I’m delighted to welcome the fantastic Sonja Yoerg to Bookaholic Confessions today. Sonja’s debut novel, House Broken was released on 6th January (click here to get your copy) and it sounds incredible. I am hugely excited about reading House Broken so naturally I had lots of questions (bookish and animal related, of course!) for Sonja…
Hello, everyone! I’m delighted Holly’s invited me over for a chat. I’m in seventh heaven at the moment, as I’ve done the unlikely thing of publishing my first novel. And I’m no ingénue, having just celebrated by 55th birthday. Just getting my second wind, I guess.
Can you tell us a bit about your debut novel, House Broken (released January 2015)?
It’s the story of Geneva, a hard-headed veterinarian, who, like most women, is keeping a lot of balls in the air. Her alcoholic mother moves in with her, and Geneva uses the opportunity to excavate the family history no one wants to talk about, and with good reason. It’s told from three points of view—Geneva’s, her mother’s and Geneva’s sixteen-year old daughter—so we get to see the family dynamic from all sides.
As a huge animal lover I am really interested in animal behaviour too. You studied Biological Psychology at University and have even written a book about animal intelligence, can you tell us a bit about this side of your career?
I majored in psychology in college and went on to get a Ph.D. in Biopsychology at the University of California at Berkeley. My research was about how animals use learning to solve problems of survival, and I studied everything from blue jays to pigeons to hyenas. I also ran a captive breeding program for endangered kangaroo rats, lovely little desert creatures that have had a hard time with all the development in California. What I loved most was field work. I studied a river bird in Wales for two years, walking along a river every day, watching and learning. Observation skills are not a bad thing for a writer to have, as it happens!
After working with and studying so many different animals do you have a personal favourite?
That’s like asking which of my children I prefer. Honestly, I believe that if you look closely enough at any animal, if you take the time to get to know its habits, its adaptations and how it deals with the world, you can’t help but come to admire it. Take spotted hyenas as an example. They are wonderful, social creatures, despite their reputations.
I’m hugely looking forward to reading House Broken, it sounds like a really insightful and powerful read. What inspired you to write a novel focussing on families and their secrets?
I didn’t set out to write about family secrets at all. It just happened. I started with the main character, Geneva, and as I got to know her, I started making trouble for her—the particular kind of trouble that would trip her up. She’s very curious and has to know the reason for everything, so I knew she wouldn’t let any mystery go unsolved. And it turned out her family had some terrible secrets.
Can you tell us a bit about your journey to publication?
I am one of the lucky few: the creature that rose from the slush pile. I got my agent the hard way, sending out lots and lots of queries, more than a hundred. I don’t have industry connections, or an MFA. I did, however, do my homework and learned everything I could about how to secure representation.
Maria Carvainis fell in love with my book, and suddenly my dream seemed possible. She found Claire Zion, my editor at Penguin/NAL, and brokered the deal. I won the lottery!
Do you have any pets or keep any animals at the moment?
Not at the moment, which is unusual. I grew up always having a cat. My husband grew up with dogs, mostly German shepherds. We typically have had a couple dogs, rescued from local shelters. Before our move from California, our last dog died. We are building a house now in Virginia, and it has a dog room (a place to put them when they’re muddy!), just waiting for a new occupant or two. I can’t wait!
What do you think you would be doing if you weren’t a writer?
Gosh, I have no idea! There are so many things I’d like to try. How many times am I allowed to reinvent myself?
Writing only takes up a small portion of my day. Most of the real work happens in the background, while I doing other things, like running, cooking and gardening, so I already feel my life has a lot of dimensions. Maybe I’d develop a cookbook. Or would that count as writing as well?
Who are your favourite authors and what kind of books do you enjoy reading?
My tastes are eclectic. As long as the writing is strong, I’ll read most anything. I’m a fan of Wallace Stegner, Ivan Doig, Marilynne Robinson and Kent Haruf; I admire their compassion for small lives and their careful prose. As for more mainstream authors, Lianne Moriarty gets stronger with every book. Her characters always contain surprises. Anne Tyler has a new book that I’m excited about. For debut authors, Mary Kubica’s The Good Girl was incredible and I’m looking forward to her next one, Pretty Baby.
And finally – can you tell us a bit about what you’re working on at the moment?
The book I’m writing at the moment will be my third novel and is a coming-of-age story set in the 1970s. My second book, Middle of Somewhere, is done and dusted, and will be published by Penguin in September 2015. It’s about a thirty-year old woman, Liz, who sets off on a three-week trek in the Sierras. She’s got more emotional baggage than will fit in her backpack and craves solitude to figure things out. At the last minute, her boyfriend decides to tag along. Liz is fiercely independent, but the trail, her boyfriend and her past put to the test her conviction to brave life on her own.
Thank you so much for participating in this interview, Sonja; I really appreciate you taking the time to answer my questions.
So fun to have a chance to chat. Happy reading, everyone!