Friday, November 9, 2018

The extraordinary Sarah McCoy talks about MARILLA OF GREEN GABLES, her brilliant new novel based on a side character of the beloved Anne of Green Gables.


Sarah McCoy is one of those people you  automatically fall in love with. We did an event together and I never had so much fun in my life. (Case in point: Sarah and Jenna Blum and Jane Green and I all planned a writers pajama party in a hotel, and even though it never happened, we all acted as if it had.) Sarah's also a wonderful, wonderful writer, and her new book MARILLA OF GREEN GABLES explores one of the characters of one of the most beloved books around, Anne of Green Gables.

Sarah is the New York Times, USA Today, and international bestselling author of The Mapmaker’s Children; The Baker’s Daughter, a 2012 Goodreads Choice Award Best Historical Fiction nominee; The Time It Snowed in Puerto Rico; the novella “The Branch of Hazel” in Grand Central; and Le souffle des feuilles et des promesses, a French exclusive title.

Sarah! Thank you for being here!

It’s always fascinating to me what makes a writer decide that a particular novel is the book they need (not just want, but need) to write now. What was it like for you when you started Marilla? What made you decide to revisit Anne of Green Gables? And what made you decide to center on Marilla?

I actually hadn’t thought to write Marilla until about two years ago. At the time, I had just completed another novel called Pride and Providence, which sold internationally. I was in the process of changing North American publishing houses. While getting to know potential new publishers, the executive editor at William Morrow/HarperCollins gave me a call. She basically asked me to share a book a book idea that excited me to write next. No strings attached. No Show me the first 100 pages or What have you been researching for the last five years? The door was wide open. All she asked was: What makes your heart sing to write? I’d never had an editor take an active role in the brainstorming part of a book’s development. It was refreshing—and inspiring. 

So I followed her instructions and the first idea that came to mind was… Marilla Cuthbert. I’d always been fascinated by her as a prominent yet only partially known character in my beloved Anne of Green Gables series. I grew up with the books and was obsessed with everything related. I dreamed on the characters long after I finished reading. Particularly pertinent to writing this book, in Chapter 37 of Anne of Green Gables, Montgomery drops this juicy detail on us and then keeps on walking with Anne Shirley.

What a nice-looking fellow he is,” said Marilla absently. “I saw him in church last Sunday and he seemed so tall and manly. He looks a lot like his father did at the same age. John Blythe was a nice boy. We used to be real good friends, he and I. People called him my beau.”
Anne looked up with swift interest.
“Oh, Marilla—and what happened?

I can’t tell you the hours I spent dreaming on the answer to that, what happened, Marilla? I guess you could say I’ve been writing this book my whole life if one was to pinpoint that lightning-to-brain moment of curiosity. And like being fire-bolted by the heavens, this was a novel that somewhat terrified me to write. Green Gables is sacred, after all. But my love for Lucy Maud Montgomery’s legacy usurped my fears. So I went into the writing with the goal to honor that and give Marilla the spotlight that I felt Montgomery would approve.

There’s something about that word “spinster”—which of course was a terrible thing to be in the 19th Century, and now is no more terrible than saying you are left-handed.  But what I loved is that you took that label and made Izzy the one who pushes your heroine out into the world, and even makes Marilla realize that there are other lives than the traditional one that she can choose. Can you talk about this please?

You know, Caroline (and you do because you know me well), I’ve never been a person who was content with living within a box. Parameters, molds, and model criterion of perfect humanity have always sat uneasily in my gut. Don’t get me wrong, I'm no rebel for the sake of rebellion. I understand that rules and protocol can be a stabilizing, good framework. A farmer must respect nature’s laws of seedtime to get the harvest. A bird must respect gravity to fly. I get it. But I also think that too often, we declare social laws that really have no credence outside of making one set of people feel accepted and making another feel rejected. What is the ideal family anyhow? Mother + father + 2.5 kids + an oh-so-happy Labrador in a 5-bedroom, suburban Mc-mansion on the cusp of a shining metropolis? Does that family formula make us say, “Oh, yes, they must be good people. They must live good lives. Mark them down in the annals—that’s the model.” 

What if your life’s picture doesn’t look like that? Is it therefore not worthy of praise, of being ‘Liked’ on Instagram, of being remembered in history? We’ve got a really skewed perspective of worth, especially women’s worth. That isn’t particular to modern times either. I think Montgomery (as a pastor’s wife) recognized it, and if she couldn’t voice her unorthodox opinions in real life, she definitely did in her fictional Avonlea. Marilla, Matthew, Anne: they are celebrated for being a beautiful, successful yet unconventional family.

That’s part of why I believe the Green Gables legacy continues to thrive. It’s about overcoming adversity and fearlessly sharing the message: “You can, too.” Unlike many of the louder messages being shouted at us from TV, radio, the Internet, etcetera, this one is shared between the reader and the page. Only there does it have a chance to seed itself. I know its capacity. I experienced it the first time I read Anne of Green Gables. It influenced who I grew to be as an adult, a writer, and an advocate of diversity.

