With summer around the corner, many of us are looking for some fresh books to read on the beach or on the porch. We talk to three authors about the themes and messages written into their latest novels.
- Caitriona Lally, author of Eggshells
- Michael Callahan, author of The Night She Won Miss America
- Benjamin Ludwig, author of Ginny Moon
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A look inside this years biggest books
Marty Peterson: Summer is coming and with it comes an onslaught of new reading options. We talked to the author of three of those new books about their novels and what major themes and discussion points their books bring up. First up, we spoke with debut author Caitriona Lally, whose novel Eggshells has made it to American from her native Ireland.
Caitriona Lally: Eggshells is a novel about Vivian a misfit who feels that she doesn’t belong. And Vivian thinks that she’s a “changeling” so a fairy child who was left in the place of a human child and Vivian is walking around contemporary Dublin looking for a portal to another world where she thinks she will belong.
Peterson: Though the novel sounds high-concept and fantastical, with talk of fairies and changelings, Lally says the novel came about after she lost her job in 2011 and that it’s really about social isolation.
Lally: I found myself wandering around Dublin a lot, kind of aimlessly, and whereas I used to have a structure to my day and I was part of a group when I was working. Suddenly I was excluded I felt from society and I was kind of, I felt a bit out of step with the world. So, I started wandering around Dublin looking for work and the idea of this character came to me, this slightly lost character who is desperately seeking something. So while Vivian is looking for a portal, I was looking for a job. But she’s really trying to connect with something or someone and the idea of the changeling was just, for me, I felt it was the ultimate in kind of not belonging – in not conforming to society.
Peterson: Of course loneliness and a search for meaning is a universal experience. Lally says she’s been interested to hear the feedback people have on her character and the novel itself.
Lally: I wanted to write this outsider voice, this kind of eccentric who sees the world differently. But a lot of readers have come back to me asking, “Does she have some kind of condition? Does she have PTSD? Does she have OCD? Is she on the autism spectrum?” So I found that really interesting that a lot of people read very different things into her and some people have gotten quite irritated by the fact that I haven’t diagnosed her with something or clarified what’s going on in her head. Some people want black and white answers and a perfect diagnosis, but for me Vivian is just an eccentric character who sees the world differently.
Peterson: And a mental health diagnosis isn’t the only thing about her character that Lally omitted from the novel. She also very intentionally left out a physical description, letting the readers imagination and connection to Vivian take over.
Lally: I got kind of bored of reading descriptions, physical descriptions of female characters and these female characters are all beautiful and combing their long blonde hair in the mirror and I wanted to not describe her and to leave the reader to guess what she looked like, to make up their own image of what she looks like. So I had Vivian living in her great aunts house and when her great aunt died she covered all the mirrors in the house and this is an old Irish tradition, when somebody does to cover all the mirrors with a sheet so the soul doesn’t get trapped in the mirror as it leaves the body. But Vivian hasn’t uncovered the mirrors and so she’s never looking at herself and nobody else describes her and this was interesting for me because readers have since told me what she looks like and some people have even tried to insist that, “oh there’s definitely a description in the book!” But it’s their own interpretation.
Peterson: Lally says she didn’t write to make the character relatable or unrelatable. But just exaggerated her own experiences and hoped people could come away with a little more understanding.
Lally: Something that would start off normally would just kind of spiral and it was taking something that I would love to have the courage to say out loud but would suppress and Vivian just goes with it, and she doesn’t care about the awkwardness that’s going to happen. So it’s not a kind of a telling jokes kind of a book but there’s humor, some of it quite dark I think, like there’s an edge to it. I like the combination of sadness and humor together.
Peterson: Another recently released novel is Michael Callahan’s The Night She Won Miss America. Callahan says he had a simple piece of inspiration for the book and let himself run with it.
