Saturday, July 6, 2019

A brilliant historical novel that is also a legal thriller: Award-winning David Marlett talks about AMERICAN RED (great title, no?)





David Marlett is an award-winning storyteller and bestselling author. David is a professor at Pepperdine Law School, has been published in a number of magazines, was Managing Editor of OMNI Magazine, and regularly guest-lectures on story design. He is the father of four, a graduate of The University of Texas School of Law, and currently lives in Manhattan Beach, California. AMERICAN RED, an historical legal thriller, is his second novel. (The highly praised Fortunate Son, was his first.) How could you not lvoe a novel that features both Clarence Darrow and the Pinkertons?

I'm so honored to have him here.  Now take a look at some of the praise:

“Amazing storytelling. A legal thriller that holds you till the last train out.”
— Michael Connelly, #1 New York Times bestselling author of the Bosch series

“A cracking good tale! Part love story, part espionage thriller.”
— Jacquelyn Mitchard, New York Times bestselling author of The Deep End of the Ocean

“Vivid, well researched and told bare-knuckled across a tapestry that is both broad and nuanced...with characters who are outsized and real.”
— Mark Sullivan, international bestselling author of Beneath a Scarlet Sky

“A gripping story…unforgettable characters…fascinating.”
— Adam Benforado, New York Times bestselling author

“A stellar novel of intrigue, adventure, engaging characters, and a fascinating backdrop. A true gem of a story.”
— Steve Berry, multiple New York Times bestselling author

“An important story of intensity and emotional pull. Be prepared to be captured by this gifted storyteller.”
— Jeff Kamen, Emmy-winning NPR and NBC journalist and author




I always want to know what is haunting a writer into writing a particular book. What was haunting you?

I love this question. It is a pleasure to talk with someone like yourself who, as a fellow novelist, clearly understands the writing mindset/process.

What originally fascinated me was an overarching question: At the turn of the last century, in the wake of Marx, many countries were beginning to gravitate toward national socialism and in some instances communism. And in many it took root—perhaps Russia most notably—obtained through bloody revolution. So why not here? I was fascinated by what it is about America—the people and the land, the culture and values—that led to our zealous adherence to capitalism, revulsion for communism, and our acquiescence to the lighter form of socialism that we have today. After all, America was heavily populated by people who—were they to have still lived in their countries of origin—would have been embracing if not fighting for national socialism, and perhaps even communism. So why did they, once here, go a different route? That was the fascination that sparked me to the story that would eventually become American Red—and drove me throughout the research and writing as I began to see glimpses of answers in the mix of our immigrant heritage, the wildness of our west, our religious fervor, the prospect of opportunity, and the evolution of our laws.

But you asked what was haunting me that led to American Red. The law is a fragile, imaginary thing held together only by the collective will of the society in which it inhabits. And the humans that comprise that society have proven, time and again, to be in self-entangled conflict with their nature—prone to great love and sacrifice while being vulnerable to an instinct for violence and extremism. We are no different today. As we were not a hundred years ago. So, I would say that it was that precarious duality, that swirling conflict with the personal and societal self, governed only by a collective belief system known as the law, that haunted me—and haunts me still.

There is something so fascinating to me about a historical novel which is also a legal thriller. Perhaps it’s because the law is a product of the times’ mores, pretty much, so we get that whole extra layer. But American Red is also a deeply moving love story! How difficult was it balance those three different kinds of novels into one extraordinary whole?

 First, I am flattered that you might think I found some balance of the three. I hope so. Yes, it was indeed a challenge. As for it being historical fiction, for me that is pure fun. The research, the time-travel. Going into those rooms, onto the streets, trying to inhabit the space and moment and bring the reader with me. Seeking out those elements that give the moment texture and immersive relevance while also propelling the story. This is the area of the three where I have to do the most editing. American Red is already a long book…woe to the reader if I hadn’t had a good editor!

As for the legal thriller through-line, that is more of a philosophical study for me. In fact, at its core, the legal aspect isn’t a story of the past, but only happens to be told there. Indeed, as the bulwark of our current legal system is founded on judicial decisions and axioms born decades if not centuries ago, the legal machinations in my novels speak as heavily about who we are today as they consider the events of the past. (It was that element that led me to my first historical legal thriller, Fortunate Son, which tells the amazing true story surrounding a 1746 trial that is the basis of our modern attorney-client privilege.) In addition, the modern reader is familiar enough with the legal system, from the crime to the investigation to the trial, that those processes can serve as a guide rope through what—in the instance of American Red—can be a complex plot.

And, ah yes, the love stories. That is what made me write American Red. Not long after Fortunate Son was published, I read Big Trouble, the deeply detailed non-fiction tome by J. Anthony Lukas that examined the events leading to the 1907 murder trial of William “Big Bill” Haywood. Though it sparked my interest in the events, the basic humanity, it lacked sufficient heart to inspire me to tackle the narrative as a historical novel. So, a couple of years went by, but I kept returning to the fascinating events, hoping to discover the soul, the spark that might conjure it alive. It wasn’t until I researched Neva, Big Bill’s wife, that I began to see a story that I wanted to tell. Unfortunately, little was recorded about the women in these very male-dominated events, but I began to gather bits and pieces. Eventually, I came to better understand the relationship between Neva and her sister and her husband, her journey with polio and her faith, and saw glimpses of her lovely relationship with another man. Also, anecdotes began to develop which would become Jack and Carla. With those two love stories, I knew it was a book I had to write.

  This book was so much to read, with delicious and specific details lighting up the book like electric sparks. What was your favorite character to research? (I loved Clarence Darrow who was not as gold-hearted as he has been made out to be, and of course, the infamous Pinkertons) and why?

 The humanity of Clarence Darrow was indeed interesting. His extraordinary legal talent was clearly rooted in his ability to connect with others, to understand the heart and mind of juries, to use language to manipulate and motivate belief systems regarding right and wrong. And I enjoyed exploring his conflicted morals—his willingness to compromise his values, his advocation for the downtrodden while also representing some of the greatest terrorists in American history.  (In Angeles Los, my next historical legal thriller based on a true story—a continuation of some of the characters in American Red—Clarence Darrow defends the bombers of the Los Angeles Times only to get himself indicted for a felony.)

