Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Read an excerpt from my SheBook e-book, The Wrong Sister








Want to read an excerpt of my newest SheBook story, The Wrong Sister? you can order the whole story here. 



In the summer of 1974, when I was fourteen, I lost my older sister Rose to love.

We were living in a suburb of Waltham back then, a green, leafy new development, full of scrubby trees and mowed lawns and clapboard houses painted pastel, just a half hour bus ride away from Boston. We were a family of women, my father having died four years before. He had had a heart attack, falling in the very garden that had been a selling point when we had bought the house. He left my mother enough insurance so the house was hers, but not enough so that she didn't have to work long hours as a legal secretary, forcing my sister Rose and me to tend to ourselves, often well after dinner.

I didn't mind. There was no other company I wanted to be in than my sister's. She was beautiful back then, sixteen and reed slender, with my mother's same river of black hair, only hers wasn't tied up into a corporate bun, but skipped to her waist. She had luminous pale skin and eyes as blue and clear as chips of summer sky. I was almost everything Rose and my mother were not--studious and shy, shaped like a soda straw with frizzy hair the color of rust. Before Rose fell in love, she adored only me. We had grown up inseparable, a world unto ourselves simply because we didn't like anyone as much as we liked and needed each other. Tagging along with Rose, anything was possible. We roamed the woods behind our house looking for the secret landing places of flying saucers. We walked two miles to the Star Market just to steal fashion magazines and candy and cheap gold-tone jewelry we wouldn't be caught dead wearing, for the pure shocking thrill of doing something dangerous. We ate ice cream for dinner with my mother's wine poured over it as a sauce.We dialed stray numbers on the phone and talked enthusiastically to whomever picked up, pretending we were exchange students from France looking for a dangerous liaison or two.

 "Adventure is the code we live by," Rose declared, hooking her little finger about mine to shake on it. We were always going to be together. We were both going to be famous writers, living in the same mansion in Paris, scandalizing everyone by the hard, fast way we lived. We plotted out our books together. They were always about young girls like us on some quest or another, for stolen diamonds or lost love, and the only difference between my books and Rose's was that Rose's heroines always ended up riding off on the backs of motorcycles with any boy she felt like kissing, and mine were always teaching school in some quaint little town in Vermont, with two Persian cats warming themselves at her feet.

And then Rose met Daniel, and everything changed for all three of us.

Daniel Richmond was a senior in Rose's high school, a science major who loved cells

and combustions, who said words like mitochondria and endoplasmic reticulum as if they were poetry. Rose had met him the first day she started tenth grade, when she had wandered into the wrong room and found him there peering into a microscope. The first time Daniel saw her, he looked stunned. "I'll take you to the right room," he said, and by the time he got her there, going the longest way he could manage, he had her phone number, and a date for the following night.

He was Rose's first boyfriend. She was giddy with the incredulous joy of it. She walked with a new bounce. She brushed her hair a hundred times every night and stared dreamily at herself in the mirror. Daniel called her every night before their actual date. She curled protectively about the phone. She whispered into it and even after she had said goodbye to him, she held the phone receiver up against her cheek. "Wait until you meet him, Stella," she told me, out of breath. "You're going to die."

The first time he came over, I didn't know what to do. I wanted to dress up, to shine the same way my sister did. Both Rose and I tried on three different outfits. We both braided our hair and took it out again, put on perfume and washed it off, and when the doorbell finally rang, we both went to the front door together.

Rose was beaming. She seemed lit from within. "I told you about each other," she said to both of us, and pushed Daniel toward me. He was taller than she was and the handsomest boy I had ever seen, with shiny brown hair so long it fell into his collar, and lashes so lush, they seemed to leave shadows across his face.

"Stella, so you like science fiction," he said, and handed me a book, Brave New World. I had never read it, had never even heard of it back then, and I took it gratefully. "I'll be careful with it.

He shook his head. "No, it's yours."

Astonished, I turned the book over and over in my hands. It was brand new. The spine hadn't even been cracked and broken in the way I liked, the pages hadn't been stained with fruit juice or chocolate, torn by my own two careless hands. A virgin book, I thought, and blushed.

"See, Stella, I told you you'd like him," Rose said. Her hands reached out to touch

Daniel's shirt sleeve, his hand, the bare back of his neck, and could only let go to reach on for another part of him. My mother came in, still in her silvery corporate suit, her makeup, and Daniel handed her a bottle of wine. "Rose said you favor red."

My mother smiled. She undid her top button and gave Rose an approving glance. "You come for dinner tomorrow," she ordered. "Late dinner. The way they do in Europe. Say around nine."

He came for late dinner the next night, and almost every other night after. It became a sort of ritual. We'd all eat late dinner, huge lavish spreads my mother was delighted to cook for all of us. She loved the way Daniel would engage her in conversation, the way he'd sometimes bring her books he thought she'd like or flowers.

"You're over here so often, we ought to charge you rent," she said, but she smiled at him. She told him he'd have to taste the Beef Wellington she was planning to make the next night.

One day, though, I came home to find the house quiet. "Where's Rose and Daniel?”  My mother shrugged, she put hamburgers into a pan. "They're out on their own tonight,” she said.

"They are?"

We sat down to dinner, to fries and burgers and a salad, and although my mother put on the radio to make the meal more festive, although she chattered brightly about her new boss, who had taken her out to lunch and flirted with her, who she was sure might not be married, something felt wrong. I kept looking at the two empty seats and I was suddenly not hungry anymore. My mother tapped her fork against the table. "It's not a tragedy, Stella" she said sternly. I put my burger down. "I had a big lunch."

