It’s time for another interview with a fellow lesbian fiction author. Today, I’m interviewing Caren Werlinger, who won the Sarton Women’s Book Award for her novel When the Stars Sang. Caren also had a new book out this year, A Bittersweet Garden, which is set in Ireland. I guarantee it’ll make you want to book the next flight to Ireland!
Caren is giving away three copies of A Bittersweet Garden—winners’ choice of ebook or paperback! Don’t miss the giveaway at the end of this post.
Welcome, Caren. Please tell us a little about your newest release, A Bittersweet Garden.
First, thank you so much for including me in this series of interviews. It has been fun to read the responses of the other authors you’ve interviewed.
A Bittersweet Garden is the story of a mid-30s American woman who longs to break free of the roles she has found herself trapped in: librarian, not-quite-ex-girlfriend, boring sister. She plots and plans and saves to get away to Ireland for an entire summer, thinking to re-invent herself. She has no idea that this summer will change her entire world.
In A Bittersweet Garden, Nora visits a town named Cong in Ireland, the home of her ancestors. Did you base Cong on a real place, and if you did, how did you research your setting and make sure your Irish places and characters are portrayed realistically?
Cong is a real village in western Ireland, north of Galway. It is where The Quiet Man was filmed (my favorite movie), and my wife and I did have a chance to fulfill a lifelong dream of mine in 2015 when we got to spend a few days there. So some of the research was easy. Nothing like being there to be able to paint a scene! But the real historic flashbacks to the time of the Famine, that took more research: old journals and newspaper accounts, immigration records, those kind of things. I’ve found that little (accurate) details can make a scene come alive, not only for me but for readers as well. I’m sure you know what I mean from your own historical fiction.
Returning home, either to the place of your childhood or, even further back, the place your ancestors come from, seems to be a common theme in some of your books. For example, in When the Stars Sang, Kathleen returns to Little Sister Island, the place where she spent summers with her grandmother as a child, and in Turning for Home—which I got to edit—Jules returns to her small Ohio hometown. Why is that a theme that fascinates you as a writer?
It’s funny to realize that it has become a bit of a theme for me. When I ponder why, I think it’s because so much of who we are is influenced by the things that happened to us as children—good and bad. We lived in the middle of the country while my father and mother’s families lived far away to the west and east, respectively. So, we never had lots of time with extended family. We also moved a few times while I was growing up, so I don’t really have one place I’d call my hometown. Maybe I’m projecting my own longing for that, but I think a lot of people are either running away from or running toward that idea of “home”—and either way, it can be a powerful influence on how they act. That makes home and family fertile ground to explore in a book.
I tend to think your book covers stand out among many other lesbian fiction publications. I especially love the covers for Year of the Monsoon, Cast Me Gently, The Standing Stones, and When the Stars Sang. Can you tell us a bit about how you approach having your covers created?
Thank you so much for that, Jae. Rightly or wrongly, I do tend to judge books by their covers as an extension of the quality to be expected inside. I almost always have an idea of what I’d like to see for my book covers. Sometimes, I look for stock images that kind of match what I have in my head, but I don’t want to take a chance that an image will appear on ten other books. I use that image as a starting point, and ask my cover artist to work from there. Several covers feature photos taken by people I know. When I have seen images I like, I’ve reached out to the photographers to request permission to use their images for my covers. They’ve been amazingly generous with their permission.
Congratulations! Your novel When the Stars Sang was named a finalist for the Sarton Women’s Book Award, a mainstream award that honors outstanding female authors. The reader reviews I read for When the Stars Sang are equally full of praise. What does it take to write an award-worthy book like this? What do you think makes a book—and this book in particular—resonate with both judges and readers?
Thank you. I know you’ve had recognition of your books by some mainstream awards as well, so you know how much it means. I love the lesbian-themed awards that I’ve been lucky enough to win: Golden Crown Literary Society and Rainbow Awards. But lesbian fiction is such a small niche within the larger literary pool. To be recognized by the Sarton Award judges meant a tremendous amount to me. For those who may not know, May Sarton was an American lesbian writer and memoirist. The Sarton Award is named for her, but it rarely has had lesbian books named as finalists or winners. They said that this past year’s field of entrants was the strongest yet, so that added to the feeling of accomplishment to have been named a finalist.
I’m not sure why exactly When the Stars Sang has resonated so much with readers. I think the island setting is one that draws many people in, that sense of belonging somewhere. And the islanders are a group that look out for one another as well as caring deeply about the island itself. There’s obviously something about those themes that have touched readers deeply.
You have recently made some of your books available as an audiobook. Did you have a say in your narrators, and if you did, how did you pick? Are you happy with the narration of your books?
