Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Cornelia Read on Being Hip, Reading Nabokov, and Eating Sassy Sauce in Syracuse

Hi, Cornelia! Happy New Year. (I know, that’s not a question).
Happy New Year back to you! (I know, that’s not an answer, but still...)

I think you’ve probably been asked all of the mainstream questions already, so I’ll stay on the periphery with mine. First, Lee Child called you “wry, knowing, hip” in his assessment of your debut, Field of Darkness. Have you always been hip?
I think I was hip once for about eight minutes in 1967. Unfortunately, I was both four years old and asleep the entire time.

I'm guessing you're too modest to attest to your own hip-ness. Some DLers were comparing your jacket photo to the stylish Grace Kelly. Are you a fan of her flicks? Aren’t there some interesting parallels between you and Grace? Aside from your blonde beauty?
I am sitting here at the computer hugely blushing at your very kind words, O Most Gorgeous Julia, (Note to self: buy stock in Photoshop. Photoshop is my friend.)

I think I told you at Bouchercon that I feel like I always look like either Queen Victoria or The Joker in photographs—depending on whether or not I smile.

And poor Princess Grace must be spinning in her afterlife at tremendous velocity! She is of course impeccably coiffed and Chanel-clad, despite the RPMs. I am wearing an Ernie Ball Guitars T-shirt (“Balls are Best!” http://www.ernieball.com/) and second-hand jeans that are better left undescribed, for the sake of the children. Also, my intrepid spouse has just informed me that I have a big fat wad of dryer lint in my hair (hair which cannot be described as blonde without heavy reliance on “air quotes.”)

That would pretty much shoot down the parallels?

She made wonderful movies. I am especially fond of Rear Window.

I don't see The Joker thing, but there is a certain proudness to your profile that I can see as regal. Not a bad thing.
As you know, I read and loved Field of Darkness, and I saw on your Naked Authors blog that your next book is called The Crazy School. What’s the premise for Madeline Dare’s next adventure? When does the book come out?
I think I just finished the final edits on The Crazy School this afternoon, at long last. It’s due out about a year from now—winter, 2008.

Madeline’s teaching at a “therapeutic” boarding school for emotionally disturbed kids outside Stockbridge, Massachusetts, in 1989. The students are great, but the school’s administrators are so vile that Madeline’s husband Dean tells her, “if you stay in that place one more week, they’re going to shave your head and make you sell flowers in an airport.”

I taught at a very similar place in 1989—The DeSisto School, outside Stockbridge, Massachusetts.

I am still haunted by what was done there in the name of therapy, and have never felt more strongly that I was in the presence of pure evil.

The Commonwealth of Massachusetts finally pulled the school’s license two years ago. I guess they could no longer ignore what was going on there, following reports that school staff had waited ninety minutes to call 911 after a student swallowed razor blades.

The Crazy School is fiction, but there’s a lot of truth in it, all the same. I still wish I could have loaded all the kids into my station wagon and taken them someplace safe.

That's terrible!
So, staying Mary Poppins in tone, I shall veer immediately to: Did you have a nice holiday?
It was awesome. We went to Syracuse for a week, which was oddly warmer than Berkeley for pretty much the entire time. My inlaws are way cool, and we got to eat wings from Sal’s Birdland, “home of the sassy sauce.”

Do you have any special writing resolutions
for 2007?
I would really like to find some emotional middle ground with writing this year. It makes me either writhe in abject terror or get insufferably pleased with myself. Probably 94% writhing, 5% undecided, and 1% insufferable. Stephen Blackmoore once summarized this brilliantly on Naked Authors as “the ‘I'm God,’ ‘I'm wormshit’ cycle.”

I would like to just get over myself and give full concentration to doing the best work I can, without all the Wagnerian boom-chaka-laka “dude, you SUCK” stuff playing on my inner radio.

Probably a hopeless cause.

I've never gotten to the "I'm God" feeling, but I'll take your word for it. :)
What’s your writing environment? Do you keep to a strict schedule?
My writing environment is a cupboard-desk thing we got for free off Craigslist, several years ago. It’s on a side wall in our living room, jammed with papers and books. I try to keep a strict schedule (working while my kids are in school), but I’m a terrible procrastinator.

You’re not the first person I’ve interviewed who lives in California but writes about New York. Is this bicoastal contrast a spur to creativity?
It is for me, but it’s always a little jarring to resurface at the end of the day—especially since I’m also writing about a different decade. If I get a phone call in the middle of working, I usually apologize for being so out of it, mumbling about how I’ve just come back from “Pittsfield in 1989.”

