Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Dan Chaon talks about his brilliantly unsettling new novel ILL WILL, his green chile stew recipe, and why the election is nudging him to write

 Oh yes, you read Dan Chaon and you think your skin is being flayed off and you are so unsettled you have to make sure the front door is locked, but you cannot stop reading or admiring the diamonds of his prose. But maybe you didn't also know that Dan Chaon is also hilarious funny, with a warped sense of humor and a heart so generous, you sort of wish he could be knighted.

 Dan Chaon is the acclaimed author of Among the Missing, which was a finalist for the National Book Award, and You Remind Me of Me, which was named one of the best books of the year by The Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, San Francisco Chronicle, The Christian Science Monitor, and Entertainment Weekly, among other publications. Chaon’s fiction has appeared in many journals and anthologies, including The Best American Short Stories, Pushcart Prize, and The O. Henry Prize Stories. He has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award in Fiction, and he was the recipient of the 2006 Academy Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Chaon lives in Cleveland, Ohio, and teaches at Oberlin College, where he is the Pauline M. Delaney Professor of Creative Writing.

I'm completely jazzed to have Dan here. He's one of my favorite writers--and people--on the planet.  Thank you so much, Dan. Now to make your chili recipe!

I always think there is a reason for writing a novel at the time that the author writes it. What was going on in your mind or haunting you before you started?

The most obvious thing was the death of my wife in 2008.  I went a little crazy for a few years afterward, and I was trying to raise two teenaged boys as an insane widower, and when I started my new novel, I thought to myself, I AM NOT going to write about any of this crap.  I'm going to write a book about serial killers and satanic ritual abuse and it's going to be creepy and weird and it will take me out of my own life and my own head. 

Then I began to realize that the main character was a widower with two teenaged sons, and I was like, N-no! No!  NOOO!

But it was too late! Picture me at my sister's house over Christmas,  having a discussion about it. My sister said, "Why did you make me into a lying ho-bag?"  and my oldest son said, "You made me into a doomed asshole!" And my youngest son said, "At least you guys didn't get murdered."  My brother-in-law shrugged. "I think there should have been more about the drownings I told you about!"  

"It's fiction!"  I said.  "That's how it works.  There's a little kernel you take from your own life, and the rest is invented."

"I will say this," my sister said.  "I was impressed by your self-awareness! You were really brave in the way you portrayed Dustin so honestly."

"I'm not anything like Dustin!" I said curtly.   And everyone laughed.     

Ill Will is so fabulously unsettling, so beautifully dark, that I am wondering--was there any moment during the writing where you felt, what am I doing? I can’t go there (and then you went there, anyway?) Did you ever feel physically distressed? (All of these, by the way, are compliments of the highest order.)

There were. We're probably thinking about the same thing--the thing at the end with the tank, right?  But it would be a spoiler to talk about.  But, yes, when I got to that part I was like, I can't believe I'm doing this, nonononono

That's one thing that has always interested me about the fiction-writing process--it's so beyond the control of your conscious mind. We know we have two brains--a left and a right--but I'm never so aware of it as when the left brain is working and the right brain knows nothing about it.
I didn't even know that X was the killer!  But when I go back and re-read, it's clear that a part of me must have known.     

How was writing Ill Will different than writing your other books?

It was the first book that I wrote without my wife, Sheila, as the first reader.  It was also, coincidentally, the first book that I let my sons read as I writing it, the first book I wrote while they were adults. So much is different because of where you are in time.  This is definitely a book written by a fifty-year-old man, which I couldn't've written when I was in my twenties.

Perhaps also related to turning 50:  It's the first book where I felt mostly free of anxiety about what people would think.  I felt freer to experiment with language and form, and I felt freer to do crazy stuff with plot that my more conservative younger self probably would have talked me out of.

Picture me:  toothless oldster cackling wildly as the speedometer pushes past 100 mph.   I swing my hat in a loop above my head.   Wooo-hooooooo.

Ill Will takes up familiar Dan Chaon themes--adoption and what it can do to you, family and bottomless grief--but it adds serial killings--but all of these are all multi-layered themes, and have much deeper meanings than mere surface. Are you aware of these deeper meanings when you write, or do they startle and unnerve you when you have finished a few drafts?

Most of the time I don't know what the deeper meanings even are until someone points them out.

There's a lot in fiction writing that's invisible to the conscious mind, and to me the most important thing is being able to trust in images and scenes.  I still don't know why one of my characters hallucinates a tiny man dancing in his underwear, or why the same character seems to appear, unaged, during three different time periods, or what the string of emojis means.

I like that there are things that I myself can't explain about my books, that the world of the novel somehow exists outside of "me"-- in some other realm.    

The publisher’s letter in the arc calls your novel crime fiction--but I don’t think it really is.  Do you?  I believe it’s deeply literary, brilliantly genre-bending, and unlike anything else anyone else is writing. Yes, there are crimes in it--but it’s really more about the stories we tell ourselves to keep ourselves from coming against the truth of our lives, in a way. Can you talk about this? How do you categorize your own work?

I really do feel like I'm always on the borderlands, and that's the way I like it. I'm definitely in the "literary" tribe--I'm a National Book Award nominee, I've been in Best American Short Stories, I got a thingee from the American Academy of Arts and Letters--but at the same time, I've never worn that label comfortably.

In the past few years, I've made inroads into being accepted by the fantasy/horror community--I've been in a couple of straight-up horror anthologies, and I'm teaching this year at the Clarion SF/Fantasy Workshop.  I'm proud of that, and I'd be very glad to be considered a Crime writer, or a Thriller writer, too. My plotting isn't quite good enough or direct enough to place me firmly in that category, but I definitely feel a kinship with those writers who are considered Mystery, Horror, Fantasy, Crime, Thriller, etc. Many of the writers I most admire are those who are stubbornly stuck in-between:  Ray Bradbury, Shirley Jackson, Octavia Butler, Peter Straub, Kelly Link, etc. Those are my people.

I used to feel a little bitter that The New Yorker wouldn't publish me.  Now I feel like they probably did me a favor.

You’re critically-acclaimed-highly respected-famous, but you don’t seem to own that label. In fact, you are down-to-earth-regular-guy, hilarious, smart-generous--and you seem to take nothing for granted and to be incredibly grateful. How do you manage this?

Oh, Caroline!   Thank you!  Picture me delivering a curtsey. 

I am grateful.  In a lot of ways, I'm one of the luckiest people I've ever known.  I grew up relatively poor, in a rural Midwestern American trailer-park sort of way, but now I'm a fairly
well-to-do college professor/writer dude with a house and sense of security that many people would kill for.  I have nothing to complain about.

Yet I often don't feel like the guy you describe. There's a part of me that's full of squirming black eels--not nice, not funny, not generous, not optimistic. That cold, angry shadow person who had a large hand in writing this poisonous book.  

Is there anything that you wouldn’t want to write?

I almost hate to say this, because it sounds obnoxious, but I wouldn't want to write something that made people forget their troubles. I don't think I'd enjoy writing light entertainment that cheered and amused folks.  I wouldn't want to write commercials for anything.  That seems kind of stingy and mean, I guess. 

What’s obsessing you now and why?

This is February 2017, and we're only three weeks into the new presidential administration. The news has sort of taken over my life and brain, and I've got to figure out a way to get out of the circular maze it puts me in.  I'm obsessing about finding some kind of light at the end of the tunnel.  I think maybe the only way to get out of it is to write,  but I haven't started yet.      

