Thursday, April 27, 2017

Now, for young readers, a version of the #1 NYT Bestselling novel ORPHAN TRAIN for younger readers. Christina Baker Kline talks about ORPHAN TRAIN GIRL

I love Christina Baker Kline. (Come on, who doesn't?) She's warm, funny and one of the most supportive friends I have. Plus, she gives great advice about writing and she loves Lazy Rivers! But Christina is not only the #1 NYT Bestselling author of Orphan Train and A Piece of the World, she's also the author of Sweet Water, The Way Life Should Be and Bird In Hand. I'm delighted to host her here--and Christina, I'm still finishing up those knitted mitts for you!

Why make a younger version of your #1 New York Times bestselling novel Orphan Train?

Wherever I go, I meet mothers and fathers who are reading Orphan Train alongside their teenagers. Often they tell me they wish their younger children could read it too. School administrators who’ve assigned Orphan Train for school- and district-wide reads have struggled to find a companion text for their upper-elementary and middle schools. So I began to contemplate writing a younger version of the book that parents and caregivers could read with their children, teachers and librarians could share with their students, and school districts and communities could present as part of their “One Book” reads of Orphan Train.

I’m so glad that a younger audience will have the experience of reading Vivian’s and Molly’s stories  – and that they’ll learn about this important but little-known piece of American history.

How different did it feel to write Orphan Train Girl? Was there ever a moment that totally surprised you? Did you regret anything you had to leave out? (Or add in?)

I had never written a book for young readers, so I was lucky to have some expert help. Adapting the book presented some challenges. A number of aspects of the adult book are too disturbing for young readers. Molly, the 17-year-old protagonist in Orphan Train, is rebellious; some things that happen to Niamh, the nine-year-old train rider, are inappropriate. However, though some of the language and occurrences were toned down for Orphan Train Girl, most of the major incidents in the adult book are represented.

What do you hope younger readers will learn from the book? How do you want them changed?

I hope young readers will gain perspective on what it feels like to be a poor and unwanted child in America, a hundred years ago and today. I knew that if I could get the story right, kids would relate to Molly’s spunk and Niamh’s stamina. They would also find plenty to think and talk about in the story, which – like Orphan Train – contrasts Molly’s present-day experience as a foster kid with Vivian’s experience as an Irish immigrant in 1929.

How strange did it feel to change the points of view – and how did you change them?

Once I began developing the middle-grade story, the younger version of Molly took on a life of her own. I shifted the emphasis to Molly’s perspective and changed her age from 17 to 12, but the central plot arc – the friendship between Vivian and Molly – is still the backbone of the story. Vivian’s arc ends once she settles with the Nielsens at age 10. It was important to me to retain the tone and feel of Orphan Train. The books are designed to be read alone or side-by-side.

Any feedback from young readers yet?

Librarians, teachers, and young readers seem enthusiastic! There’s so much in the book for young readers to discuss.

Self-appointed "peace and justice rabble-rouser" Ellen Meeropol talks about her stunning new book KINSHIP OF CLOVER, family, politics and so much more

How can you not like someone who calls herself "a peace and justice rabble-rouser?" Ellen Meeropole the author of On Hurricane Island and House Arrest and numerous essays and stories, is here to talk about her haunting new novel., Kinship of Clover, about love, family and yes, politics. Thank you, Ellen, for being here!

I always wonder where the idea for a book comes from? What was haunting you?

 Actually, a character from my first novel was haunting me. Pestering me, really. Jeremy was nine years old in House Arrest, and at the end of that book he was left in a vulnerable place. The cult he grew up in had fallen apart and his father went to prison. “Don’t you want to know what happened to me?” he kept whispering. I did want to know. That interest sparked the new novel.

All I knew of Jeremy when I started writing was his nine-year-old self. He had a twin brother and they lived with their mom. Jeremy was the sensitive twin, who had loved to hang out in the family greenhouse and draw plants. Eleven years later, in the new novel, his interest has become an obsession with disappearing plant species.

 Like Jeremy, I am haunted by the rapid destruction of our planet and the apparent lack of will on the part of the human species to make the change necessary to turn things around. To write this novel, I re-imagined this character as a college Botany major. As I wrote, Jeremy’s beloved endangered and disappeared plants took on lives of their own and became active players. That totally surprised me, but it felt true to Jeremy and his story.

For you, it feels like the political is very, very personal, especially in this novel. Can you talk about this please?

 The political is very personal to me. I’ve been interested in social justice since high school, active in civil rights and anti-war groups. In college, I fell in love with Robby Meeropol, who turned out to be the younger son of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg. I have never been tempted to write fiction about the Rosenberg case, but the themes raised by Robby’s family story and my own political past have always pushed their way into whatever narratives I write. As a writer, and as a reader, I’m fascinated by stories that illuminate injustice, that explore our world through very different perspectives, and that imagine a different kind of society. In today’s world, issues of global warming and climate justice feel critically important to me.

In the new novel, both Jeremy and his girlfriend’s grandmother, Flo, are acutely aware of the potential costs of political activism. Jeremy’s family, an oddball collection of outsiders who were harassed by law enforcement, paid a heavy price for being different. Flo, a lifelong activist and rabble-rouser, wants to share her knowledge and experience with young people. She has suffered consequences of choices that are outside the mainstream of our society and now faces dementia. Jeremy and Flo, separated in age by over fifty years, share a perspective about fighting injustice and very personal knowledge of the costs that can come with the territory. I think political struggle is always personal. As we fight against racism, poverty, and repression, we are still people first. We’re parents and grandparents and children and neighbors, trying to take care of each other and facing difficult questions about how to balance those competing demands. For me, fiction is a way to dramatize those conflicts, to explore those thorny questions with our heads and our hearts.

What kind of writer are you? Do you scribble on legal pads, or only use your trusty computer?

I mostly write on my computer. My brain moves quickly and my memory isn’t so great. I have to capture thoughts quickly, before they’re gone, and my fingers type faster than they write. That said, I have notebooks filled with images and observations and questions and descriptions. Some of my best ideas come when I’m walking, outside or on the treadmill, and I’ve learned to stop and jot notes (or send emails) to myself.

What’s obsessing you now and why?

I’m still very much obsessed with climate justice, even more now that we seem to be moving backwards in addressing these issues. My current manuscript, which I’ve been working on for 17 years, moves with two sisters from anti-war and feminist activism in 1968 to a crisis of politics and climate change in the near future.

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

The only thing I might add is that I am grateful to you, and to the extended community of writers and readers and booksellers and libraries for the response to the heightened dangers of today’s world. As a literary arts community, it’s crucial that we continue to work together to resist the social and political injustices around us, from loss of funding to critical environmental, arts, and social welfare organizations to heightened danger to our most vulnerable sisters and brothers. As writers and as humans who live on this world, let us be bold and brave in our writing and our activism.

