You know one of my favorite perks of being an author is reading books early, especially when they’re WONDERFUL! I read ALL THE BEST PEOPLE by Sonja Yoerg, and here’s what I had to say about it:
In All the Best People, Sonja Yoerg has crafted a family landscape that is as familiar as it is provocative. With Yoerg’s lush and moving prose, the characters are realistic and bold, yet so compassionately portrayed that I fell in love with even the most unlikable ones. The stories of Carole, the mother who fears she is losing her mind; Solange, the grandmother who already has; Janine, the narcissistic sister who makes bad decisions; and Alison, the little girl who just wants to love from a mother she fears has none to give, are woven together seamlessly to create a story about trust, love, and strength set against a backdrop of 1930s to 1970s Vermont. This book will stay with you long after you read the last page.
You’ll love this interview with Sonja. She has a giving nature and she’s a straight shooter — my favorite combo!
Please welcome Sonja and congratulate her on ALL THE BEST PEOPLE!
Author Sonja Yoerg Is Certain of One Thing: The Creative Process is Full of Uncertainty
Amy: How did the idea spark for ALL THE BEST PEOPLE?
Sonja: For me, the spark for a new book always comes from a character, in this case, eleven-year-old Alison. Eleven is such a fascinating age, on the cusp of adolescence and yet still very much a child. I remember being that age myself, how I began questioning the truths fed to me by my parents, how I realized the world was much more complex than I had ever imagined. It was a thrilling feeling, and a frightening one, and it seemed to me that a large part of who someone ultimately becomes is determined by how they react and change at this point in their development.
I wanted to feel close to Alison, so I made her my age and set the beginning of the story in 1972. I’ll do the math for you; I’m 57, which means when I write about my childhood, it’s practically historical fiction!
Amy: I love the idea of books that must be set in a particular place, instead of any place. How did you choose Vermont for the setting for this novel? Do you think the story could have taken place anywhere else?
Sonja: I’m in complete agreement with you, Amy, on the importance of setting. I was lucky enough to grow up in Vermont, and its natural beauty and rustic charm are imprinted on my heart forever. When my husband and I left California a few years ago, we considered moving to Vermont. We didn’t relish the idea of those long winters, however, so aimed further south, ending up in the mountains of Virginia which, funny enough, look a lot like Vermont.
The character, Alison, was a Vermonter from her first appearance in my imagination. It is the childhood I know best, of course, but equally important were the deeper themes that would eventually come to light in the story: the impact of mental illness on families and the legacy of deep-rooted class conflict in Vermont. Although the concept for All the Best People began with Alison, her mother, Carole, is the main character and the pivot point for these themes. As the story begins, Carole’s thoughts are disturbed and she is hearing voices, but she hides these symptoms because she fears ending up like her mother who has been locked up in a mental hospital for thirty-four years. Carole’s mother was of French-Canadian Catholic heritage and poor, while her father was part of Burlington’s Protestant elite and rubbed shoulders with the proponents of Vermont’s eugenics program in the early 1900s. The contrast of Vermont’s magical beauty with this difficult, even shameful, history forms the scaffolding of the story. Of course, the family relationships are the story’s heart.
Amy: There are four POV and two timelines (1920-1950 and 1972) in your novel, so here’s the inevitable question. HOW did you write it? The way we’re reading it? Or did you write timelines and POV separately?
Sonja: The evolution of the structure of this book, if mapped visually, would look like the tracks of a demented squirrel with a vestibular infection. As I mentioned, I started with Alison and entire chapters from her point-of-view were abandoned to the cutting room floor. Carole’s perspective came next, becoming larger and larger as I sought to comprehend her illness and how it figured into her personal story. That led me to her mother, Solange, with her own point-of-view, and that’s when the linear structure I had been developing blew up completely. Solange’s story, her love story and the side trip into Vermont history, the eugenics movement and the treatment of the mentally ill, grew so large it became an entity. I stood back and realized I needed to divide the book into sections: Parts I and III set in 1972 and Part II, Solange’s story and Carole’s childhood. I don’t recall when I added the fourth point-of-view, that of Janine, Carole’s sister. It felt necessary, given how the story had shifted from mostly Alison’s to mostly Carole’s.
I am an extremely organized person so believe me when I say that this process was unnerving at times. I often felt I’d never understand what this book was meant to be about. In the end, however (actually, a long time before I reached the end), I did understand, and it fell together in a way that satisfied me completely. What a journey!
Amy: Before the editing process began for you at Berkeley, how many months (years?) did it take for you to write this book? Was this a usual timeline for you, similar to your other books?
Sonja: The complete draft took about a year to write. It felt like five. I’m lucky that I don’t have to work another job in order to write and my nest is empty—no excuses for me! I write fairly polished drafts, so the manuscript was finalized three months after I finished the draft. Each successive book seems to take me longer to write, so a year was my new record.
Amy: Can you share with us what you’re working on now?
Sonja: I’m in between projects, a very strange and uncomfortable place for me. I submitted my next book, We Have No Title Yet, to my editor several weeks ago and now it is done and dusted! The story is about a modern mom, Suzanne, who, like many moms, has no white space in her planner. She finds a girl by the side of the road, a girl who has lived in the woods her entire life with her family but without contact with civilization. Suzanne rescues the girl but, as the story unfolds, perhaps it is Suzanne who is in need of rescue. The book will be released during the summer of 2018.
I will get going on a fresh page soon—right after I come home from my book tour the next couple weeks. I have a couple of ideas…
Amy: What’s some unconventional or surprising advice you would share with aspiring authors of women’s fiction?
Sonja: Don’t expect what you learn about one project to apply to the next. In my experience, the only certainty about the creative process is the lack of certainty, and what seemed like the perfect approach to the last book might be an abject failure for the next. It might be that I haven’t written enough books to see an overarching pattern in the process, something I can grab onto for the next book. Who knows? For now, the upside is that I’m unlikely to get bored since I never know exactly what I’m going to do next or how I’m going to do it. Stay tuned!
Thanks so much for spending some time with me, Amy. It’s always so fun to chat. And I’m excited for November and the release of your next book, Left for Chance! xo Sonja
Sonja Yoerg grew up in Stowe, Vermont, where she financed her college education by waitressing at the Trapp Family Lodge. She earned a Ph.D. in biological psychology from the University of California, Berkeley and wrote a nonfiction book about animal intelligence, Clever as a Fox (Bloomsbury USA, 2001). Her novels, House Broken (2015), Middle of Somewhere (2015), and All the Best People (2017), are published by Penguin/Berkley. Sonja lives with her husband in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia.