Thursday, June 14, 2018

Rebecca Makkai talks about her brilliant new novel, THE GREAT BELIEVERS, the Paris art world of the 1920s, the AIDS crisis, healthy terror, and why you should drink a Beauty Spot while reading her novel.


First, take a gander at just some of the raves.

The Great Believers is a magnificent novel — well imagined, intricately plotted, and deeply felt, both humane and human. It unfurls like a peony: you keep thinking it can’t get any more perfect, and it does. A stunning feat.”
Rabih Alameddine, author of The Angel of History and Koolaids: The Art of War
“Stirring, spellbinding, and full of life.”
Tea Obreht, author of The Tiger’s Wife
“In the remarkable The Great Believers, Rebecca Makkai conjures up a time as startling as a dream and, in its extremity, achingly familiar to us now, close enough to hold. A tender, sly, immersive, irreverent, life force of a book.”
Paul Lisicky, author of The Narrow Door: A Memoir of Friendship
Rebecca Makkai is the author of the short story collection Music for Wartime, wand of the novels The Hundred-Year House, winner of the Chicago Writers Association award, and The Borrower, a Booklist Top Ten Debut which has been translated into eight languages. She's also the recipient of a 2014 NEA fellowship.

Thank you so much, Rebecca for being here!

I always want to know what the “why now” moment is for an author in writing a novel. What was haunting you and propelling you to write?

When I started, I really just wanted to write about the Paris art world of the 1920s.  It felt romantic and tragic. As I planned, though, that stuff turned into a subplot and the book became about the AIDS epidemic in Chicago in the 1980s. The research I did, especially the interviews I conducted and the photos I found, became my motivation. So much about what I learned made me angry and broke my heart, and those are great reasons to write.

I first came to NYC during the AIDS crisis of the 80s. I remember the silence=death icons all over the sidewalk and the horror of friends dying.  What was your research like?

I’m a bit too young to remember the height of the crisis personally, and didn’t want to rely on secondary sources, so I did a lot of primary source reading (gay weeklies on archive from the ‘80s, online personal accounts) and a ton of in-person interviews. I interviewed survivors, doctors, nurses, journalists, historians, activists, lawyers, basically everyone who was willing to talk to me. And then, after I’d written the book, I gave it to three of those people to read—people who I knew would call me on every little thing that felt even slightly off. I was terrified of getting things wrong, both factually and emotionally, and I think that terror was healthy for me.

I’m always interested in process, which is almost always different for every writer. What was it like for you? Did you find that you had learned lessons from writing The Hundred-Year House that you were using in The Great Believers, or was it like writing everything from scratch?

 Both my last novel and this one are densely populated, and I figured out only late into drafting The Hundred-Year House that I needed to combine several characters for clarity and economy (as well as depth of character). I realized it much earlier this time, and made myself a character map in which it became clear that I had a lot of redundancies. Or sometimes I’d have characters hanging out in entirely different corners of the map (someone from 1985 Chicago and someone from 2015 Paris) and realize they could be the same person, thirty years apart.

Although so much of this incredible novel is steeped in death, it feels more life-affirming than any other novel this year. Can you talk about this please?

I have a doggedly optimistic worldview, even when I absolutely know better. My default mode is hopeful. And I think that both of my point of view characters share that, even in the face of so much awfulness and despair. I found my title very early—before I’d written a word of the book, in fact—and knew I needed it. It’s from an F. Scott Fitzgerald quote about the Lost Generation, one I use as an epigraph. In many ways, I wrote to the title, forcing myself to ask what my characters believe in, against the odds.

What’s obsessing you now and why?

Besides our awful border policies… I’ll choose to interpret “obsessing” in a good way, like what am I really interested in right now. I’m thinking a lot about Golden Age Hollywood (behind the scenes stuff, not the movies themselves), and I’m thinking a lot about true crime. The murder of Martha Moxley, and another unsolved backyard murder that a friend told me about in Shaker Heights, Ohio. I’ve been listening to a lot of true crime podcasts, which is maybe not great for me psychologically, but it’s been a good distraction as my book is coming out.

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

You should ask what cocktail people should drink when they read my book. And the answer is they should drink a beauty spot, which is really pretty and delicious, and I think it matches the cover a bit.

Tuesday, June 5, 2018

Jenna Blum talks about THE LOST FAMILY, genetically coded emotions, the difference between writing and public life, and so much more.

Portrait of the artist and I bet she's wearing pajamas and you can't see them

Jenna Blum is the New York Times and internationally bestselling author of Those Who Save Us (the #1 bestselling novel in Holland), The Stormchasers, and The Lucky Ones. She's one of Oprah's Top 30 Women Writers, and I'm so lucky to count her as a friend. We've had online pajama parties, mourned our moms together, and everything fantastic that they say about her is totally true.

Her new book The Lost Family is extraordinary. Says The Village Voice, "You can't help but be swept up for the ride." I'm thrilled to have Jenna here because I love the book, and I love her.

I always think writers are haunted into writing their books. What was haunting you?

Recently on Twitter there was the hashtag #WhyIWrite. My answer was simple: because I have people in my head who won’t leave me alone. I had worked with the hero of The Lost Family, Peter Rashkin, before in my novella for the post-WW2 anthology Grand Central, and I was gratified and humbled by readers demanding to know what happened to him beyond the cliffhanger I left him on. So I was preoccupied by that question and kept throwing it up to the Universe—but the answer always returned to me in the form of Peter’s daughter, Elsbeth, and her unsuitable crush Julian, the photographer. I was consistently presented by the image of the two of them on Elsbeth’s nominal grandparents’ terrace in Larchmont, New York, both outsiders—Julian because he is the flavor du jour photographer who’s making a sensation shooting naked pre-teens; Elsbeth because she’s a teenager. They’re both synesthestic, meaning they assign colors to letters and numbers, and I saw them over and over again comparing notes. They were as persistent as Elizabeth Warren, and they were the part of The Lost Family I started writing first.

The shadow of WWII hovers over the book. I’ve read recently that scientists have shown that traits like sorrow are actually genetically coded and can be passed down through the generations. It felt very much like that in your novel. Can you talk about this please?

