Sarah, I’d like to welcome you to Bookish Temptations, and tell you how much I appreciate you for taking the time to do this interview.
First, will you please tell us a little about yourself
Thank you so much, Tamie, for inviting me to your site. I’m quite excited to be here. Probably like many of your readers, I’m a wife and mom who finds herself pulled in a million directions while trying to keep herself and her family from wandering off into traffic. I’m also a ‘recovering CPA’ — my sincere sympathies to those of you out there who are familiar with the horrors of tax season. God love you. As far as my writing goes, I’m fairly eclectic. In the past I’ve been drawn to ghosts, mysteries, and romances where everything is not necessarily what it seems. Currently I’m obsessed with the 1940s era and stories of love set with WWII as a backdrop. San Francisco is my home, and I live in an old house that may or may not be haunted. My theory is that my children drove out any ghosts. If any of you have an eleven or a fourteen-year-old, you’ll know what I mean.
Sarah, I was particularly interested in the setting of San Francisco for the book because I’m from the Bay Area. Did you choose that location because you’re from there, or was there another reason?
Excellent question. San Francisco is one of the most romantic cities I have ever experienced. Plus it’s filled with so many haunts. The architecture is stunning and full of whimsy. In addition, San Francisco is home to many people who have no means of support. I’ve worked for many years with the homeless, and I see them passed over as if they were ghosts. Finally, so many of the older hotels, bars and houses are steeped in history and you can imagine the people who lived out their lifetimes against these stunning backdrops.
What was your inspiration for Andrew and Emily? Were they easy characters to write?
Lovely question. Andrew is a mélange of so many rockers, exceptionally bright although manic at times. There is an energy that lives in musicians when they are still hungry, when they haven’t yet made it. The Hamburg sessions for the Beatles – could you imagine what it was like to be there? Or early Bruce Springsteen concerts at The Stone Pony? I wanted to communicate that sense that you were watching greatness seconds before the fact. Andrew is quintessentially British—there is a wit or wordplay to his music even though it it’s cutting. It makes you want to get on your feet. Emily was much more introspective and her story arc focuses on her taking control of her destiny – becoming the strong and intelligent woman she was always meant to be.
How did the storyline first come to you? Did you embrace it right away?
Ghosts abound in Grave Refrain. Living in San Francisco, one becomes quite familiar with the fog. It becomes so thick at times, it doesn’t take much to imagine it is really a whole secret society of ghosts (and even ghosts visiting from out-of-town) hovering and spiriting along. It’s especially evocative at night. That image first planted the idea with me of ghosts living amongst us. They would have come from different times, of course, and I had always been captivated by the 1930s and 1940s. My parents adored that era as well. That led to my love of The Thin Man and other book/movies of the time.
What research if any did you undertake before and during the writing of Grave Refrain?
I researched rock bands and the business end of the rock and roll world. I also had to do quite a many site visits to make sure I had the details down. Many of the locations are real and many others are an amalgamation of multiple San Francisco locales. The Mendocino field trip was my favorite. One night my editor and I were sitting in the grand lobby of the place, finishing the last edits when a couple next to us said, “Do you believe in ghosts?” We nearly dropped the manuscript.
Do you think you’ll always want to write stories that have supernatural elements? Why or why not?
Not necessarily. While I do love that genre, real life on its own is sometimes much more magical.
Do you have a favorite character in the book? Why?
Simon Godden is perhaps my favorite. He is the drummer in The Lost Boys and Andrew’s closest mate. He’s rebellious and cynical in a devilishly delightful way. He manages to keep an aloof façade going, even as his loyalty to Andrew is put to the test. Then the poor man falls in love with a woman who doesn’t want him as much as he wants her. There was a bit of John Lennon going on there, for anyone who caught it. In addition, his sense of humor is closest to my own.
What were the biggest changes in the book from when you first wrote it to when you finished it? Are there scenes you wish you had left in?
You ask the best questions, Tamie!! When I started the story it was much lighter in tone. I needed to find my “noir” underpinning and I think I found it. There is a scene with a bathtub that was incredible sexy but didn’t drive plot much — I may post that as an outtake on my blog some day!
What was your favorite chapter/paragraph/phrase to write and why?
Hmmm. I like both Andrew and Emily’s banter as well as the letters between Nick and Nora. There is a scene when Andrew runs into an old blues musician that he spent some time with when he was hurting quite badly. Their interaction was lovely to write. How about a favorite paragraph?
Emily, this is it. My whole life. It starts with a boy. And a girl. Right? That much is easy. But what to say next? How to make her understand? How at eight years old, the boy sat in his bed one night, fingers playing an imaginary keyboard on the fringes of his bedspread, when his mind began to race with the wild blur of her, this girl, like an unloosed spirit, as the music wove new and thrilling patterns before his eyes. And she was there, always, from that day on. This girl, this same girl with the reddish hair, speaking to him, running joyously through his mind. How at fourteen, the pulse of his music had changed, with furor and rebellion. How he didn’t understand it, and he could only feel and ache and need. And then there was sex. And suddenly everything was sex, and she was sex, and she was his. Especially at night, in the quiet stillness. How at eighteen, words of black wit and a newly tried-on sophistication invaded his manners, his lyrics, his being—and fit like a coat that was too large though perfectly comfortable. It became the armor he wore to this day to battle everything, except her.
