Five Questions with… Benjamin Percy

Percy, Benjamin (c) Jennifer May

(c) Jennifer May

Benjamin Percy, author of Red Moon, answered our five questions.

IFOA: What inspired you to write Red Moon? Where did the story begin?

Percy: My favorite horror stories — and some of the most lasting horror stories — take a knife to the nerve of the moment. Consider the way Frankenstein was born out of the Industrial Revolution or the way the Red Scare gave rise to Invasion of the Body Snatchers. When I sat down to write Red Moon, I tried to pinpoint what we fear now. Terrorism and disease, I decided. I braided the two elements together and did my best to channel cultural unease.

IFOA: Which part of the writing process is the most challenging for you, and why?

Percy: In the case of Red Moon, the research process was daunting. One of my characters is a governor — one of them a government agent — one of them a marine — one of them a medical researcher — all alien professions to me. So I had to interview people, read articles and blogs, watch documentaries, and do my best to capture the authenticating details. I spent dozens of hours with researchers at Iowa State University and the USDA labs, discussing animal-borne pathogens and vaccinations in an effort to make credible the slippery science behind the central horror of Red Moon.

IFOA: If you could time travel, where and when would you go?

Percy: Probably the mid to late-19th century — in the American West — where  big dreams drove everyone to chase gold and land, to drive cattle and harvest timber. I like the lawlessness and hungry speculation of that time.

IFOA: What’s the best book you’ve read recently?

Percy: I recently finished Alexander Hemon’s memoir, The Book of My Lives, and the last chapter (about the death of his daughter) is beautiful and brutally unsentimental and left me heart-bruised for weeks.

IFOA: Finish this sentence: It doesn’t really matter if…

Percy: I run one more mile (I’m marathon-training right now and I find it so easy, after five miles, ten miles, to talk myself into a break).

Percy will read at Authors at Harbourfront Centre on May 22.

Five Questions with… Lewis DeSoto

DeSoto, LewisLewis DeSoto, longtime friend of Authors at Harbourfront Centre and author of The Restoration Artist, answered our five questions.

IFOA: The Restoration Artist is set on La Mouche, a tiny island off the coast of Normandy. How did you first encounter this place?

DeSoto: Islands are like books—they are enclosed, mysterious, alluring, and separated from the mainstream of life. As my character, Leo did, while standing on the coastline in Normandy, I saw on the horizon a smudge of land, and I immediately felt the pull, as if it was a place I already knew. Later, when I stepped ashore, I knew that I would either live on the island, or set a book there.

IFOA: Your protagonist is a young painter. Tell us about one thing painting and writing have in common.

DeSoto: The aim of all art is to create, or reveal, truth and beauty. To love the beautiful is to desire the good. Both the painter and the musician in the book struggle to believe this notion, and live by it.

IFOA: If you could have lunch with any author, dead or alive, who would you choose?

DeSoto: Ah, so many, so many. But as one writer to another, I think I would most enjoy a lunch with Iris Murdoch. Although a single lunch might not be long enough. She is the writer whose collective works I most admire, even though there are single books by other writers that I might value higher. Her plots, her language, her insight, her humor, and her passion, continue to inspire me.

IFOA: When and where do you prefer to read?

DeSoto: A window seat on a rainy summer day in the country. Some of my sweetest childhood memories take place in that magical moody world.

IFOA: Finish this sentence: I write best when I…

DeSoto: …tell the truth, when I celebrate beauty, when I believe that art can make a difference in the world.

DeSoto will read at Authors at Harbourfront Centre on May 6.

Five Questions with… Ania Szado

Szado, Ania (c) Joyce RavidAnia Szado, author of Studio Saint-Ex, answered our five questions.

IFOA: What initially drew you to the story of Little Prince author Antoine de Saint-Exupery?

Szado: I’d always loved The Little Prince. Then I came upon Stacy Schiff’s Saint-Exupéry: A Biography and became completely enamoured of its subject. Saint-Exupéry was charismatic, charming, infuriating and complicated—he was an aviator, inventor, magician and mathematician as well as a great writer. I was amazed to learn that he was living in New York when he wrote The Little Prince.

