Monday, March 2, 2015

Last List Blog Hop: A Q&A with Ilsa J. Bick + a Giveaway

Frequenters to my blog have seen me fangirl on and on about Ilsa J. Bick's White Space for quite some time now. It was seriously one of the most unique books I've ever read. It was one of my top ten reads of 2014 and the follow up, The Dickens Mirror, has been one of my most anticipated reads of 2015. So of course when Egmont USA announced it would be closing its doors earlier this year I was amazed, shocked, and pretty darn sad. No, it didn't mean The Dickens Mirror wouldn't see the light of day, but it did mean one of my new favorite authors was going to be affected in an undeniably crappy way.

So when the Cuddlebuggery Last List Blog Hop was announced, I hopped to and headed over there to sign on. Thanks to the fabulous organizing of Kat Kennedy, I get to host Ilsa here in a Q&A and I get to offer up an autographed copy of White Space as a giveaway. Oh, and did I mention that was an international giveaway?!

Before I turn things over to Ilsa, here's a bit about The Dickens Mirror from Goodreads (note, if you haven't read White Space, you might want to skip over this part):

Critically acclaimed author of The Ashes Trilogy, Ilsa J. Bick takes her new Dark Passages series to an alternative Victorian London where Emma Lindsay continues to wade through blurred realities now that she has lost everything: her way, her reality, her friends. In this London, Emma will find alternative versions of her friends from the White Space and even Arthur Conan Doyle.

Emma Lindsay finds herself with nowhere to go, no place to call home. Her friends are dead. Eric, the perfect boy she wrote into being, and his brother, Casey, are lost to the Dark Passages. With no way of knowing where she belongs, she commands the cynosure, a beacon and lens that allows for safe passage between the Many Worlds, to put her where she might find her friends—find Eric—again. What she never anticipated was waking up in the body of Little Lizzie, all grown up—or that, in this alternative London, Elizabeth McDermott is mad.

In this London, Tony and Rima are “rats,” teens who gather the dead to be used for fuel. Their friend, Bode, is an attendant at Bedlam, where Elizabeth has been committed after being rescued by Arthur Conan Doyle, a drug-addicted constable.

Tormented by the voices of all the many characters based on her, all Elizabeth wants is to get rid of the pieces under her skin once and for all. While professing to treat Elizabeth, her physician, Dr. Kramer, has actually drugged her to allow Emma—who’s blinked to this London before—to emerge as the dominant personality…because Kramer has plans. Elizabeth is the key to finding and accessing the Dickens Mirror.

But Elizabeth is dying, and if Emma can’t find a way out, everyone as they exist in this London, as well as the twelve-year-old version of herself and the shadows—what remains of Eric, Casey, and Rima that she pulled with her from the Dark Passages—will die with her.

And now a Q&A with Ilsa J. Bick!

How would you describe the Dark Passages duology in a nutshell?

Well, I could direct your readers to Amazon or B&N or something, and they can read the synopses. In fact, that’s not a bad idea since, except for the “critically-acclaimed” part, I helped to write them, so go here for White Space and here for Dickens Mirror.

Go ahead . . . I’ll wait.

Okay? So now let’s talk themes. In a nutshell, I’m playing around with the nature of reality while also kind of commenting on what it’s like to be a writer, when certain characters or stories get under your skin and just won’t let go. For that matter, I’m also talking about what happens when you, the reader, gets lost in a story.

First off, honestly, our problem is the same as Emma’s and Rima’s and Casey’s, as all my characters in this series: how do you know you’re real? You don’t (see below) and that’s precisely the problem my characters run into: whether or not they’re real people or simply characters, infused with too much of a real life, who’ve escaped their stories by falling between the lines into White Space. (Emma, of course, is the most powerful character in this regard; she can blink from one story to the next—or be swept there—because she’s an unfinished character; her story hasn’t reached its end; she’s full of potential.)

Because what really goes on in all that seemingly empty white space? Or another way to look at it is like this: a word has no meaning—none, zero, zich, zip—unless there’s emptiness around it. Unless it’s bounded by emptiness—by white space—to give it power and definition. A D is a D because there’s space around the letter to make it a D. A word or letter or symbol or sentence means absolutely nothing if you don’t set it off by a lot of white space.

So . . . what is white space? What is the emptiness between letters and lines and paragraphs or between the chapters in a book or scenes when, all of a sudden, it’s a week later? I know I’ve driven some of my readers bonkers by ending some books on highly ambiguous notes . . .but I do that on purpose. Guys, that’s why empty page at the end of a book is there: for you to carry on the story the way you think it should go.

