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I’d delighted to be a part of a blog tour for Dolls Behaving Badly, a unique and fun read from Alaska debut writer Cinthia Ritchie.
With quirky sensibility and belly-laugh inducing prose, Dolls Behaving Badly (Grand Central Publishing; Paperback Original; On-Sale: February 5, 2013; ISBN: 978-0-446-56813-5; 352 pages; $13.99) tells the story of sardonic 30-something single mom Carla Richards and a cast of loveably eccentric people living in a small Alaska town. Carla is a lot of things: a divorcée who’s slept with nineteen and a half men; a waitress for the most popular Mexican joint in Anchorage, Mexico in an Igloo; and a single mom to a precocious eight-year-old boy named Jay-Jay whom she’s supporting along with her pregnant sister, Laurel, and her live-in, teenaged babysitter, Stephanie. Carla is also an aspiring artist who makes erotic dolls for extra income, and an avid Oprah devotee. She’s just one delinquent utility bill away from having collections kick down her door when inspiration knocks instead.
Cinthia says she wants readers to understand that it’s okay to be alone, that having a man in your life is a gift, but so are so many things: sisters and sons, neighborhood babysitters, and even dead grandmothers bearing sugar-laced recipes. Dolls Behaving Badly is utterly charming and sassy.
Cinthia is joining us today to answer some questions about her writing. In addition, thanks to Cinthia and the charming Marissa at Grand Central Publishing, I have two copies of Dolls Behaving Badly to giveaway. Please see the end of the post for the guidelines. Mason - Why did you select Alaska for your setting in Dolls Behaving Badly?
Cinthia - I couldn’t not choose Alaska. I had the characters outlined and a loose idea of the plot, and when I sat down to write Anchorage naturally appeared as the landscape. I soon realized that there was no way my characters could live anywhere else.
Once I began writing, though, I specifically worked to keep Alaska in the background. Many novels incorporate Alaska as a theme, yet it’s often as a tough-guy or tough-woman type. I wanted to change that. I wanted a book that centered on women characters that just happened to live in Alaska, not characters that lived in Alaska as their agenda.
Yet I also wanted my main characters to mirror the moods of Alaska: Unpredictable and unknowing one moment, and expansive and welcoming the next. This gave me the freedom to deviate from the norm. Alaska is less pretentious than most places. That guy sitting beside you with the dirty fingernails and smelly Carhartts could be a janitor or an oil executive just back from fishing. You just never know.
I laughingly told a friend that Dolls Behaving Badly is a cross between Sex and the City and Northern Exposure, and I think that pretty much sums it up: Quirky characters that are vulnerable yet stubbornly resilient, pretty much the way I feel about Alaska. Mason - How did you come to give your protagonist such an unusual way to make extra income (by making erotic dolls).
Cinthia - One of the art galleries in town hosted a Barbie doll art show and I couldn’t get it out of my mind. I bought a few dolls and began hacking them to pieces. I stayed up one whole night doing this; I think I was a bit crazy.
I transferred that craziness over to my protagonist, Carla. I wanted her to be an artist and I wanted her to be eccentric, so I chose Barbie doll art as her medium. Yet the scenes felt flat and forced. It was almost as if she were saying, “I don’t want to do that.”
One night I was out walking the dog and found a naked Barbie doll torso in the middle of the road. It was raining that night and the doll was muddy; I think someone had run over it too, because it was squished and mangled, except for the breasts, which thrust out as perky and unnatural as ever.
I swear I felt chills when I picked it up. It was a defining moment. I didn’t consciously know then that I would include erotic doll art in my book but I think the writer part of my mind had already decided. Once I wrote the first erotic doll scene, I felt foolish. I was afraid people would snicker. Once I read it over, however, I knew instinctively that this is what Carla would do.
After that, the book took off. There was no stopping it. Mason - Everyone is going to wonder, are your characters based on real people you know, completely created from your imagination or a combination of both?
Cinthia - I’d like to say that my characters are completely imagined, but of course that would be a lie. They’re composites of people I knew or people I used to know or people I worked with—you get the picture. Or at least they were in initially. After I began writing, they became purely themselves. It reminds me of raising a child, how you can see yourself in them yet they are uniquely who they are.
Two of the characters I love the most (I love all my characters of course, love them with the doomed, hopeless longing of imagination), were intended as minor characters. Barry, Carla’s ex-husband, was originally written as an unredeemable bad guy. But he refused to play this role and opened up and showed himself as this fumbling yet vulnerable man. It took my breath away, it was such a surprise. That’s when I realized that he was a catalyst not only for Carla but himself and, in a sense, the arch of the whole book.
Stephanie, the teenaged babysitter, also grew on her own accord, from an intended fill-in to a lovable and wise young woman with big heart and good-natured attitude. She was another surprise. Sometimes, when I drive past the trailer park I used as a setting (disguised, of course, though very, very loosely), I search for Stephanie. I know she’s there somewhere, sitting inside one of those metal boxes and writing poetry or painting her toenails. And I feel such a longing to meet her, to sit with her and hold her hand that it fills my chest until I can hardly breathe.
Mason - If you had to write this book over, would you do anything differently - content in the book, your writing schedule, the way you researched it, etc.?
