Saturday, October 13, 2018

Anne Lamott (!) talks about why dying in real life is not like dying in the movies, how to not hate those in power, grace, grief, love and so much more in ALMOST EVERYTHING: NOTES ON HOPE.

I'm so thrilled to host Anne Lamott here. But first, some personal stuff.

This is what I know about Anne Lamott:

Many years ago, after I lost a baby 3 1/2 months into my pregnancy, I wrote Anne Lamott. I didn't know her. I had never met her.  But somehow, in my grief and pain, I thought she would understand  and I needed to write her. Imagine my shock when I came home to find this compassionate, funny, smoky voice on my answering machine talking about what I had gone through and how I would be okay. THAT IS ANNIE LAMOTT, folks.

Fast forward. Algonquin had a series where they had really big, famous authors, interview not-so-big or not-so-famous ones. Annie agreed to interview me. The place was packed, but what I remember most was getting in a limo (!) with Annie and she dug into her purse and pulled out half a peanut butter sandwich and said, "Hungry? Want this?" THAT, TOO, IS ANNIE LAMOTT, folks

Through the years, we've stayed in touch. I've read everything she's written, and this book ALMOST EVERYTHING got to me in a way nothing she's written before ever has. Of course, I was laughing, but I was also weeping in parts. About grief, death, politics, kindness, family, cookies, and so much more, this is just an extraordinary book, and I'm thrilled to host Anne Lamott here. 

This seems like such an important book for now. At points, I was weeping (I was also laughing, too, so there is that.) Let’s talk about Almost Everything. Why the almost?  Why do you think almost is necessary? I mean, what if we knew everything? Could there really be no growth?

 The original title of this book was Doomed: A Book of Hope, but we changed it to Almost Everything because it is really Almost Everything I know of any importance that I can pass on to my 15 year old niece and 9 year old grandson. I wanted to pass along everything that would have been so helpful to me along the way—that everyone is a mess deep in, and it just hurts to compare your insides to other people’s outsides. That families are hard, hard, hard. That all truth is paradox. That writing never goes well, but here are some tips I know about how to get it done very day.

It’s “almost” because some of the stuff I know something about—ie how to stay sober over time, how to survive the loss of a dog—is material I’ve already written about, that might not be relevant to the young people in my family or the public at large.

These are dark political days, and for a long time, I clung to the Mr. Rogers’ quote, about “looking for the helpers.” I feel like your book really is doing the same thing. Instead of hating, which is easy to do, AND it sometimes feels good to do it, we need, instead, to get rid of it so we can focus on what we can do—and sometimes that’s just the smallest thing. Can you talk about this please?

Well, there’s a whole chapter of not letting them get you to hate them, because the. You turn INTO them, and you lose your center and strength.  But the willingness for me to change—in this case to look at my hate and judgment—comes from the pain of not changing.  And all important change happens Incrementally, and from awareness—you notice what a jerk you’re being in traffic, and how it makes you feel, i.e.  uptight and self-righteous—so instead, you start letting people go first, and that feels lovely. That feels like a world you would like to live in—so you help begin to create it.  
 You devoutly believe in God, yet you welcome all those who do not, which is really generous and wise. But why do you think things have gotten so worse for us as a whole people and a whole planet? Have we not been tested enough? And what do you think is the best way for us to not freak out about statistics, like our planet has ten more years, or the GOP want to do away with preexisting conditions on health insurance?

  My theory about how things have gotten so awful and insane is that this is the end of the 50’s, where males dominated and women were subservient and didn’t partake of the wealth and power—and the male power structure is terrified and very angry about having to share.  It’s dying dinosaurs, doing a tremendous amount of damage with their tails.

     The best way not to freak out is to offer warmth and light to oneself, and then to the world, through small acts of generosity, and creation.  I love the quote of the priest who helped AA get off the ground, that sometimes heaven is just a new pair of glasses. So we take off the bad glasses, that see and fixate on the deterioration and conflicts everywhere, and we look out through the good glasses, through which we see the beauty all around us—look up! At the sky, the tree tops, the moon and stars. We see how beautifully, lovingly people are taking care of others.  We see a few things that are actually working, that help us keep the little flames insight us lit.  We see people to serve.  We see the help and comfort that surrounds us.

Your chapter on families did me in. Families do indeed live imprints on us when we are young, and to survive, we become those, but we don’t have to stay that label. That felt ridiculously freeing. I also loved your advice on not trying to save or change a family member. I spent years trying to “fix” my mom and the only thing that happened was she became increasingly resentful and angry and she never changed. And when I let go, we had a better, richer deeper relationship. This is such a hard lesson to learn! We can offer help, but if asked.  Do you think that trying to fix others is actually trying to fix ourselves?

I think (or know) that trying to fix or save others is hopeless, and of course I have spent my life, until a few years ago, trying to rescue and fix everyone. I eventually realized that NO ONE, not once, has ever gotten an alcoholic sober, or gotten a very heavy person to slim down. It always has to be an inside job.  But letting go of people and releasing them to their consequences, pain and higher powers (who turn out NOT to be us) often has the effect of giving them the space to begin healing. Or at least to begin to want to begin healing, which is huge.

