Interview with Robin Wasserman, THE BOOK OF BLOOD AND SHADOW

On Tuesday, April 10th, Robin Wasserman's most excellent THE BOOK OF BLOOD AND SHADOW comes out. It's a riveting novel of centuries-old secrets, murder, friendship and danger that globe-hops from the ivy-covered halls of American academia to the streets of Paris and Prague. http://www.robinwasserman.com/bloodshadow.html

I had the good fortune to interview Robin this weekend, and by that I mean, I forced her to answer these questions by bribing her with baked goods. She likes baked goods. AND…one lucky winner, chosen at random, has won a free copy of THE BOOK OF BLOOD AND SHADOW. (No peeking!) So, without further ado–take it away, Robin!

LB: So, Robin, I was going to start by lobbing you a softball question like, “If you were stuck in a falling elevator with your two main crushes, Robert Downey, Jr. and Rahm Emmanuel, and you could only save one of them, which one would you save?” But no. I’ve decided to get RIGHT INTO IT with you. *Ahem* You have famously said that you do not like historical fiction (clutch the pearls!). And yet…AND YET…what have you done here but write, oh, I don’t know…a cleverly disguised bit of HISTORICAL FICTION. What up with that, my scornful one?

Look, historical fiction, it’s not you, it’s me.  I mean, you can be very nice and very pretty, and there are plenty of people out there who love those fancy dresses you where and can’t get enough of that adorably kooky way you talk. You deserve better than me. You deserve someone who can love you for you. (Or at least for your fancy dresses.)

And, for the record, Libba, I don’t hate all historical fiction—for example, your new book is pretty damn good (she says, trying not to sound like she’s sucking up). But it’s true that it’s about as far from my thing as we are from Tahiti. (Which reminds me: Can we discuss ways of getting ourselves a little closer to Tahiti?) Unfortunately, I happen to love history, and I’m always wishing that I could find a way to cram it into my novels…without actually having to set the novels in the past.  You probably don’t remember this, but you’re the one who gave me the idea for The Book of Blood and Shadow’s historical thread in the first place. It went pretty much like this:

Me: [whines about wanting to write fiction about history]
Libba: So why don’t you write historical fiction?
Me: [hisses] I HATE HISTORICAL FICTION.
Libba: You know I write historical fiction, right?
Me: Um…
Libba: Okay, how about writing a novel set in the present, but throw in a small parallel plotline set in the past.
Me: That sounds confusing.
Libba: Not if you tell us the past storyline through a series of letters. There’s lots of books that do that.
Me: You mean like Possession?
Libba: Yes, one of the all time greatest books ever. And it has all those beautiful letters from the past.
Me: Yeah…when I read it, I kind of skipped those letters.
Libba: What?
Me: I always skip the old-timey letters when I read books like that.
Libba: Get out of my house.
Me: But—
Libba: [shuts door]

It turns out I had to stop thinking about The Book of Blood and Shadow’s letters as historical fiction, and start thinking of the girl who wrote them, Elizabeth, as a character just as real and vivid and interesting as all the characters in the present day storyline.  Once I was able to do that, I found myself having an inexplicable amount of fun writing a sixteenth century love story.

(But if any of you are like me, and tend to skim over that kind of thing, don’t worry—I made extra sure the book would still make sense either way.)

LB: What made you wake up one morning and say, “You know what? I’m going to write THIS book now,” making all of the other potential book ideas go, “Awww,” and leave their headshots and resumes with the casting director? Did it come to you in a dream? Did your evil twin, Skippy, whom we never actually see, tell you to write it or bad things would happen? Tell us, Robin.

“Other potential book ideas”? Sorry, give me a second to stop laughing.

I am the WORST when it comes to coming up with ideas.  Other writers are always whining about how they have soooo many ideas, they don’t know how they’ll have time to write them all.  When they whine like that around me, I punch them in the nose. (Okay, I don’t actually do that, because I don’t believe in violence, blah blah blah, but I’ve certainly imagined it in gruesome detail.) For me, coming up with the right idea for a book is agony. It’s also agony for everyone around me. (cf the nose punching.) Basically I force myself to brainstorm a list of as many ideas as I can, no matter how dumb-sounding, and I also keep a running list of any random thing that pops into my head.

With this book, I thought a few years ago that it would be cool to write a book with a sort-of supernatural historical mystery at its center, so I remembered that and wrote that down on my list of maybe-stupid maybe-not ideas. I was actually on my way out to dinner at the time, and got so wrapped up in the potentials of the story that I had to buy a notebook on the way and start scribbling. That’s how I know which book I’m going to write next—it’s the idea (generally the only idea) that my brain goes running away with, and I have to scurry to catch up.

LB: Parts of the novel are set in Paris and Prague. I know you went to both places to conduct research. Can you tell us about that and about what was involved in your research in general?

