Monday, November 18, 2019

A shaving points scandal. A legendary youth basketball team. And redemption. Matthew Goodman talks about his latest page-turner, THE CITY GAME

Years ago, a client of my husband gave us court side tickets to see the Knicks. To say that we were enthralled is putting it lightly. I felt forever changed and I've loved basketball ever since. So, of course, I was excited to read Matthew Goodman's CITY GAME, about good kids on a team who seemed to have it all but couldn't resist the lure of easy money. The book reads like a thriller, every page full of hope, glory--and yeah, desperate yearning. And I'm not the only one to say so. Look at these raves:

“A wonderful book. . . . a fascinating look at a team full of talented young men who torpedoed their careers because they were unable to resist the lure of easy money. . . . The CCNY point-shaving scandal remains, decades after it happened, a heartbreaking story of venality, and Goodman turns out to be the perfect author to tell it. The City Game is a gripping history of one of college basketball’s darkest moments, an all too human tale of young people blowing up their futures in a misguided attempt to make good.”
–Michael Schaub, NPR Books

“Fans of college hoops will devour Goodman’s excellent history. . . . Goodman effectively combines interviews and extensive research to definitively recreate the unfortunate story of the 1949–50 City College of New York basketball team, which won an unprecedented two college championships in the same year (the NIT and the NCAA) before being tainted by a point-shaving scandal involving several of its stars.”
Publishers Weekly (★ starred review)

“Goodman not only chronicles the point-shaving scam that eventually brought down the team, but he also provides a richly detailed portrait of mid-twentieth-century New York City. . . . Goodman follows the principals through their lives, even interviewing their children. This is a marvelous, vibrant recounting of a bit of sports history in which the backdrop of New York dominates.”
Booklist (★ starred review)

“Matthew Goodman’s historical account of City College is far more than descriptions of games played in Madison Square Garden and other arenas. He takes readers to the halls of government; New York City courtrooms; backrooms where bookies and gamblers plied their trade; and police stations where willing officers were paid to look away from gambling activities. It is a story both inspiring and upsetting, and is told with skill, insight, and deep understanding of time and place. . . . Goodman’s stirring history reminds us that athletic success often comes at a price. His story of greed and exploitation in college sports one-half century ago is as relevant today as ever.”

“Goodman takes on the story more as a historian than sportswriter, and readers will be grateful for that. . . . Most of the riveting action unfolds outside the arena, in the halls of government and through the hands of bookies; here, Goodman is at his scene-setting best. . . . He smoothly shapes readable narratives of a deep roster of characters, including coaches, politicians, police, detectives, organized criminals, and, of course, players. Basketball fans are not the only readers who will be edified by this significant slice of New York City history.”
Kirkus Reviews

“Matthew Goodman has composed a portrait of an era that transcends sports. Painstakingly reported and written with great affection, The City Game is a masterpiece of American storytelling.”
—Gilbert King, Pulitzer Prize–winning author of Devil in the Grove

Matthew Goodman is the New York Times-bestselling author of four books of nonfiction: The City Game: Triumph, Scandal, and a Legendary Basketball Team (Ballantine Books, 2019); Eighty Days: Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland’s History-Making Race Around the World (Ballantine Books, 2013); The Sun and the Moon: Hoaxers, Showmen, Dueling Journalists, and Lunar Man-Bats in Nineteenth-Century New York (Basic Books, 2008); and Jewish Food: The World at Table (HarperCollins, 2005).

Matthew’s books have been Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers, Indie Next “Great Reads,” and Borders Original Voices selections, and a finalist for a GoodReads Choice Award, and have been translated into eight languages. His writing has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, USA Today, The American Scholar, the Harvard Review, Salon, the Forward, Bon Appetit, and many other publications, and has been cited for Special Mention in the Pushcart Prize and Best American Short Stories anthologies.

Thank you so much for being here, Matthew!

I always think that writers are haunted into writing their books, that they are looking for answers to something and hope to find it in a novel. What was haunting you beside, obviously, the amazing story here?

That’s a wonderful question. In his short story “The Leather Man,” E. L. Doctorow wrote of “individuals in whom history intensifies like electroshock.” It’s just sort of a tossed-off phrase, but for some reason it hit me very powerfully, because in reading it I suddenly realized that in a certain way that’s my whole writing project. I was trained as a fiction writer, with all of that emphasis on characterization and narrative structure and authorial voice and all the rest, but ever since I was a kid I’ve loved history, and now in writing narrative history I’ve been able to combine those two disciplines. I think what I’m trying to do in my writing is to find and then think as deeply as I can about individuals who get caught up in historical events and then have to negotiate their way through them. That’s the thing that I seem to return to again and again in my work.

