What books have you written?
Currently, I have two books available: All Unquiet Things (which is available in paperback) and The Opposite of Hallelujah (which is still in hardcover). Tandem, the first book in the Many-Worlds trilogy, will be released on October 8, 2013.
Where do you get your ideas from?
Nowhere in particular, everywhere in general. The thing about “ideas” is that they start with a tiny kernel that possibly never makes it into the final product. Like, All Unquiet Things was inspired by a person I knew in college, but that person is nowhere to be seen in the final draft and hasn’t been for a long time. That book evolved more than any book I’ve written before or since. Ideas are everywhere. The most important part of being a writer is to open up your eyes and ears and mind and actually find them.
The Opposite of Hallelujah was inspired by two things: something my sister (who is seven and a half years younger than me, eight years behind me in school) once said about the fact that she and I grew up in different houses, because we were so far apart in age that our childhoods only overlapped for a short period of time, and I wasn’t around a lot during her adolescence (college, etc.); and a memoir written by Karen Armstrong, an acclaimed religious historian who went into a convent when she was seventeen and left when she was in her mid-twenties. That memoir is called The Spiral Staircase, and it’s about her attempt to acclimate to “normal” life after living so long as a nun; a previous memoir, Through the Narrow Gate, about her time in the convent, was instrumental to the actual writing of The Opposite of Hallelujah, but I actually read it much later (I read The Spiral Staircase for the first time in college).
Tandem was inspired by my own interest in parallel universes and theoretical physics, and my desire to write a book that was both an adventure and a romance.
Are your books’ events based on real life?
When it comes to All Unquiet Things, no, although when I was putting the finishing editorial touches on that story I found an article about a somewhat similar event that happened in a town actually mentioned in All Unquiet Things. It was very spooky, and of course extremely tragic. But that’d happened about a year before, years after I started writing All Unquiet Things. There are some parts of The Opposite of Hallelujah that were either based on my life or events that happened tangential to me in my childhood, plus some characters were based on people I actually know, but no aspect of either book could be considered true to life. Everything is fictional in both novels, to a greater or lesser extent. Tandem is basically all made up (as books about traveling to parallel universes tend to be).
Who are some of your favorite authors to read?
I’m a big fan of Douglas Coupland; my favorite of his books are Hey Nostradamus!, Girlfriend in a Coma, and Microserfs. I also love the late Nancy Mitford and her novels The Pursuit of Love and Love in a Cold Climate. Jane Austen, of course, and J.D. Salinger. I’ve loved Anne Fadiman ever since I read her little collection of essays on reading, Ex Libris, which I reread every year. I really love Bill Bryson, Agatha Christie, Donna Tartt, Kazuo Ishiguro, Alice Munro, Evelyn Waugh, Ian McEwan, J.K. Rowling, F. Scott Fitzgerald, David Sedaris, Anna Gavalda, Joan Didion, Carol Goodman, and Chris Adrian. I have to say, though, after listing all those people, I’m not generally an author-fan, I’m a book-fan. It’s easier for me to tell you what my favorite books are than my favorite authors.
Okay then, what are your favorite books?
Well! Let me tell you. Hey Nostradamus!, The Pursuit of Love and Love in a Cold Climate, Brideshead Revisited, Ex Libris, Slouching Towards Bethlehem, Pride and Prejudice, Emma, Nine Stories, Franny and Zooey, East of Eden, In a Sunburned Country, Sleeping Murder, The Secret History, Never Let Me Go, Hateship Courtship Friendship Loveship Marriage, Atonement, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, The Great Gatsby, Hunting and Gathering, and The Children’s Hospital. Plus many many more. Check out what I’m reading on Goodreads.
What do you do if you’re having trouble writing? How do you jump start the creative juices / thoughtsicles as some would apparently say?
Haha. FIRST OF ALL, a thoughtsicle is an opinion, in my parlance. I have no idea how I get my thoughtsicles flowing, they just burst out of me like that alien in, well, Alien. When I have trouble writing I do a lot of things. I write character manifestos sometimes, but often I work on something else or I chuck the writing thing altogether and go for a walk or watch a movie or read a book or listen to music or take a nap or leave my house and go somewhere else. Writer’s block, like heat, always breaks eventually, usually when you’re least expecting it. If you distract your brain from the book, I find that the answers always work themselves out.
What kind of writing most captivates you? What kind of writing most disappoints you?
Hm, I don’t quite know how to answer this. I think what bothers me the most in writing has got to be self-satisfaction, and maybe this is opening myself up to that same criticism, but, well, okay. I’m bothered by writing that takes too much pride in its cleverness, because I think that alienates the reader. What is most important to me, what most captivates me, is a story that entertains me or connects with me emotionally or a character that fascinates me. Not all books have these things, but one of them is usually enough. The best books have all or most of them. I think you know which books those are, at least according to me (hint: look up).
Have you ever written any other books?
Yes. You can read about them here.
How did you find an agent?
