Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Author Interview: Hyatt Bass

Last week I posted a review of the novel The Embers, you can read my review here. Today, I'm excited to be able to post the Q&A that Ms. Bass was willing to answer.

GJR: I read that this started out as a movie and became a novel for you; do you have any plans on putting it into a screenplay? If so, do you have actresses and actors in mind for the leads?

Hyatt Bass: The novel is out right now to filmmakers, and although it started as a screenplay and wasn’t working in that format—which is why I tried writing it as a novel in the first place—I actually think it would make a great film now. Since I worked on the novel for seven years, and because I’m so excited about my next novel, I’m not really interested in writing the screenplay or directing it. But I’m eager to see what another filmmaker will do with the book. I leave all the casting, etc up to them.

GJR: Is Joe based off of any particular actor or is he just pretty much the epitome of many actors?

Hyatt Bass: I was originally inspired to write the character of Joe as a part for Harris Yulin to play. This is of course when I thought I was writing a film rather than a novel. It was more a matter of his brilliance as an actor that inspired me, though, and my wanting to write a rich character for him to play rather than a case of taking specific things about him and putting them into Joe. I don’t think Joe was based on anyone.

GJR: The title of the book “The Embers” and the last name of the family in the book “Ascher” are interesting in their meaning. Was this intentional? Especially the title of the book because it gives such a glimpse into the novel.

Hyatt Bass: The title, The Embers, came from a Van Gogh quote that I use in the book: “One may have a blazing hearth in one’s soul and yet nobody comes to sit by it.” I had that quote in my head as I started writing the novel, and it so perfectly described the state of yearning and isolation that all of these characters are living in. I’d originally thought I would call the book A Blazing Hearth, but then I decided I preferred The Embers. And the quote definitely informed the thematic content of the book—the fiery imagery and so forth. Believe it or not, though, I chose the name “Ascher” for Joe when I thought I was writing a screenplay, long before I even thought about the quote or the title or had any of that imagery in there. It wasn’t until years later, when I sent the book off to agents, that I suddenly stepped back and thought about the name and realized what a strange coincidence that was. I considered changing it because it almost seemed like too much, but by then I was so attached to that being the family’s name, I decided to just stick with it.

GJR: We only ever get to know Thomas through the eyes of his family and not himself. Is there a reason you didn’t write in his voice before his death?

Hyatt Bass: I actually snuck in a few tiny moments where we go into his head briefly because I wanted to give some depth to his character, but I did mostly stay away from that. I like the idea that he has a ghost-like presence, and that we see him for the most part the way he is remembered by each family member (and perhaps glorified by their nostalgia). The book is really about a family coming together again after this loss, but I didn’t want it to be a book about death or loss. I wanted it to be about the love that is particular to families and how that intensity can be so challenging. Often the people we are closest to are the people we have the hardest time connecting to, and I wanted to explore that in the book more than anything else. Thomas’s death is really just an exaggerated form of the types of everyday challenges that any family faces. So I tried to keep the focus on the people who are still alive in the book’s present—even when we are with the full family (Thomas included) in the book’s past.

GJR: Family dramas are always a good read for me but this one especially stood out because of the way you told it, present and past. Did you feel that you could get more of the story relayed to the reader by writing it like that?

Hyatt Bass: Yes, I love books that do that. And it just felt natural for this story. Of course I had no idea how difficult it was going to be to write that way. But in the end I’m really happy with the result. I like the immediacy of feeling as a reader that you are actually there with the character the moment something happens. So instead of playing out the past in flashbacks or memories, I chose to shift back and forth between past and present. And in the same way, I like the immediacy of being in close third person, so that the reader shifts between characters, but is always in someone’s head. My hope was to constantly offer the reader surprises, and change the reader’s mind about who each person is, and what actually happened to this family.

GJR: You handle the different voices in the novel exceedingly well. Which of the characters did you identify the most with?

Hyatt Bass: Thank you—It’s great to hear that. I really love all these characters, and at the risk of sounding totally insane, they really exist for me somewhere. It’s as if for the seven years I was writing the book, I would go and visit them every day, and now they’re still there, but I just don’t’ go anymore. So I really identify with all of them—or I’m not sure identify would be the right term because they’re all really different from mebut I know all of them and understand them and can see things from their point of view. I have to admit, though, I’m a little partial to Joe. As flawed as he is, he’s just so lovable and complicated and fascinating to me.

GJR: Are you working on a new novel? If so, what is the general plot?

Hyatt Bass: I am, and I’m really excited about it, but it’s hard to talk about what I’m writing until I have a first draft. All I can tell you is that it follows one woman,rather than being a group portrait like The Embers, and it’s a love story, I guess, to put it in simple terms.

GJR: Are you going to be directing a film soon? If so, what the title and premise?

Hyatt Bass: No films for now—just novels. Down the line, who knows. But for now, I just really prefer this.

GJR: Who are your favorite authors to read? Why?

Hyatt Bass: I love Marilynn Robinson, Susan Minot, William Styron, Michael Cunningham, Virginia Wolff, Philip Roth, and J.D. Salinger. With all of them, I fall completely into the worlds they create, and although they’re all very different writers, I like the way each of them uses language and makes me think in new and interesting ways about people and human relationships and the world we live in.

GJR: What are you currently reading?

Hyatt Bass: I’m rereading Marilynn Robinson’s book, Housekeeping, which is one of my favorite books ever written. I’ve just finished book tour and am trying to get back to writing my next novel, and it’s really helpful to read books that I already admire and find very inspiring.

I want to thank Ms. Bass and Jason Liebman at Henry Holt for taking the time to answer the questions and make the arrangements.


Julie P. September 8, 2009 at 1:23 PM  

I really liked THE EMBERS and I think Ms. Bass is just terrific! Great interview!

jill September 8, 2009 at 1:50 PM  

JAW: Such character insight dosed with such exquisite restraint, suggests that this writer is mature beyond her years. Thank you....

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