In this version of twenty questions, I send a list of questions to a willing author and they choose their own interview by handpicking which questions (and how many!) they want to answer. Ayelet Waldman is the author of Love & Treasure, a novel about “the fascinating, true history of the Hungarian Gold Train in the Second World War”. Here is what Ayelet had to say about reading, writing, and choosing the ideal title. She also shares one of her novel’s deleted scenes.
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 start writing fiction in a most unusual way, I think. I was a very happy criminal defense attorney, representing indigent defendants in federal court. My husband, Michael Chabon, is a novelist, and we had a perfect system going on. He kept the house running and food on the table, and I went off to work everyday at a job that provided health insurance. What could be more ideal? It all worked beautifully until I had a baby, at which point I suddenly didn’t want to be working 12 to 16 hour days. More importantly, my work was so emotionally consuming that while I was a perfectly adequate wife when what was required was, basically, appreciation and an interest in sex, when I had to be a partner and a mother, I quickly realized I couldn’t bring it both at work and at home.
I set out to write a light-hearted murder mystery (I was a fan of the genre), more as a way of keeping busy when I quit my job and found myself a (bored) stay-at-home mother. As soon as I sold my first series, however, I realized that I loved writing, and that I wanted to write things that were more challenging. I wanted to write the books that I admired and came back to year after year, rather than the books I was able to enjoy with a new mom’s limited attention span. I left the mystery series behind and began writing more serious, literary fiction. Although you’ll find my sense of humor still there in all my books, even in Love & Treasure, which deals with very serious topics like war and betrayal, art and the Holocaust.
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 have four children, a big dog, and a messy house. If I was too precious about my writing space and ritual, I’d never get anything accomplished. I have a studio – one I share with my husband. It’s lovely, but mostly it’s separate from my house. I work well in it, but not noticeably better than I did when I used to work in cafes. For me it’s all about being away from the kids. It’s virtually impossible to write with a toddler wrapped around your ankles (though I used to manage it pretty well when hitched up to a breast pump). My kids are older now (10 through 19), but they are no less demanding, and I have to get away from them to work.
I also have to be detached from the Internet, that evil succubus, stealer of time. Freedom, the program that disconnects you from the Internet, works wonders for me. The last thing I need is tea. Earl Grey tea, with one teaspoon of sugar and a dollop of whole milk (because skim milk is not only gross, but it’s a lie. It’s all sugar!).
Write the question you would most like to answer in an interview, and then answer it.
Q: How many copies of your book should I buy?
Answer: One for every single person you’ve ever met in your life.
Just kidding. Sort of.
Are you able to read when you’re writing and if so what books inspire you when you’re working your own book(s)?
A very brilliant and famous writer once told me that refusing to read while you are writing in order to avoid influence is a mark of the rankest amateur. I have a lot of sympathy for that point of view.
First of all, didn’t we all become writers because we love to read? And every writer I know is always writing. We’re never not writing. Refusing to read while writing would rob you of your greatest pleasure!
But more than that, I crave influence. I want Jane Austen’s prose to seep into mine. I want Philip Roth’s sentence to influence me. Being influenced by great writers will only make my work better. And it’s not like I’ll end up writing pastiche. Everything comes out through the lens of my own mind.
I do have one rule, however. I only read writers who are better than me. I don’t want to be influenced by bad writing. Fortunately, that leaves me a steady and delightful stream of novels (and even the odd non-fiction book) in which to immerse myself.
At some point I realized that the only way for me to write a novel about the Holocaust that was not exploitative was to refrain from writing any scenes of genocide, any scenes in the camps, any scenes of explicit horror. I’m not saying this is a rule for all writers, but it was what I had to do. I had already written a scene, however, that I thought was really good. I wanted that scene in the book so much, but at the same time, I knew that it cheapened the novel. It’s gone from the book, but you can read it here.
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?
One of my characters has just read Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper and it completely rocked her world, as it rocked mine when I read it at her age.