The University of Chicago does this great thing where it funds six internships in the humanities for graduating students, so I applied to all three of the remotely publishing-related ones. I interviewed with Browne & Miller Literary Associates and they offered me the internship, which I was at from June to September of 2007. Danielle Egan-Miller and Joanna MacKenzie were great mentors, and they knew I’d written a YA novel as my thesis (Joanna is also a U of C grad), and asked to see it, but I never sent it because I was afraid that if they didn’t like it they would think less of me. What a weirdo I was! Anyway, I started querying the old fashioned way, and I got some interest but I eventually accepted the fact that I knew of one person who might get the novel and even though I might make a fool out of myself, it was worth the risk, so I emailed Joanna and asked if she’d take a look at the query and see if she wanted to read the MS. She did, and she loved it, and she offered to represent me. It was very serendipitous, and I am extremely lucky, because Joanna is the best agent ever, and a good friend.
What are you working on now?
As of May 2011, I’m under contract with Delacorte for two more books: Tandem and a direct sequel. I always have a couple of side novels that I play with when I’m feeling stumped by or tired of my current work in progress, but nothing I’m working on with anywhere near the intensity I’m devoting to the Many-Worlds Trilogy.
ABOUT ALL UNQUIET THINGS:
How did you decide that you wanted to write a mystery?
The mystery chose me. Honestly, I never thought of myself as a mystery writer, but that’s what happened. I’m not really one for meandering books. I want the books that I read to have plots, because I think that it’s in the doing of things that the meat of existence (human emotion, intention, personality, character, thoughts, etc.) comes to life. A plot is like the backbone of a book, with all the flesh and blood and raw nerve endings wrapped around it. A mystery, due to the very nature of the genre, has to have a plot. Maybe that’s one of the things that drew me to it. Otherwise, I can’t say, but there’s a big part of me that relates to the job of an investigator. I love knowing things and finding things out. It could be that, too. Also, I read a lot of Agatha Christie growing up.
Was it difficult to plot out all the twists and remember who was where when, etc?
Extremely difficult. We went through several rounds of revisions of the novel before we even submitted it to editors, and then two rounds afterwards, and every time I looked at the manuscript I found an inconsistency. Every. Single. Time. Mysteries are hard to write and I’m not quite sure mystery writers get their due for pulling off the truly great ones. I think everything’s fine now, but it involved a lot of planning, and even then it involved a lot of vigilance and tweaking.
Why did you set the story in California?
I really tried to set it in Illinois, but the landscape of the town in my mind was absolutely Californian. Maybe that’s because I was living there when I wrote the book the first time, but mostly I feel like this book belonged there. The San Ramon Valley is the book’s spiritual home, which sounds nuts, but there you are. I’m sort of mildly obsessed with California now that I no longer live there, which is ironic, since I moved there with plans to absolutely despise it, and did for many years, but now I have these romantic feelings about it that are mostly the result of nostalgia. I think, though, that All Unquiet Things can be quite critical of it at times, and that reflects a lot of how I felt when I was living there. It’s not all blue skies and ocean breezes. I half wish I’d pulled off setting the novel in Illinois, because then the town name abbreviation would be EV, IL. (!!!)
What sort of research did you conduct for the book? Did you visit local prep schools? How did you achieve the color and ambiance of NorCal?
I didn’t have to do so much research, because I was writing about teenagers in Northern California and I had been one only a few years before. I still had to look up a few things, like whether or not you can directly inherit money if you’re a minor in the state of California (you can’t). I had to choose a gun for the murder weapon, I had to research illegal drugs and their medical effects. But writing about California came really easily to me. Even though I technically lived there a lot longer, I think it’d be hard for me to write about Chicago in the same way. Something about transitioning from child to adult in California made a really big impression on me. I spent A LOT of my college years driving up and down the 5 to Los Angeles, Fresno, San Diego, Santa Cruz, Carmel, San Luis Obispo. You learn a lot about California by driving. There’s a Christian prep school down the street from my parents’ house, and in my head Brighton Day School is a combination of it and the high school I graduated from (which no longer looks the way it did when I went there, in fact it looks considerably more like Brighton). I pulled a lot of Empire Valley from right where I was living.
Was there ever a time when you thought, “How do I make the murder mystery genre fresh?”
I never really thought about it. My only thought was, “How do I write this book and not burn out or embarrass myself?” I hope people think it’s fresh, but I really don’t know. I just wanted to make it true. In the sense of capital T True, anyway. Obviously, it’s fiction.
What was your inspiration for placing your characters in such a high social class setting?
The honest answer to this question is that people who have money get away with a lot more than people who don’t. This is just an obvious fact of human existence. I’m also sort of interested in the idea of the rotted log, which looks fine until you step on it and it crumbles to pieces because inside everything has decayed. All Unquiet Things takes its title from Canto III, stanza XLIII of an epic poem called Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage by George Gordon, Lord Byron. That stanza talks about powerful people and how even though the world envies them, inside they are rotted through, and if you could only see the truth of what they are you’d never, ever want to be them. So here you have this nice, well-off town that has an enclave of wealthy people who seem to have these great lives. These kids have everything they could ever want, they go to this nice prep school, they drive fancy cars and get away with far more than they should. But there’s something fundamentally wrong underneath all the glamor. I found that really interesting, and it was a very hospitable setting for the story I wanted to tell.
Did you try to attain crossover appeal between YA and adult fiction readers? If so, how?
I just wrote the book the way I wanted to write it and didn’t think about things like that. I hope that both teens and adults like All Unquiet Things, I really do, because I think each community of readers has something to bring to the experience of reading the book that is valuable. The book is certainly done up to appeal to both age groups, which is something I wholeheartedly support. I’d like as many people as possible to read it, but I didn’t write it to have crossover appeal, no.
Will there be more ALL UNQUIET THINGS?
I don’t think so. I have this weird idea for a sequel with Neily and Audrey in college, and I might even write it one day (I’ve started it, but haven’t gotten too far). If I do end up finishing it, I might self-publish it–I’m not sure the market will really support an actual printed version, but it would be fun for like four people to read if they wanted to.
How long did it take you to write ALL UNQUIET THINGS?
From spark to finished manuscript, it took six and a half years, but it only took me two years to write the second version.
What books influenced ALL UNQUIET THINGS?
I’ve been thinking about this a lot, and the book that I think heavily influenced AUT is Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte. There aren’t really any literal comparisons, and I didn’t realize this until after I was done writing it so it was in no way conscious, but the character of Jane Eyre (and some Bronte scholars might disagree with this assessment, I don’t know), according to my interpretation, is actually full of rage, and in some ways it’s totally obvious and in some ways it’s completely subtle and I see that buried anger in Audrey especially. I always say that Audrey is angrier than Neily, and people tend to disagree with me because Neily is very open about his feelings and Audrey isn’t, which is what makes her anger all the more, I don’t know, sinister in some ways. She’s not a cipher–I hate ciphers–but she’s buried her anger so deeply that even she can’t recognize it, but actually, to me, she’s enraged. Think about her life so far, what an abandoned child she is, and try to imagine not being angry about that. Her main motivation in the story, to find Carly’s killer, is anger, while Neily’s is love, and I think some people would say that the opposite is true, but I disagree, although both points are equally valid.
ABOUT THE OPPOSITE OF HALLELUJAH:
What inspired you to write THE OPPOSITE OF HALLELUJAH?
I’ve been playing with the idea of writing a book about a teenage girl whose sister is a nun since I read Karen Armstrong’s truly wonderful memoir of readjusting to “real” life post-convent, The Spiral Staircase, in 2004. Armstrong went into the convent (not a cloistered order like the Sisters of Grace–an order which, by the way, I made up, but is based on the Poor Clares–but she was a nun before Vatican II, when even active orders were incredibly strict) when she was seventeen and she had a younger sister who was quite bewildered by the whole thing, and Armstrong writes about her sister’s feelings of betrayal in her book. I thought there could be a really interesting story there. I feel obligated to point out, though, that even though Armstrong’s story was the kernel that inspired Hallelujah, neither Caro nor Hannah are meant to depict real people. Still, much of my understanding of how Hannah suffers is informed by The Spiral Staircase and Armstrong’s previous memoir of her time in the convent, Through the Narrow Gate.
I returned to this idea in 2009 when my sister, who is seven and a half years younger than me, made an off-handed comment about how she and I “grew up in different houses”–that even though we have the same parents and, in actuality, grew up in the same houses, her experience was so much different because she was the youngest, and my brother and I were away at college through her adolescence, and my parents’ approach to parenting had changed in the years since I was a teenager. I thought it was an interesting way of looking at it, and the two ideas converged into this story (which is why Hannah is so much older than Caro; I wanted to take the age separation between my sister and I and expand it even more dramatically, so that Caro doesn’t even really have memories of her sister, since Hannah left when she was so young).
Did you do a lot of research about nuns in the process of writing THE OPPOSITE OF HALLELUJAH?
I read a lot of articles and books about nuns, because even though Hannah’s experiences in the convent are never depicted and this book is really about her returning to the outside world rather than what happened inside, I wanted to realistically depict what she might be feeling, and how she’s come to this point of suffering. I’d like to take this opportunity to say that it isn’t being a nun that has brought Hannah to her knees, emotionally and physically and psychologically. When Hannah went into the convent she was already extremely unwell, having sublimated all these feelings of grief and powerlessness and then coated them in this zealous religiosity; it wasn’t Hannah’s faith (or lack thereof, or whatever you think she’s been feeling all these years) that made her miserable, it was the fact that she was running away from her pain and trying to hide it and almost wring it out of herself by putting herself through this very rigorous lifestyle. I have no doubt that, if she wasn’t consumed by all of her pain and guilt from the past, she would’ve made a terrific nun.
Caro is a difficult protagonist to love. Did you intend her to be so unlikeable? What was your inspiration in creating her character?