We both have main characters named Madeline. Was there a special inspiration behind your character’s name?
Originally, I was going to call her Caroline Dare, which is an anagram of my name. But several chapters into the first draft of A Field of Darkness, her buddy Ellis shows up, and I just heard this soundbite of her bursting through the door and saying “Madwoman…” as a nickname for Madeline, so I changed it. Ellis did unexpected things a lot, as I was typing. Very determined character. She changed the course of the entire plot, at one point. Thankfully, I think she improved it.

It looks like you’ll be writing about Madeline Dare well into the future. Do you have any other writing irons in the fire?
Megan Abbott invited me to contribute a story to an anthology of “Female Noir” she’s editing, in which women who might have been minor characters in classic pulp fiction take center stage. It’s due out this summer from Busted Flush Press, and I’m really honored to be part of it.

I’m happy to say I met you at Bouchercon. You seem to be good about attending a multitude of conferences. Does it ever get exhausting for you?
I loved meeting you at Bouchercon, and I love conferences— it’s so much fun hanging out with grownups, plus I get to sleep late and somebody else does the dishes! They are a bit exhausting, though, aren’t they? Just being around so many people who are passionate about reading and writing… I want to talk to everyone so much, and then I’m always afraid I’ll miss something if I go to sleep.

Would you have expected, five years ago, that you would be doing the things you are doing today?
Never in a million, billion, jillion years. Except for the procrastination and the dishes. Everything else just astonishes me, and I am very grateful.

What books are you reading right now?
I’m reading a two-volume biography of Vladimir Nabokov by Brian Boyd, which is the first non-fiction—not to mention non-mystery—that I’ve picked up in a long time. It’s languished on my bookshelf for years, and I started it on a whim right before the holidays. I’m at the point where Lolita has been published in France, but not here.

Is there a writer you haven’t met at a conference that you’d really like to meet?
Barbara Seranella. I’ve seen her, but I haven’t ever gotten up the courage to introduce myself. I think I’d just blurt, “Dude, you are so awesome…” and then I would start blushing and faint.
In the historical notes on your website, you mention that the Erie Canal was known among its detractors in the 19th century as “Clinton’s Folly.” What do you think would be called “Clinton’s Folly” in the 20th Century? :)
Well, of course there’s that blue dress from The Gap…

No, seriously, the Erie Canal altered the history of the United States irrevocably in a very short time—it was opened for travel in 1825, but was basically replaced by railroads starting in the 1840s. Without it, our financial capital would probably be New Orleans, rather than New York. DeWitt Clinton did right by his state, as governor.

The canal immediately dropped the cost of transporting goods between the Great Lakes and the Atlantic Ocean by 95%. I don’t know if the advent of any government-sponsored 20th-Century American infrastructure could rival its initial impact—even the highway system or the Hoover Dam. Maybe landing on the moon.

I took the Struwwelpeter quiz on your website and failed, mostly because it was in German. This would horrify my mother, who is German. What was it that drew you to this story that became an important aspect of your novel?
When we were kids, there was a family who lived nearby with a bunch of daughters—the Angels. They used to babysit for us a lot. One day they brought over a box of kids’ books they’d outgrown, among which was a copy of Struwwelpeter, in German. Scared the CRAP out of me, especially since I didn’t know what the text meant—it was just a jumble of pictures of children getting their thumbs cut off, or bursting into flames, or falling down wells, or withering away to stick figures while seated in front of a bowl of soup.

It still gives me the creeps.
It's interesting, though, that you had neighbors named The Angels.

What was it like touring with Lee Child? Do you feel tempted to send him flowers on a daily basis because he was so instrumental in launching your book?
I have often said that it's pretty much impossible to describe Lee without sounding suspiciously like Frank Sinatra's character in The Manchurian Candidate: the guy who's been brainwashed to say, "Raymond Shaw is the kindest, bravest, warmest, most wonderful person I've ever known in my life," whenever Shaw's name is mentioned.

This is because Lee Child is the kindest, bravest, warmest, most wonderful person I’ve ever known in my life. Also he’s really funny.

Touring with him was profoundly amazing, and I’m proud to say I only threw up once.

I definitely feel tempted to send him flowers on a daily basis, but I don’t want to scare him.

Okay, one more. How can readers find out more about you, your writing, and your upcoming release, The Crazy School?

There’s a bit more about me on my website, www.corneliaread.com, and I’m part of a wonderful group writers’ blog with James Grippando, Paul Levine, Patty Smiley, and Jacqueline Winspear at www.nakedauthors.com. I am, perhaps not surprisingly, Wednesday’s child there.

Thanks a million for the interview, Cornelia.
Thank you, Julia! You are wonderful to have invited me, and I loved your questions.


Sandra Ruttan said...

