Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Book Review: Little Fires Everywhere

Celeste Ng's first novel, Everything I Never Told You, blew me away. It would have been hard for Little Fires Everywhere to top it, and it didn't, but it was still enjoyable and thoughtful and impressive in so many ways.

On the Amazon site, the book has been reviewed nearly 2000 times, and the vast majority are four and five stars. Even three star reviews are respectable, in my opinion. What's shocking to me is the 4% of reviewers who felt this book deserved one star. Have they ever read a one star quality book? I have and this isn't it. The one star review should be reserved for books that never should have been published in the first place, not a book you just didn't connect with. Celeste Ng is an amazing writer who couldn't write a one star book if she tried.

Rant over.

I saw Ng at the Tucson Festival of Books this past weekend where she discussed this novel, which is being made into a TV show starring Reese Witherspoon. Having loved her HBO adaptation of Big Little Lies, I'm really looking forward to it.

Little Fires Everywhere is set in the nineties in Shaker Heights - an affluent, planned community that prides itself on its liberalism. The major conflict centers around the abandonment of a Chinese baby and her subsequent adoption by a wealthy, white couple. Ng explores issues of class and race and motherhood in a way that challenges the reader to ask questions without supplying answers.

Sunday, March 11, 2018

Tucson Festival of Books: Julia Glass

So, I'm pushing forty and this is the first time I've gotten someone's autograph. Julia Glass is in my top five all-time favorite authors. I've read all her books once, The Whole World Over three times.

In each of my own novels, I make reference to one of the writers I most admire. In Finding Charlie, it's this scene of Olivia reading in her back yard:
"I was reading the latest novel by Julia Glass. She was delving deeper into the lives of characters who had been on the edges of her earlier work. I liked this idea: we are all peripheral characters in someone else’s story and every peripheral character is the lead in their own."
This is the way I write too - standalone stories with overlapping characters. No one does it better than Julia Glass, who was one of several inspiring authors at this year's Festival of Books. (But again, the only one whose autograph I just had to have!)

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

LitChat. Part Two: publishing

Yesterday's post was getting too long so I split the interview into two chunks. What follows is more about publishing.

(These chats used to be archived. Mary Vensel White asked such good questions, I couldn't just let it get lost in the void!)

MVW: You’re what we call these days a “hybrid author,” meaning, you’ve published books in a variety of ways. Your first novel, Monsoon Season, was published by Canvas then you self-published A Long Thaw. Your third, Finding Charlie was published by Amazon as a Kindle Scout winner and with B&W, you decided to self-publish again. 

KO: actually, A Long Thaw was initially published by canvas. it was part of my original 3 book deal. when i got out of my contract with them, i rereleased it on my own. but since it had already been through the traditional editing process, all i had to do was get a new cover and put it on amazon. it helped me get a sense of what self-publishing is about, but I feel like Blood & Water is my first real experience launching a book on my own.

MVW: Do you think the publishing landscape has changed in recent years to allow authors more diversity and autonomy in the ways they put forward their work?

KO: i do. i still worry that the ease of self-publishing has flooded the market with unpolished work, making it harder for some writers to get noticed and make a living. but it has also made the process democratic, allowing consumers to decide what they're going to read instead of being told by publishing houses that might not be willing to take a chance on something not easily categorized. now writers are free to find their audience regardless of whether a publisher thinks they can. 

MVW: What was your experience like with the traditional publisher, Canvas, with your first novel? What were some benefits of being supported by an established publishing house? Were there any downsides?

KO: i was unhappy with my first publisher. i had very little control over the cover or how my work was promoted. there were long stretches of time when no one returned my emails and i assumed the book had tanked and the others might never be published- only to find out 6 months later, via an accounting letter, that Monsoon Season had sold 10000 copies. i was new to the publishing world and a lot of people thought i was crazy for getting out of that contract, but the lack of personal connection to people i’d trusted with my ‘babies’ felt wrong.  

i think the benefits can be more power behind you in sales, though it isn’t guaranteed and i didn’t get that with the 2nd book. the other benefit is some degree of respect. in a sea of self-published books, it can give you some credibility that you made it past the gate keepers.

MVW: How does an author take advantage of Amazon’s Kindle Scout program and what does publication with them look like? Do they assist with marketing and sales? Did you have any control over the final product?

