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Adriana Trigiani enjoys the kind of zealous fan base reserved for a handful of contemporary authors. And deservedly so: she takes good care of her readers, devoting time each week to phone chats and meetings with book clubs around the country, and maintaining a website that is frequently updated with photos, tour dates and other tidbits. More importantly, she delivers charming, dependably satisfying books that you know will be stuffed with quirky but likable characters. Her best-selling Big Stone Gap trilogy, as well as her stand-alone novels Lucia Lucia and Queen of the Big Time, all are helmed by strong women who take charge of their circumstances. This female-centric viewpoint has become somewhat of a hallmark of her books.

So Trigiani’s newest offering, Rococo, may require a bit of an adjustment for her biggest fans. For one thing, the main character is gasp a man. But it turned out that writing from a male point of view was not as big of a stretch as she might have thought.

"It didn’t end up mattering," said Trigiani. " In many ways it wasn’t any different, because I was just involved in the personality of the character and the interpersonal relationships of the people in the book." Trigiani spoke with BookPage recently from her home in New York City, where she was juggling promoting Rococo with taking care of two-year-old daughter Lucia’s bout of strep throat. Clearly excited about the new book, Trigiani gossiped in a "Can you believe they did that?" tone about her characters as if they were real-life friends.

"It’s this small town just loaded with these colorful characters," she said. "I just had a ball with it." In Rococo, Trigiani delves more deeply than ever into matters of sexuality, faith and family. Bartolomeo di Crespi is the big fish in the small pond of Our Lady of Fatima, a small town in New Jersey. It’s the early 1970s, and B is a highly successful interior decorator and a confirmed bachelor. When he’s not decorating the most palatial homes along the Jersey shore, he’s handling his own family, which includes his lovelorn sister, his cousin and confidant Christina, and an aimless young nephew looking to Uncle B for guidance.

B is also a devout Catholic whose dream project is to renovate the local church, where he served as an altar boy and still attends Mass every Sunday. B is rankled when he’s initially passed over for the job. After a battle with the local priest, he gets the gig, but it turns out to be far more than he bargained for. Tasked with designing a new space that will inspire the coming generations of churchgoers, B realizes that he might not be up to the challenge. The renovation and the people he meets during it leave him questioning not only his abilities as a designer, but ultimately his faith.

Trigiani’s fascination with family dynamics shines through loud and clear in her tales of the raucous Italian-American di Crespi clan. B’s outrageous sister, Toot, could hold her own against Fleeta Mullins or Iva Lou Wade Makin, two tough-as-nails characters featured in the Big Stone Gap books. Forever looking for love in the most dead wrong places, Toot takes up again with her ex-husband while B tries to bite his tongue.

"This is the thing about families: we know everything about each other. We just don’t talk about it," said Trigiani.

But Trigiani veers from her other works by writing Rococo as a reflection on the internal battle many wage about organized religion (or as B calls Roman Catholicism, RC, Inc ). She was particularly intrigued by what it must have been like for a practicing Catholic to function smack in the middle of the sexual revolution.

"Who among us doesn’t struggle with institutions? Everything is designed to confuse, befuddle and upset you," she said. "But the beauty of religion, fundamentally, is it’s where you learn how to pray that personal relationship you have with God outside the rules and regulations." Trouble is, B depends upon those very rules and regulations as the structure for his life, and his ambivalence about his sexuality complicates matters. While he routinely finds himself shoved into sexual situations with women, Trigiani adds another dimension to the book by making it clear B is unresolved about his feelings for both men and women.

"I wanted to write a character who really bought into religion, and then had to live in the world," she said.

Often surprised by the twists and turns her books take as she writes them, Trigiani admits she herself isn’t sure whether B is gay. It doesn’t much matter B has a full, rich life and seems content to be alone, at least for now.

"I think he is, but he doesn’t know it yet," said Trigiani. "And if my character doesn’t know it, I don’t know it." This respect for her characters is another Trigiani trademark. An award-winning playwright, documentary filmmaker and television writer, Trigiani has spent her career creating interesting, wholly original characters.

She follows the old adage, Write what you know, focusing on places and themes plucked from her own life. In Rococo, she drew on her interest in interior design. Both her grandmothers were seamstresses with a wealth of knowledge about textiles, and Trigiani admits to being a bit of an amateur decorator herself.

"You come to my house, you go in my closet, there’s a stack of fabric," she said. "I would be a decorator if I could." The world is so insane that our homes have really become our palazzos. Rococo takes its name from an elaborate French style of art and decorating that can be found in many churches. Trigiani liked the juxtaposition of this elaborate style with the more modern turn that decor took in the 1970s, which reflects the contrast between B’s traditional belief system and the rapidly changing society in which he finds himself.

Throughout this fast-paced, abundantly charming novel, Trigiani focuses on the things that really matter: family, faith and home. Especially home. It is a deeply rewarding book that should make her legions of fans very happy indeed.

Amy Scribner writes from Olympia, Washington.

 

Adriana Trigiani enjoys the kind of zealous fan base reserved for a handful of contemporary authors. And deservedly so: she takes good care of her readers, devoting time each week to phone chats and meetings with book clubs around the country, and maintaining a website that is frequently updated with photos, tour dates and other […]
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After a long absence from the publishing scene, Texas author Robert James Waller brings readers High Plains Tango, the story of a California drifter who washes up in the small town of Salamander, South Dakota. There he finds romance with two unforgettable women and stirs up trouble when highway developers threaten his lovingly restored home. BookPage got the chance to ask Waller a few questions about the new novel, his life after The Bridges of Madison County and more.

BookPage: Most of your novels are about small-town America. What is it about that setting that intrigues you? Do you think that lifestyle can continue to exist in today’s world?
Robert James Waller: Write about what you know, as the old admonition goes. I grew up in a small Iowa town of 900 people, so I understand rural life very well, urban life less so. I once said there are at least three good novels to be written about any small town in America. I still believe it. Many small towns have a dry rattle in the throat. It’s mostly a matter of culture and economics. Both of those play an integral part in High Plains Tango, which is set in just such a place. A new kind of rural living does seem to be emerging, quite different from the old patterns, partly because of modern communications such as the Internet, allowing people more flexibility in where they work. After spending 10 years on remote ranches in southwest Texas, I now live on a small farm in the Texas Hill Country. There are small towns all around me, some of them doing remarkably well, others not so good.

BP: The Bridges of Madison County was a cultural phenomenon. Do you still hear from readers who are moved by it?
RJW: Yes, I receive letters each week from people who have read it and are moved by the story. At one time, I received 50 to 100 letters per week. Now it’s more on the order of five. The last I knew, 350 marriage ceremonies had been celebrated at Roseman Bridge.

BP: High Plains Tango is linked to Bridges: the main character, Carlisle McMillan, is Robert Kincaid’s illegitimate son. What draws you back to these characters?
RJW: The Bridges of Madison County, A Thousand Country Roads and High Plains Tango, taken together, form a loose trilogy. Exactly why I am drawn to these characters is one of those magical things I choose not to examine too closely. The characters are like family to me, I suppose, and I understand completely how they think and walk and move their hands. And I find their connected stories to be very real, very possible and poignant. Plus, I like them very much, as people. Someone once said, Waller writes about the kind of people you meet in line at the grocery store. I considered that high praise.

