This was one blog tour I didn't want to miss - Sweet Breath of Memory remains one of my favourite books of the year. You can read my review here but as part of the blog tour, I give Ariella Cohen a warm welcome to my blog as I ask her some questions about her fantastic debut novel.
I would like to welcome Ariella Cohen to my blog as I ask her a few questions about her wonderful book Sweet Breath of Memory. I was privileged to be invited to read this book before it was published and consider it one of my favourite books of 2016.
Sure; and thanks for inviting me to chat, Michelle. Sheila, the character who owns Vitelli’s Grocery, would say that Sweet Breath of Memory is a bit like her lasagna – colorful comfort food with layers of flavor. Although satisfying enough on their own, those layers are best savored together. The people of fictional Amberley are like that – spicy, meaty characters who work well as a team.
The newcomer to town is war widow Cate who views Amberley as a new page on which to rewrite her life. And remake herself. In the nature of things, Cate becomes a catalyst for change, stirring the pot by shining a light on Amberley’s past.
Q: Can you also tell us a bit about yourself?
That’s always the toughest question! I grew up in suburban New Jersey, the youngest of four. Mum was a single parent who worked all the hours God sent. A librarian and primary school teacher, she filled our house with books. I can’t remember learning how to read so it must have been early on. One of my favorite books as a child was Mister Pine’s Purple House. It tells the story of Mr. Pine who lives at the end of a long block of white houses. After he paints his purple, neighbors follow suit. Mr. Pine then paints his house white. The nonconformity message resonated with me loud and clear – Mum’s doing. She believed that, just as books unlock doors in the mind, education unlocks society’s doors. We were each encouraged to go to university and on to graduate school. I became a lawyer with a large firm in New York City but am now privileged to be a full-time caregiver for Mum.
I’m a self-taught writer; I didn’t study literature at university and I’m not in a writing group. This new profession is both the most wonderful thing I’ve ever done and the toughest. What drives me to revise and rework a project is the desire to give my characters the life they deserve.
I read a lot of lovely prose about women falling to bits when death shreds their lives, but the truth is that most of us DON’T fall apart even after losing the people we love most. We may huddle for a time, sobbing and broken, but then reality knocks. We feel hungry, the dog wants a walk, and the children start crying. So we get up and do the things that need doing. Some days it’s a matter of two steps forward, one step back. Others, we’re virtual zombies. But we keep moving forward; we’re animals, after all, bred for survival. Although a source of pride, this rebuilding rests on a foundation of guilt, for we question whether our ability to move on means our love was somehow flawed. How can we continue living after the death of a loved one? How can the world keep spinning and birds keep chirping? The novel explores these questions in a number of ways.
My ‘favorite’ tends to change with my mood. At the moment, I’m gravitating toward MaryLou, the always-speak-your-mind iconoclast. MaryLou’s a risk-taker who gambles on love and tells the truth even when it costs her. She’s funny, a loyal friend and lots of fun. Her unfiltered personality was a joy to write, as she represses nothing. And she’s also a skilled mechanic – something that is completely beyond me. MaryLou is the sort of friend you would go into combat with; just don’t eat lunch with her, as she’ll steal the food from your plate!
Quite some time as the characters developed over many years. I initially wrote so many characters that Amberley got a bit overcrowded. Sadly, those who didn’t make the cut are waiting on the literary sidelines – a binder on my kitchen table. I plan to spring them from captivity for the sequel.
Developing Miriam’s storyline took time; she’s a Holocaust survivor and I was concerned that her narrative might overshadow the rest. It was a balancing act of sorts to intertwine her tale with so many others.
Those were the toughest bits of the book, both due to the subject matter and because I wanted the novel to be issue and voice driven. My goal was a book club title that celebrates the timeless value of community and addresses timely issues of war and its aftermath. Regarding the Holocaust, I tried to narrow the focus such that the detail wouldn’t be overwhelming. There’s a takeaway, but it’s one that readers should be able to carry without feeling too weighed down, if you take my meaning. The challenge with respect to the Iraq War was quite different as I decided to explore its inherent ambiguity – were our allies really allies; are children culpable for terrorist acts; does combat fundamentally change a soldier or simply strip him to the core? Unlike the moral certainty underpinning America’s struggle in WWII, the Iraq conflict was coloured in shades of grey. As the goal posts moved and the rules of engagement shifted, victory and defeat were redefined, sometimes daily. That sense of uncertainty was tough to fit on the page.
Protagonist war widow, Cate – Emily Blunt, Sandra Bullock or Drew Barrymore. Each has that wonderful combination of vulnerable and feistiness.
Father Sullivan – My first choice is Alan Alda. Liam Neeson could also do it quite well and it would be nice to see him in a nonviolent role. Richard Gere would make an awesome priest.
Amberley’s ornery ex-mayor and matriarch, Beatrice – Helen Mirren or Olympia Dukakis.
Italian grocery owner, Sheila – Katey Sagal – an American TV actress who would be perfect for the role. (Brilliant choice, Ariella - Katey is known for playing Gemma in Sons of Anarchy but I'll always think of her as Peg in Married...with Children)
Empathetic diner owner, Gaby – ONLY Cate Blanchett. If she’s not available, we wait until she is.
Tough-as-nails mechanic, MaryLou – Susan Sarandon.
Hardware store owner, Peter – Scott Glenn.
Yes! I’m hard at work on the sequel. All the Amberley folks will be back, although a funeral and a wedding will reshape the town. New businesses will open and we’ll meet three new characters:
- Sara, Sheila’s chef daughter, who finds herself unexpectedly back in her hometown coping with her parents’ expectations and her own disappointments.
- Penny, a victim of spousal abuse who finds refuge in the ordered universe of accounting because, “Numbers are solid things that don’t need talking to or tending. They can’t be twisted around like words. The colour bleeds out of words when the people who said them change. But numbers – they stay put. Always add up.”
- Ben, a mechanic who works for MaryLou. Ben is mute and a favorite of the Amberley Diner’s owner who observes that, “Although what most people said wasn’t worth listening to, there was a quality to Ben’s silence one couldn’t hear anywhere else.”
Thank you very much for answering my questions and good luck with your book.
Thank you, Michelle!
Don't wait a minute longer - you MUST buy this book! Head over to any of the retailers below and add to your basket.
Ariella Cohen is a graduate of Columbia University, the Hebrew University and the University of Michigan Law School. Although she makes her home in New England, her dream self resides in County Mayo, Ireland. She believes in the healing power of cat purrs, coffee and almond cookies. Sweet Breath of Memory is her debut novel and she's hard at work on the sequel.
Follow the Blog Tour by visiting the blogs on the below poster: