If you missed part one of my interview with Kristina Riggle, click HERE, then come back. Kristina, who blogs at The Debutante Ball, is already gathering rave reviews for her debut novel, Real Life & Liars. This from Publisher’s Weekly:
With ease and grace, Riggle walks the fine line between sentimentality and comedy, and she has a sure hand in creating fun, quirky characters.
And this from The Grand Rapids Press:
Kristina Riggle’s debut novel, “Real Life & Liars,” is bursting at the seams with believable people.
Notice a common element? Characters. Kristina knows how to build them like few other authors I’ve read.
“If I have to go down, fine. But I’m going down with both tits swinging,” says protagonist Mira Zelinsky, stubborn to the end about her breasts and just what’s going to happen to them.
See what I mean? Let’s talk character.
Interview with Kristina Riggle
Q: By interweaving chapters from different characters’ POVs throughout the course of the novel, you crafted a delicious suspense—leaving us hanging on the edge of something in one character’s story to create tension in someone else’s. Chapters were generally short. Was this purposeful on your part? Why go for the short chapter? What did it buy you?
KR: Thank you. That was a fun benefit of the differing points of view. The short chapters are a hangover from my day job of journalism. Some people don’t like it very much, but it’s the way I’m comfortable writing. So I can’t say it was a deliberate choice so much as the only way I know how to do it.
Q: The matriarch and patriarch of the Zelinsky family, Mira and Max, almost never argued, yet a big argument marked a turning point in their lives just days before their children arrived to celebrate their anniversary; the latter marks the start of the novel instead of the former. Did you ever consider beginning the book with the argument? What made you decide to hold off on revealing what was said until the end of the story?
KR: One reason the argument doesn’t emerge until the end is that at the beginning, I wasn’t sure myself why Mira was doing the things she was doing (sorry to be vague, trying not to write a spoiler here) as I wrote the first draft. So I thought it would be interesting to have the reader discover this important turning point gradually, just as I discovered it during the writing of her character. Mira drops hints here and there throughout the book about this fight.
Q: You said in your interview at the end of the book that you “needed a crisis to drive the story, and breast cancer is singularly terrifying to women.” Could the crisis have been anything else? How did you use breast cancer specifically to propel the story and enrich its themes? Why was it necessary for Mira to be terrified?
KR: Sure, it could have been something else, but since I decided right away it was breast cancer, it did bring up issues of sexuality and feminity. A breast isn’t like an appendix or tonsils. Sure, for a woman past childbearing age they’re technically not necessary, but that doesn’t make it easy to part with one or both. As for Mira being terrified, she’s going through major changes in her life and not just with her illness. It’s her story, ultimately, which means her whole world has to be rocked, even to the point of terror.
Q: Did you ever have to alter a character’s personality or story to keep the distinctions between the family members crisp, or were things always well delineated?
KR: The characters were all so clear and different I didn’t find it very hard to keep them unique. The bigger challenge was keeping them from slipping into cliche.
Q: Which character, if any, gave you trouble while writing, and how did you handle it?
KR: Katya was tricky because as I mentioned, she could easily become a shrill stereotype. I worked hard to make her human underneath her controlling veneer. And Mira, actually, was harder yet because she’s so completely different from me in nearly every way! I just tried to be aware of the pitfalls and give those scenes the eagle eye in revision. I also have excellent critique partners who keep me honest.
Q: The characterizations in this book are exemplary, in part because they’re so honest, but also because they’re masterfully conveyed in brief sentences that speak volumes. Your depiction of son Ivan, a frustrated musician stuck in a high school teaching job, provides one example. Years ago, after deeming his dream of becoming the next great musical discovery impossible to reach, he yanks down the poster of hero Bob Dylan. But because it had been on his wall for forever, the poster had blocked some natural fading of the walls; an outline remained. It was like a chalk outline around the corpse of his ambition, he thinks. You hone in on the pith so well! Do characters come easily for you? What steps do you take, if any, to make them so well rounded? How much time do you invest in their backstories?
KR: Oh, thank you! It’s funny, one of the best things about this process so far has been hearing what strikes people about my book, and I’ve heard from a handful of people already about this exact scene. I just find people so fascinating with all their foibles. I don’t know if character development comes easily, but it is my favorite part of the process, by far.
Q: Did you think of Katya as an unreliable narrator? I found her relationship with her husband Charles fascinating, and found myself unwilling to trust mercurial Katya’s perceptions less as the book progressed. How did her personality and inability to trust affect your ability to tell her story?
KR: Oh sure, I think they’re all unreliable, but Katya has a singular talent for self-deception — which crumbles, of course, as the story moves on. I think it’s fun to write a character viewing events through a screen of their own issues, which actually, is what all of us do. But some screens are thicker and more opaque than others.
Q: Would you ever consider going back to these characters? If so, what story would you like to tell?
KR: I don’t have any plans to, but I’ll answer, “Never say never.” Ivan’s story probably has the most possibility at the end.
Q: What was the editorial process like for you? How long did it take? What sort of feedback did you have and how did you process it?
KR: I didn’t have heavy notes on this book from either my agent or my editor. It was polishing, smoothing, shoring up motivations and clarifying some things that might be unclear. It was a great process.
Q: What’s one thing you’ve learned about the publishing industry within the last year?
KR: Writing the second book is much harder than writing the first. Everyone says it’s true, and it is.
Q: What are three things you’ve done to publicize your novel that you’d do all over again?
KR: 1) Applied to The Debutante Ball (and by the way, debut authors in 2010, we’re looking for a new class… see www.thedebutanteball.com for details).
2) Made friends with my local bookstore long before I even had a book deal by showing up to signings and being a supportive customer (and I actually worked there the last two holiday seasons as a holiday temp). Not that they wouldn’t have been wonderful anyway, but it sure made the process smoother to already know people. (I love Schuler Books & Music.)
3) Use Facebook to keep everyone updated on my progress. Mostly my Facebook friends are people I went to college with, former co-workers, former schoolmates, other writers, but it’s such a handy tool for keeping everyone in the loop.
Q: Do you have any advice for aspiring novelists?
KR: Write as much, as often, as you can. Writing is “learn-by-doing” so you have to keep at it. Don’t be afraid to move on from a project that isn’t working. You can always come back to it later and the fresh start might finally be “the one”.
Q: What’s next for you?
KR: I just turned in my second book, titled THE LIFE YOU’VE IMAGINED, but I’m not saying much yet because I’m still in the editing process.
Thanks so much, Kristina, for a great interview! Readers, you can buy Real Life & Liar’s online and through brick-and-mortar retailers nationwide. I highly recommend it.