Thursday, May 31, 2007

Pajama Chat

Okay girls and boys, put on your jammies and fuzzy slippers and get cozy. The Pajama Gardener has a treat for you: our first Pajama Chat! Author Elyse Singleton has stopped by to answer a few questions. Elyse is author of THIS SIDE OF THE SKY, one of my favorite novels.
A brief description:
In her funny, moving, and ambitious debut, Elyse Singleton introduces us to two inseparable and hard-minded idealists. Young Lilian endures the tribulations of Nadir, Mississippi, on the purity of her faith in people and her growing belief in herself. Her best friend, Myraleen, gets by on her sharp tongue and her unwillingness to give in -- and perhaps because Lilian is always with her.

In this lifelong story, Lilian and Myraleen struggle through dramatically changing times: From the stark realities of life in rural Mississippi, through the different sort of racism they find in workaday Philadelphia and France during World War II. For these women, the road to maturity in the messy American century is long and ragged. Along the way, Myraleen falls for a Tuskegee flier and Lilian for a German prisoner of war. And each time they reassert their oldest ideals, everything they believe in is tested again -- most of all what love requires in such a world.
Now to our Pajama Chat....
Pajama Gardener: I'm a huge fan of your novel, THIS SIDE OF THE SKY (it even shows up in my novel when someone recommends it!). It's a story of two women (Lilian and Myraleen) who are friends before, during and after WWII. Where did the idea come from for you to tell this story?

Elyse Singleton: Thank you. And I appreciate the mention in your own fantastic novel. The idea first mentally materialized as the story of two friends. At some point after that I decided to set it during the war because I had always been fascinated with that time in history.PG: You seem to have a real affinity for people from that generation. Why do you think that is?
ES: I was raised by my grandmother and around old folks. So familiarity is a factor.Many of that generation, or course not all, were impressive human beings. And, admittedly, whom we define as impressive is defined by our ego's worldview. My ego's worldview sees the best of that generation as being progressive without being decadent. Most folks had merely high school educations, but a high school education was quite different than it is now. And it meant that one knew the fundamentals of history and other essential subjects. Thus many of gen-WWII were quietly worldly and intelligent whether college-educated or not.
PG: I agree with you. I just spent some time with my grandparents and a great-aunt and great-uncle and the stories they shared and the lives they led are amazing!
ES: Also, I am socially conservative and politically liberal, which means that I would make a good Canadian nun. I am completely out of step with America, where it is currently okay for ten-year-old girls to run around wearing hooker outfits, but God forbid that they should be guaranteed health insurance. But then I guess I should not be so close-minded. There is another side. It is more popular to be sexy than healthy, especially at ten when you have got only ten more good years ahead of you before you're thinking Botox. Oh well, I guess they should shake it before it shakes on its on; perhaps I was just being an anachronistic fool. And gambling casinos are opening up all over like an overheated man's pores. Here in Chicago, where I am visiting, there may be a legal casino eventually if a new bill passes in the state legislature. One could say that will breed crime, prostitution, and addiction. But on the other hand it would be so sad if the people of this great city ran out of trouble to get into. Clearly there is not enough crime, prostitution, and addiction here already, and compassionate individuals are trying to address that problem. In fact, as caring Coloradans, Carleen, we should help. We should send any of our extra criminals here to assist, in acknowledgment of that fact that the Illinois legislature is working so humanely and so hard to build its own ample reserve of villainy and human suffering . . . And that was a long, painful way of telling you why I have more respect for many people of the 40s.
PG: The characters live in Nadir, Mississippi, which hints at the wonderful humor in your book (as do your answers here!). How do you write such funny scenes?
ES: Interesting that you should ask. I offer a workshop on humor. There are ways it can be consciously created. However, I believe humor is partly inherited from one's environment. My mother and grandmother were funny people. So my humor often is automatic. But with the label Nadir I purposely wink at the reader about the town's lack of desirability while coming up with a fictional name. Actually, my mother didn't think I was particularly funny. When I told her I was offering the workshop, she said, "I know we kid around. But you're not like Richard Pryor or anything." She was a fan of Lenny Bruce, Richard Pryor, Moms Mabley, and Woody Allen. So her standards were pretty high. And growing up hearing comics on TV and tape likely contributed to my sense of wit, too.
PG: Lilian and Myraleen seem both utterly of their time and very modern, like the reader can imagine sitting down for coffee and pie with them. Maybe it's because they are such flesh-and-blood, vital women. Are they based on anyone in your life?

ES: More than anything, the characters represent parts of my personality split off and reprocessed for fiction. The one character inspired by an actual person is Toby, the little boy who drives the German soldiers to his uncle's farm. A dear friend's father grew up in Louisiana during the war, and he had that experience and shared it with me.
PG: THIS SIDE OF THE SKY was a successful debut novel. What was the experience like for you? Writers fantasize about that moment when their brainchild is born. Was it what you expected? What advice would you offer a first-time novelist?

ES: It was rewarding in some surprising ways. Social and professional rewards emerged that I never would have expected. The reception from readers was remarkable. The novel's commercial performance was unremarkable. I hoped that it would change my life--make me more financially secure--and it did not. I would tell new novelists what I would have attempted to tell you, but your own wisdom preempted the need: keep writing. Follow the first with a second as soon as possible. And unless you have a powerful publicity machine behind you, take responsibility for your own promotion and success. There are lots of books and classes that will tell you how.
PG: I know you teach writing workshops. What's the best writing tip anyone ever gave you?
ES: GOOD QUESTION! I had to really think. Actually, I have said to consider failure and adversity built-in, nothing personal and the cost of doing business. Of course there are going to be those who are critical of your writing. But just keep writing because ultimately the whole that is the result is greater than the part that is the pain.
PG: What do you like to read? Who are your favorite writers? I have lots of favorites. Currently I am reading a series of books by David Sedaris (NAKED; ME TALK PRETTY ONE DAY; DRESS YOUR FAMILY IN CORDUROY AND DENIM--talk about funny!). And I have been reading Alexander McCall Smith's NO. 1 LADIES DETECTIVE AGENCY series set in Botswana. It's a delight: intelligent yet soothing. I like Alice Walker; Edwidge Danticat; Anne Tyler; Carson McCullers, etc.

PG: What's next for you?

ES: I am working on my second book, and it is not as easy as I thought it would be. Please ask your readers to send their good wishes and prayers.

PG: It’s never as easy as we think it’ll be! To paraphrase a Toni Morrison quote I read: “Women write like they have babies. If they knew what it was like going in, they’d never do it.” So you have my good wishes and prayers, and I know whoever might read this also wishes you well. Anyone who reads THIS SIDE OF THE SKY will wish you well because they’ll be like me: eager to read your next work!

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