Friday, September 28, 2012

Meg Pokrass and Bobbie Ann Mason write about Putin, Romney, Leda and the Swan and so much more

I'm thrilled today to have Meg Pokrass and Bobbie Ann Mason make some political mischief on my blog. Many, many, many thanks.

Leda and the Crane-Daddy by Bobbie Ann Mason and Meg Pokrass

Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, created such a sensation recently in his motorized hang glider when he led six endangered Siberian cranes across an Arctic wilderness toward their winter world, that he has taken up the sport in a more serious way and is now rumored to be roving beyond Russia's borders in search of excitement. There have been sightings of Putin putt-putting above the United States.


Many humans, such as Leda, have been caught up in the "feathery rush"of an erotic bird experience or two. But this one wins the most unlikely mating award. Strapped into a hang-glider and heading a flock of cranes, Vladimir Putin created a sexy rush of flight which made him unusually creative as a lover. A bird enthusiast can only imagine his leadership skills.

Leda, a body-builder and bather in Boulder, Colorado, was bathing nakedly between workouts when first she heard the buzz above her. Witnesses say Vladimir Putin, Russian President and Siberian Crane-Daddy, swooped down upon her, clucking and honking, adorned in white overalls and a downy hood.

The Russian Crane-Daddy stunned and immobilized Leda into submission, his feathery fingers pushing into her acupressure points and rendering her helpless and gorgeous. Witnesses describe in awe the erotic grace of President Putin twisting his long neck around Leda's iPhone to mute her cellular reception during this painting-worthy rape.

Leda, not exactly chopped liver herself, clearly confused both Putin and the cranes, though only Putin swooped. Leda swooned. The confused young sheltered Siberian Cranes passed their test of hope. Putin passed his test of manliness. Leda scored high with chronic, often fatal bird fetishism.

Since Leda's misadventures with what she believes was a clearly Republican swan, she has laid two eggs which are not covered by health insurance. So far, they have not hatched, and appear to be waiting until the U.S. Presidential election is decided. Like many American voters, the eggs seem very still and worried.

If the Republicans win, Leda says, "Once again, me and two questionably legitimate, fertile eggs will have no rights in the matter."

Even with her two eggs in limbo, Leda, a fowl-driven, erotic woman, succumbed with both repulsion and attraction to the Russian president, in his white costume and hood, with his concern for the world's many endangered species.

In her distress, she turned on the radio. Unfortunately the news did not soothe her. More turbulence was in the air.

Republican presidential nominee Willard Mitt Romney, having declared publicly that Russia is America's number one enemy, has stirred fears of a new Cold War contest. Private sources have revealed a new Romney plan to out-Putin Putin. Upon hearing of Putin's courageous and heartwarming exploit in flying a hang-glider with a bunch of birds, Romney was both inspired and challenged. Mitt was also miffed about his running mate's marathon time and felt the need to do something spectacular himself. Leading endangered cranes to the safety of Siberia, or wherever, is nothing, he mused. Romney, obviously, could have taken the cranes there in his jet, but he needed to do something more thrilling. He trusted his campaign manager to come up with something more stunning than Putin’s primitive stunts. Really, puttering around in a hang glider was rather juvenile, Romney thought.

This is unofficial, but a Romney insider spoke of plans to perform a Santa Claus-and-sleigh flight from the North Pole in a new all-GPS jet sleigh. He will wear a thermal-enhanced synthetic fur-and-down Santa suit and voice-activated warming mittens with glow technology.

It will be a pre-Christmas surprise, of course, and the details are cloaked in secrecy, but there will be a campaign promise to all legitimate children in the red states to have a chance to win a time-share in a Cayman Islands condo. No handouts for the wretched. Romney identifies with the Santa image, following on the theme of red, which was so successful in the choice of his wife's $1900 Oscar de la Renta dress for her speech at the convention.

A prominent member of the Tea Party was heard to object because red could be interpreted as Communist.

And Sarah Palin said. “I can see Russia from my house and the clothes-lines are always flapping red underwear, you have no idea.”

Another party faithful warned, "If Romney is dressed up in red and flying around up there, Sarah Palin might mistake him for a communist bird and shoot him.

