Waking up one wintry morning in her old farmhouse nestled in the Adirondack Mountains of New York, Nora Hamilton is instantly aware that something is terribly wrong. Her fog of sleep clears and she finds her world is suddenly, irretrievably shattered.
Cover of Snow is a darkly atmospheric first novel that challenges all sorts of romantic notions we might harbor about small towns and the people we think we know. Absorbing from start to finish, Jenny Milchman’s work is a deeply felt and suspenseful story of a woman whose life is suspended by a death and a dark secret. Reading Cover of Snow is heart-pounding, exhilarating, and exciting.
In this candid interview, author Jenny Milchman tells all.
RMM: How does your professional background as a psychotherapist influence your writing?
JM: In some ways, it started me writing. I always wanted to be a writer, but writing isn’t a path that has a clear career focus or known way to follow it. When I was a sophomore in college, my parents pointed out that my “plan” of living in a log cabin in the woods penning poetry might leave me a little . . . cold and hungry. So I decided to pursue graduate work in psychology, which had always been an interest of mine.
I loved psych—getting to know people and trying to help them. Sometimes the form that help took was “just” connecting on a human level—which might be the greatest thing all of us need.
But the siren’s call of writing never entirely ceased, and one day, when a particularly intense case was keeping me up at night, I sat down and began to write what would turn out to be my first novel. And I realized that although I’d dabbled in poetry and Victorian-esque prose when I was in school, what I really loved to read was suspense. And that’s what my first novel was, and what I’ve been writing ever since. I miss psychology sometimes, and I hope that my stories might serve the same function—a human connection between writer and reader, a way to leave behind the problems that fill everyday life, even just for the span of the book.
RMM: Anyone who has read your short stories knows you write a lot about families. Has your writing changed since starting your own family?
JM: Yes. The idea for Cover of Snow came to me when I was going through the first rough patch my marriage had ever hit—not rough like what Nora goes through, but enough to get me thinking about how we need to be there for each other even when things aren’t perfect. That’s a lesson I think every marriage has to teach. It took me years after that to be able to write this book properly, but it was born out of that tumultuous time. And the books that concern me now have children in them, children at risk, parents in need. Becoming a mother has opened up a whole other world of fear and concern, and ultimately, I think I write about what could go wrong if the universe were shifted just a bit, if the axis dipped down between the line here and there.
RMM: Your passion for books goes far beyond your own writing and reading. Tell us about “Take Your Child to a Bookstore Day” and why you started the holiday.
JM: Take Your Kids to a Bookstore Day began when my own kids were small and we were going to story hour at the bookstore every week. The kids got a book, I got a latte. (Sometimes I got a book, too, but as a mom of two little ones, my reading couldn’t keep pace!)
I began seeing for the first time what a resource bookstores are for kids. It’s not only about the reading—it’s about the investment that comes when you select a book and it becomes yours forever. Some of the books I got at bookstores as a child are still favorites of mine today. And I saw my kids doing the same thing, reading books they were lucky enough to get to take home over and over again, until the stories began to mean something different to them as they entered new stages of life.
There’s also something about an interaction with booksellers—people whose life and passion is books, folks who are willing to zig while others are zagging, so important is the work that they do. Bookstores are a cultural resource in which we have to invest.
Take Your Child to a Bookstore Day is a celebration of a return to Main Street, and entails giving a child the tactile, interpersonal, and physical experience of being in a bookstore. My goal as an author is to both strengthen the connections I have built from afar and to put into practice a return to face-to-face real-time interactions, getting out there and meeting readers, and the booksellers who keep us all engaged in a lifelong conversation.
RMM: What do you predict for the future of bookstores?
JM: My first answer is that people who predict the future usually end up being wrong. (Although I did predict that cupcakes were going to become a trend. I was all over that one!) I can say that the bookstores we’ve seen, in small towns, on dusty street corners, and in bustling cities alike, are thriving, counter to the armchair reports I often hear. Just last night I went to a panel and the author said, “Paper is dying,” and I thought, “Well, don’t tell that to the lines of customers we’re seeing in bookstores.”
Any prediction I make is as subjective and vulnerable to bias as any other, but I think that bookstores fill a unique role. They can be both a community gathering place and a source of entertainment. It’s as cheap to go to an author signing as to a movie—and a whole lot more lasting. You can start a collection of signed books that might be worth money some day. And have fun while you’re doing it.
We have at our fingertips now an unprecedented wealth of resources. The whole world lives on one machine, and I hope we never lose these riches. Social media has enabled me as an author to meet readers and writers all over the world.
At the same time, there is a great deal of collected wisdom in our history, and I believe that we turn away from it at our own peril. We need to nurture in kids a deep engagement with text, minus any distractions, and we need to show them a world where every store has its own unique identity.
Research is now showing that reading on screen limits retention and cognition in both children and adults. Focused engagement with text produces a type of thought that doesn’t come with devices. While technological proficiency is important, I think we do away with traditional methods of learning and reading at our own peril—we simply don’t know enough about the long-term effects of using newer methods.
So I think the jury is out, but as a parent, I am figuring that it will always be possible for kids to pick up the latest app—they’re called user-friendly for a reason. But layering in the deep conversations that allow for inner resources and intensity of focus are harder to build. I want to give my kids time for that. v
Cover of Snow is published by Ballentine/Random House; June 2012