Sitting Down with Grace O’Connell: Author of Be Ready for the Lightning @yesgrace @RandomHouseCA

Earlier this month, I read Be Ready for the Lightning by Canadian author, Grace O’Connell.  I was completely blown away by this novel (if you missed it, my review is here).    Today, I have Grace O’Connell on Clues and Reviews answering my questions about the book, the writing process and some serious Canadian business….

Be Ready for the Lightning explores so many different aspects of human nature from mental health to family loyalty.  What inspired you to write it?  What type of research goes into a novel with so many different pieces?

A lot of the research for this novel had to do with the most unfamiliar part of the plot (for me), the hijacking. I read several non-fiction books and articles about hostage situations and negotiations, public shooting events, and the like. They were dark and difficult but very interesting, especially the pieces focused on negotiations – I have such a soft spot for the negotiator in Be Ready, Ajay Kohli, even though he’s a very minor character.

I also went to New York and rode the MTA M1 bus (Veda’s bus) up and down its route for an entire day, photographing the configuration of the seats, the signs in the windows, the way the driver’s area was laid out, as well as the neighbourhoods where Veda spends time. It was both logistically helpful and inspiring. I was lucky to have a friend to stay with in New York – just like Veda.

In terms of what inspired me to write the novel, it was a perfect storm of questions and anxieties. My niece, the first grandchild in our family, was a toddler when I began writing, and I’d been having this overwhelming concern about something bad happening to her and wanting to protect her. The idea of protection was floating around in my mind a lot, as well as the question of how I – or any average person – would react in a terrible situation like the one Veda finds herself in, and what that reaction would mean, in terms of one’s identity.

If you could tell your readers three things about Be Ready for the Lightning, what would they be?

The first is that, for all that Be Ready is a story of violence, it’s primarily the story of a brother and sister. Conrad and Veda’s relationship is the heart of the book, and it’s the crux of the story I wanted to tell. Loyalty, obligation, protection, love – and the question of whether the people we love really are the people we see them as. That is what interested me.

That being said, violence is an important aspect of the novel. So, second, I would ask readers to notice the violence throughout – not just the central violence of the hijacking, but the violence people direct towards others, and towards themselves, in big and small ways throughout the narrative.

Lastly, I’d ask a question, which was one of the first obsessions that drove this book for me, which is: can a person do something so brave or good, or conversely, so bad or cowardly, that the action defines them? Is it possible to have one day count more than all the other days of your life?

For the most part, the novel takes place in New York with flashbacks to Veda’s youth in Vancouver.  As a Toronto-based writer, why did you decide to move the setting from where you live? 

After my first novel, Magnified World, I was burnt out on writing Toronto. I’ve lived here for ten years, and I love the city, and I poured all that love into my first novel. I needed to let my headspace be different for this book, and I wanted the anonymity that a city like New York affords a character. It’s a wonderful city, but it’s so big, so famous, so well-known that it almost comes full circle to being a blank canvas. As for Vancouver, I’ve only spent a short time there, but it really captured my imagination. It just fit, and once I started writing Veda’s life there, it felt right.

Do you read your book reviews? How do you deal with bad or good ones?

I definitely read any reviews I can get my hands on. I’ve found some reviewers so insightful they point out things I didn’t even think of, which feels like such a gift, and sometimes a negative review (though they can stings or frustrate) can point out weak spots that I can hopefully learn from. But most importantly, I read them to remind myself that writing, like all art, has a huge element of subjectivity in how its received, and I shouldn’t let a good review puff me up anymore than I should let a bad review tear me down.

What do you like to do when you aren’t writing? 

I love cycling and walking around in Toronto. And I love escaping to my partner’s family cottage – as much as I love Toronto, I am definitely happiest beside a quiet lake.

I love taking classes in things that are totally new to me – a few I’ve taken in recent years include knitting, aerial silks, sailing, fencing, Spanish (didn’t take, sadly), home and cottage construction (I learned a lot about foundations), and auto and bike repair (which were separate classes, and enough to teach me I don’t have much potential in either field).

But mostly I’m a house-mouse. I work from home, and I stay home as much as I can get away with. I love being at home. I have a backyard now and I set up my big rope hammock back there. I watch a ton of TV too. I’ve never understood writers who don’t love TV. I’m re-watching Buffy and The X-Files (for the umpteenth time) right now, plus lots of new stuff.

You have had several pieces of short fiction published.  Do you prefer writing short fiction or novels?

They’re totally different beasts. To me, novels are about people, or a person. You get to know them, you feel what they feel. You miss them when they’re gone.

Writing short stories (which I really love to do) is more about a feeling, or an atmosphere, and about language. You can really play with a short story, make it do tricks. It’s a delight in the formal sense of writing, whereas a novel is, by virtue of its sheer size, a much more craft-based creature. There’s a lot of organization and wrangling with a novel. Each form takes a lot of discipline, but in different ways. It’s the difference between cutting a gem and building a house.  

And, finally, the most important question of all.  What do you order when you go to Tim Hortons? (I like a French Vanilla and a double chocolate donut )

I love this question because I grew up in the suburbs and Tim Horton’s was the centre of everything. I am not a coffee drinker (I know, am I even really a writer??) but I have a huge sweet tooth. My absolute favourite is a chocolate cruller, which they don’t always have. It’s a regular honey cruller (which I also love) with chocolate icing on top… like a chocolate dip donut, but with extra cruller-y goodness. It’s heaven.

Thanks so much to Grace O’Connell for answering my questions, and, if you haven’t already, be sure to add Be Ready for the Lightning to your TBR pile.  This one is worth the read! 

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