Back to Leda. When she heard of Romney's putative out-Putining Putin plan, she shuddered, fearful that he would swoop down on her from his jet-sleigh, his red fake-feathery arms trying to jerk her off to the Caymans for a tryst. But he would have to put up with her pleas to let her take her two swan-rape eggs along because he is, after all, pro-life, and then maybe she could have him arrested for crossing international lines with a minor, or two minors.

How to get yourself out of a rape, legitimate or not, can be trying, a vexing problem, especially when there are bird-men acting like they own the skies and can just swoop down on anybody they choose.

The swan rape was so devastating to Leda that sometimes she thinks she may have imagined the Putin swoop as well as the Romney Santa scheme, and she wonders if she should have her head examined. But she would need more health insurance for that. Meanwhile, she will watch for dark shadows falling from overhead and try to keep under cover.

Senior Associate Editor,
Press 53

Links to my Stories "Damn Sure Right"  at Amazon

Bobbie Ann Mason, a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and winner of the Pen Hemingway Award for First Fiction (Shiloh and Other Stories) and an Arts and Literary Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, is also the author of In Country, Clear Springs, and The Girl in the Blue Beret.

Julianna Baggott talks about We are the 47% letters

Julianna Baggott isn't just a sublime novelist (You've read Pure, right? If not, go and get it right now. Trust me on this.) She's also an activist and the originator of the website, We Are the 47%, where writers craft their own open letters to Mitt Romney. I'm thrilled and honored to have Julianna here, again.

What made me you think to do this? 

I'd written my own Open Letter to Romney after watching the leaked video tape and figuring out what he meant by the 47%. That stat included my young family, when we were just starting out and didn't earn enough to trigger federal income tax. Novelist Jon Jefferson goaded me to open it up, make it bigger. And so I reached out to other writers, as a sounding board for the idea. Within 24 hours, I had letters -- from Richard Russo, Jennifer Finney Boylan, you, and many others. We started it up. 

This goes beyond Romney and the election. We strive to Humanize a Statistic, One Voice at a Time.
Why reach out to the writerly community? And as members of the "elite" and "smart" that Romney dislikes so heartily, do you think our message can have an affect on those who favor Romney? Can we change minds?

We started with writers because that's my immediate community -- those I knew who'd write, quickly. But we've opened it up to people from all walks of life. Alongside two Pulitzer Prize-winners, we have a union carpenter, special education teacher, designer, geologist, veterans, medical transcriptionist ... lots of voices in the mix.

What's the response been like? Will you reach out to others? How can people help building this? 

In one week, we've had over 50,000 people come to read the stories. We are open to anyone who wants to represent. We don't publish all of the letters but we read them all and sometimes make editorial suggestions (mostly just to make the stories a bit shorter). You can find out how to submit at the site We Represent the 47 People can build it by sharing the links with friends, family, on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+. Some of these stories are so powerful and moving that some writers have had interest from literary agents. It's truly an honor to offer a place for these voices to gather. 

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Jo-Ann Mapson talks about Finding Casey, dogs, writing, cowboy boots and so much more

I first met Jo-Ann Mapson because I stalked her. Yep. It's true. It was the early days of the Internet and I saw her name on AOL and tracked her down, introduced myself and told her how much I adored her books. But Jo-Ann wasn't interested in THAT. She wanted to be a friend, peppered me with questions, and soon we were emailing back and forth, and managing to see each other every few years, too. You've never met anyone as loyal, kind, funny or smart. She's edited my pages, handed me both good advice and virtual tissues when I've had meltdowns, and she introduced me to Old Gringo cowboy boots! 

Jo-Ann's the author of Hank & Chloe, Blue Rodeo (a CBS TV movie starring Kris Kristofferson), Shadow Ranch, Loving Chloe, The Wilder Sisters (An LA Times bestseller), the Bad Girl Creek trilogy, which includes Bad Girl Creek (An LA Times Bestseller), Along Came Mary, and Goodbye Earl, The Owl & Moon Cafe, Solomon's Oak (Winner of the American Library Association's RUSA award). and her new extraordinary novel, Finding Casey, will be published by Bloomsbury USA and UK in October 2012. And don't miss the book trailer for it!