Daniel and Rose began spending more and more time alone. I watched them walking away from our house, and away from me, their hands so tightly clasped, I was sure they must be leaving marks. They couldn't seem to be together without touching, hands or shoulders or heads. They couldn't seen to talk but instead were whispering, as if everything they shared were some great, perfect secret, as if they were in a foreign country where I didn't speak the language or know the customs.

© Caroline Leavitt, SheBooks

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Leah Hager Cohen talks about the brilliant No Book But the World, how do we love difficult people, and she asks me why I started the blog






I loved Leah Hager Cohen's The Grief of Others, and I couldn't wait to read her new book, No Book But the World. It's dazzling. About secrets, family and imagination,  it's also about how memory can transform us. Leah is the author of ten books, including Train Go Sorry and The Grief of Others. She's a distinguished Writer in Residence at the College of the Holy Cross and on the faculty of Lesley University's MFA in Creative Writing . I'm so thrilled to have her here. Thank you so much, Leah.


I 'm always interested in what sparks a novel. What was the moment when you entered this particular story?

Each of my previous novels began with an image – some detailed-yet-highly-circumscribed snapshot, tantalizing me with just a glimpse of character, setting, situation. Like finding a smattering of clues. As I moved to piece them together, I’d begin to understand the larger ideas they hinted at.

This novel worked just the opposite. It was born of an abstract question: what do we do about the problem of people who are difficult to love – people whose differences place them on the margins of society, and who tend to elicit our fear or animosity?

This question tugged at me for quite some time before I began to see how a narrative might spring up around it.

What's so haunting about No Book But The World are the questions the book raises, about what we owe the ones we love, and what that might cost us. Could you talk about that, please? 

Well, “owe” is such a funny word, isn’t it? It raises all sorts of questions in itself: are we born with an obligation to be generous and good, or does a sense of what we owe grow in accordance with what we have received? And how do we balance our responsibility to others with our responsibility to ourselves?

Ava and Fred, the sister and brother at the heart of the novel, were raised with an unusual degree of personal freedom, encouraged to develop (or not) their own sense of both autonomy and responsibility. That upbringing, it turns out, has been a mixed blessing. And because they are such different individuals, the liberties they have been granted spell very different results for each.

Of course, the most haunting part is that it’s possible to love someone – with every good intention – and still fail to do right by him.

So much of your brilliant novel is about the power of imagination, and how it guides our life. Ava keeps trying to give shape to her past in order to make sense of her present.  Could you talk about that please?

The first draft started, “I have never been fond of stories.” I wrote some twenty pages before I realized – oh! No, no, the first sentence must actually be, “I have been too fond of stories.”

For Ava this tension is everything: On the one hand, she gravitates toward narrative as a tool for making sense of life. On the other hand, she abjures it as something that might foreclose on the fullness of comprehension. Her struggle with these competing urges – her alternating resistance and succumbing to the storytelling urge – this is what gives the novel its shape, its rhythm: at once pushing forward in time and being drawn back into memory.

I had no idea how the book would end, and was quite literally amazed when the final pages came to me. In them, Ava finds a solution to her dilemma – she figures out how to use storytelling to grow, while staying free of storytelling’s tendency to finalize and therefore limit understanding.

What's your writing life like? Do you have rituals, do you map out the story first, or do you let the story evolve? 

Rituals, no. Maps, ha. I am pretty much a wandering pilgrim.

What's obsessing you now and why?

My skin. How self-involved is that? But it’s true. Figuratively thin-skinned since I was a child, I’ve lately noticed my body seems to be, well – embodying – or punning on the idea. My skin splits and breaks damnably easily, no matter how much I minister to it with lotions or creams. And although I’m drawn as a writer to porousness, to exploring frontiers and crossing borders, I wouldn’t mind my own somatic boundary maintaining a bit more integrity.

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

But no! – I want to ask you a question; may I? It seems to me such an outpouring of goodwill, of generosity, of, as Forster might have said, the impulse to connect, that you offer when you engage other writers with these questions. I’d be curious to know what led you to this undertaking in the first place; if you see it as an act of service; how much energy it takes to reach out in this way, and what sorts of energy it might deliver back into your own life.

Oh!  Well, I started blogging because I thought I should, but I soon grew bored with my own musings. What really interested me was how other writers did it. Did they feel sick at heart the way I did sometimes when facing a draft?  Do they outline? Do they watch bad TV? Besides wanting to interview other writers, I also had the whole issue of reviews. Ethically, I can't review people I know, which leaves out a whole lot of wonderful books! But I can interview those people--with full disclosure how I know them. It's just been a joy for me to do the blog because not only do I get to connect with the writers I admire, I get to listen in to their thoughts. What could be more magical than that?

Tova Mirvis, author of the sublime The Visible World, writes about what happens if you never finish a piece of writing










I devoured Tova Mirvis' Visible City. About three different families in New York City whose lives intersect, the book delves into how the busiest city can also be the loneliest and how connections can break or bond. I'm thrilled that Tova offered to write something for my blog. And so honored to host her here. Thank you Tova!


What if you never finished? What if this was the piece of writing in which you would find no way to the end, in which you stared dumbfounded, forever, at characters you’d created but were now as impenetrable as strangers? What if you wandered in a world which you’d built but didn’t know how to navigate? What if you’d created a nightmarish maze in which there was no way out for the characters, no way further in for you – what if you remained in that half-made stage, where your characters were blow up dolls only partially filled with air, and now sagging, wilting, waiting for some more blast of breath which you couldn’t summon? What if your novel was bewitched, now a castle where everyone was immobilized for a century, a walled prison whose ramparts were sealed shut?
 And what if you had no choice but to accept that there is no potion to unlock this world, nothing but time and work. The minutes put in that somehow combine to make years. Each day, a small step deeper inside. Each month, a small accumulation of words. Amid the frustration, there is as well the reverence and awe for those rare moments when words gleam, when sentences seem bejeweled. When the ideas seem to exist not in your hand but in your fingers, as though they are a team of fleet footed travelers who suddenly know the way to go.

 And this is why you stay. Stay, in pursuit of that opening – a hole in the wall, a forest whose overgrowth is effortlessly slashed, a magical portal through time. Stay, for the moments when the novel unlocks itself, allowing you inside once again, to a world both familiar and strange, a world where you are both deferent visitor and all-powerful creator.

Sarah Cornwell talks about What I Had Before I Had You, psychics, bipolar disorder, writing, and more, more, more







Mothers. Daughters. Family bonds. Magical thinking. I am so there. That's only part of the beauty of Sarah Cornwell's extraordinary new novel, What I had Before I had you. Sarah, the winner of a Pushcart Prize, the 2008 Gulf Coast Fiction prize, and a finalist for the Keene Prize for Literature, also has won awards for her screenwriting--the 2010 Humanitas Student Drama Fellowship. I'm so happy to have her here. Thank you so much, Sarah!


This is your debut novel, but is it your first? Are there novels tucked away in drawers? What surprised you about writing this novel? What didn’t you expect?

This is both my debut and my first novel.  I started writing it ten years ago, in 2003, and I wrote it every which way before it found its final form.  So, because I was learning as I went along, I was in a near-constant state of surprise.  It’s even surprising now, when I leaf through the book, to see what elements of the chapters I wrote at 20 have survived (voice, mostly, and character), and what elements I couldn’t have figured out without the ensuing ten years of study, practice, and lived life (everything else).


Where did the for this novel spark?

My mother had several miscarriages before I was born.  As a child, I wondered if those miscarriages were my own failed attempts to enter the world, or if they were brothers and sisters I would never know, each with a unique soul.  I started writing about Myla and Olivia with those ghost siblings in mind, and it was Olivia’s childhood—the nursery, the beach, the domineering mother, the patterns of domestic life in the Reed household—from which the rest of the story sprang.

To me, there’s nothing more haunting than a missing child. It’s every parent’s nightmare. Did you have moments writing it when you just had to stop?

Though it is a nightmarish, worst-case scenario, no—at risk of giving away too much of the ending of the book, when I invented the present day plot thread in which Olivia searches for Daniel at the beach, I had a pretty good idea of where I was headed.  That whole present day frame narrative presented itself in 2011, toward the end of the writing process. I certainly shared Olivia’s terror, but also her denial of the urgency of the situation, and finally her trust in Daniel and his own power and agency—that he was on his own journey, which Olivia could not control.

The character of the psychic mother was so nuanced and so richly drawn. Where did she come from? Did you do research? 

Thank you! I don’t know where she came from. She is a million miles from my own mother.  I’m interested in the way, when you’re a child, adults seem to know absolutely everything, and Myla is sort of an amplification of that—according to her, she really does know everything, through her psychic ability.  Her rule over her daughter is absolute!  How could Olivia not rebel with great fury?

I did significant research into bipolar disorder, as it manifests both in adults and in children, and that research guided Myla’s character more and more in later drafts, and then Olivia’s as well.  From the beginning, I knew that Myla was magnetic and smart and fiercely protective of her daughter, but I didn’t know for years that I was writing toward a specific mental illness.  When I figured that out, I started into my research and let it color the story.

I went to a number of psychics as I wrote the book, as well, from $5 county fair psychics to more serious operations.  I had one amazing reading from a woman in her home, while her daughter played with a puppy and watched TV a few feet away.  At first I thought the reading was totally off-base, but I kept careful notes anyway. Then, when she was about halfway through the reading, and hadn’t deviated from this very off-base portrait of me and my life—hadn’t veered elsewhere based on my clear skepticism—I realized that while the reading wasn’t accurate about me, it was a 100% accurate reading of Olivia, down to the concept of trauma during her time in the womb that would carry over into her life.  I explained this to the psychic at the end of the reading and she said that it made sense, and that this means that I am a writer who absorbs my characters into myself, and that I should guard myself against taking on too much negative energy.  I tend to write toward what haunts or perplexes me, so I don’t see myself following that advice, but I find it fascinating and a little frightening.

In the novel, Olivia has to explore her past in order to figure out her present.  Do you think we can ever let the past go, or heal it? Or are there always scars?

I think we can only go by our own experiences of these things, but for me, the past is always there, informing the future. “Letting go” is a sort of figurative thing—we don’t actually “let go” of memories; we store them in the brain, and in aggregate, they make us who we are.  Scars, healing, letting go, holding on—I think these are all useful emotional constructs that help us make sense of the often random sequence of events that make a life.  I do think there is great power in how we choose to think about past events, though, and the metaphorical language we use to frame them--whether we choose to think of negative things that have happened as scars or as stepping stones or as water under the bridge…

Let’s talk craft. What kind of writer are you? Do you outline? Do you just follow your pen?  What’s your writerly day like?

