Wednesday, June 23, 2010

London's Calling!

A few weeks ago, I got an unexpectedly lush check. We had planned a mini-vacation to Quebec because a. it's affordable and b. we love Canada, but when I saw this check, I had a brief flash of how this should go into the bank and then I realized we had not been on a real vacation since Hong Kong, when the boy was 5. "We're going to London," I said, and that was that. We've planned this last minute and are leaving Friday and not back until July, so it'll be quiet here on my blog.

In the meantime, some reading material! I'm honored that I am the Book Brahmin in the latest Shelf Awareness!

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Read This Book: A. Manette Ansay's Good Things I Wish You

I've been knocked out by A. Manette Ansay's work for a very, very long time. True confession: I had a writer friend who knew her and I begged for an introduction a few years ago, but was told that Manette was private (I know, I know, it's a code word for "don't bother her.") So imagine how thrilled I was when I saw her on Facebook! I forged ahead and did the introduction myself, and I'm thoroughly happy I did because she's funny, smart, interesting--and of course, a stellar talent. She's the author of six novels, including Oprah's Book Club Selection Vinegar Hill, and Midnight Champagne, which was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. Good Things I Wish You, about love, passion, career, male-female friendship, and the love triangle between Clara Schumann, Robert Schumann and Johannes Brahms has already won the Florida Book Award, and it's truly a stunner. (Manette is also available to chat with book clubs, so contact her at bookclub/fans at

What fascinated me is that you’ve said you’ve tried to write this book about Clara Schumann a dozen times and a dozen different ways before finding the right way in. What was that process like? And what really unlocked the novel for you?

I started writing Good Things as a traditionally structured historical novel, using research I’d done with Stewart O’Nan in 1995, when we co-wrote a screenplay that focused on the early years of Clara’s life: her rise to child stardom, her evolving love affair with Robert Schumann, her eventual split from her father and teacher when, over his objections, she became Schumann’s wife, effectively ended her career as a composer. The screenplay made the rounds, but nothing much came of it; we were told that American audiences wouldn’t like the idea of a 13 year old girl in love with a 21 year old man (really?), so we shrugged at each other and shelved the whole project--except I kept thinking about it.In 1998, I asked Stewart if I could novelize the screenplay, and he said, Have at it, which I did, only following a longer biological arc.

I was (still am) taken with the structure of Jane Mendelsohn’s novel I Was Amelia Earhart, and I was thinking I could write something retrospective and--already this was present in my thoughts--metafictional, with a point of view that would bridge the points in Clara’s story which remain a mystery. The trouble was that, after a year--as Jeanette states in Good Things--the pages I’d accumulated were “perfectly fine pages of writing, and not a single one of them right. Not a single one offering fresh insights into questions others had already asked. What was the true nature of their (Brahms' and Clara’s) relationship? Why did the two never marry, even after Robert Schumann’s death?”

So I wrote a different novel, Blue Water, instead--actually Blue Water was supposed to be the book I’m writing now, but that’s another story--and I left what I was calling “the Clara book” to simmer for awhile. No doubt it would still be incomplete if it weren’t for three events that did, indeed, unlock the book for me: 1) a blind date; 2) a long commute, and 3) The Son Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway.

1. The Blind Date
In January of 07, I went out on a blind date with a man about whom I knew nothing aside from the fact that he spoke German. We ended up in a debate about the Clara-Robert-Brahms triangle, with me holding out for what Clara referred to as her “beautiful friendship” with Brahms and my companion saying, “She was talking about hanky-panky. There are things between men and women that simply don’t change.” That night, I wrote what I thought was a nonfiction essay about men and women and friendship, using this date as a framework. Re-reading what I’d written, I realized that I’d found an original way into the historical material, a path that would emphasize its contemporary relevance, its immediacy. You cannot read about Clara’s life--the challenges she faced, the choices she made--without thinking of women’s lives today. And you can’t read about her friendship with Brahms without thinking of the dance of intimacy/aversion, advance/retreat between men and women that inspire books such as Men are From Mars, Women are from Venus. No doubt about it, Brahms was from Mars. You end up feeling terribly sorry for hm, even as he provokes his own life-long isolation.