Without fail, every reader review I come across of this book contains some mention of how unlikeable Caro is–if not throughout, then at least at the beginning. (This is, by the way, mostly true of Neily in All Unquiet Things as well.) And I’m not interested in arguing against that viewpoint–I wouldn’t even if I disagreed with it (which I don’t), because people are entitled to their opinion. I have a few answers to this question, though. I actually think Caro is, though selfish and difficult, an extremely likeable character. She’s so funny! And incredibly down to earth, and though she has some particularly undignified moments of self-absorption, I think she’s such a realistic teenager. Perhaps I think this because I also think that Caro is a pretty realistic portrait of me as a teenager, and it’s possible that I was a bit hard on her (vis a vis how other characters see her and judge her) because like most people I’m my own worst critic. But I would like to state for the record that I think Caro is an incredibly empathetic, open-minded, loving person, but she’s also stubborn and afraid of change and insecure about her place in the world, and different circumstances bring out different traits, but they’re all in there, and they are all eventually expressed in her behavior. This was absolutely something I did on purpose, because I think contradictory characters are the most interesting. If Caro wasn’t a little prickly in the beginning, would her epiphanies toward the end of the book be as satisfying? I really don’t think so.
Why M.C. Escher?
The role played in the book by the art of M.C. Escher was originally supposed to be played by the Kurt Vonnegut novel Slaughterhouse Five and its infamous refrain, “So it goes.” I was (and am) rather taken with the idea of some aspects of our lives seeming to amount to a cosmic shrugging of the shoulders, this idea that things happen and what are you going to do about it? I’d intended that to be a recurring theme in the novel, because Caro, like a child, asks “Why?” a lot. It’s part of her character, this relentless pursuit of answers–it’s why she’s so intrigued by science and comforted by math–and she would naturally apply it to the world of emotion and philosophy, but the answers would be far less satisfactory. However, as the story progressed, that became less of a position I was willing to take on the subject–the question was less “Why?” and more “What does it mean?” So “so it goes” became less relevant, and as you might have noticed it never gets mentioned once. The art of M.C. Escher, however, became very relevant as I continued to write the novel.
We had several Escher prints in the house growing up, so they were part of the visual backdrop of my childhood, though I didn’t appreciate them at the time for what they were, nor did I give them a ton of thought, only recognizing that they were intriguingly weird. They originally came into the story mostly because I poached a lot of details from my childhood and inserted them in this book and that was one of them, but the more I thought about it, the more important it became. Escher’s work was extremely useful to me in that it lends itself very well to metaphor, especially about perspective, because a lot of what Father Bob tries to teach Caro about life is about how we see the world and how that’s actually something we can control. And how just because something doesn’t make logical sense doesn’t mean it’s not real or beautiful or worth taking very seriously (like love, or maybe religion, and most definitely, like, every human being in the world).
Why Rube Goldberg machines?
This book really is full of a lot of strange stuff, huh? I like the idea of Rube Goldberg machines because they’re incredibly complex machines built to accomplish incredibly mundane tasks, which makes them a really great metaphor, specifically for Caro’s lies about Hannah. But they’re also a really great metaphor for intricate causality, as Hannah points out–how one thing affects another thing which affects another thing, and so on. One of my favorite moments in the novel is when Pawel, right before letting Caro in his room (where he is keeping a bunch of Rube Goldberg machines, because building them is a hobby of his), says, “Just to be clear–they’re not toys.” The resonance of that line! Of course they’re not toys–how what we do affects other people and causes other events matters. Also, they fill a very convenient role as something that will mean something to Pawel that Caro can conceivably make with her own two hands. Building Bubba is a symbolic gesture for Caro–she does it to show Pawel how much he means to her, how she’s been paying attention, and just to see him smile–and I think it’s also important that her father helps her build it: no man is an island.
Why single-bubble sonoluminescence?
Well, there’s a really great opportunity for the symbolism of creating light in a story that’s at least partially about religion. Also, I like that it shows how relentlessly ambitious and self-challenging Caro is, to the point of silliness.
Are you religious/do you believe in God?
I was raised Catholic and yes, I do consider myself both religious and a believer in God. However, my beliefs are much closer to where Caro ends up by the last page of Hallelujah. I try not to be too rigid in my understanding of faith, even though I am technically a practicing Catholic.
How much of THE OPPOSITE OF HALLELUJAH was drawn from your real life?
When it comes to the nun stuff, precisely zero. I’ve mentioned before that Caro is based on how I remember myself as a teenager, and her parents resemble my parents in some ways. (Some reviews have called them overbearing, but actually, I just think they’re good, involved–though, obviously, flawed–parents? No?) When Caro’s dad tells her that the only thing he’s ever really known for sure how to do was love his kids, that’s a line I stole right from my own dad. As is, “It’s not a threat, it’s a promise,” but I gather other people in history have said that.
