I am honored to have Elizabeth Leikness author of The Understory here with us today at edensbookshelf.com. The Understory drops June 1, 2012 and Elizabeth has graciously offered us an e-copy of her book to give away to one lucky reader (see end of article for more details).
Elizabeth has been kind enough to allow me to interview her. Her answers are open and honest – at times strikingly so. The interview is touching and insightful. Welcome, Elizabeth!EDB: Story Easton is one of the most intriguing characters I’ve ever read. Her dissatisfaction with her own life manifests in the most unique way. Story roams the streets of Phoenix at night in her pajamas and breaks into people’s homes. Not only does she break in even if people are in the house, she looks for a spare bed where she will pass the night. To top it off – she tries to find a pair of shoes belonging to someone in the house to wear while she sleeps in an effort to truly convince herself that she is someone else. And never at any point in the novel does Story express any fear for her personal safety. How in the world did you come up with this idea and why was it so important in defining the character of Story?
EL: This may sound strange, but I didn’t find Story’s actions all that crazy. I’m fascinated by what people’s homes say about them, so I often think about what types of people live in certain types of homes, what they do there—create, cook, parent, read, dream—and that’s what I think about when I drive past different neighborhoods. Also, I’m intrigued by the lengths people will go to in order to forget who they are. Story feels like such a failure that she will do anything to avoid confronting that fact. Truly, she has nothing to lose, and it is just then, at rock bottom, where characters start to get interesting for me.
EBS: The Understory is a combination of tragic instances that interweave and most of your characters have experienced feelings of grief or inadequacy. Is The Understory a novel about redemption?
EL: I honestly think all stories are redemption stories. My first novel (The Sinful Life of Lucy Burns) ended up being a story of salvation and redemption, and now The Understory seems to be as well. I identify with stories that have elements of hope amidst seemingly insurmountable darkness; if there is no hope, after all, what’s the point? Every night when I put my two boys down to sleep, we go through a series of questions that I ask and they answer. (What do we never do? Give up, Mama. What does Mark Twain say? When in doubt, tell the truth, Mama. But the third and last question and answer in our nighttime ritual comes from an interview I watched a few years back with J.K. Rowling. She was asked why Harry Potter’s story resonated with so many readers, and what it was all about. I loved her answer so much that it’s the last thing my children say every single night. What does J.K. Rowling say? Love always wins, Mama. That’s the kind of hope I want them to know is possible in this world.EBS: One of the minor characters, Sarah a young girl with Tourette’s Syndrome, has really stayed in my mind. Why Sarah? What role does Sarah play in this novel?
EL: Sarah’s presence in this novel is crucial to Hans’s character arc. I don’t want to spoil any big reveals, but we need her for Hans’s story to become complete. Sarah’s character highlights the tricky nature of words: they can beautiful and powerful, but also empty at times, leaving a person’s actions, not what they say, to be the real hero. Also, she is yet another character who moves through pain and comes out the other side.EBS: Magic is a theme in this novel. Whether it is believing in Santa or physically performing a magic act, the manifestation of magic plays a strong role in this book. What was your intention when you included magic in the novel? Do your characters ultimately believe in magic?
EL: The real magic is that there is no magic, I think. Ultimately, the characters understand this and realize that the true magic lies in everyday people in everyday life.EBS: I am dying to know – who is the actor that Hans is supposed to resemble?
EL: Hans’s character is a blend of my husband, a young Brad Pitt, and the character Sawyer from Lost. Needless to say, I am quite fond of him as are most female readers!EBS: Rituals are a huge part of this novel. One character has woken up to the same song for over 20 years. Another character must read the same story every night in the same way or he cannot go to sleep. Story’s mother has actually turned her Socratic rituals into a multi-million dollar business. But as the story progresses – each character breaks free of their ritual in an almost startling manner. What do you want the reader to take away from this?
EL: This is such a great observation. In fact, I’ve never thought about it, but you are so right. Ritual is paramount in this novel, and when I think back, also in my first novel. I really value ritual in my own life, especially with my children, but those are the good rituals, the ones that create childhoods; the negative rituals are the ones we need to break in order to move forward and go from stasis to liberation.
EBS: How does one classify The Understory? The story is complex and doesn’t easily fall into one category. How would you describe your novel?
EL: Although this book sort of defies genre—part fairy tale, part magical realism– I feel that it’s literary fiction.EBS: Of the male characters in this novel, which one is closest to your heart and why?
EL: I love both fathers in this book, so I have a soft spot for both of them, but since Hans reminds of my husband, he is closest to my heart.EBS: Is Story’s mother a “good” mother?
EL: Yikes. This is tricky. Yes and no. She is not the kind of mother I aspire to be, but that doesn’t mean she is one-hundred percent bad. On one hand, she is responsible for Story being such a hot mess; clearly, she was not emotionally of physically present to build a healthy self-esteem in her daughter, Yet, by being hard on her only daughter, she ultimately leads by example and pushes her to be a success rather than a failure.
The Understory (SYNOPSES)
Story Easton knows the first line of every book, but never the last.
She never cries, but she fakes it beautifully.
But one night, as an uninvited guest in someone’s empty room, she discovers a story sadder than her own: a boy named Cooper Payne, whose dream of visiting the Amazon rainforest and discovering the moonflower from his favorite book, Once Upon a Moonflower, died alongside his father.
For reasons even she doesn’t entirely understand, Story decides that she will help Cooper and his mother. She will make his dream come true.
When the decision is made, the lives of other broken people start to come together: Hans Turner, the door-making magician who can’t shut the door on his past; Martin Baxter, the author of Cooper’s beloved book, who wrote it with the daughter he misses every day; and Claire Payne, Cooper’s mother, struggling to keep her son sheltered from the anger that threatens to consume her.
The Understory is a magical, moving, funny, and poignant story of failure and success; of falling apart and rebuilding; and of coincidences that never really are. Part comedy, part drama, and part fairy tale, Elizabeth Leiknes’s second novel is a wonder you won’t soon forget.
Elizabeth Leiknes grew up in rural Iowa and can make thirty-seven different dishes featuring corn. She attended The University of Iowa as an undergrad, and The University of Nevada, Reno for her Masters. Her previous published novel is The Sinful Life of Lucy Burns. Black-Eyed Susan, Future Perfect, and Let Them Eat Corn are works in progress. The inspiration for The Understory came one night while reading her sons a bedtime story about the rainforest. Elizabeth has a love/hate relationship with great white sharks, and a slight penchant for speaking in hyperbole, which she says she never does. She now lives near Lake Tahoe, Nevada, with her husband, and two sons, Hardy and Hatcher. She also teaches English there.
Elizabeth can be reached via Twitter or Goodreads. https://twitter.com/#!/eleiknes http://www.goodreads.com/author/show/2921071.Elizabeth_Leiknes
* This contest is also open to international readers.