I absolutely loved all the historical details. The writer Mary Morris once told me that in doing research, forget the dates, but look for the stories, the human drama. Can you talk about your research? What surprised you?

Out of the hundreds of cable channels, I could honestly do with just four: History Channel, Biography Channel, Turner Classic Movies, and PBS. I am a proud history geek. You can’t beat the drama of historical narratives. It’s too wild for anyone to make up! I write historical fiction because that’s what fires me up.

Lucy Maud Montgomery gave us two complicated, yet deeply lovable characters in Marilla and Matthew Cuthbert. She left an excellent literary breadcrumb trail, and I considered it a joy to follow it backwards to discover their younger selves. The most important part of doing Marilla justice was to pay attention to the Green Gables world that Lucy Maud Montgomery created. I annotated all the original series, alongside every biography I could find, including The Complete Journals of L.M. Montgomery. Montgomery wrote so many tiny, wonderful details that give glimpses to Cuthberts’ pasts. So I spent a good amount of time re-reading the first few books (in which Matthew and Marilla are featured) and recording every description, emotional response, comment, opinion, habit, routine, and preference. Then I placed them into the historical context to find the connections.

Being an American, I had to also give myself an intensive course on Canadian history. I was in touch with Canadian author Susanna Kearsley, who graciously answered my questions about the varying opinions of Canadian politics. Susanna sent me links to archives related to 19th-century political parties, particularly as the documents pertained to the issues of English sovereignty, independence, slavery, and runaway slaves from America (pre American Civil War). I learned there was far more conflict in Canada than we, Americans, recognize. It was fascinating and eye opening to see similar cycles of bitter division between citizens.  I wrote this book during our own conservative versus liberal struggle in the wake of the 2016 U.S. presidential election. The historical mirrors were undeniable.

Last but not least, I spent October 2017 on Prince Edward Island island. It was important for me to walk Montgomery’s old haunts, explore the island’s historical settings, and meet with her relations that continue to thrive in Cavendish (a.k.a. fictional Avonlea). I felt quite like I was living in Avonlea, and who better to welcome me than Montgomery’s kin. George and Pamela Campbell—brother and sister cousins to Montgomery— opened their family’s home to me. They own and operate the Anne of Green Gables Museum and the Anne of Green Gables stores across the island. Their knowledge concerning Maud’s writing life and the lore of Green Gables was invaluably helpful. I was honored to receive their and the Montgomery heirs’ blessings on this book.

The past is truly prologue for the present.  Your novel takes a fascinating side route to a lot of important moments, revealing them to us in new and important ways. For example, instead of writing about the Underground Railroad, you hone in on the survivors who hit Canada, and what their lives might have been like.  What was your writing process like in deciding your historical timeline?

That was probably the easiest part of this book. Lucy Maud Montgomery gave me the birth and death of my characters. According to the Anne of Green Gables series, Marilla was born in 1824, and she died in 1910. She also wrote that during Marilla’s childhood, her father built Green Gables. It was a developmental time for Avonlea as an established island village.  I chose to begin the novel at roughly a similar age as when we get to know Anne Shirley. I like narratives that have threads between them, and I certainly wanted to pay homage to the novel of inspiration (Anne of Green Gables).

There’s a kindred spirit link between young Anne and old Marilla. With this book, I wanted to show that a ‘spirit link’ doesn’t just work forward in time. It works backwards too and loops in unconventional ways that our limited scope of human understanding may not comprehend. Nonetheless, it exists.  So we begin when Marilla is thirteen years old in 1837.

You’ve written so many extraordinary books. Does the writing change for you in book to book, or do you have a process that you depend on?

Each book process feels similar in that all my work is historical fiction. So I start in the archives, unboxing forgotten facts and memories, digging up infinitesimal details, because they always hit at something larger! I consider myself a story archeologist. (For a brief stint in college, I thought about being a real one—I even took Geology, which is about as interesting as staring at a rock. Literally.) So first came the research into the fictional Avonlea, created by Lucy Maud Montgomery, within the context of a real Prince Edward Island in a real Canada between 1830s-1860s. It was a tremendously dynamic time in the country and in Marilla's life, as you read in the book.  

What’s obsessing you now and why?

Truthfully, I’m still obsessed with Marilla’s world. There’s still so much about her, about her family (the Cuthberts and the Johnsons), about Green Gables and Avonlea. That’s the thing with Montgomery’s story world: you want to stay in it! I thought I’d quenched my childhood thirst for more Green Gables by writing this book, but it seems it’s just given me a taste for how delicious the water from this well is… and I want buckets more.


Mobsters! Brooklyn in the early 20th Century! Jewish Noir! The wonderful Thelma Adams talks about her Dickensonian new novel BITTERSWEET BROOKLYN, and so miuch more

I'm pretty sure I've always been lucky enough to known Thelma Adams. Okay, the truth is, we became friends on social media because I was fan-girling her and the rest is history. BITTERSWEET BROOKLYN is as if she is channeling Charles Dickens himself. Every page crackles with life and history, and of course, Brooklyn int he early Twentieth Century, a world full of molls and mobsters both.  And I'm not the only one to love this book. Take a look:

“Smart and complex, Bittersweet Brooklyn is a riveting journey into a glamorous and deadly underworld. Fascinating characters and a backdrop of New York in the 1920’s kept me churning through pages. Add in twist after twist to an already vibrant plot, and you’ve got the makings of a perfect read! No one writes women in history better than Thelma Adams. I loved this book!” —Heather Burch, bestselling author of In the Light of the Garden

"Bookies! Bubbes! Bossy big-mouths! Thelma Adams’ Bittersweet Brooklyn takes you back to an early twentieth-century Williamsburg teeming not with too-cool-for-school millennials, but with rough-and-tumble Jewish and Italian immigrants. You’ll race through this raucous historical saga, admiring its gritty detail and street-smart dialogue. Inspired by real events, Thelma Adams brings to life an unforgettable family ruled by filial love divided by biting dysfunction.” —Sally Koslow, author of Another Side of Paradidise

“Set in the savage underbelly of a Mafia-linked social club and amusement park, Bittersweet Brooklyn tells the sizzling and unforgettable family saga of a brother and sister who must pit survival against loyalty, desire, and compassion.” —Susan Henderson, author of The Flicker of Old Dreams

 “A fresh, fierce retelling of the crime family saga from the female point of view.” —Paula Froelich, New York Times bestselling author of Mercury in Retrograde

Thelma Adams is the author of the bestselling historical novel The Last Woman Standing and the O, The Oprah Magazine pick Playdate. She coproduced the Emmy-winning Feud: Bette and Joan. Additionally, Adams is a prominent American film critic and an outspoken voice in the Hollywood community. She has been the in-house film critic for Us Weekly and the New York Post and has written essays, celebrity profiles, and reviews for Yahoo! Movies, the New York Times, O, The Oprah Magazine, Variety, the Hollywood Reporter, Parade, Marie Claire, and the Huffington Post.

I'm so jazzed to celebrate the publication of this book by having Thelma on the blog!

I always think there is a why now moment for an author to write any book. What were the origins of this one for you?

This book was a long time cooking. It began with personal essays and memoir, and expanded when my father shared a half-written short story he'd drafted with his-daughter-the-writer a few years before his death at 62 from a brain tumor. His prose – half typed, half scrawled, disappearing into an ellipse before it concluded – cracked open a new understanding of my father's past, one that was too painful for him to reveal in the jokes and banter and tall tales he told about his Brooklyn childhood.

He and my mother named me after my paternal grandmother, Thelma, who died the year before I was born. When I arrived, her death was new, still raw for my father. I presume there were a lot of heavy unresolved emotions when I entered the world, cross-eyed with an unformed hip and squalling angry. As I grew up – not a Mary or a Bonnie or a Sara – I found Thelma a heavy name to carry on the sunny schoolyards of Southern California where my Brooklyn-born father transplanted us. There were no other Thelma's. It was an old and odd name in a world that honored new and unexceptional. With that name, and the wild temper I inherited, I couldn't go with the flow.

In some ways the name shaped me – and it was only a matter of time before I tried to figure out the widow whose name I had, and wonder why she'd left so few memories behind. I swam myself out of Southern California through strong academics, went to Berkeley, embraced feminism, wrote poetry, believed that I could own and shape myself and my future. It was a very optimistic time: the cusp of the 80s. I was still being pushed along by the social reform movement of the 60s and 70s. I would make change. I would own my sexuality and not let men define me. And, yet, when I considered my grandmother, and imagined her with my strong spirit and intelligence and energy, I really wondered what it was like to be a liberated woman before her time.

What was the price that Thelma paid for her individualism?

The answers were not in the stories told within the family. My father had passed. I asked a cousin who'd known Thelma, and he said one word: "Dissolute." Not kind, or generous, or funny. What did that judgment mean? Why did he curl his lip? It only piqued my curiosity.

When I had finished a historical novel about Josephine Marcus, the longtime companion of Wyatt Earp, called The Last Woman Standing, the time came to gather my memoirist musings and look deeper into the available history to find my grandmother and her milieu. With my editor's blessing, I went in search of the historical shreds that would shed light on my grandmother. Her older brother had been a small-time hood in the growing enterprise that was Murder Inc., the Jewish mob in Brooklyn in the first half of the 20th Century. He made the news – and the police blotter and a minor paragraph in Rich Cohen's book Tough Jews. With his criminal activity as narrative tent poles, I began to create a portrait of an immigrant family from Galicia that struggled and prospered and climbed to home ownership, and to see the vibrant, star-crossed Thelma as a woman in full.

She did not define herself in the way I had since I was that child hopscotching at recess asking: what will I be when I grow up? And maybe that aspect of her will be a challenge for contemporary women reading about Thelma. She is not aspirational as we've come to expect our strong women to be. Survival was her struggle, to kindle the light that shined so brightly within her. She loved passionately – her husband, her brother and her only son. Like a Douglas Sirk heroine, this outsider burned to live. And that was something with which I could identify – and so will the readers who fall in love with this flawed woman born too soon.

I absolutely loved this book. The details were so real that I swore I was time-traveling. Tell us about your research and what startled you the most?

