Interview with Eleanor Leonne Bennett

eleanorleonneBennettAn interview by Kelly Chastain in Vol. 11

Eleanor Leonne Bennett’s photography has graced two of Silk Road’s covers (#10 and #11). A 16 year old international award winning photographer, her achievements include first place prizes by National Geographic, The World Photography Organisation, Nature’s Best Photography, Papworth Trust, Mencap, The Woodland Trust and Postal Heritage. Her photography has been published in the Telegraph, The Guardian, BBC News Website and on the cover of books and magazines in the United states and Canada. Her art has exhibited in London, Paris, Indonesia, Scotland,Wales, Ireland, Canada, Spain, Germany, Japan, Australia and the U.S. She was also the only person from the UK to have her work displayed in the National Geographic and Airbus run See The Bigger Picture global exhibition tour with the United Nations International Year Of Biodiversity 2010.

SR: While looking through your online collection I was struck by how many of your images employ high contrast lighting techniques and how doing so helps you achieve otherworldly atmosphere in your images. I was immediately reminded of Pol Úbeda Hervàs, Eliott Erwitt, and Steve McCurry. Whose work and which styles have influenced you most?

Eleanor Leonne Bennett: I am a fan of Steve’s wonderful work. It would be a dream to be in the leagues of the artists you have mentioned. I relate to Erwitt’s work, but I have a far way to go to achieve that effect. I’ve really enjoyed browsing his work this past day. He does create an otherworldly sense but found in this dimension. I enjoy it a lot. Pol Úbeda Hervàs I have heard of recently and found his work striking. I have had connections with shadows in my own work before.

SR: How has your age factored in your success thus far? Has it been an obstacle, or something you have been able to use to your advantage?

Eleanor Leonne Bennett: It has been an obstacle at times and sometimes something I wish to hide. I think despite my many accolades it can put employers off. These days I often let my awards speak for themselves before saying I am young/emerging artist. It is working a lot better for me and it is nice to surprise people. For my services as a cover artist I’ve had nothing but glowing reviews. My age isn’t something I would try to use to my advantage. It is nice to be the youngest published, exhibited, or featured, but I think what matters above all is the power of my message.

SR: What specific artistic challenges do you set for yourself when starting a photography project?

Eleanor Leonne Bennett: I normally can’t put my finger on what it is exactly that I desire from an image but I know when I have it. It has to do with composition and something that shouldn’t be changed in post processing. I may change everything to do with color and contrast but at the heart of the image, and whether it works or not is all to do with composition.

SR: Among your photographs, which one is your favorite?

Eleanor Leonne Bennett: I have private unpublished images which are very heartfelt to me and mean an awful lot. My favourite published images are more intricate and possess more detail. I’m a big fan of creating my own dimension in which the photo is difficult to unravel. I like my ice series of images for that reason.

SR: Color vs. black and white?  Why one over the other, and is the photographic process different for you? Do you handle black and white post production or in camera?

Eleanor Leonne Bennett: I know how to switch my camera to black and white, to color, to every lighting tint imaginable. As a rule though I always shoot in color. Not to say the unedited image is colored as I do like to get a natural composition which is virtually black and white or sepia in itself. I also like to drain color out of things by decreased saturation. I enjoy having the best of both worlds.

SR: Can you walk us through the process that you use to set up a photograph? How much planning goes into your photos?

Eleanor Leonne Bennett: My earlier shoots could take a couple of hours to set up with makeup and clothes, etc. These days I take a more spontaneous approach. That is not to say I won’t revisit portraiture, I’m just in the process of writing down ideas and how to envision them. I have a lot of potential material tying into feminism and modern culture. My biggest obsessions are the society of respect and rights and how people behave when not observed and are free to hurt or help anyone at all. In the future, that is something I can see dedicating whole photography books to. I’m not a saint, but I think too much. It shows in my images. I can take 500 images in a single shoot. If they don’t get to where I want them to be,then they are all useless in my eyes. I do have OCD. It has its downsides, but it has brought me to where I am today. With me things have to be as perfect as possible. It can be a curse, but it becomes a blessing when I consider the good reception my art has received.

SR: How did you get into cover art? Was it something you always wanted to do, or was it something that came your way serendipitously?

