Friday, September 12, 2014

Tour de Blog: My leg of the "My Writing Process Blog Tour!"

I was invited to participate in the MY WRITING PROCESS BLOG TOUR by the most wonderful Bill Roorbach and Dave Gessner who run the smart, hip and funny blog, Bill and Dave’s Cocktail Hour. I know Bill personally and he's not only hilarious fun to be with, but he's generous, smart, and a truly extraordinary writer. Not only did he write the sublime Life Among Giants, (winner of the Maine Prize), but his newest, The Remedy for Love, will be coming out this October, and I plan to have Bill on my blog. He’s the author of eight novels, including the Flannery O’Connor Prize and O’Henry Prize winner Big Bend, Into Woods, and Temple Stream, 

I don't know Dave personally, but any friend of Bill's is a friend of mine. Dave Gessner is the author of nine books, and his latest All the Wild That Remains: Edward Abbey, Wallace Stegner and The American West will be out in April. He’s won the 2012 Reed Award for Best Book on the Southern Environment and the Association for Study of Literature and the Environment’s award for best book of creative writing in 2011 and 2012.  And he’s a sure bet for winning the national championship in ultimate Frisbee.  

Not only do you want both these guys hanging out with you over dinner, you want to buy all their books.

So without further ado, here are the questions, my answers, and my nomination for the next log of the blog tour!

1. What are you working on?

I’m trying to let go of my novel Cruel Beautiful World and get it to my agent and then to Algonquin, even though I’m six months early on deadline, which never happens. Then I need to immediately start on something else because otherwise the paranoia, fear, and anxiety over letting a novel go will begin to eat me alive. It's better to focus that obsessiveness on something new.

2. How does your work differ from others of its genre?

I never understand what the word genre means, unless a book has dragons in it (then it is sci-fi), or Fabio on the cover with a woman in a tight dress (then it’s romance).  I try to write what feels truest to me, and trust that I'm odd or unique enough to give whatever I'm writing about my own spin.

3. Why do you write what you do?
If I didn’t write, I’d probably need a constant IV drip of Valium. I write about the questions that haunt me. How do you find community when you are an outsider? How do forgive the unforgivable? How do you live with yourself when you can’t make things right?  I never know the answers until I finish the novel, and it’s not always the answer that I hope to see. I write about my deepest fears in an attempt to understand and defuse them. (Doesn’t always work, but I keep trying.)

4. How does your writing process work?

Ha. I wish I knew. I always start with something that obsesses me, and it’s almost always around character. I always feel that people dig down and struggle to find their best selves when they are in the midst of their worst disasters. I am big on story structure. I know some writers hate making outlines and synopsis and all of that, but to me, without knowing something of the shape of my novel, I might as well be driving from New York City for miles not knowing where I am going. At least if I know I am headed to San Francisco, then I have a destination. But I plot and plan by what I call moral structure. How does the character change by being forced to make difficult choices? I often call this the Rolling Stone’s method, because I am always thinking in terms of the character “not always getting what he or she wants, but if he or she tries hard enough, maybe, he or she can get what he or she needs.”

I do about 20 drafts. Not kidding. I show to three trusted readers. Then I rewrite. Then I show again. Then I rewrite. Writing is re-re-re-rewriting.

For the next stop on the Blog Tour...
 I nominate Bill Wolfe, whose blog Read Her Like An Open Book celebrates women novelists. He not only reads many novels by women writers, but often prefers them. His blog is genius, writers are devoted to him, and I’m honored to send you to his blog.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Kerry Cohen talks about her hilarious series, Bad Reviews: Writers Read Their Shit Reviews

Sigh. We've all had them. The kind of review where you want to curl up under the bed and never come out.  But what if you could defuse the shame and the hurt?

Kerry Cohen started this hilarious series called Bad Reviews: Writers Read Their Shit reviews, and it's causing a sensation. I was thrilled to be invited to read and I took on one of my worst reviews ever, for my third book, Jealousies, which I had been pressured to write by my then publisher, who wanted me to be more commercial and less literary. I beg people NOT to buy it, but still, did it deserve the vitriol flung its way?

I had a great time making an idiot of myself over this review, and Kerry wants to invite any other writers who want to do this to make their own little film and send to


 Kerry Cohen is a psychotherapist, writing faculty at The Red Earth Low-Residency MFA, and the author of Loose Girl, Dirty Little Secrets, Seeing Ezra; and the young adult novels Easy, The Good Girl, and It’s Not You, It’s Me. Coming soon are Spent, an anthology of 30 astounding essays about women and shopping, and The Truth of Memoir.  Thank you so much for letting me interview you, Kerry, and thanks so much for inviting me to read a bad review!

This is so inspired and such genius!

Thank you! I’ve been wanting to do it for months. I think it’s pretty awesome too :)

Where did you come up with the idea of this amazingly wonderful series?

I was visiting Stacy Pershall’s memoir class in NYC as a guest speaker. Stacy and I found each other through our memoirs a while back. She’s such a great person and wonderful writer - her memoir is Loud in The House of Myself about her struggle with borderline personality disorder. As female memoirists we connected about some of the horrible things people had written about us in reviews. I’m serious. You want the world to simultaneously love you and hate you really quickly? Be a woman and write a confessional memoir. While we were commiserating and laughing, we came up with the idea, kind of like the mean celebrity tweets read by the celebrities.

Did you find that authors were reticent about doing it or did they--like me--want to do it. There is something so vulnerable and winning about hearing these authors, plus it made me want to go and buy up multiple copies of all of their books.

I know! I am finding indeed that writers want to do it. It really is cathartic it turns out. Possibly the biggest obstacle, other than that needing to spread the net wider, is that so many authors are insecure and don’t want to get on video, at least not without a shower. You know how we authors sit around unbathed all day at our computers. Or is that just me?

Somehow, listening to these authors reading the reviews diffuses the pain of the review. It's actually really, really therapeutic and lots of fun.  Where do you want to take this? A reading series of bad reviews?

Ooo that’s a great idea! I hadn’t really thought beyond trying to get about 100 authors and their bad reviews and perhaps make a website. Right now I just want it to be a thing that people have heard about. I love that while initially I simply thought it would be funny, I’m quickly seeing how meaningful this can be. It’s so helpful as authors to take power back over something that can be so hurtful. It’s a way for authors to feel less alone too. But, perhaps the biggest thing that’s happening that I hadn’t foreseen is that aspiring authors feel so hopeful from it. I mean, look at you, Caroline! Author of a gajillion books, most all of them bestselling, and here you are, human, HUMAN!, crying in your apartment because you got a bad review. Just the fact that you got a bad review seems unbelievable, but then your reaction makes aspiring authors feel like you and they are the same. We’re all the same!

How can authors contact you if they want to do one of these?

Please please yes, the more the better: send as a .mov to

What's obsessing you now and why?

I’m working on two memoirs at once. Why must I always be working on more than one book at a time? It’s a horrible idea and very highly not recommended. This started happening to me at 40. Suddenly I was like, I HAVE TO WRITE ALL THE BOOKS BEFORE IT’S TOO LATE.

What question didn't I ask that I should have?

Hmm. Maybe what I’m working on now? That’s so boring. And I answered it above. How about, what are you in love with today? Answer: my children, my husband, writing, my bed, the smell of early autumn.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

What's in a name? Alexandra Watkins, founder of the naming firm, Eat My Words, talks about "Hello, My Name is Awesome," why the wrong name can be ruination. Plus, name a cowboy boot store and you could win her book!

Who came up with the name Scrabble? (Unforgettable and fun to say, right?) Who thought that Svbtle was a good name? (Can you pronounce it? How about trying to find it online?) The right name for a product--or a book--can snag someone's attention or make bile rise in a throat. That's where professional namers come in.

Being a professional namer is one of the coolest jobs around. And I'm lucky enough to be able to work for the coolest company around, Eat My Words, a nationally recognized naming firm featured in the Wall Street Journal and Inc, with a client list that boasts Disney, Microsoft, Wrigley, Turner Networks and Fujitsu. Founder Alexandra Watkins is a genius. Really. And to celebrate the publication of "Hello, My Name is Awesome. How to Create Brand Names that Stick," she's offering a give-away of three books for the lucky winners of a naming contest. The naming brief? Imagine a store set in the heart of a big city that sells nothing but cowboy boots for women. The imaginary client wants something playful, easy to remember and would prefer that the word "boot" not appear in the name. A name of a real cowboy boot store that the client likes: Space Cowboy. Ideas or words that the client would like you to explore: kick, fun, cowboy, range, wrangle.

Put your name choice or choices in the comments section and Alexandra will choose the three best next week! (And yes, those are my beauties in the photograph!)

Why is the right name so important?

Your name will last longer than any investment you make in your business. Look into your crystal ball… will you have the same computer, cell phone, printer, and office furnishings twenty years from now? Not likely. But you will have the same name. That’s why it’s important you spend the time to get it right. And like a tattoo, you better love it and be proud to show it off.

Why can the wrong name be a disaster?  

The wrong name can be a disaster because it can make your brand unapproachable because it annoys, frustrates or confuses potential customers. The random names are the worst. One name I wonder about a lot is Vungle. I have no idea what this company does. I don't want to know. (Please don’t tell me.) It sounds like an STD. Likewise, can you guess what companies Qdoba, Magoosh, Iggli, Kiip, Zippil, or Zumper do?  Me neither. And I don’t care to find out.

Tell us about the SMILE & SCRATCH Test…

The Eat My Words SMILE & SCRATCH Test is my proven 12-step name evaluation method based on my philosophy, “A name should make you smile, instead of scratch your head.” With this simple checklist, anyone can objectively evaluate names.

SMILE: The 5 Qualities of a Super Sticky Name

Suggestive – evokes something about your brand

Meaningful – resonates with your audience
Imagery – is visually evocative to aid in memory
Legs – lends itself to a theme for extended mileage
Emotional – moves people

SCRATCH: The 7 Deadly Sins

Spelling-challenged – looks like a typo
Copycat – similar to competitors’ names
Restrictive – limits future growth
Annoying – forced, frustrates customers
Tame – flat, descriptive, uninspired
Curse of Knowledge – only insiders get it
Hard-to-pronounce – not obvious or is unapproachable

My book breaks down the SMILE and SCRATCH Test into two chapters, giving detailed examples for each.

What are the biggest mistake people make in choosing names?

The biggest mistake people make when choosing a name is asking everyone they know to weigh in. Asking people what they think shows a lack of confidence. They are not experts on your brand. You are. They are not knowledgeable about what makes a great name. You are (if you have read my book). Imagine if Richard Branson had asked others to weigh in on the name Virgin. It would have never flown. Trust yourself on what feels right to you. When you ask your friends and family, "What do you think of this name?” they interpret it as an invitation to criticize. It's better just to tell people, "I’m excited to tell you about my new company, _________..." Please trust me on this. If you ask everyone to chime in, you will end up with a mediocre name that met with the least resistance rather than the very best name.

This blog has a lot of writers, so can you tell us all what's a big mistake in naming novels?

Copycat titles are the worst. You know the ones I’m talking about…

Hijacking another author’s original idea isn’t good for your reputation or for building trust with your readers. Copycat names are lazy, lack originality and blatantly ride on the coattails of another book’s success.

Book titles need to not only be original, they need to make powerful emotional connections with readers. Like brand names, they need to resonate with your audience. Titles should pique curiosity and arouse interest – and you can’t rely on the cover to do all the work because often times your title will appear naked, in black and white, listed in print (hopefully on the New York Times Best Sellers list). Be sure to imagine your book title will be a movie title, as well. Here are some innovative book titles, which all were made into movies. Coincidence? Maybe not.

Girl, Interrupted

The Accidental Tourist

The Hunger Games

Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants

The Shawshank Redemption

I personally think that your book can be helpful beyond the simple art of naming things or companies or books. It pushes you to start thinking in a more creative way about everything and how to brainstorm so it's fun as well as productive. Would you talk about this, please?

 The internet is a goldmine for brainstorming solo. When you brainstorm online, you’ll find yourself clicking on unexpected links and going down all kinds of rabbit holes. You never know where a good idea will come from. Of course online dictionaries and thesauruses are great for this. One of my riches resources for brainstorming is looking at images. A picture says a thousand words, right? Stock photo websites such as and are fantastic places to get fresh ideas especially because you can search by concepts (e.g. “happy”) to find related imagery. I personally like to use Google images because the amateur photos are more fun to look through and it’s endlessly entertaining.

The whole concept of your company, the name, and your office, are all so playful…

Thanks. I came up with the name Eat My Words because I started out by naming things that make people fat and drunk. When I expanded from potato chips to microchips, the name still fit. The theme of “food” is also highly extendable, as we’ve discovered at Eat My Words:

·      Blog name: “The Kitchen Sink”

·      info@ email:

·      Service packages: “Snack,” “The Whole Enchilada,” “Just the Meat.”

·      Client parking sign: “Eat My Words’ client parking only. Violators will be eaten.”

·      Business card: pink retro refrigerator, a replica of the one in our office, which we use as a bookcase

·      Wireless network name: “Candyland”

·      Meeting materials: toast coasters, pens that look like licorice sticks, “Food for Thought” notepads

·      Corporate workshops: “Spilling the Beans”       

What's obsessing you now and why?

Next Monday, September 15th is my book launch so I am obsessing over Amazon sales rankings and what it will take to crack the top 10 in my category and achieve “best seller” status. 

What question didn't I ask that I should have?....

Do authors need to get the domain name for their book title?

No, no, no! This is so not important. My publisher told me that one of their authors dismissed a fantastic book title because they couldn’t get an exact match domain name. That’s ridiculous! Major motion picture studios always use a domain name modifier for movie websites, (e.g., and you can do the same for your book title, (e.g., If you have a long title, you may want to shorten your domain name to something memorable. would be a horrible domain name for my book, Hello, My Name is Awesome. Since I had a microsite built off my regular website, I just made it

Friday, September 5, 2014

Kimberly Elkins talks about What is Visible, her extraordinary novel about Helen Keller's predecessor, isolation, fame and so much more

Every once in a while, a novel is so powerful that you feel you inhabit it. I walked around in a trance while reading What is Visible, the astonishing debut from Kimberly Elkins. The novel reveals the haunting story of Laura Bridgman, Helen Keller's predecessor, a woman who lost four of her five senses as a child, became celebrated and then vanished into history. Gorgeously written, the book was launched with rave reviews from the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Atlantic, and more. But What is Visible is also a casualty of the Amazon/Hachette battle. I want to personally urge everyone to go out to your favorite bookstore and buy or order this book, not just to support a deserving author, but to also support bookstores, and finally, and most importantly, because the book is just tremendous. 

Kimberly’s fiction and nonfiction have appeared or are forthcoming in The Atlantic Monthly, Best New American Voices, The Iowa Review, The Village Voice, The Chicago Tribune, Maisonneuve, Glamour, Prevention and McGraw-Hill’s college textbook, Arguing Through Literature, and Slice, among others. She was a finalist for the 2004 National Magazine Award and has received fellowships from the Edward Albee and William Randolph Hearst foundations and the American Antiquarian Society, the SLS fellowship in Nonfiction to St. Petersburg, Russia, the St. Botolph Emerging Artist Award, and a joint research fellowship from the Houghton Library at Harvard, the Schlesinger Library at Radcliffe, and the Massachusetts Historical Society for research on her novel. Residencies include the Millay Colony and Blue Mountain Center, and she was also the 2009 Kerouac Writer in Residence. Kimberly is the 2012 runner-up for the Nelson Algren Award and has also won a New York Moth Slam.

I'm thrilled to have Kimberly here. My thanks are huge.

 I always want to know what sparked a particular book and why it haunts the author. Why Laura Bridgman? How did the subject matter personally speak to you?

I first read about Laura Bridgman in the New Yorker in 2001, and was astounded that I’d never heard of her.  The mid-nineteenth century’s second most famous woman and Helen Keller’s predecessor, and yet she’d seemingly vanished from history!  But it was the photograph of Laura that really got me: an ethereal, almost emaciated, and yet somehow fierce-looking young woman with a ribboned shade tied round her eyes, balancing an enormous, raised-letter book on her lap. She sat absolutely erect with a stubborn dignity and vulnerability that both opened and broke my heart, posing for a photographer she couldn’t see, for a photograph she’d never see, and with a face and body that she’d never know except through touch. That very night, I stayed up until dawn writing a story about her that would appear shortly thereafter in The Atlantic. That’s how quickly and completely I got into her head and heart, and she in mine.