What startled me the most was how much detail I could build by collecting census data, birth and death certificates and war records. I know it sounds dusty (although most of it can now be performed online). I was able to track this family back to the ghetto of the Lower East Side (and the wheat fields of Galicia) but also I could see when and why they died – and imagine its impact. When a father passes of tuberculosis leaving an illiterate wife and four children, how does she cope? That's the drama. What happens when the family is in free fall – and who steps up? The two-dimensionality of the data becomes the three-dimensional of the imagination.

In and among those records was something that was very shocking to me – the widow, 36, institutionalized her two sons aged nine and 11, together in a Jewish orphanage. It's there in black and white: an application for admission among the New York Jewish Orphan Asylum Records for Abraham and Louis Lorber signed by their mother, Rebecca, on August 14, 1905.  That happened when Thelma was only three – and I imagined the loss of her brothers had a huge impact on her life and the underlying instability of the threat of being sent to an orphanage herself. I didn't know this fact at all before I started writing – and can only imagine how it introduced violence into the brothers' lives. One became a gangster; the other enlisted in the Army and became a war hero at the Battle of the Marne. Oddly, I'd heard about my great uncle the gangster not the decorated soldier.

I also threw myself deeply into the era's popular culture. My father loved to dance and was a mad lindy hopper – as anyone who saw me fly over his shoulders at my Cousin Linda's wedding might remember. I knew he got that from his mother. So I wanted to know where she'd go dancing and what it was like. For years, I spent a lot of time across the street from the Roseland Ballroom at Gallagher's bar and steakhouse, a favorite NYC haunt. And, so, I wanted to know every detail of what it would be like to go dancing at the Roseland in Manhattan for a Brooklyn girl.

Similarly, I always knew she would go to the movies as the big movie houses expanded across Brooklyn like the Kinema. And, since I love movies and have a career as a film critic, I imagined the impact of the screen's glamor, the romanticism, the sexual freedom of Joan Crawford and Pola Negri and the beloved Rudolph Valentino, the matinee idol of the day. I spent a lot of time watching those movies, reading about the stars' public and private lives, and listening to Karina Longworth's excellent podcast, You Must Remember This. And I also knew that behavior that might fly on the screen in the Pre-Code 1920s would have exacted a high price for a poor young woman if acted out on the Brooklyn streets. And, in the case of my grandmother, it did.

What I love about the research phase is that when you hit your historical fiction groove, the research continually resonates. I call them rabbit holes: when you start reading about one thing, and discover a name or a character or a setting and look up and three hours have passed. All the movie stars mentioned above – Crawford, Negri and Valentino – have "unsavory" pasts deserving of their own novels.  

I absolutely loved when Thelma, your heroine, ventures over to an Italian family and has her first taste of Italian food, which she adores. But it’s made very clear that “like must sticks with like” and the loss of being a family member makes her bereft. That’s a prominent part of NYC history, where different nationalities “ran” different streets. Could you talk about this please?

My father was raised, off and on, by his mother's Italian girlfriends.  Jews and Italians lived side by side. He had strong memories of Italian feast days and the freedom of running around the neighborhood with his Italian friends. These memories were almost always joyous: his stories about who climbed the greased pole on the feast days in the Italian neighborhoods wormed its way into my narrative.

And criminal activity ran side-by-side in Brooklyn so that Jews and Italians were often in business together although Italians ran the larger Syndicate. Murder Inc., in which my great Uncle Abraham Lorber played his part was predominantly Jewish, a hitman for hire operation to the Italian families. But there were Italians affiliated with that off-shoot organization, too, and these boys that had grown up together on the streets continued their connections long into adulthood.

As for the scenes in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, centered on Our Lady of Mt. Carmel, it was inspired by my attending the feast, the Giglio, when I lived in Brooklyn with my husband. And, also, my love for the books of Elena Ferrante set in Naples. The Brooklyn Italian community had emigrated from that same area and I wanted to capture the rhythm of that life, the food, the festivals, and the extended family – and how it might appeal to Thelma to be a part of something larger than herself.  How she might see the potential for another mother figure and acceptance, a place to belong. However, here, too, she is an outsider. And, for her, that discovery is heartbreaking.  

I cared deeply for all the characters and want to know how you develop your characters?

I go very deep into character studies before I write page one. It's like an actor preparing character – my goal is to get under their skin and look out through their eyes. I am very detailed about their physical attributes, and handicaps, and ailments that stem from character.

It is at the center of all my fiction that each character merits their own book, could tell their own story with themselves as the hero. In this case, I struggled writing the older sister, Annie, because I structured her as the antagonist from a shred of the story my father left behind. The challenge was looking at Thelma through Annie's critical eyes – and it was very painful. Knowing how much Thelma needs to be seen and how that is absolutely not a priority for Annie is heartbreaking. But, I also had to look at Annie through her own lens: no older sister wants to take care of her invalid mother and three younger siblings just at the moment she feels her own sap rising. She also has a self-protective streak that makes her a survivor, which is good for her own children but makes her a ruthless rival in controlling the family soul. And when I allowed her a voice, she spoke with a clarity and strength that surprised me.