I’m so, so glad you mentioned this, wonderful Caroline! It’s like you’re prescient, looking into my head, study, and research process for The Lost Family. Much of what I was working on, and a theme I’ve been fascinated with for all my novels, is how people survive trauma: what effect it has on their psyches, bodies, and lives; how they forge on in the aftermath. And since our knowledge of PTSD is always evolving, so is my research. For Peter, for example—an Auschwitz and Treblinka survivor—I read The Body Keeps The Score, a seminal book about how trauma is encoded in our physical beings and how that might be treated. While I was hip-deep in that book, the New York Times  began running articles about how trauma affects not only the survivor but can be encoded in his DNA and passed down to the next generation! Children of survivors, for instance, often have abnormalities in their levels of cortisol—a chemical that regulates the body’s fight or flight instinct. So Peter’s daughter Elsbeth may not only be mentally  influenced by her father’s response to trauma, which is that he has an easily reachable emotional saturation point—too much emotion and he shuts down. Elsbeth may also have physically inherited Peter’s trauma, which presents in her life as an eating disorder.

Of course, children of survivors often talk about their parents’ strange attitudes and behaviors toward food: it’s common for survivors to be food hoarders, for instance. Peter is a chef, and his wife, Elsbeth’s mom June, is a former supermodel, so right there you have an excellent recipe for Elsbeth’s anorexia and bulimia. Plus, the 80s. Still, we are all a product of our family’s genetic and emotional blueprints, and children of trauma survivors bear some unusual markings, which is a big theme in The Lost Family.

So much of The Lost Family is about the families we make and the families we yearn for and can no longer have. Its tragic hero really is Peter, who is a survivor of Auschwitz, a celebrated chef who refuses to be called chef because that was what he was called in the concentration camp. He tries to remake his life with June, a beautiful model and they have a daughter. But how can he let go of the past in order to find a future? Do you think this is possible?

That’s such a good question. I know a therapist—a trauma expert, actually, specializing in exactly the kinds of techniques Peter needs, therapy that physically retrains the body to recognize that trauma is no longer happening. His mantra is: “The sh*t never goes away.” Once there’s trauma, there’s always trauma. With help, you can learn to recognize it, live with it, and manage your responses to it, making your life easier on yourself and your family. This is help Peter is loathe to take advantage of in The Lost Family, even though his wife June begs him, before their marriage and during, to go into analysis. But this specific kind of therapy wasn’t available during the decades—1960s - 1980s—in which The Lost Family takes place, even if Peter had been willing.

The Holocaust survivors I interviewed for the Steven Spielberg Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation had by and large managed to move on with their lives, and although it’s irresponsible to generalize, my impression is that many of them accomplished this feat by major compartmentalization. They didn’t talk about their experiences—period. Not to their families, not to their spouses—even if, in some cases, their spouses were also survivors. Not until I came along with the Foundation as an “objective listener,” an interested party with no personal investment, were many of them able to talk, and then several ordered their testimonies sealed until after their deaths, so they would never know their stories had on their families.   

Or they were public speakers who talked about their experiences all the time, in schools, synagogues, and libraries, traveling ceaselessly to warn their audiences what evil people are capable of so it would never happen again.

So I guess my answer is: the sh*t never goes away, but people find ways of working with it. Those ways might not be perfect and they might hurt other people. But the persistence of hope in the face of unimaginable past hurt is remarkable. And your question—can we really ever move on? Is there redemption?—is so fascinating and out of reach to me still that I’m working on it for Book 4.

I loved the story of Elsbeth, and the older artist, which was both shocking and exactly true.  Can you talk about how pain changes us—and how, unlike Peter, we might be able to become whole again?

Thank you so much! I have to admit, I adore Julian, in all his talent and complete f*cked-up-ness. And Elsbeth, with her awkwardness and her sort of mouth-breathing, stubborn determination to make him see her the way she wants him to, so she can capture him. Elsbeth literally reshapes herself to make Julian love her—a futile pursuit, of course, because all along Julian has been capturing Elsbeth precisely as she is, and that’s what makes his portraits of her so successful. I loved playing with questions of perception and self-perception in Elsbeth’s section—it’s such a hall of mirrors. I was a plump kid and bullied for it, like Elsbeth, and naturally evolved into an eating disordered teen, and even today I am sometimes surprised to look into a mirror and see the woman I am now as opposed to the ever-present teenager. Sometimes I ask my guy, “Is that woman what I look like? What about her? Or her?” I literally have no idea what shape I am. What has helped me—and what I hope Elsbeth will grow into eventually—is not to depend on other people bouncing back my idea of self to me, you’re my sweet assistant chef daughter, you’re fat, you’re a superstar!—but to give myself the gift, every day, of saying, You know what? You’re doing the best you can and you’re more than enough, you’re okay.

What was your research like? I loved reading about the 1960s, up into the 1980s.  Do you find that your own past reverberates in your novels?

What, my past in my novels? Nah. Ha! As you can tell from the above answers, I put a lot of my past into my novels, usually lavishly disguised, sometimes less so, but hopefully with enough layering of story that I’m really out of my own head and into character. I have no intention of writing memoir.

I’m a little known in writing circles for being a “method researcher,” as one of my readers kindly called it, although you could also call what I do “craziness.” I try to recreate, as fully as possible, the environment in which my characters live. For my first novel, Those Who Save Us, I baked everything that appears in the book—while wearing a German girl outfit—went to Germany four times, and interviewed survivors. For my second novel, The Stormchasers, I went stormchasing with a pro tour company for 7 years. For The Lost Family, I did significant research for each character and era: first of all, I had an image board up in my study, comprised of images from 1965, 1975, and 1985, respectively. Every time I finished writing or rewriting a character, I’d take all those photos down and replace them.

For Elsbeth, I read a lot about the children of survivors, inherited trauma, and photography—my fiancé is a Nikon and National Geographic photographer, so although he doesn’t shoot naked children, he was my numbe-one resource. I would ask him things like, “Your camera in the 80s—what did the shutter click sound like? And how did you spell that noise? Like chkchkchkvsssshhh?”

For June, I re-read all my favorite feminist tomes from the 1970s as well as all the fiction of the day, which was very much about women finding themselves. I probably spent an inordinate amount of time lying on my bed in overalls, knee socks, and a bandanna, over a t-shirt that read FEMINIST, wallowing in Erica Jong. And my walls were papered with supermodels from her era.

