I recently had the opportunity to read Letters in Cardboard Boxes, by Abby Slovin. It was a touching, beautiful story, rich with human relationships and memories and urban charm and self-discovery. I may still write a more thorough review, but in the meantime, I had the unique opportunity to “interview” the author, and I can’t wait to share our exchange. So hear it goes:
(1) For me, your story was very character driven. Where did you get the inspiration for your characters? Who of your characters do you identify with most closely?
Thank you, I really try to create character-driven stories. The question of where I get inspiration is actually a difficult question to put to words, though. In most cases, I feel like my characters have created themselves, so the initial inspiration seems to come from within. After that, I add depth mainly through people- watching. I love sitting on a busy street and grabbing inspiration for my characters from all the energy around me.
I think I most closely identify with Tanya and Dotty. Dotty, in the sense that I feel protective over those I love and could relate to her desire to create a new world for her granddaughter as she struggled with the real world. I can relate to Tanya’s sense of self and her search for answers to difficult questions.
(2) A relatively minor character, but one of the most interesting for me, was Jimmy. What or who does he represent (please say an ex-boyfriend, and then fill in all the details)? He was attractive and wealthy, but sort of shallow and money-driven. Was he just a character, or were you saying something more general about men? businessmen? investment banker-types? Wall street?
For me, Jimmy is not so much a statement, as someone who just isn’t right for Parker. His characterization is slightly exaggerated (the shallowness, for example) so that the reader is constantly reminded of something Parker doesn’t see clearly (isn’t capable of seeing) until the end. No doubt, Jimmy could be right for someone, just not right for Parker.
Sadly, he is not an ex-boyfriend of mine, although wouldn’t it be so juicy and cathartic to get back at an ex that way? I’ll take suggestions if you want me to write one of yours into my next novel.
(2)(a) Describe “soul mate” (according to Parker or yourself, whichever you like). Describe your perfect date.
I think Parker and I would have similar definitions of ‘soul mate’, although the timeline of the novel takes us only to the point where Parker first realizes that such a concept exists. To me, a ‘soul mate’ is someone who challenges you to be a better person in ways that the rest of the world doesn’t. Someone who acknowledges that you can be a better person while still appreciating you for who you are in the moment, and supports you in that process. This kind of acceptance is very rare in the world, I think. Parker has Dotty, Jerry, and Tanya in her life and, I would argue, all of these characters could fit into that definition for her.
As for a perfect date, hmmm. Haven’t been on one in awhile, but my best date ever involved a relaxing drive, some good conversation, and ended with a huge messy burrito. Add a short trip to the ocean when its cold out, and I’d say you have the recipe for a perfect date.
(3) There were a lot of strong female characters in your book. Was that something you did intentionally, or did the story just play out that way?
I think it just evolved that way without any real intention behind it. The story seemed to lend itself to strong female characters. I do enjoy writing strong male characters as well, and these will definitely be more prominent in some of my future work.
(4) Have you written a lot of letters in your life? Did/do you have a steady pen pal? Family member you write to frequently?
I love writing letters, although I haven’t done it consistently in awhile. I used to write a lot from summer camp, and little notes to my grandparents with poems in them. To me, letters represent something significant that technology has replaced. A kind of communication that required more thought, even multiple drafts. I can remember going through drafts and drafts of some important letters when I was younger, waiting for that perfect way to communicate what I was trying to say. I’m thinking of starting it up again, but have you sent a letter recently? Stamps are expensive!
I prefer letters, but have admittedly succumbed to the convenience of email. I think people underestimate the value of waiting. Of anticipation. Its such a huge part about what makes correspondence so exciting, with one exception: email has revolutionized the concept of the job search, minimizing ‘the waiting’ in so many ways and, for that I’m grateful.
(6) Letters vs. Facebook?
Letters. I write things on Facebook I wouldn’t even put in a letter for fear of boring people to tears. And yet, I write it enthusiastically on Facebook. What’s wrong with me?
