Friday, January 18, 2019

Art. Life. Loss. A piano. Chris Cander talks about THE WEIGHT OF A PIANO, why it's so wonderful hearing from her readers and so much more.

“A visionary novel about the madness inherent in all art and the burdens of history that give rise to art and must be carried in turn. The miracle of wonderful fiction is to place wondrous objects where we would never expect to find them–to make the unexpected both palpable and real–and this beautiful, intricate novel gives us one indelible picture after another, each one written in a different key.”
—Charles Baxter

Chris Cander is the author of 11 STORIES and WHISPER HOLLOW, which was longlisted for the Great Santini Fiction Prize, Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance; nominated for the 2015 Kirkus Prize: Fiction, Kirkus Reviews; and chosen for the Indie Next Great Reads List, American Booksellers Association.

In her latest incandescent novel, THE WEIGHT OF A PIANO, two women, a Soviet concert pianist and a young mechanic, discover their connection to the same Blüthner piano--and to each other.

Thank you so much for being here, Chris!

 I absolutely loved the idea of an upright piano being key in a novel, and how it winds its way through the pages like a refrain. Which brings me to my favorite question: What was haunting you at the moment that made you know that this was the moment when you had to write this particular book?

I've long struggled with my relationship to objects with provenance, mostly because by nature I appreciate minimalism and order. But I was born into a family of artists and archivists, and we have a lot of stuff: my grandfather's countless woodworking treasures; handmade quilts and blankets from the women on my mother's side; my father's photographs, souvenirs, and mementos that have been passed down from one generation to another. Part of me wants to preserve everything with the care and love it deserves, and part wants to set it all on fire. So the idea of a woman having only a single physical object—an enormous, expensive, burdensome one—that represents both her parents and her lost childhood fascinated me. I wanted to know what she’d do with it, because I also want to do know what I will do with all the things I'll eventually inherit.

This wonderful novel spans so many time periods, as well as countries and history, that I am wondering about your craft. Do you map things out? Have charts? What kind of writer are you?

I tried plotting once, and it was the emotional equivalent of solitary confinement. There was no freedom in it, no joy. For me, creative writing is an act of spontaneous exploration, like an unplanned road trip. But when it comes to research, I'm fastidious. I keep precise records of what I've read and whom I've interviewed--and how it all informed the project. I use Aeon software to create timelines, so that every event is precisely noted. (If you want to know the moon phase or the exact age of a character on page 214, for example, I can tell you.) I do a ton of research, but use only enough in my novels so that the reader trusts me enough to lose herself in the story.

I'm also particular about my work ethic. When I’d been working on my first novel for a few months, I decided to calculate my average daily word count, and I came up with an average of .87 pages. I loved that figure, because it sounded so surmountable, and yet I’d made such progress. It became my mantra and my output goal, and now, my family and friends know exactly what I mean when I say, “I’m going to do my .87.” Any day I meet or exceed my .87 is a good writing day. Whether the 300 or so words are actually any good isn’t as important—especially on a first draft—as the commitment to the work they represent.

Art. Life. Loss. To me, these are the big, big questions. Do you think there are ever any concrete, set-in-stone answers? (I know the answer to this, but I’m curious to hear your take on this.)

I think if there were any set-in-stone responses to those huge, abstract ideas, we wouldn't need fiction. (I'm guessing you might feel the same way.)

I also love the title, because that word “weight” is really so freighted. Can you talk about this please?

In this case, the word is a double entendre. There's the psychic, emotional weight of the piano in the characters' lives, which grows heavier and heavier for different reasons, and the actual physical weight, which makes it not only a symbolic burden but a real one. (By the way, this particular Blüthner weighs 560lbs. That's a lot of piano to drag through a desert--and a life.)

What’s obsessing you now and why?

The current administration of our country has inspired/provoked in me an insomnia-inducing concern about the thoughts, emotions, and actions that can draw people together or wrench them apart, and the wounds they inflict on others as they try to heal themselves.

