January 23, 2014

Q&A With Elisabeth Elo + Giveaway!

Yesterday I reviewed North of Boston by Elisabeth Elo, a literary thriller that had me turning pages late into the night. I've never read anything quite like it before! Elo took several different threads - survival story, murder mystery, the perfume industry, environmental ethics, marine life protection - and wove them into a larger tale that was engaging and exciting. So, I'm really excited to post this Q&A with Elo. Whether or not you've read the book, I think you'll be really intrigued by her answers. The line about her heroine, Pirio Kasparov, being "the kind of person who needed a big adventure to find herself" was what sold me on reading North of Boston in the first place. I'm also thrilled to be able to host a giveaway of one copy of North of Boston! Thanks to Penguin/Pamela Dorman Books for the opportunity.

First, here's a little background on Elo:

Elisabeth Elo grew up in Boston and went to Brown University. She worked as an editor, an advertising copywriter, a high-tech project manager, and a halfway house counselor before getting a PhD in American Literature at Brandeis University. Since then, she's taught writing in the Boston area. She lived next to the ocean for many years and now resides in Brookline, Massachusetts.

1. Where did the idea of North of Boston come from?

Some years ago, I ran across a book about ambergris (i.e. whale shit) – a substance that was once believed to have all kinds of magical, curative, and aphrodisiac properties, and is still used today as a fixative in some perfumes. The story of ambergris opens all kinds of windows into the human psyche – our fears and desires, our quests for beauty and adventure, and the lengths we will go to fulfill a dream, even when that dream is actually a delusion.

How a fascination with ambergris led to writing North of Boston involved many tiny steps that I could not possibly reconstruct. But the path went something like this: ambergris, ocean, sense of smell, marine mammals, boats, perfume, the floorplans of boats, northern lands, cold. In fact, the path was more like a maze, the kind where you often end up right back where you started. Eventually, I had a whole lot of paper on my office floor. (This was back in the days before apps like Evernote, when people still printed things out.) Looking at the stacks of paper, I occasionally wondered whether I might be just a bit crazy, but I had somehow managed to develop a trust in the creative process – which is to say, in myself – so I plodded along.

At the same time, in a sort of parallel universe, I was dealing with a difficult protagonist who had a clear, compelling voice. She had been on my mind for a long time, and there was a sense of urgency in bringing her to life. I knew that part of her story took place on a boat, and that it included near-drowning. Meanwhile, she was enmeshed in various relationships – with a friend, a godson, a father. Each posed a significant challenge. She also was dealing with her failure at the age of thirty to have found anything resembling love. She wanted to connect with people, but her aloof, independent personality got in her way. Yet she had a certain integrity. I knew she was the kind of person who needed a big adventure to find herself.

The research and preliminary drafts went along side-by-side for awhile, not connecting with each other very well. Eventually, I had about fifty pages of a novel, but every time I tried to get beyond that point, the whole thing fell apart. Finally, with relief and dismay, I abandoned the project. But Pirio didn’t go away. She seemed to be living right on my shoulder. So several years later, when things in my life opened up a bit, I took up her story once again.

I think writers often feel as if they’re in the dark, out on a limb, on thin ice – pick your cliché. We’ve got to be OK with being perpetually off-balance. I’ve come to realize that if I’m not feeling a bit anxious about whatever I’m working on and a bit unsure of my ability to do it, I’m probably not risking enough.

2. Why did you choose to write a thriller?

Because I love the strong protagonists. It’s ironic: people tend to think of thrillers and mysteries as being “plot-driven” instead of “character-driven.” But nothing could be further from the truth. In thrillers there tend to be a lot of secondary characters, settings, and plot points – the protagonist is the one who holds everything together and drives the action. She or he has to be tenacious, observant, and morally centered (with humanizing flaws thrown in) because a weak character could not ride the bucking plotline with any success. In the best thrillers the protagonist doesn’t simply follow the clues as they emerge; she bends the plot to her will. It’s her creative and powerful impact on the book’s events that makes the mystery come out right in the end.

