Hey guys! Today is the second of three Q&As I’m running with three different authors, all in the Impress Prize shortlist! The Impress Prize is run by the lovely people at the Impress publishing house, and many of the authors on the shortlist for 2017 will go on to have their books published.
Today, I have a Q&A with shortlisted author, Stephanie Vanderslice, about her book, The Lost Son. I hope you enjoy!
Summarise your novel in two sentences.
After her husband leaves her for the baby’s nurse, kidnaps their infant son, and returns to their native Germany, Julia Kruse struggles to build a life for herself and her older son in America and to one day reunite her children, who end up fighting on opposite sides in World War II. The Lost Son is about the ways betrayal can haunt a family for generations, about love, endurance, and ultimately, what it means to forgive and find peace.
What was the initial inspiration for your novel?
In my thirties, I learned that my great-grandmother, who I had never really known as she died when I was quite young, was actually my step-great-grandmother. She had married my great-grandfather, a widower, in middle age after being abandoned by her first husband who had, along with the baby’s nurse, kidnapped their newborn son and taken him back to Germany. After I heard this story, I could not stop thinking about it. A young mother with two sons of my own, one of them an infant at the time, I could not imagine surviving such a loss, let alone later trusting another man enough to marry him. I did not know my great-grandfather well either, but I supposed he must have been something special and their later-in-life love affair extraordinary for my great-grandmother to take that risk again. It was from this imagining that Julia and Paul and the love story of The Lost Son, as well as the family saga, was born. As a writer, I took off from there—most of the novel bears little resemblance to the actual course of events. I was much happier imagining the rest.
How long have you been working on the book? Did it involve any special research?
I worked on this novel for about ten years (it’s the first in a triptych about Queens, NY in the last century), while working on other projects, creative nonfiction, academic books and so forth—although there was an intense three-year period that resulted in the most recent draft. I’ve done lots of research relating to plot and character—I love doing research and that’s a rabbit hole I frequently have to yank myself out from. Books I’ve read relating to the story: memoirs of young people, soldiers especially, growing up in Germany during the Third Reich, the history of incubators and premature birth (which is really fascinating), stories of Dr. Martin Couney and his “incubator babies” that were on display in Coney Island’s Luna Park through the early twentieth-century, which led to today’s hospital neonatal units (also fascinating), the depression. Julia becomes a celebrated cake artist so I took some cake decorating classes to give myself a feel for that kind of work. That was fun—and delicious—research.
What was the most difficult thing about writing your novel?
Besides finding the time, always a struggle for writers who work a day job, which is most of them, the challenge for me in writing, especially in writing novels, is getting that first draft down. Finding the right balance between woolgathering, window-staring and flat out effort in pouring all those thousands of words into a first draft is not easy for me. Once I do have that draft down, all the sand in the sandbox, so to speak, I’m good to go. I’m one of those writers who love to revise, so working and re-working what I already have is a walk in the park compared to coming up with it in the first place.
Which authors do you admire and why? In terms of authors I admire working today the list includes Simon Van Booy (Father’s Day is a perfect gem), Julianna Baggott (The Book of Wonders), Ben Ludwig (his debut Ginny Moon is a tour de force), Julia Fierro, Brian Selznick, who does incredible things with visual/narrative form, Anthony Doerr, Jennifer Egan, Nicole Krauss. Then there are the literary luminaries for me: Alice McDermott, whose novels render the Irish-American community of Queens and Long Island with the kind of richness and intensity I hope to bring to the German-American community, Charles Baxter, Laurie Colwin, John Cheever, Austen, Tolstoy, the Brontes. As with most writers, it’s hard to be succinct here; I could go on and on.
What is your favourite genre and why? I read in so many different genres—I just like a gripping story, one that keeps me reading, carrying the book around wherever I go, causing lost sleep. I tend to reach most often for compelling, realistic prose—but that covers a great deal—literary fiction, women’s upmarket fiction, YA fiction, narrative nonfiction, memoir, I enjoy them all. My favourite genre is the genre of the latest book that’s keeping me up nights.
List 5 fun facts about you.
- I was the first girl in my town to play Little League baseball when girls were finally allowed. I made the front page of the sport’s section and everything. I wasn’t trying to make a big statement—I just wanted to play—but the experience ended up being a formative one.
- I’m something of a weather geek, especially having lived the last 20 years in the US’s “Tornado Alley.” I know my way around a radar map and can explain the important distinctions between a run-of-the mill “Tornado Watch,” and a PDS or, ‘Potentially Dangerous Situation.” I even have favourite local television weather forecasters (doesn’t everyone?) and always give them a shout out on Facebook and twitter after they have seen us through a particularly rough night.
- A fairly intrepid driver, I have boldly driven in New York City, Chicago, Boston, on the Washington Beltway and all over France. I will drive almost anywhere but in Italy and Atlanta, Georgia. Especially not Atlanta. Atlanta drivers do not play.
- Libraries are my happy place. Wherever I travel, I tour the local library and have discovered the most remarkable architecture and collections this way. Someday I’d love to write a guide to libraries in the US or around the world—I just need someone to bankroll my project. In the meantime, I sit on the board of my county library and steward the “Little Free Library” (littlefreelibrary.org) for my church, which was designed and built by a local architect to look just like the chapel. Stocking my own tiny library with books to give away is a dream come true.
- By most accounts, I make a mean loaf of French bread and do so fairly often, eight loaves at a time, because the only kind of bread I like to eat is my own. My late father-in-law, a chemist and amateur baker, taught me how one snowy afternoon years ago when the entire family was felled by a stomach virus and he and I were the only ones still standing.
Do you have any hints or tips for people who want to start writing?
Write first for the pure love of it, without worrying about publication or who is going to read what you write. Write from a place deep inside that doesn’t care whether anyone will ever read what you write, the place that just wants to tell the story, the story that you need to tell, the story that you would want to read. Just get it all down.
Revise, however, with a reader in mind, with the idea of creating a reading experience for someone else and all that that entails: plotting, characterization, setting.
Above all, never give up. Try not to live for the external rewards—publication, notoriety, money—for they are sporadic and fleeting and won’t sustain you, while the pleasures of the process and creation ultimately will.
Thanks so much for reading everyone! And a huge thank you to Stephanie and the lovely people at Impress for organising this Q&A.
Keep an eye out for the Impress Prize results-they’ll be decided by the judges on 28th September.
If you’re interested in finding more out about Stephanie Vanderslice, here are some links you can check out: