Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Bruce Bauman talks about Broken Sleep, living riskily, writing out of nightmares and daymares, and so much more







 First, the praise:

"Big-thinking...a postmodern epic." —Kirkus Reviews

Now, the story. A writer friend, Leslie Lehr, emailed me to tell me that I had to contact Bruce Bauman, that I had to read his book, that it would knock both my socks off, and maybe my boots, too. So I did, and she was right. Broken Sleep, now in paperback, is the kind fo read that changes you. (You'll catch a glimpse of what I mean when you read the interview.)

Bauman is the author of the novel And the Word Was. Among his awards are a COLA (City of Los Angeles) Fellowship in Literature, a Durfee Foundation grant, and a UNESCO/Aschberg Fellowship. His work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Salon, BOMB, Bookforum, and more.



I'm delighted to have him here. Thank you, Bruce!



I always am curious about the creative process. What was it like writing Broken Sleep and how did it differ from your previous book, And The World Was? Did anything surprise you in the writing? It feels to me that you took such risks in the writing—and they all paid off beautifully.


First, thank you so much for this opportunity and the terrific questions.
I’d like to quote one of my mantra’s, which comes from Grace Paley (also one of my lit heroes)  -- Be Risky. Write a work of truth. Remove all lies.

Every time I write something that that feels safe, feels like I’m lying to myself or I am lying about the characters -- the characters like to lie about themselves -- out it goes.  It’s my purpose to let the characters lie but somehow make sure the reader knows the truth. (I hope that makes sense.)  

Some things both books had in common. Both were initially inspired by the Bible.  
Word started off as two stories, one about Neil Downs losing a son and playing off the Abraham/Isaac child sacrifice myth and the other about Levi Furstenblum, who wrote about the Holocaust.  When I combined the two, the book finally made sense to me and took off.

For Broken Sleep I had the stories of the Insatiables and Alchemy Savant (who had come to me years and years ago in a dream as Twilight Fingertips) and of turning the Biblical Moses story - born a Jew raised by an Egyptian -  upside down. When the idea, and I don’t understand how this shit happens, came to me that Moses and Alchemy were half-brothers -- Shazam! Nine years later -- a book!
Both of those combinings surprised the hell out of me. 

Word had a completely different ending than I’d contemplated and first wrote.  I knew it wasn’t working.   It was the ending I wanted not the one the characters demanded.
With BS, something unexpected happened on virtually every page, which is exactly what I want. 
Both books were rewritten many times.

The biggest difference in writing the two books was this -- I was excited while writing Word and got a lot of satisfaction but it is, I’d say, a mournful book.  BS was so much damn fun. Yes, it was hard, writing is hard and there’s plenty of sadness and regret in the book - but my prevailing emotion was joy.  You know, you can dance to it. Word, I think has a dark humor. BS, well, I hope is funny in a lot of different ways. 

I can explain many things about Broken Sleep—obviously there are many conscious choices I made and created – chapter headings, anagrams and other word games, the insertion of other writers’ words, the religious allusions -- but there is so much I can’t explain.  I put my pages on the walls from floor to ceiling so when I walk into my studio I walk into my book.  The world of the book. And on good days something exciting happens.  How or why the creative process works baffles me. And I’m kinda glad it does.

 Library Journal raved in a starred review about Broken Sleep, calling it both a “nightmare and a dream.” Can you talk about this please?

That phrase made me very happy because that is exactly what I’m hoping a reader feels after reading the book.

First a bit of personal information because it’s the kind of personal information I think informs the creative process rather than leads to a psychoanalytic deconstruction of the writer and his characters.
 I’ve always been an insomniac. Even a young kid and teenager I’d sleep maybe 6 hours and get up Sunday mornings to watch the Late, Late, Late show on Channel 2 in New York.  (That is where I first saw a Greta Garbo movie- Ninochtka, which made me want to get the hell out of Flushing and to Paris. Garbo is an important character in the novel.)  I’ve also always had screaming nightmares, though I have much fewer now than ever before.  But I’ve also had beautiful dreams. Dreams have given me so much of what is in my fiction.  I have 25 notebooks filled with dreams and daymares.
I wish I could play music because I’ve heard the sound of the Insatiables in my dreams – the band came to me in a dream as did the names Absurda Nightingale and Ambitious Mindswallow. (I had been reading Pynchon at the time.) But so much of the inspiration, scenes and ideas came out of my dreams, nightmares or that in-between sleep-wake state.

I used to keep a pen and pad by the bed because I wake quite frequently with ideas. Sometimes they suck. Sometimes they’re great.  Half the time I couldn’t read what I wrote so, who knows?  Now I keep my phone handy. (Not much fun for my wife who often kicks me out to the other room.)

Now, in the book I tried to both linguistically and with content create that dream or nightmare atmosphere. Salome’s prose and “logic” is I hope often dreamlike or nightmarish.  My favorite dreamlike chapter is the one chapter from Alchemy’s POV. But if he is the representation of the successful American Dream, his final scene is the demise of his dream.

The relationship between Moses and Jay --  and I love Jay, the character who has gotten the least ink of the major characters, but I think holds much of the book together -- is at first dream-like, then nightmarish and then well, somewhere in between.

I’m approaching this answer with some trepidation but I was nervous about using the phrase An American Dream on the title page because it can be called pretentious or overused. But it was heartfelt.  (Michael Silverblatt, speaking on Bookworm said “This is a novel about America from the 60s on…” And also “a parable of America right now.”  I was more than pleased to hear him say that.) Heck, at one point I even thought of calling Alchemy … America Savant.

America has been and continues to be the dream of the world, despite everything, I believe that. I don’t think there has ever been a country with more power to do good. The French like to brag they gave us liberte, egalite, fraternite but they came after our revolution, and Locke inspired Jefferson to write “life liberty and the pursuit of happiness” and all mean are created equal. The statement was obviously a lie in reality, but the ideal was and remains true. Despite the sins of slavery and women as practically chattel, no country ever began with such high ideals. And we are making progress. The Nathaniel Brockton/Bohemian Scofflaw character is to the embodiment of the great 60s generation who did so damn much good. They are too easily ridiculed now.
This is what sometimes I and so many of my radical persuasion fail to see- the dreamers of the 60s have gotten us closer and closer the ideals of America.  Some tangible, some not. We’re in the midst of it, so it’s hard to see how Obama as president is mindfuckingly world changing.  It is simply beautiful. It is the American Dream and no one, no matter how much Mitch McConnell, the Koch-sucker brothers try to undo the will of the people, the majority of Americans voted for a black man for president. But those regressive forces sure will keep trying to change the course going forward.

Now, in my perhaps egocentric way, in the telling of a good and very personal story that is primarily about human relationships, I tried to represent that belief in progress in the book and also show that America is capable of tremendous evil and destruction. And the future is not clear whether the dream of America or the nightmare of America will prevail in the 21st century.

To me, so much of Broken Sleep is about who we really are, how and why we do or don't belong to others, and how our lives are combined or separated. 

Yes, I believe you are right about Broken Sleep being about who we are etc.  But, as in life I hope the characters in the book, are in a constant process of finding out who they are. 

We are all connected. Like it or not. I think Word touches on that in a more obvious way than BS.  But we are also totally separate and alone. It’s a contradiction, a duality I have not figured out. I’d say writing is the way I’m hoping to find, struggling is more accurate, an answer to the question of belonging and to many others.

Do you believe in destiny?

Only in (my) novels. And even then… the Insatiables have a song called “No Destiny.” So…

Sometimes, I want to, but no.  If you believe in destiny as in preordained by Gods or some mystical force that, I think, probably denies free choice. I don’t think we have much in the way of free choice, less than we want to believe. But there is some choice.  In the Duino Elegies Rilke wrote “Don’t think destiny is more than what’s packed into childhood.” That’s one loaded sentence and it’s haunted me for decades.  But I get it.

If you mean destiny predicated on the past and a set of circumstances -- maybe. Between genetics and the first few years of family life, free choice is not an option.  Then, as we age, and have more control or seeming control, yet so much has already been determined.  So, are the choices we make truly free? I don’t know. A lot smarter people than me have not figured that one out.