And yet for many years, even while writing the novel, I had no plausible idea why I had been so irrevocably drawn to this woman who’d lost four of her five senses--what could I possibly have in common with her, and how could I possibly know her voice so well? Finally, it hit me, just shy of the book’s publication, that I had immediately and subconsciously identified with her sense of profound isolation, her inability to communicate her deepest thoughts and desires to anyone she thought would truly understand her.  These feelings I knew from a lifetime of battling severe depression, and though our disabilities were far from the same, it was a terrible bridge that we shared across the centuries.  Four years ago, I finally found the right medication, and it’s been a bright and gorgeous new life since then; frankly, if I hadn’t gotten the right meds, the book would never have been written.

What surprised you about the research? And what was the whole research process like for you?

The thing that surprised me most about the research was finding that Laura had not merely slipped into obscurity--she was booted there, and by the very same man who had rescued her and taught her language, Dr. Samuel Gridley Howe, founder of Perkins Institute.  As Laura grew from the pliant and exhibition-worthy child who’d made them both famous into a brilliant and prickly woman with desires and opinions of her own, she thwarted the plans of her autocratic mentor until he turned on her in the worldwide press with a vengeance that was heartrending.

The other surprises were the discovery of all the affairs of every stripe--heterosexual, homosexual, bisexual.  At the start of my research, I’d been afraid that a novel about a deaf-blind woman in the nineteenth century might be rather dry, but the deeper I delved, the juicier it got, from Dr. Howe’s relationship with the famous abolitionist, Senator Charles Sumner, to the great love between Julia Ward Howe and a suicidal novelist in Rome.  This is a novel that investigates the sexual tensions and politics of that time even as it tells Laura’s story.

Researching WHAT IS VISIBLE was such a joy for me; I could have gone on forever, and really had to rein myself in. I was lucky enough to get several fellowships, including one at Harvard’s Houghton Library and one at Radcliffe’s Schlesinger Library, and so spent a solid two years devouring the letters and journals of not just Laura, but also of Dr. Howe; his wife, the famous poet and suffragette Julia Ward Howe; all of Laura’s teachers, and myriad other real-life figures, such as Longfellow, Dickens, John Brown and Dorothea Dix, who also appear in the novel as they did in Laura’s life. 

By the end of those two years, I had an entire enormous red suitcase stuffed with notes and papers, and I dreaded having to sort through all the material.  But then a strange thing happened as I actually began to write the book:  I found that I didn’t feel the need to refer to any of the research except to google a date or some other small detail, and so I went with it.  I had apparently decided, at first subconsciously and then later consciously, to allow my mind to function as a sieve for the endless stream of facts I’d poured into it, and so I let whatever stuck in the sieve make its way into the book.  Whatever hadn’t stuck, I figured simply wasn’t meant to. To this day, the red suitcase has never been opened, although I’m superstitious about throwing away its contents for fear of jinxing something, I don’t know what. 

 You also explore the whole notion of what it means to be famous, how you might see yourself differently and what it does to you. Can you also talk about that please?

Laura went from being the second most famous woman in the world, second only to Queen Victoria, to being a virtual shut-in, tied to her many storied friends mainly by correspondence, a doubly cruel position for one who longed so desperately to communicate, to touch and to be touched by others.  Her sense of self ballooned between extraordinary aggrandizement and complete debasement, and it is a testament to her great strength of character that she was able to handle the situation. Imagine having dolls of yourself made and sold all over the world with their eyes poked out and wearing your trademark green ribbon shade!

I also explore briefly delve into the life and soul of her famous successor, Helen Keller, who during the nineteenth century was known merely as “the second Laura Bridgman.”  The great difference between them was that Helen was acutely aware of what fame meant, and how to leverage it. In her own words, she   set out to be “the best damn poster child the world has ever seen.”  She got the blue glass eyes that Laura had been denied, a secret that was kept from her adoring public until after her death; she learned to speak, which Laura also had been denied, but which was agonizing for Helen, as the movement against orality has shown it to be for the majority of the deaf.  But most of all, Helen had Annie Sullivan, who had lived for two years at Perkins in Laura’s cottage and been taught by her the handspelling that Annie then used to teach Helen. 

Although Helen’s fame greatly eclipsed Laura’s, Helen herself attributed this disparity to the fact that she had Annie for most of her life to interpret the world for her, while Laura’s last beloved teacher was tragically parted from her when she was only twenty, and Dr. Howe forbid her ever having another teacher or companion.  Helen wrote in her autobiography that if Laura had continued to have someone like Annie, Laura “would have far outshone me.”  Annie Sullivan, who knew them both so well, also said that she found Laura to be “intellectually superior” to Helen.

 So much of this extraordinary novel, for me, was about how we truly live in the world, how we inhabit our bodies, and how we deal with what life has given us. Can you talk about that please?

Laura chose to inhabit her body with the one sense left to her--touch--as fully as humanly possible.  She pushed this sense to its extreme: constantly touching other women (she didn’t like men except for Dr. Howe, for whom she retained a deep and complex attachment); masturbating, even when she was punished for it; cutting herself to feel the most extreme sensations her body could offer; and in her one relationship, becoming fixated on a sadomasochistic dynamic, which she would have had no idea was taboo. She was simply determined to push her one sense to its limits, wherever that led. 

On the other side of that dynamic, she almost starved herself to death by not eating, since she had no sense of taste or smell, and was anorexic for most of her life, another thing that ultimately repulsed Dr. Howe. 