KO: i think Kindle Scout is the best of both worlds. i got to design the cover and write the book my way; they provide editing, an advance and marketing. they even got me a Bookbub ad this summer. 2 years after publication, they’re still promoting the book and it’s done really well.  

MVW: You’ve returned to self-publishing twice. What do you enjoy about the process? What advice would you give to authors considering publishing their own work?

KO: i’ve found i like the marketing part better than i thought i would. it didn’t come naturally, but i’ve been figuring it out over the past 5-6 years. publishing is always changing and there’s new stuff to learn. i like the challenge but it’s time consuming. if you’re serious about doing the work to find your audience, it’s like taking on a 2nd job on top of writing.  

MVW: What are you working on now and when can we look forward to reading it? Will you continue writing books with these characters?

KO: i often go through a phase when i’ve just finished a book that i think i might never write again, but i just started working on something last week. i think it’s too new to articulate what it might be. if any of my characters decide they have more to say, i’ll be writing it down. the thing i’ve learned is that no story’s ever really over.

Please check out the first post in this series, on writing.

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

Litchat, Part One: writing

Last month, I participated in a twitter interview on #LitChat. I've attended these author chats before, but this was my first time being the interviewee. We talked about publishing and a bit about my latest novel, Blood & Water. Mary Vensel White conducted the interview and it was so fun I decided to post the content below:

MVW: Today we’re chatting with @katieorourke78. We’ll chat about her latest novel, Blood & Water, for the first half of #LitChat, and for the second half, we’ll discuss her experiences as a hybrid author.

Welcome, Katie! Can you give us a short summary of Blood & Water?

KO: when her life in NH falls apart, delilah takes off, driving across the country to her brother’s house in tucson, though she hasn’t seen him in years. the people she finds there, many of them strangers, become unwitting casualties of her early mid-life crisis, and end up helping her through it anyway.

MVW: What was your initial inspiration for the novel?

KO: i think the first scene i wrote is delilah beating a car with a baseball bat. the idea of an otherwise rational person being pushed into such an uncharacteristic extreme was interesting to me- how she got there and how she'd manage to right herself. the story grew from there.

MVW: I found it very interesting how Delilah and David came from the same parents but because of the age difference and other factors, it was almost like they grew up in two different families. Do you think siblings often have differing childhoods?

KO: i think when there's a big age span, you end up with parents who have different skill sets. parenting in your twenties is different than parenting in your forties, and that doesn't even take into account issues of alcoholism and recovery. there's an 18 year difference between david and delilah. in fundamental ways, they were raised by different people.

MVW: B & W is told in rotating POVs. How did you decide on this form? What benefits does it have?

KO: i always tell stories in multiple pov. it allows the reader to see the story from many angles and it means they end up knowing more than any of the characters. this story has 5 narrators who take turns in a sort of relay style. balancing five narratives so each character has their own arc and resolution while also contributing to the arc and resolution of the main story was probably the most complicated story construction i've taken on so far. by the time i realized how hard it was going to be, i was too far in!

MVW: B&W is your fourth novel—in your own words, a “family saga” with characters that overlap with your other books. Can you talk about this relationship between your novels?

KO: all of my books take place in the same fictional world, making it possible for characters from different books to meet each other, for a peripheral character from one book to have a leading role in the next. i don't write sequels, per se, and these books can be read in any order, but because all of the characters live in the same world, there’s an opportunity to revisit the past.

MVW: What was your writing process like for this novel, especially considering the existing links with your other books? Did you outline or just let it flow?

KO: i never know where a story is going. before i sit down to write, i spend a lot of time in my head just getting to know the characters, but i never know what the story will be or how it ends until i write it.

MVW: Your website calls your books “Contemporary Women’s Fiction.” You and I have been critique partners for years and I’d say B&W is your most literary work to date. Especially because this book was self-published, how difficult is it to settle on a genre when a book straddles two or more?

KO: i try not to think of genre while i'm writing. i do think this is more literary than my others, but i think the biggest difference is that my characters are older. because i'm older. it's about more serious things because i care about more serious things. since i'm the publisher, i don't have to let myself be pigeon-holed or told to write for a specific market. 

Tomorrow, I'll post part two of the interview, where we discuss publishing. Keep an eye out!

Friday, February 23, 2018

Book Review: The Promise Between Us

I first heard about this book when I attended a LitChat on twitter in January. Author Barbara Claypole White spoke about her inspiration for this novel: Can you be a good mother if you abandoned your baby?