(7) I have actually done a few (gently) anti-Facebook/technology posts on my blog. What impact do you think social media and technology have had on human relationships?
I’m never opposed to gentle anti-Facebooking, and I have very mixed feelings on both sides about the impact of social media and technology. To me, it seems they’ve allowed people to overcome the barriers of geography to meet and connect with others (especially with tools like GoodReads, which has allowed me to put my novel out in a very nontraditional way). But social media also tends to diminish the value that people place on spontaneous situations. Younger people seem so much more rigid than our generation, so much less able to confront new, uncertain situations with amusement or interest. Social media is a very safe way for people to interact, very much inside the comfort zone. In a way, I’m concerned with how this generation will handle the unexpected things in life like a new job, going away to college, etc. when so many “new” situations have been confronted only in the privacy of their own homes or on mobile devices. I sound like such an old woman. Get off my lawn, kids!
(8) Are you a wine connoisseur/enthusiast like your two main characters? Expound, please.
The thing I love about the value of wine in their relationship is that it seems to mark specific moments in their life together. The wine corks act like “photographs” in way, marking time and place and I love the image of hundreds of corks sitting in a tin, full of memories.
But, I would consider myself much more a beer connoisseur. Could be just how I’m programmed, but I do love my beer.
(9) Are you Parker, on some level? Do you have a relationship like the one she shares with her grandmother?
This is one thing to which I can confidently say “no.” Parker and I are extremely different creatures. And she is entirely fictional, not even based on anyone else I know. Like her, I do share a closeness with my grandparents (or did, in some cases), but not in the same ways as she. She leans on Dotty with a sort of dependence, mainly as a result of her avoidance of many things in her life and her inability to deal with the guilt she feels for wrongs committed in the past. This is such a heavy foundation for a relationship, something I do not share with her but am very intrigued by.
(10) Do you prefer the mall or the mountains?
Without a doubt, the mountains. Malls scare me a little. But you could have said “mountains versus” just about anything and I would have said mountains. I love hiking.
(11) What are your three favorite books, right off the top of your head?
One Hundred Years of Solitude. White Oleander. All Over Creation. A Feast of Love. Ha! I gave you four…
(12) Tell me why you love New York.
I’m inspired and motivated by the dynamics of the city. New York holds so much energy in both significant and seemingly insignificant ways. The subway system, for example, moves millions of people seamlessly every day through a beautifully well-constructed pattern. Also, the history of the place is inspiring. You can grab a drink in the same tavern as Washington hundreds of years before. It holds so many contradictions in perfect harmony. And, of course, the New York Mets, bagels, and pizza the way it should be.
(13) We have discussed you being a Woody Allen fan. What is your favorite Woody Allen film, and why? Have you seen Midnight in Paris yet? What did you think?
My favorite is Annie Hall, with Love and Death as a strong runner-up. I also love the early comedies (Bananas, Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex, etc.), and his more sentimental work (Radio Days, for example).
Loved Midnight In Paris, if only for the tremendous undertaking of giving dialogue to such artistic icons — Hemingway, Dali, Stein, etc. I think just about any other writer would have made those voices sound caricature-ish, but Woody Allen wrote them in such a genuine, yet humorous way. I was very impressed with this movie. Probably my favorite of his since Melinda Melinda.
(14) Where do you get inspiration for your writing?
I’m inspired both by a lot of big picture moments and a lot of small, seemingly insignificant things. The dynamic of the city always amazes me and inspires me to write. I think readers will see a lot of that sort of inspiration in Letters. I’m inspired by the sheer number of unique individuals that exist in the world, and by small things, like a cup of coffee, the sound of laughter. And somewhere in between, I try to write something that resonates with people by incorporating some of these inspirations into my work.
(15) Where do you like to write (at a desk, on your laptop on the couch, coffee shop, office, library, outside)?