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

How about this: Do you like hearing from readers of your books?

When I fall in love with a novel, I reach out to its author to say so, and to thank her for those two or three nights of reading pleasure. Because I mean it, and because I know the gruesome, inspired, tiresome, amazing, thankless, graceful, painful, divine work that goes into writing a book. I think it's nice to express gratitude for work that's made an impact, and I never expect a reply--though the kindest ones often do. And so yes, when a reader reaches out to me, I'm incredibly grateful they took the time to do so. In fact, I framed the first love letter I received from a reader and it still sits on my desk these years later, reminding me that I'm connected not only to the imaginary world, but to the real.


Tuesday, January 8, 2019

Thomas Kohnstamm talks about LAKE CITY, 3 x5 cards on corkboard, personal ethics, writing, and so much more.

The socko cover

Portrait of the artist

Just some of the rave blurbs

Thomas Kohnstamm is the author of DO TRAVEL WRITERS GO TO HELL? (great title, right?) and he lives and writes in Seattle. I loved Lake City, and I'm thrilled to host him here. Thank you, Thomas!

 I always want to know what the why now moment is for writers—how and why you felt haunted/pressed to write this particular book?

 Lake City took me almost 7 years to write. My first book, Do Travel Writers Go to Hell?, came out in 2008. I liked the book but it exited the commercial process as a pretty different product than that which I had set out to write. Lake City is, in many ways, the result of me re-starting from scratch, re-learning fiction and writing my purest comedic translation of my take on life and the world around me. It wasn’t something I did as a hobby or for fun: it was a compulsion. Counterpoint was really supportive of me and my creative vision for this book.

 Lake City is a fabulous mix of class and cultures, which I think is particularly appropriate given what’s going on now in politics. Do you think that most people can—like your hero—figure out what the truly right thing to do is? And if not, what the hell do WE do?

Lane, the protagonist, makes a lot of mistakes before kind of, sort of starting to get a few things right. In our dog-eat-dog, hyper-capitalist environment we are asked to make daily decisions where we balance our personal good against the wider good. Everyone likes to say that they are always thinking of others but also nobody wants to be the sucker. We place a ton of cultural value on the trappings of success and not on “he led a nice quiet life, didn’t rock the boat and was really dependable for those close to him.” We are all a combination of successes and failures. It sucks that current leadership models that one should always consider their personal needs before anyone or anything else.

Lake City is also really funny, particularly about Seattle, but I have to say this could take place in Brooklyn, too.  Why do you think our world has gone so haywire

Well, my grandfather was an orphan from Brooklyn and I’m not sure that the world is more haywire now than when he was a kid during WWI. That said (and this is not funny), we do have a fragmentation of society, family and a globalized market which is working out well for those with the right skillsets and gumption and many more are being rendered redundant. I have been thinking a lot lately about how the entire concept of the nation state is likely moribund. As humans, we have some big, fundamental issues to wrestle with in the coming generations.

So this is your debut novel (though you’ve written a memoir and animation series)—did it change your writing or you? And how?

I think that screenwriting really helped me with pace, plotting and dialogue. It is terribly hard to write a novel, but you are also allowed the luxury of a bit of digression in a book. Screenwriting is shorter but you must be ruthless with your words.

They’re all narrative cousins and working on one definitely helps the other.

What kind of writer are you? Do you outline or do you hang out for that notoriously pesky mu

Lake City was very tightly planned: like 3X5 cards on a cork board for most of the scenes. I spend a lot of time (years?) thinking about stuff (searching for the muse?) before really launching into something. I’m not the kind of writer to get off and running on something and then figure out what it is and end up cutting a bunch of pages. That’s not to say that I don’t keep room for flexibility, but my years in the trenches have taught me some pretty painful lessons about undertaking projects without a decent sense of where I’m heading.

What’s obsessing you now and why?

Everything: politics, my family, my dogs, beer, weed, skiing, new books I want to read, new shows I want to see, old books I still intend to read, shows and movies I want to catch up on, mountain biking, trying to sleep, travel, languages. And, of course, my next book… already have the 3X5s on the cork board and the first part done.

