Sunday, May 12, 2013

Author: Joan Steinau Lester Interview and Giveaway!

I'd like to welcome Joan Steinau Lester to the blog today to celebrate and promote the most recent publication from Atria Books, Mama's Child. Be sure to stick around until the end to get the chance to win a copy!

Welcome to Books à la Mode, Joan! Let's get this interview started.

Will you please share a brief bio with us?

As a member of a biracial family, my lifelong passion has been writing about "race," exploring how the concept ever came to exist until it's so prevalent it now feels normal. I'm passionate about issues of identity and working for justice, i.e. the whole race-related package. All my books focus in one way or another on this immensely charged topic.

Black, White, Other was my first novel, and I loved approaching the issue from the lens of a fifteen-year-old girl, whose voice came to me quite naturally, probably from raising my own children and being close to other teens. Having permission to create scenes, instead of attempting journalistic accuracy, allowed me a fantastic freedom to explore the intricacies of family or friend dynamics among people of different "races."

My newest novel, Mama's Child (Atria/​Simon & Schuster, May, 2013), is another variation on the theme I seem to have chosen as my life beat. Or perhaps it has chosen me. This story, which spans 30 years, uses two voices: a white mother and her biracial daughter.

A third novel in progress, Langston Hughes and the One True Me, will be published in 2014 by the exciting new West Coast publishing house, Creston Books.

I feel privileged and honored to be able to practice my craft and at the same time provide healing and insight to readers, as well as entertainment.

Readers, stay in touch! Thank you.

Tell us a bit more about your newest release.

A stunning tale about the deeply entrenched conflicts between a white mother and her biracial daughter.
Mama’s Child is story of an idealistic young white woman who travelled to the American South as a civil rights worker, fell in love with an African American man, and started a family in San Francisco, where the more liberal city embraced them—except when it didn’t. They raise a son and daughter, but the tensions surrounding them have a negative impact on their marriage, and they divorce when their children are still young. For their biracial daughter, this split further destabilizes her already challenged sense of self—“Am I black or white?” she must ask herself, “Where do I belong?” Is she her father’s daughter alone?

As the years pass, the chasm between them widens, even as the mother attempts to hold on to the emotional chord that binds them. It isn’t until the daughter, Ruby, herself becomes a wife and mother that she begins to develop compassion and understanding for the many ways that her own mother’s love transcended race and questions of identity.
Describe Mama's Child in six words.

Civil rights era biracial mother-daughter conflict.

How did you arrive at writing historical and literary fiction?

After publishing hundreds of opinion pieces, first-person essays, and a biography—all journalistic nonfiction—for twenty years, I thought it would be a relief to enter a more imaginative realm. I've also always loved reading the two genres, so was game to try my hand at it.

Are there any other genres you’d like to tackle in the future, or any you want to stay away from?

I'll probably stay away from hard-core detective thrillers or police procedurals, since I don't read them, but might someday continue with a literary novel I once started, which has a mystery tucked inside it.

Ooh! Something to look forward to. What was the inspiration for Mama's Child?

Seeing my own biracial children's identity struggles as they moved through their teen years. While Mama's Child is entirely fictional, the "Who am I?" issues that play out in a particularly poignant way for biracial people was a topic I wanted to address again, after tackling it Black, White, Other.

Readers, click "Read more" to learn about Joan's road to publication, the criticality of putting real life into fiction, and some of the author's own tried-and-true writing advice. You also don't want to miss the great giveaway at the end!

I love how you have such an amazing personal connection to your stories. It makes it all the more sentimental while reading. How did you first get published and how has your publishing experience been like so far? Tell us your call story, as well as some things you picked up along the way.

My first two books were both nonfiction unagented. I was in the happy position of receiving a phone call from a publisher who'd read my work in national media and asked if I'd like to publish a collection. Yes! I nearly shouted. They then published my first two books.

I did find a marvelous agent for my third book, the biography titled Fire in My Soul: Eleanor Homes Norton, who sold it to Atria/Simon & Schuster, the same publisher for Mama's Child. In between those two I worked with another fabulous agent for Black, White, Other, a teen novel.

One thing I've picked up along this journey is the understanding that I've had to let go of even the best agents when I've switched genres.

Switching agents with genres something I've never considered but must be integral to selling a manuscript—must be difficult parting with good agents, though! Are the characters from your book based off anyone you know in real life? How much else of your actual life gets written into your novels?

As Philip Roth recently noted, he used his life as the springboard for fiction—bouncing up and down on the facts of his life before diving into the deep waters of imagination. I feel the same. All my characters are composites, based at first on numerous people, including myself—and then they become totally themselves, acting in ways I could hardly have imagined!

But it's strange how strands of one's own life find their way into one's characters' actions: a series of deathbed scenes in Mama's Child, for instance, are loosely based on my own father's hospital death. There are many bits and pieces of my own life scattered and woven into the texture of this novel, as there were in the last, when I understood the motivation for a character who runs away, because when I was twelve I ran away—albeit for only half a day.

That's such a beautiful way you've put it! I'm curious: Which character from Mama's Child was most difficult to write?