We tried to fix our families because our parents needed us too.  If we hadn’t tried, hadn’t used our life force to pump our parents up out of their unhappiness, the entire ship of our families might have sunk and gone under. And if we didn’t believe we were the problem, because we were defective or annoying, it meant our PARENTS were a mess, and should have raised orchids instead of kids; which would have meant we were doomed. Thinking that we were inadequate was our only shot at having a little control, since we could try to do better, and need less. So we did that—but it didn’t work. (I hate that!) And it didn’t work better at 30, 50, 64 but it’s still my go-to default stop when people I love are going under—but the healing is that I now just try to fix and rescue for a couple of hours, instead of decades.

Having lost my mom a year ago, your chapter on death was really moving and helpful and full of hope. It actually made me cry, maybe because it didn’t have a bit of woo woo to it. Can you talk about how hard won this knowledge must have been?

    So hard won!  I had two unsurvivable losses—my father died after two years with brain cancer, and my best friend died after being diagnosed with breast cancer.  And both times, I was so incredibly close to them, and never left their side, and I learned that death was not like it is in movies. It’s very natural, excruciating, and beautiful, filled with grace and holy moments. Both dad and Pammy had Hospice helping them, and they are like the cavalry!  Hospice nurses are like midwives, so tender and caring and knowledgeable, and they taught me how to show up, listen, and savor the time I have with my most beloved. Ever since, I’ve shown to help people who are going to die, and again and again, I see the miracle of life, the miracle of the precious community. I see grace everywhere, even when my heart is breaking. All truth is paradox.
“Why is rarely a useful question,” you write. I want to dig into this a bit. Does this mean that when in discussion with people who have vehemently different political beliefs than ours, knowing where they came from won’t change things? For example, if a person has grown up in a white enclave in a rural area and has never met a Muslim and is terrified of them. That’s the why. They’ve had no experience. But what if they learn that that guy they always say hello to when they gas up their car, the one who always asks about the family, etc. etc.  is Muslim? They might change their views now that they know someone. So wouldn’t the why be important there?

I’m sort of grounded more in action steps of entering into difficult emotional states and predicaments--i.e confronting my own prejudices and fears.  I always wanted to know why why why when I was a child, and of course I still do.  We had a family friend when I was growing up who used to always answer, “Because that is it’s nature.”  I was raised by intellectuals, and believed there were codes I might break, or things I might achieve, after which I would be whole, or happy.  But it turns out that “figure it out” is not a good slogan. So, to answer your question, I think figuring out why why why is always fascinating and sort of addictive for me, but not ultimately useful.  What’s useful is doing the deep dive into the ways I am ignorant and/or self-righteous, followed by radical self-forgiveness. Then I carry that into the  world.

 You found love! You’re getting married!  What’s the lesson here?

My son Sam, who is 29 (!!) has “We never give up” tattooed on his forearm.  I’ve raised him with this battle cry and together we are teaching his son this.  About 4 years ago at a big fundraiser in a church in San Francisco, the interviewer asked me what dream I still held onto, after all the blessings and accomplishments of my life. I thought about quietly, and then in front of a thousand people, I said, “I’d like to be married.”  It was kind of shocking moment, to admit to such a deep longing. And then a couple of years later, I met this lovely man, brilliant and funny and kind and good-looking, and...two years later, a month ago, while we were watching the US Open tennis matches on TV, he asked me to marry him. So never give up. God is SUCH a show-off.

Friday, October 12, 2018

A woman who has the power to change the weather, what it means to fit in, and more. Cai Emmons talks about her dazzling new novel WEATHER WOMAN

 To say I loved Weather Woman is an understatement. Full of amazing science, and even more amazing characters, it's the kind of book you want to press into the hands of everyone you meet because you need them to read it so you all can obsess and talk about it.

Cai Emmons is the author of the novels His Mother’s Son (Harcourt) and The Stylist (HarperCollins). His Mother’s Son received starred reviews from Kirkus and Publisher’s Weekly, was a Booksense and Literary Guild selection, was translated into French and German, was reviewed by O Magazine and The Economist, and won an Oregon Book Award (the Ken Kesey Award) for fiction.

Her wonder-filled latest, Weather Woman, is the story of meteorologist Bronwyn Artair who discovers she has the power to change the weather. I am so thrilled to have Cai here. Thank you, Cai!

I was gobsmacked by your novel, by your insistent merging of both science and wonder. What was haunting you that led you to write this book? Why now?

 Since I was a young child I’ve been fixated on the weather, extreme weather in particular. Weather seemed to speak to and through my body. Sometimes, I really wanted the weather to be different—on cold and rainy Halloween nights for example—and sometimes I even imagined I might change the weather if I concentrated hard enough. When I became a writer, it was a natural outgrowth of this obsession to create a character who really could alter the weather. This idea started to really press on my consciousness over the recent years of extreme weather events.

 Where did you get your obvious love of weather? Did you research? What surprised you in your research? What did you learn about the intricacies of the brain? And is it true that a cubic foot of air carries enough energy to boil all the oceans of the world?

