I’ll be honest with you–I wasn’t certain how I’d feel about Kristina Riggle’s debut novel, Real Life & Liars, because I knew the story involved the “C” word–and I don’t mean Chocolate. Cancer in a book is a hard thing for some to warm up to, especially when you’ve lost loved ones to the disease, as so many of us have. But Kristina’s novel isn’t so much about a woman coming to terms with her own mortality as realizing her tornadic impact on the world around her–and in a very short span of time following her diagnosis, after deciding not to treat her breast cancer.
I loved this book. Kristina is truly gifted, not wasting words, but using each to reveal character with a clever, smart and humorous delivery–and even the occasional Monty Python joke. A “cancer book,” humorous? Just wait until you meet the members of the Zelinsky family, each of whom needs to learn that the ideal in life–perfection–is as sterile as symmetry and not a reflection of the lumps and bumps of reality at all. The question of what they’ll choose to believe–real life or the liars–drives this fantastic novel.
Interview with Kristina Riggle
Q: How do you describe your novel to people who ask what it’s about?
KR: A family of screwed-up grown kids comes home for an anniversary party with their lives falling apart, and their mother has a secret which will change everything. It takes place over three days in Charlevoix, Michigan.
Q: One of the book’s lead characters has cancer, yet I don’t view this as “a cancer book.” Have you felt any resistance to your book, simply because it features a protagonist with a disease? How have you handled that?
KR: I worried about it, but so far it’s not been an issue. Most people seem to understand it’s an ensemble piece about family, foremost. Amazon does list it in the category of Breast Cancer Books, but it doesn’t seem to have turned people off. Reviewers seem aware of the possibility though, and I’ve read a few people saying, “Don’t be scared away from this book because of cancer…”
Q: How did this book evolve for you–from idea to sold manuscript to published novel? How long did it take? How many books, if any, are tucked in a drawer?
KR: I sat down to write the kind of book I like to read. I’d been getting frustrated with earlier attempts to write a novel which would be “big” enough to sell, or have some kind of “hook.” (To answer your question, I was working on unsold manuscript number four at that point). So I put that all aside and opened a file called “messing around” on my computer. I wanted a story with a big cast of quirky characters, all in the same family, with some excuse for them to be together (anniversary party) and a driving crisis to galvanize them (Mira’s diagnosis). “How long did it take” is hard to answer because I flipped back and forth between LIARS and Unsold Manuscript Four for a time (I lost my nerve, believing LIARS didn’t have enough of a “hook” to sell) and then I had my second baby, which was a mite distracting. I started writing it in the summer of 2006 and finished in the fall of 2007, though.
Q: Was the title clear to you from the start? How did it evolve?
KR: The title came to me very early. It comes from a line of dialogue late in the book, and the scene came to me while I was drying my hair or something. I scribbled down an outline for that scene right away, and named the book right then, though I knew the scene itself would be toward the end.
Q: What’s your process? Plotter or pantser? Night or a.m. writer? Do you polish as you go or revise only after the first draft?
KR: I don’t outline, but I do realize there needs to be some central thing driving the plot, a mystery or a question, perhaps. So I do make sure I have some idea of the central conflict before I seriously begin. I write usually in the morning when my kids are at school (oldest) or babysitter (youngest). But when I’m on a tight deadline, I write anytime I can: evenings, weekends, whenever I can grab time. And I rarely ever revise as I write. I’m a full-steam-ahead writer. I like to revise only as a whole, when the whole story is clearest to me. I changed Ivan’s career goals halfway through the first draft and didn’t go back to change the earlier references until I finished a draft.
Q: What’s one thing about your process you feel you do really well, and one thing you wish you could improve upon?
KR: I’m fast, so they say, and this is a great help to me. I also use this trick which I’m told Hemingway used: I leave off writing for the day in mid-sentence, which keeps me from wasting time the next day saying, “Uuhhhhhh, now what? Where was I?” Also, in writing that extra bit so that I can stop in midsentence, I often squeeze more words out than I thought I had in me that day.
I need to get better at keeping my characters’ timelines straight. I have created serious continuity problems for myself by creating a flashback without thinking carefully about the actual ages and lives of the characters back then. And those are a bugger to untangle once you’ve caused that kind of a problem.
Q: You tell the story in 4 POVs—mother Mira’s, daughter Katya’s, son Ivan’s, and daughter Irina’s–though Mira is the only character whose story is told in 1st person. Why? Also, did you ever consider exploring father Max’s POV?
KR: It’s funny, I never considered adding Max’s voice but that might be the most common observation (or criticism) I hear. My glib answer is that he’s not as screwed-up as the rest of them and that four POV characters already seemed like plenty.
As for Mira’s voice in first person, I wanted a way to highlight the fact that although I have four important characters, she’s my protagonist. Plus, her voice is so unique it would have seemed strange to write her in third person. And, I was writing without restrictions on this novel, writing entirely to please myself without worrying about whether it would be acceptable to the powers that be.
Q: Though the main story was Mira’s, I think you did a fabulous job showing turning-point moments for everyone in RL&L. If the span of these few days doesn’t represent the biggest moment in the life of each of Mira’s children, it must come fairly close—life as they know it is changing, dying, in a sense—and that tension will keep readers turning the pages. How tricky was it for you to develop each story? Did you create them independently of the others first, and then figure out how to weave them together, or did you work with all of them at once?
KR: Before I started I knew what every character’s central crisis would be, but I didn’t map them out separately. As I started each new character’s chapter, I went back and read that character’s most recent chapter to remind myself where he/she was in the story. Toward the end I did craft an outline of the last few chapters because it was hard to keep track of everyone’s plot threads.
Q: Was it difficult to tell a story that spanned only three days in the life of this family? What sort of issues did you run into, if any, because of this condensed period of time, and how did you work through them? What benefits do you see for this approach to fiction writing?
KR: I loved writing this way. It was a fun challenge. The biggest problem was keeping track of where everyone was at any given time. My vigilant copyeditor caught me with one character in two places at once, for example, and in revisions I would suddenly realize, “Wait, where are Katya’s kids? I need to say what they’re doing…”
Q: The setting of the book, Lake Charlevoix, Michigan, is well depicted. Why choose this setting?
KR: It’s one of my favorite places in the world. My grandparents lived there — my grandmother lives there still — and it’s just beautiful. I figured if I had to spend hours of my imagination someplace writing a novel, I should pick somewhere lovely. And I know it well, having visited there often.
Come back next week for part two of my interview with debut novelist Kristina Riggle!