Lily McLemore

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Tamera Alexander continues her inspirational Belle Meade Plantation series with a tale of high-stakes romance, To Win Her Favor. Set in Nashville during the devastating fallout of the Civil War, the novel follows Maggie Linden, a brilliant horsewoman determined to make it in the lucrative world of horse racing, and the strong-willed Irishman who is roped into her plans.

Though determined to save her family’s home, Maggie is running out of options. Although she is an accomplished rider and trainer, her gender has kept her out of the horse races she knows she can win—races with prize money that she and her ailing father desperately need in order to keep their farm. Unable to race herself, Maggie has placed all of her hopes on the talented young jockey she’s trained and her beloved mare, Bourbon Belle. But her hopes are shattered when her jockey is forced to flee Nashville in the face of escalating attacks against freed slaves. However, her father has one last plan to save the farm—if only he can get Maggie to go along with it. 

Leaving behind a painful past, Irishman Cullen McGrath immigrated to America with the dream of living a quiet life on his own piece of farmland. However, the famed Southern hospitality does not seem to extend to people of Cullen's lineage. Farms that are advertised as for sale mysteriously become unavailable as soon as Cullen opens his mouth—Nashvillians clearly have no interest in selling to an Irishman. The Linden’s farm is his last hope, and Mr. Linden has no qualms with selling to an Irishman. There is one stipulation though—Cullen must marry his daughter. 

 Could Cullen and Maggie’s marriage gradually become one filled with true love?

Maggie is far from pleased with her father’s scheme, but her desire to hold onto her family’s farm trumps her misgivings about the arranged marriage. They are hastily wed, and Maggie and Cullen struggle to get to know each other under these unusual circumstances. Although innately kind, Maggie has prejudices that she must work through, and she is used to getting what she wants. However, with patience and understanding, Cullen and Maggie’s affection for each other grows. Although their marriage came about through desperate circumstances, could Cullen and Maggie’s marriage gradually become one filled with true love?

Alexander does not glaze over the historical facts of the time—post-Civil War Nashville was not a pleasant place—nor does she breeze past the struggles that Cullen and Maggie face as married strangers. To Win Her Favor is a thoughtfully rendered love story filled with convincing historical details. It’s rewarding to watch Cullen and Maggie grow as people and find faith in love, God and each other, even when it feels like there’s no hope left. 

 

Tamera Alexander continues her inspirational Belle Meade Plantation series with a tale of high-stakes romance, To Win Her Favor. Set in Nashville during the devastating fallout of the Civil War, the novel follows Maggie Linden, a brilliant horsewoman determined to make it in the lucrative world of horse-racing and the strong-willed Irishman who is roped into her plans.
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Romance veteran Jill Shalvis' immensely popular Lucky Harbor series is coming to a close this month with One in a Million. In the final Lucky Harbor book, a jilted and jaded former-bride resolves that falling in love just isn't worth the risk, but when a beautiful deep-sea diver arrives to her small town, she questions her decision.

Jill chatted with us over email from her Sierra Mountain home about the beauty of a small town, finishing up a beloved series and of course, cookies. 

What do you think it is about small-town romances like the Lucky Harbor series that readers love?

I think of it as comfort food—like mac and cheese! There’s an undeniable sense of community that comes with a small town setting. I’m not talking about a cutesiness or clichéd silly antics. I’m talking about the coziness that comes with being in a place where there’s a shared history (good or bad), like the song (and the great sitcom "Cheers"!) says—a place where everyone knows your name. Readers respond to that, and so do I.

How does living in the midst of the Sierra Mountains in a small community influence your books?

Well as someone who was born in NJ and grew up in SoCal, I had no sense of a small town before I moved to the wilds of the great Sierras, where my problems shifted from finding a parking space to wondering if there is a bear between me and the trash can. So I have to say, I think this has had a huge influence on my books. Because I’m new to small town living, I’ve been able to mine the funny out of it. And the irony.

Shalvis sent us this picture of one of the lovely views from around her home. 

With more than 50 romance novels under your belt, what's your favorite type of scene to write?

The funny. It doesn’t matter what the scene is, I like to try to find the funny.  Writing a love scene? Well, maybe the heroine ate a pizza earlier and wants the lights off because she’s bloated. ๐Ÿ™‚ Writing a serious I love you scene? Then maybe the hero and heroine somehow they end up with an audience. An embarrassing one. I like to torture my people as often as possible. 

Are there any characters or places that you'll miss the most as you leave behind the world of Lucky Harbor?

Yes. Everything. I didn’t set out to write a series; I sort of fell into it. Willingly, of course. But now that I’m here looking back, leaving is going to be really difficult, as I loved the Pacific Northwest setting. I loved the heroes. I loved the ancient gossip Lucille!

After 12 Lucky Harbor books, do you have a favorite hero of the series?

That’s a little bit like asking my favorite kid. And the answer is always the one who is standing in front of me. So let me say in that same vein, it’s the last hero, fromer Navy SEAL Tanner, from One in a Million. I loved how fiercely loyal and protective he was, how much he loved Callie from the start, how tough he’d become from all he’d been through and yet how thoroughly and completely he fell for Callie in spite of himself.

Now that you've written the final Lucky Harbor book, I hope you've got a little downtime! What's your favorite way to relax?

Walk, read, nap, eat cookies . . . and not necessarily in that order.  ๐Ÿ™‚

What's on the horizon for you?

I’d tell you but then I’d have to kill you . . . ๐Ÿ™‚  Okay, fine, twist my arm.  I’m starting something new and here’s a hint: the guys are hot and badass.

 

Romance veteran Jill Shalvis' immensely popular Lucky Harbor series is coming to a close this month with One in a Million. In the final Lucky Harbor book, a jilted and jaded former-bride resolves that falling in love just isn't worth the risk, but when a beautiful deep-sea diver arrives to her small town, she questions her decision.

Jill chatted with us over email from her Sierra Mountain home about the beauty of a small town, finishing up a beloved series and of course, cookies. 

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Bret Anthony Johnston's haunting, evocative debut novel, Remember Me Like This, follows a family's agonizing journey toward a sense of unity after Justin, the first-born son, miraculously returns home four years after his kidnapping. His return, however, is tempered by the pain and grief each member of the family has experienced during Justin's absence.  

I was able to chat with the immensely entertaining Johnston, who is also the Creative Writing Director at Harvard and an avid skateboarder, over a lunch of fried catfish at the Southern Festival of Books.

In Remember Me Like This, the reader is able to gain insight into all the main character’s thoughts, but not Justin's. What made you decide to keep his thoughts private and be vague about what happened to him during the kidnapping?
When people have asked me that before, they always follow it up with the idea that, by not telling the reader what happened to Justin and leaving his perspective out of it, it makes it all the more menacing and terrifying. Because what we’re going to imagine is far worse than what could be on the page. But that’s just not the case. We’re all imagining exactly what it is, and I don’t think you can make up something worse than what actually happened. I wasn’t trying to be coy or intensify anything. I was trying to put the reader in the position that the family members are in. They don’t feel like they can ask Justin directly what happened to him, and he’s not offering anything to them. I wanted us to be in that same kind of limbo, where we want to know what happened, but it’s not the right time for him to tell us. I wanted us to empathize with the other family members. And you know, this sounds dorky, but I wanted to respect Justin’s privacy. At no point in writing the book did it feel like he wanted to share anything. I didn’t want to pry. I wanted to respect that.  

How long did you work on this novel?
I think the writing of the book took about six years. But in one way or another, I had been thinking about the characters, particularly Laura, for probably about 25 years.

What drew you so powerfully to the character of Justin's mother, Laura, who finds comfort after Justin's disappearance in her volunteer work rehabilitating an injured dolphin?
I grew up in South Texas, and one of the things that happens there—and also happens in the book—is that bottlenose dolphins will strand themselves on the beach. When I was in my late teens, that happened, and they put out a bulletin. They needed volunteers to sit with this dolphin and take notes. So I went, and I loved it.

I remember the rescue coordinators said that the hardest shifts to fill were the overnight shifts. Nobody wants to come out to the bad part of town alone in the middle of the night and sit in a warehouse for three hours with a dolphin. But I thought, 'Well, I don’t have anything going on.' And yet, every time I’d go to sign up for a night shift, they were always full. I could never get in there. Every couple of years I would just think, 'Who was that person taking all those shifts?' I'd sit with [different theories about] that for a few years . . . . But for the whole time I’d been thinking about this character, it had never crossed my mind that she had a kid. I always thought that she was married, she was signing up for shifts under her maiden name, she can’t sleep, but it had never crossed my mind that she had a kid. When that crystallized in my mind, I got really interested. Maybe the reason I hadn’t thought about her having a kid is because the kid was missing in her thoughts, too. That’s why she can’t sleep: Her kid’s gone missing.

I love the title Remember Me Like This. How did you decide on it?
That wasn’t the title until about two days before it went into galleys. For the entire six years I was writing it, it was always, without equivocation, The Unaccompanied. And if anyone is ever inclined, and they certainly should not be, to read the book again, they’ll notice how many ways being accompanied and unaccompanied shows up in this book. I worked my tail off to sew that into the book. And then the editor called and said we had to change the title for all these different reasons, and it kind of came down to Remember Me Like This or To Bring You My Love, which is in the epigraph of the book. I think the reason it won out is because they somehow didn’t like having 'you' in the title. They’d rather have 'me.' But I don’t really think of the book as The Unaccompanied anymore, I do think of it as Remember Me Like This. I’ve been lucky enough to have so many people respond to the title in such a way that it feels more like y’all’s title than mine. So I love it for that reason.

Since Remember Me Like This deals with such a difficult topic, did you do anything to unwind while writing the novel?
Not on a daily basis. But every Sunday morning, I would go skateboarding. That was almost like church for me. But on a daily basis, I just tried to stay in the thick of it, to occupy that space. I did a lot of research for the book. I’ve read countless accounts, scholarly texts and memoirs of people who have been through what Justin has been through, and you don’t have to read much of that before you feel it changing you. To spend so much time trying to get that right on the page, you come out of it feeling transformed. I really wanted to stay with it on a day-to-day basis. But by Sunday I would need to get out of there, and I’d go skate.

Do you think there’s any aspect of skateboarding that has helped you as a writer?
Oh my god, we’re going to run out of tape. I could hold forth for about five days on this. I think the biggest similarity between skaters and writers, and the thing that I absolutely have taken from skating and applied to my writing, is what might be summed up as resilience. I mean, I certainly get frustrated, confused, pissed off, frightened—all the typical things that writers feel towards their writing—but I don’t ever feel the impulse to quit. I don’t get discouraged just because I have to throw away 200 pages. I think that absolutely comes from skating. There are tricks I’ve been working on for 15 years that I still haven’t done, and I’m still trying to learn them. Once I’ve committed to the process, it doesn’t occur to me to stop.

And I think skaters, like writers, view the world differently. I think when someone who doesn’t skate is walking down the steps, they don’t notice how many cracks there are leading up to the handrail. But skaters do, and I think it’s the same thing with being a writer. I think we pay attention. A lot of the time, stories come from the smallest, smallest thing.

Are there any musicians that have influenced your work?
There’s a bunch. I think the clearest one Is PJ Harvey. I think her album “To Bring You My Love” is almost a soundtrack to the book. And Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings, both of whom have cameos in the book, because the mice get named after them. I think the texture and tenor of their voices and some specific songs feel like background music to the book.

Are you going to see any musicians while you’re here in Nashville?
I wanted to go see Loretta Lynn, but I’ll be in the Literary Death Match that night! 

(Author photo by Nina Subin)

Bret Anthony Johnston's debut novel, Remember Me Like This, follows a family's agonizing journey towards some sense of peace after their son, Justin, miraculously returns home four years after his kidnapping. His return, however, is tempered by the pain and grief each member of the family has carried with them for so long. Johnston is also the Creative Writing Director at Harvard. 

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During Nashville's Southern Festival of Books, Karen Abbot was able to sit down and chat with us about Liar, Temptress, Solider, Spy, a book that details the lives of four women who bucked societal convention, risked their lives and became spies during the Civil War. 

What initially inspired you to tackle such a little known topic in American history?
I was born and raised in Philadelphia, and I moved to Atlanta in 2001. And I was really struck by the fact that they’re still fighting this war down there. It really sort of seeps into life and daily conversation in a way it never does up North. I was just shocked by the Confederate flags on the lawns and the jokes about the “War of Northern Aggression.” It was all sort of driven home for me one day when I was stuck in traffic on 400—if you’ve ever been to Atlanta you know what I’m talking about—and I was behind a pick-up truck with a bumper sticker that said “Don’t blame me, I voted for Jefferson Davis.” (Who was, of course, the president of the Confederacy). I was just sitting there shocked, and I was behind this truck for hours. It just gave me the opportunity to really start thinking about the Civil War. Of course, my mind goes to, “Well, what were the women doing? And not just what were the women doing, but what were the bad women doing, the defiant women?” I wanted to find four women who lied, wheedled, avenged, flirted, shot, drank and spied their way through the Civil War. And I think I found four who do that.

What was one of the most surprising things that you discovered during your research into these women’s lives?
There were a couple of things. One has to do with Emma, who disguised herself as a man and enlisted in the Union army as Private Frank Thompson. I was wondering, how did she get away with this? There were about 400 women for both North and South who reportedly disguised themselves as men and enlisted. I came to the conclusion that [they were able to get away with it because] no one had any idea what a woman would look like wearing pants. They were so used to seeing women pushed and pulled into exaggerated shapes with their corsets, and the very idea of a woman in pants was so unfathomable, that even if she was right in front of them, they wouldn’t recognize it.

And also just the way that women were able to exploit their gender. Their gender was sort of a physical and psychological disguise. Physically, they’re hiding dispatches and weaponry in their hair and their hoop skirts. As a psychological disguise, if anyone accused them of treasonous behavior or espionage, their response was, “How dare you accuse me! It’s unbecoming as an officer and a gentleman, I’m a defenseless woman.” But of course, they were the farthest things from defenseless women. 

Do you have any all-time favorite historical figures?
Oh, god. So many. Where do I even start? I think the Everleigh sisters, who are the subjects of my first book. They were two madams who were sisters and ran a world-famous brothel in Chicago in the early 1900s. They were really fascinating and enigmatic characters. Also, Anne Bonny and Mary Read, the female pirates. I love them, too. They often dressed in drag, and people didn’t know they were women. I mean, obviously I have something about women dressing in drag.

What’s next for you?
Well, I’m thinking about a novel, which would be scary because it’s the first time I would attempt to do it. I wrote about her for the Smithsonian, and I can’t give up my love of history and facts, so it would be based in the history of Cassie Chadwick. She was a con-artist in Gilded Age New York, and she sort of lied herself into New York society. And then she disappears. There’s enough about her to do a blog post, but there’s not enough nonfiction sources to do a full book. So it would be the first time I would have to add flesh to the bones. I can’t decide yet if it’s going to be liberating or paralyzing. But I’m going to give it a shot!

