Interview

Interview: Miciah Bay Gault

We’re so excited to share our interview with Miciah Bay Gault on the occasion of today’s release of her debut novel, Goodnight Stranger. Goodnight Stranger is a beautifully written novel, a literary thriller that will have you wondering from the start who is telling the truth and who is hiding secrets. Set on an island, it’s the perfect summer escapism novel, perfect to take with you to the beach, but equally satisfying if you’re holidaying on your sofa after a long week of work.

Of Goodnight Stranger, George Saunders says, “Somewhere the ghosts of Shirley Jackson and the Henry James of The Turn of the Screw are smiling, because a wildly talented young writer has joined their lineage. What a taut, keenly intelligent, and provocative debut Goodnight Stranger is.”

Thank you so much, Miciah, for answering our questions so thoughtfully. We’re so happy your book is out in the world!

Miciah teaches in the MFA in Writing & Publishing program at Vermont College of Fine Arts and coordinates the Vermont Book Award. She’ll be celebrating her book’s at launch Bear Pond Books this evening (July 30), and will be reading at several Northern New England locations in the coming months, including Gibson’s Bookstore (August 1), Northshire Books (August 10), The Galaxy Bookshop (August 27), Phoenix Bookstore (September 19), and Vermont College of Fine Arts (September 27).


Literary North: We’re always curious how a story begins and how it changes. Did the story in Goodnight Stranger begin with a specific image or idea? How did you find the plot changing as you wrote? Did anything unexpected arise?

Miciah Bay Gault: I read a personal history in The New Yorker years ago—about one couple’s struggle with infertility, which has nothing in the world to do with Goodnight Stranger. In The New Yorker piece the couple kept losing the pregnancies, over and over. They ended up, after years of hope and heartache, with one daughter, and I found myself wondering about the daughter. Did she, as she got older, think about the brothers and sisters she might have had, did she feel a sense of grief, was she haunted by them?

Then I imagined this image: two grown siblings in a doorway, a stranger facing them across the threshold. The air is charged with surprise, with recognition, hope, and danger. One of the siblings says, “It’s him.”

That premise was the starting point. I knew early on that Lydia and Lucas would by the siblings, twins actually, that they’d be in their late 20s, that their lives would be overshadowed by the death of a third sibling in infancy. I knew a stranger was going to show up, someone handsome and charismatic, and also eerily familiar with their home, their family. From there I had to ask myself all kinds of hard questions to find out what the book was really about.

LN: Let’s talk about your writing process. Do you write a messy first draft or do you tend to go sentence by sentence? How many drafts did you go through while writing this book? Are you the type of writer who works at the same time and place every day, or did you have to grab time whenever and wherever you could?

MBG: I’m laughing as I answer this question. I’m pretty sure I wrote 70 or 80 drafts of this novel over fifteen years. Some drafts were major renovations, removing entire characters, and shuffling chapters from one location to another. Some drafts were more concerned with tightening language. I love sentences and spend an inordinate amount of time working on that level, polishing, carving, chiseling.

I’ve been so lucky to have an agent, Jenni Ferrari-Adler of Union Literary, who’s very hands on and who worked on several drafts with me. And my editor Laura Brown at Park Row Books/ HarperCollins, has an amazing editorial eye. After so many years of working alone on the manuscript, it’s been a dream to have a team working with me on the book.

I prefer to write in the morning, riding that first wave of caffeine. I’m very fond of coffee. Sometimes I still manage to write at this time, if my kids sleep in a little, but mostly I write when I can—when the kids are in school, or napping. When I was working full time at Vermont College of Fine Arts, I wrote during lunch breaks, or first thing in the morning on the picnic tables on the college green.

LN: The character Cole is an outsider. He arrives on the island and then insinuates himself into the lives of Lydia and others who grew up on the island. Can you talk a bit about the role of the outsider in your story?

MBG: Writers love to quote John Gardner (although I’ve never actually found the original quote) that there are only two plot variations in fiction: a man goes on a journey, or a stranger comes to town. Obviously, in Goodnight Stranger, I was interested in the latter. I knew I wanted Lydia and Lucas to have a safe, prescribed life, routines that were interrupted by the arrival of the stranger. I wanted Lydia to see herself through the stranger’s eyes. In many ways Goodnight Stranger is the story of siblings who, so mired in grief and longing for the past, never grew up. They’re frozen in time, in a kind of adolescent limbo. Lydia realizes at one point that they’ve never moved the furniture around in their house, never replaced wine glasses that broke decades ago. Baby B is the sibling who died in infancy almost thirty years ago, and his bedroom is still set up for a baby, with teddy bear knobs on the dresser. Cole, the stranger, challenges all their beliefs, everything they thought was true about their family, and ultimately…unsticks time for Lydia and Lucas.

