Q&A with Ashley Mackler-Paternostro

About the Author:

Ashley Mackler-Paternostro was born in Naperville, Illinois, where she still lives with her husband Mark and their three dogs.
“We have such a normal life. And I’m really so lucky, my husband Mark is absolutely the biggest supporter of my writing. It’s … amazing. I have no right to be this fortunate … and yet, I am.”

A hairstylist by trade, Ashley will often say that some of the best stories she has ever heard were told to her while working behind the chair. A life long reader with an insatiable appetite for good books, she decided to merge her love of great stories — both told and written — into her own brand of story telling.
“Life is so strange … people can do some really crazy things when left to their own devices. As a stylist, I was privy to that, people just want to still down and talk — and they all have something to say. Sometimes it’s sad, sometimes it’s just hysterical. But, that’s real life — it’s kind of messy.

As a reader, I need to lose myself in the book, I cherish the sort of story that you can really invest yourself deeply in, the kind that has an unforgettable character who pulls you to the point where you can viscerally understand them and the lines of real and unreal get blurry.

When you take all that normal stuff and blend it with the edge of fantastical, you can really find yourself in a beautiful place. When I write, that’s what I’m looking for–that beautiful place. I have no problem walking away from a book if the characters aren’t telling me their story. They have to flesh themselves out, I have to believe in them in order to work with them. My books are absolutely character driven … just like real life.”

When she’s not being held captive in her home office by words, Ashley fancies herself a flea market hunter with a weakness for Japanese glass floats and repurposing vintage goods.
“There is such bliss in the things from once upon a time. I can’t walk past a piece of furniture without wondering how I can change it. I can’t see pretty glassware and not want to own it. I see these ordinary objects and wonder — what’s the story behind this, how did it end up here? Where has this been? Who loved this? I can really get swept away in that sort of wondering.”

Writing was always in her blood from the time she was a little girl always eager to say something, but until a trip to the Olympic Peninsula in the spring of 2011 she never had the vision.

“You know, it’s sort of cliche how this all started. I just turned 28 and my husband took me on vacation. I wasn’t at a crossroads in my life — at least, not that I was aware of, but I came home from Washington and was inspired, that place changed me. I had this story inside me and it was so loud … I couldn’t quiet it down, I simply had to tell it.

So, I sat down and just started writing. I didn’t even think about it. Once I hit 30,000 words I was like … oh … this is pretty serious. It felt really natural, as though this was just how it was supposed to be for me … so I let go and let the story unfold. I didn’t really worry about outlining, or plotting … now I know better. I ended up with this book about life and death and love and even I couldn’t believe it.”

Ashley wrote her entire first novel with only three people knowing about it. She had no idea where this journey was going to take her or how she would finish it … or even if she would finish it.

“I’m a big believer in wild dreams. My Dad used to call me an enigma, which I suppose is very true. I was a hairstylist … the last person you’d ever think would ‘write a novel’ let alone publish a novel — I mean, really–a writer? Even I wasn’t so sure how this would turn out.

And, at the same time, I was always the type to just ‘blurt it out’ (I’m not the best at keeping big, life changing secrets)… those sort of loud proclamations usually lead to expectations. I knew that if I was going to write authentically, I had to play it close to the chest. I needed to know where I was going — gather my answers and figure it out — before I let too many inside.

It was hard … but not impossible. I think it was the best gift I ever gave myself. It worked. And when I finally was at the point when I knew this book was absolutely going somewhere, it was an exciting thing to share with the people in my life.”
Ashley’s writing style reflects the sort of books she herself enjoys reading. Never one to shy away from the uncomfortable or heartbreaking, her novels often ping into the defining moments of life in the middle of great conflict.

“I’m a writer a of real life, I actually really like real life. I enjoy putting my characters into very hard situations and I like seeing how they figure it out — much of the time I have no idea how they’ll do it, but in character driven pieces, they usually give you clues.

Good endings aren’t always as simple as ‘boy and girl live happily ever after’ … that happens sometimes, sure …. but it’s not always genuine. If bad things happen, my characters need to be able to figure out how to adjust and live within them … you can’t force that to fit a mold. That’s what I’ve figured out about my writing.”

Before the launch of her first book, THE MILESTONE TAPES, she is already hard at work with the follow up.

“There is a lot of downtime when you’re working on the publishing part — a lot of hurry up and wait. I couldn’t help but to be forward thinking — excited about how I’ll follow the first one up. I’ve found a rhythm to my style, I’m an author of ‘real life.’ My second novel definitely pings into same emotionally whirlwind I touched upon in THE MILESTONE TAPES while still being totally different — it has a very different vibe and undercurrent to it, it’s a darker story — it’s all about hard — yet totally self created — circumstances and the relationships we cultivate in our lives and the choices we ultimately make.”

Ashley is set to debut her first work of literary fiction in early 2012 with much excitement and enthusiasm.

“THE MILESTONE TAPES is more than a book … it’s a year of my life and a whole new chapter. I am beyond thrilled to be in the position to share my words. This really is a dream — a wild dream — come true.”

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1. Tell us a bit about your novel, The Milestone Tapes.

The Milestone Tapes, at it’s heart, is a love story. But, it’s not a traditional love story as in there is this romance. It’s a quite story about devotion, which I think is the best sort of love. It’s the journey of a mother and her daughter and asks the question — can a bond of love like that last when life no longer does?