I would like to take a second here to say that one of the parts of the book I’m extremely proud of is Caro’s relationship(s) with Reb and Erin. One of the things I tried to play with in the story is the way advice works, and Caro is often torn between the way Reb sees things and the way Erin sees things–they often give her contradictory advice, and Caro has to sift through that to figure out what she thinks (and they’re not the only people who give her advice; Father Bob obviously does a lot of that, and so do Caro’s parents and even Pawel). There’s also this strange current of competition between Reb and Erin that is never resolved, but you do get the sense that they both love Caro very much. A lot of their friendship is based on my observations about my own friend groups over the years. I’m particularly fond of Reb; I think I could write a whole book about her, I just haven’t found the right story.
Also–I feel like it would be dishonest not to mention this–what happened to Sabra actually happened to a girl I went to school with as a child but did not know. I don’t want to say much more than that because I absolutely do not want anyone assuming that the way the incident unfolds and is commented upon in THE OPPOSITE OF HALLELUJAH is in any way reflective of my experience of/thoughts about the real-life incident, because (as I’ve previously stated) I was in no way involved, and I don’t want anyone thinking I callously appropriated or am in some way taking advantage of other people’s tragedy. As often happens with things that occur in your community when you’re young, that incident made a big impression on me, as did the sudden death of a friend of mine in high school, and I wanted to explore that, because at the time I was writing this book I thought a lot about grief and how it affects us. For the record.
Talk a little bit about Father Bob. Is he based on a priest you knew? What is significant about him being a scientist priest?
RE: the fact that he’s a scientist, I wanted Father Bob to be someone Caro could realistically relate to. The things she learns about God and faith and the universe and all that would never have sunk in if Father Bob was an overbearing zealot who believes there is only one way of seeing the world. The fact that he’s a scientist props the door open for them to have other conversations, because it makes it possible for Caro to take him seriously. Also, I believe, like Father Bob does (and Einstein does), that science and religion can complement each other in many significant ways. I’ve never known a priest exactly like Father Bob (he is named after a former pastor of my family church, though), but he’s sort of an amalgam of the Jesuit priests I knew at Santa Clara University, where I went to college. It kind of annoys me that I didn’t realize that his name was Bob (short for Robert) and the parish he works at is called St. Robert’s (named after my mom’s childhood church) until after I turned the book in, but whatever.
Fun fact: In my first real draft of Hallelujah (which I’ve never showed anyone), the role Father Bob plays now was played by an honest to God angel, Joan of Arcadia style. When I decided I wanted to submit the novel for publication, I removed the angel (his name was Gabe) and replaced him with someone a little more down to earth (if you’ll pardon the pun).
What is the point of the Sabra back story?
Well, Hannah’s reaction to what happened to Sabra is the thing that has most shaped her as a human being so far (apart from her years in the convent, about which the reader gets very little in the novel). I wanted Hannah to have had something very tragic happen to her that she has buried and won’t talk about, and I did not want it to involve sexual abuse (I feel like that’s expected in a story about nuns and priests and Catholicism and it is, like, so not the point of this novel). I wanted it to be something that she could logically blame herself for, but not reasonably, because I share Caro’s opinion that Hannah is not to blame for Sabra’s death, and that Byrne is wrong to even half-heartedly imply that she might possibly be sort of if you look at it a certain way.
But the most important thing about the Sabra storyline and particularly about how it affects Hannah is that for the majority of the year I was writing this book (2010) I was grieving the death of my beloved grandmother and that did not make me a very pleasant person to be around. I find stories that fetishize grief–stories that take someone who is recently bereaved and show how their experience moving through their grief makes them a better, more loveable person–relentlessly unrealistic and also kind of irresponsible, because in my experience, grief is a very destructive emotion. As Father Bob points out, it’s a selfish emotion, because it’s all about you. He says that in the context of how Hannah’s grief and guilt over Sabra’s death makes the selflessness inherent to cloistered life in the convent impossible, but I think it’s universally applicable. This is not to say that grief is unnatural, because it’s absolutely natural and expected, and you really do have to experience it the way you experience it, but grief made me something of a monster for a good year and I wanted to show how destructive it can be to a person, and to their relationships with others.
Why don’t we get to read Byrne’s letter to Hannah?
First of all, I think Byrne’s letter to Hannah would read a lot like Byrne’s letter to Caro, except it would be to Hannah. That’s just repetitive, and it’s Caro’s story, after all. I also like the idea that it’s something only Hannah and Caro share, and that it’s none of our business. But mostly I think putting Byrne’s letter in the novel would put too much pressure on him to say the exact right thing to miraculously turn this ship around and cure Hannah’s depression (which it can’t really do). The way it functions in the story and in Hannah’s life is as a sort of release and catalyst for recovery, not because of what Byrne says, exactly, but because of the fact that he wrote it at all. In that sense, it doesn’t really matter what the actual text of the letter is.
Fun fact: In an earlier draft of this story, Byrne actually came to see Hannah and they became…friends? It was clear in that draft that Byrne was hoping for more down the road, that he had a romantic interest in her that might eventually blossom into a real relationship. But my friend, the writer Alex Bracken, told me (in a very nice way) that that was too convenient and easy and wish-fulfill-y (can you blame me? I just wanted Hannah to have a little romance, so sue me, girlfriend’s been through a lot), and I had to admit she was right. However, I hold out hope for those two, but since it’s no longer in the book, it’s up to all of us to imagine what happens with them.
Is the little matryoshka doll in THE OPPOSITE OF HALLELUJAH a call back to ALL UNQUIET THINGS?
Yup. Caro finds a bunch of Hannah’s old boxes in the garage and one of them contains “a Russian nesting doll the size of my thumb.” In ALL UNQUIET THINGS, Carly hides a key inside a Russian nesting doll, which means she would’ve had to remove the smallest doll to make space for the key. It’s obviously not the same doll, as the books are in no way related, but it is a little Easter egg for an incredibly perceptive reader who has read both of my books and remembered tiny little details (i.e. me).
For the record, the “tiny blue origami wishing star” she finds in the same box is a call forward to TANDEM, my October 2013 book. If my foresight strikes you at being at all impressive, trust me, it isn’t; the nature of publishing and writing is such that I was already very far along in the writing of TANDEM while I was doing my final pass edits on THE OPPOSITE OF HALLELUJAH and I knew the origami star was going to be important in TANDEM, so I threw it in there, mostly for my own smug benefit. I’m not above it.
Caro is an unusual name–why did you choose it?
People ask me this a lot–Caro is a nickname for Carolina, which is her full name. That’s explicitly stated in the novel, and it’s in her screen name (SweetCarolina–that is an inside joke to my friends, who really love Neil Diamond). Fun fact: For many years, the Caro character was named Grace. That just felt too heavy-handed to me in the end.
And also, to clear something up: Hannah isn’t named after myself. I chose that name because it is a palindrome, and in a very early version of this novel there was much talk of palindromes. This was back when the book was called DO GEESE SEE GOD? Which is also a palindrome. By the time I changed the title and, like, the entire rest of the novel, Hannah was just her name and I felt no inclination to change it.
Did THE OPPOSITE OF HALLELUJAH ever have another title?
As stated above, for a long time it was called DO GEESE SEE GOD? Then, when I decided to rewrite it, I briefly called it AND SO IT GOES (see: previous FAQ about M.C. Escher/Slaughterhouse Five). After that it was pretty much just THE OPPOSITE OF HALLELUJAH, with one exception: There was a point in the summer of 2011 when my editor brought up the possibility that the title was too religious-sounding and that might turn off potential readers (which it probably has). So we briefly considered changing it, but nothing quite worked. Some rejected titles below:
SIGNS AND WONDERS (roundly rejected)
IMPOSSIBLE OBJECTS (this is probably my favorite)
WE SHINE WITH BRIGHTNESS (comes from the T.S. Eliot poem “Ash Wednesday”, which I liked for its thematic resonance)
MY LIFE IN PERPETUAL MOTION/LIFE IN PERPETUAL MOTION
THE BEAUTY OF THE IMPOSSIBLE WORLD (this comes directly from the book)
In going through my emails with my agent and editor about this just now, I see that I also suggested THE LIAR’S PARADOX/THE LIAR PARADOX/LIAR’S PARADOX. Well, anyway, after bandying about titles for weeks, my editor and I were on the phone and I said, “Why don’t we just stick with THE OPPOSITE OF HALLELUJAH?” And she was like, “Sounds good.”
Who wins the science fair?
I don’t know. To be honest, I never thought about it until someone asked me. All that mattered to me was that Caro didn’t care if she won or not. She and Pawel could very well have won, or at least placed. For my money, I’m betting on the kid with the terrarium–bonus points are often rewarded by the God of Fiction for thematic resonance. 🙂 But I guess it’s up to the reader, both to care or not care whether or not they have an answer, and to decide what they think.
THE MANY-WORLDS TRILOGY:
What kind of bird is that on the cover of Tandem?
It is a starling. The reason should be fairly evident about 20% into Tandem. About 50% into Tandem, you should be able to figure out what bird is on the cover of book 2 (and which character). As for book 3, well…you’ll find out in book 2.
Where did you get the idea for Tandem/The Many-Worlds Trilogy?
Like most ideas, the idea for Tandem/The Many-Worlds Trilogy had many origin points, but while I was working on The Opposite of Hallelujah I read a TON of popular science books (by Brian Greene and Michio Kaku, among others), and there’s a lot of stuff in them about parallel worlds and are they real and what’s the theory and how can we tell, etc. And I was like, well, parallel universes are interesting–how would I tell a parallel worlds story? Hence, Tandem. I will say that I got the word “analog” from one of my all-time favorite novels, Hey Nostradamus! by Douglas Coupland, although later I found it it’d been used in the parallel universe context before so, you know, not as original gangster as I thought I was. That’s okay though! Nothing new under the sun. But the very very first idea I had with regards to how I would tell a parallel universes story was that analogs–doubles from different worlds–couldn’t touch. First it was that they couldn’t come within 30 feet of each other, but…that proved to be more difficult to execute, and it was arbitrary anyway. It’s the only thing from that very first treatment that remained, except for, of all things, Thomas and Grant’s names. After that, the story just built and built and built, gaining layers of intricacy and detail as I wrote and rewrote it (many times; many many many times). By the time I finally finished the version of Tandem that will be published, I basically knew the whole arc of the trilogy, although I continue to surprise myself.