I love reading about science and often regret that I didn’t study more science in school. When I realized that this book would require delving deeply into meteorology and physics I was both excited and daunted. A book that I’d read earlier called The Intention Experiment became my springboard in thinking about the enormous untapped energy of the human brain/mind. The official research began with a “Great Courses” class about meteorology, 24 lectures by UCLA professor Robert Fovell, covering clouds, wind, tornadoes, cyclones, hurricanes, etc. Though it was supposedly an introductory class, much of it was beyond me, but I did my best. I read various other books about extreme weather and climate change and physics and neuroscience. One of my favorite books was The Cloud Collector’s Handbook, by Gavin Pretor-Pinney. I am still drawn to these books, still wanting to understand more about the mysteries of the universe. And, of course, the more you read the more questions arise.

 My research brought me to many startling facts about the capabilities of animals: some bears can smell food 18 miles away; moths have the best sense of hearing (better than humans); some bacteria use a magnetic navigation system; frigate birds, who spend weeks at a time in flight, sleep while they are flying (sometimes using only one brain hemisphere). Such factoids wowed me, particularly in terms of how we tend to underestimate the natural world around us.

Esteemed physicist Richard Feynman is credited in some places on the Internet with having said that a cubic foot of air carries enough energy to boil all the oceans of the world. Like you, I was blown away by that idea, and I’ve been trying to corroborate it. It turns out not to be quite right (though it’s true that a great deal of energy can be contained in a very small space). John Toner, my go-to physics friend who researches flocking and is a professor at the University of Oregon, says:

“A cubic foot of air at normal atmospheric temperature and pressure weighs about 30 g (roughly one ounce). Using that most famous of physics formulae E=mc2 implies that if you could somehow convert all of that mass into energy, you'd get three thousand trillion Joules, or about one billion kilowatt hours, or about 3/4 of a megaton, of energy. That's a pretty big bang, but only enough to boil a cube of water about half a mile on a side. You would actually have to convert a volume of air about two miles on a side into energy to get enough to boil all of the oceans.”

My final takeaway from most of the reading I did is that every living thing and every human action is made possible by an expression of energy at the atomic level. Even human thought is facilitated by energy and creates energy. From that idea I was able to imagine myself into Bronwyn’s power.

What moved me so deeply was the way you wrote about how none of us are alone, none of us should be alone, and we should all be connected to the earth. Can you talk about that please?

I think about this subject a lot. As individuals we so easily become wrapped up in our heads, our unique experiences and problems. Our culture encourages us to individuate and distinguish ourselves from others, but human beings are fundamentally social creatures, and when you look at the cultures that are deemed by anthropologists and sociologists to be most happy, they are the ones in which there is a strong sense of community. Isolation from others—in the sparsely populated state of Wyoming, for example, or among some elderly people—is strongly associated with depression and suicide. We need each other, even those of us who are introverts. And being with other people tends to make us happy.

 Bronwyn’s power originates with her strong attunement to the Earth. She notices the Earth and respects it. Near the end of the novel she discovers something she has been sensing all along—that she can’t save the Earth alone, even with her incredible sensibility and power. She needs the assistance and support of others. Whatever she does must be done in community—something the Arctic fox tries to convey to her.

 I love the love story between Bronwyn and Matt, two souls who don’t quite fit in the regular world, but who seem to me to be the kind of people our world needs more of. Could you talk about this please?

I liked writing about Bronwyn and Matt because they are both capable people who are always underestimating themselves. I have always been drawn to humble people, and I agree that there are too few of these people in the world. Matt hates himself for using his journalistic skills to fabricate untruths, and Bronwyn hates herself for being from lowly circumstances and not being able to withstand the rigors of academic science. But they are both able to unearth the shining light in each other.

 So much of this wonderful read is about the way we perceive, and how we control those perceptions.  At one point, a character says, “There’s always someone trying to normalize you,” which, I think, is unfortunately true. How can a person who is a square peg celebrate that?

Oh my god, how true this is! I think women, in particular, are susceptible to feeling they should be different: more sociable, more pleasing to others, more willing to take whatever job is offered them. Understanding that it’s okay to be who you naturally are and actually feeling it’s okay to be that person are often at odds. It has taken me decades to fully accept that I can be both outwardly expressive and “big” and also sometimes be a hermit. Assertion and the passage of time help in healing this disjuncture.

Bronwyn undergoes a big moment of self-acceptance when she defies her mentor and states unequivocally that she can do what her mentor believes is impossible. Once she has crossed that line, she can’t ever fully return to her retreating earlier self.

Your use of language was also wonderful. “Bouyant as a dust kitty,”  for example. Where did you get your love of language from? And for you, does the language come first or the story, or are they interchangeable?

I have loved language since I was quite young. When I was eight I began writing poetry. Much of it was nonsensical wordplay, stemming from my love of the sounds and rhythms words could make. That pleasure in words has never faded, but when I’m thinking about a novel it is usually catalyzed by some kind of what if…? What if I (or someone else) really could change the weather? That was the question that became the germ of Weather Woman. I love the extrapolation that begins to play out from posing such a question.

 What’s obsessing you now and why?

I am always thinking about the stories of women, what it means for a person to be born into a female body. I’m a relatively short woman, and in crowds I often feel claustrophobic and in danger of being stepped on. I recently started wondering how things would be different if women were generally taller and bigger and physically stronger than men while all else remained the same. This is not the premise of the novel I’m currently working on, but the novel touches on a similar obsession.

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

 Perhaps a question about the relationship between Bronwyn and Diane. When I came to the end of the novel I found myself feeling a lot of sympathy towards Diane and interest in how their relationship would play out. I was curious about how much she could change. I answered this question by writing a sequel—something I never, ever expected to do, but once I began it tumbled out. Sinking Islands is the title. 

Tuesday, October 9, 2018

Want to change your life? You MUST pre-order the sublime Jen Pastiloff 's (with a foreword by Lidia Yuknavitch!) memoir ON BEING HUMAN, A MEMOIR OF WAKING UP, LIVING REAL AND LISTENING HARD

Hi everyone. You know how important pre-orders are right? So I'm here telling you that you need to pre-order Jennifer Pastiloff's memoir ON BEING HUMAN --RIGHT NOW. Not just because of sales and attention--but because this memoir turned me inside out and I believe it might do the same for you. I was crying. I was underlining phrases. I was being changed with every line. It's really the story of a woman who thought she was nothing, and she became everything to so many people. She has a hearing loss, so she listens even more fiercely to everything and everyone.

Jen changed my life. She was the one who urged me to write about my mom's dementia, my mom's dying, the time when I almost had to make a choice about an abortion, and most importantly, she got me to admit that I, too, have wonky hearing, and claiming it just made everything easier and better. She's my heroine, and I am completely blissed out to claim her as my friend.

Here's the details:

 Jennifer Pastiloff, Beauty Hunter, is a public speaker who travels the world with her unique workshop: The Manifestation Workshop: On BeingHuman-a hybrid of yoga, writing, sharing out loud, and occasionally a dance party.  has been featured on Good Morning America, New York
Magazine, CBS News and more for her unique style of teaching. She’s developed a massive and loyal following from her personal essays. She also is co-editor of the magnificent online journal THE MANIFEST-STATION.

Check out Retreats for all retreat listings and Workshops to attend one in a city
near you.

She tweets/instagrams at @jenpastiloff.

And here's the incredible interview Jen gave me. And P.S. Jen, I've got you. I've always got you,

I’ve commented that what is so revolutionary about your moving memoir is that even though it most definitely is YOUR story, it feels like it’s all our stories—all of us who have felt we were not pretty enough, or smart enough, or lovable enough. Can you talk about this please?

 The through line I see the most in the work I do is the pervasive belief of “I am not enough.” I have been in workshops, rooms with eight-year-olds all the way up to women in their seventies, and a lot of them were saying the same things: I am afraid of what others think, I am not pretty enough, I am not enough. To feel less alone in our struggles is key to surviving. When we start to listen to each other, we realize that so many of us share the same Inner Assholes. One of the ways to quiet the IA is to talk about it and conquer it together. My IA is still alive and well but it’s quieter (some days) than it used to be.

You know that feeling you get when you hear someone speak, or read something, and you think, “Oh my God, that could be me talking?” We need more of that. Honest, un-curated, unashamed truths about who we are so that we can see that the idea of perfection is a MYTH. That we all have been striving for something non-existent. I do think that listening is the key. Fierce listening, or hard listening, to one another. So often we deal with the same feelings- different details, of course- but the same core feelings of shame or not-enoughness or pain. When we realize that we aren’t the only one, it’s like a big exhale. This is why the #metoo movement is so powerful. It’s the same idea. Me too.

 What kind of writer are you? Did you know how this memoir was going to unfold or were you stunned and surprised?

One thing I talk about in my book are Bullshit Stories, as you know, so if my Inner Asshole (IA) were to answer this question, it would say: I am not a real writer. But I know that isn’t true, that it is indeed a Bullshit Story

I don’t know what kind of writer I am. I started writing stories as a little girl. At NYU, I found poetry, and that really was my first great love. Still is even though I don’t write it much anymore. I am a writer who writes in bed, or on the couch (which is also a sofa bed) as her son and husband sleep (as I am doing right now), or in the car, or who doesn’t write for days, weeks, months. I am a writer who uses social media to write. I am a writer who has no “system.” I am a writer who writes some beautiful things and who also has written some godawful terrible sentences. I have found through this process of selling and writing a book, or rather, through my entire life, that there is no one right way. I can tell you that I do not take myself too seriously, or at least I try not to. Since I dropped out of NYU, I have always thought of myself as a failure. Since I taught yoga and got sort of “famous” for that, I was afraid I would be thought of as a joke, as some kind of woo-woo person, since I share a whole lot of intimate stuff on social media, I thought I wasn’t a “real writer” but I guess, in truth, the answer is: I sold a book. I have a book coming out into the world so whatever “kind” of writer I am, I did it. There is not one right way.There is only the way that YOU do it.

 What I also found revolutionary is the way you took what helped you and turned it into these stupefyingly successful yoga/writing workshops all over the world. How come yoga lends itself to all of this so well?

We store so much in the body. Everything, really. The idea I had was to get to a vulnerability that occurred when the body wasn’t in fight or flight mode. I wrote a poem years ago where I said “Do Yoga. Let everyone you’ve stored in your muscles out, every so often, to breathe.” I do think it’s like that- we keep things inside of us to any chance to move shit around is good. Having said that, I have people who have never done yoga, people in wheelchairs, people who come and just sit. The idea is to embrace the body rather than deny it.