LN: Have you always been an avid fan of literary suspense? Can you share some of your favorite authors—past or present—in the genre?

MBG: I wouldn’t actually say that I’m a fan of literary suspense, and to be honest I’m more than a little surprised that I ended up writing a literary thriller!

I do like page-turners, but that term can be subjective. I consider Pride and Prejudice a page-turner (and I know how it ends because I’ve read it a dozen times!). That said, I’m a devoted fan of Shirley Jackson, whose sentences are exquisite, and whose horror is rich and intricate. Another favorite author is Wilkie Collins, who I would classify as literary suspense.

I respond to books with beautiful sentences and a strong emotional core, and sometimes those books happen to be literary thrillers. Fiction I’ve loved lately include Donna Tartt’s A Secret History, Crystal Hana Kim’s If You Leave Me, Melanie Finn’s The Underneath, and Carmen Maria Machado’s Her Body and Other Parties.

LN: What was the most memorable thing you read in the past month?

MBG: I’m riveted by Christina Thompson’s Sea People: The Puzzle of Polynesia, a nonfiction exploration of how people came to inhabit the Polynesian islands. It’s beautifully written, impeccably structured, and fascinating.

 
Photo by Daryl Burtnett

Photo by Daryl Burtnett

 

Interview: Rachel Barenbaum

For a very brief time a couple years ago, we were in the same writing group as Rachel Barenbaum. At the time, Rachel had mentioned she was working on a novel that delved into science and Russian history. It sounded like a rich, complex novel and it was exciting to hear that it was on the road to publication thanks to Rachel’s hard work and her participation in GrubStreet’s Novel Incubator program.

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And now, look! A thick, juicy novel with a beautiful cover, packed with history, science, adventure, fully-realized characters, and a race to the 1914 solar eclipse. A Bend in the Stars is on the 2019 B&N Discover Great New Writers list and has garnered glowing reviews comparing it to All the Light We Cannot See and The Women in the Castle.

Thank you, Rachel, for taking time out of your busy pre-launch schedule to answer our questions about your book, your research process, and your road to publication!

A Bend in the Stars releases today, May 14, 2019. Go get your copy from your favorite local indie!

Rachel will be giving a reading from her novel at the Howe Library in Hanover, New Hampshire, on Tuesday, July 9 at 7:00 pm. She’ll also be reading at this year’s Bookstock on Saturday, July 27, in Woodstock, Vermont.


Literary North: Where did the original idea for your book come from? Did you start with an image, a fact, a character, or something else?

Rachel Barenbaum: In 2014 I was reading Scientific American’s monthly installment of ‘50,100 and 150 Years Ago’ and learned that in 1914 an eclipse fell over Russia that could have proved Einstein’s theory of relativity but because of war and bad weather no scientists were able to mount an expedition and record the event. Even more, the brief noted it was a good thing because in 1914 Einstein’s equations were incorrect and a photograph of the eclipse taken then would have likely discredited him. Before I even put the magazine down I knew it was a book idea: What if someone did make it to the eclipse, and did manage to take a photograph? Could he have taken Einstein’s place in history? I was already a bit obsessed with Russian history and knew it was one of the most fascinating and tumultuous times in the country’s history. And I knew that Einstein wasn’t working in a vacuum, that there were other scientists working to help him – and beat him. Could I bring that race to life?

LN: What was it about Einstein's theory of relativity that initially captured your interest and made you want to make it such an integral part of this book?

RB: In college I studied literature and philosophy and became obsessed with the concept of time – which is a key part of relativity. What is time? What is a second, minute or hour? It’s an arbitrary measurement. Sequence, on the other hand, is not arbitrary. But how do we define sequence without a measurement of time? I still don’t have any answers and I still obsess over the question.

Even more, I’m a little obsessed with our understanding of gravity and it’s effect on time. We all learn about gravity being the force that pulls an apple from a tree to the ground. Why don’t we also learn about the gravity that shapes the universe and time? It’s all connected, one giant canvas and without looking at the whole it’s hard to feel like we can find any real answers.

Finally, I wrote about relativity because this concept is powerful and yet understandable on so many levels that I want to encourage everyone to think about it. The universe bends. What does that mean? And how does that change the way we understand our world?

LN: What was the research for this book like? Did you already have a background in the science and history you wrote about, or did you learn as you wrote?