And there is randomness.  It’s everywhere and mostly it’s terrifying.  Was the person who had the flu and was cursing out some guy who coughed in his face on the subway because his boss was gonna be pissed because he was going to miss an important meeting, still cursing the guy on the subway and his bad luck because that’s the day the WTC was blown up and that’s where he worked? Is that destiny or randomness?
 
I met my wife though a series of the wildest, unforeseeable circumstances. If one of a dozen things had not occurred over a dozen years, we’d never have met. The romantic me calls that destiny.  The rational part of me knows it was a random set of happenstances that just worked out great. We acted on the randomness, the opportunities of the moment and 24 years later it’s best thing that ever happened to either one of us and I don’t care if it was fate or randomness.  There’s lot of strange and unpredictable meetings in the book—or what might seem strange to some -- but not to me. My life has been filled with the oddest, most illogical and unexpected meetings and events.

 Leukemia, biological and adoptive mothers, and the yearning for more life infuse your novel. It also felt to me that living life fully has a cost. Would you agree?

Absolutely. It comes back to risk, the more you risk, the more you live, the higher the cost. But there is a high cost for inaction as well.  Alchemy is all risk and lives passionately.  Victory or death is his motto.  He pens the songs “More” and “Chicks and Money” which are both a joke and his truth. And he gets huge rewards and pays the highest price. Moses is reticent, often internally paralyzed, and plays life safe.  And still, he gets life-threatening leukemia. Salome gives everything she has to her art, and in some ways it is ruinous to her emotional life and her relationships to her children – but she has to make art. And Ricky McFinn aka Ambitious Mindswallow, who often, especially early on, appears to be completely selfish and shallow, keeps losing people he can’t admit he loves and he’s devastated each time.

Living life to the fullest also means to me, allowing yourself to love and be loved which kind of leads to the central question  -- How do you live life to the fullest and live morally and kindly?  I could make the crazy case that Malcolm Teumer would say he has the fullest life of anyone in the book—he’s rich, he had a lot of kids (some even appear to love him), traveled often, had a lot of women, lived a long, long time --  yet he’s a reprehensible human being who it seems did not pay a high cost for the fact that he also killed people.  Not high enough price for sure.

So, there is living life to the fullest and living life to the fullest with kindness and empathy. It’s not easy to do. Not easy at all.

What’s obsessing you now and why?

The presidential election.  If you take out the “killed people,” (which admittedly, is no small thing), from my description of Malcolm Teumer he sounds a helluva lot like Donald Trump. Not one of the four remaining presidential candidates exudes Kindness. Not even Bernie, who makes a one sentence appearance in the book, and I’ve been a fan of for 20 years.  The lack of kindness in American political and cultural life, the lack of empathy, of generosity of spirit I think, not financial collapse or terrorism is the greatest threat to what I have always believed is the promise of America.  The only two presidents in the last forty years who were truly kind and empathetic were Carter and Obama. One lost after one term to an avuncular sounding man, who in his deeds was selfish and mean spirited. And Obama is hated by a substantial minority of the country and his presidency has been hindered by thinking he was dealing with rational people.  Bill C said he “felt our pain” but it was lip service.}

America and the world can’t afford another calamitous presidency like that of Bush Jr.  We’ve underestimated Trump long enough, he can win. Ted Cruz, who I actually think has a more than decent chance to win the election against Clinton, is a younger, even creepier version of Dick Cheney.  It wouldn’t surprise me if that guy jerks off to fantasies of end times. 

I’m getting ready to start another novel – that’s pretty obsessive.  Actually there are so many things that I obsess over, I’ll just leave it at that for now.   

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

You mentioned the religious allusions before, what purpose do they serve?

A book has to survive on the ability of the writer to get the reader to want to turn the page because the story is compelling. But I like it when there is or can be more. So, the biggest purpose they serve is me having fun throwing clues in the book about less obvious themes. I love that as a reader. People can pick up on them or ignore them as some inexplicable meanderings. (Jordan Blum, in his review in Pop Matters, called it a Family Drama of Biblical proportions – and said the book s echoes “the layout of many religious texts.” Yep.)  Word, in its story line was directly about belief and faith and how to live with or without belief in god.

Broken Sleep  is less obvious thematically, but from the introduction which mentions the Book of J, to Salome’s claim, through DNA travel, to have communicated with people who were at the Crucifixion, to chapter headings taken directly from the Bible to some of Alchemy’s lyrics, to his last words… maybe there’s something else happening…  

OR

You said you have so much fun writing this book? Was there anything that was the most fun?
Not sure about most, but different and really fun was doing the entire Insatiables’ discography, making up albums and song titles and all that. And writing lyrics. And then putting together Salome’s artist CV.  Both were adrenaline rushes. And took a looong time.  Probably the most fun of all was inhabiting the souls and living the lives of artists or rock stars.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Stewart O'Nan talks about CITY OF SECRETS, revolution, cautionary tales and so much more






Stewart O'Nan and I share one fun fact-we both know what it's like to live in Pittsburgh (I left in 1980 and he's still there.) He's also one of my favorite writers on the planet, crafting gorgeously written, thoughtful novels that both haunt you and change your life in some major ways.

Stewart O'Nan's award-winning fiction includes Snow Angels, A Prayer for the Dying, Last Night at the Lobster, and Emily, Alone. Granta named him one of America’s Best Young Novelists, and I expect he'll be on any list of Best Novelists even when he's 98.

Thank you so, so much for being here, Stewart.



 What sparked this particular book?

Growing up in the 60s & 70s, I've always been interested in revolution, both violent and non-violent, and the role faith has in it.  What inner strength do revolutionaries draw on to commit violence in the name of their struggle?  Likewise, what strength do they draw on to withstand the violence done to them?  How does it change who they are?  What are the moral consequences when the ends matter more than the means?

You've written so many extraordinary books. I always wonder if writing each book feels differently to the writer. Does it for you?

Every book feels different, but imagining Brand was a big reach.  He's lost everything--family, home, country, identity--and sets off into the world with no hope and no direction, but somehow Jerusalem draws him.  Here is where he'll recover his soul or destroy himself trying.  So it's an extreme book, and very much of its time, recalling (I hope) Camus or Graham Greene.

City of Secrets is so alive, so real. What was the research like? And how did you know what to use and what to discard?

The research was fascinating, as it was for West of Sunset, trying to reinhabit Los Angeles in 1937.  The Jerusalem of 1945 is long gone, yet parts of the Old City and the desert are eternal.  The most startling thing was--obviously, still--the bombing of the King David Hotel.  And the idea that, within months, survivors of the death camps became fighters with the underground.  Point of view saved me from succumbing to what journalists call 'Research Rapture.'  If a detail or fact didn't impinge on Brand's true desires, it didn't belong in the book.

What do you think it means to be morally good--something your characters wrestle with--and what's the cost?

Like its weirder cousin, A Prayer for the Dying, City of Secrets is a cautionary tale.  I don't know if I've ever written an exemplary one.  But maybe to be morally good is to try to do your best by everyone, even faced with an impossible situation.  The cost (the reward) is caring, and seeing the world (and time) ultimately take away everyone and everything you care for.    

What's obsessing you now and why?

My new novel, about Emily's husband Henry.

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

The question you should have asked:  What draws you to this time period?  This is your fourth book set between 1937 and 1945

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Diana Abu-Jaber talks about Life Without A Recipe, food, family--and oh yes, CAKE.








 "Abu-Jaber renders her relationships to both food and family in rich, joyful detail."—Booklist.
Diana Abu-Jaber’s new culinary memoir, Life Without A Recipe, has been described as “a book of love, death, and cake.” Ruth Reichl calls it “bold and luscious” and “indispensable to anyone trying to forge their own truer path.”

Oh yes, all of that is so true.

I first met Diana Abu-Jaber at this wonderful, now defunct bookstore on the Upper West Side. She was reading her debut, along with a friend of mine, Rochelle Jewell Shapiro, and I fell in love with Diana's reading. Of course I set out to make her my friend.\


Her most recent novel, Birds Of Paradise, won the 2012 Arab-American National Book Award. It was also named one of the top books of the year by National Public Radio, the Washington Post, and the Oregonian.

