Sunday, July 15, 2018

Grief. Hope. Loss. Love. Jonathan Santlofer talks about THE WIDOWER'S NOTEBOOK

Jonathan Santlofer's profile photo

"Wrenching, heartbreaking, intense and emotional - but valuable, too: we're all approaching the age where this will happen to us - or to others because of us - and understanding that it can be dealt with is consoling.  I don't know how Santlofer found the fortitude to write this, but I'm deeply grateful he did. I think the world is a better place with this book in it."—Lee Child, #1 New York Times bestselling author

The Widower’s Notebook, Jonathan Santlofer’s searingly truthful chronicle of mortality, is, among its wonders, a book about the preciousness of life and love, rendered all the more heart-wrenching, and all the more vital, by a loss almost beyond imagining. It’s a true tragic beauty.”
Michael Cunningham, Pulitzer Prize winning author of The Hours

The Widower’s Notebook is a searing rendition of the complex relationship between men and grief—an intense despair that is too often starved for words.  This chronicle of devastation is itself devastating, a deeply powerful and unflinchingly honest report of how painfully and strangely life continues in the wake of a sudden, tragic death.”—Andrew Solomon, National Book Award winner

"The Widower’s Notebook is an intimate, honest, heart-wrenching, and at times even funny account of grieving as well as the memoir of long, satisfying, loving marriage. This is an important and welcome addition to the literature of loss and grief from the male point of view. I will be giving this Notebook to friends reeling from loss but also to old and new couples who need models of how to weather the many little deaths and losses that occur as they journey a life together. Santlofer has given us a brave, beautiful gift, heartfelt and invaluable."
Julia Alvarez, bestselling author of How the García Girls Lost Their Accents and Saving the World

Widower is stunning, harrowing, un-put-down-able… Jonathan Santlofer finds language that is immediate and intimate for the irreconcilable trauma of loss. Without pause he captures the shattered time that is grief—this book is fearless, brave for its humanity, honesty, love. Santlofer brings the reader into his heart, sharing all the things that one feels but dares not say aloud, all that one wants to know but can’t ask of themselves, of those around them, of their lost loved one.”—A.M. Homes, author of May We Be Forgiven

"As an extended meditation - not on grief but on grieving - it is direct, unadorned and humane. It is, as well, a rare thing, a portrait of a happy marriage."—Paul Theroux, New York Times bestselling author
"Jonathan Santlofer's book is a miraculous act of seeing, in words and in drawings — of reconstituting, in a work of art, what his wife Joy was like and what their marriage was like and what the loss has been. A riveting memoir of grief, and an indelible portrait of a long and deeply good marriage." —Joan Wickersham, National Book Award finalist and author of The Suicide Index
"A brave book! A truthful and poignant account of an unexpected death filled with wisdom about life and a man's struggle to be allowed to grieve."—Sheila Kohler, author of Once We Were Sisters

“Jonathan Santlofer, with painful honesty, renders real grief in all its sprawl and inconsolable intensity.”—Edmund White, author of A Boy’s Own Story

"Jonathan Santlofer’s stunning The Widower’s Notebook raises all the blinds on immense and sudden loss, bringing light to all its dark corners. In so doing, he offers a deeply moving, often funny, always big-hearted portrait—not just of grief but of a long and rich marriage brought to vivid life, and of a mighty father-and-daughter relationship both tested and enduring. A true gift."—Megan Abbott, bestselling author of You Will Know Me

Jonathan Santlofer is a writer and artist. His debut novel, The Death Artist, was an international bestseller, translated into seventeen languages, and is currently in development for screen adaptation. His fourth novel, Anatomy of Fear, won the Nero Award for best novel of 2009. His short stories have appeared in numerous anthologies. He is also the creator and editor of several anthologies including It Occurs to Me That I Am America, a collection of original stories and art. His paintings and drawings are included in many public and private collections. 

Thank you so much for being here, Jonathan!

What was the “why now” moment for you to write this brave and moving book?

Thank you for those kind words. I’m not sure there was one specific moment I could point to. For almost two years after my wife’s death I kept notebooks where I documented my days and nights, my interactions with friends and associates, even strangers. The notebooks were for me alone, a way to see clearly at a time when I could not. When I was invited to the arts colony, Yaddo, I thought I would work on a novel I’d started before my wife’s death, but got there and found I was still unable to concentrate on fiction and began transcribing my notebooks. I still didn’t think of it as a book, at least not one I would put into the world. What changed was allowing a few friends to read parts of what I’d written, all of whom were enthusiastic and urged me to consider publishing what I’d written. One writer friend, who I respect tremendously, said “Men do not write these kind of book, so you must continue, must finish.” Still, until the moment I sold the book I kept thinking I’m not going to do this!