BP: Before A Thousand Country Roads, you hadn’t written a novel in seven years. What made you return to writing, and what were you doing during your time off?
RJW: I was using the word tsunami long before the tragedy in Asia made it a part of common parlance, for that was how I described my experience with Bridges, not in terms of suffering, but rather that I didn’t see what was headed toward me. The intense reaction to the book took me by surprise, and being a very private, semi-reclusive fellow, I needed time off to think about it all. There were intervals when I did not leave my mountainous, high-desert ranch for months. And what was I doing? I always had been a reasonably serious musician but never had time for extended practice. So, I spent four years practicing jazz guitar five to 10 hours per day, until repetitive motion injuries stopped me cold. In addition, my wife Linda and I were busy resuscitating an old ranch that had been badly abused for decades. We succeeded, but it required a lot of time and effort.

BP: What are you working on now?
RJW: I seem to have had a resurgence of interest in all things. Aside from getting back into my early love affairs with economics and mathematics, I have another novel completed, The Long Night of Winchell Dear, which Shaye Areheart Books will publish in 2006. It covers five hours in the life of a professional poker player who is alone on a dusty ranch in west Texas. The behavior of the accidental hero of the book will jolt anyone who reads it.

 

After a long absence from the publishing scene, Texas author Robert James Waller brings readers High Plains Tango, the story of a California drifter who washes up in the small town of Salamander, South Dakota. There he finds romance with two unforgettable women and stirs up trouble when highway developers threaten his lovingly restored home. […]
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Any mother who lives in the suburbs knows about car culture. Strap screaming toddler/infant into minivan/SUV/late-model station wagon, drive 20 minutes to coffee shop/library/play date. Complete errand, then do it all in reverse.

Raising kids in the 'burbs can be an incredibly lonely endeavor. Best-selling author Jennifer Weiner, who burst onto the literary scene in 2001 with Good in Bed, may be a city-dweller herself, but she feels the pain of suburban stay-at-home moms in her new novel, Goodnight Nobody.

After the birth of her daughter (followed in too-rapid succession by twin boys), Kate Klein finds herself transplanted from Manhattan to Upchurch, a Stepford-esque Connecticut town where mothers spend their days making sure their children eat organic snacks, have plenty of enriching social activities and never guess that Mommy is bored out of her mind.

Of course, the town's bucolic charm is disturbed a bit when Kate finds local uber-mom Kitty Cavanaugh stabbed to death in her own kitchen. Missing her old days as a reporter, Kate launches an amateur investigation of the murder and discovers some not-so-wholesome activities going on behind the closed doors of Upchurch.

Although Weiner lives a more urban life with her husband and two-year-old daughter in Philadelphia, she clearly understands the singularly weird culture of one-upsmanship raging among modern middle-class moms. In Goodnight Nobody, she explores that segment of the population in which only the best is good enough for parents worried about getting their child into a top-tier preschool. Weiner is fascinated with how the isolation of the suburbs might feed this phenomenon.

"In the suburbs, you have to get in the car to go anywhere," Weiner says, talking to BookPage while taking a brief break from her current project (potty training her daughter, Lucy Jane). "Social circles can be so much more hierarchical and rigid when you have to plan every outing and get-together."

As someone firmly on the outside of Upchurch's social circle, Kate is the antithesis of her overachieving peers. She fastens her hair with a paper clip from her husband's office when she can't find a barrette, and she is quite certain she will die if she has to play one more game of Candyland.

"Kate is a very extreme example of the dislocation and confusion every new mom goes through," Weiner says. "You can feel your life slipping away a little—maybe not your life, but certainly your autonomy."

With a toddler at home, Weiner knows the effort it takes to juggle a career and kids. She's had to readjust her own life to make time for her writing. A nanny comes in from 1 to 5 p.m. every weekday, while Weiner and her laptop relocate to a coffee shop down the street.

"I'm luckier than probably 99 percent of women anywhere," she notes. "I don't have a boss to deal with, I don't have an office to go to. I have a lot of flexibility and freedom. But still it's not easy. You can't answer e-mail and take care of a two-year-old."

Those afternoons writing in the coffee shop have yielded Goodnight Nobody, which is Weiner's first foray into the mystery genre. Her previous bestsellers, Good In Bed, In Her Shoes (made into a feature film starring Cameron Diaz that hits theaters this month) and Little Earthquakes, feature women facing major turning points in their lives. Weiner found that writing a believable, suspenseful whodunit was a whole different task.

"Mysteries are so plot-driven, whereas my previous books were very character-driven," she says. With a mystery, "you've got to have great characters but also intricacy in the clues and pacing. I probably did more rewriting on this book than the first three put together. It was a very intense year."

Even while changing genres, Weiner continues her tradition of writing smart, funny novels about smart, funny women. She infuses her characters with humor and believable angst, thus earning a place among the queen bees of the so-called chick lit scene, something she's come to accept and even embrace.

"There's nothing wrong with the pink cover with high heels," she says, referring to the glut of pastel-colored books published in recent years that feature lovelorn heroines who tend to shop too much and have really, really awful bosses.

"There are a great many other things in the world I can get outraged about."

But Weiner did wade into the debate a few months ago, after Prep author Curtis Sittenfeld wrote a scathing review of Melissa Bank's The Wonder Spot, deriding it in the New York Times as fluffy chick lit.

Weiner blasted back on her blog, SnarkSpot, charging that the review was a transparent bid by Sittenfeld to position herself as a serious author rather than a mere member of the chick lit brigade.

Weiner wrote: "The more I think about the increasingly angry divide between ladies who write literature and chicks who write chick lit, the more it seems like a grown-up version of the smart versus pretty games of years ago; like so much jockeying for position in the cafeteria and mocking the girls who are nerdier/sluttier/stupider than you to make yourself feel more secure about your own place in the pecking order."

Months later, Weiner still bristles at the idea that any author should "turn up her nose at a whole genre."

"I found it mean-spirited and narrow-minded," she says of Sittenfeld's review. "I almost feel sorry for her. She's alienated a lot of women authors and readers who don't want to be told they're stupid for liking this kind of book."

In the end, though, Weiner's latest work transcends such easy labels. Call it chick lit if you must, but more than anything, Goodnight Nobody is a page-turning mystery that would make the "Desperate Housewives" proud.

Best of all, Weiner bravely goes where few have dared, allowing her character to feel conflicted (with an occasional flicker of full-blown regret) about her new role as full-time mom. An entire nation of chicks will thank her.

 

Amy Scribner tends to her toddler son in Olympia, Washington.

Author photo by Andrea Cipriani.

Any mother who lives in the suburbs knows about car culture. Strap screaming toddler/infant into minivan/SUV/late-model station wagon, drive 20 minutes to coffee shop/library/play date. Complete errand, then do it all in reverse. Raising kids in the 'burbs can be an incredibly lonely endeavor. Best-selling author Jennifer Weiner, who burst onto the literary scene in […]
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Ayelet Waldman is a wicked, wicked girl. Just ask the thousands of e-mailers who hurled bolts of vitriol her way after she dared to declare in a New York Times opinion piece last year that she loved her husband more than she loved her children. Or ask the "Oprah" audience that came to a studio in Chicago to bury Waldman, not to praise her for the self-same transgression.

"It sounds very naïve to say I had no idea, but the real truth is I had no idea," Waldman says of the heated reaction to her op-ed during a call to her home in Berkeley, California. It is 7 a.m. and Waldman, a multi-tasker par excellence, and her husband, Pulitzer prize-winning novelist Michael Chabon, are getting their four hungry, rambunctious-sounding kids ready for school.

"I knew what I was saying was controversial and I constructed the piece in a way that I knew would grab the reader," Waldman says between side conversations with Chabon about butter and oatmeal, "but I really hadn't processed the fact that appearing in the Times meant that five million people would be sending me hate mail."

