Saturday, November 28, 2009

READ THIS BOOK: An Uncommon History of Common Things

An Uncommon History of Common Things is one of those books you can't put down because of the wealth of fascinating information. A wonderful compendium of everything from how pajamas began to the origins of indoor plumbing, it's been called "witty and enlightening" by Library Journal and People made it one of their hot gift picks.

Bethanne Patrick, one of the authors, is one of those people you want to be your friend for life. Warm and funny, she's every author's best friend because of her fierce love for the written word and her incredible support.

Where did the inspired idea for the book come from?

I can't claim credit for the idea; that came from my delightful National Geographic colleagues Susan Blair and Susan Tyler Hitchcock. Susan Blair is a developmental editor at NG, and Susan Hitchcock was a project editor who is now the Editorial Director for Reference Books. They both loved a book whose title I can't specifically recall: Panatti's History of Everyday Objects? They came to me as a freelance writer with an idea and a one-page outline.

How did you go about choosing what items to write about? And how did you do the research?

I developed the chapters and outline, and then Susan Hitchcock and I went through a long process choosing all of the items. We wanted to find things that are still common today, used around the world, and that had great stories to go along with them.

Obviously this took a great deal of research. I'll confess that I started out on the Internet...but there was no way to stay there! I had to get back to BOOKS and many times primary source materials. National Geographic has a rigorous reference process and an even more rigorous fact-checking process. But I'd like to say that there are great materials online: e.g., the New York Times archives has clips that were useful in tracking down "pink for girls, blue for boys," and I found a couple of amazing e-texts of history books for the salt-extraction industry in the U.S.

I loved the sidebars—that the bread slicer was almost banned in WWII (which shows how much people loved it) and that canned goods started with Napoleon, rather than with housewives in the fifties. I also thought the Chinese invented pasta. (it was the Arabs.) What I love about the book is that it makes you look at the world differently. Things that were once as familiar as peanut butter, boxer shorts and breakfast foods take on new significance and meaning, which is so wonderful and lots of fun. Which origin for an item particularly surprised you and why?

Thank you so much, because the sidebars and the timelines were a tremendous amount of work. As you note, sometimes we had to look hard past commonly accepted knowledge (e.g., the Chinese invented pasta) to find first uses of things. I think the biggest surprise was how table napkins came to be -- the Spartan "apomagdalie" were bits of bread dough that people used to wipe grease off of their fingers! Makes complete sense, but who knew?

The photos are as glorious as the text. Did you have input on the design at all?

Our photo editor, Chip (gotta check his surname!), is, like all NG photo specialists, absolutely first rate. The general look of the book was not in my domain, and I didn't need to help Chip much -- but he did consult with me on more obscure items, and we worked closely together on those difficult sidebars (as did my hardworking editor Susan Straight!). I think he had fun, however, with the shoe sidebar.

You worked with another writer, John Thompson, who authored or coauthored Dakotas, National Geographic Almanac of American History, and more. What was it like working with another person? How did you keep the continuity of the tone and the writing?

John and I never worked together! I'm willing to tell you this because our editors could not believe how similar our diction and tone were considering we've never even met. He made life easy for all of us, because he's such a professional and such a fine writer.

You do everything, Bethanne! You interview authors on The Book Studio on WETA, you're the beloved Book Maven at large, a journalist, you do twitter book tours and you write. So how do you manage to juggle all the things that you do?

You're so kind...I'm also a wife, mother to two, and I'm working on a memoir called Broken. I mention those things so that everyone will know that it's possible to realize your dreams. I've failed at so many things (and some of them quite recently!), but I've also been fortunate to succeed at others and to keep moving...I'm a late bloomer, and although I've said this before, my fellow Smith College alumna Julia Child is my role model. She didn't start teaching cooking classes until she was nearly 40, and she didn't get her WGBH TV show until she was 50. So by the "Child clock," I'm actually ahead of the game with my WETA Internet show!

At my college graduation, Beverly Sills told us that "you can have it all, but not at the same time." That was advice I really needed, since unlike most of my friends, I turned down the job in NY publishing I'd been offered and got married. Years later, I'm not only working in publishing -- I'm still married. The message is not to be a child bride; it's to trust your heart and never lose your passion.

Finally, I couldn't juggle anything at all without the support of many. I tell The Book Studio team all the time that "It takes a village to get Bethanne camera ready" and that does not just refer to my wonderful hair and makeup artist Lorna Basse! I've met, befriended, and worked with great people. However, those who weren't so great? Sometimes they taught me the most, or gave me contacts that led to career breakthroughs.

What ‘s next for you?

The aforementioned memoir, which I'm working on with my fantastic new agents, Rob Weisbach and Erin Cox. We're also working on all kinds of new features and opportunities for The Book Studio (soon our booklists will be featured on the "Masterpiece" web site, starting with the new production of "Emma" in January). I continue to be interested in keeping book reviewing relevant. Right now I'm running for the board of the National Book Critics Circle; I may not be elected, but I believe that criticism can and must remain viable in this new-media world.

What question should I be mortified that I didn’t ask you?

I don't think there are any you didn't ask me...hmmmm...well, you didn't ask me about my favorite books or my greatest influences as a writer (which are questions we ask on The Book Studio!), so I'll tell you! I don't think I'll ever get tired of "To the Lighthouse" by Virginia Woolf, because I believe that Lily Briscoe's "Can't paint, can't write" dilemma (and her confused jealousy of Mrs. Ramsay's boeuf en daube) are still issues that affect modern women. When I need inspiration for writing, I re-read some of John Cheever's short stories or Joan Didion's essays. Funny, since I don't write short stories or essays per se -- but I return again and again to writing that really stays with me, not writing that is like anything I do.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Read This Book: My Father's Bonus March

My Father's Bonus March is a haunting memoir by a great writer, Adam Langer. It's the story of a son trying to know and understand his enigmatic father, who was obsessed with writing a book about the Bonus March of 1932, when 20,000 WWI veterans went to the Capital to demand compensation.

I was fascinated by the Bonus March, something I had no idea existed. Why do you think your father didn’t really finish it? And do you think it meant so much to you because it was a project the two of you could do together?

I think that one of the most important lessons I learned from writing this book was not to settle for or even seek definitive answers. Throughout the majority of the book, I struggle with the question of why my father wanted to write this book and why he never did. But towards the end, I come to realize that the process of searching for answers is much more rewarding and informative than any single answer could be. Was it because he never intended to finish the book? Was it because he ran out of time? Was it because the book was only ever a dream? Was it because the definitive history of the Bonus March, published in 2004, made his project no longer necessary? Through asking these questions, I know more about my father than any yes/no answer to any of those questions could provide. As for why it was important to me, I think it ultimately has less to do with my hopes for what we could have done together than it has to do with images and myths I had about my family that have turned out to be only images and myths. I grew up with the idea that my father could do anything he wanted to, anything he put his mind to, and the fact that he didn’t complete the book seemed to contradict this idea. But the truth is that we’re all limited and the fact that my father didn’t complete his book doesn’t or shouldn’t detract from everything he did accomplish in his life.

How difficult was it to make the transition from writing fiction (the superb Ellington Boulevard, The Washington Story, and Crossing California) to writing nonfiction? How did the process differ?

I started out as a journalist, so it wasn’t much of a transition. I started writing for newspapers and radio stations when I was in my early teens and worked for more than a decade in Chicago in journalism. A lot of my fiction has been informed by journalism and my attention to detail, my sense of dialogue and interaction comes from stories I have written and people I have encountered as a reporter. What made this a bit more difficult than other journalism projects was the fact that it was my own family history that I was investigating, and I felt a responsibility to honor the relationships and friendships that my father had made over the course of his eighty years and to accurately capture the voices that informed his world. The process was a bit more painstaking than it usually is for my novels, which are usually written in some sort of euphoric burst of energy. It’s a lot easier to write while blasting Bob Dylan and Nirvana than it is to write while blasting “Brother, Can You Spare A Dime?”

You traveled all over the place for this book and dipped into the past, but while trying to understand your father, I wonder if you can talk about the revelations you had about yourself. (For example, I was fascinated that your brother tells you this project means more to you than it probably did to your father.)

