We are pleased to welcome author Elizabeth Birkelund to Mama Reads Hazel Sleeps! Thank you for joining us on the blog today.
As a journalist, a good deal of your body of work has been written or told from the female perspective. What were some of the obstacles you faced in maintaining a believable male perspective, for Jim Olsen or your previous character Claude Reynaud?
Obstacles? That’s interesting, Ashley! I didn’t find the male perspective difficult at all, perhaps because I have four sons in their twenties. I’ve been living through a male perspective for more than 25 years!
Do you find that you work best in a quiet space or with any particular music or sounds surrounding you?
Yes, I work best in a quiet space for composing, for creating work, but don’t mind classical music and the sounds of others talking in the background (a la café) when I’m editing my work.
What has been your most challenging issue transitioning from journalist to novelist? Has there really been much of a difference?
I actually transitioned from free-lancing to non-fiction to fiction! I wrote a lot of short stories, from my youth into my twenties. I was a fiction writer in my heart and in my head from the time I could write. The non-fiction writing was the aberration.
But that doesn’t mean that I didn’t love writing for the magazines. I really loved working at Cosmo for Helen Gurley Brown, who wrote small encouraging notes to me from her pink typewriter.
Back then, the challenge was getting ALL THE FACTS right, making sure not to embellish what people said to make them more interesting. That’s the beauty of writing fiction: you have so much freedom!!!
Balancing work and life is not easy for many of us, and you make it look effortless. What advice would you say best sums up how you maintain this balance?
I believe this balance is always a writer’s challenge. Even with the kids in their twenties, there are still events, relationships and the unknown daily disturbances that interrupt work, especially when working at “home.” This is where iron discipline is crucial. It is so easy to procrastinate as a writer. There is always one more important email that must be written or to which to respond. The balance is something I’m always trying to achieve!
I could not help but think of The Darjeeling Limited (dir Wes Anderson) while reading this book, and wondered if in fact, any movies had inspired the story or any of the characters within its pages?
I adore movies, but I can’t think of a movie that inspired this novel. After I wrote “The Dressmaker,” I thought it had the same mood as the French movie, “Chocolat.” But with this novel, can’t think of one. Let’s get it to the movies!
Is there any research you’d like to share that went into the making of this novel?
Since I had been to the Swiss Alps several times, I did not need to research much. I did listen to the sound of helicopters on YouTube for many days straight!
Your imagery is so vivid, I have to wonder how many of the places described in “The Runaway Wife” or “The Dressmaker” you’ve visited?
I visited all the places I described in both novels. I did not go into the Castellane’s residence, but I went to a soiree into a maison d’hotel that was very similar.
Were there any particular trips that inspired The Runaway Wife, or was it more the characters who were behind the book?
Yes, the last trip I took to the Bernese Mountains in the Swiss Alps, the Wildhorn, inspired “The Runaway Wife.” While we were hiking from Hutte to Hutte along the crests of mountains, a hiker that we met on the way told us that he had met a female hermit, who had lived up in the mountains for several decades. He said she had a very young, unblemished face, and that her eyes were sparkling in the sunlight, and that she seemed very wise and also very joy-filled. We said she was probably happy to see people! But he said there was something indescribably happy about her. And so, this woman walked into my imagination and stayed there until I finished “The Runaway Wife.” She was a bigger part of the first draft, but she is still in the book! What would a woman do in the Alps alone, winter, summer, to whom would she talk, what would she eat? Would she go mad or would she reach a truth that we with all our distractions have little chance of touching?
Elizabeth Birkelund is the author of the novels The Dressmaker (Henry Holt & Co., 2006) and The Runaway Wife (Harper Collins, July 2016). Formerly the “Money Talk” columnist at Cosmopolitan, Elizabeth worked as a freelance magazine journalist, writing for such outlets as Self, Glamour and Working Woman, among others. She currently serves as a trustee on the boards of the National Humanities Center and the Center for Fiction in New York. Elizabeth is a graduate of Brown University. She has four adult sons and lives in New York City, where she is busy working on her next novel, an espionage romance.
After losing both his high-power finance job and his fiancée, American hiker Jim Olsen agrees to help three enchanting French sisters search for their mother, Calliope Castellane, in the Swiss Alps. As snow threatens, he soon realizes that he is in over his head. The Alps are filled with danger — not the least of which is Calliope’s desire to remain hidden, escaping the shackles of a turbulent marriage and high society’s trappings. As Jim ventures deeper into the mountains and further beyond the limits of his conventional life, his quest to find Calliope and deliver her safely to her family soon becomes a quest to find…himself.
With an evocative voice and imagery sure to help you cool down during this heat wave, Birkelund’s second novel, The Runaway Wife, is more than a story of a man finding someone who wants to stay out of the spotlight. It’s a story of a man finding out what desire truly means, and thus what he genuinely desires. This book flew by due to its fairly small page count. I could have read another 10 volumes, it was such a pleasant experience if I’d had the time I would have re-read the book immediately upon finishing. I think billing this as chick lit seems to throw people for a loop, as the genre is too often seen as one to dismiss. Whereas, books such as The Runaway Wife are some of the most enjoyable and some of my most recommended when asked by other what they should read when they are in a slump. Maybe we should just go ahead and call this literary fiction so that others might understand how beautifully written and how compelling it could be. Birkelund has created in me a deep desire to see what she’s seen and go where she’s been, so I’m off to figure out how to go on my own adventure. Not just a great summer read, but a great read period!