Your first novel, Under Budapest, will be released this spring. At the risk of starting off with a soft-ball, low-brow question, how does it feel to have your first book coming out?
Really exciting, and every part of it is new to me. I received the proofs in the mail a couple of weeks ago and thought, “Oh, so that’s what they mean by ‘proofs.’” The pages were formatted as they will be in the published book. I didn’t know that. And they look great.
You have published short fiction in magazines such as Exile and The New Quarterly. For you, how does short fiction writing differ from writing a full length novel?
That’s a great question because Under Budapest started as a collection of linked stories, which then kind of novelized itself. I wrote it in stories at first because I wanted short do-able writing tasks. I could imagine writing a short story in a few weeks, but a whole novel? As it turned out, though, the stories were inseparable as each contributes to the same story arc. The book still has aspects of short fiction because each story/chapter focuses on one “problem” and they are told in different narrative voices. But, together, all stories contribute to a single narrative arc, the resolution of two main characters and a mystery.
Any and every author in 2013 must must must promote and publicize and engage with readers such as never before. I’m talking, of course, about social media. I know you’re on Twitter@AilsaKay and that you have a blog/website http://ailsackay.com/ Tell me, is this kind of interaction fun for you? Did you have an idea of what you would need to do? Do you resent it at all? Has anything about the world of social media surprised the author in you?
You’re right. I struggled for a while with the idea of a blog—does the world really need to know what I think about… blah? And then when I decided one day that the blog really had to be about Budapest, and about where the stories began, then it all came together. Now, I love writing the blog. It gives me an excuse to post photos of my favourite spots in Budapest, drop teasers about the book, and in a way it lets me live inside the book and with my characters just a bit longer. I don’t resent it at all. I’m curious and slightly addicted. It’s a massive shift, for sure—a modern-day version of the eighteenth-century explosion of print culture. So where do we go next? What does it make possible?
For those who haven’t yet heard of your debut novel, give me the one sentence pitch.
A mystery in pieces, Under Budapest excavates what lies beneath post-Communist Hungary as a woman searches for the sister she lost in the ’56 Revolution and her son becomes an involuntary witness to a murder.
Which is harder for you to write: dialogue or description?
Dialogue. It takes me hundreds of revisions. It’s not just about getting the characters to “sound” right, but also making sure the dialogue does something, provides the right information (and right amount of it) to keep the plot going. And then, obviously, it’s about character. Would Tibor really give that much away to his mother? Would Agi really be so manipulative?
Now tell me about your work in progress or next release.
I’ve got one project I’d like to return to, a novel about an accountant in eighteenth-century Venice who falls in love with a counterfeiter. Money is made and lost. Chaos ensues.
What was it like doing the research for Under Budapest? Was it ever overwhelming? Trying to sift through facts and data and details and trivia? And then trying to work all of that into a novel?
I love writing about historical events. It gives me something to start with, and some constraints. So no, not overwhelming. I found autobiographies, memoirs of the Hungarian Revolution incredibly moving and helpful. The amazing thing is that when writing fiction, there’s no such thing as “trivia.” The more trivial, the better, in some ways. I hunted out the most trivial detail because detail is how we make fiction feel real. And interestingly, the memoirs often provided that detail. It’s as if the brain fastens on trivial things in traumatic times—a snippet of conversation, the weather, the headline, the jacket a woman is wearing, the sound and feel of marching in protest.
This may seem like another dry, dreary question, but every author is different. What is your writing approach? Pen and paper? Laptop? Silence? A daily quota? And how long - from the germ of the idea to submitting to publishers – did it take you to write Under Budapest?
I work on a laptop and I like to work in the morning. I start early—7ish is best—and work as long as I can. I’m also a college teacher, so I have the fortune of a flexible schedule. Some days, I don’t have to teach until late afternoon and that means I can usually get a good long morning of writing done. Under Budapest started with one story, which took a few weeks to write and then I put it aside. I returned to it a year or so later, revised it and sharply scaled it down. The rest of the book came very quickly after that. I wrote most of it in 4 months of full-time writing—which felt like a fabulous luxury. I was lucky; a couple of grants allowed me to take time off work to do this.
Name two authors who influenced you the most, or to whom you’d like to be compared.
I loved Jonathan Safran-Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. I don’t think Under Budapest is anything like his work, but his daring in that novel inspired me. He writes great plots out of world-shifting events, and with real, laugh-out-loud humour. I also marvel at Ian McEwan’s control over plot. He’s a master of pacing and suspense who makes it seem effortless.
If a hotshot Hollywood director knocked on your door with an offer to make the movie version of Under Budapest, who would you cast in the lead roles?
Tibor: Matt Damon
the older Agnes: Helen Mirren
young Agnes (Agi): Romola Garai
The last question is kind of a freebie. What is the one thing you wish I had asked you but didn’t? Now go ahead and ask and answer that question.
Did you want to be a writer when you were a kid?
No. I wanted to be a detective. But, that said, my idea of detective work had little to do with the reality of policing. I just liked solving mysteries and puzzles. Probably, I had read Sherlock Holmes, and decided it seemed right. I think that what draws me to writing is similar; I like solving mysteries. Only, as a writer, I get to set the mystery as well as solve it.
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@AilsaKay or check out her website and blog:
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