The mother's character was built on a huge amount of research that provided back story and is less in evidence in the novel's descriptions: she was born in Drohobych, now located in Ukraine. That detail was also on the orphanage admit application. Her character was rooted in that past and its rituals. I needed to know her place as a middle daughter in a large relatively prosperous rural family in order to understand her points of reference and how ill-prepared for the American adventure she was. She hadn't been raised to be an individual; she was part of a herd. In New York, she became a widow alone raising children in a country in which she'd never expected to live. Her values remained those of her roots, and a nostalgia for a time that had already past even in the old country. I found her incredibly sympathetic even at her weakest and most hurtful because I felt for a woman who had been bartered into an arranged marriage and then had given birth so many times and had also miscarried, and whose emotional life was so determined by these bodily functions. 

I regret that any real memories of these women were harmed in the writing of this fiction. That was never my intent. This isn't memoir but investigation. Choices were necessarily made. I presume there are many more stories for each of these women – and for the brothers as well. I look forward to hearing them in the future because at the root of this book is raising the voices of history's unheard. I chose to start with the woman who was closest to my heart, whose name I bear.  

What’s obsessing you now and why?

Politics -- And writing about the intersection of the women's rights movement and Spiritualism in 19th Century America. It amazes me that so many of the battles that we have been fighting in my lifetime for women's equality were also being hotly debated the century before. To have struggled so hard to achieve the right to vote, to own property, to divorce abusive husbands, to have custody of our own children – and then for me in the present to witness the white men in suits in government still deciding issues like a woman's right to choose, or when to believe a women's testimony about sexual assault obsesses me. One way I know how to combat this is to write female-driven narratives overlooked in homogenizing history books. The other: vote, canvass, and don't get numb!

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

 How did being a movie critic influence how you wrote this 20th century Jewish noir? I grew up on The Godfather, Goodfellas, The Sopranos and, more recently, binge-watched Boardwalk Empire. The first "dirty book" I read was Mario Puzo's The Godfather, when Sonny bangs a bridesmaid upstairs while the house is full of family, business associates and guests. But what do we really know about that bridesmaid, her pleasure, the bride, the mother? How would they have seen or remembered that wedding day, the loss of their husbands to the maw of the family business, their children entering lives of crime, the violence on the day of their infant's baptism? What were their dreams and desires outside of the family? I wanted to flip that genre on its head and write about the matriarchy behind the criminal society of men – the sisters, mothers, daughters and girlfriends squeezing out joy in an experience that largely skipped the newspaper headlines and was only sketched out in the census rolls. Certainly, they were more than just collateral damage.  Each life engenders its own struggle, its own surge toward the light of joy. And, so, I like to see the moments in Thelma's life where she experienced transcendence -- dancing with her man at the Roseland, sharing a stoop with her brothers and laughing at shared jokes, watching Valentino in the glamorous movie palaces – as something worth rescuing from the unrecorded past and sharing with my readers.

Monday, October 22, 2018

An architect with a paralyzing spinal cord injury acquires a monkey helper, even as he grapples with what makes a life worth living. That's just one of the provocative questions posed in Katharine Weber's sublime new novel STILL LIFE WITH MONKEY.

I first met Katharine Weber on the now defunct and totally wonderful online bookish site Readerville. We stayed friends and her expert eye unlocked many of my novels for me I(I'm so so grateful to her.) Her new novel and seventh book, STILL LIFE WITH MONKEY (bet you cannot take your eyes off that gorgeous cover, can you?) is both profound and moving, about a man, paralyzed in an accident, who acquires a monkey helper, but the question remains: Is this life worth living? 
Katharine’s  also the author of TRUE CONFECTIONS, THE MEMORY OF ALL THAT: GEORGE GERSHWIN, KAY SWIFT, AND MY FAMILY'S LEGACY OF INFIDELITIES, TRIANGLE, THE LITTLE WOMEN. THE MUSIC LESSON and OBJECTS IN MIRROR ARE CLOSER THAN THEY APPEAR. She's also the Richard L. Thomas Visiting Professor of Creative Writing at Kenyon College, and she previously taught at Yale.

Let's take a gander at all the praise STILL LIFE WITH MONKEY is garnering:

Lucy Scholes in THE NEW YORK TIMES BOOK REVIEW:  “Still Life With Monkey” is profoundly humane even while it’s asking the most difficult questions.”

Karen Joy Fowler in the THE WASHINGTON POST: “A beautifully wrought paean of praise for the ordinary pleasures taken for granted by the able-bodied. In precise and often luminous prose, with intelligence and tenderness, Weber’s latest novel examines the question of what makes a life worth living.”

Starred review in PW: "A heartbreaking triumph.”

Starred review in Kirkus: "Rigorously unsentimental yet suffused with emotion: possibly the best work yet from an always stimulating writer."

Booklist: "Weber’s sixth novel is a nuanced investigation of what is left when all of the ways one identifies oneself are wiped out in an instant . . . Beautiful, emotionally resonant storytelling.”

