Friday, October 11, 2019

What if you suddenly long for kids but the man you love does not? Is there a right choice? Jackie Shannon Hollis navigates THIS PARTICULAR HAPPINESS: A CHILDLESS LOVE STORY

There's so much discussion now about whether or not women should have kids, whether they need to, whether they will regret it or be overjoyed with their decision. It's a surely complex issue and now Jackie Shannon Hollis has written a fabulous book about it ( "A childless love story") called THIS PARTICULAR HAPPINESS. When she falls in love with a man who doesn't want kids, her own yearnings for them begin to loom, as they both search for ways to both live with and satisfy those longings. It's such a great, great sure-to-be-talked about book!  Thank you so much, Jackie for being here!

 I always want to know what was the Why Now moment for you writing this memoir? What surprised you about it?

Thank you, Caroline. I’m honored that I get to have this conversation with you.

This Particular Happiness  Through my thirties and early forties, I struggled with my decision to not have children; the longing in me was powerful but it also sat side-by-side with the freedom and unexpected paths that came of not having children. By the time I hit fifty, I thought I’d settled with being childless. The space had filled in with so many fulfilling things, including many nieces and nephews. Then, in my mid-fifties, when the physical possibility of having a child was clearly no longer on the table, I discovered a new, and unanticipated, layer to my decision. My mother’s health was rapidly declining. Her death would change my sense of family. My nieces and nephews were marrying, and my sisters were soon to become grandmothers. I felt a shifting in these family units, a kind of closing in. I was invited into them but they weren’t mine. I wasn’t sure where my place would be.

I started to write an essay about this, but soon realized this essay was part of a bigger context.  About being raised in a generation and a place where having children was seen as inevitable, and what it is like to take a path different than the expected one. I wanted to write about how we choose and how the consequences of our choices unfold and unfold and unfold over time. And I wanted to write about love and identity, with childlessness as the framework for this exploration.

Everything about the writing process surprises me. In the case of This Particular Happiness, when I told people what I was writing about, they seemed excited to talk about their own decision to have or not have children. Parents and non-parents alike. Everyone has their unique perspective on what led them to make the decision they made, and yet there are common threads of searching for identity, and the many ways of loving that we can all relate to.

 It fascinated me that you talked about a life you’ve been raised to want. I remember being told that what I wanted was to marry, stay home and have a hobby (um, yeah.) And when I told my mother that I didn’t want to have children, I was told, “Don't ever let anyone hear you say that because they’ll think there’s something wrong with you.”  And when years later, I suddenly did want one, and went on to have my son, I was admonished for waiting so long. Can women ever win?

 We are given so many mixed messages. I see women struggle with the judgements of others if they choose to not have a child (the common refrain being, “Oh just wait, you will change your mind someday.”). Women experience judgement if they have a child “too young” or if they wait “too long,” judgement for desperately wanting a child and  pursuing the sometimes heartbreaking process of  fertility treatment, judgement for how they express their grief about infertility, judgement for having only one child or more than two children, for adopting or fostering. And then of course the endless judgement about the parenting choices:  too permissive, not permissive enough, how to feed, how to wean, working mom or stay-at-home mom.  Good lord.

We have endless possibilities in our lives. Choosing one thing means not choosing something else. The people who love and care about us often make the misstep of calling out what we are not choosing, rather than embracing what we do choose. And sometimes we do that to ourselves, which is why I think the exploration of the source of our own longings is so important. This exploration is a thru-line of This Particular Happiness. Where did my longing come from? The heart? Biology? Or was it a response to outside expectations? What did I truly want? How did I know what I wanted?

Although times have certainly changed, I think there still is a dividing line between women who don’t want to be told they made the wrong choice. But in reality, how can we ever know that? We change all the time, right?

Yes! We change constantly. Look at the number of marriages that end in divorce. Somehow people think they will marry, and all will stay the same. But I don’t know anyone (unless they have lived a very static life) who hasn’t gone through a major transformation of sorts in their forties or fifties. We knew what we wanted when we were twenty but didn’t know who we would be at 45.

Unless we hold firm in apathy and rigidity, we are growing and changing. Those around us will change. Our needs will change. If we don’t recognize this consciously, we will have a lot of turmoil in our relationships (parent/child, sibling, friends, primary partners), and in our careers. I hope we can own our transitions, speak about them, normalize them, so they are less damaging. The ideal would be to notice when we are changing and longing for something new or different. To talk about it and see if we can shift things in the existing structure of our lives. Or find a way to move out of that without damage and wrong-making. That doesn’t mean there won’t be conflict and tumult…but we can approach it more consciously.

I also have to know what kind of writer you are. Any rituals? 

Much of the time, I am a very undisciplined writer. When I’m working on a project I schedule out two (and if I’m lucky, three) full days each week. But then I have to get through all the life duty/throat clearing (exercise, garden, house, social media, organize a drawer that is really just fine), before I get myself settled in. I have finally learned this IS my ritual. Work is going on in the background when I am doing the other things. I call it “composting” and by the time I open my laptop, I am ready to go.  

I also loved the short lyrical chapters you have. Did you know the book was going to be like that when you began it?

 I didn’t and, until I started printing out some of the chapters, I didn’t “see” how short many of them were. As I edited and braided and shaped the manuscript, I saw that the shape of the chapters fit the narrative. Many of the shortest chapters are scenes and memories from my childhood and young adulthood, or memory pieces I’ve taken from what my husband has told me of his childhood. These are what I’d call sense-making scenes, trying to understand who that younger version (him, me, those around us) was and how it led to now.

As the book progresses, the chapters become longer, especially when it comes to where I meet Bill, the man who would become my husband. These scenes are longer, more detailed, and reflect my own intentionality at the time. I wanted to be present. To choose differently, so there are more details, and deeper dive into my inner self. And from this point, the chapters are, for the most part, a bit longer.

What’s obsessing you now and why?

Well it’s impossible to pick just one thing.

I am always obsessed with people, how we think and process and engage with each other. Showtime’s Couples’ Therapy has me completely entranced. I think it is a wonderful series for couples to watch together and then talk about what they see of themselves in the real life people who make up the couples. It is brilliant.

Two books on communication and relationship seem relevant here. Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Love, by Marshall Rosenberg, has me twisted sideway in paying attention to the judgements carried in the words I choose. And a book by Susan Clarke and CrisMarie Campbell called, The Beauty of Conflict for Couples,  offers very specific actions for moving through difficult conversations and maintaining the passion through embracing the conflicts rather than avoiding them.

Podcasts are a constant when I drive (and when I vacuum!). I’m a big fan of Terrible, Thanks for Asking. Nora McInerny delves tells the stories of regular people, complicated and honest and beautiful.  I also am obsessed with Beyond Well with Sheila Hamilton. She interviews a variety of creative people, covering many topics related to mental wellness. I love Sheila’s voice and the two therapists who join her in conversation.

Memoirs always obsess me such as Liz Prato’s essay collection: Volcanoes, Palm Trees & Privilege: Essays on Hawai’i; and Huda Al-Marashi’s  First Comes Marriage:  My Not-So-Typical American Love Story.  These books explore relationship in various forms: place, family, primary partner and self.

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

This Particular Happiness is published by Forest Avenue Press, an independent publishing company run by Laura Stanfill. I feel incredibly lucky to be with a publisher who supports her authors long after publication date. I’m looking forward to conversations with readers about topics I explore in my memoir:  the roles of childless or childfree or parent, love, how a relationship can navigate difficult terrain, mothers and daughters, friendship, the long term impact of sexual assault, how to be present with another through grief, and how to find your own particular happiness. If any of your readers would like me to come their way for a conversation, they can let their local bookseller know, or reach out to me. Here’s a link to my website.


Life. Death. Illness. Love. Loss. And art. Katherine Vaz and Isabel Pavão talk about their extraordinary art/poetry project THE HEART IS A DROWNING OBJECT, which everyone should pre-order immediately

The exquisite moving book

Katherine Vaz

Isabel Pavão

 You've never experienced a book like this. I promise you. The Heart Is A Drowning Object, from Artist's Proof Editions,  is a collaboration in poems and paintings by the novelist Katherine Vaz and the artist Isabel Pavão.And it is astounding. Vaz's poems center on the sudden affliction of her beloved husband and the way she tends him. Pavão’s vibrant pictures share and explore grief and age and, of course, love. Together, both show how late love, girded by the fear of possible loss, create a world that is even deeper in joy than ever imagined. 

Please pre-order as soon as you can, so you can be as changed by this work of art as I was, and we can talk about it incessantly.

And thank you Katherine and Isabel for agreeing to do this interview!

About the Artist:
Isabel Pavão earned the degree of Doctor of Arts at NYU in 1994. A native of Portugal, she has lived and worked in New York since 1990. She exhibits her work in New York City, and in many museums and galleries all over the world. Among them are the Chiado Museum, Natural History Museum and National Museum of Ancient Art in Lisbon, Gulbenkian Foundation in Paris, National Museum of Rio De Janeiro, Museum of Modern Art in New Delhi, Orient Foundation in Macau, Poets House in New York. She also participates often as an invited artist as well as a guest professor in Universities, Art Schools, and Museums.

About the Writer

Katherine Vaz, a former Fellow in Fiction at Harvard University and a Fellow of the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, is the author of two novels, SAUDADE and MARIANA, the latter in six languages and selected by the Library of Congress as one of the Top Thirty International Books of 1998. Her collections FADO & OTHER STORIES won the Drue Heinz Literature Prize, and OUR LADY OF THE ARTICHOKES & OTHER PORTUGUESE-AMERICAN STORIES won the Prairie Schooner Book Award. She has done many cultural exchange projects between Portugal and the U.S. and is the first Luso-American to have her work recorded for the archives of the Library of Congress, Hispanic Division. She lives in New York City with Christopher Cerf, a Sesame Street composer, TV producer, writer, and editor.

I’ve always believed that art can change us, emotionally, and maybe even on a DNA level. But it can do this only when it’s really close to the bone, risk-taking, and it hits all the sense. These two broadsides that I saw did that. I kept becoming immersed in the photos and artwork, the whole feel of them, and it felt like the poems were an integral part of that.

KV: I’m so glad you felt like that! Immersion—the idea of drowning—is about the enveloping that occurs when all senses are firing. And we very much want the viewer and reader to add to what we’re offering—so that all of us are speaking together. What’s close to the bone is of course close to the heart. The poems begin with an actual damaged heart in a love story—a husband with a sudden affliction, and a wife tending to him but also to the biggest truth we all carry, that one day an end will come, for those we love and for ourselves. How do we carry this so profoundly that we can find joy anyway? And even more: How can we find joy in the process itself of endings?

IP: Because we’re not just drowning...when we discuss the idea of dropping, going down, maybe into water, into something, we transcend ourselves. It’s no longer about you or me, it’s a sense of communal experience—or feeling. Something that no longer belongs to us—it is a Thing out there. If we go into it, we join everyone else. We touch a feeling that is no longer ours, but one that belongs to humanity. That’s also what a collaboration is about!

I always want to know what haunted you into writing this book, and how did it take shape? How do you both know each other, and how did you know you could work well together? I love the whole idea that it is about older women/older woman, and facing the illness of a husband. These are things that have not always been talked about, especially the differences between a long-time love when you are older and one that sparks and fireworks when you are old. I love that.  Was that part of your intention? The images I saw are perfect for the prose and I was wondering how both of you worked to make this happen?  What was the planning like?