Any authors you’re looking forward to seeing here at the Festival?
One of my friends, Joshilyn Jackson. I think everyone should go see her and Patti Callahan Henry. Also Ariel Lawhon; I love her book. Those were my three big ones. Oh, and Daniel Wallace, who wrote Big Fish!

Are you doing anything fun while in Nashville?
I was going to try and honky-tonk, but I should probably save that for when I don’t have to work the next day. Next time, though. 


(Author photo by Nick Barose)

During the Southern Festival of Books, Karen Abbot was able to sit down and chat with us about her latest book, Liar, Temptress, Solider, Spy, which details the lives of four women who bucked societal convention, risked their lives and became spies during the Civil War.

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Our June Romance Top Pick is Caroline Linden's Love in the Time of Scandal, a Regency romance about a headstrong woman and a suave Lord who end up making a shockingly scintillating pair. In a 7 Questions interview, Linden tells us about the beauty of the Regency era, her Math degree from Harvard, a time-travel stipulation and more.

Describe your book in one sentence.
A feisty heiress in search of adventure, a nobleman in search of a bride and a scandalous book that tempts them both to find their greatest passion.

What do you love most about writing historical romance? 
The era I write about (early 1800s England) was one rich in intrigue and drama, with a major war, political upheaval, national scandals and spies, but it was also on the cusp of a new age of invention and scientific discovery. It was a good age for woman, historically speaking. It was also a beautiful age, with an emphasis on graceful architecture, landscaping and fashion—and that always makes a world more appealing.

How did you go from getting a Math degree at Harvard to writing romance?
I was working as a programmer at a financial services firm doing actuarial coding when I had my children. My husband and I moved from Miami to Boston when our youngest was a baby, so it led to a natural break in my career. Then my husband got me a new iMac, and I ran out of books to read, and somewhat idly I started writing a story of my own. It was a big surprise to me how much fun it was, although it took two or three tries to come up with a story I could finish.

If you had a chance to go back to the Regency era, would you take it?
If I had a guaranteed return ticket, I would. A few weeks of research and exploration would be wonderful, but I could not live there.

Have you ever considered writing a full-length contemporary romance?
Yes! I plan to in the not-so-distant future. I’ve been waiting years to put my beloved Red Sox into a story.

If you could go back and change something about one of your already published books, would you and what would it be?  
I suffer terrible longings to edit every single one of my books forever. I seem to have a knack for opening a newly printed book and finding the typos that got overlooked in production. And of course I want to go back and fix every mistake in my research or hole in my plot. However, if I could change only one thing in one book, I would re-write the ending of A Rake’s Guide to Seduction. It got a little carried away.

What would you like to ask the next “7 Questions” Romance participant?  
If you had to write a book in a completely different genre, what kind of book would you write?

 

Our June Romance Top Pick is Caroline Linden's Love in the Time of Scandal, a Regency romance about a headstrong woman and a suave Lord who end up making a shockingly scintillating pair. In a 7 Questions interview, Linden tells us about the allure of the Regency era, her Math degree from Harvard, a time travel stipulation and more.
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Our July Top Pick is best-selling author Julie Ann Walker's action-packed romance Hell or High Water, the first in her Deep Six series about a crew of ex-SEALs and the deep-sea salvage company they run. In a 7 Questions interview, Walker tells us about her Key West research trip, the Cuban treat that fueled her novel, the appeal of a Navy SEAL and more. 

Describe your novel in one sentence. 
Packed full of all the good things: action, adventure, danger, romance and half-dressed, hunk-a-licious hotties!

What inspired you to switch careers from math teacher to romance author? 
It's a crazy story of fate and timing. My husband and I moved from Michigan to Chicago, and I had a tough time finding a teaching position. So I decided to take a year off. I started volunteering at my local USO, and there I met service members from every branch of the military: wise-cracking army guys, swaggering Marines, fun-loving sailors, flirtatious airmen. I watched them all together, listened to their wild and crazy tales and fell a little bit in love with the camaraderie they shared—not to mention their special brand of humor. I'd always been an avid reader, but I suddenly discovered that I couldn't find the exact book I wanted to read—The book that took all those men from different branches of the armed services, threw them together on high-stakes missions and let the chips fall where they may. So I decided to write that book—and toss in a little romance. Because everything is better when there's a love story involved, am I right? To make a long story short (too late?), I ended up entering that book in a writing contest. To my great surprise and delight, I was a finalist. And because of that, I ended up snagging an agent who sold the book, titled Hell on Wheels, the first in my Black Knights Inc. series. The rest, as they say, is history.      

This is the first book in the Deep Six series. What inspired the new series? 
The need to write something new. I'd been living, working and writing in the Black Knights Inc. world for three years. And while I love those characters and will continue to pen their stories, I needed to stretch my imagination. A chance trip to the bookstore had me picking up a novel about the excavation of the Atocha, one of the most profitable shipwrecks ever discovered. And I asked myself the question that all writers ask themselves: "What if?" What if the holy grail of sunken Spanish shipwrecks had yet to be discovered? What if the world's greatest dive specialists—Navy SEALs—decided to go search for it? What if danger, death and destruction followed these men into their civilian lives? What if they each found love? Voila! The Deep Six series was born.  

You moved to Key West for two months to do research for this book. What sort of research were you doing? 
I was soaking it all in! As a storyteller, there's only so much I can do through research. And since I wasn't just setting one book, but an entire series in the Florida Keys, I felt like I needed to experience what it's like to live there. After all, it's the little things that bring a story to brilliant, sparkling life. If I hadn't moved to Key West, I wouldn't have known that sunsets there are like snowflakes: No two are the same. I wouldn't have known that chicken wings are a staple of the local diet or that the wild roosters that roam the island invariably wake everyone up at the crack of dawn. I wouldn't have known what the beach smells like after the tide goes out. I wouldn't have known that everyone gets excited when the shrimping fleet rolls into town. And I wouldn't have known how the water changes colors where the Gulf of Mexico meets the Atlantic. So many details, both big and small. That's what I was researching. And I loved every minute of it! 

Did you have a favorite snack while you were writing this novel? 
Oh, sweet heavens to Betsy, yes! About three blocks from the house we rented was a Cuban take-out restaurant called Bien Caribbean. They serve fire-roasted corn on the cob slathered in aioli, Parmesan cheese, cilantro, salt, paprika and fresh lime juice. My mouth is watering just thinking about that corn on the cob. It's so good, it's almost worth the price of a roundtrip plane ticket!

What’s your favorite thing about Leo and Olivia’s relationship? 
Each of them likes and respects the other. So often in romance, I feel like the stories are about characters that start out loathing each other and then BAM! They're suddenly in love. Not Leo and Olivia. They may bicker and dance around their deeper feelings, but besides the chemistry they share, they also have a history that has instilled in them mutual admiration and appreciation.

What do you think would be the best perk of dating a former SEAL? 
You mean besides his hard body, his ability to kill a man with a plastic spoon and his . .  ahem . . . endurance? No, seriously. I think the best perk of dating a SEAL would be his character. It takes a particular kind of man to become a Navy SEAL. He has to be courageous, loyal, patriotic and steadfast. And what woman wouldn't wish for all that in a boyfriend?    

 

 

Our July Top Pick is best-selling author Julie Ann Walker's action-packed romance Hell or High Water, the first in her Deep Six series about a crew of ex-SEALs and the deep-sea salvage company they run. In a 7 Questions interview, Walker tells us about her Key West research trip, the Cuban-treat that fueled her novel, the appeal of a Navy SEAL and more.
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An older woman's keen interest in a young mother who recently moved in across the lake slowly morphs into a dark, dangerous fascination that could destroy both of their lives in Leah Stewart's latest novel, The New Neighbor, set in the small college town of Sewanee, Tennessee. Stewart (The History of Us, The Myth of You and Me) deftly writes about the nuances of friendship and motherhood, as well as the past's unpleasant ability to take over the present. 

As a recent graduate of Sewanee, I was eager to ask Stewart a few questions about her choice of setting, the complexities of isolation and her impressive ability to write honestly about aging.

Sewanee is a fairly isolated, little-known college town in Tennessee. How did you stumble across it and what inspired you to set your novel there?
I’ve been going up to the Mountain (they capitalize it there) since I was a kid. My grandmother was from Murfreesboro, which is about half an hour from Nashville and an hour from Sewanee, and she and my grandfather retired to a small community called Clifftops between Sewanee and Monteagle. But I don’t remember spending much time in Sewanee until I started working for the Sewanee Young Writers’ Conference (as a dorm counselor) and the Sewanee Writers’ Conference (as staff) in 1995. I’d been a student at Vanderbilt in Nashville, and my professors there recommended me to the conference directors. I worked for the SWC for 10 years, making drinks and driving visiting writers to the Nashville airport, and I spent a year as a visiting writer at Sewanee and have been back many other times to visit. In the last couple of years I’ve been going to a relatively new writers’ colony there called Rivendell.

I set the novel in Sewanee because The New Neighbor is about isolation. All of my books are set in different places, and when I choose a setting, I’m looking for a place that resonates with the themes, the mood and the emotional states of the characters. Sewanee—in my mind—is both a magical, beautiful, out-of-time retreat and (because it’s so small and because when the fog rolls in you can’t see the road) a kind of confinement.

Both Jennifer and Margaret view Sewanee as a hideaway, but the small-town closeness and isolation of Sewanee is the very thing that threatens to unravel their lives. Do you think isolation is prone to breeding something sinister?
I think it can, but perhaps no more than too much closeness. We used to live in the country in North Carolina, and it felt very safe and pleasantly separate from the world—until I read In Cold Blood, which is about people murdered in an isolated house. For a week or two and on and off afterwards, I found our location unnerving. So I think isolation contains two extremes: the possibility of safety and security, and the possibility of being alone when danger comes. In the case of my novel, the danger is largely emotional, but Margaret is in her 90s and living alone, so there’s a physical danger for her as well.

The men in Jennifer and Margaret’s lives have largely been destructive, and both women seem to long for female companionship. Do you think female friendships are important lifelines?
Absolutely! Which is not to say I don’t think relationships between men and women, including platonic ones, are equally important. But there’s a longstanding tendency in stories to make friendships between women secondary to heterosexual coupling, and I enjoyed keeping the focus on the former.

Ninety-year-old Margaret is incredibly frustrated by the indignities and inconveniences of aging. You are able to capture these feelings so well, that it made me a little terrified of my approaching birthday. How were you able to so accurately write in the voice of a 90-year-old woman?
I’ve spent a great deal of time in the company of elderly people, especially elderly women. I visited the grandparents who lived outside of Sewanee often. My other grandmother lived an hour and a half from us in North Carolina, and she often had to go see a specialist at Duke, so I’d drive to her town, pick her up, take her to appointments and drive her back. My great-aunt, who was a professor of medieval literature at UCLA, retired to Murfreesboro. I stop to see her whenever I’m in the area, and she’s 92. I’ve stolen lines from all of them.

Looking at Milo, Jennifer’s 4-year-old son, Margaret says, "He looked like something that might ruin your life." Why do you think she feels that way?
She never had children, so she never got used to the amount of noise they generate, and now she’s elderly and hyperaware of her own fragility; Milo’s heedless kinetic energy alarms her. Also, as an older person who never raised children, it’s easy for her to judge contemporary parenting as lax: Where are the well-behaved, speak-only-when-spoken-to children of yesteryear? Plus, she wants Jennifer’s attention and can’t compete with Milo for it, and, deeper than that, it has something to do with the wounds of her past.

The well-loved, bubbly Megan—Jennifer’s only friend in Sewanee—is almost the opposite of the guarded, stoic Jennifer. Do you think women, especially mothers, are pressured into presenting a happy face to the world?
I do. Which is one reason I so enjoyed Claire Messud’s The Woman Upstairs, with its female narrator full of unapologetic rage.

In order to keep her identity a secret, Jennifer is cold and distant. Do you admire these qualities as strength, or do you think she should lighten up?
I think she wants to lighten up and is happier when she does, but her circumstances have made that challenging. She’s not cold and distant in the flashbacks to her teenage years, just quiet. I myself like to talk, as my students can attest, so sometimes I struggled with writing her. My husband really helped me with that. He did a line-by-line edit, pointing out where I’d had Jennifer behave in an out-of-character way—which often meant she’d said something I would say, when really, Jennifer would say nothing. I don’t admire coldness, but I do admire reserve. I think because I don’t have it, and so to me it looks like impressive self-control. Also, reserved people intrigue me because I wonder what’s behind the wall.

I thought it was interesting that Jennifer, who is so closed off, is a massage therapist. How did you settle on that career for her?
That was a choice I made instinctively. Looking at it now, I’d say it was because she’d been a dancer, so I wanted her to continue to do something that had to do with the body. She’s capable of offering love and comfort but has been hurt so often that she’s shut that capability down—except with Milo and in massage, which is a way of communicating without words. I’ve written a great many characters whose primary mode is mental (like mine), and I’m curious about people whose primary mode is physical. I had two ballet dancers in my last novel. I didn’t attempt their points of view, but they were in some ways a warm-up for Jennifer.

How did Margaret's time as a nurse in World War II shape her?
It gave her the most intense emotional connection she’s ever had—her friendship with her fellow nurse—but it also brought her up close to terror and horror and grief. It taught her that she’s tough, which is a quality she values and which served her well as a woman in the workplace throughout the rest of the 20th century. But it also taught her to survive by walling off sections of her memory and her personality, and what she’s wrestling with in the novel is what she lost in doing that.

Would you enjoy living in Sewanee? Why or why not? 
I ask myself that question every time I’m there! Based on the year I spent there, I’d say yes and no. When I go there now, I love the beauty of the woods and the mountains, the quiet and the sense of isolation from the rest of the world. But when I lived there that quiet and isolation sometimes made me restless. If I had my wish, I might live there part of the year and in the city the rest. 

Author photo by Jason Sheldon

An older woman's keen interest in a young mother who recently moved in across the lake slowly morphs into a dark, dangerous fascination that could destroy both of their lives in Leah Stewart's latest novel, The New Neighbor, set in the small college town of Sewanee, Tennessee.
Interview by

I recently had the pleasure of interviewing J.R. Ward (onstage, no less) about her latest novel, The Bourbon Kings, during her Salon@615 appearance in Nashville. Ward is well known for her best-selling paranormal Black Dagger Brotherhood series, but with The Bourbon Kings, which was selected as our August Romance Top Pick, she steps into the contemporary, drama-filled world of Kentucky high society.