But to answer your question about my favorite character to research, I would have to say it was the aging Pinkerton, Chief Detective James McParland. (I would say it was Neva, Nevada Jane Haywood, as she was a favorite. But there was less to research as the historical record is more circumstantial about her, rather than direct.) McParland was an interesting man—timeless in his humanity while grappling with the passage of time. When we meet him in 1906, he sees his career nearing its end, perhaps his life—a life of rich stories all behind him then, all embedded in the 1800s. Technology and society are passing him by. But he wants one final accomplishment to cap off a very storied career: to bring down Big Bill Haywood. I admire him yet feel his distance—from his wife whom I made sure we never meet, to the young men whom he knows will soon replace him. Researching his background and coming to understand why he was willing to do what he did, was quite enjoyable.

 What surprised you in your research? Did any research derail what you thought was your plot?

 The only major research-induced surprises came in first discovering the audacious events themselves, those that would comprise the spine of the plot. In other words, no surprises in the research derailed a previously anticipated plot line, though a few altered or led it. There are so many crazy actual events in the story, but little in the historical record connects them narratively. So a fair amount of my work was to imagine the bridge, what motivated characters from point to point. For example, when I learned what Adams did to that family in San Francisco, I knew I had to take the story there. It then became a task to give the story the framework to make that happen. Other research surprises ignited opportunities for detail and scene placement but didn’t alter the overall plot. Such things include the opening of department stores, the recent San Francisco earthquake and fire, the museum and zoo in Denver, early auto races, the advent of the Maxim machine gun, the touring theatrical performance staring Ethel Barrymore, and many others. Perhaps the most extraordinary surprises which definitely informed the plot were what Clarence Darrow did regarding Adam’s testimony, and what became of Big Bill Haywood. (Hopefully I am being sufficiently cryptic so as not to give anything away.)

I always want to know what you took fictional liberty with and why?

Well, this is a bit of the magician showing his tricks, so I am somewhat hesitant to go into much detail. But I’ll take a stab at it. First, I’ll say that my historical novels are intended to be modestly impressionistic paintings—leaving the real-life painting of the events to historians and non-fiction writers. That said, the vast majority of the characters in American Red were real people, and I tried to be true to what is known of their personalities and styles. (I list at the end of the book all of the actual characters, leaving the reader to induce who was invented.) And the real characters are doing things close to what they actually did—at least with regard to the major plot events. And in some circumstances, where there is written evidence (a trial transcript or other contemporaneous writing), they are saying what they actually said, or close thereto. The primary fictional liberties I took were in the timing of the events. I condensed some elements to fit within the time frame of the book, but hopefully not so such much as to violate the meaning, importance, or relevance of the event itself. For the characters whom I invented, they are inspired by actual people (usually an amalgamation of multiple actual people) but were dramatized to serve the story.
And I also want to know about the title—how and why you chose it.

First, I wanted a name that was a touch abstract, rather than on point, to better align with my style of historical fiction being similarly impressionistic. That said, the “American” part was clear to me from the beginning of the name search. As I mentioned, an early curiosity of mine was how Americans uniquely engaged with the pressures toward socialist revolution taking hold in other major nations at the time. Also, the story examines the American criminal justice system at an inflection point in its evolution. And the plot involves a number of archetypal Americans and American institutions, including Clarence Darrow and the Pinkertons. As for the “Red” part, it seemed ideal, being such a seminal stand-in for blood, passion, fire/explosion, anger, love, life, and socialism (albeit more for communism than socialism). And by modifying it with the word American, I like the implicit suggestion that perhaps our shade of red, in its representative meanings, is unique. And finally, the underlying heart of the book along with the representative nature of the title informed my abstract design of the “red cardinal at war with itself.” So, there you have it: American Red.

You do so many different kinds of writing. Do you have a method and does it vary from fiction to nonfiction to scripts?

 My first thought in response to this interesting question is, “Not really…writing is writing. I just jump in and get going.” But in truth, that’s probably only accurate about non-fiction. To write fiction I have to take a journey. I have to teleport into the environment and exist there. Sit in it. Feel it. Listen to the people speak. Smell the room. Especially for historical fiction. Over the past couple of years, my kids received this response a few times: “I’m sorry, what were you saying? I was still in 1907.” Or, “Don’t text or call me unless it’s an emergency. I’ll be in 1907 most of the day.” For historical fiction I usually begin with a caffeine surge, both literally and figuratively—with the figurative being to pick up a book I’ve been using as reference and flip through it. Or, more likely, I’ll go back and read the previous day’s work and let it ramp me into the action of the story. Then I just let go and write as it flows, fairly unconcerned with length or even structure sometimes. That said, I do enjoy using historical detail to slow myself down…to stop and research how that wall telephone worked, the fabric of her dress, the explosive yield of three sticks of dynamite, or if the derogatory word “gollumpus” was in use at the time.

Screenwriting is more methodical, more prone to bursts, more dialogue centric. I know the scene and I slowly shape it as I go, continually trimming lines. But I am acutely aware that the reader of the script is not the audience, but rather it is the producers/actors/director. So, that informs the writing—its need to adhere to a set of guidelines.

What’s obsessing you now and why?

I’m currently deep into my next historical legal thriller, Angeles Los, which takes place in 1910 and 1911 in Los Angeles and continues some of the lead characters from American Red, including Jack, Carla, and Clarence Darrow. Angeles Los is based on the true story at the intersection of the first movies made in Los Angeles, the murderous bombing of the Los Angeles Times, and eccentric Abbot Kinney's "Venice of America" kingdom. Like American Red, Angeles Los will also be operating on three levels: a historical look at the social fabric that made Los Angelesa legal thriller of the terrorists’ murder trial wherein Clarence Darrow himself was indicted—and a love story focusing on the challenges of young marriage.

