by Deborah Batterman
I had the pleasure of meeting Céline Keating a few years ago when she read from her first novel, Layla, at a local library in Westchester. Her latest novel, Play for Me, is hot off the press and I was as eager to read it as I was for the opportunity to interview her. In the tradition of stories about women who find themselves reexamining their lives when the kids are gone, Lily, the protagonist, faces something of a midlife crisis triggered by her son’s departure for college and a rock guitarist’s serendipitous emergence in her life.
How long have you been a member of WNBA and what do value most about your involvement?
I’ve been a member for slightly less than two years, and in that short time I’ve not only gotten to meet, work, and learn from some amazingly talented women, but I’ve also been given opportunities to gain a broader audience for my own writing. I’m thrilled to be part of this community. I really look forward to being even more involved as I serve on the Board and as part of the programming team for the NYC chapter over the coming year.
Road trips play a significant part in both of your novels. Can you talk a little about the road trip/journey as a motif for self-discovery and what draws you to it as a storytelling device?
The road trip device was very organic in my novel Layla, because I needed my main character to have various encounters around the U.S. Layla sets out to uncover secrets about her parents, and in the process, learns about herself. With Play for Me, I knew that my main character, Lily, would need to be untethered from her husband and home life in order to take the kinds of risks she does. In general, I think we can often gain enormous perspective when we are away from home, and that’s one of the reasons people enjoy travel. On a deeper level, the freedom from daily responsibilities creates the space for change to occur. I think that the disorientation we feel when we are in places where we know no one, and are unsure of the norms, forces us to reckon with ourselves in new ways. All can lead to growth, and it’s that kind of personal transformation that is especially interesting to me to explore. Another aspect of using the motif of the road journey is to give some air and movement to the narrative, to balance the amount of reflection and psychological exploration in my work. And on the level of craft, I also enjoy reading and writing description, especially of place and landscape.
The power of music is a theme I think we share as writers. While Layla was not about music per se, the title is synonymous with a particular era in our cultural history, not to mention one of the most iconic guitarists ever. In Play for Me you go full force into the rock star hero syndrome. Even if the story, at its heart, is mostly about the music and what it triggers re: Lily’s own sense of creative fulfillment, the sexual charge is there from the start. What do you think makes music in general, and rock in particular, such a powerful connector?
As you say, in Play for Me music a catalyst, and so is a stand-in for any of the arts, in that it releases Lily’s creativity. But I agree that there is a special something that makes music so compelling. Though I tend to be of a philosophical bent, my guess is that the power of music has more to do with biology. For one, there’s rhythm, the beat of a mother’s heart that is felt from the time of conception. That’s pretty powerful in itself. And researchers have confirmed that music holds disproportionate power over our emotions. Brain-imaging studies show that our favorite songs stimulate the brain’s pleasure circuit, which releases an influx of neurochemicals that make us feel good. Music literally acts like a drug on our systems. The more we like a song, the more we experience that bliss. And there is buildup and release in music, as there is in sex. Writing this novel was for me a way of exploring the intensities triggered by music, trying to dig down to the source of that power. And the connection to spirituality and transcendence was also inescapable –hence the use of music in all religious practice.
You begin the novel at a pivotal point in Lily’s life: her son, Colby, is headed for college. As I read it, she finds herself caught in that place between what a great job I did with my kid and what do I do now with my life. Along comes JJ, the quintessential reminder of what she might have been and what something in her still longs to be. The themes you take on are universal—motherhood, body image, creative fulfillment, fidelity. But there is a touch of the fairy tale undercurrent and, without any spoiler alerts, did you ever consider a different denouement?
For me there was very definitely a fairy tale undercurrent, and I’m so glad you picked that up in the novel. On some level Lily is enthralled by the promise of magic, of leaving the mundane behind for some higher, more wondrous realm, one the music seems to promise. And I wanted to give her that. At the same time, and another current in fairy tales, is the notion of punishment for transgression. Somehow I couldn’t allow Lily to escape that reckoning. But here’s another consideration, that occurred to me only after the book was finished (and partly in response to some readers who didn’t “like” Lily’s actions): How much does the way I resolved the story depend on the fact that the main character is female? Would I, as an author, have let a man off the hook more easily? Would readers?