RB: Tons and none. I love this time period and read dozens and dozens of books about Czarist Russia, science and philosophy around the 1900s and the life of Jews living in Russia long before I sat down to write. In addition, growing up around my grandparents and great aunts gave me a sense of some of nuances I wanted to add like the split in the Jewish community between those who wanted to assimilate and those who didn’t and the constant fear of the czar’s men.

But all of that only gave me a base, a general feeling I could incorporate into the novel. To truly write scenes, I need to see them in my head and so the bulk of my research involved finding photographs. The best trove I found was in an old National Geographic that I purchased on eBay, published in 1914 right before the war started. The issue was devoted entirely to a survey of life in Russia and featured dozens of stunning photographs of Russians from all walks of life. Two things struck me in particular in this truly spectacular photo essay: (1) The faces of the citizens in the photos were so clear and so gorgeous I could imagine them as real people, living today. And that made the time period come alive. I could imagine what the teenager staring at me might have been thinking as she stood next to that boy, or the mother as she held her baby. (2) The vast size and diversity of the country. I was blown away by the largely uninhabited, untouched landscapes and just how separated groups of people across the empire were by those expanses. To me it was gorgeous and terrifying and something I wanted to be sure to capture in this book.

LN: Which writers (or books) helped shape the way you approached writing A Bend in the Stars?

RB: So many! I’m not sure where to start. I am a reader before I am a writer and I often think about Toni Morrison’s famous words: “If there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.” To do that, I read. And read. And read. When I sit down to fix a draft, I sit with characters and stories I love – but aren’t quite right. They are my dearest and oldest friends, closest confidantes and best inspiration. Without them, I’d be lost. They include: Toni Morrison, Ayn Rand, Virginia Woolf, Sylvia Plath, Edgar Alan Poe, Shirley Jackson, Patricia Highsmith and many more. I really love books written by women with strong female protagonists. Why don’t we have more of those out in the world?

LN: A Bend in the Stars is rich with history, science, math, Judaism, geography, etc. Did you find any challenges in structuring the novel so that you could maintain the momentum of the story while still delving into such a variety of topics?

RB: No. I didn’t set out to write a book that touched on all these aspects, didn’t sit down with a list or goals that included covering any of those topics. I wrote a book in a world, a setting, that I loved and all these pieces were organic to that universe. For example, I didn’t have to force parts of history because they were already in the scene. I couldn’t put my characters down in any part of Bend without them being surrounded by the history, science, math, Judaism that’s there.

LN: Some of the scenes in your book are quite cinematic (for example, the fight scene under the bridge when Miri and Sasha first meet, or when Miri and Sasha are trapped on the train with the threatening Zubov). How do you plot out action scenes like this?

RB: It’s funny, people say that a lot about this book – that it’s cinematic. And they want to know how I did that. The answers is that all the people in Bend are real to me. They are not based on anyone I know but they are my imaginary friends and their world is as real to me as the desk and office I’m sitting in now. This is to say that I see them and every scene they inhabit playing out in my mind as I write so I did not plot one thing happening and then another. Rather, I see it as it unfolds. That’s not to say it turned out well the first few times I saw it! For example, I didn’t mention that Miri and Sasha were hidden by brush and bushes in an early draft and one reader remarked that without those details the drunks would see them right away! So I went back again and again to fill in the scene, to add the details, but I always see it as a scene – not a plotted, choreographed moment.

LN: This is your first novel. What was the road to publication like? Can you tell us a bit about the GrubStreet Novel Incubator program?

RB: The road to publication was a long one. I started thinking about this book in 2014. I’m a writer who writes tons and tons of pages – only to hold onto one or two paragraphs so for every one of my published pages I’ve probably written at least one hundred. I wish I could be more efficient, write better drafts but I just don’t work that way. That’s where the Novel Incubator at GrubStreet comes in. Michelle Hoover’s program was amazing. I had to apply with a full rough draft. She and her committee select 10 writers for the program and I spent a full year working on my draft, revising pages and helping my classmates do the same. The class taught me what worked and what didn’t, to cut and rewrite again and again. It was brutal and the best thing that ever happened to my writing. I’d really encourage anyone who has a full rough draft and is serious about taking their writing to the next level to apply. But beware! It is no walk in the park. If you want to publish a novel you have to be willing to work – and work hard. Assume everything needs to be redone and know that means it’s only getting better.

LN: Are there any debut novels coming out this summer that you'd like to shout out?