Her novel, Origin was named one of the best books of the year by the LA Times, the Chicago Tribune, and the Washington Post. Her second novel, Crescent, won the PEN Center Award for Literary fiction and the American Book Award. Her first novel, Arabian Jazz won the Oregon Book award for Literary Fiction and was a finalist for the PEN Hemingway Award.

The Language of Baklava, her first memoir, won the Northwest Booksellers’ Award, and has been translated into many languages.


I am absolutely thrilled to have her here, but it does feel like we need some cookies and wine, doesn't it, Diana?



I know the answer to this, but I want you to talk about it anyway—has your life always circled around food?

It’s so funny because I never really became conscious of my family’s food obsession until after I’d written my first food-obsessed book, Crescent. Then it was like, wait a second, what was that? Then my fiction editor actually proposed that I write a food memoir next, and I laughed, saying there was no way I had enough food-oriented family stories to fill a book. And of course, after I wrote the first draft I ended up having to cut it in half because it was too long.

My sharpest early memories are filled with food: lying back on the hood of the family car, eating hot shish kabobs that Dad brought from the grill; getting routed out of bed in the middle of the night for fried fish sandwiches on the edge of Lake Ontario. In general, I think whenever immigrants are involved, the connection to food gets kicked up a notch—it’s a link to the native land that’s richer and more immediately alive than other sorts of artifacts.

Writing every new novel is always different. What was different about this one and why?


Well, this is my second memoir and, once again, just like with the first one, I set out doggedly thinking I would write it in the same way I wrote my novels: decide on the main characters and their struggles and how they get resolved. And, just like with the first memoir, I was once again flummoxed, obliterated, and generally overwhelmed by the experience. I was raised to be a good girl, which means never, ever, ever hurting anyone’s feelings or upsetting anyone and always trying to see absolutely every side of the story, and so when writing each memoir, I go through all this bargaining and wrangling. I think: well, I’ll tell this much of what happened….but I won’t tell about that part! And then of course I’m tormented by the ghost of artistic omissions, so I end up putting it back in again.

This memoir was even more confounding to write than The Language of Baklava, though, because my first memoir really focused on childhood and it ended—conveniently enough—before things got too grown up and complicated. So Life Without A Recipe is my complicated grown up book –which meant I had to start owning up to poor decisions and escapades and the generally confusing mess of adulthood. Certainly, novels also require emotional honesty, but the memoir demands a kind of truth-telling that’s far more specific and literal than that of fiction. It also means dipping into other people’s stories to a certain extent--which is unavoidable if you’re going to write deeply about shared experiences—and which I have a horror of, because it feels so much like co-optation or colonization. Or like being a tattle-tale. There are memoirs where you sometimes think, wow I can’t believe she had the nerve to say that out loud. Well, this is that book for me.

What’s so wonderful about you is you have this engaging social media presence that is very much like your books—warm, smart, open-hearted—and so, so creative about food!  So, here is a weird question—does cooking influence your writing and does your writing influence your cooking?


Oh Caroline, thank you! I do think Proust was right—that taste and scent are the best senses for retrieving memories—which makes food such a rich source for all kinds of artists. We each have our madeline cookies. An interviewer once asked me if I used food-writing to avoid “more important” issues. I was so offended! These sorts of assumptions overlook issues of race, class, and gender. If you’re stuck at home raising babies, for example, then food is your important subject. I suppose if you wear a suit and teleport into your office, you might be able to pretend there are more pressing concerns. But for most of us, even if we’re fortunate enough to have plenty to eat, food still represents one of the last and most vital ways we return to animal gratification and our basic shared humanity. It’s art, it’s culture, it’s history—so rich and multi-valenced and layered, I can’t really figure out how people manage to not write about it.

Haha, as for my writing influencing my cooking—for me, that probably happens only in unfortunate ways, like being a messy cook, bossing everyone in the kitchen, and trying to have every dish done ahead of time when company comes to dinner.

Talk to us about improvising your life?


So much of my childhood was built on a parental bulwark of advice, rules, and restrictions. I grew up in an extended family of immigrants, so the instructions were boundless; and then I decided to go get a Ph.D.—I didn’t want to stop school and I didn’t want to leave home. For years after graduation, I was constantly badgering my friends for advice. But that’s how I ended up getting married three times (and divorced twice) and a zillion dollars in debt and not writing enough and waiting almost too long to become a mother. Sometime after the second husband, I gradually, slowly, began taking over the reins and began making better mistakes—my own mistakes—which is much more satisfying than letting others make them for you. I guess that’s really what the book is about—the necessity of trial and error, of learning to let yourself try and fail grandly, to love your mistakes as much as your successes. When I tell my students that they need to learn to fail, they look at me like I’m insane. It takes a while to get that.

What’s obsessing you now and why?

Surprise: my current obsession is…food-related! Several years ago, I was diagnosed with high blood pressure. Both my parents had it and my doctor said basta, I had it and I should take medications. I just really didn’t want to be tied to prescription drugs—which for someone so advice-driven—is perhaps somewhat surprising, but there it is. For a while I kind of ignored it, which didn’t work out so great. My blood pressure grew to humungous, alarming numbers. So a couple years ago, in something of a panic, I started to study alternative approaches to high blood pressure. I dove in, reading one nutrition book after another, and became absolutely fascinated. I learned so much about food from an entirely new perspective. Instead of simply cooking for pleasure, I began to think more seriously about what I prepared—and what I was feeding to my daughter and husband. I now walk every day, practice yoga, take supplements, and eat stuff like beet juice with ginger and turmeric. My readings are still high, but they’re much lower than they used to be.

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

Haha—how do readers get to hang out with me all the time?! Come find me on Twitter @dabujaber, Instagram, and Pinterest. I pin all sorts of fantastic cookies and pastries that I’m no longer allowed to eat. Come join me if your hobbies include procrastination, work avoidance, and sugar-sublimated pinning.

Deborah Copaken and Randy Polumbo talks about THE ABCs OF ADULTHOOD, collaborating, tools for life and so much more












Every once in a while there is a book that's classic, the kind you want to give to your kids, your best friend, even the dentist because maybe he gave you a break on a root canal. I fell in love with The ABCS OF ADULTHOOD, with text by the amazing Deborah Copaken and photographs and design by the equally amazing Randy Polumbo.How a Doodle Became a Book is the story of how this first in a series came to be. Deborah told me that creating it stretched both their creative muscles-- Randy with a pen and Deborah with a paintbrush. "We are so much more than our titles and skill sets," Deborah says, and she's so absolutely right.


Randy Polumbo is one of the most astonishing talents in the art world. Don't believe me? Check out his web page. You don't want to miss Randy's most recent show in Chelsea. And if you are in Tasmania, you have to see this at MONA museum.

I've always been a total fangirl to Deborah Copaken.She's brave, she's funny, she incredibly smart, generous and creative, and part of every day is checking her FB page to see what she's up, too. Her bio she wrote for her website is so funny, I'm letting it speak for itself here: Wrote bestselling Shutterbabe, followed by unpublishable drivel, followed by Between Here and April, Hell is Other Parents, and the New York Times bestselling The Red Book, which was nominated for the Women’s Prize for Fiction (formerly the Orange Prize); published essays in The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Nation, Elle, More, Slate, Paris Match, O, and others; shot photo assignments; produced and shot a documentary in Pakistan for CNN in the wake of 9/11; became a columnist for The Financial Times; performed live on stage with The Moth, Afterbirth, Six Word Memoir, and Eve Ensler’s tribute to Anita Hill; adapted Hell is Other Parents for the stage, starring Kate Burton, Sandy Duncan, Tovah Feldshuh, Julie Halston, and Rita Wolf; wrote several screenplays and a TV pilot that were never produced; watched Shutterbabe (the big and small-screen versions) languish in development hell; had another baby; lost appendix, uterus, father, Upper West Side home, bearings, socks, sanity, and several nouns; found Harlem, yoga, and occasional serenity. But not the socks. Or the whatchamacallit. Nouns.