BookPage: "Weber expertly weaves Duncan’s internal conflict throughout the novel, constantly making the reader wonder if he will find the strength to continue living in his new circumstances and carry on with a will to make new legacies. Most importantly, Still Life with Monkey begs the question, “What would I do in this situation?” It’s a question that lingers long after the book ends."

Tayari Jones: "A brilliantly crafted novel, brimming with heart. Pairing poetry with wisdom, this is a story about what it means to live, love, and grow.”

Thank you so, so much, Katharine for being here. And for a whole lot else.

Still Life With Monkey asks the unsettling question—just what makes a life worth living? And I think it’s important to recognize that for different people, this means different things. Can you talk about this please?

That’s a great question, Caroline. Who can say what is enough to make a life? What varieties of pain, both physical and emotional, are bearable, or unbearable? These are tremendously personal feelings, and consequent decisions. We can all pretty easily think about people we know who are in ordinary life situations we cannot quite understand—why doesn’t she leave him? Why does he put up with that terrible boss when he could get a much better job for more money?  Why don’t they move from that awful neighborhood? But we never really know what it’s like to be anyone but ourselves.

Suffering that one person can tolerate for years, another might not be able to stand for a few weeks. There are infinite varieties of pain and suffering and loss, some of them more visible than others. The biggest challenges of all, the life and death kinds of challenges, are no different. How much anyone can endure, and how to make choices about change, about seeking the end of pain and suffering, even the biggest choices of all—these are personal decisions and also rights that every one of us possesses.  Whether or not disability has meant that certain kinds of choices are literally out of reach.

Ottoline, the helper monkey, is one of the most charming creations in all of literature, I believe. I know you did extensive research with real monkey helpers. How much of your research is Ottoline, and how much did you build on and create?

I spent several years educating myself about capuchin monkeys in their natural habitats, and also about the training of capuchins to make them helper monkeys capable of providing “helping hands” to disabled people. Capuchin monkeys are the smartest New World monkeys, and they are capable of learning more than fifty commands for switching on lights, turning pages, picking up dropped phones and remotes and so on – all skills that allow disabled people to have more autonomy and independence and privacy.  Training consists on a great deal of monkey see, monkey do.

The Primate Institute in New Haven of my novel is fictional, but there is an actual Monkey College at Helping Hands, in Boston. (You can see great monkey videos on their website, I spent some time behind the scenes at Monkey College, and then, well after I had completed a first draft of the novel, I was introduced, by a mutual friend, to Kent and Nancy Converse and Kent’s monkey helper, Farah. They were generous in allowing me to spend time with them to deepen my sense of life with a monkey helper, and after several visits we had begun to develop what is now an enduring friendship. The novel is dedicated to them (as well as to another good friend, also a quadriplegic, whose generosity and frankness gave me many insights into the emotional and physical experience of becoming a quadriplegic after a catastrophic accident.) 

Though I have never based a character in any of my six novels on any actual person, I admit that Ottoline, though she had come to life in my early drafts long before I met Farah, is truly inspired very directly by my little monkey friend Farah. It is my good fortune that Farah likes me, so spending time with Kent and Nancy and Farah is always a very rich experience. (If you’re wondering, Farah the monkey is some 36 years old. She is a tufted capuchin, with a shock of fur on the top of her head. Think about who was famous for her big hair 36 years ago, and you will discover the origin of this little monkey’s name.

Still Life With Monkey was originally called The Monkey Helper. Why the name change?

Every novel I writer starts off with a plan, and then inevitably I find myself deviating from the plan. You always have to be open to surprising yourself when you’re writing a novel. I thought I was writing “about” a monkey helper, when in fact I was writing about a complex marriage, twins, secrets (everyone in the novel has secrets, including the monkey), architecture, life with a spinal cord injury, art conservation, and the right to die. So that working title became obsolete. I love the title Still Life With Monkey because it has layers of meaning. There is a tradition of bountiful still life paintings by French, Dutch, Spanish and Italian painters over three centuries. These are exquisitely rendered depictions of extraordinary arrangements of fruits, flowers, meats, game, and savory tarts, displayed temptingly in beautiful vessels, heaped on laden tables, an imminent feast that also suggests the transience of life’s pleasures. When these artists added a monkey or two snatching treats from the table, it was a playful commentary on human appetites.
For my novel, this title offers layers of meaning. Even compromised, this is still life for Duncan. Paralyzed life is a still life. And now his life is indeed with a monkey. Duncan is obsessed with the quotidian pleasures of his life and how much he has lost. Ottoline can give him back some of his ability to make choices for himself. But is this still life with a monkey enough?    

This novel feels and reads differently to me than your previous ones. Is this something you were aware of or is this just an organic change? (I’m always interested in how one novel grows out of or away from the previous ones.)

I appreciate your sense of this, Caroline. A real writer’s question. I agree, there is a lot about this novel that’s a shift for me. I spent some seven years writing this novel, partly because in these same years I have been teaching at Kenyon College (which I love) and have had less concentrated writing time. But also, it’s been a complex undertaking. It’s my longest novel (286 pages—I don’t write long novels.) It’s the first time my main character has been male. It’s the first time I have written principally in the third person. And it’s a high stakes narrative in many ways, with complex moral questions driving the story for each character.  So there were indeed some deliberate challenges to myself with this novel. But also, it is my sixth novel and seventh book. You have to teach yourself to write each novel as you write it. I believe I am a both a better writer and a better teacher now than I have ever been before.

What’s obsessing you now and why?

I always love this question in your Q&As on your blog. Setting aside for the moment my chronic rage and anxiety about the state of the world and all the consequent disasters since the current occupant of the White House took office, I am juggling three different next novels in my head.  This means, in addition to mapping out the situation and the story for each, which I have done but am also still developing, that I am at different moments delving into Amish culture and traditions, rumspringa, polydactyly, puppy mills (for Rumspringa), New Age healing retreats, poker tournaments, and sea glass collecting (for Traveling Angel), and details of daily Pueblo life in New Mexico and Arizona circa 1886 (for The Going Away Woman). Inevitably, before I am done with each of these novels, there will be numerous other rabbit holes down which I will burrow in pursuit of my strange idea of research. 

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

What am I reading now?  And the answer is many short stories by Henry James and Edith Wharton, for an experimental advanced fiction seminar I am teaching right now, for which I am having my students read only the short fiction of these two masters as they write their own stories. Anyone who has ever been present when an author visits a book group must read Edith Wharton’s wickedly funny story “Xingu.”) I am also, right now, reading Deborah Eisenberg’s brilliant new story collection Your Duck is My Duck, both because I adore her work and this is the first book she has published in twelve years, and also because I am thrilled to report that we will be reading together at the Miami Book Fair on November 18th.


Saturday, October 13, 2018

Anne Lamott (!) talks about why dying in real life is not like dying in the movies, how to not hate those in power, grace, grief, love and so much more in ALMOST EVERYTHING: NOTES ON HOPE.

I'm so thrilled to host Anne Lamott here. But first, some personal stuff.

This is what I know about Anne Lamott:

Many years ago, after I lost a baby 3 1/2 months into my pregnancy, I wrote Anne Lamott. I didn't know her. I had never met her.  But somehow, in my grief and pain, I thought she would understand  and I needed to write her. Imagine my shock when I came home to find this compassionate, funny, smoky voice on my answering machine talking about what I had gone through and how I would be okay. THAT IS ANNIE LAMOTT, folks.

Fast forward. Algonquin had a series where they had really big, famous authors, interview not-so-big or not-so-famous ones. Annie agreed to interview me. The place was packed, but what I remember most was getting in a limo (!) with Annie and she dug into her purse and pulled out half a peanut butter sandwich and said, "Hungry? Want this?" THAT, TOO, IS ANNIE LAMOTT, folks

Through the years, we've stayed in touch. I've read everything she's written, and this book ALMOST EVERYTHING got to me in a way nothing she's written before ever has. Of course, I was laughing, but I was also weeping in parts. About grief, death, politics, kindness, family, cookies, and so much more, this is just an extraordinary book, and I'm thrilled to host Anne Lamott here. 

This seems like such an important book for now. At points, I was weeping (I was also laughing, too, so there is that.) Let’s talk about Almost Everything. Why the almost?  Why do you think almost is necessary? I mean, what if we knew everything? Could there really be no growth?

 The original title of this book was Doomed: A Book of Hope, but we changed it to Almost Everything because it is really Almost Everything I know of any importance that I can pass on to my 15 year old niece and 9 year old grandson. I wanted to pass along everything that would have been so helpful to me along the way—that everyone is a mess deep in, and it just hurts to compare your insides to other people’s outsides. That families are hard, hard, hard. That all truth is paradox. That writing never goes well, but here are some tips I know about how to get it done very day.

It’s “almost” because some of the stuff I know something about—ie how to stay sober over time, how to survive the loss of a dog—is material I’ve already written about, that might not be relevant to the young people in my family or the public at large.

These are dark political days, and for a long time, I clung to the Mr. Rogers’ quote, about “looking for the helpers.” I feel like your book really is doing the same thing. Instead of hating, which is easy to do, AND it sometimes feels good to do it, we need, instead, to get rid of it so we can focus on what we can do—and sometimes that’s just the smallest thing. Can you talk about this please?

Well, there’s a whole chapter of not letting them get you to hate them, because the. You turn INTO them, and you lose your center and strength.  But the willingness for me to change—in this case to look at my hate and judgment—comes from the pain of not changing.  And all important change happens Incrementally, and from awareness—you notice what a jerk you’re being in traffic, and how it makes you feel, i.e.  uptight and self-righteous—so instead, you start letting people go first, and that feels lovely. That feels like a world you would like to live in—so you help begin to create it.  
 You devoutly believe in God, yet you welcome all those who do not, which is really generous and wise. But why do you think things have gotten so worse for us as a whole people and a whole planet? Have we not been tested enough? And what do you think is the best way for us to not freak out about statistics, like our planet has ten more years, or the GOP want to do away with preexisting conditions on health insurance?