Eleanor Leonne Bennett: Ever since I was first published there was a stress within me: “Am I good enough to be the first thing people see? Do I deserve the starring role in this magazine/book?” Becoming a cover artist answered that question. I love doing cover art. You have to step up to your game and realise you are selling this book. Nobody will pick it up unless you catch their eye on the other side of the store. I really love it. I see other book cover art and I don’t think there are many artists like me. If you look at many of my covers they are  used for independent publishing, mainly poetry books. then look at the normal fiction, romance and young adult books. My covers look quite strange among them. I keep true to my style, and it is getting me fans. I see the same photographers on those commercial book covers all the time. Very conventionally pretty, very polished.  That can exclude a lot of audiences that want to see themselves represented more widely. I don’t have the opportunity to work with models, and may not do so for a long while yet, but I will say this: I most enjoy letting objects, abstracts and silhouettes speak for the cover and the person’s story. Those covers capture my admiration more.

SR: Who/What inspires you?

Eleanor Leonne Bennett: I love dynamic art, museums, the latest crazes, vintage items from yesteryear. Pretty much anything can spark the inspiration bug within me. Museums are heaven to me for photography. As I never travel alone, the single most worthy place, in which the most photos can be taken, is a museum. I adore it. For me that is like being a kid in a sweet shoppe. The only problem is when I look back on my photos. This and that angle probably would have looked sweet. When I go to a location with so many memorable potential images to be taken, it is always a case of unfinished business.

SR: Some of your photography awards are from very well established and prestigious organizations such as National Geographic and The World Photography Organization. How does it feel to be recognized by these giants and has it changed the way you view your own work?

Eleanor Leonne Bennett: I feel so blessed. It has taught me one thing: Often, if the very best people regard you of note, it is a wonderful experience. There is always someone in the department who can talk to you, arrange everything, help with directions to whichever location the awards are at. When I see much smaller art magazines with no personal contact information, no staff contact address, no way for feedback to be left, I hate it. They could be excluding some amazing artists that needs a lift or to be discovered. National Geographic has an open submission policy. If you or I had a good idea or a poignant photo story we could just go ahead and submit. Isn’t it wonderful? It makes me happy. I worked with Life Force magazine recently who are fabulous people. They were reviewed by National Geographic to be a modern equivalent of Life Magazine.

Interview with Deborah Reed

deborahreedInterview: Deborah Reed
by Sharon Harrigan

Deborah Reed is the author of Carry Yourself Back to Me, published originally by Amazon Encore in September 2011, then reissued by Houghton Mifflin in January 2012. She also writes suspense novels under the pen name Audrey Braun. A Small Fortune was released by Amazon
Encore in July 2011, became an immediate bestseller, and was reissued by Houghton Mifflin in February 2012. Its sequel, Fortune’s Deadly Descent, will appear in September 2012. Carry Yourself Back to Me was a Best Book of 2011 Amazon Editors’ Pick as well as a bestseller, and
Publisher’s Weekly called it “a triumph.” The Library Journal called Reed “a writer to watch,” whose “lovely, lyrical prose” is “as rare as snowfall in Florida.”

Reed and I were graduate students together in Pacific University’s low residence MFA Program in Creative Writing. We have workshopped with literary legends David Long, Mary-Helen Stefaniak, Tayari Jones, Jack Driscoll, Mike Magnuson, Bonnie Jo Campbell, and Ben Percy, learning to give our verbs more muscle, our stories more heart and speed, and to line edit as if our lives depended on it. Reed’s work is distinctive for its lush settings, musical cadences, and tightly woven plots that manage to be credible yet surprising, moving yet unsentimental. Her literary work is suspenseful, fast-paced, and tightly plotted; while her suspense work is literary, with rich characters and complex family relationships. She is a rare hybrid. We discussed her unusual path to publication, her double identity working in two genres, and the journeys her characters take, across Europe, Mexico, and the United States.

Silk Road: Many writers consider publication the ultimate goal of an MFA. Since you already had book contracts while you started your MFA, what was your goal? How did the program help you reach it?

Deborah Reed: I entered Pacific University as a self-taught writer with a lot of discipline and determination but no formal education in creative writing. My undergrad degree was in Anthropology and German, so I came to writing in a patchwork way, which included a smattering of conferences and workshops and a local writing group. I could see my skills improving over the years (slowly), but there were gaps in my understanding of the craft. I couldn’t fully articulate why something did or didn’t work on the page. Gaining a critical voice has not only helped me zero in on my own failings and strengths, but also allowed me to help others. And the solutions come faster. What may have taken months of staring at a passage, knowing instinctively that something was wrong, now happens more quickly.

It’s important to note that the low residency model allowed me to work as a writer while getting my degree, unlike a traditional MFA. With low residency, you learn how to juggle a writing life against the backdrop of work and family. Another difference is working one-on-one with a mentor each semester, which is an intense and focused way to learn.

SR: Your path to publication was a bit unorthodox. I think writers worried about the state of the publishing industry can take heart from your story.

Deborah: I began through the traditional channels with an agent who was shopping around Carry Yourself Back To Me. This was in 2009, when the publishing industry was imploding and no one was willing to take on a new author. We were coming to the end of publishing house submissions after a line of very nice rejections letters and I could see that my novel was about to get put into a drawer and forgotten. I decided to secretly enter it into Amazon’s Breakthrough Novel Award Contest, while at the same time I wrote A Small Fortune in a nervous frenzy, as I waited to hear back from my agent. I then went on to self-publish A Small Fortune and within weeks it became an ebook bestseller on Amazon, climbing as high as #3 in the entire Kindle store. It was madness. At the same time behind the scenes, an editor from the newly developed publishing house owned by Amazon, called simply Amazon Publishing, pulled my manuscript out of the contest slush pile because he liked the title.

He started reading it and things got crazy from there. Amazon Publishing had also noticed A Small Fortune by Audrey Braun was selling like crazy and they were about to get in touch with her for a book deal. The editor finished Carry Yourself Back To Me in two days and called me, Deborah Reed, to offer me a book deal. He had no idea I was also Audrey Braun. Hilarity ensued. By the end of the phone call I was offered a three-book deal, one that included the thriller follow up to A Small Fortune, called Fortune’s Deadly Descent, which will be released in
September 2012. Not long after my first two books were published, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt approached Amazon Publishing and bought the paperback rights to them. I now have two publishers and couldn’t be happier.

SR: Your books take us on intense, sometimes exotic, voyages to landscapes that are so rich they are almost characters. In Carry Yourself Back to Me, you use the lush setting of Florida tangelo groves threatened by freakish snow to heighten emotional landscape. In A Small Fortune, you take us to Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, with its seductive glassy water and pristine beaches that hide danger below the surface, and then you lead us into jungles no tourist brochure ever warned against. In Fortune’s Deadly Descent, you begin in picture-postcard Switzerland, then lead us to St. Corbenay, France, a quaint Provencal village whose castles and saturated colors inspired the French Impressionists. Why did you choose these settings, and how do they inform your writing?

Deborah: Foreign places exhilarate me. I love the challenge of figuring out how to get around in a country I’ve never been to, maneuvering through a language I don’t speak, meeting people different from myself, and being surrounded by an aesthetic that inspires me. When it comes to writing, it’s a pleasure to infuse my novels with places where I’ve spent time, allowing me to go along for the ride just like the reader. With thriller writing in particular, foreign settings throw my protagonist off balance. She’s already in dire circumstances, so setting her in a place she’s never been, surrounded by a language she doesn’t speak, compromises her capabilities further, which gives the story another layer of tension. It becomes an adventure as well as a mystery.

SR: Both your literary novels (the one that published and the one in progress) are set in Florida, where you lived as a teenager. Do you think of your characters and books as Southern?

Deborah: I definitely think of my literary characters as Southern. My family on both sides comes from the South and they are great oral storytellers and musicians and have impeccable timing, which makes them funny as hell.
There is a rhythm to their speech, a lyrical cadence that I find comforting, and there is also a restraint in the content of what they say, or don’t say, and all of this is so beautiful to me, an art form really.

SR: One thing that distinguishes your suspense novels from your literary novels is setting. The former are in Florida, the latter outside America. Is this one way you keep your writing identities separate?