What most surprises the not-very-repentant Waldman about the stir she created is that she had previously expressed similar views in her humorous and popular Mommy Track mystery books, in her Salon.com columns, and, in a way, in her first serious, literary novel, Daughter's Keeper. "And I would get feedback from women who all said, oh my God, finally someone is saying this!"

Waldman's sharply observed, completely absorbing and sometimes wickedly humorous new novel might just provoke the same intensely polarized reaction among readers as did her op-ed piece. Set in contemporary New York, Love and Other Impossible Pursuits tells the story of Emilia Greenleaf, a mother devastated by the loss of her newborn daughter, and struggling – not very successfully, it seems – to relate to her sensitive, annoyingly precocious stepson William, do battle with the boy's neurotic, controlling and bitterly contemptuous mother and preserve her marriage to the boy's father, Jack Wolff, a wealthy corporate attorney and extraordinarily compassionate man she believes to be her soul mate.

"If you had asked me a few months ago [if the op-ed piece and Love and Other Impossible Pursuits were related], I would have said, of course not," Waldman says, "because I never know on anything but a subconscious level what a book is about until I start discussing it in interviews. Now I realize that the book is linked to the op-ed piece in the way that all of my work is linked: I began writing because I had something to say about maternal ambivalence, and I have been writing about maternal ambivalence in a million different ways ever since."

Later, Waldman adds, "I wanted to write about this feeling that you have when you just don't like a kid. It happens all the time. And I thought, what if that kid is yours and you don't have that maternal bond? Step-parenting seems to be this quintessential dilemma. You're supposed to assume all the affection and devotion of a parent but at the same time this is someone who quite often hates you and who stands between you and your spouse. And if your spouse is a decent person, he or she generally feels an intense amount of ambivalence because even if your relationship wasn't the cause of the divorce [as it is in the case of Emilia and Jack, who begin an affair while working together as attorneys], there is still guilt for having replaced one relationship with the other."

Waldman's exploration of Emilia's plight draws emotional power from her own experience of losing a baby late in pregnancy. It is an experience she had written about in columns on Salon.com and "written around" in a previous novel and a short story. But, Waldman says, she found herself "needing to write about it closer and closer. . . . And then, when it came time to write this book, I was ready to write really directly about the feelings of grief."

And that is not all Waldman drew from the well of personal experiences to create her character Emilia Greenleaf. Like her protagonist, Waldman was born in northern New Jersey ("Glenrock instead of Ridgewood," Waldman quips. "That was my one big cloaking device!"), has a father with children from a previous marriage, loves Central Park (which looms so large that it is essentially a character in the novel), graduated from Harvard Law School and possesses an acerbic sense of humor, to name just a few.

But to surmise that Emilia is simply a stand-in for the author is to diminish Waldman's remarkable achievement in creating the compelling, complex, sometimes likeable, sometimes not-so-likeable character of Emilia. Besides, Emilia is neither as disarmingly candid as Waldman nor as funny. And the deeply conflicted Emilia could never have invented the novel's most luminous character, William, the precocious, overly sensitive preschooler, who in the end becomes Emilia's sweet agent of grace.

Love and Other Impossible Pursuits tumbled forth, Waldman says, "in what was the most amazing writing experience of my life. I felt I couldn't type fast enough to keep up with my head. I wasn't even conscious of constructing the book in my mind. I felt like it was being read to me."

According to Waldman, William tumbled forth right alongside Emilia. And the wonderfully rendered character of William along with the joyous hubbub in the background of the call (at one point Waldman shouts over the din, "I have very normal children, like right now they're sitting around the table shrieking booger! at one another.") makes one wonder what the op-ed/"Oprah" controversy is really all about.

"There was this funny moment on Oprah's show," Waldman says, "where one of the women looked at me with surprise and said, but you're not evil! and I said, nooooo, I'm really not."

Wicked maybe. But evil? Definitely not.

Alden Mudge writes from Oakland, California.

 

Ayelet Waldman is a wicked, wicked girl. Just ask the thousands of e-mailers who hurled bolts of vitriol her way after she dared to declare in a New York Times opinion piece last year that she loved her husband more than she loved her children. Or ask the "Oprah" audience that came to a studio […]
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Jodi Picoult will go to the ends of the earth to confront her readers with unsettling truths they’d rather not face. Case in point: while researching The Tenth Circle, her 13th and most adventurous novel yet, the intrepid author huddled inside an Eskimo hut in the dead of winter with a frozen moose thawing on the sideboard to glean the ancient Inuit wisdom necessary to breathe life into a story about . . . date rape?

Picoult’s fans have come to expect the unexpected from the Hanover, New Hampshire, mother of three whose topical novels explore how family relationships bend and twist under the strain of an ethical or moral crisis. Her every-parent’s-nightmare fears have led her to peek into some pretty dark closets: teen suicide (The Pact), stigmata (Keeping Faith) and child abduction (Vanishing Acts).

But in The Tenth Circle, she outdoes herself by somehow managing to combine Eskimos, comic books, teen sex and Dante Alighieri with a straight face. Put that way, the audacity of it tickles even the author.

"Let’s see, Dante, comic books, Alaska—go talk among yourselves! Find the connection!" she roars. "It’s a seemingly unrelated group of topics but they all somehow get together."

It is a testament to Picoult’s storytelling prowess that the reader never pauses to examine the parts, so immersed are we from the very first page in this powerful, believable and yes, frequently uncomfortable tale.

The Tenth Circle is both the novel’s title and the name of the comic book drawn by protagonist Daniel Stone, a comic book illustrator and stay-at-home dad whose wife Laura teaches Dante’s Inferno at the local college in Bethel, Maine. Daniel, who grew up as the only white boy in an Eskimo village, was a rebellious youth. Now he funnels his anger into his comic book alter ego, the Immortal Wildclaw. As the novel progresses, so does his comic book in progress, several pages of which appear at intervals throughout the novel, giving us insight into Daniel’s Dante-esque descent into hell.

"The primary reason the graphic novel is there is because Daniel is not a man of words, he’s a man of art," Picoult explains. "His character is not going to come to you from what he can reveal to you in words; it’s going to come from what he can reveal to you in pictures."

The Stones’ pride and joy is 14-year-old Trixie, who has just been dumped by Jason, the captain of the hockey team. In a desperate attempt to win Jason back, Trixie attends an unsupervised party at which sexual activity is the basis for party games. Drugs enter the picture and by evening’s end, Trixie accuses Jason of date rape. What happens next takes more surprising turns than an arctic winter.

If you’ve never heard of adolescent sex games like Rainbow and Stoneface, brace yourself—this ain’t Spin the Bottle. Picoult got the 411 on "hooking up" from her teenage babysitters, and was as shocked as most parents will be at what she learned.

" I live in a pretty small place and if these things are happening here, guess what? They’re happening everywhere. All kids now are in the random hookup stage; if you go and ask your average teenager, that’s what’s cool: not to have a boyfriend but to do some kind of sexual act and then just dismiss it. There is this stripping away of honest emotions that scares the hell out of me. They don’t engage and they don’t connect. If they do, it’s like Velcro: you pull it together and then you rip it apart and there’s nothing even semi-permanent."

Picoult hopes the party scene will shake up other parents. "I would much rather they be horrified and start talking about it with their kids than go on pretending or thinking that it’s not happening."

For advice on the comic book, which she wrote and integrated into the story with the help of artist Dustin Weaver, Picoult consulted her 12-year-old son.

" I was never a 13-year-old boy, so I didn’t read comic books, ever," she says. "For me, the story I was telling was how there is good and evil in everybody and how that plays out, and that’s what every good comic book is about. So it was the right venue for it. I wasn’t going to have some guy painting Impressionist art."

