Below is a collection of interviews that originally appeared in our newsletter throughout the years. More interviews will be added as they are conducted. If you would like to receive our newsletter, please click here to join our mailing list.
RRB: One of the most fascinating parts of Little Giant is the extensive town history, specifically of the Morgan family. Was any of this based on / inspired by a real family? If not, what inspired you?
TB: Aberdeen, New York is not based on a real town, and likewise, the Morgan family is also completely fictional. But what inspired them? Well, I love early American literature (especially Hawthorne), and I think I was striving for that kind of folkloric feel in my novel. Also, I attended a boarding school in New England, and I used to love to visit the old cemeteries—the kinds where the grass was long, the fence was leaning, and all the family names were intertwined. You just knew stories were laid out right there at your feet. It’s a history I think we’ve lost touch with in our culture today.
Truly’s story feels a lot like a fairy tale or myth. Without giving anything away, what elements of the story did you find crucial in cultivating this tone? Did you research any folk stories or fairy tales?
I love fairy tales! Always have, always will. If The Little Giant of Aberdeen County feels a bit like a fairy tale, I think it’s because the element of transformation is so central to the book. Also, because the novel is set in a small town, it allowed me to play with familiar archetypes (the Beauty, the Witch, the Prince) and twist them. Truly is the proverbial Ugly Duckling, but she doesn’t actually become a great beauty in the course of the novel. She just realizes that it’s a role that she, too, can inhabit if she wants.
What has been the most unexpected or exciting thing about either the writing of this novel or getting it published?
It’s a scary thing, putting something out in public that you’ve worked on in private for years. It’s kind of like going out in your underwear. But I have been extremely touched by reader’s reactions to the novel, especially by their out-and-out support of Truly, whom they seem to love as I do. In the end, that’s the point of fiction, I think. To be able to identify with someone’s voice, even if he or she is radically different from you. I think we link ourselves together and learn compassion by reading.
Who are your favorite authors? Who have been your biggest writing influences?
I’m crazy about John Irving’s books. I just love the scope of them, and their all-too human characters (even the bears), and his settings. I’ve been reading him since I was a teenager. I also love Alice Hoffman, Margaret Atwood, Rose Tremain, Amy Tan, and Isabel Allende. But my favorite book of all time, since I was nine, is Jane Eyre.
What are you reading now?
Lorna Barrett is the author of the Booktown Mystery series. The series is centered around Tricia Miles, who owns a mystery bookshop, and includes Murder Is Binding and her newest, just out this month, Bookmarked for Death.
RRB: What inspired you to write mysteries that take place in bookstores?
LB: It was my agent who approached me with the idea.
Did you have experience working as a bookseller?
Yes. I used to have a booth in an antique and collectibles co-op. A big part of my stock was used books. Romances and mysteries sold well for me–especially paperbacks in “like-new” condition. I enjoyed it immensely, but when the economy started to tank — I had to give it up. It’s extremely difficult to be a small business person in today’s economic climate, which is why I encourage my friends and readers to patronize independent bookstores, local restaurants, and non-chain retail establishments.
How was it different to write the second book in your series as compared to writing the first? Was it easier? Harder?
It was easier, because I knew the characters better, and I knew the village of Stoneham better, too.
The main character of both your books, Tricia Miles, has a cat named Miss Marple. Is the friendship between Tricia and Miss Marple based on a real cat?
Yes, my late cat Cori. She was a sweetheart and lived to the age of 20. My publisher wanted me to include a cat in the book, and as a kitty with gray hair, I thought she’d be the perfect role model for Miss Marple. Although, Cori really never got into much trouble–I’ve given the fictional cat a little more spunk. Since I usually have four cats at any given time (five strains the system), it isn’t difficult to pluck a trait from one of them. I have a picture and a drawing of Cori on my web site.
Who are your favorite authors?
