What was your biggest inspiration while writing your book?
Okay, right here on the first question it’s going to become readily apparent that I have trouble making decisions and narrowing to single answers. To me, nothing seems that simple! I had two initial inspirations that led me to write this story:
The basic idea of “guy pursues the simple life only to find out it’s complicated” was inspired by a high school friend of my husband’s. He moved from Southern California to Minnesota and married a Midwestern girl. They soon split up, however, and I started hypothesizing that maybe what his wife liked best about him was that he was from California. If so, their story would represent a certain irony: His biggest desire was to settle in the Midwest and hers was to leave it. He wanted a Midwestern girl and she longed to be anything but. Character conflict.
Then I started thinking what else could thwart someone’s goal of returning to The Simple Life. And I naturally thought of my old hometown of Fairfield, Iowa. This Midwestern town in the middle of farm country had become the center of the Transcendental Meditation movement. I found it this ironic, and the town was full of dichotomy. A town divided between old-fashioned and New Age. Tractors and transcendence. When I started to research happenings in the town since I’d moved away, plot points surfaced like fish jumping into a boat. It was fascinating and thought-provoking, and had the potential to be funny.
It’s amazing how much inspiration we can draw from real life. What is usually on your nightstand?
A novel, a spiritual book, and a book on the writing life. And my own journal.
Lots of books! Sounds like my nightstand! Which character in your book is most like yourself?
Hmmm, that’s interesting to consider. I’ve got the holistic/spiritual bent of Trishna but I lack her assuredness (I’m working on it, though!). I share Owen’s love for the Midwest and a simple life, yet I’m much more open-minded than he is. And I feel like I share Delbert’s compassion for both sides of a situation, though I tend to want to smooth everything toward harmony where Delbert has the patience and faith to trust that things are as they should be.
I think that a lot of authors put a little part of themselves into each of their characters. Which authors have most influenced your writing?
Let’s see.... I am a huge fan of Jonathan Tropper. He tells a story with such humor that I laugh out loud while I’m reading it (kind of embarrassing on airplanes) yet there’s deep human truth in his fictional characters and the situations they find themselves navigating. I like characters whose biggest problem to overcome is themselves. (I find that very relatable because I, too, get in my own way. A lot.) Tropper does that wonderfully. So does Anna Quindlan, and Nick Hornby, and Tom Perrotta — Perrotta has also centered novels in the midst of social factions (The Abstinence Teacher) which I found helpful to read. And when it comes to writing about small-town life, there’s no one better than Richard Russo. I think I have every novel each of these authors has written.
OK, now I need to add Jonathon Tropper to my never-ending To-Read list! And I also love Richard Russo. What is your favorite scene in your novel?
I have two (of course I can’t have just one!): The scene in the yoga studio when Owen finally opens up (physically and emotionally). And the scene in the cornfield when Owen joins Trishna. These are two big risk-taking scenes for Owen — he’s finally stepping way outside his comfort zone — and of course he is rewarded.
I loved those scenes too! They were both turning points in the story. What do you think is your lead character’s best trait?
His loyalty. To his ideals, his hometown, his family and finally to his greater good and highest self.
That is a great quality to have. Are any characters in your book based on a real person?
Delbert gets his name from my uncle, but his personality is fashioned after our older neighbor when I was growing up. He was a craftsman by trade, who was thoughtful and patient and wise. My father died when I was nine, and in a household of all girls (I’m the youngest of four) Mr. Lyon represented father-figure steadiness and solidity for me. He made us bulletin boards, made my mom’s sewing cabinetry. He was always there, right next door. Walking home from school I’d stop to pet his dog Brownie. He’d turn off his saw or whatever machine he was using, and talk to me. His wife, like Delbert’s, was ill and pretty much homebound. He took good care of her. He was a good husband. And a good neighbor.
You don’t find many people like that anymore. What is something your readers would be surprised to know about you?
Boy, I’m such an over-sharer that readers probably feel they already know way more about me than they want to! Okay, here’s something only my family knows (from personal experience): I have a competitive streak that comes out when playing board games or racing go-carts.
I am also very competitive with board games! Where is your favorite place to write?
For the past four years, most Wednesdays I write in the Eat’n Park restaurant in Wexford, PA along with my fellow Mindful Writers. The group’s founder, Madhu Wangu, leads us in a meditation, then we journal a bit, and then we write for four hours. Side by side, in silence. The wait staff pops into the room from time to time to bring us coffee and food. It’s a lovely experience.
It’s nice that you have like-minded people to write with. What did you want to be when you grew up?
An Olympic gymnast or equestrian. I lacked the ability and commitment for either. But beginning at an early age I loved to read and write. Trips to the library were weekly occurrences (where I’d walk out with a teetering tower of books), and in grade school I wrote, illustrated and hand-bound two books: “Blip’s and Bloop’s Adventure” and “Barnaby McQuicly”
Maybe one day those books will be published too! :) What is your favorite book of all time?