So, for instance, in my previous book, Eighty Days, about Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland’s race around the world in 1889, I found that for me the prime motivator, the thing that really kept me going in the writing, was less the events of the trip – although I loved writing about all those fascinating places like Hong Kong and Yemen and the Suez Canal – than the idea of how in embarking on this around-the-world race these two young women were stepping into a historical whirlwind unlike anything they had ever experienced, a vast roaring wave of publicity and controversy, that would ultimately lead to some unexpected after-effects in their later lives. In my earlier book, The Sun and the Moon, it was the notion of this privately radical English newspaperman in New York, Richard Adams Locke, who concocts a hoax about life on the moon as a way of satirizing the religious astronomers of the time, and who gets caught up in a social frenzy that he had not anticipated and which he doesn’t really know how to handle.

With my current book, The City Game, I loved writing about the amazing history of City College and the incredibly exciting double-championship season, and then the uproarious victory celebrations and all that. But if the story had ended with the triumphant season, I don’t think I would have written the book. Again, the aspect of the story that I found most motivating – that I guess you could say “haunted” me in the writing – was how these talented young guys, these really smart and sympathetic black and Jewish kids with a bit of fame but not much money, got themselves involved in a web of corruption that they didn’t really understand, and which they spend the rest of their lives trying to overcome.

As a result of their encounters with history, these young City College basketball players, like Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland and Richard Adams Locke before them, ended up not necessarily happier, but certainly with a deeper understanding of themselves and of society: they were individuals in whom history has intensified like electroshock.

 What’s so astonishing is that this team you are writing about was the only team in history to win the NIT and NCAA tournaments in the same year. It's so shocking to me that such talented kids had conspired to shave points, but then again, given that they were sort of powerless, and not making money, is it really any wonder that they were susceptible to others’ schemes and their own dreams of easy money? But what is more astonishing is how they were able to redeem themselves. I often feel that America says it likes redemption, but it never follows through total acceptance. Why do you feel this was different?

They were not the first poor kids to take money from gamblers, nor would they be the last. But what I was so fascinated to discover, in researching this book, was how widely divergent the motivations among them were for what they did. It was so much more complicated and ambiguous than the typical “they were corrupt and amoral and sold out their school” lessons of the newspaper editorialists. I mean, some of them were more willing participants and some were less willing, but they all had their own motivations. One of them did it, as he explained, simply because “I wanted the other guys to like me.” He was this handsome, talented guy, a classic golden-boy star athlete, but he came from a rather sheltered family and had grown up feeling socially awkward and left out; as somebody who knew him told me, “He always wanted to be a guy hanging out on a street corner, but he had nobody to hang out with.” Another one of the guys was almost entrepreneurial in his motivations – he felt that a lot of people were making money off his talents, and he had a right to get a small piece of those profits. Another guy left the money entirely untouched in a box in the basement: he hoped someday to be able to give it to his parents, who were really struggling financially.

One of the main characters of my book, a guy named Floyd Layne, resisted the scheme for a long time before he finally caved and accepted the money. He took $3,000, which he wrapped up in a handkerchief and buried in a flowerpot in his bedroom, and didn’t use any of it except for $110 that he spent on a washing machine for his mother. I focus a lot on him in the book, because of all the guys, he was the one who refused to leave the scandal behind him; he was the one who continued to fight for years to clear his name, to earn a spot in professional basketball, to prove to the world that he was an honorable, decent person, not the criminal he was made out to be in the papers. And of all the guys, he was the one who really found redemption – in a way that was almost too amazing to be true. (When I discovered what had happened to him, I almost couldn’t believe my luck as a writer! It was a ready-made ending to the story.)

I’m not sure that any of the guys, other than Floyd, were ever able to fully redeem themselves: When they died, their obituaries always put the scandal in the headline. Over time, I think the pain became less sharp – got subsumed by the good things in their lives, families and careers and what have you – but I don’t know that it ever really went away. There was always this gnawing sense of disappointment and regret and anger, some of it directed inward, some outward. Floyd did experience a kind of redemption, but it was genuinely hard won; he had spent years and years toiling away in community centers in New York’s most impoverished neighborhoods in the Bronx, helping kids get away from drugs and gangs and violence and into colleges and occupations. Over time, he told me many years later, he had even begun to see himself as fortunate: “I would have been unreachable and untouchable in the NBA,” he said. “Instead, I was able to touch the lives of so many kids.”

For Floyd, the scandal had been a defining personal tragedy; but through him, it had been for so many of the city’s children a kind of blessing. That, I think, more than anything, was ultimately the source of Floyd’s sense of redemption – of coming to terms with the pain of his own past.

 Your research must have been fascinating. What surprised you the most about it? What did you expect to find and what did you find instead?