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

My recipe for Green Chile Stew! 

1 lb of chorizo sausage, browned.
1 lb. of pork chop, cut into cubes and browned in the chorizo grease.
3 large potatoes, cubed
1 large onion, chopped
3 tomatillos, diced.
2 poblano peppers, chopped
2 anaheim peppers, chopped
1 (or more) jalepeno pepper, chopped
1/2 cup fresh chopped cilantro
1/4 cup chopped garlic
1 12 oz jar of Goya brand Recaito
3 tbs. cumin
6-7 cups of chicken or vegetable stock

Combine all ingredients and bring stock to a boil. Reduce heat to simmer and cook for
1 hour, until potatoes are soft. 

How do art and life mesh? Number 1 NYT Bestselling author of Orphan Train, Christina Baker Kline talks about her ravishing new novel A PIECE OF THE WORLD, wearing Uggs, writing, and so much more

You know that magic moment when everything comes together and not only do you adore the writing--but the writer as well? That’s the way it for me with Christina Baker Kline. I first met her for lunch before Orphan Train was even published! We quickly bonded and I’ve been so ecstatic to see her star zooming into the stratosphere. She’s kind, funny, supportive, and every wonderful adjective I can think of.

Christina is the author Orphan Train, The Way Life Should Be, Sweet Water, Bird in Hand, and Desire Lines — and she’s written or edited five works of nonfiction. Her 2013 novel Orphan Train spent more than two years on the New York Times bestseller list, including five weeks at # 1, and was published in 40 countries. More than 100 communities and colleges have chosen it as a “One Book, One Read” selection. Her adaptation of Orphan Train for young readers is Orphan Train Girl (2017).

In addition to her novels, Kline has commissioned and edited two widely praised collections of original essays on the first year of parenthood and raising young children, Child of Mine and Room to Grow, and edited a book on grieving, Always Too Soon. She is coeditor, with Anne Burt, of a collection of personal essays called About Face: Women Write About What They See When They Look in the Mirror, and is co-author, with her mother, Christina Looper Baker, of a book on feminist mothers and daughters, The Conversation Begins. Her essays, articles, and reviews have appeared in The New York Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, Money, More, and Psychology Today, among other places.

Kline was born in Cambridge, England, and raised there as well as in the American South and Maine. She is a graduate of Yale, Cambridge, and the University of Virginia, where she was a Henry Hoyns Fellow in Fiction Writing. She has taught fiction and nonfiction writing, poetry, English literature, literary theory, and women’s studies at Yale, NYU, and Drew University, and served as Writer-in-Residence at Fordham University for four years. She is a recipient of several Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation Fellowships and Writer-in-Residence Fellowships at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts.  She is on the advisory board of Roots & Wings, a foster-care organization in NJ; The Criterion Theatre in Bar Harbor, ME; and the Montclair Animal Shelter, and supports a number of libraries and other associations.

Kline lives in an old house in Montclair, New Jersey, with her husband, David Kline, and three sons, Hayden, Will, and Eli.  She spends as much time as possible in an even older house in Southwest Harbor, Maine.

AND SHE IS MY FRIEND!  AND you can see her speak this Friday (see the poster above) where I am lucky enough to interview her for part of the event. As always, a thousand thank-yous, Christina.

How did the research you did change how you felt about the painting--and about Christina Olson?

Perhaps surprisingly, I never got tired of looking at the painting. The more I learned about the real-life Christina Olson, the more I saw in it. Christina was a very private person. She was also obstinate, eccentric, wickedly funny, and extremely smart. Though some of the things she did –sabotaging her brother’s relationship with a woman he intended to marry, for example – might seem selfish and even mean-spirited, I came to feel a great deal of sympathy for her. She was taken out of school at the age of 12 to run the household; she had a painful and debilitating degenerative neurological disease; she was betrayed by a cad who strung her along for years. As I wrote this novel I thought about Flaubert’s response to a critic who chided him for writing about such an immoral woman: “Madame Bovary, c’est moi.” It’s my hope that by the end of A Piece of the World the reader deeply understands why Christina acted the way she did.

Was it difficult to let Christina Olson go when you were finished writing? Did you have any sense of how she might have felt about your book? (New Agey, but I want to know!)

I don’t feel I’ve let go of her. It was such a difficult book to write, and required such immersion, that I feel her presence still – almost as if she’s a living person. (How New Agey is that?!)

What was the most surprising thing about writing this novel?

That I managed to finish it, that it’s actually a novel. I was terrified I wouldn’t pull it off. I was determined to be as historically accurate as possible; the story – such as it is – really happened. I wanted to do the real-life story justice. Furthermore, I had to conjure a plot and a structure out of the air; Christina Olson barely left her house. I had to imbue ordinary moments with weight and meaning and create a kind of forward motion that was often internal. I’d wake up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat, wracked with anxiety. It was so stressful. In the course of writing the first draft of this novel I got a third-degree burn on my hand, 18 stitches in my forehead, and broke my shoulder. I think I was subconsciously becoming a disabled person. I was channeling Christina Olson.

I loved the whole idea of the muse being as important in a way as the artist himself. Wyeth and Christina had this definite bond. They understood each other. Do you think Wyeth's wife was jealous?

Betsy first met Christina when she was nine years old and Christina was 37. She adored Christina and spent hours helping her around the house. Eight years later, the same day that Betsy met 22-year-old Andy, she brought him to meet Christina -- as a kind of test, she later said. It was his habit to immerse himself in the lives of his subjects; he did so throughout his life. I think Betsy was glad that he’d found a subject that obsessed him, and I also think she appreciated Andy’s friendship with Christina, in part because she knew Christina was lonely.

What's obsessing you now and why?

It’s hard to turn away from the debacle that is the Trump administration, I must say. I’ve marched and signed petitions and sent postcards and posted about the ongoing atrocities, and now I’m determined to settle back into my work. (And keep my activism on a low boil.)

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

“What are you wearing?” I’m so glad you asked: my writing outfit of leggings, a long t-shirt and Uggs. It’s not beautiful but it sure is comfortable!

Can you talk at all about what you are thinking of doing next? I'm always fascinated!

I’m researching a new novel that takes place in Glasgow, London, and Australia in the 19th century. I love doing research and taking notes, shaping my story. It’s exciting to learn about other ways of living and other time periods. Writing is such seriously hard work, as you well know, Caroline – sometimes it goes very well, but even when it does, I wrestle with self-doubt. Research is a pure delight.

Is it ever to late to dream a new life? Novelist Leah DeCesare says no

I'm so happy to host novelist Leah DeCesare here today to talk about her debut novel, Forks, Knives and Spoons. Thank you so, so much, Leah for encouraging everyone to follow their dreams.

If you think it’s too late to go for your dream, you’re wrong. I took the circuitous path to write FORKS, KNIVES, AND SPOONS but I can now proudly say, I am a debut novelist.

I mulled and pondered how to take the concept of labeling guys as forks, knives, and spoons and turn it into a story for literally decades before ever writing more than a few notes.

The kernel of the story, the Utensil Classification System, began in 1988 when my own father gave me a silverware lesson in guys before I left for college. At school, I shared it with my new friends and the labels expanded and grew, becoming very detailed. The way it caught on and multiplied stuck in my imagination and waited.