In terms of dealing with what life gave her--which was so little--she responded by waging an off- and on-again war with her God, challenging the whys and hows of her condition and her fate. And yet her God was also her only constant companion, because, at the end of the day, who else did she have to talk to?

What's obsessing you now and why?

I’m beginning the research for an historical novel about the Fox sisters, America’s most famous nineteenth-century mediums--as children!  They initiated the Spiritualist movement that swept not only the country, but the world; however, the sisters’ paths diverged wildly as adults, with tragic results.  Apparently, I’m still in full-on nineteenth-century mode.

The other project is a new ode to the classic memoir.  I’ve long been gripped by the possibilities of best- and worst-case scenarios for certain dramatic, even violent, events in my past; I think that probably most people would love a chance to, in effect, rewrite certain parts of their lives.  So I plan to write the truth as close as I can get it, and then the other two totally different versions of the event.  What I’m discovering as I begin the process is that choosing what really would have been the best and worst things to possibly happen is vastly more psychologically complex, and even painful, than it would first appear.  It will also be a great challenge to make certain that all three pieces read with equal verisimilitude, because the reader will never be told which version is the true one.

 What question didn't I ask that I should have?

What does the title of the book, WHAT IS VISIBLE, mean to you?

It’s funny--I knew with absolute certainty the title from the get-go; it was the same title I gave the short story, published in the Atlantic in 2003, which then begot the novel.  WHAT IS VISIBLE most literally refers to the narrative itself:  at the end of “telling” the story of her life to the young Helen Keller, who is being groomed to be “the second Laura Bridgman,” Laura says that while she will not be able to read what she has written, she prays that “what is invisible to man may be visible to God.”  The idea of what is visible versus what is invisible, or below the surface, and also what it means to be truly visible to others--emotionally, physically, intellectually, even spiritually--has always fascinated me.  So the phrase “what is visible” is all-encompassing; it’s not only about Laura’s handicaps, but about the various complicated ways in which we all perceive and misperceive the world and each other.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

My new favorite, Gabrielle Bell, talks about her graphic narrative strips, the compulsion to do diary comics, working in film, and so much more

I first saw one of Gabrielle Bell's astonishing comics (more like graphic narratives) in a post by the amazing Kate Christensen. I love Kate and trust her judgement and I ended up spending a whole afternoon reading Gabrielle's fantastic strips.  Raw, honest, unsettling, and funny, each strip feels as if she's dipped inside the head of anyone who has ever been, oh, shall we say, a little bit anxious, very urban, with a touch of neurosis? (Hey, that describes me.)

 Gabrielle began to collect her “Book of” miniseries (Book of Sleep, Book of Insomnia, Book of Black, etc), which resulted in When I’m Old and Other Stories, published by Alternative Comics. In 2001 she moved to New York and released her autobiographical series Lucky, published by Drawn and Quarterly. Her work has been selected for the 2007, 2009, 2010 and 2011 Best American Comics and the Yale Anthology of Graphic Fiction, and she has contributed to McSweeneys, Bookforum, The Believer, and Vice Magazine. The title story of Bell’s book, “Cecil and Jordan in New York” has been adapted for the film anthology Tokyo! by Michel Gondry. Her latest book, The Voyeurs, is available from Uncivilized Books. She lives in Brooklyn, New York.

I'm so jazzed to host her here! Thank you so much Gabrielle, and thank you so much, Kate, for pointing Gabrielle my way!

Each of your strips reads like a little novel. Do you plan them out or do they just happen?

It's a bit of both, I think. I definitely plan things out, and hope that something else will happen too. 

Being totally anxiety-ridden, I really responded to your strips about anxiety and nerves, and all that goes along with those evil creatures. Does drawing the strip help defuse any of anxiety's power? (God, I hope the answer is yes.

Yes, I think it does, at least to an extent. Especially when people respond to it and recognize it in themselves. But...doesn't seem to cure it at all.

You've also made a film of one of your strips--about a woman who turns herself into a chair so as not to be too much of a bother. Genius! What was that process like for you?

It was exciting, but difficult. I'm glad I did it but working in film is so different than in comics. Drawing comics is having complete control over a very orderly small space that you create yourself, for the most part in solitude. Working in film is about collaborating, compromising and  shepherding a lot of people to try to realize what is ultimately a collective vision, constantly surrounded by people. It takes two different kind of people.

Let's backtrack and talk basics. How and when and why did you begin the strip? How has writing and drawing it changed--and challenged you?

It is a compulsion of mine, to do diary comics. It is also the most simple and basic way to make comics, which are very difficult and complicated. Traditionally, comic books take whole teams to do the storytelling, penciling, inking and coloring. to do it all yourself takes years to get any kind of handle on.  I do other projects, but in order to feel like I'm making some progress, so as not to get discouraged and give up entirely, I do these diary comics.

What's obsessing you now and why?

I guess I'm obsessed with my garden. I am pretty amazed that I'm able to bring food out of dirt. I spent all summer watching a flower turn into one big eggplant. It sure is easier and more refreshing than drawing comics. But I'm still into that, too.

What question didn't I ask that I should have?

What would you do if you didn't draw comics?

I'd study music and theater and dance and I'd live a charmed life.

Maddie Dawnson talks about The Opposite of Maybe, teaching writing workshops, and what doesn't scare her

 Maddie Dawson is actually Sandi Kahn Shelton (There, now her astonishing dual literary personality is out in the open!) Her last novel, The Opposite of Maybe, came out last April, but I can never resist talking to Maddie, and I'm happy to host her and her novel here again. Thank you so much, Sandi/Maddie!

