AUTHOR INTERVIEW AND A GIVEAWAY OF SIGNED COPY OF HIS NOVEL A LOVELY, INDECENT DEPARTURE!!
Meet Steven Lee Gilbert, author of A Lovely, Indecent Departure, a literary thriller that I recently read and loved.
Goodreads Summary: A Lovely, Indecent Departure is the riveting and emotionally-charged debut from a promising new voice in literary thrillers, and a captivating story about a mother’s love and desperation set amidst the heart wrenching landscape of child custody.
Anna Miller wants only one thing, her son, and she will do anything to keep him. When a district court awards custody of Oliver to his father, she abducts the five year old and flees to Italy where with her family’s help they disappear into the fabric of her native homeland. Told in prose that is both stripped-down and overpowering, Gilbert shapes the everyday conflict of child custody into a stunning search for sense of worth. Standing in the young woman’s way is Evan Meade, the boy’s guileful and mean-spirited father, who hires a private investigator when the efforts of the embattled local sheriff, Monroe Rossi, fail to track them down. But as the investigation draws them all closer to Anna, Evan’s true nature betrays itself and the question of what’s in the child’s best interest becomes not so clear anymore.
Objectively detailed, in a voice that refuses to intrude on the minds of its characters, A Lovely, Indecent Departure, captures in stark detail a world in which modern archetypes are turned upside down and shows what an extraordinary splash Steven Lee Gilbert has made with his first novel.
Author Bio from Goodreads: I was born in Fort Wayne, Indiana but consider my childhood home the green, rolling foothills of East Tennessee and the southern Appalachia mountains, settlement to all sorts of interesting people, composites of which can be found throughout my writing. Most of my adulthood I've spent in the Sandhills and Piedmont of central North Carolina, where I live now with my wife and family.
I received my B.A. in English from the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, after which I was commissioned and served four years as an officer and paratrooper in the U.S. Army. In 2008 I was awarded a Durham Arts Council Emerging Artist Grant for Literature. I have also received recognition for my work as a writer from the Tennessee Writers Alliance.
As an undergraduate student at the University of Tennessee, I had the privilege of learning from the wonderfully talented Wilma Dykeman and later from Barry Hannah, who both taught me to write what you know. Since then, I have tried very hard to follow their advice.
What inspired you to write a story about custody issues?
In the early 1990s, before we were married, my wife was involved in a custodial dispute with her ex-husband over their then five year-old son. I had the chance to watch that matter unfold over time, both as her confidant and as a witness in the courtroom. At the time, she was a soldier (and Italian immigrant, incidentally) and moving to Germany and the judge decided to split the custody and awarded two months with her, two months with his father. It was during that difficult arrangement, with all the grief and difficulty of the separation, that the seeds of this story were sown.
How did you come up with the title A Lovely, Indecent Departure?There are two things that motivate Anna. The first is her son, whom she is driven by love to care for and protect. The second is her own childhood, which was, because of the actions of her mother and father and then those of a sexual predator, riddled with feelings of loss, abandonment, and a deep sense of unworthiness. A life she still feels saddened by and bound to in her marriage with Evan Meade. As such, there are two journeys in the book. The one is the taking of her son, the second is Anna's departure from the indecencies rendered to her in the past.
Some of the story takes place in Italy. Have you ever been to Italy? Does the country inspire you?
I have had the chance to visit Italy, and Florence, in particular. My wife is Italian and was raised in Belgium and so I've been fortunate to travel overseas a few times to visit family, and we lived a short while in Germany. Florence, though, stands out as one my favorites, with its art and architecture, and the feeling of having stepped backwards in time. It is, as I wrote in the novel, the perfect place to discover resilience and optimism.
Some of the dialogue is in Italian. Are you fluent?
I am not, but my wife speaks it fluently. We worked very hard together to come up with a translation that did not make it so difficult to figure out what was being said and though I don't imagine we succeeded every time, I do think the native dialogue gives the story a true feel of Italy.
Do any of the characters reflect people you know?
Many of the characters in the story are composites of real people, not singular representations. One of the joys and challenges of writing is taking this vague notion of character and turning it into a real person in whom the reader can discover and grow along with as the story develops. To do that we borrow from those we know. As the author, of course, there is a portion of myself in all of them.
Why did you refrain from using quotations in the dialogue of the novel? (Note: In my review, I mention that this really irked me at first, but I ended up loving it later. I was so happy to be able to ask him why he chose to do this!!)
For two main reasons. One, I believe that if writing without the aid of quotation marks the author is made to work harder in choosing his or her words precisely so the expression is understood by the reader accurately and vividly, which is the ultimate goal of any writer in any genre or format. Quotation marks, I think, can sometimes serve as a crutch we writers lean on. I also think there is a visible flow to the page, from which all tiny little ticks distract. So, part one to answer your question: I think leaving them out makes me a better writer and the writing, in appearance at least, flows more smoothly.
A secondary reason for the omission of quotation marks is a theme you'll find throughout the novel, which is this: to truly understand the heart of any matter, we must strip away all of the extraneous elements. That is, remove the shell, the accoutrements, the non-essentials. People, as we know, can be full of disguises. They appear one way publicly but turn into another behind closed doors. We know this and yet we are asked time and again to put our trust and faith in the ability of others to make sound decisions, even with so little faith ourselves that they do so with a full understanding of the situation. This is ultimately is what drove Anna to kidnap Oliver. The judge was wrong in his judgment and she knew it. She could live with that outcome or she could do something about it. It is for this same reason, too, why near the end of the book, the parents are literally and figuratively swept away. With each motivated by different goals to obtain the same thing, how else could a reasonable person consider what was truly in the best interest of the child? They had to go, at least temporarily, and so did quotation marks.
