Blog & News

Interview with Camille Griep, author of LETTERS TO ZELL

CamilleGriep_InterviewI’m proud to have a very special guest on my blog this morning, author Camille Griep, whose debut novel Letters to Zell just hit shelves today, and has already been getting rave reviews. Everyone please give a warm welcome to Camille, and read on to learn more about her fantastic new book!

Camille, please tell everyone what Letters to Zell is about, and what inspired you to write it.

Thanks so much for having me here! I so appreciate having the chance to talk writing with you and introduce my very first novel.

At its core, Letters to Zell is the story of three women navigating the expectations of early to mid adulthood. When their mutual friend Zell (Rapunzel) moves away to chase her dream of opening a unicorn preserve, the remaining three princesses grapple with their own hopes and dreams.

Letters to Zell is a project born of a confluence of several events, but mostly my own self-examination. After I took some time off work to write full time, I grappled a lot with expectations. People said the strangest things. Choosing to be childless was a recipe for comments when I was working, but choosing to be childless and working as an artist seemed, for some, to be the epitome of self-indulgence. And I wondered how many other women dealt with those sorts of attitudes on an ongoing basis.

I had expectations for myself, too. What kind of woman would I turn into if I traded my Coach handbags for canvas totes? What kind of partner would I be not contributing to the household income for a few years – should I cook and clean and shop and feel guilty for doing those things while writing and feel guilty while writing for not doing those things.

I also had a lot of people tell me they’d like to do something similar. But they just couldn’t, shouldn’t, wouldn’t. They had to make money, they had children, they didn’t have the luxury of time. They didn’t have a supportive partner. They had so many reasons. And sometimes those felt like real reasons, sometimes, a true lament and other times an accusation or even condemnation.

All these expectations were percolating when I decided that someday, I was going to write a book where the expectation of having some sort of fairytale life would be turned on its head. What better way to examine how reality years for fairy tales than to use satire: fairy tales who yearn for reality?

As a fellow writer and childless woman, I can completely identify with everything you just said about expectations, and I love how you turned that into a story. My next question is, would you say Letters to Zell is a feminist novel? If so, what are you hoping that readers will take away from the story?

I think LTZ is a feminist novel, though in a couple of nuanced ways. The main characters aren’t so much searching for equality or parity as much as seeking within themselves the permission to take up space, to write their own narratives. The constructs that have told these women who and what to be according to their pasts are patriarchal, however, the princesses fight those assumptions without a firm understanding of who the enemy really is. Is the enemy the fairies who enforce the Pages? Is it the humans who wrote them? As feminists, these women have very different desires for what constitutes their ideal lives.

When the Grimm brothers gathered their tales, they gleaned them from the women of the households, Germanic folklore and oral tradition recorded and sent it out to the world associated with their names. Within Letters to Zell, the women in the tales are taking back those narratives and re-forming them from Disney, from Grimm in much the same way we as a society need to take back our own narratives from Vogue and Fox News. The same as anyone shoved in a box must fight their way out to be who they really are.

There are a lot of things I hope readers take away, so I’ll focus on three:

Friends are the greatest gift we can allow ourselves:
Like many young people, I grew up with a narrow perspective – as if I had been the center of the universe (or at least close to it). I wasn’t dissuaded from this until much, much later. By high school, I believed that friends were always going to be disappointing. Women friends were petty and jealous. Men friends had agendas. I was able to shrug off much of this in college, but it wasn’t until I turned 30 or so that I started to really appreciate the women in my life and understand our experiences to be more similar than different. It’s not that painful experiences with female friends didn’t continue to happen, but I understood and processed them in a way I hadn’t been able to before. So much of what happens with other people is not really about us. In my experience, assuming that everything is about us is the surest, fastest way to rid our lives of other people.

Changing oneself to fit another’s view of us is a road to ruin.
Rory, the unhappiest of the book’s three princesses, wants so badly things the other two have. Yet, she doesn’t value herself enough to take a step back from her toxic potion of bad relationships and low self-esteem. She’s not stupid, but she lies to herself in one important way: she believes she can change Henry by changing herself. There are few greater recipes for emotional chaos than to be in the same place we were before with someone unrecognizable staring back at us in the mirror.

Last but not least: Even whimsy has a purpose.
This book is not a fairy tale for children. It’s not purely satire, either. I’d like to say there are layers there, if one cares to look. Yes, these women start out quite strictly drawn, because we have all these assumptions we put on them, but as their tale progresses they start to shrug these tight forms off, and I think they become more and more real. Some people have balked at my throwing all the fantasy worlds in together, but that was also a conscious choice. Fantasy is built upon the work of those who went before us, and it was important to me to address the whole of imagination while framing the Grimm princesses’ place in it.

Who is your fave character from Letters to Zell? Or do you love them all equally?

That’s a really tough question. They exist, for me, each perfectly flawed. I will admit, though, that Bianca was certainly the most fun to write.

There was a point where I realized I’d need to make her letters shorter, to use her powerful voice sparingly, and that made me sad, but also excited that I had created someone with such a memorable instrument. With that said, she is certainly not for everyone. A workshop member once told me that he didn’t think Bianca was a very good character because she wasn’t “nice” and wasn’t someone he’d want to hang out with. (Let me tell you about that internal feminist rant.) There’s truth there, though. She will turn some readers off, nor will she fare well with the Clean Reader crowd.

As my best friend described it, of the three women, Bianca is the one least fearful of taking up space in the world. When it comes to her friends, though, Bianca’s bluster, her bravado comes from a place of love – even though at times that love needs to be applied with care. Sometimes we want the best for others so much that we hurt them in the process. I’ve been on the giving and receiving ends of this, which is not to say it’s excusable; rather, it’s one of Bianca’s most human characteristics.

You are also a writer of some pretty amazing and imaginative short stories. Where do you get your ideas? What inspires you? Who are your influences?

Back in college, I really wanted to pursue poetry. But poetry takes a certain kind of discipline and ability to detach from oneself that I simply don’t possess. But what I learned in the study and writing of it helped me to be able to observe moments in time, that are quite often their own stories.

I’ve always been interested in exploring the dark corners of old stories or reinterpreting them altogether. During the summer of 2012, I challenged myself to write a flash cycle based on nursery rhymes, to answer the sorts of questions that had always bothered me. Who took the job as man on the moon? Why did the blind mouse have to lose his tail? There was some dreck in the effort, but I also ended up with some pieces that are very special to me. If I’m not doing anything thematic, I work from a set of mental images I jot down in various spots. (Some examples: clockwork pony, the Great Falls Montana Sip and Dip, the underside of icebergs, etc.) I’ll combine concepts, like puzzle pieces.

For essays and stories, I’m also fond of using creative formats to deliver stories in new ways. I like working with lists and braided essays, but I’ve also written pieces as recipes and text based video game prompts. Again, sometimes these experiments fail spectacularly, but I don’t think you find the best way to amplify your voice until you’ve tried all the microphones.

Influences are hard. I am very, very malleable and so this is an eclectic list at best listing greats from long ago and peers. Poetry: Robert Frost, Sylvia Plath, ee Cummings, Jill Osier, Nicole Stellon-O’Donnell, Brendan Constantine. CNF: Fran Lebowitz, Anne Fadiman, Roxane Gay, Cheryl Strayed. Fiction: Edith Pattou, C.S. Lewis, Walter Moers, Dorothy Parker, Flannery O’Connor.

What other projects are you currently working on? Is there a future book we should be on the look out for?

I sold my second novel, New Charity Blues, this spring. It’s a reimagining of the Trojan war from the perspective of Cressyda and Cassandra, two minor characters in the Greek and in Shakespeare. Their journey is set in a generic post-pandemic West, where much around them has started to rebuild, but these women’s respective communities threaten the other’s success.

The project is another exploration of expectations, which is a common theme in my work, but also an exploration of dichotomies that are personally problematic for me, city vs. country, spirituality vs. atheism, beauty vs. strength and the co-existence of each of these characteristics in the hearts of these women. If all goes as expected, you’ll be able to read their story in the Spring of 2016.

In my spare time, I’m the managing editor of Easy Street and a senior editor at The Lascaux Review. Mentoring takes up another small bit of time. I’m still trying to generate a handful of short pieces a year, though it’s been harder to do, of late. But I have no complaints – being under contract is a very good problem to have.

Awesome. If you could give some advice to the aspiring writers who are reading this interview, what would be the most important thing you can tell then?

The most important piece of advice I think I’ve ever been given is a simple equation: (Art)(In) = (Art)(Out)

For me, the good part about being a writer is you’re always working. (It’s the bad part, too.) Whether we’re staring out the window finding words for the color of the light, or car-singing-like-a-diva, or at the MOMA, at a poetry reading, or even having wine with friends, we are artists collecting material.

The part I hate about a lot of intro writing advice is that it is one size fits all. And if you’re a person who needs structure and it works for you, then by all means utilize the adage of writing every day. But I think getting too caught up in the numbers can leave people like me demoralized and in a rut. When I focus on word count, I don’t write well. I may have a 8,000 word day or three days with zero words, but I don’t beat myself over the head with it because I make sure to try to read some, jot some notes, write to a friend – put art inside my head. It’s also one of the best cures for writers’ block: get up, do something else: dance, sing, communicate in another way with the world. Art doesn’t come to all of us in 2000 word packets.

Almost as important: build a writing community. You’ll need it for the bad days. For good days. You’ll need it when you have a question you know is silly but you still can’t find the answer. They’ll sit on the floor with you and hold you when you have a breakdown. They’ll celebrate with you when the good things happen. They’ll help you protect your heart when people are cruel – and there will be cruelty, all the way up the ladder. Your writing community can help you toughen your skin, don armor, and fight alongside you. These communities can be real, but they can also be worldwide and virtual. I am honored to say through writing, I’ve met some of my best friends – and a few of them I’ve never even met.

And lastly, one of the best ways writers can improve themselves is to write outside of their chosen form. It keeps you on your toes. I’ll always write creative nonfiction, though I may not call myself a memoirist. I started this journey with poetry, and I still write poems, though I don’t call myself a poet. But working in all these formats strengthens my fiction. It gives me options when I can’t figure out which vehicle carries the imagery the best.

Camille, thank you so much for coming onto my blog today. I wish you a massively successful book launch!

Readers, please connect with Camille at the following links:
Amazon author page:
Twitter: @camillethegriep