 A woman who is 44 and breaking up with her lover at the time she discovers she’s pregnant for the first time, a man whose wife left him for another woman, and a dying, irascible grandmother who hated the fact that she had to raise two generations of women—what made you want to write this book, and where did the idea come from?

A few summers ago, it seemed that everywhere I looked, my forty-something friends were turning up pregnant. What the heck? Were they having mid-life crises? Had they lost their minds? Were they regretting some hole in their lives that they thought a baby could fill? I wasn’t sure. But it set me on a path of thinking about life’s surprises—both the wanted and the unwanted—and the way that we tell ourselves the story of our lives, narrating to ourselves as we go along all of our limitations and our abilities.

So I wanted to write a story about a woman, Rosie Kelley, whose story was one of loss and not ever feeling truly competent in the world. Her mother had died when she was three, and she’d been raised by a grandmother who didn’t really want to be raising another child, and then after majoring in English and writing some poems that got published, Rosie had hooked up with a guy who made and sold pottery, and she kind of liked the itinerant, carefree life they had, with no marriage, no children, and the ability to do their creative projects uninterrupted. But after fifteen years, when one little thing happens—her potter guy leaves her to go open a museum in San Diego—she is set on a completely different course. When she discovers that she is pregnant, obviously the only thing that makes sense is to have an abortion. But it’s when she realizes what her future will consist of, living without her grandmother and not having a partner any longer, that she sees she needs to change the story she’s always told about herself.

I always love stories about people breaking away and seizing a moment that nobody else sees, and that is what happens to Rosie as she travels through her pregnancy, her grandmother’s dementia, and the friendship she forms with her grandmother’s caregiver, the sad and gentle Tony, whose wife is now happy in a lesbian relationship and who restricts his right to see his son. The makeshift, damaged family they cobble together—dealing with the pregnancy and Soapie’s illnesses and love affair, and with Tony’s son—brings about a life that Rosie never pictured for herself.

 What surprised you about writing this book?

 The way the relationships formed and re-formed themselves. I loved Rosie from the beginning, of course, since she was the one whispering the story in my ear—but I came to have a deep affection for her difficult grandmother as well, a woman who had struggled for independence back when women didn’t have many choices. Widowed after raising a rebellious teenager, Soapie thought she was free to live her life as a journalist, but when her daughter died tragically, Soapie found herself needing to wade back into the difficult waters of motherhood, knowing that this time she was going to do it differently, not be so permissive, not allow rebellion to ever take hold. The result was that Rosie was timid and found solace in other families’ lives, feeling that her grandmother would never truly love or understand her. As the two women come together in a kind of uneasy truce at first, Rosie discovers the secrets that her grandmother protected her from, and comes to see herself in a different light as well.

What scares you when you write?

Wow. What doesn’t scare me? The main thing, I guess, is that I might be too flippant. For years I was a columnist for Working Mother magazine, where I was writing what I thought were the deep, dark tragedies of domestic life: children who wouldn’t sleep, school projects that took over (like the time we had to motorize some raisins to represent puppies), and my efforts to measure up to a kindergartner’s exacting standards. I wrote these things seriously, and yet the magazine ran little cartoons next to them and called them humor. I always wanted to be dark and mysterious, to write about life and its pitfalls—of which I have had many. But I’m a Southerner, and I come from a long line of outrageous storytellers—truth was absolutely optional and sometimes a real detriment to a good story—and I think I’ve come to see life as a combination of the humorous and the tragic. My books tend to be promoted and marketed as frothy little romps in love and motherhood, and maybe I should be content with that…but it scares me while I am writing that I’m not truly expressing the balance of light and dark that I see all around me in life.

What’s your writing life like? Do you have rituals?

In summer, I move outside to my screened porch which is owned by a family of cardinals, and I set up shop there with my laptop and a large glass of iced tea, and I stare into the woods, watch the cardinals roll in the dust of my porch ledge, and write. First, of course, my ritual is that I have to play a game of 2048 (my latest obsessive game-playing, now that I’ve been able to come out from under Angry Birds and Spider Solitaire), and once that is out of the way, my novel will usually step forward and let me write it. If the phone rings too much (how many times can the Democratic National Committee call in one day? I love them, but it is an infinite number!), I pack up and move to Starbucks, which has the advantage of ambient noise, armchairs, and larger cups for the iced tea. Sometimes the sound of birds’ chattering isn’t enough, you know.

I read a quote that says that writing is 3% inspiration and 97% avoiding the Internet…and so I’ve had to resort to the Freedom app, which blocks out all Internet for as long as you specify. Sometimes it’s the only way not to cruise around on Facebook or checking out the latest antics of those would dance with the stars.

What’s obsessing you now and why?

For the past seven years, I’ve been teaching writing workshops in my home. Anywhere from seven to nine people come once a week, and we create this space where it’s safe to read and write from our deepest parts. I started this as something of a lark, thinking that I’d do it until it wasn’t fun anymore or until it started pulling me away from my own writing—and now I find that working with people who are mostly non-writers but who are so willing to try has given me such a different view of writing and what it means to be vulnerable. I am blown away by the work that gets done! It’s almost a healing antidote for those long stretches of lonely days spent living in my own head. Some of these writers say they have been badly hurt by teachers who long ago scolded them for their sentence structure or their spelling or told them they had nothing to say—and it’s fascinating to watch them bravely come out into the light and put words to these feelings they’ve carried around for so many years. I give a weekly prompt, and they go away and write it, and then come and read it aloud to the others, which isn’t nearly as scary as it sounds, when the audience is waiting for their words so eagerly.