To bring the disparate elements together required the wintertime trip to a remote Alaskan village, both to obtain the necessary background on Daniel and the details of dog-sledding that figure into the plot. In January 2004, Picoult hopped a cargo plane full of sled dogs to Bethel, Alaska, still two hours south of her destination.

" All I’m going to say is, I wore every single thing I had in my bag at once and I still needed to borrow clothes," she recalls. "It was minus 38 degrees without the wind chill; with wind chill, it was something like 75 below."

In the village, besides a thawing moose, she met with an elder named Moses who shared a native belief that became central to The Tenth Circle. "They believe that at any moment, a man can become an animal and an animal can become a man," she says. "That played beautifully into comic book culture as well as the general nature of human rage."

Picoult is enjoying reader reaction to her novel/graphic novel experiment.

"Some read it in exactly the order that it appears in the book, some want to read the entire book and then go back and read the comic book, others do it the other way around," she says. "If you’re looking for a trademark Picoult novel that’s going to make you think about right and wrong and moral and ethical issues, that’s there, too. This is kind of like Picoult-plus!"

Jay MacDonald writes from Oxford, Mississippi.

 

Jodi Picoult will go to the ends of the earth to confront her readers with unsettling truths they’d rather not face. Case in point: while researching The Tenth Circle, her 13th and most adventurous novel yet, the intrepid author huddled inside an Eskimo hut in the dead of winter with a frozen moose thawing on […]
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As a longtime reporter and newspaper columnist, Jacquelyn Mitchard couldn’t help but wonder what happens to victims of high-profile violence after the headlines fade away and the camera crews disappear. In her powerful new novel, Cage of Stars, the Swan family—what’s left of it—is wading through its grief after a deeply disturbed young man, Scott Early, kills their two youngest daughters in a particularly brutal way.

Twelve-year-old Ronnie Swan, the eldest daughter and the one baby-sitting when Becky and Ruthie were murdered, is left to deal not only with the intense media attention but also with her own guilt and anger. While her deeply devout Mormon parents eventually choose to forgive Early, Ronnie is consumed by her need to avenge her sisters’ deaths.
 
Mitchard found the basis for her novel in a newspaper story detailing a similar real-life killing in California. But instead of lingering on the violence itself, she wanted to explore the aftermath of having a loved one suddenly torn away. In Cage of Stars, the murder scene is harrowing, but brief.
 
"I didn’t want violence to be the subject of the book," she says in an interview from her home in Wisconsin. "I wanted to handle the crime as discreetly and delicately as I could. I was more curious about what happened after."
 
Mitchard is known for her gripping and thought-provoking portrayals of families in pain. In her best-selling novel The Deep End of the Ocean—the very first Oprah Book Club selection—a child is kidnapped, only to be found years later and returned to parents who are virtual strangers. Custody battles, failing marriages, chronic illnesses: Mitchard has covered them all in her six previous novels, which include The Breakdown Lane and A Theory of Relativity. Cage of Stars is another Mitchard classic, a gripping journey into an unthinkable situation. It is a lovely meditation on faith, family and finding peace in the unforgivable.
 
When speaking, Mitchard exudes a down-home energy and humor that belies the tough subject matter she often tackles.

When thanked for talking with BookPage at 10 a.m., she exclaims, "It’s midday for me! I live in the country. The children have to catch the bus at an absurd hour." She goes on to matter-of-factly add that she has already exercised and met her morning goal of 200 sit-ups. And somehow, because of her cheerful breeziness, you are happy for her.
 

Mitchard lives on a farm near Madison, Wisconsin, with her husband and seven children, as well as two Clydesdales and one horse "of indeterminate origin." A picturesque life, to be sure, but it wasn’t always so easy. Her first husband, reporter Dan Allegretti, died of colorectal cancer in 1993, leaving her behind to provide for their three young children.
"We had nothing," she recalls. "We had learned every way to serve rice."
 
Even worse for Mitchard was the uncertainty of wondering what really happens to loved ones after they die. She found it unbearable.
 
"Being a widow, I know that survival can be worse than death," she says. "None of us knows for sure whether we go to eternal life or a good night’s sleep."
 
For their part, the Swans cope with the loss of two children by relying heavily on their faith. Mitchard chose Mormonism mainly for its focus on family, and seems surprised at the interest that choice has garnered.
 
"It’s the least important question of the whole book, yet the one I get the most," she says. "I chose it because I wanted Ronnie to have an extremely sheltered girlhood, but I wanted her to live in a community where she could be a lawyer, a dancer, a basketball player—anything she wanted to be. A part of the world, yet not worldly."
 
For a young girl who grew up free from the modern culture of violent video games and television, the murders would be almost incomprehensible. So a shattered Ronnie finds herself plotting to track down Early, without really knowing what she will do when she comes face-to-face with him again.
 
"Revenge is a primary human emotion. Forgiveness isn’t," Mitchard says. "When we are wronged or hurt, our instinct is to strike back. But it doesn’t always get us what we think it will, which is peace."
 
As with her previous novels, Mitchard found writing Cage of Stars to be an all-encompassing project.
"When you are writing fiction, you sort of drop down into this other kingdom," she says. "It isn’t as though I ignore my children and don’t feed them. It’s just that some part of your mind is living in that invisible house you’ve created."
 
And Mitchard has one steadfast rule while immersed in writing a novel: She doesn’t read any other fiction.
"I become desperately jealous," she says. "I wonder why I ever tried this at all."
 
Certainly thousands of aspiring writers felt the same pangs of envy when, on Sept. 17, 1996, Mitchard’s The Deep End of the Ocean was announced as the inaugural Oprah Book Club selection. Winfrey herself left Mitchard several messages, but Mitchard, assuming it was a prank, didn’t return the calls. Only after Winfrey persisted did Mitchard learn that her life was about to change drastically. She had no way of knowing just how much.
 
"Who knew what it would mean?" Mitchard says. "People had such a hunger and thirst to gossip about a book. They just embraced it."
 
The kind of fame and financial windfall that comes with being an Oprah Book Club pick comes at a strange price—but it’s one that Mitchard has easily accepted.
 
"Some days I think it set the gate so high for me that it’ll be difficult for me to attain that kind of success again," she says. "On the other hand, it gave me the privilege and ability to support myself, my husband and my children.
"I’m privileged to write stories for a living."
 
Amy Scribner writes from Olympia, Washington.

As a longtime reporter and newspaper columnist, Jacquelyn Mitchard couldn’t help but wonder what happens to victims of high-profile violence after the headlines fade away and the camera crews disappear. In her powerful new novel, Cage of Stars, the Swan family—what’s left of it—is wading through its grief after a deeply disturbed young man, Scott […]
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Nicholas Sparks has been the undisputed master of the modern-day love story since the 1996 publication of his debut, The Notebook. His 11th novel, Dear John, follows two star-crossed lovers wholesome Savannah Lynn Curtis and soldier John Tyree who face life-altering decisions when love and honor intersect. John and Savannah are biding their time until the end of John’s tour of duty, when he’ll be free to leave the Army so they can truly be together but the events of 9/11 convince John that it’s his duty to re-enlist. When their long separation proves too much for Savannah to bear, John receives a tear-stained letter and eventually returns home to find her married to someone else. Sparks took the time to answer our questions about love and heartbreak from his home in North Carolina, where he lives with his wife, Catherine, and their five children.

Have you ever received a Dear John letter?
No. But I do know people who have received them. The letters are always heartbreaking.

Several of your previous novels were inspired by your family’s experiences. Was that the case with Dear John? Actually, the novel was inspired by the movie Casablanca. It’s one of my favorite films, and for those who read the novel to its conclusion-it’s easy to see the parallels between the two. Both the film and the novel explore what it means to love another.