I write in several forms, and my process is very different in each.  When I am screenwriting, which is how I have spent most of my time in 2013, I outline.  You have to outline!  Collaboration requires a much earlier articulation of the broad strokes of a story.  I do retain some of my fiction writing process, though, and spend some pre-outline time meditating on moments and characters that possess me with an urgency I don’t yet understand.

That is my fiction writing process—to seize on some moment that seems to contain more than I know—two redheaded girls swimming in the ocean, a pink nursery with empty cribs, tomato plants weighed down with fruit ripe past bursting—and investigate, in an associative way, feeling my way along a wall in the dark.  Often I have ten or twenty pages of wanderings before I figure out what the story is in a short story.  But if I feel compelled in that mysterious way, I know I’m onto something worth writing about.

My writerly day changes with my life and my job and so many factors.  I wish I were a more consistent writer, with a uniformly productive schedule, but the truth is, often I have to spend hours doing chores, walking the dog, wandering around, staring out windows, doing other jobs, etc., before whatever was percolating in my brain presents itself, and then I’ll sit down and out it will pour, sometimes in great six-hour sessions.  It’s not waiting for the muse, since I am working during all those window-staring hours.  It has taken years of practice for me to allow that this is part of my process, and not to feel guilty for the time spent not moving my fingers on the keyboard. But I do my best work when I am flexible and kind to myself.

what’s obsessing you now and why?

I’m obsessed with animals, now and always, and how we project onto them.  (A dog dies in a war movie and we weep, even as soldiers fall left and right!)  Right now I am a bit obsessed with the idea of disappearing places—sinking islands, vanishing cultures and languages.  And I’m obsessed with the world of Hollywood, in which I am working as a screenwriter—it’s a culture that still feels very surreal, very different from what I have known before, and very fascinating.

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

What do you know for sure WON’T be part of your next book?


An adolescent first person narrator!  As much as I love Olivia, I spent ten years with a short-sighted, frustrated, angsty teenaged mind living inside my own. It felt wonderful to write her adult perspective into the book, and now that the book is going out into the world, it feels like Olivia is growing up in yet another way. I wish her all good things in her life after the last page of the book. And I will miss her. 

Heather Brittain Bergstrom talks about her astonishing debut, Steal The North, being married at the Cupid's Chapel of Love, research, and so much more

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When I read, I'm always hoping to fall madly, passionately in love with a novel.  I did with Heather Brittain Bergstrom's astonishing debut, Steal the North, which is about faith, family and the land--and so much more. Heather has won multiple awards from Narrative Magazine, including first place in the Fall 2010 Story Contest. Four of her short stories can be found online at Narrative. Leslie Marmon Silko chose a story by Bergstrom to win the Kore Press Short Fiction Chapbook Award. She has also won writing awards from The Atlantic Monthly and The Chicago Tribune, and one of her stories was picked as a notable story in the Best American Short Stories 2010

Every novel has a spark. What jump started this one?
In my short stories, characters are usually trying to leave eastern Washington, just as I did only days after I graduated from high school. My stories are far more autobiographical. It wasn’t until I’d been away from my homeland for a decade or more that I slowly began to miss it. I thought why not write a character, for the first time, who misses eastern Washington instead of another one who is desperately trying to flee it. What if a California girl, who attends an art high school in Sacramento and lives in a midtown apartment surrounded by theatres and ethnic restaurants is suddenly sent north for the summer to eastern Washington to live with her fundamentalist aunt and uncle in a trailer park? And what if, instead of hating it, the girl falls madly in love with the landscape, her aunt and uncle, and the neighbor boy? I wanted to write a novel about a woman who had turned her back completely on her past, including her family, her faith, and the landscape that had shaped her. In doing what Lot’s wife had been unable to do, however, this woman left her daughter without any connections and no sense of herself . Steal the North is a novel of reclamation: a daughter’s journey to steal back her birthright. The idea of birthright—I believe that was the spark.



What was the research like for this novel?
Much of the research for Steal the North had already been done for my various short stories—at least the type of research that comes from books. I grew up in eastern Washington, near the Colville Reservation, so I didn’t need to research the setting a lot, although I did, because I love doing research. I take meticulous notes and I read three books when one would more than suffice. I made several road trips up north to see places I hadn’t seen in years and to visit the reservation, The Whitman Mission, Spokane. I grew up in a fundamentalist Baptist church, so no research required there—some things you just can’t forget even if you want to.   

I don’t want to give away the plot, but about ¾ of the way through, you made a choice which just broke my heart, yet it felt exactly right. Was that difficult to write?

Yes, especially since it wasn’t supposed to happen. That is, I had no intention when I started writing the book that the tragedy would be so intense. Then I started to feel it coming heavier and heavier with each new chapter. It became inevitable. I was no longer in charge, so to speak, and had to write toward it.  What I had planned for this particular character, instead of the enormous tragedy that befalls her, was a complete loss of faith. She taught me that wasn’t an option. Not for her, bless her heart. I wanted to scream at her, shake her. But as a writer I can’t force my characters to behave in ways I find healthier or more appealing. That’s not how it works. Damn it.       


Let’s talk about craft. What kind of writer are you? Do you outline? Do you simply follow your pen? Were there any surprises in writing this novel?

I do not outline, or I didn’t with Steal the North until I was about halfway through, and then only a scribbled outline. The toughest craft decision was deciding who would narrate the next chapter, who would narrate certain scenes and events. When I first began this novel, I planned to narrate only in Emmy’s voice. But that didn’t last long. Haha. I was most worried about the faith healing scene—who to narrate such an event? Beth was too spiritual. Emmy was scared shitless. It turned out to be Matt. He seemed perfect: half believer, half skeptic. He would’ve much preferred to drive his wife to a doctor, but he wasn’t entirely without hope that the healing might just work.  

I think Matt was the biggest surprise. His role in the book was supposed to be minimal. A kind uncle, sure, but not the unsung hero of the novel. He saves Emmy and Reuben, just as he tried to save Kate. And what happens with Matt in Teresa’s chapter, well, let me just say for the record, I did NOT see that one coming.

What’s obsessing you now and why?
I just started my second novel after doing intense research for eighteen months. I visited five Indian reservations in the Pacific Northwest last summer during an equally intense eight day research trip. I over-researched trying to keep my new characters at bay while I finished up edits on Steal the North. I can only work with one cast of characters at a time, thank you! My new novel is similar to Steal the North in that land and love are central. But characters in my new novel are already misbehaving more than they do in Steal the North. So I think forgiveness will play a larger role. 

What question didn’t I ask that I should have?
Name some random things about yourself, unrelated to writing?
My favorite band is Pearl Jam. I was obsessed with Breaking Bad. Regrettably, I’ve never been to Europe. I was married in Reno, for real, at The Cupid’s Chapel of Love.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

The incredible Kevin Brockmeier talks about A Few Seconds of Radiant Filmstrip: A Memoir of Seventh Grade, why that grade is so traumatic, and why he'd rather be a leprechaun than a bumblebee








The most wonderful thing about this blog for me is getting to talk with my literary heroes and heroines. Every book by Kevin Brockmeier is unsettling, strange, and impossible to forget. From The Truth about Celia, to The Brief History of the Dead, to the Illumination, he challenges the way we see the world. His latest, A Few Seconds of Radiant Filmstrip: A Memoir of Seventh Grade, catapults us all back to middle school with time-machine perfection. And Kevin? I'd rather be a leprechaun, but would you rather be a man with the brain of a chimp or a chimp with the brain of a man? 

I've worshipped all of your novels, which usually have this eerie, almost otherworldly quality, but this particular memoir is heartbreakingly honest and to the point. So did you have to curb your impulse to have something strange happen in it?

Thank you, first of all, for your kind words about my novels. Strangeness does seem to be an abiding source of inspiration for me. I considered various alternate approaches to the material in A Few Seconds of Radiant Filmstrip, but ultimately I decided that the best way to reveal the story was to assume a single perspective—mine, as it existed some 28 years ago—and to approach the events of that year as simply and forthrightly as I could. That said, I did write the memoir in the third person and the present tense, itself a strange choice, but one that I hoped would allow me to make the book not only as candid but as tensile and suggestive as I wanted it to be. And there’s also a middle chapter that, while very intimate, very revealing, is largely divorced from the ordinary mimetic currents of the book—something on the order of autobiographical science fiction, and definitely a case of something strange happening.

Why do you think seventh grade is such a benchmark for everyone? And how were you able to remember so many of the details that so many of us would rather forget?

So many of the people I’ve spoken with about this book have said, “Seventh grade! Seventh grade was awful.” It was certainly the hardest period of my own childhood—the first year of middle school rather than the second where I come from, and a year when some of us were walking around inside the bodies of adolescents, some of us inside the bodies of children, and when those bodies didn’t necessarily correspond to how we were experiencing our minds. I felt buffeted by all the changes in my life and—well, I was going to say unusually delicate, but I had always been unusually delicate, I was just newly aware that it was something I was supposed to have outgrown. It’s worth pointing out, though, that the kind of bruised self-consciousness I’m talking about makes you as penetrable to pleasure as it does to trauma. I’m thinking of something Virginia Woolf wrote about Lewis Carroll: “For some reason, we know not what, his childhood was sharply severed. It lodged in him whole and entire. He could not disperse it.” Seventh grade, for whatever reason, lodged in me whole and entire, and I’ve never been able to disperse it.

I love the line, You're not me yet, but I'm still you, which encapsulates precisely what it feels to be in 7th grade. Care to talk about that?

That line was in place well before I began writing the book. It was a phrase I found myself turning over one day while thinking about my long-gone childhood, and I knew immediately that I would have to write a memoir about seventh grade and that those eight words would constitute the final sentence. Within its context, the line reveals three layers of personality: my younger self, addressing a younger self of his own, both of whom are secretly being addressed from the far future by me. I’ll say, as well, that I think there’s a difference between stories that move away from their beginning and stories that move toward their end. A story that moves away from its beginning is like an acrobat who’s been thrown into the air and is reaching with all he’s got for the rung of a swing. A story that moves toward its end is like a diver who has leaped from a platform and can rely on gravity to carry him to the water. Many stories travel away from their beginning initially, then turn at some point and start traveling toward their end, and A Few Seconds of Radiant Filmstrip is a story of that type. For roughly the first half, until its strange middle science-fiction chapter, the action is propelled upward from the situation established in the opening pages—a set of friendships that can’t possibly last—and then suddenly the balance shifts and everything begins to gravitate toward the final sentence.

Can you talk about your writing process, as I'm deeply curious.

