The Next Big Thing

My marvelous and dedicated agent, the great Jean Naggar, has included me in a blog network to which she was invited. Jean isn’t just a blockbuster agent, she is also a talented and lyrical writer. (Her book is Sipping From The Nile. It’s a shimmeringly beautiful coming-of-age memoir, set in an Egypt that doesn’t seem to exist anymore.) After answering the same questions that she answered in her blog, I will tag four other writers who will do the same.

The 10 Interview Questions for “The Next Big Thing”

What is the working title of your book?
The title of my book is Underpainting. I have my agent, Jean Naggar, to thank for that–she’d drawn up a list of possibilities, and when she pronounced that one out loud in her lush British accent, we both kinda went, “oooh.” Underpainting is a term from the world of art; it refers to the structural bones beneath the layers of oil and glaze in a finished painting, often done in shades of gray, or “dead color.”

Where did the idea come from for the book?
It was a frosty January night, probably around two in the morning. I had just watched the killer second season finale of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and I was still gasping. After years of being terrified of vampires, suddenly I understood. Vampires were the perfect metaphor for anyone living outside society’s boundaries.

I’d always wanted to tell the Holocaust stories my mother shared with me, but I hadn’t the slightest idea where to start. At the same time, I was already working on a different story, based on my years in the art world. Suddenly, I saw a way to marry them together, in a way that would make each of them more meaningful.

Raphael Sinclair, my vampire, appeared in my bedroom the very next night, sitting beside me as I typed away, whispering his sad story into my ear.

What genre does your book fall under?
Literary/commercial. My agent’s assistant, Laura Biagi, says that “Underpainting is a member of that magical hybrid that bridges both the literary and the commercial worlds.” Bless you, Laura.

Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?
I’ve spent way too much time on Pinterest creating pages dedicated to answering that very question. (Check it out here: http://pinterest.com/hmshankman/) Originally, I imagined Rafe, my vampire, as some kind of holy communion between Jude Law and Ralph Fiennes, though today I think Michael Fassbender or Tom Hiddleston would fill in nicely. Tessa, my art student, could be Scarlett Johansson, now that she’s discovered her inner Avenger, but she would need to wear Nicole Kidman’s Pre-Raphaelite red curls. Sofia, Rafe’s doomed love, makes me think of Rachel Weisz. And Anastasia, Rafe’s sometime mistress and the editor of the world’s foremost fashion magazine, might be Audrey Tatou.

What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?
Underpainting tells two intertwining stories of forbidden love, beginning with the powerful attraction between Raphael Sinclair, the mysterious founder of the American Academy of Classical Art, and Tessa Moss, a gifted art student. At the heart of the story are secrets and lies with their roots in a doomed love affair between two art students in Paris on the eve of World War II. Okay, that’s two sentences. I cheated.

Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?
As I mentioned before, I have the tremendous good fortune to be represented by Jean Naggar, of JVNLA.

How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?
I have four young children, and in my precious moments of spare time, I paint portraits. Between nursing a baby, changing diapers, wading through endless mounds of homework, driving a couple of million carpools, and painting other people’s kids, it took a little more than three years.

What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?
Interview With A Vampire, by Anne Rice, and The Historian, by Elizabeth Kostova. Though in my secret heart of hearts, I often think of it as Buffy meets My Name is Asher Lev.

Who or What inspired you to write this book?
For many years, when anyone said, “Tell me something about yourself,” my answer was, “My parents are Holocaust survivors.” Despite their unique and terrible upbringing, our house wasn’t grim; we were always laughing, though the jokes could get pretty dark. I wanted to address that, but I also wanted to write about my own experiences, attending art school, working as an artist’s assistant in Tribeca, slaving away at Conde Nast.

I’ve loved writing since I was a little girl, but I wasn’t a writer when I began working on this book. But as I moved through the worlds of plot, sentence structure and story arc, I found I was using the same familiar rules of thumb that I use when I paint. I still depended on form, color, and composition, only now, composition was transformed into the pattern of storytelling. Color was the way I used all the senses, sights, sounds, smells. Texture became the nature of the writing itself; dialogue or narrative in this passage, exposition or summary? Does this adjective precisely convey the emotional shading? Is it balanced, or is it too dark in one area?

What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?
Artists are a little messed up. And by artist, I mean anyone who paints, writes, acts, sings. You see, you don’t become an artist because you like to paint. You become an artist because you will die if you don’t paint. Normal people do not abandon conventional jobs–jobs that come with a regular paycheck, by the way–to daub oily goo onto canvases, nor do they stay up all night to brood over a single paragraph until they get it just right. Normal people don’t spend hours pretending that they are someone else. I wanted to celebrate those outsiders, people, who, in a curious way, are the most normal people I’ve ever known. Underpainting is a love poem written for them.

As promised, here is my list of writers. Next week, they will answer The Next Big Thing questions on their own blogs.

Jean Naggar http://www.jeannaggar.com/blog.htm?tag=Egypt

Iza Trapani http://izatrapani.com/wp/

Elana Sztokman http://www.jewfem.com/easyblog1/blogger/listings/elana

Renee Miller http://reneeamiller.blogspot.com/

Rita Webb http://afantasyfiction.blogspot.com

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