When do you write?

I’m a bit of an insomniac. I write for a few hours in the afternoon when life and other work allows but, usually, I wait until after my wife and kids are asleep. I try to harness the insomnia as I catch a second wind around ten or eleven pm and can get a lot done between then and one or two in the morning. And no one emails or calls at that time – I love it.

Wednesday, December 5, 2018

The Australian outback. The pull toward and against dangerous adventure. Janet Clare talks about her extraordinary debut TIME IS THE LONGEST DISTANCE, obsessions, and her appearance at MY local Little City Books on Feb. 6th--and you all have to come!

I love debuts. Just addicted to them. Janet Clare's TIME IS THE LONGEST DISTANCE is set against the remote Australian outback and features a heroine as startling as the terrain. I called her novel a "phenomenally moving experience." And I'm not the only one knocked out. Look at this:

 “When Lilly, rocked by a family secret, agrees to trek through the Australian outback with her newly-discovered father, brother, and niece, the terrain is as remote and unfamiliar as her traveling companions. There in the crowded vehicle, the torment of past relationships pursues her—wanting adventure while wanting safety, feeling cramped and yet never close enough. A poignant and witty story of survival, trust, and awakening.” Susan Henderson, author of The Flicker of Old Dreams

“In deft, clear prose that reminds of both Cheryl Strayed and Michael Ondaatje, Janet Clare’s debut explores—in riveting, unflinching detail—a woman’s search for connection and meaning. In Lilly’s journey, with unfamiliar family in unfamiliar territory, we have a protagonist wanting in the ways we are all wanting: to find that thing that will make us complete. There are depths in these characters and I loved every word.” Christian Kiefer, author of The Animals 

"An impressive debut. A taut, compelling adventure, exploring little-known landscapes and the depth and breadth of a woman's yearning." David Francis, author of Stray Dog Winter 

I so loved the book that I contacted Janet, and we became long-lost friends and I'm going to be interviewing her at LITTLE CITY BOOKS in Hoboken, NJ on Feb. 6 at 7:00. Come because we are going to be laughing and talking and because her book is amazing.

Thank you, thank you, Janet Clare 

What was it haunting you that got you to write the book?
 Years ago, I heard about a man who, having spent most of his life in the United States, returned home to Australia for his father’s funeral only to find he had a whole other family living on the other side of the country. It started me thinking about that vast land, and all the spaces where we hide ourselves. How separate we can be from people--often family and those we love—who we see every day. And, too, the longing for those lost from our lives. I’ve always said I hate losing anyone still above ground.

What kind of writer are you? Do you make maps, or just follow that pesky muse?
 I make notes. Scraps of paper, post-its. Some that have nothing to do with what I’m writing, but nevertheless may work their way in. Never an outline. I admire people who do it, but I can’t. I have an idea, a point of view, and a place, which is very important to me, and obvious in Time Is the Longest Distance. My protagonist might come from someone I see, which was the beginning for my second novel. I’m always curious about interesting strangers, what their story might be. So, I try to listen, (I confess to being a terrible eavesdropper, though I also ask questions if it’s appropriate), then I just make it up. Start and see where it goes, which is often never where I would have thought at the outset.

What surprised you in writing this book?
The way these people come up against what I consider the big questions we all face in our lives. Love and loss. Thoughts of morality and mortality, and, how capable we might be of actions that surprise and terrify us. How differently we might act if we find ourselves out in some far-reaching emptiness, that sense of being gone from our lives. And, of course, the human imperfections from which we all suffer.

You mention the thrill of transgression. Could you talk about that please?
I think many of us are drawn to a certain danger, especially when presented with opportunity. The idea of breaking away, of chance, and going against the norm. I believe it is often women who a have a true sense of adventure, perhaps even more so than men. Women like Beryl Markham. Her book, West With the Night, has stayed with me forever. I’m not talking about climbing Everest or hand gliding, but stepping off the edge of your everyday life, taking a risk. Nothing quickens the blood more.

