Lauren Oliver, bestselling author of popular teen novels Before I Fall and the Delirium Trilogy, makes her leap into the adult literary scene with Rooms, a haunting story narrated by two ghosts. After Richard Walker dies, his embittered ex-wife and two children arrive at his mansion to claim their inheritance. But the house also comes with two ghosts, Alice and Sandra, who are deeply rooted to the house. As their connection unfolds, so too does the Walker family’s woes in this gripping novel about secrets, lies and family. Oliver recently spoke with Between the Covers on Rooms, shopping and more.
Between the Covers: Rooms is an imaginative and gripping tale of the living and the dead, and you tell the stories from both worlds seamlessly and realistically. What was your inspiration? Do you believe in ghosts?
Lauren Oliver: Thank you! I don’t think I believe in ghosts in the traditional sense. Then again, I’m not actively a disbeliever, and several of my novels for younger readers deal with visions of the afterlife. So I’d certainly say it’s an area of deep curiosity. Mortality in general, and the meaning we make of life, really interests me, maybe because I wasn’t raised in any particular religion and had to kind of untangle that stuff for myself.
BTC: Alice and Sandra, the resident ghosts, are the narrators of this spellbinding story. What drove this creative decision? Was it challenging to create ghostly characters with such distinct voices?
LO: It was immensely challenging, not because I knew they had to have distinct voices and characteristics but because of their physical limitations. They’re really spectators. They’re almost incapable of interacting with or influencing the central action. So in that way there’s something theatrical about the novel–it’s as if Alice and Sandra are watching a play. Initially, I was inspired by the idea not of ghosts per se but of a house that absorbs and can reflect back memories–I wanted to render a literal depiction of a “memory palace,” which is a pneumonic device for storing information.
BTC: The remaining Walkers – Caroline, Minna and Trenton – are the epitome of dysfunctional. Why put these three troubled characters in the same house as the ghosts? What was it about Trenton that made him the only human who senses the ghosts?
LO: Well, truly highly functional people with no issues to explore probably don’t belong as protagonists in a novel, since novels are really about character development and character collisions and crises. To be honest, although the Walkers are certainly a troubled family, they don’t seem hugely more troubled than other families I know. So maybe I just know a lot of dysfunctional families! And in Trenton’s case, I think that his interaction with and attraction to death makes him able to perceive the ghosts where the other family members can’t.
BTC: The structure of this novel is so unique in that each section takes place in a different room of the house. What was the intent behind this? How difficult was this to craft and execute?
LO: The book was really inspired by the concept of memory palaces. I wanted to explore the idea that we are not just shaped by the things we own but that in some ways the shaping is reciprocal; our homes become mirrors of our emotional states just as we buy and keep objects that we hope will transform us, on some level, emotionally. The structure was very difficult from a practical standpoint because all of the drama of a particular section had to be extremely contained, which of course limits what you can depict in terms of action. But it was a welcomed challenge.
BTC: Do you look forward to the possibility of movie/TV adaptations of your work or dread the loss of control of your work? Imagine you’re in charge of the world – or at least Hollywood. Who would you cast in the movie version of Rooms?
LO: I think it’s a little bit of both. I would welcome and embrace the possibility to do a good film or TV adaptation with the right people on board. Rooms would definitely be a challenge for Hollywood, because of its narrative structure. But if it ever does go, I hope Meryl Streep plays Alice!
BTC: You’ve had such great success as a teen and middle grade author. What prompted you to tackle writing for an adult audience? Did your writing process change with the different readership?
LO: For me, it’s all about character and story. Certain stories demand to be told in a certain way, for a certain audience. Rooms is in some ways a deeply domestic drama–it’s contained, it’s set in one place, and it’s about families and marriages and parents and children and the way all of these can fail us. So it was patently adult, from the time I began to write it. That said, I didn’t deliberately set down to write an adult book. My ultimate goal as a writer, however, would be to build a flexible enough career that I can work in all three genres, for all three audiences.
BTC: I totally support your disapproval of bananas and practical shoes. What was the last great pair of shoes you purchased?
LO: Oh my goodness. You know what? I just realized it’s been months since I bought any great shoes. I really need to go shopping! In late spring I bought a pair of Yves Saint Laurent studded ballet flats, which are actually quite practical despite my averred preference for high heels. I need to go buy a pair of Giuseppe Zanottis, stat!