The hilarious Ward began the interview promising “No f-bombs, no cursing.” She made it seven minutes before breaking that promise.  

Tell us a bit about your new series.
I’m from Boston and New York, and I married a Southern gentleman. The textbook way of dealing with a marriage is you actually have to live with the guy that you walk down the aisle with. So when he turned to me and said, “I no longer know what I’m doing in New England,” I said, “I am not moving to Kentucky.” And we all know how that went, because if I hadn’t have moved down here I wouldn’t have written The Bourbon Kings.

They have this adage for authors that you should write what you know, and that actually didn’t work with the vampire series, because I haven’t met any vampires. But it did work very well with The Bourbon Kings. I think that one of the things that makes books interesting, aside from good conflict, is a regional vocabulary and world-building that is at once unique and captivating, something that’s sort of out of the ordinary. And I think that Southern culture and the Southern lifestyle is a very specific regional character in and of itself. I feel like the South is its own character; it’s not like any other place in the United States. 

When I first pitched the idea about five years ago, my publisher said that people love the South. They’re fascinated by it. I think there are more expectations for behavior down here; it’s not the Regency ton, but there are certain expectations that can create conflict between characters. So between me moving down here and spending 10 years in the South—really immersing myself in that culture because that’s where I live now—and recognizing that it offers some really interesting territory to explore as an author, that’s where I really came to the character of the book itself.

As an expat Yankee, did you experience any culture shock when you moved down here?
(Facial expressions galore.) No not at all. [It was a] seamless transition that made me realize that I have always been Southern my entire life. I’m a born and bred Bostonian-New Yorker. And I think my heart's always going to be up there, my hard-wiring is always going to be up there. I’m one of those annoying little people that’s always working, and I can remember dating my husband, and he’d sort of stroll down the street and I’d be power-walking. But he slowed me down, and I love living down here. I love college basketball, I love being able to have a great yard for my dog and my kid, and frankly I love the weather. I can remember moving down here and the tornado sirens going off in September, and we’re in the basement for the third night in a row. I look at my husband, and I’m like, “I’m from Boston, I don’t do this!” But now, 10 years on, I love big storms. I love that there are four seasons—Winter doesn’t last from October to May. I get back to New York for work a lot, but I love the South now.

After writing paranormal romance for so long, what inspired this new series to be in a contemporary setting?
My mentor is [best-selling mystery author] Sue Grafton, and she—Oh! I can actually curse! And it’s legal because she said it! So she said, "If you’re not scaring the shit out of yourself, you’re not working hard enough." The lawyer in me is thrilled that I found a loophole.

I love writing the Black Dagger Brotherhood. And as long as they keep talking to me, God willing, I am still going to write them. I have six books planned out at this point. But I think that it’s important that you keep challenging yourself and scaring yourself. It’s really important that you don’t go stale. And I love “Dynasty.” In case you haven’t noticed, I kind of want to be Alexis Carrington Colby?

So I love watching “Dynasty,” but I also watch the market very carefully. And it’s not that I write to the market, but I want to know what people want to read. This is a job for me. I love what I do, but I also want to publish at a really high level. So the question is, with the stuff that spits out of my brain, what are the nexuses, what are the connections, to popular culture. What are you watching on TV, what are you reading about in books and magazines—besides the freakin’ Kardashians, who I am so tired of.

But anyway, I did think it was important to try and do something else, to do something different. So when the Fallen Angels series came to its conclusion, I went to my publisher and I said I had this idea: It’s “Dynasty,” it’s “Dallas” and “Knots Landing,” it’s "Downton Abbey" in the New South—and she said, “Don’t use the word family saga or no one will ever buy it.” But she said, “Write the outline, show me what you got.” And I wrote it and she said it was really good, and I thought, “Thank God.” They bought three books, and you’ll notice the connections between it and the Black Dagger Brotherhood. Both of them have core groups of people instead of just one couple or even just one family. I love exploring an entire community, and I love exploring different dynamics in a community, people’s lives and how they interact.

So I wanted to be Alexis and this is as close as I can get.

                               
Lily McLemore (left) and J.R. Ward (right) onstage at the Nashville Public Library during her Salon@615 appearance.

What do you think will appeal most to Black Dagger Brotherhood series readers about The Bourbon Kings?
There is banging. There might be some. 

I think what you’re also going to find is really good conflict. Aside from the fact that there are romantic elements, the single thing I love best about the Black Dagger Brotherhood series is the “what’s next” factor. And I think The Bourbon Kings has that as well. I think real life is a lot like that. You always want to know what’s going to happen next.  Hopefully, that—well I don’t want to say addicting quality because that makes me sound like a crack dealer—but I mean that people will be invested enough in your stories to come back for more.

With all the luxurious details about the palatial family estate of Easterly, the beautiful gowns, and the upstairs/downstairs dynamic, this novel almost feels historical, like "Downton Abbey." Just like with a historical novel, I felt that you must have been doing some digging into Southern culture. What sort of research did you do for The Bourbon Kings?
I didn’t do a lot of research. My husband comes from a very old Southern family. And the South is full of characters. The difference between the South and the North is that Southern people actually like eccentric folk, and Northerners want to sort of iron us all out and make us all smooth and put us in boxes. And Southerners are like, “Oh they’re crazy! Fantastic!” So people have been really kind to me. Because I’m nuts.

There’s one thing that was very different [about writing The Bourbon Kings]. [With] the Black Dagger Brotherhood books, all those people were in my head, fully formed from the beginning. No people in real life influenced them at all. But I found that with The Bourbon Kings, there are some Southern characters that I have met that are such caricatures of themselves, that they’re in The Bourbon Kings. Lizzie and Greta are both based on two of my really good friends; Samuel T. Lodge is based on one of my husband’s hunting buddies; one of my poker player friends is the Master Distiller, just because they’re such evocative people. And that’s a departure for me. They’re not exact, they’re sort of broadly representative of these people, because they’re just so fascinating, just wonderful characters. So I didn’t do a lot of research; I just lived here for 10 years.

I was struck by the world-building of the estate of Easterly—and Easterly is another world. You’re known for your detailed world-building in paranormal romances, and I was wondering how the writing process differed for The Bourbon Kings?
It really didn’t. Other than being at a cocktail party and being like, “You’re going in the book.” There are some grand Southern estates that still exist, that have [a huge] number of people working in them. And you’re right, it is almost historical. You go into these homes and see the lifestyles. There almost isn’t a place in modern life for it anymore. The idea that your needs are so completely catered to by other people, and that you’re experiencing your own home as a hotel that has waves of gardeners and rules for what door [workers] can go out. It’s so captivating because you think to yourself, “This can’t exist anymore.” I find it charming, I find it slightly frightening and naïve, but most of all I find it captivating. The idea that modern life has very few rules anymore in terms of who you can marry, who you can be with, who you can associate with, what you wear—and there’s a certain stratosphere that those rules that existed a hundred years ago are still in place. And God save you if you violate them. So I kind of wanted to bring that forward.

Without spoiling any plot elements, I can say that there are some elements of mystery in this series, which is new for you.  What was it like building in an overarching mystery?
Have you ever been in an out of control car? I have, not once but several times, and I drive the way I write, which is not good. I have no control over anything. What happens is, when I start to write, the pictures in my head start going, and if I try to tweak them in any way, they stop. And I am a bona-fide blonde. I’m not that bright. I am not capable of thinking these stories up, so I step back and let them do what they’re going to do. And my job is to record what I’m seeing on the page. I go with what I’m shown. I don’t have any conscious thought of introducing anything into the series. When I outline the book, I need to know where I’m going. A lot of thought goes into the outlining process, but it’s just a function of putting into some chronology that is logical that which I’m being shown in my head.