Jo-Ann is part of the core faculty and co-creator of the University of Alaska Anchorage's low residency MFA Program in writing. She's married to the artist Stewart Allison, whose cartoons grace this page. And wait, that's not all! She's also working on a new novel, Owen's Daughter, which will be out in 2013. Thanks so much, Jo-Ann, for being here. My blog is always your blog.

Tell us about Finding Casey, which offers characters from a previous wonderful novel. Do you find you carry your characters with you? Do they ever get put to rest? 

Finding Casey is not the book I imagined writing after I finished Solomon’s Oak.  That story of a girl who never returned from walking her dog had been sitting in the writing place in my heart (see diagram), gestating for maybe 12 years? Solomon’s Oak was supposed to quiet that down.  Instead, I slowly began to realize that I had written the first book so that I could write another, which became Finding Casey

And duh, don’t we writers know that? The idea for the next book germinates in the one you’ve just finished.  For me, it shows up at the 2/3 mark when I’m rewriting, when I’m about to throw in the towel.  A little shining carrot: Finish this and you can have me.

Remember when Patty Hearst was kidnapped and then found?  I do. Some years back, I watched a news anchor well up with tears, saying, “Some good news for a change: Elizabeth Smart has been found, safe, and reunited with her family.” We’re human, and we hope for happy endings.  But for every good outcome there are hundreds of tragic outcomes.  As a writer, though, my wheels begin turning (see diagram), I wondered, now what? What is the life of Patty/Elizabeth like? 

Then Jaycee Dugard was found, this long-term kidnap victim everyone thought was dead for years.  I began writing Finding Casey that very day.  I read books on kidnapping, Stockholm syndrome, sociopaths, true crime accounts, courtroom transcripts, and at times my head was not a good place to be.  The writer Sherry Simpson told me that how she wrote her first book was learning to keep looking, without flinching. When Jaycee telephoned her mother, she said, “Mom, come quickly.” That tore my heart.  An aspect of the story that resonated with me was reuniting families with horse therapy.  I’m an old urban cowgirl and rode horses until my back began disintegrating.  I’d worked a summer job with juvenile offenders. Lesson 1: here is a halter, now go catch a horse.  These inner city badass boys were humbled. They learned to ride. They very quickly bonded with their horses.  They reminded me of kindergartners sometimes; so accepting of the animal world, communicating in all the ways they couldn’t with the real world.  When the 6-week class ended, they cried.  

The program won an award. Then it folded.

I often think of the year I did nothing but ride horses.  All my friends were getting published but me.  I was depressed; this was my husband’s order: Go ride your horse every day. That year was my breakthrough.  I had a new world to explore.  Not everyone there spoke English.  Nobody there spoke horse, but I was trying to learn.  Our plug ugly Appaloosa helped my son through a tough adolescence.  When they died, I mourned for years. Some experiences you want to stop thinking about because they hurt.  But if you don’t turn away, there are lessons that will change you.  Then the sorrow turns bittersweet.  It sticks like a piece of caramel lodged in your heart.

I had just arrived at the real story in Finding Casey.  That lesson.  No one can run away from the past, though we try hard to.  That kind of pain can eat you alive unless you do something with it.  Finding Casey stands on its own two feet.  But it also will (hopefully) cheer some to learn what happens to the Vigils after Solomon’s Oak.  Glory and Joe were meant to be, but it’s hard work to build a family out of pieces.  They come together like pieces of a quilt, but one of the squares is missing.  You’ll find out how they deal with that in Finding Casey.

What was it like revisiting the characters?

Heaven.  A story never really ends.  I purposely write books that when you shut the cover, you’ll find yourself wondering what the characters are doing today.  Who dried the dishes?  What sidetracked the character, sending her on an entirely different track?  Was there a storm?  Certainly they adopted a few dogs…or horses.  Growing up, I had no real ally in my family besides books.  Only a thin veneer separates the characters in my life and books.  They’re with me wherever I go, like one of those ladies who carry a dog in her purse.