KV: I’ve written novels and short stories, five books now, with a lot of themes about the Portuguese community in America, especially California, where I grew up, and I’m fascinated by art books, by combinations of painting and words. I do box-art pieces. I’ve done lots of cultural things for the Luso community (“Lusitania” being the old Roman word for Portugal)…and I’ve long been acquainted with Isabel’s gorgeous, deeply felt art. She’s exhibited all over the map, a native of Portugal but longtime New Yorker. Both of us are transplants who adore where we now live. It was Ana Miranda Ventura, who runs Arte Institute in New York City—an organization dedicated to promoting the cultural and art of Portugal in liaison with North American artists, writers, filmmakers, musicians of Luso descent—who introduced us. I can still see us sitting in the library in my home, the three of us talking away. Isabel and I knew we wanted to do something together.

IP: Yes, but at first we didn’t know what. We deliberately did not want to plan. First we recognized that we had a lot of links concerning color in our work—vividness in your stories, a fascination with people who think in color—

KV: And your work has that too, of course.

IP: Yes! And some time went by, but we finally made a lunch date, first at the Harvard Club, followed by another one at the Lotos Club in New York. We agreed not to come in with a list of ideas, but to see what might evolve naturally. It was funny how we surprised ourselves with what became the obvious parallel of having older husbands who had undergone serious ailments and spent a long time in the hospital, but it was important not to report on that alone as photo-realism, but to go into the secrecy of that time, the feel of it. The silence and the hunger. We could have called upon friends, but we both chose to address these times of pain and uncertainty and fear with quietness. We wanted to delve into how it felt to be an older woman dealing with a longtime love. We don’t hear about that very much. It’s not hugely acknowledged—almost as if it’s rare or insignificant or even embarrassing. We wanted to feel our way along rather than outline too much or spell things out. So at our lunches, we made a grid. That was our start! The stages of feeling and the colors that might relate to what happened, or to the stages of going into and coming out of the immersion of fear of loss. “Mottled” was the first category.

I went home and start making drafts of paintings. At first, I held back, because I didn’t know what to do, and then it was an incredible burst—a flooding! The pictures poured out of me.

KV: The best part was that it was exactly the same for me. I haven’t written much poetry. We’d agreed that I’d look at your pictures and make suggestions; we’d rearrange or omit or adjust, but I was astonished that I loved them all and in fact suggested we leave the raw rough edges, as if that captured even more the idea of creation in a burst. I think I suggested changing the order of only two paintings?

IP: Two. Yes. That was it. I was astonished too, that it made sense for both of us to keep to this idea of “Draft” as a form of its own. It felt truthful to our feelings and artistic vocabulary.

KV: I held back from writing as well, when I had all your paintings, and then it was a gusher. It felt exhilarating. I worked after you did, and it seemed to happen very fast. We talked about doing one painting and poem at a time, a pairing, but after everything poured out of you, I followed the exact same curve of experience. That was part of the unity we made. Good for a book about drowning that it all felt complete and fluid.

IP: In spite of the subject being a fear of the future, a wariness about living without the person! Somehow also the idea arose that this is a common issue for women our age, but it’s taboo.

KV: Why is it such a taboo, do you think, Isabel?

IP: We don’t want to face vulnerability. I don’t know. The culture?

KV: Because we feel we have to be strong all the time, or is it because we’re invisible?

IP: Invisibility. It’s more a case of invisibility for older women. We created an artistic voice when we were young, and now we have to find it again, or to make a new one.

KV: In spite of being artists our whole lives.

IP: This is a new situation, a new exposure of ourselves. We have gone through a definite experience of actual life-and-death. We were called upon to respond.

KV: An experience we didn’t choose, but one that everyone faces.

IP: There’s no guide or manual on this, because the issues older women face aren’t addressed! There are manuals on birth, how to teach toddlers, etc. But no education on being closer to the biggest issues of life, which are about handling loss or maybe changing what loss should mean. So we chose color, the feel of the body, to talk about these things. An intensity of sensation.

It’s part of our vocabulary as creators. Using colors. Foods, colors, flowers—those are equivalent to feelings. That’s the common language we both had, from the beginning.

KV: Then one night, I was giving a reading at KGB Bar in New York, at the invitation of Elizabeth Hodges, the editor of the St. Petersburg Review because I had a new story in her magazine, and Katherine McNamara, the publisher of Artist’s Book Editions, one of Elizabeth’s friends, happened to be there, and we chatted, and I mentioned the collaboration. And she said that was exactly the sort of project she liked.

IP: And remember when you and I met at the Morgan Library, after I’d come back from Portugal, and Katherine wrote to you maybe twenty minutes before we met for coffee, saying she wanted to publish the book? And she became a third collaborator. We spent a weekend in her home in Charlottesville, and she brought exquisite talent to the project—her vision of how to present images and words, how to create video poems, how to produce elegant prints. As it happened, she had her own story of love and loss.

I’m astonished at the exquisite beauty of the images and the prose, but the emotions that welled up as I read were almost overwhelming. (By the way, these lines did me in: When I die, please let me be the shade fuchsia in the 30-gigahertz band.

When my husband dies, please let him be the sound there.)

KV: Isabel’s work evoked the radio spectrum color chart for me, among other things. I like that sound and color have an official code. I’m glad you liked those lines.

IP: The other thing to point out is that we did not want to have writing that described the images, and we didn’t want the artwork to be only illustrations accompanying words. We wanted some kind of elevation—we wanted to create something else entirely, together. A collaboration. The images and words becoming a new thing, a new dimension if we could.

KV: I wanted to be inspired by the colors and paintings and to have them inform what I wrote, but we did a good job in avoiding the sense of illustrations.