When will the sequels be out?
Book 2 will be published in June of 2014, and Book 3 is scheduled for April 2015.
What does the title mean?
Well, when you say that something happens “in tandem” it means that it’s happening in parallel–take, for instance, tandem diving. So it’s a nod to the parallel universes thing. The novel was originally called Aurora, which is the name of the second universe in Tandem, but not long after starting the book I came up with Tandem and thought it sounded better, so I actually wrote it into the book. In the book, the “cosmic veil”, an invisible membrane that “separates” all the universes from each other, is called the “tandem.” This is a term I made up and attributed to one of my characters, a physicist who invented the technology to move between worlds. Each book is named after the thing which causes most of the trouble in that book. If you’ve gotten your hands on an ARC of Tandem, then you know what the title for book 2 is. Otherwise…I’m sure I’ll be telling you soon. It won’t stay a secret for long.
Is anything in Tandem based on your life?
Authors get this question a lot, and you’d think in this case my answer would be “absolutely NOT” because (and this may shock you) I’ve never been to a parallel universe. But Hyde Park, which is a neighborhood on the South Side of Chicago and the setting of the non-Aurora parts of the story, is a real place that is really exactly like I describe it. 57th Street Books is a real bookstore in Hyde Park (a really awesome one at that), the University of Chicago Lab Schools that Sasha and Grant attend is a real school (the Obama girls went there before their dad became Prez), and the beach where Sasha is taken by her prom date after the dance (Oak Street Beach) is a real beach on Chicago’s North Side. I set it there because I went to the University of Chicago and I love Hyde Park. It’s small and quaint and has all these cute local shops and restaurants and this lovely architecture, Victorian and Neo-Gothic. The house that Sasha shares with her grandfather is just down the street from the apartment building I lived in when I was at school. Setting the book in Hyde Park was also a little bit of a send-up to Proof, one of my favorite movies.
What is Thomas’s real last name?
You’ll find out in book 2. You’ll actually find out quite a bit more than you know now about both his and Sasha’s families in book 2.
Are toggles real?
Not to my knowledge. When I “invented” them, I was like, there is just no way I thought up a candy nobody’s ever made before. And to be fair you can get chocolate covered gummy bears and things like that, which are sort of close to toggles, but I imagine toggles to be like chocolate-covered Gushers. So far, Googling has produced no identical items. If you come across some, let me know!
Juliana’s clothes sound really cool–did you make them up, or did you describe things that actually exist?
When I wrote the first, oh, twenty drafts of Tandem (exaggeration), I just described some nice dresses I saw online and let that be that. Then when I was revising Tandem for my editor (actually, I think I did this in the copy edits stage), I realized that wasn’t going to cut it, so I asked my best friend, Cambria, who has a degree in fashion and works at a clothing company you’ve probably heard of and is also very fashion forward and stylish, to design some stuff for Sasha to wear as Juliana. I thought she’d just make some nice clothes, but she turned out this brilliant wardrobe with its own color story and narrative. So if you haven’t read Tandem yet, pay extra special attention to the clothes. Cambria created sketches which I then described in the book; I will probably be posting these somewhere at some point, as they’re truly awesome. I’m lucky to have such talented friends.
Who is Dr. March, really? Does he even exist?
You’ll find out in book 2.
What does the map mean?
You’ll find out in book 2.
Where did you grow up?
Buffalo Grove, IL and Dublin, CA. We moved to Dublin when I was sixteen, right before my senior year in high school.
Where did you go to high school?
Adlai E. Stevenson High School in Lincolnshire, IL and Dublin High School in Dublin, CA.
Where did you go to college?
Santa Clara University for undergrad (BA in English and BS in Political Science) and University of Chicago for graduate school (MA in the Humanities, emphasis in English and Creative Writing).
What did you do after college?
I really wanted to work in publishing, so I went to the University of Denver’s Publishing Institute. I let myself be convinced I wasn’t ready to move to New York (to be fair, I probably wasn’t), so I went back to California and got a job as an editorial assistant at a textbook publishing company. Then I went to graduate school, and after that I moved to New York. I work in marketing.
Do you have any siblings?
I do! I have a brother who is two and a half years younger than I am, and a sister who is seven and a half years younger than I am. They are both extremely cool, cooler than me for sure. They live in California, which is too far away, but we manage to annoy each other despite the 3,000 miles that separate us.
Are the characters in your books similar to anyone you know?
I don’t think so. I don’t really have enough perspective on them (I mean, they all seem like completely original and wholly unique people to me), but I’m sure there are aspects of people I know. I would hazard a guess and say that all of my narrators are in their own ways expressions of who I am, but obviously with differences. Sometimes, though, I do purposefully give characters qualities of my own, or of someone I know, because I think they’re weird or interesting.