The novel rotates between five narrators and tells a story about a young girl with OCD and the complicated family of flawed adults who put aside what they want in order to do what's best for her.

I love flawed characters and I love stories told with alternating POV. Claypole White's novel tackles the stigma that still surrounds mental illness, which (along with access to health insurance) can be one of the obstacles to getting treatment.

Incidentally, I liked how this book included the character's financial concerns. It seems like so many authors gloss over this issue, which makes for totally unrelatable stories, in my opinion.

As a writer of women's fiction, I appreciated her definition:
"Technically I write WF, yes, because I'm writing emotionally layered stories. . . WF is about the protag's emotional journey. Some argue protag has to be female: I disagree."
I'll be participating in my own LitChat on twitter February 26th when I will be interviewed by author Mary Vensel White.
is about the protag's emotional journey. Some argue protag has to be female: i disagree
is about the protag's emotional journey. Some argue protag has to be female: i disagree."

Thursday, February 22, 2018

Book Review: All Systems Down

So I'm a slow reader and this is not the genre I typically read, but I blew through this is a little over two days. In
All Systems Down, a cyber attack cripples America, and a group of strangers comes together to fight back.

On one level, it's just a lot of fun. It's edge of your seat, heart-pounding, cinematic entertainment. That level would be enough to recommend it, but I'm happy to say there's a deeper level.

The pacing is perfect, the dialogue is spot on, the writing itself is beautiful. It becomes clear early on that this writer knows what he's doing. This doesn't read like a debut. Boush is talented.

The cast of characters is ethnically diverse without making an issue of it. They challenge stereotypes; the female pilot and fierce mother are only two of the strong women who make up this story. There's a character who seems to be on the Autism spectrum, though it's never explained quite that way and the reader finds herself questioning who decides what behavior is "normal."

The story is told in alternating first-person narratives and the reader gets to know and care for each of these original characters deeply. What this story says about human nature is sort of heart-breaking: we're our own worst enemies. When the nation is under attack, the lawlessness of fellow citizens becomes one of the greatest threats.

A few chapters in, I began worrying about whether I have stored enough emergency water. This is a cautionary tale that seems so plausible, it will haunt you.

I enjoyed every moment of this fast-paced read and look forward to the next novel.

Here's my interview with Sam Boush for Today'sAuthor.

Monday, February 19, 2018

Sex in Literary Fiction 4

Here's my last example for this discussion:

"Have you been good?" she asked me.
I nodded. This would help. "I've been very good," I answered chastely.
She smiled and shrugged out of her utilitarian underwear. For some reason, when making love to my wife, I liked to retreat to a little boy persona and often came within ten seconds whenever she started cooing that I was a "good boy." "Good boy," she would whisper, as I thrust and pumped on top of her (or behind her, or underneath; Elaine was as cheerful as a cheerleader about assuming whatever position I wanted). 'Good boy," she would murmur into my hair. "Good boy." And she would sigh and draw a finger down my back.
"I want to be a good boy, I want to be a good boy. Which was true, which was all I'd ever wanted.
"Help me to be good," I would beg her. "Please, please, help me-" And then blast; it was over.
But tonight, after she'd sat astride me for all of five minutes, I considered attempting to fake it- did she really have to know?- and then to my surprise I sputtered out a small orgasm; satisfied, my wife climbed off me. She and I made love like the sexual revolution had never happened; my satisfaction supported her sense of herself as a woman, and even if only one of us came (that would be me), we could usually both go to sleep content. 
That's a scene from Laura Grodstein's A Friend of the Family. I'm impressed that a woman can so believably write this scene as a male narrator. I think this scene is great for the added dimension it gives of this control-freak narrator and the submissive dynamic he plays in bed which is the opposite of how his relationship with his wife plays out through the rest of the book. It's telling too, that his wife gets reassurance from his climax and neither one of them is concerned about hers. This is reflective of his character, and foreboding for their marriage.

The thing about each of these scenes that separates them from erotica is that they're not designed to titillate. It's fine if they do, but that isn't their purpose. Whatever graphic details exist are there for believability. These scenes give us a deeper understanding of who these characters are, and when a novel's main focus is the romantic relationship between two people, the sex is an essential part.

(To start this  series from the beginning, click here.)