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The Author’s Perspective

This is the first part of an interview with author Nora McFarland whose latest book, Going to the Bad: A Lilly Hawkins Mystery, will be released tomorrow (August 7, 2012).

1.  Joseph Arellano (JA):  You live in Macon, Georgia but your Lilly Hawkins mysteries (and Going to the Bad is the third in the series) are set in Bakersfield, California.   Why?

I lived in Bakersfield when I started writing the first book in the series, A Bad Day’s Work.   I’d been a shooter – industry slang for a TV news photographer – and knew it would make a great set-up for a mystery.   I also loved Bakersfield and its quirky heritage.

2.  JA:  Do you periodically visit Bakersfield in order to update the descriptions of the local scenery, or do you write completely from memory?

I visit once a year.   What I like to do is write a rough draft, visit, see how badly I’ve remembered certain details, and then fix it in the second draft.   On that same trip, I can research ideas for the next book that’s not been written yet.   That’s a great way to get inspired.   For Going to the Bad, I had an idea that I wanted a scene set in an oil field, so I spent a day visiting the more accessible ones near Bakersfield.   I took notes on everything I smelled and heard, as well as the terrain.   While there I realized the scene should be a chase, either at night or in the fog when visibility is bad.

3.  JA:  Is there a chance that the character of Lilly Hawkins will someday relocate to the state of Georgia?

The grit and color of Bakersfield are an important part of Lilly’s character.   I’d never move her.   Lilly was born there and she’ll probably die there.

4.  JA:  We’re fellow Trojans, so I’d like to ask you what you learned from attending the University of Southern California (USC) School of Cinema and Television that apply to your writing?

The screenwriting courses I took as part of my degree in production laid the groundwork for everything I’m doing now.   They taught us story structure, pacing, and dialog among other things.   Probably the biggest lesson I took away from those classes was that your main character has to change.   I think that’s the core of drama and storytelling.   Your main character must begin in one place and end in another.

5.  JA:  In an alternate life, you’re not writing books or filming the news.   What would you be doing?

If it’s a fantasy where I could do anything I wanted, then I’d say screenwriting.   I love movies as much as books.

Thank you to Nora McFarland.   Part two of this interview, with five additional questions for Nora to answer, will run in the very near future on this site.   Going to the Bad will be available as a trade paperback book, and also as a Kindle Edition and Nook Book download.

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Goin’ Back

The Stuff That Never Happened: A Novel by Maddie Dawson (Broadway; $14.00; 336 pages)

The Stuff That Never Happened, written by Maddie Dawson, is a fascinating story that presents a realistic view of the challenges and trials of love, passion, and loyalty within a long-term, modern-day marriage.

The truth is much more complicated.   The truth is that I’m actually in love with another man.

Annabelle shares the story of her lovely life raising her children in New Hampshire amongst her loyal, dedicated husband Grant, while building lifelong memories with family and friends.   Yet now that the children are grown and gone and Grant is distracted and distant as he dedicates all of his time to writing a novel, she consumes her times dreaming of a man from her past.   Then, by chance, she comes across her former lover and has to  make the decision of whether to stay with the man she married, or take a chance with the one she desires.

Maybe we’re all dreaming of a person from the tantalizing past who sits there, uninvited, watching from the edge of our consciousness, somebody you find packing up and moving out of your head just as you’re waking in the morning, and whose essence clings to you all day as though you have spent the night with him, wandering off together somewhere among the stars…

Joseph’s Reviews recently interviewed the author and after reading her responses, I found her to be down to earth, warm and fun.   Her story is told in a similar light-hearted tone with elements of humor and wit intertwined with enjoyable eclectic characters and flowing dialogue.   I felt the same connectedness reading about Maddie Dawson as I did with her main character, Annabelle.

The deep characterization of this novel highlights the themes of passion, love, dedication and forgiveness that bring the characters to life and challenge the reader to wonder if the grass is truly greener on the other side and whether the consequences are worth the grazing.

I look forward to reading future novels from Maddie Dawson.

Well recommended.

Kelly Monson

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The Author’s Perspective

Roy Peter Clark wrote the 2010 bestselling book, The Glamour of Grammar, and on September 21, 2011, his new book will be released.  The new book is entitled Help! for Writers: 210 Solutions to the Problems Every Writer Faces.   Mr. Clark joins us here for a guest post, answering a key question for us.

Joseph Arellano

JA:  Should you write the ending of your story first?  

