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! Last week I read and reviewed Sally Koslow’s newest novel, The Widow Waltz, the story of what happens when a loving wife discovers her husband has left her penniless. Here is what Sally had to say about reading, writing, and making bestseller lists.
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?
First, thanks for the chance to contribute to Linus’s Blanket. Your interviews and reviews make writers and readers feel as if we are all part of a small but friendly international community. (aww, thanks!)
Writing books is my second career after a long run as a magazine editor. I started as an assistant and eventual writer at Mademoiselle, right out of college, and worked myself up the editorial masthead. Four out of my five books have been novels. My new book is The Widow Waltz, preceded by With Friends like These, which was chosen by Target for its Emerging Writers category; The Late, Lamented Molly Marx, a Target Book Club Pick and bestseller in Germany; and my debut, Little Pink Slips, inspired by my years as editor-in-chief of McCall’s Magazine, which was taken over by a hell raising celebrity. I toggle between fiction and non-fiction. Last year Viking released my first non-fiction book, Slouching Toward Adulthood, about the trials and tribulations of being a helicopter parent and the adolescents such parenting creates. I also publish essays– usually memoir-y– in websites and magazines like More, Real Simple and O the Oprah Magazine, and report stories for magazines. I’m at home in either genre, fiction or non-fiction, which is more left-brainish, as is all magazine work.
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?
What does it say that I’ve moved my computer from the extra bedroom in the back of my apartment to the dining room table next to the kitchen? I love the fantasy of writing and cooking, cooking and writing, and in the winter, do a lot of that. I usually write first thing in the morning, still in my jammies, and warm up by rereading—which inevitably means rewriting—whatever I worked on the previous day. Once I’ve composed a first draft, I tweak it mercilessly at any time of day. I am capable of parking my butt in front of my laptop for hours on end, but I make myself take breaks, and have learned the benefit of running, which helps generate ideas. About one mile into a run—I’m talking s-l-o-w jogging—it’s as if I hit an “on” button and come up with ideas for new or current projects.
Write the question you would most like to answer in an interview, and then answer it.
“Ms Koslow, how does it feel to have a breakout book? To be on every bestseller list?”
“Fine,” I answer with great humility
What are you reading now?
I started Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life, having just finished Claire Messud’s The Woman Upstairs. Next up will be Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline, whom I met when we did a book discussion together last week. My book club has been reading titles that have been written mostly by men—Lolita, Portrait of a Lady, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, The Finkler Question—so on my own I’m committed to authors who are contemporary American women.
Has writing your own book changed the way that you read?
Yes, I used to read mostly for plot but now I’m attempting to slow down and look for construction and craft.
Are you able to read when you’re writing and if so what books inspire you when you’re working your own book(s)?
If I stumble into a book with rich language, wit, and sharp characters, reading in tandem with writing is like getting a booster shot. I find myself stopping mid-paragraph and running from my book to my manuscript with an idea.
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?Run some mornings. Read newspaper/eat breakfast. Check email, Facebook, Twitter. Write. Break for Pilates or lunch with a friend if I haven’t run, write, reward myself with a little reading, dinner, write a little, watch some great cable TV or enjoy some wonderful New York thing like a play or
dinner with friends, read. Life is a lot easier when your children have grown up and you don’t have a full time job as an editor who works 24-7 and reads manuscripts all night and weekend.
Did you know what you wanted the title of the book to be? How involved were in choosing the name of the book?
The Widow Waltz came to me whole, as did The Late, Lamented Molly Marx, incorporating the main characters’ names–and no one ever questioned either. My other books’ titles were collaborative. Slouching Toward Adulthood came from my editor or one of her colleagues. I originally called that book The Wander Years. Their title is much better.
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?
Hell yes. My first novel, Little Pink Slips, four books ago, was far fluffier than my current work. The character’s name was Magnolia, for God’s sake, and I dropped brand names, although in all fairness, I was writing as an insider about the world of glossy magazines, which offer editors clothing allowances and expects its leaders to be well-shod and well-coiffed. It’s a deeply shallow multi-million dollar industry. My books that have followed have explored darker subjects. In The Late, Lamented Molly Marx the heroine watches over her family after death. With Friends like These parses challenges of contemporary friendship—not boyfriend problems, but what happens when two people crave the same scarce commodity, the same real estate, let’s say, or a swell job. The Widow Waltz is about death, betrayal, reinvention, Alzheimer’s disease, unplanned pregnancy and jewelry. Slouching Toward Adulthood is loaded with first-person interviews and statistics. I hope readers notice that over time I’ve become a better architect of sentences and that my characterizations have grown meatier. I keep trying to raise the bar for myself in this regard.
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 one of those always-with-a-book little girls who haunted the library and I haven’t changed much. I went on to edit the school newspapers. It’s a familiar trajectory. I never called myself a “novelist” until my first novel was published.
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 write one book at a time, and tend to live in it, but I’ve started a few books that I had the good sense to scrap after a few chapters. I want to write a book in the tradition of The Paris Wife or Loving Frank, fictionalizing the lives of real people, but I haven’t hit on the right subject.
As a published author, what’s been the biggest surprise about life after the publication of your first book?
That it exists. I always felt I had an extremely short attention span; my favorite task on magazines was writing cover blurbs and titles, and they are rarely even ten words long. I am still shocked that I finished one book, let alone five.
Are there other writers you admire that are from your local area?
I live in New York City neighborhood where every third person is a writer. Half of my building subscribes to The New York Review of Books. But I especially admire my next-door neighbor, New Yorker columnist Andy Borowitz, who may be the funniest man in the United States.
Who was your favorite character to write, and why did you have an affinity for that character in particular?
My favorites to write are always my broadest, most ridiculous characters: Bebe Blake, the eccentric TV star in Little Pink Slips and her sidekick who moonlights as a dominatrix, Jules and Arthur in With Friends like These, who are loud, brash and in Arthur’s case, cheap; in The Widow Waltz, Stephan Waltz, the heroine’s brother, an Anglophile given to quoting Oscar Wilde and their mother, Camille, who in her Alzheimer’s haze believes she’s Jacqueline Onassis. I identify the most, however, with my main protagonist, in whom I infuse my own flaws and foibles.
Did you have to do much research when working on your books, and do you tend to write first or research first?
Slouching Toward Adulthood was heavily researched. I started with a 7o page proposal that my agent submitted to editors. After we got a book contract, I gave myself about a month to research and write each chapter. This put me under considerable pressure to meet the deadline—I had to find hundreds of strangers to prattle on about deeply personal matters and allow me to use their real names. How masochistic is that?
I have six whole pages done of a new novel.