What's obsessing you now and why?
I have to admit getting this book out has been all consuming right now, talking about it. It’s all so new to me, but really wonderful. Reaching out to people, saying please, and someone, like you, Caroline, you’re amazing, who just grabs on and connects in a way that’s astounding. It’s the absolute icing, and I’m having a grand time. But I’m really looking forward to getting back to work on polishing my second novel, and a third that needs more time. All I want is enough of it.

What question should I have asked that I didn't ask?
Why didn’t we meet sooner? Though we’re 3,000 miles away, I am beyond thrilled to know you and so happy that you’ve read my book. The friendship and support of other writers, of people I respect, is truly gratifying.

Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Barbara Shapiro talks about her latest critically acclaimed, mega-seller, THE COLLECTOR'S APPRENTICE, story structure, fraud, art and so much more

 I first met Barbara Shapiro when she was newly signed to Algonquin Books and we were going to their BEA party together. To say I liked her instantly  is an understatement. How could you not like someone raucously funny, smart, and with excellent taste in cowboy boots and jewelry?  I watched her star ascend with absolute delight, from the NYT Bestseller status of the Art Forger, to awards after awards for The Muralist, to standing room only events. But even better than that, we've become fast friends.

Her latest, The Collector's Apprentice, is, like all Shapiro books, racking up the raves and packing in the events, and I'm just delighted to host her here.

Thank you, Barbara!

Let’s talk about art. Were you always interested? How difficult is it to translate how art makes you feel—and the intention of the artist in the medium of writing? And do you look at art differently now? Do you paint?

 When I was a little girl I wanted to be an artist. My parents were very supportive, clearing a corner of the basement for my “studio” and sending me to art classes. Unfortunately it became clear very early on that this was not where my talents lay. So I became an art appreciator. I travel a lot and the first thing I do in a new place is to go straight to the art museums.
 It’s hard to translate how art makes me feel, but because I feel it so strongly it’s probably easier for me than for others. And I love to pretend I’m an artist, to get inside the head of someone with the power to transform what they see into something someone else sees too. The more I learn about art, the more I study the works and the artists, the more I’m amazed and fascinated and overwhelmed by both the process and the product.

I‘ve always been a huge admirer of the way you play with time. Do you do that in real life? I’m also someone who structures everything right down to the way I spell my name, so I’m always fascinated with how other writers get their novels together.

I love to play with time, knotting and braiding multiple stories and multiple characters, but it does get to be quite a handful. And yes, I’m a plotter: I have to know that I have a beginning, middle and an end before I can begin to write. Of course, this always changes—in some books it changes completely—but I still need an outline even if I know it will probably be thrown away. I’m a statistician by training, and I use statistical methods to plot out my novels: normal curves, bubble graphs, tension charts, etc. Then I use the tried-and true multicolored file cards and graph paper.

 This third novel of your art trilogy is about collecting art, and not simply making it. But it’s also about fraud, which figured in your previous novels. I think it was you who told me that many of the paintings displayed are actually forgeries!  But people are also forgeries in a way, because they create new identities for themselves, especially Vivienne.  I want you to talk about this, but also, wouldn’t you say that this is what we writers do, too? We take on the skins of our characters and become them in so many ways?

Fraud is the best. I have a Ph.D. in sociology—because every fiction writer needs one—and used to teach a class called Deviance and Social Control at Tufts University, which explored groups and individuals who are considered to be deviant in different societies or in a single society at a different time, and this turned me on to all of these fascinating ideas. In The Collector’s Apprentice, my favorite shape-shifter is George, aka Ashton, Benjamin, Istvan, Tex, etc. He slides in and out of different personas the way other people change clothes. I love him and hate him, and I’m completely fascinated by the workings of his mind—and by the emptiness of his soul. Hopefully I haven’t taken on too much of his skin.