September 11 changes your characters’ lives. Where were you on 9/11, and what effect did the events of that day have on you and your family?
I was at home, glued to the television. I watched the towers fall and felt sick to my stomach. As for the effects, it saddened me; even now, I think the world changed on September 11, and not for the better.

You have a daughter named Savannah, just like the heroine of this book, and you’ve named other characters after your children as well. How do your kids feel about that?
They don’t care. Not yet, anyway. Maybe one day, they’ll get a kick out of it.

Did you research life in the military before writing this novel? Do you know someone serving overseas?
Yes, though my research was relatively slight. Most of the novel deals with internal conflict, and the novel isn’t meant to be an in-depth look at lives of soldiers overseas. Also, you’ve got to keep in mind that eastern North Carolina has a massive military presence, and a good number of my friends serve in the armed forces. As for family, I had a cousin stationed in Germany (just like John Tyree); he spent a year in Iraq, mostly in Mosul as part of the Strykers.

Your books are all about enduring love. How do you keep romance alive in your relationship?
Both my wife and I work on our relationship. We make time for each other since we both believe that’s one of the best lessons you can teach your children.

What are you working on now?
I’m working on ideas for the next novel. Hopefully, I’ll have most of the story worked out before I head out on tour.

Nicholas Sparks has been the undisputed master of the modern-day love story since the 1996 publication of his debut, The Notebook. His 11th novel, Dear John, follows two star-crossed lovers wholesome Savannah Lynn Curtis and soldier John Tyree who face life-altering decisions when love and honor intersect. John and Savannah are biding their time until […]
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Jill Conner Browne, the self-appointed Sweet Potato Queen, captured hearts from the start with her outrageously outspoken debut, The Sweet Potato Queens' Book of Love, which documented her exploits with a bunch of gal pals in Jackson, Mississippi, including taking over the local St. Patrick's Day parade dressed in green sequins and long gloves. Her best-selling, Southern-fried empire now features a series of books including The Sweet Potato Queen's Field Guide to Men: Every Man I Love Is Either Married, Gay or Dead; a stage musical in development, with book by Rupert Holmes, music by Melissa Manchester and lyrics by noted songwriter Sharon Vaughn; a reality show pitch; and a website with gaudy spud stuff. Doing so well for herownself, Browne celebrates the publication of The Sweet Potato Queens' First Big-Ass Novel by answering questions that many Queens-in-training want answered but are too-busy-being-fabulous to ask.

As the title makes clear, this is your first novel. Which makes us wonder: What's harder writing the truth or making things up?
Making things up is way harder. Closely akin to lying, it requires that one constantly remember what one has said previously. Makes me nervous.

How did you spend your time before becoming a bestseller?
Before I became a bestseller, I never got to sleep late; I had to work hard every single day even on Saturday and Sunday. I also had to clean my own house and take care of my daughter and my sick mama. I had to do all the grocery shopping and cooking and errand-running. There was never enough time to do it all, it seemed. Hey! I still have to do all that stuff what's the deal?

Who is the funniest person you've ever met?
My daddy.

The doorbell rings, and it's unexpected guests. Name three things you'd grab from the closet and fridge.
You're saying I have to let them in, right? Can't drop them in the moat with the alligators? OK, if I must then I'd just hit the fridge. I could feed 'em something that would entertain them it'd take forever to make myself presentable. Most people are perfectly willing to be distracted by good eats.

What do you have on your nightstand?
A book light, a glass of ice water, lip balm, and at the moment, a book by Dan Jenkins.

Thong or granny pants?
Sweet Potato Queens Never Wear Panties to Parties. It's a rule.

Why are only Southern women described as sassy?
Only Southern women would utter the word sassy. And even though I suppose we are, by definition, sassy, it's one of those words like zany and wacky that if a person uses them, it changes how I feel about them as human beings. Not in a good way. Those are display words only they were never intended to be used.

Have you ever had a literary catfight with your sister Judy?
I have never had any kind of fight with my seester, Judy; but, if we were going to fight, it would more likely be over bacon than literature.

A librarian called your first book heavy handed. If you met her, you'd say:
a) but I'll wake up sparkly and fabulous in the morning and you will still be dull
b) I'm about to open a big-ass can of queenly whoop on your bottom, and ermine won't help you now, or
c) sneer silently while tossing a hot pink boa across your shoulders

Well, how unkind of her! I have learned that no matter who you are and no matter what you have written, Somebody Somewhere Hates It. Whatever. As my dear friend Willie Morris once said in response to a caustic critic, I'm sure I don't know what people will be reading 500 years from now but I do feel fairly certain it will not be the Collected Criticisms of _____! I'm proud of my books . . . but the humor is just the vehicle by which the Greater Message is delivered. Bless her heart, she didn't even get the laughs and that's the easiest part.

Which celebrity should play you in your biopic?
Reba McEntire because she's tiny and redheaded and sings up a storm. She is everything I would have been had I gotten any of my druthers!

Tattoo? Where?
No tatts. Can't commit. I never owned a garment I wanted to wear every single day for the rest of my life.

Jill Conner Browne, the self-appointed Sweet Potato Queen, captured hearts from the start with her outrageously outspoken debut, The Sweet Potato Queens' Book of Love, which documented her exploits with a bunch of gal pals in Jackson, Mississippi, including taking over the local St. Patrick's Day parade dressed in green sequins and long gloves. Her […]
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During a reader’s first 10 minutes of acquaintance with Samantha (Sammy) Joyce, she discloses much of her loveable character. Spooked by a rogue fireworks display, Sammy dives off a boat into the Potomac right in front of her boss, the Vice President of the United States of America. The title character in Kristin Gore’s new novel, Sammy’s House, is a super-competent aide, but also a magnet for Kodak-worthy embarrassing moments that include riding a pissed-off camel and attempting to buddy-up to her boss during an in-flight movie on Air Force Two.

As the daughter of former Vice President Al Gore, Kristin Gore is well-placed to portray the intrigue, suspicion and high-stress atmosphere that pervade national politics at its top echelon. She accomplishes just that in Sammy’s House, which takes readers on a hilarious and suspenseful six-month romp through the nation’s capital. BlackBerrys strike up their competing orchestras every few seconds while top staffers spy on executive meetings through peepholes and security makes its rounds, routinely checking on automatic weapons closeted throughout the West Wing. When she’s not pushing for a bill that will lower the cost of lifesaving prescription drugs, Sammy worries about the president’s drinking problem and tries to ferret out just who on his staff is feeding information to a hostile blogger whose (frequently accurate) accusations make national headlines. Meanwhile, she tries to manage feelings of jealousy and insecurity concerning her boyfriend Charles, who stubbornly neglects to fulfill her fantasy of being whisked off to Paris for a marriage proposal.

Sammy’s charming goofs, mixed with her romantic yearnings for a modern-day prince, probably explain why some reviewers compared the character to Bridget Jones when Gore’s debut novel, Sammy’s Hill, was published in 2004. In an interview with BookPage, Gore says she doesn’t really agree with the comparison. She only read Bridget Jones after reviewers made the connection, she says. "On the one hand, I’m flattered,"  Gore says, acknowledging that Jones is a beloved character. But she thinks her own character is more defined by her work than the weight-obsessed, ditzy Bridget.