2. A Long Commute
Though the book now had a contemporary component (I was alternately calling it a hysterical novel and a historical memoir) I was still envisioning chapters of traditional length, built exclusively of text, with the two parallel stories--present and past--presented in alternating chapters. I worked on the book three mornings a week while riding on the Tri-Rail, which runs from Palm Beach County down to Miami, where I teach. As the book evolved, I found I needed to bring more and more of my research with me, yet it became too heavy to carry all those books, plus the materials that I needed for teaching. I began photographing my desk--cluttered with books, photocopied images, notes, etc--as well as pages from books with my digital camera and importing these images into my chapters. Initially, I did this so that I’d have access to research that I needed while working on the train. But after a few months of this, I began to see that the images made their own contribution to the story. Structuring the novel as a collage came about around the same time as I began thinking of these ‘clutter collages’ as more than just personal props, but a glimpse into the mind of my character, Jeanette, shaping her life and her story, a part of the novel itself.

3. The Sun Also Rises
I know: it’s sexist, racist, anti-Semitic, homophobic.(Reminding me of that awful joke: “Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how was the play?”) But. Structurally, The Sun Also Rises is an amazing leap of faith. If you read Hemingway's biography from that time, you can see how acutely alert he is, how absolutely open as an artist. Everything he encounters, everything he experiences, becomes grist for the mill, gets folded into the same narrative. You get the sense of this wild, charmed trapeze act in which the performer simply can’t take a wrong step. At root, of course, is the authority of an author who believes that everything will come together because, by the natural order of things, it must. I entered Good Things through an autobiographical filter, and though it is finally and firmly fiction (the German man points out, over my shoulder, that his hair is not curly nor has he ever been to Switzerland), I am pleased with its broad associative connections, the wide cast of the net, so to speak, which came about as a result of my willingness to include elements from my personal life even when they didn’t overtly ‘fit’, trusting the structural integrity of the book--the organic design of the collage--to support everything I set out to do.

Why do you think Clara and Brahms parted ways abruptly and yet were able to remain friends? It’s a historical mystery that feels very modern. For me, this book is really about all the different kinds—and prices—of love between men and women. You could say Clara Schumann’s life was ruined by love, or at least her art was dampened by her years with Schumann whose work came first. And you could say, perhaps that Clara was saved by Brahms, except that while her work flourished, they may never have consummated their relationship.

If the story of Clara and Robert Schumann is one of history’s most romantic love stories, then the arrival of Johannes Brahms on the scene--and his involvement in Clara’s life during Robert’s final descent into madness (he died in an institution in 1856)--is one of history’s most famous love triangles. Each recognized the other’s genius, at a time when only Clara was widely known. Each suffered from an attraction to the other (Brahms for both Clara and Robert; Robert for both Clara and Brahms; Clara for both Brahms and Robert) that could not or could no longer be, for one reason or another, consummated in any satisfying way.Consummated contains ‘consume’, and it’s fair to say that Clara’s love for Robert consumed her, swallowed her whole, prior to the point in their lives when his madness left him inaccessible, unattainable. Was it luck--good luck--that delivered her Brahms, who would always remain out of reach? Or did she sense, at some level, the safety he offered, as man who would never consummate--consume--the object of his desire? She’d been deeply hurt by her first love, her first marriage. She fell in love a second time with a man of equal genius who could not reciprocate. She was protected--perhaps not quite as alive as a woman--but as an artist, she survived.

One of the characters, Hart, says that there are some things about men and women that don’t change. Do you feel this is true or is that simply the character talking?

I came of age in the 1970’s, when we were all insisting that men and women where “equal,” by which we meant that men and women are “the same,” which, of course, is absolutely ridiculous. We are physical beings, shaped by our bodies, the vessels which carry us through our lives, and these vessels--hello--have obvious physical and chemical differences that make us react not identically, certainly, but in recognizable patterns we associate with ‘male’ and ‘female.‘ Brahms pursued Clara relentlessly until she was free to return his affection; at that moment, he panicked and fled. Throughout their friendship, this was the pattern: with one hand he pulled her closer, with the other, he pushed her away. He did not want to commit to anyone or anything. He did not want to be tied down. He gave his heart in glimpses but never as an open gift. The character “Ellen” is a real-life friend, and the stories she tells in Good Things are all true.

I loved the collections of photographs and notes and drawings throughout the book (one is posted above) which blurred the lines between what is historically true and what is fiction. Is all this part of an ongoing collection? What was it like doing the research?

