Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Stephen Policoff talks about his dazzling new novel COME AWAY, the Grateful Dead, Changelings, magic, pain, and more

I've been a huge admirer of Stephen Policoff since his debut, Beautiful Somewhere Else, and his new novel, Come Away is extraordinary. (He's also a professor at NYU.)  I'm a sucker for stories about father-child anxiety, and this one also adds in imaginary and not so imaginary friends, and the mystery of the human bond. I'm thrilled to have Stephen here.  Thank you, thank you, Stephen!

On my New Novel Come Away:
Changelings, Dream Lore, and the Grateful Dead

I tend to collect bits and pieces of idea and images and characters, and then try to figure out how they go together.  In some long ago interview, Nabokov talks about how he scribbled images and phrases and moments onto file cards and put them in a box.  When the box was full, he said, he would begin writing the novel.  I’ve always liked that idea, though I’m not nearly organized enough to fill a box with file cards. My bits and pieces are more like imaginary file cards.
            Come Away—despite its slender size—emerged from many many imaginary file cards. It began about 7 years ago, when my older daughter Anna, who has a dreadful neurogenetic disorder, began to deteriorate.  She had been diagnosed at 5 but was leading a more or less normal life until she turned 12, and then, as in some frightening fairy tale, seizures came over her like the cloud of slumber that envelops Sleeping Beauty.  Around that time, I was talking with a neighbor whose son is on the autism spectrum; he told me that when his child was diagnosed, he felt as if his beloved boy had been replaced by a changeling child.  This sent a chill down my spine—and it also sent me back to read and research some of the tales I had loved as a kid.  Northern European folklore is full of stories of the changeling—the healthy child whisked away by malign forces and replaced with a withered husk of a child.  I always loved those stories—who knows why? They are certainly not cheerful childhood tales. 
I began to wonder if all these tales might not be folktale explanations of childhood illness and disability (it turns out there is some research to suggest this might be true), and I began to think about using that idea in something, though my original thought was that it would be a YA story of some kind. 
            But like a sticky plate left out on a table, other ideas and images and memories kept accruing,landing on that initial thought and staying there.  I remembered and re-read the wonderful Yeats poem, “The Stolen Child;” I recalled my undergraduate enthusiasm for the mad Victorian fairy painter Richard Dadd, who spent most of his adult life in the infamous Bedlam after killing his father; I stumbled upon and became fascinated with the medieval legend of the Green Children of Woolpit…
            I had been working on another novel, but was not pleased with its progress.  When I confided to a friend my deepest fears about Anna’s declining health, and my not-entirely-rational  association with changelings and magic, she said, “Why aren’t you writing about that?  That’s the novel you should be writing.” 
And she was right.
            I have always been interested in magic—like Come Away’s narrator Paul, I was a barely competent teen magician and both stage magic and the supernatural kind have always beguiled me, not so much as a belief system but as a metaphor for how little control we have over our lives, and especially our children’s lives.  Show me a parent who has not engaged in magical thinking about his/her child!  Aren’t we always bargaining on some level with forces which may be wholly imaginary but still hold power over us? Well, that’s true for me anyway, and writing about my family’s struggles with the malign power of illness, while at the same time not actually writing about it, was both liberating and (occasionally) exhilarating for me.
Of course, some might argue that the reality of parenting is fraught enough without adding the strands of preternatural possibilities with which Come Away is threaded.  But I’ve always liked to interweave dark domestic comedy with the mild buzz of the supernatural.  It seems to be my natural métier.
Like magic, dreams, too, have always intrigued me.  As a hyper-sensitive youth, I kept a dream journal for many years, and I have used dreams and dream studies to teach writing classes since I started teaching several (gulp!) decades ago.  Often, this is catnip for undergraduates.  I always make my freshman writing classes do a dream research paper, and even got a YA book out of it (The Dreamer’s Companion, Chicago Review Press, still in print 17 years later!).
I like the way in which dreams seem to gnaw at our sense of what is real and what is not…I think it is Nabokov who said that the word “reality” is among the only words which makes no sense without quotation marks around it.  In Come Away, the narrator’s father-in-law, a New Age philosopher, suggests that the small green girl Paul has been seeing, and whom he fears has come to take his daughter Spring from him, is a seeping dream object, an image which has leaked out of his unconscious into the world of objects.  This is a phenomenon I totally made up, though it’s hard to make anything up that is more fantastical than the Twilight Zone world of dream research.
I never outline, and I rarely know exactly where my work is taking me.  This is just a personality thing, and I certainly don’t urge anyone to write that way. I write lists, and scribble various fragments in journals but have never been able to sit down and outline a plot or a character arc. I am sure my writing—or at least my process—would be better served if I were better organized.  I have a lot on my plate—I am a single father raising my profoundly disabled daughter and her madcap 14 year old sister—so I have to be obsessive about my writing even when (or especially when) I am only randomly organized about it. Once in a while, I discourse aloud to myself about whatever I am working on, record it, then play it back.  That helps me sometimes.  And I often speed-write a kind of blathering forth about what I am working on, and then read it back to myself.  That is about as close to an outline as I get.
I have written plays and fiction and nonfiction for young people and adults.  I started out wanting to be a playwright, and I actually worked in the Off-off-Broadway theater scene for many years, and had a number of plays produced in obscure locations around the country. But I got frustrated by always having to deal with crazy egos and the many many assholes who work in the theater—not that there are not such people in every walk of life but writing novels allows me to avoid them for much longer. I sort of fell into writing magazine articles as a young man and did a lot of that for a while, but it was only a job, I never really cared about that kind of writing, at least for personal fulfillment.  Novels seem to be what I like to write these days (though it takes me far too long to do it).  I will probably try a young adult novel at some point, though mostly I seem inclined toward writing quirky literary fiction; it’s the kind of writing I like to read, and usually, whatever I start out with, it ends up in that genre.
I am currently obsessed with ghosts.  Not that I believe in ghosts so much but again, I love the idea of some energy that is left behind after a loved one leaves us.  After my wife Kate died tragically young a few years ago, I started wondering if I could ever write a novel about how much I missed her, how empty and unmagical life seemed without her.  I was reading Oliver Sacks’ s book Hallucinations (another subject of lifelong interest to me), and there is a whole section on bereavement hallucinations.  And it seemed to me that my character Paul—who, OK, sounds a lot like me, though he is far more loosely wrapped than I am—might well experience such a thing.  So, I started reading ghost lore, especially Asian ghost lore, which is somewhat different from the Western image of the phantom in a sheet. I never planned to write a trilogy, but it rather seems as if there is another novel featuring Paul, the narrator of Come Away (and my first novel, Beautiful Somewhere Else) and his daughter Spring coping (sort of) with the loss of Spring’s mother. So far, it’s called The Dangerous Blues.
No one has yet asked me why there is a repeated fragment of a Grateful Dead song in Come Away! I keep waiting…so I will now tell you, even if you do not wish to know.  My late wife Kate was a part-time Deadhead back in the day, and I too used to go see them now and then when I was younger (there was an epic Dead concert my senior year at Wesleyan, now shrouded in the mists of legend). One year, Kate’s brother Gerry—a major league Deadhead—gave us a CD of the 70s Dead classic American Beauty for Christmas, and the first song, “Box of Rain,” one I had loved when I was younger, really grabbed me, especially the lines
What do you want me to do
to do for you to see you through?
this is all a dream we dreamed
one afternoon long ago
And the final, enigmatic line: Such a long long time to be gone and a short time to be there
My wife and I used to joke that we wanted that song played at our funeral; but when Kate died, I was too distraught to remember that.  Actually, I barely remember anything about the funeral (except that Anna had a huge—and hugely appropriate—seizure just as the funeral began, almost toppling over while everyone around us wept). So, when I was revising Come Away, I remembered the song and the half-serious promise.  The beauty of that strange idea—how long we are “not here,” how painfully brief is the time we are here—really seemed to echo everything I was thinking about while writing Come Away.  So, I sort of shoved it into the narrative, as a song that Spring and her mother sing together, as an image that (I hope) will resonate with some as much as it has resonated with me.