BTC: What can readers expect next?
LO: In the spring of 2015, I have a new young adult release called Vanishing Girls, and in the fall I launch the first in a new middle grade series. And right now I’m working on a new adult book. So…lots to come!
Spending childhood nested in the same neighborhood can have a profound effect on how one grows up and views the rest of the world. When stories of the past share a consistent backdrop, memories become more cohesive and captivating, as they have in Mark Chiusano's debut collection, Marine Park. Nearly all of his stories take place in the neighborhood surrounding the run-down, isolated Marine Park in New York City.
Half of Chiusano's tales follow two brothers: Jamison, who narrates the duo's adventures, and his younger brother Lorris. Jamison seems like the fictional embodiment of Chiusano in his youth; he dredges up old emotions with such elegance that it feels autobiographical. Throughout their endeavors, Lorris overcomes rooted introversion to develop a social life more vigorous than his older brother’s. All Jamison feels he’s capable of doing is watching with brotherly pride and envy.
Chiusano's other stories volley between humorous and serious motifs. The amusing "Vincent and Aurora" is the recounting of a retired mobster who agrees to help with one last job to combat the stagnation of aging. "Shatter the Trees and Blow Them Away" laments the woes of unrequited love between two scientists working in a secret military base during World War II. "For You" is the wondrous second-person account of a man's visit to an unfamiliar bar and his conversations with strangers about wait-staff gratuity and lifelong dreams.
Short story and fiction enthusiasts of all varieties will find something to enjoy in Marine Park. Lorris and Jamison are both highly relatable, and Chiusano's more imaginative offerings are entertaining and just as finely crafted.
“Between 2001 and 2012, 63,300 American factories closed their doors and five million American factory jobs went away.” Author Beth Macy quotes these figures in her best-selling new book Factory Man: How One Furniture Maker Battled Offshoring, Stayed Local and Helped Save an American Town. Macy writes about the impact of free trade and globalization as it affects rural Henry County, Virginia, and its century old furniture manufacturing industry. Think this sounds a bit dry? Meet the driven factory man of the title: John Bassett III.
J.D. Bassett built his first furniture factory in his front yard around 1902. Twenty years later, his Bassett family furniture dynasty, with multiple factories employing hundreds of workers, was thriving thanks in part to the native “assets:” cheap southern labor and Piedmont forests ripe for lumber harvest. With Bassetts building churches, banks and schools, Bassett, Virginia, became the quintessential company town and the Bassett family its royalty, marrying its sons and daughters to scions of other local manufacturers. John Bassett III, grandson of J.D., seemed destined to inherit the Bassett Furniture throne until family politics and imported Chinese-made bedroom suites intervened.
Elbowed aside in favor of a brother-in-law, John Bassett III was determined to succeed on his own merit, and eventually settled at Vaughn-Bassett Furniture in nearby Galax. In direct competition with his own family, he found the larger threat to his business to be the growing stream of wooden furniture imported from Asia, priced well below what American companies could charge for their domestic product. With Virginia factories shutting down and double digit unemployment figures skyrocketing, Bassett struck back. Taking on foreign manufacturing, United States economic policy and the Furniture Retailers of America trade group, Bassett fought to enforce fair trade regulations while reinventing his furniture company over and over to remain viable. Factory Man is not just John Bassett III’s story but an eye-opening account of small towns dependent on blue collar industry in a changing global economy.
To join in an ongoing discussion about Factory Man, which includes many local residents' comments about the book and the Bassett, Virginia, area, visit https://www.facebook.com/#!/groups/FactoryManFans/.
Daniel Kelly needs to be the fastest, the strongest and the best. The other members of his swim team call him Barracuda, also the title of Christos Tsiolkas’ new novel. Daniel’s goal is to swim freestyle in the Olympic Games. He is half-Greek and half-Australian and comes from modest roots, but his mother insists he attend an exclusive school where he can be coached by a gifted trainer. Daniel quickly realizes he does not fit in at his new posh school. The boys that come from money are quick to tease. He shields himself from the insults and uses the anger to push through the water even faster. His ever-present drive to succeed deafens him to the instructions of his coach, and Daniel soon finds that his dream of Olympic gold leads to nothing. Consumed by hatred for himself and his modest beginnings, Daniel lashes out, and this incident will have repercussions that will haunt him for the rest of his life.
