Monday, May 14, 2007

Piecing Together Normal: An Interview with Sandi Kahn Shelton

When Dorothy Thompson approached me about having Sandi Kahn Shelton on my blog, I didn't say yes right away. Not because I feared that Sandi was a horrible writer (she most definitely is not), but because I try to host people on this blog that I would legitimately read (or be interested in reading) even if I don't get a chance to read over their book before I give it away. So armed with a name and the power of Google, I did a bit of research on Ms. Shelton, and discovered a woman with the power to look at the trials and tribulations that families cause with the humor necessary to make it through those moments.

Dodie Smith once called families "the dear octopus from whose tentacles we never quite escape, nor, in our inmost hears, ever quite wish to." They are our burdens and our loves, the sources of our deepest pain and our greatest amusement. In her books, Shelton acknowledges these lows and highs with humor and poignancy, making limoncellos out of life's lemons and offering up a perfect cool read on a hot day.

It's no surprise that her latest novel has been chosen as one of Target's Bookmarked selections and it's a pleasure to have Sandi join us today to talk about writing, families and books we love.

Bookseller Chick: Thanks for joining me, Sandi. Both A Piece of Normal and your first novel, What Comes After Crazy, revolved around families. How does Lily's relationship with Dana differ from Maz's relationship with Madame Lucille?

Sandi Shelton: Oooh, that’s such a good question. Nobody’s ever asked me that before, and it’s fun to think about. First I’d like to say that I love to write about families, because I think that’s where the real power that shapes us lies…and where we learn the essential truth that we can both love people and want to kill them at the same time.

In A Piece of Normal, Lily is the “got-it-all-together” sister whose life is sooo comfortable and sweet—she’s an advice columnist who tells everybody else how to live, and in fact, is still best friends with her ex-husband. (She won’t find a new lover until she finds somebody for Teddy, too!) When her little sister, the flaky punk-rocker Dana, blows into town after a ten-year tiff, Lily realizes that maybe there are just a few tiny little details about life she didn’t always have a handle on: like—hello? How did she miss the Huge Family Secret that was always right under her nose? The relationship between the two sisters goes from bad to awful—but in that way of families, they have to learn what’s worth saving and what can be walked away from.

Maz’s situation—oh, boy! She’s an only child raised by an itinerant, many-times-married fortune-teller, and somehow in her travels to carnivals with her mom, she learned how to make a decent gin and tonic and how to tell which of her mom’s many husbands was likely to stick around, but she didn’t get the essential skills of life, like how to make a home. When her own marriage falls apart, leaving her with two little girls to raise—and Madame Lucille comes back to town with her latest husband, Maz’s job isn’t to figure out how to continue being in her mother’s shadow, it’s to figure out how to stand her own ground and not let the past overwhelm her.

B.S. Chick: Speaking of family, how do you handle the responsibilities that come from being a mom and a full time writer?

Sandi: Well…it took me SEVENTEEN YEARS to write the first novel, if that’s any indication of that little balancing act! No, seriously—writing a novel was what I got to do when all the other things were done: the costumes sewed, the dioramas set up, and all the carpools carpooled. I was working—still am actually—as a feature reporter and columnist, doing magazine articles, as well as writing three humorous non-fiction books about parenting, but my real dream was to write this novel! I simply could not put it aside and forget about it, and—hey, I just realized that it finally got finished when my last child got her own driver’s license! My advice to Mom Writers everywhere: get driver’s licenses for your kids!

B.S. Chick: You've written for a number of magazines during your writing career. Is Lily's job as an advice columnist based anything you've written/done previously?

Sandi: Actually, no. That question makes me smile, because I first realized Lily was an advice columnist when she came to me as a character who was soooo smug about her life. I mean, this woman really knows the secrets of life—she even tells other people how to live. I thought it would be fun to write about somebody whose own life is kind of falling apart around the edges, meanwhile she’s telling everybody else what to do…and I figured her advice column would change to reflect her greater awareness of her own foibles.

My magazine writing wasn’t ever advice-driven; it was mainly humorous essays about parenting, which later became books in some kind of magical way. The “advice” in my books and magazine articles (if it could be boiled down into one sterling sentence) would have to be: Muddle through as best you can, and remember that no one else knows what they’re doing either.

B.S. Chick: On your website you have a feature set up for book groups to contact you about answering questions via email or setting up 30-minute conference calls, is this a new feature? Do you have any interesting stories about readers using either of these services?

Sandi: Oh, this has been very fun! Mainly this has been through phone calls. Book groups contact me, let me know when they are meeting, and then I call them at the appointed hour. We chat about the book, I answer their questions, and I’ve loved doing it. People ask such insightful questions. Sometimes we laugh, sometimes we get all analytical about human nature and writing—it’s such a great way to connect with readers.

B.S. Chick: Your books, both fiction and nonfiction, seem to contain a humorous tone. Do you believe that a good sense of humor is necessary to get through day to day life?

Sandi: Absolutely! My first book was called You Might As Well Laugh and it’s a collection of columns I wrote for my local newspaper (for ten years), many of which appeared in Working Mother magazine’s Wits’ End column. When I started writing this column for my paper, I was a single mother of two kids working in an office in which NO ONE had any kids whatsoever. Many had never heard of children. They would come in to work after having played tennis, for heaven’s sake, or just having had great sex. I, meanwhile, wandered in after just having fought with a 3-year old about why she couldn’t drink her milk out of the soy sauce bottle! The thing was, when I started my column, I just wrote about all the tragic and annoying things going on in my house, and I swear I did not know it was a humor column until people started telling me it was funny. That’s when I realized that daily life, in all its awfulness, can only be handled by laughing about it—hopefully with other people laughing with you.

B.S. Chick: Since at one time I was a bookseller and this a bookselling blog, what books do recommend my readers check out?

Wow! That’s a hard question. I love so many writers. I love Jennifer Crusie and Anne Tyler and Alice Munro and Lolly Winston and Elinor Lipman. Recently I’ve discovered the writer, Haven Kimmel, who writes the funniest and most breathtaking memoirs about growing up in Mooreland, Indiana. (Her latest is called She Got Up Off the Couch.) For those who like essays, there’s a wonderful anthology about what parenthood does to a romance, called Blindsided by a Diaper, that has essays that will make you laugh and some that will make you almost want to cry. (Full disclosure: I have one of the essays. But I’m simply in awe of the ones in that book that are not mine.)

Thank you so much, Linsey, for letting me come on your site and answer your very thought-provoking and insightful questions!

B.S. Chick: No, Sandi, thank you. If you want to hear more about Sandi you can read her blog, or catch her at any of the following stops on her virtual tour:

May 1, 2007 - The Writer's Life
May 2, 2007 - Trashionista
May 3, 2007 - Julie Kenner's Writes and Wrongs
May 4, 2007 - Night Owl Romance
May 7, 2007 - Alison Kent's Blah Blog
May 8, 2007 - Kathy Holmes' Fiction With Attitude
May 10, 2007 - Over the Hill Chick
May 15, 2007 - Bookseller Chick
May 21, 2007 - Alyssa Goodnight's On the Writers' Road Less Traveled
May 22, 2007 - The Book Pedler
May 24, 2007 - Susan Wiggs' The View from Here
May 25, 2007 - Fiction Scribe
May 28, 2007 - Blog About Romance
May 29, 2007 - Gypsy Psychic
May 31, 2007 - Pump Up Your Online Book Promotion

Like Gil, Sandi has offered up a copy of her new book if you're interested, so leave your comments below. I'll take comments on both interviews until Friday when I'll draw a name at random and send off the books.

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