With over 4.5 million copies of her books in print, Jennifer Weiner’s career is at an all-time high. Her new novel All Fall Down will almost certainly be on bestsellers lists this summer. The story follows Allison Weiss, a hardworking wife and mom who seems to have it all. In reality, she is crumbling under the pressure of her stressful life and has become addicted to prescription painkillers. With her trademark wit and relatable style, Weiner takes the reader through Allison’s downward spiral into addiction and then in her journey to recovery.
Weiner recently answered some questions for our Between the Covers readers. Read on to learn more about what inspired her new novel and where she writes. (Hint: It’s Carrie Bradshaw-inspired!) She also shares her picks for your summer reading list.
What inspired you to write this story?
When I turned 40 – lo these many years ago – I started thinking a lot about happiness. I think it’s in everyone’s nature – certainly it’s in mine – to set goals, and to think, When this happens, I’ll feel happy, or, as soon as I’ve achieved this, I’ll never be sad again. Writers, in particular, fall prey to this kind of thinking: When I get a book published, I’ll be happy and I won’t care if it gets a million bad reviews, or, if my book’s a best-seller, I’ll never let anything bother me again.
Of course, life doesn’t work out that way. No matter what you achieve, there’s always someone who’s done more, or done it faster, and no achievement guarantees perfect peace of mind. So the question becomes: What does happiness look like? How can people find it? What if it’s not what we’ve always believed?
I wanted to write about a character who’d hit all the mile markers, whose life looked like it should have been perfect, and to have that life not feel perfect to her. Allison’s got the handsome husband, the beautiful child, the big house, an interesting job that she likes…but none of it has silenced that voice inside of her, a voice I think so many women have, asking, Is that all? Is this it? And if it is, why do I feel so empty?
All Fall Down really highlights the fact that addiction impacts people of all ages and walks of life. Will you tell us a little bit about the research that you did while writing this book?
I spent time at several different facilities, I read a lot of books and blogs, I talked to lots of people…and then I spent a lot of time inside my own head, thinking about Allison. One of the things I heard from a counselor that really stayed with me was that addicts don’t have a problem with substances; they have a problem with feelings. They never learned how to handle sadness, or anger, or frustration, or disappointment, and the drugs or the alcohol are a symptom, not the disease itself.
Allison is a very relatable character. She’s a busy wife and mother who is struggling to keep the pieces of her life together. Do you see any of yourself in her?
Of course there’s some of me in all of my characters, even though my specifics aren’t exactly like Allison’s. I wanted to make her like me, but I wanted to make her like any mom you’d meet at Little Gym, or in the preschool parking lot. She’s funny, she’s stressed, she’s interesting, she’s overextended…she’s all of us.
Will you share a little bit about your writing process? Where do you write? Do you write every day?
I’m lucky not to be one of those writers who hate writing – I actually really enjoy it, and have ever since I learned how! I write pretty much every day, although sometimes I’ll skip the weekends if I’m busy with my kids. I do most of my writing in my closet, which sounds pathetic until I explain that I basically have Carrie Bradshaw’s Sex and the City closet. Alas, I do not have Carrie’s wardrobe. Possibly because I do not have Carrie’s figure, and a lot of those designers of dresses she wore around Manhattan do not serve my kind.
So I have this gigantic closet which has turned into an office-library-storage space, with my daughters’ artwork hanging on the walls, and my big girl’s old clothes in boxes waiting for my little one to grow into them, and there’s a desk with a big light-up mirror. If Carrie lived in my house the vanity would be her makeup station, but that’s where I do my work.
Throughout your career, you have maintained a strong online presence on your blog and social media, and that has really allowed you to connect with your readers. How has that impacted your writing?
Again, I’m a lucky writer because I enjoy being online. I don’t regard it as a penance or a punishment. I like being quick and quippy on Twitter [follow her @jenniferweiner], I love interacting with readers on social media, and I love using it to get instant feedback – about a character’s name, about a book cover, about what my kids are up to. My suspicion is that readers like feeling that there’s a connection with an author they like.
What is the best book you’ve read recently? Are there any authors on your personal must-read list?
I loved Roxane Gay’s An Untamed State. It’s about a kidnapping in Haiti, and it’s a very unsettling book, but oh, so good. And I’m counting the days until Lev Grossman’s The Magician’s Land, the third book in his trilogy about young adult hipster magicians that attend a college for magic (his work has been described as Harry Potter for grownups, but I think it has more in common with the Narnia books). Baltimore’s own Anne Tyler and Laura Lippman are both automatic purchases for me – I love both of their styles!
Weiner's fans will also be pleased to know that she’s visiting Baltimore soon. She will discuss All Fall Down at Enoch Pratt Free Library’s Central Library on June 18.
Spanning the 20th century, Susan Jane Gilman’s The Ice Cream Queen of Orchard Street is a rags-to-riches story about Lillian Dunkle, an indomitable Russian Jewish immigrant who builds an empire and becomes America's “Ice Cream Queen.” The story is narrated by Lillian, whose sharp wit and acerbic sense of humor are a stark contrast to her public image as kindly grandmother. Her personality is the heart of this character-driven story about the pursuit of the American dream.
Gilman recently answered some questions about her novel for Between the Covers readers. Grab a double scoop of your favorite ice cream, and read on to get to know Gilman and what inspired this fascinating new novel.
The ice cream business is an unusual starting point for a novel. What was it about that industry that caught your attention?
First of all, I love ice cream. And if you’re going to write a book, it better be about a topic that can sustain your passion and interest for years.
I initially got the idea for The Ice Cream Queen of Orchard Street when a friend and I were reminiscing about a local ice cream chain called Carvel. The owner, Tom Carvel, did his own tv commercials, in which he would rasp, “Please, buy my Carvel ice cream?” They were so hokey and homespun, they were sort of fabulous.
Googling “Tom Carvel” on a whim, I learned that he was a Greek immigrant, Tom Carvelas, who arrived in America penniless, only to build an enormous empire of ice cream franchises. Then I discovered that the Mattuses, the founders of Haagen-Daz, were two first-generation Jews who came from the tenements in the Bronx. These ice cream makers’ stories were classic American-immigrant-rags-to-riches sagas. This struck me as a wonderful basis for a novel.
You did an enormous amount of research while working on this novel. Did it included any taste-testing? (We hope so!) What is your favorite ice cream flavor?
By all means, I did taste-testing! As the founder of the Susan Jane Gilman Institute of Advanced Gelato Studies, why, it was imperative! I even contacted my inspiration – the Carvel Ice Cream Company itself – and arranged to work at a Carvel ice cream franchise out in Massapequa, Long Island. For two days, the owner let me go behind the scenes, learn the ropes and work as an ice cream maker serving customers. I loved every minute of it – except the owner was no dummy. He wouldn’t let me near that soft ice cream machine unsupervised. He must have known that, given the chance, I’d place my head directly beneath the server and just let the ice cream pour directly into my mouth.
There is also the Carpigiani Gelato University located just outside of Italy. I live about five hours away, in Geneva, Switzerland, so of course I had to go there as well, tour its Gelato Museum and take a Gelato Masterclass. I learned the science and mathematics behind gelato-making, made my own batch of gelato, and then of course, tasted my own concoction. I was in such heaven, I thought the top of my head would explode.
As for my favorite flavor, if there’s no decent mint-chip to be had, I am always happy with chocolate.
Lillian is a force to be reckoned with in the novel, and she has a very distinct voice from the first page. Did you have any real life inspiration for this formidable character?
I have to say, Lillian’s voice came to me in the proverbial flash. As I sat down to write the beginning, I heard her speaking, and that was it – I just had her. There are parts of her way of speaking that are reminiscent of my paternal grandmother — particularly her word choices — but the voice was unique to me. I felt as if I channeled it. In terms of her overall character, there’s a dash of Scarlett O’Hara and Leona Helmsley, I suppose, but really, I saw her as far more than simply mean and imperious, or a caricature talking ethnic schtick, or a punchline. I wanted her to be phenomenally complex and contradictory and compelling — the way all of us really are.
