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Between The Sheets

Brooke Lewis

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Photographer: Birdie Thompson (@birds_eye_photo)/Hair & Makeup: Allison Noelle (@allisonnoellemakeup)

In our ongoing feature Between the Sheets, TrunkSpace picks the imaginative brains of authors to break down what it takes to create the various worlds and characters they breathe life into via the tools of their trade… sheets of paper. While technology continues to advance and change the pop culture landscape, the written word has remained one of the most consistent and imaginative art forms.

This time out we’re chatting with author, actress, producer and life coach Brooke Lewis about paving her own career path, her unexpected Scream Queen status, and why she tells people to do as she says, not as she does.

TrunkSpace: You have so many different career paths, and yet they all intersect in a way. Do you juggle them separate of each other, or do you view them as all falling under one a larger umbrella?
Lewis: That’s a very profound question and I will answer it as simply as possible. Thank you for asking that by the way!

Everything I do in some way, shape or form is to support my love – my passion – which is acting. I fancy myself an actress first and foremost, from childhood on. However, I always say this, whatever we believe, whatever the readers believe – higher power, God, energy… “God laughs when we’re making plans.”

Never in my wildest dreams did I think one day I would become a writer, and an author, and even a producer, per se, but I’ve done everything that I can, and navigated my path, my career path, from Philadelphia, to New York, to Hollywood now, over many years, all in support of my acting career. I have embraced whatever other opportunities have come to me. It’s really interesting. We’d spend seven hours together if we started putting the puzzle pieces together, but to answer your question simply, everything I do is to support my acting career. Everything I also do, to share with the readers, is something that inspires me. All of my peripheral careers have in some way, inspired me or have become a secondary passion, including life coaching, dating coaching, relationship coaching, all of that, and writing – all my books.

TrunkSpace: How important has it been to your career to sort of steer it in the direction that you’ve wanted? You seem to have taken matters into your own hands, by becoming a writer and a producer, and in many ways, have controlled your own destiny.
Lewis: It’s been one big fat challenge. For anyone who thinks it hasn’t, you are mistaken. What really ended up happening, and I hope I’m answering this properly, is that I had been a working actress right out of college in New York. I started my career off-Broadway in “Tony n’ Tina’s Wedding,” the mobster comedy wedding. I did the show for three years, seven shows a week… equity contract, was signed with Paradigm. When we are young, we don’t realize how much easier it is in some ways to navigate through the Hollywood or New York entertainment industry. I’m very grateful and blessed, and worked very hard even then. I didn’t know. I didn’t know how challenging it would become as I got older and as I moved to Hollywood, which I still feel, has always really been the TV capital of the world.

When I moved here and have been a working actress consistently for all those years, for four years in New York, it was like a different world for me. Really, after doing Broadway and indie films, everyone in Hollywood was much more concerned about my television credits, which there were a lack thereof, let’s just say. I chose to fight the system. I chose then to buck up and I started a small production company, Philly Chick Pictures, in 2002. I said, “That’s it. I’m not going to let the ‘no’s get in my way.” I took my power.

TrunkSpace: And that’s a big undertaking.
Lewis: Let me tell everyone, it was never easy – from going out and raising financing for films, investors for my production company, finding the right partners, both here and in New York, and working other jobs to sustain financially. And I own that, and I am proud of that. I was a career woman, and still am. That was my focus. I did everything I could to make sure that I was able to act, by producing. I hate producing, yet I’m an incredible producer. I say that humbly, but I’m a badass little producer. But I hate it. I hate it. But I did it so I could act.

TrunkSpace: When the opportunities aren’t there, you have to create them for yourself.
Lewis: Hollywood was not giving me the opportunities that I had hoped. Hollywood wasn’t saying, “Okay Brooke, you’re new to Hollywood, you’re young – even though you’re trained in New York – you’ve done a million indie films in New York.” They were saying. “You’ve got to work the business. You’ve got to earn your keep here.” It wasn’t the magic that I had expected. I wasn’t getting offered new lead roles on TV series or lead roles in mainstream movies in Hollywood, so I created that. I was like, “That’s it. I’m going to show the world that I do have potential, that I do have some talent, that I am a trained actress.” And so I produced.

TrunkSpace: Did taking on the system also put you further on the outskirts though, especially in those early days? Did people say, “Well, if she isn’t willing to play the game, we won’t let her through the door.”?
Lewis: That’s a brilliant question. I’m going to say 50/50. Now in hindsight, and hindsight’s 20/20, I think that 50 percent of – I’ll start with the negative – 50 percent, absolutely what you said. With kind of me going against the system and the grain, it sort of affected me in a negative way. Then the other 50 percent, I think that real artists here, and real agents and managers, really got me and respected my hustle and said, “Wow, this girl is a force to be reckoned with.”

I think the former 50 percent… and I can really attest to this with what I have learned from becoming a “horror star.” I was a horror fan/junkie since childhood. I own it. I was an ’80s horror fan, like a crazy person. I loved horror movies. I had friends who starred in horror movies back in New York, but never did I wake up one day and say, “I’m going to be a famous scream queen.” However, you get to a certain point where you’ve worked so hard, nobody knows who you are no matter what sitcoms you’ve done, no matter what Broadway shows you’ve done… and then the horror community sort of embraced me as a thriller scream queen with the film “Polycarp.” All of the sudden I’m getting direct offers in the horror genre, sci-fi genre, thriller genre. I’m like, “Wow, this is kind of amazing, and I’ve sort of paid my dues at this point.” So once I became sort of a genre star – I say that humbly again – a genre star in horror, I embraced it.

TrunkSpace: So do you think that helped or hurt your career?
Lewis: It pigeonholed me a bit, and I’m learning that later, 10 years later. Sometimes Hollywood can be small-minded. The executives say, “Well, she’s famous in horror. She’s a famous scream queen. We’re not convinced she can do anything else.” I’m always one, again, to go against the grain and to try to prove myself, as I have continued to do that.

TrunkSpace: You mentioned how the horror world was never part of the plan, but for you personally, what’s been the biggest surprise of your career thus far – the thing that 18 year-old you back in New York never would have seen coming?
Lewis: Wow, I mean, so many! For one, what we just addressed. I’m so grateful for it, of so many over the years – more so 10 years ago when I was super relevant in horror and stuff – being a Top 10 Scream Queens of all time with Jamie Lee Curtis and Adrienne Barbeau – some of my icons and idols, so that’s been mind blowing. I guess I never imagined I’d be on the cover of horror magazines all over the world, in Gorezone in the UK in 2010. It’s just bananas. But I would also have to say, I never imagined I would become a board certified life coach either, and a writer for all these publications, and an author of two books now. Never did I imagine that.

TrunkSpace: We get this vibe from you that you are a nurturer, and because you are a life coach, do you ever have to step back and say to yourself, “Oh my God, I have been spending all of this time focusing on other people… it’s time to maybe focus on me a little bit.”?
Lewis: Are you psychic? I’m not kidding. Welcome to my life. Am I being Punk’d? Hold on? Is there a reality show camera in my home right now? (Laughter)

That’s my life. You just described my life. You described my life, to the point where I forget to check myself. Gratefully I have a wonderful fiance who check me. I have great reps who check me. You nailed it. You already get my personality.

I’m such a philanthropist at heart. That’s just really who I am. I believe so much in giving back, and I’m so in gratitude. And I’m, as my book will tell you, a hot mess. I own it. That’s part of my hot mess, is my anxiety. I suffer from a lot of anxiety, a lot of stress. It affects me mentally. It affects me physically. I have some chronic health issues because of it. I share that very openly, because I hope something I say helps others. So I do forget, and I have to have my stable of people around me. I have a life coach. Thank you Lori for saving my life many times, my own life coach. I have Michelle who is my actress empowerment shine coach, who has to remind me it’s okay to be selfish. I have these amazing people around me that I need to stay afloat. I think, in my humble opinion, that everyone needs a support system. Everyone should have a support system, especially in this industry, because it can be so stressful. It ebbs and flows. So I do, I forget. I give too much a lot of times. I’m well aware of it, but it’s tough to stop myself.

I always tell my clients that I’m coaching, and my friends, “Do as I say, not as I do.” I’m not a parent. I chose to focus on my career and not having children, but I really have to have that old parent cliché, “Do as I say, not as I do,” because I’m a hot mess.

Lewis will appear in the film “1/2 New Year” due early 2019.

Her book, “Coaching from a Professed Hot Mess,” is available here.

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Between The Sheets

Chas Allen

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Photo Credit – JSquared Photography/Grooming – Melissa Walsh

In our ongoing feature Between the Sheets, TrunkSpace picks the imaginative brains of authors to break down what it takes to create the various worlds and characters they breathe life into via the tools of their trade… sheets of paper. While technology continues to advance and change the pop culture landscape, the written word has remained one of the most consistent and imaginative art forms.

This time out we’re chatting with author and life coach Chas Allen about his new bookEvolution: Becoming a Criminaland his journey from prison to the moment he saw aspects of his life play out on the big screen in “American Animals.”