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

My goodness, I think you’ve covered it. That said, had you asked about other media forms for American Red, I would tell you that the audiobook is currently in production, and film rights discussions are underway for a premium series.

A brilliant post-apocalyptic novel that also is a love story dazzling with hope: Kimi Eisele talks about THE LIGHTEST OBJECT IN THE UNIVERSE














I'm always dazzled by debuts (nice alliteration, right?) and Kimi Eisle's THE LIGHTEST OBJECT IN THE UNIVERSE is absolutely glorious. Gorgeously written, unnerving, and also one of the most moving love stories I've read. I'm honored to host her here. 

 P.S. come to The Strand in Manhattan on July 30 because I will be interviewing Kimi. 

Here is just some of the praise:


July 2019 INDIE NEXT Pick (IndieBound)
Indies Introduce Summer 2019 Selection
Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers Summer 2019 Selection
Powell’s Books’ We Can’t Wait: The Best Reads of 2019
Readers’ Digest 15 Best Summer Books to Read in 2019



I always want to know what was haunting you into writing this novel, what was the why now moment as to writing this story. Was there a question you were trying to answer?

Before I wrote THE LIGHTEST OBJECT IN THE UNIVERSE, I had been struggling to write nonfiction essays about American exceptionalism and what it meant to live in a superpower country and benefit from some of the privileges that can offer. The US was at war with Iraq over non-existent weapons and greed and I knew about the long history of US economic imperialism and US support of totalitarian regimes in Latin America and elsewhere. It was difficult to reconcile my privileges as a white woman with an education and status that had enabled me to view and learn about this unevenness with what that unevenness meant for millions of people. Meanwhile, the US remained a kind of beacon—dare I say dream?—for so many I people I’d met across the border to the South.

The essay I was trying to write went on and on and on and never found coherence. So I decided to hand over the struggle to fiction.

On a personal level, I was trying to answer a question about how to live with this contradiction—knowing my privilege and comfort rested on the disadvantage, discomfort, and sometimes despair of entire global regions. On a larger level, the question became: How might we re-envision or rebuild America, once it came crashing down?


What I so loved about this novel is that even though it’s marked as dystopian, it didn’t really read that way to me. It seemed more real, more ground in human drama, and that was part of my delirious delight in it.  Was this your intent?

Before I began the book, we lost a dear family friend to cancer. We visited her husband in New York City from time to time. One evening he excused himself from the table to call to someone in California he’d met through an organization that connected bereaved spouses for phone conversations. I don’t think it was a romantic connection, but I was struck by the intimacy of it, and how he was finding comfort there. Sorrow is solitary but often what keeps us going is human connection.

Also, I had worked with a lot of young activists and recognized their zeal for wanting to make the world more just. I began to wonder what would happen if the chipping away at dominant structures actually worked. What would the activists do if the world they wanted to topple actually toppled? That felt like a personal question as much as a political one.

I was less interested in the mechanism of collapse than I was in how a shared catastrophe might bring make us kinder—or not—towards one another. I thought a lot about the personal losses we experience in life—deaths, of course, but other disappointments and failings also—and wondered how those losses would be re-scaled in the wake of a national or global unraveling. It seemed unlikely that personal grief would dim. But maybe it could expand in some kind of meaningful way. So yes, the personal dramas and sorrows were always forefront for me. Also, I knew from my review of the literature that most apocalyptic stories were about gloom and doom. Cormac MacCarthy’s The Road came out early on in my process, and I thought, Oh crap, how can I compete with that? But after reading it, I thought, Yay, my book is nothing like this. My book has light! It really does. In fact, for a long time there was so much light that friend-readers said it was “too Sesame Street.” I had to keep adding more and more menace, right down to the last edits.

Also, speaking of drama, since one of the perspectives comes from a teenaged girl, there’s a moment to ponder the realities of getting your period in the wake of a systems collapse. I mean, you wonder, right?

I loved the structure, the way we had the lynch pins of Beatrix and Carson on opposite ends, moving toward each other, and then there was Rosie’s story. Did you always plan the structure this way?  When I think about it, it’s a very clear narrative line, but when I read it, it felt so abundantly rich.

From the start, I knew there were two protagonists—Beatrix and Carson—at opposite ends of the country, in part because of that bereavement phone service. Early on in my process, I remembered the lovers in Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain and re-read it, realizing its structure was similar and could be useful. I even found the Cliff Notes online and printed out the plot summaries for every chapter, just to understand better how it worked. I was such a fiction novice—and still am. What propels me are pretty sentences and characters, not plot. I often joke that I chose way too complicated a story for my first novel and would have been better off writing simple tale, say, about a girl and her dog. I remain forever indebted to Frazier for writing Cold Mountain, which taught me so much.

Rosie emerged during the writing and became more and more significant with each draft. A key conversation with a friend one night at a bar finally taught me what fiction could do. Without giving too much away, my friend asked about Rosie’s journey and we ended up discussing the geography of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. I realized the power I had to make the seemingly impossible possible and that “far-fetched” sometimes just means we can deliver the payoff readers of novels so often want.

What kind of writer are you? Did the story slowly unfold, or were you writing, writing, writing, and then you discovered the story. And can you talk about what you are writing next? (No problem if you can’t. I always get tongue tied and stubborn when asked this.)

I’m the kind of writer that delights in the blank page and what unexpectedly appears there. One of my best writing days was meeting a tribe of orphan girls who’d escaped their group home to take up residence in a circle of abandoned train cars. (Perhaps I was summoning The Box Car Children?) I hadn’t planned them, they just showed up and I loved them. They got edited out of the book at some point, except for a small scene, but I still love them and loved writing them.

I knew the ending all along but was open to being led elsewhere. I think a lot of what I discovered through revision was how to create consequence and causality. If this, then that. And how to raise the stakes and build tension. (Again, lessons in plot!) I also discovered as I went how to trust the reader. My early drafts were so over-written. My poor agent and her assistant had to slog through 500 pages.

