We all deal with grief in our own way. For some, the thought of living life without their loved one can be debilitating, especially when it is the loss of a spouse. Others choose to celebrate the passing of a life by remembering the person in a special way. Unfortunately, it is a difficult time no matter what the circumstances. We all know that one day we will die. If only we had more time.
This month’s Jen’s Jewels Ellen Block tackles this very topic in her latest release, THE LANGUAGE OF SAND. It’s the story of a young woman who is struggling to come to terms with the loss of her husband. Hoping to reconnect with him by revisiting his past, she chooses to relocate to the island where he spent his summer vacations. A poignant novel which gently reminds us of the importance of letting go in order to move forward, THE LANGUAGE OF SAND is a must-read.
As part of this interview, Bantam Books has generously donated five copies for you, my favorite readers, to win. So, don’t forget to look for the trivia question at the end. And as always, thanks for making Jen’s Jewels a part of your reading adventure.
Jen: Your latest endeavor, THE LANGUAGE OF SAND, is only the tip of the iceberg in terms of your writing career. Best known as Brett Ellen Block, you have penned THE GRAVE OF GOD’S DAUGHTER, THE LIGHTNING RULE, as well as a book of short stories titled DESTINATION KNOWN. So that my readers have a better understanding of the woman behind the words, please share with us your educational and professional background.
Ellen: I should start by admitting that I never wanted a “real” job, nothing corporate, no cubical, no staff meetings, none of that. Fortunately, I discovered that I had a knack for fiction after I broke my foot during my sophomore year at the University of Michigan. I was stuck on crutches and the only class I could actually get to was Creative Writing. So I consider the break to be my break. Looking back, it was definitely “happy accident.”
I was accepted into the Iowa Writers’ Workshop right out of college then went directly into another writing program in the UK afterward. Up until that point, my plan to buck any proper form of employment was working out just fine.
Once I was done with my second Master’s Degree, I finished a collection of stories, which was awarded the Drue Heinz Prize for Short Fiction. From there, I started work on my first novel. The rest is history, which is conveniently charted by year on Amazon.com and sometimes even I have to log on to see when the books I’ve written came out!
I wish I could say this whole not-having-a-traditional-profession thing was part of a grand scheme I’d hatched from the very beginning, but it was a lot of luck and hard work as well as a desire to write the best fiction I could. I still don’t think of myself as having a “real” job, even though being an author is very much a genuine occupation. Maybe that’s why I continue to enjoy it so much!
Jen: An obvious question, but one I must ask, why the subtle name change for your latest release?
Ellen: I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had to explain to friends and relatives that I’m not off my rocker. In light of all the odd and unnerving things I’ve penned in past books, they had their doubts. When you write darker material, people tend to think you’re, well, dark. Anybody who knows me is well aware that couldn’t be further from the truth, so writing a novel with a lead that was much more like me – a quirky intellectual – felt right as my next move.
Since the novel was a stylistic departure from my previous works and is geared specifically toward women, I thought this would be a great opportunity to express a different side of my writing personality. Bidding adieu to the masculine sounding “Brett” and embracing the more feminine “Ellen” was akin to getting into character for the new book and I believe it helped the process.
Jen: THE LANGUAGE OF SAND reminds me of Jan Karon’s Mitford series in the sense that it has a delightful set of characters about whom I want to know more. First of all, how did you arrive at the premise?
Ellen: This is a terrible answer – I don’t actually recall how the exact premise came to me. Shameful for an author to say, I know.
The first thing I remember about the process was a desire to have a lighthouse figure prominently in the story, that and the need to build a world around it in a way that would be intriguing yet have a sense of homecoming.
Perhaps I watched too many episodes of “The Ghost and Mrs. Muir” as a kid, but I always thought of lighthouses as refuges, literal and metaphorical beacons for anybody who was lost. Seeing as our heroine, Abigail Harker, arrives on Chapel Isle very much a lost soul, having her live in a lighthouse was ideal.
The locale that sprang up around the lighthouse as well as the characters that inhabit the island is a patchwork of different places I’ve visited and people I know. Of course, all my friends are eager to claim which characters are based on them, but I’ll never tell!
Jen: As I began reading the novel, I was struck by the similarities of the story’s setting to Ocracoke Island, NC where I have visited. Of course, I was tickled pink when I later learned that indeed Ocracoke was your inspiration. Please share with us your ties with the island and why you chose to incorporate its charm into your fictional locale of Chapel Isle.
Ellen: I spent a few summers on Ocracoke Island when I was kid and those memories remained surprisingly vivid to me for years afterward, as if to insist they be woven into a story. Young as I was at the time, I didn’t have much direct interaction with the natives, so the fictional characters aren’t based on particular individuals who live there, something I’m sure the locals will be happy to hear.
What stuck with me about Ocracoke were mental snapshots of collecting shells at the beach, playing Bingo, the ferry ride over, the smell of the bay, the swaying movement of tall marsh grass – sight and senses that took on a life of their own in my head. That collage became Chapel Isle, my tribute to an unforgettable island that filled the mind of a girl with dreams that ultimately became something greater than the sum of their parts.
