Saturday, September 15, 2018

Acclaimed writer Claire Bidwell Smith talks about ANXIETY: THE MISSING STAGE OF GRIEF, how to lessen and live with our losses and how anxiety is connected deeply to grieving.

 First just one of the absolute raves:

 "In Anxiety: The Missing Stage of Grief, Claire Bidwell Smith has found yet another way to powerfully illuminate and deepen our understanding of what it means to grieve. Drawing upon her personal experience with deep loss as well as her many years of working as a grief counselor, Bidwell Smith offers fresh insight into the connection between grief and anxiety. Bidwell Smith's profound compassion for those who've experienced loss has already helped so many people. This trailblazing book will help many more."―Cheryl Strayed, New York Times bestselling author of Wild

Claire Bidwell Smith is a therapist specializing in grief and the author of three books of nonfiction: The Rules of Inheritance,  After This: When Life is Over Where Do We Go? Her latest is Anxiety: The Missing Stages of Grief, and being no stranger to grief myself, I read the book underlining pages. What seemed to remarkable to me is the way Claire gives practical advice that can soften the pain, readjust it, and let you move on. I cannot thank you enough, Claire for this magnificent book.

I always, always want to know why this book now? What made you feel you had to write this?

This book has been calling to me for a while. About five years ago I wrote an article for based around this idea that anxiety is missing from the five stages of grief and the response to that article was overwhelming. I got so many emails and I also found my office flooded with clients who were experiencing this grief-related anxiety and seeing help with it.

The more clients I saw, the more I understood the affliction and how to treat it. What’s remarkable about the whole thing to me is that this symptom isn’t more widely talked about and because of that, I felt a certain sense of duty to provide more information on this important topic.

What I loved so much about this book was how you connect anxiety with loss. That makes total sense to me, since I think the root of anxiety is worrying about what WILL be lost. Can you talk about that please?

There is simply no question that loss causes anxiety. Loss is nothing but a reminder that life is precarious and that we are not in control. This realization coupled with the intense emotions of grief are the perfect recipe for anxiety. It also doesn’t help that we live in a “grief-illiterate nation,” as Maria Shriver says. We often feel very alone and unsupported going through the grief process and do not know where to turn. Not having the proper support can also lead to a greater sense of anxiety.

The tools you give readers is totally invaluable. Do you think they can be used for other issues as well?

Yes, I think some of these are life tools. We all need to do a better job being present to our lives, to our time here, to our relationships with each other and what it is we we want to leave behind when we eventually depart. Doing these things and living a more consciously will help all of us to experience more meaningful lives…and deaths.

I also loved the way the book was structured, in clear question and answer form, with very concrete ways of coping. Was this deliberate? (I personally think this way causes much less anxiety!)

Ha…yes! I was very conscious of the anxious state my readers would have be coming to this book in. I wanted to make the information as comforting and easy to digest as possible. Every day I work with clients who are anxious so I’m very familiar with the ways in which an anxious person processes information. Above all I just want this book to be helpful to those who are experiencing anxiety or in relationship with someone who is.

What’s obsessing you now and why?

I’m kind of obsessed with end-of-life care. I think that’s the next frontier in death and dying and the grief world. How we grieve is directly affected by how we die and until we see some strident changes in end of life care and how we can better embrace death, then grief will continue to be a struggle.

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

The one thing I want to touch on is the positive in all this. First the good news that grief-related anxiety is easily treatable. But bigger than that, the reminder that death doesn’t have to be this big, scary thing all the time. Death is a reflection of love, it’s our greatest teacher in how to live. Grief is an incredible opportunity for transformation – let it break you open and reveal deeper truths about yourself and your time here.

Kitty Zeldis talks about why she took a new name to publish a new book, NOT OUR KIND, about anti-semitism, 1940s New York City, female friendship, and more.

 I've known Kitty for years, deeply admiring her work--and her sense of style--(part of why I look forward to seeing her is to swoon over what she has on!) She's the author of the many highly praised novels and books for kids, but Kitty isn't her real name. And in this essay, she's about to tell us all why.

But first, here are some the raves she's racking up for her latest book, NOT OUR KIND,  about class, culture, anti-semitism in 1940s New York City.