For Peter, I spent an entire summer reading chef memoirs—then creating the menu for his restaurant, Masha’s, inventing the dishes, and cooking every single item. My guy and our dog were my willing taste-testers. I had the most fun making baguettes, which involves throwing ice cubes into the oven at intervals while they were baking to make a crisp crust, resulting in satisfying explosions. And the Masha Torte chocolate cake, which features cherries flambé so you can set it on fire. Our favorite was Chicken Kiev, a recipe I modified from the MadMen Cookbook, which involves doing many obscene things with butter. I had a restaurant in my basement when I was a kid, called Faster, and I worked in food service for many years to feed my expensive writing habit, so Peter’s story helped me live my alternate existence as a chef.

What kind of writer are you? You make it seem so effortless.  And what is it like to be a star over in Holland, as well as here?

I am the kind of writer who either is writing or not writing. I don’t write every day; I write when the story is ready, which means I shuffle around for months if not years thinking about the story, letting it gestate in my mind, making cryptic notes but not too many because I don’t want to dispel it. I’m both in love with the story at that point and cranky because I feel guilty for not actually writing-writing. When I am writing-writing, I do nothing else—I don’t teach, I don’t do any public-speaking. I sequester in my house in rural Minnesota and make bread or soup in the morning, drag my heels, whine, clean, vacuum, and sometimes drive to TJMaxx, and then I write for three or four hours. I do this until the book is done, which takes three to six months, and then I revise, same process, and then I do it again and again until the book is not perfect, because it will never be, but as right as it will get. During this time I correspond daily with a couple of other writers going through the same thing, and I inflict nonsequitur conversation on my guy, and after the first draft my agent reads the book and gives feedback, and I wear the same pair of yoga pants or pajamas for, like, ever. I change them when I remember real people can see me.

As you can  imagine, this is quite a contrast to public life. I am truly blessed—the word cannot express the miracle of it—to have a phenomenal following in Holland, which is a result of my first novel, Those Who Save Us, being very popular there. I think this is because so many Dutch readers were in the Resistance during World War  II or remember their parents and grandparents resisting the Nazis. I have tremendous reader support in the States, an equal miracle. When I’m done writing a book, I do my Emerald City treatment with some very excellent vanity service providers, abuse Anthropologie, and go on tour. There is such a weird leap between walking around with people in my head for months and months in total isolation and then being out in public, in big rooms filled with real people, who somehow know the people in my head. Stephen King calls it “the telepathy of reading”; it’s like electricity or light, which illuminate our lives  even though we can’t quite see how they work. It’s magic.

Thursday, May 31, 2018

Jasmin Darznik talks about SONG OF A CAPTIVE BIRD, the Iranian poet Forugh Farrokhzad and her struggle not to be silenced.

Jasmin Darznik
is the New York Times bestselling author of  The Good Daughter: A Memoir of My Mother’s Hidden Life. Her books have been published in sixteen countries. Jasmin was born in Tehran, Iran and grew up in Northern California. Her novel SONG OF A CAPTIVE WORD is so enthralling, I was up and reading at four in the morning. And I'm not the only one to think so:

 “A complex and beautiful rendering of [a] vanished country and its scattered people; a reminder of the power and purpose of art; and an ode to female creativity under a patriarchy that repeatedly tries to snuff it out”—The New York Times Book Review

Thank you so much, Jasmin, for being here.


 What was the “why now” moment for you to write Song of a Captive Bird?

As one of the most trailblazing women of the twentieth century, Forugh had fascinated me for years and years. My mother brought a book of her poems to America when we fled Iran in the late 1970s, and I’d grown up with a sense of how she’d been idolized in Iran, especially by young women, but also how controversial she’d been. One of Forugh’s translators, Sholeh Wolpe, tells the story of an older Iranian woman demanding to know why she was bothering with “that whore Forugh”—five decades since her death, she still elicits that response, so you can imagine how she scandalized her society during her lifetime. Soon after publishing my first book, The Good Daughter, I began casting about for a new subject. Forugh Farrokhzad quickly rose to the top of my list of possibilities. Her life was shot through with drama, but when I began my research, I found no existing work offered what felt like a full and true portrait of her, which led me to the place where books are born: I had to write the story I couldn’t find. 

I was absolutely haunted by the story of Iranian poet Forugh Farrokhzad, raised to be compliant an silent, forced into marriage, and becoming a writer both praised and reviled. What made you decide to write this as fiction, rather than fact?

I’ve always been drawn to women whose stories have been erased or obscured. Despite having been an icon—and in some sense because she had been such an icon—when she died, Forugh took much of her story with her. Many of her letters and papers disappeared. It’s possible they were destroyed by her lover and her family. Certainly, those closest to her were strangely silent once she died. That silence would have qualified as a nightmare had I attempted a biography; for a novelist, it created space into which I could risk infusing a different kind of truth. I love E.L. Doctorow’s line about history telling us what happened and novels telling us what it felt like for things to happen. What I most wanted was imagine what it took for a woman of Forugh’s time and place to so utterly transform herself, both as a woman and an artist, and what it cost her to strike out in such a bold way.

Your first, NYT Bestselling book was a memoir about your mother. How different did it feel to write a novel?

It actually felt quite similar. The Good Daughter, while a true story, has the feel of the novel in that it’s carried along by a dramatic story line, and like Song of a Captive Bird, it began with a long, deep dive into historical archives. And then there’s my obsession with language, which I carry everywhere with me. I do think memoirs tend to tax you at a higher emotional rate, especially if you’re writing while your family members are alive and thus prone to judgment, as mine were. On the other hand, taking on the life of a cultural icon was truly daunting. What if I got it wrong? What if I messed it up? The stakes felt high—and while I was writing I had to forget them entirely. To simultaneously pretend that no one would ever read what I was writing while believing nothing mattered more than writing this story.

I imagine the research must have overtaken you. What stunned you the most? Was there anything in particular that changed the factual story for you?

