“He was thinking about the night they’d arrived in Naples, the way the city had seemed an undifferentiated chaos of gray buildings and broken plaster and lights spreading up over the hillside, Sophie’s blue linen dress, the singer in the restaurant.”
The Singer’s Gun, Emily Mandel
I “met” Emily on Twitter, and read her book, The Singer’s Gun, because it had an interesting premise and was picked as an Indie favorite. I quickly learned that it deserved its endorsements. It pulled me in right from the beginning, and I devoured it quickly.
What stood out to me were several things. First, it had a unique plot with unique characters—something hard to come by when thousands of books are published each year. Also, the book had great pacing. Every chapter ended with a cliffhanger, and not the obvious, manipulative cliff hangers you find in genre suspense, but real questions about characters, motives, and plot. Finally, and most enchanting, were Emily’s settings. Setting development is sometimes brushed aside in favor of plot or character development, but when done well, actually enhances those elements. For me, a busy mother of three with a blog, lots of book club visits for a first book, and major revisions for a second, if a book doesn’t grab me immediately each time I pick it up I stop reading. I can say that each time I picked up The Singer’s Gun, the world that Mandel created—from the basement of a New York City office building to the seaside in Capri—rose up around me and became my world.
Emily was kind enough to answer some of my questions about the book, her writing process, and what she’s working on now. For more on Emily and her books, visit her website at www.emilymandel.com.
1. A crime family dealing in smuggled goods, a son trying to escape his family’s legacy, immigrants, lounge singers, and people exiled from their homes—the cast of characters in The Singer’s Gun is so interesting. How did you come up with them? Did they make the story or did the story call for them?
Thank you – I’m glad you found them interesting! When I’m writing a book I’ll start with a vague image or a premise (for Last Night in Montreal it was a car driving through the desert; for The Singer’s Gun it was a man leaving his wife on their honeymoon), and then I just start writing and see what happens. The characters develop along with the plot; it’s hard to pinpoint exactly when in the process they develop. Some of them develop as a function of the plot — I knew with this book that I wanted to write about illegal immigration, and that informed the existence of characters like Elena and Ilieva — and others, like Aria and Anton, I have some ideas about before I know what the plot is going to be.
2. Anton is complex. He longs to leave his family, but uses them to jump start his new life. He wants to live a “normal” life with a normal woman, but he can’t be faithful to it. Yet, in spite of his flaws, I found him enormously likeable. How do you balance characters’ flaws with their strengths?
I really liked Anton too. It’s a difficult balancing act — on the one hand, I want my characters to be human. I don’t have a lot of interest in characters who are entirely good or entirely bad; I think most of us are deeply flawed, capable of both kindness and cruelty and prone to making bad decisions. On the other hand, I don’t want to make them so flawed that the reader starts to find them unappealing and doesn’t care what happens to them. In The Singer’s Gun, the line I drew for Anton was that although he’s not above participating in criminal activity, he would never hurt anyone on purpose. He’s interested in the idea of living an honorable life, although he doesn’t really have any idea how to go about doing this, and he does always try to do the right thing.
3. Publishers tend to like to classify books according to genre, but this book seems to transcend a single category. How would you describeThe Singer’s Gun?
I think perhaps I’d describe it as contemporary noir. I’ve seen the book described variously as literary fiction, general fiction, a thriller, a suspense novel, and crime fiction, and I’d like to think that it’s all of the above. I’m happy that the book’s difficult to classify; I think that the classifications of genre have a limiting effect.
4. Can you tell us anything about what you’re working on now?
Sure. I’m about a hundred and fifty pages into a rough first draft of an as-yet-untitled third novel. It’s about a disgraced journalist, but it’s too early to say much more about it. I have no idea how it ends.
5. How do you balance book promotion with writing? Do you have any routines?
Balancing book promotion with writing has been difficult. I haven’t really been able to work on my third novel very much over these past two months. I miss working on it, but at the same time I don’t really mind, because I feel extremely lucky to be in this position of having a recently-published book to promote, and also because it’s a temporary situation — I think that by September the book promotion will have died down a little bit and I’ll have more time for writing new fiction. As for a routine, I work five days a week as an administrator in a cancer research lab; it’s a part-time job, so I get home around three in the afternoon and then I write or do promotional/business things until it’s time to make dinner. After dinner I might work a bit more in the evening. On the weekends I work full-time on writing, research, and promotion.
Thanks so much for these insights. I can’t wait to read more!
Thanks so much for interviewing me! I’m glad you enjoyed the book.