I think I’m more conscious of the reasons I want to write, and of the stories I want to tell. But that’s not only because of what I learned about my father and the Bonus March, but also because I am aware of my responsibilities as a parent of two young daughters. I take a very different approach to parenthood than my dad did. I don’t’ plan to become some deadly serious writer without any irreverence, but I do need to interrogate myself every now and then to ask why I’m writing what I’m writing, which is something I didn’t always consciously do beforehand.

I was impressed by the narrative structure. Ostensibly about the Bonus March and understanding your father, the book becomes a meditation on human connection, complete with some oral histories, and some documentary scenes. Was this a conscious decision or did this structure simply evolve because the narrative demanded it?

My initial intention was to do a shot-for-shot remake of CITIZEN KANE with every scene corresponding to one of the DVD Chapters. I was going to begin with a documentary scene, move to an aerial shot of Xanadu, cut to a scene in a library, cut to a death scene, cut to a reporter (me) doing research. The reason for this was because I think Orson Welles’s film is the ultimate film about the ultimate unknowability of mysteries that vex us. Also, because it’s my mom’s favorite movie. Ultimately, this structure became unwieldy and gimmicky and I needed my own structure and couldn’t suppose another’s on it. The structure has the appearance of being somewhat freewheeling, but it’s actually been very deliberately planned. It’s less about a chronology of events than a chronology of understanding. One of the things I came to learn as I was writing the book was how understanding doesn’t happen in one smooth narrative arc; it happens haphazardly, with pendulum swings, flashbacks, contradictions, and so forth. I could have written a much more straightforward book beginning with how the idea for the book developed, how I went about my process, how the individuals I met and the research I did changed my perceptions, ultimately ending with some revelatory moment. But that would have been a lot less honest of an approach.

What I also love is the history of your becoming a writer, from the melodramatic early plays to the early stories about linebackers. Although you thought you would be a doctor, it’s clear in this case that writers are born. I’m wondering if the writers desire to make story of what we don’t understand or to fill in the holes in our lives (in this case, your father) was the main impetus for your being a writer?

Not so much with the stories of linebackers, I don’t think. I’m not sure if that was my initial motivation, particularly because a lot of what I used to write had little do with family history or my neighborhood. I always had a love of stories and of theater. From a very early age, I remember sitting with my mom and reading such books as THE PLANT SITTER and THE BLUEBERRY PIE ELF, seeing productions of everything from PINOCCHIO to A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC. I don’t always write to fill gaps or out of some great longing. There’s some of that, but I approach writing much as I do reading, which I pursue for so many different reasons—to learn, to escape, to change my own perceptions, and so on. As for my main impetus, well, I don’t think I’m much better at knowing my own self definitively than I am at knowing my father. But it’s the process of the search for answers that’s exciting and rewarding, and that’s what I pursue through reading.

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

What’s your next project? A novel. What’s it called? The Thieves in Manhattan. When’s it being published? In July. What is it? Probably the closest thing to a thriller I’ll ever write. What music have you been listening to while answering these questions? Elvis Costello’s “Pidgin’ English” and “Lighthouse” by The Waifs. What’s for dinner tonight? Pizza. Are you making it yourself? Yes, the dough is rising now. What’s in the dough? Flour, olive oil, yeast, salt, and corn meal. Corn meal? Yes, it makes the dough much crunchier. What kind of tomato sauce? Fairway brand Marinara. You bought the sauce? Yes, sorry to say.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

in praise of work

Totally swamped. Writing constantly. Finishing a script (gave myself a 6 week deadline), pushing forward on a new novel I'm calling The Missing Ones and in the midst of this, buckled my knee while lifting weights. How can this be? So I hobble forth and am off to the orthopedic surgeon tomorrow, but will have something interesting up here in the next few days, I promise.