I’d been researching Forugh’s life for a while when I came across a reference to her participation in the political protests that rocked Iran during the early sixties. As I went deeper into the research, I began to learn of a spate of mysterious deaths and disappearances, many involving writers, artists, and intellectuals of the time. I wanted a way to connect those two narratives, and that’s when I came up with the story of Leila Farmayan and her brother Rahim. It allowed me to preserve certain elements of the factual story while breaking free of others, and it gave the novel the shape and urgency it needed to satisfy a reader for whom Forugh, and maybe also Iran, was not familiar.

This novel is so timely, so important. In your author’s note, you ask the question about “what were the rules? What were the possibilities?”  for an Iranian woman during Forugh Farrokhzad’s time. It’s a question that could be asked today because you have to know the rules to break them, and I think you have to be brave enough to risk the possible to make it happen. Can you talk about this please?

Every woman, in her own way, asks those questions. The Me Too and Times Up movement have forced them to the surface, but they’ve been there always. The answers might not play out as a public spectacle in the way Forugh’s did, but it seems to me we are all still fighting for our lives. How is it that I can read a story like “Cat Person,” which tells the story of a twenty-something college student and find my own twenty year-old self so eerily reflected in its pages? The persistence of those experiences breaks my heart. We’re fighting in intimate spheres—our minds and our relationships—and public ones, too. That’s why I think its so important to read and learn about exemplary women—women who speak out and step into their power. You cannot become what you can’t see. We need to see more women acting bravely, and also to make ourselves be seen in brave ways.

What’s obsessing you now and why? (And what are you working on next, too, please)

I’ve just started a novel set in 1920s San Francisco. For a long time all I knew was that I had to write about that time and place, and eventually I found a character to set loose into that time and place. I think you have to be very interested in your characters—you spend hours every day in their company, so it’s essential to choose well. To me the great joy of writing historical fiction is that you get to live in another time. I find it highly appealing to escape my own life, though of course you think you are escaping only to find yourself staring down all your same old obsessions. I do love to challenge myself though, and with this novel it’s telling a story in a shorter time frame. My two earlier books each cover several decades, and I’m interested in what can emerge in a more compressed form. What kinds of depth are possible on a more intimate canvas.

What question didn’t I ask that I should have?
I think as women writers it’s important to talk about what makes our work possible—and often impossible. My whole writing life has taken place within my life as a mother and, more recently, a caretaker to my own mother, who has Alzheimers. The thing I said earlier about fighting for own’s life is very much on my mind these days. Writing demands vast reserves of solitude and reflection. I describe it sometimes as moving to another planet, which is not so easy when you have so many earthly responsibilities. I didn’t begin writing until I was in my thirties, and on some level I think it was because I knew I’d have to be ruthless about creating the time and mental space to write, and I wasn’t yet willing to be ruthless. It makes me angry now, thinking of all that lost time, but I can tell you when I did finally start writing it was like: Okay, game on. At least for these two or three hours, my time is mine and I’m going to use it like nobody’s business.

David Hirshberg talks about MY MOTHER'S SON, fictional memoir, and how events from the past can still resonate today.

My Mother’s Son is a literary novel written as the memoir of a radio raconteur that uses the inconceivable events of his family’s life and the world in which he lived as a foil to deal with major issues that affect Americans today – disease, war, politics, immigration and business. 

And it's already racking up raves like this:
"Only occasionally does a novel like this come along—one that sculpts a vivid, irresistible portrait of a life and times.  Evocative of the 1950's, with cinematic flashbacks and flash-forwards, it is clever, poignant and funny. Hirshberg allows the reader to eavesdrop on complicated 1950s family intimacies that had been clouded by years of denial, secrecy and self-preservation. What he exposes are the riches left behind, those that reveal the truth of the human condition. This is a book worth reading, probably more than once."  Mitch Markowitz, screenwriter of Good Morning, Vietnam

David Hirshberg is the pseudonym for an entrepreneur who prefers to keep his business activities separate from his writing endeavors. As an author, he adopted the first name of his father-in-law and the last name of his maternal grandfather.  He is an accomplished "C" level executive, having served in the Life Science Industry as CEO of four firms.

Thank you so much, David, for being here.

Q: The format is interesting — it’s written in the first person as a fictional memoir — why did you choose that mode of storytelling?

A: As I’m writing, I try to take on the personality of the protagonist and invent what I might have done or said. The conceit that this is a fictional memoir came after many drafts, and freed me up to tell the story as I might have done had I actually been a radio raconteur.

Q: Why did you decide to set the story in 1952?

A: The idea to set the current events of the book primarily in 1952 was a conscious decision based on three considerations: (1) the requirement that all of the ingredients that were central to the book could be found in that year; (2) that there would be readers who could connect with the era, even if they were quite young at that time; and (3) that the world of post-War America was not too remote for most people to be able to see a reflection of what is going on today.

In the summer of 1952 when the Korean War was raging, Bostonians were confronted with: a major polio epidemic; a bitter senate fight between young Irish congressman (John F. Kennedy) against an entrenched WASP (Henry Cabot Lodge); the impending move of the Braves franchise out of the city; and many shenanigans that involved local politicians and business people that were hidden behind the headlines of the newspapers. It was the perfect cauldron to heat up a story that could resonate with readers in 2018.

Q: The book feels extremely autobiographical. How much of your life is in the book and how much is just invented/researched?

A: There is not one scene, character, location or situation that is real or that has anything to do with me or anyone I have known. It was all made up out of whole cloth, with the obvious exceptions, for example, that certain facts are true: that there was a race for the senate between Kennedy and Lodge; that the Boston Braves did move to Milwaukee; that President Kennedy did make a speech in Berlin in 1963; that Kristallnacht happened in 1938; that the Korean War was in a stalemate in 1952; etc. It’s important to note, however, that the scenes in the book that revolve around these events are pure fiction.

Q: How does a book, based decades ago, resonate with what’s happening today?

A: The novel was purposefully set in earlier times so as to provide some distance from the current ‘talking heads’ climate that instantly categorizes and analyzes events from a narrow, partisan perspective. In the 1950s, we were faced with the Korean War, the polio epidemic, vicious political campaigns, the integration of Irish, Italians and Jews into the social fabric of big cities, and the recognition that sports were also a business. Today we have wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria, the AIDS plague, vicious political campaigns, the integration of Latin Americans and Muslims into our society and more ink is spilled in the media on the activities of athletes and owners outside of the sports they play and manage. So, while in many ways, the book is a paean to the Boston of an earlier era (and, by extension, to the America of the post-World War II period), it sings to us today by allowing us to understand that although the instances and events in the book are specific to that period, we can see in them what is going on today—for better or for worse.

