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What Ends: An Interview with Andrew Ladd

2014 February 25

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Not to toot my own horn, but I have some pretty incredible and talented friends. One of them just published his first novel, What Ends, after winning the AWP Prize in the Novel. So yeah, you could say Andrew Ladd is kind of a big deal. But besides being a spectacular writer, Andrew is a great editor–not only does he edit the Ploughshares blog, which has grown in leaps and bounds since he took over, but he’s edited more than his fair share of my own work, having been a member of my writing group in New York.

Although I’ve never had the privilege of traveling to Scotland, I can tell that What Ends perfectly captures the essence of life on a tiny island in the Hebrides. For the McCloud family, the island has been their home and livelihood all their lives. They run an inn and pub that’s considered the center of island life, both during the height of tourist season and during the winter, when the locals spend lonely winter evenings telling stories in the pub. What Ends follows the McCloud family as they are left as the island’s sole year-round inhabitants, all of their friends and neighbors eventually disappearing to the mainland. There’s George, the earnest innkeeper who adores crosswords; his wife Maureen, a morose woman obsessed with filling freezers full of meals; and their three children–Barry, Flora, and Trevor. The novel navigates the difficult waters of the intimate relationships of a family trapped together, forced to confront both themselves and their environment as the world moves on around them. It’s sad, yes, but it’s also a reminder of how even daily routines can be astoundingly beautiful.

Andrew was good enough to answer some questions about the novel, publication, and expectations.
L&B:  Though  you’re originally from Scotland, your experience was much different than those of the McCloud family and the other island residents. What do you think was the major difference between growing up in mainland Scotland versus a tiny island? What was your favorite part about growing up in Scotland?

AL: Well, I’m wary of over-romanticizing island life — part of my hope with the book was to suggest that, hey, life on these small islands *isn’t* that different from life anywhere else, and that these are just regular people having regular people problems. But I suppose it’s also kind of disingenuous to say that my childhood in Edinburgh was anything like a typical childhood in the Hebrides. I would guess the biggest difference is just that I had more places to go; even the distance to my best friend’s house, when I was growing up, is twice the length of some of the smaller islands out there.
As for my favorite part about growing up in Scotland, I think I have to answer circularly and say it was growing up in Edinburgh. It is just such. A. Great. Town. I’m lucky that my job now lets me spend a couple of months out of every year there, because it still puts a smile on my face going back. It’s beautiful, and easy to get around, and safe, and cosmopolitan in its own, dour, Scottish way. Even after all the other cities I’ve lived and spent time in — Boston, New York, London, Montreal, Toronto… — Edinburgh strikes me as far and away the best of the bunch.

 
L&B: One thing I couldn’t quite figure out about the story was why Michael wanted to stay on the island when everyone else was leaving. What did you see as his motivations?

 

AL: This was actually a question a lot of readers had in the early drafts, and it was a tough one to address because to me it never seemed that remarkable — especially after moving to New York, there were plenty of times when I would fantasize about moving to the middle of nowhere with nobody else around. And there are, in fact, lots of other people who *do* want to move from their city lives to these small declining islands. Canna, on which the island in my book is roughly based, had a public competition a few years ago to attract new residents, and they had 350 applicants — there’s a super interesting article about it here: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2007263/We-Canna-stand-Tiny-island-population-drops-15-seven-leave-2011-far.html

Of course, I appreciate that me saying “but people actually feel this way” doesn’t automatically translate to clear motivations in a fictional character. But for me it really didn’t seem like a stretch that Michael, who works one of those grueling finance jobs in London, would just kind of snap one day and fall in love with this tiny remote place where he can potter around and do what he likes most of the time.

 

L&B:You mentioned at the event at McNally Jackson that you felt pressure to portray Scotland faithfully, and feared you’d be labeled an impostor if you didn’t get everything exactly right. Now that the novel has been out for a little while, do you feel better about that? Have you gotten any negative feedback from Scottish natives?

AL: Oh, I don’t think I’ll ever feel completely at ease about that. Pretty much the first thing people always say when they meet me is “oh, you don’t have a strong accent,” so it’s hard not to always be conscious of my Scottishness or lack thereof. The book is just a natural extension of that same anxiety.
So far, though, I have been heartened that none of the British readers I know have thought the book rings untrue. My original editor on the UK edition actually used to spend her childhood summers on the Isles of Scilly (which are in southern England rather than western Scotland, but still), and she said that one of the big reasons she wanted to acquire the rights was how much it reminded her of her time there. And of course my amazing thesis advisor, Margot Livesey, is a Scot herself, and was supportive and overwhelmingly positive about the book from the start. So fingers crossed the rest of my Scottish readers will like it too!