Deborah: It is. And I’d even go so far as to say that they make up the two sides of me. I lived in Germany for many years and love to travel. This is a large part of who I am and I take a lot of pleasure in bringing that to the page with my thriller novels. The other part of me is deeply rooted in The States, as I mentioned, my family is from the South and have been there for centuries. I grew up mostly in the Midwest but was surrounded by an enclave of Southerners, and they too are very much a part of who I am.

SR: You’ve lived in Michigan, Florida, Germany, and Oregon. How do these distinctly different locales inform your writing?

Deborah: I’ve yet to set a novel in Michigan but I’ve begun planning one in my head, so stay tuned. I feel as if I’ve lived many lives. This makes for good stories.

SR: You’ve said one of your biggest influences is Per Petterson, and especially his novel Out Stealing Horses. What is it about this book that feels so feel so at home, even though it is translated from Norwegian and set in Norway?

Deborah: I’ve read this novel about six times. I finally understood that the rhythms in particular are what I’m drawn to. I read an interview with Per Petterson where he talks about rhythm being the most important quality he is trying to bring to his writing. He felt one should be able to tap a foot to the whole novel. It hit me then that this was the quality I was so drawn to in this novel. A musical cadence close to my heart. The characters are subtle, showing a lot of restraint, especially the men, and I drew the men in Annie’s family in Carry Yourself Back To Me the same way.

SR: The Sun Post Weekly says: “It isn’t very difficult to imagine Patsy Cline or June Carter Cash voicing the sentiments” in Carry Yourself Back to Me. How did music influence the plot of this book and its style? And can you elaborate on the title and epigraph?

Deborah: The Sun Post Weekly’s comments were so flattering, the best compliment I could have hoped for, and yet it’s somehow frightening, too. I idolize those women, so for someone to suggest my writing was in line with something they might sing, left me, well, I guess I felt an awful lot like Annie in the novel when she gets compared to some of the greats: “The comparisons flattered her for the first few minutes but after that and ever since she’s done nothing but worry about measuring up.”

The title of the novel is taken from Bob Dylan’s song, “Boots of Spanish Leather”:
There’s nothing you can send me my own true love, There’s nothing I wish to be ownin’ .
Just carry yourself back to me unspoiled, From across that great big ocean.

After I’d finished the novel and was trying to name it, I happened to hear this song, which I’ve heard hundreds of times over the years, but suddenly I heard it in a way that made me realize the narrative arc of my novel matched that of the song. I immediately looked at the lyrics and the instant I came across the “carry yourself back to me” line, I knew that was it.

SR: Book List magazine calls Carry Yourself Back to Me “Part whodunit, part romance, part family drama, and part childhood remembrance.” I think that’s good way to summarize the ambition and scope of the book. Did you conceive of this book as weaving those four different strands?

Deborah: This is exactly what I did. I can be a pretty melancholy person and I wanted to capture that by writing a novel about yearning, nostalgia, missed opportunities, regrets and mistakes. Romantic love and familial love embody all the categories Book List mentions, and all the themes I was going for. I structured the novel so two story lines are running nearly parallel with one another. The backstory is meant to illuminate what is happening in the present so structurally the novel weaves back and forth between past and present. The past by itself is a coming of age tale of Annie and her brother Calder. The present day follows the two over the course of two weeks. By the end of the novel past meets present and brings everything full circle.

SR: Your work is full of sensory details. What struck me the most is the way it is infused with smells, which are known for evoking emotional memory. I can’t think of any book that does this quite the way you do. Why is smell so important in your work?

Deborah: You hit it exactly: smell evokes emotional memory. This is precisely why I used it. I live in the Northwest now, but when I go back to Florida the first thing I’m struck by are the smells, whether it be from my mother’s cooking or the grass, trees, and flowers, or hot sun on the concrete after a rain. Memories come flooding through me every time.

SR: Dialogue is very tricky, and I admire the way you use it to express the subtext, or what lies below surface and is too difficult for characters to express directly.

Deborah: I find dialogue most interesting when people are saying one thing and meaning another. There is a messiness there that reveals human emotion so much more poignantly than pointing to it. The woman angry with her husband for not paying enough attention to her doesn’t say, “I’m angry at you,” she says “I’m sick of seeing your toothpaste in the sink.” When the reader knows something that perhaps the characters themselves aren’t even quite aware of yet themselves, a connection takes place between the reader and the story, a kind of insider knowledge that pulls the reader closer in.

SR: One of the things I loved about A Small Fortune is the spot-on characterization of a prickly relationship between Celia and her teenage son Oliver. Since I have a teenage son myself, I was sure you were reading my mind. How has your experience as a parent informed your writing?

Deborah: In this particular incidence, greatly. Celia’s struggles with Oliver are not unlike my own with my teenager. Those moments of pulling away are hard on everyone, done under the guise of disdain and humiliation on the teenager’s part, but really it is the natural course of bonds needing to break apart and reconfigure. And what a paradox. They hate us but they need us. I came across a book on raising teenagers called, Get Out of My Life, but First Could You Drive Me & Cheryl to the Mall. I didn’t read it but I think I could have written it.

SR: How do you balance working in two genres–literary and suspense? Do you work in only one genre at a time? How do you prep yourself to become your pseudonym?

Deborah: The past couple of years I’ve been switching back and forth between the two genres simultaneously. I prefer not to do that but I was on a deadline and had no choice. I like to focus on one at a time for the pure reason that each genre requires something different of me. When writing literary work, I only read literary novels, and the same goes with thrillers. I’m very sensitive to influence and it’s important for me to feel in line and inspired by the work I’m reading.

I’m also far more meticulous and slow when writing literary fiction. I self-edit, perhaps too much, and I’m far more critical of myself. When I switch to Audrey Braun I write quickly and with more confidence. I discovered this about myself by accident when, as a fluke, I tried my hand at writing a thriller. I never assumed anyone would ever read it so I wrote with complete abandon and the entire first novel flushed out of me in four months, compared to the six years it took to write Carry Yourself Back To Me.

SR: How do you keep your aesthetics and persona separate for each genre? How do you deal with credibility issues for writers who stretch beyond one genre? Are there still people who don’t take “genre” work seriously?

Deborah: This is a great question. While there are still people who question the credibility of genre fiction, the lines between genres have all but disappeared these days. So many articles have been written about this lately. How, for example, does one categorize someone like Dennis Lehane? Is he a crime writer or a literary writer? What about the great Patricia Highsmith? Is The Talented Mr. Ripley a mystery or literary novel? And then there are novels like The Tiger’s Wife or The Night Circus that infuse folklore, fantasy, and magic into what are otherwise categorized as literary novels. A writer friend of mine from Russia once told me how baffled she was by all the categories we Americans put our novels in. She said in Russia they don’t have all of this.

They only good books and bad books. I love that. I can think of so many novels that could potentially fall into so many genres. Ultimately, the decision comes down to the publishers and how they want to market a book. Mystery and thriller sell much better than literary. So there’s that.

SR: Why did you decide to use a pen name?

Deborah: Initially it was because I’d never written a thriller so I decided to self publish A Small Fortune just to see what would happen. I figured if it turned out to be a flop no one would ever know it was me. It succeeded beyond my wildest dreams. I’ve since kept the pen name as a way to distinguish between my literary writing and what has now become my thriller series. The fact that I’m both Deborah Reed and Audrey Braun isn’t a secret. It just helps my readers know what they’re getting when I have a book released.

SR: Who are some other writers, besides John Banville, who write both literary and genre fiction?

Deborah: I think what is more interesting are what are being referred to as the hybrids. Many people are surprised by the fact that Tom Perrotta wrote The Leftovers, a tale of the apocalypse. Colson Whitehead wrote Zone One, a post-apocalyptic novel about zombies. Stephen King, of course, writes everything under the sun, including his most recent historic thriller, 11/22/63. As for history and horror, how about Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter by Seth Grahme-Smith? The lines have crossed and there’s no turning back.

SR: Who are some of your biggest influences? For literary fiction and for suspense fiction?

Deborah: For literary: Per Petterson, Raymond Carver, Kent Haruf, Annie Proulx, Marilynne Robinson, Flannery O’ Connor, William Gay, Tom Franklin, and Barry Hannah. For thrillers: John Banville, Kate Atkinson, Harlan Coben, Lisa Unger, Patricia Highsmith, and Laura Lippman.

SR: Who are some of the literary finds you’re excited about now? Anybody you’re reading at the moment?