Elizabeth, the white mother in the mixed race family, because her family position was the same as my own, although her character, habits, looks, and likes are definitely not mine! But in order to visualize her completely as a person different from myself, initially I had to strenuously conjure up this big-bones, strapping red-head (whereas I am a petite blonde), until finally she took shape as an autonomous being and could begin to act on her own.

It awes me how you were able to pen a character in your situation, but uniquely, making her another person entirely. That sounds extremely difficult to do! What do you consider your biggest strengths and weaknesses as an author?

Strengths: compassion, the ability to imagine myself into other lives, and strong writing skills.

Weaknesses: I can get bogged down in the "message" if I'm not careful, instead of sticking to character, narrative drive, and letting events unfold; trusting readers.

Name the top four novels that have made the biggest impact on your life or on your writing.
  1. Doris Lessing's The Golden Notebook, detailing a woman's search for self.
  2. Fyodor Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment showed me that fiction can have deep ethical reverberations.
  3. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's Half of a Yellow Sun was a model for incorporating political events into gripping drama. Her novel is set before and during the Biafran war.
  4. Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart.
Things Fall Apart is one of MY all-time favorites. Thank you for sharing! What's the greatest thing you ever learned?


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Some randomness...

Favorite kind of chocolate? Dark, milk, white, coffee-flavored, the kind with nuts or berries inside?? Dark 100% chocolate. French!

Omg! Me too! What kind of kid were you in high school? Wild. Driving cars too fast, cutting school to go to the beach with boyfriends, concerned with being popular, "cute." At the same time I enjoyed reading and studying, and was an honor student who ended up skipping my last year of high school, gaining early admission to college.

You were the all-American beach babe—with brains! All-time favorite quote? "If I had more time I would have written a shorter letter." — originally attributed to philosopher Blaise Pascal, then used by others, including Benjamin Franklin.

Most-visited website? Facebook.

Favorite vegetable? (yes, you have to pick one). Spinach.

Biggest celebrity crush? Barack Obama.

Hehe. Guiltiest pleasure? Lying the couch reading mid-day during the work week.

Spot-on! What did you want to grow up to be when you were little? In fourth grade someone taught me to pronounce and spell "psychiatrist," so that's what I proudly announced I wanted to be. But really, always, a writer.

Awww :') Store you’d most likely max your credit card out in? Persimmon and/or Noma, two Northern California boutiques.

Go-to comfort food? Applesauce.

Last time you laughed really hard and why? Watching Jon Stewart, almost any given night.

Charity or cause of choice? Marriage equality.

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Give aspiring writers a piece of advice you wish you had known before getting published. 

Read William Zinsser's On Writing and Strunk and White's Elements of Style. Both books stress the importance of pruning your prose.

Now give us your best personal advice—something you wish you had known when you were younger and would offer to your own kids.

Don't stress so much. Most things work out well in the end if you allow time and let them unfold.

That, I can personally vouch for! What’s a question you’ve always wanted to be asked in an interview?

Why do you write?

How would you answer it?

Because it makes my heart sing.

What would you say are the most important attributes to remaining sane as a writer?

Find colleagues with whom to share drafts and collaborate on information/strategies for navigating your way in the publishing business.

Are there any occupational hazards to being a writer?

Isolation, with a resultant possible loss of perspective.

What’s the most interesting comment you have ever received about your books?

From Booklist, I found this comment illuminating: "Mama's Child is a deeply felt novel of a daughter on a quest for selfhood and a mother striving to come back to her own."

That makes me want to try the book all the more! What is the message from this story you want readers to grasp?

That love eventually trumps social barriers.

Beautiful :) What are your goals as a writer?

To continue writing novels with social significance and great passion; to see one of my novels turned into a film.

What dreams have been realized as a result of your writing?

To be able to spend time honing sentences and ideas, and then make lovely connections with readers. I pinch myself sometimes to realize that I've published five books, with a contract for a sixth in hand, and feel like the most fortunate woman in the world.

It's your hard work and talent that's paid off! You deserve every bit of good tidings that come your way. Where can you be found on the web?

I genuinely enjoyed getting to know you and your books better today, Joan! You sound like a fabulous writer who weaves words from the heart, and on top of that, just an amazing person. Thank you so much for joining us, and good luck with your future endeavors.


Thanks to JKS Communications, Books à la Mode is giving away one print copy of Mama's Child—yay!! To enter, fill out the Rafflecopter form below. Here's a comment prompt from Joan for extra entries:
What is your true passion?
For me? People! Figuring out their emotions, feelings—even though it in and of itself is an impossible endeavor—and learning about, discovering, being constantly awed by them. What about you?
Rules and Disclosure:
Giveaway ends 26 May 2013 at 11.59 PM (your time).
Open to US readers only. Sorry, rest of the world! Check out my sidebar for giveaways that ARE open internationally!
Winners have 48 hours to claim their prize once they are chosen, or else their prizes will be forfeited.
Although I do select winners, I am in no way responsible for prizes, nor for shipping and handling.
As a reminder, you do not have to follow my blog to enter, though it is always very much appreciated ❤ Plus you get extra entries! ;)
Good luck!