Oddly enough, most of my writing takes place through text messages that I send to myself while I’m going places. My life is a bit too chaotic for a lot of traditional writing techniques. Usually, I’ll be hit with a little inspiration while I’m out and send myself a message with it, then flesh it out when I get a chance to sit at the computer. Sometimes, I can do this right away. Other times, the texts pile up over a period of a few weeks, so it really depends on my schedule at the time.
(16) What is your favorite genre to read?
I love literary fiction. Something with an eye towards developing themes and interesting characters.
(17) Your book focuses on loss. Why did you feel you wanted to write about that? Was the experience of writing about that cathartic, or did you just feel the story needed to be told?
Yes, very cathartic. Even though the story itself is fictional, the motivation behind it was a practice in accepting loss in my own life. At the same time, I also do feel like the story needed to be told. Loss is a complicated beast, and people can feel loss even before someone has passed, as people age or experience a debilitating illness. I felt strongly about telling this story in the way it was told. This character approaches loss in an extremely non-heroic way and I think a lot of people have trouble accepting these flaws in her as she grieves. I think a story about loss needed to be told in a non-heroic way. In a human way and nothing more.
(18) Do you think stories are written from scratch or are they discovered from inside you?
That’s a tough question. In a way, it all has to come from inside at some point. I’m sure there are some people who can say “I want to write a mystery…” and then tackle it methodically from there. Outline characters, traits, plot summary, etc. But, I have no ability to write like that. All my writing starts, first, from somewhere inside and then evolves from there.
(19) If money was not an object, what would be your dream job?
Court Jester. Do they still have those? I love the outfits.
(20) If you could live anywhere in the world, where would it be, and why?
Its hard to choose one place! It might be more fun to spend a month or so in each of my top places and live like this for a few years. I’d start my list with Lisbon, Brussels, Buenos Aires, New Orleans, Paris, Barcelona, Venice, Tokyo, Oslo and St. Petersburg. To name a few…
(21) What is your favorite color?
Right now, blue. But it changes.
(21)(a) Favorite season and why?
Winter. Everything slows down and I love the crisp feeling in the air.
(22) Do you like driving like Parker did?
I think the way Parker feels about driving is the way I feel about trains. I don’t feel as much of a need to be in control as she does, and I love watching the world pass out the window.
(22)(a) How would you describe the relationship between Parker and Tanya? Big sister/little sister? Mentor/mentee? Mother/daughter? Friends? Something else?
This is a unique relationship, so its difficult to categorize. Without spoiling too much of the story for your readers, we do find out later in the story that Tanya’s real reason for maintaining this relationship has more depth than we knew in the beginning. I would classify it as a friendship, but even as I say it, I think there’s more to it than that. Maybe you’ve said it appropriately before with ‘soul mate.’
(23) Do you have a favorite author? Anyone you look up to?
I am deeply influenced by the work of Kurt Vonnegut and Woody Allen and inspired by the quirky relationships depicted in novels by Charles Baxter and Ruth Ozeki. I admire Emily Dickinson and her ability to transform her pain into a body of beautiful work.
(24) Can we look forward to more great literature from you?
Absolutely! Although, as you well know, the demands of a full time job often slow down progress. The Dunce Academy and I will be collaborating soon on one of my projects, Jack and the Brick Wall. And, I’ve been continuing work on a second novel, 10:15 on a Tuesday, which tells the story of an unlikely friendship between an upper-middle class widower and a psychic. Hopefully, I’ll wrap that one up this year or next.
Interested readers can join my mailing list for updates and news on my work. I’ve pasted the link below:
And anything else you can think of/would like to talk about…
I think one of the biggest perks of being an independent author is my ability to stay close to readers. If any of your readers have questions or feedback of any kind, they should feel very open to contacting me at email@example.com
As she mentioned, she is going to be collaborating with us, and it is an exciting project. Look forward to more great things from Abby!