Right now I’m working on a memoir-ish thing, which feels imperative, as in something I need to finish before I can write another novel. It’s about trying—and failing—to make a baby and the untidiness of grief and the things I made instead and wanting to become an animal and becoming one.

Do you think our world can and will survive, and at what cost?

I think we will survive if we start understanding that it can fundamentally feel good to care about and support the well-being of others. That sounds cliché, but I do see so much of what’s ill about the world as rooted in greed, not just greed for more money or power but greed for being right and thinking one’s own ideology is better than anyone else’s. This speaks to both capitalism and a jihad that uses terror to win.

Sometimes I think the best thing I can do on any given day is have a conversation with a neighbor or make eye contact with and say hi to someone I might be slightly afraid of.

I do think balms come in the form of stories and art, but I don’t know if that will be enough.
What I think stories and art do is help us feel connected—the way rock concerts and sports games can, but without all the flashing lights and advertising. I’m not opposed to internet connection, but at some point we have to stand next to each other, if only to feel the warmth of each other’s elbows, to remember we breathe the same air.

Air. I think air might be one of the “costs” we could soon pay. Our greed means we forget to care for the things we can’t see. I worry a lot about nature and the way our belief in “jobs” over “workers” and “workplace” means we justify things like C02 emissions.


What’s obsessing you now and why?

I’m thinking a lot right now about forests and animals, particularly because in the Southwest, given the intensity and frequency of wildfires, our forests here are not likely to recover. That means, they’ll end. Scientists and dendochronologists know this and speak of it matter-of-factly, but not many people around me talk about it. I don’t think it has sunk in. It’s so hard to fathom a no-forest region.

I’m particularly fascinated with the non-hierarchical, non-linear systems that forests use to survive. Trees communicate via fungal networks at their roots that send messages related to temperature, light, and moisture. They can nourish one another this way and do so even across species. I love that this system is horizontal and turns upside down (ahem) the long-held idea of trees as vertical and linear. I think we have a lot to learn from trees about how to be better humans and live together in community.

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

Maybe, something like—Given that it took you over a decade to write the book, is it as relevant now as when you started?

Yes. Maybe more so. For a long time, I worried that I’d missed the catastrophe boat, so to speak. The 2008 economic crash happened and then the 2016 election and the end times kept seeming to close in. But there are always end times in our imagination. Which is why there is always post-apocalyptic fiction. To exist is to also imagine non-existence and future existence. We can’t know the light unless we also know the dark.

More directly, I think we’re in the midst of a seismic shift, particularly in the US, but also globally, given this country’s role in the world. If we agree that the presidency of Donald Trump has pulled back a veil allowing more people to see the dirt that is the oligarchy, the patriarchy, and the white supremacy, and if we agree that climate change and the lack of political will to accept and address it (by those same hierarchies I just mentioned) will irrevocably change both natural and human communities, then it really does feel like an ending is coming. And honestly, I think we need an ending. A country built on genocide and slavery, no matter its other virtues, doesn’t really stand on strong and loving feet. We’re seeing that now. So perhaps it’s time for this America to fall. And if we’re still around to rebuild, let’s build something new. Let’s look into the darkness and reach horizontally to find the superhero in our neighbors and the superpower in our collectivism.

Maybe that’s romantically ideal.

Monday, June 3, 2019

The acclaimed novelist Susan Richards Shreve talks about memory, mystery, family an her stunning new novel MORE NEWS TOMORROW






My first encounter with the magnificent Susan Richards Shreve was with her novel MIRACLE PLAY. I had just sold my very first novel, MEETING ROZZY HALFWAY, and my then editor told me that I had to read this novel, that the author and the book would change my life and help me to be a better writer. I studied that novel, every page of it, to see how I might learn from it. I still have my copy, which is now dog-eared, along with every other novel Susan has written.

Here is the official and impressive bio: Susan Shreve is the author of fifteen novels, most recently You Are the Love of My Life, a memoir Warm Springs: Traces of a Childhood and twenty-nine books for children. She has edited or co-edited five anthologies and her essays have appeared in several collections as well as The New York Times, The Washington Post and several magazines.
She was co-founder and has been a Professor in the Master of Fine Arts Program at George Mason University for more than forty years. Susan has been a Jenny Moore Fellow at George Washington University, a visiting writer at Princeton University, for several years at the School of the Arts of Columbia University, Bennington College Summer Seminars and Goucher College.
In 1985, she co-founded the PEN/Faulkner Foundation and served for thirty years most recently as Chairman. PEN/Faulkner began as an award in Fiction but developed a Writers in Schools Program in which more than 200 writers discuss their books in all of the DC public and public charter schools. The writers work as well with incarcerated youth and pregnant high school students.
She has been a recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship in Fiction, a grant in fiction from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Grub Street Award in Non-Fiction, the Alumni Award at the Sidwell Friends School, and the Writers for Writers Award from Poets and Writers. She serves on the Advisory Board of Poets and Writers, the Advisory Board of 826DC and the board for The Cheuse International Center at George Mason University.

And here is some of the praise for her astonishing new novel, MORE NEWS TOMORROW, about a daughter struggling to understand the reasons for her mother's mysterious death:


"Shreve creates a spooky atmosphere with stormy weather, eerie parallels between past and present, and at least one threateningly crazy woman. Even spookier is the backdrop of 20th-century racism, anti-Semitism, and anti-immigration feelings that are all too familiar today.
Part gothic novel, part adventure story, but primarily a meditation on surmounting misfortunes that may lie beyond an individual’s control." Starred Kirkus
“With a keen sense of place and pacing, Shreve weaves a subtle but unrelenting pattern of malevolence in this portrait of a woman burdened by the sins of her father and sustained by her unshakable belief in his innocence." Booklist

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





I always suspect that writers are haunted into writing a particular book, that there’s a “why now” feeling you can’t resist. Was it this was for More News Tomorrow? Was there something haunting you that you had to write?

I was looking through my mother’s photographs and came to one of my grandfather and grandmother who never knew sitting side by side n a rowboat on the lake of the boys camp in Northern Wisconsin which my grandfather owned.  

