The latest Kate Morton novel is sure to please her many fans, but as readers may notice from this excerpt, The Secret Keeper contains an element that makes this book a little different: a murder. But let’s allow the author to set up the story herself:
Kate Morton’s latest is available on October 16th, and will be on in-store bestseller lists at 30% off for a limited time. Kate’s publisher, Simon and Schuster Canada, has been kind enough to share an excerpt of the novel’s first chapter, which we’re sharing here today.
The man, when he first appeared, was little more than a hazy smudge on the horizon, right down at the farthest reach of the driveway. Laurel was never sure, later, what it was that made her look up then. For one awful second when she first noticed him walking towards the back of the farmhouse, Laurel thought it was Billy, arrived early and coming to fetch her. Only as his outline clarified and she realized he was dressed all wrong—dark trousers, shirtsleeves, and a black hat with an old-fashioned brim—did she let herself exhale.
Curiosity arrived hot on the heels of relief. Visitors were rare at the farmhouse, those on foot rarer still, though there was a vague memory at the back of Laurel’s mind as she watched the man come closer, an odd sense of déjà vu that she couldn’t place no matter how hard she tried. Laurel forgot that she was sulking and, with the luxury of concealment, surrendered herself to staring.
She leaned her elbows on the windowsill, her chin on her hands. He wasn’t bad-looking for an older man, and something in his posture suggested a confidence of purpose. Here was a man who didn’t need to rush. Certainly, he was not someone she recognized, not one of her father’s friends from the village or any of the farmhands. There was always the possibility he was a lost traveler seeking directions, but the farmhouse was an unlikely choice, tucked away as it was so far from the road. Perhaps he was a gypsy or a drifter? One of those men who chanced by occasionally, down on their luck and grateful for whatever work Daddy had to give them. Or—Laurel thrilled at the terrible idea—he might be the man she’d read about in the local newspaper, the one the adults spoke of in nervous strains, who’d been disturbing picnickers and frightening women who walked alone along the hidden bend downriver.
Laurel shivered, scaring herself briefly, and then she yawned. The man was no fiend; she could see his leather satchel now. He was a salesman come to tell her mother about the newest encyclopedia set they couldn’t live without.
And so she looked away.
Minutes passed, not many, and the next thing she heard was Barnaby’s low growl at the base of the tree. Laurel scrambled to the window, peering over the sill to see the spaniel standing to attention in the middle of the brick path. He was facing the driveway, watching as the man—much closer now—fiddled with the iron gate that led into the garden.
“Hush, Barnaby,” her mother called from inside. “We won’t be long now.” She emerged from the dark hall, pausing at the open door to whisper something in the baby’s ear, to kiss his plump cheek and make him giggle.
Behind the house, the gate near the hen yard creaked—the hinge that always needed oiling—and the dog growled again. His hair ridged along his spine.
“That’s enough, Barnaby,” Ma said. “What’s got into you?”
The man came round the corner and she glanced sideways. The smile slipped from her face.
“Hello there,” said the stranger, pausing to press his handkerchief to each temple. “Fine weather we’re having.”
The baby’s face broadened in delight at the newcomer, and he reached out his chubby hands, opening and closing them in excited greeting. It was an invitation no one could refuse, and the man tucked the handkerchief back into his pocket and stepped closer, raising his hand slightly, as if to anoint the little fellow.
Her mother moved then with startling haste. She wrested the baby away, depositing him roughly on the ground behind her. There was gravel beneath his bare legs, and for a child who knew only tenderness and love the shock proved too much. Crestfallen, he began to cry.
Laurel’s heart tugged, but she was frozen, unable to move. Hairs prickled on the back of her neck. She was watching her mother’s face, an expression on it that she’d never seen before. Fear, she realized: Ma was frightened.
The effect on Laurel was instant. Certainties of a lifetime turned to smoke and blew away. Cold alarm moved in to take their place.
“Hello, Dorothy,” the man said. “It’s been a long time.”
He knew Ma’s name. The man was no stranger.
He spoke again, too low for Laurel to hear, and her mother nodded slightly. She continued to listen, tilting her head to the side. Her face lifted to the sun, and her eyes closed just for one second.
The next thing happened quickly.
It was the liquid silver flash Laurel would always remember. The way sunlight caught the metal blade, and the moment was very briefly beautiful.
Then the knife came down, the special knife, plunging deep into the man’s chest. Time slowed; it raced. The man cried out, and his face twisted with surprise and pain and horror, and Laurel stared as his hands went to the knife’s bone handle, to where the blood was staining his shirt, as he fell to the ground, as the warm breeze dragged his hat over and over through the dust.
The dog was barking hard, the baby wailing in the gravel, his face red and glistening, his little heart breaking, but for Laurel these sounds were fading. She heard them through the watery gallop of her own blood pumping, the rasping of her own ragged breath.
The knife’s bow had come undone, the ribbon’s end trailed onto the rocks that bordered the garden bed. It was the last thing Laurel saw before her vision filled with tiny flickering stars and then everything went black.
Kate Morton fans in Toronto will have the chance to meet Kate in person on October 18, 2012 at Indigo Yonge and Eglinton. Read more about it on our Store Events page, or follow @indigogreenroom on Twitter.