I love bourbon, so I have to ask. Do you have a favorite bourbon drink?
I don’t drink alcohol. And isn’t that a relief—can you imagine this shit drunk?


RELATED CONTENT: Read our review of The Bourbon Kings.

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This interview has been edited for length and content. 
(Author photo by Andrew Hyslop)

 

I recently had the pleasure of interviewing J.R. Ward (onstage, no less) about her latest novel, The Bourbon Kings, during her Salon615 appearance in Nashville. Ward is well known for her best-selling paranormal Black Dagger Brotherhood series, but with The Bourbon Kings, she steps into the contemporary world of Kentucky high society.
Interview by

Best-selling romantic suspense author Christina Dodd returns to Virtue Falls, Washington, in our September Romance Top Pick, Obsession Falls. In this 7 Questions interview, the very funny Dodd talks about what she's learned after writing 52 (!) novels, her preferred alternate identity, stone circles and more. 

Describe your new novel in one sentence. 
"Christina Dodd mixes a chilling cocktail of suspense and romance in Obsession Falls." BookPage review

You told me to describe it in one sentence. You didn't tell me it had to be my sentence! I could never say it as well as reviewer Christie Ridgway.

You write in multiple romance genres. Which genre is the most fun to write?
I've written suspense, paranormal and historical, and I love whatever I'm working on . . . unless the story is giving me fits, in which case I loathe it. I find variety makes me a better, happier writer. Obsession Falls is my 52nd book, and I love what I do. I love creating stories! Few people in this world get to do what they were born to do; I’m one of them. I am blessed.

What’s the silliest stereotype about romance authors or readers that you’ve heard?
I've been published for 25 years, so I've heard a lot, and for quite a while now, I've been quoting two statistics:

 According to a study cited by Dr. Joyce Brothers, women who read romance novels make love 74 percent more often than women who don’t read romance novels.

According to special research from the British Medical Journal, the more orgasms you have, the longer you’re likely to live.

Assuming those studies are true, we need to stop worrying about what the stereotypes are or whether we are respected. We romance readers are going to outlive all the critics anyway.

The action in Obsession Falls moves from the Sawtooth Mountains of Idaho to Virtue Falls, Washington. What inspired your settings?
I lived in Idaho for 15 years, so I have some experience with camping, fishing, hiking and sleeping in a tent in the summer with a good sleeping bag and a blow-up mattress that goes flat at 2 AM. My experiences were quite different from Taylor's: She is shot at and barely escapes into the wilderness, completely unprepared to survive the oncoming winter. And believe me, that's a terrifying thought; I've visited the Sawtooth Mountains, and they are exactly as I described them: majestic, breathtaking, cruel. From the very beginning of Obsession Falls, Taylor is in trouble and nothing can save her—except her own ingenuity and resourcefulness.

After being challenged by my editor to build a town that is in itself a character, I created Virtue Falls. My whole life experience went into that project: my years in Texas where big personalities abound, my current life in Washington state where free spirits are the norm, and of course my childhood in California and my warm relationship with my mom. If Virtue Falls had a motto, it would be: Welcome to Virtue Falls: small town on the wild Pacific coast, tourist destination, a home for eccentrics . . .  and a magnet for murder.

If you had to take on a new identity like the heroine in 'Obsession Falls,' what would it be?
I'd like to be the writer everyone thinks I am. You know, An Author: Someone who has a muse, lives in some exotic foreign locale (preferably someplace windswept and romantic), travels the world signing books on glamorous book tours, has an editor weeping over her work and handsome lovers hanging on her every word (when she deigns to meet them), types her manuscripts on paper on a typewriter and—this is the cool part—writes only when she is inspired and then gets so involved in the story she forgets to eat.

I've got two kids, two dogs, have been married to the same man since the earth's crust cooled and I have NEVER IN MY LIFE forgotten to eat. We do have a stone circle . . .  but that probably makes us eccentric rather than exotic and mysterious.

Christina Dodd with her very mysterious, very exotic stone circle.

In addition to writing, you can cook! What’s your favorite food to cook?
I'm an incredibly lazy cook; I simply like good food. So I would say pork rack, which is so easy. The recipe is on my website; it makes grown men make yummy sounds.

On the other hand, I am currently working my way through the America's Test Kitchen International Cookbook. My husband says if America’s Test Kitchen told me to hop up and down, pat my head and rub my tummy while stirring their marinara with my elbow, I would do it. And that's probably the truth.

What are you working on next?
Illusion Falls, book three of the Virtue Falls series. It’s a mash-up of the two grand old movies Gaslight and Rear Window.

It was an interesting story to write for me. Obsession Falls takes place on a big canvas under wide skies and along dark winding roads, moving from in the Idaho wilderness to the mountains of the Washington Olympic Peninsula. In comparison, Illusion Falls is almost claustrophobic, taking place for the most part on one street in Virtue Falls.

Hero Jacob suffers from PTSD, hides in the dark in his house with tin foil over the windows, starving and alone, waiting for the moment when he can throw himself off the cliff and into the ocean. Heroine "Mad" Maddie Hewitson is being gaslighted by some unknown fiend, tortured with illusions of monsters from her past. She's always sleep-deprived, always terrified, and on a quick and necessary trip to the grocery store, she falls asleep at the wheel, drives into Jacob's house and breaks it wide open, dragging him unwillingly back into the world.

With the highs and lows of emotion, the broken hero, the hidden villain and of course more visits with beloved characters, this book was great fun to write!


Thank you, Christina! You can read more about the author on her website

Looking for more romance? Sign up for our monthly romance newsletter, Smitten!

Best-selling romantic suspense author Christina Dodd returns to Virtue Falls, Washington, in our September Romance Top Pick, Obsession Falls. In this 7 Questions interview, the very funny Dodd talks about what she's learned after writing 52 (!) novels, her preferred alternate identity, stone circles and more.
Interview by

Suzanne Enoch closes her Scandalous Highlanders series with our October Top Pick in Romance, Some Like It Scot, the tale of two stubborn souls who find each other in the beautiful yet treacherous Scottish Highlands. In this 7 Questions interview, Enoch talks about the appeal of a kilt, her favorite romances and what's next for her. 

Describe your book in one sentence.
The course of true love never did run smooth, especially when it involves the two most stubborn, set-in-their-ways people on the planet. In kilts. (Okay, that’s two sentences, but just barely.)

Why do you think Highlanders are such a romance novel staple?
In our mythos, the word “Highlander” comes with a built-in dictionary definition filled with terms like “wild,” untamed,” “strong,” “independent,” and very, very alpha. It’s one of those words like “shark” or “tornado,” where just its mention fills a reader's mind with a whole slew of imagery. And it’s very compelling, very seductive imagery.

Would you rather be a part of the Regency ton or take to the moors of 19th-century Scotland described in Some Like It Scot?
That’s a really tough question. As a lady, I think I’d have an easier time in a London drawing room, but man, those Highlanders and that kind of rollicking lifestyle are so tempting. Can I summer in the Highlands and winter in my estate in Surrey? That would work for me.

Did you do any research for Some Like It Scot?
Over the course of this Scandalous Highlanders book series, I’ve done a lot of research on what was going on in the Highlands at the time of the English Regency—the easing of the restrictions placed on the Scots after their loss at the Battle of Culloden, the Clearances that were forcing landowners to replace tenants with Cheviot sheep, the decline of the clan system, etc. It wasn’t fairy-tale pretty by any means, but the hardship and the drama make for a fascinating setting—and tons of conflict—that I love as a writer.

You’re a big film fan: What’s your favorite on-screen romance?
I love Hawkeye and Cora’s romance in The Last of the Mohicans—it’s so sweeping and larger-than-life (much more so than in the novel). And I’m also a sucker for the much more subtle romance of Ripley and Hicks in Aliens, with two very strong-willed people who know both how to survive and how vital it is to do what’s right.

What do you love most about Bear and Catriona’s relationship?
I like how neither of them are looking for love, but eventually—through much smack-talk and arguing—realize that while love is a compromise, it also has the effect of making them better people than they were before. I knew I would be using Bear for the book’s hero, and I knew he was big and imposing and fierce. When it came time to concoct a heroine, I figured I could go one of two ways: either give him his complete opposite, someone shy and proper and who needed his protection, or give him a lass at least as tough and fierce as he was. I decided the latter would be so much more fun, and it definitely turned out that way.

This is the final Scandalous Highlander book. What’s next for you?
I had the opportunity to go back to London if I wanted, but as I was doodling out plot lines, I realized that I’m not quite finished with the Highlands yet. So I’m heading back there again, with a new group of lads and lasses and putting as much trouble in front of them as I can manage. I can’t wait.


Looking for more romance? Sign up for our monthly romance newsletter, Smitten!

 

Suzanne Enoch closes her Scandalous Highlanders series with Some Like It Scot, the tale of two stubborn souls who find each other in the beautiful yet treacherous Scottish Highlands. In this 7 Questions interview, Enoch talks about the appeal of a kilt, her favorite romances and what's next for her.
Interview by

Claire Vaye Watkins’ award-winning short story collection, Battleborn (2012), explored the West and the often disappointing truths behind its rich mythology. Watkins returns to the West in her luminous debut novel, Gold Fame Citrus, although it’s a West that has been drastically altered. 

The California of Gold Fame Citrus has been ravaged by unending drought, and only a handful of drifters remain, including disillusioned couple Luz and Ray, who are squatting in a starlet’s abandoned house until they take on the care of a strange, enigmatic toddler and begin to look east toward a more stable life. However, a vast stretch of sand has engulfed the West, and crossing the unmapped terrain is treacherous. When the trio encounters Levi, a prophet-like dowser, and his followers, more strange dangers present themselves in unexpected ways. 

I got the chance to sit down with Watkins during the Southern Festival of Books earlier this month, and we talked about the power of setting, the myths of motherhood and more.

This novel is firmly rooted in the West, and you grew up in the Mojave Desert. I was wondering what about the West really inspires your writing.
It’s hard to separate what inspires me from just who I am. I grew up there, and when I moved away from the West, I started to see it through more mythic eyes, to see how other people who never have been there saw it. And I started to think it was a really captivating place, and kind of haunted. I like the way that history seems to gurgle up to the surface a lot of times, wherever you are. It’s a relatively new place, but there are a lot of stories all layered on top of each other. And I think the landscape is beautiful, and I like putting characters who are in trouble in really beautiful places and seeing what that might do to who they are.

"When I moved away from the West, I started to see how people who never have been there saw it. I started to think it was a really captivating place, and kind of haunted."

Obviously this novel is coming out while there’s a major drought in the West, and I was wondering how that affected your writing. Did you keep abreast of the situation or did you try to ignore it and do your own thing?
I was born in the Owens Valley, which is the place where Owens Lake used to be, and Owens Lake was drained by the Los Angeles Aqueduct System in the 1920s. It set off what’s called the California Water Wars which is—have you ever seen the movie Chinatown?

I haven’t.
Well, it’s basically about the people in Owens Valley who try to resist—they dynamite the dams or the projects—so it was sort of like a microcosm of what happens in a much bigger scale in this book. So I was born there, and my family knew those stories and told those stories all the time. I mean, for most people in California, especially the dry part of California, drought and water has been on their minds their whole lives. So it was more like I was watching the rest of the country catch up to those people who have always been worried about it. Which was kind of nice, or at least refreshing. When I first started working on the book about five years ago, nobody even knew what I was talking about when I said I was writing about water and the Southwest, and some people would be like, “Oh yeah, it is kind of dry there, isn’t it?” But now, pretty much everybody knows. It’s a major issue.

Do you think at this point you’ll stick to the Western world in your writing, or do you think you’ll move out of the West?
I don’t know yet. I am getting increasingly interested in a less place-driven way of writing. I’ve always started with the setting in any piece of fiction, or at least the piece doesn’t really cohere until I know where it’s set. But I'm reading Lydia Davis’ stories right now, and a lot of them have no setting at all. There’s just a really minimalistic approach to place. And probably because I’ve been writing in that mode now for two books, I'm getting interested in other ways of writing. So not necessarily that I’ll be interested in writing about other regions. I don’t think I could write about any region other than the American West the way that I do, because I don’t know it as well. I don’t feel like it’s a part of me, even though I’ve lived in the Midwest and the Rust Belt.

Luz was a model before the West was abandoned. I was wondering about your thoughts on her beauty in this completely blown out world.
I think what’s interesting about Luz is that she is one of these models who’s really striking looking, but sometimes that can be seen as an ugliness. But sometimes, in the right campaign, with the right makeup and the right advertising, it can be really exotic. So her beauty is particularly exoticized. She would never be mistaken for the girl next door. I think I was drawn to that because it would be almost like she had this secret identity. And there’s some stuff about her race going on there, that they want her for this particular kind of look. Her job is always telling her, “You’re like this.” But she actually feels really, completely different. And then her whole childhood she was this baby Dunn symbol. I like that all of the characters have three or four different identities that they can slip into and out of depending on the situation.

I love the character Luz, and I strongly identified with her, but I was also distraught by her irresponsible—albeit realistic—choices. Did you intend for the reader to really connect with Luz?
Yeah, definitely. I mean, I like the idea that you would be allied with someone who would make really bad decisions, but she makes bad decisions for good reasons. I like the muddiness and the complication. I didn’t set out to do this explicitly, but it was important for me to really lodge the reader with a young woman who is a product of our culture and is trying to move around in a culture in which she is objectified. I mean, she is professionally objectified, but there’s threats of sexual violence here and there, and that’s just what it is to be a woman, you know? And it’s funny, because every once and a while I’ll get feedback that someone wishes Luz was more strong or powerful, and I'm like, “Yeah, I bet she wishes that too!” If only we could just make the characters that way. But I don’t think that’s the goal of a novel. Dora the Explorer should be a powerful young woman with agency, right? But that’s not what the novel is doing, it’s not a role-model project. It’s a mirror, it’s not aspirational. One of my teachers used to say that you can only give characters the endings that they deserve.

"Dora the Explorer should be a powerful young woman with agency, right? But that’s not what the novel is doing, it’s not a role-model project. It’s a mirror, it’s not aspirational."

In the same vein, we spend a lot of time with Luz, and we spend a lot of time inspecting her failures as Ray’s lover and as a surrogate mother, but we don’t spend as much time with Ray, who arguably makes just as many mistakes. I was wondering, what if it had been Ray’s book? Was the focus on feminine failure intentional?
It was probably just that I am more familiar with feminine failure. But I did want Ray to also be wrestling with masculine archetypes. He’s a veteran, so the word “hero” is often adhered to him, and he’s uncomfortable with that. Yet, a lot of the mistakes he makes are because he’s trying to be a hero, or he thinks this is what a "manly man" ought to do. What he would like to do, just as a little guy, a little speck on the earth, is not hardly ever the same thing as what man as hero and actor should do. I wanted to show that there’s a difference between being true to yourself and being heroic, and then being this cardboard cutout of masculinity, which is often just that. I mean it’s flimsy and frail and made of trash.

