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Darragh McKeon

Interviewed by Lara Touitou - Darragh McKeon grew up in Ireland and worked as a theater director before writing All That is Solid Melts Into Air. This is his first novel.
*Author photo by Philippe Matsas

All That is Solid Melts Into Air

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All That is Solid Melts Into Air is published in the UK by Viking

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What drew you to this subject in particular?

I’m not sure—there are many reasons why you do something… There was a charity in Ireland that brought children from Chernobyl to Ireland. When I was 12 or 13, this bunch of children came over to my very sleepy hometown, and I think they might have been some of the first foreign people I’d ever met. The girls were very beautiful, and we were all very intrigued. Then we began to hear little stories about their lives. They didn’t speak any English and we didn’t speak Russian, and we’d hear about the apartments that they lived in, in those kind of monolithic Soviet apartment blocks, on the ninth floor or the fifteenth floor. Where I am from, the countryside is very flash, and the highest buildings are maybe two or three storeys high, so I just began to be very intrigued by their lives. Then, as I began to research about Chernobyl, when you begin to read the history of it, you can almost feel the fabric of the society beginning to rip apart. I think it was Mikhail Gorbachev who said that it was the catalyst towards the end of the Soviet union. It was the beginning of the end.

When you set out to research this topic, did you encounter any obstacle or had difficulties retrieving some facts?

My main difficulty was myself! I didn’t really known how to research, I just kind of walked very blindly into the subject, and spent about a year researching chemical equations and what happens on a level of physics, in the middle of a nuclear meltdown. I tried to really understand that, for about a year and a half. I went to a lot of very obscure sites and did not really get it. I began to look at the human side of the story, and began to actually understand that. I did read a Russian physicist who quoted H.G. Wells, and I put it in the epigraph of the book. It’s about what happens on a molecular level, or on a level of matter, on an atomic level in a nuclear reaction. It replicates the breakdown of traditions in society, and that was very interesting to me.

The Chernobyl stuff was not actually difficult to research, there was a lot of material available. There was a lot of photographs, documentaries have been made, but material from the 80s was actually difficult to access. People didn’t take photographs on the street. If you took photographs, people would have suspected that you were a spy! So there was news footage, but not a lot of day-to-day material, or anything about what it was like to live in Moscow in the 1980s.

In terms of social history, did you get to talk to people whose life had been impacted by this event?

Actually, no, partly because I didn’t have access. I was writing from Dublin and then I was writing from London, and also, until you have a publishing deal, you’re just a guy with a laptop.

One distinctive element in the novel is that there is an atmosphere which plays on two levels: an atmosphere made of radioactive matter, and an atmosphere thick with silence and oppression, forcing people to hide everything. How meaningful was it for you to have this element weighing on the characters’ lives in every way?

I think that was very deliberate. Something I was interested in was the way the institutions affect an individual. I wanted to question how the morality imposed on you by institutions affects the day-to-day conversations, the way that people live their lives, on a very small level. In Ireland, the institution would have been the Catholic Church. That would affect the way people talked to each other, or the way they would be around each other, or the way they would behave.

There’s a beautiful video that I saw in Dublin a couple of years ago. A documentary photographer just put a camera outside a church, and he would spot people walking past and just blessing themselves, almost instinctively. They didn’t even realize that they were doing it. So those little ways that an institution can get into the thoughts of a person, that was very important to me. When we talk about Soviet Russia, or even the Soviet Union, we tend to think of the 1950s, but even by the 1980s, the intense fear and the intense paranoia that were around at that time, this was only thirty years later. This doesn’t dissipate very quickly or very easily.

One of the other important elements in the novel is music, and overall the book is quite intrinsically linked to the senses…

I was a theater director before I was a writer, and I think it came out of that. It’s hell when you’re going through it, but the beauty of it is that you’re overseeing lighting, or sound, or movement. You get an appreciation for how these things combine, and that stuck with me in my writing.

Actually I initially wanted to ask you if you think your background in drama had had an effect on your writing…

It was that, and then, I think, one thing that was very useful is that, as a theater director, your job is just to observe and see between two actors or a dozen actors, and you begin to identify when a scene is alive or when it is dry and has no life to it. That really helps in your writing as well. After a while, you begin to spot when you’re writing something that has a certain amount of dynamic to it, or something that is very flat and dry.

We follow Yevgeni during several decades. Would you say that it is a kind of coming-of-age story for him?

