received her master's degree from the University of Kansas, and was awarded the George Bennett Fellowship for Creative Writing at Phillips Exeter Academy. Her first novel was The Center of Everything
. She lives in Lawrence, Kansas.
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Describe your latest project.
My new book is called The Rest of Her Life. On the first page, the narrator comes home to learn that her daughter, a high-achieving and idealistic senior in high school, has just accidentally run over and killed a pedestrian. On one level, it's a story about how a normally decent and conscientious person might deal with the guilt of a terrible accident like that. But the story is also about the relationship between the driver and her mother, and how the accident changes both of them.
What has been your most embarrassing moment?
Oh, how can I choose? I suppose the most relevant anecdote would be the time I went to a party and met Dan Brown. I had just sold my first novel, and I was still very stunned and happy about it. I also wasn't paying a lot of attention to the news. Anyway, I went to this party after The Da Vinci Code had come out, and someone introduced me to him. I had heard of him but not the book, and when I talked with him, I adopted a tone that might best be described as polite and encouraging. I can't remember exactly what I said, but it was along the lines of "Good luck! It can happen for you too!" He was very nice about it, very humble. I would never have guessed from his demeanor that anything was amiss, though I do remember other people looking at me with perplexed expressions. Looking back, I think he maybe seemed a little amused.
How did the last good book you read end up in your hands and why did you read it?
I had to go to New York last month, and just before my ride to the airport arrived, I literally ran to my local bookstore to grab something to read on the plane. I picked up The World Below by Sue Miller because I like everything else I've read by her. I'm so glad I did. The plane arrived in New York on time, but they wouldn't let us land. They diverted us to Albany and some other town no one had ever heard of. We spent seven hours on various tarmacs and we didn't get off the plane until after two in the morning. People were freaking out. I was sympathetic, especially with people traveling with children, but that Sue Miller book turned out to be completely engrossing. I was fine. The last four hours, when people were really losing it, time just flew for me. I think I maybe looked up twice. I let everyone get off ahead of me so I could finish the last page.
Describe the best breakfast of your life.
This is going to sound really strange, but I had the best breakfast of my life the morning of my friend Shannon's funeral. We'd worked at a summer boarding school program in New Hampshire together ? just five weeks, but we worked together every day, and we really clicked. She was just one of those magical people I loved right away. A lot of our good times were spent eating ? mostly junk food, after all our charges had gone to bed; she was a champion snacker. We once drove to another city for a certain kind of salsa. I knew she had cystic fibrosis, but she seemed so healthy and full of life. It really didn't occur to me that she would die, or maybe I just didn't let it occur to me. I don't know. But she knew.
A couple of years after the summer we worked together, I called her and told her I was pregnant, and she cried. She was so happy for me. Three months later, I wrote her and asked her to come out to Kansas to visit. Her mother wrote me back to tell me she had died. Shannon had always spoken so lovingly of her parents, and I really wanted to meet them, so I flew back to New England for her service. The night before the funeral, I stayed at a hotel in Boston near the airport. I was nervous about going to the funeral, and also about staying the rest of the weekend with her devastated parents, who I had never met. I was also very pregnant. That combination made me want to eat.
The hotel had some kind of breakfast buffet ? oatmeal and waffles and twelve different kinds of syrup, that kind of thing. I remember I sat at a table by myself, looking out over Boston for about two hours and eating slowly, with no newspaper, nothing to distract me from my thoughts. I was thinking about Shannon and thinking about becoming a mother. And food never tasted so good. I was just very aware of life, and grief, and all the inherent risks of becoming a parent. I was also wishing ? that word doesn't seem strong enough ? that my beautiful friend could have been there enjoying it all with me.
Share an interesting experience you've had with one of your readers.
I'm going to sort of change the question and talk about my experience with my readers in general. Basically, hearing their reactions is always interesting to me. I know I'm fortunate to be able to stay home and write all day, but I sometimes miss the connections I felt I was making with other people when I was a social worker and also a teacher. There are a lot of weeks in winter when I buckle down and write, and it will sometimes occur to me that I haven't talked to another adult in several days, which I don't like.
