Monday, June 29, 2009

The Local News--Miriam Gershow
(book review and author insight)

The Local News, by Oregon author Miriam Gershow, is not so much the story of a missing teen. It's more the story of the resulting uncertainty and sorrow on the family left behind.
In many ways, fifteen-year-old Lydia is better off without her big brother around--Danny and his friends used to tease or ignore her; now she has near-celebrity status at school and is even included in his friends' social circle. Her parents are lost in their grief, but then again she always did come second to her brother. And, while she's somewhat nostalgic for the childhood Danny, truthfully she didn't like him all that much as a teen. The result is a complex protagonist with a riveting story to tell.
The story is told in hindsight, from the perspective of Lydia as an adult, and in fact the final forty pages take place ten years later. I had mixed feelings about this ending, and was glad to have the opporunity to ask author Miriam Gershow about this as well as other aspects of her writing process with this, her debut novel.

Ali: I'm always interested in the process by which a story unfolds in a writer's mind. Did you know from the start what had happened to Danny, or did you play around with different outcomes as you were fleshing out the story?
Miriam: There were very few things I knew at the outset of the book. I had only the briefest of sketches in mind: this would be the story of a girl whose brother disappeared and that girl would have ambivalent feelings about the disappearance. Everything else unfolded as I went along. However, one of the few things I knew was the outcome to Danny’s disappearance. I didn’t know the specifics, but I did know generally how it would be resolved. That outcome just made the most sense for me, in terms of the story I wanted to tell about Lydia and how she grew up and through this experience.
Yes, I thought the outcome was fitting. But there was one point where the private investigator started looking in a direction which totally took me by surprise, so I was curious whether you'd explored that possibility through writing it out. It could have been a totally different story!
Indeed, it could've gone in a different direction, though the whole time I was writing the Denis/investigation sections, I knew exactly the outcome of things.
What did you struggle with in this book? Was there one particular scene or character that was tough to write?
I have to say, I was very, very blessed with the story coming to me with a minimum of thrashing and flailing about on my part. Often, I really have to wrestle with projects for them to become manageable to me. That largely wasn’t the case with The Local News. Now my current project, that’s another story. But Lydia’s voice hooked me from the start, and following her though these events was–for the most part–not a tremendous struggle.
That said, I definitely had a harder time with the scene that comes about three-fourths of the way through the book, where Lydia has a big confrontation with someone on the sidewalk of a nearby neighborhood. I’m trying to describe it without spoiling it for those who haven’t read the book yet. In that scene, I was pushing Lydia past her normal limits and defenses, and it was quite a bit of work – and quite a few drafts – to get myself and her there. That’s probably the scene that I lost the most sleep over and shed the most tears – mostly cathartic ones – in the process of writing.
I remember that scene well, and the thing that stuck out for me about it was that I realized I had no idea what Lydia was going to do. It was at that moment that I realized how much she'd lost her way, through all that had happened.
That’s satisfying to hear, as that was exactly my intent.
Though the book is written from an adult perspective looking back on her teen years, it seems to me that teens would be drawn to it, too. Has there been any thought to marketing it as a crossover adult/YA book?
There hasn’t been thought to marketing it as a YA book. I have always thought of this as an adult novel, maybe because of the interiority of much of it, or the spots of brutality, or just because I’ve always seen myself as an adult fiction writer. However, when I was fourteen, fifteen and sixteen, I was reading adult fiction. I agree that teens could very much be drawn to this story. A dear friend’s 14-year-old daughter recently read it and loved it. So I can only hope more teens will do the same, even if I don’t consider it specifically a YA book. Certainly, the more readers who can relate to Lydia and relate to the story, the happier I am as an author.

The last 40 pages jump ahead 10 years, giving an Epilogue-ish feel to the end. Could you tell me a little bit about why you decided to do that? Did you ever consider ending the book at a different point?
Like I said, I didn’t have a clear vision of the whole structure of the book when I began writing it. But relatively early on, I started to think that the final part of the book had to take place when Lydia was an adult. It seemed to me that a trauma like this couldn’t be resolved at the point when it occurs. Years would have to pass before someone could begin to truly make peace with such an event. So I knew the book couldn’t end when Lydia was still a teenager.
That makes sense. A person really doesn't get closure on certain things without the perspective that only time can offer.
And on a purely selfish level, I really wanted to write a reunion scene. I wanted to see how all the other Franklin High characters, who I had very much come to love, had fared in adulthood. Originally the scene was much longer, with details about even more of the secondary characters. Smartly, it was edited down to its essentials before publication. But clearly I had a real need to revisit these characters and make sure everyone turned out okay.
I liked seeing how everyone turned out, too. Although in some ways the epilogue (if I can call it that?) left me with more questions than answers about Lydia, and whether she would ever be okay.
I've heard that response from other people too. I’m wary of saying too much about my intent, because I respect reader interpretation. I’ll say this -- I definitely wanted to present a realistic version of grownup Lydia, where she still has some of her same quirks and neuroses. And I never wanted a pat happy ending. But in that final section, especially in terms of Lydia’s interactions with her mom and with her classmates, I wanted to show some softening and opening on her part, which could then at least leave the possibility of a more hopeful future for her.
I like to pick a song for every book I review--one that somehow encompasses the characters or the story, or sometimes a song that occurs within the story. I haven't settled on one for The Local News yet. Any suggestions?
Such a good, hard question. This had me stumped for a while. I couldn’t settle on one, so I picked a pair, which I think together capture the flavor of The Local News.
The first is Richard Buckner’s Slept. Buckner is one of my all-time favorite artists. He is mournful and melancholic, yet also so evocative and compelling. I certainly think this song captures the darker, sadder, more contemplative side of this story. But Lydia’s also a pistol. She’s a survivor and the liveliness of her voice is what pulled me through the story, and what I hope pulls readers through, as well. So I’d have to combine Buckner’s melancholy with something more upbeat and rebellious and defiant. Who better than some early Ani DiFranco? Thirty-Two Flavors comes to mind as a great anthem for Lydia.
You've introduced me to a new artist! I'm listening to the Richard Buckner song right now on and loving it. I'll definitely be looking for more from him to add to my mp3 player. And I'm familiar with Ani DiFranco, but Thirty-Two Flavors is a new song for me. You're right, it's perfect for Lydia. "I am the poster girl with no poster." I love it. Thank you!

By Alison Jakel

The Local News is also reviewed on The Boston Bibliophile, as well as other stops on the TLC Book Tour. Don't miss Miriam's essay about the connection between birthing a novel and becoming ready for parenthood at Books on the Brain.


  1. Ali, you are a terrific interviewer. Terrific questions! and great answers, too. I am always amazed by the idea of an author not sure of how the story will play out; like writing it is finding out how it all happens. Amazed. To the tbr, this goes! (ps - new word for me: interiority. I like it.)

  2. Great interview. I hope to read this book soon.

  3. Great interview. I'm definitely interested in checking this book out.

  4. it is a very good book that I enjoyed a good deal. very nice interview!

  5. Great interview! I especially appreciate the inclusion of the the songs- two I'd never heard of before but I find I really like! Ani DiFranco reminds me a bit of another artist I enjoy- Lori McKenna.

    Thanks so much for participating in the tour and for all the time and energy you put into reading, reviewing and interviewing!

  6. Thanks for the positive feedback, everyone. I really enjoyed getting to know Miriam a little bit.