I did want to ask people what they use to boost their writing day and keep their energy up. My husband surprised me with a UPS delivery of dark chocolate covered almonds and after devouring 12 of them, I was surprised to find that my energy level ramped up and I felt really, really happy. I'm betting it's the caffeine (I don't drink or like coffee) and while I loved the effects, I'd really rather find something other than chocolate covered almonds to eat all day long and I'm not sure how good all that caffeine is in any case. There was this wonderful book by Alice Weaver Flaherty, The Midnight Disease: The Drive to Write, Writers Block and The Creative Brain about the neurology behind the urge to write, and I remember Flaherty mentioned a drug many writers were taking because it made them concentrate better, work longer hours and feel exhilarated. (But of course, I don't want to take a drug, either.) Give me natural highs--boring, I know--but I'd rather ramp up vitamins.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Read This Book: Ghostbread

Ghostbread by Sonja Livingston is an absolutely astonishing debut. Livingston was one of seven kids, moving from one crumbling environment to another with their most unusual mother, and her memoir is harrowing and hilarious.

Don't believe me? Go read.

You lived in everything from farming towns, an Indian reservation and followed your mother from one broken down place to another, always in search of something better. How did you ever keep that hope alive of finding it? What made things easier?

Actually looking forward to the next best thing does make things easier when you’re in a tough spot. Projecting yourself forward seems like a natural and healthy way to deal with situations over which we have little control. The problem is, of course, that I still find myself looking forward too much, versus enjoying the beauty of the moment. I have to remind myself that this is it! That said, I truly believe that there is beauty to be found in even the most ramshackle places. Learning to mine reality for its treasures was good training ground for writing!

It’s clear that the writer is born in you early, as you struggle to find reasons for what is happening to you, and as you are forced to make up stories to creditors who call. When did you begin to write and to realize that your past was something worthy of writing about?
I always enjoyed writing and language. As a high school kid, I wrote poems full of high drama and churned out story after story about runaway children and lost puppies. I didn’t start to seriously write until I had a graduate degree and a solid job in hand. I wrote about my past at first as a way to sort it all out, but when I began to share my personal writing, people responded and asked for more. But because of my past, and growing up with a mother whose energy went into painting murals on our walls at midnight versus say, meal planning; my idea of what art is and the value of things like writing was skewed in favor of gaining stability. In fact, that tension between stability and being open and risking still tugs at me.

I’m also curious why you ended the memoir at graduation, rather than when you began writing? What was writing this novel like?

Good question! What a great idea—to end the book when I began to write, because really that’s when I began to shed the old life to make room for the new. I should have known you when I was writing it! I ended it at graduation, because early readers didn’t seem satisfied with the ending I had. The book didn’t seem “finished” and indeed, it still isn’t in many ways. I mean, how do you pick a moment of transformation? I tried. But it felt forced. And the truth is that many people who grow up like I did aren’t “transformed” in the way of neat endings. In that way, ending the book with the future hanging in the balance seemed more real to the situation. But for a personal ending, writing is perfect; a natural ending that could have worked beautifully.

Can you talk about your love for Nancy Drew (and how do you feel about Nancy now?) and Wonder Woman and how those icons helped you survive?
Could my life have been more different than Nancy’s? Here was this girl with her own car, an allowance, and a square-jawed Protestant father. I admired her clothes, it’s true. And her genteel background. But there was something else. Nancy was always zipping around of her own accord, following clues, and confronting sordid strangers. She had freedom. And in her own quiet way, real spunk. Ironically, Nancy Drew is the sort of girl I might have managed to look like from the outside, but with an outhouse, a string of half-siblings, and my firing as an altar girl, Nancy and I really had little in common. And Wonder Woman! Those cool bullet-repelling bracelets and the way she disposed of Nazis by the dozen, need I say more? She was strong and beautiful.Both of these characters, Nancy and Wonder Woman, provided examples that were otherwise lacking. They were complete fiction and imperfect and while the feminist in me might cringe at the impracticality of their pointy-toed footwear, the truth was that they showed me another way of being; one that was less familiar, but more desirable.

Fashion, as well as humor (the book is very funny and live) figures a lot in the memoir. You admire Nancy Drew for her clothes, you follow a girl who tells you to wear red, etc. It’s striking that in the midst of all the poverty, you find and follow beauty and it offers you a kind of strength and hope. Can you talk about that?