Cinthia - I would do almost everything differently. I made so many mistakes. When you write a book, you go in blind and dumb. You grope and stutter and flail. It’s much like bringing a newborn baby home and screaming: Wait! I don’t know what to do next.
One big mistake I made was worrying about what others would think. Dolls Behaving Badly is classified as women’s mainstream fiction and I intended for it to be that way. I wanted a book accessible to all, not only those versed in literary techniques. I wanted it to be well-written, yes, but more importantly I wanted all women, from those who work in restaurants and as supermarket checkers to doctors and lawyers, to open the cover and immediately feel engaged. I didn’t want a buffer of class systems or education, and this was a vital point because, even though I have an M.F.A., I grew up in a farming community and I’ve worked as a waitress. I know these women. I love these women.
Yet as I wrote I often imagined voices from my graduate workshops sneering, “You’re writing that?” And I’d feel shame, I don’t know why. Because I hadn’t produced a literary masterpiece. Because I’d rather write to real women than a literary magazine audience.
Those voices had nothing to do with my graduate classes, of course, but were simply my own insecurity, the dualism inside me, the push and pull of who I am versus who I think I should be. Mason - Did anything unusual, scary and/or funny happen during the course of your writing this book?
Cinthia - Well, this is odd but after I established the tone of the book and felt comfortable with my characters, situations I wrote about began happening in real life. It was almost scary. I wrote a scene (that was later cut due to length), where Carla’s ex-husband colors his hair blond. I worried: Does this sound fake? Do grown men really dye their hair with Nice and Easy hair color? A few weeks later I drove out to visit an old friend and couldn’t believe it: He had colored his hair with Nice and Easy! It looked horrible, too, and was the same dry, reddish-blond as in my book.
One of the love interests of a main character was initially 17 years older, a skier and father. Soon after I wrote that scene a friend excitedly told me that she had met a man who was 17 years older, a skier and a father. What are the chances?
I had to rewrite scenes so that people wouldn’t accuse me of using their lives in my writing when, in actuality, scenes from my writing were appearing in their lives. I worried that I had been inflicted with a super power, like a Twilight Zone episode, and everything I wrote would sooner or later come true. It was unnerving. It still bothers me.
Mason - What can readers look forward to next from you?
Cinthia - I’m almost finished with my second novel, as yet unnamed; I have such difficulties with titles. It also takes place in Alaska and centers on a Sasha Dewey, woman who writes the obituaries for an Anchorage newspaper and hides from the death of her stillborn daughter and her subsequent miscarriages. It’s a heavy subject and more serious than Dolls Behaving Badly, yet it’s also laced with humor. I’m not sure if a book about death can be funny but my view is that since death will happen to us all, why not laugh about it?
I’ve also began a scary novel. Ever since I read Stephen King’s Salem’s Lot years ago, I’ve wanted to write a horror book, nothing bloody or violent but psychologically scary, like the ghost stories many of us grew up with.
The oddest thing happened to me when I lived down in Seward, a small coastal community at the end of the road system. A friend and I hiked out to the Derby Cove cabin for the night. This is a cabin on Resurrection Bay, and once the tide rolls in it’s cut off by land. We were preparing for sleep and my camera suddenly went off, twice. At the exact same moment, the candle blew out. It was creepy. The camera wasn’t near me at the time and wasn’t set on automatic timer, either. Lying in my sleeping bag and listening to the wind and the waves, I suddenly understood how isolated we were. That’s when a story began inside my head, an Alaska ghost story. I have about fifteen pages finished plus all the character sketches. I can’t wait to work on it. It’s so lovely to be scared, isn’t it? Cinthia, thanks so much for stopping by and giving us a behind the scenes look at Dolls Behaving Badly. I would have to agree, you have had some odd things happen to you during the course of your writing. It’s like the old saying, fact is stranger than fiction.
Cinthia is a Pushcart Prize nominee for fiction and the recipient of the National PEN Women Creative Nonfiction Award. She is a former news editor at Alaska Newspapers. Cinthia spent eight years as a features writer and columnist at Anchorage Daily News and received her MFA from the University of Alaska, Anchorage. She lives in Anchorage with her college-aged son. Dolls Behaving Badly is her debut novel.
Now for the giveaway guidelines. To enter, just send me an e-mail (firstname.lastname@example.org) with the subject line, “Win Dolls Behaving Badly.” The giveaway is open to residents of the U.S. only and no post office box addresses can be accepted. Your message should include your name and mailing address. And, just so you know, I don’t share any of this information with anyone other than the publisher/tour promoter nor use it for any other purpose. The deadline to enter this giveaway for a chance to win 1 of 2 copies of Dolls Behaving Badly is 8 p.m. (EST) on Saturday, Feb. 23.
Thanks so much for stopping by today. Do you enjoy reading stories set in Alaska? What is the most unusual occupation a protagonist has had that you’ve read about?
Hi, I'm Mason Canyon and I love reading and that is why I do reviews. I post them here, as well as several other sites such as Goodreads, Amazon and Barnes & Noble. If you are an author who would like for me to review your book or you would like to guest blog here, please contact me at email@example.com These reviews are done for the love of a good book, not for monetary rewards. I'm also a freelance editor. For more on my services, drop by Freelance Editing By Mason