I think so. Since I’ve written the novel, I’ve come across a Nietzsche quote, which says “we have art so that we will not be destroyed by the truth”. I really like it, because I think that works in two ways. You could say that art is just a distraction, and that it’s something that occupies our time, while the world is crumbling around us. Or you could look at it and say that it’s something that endures and gives hope. I think that, in retrospect, I was looking at that, at the two sides of that phrase.

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Author Chat with Katherine Reay

Live on November 5th at 4pm ET!

Katherine Reay has enjoyed a life-long affair with the works of Jane Austen and her contemporaries - who provide constant inspiration both for writing & for life. Katherine’s first novel, Dear Mr. Knightley, was a 2014 Christy Award Finalist & winner of the 2014 INSPY Award for Best Debut as well as Carol Awards for both Best Debut & Best Contemporary. She also wrote Dear Mr. Knightley & The Bronte Plot – all contemporary stories with a bit of “classics” flair.

The Brontë Plot

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Pub Date: Nov 3, 2015
General Fiction (Adult), Women's Fiction
Published by Lake Union Publishing


Author Chat with Catherine McKenzie

Live on October 21st at 4pm EST!

Catherine McKenzie has earned legions of fans and praise all over the world for her absorbing characters, engrossing storytelling, and unflinching treatment of universal themes of the human condition, such as love, loss, forgiveness and redemption. With SMOKE, McKenzie forces readers to grapple with the messiness of life and ponder unspeakable “what ifs.” Riveting, complex and nuanced, the novel will captivate readers of domestic drama, mystery and suspense, as well as anyone in search of an all-consuming page-turner.

Pub Date: Oct 20, 2015
General Fiction (Adult), Women's Fiction
Published by Thomas Nelson


Author Chat with Mike Bond

Live on Aug 20th!

Mike Bond's critically acclaimed novels take the reader into intense situations in the world’s most perilous places, into wars, revolutions, dangerous love affairs and political and corporate conspiracies, making “readers sweat with [their] relentless pace.” (Kirkus) and drawing them “into a land and a time I had not known but left me with my senses reeling.” (NetGalley Reviews)

Killing Maine

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Pub Date: Jul 20, 2015
Politics, Mystery & Thrillers
Published by Mandevilla Press


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We’re excited to start sharing author interviews with our community, in partnership with Feedbooks.

Emma Straub

Interviewed by Lara Touitou - Emma Straub is an author living in Brooklyn. She notably writes for Rookie. The Vacationers is her second novel.
*Author photo by Jennifer Bastian

The Vacationers

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The Vacationers is published in the UK by Picador & in the US by Riverhead Books.

The voice of the novel is very close to each character, all the while keeping a distance. I felt like a little mouse spying from behind the cupboard where Franny hids the Nutella jar. What did this kind of narration mean to you?

Ha, I love that! I hope everyone felt like a little mouse behind the cupboard. That’s exactly what I wanted, for the reader to feel like they were spying (both externally and internally) on the Post family and their friends. I love books that dip in and out of several characters’ heads—I think it’s a good way to show different sides of the same story without very clunky dialogue.

There is a lot of mouth-watering food mentioned in your novel, and it is often used as an instrument of happiness and peacefulness by Franny, the mother. When you set out to write the novel, did you plan that it would be one of her characteristic traits, or did it come along as her character developed?

I always knew that Franny was a food writer, and her thoughts/feelings about food were key from the very beginning. Unfortunately, I myself am not a beautiful cook, but I have several friends who are, both professionally and in their personal lives, and I love to watch them put together simple ingredients in astonishing ways. Food is such a basic human need, but there are those among us, like Franny, who use it to express themselves, and to comfort themselves, and to please others, and I just love that impulse.

There are several scenes around Mallorca with very detailed descriptions of the settings. How did you proceed for your research?

I read several books about Mallorca first—memoirs, histories, guidebooks, all kinds of things, but most of my research happened when my husband and I went to visit. I took notes everywhere—at museums, at restaurants, at the beach. We visited in January, alas, so there was no swimming for us, but I thought if I squinted my eyes just right, I could imagine hordes of people in bathing suits.

Carmen is looked down upon by the Posts because of her job, but also because of their implicit contempt toward Florida. However the New Yorkers are not outdone and we see here and there some cutting remarks about their pride of being Manhattanites, and, most of all, islanders. Do you feel that the sense of belonging and pride is heightened by the fact that this is an island? And if I ever go to Florida, should I only expect to see people with tan, sculpted bodies? 🙂

Well, my in-laws live in Florida, and so I probably shouldn’t say anything too cutting, but I will say that Florida is a very eccentric corner of the United States. Miami, where Carmen is from, is by far the most cosmopolitan city in the state. But yes-I see your point. One of my goals with Carmen was to use the Posts prejudices against her as a way of learning more about them, and showing a side of them that they weren’t necessarily aware of, something a bit ugly. As a Manhattanite by birth (though I now live in Brooklyn), I can tell you with absolute certainty that this kind of “island mentality” can be quite easily found. Manhattan is, after all, a very small island, and many of its residents never leave, making them rather parochial indeed.

(And yes—if you go to Florida, you will see many, many tan, sculpted bodies. That is a guarantee!)

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We’re excited to start sharing author interviews with our community, in partnership with Feedbooks.

Anthony Doerr

Interviewed by Lara Touitou - Anthony Doerr is the author of two short story collections and two novels. His latest novel All The Light We Cannot See won the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. He lives in Idaho. *Author photo by Shauna Doerr

All the Light We Cannot See

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All the Light We Cannot See is published in the UK by Fourth Estate, in the US by Scribner, and by HarperCollins Publishers Australia

From the second quote in the epigraph until the end of the novel, one of the main themes tackled is radio transmission and the way in which it is being used—and also by what kind of people it is being used. It echoed a recurrent duality in the novel, in which some things or concepts could serve two very different, if not opposite purposes. Nothing is ever as it seems: do you think it applies to the novel?

Yes, very much so. Werner’s engineering skills, for example, might be considered something very praiseworthy now, but during the novel they are used to a terrible purpose. The same was true, of course, for the physicists who invented the hydrogen bomb—they were unlocking the mysteries of the building blocks of all creation, but they were also unleashing an incomprehensibly destructive force. Your question makes me think, too, about all the different purposes the Internet serves right now. The extremists we’re currently calling ISIS upload acts of horrifying violence to YouTube to wage psychological terror; governments and corporations use metadata from social media to monitor the behavior of their citizens. And yet, at the same time, the Internet can be an incredible tool for democracy and education. Someone in rural France can use the Internet to teach herself to speak Mandarin, or repair a car, or read ancient Greek. These sorts of conundrums fascinate me.

I am not sure if I counted right, but the word “war” appears less than thirty times throughout the course of the novel. Was it a conscious choice from the very start of the writing process to put this specific word aside, all the while Marie-Laure and Werner's fates are shaped by the circumstances of history?

That’s interesting. No, that was not a conscious choice, but I was acutely aware that there was a lot of writing about WWII already out there—much of it breathtakingly good, and written by people for whom the war was memory. So for most of the 10 years I worked on All the Light, I was terrified that I’d settle into a pattern of narrative that had lost some of its power because it had been already done.

One strategy I tried was to mimic the language of fairy tale and allegory: the boy, the girl, the ogre, the cursed gemstone, the imaginary citadel. And another was to try to balance that sense of otherworldliness against a hyper-realism; to detail everything as carefully as I could. I thought maybe the juxtaposition of those two techniques might help the novel feel different, in the way a Borges or a Calvino story always feels different, even when they’re describing our world. Sometimes the best way to show a reader something is not to name it at all.

Could you tell us a few words about why you chose Saint-Malo as one of the main settings of the novel?

I first saw the city while on book tour in France in 2006. After a long dinner, I went for a stroll on top of the ramparts after dark, peering into the third floor windows of houses, the sea glimmering to my right, the city glowing on my left. It was deeply captivating: a place that seemed part fairy tale castle, part Escher drawing, part mist and ocean wind and lamplight. I felt as if I was walking in through an imaginary city from Calvino’s Invisible Cities. I had started a story about a girl who loved the sea, and a boy who loved radios, and as soon as I learned more about the city’s ordeal during WWII, I knew I wanted to try to set that piece of fiction there.

How did Jules Verne's Twenty Thousand Leagues Under The Sea find its way in the novel? How meaningful was it for you to have Marie-Laure read this book in particular?

20,000 Leagues was a childhood favorite of my own. Verne’s novel is about wonder and technology, and he uses narrative to amplify a reader’s interest in the natural world. This is so similar to the kind of projects I try to make with my own fiction, that – one day, when I started re-reading it – I decided Verne’s text might serve as an effective book-within-a-book, and might be the right text to have Marie-Laure broadcast over her radio. To me, Marie-Laure’s most salient characteristic is her curiosity—she is a learner first and foremost. So giving her Verne, whose books celebrate the quest for knowledge, seemed like a good fit.

All The Light We Cannot See is a novel intrinsically linked to the five senses. Do you feel it is inseparable from your writing?