Like Daniel, Christos Tsiolkas grew up in Australia, the son of Greek immigrant parents. His previous novels have won awards in the South Pacific region, including his previous novel The Slap that won the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize. He shows skill again with Barracuda, a detailed literary masterpiece that only an accomplished writer can deliver. Daniel Kelly is a deeply flawed protagonist, struggling with life and trying to find his place in the world. It is a novel of incredible loss, but also of hope and ultimately redemption. Kelly’s story will resonate with the reader long after reading the final pages. This beautifully written novel should be savored by many a reader and would make a perfect title to discuss with a book group.
Former Chicago Tribune journalist Marja Mills says she never expected to befriend Harper Lee, much less write a biography-memoir about her 18-month sojourn to Monroeville, Alabama, that included living next door to the reclusive author. But 15 years after Mills' first visit, her highly discussable new book, The Mockingbird Next Door, has ridden the literary wave for its jolt of homey, if not mundane, rituals of Lee's daily life. If a peek behind the curtain is what you are seeking, Mills does not disappoint. The comings and goings of the Lee sisters (Alice is older) are affectionately detailed, leading to the inevitable question as to why Harper Lee would allow herself to be portrayed so simply and unguarded after years of shying away from publicity.
For Mills, this assignment was intriguing for its possibilities, and an opportunity to prove she could still do her job despite a diagnosis of lupus. In 2001, she travels to Lee's hometown to speak to folks who knew the then 75-year-old Harper Lee (Nelle to friends) and to get a feel for Monroeville, the setting for Lee's fictional Maycomb in To Kill a Mockingbird, the instant classic about the 1930s South. With a reporter's eye for opportunity, Mills meets and impresses Alice, smoothing the way for a meeting with the famous Harper Lee, whose only book won the 1961 Pulitzer Prize and was the subject of an Oscar-winning film. When Harper Lee called the reporter's hotel room, Mills recalled, "It was as if I had answered the phone and heard, 'Hello. This is the Wizard of Oz.' I felt my adrenaline spike."
Mills injects a strong sense of place in her conversational writing, along with plenty of quaint colloquialisms. There are towns like Burnt Corn and Scratch Ankle, and fishing trips and coffee-sipping at McDonald's. She captures the Mayberry-like tone of Lee's voice with her frequent "bless her heart," "mercy" and "thanks a bunch, hon." Mills tenderly skims over rumored aspects of Lee's life, dealing with sexual orientation and drinking, although her exploration of Lee's intriguing relationship with childhood friend, Truman Capote, is one of the more interesting chapters.
Knowing Harper Lee's penchant for privacy, it is probably not surprising that Mills' book has come under scrutiny. The author has insisted she had Lee's blessing for the project. Harper Lee's released statement denies the 88-year-old ever gave approval; Alice recalled otherwise. Such matters won't deter readers who will relish this intimate look inside the seemingly uncomplicated life of one of the most complicated and beloved literary figures of the 20th century.
The shortlist for the Man Booker Prize was announced today, September 9. The competition was previously only open to authors from the U.K. and the British Commonwealth, but the rules have been amended to include novels written in English and published in the U.K., regardless of the author’s nationality. This is the first time in the award’s 46-year history that U.S. residents were eligible, and two Americans’ novels have made the cut. Joshua Ferris was included on the list for his darkly comic novel To Rise Again at a Decent Hour. Our blogger Tom shared this book with Between the Covers readers earlier this summer. Karen Joy Fowler was named for her novel We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, which was also featured on this blog last year.
The list also includes The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan, J by Howard Jacobson, The Lives of Others by Neel Mukherjee and How to Be Both by Ali Smith, which have not all been published in the U.S yet. This list includes the titles available in BCPL’s collection.
AC Grayling, chair of the judging panel says, “As the Man Booker Prize expands its borders, these six exceptional books take the reader on journeys around the world, between the UK, New York, Thailand, Italy, Calcutta and times past, present and future. We had a lengthy and intensive debate to whittle the list down to these six. It is a strong, thought-provoking shortlist which we believe demonstrates the wonderful depth and range of contemporary fiction in English.”