By the time I had put away the box of pictures and gone downstairs,  the man in the photograph had become a Lithuanian Jewish immigrant in June 1941 at a campsite called Missing Lake where has stopped to spend the night  with his cold, anti-Semitic wife and four year old daughter.
That night his wife is strangled and in the morning he confesses to the murder and is taken to the state prison.

Where that story came from I do not know…but there it was and I was driven to write it.

I loved the canoe trip, which terrified me, but kept me reading with panicked fingers. Is this something you are brave enough to do?

Obsessed, I might.  But no.  I like canoes but not on rivers.

Memories—what we forget, and what we only think we remember—figure prominently in this novel, which brings me to the question. Do you think the brain knows the difference between a real memory and one we have somehow pushed ourselves to believe?

I do think the brain knows--but memory is fickle and sometimes, even often, we tell ourselves the story that we want to believe is true. And then it is true. 

You always have such a deep, exquisite understanding of family (and human) relationships in every book, especially this one. Do you think that writing about families has taught you something that you could not or did not learn living in the midst of real relationships?

I am from a very small family, almost no extended family and what I longed to have growing up was a large family who filled the house. I wanted safety in numbers and dependable company.  I had four children and filled the house with people and my head with characters. It was of course more complicated than my imaginings but I feel as if I’ve been a student of families since I was a child for themselves and as a microcosm of the larger world.

You’ve had such a long, brilliant career, that I want to ask: has every book changed you, both in how you write and personally? How did More News Tomorrow?

I used to know the end of the book at the beginning and that was reassuring.  I knew it would end. But sometime in the late nineties I would start a book with no sense of what exactly I was writing and no anticipation of its conclusion.  There was a wonder in trusting that the end would surface inevitably and since then I have been conscious of my own change in the books I write.  

 What’s obsessing you now and why?

After my husband died three years ago, I discovered the sweet, heartbreaking suicide note his first wife had left him when she died. He was 28.  And I’ve kept the black note with white script as a strange treasure.  Reading it over again and again, I have fallen in love with my husband as if for the first time. 

Why? There it sits—waiting for something to happen.  A book.  A short story.  A play. Maybe a play.  I l used to write plays, quite bad ones.  I’d  like to try again with the suicide note.






Thursday, May 23, 2019

Think it's difficult to raise a child today? Therese O'Neill talks about her hilarious, smart book, UNGOVERNABLE: The Victorian Parents' Guide to Raising Flawless Children.





Therese Oneill is absolute one of the most hilarious people on the planet, and this compendium of terrifyingly odd parenting tips from the Victorian era is a book you want to buy extra copies of because your friends NEED this book. Therese is also the author of another fabulous book: Ummentionable: The Victorian Lady's Guide to Sex, Marriage, and Manners. Thank you so much for being here!

I love this book so much I want to marry it. How did you ever think to write about this? What was the why now moment?

First of all, thanks, Caroline. The book is too young to consider your offer of marriage but yet you honor our family name with your proposal.

I had this idea the day I signed the contract for my first book “Unmentionable.” I thought a “what to expect when you’re expecting VICTORIAN STYLE!” would be a natural follow up to a book about how to be a tidy Victorian lady.  Let me loop your next question about the research being hilarious/horrifying in here.

Within a month of research I was on the phone to my agent saying “TELL THEM WE GIVE THE MONEY BACK THIS IS THE WORST IDEA FOR A FUNNY BOOK EVER O GOD IT’S ALL WHISKEY AND LEECHES THAT DON’T EVEN WORK!!”

Which my very supportive agent and editor (Jessica Papin and Jean Garnett respectively) would not allow. I am from Oregon and New York ladies just terrify me. Manhattan needs more weed and Birkenstocks.  

I thought it would be hilarious. But I began my research by looking in my own collection of “Mother’s Books” of the era. And it was page after page of “how to keep your baby from dying from mumps. From malaria. From coughing too hard. From a bad a cold. From a frickin’ splinter that turned a whole leg gangrenous…”

It took twice as long to write as LB had hoped…because the research had to be circumnavigated around the absolute horror of being a child in the 19th century. Worse than even older centuries…Industrial Revolution and Westward Expansion tripling the dangers of the poor mites.

I dipped, dipped into the bleakness, it would have been just too blithe and disrespectful not to, whenever it couldn’t be avoided, particularly the story of how child abuse became against the law.  

So in short, there is so much I didn’t use that I could write a whole ‘nother book about it. But I’m not going too.


Obviously, parenting is going to change yet again, and the helicopter parenting of now will probably give way to all of us raising our kids like wolves. But is there anything that you think will stay consistent? 

You ask freakin’ smart questions and I love you for that. Well, I figure it’s like this. Almost other the Mother’s Books of the era, written by both respected women and doctors, would recommend never picking up a baby just because it was crying. That it must learn to self soothe if it is not it’s designated feeding time. That’s so wrong by our standards. We can take away that little innocent’s pain by just holding her, and “designated feeding time”? That’s crap! They got teeny bellies!

But there is a reason “experts” recommended that back then. Mother had three meals to cook, at least one of which involved chasing down a live animal and slaughtering it, which stoking a fire that might at any second catch the house alight while teaching the five year old to read while doing her part for the church charity committee for the new widow in town…she wanted to pick up that little bundle, as bad as any mom does. But if she did…she’d have a child who could only find comfort in her arms. And she did not have enough arms.

The environment demanded a certain sort of loving parental care. Tough love, we’d call it. She was nipping the babies suffering in the bud.

The thing that remains constant therefore, is we freakin love those little goobers. We want them to thrive, for their path to be trouble free, for them to supercede up in all things. The environment we live in dictates how we’ll do that. And if we get to the point they get to run around like wolves, hurrah for civilization, because that means we believe our children to be safe and strong.

This book could have been written in a number of ways, but I loved the quirky tone you used, and the hilarious captions of the illustrations. Did you know it was going to be that way from the get go?

