I recently had the pleasure of reviewing Letters in Cardboard Boxes by Abby Slovin.
Letters in Cardboard Boxes is a heart-warming coming of age story. It was an absolutely fantastic and well written, I was honored to review Abby’s book, truly a pleasure to read!
Abby also agreed to do an interview with me, so without further ado please welcome Abby Slovin to The Lit Bitch!
- Abby: Actually the thought of writing “a” novel or “this” novel didn’t cross my mind initially, so maybe that’s the key to overcoming those “someday…” hurdles. I started writing this particular story at a cafe with a laptop after work. A friend had expressed interest in writing more often so we sat a table together, writing, comparing stories, giving feedback. There was no motivation other than the enjoyment from writing at first. It wasn’t until the shell of the story had really developed — much later in the process — that I saw the potential for it to become a “novel.” So, I guess Letters developed in sort of an accidental way. In terms of when I knew I wanted to be a writer, I’m still unsure of what that means, particularly in today’s sense of the word. The whole industry is going through such a major shift, so I wonder if a “writer” means someone who is traditionally published, or someone who makes a career from writing? Or is it just someone who loves to write? I don’t mean to be overly philosophical, but I just mean that I’m still trying to figure out what it means to be a writer. If it means someone who gets a lot of fulfillment from telling stories, I would say I always knew. I love writing and telling stories more than almost anything else.
The Lit Bitch: Every writer has a different process or schedule they follow when writing. What is your process like? Is there any specific place you like to go to write, or can you write anywhere? Do you have any rituals or foods/drinks that you simply must have in order to write? What types of things influence you in your writing/writing process? Do you have an interesting writing quirk?
- Abby: Since I work full-time, my process is more influenced by time constraints. Most of my big ideas, big scenes, or dialogue have come from sporadic ideas I’ve had throughout the day. Walking to work, for example, something might occur to me and I write myself a text so I don’t forget. Sometimes, I’m able to run right to my computer and flesh it out. Other times, the little notes to myself sit for a few weeks until I can get to them. I don’t necessarily have a schedule to write, but I think that’s what makes my prose more energetic, more raw. Because I’m usually moving while I’m “writing.” I usually jump around in the story also. One day I’ll write parts of the beginning, then jump to the end, then back to the middle, and so on. I just go with what section is speaking to me at that moment. If you can call chaos a process, then I guess that’s exactly what my process is. I always love hearing stories about writers and their rituals, but I don’t think I have any. Similar to “process”, I think rituals result from a kind of control over a writer’s environment, and I just don’t have that kind of control. Maybe one day…
- Abby: Most of my ideas come from observations. Particularly in this novel, which is focused so heavily on family and relationship dynamics and also the dynamic of the city itself, writing the story felt very personal so the ideas come mostly from my own inspiration. Some of the themes of the novel, in particular those that focused more on the development of dementia, resulted from ongoing research and conversations with people who have experienced it. I wouldn’t say I spent a certain amount of time researching these things, but I kept an ongoing check on what I was writing to make sure it maintained some level of cohesion with what a person would experience. At the same time, even though I wanted to keep it genuine to the experience of dementia, I also wanted the story to be more largely about loss, so I tried to keep some of the storyline general in such a way that readers could relate to this loss in general, without getting too specific to the ailment of this particular character.
The Lit Bitch: I am absolutely love the cover art for Letters in Cardboard Boxes. Were you involved in any way with the design, or allowed to give input that your publisher would consider?
- Abby: Yes! I staged the image at my neighbor’s apartment, took the picture and edited it on photoshop on my own. I am very thankful to a few very talented friends who gave me some solid input on it also. Since this novel is self-published, I’ve had a hand in the whole process of having it published. Its one of the perks of having done it on my own.
- Abby: Looking back, its surprising that I could write completely fictional characters that had no relation to anything or anybody and they would feel very real to myself and to readers. One of the consistent bits of feedback I’ve been getting is that the characters feel very honest and genuine. I think I surprised myself that I could create something genuine out of a completely fictional universe.
- Abby: I think a good story will challenge your reader’s expectations. Make them think that they’re certain of something and then make them re-think it all over again. This could be about an expectation about a character and what they might do, or more philosophically about the world works. Also, from experience, a truly good story invades your life while you’re reading it, makes it hard to put it down, and has you thinking about it long after you’re done. If I can achieve this one day for readers, I’ll be thrilled. My advice for aspiring writers is the same advice I have for myself: always be open to feedback and open to evolving as a writer. There is no “goal,” no “end game.” Being a writer is a process, and there is always something to learn or do better. You just have to try to keep up.
- Abby: Although the story is completely fictional, it was inspired by a personal moment in my own life. While I was cleaning out some of my grandmother’s possessions after she had died, I found letters she had exchanged with my grandfather during their courtship and was hit with a lot of emotion. In particular, guilt at not having known this part of her life, sadness for not being able to talk to her about it, but also a lot of happiness that these letters breathed life into someone I loved who was no longer around. I started imagining a story with this idea at its center — of finding remnants of a person’s life after they’ve passed — and organized a fictional story around it. I named the main characters after my grandparents simply because it felt good to hear their names spoken out loud again.
- Abby: I love Jerry’s boyishness, his honesty and compassion, and his quirkiness. But also, his quiet sadness. I think he’s a good, complete character.
- Abby: I would say the characters themselves and the dynamic between the characters is what makes this story special. Its the sort of story that gets to the heart of a very special relationship between two people and the impact of having that relationship break down. It focuses on the sort of struggle people go through every day without ceremony. And, while its a very universal story, I think people will find the writing itself unique and well-paced and the story very compelling.
- Abby: Probably Amelia Bedelia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Amelia_Bedelia). She has such an innocence about her and she made me laugh so much as a child. I’d want to ask her why she always takes things so literally and why she rarely wears something more comfortable (I’m a jeans and tshirt kind of girl). Also, Hester Prynne from the Scarlet Letter. I’d be curious to find out if it was all worth it (although I probably couldn’t take her out for drinks…)
- Abby: This is a tough question because I feel inspired by a lot of people, literary and otherwise. I’ve been influenced by the wit and humor of Kurt Vonnegut and Woody Allen, the uniqueness of the characters in stories by Ruth Ozeki and Charles Baxter. As a total package of literary inspiration, though, I always look to Emily Dickinson. Her poetry speaks to me, and I feel very inspired by her struggle with society. She was able to transfer a lot of pain and struggle into so many beautiful things.
- Abby: I feel like its impossible to say that I wouldn’t change anything. I’m sure, given the benefit of hindsight and all the good feedback I’ve gotten from readers, I could probably improve it to some extent. But, I’m very pleased with the story as is and I’m really poised to move on to the next one…
About Abby Slovin
Letters In Cardboard Boxes tells the story of an eccentric grandmother and her granddaughter alongside a series of fantastical letters they once exchanged. Their letters once traversed the East River to help Parker escape the loneliness of a childhood without her globe-trekking parents and communicate during her turbulent teenage years. Now, nearly a decade later, Parker begins to rediscover the evidence of this letter writing tradition, as well as the family’s untold stories and, unexpectedly, letters from her grandmother’s own youth that paint a very different portrait of the woman who raised her.