The Book Smuggler’s Den had a fantastic author interview submission from Eric D. Goodman and Sally Whitney. Eric and Sally were first published together in the 2007 anthology, New Lines from the Old Line State: An Anthology of Maryland Writers. Sally’s second novel, When Enemies Offend Thee, was released by Pen-L Publishing in March 2020, and Eric’s fifth book, The Color of Jadeite, was published by Loyola’s Apprentice House Press October 2020. Both are interested in the other’s work, so they wanted to get together and talk about their new novels, writing processes, and what comes next.
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Sally: In The Color of Jadeite, your descriptions of the Forbidden City, the Temple of Heaven, the Summer Palace and other locations are vividly detailed. I know you travel a great deal, and I think you’ve been to China. Have you visited the locations you describe or did you rely on research? Also, why did you choose to write about these particular locations?
Eric: Yes, the Chinese locations featured in The Color of Jadeite are all places I have visited. We spent a little more than two weeks exploring China, focused mainly on Beijing, Shanghai, and Xi’an with stops in Suzhou and Hangzhou. The architecture and culture seemed so exotic to me that even as we were touring I found myself thinking, “this would be a great setting for a novel” or “I have to set a scene here.” The Temple of Heaven and Summer Palace, the Forbidden City, and the Terracotta Army—these were all places that simply amazed me when we were there taking it in, and they left an impression. That impression shows up all over this novel. I sometimes jokingly call this a “novel in settings” because part of my goal as I plotted out the novel was to get the characters to all of these locations I wanted to use not only as colorful backdrops but as pivotal parts of the story.
Now, a question for you: When Enemies Offend Thee is your second novel. Did you change your writing process for book two, or did you find that your writing habits were very much the same?
Sally: I didn’t really have a writing process when I started writing my first novel, Surface and Shadow. I had a setting that was important to me, a character who was important to me, and a nugget of a plotline when I plunged right in. As a result I had to make a lot of changes not only with revisions but as I wrote the first draft. I had to combine a couple of characters and add a character who became critical to the story. I also deleted a lot of scenes. With When Enemies Offend Thee, I did much more planning before I began writing. I didn’t do a detailed outline, but I did have a much greater sense of where the story was going and how. I didn’t know how either book would end when I began writing, so that part of my process didn’t change. And even with the increased planning of the second book, it took me the same amount of time to write it as the first.
Is this your first novel in which the story started with setting, or have you used that approach before in writing novels or short stories? I know setting frequently inspires my stories. What aspect of story-telling most frequently inspires your ideas?
Eric: Although setting is usually an important part to a story, often being sort of a character in itself, I normally don’t start with setting as I did with Jadeite. Most often a story or book sparks from either an idea or a scene. I’ll have a sort of vision of dialogue between two people, or think of a situation that seems interesting, and a story evolves from that. As an example, my novel Womb began with me pondering the most unusual narrator I could think of, and once I thought about the idea of an unborn narrator, the story grew from that simple idea. Setting the Family Free began with the real news story and then me imagining how the story unfolded differently for different people. Some of the stories from Tracks began with snippets of dialogue between people in certain situations that grew into stories and, ultimately, a novel in stories. I guess a story can come from anywhere, but for me it’s normally either an idea or a specific scene.
You mentioned that setting often inspires your writing. Both of your novels take place in small towns. Is this a reflection of your own affinity for small towns, or a desire to introduce small towns to big-city-dwelling readers?
Sally: Surface and Shadow is set in a small mill town because part of my inspiration for the novel was to preserve the small-mill-town culture that flourished in the United States from the late 19th to late 20th centuries. By the year 2000, most small mills had been sold to larger manufacturers, and jobs were moved to larger cities or overseas. I grew up in that culture, and I wanted people to know what it was like, because once the mills were gone, the towns changed. In When Enemies Offend Thee, which takes place in 2011, I wanted to explore the ways the towns changed when the largest employer was no longer there. In the novel, the mental unease caused by lack of jobs plays an important role in shaping the characters and the plot. In both novels I also hoped to use the culture and customs of a single town to express a larger universal experience.
