Sunday, April 29, 2012

Anne Lamott interviews me as part of Algonquin Books Bookclub

How lucky am I? The gods and goddesses at Algonquin Books set up a Bookclub with webcasts pairing uber-famous writers with we lesser mortals, and I was blessed enough to be paired with Anne Lamott.  The webcast is here!

Annie was wonderful, warm, funny, and offered me half a peanut butter sandwich in the limo ride to Rakestraw Books. I had just the best time, and next time, I'm going to wear a jacket in a color so I don't look as if I am bleeding into myself.

Deborah Copaken Kogan Talks about The Red Book, expectations, obsessions and more

Deborah Copaken Kogan's bio reads like a novel in itself. A photojournalist, she wrote the bestselling Shutterbabe, followed by Between Here and April, Hell is Other Parents and now the New York Times bestseller, The Red Book.  Her essays have appeared in Elle, The New York Times, Paris Match, O, and more, she's shot photo assignments, produced and shot a documentary in Pakistan, performed live on stage with The Moth, adapted Hell is Other Parents for the stage, and even wrote screenplays and a TV pilot. 

The Red Book is part The Big Chill, part  The Group, and really, wholly original. About a group of Harvard friends who reunite at their 20th reunion, it explores what really happens when reality catches up with your dreams. It's a terrific, literary novel, and I'm absolutely honored to have Deborah here. Thank you so much, Deborah.

What sparked the idea for this novel?

Middle age, a death, a job loss, an empty bank account, and a move of desperation is the short answer. The longer answer, herewith: I had a two-book non-fiction deal with Hyperion, so after I finished the first book (Hell is Other Parents), I met with publisher Ellen Archer and my then-editor Barbara Jones for drinks on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. I’d sent them a bunch of ideas for the second book, one of which I imagined as a series of linked interviews with the women from my Harvard class, to be published in time for our 25th reunion in 2013. Born in 1966, we came of age as our mother’s generation were storming the barricades of sexism. Told we could be anything, do anything, work anywhere, we entered the workforce without the proper infrastructure (no paid maternity leaves, no subsidized daycare, no Sheryl Sandberg saying, publicly, that every parent, male or female, should be leaving their offices by 5:30 to be with their kids.) That lack of infrastructure and lack of societal support for working families has made for lots of unintended drama and difficulties in the lives of my fellow classmates, many of whom have children and 2-working-parent households. When the recession hit just as we were supposed to be settling gently into the folds our back fat, well, I just thought, here’s a generation of women who’ve been screwed by the gigantic delta between myth and reality. They have a lot to say.

Ellen, however, was dubious, thinking the women I’d interview would never be honest enough to really mine the depths of our generational neuroses. No one would talk about sex or money. And when you’re 42 and going through middle age and a recession simultaneously, I mean really. What else is there to talk about but sex and money?

I happened to mention Harvard’s red book, the self-presentation to one’s 1600 classmates, how it often differed—vastly, in some cases—from the real story of the life described.

The novel—and the permission to write it, instead of writing another non-fiction book—was born right then and there. I’d use the red book entries of fictional classmates of the class of 1989, who would have written said entries during the fall of 2008, just as the recession was about to hit, and then the alumni would show up at their 20th reunion during the full-blown economic meltdown. Characters were imagined almost instantaneously. The reunion itself offered a perfect three-act structure: Friday’s arrival, the climax of Saturday, Sunday’s memorial service as an ending and a perfect reminder of the melancholy truth of all lives: that they end.

The structure of the book, the way you wove in and out of the lives of these characters, connecting past to the present, was so interesting to me. Was this always the plan, or did it evolve as you are writing? 

Every novel begins with a vague idea of how it will be structured. I knew, from the start, that before any new character would be introduced, the reader would first get a glimpse into that character’s Red Book entry. I also knew the novel would span the short three-day reunion, so I decided to keep the plot’s forward-propulsion prose in the present tense, slipping into past tense to describe the past, future to fast-forward to the future. Beyond that, I knew very little about my characters, where they’d been, where they were going, and so every day when I’d sit down to write, I would surprise myself with the details of their lives. I ended up writing many scenes from the past that I would subsequently erase and/or swallow up into a single defining sentence, but it was useful writing those scenes, if only to understand what had happened to my characters before they arrived in Cambridge. In general, however, in fiction as in life, the past is constantly informing the present, so the toggling back and forth between the two felt organic to the story I wanted to tell.

I can't help but ask, without giving away some of the marvelous plot twists, where do you think these characters are going to be at their 30th reunion--and why?

Good question. Truth is, I have no idea and I haven’t given it any thought, but if I were to guess, hmmm. I think Jane will still be living in Paris, writing her second or third novel and raising her youngest, Claire, after having just sent her eldest, Sophie, off to college in the States. Clover will probably still be in the Bahamas with her son and new husband, running their joint business. I imagine that Addison and her partner might make a big move after her youngest leaves for college; I somehow picture her in Ubud, Bali, making/studying art again or maybe Florence, Italy, studying textile design. And I’m hoping that Mia finds love again and finally makes it up to Seattle, to act in one of Clay’s productions.

