Wednesday, July 25, 2007

[Interview] Sandi Kahn Shelton

Sandi Kahn SheltonSandi Kahn Shelton is a journalist and the author. Her books include the novels, A Piece of Normal and What Comes After Crazy as well as the non-fiction humorous books about parenting, You Might As Well Laugh: Because Crying Will Only Smear Your Mascara; Sleeping through the Night and Other Lies and Preschool Confidential.

In addition to these books, Shelton has written an award-winning humor column for the New Haven Register newspaper in Connecticut, and for ten years was the “Wit’s End” columnist for Working Mother magazine. Her work has also appeared in magazines, that include Redbook, Ladies Home Journal, Salon, and Reader's Digest.

She is currently working on a third novel.

In a recent interview, Sandi Kahn Shelton spoke about her writing.

How would you describe the genre in which you do most of your writing?

Women’s fiction, I guess, is the closest way to describe it.

My stories tend to be about relationships and the perils and power of domestic life.

Who is your target audience?

I’m always pleased when men tell me that they read my novels and like them, but I suppose I’m really writing material that traditionally interests women.

What motivated you to start writing in this genre?

I’m not sure I remember choosing a genre, as much as having the stories and characters choose me. For me, the way it happens is that a character starts telling me a story and then very slowly, I catch on to what’s going on and end up writing it down. But I think I tend to get stories about families because I think that that’s where there’s a lot of power and drama.

It’s our family members who often cause us the most angst, as well as teach us everything we need to know about love and forgiveness.

In the writing that you are doing, who would you say has influenced you the most?

There are lots of writers who influence me. My characters tend to see life in a kind of humorous way, and in that I’ve been influenced by old-fashioned writers like Shirley Jackson, Elinor Lipman, Jean Kerr, and a whole motley crew of women who write about families and angst and love. I adore Anne Tyler and Alice Munro, Elizabeth Berg, Anne Lamott, and so many others who have taught me how to tell stories and how to show characters developing and growing.

What are your main concerns as a writer?

Each novel seems to have its own set of concerns, I find. Just when you get one solved, a new novel shows up and it has a whole new bunch of problems you have to solve.

I guess overall, I’d have to say my main concern is showing characters who are true to life, and to me that means living both in humor and poignancy. I think that real life is both funny and sad, and I want to write characters that live in that fullness.

How have your personal experiences influenced the direction of your writing?

I’m from the South, and in my family, telling stories was almost the main thing we did. I remember sitting out on the porch at the old lake house and just listening to my aunts and uncles and grandparents making each other laugh so hard we all practically needed oxygen. If you couldn’t tell a story -- well, then, you got put in charge of making drinks and had to go sit on the sidelines where people felt sorry for you. So I learned early on that to tell a story and make people laugh was pretty important. Yet at the same time, I knew that my family was damaged and broken in the ways that so many families are: there were untimely deaths, alcoholism, divorces, betrayals -- and so what I also learned out there on that porch was that stories and laughter can transcend those ordinary dangers of being human and help us survive.

What are the biggest challenges that you face?

Oh, I think I struggle with all the possible demons: impatience and frustration, with procrastination and fear of not being able to say everything I want to say. I am lazy and ungrateful a lot of the time. Like most writers I know, I forget to trust the material and the characters, to let things unfold in their own time.

When I’m working on a book, it never fails but that I get my best stuff when I’m either sleeping or driving or in the shower, never when I’m sitting poised at the keyboard waiting for words… and I often find myself lying awake on a winter night at 3:14 a.m., thinking, “Do I have to get out of bed and write this down? Can’t I at least try to just remember it in the morning?”

How do you deal with these challenges?

Yikes, sometimes not very well at all, I’m afraid.

Over time, I’ve had to learn to just turn off the part of my brain that wants to jump in and judge and edit, and just remind myself how much fun it is just to be able to have a life that includes creating these characters and stories on the page.

I have a little mantra that I tell myself: “The work is what heals,” and so when my little hamster mind is freaking out about deadlines or publicity or not-enough-time, if I can just get myself to ease back into the story, I always feel restored. Some days go better than others, of course. And the answer to do-I-have-to-get-out-of-bed is, "Yes, you do."

How many books have you written so far?

I’ll list them in reverse order, if you don’t mind.

A Piece of Normal, Shaye Areheart (division of Random House), hardcover 2006; paperback 2007. This is the funny, poignant story of two estranged sisters -- one a very together, hip advice columnist and the other a runaway punk rocker -- who have to figure out what it means to forgive their quirky pasts and embrace the craziness and chaos that can lead them to both to love and grace and healing. (This makes it sound like it’s full of harps and angels -- actually, they spend much of the book fighting and making up, and one of them betrays the other one so hard that it still makes my head reel when I think of it.)

What Comes After Crazy, Shaye Areheart, hardcover 2005, paperback 2006. This is the story of Maz Lombard, who was raised by a larger-than-life, multiply-married fortune teller -- and who has grown up with no skills for managing ordinary life or even knowing for sure what normal life is. When her husband takes up with the kids’ daycare teacher and walks out, leaving her alone with two daughters, Maz has to learn how to trust herself and find out for herself which risks are worth taking.