RPC:  The paragon for this paradigm is J.K. Rowling, who has told the story many times that she began writing the seven-book Harry Potter series by writing the ending first.   Not the ending of the first book, mind you, but the ending of the seventh book!   She even teased her faithful readers with the news that the last word in the series would be “scar.”   She changed her mind.

It helped me to write to an ending for my 1999 newspaper serial novel “Ain’t Done Yet.”   The story, in 30 chapters, described a burned-out reporter hired to investigate a cult planning a terrorist attack for New Year’s Day 2000.   Max Timlin, the reporter, feared two things most of all:  lightning storms and high places.   So, of course, he would fight to the death with the villain on top of the Sunshine Skyway Bridge in a fierce storm.   Because I knew the big arc of the story, I could focus on the little arcs, those moments of surprise that reveal patterns, cliff hangers, and character.

I like the advice of a novelist (don’t remember his name) who said that writing fiction was like driving a car at night along a winding country road.   You don’t need to see all the way to your destination, as long as your headlights can illuminate a stretch of the road ahead.   In other words, if you can write your way to the end of a scene, you can build narrative momentum toward what’s coming next.

Interested in winning a copy of Help! for Writers: 210 Solutions to the Problems Every Writer Faces?   If so, just return to this site on Wednesday, September 21st to see how you can win one of five (5) copies that we’re giving away!

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Coming Up Next…

Roy Peter Clark, author of the new guidebook Help! for Writers: 210 Solutions to the Problems Every Writer Faces, answers a key question for us.

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7 Questions

We are here continuing our interview with writer Maddie Dawson, author of The Stuff That Never Happened: A Novel.   In this concluding part of the interview, the questions were asked by Joseph Arellano (JA) and Kimberly Caldwell (KC).

4.  JA:   When I was writing music reviews in college, I loved to read interviews in which musicians cited their influences, idols and role models.   (I would then go and listen to those other musicians to see if I could hear the connections.)   With this in mind, which authors come to mind when you think about who has influenced you?

MD:   I love writers who really explore the complexities of relationships and the inner lives of their characters – writers like Alice Munro, Amy Bloom, and Anne Tyler.   (Hmmm, a lot of A’s there.)   I also love so much of Jane Smiley’s work, particularly her early novels – and I love Anne Proulx’s short stories and her descriptions.   I believe that life is a  mix of humor and pathos, that the hilarious gets mixed in with the mundane and the tragic on a daily basis, so I adore the work (particularly the non-fiction) of Anne Lamott who is just so honest and real.   I love the wordplay and intelligence of Lorrie Moore’s work, and I’m constantly awed by the humorous work of modern male writers like Mark Haddon, Nick Hornby, and Jonathan Tropper.

5.  JA:   Is there a particular novel that you’ve read in 2010/2011 that seemed to be exemplary or mind-blowing?

MD:   I’m so glad you asked this question, because I was completely blown away by A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan.   The complexities of that novel, the ins and outs of the plot, the depth of the characters:  I found it truly mind-blowing.

6.  JA:   What’s either the best or the hardest thing about publicizing your own work?

MD:   Ack!   Getting the word out about a book is such a huge task for authors these days.   I love some aspects of it – the social media stuff, the connecting with readers, the skype-ing with book groups and the constant feedback from people who have comments.   But other aspects are harder for me:  keeping up a blog and being interesting when really my head and heart are with my new characters and my new book, which is just coming into being.

7.  KC:   Are you working on a new book and, if so, what is the premise?

MD:   I am working on a new book.   It’s the story of a woman who, at 43, discovers she’s pregnant for the first time, just as she and her long-term boyfriend agree to a separation so she can care for her 88-year-old grandmother who is suddenly having little strokes.   It’s a story about the risks we take in loving, and the way that you can’t ever truly predict what your life will be.   I think all my work is basically about finding our true lives and our real families, and the ways in which we can be surprised by the life that finds us when we’ve gone ahead and made other plans, to paraphrase John Lennon.

Note:  Part One of this interview (The Author’s Perspective; click on the link in the Recent Entries column on the right to read it) was posted on this site on August 30, 2011.   Maddie Dawson’s novel, The Stuff That Never Happened, is now available as a trade paperback release.

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The Author’s Perspective

Today we’re conducting the first part of an interview with Maddie Dawson, author of the novel The Stuff That Never Happened.   Kimberly Caldwell (KC) asks the questions in this stage of the interview.