IFOA: How much time did you spend researching your historical characters and settings—and how did you know when you had the material you needed?

Szado: I spent several years researching Saint-Exupéry—while writing early drafts that had almost no resemblance to what eventually became Studio Saint-Ex. When I finally figured out what I had to write, I wrote and researched simultaneously, letting the demands of the story send me searching for the information and understanding I needed. I found it in numerous Saint-Exupery biographies; his own writings; material on WWII New York, the history of American fashion design, the Garment District, Manhattan’s French expat community, and other topics; and by drawing heavily on the knowledge of an incredibly generous Saint-Exupery scholar in New York, as well as querying Stacy Schiff at a critical juncture.

IFOA: What’s the best book you’ve read lately?

Szado: I picked up Lonesome Dove recently and was quite surprised to find myself loving it. It’s an epic American cowboy story—not something I thought I’d particularly like. But I couldn’t put it down. I didn’t want to stop turning the pages—looking, in particular, for more of Augustus McCrae. I still keep catching myself thinking about the book’s characters and landscapes, and wondering how Larry McMurtry managed to do so much with such barebones material: dust, thirst, desire. Of course, the story is in the desire.

IFOA: What’s one thing you wished you’d known when starting out as a writer?

Szado: I wish I’d realized a long time ago that I need to spend occasional blocks of time writing in complete isolation. As long as I can take a week or a month for myself now and then, thinking only of my story night and day, writing for at least 15 hours daily, I can remain balanced and optimistic in my interactions with the world.

IFOA: Finish this sentence: It really doesn’t matter if…

Szado: It really doesn’t matter if I write a paragraph, a page, or a chapter—just the act of having written makes me feel complete.

Szado will read at Authors at Harbourfront Centre on May 1.

Five Questions with… Amity Gaige

Amity Gaige

(c) Anita Licis-Ribak

Amity Gaige, author of Schroder, answered our five questions.

IFOA: Schroder is the story of a father on the run with his daughter, Meadow, and a fake identity. What inspired this story?

Gaige: My inspirations for Schroder were many. I’d say the first inspiration was my own new parenthood.  I’m the mother of a seven-year-old boy, one who is a lot like Meadow, very observant. I began the book when he was about three. The transformation into parenthood was a wonderful but rocky one for me. Like a lot of parents, I was intimidated by my new responsibilities—was I saying or doing the “right thing” for my son? I think many parents harbor doubts like these. So Schroder is my parenthood book. Eric is an exaggeration, in his actions, of the problems and choices facing many parents, especially those co-parenting children after divorce.

Before I started writing Schroder, I’d been at work for three years on another novel. It was to be my great Latvian-American novel. My mother is an immigrant from Latvia, and her tale of escape from Stalin’s forces at the end of World War II is an amazing one. But I couldn’t make that novel work. I was actually doing research in Latvia when a new plot—Schroder’s plot—inspired me to tell my mother’s immigrant story from a radically different angle. This one in the voice of a German man—a liar, an imposter.

IFOA: Would it have been possible to write Schroder without being a parent yourself?

Gaige: No! I remember thinking, before I had children, what’s the big deal?  I thought kids were very cute but perhaps… overrated? I did not anticipate the almost painful love a parent feels for a child. For me, as an artist, parenthood is rich terrain. There is overwhelming love, also fear and doubt; there are many contradictory feelings, and contradictory feelings are good fuel for art.

IFOA: When and where do you write?

Gaige: I have a seven-month old baby, so alas, I don’t write right now. But I can vaguely remember doing so. I tend to write in libraries, or other anonymous (and quiet) places. I like the carry-in/carry-out feel of writing in libraries. I write in the mornings, with a big cup of tea.  I am most happy if I’m looking at a five or six hour stretch without interruption.

IFOA: What are you reading right now?

Gaige: One of my very favorite books, Joe Gould’s Secret by Joseph Mitchell, which I’m teaching in a literature class at Amherst College. I’ve read this book I don’t know how many times. It’s Mitchell’s profile of a man who claimed to be writing an oral history of America. I’m about to start Tenth of December by George Saunders, who is an exquisite writer.