I enjoyed doing the research for Good Things easier than actually buckling down and writing, which involves going nowhere, reading nothing, and speaking to no one. Right now all three are particularly difficult for me because I don’t have long stretches of time to work. My daughter will be the first to tell you that she doesn’t like having a mother who writes book because she would rather I played with her all the time (she said pretty much exactly that to a reporter), but she does love to travel with me on research trips, and as she gets older, she is able to work on her own projects while I revise or take notes. We went to Germany and Switzerland, where I spent a lot of time reading and re-translating--with help--the letters and diaries people kept back then. I love to read, so getting to sit down with stacks of books for an hour here, two hours there--and have that ‘count’ as writing--was a treat. And then when I started really working on the collages, that was a lot of fun, too, because it was new to me, a different type of story-telling. I ended up eliminating some of the images from the final draft of the book, but they are posted on my web site ( under Extra Images.

I have to ask, what’s it like to do gliding?

It’s a rush, particularly if you’re launched via winch, rather than on tow. A tow plane takes you up gradually. When you release the tow rope (usually 3-4 thousand feet) there’s a bit of a bump, but then everything is very smooth. With the winch, you are catapulted into the air. Either way, you are looking for lift: rising columns of warm air. It forms under clouds and along ridges of land. Birds hang out in these columns, called thermals, which is what we see buzzards doing when they’re circling, circling, circling. I’ve shared thermals with buzzards; it’s pretty cool. They just open their wings and hang there.

My first flight was in Homestead, Florida. I’ve since flown (always as a passenger, I should add) in north Florida, Tennessee, Oregon, Kansas, and Germany, and though I don’t get nervous, I do get motion sickness when we’re doing a lot of thermaling.Mostly I just like being around glider pilots, being outdoors in these rural places, listening to passionate, interesting people talk about something they love. And gliders are beautiful to watch: a glider is to a small plane what a tern is to a seagull. I am hoping to go up in Minden at some point, and I’d love to go back to Chilhowie, Tennessee.

What’s obsessing you now and fueling your writing?

Small planes actually. And the northwest. And the idea--but if I talk about it, it will change, so I better not talk about it.

How does a writer realize the best way to tell a story?

The best way to tell a story is not to worry too much, at first, about what it means or where it might go. After awhile, a structure begins to suggest itself; at that point, the more left-brained technical side of things comes into play. You can say, No, I need to start bigger, broader; you can say, Actually, this single character, here, is the one who should be telling the story. But I personally find it’s very difficult to make these decisions in advance, without words on the page. I do carry ideas in my head, and I worry them like prayer beads, but when I actually sit down to translate them into language, I learn what I really know about the story--and what I don’t. There has to be a balance: something I want to comment on or share, something I want to find out. Too much of the first, and the novel is didactic. Too much of the second, and it drifts.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Read This Book: Leah Stewart's Husband and Wife

Husband and Wife by Leah Stewart is a richly satisfying read about marriage, identity and fidelity. I'm thrilled that Leah offered to answer my nosy questions. (Thank you, Leah!)

Husband and Wife focuses on one of my favorite personal themes, how well do we really know the ones we love? Would you care to answer that?

I wish I could answer it--I think my curiosity about that very question has driven all my novels, at least in part. My first novel ultimately suggested, I think, that you can't know other people, and that you just have to find a way to live with that. I don't think my answer has changed in substance, but it's changed in degree. In Husband & Wife I have Sarah say that learning Nathan cheated might suggest that she didn't really know him, but that she refuses to accept that. She insists that she does really know him even though she can't ever know him completely. I suppose that's where I come down now.

I’m intensely curious about process, so I’d like to ask you where this particular novel had its inception. What sparked the writing?

Since I was in graduate school I've been trying to write a historical novel based on my grandmother's experience as a field nurse in WWII. I worked on it after my first book came out, and then put it aside. When I went back to it after my second book it proved to be just as difficult, but I kept at it for a while, as I had a second child, and moved, and started a new job, and then I think I grew tired of that struggle when I was already so tired. So I decided to write something closer to what was on my mind. Motherhood, obviously, and identity, and the role work plays in identity, and how marriage changes after parenthood. I'm not sure exactly how I came to the infidelity plot, except that I'd seen friends go through similar situations. The original first sentence was "I'll begin with the end," and then Sarah described her husband's confession, which is essentially still the first scene.

In the novel, Sarah discovers her husband is writing a book on infidelity which has its seeds in truth. It’s a stunning moment, and it feels like an even worse betrayal because he’s attempted to turn his cheating into art. Which brings us to the question of how much boundaries should their be between real life and art?