Katherine, you said something to me, about this being “the color and feel of an older woman, in her physical being.” Can you talk about this please? (Both of you, please.)

KV: There’s a movement in writing by women now to eschew what can be seen as emotional or sensory, an insistence that this is an old trap. The argument is more or less: “Women are not merely emotional creatures who can only write about love rather than the intellect. Sensory views of the world are therefore inadequate.” But I wanted to have both, because the physicality of older women calls for that, as it does for anyone carrying the state of grief—men or women, young or old. And in that, I hope, the intellect is also awakened, but the brain doesn’t take the lead.

IP: Being intellectual at every moment can be a form of self-protection! And as women, we are always being asked to rationalize, to explain. But I think real exposure of the inner self goes a step further. That’s what we chose to do. And it’s a risk for a writer, or artist, to tell a story that way. We need bliss, joy of the body too.

KV: A friend just described my life, and hers—she’s older too, with an ill husband—as being in the “sweet spot.” We’re lucky with having great love in our lives, and it is still here. We’re all still here, and that’s the joy.

IP: The experience gave me the power to produce this. I couldn’t have done it five years ago. It’s a creation out of a certain timing in life. Also, as we’ve said, as people get a little older, the intellectualize, as a protection; they step away from vibrancy, and this is an opposite response, to celebrate the spirit and life.

KV: Here’s a “physical being” response. I gave a reading at Hunter College one night, a few hours after I was told that they didn’t know why my husband wasn’t getting better. My eyes got physically so cloudy it was hard to read. But as if through a scrim, I saw one friend, Dylan, who had tons of things going on in her life, and yet she was there. And my friend Dustin said he would walk me home afterward. He and his husband lived in the opposite direction, but he insisted, and we walked the few blocks, and we talked about general things and said good night—and I thought that was so remarkable, such a lovely thing. A perfect comfort. All of us say, Tell me what I can do to help, but the best moments are when life naturally flows in a companionable way.

IP: This collaboration is about celebrating love’s fragility, and I want to say also that we’re talking about older women, but really, fragility is present at any age. When we’re older, we’re more likely to be asked to deal with it, to understand and feel it; when younger, we might postpone it, dealing with the ending of life. But we all now it’s there.

We chose to go through the illnesses of our husbands pretty much in silence. We could have called our friends, yes. But it was our choice to go through it alone, to converse our energy.

KV: I’d pass a falafel place when I’d walk home from the hospital. Now when I pass that place, I can smell the hospital too. You had part of a large meat pie every night. Could we mention your meat pie?

IP: (Laughs). Every night, a small piece. A symbol of survival, keeping being alive…and a glass of red wine…

What’s next up for both of you?

IP: Putting this creation out! Celebrating it. I have a show coming up in Lisbon, a retrospective, thirty-five years of my career. Revisiting my different stages!

KV: I’m finishing a new long novel. In contrast to the speed of The Heart Is a Drowning Object, this book has taken fifteen years.
What are you most hoping that people will get from this gorgeous work of art?

KV: To feel in communion with the notions that have nothing to do with age. I’d be happy if young men also had a strong reaction to our book. It’s about love. We all know we can lose someone at any moment. This collaboration is about changing the normal response of fear to an intensity that’s in fact about finding pleasure.

IP: I totally agree. Plus the beauty of this has been in the creating of it, and with Katherine McNamara’s help putting it out there. It doesn’t belong to us any more! I want it to be gender-less; it belongs to everyone who reads/sees/listen to it. We put it out there for others to embrace it, or not!

What’s obsessing you now and why?

KV: I have to fix my damn ceiling. All those aquatic images you did, Isabel, were so sumptuous, but water is not so pretty when there’s a downpour through the roof! Our ceiling collapsed in the last rainstorm.

IP: We have a parallel there too! My house got hit in the storms and we’re leaking all over. You and I have this eerie connection. You know what we haven’t mentioned? The process of working together was a real delight. The easy flow of it all—that was a surprise! The ease of doing something together, from all that we’d stored up. And out of it is our friendship now. We knew of each other, but we hadn’t yet become friends, and now with Katherine McNamara also there is a bond based on sharing and work, a collaboration, a sisterhood. Taking the train together, speaking Portuguese on the way to Charlottesville…we found out we had an obsession with packing our lunches really precisely. We laughed the whole way.

And we visited the printing press with Katherine M., and went to a garden party, and found each other, all three of us. And we laughed on the train the whole way back. Suddenly Katherine and Isabel and Katherine, the KIK Sisters. The work gave us each other.

Please check out these links:

The Heart Is A Drowning Object, on Artist’s Proof Editions, for more information (with link to Apple Books): (the book can be pre-ordered and will be available October 22nd, 2019)

 A video poem


Monday, September 30, 2019

Everyone, meet the patron saint of readers and writers, the amazing Zibby Owens! Here, Zibby talks about her famed podcast Moms Don't Have Time To Read Books, (up for a Lovie Award, so read on and vote by October 3rd), her book recommendations, why she might open a bookstore, and so much more

Zibby Owens has been called the Oprah of the podcast world. And rightly so. Her incredible podcast, “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” was nominated for a Lovie Award, the European version of the Webby Awards! Please vote it up here for the People’s Choice by October 3rd. She writes fabulous articles, she has great reading suggestions (who else would suggest books by emotional issue?), she organizes events, and she's just, well, cooler than cool.

I'm so happy to host her here. Thank you so much, Zibby! And your book recs to me were right on the money!

I don’t know anyone who does so much for books—and in such an inviting and cheerful and creative way. I love your podcast Moms Don’t Have Time To Read Books because honest to God, you READ the books of your authors and ask the smartest questions.  How did this podcast start?