IFOA: Finish this sentence: The best part is…

Gaige: Of the book? The best part of Schroder is probably the later scenes, in which Meadow and Eric’s journey takes a harrowing turn, and his quixotic plans fall apart. But my favorite scenes to write were his memories of the happy years, those handful of years in which he and his wife were in love, and their beautiful daughter was born.

Gaige will read at Authors at Harbourfront Centre on April 10.

Five Questions with… Jennifer Close

Jennifer Close whose latest book is The Smart One, answered our five questions.

Jennifer Close

IFOA: Tell us about something new you tried while writing The Smart One, your second novel.

Close: Well, I don’t know if this is something new, but it’s something that I became very aware of while writing this book. I started taking breaks from looking at it—sometimes for a week, and once for a month—and then coming back to it with fresh eyes. Part of the reason was just circumstance, because my first book came out and I got married in the middle of writing it, so it was a really busy time. And while I did take the manuscript with me on my honeymoon, I only peeked at it once. It makes me a little nervous to step away from a project for so long, but what I learned is that it helps a lot. Sometimes things would just click into place while I was taking a break, and sometimes I’d come back to it and realize that a whole scene or chapter needed to be cut or added. Now, with the new stuff I’m working on, I’m less afraid to take a little break if things are getting confusing.

IFOA:  Is your protagonist Weezy Coffey (great name, by the way) based on someone you know? Who or what inspired her?

Close: The first character that came to me in The Smart One was Claire, followed shortly by Martha. Once I had those two, I knew that their mom (Weezy) would be a narrator as well. I just felt like I couldn’t write about sibling rivalry, or the feeling that one child was favored over the other without giving Weezy a voice, a chance to explain herself.

Weezy isn’t based on anyone I know. What’s funny is that a lot of the character of Weezy reminds me of myself. I don’t have children yet, but I think often about what kind of mother I’ll be. I’m a big worrier—anytime that I have to leave the dog in someone else’s care, I worry he’ll die. (I’m hoping that I’ll loosen up a little when I have kids.)

I really feel for Weezy—she just wants the best for everyone. She wants her children to be happy and healthy and feel safe, and she’s still struggling with realizing that she can’t control that. And I think that what you start to understand when you get to know her is that she’s rooting for all of her children to succeed—she just has to root a little harder for Martha. Weezy is also really funny, I think. And I was a little surprised to learn that she was my husband’s favorite character!

IFOA: What’s your idea of a perfect day?

Close: My perfect non-working day would go like this:  I’d sleep in, and then get some coffee and snuggle up on the couch or maybe back in bed to read a great book. Then I’d have a lazy brunch with my husband, and take the dog for a nice long walk. (In my perfect day, it’s also about 70 degrees out!) I’d read a little bit more in the afternoon, and possibly scribble down some writing ideas. Probably watch some TV on the couch with my husband and dog. To end the day, I’d meet some friends for drinks or dinner.

My perfect working day is a little different. I’d get up at a decent time, take the dog for a good walk, drink some coffee and answer emails. Then I’d read over what I wrote the day before and I’d feel great about it, like it’s going somewhere. I’d write some new stuff for a few hours, taking a break for lunch and maybe yoga or a quick run. Then I’d come back to my desk and write for a few more hours. I’d end the day making dinner with my husband and having a glass of wine. And if I had a great book to read before I went to sleep, that would be ideal! I’ve had perfect working days like this one, but they don’t come around too often!  So when they do, I really appreciate them.

 IFOA: What are you reading right now?

Close: I just finished The Engagements by Courtney Sullivan, which was fantastic. It comes out in June. And before that, I read The Good House by Ann Leary, which I can’t stop recommending to people—it was so funny and sad and just wonderful all around. I’m currently reading Wise Men by Stuart Nadler and really enjoying it. I’m only about halfway through, but whenever I look forward to getting into bed to read, I know I’ve got a good book.

IFOA: Finish this sentence: It’s hard to believe, but…

Close: I’m even more nervous for this book launch than I was for my first book.

Close will read at Authors at Harbourfront Centre on April 10 .

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