This is your first novel. What made you want to take on this new challenge? How did the process differ from writing nonfiction?
Ever since I was 8 years old, when I fell in love with reading and started to write my own short stories in little notebooks, I dreamed of writing a novel. I always assumed that one day, I’d become the author of some sort of wonderful, fictional opus. Yet as I grew up, I kept getting sidetracked. Although I got an MFA in Creative Writing and published short stories and even won literary prizes, things in our culture kept pissing me off so much that I felt compelled to respond with books. Kiss My Tiara was in reaction to a dating guide that urged women to trick men into marrying them. Hypocrite in a Pouffy White Dress was conceived as a smart, funny counter-point to women’s memoirs that focused on either miserable childhoods, or being single and going shopping. Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven, the true story of a disastrous trip to China, was an antidote to several popular books in which women got over divorces by going to ashrams or renovating villas in Tuscany. I suppose I had to get three nonfiction books off my chest before I could finally get around to writing that novel.
I never expected to be a nonfiction author at all. It was an accident! The Ice Cream Queen of Orchard Street may seem like a new direction, but it doesn’t feel like one to me at all. Finally, I’ve returned to my first love, to what I intended to do all along.
What is the best book you have read recently?
Let me give you three completely different ones: I loved Adam Johnson’s novel The Orphan Master’s Son; it was epic, disturbing, rich and unlike anything I’ve ever read, particularly given its setting. On a recent vacation, I read Maria Semple’s Where’d You Go, Bernadette; the first half made me laugh out loud from its smart, wicked wit. I was also profoundly moved by The Bosnia List, a new memoir co-written by Kenan Trebincevic and my friend Susan Shapiro. The story blew me away, and really enhanced my understanding of the Balkan conflict in an intimate way. I want everything when I read: humor, pain, transcendence, pleasure, education, enlightenment. Always, I want them to be intelligent. But I can never pick one favorite.
Enter the world of professional ballet in Maggie Shipstead’s Astonish Me. In 1975, a young dancer named Joan is completely taken with the celebrated Russian dancer Arslan Rusakov, so much so that when Arslan contacts Joan to help him defect from his native country, Joan is happy to oblige. Although Joan longs to eventually dance with Arslan, she quickly realizes she is not in his league and will spend her career regulated to the corps de ballet in an American company. Joan finally decides to leave the company to settle down with Jacob, a scholarly boy who has adored her since high school and together they raise their son Harry. Joan eventually teaches dance in California, and soon garners the attention of a young dancer named Chloe, who will become her protégé. Harry also acquires an interest in dance, and Joan and Jacob realize that they have turned Harry into the next great dancer. This will have lasting effects on the future of their family.
Shipstead is gifted at creating compelling characters who will suffer longing and loss throughout the course of the novel. The situations are realistic and detailed, and the reader will get to know the lives of Jacob, Joan and Harry intimately throughout the course of the novel. There is enough information about professional ballet to keep the reader interested, but it is not overwhelming, and a novice to the world of dance will still be entertained. Shipstead won the L.A. Times Book Prize for First Fiction and the Dylan Thomas Prize for her debut novel Seating Arrangements. The audio version of the title is read by actress Rebecca Lowman who gives life to the characters with a delightful reading. Astonish Me will appeal to Shipstead’s current fans as well as attract new readers who are looking for an interesting character-driven novel.
