This month we are featuring one author from each of our base cities. Last week we met Ken Kalfus from Philadelphia. Today we welcome Atlanta’s own Sheri Joseph to Author Exposure. She is the author of three books, including Stray, which won the Grub Street Prize in fiction, and her debut, Bear Me Safely Over, which was a Booksense 76 selection. Her stunning new novel, Where You Can Find Me, is available in bookstores now. This heavily praised book has an intriguing plot that will appeal to many readers. Much like Flynn’s Gone Girl and Moyes’s Me Before You, Where You Can Find Me is expected to be Joseph’s breakout novel, making her a household name. Sheri was kind enough to answer a few questions about her books and writing career. Grab a cup of coffee and enjoy!
Where You Can Find Me is about a kidnapped boy who returns home after living three years in captivity. Can you introduce us to your main character, Caleb, and tell us a bit about his story?
Caleb is a mystery who slowly unfolds over the course of the book. He’s been reunited with his family at age 14 having undergone a kind of brainwashing, which has left him (among other things) convinced that his family does not really love him anymore or want him back. Because he learned to survive his ordeal by being accommodating, his first order of business with his parents is to figure out who they want him to be. He tries to become that while hiding everything about himself and his experience that he senses will displease or upset them. His sister, Lark, who is 11, is able to get a little closer to him because she’s less threatening, but also less able to protect herself from whatever might be broken in him. While gone, he went by the name Nicky, and just before his return was living a semi-normal public life, with a personality he partly created and then became very comfortable with. So eventually he and his family as well have to contend with who “Caleb” really is, not just in relation to the child who was born into this family but in relation to Nicky, the boy he was while he was gone.
Although the majority of Where You Can Find Me takes place in Costa Rica, it is about a family from the suburbs of Atlanta. Your previous novels were both set in Georgia. What is it about Georgia that appeals to you as a writer? How long have you been living in Atlanta?
I’ve lived in Georgia longer than anywhere else: Athens through the 90s and Atlanta for most of the present century. Georgia is wonderful and terrible for having such extremes of environmental, socioeconomic, and cultural (etc.) difference packed close together. Atlanta, for instance, is a place where someone like Marlene, Caleb’s mother, can live this bohemian city life as an artist among intellectual people, but also move a few miles away to the “safety” of the suburbs—a different world—and meanwhile her small-town mother, who is very conservative and rather intolerant, serves as a marker of the great divide that often exists between the city and most of the surrounding state (with, of course, variations everywhere). You see the same divisions at play in my first book, Bear Me Safely Over, where a gay kid who’s an outcast and a target in his rural Georgia hometown moves a few miles away, to Athens, and finds himself in a whole new environment that offers a place for him.
At one point Where You Can Find Me was titled The Cloud Forest. What made you decide to change it? How do you choose your titles?
My publisher didn’t care for The Cloud Forest as a title, and luckily I wasn’t extremely attached to it. Earlier in the novel’s life, I’d been calling it The Children’s Cloud Forest—which is the actual name of the reserve in Costa Rica that Lark collects donations for. But that was a little cumbersome. I consider myself terrible with titles. For this novel and the one before it, Stray, I brainstormed about 8 pages each of possible titles, which I then spent weeks poring over, ranking, bouncing off friends, trading with my editor, etc., before we came up with one that seemed okay.
Earlier this year, Atlanta’s Creative Loafing newspaper named you one of their 20 people to watch in 2013. Wyatt Williams wrote a great article about you in which he states that you “wrote out 400 pages of back story, chronicling the events of Caleb’s kidnapping, without any intention of using them in the novel.” Can you share with us a bit about your writing process for Where You Can Find Me? How long did it take you to finish this novel?
The novel took about five years to complete, the first one and a half of which I spent drafting the backstory. This was for me kind of a wacky experiment with process. The backstory is not notes but really a whole novel, a thriller, one I intended never to be read in itself but instead to sit completely underneath the actual book—to be that 7/8 of the iceberg that’s beneath the surface. It provides a memory and a lexicon for the characters, so that as I’m switching points of view from one to another, I feel as if I’m writing from real people with full lives and experiences behind them. I try to work by discovery, letting the characters and their desires drive the events, and it’s hard for me to do that before I have this very full sense of who my characters are and what they’ve been through.
I love Vanity Fair’s 2011 article about you and the other members of Atlanta’s “literary sorority.” Author Exposure has featured many of the women in this group, including Susan Rebecca White and Joshilyn Jackson. While much has changed in the book industry since this article was published, so much has remained the same. How would you describe the literary scene of Atlanta today?
In addition to the always fabulous Decatur Book Festival and some terrific visiting writer series run largely through the universities (like GSU, where I teach), Atlanta now seems to have all kinds of indy events that work with theme and objects and different aspects of performance. I’m afraid I don’t know as much about the scene as I should, since I’m such a hermit. For most of us, the scene hasn’t changed much: especially for novelists, writing is still all about sitting in a chair, alone in a room. Sometimes we share work with each other, go out for a drink and talk it through. But truthfully, I hardly ever leave my house.
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Author Exposure would like to thank Sheri Joseph for taking the time to talk to us about Where You Can Find Me. To find out more about Joseph and her books, visit her blog, like her Facebook page, and follow her on Twitter.
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