Wednesday, August 8, 2018

An art school hidden in Grand Central Station? That's right and sublime author FIona Davis writes about it --and art, history and memory--in her new novel THE MASTERPIECE






I was lucky enough to meet Fiona Davis and do an event with her--but the REAL reason I adore her is that she had my 90-year-old mother-in-law totally engrossed in her book! The Masterpiece. It's an August LibraryReads Pick, and the raves are piling up. (Starred Library Journal; Publisher's Weekly calls it "splendid.") She's a one time Broadway actress who made the transition to writer, producing the sublime bestsellers THE DOLLHOUSE and THE ADDRESS. The only thing that would make me more thrilled than having her here would be to have pie with her.

Thank you, Fiona!


I always think writers are haunted into writing their books. What urged you to write The Masterpiece?

I’m haunted by stories of women who have it all, then lose everything and have to scramble to figure out who they are. I guess you’d call it a reverse Cinderella story, but it’s always fascinated me. With The Masterpiece, I made one of the characters a New York City socialite-type who falls on hard times and has to take a job in the information booth at Grand Central Terminal. This section of the book is set in the 1970s, when the city was crime-ridden and the terminal a filthy, dark hellhole. Another fascination of mine is old buildings with a long history, and so I enjoyed setting the other timeline in the 1920s, when the terminal was a gleaming landmark and the hub of the city. Both the landmark and my heroines rise and fall with the changing times, in a way that parallels the resilience of the great city of New York.

I was stunned to discover there had been an actual art school at Grand Central! How did you discover this astonishing fact?

I was pretty certain I wanted to set a book in the terminal, but was unsure if I could pull it off. What would the plot be? A love story between a conductor and a commuter? Hmmm. Nothing was clicking. But one of my research books on the history of the terminal mentioned that the painter John Singer Sargent co-founded an art school on the top floor of the east wing back in the 1920s, and that it existed for 20 years and enrolled around 900 students a year. Now that I could work with!

What was your research like? Did anything make your story veer into a different direction? And what surprised you the most?

I didn’t know much about the art world, and so I read biographies on painters like Arshile Gorky and Lee Krasner and interviewed illustrators and artists about technique. One day, I was flipping through an old course catalog from the Grand Central School of Art and noticed there was only one female faculty member listed. The teacher’s name was Helen Dryden, and she illustrated over 90 covers for Vogue and was wildly successful before disappearing from view. I used Dryden’s heady success and failure as the inspiration for one character’s story arc, and would never have known about her otherwise.

Also, I found numerous mentions in The New York Times about the art school: how they had a summer program in Maine and held fancy dress balls every May. As a writer, this was pure gold, informing settings and scenes that ended up in the book.


I also loved the two different time periods and the two very unique women, which brings me to my favorite kind of question about structure. How did you map this all out?

Here’s my plotting technique, from A to Z: I start with the main characters, really examining who they are, what they want, and figuring their strengths and weaknesses. Then I brainstorm scene ideas for each timeline and write them on Post-its, before arranging them in some kind of logical order and intertwining the two eras. I can usually come up with a reasonable chapter-by-chapter outline from that. You might be able to guess from my methodology that I come from a family of engineers, so it’s all very logical and right-brained. I’m in awe of writers who can let the story take them where it will. If I tried that, I’d be wandering around my apartment all day moaning and eating blocks of cheese. I need to know where I’m headed at all times.

Your novel, The Dollhouse was critically acclaimed. Did that make it harder or easier to write The Masterpiece? Did you feel like you could build on the lessons you learned or was it like approaching a totally different project?

I’m definitely building on what I’ve learned from writing each book, and from working with my brilliant editor, Stephanie Kelly. So it does get a little easier from the writing-technique angle, although not from the oh-my-God-I-have-to-research-an-entire-era-that-I-know-absolutely-nothing-about angle.

I start on the next manuscript not long after I’ve turned in the previous one to my publisher, and this was very helpful when The Dollhouse made such a big splash. If I weren’t already up to my elbows in another first draft, I might have gotten stuck, wondering how to capture the magic again. Instead, I was tackling new characters and a new landmark building and well on my way. I think this is one way that my journalism background has helped, in that I’m used to writing every day and was eager to start work on a new story well before the reviews for the first one started trickling in.

Can you talk at all about what’s next for you?

I’m happily working on a new manuscript, to be published next year. It’s still historical fiction with two different points of view and lots of twists, but it’s also slightly different from my other books. Gotta keep my amazing readers on their toes!

What’s obsessing you now and why?

I’m obsessed with the political climate for the book I’m working on now, which is set in the late 1940s and early 1950s, when people who’d done something as harmless as marched in a rally against fascism twenty years earlier, or signed a petition to protect refugees, were labeled un-American and a threat to the country. So many people had their lives torn apart, and the research is making me terribly anxious, but I think that’s a sign that I’m on the right track.

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

How about, “What has most surprised you about becoming a novelist?” Answer: That while writing is solo, publishing is a group effort and I’m lucky to have an incredible team behind me. Also, the depth of the community, support, and encouragement among readers, booksellers, and other authors. It’s been a marvelous ride.


Georgia Clarke talks about her fiesty, smart new novel, The Bucket List, the smart women she writes about, and her love of cheese, and more.




Georgia Clarke is a powerhouse (and she likes cheese, too!) I first met her when I was speaking for Generation Women, her amazing storytelling event featuring women from all different generations, and I fell in love. Of course, I wanted to read her book. Of course I loved it. And her even more.

She's the author of Parched, The Regulars, She's with the Band, and now the hilariously wonderful The Bucket List. her debut adult fiction, The Regulars was reviewed in Cosmo, People, Us Weekly, and Marie Claire, and more. It was a Best Book pick for In-Style, PopSugar, Redbook, Refinery 29, Harper’s Bazaar, and many more. The Regulars received A-list celebrity endorsements, went on a 20+ blog tour, was embraced by the bookstagram community and saw her invited on national television in Australia.

She had over 100 people come to her  NYC launch, record-breaking attendees at the LA and Sydney launches, and hosted sold-out events that saw her book going #1 in local bookstores. And she runs a course that can help you do the same! (Just check out her website!) She creates and run her  website and social media channels, sending a monthly newsletter to hundreds of engaged subscribers, and am the founder of the Brooklyn Writers' Salon, as featured in Brooklyn Magazine.

Thank you so, so much for being here, Georgia. Rock on.

What made you think of the ingenious plot about a “bucket list for breasts?”

The inspiration for this story started with a cancer scare of my own. I was in Sydney, on book tour for my last book (The Regulars), and while getting a routine Pap smear, my doctor felt a lump. I was scheduled for a diagnostic ultrasound on the same day I was doing my first live TV appearance, a meet-and-greet at Simon & Schuster Australia, an in-depth 30-minute radio interview, and my book launch. Ultimately, the lump was benign, but the stress, fear, and “what ifs” stayed with me.

I was aware of preventive mastectomies, and the concept intrigued me: it felt feminist and raw and emotional; all the things I like in a story. In the first outline of the story, the action was focused around a woman who’d had a mastectomy and was starting to date again. But as I started my research, it quickly became clear that this was not the most dramatic part of a previvor’s journey; that would be the time before the decision. Switching the focus added a ticking clock (always good for fiction!), and then the question of the bucket list naturally arose; what would you want to do with your breasts if you were thinking about losing them? What hadn’t you done? Were you meeting your own sexual needs? This created the story.


I love that Lucy and her friends have a bucket list and that it isn’t just about our bodies, but about how we choose to live our lives, and how sometimes it’s trauma that helps us find our way to happiness. Can you talk about this please?

I think the things Lacey comes up with for her bucket list surprises her a little, and makes her realize she’s not a fully realized sexual being, which is partly due to her childhood and partly due to the fact she’s 25; a young woman still learning how to relate to her body. I find it so interesting how she starts to see her body as a charge; something she’s responsible for, and that its immediate demands might not always be in its best interest. And yes, our personal stories, even the traumatic ones, are what make us who we are. We can learn from them, and they are not a barrier to happiness and fulfillment: they are part of the richness of who we are; as women, as humans.

I have to admit I am a junkie for acknowledgment pages and I read yours, and I teared up about your friend Nick, who told you to always “seek out differences.” I love that. Can you talk about that, please?

Nick, whom this book is dedicated to, was a proud gay man from Uruguay who wore black eyeliner and black nail polish and danced to Madonna and argued about Marxism. He was, to a white girl from the ‘burbs, different. After Nick died from complications related to T-cell lymphoma in the early stages of writing this book, I spent a lot of time reflecting on death and loss but also what Nicky showed me and taught me. My early 20s, which was when we met, was a transformative time for met. I met a lot of people in the queer community, which is a place that truly celebrates and showcases diversity. Difference is powerful, and I believe in the power of embracing and really hearing others’ experiences. That’s reflected in the characters in my novels, who are always diverse, and the line-ups for my multi-generational storytelling night here in NYC, Generation Women.

So tell us, do you have your own bucket list? Why or why not? And why do you have a fridge full of cheese?

My bucket list is mostly travel-related! Tokyo, Greece, more of South-East Asia… Lacey’s bucket list is sexual and body-related, but I’m not the kind of author who’s going to trot out a lit of sexual fantasies for press, ha ha. Not sure my girlfriend would be into that! And why do I have a fridge full of cheese? BECAUSE I LOVE CHEESE. It’s my crack. Now I’m thinking about making a grilled cheese…. Yum.

What’s obsessing you now and why?

I’m obsessed with Stranger Things 2, which I only just started and cannot stop thinking about. It’s so good. I finished Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel a month ago and still think about it every day, it’s a masterpiece. I’m obsessed with JT’s new album Man of the Woods because I listened to it on repeat to get pumped for the live show, and now I can’t get the songs out of my head. I’m excited for Sweetbitter on Starz (out in May!). I loved Amy Poeppel’s new book Limelight. I’m also obsessed with our current political sh*tshow, but that’s mostly very depressing.

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

I’m sure you want to know when my book launch is, right!? Done: Thursday August 9th at Books are Magic: save the date! The Bucket List is out August 7th and my last novel The Regulars is out in paperback now. Follow me on Instagram, Facebook or Twitter! I also have a monthly newsletter full of writing tips and other fun stuff which you can sign up for via my website.
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Sunday, July 29, 2018

How can you not adore a person who disapproves of cruises and yet writes an extraordinary novel about one? Kate Christensen is here! Plus bonus question from Angus her dog!





Kate Christensen is one of those writers you just want wonderful things to happen to. And they have. And they do. First off, she's the author of The Great Man, which won the 2008 PEN/Faulkner Award for fiction; two food-centric memoirs, Blue Plate Special and How to Cook a Moose, which won the 2016 Maine Literary Award for Memoir. She lives in Portland, Maine and the White Mountains of New Hampshire with my husband and dog.

THE LAST CRUISE is about final voyages..or maybe not for the passengers of the cruise ship Queen Isabella. But the times and the people change in ways you never seen coming. And I'm thrilled to share some of the raves for the book:


Excellent… Above deck are wealthy vacationers dining on caviar and Lobster Thermidor. But below, conditions are hardly different from a Third World factory. Christensen gamely traverses both worlds in this waterborne upstairs-downstairs drama.
The Wall Street Journal

Christensen is a master at drawing us into the interior lives of her characters, toeing the line between satire and sympathy… comedy and humiliation… Having gathered these disparate people together, Christensen gently rolls and pitches the stage, dislodging stones of sadness that had been safely stuck in the crevices of their everyday lives. That discombobulation is the key to the story’s appeal, its unstable mix of romantic comedy, class oppression and spiritual angst — as though Cynthia Ozick wrote an episode of “The Love Boat.” Christensen also deconstructs the aura of the cruise ship… Mysterious and existential… She’s interested in the most intimate and profound changes we’re willing to make only when tossed by the tempest of life. Ron Charles
The Washington Post

Thank you so much, Kate, for being here. And please thank Angus with a paw-shake, for being such a good, good boy and answering a question, too.


I always am curious why this novel, why this moment. What were you thinking about that propelled or haunted you into writing this?

“The Last Cruise” came out of a generalized, ongoing sense of alarm and despair, along with nostalgia for the postwar glow of the 20th century, its elegance and decadence and culture—I wasn’t born yet, so this is of course a wholly romantic and naïve nostalgia, but I feel it nonetheless.  The notion of a Last Cruise feels like a metaphor for America’s 73 years of peace and economic prosperity, now coming to an abrupt and apparent end.


I love that you set your novel on a cruise, which always terrifies me. All those people and you cannot escape! But maybe the deeper question is how you can ever escape yourself. Can you talk about this please?

“Wherever you go, there you are”? Ha! Yes. People on a cruise bring their own personal histories, unfulfilled desires, and deepest fears on board. I populated my nostalgia cruise with three protagonists. Two of them are employed to work on the cruise, as galley crew and entertainment. Christine, the lone passenger of the trio, a farmer from Maine, tries to enjoy the passive luxury, but when things go “pear-shaped” halfway through, she is perversely glad, awakened, galvanized. This comes out of my own need to have a role, something to do. When I’m not engaged in work of some kind, I don’t quite know who I am. So vacations can be disorienting. All three of my protagonists are like me in this way: their work ethic defines them, gives them their identities. When the shit hits the fan, they ask, What can I do? not, Who will save me?

And yes: I’ve never been on a cruise, because I, like you, have a near-phobia of them. The idea of being on a huge floating pleasure dome crowded with strangers indulging in “leisure activities” and wanton gluttony in the terrifying middle of the ocean—none of that sounds remotely fun to me. To me, that’s just asking for trouble, as so many news stories have borne out, dire tales of norovirus outbreaks, engine room fires, people falling overboard, crimes on the high seas, not to mention shipwrecks.

Also, this will no doubt enrage many happy cruise-goers, but I disapprove of cruises. A modern cruise ship is first and foremost a corporate moneymaking machine, a polluting, crowded, floating mega-resort whose luxuries are predicated on the labor of the exploited workers below decks. So the Queen Isabella strikes me as a perfect vessel, pun half-intended, to carry certain burdens—existential, emotional, and actual.

 There’s a line in the book, where one character looks at another, whose face is astonished, and full of anticipation.  That stopped me because I often feel we’ve lost the capacity to wonder about ourselves and our futures. It feels to me from what I know about you that that’s the way you live your life.  Am I right?

Um. Yes. This has been true since I was born, and I have never outgrown it or learned to temper or repress this tendency in myself. Apparently, I “feel things (too) deeply.” And I know this to be true. But being prey to the more difficult emotions—anxiety, sadness, despair, grief, rage, turmoil—allows me to feel the beautiful ones too—joy, exaltation, awe, wonder, passion, deep love. At various times in my life, I’ve been strongly advised to go on antidepressants or SSRI’s. I’ve been told I’m “overly sensitive,” “too intense.” But for me, these responses and reactions tell me what matters, what is right and wrong. Deep passion can be a call to action and an ethical guide, if you use it that way, if you’re not self-indulgent or narcissistic, but rather concerned with a greater good.  

 What’s obsessing you now and why?

Oh God—the same thing we’re all obsessed with, or sadly, only 54% of us, according to the latest polls. How the hell are we going to deal with this unholy, terrifying mess we’re in? As a country, a culture, a planet? How will we rise to this? How will we go on in the face of what’s coming? How many of us will do what’s right? Primarily, I’m obsessed with the fact that we are all interdependent and interconnected, all living things on earth, from redwoods and whales down to bacteria and microbes, and this is becoming more and more crucial and apparent.

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

I think I’ve gone on long enough…. Thank you, Caroline.


AND BONUS QUESTION: What does Angus want everyone to know?

The best things in life are swimming in a lake, chasing squirrels through the woods, licking someone’s face, lying in the shade on a front porch watching the birds, and chewing a squeaky chicken. Everyone should do those things all day long, and nothing else.

Jennifer Gilmore talks about her incandescent novel IF ONLY, adoption, possiblity and so much more.





I can't remember when I first met Jennifer Gilmore, but what's really important is I cannot remember a time when I DID NOT LOVE HER. Her novels are fantastic, critically acclaimed and deeply loved. She was kind enough to interview me at McNally Jackson when I was a nervous wreck, kind enough to turn around in her assigned seat at the Jewish Book Council Auditions to shoot the breeze with me when I was a nervous wreck. I'm not a nervous wreck anymore!

Jennifer is the author of three novels for adults, and a novel for teens-We Were Never Here and for adults, The Mothers, (Scribner 2013), currently being adapted to film,which she is Executive Producing, Something Red, (Scribner 2010), a New York Times Notable Book, and my first novel, Golden Country (Scribner 2006), a New York Times Notable Book of 2006, an Amazon Top Ten Debut Fiction of 2006, a finalist for the National Jewish Book Award, on the long-list for the International IMPAC Dublin Prize, a finalist for the Harold U Ribalow Prize, and a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize.

And course, her latest IF ONLY is about the possibilities in a young girl's life.

Thank you so much, Jennifer, for this book, and for EVERYTHING.


I always think there is a why now moment for an author to write any book. What were the origins of this one for you?

If Only, which on the surface is a book about adoption, but is also about all the ways we imagine what our lives could be and could have been, has this premise that our lives are not necessarily destined. That one small thing could have changed our course. (The science behind the Butterfly Effect, in chaos theory, deals with this idea, too.) I have an adopted child and I hate to think that we weren’t as destined to be together as biological children and their mothers are, but it nagged at me. The what if’s. What if my child’s birthmom hadn’t chosen us. I could go down a spiral and become undone by the thought. And then, as a novelist, and a novelist who writes about teens, I wondered: what made her make the decisions she did. How did she go about it? That’s when my imagination kicked in. I wanted to include her many possibilities, as well as her biological daughter’s many possibilities, which I call the If Onlys.  I wanted to connect them. But I couldn’t have written this book when I first came home with my son. My thinking had to be more processed and less emotional. I think when you’re really writing you look in the face a lot of the stuff that makes you uncomfortable or scared. That’s the sweet spot for the writer. 

You’ve written extraordinary books for adults and this is your second for YA. How does it feel different? Does it free you in some way?

As you know, all books are hard to write. Just so hard! Young adult feels different only in that my characters are teenagers. I am getting in touch with the 15 year old in me all the time. (To be honest, she’s always with me anyway.) We are, after all, the ages we ever were at the same time. In some ways the form is more constricting: it tends to be first person with forward motion and often plot can be a stand in for emotion. But that is very generalized. In other ways—in this case structurally—it was freeing as I think teen readers go with what you offer more readily. They make a leap of faith without having to be technically lead there. They are open and willing and I love that about my teen readers. And it’s exciting (without over generalizing again) teens care about books—remember what you read as a teen? The music you listened to? Exactly. It’s imprinted upon us. 


You’ve written so gorgeously about your becoming a mother, adopting, and the whole process, and it infuses this wonderful book in such unexpected ways. Would you mind talking about this?

I love talking about being an adoptive mother because I’m proud to be one and lucky to be one. There is a lot of language surrounding adoption—in the adoption community, from one’s biological family, from friends, and from people you just meet on the street. It’s shocking to me what people say, like: Your son is so lucky! Or: we know people who have adopted and they love their kids just as much as we love ours.  That’s not the half of it. And my child is white—being the adoptive mother of a transracial child presents new kinds of conversations that people think they can have with you. It’s shocking to me. What I mean to say is, like in everything we are experiencing in this world right now, language matters. How we talk about what is important to us and difficult matters. How we dismiss peoples’ experiences or think we are in a position to validate them matters. The language is the beginning. That is the power I feel I have as a fiction writer who writes about adoption. I can take on these false notions or these complicated socio economic issues and make art out of this troubling and often culturally airbrushed conversation.
 
What’s obsessing you now and why?


What’s obsessing me…How hard it is to find a way into something important that is still what you would want to read. How to create in the face of a truly demoralizing state. How to think about characters and still be in the world. I’m very interested in transformation. All the ways in which that happens for us, for women in particular. What were you before? Where did you go?


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

You covered it! As always. Thank you for being such a wonderful supporter of my work and all our work. And happy art making to you, too.




Babies in incubators were the brainchild of a mysterious immigrant "doctor"--and a sideshow attraction! Dawn Raffel talks about THE STRANGE CASE OF DR. COUNEY






Oh my God, You need to read this fascinating book. The Strange Case of Dr. Couney is the extraordinary tale of how a mysterious immigrant "doctor" became the revolutionary innovator of saving premature babies--by placing them in incubators in World's Fair side shows and on Coney Island and Atlantic City.



Dawn Raffel's illustrated memoir, The Secret Life of Objects, was a Wall Street Journal bestseller. Previous books include a critically acclaimed novel, Carrying the Body, and two story collections— Further Adventures in the Restless Universe and In the Year of Long Division.

Her writing has been published in O, The Oprah Magazine, BOMB, New Philosopher, The San Francisco Chronicle, Conjunctions, Black Book, Open City, The Anchor Book of New American Short Stories, Arts & Letters, The Quarterly, NOON, and numerous other periodicals and anthologies—most recently The Best Short Fictions 2016 (selected by Stuart Dybek) and The Best Short Fictions 2015 (selected by Robert Olen Butler).

She was a fiction editor for many years, helped launch O, The Oprah Magazine, where she served as Executive Articles Editor for seven years, and subsequently held senior-level "at- large" positions at More magazine and Reader's Digest. In addition, she served as the Center for Fiction's web editor. She has taught in the MFA program at Columbia University, the Center for Fiction, and at Summer Literary Seminars in St. Petersburg, Russia; Montreal; and Vilnius, Lithuania.

She currently works as an independent editor for individuals and creative organizations, specializing in memoir, short stories, and narrative nonfiction. She is also a certified yoga instructor and teaches embodied creative writing.

AND most importantly, Dawn lives down the block from me! Our kids went to school together. AND I will be interviewing Dawn at Hoboken's Little City Books in September 27, so check your schedule and COME.


Thank you, Dawn.



I was totally fascinated by your novelbook, which tells the story really of incubators in World’s Fair side shows—and the doctor who began the practice. My jaw dropped open. Where did you come across this incredible story and why did you feel that you just had to write it?

Initially, I planned to write a novel set at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1933. In doing the research I discovered that the big hit of the fair was a display of live premature infants in incubators—not in the Hall of Science, but out on the midway, right next door to the infamous stripper Sally Rand! Then I learned that the doctor in charge of the incubators wasn’t just doing a one-time show; he had a home base on Coney Island for more than 40 years. That did it for me. I realized that I needed to tell this story, and I needed to tell it as nonfiction. I could not understand how something like this could go one for decades. Was Martin Couney exploiting children or saving their lives? Who would send their baby to a sideshow? Why were there so few incubators in hospitals? To be honest, I had no idea what I was getting myself into in terms of research—as in, hello, 600 end notes.

What surprised you in your research? What particular things changed the plot for you?

There were two big surprises. Martin Couney was famous during his lifetime, and every published account of him—in newspapers and magazines—cited his stellar European medical credentials. More recently, he’d been discussed in peer reviewed medical publications, but always with that same bio. It took quite a while to determine that those often-repeated credentials were a very carefully constructed fabrication. Martin Couney’s story was so well-made that without the Internet and a whole lot of shoe leather, his cover would have never been blown. The fact that he was not a real doctor actually made me more sympathetic to him. If he had really been a physician, with degrees from august institutions and an internship with a world-renowned French doctor, as he claimed, then spending the rest of his life running a sideshow rather than trying to work within the system could be seen as self-serving. The truth is, he had no other recourse—he couldn’t practice in a hospital or publish clinical papers. He could only save these children one at a time, and try to persuade the medical establishment to follow suit.

The other, darker surprise was the chilling effect of the American eugenics movement. Although eugenics never directly targeted preemies, they were called “weaklings” in the medical literature, and in an environment that promoted survival of the fittest and propagation of the “superior,” these tiny lives weren’t valued.  

Dr. Couney is one of the most fascinating people I’ve encountered. While he genuinely cared for his tiny charges, he also made them sideshow attractions. Where do you think was the greater pull?

Martin Couney loved life. He cared about saving lives, and he also delighted in living a very good life himself; he certainly enjoyed making money with a very popular show, and he loved talking to people, with a showman’s flair. Frankly, he was right that the public was not going to pay attention to the plight of preemies unless he entertained them. I don’t think he saw a conflict between saving lives and growing rich, and if he could do an end-run around the IRS, so much the better. In the end, I’d have to say he cared most about saving lives. He never cut corners in the babies’ care, even when he was going broke toward the end of his life. He could have quit and cut his losses; and he also could have cut expenses on things like nursing and nutrition. He did neither. As long as there was a child he could save, he did whatever he had the means to do.

This marvelous book seems different to me than your last incredible books. Did it feel different writing it? And if so, how so?

I think with every book, you have to learn how to write it. This book was indeed very different, because my previous books were fiction (and one memoir). With fiction I will often let the language and the composition lead me into new and surprising places, whereas here I had to stick faithfully to the facts. I felt a responsibility to Martin Couney himself to get this story right, and to all of the people I interviewed, including several of his former patients. I went though four full drafts, plus a fifth one where I re-fact checked everything.

What’s obsessing you now and why?

You mean aside from getting this book out into the world? While writing it, I also became certified as a Bhakti yoga instructor. I’ve always been kind of a poster child for klutziness. But I’ve been teaching creative writing for a long time, and I’ve been looking for a way to help writers develop a more embodied, emotionally sustainable approach to their work. I’m in the process of creating that program. It’s far less about physical flexibility than it is about mental flexibility, stamina, and precision. 

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

You asked great questions! If I may, I will add a note of gratitude to librarians and archivists everywhere, for being the guardians of our history. We tend to think that all information can be found on Google. But while Google is a godsend for research, it’s only a starting point—there is a world of knowledge that is not digitized, and that is carefully maintained by people who are rarely recognized, but who deserve our gratitude and financial support.

T. Greenwood talks about her incandescent RUST & STARDUST, based on the real-life kidnapping that inspired Nabokov's Lolita. You KNOW you want to read this.








 T. Greenwood is amazing. A super talented photographer, she has also published twelve novels, including BODIES OF WATER (a finalist for a Lambda Foundation Award). She has received grants from the Sherwood Anderson Foundation, the Christopher Isherwood Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Maryland State Arts Council. And if that's not enough, she's won  three San Diego Book Awards.?

Rust & Stardust, the gripping, heart-wrenching novel of Sally Horner, the 11-year-old kidnapping victim whose abduction in 1948 inspired Nabokov's Lolita is already racking up the raves. Wanna see?


"Unflinching but compassionate, Greenwood deftly unravels the devastating layers of malice and carelessness that tore Sally from her family, but also the love and perseverance that eventually brought her home."—Bryn Greenwood, author of the New York Times bestseller All the Ugly and Wonderful Things

​"A harrowing, ripped-from-the-headlines story of lives altered in the blink of an eye, once again proving her eloquence and dexterity as an author.”—Mary Kubica, New York Times bestselling author of The Good Girl


"An absolute treasure for bookclubs and the discussions it is sure to inspire."—Pamela Klinger-Horn, Excelsior Bay Books

Thank you so much for being here!





I was absolutely haunted by this story. When was the moment when you realized, I have to write this story?”

I read Lolita in college and swooned. The idea that someone could write about something so horrifying in such achingly beautiful language felt like a sort of magic. That was the kind of writer I wanted to be.

Sally Horner was in those pages, though I didn’t know it at the time, sequestered in a tiny parenthetical: (Had I done to Dolly, perhaps, what Frank Lasalle, a fifty-year-old mechanic, had done to eleven-year-old Sally Horner in 1948?) Flash forward twenty plus years, and I stumbled upon an essay by Sarah Weinman (“The Real Lolita” in Hazlitt) which reveals the likelihood that Nabokov borrowed from Sally Horner’s story in crafting the second half of Lolita. (Nabokov was known to scour newspapers for crimes that echoed Humbert Humbert’s.) But what spoke to me more than all of this was the photo accompanying the essay – the one of a golden sort of child sitting on a swing. Eleven years old, abducted by a life-long criminal. She’d only been trying to join a girl’s club at school – the initiation involving the theft of a five-cent notebook from a Woolworth’s. LaSalle, recently released from prison, “caught her” and was able to convince her that he was with the FBI, that if she didn’t do as he said, he would have her arrested. At the time, my youngest daughter was eleven years old – and while likely much savvier than Sally would have been in 1948, I couldn’t help but imagine her in a similar circumstance. That longing to belong to a group of girls so palpable, the blind abeyance to authorities, the cusp at which girls at that age reside. I fell in love with Sally first.

Then, when I began to research this true crime, it felt as if it was a story I had been meant to write my whole life. From the places LaSalle took her, to the people she would have likely encountered, there were so many connections to my own experience, it felt like serendipity.



What was your research like? Can you tell us any things you changed or added for the sake of fiction

I read everything I could get my hands on about Sally and Frank LaSalle. I scoured newspapers.com, ancestry.com, and a whole host of other sites trying to glean everything I could about the twenty-one months she was in his custody. I also studied the various places he took her and researched the historical context.

Ultimately, however, this is fiction. I had the skeletal structure of the plot – the actual events and locations and timeline, but the flesh is pure imagination. I had to dream myself into Sally’s character, her mother’s character, those girls who set her on this tragic path. I also created a number of fictitious characters (mostly women who unwittingly aided in Sally’s survival).

While I made every effort to honor the “facts” I knew to be true, I also took a thousand liberties (which is what fiction writers do) in an effort to bring this story and these characters (as I dreamed them) to life.

I absolutely loved that you told this story through the eyes of various characters—Sally’s mother, her sister, Ruth. Was this always your decision as far as craft? I also absolutely loved the kind bearded lady—where did she come from?

The first draft of this novel was written from an omniscient and someone distanced point of view. I wanted it to be the story of not only Sally but also of those around her, those impacted by this crime.  However, with each subsequent draft (and there were many), I zoomed in closer and closer to the primary point of view characters. I actually wrote about fifty pages from Frank’s point of view, but in a very late draft decided to excise him. Nabokov had already written that story. I wanted this to be Sally’s story, the story of her family, and the story of the communities she inhabited.

As for Lena (the bearded lady), she was a total surprise but ultimately became one of my favorite characters. In researching the trailer court where Frank and Sally lived in Dallas, TX, I learned that when the circus was in town, the circus folks often stayed there. This was one of those amazing gifts a writer gets, because all of a sudden, Lena materialized on the page…this gorgeous, leggy hermaphrodite, who sees herself in Sally. 

Reading this novel made me completely unsettled, which is my highest compliment, by the way. What was it like writing it?

As I said, the early drafts were written from a sort of dissociated point of view. I was, frankly, scared to write this story, to be inside Sally’s skin. It probably took four drafts before I even wrote her point of view in. I knew that spending time with her, inhabiting her body, would mean engaging in her suffering. I also knew that finding the balance between raw honesty and delicacy was critical. I didn’t want this to be a lurid exploitation but a reverent exploration of what she must have gone through.

Nabokov ends Lolita in a different way than the way the true crime story here ended. Why do you think he did that?

I recently read an essay about possible connections between Lolita and a story Salvador Dali wrote. In the essay, Nabokov is said to have referred to gathering “bits of straw and fluff” for his novels. I think that Sally really was one of those bits of straw for him. His parenthetical about her suggests as much. But Sally’s story is not, in the end, Lolita’s story.

What’s obsessing you now and why?

Here are my current twigs and fluff: a state “school” in western Massachusetts called The Belchertown School for the Feeble-Minded, 1970’s Florida, Weeki Wachee mermaids, the opening of Walt Disney World in 1971.

I have wanted to write a story set in the early 1970s Florida forever. My family used to drive to Florida from Vermont every winter (in a VW Bug no less). I love writing about lost places. I am also totally captivated by abandoned asylums.

All of this comes together in my next novel, Keeping Lucy, which will be out next summer.

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

This is my twelfth novel, and people are often curious about my process. One of the questions I am most often asked is if I write every day or only when inspiration hits, and my answer is that I write regardless of inspiration. If I waited for inspiration to hit, I’d never get anything done.

Sunday, July 15, 2018

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




Jonathan Santlofer's profile photo

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Thank you so much for being here, Jonathan!



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, July 9, 2018

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







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


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

Thank you so much Tom!

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

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

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

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

Learn more about Tom and his projects at tomfruehmusicals.com