Elizabeth Blackwell is the author of In The Shadow of Lakecrest, While Beauty Slept, and of course, our GBC book title for November, On A Cold Dark Sea. A former magazine writer and editor, she lives in the Chicago suburbs with her family and reads all the time. Seriously, like, ALL THE TIME.
We chatted with Elizabeth recently to get some insights into how she began writing, her favorite bookstore, and she’s recommended us a great TV series and, obviously, our next read!
Girly Book Club: How did you get into writing and what inspired you to write your first book?
Elizabeth Blackwell: I’ve always loved reading, but it took me awhile to believe I could actually be an author–I didn’t know anyone who wrote fiction, and it seemed like an impractical, unattainable goal. After studying history in college, I worked as an editor for research books, then transitioned into journalism. During the day, I wrote magazine stories on topics like “10 Great Brunch Spots” and “Cool Kitchen Makeovers,” and at a certain point, I began thinking, “I will always regret it if I don’t at least try writing a novel.” At the time, I had a young daughter who loved watching Disney’s Sleeping Beauty, and after repeated viewings, I started thinking, “What if the fairy tale was based on real events?” I started writing at night in secret, telling no-one, because I didn’t want to be embarrassed if it never worked out. But several years later–after numerous rejections–While Beauty Slept was published, and I began to finally think of myself as a “real” writer.
GBC: What makes a book great, in your opinion? What elements does a great story possess?
EB: A great book is one that takes me away to a different world, one that’s both believable and compelling. I read a lot of different genres, but I love stories that have some element of suspense, where I can’t wait to find out what will happen next. I also look for characters who are complex and surprising–part of the fun of reading, for me, is to experience lives that are nothing like my own. Most of my favorite books have a very strong sense of place: The Secret History by Donna Tartt, The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters, Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood, and the Dublin Murder Squad series by Tana French. When I’m immersed in books like that, it feels like I’ve been transported somewhere else.
GBC: What are you doing if you’re not writing?
EB: Reading, of course! It’s honestly my #1 hobby. At the risk of sounding like a cheesy dating profile, I also like long walks. It’s the best way to wake myself up when I’m feeling low-energy and also great for clearing my mind when I’ve hit the wall writing-wise. Some of my best ideas have come when I’m walking around my neighborhood, letting my mind wander.
GBC: Name your favourite bookshop in the world.
EB: I’ve only been there a few times, but I have to say The Strand in New York City. It has such a sense of history, and it’s so big! Every time I walk in, I get a tingle of excitement thinking of all the great books there are to discover.
GBC: Physical book, e-book, or audiobook? – and why.
EB: I have a Kindle, which is great for when I’m traveling and don’t want my carry-on bag to be so heavy it gives me a backache. But for everyday life, I prefer physical books. There’s something about holding a book and turning the pages that helps me connect to each book on an individual level, whereas e-books seem interchangeable, since they all look the same on the screen. I know that research has shown you retain more information when you read an actual book, and that’s certainly true for me.
GBC: What was your favourite book as a child?
EB: Richard Scarry is my all-time favorite picture-book author. His books were some of the first I ever learned to read, and now I love reading them to my own children. Classics such as Busytown and What Do People Do All Day? are funny, informative, and charming. When someone I know has a baby, a Richard Scarry book is my go-to gift!
GBC: We’re always on the hunt for our next great read. Recommend us a book to add to our TBR pile!
EB: Just one?? That’s almost impossible, but the best book I’ve read recently is The Great Believers by Rebecca Makkai. The central storyline takes place during the AIDS crisis in Chicago in the 1980s, which might make you worry (as I did) that it would be deeply depressing. But Makkai has a wonderful way of mixing humor and compassion into what is essentially a story about friendship. It’s one of those sweeping novels that completely immerses you in its characters’ lives. By the end, I felt like I was saying goodbye to people I knew and cared about.
GBC: What is one movie, TV series, or podcast that you’re loving right now?
EB: Again….just one?? My current TV obsession is A Series of Unfortunate Events on Netflix. My 11-year-old son read the whole book series and loved it, so we decided to watch one episode as a family….and everyone was immediately hooked. It’s very stylized, very dark comedy, featuring Neil Patrick Harris in a variety of ridiculous costumes and accents. The adventure storyline appeals to older kids, but there’s also lots of sophisticated, literary humor aimed at adults.