The Indigo Fiction Blog is more than pleased to present this interview we conducted with Mr. Moehringer, on the roots of his debut novel – the latest Heather’s Pick, Sutton.
Indigo Fiction Blog (IFB): You let Willie Sutton tell his story through his interactions with two reporters upon his release from prison on Christmas Eve, 1969 – which, from a storytelling point of view, is obviously pretty perfect. How much of the actual interview (or borderline kidnapping) is based in reality?
J.R. Moehringer (JRM): It’s absolutely true that Willie Sutton spent all that Christmas with a newspaper reporter and photographer. It’s true that the two journalists drove Sutton around New York City, visiting the scenes of his heists and other landmarks in his life. But aside from a few direct quotations taken from the story that ran in the newspaper the next day, nearly all the interactions between Sutton and the journalists are fiction.
IFB: Your background is in journalism – did you put yourself in the shoes of the reporters when writing from their perspective?
JRM: Very much. I’ve been in their position many times: you’re working a holiday, you’re interviewing someone cagey, someone who isn’t giving you much, someone who’d clearly rather be somewhere else. Also, I’ve interviewed my share of criminals, including a man just out of prison. So, yes, I was able to see things very clearly from the journalists’ point of view.
IFB: The timing of your novel’s release is curious – at this moment in history, like Willie Sutton’s, banks and financial institutions are viewed with hostility and suspicion. Was the current financial crisis an inspiration, or did you already have a Sutton novel in mind for your debut?
JRM: I’ve long been interested in Willie Sutton, but the financial crisis of 2008 and 2009 was the triggering incident for this book. And what I learned in my research is that the recent financial crisis was merely one of many, that the entire history of America is a history of one financial crisis after another, many of them precipitated by banks. We have dangerously short memories. Who can recall the Bank Panic of 1907, when banks were deemed too big to fail and needed bailouts to stay afloat? And because we forget, banks continually get away with murder.
IFB: Outside of any financial inspiration, what were your literary inspirations?
JRM: An odd assortment. I drew some structural inspiration from Saul Bellow’s Herzog, which takes place in a short span of time, largely inside the protagonist’s head. And I was inspired by the spirit of William Kennedy’s Legs, a brilliant historical novel about the gangster (and Sutton associate) Legs Diamond. I practically memorized a couple of Ernest Hemingway short stories, especially The Killers, which greatly inspired Edward Hopper, a very literary painter. And I read a lot of James M. Cain.
IFB: Before I was one third through your novel, I had a strong feeling that a film would be forthcoming in short order, but started wondering how you could cast Sutton himself, as your novel encompasses so much of his life. You’d need a lot of makeup, or two different actors – but do you have any thoughts on your novel being adapted for the screen?
JRM: You’re right—it’s a challenging task for a screenwriter, an even greater challenge for a casting director. When he was young Sutton had a leading man quality; he looked a little like Robert Pattinson, actually. But when he was older he looked exactly like Steve Buscemi. So good luck trying to bridge that gap.
IFB: I’ve long been interested in the crime wave explosion in America’s early 1900’s – but the perception of Sutton is not the same as Dillinger, or Bonnie and Clyde, or any of the other criminals that have become better known than him. What do you attribute this to? He did seem attain a kind of Robin Hood status – do you think he is not as famous simply because his criminal history was largely not a violent one?
JRM: In part, I think he was beloved in his time for the same reason he’s since been forgotten—his spotless record of nonviolence. Sutton didn’t grab the kinds of lurid headlines that made Dillinger and Capone infamous. He never wilfully hurt anyone. That’s one reason crowds gathered outside the jail, chanting his name, when he was arrested in 1952, and it’s one reason he’s faded from history. The other reason is that Johnny Depp or Robert DeNiro never played him in a movie.
IFB: How many of your secondary characters are based on real people?
JRM: Many. There really was a Bess, an Eddie, a Happy, a Marcus, a Mad Dog, a Margaret, a Freddie. And, though I take great liberties with them, I also describe them often according to old photos I found, or descriptions I read. Also, there really was a one-armed prostitute named Wingy. I found her in the police files on Sutton. But I didn’t have much more than her name, so I invented the relationship between her and Willie.
IFB: Your writing career has been a very interesting one – a critically acclaimed memoir, ghostwriting a bestselling biography of a major athlete, and now a historical novel based on reality. Which way are you going next, and do you plan on maintaining this diversity?
JRM: I always wanted to be a generalist, to write very different things, to learn as much as I could about one subject, try a different genre, then move on. I always wanted to toggle back and forth between journalism and books. That’s been my dream since I was a kid, and I hope I’m lucky enough to continue along this path.
IFB: And to finish, one from the Proust questionnaire – who are your favourite prose authors?
JRM: I love the giants of the 1920s and 1930s. Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Faulkner. And Woolf. And I worship at the altar of John Cheever, Saul Bellow, James Salter, Frederick Exley, William Trevor, Alice Munro, Raymond Carver—to name a few.
Previously featured in the Fiction Blog was a teaser to this fantastic novel; it can be found here.
A shoutout is in order to Indigo Blogger Chelsey Catterall, for her contributions to the questions in this interview.
Thanks also to our friends at HarperCollins Canada (distributor of Mr. Moehringer’s publisher, Hyperion, north of the border) for facilitating this interview – and of course most of all to J.R. Moehringer himself for his thoughtful responses.
