, not really, but most of the major characters’ names do have a connection to the Boston Red Sox. This seemed entirely appropriate given that Dominican stars led the Red Sox to two World Series titles while I was writing the book and that their slugger, Manny Ramirez, grew up in Washington Heights, just south of the neighborhood where much of the book is set. Even though it is only a stone’s throw from Yankee Stadium, Inwood in those days was full of kids wearing Red Sox jerseys—Ortiz, Martinez, Ramirez. It felt important to have that in the book somehow.

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?

The novel has its origins in stories that my wife and her family told me—stories about the Dominican-American immigrant experience. Those stories were a part of our courtship and, from the beginning, I had the conviction that they were significant and that I might be able to do them justice in a novel.

I don’t think I can assess how writing the book has changed my life. It has been a long, slow, process and the novel is so woven into my life that it’s hard to know what changes to attribute to the book and what changes to attribute to other things. It is deeply gratifying to see the book in print and to hear from readers who have been moved by it. Writing and publishing this novel has been such an extraordinary experience that I can’t wait to do it again (though waiting is precisely what I am going to have to do as I work on the next book.)

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 am reading Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad, which, a quarter of the way in, already strikes me as a tour-de-force. Recently I read Bruce Chatwin’s letters, which are collected in Under the Sun, and Bryan Charles’s moving memoir about coming to New York, There’s a Road to Everywhere Except Where You Came From. I’ve also been doing my best to keep up with the other fiction on Algonquin’s spring list, including Caroline Leavitt’s Pictures of You, Jonathan Evison’s West of Here, Manuel Munoz’s What You See in the Dark, and Tayari Jones’s Silver Sparrow. It’s a diverse list, to say the least, but unified by terrific writing. I am delighted to be in the company of those gifted novelists.

Becoming a writer has made me read like a writer. I am always analyzing the books I am reading for technique and style. At times, I long to return to my teen-age years, when I read only for story. Now and then a book will transport me back to that adolescent rapture. The book that did it most recently was Emma Donoghue’s Room. The work of Edward P. Jones and Cormac McCarthy has been likewise spellbinding for me.

Are you able to read when you’re writing and if so what books inspire you when you’re working on a novel?

I am constantly nourished and inspired by other writers. Whenever I feel stuck, I will turn to the books on my shelves. The writers I turn to again and again are Richard Ford, Edward P. Jones, Joseph Mitchell, Gene Wolfe, Roger Angell, John McPhee, and Alice Munro. Often reading an interview with a writer will get me going again. The Paris Review interviews are an endless source of inspiration and practical advice.

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

There’s a legend that Harry Houdini owned a house in Inwood and I wanted to work that into the novel somehow, but I could never find the right spot. Ultimately, Houdini escaped from my book.

What types of books would some of your characters have if they were readers?  Given their issues what book(s) would you suggest for them to read?

Clara and Thomas, the couple at the center of the book, are librarians. Thomas likes science fiction. He reads Philip K. Dick, William Gibson, and also David Mitchell. Clara grew up loving the work of Judy Blume, S.E. Hinton, and John Steinbeck, but now reads Toni Morrison, Julia Alvarez, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and Isabelle Allende. Tito, the third peg of the love triangle, likes comic books, graphic novels, and pornography but, when motivated, will pick up books about New York history.

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 am constantly scavenging for writing time. As I said in question No. 2, my writing day typically starts after ten o’clock at night. Prior to that, my time belongs to work and family. I try to write for an hour a night. On weekends I’ll sometimes get a little more time than that. When things are going well, I will bring the laptop on the train with me and write during my commute. When things are going really well, I will, throughout the day, write little bits of dialogue or description on scraps of paper or on my phone that I’ll later transcribe into the manuscript.

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

Montaigne’s Essays; Palgrave’s Golden Treasury; Twain’s Huckleberry Finn; Beckett’s Waiting for Godot; and Alice Munro’s Selected Stories. Ask me again tomorrow and I’ll name five different books!

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

My working title for the novel was “The Inwood Girl,” but my publisher asked me to change it. They were concerned that many people might not know where Inwood was, and also that it sounded like a young-adult title. Rather than forcing a new title on me, they asked me to come up with an alternate. For two weeks I sent ideas to my editor, all of which were rejected. Then, on my way home one afternoon, a title swam up out of my subconscious: “When Tito Loved Clara, Inwood was the World.” After some discussion, the shortened version was adopted. I am pleased with it.

Do you ever look back at your early work? How do you feel your writing style or approach to writing has evolved since you first began?

I rarely re-read published pieces, mostly because I don’t want to see my mistakes. Having said that, I do often revisit unfinished and unpublished manuscripts looking to recycle and cannibalize. It often happens that months or years later something that gave me trouble suddenly opens up or proves itself to be ripe for tweaking. There’s a scene in “Tito” that is lifted entirely from an unpublished novel I wrote more than ten years ago. All I did was change the names.

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?

Until I hit adolescence, I hated reading. Books either bored me or scared me. I was much happier watching television. For much of my childhood, I was scarred by an early exposure to Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are, which gave me nightmares. Finally, when I was thirteen, I started reading science fiction and fantasy novels, motivated in part by my interest in Dungeons & Dragons. Over the years my taste has crept toward the mainstream. Reading Hemingway and Fitzgerald in high school was a transformative experience.

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 usually have one big project—a novel—and a host of smaller ones: short stories, essays, and blog posts. Right now I am working on a novel set in Northern Ireland in the nineteen-eighties and also some short stories set in present-day New York.

Are there other books you love or writers you admire that are from your local area?

New Jersey, where I live, has an embarrassment of riches in this department: Philip Roth, William Carlos Williams, Richard Ford, Junot Diaz, Eliza Minot, and Lauren Grodstein, to name just a few. Paul Auster was born and raised not far from my home, but he, of course, writes mostly about Brooklyn.

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

I have a special place in my heart for Tito. His longing for Clara and his rich fantasy life were drawn from my memories of my twenties, when unconsummated longing seemed to be the over-arching condition of my life. Tito is in his thirties, however, a time when self-delusion gets harder to sustain.

Anything else your readers and potential readers might like to know?

The murder in the novel is based on the still unsolved 2004 murder of a Julliard student in Inwood Hill Park.

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

Before beginning the book, I’d done a lot of research into the history of Inwood. Much of that history either never made it into the book or was later cut from it, but I was glad to have the knowledge in my head. In general, I find it unhelpful to do research while working on a book. I try to do my research ahead of time so that it fades a little by the time I sit down to write. I want it to be in the background, not in the foreground. Because I am writing fiction, I try not to let my research guide me. It’s always the story that should lead. History and geography can be tweaked. That’s the novelist’s prerogative.

What’s next?

As I mentioned before, I’m working on a novel set in Northern Ireland during the nineteen-eighties, and also trying to write short stories.

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About Jon: Jon Michaud was born in Washington, D.C. in 1967. The son of a U.S. Foreign Service officer, he grew up in Tehran, Iran, Bombay, India, Bethesda, Maryland, and Belfast, Northern Ireland. Jon was educated at the Methodist College, Belfast and at the University of East Anglia. He holds an M.A. in Creative Writing from Lancaster University and a Master’s in Library and Information Science from the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn. Jon is the head librarian at The New Yorker magazine and lives in Maplewood, New Jersey with his wife and their two sons. He is at work on his next novel.

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