Author Interview: Cherise Wolas
An Interview with Cherise Wolas
Author of The Resurrection of Joan Ashby and The Family Tabor
Where do you find inspiration to write each of your characters?
It’s so hard to untangle the inspirations. They’re like wild, untraceable threads. But it always starts out mysteriously: a character pops into my mind, I hear dialogue in my head, an image appears—sometimes these elements come separately, more often they arrive together. I start sending myself tons of emails. I let things percolate. I research a lot of disparate topics and areas, that may or may not have anything to do with anything, but the research helps me think in different ways, and spurs more thoughts and ideas. The characters start developing, deepening, changing, moving in unexpected directions, and always raising lots of questions. When I write, I listen intently to what they tell me, about who they are, the problems they’re having, their hopes, dreams, secrets, issues, what they want to do, how they want their stories to go. Sometimes we fight. Sometimes I have to give them tons of space, or reel them back. But through the writing, all kinds of clues emerge—and each clue leads to a key, and each key leads to another door, and I follow them all.
Did you use any real-world events or people as inspiration for your characters?
I don’t. I seek a compelling immediacy in my work, but also a timelessness, a quality I hope means my work will endure way beyond the here-and-now and into the future And so I tend to steer clear of most current political and cultural references and consumer brands and the like. Although I think the questions that spur me on are the kinds of questions that have been timely forever. When the real world figures in, I think I use it most often for grounding purposes.
For instance, in The Resurrection of Joan Ashby, there are only two places in the novel referencing actual events. The first is the contrast between what is going on in the world and what Joan is writing about in her hidden novel called Words of New Beginnings. And the second is 9/11, though I don’t use that shorthand.
In The Family Tabor, the actual world is very close, though references to it are oblique. What the great-grandparents, grandparents, and parents of Harry and Roma Tabor suffered is historical, of course, but the personal specifics are all imagined.
Do you use issues or events from your own life in your writing?
I don’t, at least not consciously! In The Family Tabor, everyone is struggling with universal issues I think all of us can relate to and/or have experienced in one form or another. They’re searching for love, or feel they made the wrong choice in love, or are hungry to understand their lives, or want a deeper spiritual connection, or suddenly find themselves unsure of everything, or have had their lives upended, or wish they could undo something they’ve done, or have kept secrets from their families. And anyone with siblings has likely experienced the sharp talons and passive-aggressiveness of that particular rivalry.
The personal filters through in my novels in two ways. First, I’m exploring intricate and complicated questions that matter to me. Second, I love stepping into other people’s skins, lives, thoughts, seeing the world and their worlds through their eyes, and from the moment I begin writing, I am them, but they are never me.
Why did you decide to write The Family Tabor using multiple perspectives in alternating chapters?
It happened automatically, as the natural way to burrow into everyone’s singular perspectives during the various stages that lead to the honoring of Harry, and then afterwards. The individual journeys home, and the waiting for all to arrive; navigating the reefs and shoals of togetherness; the gala, and when the celebration turns into something that shocks; and then the aftermath. I wanted to be intimately close to each of them, and I wanted the same for the reader. There is a single element in the book that isn’t from the perspective of any family member, but instead has a bird’s-eye, omniscient view…
Which of the characters in The Family Tabor do you relate to the most?
They are so real to me that I can only perceive them as living, breathing people, and I relate to each of them completely, although in different ways.
How much time did you spend researching the different professions of the characters in The Family Tabor? Did you always plan on them having these professions or did their personalities help dictate what they did?
The coming to life of each character and what they do professionally happened in tandem—who they are, what they do, how they know what they know, and how sometimes their professions hold up a mirror to their own flaws. I research constantly through the entire writing of a book. For The Family Tabor, all of the research runs pages and pages, and about their professions, it was wide-ranging and the following is a tiny sampling: the stock market, technological developments in trading, articles and judicial case law about duties owed and breaches and insider trading, including the very first insider trading case when America was a brand-new country; scientific articles about how the brain eliminates memories completely; psychological and mental conditions; social anthropology, which included reading about all the amazing women who were out in the field in the 1800s and on; how works of art stolen by the Nazis are recovered in litigation.