As a writer my answer is that there should be no boundaries, or infinite boundaries, or whatever your work needs. When you're immersed in the work it feels like your only mission is to make it as good as it can be, however you're able to do that. But when your work is to be published I do think you have to think about its impact on the people close to you (or risk being the Woody Allen character in Deconstructing Harry). If I want to use a detail from a friend's life that seems particularly sensitive, I'll ask first. For this book I based the three-year-old girl on my daughter, who was that age at the time. Now, at five, she's delighted to know her finger-sucking habits are immortalized. But I suspect her life will be off-limits when she gets older.

Your husband is also a writer. Do you trade pages?

We do. He's a really meticulous line editor, which drives me nuts but is also good for me. We used to have dramatic fights when one critiqued the other's work. Now we just politely say thank you for the criticism, although I'm sure we get just as agitated underneath.

What’s obsessing you now that is compelling you to write?

Still questions of identity! (What is it with me and identity?) This time I'm thinking a lot about the intersection between identity and place. Also I've turned my attention to sibling relationships, which I haven't done much with so far. And the ballet.

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

Hmmm. What are my favorite TV shows? (Chuck, Community, The Good Wife, Fringe . . . ) Or, how do I feel about the condescension inherent in the way much fiction by and about women gets treated? (But maybe you don't have space for a rant!)

Sunday, June 20, 2010


I'm completed thrilled to announce that I will be going on tour for my novel, Pictures of You, at the end of January! The preliminary list is: Miami (warm, sunny!), Chicago (visited many times, love the city), Boston (grew up there and get back there three times a year), Kansas (Home of the incredible Rainy Day Books), Ann Arbor/Grand Rapids (I went to school in Ann Arbor and loved it so much, I stayed on for years, plus I love Michigan in general), and places in NYC, NJ and Connecticut (my stomping grounds).

I'm going to be bringing some surprises with me to give to people who come to the readings--special bookplates, bookmarks and I promise to draw a picture in every book that I sign (Why just have a signature, when you can have a coffee cup with a spoon and fork, right?) I love meeting and talking to readers, so I hope I will see many of you so I can hug you in person. (Or, if you are not the hugging kind, we can just solemnly shake hands.)

I'll post more details as I know them, but I hope you all will come!

Friday, June 18, 2010

Go check out Thriller Fest

Thrillerfest is the international association of thriller writers. Part of their mission is helping writers, and since its inception in 2004, they've raised money for literacy groups such as Reading is Fundamental. And in these tough economic times, ITW has suspended dues so that no writer is denied the membership benefits because of finances. At the ThrillerFest Banquet Gale, the organization celebrates a member who has given back to the community and cause of literacy by honoring them with the Silver Bullet Award.

So on July 7-10 Thrillerfest is having a "Suspense and the City" ThrillerFest V-an event so perfect it's almost criminal, at the Grand Hyatt Hotel. Packed with thriller writers lurking around, literary agents and fans, it's actually the largest event of its kind in the world. Authors appearing include Ken Follett, Lisa Scottoline, Mark Bowden, Brad Meltzer and more. There's an awards ceremony, too, for Best Hardcover Novel, Best Paperback Original, Best First Novel and Best Short Story.

More than 50 best-selling authors and another 200 up-and-comers will attend, ready to mix and mingle with fans, aspiring writers and industry executives. ThrillerFest is often called the summer camp of literary events where everyone shares the love of thrillers. In the spotlight during this four day event will be interviews with top authors, each interrogated by another thriller master, panels and AgentFest, where aspiring writers get a chance to pitch their manuscripts to more than 40 agents. There will also be a complete bookstore, a reader’s reception and many, many book signings. Plus, you can party every single night.

Register now by going to

Monday, June 14, 2010

Read this Book: There is No Other by Jon Papernick

Surprising, shocking, profane and hilarious, Jon Papernick's There is no Other explores the lives of Jews on the edge of despair, desperate to connect to each other, their kids, and their God. One of the most startlingly brilliant story collections I’ve read in years. (I also have to thank Jon for not only enduring the mail losing two of the books he sent me, but for being gracious enough to come to BEA and hand-deliver his book to me.) Thanks so much, Jon, and thanks for answering my questions.

A lot of your stories in this collection deal with ritual vs. faith. Do you think you need the rituals—the outside appearances-- in order to believe, or do you feel that these rituals are a very important component of faith itself?