What is your writing process like?
I write mostly on the weekends, because I find it hard to write at night after I come home from work, but I write fast so that makes up for it. I usually outline, because I find that’s the way I work best, especially given the mystery aspect of what I write, which I need to plan out beforehand or the book is SO hard to edit.
Where do you write?
My bedroom. It’s tiny and cramped and not conducive to stretching my creative legs, but I’m too lazy to go anywhere else, and I write pretty good books there regardless of how comfortable it is.
Who is your agent?
Joanna MacKenzie of Browne & Miller Literary Associates.
What television shows do you watch?
Parks & Rec, 30 Rock, Community, Happy Endings, New Girl, Bones, Castle, Revenge, Once Upon a Time (though secretly I hate it), Downton Abbey, Sherlock, Switched at Birth, Make It or Break It, Melissa & Joey (not ashamed!), and I DVR Jeopardy! and watch it every day. I’m also a huge fan of Veronica Mars, X-Files, Arrested Development, Joan of Arcadia, Sex and the City, Pushing Daisies, Wonderfalls, Battlestar Galactica and Dead Like Me.
What’s up with your name? How do you pronounce it?
My last name is Polish. I’m mostly Polish, with about 25% of Western European mutt thrown in for good measure. Even though the name is technically pronounced something like “Yar-zhoomb”, with the “b” so soft it’s almost silent (there are some Polish accents that are hard to render phonetically, but if you ever meet me in person I’d be happy to pronounce it correctly for your amusement), in my family we pronounce it just like it looks: “Jar” as in jar of pickles, “zab” as in…well, you’re smart, you can figure it out.
There are many ways in which my last name is NOT pronounced, including, but not limited to: Jazzab, Jarrab, Jarzad, Jazrad, Jazrab, Jazbar, Jarbaz, Jabraz, or Yarzab.
And just to clear this up now, my first name is pronounced Anna with a short “a,” not Ah-nah. In case anyone was confused.
If you could be a tree, what kind of tree would you be?
I am a tree! At least, my last name is. Jarzab is actually the Polish word for a kind of tree, a rowan tree.
QUESTIONS SUBMITTED BY MY FRIEND MARY:
Have you ever crafted an online-dating super-challenge? If so, why? If not, why not?
The first rule of Fight Club is nobody talks about Fight Club.
Team Jacob or team Edward?
Team Edward. Jacob is a punk.
Who you gonna call? If you said Ghostbusters, why? If not, why not?
Honestly, probably my mom. Any time I have a problem, she’s my first phone call. The Ghostbusters don’t have anything on her.
What time is it in Moscow?
Time to get a watch! In Russia! Or this time, whatever.
Will you name a future character Sargent Dubbs?
Yes. Just because you asked. But I won’t say when or what book. And you spelled Sergeant wrong, FYI.
What about Ambassador Dubbs?
Don’t push it.
What’s the weirdest question someone has asked you about your writing?
Don’t know yet. Ask away!
Can you get my manuscript published? It’s a historical paranormal-romance western thriller about a pecan killed in cold blood and the hazelnut that loved him (or did she??????????). So far, has a great response on iUniverse!
Sorry, I don’t have that kind of time or power. I’m sure it’s an awesome book, though it does sound a little nuts. (GEDDIT?! NUTS!!)
What color are God’s eyes?
God doesn’t have eyes, He’s a non-bodily spiritual being. Unless He wants to manifest as a bodily creature, and then His eye color is His choice.
What is your ideal room temperature for writing, and does this vary by genre?
I prefer it to be a little warmer than room temperature–cozy, if you will–but not by much. I’m very intolerant of extreme temperature. This doesn’t vary at all by genre.
When was the last time you wet the bed?
You’d have to ask my mom and dad about that.
Describe your favorite dress you ever wore to a high school dance.
I didn’t go to high school dances, and even if I had I’m sure my dress would’ve been hideous. I had terrible fashion sense back then.
What country, in your opinion, has the most attractive flag?
Well, I really like Antarctica’s flag (I know, right, who knew Antarctica had a flag?) because it’s white and blue and looks like it has the head of a rhino on it. And I think Bhutan’s is kind of cool. And Hong Kong’s (although, not technically a country, is it?). And Macao’s (another Chinese Special Administrative Area, not a country, but…). However, I’m going to go with a tie between Poland’s (the one with the eagle on it) and the United States’ flags, not just because I’m Polish-American, but also because I know what the symbols mean and they’re very affecting to me.
In how many bodies of water have you skinny-dipped?
Can I be your best friend?
Maybe! I’m very nice. Oooookay (I can sense the dubious glares of all my friends radiating through the monitor), I’m very friendly. How’s that, dubious friends?!
Can I be you?
Not as it stands with current technology, but there’s always hope for the future. Thanks though! It implies that you think being me would be halfway interesting, which it’s not.
Have more questions? Please ask!