In this version of twenty questions, I send a list of questions to a willing
victim author and they choose their own interview by picking which questions, and how many questions, they want to answer. Liza Klaussmann’s novel, Tigers in Red Weather, tells the story of two cousins who discover they are not leading the lives they dreamed, waking up to the fact after twelve years and their children’s discovery of a brutal murder. Here is what Liza had to say about reading, writing, and the fascinating history behind “widow’s walks” that she didn’t include in her book.
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 Liza Klaussmann — author of Tigers in Red Weather, a which might be best summed up as a family drama cum literary thrilled, although that’s not entirely accurate. I am a fan of noir films and literature, so there is a hint of that in there, as well as a Fitzgerald enthusiast, another influence on the book. I used to be a journalist, most recently an editor for The New York Time’s Deal Book blog, but now have the luxury of being a full-time fiction writer.
I think I always wanted to be a writer, every since I was very young. I studied creative writing in college, but I didn’t really give a serious shot until I did my masters degree at Royal Holloway, in London. I began my first novel, Tigers, there and when it was finished was lucky enough to find publishers for it. So I guess, while selling the novel is often what I think of as the real start to my writing career, in fact it began much earlier. Or the groundwork did, at least.
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 food during the writing day is generally a pretty sorry affair — too much coffee, some cigarettes, and anything for lunch that’s fast to eat and won’t make me too sleepy — cheese and tomatoes, cold chicken, bread and butter, soup etc. And this is from someone who really appreciates good food and wine. (Thus dinner is generally more extravagant to make up for it — and the lucky times I get to go out to lunch, I really go to town.)
Music is also fairly important; my first novel was set between 1945 and 1969, and the one I’m working on now is also historical, so I generally listen to music from the year I’m writing about while I work in order to get the feeling, the atmosphere of what my characters were living through, listening to, dancing to, whatever.
And when I’m going through a hard time with a passage or chapter or character, I’ll read a little literary criticism or essays on writing right before I start. One book that’s gotten me through some particularly hard time is Charles Baxter’s Burning Down the House. I recommend it highly.
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 just read the The Sea, The Sea by Iris Murdoch which is absolutely wonderful and, as it happens, very enlightening on the topic of food. Also, Richard Ford’s Canada, which, despite it’s somewhat daunting title, is an amazing tale about fate and loss and acceptance — plus bank robbers. And the book I’ve been obsessed with since January, and have been exhorting everyone to read, is James Salter’s All That Is — structurally amazing and beautiful written and dangerous and romantic.
I think being a writer can change the way you read, if you’re reading for that. But I am still swept up in the books I love and often times have to read them again if I really wanted to peer into the craft.
What was the most interesting thing that you found out while researching this book that you ultimately decided not to include?
I had a whole little section on Widow’s Walks in Edgartown on Martha’s Vineyard. You generally see these sort of railed roof terraces on the old Captain’s Houses looking out to sea. I had been brought up to believe that they were built so that Captain’s wives could stand there and look out for the return of their husbands’ ships. (Furthermore, it was related that women whose husbands had been thought to be lost during a whaling expedition would pine up there and eventually haunt the houses.)
It turns out that the walks instead apparently gave easy access to the chimney so that sand could be poured down it in case of fire. I liked the juxtaposition between fantasy and reality, but the passage turned out to be more like a mini-history or Wikipedia than entry, than something suitable for a novel. Thus it was left on the cutting room floor.
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 obsessed with reading about other writers’ routines: whether they edit by hand or on the computer, if they set a minimum (or some cases maximum) word or time limit. I don’t think I’m alone in this — I think a lot of other writers and people interested in books and writing also seek out and store up these bits of arcane knowledge, as if they are secret key to understanding the writing process. I somehow find them reassuring.
For myself, I have to start work no later than an hour and half after I get up, or I will find some reason to put the whole thing off. Procrastination is a dangerous affliction for a writer. I’ll generally read e-mails and the news first and then get going.
I start by editing what I’ve written the day before and reading notes I’ve made to myself. I then set a minimum of 1,000 words or 3 hours of work, whichever comes first — something suggested to me by another writer friend. I can be a pretty slow writer, but generally, once I get going, I surpass my goal. It always seems that it’s the effort of sitting down, clearing my mind and getting ready to do battle with the blank page that is the hardest part. Once I’m in it, the work comes much more easily than I feared.
Usually around 4 pm, I stop. I take my dog for a walk, think about dinner, watch the news. Then around 6 pm, I fix a drink — a cocktail or a glass of wine — and go over what I’ve written that day, making little changes here and there and noting down changes I may want to make the next morning. Goodness, the glamour.
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 have kept hard copies of the short stories I wrote in colleges; mercifully my one aborted attempt at a novel in my twenties was lost when my laptop was stolen. But I love the short stories. Certainly, I wouldn’t write about the same things now that preoccupied me then, but the stories are still full of a good deal of idiosyncrasies that have stayed with me. Also, I like them structurally. And I like the young person who was writing them and obviously finding some kind of unembarrassed joy in telling a story. Although, I might cut back on the Hemingway obsession, a bit.
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 always like to think of the next book I’m going to write while I am in the midst of the current one. I think it’s because this mysterious next book can be perfect, while the one I’m working on is painfully and clearly not. It also gives me an imaginary place to temporarily dump ideas that I like, but won’t fit with what I’m working on in the present.
I am currently working on my second book, Villa America, which is partially a fictional retelling of the lives of Sara and Gerald Murphy, two American expats living in Paris and Antibes in the 1920s. Thematically, I’m preoccupied right now with the idea of exile — imposed, self-imposed, imaginary, etc. Also, with the cultural break that occurred pre- and post- World War I.