RB: Chip Cheek’s Cape May, Julia Phillip’s Disappearing Earth, Karen Dukess’ The Last Book Party, Alexander Tilney’s The Expectations. Not a summer debut, but Lauren Wilkinson’s American Spy came out a few months back and it is superb. Elizabeth Shelburne’s Holding On To Nothing is due out this fall and I can’t wait. Not a debut, but Helen Phillips’ The Need is spectacular. And I can’t wait to get my hands on Julie Orringer’s The Flight Portfolio.

 
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Interview: James Crews

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When we first heard the title of the new book of poetry edited by James Crews, Healing the Divide: Poems for Compassion and Connection, we thought: How wonderful! It seems to us that James is the perfect editor for this book. You see we know James. He read his beautiful, compassionate poems at our inaugural Poetry & Pie. And we're still hoping to make it to one of his Mindfulness and Writing workshops. In this day and age, when we're all reeling a little from divisive politics, we like the idea of seeking wise counsel from poets like Ross Gay, Donald Hall, Naomi Shihab Nye, and Marie Howe. A morning meditation perhaps? Flip open this anthology and read some words of hope before moving about your day. Thank you, James, for the work you do!

James will join several other local poets to celebrate the launch of Healing the Divide with a reading at Bear Pond Books in Montpelier, Vermont, on Tuesday April 16, starting at 7:00 pm. It should be a really wonderful evening.

In honor of the today’s release of Healing the Divide, we interviewed James about this book, how it came together, and the work that poetry can do to help bring us together. We hope you enjoy James’ replies to our questions as much as we do.


Literary North: Where did the idea for this book come from? Did someone approach you, or did you approach someone?

James Crews: The idea for Healing the Divide actually came to me one day while I was in the shower. My husband, Brad, ran for political office in Vermont last year, and he had been working on his speech all winter, much of which was about how the power of kindness and community literally saved his life when he returned home from the military, discharged for being gay. He talked about how the smallest gestures—the flick of the wrist waves, the folks stopping to chat with him while on a walk—made him feel that he belonged to a place again, and really began the healing process. It dawned on me that poetry can do the same kind of work, and I have always preferred poems that highlight connection in some way, whether between lovers, family members, friends or strangers. Once I had the idea, the pieces quickly fell into place. I asked Dede Cummings with Green Writers Press if she would publish the anthology, and she instantly said yes. Ted Kooser also immediately agreed to write the Preface, so all I had to do was gather the poems and get permissions from the writers and their publishers, which was no small task. But I was struck over and over with the support and generosity that people showed toward this project.

LN: How did you go about selecting the poems to include?

JC: I have a whole trove of poems that I really treasure and go back to over and over. "Shoulders" by Naomi Shihab Nye is one of those, as is "Small Kindnesses" by Danusha Laméris. So I had quite a few already on hand, but once you start looking for something, you will always find more and more of it. People started sending me poems about kindness, and Naomi Nye connected me with numerous poets I'd never even heard of, who had wonderful work to share. I combed through Ted Kooser's “American Life in Poetry” newspaper column quite a bit, since I knew I wanted as many of the poems as possible to be accessible to a wide readership. I worked with Ted on his column for several years at the University of Nebraska, and I really credit that experience with teaching me how to locate poems that might appeal to a mass audience.

LN: How do you try to include compassion in your own writing practice, towards yourself and your words and your readers?

JC: I often lead workshops on mindfulness and writing as a way to teach (and re-teach) myself the practice of compassion and attention for the world as it is. And if we're really paying attention, we'll see that we are not as divided as we think. Yes, there are disagreements, there are life-and-death issues that must be addressed, but there are also people coming together and being kind to each other on a deeper level every day. I feel it's my job as a writer (as a human being, really) to highlight those moments first for myself —to keep myself out of despair—and then for others too. Writing is an integral part of my spiritual practice, so I feel my poetry is always showing me ways to pay closer attention, how to be more kind and gentle to myself and others. I'm working on a new book right now, a collection of poems, reflections and exercises, which essentially argues that writing itself is a spiritual practice that can connect us to ourselves and each other. Quite honestly, I try to follow Anne Lamott's advice quite a bit in my work: "Write the book you would most want to come upon in the world."

LN: In what ways can poetry work to help us heal and come together in the face of so much anger, division, and mistrust in the world?