“A young Jewish teacher and a WASPy married woman find an unexpected connection in post-World War II New York. . . . Zeldis paints a vivid picture of two separate New Yorks in the 1940s—Eleanor’s shabby clothes and budget meals versus Patricia’s fancy dresses and staff-prepared dinners. Their twin journeys toward independence—Eleanor’s from her mother and Patricia’s from her husband—show that no matter how much money a woman had, she was still constrained by the misogyny and stifling gender roles of the time. A compelling tale of friendship, class, prejudice, and love.” (Kirkus Reviews)

“Zeldis uses the rich details of post-war New York—the music, the clothes, the cocktails—to tell the story of two women looking for fulfillment.”

“Let the glorious period details wash all over you—the clothes, the glamour, the excitement of New York, circa 1947.  But the most remarkable achievement in NOT OUR KIND is the complex relationship between women from two different worlds that Kitty Zeldis expertly explores. The questions and prejudices that each woman has to confront are issues we are still exploring today, which makes this novel timely as well as entertaining.” (Melanie Benjamin, New York Times bestselling author of The Swans of Fifth Avenue and The Girls in the Picture)

 “Kitty Zeldis has a gift for making even the smallest details of the past shine with vivid color. The story she tells in NOT OUR KIND—of two women in post-World War II New York trying to forge lives of integrity and purpose—resonates with the struggles of women today. Compelling, frank, and all too real, NOT OUR KIND kept me reading long into the night.” (Lauren Belfer, National Jewish Book Award-winning author of And After the Fire)

“NOT OUR KIND transports the reader back to 1947, to the heart of New York’s WASP-y Upper East Side.  Zeldis has written a powerful and page-turning account of what happens when Eleanor--smart, beautiful, and Jewish--is employed as a tutor by the troubled Bellamy family, and finds herself out of place in their world. Can the fox and the hound ever truly be friends? This engaging novel succeeds in putting a fresh, feminine spin on that question.” (Suzanne Rindell, author of THE OTHER TYPIST and EAGLE & CRANE)

“Kitty Zeldis is one of those rare writers who doesn’t just weave a story, she creates a world.  In this case, 1947 New York -- vivid, dazzling, challenging -- where a young Jewish woman dares to cross the line into the land of WASP privilege, with unexpected results. With deeply human characters and resonant themes, NOT OUR KIND kept me reading well into the night.” (Jennie Fields, author of Lily Beach, Crossing Brooklyn Ferry, and The Age of Desire)

“Rich, evocative, and atmospheric, NOT OUR KIND by Kitty Zeldis is the story of two very different women whose chance meeting changes both their lives in the late 1940s New York. Zeldis weaves a beautifully written story not only about class and women’s roles, but also about love, friendship, motherhood, and coming of age. I was absolutely captivated by this stunning historical novel.” (Jillian Cantor, author of Margot and The Lost Letter)

“Kitty Zeldis shakes open a map of postwar New York City and draws the reader right down onto its streets and into the lives of the women who walk them. Her characters button up their coats and march their way through that decade’s particular disasters—the polio epidemic, religious prejudice, class divisions, generalized misogyny—determined to locate power and happiness for themselves and the ones they love. Not Our Kind is a beautiful and compelling read.” (Adrienne Sharp, author of The Magnificent Esme Wells )

“A fun, absorbing read, Kitty Zeldis’ Not Our Kind takes place in post-WWII New York City. . . . the novel touches on religious and class prejudices as well as misogyny, a topic especially poignant in the #MeToo era we’re currently experiencing. . . . delving deeply into these issues set the stage for a personality- and drama-driven story. It is entertaining and captures the flavor of the city and class differences well. . . . Not Our Kind is an enjoyable read.” (Historical Novels Review)

Here, she tells us why she took a new name:

I’ve always hated my name.  I can’t tell you what it is, but I can tell you that when I started at a new school in fourth grade, the teacher looked at the supremely unfelicitous collection of syllables on the class list and asked what—not who—it was—that’s how weird it sounded.  I had to raise my hand and say, “That’s me.”   I had a chance to change it college—I had decided to use my middle name, which was less egregiously ugly—but though I filled out my forms with that other name, I didn’t have the resolve to follow through. Clunky and unlovely as it was, it seemed I was stuck.  Friends tactfully tried to change my view. They said it was distinctive. Memorable, I was told.  Yeah, right.  So was a two-headed cow.   Even now, whenever  I tell a new person my name, I cringe afresh.

Then a funny thing happened.  I’m a writer, and I began to publish under that unwieldy name.  I can’t say I liked it any better when it appeared on the covers of my books, and yet…it was mine.  It was distinctive, and yeah, memorable.  I guess I had made a grudging peace with it—even if I still cringed a bit when I had tell introduce myself. 