I actually do not think that these rituals are all that important in order to believe. In fact, I follow very few Jewish rituals myself. Certainly the rituals provide some sort of structure, and help create community, but, for better or worse, I've never been one to follow any sort of structured guidelines in any aspect of my life. However, I think a part of me is a serious believer, and I sort out my questions relating to faith at my writing desk. Writing itself is a supreme act of faith, and I think the closest I come to prayer is when I sit down to create my stories.

Your characters yearn for love, for sex, for children and for God, but if and when they get them, it never turns out the way they expect. Women turn out to be whores, God isn’t listening, children disappoint or turn against you. But every once in a while, in the stories, a miracle of sorts occurs. Why do you think connection to anything—an idea or a person—is so difficult?

First of all, I just want to say that it's not just the women who turn out to be whores in my stories. I think we spend our entire lives trying to connect to something to make us whole, to satisfy our psychological and physical needs, be it a husband or wife or some idea of God. If it were so easy to connect to these things, I imagine life would lose much of its urgency and passion, and that is what makes life endlessly mysterious.

I read a very moving, thoughtful and funny piece in The Good Man Project about your quest to become a perfect Jew after the birth of your son. So, I have to ask, did you become more perfect?

Perhaps I've succeeded, but perhaps not. My oldest son is four years old now, and I struggle every day to be a good father both to him and to his younger brother, but, with exhaustion and stress and pressure to write a good book on top of everything, I really don't know if I'm doing as good a job as I possibly can. As far as being a better Jew, the only truly tangible test that I have had to face recently is related to the death of my mother. I'm an only child, and I did what an only child with a single mother, has to do, and I took care of business and gave her a proper and honorable Jewish burial, and for that I feel that I'm finally and irrevocably, a man. But, I don't know if I am mourning in the proper manner. Our relationship was complicated, as all parent/child relationships are, but I am not saying Kaddish every day. In fact, I've only said Kaddish for her once, but think about it every day, and I hope that the community at large does not judge me for that. On the other hand, I think I honor her life by being a good father and helping her grandchildren become better people.

A lot of your stories are about relentless change. Brooklyn gentrifies, religions change, and your characters have a hard time keeping up. They sometimes do shockingly stupid things, but your sympathy for them is palpable. Can you elaborate on this?

I think we all do shockingly stupid things on a daily basis, and I think change can be terrifying to many. The characters in my stories are often not up to the challenges that arise from the changes in their life situations. But yes, I do sympathize with them as I find that I sympathize best with others when I am forced to wear their skin for a while. When I write about a character sympathy is absolutely crucial, or else the characters would simply be there to be abused, and nobody wants to read about that. The main character in the story "My Darling Sweetheart Baby," was originally written out of frustration with the people living on my block who sat on the stoop drinking at all hours of the night when I needed to get up for work. The story was intended as some sort of catharsis for me, to hurt these people in a way that I knew I could not hurt them in real life. But as I got into the story I found that I loved each of the two primary characters as they showed themselves to me as human and flawed and needy and ultimately alone. Sometimes I wish that I could feel the same sort of empathy for others in my life, but the act of writing is in many ways far more intimate than an average conversation with a flesh and blood person.

What’s obsessing you now in your writing?

In each my first three books, I think I can safely say that I have been obsessed with faith and its effects on people's fragile psychologies. I'm also drawn to extremism, namely religious extremism. Though hopefully, I have answered enough of my questions for now to move on to another obsession. I have a novel manuscript about a young would-be con man who sells the Brooklyn Bridge to an Iraq war widow and becomes a media villain, and I would say that story is also about extremism and faith, only this faith has less to do with religion and more to do with finding one's place in the American dream. I actually think that my new novel should speak to a broader audience than my previous novel that dealt with Jewish terrorists in Brooklyn, but as of now I'm still seeking representation for it.

Can you talk about the difference for you in writing short stories vs. writing the novel? Which is more satisfying to you? What’s your writing process like?

