When I was in high school, one of my closest friends had a mega-crush on Mark Lindsay of Paul Revere and the Raiders. “Isn’t he just to die for?!” she’d say, dramatically swooning. Despite my criticism that this guy was (gasp!) almost 30, she insisted that being married to him one day would be nothing less than perfect. Fast forward to 1994 and my friendship with a co-worker who had actually been married to a major rock icon. “It was complete Hell,” she declared. To come into the living room every morning and discover a bevy of drunken, stoned and semi-naked fans sprawled on the floor struck her as not a particularly healthy environment to be raising their toddler. Without looking back, she packed a suitcase of clothes, a few toys, and her wallet and went in search of a saner lifestyle. Accordingly, the themes of Gail Ward Olmsted’s second novel, Guessing at Normal, immediately resonated as the “star” of a new feature interview for You Read It Here First.
Interviewer: Christina Hamlett
Q: Tell us about your journey from being a professor at a community college in Springfield, MA to becoming a rockin’ published author with two titles now on the market and a third book in the works.
A: When I was halfway through my first novel Jeep Tour, I finally shared with my family and friends that I was writing in my ‘spare time’. My oldest and dearest friend’s response was ‘well, it’s about f*cking time.’ Apparently writing a book had been one of my early life goals. Along the way, I had a wonderful career in the telecommunications industry. After my two children were born, I decided to teach marketing and put my years of real-world experience and MBA to good use. It’s definitely a full time job, but I get summers off and a one month break over the holidays. I love teaching and I love writing. All in all, it makes for a very satisfying life!!
Q: Accomplished writers tend to be voracious readers. Who are some of the authors that occupy a special place in your heart and on your bookshelves?
A: Dennis Lehane is my all time favorite author. His historical fiction trilogy- The Given Day, Live by Night and World Gone By is outstanding. He’s also written gems like Gone Baby Gone, Mystic River and Shutter Island. I got to meet him twice and hardly any stalking on my part was required!! I also love Elin Hilderbrand, Stephen King, Claire Cook, Sue Grafton and Harlan Coben. Characters that stay with me long after the story ends…that’s what I look for in a novel.
Q: So tell us the inspiration behind Guessing at Normal.
A: I worked nights at a motel though out my undergrad years. I saw a lot of people come and go from my safe little perch behind the front desk. I just kept imagining this shy young woman watching and waiting for her life to happen. When rocker James Sheridan checks in, she is instantly drawn into his world of non-stop touring, eager groupies and the glare of the media.
Q: It’s a catchy title for sure! How did you come up with it?
A: I read an article years ago about how those who grow up in an alcoholic household have to guess at what ‘normal’ is all about and it stuck with me. With no reliable role model, Jill has to figure things out on her own regarding relationships, parenting, work-life balance and all that. I did too!
Q: The premise of Guessing at Normal revolves around a dreamy poet falling in love with – and yet largely living in the shadows of – a hard partying rock star. Is there a message about female empowerment that you’d like readers to come away with over the course of the story?
A: Jill is a strong and talented woman, but when she first meets James, she is pretty lost. As the story progresses, she learns to come to terms with the challenges of life with a famous partner and finds her own inner artist. She gets really savvy when it comes to negotiating for herself and establishing boundaries. I love Jill!!
Q: Each of the chapter titles is the name of a hit song from the last 20 years. Why did you choose to ‘name’ your chapters in this fashion?
A: We all have our own unique sound track or playlist. When you hear certain songs, you remember things that happened, people that you miss. Jill’s playlist captures all of the love, angst, joy and sorrow she experiences and each chapter title sets the tone for what’s to come: Baby, One More Time ~ I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing ~ Come As You Are ~ I’ll Be Missing You, just to name a few!!
Q: I’m the first to admit that every time I see a plot that utilizes the device of twins, I’m wary of reading it. Nearly every combination imaginable of good twins, bad twins and doppelgangers has manifested in classic literature, movies and television sitcoms – thus making it a challenge to deliver a fresh twist. Since your heroine Jill’s core conflict stems from her relationships with James and his brother Alex, what governed your decision to make them twins rather than having one of them slightly younger or older?
A: One of my dear friends has twin sons, now amazing young adults. I wanted to explore how two people can be very different, despite both their shared upbringing and all the physical similarities visible to the casual observer. I agree with you about the ‘twin thing’ being done to death, but in my mind, it was central in establishing the love triangle of Guessing.