 As someone who has spent the majority of my life trying to NOT be in my body, it felt like my life opened up when I stopped trying to run away from it. Be it yoga, or dance, or just swinging your arms, or simply breathing- I believe that when we connect to the what our body is saying, it’s easier to drown our IA (Inner Asshole) out. The body tells the truth.

I also have noticed that the more fatigued we get, the harder it is to keep our guards up. Sometimes, after a really long travel day, I cry. I have no idea what’s wrong, or why I am so weepy, until I go, “Oh yea, I am just really fucking tired.” I want to get us to that place in my workshop where our armor is off without having to have a really long travel day or being up for 24 hours straight. By using movement, it allows us to soften. I don’t care about the yoga part. That was a way in. A lot of times we just dance or sing or laugh. The idea is to not escape. I have always been an escape artist (anorexic, over exercising, binging, sleeping) so to just be with what’s happening in my body- that feels revolutionary. As Lidia Yuknavitch always says, your body has a point of view. I have found no greater truth. I am finally learning to listen.

 Every time I finish writing a book, I feel as if I’ve somehow rewritten myself, that I’ve changed. How did this memoir change you?

In many ways, I feel like it is the first time I really grieved for my father. Can you believe that? He died so many years ago, when I was a little girl, but I locked it inside of me and shut down. Writing this book opened me up in a way I thought was impossible. I thought the grief was too old that healing could never take happen.  And yet, it did. I am not suggesting that we ever get over losing someone or that I am “fixed” or “healed” but I allowed myself to feel things I never had for fear they would kill me. They did not kill me. I did not look away- which is the main tenet in my workshop- Don’t look away. To do that for yourself is life-changing. I looked at all of it- the beautiful and the hideous parts.

This is kind of embarrassing to admit but I also felt like an adult for the first time in my life. Even though I have a two-year-old, getting this book done made me battle some demons (the lack of planning, living in chaos etc) because I signed a contract and I had to get it done. It was one of the first time in my life, ugh, I hate admitting this, that I saw something to completion. It has given me a confidence and a sense of possibility now, though. I can do things. I can do what I thought I couldn’t. I try and remember that when I get caught up listening to my IA telling me all sorts of lies as to what a bad and lazy human I am.

This book also changed me because I found compassion for my mom. Everyone has a complicated life, everyone has stuff with their parents or their family, but writing this book gave me insight and I was able to finally see my mother as a human being who was doing the best she could. When you experience trauma as a child, as I did, it’s hard to not get stuck in the belief system from that time. The process of writing the book helped me rewire my belief system and also get to know my mother better.

My father-in-law died a quick and painful death from pancreatic cancer as I was writing it, which cracked me open and also forced me to revisit my father’s death, in a new light.

One of the things I talk about so much is not being an asshole. Don’t be an asshole, I always say. Writing the book made me realize I am still an asshole sometimes, but that I do my best and I am doing pretty good. I took a good hard long look at myself and I liked myself, which is a new feeling. The idea of embracing being human is largely based upon realizing that we are all assholes. Sometimes. And when we don’t look away, when we bear witness, when we tell the truth and listen, life becomes more bearable. I guess I did that with myself in writing this book, so whadya know? I also learned that I am an asshole who drinks too much coffee. (Approx 789990 cups during the process of writing On Being Human.)

What’s obsessing you now and why?

Releasing attachment to the outcome. Are people going to buy it? What if I said too much? Can I take it back? Am I too exposed? Are people going to help me the way I help others? Living in a one-bedroom with three bodies. My nephew’s constant starvation that he has from Prader Willi Syndrome. The state of our fucking country. If people are going to vote. Dying and leaving my son. My mom dying. The toilet paper Trump had on his shoe as he boarded Air Force One the other day. The fact that my coffee cup is empty- be right back.


Jodi Picoult talks about her provocative, heart-slamming, crucially important novel about an abortion clinic, ordinary lives, a shooting.

"Picoult writes with unassuming brilliance." Stephen King.
"Picoult at her fearless best." Washington Post

One of the most polarizing things in American politics right now is abortion rights. And #1 New York Times Bestselling author Jodi Picoult has a lot to say about it, in a novel that is as brave as it is thought provoking. Read it. Make your friends read it. Novels build empathy, change minds, and we need this more than ever. A Spark of Light follows a group of people during a shooting at an abortion clinic. Think you know the story? Think again.

I cannot thank Jodi enough for being here to talk about this.

You are the bravest writer I know. You’ve managed to make an abortion clinic shooting the topic of what I think is one of your most nuanced novels ever. What made you feel that now was the time to write about such a hot button topic? (And I’m so glad that you did.)

JP:  When I was in college, a friend got pregnant and after many conversations and teary nights, decided to have an abortion. I supported her 100%.  She was 7 weeks pregnant at the time.  Years later, I was seven weeks pregnant with my third child when I had complications and was told I might lose the pregnancy. I was devastated - to me, that was already a child.  How we feel about reproductive rights changes, not just whether we define ourselves as pro-life or pro-choice, but for an individual woman over the course of her own lifetime.  What a woman feels is right at 16 might not be what she feels at 30 or at 43.  Laws are black and white, but women are a thousand shades of gray - which is what makes legislating reproductive rights problematic. THAT was what made me want to write about this now, when Roe vs. Wade is under tremendous threat.

But this novel is also about guns, as well as abortion. Do you think we will ever find a solution to using violence to getting our ideas across (or stopping others from exercising their right to think differently?)

JP:  Not unless we pass common sense gun reform.  You know what’s really sad?  A journalist pointed out to me that this was also a gun reform book…and it had NEVER CROSSED MY MIND.  I was wrapped up in the reproductive rights issues and just took violence at a clinic as the norm. 

First, what startled you the most about your research?

JP:  Three things.  First, that when people talk about defunding Planned Parenthood, they are assuming that will stop abortions. In reality, 97% of the work PP does has nothing to do with abortion: health care for women, cancer screenings, STD screenings, birth control.  That 97% of care is federally funded.  What is NOT federally funded is the other 3% -- abortions.  If you go to a Planned Parenthood for your abortion, you pay for it.  So what that means is that if we defund Planned Parenthood, all that federal money will be taken away – and women’s health care suffers.  The only thing that Planned Parenthood will be able to do – the only care that supports itself monetarily – is abortion.  Which of course those who want to defund Planned Parenthood don’t realize.  Second – that those who are pro-life are not religious zealots, but people who I would be friends with and have over for dinner.  They too come from a place of deep conviction and compassion.  They don’t consider themselves to be anti-woman – but they truly believe life begins at conception and can’t figure out a way to reconcile that fact with the practice of abortion.  Third – of the 151 women I interviewed who had had an abortion, less than 25 wanted to be acknowledged in the book and the vast majority of those wanted to use a pseudonym or initials or be anonymous because they had never told their parents, partners, kids, employers, etc.  about their abortion.  That made me so sad. Women live under an umbrella of stigma about abortion. When women don’t tell their stories, men write the narrative for us, and it’s one of blame and shame.  One out of four women will have an abortion in her lifetime, and I hope that this book might encourage them to tell their stories – because that’s what normalizes abortion, and makes another woman strong enough to tell HER story.   Women matter.  Women’s lives matter.  Women’s stories matter.  

Secondly, I’m wondering, because I know your research is just incredible, if you’ve found the way to convince anti-abortion people and pro-life advocates that the answer is not to do away with abortions, but perhaps it is to have mandatory sex education in the schools early on, and free contraceptives (without needing parental approval) and funding and programs in place to help women who get pregnant and cannot possibly care for a child or don’t want one?

JP:  That’s definitely one way to come together on reproductive rights – we can all agree that no one ever WANTS to get an abortion.  With that in mind, how can we reduce the abortion rate without even mentioning the words Roe v Wade?  Well, let’s start with sex ed and contraception – that’s clearly the easiest way to reduce the abortion rate, has been proven to reduce the rate globally many times over, and yet those who are pro-life are often also anti-contraception. But suddenly that argument has less to do with “saving a life” than “controlling women’s sexuality” – and I find that terribly problematic and misogynistic.  The other thing we should talk about are all the laws that AREN’T Roe v Wade that would actually help women and could reduce the abortion rate.  Knowing that 75% of women cite economic reasons for an abortion – what if we raised the minimum wage?  Had universal health care to cover maternity care AND the life of the child?  Had federally funded day care?  Penalized companies that don’t promote women because they keep leaving the work force to have babies?  How come no one ever talks about these ways to reduce the number of abortions? 

I absolutely love the cover. Can you talk about it?

JP: It’s actually the second cover – I didn’t like the first because it was too similar to Small Great Things, but this one was a hit out of the ballpark.  I love the hidden faces in the watercolors.

What’s obsessing you now and why?

JP: The Re-Osirian union in Ancient Egypt, which has a lot to do with the next book…and also what it means to die well (also for the next book).  And The Book Thief, because I am the co-librettist for a musical version, and we have a reading coming up in a few weeks. 

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

JP:  How do you pack for six weeks on tour in a suitcase?  And if you get that answer, can you send it to me?


Tuesday, October 2, 2018

The amazing Claudia Dey talks about her American debut, HEARTBREAKER, how fiction can change a person, the difference between Canadian and American publishing and so much more.

 I absolutely adored this novel. Claudia Dey's a prizewinner in her native Canada (her last book won both the Quill and Quire and the Globe and Mail Book of the Year) and Heartbreaker is a total stunner. And I'm not the only one to think so. Take a look at these raves:

“A fierce exploration of memory and zeitgeist . . . Heartbreaker is a darkly comedic weirdo of a book that pulls the string of nostalgia from one side while unraveling it from the other.”—The Paris Review

“This is a book like no other. It’s eerie, it's cult-y, it's so very exciting, and I never wanted it to end.”—Buzzfeed, Best Books of Fall 2018

“Claudia Dey renders 1985 in perfectly crimped, shoulder-padded detail. Fifteen-year-old Pony Darlene Fontaine has lived her entire life in the ‘territory,’ an isolated town founded decades earlier by an enigmatic cult leader and run on a sinister economic resource. . . . Come for the Shyamalanian premise. Stay for the hard-rock soundtrack.”—Chicago Tribune

“Told from the perspectives of Pony, a dog, and a teenage boy, this book shows the magic of Dey’s imagination.”—The Millions

I always think there is something haunting an author to push us into writing the books that we do, some question that keep nudging us, for example. What was your why now moment for writing this particular book?

I agree. A haunting, a disruption, an obsession. For me, it was: motherhood and death. The moment I became pregnant with my first son, something else entered the pregnancy. It was death. I had to take on a vigilance. I felt a new and very fresh fear. I was intimate with the enemy.

Pregnancy is one of the most romanticized periods in a woman’s life. The books written about pregnancy all have pastel jackets. Some have rocking chairs. There are a lot of eyes closed in semi-repose. I felt the opposite way. I could never close my eyes. My eyes were open and had to stay open. None of these book covers had a scythe. A mother, a baby, and a scythe. It was a beautiful time––I was forming a human being. I was making fingernails and eyes. For me, it was the most incredible science fiction, the most mysterious act––I still don’t understand it––but it was cut through by this private sense of morbidity. It was my most unsettled feeling. I needed to go as deeply as I could into this most unsettled feeling.

I believe that fiction can change a person––I find this idea so sustaining. That writing a book allows you to conclude a whole sequence of thinking and being––this presence of death in motherhood was the novel-size shock that led to Heartbreaker.

I love that you write about cults, but your narrative is not the ordinary one we’ve read about or seen before.  Was this a deliberate choice and why?

Thank you. I deliberately never use the word, cult, in the novel. I did not want to ascribe any kind of external judgment or even sociological context to it. I wanted it to just be, and I wanted to parachute the reader right into its dark, cold, longing, loving, secretive heart. I wanted it to be a state of isolation––both physically and emotionally. And cult has such heavy melodrama to it––too many associations. I leaned more toward George Saunders’ phrase: “a hostile dreamscape.” I wanted the reader to feel the ice pelt their skin, the mud heavy on the cuffs of their jeans. I wanted the territory to be so remote that it was nationless. Impossible to pin to a country. Impossible to pin to a continent.

And yet, I wanted it to feel as if it was only a two-thousand mile drive away––merely out of view, hidden from the news cycle. The territory feels so close to our current world. A crumbling suburb. The identical bungalows, the identical matte black trucks, the single highway cutting through it, the economy set around a fragile resource, the threat of meteors and rising waters, the natural world’s revolt against what we have done to it––and the territory’s strict rules around birth, marriage and death. Following the arbitrary pronouncements of a long-disappeared leader. I was particularly drawn to the role of the women in this outpost––they are the ones who mine the teenagers’ blood. I wanted to go as deeply as I could into this question: when you forfeit your moral authority, what remains? Who are you when you lead your daughter to a cot and harvest her blood? And in Billie Jean, the book’s heroine, I got to invert that question––she is a lone wolf, straying from the wolf pack, scripting her life so single-mindedly that she takes on every danger, every risk––yet remains free by being self-led.  

You’ve used three different voices to tell your story. What were the challenges, the delights, and the things that made you want to hurl your computer out the window?

(Laughter at hurl your computer out the window.) I loved moving between the voices. Pony, fifteen years old and Billie’s daughter, is this fast, sure, wry storm of a voice. She is in this frantic, impassioned conversation with herself––negotiating crushes, status, vanity as well as rage, betrayal, longing. In Pony, I returned to my own feeling of adolescence which is to be in riot––and yet, she is a fighter; I write fighters. Then, Gena Rowlands, Billie’s dog––her guard, her confessional. Too old to be alive, never barked, a lesbian and a killer. Because Gena narrates a lot of the central characters’ backstory––which I found wrenching to write as it holds so much violence and tragedy––I gave her a longer lens, an almost stately cadence, some distance in her measured tone. I needed to do that in order to survive that section. And then, Supes––the only one who could take us through to the conclusion of the novel––is extremely precise, a human watchtower collating data, phenomena––putting the pieces of the puzzle together.

I pictured the voices as rooms. Each voice, in its way, as a separate room, like a theatre. You enter, lights come up, you are with strategizing, hair-feathering Pony. Lights go down. Exit that room and enter another one and you are sitting across from the ancient and homicidal Gena. Lights, exit, enter, Supes and his beautiful, deep geekiness. Each room is its own distinct dominion. Has its own cadences, its own view.

I was madly in love with all three characters––they felt as real to me as any observable life. The challenge with this book was handling that darker content––writing those scenes that disturbed me so deeply––like a beautiful sky suddenly turbulent––the seep of fear, the cold unknown; that part was difficult. To counter it, I planted pleasures everywhere––the soundtrack, the sartorial details––and redemptive elements. Hope.

What was your research like? What surprised you—and did it change the plot?
I read a lot of FLDS survivor autobiographies. I collected images of places I had never been to but could feel in my bones––snowfields, dense woods, endless sky––Siberia, Iceland, Finland. And a lot of photographs of teenagers––despair, wishfulness. I was very influenced by the portraits of the Dutch photographer, Rineke Dijkstra. She says: “What I like about young people is the potential is there but not developed yet. In a way, they’re sort of abstract.” I loved this idea of teenagers as abstracts––that the rapidity of change in them, their swapping out of selves, the selves in flux, made them abstract.