You’ve said that this was an art trilogy, that your next novel, is in present day, and set in a storage unit.  What made you decide to go back to the present, and how does that feel? Is the writing of this new novel any different than your usual process?

Historical novels have their own set of difficulties and complexities above and beyond all the difficulties and complexities involved in writing a novel, so I decided to give myself a break. This is freeing, but I also discovered that in some ways it’s harder—I use the historical research to give me ideas, storylines and characters, and now I have to make it all up myself.
And yes, my process started out very different, but didn’t end up that way. This story has seven viewpoint characters who are linked through the self-storage units they rent in a medieval-style building in Cambridge, MA. They are rich, poor and in-between, they are black, white and brown, they are Christian, Jewish and atheists, and they would never have come in contact with each other without the randomness of their storage units. It’s a novel about class in America, and I decided I would abandon my usual super-structured methods and just write chapters about each character until I figured out who they were and what was going to happen to them. I did this for about six months and was incredibly frustrated. I felt like I was getting nowhere. So I got out my normal curves, tension charts, graph paper and multi-colored file cards and plotted the whole thing out. Then the ideas flowed, the story took shape and the characters did too.

Glenda Burgess, author of the sublime THE GEOGRAPHY OF LOVE, talks about writing and music.

GLENDA BURGESS is a winner of the Rupert Hughes Award for Fiction and a short story finalist for the New Century Writer Award. Her literary memoir, THE GEOGRAPHY OF LOVE, was named a Ten Best Books of 2008 by the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and a finalist for the 2008 Books for a Better Life Award.

I loved her book so much, I asked her if she would write something for the blog. Thank you, so much, Glenda!

Music and Writing

Debussy was said to have painted music, Sibelius heard compositions as a symphony of color. As I worked on my country music novel, SO LONG AS WE’RE TOGETHER, I realized I was beginning to hear unspoken words within the music, not just the music in words. Language has always possessed musicality—and naturally and effortlessly transforms into the lyric, the song—but for me it was a unique experience to think about songwriting, melody, and a novel’s narrative all from the point of view of a musician. What story does a line of notes tell when there are as yet no lyrics, when the song says nothing at all? When words do partner with a melody there is a dance between meaning and feeling. We understand words, however we feel music. What becomes important? What is said, or left unsaid? Conveyed through language or simply through the notes of the song? 

I determined to make a deliberate effort in my narrative to infuse in the landscape, scenes, and in dialog, echoes of the musical performances of my country music duo, Marley and Andi Stone. I felt the twin sisters’ music was as much a character in their story as the lake in the novel, or Donna, their mother. That for some characters, what they seek speaks their piece in the world.  Marley leaves heartbreak at the keyboard, finds hope in an inspired melody. Andi defines a world for herself by singing it into being. Donna pushes back a hard and disappointing life listening to the jubilation in the notes and verses of others. I found that the more I listened to the novel’s narrative as a musical composition between all the parts of their story, an original melody took root in the pages, from the opening note to the last.

Many writers read their work aloud in draft to catch a lagging clause or repetitive word, dull sections, or run-on sentences. But I read this entire novel aloud, by scene and section, and in series of chapters at a time. Multiple times. Listening to the narrative was quite literal for me. I paced my small study as I read, pausing to look out the large window at the maple tree in all its seasons, listening for the music in the words. I had found a pace, a beat, and a pitch for this story. The lake country as well as country music defined The Stone girls. I listened for that thread on every page. My hope is that when you read this novel, it will sing for you too.

May the music of your own words carry you through.

Monday, November 26, 2018

Love books, reading, writers? The Book Report Network has been a best friend to writers (I love them) and readers for so many years and they are expanding. Come and help them on Go Fund Me!

 Who doesn't adore The Book Report Network and Carol Fitzgerald? This is from Carol and she cna say it all so much better than I can. I just donated and you should, too.

Over the last 22(!) years, we have built a loyal audience of more than half a million readers across the country via our websites ---,,, and --- and our well-read newsletters. Our goal every day is to connect readers with the books and authors they love.