I tend to think in metaphors of shape. I might not know exactly how a book or a story will look once it’s finally published, but I do know something about its general configuration: some scheme or intention of form by which the narrative will have to abide if it’s going to function properly. I thought of The Illumination, for instance, as a set of six transparencies, each nearly the same size and containing its own seemingly abstract fragments of line and color, which finally, when layered one on top of the other, would reveal a single complete image. A Few Seconds of Radiant Filmstrip was like a seesaw, weighted at its ends by the first and the last days of the school year, and pivoting atop that odd speculative chapter in the middle. So I usually know the architecture of a project before I begin writing, and I also know the title, which I think of as the target toward which I shoot the arrow of the story. What I always say is that with those features in place, and with the presiding notion of the story firmly in mind, I start at the beginning of the narrative and proceed very slowly, broaching my sentences one tiny piece at a time, termiting away at them until I’m satisfied that they present the right effect and doing my best to complete each one before I move on to the next.

What is obsessing you now and why?

An idiosyncratic list: Octavia Butler’s story “Bloodchild.” Russell Hoban’s novel Turtle Diary. David Sylvian’s album Secrets of the Beehive, particularly the way he pronounces the word “inexorably” in the song “The Devil’s Own.” The clarity with which Hayao Miyazaki’s The Wind Rises depicts things like an earthquake rolling across the landscape, and smoke swirling through an airplane’s rotors, and headlights cascading along a brick road. The worry that I might have said something in class last week that hurt one of my students. My sore throat. The cold weather. The playlist for my nephew’s annual birthday CD—his tenth. That joke which goes, “Who are the two filthiest animals in the barnyard?” and finishes, “Brown chicken, brown cow.” The forthcoming books by Kate Bernheimer and Gonçalo Tavares and Nick Harkaway. The forthcoming album by Jarle Bernhoft. The package in my stairwell that’s addressed to someone who doesn’t actually live in the building—who is he, and how can I get it to him? The idea of writing a blurb that ends “Don’t quote me on that.” A movie clip I saw in which the male romantic lead says to the female romantic lead, “You came just in time,” which I’m convinced always means, “You came too late.”

What question should I be mortified that I forgot to ask you?

How about a question I should be mortified for proposing you might have asked? A friend and I, following the twists and turns of a conversation, ended up devising the consummate weird post-reading question: “Which would you rather be: a bumblebee or a leprechaun?” It’s ideally nonsensical, and yet I’m betting that most people would have a reflexive answer—and while the answer might not be so revealing, the reflex itself, and figuring out what it suggests about you, might be. (I would rather be a leprechaun, by the way.)

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Psst, want to read two of my previously acclaimed stories as ebooks? The Wrong Sister, now published by SheBooks







I'm thrilled to announce that SheBooks has just published two of my previously published short stories as an ebook, and I hope you'll want to read. The Wrong Sister is about a younger sister who dates her older sister's ex, with dangerous results. The Last Vacation is about a family-vacation-from-hell, mixed in with yearning, love, guilt, and a lot of sand. 

Here's the link to buy and download these stories!

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Roxane Gay talks about her amazing novel, An Untamed State, inhabiting characters, and her favorite season of One Tree Hill







I read Roxane Gay's astonishing novel, An Untamed State, as if I were caught in a hallucination. About kidnapping and class, it's so powerful that it leaves an indelible mark. Roxane's an amazing writer. her work has appeared in the New York Times Book Review, Salon, The Rumpus, The Wall Street Journal, and she's the co-editor of Pank, and the essay's editor for The Rumpus. I'm so thrilled to have her here. Thank you, Roxane. 


I always want to know a novel’s origins. Can you talk a bit about what sparked the novel?


This novel rises from a short story I wrote a few years ago, "Things I Know About Fairy Tales." For whatever reason, that story wouldn't let me alone. I kept thinking, there is more that needs to be told and so I began writing the novel.

What I admired about the novel so much was that it wasn’t just a kidnapping story--it really is a story about race and class and what those divisions do to people. Would you talk about this please?

 Kidnapping is, in fact, a symptom of a much greater cultural malaise, where there is not enough to go around. This economic disparity is particularly glaring in a country like Haiti where there is such a small middle class. I wanted to explore, through fiction, what it would be like for people from two ends of the wealth spectrum to clash in such a complicated way that is fueled by desperation and rage.

I also deeply admired the complex, sometimes prickly, characters in the novel. So let’s talk about craft. How do you build your characters? How do you build your novel? What didn’t you know when you started the novel that surprised you in the writing? 

I build my characters by inhabiting them. I literally walk around pretending to be that character until I feel like I know the character's every thought and desire and failing. Once I feel like I know a character well enough, I let my imagination run wild and try to imagine how they would respond to a given situation or circumstance.

In terms of building this novel, I was, I admit, intimidated by the prospect of tackling something so big. I told myself I would write it as a bunch of little short stories, but after the first few chapters, I realizing I was composing parts of a whole. I didn't do any formal outlining but I always knew where the story began and ended and then wrote my way between those two points. When I began the novel, I had no idea how central Lorraine would be to the story. That really surprised me but in a very pleasant way. I like how she turned out.

I fell in love with Mireille’s changing and deeply moving relationship with her stubborn, initially racist mother-in-law. For me, they truly exemplified both the problems of class and race differences, and yet, you showed, through them, a way to bridge that gap. Could you talk about that, please? 

People are a mess, you know? We harbor all kinds of prejudices and Lorraine and Mireille are no different. Interracial relationships introduce all kinds of challenges and for me, the biggest challenge has always been the mother and so I wanted to write about that through this novel but I also wanted to show Lorraine as a decent person, no more or less flawed than the rest of us. And she's strong and she loves hard and deep and we get to see that as she and Mireille grow closer.