Pulitzer Prize-winning writer J.R. Moehringer makes his fiction debut with this delicious read about the life of Depression-era bank robber Willie Sutton.
Willie Sutton (1901 - 1980) was kindhearted, hardworking, and inherently honorable. But from a young age, the goodness in him was beaten down and bullied out. At every turn his attempts to earn a living and live a decent life were thwarted.
Banks loomed large in Willie's life, and he came to understand that the people who ran them were the worst dregs of society – immoral and greedy men who had no compassion for those who struggled to eke out a living. One pivotal humiliation turned Willie toward a career he could control: robbing banks.
Notwithstanding his talent as a bank robber, Willie Sutton was no stranger to incarceration, or to extricating himself from jail. His charm and personality – as well as his creed of non-violence – made him a folk hero.
In Sutton, the reader meets Willie as an old man just after his final release from prison on Christmas Eve, 1969. Within minutes of walking out, he is kidnapped by a reporter and photographer who have been waiting for hours for the big "get" – the first real interview with Willie Sutton. Willie obliges – but in his way. Over the course of the next 24 hours, Willie takes his captors through a chronological series of emotional flashbacks of the defining moments in his life. It is a fascinating story, loosely based on truth, and filled with memorable Runyonesque characters, including Willie's love, Bess.
Like with Bonnie and Clyde, this story will draw you in and have you rooting for the bad guy all the way. Sutton is very much a book to savour.
Heather’s latest pick is an extraordinary fiction debut from J. R. Moehringer that is rooted in reality. Sutton tells the story of real life Depression-era robber Willie Sutton, the incredibly successful bandit who attacked banks just as they were bringing the world economy down.
We’re happy to share an excerpt from this novel’s opening, just to provide a taste – be warned, you’ll want to continue reading. This novel will almost certainly be named among the year’s best.
He’s writing when they come for him.
He’s sitting at his metal desk, bent over his yellow legal pad, talking to himself, and to her—as always, to her. So he doesn’t notice them standing at his door. Until they run their batons along the bars.
He looks up, adjusts his large scuffed eyeglasses, the bridge mended with scotch tape. Two guards—one fat and soft and pale, as if made from Crisco, the other tall and oily and with a birthmark like a penny on his right cheek. You can almost make out Abraham Lincoln.
The guard made of lard hitches up his belt. On your feet, Sutton. You’re wanted in Admin.
Birthmark points his baton. What the? You crying, Sutton?
Don’t you lie to me, Sutton. I can see you been crying.
Sutton touches his cheek. His fingers come away wet. I didn’t know I was crying sir.
Lard Guard points his baton at the legal pad. What’s that?
He asked you what is it, Birthmark says.
Sutton feels his bum leg starting to buckle. He grits his teeth at the pain. My novel sir.
They look around his book-filled cell. He follows their eyes. It’s never good when the guards look around your cell. They can always find something if they have a mind to. They scowl at the books along the floor, the books along the metal cabinet, the books along the cold-water basin. Sutton’s is the only cell at Attica filled with copies of Dante, Plato, Shakespeare, Freud. No, they confiscated his Freud. Prisoners aren’t allowed to have psychology books. The warden thinks they’ll try to hypnotize each other.
Lard Guard smirks. He gives Birthmark a nudge—get ready. Novel, eh? What’s it about?
Just—you know. Life sir.
What the hell does an old jailbird know about life?
Sutton shrugs. That’s true sir. But what does anyone know?
It’s nine a.m. Christmas Eve. 1969.
Word is leaking out. A dozen print reporters have already arrived and they’re huddled at the front entrance, stomping their feet, blowing on their hands. One of them says he just heard—snow on the way. Lots of it. Nine inches at least.
They all groan.
Too cold to snow, says the veteran in the group, an old wire service warhorse in suspenders and black orthopedic shoes. He’s been with UPI since the Scopes Trial. He blows a gob of spit onto the frozen ground and scowls up at the clouds, then at the main guard tower, which looks unnervingly like Cinderella’s Castle in Disneyland.
Too cold to stand out here, says the reporter from the New York Post. He mumbles something disparaging about the warden, who’s refused three times to let the media inside the prison. The reporters could be drinking hot coffee right now. They could be using the phones, making last-minute plans for Christmas. Instead the warden is trying to prove some kind of point. Why, they all ask—why?
Special thanks to our friends at Harper Collins Canada for providing and sharing this excerpt. Excerpted from the book Sutton by J.R. Moehringer.
Reprinted with permission of Harper Collins Canada.
The wonder of short stories is their ability to capture a different world in every story, and in Miranda Hill's first collection, Sleeping Funny, she creates an entire universe. Hill, the 2011 winner of The Writers' Trust/ McClelland & Stewart Journey Prize, ventures through a multitude of perspectives, telling her characters' stories with a quasi-dreamlike tilt. We were lucky enough to speak with Miranda Hill about the release of Sleeping Funny!
Indigo Fiction Blog (IFB): Congratulations on this wonderful book, Miranda! I saw the picture you tweeted when you received the finished copy. How did it feel to finally hold your finished book?