I had always wanted to be a writer, from the time I was in the early elementary years, I wrote: poems, diaries, short stories, essays. In fifth grade, I even typed out five chapters of my first novel attempt and sent it off to a major New York City publisher receiving my very first badge of being a writer — my first rejection letter — at 11 years old.

Fast forward through a college degree in business, a career in retail buying, event planning and public relations, leap ahead through three babies, too many volunteer jobs, and a second career of being a doula, parenting and birth educator, and arrive at me in my forties. It had been decades of me not pursuing my childhood dream.

In a reflective moment, I asked myself what I was waiting for to finally become a writer. I knew that if one day I looked back at my life I would regret not having done this and I jumped into action. I fulfilled volunteer obligations and chose not to re-up my appointments, I found a successor to lead a non-profit I’d founded, I stopped saying “yes” to everything someone asked me to chair/manage/facilitate. The kids were getting older and I made intentional decisions to find time and to make writing this book a priority. I put this abstract “become a writer” on the top of my to-do list and made it concrete. But even then, it took years.

First drafts are crap and mine was no different, but it was a completed first draft and that, in itself, felt monumental. From there, the book has changed dramatically through work with editors, beta readers, and even a casual conversation over cocktails at a writers’ conference with best selling authors Ann Hood and Jackie Mitchard. They asked about my book then, without reading a word of it, offered ideas that made so much sense I reworked the manuscript again after their impromptu masters class.

Now, I’m working on my second novel and am approaching it in a whole new, better way than I did with FORKS, KNIVES, AND SPOONS. I’ve learned so much from writing this book and I feel the most thrilling sense of personal accomplishment and joy. So if there’s a dream you’re sitting on, waiting on, thinking on — stop imagining it and do it! Believe in yourself and make your heart’s desire a reality.

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

New York Times Bestselling author Miranda Beverly-Whittemore talks about the paperback addition of June (just out!), being a mom and so much more

I told you she had a gorgeous family, didn't I?

The sublime paperback cover

The sublime author

I had the best time one day walking around Central Park talking to New York Times Bestselling and critically acclaimed author Miranda  Beverly Whittemore about writing, life, kids, publishing, ourselves. She's the loveliest person, with the most wonderful family, and truthfully, I'm honored to know her AND to post about her ravishing novel JUNE, which is now in paperback. 

Miranda is also the author of the Effects of Life, Bittersweet, and you really need to buy all of them to keep in your Miranda library! 

Thanks for being here, Miranda! And for everything

For me, having a baby made me more creative. It really did. Has this been the case for you? Has your world view changed with this second child?

My daughter was someone the three of us desperately wanted- and it took a long time for her to show up (there's almost eight years between my children)! So having baby number two has taught me an enormous amount of patience. 

There is nothing like falling in love with a baby, so on one hand, I'm very much centered in that delicious hormonal rush of love, and on the other hand, given our current political climate, it's been a really hard time to have a new baby- especially a daughter- come into the world. I'm so fearful for her future- for the planet we are leaving for her, the bigotry being exposed in our midst. I'm trying to focus on giving her and my son love and hope and joy, which I do believe are active forms of resistance, and which fuel me to action on their behalf. 

As for writing, I'm very much still in mommy-brain mode, but I have a few new novel ideas that I'm excited about. And in the meantime, I'm writing a long-form essay about the long journey towards her joining our family, which has been therapeutic and thought provoking, though not necessarily what I'd call fun. 

How do you find the time to work and be a new mom?

It's all about grabbing bits of time when you get them. Baby is happily playing alone? You take the five minutes to scribble an idea down. You've got an hour of childcare? Put your fingers to the keyboard and don't lift them until the timer goes off. In the two years after my son was born, I was more productive than I'd ever been up until that point, because I no longer had an excuse not to be working when I was given the chance. 

Do you feel differently about having a paperback come out that you did your hardback? Why or why not?

It's definitely a different kind of excitement. In the case of June, I'm thrilled that it's got a sexy new cover, and filled with all kinds of new goodies-- a Q & A with me, a recipe guide, a book guide that I enjoyed writing-- which I hope will appeal, especially, to book groups. And there's less pressure with the paperback, because the book has already made its mark in the world. I'm always a mess before hardcover publication, but, at least so far, I seem to be faring okay (that could just be the sleep deprivation talking). 

Mary Ann Henry talks about Ladies in Low Places, fate, story structure, and that fabulous Hell Hole Swamp Queen 2nd Runner up tee-shirt

The infamous book promotion tee-shirt that EVERYONE wanted at Pulpwood

Pulpwood Queens and Timber Guys Book Nation party

Mary Ann Henry traveling solo

Know why we bonded? We each had similar necklaces. This is Mary Ann's

The boo

So there I was at the Pulpwood Queens and Timber Guys Book Nation weekend, when this woman came over to me because we had the exact same necklace. Everywhere I looked among the hundreds of attendants, people were wearing this t-shirt that said Hell Hole Swamp Queen, 2nd Runner Up. Of course I wanted one. And of course, it was the brilliant promotional idea of Mary Ann! But that wasn't all we shared. Over fireballs at the Liberty Cafe in East Texas, we talked about everything from food to books to our lives and were fast friends by the middle of the drink.  Born in Charleston, Mary Ann has been described as "Turning the archetype of the Southern Woman on its head." Ladies in Low Places was awarded First place in the Fiction/Short Story Collection from Chanticleer Reviews. 

So happy to host you here, Mary Ann. Hope to share a glass of wine and talk with you again!

I always think that authors are haunted by something, which propels them to write their novels. What was haunting you with Ladies in Low Places (great title by the way.)

During my daughter's wedding, which I hosted at my house, my best friend's crack-addicted son broke in and stole more than twenty thousand dollars worth of antique jewelry which my daughter had inherited from her grandmother. Plus, thousands of dollars in cash. Never got the jewelry and cash back. But, the worst part? My friend was advised by her son's lawyer to never discuss it with me. We were best friends for twenty-five years and we never spoke again. 

it was a betrayal on many levels. I realized that women have experiences unique to our gender: mother-daughter, mother-son, and friend relationships that are complex and, sometimes, wounding. I took the heart break and funneled it into stories about women of all ages, and the real things that happen to us. People often expect short stories to be edgy and dark. I'd had enough edgy and dark in real life. And, because I'm Southern and I'm me, I laced it all with a dose of Southern humor. So, yes, the stories are about losing virginity, family alienation, disappointing husbands, searching for the authentic self...and humor. All with a somewhat hopeful ending.

What inspired you to do a T-shirt giveaway at the writer's conference where we met?

It was a risk, leading with my quirky humor, when the book has a lot of heart and soul and sadness as well. But, I thought: What the heck? We're all here to have fun. So, I took a character from one of the stories in Ladies in Low Places, who is forced to compete in the Miss Hell Hole Swamp, SC beauty pageant (it's a real thing) by her grandmother, who was a former Miss Hell Hole, and I put it on the t-shirt. I can't wait to hear from readers, as I've asked them to write and tell me what stories they make up when someone asks them, (when they're wearing their shirt), why they only made 2nd Runner-Up.Tell us about your creative process. Do you outline or fly by the seat of
your pants? 