The camera was a clever, and convenient, plot device that gives Lily justification for following the band on tour. I think it functions as metaphor, as well, and keeps her in the narrative while viewing it from a distance through a literal, and figurative, lens. If you weren’t a writer, would you be more drawn to the camera or the guitar as a creative outlet?
Great – and tough! – question. You’re absolutely right about the use of the camera, and also, as a feminist, I wanted to make sure Lily had an active role while she’s on the road and not just be a “hanger on.” Now that you ask this question, it reminds me that Layla was an amateur photographer. Hmmm. The guitar wins out as a creative outlet for me. I love taking photographs, and do on a daily basis, but I have a deeper connection to guitar and have been studying classical guitar pretty seriously for over a decade.
Your first novel was published by an independent press. With your second novel, you decided to go with She Writes Press, which I understand to be a vetted self-publishing model. What factored into your decision to go this route?
She Writes Press is a hybrid publisher, which means that it’s forging a “third way,” trying to have the best of both worlds – it offers the author control and superior earnings of a self-publisher but has the distribution and vetting of a traditional publisher. Although my agent thought Play for Me was fairly commercial, my work is generally considered “quiet” and is hard to place with traditional publishers. We got offers from three small literary presses, which would have meant no financial investment on my part, but I chose She Writes Press after talking with CEO Brooke Warner and grasping the genius behind what she is doing. Also I loved the idea of an all-female press with a woman at the helm.
How different has your publishing experience been with the two modalities?
Both experiences have been terrific. My publisher for Layla, Plain View Press, is a tiny press that’s been around for over 30 years. They did as great a job as possible – everything about the editing, production, design, etc. went very well, and the working relationship was excellent. But I discovered from that experience is that such presses have no ability whatsoever to get books into the marketplace. That’s where She Writes Press is different. Because SWP has Ingram Publishing Services, the same type of distribution as the big traditional publishers, there is a sales force that sells the books into “the trade” – bookstores like Barnes & Noble. SWP can get this kind of distribution because of its online component – SheWrites.com has over 25,000 members. So while my experience with both publishers has been wonderful –supportive, responsive, and even fun – the main difference should be in the number of sales. Layla did well, but I am hopeful that Play for Me will reach more readers. But that is yet to be seen, as is only just out.
Do you have a strategy for marketing?
For both books I hired a publicist and both campaigns involved sending out press releases and advanced reader copies. For Play for Me I went with the PR/marketing firm BookSparks that is now the owner of SWP. They organized a blog tour, content placement, a Goodreads giveaway, Netgalley promotion, and a 12-city tour (of which I am doing six). On my own I am organizing additional events and book club and library outreach. With both marketing plans we discussed the “ideal” audience for the book. Layla attracted young people who wanted to learn about the ’60s/’70s as well as older readers who lived through that period. Play for Me should appeal to music lovers for its “on the road” aspects and also the “boomer” generation that is facing the ‘empty nest’ phase of life and confronting what parts of themselves might have been lost along the way. (I was thrilled with a review in Booklist that characterized the book as a cross between High Fidelity and Eat Pray Love !) Of course the challenge is how to reach these particular audiences and let them know about the books.
What do you like most about being a writer? What do you like least?
What I like most is the writing itself, especially when I get to the stage of a novel when I am so involved I can’t bear to tear myself away; what I like least is when I feel I’m floundering, or worse, not writing at all. I’m an introvert, and putting myself out there – whether in a blog post, a reading, or on Facebook – felt very uncomfortable at first. Thank goodness it’s getting a lot easier! I’ve come to especially love participating in book clubs – there’s nothing better than talking with readers who have read your work and have insights to share.
Deborah Batterman is the author of Shoes Hair Nails (short stories) and Because my name is mother (essays). A native New Yorker, she is a Pushcart nominee and took 3rd place in the Women’s National Book Association 2012 Short Fiction Contest. Her work has appeared in anthologies as well as various print and online journals, most recently The Fem: A Feminist Literary Magazine, Every Mother Has a Story, Vol. 2 (Shebooks/Good Housekeeping) and Open to Interpretation: Fading Light (Taylor & O’Neill). Upcoming publication includes a featured story on Akashic Books’ website. She has completed two novels and maintains a blog, which has evolved into a collaboration with her daughter. She can’t say she invented the word, but a ‘diablog’ it is.
Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/deborah.batterman