And now for nonfiction:

Preschool Confidential, St. Martin’s Press, 2001. This is a humor book about raising toddlers and keeping your sanity. (Out of print.)

Sleeping Through the Night…and Other Lies, St. Martin’s Press, hardcover 1999, paperback 2000. Another humor book about parenting, this time about raising babies. It boasts of being the only book about parenting that offers no viable advice that has ever helped anybody, unless you count the sentence that says, “Try to muddle through as best as you can.” (Hardcover is out of print.)

You Might As Well Laugh...Because Crying Will Only Smear Your Mascara, St. Martin’s Press paperback, 1999. (This book was originally published by Bancroft Press under the title, You Might As Well Laugh: Surviving the Joys of Parenthood, in 1997.) It’s a collection of humor columns I wrote for the newspaper where I work in my day job, the New Haven Register, many of which appeared in Working Mother magazine.

Do you write everyday?

I do write every day. I’m actually on deadline now for my third novel, which is due in a few minutes. So I am currently spending every available second (and some that really should be spent cooking, bathing and sleeping) writing and writing and writing, wrapping up the tail ends of the plot, and yes, pulling my hair out.

I think I spend about 25 hours a day on my novel, but a lot of that time is technically spent checking my email, googling members of my kindergarten class to see if any of them became axe murderers, and re-reading my horoscope to see if I will, in fact, ever finish this novel.

What is your latest book about?

The latest published book, A Piece of Normal, is about these sisters who have to learn to trust each other again, after being apart for 10 years in which they hated each other. One of them is stable and still lives in the childhood beach house where the two of them were raised; she’s so “together” and conscientious that, although she’s divorced, she won’t let herself find a new lover until she finds somebody to fix up with her ex-husband. When her hell-raising little sister comes back home after years on the road with a punk rock band, both their worlds are thrown into turmoil as they discover some long-held family secrets and have to cope with a betrayal that threatens to drive them apart forever.

I had ten months to write this book -- after taking seventeen years to write the first novel. I was stunned when I got my contract and discovered that it had a clause in there, saying I would deliver another novel so soon. I mean, I was grateful that such faith had been placed in me, but I did call up my agent and say, “Did I ever say or do anything that indicated I could write a novel in ten months’ time? Because I know that I cannot!” In fact, though, what I discovered was that I could write a novel when I knew that that was my main priority. After all, I could only work on my first novel when none of my three children needed me, when there wasn’t a carpool anywhere in America that needed a driver, or a kid that wanted consultation on a diorama.

It was actually wonderful to be told that, “We’re expecting a novel from you soon, so go in there and write it!” Certain things fell automatically into place for me. Let’s just say I got me some priorities straight.

Which aspects of the work that you put into the book did you find most

I was working on the book so intently that I had to say no to lots of other extraneous things that I also enjoyed doing: going for walks with friends, talking on the phone, mindless reading of the entire Internet. My life seemed to revolve around the book for several months, and I had to learn a new way of being disciplined.

Which did you enjoy most?

It’s funny, but the thing that was the most difficult was also the thing I enjoyed the most. Cutting back on things that didn’t matter so much gave me a clarity of purpose, and kept my mind right inside the limits of the book I was creating. Because I was working on it so constantly, I didn’t have to constantly re-read it in order to find my place. As all writers know, one of the dangers of working on a long project is that you re-read it so many times that you grow quite sick of your own prose, and get discouraged with how flat it starts to sound, and that index finger starts itching for the “Delete” key. The less time you spend re-reading obsessively, the better off you are.

What sets A Piece of Normal apart from the other things you have written?

This book has characters who are almost opposite in temperament. One sister thinks she has her life all together, while the younger one is flaky and spontaneous and takes breathtaking risks.

I had never attempted before to write about two people with such different personalities and yet understand and appreciate the strengths of each of them without judging them, or asking the reader to judge them. Although, as the “together” sister in my own family, my sympathies naturally resided with the stable one, I discovered as I was writing that I actually adored the flaky one more, and I came to see how such a personality is formed.

In what way is A Piece of Normal similar to the other books you have written?

In both of my novels, there’s a character who ultimately has to decide how she is going to move forward in her life.

I once read the statement, “Forgiveness is giving up the hope of having had a different past.” And that is the state of mind that both of my main characters have had to come to. Can they give up that hope and learn to accept and even appreciate what the past has given them, or will they just keep trying to slam the door on it and walk away?

What will your next book be about?

I’m so excited about the book I’m writing right now, because for the first time, it’s a love story. Although the characters in my other novels do try to find love, mostly they’re looking for healing. In this new book (which I am tentatively calling Kissing Games of the World), two people who never would have met in a million years are thrown together because of weird circumstances, and although they are filled with fear and prejudice and damaged hearts, they take the leap of falling in love.

What would you say has been your most significant achievement as a writer

Keeping at it day after day. Learning that I don’t have to be afraid of just letting myself go, that the words and ideas will come, that I can trust myself to tell the story if I take enough deep breaths and keep myself hydrated with enough iced tea.

How did you get there?

Three ways -- okay, four: Through luck and hard work; through encouragement from other people when I needed it most; through fear of having to actually put on panty hose every day and go off and find a paying job behind a desk;[and through being given deadlines and being too scared of my agent and editor not to meet them.

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