Miranda Hill (MH): Very satisfying. I was on PEI, where we were renting a place for a short holiday. Some friends have their own cottage nearby, and that’s where the package was delivered. They were waiting for the courier all day and chilling champagne so it would be cold in time for my, and Sleeping Funny’s, arrival. It was a great way to receive the finished book, with some of my family around me and with friends who’ve known me a long time—through failures and disappointments, as well as the occasional bits of glory.
IFB: In Sleeping Funny, your narrators range from a girl in elementary school, to a 19th century reverend. Your ability to get into the head of any age range or gender is phenomenal. Where does the inspiration for your stories and characters come from?
MH: Anything might trigger inspiration: a dream (about the consequences of worrying too much about one child and neglecting another); an image (a mirror tipped up against a neighbour’s house that makes my street look there is twin street on the other side of the glass); becoming obsessed with pigeons; or spending too many hours commuting by train, and wondering what bits of my day or my life might be won back. I never know if the pull of any idea will turn into something useful. But I have learned the importance of following that tug, of working to reel in the line and see what might be at the end of it. I mean, why did I hear the words, “Because of Geraldine…” one day, while standing at the sink brushing my teeth? I didn’t know. But I knew to ask the question "What’s because of Geradline?” and to write my way toward an answer.
IFB: Short stories are extremely delicate pieces of writing. Perhaps not lengthy, but full of elegance and feeling. What is your favourite part of the writing process, and why did you choose short stories over a novel?
MH: Of course, your question makes me immediately remember all the things I dislike about the writing process: that sense that what I am staring into is actually a great big void, and not a well of possibility; the worry that the last thing I wrote was pure fluke and I’ll never write another story again; that hard, hard slogging in the early days of an idea when every minute I spend at my keyboard feels boring and horrible and I can’t catch anything to hold onto. But then suddenly that feeling gives way and things start to come up in the story that surprise me and then I discover something else, some new possibility, and then everything else feels like a distraction and all I want to do is run back to my desk and be with my characters and play with my ideas. That’s the best feeling, when I can’t wait to be alone with my story again.
I love the intensity of short stories, but I also love how they mimic life. Most of our encounters and relationships are not drawn out over years, but experienced in bursts or relatively brief stretches of our lives. But their impact on us can be profound, consciously or subconsciously. Sometimes, a person’s whole existence seems to hinge on the answer to some particular question. I love how short stories can be about waiting for that answer, finding out what the answer is, and then what that person might do with it.IFB: You are a known personality in the publishing world for your amazing work as the founder and executive director of Project Bookmark Canada. PBC installs plaques at the physical scenes of great Canadian novels, stories and poems, containing a quote from that piece of literature. If you were to put up a plaque for Sleeping Funny, where would you want it to be?
MH: First off, I should say that I have no intention of creating a Bookmark for my own book! I am happy doing that for other writers, and being the reader of their work. But there are also limited possibilities from this collection. The only story in Sleeping Funny that is set in a named and definite place is “Rise: A Requiem (with parts for voice and wing)”, which takes place in late 19th century Kingston. I think one of the reasons I chose to set that story in a real place is that “Rise” has a gothic, mysterious feel and I liked the anchoring effect that real landmarks had on a fantastical plot. I also drew on a little bit of macabre history, Queen’s University’s being one of the places that medical students, apparently, robbed graves for subjects for their anatomy classes. I went to Queen’s (for Drama, not Medicine) and trust me, walking around the streets of Kingston in the dark is super spooky—which I just loved. There is already a Bookmark (for Bronwen Wallace’s “Mexican Sunsets”) at Reverend Carlisle’s church, St. Andrew’s at Princess and Clergy, so maybe I would suggest the Frontenac County Court House, where Reverend Carlisle gives his testimony. At night, lit up, with the fountain going, it’s a place that seems to hold any number of stories and secrets.IFB: On your website, your bio states that you “read and write” in Hamilton, Ontario. What are you reading right now? Can you share with us some of your favourite books or authors?
MH: Telling people about books I love is one of my favourite things to do! The problem is always that I have way too many things I want to recommend. So these are only a few of the books I’d love to champion. Right now, I am reading The Blondes, by Emily Schultz. It’s a wonderful mashup of something thriller-like (a plague turns blonde women into mad killers) and a thoughtful consideration of how women interact and are perceived in our society. In the summer I read The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker, which held me in its spell despite the sadness of its subject matter: a slow, near-apocalypse that strikes right at the moment when the narrator seems just about to blossom. The beauty of the book is that she still manages to have that transformation, despite what’s going on around her. For sweep-me-away, teach-me-how-it’s-done writing, how about Canadians Lisa Moore and Michael Crummey? And I always love to talk about these American short story specialists that fill me forever with jealousy and awe: Jim Shepard, Deborah Eisenberg, Amy Hempel and always the untouchable Grace Paley and John Cheever.
IFB: You have many fabulous upcoming events and appearances for the book, but do you have an idea of what other projects are on the horizon for you?
MH: Before Sleeping Funny came out, I started to put together some of the elements of a new project. I knew I wouldn’t have much time to work on it while I was touring around, but I wanted to know it was there, in my pocket, like a secret only I know about. So I won’t say much more, except that it’s really at the idea collection stage—any writing I’ve done on it still feels laborious and clumsy. But after having written Sleeping Funny, I’ve learned enough about the way I work to know that I shouldn’t give up the idea just yet. If I hold onto it, and tend it, it just might burst into life.