Kick off your summer reading with one of these hot new thrillers! Members of the International Thriller Writers have joined forces to create Faceoff, an exciting new anthology of short fiction with a fun twist. Your favorite characters’ worlds are colliding in this collection of 11 brand new stories written by 23 of the hottest writers in the genre today. These stories pair popular characters like Lee Child’s Jack Reacher with Joseph Finder’s Nick Heller, M.J. Rose’s Malachai Samuels with Lisa Gardner’s D.D. Warren and Jeffery Deaver’s Lincoln Rhyme with John Sandford’s Lucas Davenport. Baldacci says, “This is a once-in-a lifetime opportunity for readers. It’s only through ITW that we were able to bring these literary legends toe to toe.” Faceoff should be at the top of your must-read list this summer.
Chevy Stevens has won over many readers with her three previous thrillers, but with her new novel That Night, she is poised to be a breakout star. Toni spent 15 years in prison after being wrongly convicted of her younger sister Nicole’s murder. Now, she is on parole and back home on Vancouver Island. Toni is determined to rebuild her life, which includes avoiding contact with Ryan, who was convicted for the same crime and is determined to prove their innocence. Toni knows that in order to move forward, she must eventually uncover what happened on that long-ago summer night. Skillfully moving between past and present, Stevens reveals the shocking truth about Nicole’s death in this riveting novel.
Already a bestseller in France, Italy, Spain, Switzerland and the Netherlands, Joel Dicker’s The Truth about the Harry Quebert Affair will be published in the U.S. this summer. When he is faced with writer’s block while writing his second novel, Marcus Goldman visits his mentor Harry Quebert in Somerset, New Hampshire. During Marcus’s visit, the remains of Nola Kellergan, the 15-year-old with whom Harry had an affair before she disappeared in August 1975, are found on Harry’s property, and Harry is the chief suspect in her murder. Marcus decides to exonerate Harry and write a book about it. The pages fly by as the reader is drawn deeper and deeper into this book within a book. With a colorful cast of characters, Dicker’s convoluted whodunit deserves a place on your summer reading list.
Up-and-coming novelist Nickolas Butler brings us Shotgun Lovesongs, an all-American tale of male friendship in Little Wing, Wisconsin. Although Hank, Ronny, Lee and Kip grew up together in the small rural town, they have grown into their own complex lives in strikingly different ways.
Hank stayed in the town to have a family and run his father’s farm, where it’s getting harder and harder to make ends meet. Ronny became a battered rodeo star who lost his career to crippling alcoholism. Singer-songwriter Lee took his show on the road and is now a famous yet humble millionaire rock star. Lastly, there’s Kip, the Bluetooth-wearing stock-market trader, who has come home to revitalize the tallest structure in town, the beloved old feed mill. The four friends are drawn together again by Kip’s impending wedding.
Told in alternating perspectives, the novel achieves its tension and ultimate heart from the honest portrayal of conflict and comradery between these soul-searching men. Various masculine takes on marriage, love, loyalty and healing are all examined in this surprisingly rustic landscape. Readers who enjoy character-driven plots and fulfilling endings will find themselves satisfied with and surprised by this debut novel.
Also, keep an eye out for Nickolas Butler’s highly anticipated forthcoming short story collection, The Chainsaw Soiree.
Ephram Jennings has spent his life loving Ruby Bell. He’s loved her since the first time he saw her as a wild red haired child who was “the kind of pretty it hurt to look at.” After his beloved mother is committed to a mental institution and his heavy-handed father’s death, Ephram is raised solely by his devout sister, Celia, whom he calls “Mama.” Ruby grows up in the shadow of ancestors accused of witchcraft, with violence swirling around her until she finally packs up and leaves Liberty Township for New York City.
When Ruby returns, the town takes notice. Ruby’s red lipstick, fine clothes and perfume draw the attention of all the wrong kind. Over a decade later, the lipstick and heels gone, Ruby lives like a ghost, walking through the town in rags and caked in dirt. No one speaks to her, no one sees her. No one except Ephram. Under the filth, Ephram still sees Ruby for who she really is and longs for her fiercely. Having spent the whole of his life under the thumb of his Mama Celia and the discerning eye of the town and church, Ephram lacks the courage to speak his mind. He suffers from crippling headaches and finds himself vulnerable to the manipulation of others. The day comes when Ephram decides enough is enough and sets out to save Ruby Bell from the town and herself. He is unprepared for the reality of who Ruby has become and what she has succumbed to in her isolation.