Despite protestations to the contrary, climate change is killing out planet. Acclaimed writer Connie May Fowler talks about her gripping new memoir, A MILLION FRAGILE BONES, the greed that causes planet devastation, fighting back and more

"A Million Fragile Bones stands as testament to the devastation caused by the greed and irresponsibility that lead to environmental disasters,
to all creatures, human and otherwise."~~Tampa Bay Times

"Fowler’s elegy to her lost home and chronicle of BP’s criminal negligence and the toxic decimation of this coastal haven is uniquely intimate and affecting in its precise elucidation of this tragic, largely invisible apocalypse, offering powerful testimony to the unacceptable risks and profound consequences of reckless oil drilling."~~Booklist

 Connie May Fowler is the kind of person that when I think about her, I want to hug her. She's so hysterically funny, with a huge heart, deeply thoughtful and brilliantly talented. She, of course, is an award-winning novelist, memoirist, screenwriter, and teacher. Her most recent book, A Million Fragile Bones, is a memoir that details her experience during the Gulf oil spill and explores the close ties between place, spirituality, family, and environmental devastation. And it's a knockout. She's written six other novels, How Clarissa Burden Learned to Fly, Sugar Cage, River of Hidden Dreams, The Problem with Murmur Lee, Remembering Blue and Before Women had Wings, recipient of the 1996 Southern Book Critics Circle Award and the Francis Buck Award from the League of American Pen Women. Three of her novels have been Dublin International Literary Award nominees. Connie adapted Before Women had Wings for Oprah Winfrey. The result was an Emmy-winning film starring Ms. Winfrey and Ellen Barkin.

But wait--you have to know this. In 2007, Connie performed in New York City at The Player’s Club with actresses Kathleen Chalfont, Penny Fuller, and others in an adaptation based on The Other Woman, an anthology that contains her essay “The Uterine Blues.”  And while Connie was performing, I was in the front row and she told me later, that when the actress portraying me read my piece, my face was a tangled map of emotion. In 2003, Connie performed in The Vagina Monologues alongside Jane Fonda and Rosie Perez in a production that raised over $100,000 for charity.

Connie, thank you, thank you, thank you, and hugs.

I always want to know the “why now” moment? Why did it feel like you had to write this particular memoir right now.
A Million Fragile Bones has had a strange journey. It began as a sort of idyll, an homage, to this incredible place I lived—a narrow spit of land, a sandbar really, that juts into the northern Gulf of Mexico. Think Pilgrim at Tinker Creek meets the sea.

For nearly twenty years, I lived a rare life, one immersed in nature, one in which I could easily avoid people if that’s what I chose. So, I began playing around with the idea, poking at the edges, figuring out what drew me to this place, and then the BP oil spill happened, destroying so much of what I held sacred.

I survived the horror through writing, so this is a memoir largely written in real time. Suddenly I felt anew the urgent call to bear witness. I felt a duty to record the destruction and the truth so that possibly such a disaster would never happen again.

But now, with the new administration calling for drilling throughout the gulf, and with no significant safety improvements in place, the memoir feels not only like an act of bearing witness but a call to arms.

The BP oil spill impacted 68,000 miles of ocean and also washed ashore.  But not only did this devastate the area you loved, but you were grappling with your own inner devastation as well. How in the world did you manage to get through this?  Did anger towards the corporate greed responsible for this travesty help at all?

I suppose anger is a galvanizing force, but also, this was my sacred space being destroyed. How does one not stand up to that?

There were days, however, that were very bleak, days that I questioned my sanity and well-being. As we witnessed day by day the situation grow ever worse, BP’s PR machine bustled along in full force, essentially claiming we weren’t experiencing what we thought we were experiencing. It was a form of corporate gas-lighting. And then there were all the dead and dying animals, the water that began to move as if it were heavy because it was laden with oil, so inevitably the anger turned righteous. Righteous anger can move mountains. And it can help you maintain your bearings in a world suddenly awash in chaos and sadness.

I loved that you wrote that you are still searching for your father who died decades ago. That says something so profound to me about grief—that it never goes away. It just changes. Can you talk about this please?

This was one of the most surprising things to me. As I said, before the spill I thought I was writing a book about my love for nature and a specific place in nature. But even then, in those early days, my father kept cropping up. I was like, “What are you doing here?” And then, as writers should, I just went with it, trusting he was there for a reason and I would eventually figure it out.
In the wonderful, mysterious act we call writing, I realized anew that I was still grieving, still missing, still madly loving the man who had died when I was six.

Loss is not an empty space. It is filled with all the love and longing we possess. Perhaps that is why grief is such a powerful force in our lives and why, rather than denying it or trying to push it down, we need to embrace it.

So much of this wonderful memoir is a call to arms, a plea for everyone to pay better attention to our planet. (And to themselves).  What is the one best thing people can do?

A few months ago, I might have had a different answer. But now, I fervently believe the best thing we can do is vote into office—from dog catcher up to the White House—people who believe in science. We simply cannot afford to have climate change deniers in charge of our country. Nor can we afford to have EPA protections rescinded and funding gutted. I heard today that the administration is considering rolling back regulations on lead. Lead. What’s next? DDT?

For the life of our planet and for the well-being of every living thing on earth—human, plant, animal—we cannot let greed and ignorance rule the day. Science, not opportunistic deal peddling, is the only thing that is going to save us.

What’s obsessing you now and why?

Climate change. It is the greatest danger we face. Already, it has thrust us into the Sixth Great Extinction. How horrible to live in a time in which species are vanishing from the planet! How do we not do anything about that? How do our hearts not break?

Ocean levels are rising precipitously. The ice cap is melting. Earth is getting hotter. Droughts are commonplace. Storms are growing more intense. We face a future of global food shortages and, therefore, mass migrations. And yet, it seems that Nero is fiddling while all of Rome burns.

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

How is life in Mexico?

I can say, I have been here for just over a year and am loving this new chapter in my life. There are lots of challenges—language proficiency and the frequent, necessary trips back to the U.S. can be trying—but neither of those things are deal breakers. Indeed, I love being immersed in a new language and culture, and I’m getting used to dealing with the intricacies of moving across borders.
This place feels both ancient and fresh to me. I am learning so much. People here are sweet and generous. They care about family, about the heart and soul of things, in a way that I have never before experienced. I am gardening again. Digging in the soil of a foreign land and harvesting its gifts—tomatoes, basil, squash, avocado, guañabana, mamey, papaya, chaya—makes me feel as if I have come home.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Pulitzer Prize-Winning Elizabeth Strout talks about why the work matters more than prizes, why she brought back Lucy Barton in ANYTHING IS POSSIBLE, how she writes and so much more.

"In her latest work, Strout achieves new levels of masterful storytelling." Starred Review, Publisher's Weekly

I first heard about Elizabeth Strout when Amy and Isabelle came out, and I was totally gobsmacked by the brilliance of the novel. I've been devouring everything she writes since, and a few novels back, I gathered up the courage to write to her and ask if she would read and blurb my novel. AND SHE DID. How generous and amazing is that?  I remember the week before she won the Pulitzer, I took courage in hand and wrote her again because I had finished and loved another book and I wanted to tell her. Again, she was so thoughtful, so gracious, and she didn't for a minute seem to believe she would win the Pulitzer. Prizes, as you'll read here, don't matter to her. The work does.