2013-2015:
 The upheaval years; separated from husband and life partner of 23 years; sent the two eldest off to college; received a diagnosis of stage 0 breast cancer; got sucked into the vortex of job turmoil, twice, while single parenting the little one 24/7; seriously contemplated emigrating to Scandinavia; instead, moved across the street from the Inwood Hill Forest, the greatest city refuge no one in Manhattan has ever heard of; granted three miracles: 1) sold Shutterbabe as a TV series and was hired to co-write the pilot for NBC/Universal; 2) landed new full-time job plus three-book deal to co-create, with artist Randy Polumbo, a series of ABC books; and 3) love.

How did you get the tone exactly right? It's hard, sometimes to talk to your grown up kids, but the tone was absolutely honest and real--and it works for both an adult-adult and an adult kid.

I think I have to harken back to my late father here. My dad, from the moment I was cognizant of his existence, always spoke to me as if I were his equal. My opinions counted. But so did his. We were engaged, always, in a rational dialogue, human to human. I've always tried to do the same with my own kids. I failed on many occasions--yelling when I shouldn't have, retreating into my head when they needed me, being overbearing when they just wanted to be alone--but I'd like to think that I did a half-decent job of communication, especially when I could channel my father. The tone of the book is meant to mimic that kind of dialogue. In other words, it's less of a pedantic "You must do this or else!" and more of an opening to a longer conversation.

And speaking of honest, I loved the instruction to be sober for one day, just as an experiment. No judgements at all.

I'd been experimenting with radical sobriety when I wrote that, and I was finding that social interactions were actually made better without the lubricant of alcohol. I could think more clearly, enjoy the conversations, really be present rather than artificially happy and numb. So many of my social interactions in college took place over a keg or a bowl of grain alcohol punch or with a joint in hand. I knew my kids would be exposed to the same, but I wanted to provide a bit of a counterpose or at least food for thought: what would it be like to be at a college party sober? I'm not sure I ever tried that. I wish I had.

What was it like choosing topics for each letter? The wonderful thing about this book is it got me thinking about my own letters (though I bet no one can think of a better L than Love.)

That actually took the most time: trying to map out an entire adulthood's worth of advice in 26 paragraphs. It took me days, in fact. It was like a puzzle. At first B was for Beer, which was going to be my plea for a night of sobriety, but then I needed B to be Bed, so then the I became Intoxication. Stuff like that. L will always be for love, in every alphabet book we do, and we will always use Randy's drawing of the L you see on his desk in some way. It's the most important letter of all, the most important noun and verb on earth. What's cool is that Randy and I have been writing our next book, THE ABCs OF PARENTHOOD, together in tandem, and we managed to bang out the ideas for all of the letters for that book one morning over breakfast. That's the beauty of collaboration, I suppose. Two heads are sometimes not just better than one, they become their own hyper-fast organism, especially where Randy is concerned. He's a mad genius. You should see his art.

1/2 question-What's obsessing you now and why?

A bunch of things, really. I'm obsessed over the way so many of my writer friends are suddenly struggling to survive, whether as journalists or novelists. Musicians, too. We're all consuming more media and music than ever before, and the artists is getting shafted. This bothers me tremendously. I'm obsessing over circles. I keep making paintings and collages of broken things that become whole within the boundaries of a circle. I'm obsessing over romantic love. Being mid-divorce forces a reckoning with what it means to love and be loved. Ironically, I feel that finally, at 50, I understand not only what love means but how rare it is. I'm obsessing over my new bike, a birthday present from my family by a company called Tokyobike. It's so beautiful and light and well-designed: I love riding it! And finally, I'm obsessing over my nine-year-old son, my one remaining child of three. He's totally quirky and wonderful, and I'm just trying to enjoy every second with him that I can.

RANDY SPEAKS:

The images are both startling and hauntingly beautiful. So which came first, the images or the decision to use them for a specific letter?

Thank you for appreciating the images.. As you can imagine since we are both artists, this changed constantly.  We started sending lots of text messages in letter / image form and by the end of this series I expect we will have developed a secret language no one else can understand.  Since we are both treasure hunters of sorts, “finding” the letters probably preceded the decision that they were keepers, we just collected a large flock then culled all but one!

How did you two work together? (Yes, this is another which came first, the chicken or the egg question..)

Without divulging any secrets that would necessitate our killing you, we can say we have almost opposite approaches and we meet in the middle on a tiny bridge made of frayed ropes that can snap at any time, but that is part of the magic, bounty, and fun of it.

How do you know when an image is the right one? Each of your sublime photographs somehow seems imbued with emotion--the right emotion--and well as meaning.

We agreed mostly upon which image was right/best.  This seemed to be largely intuitive, and the times we reshot something complicated and thought out it often failed to thrive.  We both are interested in capturing a complete moment that often has an emotional cast as well as an archeological or detective aspect, revealing an angle, some close up details, or relationships, time, or even psychological or physical space.

What's obsessing you now and why?

Right this minute I am obsessed with plants.   While I will not turn away a perky mushroom or bunch of roots or vegetables, flowers are my favorite, and especially finding images of propagation, blossoming, and pollination that are symmetrical in other systems.  For example how space probes are reminiscent of seeds.  I think part of the key to fixing the world is understanding that we are all the same and everything is connected, and some day we will have the habit of thanking even a plant before we eat it, and saving the water for them from washing our hands or dishes will be required for our survival.

Friday, April 15, 2016

"I wanted to tell the truth. I did and life improved." Robin Black talks about her incredible series of essays on life, loss, becoming a writer and writing, and so much more. Trust me. You. Need. This. Book. Now.
















 I haven't yet met Robin Black personally, but I feel like I know her--and I adore her. First came the work, her short story collection If I Loved You, I Would Tell You This, a finalist for the Frank O'Connor International Short Story Prize and an O Magazine Summer Reading Pick. Her debut novel Life Drawing was called "a magnificent literary achievement" by Claire Messud." And then there is Crash Course, a brilliant series of essay about life and writing and loss and survival. You need this book. Every one of you, whether you are a writer or not. Go out and buy copies for friends, too. It's truly a book that spoke to me, that did what great art does--it changed me, and I know it will change you.

Take a look at just some of the praise:

 “Crash Course is an exhilarating hybrid, part memoir and part literary analysis and part craft book—Crash Course will be an oasis for writers at every stage, and for lifelong readers thirsting to explore the vortical intersection of life and art. Black’s essays are beautiful and hilarious and searingly honest articulations of ‘questions both unavoidable and unanswerable’—the questions we have to keep asking, to go on living, and to go on writing.”
—Karen Russell, author of Swamplandia


“I wasn’t more than two pages into Crash Course when I pulled out a pen and started underlining like crazy. In these essays, Robin Black is simultaneously a wise teacher, an encouraging mentor, and that friend who gives you the real dirt on what the writing life is like. Crash Course is an invaluable resource and reassurance for any writer.” —Celeste Ng, author of Everything I Never Told You

“Robin Black is an astonishing writer. There’s no one I trust more to offer wisdom about writing as both a craft and a way of life.” —Garth Greenwell, author of What Belongs to You

“ Black has stared into the writing life’s darkest abysses and come out triumphant, full of authentic wisdom that actually inspires. Crash Course has the power to give you a precious gift: to pick you up and make you want to get to work.” —Matthew Thomas, author of We Are Not Ourselves

​”Crash Course is not only one of the most entertaining and insightful books on writing I’ve ever encountered, it’s perhaps the most useful. It wasn’t long before I started jotting down, in the table of contents, the people I needed to share each essay with—the colleagues and students I needed to grab by the collar and say, ‘Look, here it is! That very thing you’ve been needing to read: She went and wrote it!’”Rebecca Makkai, author of The Hundred Year House


I cannot thank you enough, Robin, for the book, for coming on the blog, for everything.


I am gobsmacked by Crash Course. I think because it delves into all the things writers think about, but are too afraid or uneasy or mortified to say—things like fear of failure, fear of success, self-sabotage—and it does it in such a brave way that we can’t help but listen. So, was it difficult to get this on the page? To be this brave? Was there ever a moment when you thought, stop, I can’t do this?