The Color of Jadeite is a noir detective story, which makes it different from your other novels. Why did you decide to pursue this type of fiction? Is it a genre you read often? What were its most challenging aspects to write?
Eric: Writing in this genre and voice was a fun challenge. I tend to read more literary fiction and mainstream fiction than noir detective novels, but I always did want to write an adventure story of this sort. The biggest challenge for me was probably plotting it out. Often, although I know where I’m headed, I feel my way through a novel. For this book, I had the entire thing plotted out in order to get the characters to each place, and coordinate who was where when (and who was alive or dead). With drama or literary fiction, I think there’s more room to let your characters take you where they want. But with a thriller that involves multiple places and characters, I felt the need to map everything out ahead of time. That said, there was still room for unexpected dialogue and character traits to evolve unexpectedly.
Characters who “cross the line” after you fall in love with them can be fascinating. In When Enemies Offend Thee we follow Clementine as she begins going down a dark path, making decisions she never would have considered at the novel’s start. How did you navigate that path without sacrificing the readers staying “on board” with her decisions?
Sally: This is a great question because it goes to the heart of probably the biggest challenge I faced in writing When Enemies Offend Thee. I wasn’t sure of all the things Clementine would do when I began the book, but that was one of my inspirations: to explore how far a person would go to right a wrong that had been done to her. My goal was to make her motivations so moving and believable that readers would understand her actions even if they didn’t agree with them. I also used a lot of interior monologue to show what was going on in her mind, that she didn’t come to some of these decisions easily. Her state of mind is critical to the story as she becomes more desperate when each plan fails. I wanted readers to feel empathy for her, and maybe a little respect for her courage, rather than judge her.
Eric: You certainly did a good job of putting us in her mind and making the reader understand her thought process as she made her decisions. In this way, I think she judged herself before the reader thinks to.
Sally: Thanks for your comment about conveying Clementine’s state of mind. So far, most readers who’ve posted reviews did understand and empathize with her. A few, however, shared the concerns of one reader who said, “WHAT’S WRONG WITH THIS WOMAN?” in all caps just like that. Guess that was to be expected.
The plot of The Color of Jadeite includes searching for intriguing clues such as “where the chicken hangs, the frog bleeds” and objects like the cricket cage and coin. What process did you use to create the clues and decide on the objects? Were they part of your original plotting or did they come to you as you were writing? Do you have a favorite clue?
Eric: Yes, coming up with the clues was a fun and sometimes challenging part of the plotting. Most of the clues and the items they led to were part of the plotting, before the writing. Some didn’t appear until my later drafts, or evolved from one thing to another. I tried to tie as many as I could to actual items we saw during our time in China that otherwise would not have made it into the plot—pet crickets and cricket fighting, clay barrels of rice wine, penjing trees in gardens, and terra-cotta warrior factories. I think my favorite clue was the last one, which managed to involve a misinterpreted translation, an image on Chinese currency, and a historic landmark all in one.
You describe Clementine’s antique shop so vividly that you can almost see, feel, and smell it. Did you have an actual shop in mind when writing? Did you find yourself going to antique shops more often to help with the descriptions?
Sally: Creating Clementine’s antique shop was one of the easiest jobs I’ve ever had in writing fiction because I knew exactly how it looked, felt, and smelled. I’ve been an avid antiques collector for most of my adult life and have lingered lovingly in antique shops throughout the eastern and midwestern United States, as well as in Anchorage, Alaska, and on Portobello Road in London. I’ve often thought about how much fun it would be to own my own shop, so I indulged that fantasy through Clementine. The color of the walls, the selection of items, and the arrangement of items in her shop are very similar to what they would be if the shop were mine. I totally felt her love for her shop.
Each of the four main characters in The Color of Jadeite is distinctly different from the others. Why did you choose this particular mix of personalities? What does each contribute to the story?