So much of The Widower’s Notebook is about how males are supposed to act grieving, which is stoic, quiet, moving on. And which is nonsense.  Can you talk about this please?

I think I fit the male pattern of grieving you describe very well—or did. I rarely if ever let anyone see what I really felt. I hid behind my mask of cool and funny, which in fact made the grieving process that much worse by making me feel isolated. It’s one of the things that eventually spurred me on to write this book—to express what I felt in a culture that doesn’t want to deal with loss and grief and does not expect it from a man. There are cultural stereotypes and expectations about the way women grieve versus the way men do, all ridiculous and equally punishing.

I loved that you binge-watched Netflix. When my mother had a stroke and began the process of dying, I found myself watching horror movies on my computer for hours at a time. Sometimes, I think, we need stories that are nothing like ours, to move forward. But some times, we need stories like yours, which make us feel that we are not alone, that we are all bound by love and loss. Was there ever a point where you felt, no, I can’t continue writing this?

I’m very sorry to hear about your mother. I think losing one’s mother is enormous, and I know my daughter would agree. I also agree that there are times we need distraction – 50 nonstop episodes of Breaking Bad or House of Cards - but there are those other times when we absolutely need to read other people’s experiences of loss for exactly the reason you say – to not feel alone. For well over a year I couldn’t read anything but when I started again all I read were memoirs about loss. I sometimes think a combination of work, friends, Netflix, and Joan Didion saved my life!

There were many times I thought, I can’t keep writing this because it’s too painful. And yet, I know the act of writing helped me move forward. At a certain point I had to step back and look at it as a book, a work on its own, a process that was a bit unnerving—to edit and structure something this personal—but I also felt, If I’m going to do this it had better be good!

Was there a difference in the way art and writing helped you?

I feel lucky that I had my art and writing because they were places to put what I was feeling into something tangible. When you make a drawing you have to coordinate your hand and eye, really concentrate on seeing, so it’s a great escape. I have often recommended learning to draw (and I believe everyone can) to others because it sharpens your mind in a very particular way and makes you see the world differently.
I couldn’t actually escape when I was writing because it was all about what had happened, but there was something about constructing words and sentences—no matter how painful—that felt good and worthwhile.
I firmly believe that work of any kind is a great mechanism to deal with grief. It doesn’t matter what it is—cooking, gardening, painting, learning a language, anything that forces you to focus—because it takes you out of the moment and makes you think about something else. Grieving takes time no matter what, but if you’re doing something at least part of that time moves faster.

What’s obsessing you now and why? (And what are you working on next, too, please)
I just finished the novel I’d started before my wife died. It’s an historical thriller that mixes fact and fiction, something I’ve never done before. It was a difficult but very fun book to write. I’m painting too, and always drawing, which is relaxing for me. Once I finish editing the new novel I want to start another – an idea that’s been percolating in the back of my mind for a while now.
After my wife died I couldn’t work at all so it now feels as if I’m making up for that time. I sometimes think, Oh, just stop, relax and shut up! But I can’t. I’m really only happy when I’m working, and I’ve grown to accept that.

What question didn’t I ask that I should have?
The question I ask myself is: how am I feeling now? The Widower’s Notebook ends at a certain point, but as time goes on I feel more like myself. I’m a somewhat different, altered person than I was before, but I am no longer in the throes of grief and I think people need to hear that: to know that they will survive and feel better, because when you’re deep in grief you can’t imagine ever feeling better, but you will.

Monday, July 9, 2018

How do you get to be a writer/actor/dancer/performer all at once? The amazing Tom Frueh tells all!

TOM FRUEH is a writer and actor who performs regularly in musicals, including his own one-man musicals for which he also writes the music, book and lyrics. His newest musical Partners recently had its world premiere on Theatre Row at the United Solo Theatre Festival, the world's largest festival devoted to solo theatre. Prior to that, his musical Houdini was produced there. He is also the author of numerous plays which have been performed in New York. A singer-dancer and veteran musical theatre performer, some of his other recent appearances include the musicals On the Twentieth Century, City of Angels, Hairspray, Grand Hotel, The Drowsy Chaperone and Cabaret.

Way, way back, when I lived in the city that shall not be named because I hated it so much, I studied ballet, and quickly became friends with Tom Frueh, who was funny, sarcastic, and as passionate about the arts as I was. Tom moved to Manhattan, and I followed his lead a few years later, and we’ve stayed friends. I’ve been to his plays and have been amazed. I’ve watched his solo shows with delight. And I wanted to interview him because he has so much to say about creativity.

Thank you so much Tom!

I’m so deeply interested in hearing you talk about your one-man musical shows and how they came to be, especially since they’re a bit like a novel.
Like Lily Tomlin and many other performers and writers, I was heavily influenced by an actress who was also a writer, Ruth Draper. As a young woman, she wrote some monologues for herself but then didn’t know what to do with them. She showed them to the author Henry James and asked his advice. He replied, “My dear young friend, you have woven yourself a magic carpet - stand on it!”
Draper’s career was perfecting these monodramas, and in performing them, she could display not only her writing and acting skills, but her amazing understanding and empathy for human beings at all levels of society, from a poor Scottish immigrant to a wealthy Manhattan dilettante and all sorts of people in between (she was also great with dialects).
In a way, these monodramas were not unlike a novelist reading aloud from his or her own work, although there happens to be simple staging and props and lighting thrown in! And like reading from a novel, it’s storytelling in a more personal oral form. And that’s very similar to how I feel about my one-person shows (whereas when I do another author’s musical with a big cast, like On the Twentieth Century which I just finished, it’s something very different. Both are theatre, both are thrilling, but the solo show is a very writerly and a more personal journey and experience.)
What’s your process like?

There’s a very close link between creating a character for a book or play and creating a character one is going to play onstage. For me, the processes are essentially the same, as are the research aspects.  Non-theatre writers try to explore (and sometimes even experience first-hand) what their characters might have experienced, and certainly that’s a common practice for acting. So, in the case of my one-man shows, there’s that kind of research and discovery and character building, and then I try and find the right structure for the story. Acting is the last layer and an outgrowth of all that came before. Also, the acting piece can inform any rewriting. Often, I’ll find that a character I’ve written on the page seems to have his or her own distinct voice, but then I learn through speaking it and acting it that it was too infused with my own voice, so I go back and work to correct that.
The fact that I started out writing plays and now write musicals is simply a matter of using the music skill to enhance the storytelling. In the case of my most recent solo musical Partners, which is about my life following the death of my partner, Johan Renvall, I never could have fully expressed the grief I felt without music, because I couldn’t talk about it at first – I was too devastated. I simply went to the piano and started playing what I was feeling. And then the words followed, and then words and music started to develop in parallel, and that became the complete picture. But the emotion of doing it was sometimes overwhelming. The support and discipline of my director, Jen Jurek, and my music director, Chris Piro, helped me bring it to performance level yet still allow the emotion to come through honestly, but without letting it overtake me.
You’ve said that your shows came about because of grief, which I find fascinating. Talk about that please.

I don’t even think I was fully aware of that when I started writing my one-man shows, especially since grief was not always the central action in the shows. But grief was the momentous occurrence that made me write in the first place. My first solo show, After the Show with the Man Who Owned Broadway, about the composer and performer George M. Cohan, was written in part as a response to my father’s death, but it was about Cohan fearing his career was over.  I wrote Houdini in response to my mother’s death, but it was about the climax of his career.  Partners is the only one of the three that is explicitly about navigating grief, which can be like wandering alone in total darkness. I wasn’t trying to write for therapy (even though there was some therapeutic value, but the writing process also accentuated the despair) but rather to try and create something beautiful from something horrible, and to make this awful experience “count” for something.  I suppose there’s also an element in each of my solo shows about making art – both for me and the characters – to try and overcome life’s horrors. In my George M. show, he uses music and theatre to please an audience but also his dead father. In my piece about Houdini, he uses his seemingly magical escapes to defy the inevitability of nature, and to express his refusal to be beaten by anything or anyone. And since I dance in musicals and Johan was a dancer with American Ballet Theatre, Partners uses dance as a metaphor for life and for the need to persist despite overwhelming tragedy.
You do so many, many things all at once, and I know you also have a job. How do you manage this balancing act?

