Wednesday, August 24, 2022

Ellen Meister talks about TAKE MY HUSBAND, writing a pilot, why she loves writing why women shouldn't put their needs second, and so much more.


Ellen Meister is one of the warmest, funniest, most generous writers around. I am so, so lucky to know her. She's the author of The Rooftop Party; Love Sold Separately; Dorothy Parker Drank Here; Farewell Dorothy Parker; The Other Life; The Smart One; and Secret Confessions of the Applewood PTA. She teaches creative writing, does editorial and ghostwriting services AND she's the voice of Dorothy Parker on Facebook! I'm so thrilled to have her here. Welcome Ellen!

I always think writers are haunted or obsessed into writing their novels. What obsessed or haunted you?

That is so true! I was actually working on another book when I got the idea for TAKE MY HUSBAND. It was early in the pandemic, and I was close to losing my mind, cooped up in the house with my husband and three twenty-somethings, desperate for alone time that was utterly impossible. So I made a PLEASE KNOCK sign for the door to my little office, and tried to escape into my writing. My husband—who is smart, funny, and adorable but has little sense of boundaries—often ignored the sign and burst in while I was deep in concentration. Adding crankier signs to the door did nothing to help, and I finally snapped, coming up with the idea to write a book about a woman who wants to kill her beloved.

At first, I did NOT want to write this book! It seemed too… mean. And maybe a little too revealing about the darkest corners of my heart. So I tried ignoring it, but the idea would not leave me alone. And so, I gave chapter one a shot, deciding I would write this book if I could figure out a way in. The rest, as they say, is history.

The question here: could a wife’s husband’s death be her ticket out—is both hilarious and provocative. How much fun was it to write this?

Caroline, my dirty little secret is that I love to write. I don’t love plotting—that’s the part that makes me weep and moan and rend my garments—but once I know what needs to happen in a scene, I love to put my characters in the situation and listen to what they have to say. So, once I figured out the trajectory of my main character’s arc, and the story that drove it, I absolutely loved getting outrageous!

I always want to know if writers feel they have learned lessons from their last book that they can use in their new one. (I never was so lucky!) But did you?

I do think I’m always learning and growing as a writer, though I’m not necessarily conscious of the ways my writing is evolving. That all seems to happen under the surface. I will say, though, that my previous book had a young protagonist, and I was so ready to write about a late middle-aged woman. It felt liberating.

What was the writing like? And how do you write? Do you map things out, find your way in the dark?

I can’t write unless I have an idea of the structure. Because for me, it’s always all about the main character’s arc. So I need to think about where the character starts, where they end up, and how they got there. That’s not to say I come up with a rigid outline. It tends to be a pretty fluid document, because my characters often surprise me and won’t behave how I originally expected them to. To me, staying true to the characters is essential. So, I do a lot of rejiggering of my outline as I go along. 

What’s obsessing you now and why?

Oh! I teamed up with some great folks—Arielle Eckstut and David Henry Sterry—and we are trying to sell TAKE MY HUSBAND as a TV series. David and I wrote a pilot together, and it was as fun as it was fascinating. Stay tuned for developments on this project!

What do you want readers to come away from the book thinking about?

As women, it’s so easy for us to fall into a pattern of ignoring our own needs for the sake of others. It’s the way we’re socialized from a young age. So I’d like them to think about standing up for themselves in their important relationships, and remembering that their needs and desires are just as important as their partner’s.  

Friday, July 1, 2022

Beloved book influencer, author, publisher, podcaster and mother of four, friend to all readers/writers/moms, Zibby Owens talks about her racking-up-the-raves memoir BOOKENDS, Thrive Causmetics mascara, and more!


Who doesn't know of and adore Zibby Owens? She is an author, podcaster, publisher, CEO, and mother of four. And a force of nature. And a great friend and supporter of anyone who writes, and anyone who reads.

Zibby is the founder of Zibby Owens Media, a privately-held media company designed to help busy people live their best lives by connecting to books and each other. The three divisions include Zibby Books, a publishing house for fiction and memoir, Zcast, a podcast network powered by Acast including Zibby’s award-winning podcast Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books, and Moms Don’t Have Time To, a new content and community site including Zibby’s Virtual Book Club, events, and the former Moms Don’t Have Time to Write.

She is a regular columnist for Good Morning America and a frequent guest on morning news shows recommending books.

Editor of two anthologies (Moms Don’t Have Time to Have Kids and Moms Don’t Have Time To: A Quarantine Anthology), a children’s book Princess Charming, and now a memoir Bookends: A Memoir of Love, Loss, and Literature, Zibby loves to write. She regularly pens personal essays, starting with her first one in Seventeen magazine in 1992.

Zibby lives in New York with her husband, Kyle Owens of Morning Moon Productions, and her four children. Follow her on Instagram @zibbyowens.

(Did you love Bookends? Email her about the book here.)

Bookends is her astonishing and moving memoir and it's racking up the raves.

Good Day LA made Bookends one of their "best summer reads."

Arianna Huffington called Zibby "one of the most be loved book influencers in America."

Town & Country named Bookends as one of its Best Summer Reads.

Bookends is so brave, so readable. What I loved the most about it was that I thought I sort of knew you, and I had this idea of you as this totally unflappable, always in control energizer, but you let us all see through the layers to the tender-hearted, grieving, shy (Zibby shy?!!! Zibby mute?!!!)) person who grew into herself, thanks to the help of books, friends, kids and husband.  So I want to ask, how scary was it for you to write this book? Did it get less scary as you continued to write? And does it want you to write another memoir? (I hope so!)

It wasn’t scary at ALL. This is how I process everything in my life – and always have! I’ve been writing and rewriting parts of this book since 2003 when I graduated from business school and took a year off to write it. Little did I know how much life I needed to live before my book was complete. I was slightly terrified when the galley started going out, but the reception has been so warm and positive that I’m not worried anymore! (And thanks for the kind words about the book!!)

You write so eloquently about loss that I was weeping. Yet, loss seems to have made you more aware of how important it is to cherish those we love every moment we have them, because loss is always nipping at our heels. Can you talk a little bit about this, please?