I was fascinated by the whole notion of how we see ourselves doesn't always end up in how we live our lives. Can you comment on that?

I’m answering this question having just spent the better part of last night poring over the class of 1987’s 25th anniversary red book, to the detriment of sleep, proper parenting, and a clean house, so I’ve been thinking about this all morning. I have to say the entries I found the most poignant and compelling were those that dealt directly and honestly with this dichotomy between the life we thought was ours to lead versus the life we end up living—the once-overachiever who found herself battling depression, a divorce, and infertility; the once-promising actor, now lawyer, dealing with the death of his child; the man who ended up in a city and job he tolerates but doesn’t really love. The truth we learn about adulthood, through trial and error, is that we are forced to be both active—finding our path—and reactive—changing paths when it leads into underbrush or ends at a cliff. Life lobs lots of tiny and unpredictable hand grenades our way: Here’s the death of a loved one! And, oh, look, here’s a pink slip! Watch out for that sinkhole/pothole/speeding car! Oops, your life partner isn’t who you thought he was! How about a little bout with cancer, huh?

Life also often transforms us from solitary beings into members of a family unit, whose needs may not dovetail perfectly with our desires. A spouse’s job may move us to a different city. The birth of children forces a total reassessment of what’s important and what’s secondary. A sick child obliterates the normal and turns life into a fight for that child’s survival (and I say this having only experienced a month in the children’s ward of our local hospital, nursing my youngest back to health from a critical illness, and he’s now utterly, completely fine, unlike so many.) All this to say that the life we might have imagined, in our youth, we’d be leading hardly ever turns out to be the life we end up living, wily life.

But at some point, usually sometime in middle age, when our bullshit meters have become finely tuned, we try our best to tie those two threads together—expectation versus reality—as best we can, even if we have to jerry-rig them. Again, speaking only from personal experience, I’d wanted to be a writer, but I wasn’t accepted into a creative writing class at college, so I turned to war photography, liked it and was good enough at it to make a decent living, until I realized I could not, in good conscience, be a war photographer and a mother simultaneously. So it was back to the drawing board. I became a TV producer and did well enough at that to earn a decent living and have good medical benefits, but the hours and travel were brutal on my kids, so I sat down one day, when I was 32, and decided that if I did not make a go of my first love, writing, I would regret it. That story has a happy if oftentimes impoverished ending, but really, I could have failed, and then I’d be doing something else, but I would be acutely aware of the compromises I’d have to make to leave that dream behind, in the same way I realize the compromises I’ve made to keep it alive: lack of stability, income that varies wildly from one year to the next, a lonely day-to-day existence, the masochism of handing myself over to the mercy and whim of reviewers and public opinion.

That being said, I think I can finally and truthfully say that my self-perception and my actual life, at least on the professional front, are finally in harmony. On the personal front, that’s harder to pin down these days, but I’m doing my best to weave those two threads—expectation and reality—together. Wish me luck.

What's obsessing you now?

Architecture; Aspergers; The National; the fact that the house we live in as renters has been put on the market, so we may have to move; a Sam Phillips song, “I Need Love,”; Jon Robin Baitz’s play Other Desert Cities; Catholicism; yoga; summer plans or, rather, our lack thereof; trying to decide whether to let my hair go gray, as it’s currently doing, or to dye it; the election andconcomitant war on women; Lena Dunham’s Girls; visiting colleges with my eldest; the plot of my next novel; an essay I’ve been writing on Erich Segal for the NYT Book Review; the ups and downs of several marriages in my circle; dust; regret as catalyst; regret as useless; socialmedia; mangos; perfecting spaghetti alle vongole; race; neurosurgery; a friend who was publicly mean to another friend; woman-on-woman meanness in general; a possible move to the Bay Area; the past; the present; the future; and, at this very moment, what to have for lunch.

Peter Golden talks about Comeback Love, the past, the present and more

Peter Golden's Comeback Love is a gorgeous novel about first love and second chances, and I am honored to have him here on my blog writing about how the past and the present exist together. Thank you so much, Peter.

Snow is falling past the glow of the gas lamps along the street, and the silvery flakes seem to fall straight through this winter evening into evenings gone by, when I watched the snow falling softly past my bedroom window and harbored no grander wish than that in the morning school would be closed.

Now, a half-century later, I wonder why I frequently find myself slipping backward through Time. Sure, I’ve been earning a living at it for a while—writing biography, history, and my just published novel, Comeback Love—but my wanderings are not limited to the hours I spend at my desk and often come over me as suddenly as a fever.

I have no explanation for it, but like any self-respecting novelist I do have a story.