That’s a difficult question –I admire so many authors, and a lot of them are my friends. Off the top of my head: Doranna Durgin, Kate Flora, Leann Sweeney, Sheila Connolly, Sarah Atwell, Deb Baker, Krista Davis, Sandra Parshall. I could go on and on ….
What authors have been most influential on your writing?
Another tough question. It was Barbara Michaels who inspired me to write mysteries. I always loved the paranormal threads that ran through her books, and decided should I ever write a book, I would try my hand at a psychic character. I write the Jeff Resnick psychological suspense series for Five Star/Cengage, under the name L.L. Bartlett. Dead In Red, the second book in the series, is currently available.
What are you reading now?
Ding Dong Dead by Deb Baker! Although I’ve got a huge to-be-read pile, I’m in the middle of a manuscript, so reading for pleasure is taking a bit of a backseat right now. I seem to read a lot more in the summer on hot, lazy days. I’m counting the days until spring!
Anna Maria Horner designs textiles in bright colors and bold prints. Her designs, projects and blog are hugely popular with crafters. Her first book, Seams to Me, was released in October (2008). For more information on Anna Maria Horner, check out her blog, annamariahorner.blogspot.com.
RRB: There seems to be a growing interest in sewing and crafting in teens and twenty-somethings–from craft blogs to alternative craft fairs to eco or green crafting. Why do you think that is?
AMH: I’m hardly a pop culture expert, but, I think in some ways this started years ago, during the ballooning of the information age. The world seems such a smaller place than it did. We are more informed, more interested, and more connected about how and where goods are made, and we’ve since developed very personal ideas about the ramifications of buying store-bought. I also think after 9/11 everyone started turning homeward. In entertaining, in remodeling, in all forms of DIY, everything turned towards the home and towards appreciation of what we have. I also think it’s generational. Today’s younger generations don’t see wealth as the answer to success as much as they see happiness as the answer to success. Hand making goods celebrates life’s smaller pleasures instead of just purchasing them. Creating things with your own hands requires a slower pace and is a break from the technological world and the faster pace that we are all caught in.
Who (or what) are your design influences and role models?
I’m inspired by painters like Frida Kahlo, Georgia O’Keefe, Henri Matisse. I love the clothing designs of Anna Sui, Balenciaga, Prada. My role models have always been both of my grandmothers. One was in Greece and one in Indiana, but both on farms, and both answered most family needs with hard work and creativity.
What surprises did you find in the publishing world? How much did Seams to Me evolve or change? What was your overall impression of the process?
Seams To Me came about only after my publisher had asked me to write for a different title. The first title was a more comprehensive and less visual guide to sewing but with a friendly, easy-going angle. This was a title that had already been formatted and developed and was the part of a series of how-to craft books. However, after completing half that book the publisher decided that they liked my writing and projects so much that they wanted me to write a book that was more of my own making. Something that was much more visual and much more to do with design. I therefore was granted a huge amount of freedom with the structure and the look of the book. It was very exciting but also very overwhleming. I think what surprised me most about the process was that I was able to harnass all the ideas and images in my head into a cohesive set of projects, and make it work. It was such an involved thing to write a book, and also to take on all the photography myself. More than a year of work, but so gratifying when I see people enjoying it.
What’s your favorite book? Favorite author?
I don’t get to read much, but I really loved the book The Glass Castle by Jeanette Walls. Its a really moving memoir about her highly unusual upbringing. I love true stories told in very honest ways. Especially when the main character is able to come out stronger and smarter despite hardship. Don’t we all love those?
RRB: The coming of age theme is common to your novel and the stories in Boys and Girls Like You and Me. Why do you think coming-of-age stories
are so readable?
AK: Because they’re relatable, I suppose. We all grow up. At least, we try.
I wonder sometimes how many people really feel like “grown-ups.” I’m
thirty-two and I have to admit that most of the time, I feel more like a child
than I did when I actually was one. The older I get, the stranger the world
seems to me and the more aware I am of its unpredictability, of my own
vulnerability in it.