Eric: That’s an interesting question. I mentioned that the plot was well mapped out for this novel, but other areas evolved as I wrote. These characters are a good example of that. In my first draft it was just Clive and Wei Wei as the main characters, and Mackenzie remained in the states as a friend Clive called for help with the clues from time to time. I needed more interplay in the scenes, so in a later draft I brought Mackenzie in from the beginning and introduced Salvador. He was initially meant to be comic relief, but turned out to become a beloved character. And Mark is a fifth character who plays a larger role in the last half of the book. When there wasn’t tension in the action, I tried to create tension between the characters: romance and uncertainty between Clive and Wei Wei, brother-sister-like love between Clive and Mackenzie, a sort of sibling rivalry between Salvador and Mark, a love-hate two-way street between Mackenzie and Mark, and a sort of sidekick loyalty between Salvador and Clive. These sometimes tricky relationships not only helped make the dialogue more interesting, it created opportunities for the characters (and readers) to place blame and suspicion.
Speaking of characters: Both of your novels feature strong female characters who have to fight their way through the challenges of a male-dominated society. What do you think makes a strong female character? To what degree do you feel women are challenged by these types of burdens today?
Sally: A strong female character is the same as a strong male character only more so. First of all, she’s a human being with personal integrity and alliance to who she is. She’s on a passionate journey to change the world or herself, even though she may not realize it. She has flaws that may make it difficult for her to accomplish the goal she seeks, but she also has the courage and wisdom to rise above those flaws. The reason she has to be more so than a male character is that society expects less of her and throws more obstacles in her way. Fortunately, this is less true now than it was in 1972 when Surface and Shadow takes place, but, as evidenced in the 2011 world of When Enemies Offend Thee, these problems continue, and they still exist today. While, unlike Lydia, married women today are able to get library cards—and credit cards and bank accounts—in their own names, they still make significantly lower salaries than their husbands and assume a greater responsibility for child care. Until these and other restraints are removed, women and literary heroines will have to fight harder for their accomplishments and to be the people they want to be.
Of all your novels, which was the hardest to write and why?
Eric: That’s a tough one. Each novel has had its own set of challenges. For the novel in stories, it was finding as many subtle connections between the characters and stories as I could. For the novel in utero, it was the limitations of the perspective itself. For my last novel, Setting the Family Free, it was finding a multitude of different points of view for telling the story. But I would venture to say The Color of Jadeite, although my most traditional A-to-B novel, was the most challenging. This was in part because of the need to plot everything out ahead of time, and trying to keep the interactions of the characters and their logistics in balance. I found the organization of navigating the characters from one place and one clue to another to be challenging at times. But I’d do it again in a Shanghai second.
Your books are both entertaining and enlightening. They have strong characters, plots, and messages. Which of these elements spark the beginnings of a book for you—the seed? Which is most important when finishing a novel–the result?
Sally: Looking back at their beginnings, I feel like my stories were sparked by a swirl of ideas, but I realize that at their core, they started with a character. For Surface and Shadow, I wanted to write about a woman in the 1970s who wasn’t sure whether the Women’s Movement was a good thing but who knew something was wrong in her life. The 70s were a turbulent time for some women, and I wanted to explore that angst. For When Enemies Offend Thee, I wanted to write about a woman who realized nobody was going to help her right a terrible wrong that had been done to her. The events and additional characters that came to be the novels grew from those two women. At the end, the initial characters were still most important because they were the ones who conveyed the message.
The Color of Jadeite is a mixture of exciting action, luscious settings, and interesting history. What do you hope readers remember most about the novel?
Eric: It’s funny, but I’ve gotten similar questions before worded in a different way and gave different answers. But because of the way you asked it, I realize that I should focus on the original inspiration for the novel: I hope readers come away with an appreciation of other cultures and a desire to learn more about the history and culture of new and exciting places. That, after all, is what inspired the novel to begin with—exploration of China and its culture and history and a desire to share it through a story. On a more basic level, this is a thriller, and I would be happy if readers simply come away feeling like they’ve had a good adventure, an enjoyable read, and gotten to know some interesting characters. Maybe some of whom they’d like to spend more time with in the future.