The panel of judges will now re-read all of the titles on the shortlist and select the winner who will be named at an awards ceremony on October 14.
A school trivia night for parents goes horribly awry in Liane Moriarty’s new novel Big Little Lies. It was meant to be a bit of fun: parents dressed like celebrities, cocktails and trivia. By the end of the night, someone was dead. The answer lies hidden in secrets – both big and small – that some of the women are keeping.
When single mother Jane moves to town, she finds a sunny apartment near the beach. Her son starts kindergarten in a new school, but a pleasant first day quickly turns to accusations of bullying, and Jane and her son make their first enemy.
Madeline’s daughter is also in the class, and she befriends Jane due to her strong willingness to defend others. Madeline’s own life is in turmoil. Although she has a new husband, she can’t seem to forgive her ex for abandoning her for a younger model.
Finally, there is the beautiful Celeste, who has no flaws and leads a picture-perfect life. Celeste has two overly zealous twins and more money than she knows what to do with. But Celeste is holding on to a secret more devastating than anyone can imagine.
Moriarty had great success with The Husband’s Secret, and fans of that novel will not be disappointed. The author has a great sense of character and delves into the lives of these three women with aplomb. The reader really gets to know them as well-rounded individuals, and when they begin to struggle, the reader will be invested. The mystery of the trivia night is ever present, and Moriarty builds suspense by slowly revealing information that will lead to the inevitable finale. The audio edition is skillfully narrated by Caroline Lee, who gives voice to the three women and creates an enjoyable listening experience. Big Little Lies is a great novel to prepare readers for the back-to-school season. Let’s just hope your school year goes more smoothly!
As World War I rages towards its close, nurse Bess Crawford is called to London to assist a former patient who is being decorated for gallantry by King George. Instead, she finds herself An Unwilling Accomplice to the hero’s escape plan in this historical mystery by Charles Todd.
Confident that her patient, Sgt. Jason Wilkins, is settled for the evening, Bess enjoys a rare quiet dinner in a hotel dining room with long-time friend Sgt. Major Simon Brandon. Before retiring for the evening, Bess checks her suffering patient, making him as comfortable as possible. The dawn’s light reveals an empty bed and her patient’s discarded bandages. How could a profoundly wounded man, requiring the use of a wheelchair, escape from a public building? The military police demand the answer to that question, and they think Bess is the key. Overnight, Bess’ record as a dedicated nurse known for her bravery and skill is blemished when she is implicated in his escape. Further complicating an already difficult situation, Sgt. Wilkins is a suspect in the murder of a civilian in a tiny village. Determined to clear her name, Bess and Simon must unravel the threads of the deep secrets so carefully concealed by the villagers.
Charles Todd is the pen name of the mother and son team Charles and Caroline Todd. Together, they capture the essence of the historical period, weaving an atmosphere of quiet desperation as soldiers and civilians alike bear the burden of the horrific war. Few authors have recreated the grave effect on a generation with the realism and sensitivity of this team of American writers. Fans of Anne Perry, Jacqueline Winspear and Kerry Greenwood will find a deeply satisfying read. Also recommended are the previous works in this series, which begins with A Duty to the Dead. Todd also writes a series centered on a shell-shocked soldier who resumes his position as an inspector at Scotland Yard. The Ian Rutledge series begins with A Test of Wills.
While living in Borneo in the 1920s, Serena Lenore discovers a rare flower and cultivates it until she returns to the United States, where she turns one flower into an empire. Serena grafted the flower until she had acres upon acres of the unique white bloom. From these exceptional blossoms, she created a perfume with the ability to change the fortunes of the women wearing it. The perfume became a widely kept secret and Lenore Incorporated grew (by word of mouth) into a legacy that Serena could pass on to her daughters.
Three generations later, the business is still booming and Willow, Serena’s granddaughter, is ready to retire from the family business. First she must select a successor. The obvious choice is her daughter Mya, who has lived on the farm all her life learning the ways of the business. When her estranged daughter Lucia returns home, Willow realizes she has a tough decision to make.