It started in such an offhand way! I had been writing a bunch of parenting essays and my husband one night said, “Maybe you should take all your parenting essays and make them in to a book!” And I replied, “Ugh, moms don’t have time to read books!” Then I said, “Hey, that could be a funny title!” I ran the idea past a few agents - who disagreed! Then an author friend, Sarah Mlynowski, suggested to me over coffee that, “You should really start a podcast.” I responded, “What’s a podcast?!” After that, I researched what else was out there and decided to try one with that same title!

I also really love the essays you write, first because not only are they beautifully written, but they all have a feel to them, as if you are sitting across from us at a café, over coffee, casually opening up your heart and letting us see the contents. I loved the essay about the psychic, the essay about sending your son off to boarding school (Oh God, wait until college, though I will tell you, they DO come back. Altered, but they are still yours in many important ways.) Do you think of an audience as you write? (I can’t or I freeze up, but you seem much more self-possessed than I am.

I don’t really think about my audience. As you said, I just write from the heart. I write so that I remember how I felt. I write to share my experiences with others so that we can all go through life a bit more connected! But no. When I’m actually writing, I’m not thinking about an audience at all.

You have written about food, health, being a mom, but oh my God, this article about how to hook poor time readers really was full of fabulous innovative ideas, especially about a book show that isn’t boring. ( I love the idea of putting out reading samples for people to get hooked and then buy the book. I think does that, or they used to, but we need more places like that. I admit I’ve left books at doctors’ offices myself, Do you think authors should be posting little teasers from their own books on their social media pages?

I think that would be great!! Or videos of them reading a chapter and answering some questions!

OK, we have to talk about your VIP book curator service. (I’ll put this link in: What strikes me about this is how much fun you are clearly having doing this (and, of course, what a blast for the person who hires you.)  So what surprises you when you do this?  And tell us about how you devise reading plans for people? How accurate are you?

Um, no one has actually bought this yet!!! But I do offer personalized book recommendations to anyone who signs up for my newsletter. As you know, I just did yours!! They’ve been building up in my inbox but I finally got back to everyone. I love seeing what my listeners have been reading and what they’re in the mood for. It helps me get a sense of what’s popular and what isn’t … and what people think of certain books! I love connecting individually with fellow book lovers!

You really really help the writers’ community, (which I try to do with my blog and by being just as helpful as I can be.) And you seem to do everything. What are you really dying to do next that you haven’t done yet? Does anything scare you?

I’m dying to open a bookstore and I think I may have found a partner to actually accomplish this! I would also love to do more with TV and write a book or two myself! Does anything scare me? Something happening to my kids.

Holy Moly, Mother of God, I was about to order 40 Love when I saw you gave it up and started over. You have to tell that story. And PS, the cover is great. I know this is a question that all writers hate, but I’m going to ask you anyway…how is the writing going?

This project is on hold for now. I’ve tried writing it as a memoir and in two different styles as fiction. I’m going to revive at some point and I’ve been toying with a new plot in my head. I might just try to make it into a great essay! If you want the whole story, we might need to have that coffee!

I also love that you have and showcase books you wrote which stayed on the shelf. All writers have those! Jonathan Evison talks about the 6 novels he buried. I couldn’t throw away a novel I wrote, which couldn’t sell, but I was able to cannibalize sections of it and put it in another novel later on. So all is never lost.  Will you go back to those books, do you think?

I think I can find a new life for some of them in another form!

What’s obsessing you now and why?

Um… chocolate chip cookies, per usual!!

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

Maybe just something about how I get it all done!? And for that I have to credit my husband, Kyle Owens of Morning Moon Productions, who inadvertently led me to start the podcast and is my #1 fan and champion with literally every thing I do. I get his advice on everything from article titles to guests on the show to… everything! Also my kids have been amazingly supportive and are super into the whole thing. It would be impossible to get anything done if they weren’t enthusiastic about what I was doing.

Podcast: Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books
Instagram: @zibbyowens; @momsdonthavetimetoreadbooks
Facebook: @byzibbyowens; @momsdonthavetimetoreadbooks


Monday, September 23, 2019

Portrait of the novelist as a painter, too. Mary Morris talks about painting and writing and creativity--and P.S. You want to pre-order ALL THE WAY TO THE TIGERS as soon as you can.

I know and surround myself with a lot of creative people, and it always amazes me when it turns out a painter is a fine writer, or a writer can also dance ballet. When I was in high school, I thought about being a painter, and even had a special scholarship with two other girls to attend Mass College of Art special classes. But though I've continue to paint, writing took over.

When I heard that acclaimed author Mary Morris paints and saw some of her gorgeous work, I wanted to buy a painting! Mary Morris is the author of numerous works of fiction, including the critically acclaimed novels The Jazz Palace, A Mother’s Love, and House Arrest, and of nonfiction, including the travel memoir classic Nothing to Declare: Memoirs of a Woman Traveling Alone. She is a recipient of the Rome Prize in literature and the 2016 Anisfield-Wolf Award for fiction. Upcoming soon in June 2020 is All The Way to the Tigers, and trust me, you WANT this memoir, about traveling solo, finding redemption and ...tigers!

Thank you so much for being here, Mary! I love my painting and I love you.
It’s always fascinating to me when writers do other creative things. They also dance, or paint, or act, or knit or sew or sculpt outrageously well. But what is more fascinating is how seriously we creatives take those other things that we do. I’ve been painting since I was a kid, and was good enough to get into a program for high school students at Massachusetts College of Art.  I did oils and acrylics, watercolors and pen and inks, and then writing took over. Art was pushed to the background, and though I still love to paint watercolors, I don’t’ take it as seriously as my writing.

Which brings us to you, and your gorgeous paintings, which you obviously take seriously.