Cornelia's being modest. She was also hip for 8 minutes at Bouchercon, around 4 am on Sunday.

Cornelia Read said...

But I was with Joe Konrath and David Corbett, so it cancelled out.

(please note that Sandra and I owned matchy-matchy overalls and turtlenecks, as children. Kismet? I think SO...)

Cornelia Read said...

And Julia, I am loving the title of this post. Thank you again so much for letting me hang out with you here...

Julia Buckley said...

Aw, I was still sleeping at 4 AM. But I think you were awake, Sandra. :)

And Cornelia, you and Sandra have much straighter bangs than I did in the tot pictures. My mother lived life at a slant.

Sandra Ruttan said...

Cornelia, we just have exceptional taste! ;)

Anonymous said...

You do such a magnificent job with your interviews. Thank you.

I love getting to know Cornelia a bit better.

Julia Buckley said...

Thanks! I always wanted to be Johnny Carson. :)

Mindy Tarquini said...

I have a big fat wad of dryer lint in my hair

Sheesh, Cornelia! You pretty much take all the romance out of the profession with that one.

Cornelia Read said...

Julia, when you're ready to do your Carnac the Magnificent routine, a la Carson, I can make you a turban out of dryer lint...

Julia Buckley said...

MG, I didn't know there was any romance IN the profession. :)

And Cornelia, I'll take it! Here's my favorite Carnac joke:

Johnny says "Turner and Hooch."

And Ed says, "Turner and Hooch," and Johnny looks annoyed, like always.

Then Johnny opens the envelope and says, "What's the rudest thing you can do to a woman in church?"

Cornelia Read said...


Here's one from Wikipedia:

(Carnac holds the sealed envelope up to his turban)

CARNAC: Sis boom bah.

ED McMAHON: Sis boom bah?

(Carnac rips the envelope open and removes the card)

CARNAC (reading): Describe the sound made when a sheep explodes.

Julia Buckley said...

I remember actually seeing that one on the show! What a classic. Ah, I miss Johnny.

Anonymous said...

I attended The Desisto School during the year of 1989. My English teacher was named Wendy Ledue. I am wondering if you are the same person or if you knew of her. This same English teacher took a group of girls on a van trip across the USA with Melonie Romine, math teacher at Desisto. I can not wait to read this book. Will bring back many memories. Do you know of the Desisto Reunion happening May 2007 in NYC? about 120 former students will be there many from mid 1980's - mid 1990s.
The Crazy School is the perfect title to describle the horrific nightmare that Desisto was for me. I was there nearly 3 1/2 years against my will. So many terrible things in the name of therapy.
I kept a journal the entire time while I was there detailing the therapeutic antics and punishments we all endured. Sitting meetings, sheeting, grouped, hand held, silensed, farmed, the neurotic cleaning, things popped, dorm meetings lasting hours, facualty meeting... Those were the days.
Glad that it was only 3 1/2 years of my life. Things for me today are so much saner and safer.

Cornelia Read said...

Dear Kathy,

I remember Melanie and Wendy well. Melanie and I had therapy together with another math(?) teacher called Chris. I taught English and American history, and we even did a little newspaper called "The DeSisto Papers."

There's a lot of DeSisto reality in THE CRAZY SCHOOL, even though it's the Santangelo Academy and isn't an exact replica. I've got the Farm, sitting meetings, being hand-held, "limit structures," and being "cornered," (that last I don't think was still done when I was there, but I heard a lot about it). Also just the endless, endless monotony of all the meetings we had to sit through, faculty and students alike.

I'm so glad to hear that you made it through the place. I only lasted until Christmas, and felt horrible about leaving as a teacher when I knew so many great kids there who didn't have that choice as students. I still have nightmares about it, sometimes.

I do know about the reunion in NYC, and I really wish I could make it there. I'm going to be back east the next week for the Edgar awards, and I'm really bummed I can't come earlier to see DeSisto people. I hope you have a great time if you're going, Kathy, and please say hey to people for me.... Ari Chasen, etc.

Thank you so much for commenting here, it's great to hear from you, and I hope life is treating you really, really well.

Hugs to you,


Anonymous said...

Dear Cornelia,
Wondering if you plan to go on tour for your new book, The Crazy School? If you come through Atlanta I would really like to say hello.
I am dying to read your book. It is so hard to wait.
I bet a lot of Desisto folks will enjoy reading it.
Blessings, Kathy

Cornelia Read said...

Dear Kathy,

I'm hoping DeSisto folks will like it. I think the ex-students might like it more than the ex-administrators... My publisher only has local gigs planned around the San Francisco area right now, but I hope I get to do a little more travel for it when it's finally published. If I get to come anywhere near Atlanta it would be a pleasure to hang out with you.

