Today I am tickled pink that Jacquelin Cangro is popping in for an interview. Jackie has a wonderful blog that I’ve been following for a few years now. I am so lucky to have such a fantastic blogging buddy. And she’s an author! It’s pretty cool getting to know so many writers through their blogs. Now here’s Jackie.
Your Book, The Subway Chronicles: Scenes from Life in New York, includes short essays about your experiences using mass transit in the Big Apple. How did the book come about?
Over drinks one evening, friends and I were trying to one-up each other with our best subway stories. We were trying to outdo our friends’ tales with our most outrageous, over-the-top experience. Then someone said, “This would make a great website.” For some reason, despite having very few technical skills, I decided to run with that idea. I began a website and invited people to share their subway stories. The submissions started rolling in almost immediately!
Not long after the site was up and running, I was with the same group of friends when someone said, “You should compile these stories into a book.” I sought out a few subway stories from literary straphangers like Jonathan Lethem, Francine Prose and Colson Whitehead. Then I was able to write a book proposal and secure an agent and publisher for The Subway Chronicles.
I think the moral of the story here is to listen to your friends!
We Happy Few, is your first novel that’s set during WWII. Can you tell us a little about it?
With their cross-country train stranded by an avalanche during WWII, a lonely war wife falls for a sincere army sergeant who protects her from a brawl on board. After her overbearing mother’s affair tore her family apart, she is poised to make the same mistake that she swore she was too good to make.
The germ of this story came as something my grandmother had told me years ago. She had taken a streamliner train from New York to San Francisco much like Rose does in We Happy Few. The story has taken a life of its own, but the core of the idea is still there.
Do you prefer writing non-fiction or fiction? Is one easier than the other?
I tend to gravitate toward fiction because I enjoy getting to know the characters as I’m writing. Learning their quirks and nuances is immensely gratifying. Then I have the opportunity to share what I’ve learned on the page. It’s an honor to be able to tell their stories. My only responsibility, although it is a big one, is to portray them as truthfully as possible.
With nonfiction, be it a personal essay or a narrative, I don’t have to worry if I’m sending the characters down a dead end. I can relate the dialogue and events as they happened. The challenge to craft personal essays in a way that is compelling and interesting for readers. I really admire writers who can do this!
I think this is why I like historical fiction because I get to blend the two.
Currently you are working on a novel that takes place in France between WWI and WWII. What type of research have you done? Who is your favorite writer from that time period?
Details are important of course. What was the style of dress? The kinds of cars? Food? So much of these particulars are readily available through Internet searches or a trip to the library. But there’s more to it than this. My goal is to capture the mindset and sensibilities of the people who lived between the wars. Reminiscences are usually colored by the passage of time. For this kind of information I like to use primary sources. Diaries and newspaper articles from the time are most helpful as well as reading novels written during this time.
I’ll readily admit that it is intimidating to tackle this time period. It’s only been covered by some of the best writers of the 20th century, and they actually lived it. To that end, I’ve read and reread Ernest Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast and The Sun Also Rises to help bring this era to life for me. F. Scott Fitzgerald, W. Somerset Maugham, Irène Némirovsky and P.G. Wodehouse are favorites.
It was a great experience for a few reasons. It’s exciting to get my essays into as many hands as possible. I write to connect with people and to get such positive feedback and support is a wonderful thing. Also, I loved being able to give a little something back, especially to readers who have supported me and my blog for so many years. I would definitely do it again!
What’s the most important advice you’ve received about writing?
A professor once told me this, and it is the simplest and best advice I ever received: Write every day. Every. Single. Day. Maybe I only have ten minutes to spare today. That’s okay. It keeps me in the world of my characters and they stay fresh in my mind. It’s hard to sustain the momentum required to draft a novel if I only write one or two days a week.
As an editor, what are the most common mistakes you stumble upon?
Kurt Vonnegut famously said that every character should want something. I find that writers are often not tuned into what their characters want. Many times my students have never given it a passing thought. Everything stems from this: motivation, suspense, plot points, dialogue. What a character wants (whether it is internal or external) drives all of these elements. Characters may or may not get what they want in the end, but they are usually doing something with the aim of fulfilling their hearts’ desire.
You stay pretty busy, with working, writing, and editing. What do you like to do to relax?
Would it sound crazy if I said that I like to read? Time spent in a comfy chair with my dog Reggie and a good book is bliss. When I need a break from works, I discovered I enjoy painting.
About the Author:
Jackie Cangro’s first book, The Subway Chronicles: Scenes from Life in New York, was published by Penguin/Plume. It’s a collection of essays about the crazy, sad and thoughtful things that can happen riding the New York City subway system. She’s completed her first novel titled We Happy Few, a coming of age story set during WWII. Her latest novel takes place in France between the wars. She is a freelance editor for fiction and narrative nonfiction and teaches creative writing at The Loft Literary Center. She posts regularly on her blog: http://jacquelincangro.wordpress.com.