I suppose fashion was beauty to me. I love nature and artwork and poetry as an adult, but as a girl, fashion took the place of those things. I’m not sure how or why I cared about clothes or hair.No one in my family seemed to care. But I did, and it was another bridge to people and ideas that took me outside of my surroundings. And actually, those who know me will laugh because I rarely wear makeup and dressing up to me these days simply means choosing darker jeans, but back then, how things looked was important. French-braiding my hair or whipping together a 1980s-Madonna-tube-skirt were things I could do to make my world nicer. A small thing I could control. I remember debating at one point whether I should become a nun and try to save the world, or a fashion designer who could jazz up nuns’ attire, thereby improving the looks of those who save the world!

Do you think that is was your imagination that allowed you to look at poverty in a different way and manage to eventually transcend it? And do you think poverty is tougher for girls?
Imagination helped. And my sister Stephanie. We imagined together. And what is stronger than sharing your dreams? I cannot give enough credit to my resourceful sister. I still struggle with understanding how to transcend poverty. It seems so obvious, but we know poverty is about much more than a lack of money. Something else is missing. It has lots to do with trading in shame and invisibility for the right to feel worthy. Worthy of existing. Worthy of writing. And so on.This is a struggle for many people, of course, not just those who come from poverty. And I do believe it’s tougher for girls to break out. Not just emotionally, but physically. All too often, girls inherit the physical burden of children and caretaking which makes it easier for them to get trapped in cycles of despair and poverty. That said, boys from disadvantaged backgrounds face huge challenges. Changing a life in any meaningful way is really hard work. For anyone.

What’s next for you?
I’m working on a novel about a Niagara Falls Daredevil. Western New York has a rich history of stunting and feminism. It’s an interesting combination! And as I mentioned earlier, the idea of living dangerously (or at least audibly) versus playing it safe intrigues me. The novel is allowing me to explore what it means to put yourself out there. Literally!

And finally, what question should I be mortified that I didn’t ask?
Your questions are great. They’re so insightful, I feel I should send a check for therapy.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Enter to win candy!

A retro, tongue-in-cheek contest to win candy and show off your pipes.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

So, wait, are you telling me women can't write?

So PW's Best Books of 2009 included no women. Fancy that.

At She Writes, there's a nifty piece about why this is more of the same old tired mindset. You know the drill: Women don't write BIG books, only men do. Women write domestic dramas (Hello? Jonathan Franzen and The Corrections ring a bell? He was touted for what women have been doing for centuries.) Must we women take on men's names like George Elliot to be appreciated? ( Carl Leavitt doesn't suit me.)

Sigh and alas.

Quickly changing the subject, I'm deep into new novel rituals with The Missing Ones. Maybe it's because it takes me three or 4 years to write a novel, but I almost always start a new project with a shiny new computer! This time, it's my beloved Mac (after three Dells all broke down at the same time in my household, and we were all told to reinstall Windows, and no, they didn't fix the problem, we trooped to the Apple store.) But there are other rituals I love.

1. Photographs. I like to have my characters watching me so I go into photo files and find pictures of normal (not models) looking people and post them up. This takes a long time and is usually on a "I'll know it when I see it" basis.
2. Outlines, charts, graphs, synopsis--that I redo, throw out, redo, tear up, ignore and cling to passionately at the same time.
3. New pens. I want them. I need them. I have to have them.

What makes this even more important is that I need the focus and passion of something new to work on because my novel, Pictures of You, is coming out from Algonquin in 2010, which means PR will start about March, six months before the novel even come out. I need another world to get lost in!

Thursday, November 5, 2009

what's in a name, part nine

For me, naming characters is really difficult. The name has to fit. It has to sound right. It has to feel as though it belongs to the character, and it would be great if it seems to have a life of its own. I try out names when I'm writing, and it' s not unusual for me to change a name after writing 200 pages. Usually, the names I choose are not names I particularly like (though sometimes they are) and I have a bunch of processes to help in my search. I go through baby name lists, I look through my old high school yearbook(!) and often to help me find the name, I need a photograph of the character.