 Elizabeth Strout won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for Olive Kitteridge, which wasadapted into an HBO miniseries that won six Emmys. Her other award-winning novels include Amy and Isabelle, Abide With Me, Olive Kitteridge, The Burgess Boys, My Name Is Lucy Barton  and Anything is Possible. Her book, Amy and Isabelle was adapted as a television movie, starring Elisabeth Shue and produced by Oprah Winfrey's studio, Harpo Films.

 I'm absolutely honored that she agreed to let me interview her. Thank you, thank you, thank you, Elizabeth.

 I absolutely loved Anything is Possible. Why did you bring back Lucy Barton?

 You know, I really wasn’t sure about Lucy in this novel.  I just wasn’t sure what to do with her.  I wanted her there, but I didn’t want to tarnish her voice from My Name is Lucy Barton.  So I played around with a few different things, and they didn’t work, and I almost gave up on her for this book.  But then I thought: Oh, if I just show her, without getting into her head – and that story is all third person Pete’s point of view – then I thought, That may work.  And so I decided to do it that way, to keep the camera sort of far away from her in a way.  If you see what I mean.

I'm fascinated by how writers write. How do you?

I never map things out.  My head just doesn’t work that way.  In truth, I’m not sure how it works, but I do know that I never write anything from beginning to end, not a story, not a book, nothing do I do from start to finish.  So I might be working on various parts of Mississippi Mary and also working on the story “Windmills” at the same time, and then I will finally focus in on one and get it finished, and then as I get more of the book done, I think, Mmmmm, maybe I will try the janitor who used to know her as a kid  ---  The only ritual I have to keep me going is the desire to try and make it good.

I am self-taught as a writer, except for a course I took many years ago with Gordon Lish.  And I think this helped me.  His course helped me, but the many many years that I worked on my own, I think they helped me.  Because I was not influenced by a way of doing things.  But it took me a very long time to find my voice.  I came to depend almost entirely on my ear – on the way the sentences sound.  Do they sound true? Do they have a pulse beneath them?  I also learned early on to have no judgment about my characters; I love them all, no matter badly how they behave.  And then my mind just works in a certain way, so I think that Olive Kitteridge and Anything is Possible reflect that particular way my mind works.

I remember you once saying that you were not thinking about the Pulitzer, you were thinking about your work. I loved that. Did winning change your life or your writing?

You are right that for me, it is only the work that matters.  This has always been true.  When I won the Pulitzer, I was surprised and very happy, but I don’t feel it changed my life in any personal way.  Professionally, it brought me many new readers, and I am so glad about that – but now I owe them a responsibility as I have always owed all my readers.  So there was a bit of a sense of that, more responsibility, but I was very glad to win it.  And because I have always had that sense of responsibility to my readers, that didn’t change.  I would write as well as I could for one reader, or one hundred.

It almost feels like with each book I am starting once more to learn how to write, but that isn’t really true.  The more I have written the more I understand a sentence, that is what’s true.  But each book feels different because each book is different, and it has to be, because form is substance, so the way the story is told -- is the story itself.  The Burgess Boys, for example, required a far more traditional type of story- telling technique because of the story it tells.

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

One question I would liked to have been asked is about class in my work.  I think class plays a part in every book I’ve written, starting with Amy and Isabelle, and the fact that at the start of the book Isabelle thinks she is superior to the women who work in the office room at that mill.  And then each of my books handles class a different way.  My Name is Lucy Barton pushes it to the extreme, but I only mention this because I do think class remains something Americans don’t quite know how to talk about, but it is there in my books.  And I think class is not just income or education level, but more a sense of power or powerlessness that a person has as they live their life.

Thank you so much!

A vanished teenaged girl, a dead body, and a lonely community. Bryn Chancellor talks about her superlative novel SYCAMORE.

"Riveting. . . .This is a movingly written, multivoiced novel examining how one tragic circumstance can sow doubt about fundamental things. . . . a transporting vision of community, connection, and forgiveness."Publishers Weekly (Starred review, Pick of the Week)

What's more wonderful than discovering a novel that keeps you up at night and haunts you through the day? That describes Bryn Chancellor's Sycamore, about the discovery of a body that might belong to a vanished teenaged girl, a community pulling together and apart, and secrets.

Bryn Chancellor’s story collection When Are You Coming Home? won the 2014 Prairie Schooner Book Prize, and her short fiction has appeared in a range of publications, including Gulf Coast, Blackbird, Colorado Review, Crazyhorse, and Phoebe. She was also awarded the 2014 Poets & Writers Maureen Egen Writers Exchange Award for fiction, and literary fellowships from the Alabama State Council on the Arts and the Arizona Commission on the Arts. She has an MFA in fiction from Vanderbilt University and teaches at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.

I always think that writers are haunted to write the book they need to write. Was it this way for you?

Oh, haunted—that’s a lovely way to capture the sense of urgency to write, and yes, that was true for this one. This makes me think of what Joan Didion says in “Why I Write” about the pictures in her mind, the “images that shimmer around the edges.” I know I’m in the clutches of new work when those ghostly shimmers arrive. I wake with them behind my eyes. In the case of Sycamore, it took me awhile to pay attention to them because I had been wrestling with a different novel (one that’s in a drawer now). In my frustration, I started writing what I thought were stories. I wanted to go back to the short form; I missed it for the precision, the intense focus, the unity of effect. I also wanted to just finish something. Then Jess kept popping up, and I was like, Ah, hell, this is a novel! I finally stopped worrying about what it was or would be and let myself be seized by what had been hovering at my door: this place (based on my hometown region in Arizona), these wounded characters, this mystery. I got down the first mess of a draft in one month—and I never write that fast. Partly it was that I was at a residency, but partly it was that I finally let the ghosts in. (Of course, the revising took another eight months and multiple drafts, and then more revising through the editorial process.)

I’m really partial to debuts and this one is already getting a lot of attention. What’s that like for you? Does it put more pressure on you for the next book, or do you feel validated and happy? (Ha! What writer ever feels validated and happy!)

Ha indeed! Yeah, attention can be hard for me. I’m not a person who likes to be “out there,” as a dear friend once noted at a party as I kept stepping out of the center of the room and backing into a corner. I just read an article about why cats like to squeeze into boxes and squares (oh, Internet)—little hidey-holes of sanctuary to huddle in—and I was like, Yep, I get it, cats. I get it. These past months have been a bit of an emotional tumult: One day I’m ecstatic and full of wonder and the next I’m terrified, paralyzed by my old pal self-doubt. To mix my animal metaphor, I end up like a poodle whose people come home with treats when the postal carrier rings the bell and a storm rolls in. I yip, jump, pant, flop over for belly scritches, and nearly piddle. If someone could get me a thundershirt—or maybe just a box, actually—that would be great.
One constant, though, is gratitude. For my agent, editor, and whole publishing team, for readers, for booksellers, for librarians, for other writers and artists—all the hardworking people who love books and fight for them. Not to mention all my family and friends rooting for me. Lots of honey in this hive.
I don’t feel pressure—not yet anyway—about the next project, but it’s true I’m having trouble settling into writing, untangling the psychic knots. I’m trying to work through it by scribbling a lot of notes, talking walks, staying off the Internet (except cat news). I woke up yesterday thinking about a character, so that’s a good sign.
I think people love secrets because there is always a story attached to them—just one we have not unfolded yet, and most often, the reveals are reversals of everything we ever thought or felt.  When you were writing the first few drafts, did you know the answer to the question of what really happened to that missing teenaged girl, or did you think you knew and it changed, and did it come as a completely surprise?