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 an early riser who despises mornings, a truly tragic combination. I wake, thus, at 6 and spend the next three hours tossing and turning, periodically picking up my ipad to buzz through email, falling back asleep, cuddling my husband’s unconscious body in the vain hope he will wake up and entertain me (he works at night and only comes to bed at 4 AM, so you can imagine how much he loves this.
Then I haul my miserable ass out of bed, sit down with the first of about six hundred cups of tea, and read the paper, surf the web, do my email. I also harangue my youngest child (who is homeschooled) about doing his work. This is the first of many periods of nagging, the activity I engage in lieu of exercise. I wish nagging made a person lose weight. I’d look like Keira Knightley.
By 10 I’m ready to work. I turn Freedom on to disconnect myself from the internet and work until lunchtime. I lunch with my husband and son, and then work until 3, when it’s time to pick up my younger daughter from school and my older son from BART, the train he takes to his high school in the city. I am far too easily convinced to stop for an ice cream or a boba tea (google it. It’s divine) on the way home.
Then I spent the next few hour nagging people to do their homework.
I try to be vivacious and charming as my husband cooks dinner, hoping he will be so enchanted by my adorableness that he will offer to do the dishes for me. (This works more often than I should admit).
We then have dinner all together (one of the joys of unathletic children is that mealtime is never disrupted by practice).
I clean up the kitchen (or not) and then we either have a second (third?) bout of homework-related nagging, or the family watches a show together. We’re huge Sherlock, Dr. Who, and Vikings fans, so if those shows are on we freely violate our ostensible “no TV during the week” rule.
My husband then reads to the kids. Every once in a rare while I join on this activity, most recently for To Kill a Mockingbird.
After that my husband goes to work and I watch a movie or some TV (I should be more ashamed to admit how much I love TV, but I don’t care. TV is awesome). At about 10 I turn off the TV and read. Sometimes, if I woke up super early, I’ll crash by about midnight. If I am in the middle of a particularly good book, I snap off the light at 3:59, as I hear my husband walking up the stairs, and pretend to have been asleep for hours.
Did you know what you wanted the title of the book to be? How involved were in choosing the name of the book?
This book’s title I chose, which has not always been the case. I was flirting with various titles, none of them very satisfying, when someone (Was it me? Was it my husband? Was it my friend Jonathan Lethem?) suggested Love and Treasure. As soon as I heard it I knew it was perfect. I kept it, despite the fact that I published another book called Love and Other Impossible Pursuits. But I did not choose that title. It was forced on me, though I’ve come to appreciate it despite having called it Love and Other Impossible to Remember Titles for a very long time. I decided not to sacrifice the ideal title just because I’d already done one “Love and.”
As a published author, what’s been the biggest surprise about life after the publication of your first book?
How much you have to hustle to be read, to sell books, all so that you can continue to do the work you love. But I won’t whine about it. I am so very lucky that I my job is to sit around making up stories. How cool is that? Everything else is just chaff, easily blown away in the wind.
I’m working on another historical novel. This one starts on the French Riviera in 1938, winds its way through 1940s Hollywood, a women’s college in the 1950s, New York City in the 1970s and ends up god only knows where.
About the Author: Ayelet Waldman is the author of Love and Treasure, Red Hook Road and The New York Times bestseller Bad Mother: A Chronicle of Maternal Crimes, Minor Calamities and Occasional Moments of Grace. Her novel Love and Other Impossible Pursuits was adapted into a film called The Other Woman starring Natalie Portman. Her personal essays and profiles of such public figures as Hillary Clinton have been published in a wide variety of newspapers and magazines, including The New York Times, Vogue, The Washington Post, and The Wall Street Journal. Her radio commentaries have appeared on All Things Considered and The California Report.
Her books are published throughout the world, in countries as disparate as England and Thailand, the Netherlands and China, Russia and Israel, South Korea and Italy.
Follow the rest of Ayelet Waldman’s TLC Tour, here.