Thank you, thank you! That means so much. Truly there have been a lot of moments at which I’ve wondered why I, in many ways a private person, felt compelled to share so much about the experience of becoming and being a writer – some of which is definitely risky material for me. I think my need to write this book grew out of a particular loneliness I felt during the decade when I was starting out. My hope for this book is that it can be, for other people, the conversation I wanted to have then. And it’s also, apparently a conversation I want to have now. Arguably the fact that these things are so complicated to discuss in “polite society” meant that the only way to do that was in this form.

I’ll also just add that publishing fiction still feels more exposing to me in many ways. Here, I had some control over what I chose to expose about my life. Sharing fiction is like showing people your dreams! 

You wrote that you needed to completely rebuild yourself in order to write, and as I was sparking with recognition, I thought, that’s right—too often writers think that it’s the outside that is going to give us what we need—but it never is. Can you talk about that?

I have a lot of sympathy for people who have a lot of outside interference with writing. I think having to work full-time, having to do caregiving, many other things are genuine impediments to getting the work dome. But they aren’t necessarily the only ones. In my case, I did need my kids to reach a certain age, I guess, but more than that I needed to overcome fears, to understand my own ambitions, to be able to think clearly, freed to some extent of the static of emotional problems.  And I see this so much with students, people who so want to do this and have the time, or could find the time, but something is holding them back. As a teacher it’s always a puzzle how involved to get, because it can be tempting to think that you’ll be the one to unlock this writer, show her her own power – but in fact writing teachers aren’t therapists, and it’s usually a mistake, in my experience, to get deep into someone else’s reasons for being silent, especially when you’re in a position of authority.

I wrote out a series of lines from Crash Course because they resonated so deeply for me. “I wanted to tell the truth. I did, and life improved”—was a revelation for me. I think that what banishes shame (Now, I think this—I didn’t before) is coming out and owning what shames you, speaking it out loud, and then you get other people whispering, “oh, me, too.” And you also realize it isn’t that terrible.  I think that is something that works in life—but also in writing. Do you feel that the writer’s job is to get at those truths that no one wants to touch?

I definitely feel that way. And as someone whose life was overshadowed with shame for many, many years, I completely agree that it’s a case of sunshine being the best disinfectant. “Oh, you mean you had an alcoholic parent, too?” “Oh, you mean you have caught yourself resenting a friend’s success, too?” The answer is, we are never alone with these things.

I grew up in two situations for which an absence of denial would have been a great help. One was my father’s alcoholism, and the other was the ADD that made school and also social interactions so difficult for me, for so long. The latter wasn’t exactly denial, more that no one knew what the issue was, but in both cases, so, so much good might have come from openness and from dealing directly with issues. I think those experiences, and really looking, as an adult, at the long-term damage hidden facts, secret truths, did to me, I am practically incapable of denial.

And as far as other writers go, I think it’s okay to want to write just to entertain, so I can’t say that everyone has to be processing what they see as truth, in order to write. Or trying to get at the difficult realities of life. But for me it’s the attempt to reach that level and somehow share what I learn that keeps me at this.

It’s interesting that you talk about how you thought Life Drawing was about one thing and then years later realized it was about something else. I also always think that the meaning of what you write doesn't just change because you change—it also changes for readers, who have their own issues and hot buttons—and that’s the reason why not everyone loves all books. Would you agree
?

I have learned so much about the process of reading through writing fiction, including the degree to which a reader’s response to a book is so individual, so shaped by their history and emotions, that truly no two readers read the same book. Life Drawing is the sort of novel that can bring out some pretty strong responses to the characters. Some readers hate the husband, some love him. Some hate the young woman who is at the center of things, while others feel sympathy for her because of her youth, her vulnerability. It’s like some kind of Rorschach Test though I confess I haven’t learned how to interpret it. Except that I often suspect that at least some of the people who really dislike my narrator, Gus, a woman who has had an affair, have been cheated on themselves, or betrayed in some way. I just run up against a kind of brick wall at times, a reader saying, or just exuding: I can’t sympathize with an adulteress. So for those people the book is just not at all what it might be for someone who is open to caring about someone who has done something wrong. Speaking of hot buttons. And then, of course, there are the people who just don’t warm up to the book.

I have definitely been odd-woman out on some books that the world, the whole entire world loves, and I think: meh. And when that happens I wonder if the book has hit some sensitive spot in me, some experience I’ve had that keeps me out of the story. Though whether it’s my book, or someone else’s book, it’s always okay not to much like it. Stories are such personal things that subjective responses are not only inevitable, they’re good.

I absolutely loved the Line Edits you did which visually show how a fact can turn into a story, how a single sentence can start to breathe and take on weight.  I also loved the line, “You have to be good at being a writer. You have to be able to survive it all,” which I think is the best definition of being a writer.  I’ve had high school students who truly thought being a writer meant having a beach house and lots of lovers and lots of time to sit around and daydream, but the truth is, it is extremely difficult and you do have to have a thick skin. I deeply appreciated your talking about how even Pulitzer Prize winners worry about their careers or are hurt by a one star review on Goodreads! “Be jealous and feel generous,” is wonderful advice. I find that by immediately congratulating someone who got a prize I wanted, I do two things—I put out something good in the universe, and I feel better about myself, because jealousy really can eat at the soul. Can you talk more about all of this? (I know this is a disjointed paragraph!)

I love the way you ask this, because it so well represents the part of writing that is about following threads, and not worrying too much about tidiness. Layering in ideas. And of course I love that  you love those parts of the book. Thank you!

The line edits were important to me because this book wanders at times pretty from the pen-to-paper part of writing. There’s a good chunk of my personal history, stories about my family, lots of career stories; but I wanted there also to be some reminders that in the end, it is me —or it is you—and it is a page and it is trying to find the right way to say something. So those copyedit pages are really there to bring a reader back to that.

The endless emotional challenge of being a writer—and I’m sure this applies to other careers as well, I know it does—is weathering the continual affronts to your ego and the pursuant damage to your confidence. That’s really the heart of the challenge—the challenge that isn’t exclusively about getting words on the page. I say “exclusively” because of course all the bruises to one’s confidence make it hard at times to write at all. And the jealousy! Truly my own ability to feel like a complete failure is almost always the reason I take occasional Facebook breaks. And I hear others say that too. When you are in the mood to beat up on yourself for not having achieved whatever the fantasy goal is, all you have to do is turn on Facebook, and there’s someone else who just achieved it.

And yes, I try hard to make myself write something nice when that happens. For exactly the reasons you say. Good energy into the world, and a strange loosening of envy’s grip.

As for me writing about all this, I do it because I feel terrible for the people out there who think they are especially petty, or that if they were real writers they wouldn’t feel so insecure. We all feel it, we all struggle, we are none of us alone, and for sure we are none of us perfect.

Crash Course isn’t just about the collision of life and writing, it truly is applicable to any human being struggling with living a life that matters. So, I have to ask, do you feel better and stronger having written the book? Or are the same fears, etc. still there, but now they are manageable?

There’s a specific way in which I feel better. I feel an almost physical sensation of relief, a weight lifted. I can’t articulate it well, but perhaps it is having waged a kind of personal war against denial for many years, I feel like I have now done so in a public way, in a book I can hold up, saying, “Look! It really is okay to tell about the hard stuff, the low moments, the workarounds and failures. It’s all right to be massively flawed. You still get to keep trying.”
And, as I discuss in the book, I suffered from agoraphobia for close to twenty years. So this very public act, this true stepping out, of my home, and also out from behind the screen of fiction, feels to me like a sign that I am doing okay along those lines. I’m not sure that when you’ve suffered from something like that for so long, you ever relax. But this makes me feel pretty solid.

What’s obsessing you now and why?

Truly? The first thing that comes to mind is that my daughter Elizabeth Simins, who is my oldest child, just won an honor from The Society of Illustrators, for a narrative comic—a memoir piece in which she beautifully, sparingly, touches on some hard times of her own. I’m so proud of her, for her hard work (without which, even the gobs of talent she has wouldn’t do much) and her amazing narrative instincts, and the emotional sensitivity she infuses into the work. And also, of course, I can’t help but celebrate that though I was scared of my own shadow at her age, afraid to leave my house, afraid to speak up, my daughter is not. And she is, so movingly, sharing her story with others, good times, bad times, and all. That feels like progress to me. That feels big.