When I think back on being a child, I remember that I mostly felt like
I feel now, that I was still me, just smaller and with less experience. I
always felt like I was a whole person, a real person, and I loathed being
spoken to like I was a little imbecile, detested grown-ups who talked to
me in baby-talk or sent me out of the room while they discussed “serious”
topics. The bane of my existence was banishment to the kids’ table.
As an adult, I cringe at the American philosophy that childhood is this
precious period of sweetness and innocence, a magical, miraculous
bubble to be defended and protected from the “real world.” Even the
happiest childhood is pretty traumatic. Childhood is a reckless, lawless
country, and I don’t know a single person who managed to escape it
I used to think that my life would be so much easier when I was an adult.
That the world would make sense and people would be kinder, smarter,
Imagine my surprise.
I suppose that most of us, if we’re lucky, are adaptable and intelligent and
learn from our mistakes: we edit and revise. Ultimately, though, I think
we’re still mostly who we were when we were young. We’re just a little
better at concealing it from others.
That’s part of what draws me to the “coming-of-age” story as a writer. The
things that happen to us that shepherd us from childhood into adulthood—things like disappointment and betrayal and longing and heartbreak—
these are things that don’t just happen to us once in our lives; they
happen again and again. But the first time they happen, we haven’t
yet had the experience to deal with them and so they are met with our
purest selves, the least emotions kept in check, the rawest responses.
No matter how hard I try to switch gears, something seems to draw me
back to the bildungsroman again and again, story after story. I suppose that I’ll finish with the coming-of-age stories in my writing around the same
time that I finish coming-of-age in my life. Just guessing: It could be
In the title story of your new collection and in “Captain’s Club,” the protagonists experience moments of clarity and extreme beauty. With that in mind, do you agree with the reviews that, while complimentary, have focused on the negativity and heartache of your stories?
Reviews are strange things. I’d be lying if I said that I didn’t read them
or that I didn’t think about what they said afterwards. After my novel
came out, I heard a lot about how depressing it was—not so much from
professional reviewers, but from readers who posted their thoughts on
Amazon or emailed me directly. I would go to signings or readings and
inevitably, someone in the audience would raise her hand and declare
in surprise, “You’re so funny! Why don’t you write something happy?”
I’m still not exactly sure what that means: write something happy. As
an English Lit. major, I read books like Daisy Miller and The House of
Mirth, Othello, and Lolita, and The Awakening. I’m sure there are happy
books out there, but I’d be hard-pressed to name very many that I’ve read.
I think that, a lot of times, when people say they want to read something “happy” what they mean is that they want to read something “soothing.” Something that confirms their hope that good things happen to good people and bad things happen to bad people, that the pure of heart will be rewarded in the end with a winning lottery ticket or a big white wedding. And I don’t have anything against that—life is hard and we all want to lose ourselves in a fairytale from time to time. But as a writer, that’s not the kind of story that draws me to the page. I’m not really interested in soothing myself or anyone else. That’s not why I write.
What interests me, always, is complication, contradiction, the expansive
unknown of human desire. As a writer, and a reader, I don’t care nearly
as much about good things happening to good people and bad things
happening to bad people as I do about why good people do bad things,
why smart people follow stupid impulses, why kind people engage in cruel
acts. I’m much less interested in justice than I am in mercy. I don’t want to
judge my characters; I want to understand them.
I know that my work is, at times, quite dark, and I also know that I will lose
some readers because of that. But really, it’s hard enough to write at all
without forcing yourself to write about subjects that don’t interest you.
And for me, for now, I’m interested in the darker impulses of people, the
shadow-sides that most of us don’t walk around showing each other. And
I’m interested in the grace and the beauty and the hope that perseveres
in spite of this darkness, the wonder and light and love that comes to all of
us, no matter how little we deserve it.
Your female characters tend to have misplaced affection or
unfortunate relationships with married or otherwise inappropriate
men. What do you think we would learn if we heard the stories from the males’ perspective?