A Saturday morning in October. The Lone Ranger is on TV. I’m seven years old, wearing a white cowboy hat, black mask, and a holster with two white-handled six shooters like you-know-who. When the program is over, I go into the back yard. Around the neighborhood I hear metal rakes scraping against sidewalks while blue smoke, fragrant with burning leaves, drifts over the houses. My father went to the store for cigarettes, and when he comes home I’m going to be put to work. For some reason, this is the day that I decide a curtain separates the present from the past, a purple velvet curtain like the one on the stage at my elementary school. The wind picks up, the curtain moves aside, and convinced that it would more fun back there than raking leaves, I step behind it and find myself on the other side of Time.

My father did come home, but never asked me to rake. Maybe he couldn’t see me. He was a practical man and tended to live in the present.

For the last fifty years, I have moved from one side of this curtain to the other like a hyperactive stagehand. When I was writing Comeback Love, I was walking along Broadway toward 114th Street and passed Havana Central restaurant, but it was a an Indian-summer evening in 1969 and the restaurant was the West End Bar filled with rowdy jocks swilling beer, intellectuals eating hamburgers, and revolutionaries munching potato chips, On another day, I was in Washington Square Park, spiffed up now to match the grand town houses along its leafy borders, and yet for me the park was crowded with hippies, hoods, burnouts, bums, druggies, and students gathered around the high, silvery mist of the fountain.

And here I go again with a new novel—working title, The Winter of Julian  Rose—beginning in 1938 and ending in 1966, moving from Hitler’s Berlin to Miami Beach, Greenwich Village to Paris, South Orange, New Jersey, to Lake Nisswa, Minnesota.

Sitting at the center of the novel is Kendall Ann Wakefield, a beautiful, African-American woman, a photographer whom I met at Le Café Tournon in Paris. The war has been over for a couple of years, and when I walked into the Tournon, I saw Kenni-Ann in the corner of the café, playing pinball with the novelist, Richard Wright. Later, in the Jardin du Luxembourg, as I strolled by the bright rows of flowers, Kenni-Ann was photographing the Parisians reading newspapers and books on the long line of chairs.

And so I hang on while I am, in Fitzgerald’s words, “borne back ceaselessly into the past.”
I can’t say that I understand it, but I would have it no other way.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Erika Lutz, sublime author of The Edge of Maybe, talks about her writing life cycle

The Edge of Maybe, the phenomenal new novel by Ericka Lutz, is about the earthquakes in a happy life when a past indiscretion comes calling. I loved the book, and I always follow Ericka's Solo column at Literary Mama, so I am now thrilled to host Ericka on my blog!

Ericka is also the author of seven non-fiction books for parents and teens, including On the Go with Baby and the bestselling Complete Idiot's Guide to Stepparenting. Her award-winning short stories and personal essays appear in books, anthologies, journals, and online. Thank you, thank you, Ericka!

My Writing Life Cycle
by Ericka Lutz

I've published eight books and a lot of other stuff, but I've never written the "right" way: writing daily as a discipline, preferably in the hours before dawn (then drinking myself into a Hemingway-esque stupor). No, there's a lot of time when I'm not writing. Not just days or weeks, but months and sometimes even (though I'm embarrassed to admit it) years.

Here's my rhythm: nose to grindstone until my nose is ground flat, and I have to grow a new nose. Or, as translated into a handy graphic:

Ericka's Writing Life Cycle

At this stage, I don't write, I won't write, please shut up about it. I read. I go to garage sales. I take a flying lesson. I catch up at the day job. Get a new puppy. Refuse to write. I deny that I feel sucky about it, or maybe I don't feel sucky about it at all. Writing? Why in the world would I want to do that?

Then, at some point, I decide I'm going to write again. Ha. Wish it were that easy. One summer, I told my husband I was working on a novel. Instead, I was gardening – feverishly, obsessively. I learned how to lay my own stone paths. I got muddy and strong. I spent too much money on plants. The garden looked great. I looked great. The novel languished on her daybed, pale and weak. "Gardening IS writing," I said. (Was I really pretending? I didn't know I was on the verge of a short story filled with gardens, weeds, and the beauty of poisonous flowers.)

After pretending awhile, I return to Not Writing. I volunteer at the zoo and learn about hyena-care. I read my bio-grandfather's letters from 1919, fresh out of the army, full of himself, studying at Cal, and living in the Berkeley YMCA. I remember how we got drunk with our realtor after we closed on our house, and her telling us about her ex-husband boiling himself to death in an Indian sweat lodge. I stand on a ladder to change a light bulb... . And I realize I want all this in my next novel: hyenas and sweat lodges and light bulbs and long dead grandfathers, the thinning of the veils in times of grief and craziness, our responsibility to our relatives. I decide I want ghosts.

"I'm writing another book." I say the words out loud, and so then it's true! This is the fun part, before the plot happens and I can make it a thriller! A mystery! An historical novel! My favorite part is here, before the writing, the in-breath of possibility before the output of reality. I begin to take notes on character. I go to a homeless shelter and plan a visit to my long-dead grandfather's grave.

It's scary. I want to do it but I don't want to do it. So I write down a line when I'm not looking. And another. I keep a notebook by my bed, and jot down a fragment of a dream… and it's just that, a fragment of a dream. I go to my freewrite group and do unrelated exercises. I stretch the muscles. Get ready.