I am obsessed with story structure. So, I like to write the story all the way to the end. Then, I go back and, in layers, concentrate on one thing at a time: plot, character, setting, timing, etc. I try to strip the character down to his/her essence. If they feel too shallow, I talk to myself while I'm driving or exercising, asking, 'But, why? Why would she do this? Why?' (laughing here). And, just because I write to the end, it doesn't mean the characters don't decide on their own what they're going to do. 

Do you have rituals?

Sort of. I avoid my office. Let everyone else's needs come before my own. I let all manner of distractions take me away from what I really should be doing (writing). And then, when I can no longer make excuses...I write!  I am also, finally, learning to regard writing as a spiritual practice. 

You mentioned you are working on two novels now. Is this a "Torn Between Two Lovers" situation? How do you manage this?

I realized at least two of my short stories from the collection could/should be novels or screenplays. I was half-way through a novel based in Charleston, SC, where I now live, when, last winter, I accepted a writer's residency on a mountain top, alone, in West Virginia. I took a train. I had no car. Snow everywhere. Isolation. I was Jack Nicholson in The Shining. But, that same mountainous region was one of the settings in a coming-of-age novel I'd written and hidden in a box years ago. I re-read it and wanted to give the main character and her supporting cast of characters, a chance at life. So, I took advantage of being back in the novel's setting and began re-writing and am presently polishing it. Hope to get an agent and a publisher. The other novel waits patiently. Perhaps readers will accept that I am both an Appalachian writer and a Southern one.  

You and I both share the same necklace, which we both think is fate. How else has fate impacted your work?

Other than the fact that I won a Women's Fiction award for the collection and flew to Seattle to accept it; and happened to be trapped on a bus for hours, in a traffic jam, going from the Seattle airport to the awards ceremony where I met Kathy Murphy, the head of the largest book club in the world, the Pulpwood Queens; and then, Ms. Murphy read Ladies in Low Places and invited me to be a featured author at their event in Texas, where, last weekend, I met one of my favorite authors, Caroline Leavitt, who happened to be wearing a small, bronze, antique compass on a long chain, nearly identical to my own, fate, I feel, is still waiting out there; ready to strike and make my writing dreams come?  All editors are welcome to completely change the punctuation in that sentence. 

What's obsessing you now and why?

I'm obsessed with solo and adventure travel for women. I've traveled to study with shamans, backpacked around Ireland; participated in a private ceremony inside the stones of Stonehenge; studied on a Lakota reservation; am headed to the Outer Hebrides this summer. I post about travel tips for women on my Author website and really can pack for 30 days in a 21" tall and 15" wide backpack. I am always obsessed with gardening because I have to be in contact with nature. I'm obsessed with dogs because I put my soul friend/black lab, Bentley, down last year and I have not yet met the Next Dog. I've been single for a long while and I wonder when the Next Man will appear. As a writer, I am obsessed with finding the perfect marriage of writer/author/publisher for my next two books, the novel set in West Virginia and the one set in South Carolina. 

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

Do I like fresh peas, walnuts and olive oil? Yes! Actually, I also love to teach writing. I used to teach young, creative geniuses at a School of the Arts, who would go to Carnegie Hall every year and pick up writing awards. I especially enjoy teaching a Finding Your Voice workshop where I get to unlock the writer-within in adults, usually women, who have been holding back all their lives. The flood gates open. It's amazing. I've put these workshops on hold to concentrate on my own projects. But I will teach again, someday.

Saturday, January 28, 2017

Turning tragedy into great art: Elizabeth Searle talks about WE GOT HIM, a novel about the Boston Marathon Bombings

You know it's always fun to get to interview an author you admire--and have befriended--and I am so honored and delighted to have Elizabeth Searle here talking about her magnificent new novel, WE GOT HIM, about the Boston Marathon bombings. In it, Searle takes a very public tragedy and turns it into personal and profound art.  And could it be more timely?

Elizabeth is the author of Girl Held in Home, and the librettist of Tonya & Nancy: The Rock Opera (!!! How cool is that?). Celebrities in Disguise was a Finalist for the Patterson Fiction Prize; A Four Sided Bed was nominated for an American Library Association Book Award; and My Body to You won the Iowa Fiction Prize. A Four sided Bed is now in development as a feature film.

Thank you so much for being here, Elizabeth.

I always think an author feels haunted to write a particular book at a particular time. What was it with this book?

The 2013 Boston Marathon bombing manhunt took place in our ‘backyard’ — our town of Arlington was locked down.  Seeing on TV tanks rolling through nearby Watertown, where the house of friends was searched by police with assault rifles brought home how in today’s world, terrorism can show up at your own doorstep.  What haunted me most was the face of the surviving bomber suspect once he was captured (the title of my book comes from a ‘Tweet’ message from the later Mayor Tom Menino: “We got him.”)  As the mother of a son, I could not believe how this bomber was still a teenager.  The horror of that fact gripped me.  

I already had two characters in my mind: a couple I’d written about in multiple short stories.  I had wanted to write a novel of their birth night.  But the story lacked the motor of a novel— until it hit me that I could set the birth on the manhunt night and that I could develop the character of the young wife Sarah’s troubled teenage stepson.  Since I was obsessed with the manhunt, setting the birth on that night of danger and death gave the whole story a charge and immediacy.  I found I needed to write on.

I loved that you took a massive tragedy and honed it down to the personal--making it the story of one particular family. Can you talk about how you intertwined the story of the bombing with Sarah's story?

Sarah is obsessed with birth, with her longtime longing for a baby.  Like many mothers to be, she is determined to keep her baby safe and to plan a perfect birth.  But the fears and tensions of the Marathon bombing— which she witnesses from afar— and then the wild-card reappearance of her unpredictable stepson combine to send Sarah into premature labor.  We all were struggling to keep our families safe the night of the manhunt.  With my characters Sarah and her husband Paul, I wanted to show this struggle intensified and magnified as they are forced to journey out into the manhunt chaos, terrified in different ways for both their sons. 

The wonderful author Sue Miller says you create characters and then decide ‘what awful thing’ will happen to them.  With Sarah, her biggest fear is for the safety of her baby and of her family- so I was drawn to ‘test’ her strength in multiple ways.  I always need a character who is a ‘loose canon’ rolling around the deck of a story— Sarah’s stepson, PJ, who resembles the dark-haired younger bomber, gets pulled into the police manhunt.  So I found ways via PJ to directly connect my two main characters, Paul and Sarah, with the larger drama and tragedy playing out on their birth night. 

How difficult was this to write? You live in Boston--were there moments when you felt so unsettled you had to get up and walk away from the computer?

Definitely yes it was difficult; I was very aware of treading on sacred ground in dealing with the bombing tragedy.  I made sure to research any detail connected to that.  I was lucky to get to talk firsthand to a police chief who’d taken part in the manhunt.  And yes, dealing with this material, I did need to back off from my computer regularly and pace around- or as my husband says, to lie on the bed and twitch.  As a reader, I look for writing that is intense.  So I am drawn to charged and ‘difficult’ material- but this material has extra personal meaning since Boston is my home.

How has your writing changed since  you first became a writer?

I’d say the biggest change is that about ten years ago I started writing theater scripts as well as fiction— it felt very freeing to me, like weights had been cut off my arms and legs, to tell stories via dialogue and action.  My earlier fiction is quite dense and descriptive.  After I started script-writing, my fiction got leaner and more action-packed, at least relative to those earliest stories!  My 2011 novel Girl Held In Home was meant to be cinematic in its style.  In We Got Him, I try to combine active script-style plotting with a bit more of my original interior descriptive bent.  A quote that inspired me early on in my fiction writings and still inspires me is something a critic said about Virginia Woolf: that she captures ‘the texture of a mind.’  I always try to do that and I also try to keep the outer story moving.  So it’s a balancing act— but I do feel in the last ten years I’ve developed a new bag of tricks I can draw from as a (still fledgling) script-writer.