--Stephen Policoff/November 2014

Erin Beresini talks about her gripping new book OFF COURSE, the Spartan Ultra Beast, obstaacle course racing for everyone, and so much more

Book Cover

It doesn't matter if you get up to run at five in the morning, or if your hardest exercise is getting up from the couch to get more cookies. You want to read this wild, fired-up, exhilarating book about the world of obstacle course racing. Erin Beresini makes you believe you can do anything. And she ought to know, because she did.

 Erin Beresini is a Los Angeles-based freelance journalist and the author of OFF COURSE Inside the Mad, Muddy World of Obstacle Course Racing.  In it, she uncovers the rivalries, lawsuits, scandals, and major players behind the fastest growing sport in U.S. history. I have to put this line in because Erin is so funny: "Her unbiased opinion is that it is probably one of the greatest books ever written.
Erin writes about health and fitness as Outside Magazine‘s Fit List columnist, and is a contributing writer to Triathlete Magazine. She started Outside‘s Fitness Coach column, and has written articles for Outside Magazine, Men’s JournalespnW, CompetitorInside Triathlon, and The New York Times. She also shoots photos and video. She was previously a senior editor at Competitor Magazine in San Diego.

I'm thrilled to have you here, Erin! I wish I could run a course with you!

Tell us about the Spartan Ultra Beast?

It is an insane race! When I did it, the event was two laps of the Vermont Championship Beast course—about 27 miles. There was rarely a moment where the course was flat, just straight up and down Killington ski mountain. At one point, there was even a goat trail that wound up a ridiculously steep section through the trees. It seemed like it would never end, and when it did, I still had to climb at least another half hour to the top. The sun set on my second lap, and my worst nightmare happened: it started to rain. It wasn’t particularly warm to begin with, but icy rain, I knew, would freak out my Arizona-bred body. I was at the top of the mountain in the dark in the watery sky, looking down at tiny twinkling lights at the very bottom. I knew that’s where the finish line was, but getting there would involve a harrowing butt-slide down slick black diamond slopes and tree runs. A man next to me slipped and couldn’t stop tumbling until a rock finally broke his fall. “I’m bleeding, but I don’t know where from,” he groaned. Holy poo, what am I doing out here!? was all I could think. (Except with more cussing.)

You’ve said that obstacle course racing “has done more to make fitness fun than any other sport.” Why do you think that is? Was there any time when you felt, “Oh my God, what have I gotten myself into?”

Obstacle course racing includes dodging fire, slogging through mud, navigating barbed wire, and even fighting gladiators.