Season of the Dragonflies is Sarah Creech’s debut novel, but as a professor of English and Creative Writing, this isn’t her first experience as a writer. Creech uses her Blue Ridge Mountain background as a foundation for her book, creating carefully depicted images of rural Virginia and working in stories she heard as a child. The characters’ relationships are at times strained, but in the end comforting and relatable despite the novel’s fantasy aspects.
Five Days Left is the emotional journey of two people facing life-changing situations and making ultimate sacrifices in the name of love. Debut author Julie Lawson Timmer took time to answer questions about this powerful novel — sure to become a book club favorite — which Jodi Picoult calls “unique, gripping and viscerally moving.”
Between the Covers: Mara and Scott are two ordinary people, living in different cities, pursuing dynamic careers and dealing with marriage and family. Over the course of five days, these two ordinary lives are extraordinarily changed. What was the genesis and inspiration for this story of a woman battling Huntington’s disease and a man battling the foster care system and even his own wife?
Julie Lawson Timmer: A few years ago, a friend of mine died after a long struggle with cancer. She was in hospice for the last several months of her life and she was spectacularly brave in facing what she knew would be her last months, weeks and days. During that time, and after she died, I was consumed with thoughts about what that must have been like for her — to know she wouldn’t be there for her kids’ graduations, their weddings, etc. I decided that writing about someone dealing with a fatal, incurable disease would be a way to explore the feelings my friend might have had. I also felt that exploring and writing about those feelings would be a way for me to honor her, even if the book was never read by anyone else. I chose Huntington’s because I didn’t want, or believe I had any right, to write my friend’s story. Five Days Left is not biographical in any sense.
I wanted to give Mara a break from her difficult situation, and adding the online group allowed me to do that. When I was casting around in my imagination for an online friend who Mara could become close to, Scott materialized, as did his job as a middle school teacher and coach. Technically, Scott and his wife are limited guardians of Curtis, not foster parents. Foster parenting involves months of background checks and classes and applications, etc., while being a limited guardian is a relatively immediate process, at least in Michigan. Given the urgency in Curtis’s situation, the foster system wasn’t appropriate. However, the concept of fostering and being a limited guardian are similar in that ultimately, you are caring for, making sacrifices for and, often, loving deeply a child who isn’t your own, and whose future is not in your control. In this regard, foster parents and limited guardians are in a similar position as step-parents, a role I hold. As a step-parent, I also care for, make sacrifices for and deeply love children whose future isn’t in my control, and I wanted to explore that.
BTC: In telling the stories of Mara and Scott, you explore sensitive issues such as foster care, suicide, infertility, adoption and marital durability. What led you to tackle such powerful topics? Describe the research process involved in ensuring accuracy of the details so integral to these characters’ stories.
JLT: [The research] was the biggest surprise for me about the process. When I first came up with the idea for the book, I actually wasn’t intending to do much research. I thought I’d spend a little time online learning a bit about Huntington’s – which I knew nothing about – and then rely on “artistic license” to fill in the details of the disease in a way that advanced the plot. But “a little time online” is all it took for me to realize how horrible Huntington’s is, and to realize there was no way I could write about it unless I did it as accurately as possible. I thought (and still think) I owed it to the Huntington’s community to get the disease right.
So, I did months of research on my own, and then I talked to some Huntington’s experts to confirm that my understanding of the research was correct, and that I’d represented it accurately in the novel. In many cases, I’d gotten the facts wrong, and I ended up making significant changes to Mara’s sections in order to correct the inaccuracies. I’m certain – and upset – that I didn’t likely get the disease completely accurate, but any mistakes were my fault, not that of the experts.
BTC: Mara’s voice is engagingly honest from the first sentence of the book. The reader is painfully aware of her anger, fear and even joy. How were you able to capture all these emotions and create an authentic portrait of one woman’s struggle against mortality?
JLT: I was highly motivated to get those feelings as right as I could. For my friend, who lived it. And for me, too, as I have certainly spent my share of time, as I imagine most mothers have, thinking about how I would feel if I knew my children would have to grow up without me.
It was a struggle, in early drafts, to keep Mara from feeling overly sorry for herself. But I spent a long time thinking about her, and who she was, and I knew that she was not a complainer. She was a strong, stoic woman who wanted to be treated that way. So, I dialed her down quite a bit and ended up with someone whose thoughts and fears were truer to what I believe Mara’s would be.