We would like to thank Miranda Hill for participating in this Q&A and to Random House Canada for facilitating!
From the author of Heather's Pick Still Alice and the bestselling Left Neglected comes Love Anthony: a novel of family, autism, and unconditional love. Two women, both enduring heartbreak, meet and make a life changing connection. Olivia is mourning the recent death of her 8-year-old autistic son, and Beth is adjusting to the discovery of her husband’s infidelity. Both women find themselves connecting, and helping each other to heal and move on. The Indigo Fiction Blog is pleased to present this interview with the author of this heartfelt and extraordinary novel.
Q: Anthony’s voice is so well crafted and believable. What kind of research did you have to do in order to convey a young autistic boy’s point of view so authentically?
Lisa Genova (LG): Thank you. I did a lot of research on autism for this novel. I read as many books, blogs, and research articles as I could both before and while I was writing Love Anthony —from fiction to memoir to clinical texts. I interviewed physicians, behavioral therapists, an EMT, and people who’ve experienced seizures. The most important research involved talking with parents of children (age 3-17) with autism. These conversations were intensely personal, raw, honest, and generous. I can’t thank these parents enough for what they shared with me. And my cousin’s son has nonverbal autism, so I also have a deeply personal connection.
Q: The subject matter in your previous books, Still Alice and Left Neglected, was based firmly in the scientific world. In Love Anthony you take a departure from this and deal with a theme that is a bit more fantastical. Can you touch on this briefly?
LG: When I was writing Still Alice and Left Neglected, I always felt like I could lean on my neuroscience background when I needed it. I could go to the textbooks and the medical community for scientific information about Alzheimer’s or Neglect and traumatic brain injury, and, as a fledgling writer, I found this comforting. And inspiration often began with the neuroscience. For example, the very first paragraph of Still Alice is essentially a description of apoptosis.
With Love Anthony, I was very much aware that I was writing without this safety net. There is no neuroscience textbook on autism. Scientifically and clinically speaking, we’re only beginning to understand what autism is. Most physicians were taught essentially nothing about it when they were in medical school. In 2012, we’re still in the infancy of elucidating the neuroscience of autism, and so I really had to leave my comfort zone to write this story. With Still Alice and Left Neglected, I was a neuroscientist writing a novel. With Love Anthony, I became a novelist.
Q: Where did you get the idea to write about a deceased autistic boy's story as told through the conduit of a middle-aged woman?
LG: The inspiration to write about a boy with nonverbal autism comes from my cousin’s son, Anthony. The story of Love Anthony came to me in a meditation.
Q: Both of your female lead characters discover a strength they didn’t know they possessed. Did you struggle with giving Beth a happy ending with Jimmy?
LG: Yes! This was probably the most unanswered question in the book while I was writing it. Will Beth forgive Jimmy and take him back, or will she leave him? Right up until she decided, I honestly didn’t know what she would do! My aunts, a friend, my husband, my editor, and my agent were reading along as I wrote the book, and they all had different opinions. Thankfully, I realized that the answer Beth was looking for would have to come from Anthony. And then, her decision and her ending became obvious.
Q: Love Anthony is as much about autism as it is about love, marriage and relationships. Were any of the characters or the relationships in the novel based on real people?
LG: This book began with Anthony, a boy with autism who doesn’t speak, inspired by my cousin’s beautiful autistic son, Anthony. My cousin and I are close, and my oldest daughter and Anthony are the same age. We spent much of their baby and early childhood years together. So, as with Still Alice, this story sprang from a deeply personal place.
I’ve also been divorced, and I definitely drew from that experience when writing about Olivia and David. And I so adore Beth’s relationship with her girlfriends. I’ve always had amazing women in my life to love.
Q: Are there particular authors who have inspired your writing? Who are the literary giants, past or present, that you esteem.
LG: My “literary” giants are probably not on any other writer’s list. Although I love Shakespeare and Hemingway, the writers who’ve inspired me most come from the neuroscience world—Oliver Sacks, Steven Pinker, Antonio Damasio, V.S. Ramachandran. I recently read The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks and really should add Rebecca Skloot to that list. Amazing story, brilliant writing!
The Fiction Blog thanks Simon and Schuster Canada for facilitating this interview, and wishes the author best of luck with this new title.
A recent Heather's Pick, M.L. Stedman’s The Light Between Oceans, is an unforgettable debut of history, hope and loss. We're pleased to present this interview with the author, which outlines some of her novel's themes, and how she came to write it.
A perfect read for anyone who loves the work of Kate Morton, and a provocative and tender tale of unforgettable characters striving to do the right thing in a terrible situation. M.L. Stedman’s The Light Between Oceans is available now.
Q: Extraordinary circumstances cause people to do extraordinary things. How do you think the circumstances in the story impacted on your characters?
M.L. Stedman (MLS): A variety of extraordinary circumstances influence people’s behavior in the book – in fact, many of the characters’ lives have turned on the toss of fate – not just the baby arriving in a boat, but Tom surviving the Somme, Septimus coming to Australia as an orphan and amassing a fortune, Hannah finding – and also losing – the love of her life through a course of extreme events.