And… then here it comes…. The Binge! I take three weeks at a writer's colony and barely come down for meals. The challenge of Nanowrimo? Ha! I write 50K words in 24 days without breaking a sweat. I live in two world, the Real and the Written. I write and edit, get feedback, write and edit. Months go by. Years. I'm done. Exhaustion.  Collapse. 

Submission rejection submission acceptance edit reedit launch promo. (Or: submission rejection submission rejection submission give up and move on.)

And then it starts again. I don't write, I won't write, please shut up about it.

Andi Buchanan talks about Gift, writing for kids, graphic novels and more

I can't remember when I first met Andi Buchanan.  What I do remember is sitting down with her at a New York City Cafe and having a blast over coffee, talking about why we both favored big cities over the country, writing, success, and so much more. She's the author of the international mega-bestseller, The Daring Book for Girls and seven other books, and she's a classically trained pianist who has performed at Carnegie Hall. Gift is fascinating not just because it's Andi's first YA novel, but because it's also multimedia (images and texts fade away and appear, there are music tracks, and lots of other nifty things.) Thank you a million times, Andi for gracing my blog. I'm honored to host you.

I'm always fascinated with how and why writers write about what they write. Where did the idea of a gift come from? And do you secretly ( or not so secretly believe in gifts like these?)

I think anyone who's ever been an insecure teenager can probably relate to the worry that anything that makes you noticeably different from everyone else might be a bad thing -- and most of us who have been insecure teenagers have grown up to realize that actually that the things that made us stick out as being "different" are often the things that make us awesome (or at the very least, we discover that they're the things that make us who we are, and that that's a good thing). I wanted to write about a girl coming to grips with her outsider status and taking ownership of the power she has instead of trying to hide it. And I wanted to tell a ghost story!   

 How is it different writing for kids than for adults? What really impressed me is how you got the tone exactly right--almost as if you tunneled into kids' psyches. How'd you do that alchemy?

Well, I'm lucky in that I have an almost-teenager at home that I get to overhear having prolonged Skype calls with her Minecraft friends. But also I feel like that teenager I used to be isn't so far away sometimes, and I tried to channel the kinds of conversations I used to have back then (and still have with my friends now who've known me since we were teenagers!). In terms of writing for kids versus adults, no matter what I'm writing, I try to write something that I, myself, would want to read. But I think there's an immediacy of point of view in writing for teens, and a sense of action and forward momentum that I tried to be conscious of as I was constructing the story.

I loved the whole idea of adding an illustrated graphic novel and especially Danielle's journal, which I think kids will just adore. How and why did you come up with the idea for these great extras?

From the beginning, I conceived of this book as a book made to be read on a digital platform, and I really wanted to have the kinds of "extra" content that's possible on a digital device be content that was important to the story -- that came from the story and out of the story, and would allow the reader to explore an aspect of a character or the story itself in a different or deeper way. So, since I had one character who spent a lot of time scribbling in a sketchbook, a graphic novel from her point of view, illustrated "by" her, seemed a perfect thing to include. Same with the music (included with the iBooks edition of GIFT): with a character who's a musician, who sings a song to the main character at one point in the book, it just seemed like a perfect thing to include an actual music video and musical tracks "by" that character. And Danielle's diary gives a closer look at the reasons behind a surprising decision she makes at a crucial point in the book. All of these "extras" are really "bonus" content that connects to the story and furthers it in some way. 

I also really love the whole idea that sometimes the things we try to hide (because they make us different), are actually the most powerful things about us. Have you had any feedback from kids yet?

It's so hard to have perspective on that, especially when you're right in the middle of it, and messages from adults often sound so hollow or out of touch. (Do you remember your mom telling you about mean friends, "Oh, they're just jealous!" ? Even if she was right -- sooooo not helpful!) So I hope that that's something readers can take away from the book -- that, as you put it, often the things we wish we could hide are the most powerful things about us.  

What's obsessing you now?

A Rachmaninoff piano piece I'm working on!

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

How much fun did I have with having a Minecraft map made of the world of my book? And I'll tell you: Lots! 

I thought about making a map for GIFT sometime after attending Minecon last year (yes, I went to a Minecraft convention with my kids in Las Vegas!), and even started trying to go about creating it myself. But I quickly realized that this was something that called for a master mapmaker. So I commissioned Vechs, a Minecraft mapper known for his incredibly creative and challenging Super Hostile series of Minecraft maps, to make a playable map of the book. I sketched out the basic geography of the Overworld for him, and sent him descriptive passages from the book so that he'd know what things were generally supposed to look like... and then he did his thing and created a wonderful, pixelated replica of the book world within the game. It's really fantastic, and a lot of fun to play, whether or not you've read the book. (Though if you have, you have a bit of a head start as to where to go to look for things, as locations that figure prominently in the book are generally locations that figure prominently in the map.) The map went live last week and has already been downloaded around 6,000 times. Joe Hills is currently playing through the entire thing on his YouTube channel, which is a nice introduction to the book, the map, and to Minecraft, if you're not familiar with it.