TrunkSpace: You travel the country sharing the message of “embrace your story.” Your particular story has a lot of layers, and your life has no doubt taken many unexpected twists and turns. Can you tell us what “embrace your story” means on a macro level and at what point in your life you started following your own advice and accepted your personal truth?
Allen: On a macro level, we are experiencing an amazing time in human history. People who once lived in fear of expressing their truth are now reclaiming their voice and sharing their experiences. I believe that everyone has a right to express the truth of who they are and show up authentically in the world. Anything less than the full expression of who we are compartmentalizes our lives, drains our potential, and causes us to live in fear and hiding. When you embrace your story, you make a conscious choice to live in your truth. When you do this, you overcome fears, doubts, and insecurities because you realize that by accepting your truth you have nothing to hide. The incredible thing that happens when you share the truth of who you are is that you open yourself to connect more deeply and build more meaningful relationships with the people in your life, and ultimately, this leads to growth and the potential for healing.

For me, it was hard to accept my personal truth, and I’m always striving to grow and expand further in my understanding of who I am. At 21 I was removed from society and imprisoned for more than six years. During this time, I did a lot of soul-searching and took a hard look at the consequences of my actions. I found that in taking full responsibility for my past, and for claiming my truth, that I am free to choose who I will become.

TrunkSpace: Your third book, “Evolution: Becoming a Criminal” will be released on June 19. Now that you’re three books in, has the process become easier and more fluid? Are you experiencing the same emotions on the eve of releasing this one as you were your debut?
Allen: This third book is the book that I didn’t have the courage to write years ago when I released my first book. Doubts and fears from my past were still gripping me and prevented the full expression of who I am. My first release came with mixed emotions. With this release, I mostly feel gratitude for the ability to express and share my story. Of course, it still comes with a twinge of fear, wondering, “will people like it,” which I believe comes from my own desire to be loved and accepted for who I am. When I feel that fear, I lean into the hopes that my vulnerability will speak to something that someone may be experiencing in their own life.

TrunkSpace: You were involved in a well-known heist at 19-years-old, which is about to be more well-known thanks to the movie “American Animals.” Referred to as the Transylvania Book Heist, the caper involved you and three other individuals attempting to steal first edition books and paintings from the Transylvania University library. Is there something poetic in the fact that you are now an author and creating your own books, and has writing opened the doors of redemption to you on a personal level?
Allen: I felt so misunderstood years ago, after the crime. I felt ashamed and embarrassed at what I had done and deeply sorry for the pain that I had selfishly caused other people in the process. After such public self-destruction, I had a strong need to express that this crime does not define who I am. Writing provided me the outlet to communicate and share the truth of who I am and my experience from the only perspective over which I have any authority: my own. Poetic? I would say it has been a long and continued process of healing.

TrunkSpace: In a way, has writing the book “Evolution: Becoming a Criminal” been a bit like therapy? Has it enabled you to articulate thoughts and feelings about your own experience in a way that you have yet to tap into prior to putting it down on the page?
Allen: Writing is always a therapeutic process for me. When I write, I envision the scene I am writing as if I am there, walking around in the scene, feeling, seeing, hearing, and experiencing as if for the first time. In the process of writing this book, the scenes I stepped into were reliving my past experiences, over and over, and over again. As the old emotions flowed into me, I allowed them to flow through me and out of me onto the page, where they now live.

TrunkSpace: What are you most proud of with “Evolution: Becoming a Criminal?”
Allen: I overcame a lot of shame about my past through the process of writing this book. I would say that I am most proud of the internal process that I went through to be able to share the story of who I am through the release of this book.

TrunkSpace: Obviously there is a fictional spin to “American Animals” in order to make it more “cinematic,” but is it an odd experience seeing someone slip into your skin and inhabit you? Is it at all like holding up a mirror to yourself, or is there enough separation between reality and the film that you can still feel distanced from it?
Allen: It’s surreal. In parts of the film, I see Blake Jenner reenacting pivotal moments in my life, and I flash back to my own memories of my experience. His portrayal captures so many layers of emotions that I experienced at the time. I’m grateful to Blake for such a brilliant and authentic performance in the film.

TrunkSpace: How long did it take for you to discover your voice as a writer?
Allen: I spent years studying the craft of writing, emulating my favorite authors. “Shantaram” by Gregory David Roberts is a book that made a big impact on me. I think reading his writing showed me it was possible to be strong while at the same time vulnerable in the expression of our flaws. I think though that I found my personal voice when I stopped trying to emulate other writers. Mark Twain famously said, “Write what you know.” In seeking to know myself, I think I found expression for that part of me that most needed a voice.

TrunkSpace: Regarding the process, is writing a labor of love for you or does it feel more like labor? Do you enjoy the process?
Allen: It depends on what I am writing. I like to feel deeply connected to my writing. If the connection is there, I love and enjoy the process. The projects that I most enjoy are projects that allow me to explore the human experience on a level that makes us all feel a little more connected to one another.

TrunkSpace: And what does that process look like? What are the ideal conditions for putting in a good day of writing?
Allen: My writing days usually look like this: Instrumental music in the background, usually a beat with a good base-line, sitting at my desk in my high-backed roller-chair, pretending to be a captain of a ship about to embark on a journey, with my dog, a Shiba-Inu named Cleo, curled up at my feet. I love those days.

TrunkSpace: Do you self-edit as you write?
Allen: I do. Some days I feel completely present and tapped into my source, the source, the place where all creation comes from, and the writing flows. I find myself rarely editing on those days. Other days, usually when I’m in a stage of overcoming something in the present moment, I find myself facing resistance, and the writing feels forced. Those are the days I edit and revisit my writing again and again. I find it essential to write through the challenging days because there is always something in there that you needed to express before you can get to your next level of awareness.

TrunkSpace: Where are you the hardest on yourself as a writer?
Allen: I used to be a perfectionist. I still grapple with that every now and then when an internal critic wants to chime in while I write. Now I try to be more understanding of myself and embrace my weaknesses and strengths equally as part of who I am and try to recognize that the good days and the challenging days are all part of the overall process. You can’t have one without the other.

Photo Credit – JSquared Photography/Grooming – Melissa Walsh

TrunkSpace: What are you working on now and what will people be able to read next?
Allen: Following the release of “Evolution: Becoming a Criminal,” I’m working on the sequel that picks up when I leave the world of my childhood behind after the heist and am thrown irrevocably into a grown man’s world behind prison walls. The title is, “Revolution: Becoming a Convict.” I have also been commissioned to co-author two more non-fiction projects. One is the true story of a man named Steve Keller who created a multi-billion dollar industry, only to have his company dismantled, his assets sold to his competitors, and to be personally imprisoned for more than a decade. The book, titled, “Pay to Play,” explores what happens behind closed doors when the lines between the highest level of politics and business merge for the preservation of power. The second project is a self-help book I am writing with a subconscious behaviorist named Jim Rudolph, to empower readers with templates for how to share more meaningful and authentic relationships in their lives, titled, “Naked Relating.”

“Evolution: Becoming a Criminal” is available June 19 from Motivational Press. You can pre-order here.

“American Animals” is in theaters now.

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Between The Sheets

Alison McGhee

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In our ongoing feature Between the Sheets, TrunkSpace picks the imaginative brains of authors to break down what it takes to create the various worlds and characters they breathe life into via the tools of their trade… sheets of paper. While technology continues to advance and change the pop culture landscape, the written word has remained one of the most consistent and imaginative art forms.

This time out we’re chatting with author Alison McGhee about her new book “What I Leave Behind,” how writing with an imposed framework is freeing, and why laughter gets her through anything.

TrunkSpace: As you gear up for the release of “What I Leave Behind,” what emotions are you juggling with? Is it difficult putting so much of yourself into something and then releasing it into the world?
McGhee: These are powerful questions because they demand honesty about a part of writing that can be fraught. The private part of me (which is most of me) wants to pretend that at this point in my life, having published quite a few books, I’m inured to the release of a new one. That I don’t read reviews and don’t care what the world thinks. But that would be a lie, because my greatest, lifelong wish as a writer is to connect with readers – to know that someone out there sees themself in my book and feels less alone, comforted, seen. The emotions surrounding “What I Leave Behind” are intense in this way, because so much of my own life and experience are infused into this novel.

TrunkSpace: Where did the concept of writing the book in 100 chapters made up of 100 words come from and how difficult was it to whittle each chapter down to that specific word count? Did it get easier the further into the book you got?
McGhee: Whenever I write a book, I create a secret structure for it. The secret structure is usually known only to me, invisible to the outside world, but it gives me a framework within which to work. For example, I’ll make a list of random objects, off the top of my head, and the rule is that all those objects need to be in the book by the time it’s finished.