How did you start to paint? And why?

That’s so interesting that you have this visual art background.  I never knew that!  Also funny that you think I take my paintings “seriously.”  I actually try to take them “unseriously” if you know what I mean.  I guess it all goes back to the mother, doesn’t it?  My mother was a very creative person.  She could do anything with her hands.  She sewed and quilted.  She had great craft skills and she painted.  I have a vivid memory of watching her paint a strange image of a woman whose face was a brilliant blue on one side and black on the other.  She was wearing an enormous hat.  I remember watching my mother make this painting. 

When I was fairly young I took painting classes with a man named Jerry Valez.  He had a small studio on a side street in our town and I’d go there once a week and paint in oils.  I’m not sure how old I was but I had a sense at a young age that I wasn’t very good at it.

Still I always loved, and still love, painting and visual art.  But I never learned how to draw.  This has always been a …….  I wanted to draw but I just never got around to taking a class.  Anyway I started traveling and I traveled a lot and then one day I began to bring a visual component into my travel journals.  They were very multi-media and included collage, some drawing, pen and ink, and at some point I added watercolors.  I began to travel with a small set of watercolors and with time the journals became as much as what I saw as what I felt (and in which case wrote down). 

What does painting mean to you? What do you hope it means to those who see and love your work?

 Freedom.  I find that I am completely free when I am painting.  I am often very ego invested in my writing (and I wish I weren’t).   As a friend once said to me years ago, if you’re ego gets in the way you’re doomed for all eternity.  I am egoless when I paint.  I honestly don’t care.  Another quote I like comes from the Rose Tattoo, this middle-aged woman shows Marlon Brandon a landscape she painted.  A very ordinary landscape and he just stares at it blankly.  She says to him, “I know they aren’t very good, but I feel better when I do them.”

That is what freedom is about for me.  Feeling better means being more in touch with an elusive part of yourself where you can be very present and quite frankly have fun.  Be playful.  The minute it stops for me in painting I’ll probably stop doing it.  I guess basically I have to not care.  Recently I got my first commission and I just couldn’t do it.  It was for a big piece and required special paper.  Most of my paintings have been in my journals or on small sheets of paper.  But this was to be big.  It had to fill a wall in a friend’s new house.  Needless to say I felt a huge sense of responsibility.  And then I finally said to myself, for lack of a better word, fuck it.  Just do what you’ve always done.  Do it intuitively.

When others look at my painting, I want them to feel the joy that I feel when I make them.    

 I don’t know what I am doing when I set out to paint.  I let the colors, the moisture and texture of the paper, the quality of the pigments dictate to me.  There’s an artist whose work I like and I have been studying her technique.  Her name is Barbara Nechis and the book of hers that I rely upon is called Watercolors from the Heart. 

What other writers or artists have influenced you in this work?

I know he’s fallen out of favor but I have always been drawn to Henry Miller as a thinker and as a painter.  I love his travel writing and his literary essays.  His Colossus of Marousi is, in my opinion, one of the great travel books.  And I love his painting.  He painted all the time and he published several books of his paintings, including one called something like Paint and Die Happy.  That’s about where I am at.

I’ve also been influenced by some of the great journals such as the journals of Frida Kahlo.  There’s a terrific facsimile of her journals that you can buy.  And also Dan Elon who was an incredible artist and journalist who died tragically in Somali at the age of 26.  His mother put together the extraordinary book of his journals called The Journey Is the Destination.  His work is just amazing. 

And finally I am incredibly drawn to the work of Joan Mitchell in part, at least initially, because she was married to my cousin, the publisher of the Grove Press, Barney Rosset.  Joan was Barney’s first wife and I believe the only one he truly loved.  Joan is a great artist and I find it actually an honor to stand before her work.  She strikes a balance between peace and power.  Perhaps in some ways that is the definition of beauty – that balance that is so hard to strike. 

 What influence does your art have on your writing—or vice versa?

I feel as I may have answered this above, but basically if I get caught up in my ego around my writing, if I start saying to myself oh this is no good or not good enough or no one’s going like it or buy the book or whatever, I have to stop.  And that’s when painting can come in. 

You know here’s another good example.  I am a very good cook.  I like to cook.  But I am only a good cook when we don’t have company, when it’s just me and my family.  Because if someone is coming over, then I have to impress that person, then I have to make a monk fish with chervil sauce or something else that will make them think I’m great.  And you know those meals are never very good.  It’s the spontaneous ones.  The ones when you say oh I have some nice mushrooms and chicken breasts and red wine.  I think I’ll make coq au vin, just for the fun of it, for the hell of it.  Those are the meals I wish I could serve you.  

My studio is actually set up in such a way that I can swivel from my writing desk to my painting desk.  For a while I had the painting desk upstairs in our daughter’s old bedroom, but then she and her husband came and reclaimed that space so I moved the art table downstairs and the results for me have been great.  I can move fluidly from one medium to the next and if I start to care too much about the writing, if I start to worry it to death, I switch over to a painting where I can be much more fluid and free. 

Drue Heinz Literature Prize winner Kate Wisel talks about the best titled book ever, DRIVING IN CARS WITH HOMELESS MEN, the deep scars of four Boston women, why hope is never lost, writing, and so much more.

Kate Wisel is a native of Boston. Her writing has appeared in publications that include Gulf Coast, Tin House online, Redivider as winner of the Beacon Street Prize, among others. She received her MFA from Columbia College Chicago, and is currently a Carol Houck fiction fellow at the University of Wisconsin-Madison where she teaches fiction, and works as an assistant for music critic Jim DeRogatis.