When I am writing, I read and watch anything that might be give strange and illuminated information and avoid anything that might directly influence.

Mostly, though, with Heartbreaker, I tried to do the most personal thing in the most fictional way. I was deeply influenced by the eight summers I spent in logging camps across Northern Canada––the wish for ease, heat, comfort. The duct tape, big trucks, big dogs, nicknames, bonfires. The longing for elsewhere, the sense of dread, scarcity––and yet that Wild Wild Country ebullience of a private society set completely apart from the world. How it felt to be separate from the economy, from culture––how easily one could disappear.

I really want to ask this—this is your American debut. How do you think publishing differs in Canada and in America? What lessons could we learn from each other?
I observed many similarities between the American and Canadian approaches––from editing to marketing. The most crucial one is: in both Canada and the U.S., the industry survives on the deep and committed work of booksellers. I just came home from my U.S. tour and am midway through my Canadian one, and it is the booksellers––their elevated thinking, merchandising, and community-building that allows books to thrive. Also: the steadfastness of the readership. Last week, I read to strangers in the most beautiful rooms. The times are dark, enraging. People need fiction. Fiction teaches us how to live. Books offer us other worlds, modes of being. I think of books as sentient; you are in conversation with a book––and that conversation allows you to exit and then more softly, more sagely re-enter the world.

What’s obsessing you now and why?

My obsessiveness, that obsessive engine that makes the books, is busy speaking the world of Heartbreaker right now. The writer’s life is so polarized. You are behind a locked door on a hard chair for three years and then you are finding the languge for what you made. It’s a strange and glorious job. I will say though that my books tend to be antidotes to each other––whatever I write next will be composed of very different elements, different questions––a different haunting. But, to answer your question directly: young ghosts, and I just read about a man whose buried corpse was discovered because an exotic tree had grown from a pit in his stomach.

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

Who are My writing heroes? Writers like Joy Williams, Samantha Hunt, Sam Shepard, Chekhov, Tolstoy––and most formative, Michael Ondaatje’s The Collected Works of Billy the Kid. I saw this as a play adaptation when I was fifteen. Like most teenagers, I was moody, shifting, filled with secrets and wanting to find a form for the electricity I continually felt inside. This book illuminated a direction for me––an entire life.

I love these writers because they bend reality to let in more truth. They combine humour with such tender aches––the aches of all people, exposed to the air. What strikes me most in their work is its aliveness. I love this idea that a healthy heart has an irregular beat and an unhealthy heart a regular beat. The art that moves me has that irregular beat. I have to feel the humanity in it––and humanity is uneven.


Samuel Park was just in his thirties when he died of stomach cancer. Beloved in all ways, his new novel, THE CAREGIVER is just out and it's as brilliant as he was.

 Samuel Park died of stomach cancer before his wonderful book, The Caregiver, was published. 

I loved The Caregiver. The prose is so gorgeous, it gets inside of you, and what makes this story so remarkable is that he died just after finishing it. The novel is about the hidden lives of people, how a daughter discovers who her mother really was—and how in caring for a young woman dying of the same stomach cancer that killed Sam, she discovers who she really is, too. How do we care for the people we love? And how is that, really caring for ourselves as well?

Of course, I want everyone in the world to buy this exquisite, moving novel.  So here is a taste of the reviews. Now go out and buy it from your favorite indie: 

“A beautiful testament to [Park’s] extraordinary talents as a storyteller. Park himself was diagnosed with stomach cancer in 2014, in his 30s, and died shortly after finishing this book—making this his final novel. In prose that rings clear and true, Park shepherds his characters through the streets of Copacabana to the posh hills of Bel Air. This is an elegy that reads, in some moments, like a thriller—and, in others, like a meditation on what it means to be alive...A ferocious page-turner with deep wells of compassion for the struggles of the living—and the sins of the dead.”

“This moving posthumously published novel by Park examines the relationship between a mother and daughter after years of mutual misunderstanding...readers will relish the wistful yearning that Park evokes. This beautiful novel is a moving meditation on the mutual dependence and unbreakable bonds of family.”

“Park’s latest hauntingly examines the codependent mother-daughter bond amid complicated layers created by the pursuit of truth...Affecting.”

“I love Samuel Park, and I love the stories he tells. The Caregiver is a rich and poignant tale of human nature at its best and worst, depicted with elegance and compassion.”
—CURTIS SITTENFELD, New York Times bestselling author of Eligible

"The Caregiver is a triumph, a clear-eyed novel full of humanity and compassion and life. The threats of the world are ever-present, but so is a brave and defiant endurance, a sense that the heart can survive the worst defeats, the worst losses, the worst regimes. Samuel Park was a treasure, and he has left us with one."
—REBECCA MAKKAI, author of The Great Believers

Visual, almost hypnotic language creates a memorable story of what it means to truly care.
Good Housekeeping

This luminous mother-daughter saga marks a posthumous gem from Park, who died of stomach cancer last year.