The Next Big Thing

Thanks to Claudia Zuluaga, author of the forthcoming Fort Starlight, for inviting me to participate in The Next Big Thing—a blog chain that has been circulating in which participating writers answer ten questions about their books. Be sure to check out Claudia’s post and, of course, look for Fort Starlight out September 2013 from Engine Books.

Now, here are the questions and here are my answers:

What is your working title of your book (or story)?

The working title of my novel is The Vanity Chair.

Where did the idea come from for the book?

A prison is at the center of our town. It is verboten to think about the place for any length of time and the only people in town endowed with the right to talk about it are correctional officers. And they do so in the strangest ways. It is a unique brand of approach-avoidance that has always fascinated me. When the town talks of the prison, it’s to blame it for its ailments. Poor people. Crime. But it often isn’t credited for other more subtle influences, such what it is like for hardworking middle-class families with a mom or dad who come home after a bad day at work in a maximum-security prison. Here, they call it a life sentence in eight-hour shifts. There is also very little mention (in polite conversation) of the lives of the townspeople whose family members are in for life. Essentially, there is this big walled fortress and an irrational belief that the walls separate those on the inside from those on the outside, when indeed the walls are far more porous. I always feel like I’m on the outside—in life, I mean—and I’m always compelled to penetrate whatever it is that I think I’m being walled off from. So, I wrote this book and it tells the stories of the intersecting lives of those who are in and those who are out.

What genre does your book fall under?

Literary fiction.

Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?

Sean Penn, who has always reminded me of my grandfather, could play the prisoner, Moses, beautifully because Moses is physically based on my grandfather, and like my grandfather and Sean Penn, Moses is a great sonofabitch. But the three women in the book—Shell, Ellen, and Gina whose friendship is at the center of the book? I’m not sure I’ve seen these actresses yet. I love movies with fresh faces. I’d like these women to be fresh faces.

What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?

A quiet old murderer dies behind bars; his death ripples through the prison and into the lives of three young women who share a bond that has, at one time or another, both sheltered and destroyed them.

Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

Remains to be seen…

How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?

This book has revealed itself to me in the uneven, overlapping ways of an onion. One draft co-mingles with the next, and so on, so I can’t quite ever recall finishing the first and going on to the second. Though, it’s been about seven years since it stopped being short stories and started being a novel. I write slowly. A draft or two a year. But the book keeps getting clearer and better, so I keep writing it. I’d rather not clock it, thank you very much.

What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?

This book is elliptical, told through the points of view of a prisoner and three urbane women in their late twenties living in New York City. I love prismatic books that let us see characters’ blind spots and through which a larger community naturally emerges. So I’m not going to say my book compares to these novels, but books such as these made me jump up and get back to work on my own: The End (perhaps my favorite book of all time), The Hours, Let the Great World Spin, and Great House.

Who or what inspired you to write this book?

The prison, of course. And Jeremy Bentham’s panoptic prison, but that’s too much to get into here. Here’s a brief, creepy example of why I had to write this book: Recently, my family was struck by the evil Norwalk virus. Think cruise ships shutting down, or Hillary Clinton passing out and conking her head. I bumped into my aunt, a nurse, at the milk cooler in the grocery store and she told me the virus had first gone through the prison. It shut down the prison’s infirmary and the overflow was filling the local hospital. This virus reached out from behind those walls, into the sweet Montessori country day school my three year-olds attend, and brought us all to our knees. Not for nothing, but walls are futile. Viruses, and more lovely things like the human spirit, make rubble out of them.

What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?

Maybe it’s just me, but I think prisons are fascinating. There’s the grit, of course, but it’s the resilience of human spirit and the fact that one can find peace anywhere, in any condition, even in prison if one chooses, that I care about. Likewise, people in the most well appointed lives can isolate and self-punish and live as though they are not free. In The Vanity Chair, walls can’t keep the characters apart, but the futility of vanity can; characters condemned to life behind bars experience love and connection, while those who walk free live in shackles. The book, at its core, shows that true freedom can’t be given or taken away; it’s gained through the courage to know one’s true nature and heart.

Next week, look out for The Next Big Thing blogs by Rebecca Kinzie Bastian and Natalie Danford, both of whom will guest blog right here the week of 1/14/2013.

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