Thursday, January 25, 2018

Want to be part of a funny, moving, smart, diverse new TV series? Writer/director/executive producer Debra Markowitz talks about COUPLE OF GUYS, fundraising, celebrities and more

Couple of Guys is about two men in love

Yep, it's amazing

This is for a fundraiser that will actually BE fun

Portrait of the genius behind all of this

First, before we do anything, you have GOT to watch the promo for COUPLE OF GUYS.

I feel like I've always been friends with writer/director/executive producer Debra Markowitz. (She's that kind of person.) She's amazing. She has been the Nassau County Film Commissioner through three administrations, Debra also was a founder and programmer for LIIFE, the Long Island International Film Expo, for the past 19 years. She is an award-winning director and producer for her films The Last Taxi Driver and Leaving. Her third film, By Blood, is just entering the festival circuit now. Debra has also cast and produced films for other directors. She is the author of the Karmic Wind Trilogy (Naked in the Rain, Sarah and Caleb, and Karmic Wind). Her new project COUPLE OF GUYS is funny, moving, diverse and yes, important, and I'm so honored that she's here to talk about it.

Thank you, Debra!

Couple of Guys is a brilliant story, about two perfectly married gay men and what happens when one of them begins to yearn for a kid—and the other’s ex-wife, who has older kids by him, begins to interfere. Tell us what it was about this story that made you feel you had to make the series?

 The more I thought about the story of Richard and Jon, the more I started fantasizing about what their lives would be like.  Starting with the pilot, when Richard (previously married divorce attorney with two grown children) and Jon (former rocker who has lived the wild and crazy life) meet in a record store, and Richard takes a chance and asks Jon for coffee- they’re looking for what we all want: true love. Is he gay too, would he be interested, why me? I fell in love with the characters as much as they fall in love with each other. I wanted to know what their lives would be like through the good, and the bad. How would they handle it, and how would the people in their lives evolve as time went on?  This is perfect material for a series, but I wouldn’t be averse to turning it into a feature either, but their story has to be told.

 Tell us more about the April 15th concert for fundraising. And how can people donate and support this?

 I’m very excited about this! We have a diverse group of characters in Couple of Guys, and one of our supporting cast members is former Phantom of the Opera, Ciarán Sheehan, who plays Aiden McGlynn, hard-partying, lead singer of Jon’s band who refuses to grow up and longs to get back on the road. Such a contrast to the elegant Mr. Sheehan whose voice is impeccable and inspiring (some say healing) who has appeared in Phantom and Les Mis and so many other plays and concerts.  We’ve had a few fundraisers for Couple of Guys, and when Ciarán sings, everyone freezes and there are more than a few tears shed.

 There are a few ways to donate, the perks are on the page (and there are all levels of donation!). From a Thank you in credits, being an extra in the film/pilot, dedicating the film to a loved one, becoming a producer on the movie, even being a director for three takes of one scene! The perks can be found at OR come to the fundraising concert and enjoy an evening of exquisite music (or both!).  Tickets can be purchased here. And if you want to know more about Ciarán, you can go to his page.

 What’s amazing to me is that this film is racking up raves and awards and it hasn’t even been made yet. That doesn’t happen often, does it? What do you attribute this to?

 I’ve been very lucky to win some scriptwriting competitions with the pilot script.  It’s very sweet, and romantic, and a little sexy, and I believe that people can feel the characters. Plus, who doesn’t like second chances and the possibility of finding true love?

 You yourself are an incredible powerhouse. You wrote, directed and produced this series—and what I love about it is that it’s not only a diverse comedy, but it truly makes your emotions rise to the surface, something that doesn’t always happen. You “create films with a message”—but rather than being didactic, your films seem to operate on a much deeper level. Can you talk about this, please?

 Every film I’ve done has a purpose, a secret message if you will. Whether it’s a silly film like The Last Taxi Driver. Dorman is a hero because as ridiculous as it might seem, to have a taxi driver who refuses to give up his cab when most of the inhabitants left on earth are zombies, well, he’s a hero! When all else is lost, he’s not giving up.

 Leaving was a spiritual film that came from a dream I had. What if you left your family, but you always kept one foot in the door, not wanting to let go?  No one can heal. It’s a difficult decision that Emily has to make. Tears abound in the audience when this film screens.  By Blood is about mistaking ego for love, and the consequences that can have.

The Waiting Room brings in comedy and drama. When a woman waits in heaven for her husband to show up, she’s surprised when he arrives with his second wife.  This movie is still on the festival circuit now, while The Last Taxi Drive, By Blood and Leaving are all screening on DirecTV, as well as Vimeo on Demand.

 I have to say that the page about the film was so fascinating that I spent a half hour just clicking on all the links. I loved knowing what goes into making a pilot, and why it might be expensive; loved hearing how one of your stars wanted to be a rock star first, and of course the wonderful and funny perks, which I assume you named? Talk about this, too!

 Thank you! Yes, I named the perks. There are a lot of crowd funding projects out there, but every project I’ve worked on has been made, and has done well on the festival circuit. You have to appeal to the audience’s desire to be responsible for the content they want to see. And they can help determine that by helping these projects come to life. So much of what is seen in mainstream media are formula films and series. Independent films can bring you something much different. Something you can be a part of, and be proud to be a part of.

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

 How did you get all these celebrities for this project?

Besides directing and writing, I also cast and produce for others as well as myself. I LOVE finding incredible talent. Our Couple of Guys, Sal Rendino (The Get Down, Gotti, Billions, The Americans)  and Lukas Hassel (Limitless, Blacklist, Royal Pains and is also huge on the indie film circuit) are a director’s dream to work with. They are completely into this project, and the chemistry between them is amazing. It’s hard to get name actors before you have all your funding, but I’ve worked with most of these actors before, so they’ll jump on board and hopefully be available when filming begins. Our stars include Ryan’s Hope’s, Ilene Kristen, Broadway star Ciarán Sheehan (who will be in a slate of films this coming year, playing Sean Young’s boss in BIRR, and Joan Jett’s husband in Dinosaur), Deborah Twiss from Kick-Ass and Blue Bloods, and when this series takes off, we’ll have a number of other names that we’re pretty excited about. 30 Rock’s, Kevin Brown, Blue Bloods’ Robert Clohessy and Abigail Hawke, Clerks’ Brian O’Halloran and so many more!

 Couple of Guys is a love story at its core, and I love these characters, and everyone else will too! Please help a gal out and come to this beautiful concert or donate so we can get this rolling, and please, check out the perks, we have some great ones!!  You can find out more about me, my films, books and company go to this.

Thank you!

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Friday, January 19, 2018

Douglas Trevor talks about "the wild and messy world of the novel," his brilliant THE BOOK OF WONDERS, Proust, politics, and so much more

 Doug Trevor is one of my favorite writers (And I'm not the only one singing his praises. You noticed the Joyce Carol Oates quote on the front of his book, right?) I haven't had the luck to meet him yet, but he lives in one of my favorite places, Ann Arbor, Michigan, where I was once a bookseller, so that makes me want to meet him even more. Reading his collection THE BOOK OF WONDERS makes my admiration for his work even greater.

 Douglas Trevor is the author of the novel Girls I Know), and the short story collection The Thin Tear in the Fabric of Space. Thin Tear won the 2005 Iowa Short Fiction Award and was a finalist for the 2006 Hemingway Foundation/PEN Award for First Fiction. Girls I Know won the 2013 Balcones Fiction Prize. Doug’s short fiction has appeared most recently as a Ploughshares Solo, and in The Iowa Review, New Letters, and the Michigan Quarterly Review. He has also had stories in The Paris Review, Glimmer Train, Epoch, Black Warrior Review, The New England Review, and about a dozen other literary magazines. Doug lives in Ann Arbor, where he is the current Director of the Helen Zell Writers’ Program, and a Professor of Renaissance Literature in the English Department at the University of Michigan.

Thank you so much for being here, Doug!

I always want to know what was the why now moment for you in writing this book and these stories? Usually there is something haunting the writer. What was haunting you?

            When I began the stories that make up The Book of Wonders, I was thinking a lot about the status of books themselves. Both in our culture and in my own life. Is being a voracious reader always a good thing? What would the world look like without material books? And I was circling around that curious feeling, which strikes me time and time again, when you establish with someone you've just met, or a student, that you both share the love of the same book, but nonetheless the book you each love is loved differently, and in some meaningful way isn't exactly the same book. Because once we filter what we read through our own subjectivity, the narratives we absorb become something else. So I was thinking about books, but I was also thinking about relationships—how they can end, how people can become afraid of attachment, etc. I had gotten divorced a few years earlier—when I was finishing my last book, Girls I Know—and I wanted to write about the aftermath of relationships. So I had these two things—one conceptual, the other affective—and I was intrigued by the idea of putting them in orbit around one another.

But I also want to know why short stories? (I loved the story called The Novelist and the Short Story Writer, by the way.) I used to write them when I first started out, and I will write one if pressed by someone, but I can’t keep myself from the wild and messy world of the novel.  So tell us, what is it about the short story that you love—and how do you do it so brilliantly?

            Toward the end of writing The Book of Wonders, I definitely started to miss the "wild and messy" world of the novel, so I can see where you're coming from. For me, after finishing my last book, which was a novel, I had grown to miss the feeling of finishing shorter things, getting them published, and hearing from readers. Writing a novel is such a lonely experience. The novel I had started on the heels of Girls I Know, on which I'm still laboring, is big and bulky and I knew it would take me several years. And I did genuinely miss the short story form. I had heard intermittently from editors of the journals where I had published in the past, asking what I was up to, and I wanted to reconnect with people who care about short stories. Within the large world of fiction writers, the short story crowd is of course smaller and more intimate. I also love the challenge of getting a short story to work—of fitting the gears together, trying to resist the temptation to let things expand. The whole process seems like a great writerly calisthenic to me.

What I love about your stories are how different they are—your range from something that smashes our heart to something that is sly and witty—and also deeply important. I always wanted to know—how do you decide which story goes where?  

            Thanks, Caroline. In my day-to-day life I feel like I'm quite a silly person, but sometimes that hasn't always translated onto the page. So a few of the stories, like "The Novelist and the Short Story Writer" and "The Program in Profound Thought," play around with the ridiculousness in ways I haven't done before as a writer. And then, in both of these stories, I tried to shift from a satiric tone to something more serious, because I think that accurately reflects how much of life works. We're having fun, not taking stuff too seriously, and then suddenly we're walloped.
            Arranging the stories was something I worked closely on with my editor, Michelle Toth. It's one of my favorite things about writing a collection: you can move stories around as if you were creating a playlist. And there are so many factors to balance. Does it work for a certain story to lead into another? What does it mean to have long stories back to back? And so on. Michelle and I both thought the collection should start with a "user friendly" story that wasn't too long, so we chose "Endymion." After that there was a lot of mixing and matching. I was always committed to having the collection end with "Easy Writer," because that story is set in the near future and meditates on what it means to write and read short stories in the first place. But other than that, everything was up for grabs.

You also head up the Helen Zell Writers' Program at the University of Michigan. (Fun fact: I lived in Ann Arbor and loved it so much, I stayed and stayed.) What do you tell the writers you work with? What kind of work are you seeing?

Oh, the students here are doing such amazing work. I can't wait for more of it to reach the world. We have a very diverse group of MFAs in our program, so the work spans all different kinds of genres and geographical spaces. The balance I try to strike as a workshop leader lies between offering my reaction as a reader/editor and trying to honor whatever a given writer is attempting to accomplish. I like to think, when workshop is "working," that we are all meeting in something of a liminal space. We as readers aren't simply imposing our sensibility on a given piece of writing, but we're also asking the writer to more assiduously attend to the world she or he is conjuring. Additionally, I try to make sure we talk about form. Which sentences resonate in a given story and why? Are there verbal tics of which the writer should be aware? And so on.