Q: What’s obsessing you now and why?

A: Unlike certain other authors, I do characterize myself as a Jewish writer, and I’m more than half way through a second book that pivots around Jewish-themed issues in the 1960s. And yes, obsession is a good way to characterize my intense feelings about the new manuscript. As we get older, we do tend to concentrate more on those things that matter and put off to the side the common everyday occurrences that once seemed to consume us.

Q: What question did I not ask that I should have?

A: Why did I take up writing non-autobiographical literary fiction as a second act later in life? I used to say that because I don’t play golf, have a second home in a ski or beach locale, don’t have a hobby that involves a plane or a boat, that I had the time to write. While that’s true, and I’ve enjoyed tremendously my business career, I’ve found immersing myself in the world of words to be intellectually and emotionally stimulating and this has been augmented by my wife’s enthusiastic support every step of the way.

Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Forget the Itsy-Bitsy spider! The hilarious Ethan Berlin talks about his first children's book, The Hugely-Wugely Spider. delusional ideas of making money and being a funny, story-writing dad.

The book, which both parents and kids adore

Portrait of the hilarious Ethan

Because words are even better with pictures! Illustrator Karl Newsom Edwards

I first became friends with Ethan Berlin's wife, Kimberlee Auerbach Berlin when she was single. I had reviewed a wonderful novel of hers (The Devil And Me: My Life in Tarot) and we met for lunch and began emailing. And because Ethan makes her so, so happy (I swear, her very words light up when she talks about him), I became even more interested in HIS work, too! He's an Emmy Award-nominated comedy writer and performer who has written for some of today's top comedy voices and networks. He teaches comedy writing classes at NYU and the Peoples' Improv Theatre. The Hugely-Wugely Spider is his debut children's book--and it's a knockout. 

But let's talk about the great illustrations:

Karl Newsom Edwards
is a children’s picture book author and illustrator. Born in Oakland, California, he is a graduate of the California College of the Arts with a degree in drawing. He made his debut as an author/illustrator with Fly!

I loved the book, laughed out loud, and I really want a sequel. Thank you so, so much, Ethan for being here 

You’re famous for your sometimes ribald humor and comedy. What was the why-now moment when you thought about doing a book for kids?

Wait, famous or infamous? Yeah, a lot of my career has been writing for “edgy” adult comedy shows, but in many ways I have the mindset of a child.  I am filled with wonder at the world, I love being silly, and I enjoy getting attention by saying “naughty things.”  When I write for adult comedy shows, the “naughty things” part of my sensibilities tends to get the most use, but silly and absurd are still there. It’s the same for the Hugely-Wugely Spider. There’s a joy and wonder to the story in discovering this previously unknown part of the familiar Itsy-Bitsy Spider story. And then Hugely himself is silly, but has an acerbic edge to him.

As for the why-now moment, as often has happened in my career, Hugely came about as a bit of an accident. A few years ago I had an idea that I could quit the TV comedy writing business and support myself by making funny iPhone apps. As it turns out, this was what economists would describe as a “delusional idea of how to make money.”  In the process, however, I made a funny calculator app called, The Revenge of the Calculators. Basically, it looks like a normal calculator, but when you try to enter numbers it does silly things like call a fake customer service number. I was showing off the app at a party — as one does when they’ve made a funny calculator app—and one of the people who saw it was a book editor named Joy Peskin. She asked me if I’d ever considered writing a children’s book. While I was a big fan of children’s books, I hadn’t ever seriously considered writing one. We spoke for a while and she walked me through what kind of books they were looking for and what a manuscript should look like.

My second son was only a few months old at the time.  So while I was feeding him in the middle of the night, I held the bottle with one hand and wrote book ideas on my phone with the other hand. Shortly after that, I wrote the first draft of The Hugely-Wugely Spider.

What I adored about this book is how hilarious it was for adults, too. When my son was little, the books of his that I loved the most (and the TV shows) were the ones that realized adults were reading and watching, too, and threw something in for them. I laughed out loud when the spider insisted that he must be retaining silk. Can you talk about the whole process of writing a kid’s book?

Ha. Thanks! I read that part recently to my kids and for the first time thought, “they’re not going to have any idea what that means.” They didn’t, but my mom, who was in the room with me, laughed out loud.

I’m happy that both kids and adults enjoy reading it. I read a lot to my kids and I know that feeling of dread that comes over me when they pick a dull book off the shelf. “Oh, boy, we have to read this again?” So, I wanted to write something that both kids and adults would enjoy reading together.

I didn’t employ any particular process to do that, other than just feeling it out. I shared it with the adult members of my family and got their feedback. If it made them laugh, I knew I was on the right track.

I also loved that the hugely-wugely spider sounded like my mom. (“Do you know the personal sacrifices I’ve made?” How did you go about getting the voice just right?

I carefully studied your mom for months! The honest answer is, I don’t know. I have this cool ability/annoying thing I can’t control, where I internalize the voices of those around me. It’s served me well as a comedy writer, because I can get the rhythm and cadence of the hosts I’ve written for in my head and then write jokes in their voices. I didn’t start out to give Hugely any particular voice, I just started writing and that was the voice that came out. I’m guessing he’s a mixture of my voice with little snippets from people I’m close with.

What was it like to work with an illustrator? Did you ever change some of the story for an illustration that was just too great to pass up?  Or vice versa?

The process was great. My editor partnered me with Karl. He found jokes in places I hadn’t thought of and gave the text a whole second life. There were a few minor changes to the text because of illustrations, but mostly just adding words to accompany moments of action, such as my favorite, “flomp!” when Hugely gets stuck in the spout.

Did you test drive any of the story on your own kids?  What do they think about their story-writing dad?

While I was writing it, I definitely tried to test the book on my kids, but it turns out that children have very little interest in looking at unillustrated Word docs. Now that I have a physical version of the book with illustrations, they enjoy it quite a lot.

My kids are two and five, so it’s hard to get a read on how they feel about having author parents. My 5-year-old son does like to tell people that my “job is funny.” I can’t tell if he’s proud of that or is just explaining why I act so weird.

What’s obsessing you now and why?

Right after I wrote the first draft of Hugely-Wugely, I got a job running a digital comedy channel. One of my responsibilities was “to define the brand.” One of my other responsibilities was to think, “oh, man I wish it wasn’t my job to define the brand.” In the process of thinking of the values of this channel, however, I started thinking about my own values. I thought about the work that I had made in my career and what brought me the most joy to make and what I was most proud of to share. The words I kept coming back to were wonder, joy, and exploration.  So, that’s what’s obsessing me now, exploring the wonder and joy in the world and figuring out how to get it onto the page or on screen.

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

Q: What wild animals have you seen lately?

A: I’m so glad you asked! This weekend I saw a groundhog outside the science museum, three deer on the sidewalk near my house, and a dozen turkeys walking through a parking lot. Did I mention I have a childlike sense of wonder?

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Who was F. Scott Fitzgerald's last great love? Legendary Hollywood gossip columnist Sheilah Graham, and here, Sally Koslow talks about ANOTHER SIDE OF PARADISE, hopeless romantics and so much more.

Who isn't fascinated by the life of F. Scott Fitzgerald? While most people associate him with the tortured, tragic Zelda, he had an enduring romance with Hollywood gossip legend Sheilah Graham--and the sublime Sally Koslow is here to talk about it.  But first, the praise:

“Isn’t a beautifully written page-turner the ideal read? Well, here it is. I am full of admiration and gratitude for this wonderful novel.”

—Elinor Lipman

“A stunning, utterly captivating read. . . . an unforgettable portrait of a remarkable couple steeped in all the glamour, romance, and intrigue of old Hollywood.”

—Kathleen Grissom

Sally Koslow is the international bestseller The Late, Lamented Molly Marx; The Widow Waltz; With Friends Like These; and Little Pink Slips. She is also the author of one work of nonfiction, Slouching Toward Adulthood: How to Let Go So Your Kids Can Grow Up. Her books have been published in a dozen countries.
Thank you, Sally!

I always want to know what was the why now moment for you in writing this book?

After reading Nancy Horan’s Loving Frank and later, The Paris Wife by Paula McLain—impressive authors--I immediately thought I wanted to try and write a biopic novel, even though my previous book were squarely rooted in today’s world. I admire the genre because when done well, it combines a history lesson with the intimacy of revealing a subject’s interior life: how they feel, what they think, what they said. Isn’t that transparency what we love about contemporary fiction? It took me years, however, to stumble on the right subject for a biopic. Only when I read Stewart O Nan’s insightful West of Sunset, imagining F. Scott Fitzgerald’s last few years from FSF’s point of view, did I know Sheilah Graham and Fitzgerald’s romance was the one. Though Sheilah was a secondary character in O’Nan’s book, the author shared enough about her for me to want to get to know Sheilah better. When I did—kapow. I realized that writing her story, which has facets to it far beyond Fitzgerald, felt beshert: Yiddish for “destined.”

What was the research like? What surprised you and what did you veer away from for the sake of fiction?

F. Scott Fitzgerald is, of course, the subject of numerous meticulous biographies, the author of countless revealing letters and essays and the subject of myriad B+ sophomore term papers, perhaps even one of my own. And beyond the paper trail of Sheilah Graham’s columns, she wrote quite a few memoirs in which, I was surprised to learn, she was the very definition of an unreliable narrator. Never, for example, did she admit in print that she was born not only poor, but also Jewish. Nor did she always tell her story the same way. Sorting through inconsistencies was a blessing because I could pick the version of truth that served the narrative best.  Also, no matter how interesting the paths of some famous people may be, no one lives life in a plot. I had to decide what to leave out in order to tell Sheilah and Scott’s story in the most rewarding way I could imagine.

I love that you called Fitzgerald the “world’s best boyfriend. When he was sober.” Was he this good to Zelda in the beginning? And if Zelda had not gone mad, do you think they would have survived?

Scott adored Zelda, and was loyal to her, even during his relationship with Sheilah. Until the end of his life, he continued to visit his wife in the psychiatric institution where she’d been living for years before he met Sheilah. As his relationship with Sheilah deepened, he read Zelda’s letters to her, perhaps to explain the complexity of his life.

If Zelda hadn’t become ill and frustrated in the pursuit of her own accomplishments, and if Scott wasn’t an alcoholic plagued by debt and writer’s block, I could imagine their lives turning out very differently. But this was a union of two troubled, gifted people, who-- it’s fair to say--contributed to their own bad luck through extravagance and self-indulgence. As the years passed there was heartbreaking sadness to their marriage, and when mental illness swallowed Zelda, her husband became deeply lonely. I’m happy he found happiness with Sheilah, a more self-sufficient woman who supported him--sometimes, literally--and never wanted much from Scott except love, respect and knowing he was back at his game, writing again.

Why do you think people focus more on Zelda when this particular love story is really so much more incredible?

Sheilah was Scott’s inspiration for The Last Tycoon, his unfinished last novel that she sparked him to write. She was also both a footnote in history as well as the “other woman,” with all the unsavory implications that implies, especially in 1930s Hollywood, where the priggish Hays Code was enforced both on and off screen.

Zelda was notorious, far more well-known than Sheilah. For most of Scott’s work, she was her husband’s muse as well as a celebrated figure in the Jazz Age. She and Scott were the glamour couple of their generation, both in the United States and during their stay in Paris and the south of France, where Sara and Gerald Murphy were the den mother and father to many of the era’s most prominent writers and artists—Hemingway, Picasso, more. Zelda’s fragility and mental illness also contributed to her renown and engenders sympathy, while Sheilah was a scrappy survivor, even though she lived through a profoundly difficult childhood. This is one of the things I love about Sheilah and made me want to share her story.

What kind of writer are you? Do you freak out or panic? You make it seem so effortless.

That anyone would connect “effortless” to my work makes me laugh because I’m a writer who buffs and polishes until she’s all but committed a manuscript to memory. I have to force myself to stop tinkering. Composing a first draft is like sticking a corkscrew in my brain, but once I have a draft down, I pretend I’m editing another writer’s work and become ruthless in getting rid of muck. That may be because for many years I was a magazine editor. Remember McCall’s? I was its editor-in-chief until it was turned into a magazine for Rosie O’Donnell. (This was the inspiration for my debut novel, Little Pink Slips.)

As it gets close to publication date, I invariably catch the common cold of authors, who ruminate about their book becoming the wallflower at the orgy, unnoticed among all the other great titles competing for readers’ attention. It’s like having to endure 7th grade all over again. Pure misery for which there is no cure except ice cream.

What’s obsessing you now and why?

Except the above? Trying to lock down the subject of my next book. In the last year I’ve started and abandoned close to ten projects. Write another biopic? Return to the sort of contemporary fiction I’ve written that got called “witty?” Today I’m fairly sure I will do another biopic.

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

“Who do you think will like Another Side of Paradise?”
Hopeless romantics, fans of F. Scott Fitzgerald—the man as well as the author, readers intrigued by Old Hollywood, people who like stories about feisty women bent on self-improvement and who defy all odds, historical fiction lovers, Anglophiles, anyone curious about pre-World War II anti-Semitism, readers curious about Jewish women or how America’s gossip industry took root, and definitely, book club members. There’s a lot to chew on in Another Side of Paradise.

Hey Moms! Want to listen in and talk about the best--and worst-sides of mothering? Writers Edan Lepucki and Amelia Morris have started a rad pod cast, called MOM RAGE! And they talk about it here.


Amelia Morris is the mother of two boys born almost exactly two years apart: Teddy, age four, and Isaac, age two. She is the author of the blog, Bon Appétempt, named one of the twenty-five best blogs of the year by TIME magazine, as well as the book by the same name: Bon Appétempt: A Coming-of-Age Story With Recipes!. Her work has been featured in the Los Angeles Times, McSweeney’s, The Millions, and USA Today. She used to host a cooking show called In the Kitchen with Amelia & Teddy, where cooking on camera with her kids looked fun. Mom Rage is here to clear the record.  

Edan Lepucki has two kids: her son, Dixon Bean, age six, and her daughter, Ginger, age two. She is the bestselling author of the novels California and Woman No. 17, as well as the novella If You’re Not Yet Like Me. Her fiction and nonfiction have appeared in Esquire Magazine, The New York Times, and McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern, among others, and she is a contributing editor to The Millions.  Edan created the Instagram @mothersbefore and is the founder of Writing Workshops Los Angeles.

I absolutely love the idea of a podcast that is this funny, this brave, this honest about pain and dark feelings and “mom rage." It's a genius idea that everyone should support—and it’s important to remember that being a mom doesn’t end when your kids leave home and their own families. And also the rage we sometimes feel against our OWN moms. Do you think that part of this is because so much in our culture is changing and it is not longer such a crime to want time for yourself and that you also have to take time for your adult life, your relationship life, your sex life, your sitting around and doing nothing life. You are sort of inventing yourself all over again for a new person.

Thank you, Edan and Amelia!

 You can listen and support the podcast here

Thank you so much!  It does seem like, lately, we’re talking a lot more about how unsustainable this go-go-go, eat-an-energy-bar-and-call-it-lunch American life is. And, I think, in the post-Trump world, many women are like: “Fuck this. I’m calling my congress members, and I’m doing this clay mask, and I’m going to have an orgasm because this is my country, too!”  Ha. But, seriously, we’re seeing that we need to take care of ourselves in order to survive the everyday—and maybe, especially, because no one else has our best interests in mind.

Couple that with there being so much great work by mothers out there right now, telling it like it is, representing the experience. For instance, Ali Wong’s new comedy special on Netflix, “Hard Knock Wife” lays it all out there, and in the midst of a hilarious set about the post-birth body, emphasizes just how criminal it is that our country doesn’t have federally mandated maternity leave.  I’m excited by how many books, television shows, movies, and so on are out there, and I only hope that we see more and more stories from all kinds of mothers.

I want to talk a bit more about mom rage. A lot of it seems to be about how much help you have, and what kind of husband and baby you have—and what kind of friends, too, right? If your partner isn’t doing 50%, it’s easy to be so resentful that steam comes out of your eyes.  If you have a baby with problems or colic. If you had a baby too young, before you had done all these wild things. Also, I remember actually raging against other mothers, rather than at my baby, because they’d tell  how I HAD to breast feed this way, I HAD to have no meds, I HAD to, etc. etc.  and I was really resentful. Can you each talk about this please?
Edan: I think we all have different “rage” capabilities, based on our upbringing, our personal temperaments, and the various factors you mention. A crying baby, for instance, who will not stop, NO MATTER WHAT YOU DO, can make you truly lose it, as can those judgmental comments from other parents. Ugh!

Amelia and I have a lot in common: we are both heterosexual white women with husbands who do a lot of the household duties. And yet, we’ve still got a lot of rage! A lot of it is toward the culture and all that’s expected of mothers, and the lack of institutional support for women and families.  Our long-term goal for the show is to talk to a lot of mothers, to hear their stories.  We quote Adrienne Rich from Of Woman Born on our website: "I believe increasingly that only the willingness to share private and sometimes painful experience can enable women to create a collective description of the world which will be truly ours."  We agree.

I was so interested in the way both of you talked about your births and what you expected and what actually happened. I planned a birth with my husband in the room, which was beautiful and perfect and wonderful, and two days later, I became critically ill, comatose, with a mysterious blood disease that I was dying from. Three months later, I was allowed to see my baby.  So when I finally was well enough to come home.  Because I was so ridiculously happy to have this healthy baby, to be alive and to have help (my husband works at home), I didn’t feel rage to my son—so do you think your experiences before the baby is even conceived shape the way you handle what goes on?

Caroline, that sounds like a traumatic birth! I’m glad, ultimately, it didn’t shape your early experiences with your son.  It can be difficult, if you end up having a birth that’s different than the one you planned for or imagined for yourself—some women never really recover from that, and for others, it’s not a big deal. In episode 3 we talk to a midwife, Kathleen Potthoff, about these very issues, and it’s so complicated, because every mother is different. She talks about getting to know her clients and learning about what they’re bringing to the pregnancy.  I don’t think I really have an answer here except: maybe? Or: Sometimes?   We bring all our history—the good and the bad—into our lives as mothers. And there are even those studies that say we carry ancestral pain and suffering in our DNA!  At the same time, it doesn’t always feel that DEEP, you know?