You included poets and poetry in the book which I loved. Any particular reason?
I adore good poetry and I don’t think it gets the attention it deserves. I once read that we read to prove we are not alone. I believe poetry is a caffeine hit of that connection. You can drown in it. I defy any one to read “In My Craft or Sullen Art” and not swoon!
Do you have a playlist for Grave Refrain?
Don’t laugh, but no. Lord, how could I write a story about a rock and roll story not have one, right? I’ll put one together if there is interest, though!
What is the hardest and the easiest part of writing for you?
Hardest? Writing with small ones under foot. There’s a line in Grave Refrain where a woman states, “…it ultimately comes down to someone sacrificing to make it work. And women are engineered to sacrifice, it’s in our DNA. Whereas the best of men, no matter how talented or intelligent or attractive, will suck you dry and then complain to you about the aftertaste.” I think that can be true of anyone who has a pull on your time. My children, especially my daughter, do not like sharing my lap with a laptop. The process of writing is also difficult for me at times. Just like going to the gym, the hardest part is putting on my shoes. It’s always so much easier to check my e-mail, surf my favorite sites (oh look—there’s a sale on at Zappos.com!), and let’s not forget Bejeweled. Yet once I hammer down I can disappear into another world, and nothing in this world can compare.
Laughter keeps me going, and I adore the setup of a joke so that part of writing is easy. But I find sex scenes difficult, ahem, challenging to write. Trying to keep them from reading like insert point A into slot B and avoiding words like “lave” and “manhood” – ai carumba. That’s why my sex scenes tend to be very atmospheric; I need to bring in all the senses and have the emotional and mental desires overcome the scene. Laurie R. King wrote of her heroine that she thought the brain was the sexiest part of the human body. I think that is why people adore Pride and Prejudice – it’s all about what’s not there, what’s smoldering under the surface. The longing. The bond between lovers. Now, don’t get me wrong, I adore a good sex scene as much as anyone, but I also love the yearning and the heartache and the banter. It makes the ultimate love scene all the more captivating.
What are you currently working on and can you tell us anything about it?
A novel set in New York City during WWII. It’s a story of deep friendship and ultimately of love. But nothing, and I mean nothing, is going in favor of our lovers except their need be together in a world falling apart.
What was the first thing you did when you found out your book was going to be published?
I yelled so loudly that I freaked out my poor dog.
Is there a specific thing you do or place you go when you need a break from writing?
I walk that little dog around a pretty park called Stern Grove. He’s a rescued schnoodle named Harry, and I am besotted with him. His picture is on my website.
What is your favorite genre to read? Who are some of your favorite authors?
I’m wildly inconsistent when it comes to my reading. I am currently reading Neil Gaiman’s American Gods – and he has a line in it, “Chicago came on slowly—like a migraine.” How can you not love that line? Reading great work encourages and revives me like nothing else. I’m a firm believer that you can spin a great yarn while writing well. Both exist independently out there, but when you find both together—it’s like nothing else. I read ravenously, so quantifying might be difficult. You can check out my Goodreads bookshelf, but a sampling of books I return to: Mystery: Dorothy Sayers (especially Gaudy Night), Literary fiction: Ian McEwan (Atonement), Norman MacClean (A River Runs Through It), A.S. Byatt (Possession), Romance: Daphne de Maurier (Rebecca). Science Fiction: Ursula Le Guin (The Lathe of Heaven), Horror: Almost all Poe, Stephen King (The Stand) H.P. Lovecraft. Fantasy: Neil Gaiman (Neverwhere). But Tom Stoppard’s play, The Real Thing, is never off nightstand.
What was the last book you read and what book are you dying to read next?
The Fault in our Stars by John Greene (excellent, by the way) and I’m dying to read Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese.
What has been the toughest criticism given to you as an author? What has been the best compliment?
Great question. You have to have some serious thick skin to want to do this job, in my opinion. My writing teacher was tough but wonderful and she would say, “Why should I care about this scene? Why is it here? If it’s just smut or a laugh, why the hell should I care? ” I’d shuffle back to my chair and hide my face for a while then gut it. I suppose one of the best compliments I ever received was an e-mail from a reader who told me she had needle pointed a passage from one of my stories and hung it on her wall. .. That’s love.
Rapid Fire Questions (First thing that comes to mind)
1- Coffee or Tea? COFFEE. And lots of it. Intravenously.
2- Mac or PC? Here I hide behind my desk – PC, although everyone wants me to join the dark side
3- Sweet or Sour? Both! Can I say that?
4- Twitter or Facebook? Facebook.
5- Favorite word? Somnolent. Song?Thunder Road Sound? My kid’s laughter. Color?Sky-blue pink. Curse word? Unfuckingbelievable (muttered in a NJ accent). Number? Five.
6- Coke or Pepsi? Neither. See coffee above…
7- Pens or Pencils? Pens—especially when they work. Does anyone else have this problem?
8- Best thing you ever ate? Lasagna in Lucca, Italy. I’d sell my kids for that recipe.
9- Favorite place you’ve ever been to? Little Diamond Island, Maine.
10- Place you’d most like to visit? Paris. With my husband… If he is not available, Benedict Cumberbatch.
Thank you again Sarah for such a terrific interview.
Check out Sarah’s book Grave Refrain if you haven’t yet. It’s awesome!