Ask Cara

Click on a question to read Cara's answer.

Who were your favorite authors growing up?
How do you approach a new story?
Is there anything special you like to wear or do while you write?
What are your plans for your next novel? Can you give us a peek?
Are you interested in visiting libraries or schools?

Hear Cara interviewed on the Radio: KPFT Houston, Texas.

Who were your favorite authors growing up? Who are your favorite authors today?

I loved Charlotte’s Web and the Little House on the Prairie books. They took me to a place so far away from my experience growing up in a high-rise apartment building in a borough of Manhattan. I got lost in these other worlds. And I didn’t just visit. I felt like the characters did, I lived with them. I think what grabbed me most about these stories is they made me see that life is equal parts difficulty and joy…but that life is wonderful because of the hard parts. They are intrinsically linked together. The books perfectly illustrate the heartbreaking truth that you can’t have one without the other.

As an adult reader, Edith Wharton and Henry James became my heroes. We’ve all heard the saying that “character is plot” but no one does it as well as they do. Their characters fall into their plots like animals caught in a trap. I’m reading a lot of T.C. Boyle. He’s a riot…a master at illuminating our common foibles. Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible was a major inspiration for me…her epic tale of young women growing up in a hostile and fascinating foreign world is utterly brilliant. If I could write like Michael Ondaatje I would die happy. To me he’s like a painter who writes fiction with a brush, like Picasso or Van Gogh.

back to top

How do you approach a new story? Some authors plan, some don't. Some outline, some don't…

Oh yeah. I’m a planner.

I start by writing a summary—a five page document narrated as if I were telling the story to a good friend. That becomes my guide, though it changes over the course of writing the story.

Because I was a story editor in the film business, I think of a book in terms of three main acts, just like a screenplay is organized. It’s simpler that way. Beginning, middle, and end. Usually I know a lot about the beginning and can bash my way through the big unwieldy middle and I’m a bit in the dark about the end. But that’s okay because I have to write through the character’s experience, just like he or she has to live it, in order to find out how it will all turn out. So I think about the end in general terms, i.e. roughly what will be resolved but not exactly how it is resolved.

Once I have that summary, I brainstorm about scenes I’d like to write to animate the story described in the summary. This takes a while, maybe a month or two. Or three. Then I organize these scenes into a rough outline and assign dates/time/place to each scene so that I have a working timeline I can integrate into the story.

I also track the main story elements on a spread sheet. This is a bit more complicated to describe, but in the case of Red Palms I tracked Benita’s relationships with her father, her mother, her boyfriend, the islanders, and to herself as she grows up. Little things happen to further those storylines in every chapter. As they all progress, the spreadsheet, which is one big grid, lets me see how that lays out.

I can’t imagine writing a novel without planning. I don’t want to have to find the novel while I’m writing it. There are times when knowing what you have to write when you sit down to work deadens the process a bit. It takes away discovery and leaves only labor. But at least I’m never at a loss for what to do on a given day. I just have to do it. Which is the hardest part of all.

But here’s my really big secret…I’d like to write a book and plan none of it just to see what happens.

back to top

Is there anything special you like to wear or do while you write?
Where is your favorite place to write?

I can’t work at my house. I have an office to myself but between the dogs and the phones and the fridge there’s too many reasons to get out of my chair. Plus it’s lonely. I go to local coffee shops around LA.

I’ve got a circuit of five places that each have a unique quality about them and very good coffee, and lots of other writers tapping away on their laptops. And I can watch people coming and going and steal their energy and use it to give the text I’m working on that feeling that life is passing through it.

I do edit at home though, because I need to spread out drafts and background notes and research documents, and to be able to email for specific information.

back to top

What are your plans for your next novel? Can you give us a peek?

It’s called Living on Impulse, and it’s about a girl named Mia, a high school junior growing up in a college town in upstate New York, who winds up having to take a job breeding flies at the university in order to pay off a debt. It’s a story about metamorphosis. Her’s, her family, the flies…everything she knows changes real fast and not for the better. But life has cycles and learning to recognize them is the best way to deal with what comes your way. It’ll be intense and funny, I hope.

back to top

Are you interested in visiting libraries or schools? If so, how can interested teachers and librarians contact you?

I would love to visit schools and libraries, to share with young readers and writers details of how Red Palms came to be. The story is based on my mother’s childhood. As in the book, she moved with her parents and three younger brothers to an island off the coast of Ecuador when my grandfather came up with a wild scheme to restore the family’s fortune by starting a coconut plantation. But that is where the reality of the story ends. The book is a work of fiction; all of Benita’s experiences are made up. But I had help in imagining this world into being. I visited the island in 1993, and I had my mother’s photographs of the place taken in the 1930’s. And I researched many of the details found in the book…not only about time and place, but how jaguars hunt, South American tribal languages and marriage customs, primitive water systems, and the rituals of ancient priestesses.

I’d love to talk to kids about how to make the things they are living through into stories, to integrate fact with fiction, and how to shape family history so it is meaningful to other readers.

I can be contacted directly at

back to top

Reprinted permission of ALAN Online (


[read more]

[read more]