You can download the map (and character skins) at

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Clea Simon talks about Cats Can't Shoot, Grey Expectations, writing, doubt, joy, and so much more

I first met Clea Simon on this writing site we both frequented. I really liked the funny, smart way she was presenting her ideas, but more than that, I was thrilled that she was the author of Fatherless Women, a book I loved. We became friends online first, and then began to manage to see each other once a year. I read more of her books and loved all of them. We go to each other's readings, we do a daily email check in, we boost each other up and cajole and nag and talk about everything from writing to money to morale--honestly, I depend on Clea and I don't know what I'd do without her. 

I'm thrilled she has two absolutely terrific, smart new mysteries out, with another coming out next year--and I'm even more thrilled she's here on my blog. Big hugs and thanks, Clea! 

Writing is a lonely business, which is one reason I’m so lucky to have Caroline as a writing buddy. She and I email each other all the time, complaining of plot complications that won’t be resolved. Character flip-flops that caught us unawares, and inevitable insecurities of the wait, when the agent, the editor, the reviewer reads our work. Sitting here, alone in my office, I don’t know how I’d get my work done if it weren’t for friends like Caroline.

But even as we bat our anxieties back and forth, and she reassures me that, yes, after thirteen books, maybe I am a “real” writer, I’ve become increasingly aware of a major difference between us. You see, for the past few years, I’ve been writing series mysteries. Specifically, I am now writing two series for two different publishers: the Dulcie Schwartz mysteries, which feature a graduate student in Gothic literature, who happens to get visits from the ghost of her late cat, and the Pru Marlowe pet noirs, which feature a tough-girl animal behaviorist who can hear what animals are thinking (and has an even tougher tabby as a sidekick). This month, I’ve got the two newest books in each series out – Grey Expectations (Severn House) is the Dulcie, Cats Can’t Shoot (Poisoned Pen) is the Pru.  Next year, when Caroline’s next book will be out, I may have three.

Crazy, isn’t it? Caroline and I go through so many of the same processes – the electric thrill of inspiration, the crazed zone of furious writing, the doubt, and the joy – but these days, I seem to be doing it double time. And so when she and I talked about what I could guestblog about, I thought that writing series might be a good topic, and she obliged by asking me some questions.

What is your schedule this year?
I’m actually writing three books right now. Severn House decided they wanted my Dulcies to come out a little more frequently, and they contracted me for two more. How could I say no? But I also had the last in my three-book Pru contract due, so...  I turned in the manuscript for the fifth Dulcie, True Grey, last month, and am awaiting edits. I am now finishing up Parrots Prove Deadly, the third Pru book, which is due in June, and when I’m done with that, I have another Dulcie due Sept. 1. What I’m hoping is that going over the edits for True Grey will get me back in the Dulcie mindset and remind me of the threads I left hanging. (I also have pretty good notes.)

How do you get it all done?
I’ve had to become super disciplined. I don’t outline, I find it kills creativity, but I do have a good idea of the direction of each book. And I make myself write at least a certain number of words each day. The good part is, when I’m writing regularly (1,500 or 2,000 words a day is standard for me), I find the ideas keep coming. The problem is that sometimes I get so caught up I lose track of time. Over the winter, there were many days when I did not get outdoors during daylight. And I’ve learned to keep a portable egg timer with me. Too often, I’d put up something for dinner and not heard the timer down in the kitchen going off. We had many scalded pots and acrid artichokes before I started carrying my little egg timer back up to my office with me.

Do you worry about repeating yourself?
Yes, I’m terrified of it. But there is so much out there, so many possibilities, that what usually happens is that I run into something that I think I can use and I can’t fit it in. And I rely on happy accidents: I was having Pru work with a raccoon and it hit me: She gets that close to a wild animal, it’s going to bite her. Suddenly, I was researching rabies and rabies vaccines, and my book was going off in a whole different direction.

Both your protagonists are so different. Is it difficult to switch voices?
Yes, I need a little rest time between. When I’m writing Pru, as I am right now, I think of Dulcie as a wimp. Naïve and silly. But when I’m in a Dulcie book, I adore her, and I think of Pru as an unsympathetic bitch. At some level, it’s probably good for me to explore both these characters!

What are the other challenges of writing series books on deadline?
I’m terrified of what I might miss. I force myself to be hypervigilant when I’m revising, and I am extremely grateful both to my small, core group of readers and my editors for their input. But still, in Cats Can’t Shoot, there was a stupid gun error – I don’t even want to repeat it – in the ARC. A reader caught it, and I was able to make the change before the printed version, but that’s what gives me nightmares. I try to write freely and wildly, but I have to be extra careful in every stage of revisions, because there’s just no time.

Yikes! Are there advantages?
Yes, indeed! I love my characters, and I love watching them grow and change from book to book. Relationships are developing and changing. All sorts of stuff that really has no connection to the mystery in each book, but is deeply gratifying to me. Plus, I get to avoid that post-book post-partum depression. I know I’ll see these folks again soon.