With “What I Leave Behind,” I had the image of a boy who worked in a dollar store, so I went to a dollar store and took photos of a hundred items. I had the vague idea that maybe I’d write a strange little book that consisted of a photo on one side of the page and a reflection or conversation, sparked by the photo, on the flip side. That turned into 100 small reflections, because everything in a dollar store costs $1.00 (100 pennies, get it?) and then I challenged myself further to make each of those passages 100 words exactly. It was mathematical, as many of my secret structures are. (What can I say, I thrive on weird challenges.)

The unexpected beauty of this structure is that it allowed me to write chapters that felt almost like poems, and poetry is my favorite form of literature. It was a lovely challenge to make each passage as whole and finished and profound as I could while staying within the strict word limit. Strangely, it wasn’t hard for me, maybe because I love to revise and I also love to cut, cut, cut. Even when I realized that Word counts every dot in an ellipse as a word, which meant I had to go back and add three words to every passage in which I had used an ellipse, it felt like a cool challenge rather than a burden.

TrunkSpace: The book deals with some heavy subject matter, but at the same time, has plenty of moments where the light overtakes the darkness. Do you feel like that was, tonally, important to achieve a balance with and did you struggle with it at any point in the process?
McGhee: Such a good way to phrase the question – “tonally important to achieve a balance.” That’s exactly the way I felt. When you are dealing with traumatic things like suicide and rape, I think it’s essential to include lightness and laughter, if only to release the heaviness and balance the weight. That’s what actual life is like, isn’t it? I’ve gone to funerals of people I adored, when my heart felt broken into pieces, and yet at some point there’s always a moment of lightness, like when you turn to your best friend and raise your eyebrows at something that someone said, and even though you can’t stop crying you also laugh and laugh. Laughter gets me through everything.

TrunkSpace: Did the method of delivery – 100 words in 100 chapters – force you to alter your normal approach to writing? Did it take you out of your comfort zone at all, and in doing so, will it force you to rethink your own process moving forward?
McGhee: “Method of delivery” – another cool phrase. Given that I always give myself assignments when I write, like “write a picture book in the form of a sestina” or “write a novel that covers one week in time, moving only forward, beginning on Monday and ending on Sunday” – strange random assignments like that—the way I wrote the book was in keeping with my normal approach. Somehow, an imposed framework is wildly freeing to me. I realize that might sound like a paradox. If anything, the very tight framework of “What I Leave Behind” makes me want to push even further into unusual structures. I’m looking forward to what the future brings that way.

TrunkSpace: As you look back at the work, what are you most proud of when it comes to “What I Leave Behind?”
McGhee: That I put my heart on the line in every passage of this book. There is so much of me and my life in Will, and oh I hope I did that boy justice.

TrunkSpace: You call yourself a “restless writer” who is “always following inspiration wherever and however” you find it. What are you inspired by currently?
McGhee: I’m always inspired by other artists: musicians, painters, dancers. And the ordinary daily life of anywhere fills me with ideas and scenes and conversations for future books. Lately I’ve been much more focused than before on the way our society and culture are changing, for the better and for the worse. The most powerful aspect of the curious times we’re living through, to me, is how people who have been mistreated for centuries are rising up and rightly so – and how people who have always benefited from unequal power structures are either wildly pushing back or feeling themselves broken up with recognition of unfairness. It’s pretty intense. The fact that I wrote about rape in “What I Leave Behind” is a direct result of this. I’m inspired by people taking action.

That’s a pretty broad inspiration, isn’t it? “People taking action.” Reading that makes me laugh, like, “Gee, Alison, could you be more general?”

TrunkSpace: How long did it take for you to discover your voice as a writer?
McGhee: Writing and storytelling is in my genes, and I’ve written stories my entire life, beginning when I was six and learned how to print. But finding my true voice as a writer took a long, long time. I distinctly remember waking up one morning, when I was 33 years old, with the phrase “that baby” in my mind and the image of a child lying in a crib in a trailer, looking up at the black and white reflection of Venetian blinds on the ceiling. That same morning, I sat down and wrote a strange piece that began with the lines “Babies don’t get born in North Sterns. They just appear, like corn on a hard dirt road. Like dust. Like love.” I remember a feeling of power surging through me, through my fingertips on the keyboard. I knew that something in me had changed, and that anything I wrote from that moment forward was going to be better, more assured, than anything I had written before. It was a strange realization. Sometimes I think that the creative process happens in its own time. It doesn’t go according to calendar time, or human lifetime. For years and years and years, things build inside us, and then one day we wake up and we’re at a different plane of existence.

TrunkSpace: Regarding the process, is writing a labor of love for you or does it feel more like labor? Do you enjoy the process?
McGhee: The process of writing, of making art of any kind I suppose, is both a labor of love and hard, hard work. I wish it were easier for me, but it’s not. Every day I have to corral myself, make myself sit down in that damn chair and start spinning out words. Creating lives. Conjuring people and places and things. There are many times when I hate writing. And then there are those moments, or days if you’re lucky, when the sense of power and exhilaration flowing through you is like a drug. I’ve never done heroin, but when I hear the descriptions of what the first time is like, I always think, I know that feeling.

TrunkSpace: And what does that process look like? What are the ideal conditions for putting in a good day of writing?
McGhee: Such a great question. The ideal conditions involve waking up when I wake up, making a single perfect cup of coffee, easing into the day by reading at least four poems (they’re the first bookmarks I turn to when I open my laptop), making a list of all the to-dos for the day, and then shutting out the world and spinning out words and words and words. Note: that perfect day rarely happens. It’s astonishing how skilled I am at procrastination, like, “Oh, you better put in a load of laundry” or, “Oh, you really should check Instagram to see what We Rate Dogs is up to,” or, “Hey, it’s supposed to get really hot this afternoon you better go for your run now.” Etcetera ad infinitum.

TrunkSpace: Do you self-edit as you write?
McGhee: When I’m drafting, I don’t edit at all. I’m just grinding out words, usually 1000-3000 per day. It’s kind of like making the granite from which you’ll later hew a sculpture. At some point, I’ve got a ton of words, and then it’s time to buckle down and really see what’s going on. When I finally begin to cut and frame and revise – to turn the big mess into an actual book – then I self-edit nonstop. The inner critic is a dear personal friend of mine.

TrunkSpace: Where are you the hardest on yourself as a writer?
McGhee: Pretty much everywhere. (Sad face.) Maybe most of us are harder on ourselves than we are on others. Or maybe it’s how most of us are when it comes to the things that matter most to us, and my art matters profoundly to me. The result is that I’ve dreamed of writing a truly beautiful book my whole life long, and that truly beautiful book is still out there, shimmering in the air ahead of me, almost but not quite visible. Almost but not quite real. Maybe it never will be.

TrunkSpace: What are you working on now and what will people be able to read next?
McGhee: I spent the winter rewriting a new novel, tentatively titled “Hard Things, Beautiful Things, Things that Can’t Be Borne.” It’s for adults and older teens and it will be published in the fall of 2019. I’m also working on a new young adult novel, set in Minneapolis and tentatively titled “Our Nameless Café.”

What I Leave Behind” is available today from Atheneum/Caitlyn Dlouhy Books.

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Between The Sheets

Stephen McCauley

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In our ongoing feature Between the Sheets, TrunkSpace picks the imaginative brains of authors to break down what it takes to create the various worlds and characters they breathe life into via the tools of their trade… sheets of paper. While technology continues to advance and change the pop culture landscape, the written word has remained one of the most consistent and imaginative art forms.

This time out we’re chatting with author Stephen McCauley about his new novel “My Ex-Life,” mitigating sadness, and how immersed himself into his work while still feeling a part of the world.

TrunkSpace: Your latest book, “My Ex-Life,” was recently released. What emotions do you juggle as you gear up to share your work on a large scale? Is it difficult putting so much of yourself into something and then releasing it into the world?
McCauley: In a funny way, it feels like the publication of the book is the end of something. My work on it is officially done, and now the book will resonate with readers or not. In the past, I’ve spent a lot of time anticipating the way my novel would be received. But since it’s something you can’t control, it’s pointless. This time, I’m trying to immerse myself in my next novel as I’m promoting this one.

TrunkSpace: There is a great marriage of drama and humor in your writing. Is that something that you actively set out to accomplish – find an equal amount of light within the darkness to help balance it all out? Can it be difficult to find that balance/tone?
McCauley: I suppose finding the humor and the comedy in potentially unhappy situations is my fallback position in life. I’d like to think I’m writing about serious subjects – relationships, loss, adolescence, divorce – in a way that allows the humor to underscore the sadness and mitigate it somehow. I think humor often works best when it’s on the edge of tragedy.

TrunkSpace: The book touches on second chances and reinvention of self. Is that a theme that you identify with? Have you been on your own personal journeys in life only to step out the other side a changed person?
McCauley: I truly believe people can change. Perhaps – in most cases – within a limited framework, but enough to make one’s life and relationships different. By which I mean better. In my case, it took about four hundred years of therapy to have the changes sink in, and in the end, it might just be aging into greater calm and self-acceptance, but I feel as if that’s always the journey – toward knowing who you are and making peace with it.