Do you think you each have the same parenting styles? Where do you find inspiration for raising your kids? I find that motherhooding, like kids, grow and change. No one would think of raising kids like they did 100 years ago with all that not sparing the rod stuff, but when I had my son, I was determined to do exactly the opposite of how I was raised—and I’m still not sure I did the right thing because he is now 21 and when I ask him if I was a good mom, he rolls his eyes!  Is it possible to ever know? Or is the answer to find advice/respect/a shoulder from other moms?
I’d say that neither Amelia nor I adhere to a specific parenting “style” and in that way, we’re similar. I guess other, little, stuff aligns: We both breastfed our kids, we both potty trained at two, and we moved our kids out of cribs around that time as well. While all that is important, it also can feel superficial. Believe it or not, we don’t spend that much time talking about naps and feeding and all that jazz—we’ve spent more time talking about motherhood as a concept, and our writing…and our feelings!

I depend on my mom for almost all my parenting advice. She has 5 kids, 6 grandkids, and knows everything about children and what to do with them. Amelia has a more conflicted relationship with her mom so she asks her friends for advice; in the podcast she refers to her “Earth Mother Friend” Kara a lot!  Finding a mom friend can be so helpful—it’s a special relationship.

We have an episode with author Meaghan O’Connell coming up, and, with her, we talk about how some mothers reject their own mother’s advice. I get that—and I agree, the “rules” and “wisdom” of parenting is not a historical, it’s always shifting. However, it makes me sad to think people would rather Google something than ask their own human mother—or any human mother that they know personally. Why do people have more faith in technology, and in crowdsourcing, than in receiving knowledge from a woman with lived experience? Crowdsourcing parenting questions is my pet peeve since parenting is so about your individual family and circumstances! But I digress…

I love that one of you aspires to be the villain in terms of getting discussion going—especially because moms are not supposed to be bitches. Please talk about this!
This is just our little joke, but, yes, I am the self-appointed villain of the show because I tell it like it is, and I imagine Amelia as having a far softer, sweeter personality. But we do dig into this somewhat…like, why do I have this idea that I’m some kind of monster? I don’t think I’m unique in this feeling; when we don’t act in the ways we think a “good” mother should act, it’s easy to believe certain accepted behavior is natural and that your reaction is abnormal and something to be ashamed of.

I also really love the music that opens each podcast! How did you decide that? Will you change the music?
Thanks! Amelia’s husband Matt Bookman wrote our theme song with their two sons, Teddy and Isaac. I love it and we will use it for every episode!

What’s obsessing you now and why?
Amelia’s always obsessed with her self-help books, like Women Who Run with the Wolves by Clarissa Pinkola Estes and The Wild Edge of Sorrow by Francis Weller. And competitive gymnastics; when UCLA won not long ago, she was so excited!

I’m into the aforementioned comedy special, Hard Knock Wife, by Ali Wong. I am just finishing The Changeling by Victor LaValle—what a weird beautiful marvel of a novel! Oh, and learning Italian--that’s my jam right now.

Monday, May 7, 2018

Florence Gonsalves talks about her gorgeous debut LOVE & OTHER CARNIVOROUS PLANTS, love, grief, being young, being self-destructive and getting it as together as you can.

When someone,e specially Martha Rhodes, the head of Four Way Books and a brilliant poet,  tells me, "You gotta read this," I always do (unless it's about vampires. Then I never do.) And I'm always happy that I did. I absolutely loved Florence Gonsalves LOVE & Other Carnivorous Plants (great title, right?) and I'm honored to host her here.

I loved, loved, loved this book. (I’m a sucker for anything about identity.) What was the “why now” moment that got you writing this?

I’d had ideas for Love tucked in a brain drawer for awhile, but when I graduated from college with no “real job” prospects, I started writing in the backroom of my parents’ house. I couldn’t envision having a “normal” career, so writing stemmed out of a deep, deep insecurity to do something with my life. Looking back, I was having a huge crisis of identity: who am I now that I’m not a college student and how will I make a living so I can move out of this backroom of my parents’ house?

Tell me about the wonderful title: Love & Other Carnivorous Plants.

I wish I remember how the title came about exactly, but the writing process is so mysterious! It was previously called Where There Are Flowers, plus other things I can’t remember that were not very captivating. I’ve loved Venus Fly Traps since I got one in fourth grade – they’re delightful little anomalies – and at one point I put a literal plant in the story, then saw other ways that themes of consumption wove into Danny’s struggle.  

So much of this book is about grief and love and finding our way.  And I loved that you dropped out of pre-med to find your way in writing! Can you tell us about that?

Oof, pre-med! I was just terrible at it – labs, problem sets, I simply could not do the work, which was terrible for my ego and also forced me to change the path of my life. If I’m not going to be a doctor, what am I going to do? What happens now that there isn’t a set plan? Obviously that struggle is reflected in Danny’s character. Sometimes writing feels indulgent and I think about doctors saving lives while I’m typing away in Starbucks but a friend once said that there are different ways to heal people— sometimes a book can do just that and I write with the hopes of having an impact.

I’m always interested in how a writer approaches a novel, especially a debut. Do you feel like you learned anything or did anything not turn out the way you had expected it might?

I learned that I have to write a lot and then throw away a lot. I didn’t know much of anything until I put it down on paper (even though I tried to make outlines). The result was like building a huge rock with all my words, then cutting and carving and shaping that rock into something that resembled a book. It took a lot of trust to believe that the story was there even when I couldn’t see it, but I’m getting more courageous about going forth blindly, then going on a deleting spree.

What’s obsessing you now and why?
Ada Limon. Her poetry is wow and I love things that make me feel something even if I can’t put my finger on how or why they’re so evocative.

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

Hmm, how about a book that influenced Love? In high school I read Catcher in the Rye (like most everyone else) and the tone of the book was hugely inspiring to me. Up until Catcher, I didn’t know a book could be written in the way a teenager thinks. I thought books had to be “literary” and that stopped me from writing one. With the permission to write like my friends and I think and talk, I felt capable of attempting to tell Danny’s story.