So then, this duology goes one step further. What if a writer doesn’t put symbols on white space . . . you know, write a letter or type a page . . . but draws symbols from this emptiness? You know that expression, falling between the lines? That implies there’s something there, doesn’t it?

That the lines are solid, but the space is or could be . . . anything?

I started to wonder what would happen if a character really did just that. Is that character lost, or can she crawl out and find herself in another story? What happens if the wrong character gets into the wrong story?

Okay, that’s more than a nutshell, but you get my drift. I hope. Don’t tell me if you don’t. Life is hard enough.

Child psychologist, film scholar, former Air Force major… you have quite a varied resume! How would you say these experiences have influenced your writing in general and the Dark Passages books in particular?

Well, as a shrink, you crawl through a lot of private sewers. I’ve worked with kids in family bound together by hate, those who treat the people they say they love so badly, and, of course, the outright abusive. I’ve also worked in a women’s prison with people you really don’t want to meet in a dark alley; honestly, orange is the new black this ain’t.

So all that, coupled with having grown up around military folks and my own service during the First Gulf War working with soldiers in the run-up and after their deployments as well as more personal history (my dad’s a Holocaust survivor, for example, and I’ve had my own run-ins with prejudice, even now) . . . I know that people behave very badly all the time. There’s no way I can write sweetness and light because they are tough to find. I’m not necessarily a pessimist, but I do think that people can be counted on to live down to your lowest expectations, especially when things go south. Yes, of course, there are people who surprise you, but they’re in the minority.

I bring all that to my novels. For me, people struggling through adversity to discover that lost light in themselves—that you are not necessarily the worthless scum-bag kid people say or think you are, or that you are stronger than you believe you can be—is what I’m about. The art a society produces, whether that art is literature, music, the visuals arts or film, is the art it requires, and you can learn a lot about what troubles or inspires folks by paying attention to things like that.

In terms of the Dark Passages series in particular, though . . . let me tell you where I got the original idea of playing with the nature of reality: my youngest daughter. See, I have this habit of thinly veiling her in a lot of different stories, and then having her die in the most horrible ways. Never done that to my eldest, who’s beside herself with jealousy and wants to know when I’ll kill her (soon, I promised, very soon). But the youngest kid . . . boy, I off her all the time. Honestly, you’d think the kid would catch a clue.

Anyway, she made some offhand remark about a book I was working on, like was I going to kill her this time or not. (I wasn’t; I was busy killing her cousins.) But we did talk about it, because it turns out she was both kind of flattered but also upset that I kept offing her even though it really wasn’t her. I found out that it always gave her kind of a jolt to recognize a detail that related to her or read her name in one of my books (or in any book, for that matter). When I asked why, she said that her brain always sort of tripped over that. Like she had to remind herself that this hadn’t happened to her; it was only a book; this wasn’t her life.

Well, that was just fascinating. I have such an uncommon name that I’ve only run across it in a book twice before (and one movie, although Humphrey Bogart says it incorrectly and I’ll never be anywhere near as gorgeous as Ingrid Bergman). So that little mental hitch has virtually never happened, but when it has . . . well, I find that my eyes kind of stumble. It’s hard to read and lose myself in the story because I’m constantly thinking, that’s not me; that’s not my life.

But that got me to thinking about perception and reality, something in which, as a shrink, I’ve always been interested. (Really, as a therapist, you are attempting to shift a patient’s perception of reality, but is that the same thing as truth? No, it’s your truth; it’s what you perceive as being more normative. Sort of a slippery slope, if you take my meaning.)

We take it for granted that when we open our eyes, that what surrounds us is real. But how do you know for sure? You really don’t, just as you have no idea if what I say is green really is. If you’re a kid and I say that something is green and say that often enough, you’ll believe me even if what I think is green is really blue or red. For that matter, you have no clue that what you see in the mirror is how you truly appear to others. (A schizophrenic patient once described what she saw when she looked at me and—exaggeration aside—it was pretty interesting.)

By extension, what others say about you influences your perceptions about yourself and, by extension, your reality. So . . . can anyone be sure that you’re the author of your own story? On a more mundane level and for a lot of teens, how do you know that your ambition to be, say, a lawyer or doctor is truly your idea instead of your parents’? What if you’re really a character in someone else’s drama and don’t know it?

See what I mean? You can go crazy thinking about stuff like this, which only goes to show that the old saw about shrinks is true: takes one to know one.

How and when did you decide that you wanted to write?

Long story really short: I didn’t, really. My husband did. I had been writing a bunch of nonfiction articles on film and psychoanalysis for some time but getting kind of bored. Honestly, once you figure out the kind of primitive imagery a film’s using or at what developmental level it functions, then it gets repetitive because everything conforms to genre standards, and different genres have certain tropes to which they normally adhere. So it was fun, but I was also thinking, okay, what’s next?