TrunkSpace: You describe yourself as a “pretty slow and self-conscious” writer. Have you grown more confident in yourself and your creative abilities as you’ve traveled deeper into your career? For example, were you more self-assured in the process of writing “My Ex-Life?”
McCauley: I’m not sure I’m more self-assured, but I’m definitely less self-conscious and self-critical. You get to a certain age and all those things that mattered so much (“What do people think of me?” “Does this sentence make me sound stupid?” “Should I not be wearing horizontal stripes?”) suddenly don’t matter at all. You realize people are mostly concerned with themselves anyway. I believe in seeing your limitations as part of who you are as a writer and turning them into strengths.

TrunkSpace: As you look back at the work, what are you most proud of when it comes to “My Ex-Life?”
McCauley: A lot of people have told me they love the characters and hated to part ways with them at the end of the book. That’s what I’ve always set out to do as a writer – to create an intimacy between the characters and the reader. That seems to be especially true in this novel, and it makes me happy to hear people feel they know the characters and liked spending time with them.

TrunkSpace: You’ve also spent a large portion of your adulthood teaching future generations of writers? What is the biggest lesson you try to instill in students based on your own professional experience as a writer?
McCauley: Be yourself. There are only so many stories in the world, but if you stick to your authentic point of view, it will be original. That and “send thank you notes” and “never talk about your sex life.”

TrunkSpace: How long did it take for you to discover your voice as a writer?
McCauley: I spent a long time stumbling through short stories about characters whose lives were nothing like my own. They were written in what I thought of as a mandatory “literary” voice. Then I found myself missing a friend of mine and wrote a little vignette about her. It was the first thing I’d written that felt genuine, and I could feel it in my body. It was very much like the feeling you get when you’ve been singing in the wrong key for your voice and you suddenly find the one that’s right for you. Everything starts to make sense.

TrunkSpace: Regarding the process, is writing a labor of love for you or does it feel more like labor? Do you enjoy the process?
McCauley: It depends on the day. When I’m immersed in a project, and the writing is going well, it’s enormous fun. When I was writing this book, I loved opening up my notebooks and retreating into the world of these characters. It was transporting.

TrunkSpace: And what does that process look like? What are the ideal conditions for putting in a good day of writing?
McCauley: I had three weeks of ideal writing last spring. I’d rented a tiny cottage in Provincetown, MA, a town I love. I had none of the distractions of my daily life around me. I got up early every day and did some exercise, then walked to the library right as it was opening. En route, I got a double espresso at my favorite coffee shop. I went to the same desk on the third floor of the library, one that has an amazing view of the harbor. There’s a scale model of a boat inside the library, so tourists come in and out all day, gawking and taking pictures. This provided a nice buzz of activity around me that I had to block out but that made me feel like I was part of the world. I knew exactly what I was supposed to work on every day. In the evening, I’d go for a bike ride through the National Seashore trails through the dunes, make a monkish dinner, and read a novel that was nothing like mine. That was all heaven for me.

TrunkSpace: Do you self-edit as you write?
McCauley: I write my first drafts longhand in expensive German and Japanese notebooks. When I’m writing in notebooks, I just let it flow, mostly because I hate how messy it looks when things are crossed out on that beautiful paper. I start editing as I put it into the computer. Then it all gets worked and reworked dozens of times.

TrunkSpace: Where are you the hardest on yourself as a writer?
McCauley: I wish I were more adept at describing place.

TrunkSpace: What are you working on now and what will people be able to read next?
McCauley: I’m working on three things at once. My fear is that one plus one plus one equals zero. Now that I’ve stopped teaching for the summer, I’m giving myself six weeks to choose one project and commit to it. I have a deadline for my next novel but I’m afraid to learn what it is. I’ll keep you posted!

My Ex-Life” is available now from Flatiron Books.

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Between The Sheets

Kat Zhang

KatZhangFeatured

In our ongoing feature Between the Sheets, TrunkSpace picks the imaginative brains of authors to break down what it takes to create the various worlds and characters they breathe life into via the tools of their trade… sheets of paper. While technology continues to advance and change the pop culture landscape, the written word has remained one of the most consistent and imaginative art forms.

This time out we’re chatting with author Kat Zhang about her new novel “The Memory of Forgotten Things,” crafting a character that seemed to be waiting to be discovered, and typecasting stuffed animals.

TrunkSpace: As you gear up for the release of “The Memory of Forgotten Things,” what emotions are you juggling with? Is it difficult putting so much of yourself into something and then releasing it into the world?
Zhang: There are always a lot of emotions swirling around release day! While writing a book, you get so caught up in it, lost in it, and while your agent and editor and a few critique partners might read it, it’s still nerve-wracking to wonder what the wider world will think. “The Memory of Forgotten Things” is my fifth book, but that worry and excitement hasn’t faded at all. I’ve been dreaming about publishing books since I was 11 or 12 years old, though, so there’s a lot of joy, as well. I feel incredibly lucky to be writing books!

TrunkSpace: There is some heavy subject matter in the book, particularly pertaining to loss. How did you approach the character’s dealing with it in a way that was honest, but at the same time, unique to her perspective? Was it something that you have had to deal with personally that then manifested itself (either consciously or subconsciously) into the character?
Zhang: Sometimes characters start out sort of muddy, and clarify over time and drafts. Sometimes they arrive nearly fully formed on the page, like they’ve been waiting to be discovered. Sophia was the latter kind of character. The loss of her mother and the effect it had on her life unfolded really naturally. I haven’t lost a parent, but I have lost other people in my life, and I did pull on that when writing about her grief and her longing for a world in which the loss had never occurred.

TrunkSpace: As heavy as the subject matter is, was it also important that you approached it in a way that reflected on the readership as well, because as a YA book, those identifying with Sophia may not be emotionally mature enough yet to even understand that level of loss. Was that a juggling act tonally to find a balance between being honest with the reader but also speaking to their maturity level?
Zhang: “The Memory of Forgotten Things” is my second Middle Grade book, and I do think that writing for ages 8-12 is different from writing for the Young Adult crowd, which tends to be 12+. On the whole, though, because the book is told from her point of view, and is so closely tied to her feelings and thoughts, I never felt like I needed to change anything to make it more “kid-friendly.” Sophia is 12, nearly 13, and as long as I stuck with thoughts, feelings, and actions that rang true for a girl her age, the rest fell into place. In any case, I think kids are often much more mature and aware than adults give them credit for, so I didn’t feel like I had to hold much back.

TrunkSpace: As you look back at the work, what are you most proud of when it comes to “The Memory of Forgotten Things?”
Zhang: I have always loved both science fiction and magical realism, and how books in those genres use the “oddity” of their worlds to illuminate something about humanity. “The Memory of Forgotten Things” is not quite science fiction, not quite magical realism, but I wanted to use Sophia’s strange memories as a way to explore her grief, and I’m quite proud of the way it all tied together.

TrunkSpace: We read that you used to write plays with your stuffed animals, which is something that we can TOTALLY relate to. (We actually used to have a whole wardrobe department for them!) So tell us, who were the main stars of your productions? What stuffed animals got the leading roles?
Zhang: Oh man! That’s really cool – I would have loved to have a wardrobe department. I used to make dresses out of old socks for my Barbies, if that’s at all similar! I had a stuffed Dalmatian puppy that was my favorite as a kid, so she often got the spotlight. There was also a stuffed wolf that I was a little scared of, so he usually played the villain. I guess he got typecast early on. (Laughter)

TrunkSpace: You started writing your first novel at age 12. Looking back, what did you learn in that process as a preteen author that you still apply to your work to this day?
Zhang: Write what you love. Write what excites you. Back then, I’d fill notebooks with just scenes from books that stood alone, without beginnings or endings – just the most dramatic or exciting scenes that my imagination could come up with. I think a book can be built on scenes like that. As people say: if it’s boring to write, it’s probably boring to read!

TrunkSpace: How long did it take for you to discover your voice as a writer?
Zhang: I’m still trying to discover it! I often read books by other authors and fall in love with their voice and wish mine were more similar. When I go back and read my first book, I can still see the influences of the books and authors I loved at the time, and I’m sure that in the future I’ll look back on my current novels and see similar footprints of the writing styles I admire most right now. I do think that over the years, though, I’m cobbling together a style that, while certainly affected by what I read and love in other books, is also uniquely mine. It continues to grow and change, however, and I don’t think that’s a bad thing!

TrunkSpace: Regarding the process, is writing a labor of love for you or does it feel more like labor? Do you enjoy the process?
Zhang: It’s definitely a labor of love. Some days are harder than others, and I enjoy some parts of the writing process more than others, but writing is never something that I don’t love deeply. I don’t think this business of being a writer is very survivable if you don’t!

TrunkSpace: And what does that process look like? What are the ideal conditions for putting in a good day of writing?
Zhang: I write best when I have a large chunk of time (a few hours, maybe even a full morning) to really sit down and sink into things. I’m a morning person, so I love diving into writing as soon as I get up. Unfortunately, work and school make it so that this doesn’t usually happen for me, but it’s something I shoot for when I can. I find it really inspirational to be reading a good book at the same time, too, so I try to have one on hand.