  My theory about how things have gotten so awful and insane is that this is the end of the 50’s, where males dominated and women were subservient and didn’t partake of the wealth and power—and the male power structure is terrified and very angry about having to share.  It’s dying dinosaurs, doing a tremendous amount of damage with their tails.

     The best way not to freak out is to offer warmth and light to oneself, and then to the world, through small acts of generosity, and creation.  I love the quote of the priest who helped AA get off the ground, that sometimes heaven is just a new pair of glasses. So we take off the bad glasses, that see and fixate on the deterioration and conflicts everywhere, and we look out through the good glasses, through which we see the beauty all around us—look up! At the sky, the tree tops, the moon and stars. We see how beautifully, lovingly people are taking care of others.  We see a few things that are actually working, that help us keep the little flames insight us lit.  We see people to serve.  We see the help and comfort that surrounds us.

Your chapter on families did me in. Families do indeed live imprints on us when we are young, and to survive, we become those, but we don’t have to stay that label. That felt ridiculously freeing. I also loved your advice on not trying to save or change a family member. I spent years trying to “fix” my mom and the only thing that happened was she became increasingly resentful and angry and she never changed. And when I let go, we had a better, richer deeper relationship. This is such a hard lesson to learn! We can offer help, but if asked.  Do you think that trying to fix others is actually trying to fix ourselves?

I think (or know) that trying to fix or save others is hopeless, and of course I have spent my life, until a few years ago, trying to rescue and fix everyone. I eventually realized that NO ONE, not once, has ever gotten an alcoholic sober, or gotten a very heavy person to slim down. It always has to be an inside job.  But letting go of people and releasing them to their consequences, pain and higher powers (who turn out NOT to be us) often has the effect of giving them the space to begin healing. Or at least to begin to want to begin healing, which is huge.

We tried to fix our families because our parents needed us too.  If we hadn’t tried, hadn’t used our life force to pump our parents up out of their unhappiness, the entire ship of our families might have sunk and gone under. And if we didn’t believe we were the problem, because we were defective or annoying, it meant our PARENTS were a mess, and should have raised orchids instead of kids; which would have meant we were doomed. Thinking that we were inadequate was our only shot at having a little control, since we could try to do better, and need less. So we did that—but it didn’t work. (I hate that!) And it didn’t work better at 30, 50, 64 but it’s still my go-to default stop when people I love are going under—but the healing is that I now just try to fix and rescue for a couple of hours, instead of decades.

Having lost my mom a year ago, your chapter on death was really moving and helpful and full of hope. It actually made me cry, maybe because it didn’t have a bit of woo woo to it. Can you talk about how hard won this knowledge must have been?

    So hard won!  I had two unsurvivable losses—my father died after two years with brain cancer, and my best friend died after being diagnosed with breast cancer.  And both times, I was so incredibly close to them, and never left their side, and I learned that death was not like it is in movies. It’s very natural, excruciating, and beautiful, filled with grace and holy moments. Both dad and Pammy had Hospice helping them, and they are like the cavalry!  Hospice nurses are like midwives, so tender and caring and knowledgeable, and they taught me how to show up, listen, and savor the time I have with my most beloved. Ever since, I’ve shown to help people who are going to die, and again and again, I see the miracle of life, the miracle of the precious community. I see grace everywhere, even when my heart is breaking. All truth is paradox.
“Why is rarely a useful question,” you write. I want to dig into this a bit. Does this mean that when in discussion with people who have vehemently different political beliefs than ours, knowing where they came from won’t change things? For example, if a person has grown up in a white enclave in a rural area and has never met a Muslim and is terrified of them. That’s the why. They’ve had no experience. But what if they learn that that guy they always say hello to when they gas up their car, the one who always asks about the family, etc. etc.  is Muslim? They might change their views now that they know someone. So wouldn’t the why be important there?

I’m sort of grounded more in action steps of entering into difficult emotional states and predicaments--i.e confronting my own prejudices and fears.  I always wanted to know why why why when I was a child, and of course I still do.  We had a family friend when I was growing up who used to always answer, “Because that is it’s nature.”  I was raised by intellectuals, and believed there were codes I might break, or things I might achieve, after which I would be whole, or happy.  But it turns out that “figure it out” is not a good slogan. So, to answer your question, I think figuring out why why why is always fascinating and sort of addictive for me, but not ultimately useful.  What’s useful is doing the deep dive into the ways I am ignorant and/or self-righteous, followed by radical self-forgiveness. Then I carry that into the  world.

 You found love! You’re getting married!  What’s the lesson here?

My son Sam, who is 29 (!!) has “We never give up” tattooed on his forearm.  I’ve raised him with this battle cry and together we are teaching his son this.  About 4 years ago at a big fundraiser in a church in San Francisco, the interviewer asked me what dream I still held onto, after all the blessings and accomplishments of my life. I thought about quietly, and then in front of a thousand people, I said, “I’d like to be married.”  It was kind of shocking moment, to admit to such a deep longing. And then a couple of years later, I met this lovely man, brilliant and funny and kind and good-looking, and...two years later, a month ago, while we were watching the US Open tennis matches on TV, he asked me to marry him. So never give up. God is SUCH a show-off.