BTC: Almost even more surprising is the clarity of Scott’s voice. His love for his wife and foster son are evident as is the anguish he feels when he may lose one or both of them. How difficult was it to write from a man’s point of view?
JLT: My husband is a “guy’s guy,” which is how I’d describe Scott, and I have some close friends who are the same. I suppose I channeled them to a large extent. I did run a number of things about Scott past my husband – character motivation, turns of phrase, that sort of thing – to make sure I wasn’t attributing thoughts or phrases to him that weren’t ones a man would actually have. And there were times when my husband would say, “Uh, no way would he say that,” and I’d have to revise the dialogue. My husband’s help, from character motivation to dialogue to plot issues to making dinner and cleaning up so I could write is something I could talk about for a long time.
BTC: As heartbreaking as the story is at times, you tell it beautifully and manage to keep within the five-day timeline. Share with us your writing process for plotting this carefully constructed dual story. As a debut novelist, working attorney and mother to kids and dogs, how on earth did you find time to sit down and write?
JLT: Thank you for that lovely compliment! As for my plotting process, I am a major plotter/outliner. I carefully plotted how each story would go before I began writing. For an early draft, I wrote Scott’s entire story, and then Mara’s, and then did something close to cutting and pasting to get the chapters to alternate. In later drafts, I realized the story came out better if I wrote each chapter as it appeared in the book, rather than writing all of one character’s chapters at once.
As for the work/family/writing balance, that one was, and remains, tough. I discovered the only time people aren’t looking for me is between the hours of 4 a.m. – 6 a.m. Even then, because my company is global and I’m in the habit of checking email often, I could sometimes end up on calls or reviewing contracts before dawn instead of writing. But most days, those dark, quiet hours were mine, and I found that I could get two solid scenes written in that time. My wonderful husband set coffee every night and often left encouraging sticky notes on the coffee maker for me – something that made a huge difference, especially on cold, dark winter mornings.
BTC: How excited were you to receive such glowing recommendations for your novel from the likes of Jodi Picoult, Jacquelyn Mitchard and Sarah Pekannen? As a debut novelist, what was it like navigating the book world with publishing icon Amy Einhorn, and more importantly, can you clarify the rules of the literary drinking game that you and she created during the course of finalizing this novel?
JLT: I’m so grateful to those authors for taking the time to read a new writer’s book and then give a blurb for it. They’re wonderful. I was beyond excited to see those blurbs and honestly, I’m not sure it’s sunken in still. It’s surreal to think that these authors whose work I’ve admired for years have actually read my book, and that they liked it. I have a writer friend who emails me from time to time and her entire message will be, “JODI PICOULT!” or “CHRISTINA BAKER KLINE!” or any of the other names. When I read those emails, I think, “Oh, that’s right! It did happen!”
I loved working with Amy Einhorn (my same writer friend used to write those emails, too: “AMY EINHORN!”). In Amy’s first editor letter, which listed the various changes she thought I should make, she said the book should be “a five-hanky read” and that although it had made her sniffle a little, it hadn’t made her cry. When I set out to do my revisions, I put sticky notes all over the wall of our home office, to make it easier to organize the plot, and to my daughter’s horror, I added a few sticky notes at various intervals around the room with the notation, “MAKE AMY CRY!” After that, any time Amy emailed to say a certain revised scene had made her cry, I’d announce to my family, “Amy cried!” and we’d all cheer. A few times, I made the announcement at dinner, and we all raised our glasses to the fact that I’d made Amy cry. When I confessed this sordid family practice to Amy, she and I started joking that we’d invented a (terrible) new drinking game.
BTC: I’m sure our readers would love to hear what you’re working on next. Can you share any details?
JLT: Sure. Briefly, my next book is about estranged families, step parenting and the dreadful practice of “rehoming,” where people who no longer want their adopted children advertise them online and then hand them over to people who have merely responded to an Internet ad rather than going through the rigorous process of being qualified to adopt. It is completely different from Five Days Left, but as I expect every book I write will do, it explores different forms of “family” and how families survive, or don’t survive, challenging situations.