TrunkSpace: Do you self-edit as you write?
Zhang: I try to keep away from it, but it inevitably happens. Not so much on the sentence level, unless I’m specifically preparing a partial for submission, but I’m always discovering new aspects of my stories as I draft them, which means going back and correcting scenes that came out “wrong” the first time.

TrunkSpace: Where are you the hardest on yourself as a writer?
Zhang: It depends on the book, and on my mood! Currently, I’m trying to focus on crafting really interesting, realistic characters, as well as thematically tight stories. There’s so much I can improve on though, and every new book brings its own challenges.

TrunkSpace: What are you working on now and what will people be able to read next?
Zhang: “The Memory of Forgotten Things” releases May 15, and I have a picture book releasing Fall 2019 with Charlene Chua illustrating. It’s called “Amy Wu & the Amazing Bao,” and I’m really excited for it. As for what I’m working on at the moment, I have a young adult novel in the works. It’ll be my first return to YA since my first trilogy. I’m having a lot of fun with it!

The Memory of Forgotten Things” is available May 15 from Simon & Schuster.

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Between The Sheets

Erin Duffy

ErinDuffyFeatured

In our ongoing feature Between the Sheets, TrunkSpace picks the imaginative brains of authors to break down what it takes to create the various worlds and characters they breathe life into via the tools of their trade… sheets of paper. While technology continues to advance and change the pop culture landscape, the written word has remained one of the most consistent and imaginative art forms.

This time out we’re chatting with author Erin Duffy about her new novel “Regrets Only,” why her husband may need to be concerned about character comparisons, and the reason no one should ever adopt her method of writing.

TrunkSpace: As you gear up for the release of “Regrets Only,” what emotions are you juggling with? Is it difficult putting so much of yourself into something and then releasing it into the world?
Duffy: I’m so excited that “Regrets Only” is about to be released! I love this book so much and can’t believe it’s almost pub day! I will say, as happy as I am, I’m also really nervous and mildly terrified. I put a lot of myself into everything I write, and people who know me well will be able to recognize certain attributes in Claire that they know are true to me. It’s very personal in a way, and that’s more than a little unnerving. Actually, now that I think about it, it’s my husband who really should be worried, because if people think that Claire’s husband, Owen, is modeled after him, he’s about to start getting an awful lot of hate mail. Oops.

TrunkSpace: Where did the core concept for “Regrets Only” originate from and what approach did you take to bringing it all together? There are plenty of heavy moments, but at the same time, lots of humor to take the reader on a journey. Was that humor element always present, even from the start?
Duffy: It totally was! Actually, I was about to move from New York City to the suburbs myself, and I was having a hard time accepting that an entire phase of my life was over, and that I was going to have to deal with a house and a car and a mortgage and a lawn and trees and all the stuff that comes with the transition to suburbia. It terrified me, and after one particularly irrational freak out, my husband very calmly said, “What’s the big deal? If you don’t like it, we’ll leave.” And that made me wonder: what if you couldn’t? What would it be like to move somewhere you didn’t want to be, and then become stuck there for one reason or another. That’s where the idea of this book originated. Like most things in life though, I think even bad times are best handled with a good dose of laughter, and let’s be serious, you can often find nuggets of hilarity in tumult. I wanted the reader to feel badly for Claire, but I always wanted them to laugh along with her at the absurdity of her life.

TrunkSpace: When you were putting together the book, did you have a particular reader base in mind, and once you concluded, did you feel that tonally you hit the mark for your desired audience? Is that always a balancing act… finding and reflecting a particular tone throughout the course of an entire novel?
Duffy: This book is interesting because on some level, there had to be a target audience, right? Women who themselves have young families that govern their new lives will totally get Claire and the neuroses she’s battling, but as the book came together I realized that it really speaks to all women no matter what their stage of life. Claire reflects on the choices she made along the way and struggles with the fact that she gave a lot of herself away without stopping to think about the consequences, and that’s something that I think everyone can relate to. “Regrets Only” explores how women define themselves – married, divorced, single, working, non-working, etc., so I think there’s something in this story for everyone.

TrunkSpace: In a way, is suburbia a bit of the “villain” of the book?
Duffy: That is such a great question. In a way, for Claire, it is. City life affords you a certain amount of freedom and anonymity, and you lose both of those things in the suburbs. Small towns are great, unless you are an outsider, in which case they can be pretty scary. But life has a way of making decisions for you sometimes, and that was certainly true in her case. More than anything, suburbia represents a right of passage for Claire and for a lot of women, and that comes with a good amount of conflicting emotions. Some handle the transition more gracefully than others, and Claire, well, she struggles a little. No, a lot!

TrunkSpace: As you look back at the work, what are you most proud of when it comes to “Regrets Only?”
Duffy: I didn’t intend for there to be a feminist angle to “Regrets Only” when I started writing it, but I realized that it really does delve into the pressures that women put on themselves to be the perfect mom, the perfect wife, the perfect professional, and how we need to let all of that go. It’s okay to make choices and prioritize yourself sometimes. A lot of the women in the book struggle with how to define themselves. I’m very proud that I was able to explore that topic while still keeping the humor and the style that my readers enjoy.

TrunkSpace: Prior to pursuing a career as an author, you worked on Wall Street, which inspired your first novel, “Bond Girl.” Do any aspects of your previous career, even within the characters themselves, show up in “Regrets Only?”
Duffy: Claire is certainly an over the top personality, and that’s something that carries over from my previous career. One of the best things about Wall Street is that there are really outrageous characters, and I think I borrow traits from people I used to work with without even realizing it.

TrunkSpace: How long did it take for you to discover your voice as a writer?
Duffy: Honestly, that happened pretty quickly. I’m pretty true to myself in that regard, because I think it helps to distinguish my books from many others. I like snark, and humor, and wit, and I try to imbibe my characters with those qualities as much as possible. That’s what comes naturally to me, and it seems to be what people respond to as well, so I’m not looking to change it!

TrunkSpace: Regarding the process, is writing a labor of love for you or does it feel more like labor? Do you enjoy the process?
Duffy: I really do enjoy the process. It’s fun putting words in someone’s mouth. It’s therapy in a way. Claire has problems with impulse control. A lot of the time she says and does things that I wish I would do if I was in her shoes, but would likely never have the nerve. I like taking some time away from my normal life to create someone else’s. That said, there are days where it is complete and utter torture. There is nothing worse than making time to write and sitting down and discovering that you have nothing interesting to say, but it happens. Those days are awful. The goal is to make sure there are more good days than bad ones, and in this case there definitely were.

TrunkSpace: And what does that process look like? What are the ideal conditions for putting in a good day of writing?
Duffy: The ideal conditions would probably involve an entire day spent in a quiet, enormous office with a soft leather chair, a zen garden, aromatherapy candles, and Enya playing softly in the background. Unfortunately, I have three small kids and next to zero free time, so my writing process is absolutely nothing like that. It’s ugly – so, so ugly. I wrote most of “Regrets Only” in the middle of the night at my kitchen counter while wearing pajamas and slugging stale coffee left over from the previous morning until some child started screaming and forced me to stop. Some days were better than others. Let me be clear: absolutely no one should write the way I do. It’s almost offensive to the profession. But, for reasons that I can’t even begin to understand, it seems to work for me, so I’m sticking with it.

TrunkSpace: Do you self-edit as you write?
Duffy: I definitely self-edit. I will go through two or three complete drafts myself before I ever show it to anyone. You have to be able to read your own work and be honest with yourself when it just isn’t good. I have tossed entire chapters and rewritten them from scratch. I’ve added characters, removed characters, moved the back to the front and the front to the back in order to get the story just right. I’d bet that most writers self-edit. Let me know if you ask anyone else!

TrunkSpace: Where are you the hardest on yourself as a writer?
Duffy: Everywhere. I constantly think my plots should be more complicated, my characters should be more three-dimensional, my vocabulary should be broader, you name it, I critique it. I read a lot, and am constantly amazed at what some other writers are able to accomplish. Every time I start a book my end goal is for my process to become smoother, and to end with something that I’m proud of. I can honestly say that I am very proud of this book.

TrunkSpace: What are you working on now and what will people be able to read next?
Duffy: I’m working on another novel now about a group of women who find their lives intertwined in the most surprising way. The main character has a family secret that eventually turns her life upside down. It’s called “With Friends Like These.” I’ll keep you posted!

Regrets Only” is available today from William Morrow.

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Between The Sheets

Amy Poeppel

AmyPoeppelFeatured

In our ongoing feature Between the Sheets, TrunkSpace picks the imaginative brains of authors to break down what it takes to create the various worlds and characters they breathe life into via the tools of their trade… sheets of paper. While technology continues to advance and change the pop culture landscape, the written word has remained one of the most consistent and imaginative art forms.