It’s also tempting for readers to see Sammy as the alter-ego for the author herself, who has rubbed shoulders with world leaders and who is close in age to her young heroine (Gore turned 30 in June). But, as Gore sees it, she’s not really that similar to Sammy. She likes the character, especially her passionate idealism, but "Sammy is based on lots of people I came across on Capitol Hill,"  Gore explains. "One of the good parts of that world was the interaction with people who want to make a difference." Because Gore’s new novel has the White House world so realistically pegged, down to its smallest details, many readers will inevitably look for parallels to current world leaders and ex-presidents. And Gore’s background including a stint at the National Lampoon while a student at Harvard certainly invites such conjecture. When asked if her fictional former President Pile is inspired by George W. Bush, Gore responds that such speculations reflect in a funny way more on readers’ perceptions of Bush than on her intentions as a novelist. While she admits that her novel has a satirical element, she insists, "It’s absolutely fiction."  Similarly, if Gore’s fictional president, the closet alcoholic Max Wye, looks a lot like the controversial Bill Clinton, "that means you probably see Clinton as a brilliant but addictive personality," according to Gore.

While Sammy’s House makes its debut in bookstores this month, Gore will be finishing work on the screenplay for Sammy’s Hill. Columbia Pictures has bought the film rights and David O. Russell (I Heart Huckabees, Three Kings) is set to direct. Gore says she and Russell have approached Kirsten Dunst about playing the part of Sammy. Though Dunst hasn’t signed on yet, Gore thinks she’d do well in the role because she’s "smart, quirky and funny. She can pull off comedy pretty well, but she also brings that fresh-faced enthusiasm that would be good for Sammy. And people can believe she might not have the rest of her life together."

While Gore finds it incredibly exciting to see her first novel turned into a film, it’s not her end goal. After all, she quit her job writing for television to write novels, she notes, adding, "I really love books as books."   Somewhat surprisingly, Gore doesn’t foresee rounding out Sammy’s adventures in a trilogy. "I kind of like where I leave her,"  says Gore, though she’s not ruling out the possibility of returning to the character.  "I do love her. I hadn’t planned on it being two books; that took me by surprise. Now, I really feel like I’m done with her for a little while."

Gore is at work on a new novel with a brand-new set of characters. She’s not saying much about it yet, but she did reveal that it has nothing to do with politics, and it’s set in the South. Gore, whose family fortunes spring in part from tobacco farming, reveals, "There might be a farm involved."

Gore’s work for Harvard’s National Lampoon gave her a fine-tuned sense of how to churn out comedy, she says. But we can’t rule out the possibility that she inherited some writing talent from her father, who spent several years writing for the Nashville Tennessean before getting into politics. Do Kristin Gore and her father swap manuscripts? They sure do, she says. She describes her father and her mother, Tipper Gore (who took her author photo), as really supportive and encouraging of her writing career. "He and my mom are two of my first readers,"  says Gore. She also gets to read works in progress by her father, who is famous not only for his political roles, but also for his books, Earth in the Balance, An Inconvenient Truth and his current bestseller, The Assault on Reason. "I don’t generally rewrite him that much,"  Gore says with a chuckle,  "but I do enjoy reading it as he’s producing it." Given her vicarious absorption of national politics, you might think Gore would be tempted to get into political commentary, but she says fiction and comedy are more my thing. "I really enjoy inventing things,"  she concludes. "If you do that in nonfiction, you get in trouble."

Lynn Hamilton writes from Tybee Island, Georgia.

During a reader’s first 10 minutes of acquaintance with Samantha (Sammy) Joyce, she discloses much of her loveable character. Spooked by a rogue fireworks display, Sammy dives off a boat into the Potomac right in front of her boss, the Vice President of the United States of America. The title character in Kristin Gore’s new […]
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Cecelia Ahern is so wildly successful for her 26 years, you’d think her head would be spinning like the tornado that whisked Dorothy off to Oz. But as her bubbly Irish brogue travels across the Atlantic, she sounds remarkably grounded. Ahern, whose first novel, P.S. I Love You, written when she was just 21, became a bestseller and a major movie with an all-star cast, is gracious and down-to-earth. Her rise has been nothing short of meteoric, and there’s no apparent end in sight. She has just completed her fourth novel, There’s No Place Like Here, created a hit U.S. comedy series ("Samantha Who?"  on ABC), and has other film and television projects in the works. Not bad for a young woman who didn’t even aspire to be a novelist.

Speaking from her seaside home in Dublin on what she says is a glorious late afternoon, she looks out at the water as our conversation ranges from writing to rap. Asked about seeing the film adaptation of P.S. I Love You for the first time in October, she says, with a lovely lilt in her voice,  "It’s really nice to revisit that story because you have to keep moving on talking about your new one."  That story goes something like this: Holly, a recently widowed young woman living in Dublin, deals with the aftermath of her husband’s death from a brain tumor. In the process, she rediscovers herself and the joy of life with help from an endearing circle of friends and family and a cache of letters from her late husband.

Asked what compelled her at such a young age to write P.S., she says the story just popped into her head. She found it easy to identify with Holly and with the fear of losing someone so young, when you have your whole life before you.

Ahern is emotional when talking about seeing her first book on the big screen. She went to Los Angeles with her mother, agent and boyfriend in tow people who had encouraged her along the way for a private screening. She’d read the script and been on set, but the end product was even better than she’d hoped. She especially enjoyed having the opportunity to see the story in a new light and approach it with a fresh perspective, even though she did cry for two hours afterward. "Not to gush, but it was really one of the stand-out moments in my life,"  she effuses.

For Ahern, writing was always a hobby she never dreamed it would become a profession but she did feel drawn to media communications. She was actually working on her master’s in film production when she wrote P.S. I Love You. She has, she says, "always loved to go off on flights of fancy."  And fly she has. Her writing easily lends itself to both the big and small screen. Case in point: her latest novel has already been optioned for a series by Touchstone Television.

There’s No Place Like Here is the story of Sandy Shortt, a young woman so obsessed with finding things that she starts her own missing persons agency. Since childhood, Sandy has been plagued by where things, and people, go when they’re missing from the proverbial sock in the dryer to her childhood neighbor. But as with all of Ahern’s stories, there’s a fanciful, quirky twist. As Sandy searches for a missing man, she finds herself lost in a magical land where all lost things and people go.

"It’s just all very metaphorical really,"  Ahern says.  "It is about a woman who literally wanders off the wrong path, loses herself, wakes up one day, looks around, [and] doesn’t realize where she is. I think everyone can identify with that story; I just took it to a different level."

Though she didn’t write There’s No Place Like Here with The Wizard of Oz in mind, Ahern concedes that parallels exist. She wanted her character, like Dorothy, to be physically whisked off to a different place. Originally titled A Place Called Here when it was published in Ireland, the title was changed to emphasize the connection between the two stories for an American audience, which suited Ahern because she felt the allusion was apt. As in Ahern’s other work, there is a little romance in the mix here, too, in the form of a rather unorthodox patient/therapist relationship.

The fairy-tale quality of Ahern’s work would seem to recall Ireland’s rich history of myth and storytelling, but Ahern is a thoroughly modern young woman with her finger firmly on the pulse of pop culture. Her taste in books and music is varied, with a distinct American flavor; she likes Mitch Albom and 50 Cent. Despite the fact that her father, Bertie Ahern, is Ireland’s prime minister, there’s nothing uniquely Irish about her books—as evidenced by foreign rights sales of her novels in 40 countries. Ahern believes that if you write authentically about human emotions, you can touch any reader, regardless of culture or age.  "You can take readers anywhere if they can identify with the character and the feelings and emotions are familiar,"  she says.

Ahern has just finished her fifth novel, which will be published in April in Ireland and later in the U.S. Adhering to her rule of taking life one book at a time, she declines to discuss it but does divulge the title: Thanks for the Memories.