Still, you must have some pet peeves?
Oh, I do. It still amazes me how many people look down on mysteries– they say they’re “just” mysteries, not “real books”  – like mysteries are automatically a lower form of writing. Yes, I write quickly, but I revise carefully – and writing slowly is no guarantee of quality. When you’re in the zone, you’re in the zone. That said, I’ve written more serious books, nonfiction, and this is what I want to be doing now, so I try not to let that get to me (too much).

Sounds like I should let you get back to it!
It was lovely to take a break with you, Caroline! Thanks so much for letting me talk about the series side of writing. – Clea

Excerpts from Clea’s books may be found on her website, at

Frances Greenslade talks about writing routines, Shelter, and more

Frances Greenslade is the author of two nonfiction books, A Pilgrim in Ireland, a Quest for Home, and By The Secret Ladder: A Mother's Initiation. Her fiction debut Shelter, about a mother who vanishes, leaving her two girls behind, kept me awake thinking about it long after I had turned the last page. (That's my litmus test for novels.) I'm thrilled Frances agreed to write something for my blog. Thank you, so, so much, Frances.

I remember when I gave up the idea that writers had to live on the brink of disaster in order to be creative. Hardship, the idea goes, keeps you on your toes creatively, doesn’t allow you to grow complacent. I once read that Vincent van Gogh drank forty-eight cups of coffee a day to stave off hunger. And he was creative, right? He also spent hours writing to his brother and fellow artists about how to sell his work, and died at 37, but never mind.

The year my son was born was, for me, the beginning of the end of the romantic notion of the suffering artist. I didn’t give it up at first for the sake of my writing. I gave it up because I’d never felt such a need to be competent. I had awakened from the trauma of giving birth to the terrifying realization that my son relied completely on me. I set about ditching the unnecessary perils to our security. And once I achieved some stability, I recognized how good it was for my writing life. I didn’t have to spend all my creativity on finding ways to pay (or not pay) the bills. I could relax enough to go deeply into the world of whatever story I was working on.

It’s probably the dream of most writers to give up the day job and write full time. But it’s not the only way to do it. I wrote Shelter mostly in the mornings before going to teach. I became aware that my best writing happened in the first three hours after I woke up. At that time, I’m in a slightly altered state of consciousness, not far from the dreamland of sleep. I dropped easily into Maggie and Jenny’s fragile happiness on the edge of the jackpine forests of the Chilcotin.

So I began a writing routine that I still follow. Once I get my son off to school, I write through the morning, avoiding email and putting off telephone calls that can lead me off on day-long tangents that leave me feeling that I’ve accomplished nothing. The prolific Neil Young, one of my writing heroes, once said that writing songs was the one thing he did that didn’t make him feel like he should be doing something else. I understand that feeling. The story pulls me; I leave it reluctantly. Part of me stays in a smoky canyon where a forest fire rages and Maggie is camped beside the river, sifting memories.
It helps that I have a flexible day job.  It also helps that occasionally I pack the car full of books, yellow pads of paper, and medium ballpoint pens and head to a cheap cabin/motel beside a lake two and half hours from home. No phone, no Internet. No electric heat or toilets, either. Recently I went to India, where part of my next novel is set, and spent two weeks at a writing retreat. My son is now fifteen. Our life is calm. We thrive on routines, and so does my writing.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Hey Boston authors, want to learn to speak in front of your adoring crowds? Author and teacher Carolyn Roy-Bornstein can show you how

I love speaking in front of crowds. I really do. I love connecting with an audience, love hamming it up a lot, love telling jokes. But I didn't always. I used to get so nervous that my whole body would shake, and I often would have preferred getting root canal without anesthesia to standing up in front of people. Of course, I still get butterflies, but I've learned that all that comes before the event--that once I get up and start speaking, it's bliss. 

Dr. Carolyn Roy-Bornstein is a Boston-based author who is offering a course at the famous Grub Street to help writers be their best in front of an audience. I'm thrilled she's here on my blog.