You’re so right about that intertwined nature of secrets and the unexpectedness of the revelation—I love that in stories. And your question about solving the mystery in Sycamore is spot on: I didn’t know what had happened, and then what I thought I knew kept shifting. I certainly hadn’t planned for a character to find bones; those cropped up mid-story and I was like, Um, what the heck is this? I tested out several possibilities as I explored more about my characters until the right solution pushed its way through. Once I determined the truth, I had to go back in to try to add clues without tipping my hand. Such uncertainty might drive some writers up the wall, but for me puzzling out answers is one of the great joys of writing.

So much of Sycamore is about small-town life. How do you imagine this scenario might have played out in say, Manhattan today?
In some ways, I don’t see cities, even large ones such as Manhattan or L.A. or Chicago, as that different from small-town life. Tight-knit, intimate communities, with particular identities and atmospheres, form spatially within the larger whole—apartment buildings, blocks, neighborhoods, religious and community centers, schools, diners, parks. Often when I’ve overheard New Yorkers talk about their place, they ask and tell each other very specific cross-streets. I lived in Phoenix for over a decade, and then in Nashville, and now in Charlotte, and it’s the same. So if I were to set this kind of story—one that depends on individual and communal memory—in a city, I suspect I’d go to one of those microcosms.
But the more I ponder it, Sycamore for me also is a book in which the characters and place are inextricably bound. I don’t know that every story acts this way, but in this case to change the place upends everything—the characters’ experiences and trajectories and work lives, the how and why of events. I can’t imagine it taking place anywhere else. I tried at first, actually. I was living in a small college town in Alabama when I started the stories, and I tried that to use that place, but I couldn’t get inside it. So I took it home, to a landscape that I had moved around in for more than thirty years—albeit to a fictionalized version, which allowed me distance to rearrange and create features and timelines that I needed.
This gets back to the haunting. I rarely set stories in my hometown area, so that place was one of the ghosts lurking in the doorway. Only now, here in middle age, was I ready to go to that place of childhood in my writing.

What’s obsessing you now and why?

I’m thinking a lot about wildfires, which might become part of my next project. My desktop picture right now is set to a satellite image of the burn scar from the 2002 Rodeo-Chediski fire in Arizona. I was working at a newspaper during that time and the images all these years later stay with me—shimmer, I dare say. I keep staring at this particular image, trying to discover what I see in it, hoping to unlock something.

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

This was wonderful—thank you for taking the time to read and to talk with me about the book!

What would you do if you were a brand new mother and your baby had a mysterious illness that modern medicine couldn't seem to diagnose? Elizabeth Silver talks about her gorgeous new memoir (OUT TODAY!) The Tincture of Time, why travel is like medicine, uncertainty, writing, and so much more

I first met Elizabeth Silver through her incredible novel The Execution of Noa. P. Singleton. I sought her out and we became friends, and she sent me her new memoir and I was both exhilarated and on edge and terrified whether medicine would figure out what was wrong with her new baby and enthralled and fascinated reading it. The memoir is astonishing, about life and uncertainty and waiting and it is profound and out today. Go get it.

And thank you Elizabeth for being here, for your amazing work, and for being my friend.

Was it terrifying or cathartic to relive what you went through?
Writing this book was at once painful and cathartic, but by pulling the curtain back on the general concept of uncertainty in medicine, it helped me contextualize what was happening by extending the narrative far beyond my story to those of countless others.

I interviewed dozens of experts and individuals experiencing medical uncertainty, and though only a handful of their stories made it into the book, our discussions will stay with me forever. Many faced long-term, ongoing uncertainty, which invariably turned their chronic uncertainty into the only known variable, while others shifted my perspective on what uncertainty is, what a medical crisis is, and helped me understand where I fall in the spectrum.

While conducting interviews, I realized that uncertainty in medicine is, in many ways, a litmus test for how people view the world. I ended each interview with a fast association test for the gut reaction to the phrase, “medical uncertainty.” The most frequent response was “fear,” with “powerlessness” and “frustration” a close second, all words sharing a particular connotation. Sure, there were a handful of responses in the positive realm, such as “challenge” and “discovery,” but broadly speaking, it was a concept that left people needing something; something comforting, something healing, something…more.

How difficult was this to write? Did you have moments when you just had to stop writing, or you ached to fictionalize things?
Though I loved and hated writing this book, I never wanted to fictionalize things. I would have taken what I was learning and perhaps made meaning of it through fiction if that was the case. I had an intense need to capture my life and a particular truth about it at that time that I definitely did not want to fictionalize. Of course, all of writing is perspective, but I needed to write this book in order to live past the times in it. I needed to write this book in order to get back to fiction, which is what I’m writing again now.

There's a great deal of fascinating medical research in the book which reminds us that we--and doctors--don't know everything.  Maybe we don't know anything. How best can we live with this idea?
In many ways, I think medicine is like travel. The more you travel, the more you realize you haven’t traveled enough. The same is true with medicine. The more we know, the more we realize we don’t know. We can live with this idea by accepting that if even the scientists – the people who are trained to view the world with a clear and often provable hypothesis – must accept uncertainty as part of life, then we also must accept it. There are elements of our life we can control – so let’s focus on those in whatever way we can find it. Maybe you focus on the moving variable through religion, through creativity, through another form of control, while you somehow allow the constant variable – the unknown in medicine – to be present. It will always be there.

There's so much about time here, too, that it can soothe, release stress, show us the truth. But time can also really wear you down, make it impossible to believe that there will ever be a happy ending.  How did you deal with time while you were struggling to understand what had happened to your baby?

In many ways, time stopped for me. I was a brand new mother still recovering from a Cesarean, trying to learn how to breastfeed, while navigating doctors, scans, physical therapists and the projections of others. But this wasn’t anything exceptional or new. This happens every day for women and is all the more pronounced in NICUs, where the stakes are higher. I think time stops, soothes, and evolves during these heightened moments of anticipation – be it the joy of new parenthood or the fear of losing that new identity.

During the endless waiting, I consumed memoirs and french fries on an almost daily basis. I ate and I read, I read and I ate. I pumped breast milk round the clock because it was really my only semblance of control, the only thing I felt I could do to help.

This exquisite memoir is both terrifying and fascinating and in a way, exhilarating, because it gets at the beating heart of life. The way we cannot know what is going to happen in the next second. The way we must wait to see what can be revealed, or if it will be revealed. Can you talk about this please?