What kind of writer are you? Do you freak out or panic? You make it seem so effortless.

            I despair mostly. I find the process of composing an early draft in particular to be SO difficult. But then the sentences turn into paragraphs and eventually I have something to work with. It's excruciating though, it really is. And then to look at page proofs at the end of the process and see sentences and phrases that still don't completely satisfy…that's enough to make me want to scream. I think, like a lot of writers, I exist in a state of perpetual wonder and frustration that writing remains so hard for me, after writing basically my entire life. But I also understand that this difficulty is part of the reason why I continue to write.

What’s obsessing you now and why?

            Like everyone I know, I'm in a state of disgust over what's happening in our country politically. I see students on a daily basis who are trying to make their way through an America that is in certain quarters boisterously hostile and dehumanizing and it sickens me. I have seen young white men in pickup trucks driving through campus, screaming things like "God hates liberals." It's just so appalling that we aren't in a better place in 2018 than we are. To try to create a welcoming environment at Michigan for writers to flourish, especially writers of color and writers not from this country, feels like such a daunting task these days. This feeling of whiplash, to go from someone as thoughtful and measured as Obama to someone as uninformed and intolerant as Trump, makes my head spin.
            I've been spending a lot of time reading Proust lately. It feels somewhat escapist, yes, but Lydia Davis is going to be visiting our campus soon so I've been spending some time with her translation. I don't think Proust's incredible sense of humor is adequately acknowledged in the literary world. He is deeply funny. His narrator has such piercing insights, but they are almost always balanced and mollified by a witty sense of his own foibles. In the age of Trump, I appreciate this humility and intelligence more than ever.

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

            Your questions were great. One thing I'd add about The Book of Wonders is that the stories are connected, so that even as the characters change, the situations build on each other. So, for example, the early stories witness relationships forming, while the latter stories emphasize their dissolutions. And the relationships people have with reading and ideas become gradually more complicated and unsettling. The idea is to take the reader on a journey during which a variety of different discoveries are made—big and small.

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Melanie Benjamin talks about The Girls in the Picture, the friendship of American Sweetheart Mary Pickford and screenwriter Francis Marion, Hollywood's heyday, female power, and so much, much more

"Benjamin, known for her living, breathing portraits of famous figures, takes on The Golden Age of Hollywood, and the friendship between icons Mary Pickford and screenwriter Frances Marion. As riveting as the latest blockbuster, this is a star-studded story of female friendships, creative sparks about to ignite, and the power of women. Dazzling."

Yep, that's my blurb for Melanie Benjamin's astonishing The Girls in the Picture. It isn't just a deliciously juice read about the friendship between screenwriter Frances Marion and star Mary Pickford. It's a book about female empowerment--and that makes it truly an important read. 

The one story I always tell about Melanie is that when I was reading in Chicago, during a blizzard, she drove me back to my bed and breakfast, only to find that my key didn't work. AND SHE STAYED UNTIL I WAS ABLE TO ROUSE THE OWNER AND GET INSIDE. It's little things like that that make her who she is, which is wonderful. 

Melanie's other mega-selling novels include Alice I Have Been, about Alice Liddell, the inspiration for Alice in Wonderland; The Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb, the story of 32-inch-tall Lavinia Warren Stratton, a star during the Gilded Age; The Swans of Fifth Avenue, about Truman Capote and his society swans; and The Aviator's Wife, a novel about Anne Morrow Lindbergh. Her novels have been translated in over fifteen languages, featured in national magazines such as Good Housekeeping, People, and Entertainment Weekly, and optioned for film. 

Thanks for being here, Melanie!

What made you choose these figures as your next project? And how does this feel personal to you?

I am a huge movie nut, and obsessed with old Hollywood, particularly those very early years.  There was just a vibe about it - the creation of a new art form - that attracts me.  So I've read a lot of books about this era.  And throughout many of those books, this close friendship between Mary Pickford and Frances Marion is mentioned, especially in a book by Cari Beauchamp called "Without Lying Down."  I always thought this could be the basis of a great novel, this empowering female friendship of two collaborators working in this wild and crazy atmosphere, and finally, the time seemed right.  More right than I could have known; since the book was done, there have been so many explosive bombshells about the way men in Hollywood treat women, and these bombshells echo many of the things that Frances, Mary and their friends first encountered in that early Hollywood. 

How was writing this book different than your others?

Every book is different!  I find that so exciting; that every novel is a different experience, has  different highs and lows in the process. I've learned to embrace that rather than fear it.

I bet the research was lots of fun. What surprised you?

So much of this story I knew already, so there weren't a lot of surprises, to be honest.  I do think that the scope of Fred Thomson's fame is not well known today, and it was a bit of a surprise. (Fred Thomson was Frances's beloved husband.)  I loved staying at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel; it was where some of the very first Academy Award dinners were held, and Mary Pickford was an original investor. It was fun to taste a bit of that old Hollywood glamor.

You’re so well-known now, that I have to ask, do you still have the same primal terror most writers have when they start a project? Or do you feel secure now? Or are you one of the writers who never feels insecure! (And if so, how do I get to be that way?)

I have an odd ability to be one hundred percent confident while I'm writing, and then to be one hundred percent ruthless and pragmatic about the business once the novel is done.  If that means ditching it and starting over with something new, fine - I can do that.  I have done it, even since I've become better known.  That never shakes my confidence in my ability, weirdly; I'm able to say, "Well, that didn't work!  Let me try something else!" without being devastated or having my confidence shaken.  What I don't always have confidence in is the business part that I can't control.  I know that you can write your best book ever but circumstances - timing, whatever's going on in the world, other books out at the same time - can conspire to make it so people don't read that book.  And that's the part that still can make me queasy.

Can you talk a bit about what changes these women made on Hollywood and how they might have led to changes today? 

Mary Pickford was the first actor to have her own production company.  She was the first female head of a major movie studio.  She was the first actor to command a million dollars a year, more than any actor (save Charlie Chaplin, who briefly out earned her.)  Frances Marion was the first woman to win an Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay, and then Best Screenplay.  Those are amazing firsts, and they blazed the trail - only to have it grow cold.  I think the bigger story here is how these pioneering women's accomplishments did not lead to changes; things grew worse for women in Hollywood after them, as it became a bigger business.  We're just starting to regain the influence that Frances Marion and Mary Pickford had, in their heyday. Which is why this book is so timely now, when the issue of Women in Hollywood is such a hot button.

What’s obsessing you now and why? 

I'm watching "The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel" on Amazon and loving it!  It's what I watch while I treadmill.  

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

You always ask great questions!  I could have expounded a bit about how it was, as a writer, to explore another writer in my novel.  And it was fun! I was able to give Frances a few of my own quirks--including that weird self-confidence I mentioned above. 

A school shooting. A paralyzed boy. A fractured community. One of the best books of the year (trust me because this is true.) Stefan Merrill Block talks about OLIVER LOVING.

First there is the praise: "A miracle of a book," Newsday. Then there is the book itself. I am not kidding around when I say I live for books like Stefan Merrill Block's Oliver Loving. Gorgeously written, it's also deeply profound. About the aftermath of a school shooting, it changes lives for both its nuanced characters--and for readers. 

Thank you for answering my questions and being here, Stefan. I think I'd read your grocery list (well, as long as it didn't have lard on it, or mayonnaise.)

 And here is the bio: Born in 1982, Stefan Merrill Block grew up in Texas. His first two novels are THE STORY OF FORGETTING and THE STORM AT THE DOOR, which won Best First Fiction at the Rome International Festival of Literature, the 2008 Merck Serono Literature Prize and the 2009 Fiction Award from The Writers' League of Texas, and was also a finalist for the debut fiction awards from IndieBound, Salon du Livre, and The Center for Fiction.

I always want to know what was haunting you that made you know that now was the time to write this novel?

I love that you chose the word “haunting.” I don’t think that I believe in actual ghosts, but beneath everything I’ve written is a similar haunted feeling of unfinished business from the past, a lost person or lost people who still feel profoundly present in some way.  In the case of Oliver Loving, the haunting was tied up with my hometown of Plano, Texas. Plano was a boomtown for much of my childhood – for a few years it was the fastest growing city in America—but beneath all that sudden prosperity there was also some profound darkness. In the 1980s, the media dubbed Plano “The Suicide Capital of America,” after eight kids ended their own lives. When I was a teenager, another crisis rocked Plano: within a year and a half, eighteen kids from my town died from heroin overdoses and several more from suicide. It became a fairly big story in the news; reporters from all over the country showed up to try to answer the same question that those of us in Plano could not: why this town? Why did so many children of a prosperous, upper-middle-class community fall victim to such terrible despair?  All of this is now nearly twenty years in the past, but for those of us who were present for that time, the scars remain, as well as the essential unanswered questions.

Around the time I turned thirty, I came back to Texas for a long stay. I’d been living in New York since I graduated, and my homecoming felt surreal in many ways. Like anyone stepping into their high school bedroom, it seemed to me like some prior, teenage version of myself was still living down there in Texas. But in my visits to Plano, I also found myself thinking often of all those children who died, who will forever remain trapped as teenagers. The impossible conversation that I felt myself having with those lost children and also with a prior version of myself: that was the particular haunting that I wanted to explore in this novel.

You call your character’s last name “Loving,” and the town in which the tragedy unfolds is “bliss.”  What made you choose these ironic names?

Both those names, Loving and Bliss, have a big place in Texas history. The cattleman Oliver Loving is a kind of folk hero in Texas, and Fort Bliss is a major army base in far West Texas, not so distant from the fictional town of Bliss I invented. To my ears, both those names are steeped in Texan lore, and that was a big part of why I chose them. As a reader, I’m always attracted to novels where an essentially realist story has dashes of fable or myth, something mysterious and larger than human drama at work. Given all the unanswerable questions about what happened to Oliver --and the long, unknowable way he has spent the last decade-- Oliver has become “a boy and also a legend” to the people of his hometown, and I wanted to choose names that also carried a kind of mythic echo.  But you are right that those names are also ironic, considering all the tragedy that has befallen both Oliver and his town. In many ways, this is a book about how the road to hell is paved with good intentions, and I liked the way the names “Bliss” and “Loving” reinforced that theme, suggesting a huge contrast between the hope implied by those words and the reality of the present-day situations. 

So much of this gorgeous novel is about family, and how our minds work—or do not work, and how we reach one another. I just loved it. Can you talk about this please?  And about how this differs from your earlier masterwork, the mystery of forgetting?

Almost all of my stories have an impenetrable or unknowable space at their hearts. In the case of The Story of Forgetting, it was the aphasiac mind of a person in late-stage Alzheimer’s; in The Storm at the Door, it was a grandparent who died years before I was born; in Oliver Loving, it’s a persistent vegetative state. In all three cases, the novels are largely about the stories that families create to make sense of those places where our ability to understand breaks down.  There are a lot of reasons why this dilemma appeals to me, but I know that one of my major motives has to do with my own feelings about the purpose of fiction. As literary fiction continues to wane from the public conversation, it feels important to me that we writers try to make a case for the necessity of invented stories. I’m always interested in thinking about what fiction can do that no other art form can, and the greatest power of fiction, to my mind, is its unique ability to enter the interior experience of minds other than your own. And that is a major reason that I’m attracted to these minds that exist in a space beyond our knowing: it is perhaps only through an imaginative literary act that you can throw some light into those dark and unseeable places.

How were you changed in writing this novel?

Caroline, as you have now written nine novels, I’d be curious to know: do you feel, with each book, that you are reinventing yourself? Zadie Smith once wrote, “fictionally speaking, the nightmare is losing the desire to move,” and that rings very true for me. To keep moving forward, it feels essential that I revise both my idea of myself as a writer and the sorts of books I’d like to write. In the case of Oliver Loving, that revision felt more radical than ever. Though my first two novels touch on my own personal dilemmas, I also wrote both (as an actor might say) “in character,” transforming my voice to fit the story at hand. With Oliver Loving, I had a new goal: I deliberately wanted to sound like myself. I wanted the narrator’s voice on the page to be closer to my voice in real life. I took the advice I tell my students: I imagined that I was telling this story to a close friend, with whom I could be as sad or funny or ironic as I am in my life outside of writing.  I don’t exactly believe in the old modernist ideal that every writer must “find” his or her truest voice – I think that every writer potentially possesses many different voices and tones in which he or she could write-- but I do feel that in the process of writing this novel, I found a way to be fluent in something closer to my actual self.

What’s obsessing you now and why?

After three novels that took place close to home in one way or another, I’m very excited to write about a time and place far removed from my own. I’m working on a novel set in Vienna in the 1930s, which was a fascinating, harrowing period in the city’s history. One can’t help but see –in the rise of fascism and the demolition of that city’s intellectual culture—dark parallels with our own moment. The story I’m working on is about an inordinately gifted but badly misunderstood child and his family’s fight for survival in a society where difference would not be tolerated. In part, I know that my curiosity in that topic is a response to what is going on in our country right now, but I can also see that my motives are more personal than that. My wife and I just had our first kid, and I find myself wanting to explore another parent’s story as a way to prepare myself for the joys and anxieties of raising a child.

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

One last topic that I would like to talk about quickly is the presence of gun violence in this novel. Even now, it somewhat surprises me that a mass shooting is there, right at the center of my book.  Of course, these shootings have become a national epidemic and an urgent crisis, but I think that my need to explore it in my book came from my own childhood. Every time I see the news of another mass shooting, especially one in which young people are killed, I think about all those kids who died in my own hometown when I was a teenager, the grief that I know will stretch for decades and transform a community forever. There is a tremendous sadness in the thought that this long story of aftermath usually goes untold, as the public attention turns to the next tragedy. In putting a shooting at the heart of my novel, I wanted to explore that longer, more inward story of how sudden, drastic loss transforms families and communities, a story that has only just begun when the media have already moved on.

Saturday, January 13, 2018

Deborah Reed talks about how writing can be hell, the coast of Oregon, and her extraordinary new novel The Days When Birds Come Back.

Deborah Reed
is a marvel. It's always exciting when an arc pops in the mail for me to read and blurb, and I devoured The Days When Birds Come Back, so of course, I wanted Deborah on my blog. She's also the author Olivay, Things We Set on Fire, and Carry Yourself Back to Me. She has also authored two popular thrillers under the pen name Audrey Braun.  I'm thrilled to have her here. And now, some of the raves the book is already racking up:
"A character-driven narrative that focuses on the grief her two protagonists suffer. It's a sad tale in which grief almost becomes overwhelming but in which the reader is saved by Reed's lyrical and elegant prose and a sense of redemption at the end."The Oregonian

"Reed is skilled at unraveling their stories gradually, and is particularly adept at both drawing parallels between June and Jameson and depicting how the two help each other through their pain....An emotionally satisfying novel about the lingering effects of trauma and how people deal with guilt." —Publishers Weekly

I always think there is a why now moment, a haunting of the writer, that produces a book. What was yours? 

For me it was a major life change that led to living on the coast of Oregon, a place of immense beauty and fierce destruction, or impending destruction, as it were, living in a tsunami zone on top of the Cascadia subduction zone. It was all of this, as well as a casual conversation between a new
neighbor and me.
I was recently divorced, my kids grown, and I found myself living alone for the first time since my teens. Incredibly secluded and with open stretches of time, my past bubbled up to fill the void—the people, places, and things that had shaped my life, some good, some too terrible to speak of, but all influential, and I began to understand how I’d arrived at this moment in time of total isolation, penetrated by grief.
One day my neighbor mentioned that the house I was living in had been fully renovated by an extraordinary man of particular talent and integrity, a man with whom she'd become friends. In an instant I felt a story in my bones. Hard to explain how that works, like a spell coming on, the senses spark and tingle and the work simply begins. I didn't ask any more details; I just sat down and started writing a story about the true north of home and the struggle of rebuilding one's life in the midst of loss and tragedy. 

What was it like writing this novel? Did you find it different than writing your other novels, and if so, in what way? (I always feel that I am starting from scratch, that I have learned nothing…) 

To be honest, it was hell. I experienced one of the worst health crises of my life right in the middle of the work. I spent nearly a year feeling incapacitated most days by migraines of all kinds and vertigo and nausea, and yet I would drag myself to the computer and try to squeeze in at least an hour if I could. It felt like exorcising demons--the pain and disorientation constantly needing to be cast out. At one point I was literally trying to manage a way to write while the left side of my vision disappeared in the middle of working. All the words on the screen suddenly read diagonally through my right eye, and only in fragments was I able to decipher a word here and there. And yet, I was telling myself that perhaps if I turned my head sideways and closed that left eye I could see clearly enough to get some writing done. I could not, of course, and recalling it now I don’t have any idea how I got through.
However, I did find a strength I didn't know I had, and managed to unearth things that had been haunting me for most of my life. I figured out a way to let them go, and a catharsis took over and the illness disappeared. But the middle. The middle was horrific. The experience as a whole resulted in this book.
From the perspective of a writer, I know exactly what you mean about starting from scratch. This is my sixth novel and every time I feel once again as if I am lost at sea. I feel foolish and fake and baffled as to why anyone would trust me to do this again. And yet, here we are. I suspect this is a healthy dose of humility keeping things in check. I hope so. I no longer fight against it, whatever it is.
I wish this was not so, but loss always transforms us—as it does your characters. But there is always a choice. We can choose to be brave and transform, or we can succumb to the pain. Do you think there is a dividing line between the people who can and the people who cannot? And why? 

I think this is quite true, how very often we do have a choice to transform and must consciously make a decision to break through to the other side. But there is also the option of taking refuge in one’s pain, because the idea of shedding it for the unknown can, over time, become more terrifying than to live each day with the pain one has gotten used to. I also believe there are people who are convinced that they actually have transformed, and they wear this transformation like a badge, which feels an awful lot to those around them like the lady protesting too much. In the case of my novel, Sarah Anne appears to be the one who understands how to move on and transform her life into something more stable, more so than June or Jameson seem able to, but there is a large part of her who is hiding behind her foster child, doing all the right things for a child who needs her, but perhaps not for all the right reasons. She is blind to what it is doing to her marriage, to what it is doing to the very foundation of her life. June and Jameson come across as more flawed than Sarah Anne, but to me, they are more honest and even honorable to their loss by allowing the darkness to run its course, until they can find a way to reach the other side. I think many people make the mistake of not processing the worst kind of pain, and try instead to outrun it. You can’t outrun grief. Those seven stages are the real deal, and more powerful than any of us would like to believe.

I cried at the ending, and without giving anything away, I wanted to ask—did you always know this was the ending, or did it take you by surprise? 

I'm glad to hear you were so moved. Thank you. No, I didn't know the ending until about a month before I finished it. And, as with every ending I've ever written, I knew it was right and final only after I wrote it down. It’s a wonderful feeling, coming upon an ending in the same way the reader comes upon it. You write to see what will happen, and finally you turn to the last page, and there it is. You sit for a moment after that last word, thinking about these people you’ve come to know and love, wishing them well, and then you say goodbye in the same way the reader closes the book.

What’s obsessing you now and why?

Honestly, the state of the world we’re living in. My grown children’s futures, and if those futures will allow them to have children of their own. I am in a state of constant concern about healthcare, women’s rights, peace and goodwill toward other nations. I am finding it increasingly more difficult to write when everything feels petty by comparison to nuclear war and a totalitarian regime. Are you sorry you asked this question?

What question didn’t I ask that I should have?
How are you dealing with your obsession? The answer: Aside from phone calls and signatures directed toward making a change? Winging it, much like I did when I had to write but couldn’t see or sit up straight. Keeping a close awareness of the natural beauty all around me at the coast. Reading. Acknowledging the love of my family and friends. Continuing to search for hope.