Yes, I do have a writing job and it encompasses just about anything one could think of, from all kinds of marketing and advertising writing to scripts and magazine articles. The balancing part is second nature to me now since I’ve been doing it so long, but the effort is so worth it because it’s made me a much better writer than I could have been without it. A few weeks ago, I took my very first figure drawing class thanks to a good friend. I thought I would go in and have an hour or more to leisurely sketch the model. But we only had three minutes and then the model changed poses! It was do or die, with ongoing feedback from the instructor. It was easy to see there was a method to this madness, and it’s much like my daily writing. The discipline of inflexible deadlines, the need to be creative on the spot, often with little information to go on, the necessary economy, and the regular criticism are all part of what any writer must accept, to one degree or another, in order to improve. It’s made me think faster and more efficiently when writing, and the best benefit of all is that it makes almost any tough writing job or problem seem conquerable.  It’s been a blessing, and I’m grateful.
What’s obsessing you now and why?
The urgency to keep writing and performing in musicals for more audiences in more places more often, as well as I possibly can. Piece of cake, right?
What question didn’t I ask that I should have?
“When will we go to an all-night diner in Chelsea again and make mischief, and which one of us will write about it, and why is your last name pronounced ‘free’?”  (Sorry, that’s really three little questions disguised as one big question!)

Learn more about Tom and his projects at

The amazing Maggie Balistreri talks about The EVASION-ENGLISH DICTIONARY, why we must say what we really mean, and how speech shapes politics--and more, more, more.

The very cool book with a tiny inset of Maggie

Maggie Balistreri
Here is a better portrait of the artist as unbelievably cool

Maggie Balistreri is a namer, taxonomist, and extraordinary author of THE EVASION-ENGLISH DICTIONARY. Hey folks, it's a must-have for these difficult times. So buy several copies and give to everyone you know. I did.

Thank you, Maggie.

I almost always ask people what was the why now moment for writing a book, but it seems like you have timed this one perfectly. Care to talk about this?

I wanted the book published before books are banned.

Tell us about what you call “evasion English.”

Evasive English = “I say this but I mean that” or “I say this because I mean that.” It’s the difference between my speech bubble and my thought bubble. I identify terms that help us avoid the intimacy of a direct statement; or words that, like icebergs, have unspoken depths of meaning.

Another way to think of the term “Evasion-English” is through its anagrams, which range from identification to interpretation:

      heaviness lingo
      gosh, insane evil
      asshole veining
      legion vanishes
      eases living, hon

Phrases that “lead to what we really mean” is also revolutionary, and a great way to decode politicians, I think. Should we be speaking up more about this when we encounter it? I wish we all would.

Some evasions intend to spare someone else’s feelings. Other evasions are revolting manipulations. Some of the book is descriptive, and some is prescriptive according to my whim and fancy. It’s really choose-your-own-adventure when it comes to speaking up or modifying your own speech. I’m fascinated to hear which words annoy you.

I don’t take my own advice. The whole “I don’t know = no” entry (“They want to stay here with us? for the week? Huh. I don’t know”) was me Thursday. Sometimes I speak up and sometimes I fuck up.

Jason Bateman was in a movie with Katharine Hepburn in the 90s. Yup. Anyway here’s how he described her: “She only wore white Reebok high-tops, so for a dress-up scene, she’d just pull black socks over them. That’s what she was like. She hit ‘Fuck it’ a long time before I met her.”

We’ve all hit “Fuck it” by now. The time is shorter now for us to not speak up when it comes to larger, political discussions. And people are speaking up, thankfully. I could not bother living if I didn’t have the sanity check of hearing and reading so many and such quick interpretations of evasive language from public figures, more and more every day, getting back to your point about the timing of this book to coincide with the dismantling of wor(l)ds and meaning.

We see tweets with edit marks and “fixed it for you” or “you misspelled xxx” with the translation added. All of this is a reaction to evasion and bullshit and shows how many people are for holding people accountable for their words. Who could have predicted that editing marks would emerge from behind the curtains as much as they have and that the dictionary would be as cited as it is outside of the uninspired opening sentence to a class assignment.

Editing, correcting, rewriting, interpreting, translating, and analyzing are different ways to care and pay attention, and if anything can get us out of this mess of the boast of unpreparedness; the reliance on off-the-cuff bumbling; wielding power instead of employing authority, it’ll be those caring actions. Keep hitting pause and saying, “Wait, wha? That doesn’t make sense. I don’t get it because it’s not gettable.”

How did you come up with the terms that confuse meaning—like actually, but, whatever—What was your whole writing/research process like? What surprised or disturbed you?

The book comprises 2 types of entries: taxonomies of alternately maligned and defended words (like, actually, so, sorry, whatever) and terms with suggested translations that I present as equations (if = that as in “I’m sorry if I hurt you”; but = bu(llshi)t as in “We see the merit in this word and thank you for sharing it with us... but we have decided not to accept it for publication”).