Yes, like so many of us, I’ve been through a lot of grief and loss, especially in my twenties. Death isn’t an abstract concept for me. I think about it daily, like the true neurotic New Yorker I am. But I use it to motivate me. I work fast and hard to beat the clock. I view life now as a fight to get as much in as I can before the sands in the hourglass run out. Similarly I value loved ones in my life knowing that our time together may be finite. 

You also write so honestly about the privilege you’ve had and your awareness of how it shaped you. But privileged or not, so many of your challenges, motherhood, work, writing, feel so universal. Would you agree?

Yes! I know how lucky I am to have been born into my family. I feel like I won the lottery and like to share the benefits whenever I can. But it doesn’t matter how lucky you are. Emotions and obstacles are the same. When my kids fight or one of them tantrums or gets sick or someone I love dies or a friend is in need or any of it, nothing can help. 

Midlife and its discontents run through the book, yet I have the feeling that as you are getting older, you are doing more, risking more, being more. But in a recent essay, you wrote that sometimes this can be a problem, and you are now stopping a bit to recharge. All of this makes me want to ask you, where do you see yourself in your eighties? I cannot imagine you sitting on a rocker with Kyle watching the sea, unless you both are going to write and film a documentary, too!

Ohh, good idea! A documentary with Kyle. (Haha.) If I’m lucky enough to live into my eighties, I hope I’ll be surrounded by my four kids, that they’ll be in happy marriages, that I’ll be visiting my grandkids often, and hopefully spending a lot of time at our home high on a hill in the Pacific Palisades, watching the sun rise drinking coffee with Kyle. But I also hope to always be creating, thinking, writing, and reading. I hope I’ll have a stack of books that I plow through daily, that I’ll have written many books by then, that I’ve seen my community really grow, that I’ve watched authors I love have even more success, and that I’ve started many things that improve people’s lives. One thing I wish? Fewer emails!!  

I loved the whole section of how you fell in love with Kyle, a tennis pro, and how while many expected you to be with someone high powered and connected, you realized that Kyle was the one who could unlock happiness for you. And what was most delightful, is both of you found what you were meant to do—he’s a successful film producer now, and you now have a life that not only helps so many, many others, but it helps you, too. How difficult was that transition from the life you’d thought you might have to the life you have now?

As in all transitions and periods of change in my life, it was tough – but it was all worth it.

I also loved how you threaded so many wonderful books throughout the narrative, detailing how they helped you, and in the process, showing how they might help others. Since you read EVERYTHING, I was wondering how hard it was to choose the books, and also do you reread certain books in certain times in your life, and then those books take on new meaning?

I rarely reread books but I have reread a few of my favorites and am shocked by how differently they land given where I am in life. It wasn’t that hard to choose the books but I left so many out and feel terrible about that. 

What’s obsessing you now and why?

To be totally superficial, my Thrive Causemetics mascara is obsessing me right now. It comes off in the shower! No make-up remover needed! And it stays on for days and looks like I’ve had my lashes done. And yes, they’re a sponsor of my podcast, Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books, but I seriously love it!!!! (Go to for 15% off.) And to be honest, I just leased a Volvo XC90 and am totally obsessed with that car. It took months to figure out what to get but when two of my best girlfriends recommended it, I got one. It’s perfect for our family – four kids! 

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

Maybe what I’m reading now? I just finished the most hysterical book I’ve read in my entire life. I laughed until I cried. Jenny Mollen’s I Like You Just the Way I Am. Hilarious. 

Wednesday, June 22, 2022

Edie Meidav talks about grief, empathy, love, blindness in human relations, an alphabet to answer questions, and her new novel, ANOTHER LOVE DISCOURSE


I’m thrilled to host Edie Meidav .com on the blog today for her astonishing new book ANOTHER LOVE DISCOURSE. I’m thrilled to host Edie Meidav on the blog today for her astonishing new work, ANOTHER LOVE DISCOURSE, about love, pandemic and hope. Edie is also the remarkable author of the novels Kingdom of the Young, Lola, California, Crawl Space, The Far Field, and strange attractions. Instead of the usual Q and A, we have something different! Edie has provided “an alphabet of answers to imaginable questions,” and it is so great I am setting it down here! Thank you, Edie

One Shard 

An alphabet of answers to imaginable questions:

A: Toronto.

B. New York, Cuba, France, Nicaragua, Sri Lanka.

C. A former director of the MFA program at New College on Valencia Street in San Francisco, writer-in-residence at Bard College, and now at the UMass Amherst MFA program. 

D. Sea monkeys.

E. Language indeed a virus.

F. Ms., The Village Voice, Guernica, Artweek, The International Literary Quarterly, The Kenyon Review, Terra Nova, The American Voice, New Letters, Conjunctions and elsewhere. 

G. A Lannan Fellowship, a Howard Fellowship, a Bard Fiction Prize for Writers Under 40, Whiting research award, a Kafka Award for Best Novel by an American Woman, a Fulbright in Sri Lanka, Fulbright in Cyprus, Northern California Book Award shortlist, and other citations.

H. Books called editorial picks by the New York Times, the L.A. Times, the Electric Review, the Litblog Coop and elsewhere.

I. Overeducated women with a past; autodidact boys, occasionally scarred, often grown into men. 

J. Ocean.

K. Children.

L. Unterzakhn; The Map and the Territory; looking for Tanizaki.

M. Shange, Angelou, Woolf, Hardy, Faulkner, Morrison, Kundera, Paley, Baldwin, Flaubert, Rushdie, Cavafy, Lorca, Cortazar, Transtromer, Vallejo, Stendhal, Ishiguro, Coetzee, Jackson.

N. Poetry.

O. Generosity.

P. Spanish and French, German and Sinhala, Hebrew, some Catalan, Greek, Portuguese, Italian.

Q. One obsessive score for each book.

R. The stress of routine.

S. Loss of the perceiving mind.

And I want to let the high praise speak of Edie’s novel!

In Edie Meidav’s mesmerizing new novel, A Lover’s Discourse, we are in a Roland Barthian world, a rich explosive text about a divorce and failed love, the longing for a fully mothered childhood, and the ways that working hard often succumbs one to a hellish isolation and distance from life, the over-riding question being: can we ever be “happy” in such an existential tumble? We are engaged in these abstract questions simply because Edie Meidav is such a gifted writer. Meidav is one of our truest writers, and I feel only deep and profound admiration for the uneasy ways she has chosen to tell a story of the heartbreak of being a mother of three children, left by her husband.