Q: Are you Team James or Team Alex?
A: Team James, all the way!!
Q: There’s no question that what we experience with our families when we’re growing up has an impact on how we’ll view the world – and relationships – as adults. How did you apply this to the individual back stories of Jill, James and Alex?
A: Jill learned to live ‘under the radar’ in order to survive her turbulent family and to express herself through her poems and journal ramblings. She believed that if you don’t expect much, you won’t be disappointed and lacks (initially) the self-confidence needed to get out there and take chances James and Alex grew up in a household with affectionate and loving parents and they also had each other. Both men were confident enough to follow their dreams of becoming successful musicians, but both have their demons as well.
Q: Real life has shown us no shortage of wives and girlfriends that stay in unhealthy relationships (i.e., infidelity, alcoholism, verbal/physical abuse) because they don’t want to give up the glamorous lifestyle their partners represent (i.e., wealth, politics, sports). What do you see as Jill’s justification to stay faithful?
A: Jill is initially drawn to James in part because of the excitement of life on the road and his larger than life sex appeal. But she falls in love with the struggling musician, not the polished superstar. I truly believe she would give up all the money and trappings of fame in order to keep James sober and faithful. In her own words, “James was it for me. I haven’t strayed but it’s only because I don’t want anyone else. Not in my bed and not in my heart.”
Q: If Hollywood came calling, who would comprise your dream cast for Guessing at Normal and why?
A: I can see Jill being played by Emma Watson, Elizabeth Olsen or Chloe Grace Moretz. All lovely young women with a lot of depth and range. James and Alex would be much tougher to cast. Assuming that one actor could play both roles (a la Hayley Mills/Lindsay Lohan in The Parent Trap) I could imagine Chace Crawford, Alex Petyfer or Taylor Kitsch playing the twins, assuming they could play guitar and rock out on stage. My inspiration for the Sheridan brothers was Billy Crudup, based on his role in my fave film Almost Famous. But he’s now old enough to play….yes, the twins’ dad!!
Q: If you weren’t already married to the love of your life, which rock star would you most likely choose for a husband?
A: Can I make up a composite rock star?? My ideal would have the moves of Mick Jagger, the voice of Michael Stipe (REM), the soul of Sting and the looks of Jon Bon Jovi. Not sure if that would make for ideal husband material, but can you imagine?
Q: Given the organizational skills you utilized throughout academia, do you start new projects from a formal outline or “wing it” as you go along?
A: I have an overall idea of the characters and their backgrounds, but the way they interact and what happens to them along the way is completely up in the air. Do I sound ridiculous if I admit that I was totally surprised at both the endings of Jeep Tour and Guessing at Normal?
Q: What’s a typical writing day like for you?
A: A ‘perfect’ writing day would be fueled by a trough of coffee, early exercise in the form of water aerobics, minimal distractions, relative solitude and my Mac Book Air on my lap. A ‘typical’ day is full of chores, errands, telemarketer’s phone calls and my family coming and going. Also a trough of coffee, but my computer time is frequently geared to email and social media. I try to seek out pockets of creative time whenever I can.
Q: Do you allow anyone to read your work in progress or make them wait until you’ve typed “The End.”
A:I have beta readers who give me lots of feedback, criticism and direction as I work. I have learned to count on them to keep me on track.
Q: Tell us about your path to publishing and what you learned along the way.
A: I self-published Jeep Tour through CreateSpace last year but I am thrilled to now be part of the Booktrope publishing community. Such a supportive group of talented writers, editors, designer and administrators! The inspiration, support, entertainment, advice and friendship I have received has been phenomenal.
Q: What would people be the most surprised to learn about you?
A: I love to travel to other countries, stay active, go to movies and eat out, but I am happiest at home with my family and friends, books, cats and knitting.
Q: What are you currently working on?
A: I am working on a sequel to Jeep Tour, which will be based in Ireland. My daughter Hayley and I took a caravan tour there last year and the whole time I kept thinking about my characters and what they would be doing and saying. Oh, and a sexy Irish tour guide!! My characters are in different stages of their lives this time around, but I missed them and love hearing their voices again.
Q: Where can readers learn more about your work?
Q: Anything else you’d like to add?
A: Thank you for the opportunity to meet your readers, Christina!!