For each entry, I wrote example sentences to illustrate the nuances or to show how the substituted term could work. Those illustration sentences are from my imagination informed by years of hearing and saying stuff. With only two exceptions in the book, I didn’t include a quote verbatim. I wrote the sentences by improvising monologues or dialogues, sometimes out loud like a lunatic until I got the characterization they way I wanted it; and then selecting the sentences that show the term’s range.

An entry comes together with four ingredients: the term up at the top, a one-sentence interpretation or definition, an intro, and then example sentences.

I write down everything, starting in my Notes app. I have a good memory. Don’t sit behind me in a restaurant.

I just looked at my Notes app and see that many of my notes tend to be:
      one term at the top with a question mark (disrupt; would; empower)
      a sentence that caught my big grandpa ear (“I’d be great at maintaining a double life”)
      a quote, especially if there’s a universal rejection of or love for it (“The future is female”)
      a beautiful typo (after a breakup, I got some forwarded mail on which someone had scrawled “doesn’t love here anymore”)
      a fact that feels like a metaphor (“the fruit of the medlar is edible only in its decaying state”)

I use a spreadsheet to gather the bits and move things around to see what hangs together. When two cards are a match in the big game of Concentration I got going on in my head, I get to it.

What surprised me:
      The first ten terms I wrote about when I started this expanded edition, the terms that got me thinking about updating the book, didn’t make the cut.
      I’ve somewhat warmed to like and so.
      The same familiarity did not breed consent for some of the other terms. The more time I spent improvising with the word actually, the less I could stand hearing it.
      Wow, people are still getting up there and saying “I’m sorry if” in their public apologies even though it has been received warmly and without criticism exactly never times.

What disturbed me:
It disturbs me to think that some people are more disturbed by the word fuck than by the deed of fucking people over.

What comes across so clearly is your absolute love and devotion to language. Where did this come from? Were you a little girl who loved the dictionary?

You got it. I’m first generation and mine is the first in my family to get formal schooling. My parents worked as kids. How they would have loved a childhood in school instead of working. 

their lives:my life::Dickensian:Dickens

We spoke Italian and Sicilian at home, English outside of the home. I was hyper aware of words-as-words because there was a ton of code shifting needed, always.

We were working class. I didn’t know anyone who had many things. The school library was everything. At home we had: the dictionary, an encyclopedia (which my brother read straight through like a gripping serialized novel), and an encyclopedia of the natural world. I mistyped that as “natural word.” I flipped through the dictionary over and over, and here I am all these years later a namer and taxonomist.

I also had a magical teacher in elementary school, Mrs. Fitzpatrick. She flipped the switch from black and white to color. She wasn’t even my teacher, but she ran the library, so we were pals. She used odd words, old-timey slang, and idiomatic expressions. She was wildly funny, and she had a great reading voice. She was the first English speaker I heard doing something with words, for kicks. I wanted a piece of that action. She said, “Read the dictionary. It’s all there, knucklehead.”

 The dictionary is the great equalizer. It’s the democratic artifact, attending equally to every word. Its organization and presentation are marked by a judicious leaving alone; there’s very little in a dictionary by way of editorializing aside from the occasional indication that a word is “obsolete” or “considered vulgar.” Mostly, it leaves it up to you. And by it I mean the greatest humans we have, lexicographers.

Without the context of “This word is on your reading level; that one is not,” I got to decide for myself, sometimes regrettably. In 3rd grade, a classmate asked if I liked fresh figs. I started from Italian and found what I thought was the right cognate. I said, “perforce!” The schoolyard record skipped. The wilds of Brooklyn let me know: “nope.”

As kids, we didn’t have children’s versions of things, whether the things were objects or realities. “That’s the stove and this is a saw; attenzione (sta’ttendu).” I was welcome to sit with my mother and her friends as they discussed how things were, for women, for immigrants, for people without a lot of money. They discussed reproductive health and family scandals and tended to reenact rather than sum up conversations; no idea why I remember that but it’s still my preferred way to hear you tell a story. Don’t come at me with, “I met with Gretchen. She said okay.” No. Act it out for me complete with different voices, please.

I was the neighborhood writer and translator. Letters and phone calls to insurance companies and union reps; drafting a last will and testament. I translated medical information, which still gives me the sweats to think about because the stakes were so high.

Thrillingly questionable unrestricted access to the adult world, for which I’m mostly grateful.

 I also think that not only is this book so helpful with political discourse going on today, but how can it not help us to be wiser, better, more open people?

Fingers crossed. If I use my own suggestions in the book and replace this term with that one, an unavoidable consequence will be intimacy, so it is about being more open. And when I use an evasion, I can consider how the unspoken meaning made you feel. Am I up for it?