Why do you think authors need help in giving speeches?
In publishing today, platform is everything. Whether you are looking for an agent or a publisher or are simply hoping to boost your book sales, you have to show that you have ready-made followers, an audience that is interested enough in what you have to say to buy your book. Invariably, that's going to involve becoming an expert in your field and giving speeches. I help authors identify topics most compatible with their areas of expertise and their book titles and then walk them through the various steps of speech-writing.
What kinds of things do you work with with authors?
 In the workshop, I teach authors how to begin their speeches in interesting ways and how to choose topics that will win over audiences. I suggest unique ways to research their subjects, like spending a "day-in-the-life" of someone whose field they'll be discussing. We also play around with various ways they can structure their talks from a straight linear narrative to a numerical approach to a "compare and contrast" format and see which one works best for their subject. Then there are the nuts and bolts of speech-writing like estimating speech length from word count and using rhetorical techniques like anaphora and epiphora.
What do you think the biggest problems authors have speaking in front of crowds and how does an author speech differ from any other kind of speech?
An author speech is no different than any other kind of speech and authors have the same problems even the most polished speech-givers have. What my workshop teaches is that, with preparation and practice, anyone can become a poised and articulate orator. I give folks the tools they need to build their own platforms so to speak.
Can you help with stage-fright---and without Xanax?
Yes! The first thing I try to get across to authors is that your audience is rooting for you. They want you to give a successful speech. They're on your side. I encourage authors to learn as much as they can about their audiences and find some things they have in common, some way to connect. For example, I recently gave a talk to a group of nurses at a Trauma Symposium. Though I'm now a doctor and a writer, I was a nurse for 10 years. Voila! Instant connection! And with that connection comes confidence.
Do you recommend that authors memorize their speeches? And do you help with body posture, hand motions, etc.?
For me, memorizing a speech wouldn't work. One forgotten word might lead to panic. I use single words or short phrases on index cards as prompts. By the time I give a speech, I've practiced it enough (with my kitchen counter as my podium and my dog Homer as my audience!) that those simple prompts readily remind me of each point I need to make. As far as body language goes, that falls more under the category of public speaking than actual speech-writing but yes! We get into that, too. I have "day of the speech" tips: everything from checking your equipment to meeting your host and a few audience members beforehand. I also recommend bringing your water bottle to the podium but don't drink! That's just for emergencies! (Sipping frequently can make you look nervous even if you're not.)
Here's the "What question didn't I ask that I should have?" portion of the interview:
 Tell me a little bit about Grub Street where you'll be giving the workshop.
Grub Street (whose tag line is: Where Boston Gets Writing) is the 2nd largest independent center for creative writing in the U.S. They offer a wide array of high quality classes and services for writers at all levels and in all genres from craft to publication and promotion. I'm really grateful to Chris Castellani for giving me the opportunity to offer this workshop. Chris is always interested in ways to support his writers and help them build or solidify their platforms so he's always open to new ideas.
And when and where will the workshop be held?
I'll be offering the workshop on Thursday May 24th from 11am to 1pm at our brand spankin' new headquarters on the 5th floor of 162 Boylston Street in Boston. And spaces are going fast. My class was over 25% filled in the first two days it went up!

Ellis Avery gives an outtake from her luminous novel, THE LAST NUDE

I loved Ellis Avery's novel The Last Nude. Recently, I met her at a reading and we started to talk, and she mentioned having an outtake from her novel, which is inspired by the Art Deco painter Tamara de Lempicka, and which received glowing reviews from  The Boston GlobeThe San Francisco ChronicleThe Washington PostSF WeeklyVogue, O: The Oprah Magazineand NPRIn addition to The Last Nude (Riverhead 2012), Ellis Avery is the author of a first novel, The Teahouse Fire (Riverhead 2006). Set in the tea ceremony world of 19th century Japan, The Teahouse Fire won Lambda, Ohioana, and American Library Association awards and was translated into five languages. Avery is also the author of The Smoke Week (Gival 2003), an award-winning 9/11 memoir. She teaches fiction writing at Columbia University and lives in New York City.  Website:  And one-time rights are available to this piece.

And here it is, an outtake--thank you so much, Ellis!
 As for me, I'm off to Istanbul for a week! 

Kissed: 1928
by Ellis Avery

After the affair ended badly, I had my hair freshly marcelled, packed up my valise with everything I’d made, put on a new coat over the zipper dress I’d designed, and walked to rue Cambon.  Carved into the limestone above the front door of no. 31, I saw the face of a beautiful young woman: was she smiling at me, or laughing?
            At the far end of the townhouse lobby, I spotted the mirrored staircase that spiraled up to the couture floor.  At the near end, behind a long, shining desk, I found a human copy of the laughing stone maiden I’d just encountered, a blue-eyed girl already polished to so high a gloss, it would have been redundant for my painter to paint her.  “May I please speak with Mademoiselle Chanel?”  I asked in my best French.
            “What is this regarding?” she asked, derision tugging at her penciled brows.
I swallowed.  “I wanted to show her my work.”  She looked at my suitcase as if it might contain a bomb.  “I mean, the dresses I made,” I explained.  Understanding registered in her eyes, and with it, contempt.  The mirrored staircase at the far end of the lobby winked mockingly.  My confidence unraveling, I flailed.  “Do you need an apprentice?”
The receptionist laughed outright.  “Mademoiselle is not hiring at this time,” she said. 
My throat closed up.  My little valise banged against my legs in defeat, but I was so angry that I looked up to face her.  “I can understand if you’re not hiring,” I said, the French words welling up like an underground stream.   “But why laugh at me?”
The receptionist gave an indignant little cough-snort.  “Because you have no idea how many girls just walk in looking for work.  This is a couture house, not a factory.  The arpettes here are students at the best technical college in Paris.”
“Oh,” I said, deflated.
She gave another little cough.  “Désolée,” she chirped, in no way desolate at the prospect of ejecting me from Chanel.  I turned away, smarting, but I stopped myself.  Her cruelty was nothing, mere professionalism, compared to what I’d recently endured.  I set down the valise and took out my notebook.  “What is the name of that college?” I asked, stainless-steel pencil poised.  “And the address?”
I could hear the condescension in her voice as she politely enunciated a name that had Filles des Bonnes Familles stamped all over it, but I refused to let myself slink away.
And then Fate kissed me on the forehead.  A woman with a wide red mobile mouth and a hat as small and perfectly-formed as a quail’s egg floated in through the front door on a wave of perfume, followed by a harried flunky with an armload of packages.  “Des messages?” the woman asked the receptionist. 
In the five seconds the blue-eyed mannequin spent stacking up slips of paper by the telephone, the woman in the cloche noted the tab of the zipper at my neckline with a brief widening of the eyes, then sized up the situation immediately with a glance at my notebook and my earnest little valise.  She did not meet my eye: it was obvious that the company kept a receptionist to save the higher-ups the time and trouble of keeping out people like me.  But as the girl handed over her slips of paper, the woman surprised me.  “Yours?” she asked, looking again at my dress. 
“Yes,” I managed to say.  “It’s my design.”
            “Eh bien,” she grunted, in a manner that balanced mockery with grudging interest, and took a second look over my shoulder at the name of the school I had written in my notebook.  “You should know that the Chambre Syndicale de la Couture is starting a school this fall as well,” she said, and with a blink of a smile, she sailed down the hall, shrugging off her coat and passing it to her assistant with the parcels.
                             I stared at the receptionist, stunned.  Her blue eyes narrowed at me with newfound envy.  “Was that—?” I whispered.
            “You mean you don’t know?”