What's obsessing you now? (I bet I know the answer because it's obsessing me, too.)

Alas, I’ve been obsessed with this dreadful election— As I write this, my son and I have just participated in the big March in Boston on the day after Inauguration.  On a positive obsessive note, my 18 year-old son is my hope for the future.  He is obsessed with politics in our family tradition and he is heading to college in the fall to save the world.

Writing-wise, I’m obsessed an ongoing film project: an indie film company Creatrix Films and an LA-based producer are working to develop my first novel A Four-Sided Bed— a menage a trois love story— into a feature film.  We had a staged reading of my script at a theater in LA last year, starring the amazing Evan Ross of Hunger Games and Gia Mantegna of Under the Dome. As you’ve done with your novels, I’ve been lucky to write the screenplay myself— a whole new adventure/obsession, which is what we all need right about now!

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

Very kind of you to ask that question in itself!  Hmm: ‘What’s my next book’ is always a fun one to discuss.  This spring, an anthology I co-edited is coming out from McFarland Books— Soap Opera Confidential: Writers and Soap Insiders on Why We’ll Tune In Tomorrow as the World Turns Restlessly by the Guiding Light of Our Lives. (!)  My co-editor is my literary soul sister and fellow soap fan Suzanne Strempek Shea.  Stay tuned…

And thanks so much, Caroline, for inviting me into fabulous carolineleavittville!

Saturday, January 21, 2017

Scoundrel Time, a fantastic new journal created by Paula Whyman and Mikhail Iossel for resistance, illumination and education in dark times

Paula Whyman

Mikhail Iossel

What do artists, actors, photographs, writers--and all of us-- do in a time of oppression? We paint, we write, we photograph, we bear witness. We never ever give up.  Scoundrel Time is a brand new journal to bring light to dark times. Please support it in any and all ways you can.  I am.

Paula Whyman is the author of You May See a Stranger, a linked story collection that won praise from The New Yorker and a starred review in Publishers Weekly. Paula’s writing has appeared in McSweeney’s Quarterly, Ploughshares, VQR, and The Washington Post, and on NPR’s All Things Considered. Paula teaches in writers-in-schools programs through the Pen/Faulkner Foundation in Washington, DC and The Hudson Review in Harlem and the Bronx, New York. She is a fellow of The MacDowell Colony, Yaddo, and The Studios of Key West, and a member of The MacDowell Colony Fellows Executive Committee. Paula has been awarded a 2017 Hawthornden Fellowship. A music theater piece based on a story from her book is in development with composer Scott Wheeler. Before earning her MFA, Paula edited books for the American Psychological Association on topics ranging from the study of personality to PTSD among refugees.

Mikhail Iossel, the Leningrad-born author of the story collection Every Hunter Wants to Know (W.W. Norton) and co-editor of the anthologies Amerika: Russian Writers View the United States (Dalkey Archive, 2004) and Rasskazy: New Fiction from a New Russia (TinConcordia University in Montreal House, 2010), is a professor of English/Creative Writing at Concordia University in Montreal, Quebec, Canada and the founding director of the Summer Literary Seminars international program. Back in the Soviet Union, he worked as an electromagnetic engineer/submarine demagnetizer and as roller-coaster security guard and belonged to the organization of samizdat writers, Club-81. He came to the US in 1986 and started writing in English in 1988. Among his awards are the Guggenheim, NEA and Stegner Fellowships. His stories, in English and in translation to a number of other languages, have appeared in NewYorker.com, Guernica, The Literarian, Agni Review, The North American Review, Threepenny Review, Interia, Boulevard, Best American Short Stories, and elsewhere.

I am so honored to host both Paula and Mikhail here, and to have written an essay for them. You all should, too.

What was your “why now” moment when you decided to launch this journal?

Mikhail: Because now is the ultimate “if not now, when” moment. We are all trying to make sense of the changed and still rapidly changing circumstances of our shared life as Americans, and as American writers. Writing, generally, is a solitary process, but there are times when joint free-writing feels like a necessity. It is an exercise in not being silent together, because silence is not the absence of sound, but the absence of us.

Paula: In the days after the election, like so many people, I was in shock. I couldn’t write fiction. I couldn’t sleep. Fiction requires imagining what happens next, and I was not yet prepared to do that. When Mikhail proposed a journal in which artists could address what was going on, I offered to help right away. I felt the need to do something in response to the situation. The only other thing that seemed viable was drinking heavily, and that is notably less sustainable.

What do you hope this journal will do? And how can it reach--and teach--the people it really needs to? How can it not just be "preaching to the choir?"

Mikhail: Preaching is antithetical to literature, and the choir’s essential purpose is to sing, rather than hearken to sermons in silence. Voices spread through the air, words permeate the cyberspace. Writers write, readers read, and frequently those two capacities are interchangeable, since by the act of reading reader gets transformed into a co-author. 

Paula: I’m not out to teach anyone anything. At least, we’re trying to get people thinking about the different ways our lives may be affected by what’s happening here and around the world. I want to help people to remember who they are and how interdependent we are. I want to build empathy. I want people to hold onto their humanity.

One way to get there is for more people to know about us, of course. I’m pleased to say that we are already beginning to hear from some well-known artists who want to help us reach a wider audience. Writers like you, Caroline, who have a platform, help draw attention to the talented but perhaps lesser-known artists who are telling compelling stories that we would like everyone to hear.

How do we discover and keep meaning in these dark times? Are you talking about the concrete things that people can do every week, or the things to keep us all from being so terrified we cannot move?

Mikhail: I like this quote from John Ashbery: “In the increasingly convincing darkness/ The words become palpable, like a fruit/ That is too beautiful to eat.” The condition of gathering non-freedom accelerates the mind, enhances one’s search for meaning, and elevates the role of writer as an alternative source of truth-telling in gaslighting-addled society.

Paula: My hope is that people will find something to connect with in the creative work we publish. I think meaning can be discovered through art. Many of my colleagues have expressed that it has been difficult or impossible to create since the election. I think that’s beginning to change. It’s like working through stages of grief. I have a feeling that once more artists begin working again, we are going to see a flood of exciting and innovative projects.

Also, in the days following the election, Mikhail noticed that a lot of Facebook pages had sprung up focused on organizing for marches or readings, signing petitions, responding to proposed legislation or nominees, and so on. I was at a talk where a representative from the ACLU explained that hope requires action; he quoted Cornel West: “Action leads to hope.” This is so true. We need to work together for the same primary purpose: to keep our democracy, to keep what rights we have and push for equal rights. Maybe that sounds trite and obvious, but sometimes people get lost in the weeds, or focus on searching for perfection in our allies, and forget that we’re all really talking about the same ultimate goal.

We will have an editor who runs a page we’re calling “Actions,” where current actions like those I just listed will be posted. That page will be updated frequently.

But our primary focus will be on presenting creative works from a range of voices, with, we hope, a global perspective. Our plan is to post new pieces a couple of times each week.