I’d love to hear you talk about the title: An Untamed State.

The original title was Things I Know About Fairy Tales which I was fond of but it was also quite a mouthful. Then I started thinking about wildness but a book named Wild had recently been released so I thought about wildness some more, and this idea of being untamed, and being in untamed places and aha! The title came to me--An Untamed State.

Reading the novel was like a fever dream--relentless, harrowing, impossible to stop reading. What was it like writing it?

The writing of this novel was also like a fever dream. I wrote the first draft in a summer, and would lose myself in the story for hours and hours a day. Once I found the emotional core of the novel and felt sufficiently inhabited by Mireille's voice, I was relentless with the writing. I was driven. It was one of the most invigorating writing experiences I have had.

What’s obsessing you now and why?What question didn’t I ask that I should have?

Right now I'm pretty obsessed with the two novel projects I'm working on which are, as is most of my writing, about damaged women growing beyond their pasts. This is an obsession I don't think I will ever be free of nor do I particularly want to be. 

You should have asked, "What is your favorite season of One Tree Hill?" I loved Season 4. It was soapy and ridiculous.

Support Alex Green (he owns the fabulous Back Pages Books) and his 15th Century dream of owning and operating his own letterpress publishing studio

Back Pages bookstore in Waltham, Massachusetts, is one of my favorite stores on the planet. Alex Green, the owner is warm, friendly, smart and on fire with ideas. His mission? to own and operate his own letterpress publishing studio. Come on and donate! 
Watch this video and you'll see why and how this is so important. 




Saturday, March 15, 2014

James Romm talks about the dark, compelling saga of Nero and Seneca, writing a dark history, and so much more

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I'm a total history nut. I remember how absolutely boring history was in high school, and how it came blistering alive for me in college, thanks to a professor who made me see that history is about the wild, profane, devious, heroic lives of real people. I got hooked. James Romm is both an author and an ancient historian, and his latest, DYING EVERY DAY, reads as if it is torn from newspaper headlines. From Nero's delusional madness to Seneca's own struggle to keep power, it's both tragic and exhilarating.  Thank you so much, James, for being here on my blog.

Why did you choose to write about Rome when your background is in Greek history and Alexander the Great?

Mostly because the story of Seneca and Nero was the darkest, most compelling story I knew from all my research on the ancient world, bar none.  I have felt for many years that I wanted to tell it, even though it took me outside of my comfort zone. I really felt that I understood Seneca in a way that few today do -- that I knew all his literary tricks and gambits, in part because I've used similar ones myself.


What makes this so unsettling and dark a book?

It's claustrophobic -- almost all the action takes place indoors, in closed rooms of Nero's palace, with just a few people present -- and extremely grim, in that explores Seneca's obsessions with death, suicide, and apocalypse. The title "Dying Every Day" was chosen for its double meaning: It defines how Seneca conceived of human life, as a journey toward death, but also describes his own condition, trapped at the court of a dangerous, deluded despot.  He had to live out his own morbid vision of life as a journey toward death.

What was your favorite character in the book, besides Seneca?

I have a real soft spot for Agrippina, Nero's mother, even though she's something of a terror -- scheming, manipulative, volcanic in her anger.  She set out to become Rome's most powerful woman, and for a long time, she succeeded.  Nero had her killed for no apparent reason; he was simply so scared of her that he had to eliminate her from his life.  Her death is the emotional high point of the book, thanks to the unforgettable account preserved by Tacitus.


So much of this book reads like fiction.  How can you assure readers that it's true?


If you read the endnotes, of which I'm very proud, you'll find the ancient evidence for each plot turn is presented for inspection.  I'm careful not to go past the evidence or decide points that really can't be decided, such as whether Nero himself set the Fire of Rome.  It's more satisfying to me to work within the constraints of historical narrative, yet I like to write with a dramatic tension more typical of a novelist. So hopefully my readers get the best of both worlds!

Elizabeth Nunez talks about her memoir Not For Everyday Use, King Lear, mortality, and so much more


I first met Elizabeth Nunez because she was the eloquent host of a Women's National Book Association Great Group Reads event where I was one of the authors featured. We got to talking and I became instantly fascinated by her upcoming memoir and asked her if shed agree to be on my blog! 

Elizabeth's the award-winning author of eight novels, four of them New York Times Editors’ Choice, including Boundaries (PEN Oakland Josephine Miles Award); Anna In-Between (long-listed for an IMPAC Dublin International Award); Bruised Hibiscus (American Book Award) and Prospero's Daughter (NY Times Editors’ Choice and Novel of the Year for Black Issues Book Review).  Her awards include 2013 National Council for Research on Women Outstanding Trailblazer Award; 2012 Trinidad and Tobago Lifetime Literary Award; 2011 Barnes and Noble Poets and Writers, Writers for Writers Award.  She is a Distinguished Professor at Hunter College, the City University of New York, where she teaches creative writing, fiction. Not for Everyday Use is her first memoir; it has received an advance starred review from Booklist.

Thank you so much, Elizabeth for being here. 




I always ask, what sparked this particular book? Why did you choose to focus on emigration and your parents? Did anything surprise you in writing it?  You're the acclaimed author of 8 novels, but this is your first memoir. Was this a scary thing to tackle? How different was it than writing a novel and why? 

It’s always about some catastrophic event that gives a sense of urgency to your life, isn’t it?  For me, it was the death of my mother.  She was ninety, and while I grieved for her passing, I discovered that I was angry too.  So this memoir became a way for me to confront that anger.  Luckily, I managed to arrive at a place of understanding and compassion.