I have a pretty hefty tolerance for weird stuff. It’s not necessarily the on-course craziness that’s made fitness fun (although it is ridiculously fun!), but what you take away from the events. For me, that was the ability to see my workouts and tired running routes in a new way. Now I always stop at the monkey bars that are half-way through my six-mile loop—I look forward to getting there—and swing across them. I’ll do dips and push ups and squats and rows while I’m there, then take off for the rest of the run. OCR encouraged me to be more creative with my workouts. Strength routines shouldn’t be limited to gym equipment. Grab a rock and hike with it. Fill your car washing bucket with water and walk up and down the driveway with it. Drop and do burpees at every stop sign on your run. That’s stuff I never thought of doing before, and that I do all of the time now. I haven’t been to the gym in years. (Except when I want to swim indoors.)

What was the training like?

My very kind personal trainer neighbor took pity on me when he found out I’d signed up for the Ultra Beast but couldn’t run because of Achilles tendonitis. We did a lot of fun body weight exercises in his garage gym--push ups with my feet or hands in TRX straps, planks, squats. I’d also do battle ropes, farmer walks with kettlebells, kettlebell swings, sideways medicine ball tosses. At one point, he loaded me up with a sandbag and told me to go hike the Avenue C stairs, a long string of concrete steps about half a mile away from his garage gym that lead down to the ocean. You’ll find a lot of people working out there, but not usually carrying what looks like a body bag. In short: a lot of strength training and hiking, not much running.

What surprised you about being a part of obstacle course racing?

How inclusive the sport is. There’s an OCR for everyone, and people of all different sports backgrounds and abilities at every race. I’ve seen pro athletes from all different sports jump in. Pro triathlete Jenny Tobin has won Spartan races, famous ultra runners like Max King are getting dirty. People who’ve never raced before in their lives are popping on tutus and jumping into the mud—and they get just as much love as the pros. It’s glorious.
Besides getting a super buff body, you also gained some emotional strength. Can you talk about that?

I might sound like a total jerk saying this, but I have always believed I can do anything. That doesn’t mean the journey doesn’t get tough. But with that mindset, setbacks don’t feel too big. My brain and body were not on the same page at all leading up to the Ultra Beast. I was mentally ready to race, but was struggling a lot with tendonitis that never seemed to end. (Side note: it’s likely because the charming 1937 apartment I’d been living in had a mold problem!) A lot of my adult identity had to do with endurance sports, and being knocked out for practically a year made me really upset. It also made me think a lot about why I race. Ultimately, it’s for the cool people I meet and the friendships that are strengthened through unique shared experiences. Deciding that might’ve made me soft—I haven’t trained to compete at a high level in a few years—but it kept me out there and happy, on course and off.

Part of what I loved about the book was the wild cast of characters. Talk about that, please.

Spartan Race inventor Joe De Sena is a unique guy. He hurt his hip in a car accident and doctors told him he likely wouldn’t run again. So he went on an Ironman binge and raced something like 12 of them in a single year. He practically owns an entire town in Vermont, where he invites racers to live and train. He’ll wake them up before dawn to make them go hiking with him. No excuses.

Mr. Mouse, inventor of the UK’s Tough Guy is a hoot. A septuagenarian with a big bushy white mustache, his race is similar to Tough Mudder’s, but Tough Guy started in 1986. He had a rough childhood, and served in military conflicts. Those combined experiences led him to create Tough Guy. He felt he learned a lot about himself from reaching his lowest point—so he created a race that would break you with electric fences and cold water and constricting pipes so you could build yourself back up. He calls his residence the Mr. Mouse Farm for Unfortunates, and tries to employ people that, for some reason, couldn’t get a job elsewhere.

What’s obsessing you now and why?

I love the Facebook group Chicked Nation. It’s a place for women of all athletic abilities to come together and encourage each other to reach their health and fitness goals—no boys allowed! It now has more than 15,000 members. Ask a question you have about anything—OCR, training in general—and you’re sure to get smart, helpful responses. You might even find a teammate for a future event!

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

 I think you nailed it. J

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Clea Simon talks about her gripping new novel, STAGES OF GREY, subtext, how meaning matters, and so much more

 I first met Clea Simon on a now-defunct writers' forum many years ago, and we soon became friends. She's not only a prolific and talented author, she's the kind of friend you email every day for advice, support, or just to say hello. She's the author of three nonfiction books and the Theda Krakow and Dulcie Schwartz mystery series. The Theda books include Mew is For Murder, Cattery Row, Cries and Whiskers, and Probably Claws, all published by Poisoned Pen Press. Her Dulcie Schwartz series, featuring Dulcie and the ghost of her late, great cat Mr. Grey (from Severn House) are: Shades of Grey, Grey Matters, Grey Zone, Grey Expectations, True Grey, Grey Dawn, and Grey Howl. And, finally, her  Pru Marlowe pet noir series began with Dogs Don't Lie, Cats Can't Shoot, Parrots Prove Deadly, and continues this spring with Panthers Play for Keeps

Here, she talks about her latest Dulcie Schwartz mystery, Stages of Grey, writing, and so much more. I'm delighted to have her here. Thank you, Clea!

Steal Away

When writing a novel, we tend to start with a story. Character and plot. For a mystery writer, that usually means a murder. But as I work on a book – and I think this is common to all of us writers – I often come to realize that there’s something else going on. A subtext. And as I read through my latest mystery, Stages of Grey, I realized that I wasn’t writing about a murder as much as I was really writing about stealing – specifically about how art steals – or, perhaps I should say, how art appropriates.

Central to Stages of Grey is a theatrical production based on a real-life theatrical experience – a musical, a disco interpretation of Midsummer Night’s Dream that was launched in New York and has since spread nationwide, proving hugely popular. Called The Donkey Show, I saw it when it opened in Cambridge, and, well, I hated it. I felt robbed of the two hours I spent watching it. I came of age in the disco era – Nile Rodgers still gets me dancing – but I thought The Donkey Show was crap. Worthless as an interpretation of the original Shakespeare But not perhaps useless…

Allow me to step back for a moment and explain. Stages of Grey is the eighth in a series featuring my amateur sleuth Dulcie Schwartz, graduate student doing her dissertation at Harvard on the Gothic novels of the late 18th Century.  These books – like the contemporary spin-offs of the same name – are wild adventures, replete with ghosts and romance, vampires, sex and violence.

Now, although she is quite taken by these books, Dulcie sees herself as a highly rational person. Although readers will I hope see how her bookishness may in fact blind her to reality, she thinks of herself as an intellectual, a realist. Clear headed. This despite the fact that there are the elements of the Gothic – in particular, a certain feline ghost – that creep into her well-ordered scholarly life.

Dulcie’s life is in her books, and therefore she must be dragged by her friends to her local theater – in her case to see a disco version of Ovid’s Metamorphosis – a production that I’ve called Changes, the Musical.

To give Changes a believable, if laughable, life on the page, I borrowed bits and pieces from everywhere. From The Donkey Show, of course, but from other productions as well. And because my readers have come to expect a certain feline presence in my books – more important to my mysteries than any particular dance numbers – from Spiegelworld, the adult-themed tented circus, I stole one particular star turn} a cat who walks on a tight rope. All of this went into imagining a production that hides betrayal and results in a gruesome murder, because these, of course are not only the basics of Gothic fiction, they are essential to crime fiction.

When Dulcie sees the play, she is unaware of the nasty backstage goings on.  She is, however, totally unimpressed by Changes, In particular, she feels it misappropriates. That it steals to no purpose. And at some point, while working on this book, I realized that the entire Dulcie series is a study on appropriation

Some of this was intentional: The Gothic novels that Dulcie loves were popular fiction – hugely popular – They were written largely by and for women – and largely disparaged by critics. And so, yes, for me, they have served as a stand-in for crime fiction and the debate over genre fiction going on today.

It may be important to note that when I started the series, I couldn’t find one Gothic novel that served my purposes – one book that my heroine could attach herself to. So I patched together tropes and clichés, endangered ladies and nefarious lords to create The Ravages of Umbria, the fictional fiction that is subject of Dulcie’s dissertation. After all, I told myself, there is nothing new under the sun – or under the blood-red wolfish moon that shines over the Mountains of Umbria, where Hermetria – the heroine of The Ravages, battles a fiendish power. Yes, mountains in Umbria. The original Goths weren’t big on authenticity either

We writers are all carrion crows – feasting on the scraps. Not just in the Gothic or crime fiction genres but also in so-called high art literary fiction. (We all know literary fiction is just another genre, right?) We all do it.

Shakespeare did it, too. One source of Midsummer Night’s Dream was Ovid’s Metamorphosis. And Ovid’s masterwork was itself a composite of hundreds of earlier myths.

But we crime writers are a moral lot, and so I feel the need to justify.  If there is nothing new, and it is all appropriation – what Richard Posner in his “little book of plagiarism” calls “Creative imitation” – the issue, then, isn’t of originality, but as I realized when I was first trying to understand my own reaction to The Donkey Show and Stages of Grey. The question is of utility. And once I had arrived at this, I began to realize how many other things I had stolen – and how complicated this process is.

How do we use what we’ve stolen? Do we transform it? Do we find new meaning in old forms – using them to shed light on something eternal, like Ovid and Shakespeare did, to study the different facets of love? Or can we put them to use to illustrate and explain something current, like perhaps an ongoing contemporary literary debate about genre?

Maybe, ultimately, meaning doesn’t matter. Maybe all that matters is that the appropriation updates something of value. That it entertains. In other words, Does it have a beat and can we dance to it? In the case of The Donkey Show, excuse me – Changes, the Musical – I think not. For Stages of Grey  and for Dulcie Schwartz in general, well I hope so.

I’m not saying I’m Shakespeare, far from it – though he too was a commercial writer churning them out for an audience just like so many of us are.  But I am saying he stole with the best of them and is – in turn – stolen from. So maybe I have to forgive The Donkey Show. Without that, I wouldn’t have Changes, and without that, I wouldn’t have Stages of Grey.

Clea Simon writes the Dulcie Schwartz and Pru Marlowe mysteries, the next of which will be Kittens Can Kill, to be published by Poisoned Pen Press in March 2015. Stages of Grey was published by Severn House in October. She can be reached at or on Twitter at @Clea_Simon

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Andrea Miles writes about how her rivetting debut, TRESPASSERS came to be

What happens to a family in the aftermath of abuse? That's the stunning story of Andrea Miles' debut, Trespassers. Susan Straight calls it "A wild ride through one family's tough road to redemption.' Julia Fierro praises its "Gripping portrait of characters struggling with their darkest fears and regrets," and  Amy Koppelman calls it "brave and powerful." Trespassers. A portion of the proceeds from the sale of Trespassers is being donated to Big Oak Ranch, a home for children needing a chance.