I love that we, as writers, can create communities of other writers, that we can reach out and encourage, and listen to their stories. I make suggestions about commas and sentences, of course, and which thought would logically follow—but we are all often moved to tears by the stories and honesty and willingness to be open that I see around my table. My husband comes home from work on workshop days and now asks, “How many cried?” and when I say, “Everybody!” he knows we had a good, productive day. Sounds crazy, but there is just as much laughing.

What question didn’t I ask that I should have asked?

 I’m always curious about how writers keep themselves going in a publishing world that is changing so much and asking so much more of us—in promotion and marketing, in social media and in outreach. I think you, Caroline, are so generous with all of us other writers and have truly been a role model in figuring this stuff out, while still keeping in sight the important thing, which is writing great books!

I knew from an early age that I wanted to be a writer—I sold my first story when I was six when my mother wouldn’t give me money for the ice cream man—and yet there have been a thousand times when I’ve wanted to quit and go to welding school instead. So how do we cope with all the uncertainties and not get swamped with feeling so alone? I think it’s people like you who are open and honest about your writing life and reach out with such love and good humor to all of us. So, thank you. I’m putting my welding school application on hold for the moment. At least until my new book—about a woman searching for her birth family while raising her fiance’s teenagers, is finished.

Sigrid MacRae talks about A World Elsewhere: An American Woman in Wartime Germany, how the writing changed her, and so much more

 Many thanks to Viking for giving me this incisive, fascinating interview with Sigrid MacRae about her absorbing new memoir, A World Elsewhere.

Q&A with
Sigrid MacRae, author of
An American Woman in Wartime Germany

A WORLD ELSEWHERE is the extraordinary story of your parents: Aimee Ellis, an American blue blood, and Baron Heinrich Alexis Nikolai von Hoyningen-Huene, a Baltic German exile of the Russian revolution. Heinrich was killed on the Russian front during World War II, leaving your mother with five young children and pregnant with you. Having known this story of your parents for your entire life, what inspired you to share this story now?

SM:  A cascade of coincidences really. For years, various objects acted as small, silent reminders of my family’s background. I had read family memoirs of my paternal grandfather, an uncle, and great-great-great grandmamma. I’d read my father’s letters from Hitler’s campaign in France and his brief diary from the Russian front. But when a beautiful Moroccan box with my father’s letters finally opened, it rattled all my ideas about who he was. And when a rusty old file cabinet yielded a cache of my mother’s early letters to an American friend, tracking her evolution from giddy fiancé to expatriate wife to war widow and refugee, I knew I had the makings of a book. I put everything aside to work on Alliance of Enemies, about the collaboration between German opposition of Hitler and the American OSS, a valuable experience. When I went back to the family material, suddenly everything ganged up on me. The letters had such immediacy, painting indelible portraits of two young people—my parents-to-be—and the war that upended their lives.

Once, when I was a college girl, an elegant older woman looked at me as if she had seen a ghost and said: “You are Heinrich von Hoyningen-Huene’s daughter.”
Having grown up in post-war America, where Germans were unregenerate Nazis all, my father, had always been something of the elephant in the room for me. A family icon. but also my personal cross to bear because he was what made me a “Nazi,” and was responsible for the gratuitous grief that came my way on that account. I had been trying to keep that half of my parental equation at bay for years. It was just one side of me after all, and the other side—New England Mayflower stock—was far more acceptable. But after all those years she had recognized me anyway, not for being a Mayflower descendant, thank you, but she had pegged me as the daughter of a father born in Russia into a brutal century, exiled to Germany by the Bolshevik revolution, then dead before I was born. So much for being Miss Mayflower.
Sooner or later I had to deal with my puzzling provenance and it was well past time. I read lots of history, and gradually it began to come together. Being a grown-up helped, as did having spent a professional life as an editor. But stitching the personal onto such an immense canvas was a test.

Your mother, an American who escaped her unhappy childhood by running to Europe and marrying your father, was widowed at 37 and left with six children to raise on her own. While she was brought up as a debutante, she learned to work hard on the land, first in Europe and then once she moved your family to Maine. Did you and your siblings, all successful in your own right, learn the value of a strong work ethic from your mother? Where do you think she found that strength and determination?

SM: Adversity is a demanding teacher, but my mother did not quail—at least not publicly. She absorbed its lessons with an unbeatable combination of maternal instinct and fierce resolve. As a young woman she wrote to a friend:  “life picked me out to spoil,” but then wondered whether life wasn’t going to come along with the bill one day. When life presented her with its bill, she had plenty of opportunity to develop the required muscle.

People are more fluid than we imagine. They, and we too, make assumptions about who and what they are; but they change especially in dire circumstances. Sometimes when I was feeling particularly beset or troubled as an adult, imagining what my mother was dealing with at the same age always made me feel like a marshmallow. When I asked her how she did it, she looked surprised. What was she supposed to do? Sit on her battered suitcase and cry, with all six of us standing around her? As to where she actually got what she used to call “plain gumption,” I still have no ready answer.

As for learning from her, we knew we were all in this together. Babysitting, construction jobs, waiting tables, whatever—nothing elevated or grand that looks good on college applications—we just worked to help pull the weight. There was also plenty of implied expectation that we make something of ourselves, accomplish something.

The family letters you quote from in the book are incredibly vivid and moving.  Talk about how you discovered these letters.  Were there certain letters that you found especially revealing, painful or disturbing?