So, all yesterday and all today, I've been going through google images, which is harder than it seems. Most of the faces I'm seeing look too pretty, or too posed. There isn't the roil of inner lives in the faces. I even went on (I told my husband beforehand that it was just for research) to scan faces, but those, too, seemed too posed, too anxious, or simply not right. I wish I knew a better way to search for the really interesting photos where people are in action, revealing themselves.

But I'm not frustrated. I know I'll recognize my characters the moment I see their faces, and all I have to do is find them.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Amy Koppelman and Is It Contagious

Amy Koppelman happens to be one of my favorite authors. Her novels are dark, gritty and just gorgeously written (I've blogged about her before on here.) and impossible to forget. I just heard that she has an important new line of books and I wanted to post this for her:

Hi Everyone.

As most of you know, I started a company called Is It Contagious? Books. We publish children's books designed to explain and answer questions about the most common diseases. Our first titles are "Is Cancer Contagious?" and "Is Epilepsy Contagious?" Our next title, "Is Diabetes Contagious?," will be available in December. While these topics may sound depressing, many families will face them at some point.

The book idea started several years ago, when a close family member got cancer, Sammy and Anna asked Brian and me so many questions, most of which we couldn't answer. "What is cancer?" " Why does it happen?" "How is it diagnosed?" "How is it treated?" "Is it Contagious?"... Later that night, I began looking for cancer books for children. There were several on the market, but they are either very childish ( a story about a dinosaur's mother) and/or scary (pictures of tumors and children with bald heads). Our books are different.

Please visit us at: There you will see sample pages of the books. I hope you'll agree that the books are well-written, and Vern Kousky's illustrations are both engaging and informative.

I'm writing today to ask for your help. Please understand, I'm not asking you to purchase a book. I'm asking for ideas and introductions. If you have any marketing thoughts, magazine, television or radio connections, friends who work at pharmaceutical companies or own and operate retail stores, any ideas you can think of to help get the word out, please let me know.

This is more than just a business to me. My mother-in-law died a little over a year ago. Walking through the hospital hallways and seeing both children and adults stricken by cancer and various other diseases made me realize that I had to do more with my life than just write novels about unhappy women. My hope is that these books will help dispel fear and enable better dialogue between family members, doctors, and friends. In truth, there is no explaining the inexplicable. My mother-in-law was a vibrant, loving, devoted mother and grandmother. Is Cancer Contagious? couldn't explain her death, but it certainly would have made it easier to answer some of the complicated questions my children asked.

Please know that while Is It Contagious? is set up as a business, a substantial percentage of each sale goes to a like-minded charity.

So if you have any ideas please send them my way. Thanks for taking the time to read this and for always being so supportive of me.


Amy Koppelman

Sunday, November 1, 2009


I'm very bad with titles. They almost always are the last thing for me to think about and I usually end up in a stew about it, but thank God for music. My last novel, Girls in Trouble, actually came from a song by the Waitresses (A Girl in a temporary thing)--a group I loved for their snarky know-it-all renditions, plus I have a soft spot for waitresses in general. And the title fit perfectly for a book about open adoption and women making all the wrong sorts of choices. The novel before, Coming Back to Me, about a single father and his mysteriously ill wife, was another song--The Jefferson Airplane--and it was given to me by my husband who was finishing his prize-winning book, Got a Revolution about the band and the era. And it fit.

This new one, coming out from Algonquin in August of 2010, isn't quite named yet. About a mysterious car crash and the lives of the three people involved, about dark secrets, photography and loss, the book was originally called Traveling Angels. Traveling Angels is a screenwriting term coined by John Truby (and yup, he said I could use it) about someone who comes into town and seems good, and messes everyone up and then leaves. I thought it was perfect!

No one else did.

Then I called it Breathe. (The novel grew out of a prize-winning story of the same name.) I loved it, my editor loved it. It fit in with one of the characters who has asthma so terrible, he's in and out of hospitals.

But it wasn't quite right.

Right now, my novel is being called after a Clash song (I love the Clash! I love the song!) Pictures of You. I really, really like it, but it may not be the final title.

Do titles matter to you? Have you ever not picked up a book because of the title? Or been drawn to a book because of what it was called? Personally, I tend not to hold titles against a book-- I know how hard it is to find the right one.