Thank you. I hope it is a representation of life – only under this particular set of circumstances. The book is divided into three parts: Acute Uncertainty, Sub-acute Uncertainty, and Chronic Uncertainty, taken from the three stages of illness in medicine. I found that if you apply your own uncertain medical crises to this rubric, in many ways it helps in this process of waiting to see what will be revealed. There will always be the initial moment of discovery, the rush to the hospital, the acute pain, followed by a waiting point or learning period as doctors and patients work together to find a diagnosis, prognosis, or treatment plan. Ultimately, there will be the chronic uncertainty that is simply life. If you never find answers, then the certain, ongoing variable is uncertainty and there is some comfort in that. 

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

These questions were amazing! Thank you so much for having me on your blog.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

A perfect lie. A perfect stranger. A perfect thriller. The amazing Lisa Scottoline talks about ONE PERFECT LIE

I am always excited to host  the amazing Lisa Scottoline on the blog. Of course she is the mega-selling, New York Times Bestselling author and Edgar award-winning author of 29 novels, including her latest One Perfect Lie, which is about my favorite things to read about, a stranger coming to town, high school (where everything is the most dramatic) and lies. But she's also so, so smart, funny, warm, and down-to-earth that you can imagine going out for pizza and wine with her. (We should do that, Lisa!)

Thank you, thank you, Lisa!

 I always want to know about the origin of a novel. What sparked your latest nail-biter?

What sparked this novel? Honestly, something that never has before. I don't know if you've heard the adage that there are basically two plots in the world; one is that a man goes on a quest and the other is that a stranger comes to town – and they are both the same plot line, but written from the opposing point of view. That always stuck with me, and I said one of these days, I'm going to write that novel, which turned out to be ONE PERFECT LIE.

The stranger who comes to town is handsome, (of course, because what good is a stranger if he isn't handsome?), and it's clear from the beginning of the book that he infiltrates a suburban high school with the intent of manipulating one of the kids on the high school baseball team. But the stranger is telling lies, not only to himself but to everyone around him, which makes for a lot of plot twists and turns, in what I hope is an emotionally resonant novel. To say more might reveal some spoilers, so I’ll shut up.  Bottom line, I wanted to write a completely different premise within the type of book that I enjoy writing, the domestic thriller. I hope I succeeded.

I love the comment on the cover--"the most perfect lie is the one you tell yourself." Why do we lie to ourselves?

I'm so glad you like the tagline, "The most perfect lie is the one you tell yourself." Guess who wrote it? Me! I love trying to think of a tagline for my novels because it's really an exercise in boiling them down to the essential emotional truth. And I've lived long enough to have told myself lots of lies, and all of them were perfectly perfect. LOL. I'm sure that's not a good thing, but it's the truth.

There are three women in this novel, who are to a certain extent lying to themselves and so is the stranger who comes to town, but I can't reveal more. Suffice it to say that I think any novel, regardless of category or genre, has to work on several layers and that's what I'm hoping I did in ONE PERFECT LIE. I also wanted to explore the lies we tell ourselves, not only the bigger ones like whether a marriage is good, (and I feel able to write about that credibly, since I'm divorced twice).  But I also wanted to explore the smaller lies, like Facebook lies, the photos that make everything look wonderful when it isn't. That's so fascinating to me because it's so meta: in other words, we are creating our own fantasy in which we convince ourselves that everything is just fine. Facebook has turned us all into authors of our life story, in a book we write for ourselves, about ourselves, and I wanted to explore that as well.

Your novel revolves around a baseball team, and though what I know about baseball could perhaps fill a thimble, it all feels so indelibly real to me. What do you know about baseball and why did you choose this particular sport?

I don't know much about baseball, which was why it intrigued me, and especially because I'm an individual sports type. I play tennis and I ride horses, though in college I rowed in a scull with eight other women, which was when I learned that I was not a good team player. I was always out of step, either too fast or too slow, and no where is that more evident than in rowing, which requires perfect synchronicity.

Thank you so much for saying the baseball in the novel felt real, and if that's so, it's because I spent two weeks hanging with the baseball team at my local high school, watching the boys play, relating to each other and the coach, and spitting countless sunflower seeds. I learned so much more about the game than I could have put in the book because I wanted to keep the pace moving. But it was a hoot, and of course I love the way that the team fills in the gaps that a family leaves, especially for boys at the high school level, who are about to take off for the great beyond. There were times when I swear I could see the little boys in these young adults, and I found it completely charming. I know you have a son and I love when you tweet about him.  I have only a daughter, so it was foreign to me, which is why I wanted to explore it.

I also want to comment that you are known for your absolute kindness and generosity in the writing community.  And you are also hilariously funny--despite writing edge-of-the-razor-blade-thrillers. Does one impact the other at all?

Thank you so much, for your very kind words, and honestly, kindness is the watchword. I'm practically a Buddhist in my practice of kindness and I've only gotten that way more as I’ve gotten older, partly because I value other writers so much, as a book lover. In fact I have just packed my copy of your CRUEL BEAUTIFUL WORLD to take on a book tour, because I love reading on tour. I feel so blessed to be at the point where I keep hoping that friends like you will write more, so I have something to read, LOL!

And as for being funny, I think all writers have a great sense of humor. You have to in our business, because of the struggle to get started, as well as the ups and downs thereafter. It struck me the other day that I feel as if I want to get my career to cruising altitude, and I'm still not there, after 30 novels and 60 years of life on the planet. Being a working writer is like that, so humor is as essential as carbohydrates.

 What's obsessing you now and why?

So many things are obsessing me right now, but most of them are too embarrassing to reveal. OK, I'll play. I just got back from vacation in Sedona, which is my first vacation in five years, and I loved every minute of it. So I'm obsessed with hiking. With crystals. With the Grand Canyon. With yoga. With Buddhism. Basically I went to Sedona and lost my damn mind. I even bought a book called THE TIBETAN BOOK OF LIVING AND DYING, also to read on book tour. I love learning about different religions and philosophies, especially since I wasn't raised in any particular religious tradition and the only thing I worship is chocolate cake. And the coolest thing about being a writer is that we get to educate ourselves on something we’re interested in, and it can help formulate a character or plotline for the next novel.  How cool is that? How lucky are we?  I would encourage any of your blog readers to allow themselves to follow their stray interests wherever they lead.  The wonderful writer Margaret Maron talks about serendipity in the writing process, and I believe this is an example.

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

Dearest Caroline, there's no question you should've asked that you didn't, and I always feel so honored to be a part of your blog and if I may say so, your vast circle of friends. Reading your novels, as well as your tweets, have fortified me, and I am always here for you! Thank you so much for sharing your talent and your boundless loyalty with me. Namaste.

Take Me, Read Me, and Return Me. Hollie and Rosy talk about Books on the Subway

So there you are on the New York City subway, cranky because the E train is late as usual, or because the Number 6 is crowded and two guys are man-spreading, and a woman is eating a slice of pizza right beside you and you are all in white. And then you see it. A book like an invitation. Maybe it's tucked into one of the benches. Maybe it's on a trash can. And you pick it up and read it and then pass it on. That's Books on the Subway, the brain child of Hollie and Rosy. And they are spreading literature all over New York City. I had to interview them. Thank you, thank you Hollie and Rosy!

