Q&A with Kim van Alkemade
For Simon & Schuster Canada's Timeless Tour we had the pleasure of asking the authors questions. Today, we have Kim van Alkemade, author of Bachelor Girl, answering the Literary Hoarders' questions:
Frances Itani (Canadian author) often asks other writers for CBC Books’ Magic 8 Q&A, “Describe a walk that would and could feed your imagination and your writing. In what part of the world would this walk take place?”
One of the walks I took as I wrote Bachelor Girl was across the High Bridge over the Harlem River in New York City. Being able to imagine my characters in that exact setting really inspired me to create a pivotal scene in the book that used the bridge as a metaphor of a turning point as well as a real route the characters might have taken to get to a specific location. I started referring to the bridge early in the novel so by the time I got to that scene, readers would be familiar with it as a location.
What books are you reading currently?
I’ve just had the great pleasure of reading novels by four authors I’ll be meeting in Toronto. Susanna Kearsley’s Bellewether, which is set in Long Island but features French Canadian characters, taught me about a slice of American history I hadn’t known before. Genevieve Graham’s Come From Away was just the approach to historical fiction I like: an imagined story developed from a tantalizing bit of historical circumstance. The propulsive plot and compelling characters of Lisa Jewell’s thrilling Then She Was Gone kept me up late at night turning pages to see what would happen next. Jess Kidd’s wonderful Mr. Flood’s Last Resort was an unexpected delight that continually surprised me with its inventive story and original characters.
What are your very favourite books/authors? Why? Were they the reason you started to write?
I have so many favorite authors, but one I keep coming back to is the novelist Ann Patchett. I’ve read every one of her books, most many times. I love the feeling of being her reader, the way she effortlessly guides me through her stories with prose that is perfectly crafted to propel, rather than distract, from the story. I revel in the humanity of her characters and the three-dimensionality of her settings. Then, as a writer, I go back and read her again to see how she has accomplished technical feats, such as her virtuosic use of third-person omniscient point-of-view in Bel Canto, or her perfect pacing in State of Wonder, or her deft plotting in The Magician’s Assistant.
What’s the strangest thing you’ve done when researching a book?
For the book I am currently writing, I travelled to Suriname to conduct research. One dark night, I got into a wooden boat powered by a single outboard motor with a dozen other people and went up the Marowijne River to a nature reserve where Leatherback sea turtles were nesting. Under an inky sky strewn with stars, we waded ashore onto an deserted beach and witnessed the massive turtles laying eggs. I had never been to such a remote spot on our amazing planet before, and it inspired a pivotal scene in my next novel.
How are you celebrating your literary successes?
To be honest, the most important thing I’ve done to celebrate my literary success is to take a semester away from teaching at the university where I’m a professor so I can focus on drafting my next novel. For me, having the opportunity to write professionally is itself a dream come true and all I want to do is write more!
If you could have any view outside your window while writing, what would that view be?
In Bachelor Girl, I describe the view of the Hudson River from the bay window in Jacob Ruppert’s bedroom at Eagle’s Rest. It’s a view I imagined even before I visited the property for my research, and it’s a view that inspires me to this day.
What would the musical soundtrack to Bachelor Girl sound like? What tracks would definitely be on it?
When I was writing Bachelor Girl, I had in mind the sound of baseball games broadcast over the radio. There’s a scene where the characters as having a “listening party” where they gather around a radio to hear the announcer describe a World Series game between the New York Yankees and the St. Louis Cardinals. I loved writing that scene and imagining how the sound would carry over the radio waves.
Who is a writer you love and wished more people knew about?
I wish more readers who like my work were familiar with the amazing and accomplished writer Bernice McFadden. Her historical novels are so imaginative and evocative, they really inspire me. Her latest, The Book of Harlen, draws on aspects of her family history to tell the story of an African-American jazz musician who is imprisoned in a Nazi concentration camp during World War II.
Do you think about the next lives for your characters after you’ve finished writing their stories?
I hope I give enough hints about what the characters are going to do next that readers can imagine their lives beyond the end of the story. For me, though, once a novel has answered its central question, the story has come to its conclusion and I don’t have any idea of what happens after the final page is turned.
We asked Kim to write about Helen’s life post reading of the will, and now that she’s part owner of the Yankees and the estate – would she be deeply involved in the day-to-day operations of the Yankees? Maybe too just for our enjoyment – a different ending / life to Albert and Helen’s story?
There a very few things I know about the real woman who inspired my character of Helen Winthrope. The real Helen Weyant, who never married, did inherit the New York Yankees, but she had no authority over day-to-day operations or decisions. She used her inheritance to buy a house in New Rochelle, NY, where she lived quietly until her death.
I did make a big change in how I imaged Helen’s ending as I wrote the novel. I had at first imagined her alone at Eagle’s Rest, but as I developed her character it became clear that not only did she deserve to end up with someone, but that her struggle to connect with the person she liked all along would be a defining aspect of her personality. So the end of the novel that you are reading is already a different ending to her story than the one I first had in mind! Otherwise, when I set out to write a novel, I have a strong idea of how it will end, and getting to that ending is what gives me momentum through the whole writing process.
Thank you so very much for answering all of our questions Kim! It’s greatly appreciated. Ann Patchett is one our favourite authors too, and I’ll now be looking up Bernice McFadden. We’ll be looking forward to reading your next novel for sure.