You write so much about how people can be broken by loss and need, yet your characters also have this resilience of spirit that tugs them to higher ground. Can you talk about that, please?

Whoa, that’s a hard question, Caroline.  My writing and my life have are spent in study of this question: After something has broken you, how do you go on?

Resilience of spirit is even harder to define.  I have struggled with depression my whole life.  I began to write to use my depression to make something good out of it. I have been bucked off a multitude of times. Like the teacher said in the movie “Precious,” write it out.  Life is so surprising.  You can fall in love at eighty years of age.  There is always a dog that needs rescuing.  Chances are good that another person as lonely as you is out there.  Everyone who gets back on the horse is a hero. I see people who have done that and I want to celebrate them as characters.

What's your writing life like? Actually, I'd love it if you would talk about your career as a whole. What surprised you about being a professional writer? 

What surprised me is that it happened at all.  I never thought I was good enough to deserve publication.  A few self-esteem issues here.  When it happened, you’ve heard me say this before, I had just finished my MFA, with no publications during that time, I came home from the residency to find out I had gotten fired from my crappy job, and I was watching All My Children, crying and dusting when the phone rang.  It was my first editor, telling me that my agent had laryngitis, and that she wanted to buy my book.

I pinch myself every day.  To be paid money for my favorite thing to do! More than once!  More than 10 times!

Just this past week I won the University of Alaska Anchorage’s Chancellor’s Award for Research & Creative Activity.  Being nominated alongside scientists and important fields was as far as I expected it to go.  Had I known I’d win, I would have taken the red-eye to AK and made a fool of myself crying on stage because this was REALLY BIG for the Creative Writing Department where I’ve taught for 11 years.  And to me, having been told that I would never be hired tenure-track because I had “written too many books.” Validation, respect, to be publically deemed to be part of something that big? 

Blew me away.

I write every day in my little office.  Around 2:00 P.M. the dogs start in to remind me that dinner will be in three hours. They bring me live mice.  They “bury” dead gophers on the couch.  They bark at ravens.  It’s amazing I can get anything written at all.  These days I am working in the daytime and at night.   I am wailing on the first draft of this new book so I can have months to revise it.

You've lived in a few places, Alaska, New Mexico, for two, and the sense of place really infuses your work to the extent that it's almost a character in itself. Do you think place impacts character or character impacts place, or both? And why and how?

When you grow up in Southern California, you have the Pacific Ocean.  We used to rent a beach house for a month every summer.  It fosters the sense of having a second identity.  When I traveled to Northern California, I realized there were much bigger parts to this state than the one I was living in.  It was possible to live in beauty, as the Navajo say.  I went to Alaska when I was eighteen, and knew someday I wanted to live there. 

My dad died just before I got married, and my mom was left raising two teenagers, so I ended up in Southern California for 47 years.  I talked my husband into quitting everything and moving to Alaska and we lived there 8 years.  I enjoyed every moment of it—snow, giant spruce trees, wildlife in the front yard, and talk about ocean!  There is a frontier mentality that exists to this day.  It’s a great place for a woman who wants to buck the system a little.  I was hired as a term contract professor to teach in their fiction MFA Program.  I thought nothing could top that.  This is the job I’ve always wanted.  Six years later, my colleague Sherry Simpson and I were sitting at a table every day of the week for a year creating the low-residency program.  My contract was 60% time, which allowed professors to live elsewhere, returning to AK every summer.  I said to my husband, OK, if you want to move, this is the time.  He said he wanted to live in Santa Fe.  It was my turn to say yes.

It’s a different kind of pretty here.  Prairie and high desert climate, ravens, jackrabbits, coyote central, a big chorus every night. All that finds its way into story because if I had my druthers, I’d be out in it.  It’s hard to meet people, but my former student and cherished friend Judi Hendricks ( lives here. Writers manage to find each. Michael McGarrity lives down the street, and close by, Sally Denton, and David Morrell.  We have an indie bookstore, Collected Works, built where there used to be a jail, one that Billy the Kid busted out of.  We’re all tucked inside out houses writing.  I love the solitude, but I miss Alaska, which is ironically, now where our son is living.

What's obsessing you now?