SM: My father’s letters from France mentioning German aircraft flying in gleaming formation but hardly any French planes at all sounded alarmingly like propaganda to me. Then I read Antoine de St. Exupéry, who was flying reconnaissance for France, and to my relief, his account jibed perfectly. In the air above my father’s head, St. Exupéry also saw so little French aircraft that he said they would fall to the friendly fire that saw only German planes. He deplored France’s chaotic conduct of the war, and he saw the same ribbons of rag-tag refugees my father saw.  In another letter my father wrote of watching the sun-browned bodies of young German soldiers splashing in the water of a fountain in a French village. This really unnerved me, smacking as it did of the adoration Aryan flesh. Yet according to his letters, the local population seemed to agree with him. Then there was the fact that all mail from the front was always censored. Anything critical of the campaign would have been deleted in any case.

Sometimes the letters were disturbing on a different, much larger scale: the devastation of my father’s exiled parents; the hopes and dreams of my young parents falling prey to dreadful realities and then so suddenly extinguished. It could be argued that the extinction of my mother’s dreams gave her what we think of nowadays as a second career—a different take and a new lease on life. 

 Was there anything in the letters or your research that surprised you?

SM: The letters were always utterly surprising; my father-to-be, so young, so vibrant, so confident, amazingly well informed and educated. I cannot tell you how much of his startling presence and character ended up on the cutting room floor when I put the book together. He was also so self-aware, so conscious of the label history had affixed to him. “Miss Mayflower flirting with the Hun” he wrote, knowing the box in which the world had put him, but he engaged this erroneous depiction with such disarming verve and humor. I’d often heard about his charm, but the letters offered immediate, delightful specifics. His touching, faithful recording of the messages of illiterate Russian POWs to their families was devastating, as was his apparently growing awareness of what awaited him, a fate that he had perhaps actually sought… And my mother’s young letters seemed to me to have been written by a person I had never met. Reading the manuscript, my oldest sister thought that the carefree young woman in some of the early letters seemed to be an unrecognizable “flibbertigibbet.”

A WORLD ELSEWHERE is an incredible combination of history and the personal courtship and love story of your parents. It provides a moving personal story within the profound historical framework of World War I, the Depression, World War II, and beyond. Obviously your prime sources were family stories, but there is a huge amount of major history here as well. How and where did you do the research? Was there any travel involved?

SM: Family documents were so important, but it is the fusion of the familiar with a vast historical canvas that tells the sad story here. These people were trapped between the parentheses of brutal century; bringing in enough historical background (I thought of it as “canned Hitler”), without interrupting the personal story was a constant challenge.

Most of my travel was restricted to the New York Public Library. God bless its nearly bottomless supply of books and information! And I was lucky enough to have a place to hang my hat (and keep a shelf of books) at the Library’s Wertheim Study. So many wonderful titles that never leave the library were consistently available to me. Individual titles may not have been critical, but in the aggregate they were invaluable.

Apart from some internet travel back to the Baltics, to the family farm in Germany, even to the Vuoksa River in Finland—some of it extraordinarily evocative—my travel was limited to my mind’s eye. The major exception was a trip to St. Petersburg, part of my ongoing search for “home,” with my Grandfather’s memoir acting as guide. It was fascinating, but yielded only the realization that home was not there anymore.

You were very young when your mother moved the family to her native America. Your older siblings had a very different childhood from yours. Do you feel you were raised in a different world from your brothers and sisters?

SM: Yes and no. My oldest brother is more than 13 years older, and to a considerable extent, my older siblings’ formative years were spent in a very different world. They had real memories of the places and people I remember only as tiny snapshots, with no running narrative. My real memories began en route to America.  But my mother took great pains to keep my father, family contacts, language and cultural patterns alive. One result of this was my feeling of being “in this world, but not of it,” a feeling that was a double-edged sword. Sometimes it still is, but I now appreciate the other edge of the sword. Now it has actually become an advantage, something I never understood as a child

Your childhood without a father must have been difficult. Heinrich’s family was very close; did your mother speak of him and his family that remained in Europe? Did your father’s side of the family visit after your mother moved you to America?

SM:  Being without a father did not feel like a hardship; I was little, I lived in whatever the reality was. I probably never fully realized my fatherless state until I heard cousins consistently talk about their mother and their father. So at 2 1/2, I told my mother: “You are my Mami and my Papi.” My older siblings had lost their father; for them, being fatherless was a very different thing. But they were hardly alone; Germany was awash in fatherless children at that time.

My mother kept my father and the rest of his family very much alive for a long time, writing consistently to everyone, sending packages. She was often in Europe, and took me back for a year when I was 12. She brought aunts and friends to the U.S. Later generations of second cousins and grandchildren came too. Being in New York with an extra bed gives me major points with family visitors.

 How did writing A WORLD ELSEWHERE change you?

SM: I learned that there is not one history, but thousands, a story textbooks will never tell. I learned that life is much more complicated than we ever imagine, especially when large-scale history intervenes. I hope I’ve learned the lesson that walking in another’s shoes is supposed to teach us: compassion, and the importance of trying to understand when thoughtless, knee-jerk judgment is a much easier response.

Oddly enough, I’ve also overcome my vague, if pervasive rootlessness, and discovered that these days, home is not at all what it was for previous family generations, but essentially home-made. And maybe that’s not such a bad thing.

I hope I may also have paid a debt of gratitude to my mother, my father, grandparents—to all who went before, through loss, exile and misery, and endured.  

 What do you hope readers will take away from A WORLD ELSEWHERE?

SM:  An awareness that things are not always what they seem, that there is room on the historical spectrum for more than just black and white. That breaking the appalling cycle of exile, war, displacement and misery that afflicts the world, now as much as then, demands a break from the simplistic, complacent moralism that lurks everywhere.