Will you also be giving voice to say, Trump voters, who are beginning to feel they were lied to?

Mikhail: Unlike in Trump-world, there will be no off-limits topics and non-grata categories of people in “Scoundrel Time.” 

Paula: No. They had their voice. Look what they did! They should all go stand in the corner.
Just kidding. Sort of. We would be glad to see work from people who are questioning, who have changed their minds, from former “true believers.”

Mikhail: Of course, the hateful people, the racists, those willfully wallowing in vileness, unrepentant in their ironclad ignorance, the determined scoundrels, will gain no access to our pages -- not that they would likely be interested.

What can everyone do to support this? And how can we really help one another?

Mikhail: One can support us by supporting us, in every sense of the term!

Paula: We are a 501(c)(3)—that is, a tax-exempt nonprofit. We accept donations, and your donations are tax deductible. Anyone who would like to donate, please contact us. Please consider donating! We are all volunteers. We hope donations will enable us to start paying our contributors. As a fiction writer, I feel strongly about that.

We launch on January 30th. We will accept work through the Submittable platform, and we won’t charge for submissions. Before you submit, I urge you to read the journal, of course. It will be free, and it’s online (as of Jan. 30). Couldn’t be easier. We won’t open to general essay submissions right away, but if you have an idea for an essay, please pitch me through the mailbox on our website.

Can you give us an example of the kinds of things you are looking for or that you have accepted?

Mikhail: I, for one, would be especially interested in the sheer geographic dispersal of literary voices, throughout North America and beyond.

Paula: I’m especially interested in seeing more humor writing. We have a humor piece in our launch issue that I love, along with an essay about how much demagogues hate humor. Keep it coming! I’m also interested in cartoons, comics, and graphic work in different genres.

We seek fiction, poetry, and visual art. It doesn’t have to be overtly political, but perhaps, to paraphrase our poetry editor, Mark Svenvold, work that engages with the contemporary political and cultural situation in direct and indirect ways we hadn’t anticipated, without necessarily arriving at an answer or solution. Maybe a carefully observed moment of beauty, of humor, of attention. As our fiction editor, Karen Bender explains, we look for work that humanizes, that surprises, that uses humor, that is both traditional and plays with form. We’re not opening to CNF submissions yet, but if anyone has an intriguing idea, please pitch me through the general mailbox on the site.

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

Who is contributing?

We have so much great work! Tremendous work! (Sorry, I can’t stand the way language is being debased these days…)

Some of the work we plan to include in the, uh, inaugural issue:
Poems by Daisy Fried, Terese Svoboda, Jim Daniels, Regie Cabico, and Bob Holman;
Fiction by Ben Greenman, Tracy O’Neill, David Ulin, Paul Lisicky, and Carolyn Ferrell.

Look for an essay about humor by South African novelist Tony Eprile; an essay about asylum by Peter Trachtenberg; a premonition by Timothy Denevi, who has followed the election for Lit Hub; a commentary on Caligula by novelist Valerie Block; an essay by none other than Caroline Leavitt about stories we tell ourselves; and a dispatch from Kenya about our election by Tony Mochama; and a dispatch from the UK by fiction writer Carole Burns. Plus photographs! And video performance art!

Mikhail: Can’t think of one. There already are too many unanswered and, at this point, unanswerable questions floating all around us.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Shanthi Sekaran talks about her astonishing novel LUCKY BOY, undocumented mothers who lose their kids, difficult emotions and why we love them, and more

"A deeply compassionate exploration of the emotional toll of infertility, the insidious ways in which class divides us, the weight of social judgment, and the explosive touch-point of todays headlines regarding illegal immigration." Booklist, starred review.

Shanthi Sekaran teaches creative writing at California College of the Arts. Her first novel, The Prayer Room, was published by the innovative MacAdam Cage. I'm so honored to have her here. Thank you so much, Shanthi!

 I always say every book starts with a yearning. What was yours?

My earliest emotional impulses around this book centered around curiosity. I’d heard about undocumented mothers having their children adopted away from them and I was intensely curious about what the actors in these situations were thinking. I suppose I yearned to get into the heads of people like Rishi and Kavya and Soli (my characters.) I wanted to get past intention—past the benevolent intentions of the adoptive parents, and understand how they came to believe that they could justifiably adopt the children of living and able mothers. I knew that their actions were driven by love, not hostility or hate, but I didn’t understand that love. I didn’t understand how their love could justify their actions.

What kind of writer are you? And did your usual process differ at all with this book?

I’d call myself an impulsive writer. I don’t wake up at 5 every morning to slog away at my desk. I admire people who can do that. I started off writing only when things came to me. That’s how I wrote my first book, in my mid twenties, before kids. It was written in small doses, based off flights of inspiration.

But eventually, when I had kids, I didn’t have that freedom with my time. So I became a writer who did have to sit down at certain times on certain days and churn out material. That was good for me. It increased my stamina as a writer. And there’s never enough time to write—not for me, anyway. I almost always have to leave my work half-finished, so I’ve gotten used to a certain level of hunger, of desperation to get back to my work. That desperation actually helps. It’s energy that I feed off of to keep plugging through a novel or an essay.

So much of this gorgeous novel is about whom we belong to and why that matters so much—and the longing for connection, to both place and to people. Can you talk about this please?

I do agree that place plays a major role in this novel, a different role for each mother. Soli finds, upon arriving in Berkeley, that her journey took her much further, psychologically speaking, from her little town in Mexico than she’d expected it to. It was an emotional as well as a physical journey. So when she starts her life in Berkeley, she wants nothing more than to feel at home. I’ve been an immigrant—I had to find my way into a new life when I moved to England for six years—and even in my relatively comfortable circumstances, I experienced this intense discomfort, this disorientation that comes with planting yourself in new soil. I wanted nothing more than to just feel at home. Kavya, on the other hand—her immigration happened a generation before her. In many ways, she’s so very Berkeley. She’s in the right place, geographically. Her migration was migration into motherhood. That’s where she had to find her comfort zone: as a mother to Ignacio.  And when she did find it, she dove in head first.

The novel also is asking what constitutes a better life? I found that incredibly profound and provocative.  What do you think the answer is?
This a question that immigrants have to grapple with—the question of whether what they find in their new home merits what they’ve given up in their old home. Whether material opportunity justifies the isolation, the danger, the uncertainty of the immigrant experience. Some immigrants, of course, don’t have the option of staying back home. For some, it’s a matter of escaping with their lives.

I think this question of the “better life”—this drive for self-improvement—is quintessentially American. It’s why the American Dream, whatever you might think of that construct, speaks so strongly to people from other countries. We take this quest for self-improvement for granted, living in America.  And to answer your question, I can’t really say what makes a better life. That answer is subjective. For a child, for Ignacio, a better life is one in which he’s loved. And he’s loved in both his possible lives.

What’s obsessing you now and why?
The direction our country is taking, the swell of activism that is growing, the importance of staying optimistic and driven in the face of nonsensical political maneuvering. What else…. My kids. Swing Time by Zadie Smith. Leonard Cohen. Doing a pull-up.

What question didn’t I ask that I should have.
Why do we read novels that yank our emotions around? I’ve always wondered that.

Anxious about the future? No matter your political bent, Gene Stone's THE TRUMP SURVIVAL GUIDE has a wealth of information on creating the America you want

Book, newspaper and magazine editor Gene Stone has written a concise, calm, and very helpful guide about what we can and should do during a Trump presidency. What's great about the guide is he not only explains how things are, he also discusses how they were with Obama, as well as suggesting ways to take action. I'm thrilled to have him here.  Thank you, Gene.