Deborah: Books I’ve recently read and loved are Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter by Tom Franklin, We The Animals by Justin Torres, The Cove by Ron Rash, and Florida by Christine Schutt. All filled with lush original prose and masterful storytelling.

SR: I heard a rumor that your dog helps write your books.

Deborah: It’s true. My Springer Spaniel is a wonder. She lays at my feet while I write and gets emotionally involved by whatever cues I’m somehow emitting to her. When I realize I’ve hit a sweet spot in the writing she gets up and puts her face in my lap. She is so tuned in to me it’s scary.


Interview with Valerie Laken

Lakentest2Interview: Valerie Laken
by Kali Eichen

Valerie Laken holds an MA in Slavic Literature and an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Michigan. Her novel Dream House received the Anne Powers Award and was listed among Kirkus Review’s Best Books of 2009. Her story collection, Separate Kingdoms, was long-listed for the Frank O’Connor Award and the Story Prize. She is a Professor of English at the University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee.

Laken crafts stories that are grounded in the physical world, exploring places that are suffused with emotional meaning. All the characters in the novel Dream House orbit around the property, each seeking to understand his or her relationship to the house and to each other. In her short story collection Separate Kingdoms, readers travel from the heart of Moscow and the surrounding villages to sanitary hospitals and dirty basements across the midwest, from the expansive space of the dream world to the internal limitations of a family unit. Her work charges into new literary frontiers by incorporating visual elements that examine and reflect the way contemporary society’s reliance on screens and visual messages has altered the reader’s relationship to the words on the page.

Silk Road: How does ‘sense of place’ inform your writing?

Valerie Laken: Place is that great quiet, mischievous character lurking around in every good story. It’s very easy to overlook that fact when you’re writing fiction. It’s easy to concentrate only on the human characters and their problems, and treat setting as a kind of painted backdrop dimly waiting in vain to be drafted into service.But the truth is, every place has an atmosphere and brings a set of unique pressures to bear on its occupants. An argument that seems mundane in a bedroom might sound riveting or explosive in a grocery store aisle. The same word can have profoundly different effects if uttered in a church or a jail cell. I believe our spaces shape us as much as we shape them. Sometimes I’ve begun stories with a very clear sense of the setting but only the weakest inkling of the main characters.

My story, “Map of the City,” is a love-letter to the city of Moscow during the turbulent first years after the fall of the Soviet Union. My story, “Scavengers,” is kind of an elegy to the city of Detroit and to every neighborhood abandoned during the housing crisis. Cities, like people, have their conflicts, their rises and falls, their mysteries and manners. What’s nice about putting a place at the heart of a story is that many readers know that space and share affection for it. Their views of it may not match up exactly with yours, but that’s OK, because places are palimpsests. We keep reinterpreting and reinventing them.

SR: The stories in your collection Separate Kingdoms deal with the interactions between people and nations, language and meaning, ability and disability, consciousness and reality. What draws you to write about these liminal spaces?

VL: For reasons I may never understand, I think was born feeling like a misfit, and I just can’t seem to shake it. Maybe I don’t want to. Wherever I am, I am always scanning the room trying to figure out how the people here behave and talk. What’s nice about liminal spaces is that everyone’s a misfit in them, an interloper. Maybe that puts me at ease. Maybe natural-born misfits have an advantage in those spaces. In any case, I like being a foreigner because by definition nobody expects you to fit in when you’re foreign. The minute you do, you have probably become a foreigner at home.

My first fiction workshop teacher, Josh Henkin, repeated the maxim, “Every story really boils down to two plots: A guy goes on a journey, or a stranger comes to town. And those are really just the same story told from two different perspectives.” On some level every story is about someone being drawn or pushed out of their comfort zone and into uncharted territory. Part of why I wanted to write about disabled characters was because in our culture, even today, they are the ultimate strangers who can unsettle people by their physical presence alone. That’s a powerful, fascinating phenomenon, and I hope it won’t last much longer.

SR: The eponymous story in Separate Kingdoms is told from two points of view, a father and son, in two columns, running simultaneously down each page. What inspired the unconventional format? Was the look of the story part of its original concept or something that evolved?