But then after seven novels, the last four with the  same publisher, I had a big internal house cleaning.  New novel, new agent, new publisher and new start—with a new name too. My sales figures, less than robust, needed some goosing up, and this, according to the publisher, was the way to do it.  They were polite but firm—Not Our Kind was coming out under a nom de plume. 

At first, I was kind of tickled by the idea.  I’d get to shed my ugly name—finally! Assume a cute, perky alternative, a name I wished had been mine from the start.  And because I chose Kitty, which was in fact a college nickname, I felt I recognized the name on the cover—she wasn’t a stranger.   I was totally on board with this decision. 

Or was I?  After several months have elapsed, a bit of ambivalence has crept in.  And what’s that bittersweet feeling—regret? That old name I’d always hated was on the seven novels I’d written, novels I most emphatically did not hate.  That was also the name I’d used on the twenty-eight children’s books I’d written, some of them the recipients of awards and those coveted starred reviews in the industry publications.  One of them has sold close to 600,000 copies, a number that makes me proud.  And yet, because I am exiled from the name on those books, I’m exiled from those accomplishments too. 

Not Our Kind was published on September 4.  HarperCollins is really enthusiastic about this book, and is putting some muscle behind it.  Thanks to their stellar PR department, I’m scheduled to visit a slew of cities and will be meeting and greeting new readers with my brand new name.  I can’t yet tell how it’s going to feel, and whether I’ll fully embrace the change or, with surprise, mourn it, even if just a little.  




Wednesday, September 5, 2018

A boy who goes missing. A brother who won't stop looking for him. Reddit horror royalty Dathan Auerbach talks about his disturbingly brilliant new novel BAD MAN (and get a load of that guaranteed-to-give-you-nightmares cover!) and more.

I love horror. I really do. And as soon as I saw the cover of Dathan Auerbach's novel BAD MAN, I knew I was going to be hooked. And I was, because not only is it so unsettling you might feel as if you have ants living in your heart, but it's also smart and gorgeously written.

In 2011, Dathan began posting a series of stories to a forum dedicated to horror. After a campaign that raised over 1000% of its goal, he was able to release the revised and expanded versions of his story as the novel Penpal.  His next work, Bad Man, is the love child of Dan Chaon and Stephen King, but don't take my word for it. Look:

 “An atmospheric and unsettling novel. . . . Auerbach’s portrait of an after-hours grocery store—as benign a setting as one could imagine—takes on an aura of almost Gothic menace. Most importantly, his ability to convey the grief, guilt and sense of loss that fuel Ben’s fixation gives the book a resonant emotional center. With just two novels, Auerbach has established himself as a significant figure in the post-King generation of horror writers.”
—The Washington Post
“Auerbach cleverly weaves in the horror trope of creepy kids amid a vibe that’s best described as Stephen King meets Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. . . . The novel is wickedly effective in creating a feeling of doom. . . . Bad Man
delivers an unexpected gut punch and saves its darkest deeds for an unnerving end.”
USA Today

“If you think The Shining set in a grocery store, you’re not far off. . . . Auerbach is magnificent with atmosphere, able to conjure dread from a huge array of normally nonthreatening places. This is a horror author to watch very, very closely.”

“Dark and disturbing. . . . Readers will be reminded of the young Stephen King.”
Publishers Weekly

“This nasty little slice of Southern gothic. . .is a heady, puzzling, and oddly gripping exercise in depicting a small town as a macabre place filled with everyday horrors ranging from a child’s stuffed animal to a gruesome industrial accident. . . . Auerbach [keeps] readers on the edges of their seats for the whole ride.”
Kirkus Reviews

I always always ask every writer—because I believe this is true—what was haunting you into writing this particular book? What was the question that you wanted answered? And did the answer surprise you?

I think the main question I had when writing the story was what’s the distant aftermath for a family when a child goes missing? I wanted to follow a person still walking a road long after they’ve lost their bearings. What does that family look like? What happens to a person’s mind when hope is made vestigial, but they can’t escape its grasp?

I think the answer was a bit surprising to me.  I knew the path that the main character Ben would walk, or at least I knew the way points. The scenery, though – the things he passes through and is transformed by along the way – that snuck up on me a bit.

The book totally unnerved me, and I mean that in the best way.  Was there ever a moment when you felt disturbed yourself?  When you forgot you were the writer and felt you were an inhabitant of this town?