Driving in Cars with Homeless Men is astonishing--so astonishing it won the Drue Heinz Literature Prize. And  Holy Moly, Look at just some of the praise:

This debut collection of short stories traces the visible and more subtle scars of four women: Serena, Frankie, Raffa, and Nat. What binds them above all else are their experiences of violence. Against the vivid backdrop of early 2010s Boston, their antics and heartbreaks are kept inside tiny apartments, spill onto the streets, and wander into dirty dive bars. It’s GIRLS without all the privilege and a fictionalized version of Lisa Taddeo’s Three Women(2019), if the three women were friends…this is fierce and emphatic. 

You can hear the crackle of heat and the roar of a powerful fire burning through these pages. Young angry women, brokenhearted mothers, and men who are lost to themselves and others struggle in the world of Driving in Cars with Homeless Men. Close to the edge, fearful of love yet dying of longing, Serena, Frankie, Raffa, and Natalya are vital and tender. Their stories are incandescent.
Min Jin Lee, 2019 Drue Heinz Literature Prize judge and author of Free Food for Millionaires and Pachinko, a finalist for the National Book Award

“Kate Wisel’s women think like razor blades. They talk tough and love tougher, except how they love each other which is pure and deep, and ought to be enough, except it isn’t, ever. These women vibrate with life, with longing, with an urge toward self-annihilation, with hope. Their hope will break your heart the hardest. Along with the sentences, which seem to be written by angels, razor-blade toting angels. This is one architecturally stunning, linguistically dazzling, hyper-intelligent, heart-expanding debut.”
Pam Houston, author of Cowboys Are My Weakness; and Deep Creek: Finding Hope In the High Country

“Kate Wisel is a fearless writer—with literary guts and a distinctive nitro style--and Driving in Cars with Homeless Men is a remarkable debut. The gritty lyricism of her voice makes me think of punk rock and blown mufflers and creaky bedsprings flavored with cigarette ash, red bull-and-vodka, gum stuck to the bottom of a Doc Marten, a little bit of Denis Johnson mixed up with a Janis Joplin howl. Welcome her. I can't wait to see what she does next.”
Benjamin Percy, author of The Dark Net; Thrill Me; Red Moon; and Refresh, Refresh
Thank you so much for being here, Kate!

I absolutely loved the fierce young women (and the struggling men) in Driving in Cars With Homeless Men. Where, in your psyche, did they come from? What haunted you into writing this fabulous collection?

Thank you so much for your enthusiasm. I’m so glad you loved the women. I think of the psyche as the internal state, and there’s a filter between the outside world and the psyche. For me, what moves through this filter is patterned when observed as a whole, and by default, has a point of view.

Sometimes I feel like a metal detector, which is fine by me. I’d rather feel primarily like a metal detector than, I don’t know, somebody’s third wife? I look, am attracted, let life as it is speak to me. If imagination is the connection between what’s real and physical, and what can defy that, a possibility, a beyond, then the characters and material come from my experience, filter through as an amalgam, then run away from me into imagination. Writing the stories felt like chasing after a predator and tackling them to the ground. That’s how I knew they were stories, if I was moving behind them, sometimes angrily or with a type of trepidation. And then I picked up different DNA as I went, the best laughter I know, a woman’s fingers looking like keyholes on the train, sifting through the contents of an addict’s backpack, the cadence of a Boston accent, how the Goodyear logo is a pair of wings above the heel of a sneaker. Life is Seinfeldian, perfectly timed, a design that calls back to itself, even and especially when it’s going disastrously. That’s why it’s satisfying to recreate life, all the parts as a whole are painfully perfect as is.

Because I was being taken to defining places or moments in each character’s life, structurally, I could tell the women’s overall story more intricately, like a web, all messy and connected. I realized I was interested in the consequences of these four character’s pasts, their victories and failures. More broadly, what came through the filter was what happens to girls who keep men’s secrets inside them. Where they go, together and alone, and how they survive.

Do you think there is ever a moment when hope is truly lost?

Never. I wanted the book to feel like it was never at rest because my characters can’t afford to stop. They’re in motion, and because of that there is a physicality to hope and it’s how the characters are propelled. Also, I don’t think the girls ever lose their sense of humor, which is another form of hope.

What kind of writer are you? Do you map things out, or does that pesky Muse guide you along?
I don’t map things out but if you think about, a story’s like a map. You’re guided by the tension of logic and imagination, which is really just a scenario. Here’s what happens if…

 Being such a highly praised debut author must be intoxicating—how does it fuel you into your next work? How does it hamper you?
Literature is, of course, a conversation, and if I’ve had the chance to speak then my job now is to listen. If there’s something I’m working on, I dedicate my life to it. But I’m learning now about process and reading a lot about what other artist’s processes look like. I like what Mathew Klam says about being versus doing. Sometimes an artist’s job is to be so they can do. You can’t have a point of view, use it, then expect you’ll have another like a beer. I want to earn my point of view. I’m not churning out pages to impress anyone. I want to know what this time is about, what moves me, what I’m interested in.

What’s obsessing you now and why?

Last week I saw a man texting with his toes at an outside patio. The man had his forehead pressed to the table, and underneath, his toes were typing as if he was playing a piano. From my car, I saw a woman dancing in a park, alone, so happy. We caught eyes and she wasn’t angry. She was okay with me witnessing her. “I hope you got the diamond necklace that I sent to you.” These were the lyrics I remember from the song that was playing in my car. In the documentary One of Us, about Hasidic Jews in Brooklyn, there’s this scene, against all of the violence and religious oppression, that takes place when the subject returns from LA to a Seder dinner, and all the men begin this impromptu hymn and it’s actually gorgeous, and you realize, oh, it must be really hard to leave this kind of familial community. These insane domestic paintings by Mark Greenwold that are both hyper-real and surreal, sort of depicting the grotesque nature of intimacy, which I learned about by reading that Mathew Klam interview. If you haven’t wondered my internal state is pondering connection.