That’s where the husband said that he thought I really wanted to write novels but was too chicken to try because he thought I thought I would fail. (He was right. This is the disadvantage of being married for so long you can finish one another’s sentences.) So then he dared me to try and, well, I never back down from a dare. (My mother’s hair went white at an early age. If she’d only known about that time I was nine and stood at the edge of a two-story balcony, weighing the risks of breaking my legs, all to impress some boy named Scott . . . she might have grounded me for life.)

Anyway, I started writing stories. (Okay, I’ll be honest; I always wanted to write myself aboard the Starship Enterprise. Captain Kirk was such a hunk.) Well, they were terrible. I mean, really bad. I think I wrote about fifty completely awful stories and six equally abysmal novels (three Trek, three not) before I wrote one 7,000-word story that I managed to sell. Actually, it not only sold but took grand prize in a contest. I won a lot of money and promptly bought a refrigerator. The story got published and then reprinted a couple of times. Then I sat around and fretted, completely paralyzed for a couple months, because I couldn’t figure out what I’d done right. In the end, it was just that I’d finally written enough really, really bad words—about a million, all told—until I stumbled on how to find the not-so-bad ones. But that’s how I got started.

Are there any particular writers/books/films that have inspired you throughout your writing career?

Uhm . . . yeah and no. The truth is that if you’ve written just a thumpingly good story, you are my favorite writer of the moment, and I want to gouge out your eyes with a fork because I wish I’d thought of that idea first. So I’ve had no real inspiration, per se, although I can say that a writer to whose work I have returned on many occasions is Stephen King. Even when he’s awful—and he’s written a ton of real clunkers—he’s better than most because he knows how to tell a story. Now, whether you care about the story he’s telling depends. But he’s one careful guy when it comes to setting things up and making you take the bait.

For example, Secret Window, Secret Garden is just a masterpiece. Yeah, yeah, the end is clunky (he’s not that great with endings, IMHO; for example, the end of the film version of The Mist is far superior to the actual novella), but he really sucks you in right away. I remember the first time I came to that story, I actually heard it (James Woods does a fabulous job). Afterward, I was, like, what? How’d he do that? So then I grabbed the book and went through and tore it up with a critical eye to see how he’d done it, because I was convinced he hadn’t played fair. Well, he had, and from the get-go, in the very second paragraph. The clues are all there, but they’re so cleverly placed, you don’t see them for what they are until the end.

I love the fact that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle is a character in The Dickens Mirror. Of all the literary personalities out there who could appear in a Victorian London setting, though, I’m curious why you chose Doyle in particular?

Because no one else would think of it? I’m being only semi-facetious here. People know about Dickens and Collins and Thackeray, but how many know about Doyle? I mean, they may know his name, but there’s no way that, say, Pip or Scrooge is more real to people than Dickens. That’s not the case with Doyle. People know Sherlock Holmes, a person who was never real and yet is treated as someone who could be. I mean, there are statues of the guy, for God’s sake. So that really fit in well with the general conceit of the novels: i.e., that we all might be characters in someone else’s book and not know it.

In addition, I was really interested in Doyle as a person. You know, his family (which was HUGE; we’re talking nine sibs) was desperately poor; they lived in the slummiest sections of Edinburgh; he ran with a Catholic gang; his dad ended up a drunk and then hallucinating away in an asylum where he died; and the list goes on. I mean, the guy was also kind of certifiable in a way; he had his own breakdown when his son died just before the end of World War I and then he went completely overboard into spiritualism. He was a bit of a nut, really. So I got interested in the Doyle who might have been—rough, unscrupulous, an addict, and all-around not-very-nice guy with his own demons.

The Dark Passages books are quite different from anything else I’ve ever read, and in a great way! Was the writing process for these two books different in any way from your previous work?

Well, thank you! I’m so glad you enjoyed them.

To answer your question, though . . . you know, a funny thing happens whenever I finish a book: I don’t remember the agony that goes into it. In that way, it’s a touch like having a kid ;-)

What I do recall is that I did a TON more research for this book than any other I’ve ever attempted, mainly because, you know, what did I know about Victorian London or Edinburgh? Right: just what I’d read in books. So I had to actually go visit the London Police Museum and Royal College of Surgeons and the old Bedlam which is now the Imperial War Museum and talk to a ton of people, especially since I knew that DM would end up there. I had to wander around Edinburgh and travel out to Sciennes Hill Place, walk around the city and environs—and the number of books and articles I read!! Make your head spin. But I had to do the bulk of the research before beginning White Space, even though I wasn’t exactly sure what I’d end up using versus what I’d throw away or just file for some other book at some other time.