What’s obsessing you now and why? (Besides language, of course!)

This morning:
Would codpieces not make men more vulnerable? How would that change everything or anything? Can we try it for 50 years? And which of my neighbors is not breaking down their boxes even though “we’re living in a society”?

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

“If you were to index essential human qualities, what would be the top-tier term with the greatest number of subentries?”

Oof. That’s a tough question, Caroline. I’ll go with:
I considered
...but I think I can subsume compassion under imagination. No surprise a conservative group wanted to ban the word imagination from a children’s book.

Eric Beck Rubin talks about his brilliantly unsettling new novel SCHOOL OF VELOCITY, playing piano and so much more.

First, the raves:

Shortlist, Vine Awards 2017
Shortlist, Kobo Emerging Writer Prize 2017
Finalist, Frank Hegyi Award for Emerging Authors 2017
Guardian/Observer Best Books 2016
Amazon Rising Stars 2016, for Best Debuts
CBC Books Best Canadian Debuts 2016
"A taut novel that builds tension to thriller level" – The Guardian    
"Gripping and emotional" – The Observer    
"A gut-punching confrontation" – Publishers Weekly    
"A storm of a novel that resounds long after its heartbreaking coda" – The Guardian Sunday Review     "A meditation on the impossibility of reliving the past, however much we cling to our memories" – Financial Times    

"[Reminiscent] of Patricia Highsmith's The Talented Mr Ripley" – Irish Times    

About deciding, or even knowing, what the people we desire most really mean to us" – LA Review of Books    

Writers know writers know writers. I met Eric Beck Rubin through my screenwriting partner and fellow novelist Gina Sorell (If you haven't read Mothers and Other Strangers, what the heck are you waiting for?)  Eric sent me his book, SCHOOL OF VELOCITY and I went crazy for it.

 He is a cultural historian who writes on architecture, literature, and psychology. SCHOOL OF VELOCITY is Eric's first foray into fiction, and he is currently at work on a second: a family saga spanning several generations, from pre-World War II Germany to present-day Los Angeles and Western Canada.

I don’t think I’ve ever been so disturbed or unsettled by a novel in years and years. Were you unsettled writing it? Did you know what was going to happen?

Oh, I’m very happy to hear that. I wanted this book to churn up those kinds of feelings in the reader. From my side, though, I wasn’t unsettled while writing. I adopted the narrator’s demeanor: deliberate, reserved, on guard for the surprise that might be around the corner (not that it helps him see what’s coming). As for the ending – I always had a vision of the final scene, and stayed faithful to it. But in one of the later drafts I added something. It took me by surprise, and I figured it would probably do the same for the reader.

What kind of writer are you? Can you tell us about your process?
I learned to write by imitating what I read. I adopted styles and forms from others and gradually the edges softened enough for me to develop something different. The way I see it, fiction closely resembles life, except that while there are no limits to what happens in life, there are limits to what you can put in a novel. So I start by trying to remember as much as possible about ‘what happened’, to take in the full spectrum of life, then shave the corners when pace and plausibility call for it.

I always want to know the why now moment when you felt you absolutely had to write this book. Can you talk about this please?

That I can answer. I was in the Netherlands, at a language school, when a Dutch friend told me to visit his old friend, who was living in the city of Maastricht. All I knew was that the two of them used to be best friends, and this person (in Maastricht) was the one who initiated my friend into music, girls, life, etc. When I went to this person’s apartment, what I saw was a version of my own friend’s apartment, but a pathetic and impoverished one. Bookshelves, but half empty. Art, but poorly framed. A piano, but missing keys. It was like an illustration – or x-ray – of what goes into a best friendship: closeness, competition, striving, failing. It was fascinating, and I didn’t sleep at all that night because I thought I had the heart of a story.

I love all the music material. Are you also a musician, and if not, what was your research like?

I’m an amateur pianist; all I play is classical music, off a sheet, as my ear is terrible. In all the practising I did, though, I learned to love that kind of music, and one of the pleasures of writing School of Velocity was re-acquainting myself with my classical music collection and memories. I also sent the manuscript to a friend who is a professional musician, to get his two cents. As for the other type of music in this book – funk and soul – that was something I was introduced to as a teenager. It still has a strong effect on me – as it would anybody, I think. James Brown, Otis Redding, Percy Sledge, Curtis Mayfield – hello!
(Both sides of the novel’s soundtrack can be heard here:

The novel is also very cinematic. Do you write with images in your mind?

What you’re getting is the strong impressions that landscapes make on me. In the case of the Netherlands, it’s the perfectly flat fields, the hoarfrost, the fog. It’s all very suggestive – the story emanates from it.

What is obsessing you and why?

If I can go off to the side, what I’m thinking about most right now is form. The story I’m currently writing is in many ways the opposite of School of Velocity: many characters, generations, locations. So how do all these pieces fit together? What does the shape say about the content, and vice-versa? Once again, I’m looking to others to see what they’ve done, and how I might find room in it for something new. 

What question didn't I ask that I shoul
d have?

A-ha. There are general questions – can you name some of those authors you admire? There are particular questions – what have you read lately that’s been great? There are questions related to SoV – do you think a true best friendship can outlast the time in which it was formed? Do you think the ‘other side’ of School of Velocity, which is written in first person, will ever be told? But I’m not feeling short-changed.

Thursday, June 28, 2018

Meg Waite Clayton talks about BEAUTIFUL EXILES, Martha Gellhorne and Hemingway, how Hemingway appeared at Gellhorn's door with a cleaning bucket on his head, and why choosing titles is so damn hard.

“Clayton uses her meticulous research skills to bring to life the wartime years of Martha Gellhorn… Clayton’s take on their boozy, love/hate relationship is packed with details of the war … a dramatic backdrop for her fictional tale of two vivid personalities and world-altering writers.” —Booklist (starred review)

I cannot remember where I first met Meg Waite Clayton, probably because it feels as if I've always known and loved her. I do, however, distinctly remember, her speckling on freckles on me for my clown costume for The Pulpwood Queens! And of course, I devour every book she writes.

She's a book club fave, and a New York Times and USA Today bestseller. Her books (and you need to read every one) include The Race For Paris, the Wednesday Sisters, The Language of Light and now Beautiful Exiles, about the relationship between Ernest Hemingway and Martha Gellhorn.

Thank for times a billion, Meg!

I always want to know what about your own life was haunting you into writing about Martha Gellhorn and Hemingway?

I wouldn’t say this one started with a haunting so much as an obsession. Like every other poor high school English student in this country, I slogged through The Old Man and the Sea long before I’d ever heard of The Trouble I’ve Seen or A Stricken Field. But I came to this story through Martha Gellhorn: I read about how she became one of the only journalists to go ashore in the early moments of the Normandy invasion, and I was hooked.

The Reader’s Digest condensed version of that story would go something like this: Denied an official opportunity to go across with the D-Day landing ships because she was female, Marty hid in the loo of the first hospital ship to cross the channel and went ashore with a stretcher crew to cover the landing in a brilliant article for Collier’s. As reward for her bravery, she was taken into custody, stripped of her press credential, and confined to a nurses’ training camp. But Marty, being Marty, hopped the fence and hitched a ride on a plane headed to Italy, where she continued do some of the best reporting to come out of the war even without her credential or any official support.

Really, how could I not want to know more about how Marty became Marty?

When I heard Caroline Moorehead’s Martha Gellhorn: A Life was to be published in October of 2003, I dug around to find a prepublication copy, which has long been underlined and dog-eared and loved to bits. I read her books, her articles, her letters. I visited places she’d been and tried to imagine being her, tried to learn everything I could. I discovered, among other things, that that first version of the D-Day story was a bit of an exaggeration: she didn’t hop that fence—she rolled under it!

I also discovered that she had been the lead correspondent for Collier’s until a man snagged the position from her—and that man was her husband, Ernest Hemingway.

For me, a novel is a long part of my life, all-consuming often for years. As Marty writes in an August 1940 letter to Charles Scribner, in explanation for why she is turning down a contract to write a book for Scribner’s, “I could not do a book (a book, Charlie, think of the high pile of bare white paper that you have in front of you before there is even the beginning of a book), unless I believed awfully hard in it. Unless I wanted to do it so much that I could sweat through the dissatisfaction and weariness and failure and all the rest you have to sweat through.”

I’ve been mopping the sweat from this one for a long time. My hope for what began as one of those high piles of white paper is that it will introduce others to the truly extraordinary Martha Gellhorn.

What about your research really surprised you?

Probably that Ernest Hemingway once stripped to his long johns and knocked on Martha’s door with a cleaning bucket on his head, and brandishing a mop.


I know not all authors are with me on this, but I feel if I am dealing with real people, I ought to honor their lives as they were lived. To intentionally make up stories about real people seems to me to lean on the crutch of a famous name in service of a story that ought to be able to stand on its own. And ... let’s just say I can’t imagine portraying Ernest Hemingway in long johns, cleaning bucket and mop if I didn’t have a basis in fact for it.