I’m writing Owen’s Daughter, which features some of the Finding Casey characters, but also Owen, Margaret, Peter, and Skye (Owen’s daughter) from Blue Rodeo.  Another story I have been waiting 20 years to tell.  I love the fact that just now in Chapter 6, they will miss each other by seconds.  Because eventually these folks, who haven’t seen each other for 10 years, are going to meet.  And when they do, their worlds blow up.  Love is all you need?  Well, that and Lorazepam.

And I am obsessed by ghosts, and tinkering around with trying a mainly omniscient narrative, and reading about 1912 Santa Fe.  This place is filled with spirits, there’s a ghost tour.  So my ghost, Dolores, arrives in Finding Casey, and here she is again in Owen’s Daughter, so I’m giving her some rein, seeing where she takes me. 

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

I don’t know how do you do it, Caroline, teach, write, raise a wonderful son, stay married to the amazing Jeff, and have time to interview writers, to make space for them to be heard. Bless your heart a million times over.  So here’s my question: Which Old Gringos will end up in your closet next? When can we go out for a cupcake?  My treat.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Caren Osten Gerszberg and Leah Odze Epstein talk about Drinking Diaries: Women Serve Their Stories Straight Up, getting sloshed, honesty, living one block apart and more

So, what's the deal with women and alcohol? Why is it cool for Mad Men to have their cocktail but sad when women hit the bar? Editors Caren Osten Gerszberg and Leah Odze Epstein put together a fabulous collection of essays all about the topic of drink. I'm thrilled to have them here. Thanks Caren and Leah!

What gave you the idea to do an anthology like this? And can you talk about your fabulous Drinking Diaries Blog, how that came about, as well?

We both have mothers who struggled with alcoholism and we both love to drink. These contradictions proved ripe for exploration and discussion, and we found that there was no forum—other than a church basement—for women to share their stories, good and bad. So we started the blog, soliciting stories from all kinds of women of varied ages, perspectives, experiences and backgrounds. We ended up with a treasure trove and wanted to create something lasting, so we decided to put together an anthology of original essays about alcohol’s impact on our lives.

Do you think there's been a reluctance in the past for women to talk about their relationship with alcohol? How do you think that relationship differs from the ones men have with drink? Or does it? And if it does, why does it?  

We’ve noticed that the relationship has been dichotomized—either you are hiding your problem and feeling shame or you’re sipping cosmopolitans or doing shots with girlfriends and joking about it online. But what about all the people in the middle—the rest of the 64 percent of women who drink (according to the latest Gallup poll)?

At our reading at the Strand Bookstore, author Daphne Merkin brought up the idea of the guy at the bar alone, having a beer and how acceptable that looks. The whole male bravado, “Mad Men” thing. Whereas the image of the woman at the bar alone reads as sad.

Did any of the essays surprise you? 

Jacquelyn Mitchard’s essay, “Thank you for Pot Smoking,” is about her preference of pot over alcohol for her kids—that was surprising and a great rant. Jane Friedman made a great intellectually-reasoned case for getting sloshed on a regular basis in “Drinking as Genuine Vocation.” And Asra Nomani pulled out all the stops in “Mother of All Sins,” by admitting she’s a Muslim who drinks. 

What I loved so much was the bravery and no-holds-barred honesty of the essays. Was there any coaxing involved?  

Not really. The honesty was there—the writers wouldn’t have signed on if they weren’t willing to share. But there were a few writers who we asked to dig a little deeper. And those that did thanked us afterwards.  

What are you both working on next? What's obsessing you now and why? And I have to ask, I see you both live in Westchester County with a husband and three children--is this a typo or are you living wonderfully parallel lives?

Leah is going to return to writing young adult fiction, most likely about daughters of alcoholics, and she is also trying to convince Caren to do a teen Drinking Diaries. At the moment, she is obsessed with pink wine, because it’s like a happy mood in a bottle.

Caren is working on a few freelance articles and writes regularly on her travel blog. She is undoubtedly obsessed with her two dogs, and her recently begun meditation practice. 

Yes, we live one block apart and each have three kids. We joke that we are now married.