Yes. If a writer’s goal is to transport a reader into another human being’s life, the most important tool we have is detail. The American writer John Gardner called it “the moment-by-moment authenticating accumulation of detail.” How do you keep your reader in the dream of the fiction—how do you make your reader forget that he or she is reading sentences on a page? It’s through sensory detail, the smells of mango trees, the feel of sand beneath your heels, the clacking of scorpions as they skitter up out of the drain in the bathtub.

As I wrote All the Light, I kept telling myself the old humanist dictum: that the path to the universal runs through the individual. If you want to understand the larger movements of history, you read the diaries of (so-called) ordinary children like Anne Frank of Petr Ginz. The glory and genius of The Diary of Anne Frank, for example, is in the ordinary, quotidian day-to-day detailing of her writing: the things they ate, the jokes they told. The horror comes through because of the mundanity. The lessons of that little diary have stayed with me: first, that through books, the memories of the dead can live; and second, that only through the smallest details, through the sights and smells and sounds of one person’s moment-by-moment experience, can a writer convey the immensity that is a human life.

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Emily Schultz

Interviewed by Lara Touitou - Emily Schultz is a Canadian writer based in Brooklyn. She is the co-founder of the literary journal Joyland. The Blondes is her third novel and was one of the finalists for the Trillium Book Award.

The Blondes by Emily Schultz

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The Blondes is published in the US by Thomas Dunne Books

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The protagonist, Hazel, writes a thesis about women's looks and how they can be perceived. With the virus impacting only blonde women, the increasing climate of defiance against women is chilling in its resemblance with our own world. Is the novel itself a way to hold up a mirror to society's distorted depiction and representation of women?

I like to think of writing more like a radar than a mirror. We should be scanning and looking for these turns in our culture early. As I was writing The Blondes I was looking for situations that seemed realistic, even within my outlandish premise, and I did not have to look far.

The Blondes can be seen as a dystopia, or speculative fiction, all the while being also literary fiction, with references to pop culture. How meaningful is it for you to explore different genres?

I love playing with genre. Movies like Hitchcock’s The Birds or Cronenberg’s Rabid influenced this work, but so did novels like Camus’ The Plague. As I think about it, I am realizing I have a lot of French influences. Catherine Breillat is one of my favorite filmmakers and is always exploring ideas of beauty and femininity using dark humor. Claire Denis’ Trouble Every Day was also an influence and both are great examples of women who look at genre through a feminist perspective.

How did you decide that the narration would consist of Hazel addressing her unborn child?

I had not yet been pregnant when I began the book—but being in my mid-30s then it was very much on my mind and I was trying to decide if motherhood would fit into my life. Writing The Blondes contributed to my decision. I became pregnant and had my son during the writing of this novel. I really didn’t talk to my abdomen, but a lot of women told me they did. For Hazel, I felt a personal story had to ground the more fantastical and dystopic elements, and that walking around the cabin talking to herself (or her soon-to-be baby) was one way to do that. She leads the reader through chaos, so it was important to hear her voice. I also thought it was important to show how a woman, her goals and sense of self, changes throughout the various stages of pregnancy, which is why Hazel could easily have not become a mother early on, but is very committed later. And on a very basic, technical level, it was a solution to have an isolated character be able to converse.

Although a part of the novel is set in a chalet in Canada, the first part is set in New York where Hazel works on her thesis. There is notably an arresting passage about Hazel's mental map of New York, built from memories, imagination and movies. How does the city, and urban landscape in general, in every shape and form, resonate with your work?

Even though I’ve now lived in New York for five years, writing The Blondes was still challenging because New Yorkers are a distinct culture of people, and it was hard to get the voices (and the actions) of the characters right. Strangers interact a lot more here than in Canada or the American Midwest, but connections are fleeting. By making Hazel a bit of a tourist, she still sees New York with a romanticized vision when the blonde disease begins to change the people around her. In horror movies, and especially plague narratives, the characters are always fleeing the city to try to get to the country where it will somehow be safer. I wanted to explore that dynamic too.

You publish your own literary magazine, Joyland. Do you feel it has an influence on your writing as a novelist?

To be constantly reading new work by others is inspiring. Joyland is organized by city, so that the work is showcased in a regional manner. I started the website with my husband, Brian Joseph Davis who is best known for his project The Composites. We were traveling a lot at the time and meeting writers from elsewhere. We liked the idea of being able to peer in on a writing community somewhere else, and that was what we wanted to accomplish with the magazine.

To read more interviews please visit the Feedbooks interview archive, and stay tuned for your favorite authors!