But what I've learned is that during those writing days when I think I'm not talking with anyone, I'm actually talking with a lot of readers. I just have to get used to the very delayed responses, which can take the form of published reviews or letters from readers or people asking me questions at a reading. When a reader says to me, "This is how I felt when I read this" or "This is what your book made me think of in my own life," I do feel connected, and the resulting conversations are often so enlightening or interesting that they feel worth the wait. I finally got my act together and created a website, and I love that readers can contact me by email. Writing can be a very isolating, even lonely, career choice, so when a reader contacts me, I have a better understanding of what I'm doing.
Name the best television series of all time, and explain why it's the best.
I'm going to go out on a limb here and say Sorority Life. It was a reality show on MTV. I think they ran it for just one season back in 2003. Almost every girl on the show was a sheep or a wolf, a follower or a bully ? it was very disturbing, but I couldn't look away. There was only one girl who regularly showed integrity and strength, and they all ganged up on her and tried to make her feel crazy. It was like Gaslight, or Lord of the Flies. I watched one episode, and I was hooked. So was my sister. We would call each other when it was on and try to predict how long the one sane girl could hold out without losing her mind. We were really rooting for her.
This is why I can't have television in my house.
Aside from other writers, name some artists from whom you draw inspiration and talk a little about their work.
When I was writing The Rest of Her Life, I was listening to the new Dixie Chicks album a lot; the third track, "Everybody Knows" makes me think of that book's narrator, Leigh. "Whole New You" by Shawn Colvin makes me think of Evelyn, the narrator from my first book. I guess all my narrators have their own theme songs. I would trade my fiction writing skills in a flash if I could be a songwriter. Talented songwriters really amaze me with the way they can create haunting images, and even characters, in such a short time. Patty Griffin has beautiful lyrics. I love Liz Phair's deadpan humor and also her vulnerability. Tom Waits is, of course, an amazing story teller ? I tend to like his ballads. Leonard Cohen. Suzanne Vega. These people repeatedly come up with phrases and stories and character sketches that resonate in my head for a long time.
Do you read blogs? What are some of your favorites?
I don't know if it counts as a blog, but I love to read Cary Tennis's advice column, "Since You Asked," on Salon.com. I don't always agree with the advice he gives, but I do feel he does his best to give intelligent and heartfelt responses. And he's so empathetic. Most advice columns are just terrible. The ones in the newspaper usually give these pat answers to really complex questions, and they just don't seem helpful at all. Reading them, I often shake my head and think, "No! Don't do what she says! That will just make your problem worse!" It's like they're screwing with people. Or they suggest counseling. If someone could afford a therapist, they probably wouldn't be writing for advice. But I feel as if I learn a little more about human nature and compassion when I read Cary Tennis. He's a little more open-minded than the average advice columnist, too.
Recommend five or more books on a single subject of personal interest or expertise.
I really like to listen to audio books. I know some purists ? I could think of other terms for them ? who believe that actual reading is the only true way to take in literature, but that's just ridiculous. People were listening to stories long before they were reading them. And would you really argue that a blind person just couldn't get as much from a story as a person with sight? I don't listen to books when I drive, probably because I don't drive that much, but I listen to them when I go on long walks. I also keep a walkman on my nightstand with some audio book inside. I can have terrible insomnia, but having someone read me a story usually knocks me right out. Even if I'm wide awake and jittery, I rarely make it through an entire tape. And on the rare occasion I'm still awake, well then, I've gotten some reading in. I am usually listening to one book and reading one book at any given moment. Some are better than others. A lot of it depends on the narrator ? they're often read by the author, but sometimes it's a really talented actor or professional reader. Here are five of my favorites:
The All-True Travels and Adventures of Lidie Newton: A Novel by Jane Smiley
Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood
The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver
American Pastoral by Philip Roth
The Language of Life (collected discussions with poets) by Bill Moyers