Thank you so much, Andrea for being on the blog.

How Trespassers Came To Be
By Andrea Miles

Some writers have a plan when they sit down to write. They know where they will end up and often know most (if not all) of the path that will take them to the end.  Currently, I’m trying to be less of a “by the seat of my pants” kind of writer, but with my first novel it took me awhile to find my story. In fact, the published Trespassers is quite different from the Trespassers I set out to write.

When Trespassers began with a few pages and no title, it was about siblings. Siblings who didn’t get along, who preferred to never see each other, who avoided family dinners and made excuses to skip holiday celebrations. I was incredibly naïve when I left for college and so I was astounded when I met people who hated their siblings. I loved my brother. All my friends loved their siblings.  How could you hate the person you grew up with, someone as close as a sibling could be? I didn’t understand it and it intrigued me.

Then, when I moved to Chicago, I was confronted with almost daily news stories of children who were abused by their parents, or other close relatives. I couldn’t understand how a person who was supposed to love a child more than anything in the world could neglect them, hurt them, possibly even kill them.

I put my story about siblings aside and I started again, writing about a little girl who was abused. Pages filled up with scenes, but not with a full storyline. And then I began to wonder about the kids who managed to survive childhood. How were they as adults?  What if the little girl I was writing about survived her tragic childhood? What would her life look like as an adult? So my story changed again, the pages I’d written became backstory, the little girl became an adult woman and guess what? She had a brother she once loved, but now sought revenge against. And Trespassers was born.

Despite Chicago being the place of inspiration, I did not set the story in Chicago. I mention New Jersey and Florida, but that’s about it. I could’ve written about the Florida palm trees and the orange-scented air, but I wanted Trespassers to be a story that could happen anywhere. This family could be your neighbor in California or Maine; Melanie could be the woman refilling your coffee in Iowa or New Mexico.

Abuse, whether physical, emotional, or sexual, happens everywhere, in big cities and small towns. As I delved deeper into the subject, I knew I needed to do something bigger than just writing a book. I knew if I ever got Trespassers published, I would donate a portion of the proceeds to a charity that helps abused kids.  Because I live in Birmingham I chose Big Oak Ranch (, a charity here in Alabama that helps kids who are abused or neglected. I can’t write a book that everyone in the world will love, but I can write a book that allows people, whether they like the book or not, to feel good for helping a deserving charity.

The amazing Sonia Taitz talks about her wild and wonderful new novel, DOWN UNDER, Mel Gibson, lost love, women's capacity for grace and so much more

 Confession: I know and adore Sonia Taitz. I loved her novels first, and then I met her, and a bond of friendship was cemented. Not only is she a truly great writer, (and I'm not the only one to think so. All you have to do is read her reviews and take note of her prizes to see I'm right), she's the kind of person you could call at four in the morning and she'd wake up and sit by the phone and talk to you and, most importantly of all, not be the one to hang up first. I have loved all her novels, all lavishly praised from the New Yorker to The New York Times, including The Watchmaker's Daughter, Mothering Heights, In the King's Arms (nominated for the $100,000 grant from the Jewish Book Council) for the Sami Rohr Prize in Fiction.

Down Under, her new novel, is about a famous actor's fall from grace and the long-lost love he pines for. Sonia has also written for The New York Times, the New York Observer, Psychology Today, and The Huffington Post.

I can't tell you how thrilled I am to host Sonia here.  Thank you, thank you, Sonia, for this and for so many other graces.

 I always want to know what sparks a particular book.  What’s the question this book is asking that has been haunting you? And did you get the answer you expected?
 I’m always wondering about which is better – wild, passionate love (the kind that can burn in both good and bad senses), or long-term, reliable commitment. I explore these options in Down Under, seeing each possibility through to its conclusion. And no, I didn’t get the answer I expected! As a matter of fact, I was surprised nearly all the way through. Even after writing the last page of the novel, I got up and added another ending – a surprise one that I’ve kept.

 You’ve described Down Under as seriocomic—which is very much is!—and I’d like to know how difficult it was to sustain the tone. Was there ever a moment when you felt yourself veering more towards serious or comic?

The writers I like best (and the people I like best) can be both poignant and playful. Usually not at the same time. But there are moments when a bit of each ingredient, shaken together, combine to make the best cocktail. I grew up in a fairly dramatic household (my parents were war-tossed immigrants, Holocaust survivors), so the ability to see the humor in even the most serious conversations saved us all from gloom. Humor gave us a perspective and a say – even as my family and I stumbled through our growing years together.  We all stumble. I agree with Shakespeare, who has Puck blurt, in the middle of Midsummer Night’s Dream, “Lord, what fools these mortals be!” We poor mortals can’t help being foolish – especially in matters of love and family -- and it’s OK to revel in that fact. So in the case of Down Under, there are several scenes that are deeply serious – such as when the main characters, Judy and Collum, meet at teenagers and fall deeply in love, or when they eventually face each other, decades later. But at the same time, their Quixotic journey (like Quixote himself) is often quite comical.

 You’ve also said that a character in the book, Collum, is loosely based on Mel Gibson, which I find fascinating.  (How does a beloved movie star hide his anti-Semitism for so long?) Since writing characters involves so much psychological understanding, did you discover that any of your feelings about Gibson, or people like him, changed as you were writing?

