Salon's author questionnaire: "Figuring out that page-turning quality is tougher than it looks"

Salon talks to writers Cara Hoffman, Tom McAllister, Sara Flannery Murphy, Jason Rekulak and Amanda Eyre Ward

Published February 7, 2017 11:59PM (EST)

Sara Flannery Murphy's "The Possessions, " Cara Hoffman's "Running,"  and Amanda Eyre Ward's "The Nearness of You"   (Harper/Simon & Schuster/Ballantine Books)
Sara Flannery Murphy's "The Possessions, " Cara Hoffman's "Running," and Amanda Eyre Ward's "The Nearness of You" (Harper/Simon & Schuster/Ballantine Books)

For February, I posed a series of questions — with, as always, a few verbal restrictions — to five authors with new books: Cara Hoffman ("Running"), Tom McAllister ("The Young Widower’s Handbook"), Sara Flannery Murphy ("The Possessions"), Jason Rekulak ("The Impossible Fortress") and Amanda Eyre Ward ("The Nearness of You").

Without summarizing it in any way, what would you say your book is about?

Jason Rekulak: Ambition, creativity, the 1980s, computer programming, sex, high school, Catholicism, Vanna White.

Amanda Eyre Ward: Heart surgery, heartache, very tiny hearts and how they are formed in utero.

Cara Hoffman: Athens, sex, fires, under-the-table-work, the 1980s, cliff houses, passport trafficking, frogs, ruins, chosen family, islands, petty crimes, boxing, wild dogs, discarded objects, the poetry of John Donne, rejecting institutions, class, living beside mercenaries, the tacit violence connected to wealth.

Sara Flannery Murphy: Loss, love, identity, obsession, regret, hope. Past relationships haunting new ones. The question of whether or not we can start new lives after past mistakes; the question of how we can recapture a life that’s been permanently lost to us. 

Tom McAllister: It’s about grief and love, and trying to make something of your life even after all your plans have been upended. It’s about redefining yourself, and trying to determine who you are in the world. It’s about the many versions of ourselves we create, and trying to figure out which one is real, or which one we’d most like to be real.

Without explaining why and without naming other authors or books, can you discuss the various influences on your book?

McAllister: My father’s death. Sitting in the hospital with my wife after she had an emergency surgery, and thinking about how tenuous it all is. "BoJack Horseman." David Bowie. Steven Wright. Allen Iverson running the open court. The grad school classmate who (justifiably) emailed to say, “Man, what are you even doing?” Driving halfway across the country and seeing nothing but trucks. YouTube videos of dogs reuniting with their owners.

Hoffman: Travel, fire jumpers, pregnancy, dropping out of school, dead friends, Ray's Candy Store, golden gloves championships, Greek folk music, punk music, Shane MacGowan, Hujar Dreaming, drinking, the Baader-Meinhof.

Ward: The Baby M case in 1986 and the unforgettable miniseries it inspired. (Available right here for free: Baby M Part 1 of 3 2/6)

Rekulak: The 1983 video game “Realm of Impossibility” by Mike Edwards. "Ocean’s 11." "Freaks and Geeks." "Wheel of Fortune." Side 2 of the "Pretty in Pink" soundtrack.

Murphy: Victorian spiritualists. Cities with crazy old mansions that serve unclear purposes. Unflattering lipstick colors. Ghost stories and Greek mythology. True crime. Gothic heroines.

Without using complete sentences, can you describe what was going on in your life as you wrote this book?

Ward: Mayhem & chaos.

Hoffman: Research at the Fales Library, moving from the East Village to the Lower East Side to live with Marc Lepson, visiting Florence, Delphi, Athens, buying art by David Wojnarowicz from P.P.O.W., Tai Chi at the Chinatown Y, eating at Remedy Diner, and Lucien and haunting Mast books, reading Jim Thompson and Jean Genet, living with the large canvasses ML paints, riding Citi bikes with my brother. Wandering around Coney Island and Brighton Beach and the woods in Port Townsend, Washington, seeing Nick Cave with my best friend.

Murphy: New baby, late nights in a St. Louis apartment, long walks in Tower Grove Park, observing developmental milestones in a small human, observing developmental milestones in a manuscript, moving to flat, sunny Oklahoma.

Rekulak: Working full-time. Raising my kids. Ballet practice, soccer practice, choir practice. Grocery shopping. Taking out the trash. Caring for a very sick cat.

McAllister: Getting older or, more specifically, feeling older. My first gray hairs. Traveling with my wife. Worrying that my life overall was getting too comfortable, that I was due for a disaster. A new 30-year mortgage. Learning how to do light electrical work. Endless bouts of lawn mowing. Losing touch with most of my high school and college friends. My fifth wedding anniversary. And my sixth and seventh.