Monday, April 2, 2012

Dawn Skorczewski talks about Anne Sexton's therapy tapes, psychotherapy yesterday and today, and so much more

I have always loved Anne Sexton. She suffered from mental illness, but her therapist , Dr. Martin Orne, encouraged her to take up poetry--and a career was born. Her poetry blazes on the page. She hides nothing, she confesses everything. How could you not be fascinated by her? 

When An Accident of Hope: The Therapy Tapes of Anne Sexton bumped through my mail slot, I practically devoured the book. To say that Dawn Skorczewski has done something remarkable is putting it mildly, and I couldn't wait to speak with her.

Dawn, by the way is an Associate Professor of English and the Directory of University writing at my old alma mater, Brandeis. She was the 2009 recipient of the CORST Essay prize in Psychoanalysis and Culture from the American Psychoanalytic Association and the 2007 recipient of the Gondor Award for Contributions to Psychoanalytic Education.  Thank you so, so much, Dawn.

What first drew you to Anne Sexton?

I was first interested in Anne Sexton because I was certain, from reading her poems, that she was an incest survivor. My mother's own history dovetailed with hers, and so my first journey to Sexton was to find my own history and to connect with my mother's story (which she remained silent about). I found Diane Middlebrook's assessment of this issue in the biography unconvincing. Later, having discovered the value of psychotherapy, I began to listen to her therapy tapes. Then I learned that there was much more to this poet than I'd even imagined. 

Sexton was treated by a very particular type of psychotherapy. Do you think that if she had been treated today, with more modern forms of psychotherapy and medication available, that the outcome for her might have been different?

Yes, I do think that Sexton might have had a very different story had she been in treatment today. We need only look at Linda Sexton's recent memoir to see how bipolar disorder and suicidality are being treated today. Linda writes a moving story of attempting to repeat her mother's suicidal example only to find herself alive, and, most surprisingly, choosing life, with the help of an excellent therapist who values the relationship more than the symptom.

How do you think, given this book, that Sexton might be reappraised?

Sexton's poetry looks very different when seen from the vantage point of her therapy. The multiple voices in her poems resonate with awareness of the ways in which person, culture, neurosis and the creative imagination exist in dialogue with each other. 

What were some of the difficulties and surprise for you in writing this book?
Oh so hard to listen to hours of Sexton struggling with her depression, her much too conventional husband and in laws, her narcissistic parents, and her ongoing need to feel special to everyone. Add to this her often tone-deaf psychiatrist and it is a long long journey from therapy tape to book. Finally, consider the boundary-violating Frederick Duhl, the psychoanalyst who treated Sexton after Orne. The tapes on which she speculates about his problems withhat she calls "limits" are so sad and so smart. Heartbreaking.

What's obsessing you now?

I am now working on the boundary violations issue. I am not sure if folks are aware of how often this happens to this day. Like Orne, I am convinced that Sexton's suicide was heavily influenced by Duhl's abandonment--after he'd convinced her to divorce her husband. Her poem "For My Lover Returning to His Wife" directly represents the complexities of the patient-as-lover position. Traumatic and dramatic as it sounds in a poem, when heard on an audiotape the boundary violation becomes almost unbearable.

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

You ask great questions. Perhaps you are wondering where to buy the most fantastic jewelry in Istanbul? Or where to eat meze in an alley in Beyoglu?