To learn more about this movement, visit the website Books On The Subway, or connect with Hollie and Rosy on their social sites at Twitter @bookssubway and Insta: @booksonthesubway.

And think about spreading this to YOUR community. 

So how did Books on the Subway come about? And how do people know that it is okay to pick up a book and take it?

Hollie Started Books on the Underground back in London in 2012. Rosy saw a tweet from Leo Burnett, London about the project. She reached out to Hollie about the project and asked if she could start it in New York. Books on the Subway has been running in NYC since 2013 and now 4 years later, Hollie moved out to NYC and they run the project together. We leave about 20-100 books per day on the subway. The books have a sticker that say 'Take me, Read me and Return Me', so it's really clear what book finders have to do.

What has the reaction been?

The reaction has been overwhelmingly positive. Everyone is over the moon when they find and book. And these small acts of kindness make people remember why they love living in NYC.

Are there certain kinds of books that do better on the subway than others, and if so why?

Books that tie in to NYC seem to do really well, people just love to feel connected to the city they live in. And some of the romanticized stories of New York city life are fun to read when you're actually living in the city itself. Other titles that tie into a cause or a certain holiday do really well, whether it's a story about MS on MS awareness week or an anti-bullying book that spreads a good message. It's always nice to do a book that has real relevance.

What's been your biggest surprise about this program? And how can people help spread the word, or start a similar thing in their own city? And how do you track how many people have taken a specific book to read?

I think our biggest surprise is how many people want to get involved, and just how many people want to do it in their own city. People can just spread the word by sharing on social and telling their friends. Getting people to actively search for the books on their daily commute is our aim. We don't track the books, it's an organic project. We see people tweeting or instagramming the books they pick up, but that's not a guarantee. But we do know that when we leave a book on a bench it's normally gone within about 2-3 mins after being put down.

What's obsessing you now and why?

We're obviously obsessed with growing and spreading the project, to get books to as many people as possible. Getting more awareness is key, it means that more people are looking out for our books on the subway and getting excited and reading more! But on top of that, we're obsessing over how we can make it more than just 'Books on the Subway', we're trying to figure out what else we want to stand for, and how can we do more for the literary world!

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

Why! Why do we do this? That's what people always ask. And we do it because of 2 things. We both love reading and we both love NYC. And if we can get people to fall back in love with reading and their city, then we'll be happy!

Friday, April 14, 2017

A wildly dysfunctional family. Anti-Semitism. Climate change. David Samuel Levinson talks about his wickedly funny new novel that turns a murder mystery on its head, TELL ME HOW THIS ENDS WELL

 "A wickedly funny, intelligent examination of the dynamics of a uniquely strange family, and David Samuel Levinson guides these characters through a plot that intensifies in such unexpected ways. Against a backdrop that feels both terrifying and yet utterly plausible, Levinson again and again finds ways to make the struggles of this clan explode with a kind of humor that most writers could not dream of pulling off. A daring, memorable novel."
KEVIN WILSON, author of The Family Fang

I first met David Samuel Levinson at a book party and we became fast friends. We share a tangled past, a wry sense of humor, and he's just fun to be around. He's also the author of the novel, Antonia Lively Breaks the Silence, and the short story collection, Most of Us Are Here Against Our Will (Great titles, right?) and his spectacular latest, Tell Me How This Ends Well, about a wildly destructive family. He's been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and received fellowships from Yaddo, Ledig House, the Sewanee Writers' Conference and more.

And I'm totally jazzed to host him here. Thanks, thanks, thanks, David.

Whenever critics talk about you, they always use the word ambitious. Is being ambitious in your work something you deliberately do? Are you always challenging yourself, or is it just the nature of the writing beast—that the story you want to write starts presenting this challenge to you? 

I’m always striving for originality. Maybe that’s what they mean by ambition? I know, I know. Nothing’s original anymore, but that’s not to say we can’t continue to push the boundaries of what’s been done and make the material fresh(er) for the reader. Tell Me How This Ends Well takes a murder plot and turns it on its head in a humorous and disastrous way. I wanted to write a funny book about an unfunny subject: that was the gauntlet I threw down for myself. I’m kind of obsessed with criminality and what might force someone to take another human life. In this case, the three Jacobson siblings, each of whom has his or her own reason for wanting to do away with their father, though in the end they band together out of love for their dying mother—their father, it seems, is hastening her death. The book presented a number of challenges right off the bat, specifically when and where to set it. But once I determined those, it kind of wrote itself. Even before I sat down to write it, there were themes already at play, themes I’d been thinking about for years—the theme of anti-Semitism, of drought, of emotional terror, and political terrorism. I had to braid these disparate strands carefully into a narrative and that narrative eventually became Tell Me How This Ends Well.    

What was haunting you that made you need—as well as want—to write this novel? And why did you decide to set it in the near future.

I was obsessed with two things at the time—the rise of anti-Semitism in Europe and at home and the drought in California, Texas, and elsewhere. Hatred and climate change, if you will. The novel doesn’t answer where the world’s oldest hatred comes from because that’s a fool’s errand and it certainly doesn’t tackle the issue of climate change, but what it does do—I hope, at least—is show the relationship between the two. What I mean is, I wanted to write a book in which two of the most important and necessary natural resources in the world were threatened with extinction: in this case, the Jewish people on the one hand and water on the other. I set the novel in the near future, in 2022, because it just seemed more apt than to set it in the here and now, although it’s eerie to see certain events in the novel play themselves out in real time.   

As someone who never can title a novel decently, I deeply admired your title. How’d you decide on it? And were there other titles?

Thanks! Titles are everything! During my first conversation with my editor, which ran about an hour, she did most of the talking, praising the novel for this and that. Then in the last five minutes she brought up the title, which at the time was Everything Not Saved Will Be Lost. In case you don’t know, ENSWBL is the message that pops up when Wii crashes. I loved the title. It fit the book perfectly. But she didn’t like it and thought it was too hard for a reader to remember. She suggested we call the book Tell Me How This Ends Well, which happens to be the title of a play within the novel itself. I said sure. And thus Tell Me How This Ends was born. 

 Can you talk about the significance of setting the novel during Passover?

Passover is one of the more significant and festive of the Jewish holidays. It marks the Israelites emancipation from slavery in Egypt. I set the novel during Passover because I liked the parallels between the modern and the ancient—the Jacobson siblings’ desire to be free of their horrible father just as the Israelites’ wanted to be free of pharaoh. The Passover story is also a dark one, full of plagues and sacrifices and the Angel of Death. I liked how that story runs in the background, a current that carries the entire narrative to its only logical end.    

I have to admit I loved the black comedy of the novel. It’s dark and yet ferociously funny. How difficult was it to manage this balancing act?