In writing my books, I’m hoping not just to tell the reader what happened, but also, crucially, to give as strong a sense of possible of what it felt like to be living in that particular time and place, to provide a sense of life as it was actually lived. My absolutely favorite responses from readers is when they tell me, “Wow, I felt like I was really in New York in 1835,” or some such thing. Thus, in Eighty Days, I was hoping that readers would feel what it was like to be barreling down the Wasatch mountain range on a train; or sailing along the Suez Canal on a moonlight night; or raising a glass of wine with Jules Verne in his home in Amiens, France. With The City Game, I was looking for a more jazzy sense of mid-century New York, of Times Square with its arcades and flea circuses and neon lights; or the insanely plentiful breakfasts at the old “Borscht Belt” hotels in the Catskills; or Madison Square Garden in the moments before a game, the darkness inside the arena punctuated by what seemed like thousands of fireflies – the burning tips of cigarettes.
Much like a fiction writer, I’m always looking for those vivid, specific details that work together to conjure up a scene. And you can find those in what might not seem to be the most obvious places. Oddly enough, one source that I’ve found to be particularly helpful is travel guidebooks from the period I’m writing about. A historian is, in a sense, a kind of traveler, though one who is traveling through time rather than space, and just like those other travelers, a historian can use guidebooks to get descriptions of the city, and discussions of restaurants and hotels, the most interesting sights, appropriate forms of dress (for weather and style alike), and the habits of the “locals.”

Of course, I’ll always read as many newspapers as I can from the particular place and time about which I’m writing. And in reading the newspapers about the 1951 basketball scandal, I began to notice that there was another sports bookmaking scandal going on in New York at the very same time – the Harry Gross scandal, in which it was revealed that this big-time bookmaker from Brooklyn was laying out millions of dollars in bribes to policemen and politicians to protect his syndicate. How was it possible, I wondered, for there to be two sports bookmaking scandals going on in New York at the very same time? And, more to the point, might there somehow be connections between them?

Well, as I delved into the Harry Gross scandal (which never even got mentioned in my book proposal, as I didn’t know it existed when I began the book), I did begin to see, more and more, that there were connections between these two scandals, and I began to understand how these young basketball players had gotten caught up in a vast web of corruption that eventually reached the very top levels of government in New York. It was a system of bribes and favors and back-room deals that kept the city running – that got statutes passed and buildings built and candidates elected and, for those who really knew how it worked, fortunes made. That was the way things were done in the city: that was the real “city game” of the book’s title.

What’s obsessing you now and why?
I’m obsessed with trying to find my next book topic! Honestly, finding the right topic is the hardest and most painful part of the whole process. Good narrative history requires a story with compelling characters, a dramatic narrative arc, vivid setting, rich subject matter. For me, it’s also important for the main story line – while it has it to be exciting in itself – to also provide a window into larger questions of politics and history. And those types of stories are awfully hard to come by – particularly ones that haven’t already been written! (Or at least not written in the way that you yourself are proposing to do.) It took me about eighteen months to settle on the City College story, after finishing work on Eighty Days. Now I’m entering the same process after having completed work on The City Game. I have no idea what it is that I’m going to find – and no assurance, indeed, that I’ll be able to find anything at all.

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

Hmm. Maybe: “Do you mind if I tell you the perfect subject for your next book?”

Tuesday, November 12, 2019

Binnie Klein talks about TEN DAYS IN NEWARK, her deeply personal, deeply political, podcast memoir set in 1967 hippie days.

Hey, hey, hey! Sixties culture has enduring impact and what better way to celebratethat  than to go back in time and remember? TEN DAYS IN NEWARK AUDIO MEMOIR by Binnie Klein is a haunting remembrance, and an absolutely wonderful and award-winning (Connecticut Press Club) six-episode audio memoir produced by Binnie Klein and Scott Shapleigh, which can be heard in a variety of ways:


Binnie can be contacted:

 Binnie’s a psychotherapist in private practice in New Haven, a Lecturer in Dept of Psychiatry at Yale University, host of music and interview radio show, “A Miniature World,” on 1st and 3rd Thursdays of each month on  She’s the author of Blows to the Head: How Boxing Changed My Mind (SUNY Press, 2010) (profiled here on the blog!)

Here's just some of the raves:

“Strong and nostalgic, but not at all sentimental. Wonderful voice, evocative guitar”-- Daniel Menaker (My Mistake)

“Binnie’s political and personal memoir of Newark in 1967 is an absorbing example of investigatory and explanatory journalism. Those who wish to learn about those times from actual participants, will find this podcast both educational and touching”—music journalist Peter Gambaccini (Springsteen)

“You had me from the first few minutes of episode one. I found myself with you as you peeled back the layers of memories, and bravely forged ahead to revisit events of your young life”—Radio Producer and former Voice of NPR Frank Tavares

“A great audio memoir, this goes right to the core of those first high school friends we made -- how lost and how wild some become and how they may grow apart but are always with us.”—Louise Wareham Leonard (Fifty-Two Men)

I love Binnie and I'm thrilled to host her here. 


 I always ask, why now?