This is going to be the longest interview ever, so I’m going to start giving shorter answers, beginning with this one.  Yes, this novel required a crapton of research, some of it (gloriously) in Paris and Prague.  Both of which were awesome trips, even if they did involve me wandering through the streets with my embarrassing journal in hand, just like I used to do when I was 22 and thought myself very profound.  I think there’s a good chance you don’t know how to post photos here*, so if anyone’s interested in seeing some of the pictures I took, you can find them http://<a href=”http://cloverhillbookreviews.blogspot.com/2012/01/blog-tour-robin-wasserman-author-of.html”>here</a> and <a href=”http://www.bookofbloodandshadow.com”> here.</a> <a href=”http://cloverhillbookreviews.blogspot.com/2012/01/blog-tour-robin-wasserman-author-of.html”>here</a&gt; and <a href=”http://www.bookofbloodandshadow.com”>here.</a&gt;

LB: There’s a great deal about religion and science in BOOK OF BLOOD AND SHADOW and about the battle between the two (and the occasional blurring of the two). What are your thoughts about that?

I say I think I should start giving shorter answers and you ask me about the relationship between religion and science? Are you kidding me? You do realize that I’m a former history of grad student and once wrote a twenty-page exam about the question of whether there was a war between religion and science?

Short answer: No. And I think it does modern society a disservice to act like religion and science are fundamentally at odds with each other, or have traditionally been so. (The Galileo story, as it’s popularly told, contributes a lot to this myth, which irritates me to no end, and I’ve got a good rant on the topic, but I’ll spare you.) 

One of the things I love most about the Renaissance period and the scientific revolution is the way that science and religion are inextricably intertwined. They were two sides of the same coin: A quest for knowledge about the universe.  The scientists we all know from this period—Copernicus, Kepler, Newton, Galileo—were all deeply religious men who believed the universe was wholly divine and that their investigations were serving God. Yes, in those days there were a lot of scuffles between “radical” scientists and the Church, but that’s not because the Church was anti-science. The Church loved science. It just loved Aristotelian science, and the radicals were throwing Aristotle out with the trash. 

Not to get all sincere on you, but I believe you can’t fully understand civilization without understanding science, and you can’t understand science without knowing where it came from, which, at the beginning, was religion.  Magic, science, religion—in those days, it was all a little bit the same thing, and I love it.

LB: In addition to international conspiracy, intrigue, academia, mystery, murder, and awesome travelogue, there is also a very refreshing take on friendship and romance. On the blog, Phangirl27 perfectly articulated the question I wanted to ask you when she posited, “It seems like everything is a cliché nowadays, particularly when it comes to romance in novels. How do you avoid clichés?”

Do I? I certainly hope so.  I think there’s a difference between clichéd language—which is easily avoided (or used consciously to your advantage), if you’re diligent—and clichéd plot/character, which can be much harder to avoided.  And maybe even impossible since, for example, how many different kinds of romances are there to write? I think the best way to avoid seeming clichéd is to try to stay away from generalities and make your characters as specific as possible. For example, in the first draft of The Book of Blood and Shadow, Adriane was just your ‘typical’ kind of bitchy, kind of ditzy best friend—which made her hard to like, and also hard to see as a real person.  Similarly, in the first draft, the friendship between Nora and Chris is pretty generic. They could be any two people hanging out, and the only reason you know they care about each other is because the author tells you so.  I think specifics save you from all that, most of all when you’re writing about two people falling in love. Because the structure of every romance may be the same—and may be a cliché—but the details of two individuals connecting over their shared weirdnesses? That’s got infinite possibility.

LB: They say there’s more than one way to skin a cat. I have no interest in skinning a cat, but I am interested in all the ways writers approach craft/story. Some are elaborate plotters/outliners. Others like to plunge into the deep end without any floaties. What is your method? Are you a planner/plotter? An “Outline? I don’t need no stinkin’ outline!” sort of writer? Do you read/research a ton then get down to it? Write out diagrams and index cards? Make an offering to the Writing Gods? We want to know!

Oh, I’m as anal as they get.  I didn’t start this book until I’d whipped all the research and made a very detailed plot outline noting exactly when all the clues would be discovered and who was doing what to whom.  I think that’s especially important (at least for me) when writing a mystery, but I do in general feel like writing without some form of plot outline is like jumping off a cliff and building your parachute on the way down.

Which makes it all the crazy that I’m trying to write my newest book without an outline. And now you know why I so often walk around screaming in terror.

As you know, over the past few days, people have been leaving questions for you here. (You were referred to there as the “Uber-Awesome Robin Wasserman.” Word.) They’re far better than anything I can think up, and I’m including several of them here. (Lovely blog questioners: Due to the volume of questions, I couldn’t include them all, but I tried to hit as many as I could. If your question isn’t answered here, you can always visit Robin at www.robinwasserman.com or on Twitter: @robinwasserman and demand an answer.)

 (Yes, if you tweet me your questions, I will do my very best to answer right away, albeit in 140 letters or less.)

From the Internet-i-verse:

What music, if any, did you listen to while writing The Book of Blood and Shadow?