At the time that I was writing these stories, particularly the older stories, I wasn’t much thinking about the (few) men who appear in them. The oldest
of the stories in the collection was written when I was twenty-two, and many of the others were written not long after. The truth is that when I was
in my early twenties, I hadn’t known very many men, not the way I’d known
women. My family is largely female and as a child I spent much of my time
with my mother, my grandmother, and my aunts. As I got older, I had very
intense relationships with my female friends and not much interest in boys.
Romantically, I was a late bloomer. I didn’t date at all in high school and I
didn’t date much in college either. For a long time, men felt like a different
species to me, and though I loved a few of them dearly—my grandfather,
my step-father, my cousins—I didn’t understand them very well. Women
made sense to me, even when they were acting crazy or irrational, but
men seemed closed, like a movie I wasn’t old enough to be allowed in to
As I’ve gotten older, I’ve been able to know more men, to love them and
admire them and, if not understand them, at least begin to imagine what
it might be like to walk through life as one of them. It’s only recently that
I’ve begun to give men more stage-time in my writing. The novel that I’m
working on right now is still pretty female-centric. But the one after (I plan
ahead) is, at least in part, told from the point of view of a male character.
Which is all just a very long way of saying that, as an answer to your
question, I’m writing an entire book. But you’re going to have to wait
awhile to read it.
Do you have a specific writing process, like a daily schedule?
What have you found to be the benefits of writer’s conferences?
If I could wave a magic wand and change one thing about my habits, it
would be to inject myself with a work ethic. A better one, I mean. One
that forced me out of bed at the crack of dawn every morning and to the
computer, where I would write without interruption until 3:00, when I would
stop to go on a five-mile run and then do volunteer work with orphans.
Instead, I spend a lot of time wandering around my apartment, brushing
my cats, examining my pores in the mirror, screwing around on Facebook.
Meanwhile, I have friends who are writing three books to my every one, mostly because they wake up every morning and sit down at their
computers like they’re punching in for their bottle-capping shift at the Shotz
Brewery. To be fair, though, many of these friends are supporting spouses
and children, which, I suppose, gives a greater sense of urgency to the
For me, it’s more like feast or famine. I go days without writing a word.
Weeks. And then I have days where I do nothing but write. Weeks.
These periods are kind of manic—I hardly sleep, hardly eat, hardly
dress or groom or engage in interactions with other humans. Of course,
these “habits” of mine can make having a social life a bit of a tussle, but
this is an area I’m still negotiating.
Which is maybe why I love writers’ conferences so much. I haven’t
been to that many, but I always come back feeling recharged. It’s not
like you get much writing done at these things—they keep you hopping
from reading to lecture to barn dance (it’s cooler than it sounds). But the
sense of community that grows during these brief periods of time is kind of
I don’t think I’m alone when I say that being a writer can feel kind of weird
and lonely. You spend a lot of time watching and listening, and it isn’t hard
to start to feel like an outsider, like you’re observing life while everyone
else is living it. There are so many seemingly paradoxical elements to
writing. I think that a lot of us write to forge a connection to the larger
world, yet the act of writing is very solitary. Many of us are terribly shy and
anxious about the work we produce, yet the ultimate goal is to send it out
into the great unknown to be read by strangers.
My favorite thing about conferences is that you see this wide array of the
writing community: people who are just starting out and people who are
tremendously accomplished. There’s always a bit of the usual schmoozy-
braggy-who-have-you-published-with? sort of crap—I haven’t been to
a single conference where I didn’t spend the first day or two feeling
awkward and insecure and worried that I’d only gotten in because of some
registration error that everyone else knew about but was too polite to tell
At their very best, though, I think writers’ conferences are kind of magical.
Everyone is there—young writers and new writers, writers who have been
struggling and writers who are just starting to hit, writers who have been
major influences in the field—and they’re all eating lasagna together at
dinner and drinking cocktails around campfires. That’s what’s so incredible
about conferences like Bread Loaf and Sewanee: you’re all there because
of the work, loving the work, celebrating the work, speaking the same
language. At their very best, I think that conferences create this feeling of
family, this idea that anything is possible. And lives are changed because
What other writers have had the biggest influence on you?
Too many to name. There’s hardly a book I’ve read that hasn’t influenced
my writing in some way, even if it’s been to show me what I don’t want to
do. That said, a few of my favorites, writers I return to again and again,
are Joy Williams, Raymond Carver, Flannery O’Conner, Vladimir Nabakov,
Richard Yates, Lorrie Moore, Virginia Woolf, Frank O’Hara, and Margaret
What are you reading now?
I have a stack of books (several stacks) that I’m hoping to get through this
summer, which includes The Monsters of Templeton by Lauren Groff (we
were fellows together at Bread Loaf last summer and she’s so unbelievably
fantastic that I’m expecting I’ll have some sort of out of body experience
while reading her book); The Collected Works of Jane Bowles; Gary
Shteyngart’s new novel, Super Sad True Love Story; Diana Joseph’s I’m
Sorry You Feel That Way (I have a girl-crush on Diana Joseph); Of Human
Bondage by W. Somerset Maugham; and Middlemarch by George Elliot
(I’m terribly embarrassed that I’ve never read it).
RRB: All your novels take place in Los Angeles. How does setting figure into your writing process? Your bio says you grew up in Massachusetts. Do you find it easier/more fun to write about your current location than your previous one?
CL: Much, much easier, for two reasons. One is that I have an awful memory. Truly dreadful. I’m the kind of person who has to be introduced to someone ten times before I’ll remember his name and story. So even though I lived in the Boston area for the first twenty years of my life, I have trouble reconstructing it in my mind. That’s partially because of reason number two: I didn’t learn to drive when I was in Massachusetts. I got my license in LA. It’s amazing how much better you get to know a place when you can drive (other than Manhattan or other walkable cities). I have a pretty good sense of LA geography at this point but I can’t find my way from point A to point B in the Boston area.
I did start a novel at one point that was about a young woman who moves from Cambridge, MA to LA in the course of the story and I was going to really explore the differences between the two places and what it’s like to be from one and move to the other–but that idea ended up getting nixed for other reasons and I went on to write The Smart One and the Pretty One, which is all LA all the time.
Sisters and sisterhood are important in all your novels. How much of your personal life would you say is responsible for that? What do you think it is about that dynamic that makes for such good reading?
The first question is easy to answer: I’m the youngest of four girls (and one boy) so sisters loom very large in my life. I wrote a personal essay for SELF magazine last year that was all about how hard it’s been for me to define myself without comparisons to my sisters and how that’s affected who I am today. So it wasn’t a huge leap for me to focus on the sibling relationship in this novel.
In my first novel (Same as It Never Was), the protagonist (Olivia) ends up taking care of her half-sister (Celia), but even though they’re sisters, I always felt that their relationship was really a metaphor for young motherhood. I wanted to convey that feeling you sometimes get when you’re a mother (especially at the beginning) of “Wait, how did I end up here, with this kid, living this life?” Most of us can stop and say, “Oh, right, I chose this,” but since Olivia can’t, it really exaggerates that almost panicky feeling of finding yourself suddenly responsible for another human being.
I guess my second novel (Knitting Under the Influence)WAS about sisterhood, as you put it. But friendships are pretty different from sibling relationships because you get to choose your friends and you can walk away from them if you don’t mesh anymore, whereas sisters are sisters for life. Which means you can piss each other off and be furious and stop talking–but still call on each other for help in an emergency. Because nothing can make you NOT siblings, sisters can be far more honest with each other than friends can. And, like parents, your sister will tell you exactly what your problems are in the hopes of getting you to fix them. (Whether that’s truly helpful or not is open for debate.) Friends mostly just accept you the way you are.