The thing about research is, it can be a huge time-sink. There’s always one more place to go, another book to read. What I had to learn was that a) research isn’t writing and b) you only need enough for verisimilitude. I’m not writing for Victorians; I’m writing for contemporary readers, and if you read a lot of contemporary YA set in that time period, writers sprinkle in little details to give a sense of place. For my people, language was important, too, and that was a challenge because you have to get the slang right but not overdo it so you sound like a caricature. Thankfully, there are a couple compendiums of very old books that catalogue just that.

Another interesting bit about that process: you think you know what you need. What happens, though, is that you do something that’s kind of throwaway . . . like, something touristy (in this case, it was a visit to a very little-known series of caverns under a bunch of cross-streets in the outskirts of Edinburgh as well as all the hidden nooks and crannies under Edinburgh on general principle because of the way the city was once laid out) which solifidied the idea of those caverns/tunnels under Bedlam. (Actually, having worked in a very old Connecticut psychiatric facility that Dickens once visited, I know that these kinds of tunnels still exist.)

The other thing that was different here: the number of false starts and amount of blood on the floor (I mean, in terms of dead pages and shredded sections). There is so much more to the story that I never put in because I just couldn’t. Originally, I’d planned for a trilogy but my then-editor suggested it might be better to wrap it up as a duology. Given what’s gone on with Egmont USA, this was so prescient; I’d have his first-born child if he weren’t already happily married ;-). So all the stuff and little details and adventures and all that I’d planned to take these characters on had to be whittled down to something manageable.

Out of all of the characters in White Space and Dickens Mirror was there any one that you’d consider a personal favorite? If so, why?

Gosh, I love them all; I mean, this is like asking me to pick my favorite child . . . but I guess I’d say Rima, Casey, and Doyle. Rima turned out to be a really interesting girl who has plenty of reasons to be bitter and hard but is instead incredibly compassionate and humane while still being strong. Casey was fun because I got to torture him so much, and I suppose that Doyle was my Casey in DM. I mean, when you think about it, Doyle was just this average, rough, blue-collar, not-really-bright guy simply trying to get along and eke out some kind of life at the end of the world only to have his demons catch up and assume a life of their own. Playing on what the real Doyle wrote, plaguing him with Black Dog—an incredibly perverse alter that is a play on the hound of the Baskervilles and, in this story, his Cerberus—was immense fun.

Oh, and I did enjoy making fun of myself there at the end. The challenge of writing yourself into a novel should not be underestimated.

Playing off your “Sunday’s Cake, Friday’s Cocktail” blog posts, is there a particular drink or snack you’d recommend readers pair with White Space and/or The Dickens Mirror?

What an interesting question! Well, if we’re talking cake, then an old-fashioned steamed pudding made in a real pudding mold would do for either. I really am quite partial to a recent recipe I tried for Christmas pudding as well as a terrific one that features persimmons.

There is, however, one pudding I’d like to try that I think would fit very well with DM: black pudding, which is this very boozy concoction that requires some time to swim around and soak up brandy before steaming. And it really is jet-black. Absolute heaven, with a healthy dollop of sweetened double cream.

Drinks, drinks . . . well, if I were being very Dickensian about it, you could either consume as much alcohol as Dickens actually did in any given day, or make yourself a nice hot gin punch with, say, Old Tom, which is a somewhat sweeter gin than London Dry that got its start back in the 18th century but eventually lost out to a taste for London Dry. If you’re up for a simple cocktail made with Old Tom, though, then I’d suggest an Ampersand, a lovely though largely forgotten drink made with Old Tom, cognac, bitters, and sweet vermouth—and call it a day.

If you want to the true Dickens experience, though, you’ve got two choices: a punch or just a lot of alcohol in various forms quaffed throughout the day. If you go for a punch, you can’t do much better than the one he actually wrote about in Pickwick Papers: brandy, rum, sugar, lemon, and hot water. (It’s really not as potent as all that either, which explains why people could drink this all night long.)

On the other hand, if your liver needs the exercise, make like the Inimitable himself. Dickens’ old manager, George Dolby, wrote a book about the author’s reading tours and even talked about “the Boss’s” routine in terms of how he prepared, what he ate, that kind of thing. To fortify himself, Dickens would start his day with some rum and cream. Not a lot, say, a couple teaspoons worth of rum. At teatime, he’d throw back about a pint of Champagne—so, two cups. Then, a little before he’d go on stage, Dickens would down a tumbler of sherry (and we’re talking, a tumbler) with a raw egg mixed in.