Another extraordinary factor is isolation. Tom and Isabel live utterly alone. We learn that Isabel has suffered terrible loss on Janus Rock. They have no-one to reflect back to them the enormity of their choice. I doubt they would have acted in the same way had they had people around who were sounding boards. Of course, the isolation is extraordinary in another way too, in that it provides a practical opportunity for concealment they would not otherwise have had.
Q: Tom lives, at least partially, in the shadow of the war. How did you develop his character in consideration of this history?MLS: I don’t start out with a character or a plot – I just close my eyes and see what turns up: here, I first saw the lighthouse, then Isabel, and then Tom. I worked out quite quickly that Tom had become a lightkeeper to escape some sort of trauma, and gradually I knew it was the Great War. I had a sense of who Tom was, and my initial idea of him was confirmed and fleshed out by the research I did, especially reading the records of Australian soldiers, including diaries and battalion histories. I expect many Canadians will, like Australians, have family stories of men who fought in the conflict that today seems so foreign and geographically distant. However, it became clear from my reading that Australians saw it as ‘their’ war: the ties to England were extremely strong. It was also clear that the war’s shadow hung over the whole country for decades in a thousand subtle ways, and I suspect that that, too, was the case in Canada.
Q: To what extent do you think Tom’s choices in the book are shaped by, and compromised by, his love for Isabel?
MLS: One of the crucial questions in the novel is the role of love and loyalty in how we build our moral framework. In particular, does a duty to a loved one rank above a duty to do the right thing by a stranger? I think there’s no doubt at all that Tom makes his initial departure from the rules – agreeing at the very start to wait until the next day to report the boat – for Isabel’s sake. Therein begins the test of just how far his natural sense of right and wrong can be stretched to accommodate his sense of love and loyalty to his wife.
Q: As an author, I’m sure it’s hard to be impartial to your characters. Did you side with one character in particular while writing the novel?
MLS: I loved looking at the situation from everyone’s position – not ‘siding with’ but ‘coming alongside’ each character, and understanding what the world looked like to each of them. The more the character’s outlook on life differed from mine, the more challenging and satisfying it was to write. I think conflict arises not so much when people think they’re doing the wrong thing, but when they believe they’re doing the right thing.
I love hearing how readers take such different views about what the ‘right’ thing to do was – I’ve had strong reactions in support and in condemnation of each character’s choice. I think that’s the greatest compliment a writer can have – that readers have inhabited the story and brought their own life experience to bear in reaching their own moral conclusions.
Q: Where did you do the majority of your writing?MLS: I’ll write just about anywhere as long as it’s quiet and I know I won’t be interrupted. I wrote some of the novel on my sofa in London, and a lot of it in the reading rooms of the British Library. I also wrote some of it in Western Australia, in little places looking out over the ocean down near where the story takes place. It was a huge help to experience the sounds, the smells and sights of the place as I was putting them on the page.
Q: What are you working on next?
MLS: Ah, the classic final question! To be honest, I’m still very occupied with the launch of this book around the world (I think it’s up to nearly thirty languages in translation). But I’m looking forward to closing the door and getting back to my imagination, to work on the various things that are percolating away there. So watch this space…
Special thanks to our friends at Simon and Schuster Canada for sharing this interview.
The Indigo Fiction Blog is pleased to present this guest post from a fantastic mystery writer: Ian Rankin. Making this post even more special is the fact that his next novel, Standing in Another Man's Grave, features the return of perhaps his most popular character, DI John Rebus.
We asked Ian to tell us about why (and how) he planned to bring back his best-loved character, and he was kind enough to oblige. Mark your calendars – Standing in Another Man's Grave is available in-store and online on November 6, 2012.
Detective Inspector John Rebus retired in 2007 because I had placed myself in a strait-jacket.
Early on in the series, I had decided that Rebus should live in real-time, or a fair approximation of it. This would allow me to explore the evolving nature of the city of Edinburgh and Scottish (and British) society without my central character appearing as an anomaly, never ageing, never changing.
It was an ex-cop friend of mine who eventually alerted me to the fact that detectives in Scotland in the real world had a mandatory retirement age of sixty I did the sums. We first met Rebus in 1987, by which time he was forty. Therefore Exit Music, published in 2007, would have to be his "last bow". It wasn’t that I was tired of Rebus or had nothing new to say about him – quite the opposite. There was information he was holding back from me, facets of his personality still left to explore. And yet he had to retire. Verisimilitude demanded it.
I pondered the consequences of this. I could go back in time and write about the man in his thirties and forties. Or he could become a private eye. Neither, however, really appealed, just as retirement did not appeal to Rebus himself. I then learned that there was a small unit in Edinburgh comprised of three retired detectives and one serving officer. This unit looked into unsolved cases from years past. It was the perfect job for Rebus, and I knew that’s where his future lay.
Meantime, I had become interested in another branch of policing, Internal Affairs. These were the cops who investigated other cops, and they were almost universally feared and disliked. They operated as spies, setting up surveillance operations which could last for weeks or months. They were cautious and meticulous, worked well as a team, and could never cross the line or break the rules. In other words: the antithesis of Rebus. So I invented Inspector Malcolm Fox and named his first adventure after the colloquial name for Internal Affairs: The Complaints.