This time out we’re chatting with author Amy Poeppel about her new novel “Limelight,” how she tapped into her own NYC theatrical experience to tell the story, and why her ideal writing conditions involve a sleeping dog by her side.

TrunkSpace: Your new book “Limelight” was released yesterday. As you gear up to release new material to the world, what emotions do you juggle with? Is it difficult putting so much of yourself into something and then giving it to the world?
Poeppel: It is a thrill to have “Limelight” heading out in the world! This book is a combination of my three biggest passions: parenting, New York City, and Broadway theater. I wanted to write a story that captures the highs and lows of all three.

Publishing a novel is nerve-wracking to be sure. But as someone coming to this career later in life, I’m mostly feeling grateful.

TrunkSpace: You’ve worked as a stage actress. How much of your own experiences and behind-the-scenes insight went into not only crafting the world your characters inhabit, but their individual POVs as well?
Poeppel: My background as an actress definitely helped in crafting the scenes in “Limelight.” I wanted theater to be the backdrop, so I wrote a book in which a teen-idol named Carter, known for his partying and bad behavior, is cast in a new musical on Broadway, along with the distinguished Tony Award winner Kevin Kline. In order to write about what Carter experiences in rehearsals and on stage, I drew on my own involvement in ensemble productions.

The time I spent acting was formative in my understanding of character and motivation, but also of my love of theater more generally. I learned about cast dynamics, backstage etiquette, rehearsal stress, and onstage jitters. I often write in script format, as if I were writing a play. I love to hear the dialogue first and then later rewrite it as prose.

TrunkSpace: Which character in the book do you most identify with and why?
Poeppel: I identify with my protagonist Allison, who becomes the personal assistant to Carter, the bratty pop-star. Like Allison, I am a New York City transplant, and I went through the challenge of raising kids in this wonderful, crazy city. And also like Allison, I rarely cook in my tiny apartment kitchen, and I always remember to keep my sense of humor.

TrunkSpace: Humor is always an ingredient you use within your writing. Is it a balancing act finding the right amount of funny to sprinkle in? With something like “Limelight,” did you step back at any point and decide if you needed more or less throughout the course of the novel?
Poeppel: I definitely like to make readers laugh, just as I enjoy reading the work of comedic writers, like Barbara Pym, Nora Ephron, Tom Robbins, Maria Semple, Mindy Kaling, and Douglas Adams. Recognizing the absurdity in life, in our own behavior, and even in difficult situations, is how I get through the day! Having said that, I also want my books to have substance and feeling to go along with the humor.

TrunkSpace: As you look back at the work, what are you most proud of when it comes to “Limelight?”
Poeppel: I suppose I’m most proud of the connections I created between the characters. I tried very hard to capture the dynamics of the Brinkley family and to get their relationships as well developed as possible. I hoped to make the reader care about them individually but also as a family.

I also wanted the reader to root for my unlikable pop-star in spite of his terrible attitude and behavior! If they do, I will consider that an achievement.

TrunkSpace: When you sit down to write a new book, do you write with a particular audience in mind, and if so, does that serve as a creative compass or can it be a hindrance in the creative process?
Poeppel: In general, I would say I write for women of all ages and for a few good men. More specifically I write with my friends in mind, like my close friend Amy (who happens to have the best laugh in the world).

TrunkSpace: How long did it take for you to discover your voice as a writer?
Poeppel: Only 50 years! I’ve had many jobs in my life and dabbled in writing all along the way. But it wasn’t until I turned 50 and wrote “Small Admissions,” my first novel, that I started to find my voice.

TrunkSpace: Regarding the process, is writing a labor of love for you or does it feel more like labor? Do you enjoy the process?
Poeppel: I enjoy the entire process. I love the early moments of figuring out what a story is about. I appreciate the endless rewriting that makes bad writing better. I find writing fiction very difficult, but I feel extremely fortunate to have this job.

TrunkSpace: And what does that process look like? What are the ideal conditions for putting in a good day of writing?
Poeppel: I do not have a strict schedule for writing, although that is an aspiration! Rather, I find that some days I’ll sit for hours and hours to write and others, when life gets in the way, the manuscript remains untouched. I’m most productive when I’m at home with my phone off and my kids out. Ideally my dog is sleeping nearby.

TrunkSpace: Do you self-edit as you write?
Poeppel: Yes, somewhat, and I’m getting better at it over time. However, that does not seem to reduce much of the editing needed after the book is “finished.” The editing process is so important. It can be frustrating at times to try over and over to get a certain arc in the story just right or to rework a character in a major way, but it’s very satisfying to get it right.

TrunkSpace: Where are you the hardest on yourself as a writer?
Poeppel: I would say it’s my lack of a schedule. I love the idea of waking up at six in the morning, exercising, having coffee, and then sitting down to an eight-hour day of writing. But I have a hard time making that happen. Instead on many days, I open my laptop as soon as I wake up, write for several hours before I even get dressed, and then realize too late that I never took the dog out.

TrunkSpace: What are you working on now and what will people be able to read next?
Poeppel: I’m working on a novel about a classical musician, her dilapidated weekend house outside of New York City, her sputtering career, and her grown and flown children who unexpectedly return to the nest. To save her beloved ensemble, she places all of her bets on hosting a spectacular musical event to honor her father, a brilliant conductor, socialite, and musical legend in his own right. Relationships within tight-knit groups, whether a family, a cast, or a musical quartet, are endlessly fascinating and amusing to me.

Limelight” is available now from Atria/Emily Bestler Books.

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Between The Sheets

Yoav Blum

YoavBlumFeatured3

In our ongoing feature Between the Sheets, TrunkSpace picks the imaginative brains of authors to break down what it takes to create the various worlds and characters they breathe life into via the tools of their trade… sheets of paper. While technology continues to advance and change the pop culture landscape, the written word has remained one of the most consistent and imaginative art forms.

This time out we’re chatting with author Yoav Blum about the recent English translation of his debut novel The Coincidence Makers,” how it all began with a daydream, and why he hopes his best work is still to come.

TrunkSpace: “The Coincidence Makers” was recently released in English. With it being your debut novel, what emotions were you juggling with leading up to that moment? Is it difficult putting so much of yourself into something and then releasing it into the world?
Blum: It is always surprising to find how exciting and frightening it is to know someone is letting fragments of you inside their head. “The Coincidence Makers” was originally published in Hebrew in 2011, and I have published two more books since then. The publication of the English version is also a throwback to the self I was seven years ago, and it causes me to re-examine the book, and wonder if I would have written it the same way today, being who I am now.

TrunkSpace: Prior to “The Coincidence Makers” you were working in short stories. When you first decided to move to long-form storytelling, did you have to adjust your process? What changed between the writer you were then to the writer you are since completing the book?
Blum: I found out that when I’m writing a book, I’m diving much deeper into myself. A short story will almost always be the way I planned it, but I only know what a book is about after finishing it, observing it “from the outside,” finding out its true personality. I still like to write in “small bits” of time, but the fact that the writing process takes months (and even more) allows another layer of self to emerge.

TrunkSpace: The story focuses on three people who work for a secret organization that manufactures what appears to be random coincidences. It’s a great concept and one that many writers will be cursing themselves over for not having come up with it themselves. How long has it been gestating in your mind and what was the real world coincidence that sparked the idea?
Blum: It started from daydreaming, as always. I read a book about the mind-body problem, and it started a series of thoughts. How do decisions created in an entirely spiritual world (by God) create a new thing in the physical world? I wrote a short story about some “middle-men” as a way to contemplate that. Then, after some time, I decided to develop this short story into a book, and this time it became more extensive and dealt with free will vs. destiny, the way we make decisions, and, of course, love…

TrunkSpace: As you look back at the work, what are you most proud of when it comes to “The Coincidence Makers?”
Blum: It was a work of passion, from a clueless mind that had no idea if someone will ever read it, and he wrote it anyway. I like that in my past self. It was also a very private text, sometimes, and the fact that other people found themselves in it keeps bringing me joy.

TrunkSpace: There’s a great genre swirl going on in your book. Readers really do get a little bit of everything by the time they finish the last page. Was that a conscious creative game plan on your part when you first started putting it together?
Blum: In a nutshell, I wanted to write a book I would love to read, and I wanted to put in it what I liked in books – whatever genre they are. So I wrote to myself, not trying to aim to a particular genre, as long as the small reader in my head was satisfied, that was enough.

TrunkSpace: You wrote your first book when you were six years old, which based on the description, sounded a bit like a comic book given the art element. Any desire to take your skill set to the sequential pages of the comic book medium?
Blum: I think about that sometimes. That would be cool. One of my short stories in the past was written initially to be turned into a comic, but it didn’t happen. I can’t really draw, so if there is someone out there that would like to cooperate in creating a graphic novel – even based on TCM itself – that can be very interesting.