The truth is this town is a real place and so is the store. You can find it if you know where to look. I won’t say that I ever wrote something that got under my own skin, but I know these places and these people, so there were definitely some times when it felt a little too real to me.

I think what makes Bad Man so terrifying is the casual nature of the horrors, the way things that happen could have other explanations (the freezer that locks itself made me half crazy, but they don’t.  All of this leads to the question, so what kind of writer are you? How did you write this? Was it mapped out? Or were you as surprised and terrified as the rest of us?

I love all kinds of horror. I’ll watch or read just about anything. When it comes to writing, though, I tend to be most drawn to more terrestrial things. Human horror. There are a bunch of reasons for this, some practical, most just matters of taste, but I think I’m always more interested in the things that people do and why they do them.

As far as how I approached Bad Man, most of it was mapped out in my head before I really dove in. I’m bad about using actual outlines, but I know the beats I want to hit and how I think I’m going to get there. Of course, there were some developments I hadn’t really considered at the outset that I stumbled upon as I went. Some characters wound up being way more integral than I had first conceived – the cop James Duchaine, to name one.

Those kinds of surprises are both fun and stressful. It’s great to find something knew and think, “why didn’t I see that or think of that before?” But that can also be alarming, because then you start wondering what else you overlooked.

You started out self-published on Reddit,  and became an instant hit. That lead to a Go Fund
me for Penpal, which also was a hit.  I’m amazed at how you kept going—do you have this built-in belief system? Or was this a surprise to you?

It’s been a genuine surprise the whole way. People’s reactions. My own determination. Penpal started as one story that I wrote just for fun. It was the responses from people on r/nosleep that pushed me to write more stories and eventually revise them into a novel. At a certain point, and I was aware of it as it was happening, it became work. Not a slog or a grind – just something that was difficult and trying. I was surprised that I kept going when it would have been easier to quit while I was ahead. But I wanted to see it through, partly for myself, but mostly for the people who had been cheering me on. I felt like I owed it to them, since they helped me find and retain a kind of determination I didn’t expect I’d find in myself.

What’s obsessing you now and why?

I think I’m between obsessions right now. For a while I was trying to hunt down vinyl pressings for the band X Japan, but I’ve taken a break from that because it’s full of slim pickings and devastating “almost got ‘ims.” It’s only a matter of time before that starts back up, though . . . as evidenced by the fact that I just opened up a new tab and searched Discogs while I was in the middle of writing this reply.

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

If I ever thought of writing Bad Man as a palindrome. The answer is obviously yes.

Tuesday, September 4, 2018

Four former--and haunted--classmates. A small town simmering with racism, political strife and broken dreams. Stephen Markley talks about his gorgeous, gorgeous debut novel: OHIO.

Stephen Markley's stunning debut Ohio centers on four former classmates and the simmering summer that brings them all together. And it's on the Best Books of Summer from * Vulture * Time * New York Post * The Millions *.

 He is also the author of Publish This Book and Tales of Iceland. He is a graduate of the Iowa Writers Workshop and his essays and short fiction can be found scattered across the Internet. He currently lives in Los Angeles. I'm so thrilled to have him here. Thank you so much, Stephen!

I always, always want to know why this book now? What made you feel you had to write this?

I’d been trying to write a version of this novel for maybe a decade. It’s not so much you choose the book, but eventually the book chooses you. It went through so many revisions, re-imaginings, re-interpretations. It’s always a process of discovery, which is why it’s so simultaneously fun and frustrating.

Why did you set it in Ohio? I think it’s a brilliant choice, but I would love to hear your thoughts on it.

I’m from a small town in Ohio not too dissimilar from New Canaan. There’s a lot about that place I still love, and a lot that about growing up there that has stayed with me. That place and the friends from there are never far from my heart or mind. The fact that an archetypal town based on my own suddenly smacks headlong into the zeitgeist was just a lucky/unlucky accident.

I also loved the ambitious structure—the course of one night, flashbacks that read as front stories—everything coming together to unfold deeper, more powerful truths. How difficult was this to do? And was this always the structure you wanted to use?

Yes, it was difficult, and getting the structure right took a long time. I think there’s something about the degree of difficulty with a project that attracts me. Novels and films that play with time, that leave you off-balance, that take you backwards and forwards and occasionally sideways, I almost feel like they have the potential—if you get it right—to draw you in more deeply than a straightforward linear narrative. Of course, it’s also easy to make a total mess of your story.

I always also want to know what surprised you when you finished the novel—was their something you wanted to explore and then the answer was something different than what you expected?