VL: I started by writing the story just from the father’s perspective, but when I finished the first draft I realized that I hadn’t developed the son’s character very well, so I decided to write notes in the margins about what the son was going through in each scene. I figured I’d just make these notes to learn something that I could then incorporate into a normal revision. But the son’s voice started to bloom for me. I started to have fun with it. So I started typing it up in a separate column, and once I saw the result, it seemed like exactly the right format for this story.

The characters in the story are all cramped in one small house on one night, so close to each other yet pretty clueless about what the others are going through. They not only have their separate rooms but they have different modes of escape — TV, music, video games, etc. Those technologies often encourage us to do two or three things simultaneously (and half-consciously). By putting two columns of text side by side I felt I was posing an impossible challenge for the reader: you just can’t read two things at once. You have to choose. You have to commit and concentrate.

Our real lives are a blur of simultaneous activities and distractions. I wanted to create that sense of tension and anxiety we feel when we’re trying to focus on one thing but there’s something else next to it that’s tempting us away. To me at least, that may be one of the defining sensations of our era. A lot of books ignore it, but I think that sensation is affecting the way we read and may also come to affect the ways we write.

SR: What was your editor’s reaction when you submitted paragraph after paragraph of the sound of drumming?

VL: Funny question. Every time I sent the story to anyone I braced myself for negative reactions to the two columns and the drumming, but they never came. I always felt the thrill of getting away with something. Once the story collection was sold to HarperPerennial, I kept asking my agent and editor, “But will they be able to do the two columns?” And they kept saying, “Don’t worry about it.” When it came time for Harper to do the layout and design of the book, I braced myself all over again and sent a long pre-apology to the layout designers for all the trouble this was going to cause them, but they just jumped on board very cheerfully. We had to send page proofs back and forth a lot so I could tweak the lines to make sure the columns stayed in synch, but they were great sports about it all. I’m very grateful to them.

SR: The story “Map of the City” has a strong visual component as well — the section headings that mimic the signs marking metro stations in Moscow. As you write, do you visualize the spatial aspects of your work? Do you imagine and manipulate the ‘geography of the page,’ as you call it?

VL: When you’re foreign you spend a lot of time looking at signs and maps, trying to get your bearings. I had a lot of grand ideas originally about how maps might play a larger role in this story, visually, but none of them quite worked. The danger of incorporating graphic elements in a story is that they can distract the reader or become simply redundant.

But it seemed to me that using the graphics of the Moscow metro signs would put readers into that position of being foreign and looking at signs in an alphabet they can’t parse. In that case you stop seeing words as something to automatically read and you begin seeing them as beautiful, complicated shapes, a code you can’t yet crack. That’s what the protagonist is doing for much of the story, and I wanted to make the reader do a little bit of that too. It’s a small matter, I suppose. But yes, the spatial arrangement of my words and paragraphs, the geography of the page, is increasingly important to me. It’s not entirely clear to me why fiction can’t be as beautiful to look at as some magazines are — except that few people have figured out yet how to do it in a way that feels organic and necessary to the story. I don’t claim to know, but I want to learn.

SR: As a scholar of Slavic literature, what do contemporary American writers have to learn from the luminaries of that tradition? Are there contemporary Slavic writers that you recommend all American writers read?

VL: Oh, this is such a great but big question. I think Chekhov has probably been one of the most significant influences on contemporary American fiction writers. He put so much emphasis on honoring the complex humanity of his characters rather than setting them up as targets of judgment, and this has been a pretty strong tradition among contemporary American realist writers. Among contemporary Russian writers I’d recommend Lyudmila Petrushevskaya.

SR: Silk Road is now publishing the first chapters of novels. When you pick up a novel, what do you expect from the first chapter or prologue? What persuades you to turn the page?

VL: Hmmm. In a first chapter — even a first page — I want to feel that the author has command of the voice and the material, that s/he is willing to take chances and is using language with care and originality. I want a lack of pretension and fluff. I also want a sense that the author is consciously guiding his or her audience, revealing and concealing information not just whenever s/he feels like getting around to it, but right when the reader needs it. It’s also good if I can feel that this is unlike any book I’ve ever read before. Think about the opening lines of Catcher in the Rye:

“If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.”

Right away we get a distinctive, authoritative, uncompromised voice. He has something to say and something to conceal. His irreverent attitude suggests he’s capable of interesting and possibly risky exploits. He’s funny and smart and he’s decided to confide in me. I’m hooked.