Name: Alyson Richman
Hometown: Saint James, New York
Based In: Long Island, New York
Education: Choate Rosemary Hall and Wellesley College
Briefly: I love to write about art, beauty and what motivates people to create
Favorite Read: One Hundred Years of Solitude
If You Weren’t a Writer You’d Be…a painter
Up Next: The Garden of Letters, my fifth novel, comes out October 2014
Your mom is a painter. Would you say that you grew up in a home that encouraged artistic endeavors?
Yes, my mother taught me early on to see in a unique way. Not only did she teach me to look at everything for color, light and texture, she taught me about movement and composition. I’m constantly trying to incorporate these concepts into my writing. I imagine every chapter to be a mini painting. I want my readers to see every thing in their mind’s eye. To me, sentences are brushstrokes that move you through the story.
How did you get interested in writing historical fiction?
I think it began with taking my first art history class. I discovered you could learn so much by looking at a painting and putting it into historical context and also delve into the psychological elements as well. Writing historical fiction is a very similar experience. I paint a picture for you, but I’m doing it with words and you’re learning about history and relationships along the way.
Jennifer Little, a PhD student, who’s also a literature enthusiast, wrote this listing of books that had male professions female relatives as book titles. I was just wondering what your thoughts are on this since you did have a book called The Mask Carver’s Son…about a male professions male relative.
Well, The Mask Carver’s Son was my first novel and it was written fifteen years ago, certainly before all these titles with “wife, daughter, son etc. came out. But I do believe that the publishing industry feels these words ground the reader with something familiar to them.
So your books have been translated in fifteen languages, including Czech. What is the best way to get into the foreign book markets?
My agent handles the foreign rights for my books, but I think one of the reasons I’m in so many foreign markets is because my books have themes that are not exclusive to the American market. I write about many different periods of history and try to incorporate themes that are universal to people no matter where they live- what attracts them to the novel is the core of the story.
Do you have a special methodology for doing your research?
I try and research for several months before I begin writing. I try and collect oral histories that are relevant to the time period, use diaries, and search through photo archives. By the time I sit down to write the book, I feel I know the material and the story can just flow forth.
You encourage interaction with virtual book clubs. What has been your experience with those?
I love the chance to meet my readers via Skype and hear feedback about my books. It’s a wonderful way for me to all give background information on the research and development of my novels to readers who might be interested in how I came to write certain parts of the story.
Considering that your book The Lost Wife takes place during The Holocaust, would you say that it’s been the most emotionally draining novel you’ve ever written?
Absolutely. It was very difficult doing the research for “The Lost Wife,” especially since it coincided with the birth of my daughter. It was impossible not to keep thinking: “What if this had been me and my family? How would I have tried to protect my children or explain such impossible hardship and cruelty? Would I have still found a way to write even if in such darkness?” These were the questions that were at the core of the novel.
That book went on to sell 100,000 copies. What do you think contributed to that?
I’m incredibly grateful for word of mouth with this book. I think it hit an emotional chord with readers and people kept recommending it to their friends and family. I’m incredibly grateful for the passion of my readers to spread the word on this book.
What do you usually do when you can’t figure out where to take a plot?
With all my novels, I always know the beginning and the end, but not much in between. After the first sixty pages, my characters start leading me where they want to go. Writing a novel is a journey where a lot happens along the way.
Have you ever combined two plot ideas?
Yes. The Lost Wife I originally wanted to explore how an artist might have survived the Holocaust and if their need to express themselves could be taken from them, when so much was already stripped away. When I overheard a story about a couple meeting at a wedding sixty years later, I knew I had to incorporate that into the story. Those two stories fused together to become The Lost Wife.
When you compare the writing of The Rhythm of Memory and The Last Van Gogh, were there some things that you did differently with the latter book, based on what you had learned when writing the first?
I think having children has really changed the way I write my female characters. I didn’t anticipate the emotional impact motherhood would have on my writing. It makes you see the world in with a different lens.
Do you have a special little spot where you choose to do your writing?
I do. I have a small office above our garage that I use for writing. It has no internet and my desk faces a wall. It’s the only place where I’m not distracted. It also is away from my two children and doesn’t become cluttered with their things…which can be distracting.
The Garden of Letters is your next work. Can you walk us through it from the moment you conceptualized it to the final, final manuscript?
The novel began with a scene at dock in a coastal village in Italy. A messenger for the Italian resistance arrives to the port in desperate need for shelter. She is taken in by a local doctor who is haunted by mistakes he has made in the past. The novel explores our innate ability to translate codes- not just those scripted for messages containing secret information, but the language we use to signal fear, forgiveness and love.
When you’re doing the edits for a manuscript, how do you decide which changes suggested by your editors and beta readers to implement?
I try and listen carefully to all suggestions and implement the ones I feel will make the story better as a whole. But, in the end, it has to reflect the story I wanted to write. That’s when I know the novel is done.
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