She also happens to be the creator of a successful TV comedy, "Samantha Who?"  Higher-ups at ABC contacted her after reading P.S. I Love You and asked if she’d be interested in writing a show for television. Within days she met with the comedy development team, writers and producers. She calls the show’s success "a modern fairy tale in itself,"  and adds, appreciatively, that she’s just so glad there is an audience out there for her bizarre little stories. The personable and ebullient Ahern takes her many accomplishments in stride. Though Dublin is her home base, she has spent a lot of time recently traveling between New York and L.A. for the movie promotion and book tour. She’s not just bi-coastal, she’s tri-coastal.

Of her early success Ahern says, "It’s a mixture of a lot of luck and a lot of hard work."  So that’s what they mean by the luck of the Irish.

Katherine Wyrick is a freelance writer in Little Rock.

Cecelia Ahern is so wildly successful for her 26 years, you’d think her head would be spinning like the tornado that whisked Dorothy off to Oz. But as her bubbly Irish brogue travels across the Atlantic, she sounds remarkably grounded. Ahern, whose first novel, P.S. I Love You, written when she was just 21, became […]
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Lauren Willig’s romantic mysteries charm readers There are few authors capable of matching Lauren Willig’s ability to merge historical accuracy, heart-pounding romance and biting wit. The Seduction of the Crimson Rose, the latest in her popular Pink Carnation series, continues Willig’s trend of making each installment even better than its spectacular predecessor. This accomplishment is all the more amazing given that Willig, in addition to being a novelist, has a demanding full-time job as an associate in a New York law firm. By working late in the office during the week, she frees her weekends, locking herself away to write from seven in the morning until midnight. It’s a system not without its drawbacks.

"I did manage to get The Seduction of the Crimson Rose written that way, only three months behind deadline!" she says. "But it’s not necessarily something I’d recommend as a lifestyle choice. The plus side of the experience—aside from having a salary—is that you learn to write very quickly and efficiently, since there’s no spare time to indulge in writer’s block. The downside is all your friends e-mailing to ask if you’re dead." A New York native, Willig grew up in Manhattan, and doesn’t live far from her early stomping grounds, a situation that’s wonderfully convenient when she feels the need for a home-cooked meal: She can easily drop in on her parents. "I have a whole group of childhood friends in a five-block radius of me who also came back to the Upper East Side like homing pigeons. We all went to the same tiny all girls’ school for 13 years, which meant there was a lot of trading of romance novels back and forth, since none of us actually knew any real boys, except for a handful of boys from the local all boys’ schools who didn’t really seem to count, at least not when compared to Judith McNaught heroes."

Willig’s writing process "involves a lot of strong tea and personal bribery, along the lines of ‘If you write a chapter, I’ll buy you a Starbucks,’ or ‘If you finish 10 pages by seven o’clock, you can watch a BBC costume drama.’ I find it very hard to write in bits and pieces, so I generally try to block out a whole day at a time for writing. It takes me an hour or two of whining and foot-dragging to get myself to the computer, but once I’m there, I’ll usually wake up several hours later to find that pages have magically appeared on the scene, all my tea is gone, and my knees hurt from sitting cross-legged on my desk chair for four hours at a stretch."

The Seduction of the Crimson Rose is the fourth novel in the Pink Carnation series, in which each volume follows both a contemporary storyline and an historical one. In early 19th-century England, Mary Alsworthy is living with the aftermath of her sister having married her would-be fiancé. Unhappy and thoroughly aggravated by the sympathies of her family, she allows the dashing Lord Vaughn to persuade her to work as a double agent against the Black Tulip, the dastardly and dangerous French operative, and assist England’s favorite spy, the Pink Carnation. While she has a general idea as to where the series is going as a whole, Willig says her plot ideas invariably play second fiddle to the needs of the current book. "There have been times when I’ve tried to plant information for the purposes of future books—and I usually find myself going back and deleting those scenes. It works best when I let the series grow at least semi-organically, following the lead of my characters. For example, The Seduction of the Crimson Rose was supposed to be about a separate set of characters entirely, but as I was finishing the previous book, Deception of the Emerald Ring, I realized that the story in Crimson Rose followed much more logically out of preceding events than the other plot line that I had been planning for two years."

Switching between different voices and time periods gives Willig a wonderful freedom. "I’ve found that whenever I get stuck on the historical sections that form the bulk of the books, working on a modern chapter is like taking a brief, breezy vacation. Of the two, if I had to pick just one, I would go with the historical, since I’ve always wanted to live in another century, preferably one with men in knee breeches. But popping back to the modern always makes me appreciate the historical even more," she says. "I always emerge from a modern chapter energized and ready to tackle my historical plot problems."

"Both the historical world and the modern world seem sharper and clearer to me after hopping from one to the other," Willig says. "When I’ve been in Almack’s [the famous Regency assembly rooms, site of weekly balls during the London Season], admiring the gentlemen’s knee breeches and sipping ratafia, things like buying Starbucks while rushing to the Tube suddenly seem exotic and interesting." Willig names L.M. Montgomery and Louisa May Alcott as early influences, citing their skills at taking seemingly everyday events and making them compelling and memorable. She still re-reads the Anne of Green Gables books at every opportunity. Margaret Mitchell and M.M. Kaye have been her models for weaving history into a fictional narrative since she was in fifth grade, and she’s gone through at least five copies of Gone With the Wind because her old ones keep crumbling at the seams. So where did her love affair with English history begin? "[It was] fed by Jean Plaidy’s Queens of England series, which made everyone from Margaret of Anjou to Queen Victoria feel like close personal friends, and Karleen Koen’s Through a Glass Darkly, which still makes me want to go live in the 18th century. When it comes to writing style, though, the hands-down biggest influence was Elizabeth Peters. Anything I know about comic timing in fiction, I learned from Peters’ brilliant mystery novels."

It is the humor in Willig’s work that sets it apart from other historicals. The banter between Lord Vaughn and Mary Alsworthy in The Seduction of the Crimson Rose is more than worthy of Peters at her best, and the continuing romantic and academic adventures of Eloise Kelly, heroine of the contemporary storyline, is deliciously satisfying. Readers will be delighted to know there are more volumes to come in the series. And Willig, at last, will have a bit more freedom when writing them, since she’s quitting her job and joining the ranks of full-time writers. "There are certainly things I’ll miss about the practice of law, like my wonderful colleagues at the office," she says, "but I’m very much looking forward to having the time to return e-mails, write more books, and, of course, indulge in massive fits of writer’s block."

Tasha Alexander is the author of And Only to Deceive and A Poisoned Season.

Lauren Willig’s romantic mysteries charm readers There are few authors capable of matching Lauren Willig’s ability to merge historical accuracy, heart-pounding romance and biting wit. The Seduction of the Crimson Rose, the latest in her popular Pink Carnation series, continues Willig’s trend of making each installment even better than its spectacular predecessor. This accomplishment is […]
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The so-called Queen of the Topical Novel (as crowned by the Miami Herald) is back. In her 15th book, Change of Heart, Jodi Picoult examines the nature of faith and the path to salvation. Shay Bourne, a wanderer who picks up spare jobs as a carpenter, is convicted of killing a young girl and her stepfather and sentenced to death. While on death row, he performs what appear to be miracles: bringing a dead bird back to life, turning the water in the prison pipes to wine. Who gets to decide whether he's a Messiah or a crackpot? And what should the victim's mother do when Bourne offers the one thing that can save her other daughter's life?

Change of Heart is vintage Picoult—a challenging, intelligent and powerful read. Picoult recently answered questions for BookPage about her new book and life as a best-selling author.