Joan Ashby made an appearance in The Family Tabor and Simon Tabor made an appearance in The Resurrection of Joan Ashby. Have we been introduced to any of the characters from your future novels? Can you share what book you’re working on next?
It’s funny that a couple of characters crossed over from Joan Ashby to The Family Tabor because the novels are completely unrelated. And maybe some of the characters will always spill over because I never want to leave them behind.
I’ve received so many requests from readers of Joan Ashby to turn various of Joan’s excerpted stories into novels. The Last Resort, about a woman in a mental institution; Bettina’s Children, about a married couple providing medical care in Nigeria whose children all die; the wondrous and strange rare babies; The Sympathetic Executioners, about the twin boys who become killers—the suggestions go on, and all of what I wrote continues to fascinate me, and I can see writing about one or more in the future, if I find a new way in, if I find interesting questions I’d like to explore within those particular environments.
I am working on my third novel now. And the characters were first in Joan Ashby, and even as I was writing about them in Joan Ashby, I knew I wanted to know so much more about them. So I’m writing about them now, and they’re on their own journeys in a different world.
(Note from Jackie --> I would still love to see the strange rare babies and The Sympathetic Executioners brought out into our world! I also cannot wait for your third novel!)
How long did it take you to write The Resurrection of Joan Ashby? What about The Family Tabor?
Thinking about this, it’s strange that I can’t figure out the markers in my own life to know either exactly or approximately how long each novel took to write. And I don’t have dated and numbered drafts to look back at, because I never have a first draft. As I write forward, I’m constantly going backwards, editing, revising, honing, discovering elements, teasing them out, re-envisioning, contemplating anew, as well as feeling my way into structure, and fine-tuning sentences, down to every last word. By the time I have a completed manuscript, it’s something like the thousandth draft. Maybe my inability to recall is a way to not focus on the sheer amount of time each novel takes, so that I am eagerly writing my third, and will be just as eager to write all those that follow?! But suffice it to say each has taken years.
Are there any plans for either of your novels to be turned into films?
That would be fantastic!
What book have you recently read that you are recommending to everyone?
Can I offer up more than one? I read voraciously and a great deal from around the world. Here’s a short-ish by-country list of what I’ve been pressing on others recently—some new, some older, some very old.
Israel: Three Floors Up by Eshkol Nevo, The Ex and A Late Divorce by A.B. Yehoshua, Waking Lions by Ayelet Gundar-Goshen
Germany: All For Nothing by Walter Kempowski, Go, Went, Gone by Jenny Erpenbeck
Norway: Shyness and Dignity and Novel 11, book 18 by Dag Solstad
Switzerland: Agnes, Seven Years, and Unformed Landscape by Peter Stamm
Iceland: Hotel Silence by Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir
Hungary: The Door and Iza’s Ballad by Magda Szabo
Britain: Everything by Margaret Drabble and Reservoir 13 by Jon McGregor
Japan: Six Four by Hideo Yokoyama, The Maids by Junichiro Tanazaki
France: The Memoirs of Two Young Wives by Balzac
Scotland: The Disappearance of Adèle Bedeau by Graeme Macrae Burnet
I’ll stop here!
The ending of The Family Tabor was a bit of a shock to me! Was this always your plan when writing the novel?
I love that the ending shocked you! It shocked me too. Oddly, the deeper I am in the writing, the less I seem to know. Certainly, there are many trajectories that become clear as the novel moves forward, but what happens at the end is always organic. In The Family Tabor, it found me, and I fought it for a while, and then certain elements clicked into place, and I realized, yes, of course, it had to be this way! I seem to prefer endings that allow readers to keep thinking and wondering about what will happen next.
Thank you so much to Cherise Wolas for being so willing to answer my questions and so open in her responses! She is a must buy/must read author for me and I'm so happy to have been introduced to her works. I'll be anxiously awaiting news of book #3!
Cherise Wolas' blog is http://www.cherisewolas.com/. You can find her on Goodreads here and Instagram here. Now do yourself a favor and pick up one of her novels!