So all that’s interesting to me. And then you add in the fact that families really do tend to label their children, even if no one sets out to do that. The more one kid prides herself on her intelligence, the harder her siblings are going to look for something else to take pride in. It’s just too hard to compete. And parents often make the problem worse, saying things like “this is our athlete,” or “this one’s our reader.” They don’t mean to set up comparisons, but there’s still an unspoken rebuke to the other kids. Families are wonderfully complicated, aren’t they?
What was it like having Same As It Never Was turned into the TV movie “Hello Sister, Goodbye Life”? Your sister was one of the movie’s writers. How did you feel about the choices she made with your story?
My sister wrote the first draft and was really torn, because the network wanted her to change pretty much everything about the story and she felt a lot of loyalty to me. In the end, they brought another writer in for the next draft–Nell was trying too hard to salvage my original story, I think, and that wasn’t really what they wanted. To give the network credit, though, they paid me for the rights to the book, and given how far the movie ended up straying from it, that was really decent and kind of them.
The original book had two main stories: Olivia’s growing acceptance of Celia’s presence in her life, and her two-suitor love triangle. The network kept some of the sister stuff but completely altered the romantic story and that was really painful to me. I loved the romance–I had based it a bit on Emma’s relationship with Mr. Knightley and how he’s so quick to teach and correct her that it takes her a long time to realize there’s love there, too. Olivia’s dawning realization that she’s loved and loves the guy back was my favorite part of the book, so to have it all taken out of the movie was agonizing. Welcome to Hollywood, I guess.
Still, it was an exciting thing to have a movie based on my book, and I’d do it again in a second. The movie was shot in New Orleans, just two weeks before Katrina, and my husband and I actually went to visit the set. It was an amazing trip made unspeakably poignant by the destruction that followed so soon after. So that’s something else the movie gave me: a visit with the old New Orleans.
How is your writing process different when you’re writing nonfiction? Do you find that one or the other, fiction or nonfiction, is easier or more natural?
Fiction is more fun, nonfiction is more like doing homework.
The good part of writing the non-fiction books is I get to do that with a writing partner, Dr. Lynn Koegel. Most of the time, Lynn will start a chapter off, getting the important information down, and then pass it on to me–I add my parts and do a little editing and rearranging. So Lynn saves me from ever having to stare at a blank page and think, “How am I going to start this thing?” and I think I save her from fretting over whether her stuff is absolutely perfect, because she knows I’m going to take a look at it and fix anything that needs fixing. It’s been a really easy, fun, and productive partnership–long may it last.
With the novels, I’m on my own. It’s me and the computer screen. But I love to think about the novels, even when I’m not actively writing. It’s a bit like daydreaming: I can be doing something boring and let my mind wander to stuff like, “What should the characters say in the next scene? What should her mother be like? Is there a twist I could put in somewhere?” That’s all fun and lively and imaginative. And you don’t get that with the non-fiction–you have to stick to the facts, ma’am. But I’ve had amazing e-mails from people who have found our books on autism really helpful, and that more than makes up for not getting to be imaginative.
I’m so lucky to get to do both!
When you wrote Knitting Under the Influence, did you already know how to knit? How did you come to make knitting such a big part of your book?
Believe it or not, it was my husband’s idea to have the girls knit together. I was trying to think of some reason to get these women together on a regular basis and he said, “I’ve noticed a lot of young woman are knitting these days–why don’t you have them do that?” He’s a writer himself, by the way–a TV writer, currently on “The Simpsons,” so he’s always helpful with anything I’m working on.
It was the perfect solution because I was already a knitter. I taught myself to knit in high school, from a book, and kept it up into adulthood. Unfortunately, once we had a lot of pets and kids, I found it hard to keep knitting–the cats and dogs always got tangled up in the yarn and the kids would accidentally pull the needles out. So I actually had stopped for a while, but when I was working on KUI, I started knitting again, and it was great. It’s so therapeutic! I’m currently knitting my husband a sweater, but I have to admit that I take a lot of breaks from it to make scarves. Scarves are so satisfying because you can finish them quickly. I have this one pattern I love–it uses short rows and that makes the scarf get all twisty. I’ve made a bunch of those.