How long did it take write your debut novel?
This is actually the second of the novels I've written, but the first of the two to be published. I started making notes and first passes at the manuscript in 2004, but alternated working on it with writing the first, so it is difficult to pin down a given number of years to produce it. As with many things in life, life itself does get in the way and for a couple of years, I wrote no fiction whatsoever. Then in 2011, I committed myself to finishing the book.
How do you deal with writer's block?
I don't really think in terms of writer's block, because I think of writing as work—albeit work I love—and a long time ago, I wishfully committed myself to the work of being a writer. That meant for me, at the time, rising at 4 a.m so I could get a couple of hours in before I had to go to work, so that no matter what happened the rest of the day I had fulfilled that particular wish of mine. I followed this routine for over a decade so that now when I sit down at my desk, it is the same as sitting down to work and like everyone else with a job, sometimes the work comes easily, sometimes not. Sometimes distractions, of which our mind can be the greatest contributor, get in the way. When that happens, the only thing you can do is either let the distraction become you or write through it. Neither one nor the other is wrong a hundred percent of the time and both will make the writing better. But with writing comes the understanding that often you have to write ten times a hundred words to find the one hundred that fit. There is no way around that, no shortcut, no magic elixir. So in that regard, it's not really writer's block, but instead an appreciation for the story that is always revealing small bits of itself to us, even when we're not working. A writer's talent is measured in patience, not words.
Are you working on another novel? If so, what is it about?
My next novel is titled The Dead Lion, which I began writing back in the mid-to-late 1990s. It is about a soldier who deserts the Army from what is a contemporary war after his pregnant wife is killed by a hit and run driver. He returns to his father's apple farm in the mountains of North Carolina, where he is followed by violence in the form a machismo, extremist contractor determined to see military justice carried out.
You've written about genre labels and how they can be limiting. What genres interest you the most?
In my forty plus years I have been all over the place on this. As a kid I loved fantasy, science fiction, Zane Grey westerns and stories about animals (a la Where the Red Fern Grows, White Fang, but also Watership Down). Then came horror, international espionage, stories of the wild frontier and great family sagas, for a short while legal thrillers. These days I seem to be drawn to books that tend to bend the genre structure and simply tell a story about real life in terse, precise, lyrical prose.
Who are some of your favorite authors?I read way more nonfiction than fiction these days, so the list is ever changing. For now, I'll keep it short and inclusive:
Cormac McCarthy, Robert Olmstead, James Dickey, Ernest Hemingway, Bill Bryson, Barbara Kingsolver, Michael Pollan
Same rule applies from above:
All The Pretty Horses, by Cormac McCarthy, Deliverance, by James Dickey, A Moveable Feast and The Old Man and the Sea, both by Hemingway, The Omnivores Dilemma by Michael Pollan, and Mastering the Art of French Cooking, by Julia Child (reading between the lines, this is cooking that will make you cry).
Were you an avid reader as a kid?
Yes, my family loved to read. I got my first library card when I was seven years old and can remember using it often (still the case). In the log cabin farmhouse we built when I was fifteen we had a bedroom dedicated to nothing but books. Other than down by the stream along the woods, it was my most favorite place to hang out.
Are you an avid reader now?
I am, but it seems lately I tend to read a little bit of a lot of different books, and those seem to be mostly nonfiction. If a book doesn't hold my attention or offer some answer to a question I have, I don't finish it. It seems to me as you get deeper into adulthood you owe it to those coming behind you to pay closer attention to the world, to see what things are going with it while it is on your watch. I am passionate about our food, health, tolerance, the planet and natural resources, and the over-consumption of stuff. That's not to say if a good story comes along I won't read it. But writers of fiction have to be careful because there is no temptation like that of a writer with envy for another writer's words.
You mention in your bio that you spent some time in the Army. Did you get to see a lot of different countries? Do you think your time in the service had an influence in your writing?
I spent four years as an officer in the Army right out of college. Most of that time I spent in the Airborne at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. I was there in 1990 when I deployed to Saudi Arabia on Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm. I left the service a year and a half after that war ended. I don't believe my experience in the Army influenced the writing of A Lovely, Indecent Departure so much as it did The Dead Lion, which you'll recall was the novel I first started writing back in the mid 90's. For certain it has affected the discipline, order and commitment with which I've undertaken my role as a writer.
What advice do you have for aspiring writers?
Be honest with yourself and if good writing is what you aspire to create then be persistent, but also be patient. I have only ever wanted to be a writer, but that did not stop me from becoming a good student of literature and of science, a good leader, a corporate director, a teacher, a husband, a father and friend. Life is the universal story, our quest for meaning, for purpose, the whole of the human condition. You'll miss out and your writing will fall short if holed up in some dark corner relying solely on imagination.
For the act of writing itself, it's quite simple: first write one good sentence, then another.
Do have anything to add for the readers of this blog?
Thank you so much, Megan, for this opportunity. I am blogger as well—at www.withoutenvy.com (about raising a child with type 1 diabetes)—and I know well the commitment to delivering work worthy of someone's attention. I know, too, the appreciation, reward, and responsibility a readership bestows upon a writer. It's been a honor to be the focus of that here at Love, Literature, Art and Reason for a little while.
Thank you, Steven, for letting me ask you tons of questions. I enjoyed reading and reviewing your novel and interviewing you. I will be looking forward to your next novel, The Dead Lion.
Ways to Follow/Contact Steven Lee Gilbert:
Goodreads: Steven Lee Gilbert
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