You're an incredibly prolific writer and you manage to write such consistently enjoyable books. What do you do to recharge and come up with the idea for your next novel?
I don't actively try—I guess that's part of the magic. Instead, I let the topics choose me. I figure out what it is that I'm particularly concerned with, or questioning, and let myself explore it in the field of fiction. Usually I know two years ahead of time what I'll be working on in the future!

Change of Heart explores the idea that religion is to some extent about having faith in things we can't prove. How did your own beliefs influence this book? It's my belief that this country is breaking apart on the fault line of religion and that something meant originally to unite people has instead become divisive. To that end, I really wanted to put the history back into religion, and to challenge those who feel that just because they think they're right, everyone else must be wrong. I would never presume to tell anyone how to believe; I get upset when people presume to tell me. It's no coincidence that I wanted to publish this book during an election year, when the boundary between church and state has become increasingly blurred.

Much of the book is set in a state prison. Your depiction of life behind bars is fascinating, from the ways prisoners pass the time to the unique language they speak. What kind of research did you do to paint such a vivid picture of prison life?
I've been to death row in Arizona, twice now. It's a very strange place—in all the years I've been doing research, I don't think I've ever seen such a cloud of secrecy like the one I found there. I was literally on a plane when my visit was being nearly cancelled—I had to arrive at the facility and talk my way into it, because they decided if I was a writer, I must be "media". I was able to charm the authorities into giving me a tour of their death row—which is more serene than you'd think, because the inmates are locked into their individual cells 23 hours a day. Then I begged to be taken to the execution chamber—the Death House, as it used to be called in Arizona. It was while I was examining their gas chamber (Arizona uses both gas and lethal injection) that the warden approached me to ask me again who I was, and why I was writing a book about this. She definitely had her guard up—and wasn't budging an inch. We started talking about the last execution in Arizona, and at some point she mentioned she was a practicing Catholic. "If you're Catholic," I said, "do you think the death penalty is a good thing?" She stared at me for a long moment, and then said, "I used to." From that moment on, the wall between us came down, and she was willing to tell me everything I wanted and needed to know—including scenes you'll see in this book, a backstage look at how an execution happens.

Your publisher is printing one million copies of Change of Heart. Have you calculated how far around the globe that would stretch?
I'm not nearly as gifted at math as you're giving me credit for!! Actually, I'd probably be more likely to count how many trees sacrificed themselves for my fiction. Seriously, though, it's a crazy number I can't really wrap my head around—million-copy print runs are for people like Stephen King and JK Rowling, not little ol' me. There's still a part of me that believes the people buying my books are all friends of my mom's, but I guess I'll have to finally admit that maybe there are a few folks who read my stuff that she hasn't bullied into it!

You have a month-long book tour coming up. What question comes up most often during appearances? And which question would you be happy if you never had to answer again?
The question I get asked over and over is "Where do the ideas come from?" I once heard another writer say, "They arrive in brown paper packages every Tuesday." I've always been tempted to steal that response! The best question I've ever been asked was by a teenager in the U.K. last year—she wanted to know what I felt were the three biggest issues facing America right now, and if I was writing about them. I said, "Intolerance/bullying, religious narrow-mindedness and gay rights." I'm happy to report that I had already written books on two of the three, and was planning to write about the third one!

What's the one thing you're most proud of?
That my three children are good-hearted, kind and thoughtful.

If you had to choose one book to reread once a year, what book would it be?
Gone with the Wind. And it's so long, it would probably take that long, too!

 

The so-called Queen of the Topical Novel (as crowned by the Miami Herald) is back. In her 15th book, Change of Heart, Jodi Picoult examines the nature of faith and the path to salvation. Shay Bourne, a wanderer who picks up spare jobs as a carpenter, is convicted of killing a young girl and her […]
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Not many widows of a certain age living in a gossip-loving small town would have the gumption to befriend their husband's mistress and illegitimate nine-year-old son. But that feisty attitude is exactly the reason that Miss Julia, the heroine of Ann B. Ross' series set in imaginary Abbotsville, North Carolina, has won the hearts of so many fans. Since meeting Hazel Marie and Little Lloyd in Miss Julia Speaks Her Mind (1999), Julia has seen her life take some interesting twists and turns, including a happy second marriage to good-natured lawyer Sam Murdoch. In her eighth adventure, Miss Julia Paints the Town Julia tries to keep New Jersey developers away from the old Abbotsville courthouse while helping her friends cope with marital problems. We caught up with Ann Ross to ask some questions about Miss Julia and her world.

What makes the South such a rich setting for fiction?
I think the South grows storytellers like it does peanuts, sweet potatoes and kudzu. Up until fairly recently, this area consisted of small towns and rural communities where entertainment was mostly homegrown. Now that so many of our towns have turned into cities and even mega-cities, not many families sit on the front porch after supper and talk about the time that Granny Watson fell in the creek or old man Taylor ran a mile trying to catch his mule.

Are you a small-town girl yourself?
I am, indeed, a small-town girl, born in my grandmother's front bedroom, brought up in a small town and moved to another to bring up my own children.

You've described the Miss Julia series as a coming-of-age story. Do readers identify with this idea of finding yourself later in life?
I think of the first book, Miss Julia Speaks Her Mind, as a coming-of-age story, because that is when Julia grew up and found her voice. And, yes, I do think a lot of readers identify with that. Many women of my generation were taught to always be nice and sweet, agree with everything and never reveal too much intelligence. It took me almost as long as it took Julia to begin thinking for myself and losing the fear of saying what I think.

You returned to college to finish your education after raising your children. What was the biggest surprise you faced when going back to school?
Realizing that I not only could do the work, but do it well. I also learned that I could be valued for myself alone, and not for being someone's daughter, niece, wife or mother.

What authors inspire you?
It's hard to say what authors inspire me. I read a lot, but rarely anything in the same genre in which I write. I prefer the hard-boiled, gritty cop and detective books—things that I cannot write. But if I had to name a few, I would list Harper Lee and Mark Twain for their coming-of-age stories and Geoffrey Chaucer for proving that comedy can be as important as tragedy.

How would you like your books (and Miss Julia) to be remembered?
Oh, my, I'd be surprised if either Miss Julia or my books are remembered for long. Actually, I'm still surprised that the first one got published, much less all the others. But there is apparently something about her and the books that appeal and give pleasure to a large number of people. I wish I knew what it was so I can keep doing it.

What is it about Miss Julia that speaks to so many readers?
It's a mystery to me, unless it's the fact that she is an unusual literary heroine because she's not young, beautiful, multitalented and courted by handsome men. In other words, she's very similar to a lot of women who like to read. By the way, Miss Julia apparently appeals to a lot of men, as well. I see more and more men coming to signings and sending e-mails. Maybe strong, capable women are more attractive than many of us ever thought.

Your books tackle serious issues (infidelity, gender identity and religion, to name a few) but manage to remain lighthearted. How do you maintain this balance?
The only way I can answer the question of maintaining a balance between serious issues and lightheartedness is to say that I see them through Miss Julia's eyes. And I, myself, try to see the humor in the human condition. Of course, if any of these issues touched me personally I'm sure I would be devastated. So I try to treat them with compassion, even when Julia may not be so sympathetic.

If Miss Julia met Scarlett O'Hara, what advice would she give her?
Hold your head up high and keep on going. Which is exactly what Scarlett did.
 

 

Not many widows of a certain age living in a gossip-loving small town would have the gumption to befriend their husband's mistress and illegitimate nine-year-old son. But that feisty attitude is exactly the reason that Miss Julia, the heroine of Ann B. Ross' series set in imaginary Abbotsville, North Carolina, has won the hearts of […]

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