That was a surreal experience. In late March, I was contacted by an Audible rep, asking about the possibility of producing some of my novels as audiobooks. At first, I was certain it was a hoax, but it turned out to be real. Audible has actually been great to work with. My rep got me permission to approve narrators, so they presented me with 3-4 choices of narrator for each of the seven books they produced. (When the Stars Sang was already being produced by Ann Etter) The narrators I chose were wonderful to work with, contacting me to verify pronunciations. Overall, I’m very happy with the entire experience. I haven’t yet had a chance to listen to each book in its entirety, but I’m pleased with the snippets I have listened to. And listeners are giving high marks to the narration as well.
For purely emotional reasons, which of your books means most to you and why?
Gosh, this is such a hard question to answer! I had a strong emotional connection to all of my books as I wrote them. When I think about each of them, those emotions come right back. But if I had to pick one, it would probably be In This Small Spot. For any of your readers who have read that book they’ll understand why I chose it. If they haven’t, what are they waiting for? It was also a Goldie winner for Dramatic Fiction in 2014, and it means a lot to have had that recognition for one of the first books I published under my own imprint.
I know that you work as a physical therapist and you keep fit. What’s your favorite workout?
I know I should do more cardio and yoga and stuff like that, but what I really enjoy is weight training. I’m not as lean as I used to be, but on the upside, I’m a whole lot meaner! The benefits of getting older! :-)
What are your all-time favorite books with lesbian main characters?
Another tough question, Jae! Curious Wine is a favorite for sentimental reasons. But I also clearly remember reading The Price of Salt by Patricia Highsmith (although when I read it, it was published under her pseudonym of Claire Morgan). When I read that book, I thought, “Yes! This is literature. This is what I want to write some day.”
It’s not an entirely happy book, but it’s so well written.
Another book not many readers know about is Louisa May Alcott’s An Old-Fashioned Girl. Little Women is, of course, her most famous novel. But if you read AOFG, there is an amazing amount of lesbian subtext in that story. I wouldn’t necessarily have picked up on it as a child, but I definitely noticed it when I re-read the book as an adult.
When’s your next book coming out, and what are you working on right now?
I’m nearly done with a first draft of a new novel tentatively titled Invisible, as Music. It’s about a woman who is an artist, now in her mid-50s, who was afflicted by polio as a teen. She falls in love with a woman 30 years her junior. It’s also set in 1983/84, so a bit of an historical context to this one. I’m hoping to have it released before the end of this year.
Here’s a snippet:
Meryn bent to pick up her backpack and gave Henrietta’s shoulder a squeeze. “Have fun at your flower show, Hank. See you this evening.”
The door banged shut behind her, but Henrietta sat like a statue, her shoulder throbbing as if it had been burned. No one touched her. Ever. The last person who had, had been her doctor, listening to her lungs last spring when she’d caught a cold.
This is dangerous. Why are you allowing this to happen?
Things had been so much better in the couple of weeks since this girl moved in. Meryn kept her door partially open in case Henrietta called out for her in the night, so that Henrietta was actually sleeping through the nights. She’d left little thank-you notes in her wing of the house on Wednesdays, notes that delighted Bonnie and shamed Henrietta, who had never thought to do something so whimsical and kind. She called Henrietta from her office to see what she was in the mood for for supper, in case she needed to pick something up at the market on her way home.
She called this house home. None of her other companions had ever done that. To them, this position had clearly been a job. Though Henrietta had never realized it, that arrangement had left her with an underlying feeling that she had to treat them as employees in order to not feel indebted. But when she tried to think of Meryn that way, the image just swirled away, like a dab of watercolor dropped into a bowl of water. The same way the girl was wriggling her way into Henrietta’s life, tinting what had been nothing but black and white and shades of gray, bringing bursts of color… and joy. It was already difficult to remember what things had been like before she was here.
What happens when she leaves? You know she will. They all do.
Henrietta looked at her watch. Her ride would be here soon. She got to her feet to gather her things. She needed to regain control of this situation. Now. Before it was too late.
Where can your readers find out more about you and your books?
Readers can check out my blog here: https://cjwerlinger.wordpress.com/
Or take a look at my website here: https://carenwerlinger.com/
And my Facebook Author page here: https://www.facebook.com/CarenWerlingerAuthor/
Here’s my Amazon page: https://www.amazon.com/Caren-J.-Werlinger/e/B002BOI2ZI
Jae, thank you so much for hosting me. This has been a lot of fun!
Caren is graciously giving away three copies of her novel A Bittersweet Garden. The winner gets to choose whether they want an ebook or a paperback copy!
Anyone can enter. To be entered into the drawing, leave a comment on this blog post.
Entries close on Thursday, September 19, 2019, 10 a.m. CET, when I’ll draw the winners using a random numbers generator. I’ll notify winners via email. Your email address won’t be used for any other purpose.