After that, Dickens gets positively abstemious. In-between acts, he was quite adamant that he had a nice hot beef tea waiting, and then before bed, he’d have soup. (I know: staid. But that doesn’t count all the little tipples and toasts and nips he’d pound back at various points of the day because people were always dropping by, and he was quite the entertainer.

On the other hand, compared to Wilkie Collins, who never traveled anywhere without his jug of laudanum—yes, a jug—Dickens was a veritable teetotaler.

See, this is where research is dangerous.

For the purposes of my books, though? Go straight for Death in the Afternoon, which, given the mind-bending nature of the duology, works for both. The drink was a Hemingway favorite, and one he contributed to a celebrity book of cocktails way back in 1935. It’s actually named for a non-fiction book of the same title that he wrote on bullfighting. What you do is fill a glass with about four ounces of Champagne (I’d suggest something middling nice, like Chandon) and then top it with one-and-a-half ounces of absinthe. (By the way, I wrote about this cocktail—and absinthe, in particular—so do check it out: http://www.ilsajbick.com/?p=2980.)

The thing is . . . Hemingway was drinking these when absinthe still contained the compound, thujone, which is what used to make the spirit so damned dangerous. As in, bloody hallucinate your head off dangerous—and he said you should drink three to five of these suckers, though he did suggest you do so slowly.

But you have to wonder: just what the heck was he seeing by the end?

Can you give us a hint about what you’re working on next?

Sure . . . let’s just say it involves a bunch of teenagers (some of whom are out to settle old grudges), a plane crash, a ghost town, some really hungry critters, a long-buried secret, and a question of who pulled which trigger when. Think Lord of the Flies set in the Canadian Rockies . . . and now you’re cooking.

About the author: Ilsa J. Bick is a child psychiatrist, film scholar, surgeon wannabe, former Air Force major, and now an award-winning author of dozens of short stories and novels, including her critically acclaimed ASHES Trilogy, Draw the Dark, Drowning Instinct, and The Sin-Eater’s Confession. WHITE SPACE, the first volume of her Dark Passages horror/fantasy duology, is currently long-listed for the Bram Stoker Award for Superior Achievement in a YA Novel. The sequel, THE DICKENS MIRROR, will hit shelves on March 10, 2015. 

Ilsa lives with her long-suffering husband and other furry creatures near a Hebrew cemetery in rural Wisconsin. One thing she loves about the neighbors: they’re very quiet and only come around for sugar once in a blue moon.

Drop by her website, www.ilsajbick.com, for her Sundays’ cake and Friday’s cocktail recipes as well as other assorted maunderings; or find her on Facebook, Goodreads, Twitter (@ilsajbick), or Instagram (@ilsajbick).

Huge thanks to Ilsa for being here today and to Kat for setting up the Last List Blog Hop! The Dickens Mirror is officially out on shelves March 10 and I do highly suggest you snatch up a copy.

And now for the giveaway! To enter, fill out the Rafflecopter below before Monday, March 9. Open internationally!

a Rafflecopter giveaway


Kay said...

I've been meaning to read The Ashes Trilogy for a while. And I didn't even know about WHITE SPACE or THE DICKENS MIRROR. Putting all on my list. Yay!

traveler said...

This book sounds intriguing and fascinating. Thanks for this great giveaway and wonderful feature. saubleb(at)gmail(dot)com

Anita Yancey said...

The book sounds a little scary, but amazing.I just love the setting and the plot, and I can't wait to read it. Thanks for having the giveaway.

Zemira said...

I so want to read White Space and The Dickens Mirror.

The book Ilsa's currently working on sounds intriguing. I'm sure it will be great because she has never let me down with her previous work.

Tanja - Tanychy said...

Wait! Sir Arthur Conan Doyle is a character here, well Ilsa I like you already! :) I have heard co much about her books that I cannot wait to read them :) Thanks for the giveaway :)

sarah said...

I really liked The Ashes series and I'm looking forward to starting this new one.

bn100 said...

Sounds intriguing

Sayomay said...

I am in the middle of reading Ashes and so far I like it! :) I already bought the rest of the series! Def looking forward to reading more of your work!
Mary G Loki

KAS said...

How could I follow this blog and remain uninterested in this book given your high opinion of it? :-)

Thanks for this great interview; I must say that I disagree that a society's art is representative of the art needed by that society. It is not responsive to all major needs, and some art isn't responsive to any emotional need but rather is focused on reaching more or less purely aesthetic goals. I do see her point though. It's great food for thought. Cheers, Kara S