 —Leora Skolkin-Smith, author of The Fragile Mistress and Stealing Faith

Edie Meidav’s Another Love Discourse shatters boundaries and expectations: her narrative voice—urgent, lyrical, raw—compels the reader into uncommon and intense intimacy. This powerful book will stay with you.

 —Claire Messud, author of A Dream Life

Edie Meidav is one of my favorite contemporary writers, and this is her best book, in a success of very strong books. It's open, wounded, true. 

--Rick Moody

Edie Meidav's Another Love Discourse is an uncategorizable triumph, and a gesture of radical intimacy with the reader, one of which Barthes would be proud.

—Jonathan Lethem, author of The Arrest 

Thursday, June 16, 2022

Poets & Writers contributing editor Michael Bourne talks about his debut BLITHEDALE CANYON, writing fiction vs. being a journalist, California as a character, and so much more


All writers adore Poets & Writers and The Millions, which means they also love Michael Bourne, a contributing editor at Poets & Writers and a staff writer for the online literary site The Millions. His fiction and poetry have appeared in The Potomac Review, The Orange Coast Review, River City, Oakland Review, and online at Tin House's Flash Fridays. He lives in Vancouver, British Columbia. His debut, Blithedale Canyon, set in sun-soaked California is about a guy fresh out of rehab trying to put together the jagged pieces of his life in hopes of reclaiming his self-worth and the woman he loves. 

Says Edan Lepucki, "A story of love, redemption and hope. I couldn't put it down."

Teddy Wayne calls it "an ode to the pleasures and pains of the return to the familiar, to the gravitational pulls of addiction, friends and Springsteen on a car stereo, but mostly of home. A tenderly nostalgic and page-turning portrait of a man who cannot control his impulses, written by an author in full command."

Thank you for being here, Michael!

I always want to know what is haunting or obsessing an author into writing a book. What was it for you?

You could say that Blithedale Canyon is the story of the life I could have lived and didn’t. Like my narrator Trent, I’m an addict, and like Trent, I spent much of my twenties floundering and lost. But unlike him, I got clean fairly early and sidestepped the consequences so many addicts face – jail, institutions, lost jobs, wrecked relationships, and on and on. From the start, my sense of Trent was that he’s a good guy who does bad things. I did that for a while, then stopped. So while Blithedale Canyon isn’t autobiography and Trent is very different from me, I’ve always been haunted by that counterlife, the life I was lucky enough not to have lived. 

So you are so entrenched in the world of books from writing about them, reviewing, interviewing, the works. What was it like to be writing your debut novel? What surprised you about it? And did you love it more than writing stories? And if so why? (I've always heard that writing short stories is a passionate affair and writing a novel is a great marriage.)

One of the nice things about being a journalist is that if you want to know about something you can call up an expert and write a story about it. So when I wanted to learn what author newsletters were all about, I called a bunch of authors who were writing them. When I wanted to learn about contract publicists, I interviewed a bunch of publicists and writers who had worked with them. That’s all great, and I’ve learned a ton about the business of publishing from my work as a reporter, but all that helped me not one bit with the actual writing part. You can take classes and interview your favorite writers, but none of that changes the fact that writing a book is hard.

I guess that would be the thing that surprised me most about writing a debut novel, how hard it is to write a good one. I had two write two bad ones before I wrote a good one – and even then it took years of trial and error to get it right. The upside is that when you spend years of your life thinking you’ll never be able to pull something off, when you do pull it off, the sense of satisfaction is that much sweeter. The pre-pub buzz for Blithedale Canyon has so far been very positive, but at some very basic level I don’t care what the reviews say. I wrote something I’m proud of and that makes me happier than any outside kudos ever could.

As for short stories, I’m glad to put them behind me. I’ve published a bunch of them, but I don’t think it’s my natural form. I’m interested in long, complex story arcs, which stories can’t accommodate well. Writers like Alice Munro and Annie Proulx can write what feels like a whole novel in 25 pages. I’ll never know how they do it. Good story writers are like literary jewelers – they create beauty in the most compact of spaces. I love a great short story, but I’ve read enough of them to know I probably never write one.

Northern California is very much a character in your book. How did the meaning of that state change for you as you wrote about gentrification and love and trying to make ends meet?

I’m glad to hear you say that. I wanted readers to come away from Blithedale Canyon feeling like they know the town of Mill Valley, where the book is set, like a fully rounded character. In the novel, which is set in 2001, the town is undergoing a deep generational change. Trent’s family owned a local shoe store where his granddad worked out of the back repairing shoes. That business got destroyed by nearby malls, and now, as Trent says at one point, “All the old stores are gone. There’s nothing left in town but chain stores and art galleries.”

I very much wanted the town to have a story arc like the other characters in the book, so that at the same time Trent is trying to kick drugs and alcohol, the town is struggling to retain its small-town character where local people own most of the important businesses and people know each other. I think that’s a story that needs to be told. We get so caught up in all the shiny new toys of technological progress and we forget what our smartphones and mega-malls have replaced – towns that operated on a human scale. 

The Mill Valley of the novel is a fiction – the basic history and geography is factual, but the people and businesses are invented. But so far as I can tell, in the real Mill Valley, the battle to maintain the small-town character is over. The place remains gobsmackingly beautiful and if you’re in the market for some aromatherapy or a designer coffee, Mill Valley has you covered, but the town feels to me like a theme-park version of its former self, everything shiny and glossy and a little less practically useful than it once was. 

What's obsessing you now and why?

For a new book I’m writing, I’ve been researching ecoterrorists, and I’ve become mildly obsessed with understanding the logic of ecological terrorism. Unlike political terrorists, environmental activists rarely target people, opting instead to burn down buildings and disable machinery. Even so, people do get hurt. Their goals are often laudable – they’re literally trying to save the planet – but their methods are extreme and often extremely dangerous. I find the whole thing fascinating.

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

Maybe: “Dude, why? Why did you stick with writing fiction through decades of failure when there are so many other, easier ways to make a life?” This is a question I suspect pretty much everyone in my life has wanted to ask, and a few have flat-out asked it. My answer is always, “Beats me.” I’ve had success as a journalist and as a teacher and part of me wishes I could be satisfied with that, because I do derive a lot of satisfaction from those jobs. But for as long as I can remember, I’ve felt that I was put on this planet to tell stories. It’s not a logical thing. I’m glad I’ve published stories and now a book and I hope to publish more, but I’d keep doing this if I never published a word. I’m a writer, so I write. It’s really as simple as that.

Friday, April 22, 2022

Robin Black talks about Mrs. Dalloway, the book that mattered to her the most.


What books matter the most to us, and why do we turn to them time after time? I've long admired Robin Black, both as a person, a literary citizen, and an acclaimed writer, and I was thrilled to learn that she had written a book about why Virginia Woolf's masterpiece, Mrs. Dalloway, meant so much to her.  Thank you so much, Robin for being here!

First, the praise!

“This astonishing new book, by the brilliant Robin Black is an intimate meditation on reading and writing, aftermath and possibility, the tension between the never-stable, endlessly interpretable depths of a book and the fragility of life, the finality of death. I emerged from this breathtaking work with a transformed understanding of both Woolf’s masterpiece and the stream of consciousness in which we swim, “together and alone.”—Karen Russell

“Reading Robin Black’s astute and enlightening meditation on Mrs. Dalloway is like eavesdropping on a mesmerizing literary conversation, but one in which the participants are not two readers but a reader and a masterpiece. Black threads the very moving story of her own evolution as a writer through the exquisite fabric of Woolf’s great novel, and the result will fascinate everyone who cares about the craft of fiction.”—Ann Packer 

“I loved reading Robin Black’s take on Mrs. Dalloway. She generously shares details of her own life that offer an example of how a great book stays with a person, and goes deep into the intricacies of important craft aspects of the text, illuminating its brilliance. It’s a privilege to read alongside her.”—Alice Elliot Dark 

Robin Black’s story collection, If I loved you, I would tell you this, was a finalist for the Frank O’Connor International Story Prize, and named a Best Book of 2010 by numerous publications, including the Irish Times. Her novel, Life Drawing, was longlisted for ​the Flaherty-Dunnan First Novel Prize, the Impac Dublin Literature Prize, and the Folio Prize. Her fiction has been translated into Italian, French, German, and Dutch.​

​Robin’s most recent book is Crash Course: Essays From Where Writing And Life Collide. Robin’s work can be found in such publications as One Story, The New York Times Book Review, The Chicago Tribune, Southern Review, The Rumpus, O. MagazineConde Nast Traveler UK, and numerous anthologies, including The Best Creative Nonfiction Vol. I (Norton) and The Best of the Bellevue Literary Review

I always want to know what was haunting or obsessing a writer into writing their new book. What was it for you?

I really had no idea until I worked on this book why I felt so almost magically drawn to Mrs. Dalloway. But now I understand that the topics of mental health struggles, and the satisfactions one does and doesn't get from a life defined by the domestic sphere, plus Woolf's genius use of craft all resonated for me when I first read the book at forty-two. As they still do. 

I love that line, "We swim together and alone." Please can you talk about this?

There is a quasi-magical aspect to the way Woolf treats consciousness in this book. Yes, she explores and, in her word, "tunnels" into individual consciousnesses, but she also writes in a way that suggests something like a shared societal consciousness, a fluidity of boundaries between individuals. This comes up especially in her depiction of mental illness. At the beginning of the book, all of London seems to think as one, except poor Septimus Smith whose perceptions are distorted due to mental illness. They all see one thing, a "royal personage" for example, and he sees something entirely different: a reflection of his own "wrongness." I think this is such a gorgeous, insightful, subliminal way of depicting the "out of step" quality of what having a mental illness feels like. That fluidity of consciousness, that understanding that at times people's thoughts converge, that a disruption of that is a lonely place to be, is what I call the "ocean of shared consciousness" - in which we swim together and alone. 

What surprised you in writing this book?

I was shocked and sometimes discouraged by how difficult it was for me to organize and articulate my perceptions and opinions and experiences of reading it. I don't think I have ever had to work with the same kind of concentration and precision on anything. Reading and rereading and rereading opened up such a wealth of responses in me. It was the challenge of my ADD brain's life to keep all that clear and make it comprehensible to anyone else. And I was shocked by what I term the "extreme craft" Woolf employs. I went from knowing it's a work of genius, to seeing how at least some of that genius works, structurally. 

What's obsessing you now and why?

Other than the state of the world, the horrors that abound, all of which dominates all our thoughts these days, I am obsessed with writing my new novel - which is somewhat lighter than my earlier work, and my first long fiction project in nearly a decade. I won't say more, for all the reasons you understand, but I am beginning to believe in it - a stage I am sure you also understand. 

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

Caroline! You ask all the right questions! But here's another: What's it like to write so personal a book about a novel that people are obsessed with and reverent about? Even worshipful. . . And the answer is, it's terrifying. But also felt important to me, because what I really try to do in this book is take a long hard look at what it means to be a reader, what it means for a reader to become a collaborator with a writer whom they will never meet. And that is a subject that belongs to us all. 


Monday, April 4, 2022

OUT TODAY! Gina Sorell's wise and witty novel< THE WISE WOMEN, about real estate, motherhood, family and so much more! To celebrate: a movie and a few silly questions...

30 Books we Can't Wait to read in 2022-- Parade

Read With Jenna's Most Anticipated books of 2022

"A fine job describing neighborhood tensions and the city's scene." - Publishers' Weekly

"Warm and quirky!" Kirkus Reviews

Gina's a friend since forever, partner in crime, screenwriting partner (hey, together we made finalist in the Sundance Screenwriters' Lab) and a cause for celebration because today is her pub day for The Wise Women. She's also the author of Mothers and Other Strangers, a Great Group Reads selection, and a 2017 best book of Refinery 29, Self Magazine.

To celebrate I'm asking her a few silly questions.

This is so exciting! And so different from your first launch of your first novel MOTHERS AND OTHER STRANGERS. So what food is it most like now?

A strawberry pavlova drizzled with dark chocolate.

What are your nerves like today? Hawaii on the beach or stuck in traffic in Mumbai?

Stuck in traffic in Mumbai--definitely!

Where would you be the most thrilled seeing people reading your book?

Outside, relaxing, with their feet up and a coffee or cocktail at the ready!

Go forth and buy this book at your favorite indie! Or mosey over to and order online.


Thursday, March 17, 2022

Women are rewriting their own story! Come see how in Gina Barreca's hilarious collection of flash fiction from some of the fiercest women around: FAST FIERCE WOMEN

No one writes a funnier bio than Gina herself, So here it is: 

Gina Barreca has appeared, often as a repeat guest, on 20/20The Today ShowCNN, the BBCNPR and, yes, on Oprah to discuss gender, power, politics, and humor. Her earlier books include the bestselling They Used to Call Me Snow White But I Drifted: Women’s Strategic Use of HumorIt’s Not That I’m Bitter, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying About Visible Panty Lines and Conquered the World
If You Lean In, Will Men Just Look Down Your Blouse, and Babes in Boyland: A Personal History of Coeducation in the Ivy League. Of the other six books she’s written or co-written, several have been translated into to other languages–including Chinese, Spanish, Japanese, Portuguese and German.  Called “smart and funny” by People magazine and “Very, very funny. For a woman,” by Dave Barry, Gina was deemed a “feminist humor maven” by Ms. Magazine. Novelist Wally Lamb said “Barreca’s prose, in equal measures, is hilarious and humane.” Her latest project is a book on loneliness that will be released in 2020!

Gina’s award-winning weekly columns from The Hartford Courant are now distributed internationally by the Tribune Co.; her blog for Psychology Today has well over 6 million views. Gina’s work has appeared in most major publications, including The New York TimesThe Independent of LondonThe Chronicle of Higher EducationCosmopolitan, and The Harvard Business Review. Board of Trustees Distinguished Professor of English at the University of Connecticut, Gina’s also the winner of UConn’s highest award for excellence in teaching. She’s  delivered keynotes at events organized by national organizations in the U.S. and abroad, including Women In Federal Law Enforcement, Chautauqua, The Smithsonian, the Women in Science, Dentistry, Osteopathy & Medicine, the American Payroll Association, the National Association of Independent Schools, and the National Speaker’s Association, to name a few.

Her B.A. is from Dartmouth College, where she was the first woman to be named Alumni Scholar and the first alumna to have her personal papers requested by the Rauner Special Collections Library at the College. Her M.A. is from NewHall/Murry Edwards College at Cambridge University, where she was a Reynold’s Fellow. Her Ph.D. is from the City University of New York, where she lived close to a very good delicatessen. A member of the Friars’ Club, holder of a number of honorary degrees, and honored by the Connecticut Women’s Hall of Fame, Gina can be found in the Library of Congress or in the make-up aisle of Walgreens. She grew up in Brooklyn and Long Island but now lives with her husband in Storrs, CT. Go figure.

And what I need to add is that Gina is my adored friend. I'd do anything for her. Well, maybe not eat a mayonnaise sandwich, but you know what I mean.

You and I have talked so much about how humor saves us. But so does being fierce!  Can you define what fierce means to you, and we ALL know it does not mean being a bitch, which is a word used to denigrate rather than empower? And can you tell us how the idea for Fast Fierce Women began?

Every time a woman opens her mouth and anything apart from a cooing noise or a compliment comes out, she’s called a “bitch.” I don’t like the word “bitch” and so I don’t use it--and I ask my students not to use it around me, not even as way of congratulating or praising each other. But “tough"? That’s a good word. Tough broads, tough gals, touch chicks (although “chicks" only worked until around 1982) are all seriously great descriptions. They connote resilience, resistance, and a refusal to stick to the code of benign, simpering femininity. Fierce is the BEST word, though, because it conveys an active desire not to settle for less than we’ve always wanted, which is a good time and a fair fight. 
I am absolutely loving all the books you do with flash creative NON fiction. I’ve never actually DONE flash fiction before you asked me, too, and I love the punch it really does pack. How did you come to decide on this format?

All great writing holds a mirror up to life and the short form holds up a compact mirror: you see a miniature, an accurate but scaled down weekly columns for than 20 years and, like you, blog for PSYCHOLOGY TODAY. I enjoy the short form; it’s the right cut for my weird shape (and what woman doesn’t think her shape is weird? That’s something for another collection).

Tell us about some of your fave pieces in the collection? And how hard was it to decide what to pick?! 

Every essay is about strength, focused power, passion, and determined intelligence, often coupled often with instinct, tenacity, persistence, resilience, rage, and inflexibility. These themes or ideas or stories are often coupled with humor, and deal with friendship, loyalty, talent and community—what’s not to like? Some of the emerging writers in the book, young women who have never seen their words in print before, have written impressive pieces:  “Black People Don’t Do This” by Ashaleigh Carrington, a former student, is both funny and heartbreaking—talking about going to therapy with her middle-aged shrink’s “white noise” going in the background, but her own wish to make her life better determining her commitment to mental stability; Nicole Catarino writes about a battle with OCD and, again, tells her story with ferocity and without self-diminishment—and also with humor. There are stories about flight attendants who finally got the revenge on the jerk passenger we’d all like to get, and stories about first jobs, old sex, and love—so many stories about love, we discover that fierce love is the most enduring kind of love there is. I’m proud of every piece, as different as they are—or maybe because they are so different from one another.

We’ve also talked about how with women, part of the reason we all go to the ladies’ room together, is to talk, to laugh. Even when we go alone, we start up convos with whoever is there, and soon become fast friends.  I have always felt that meeting you was like Friends at First Sight. I just KNEW immediately. And the more we know each other, the stronger our friendship gets. My husband often says that his best friends are women—because they go deeper, they are more honest, more real, and I was wondering why do you think the friendships are different?

Every woman I know believes her own friendships are endowed with a kind of secret significance. I certainly do—my friends keep me alive. Look, I’m not married to my best friend. I’m married to my husband. He’s a man I adore but he’s not my best friend. For that I am fantastically grateful. One of life’s great gifts is that there’s no taboo against having multiple best friends. You don’t have to go on reality television or into family court to explain or defend yourself. Nobody says “What? You’ve had twenty friends in twenty years? That’s terrible. How could you?” And that’s because friends are people you’re supposed to have in your life—the more the better. Nobody says that about spouses.
When we’re with our women friends, we believe that we are in extraordinary company; that’s how I felt about meeting you, Caroline, right from the beginning.  Making us feel rare and prized, our friends capture our imagination and offer us perspective. They remind us not only who we are, but also why we’re significant. Friendships inspire us. They allow us to express ourselves, even when we can’t stand the self we’re expressing or when we’re so far from our true selves that we turn to our friends to bring us back, as if we’d put our personalities in pawn and gave our friends the receipt for safekeeping—as if they were the ones we trusted, more than we trust ourselves.

What’s obsessing you now and why?

I wish I had smarter and more wide-ranging answers to this insightful questions. I’m scared by the news, which makes me rock back-and-forth, worrying about whether I should spend money trying to arm Ukrainian soldiers, or install just another generator and hoard more seltzer—I feel useless and ignorant. My greatest fear in life is being useless. I feel at my lowest when I feel as if I am trying my best and getting nowhere. When that feeling comes around, I go all self-torturing. Nothing I have done is enough, nothing I can do will be enough, who I am is absurd—and that’s why the question about friendship is crucial. When I feel this way, I turn to my friends and they help, lending me their own perspective when mine is wobbly. 

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

You asked ALL the good questions. You are kind and generous, and I am lucky to know you. THANKS DOLL!!

Leslie Kirk Campbell, winner of the Mary McCarthy Prize for Short Fiction talks about her astounding new collection, THE MAN WITH EIGHT PAIRS OF LEGS, longings, settings, and so much more

Leslie Kirk Campbell is the author of Journey Into Motherhood: Writing Your Way into Self-discovery. Her latest stunning collection of stories, The Man With Eight Pairs of Legs, has just come out. Visit her and learn more at

I always think that writers are haunted into writing their stories, or looking to write their way into an answer for some questions they have. Was it this way for you?

I am a writer richer in ideas than in characters. These ideas often arise from a question that is unexpectedly provoked by an image, a movement, a sound, or a dream. My story “Nightlight,” for example, arose from a vivid dream I had in which a middle-class woman, a wife, is looking out her bay window, surprised to see her husband walking away from her down the street, his arm around a young homeless man, the two almost glowing as the sun rises in front of them. Why did this man leave? I wanted to know. What drove him to make that decision? On another occasion, I heard the sound of someone cutting trees for hours while I worked in the old convent where I often go to write. I walked up the street and saw a woman standing alone at the top of her steep drive. I felt her sadness deep in my gut along with the sadness of the trees lying now in pieces on the ground. What sadness, I wondered, caused this woman to slaughter so many beautiful trees? I wrote “Tasmanians” to try to answer that question. 

Story after story in THE MAN WITH EIGHT PAIRS OF LEGS was driven by my curiosity. What would it be like not to have legs? I wondered after seeing a row of fascinating prosthetics in a TED talk. And then, what makes a human human anyway? (“The Man with Eight Pairs of Legs”) How can a woman still love her philandering husband? (“Thunder in Illinois”). What might drive an abused woman to kill? (“Overture”) Each question, of course, connects with some key aspect of my own emotional landscape. 

Your work made me think of that great book The Body Keeps the Score, about how our memories react to our memories, how the truth of what happened might be suppressed in our minds, but it always comes out in our bodies. Can you talk about that for us please?

The body does keep the score, as much as boulders along the sea or in the foothills hold the marks of tides, snow and wind. My own body has been repeatedly objectified, cut into by surgeons, its kidney bruised, an arm fractured, the body broken in half in a car accident. It has been assaulted, embraced, touched, and invaded with the threat of death. The body remembers.

That same body gave natural birth to two ten-pound babies (without epidurals), ran varsity track, and spent years studying modern dance, seeing itself in a wall of mirrors. I didn’t realize as I was writing these first stories of mine, that the body was so prominent in them. It took someone else to point out what I hadn’t seen. Over and over, as I attempted to write fiction, my body had been talking to me.

I believe in the emotional intelligence of the body, in the molecules of emotion. I believe we privilege the mind at the expense of listening to our own bodies. My body IS my story and the holder of my stories over time – even, it turns out to a time before I was born.

My maternal side of the family is Jewish, and immigrated through Ellis Island in the late 1800s. A couple decades ago, I went to the small town in Germany where my husband grew up. One night, on a stroll through his town, he pointed to a row of apartment buildings and said, in a neutral voice, “That’s where Kristallnacht took place.”  Suddenly overcome, I sobbed sadness relentlessly in his arms. No one in my family had lived through WWII, but there it was, the grief of my people hidden, until then, inside my body. The body remembers.

My characters, too, are marked by their pasts and continue to be marked in present time: bruises that never totally disappear, scars, lesions, heroin tracks. In the “The Hermit’s Tattoo,” the main character tries to erase a tattoo with the name of a childhood friend he once loved. He rubs his skin raw with salabrasion for months, but her name is still there. For Mariam, the protagonist in “Tasmanians.” marks from her past are invisible, yet she feels the ancestral pain of genocide burning on her skin, as real as the fires that burned her grandmother’s family. 

 “City of Angels” arrived almost in one piece as I unconsciously repeated a particular movement in an improv class. We hold memories along our spines, in our groin, within the softest part of our wrists. I don’t believe that the brain is a closed container; it leaks and spreads, the nervous system reaching everywhere in the body with its rivers and tributaries. 

Writing this first book of fiction, I discovered that to really know my characters I had to get inside their physical bodies. I did not want to simply be an authorial witness to their actions. I wanted to rummage around inside them, feel their heat, their aches, listen to their blood circulating – to feel in my body what it feels like to be them.

There is such a deep sense of longing in the stories, that I was wondering – what makes you long? 

Perhaps I am a victim of my own restlessness. I lived in six different cities and went to ten different schools by the time I was 18. I longed to have a home like my friends who had lived in the same house since they were born. I was a song leader in high school cheering on the teams, but would imagine myself a prostitute in some foreign country. I was a ‘good’ girl, but I longed to be bad. I realized in my late 20s how male-identified I was and longed to know, finally, who I was as a woman. 

At one point I was going to call my collection, Exit Stratgies, when I realized all my main characters seemed bent on escaping some form of imprisonment, whether literally, like the abused woman in “Overture,” or figuratively, from something in their past. Llyn and Grady in “Triptych” are refugees from Kentucky and New Orleans; Reiner in “Nightlight” is a refugee from his family farm in a small German town, and now wants to escape the mundanity of a middle-class job and marriage. My characters seem to seek something other than what they have, often taking dangerous risks to live out their passions, or to quell them. 

I’m always curious (because I write novels, not short story collections) how writers decide which story goes first. Which one goes last? What was that process like for you? 

When I started writing fiction in my late fifties, I simply wrote the stories I needed to write without any thought of a book. I used these first few stories to cut my teeth on fiction. But once I realized I had enough stories for a collection, and discovered a theme that could unify them, I had to come up with an order. I obsessively made lists in columns. Which ones were in first person, which in third? Which had a male protagonist and which a female? Where is the setting? Which ones are long and which short? Which ones ended with despair, which with hope? I didn’t want any two sequential stories to be too similar. 

I had six long short stories and one short short. So I wrote a second one to balance things out. I put one in the first half of the book and one in the second half as a relief from the longer stories. I wanted this collection to be an orchestration, just as I did with each individual story, with variation of movement, texture, and feel. I chose to start with my title story, which I felt would be a great introduction to the collection’s emphasis on the body and longing for something else. I knew I wanted to end the collection on a very strong note. I knew, from attending more of my share of football games, that even after dazzling plays – passes, runs and interceptions – resulting in touchdowns along the way, how dejected I feel if my team ends in defeat. Filing out of the stadium, the exalting moments are forgotten. I needed my last story to be a winner. I chose “Triptych.” I wanted the reader to end their journey with a feeling of love, compassion, and hope.

You’ve been praised so highly for your prose – and rightly so – that I wanted to ask, do you read your word aloud to hear it as well as see it? 

Yes, I do. In fact, I record each story and listen back with my eyes closed. I care, perhaps obsessively, about the music of the sentences, each paragraph a movement in a musical composition. I began as a poet. I wrote my first poem to the ocean in Capitola when I was ten, amazed that words could capture my unspeakable feelings of grandeur and awe. In college, I studied poetry from Spain, Britain, France, then traveled through Asia for a year picking up poetry books in every country, got an MA in poetry, studying modern Italian poetry at the Universita di Firenze. As a result, I understand the power of each sound in language, the magic of surprise juxtapositions. I’ve trained students to know what a poet knows about writing as a foundation for their writing in any form for nearly forty years. An image, a metaphor, a phrase or sentence can be thrilling to read, and I want it to be. I want the language to live on the page, it’s music – rhymes and rhythms, its silences, its musical scoring and orchestration. Language is the writer’s medium, just as clay is for the ceramicist, stone for the sculptor, and the body for the dancer. Too often, perhaps, writers take language for granted. But for me it is essential to love language like a poet, to be aware of its natural resources, to feel its exuberance. This is the kind of literature I get excited reading. Rhyme is not just the ‘cat in the hat’. In my stories there are echoes of idea, theme, and image, as well as sounds. I love this kind of layering and relish creating it, although it takes a long time…

What’s obsessing you now and why?  

I am currently working on a second collection called Free Radicals. What I am exploring with these stories is the outlaw, the passionate outlier, and the meaning of freedom. I am re-reading Hannah Arendt on totalitarianism and reading Maggie Nelson’s On Freedom. In the long story Lilith that is the ground story for the collection, a Welsh woman wanders freely from place to place, making temporary friends along the way. As poor as she is, she seems not to have a care in the world. But how free is she? What has she lost? What has she gained? What about the love between a Nicaraguan landowner and a Sandinista revolutionary? A lesbian in a homophobic society? Is the lesbian free once she is allowed to get married (a kind of bondage) or was she freer as an outlaw? (I saw Thelma and Louise again recently, which also begs this question.). We are living through a time of angst around this question. What makes one person feel free, may injure someone else. Does anyone really have freewill?

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

Readers have commented on the richness of my stories’ settings and the way they are often grounded in a particular time in history. 

Everything happens in a place, and that place cannot be separated from the characters, whether it is a city or a small room with mosquito nets over the bed. I am a firm believer in the power of sensory detail: smell, sound, touch. Together these details create a fully dimensional world. The small-town Colorado setting of “The Man with Eight Pairs of Legs” feels critical to the story of Harriet and Callahan with its bounty of churches (the “good”) and prisons (the “bad”) and its dramatically beautiful mountains and gorges. In “The Hermit’s Tattoo,” the wild fires arrive in sheets over the rolling hills. In each story, there is strong interplay between the character and the place they are in. These descriptive details invite the reader to thoroughly inhabit the worlds I have created for them – to smell the eucalyptus tar along with Mariam in “Tasmanains;” reading “City of Angels,” to feel the salt air and sunlight on their skin. 

I am almost organically interested in the reality of history, of social context, of the way a character’s personal triumphs and tribulations do not occur in a vacuum, but within the fabric of a cultural and political era. What is happening beyond the confines of the characters’ individual lives puts pressure on their personal conflicts and choices. In some cases, it is a particular time in history I have lived through like the AIDS epidemic in the 80s, or I will spend hours researching to get the details I need so that the layers of politics, history, and the personal are all there together on the page. 

Monday, March 14, 2022

Alien Encounters, Hard Science, and the Passion of John Mack. Ralph Blumenthal writes about his fascinating new book THE BELIEVER

I'm fascinated by what people believe and why they believe it. A friend of mine told me about renowned former New York Times reporter Ralph Blumenthal, who had co-authored a series of articles on the secret Pentagon office to investigate Unidentified Flying Objects, or Unidentified Aerial Phenomena. He's written an absolutely fascinating new book about John Mack, a brilliant Harvard academic, who believed that space aliens were abducting humans. 

The Passion of John Mack: 

A Hero’s Journey Into the Heart of Cosmic Darkness

By Ralph Blumenthal

What was I thinking when a used paperback fell into my hands in Texas in 2004? I can’t honestly remember. As the new Houston bureau chief of The New York Times, I was always looking for story ideas. But I sure wasn’t thinking that here was a book that would upend my world and send me on a voyage of nearly two decades into the deepest mysteries of creation. 

The title was intriguing enough: “Passport to the Cosmos: Human Transformation and Alien Encounters.” That’s even before I saw that the author, John E. Mack, was a Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, and a Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer of Lawrence of Arabia. What, I wondered, was a distinguished Harvard academician doing writing about extraterrestrials? I was more intrigued after finishing the book, an account of Mack’s unlikely investigation of seemingly normal people with stupefying accounts of interactions with unearthly creatures that (who?) abducted them for apocalyptic warnings of planetary destruction, bizarre pseudo-medical tests, and the harvesting of eggs and sperm for the apparent breeding of a hybrid race. 

I had spent my then-40-year Times career writing about very different -- and decidedly earthly -- subjects like crime, cops, crooked politicians, and Nazi war criminals. But here was a story hard to pass up. I resolved to track down this Professor Mack for an interview. I had little idea how prominent he already was, having aired his research in two best-sellers, countless articles, and TV interviews -- and having survived a secret Harvard inquest, or inquisition, to use a term of one of his tormentors.

But then I picked up The Times a few days later in September 2004 to find Mack dead. He had been in the U.K. for a T.E. Lawrence retrospective and, looking the wrong way down a London street, as Yanks are wont to do, been run down by an inebriated driver. 

That was hardly the end of my interest, but rather a new impetus. Now the story had an ending, however grim. I found Mack’s half-sister, Mary Lee, in Massachusetts and requested access to his archives. She and Mack’s wife, Sally, and their three grown sons, Danny, Tony and Kenny, were too understandably grief-stricken to immediately respond. But I stayed in touch with them and eventually they agreed, making available his vast archives, including his private journals, unpublished manuscripts, home movies and family photographs, even taped sessions with his own Indian guru therapist. The only exclusions were privacy-protected interviews with patients and research subjects, although some of these, too, would emerge over time.

And so began my own quest that would consume the next 17-plus years, through publication of my book, “The Believer: Alien Encounters, Hard Science, and the Passion of John Mack” (High Road Books/University of New Mexico Press). The paperback comes out March 15, 2022, a year to the day since publication of the hard cover.

So what did I learn? That Mack had stumbled on a colossal mystery, one that seems as intractable today as when he encountered it in 1990 in a serendipitous visit to another unlikely pioneer, Budd Hopkins, an artist whose sighting of a UFO on Cape Cod had come to obsess him, as it would Mack, with an inexplicable conundrum. Before meeting Hopkins, Mack assumed that anyone recounting an abduction by alien beings had to be mentally ill. But then Hopkins sent Mack off with a bundle of letters from people sharing their unfathomable experiences, and Mack was hooked. He never did answer the ultimate question of what lay behind the abduction riddle but he grew convinced of one thing: somehow, in whatever dimension of reality, something undeniably terrifying had indeed happened to these people. 

Mack’s heroic journey into the heart of cosmic darkness (as I came to think of it) was rooted in a maverick stubbornness to follow his own lights, as one of his favorite poets, Antonio Machado, had written: “the path is made by walking.” Mack had grown up with a strong moral compass in a well-to do secular German-Jewish household. His father, Edward, was a professor of English at the City College of New York (at a time when I was an undergrad there -- one of many strange synchronicities I later recognized). Mack’s birth mother, Eleanor Liebman, from a family of transplanted German brewers renowned for their Rheingold beer, had died of appendicitis when Mack was an infant, leaving him with an aching sense of loss that came to haunt his subsequent search for the hidden in the cosmos. Adding to his angst was a new stepmother, Ruth Prince Gimbel, a onetime socialite and strong-willed New Deal economist, the widow of a great-grandson of the founder of the department store chain, who had jumped out of a window during the Great Depression, leaving her with their four-year-old daughter, Mary Lee, who became Mack’s unexpected sibling. (I also later came across some of Ruth’s papers at Baruch College where I was organizing archives -- another synchronicity.) 

Mack attended Oberlin and Harvard Medical School, soon joining the Harvard psychiatric faculty where he established ground-breaking mental health services in long-downtrodden Cambridge. He had fixated on Lawrence of Arabia after seeing the Hollywood blockbuster, prompting him to spend a dozen years on a landmark study of the quixotic British adventurer, “A Prince of Our Disorder,” awarded the 1976 Pulitzer Prize for biography. Suddenly the author was a recognized expert on the war-torn Middle East and soon an avid campaigner for peace and protester against atomic weapons. He experimented with LSD and other hallucinogens and, at a 1987 demonstration of Dr. Stanislav Grof’s Holotropic Breathwork at Esalen on the Pacific, excavated new dimensions of his consciousness. He imagined a previous life as a Russian peasant and his mother’s struggle to bring him to life. And it was at another breathwork seminar that he learned of Budd Hopkins and alien abduction. 

Mack had quickly assembled his own group of experiencers -- his preferred term of neutrality for those who had encountered God-knows-what -- and soon came to some powerful conclusions. These people weren’t crazy. Something truly terrifying had indeed happened to them. But what? There was, of course, no hard evidence. Yet Mack was intrigued by Budd Hopkins’s letters and the congruence of the countless similar accounts he began hearing from so many different and otherwise normal people, teachers, housewives, engineers, doctors, lawyers, police officers and every other profession. They were notoriously publicity shy, so unlikely to be fabricating outlandish stories for fame or profit. Some were little children, too young to be quoting books or movies. One common denominator was the sighting of a U.F.O., although not every experience involved a spaceship. And everyone seemed genuinely terrorized in ways a trained psychiatrist could recognize.

Mack ended up laying out 13 of his best case studies in a 1994 bestseller, “Abduction: Human Encounters with Aliens.” Predictably, it discomfited superiors at Harvard where his unconventional research had been hardly a secret but now, displayed to the world, it was drawing ridicule from influential alumni. A secret committee of inquiry was convened, subjecting Mack to intrusive questions about his beliefs and methods. But in the end, he was exonerated of any wrongdoing and continued his research, foraying into other mystifying byways of the anomalous, from crop circles to survival of consciousness -- life after death. Some said they even encountered Mack’s spirit after he passed. 

Mack, I granted, was at times naive and gullible. His heroic quest for the ineffable in the cosmos may well have been rooted in something as profoundly personal as the childhood loss of his mother, a trauma that left him in long search of missing love, to, ultimately, the sad undoing of his marriage. Mack knew all this, of course, and persisted nonetheless, consumed by an intractable mystery we have yet to fathom. But he at least began the path, by walking.