Honestly, it was pretty easy. Again, I wanted to make the reader laugh in the face of horror. It’s not an easy book. I get that. I’m not sure you’d take it to the beach with you. But I am pretty sure it speaks to any and every reader out there who’s ever been bullied and terrorized by a family member. Emotional abuse is rarely talked about within the family structure—most of the time, it’s an open secret about which everyone makes an uneasy peace. But what if your family member really is a psychopath or a malignant narcissist? What if you’ve suffered untold humiliation and psychological torture at his or her hands? The Jacobson children, it must be stated, are not acting out of greed or selfishness. They’re acting out of desperation and selflessness and revenge. They’re not like the Menendez brothers in that they don’t plot to kill their father for the inheritance. It’s for something far greater and turns each into someone else by the end of the book. That’s the power of humor—to transform a terrifically unpleasant situation into something manageable. Jewish people have a specific way of dealing with tragedy, which comes out in our humor. I couldn’t see writing Tell Me How This Ends Well without showcasing my own comedic nature. I love to be funny. I love to make people laugh. I also love to call attention to the hardships that life presents us with at times, like the impending death of a beloved mother. Levity is an antidote against the terrors of the world. And in the world of the Jacobson family terror abounds.

What’s obsessing you now and why?

I dare say it but I’m obsessed with my next book! It’s an insane story about writers and Nazis and Staten Island and Jews and a missing Van Gogh. It takes place in New York City in 2005. The main character, Julius Ullman Spitsberg is a waiter at a popular Vietnamese restaurant in the East Village called Pho Kim Long. When his ex-wife goes missing, he goes to look for her at the home of a famous and reclusive writer who lives on Staten Island. Mayhem and murder ensue! It’s called I Am Gone Forever…

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Sonia Taitz talks about how being the child of Holocaust survivors let her mix humor with heartbreak, not having it all, and grappling for the first time with a real legal plot

Sonia Taitz is the kind of person who ALWAYS shows up at your readings, who calls you with opportunities, and best of all, who listens with an open heart and great advice.  Of course, she's my friend and I'm delighted to host her here for GREAT WITH CHILD.  She's the author of the critically acclaimed novels, The Watchmaker's Daughter, Mothering Heights, In the King's Arms (nominated for the Sami Rohr Prize in Fiction, Down Under and now Great With Child.

I'm so delighted to have her, here.  Thank you so much, Sonia!

I always think something is haunting an author to get them writing a certain book. Sonia Was it that way for you?
It’s the conflict between mind and heart. All my life, I’ve wondered about how people become “professionalized” in certain careers. In law school, which I started at the relatively young age of 21, we were promptly and efficiently taught to “think like lawyers.” In some ways, that meant leaving behind my personal way of relating to the world. When I became a mother, the personal, the unique, the precious, and the loving became more important to me than brains, status, and money. That conflict is front and center in Great With Child.

Great With Child does this wonderful alchemy--mixing humor with heartbreak. Would you say that is the way you live your life, too?

Yes. I think it has something to do with my being the child of Holocaust survivors. Both my parents could find humor in life’s low points, and often did. All my books share this combination of the funny and the tragic. My memoir of growing up as a first-generation American, The Watchmaker’s Daughter is especially bittersweet. I’m always flattered when people say that cry and laugh out loud when they read it. It’s a tribute to my upbringing in a house marked by tragedy, with people who overcame their past with perspective, grit – and sparkle.

Motherhood is a hot button issue still, with more and more women saying they don't want to be mothers at all now, because you can't have it all. But I always think, well, maybe all isn't what you really need. Can you talk about this please?

The very idea of “having it all” changed for me with motherhood. The massive ego I was burdened with pre-babies magically lifted when I started to love others more than myself. I’m also lucky to have turned from law – which is still, largely, a man’s world of pressured, billable hours and rigid rules – to writing, which can more easily accommodate a parent’s schedule.

I always think that a new book is so different from the last one any writer does. What surprised you in writing Great With Child?

This is one of my only books that has a real legal plot. The others deal with more basic issues like good and bad, men and women, native and outsider. While Great With Child does share a philosophical underpinning – and does deal with good/bad, men/women, native/outsider—it is the most “story-telling” of my books, with a whirlwind pace.

What's obsessing you now and why?

I’m re-reading dystopian books like Brave New World and 1984, because I’m worried that the kindness and humanity that I’ve come to expect in America (and appreciate as the daughter of immigrants) is waning. America as a refuge is an ideal to me, and I want its heart to remain open.

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

Do I think I’m lucky to be a writer? It’s a hard life in some respects: isolated, needing the discipline of a self-imposed schedule, and guaranteeing no sure outcome. You put your heart and essence into something, and send it out, naked, into the world. But I find that writing, like parenting, is one of the most loving callings. You do it to give and to share what is the best of you, born of birthing pains that no epidural can mask. What makes it worthwhile? The chance that you may have enriched the world in the end, or even just one person in it.

Yewande Omotoso talks about The Woman Next Door, cranky old ladies, the "beautiful beast" of writing, and so much more

I was so thrilled to meet Yewande Omotoso
as in person at a Book Fest, and I chose this photo because I fell in love with her earrings as soon as I saw them! Funny, smart and warm, she was born in Barbados and grew up in Nigeria, moving to South Africa with her family in 1992. She is the author of Bom Boy, published in South Africa in 2011. In 2012 she was on the South African Literary Award for First-Time Published Author and was shortlisted for the South African Sunday Times Fiction Prize. In 2013 she was a finalist in the the inaugural, pan-African Etisalat Fiction Prize along with NoViolet Bulawayo and Karen Jennings. She lives in Johannesburg.

Thank you so much for being here, Yewande!

I always think authors are haunted by something before they start writing a book. What was haunting you with the Woman Next Door?
Many things! I was around my grandmother just after my grandfather died and it got me thinking about what it is to be of that age, late 70s, 80s, to have so much of your life behind you. And then I began to dwell on that more. I wondered in particular what it might be like to be in the last years of a life that has largely been unfulfilling. The sense that the quality of the life you have lived will have some bearing on your experience of these final years. I wondered how late is too late - for friendship, for redemption.

I loved these two cranky old ladies feuding and then finding just enough of a chip of light to find something in common.  Was there ever a moment in the book when you didn't think this would happen for them?
I didn't take it for granted that it would but I understood that part of the project of writing the book was to sit with this question on every page, to wonder it as I wrote their stories. I had to really balance this. I couldn't lie about what is possible for two such women but I also felt nervous about the likelihood of discovering - as the writer - that nothing is possible. I wasn't sure what would happen. And, in a strange way, I'm still not certain.

What kind of writer are you? Do you wait for that pesky muse or do you map things out? What surprises you each and every time you sit down to write?
I'm someone who finds life, as it is, immensely inspiring as it is devastating, and so there is never a sense of waiting for a muse. I don't map things out so much as follow scent, like being a tracker and the story is a kind of beautiful beast. Along the way you lose it find it, find it's droppings. Ultimately I think it's right that the beast stays wild (perhaps in the forests of our imaginations) so the novel then is as close an approximation (a rendering) as possible. The story surprises me - this is very important. If, at the beginning of my creative process, I map the whole thing out and understand what happens from start to end I stop writing.