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

Where can you get the book? Oh—good question. Anywhere books are sold and at IndieBound and Amazon.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Consider donating to and supporting Monkey Helper Training Program

The novelist Katharine Weber alerted me to this wonderful auction in support of Monkey Helpers: Help for the Disabled. I donated a novel and illustrated the title page, and I hope others will donate as well!  

Helping Hands: Monkey Helpers for the Disabled is a national nonprofit serving quadriplegic and other people with severe spinal cord injuries or mobility-impairments by providing highly trained capuchin monkeys to assist with daily in-home activities.

The organization raises and trains these monkeys to act as live-in companions who, over the course of 20-30 years, will provide the gifts of independence, companionship, dignity and hope to the people they help.

Through the generous support of donors and volunteers - just like you - our monkeys are placed at no cost to our recipients.

When you bid on items, you change lives, renew hope, and bring a sense of independence and companionship to our recipients' lives.

Online Auction Open! Monkey Helpers' Annual Food Festivale - Saturday, October 13th!

Live Event
Sat Oct 13, 2012 6PM - 9PM EDT

Total Bids: 12
Top Items
  1. 1. Dinner and a Movie - National Amusements Theater and Buca di Beppo Restaurant
  2. 2. Dooney & Burke: The Smith Bag
  3. 3. $300 Gift Certificate from Zipcar
  4. 4. Two Round Tickets to Nantucket and Bicycle Rental for 2
  5. 5. Two Adult Lift Tickets for Okemo Mountain Resort
  6. 6. Isabelle Stewart Gardener Museum and The Elephant Walk
  7. 7. Four Passes to the Institue of Contemporary Art and Dinner for 2 at Gaslight
  8. 8. Private Behind the Scenes Tour for 4 People at the Monkey College
  9. 9. Basketball - Four tickets to Boston College vs. Clemson 2/2/13 plus Bertucci's Certificate
  10. 10. Brunch for two at Ceres Bistro
The online portion of Monkey Helpers' Annual Food Festivale is now open. The auction will run from September 24, 2012 to October 10, 2012, with the live event taking place on October 13, 2012. All proceeds go to support our Training and Placement Program.

Item Pick-Up: All online only items can be picked up at Helping Hands: Monkey Helpers for the Disabled after October 14th unless otherwise noted. Those purchasers who request that the item be shipped to them must either provide a prepaid shipping label or prepay separately for the shipping (i.e. overnight, UPS, USPS, etc.). Shipping will be coordinated after you win the item. Note, shipping charges are not included in the bid price except where indicated. Any further questions, please contact
Make Your Bid to Support our Monkey Helper Training and Placement Program!
Now is your chance to not only get all the great items you want, but to do it knowing you are helping support our organization and mission.

We are the only non-profit organization in the world dedicated to breeding, training, and placing capuchin monkeys with individuals who have suffered paralysis due to a spinal cord injury, Muscular Dystrophy, Multiple Sclerosis, ALS, a stroke, or other mobility limiting conditions.Helping Hands : Monkey Helpers for the Disabled

Send book or auction donations to:

541 Cambridge Street
Boston, MA 02314
Phone: 617-787-4419 ext.105

Monday, September 24, 2012

Maryanne O'Hara talks about Cascade, her prickly (and wonderful) heroine), obsessions, and so much, much more

I reviewed Maryanne O'Hara's eerie and unsettling Cascade for the Boston Globe, and it quickly became one of my favorite novels. Both a People and Library Journal Pick, it's been justifiably collecting high praise. For weeks after reading the novel, the image of a drowned city kept swimming in my mind, and I was anxious to have Maryanne on my blog. I'm thrilled and honored that she agreed. Thank you, Maryanne.