As for my own work, I am obsessed with some short stories I am working on, and, at this moment, with hearing how people react to this book! As you know the lead-up to a book’s launch is not a restful time. But it’s a time for which I am very grateful.

As I am for getting to do this back and forth. Thank you, Caroline, for inviting me back to your blog. I so enjoy and value these exchanges!




Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Jane Hamilton talks about THE EXCELLENT LOMBARDS, writing, being less earnest, and why she SHOULD buy that little black dress







 OK, the truth is, I'm a little awe-struck here. Jane Hamilton has been one of my favorite novelists since I first read The Book of Ruth (which won the PEN/Ernest Hemingway Foundation Award for best first novel and was a selection of the Oprah Book club), which was followed by A Map of the World, which was an international bestseller. I'm thrilled that she turned out to be so warm and funny and honest--and just listen to the praise Kirkus gives The Excellent Lombards: Richly characterized, beautifully written, and heartbreakingly poignant—another winner from this talented and popular author.|


Thank you so, so, so, much Jane! (And you can never have enough little black dresses. Just saying...)


 I always believe that there is something haunting an author before a novel is begun, and that something that issue is worked out in the pages. Is that true for you? And if so, what was haunting you that pulled you into this story?

Both my agent and editor have, through the years, suggested that I write a memoir about the farm where I live, the farm I married into in Wisconsin.  I have no interest in writing a memoir!  How dull, to try to capture reality.  And how intrusive it would be.  (My attention-adverse husband has always said, “Write whatever you want.  Only, not a memoir.”)  Using one’s material as a point of departure poses particular problems. How do you organize an enormous amount of material that is borne from daily life and which on the surface is chaotic?  In answer to your question!  The richness and particularly of farming life had been haunting me, and also the questions that vex any farm family:  Who is going to carry on the business?  Who gets to stay?  Who can’t stay?  Who doesn’t want to stay but ends up trapped?  

There is always such a sense of the land in your books, particularly this one. Frankie’s apple orchard seems almost mythic in how it supports her and her family, and then the times, the land, and the people change, and what once was can be no more, which can also be said about childhood itself. Can you talk about this please?


It did occur to me along the way that this book was a pastoral, although I didn’t set out to write a bucolic.  But, I guess the minute you have an orchard setting, full blossom, and nude teenagers wandering through the stage is pretty set.  I think there’s a certain pressure, perhaps because of all the terrific TV right now that is so plot driven, so rich with remarkable twists and turns, to think that the novel should compete with those hi-jinx.  I was aware of this book being quiet, of its being a meditation, relatively speaking, on that old matter of time passing, a matter that drives Mary Frances, the heroine, to become deranged with love for her childhood.  The land, the farm, is intricately bound up with her sense of herself, her present, past, and future.

The Excellent Lombards is such a richly alive coming-of-age-story.  It’s also really funny, and I deeply admire the way you can write a serious novel (A Map of the World, for example) and then switch to something lighter.  Do you prefer one over the over?


When I was younger, as younger people tend to be, I was far more earnest than I am now.  (I think if you hang around long enough you have to become more keenly amused by your own folly and absurdity in general, or you’re in danger of putting a bullet to your brain.)  I do think there are funny bits in the early novels, but writing Laura Rider’s Masterpiece, a satire, was probably the most fun I’ve ever had.


I always am interested in craft. What kind of writer are you? Do you map things out or let the characters guide you? Have your work habits changed at all during the years?

I’m not a good plotter or mapper-outer.  I wish I was.  I’m in the camp of:  You don’t know what you’ve made until you’ve made it.  Which is not efficient.  But in the words of Tony Soprano: whatareyougonnado?  My work habits have changed only insofar as there is now email and other distractions to contend with.  In the old days, no email, oh, we were free.  Now I have to work very hard to stay focused, especially at the beginning of a book, when it is terrifying, when you don’t know at all if it will work out, you are wandering in the wilderness, so much more fun to watch YouTube clips.

You’ve written so many truly magnificent books. Do you feel that it’s a brand new process with each book, building on what you’ve learned from the prior book? Did anything surprise you in the writing of  The Excellent Lombards?


I do feel that nothing I’ve done before prepares me for the next book.  I always feel that I don’t know enough to do the thing at hand.  It does seem like a brand new process.  The Lombards is an episodic book, which I’d never done before, so structurally it was different, not exactly linear, and with a lot of material left out.  There’s that bit of wisdom from Willa Cather that was in my mind: “Art, it seems to me,” she said, “should simplify.  That, indeed, is very nearly the whole of the higher artistic process;  finding what conventions of form and what detail one can do without and yet preserve the spirit of the whole, so that all that one has suppressed and cut away is there to the reader’s consciousness as much as if it were in type on the page.”

What a trick! The work of the poet.  Impossible.  It took me a long time to try to distill the material, to write so little.

What’s obsessing you now and why?


In the last decade I wrote several terrible novels, nothing worked, it was awful.  What’s obsessing me right now is trying to resurrect one of them.  I can’t believe there’s not a novel in that mess.

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

* Do you feel that you are too old to wear a little black dress?

Yes. But I just bought a great one and now I have remorse.

But more seriously, I do feel resolved to write books that are about the seemingly simple problems of being this mysterious strange thing that we are, Humans, even though part of me would love to be John LeCarre.  There’s a question in that statement, I’m sure of it.


Monday, April 11, 2016

Suzanne Rindell talks about Three-Martini Lunch, Greenwich Village walkups, fear of flying translating to gorgeous writing about it, and so much more







 Suzanne Rindell writes the kind of books I want/need to read. Gritty, smart and ambitious. Her first, THE OTHER TYPIST, was translated into 15 languages and optioned for film by Fox Searchlight. And her new novel, THREE-MARTINI LUNCH is--well, let's let Publisher's Weekly rave about it:

"With its vivid historical setting and the narrators' distinct voices, this ambitious novel is both an homage to the beatnik generation and its literature, as well as an evocative story of the price one pays for going after one's dreams." 
—Publishers Weekly

I'm honored to have Suzanne here. And let's get that martini next month, okay, Suzanne?



I loved it that you lived above a funeral home—so Six Feet Under—and do you think it helped or hurt your creativity?

Helped! I was so leery of living there, but ultimately, the price was right. I thought I was simply doing what was necessary to live in New York while working as a publishing intern. However, after moving in, I found it was a very safe, quiet place to call home – and moreover, it was a great place to write. I mean, it wasn’t like I was going to throw a party there, hah! I had less of a social life while living there, but I think that was good for productivity.

I love the whole Greenwich Village backdrop of Three-Martini Lunch. What was your research like? What surprised you? Did anything make you have to change a character or the story?

One thing I did for the sake of research is I moved from the funeral home apartment in Harlem to a very tiny studio in the West Village, because I wanted to be able to take walks around the neighborhood as I wrote. Every once in a while a certain detail would come up that would surprise me – for instance, women still weren’t allowed in McSorley’s  in the East Village in 1958. So obviously, my character Eden couldn’t go in there. It worked out better, though – I could picture her husband going there and leaving “the little woman” at home on purpose. Which tells you something about Cliff.

So much of your novel is about the price of dreams—do you think there always is some cost or loss?

I don’t think there has to be; often times hard work or luck is enough. The characters in Three-Martini Lunch are all trapped by circumstances specific to their time period. And at the same time, they intrigued me because I felt they each painted themselves into a corner, which is something we all do (or are capable of doing).

What kind of writer are you? Do you map things out or just feel your way? And do you drink martinis? 

I do a bit of both. I start a book with a feeling. At some point I make a map. Then at another point, I throw the map out as I feel my way forward. I’m getting a little old for the post-martini hangover, but I do like wine… wine might be the thing that helps me throw out the map, hah!


What’s obsessing you now and why?


The new book I’m writing is about a barnstorming (flying circus) act in California during the years leading up to Pearl Harbor and America’s internment of the Japanese. So I’ve been watching old grainy newsreels on YouTube of wing-walking and other tricks people did with biplanes. Given that I’m afraid of flying and heights, this is a stomach-turning obsession to have.