When you ask “why now?” I can’t help but think that in some ways I didn’t have a choice about the timing of this audio memoir. A letter arrived from my first boyfriend with news that jostled my dearly held denial about the realities of aging and loss, freshly immersing me in memories of first love, first heartbreak, and the haunting I’d been experiencing all my life – about him, about the sixties, about the impact of a place (Newark, New Jersey), the political cyclone of the era, and the rapid metabolizing of traumatic and ecstatic moments many of us endured.

The familiar look of his handwriting, the poetry in his prose, and the sad news in the letter threw me into a whirlwind of memories about my teen-age years. Odd coincidences occurred.  As I describe in Episode 1, I had just accidentally come upon a batch of old black and white photos from that time, the day before the letter arrived. I felt compelled to contact other peers to tell them the news, and each email or conversation led to fresh re-workings of narratives I had comfortably carried. Each contact challenged my vague, dissociated chronology. Each contact made me remember more, and with the memories came grieving I’d never fully done. But it wasn’t all grim. There was much laughter in the re-connecting, and even in-person visits.

What was it like going back into the past? What surprised you?

I didn’t expect to feel quite so confused and troubled by this delving into the past. I’d been a cocky teenage girl who was good at appearing “cool,” obsessed with boys, bound for trouble, carried by the sexual revolution and the company of hippies and activists, running wild without much supervision. During the reconstruction and note-taking I started, my husband and collaborator Scott Shapleigh said “This is a podcast.” There was so much mystery and discovery; he felt it was a detective story, with individual episodes, and amazingly, he was not threatened by the subject matter and that we’d be seeking out my first love. I was very comfortable with storytelling in an audio form, having produced essays and interviews, some on my radio show, “A Miniature World” on WPKN-FM. I began to keep a journal of the sequence of events, knowing that eventually I’d be talking to or maybe even seeing my first boyfriend; there was an inevitability to that. What surprised me? How well people remembered me. How much I’d repressed. There’s a funny little detail that didn’t make it into the podcast. In all the photos I look rather dour and gloomy. I’m never smiling. At first I thought it was about constantly trying to look cool and/or sexy, but then I remembered something. That was only part of it; I was trying to conceal an odd, slightly misshapen lower front tooth that made me very self-conscious. Years later I had it fixed.

What was your research like?

I was very lucky to have such an archive of photos to reference (they can be viewed on my Instagram page). I think of one where I am sitting in high grass in a backyard in Newark. Seeing the chain link fence and a shabby garage reminded me of how plainly we lived—most families in the Weequahic section in four room apartments in two family houses.
What I thought were wildflowers in one photo taken in Weequahic Park were really weeds, upon closer inspection. The tenderness in the photographs of me and Louis was especially moving; my fingers moving across his face, my long brown hair hanging down, his beloved cowboy hat tossed on the ground nearby, and our friend Gary, cross-legged, always with us, rolling a cigarette. Yes, very particular just to me and my little crowd, but I think many of us have a “Ten Days in Newark” that haunts them. I’ve even considered producing podcasts for others who have such periods or episodes. Who would you contact? What would you want to know? Would you have the courage to go back? 

Do you miss the girl you used to be?

The plucked guitar arpeggios of Scarborough Fair --I love that girl--the soft saliva sounds--I miss that girl--songs like the world is opening up--that girl was full of potential--are you going to--was said to her; you're the one, the real thing--her collection of short leather boots, her squirming body underneath the boys, their cologne, their mottled skin, parsley, sage, rosemary and...her potential..I miss that girl --two heads lean in and barely touch--I don't miss her brittleness but I miss her openness--this is from my notes for “Ten Days in Newark”

What was it like writing this? How difficult was it?

I wasn’t just keeping notes. Many nights I’d lie in bed attempting to will myself back in time, to try and remember new details, to swim again in the feelings of excitement or sadness. Could I recall Louis’ hands? His kiss? Why was I so devastated by our normal developmental passages – his going off to college and finding other girls? I had also saved our letters! Re-reading them made me cringe. I seemed a shallow, manipulative girl, enjoying political groups like SDS for the social activities they brought, fascinated by the boys who played guitar and knew all the chords. I bought my first guitar. But the letters also told other stories, of trouble at home, of Louis saying we’d marry but he’d “be a revolutionary.” And then of course, the letters became less and less frequent. Some arrived on torn pieces of paper.

And then it seemed my little posse had dispersed to join Weatherman, a radical political group. The podcast allowed me to finally understand why they went, and what their experiences were like.

What's obsessing you now and why?

What’s obsessing me now? When I’m not in the throes of trauma from the political madness I am, gulp, writing songs! This is brand-new for me, and wonderfully exciting. Right now I’m working with a fantastic collaborator who knows and teaches music. We hope to have some pieces up on YouTube soon. The first song, “My Last Bad Boy,” comes out of “Ten Days in Newark.” Because a book, a podcast, a tune may be written, but are the thoughts and feelings behind them ever truly finished? I am also writing “Tiny Tales from the Bin”—100-150 words in mini-memoirs. I post them on Facebook.

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

Ask me whether I’m glad I did this project. And I’ll tell you: yes and no. Mary Karr, in her excellent book Art of Memoir cautions that if you are going to delve really deeply into the past and there are landmines waiting, be careful. Don’t do it if you’re going to have a breakdown, she says. “Ten Days in Newark” brought very powerful and difficult feelings into my everyday life for several years. I was yes, obsessed, like a novelist maybe, with a story I kept trying to tell in the best way I could. I’m very glad I re-connected with some old friends. We still like each other. But first love and first heartbreak? “Be very afraid…” You don’t know what you’re going to find. You don’t know how much grieving remains. I didn’t know how old I’d wind up feeling, finally giving up that 16 year old girl with all her potential. It helps that I’m extremely proud of this effort. I think it’s unique; with recorded phone calls, original music, and spoken prose. I continue to be deeply moved and gratified when a generous listener conveys a comment. When they love it or relate to it, I get chills.

Friday, October 25, 2019

What do we owe those we love? Jane Bernstein's extraordinary new novel THE FACE TELLS THE SECRET spans generations and continents and she talks about it--and writing, love, and growing up in a household full of shadows.

I admit it. I stalked Jane Bernstein years ago after I read her book Departures, which I was obsessed with. And I tracked her down and wrote to her, and we became friends. Real life friends! She put me at her gorgeous home in Pittsburgh, we've visited here in NYC and if we followed each other's careers any closer, we'd be the same person.

I've loved all her books, and this new one THE FACE TELLS THE SECRET is one of her best. About how responsible we should be to the ones we love, about disability seen from a very different lens, and about love and place and family, it's page-turning and gorgeously written. And I'm not the only one to say so. Take a look here:

 “Reverberating with vivid characters, tempestuous bonds, and poignant moments, The Face Tells the Secret is a contemporary page-turner as haunting as it is humane.”
 Rachel Simon, New York Times bestselling author of Riding The Bus With My Sister and The Story of Beautiful Girl

“Jane Bernstein’s novel is a beautiful, almost balletic exploration of the role of repression across generations. This book asks many questions—about knowledge, forgiveness, disability, the slippery shapes of fear and love—but always through the lived life of its narrator. Her journey into the past and attempts to chart a future had me hooked.”
Elizabeth Graver, author of The End of the Point

“The characters in Jane Bernstein’s expansive and beautiful novel, “The Face Tells the Secret,” are exquisite, complex, real creations. From Pittsburgh to Tel Aviv, they bring us into their lives with depth and honesty. A wonderful book.”
Karen E. Bender, author of Refund, a finalist for the National Book Award

“Who should we care for?” asks Roxanne, the narrator of The Face Tells the Secret. “How much of our lives should we spend looking after others? When do we turn away to protect ourselves?” Jane Bernstein delivers no easy answers in this heartbreaking and, ultimately, heart-mending novel. Rather she explores the complications of human relations in many variations – between mother and child, siblings, man and woman, over long-distances, and in close quarters. This book is about love and life, and absolutely worth reading.
Suzanne Kamata, author of Losing Kei and Indigo Girl

Jane writes fiction, memoir, essays, and screenplays, and in 2018, a picture book, cowritten with her daughter, Charlotte Glynn.  Jane’s books include Bereft – A Sister’s Story, and two memoirs about raising a daughter with intellectual disabilities, Loving Rachel and Rachel in the World.  Jane’s awards include a Fulbright Fellowship and two National Endowment for the Arts Fellowships in Creative Writing. She’s a professor of English and member of the Creative Writing Program at Carnegie Mellon University and lives in Pittsburgh, PA and New York City with Jeff, the man, and Rozzie, the dog, both of whom travel well.

Thanks so much for being here, Jane! Only thing better would be sitting across a table from you!

I always think writers are haunted into writing their novels. What was haunting you about this particular one?
This book is very much about ghosts and what it’s like to grow up with parents who cannot talk about the tragedies of the past but who are deeply wounded by these unseen disasters.  Although the events in The Face Tells the Secret are not autobiographical, the themes are ones I can’t escape as a writer.  Like my protagonist, Roxanne, I grew up in a house full of shadows.  In my case, it was the death of my sister, when I was seventeen.  After her murder, my parents did not – could not -- talk about her.

So much of this astonishing novel is about the ways we love—or don’t love, and how loss amplifies that. Could you talk about that please?
There are two kinds of “love” that Roxanne wrestles with.  One has to do with caregiving and responsibility for one’s kin.  How much should she give to the wounded people in her life?  Then there’s romantic love. To paraphrase a question Roxanne asks herself late in the novel: how can you love when you have never been loved yourself?  Roxanne is tender-hearted, but at the start of the novel has been unable to form a romantic relationship with an emotionally stable man.  Her mother, who rarely touched her, rarely had a kind word, was too wounded to love her the way a baby and child should be loved. In the course of the book, she has to learn how to open herself to love and to trust that she can be loved in return.   

You’ve written so many gorgeous books, from memoirs to novels. Do you feel that you are able to build on each previous novel, or is every work a new one?
Oh, I wish I could build on what I’ve written, but I seem unable to fully do that.   I know more about craft than I did when I did as a beginning writer, but that knowledge doesn’t always help in creating a coherent work.  Sometimes it even hinders.  But as you say, we are haunted into writing our books, and so I bumble along.

What’s obsessing you now and why?
I’m finishing a first draft set in in 1972, which begins with the disappearances of a charismatic middle-aged man.  He’s left three women behind – his very young wife, Lindy, who’s the protagonist, his eccentric best friend, and a girl he picked up hitchhiking, who’s pregnant with his child.  For a year, the three live together in Maine. Although I know it’s a tough story to write at this particular period of time, I’m trying to write a nuanced portrait of a charming, immoral, kind of awful man, who also, in major ways transformed the course of my protagonist’s life. The story is framed by Lindy at the present time. (And I loved Cruel, Beautiful World, which is this book’s beautiful stepsister…)

What question didn’t I ask that I should have?
Who am I reading?  Apart from Caroline Leavitt? I loved The Friend, The Body in Question, The Mars Room. I’ve been teaching lit courses of late and read widely all summer long for whatever theme I choose.  This year it was “Brooklyn.”  My students – men, women, of all ethnicities, mostly computer science or tech majors, all fell in love with A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.   I can’t tell you how surprised and delighted I was. They are hungry for great stories.


First, I was addicted to the coffee mints, NeuroMints. Then I began to realize the entrepreneur behind it was also a brilliant prankster artist. So I had to talk to the prodigiously talented Kent Yoshimura here.

It started with Neuromints.

I am totally addicted to coffee and my son showed me an article about Neurogum, which not only had enough caffeine to power the country, but also had L-theanine, which is a natural kind of soother. I bought the gum and mentioned it on Twitter, saying I loved it but wished it wasn't gum--and
Kent Yoshimura reached out to me. "Wanna try the mints?"

He sent me a care package and I began to realize that he was this extraordinary person--not just an entrepreneur, but a fabulous artist, too. He illustrated Master Davey and The Magic Tea House, which was released worldwide at all Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf locations, and his illustrations have traveled across children’s museums throughout the United States. He has been featured on NBC for his large-scale public art pieces, the New York Times for his mural work, and in TIME magazine, Huffington Post, Men's Health, Vice, and NPR for his YouTube videos.

But wait, there's more! As a martial artist, Kent competed internationally, fighting alongside Muay Thai champions in Thailand and serving as a training partner in Judo for Olympic medalists at the Kodokan and the Japanese royal guards within the Imperial Palace.

In 2015, he co-founded Neuro - a functional confectionary brand revolutionizing the consumable supplement space. The product was successfully backed by over 500 people on Indiegogo in less than three days, and has since been featured in publications such as TIME magazine, Dr. Oz, Forbes, FOX News, Food And Wine, The New YorkerBuzzfeed, and Fast Company. It can now be found in over 5000 retail locations nationwide.

Alongside his ventures, Kent currently paints large scale murals as both a freelance artist and a qualified muralist through the Department of Cultural Affairs, and most recently co-designed the immersive retail experience CAMP in New York as well as The Sixth Collection for Jerry Lorenzo's streetwear brand Fear of God.

I'm totally thrilled to know him, and to host him here. Cool has a brand new name, right? Thank you, Kent.

So you do so many things so brilliantly, from art to sculpture, to environments to film to writing. What made you who you are today? Were you always creative as a kid? And what is even more fascinating, is how did you make the turn from art to—well, the art of health—with NeuroMints and NeuroGum?

NeuroGum kept me going through Lisbon all week, which is mostly steep hills and nine thousand steep stairs. Where did the idea for this product come from? And what was testing it like? Anything surprise you about it?

Well to start off, thanks!

When I was growing up, my parents were both working, so I spent most of my time after school at the karate studio or in art class. Both those hobbies continued on through high school, but I began deviating away from the arts and leaned towards medicine in college. There, I studied neuroscience, got deeper into martial arts, and met my future co-founder of Neuro, Ryan Chen.

During that time, I would frequently travel to train with the Olympic Judo team in Japan every summer and fight Muay Thai in the stadiums in Thailand. Every day consisted of 4-6 hours of training, and supplementation became extremely important; however, there wasn’t anything to support my energy levels outside energy drinks or coffee at that time. I began mixing my own supplements, using myself as a guinea pig, and my favorite combination eventually became V0 of NeuroGum. Of course, we’ve worked with professional chemists and formulators to refine it since then.

Yet, once an artist, always an artist. My senior year of college, I was injured during training, and I decided to take a step back from pursuing a professional fighting career. I eventually got deeper into film, went to UCLA’s film school after I graduated, and began shooting short commercials and documentaries. On the side, I would do illustration work for extra money, and after illustrating a few children’s books, I got an opportunity with my friend Susan to build the children’s branding for the Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf.

After that, I worked in composing music for film and television with a Sony affiliate called Wava Studios before I began painting larger and larger things. After leaving the studio, both Neuro and my career in murals started to take off. Now, NeuroGum is in about 6000 stores nationwide, and I’ve done over 40 murals around the world.

You’re also an incredible artist! Your use of color is incredible-the surprise pops, the way the tones vibrate. I really loved the guerilla art—a male statue with the bright, brilliant head of a posie! A huge ice cream cone leaning against a building. And the immersive experiences!  Especially the one where guests seem to be in an underwater world! Art like this does my favorite thing. It makes you stop and see the whole world differently. So tell us, how do YOU see the world?

I feel that I’m just a prankster at heart. Both guerilla work and murals force a perspective shift in the environment, and whenever I’m out in the wild, I imagine painting the walls a certain color to change the tone of a space or sprinkling some guerilla work to “change” up someone’s daily commute. The world’s our playground – might as well enjoy it!

What’s up next for the company and for you?

In 2020, Neuro will graduate from being just a product to becoming more of a lifestyle brand. We’re constantly looking to improve our products, and we eventually want to become a leader in the cognitive health and wellness space as a whole.

For myself, I consistently try to live a balanced life. Last year, I worked myself too hard and needed to get back surgery after running my body down. Maintaining my health (both physical and mental) and finding a peace with my creative side is the most important thing for me.

What’s obsessing you now and why?

For some reason, I’ve lately been drawn to the Dust Bowl (yes, very random). Perhaps it’s in response to the impending sense of doom with all the conversations surrounding climate change, but it seems we’re consistently making the same mistakes. The stories of the livestock deaths, the locust swarms, and the static force fields all feel both apocalyptic and something straight from Dune.

Friday, October 11, 2019

What if you suddenly long for kids but the man you love does not? Is there a right choice? Jackie Shannon Hollis navigates THIS PARTICULAR HAPPINESS: A CHILDLESS LOVE STORY

There's so much discussion now about whether or not women should have kids, whether they need to, whether they will regret it or be overjoyed with their decision. It's a surely complex issue and now Jackie Shannon Hollis has written a fabulous book about it ( "A childless love story") called THIS PARTICULAR HAPPINESS. When she falls in love with a man who doesn't want kids, her own yearnings for them begin to loom, as they both search for ways to both live with and satisfy those longings. It's such a great, great sure-to-be-talked about book!  Thank you so much, Jackie for being here!

 I always want to know what was the Why Now moment for you writing this memoir? What surprised you about it?

Thank you, Caroline. I’m honored that I get to have this conversation with you.

This Particular Happiness  Through my thirties and early forties, I struggled with my decision to not have children; the longing in me was powerful but it also sat side-by-side with the freedom and unexpected paths that came of not having children. By the time I hit fifty, I thought I’d settled with being childless. The space had filled in with so many fulfilling things, including many nieces and nephews. Then, in my mid-fifties, when the physical possibility of having a child was clearly no longer on the table, I discovered a new, and unanticipated, layer to my decision. My mother’s health was rapidly declining. Her death would change my sense of family. My nieces and nephews were marrying, and my sisters were soon to become grandmothers. I felt a shifting in these family units, a kind of closing in. I was invited into them but they weren’t mine. I wasn’t sure where my place would be.

I started to write an essay about this, but soon realized this essay was part of a bigger context.  About being raised in a generation and a place where having children was seen as inevitable, and what it is like to take a path different than the expected one. I wanted to write about how we choose and how the consequences of our choices unfold and unfold and unfold over time. And I wanted to write about love and identity, with childlessness as the framework for this exploration.

Everything about the writing process surprises me. In the case of This Particular Happiness, when I told people what I was writing about, they seemed excited to talk about their own decision to have or not have children. Parents and non-parents alike. Everyone has their unique perspective on what led them to make the decision they made, and yet there are common threads of searching for identity, and the many ways of loving that we can all relate to.

 It fascinated me that you talked about a life you’ve been raised to want. I remember being told that what I wanted was to marry, stay home and have a hobby (um, yeah.) And when I told my mother that I didn’t want to have children, I was told, “Don't ever let anyone hear you say that because they’ll think there’s something wrong with you.”  And when years later, I suddenly did want one, and went on to have my son, I was admonished for waiting so long. Can women ever win?

 We are given so many mixed messages. I see women struggle with the judgements of others if they choose to not have a child (the common refrain being, “Oh just wait, you will change your mind someday.”). Women experience judgement if they have a child “too young” or if they wait “too long,” judgement for desperately wanting a child and  pursuing the sometimes heartbreaking process of  fertility treatment, judgement for how they express their grief about infertility, judgement for having only one child or more than two children, for adopting or fostering. And then of course the endless judgement about the parenting choices:  too permissive, not permissive enough, how to feed, how to wean, working mom or stay-at-home mom.  Good lord.