JC: Mark Nepo, one of our great spiritual writers, has said that "Poetry is the unexpected utterance of the soul." It's hard to put into words, but I also believe that poetry comes from some deeper place inside us—whether we call that the soul, the spirit, or the intuition—and as a result, it's what we really want to say, it's the truth as we know it. All art works this way, but poetry has a distinct advantage in that it's made from the material of language that we use every day. Poets turn that democratic, raw material into something strange, harrowing, transcendent, beautiful, and often universal. I admit that I have a personal bias for poems that seek to uplift, and do so in accessible language, but creativity of all kinds has never been more important than it is right now at this political moment, and we need as many diverse voices as we can get to heal us all and remind us of the one human story.

LN: Is there a poem—or a poet—that you rely on to help you remember kindness and connection on really hard days?

JC: Most of the poets I return to over and over are in the anthology: Ted Kooser, of course, but also Barbara Crooker, Anya Silver, Ross Gay, Li-Young Lee, and the late W. S. Merwin, among many others. But I keep coming back to "The Way It Is" by William Stafford, which we were lucky enough to be able to include in the book. In the poem, he talks about a thread "you never let go of," and I've always wondered what that thread was for him, what he meant by that. The older I get, the more I think that the thread is whatever intention we carry with us out into the world, whether through our work, our creativity, and our relationships (to others and to ourselves). And for me, that thread is to be as present and kind as I can be. I will make mistakes, take wrong turns, get distracted, but as long as I can keep holding onto that thread and letting it guide me, as he says in the poem, I know I can't get lost. I hope Healing the Divide can do the same for a few readers as well.

LN: What was the most memorable thing you read in the past month?

JC: I know that I'm a latecomer to this book, but I finally got around to reading Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer. I relished every word and so appreciated how she blended memoir and storytelling with science and indigenous knowledge. This book comes at the right time too, since I'm now (slowly) putting together a new anthology called Down to Earth: Poems of Mindfulness and Devotion. This will be a collection of nature poems that honors elements of the living world as having a consciousness and agency of their own. I hadn't thought of it before, but I suppose this anthology is also very much about compassion and kindness, just this time between humans and the Earth. I can't help but think we all need to be reminded of that essential connection right now.

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Interview: Bethany C. Morrow

The Burlington Book Festival lands in Burlington, Vermont, on October 12 to 14, with an amazing lineup including Mary Jo Bang, Dan Chiasson, Maria Hummel, Mark Leyner, Bethany Morrow, and Sharon Olds. This is the last in a series of four interviews in celebration of the Festival.

Bethany C. Morrow is the author of the debut novel, MEM, published by the wonderful small publisher, Unnamed Press. Publisher’s Weekly describes MEM as “ambitious and insightful, raising questions about memory, trauma, and humanity.” Morrow was an Indies Introduce Debut Author selected by the American Booksellers Association. Originally from California, she currently lives in upstate New York.

Thank you, Bethany!

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Literary North: Tell us a little bit about your writing process.

Bethany Morrow: I think my writing process adapts to each individual project, but there are some places where I start. The transition from thinking about writing something (which is a step in the writing process) to literally writing about it requires, for me, a first line; an inciting incident, or reason the story is starting now; a character I know (or think I know for now); a sound (as in a song that matches the emotional tenor of the character or incident or); a climax.

Once I have those things I write a first chapter, which tends to be establishing, so it's not very long. Like introducing yourself before you start blabbering on to someone who doesn't want to know you, lol. And then I see what I've learned from that introduction, and go back to thinking. Once I know the next few steps, I start writing toward the end of the first act, at which point I stop again and go back to thinking because things organically develop and I want to write the story not the story that first appeared in my head if it isn't true anymore. The process goes a bit like that through the climax, until I know how it ends.

LN: What influences have helped shape you into the writer you are today?

BM: A reader might be a better person to answer that. I can only say what meant a lot to me as a young reader/writer: Christopher Pike, Lois Duncan, Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton, The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, and everything by Toni Morrison (especially up through Love, since that's when I was rabidly reading and rereading her, including essays and interviews).

LN: What was the kernel of the idea for your novel, MEM? What inspired you and influenced your writing as you worked toward its completion?

BM: The kernel of the idea was making cloning more interesting than I find it in real life, lol. And then determining that the most interesting person in that world would be such a clone, but one that doesn't match her intended purpose, and because there's an expectation on her to prove her humanness, she has such a shallow pool of "respectable" identity expression while others who are never questioned are free to be inhuman. 

LN: What brings you joy?

BM: My son, of course, before everything. The right words. A sound too perfect to be translated into words. A shared happiness.

LN: What was the most memorable thing you read in the past month?

BM: I started reading What It Means When a Man Falls From the Sky by Lesley Nneka Arimah, and from the first page, the gasp I made at the end of the first story, it's just intoxicating.

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