I think the real contribution of the thriller (in addition to its entertainment value) is that it brings this kind of character to the forefront. In so doing, it encodes a crucial hope: That we can conquer our fears and face down the worst of what the world has to offer. That we can have an impact, make a difference. That is very strong, important stuff.

3. Why first-person?

In first-person narration, readers are in the protagonist’s mind the entire time: there’s no place else to be. They see what she sees, know what she knows, and think what she thinks. They are as limited as she is by her blind spots and foibles.

As an author, I find first-person narration constraining and dream about the wide open vistas of the omniscient third. But I also know that one of the great powers of the novel (as opposed to film, for example) lies in the way it can describe the inner workings of a mind. The first-person narration is the ultimate in this kind of psychological exploration. I think it comes closer than any other art form to portraying what it really feels like to be a human being. Because we are all, always, in first-person mode – able with diligence to change ourselves but never to escape ourselves. So while we may be quite different from the protagonist superficially, on the existential level, our experience is the same. We are trying to develop our strengths and talents and overcome our weaknesses and biases, while simultaneously trying to figure out which is which. Witnessing the struggles of a first-person narrator teaches us about our own.

4. Any plans for another book?

This summer I spent a few weeks in Yakutsk, a city of approximately 200,000 in the Sakha Republic of northeastern Siberia. It has a ballet, an opera, and a university. In the winter the average temperature is -40 degrees F. I traveled from Yakutsk to a small village called Cherkeh, on the other side of the Lena River, about a five-hour drive on deeply rutted, sparsely populated roads. The Siberian meadows are very green in summer, dotted with clear glassy lakes and tumbling streams, and the shaggy Sakha horses roam and graze where they will, without fences, and return to their homes of their own accord. The people in Siberia greeted me warmly and gave me a glimpse into their lives. My next novel will be set in Boston and this region. It will involve ballet dancers, political intrigue, and diamond mines. Stay tuned.

Be sure to enter the giveaway for North of Boston!
Giveaway hosted by So Obsessed With in partnership with The Penguin Group. Open to U.S. residents only.

a Rafflecopter giveaway

16 comments:

  1. I was not as interested in reading this until I read your review yesterday! Then reading this interview with the author has made me add it to my tbr list.

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    1. Soooo happy you won, Beth! Hope you enjoy :)

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  2. I hadn't heard of this book before your great review yesterday! It sounds very intriguing and I'm definitely interested now :) Thanks for sharing!!

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    1. I'm glad I helped bring this book to your attention! Hope you read it at some point!

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  3. Thrillerrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr. And who needs sleep anyway! Can't wait!

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    1. Haha! I'm blaming you for this song being stuck in my head...

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  4. HA! WHY? Cuz you really really liked it! And I LOVEEEE me some thrillers [as you know!] and this one sounds VERY different, and that makes me veryyyy interested ;)

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    1. Haha! Hope you like this one, Miss Queen of the Thrillers. :)

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  5. I hadn't heard of this book until your amazing review. The concept seems interesting and I love the cover. I'm very interesting in reading this!

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    1. That's awesome, Amy! I'm glad my review was helpful. I hope you read it at some point - I'd love to discuss it!

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  6. Okay, seriously, this interview has me even more intrigued! I'm not one for thrillers, but I will say that the way Elizabeth talks about her main character and writing is absolutely fascinating. It's a very compelling interview -- and totally a reason for me to want this book!

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    1. I'm not huge on thrillers either, Alexa. It was the Q&A that totally sold me on this book. I loved the exact same things you did!

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  7. I love thrillers! I like to be on my toes when I'm reading ~

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    1. Yes, I love when a book has me frantically turning the pages!

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  8. Loved the interview! Can tell just by reading it that Ms. Elo is a wonderful writer!

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    1. That's how I felt! I was iffy on whether or not I wanted to read the book until I read the interview. I was so fascinated by Elo's answers that I knew I had to give it a shot.

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