1.  KC:   The Stuff That Never Happened is about a woman who weighs the allure of an old lover against the solid dependability of a marriage she seems to be outgrowing.   Where did the idea for the novel come from?   Is it autobiographical?

MD:  I suppose in some senses, all novels have autobiographical elements in them.   Authors are always using their own experiences as springboards for the torture we put our characters through.   That being said, nothing specifically about Annabelle’s situation is anything like my life.   But I was once in love with a man who, while not precisely married, had little children and a complicated life with the mother of those children…  and we had a crazy, up and down relationship for a long time, with lots of drama and thrills and chills until the day we finally broke up for good.   And then one day, fifteen years later, I got on a train and there he was, in a nearly empty train car, and we had a two-hour ride together.   It seemed almost pre-designed by a kindly universe to give us a chance to look at what had been, to compare our lives – and to reflect about what it had all meant.

Frankly, it didn’t mean very much.   (Real life can be so boring sometimes.)   He was as impossible as I remembered, vague and noncommittal, and just as infuriating to talk to as he ever was.   We parted, both of us grateful, I think, that things hadn’t worked out for us way back when.   Still, it got me doing that thing I’ve been doing my whole life: thinking how much more interesting things might be if life was a novel.   After that, it seemed everywhere I looked everybody had a what-if person tucked away, someone to think about when real life seemed unsatisfying.

And so the character of Annabelle was born, a woman who married too young to Grant, a man she barely knew, and who then fell in love with someone else during the first year of her marriage.   After a time apart, Annabelle and Grant manage to reunite and go on to have a happy life together, raising children and creating a stable life and community in his home town in New Hampshire.   They make a pact never to speak about Annabelle’s betrayal again, to pretend it just never happened so that they can go on.

What I was mostly interested in exploring in this novel was what came next for Annabelle and Grant: the stuff that came after the kids leave home, after their family responsibilities are over.   It’s then that the cracks in their marriage really become apparent.   Grant realizes the sacrifice he’d made in his career to stay married to Annabelle and feels compelled to catch up; Annabelle realizes that she’s stifled in a life that no longer seems to need her, and she senses Grant’s long, leftover anger.

But what is one to do?   Are we just supposed to settle for living with past memories, or do we still have a life ahead of us to create?   After twenty-eight years together, is it even possible to start over?   To me, that’s when the story really begins: with Annabelle’s realization that she doesn’t know anymore what she owes herself and what she owes Grant and her children; what she will lose by remaining unhappy  in her marriage, or by venturing out into the unknown, or traveling back to the past.

2.   KC:  How did you decide how to present the story?   When you began did you know what Annabelle’s decision would be?

MD:  Ha!   What an interesting question!   As it happens, I didn’t know what Annabelle’s decision would be.   Sometimes I thought she would stay with her husband, but there were times I was sure that her old lover had been the right one for her.   For a while, when I was writing, I thought maybe she’d end up with neither of them – a woman alone making her way through the world.   I just kept writing, sure that one answer would emerge.   And as happens in novels – unlike real life – things finally seemed to settle themselves clearly in one direction over the other.   I’ve heard from lots of readers who have said they were so relieved at the way it turned out, but I have one dear friend who says she still wishes Annabelle had made the other decision.

As for the presentation of the story, I wrote it in two periods: the past, 1978-80, when Annabelle and Grant first met as students at the University of California at Santa Barbara (UCSB) and impulsively married and moved to New York, and then in the present, 2005, when their lives are settled in New Hampshire and their children have left home.   I wanted to tell it this way because both time periods were equally compelling to me.   I didn’t want to simply tell the 1970s stuff in flashback, but to let the events unfold as part of the main story.

3. KC:  What makes novels about other people’s relationships compelling?

MD:  I think we’re all hungry for details of other people’s stories.   And, let’s face it, romantic relationships carry an extra wallop of mystery to them.   How many times do you look at couples you know and think, “What in the world can they possibly see in each other?”   Perhaps we’re trying to answer that mystery at the heart of ourselves: why am I with this particular person?   Will we be able to last?   Do we have it better or worse than other people?

In novels, I think, relationships make sense.   They have reason and nuance, and we can peek in other people’s insides and compare them to our own.   I love riding around in someone else’s head for a while.   It helps me to understand myself much better.

To be continued… (In the concluding section of this interview, we have four additional questions for Maddie to answer.)

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Coming Up Next…

An interview with writer Maddie Dawson, author of The Stuff That Never Happened.

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