I have to be a smart ass when I write. Or bare bones tragic. I prefer smartass. My first book was image heavy because so many of these forgotten things need to be SEEN to be understood. And also…heh…I love inappropriate captions. Too much Far-Side and Mystery Science Theater 3000 as a kid. The q&a format was something I hadn’t planned…but it evolved naturally. Most parenting books are q&a…plus I wanted to give all the readers who thought my “voice” (brothel madam crossed with dowager countess?) of my first book was too condescending to have a chance to argue with me. It kept the satire from becoming bitter, and I didn’t want it bitter. That’s why I die inside every time a reviewer uses the word “snark.” I am not snarky. I’m satirical. There’s a pronounced difference, the bastards. (don’t quote that);                                                                               

What’s obsessing you now and why?

Lane Bryant catalogs from past decades. The women in my family have relied on them for the entirety of Ms. Bryant’s reign, over 100 years now. In the 90’s, some sort of revolution happened where fat-girl clothes because…PEOPLE clothes. Now I can literally find anything I want in size “fat” (I never owned a pair of jeans til college when they figured out to put some stretchy spandex in with the denim…it was rough going for a kid and teen) but the journey was agonizing, mystifying. All of Lane Bryant’s pre-1990 models, for instance, are size 2. I just received a catalog from the 60’s I want to dive into…I wonder how much the world would like to learn about fat chicks. Why did we hate them? Why was an ultimate sign of failure? Why did it change? Why do 1980s models look at you like they wish you’d fall off their yacht while this centuries models grin and hold their arms out to welcome you to the party? I hear you’re good at stuff like this, whaddya you think?

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

“What took you so long, you turd?” You shoulda asked that. I deserved that. I am sorry for the delay. The timing was insurmountable because like I said…Oregonian. Thank you so much for the opportunity to overload you with information. I’m really proud you liked the book. And thank you for your time and attention.

Wednesday, May 22, 2019

War. Prejudice. Race. And the experience of "the other." Christian Kiefer talks about his remarkable new novel PHANTOMS, and more.




Christian Kiefer is a poet, musician and the knockout author of The Animals, One Day Soon Time Will Have No Place to Hide, and now Phantoms, a blistering great novel about war, prejudice and the Japanese-American experience. I'm not the only one to love this novel with a passion. Take a look at these raves:
“Haunting.... Ray’s poignant suffering is but one example of the bigotry and fear experienced by Japanese born U.S. citizens after Pearl Harbor, the same bigotry and fear of the other that still sadly exists in America today.... YA: Ray’s story of young love and loss as well as an often omitted aspect of WWII history will resonate with teens.” — Deborah Donovan, Booklist
“Kiefer's sweeping novel (after One Day Soon Time Will Have No Place to Hide) examines the ways war shapes the lives of ordinary people.... Kiefer's story sheds light on the prejudice violence ignites and on the Japanese American experience during a fraught period of American history, and makes for engaging and memorable outing.” — Publishers Weekly
“Sweet life spills from every perfect word. It will break your heart, and in the breaking, fill you with bittersweet but luminous joy.” — Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
“Set in the golden foothills of the Sierra Nevada and spanning the middle decades of the twentieth century, Phantoms tells the intertwined stories of two families, two wars, and two soldiers trying to make their way home. Exploring the brutal legacies of racism and war with unflinching honesty and incandescent prose, this novel asks: Who gets to tell their stories, and who doesn’t? What if you’re entrusted with—or thrust into—someone else’s story? Who gets to find their way home?” — Naomi J. Williams, author of Landfalls
“Christian Kiefer is a masterful writer, and this magisterial novel is aching with beauty and power. This is a great book.” — Luis Alberto Urrea, author of The House of Broken Angels
 
I always think that writers are haunted into writing the books they write. What was haunting you?

I think haunting is a great way to put it; the haunting here has largely to do with my community—not just in terms of where I grew up but people who look like me and, conversely, who don’t. I live in semi-rural Placer County, a place that has doubled in size since I was a child here but which is still basically a small town. Perhaps 12K population in all, and not part of any kind of urban sprawl. But you know, communities like mine are wonderful in a great many ways but they can also be inflexible, fearful, racist, insular, and so on. I love my community, but there was a story in its history that needed to be talked about, a kind of shame that we hold in our past, one common to the western states during the period of the second world war.

I  was stunned by the terrible plight of the Takahashis, whose home was taken when they went into an internment camp during WWII. This is a shameful part of American history and I imagine the research you did was harrowing. What startled you as you were researching?

I think I’m at a point in my life where I’m difficult to startle, especially when it comes to the history of race in America. Americans use a certain kind of “we” when addressing themselves and while “we” like to think it’s inclusive, it’s really just the opposite. Much of what I was trying to get to, intellectually, was a notion that Asian Americans are never thought of as simply “American,” no matter how many generations have been born and raised in this country. It’s staggeringly simple and obvious to any person of color and yet white readers may never have thought about Americanness in this way. (Which itself is strange and insular.)

I deeply admired the structure of the book, the way you could have focused solely on John, the Vietnam vet who comes home, but instead, you went deeper into the generations with his aunt, and with her former neighbor, a Takahashi, making all of these people so deeply alive, the pages practically breathe. Which brings us to the question about what kind of writer you are. Do you feel that you build on each book you’ve written, or is each book something totally new?

I think writers mostly set up new problems to solve for themselves, or at least that’s how I go about it. I’ve been really interested in the work of Peter Taylor and read a bunch of him when I was trying to figure out the tone of John Frazier’s voice in Phantoms. John’s always a kind of dodge for me; I didn’t really feel comfortable writing directly about the Japanese and Japanese American experience so John provided a way to “tell all the truth but tell it slant,” as Emily Dickinson put it.

I wish I could say otherwise, but this book seems all pointed to what is going on in our society today. Do you think we can ever change?