I came to like Fox a lot, and decided to spend more time with him, exploring his psychology and character. So I wrote him into a second novel, The Impossible Dead. So far so good, but wheels elsewhere were turning. The retirement age for detectives in Scotland was in the process of being raised. Would Rebus – still busy investigating those long-cold cases – be tempted to reapply for CID? If he did, would The Complaints think him a fit applicant? And think of all those shortcuts Rebus had taken in his career; would they be lying there, ready to trap him, should someone like Malcolm Fox go looking for them?
Moreover, bringing Rebus back would allow me to show Fox from another perspective – not as hero but almost as villain, his rectitude and stiff moral parameters blocking the maverick Rebus at every turn.
Readers these past few years have been ready with questions for me. Much as they like Fox and his crew, they ask after Rebus, and his colleague Siobhan Clarke, and his nemesis Cafferty. I had considered writing a novel with either Clarke or Cafferty as the main character, but instead was drawn towards Rebus, possibly because the timing was perfect. Rebus was first seen in Knots and Crosses, published in 1987, meaning 2012 is his twenty-fifth anniversary. Everything was falling into place.
All I needed was a plot, and I already had one of those. I wanted to look at what happens when someone vanishes from the world. Can families and friends ever forget, or at least manage to get on with the rest of their lives? At what point do the authorities become interested, and then lose interest? I began forging a story, bringing in other elements: our propensity for myth-making; the way a major road can have a life beyond that experienced by those who travel along it. A shape began to emerge and I gave it a name: Standing in Another Man's Grave.
A good friend of mine, a musician called Jackie Leven, had died unexpectedly and far too young. We had played together, made an album together. I was listening to a song of his one day and realised I was mishearing the lyric. While Jackie sang of "standing in another man’s rain" I was hearing the word "grave". So it was that Jackie gifted me both the book’s title and its opening scene. As thanks, the book is dedicated to him, and his lyrics open each section. We got to know one another because he was a fan of my books, just as I admired his music. Cheers, Jackie. You helped me breathe life back into John Rebus.
Somehow I escaped that strait-jacket….
– Ian Rankin
Thanks to Hachette for facilitating this blog and to Ian Rankin himself for sharing it.
There’s a scene about halfway through Telegraph Avenue, the new novel from Pulitzer Prize-winner Michael Chabon, told from the perspective of a parrot. The bird, released to the wild following the death of its owner, glides over the streets of Oakland, California, observing the novel’s characters during their various moments of crisis. It’s a bizarre and thrilling sequence, made only more so once the reader realizes that Chabon’s been presenting it in one uninterrupted sentence twelve pages in length.
It’s a bold move, the sort of display that would smack of desperation or ‘look at me!’ grammatical trickery in the hands of a less assured writer. Thankfully, in Chabon’s hands the scene never reads like he’s trying to bludgeon you over the head with his talent, he’s just having fun with words and language; he clearly loves writing and that joy he feels for it comes through on every page of the book.
Unlike Chabon’s previous two novels, The Yiddish Policeman’s Union and The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, Telegraph Avenue is a smaller story, similar in size and scope to his sophomore novel Wonder Boys, a book I always considered my favourite of his works.
Until now. Telegraph Avenue is not only my favourite work by Chabon, it’s one of the best books I’ve read this year.
The year is 2004. Archy Stallings, part-time bassist and co-owner of Brokeland Records, a floundering vinyl store he shares with his bandmate and best friend Nat Jaffe, is attempting to prepare for oncoming fatherhood with little success: his wife Gwen is in danger of losing the midwifery practice she partners in with Nat’s wife Aviva; the store generates little traffic other than the old-timers and regulars who have been jawjacking around the counter since its days as a barber shop; and ex-N.F.L. player Gibson Goode plans to build one of his Dogpile superstores, complete with vintage vinyl floor, blocks from Brokeland’s door.
Further complicating matters is Archy's hustling father, a former Blaxploitation star plotting a comeback, and the sudden appearance of Titus Joyner, occasional lover of Nat and Aviva’s son Julius, and Archy’s barely-remembered son. His emergence threatens to shatter the barely sustained status quo Archy’s been struggling so hard to maintain.
A mere plot summary does the novel a disservice. It’s a tiny epic, Dickensian in the way supporting characters and subplots are peppered throughout, all with memorable tics and features even if they only show up for a page or two. The conversations on everything from doughnuts to the state of black music to race relations are sharp and pop with a Tarantino-like electricity [indeed, in an overt nod, Titus and Julius crash a seminar on Tarantino’s work and influences at the local community centre]. Chabon's skill at dropping insider references on everything from Japanese movie monsters to Detroit hip-hop groups to the lesser-known items found in the Creed Taylor Inc. back catalog is something to behold; catching them can make you feel like you're in on a secret handshake. But it's the characters that make the book. With the unfortunate exception of Nat [who doesn’t quite sink into the realm of the music snob cliché, but comes close], all are richly defined and three-dimensional, the sort of characters that have you reading the book slowly, just because you don’t want to have to say goodbye to them when it’s over.
Telegraph Avenue is a book about fathers and sons, the perils of nostalgia, the timeless healing properties of music and how it’s never too late to grow up. Fans of Chabon’s previous work, Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity, Roddy Doyle’s The Commitments, even George Eliot’s Middlemarch will find something to love in the novel.