I love writing short stories, and I find it immensely satisfying, like solving a complex puzzle. When I write a short story I usually have a question that I need to answer. My characters show me the way. I usually end up in a surprising and deeply satisfying place. Often times, my short stories actually come from the title alone. In fact over half the stories in There Is No Other began with simply a title. What I like about short stories is that I can contain all of my ideas in my head at once whereas writing a novel I need to plan and research and persist. If writing short stories like a sprint, writing a novel is like running 100 marathons. I find writing a novel to be immensely difficult, and though my first novel turned out much better than I ever could've imagined, I feel like the blood and sweat that I put into it never really paid off the way that I hoped it would. But, I would hate to pigeonhole myself as just a short story writer or a novelist. Perhaps I'll write a children's picture book next, or a memoir. I love to write, and that feeling of hitting your stride and immersing yourself deeply in a work is the best feeling in the world.

There’s a great quote from you: “You’ve got to play being a writer before you are a writer. You’ve got to convince yourself that you are one before you have the chutzpah to do it.” So, what convinced you?

In some strange way, I think I always thought I was a writer going all the way back to second grade. I did identify myself as a writer all the way back then, even though I had very little talent, even for my age. I was never a prodigy in my class, or even singled out as a good writer by any of my teachers all the way up through high school. My 11th grade creative writing teacher actually told me that I was a "not a very strong writer." So, I guess some sort of inner confidence kept pushing me onward. I certainly don't believe in destiny, because there's just too much hard work involved. I really don't know what else I could do in this world. I certainly don't have the talent to play shortstop for the Toronto Blue Jays. I wrote a couple of bad novels before I was ever published, and I was young and arrogant enough to believe I was really writing something quite important. In some ways that youthful naïveté allowed me to get a couple apprentice manuscripts under my belt before I realized that I had no idea what the hell I was doing. By that time I knew I could never write anything as bad as I had already written, so I had clearly established a floor for myself with those works.

There are few things more terrifying than staring down at a blank page or a blank screen. Writing is a supreme act of creation, and one really has to convince oneself that one is capable of creating an entire world in order to do it. You really need to psych yourself up and make yourself believe that you can accomplish anything. I think in many ways I need to convince myself that I'm up to the task every time I sit down to write. I guess looking at my books on my shelves, and getting positive feedback from my readers helped convince me for a short time that I am indeed a writer. But I need a booster shot of confidence quite often, so I'm certainly open to any compliments anyone might have about my writing.

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

That you didn't ask me my feelings about the U.S. Postal Service :-)

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Guest post from Robin Antalek, author of The Summer We Fell Apart

Author and blogger Robin Antalek's The Summer We Fell Apart brilliantly explores love, loss and abandonment as it swirls around the lives of four siblings. Thank you to Robin for guest blogging here!

Writing The Summer We Fell Apart was certainly an experience like no other. I was no stranger to the novel form – I had written three novels before this one – two that shall remain buried in a drawer forever – and one – the one before Summer – that my agent and I mutually agreed to withdraw from the market. So I was back at the beginning again – toying with ideas I’d scribbled in a notebook – when the image of the mother wearing elaborate patterned headscarves “as if a fistful of crayons melted on her head” appeared like an apparition.

The Summer We Fell Apart started with such a specific voice that I had no choice but to sit down and write. I couldn’t type fast enough for the conversations that I heard and literally – it was as if I was taking dictation from the entire family who had taken up residence in my brain. There were days when my daughters’ returned home from school and I was still wearing the clothes (I use that term loosely – really sweats at best - - and kind of nasty if I’m telling the truth) that I’d had on from the day before and I would blink at them as if they had just wrenched open the drapes and showed me where I really lived. Re-entry was hard in those first few months of writing the story of the Haas siblings. This messy, complicated family was so compelling and their stories so all encompassing that it left me with no other choice but to follow them on the journey. In the beginning, I was intrigued by the alliances that formed among siblings in that environment and I knew I wanted to tell the story of Amy and George and their special relationship. But when I was done with Amy, George wanted his say and then Kate and Finn and always, always I heard their mother, Marilyn in the end. Each of their stories managed to inform the other without giving the reader a blow-by-blow of the same event and something about this seemed to click.

What these voices needed was structure and so I set about building the story of the Haas family over a specific fifteen year period beginning when Amy, the youngest, was seventeen. To keep each voice “in character” I wrote and edited one sibling at a time to risk crossing over into another voice and along the way was constantly surprised at where each voice took me. These siblings and their parents made difficult choices that messed with their lives and broke my heart – but they were so intrinsic to who they were that I had no choice but to write them as I felt them. In the process, if I, as a reader started to feel uncomfortable, I knew what I had created, the doors I chose to walk through instead of close, were truthful to the story. Hearing from readers, I am validated in so many wonderful ways. The Haas family has compelled people to tell me their own stories, to work through some of the issues they recognize in their own lives. And while I have no claims to a therapy or counseling degree, it touches my life in immeasurable ways that the siblings that felt so real to me in the writing – have had the same impact on readers as well.