TrunkSpace: How long did it take for you to discover your voice as a writer?
Blum: I’m not sure I fully discovered it yet. The writer that wrote TCM almost a decade ago is different from who I am today. I hope my best and sharpest book is somewhere in the future, and not in the past. Also, I want my voice to be fluid, and to change with time, the same way I change.

TrunkSpace: Regarding the process, is writing a labor of love for you or does it feel more like labor? Do you enjoy the process?
Blum: When I’m inside it, it is a labor of love but for some reason it is still always hard to start. After I convince myself to start, I can be “in the zone” many times, but the convincing part is the hard part… there is always something else to do, isn’t it?

TrunkSpace: And what does that process look like? What are the ideal conditions for putting in a good day of writing?
Blum: Each book was a different process. But if I try to generalize it – I gather notes and ideas for an extended period, months or more, and try to see if some broader idea comes out. I try to define what is my starting point – my “what if,” and to see how I can dive into this “what if.” The actual writing is most of the time defined in advance – I sit down intending to write a particular chapter or scene. I sometimes listen to music I choose that can help for that specific scene. From time to time I stop and look at what I have and make sure the way I walk leads to where I want to get.

TrunkSpace: Do you self-edit as you write?
Blum: Yes, but I try to do it without hurting the flow. There will be a few rounds of self-editing after finishing the first draft anyway before I would dare show it to anyone.

TrunkSpace: Where are you the hardest on yourself as a writer?
Blum: I never feel that the manuscript is “finished.” There is always more editing to be done, and you just have to stop somewhere, or you will edit yourself to oblivion. I try not to read my books after publishing them, as I know that most of the time I would ask myself – “who the hell wrote that?”

TrunkSpace: What are you working on now and what will people be able to read next?
Blum: As I said, I don’t like to discuss things I work on before I feel they are ready to be exposed. I try to experiment with different kinds of writing at the moment, and there is work with the publications of TCM in many languages. But hopefully, TCM will not be the last of my books to be published in English.

“The Coincidence Makers” is available now from St. Martin’s Press.

 

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Between The Sheets

Joelle Charbonneau

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In our ongoing feature Between the Sheets, TrunkSpace picks the imaginative brains of authors to break down what it takes to create the various worlds and characters they breathe life into via the tools of their trade… sheets of paper. While technology continues to advance and change the pop culture landscape, the written word has remained one of the most consistent and imaginative art forms.

This time out we’re chatting with author Joelle Charbonneau about her new novel “Time Bomb,” how real-life teenagers served to inspire her writing, and why she’s learning to accept the fact that she’s a member of the author’s club.

TrunkSpace: You’ve released a number of novels over the course of your career. As you gear up for the release of “Time Bomb,” does it have a different feeling than it did with your earlier works, and if so, why?
Charbonneau: Every book release feels different and I tend to get more nervous with each one. When I first started writing, I never really thought people would read the words that I wrote. That made it easier in many ways to face the moment when the curtain goes on up on a new novel. Now I know there will be an audience for the book, but unlike my professional performance days when I can see the faces in the audience, I have no way of gauging whether or not the story speaks to readers. I can only hope that the story I tried to tell is one they will think about after the final page is turned.

TrunkSpace: “Time Bomb” focuses on seven students who are trapped in their school after a bomb goes off. Obviously this is a work of fiction, but are you nervous as to how it will be perceived in the current social and political climate following the tragic events that occurred in Parkland, Florida?
Charbonneau: This is a tough question. The obvious and very honest answer is yes. The anxiety level is incredibly high for parents and teachers and students after everything that has happened. And “Time Bomb” is a novel with danger in a school, which could make it a hard book for some readers to pick up. However, it is my great hope that “Time Bomb” is also a book that will lead to discussions about some of the issues that teens face every single day. Books help us walk in the shoes of characters who are both similar and different from ourselves. Exploring other points of views creates empathy and opens our minds to new ways of thinking and hopefully new ways of talking to each other. I think since the tragedy on Feb. 14th, the students of Stoneman Douglas High School have demonstrated with their amazing strength and words that our world can use all the empathy and open-minded conversation that we can get.

TrunkSpace: Much of your career has been spent writing the continuation of series that you created, including The Testing trilogy and The Rebecca Robbins mysteries. Was there something freeing creatively for you in working on “Time Bomb” and getting to essentially start from scratch?
Charbonneau: Starting a new project from scratch is both terrifying and incredibly wonderful. Terrifying because I do not yet know the characters I am writing about and with a book like “Time Bomb” that is six times as nerve-wracking. After all, there were six point of view characters from very different backgrounds that I had to shape from a concept into three-dimensional teens. But it is wonderful to feel the moment when each character’s voice clicks into place and to know that unlike a book in a series, a standalone story will be complete (or as complete as any story can be) by the time I reach the final page.

TrunkSpace: As you look back at the work, what are you most proud of when it comes to “Time Bomb?”
Charbonneau: I’m most proud of the array of characters in “Time Bomb,” which were created through conversations I’ve had with students who opened up to me about their lives and then were willing to read the draft of the manuscript and offer their critiques so I could continue to make the characters stronger. High schools are filled with students of a variety of cultures, religions and economic circumstances, many of which I can appreciate, but cannot claim as my own. The students who talked to me about their school and family lives, their concerns about how they are perceived in the world and the limitations they sometimes feel compelled to put on themselves gave me the building blocks which became what I hope is the heart of the book. Those teens gave me a true gift by allowing me to hear their joys and sorrows and I can only hope I have made them proud. (And if I have made any mistakes, they are completely mine.)

TrunkSpace: Your background is in theater. Do you think that has helped you in your career as a writer, specifically from the standpoint of crafting dialogue?
Charbonneau: Well, my background in theater has certainly helped when it comes to getting rejected. I’m a true champ at that whether it be in theater, opera or in writing. But I do think that I use the training I’ve had as an actor when I write dialogue. I often find myself speaking the words aloud and then altering words in order to find the specific voice or speech pattern of a character, which I’m sure confuses the cat who thinks I am talking to him.

TrunkSpace: You do a lot of visits and Skype sessions with students. How important are those events to you, not only to your career, but from an inspirational standpoint? Does inspiring the next generation of writers help to refuel your own creative tank?
Charbonneau: My first published books were for adults, so I had no idea when I wrote my first young adult book that school visits and Skypes were something that is often a part of a YA writer’s life. As much as I love writing, I love school visits and virtual chats more. Teens are strong and fun and give me hope for the future. They are also snarky and throw shade with the best of them, and I love every moment of it. I really hope that some small part of my visits inspires the students I talk to because they greatly inspire me. They remind me to question everything about the world – especially my own preconceived ideas – and to approach life as if anything is possible. I think of both of those things when I sit down in front of my computer and face the blank page. Then on the days when I think I can’t possibly fill the pages, I remind myself those teens believe I can and that I don’t want to be the one that ever lets them down.

TrunkSpace: How long did it take for you to discover your voice as a writer?
Charbonneau: All writers take time to develop their voice. I came to writing late. I was not the girl who dreamed of being a writer. I was a theater girl through and through. I loved reading other people’s lines and putting my own spin on their story. When I finally did start writing, I needed practice. Lots and lots of practice. I can see glimpses of my voice in my first manuscripts, but it took until my fifth manuscript for my own voice to consistently shine through. And I keep working on making it stronger with each book. I guess you could say, me and my writing voice continue to be a work in progress.

TrunkSpace: Regarding the process, is writing a labor of love for you or does it feel more like labor? Do you enjoy the process?
Charbonneau: In one word – yes. Yes, I love the process. Yes, it is a labor of love and yes it feels like labor. The more I know about writing, the more critical I am of myself as I write, which can be hard to set to the side so I can lose myself in the story. But I love the process of creating the world and exploring an idea that I am fascinated with. More often than not, I am writing to find out what I think about something so it is no wonder that the process of writing a first draft is equal parts frustration and fascination.

TrunkSpace: And what does that process look like? What are the ideal conditions for putting in a good day of writing?
Charbonneau: Wait!? There are ideal conditions for putting in a good day of writing? I guess that probably gives you a good idea of how I write. I am a mom, so I tend to write when and where I can. I’ve written poolside during swim lessons and on the sidelines of taekwondo lessons and sitting on the grass in a concert in the park where my husband’s band is playing. Because my writing process is what would be called by-the-seat-of-my-pants, I only have a vague idea of where the story is going when I start writing. I have the conflict in my head and I do some world building about the location and the circumstances surrounding the story, and then I write. I have tried outlining because that seems like it should guarantee that every day is a decent writing day, but for some reason it just doesn’t work for me. I find that each conversation my characters have veers me away from the outline and into previously unseen territory. So, I have finally decided that outlining isn’t meant for me – at least not on the first draft. I have to just follow where the story goes. To do that, I find I have to write seven days a week in order to keep the story straight in my head. Sometimes that means I get five to six pages written while my son is at school. Sometimes I am writing at 2 a.m. to eek out one page before I go to sleep. Lucky for me, my desperate need to find out what happens next in the story means that I am willing to write anywhere and anyplace as long as it gets me closer to THE END.