I noticed that the two central male figures in Luz’s life, Ray and Levi, are doling out sedatives, which I thought was interesting. Could you say a little more about that?
They are, aren’t they? I mean, you can certainly imagine the appeal of sedatives, just in our world right here in Nashville! Let alone in this near-apocalyptic hellscape. Maybe it goes back to that idea that they’re trying to be heroic, or they’re trying to help people, and they develop these coping mechanisms. And of course, in situations like the one Luz finds herself in in the colony, drugs are often used to control. I'm interested in drug use as being seen as a way to higher consciousness. Because I think that’s so alluring—I would love for that to be true! If I could just take a drop of acid and then access another dimension of existence. That’d be so cool! But I also kind of doubt it. Then again I haven’t taken acid. But maybe that’s my family.

Their central characters, Ray and Luz and the baby Estrella, are all named after forms of light. I was wondering how you settled on those names?
Luz is from the film Giant with James Dean. It’s kind of like Gone with the Wind but with cowboys? It's just a big epic, and one of the sister characters, her name is Luz. You never really know—I guess it’s because they’re Texans—why it’s pronounced that way. Ray—well, I think I wanted them both to be tight, short, three-letter names. And I had a dear friend who passed away whose middle name was Ray. He liked to go by Ray sometimes when he was up to no good. It was almost like an alter ego for him. I thought about him a lot as I was writing this. Then once I realized, of course, Luz is Spanish for light and Ray, like a ray of light, I thought they would have to be aware of this. I hate it when there’s symbols or some thematic thing going on and the characters are just totally oblivious, you know? I think it’s always a good idea to let your characters be as smart as you are if not smarter.

"I hate it when there’s symbols or some thematic thing going on and the characters are just totally oblivious, you know? I think it’s always a good idea to let your characters be as smart as you are if not smarter."

In society, motherhood is kind of held up on a pedestal and invested with these transformative powers and the ability to make women better people. I'm wondering—is that true? Luz has a lot of failings as a surrogate mother. Are we just doomed to be who we are—there’s no magic transformations out there?
That’s so interesting. You know, I didn’t realize that part of the myth of motherhood is that it can be transformational until I was pregnant, and so many people would describe it to me as this transformation. I read that one of the theories about natural birth is that it’s such a profound experience that it actually wipes away your past traumas.

That’d be neat.
Right? And that’s a cousin to the idea that you can take a pill and reach a higher plane of existence. We’re looking for something and hoping that maybe this experience will give us something. So I think that Luz is hoping that [motherhood] will be a major transformation and an upheaval for her. But of course, as with major transformations, you can’t really predict them. It’s funny. I have felt like motherhood is completely transformative, but in absolutely unpredictable ways. I wrote this book—I think I turned it in a week before I went into labor with my daughter—and sometimes when I'm talking about it or reading from it, I feel like it was written by somebody else, somebody that I don't even know anymore. An old friend or something.

How so? When you’re reading it, what strikes you as odd?
Partly that my worldview has been radically redesigned by being a parent. And the worldview in the book is still my old one that I used to have. Partly, in a lot of this book I was kind of rehearsing. My friend Peter Ho Davies talks about how, a lot of times in our books, people mistakenly think that writers are writing about their experience, but they’re actually maybe more rehearsing for experience. So for me, it was motherhood; I was thinking about what it would be like to have a child. And in some ways, I got a lot right about motherhood. Not for me, but for Luz. But then there are other things that I could never really have imagined till I did it.

And it’s interesting that it’s not Luz’s child.
That’s kind of another interesting layer on it. We treat mothers generally with more delicacy than we do non-mothers. It’s just the way it is; I don’t think it’s a great thing. And suddenly Luz, who’s been treated kind of roughly her whole life—she’s been objectified a lot, she was sexually abused when she was a model—now she’s suddenly treated like a mother. She’s been on the whore side of the Madonna-whore binary. And then just in an instant, she’s on the Madonna side.

This is embarrassing to admit, but I’ve never been farther west than Arkansas. So for a while, I thought the Amargosa Dune Sea was real. It very much melded myth and reality. I was really amazed by your ability to create this landscape, and I was wondering about the process of creating the myth and this dune sea.
There’s a big long chapter about the dune sea in the middle of this book, and that was the first thing I ever wrote. It ended up being about a hundred pages in, but I wrote that first, and I think it was because I needed to do exactly what you’re saying. I needed to figure out what this thing was from all different angles. How does the geology of it work—I mean of course it doesn’t really work, this would take millions of years and this happens in like half a generation. But let’s just suspend our disbelief for a little bit—and the culture of it. I found that if I figured out the mundane details, it made it more real for me. Like, whose jurisdiction is this? What kind of animals do or don’t live there? What happens to the houses?

I loved the fact that the foot of the dune crushes; it doesn’t cover anything up, and that’s what ends up convincing the people to leave. Their homes aren’t covered up, they’re gone.
Right! You know, there’s a wonderful Tony Earley story about a dam keeper called “The Prophet from Jupiter,” and it has this image of this town that’s submerged by the dam. It’s totally spooky. So I wanted to do a terrestrial version of that. But then I realized that the idea of the sand just gently coming—it was too gentle, it was romantic. So instead I thought about glaciers, how they scrape the land and leave these gauges and turn things into rock right away.

I felt that the drive for sex and companionship in this novel was really powerful, as well as being a huge threat and a tool for manipulation. I was wondering why sex is such a driving force and comfort for these characters.
I just like the idea that even though this is a disastrous landscape, that people would still be whole, they would still have their needs. They would still laugh, they would still need to go to the bathroom, they would still have sex. They would still get bored. They would still need something to occupy their time, they might like to play music. That we would just continue to be ourselves. So often when I read dystopian literature, it just seems like all people do is eat. And drink and sleep and eat and drink and sleep and eat. It just doesn’t seem real to me, or wholly imagined. They’re also young people, and they don’t have a whole lot to do.

Battleborn has a lot to do with the West’s history, and in “Ghosts, Cowboys,” there’s elements of your family’s history, as well. I was wondering if your mother and father influenced this novel.
Oh yeah, definitely. My mom’s the one who told me about the California Water Wars in the 20s and 30s and taught me the way the geology of the West works. She ran a museum—a very small little rock shop and museum at the edge of Death Valley, and I basically grew up there. So I learned about rocks, but I also learned about interpreting history. I don’t really know nearly as much about geology or natural history or talc mining or any of the thing I write about. I just learned what a good story feels like. If we’re trying to understand the past, what is the shape of that genre. So absolutely.

Are you looking forward to anything in particular at the festival?
That I get to be with Ben Percy on the panel is so fun. I think we’re going to run our panel more like a survivalist boot camp. Between Ben and I think we can teach everybody a lot about surviving the apocalypse.  

(Author photo by Heike Steinweg)

 

Claire Vaye Watkins’ award-winning short story collection, Battleborn (2012), explored the West and the often disappointing truths behind its rich mythology. Watkins returns to the West in her luminous debut novel, Gold Fame Citrus, although it’s a West that has been drastically altered. 

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