Friday, June 11, 2010

No Visible Means of Support: Guest blog from author Susanne Dunlap

One of the things that always strikes me is how most writers have to do other things besides write to pay the bills. It's a juggling act none of us are expert at. Recently, my friend and colleague, Susanne Dunlap (Anastasia's Secret) quit her job and I'm thrilled she's writing about the experience here.

I did it. About three weeks ago, I left my day job to enter the uncertain world of freelance writing and editing. Do I have a cushion of savings, you ask? No. A spouse who is wealthy and can help me make the transition? No. Limited financial responsibilities so I can pare down and live the simple life while I pursue my dream? If only!

So what possessed me to take such a rash, ill-advised step? Let me try to explain.

First, the day job was becoming increasingly untenable. Since the Internet is a public forum I’m not going to give you the details here, but trust me: it was time for me to leave. Then, I got my first-ever two-book contract. Not just a contract with an option book, but a real, two-book contract (thank you, Bloomsbury!). It wasn’t a huge, life-changing deal, but it meant I had the guarantee of some money coming in. About enough to keep me alive for two months in the short term, with more later.

Two months, and I’m almost halfway through the first of them. That’s two months to figure out how to replace my former income—or most of it, anyway—with projects that will give me the time I need to push my writing career to the next level.

Now you might well ask me how it’s going. It’s amazing. Incredible. Outstanding. Terrifying. And I’m learning a lot about myself and work.

I’ve learned, for instance, that I still need to set my alarm in the morning. I’m a sleeper. That’s my escape. Plus, the alarm going off at 7:30 (that’s enough of a luxury) puts a definite start to the day and reminds me that even though I’m not going to an office, I’m still working.

And I make certain I’m at my computer taking care of the mundane tasks—checking email, Facebook etc.—by 8:30. My goal is to be writing by 9.

I’ve also learned that being at home a lot of the time doesn’t mean my apartment is any cleaner or more organized than it was when I had my full-time job. Dishes pile up in the sink just as quickly—actually more so because I’m eating three meals at home.

As to spending a lot of time in my own company—that’s oddly the easiest part for me. Although I’m a social being, love getting together with friends and colleagues, I don’t get lonely. Perhaps that’s partly because of Betty, my wonderful Coton de Tulear (fancy name for fluffy white lapdog), who demands a certain amount of attention at regular intervals throughout the day.

But here’s the strangest thing: I’ve noticed a curious, turnabout effect in being a full-time writer. On some level, I miss being able to amaze people with my productivity, miss hearing those exclamations of “I don’t know how you do it!” What’s that about? I’m curious whether male writers ever have the same thoughts. Is this one of those “superwoman” myths that my generation grew up with, the idea that you are not only free to but you must juggle work, family, love, recreation, and vocation as easily as if you were serving hors d’oeuvres at a cocktail party? I guess it’s me feeling guilty. I don’t deserve this kind of life. Just because I’ve had four books published and two more on the way doesn’t mean I’ve earned the right to spend the bulk of my productive hours writing. How pathetic is that!

Perhaps the most remarkable thing I’ve learned in my new life of writerly freedom is that there are never, ever enough hours in a day. Now, instead of a day job, I have editing and coaching clients. I love doing that, but it takes up a lot of time and energy. As does the work to get more editing and coaching clients (if you’re interested, by the way, email me at Oh, and I’m supposed to be constructing an online course in writing historical fiction, and I haven’t even started that one. Plus, I’m building two Web sites for local businesses, and finding that takes up a lot of time too. In addition, I’m getting involved in a friend’s business, a very exciting opportunity that attracts my commercial instincts and keeps me in touch with that world.

I know, poor me! Seriously. If I can make this work financially, I will feel as if I have died and gone to heaven. Make no mistake: despite everything I’ve said here, it really is an amazing feeling to know that I am in charge of structuring my day. It’s hard work too. There’s no excuse for doing nothing at any moment. Sometimes I don’t effectively prioritize what I have to accomplish in a day. And I can’t blame anyone but myself.

So wish me luck. Envy me if you must. And please take one thing away from this post: life is short. The time to live it is today.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to get to work!