God how horrifying when the book—which I had finished before Trump’s election—suddenly became topical. I don’t really know how to answer the question except to look towards what’s positive right now, which is the literary community. We are in the midst of what may well be the greatest renaissance in the history of American letters, which is truly unprecedented proliferation of voices published by all kinds of presses. We’re in the era of Jesmyn Ward and Claire Vaye Watkins and Lauren Groff and Ann Beattie and Deborah Eisenberg and Danielle Evans and Christine Schutt and ZZ Packer and Valeria Luiselli—all alive and doing amazing work at the same time. It’s incredible. What a time to be a writer and a reader!

What’s obsessing you now and why?

Well I’m always obsessed with reading. I’m a fan first and, I think, a writer second. I’ve been trying to get a handle on what’s happening in science fiction a bit, although I often feel a bit at odds with the tropes. Still, I’ve been reading Gene Wolfe and Cixin Liu and others and have been enjoying it all, although the writing’s often beside the point. My biases are for language and a certain kind of ornate writing and the best of sci-fi doesn’t deal much with that kind of nonsense, Gene Wolfe and perhaps Tolkien being, perhaps, exceptions. But there are certainly other lessons to be learned about getting to the point!

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

I think the big question of Phantoms is why anyone needs another white male writer saying anything about race and my answer is that we really don’t. I’m very hesitant to take up any room in the discussion, although I think, in the end, that I do have something to say about it. It might be better to spend time, though, reading folks like Viet Thanh Nguyen, Matthew Salesses, Bich Minh Nguyen, Alexander Chee, Paul Yoon, Porochista Khakpour, Aimee Phan, and Celeste Ng. These are just of few of the real geniuses who are coming at issues of identity, humanity, and race from fresh angles and perspectives—and who are bringing a fierce emotional and intellectual energy to narrative.

Friday, April 12, 2019

The amazing Marcia Butler talks about twins, writing, being a master of many art forms, identity, New Yorkers, and her wonderful racking-up-the-raves novel PICKLE'S PROGRESS


 





Marcia Butler is amazing. She's not only one of my favorite people on the planet, but she's been a  professional musician, interior designer, documentary filmmaker, and author. As an oboist, the New York Times has hailed her as a “first rate artist.” During her musical career, she performed as a principal oboist and soloist on the most renowned of New York and international stages, with many high-profile musicians and orchestras – including pianist Andre Watts, and composer/pianist Keith Jarrett. Her interior designs projects have been published in numerous shelter magazines and range up and down the East coast, from NYC to Boston, to Miami. The Creative Imperative, her documentary film exploring the essence of creativity, will release in Spring 2019. Marcia’s nationally acclaimed memoir, The Skin Above My Knee, was one of the Washington Post’s “top ten noteworthy moments in classical music in 2017”. She was chosen as 2017 notable debut author in 35 OVER 35. Her writing has been published in Literary Hub, PANK Magazine, Psychology Today, Aspen Ideas Magazine, Catapult, Bio-Stories and others. Marcia was a 2015 recipient of a Writer-in-Residence through Aspen Words and the Catto Shaw Foundation. She was a writing fellow at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, and a writer in residence at The Betsy Hotel. 

Her new novel PICKLE'S PROGRESS is astonishing. Don't believe me? Just look at these raves:


“A suicidal jump off the George Washington Bridge sets the lives of four New Yorkers careening out of control in the mordant debut novel by memoirist Butler…. With detached wit and restrained horror at her characters’ behavior, Butler explores the volatile nature of identity in this provocative novel.” —Booklist

“Identical twins Stan and Pickle McArdle live tangled lives, fulfilling expectations imposed on them in childhood by their controlling mother… Butler’s debut is character-driven…the book starts with a crash then slows as the characters’ personalities develop. In this study of how childhood experiences shape perception, and how deception keeps people caged, Butler shows that nothing need be set in stone.”—Kirkus Reviews

“The four main characters in Pickle’s Progress seem more alive than most of the people we know in real life because their fears and desires are so nakedly exposed. That’s because their creator, Marcia Butler, possesses truly scary X-ray vision and intelligence to match.” —Richard Russo

“Oh, what a pickle Pickle’s Progress puts us in–a duke’s mixture of villainy, deceit, betrayal, and, Lord help us, romantic love–all of it rendered in prose as trenchant as it is supple. Clearly, Ms. Butler is in thrall to these fascinatingly flawed characters (us, but for time, circumstance, and bank account), and by, oh, page 15 you will be, too. Let’s hope this is just the first of many more necessary novels to come.” —Lee K. Abbott, author of All Things, All at Once

“How does healing happen? Sometimes in quirkier ways than you might expect. Butler’s blazingly original novel debut (her memoir The Skin Above My Knee made me want to run away and join an orchestra) is a quintessential moving, witty, New York City story about the love we think we want, the love we get, and the love we deserve, all played out with symphonic grace. I loved it.” —Caroline Leavitt, New York Times Bestselling author of Pictures of You and Cruel Beautiful World

“Like the first icy slug of a top-shelf martini, Marcia Butler’s debut novel is a refreshing jolt to the senses. Invigorating, sly and mordantly funny, Pickle’s Progress offers a comic look at the foibles of human nature and all the ways love can seduce, betray and, ultimately, sustain us.” —Jillian Medoff, bestselling author of This Could Hurt

“Marcia Butler’s debut novel Pickle’s Progress is funny, sharp, totally original, and completely engrossing. It joins the pantheon of great New York novels. I loved every page.” —Julie Klam, New York Times bestselling author of The Stars In Our Eyes

“Marcia Butler’s debut novel, Pickle’s Progress, is a fierce and glorious NY story. Written in brave and startling prose, Butler has written a fast-paced tale of identical twin brothers and the women in their orbit, who collide and dance in a haunting tale of tragedy, passion and love. Throughout this surprising work, we see NY in all its beauty and raunchiness, with a finely tuned soundtrack, so that the city itself becomes an integral part of the complex and compelling plot. Rare is the brilliant memoirist who also writes fiction with the same sure hand, but Marcia Butler is such an author.” —Patty Dann, bestselling author of Mermaids

“Pickle’s Progress is a wild trip into the heart of New York City with wonderful, complicated, highly functioning alcoholics as tour guides. Marcia Butler’s characters are reflections of the city they live in: beautiful but flawed, rich but messed up, dark and hostile – but there’s love there, if you know where to find it. Butler’s sharp, artistic sensibilities shine through here, and the result is a brutal, funny story of family, regret, and belonging.” —Amy Poeppel, author of Limelight

“New York City is all about three things: Money, Real Estate and Sex. In Pickle’s Progress, Marcia Butler has neatly tied them all together by focusing on one scarily dysfunctional family. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll shake your head, but you’ll keep turning those pages to find out what happens to Karen, Stan, Junie and Pickle in this riveting, dramatic version of musical chairs.” —Charles Salzberg, author of Second Story Man and the Shamus Award nominated Henry Swann series.