Why this book now? And why were you the person to write it?

Like many people, I was horribly dejected by the election outcome. I didn’t open the newspaper for the next two weeks. I avoided television news. I only went online to sites that might make me laugh. But after a week, I thought, someone has to sit down and write a quick book to help other people not only get through this pain, but help them rise out of it by offering advice on how to fight back. Wallowing in misery seldom solves the world’s problems.

As to why I thought I was the right person – well, I don’t have many skills… but I do think fast and write fast. In 2004, afraid that George W. Bush was going to win reelection, I wrote a book called The Bush Survival Bible in less than a week and it became a number one bestselling book. So I knew I had the experience to be able to call up a publisher and say, basically, trust me, I can write a book in less than two weeks.

I deeply admired your calm tone. How did that come about?

The tone was something I thought about for a long time (well, actually, a full day, which was all I had to be thinking about things like that when there are only a dozen days in a deadline). I wanted it to be measured and calm because I believe that frenzy and hysteria do not produce good results. But yes, I had to do a great deal of rewriting to rework those passages where I lost my equanimity and sounded shrill or frightened.

I don’t know many Trump supporters but I have run into a few online and their reaction is basically, I am an idiot, I am a traitor, I am a fool. Obama was the devil, Obama was the anti-Christ, Obama was a Muslim terrorist. Trump will save America, Trump will make America great again, Trump is a hero. There’s not much I can do with that. The fact is, however, that if these people read the book, they would see that this is not an anti-Trump book per se. It is an anti-Trump book if he chooses to follow a certain, dark path. I make it quite clear that we don’t know yet what kind of a president he will be. (However, his cabinet picks so far are not promising.)

When did you start writing the book and what was the process like?

I started writing this on November 19th and finished on the 29th. Luckily, I am something of a political junkie so I knew where to go to find more information. But I also hired seven friends to help write, research, fact-check, and copy-edit. I could not have written this book without them, particularly Nicholas Bromley, who has worked on other books with me and was invaluable to getting this one done.
I was trolled on twitter. I really do want to talk to people with different views than I have and to find something in common, but how is the best way to have a reasonable discussion?

I am terribly sorry you were trolled like that. But the moment we voice our opinions on line, we are immediately vulnerable: something about the Internet allows people to engage in their worst behavior. So it’s difficult to have reasonable discussions online, especially with people like the one you mention. Frankly, there’s probably nothing you could have said or done that would have made him or her adopt a more reasonable attitude. The only time people really seem able to do that is when they are forced by person-to-person contact to understand that we are all basically the same, humans struggling to make sense of our lives, the world, and whatever else comes up every day to confuse and baffle us. I have read some wonderful stories of people spouting bigotry and intolerance who for various reasons were put into situations where they had to interact with the objects of their hate, and after hours of honest and open discussion, did come away with a new, softer sense of what it means to be human. But that takes time, and effort, and most people simply don’t care enough. The best you can do is what you are already doing. Try to be kind and understanding, even in the face of hate. The last lines of my book are:

… more than working on an issue that concerns you, more than joining a demonstration,  more than signing a petition, perhaps the very best way to fight to keep this country a land of dignity and freedom is to show civility and support to all Americans, whatever their gender, race, creed, or color. When you buy your morning coffee from the Afghan man at the counter, or when you consult with your Estonian lawyer, or when you work with your South African accountant, tell them how much you appreciate what they do and how glad you are that they live here. Appoint yourself the ambassador for the America that you believe in.

Can microdosing with LSD help depression? Ayelet Waldman talks about A REALLY GOOD DAY, her writing life, her marriage, her moods, more

Ayelet Waldman is an Israeli-American novelist and essayist. She has written seven mystery novels, four other novels, and some controversial essays about motherhood.In A Really Good Day, she talks about turning to microdosing with LSD to help her sanity and her marriage--and the book is spectacularly fascinating.

Thank you so much for being here, Ayelet.

I always want to know why this book, why now? What did you intend to figure out while writing it, and what happened instead?

I didn't intend to write a book at all. I found myself in a very scary, very desperate place. My mood disorder, once well controlled by medication, was proving harder and harder to control. I was slipping into despair, fighting with my husband. I was in terrible pain from frozen shoulder. I was desperate and decided to try microdosing. I began keeping a faithful diary of my experience, and soon realized that I was writing a book!

How we feel, how we react, are all chemical processes, so it makes sense that the right drugs could help us to feel and act and BE better. yet so many of them have terrible side effects or are addicting. But you found micro doses of LSD incredibly helpful--and now you cannot legally get more.  How can we change the mindset of the country about this in terms of legalizing helpful drugs like weed and micro doses of LSD?

What's interesting is that compared to other drugs, cannabis and psychedelics actually have far fewer side effects and negative outcomes. No one has every overdosed on either. I know that's hard to believe. I myself believed a whole lot of stuff that turned out not to be true. I spend a lot of time talking about safety in the book because I was very worried about it. I include lots of research and references. I'm a big believer in a reality and science based approach to life!

You're known for your absolute bravery and honesty in putting your feelings and your life on the  page. There's a lot about your marriage in this book, and a lot about your feelings about who you are and how you behave and why. Did that every make you nervous to expose yourself so much?

I think whenever you write memoir you have to be very thoughtful about what you say and what you don't say. Every one draws their own line in the sand. For example, while I'm happy to reveal my own foibles and mistakes, to an unusual extent perhaps, I would never write anything negative about my husband.

What I loved about your book was the honest assessment of what drugs can and cannot do for us. How are you feeling now that you are no longer micro dosing? Are there residual effects?  And how are you managing your anxiety/depression now?

I wish I could still microdose. I'm definitely not doing as well as I was. I have to work much harder to maintain equilibrium.  I go to therapy. I try (unsuccessfully) to mediate. I use all sorts of apps and things to remind me to breath and calm down. I even got a tattoo with the word "wait" on my arm, to try to remind myself to think before I act.

What did you learn from the whole experience that you didn't expect?

That LSD is wildly misunderstood. That there are a myriad of uses for this and similar drugs that scientists are only now being allowed to explore. And that when you say "I took LSD" a surprising number of people say, "Me too!"

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Alice Hoffman talks about FAITHFUL, forgiveness, fame, the state of the world, and her dog named Shelby--and more

Portrait of the artist

The gorgeous book cover

Alice's dog Shelby

Okay, here is a truth for you. When I was in my 20s and starting out as a writer, I became obsessed with Alice Hoffman. I saw her first novel Property Of in a bookstore, and when I read that she was just 21, I felt a spark in me and I instantly bought the novel.  Plus, it had all these raves on the back cover. Plus, it was dark. Plus, the first sentence just pulled me in. That novel inspired me. It pushed me to get more serious, to write harder and better, no matter what else was going on in my life.

I'm happy to say that now, I have a bumping-into-you connection with Alice. A few years ago, I met her in person at an Algonquin party and I just felt an instant connection. A few weeks ago, while in a NPR studio waiting to be interviewed,  Alice came out from her interview and we got to hug and talk. And I am so jazzed to host her on my blog.