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

“When are your free for martinis?” – Hah! We’re writers, we’re supposed to be constantly sitting around drinking martinis, pretending to be Hemingway, right? ;) 
ANSWER: Let's make a date at Pete's Tavern! It was good enough for O'Henry, right?

A young prisoner fights for justice in Jean Trounstine's extraordinary true narrative of murder, memory, truth and redemption, in BOY WITH A KNIFE







I first met Jean Troustine when I was researching a new novel and needed to know about women in prison. Not only was Jean smart, funny and full of every fact I needed--and every fact I didn't know that I needed--but she invited me to participate in Changing Lives Through Literature, an award-winning sentencing program featured in The New York Times and on the Today Show. Sitting in a room with around 15 women on probation, a probation officer and Jean, we all discussed my novel, and discussed our lives, and when I left, I was frankly exhilarated and every perception I ever had about women and crime was turned on its head. Since then, we've become fast friends.

Jean's a prison activist, professor emerita at Middlesex Community College, and the author of Shakespeare Behind Bars: The Power of Drama in a Women's Prison, based on her ten years at Framingham Women's Prison, where she directed eight plays with prisoners. She is also the author of the poetry collection, Almost Home Free, and the co-editor of the New England best-seller, Why I'm Still Married; Women Write Their Hearts Out on Love, Loss, Sex, and Who Does the Dishes. On the steering committee for the coalition for Effective Public Safety in Massachusetts, she explores and explains the criminal justice system for Boston magazine, Huffington Post, and more.


I'm totally honored to have this amazing woman on my blog (and even more jazzed that we are friends.) Thank you, Jean!


I am always am haunted by something before I write it, and I imagine it's the same for you as well. Tell us, what made you know you had to write this book?

The day I received my first letter from Karter is still embedded in my mind. I remember sitting in my office at the college where I teach, and beginning to examine the envelope. Like all letters from prisons (in Massachusetts, in my case), there was a stamp that told the world the letter was from a prison and warned readers to be wary. So I was a little anxious opening it. In fact, as I read the letter, I began shaking. But now, when I look back, I don’t think it was just fear. I think I knew unconsciously something incredibly important in my life was about to happen because of that letter.

Karter was so smart, so amazingly articulate, and that piece of paper pulled at me so much I didn’t know what to do. I mean, I kept wondering how could this person I had never met before actually reach out of that letter and touch me? But it happened. He did. And he sounded sincere. I felt conflicted because I was aware of the weight of answering him. I called a friend before my class began and read the letter to him, wondering all the while. Karter told me so more than words. Oh, he told me facts: he had been sentenced as an adult at 16 for a murder he committed in a Massachusetts classroom. He was now 31, having spent half is life in prison. He asked for help for a female friend. But that wasn’t it. Partly, it was his language and his ability to string together words so elegantly. I could not believe the man who was writing to me was the same person who was called in Internet stories, a “monster.” He was no monster, but he had killed someone. I felt something like fate, and I felt something I have come to call “cognitive dissonance.” I wanted to understand the contradiction. Who was he, why had he killed a boy, how had he lived in prison, and was he the same or different from thousands of other kids who are sent to adult jails and prisons? But I also wanted to know how he could sound like every really smart student I had ever taught.

What was the research and the writing like for you? Tell us about Karter Reed and your involvement with his case.

The book really evolved. The first draft was written in the voice of “Oh my God, I met a murderer.” In some ways it had the passion I felt reading novels and watching evocative TV shows, but the voice wasn’t quite right for the whole book and my agent at the time, said nope, won’t do. Now I realize that it was my discovery that I wrote and I needed to do that, but it wasn’t my ultimate voice for the book. However, discouraged, I rethought the book. The next draft was written in a year or two, along with a few years of letters to and from Karter. His story got me interested in researching juvenile justice issues and why indeed we allow kids to be sentenced as adults. By year five, I almost had a new agent, and  then she died. By year six, I had a brilliant editor with my publisher IG, and he asked me to expand the book. He was 100% correct. But at the time, I thought, oh no more rewriting? I have to say, it truly took seven years to reach this milestone, because the people I met, the material I read, and the issues I learned about, all made the book stronger. And Karter Reed helped me as his letters enlightened the issues I then delved into; his letters helped me see what was at stake for a child who grows up behind bars. We ended up writing more than a hundred letters to each other; I’d like to think I was one of the forces on the outside who helped Karter stay motivated when times got tough. I testified for his parole; I interviewed his family; and I cheered for him every step of the way. I still do.

You've also worked at Framingham Prison putting on plays, something you wrote about in Shakespeare Behind Bars. Can you talk about that please?

My work with women behind bars turned me into a prison activist. And lately, I’ve become more of a prison abolitionist. I think we need to contain some people, for sure, but not in the kind of conditions that we currently hold people in where women are at threat to hang themselves because they can’t see their families and won’t get out of prison for years. I brought some joy and some intellectual challenge to a group of females at Framingham Women’s Prison by teaching and directing plays. We performed them for the whole prison. We did Shakespeare, Aristophanes, Clifford Odets, Jean Giraudoux, and adaptions of Hawthorne and other classic writers. This was not therapy, but like all art, it was cathartic. Eight plays in ten years. It was what gifted me with the understanding that most women I met did not need prison to teach them a lesson. They knew their crimes. They punished themselves every day. They had made lousy choices, and most were in for crimes involving drugs, bad choices, or men they followed into trouble; many were subject to vile harassment. Theatre gave them a way out. It turned me on to the fact that it is a crime sending most women away from their children instead of supporting them in their communities with programs that teach them life skills, offer educational programming, and build job readiness. We need to see the face behind the crime, and as Karter taught me, no one should be defined by their worst moment in time.

And you work for this wonderful organization Changing Lives Through Literature, which I was so thrilled to attend. What astonished me so much was how the women related to the book--and to me, and how great our dialogue was. Are there more programs like this out there?


Changing Lives (CLTL) is a unique book group which is designed to reach those in conflict with the law. A judge, a probation officer, a professor, and a group of probationers all sit together discussing books, in what we call a “democratic classroom” where all opinions are equal. When we read your book, Pictures of You. What was wonderful for you was that the women were honest about what characters they liked and identified with and who they didn’t connect with. There’s a no BS quality in CLTL and life experience levels the playing field. The program allows participants dignity and respect as they discuss characters’ lives and consider choices for behavior they might not have considered in their own lives. Reading a book about a family allows us to think about our own families and yet talk about the book. Sometimes it has a healing quality, and there’s an amazing community that forms from reading and discussing literature. Through the years since CLTL began, along with Massachusetts where we currently have twenty programs that link Education to the Courts, we have had programs in California, Arizona, Texas, Kansas, Virginia, Maine, Rhode Island, Connecticut, and in England!

It's terrifying to think that ten thousand or so youth are incarcerated in adult prisons. Is anything being done about this?

Actually, 250,000 kids are tried, sentenced, or imprisoned as adults every year across the United States. My book unravels how we got to where we are and why it isn’t working. And there are some organizations fighting hard across the country to change laws, change the racial disparities we have in our justice system, and pass new laws to treat kids as kids. It’s slow-going. I’m writing an article now on “the state of juvenile justice” so to speak. The Supreme Court has ruled on cases that have helped the treatment of juveniles in the past years, keeping them away from the death penalty and away from life behind bars with no parole. But we also have states that have refused to raise the age of adulthood to eighteen. New York is one of two states—the other is North Carolina-- to automatically prosecute 16 and 17-year-olds as adults, despite risks to youth and public safety.

What's obsessing you now and why?


Obsessing me is how to ever again find time in the day to clean up my house.
 

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

How are the people in the community where Karter committed the murder responding to my book coming out? The answer is: this was a brutal crime and a horrible tragedy and it is still a reminder of how it ripped apart people’s lives. In no way do I (or for that fact does Karter) justify what he did in 1993 when he killed Jason Robinson. There are still deep wounds and Karter’s development and change as a human does not take away the loss of life. Still, I believe that we must take care of all our children, or as James Baldwin said, more eloquently than I, “For these are all our children. We will all profit by, or pay for, whatever they become.” Education is the first step; then change policies as we change minds.