In Ruby, a novel rife with heartache, tragedy, love and a touch of mystery, author Cynthia Bond weaves a story so thick and heavy it could pass for the southern grits served at the church picnics in Liberty Township. The story of Ephram and Ruby reverberates with the enduring power of love and explores the depths of the soul through Bond’s powerful words. Readers of Toni Morrison will appreciate the carefully crafted prose Bond presents.
Travel to the French department of Dordogne and meet the delightful Police Chief Bruno Courreges in the novel The Resistance Man by Martin Walker. Bruno spends his time in St. Denis pining over one lost love while trying to maintain the affections of a new girlfriend. He finds solace in food, wine and the adorations of a rambunctious puppy named Balzac, but his free time is often cut short by deadly events. Bruno is pulled into planning the funeral for a veteran of the French Resistance, one who has some curious currency that may have come from a wartime train robbery. There have also been a string of robberies across the French countryside, including the home of a former British spymaster, and residents are looking to Bruno to get results. An antique dealer is found battered to death and the contents of his van stolen, it appears to have some connection with the thefts. When the main suspect turns out to be the man’s former lover who is now on the run, Bruno has to put all of his skills to the test to track down the killer.
Martin Walker is the senior director for the Global Business Policy Council and the editor-in-chief emeritus of United Press International, and uses skills acquired from these positions to craft quite a story in the sixth installment of the Bruno Chief of Police series. Combining French politics, international affairs and gastronomical delights, Walker creates an intriguing world where events beginning in the French countryside often extend to the entire European continent. Readers wanting to start with the first novel of the series will want to read Bruno, Chief of Police first. Readers who enjoy the French setting should also try Claude Izner or Fred Vargas.
The book world is smitten with Gabrielle Zevin’s new novel, The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry. The story centers around Island Books, a small, independent bookstore on Alice Island. The store is run by its curmudgeonly owner A.J. Fikry, a lonely, middle-aged man who has not recovered from his wife’s tragic death. As the story opens, three events occur that irrevocably alter A.J.’s world. First, he meets Amelia Loman, a new marketing representative from Knightley Press. Next, his nest egg, a rare copy of Edgar Allan Poe’s Tamerlane, is stolen. Then, an abandoned toddler named Maya is found in the children’s section of his store. This quietly witty story is about love, redemption and, of course, books. Author Natasha Solomons calls it “[a] charming and funny love letter to the written word – it will leave you smiling and with a large lump in your throat.”
The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry gained the attention of librarians and booksellers even before its publication. Librarians across the country selected it as their top pick for the April LibraryReads list. The LibraryReads list features librarians’ top 10 new titles published each month, and it’s a great resource to find out about hot books before they are published.
Throughout the story, A.J. describes other characters by referring to the titles of the books that they read. What book best describes you? Let us know in the comments!
Steve Berry, bestselling and highly acclaimed author of historical thrillers, including the Cotton Malone series, has over 17,000,000 copies of his books in print internationally. Get to know Steve as he answers questions about his latest bestseller and future writing plans, and even shares the strangest way he’s encountered his readers!
The Lincoln Myth involves Abraham Lincoln, the U.S. Constitution, religious zealots and of course, Cotton Malone trying to save the country. Where do you get your ideas? Is it true that there is a little bit of you in Cotton?
The constitutional concept of secession has always fascinated me. It's one of those arguments that have no easy answer. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is likewise interesting. It is the quintessential American religion, and it played some key roles in our history. When I found out that Abraham Lincoln was the first president to ever read the Book of Mormon, and that he made a secret deal with Brigham Young, I knew there was a novel there. So I sent Cotton Malone to get to the bottom of things. And he is basically me. When I created him for The Templar Legacy, I used my personality, so we share a lot of traits, like the love of rare books. He doesn’t like enclosed spaces, I don’t either. He doesn’t like the taste of alcohol. He has finicky eating habits. That's me. I, of course, don’t jump out of planes and shoot guns at bad guys, but I live that through him.