The good thing about putting “knitting” into the title and cover of that book is that it gave me an in with women who like to knit, who I think would check the book out just because of that. When I was promoting the book, I’d go to different yarn stores and do readings while women knit there and that was really fun. The bad side of it was that serious knitters sometimes criticized my book for not having “enough” knitting or not being “serious enough” about knitting. But the book was never really meant to be ABOUT knitting–it’s really about being young and growing up and having to make decisions and so on. The knitting’s just one small part of it.
I went to a reading you gave at a yarn store in 2006. When you explained that Lucy was knitting her boyfriend a sweater, there was an audible groan reaction from all the women there currently knitting. Did you often get that reaction at readings? What, if anything, did your experiences with knitters teach you about how much we’re all willing to give of our time or take risks of that magnitude?
Well, first of all, I made that mistake! I knit a sweater for a former boyfriend. If memory serves me correctly (and it might not, it’s been a while), it came out really well. It was a ton of work, and realizing that he would probably never wear it again because we had broken up, and that it would probably end up in the trash or donated to Goodwill for some stranger to wear–that was a little painful. After that experience, it took me a while to commit to knitting a sweater for my now-husband. But we’ve been together for over two decades, so I think it’s pretty safe.
These days nothing is more valuable than time, so putting your free time and energy into making something for someone else is about as intimate a gesture as you can make. Honestly, I think the very act of knitting a sweater for someone forces you to evaluate how strong that relationship is! But knitters are nothing if not committal. I’ve seen women working on projects that will take more hours to complete than everything I’ve ever made put together. Beautiful ones, too.
That was the other fun part about going to the yarn stores to read, by the way–I got to see the most incredible projects, like this all-white knitted full-length coat someone had made and was wearing. It made my mouth water, it was so gorgeous. But at this stage of my life, I can’t start anything that time-consuming. When I’m older . . .
What are you reading right now?
I finished Watchmen last night! It was fantastic. Very dark but so great. I read a ton of fantasy. I’m almost done with Robin Hobb’s most recent trilogy. I also just finished a 5 Spot book, Conversations with the Fat Girl by Liza Palmer, which I really enjoyed. I tend to read a lot of kids’ books because my kids like me to read what they’re reading and I think a lot of them are pretty great, like Nancy Farmer’s books. And of course Harry Potter–I’m a huge Harry Potter fan.
What writers have had the biggest influence on your work?
That’s a hard one! When I was in middle and high school, I’d unconsciously start writing in the style of whoever I was reading at the time. One of my teachers pointed it out, so then I started writing deliberate parodies. I figured if I was going to copy someone, I should do it on purpose. Now I try very hard NOT to imitate anyone.
Stephen King’s book On Writing made a huge impression on me–I think it’s brilliant and it affirmed my own feelings that if the story and the characters are interesting, you don’t need to gussy it all up with fancy verbiage. (Like “verbiage.”) I like to say that “Shampoo, rinse, repeat” is the most well-written sentence in the English language–it says what it needs to say with no extraneous words. I really try to write as simply as I can.
And, you know, I love Austen, Bronte, and Dickens with all my heart. But to say they “influenced” me is too grandiose a statement. I just love them.
What can you tell us about The Smart One and the Pretty One?
My parents always used to joke around about how they were going to marry us off to their friends’ kids (which I found incredibly embarrassing), so for some reason I was thinking about that, and it seemed possible to me that, under the right (tipsy) conditions, parents might sit down and write out a marriage contract as a joke. So I thought about what would happen if a now grown-up daughter were to stumble across that contract and feel like she should hold the guy to it. That was the original germ of the idea, but as I started working on it, it felt a little unrealistic to me so I changed it to her SISTER’s finding the contract and it became a story about sisters and how they interact and force each other to do certain things.