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Stephen McCauley talks about his new novel Insignificant Others

I first met Stephen McCauley at a bookclub meeting at someone's house. I already loved his books and I soon came to adore him because no one is really more hilarious. I even wrote up a piece on him and the how-tos of cooking an urban-styled macaroni and cheese for The Boston Globe food section, complete with a photograph of Stephen and the dish!

Insignificant Others is already racking up the raves. A social satire about the lies we tell each other--and ourselves--it's quintessential McCauley.

And Stephen will be reading from Insignificant Others at NYC's Upper West Side Barnes and Noble, 82 and Broadway, Thursday, June 10 at 7. Be there or be square.

Insignificant Others is set between the real estate boom and the economic mess we’re in now. How much (and why) do you think the economy guides our heartstrings?

I'm not sure the economy does guide our heartstrings. What I find interesting, though, is that it guides our rationale for questionable behavior, often related to heartstrings. To me, that's where the comedy and the social satire start to catch fire--in the self-deception and the lies we tell ourselves.

Do you think we need insignificant others from time to time? And if we need them, how insignificant are they?

The title refers to the people and pursuits we cast as bit players or subplots in our lives. Secondary, minor, insignificant. What the narrator discovers over the course of the book is that some of these people and things are more central than he realized. To answer the question, I think we all rely more heavily on the minor characters in our lives than we realize. Without them, the center collapses, and certain primary relationships become untenable.

Do you think that infidelity, like too much exercise, can be a way of keeping us from truer selves? And how can we ever really know what our true selves are?

Interesting you link the two things--exercise and infidelity. Of course they often go together, If one's spouse suddenly starts an exercise regimen, there's reason to worry. According to my observations, people have affairs to get outside of the confines of their lives and what they'd talked themselves into believing is their true self. Sometimes people find what they really want. I don't know if that means losing your true self, but it usually amounts to losing a lot of money.

You’ve got a somewhat hilarious background (ice cream stands, house cleaning service, travel agent) then headed for an MFA. I loved what you said about how you were first told to approach plot (“Not so complicated. Look at A Farewell to Arms. Boy meets girl, girl gets pregnant, boy walks home in the rain. The end.") As one who finds plot so complex that her head sometimes feels as if it is about to explode, I’m wondering if you can talk about your process in plotting and writing this novel.

Unfortunately, I don't ever start with a plot. I have some characters and a situation in mind. I try to begin at the point at which something or someone intrudes to upset the balance in a character's life. The plot (if you could call it that) is about how that gets resolved and some sort of balance is restored. I tend to shy away from big events--deaths, accidents, cancer, murder. I'm more drawn to the small--seemingly insignificant--things that throw our expectations and assumptions into disarray.

You’ve also said your next novel, tentatively titled My Pornographer is not comic, and I’m wondering what that feels like for you, but I’m also really curious why someone with such terrific name recognition would also be planning to write a series of novels under a pen name?
Well, I don't know if I'll ever finish the book I'm working on now and already, early on, something happened that tips it more toward comedy. But I've written six novels in which observations and proclamation (hopefully amusing ones) about life and behavior are every bit as important as plot. More so, perhaps. It gets exhausting noticing things all the time and trying to mine it for comedy, and my idea was to take a bit of a break from that.

The pen name project came to me as an opportunity. The books are commercial in nature and the publisher wanted a whole package they could introduce in a fresh way. I had to audition for the job. When I got it, I figured I'd never be able to do it, but I finished the first book in six weeks, and I have a lot of faith in it. It's coming out next winter. I think the reason I was able to write so quickly and have so much fun with it was because I wasn't writing as "me." It was incredibly freeing.

So, what’s with the Liza Minnelli and bad movie fascination? (asks the interview who has her own Minnelli fascination and who will admit to a love for C quality movies herself.)

I hope this doesn't turn you against me, Caroline, but my interest in Liza is starting to wane. But I think it was borne of her unbelievable theatricality, in which every sentence and gesture becomes a big pronouncement. Nonstop Acting on a grand scale. And of course, the amazing talent combined with the train wreck component. As for bad movies---I guess I just love a movie (The Lonely Lady with Pia Zadora, Showgirls, Glitz with Mariah Carey) in which nothing reads on screen as was intended. There's a huge gap between what was meant and what is, in fact, said, and therein lies a huge pool of comic possibility,

What question should I be mortified I didn’t ask you?
My age. Not that I would have answered.