Michael Callahan: This book is inspired by a Miss America who in 1937 took off the night she won with her pageant assigned escort because she decided she didn’t want to be Miss American after all. And part of that was, if not mainly, motivated by the fact that her escort who she was then madly in love with had decided he didn’t want to be Miss America’s boyfriend and broke up with her. So she basically ran off for him. Now their romance was very short lived, as one would expect if fizzled rather quickly, but I thought it would be great fodder for a fiction story. So in my book, which is set in 1949, Miss America wins and then she and her escort take off for parts unknown and they have a bunch of people on their trail and it turns into rather a soapy caper.
Peterson: And while it may be easy to dismiss the pageantry as somewhat sexist, Callahan says he finds that the character he created is actually very feminist, much in the way that Peggy and Joan were in Mad Men.
Callahan: Betty Jane Welch, my character, is incredibly feisty and self possessed, and really finds herself in the book. And then makes some really glaring mistakes and then has to pay for them, but at least owns them. I think there is this real sense of ownership from her of her own individual actions in the book. And I think that’s actually quite a feminist view.
Peterson: Lastly, author Ben Ludwig’s latest novel Ginny Moon was written about autism and the foster care system, topics he learned about extensively in his own life both personally and professionally as a father and teacher.
Ben Ludwig: In 2009, my wife and I adopted a young lady with autism ourselves, she was only twelve at the time. We became foster parents shortly after we got married and our goal was to adopt. The way it works in New Hampshire is you have to become a foster parent first, and after you get your license then you can foster to adopt, that’s what the system calls it. So we did that and after we adopted our daughter I started attending Special Olympics basketball practices with her every Wednesday night. And just hearing all of the voices of all of these children and talking with their parents really immersed me in this, sort of, special education world, if you will. And plus I had been a public school teacher for many years as well and had lots autistic kids, and also foster kids, in my class. Just having been immersed in that world for so long it was sort of bubbling to to come out.
Peterson: Ginny Moon is about a recently adopted girl with autism who wants desperately to get her old life back, even willing to go so far as to stage her own kidnapping. Ludwig says that while his experience adopting a child with autism served as a knowledge base, the character of Ginny isn’t representative of his daughter.
Ludwig: I once spoke with a mom who had a daughter with austim as well, this is years and years ago before I even considered becoming a foster parent, and she said to me, “Ben, if you know one kid with autism then you know one kid with autism.” And I really took that wisdom to heart and it certainly seemed to be the case when I taught autistic kids in the public schools. People with autism are just as distinct as you and I are from one another. So in that sense I was really given the freedom to create this character and make her as interesting and as specific as I wanted without really having to worry that she would fit this “autistic mold” because there really isn’t one.
Peterson: According to Ludwig, the book wasn’t written with a moral in mind, but he did want to shed light on the foster care system, which he says isn’t always fair.
Ludwig: My wife and I were definitely, I guess you could say called, to adopt a teenager as opposed to, you know, an infant. A lot of people adopt infants, I think that’s great, a lot of people adopt, you know, toddlers, that’s great too, but there’s a lot of children in foster care who just don’t get adopted when they’re little or they enter the system when they’re much older, and those are the kids I had in my classroom, quite often, I taught middle school for most of my teaching career. And, you know, by the time a kid is twelve or thirteen years old it’s very rare that a couple or even a single person, or anybody will come in and say, “You know, I want to adopt this person.” So there’s this fairly significant population of young teenagers and even older teenagers who will inevitably age out of the system having never really had a steady parent. And I just think that’s horrible and we wanted to do something about it, so that’s why we adopted a teenager and I do think that is definitely wrapped up in the book.
Peterson: Eggshells, The Night She Won Miss America, and Ginny Moon are all available now in bookstores and online. For more information about Catriona Lally, Michael Callahan, Ben Ludwig, and all of our guests, visit our site viewpointsonline.net. Our show is written and produced by Evan Rook. Our executive producer is Reed Pence. Our production director is Sean Waldron. I’m Marty Peterson.