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  • Big Table Publishing

Say Hello to "BIG Secrets Everywhere" Author Jeanne Althouse

“There’s magic in these stories, where lovely small details add up to immense things—an observed heartbeat, organ keys, mint chip ice cream, a hawk feather, the tender striations of dark and light on the abdomen of bees—all lingering long after the final page is turned.”

––Christie Cochrell, author of Contagious Magic

BLM: How did you happen to come up with this theme of secrets? Did you set out to write around that idea, or did you find yourself writing stories that featured a secret and realized it was something you wanted to explore?


JA: I did not consciously think about writing stories about secrets, but when I collected my best stories and submitted them to Big Table Publishing, Robin Stratton did some initial editing and returned the stories with her suggestions. She’s a great editor and her suggestions made me look at the stories again. In doing this I discovered the common theme of secrets and realized I’ve been writing about secrets all my life.


BLM: The first story struck me, particularly, because it’s about a DNA sample that reveals a surprising relative. With more and more people sending in cheek swabs, I’m sure this is happening all over, and as you know, it happened to me, and I discovered that I have three half siblings! Do you have any personal experience with this?


JA: I was surprised how common this experience is! Readers have mentioned this story to me more than any other; and several of them have told me how they discovered secret relatives through DNA tests with both happy and sad results. I do not have directly personal experience but someone I know well does—and their story is their own to tell—so I’m keeping that secret. (smile)


BLM: One of my favorite themes is the power of secrets: how they can turn a life upside down, or bring joy, or both (as in “Confession.”) Did you purposefully strike this balance between joy and upheaval?


JA: Yes, I’m glad you noticed that! For example, in “Confession” Simon is able to forgive his father and welcome the “secret son” Kasper as his brother, but his sister, Sophie can’t. Either way, Kasper, their special needs brother, will profoundly affect their lives. In the end the reader is left to imagine how.


BLM: The connection between Simon and Kasper was very tender and sweet. It’s the kind of story that really stays with me.


JA: Thank you!

“With their dramatic reveals, intimate revelations, and big secrets, each of Jeanne Althouse’s short stories are fresh and surprising in every way. These stories drive us to places we might not ordinarily go. I couldn’t stop reading and was haunted for days.”

––Alice LaPlante, New York Times best-selling author of Turn of Mind

and the best-selling textbook The Making of a Story

BLM: The secrets in your collection range from shame and deception to outright lies, and what I loved about the stories were the characters – they were so well drawn out, each with a strong, distinctive personality. Each story left me wanting more, and I mean that in the best way! Did any of the stories or characters give you trouble in terms of story or character arc? Which characters were your favorite?


JA: I’m glad the stories left you wanting more! The most challenging character for me (and still is) is the trusted crew chief in “Cool Shirt” who murders (I hope I’m not giving anything away here) his beloved lead driver in the LaMans race. How jealousy pushed him to premeditated murder was a difficult thing to get on the page.


As for a favorite character, this is like Sophie’s Choice—I love all those characters. I can’t really choose a favorite…but I love the teacher in “Fallen Star,” his foibles with chalk and diagraming sentences, and his love for the student who died in the mountains. I also can’t resist Gram in “Calming Properties of Ice Cream” for maintaining that ice cream is the secret to longevity (I’m on the same page, Gram). Any woman who dares to fall in love at one hundred (with a man 19 years younger!) is someone I want to know!


BLM: It’s so refreshing to hear a writer admit she loves her characters! I’m so used to hearing writers say their book “will never be perfect.” Spending a long time on your book and loving it is the way to go, I think.


JA: I think so too.


BLM: Despite your Sophie’s Choice comment, I have to ask, do you have a favorite story?


JA: Yes, it’s hard to pick a favorite story, but “Miles to Go” is closest to my heart. It’s about one joyful secret that I believe in keeping and hints at a second, deeper secret, which is mercifully kept from all of us. And—I love that the characters read “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” by Robert Frost, this magical, timeless poem.


BLM: What stories do readers tell you they like best and why?


JA: The stories most mentioned as impactful by others are “Love Child”, “Confession”, “#theprocedure”, “Sin of Omission”, “Conversation between Two Sisters with a Hawk Watching”, “Calming Properties of Ice Cream”, “Fallen Star”, and “Birds on the Water.”

“We think we know people, and yet, do we? Impeccably organized by natural cycles of life from birth to death and gorgeously told, Jeanne Althouse’s collection reveals truths that often hide in plain sight. These twenty tales, from joyful to heartbreaking, offer insights into the changing nature of lives, and loves, and lies.”

––Tony Press, author of Crossing the Lines

 BLM: Are any of these stories autobiographical or are they all fiction?


JA: The short answer is “no” but in one sense everything an author writes is autobiographical. In Abraham Verghese’s Covenant of Water, Digby’s lover Celeste dies from burns when she is unaware (sleeping) and a candle turns over catching her silk sari on fire. In Oprah’s Interview Podcast Verghese explains how, as a young doctor interning in India he saw many women in the ER who had been burned when their silk saris caught flame. This was his life experience which he gave to Celeste. As writers everything we experience stays in our subconscious, so in one sense everything we write is from our life, or “true,” but when we “dream” our fictional characters they take pieces of our truths and braid them into their own tapestry. Once they are born, they are their own person, fiction on the page. The “birth process” and the surprise of it is what makes writing a joy for me.


BLM: What’s better than being surprised by your own writing? I love that.


JA: I do too.


BLM: Who is your favorite short storywriter?


JA: There are so many! I have loved Alice Munro, marveled at George Saunders, tried to copy Hemingway, Flannery O’Connor… Oh, and “Cathedral” by Raymond Carter—such a perfect story! At this point in time one favorite is Clare Keegan; her novella “Small Things Like These” with her character Furlong, the details of that Christmas in Ireland, revealing the brutality of the nuns in taking advantage of the unwed mothers. Recently I was awed by “The Wind” written by Lauren Groff and before that reading Karen Russel’s “Ghost Birds” sent me on a trip to Portland Oregon to see the faux swift land at Chapman Elementary School. Watching thousands of tiny birds circle into that chimney to land with a sunset sky behind them was one of the most magical moments of my life!


BLM: OMG I saw that too, a few years ago… not there, but at this funky old building somewhere in Sea Ranch, CA… there was a modest crowd, most of whom were locals who came to that spot every evening to watch. It was a surreal experience, wasn’t it? The way they find their way in without bumping into each other?


JA: Yes!


BLM: Jeanne, thanks so much for spending some time with us. You’ve written a great book, and we wish you the very best of luck with it! Can you provide a link to your website so people can buy copies?

JA: Thanks so much for the interview and yes, please check out my web site where there are links to buy the book and a contact form to schedule book club visits.


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