Where did you get the idea for Cascade? What was the research like? You've said you worked on the book for many years--what was that whole process like? Did you ever lose faith?
Cascade developed from a few short story ideas I had—about artists in the 1930s, about the drowned town setting. I had no real desire to write a novel, so in the early days, it was easy to continue to write short stories while I immersed myself in the novel’s research. There was so much to study: the Great Depression, New York City during the New Deal era, art in Paris in the 1920s, art in New York in the 1930s, politics, reservoir construction, the build-up to World War II, theater production, Shakespeare’s First Folio. I watched hours of newsreels. I read old newspapers and magazines. When even my oldest, classically-trained artist friend wasn’t quite sure how paintings were painted in the 1930s, I hit upon the idea of reading “how to” art books published before 1935.
I did always have this tiny nugget of faith that the book would someday be published, however humbly, but many times I doubted that faith, if that makes sense. And the doubt was like a trap door flying open. I don’t know where I would have gone, mentally, if I had tried everything and failed to publish Cascade. I did not want to have a “drawer novel.” I put too many years into it.
What impressed me so much about the novel was how things were never quite what they seemed. What's your process like? Do you outline things in advance or were there real surprises for you? (Or course there are always surprises but you know what I mean.)
No, I don’t outline in advance and I think that’s why it takes me so long to get my stories right. I experience a lot of backtracking, changing direction, exploring—yes, lots of surprises. Once I’ve got the plot/narrative set, I’m good, but my first drafts are not pretty. The initial struggle, for me, is to set down a strong enough narrative that will make a reader want to turn the pages, but the real joy of writing begins with revision. That is when I write for the close reader, the one who will notice the layers and subtle references, and hear the rhythm of the language. That kind of polishing takes time. It’s all about going deeper and revising, revising, revising.
I do always comfort myself with the knowledge that if I close my eyes and imagine what would REALLY happen, I will write truth. And truth isn’t generally melodramatics, or a happy ending. As you know yourself.
I also deeply admired the character of Dez. She's prickly, opinionated, and she doesn't always do what is right, yet you can't help caring about her deeply. Can you talk a bit about this?
Dez was so hard to write! In the early drafts, people didn’t like her at all, and I didn’t understand why. It was as if they were saying they didn’t like my daughter. They said she was too self-centered, too callous, even though I certainly didn’t intend that, and wondered why they couldn’t see her wholeness. But originally I’d written the first drafts in first-person, present tense. When I realized that this general dislike of Dez existed across the board with readers I respected, I rewrote the entire manuscript in third-person past tense, and that turned out to be the key. Third-person was remarkably freeing. I was able to be more objective, and figure out how to convey her complexity and goodness and decency. She finally came fully alive in the way that I had originally intended. I’m finding, not surprisingly, that some readers love her, and some don’t quite like her, but they all agree that she’s human, and that they can understand her.
What's obsessing you now and why?
Ooh, I’m always obsessing about something. I have always had an obsession about the mystery of our existence within time, which certainly is part of Cascade. The next novel is a story of two love triangles, past and present. The story meditates on time and memory and the secrets people keep, and how, while keeping them, there is often a desire to reveal those secrets, or leave clues that someone can unravel after they are gone. I wrote a short story, "Beyond the Border of Love," that dealt with this idea. But the novel is an entirely new cast of characters, set within a broader context, and moves back in forth in time between the present day and 1960s Prague.
What question should I be mortified that I forgot to ask?
Well, I’d love to answer this: What has been best about seeing Cascade in print?
I had no idea how much I would adore hearing from readers. I love hearing “I couldn’t put it down” and “It gave me a lot to think about.” Just like in the book, the drowned town idea is connecting with people everywhere, and I’m not surprised. Drowned towns happened everywhere—all over the country, all over the world.
As for Dez, so many men and women are saying they can relate to her struggle, and I’ve experienced a poignant thing, a couple of older women who have leaned in close to whisper, “I always wondered what would have happened if I had left.”
In a feature that the Boston Globe wrote, the reporter mentioned how I’d said that from the very beginning, I’d had a Seamus Heaney line running through my head as I wrote Cascade: You lose more of yourself than you redeem/Doing the decent thing
I had quite a few men remark on that line. They said it hit them hard.
I liked hearing that. Because I want them to know that Cascade explores, "What is a right choice?" "And who decides what is right?"
One of my favorite of my own short stories, "Ocean City," is a man’s story. And the new novel has a male main character. I think it’s hard to be a man in our culture, and I want to write about that.
Watch the beautiful Cascade BOOK TRAILER:

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

We Represent the 47%: Writers' letters to Mitt Romney

The sublime Julianna Baggott had an idea: start a website where writers could write letters to Mitt Romney, explaining our lives to him. We are the 47 percent of the people that Romney believes are selfish, entitled freeloaders grabbing at health care, food and housing, and he has said that the government's job "is not to worry about those people." Look at the website here.