Full playlist is <a href=”http://thepewterwolf.blogspot.com/2012/01/book-of-blood-shadow-blog-tour-playlist.html”>here</a&gt; but the number one song for me  (especially for part II) was “Breathe Me,” by Sia.

Do you speak & read Latin? Is there some significance to the Latin language in your life?

Not a word of it (except cogito ergo sum—so I guess that’s three words).  It had to be Latin because the real Elizabeth Weston (ie the protagonist of the historical plotline) wrote all her letters to her brother in Latin, so I was just following her lead. Trust me, if she’d written in French, or better yet, English, it would have made my life a lot easier.

After listening to your amazing high school poetry at Leakycon last year, I rather imagine you writing in a dark, tapestry draped living room with a fire as your only light while some death marches play on a gramophone. So just curious what it's really like? (LB: For the record, Robin’s teenage poetry was MIND-BENDING.)

I like this idea, and I think from now on I’m only writing in a place like that. (Previously, I’ve occupied a well-lit coffee shop with bad music and an ample supply of cookies. The cookies are key. I shall bring them with me to my tapestry room.)

What is your least favorite part of the writing process? How do you overcome and get through it? What is your favorite part?

Least favorite: Almost all of it, after the first few chapters. I think of the middle of a book a bit like a death march. Around page 75 I become convinced that everything I’m writing is crap, and this lasts until I’m almost at the very, very end.  I love preparing to write, and I love having written, and every once in a while I hit on a few pages that make me dance, but for the most part, I make it through the middle by promising myself I’ll get to the end.

Favorite: The end. Writing the last page of the book and then jumping on my couch and shouting, “I’m done!” (I actually do that.  Every time. It’s embarrassing.)

If you were this dictator of a small (and tropical) island nation, what would be your first decree and why?

Everyone must bring me baked goods. For obvious reasons.

I believe I read on your website that you found Hacking Harvard the hardest to write of all your books. Is this true, and if so, did you find it difficult to write about Harvard after having attended the school, or was it easier?

It was actually easy to write about Harvard as a physical location—those scenes practically wrote themselves (especially since I was coming right off of the Seven Deadly Sins series, which was set in an imaginary town…and my imagination is not great at architecture). I’m not sure why the rest of the book was so hard, but I’ve always suspected it was because the book was so autobiographical.  The main character is a lot like me, and it’s hard to get enough distance to tell a good story when you’re practically writing about yourself.

If you were doing any other career other than writing, what would you want to be doing, regardless of lack of talent or experience?

Robotics engineer.  (Specializing in artificial intelligence.) Also maybe a theoretical physicist on the side.

What is your favorite kind of pie? How many tacos can you eat?

(LB: This question involves math. Math is hard. But Robin is smart.)

Sorry to say, I’m team cake.  But I am also team taco, so let’s see. If you calculate the volume of carne asada contained in an average taco shell and divide that by the rate of digestion and then factor in stomach capacity and attenuation of taco temptation over time…let’s say I could probably eat six at any given meal.  Perhaps I will start now.

How do you become awesome? (How much some is in awe?)

Practice. (And: More than you’d think.)

Thank you, smart people of the Blogo-sphere/Twitterverse. Last two questions from me, Robin. Yes, it's Bonus Round Time, where your answers could win you a NEW AMANA RADAR RANGE!**

What are you working on now?

I am trying to write a really long, really scary old-fashioned horror novel. I won’t tell you what it’s about, but I will tell you that there will be blood. (And making out. Though not at the same time. Mostly.)

If you were in a falling elevator with Robert Downey, Jr. and Rahm Emmanuel, and you could only save one of them, which one would you save? (This is your moment, Robin. This is why you have a Harvard education.)

WHY MUST YOU TORMENT ME?

It’s a tough call, but in the end, I must save my beloved Robert Downey, Jr. Not just because he’s my beloved, and not just because he’d be eternally grateful to me and sworn to do whatever I asked him to do for the rest of my life (that’s how it works when you save someone, right?) and not just because he looks and talks like Robert Downey, Jr (though that helps).  But because Rahm Emmanuel is basically Rambo, Mr. T, and MacGyver all in one, and I’m pretty sure he can save himself.

Now, where’s my cookie?

*Robin knows me—and my lack of technaptitude well

**If, by Amana Radar Range, we mean a cookie.

AND NOW, FOR THE LUCKY WINNER OF THE BOOK OF BLOOD AND SHADOW, DETERMINED BY THE CAPRICIOUS HAND OF FATE DIPPED INTO A HAT:

(drum roll)

(I love this part…so tense!)

(I’m just having a snack while I wait. You can have a snack, too, if you like.)

(cymbal crash)

x

x

x

x

x

x

Winner: lbkeenan on LJ, whose question was: How do you organize your life to include your writing? And, (this goes along with the first one), how did you work writing into your life before you became the fabulously published writer you are today?

lbkeenan, be sure to contact Robin at Robin (at) robinwasserman (dot) com to claim your awesome free book!

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