Jen: Your main character is a grieving widow named Abigail Harker who has a very unusual job, a lexicographer. What led you to select that as Abby’s professional? And for those readers not familiar with the profession, please gives us a brief job description.
Ellen: First, the definition…a lexicographer is a writer, complier or editor of a dictionary. It takes a detail-oriented, methodical, and dedicated person to do the job, which is not wholly dissimilar from being an author.
As for my interest in the profession, that’s down to my mom, who would always make me look up the definitions to words I didn’t know. That got me interested in more esoteric words. Why refer to something as “nice” when you could describe it with far more precision and flair?
Abigail thinks that using the perfect word to describe a certain situation is like having the right tool for the job. It makes life easier for her to handle. Since my responsibility is to tell a story using the right characters, setting and plot for the job, I suppose Abigail and I are coming from a common place.
Jen: Tacking onto that last question, each chapter begins with a dictionary definition of an unfamiliar (at least for me!) word. How did you go about selecting these words? And, what connection, if any, do they have with the story itself?
Ellen: Ah the definitions, they took some doing. I fell in love with a website called www.phrontistery.info. It’s packed with more wild and wacky words than you can imagine.
I’ll be honest and say I wasn’t familiar with most of the ones that wound up in the book. I opted for unique, obscure words in the hope that readers would want to know not only what they meant but also how they related to each segment of the novel.
Every word chosen hints at what is to come in the chapter, either thematically or emotionally. Like those Word-A-Day calendars my teachers always had on their desks, I figured this would be a fun way to introduce readers to new words they could impress their friends with!
Jen: Ghosts play a key role in this book. Do you believe in them? And, how does the ghost’s presence in the lighthouse help Abby move forward as she finally leaves behind the ghosts from her past?
Ellen: I do believe in ghosts! I watch all the television programs about them too. Fascinating stuff.
Ghosts also happen to be the ideal metaphor for what Abigail experiences throughout the course of the novel. Haunted by her past, she’s a ghost of her former self when she comes to Chapel Isle. The notion that the lighthouse might be as haunted as she is mirrors Abigail’s experience and ultimately shows her that she is indeed still alive, forcing her to confront what that means for her and to her future.
Jen: Throughout the book, we are introduced to many colorful characters which make the story an endearing tale. Let’s talk about a couple of them. Merle Braithwaite and Abby are quite similar. He is the backbone of the community, and she was the backbone of her family. What does he see in Abby that makes him reach out to her?
Ellen: Merle, as well as many of the other natives, isn’t one to trust a stranger easily, but given his own troubled past, he sees himself in Abigail. Likewise, Abigail is having trouble relying on herself and her own senses – is the ghost legit or is she losing her marbles? So she must take a leap of faith, which is what Merle does too when he entrusts her with his work responsibilities. Showing solidarity with Abigail is Merle’s stamp of approval. If he accepts her, the rest of the island should as well. As with most things in life though, it’s not quite that simple.
Jen: Let’s switch gears and talk about your promotional plans. I love the Reading Group Guide included in the book! I am definitely going to make THE LANGUAGE OF SAND my next book club pick. Do you participate in author phone chats? And if so, how would my readers go about scheduling one?
Ellen: I’m so glad you enjoyed THE LANGUAGE OF SAND! I’m absolutely available for author phone chats. They’re a lot of fun. Readers simply have to contact me via my website or email (email@example.com) to set things up!
Jen: Do you have a website? If so, please take us on a brief tour.
Ellen: My website is www.ellenblock.net and it’s a great destination for readers and groups that want more information about the book, past works and tidbits about me. I’m hoping to add a page dedicated to my readers’ favorite weird and wonderful words soon.
Jen: I am most excited about the talk of a sequel. Would you be able to share with us an inside peek as to what may be on the horizon for Abby? And more importantly, when will it hit bookstores?
Ellen: I’m excited about the sequel as well! While I can’t give too much away, I will say that Abigail gets to see an entirely different side of Chapel Isle come summer when hordes of tourists descend upon her private haven and turn not only her town, but her world, upside down.
We’ll get to visit Abigail and all her island friends again some time in late 2011 or early 2012.
Jen: Thank you so much for stopping by to chat with my readers. I look forward to visiting again with my favorite friends on Chapel Isle in the near future! Best of the luck with the book!
I hope you have enjoyed my interview with Ellen Block. Please stop by your favorite bookstore or local library branch and pick up a copy of THE LANGUAGE OF SAND today. Better yet, how would you like to win one?
Okay, be one of the first five readers to e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org with the correct answer to the following trivia question and you’ll win!
What is the name of the main character in THE LANGUAGE OF SAND?
Next month, I will be bringing to you my interview with debut novelist Aidan Donnelly Rowley. You won’t want to miss it.
Until next time…