 
L&B:Speaking of negative feedback, writers have to develop some pretty thick skin to deal with the amount of rejection and criticism they get. Have you experienced any bad reviews yet? What’s been your favorite feedback?

AL: I think for favorite feedback it’s hard to top the blurb I got from Publishers Weekly when the manuscript was a semifinalist in the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award. It was pretty much the first truly objective outside opinion I got on the book, completely anonymous, so that alone was thrilling — but the reviewer so obviously loved the book, and *got* it… I must have re-read that thing a hundred times. (Link: http://hotscot.blogspot.co.uk/2012/04/thank-god-for-tall-ladies.html)

I haven’t had any bad reviews yet, though a couple of the agents I pitched it to pulled no punches when they rejected it. You’re not kidding about that thick skin.

 

L&B:This is your first novel. What’s been the most surprising thing so far about being a published novelist?

AL: Honestly? It was turning up to that event I did at McNally Jackson (which you mentioned earlier) and seeing it packed to the rafters. That was very shortly after the book was released, and my launch event in Boston the week before was almost entirely friends and family — and so to walk into this real, renowned bookstore in New York, and see that actual *people* had turned up to hear me read from it… I really couldn’t believe it.
I mean, it was still mostly friends and family — and it was a joint event with my friend Kirstin Chen, whose amazing Soy Sauce for Beginners has already sold about a zillion more copies than my book, so I’m sure a lot of people were there to see her. But for instance, Danny Goodman, who edits fwriction:review, an online journal where I published a story a year or two ago — he turned up and bought my novel. And I was like, oh! I actually have a reputation as a writer! So that was surprising, and very nice.

 

L&B: You edit the blog for Ploughshares, on top of a regular day job. Does the editor in you ever clash with the writer? If so, who usually wins?
AL: Ha. All the time. The editor usually prevails eventually, though sometimes it takes a few drafts. He’s a pretty ruthless bastard. [[ed.note: this is true]] 

 

L&B:You recently made the move back across the pond, to London. Do you think that living in London will affect your writing and what you write about as opposed to living in New York or Boston? Did you sense a change in your writing when you moved from Boston to New York?
AL: I did see a change in my writing when I moved to New York, though I think it was more in the process than the subject matter: it got a lot more frantic. After grad school, and then teaching, both of which gave me a pretty flexible schedule, to go back to a 9-to-5 job and suddenly have to squeeze in writing in the mornings or evenings or weekends (or all three) was a real jolt. So there was a lot less hemming and hawing about word choice or whatever, and a lot more “let’s get this down on the page and worry about making it pretty later.”

That said, when I moved to New York I almost immediately started working on a short story collection, and that was the first time I had really enjoyed writing short stories. Until then they were always these things that I kind of reluctantly tiptoed around, because I knew I had to write them if I wanted to get published in lit journals, but I didn’t really feel like I got them or was very good at them. It was a real slog.

But when I moved to New York I didn’t feel like I could keep another novel straight in my head, with my schedule — and then, precisely because I was just trying to hit a weekly word count, I had to force myself to stop worrying about it and just get through them. And suddenly I kind of started having fun.
I don’t know what it will be like living in London — I don’t have a good enough handle on my daily routines here yet to say. But I’m back to working on another novel now, so hopefully London will be compatible with that…

 

L&B: Similarly, does what you’re reading impact what you’re writing?

AL: Absolutely! Though in a very immediate, kind of superficial way. There was a while when I would read myself a few pages of the Winnie the Pooh before I started writing for the day, because I love A.A. Milne and his writing is so rhythmic and cadential and almost hypnotic — and so as soon as I started writing myself, I’d more easily fall into that same kind of rhythm. I stopped doing that when I moved to New York because of the whole having-to-squeeze-writing-into-ten-minutes-at-a-time thing, but I’m still conscious of falling into the style of whatever I’ve most recently been reading whenever I sit down at the keyboard.

Other than that, though, I wouldn’t say there’s much other conscious connection between what I’m reading and what I’m writing, other than that I obviously read and write about things that interest me — so there’s inevitably some overlap. Hopefully that will keep being interesting to other people, too!

 

Thanks Andrew! To read more about What Ends, or more importantly, to BUY IT, visit Andrew’s website. 

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