The novel drops a reader into the worst day of Jenna Chamberland’s life and moves forward from that place. Jenna is making a choice to stop treatment for breast cancer and with that choice, like all choices we make in life, there is a consequence. She knows she’s dying now, beyond the reach of medical intervention and she’ll be leaving her daughter and husband alone in this life. But, she’s been given a tentative time line, six month, and with that time, she’ll be able to make it count. She makes a trade, and the reader is along for the ride.

The first half of the book belongs to Jenna, but you know where it going from the first word on. I wrote it deliberately that way. To tell the second half, to feel and comprehend Mia Chamberland’s loss, you have to meet Jenna first, get to know and understand and maybe love her.

The second half, where Mia steps into the novel and takes center stage … well, that’s where hope walks in. She’s this sixteen year old who is facing all sorts of changes and all she wants is her mom. She’s feeling the loss of her mother more then than ever before because she’s entering that place where mothers and daughters can become friends and she doesn’t have that in her life, it’s a gaping hole for her. The tapes give her a look at who Jenna was outside of her memories, she’s getting to know her mom, really, for the time.

2. Would you say the main theme of it is change? If it’s a yes or no, how so?

Yes and no. There is definitely an undercurrent of change woven through the pages … but that’s the nature of life; growth, evolvement, and accepting that there are things beyond one’s feeble control; things that pull you under and things that make you shine. But, as the writer, I think there is this theme of settling into one’s own skin, figuring out what matters most. I think the main theme would be coming of age. Not just for Mia, but for Jenna and Gabe as well … there is no point in life when you’re done “growing” … for this family, this is happening all the time in so many ways.

3. What inspired the milestone tapes idea?

Jenna is a writer. Her career choice was no accident on my part. And at first I thought, okay, we’ll have Jenna write letters because that’s what she does … she writes. But then, somewhere along the way I was like ‘no!’ She’s written for everyone, for the world, what she leaves behind for Mia needs to be special. The idea of these tapes felt perfect, I knew that they would be personal testaments of love for her daughter.

4. Do you think they would help someone move on or rather keep them somewhat anchored in the loss of their loved one?

I think when you lose someone you love, someone that is woven into your life so completely, you’re always anchored by the loss. You always miss them, you always wonder how different things would be if only. That’s human nature. Some moments, like the milestones of life, are more pronounced than others.

When I started writing, I was curious to know the answer to this question as well. I wanted to write with an authentic voice, to step into Mia’s shoes … so I did what I always do … I asked. I posted on a forum a very benign question ‘would you want this given the choice?’ and the responses were overwhelming positive. People wanted something of the tapes nature for themselves … not just one or two people … several pages worth of individuals all sounding off on how important something like this would be for them. People replied they wished their father or their grandmother or sister or mother had left something for them.

There is something in the notion of these tapes at large that if you’ve suffered that kind of loss, you get. I figure it’s an understanding that comes with grief. There is always this longing for one more conversation, one more minute of being connected. A curiosity about what they would say on your wedding day because they’re the one person you want to speak too or what would they say before you graduated college. The wondering can become madness because you want it so badly and it’s just not an option … the answers are stepping stones taking you to a place of healing.

5. Reading your work was an emotional roller coaster. How did it affect you emotionally to write this novel?

Some parts of this novel were harder than others. I took a very extended break between Book One and Two. It was emotionally exhausting.

I spent about two months working on the first half of this book. That time was almost exclusively with Jenna, watching her go through the motions of her life and living every day knowing that she was dying. She and I struggled to get it right, to make those six months count. It was really hard to let that time go and move on.

6. Which one was your favorite character? Why?

I honestly love them all … for different reasons. But I have this sweet spot for Jenna.

Her voice, from the moment I started writing, was the clearest. She is really why the story, as it is, exists at all. She’s not perfect, she makes mistakes and is entirely human. It’s in her flaws that I find I love her more because I understand what’s at stake for her and I think, even as the writer, I wished for a different outcome.

7. What would you like your readers to walk away with from reading your work?

If I could hope for one message to resound from this book, it would be that in the face of loss there is healing, after moments of sadness come joy.

8. Tell us a bit about why you love writing.

Writing is so personal and the counter of that is that it’s public. I loved writing in the beginning only because it felt natural, but The Milestone Tapes was never meant for publication. As the story grew, I knew that to keep this story to myself would be cheating it … so I did decide in nearly the 11th hour to go ahead and put it out there. The book was done before I even thought about agents and editors and publishing houses. I went into writing thinking it would be captive on my computer. But it wasn’t until my first review came in that I understood how deeply I loved this. In the review, the reader expressed how much this story resonated with her and her own life and her personal journey … and that’s when that feeling of adoration settled in. With my words, I can give someone something … very little tops that.

9. What else have you written over the years? What was the very first thing you wrote with the intention of seeing it published?

I am a first time novelist … and The Milestone Tapes is my first work ever that more than a school assignment. The story came to me just about a year ago and it grew so quickly.

10. And the regular question all interviews have…any future writing plans? Give us something to look forward to.

I am currently writing my sophomore effort, In The After. The book is very different with a darker tone and mood to it. It’s about the disappearance of Emmy Burns and that first week of hell as her best friend works to uncover the truth. It explores the Fairy Tale theory of domestic abuse and utter heartbreak of those that watch it happen helplessly.


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