When Enemies Offend Thee is an interesting name, sounding almost like a quote from a poem or book. What inspired the title?
Sally: One of my favorite characters in the novel is Pete Ritchie, who owns the hardware store down the street from Clementine’s antique shop. Pete is a somber fellow with a long, thin face, and his first reaction to the shop is that it’ll never be a success, although he later becomes a supporter. One of his quirks is that he likes to quote Bible verses, most of which he misquotes. When he finds Clementine fighting back tears after an unpleasant encounter with Gary a few weeks after the assault, he tells her, “You know, it says in the Bible, ‘Tears wash misery from the mind, just as water washes dirt from the body.’ It’s good to cry every now and then.” Before he leaves the shop, his parting words are “The Bible also says, ‘Rise up with might when enemies offend thee. From the depths of retribution spring resolution and respect.’” He doesn’t know it, but he’s summed up much of Clementine’s state of mind throughout the rest of the novel.
Eric: Yes, I remember that—I enjoyed his biblical-sounding quotes that were sometimes in no way biblical.
Sally: Final question: What are you working on next?
Eric: I’m finishing up rewrites on a short novel, or novella, called Wrecks and Ruins. It’s sort of an anti-love story that ends up correcting itself. You may remember my short story that was published—along with your story—in the anthology of Maryland writers, New Lines from the Old Line State. My story, “Cicadas,” was about a playboy who was resisting settling down during the cicada infestation of 2004. Recently I had been planning to write a story about a husband and wife who still love one another but aren’t in love and who decide to divorce but remain friends. As the idea germinated, I realized not only that the next 17-year emergence of Brood X was coming in 2021, but that the characters from that story would be ideal in age and personality for the telling of this story. So although it began as an original idea, it ended up being a sequel of sorts. My ambition is to have Wrecks and Ruins out next year, with the actual cicadas serving as a backdrop.
How about you? What are you working on next?
Sally: My new novel explores the reactions of a group of parents when the best player on their sons’ eighth-grade basketball team, who also happens to be the only Black player on the team, is seriously injured by a hit-and-run driver. Was the encounter strictly an accident? Or was it the result of community resentment against the newcomer who’s overshadowing the town’s native sons? Was one of the parents involved? It marks a return to Tanner, N.C., where Surface and Shadow and When Enemies Offend Thee take place, but this time it’s 1984, and the townspeople are dealing with different kinds of changes.
About Eric D. Goodman
Eric D. Goodman is a full-time writer who lives in Baltimore, Maryland with his wife and children. He is author of Setting the Family Free (Apprentice House Press, 2019), Womb: a novel in utero, (Merge Publishing, 2017), Tracks: A Novel in Stories, (Atticus Books, 2011), and Flightless Goose, a storybook for children (Writer’s Lair Books, 2008). More than a hundred of his works of short fiction, travel stories, and articles about writing have been published in literary journals and periodicals. When he’s not writing, Eric loves traveling, and most of the settings in The Color of Jadeite are places he has visited. Founder and curator of Baltimore’s popular Lit and Art Reading Series, Eric can be found at Facebook, Twitter, and www.EricDGoodman.com.
About Sally Whitney
Although Sally Whitney has spent most of her adult life in other parts of the United States, her imagination lives in the South, the homeland of her childhood. Both of her novels, When Enemies Offend Thee (Pen-L Publishing 2020) and Surface and Shadow (Pen-L Publishing 2016) take place in the fictional town of Tanner, N.C. The short stories she writes have been published in literary magazines and anthologies, including Best Short Stories from The Saturday Evening Post Great American Fiction Contest 2017 and Grow Old Along With Me—The Best Is Yet To Be, the audio version of which was a Grammy Award finalist in the Spoken Word or Nonmusical Album category. She currently lives in Pennsylvania and can be reached at www.sallywhitney.com, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.
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