One of my favorite books of 2014 is Whistling In The Dark.
I HIGHLY recommend it. I read the first two pages and felt like I’d been gripped by the neck. I could hardly put it down and only did so to feed my children and meow back at my cat.
Fortunately, the author, Lesley Kagen, now has a new e-novella out called, The Undertaking of Tess, which I have read and also loved, available on Amazon, ibooks, and coming soon to B&N, Kobo, etc. I just had to interview her…
So, Lesley, tell me about The Undertaking of Tess.
Thank you for the kind words, Cathy! So glad you liked Whistling in the Dark and The Undertaking of Tess. It means so much when a writer we admire loves our stuff as much as we love theirs, don’t you think?
The novella is a prequel to a book that’s coming out in October—The Resurrection of Tess Blessing. After I finished the novel, I really wanted to further explore the girls’ childhood, so voila! The story is about the Finley sisters, and how each of them cope with loss during the summer of 1959.
Tessie, the ten-year-old narrator, is attempting to come to grips with her father’s death and the guilt she feels after she witnessed his drowning, but her kid sister, Birdie, refuses to believe that their beloved Daddy is really gone. Tessie needs to make sure that Birdie accepts his death before their mom gets wind of how much “weirder” her sister’s getting. Stronger, and more down to Earth than ethereal Birdie, Tessie’s always watched over her, so it’s only natural for her to come up with a plan that she jots down on one of her never-ending TO-DO lists.
If Tessie can’t achieve her goals, she’s desperately worried that their beautiful, but self-occupied mother, might send emotionally fragile Birdie to the County insane asylum.
I loved Tessie and Birdie, my heart ached for them, and Tessie’s voice – I felt she was in front of me telling me her story. Just her and I. Can my readers have a sneak peek?
Yes! Here’s an excerpt from the first chapter:
We’re bobbing under a sky the color that I always tell my sister is named after her—Robin’s egg blue. We are also sweating a lot because this is a summer that will go down in the record books for being so hot. Usually Daddy and me fish off the banks of the cemetery pond, but today at the breakfast table he leaned over and said to me, “Let’s beat this heat. Feel the wind on our faces this afternoon. Whatta ya think, Tessie?” I thought that I would do anything to make him happy, and it really is steamy, so I told him that sounded like a great idea before I knew that he was gonna borrow the white motor boat called The High Life offa Joey T, his buddy at Lonnigan’s Bar on Burleigh Street, which is where Daddy works.
Maybe my kid sister would be out on the Lake with us this afternoon if Mother only woulda let us nickname her Minnow—birds of a feather and all that—but she always stays away when Daddy and me go fishing because she despises any creature with gills in a way that doesn’t seem normal. Especially crappie, but who doesn’t?
Because Robin Jean Finley was so small when she was born, my fisherman daddy who is a BIG jokester started calling her Minnow after we brought her home to the cemetery house, then that turned into Minnie, but then Mom told us to cut it out because we were going to give her an inferiority complex, so that’s when my father thought it over and said, “How ‘bout we call her Birdie? That good by you, Tessie?” A course, Mom hated that idea too, but I gave Daddy a thumbs up because with her fluffy hair, big eyes, and little bones, that really was a good nickname.
You’ve written about sisters twice, in Wisconsin, and the voices are so true, so real for me. I also love the multi cultural neighborhood, filled with people’s problems, quirks, worries, and odd and endearing personalities from a child’s perspective. Tell us about your childhood. Did it influence both The Undertaking of Tess and Whistling in the Dark?
Yeah, the setting for both stories is the blue-collar neighborhoods on the west side of Milwaukee where I grew up during the 50’s. Like the O’Malley and the Finley sisters, I lost my father when I was four. That kind of profound loss traumatizes a child forever, and I find myself writing about it often. I still miss him.
Setting is extremely important to me and the neighborhood functions as a character in both stories because it really was! There were so many kids on our block alone—over fifty! Primarily of Irish, German, and Polish descent, we may have had different cultures backgrounds, but the unifying force of the Catholic church brought us together. Unlike now, we were free to roam, which took us all into some interesting and sometimes scary situations.
I’m very sorry about your father. What a terrible loss for you and your whole family. I, like you, was raised Catholic, in a multi cultural neighborhood outside of L.A. for my first ten years and we roamed some, too. I can relate to your childhood.
Tell everyone why you wanted to write about sisters in the same general neighborhood again.
First off, I absolutely love children, and their perspectives. How they see the world is endlessly fascinating to me. How they deal with problems, how theymanage to navigate through life. Secondly, I do A LOT of book clubs. And
when I visit to chat about Whistling in the Dark, the ladies always tell me stories about their own sisters and their childhoods. That got me to thinking. (Always dangerous.) What if I set The Undertaking of Tess in a neighborhood similar to the one in Whistling in the Dark, but with two other kids? How different would their stories be? Both set of sisters have lost their fathers andhave distant moms because I wanted to write about how the same circumstances can affect kids in differently, but Tess and Birdie Finley are wildly unlike in personality and circumstances than Sally and Troo O’Malley. Except for the mischief they get into.
Mischief can be fun, you know this Lesley, you do.
So, tell us, what’s a normal day like for you?
Writing is one of my two passions—my kids and g-babies are the other—but it’s also my job, and I’m a hard-work-it-pays-off kind of gal. Because I like to stay in touch with my subconscious as much as possible because I believe that’s where the stories live, I’m up early, like 5 a.m.
After I put on my lucky writing jacket, I head downstairs and let The Amazing Gracie, my cockapoo out, make the first of a million cups of Earl Grey tea, and the two of us head over to my computer. I write a minimum of 5-6 hours a day. When my brain begins to melt, I head upstairs for a shower, which serves as a re-entry point into the real world.
The rest of the day, I babysit the grandkids, read, chat with Facebook friends, walk, pray, meditate, garden, goof around with Gracie, and get all my errands done. At night, I watch television or go to the movies. I’m also an actress, so I love both. I hit the hay at 10 p.m.
And your writing process? Mine is sometimes a torture. Tell us about yours.
I try to step aside and let the story do its thing. Writing without an outline or any clear direction is wonderful fun to me, but can also get quite crazy. I can be three quarters of the way through a story and it can take an unexpected turn in a snap, which means I have to go back to the beginning and change anything that needs to be changed to suit the direction the story shifted to. Needless to say, I do a tremendous amount of rewriting.
Me, too. Rewriting and more rewriting and slashing and editing and blah blah blah. It’s endless.
The publishing industry is changing rapidly. Can you discuss your thoughts on this topic? What are the challenges that you see ahead for writers? What are the positive aspects?
I spoke to my agent last week and asked her, “So, what’s up?” She replied, “Do you mean now or five minutes ago?” Publishing is not like it used to be and it never will be again. I was in the record business for many years and what went down in the music world is very similar to what’s going on in the book world now.
I remember standing on the corner of Sunset Boulevard and LaCienega in L.A. in the 8o’s and three record stores stood on the corners. Now there are none. Sad to say, because I absolutely adore independent book stores, I believe that might be the fate in store for many of them. For writers, this means that there are fewer ways to get your books into readers’ hands. But as hard as change is, there’s always a silver lining. Many authors who have felt stifled by the demands of big publishers now have the opportunity to publish themselves. To explore new frontiers. To create other exciting opportunities.
There are many options now and many writers are making a great deal of money self publishing.
What are the three things you like best about being a writer?
1. The deep satisfaction I feel when I’ve gotten down exactly what I was hoping to.
2. The opportunity I have to positively affect readers with my words.
3. Meeting readers at events. So fun.
What’s next after The Undertaking of Tess?
The Resurrection of Tess Blessing, the continuing story of the now middle-aged Finley sisters, will be released mid-October.
Oh, I can’t wait!
Now a few shallow questions….What three countries do you most want to visit…favorite things to do on a Sunday…Three TV shows that are your guilty pleasures…
I’m a homebody so my idea of a great trip is watching the Travel channel. Favorite thing to do on Sunday is hang out all day with my family, eat a wonderful dinner together, and a long bedtime book and cuddle with my g-babies, Charlie and Hadley.
I enjoy so many shows, but I am a complete sucker for reality TV. So You Think You Can Dance, the Amazing Race, and The Voice are real favorites.
Thanks so much, Cathy!
Visit Lesley on her website at http://www.lesleykagen.com/
Buy the Undertaking of Tess on Amazon for $4.99.
Lesley Kagen is an actress, voice-over talent, former restaurateur, sought-after speaker, and award-winning, New York Times bestselling, author of five previous novels. Her work has been translated into seven languages. She’s the mother of two and grandmother of two. She lives in a hundred-year-old farm house in a small town in Wisconsin.