I have always loved Mel Gibson, and there even was a span of a few years where he made not one but two movies on my very block. Yes, the “Sexiest Man Alive” and I were breathing the same air, sort of. Naturally, as a child of Holocaust survivors, I was hurt when my idol seemed to spout concepts I’d heard mentioned in the most fearful ways by my parents. But I believe that to understand is to forgive. When you write a book, you not only come to understand your characters, but you forgive their foibles -- and end up loving them all the more. Believe it or not, I developed a sense of kinship with Mel while writing fictionally about Collum – a boy raised by a frightening, autocratic father. In my book, Collum’s heart is broken by a Jewish girl, just before he’s whisked off to Australia. It’s broken in so many pieces that even stardom can’t save him, and that’s why, years later, he feels driven to find her again. Who wouldn’t love a braveheart like that?

 Down Under is so much about the persistence of love. Why do you think young love is so often dismissed, and yet it can (as it is here), one of the most powerful forces in our lives?  Why does the past impact us so much?
 Young hearts are true. I adore the innocent faith of children, and there is a lot of the child, still, in the young adult. They feel everything intensely; they love with all their souls; their trust in life’s wisdom is complete, so they take heady chances. Furthermore, their emotional “clay” in some sense, is not only blank but wet, unset – so imprints made on them are lasting. Writers, at best, try to keep that susceptible part of themselves alive. When I write, I feel like a beginner with a pure, untrammeled heart. I lay out the wet clay and let events impact me. I wander, I explore, I take chances, and I learn – right along with the most foolish of my characters. Each book I write leaves an imprint on me, and I hope it does the same for the reader.

 I think the title, Down Under, is really a great one because it operates   on a few levels. Can you talk about that, please?

The first level, of course, is that Collum is born in upstate New York, and is taken to Australia – the land “down under” -- in his teens. But the better meaning of the title is “what lies beneath.” Down under, below our daily routines, what do we actually yearn for? What do we hunger for? Who is it we’re looking for? On another level, of course, “down under” suggests a sexy sense of secrets that are concealed and revealed. 

What’s obsessing you now and why?Now that Down Under is coming out, I’m beginning to be obsessed about writing a sequel to it. I hate absolute endings in life and in books, and always feel that characters keep growing, even after the final acts or pages. How I’d love to read a truly rendered sequel to “Cinderella!” Is there one? Maybe I ought to write it. There would be lots of opportunity there for the “seriocomic” after that whirlwind romance. (How long did they know each other? A few hours?) On the other hand, to write about their romance growing – instead of growing stale -- would be the most wonderful challenge. I’m a romantic, and I want love to last.
 I’m also consumed by the notion that women get old. We don’t “get” old; we “grow” older. Like that lifelong romance (that no one’s written), a woman’s life is a process, an experiential pact, growing richer by the years. Ideally, we develop, we ripen, we deepen, unfurl. It’s hard to keep this in mind when the Western ideal (bombarding us day and night) is that we stay young, tinny-voiced and untouched forever. The older I become – the more years I attain -- the more I see enormous potential in time. We women have a lifelong capacity for the kind of beauty and grace that cannot fade. (It comes to the foreground as illusions fall away.) I also see a growing potential in our society to recognize that kind of beauty.

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

Caroline Leavitt, why didn’t you ask what makes a writer great? I have the answer. Two things – the ability to write, and a heart as big as the Sequoia National Forest. Can you think of anyone who satisfies both these requirements? Can you think of someone, anyone, who writes best-sellers AND invites other authors to answer great questions on her blog? I can.

A reading to Raise Funds for Doctors Without Borders in Gaza and Palestine

Please come!    

A reading to raise funds for
         Doctors Without Borders
                        in Gaza and Palestine

         We are all familiar with the heroic work of Doctors Without Borders (Medecins Sans Frontieres) working with Ebola patients in West Africa. However it is not the only area in which these amazing men and women work to better the health of millions.  The recent destruction in Gaza and nearby territories is also an area where Doctors Without Borders are healing the minds and bodies of the trauma victims of recent battles in that region. Doctors Without Borders have a motto: “Compassion Knows NO Boundaries.”

         It is in their spirit that we are giving a reading to raise funds for this group’s indefatigable work.

WHERE:        Book Culture
                           536 W. 112 St, NY, NY 10025
                           212 865 1588

WHEN:           December 4th 2014 7PM

The following writers have generously agreed to participate they are:
CARA HOFFMAN is the author of the critically acclaimed novels Be Safe I Love You
 (Simon and Schuster 2014) and So Much Pretty (Simon and Schuster 2011). She has lectured at Oxford, Columbia and St. John's Universities. Her essays appear in The New York Times, Salon, NPR, and Marie Claire

CAROLINE LEAVITT is the New York Times and USA Today bestselling author of Is This Tomorrow, Pictures of You, Girls In Trouble, Coming Back To Me, Living Other Lives, Into Thin Air, Family, Jealousies, Lifelines, Meeting Rozzy Halfway. Various titles were optioned for film, translated into different languages, and condensed in magazines. Her ninth novel, Pictures of You, went into three printings months before publication and is now in its fourth printing. A New York Times bestseller.