One interesting side note is that there were three sisters in the original couple of drafts: the smart one, the pretty one, AND the responsible one. The oldest sister even had a husband and two kids. But the novel just didn’t feel tight enough at that point, and after my editor and I had talked about the whole “smart one and pretty one” concept, I decided the focus would get much sharper if I just cut the oldest sister and her family. I think it was the right decision but it was a little painful. I really liked them.
Anyway, the point of the book ultimately is that the smart sister is pretty and the pretty sister is smart–they just have to realize and accept that, but they kind of fight it because they’ve staked out their territories for so long. Along the way, they have romances and they grow up a bit and they realize how much they love their mother and a bunch of other things happen . . . I think it’s a fun read with a serious side to it. I hope so.
Sophie Littlefield has written several books for adults and teens. Her Stella Hardesty series of crime novels for adults includes A Bad Day for Sorry, which was nominated for an Edgar Award for best first novel, and A Bad Day for Pretty. She is also the author of Banished, a book for teens with paranormal themes.
RRB: Does your writing process differ from one genre to the next? Are there different challenges present when writing in a specific genre?
SL: The fundamental process remains the same – to enter the mind of the point of view character(s) and think about how they would react to the events taking place, and then translate it into language that reflects who they are. I guess you could sum it up as speaking to the page in the voice of the character.
That changes book to book. I’ve written in the point of view of women age 16 through 53, little children, men of all ages. I’ve written villains and characters I adored. I’ve tried to cover a spectrum of emotion, but due to the marvelous variety of human response, I doubt that part will ever feel rote.
As far as genre, there are subtle differences in readers’ expectations. A young adult novel needs a consistently active pace; a mystery might at times be more ruminative. But I think I’ve been lucky to be able to drift far afield of the “requirements” and blend genres to create something unique.
Your books tend to center around strong female characters. Do you have a prototype for this model, like a strong maternal figure, etc.?
I’ve known many strong women and they show up in various ways in my characters. In particular I treasure my current circle of friends – women in their 30s, 40s and 50s who’ve worked hard and loved deeply and made spectacular mistakes and raised children and just generally lived robustly.
When I was a young woman, I had a female boss who taught me that women can be strong and demand their due, and still be a joy to be around – and that nurturing and leading are not mutually exclusive.
Your newest book, Aftertime, is a dystopian drama/adventure. What made you interested in this topic? Or, more specifically, what made you want to write a book that takes place in such an environment?
I’ve been a horror reader since childhood, and in recent years my kids got me hooked on things like the short-lived TV series “Firefly” and the comic The Walking Dead, and a variety of dystopian young adult fiction…just a variety of themes and ideas and images that rolled around in my head for a while, and emerged as this story.
What can you tell us about the other books of yours that are scheduled to come out later this year?
The second in the Aftertime series, called Rebirth, will be out in August. The third book in my Stella Hardesty mystery series, which features a middle-aged rural-Missouri vigilante housewife with a sense of humor, is titled A Bad Day for Scandal and will be out in June. And finally, my second young adult paranormal novel, Unforsaken, will be out in October. (That series has zombies too! – and is appropriate for readers age 13 and up.)
Who would you say has been the biggest influence on your writing? Who are your favorite authors?
The biggest ongoing influence on my writing is without a doubt my brother, who writes as Mike Cooper. (His next thriller, titled Clawback, will be out in 2012.) He and I talk every week about everything from our books to what we’re reading to raising kids.
What are you reading now?
I’m the type of reader who likes to have a dozen or so books in process, ranging from friends’ manuscripts (Baited Blood by Sue Ann Jaffarian; Hard Bounce by Todd Robinson) to books in a variety of genres. In my gym bag right now I’ve got Smonk by Tom Franklin and Rot & Ruin by Jonathan Maberry. On my nightstand is Certain Girls by Jennifer Weiner and The Marbury Lens by Andrew Smith. There’s also a cookbook (a compilation from the now-defunct Gourmet magazine) and one of Kim Diehl’s wonderful quilt books, since I’m making my son a quilt to take to college.