Also, be sure to check out the website for the real Brokeland Records, a pop-up shop set up by HarperCollins in a local Oakland storefront. Kind of awesome.
The latest Indigo Spotlight selection announces a major new talent. Short story writer Rebecca Lee takes the familiar and makes it just a little strange and surprising – she makes you wonder: What just happened?
Sure to be on best of the year lists, Bobcat heralds the arrival of a major new voice, ideal for readers who are thrilled by the quiet surprise. We’re pleased to share this guest post today from Rebecca herself.
When I was twenty-five, I packed up my car, and seeking (in the words of Northrup Frye) the education of the imagination, I headed down from my Saskatchewan Prairies into the relatively more tropical prairies of Iowa City. I had been reading Stop-Time, Frank Conroy's groundbreaking memoir, published in 1967, about his very difficult childhood. I say "difficult" and that word is both an understatement and entirely beside the point, because really the book is about the absolute pleasure of being a child, and a person, just being any living thing in the world at all. Every sentence is buoyant with, in Frank's own words (though he was speaking of Dickens), "the pressure of the soul behind the work."
In the grimmest, most deprived circumstances, the person can bring such riches to the table – in Stop-Time the soul behind the work is debonair, dashing, plucky, interested at every moment, resourceful and generous. (At the beginning of Stop-Time, the author's father has been put in a mental asylum and has no way to wash or style his hair on his own, so he uses his own pee to slick it back before a dance, and that still remains for me a detail that exemplifies a sort of off-kilter, stylish triumph over circumstance.)
I had read the book in anticipation of being his student, and for the next few months filled notebooks full of every word he said. Though he was not exactly kindly towards my own work, he loved literature more than any person I've encountered since. It was the great river that ran alongside life, reflecting it, interpreting it. He was frequently annoyed with our muddying it up with our own work, but what remains for me, what really matters was his deep faith in the power of the relationship between the writer and the reader, the profundity, primacy and intimacy of that relationship. Listening to him talk about Dickens, on a cool, golden Midwestern late afternoon, could easily bring tears to your eyes. "He is my brother. We are co-creators. I am not alone."
This was all twenty years ago. In those days a few of us in my class had computers. I had something I consider a typewriter/computer hybrid that for some reason I still think about all the time. It had a little tiny screen running along the top of the typewriter and it could retain just one line of writing, so you could revise just that little line before you moved on. Working on it, I felt like I was living (teetering) far into the future, and there was a feeling that maybe I was cheating in some way.
But even when we all started using computers, there was of course no internet, so the computer was still another version of the blank page. One's hands worked differently, but the mind was still free, unencumbered, untempted, undefiled by the ten thousand realms beyond the white page.
The stories in this collection have placed some requirements on me and have cared deeply about things I didn't know I cared about at all: cults, the Cultural Revolution, Ovid's Metamorphosis, the process of wheat germination, cooking, Salman Rushdie's personal life, Nixon, Margaret Thatcher, early Soviet propaganda, the tunnels under Transylvania, the architecture of the Midwest, the Hudson and the East River, any river, all rivers, etc. etc. For that, I should thank these stories. I've always liked what Lawrence Durrell said about writing, that the chief importance of the work is to make the writer a better, more curious person, and so therefore what is leftover in the form of the book itself is irrelevant. (This stands in a sort of worrisome opposition to what I stated earlier, Frank's idea that what really matters is the book's ability to unite writer and reader, but somehow they both seem true to me. Same same different, as they say in Thailand.)
I think my inner life is made up almost entirely of quotes. There are lines of poetry lodged in there that reappear several times a day, just kind of fly through on their own. One line, which doesn't even sound like poetry, but which I distinctly remember coming from some poem, somewhere, I recite almost every time I have to do something difficult-- "It hurts to go through walls but it’s necessary." I've asked many poets through the years if they know what poem it's from and they always say no, and a lot of them actually make an unpleasant face, as if they don't even think it's a very good line at all. It's not lyrical but it's useful, like a good worn-in shovel that can get you through just about anything. And then for the dreary days, when nothing really is exciting or fortuitous or inspired, there is this: "On some days the hands do only rough work," which is a line from the great Brazilian poet Carlos Drummond de Andrade, which is really about his sadness regarding what he considered to be the death of socialism in his time, but also works for me if I have too many errands to do in a morning.
But for writing, for really getting work done, for striking the right combination of optimism and pessimism that the writer needs to get the work done, I love James Wood: "The true writer...is one who must always be acting as if life were a category beyond anything the novel had yet grasped."
Back in Frank's class, there was one thing I did that he praised. And it wasn't really even a thing, it was a single word. One day he said he liked one word in a story I'd written, the word 'liar'. It might be the world's tiniest compliment, but I took it, I've carried it around for years (an invisible letter of recommendation, folded in my breast pocket, to quote the poet Yehuda Amichai) and one of the stories in this collection has been revised what feels like a hundred times
around it. It's still there, of course, one good, true word.
And now, to have these stories published in Canada is coming full circle for me, and the Indigo Spotlight I consider one of the deepest honours possible. I am so proud to be considered part of this great tradition of Canadian writers.
An extensive interview with Rebecca, previously published on the Indigo Blog, can be found here.
Thanks to our friends at Penguin Canada for facilitating this blog, and to Rebecca Lee herself for sharing it.