What's obsessing you now and why?
The body. And representation of the body especially in visual art. Death is also obsessing me. And seeing the family unit as a project, what sustains it, what scuppers it. I think the things that we obsess over are embedded into our psyches and produce from there, entwined in the material of our experiences, our longing - who knows?

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

 These are great questions - the question monster is for now satiated. Thanks so much.

Whiting Award winner (yeah!) Kaitlyn Greenidge talks about We Love You, Charlie Freeman, sign language, more--and the novel is now in paperback!

Oh yes, I am partial to other Algonquin writers, and I especially loved Kaitlyn Greenidge's We Love You Charlie Freeman--and so does everyone else. I was so happy to run into Kaitlyn at various book events, and I wanted to host her on my blog--and here she is! Kaitlyn Greenidge received her MFA from Hunter College, where she studied with Nathan Englander and Peter Carey, and was Colson Whitehead’s writing assistant as part of the Hertog Research Fellowship. Greenidge was the recipient of the Bernard Cohen Short Story Prize. She was a Bread Loaf scholar, a Lower Manhattan Cultural Council Workspace artist-in-residence, and a Johnson State College visiting emerging writer. Thank you so much for being here, Kaitlyn!

Recently, you won a Whiting Award! (Huge congratulations) Does it make it harder or easier for you to write your next book? Do you feel the pressure of expectations or the relief or already having arrived in the literary stratosphere?

Ha, I don't think I'm in any stratosphere. I am overwhelmed by the attention the book has gotten, but it doesn't change that I am still struggling with the next one and that trying to work on it is usually interrupted by doing dishes, doing laundry, grading papers, prepping for class, writing for others and all the other things in life that get in the way of just focusing on working on a novel.

What was your research like for the book? What surprised you about it?

I had a good time researching. I like libraries and I love to research. I think I was surprised that research mattered for a long time and then ultimately didn't. That it was just as important to be able to imagine things as it was to verify if something was possible. I had forgotten, in my excitement to do research, that that is kind of the point of writing fiction, and not just a history book.

I loved all the part about sign language, and at a recent panel with you, the moderator mentioned that there are actually different dialects in sign language. This fascinates me so much! Can you talk about that please for the blog readers?
Sure. Sign language, like all languages, has dialects, which I found fascinating as well. There's African American Sign language, a result of segregated schools for the deaf. As I've toured with the book, I've gotten to hear about others--apparently there is a dialect specific to gay men, and regional dialects too. It's fascinating.

What's obsessing you now and why?

Goddess worship and dictionaries of symbols. Mostly because I just like both those things so much.

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

These questions were great!

Monday, April 10, 2017

What makes a marriage last? Dani Shapiro talks about her luminous memoir Hourglass, how time alters us and our memories, and so much more

I can't remember when or where I first met Dani Shapiro, only that it was--and still is--absolutely remarkable. I remember the last time I saw her, at a book fest, and we grabbed a quiet spot and just talked and talked and it felt like every secret I had ever had was revealed, and it was safe. She's funny, smart, deeply thoughtful, and I need to go have tea with her as soon as possible!

Dani is not just a wonderful person, but she's also  the bestselling author of the memoirs Still Writing, Devotion, and Slow Motion, and five novels including Black & White and Family History. Her work has appeared in The New Yorker, Granta, Tin House, One Story, Elle, The New York Times Book Review, the op-ed pages of The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, and has been broadcast on “This American Life”.  Dani was recently Oprah Winfrey’s guest on”Super Soul Sunday.” She has taught in the writing programs at Columbia, NYU, The New School and Wesleyan University; she is co-founder of the Sirenland Writers Conference in Positano, Italy. A contributing editor at Condé Nast Traveler, Dani lives with her family in Litchfield County, Connecticut.

This memoir is so rich and real, and also so brave—was there any time when you were afraid of what you were writing? Did anything surprise you about it?

Oh my god, where do I begin.  I was terrified for much of the time I wrote Hourglass.  All books are – or should be – scary to write, but this one was different for me because it felt like such a high-wire act.  I was writing from within my own marriage.  My own happy marriage of 20 years, which is also to say, my own complicated, imperfect marriage as all long marriages are.  It was a book I felt absolutely compelled to write – I wanted to explore what it means to be two people going through time together – but the whole time I was writing it, I wondered if I had lost my mind.  One thing that surprised me was that it was clear to me, from early in the writing, that this would be a slim volume, as they say.  It felt like a book that wanted to be read in one or two breaths, or at least that’s the way I thought of it. 

Hourglass is a portrait of a marriage that lasts—and changes amidst success, aging, illness, and having a child. So, how did writing this exquisite memoir change your marriage yet again?

Writing Hourglass allowed me to see certain strengths and certain fault lines in my marriage more clearly than I ever had before.  It’s a very interesting exercise to put one’s marriage under a microscope, the way I did in this book.  Not for the faint of heart!  But it only has brought my husband and me closer together.  He’s also a writer, and is my first reader.  He read every page as I wrote, and if he were to have said to me, I’d rather you didn’t – well then I wouldn’t have.  My marriage is more important to me than any book.  Is that okay to say?  I hope it doesn’t make me less of an artist.  My family and their well-being comes first. 

I’m fascinated that you said that you were done with telling stories, that you want the truth—but don’t you feel that the way we make sense of our lives is often in making our lives a story to ourselves, finding that arc, superimposing meaning?

Absolutely we’re always telling stories, always superimposing meaning.  But the older I get, the more I see that the stories change, our memories change, that nothing is fixed.  It’s why writing multiple memoirs is possible.  All the writer is doing is pinning that precise moment between the pages of a book.  Nothing more.  I’ve become fascinated with the kind of narratives that attempt to inhabit a consciousness, rather than tell a story.  Not that I’m not interested in stories!  But I am more interested in what drives them.

What really got me in your moving memoir was, well—love. There is something very different about being in a long term loving relationship than those first heady days of passion—and I think the long marriage, the going through difficult times together is what truly makes a union. Do you agree? Can you talk about this please?

When I finished the book and early readers began to describe it to me as a “very grown-up love story” nothing made me happier.  Because, yes, I knew I was writing out of love, but the kind of clear-eyed, intimate, going-through-it-all-together kind of love that isn’t about hearts and flowers and cueing the violin.  I look at my husband sometimes and think: we have gone through terrifying things together. The near-loss of our only child;  the illnesses and deaths of parents; financial fears; successes and disappointments.  The whole megillah, the whole human catastrophe.  This only makes me love him more. 

What’s obsessing you now and why?

As I think Hourglass makes abundantly clear, I’m obsessed with time, and have been for the past ten years or so.  How does time alter us?  How does time chisel away at us? How does time move?  In a circle? A spiral?  A straight line?  Are all the people we’ve ever been still alive somewhere within us?  And then, well, obviously the state of the world.  But I try to put brackets around that obsession so I can get work done.  

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

Um… maybe, when are you going to put on your red cowboy boots and go out on the town with me?