Karter has become someone who I would be proud to live next door to. You can listen to him here on Radio Boston. You can find out about my book and my book tour at my website www.jeantrounstine.com and you can join my twitter chat on April 12 using the handle @justicewithjean and that day buy my book at its debut price on Amazon! After that, support your local Indie!

Nature verses Nurture. Murderous sperm donors and how we bond with our children. Lisa Scottoline talks about her whipsmart new page-turner, MOST WANTED, gardening, mothering, garter snakes, more







Lisa Scottoline is the New York Times Bestselling author of 26 novels. That's right. Twenty-six. Over 30 million of her books are published in over 35 countries. She writes a weekly column with her author daughter, Francesca Serritella. Warm, funny, and so, so smart, Lisa is also the kind of person who, when she can't show up at your reading, buys six copies of your book from the bookstore long-distance. 

I'm always honored to host Lisa on my blog! Thank you, thank you, Lisa.

So much of you wonderful, tense novel, Most Wanted, is about nature verses nurture—are we who are genes tell us, or are we how we are raised? Added to this is the new scientific research about how the genes of our ancestors might play a role.  I know how the novel plays out, which is absolutely terrific, but I’m curious about how you, personally, feel about this. 

I'm still trying to make up my mind on the subject, not only as a novelist, but as a mother.  And it's a subject that interests me very much, and always has, especially since I found out late in my life that I had a half-sister I didn't know about, on my father's side, and in fact, a half-brother as well, but on my mother's side!  (I know, you can't make this up…) It was surprising to get to know them both, but it has become wonderful, and it provides me with an in-house examination on the difference between nature and nurture.

It's a long story, but I'm starting to think more and more that nature plays more of a role than I had thought, and I see this more and more with my own daughter Francesca, with whom I'm very close.  I'm a single mother, so it's always been just her and me, and now we are co-authors on a series of humorous memoirs about our lives, so we're learning a lot about each other, day by day, (and given our occupations, so is everyone else).  More and more, I see that her innate intelligence, her great good humor, her way of looking at the world, and her wonderfully thoughtful temperament is something that she was simply born with.  I'm the wacky one, of the two of us!

Your plots are always so intricate and have what I call the “oh my God, what is he/she going to do NOW?”  Is there ever a moment when you are writing where you think, “Oh, I just can’t do that to a character?” and go ahead and do it anyway?


Thank you so much for saying so, and I wish I could take credit, or at least give my characters some, but the fact is, I don't write with an outline so none of it is planned out.  I simply begin and say what would logically happen next, in this character's life.  In other words, what would she do, logically and of course, that begins to define her as she goes along.  For example, in MOST WANTED, I just got the idea, what if I were a pregnant woman and I had used a sperm donor and I found up my sperm donor was a serial killer?  (Yes, I know, I have a lot of weird what if thoughts, but it's a good thing in my job).  And I took it from there.

And in more direct answer to your question, the longer I live, the more surprised I am in the curve balls that life throws you, and I'm also amazed and marveled at the resilience and strength of the people I know and my girlfriends there all dealing with so much, both good and bad, and it never seems to stop.  So in a way, I think each of my novels is a little bit of a tribute to the resilience and strength in every woman.  And every man.

So much of your book is about what it means to be a parent and how that translates in how you bond with your child or don't bond—Do you feel that there is really something primal about all of this? I know that when I see anyone’s baby, I feel that primal urge to care for it—though there are certainly many many women who don’t. Can you talk about this please?


What a fascinating question, and I would expect nothing less from such a superb novelist and observer of families and parenting as you.  I absolutely do think it's primal and I can think of an example, a funny incident happily.  It actually happened when I was giving a signing at a bookstore in Dallas, and the bookstore happened to have an escalator and my signing was at the top of the escalator.  I was just yapping away, because I like to entertain during my signings, (I never read because I think my readers can read and they would rather know the inside stuff and I'm happy to do that for them.)  So anyway, were laughing and talking and asking questions and all of a sudden a toddler starts to wander over to the escalator, fairly close to the top.  The closer she got, the more distracted I got, and then I started to notice that there were people in the crowd looking over.  None of us could concentrate because we are worried about this kid, and I know that at some point, I might've begun to lactate.  Okay, just kidding, but all I can tell you is that the response of all the people watching this toddler, both men and women, was positively primal.  We all jumped up almost at the same moment and rushed over to get this kid - I actually stopped talking and went over - even though frankly, I'm not sure she was in any danger.  It was just something in our DNA telling us to save the kid and so that's my highly scientific explanation for my answer.

I also wonder about how people with unhappy childhoods transcend that in being a parent, which also snaps up in your book. I had an unhappy childhood, but my husband and I managed to raise our child the opposite of how we were raised, and not only was it great for our son, but it healed us. Do you think our whole notion of parenthood requires more thought, that everyone should explore their own childhoods and what they needed and be sure to give that to their child?


Here's when you find out that I can be a little bit nutty because the truth is I think your question is absolutely on point and correct, and not only that, I think we should be mindful in everything we do.  I love the line of Stephen Sondheim’s when he says “careful the things you say, children will listen.”  I write a lot about my mother, whom I call Mother Mary, and though she loved us very ferociously, or perhaps because she loved us very ferociously, she tended to be very protective.  That meant that when I was younger I got a lot of messages that were like don't try, don't take the risk, don't run too fast, stay right here.  It was very loving in one way, but it made me a fairly cautious child and I had to grow out of it.

When my daughter Francesca was born, I caught myself doing the same thing but I tried to make myself do the opposite, just like you.  I don't think the world needs another little girl that is afraid to take risks, and thank God, I don't have one.  But to get back to my point, mindfulness is important in all things.  I’ve become more  aware of my carbon footprint, and I have become a major vegetarian.  I no longer see the difference between the dogs I adore and a pig, so I can’t eat bacon or anything else delicious anymore.  I sleep better at night, feeling like my ethics are in line with my actions, and I know I don't contribute to any food chain that at the opposite end causes factory farming.  So as you see, I'm all for all of us exploring how we do things, why we do things, and questioning ourselves, above all.

I always want to know how one novel is different from the one before—if there was anything that you learned or that nudged you into Most Wanted?


It really was the what if of what if I couldn't have had my daughter?  What if I had been infertile?  What would my life be like?  I think it started also because now that I am a straight up empty nester, in that I live alone, I still very much have my daughter and my life via phone and email and text, but I am a capella.  It's an interesting position for woman to be in, especially one who identifies so much as a mother, and I think all these thoughts were swirling around and gave rise to MOST WANTED.

And I think what I learned from the book, in addition to the more emotional aspects of mothering, is the more scientific side that came from my research.  Because I learned that the situation in the novel is absolutely plausible given the lack of regulation in the sperm banking industry.  It’s not something people talk about much, but they should, because it turns out it’s a business like any other but there are relatively few regulations in place to protect people who buy donor sperm.   


The details are in the book, because it makes a very interesting legal problem for the heroine and her husband, but my research showed me that once again it’s really important to have laws and regulations in place to protect people when big money interests takeover, especially when people are at their most vulnerable, like times when an infertile couple wan to have a child.  It’s also an issue that I think deserves more and more attention, since so many single women, single man, and same-sex couples are using donors of all kinds.  There has to be regulations and laws in place to protect everyone.

You main character says she doesn’t know what she is leaving behind, but she also doesn’t know what she is going to—which to me is like a door opening and it takes great courage to make that step. You agree?

Yes I totally do agree, and I feel that life offers that almost all the time.  More and more, we don't know what were going to and sometimes, we don't even know what we’re leaving.  I've never been unhappy with any risk I've taken and the only times I regret things are when I don't take a risk I think I should have.  As I’ve gotten older, my most current thought is, onward and upward!

Of course I have to ask you, what's obsessing you now and why?

Happily, my latest obsession is my garden, which is a fun thing to be obsessing over until you find out you have a nest of snakes, which is what I discovered the other day, after turning over a rock.  I went from being instantly horrified, to gradually interested, and now finally fascinated.  These are the most photographed snakes in history and they look like garter snakes, so I don’t think they’ll hurt me, so I vowed not to hurt them.  This is a triumph over mindfulness in the face of scariness!