Oh, the pressure! Okay, here is a book I dearly love that not nearly enough people have read, so please go read it, okay?: Crow Lake by Mary Lawson. It’s a small-scale story about family—love and loss, misunderstanding and resentment, and in the end a recognition that we don’t outgrow our siblings. I’m not great at distilling why a book is impactful. Just trust me.
Alright, just mentally added that one to my To-Read list too. When is your birthday?
February 20. I’m a Pisces. Thus the indecision — I’ve got two competing fish inside of me! (Actually, according to an astrologist, I have the equivalent of a an entire school of fish, each wanting to swim in their own direction. Which makes for much flip-flopping and wishy-washy behavior.)
Ah, no wonder we are kindred spirits! I am a Pisces too. I also experience a lot of indecision (but I am passionate about each of my many directions!) What is your dream vacation?
My dream vacation would be to combine into one magical day the best parts of various trips I’ve been lucky enough to take, along with some settings I’d like to experience: We wake in a room in the treetops, and the most amazing French-press coffee is brought to us. After yoga, meditation and a massage, there’s a walk through the woods, and then along the beach, and then through an idyllic pastoral scene (but we never getting sweaty or tired or cranky). We lunch at a little restaurant in Italy, where I order the pasta with duck ragu (I love this so much I once I ate it twice in one day). Afternoon is at a beach in the Caribbean, where I take turns being engrossed in a great novel, drifting in and out of napping, and surfing in the warm turquoise waves (reality check: I suck at surfing). Evening is someplace exotic like Bali, where we’d dine outdoors with a lively crew of friends and family, fireflies flickering in the trees (do fireflies even exist in Bali?). Then we retire to our open-air room (I’ve never stayed in one but would like to), and fall asleep listening to the waves.
That sounds amazing! Describe your writing style in three words.
Aw jeez, this is veering too close to “tooting ones own horn”—highly uncomfortable for a Midwesterner. Okay, I’ll try: When I’m at my best, my writing is humorous, ironic and warm.
I definitely got those three things from Rooville! So good job! When naming your characters, do you give any thought to the actual meaning?
For Trishna, I wanted a Hindu name that symbolized what she was about, so I chose Trishna, which means “thirst” or, according to another source, “desire to accumulate.” I was also told that when used as an adjective it would be a way of saying someone is greedy. And, indeed, Trishna’s “thirst” for TM’s power does get her into trouble.
For Owen, I just liked that the name started with the letter “O”—because it reminded me of Opie Taylor from The Andy Griffith Show, which I think Owen is a bit like, and because when combined with the initial of his last name, the initials spell out “OM,” like a yoga chant, which irritates Owen when his buddy Smitty teases him about this.
I couldn’t help but think of the song Hare Krishna from the movie Hair every time I read Trishna. Probably just because it rhymes haha. What is your main character's favorite song?
Marshall Tucker Band’s “Property Line” because the opening line is: “My idea of a good time is walking my property line and knowing the mud on my boots is mine.”
Sounds pretty accurate. Any recent works that you admire?
Recent favorite fiction includes Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter, Sisterland by Curtis Sittenfeld, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler, and Still Life with Bread Crumbs by Anna Quindlen. In nonfiction, Hyperbole and a Half by Allie Brosh has me snort-laughing. And I adore Mindy Kaling’s Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (her list of alternate titles alone is worth the price of the book).
You are giving me so many books to read! If you could co-write a book with any author, who would it be?
Based on their work, I think collaborating with either novelist Jonathan Tropper or screenwriter Zach Braff seems like it would be an enjoyable experience and produce great work. (Of course, I know nothing about either guy. So don’t burst my bubble if I you happen to know that either of them is a jerk.)
I think Zach Braff is hilarious! How have your personal experiences affected your writing?
I’ve had the tendency to view the world as “either-or.” I’d see these disparate viewpoints all around me and within me, and I’d tried to determine the right answer. So in novel writing, so far I’ve been drawn to dichotomies. Rooville delves into New-Age lifestyles popping up in the middle of Midwestern values. As I began writing that story I was questioning where, in this town divided, would I belong? My next novel pits the small-local-farming movement against large commodity farming. It rose from my pride in my family’s farming heritage being shaking after reading Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma. But in writing these novels, I’m reminded that life isn’t black and white, right or wrong, and the truth lies somewhere in the middle — or maybe each side’s truth is the truth in its own way. I take what on the surface seems to be an “either-or” scenario and try to find the common ground, the place where “this and that” can coexist.
I like that perspective. What is your writing process?
Step 1. Avoid writing and beat myself up over my lack of discipline.
Step 2. Eventually become so miserable that I overcome resistance, and sit down to write.
Step 3. Lose myself for hours, completely engrossed and happy. Swear I’ll never forget how much I love writing.
Step 4. Get sidetracked by life’s demands.
Repeat Step 1.
Two books that really helped me understand (and forgive) myself and my process are The War of Art by Steven Pressfield and Seven Steps on the Writer’s Path by Nancy Pickard and Lynn Lott.
Thanks for being a part of this Q&A and good luck in your future writing!
o Amber Gregg o