Yes, I had written eight novels, but I did so under the illusionary veil of fiction that allowed me the pretense that my stories were not about me, about my life, my experiences.  By the time I discovered the truths that my fiction revealed, I was safe.  No one, I thought, would find me in my stories.  My life would remain a secret from the world.

So why did I decide to write memoir rather than fiction?  Was it age?  Was it time to face the truths of my life head-on?  I was scared, of course, but I thought that by writing memoir, I could still control what I revealed.  But memoir, I was to find out, just like fiction, leads the writer to discovery, to places the writer had never suspected.

What did I discover? I had always harbored the belief that I could go back home, home being Trinidad, and that when I returned I would feel a sense of belonging to the people and places I knew in the country that had shaped my identity and my values.   I discovered that was a fantasy, that I was now an outsider in my homeland, and that the people and places I knew had changed and were in many ways unrecognizable to me.

I discovered, too, that subconsciously I had blamed my mother for making me feel like an outsider in my homeland. She had abandoned me. When I was sixteen I was sent to live with my grandparents, and when I was nineteen I was sent to college in America.  I returned home after I graduated, but a year later I went back to the US and have lived in New York ever since.  Somehow, without admitting it verbally, I was hurt that my mother had never asked me to return home.  Much of the tension between us was a result of resentment on my part, though I was not conscious of its source.

I stumbled on the title of this memoir when I was preparing the eulogy for my mother.  I suddenly realized that just like the treasures in my mother’s cabinet which she saved for important days, my mother felt that demonstrations of her love for me and her children were not for everyday use, but we could count on her if we ever needed her. Tracing back events in my life, I saw that that was always true.

My memoir also focuses on my parents’ marriage, the love they had for each other that endured in spite of my father’s infidelity.  I am also critical of the Catholic Church that prohibited birth control and so forced my mother to have more children than she wanted.  She had fourteen pregnancies, nine live births, and three of her five miscarriages almost killed her.

I made happy discoveries too when I was writing this memoir. I realized more fully than I had ever done before that I did belong to a country, that America is my home, and that in the more than four decades since I have lived here, I have made a new family—my son, my daughter-in-law, their two daughters—and that I have wonderful friends in America who share my values and are a great comfort to me. I have also had great satisfaction and pleasure from my professions as a university professor and a novelist, careers that would have been unlikely for me had I remained in Trinidad.  Writing this memoir also gave me a better understanding of how race and skin color discrimination in America, as well as the enduring legacy of colonialism and my orthodox Catholic upbringing, affected decisions I made, both in my personal relationships and in my professional life. 

But my most important discovery was finding about my mother’s side of her story. Writing this memoir allowed me to hear my mother’s voice, to listen to her tell of her struggles and the obstacles she had to overcome, and I began to empathize with her and to understand her better and to know that she that she loved me, and indeed all her children, as best as she could.

Let's talk about craft. What kind of writer are you? Do you outline things or just follow your pen? Do you have rituals at all?

I wrote my first four novels in pencil, on long sheets of yellow legal paper.  Friends tried to persuade me to go to the computer, but I was convinced there was some magical connection between my pencil and my brain.  One day, however, my typist, frustrated by having to transcribe my patched up scribbles, demanded that I learn the keyboard.  I took classes and discovered new magic between the tips of my fingers and the keyboard.
I write best in the morning when I am most alert.  I try to get in at least four days a week, from about 8am to 1pm, and give myself an achievable goal for the number of words I will write that day, say 500 words. Many times I overshoot that goal and that allows me to fool myself into a feeling of accomplishment. I don’t use an outline.  I let the characters in my story push me forward.  Sometimes they let me see two or more chapters ahead, and I will scribble down notes so that I do not lose my way.  I’m inspired by Maria Callas who said, “When you perform, half of the brain has to be in complete control and the other half of the brain has to be at a complete loss.”  The part of my brain that is in complete control when I write contains all I know about the craft and all I have learned from years of reading the masters and writing constantly. But I take the risk of not knowing exactly where I am going and allowing my characters to direct me.  It’s scary but exhilarating.  I wouldn’t have it any other way. Generally, my house is cleanest when I am writing, because I often find myself needing the reward of physical activity when I feel at a loss, trying to find a way through the twists and turns of the imaginative world I am creating
What's obsessing you now and why?

I find myself always racing against the clock, that is, my mortality.  When I was writing my dissertation for my PhD, I kept fearing I could die before I was finished, and I was just 28 years old. This feeling of urgency had two effects: it pushed me to complete my work, but, on the other hand, it did not allow me the comfort of knowing I had time to revise.  Now, when I am much, much older, and issues of my mortality should be much more immediate, I find myself having the opposite feeling.  I am not so scared that I would leave unfinished work as I am scared that I will leave work that is not well written.  So I write more slowly; I have more patience to revise, revise, until I have written what I have seen in my imagination and used words that are music to my ears.
I am working now on a novel inspired by Shakespeare’s King Lear. This would be my second novel based on a play by Shakespeare.  I had written Prospero’s Daughter which is a contemporary telling of The Tempest.  In my novel-in-progress my focus is on Lear’s daughters rather than on Lear. There’s not much more I want to say about it, mainly because I’m not certain how the story is going to play out.  By chance, 2016 happens to be 500 years since the birth of Shakespeare, so, perhaps, it will be a perfect time for the publication of the novel. No settled title as yet.