 I cannot thank you enough, Marcia!
A Conversation with
Marcia Butler
Author of
Pickle’s Progress




Q) What inspired you to write this story about twins and complicated family relationships? How does their relationship exemplify the themes or messages you wanted to examine?

A) A few things came together for me when I began this novel. The surface inspiration was a set of identical twin sisters I knew from college days. One of them had just become engaged and confided in me that she was worried that her fiancé was attracted to her sister, who appeared virtually indistinguishable. She summoned the courage to ask him and he denied any attraction whatsoever. She felt reassured and relived. (They are still married!) Yet, I remained suspect; how could he not be attracted to the sister? This notion became the territory which I then explored more deeply in my novel regarding nature vs. nurture in family of origin.

Another influence inserted itself into Pickle McArdle’s character and story line in an almost stealth way. I recognized this only after the book was complete. This is an example of how the author will most assuredly insert some aspect of herself because she is writing from her personal psychological prism, and cannot help doing so. I came from a large family with five children and was always painfully aware that I was not the favored child. And it became my childhood mission to first, somehow understand why I was so low in the pecking order, and second, to try and be a “better” child so I might float to the top. That never happened. But this imprint of the child’s struggle to please the parent who could never be pleased, landed squarely in my novel.

My protagonist, Pickle McArdle, is the least favored twin. Growing up, his mother prefers his brother, Stan, in the most appalling and damaging of ways. Pickle bears these scars well into his adult life and the impact of this neglect informs the relationships he has with women. That being said, the bond of identical twins is significant. In spite of their disparate upbringings, the McArdle twins still seem to pull strength and purpose from each other. The deep connection of twin-ship is juxtaposed with a mother’s effort to destroy her least favored son. My novel watches this rub play out as Pickle tries to get the love he never had.

Q) Your main characters Pickle and Stan are wonderfully imperfect and what Richard Russo described as “more alive than most of the people we know in real life.” What is your approach to writing characters that are nuanced and deeply human?

A) It will become obvious to anyone who reads my novel that I am not afraid for my characters to behave badly, hurt each other, and most importantly, hurt themselves. A lot of mischief goes on and I was comfortable allowing my characters a wide berth to behave in ways that defy some manner of “literary logic.” Because real life is, and always will be, bigger and larger and stranger than most fiction. Based on my observations of people throughout my life, where much behavior was not logical, I gave myself permission to let the stops out with regard to recklessness. It doesn’t mean my characters are bad people. Rather, what I hope comes through is that they are damaged souls. And this contrary notion – the surface action and the underlying reason for that action – has always been an aspect of how I see people reveal their true vulnerability. As my characters take risks and surprise the reader, they are exposing themselves in ways that raise the stakes of their lives and this presses the plot forward to an unimaginable conclusion.

Q) What was the experience like when you made the shift from writing personal nonfiction to creating fictional characters and the world they live in?

A) Freedom. That pretty much sums up the overwhelming sensation I had when writing about people I could make up and bring to life, rather than tacking strictly to the facts and people in my own life as I had for my memoir. The characters in my novel are completely unfamiliar to me and I was happy to meet them and eager to see where they would take me. With that in mind, I had no plot laid out beforehand and I let Pickle drive the bus. While writing this novel, I had the distinct sensation that I was sight-reading a piece of music I’d never heard before. So, the discovery of the story unfolded as if the notes were being played for the very first time. Risky and wonderful. I should have been afraid – but I’ve always been a bit of a renegade and have taken many chances throughout my life with regard to how my creative expression has emerged.

Q) What was the most challenging part of writing this novel? What was the most fun?

A) Learning the craft of novel-writing while I wrote the novel, was surely a challenge. In all art forms one needs to understand and perfect the rules before one can break them. Though, I took some comfort in the fact that I’d written a memoir and even in that context, the author still needs to fashion a really compelling narrative. This is my first novel so I proceeded by trial and error – almost like feeling my way along a dark tunnel. That wasn’t an altogether bad feeling, though, because I’m old enough to know how to tolerate the discomfort of difficulty and frequent defeat. And the fun came, ironically, in the exact same way! What a great thing to navigate a new art form and come out the other side, so much richer for the experience. I did this thing – a novel! And looking back, I still have a hard time believing it!

Q) What is the significance of the book’s title? How was it chosen?

A) The title, which is meant to be ironic, came to me fairly early on. I love alliteration, so I stayed with the P’s. Pickle is working on all cylinders to manipulate all the people in his life in order to get what he thinks he wants: true love. Yet, with all of his shenanigans, he’s actually running in place. It isn’t until the very end of the novel that Pickle realizes the truth: his heart’s desire was always there, right in front of him. It’s a kind of “no place like home” moment.

Q) You are an accomplished artist of many mediums. How has your experience in music, interior design, and film informed your writing?

A) Past artistic careers have set up an architecture of aesthetic discernment that informed my memoir and now, my novel-writing. My journey as a writer in many ways feels intuitive, but I know that is not really the case. Music, art and design, and film making all provide a foundation which I’ve funneled into my writing. All art forms are vehicles for storytelling and exploring the human condition. The transaction of the artist to the receiver is universal: The artist creates. The art is then in the world. The world then experiences the gift of the art. With this in the forefront of my mind, I can explore freely because I understand the nature of making art in the world. I try not to think about exact influence because I consider life to be a continuum of experience. Everything is connected. Everything.