What are some words you despise that have been used to describe your writing by readers and/or reviewers?

Hoffman: I've been alright with the words used to describe my books and my writing. One time, though, I saw the word "magisterial," on someone else's book jacket and couldn't stop laughing. I walked out of the bookstore and after a few blocks started laughing again. I felt bad for them that someone had slapped that word on their novel, but still, every time I thought of it . . . even right now thinking of it just cracks me up. 

McAllister:“Heartfelt,” because it’s the sort of generic review word you could apply to literally any book. “Quirky” — a word that is well-meaning, but also makes me think of middle-tier sitcoms, or the comic relief guy on a sports pregame show. When people call the book quirky, they want to indicate that it’s funny and has a particular sensibility and voice, but all I picture is that guy from "The Big Bang Theory" shouting his annoying catchphrase.

Murphy: I know that this honeymoon stage will probably be short-lived, but right now I’m so happy people are talking about my writing at all that I’ll forgive basically anything. Generally, though, I’m most sensitive to critiques of the narrator’s voice. It’s my responsibility to give my characters strong voices, and if readers aren’t engaged, I feel like I let my characters down.  

Ward: Just today on twitter: The Nearness of You by @amandaeyreward Will shred ur heart

Rekulak: From one of my favorite online reviews: “No, this is not great literature, but the author did not want it to be.”

If you could choose a career besides writing (irrespective of schooling requirements and/or talent) what would it be?

Rekulak: Oceanographer. I’d love to travel in a submersible. All of those vast underwater worlds waiting to be explored!

Ward: Retiree who has decided to spend her remaining days on a cruise ship.

McAllister: When I was going to college, I seriously considered majoring in marine biology. I went with journalism instead. I’ve spent a lot of time and money on whale watching trips, and I’m still fascinated by the migration patterns and social behaviors of whales. So I’ll go with marine biologist. Or point guard for the Sixers.

Hoffman: Olympic swimmer.

Murphy: A detective. I love that idea of working through confusion and uncertainty to produce a clean solution. Maybe what I actually want to be is a fictional detective, since the real job probably isn’t so easy or tidy. 

What craft elements do you think are your strong suit, and what would you like to be better at?

Murphy: I can be good at choosing interesting metaphors. When I find a perfect comparison, I feel so triumphant — I’m proudest of any sentence that contains a good metaphor. As for weak spots, I’d like to get better at plot and structure, especially as those elements relate to suspense. I always think of that Nathaniel Hawthorne quote: “Easy reading is damn hard writing.” Figuring out that page-turning quality is tougher than it looks.

McAllister: The thing I feel best about when I’m writing is my ability to write crisp, compelling sentences. I like to think I can be funny (though sometimes the humor is a little dark), and I’m always relieved when some of the lines still make me laugh when I’m reading a late draft. This all helps me to develop a really engaging voice. I hope.

I’m always embarrassed to say the things I’d like to be better at are plot and structure, which are obviously related skills. I can come up with good premises, but often find myself halfway through feeling lost. Without the help of good friends, my agent, and my editor, I don’t know how long it would take me to figure some of those things out.

Ward: I've been complimented on my short sentences, audacity, and plot twists. I cannot describe the sky in an interesting way, and not for lack of trying.

Rekulak: Early in my career, I spent two years working as a copywriter, and I was trained to strip sentences down to the absolute minimum number of words. This was great training for a fiction writer . . . but sometimes I wonder if it’s a handicap, too.

Hoffman: Restraint, tension, darkness, humor. I'd like to have a better vocabulary. I'd like to deepen my plot game. 

How do you contend with the hubris of thinking anyone has or should have any interest in what you have to say about anything?

Hoffman: I don't.

Murphy: I always remind myself that I’m not entitled to anybody’s attention. That way, I feel a lot of gratitude for the people who do listen, knowing that they’re giving their attention to me freely and generously.

Rekulak: If you’re telling an interesting and engaging story, you can make any point you want. But if you’re neglecting your story, or if you don’t actually have a story . . . well, then, yeah, you better have a whole lot of hubris!

Ward: Resolute optimism.

McAllister: I teach freshman composition. My students were all forced to take my course, and very often they don’t like reading or writing. If I have a bad class plan or even materials they think are boring, those students absolutely cannot hide their disdain for the subject matter. They (often) don’t care at all about my life as a writer, or really that I exist as a person outside the classroom. Even the good students (and I’ve been lucky to have a lot). Going in that classroom every day for 10 years has been a good, steady reminder of the vast public that is indifferent, at best, to what I do.

By Teddy Wayne

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Amanda Eyre Ward Authors Books Cara Hoffman Fiction Jason Rekulak Sara Flannery Murphy Tom Mcallister