And who are those people, really? Some are unemployed. Many lost their jobs because of the economic crisis. That 47% is made up of seniors, students scraping by on loans, soldiers injured and on disability. As Julianna so eloquently says on the site, Mitt Romney's 47% includes "those we love. His 47% includes those who work hard and who continue to dream hard."

Richard Russo, Julianna Baggott, myself, Seth Brady, Jennifer Finley Boylan, Erin Belieu, Erin Murphy--and coming up Cheryl Strayed and more--all are sharing our lives and our voices with you on this site. We feel we represent America--an America Mitt Romney doesn't really know or understand.

To submit your own letter to Mitt Romney about how you represent, once represented, or want to honor someone who has represented the 47 percent for possible inclusion on the website, send to

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

John Kelly talks about The Graves Are Walking, the horrifying saga of the potato famine, research, and how the politics of the famine are disturbingly similar to what's going on with the Far Right in our country today

John Kelly's  The Graves Are Walking: The Great Famine and the Saga of the Irish People, has already been showered with praise from President Bill Clinton, Douglas Brinkley, Adam Hochschild, Amanda Foreman and more. Early reviews are equally spectacular. USA Today says, "Kelly brings the horror vividly and importantly back to life. The result is terrifying, edifying and empathetic. To read this book is to feel the Famine's chill."

New York University's chair of Irish Studies, Professor Joe Lee, one of the two or three most distinguished scholars of Irish history in the world, ranked this book on par with Cecil Woodham-Smith's The Great Hunger, which is the gold standard book on famine. And most importantly, even though the Irish Famine was an English-Irish catastrophe in the mid 19th Century, the philosophy behind it was shockingly similar to the economic ideas of our country's Far Right today. It is my incredible honor to have John Kelly on my blog today.

Can you talk about the title?

The title comes from William Butler Yeats's play, The Countess Cathleen. In the first scene, one of the characters says:

  They say that now the land is famine struck
   The graves are walking
I choose it as title for two reasons. One, It's a haunting image in and of itself, and  two, I thought it would give the reader a feel for what I was trying to do in the book, which was to convey a sense of what the famine looked like and felt like for the people who lived through it.
What was the research like? What surprised you?

The research was exhausting. Combined, I estimate I read about 8,000 letters, government documents, and contemporary newspaper accounts. However, the hardest part was the writing. How do you turn all that documentation into a compelling narrative history for the general reader? There were days I was so frustrated, I felt like taking out a restraining order against the book.

What surprised me is how sophisticated the international economy was in the 1840s. With nothing but letters and ships, merchants were able to guide an economy that stretched from the Ukraine to the Ohio Valley. It was a remarkable achievement.
What's obsessing you now and why?
The famine was caused by a kind of fundamentalist capitalism. The starving peasantry were required to pay for their own relief food because the British believed that giving away food for free would foster a culture of dependency, and private merchants were put in charge of feeding Ireland because the British also believed the free market could do the job more efficiently than any government agency. This fairy tale did not work out very well in reality. Given a monopoly on the food market, merchants ruthlessly raised prices until food became unaffordable to the peasantry, and, as a result, famine developed and claimed over a million lives
What's obsessing me now? The resurgence of fundamentalist capitalism There are a significant number of Americans who want to re-introduce this kind of tooth-and-claw capitalism to the United States. I think that is a grievous mistake.
What question didn't I ask that I should have?
Was the famine a deliberate act of British genocide, as some in Ireland continue to maintain?
I don't think it was. The British officials who oversaw famine relief were not Hitlers or Eichmans. They were wakeful-minded, God-fearing, and, by their own lights, well- intentioned men and that's what makes them so depressing.

If the famine had any enduring lesson to teach, it is about even the best can do, when the best loose their way and allow religion and political ideology to traduce reason and humanity.
It sounds a lot like today.