She's one of our most respected and prolific authors. As I mentioned, her first novel Property Of was published when she was just 21, but 22 other novels have followed, as well as 3 books of shorter fiction, and 8 books for young adults and kids. Here on Earth was an Oprah Book Club choice. Practical Magic was made into a Warner film starring Sandra Bullock and Nicole Kidman. Hoffman’s advance from Local Girls, a collection of inter-related fictions about love and loss on Long Island, was donated to help create the Hoffman Breast Center at Mt. Auburn Hospital in Cambridge, MA. Her other glorious titles include Blackbird House, Aquamarine, Indigo,  The River King, Blue Diary, The Probable Future, The Ice Queen. Green Angel, The Foretelling, Incantation, The Third Angel, The Story Sisters, Green Witch, The Red Garden, The Dove Keepers, and The Marriage of Opposites.

Faithful, her latest, is about hope and belief and forgiveness--and it's remarkable.

Thank you so much for being here, Alice, and wait, wait, when are we having coffee?

I always am fascinated by how and why a writer writes a particular book at a particular time. What was the why now moment for your extraordinary Faithful?

I wrote about forgiveness as a way of learning about it -- it's such a difficult thing to practice. I think forgiveness is something that flows two ways -- what you give, you receive.

You've written so many, many different kinds of books. You write YA, you write historical novels, you write magical novels--but what is so interesting to me is that they are all Alice Hoffman novels in some way. You recognize that spark. Is there any type of novel you have no interest in doing?

 I think that all writers have a voice that is unique, like a fingerprint. No one can write the way that you can, it's something that's yours alone. And it's true, I write the way I read, and always want to try something new. I can't think of any type of novel I wouldn't want to try. At least once!

How do you handle your huge success? (You seem to do it with the utmost grace.)

Thank you! I feel very lucky. I never though I could be a writer, and certainly not a published one. I was a reader and I still think of myself that way. Although sometimes the book I want to read isn't there, so I have to write it myself.

I have a silly question, but I have to ask. I know you have or had a dog named Shelby, and there is a Shelby, of course, in this novel. How important are names to you and how do you know when you have the right one?

I think names are so important. I loved Shelby, and I guess I didn't want to give her up, and since she's such a "dog person" it seemed a fitting name for my sheepdog. Occasionally, I've changed a name of a character and it never "feels" right.

What's obsessing you now and why?

Oh, the state of the world.

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

You asked them all! Thank you! Lovely to talk writing with you!

Monday, January 2, 2017

The acclaimed Pulitzer Prize-winning Sceenwriter/Playwright/Producer Robert Schenkkan talks about his latest film, HACKSAW RIDGE, Mel Gibson, a soldier who won the Medal of Honor without firing a single shot, and so much more

I love talking to creative people, but being able to talk with the great Robert Schenkkan, (Thank you for the introduction, writer/director and friend Michael Medeiros) was truly like a gift from the gods for me. Pulitzer-prize winning, Tony@ Award winning, Writer's Guild Award winning, two-time Emmy nominated writer of Stage, Television, and Film, Schenkkan is the author of fourteen original full-length plays, two musicals, and a collection of one-act plays. He co-wrote the feature film, THE QUIET AMERICAN and HACKSAW RIDGE, and his television credits include: ALL THE WAY, THE PACIFIC, THE ANDROMEDA STRAIN and SPARTACUS.

What can I say? Thank you, thank you, thank you, Robert.

You've written critically acclaimed plays for both adults and children, written award-winning films, and worked in films like All The Way and Hacksaw Ridge. Was each new creative endeavor an outgrowth of the other? Do you find yourself bringing a different mindset to what you do? And do you have a preference? How different is the world of theater and movies?

I started Hacksaw in 2006 and worked with a number of different directors over the next ten years. I began the research on All The Way in 2010 and the world premiere at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival was 2012. I imagine that the lessons (good and bad) of each  project influence the next but these two had very little to do with each other.

It’s a slightly different tool kit for each, movies and theater, and I very much enjoy moving back and forth between the two. I feel it keeps me sharper, less likely to repeat myself. The primary difference is a legal one but it makes an enormous difference. As a playwright, I retain my copyright and complete creative control. As a screenwriter I don’t own my own copyrights and am thus at the mercy of others. This is why the playwright is more respected in his field than the screenwriter in Hollywood.

I always think that creative people are somewhat haunted and they release some of that anxiety by creating. Maybe that's just me, but if it isn't, I'd love to know what drives you? What's haunting you?

I don’t think of myself as haunted at all – that seems like knee-jerk nod to the old trope that artists are all neurotics and it is their neurosis that makes their art. Van Gogh did not paint because of his depression but despite it. I love words. I love stories. I always have. There is something about writing that is deeply satisfying to me. I like this quote by Lisa Carver, “I write like putting doors on a car or solving a geometry problem – like there’s only one answer, and I keep fiddling till I find it. It’s not talent that I feel when I get it right; it’s goodness. Like I’ve buttoned down one small pocket of the world and what I put inside is safe now.”

Let's talk about Hacksaw Ridge, your newest film, which you wrote. What's so fascinating about the film is that it's about a conscientious objector who found himself in wartime, and actually saved 75 people without firing a single shot. And it's a true story. Where did you learn of this story?  And what your initial intention to do with it. What questions did you want to explore?

I was approached in 2006 by producer Bill Mechanic who had just acquired the rights. I didn’t know anything about Doss until Bill sent me a documentary. I was knocked out and said yes immediately. I think the danger here lies in making Desmond a secular saint. This would be less interesting to watch and actually not true to Desmond’s struggle to reconcile his Faith and his Patriotism. My solution was to focus not just on his external battles with the Army and with his company (although I dramatized that considerably) but also on his internal struggles – his doubts and his despair. The key to the latter was to make central to his character the mystery of why he won’t touch a gun. This is not part of his Seventh Day Adventism or necessarily being a CO. The revelation, deliberately delayed until the second act, is that Desmond doesn’t feel superior to his fellow soldiers, far from it. No, his reluctance to touch a weapon stems from his awareness of his own all-too-human urge to violence. That’s an interesting idea for a conscientious objector.

I know you cannot speak for others, but I'm interested in the way the media is calling this movie Mel Gibson's atonement as well as his comeback. You wrote this film, but he directed it. Were there choices he made that you wish he hadn't? Or were there choices he made that surprised you? I'm always curious about how much of a writer's vision makes it to the screen? 

A writer never gets everything he wants in a move unless he directs it himself but having said that, I think Mel did a terrific job, especially considering how modest the budget was (1/2 of what he shot Braveheart on 20 years earlier!) and how tight the shooting schedule. His action sequences are brilliant and what you would expect from Mel but it was the tenderness of his handling the love story that exceeded my expectations.

What are you working on now--and why?

I have two movies that I am trying to get into production in 2017: THE PROJECT to be directed by Robert Redford about the Manhattan Project and FALL OF SAIGON about America’s last days in Vietnam. We are out to directors on that. I am currently writing a movie for Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Amazon about Reconstruction and I have another film project which is still being negotiated. I have a new play, HANUSSEN, which will be workshopped at the Denver Summit Theater Festival in February and another new play, BUILDING THE WALL, which I hope to have in production in 2017. I have play commissions from A.R.T. and the Geffen Theater and the Public Theater.

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

What's your favorite quote: From the French novelist, Flaubert. “Be regular and orderly in your life like a bourgeois, so that you may be violent and original in your work.”