Thank you!


Anonymous said...

im not sure if this is the right place to post this but im so overwhelemed but what im reading. "DESISTO"? i cant believe its taken me almost 25 years to say that word let alone type it into a search which brought me to here. i spent over 4 years at that school which was split between both of the schools locations, ( Mass. and Fla. )the stories and nightmares i carry from that place i think will never leave. sometimes when those thoughts come up i just try to remember the few fun times. hiking on mount hood trip; that was fun. partipiating in every phase of that school including the "FARM", not so fun. being a grown man of 40 now and finding a tear falling down my check as i write this must mean i'm doing somthing right. if this is the wrong place for this post please accept my appologies, otherwise i'll leave my e-mail for a reply, although at the moment i cant understand why i am. cowboy@winfirst.com

Cornelia Read said...

I feel the same way about the place. I worry about all the kids I taught there, still. A lot of pain happened there, in so many ways. I'm glad it's finished. Still haunts me, and often.

Tom A. said...

Hey I worked there as a teacher right out of college in 1988-1989. I escaped after one year. Watching Michael drooling over the teenage boys was a bit much.

I was part of that cross country trip that summer of 1989- I led the boys group, and we met up with the girls for a white water rafting trip in the grand canyon.

I left shortly after returning in August 1989. I do have a lot of pictures from that trip in a photo album somewhere.

I totally blocked that part of my life out after leaving there, and I only have vague memories of it. I did find a bit of sanity as one of the dorm parents for the theater dorm. They performed Grease in the spring of 1989, and they were damn good. I just googled the school today and found this and other sites about it. I had no idea about the reunion, but I'm sure I wouldn't have gone. I have been thinking more about the school lately, as one of my fellow teachers was named "Barak." I'd never heard that name before, or since, until Barak Obama came along.

Unknown said...

I attended the school at Howey from 1980-1982 but spent most of my time on hours within my first month of being there. I don’t completely understand what draws me to come back periodically to revisit Desisto and read blogs, etc. given it took place so long ago. But I’m captivated for some reason. Although, I see familiar names and faces, I’m reluctant to engage. For me, it’s analogous to leaving a room, entering another, and closing the door behind me. It seems so long ago that it’s hard for some reason to go back. I know a lot of crazy things went on at DeSisto (i.e.; limit structures, leashes, meds, hours, turn-ins, searches, parent-child weekends, the farm, etc). But the people, friends, and the experience had such an impact; it’s powerful and resonates with me to this day. I don’t know how/why those experiences affect me so strongly, but they do! I was traveling in Florida years ago, work related, and made a point of going to visit Howey which was a couple of hours from where I’d been staying. Most of the school had been torn down, but some buildings were still standing, I remember walking thru the girl’s dorm by the library; clothes lying around. The memories were over whelming, I was saddened for some reason, but not sure why entirely. Again the experience had such an impact and I’m not sure how that affects me today.

Eventually, I was put on the road, at around 1100 pm one cold Florida night, with no resources and nowhere to go. The groves were a dark and desolates place! My girlfriend at the time was also put on the road that night too and so I made my way to the Orlando Airport, as it seemed a natural meeting place for the two of us, and I was hoping she would go there as well. Although, she eventually made it back to NYC, her journey came at a high price, and she was eventually hospitalized when she got home. Unfortunately, I haven’t spoken to her since. Anyway, after three nights of sleeping in the airport, I found a truck stop on I-95 and started, my way home to Boston. However, I had no home to return too as my family had been told not to take me in and they adhered to the program. I remember the first trucker that picked me up asked if I had any ID on me, I was uncertain how to answer, and so he answered for me by saying, “because if they find your carcass on the side of the road they’ll know who to deliver you too.” I was too cold and tired to know how to process it all, but he turned out to be a good guy, and so began my journey on the road. I lived on the road for sometime afterward.
Again, it seems so long ago..

Cornelia Read said...

I feel a bit the same way about it--the people I grew close to there are friends for life. And there's a certain poignance about it all.

But man, it pisses me off SO MUCH that kids were put on the road. That's just, well, fucking crazy. And horrible. I'm so sad you made it through, Joseph...

Cornelia Read said...

OH GOD!!! "so GLAD you made it through"!!! That was a deeply sucky typo, my apologies!!!!

Unknown said...

Cornelia, I read your book "The Crazy School" and thought it was great! Although, I didn't spend as much time in class as those in the book, given I was always on hours, I identified with everything else. When's the movie coming out?

Cornelia Read said...

Joseph, thanks so much for reading it, and I'm really glad to hear you liked it! No movie yet, but I live in hope. First book ha been optioned, though, which is cool and helps pay the rent.

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