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Author Interview: with Abby Slovin

the cover of the book

Abby Slovin, author of Letters In Cardboard Boxes, fills us in on what inspires her and how Letters came about.

Are you a big reader? What is your favourite genre?


I would say I'm a big reader. Sometimes my schedule doesn't allow me to consistently read from one day to the next, but when I do pick up a good book, I'll read it straight through until I'm finished -- sometimes losing a lot of sleep in the process. Some books can be addicting like that. That's why I love a long plane ride, or a stormy day. They allow me to sit and read a good book when I might not otherwise have had the time.


In terms of genre, I'll read pretty much anything recommended to me and try not to restrict myself to a certain genre because some of my best reads have come through good recommendations that I probably would have never tried on my own. But, in terms of a genre that has been consistently good for me, I would say literary fiction. I like strong themes in a novel, good characterizations, depictions of dynamic relationships.


Would you say literary fiction is your chosen genre to write, as well as read?

I would say literary fiction is my chosen genre to write, although most of my readers have told me that my work tends to hang somewhere in between literary and commercial fiction. The pacing seems to match that of what a commercial audience looks for, and the themes and characterizations move more into the literary realm, I think.

What and who have been your biggest influences as a writer yourself?

Some of my biggest influences aren't literary influences at all. A lot of my writing is molded by things I see around me every day. I love the rhythm and pace of New York and a lot of my writing, I think, mirrors the love I have for the energy around this city. I'm also influenced a lot by the strong people in my life: my parents, my husband, my best friend. Their traits have molded a lot of the great characters I've written. And, in terms of writers, I'm deeply influenced by those who have been able to write quirky characters and relationships so well -- Ruth Ozeki and Charles Baxter, for example. And, writers who have been able to fuse humor with the darker realities of the world, like Woody Allen and Kurt Vonnegut.

Is there a particular author who inspires you?

Very often, I feel inspired by Emily Dickinson, particularly her internal struggle and her struggle with the society in which she lived. I feel so inspired by how she was able to take that struggle and turn it into such a beautiful body of work.

It's interesting that you say New York inspires you, because it was so vivid in Letters. Which leads me to get specific. Was there a particular inspiration for you to write the beautiful relationship between Parker and Dotty? What drew you to the subject matter of Letters? What is your writing process?

I'm so pleased to hear that the inspiration came out so vividly, and the relationship between Dotty and Parker spoke to you so strongly. While there wasn't necessarily a specific inspiration behind that relationship, I really get personally involved with these characters as I write them. For me, its always a personal experience to write about relationships whether its inspired by something in my own life or not.

The larger story around Letters, however, is more closely inspired by a personal experience. A few years ago, I was sorting through some old papers from my grandparents' house after they had passed away and found a collection of letters they had written to one another during their courtship. The first thing I wanted to do immediately was talk to my grandma about it, ask her what it had meant, how she felt at that time, when she had realized that she was in love, etc.. And, I confronted a lot of sadness and guilt, and also joy, from suddenly being aware of this moment in their lives. I wanted to write a story that centered around this theme, of finding remnants of someone's life after they're gone, and the multitude of emotions that hit us as we sift through them. Its not all negatively-focused emotion, but at least for me, they were all powerful emotions.

My writing process is very chaotic, honestly. Sometimes, I'll write an entire scene around a text message written while I'm walking somewhere. Other times, I sit more diligently at a computer. But, the story is never written in sequence. I jump around based on what inspires me at the moment. Which is why one of my big challenges is making sure the dates and times are consistent when its read in sequence! Admittedly, it never is, and I have to fix it. I think that by bouncing around within the story, it allows me to maintain the sort of energy that I want my stories to have.

I love the net-based, episodic approach you have taken to the publication of Letters, particularly as it centers around such a traditional form of communication (letter writing). Can you tell us a bit about what inspired you to publish as a website?

You're absolutely right that there's an irony to releasing a novel online when it centers around "such a traditional form of communication" and my reasoning has two separate answers.

For one, I felt like the themes of the novel focus on a universally-shared experience in the world, that of loss, and I wanted to give readers the opportunity to experience the novel together, to share the emotional (as well as intellectual) reactions of this character's struggle and how it relates to their own. I feel like reading is primarily an individual activity, in a way an isolating one also, so I wanted to provide an avenue with which readers could interact and share their thoughts with one another. The great thing about an online format is that it has the potential to reach so many readers at once and if you check out the discussion corner, I think this idea is developing pretty well.

The second reason has a bit more to do with the realities of the publishing industry, which I think is sort of struggling to find its place as the technology around it progresses. Right now, especially, it's really hard to get noticed by the established industry, especially as a debut writer. I thought this online platform would be a really good way to build a grassroots readership on my own, rather than waiting to be noticed.

Well, I think the website is fantastic, as is the discussion corner. It must be rewarding to actually SEE readers engaging with your work. And now your book is also available in print, can you tell us a little about that? Would you encourage readers to also interact on the website, even if they are reading a hard copy of your novel? Because you have extra things on your site?

Absolutely, the discussion corner is meant for all readers. Responses definitely don't have to be submitted "in real time" as chapters are released. Even now, I have a lot of readers engaging in the chapters at their own pace and responding to earlier chapter questions or other reader responses, weeks after the chapter has gone live. The discussion corner is deliberately meant to exist as an ongoing discussion between readers for as long as people are reading the novel (hopefully, for a very long time). And, as you said, there is a lot of other content for readers on the website, including (a personal favorite) More Letters, where readers can read more fantastical letters between Parker and her grandmother that are not found in the novel and suggest places where they should visit.

Especially because of all the additional content and discussion on the website, I'm hoping readers will visit and interact there. I'm hoping the story continues to be dynamic and evolving as more readers get involved, rather than as most novels are (because of the nature of it being published), finite and static as a reader reads. This is one of the benefits of sharing and publishing content online.

Thanks so much, Abby! If anyone would like to buy a copy of Letters, paperback copies are available here. And if you purchase one of these fantastic reads from now through to the end of December, you could make someone else's day and take advantage of the "buy one-get one half off" holiday sale! The perfect gift!

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