LEORA SKOLKIN-SMITH was born in Manhattan in 1952 and spent her childhood between Pound Ridge, New York, and Israel, with regular visits to her mother’s birthplace in Jerusalem. She earned her BA, MFA, and a teaching fellowship from Sarah Lawrence College. As a writer, she has received numerous awards and honors, including a PEN/ Faulkner Grant, a Robert Gage Foundation Grant, and a PEN American Center Grant. In addition to her debut novel, Edges, she is the author of Hystera, winner of the 2012 USA Book Award and 2012 Global E-books Award, as well as an International Book Awards and National Indie Excellence Awards finalist. She has written essays for The Washington PostPsychology Today, and The National Book Critics Circle’s Critical Mass blog, and is currently a contributing editor to

BEVERLY GOLOGORSKY is author of  the recent novel Stop Here, an Indie Pick and Reader’s Digest Pick, as well as of the acclaimed novel The Things We Do to Make It Home, a NY Times Notable Book, a Los Angeles Times Best Fiction Book, and a finalist for the Barnes and Nobles Discover Great Writers Award, which the NY Times described as "stunning and completely persuasive." Her work has appeared in anthologies and magazines, including the NY Times, Newsweek, The Nation and the Los Angeles Times. Former editor of two political journals, Viet-Report and Leviathan, noted for her historical contribution to Feminists Who Changed America, Gologorsky's essays appear in Patriots: The Vietnam War Remembered from All Sides and The Friend Who Got Away, Twenty Women's True Life Tales of Friendships that Blew Up, Burned Out or Faded Away, among others.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Linda Gray Sexton talks about Bespotted: My Family's Love Affair with Thirty-Eight Dalmatians, writing, her mother Anne Sexton, and so much, much more

Who doesn't love dogs, especially Dalmatians? Bespotted: My Family's Love Affair with Thirty-Eight Dalmations is Linda Gray Sexton's warm, witty, and deeply moving account of how dogs just might have saved her life, and made her a better person. She's also the author of Anne Sexton: A Self-Portrait in Letters, and Between Two Worlds: Young Women in Crisis. Her novels include Rituals, Mirror Images, Points of Light, and Private Acts. Points of Light was both a Hallmark Hall of Fame Special and was translated into thirteen languages. Searching for Mercy Street: My Journey Back to my Mother Anne Sexton, was named a New York Times Notable Book of the Year and was optioned by Miramax Films. Linda’s second memoir was Half in Love: Surviving the Legacy of Suicide.

 I'm so thrilled to have Linda here!  Thank you so, so much, Linda! i

What’s so wonderful about this book is that it’s not the usual dog book.  It’s a rich and haunting look at how another species can save our lives emotionally and get us through the darkest times.  What do you think the major things are that we can learn from dogs?

 Dogs of all sorts provide us with the special kind of love and companionship that we experience only some of the time with the humans in our lives—be they friend or family.  Dogs’ personalities are marked with a strong sense of character, and often I think they live the way we ought to.  As such, they provide us with a kind of role model.  If we are smart, we listen to them.

Dogs are honest, compassionate and empathetic, with that “true blue” quality we are always seeking.  Because they never know what is coming, they have learned to live purely in the moment—a trait of which we are often envious—and they savor all that is good and do their best to endure, or ignore, the bad.  Unlike spouses who divorce you or friends who turn their backs on you, dogs never just get up and leave.  This is an example we could learn from.

Sometimes dogs pull us through the hardest times of our lives just by the way they take care of us.  When I was suffering from a clinical depression and feeling suicidal in my forties, I relied on my Dalmatian, Gulliver, to guide me through each day and make me believe I could survive.  He is an inspiration to me now.

Dogs also provide us with great antics at which we can laugh.  They lighten our days and our burdens and teach us that not everything has to be so serious.  Whether it is jumping high for a biscuit, running in circles for their supper, or just the simple shake of a paw, they delight us with their desire to learn and their smarts.  Even if you have a dog who is not the sharpest tack in the box, you appreciate all he or she tries to do for you, and this, too, gives us an inordinate amount of pleasure, just as does a toddler learning to walk.

All in all, dogs enrich our lives and try—whether successfully or not—to teach us to be better human beings.  We could not live without them.

 The book begins with a wonderful story of how Dalmatians gave birth to one of your mother’s (Anne Sexton’s) most famous poems, about life and survival.  Can you talk about that please?

 In 1967, my mother and father unintentionally allowed our Dalmatian girl to escape out of the backyard where she had been confined as soon as she came into heat.  She was immediately bred by the mixed breed dog of my best friend, and my parents were aghast.  They did not want to try and place puppies who did not have AKC papers, so they rebred Penny to the purebred Dal of one of my mother’s friends.  They told us their plan: to drown the puppies as they came if they were not Dalmatians.  My sister and I were crushed, but when the little ones arrived on a snowy morning at 6:00 a.m.—all fortunately snowy white with soon-to-be-black-spots—the four of us sat and watched the whelping with awe.  Penny knew what she was doing and shortly after we discovered what was going on in the basement, she gave birth to her last and eighth puppy.  My sister and I were thrilled at the spectacle before us.  My parents gave up on the idea of drowning the puppies in a pail of water, Joy and I danced around in pure delight, and my mother sat in a worn green armchair, musing.

After a time she went upstairs to her study and soon the sound of the manual typewriter she used at that time came pounding down the stairs.  She was writing a poem that she would eventually call “Live,” a poem that would become the centerpiece of the book she was then writing, and which would win her a Pulitzer Prize and a national reputation.  That book was entitled Live or Die, and chronicled her mental illness, her depression, and her suicide attempts—as well as her newly discovered desire to survive, an emotion brought about by the emotionally moving scene we had all just witnessed.  As I say in Bespotted: “The Dalmatian puppies had cheated death.”