I guess I was somewhat taken aback by how intimate it felt, especially when I got the page proofs back and there’d been a bit of space between the last sentence I wrote and actually reading the thing as it would appear in book form. I was like, “Who would’ve thought that’s what this book would turn out to be?” But that’s what makes writing fiction such a gobsmackingly thrilling exercise: because even the author isn’t really in control of it, and what you have in your head is never quite what makes it to the page.

What’s obsessing you now and why?

Climate change mostly. It’s what we should all be obsessed about, but it remains maddeningly far from the forefront of just about any discussion anywhere.

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

Now that you both live in Los Angeles do you think you and LeBron will become close friends?

Answer: I’m not sure—he’s in Brentwood and I’m on the east side, so traffic could make it tough. But whenever he feels like hanging out, I’m available.

Thursday, August 30, 2018

Motherhood. Marriage. Life. Death. Three generations of incredible women. Suzanne Matson, one of my favorite writers on the planet, talks about her latest novel, ULTRAVIOLET.

I think I first met Suzanne Matson the way I often meet writers: I wanted to know her so fiercely that I made it happen. I had devoured THE HUNGER MOON and I kept thinking how could anyone write something that exquisite? How could I not know her? So I reached out, and through the years, I've loved all her books--and her-more and more. (She even came to one of my readings in Boston early on--and she brought a friend/novelist Elizabeth Graver! I was so excited I almost passed out.

Ultraviolet follows three generation of incredible women, traveling from 1930s India, exploring marriage, motherhood, aging, life and death, too. I'm not the only one raving about this novel, either. Take a look:

“Fascinating and stirring. . . . Matson glides through her characters’ lives in almost self-contained chapters punctuated by explosions of burnished emotion. . . . Readers will latch onto the unforgettable characters of this accomplished saga of the shifting personal and historical complications of American womanhood.” —Publishers Weekly (starred review)

“Fans of Anne Tyler and Geraldine Brooks will enjoy the intertwined, intergenerational narratives; historical details; and emotional depth of this engrossing novel.” —Booklist

“Matson’s chapters, each of which jumps forward in time, conclude with an especially poignant reflection on aging, as Samantha cares for her dying mother in her final days. This is a stoic view of mother-daughter love: an unsentimental reflection on both the tribulations and the importance of filial connection.” —Kirkus Reviews

“From its wonderful opening in 1930s India, Suzanne Matson’s beautifully accurate and illuminating Ultraviolet follows the fates of three generations of American women along the shifting borders of safety and freedom. As time carries them past risks and refuges, the reader is left with a shimmering sense of lives lived.” —Joan Silber, author of Improvement

Suzanne's previous novels are  The Tree-Sitter,  short-listed for the PEN New England/L. L. Winship Award;  A Trick of Nature; and The Hunger Moon a Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers pick.  She was awarded the Robert B. Heilman Dissertation Prize, an Academy of American Poets Prize, and the Susannah McMurphy Fellowship.  A 2012 fellow in fiction writing from the National Endowment for the Arts, Matson has also received creative writing fellowships from the Massachusetts Cultural Council and the American-Scandinavian Foundation. 

And most importantly, she's an extraordinary writer--and a very, very cool person.

Thank you so much, Suzanne!

I always always ask every writer—because I believe this is true—what was haunting you into writing this particular book? What was the question that you wanted answered? And did the answer surprise you?

Family histories from both my father and my mother always struck me as powerful source material for writing, and yet for a long time I wasn’t sure how to use this legacy.  I first wrote two novel drafts from the Finnish immigrant, coal-mining side of the family (my dad’s).  Then I set those aside to begin a story that imagined my mother’s young life in India as the daughter of Mennonite missionaries.  It occurred to me that what I really wanted to write was the story of a marriage, because the fact that my mother and father had ended up together had always seemed like one of life’s great mysteries.  I sometimes think that my childhood spent trying to get to the bottom of that strange match is what prompted me to become a writer.  It got me into the habit of asking questions about people’s inner lives and what drives them to their actions.  My mother was the more verbal and self-examining person of the two, often speculating about her mother’s situation as a missionary wife, as well as the constraints she felt born into, so that’s where the eventual book came from:  women’s lives threaded down across decades, and how the woman in the middle generation—Kathryn—negotiated her choices, limits, and consequences.  It’s Kathryn we follow from childhood to old age, but my father’s history plays an important role too.

This novel is so ambitious, tracing the lives of three generations of women. How difficult was this to write? Did it feel different from your previous novels?  And if so, how? I also want to comment that you call it “a shape-shifting” in the acknowledgements, which I loved. How did it find its form?

Once I acknowledged that I was writing a novel, rather than linked stories, everything fell into place.  But at first, when I was finding my way, the individual stories were a way to go deep into discrete, important moments in several different women’s lives.  Then I noticed that I had written the initial stories with anywhere from a few years to a decade in between them, so I consciously adopted that as my method, and it became an episodic novel, encompassing about an 80-year swath of history in small leaps forward.  I tried to structure the leaps so that the next point at which we pick up the story has already encompassed action and change, setting the stage for a new turn.  I wanted that change across the gaps to be easy for the reader to absorb, while at the same time remaining implicit.  While I was writing, the gaps felt charged for me, a kind of propulsive energy, so that the reader, entering the next episode, might feel a kind of “aha!” moment—so that’s what happened in between!  The whole process was very different than my previous novels, which all dealt with a limited time frame of roughly a year.  Added to that, my relationship to “truth” was completely different in this novel.  Though I was inventing the characters’ interiority and a great deal of the action in Ultraviolet, I never forgot that these people were also real to me.  Real and complex.  

The book travels from colonial India to the modern suburbs of America so the sense of time and place is as vibrant as your characters. What was your research like and what unsettled you about it?

It’s ironic that the narrative you’d think I would have known best, built as it was out of family history, is the one I researched the most.  Years of research, actually.  Besides the normal kind of Internet searching for events from a certain year, movies that were playing, popular songs and clothing styles, etc., I went to India to see where my mother boarded at school in the Himalayas; I went to Finland to see the village where my paternal grandparents were born, and to the port of Hanko from which Finns emigrated to America; I went to Red Lodge, Montana, and read in the town archives about the boom times and decline of coal there, as well as the persecution of labor radicals during WWI; and I went to Goshen, Indiana to read my maternal grandfather’s papers in the special collections of Goshen College’s Mennonite archives.  I held the handwritten postcard he received from Mahatma Gandhi during the period when independent India’s constitution was being written.  My grandfather had sent Gandhi a memo on behalf of the Mennonite Mission Board urging a provision for conscientious objection to military service.  Gandhi's reply:  “Dear Friend, Your letter.  Why worry!  I am in the same boat with you.  Yours sincerely, Mahatma Gandhi.”  There are so many wonderful research moments that don’t make it into a novel.  In fact—and I think this holds true for many fiction writers—maybe ten percent of what I found appears directly; the rest just informed me, creating a knowledge base from which to imagine.

What is so stunning about this novel is how subtly powerful it is. In Ultraviolet, it is the small moments that are actually the largest.  Do you find that’s true in life?

I feel like the small moments are what make living worthwhile—observing the nuances of social connection, the realities of the body, the textures of the natural world, and all kinds of cultural specificity.  Abstraction has never been my métier.  What makes life infinitely interesting to me are the granular moments, and the way they gesture toward larger realities.

What’s obsessing you now and why?

Well, it’s a hot-mess moment in American and global politics.  As a novelist I want to stay receptive to all the ways in which this anxiety-ridden age has changed the very atmosphere we try to live and work and love in.  So, all that has to enter the next project, which will be set in contemporary times, and yet, I also feel a need to shield myself from constant immersion in the toxic political climate.  Finding that balance is tricky.  Obsession as a writer used to feel simpler:  Go deep, go inward, draw from what you know about the world while living in your head.  That is a nourishing personal strategy, and yet it seems too luxurious for our time.  Right now, it feels essential to stay engaged. 

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

How did we arrive at the cover?  Catapult is terrific for working with the author.  The first cover idea was conceptually interesting but somewhat visually abstract.  In search of a new take, I mentioned that there were dogs throughout the narrative—not as a central subject, but in a way that felt to me somewhat totemic—dogs as emotional touch points.  I mentioned that I could see a cover with a dog running, maybe a blurred dog running, in some unusual effect of light, playing off the title, Ultraviolet.  The design team of Strick &Williams came back with this absolutely stunning cover that made me gasp when I opened the file.  I love the mystery of it, the fact that the dog is facing away from us and seems ready to move down this almost glowing path into the shadows.  But that journey is mysterious, and you feel, emanating from the dog’s alert posture and ready stance, some animal intuition mediating between reality and the metaphysical unknown.  The image felt absolutely perfect to me for exploring uncertainty and yet, in some way, fearlessness.    

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.

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.