You’ve said in the past that the most wonderful fiction always has a ring of truth to it. What’s the ring of truth in The Lincoln Myth?
The concept of a union of 50 states that is indivisible and forever is not necessarily accurate. Lincoln did not fight the Civil War to save the Union, he fought that war to create the Union. I doubt many of us realize that. I didn't, until I did the research for this novel.
History is so important to you that you and your wife created History Matters to assist communities around the world with historic restoration and preservation. In fact, you’ll be in Baltimore at the B & O Museum for a reception and book signing on May 21 for the Edgar Allan Poe House. Why does history matter?
History is who we are and where we came from. To forget that or, even worse, to just allow it to rot away, robs the future of that past. It's our duty to preserve what came before for the next generation.
With so many copies of your books all over the world, you must encounter people reading your novels all the time. What is the weirdest place you’ve ever seen a Steve Berry book being read? How about the most exotic?
Fiji is probably the most exotic. The oddest happened in an airport. The man sitting beside me started reading the latest hardback, then a woman sitting across from me did the same thing. On the back cover of each book was a full color photo of me, yet neither made the connection. That's the cool thing about being a writer. You don't lose your anonymity, which is wonderful.
Your favorite holiday decoration is your Star Trek themed tree complete with Santa in a transporter. Have you ever considered writing science fiction or fantasy?
I'd love to write a sci-fi novel one day. I even have one churning in my mind, and I just might do it. I've always been a fan of that genre.
How big of a thrill was it to be asked to write the forewords for the upcoming re-releases of James Michener’s novels?
That was truly an honor. He is, hands-down, my favorite writer of all time. I have a complete collection of his novels that I've amassed for over 40 years. To see my name on the same cover with his will be amazing. I hope a new generation of readers will rediscover Michener. He was genius. I write today because of him.
Do you have any sneak peeks for our readers as to what’s in store for Cotton Malone’s 15th adventure? Can you share any news in the development of the series for the small screen?
Cotton will return in 2015. This one deals with another fascinating quirk from the Constitution. It's called The Patriot Threat, and it will be on sale in March. Alcon Entertainment is still developing a possible television series for Cotton. Hopefully, it'll make it to the screen one day. If anyone would like to know more about that, or me, or the books, check out www.steveberry.org.
Who’s the fairest of them all? Is it Snow, with her fair skin and hazel eyes? Maybe it is Bird, with her cap of dark curls and golden skin. Nigerian-born Helen Oyeyemi’s latest novel, Boy, Snow, Bird, takes classic fairy tale themes of beauty, stepmothers and sibling rivalry and reworks them around a 1950s New England town and a family’s secrets.
Eighteen-year-old Boy Novak lives in New York City with her sadistic father who works as a rat catcher, using blinded rats as bait. To escape her father’s abuse, she buys a train ticket for the far-away stop of Flax Hill, Massachusetts. The fine-boned, flaxen-haired Boy meets and marries Arturo Whitman, local professor-turned-jeweler, widower, and father of Snow. Boy slides right into her role of benevolent stepmother and daughter-in-law until she and Arturo have their own baby, Bird, who is “born with a suntan.” Unbeknownst to Boy, her new husband and his family are African-American passing for white. Bird’s arrival pulls back the curtain on their carefully constructed public lives.
What is fair, either in beauty or in deeds? Arturo’s mother wants to send the darker-skinned Bird away to live with relatives; Boy views stepdaughter Snow as the interloper who needs to go. Oyeyemi uses a conversational writing style and alternates characters’ narration, including letters sent between the sisters, to explore issues of identity relative to race and gender. Boy, Snow, Bird warns us of the danger in allowing our reflection, whether in the mirror or eyes of the beholder, dictate who we are.