We have endless possibilities in our lives. Choosing one thing means not choosing something else. The people who love and care about us often make the misstep of calling out what we are not choosing, rather than embracing what we do choose. And sometimes we do that to ourselves, which is why I think the exploration of the source of our own longings is so important. This exploration is a thru-line of This Particular Happiness. Where did my longing come from? The heart? Biology? Or was it a response to outside expectations? What did I truly want? How did I know what I wanted?

Although times have certainly changed, I think there still is a dividing line between women who don’t want to be told they made the wrong choice. But in reality, how can we ever know that? We change all the time, right?

Yes! We change constantly. Look at the number of marriages that end in divorce. Somehow people think they will marry, and all will stay the same. But I don’t know anyone (unless they have lived a very static life) who hasn’t gone through a major transformation of sorts in their forties or fifties. We knew what we wanted when we were twenty but didn’t know who we would be at 45.

Unless we hold firm in apathy and rigidity, we are growing and changing. Those around us will change. Our needs will change. If we don’t recognize this consciously, we will have a lot of turmoil in our relationships (parent/child, sibling, friends, primary partners), and in our careers. I hope we can own our transitions, speak about them, normalize them, so they are less damaging. The ideal would be to notice when we are changing and longing for something new or different. To talk about it and see if we can shift things in the existing structure of our lives. Or find a way to move out of that without damage and wrong-making. That doesn’t mean there won’t be conflict and tumult…but we can approach it more consciously.

I also have to know what kind of writer you are. Any rituals? 

Much of the time, I am a very undisciplined writer. When I’m working on a project I schedule out two (and if I’m lucky, three) full days each week. But then I have to get through all the life duty/throat clearing (exercise, garden, house, social media, organize a drawer that is really just fine), before I get myself settled in. I have finally learned this IS my ritual. Work is going on in the background when I am doing the other things. I call it “composting” and by the time I open my laptop, I am ready to go.  

I also loved the short lyrical chapters you have. Did you know the book was going to be like that when you began it?

 I didn’t and, until I started printing out some of the chapters, I didn’t “see” how short many of them were. As I edited and braided and shaped the manuscript, I saw that the shape of the chapters fit the narrative. Many of the shortest chapters are scenes and memories from my childhood and young adulthood, or memory pieces I’ve taken from what my husband has told me of his childhood. These are what I’d call sense-making scenes, trying to understand who that younger version (him, me, those around us) was and how it led to now.

As the book progresses, the chapters become longer, especially when it comes to where I meet Bill, the man who would become my husband. These scenes are longer, more detailed, and reflect my own intentionality at the time. I wanted to be present. To choose differently, so there are more details, and deeper dive into my inner self. And from this point, the chapters are, for the most part, a bit longer.

What’s obsessing you now and why?

Well it’s impossible to pick just one thing.

I am always obsessed with people, how we think and process and engage with each other. Showtime’s Couples’ Therapy has me completely entranced. I think it is a wonderful series for couples to watch together and then talk about what they see of themselves in the real life people who make up the couples. It is brilliant.

Two books on communication and relationship seem relevant here. Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Love, by Marshall Rosenberg, has me twisted sideway in paying attention to the judgements carried in the words I choose. And a book by Susan Clarke and CrisMarie Campbell called, The Beauty of Conflict for Couples,  offers very specific actions for moving through difficult conversations and maintaining the passion through embracing the conflicts rather than avoiding them.

Podcasts are a constant when I drive (and when I vacuum!). I’m a big fan of Terrible, Thanks for Asking. Nora McInerny delves tells the stories of regular people, complicated and honest and beautiful.  I also am obsessed with Beyond Well with Sheila Hamilton. She interviews a variety of creative people, covering many topics related to mental wellness. I love Sheila’s voice and the two therapists who join her in conversation.

Memoirs always obsess me such as Liz Prato’s essay collection: Volcanoes, Palm Trees & Privilege: Essays on Hawai’i; and Huda Al-Marashi’s  First Comes Marriage:  My Not-So-Typical American Love Story.  These books explore relationship in various forms: place, family, primary partner and self.

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

This Particular Happiness is published by Forest Avenue Press, an independent publishing company run by Laura Stanfill. I feel incredibly lucky to be with a publisher who supports her authors long after publication date. I’m looking forward to conversations with readers about topics I explore in my memoir:  the roles of childless or childfree or parent, love, how a relationship can navigate difficult terrain, mothers and daughters, friendship, the long term impact of sexual assault, how to be present with another through grief, and how to find your own particular happiness. If any of your readers would like me to come their way for a conversation, they can let their local bookseller know, or reach out to me. Here’s a link to my website.