 All of your dogs (all 38 of them!) have been Dalmatians.  What do you think the experience would be like if you got a bulldog or a terrier?  Are you ever tempted?

 Sometimes I am tempted.  Those Border terriers are awfully cute and smart, with big dog personalities in little dog bodies, but then I remind myself how deeply they dig—all of the time.  I think everyone has the breed they identify with.  For me, it was Dalmatians because during my childhood they embodied life (life for my mother, and therefore the rest of us) and then as the years wore on, I became enraptured with their sense of humor, their joyful way of dealing with life, their smart attitudes, their trainability—well, I could go on and on.  After all, I am a Dalmatian aficionado.  Everyone has a liking for a particular breed and I don’t really think our experiences are that different dog to dog.  Dogs are all characterized by the traits I listed in the first question: physically affectionate, companionable, loving, joyful, and all the rest of it.  Some dogs are not as smart as others, some dogs shed, some dogs bark—and yet their owners put up with whatever it may be because they love the breed.  I could never, truly, imagine any other kind of dog for me, even thought I know many others who do switch breeds, or have one of each kind. The point is: they are all dogs.

Can you talk about the science of dog shows?  I’ve watched them choose a Best in Show, and I never quite understand what makes one dog better than another.  Do these standards change?

 There is indeed a “standard” for every breed, and it is this standard upon which the dog is judged in the ring today, and against which it has always been judged.  The standard does not change and it elucidates what the physical and temperament characteristics of the breed should be, and is set up on a numerical scoring system.  The characteristics themselves are determined by what function the dog was initially intended to serve.

As I describe in Bespotted, Dalmatians were originally “coaching dogs” in England in the days when passengers travelled from inn to inn.  The dogs ran behind the traces of the horses, and then guarded the coach, the passengers and the luggage when all arrived.

It was important that they have capacious chests to help them breath deeply, tight and round feet, and strong toplines, (overall a very athletic body), all because they had to run over rough ground for many miles and not be the worse for wear.  Temperamentally, they are a guard dog as well, alerting the coachman to times when those who might threaten appeared.

  Today, when a stranger comes down my driveway, my dogs alert with ferocious barking to let me know someone is coming.  I don’t need a house alarm!  But when that someone is welcome into the house and is obviously a friend, they stop barking and begin their happy dance, usually ending up in everyone’s laps before the visit is over.  So the standard decrees that they should both alert and be friendly.  It is all these attributes on which the judges bases his scores as he assesses the Dalmatians before him with his eyes.

Likewise, the Border terrier was bred to have long enough legs to keep up with the horses and other foxhounds, which traveled with them, and small enough bodies to crawl into the burrows of foxes and chase them out so the hunters had a good shot. The foxhounds that traveled with them were not small enough to do the Border terrier's job.  Today Borders are judged according to the standard that was created long ago to keep these features intact.

 Another example would be the Standard poodle: the breed was first known in France, where it was commonly used as a water Retriever.  Because its job required it to be in the water constantly, the coat was clipped so that the joints remained covered with the hair as an insulator, but the body had to remain sleek enough to move quickly through the water.  This cut, often demeaned by those who don’t understand it, served an integral purpose and thus is still the way the poodle is presented in the ring.  This dog had to be an agile swimmer with a love of the water, webbed feet, an athletic stamina, and a moisture resistant, curly coat.  And these are a few of the things it is judged for today—thus a “standard.”

What’s obsessing you now and why?

 I have what I call publication psychosis.  This happens to nearly all writers when their book is published.  I imagine some lucky few are able to concentrate on their current work (whatever they are working on once the previous book is in their readers’ hands), but I have only rarely been able to do this.  I get caught up in publicity, radio tours, writing newsletters and blogging on my website, as well as doing as many guest blogs as I can get fit in—and especially blogs such as this one, which is a true treat, because it has been created by a writer I deeply admire.

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

 Here is one that I am asked all the time: who is the cover dog on Bespotted.  The answer is a funny story.  When the book’s preliminary jacket was sent to me, I loved the format and the colors, but I hated the Dalmatian they had used.  It was truly ugly.  I told my editor they had to change the dog, that everyone I knew would make fun of me if that were the Dal on my book cover—and anyway, I wanted one of my own dogs featured.  His response was that I would never be able to reproduce the way the dog was looking up so adoringly at his master or mistress, and that they definitely had to have the dog wearing that red collar. “I promise you I can get the pose with no difficulty,” I answered, “and I have the same worn red collar already in my dog drawer.”  So, we put it on all three of my dogs, stood them against a blank beige wall in the bedroom and I stood in front of them, waving a hot dog.  My husband manned the camera.  It took no time at all.

When we put the images up on the computer, we had gorgeous photos of all the dogs with their heads in exactly the right spot.  I sent the three best, one of each dog, to my editor and let him pick.  He chose Mac, named for Paul McCartney, who was a young boy from my last litter, which was in turned named for the Fab Four.  And thus it is Mac who graces the cover of Bespotted—even though he is not actually part of the book, having been born after the galleys were finalized.  And, in any case, then I would have had to redone the subtitle to read: My Family’s Love Affair with Forty-Two Dalmatians.  My editor said enough was enough.