What question didn’t I ask that I should have?
Maybe what I’m reading? I’m loving Prodigals by Greg Jackson. Hard Damage by Aria Aber which I can’t recommend enough. Why Did I Ever by Mary Robison and I Dreamed I was A Very Clean Tramp, the Richard Hell autobiography.

Tuesday, September 17, 2019

Race. Foster Care. Deep secrets. And what makes a family. Lisa Sturm talks about her gripping novel ECHOED IN MY BONES.

 Lisa Sturm's gripping novel is about race, foster care and the traumatic secrets of the past.  As a young girl, Lakisha gives up her newborns, one who looks white and one who looks black, into the foster care system. But years later, Laikisha must search for them to save another--and herself.

Here's just some of the praise:

 “This uplifting story reminded me that the invisible threads that create a family are often stronger than time, distance, and hardships.”
-- Jennifer Haupt, bestselling author of In the Shadow of 10,000 Hills

 "Drawing on her experience as an inner-city psychotherapist, Lisa Sturm reminds us just how much distinct environmental stressors, or advantages, pave our paths in life, and also how profound our need for family is. This well-crafted and well-imagined novel will keep you reading well into the night."  
-- Ellen Sherman, Just the Facts and Monkeys on the Bed

Lisa Sturm's short stories have been published in literary journals such as Tulane Review, Serving House Journal, Mom Egg Review, Willow Review, and Turk's Head Review, and in an anthology entitled Sisters Born, Sisters Found (Wordforest Press, 2015). She received the Willow Review Fiction Award and the Writer's Relief Peter K. Hixson Wild Card/Fiction Award for selections from her debut novel, ECHOED IN MY BONES (Twisted Road Publications, 2019), a story inspired by her work as an inner-city psychotherapist. 

Thank you so much, Lisa for being here!

I always, always ask this question. What was it that was haunting you personally that propelled you to write Echoed in My Bones?

I suppose, in some sense, I was haunted by former psychotherapy patients whose suffering or faith or resilience or decisions I found deeply moving. For example: There was a seventeen-year-old girl who needed to prepare for the SATs and couldn’t afford a study guide, so I gave her an extra one we had lying around the house. When I handed it to her, she kept running her fingers over the glossy cover and finally shared, “No one has ever given me a brand-new book.” That stuck with me. There was a mother of six who had survived childhood homelessness and sexual abuse and sought therapy because she wanted to ensure her past trauma wouldn’t interfere with her parenting. Her strength was inspiring. I’m haunted by a mother I saw just a few times, who was court-ordered to receive counseling because her husband had injured one of their children while drunk. Child Protective Services warned that if her husband didn’t move out during the investigation, her kids would be taken away—but for some unfathomable reason, she couldn’t ask him to leave. I still struggle with that one. Finally, there was an eighth grader whom I saw after she’d been repeatedly raped by a family member. In foster care, she’d become sexually active with boys in the neighborhood and her foster mom threatened to kick her out. That girl was so sweet and so loveable, I often fantasized about adopting her myself. I’m sure there were others, but those are a few that stand out in my mind.

You’ve written such a powerful and provocative novel about race and family and the choices that we make. Can you talk about this please?

When I worked with these inner-city women, I felt a strong bond. Most of them had no other safe place to share their feelings, and so our sessions were particularly raw. There were certain themes that came up repeatedly: faith, hope, family, abuse, trauma, mistakes and repairs, and unrequited longing for connection. My office was a ten-minute drive from my home, and yet before taking this position, I’d had no idea of the suffering that was occurring practically in my own backyard. I tried to write from a place of caring and compassion, wanted to share what I’d learned about their hardships and how I’d made sense of it. Like Grandma Louema in the novel, I wanted to transmit a message of hope and healing. This story carries with it a wish that all of my “ghosts” find their own place of peace.

What was it like writing this novel? Was there ever a moment when you thought you had lost the story? And are you the kind of writer who plots things out or do you wait for that pesky Muse.

Right from the start, I was clear about the beginning and the end of the novel. It was wrestling with what should be included in the middle that proved difficult. Deciding in what order the story should be told was also quite challenging. The biggest plot shift came during the fifth rewrite (with the help of a wonderful developmental editor, Julie Mosow), when I changed the way Tessa and Jasmine come together. By editing out a few unnecessary scenes, I also gained more space to really explore my characters’ thoughts and emotions. For my next project, rather than waiting for the muse, I’m trying to flesh out all of the backstories and outline each chapter before attempting a first draft.

 Can you talk about the great title, please?

Echoed in my bones was always a line in the poem that came to define the various parts of the novel. Once the search for a bone-marrow donor was woven into the plot, echoed in my bones became meaningful on many levels and seemed the perfect title. Fortunately, my publisher agreed!

What’s obsessing you now and why?

Lately I’ve been thinking about former patients who were in law enforcement and others who were in gangs, and I’ve been pondering the way personal history plays a role in decision making, particularly when people are under pressure. My next project is about a therapist, Delia Chase, whose drug-dealing client, Darnell, is murdered on the eve of his escape from gang life. In a desperate attempt to figure out how and why he was killed, Delia recruits another client, a police officer named Jimmy, to help.

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

Did the question of “cultural appropriation” figure into the process of getting this book published?
As I was querying for representation, this question did seem to deter some agents. Fortunately, I found a publisher who understood the special perspective my therapy work afforded me in the creation of this story, and I did enlist sensitivity readers from the community who combed through the manuscript. Because of my deep concern about this issue, the review that gives me the most satisfaction came from The Director of the Irvington Library (located just a few blocks from the clinic where I worked). Once she raved about it and told me she was recommending it to her own book club, I breathed a sigh of relief—and then did a happy dance.