As might be expected for a story that begins with one clandestine relationship and ends with another—and involving people as famous as Martha Gellhorn and Ernest Hemingway—the many sources I turned to in the writing of Beautiful Exiles often differed on even the simplest of things, including who was where when. I sorted through those discrepancies as best I could, with the intent of being as true to the facts as possible. It was a bit like putting a puzzle together, taking little bits and pieces and turning them this way and that to see how they fit together.

I loved every minute of the research on this one—especially reading Martha’s letters, which are fabulous.

There’s a line in the book where Gellhorn talks about “the love, or whatever it was we shared.”  I found this incredibly moving. In a different cultural climate, where there really was more equality between the sexes, do you think their relationship would have succeeded, or was it doomed to fail?

You had me at “incredibly moving.” (Thank you!)

I think a lot of the challenge in Ernest Hemingway and Martha Gellhorn’s relationship came from Ernest’s need to be seen as manly and Martha’s need to be free. No doubt the times played some part in that, but only so much—as I think we continue to see even eighty years later.

Clearly he struggled emotionally, as a shockingly high percentage of great writers do. I’ve come to see that while some of that is amplified by culture, much of it is brain chemical.

But I do think anyone living the two-career life today, especially the two-career creative life, can learn a lot from their relationship. Even now, when women are no longer expected to abandon their dreams to support their husbands, the weight of the career-home balance tilts heavily to the female side of the scale. And where ambition is admired in men, it remains suspect in women. We need to get past that, right?

I absolutely love the title—and the cover. I know that these are both marketing decisions to some extent, but can you talk about how both came to be?

Thank you! I also love the cover, which I can take no credit for. There was only one thing I didn’t like about the original they sent me, which was that the woman in the car was wearing a prissy hat Marty would never wear. I was pleased as all get out when they fixed it!

On the title, the working title for this book was Mookie & Bug—two of the nicknames Marty and Ernest called each other—but my agent felt that title suggested a young adult novel.

Retitling a finished manuscript is, as I expect you know, a bit like renaming a fully-grown child just as she is submitting her college applications. I love the new title, but one part of me will always think of this novel as Mookie & Bug.

How I came to Beautiful Exiles?

Well, since I building from scratch, I brainstormed—just words that described Martha or the two of them or whatever. One of those was “travelers,” in part I suppose because of her Travels with Myself and Another. But that’s a hard word, and not particularly evocative.

So I looked at “traveler” in my thesaurus found “soujourners,” which for a short moment in time seemed evocative.

Heeding Hemingway’s advice about the Bible being a great source for titles, I did an online Bible search and came up with "Beloved, I urge you as sojourners and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul." (1 Peter 2:11).

Not a policy I generally subscribe to, but still I tried out “Soujourners and Exiles.”

Which made me see how stilted “soujourners” was.

But Exiles!

Marty was a bit of an exile on her own, exiled by the expectations that came with being from a prominent St. Louis family, and by her complicated relationship with her father. But the word also felt right because Marty and Ernest together are essentially exiled by his fame. When they were first falling in love, he was already famous enough that, in the U.S. anyway, they would have been hounded by photographers. How can you possibly sort out a relationship in that glare? They went to Cuba for the privacy it afforded them to sort out whether they even really wanted a relationship.

So I tried to find something that would go with “exiles,” but in a surprising way, with one rule, which was that I wasn’t going to do a “The” title. All five of my previous novels are “The” titles and really it’s time to break the string.

The thing about Ernest and Marty’s exile is that in many ways, for many years, it worked for them. They did have the privacy to sort out how they felt about each other outside the glare of the press, for the most part. The place they created together—the Finca Vigía—is beautiful. And they were a beautiful couple, and beautiful writers. In the end and despite everything, I don’t think either of them ever loved anyone more. Their relationship was stormy, but I think their best work—for both of them—came out of their years together. So “beautiful”—I liked the double meaning: they are beautiful exiles, and their exile together allowed them to write beautifully, the kind of writing that they both wanted more than anything else.

What’s obsessing you now and why?

The state of journalism today, and especially the importance of reporting the truth. And the backward steps we seem to be taking in terms of women’s rights.  Why? I care about the future, and am sick as hell about where we seem to be headed.

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

“What’s next?” It seems to be a question everyone asks … but I no longer say for fear of jinxing myself!

THAT is one thing that haunts me, that I will somehow jinx myself or wake up or whatever, and this lovely dream life I have, spending my days writing books and hearing from readers who are moved by the stories I write, will be gone somehow.