TrunkSpace: Do you self-edit as you write?
Charbonneau: I self-doubt a lot, which means I do tweak things a little bit on the pages I’m writing that particular day. But for the most part I don’t go back and edit until the draft is done. Part of not outlining is that often I don’t know exactly where the story is going to take me. So it is hard to edit since I have no idea what parts are necessary, need to be fleshed out or are just plain old silly. But I do keep a word document with questions that I think might need to be addressed or sections I want to make sure I pay attention to when I go back and edit.

TrunkSpace: Where are you the hardest on yourself as a writer?
Charbonneau: Because I wasn’t someone who dreamed about being a writer when I was younger, I find that I have a hard time believing that I belong in the author club, which can make me doubt every single word that I write. I’m always thinking that another author would be able to tell the story better or have the right words instead of the ones I am using. So many authors were writing fiction throughout elementary and high school. They majored in English and took creative writing classes. Me – well, I sang and acted and sometimes danced. So every day is a fight to remind myself that it’s okay to doubt because all writers do that. It’s okay to have bad writing days because everyone does that, too. And when I go to conferences and festivals, I have to remember that when other people see me, they don’t see the girl that doesn’t feel like she belongs. They see an author. And if they see that, then maybe that’s who I really am.

TrunkSpace: What are you working on now and what will people be able to read next?
Charbonneau: Right now I’m working on a project that has yet to be announced. So, shhh! It’s a near future, alternate history adventure that involves a young artist who has lost her mother and in trying to finish her mother’s final painting discovers that nothing about the world she is living in is real and that words are more than the things we use to communicate – they have the power to inspire, to control and in the wrong hands the power to destroy. As for what people will be able to read next, the final book in my fantasy duology, “Eden Conquered” will be out in June. It is the continuing journey of a brother and sister’s fight for their kingdom’s throne and the story of how far people will go to gain the power they most desire.

“Time Bomb” is available March 13 from HMH Books for Young Readers.

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Between The Sheets

Alma Katsu

AlmaKatsu_BetweenTheSheets

In our ongoing feature Between the Sheets, TrunkSpace picks the imaginative brains of authors to break down what it takes to create the various worlds and characters they breathe life into via the tools of their trade… sheets of paper. While technology continues to advance and change the pop culture landscape, the written word has remained one of the most consistent and imaginative art forms.

This time out we’re chatting with author Alma Katsu about her new novel “The Hunger,” why we’re continuously fascinated with the Donner Party, and her upcoming literary trip to the Gilded Age.

TrunkSpace: Your new book takes a fictional look at a moment in history that still fascinates people 172 years after it occurred – the ill-fated Donner Party. How did you approach blending both the reality of what happened and the fictional side that you personally were bringing to the events?
Katsu: The novel stays close to events as they occurred. As a matter of fact, one blogger felt this is what makes “The Hunger” so effective, because it makes the novel feel completely plausible. Where “The Hunger” diverges from history is with the characters. You need characters to feel like real live people, but often with history, you don’t get a complete sense of a figure, particularly if the figure isn’t historically significant. Frequently, they’re whitewashed, the bad parts omitted. In other cases, they’re just names and birthdates and maybe one tiny detail left to sum up an entire person. While the main characters’ names and backstories are the same or very close to the historical record (with one exception), I had to remake them in order to tell the story I wanted to tell. It was fun to create new characters from pieces of the past, but tailored to service the needs of the story.

TrunkSpace: There have been plenty of interesting moments and people throughout history, many of which have been forgotten. What is it about this story that continues to excite the imaginations of people, and, was it that same excitement that first brought you to the table to write “The Hunger?”
Katsu: I think the reason we’re fascinated with the Donner Party is because even though most Americans have heard of them, few are familiar with the details. We know that something terrible happened to a group of pioneers, that a lot of people died and some had to resort to cannibalism to survive. How and why all this came to pass, however, is a mystery to most. What made it really fascinating to write, however, is that it was about more than just the tragedy. The tragedy occurred during an important time in American history, a period significant to the development of the country as we know it today. On one hand, it was very personal – the survival of individuals – while on the other hand, representative of bigger things at play for the country.

TrunkSpace: As you look back at the work, what are you most proud of when it comes to “The Hunger?”
Katsu: Bringing something new to the story. Let’s face it: there have been many novels written about the Donner Party, not to mention non-fiction accounts, but they tend to stay very close to the historical record. Which, while interesting, misses the opportunity to use the tragedy to show a greater truth: even in the direst situation, some people will rise, will sacrifice themselves for others, and will exhibit the best in humanity.

TrunkSpace: “The Hunger” is your fourth published novel. As you prepare to release it to the world, are the emotions the same as with your first book? Does the process of pouring so much of yourself into something and then putting it out into the world get easier?
Katsu: I’m happy to say yes, it is! For the first book, you’re completely crazy because you have no idea what to expect and you’re getting hit with something new every day, plus you’re worrying about whether you’ll ever be able to write another book. By the fourth book, you feel like maybe you actually do know what you’re doing now and have a better understanding of what’s going to happen. The only thing that doesn’t change is that you’re still nervous about how the book will do. It’s like sending your child to the first day of school. Will everyone like her? Will she make friends? Will mean kids pick on her?

TrunkSpace: What did you learn about yourself as a writer in working on “The Hunger?”
Katsu: I learned to be more flexible. This project was a little different in that I have partners, Glasstown Entertainment, who were involved in shaping the story. While I had worked as part of a team on non-fiction, this was my first such experience writing fiction. It’s probably like writing for television: a collaborative effort, in order to produce the most enjoyable experience for the reader.

TrunkSpace: Prior to pursuing your career as an author, you spent many years as a senior intelligence analyst. The real world sometimes feels more fictional than what any writer could conjure up. In your opinion, what’s more interesting… reality or fantasy? Or, like “The Hunger,” is it a combination of both?
Katsu: Reality is endlessly fascinating, don’t you think? The biggest gift I took away from my day job was that I learned to dive into any subject. It didn’t matter whether you had a personal interest. Once you dove in, you learned so many fascinating things, and particularly with history. Once you get past the surface, the stuff you learn in school, you find entire universes of detail and nuance. It teaches you that nothing is black or white. But the nice thing about fiction is that you get to choose whom you spend your days with – you create them!

TrunkSpace: How long did it take for you to discover your voice as a writer?
Katsu: It’s something I work on a lot. I’ve developed this slightly formal tone that works well for historical fiction – getting it right for “The Taker” took 10 years – but there are lots of unpublished things where I’ve experimented with more informal or stylized voices. Voice is so important, especially today, when readers are used to TV and graphic novels with strong signature styles.

TrunkSpace: Regarding the process, is writing a labor of love for you or does it feel more like labor? Do you enjoy the process?
Katsu: It’s still both. I love writing and am glad to be able to do it for a living. However, I’m always cognizant of the fact that it doesn’t mean I can write whatever I want and expect there to be a market for it. I get asked for advice by a lot of people who want to sell a book and one of the first things I tell them is writing and publishing are two separate things. Writing is a craft and an art, but publishing is a business. If it doesn’t feel like work, you’re probably doing it wrong.

TrunkSpace: And what does that process look like? What are the ideal conditions for putting in a good day of writing?
Katsu: This particular book started with a lot of research so that I had a good sense of the route, who was in the wagon party, and what the main challenges were. As for working conditions, I’m not precious about them; I’m a workaholic and work anywhere. Now that I write full-time, I’ve had to learn to pace myself and make time for normal things like exercise and grocery shopping and socializing.

TrunkSpace: Do you self-edit as you write?
Katsu: My normal process is to write a few chapters at a time, just get the first draft out. If I’m just starting a story those first chapters can be really rough as I’m getting to know the characters and setting. Then I go back and edit them. Once I’ve been working on a book consistently, I can usually get the first draft chapters to the point where they won’t need much editing. The really heavy lifting on revision comes later, after my partners on the book, Glasstown Entertainment, and my editor at G.P. Putnam’s Sons, have weighed in.

TrunkSpace: Where are you the hardest on yourself as a writer?
Katsu: I try to bring the unexpected to every scene, to make it fresh in some way. It doesn’t have to be crazy flashy or self-conscious, but I hate boring writing. To be a novelist, you have to analyze other people’s books. What worked, what didn’t. Great writing can make you see the world in a new way. Pedestrian writing may tell the story but it doesn’t make a meaningful contribution to the reader’s life.

TrunkSpace: What are you working on now and what will people be able to read next?
Katsu: The next novel is set around the time of the Gilded Age, which allows me to look at social issues like women’s suffrage and class inequality, but also occultism, which was the rage. As always, the supernatural element rises naturally from the story and isn’t a specific trope, though it’s closer to a ghost story than anything else. It’s quite different from “The Hunger,” more opulent, with some famous people as main characters (which presents its own set of challenges), but hopefully every bit as enjoyable.

The Hunger” is available tomorrow from G.P. Putnam’s Sons.

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