After very early rounds of angel investor funding, all of our expansion plans have been self-funded. Today, we find ourselves at a point where we need additional support to expand, so we are reaching out to the publishing community to ask for help. Our plans outlined below include:

*   A Totally New and Modernized Network of Websites
*   A Bookreporter Podcast...with an Ear Towards a Series of Podcasts
*   Support for Live Events

We have reached audiences of all ages who share a love of reading. From features like Sounding Off on Audio and Word of Mouth on, What’s Your Book Group Reading on to curated lists like the Ultimate Reading List and Guy-brary on Teenreads and our Series feature on Kidsreads, we have successfully delivered relevant and entertaining content.

We have launched a GoFundMe campaign ( with a goal to raise $100,000 by December 31st. I would be so appreciative if you would consider a contribution! I am thankful for any amount you can give. If you are able to help, here is our GoFundMe page.

The Book Report Network’s Expansion Plans

An Upgraded Network of Websites 
We plan to move our present websites to a WordPress multi-site platform (which is a big project!!). After a months-long planning process, we have identified the outside developers we want to work with on this project.  
A redesign will mean that we can implement ideas both new and overdue: 
•  Our websites will be responsive across all devices, easily accessible from anywhere.
•  We will improve search and internal functionality to give readers new ways to discover books.
•  We will offer new opportunities for sharing content, and for readers to note the books that they want to read.
•  You'll see better, fresher layouts with more visuals, giving us the opportunity to showcase books and authors more vividly.
•  We’ll be able to present more and new content offerings on all of our websites, including a top-to-bottom refresh of
Important Note: Our websites currently are built in Drupal 6, which was the platform of choice when we started our last redesign back in 2010. Drupal 6 is no longer supported. This upgrade is a necessary change, not an indulgent redesign. Without it, we are restricted in functionality and speed of content delivery. This has been frustrating for us, and from the emails we get, we know it is for our loyal readers as well.

 A Bookreporter Podcast...with an Ear Toward a Network of Podcasts 
Digital audio is exploding, and our readers are ready to listen. In fact, they have already begun to share ideas on what they would like to hear from us. 
We’ll start with a Bookreporter podcast, hosted by Carol Fitzgerald, where she will interview authors and talk about books in a lively format. Also, she’ll host conversations with our reviewers, many of whom have strong followings on our websites, and other guests. We already have a producer lined up and are finalizing plans for a show that will have broad appeal.
 Carol is known for her informative and entertaining interviews at conferences, reader events, industry panels and book festivals. The opportunity to share author interviews, as well as the kind of book information that we know readers across the country want to hear, is a natural expansion for us. Of course, we plan to drive traffic to our websites from the podcast.
We already are thinking about the next step --- to expand our reach --- with a series of podcasts for the rest of the brands in our network. 

Support for Live Events 
Carol has been a guest speaker, moderator or presenter at events across the country, including book festivals, and library, bookstore and book group presentations (among them Book Expo, the Miami Book Fair and the Morristown Festival of Books). In 2019, we will host the Book Group Speed Dating Session at Book Expo for the 8th year; prior years have had 200+ attendees at no fee to either participants or presenters. Going forward, the plan is to increase the number of these programs.

Grateful for Your Support!  
Help fund our expansion so that we may build upon our already strong foundation and deliver what we need to do to grow and build our audience! 
Contributions at any level are graciously appreciated. We accept any and all support to take this huge next step.

Monday, November 19, 2018

Can family estrangement ever be a good, healthy thing? Yes says Harriet Brown in her exquisite memoir, SHADOW DAUGHTER.

Harriet Brown writes about the essential issues--you know, the things that haunt us so much that sometimes we fear even thinking about them. And she does it beautifully. She's the author of BODY OF TRUTH, BRAVE GIRL EATING and the anthology FEED ME (I wrote a toxic ex who wouldn't let me eat, but I couldn't leave him because I was grieving someone I really loved.)

Shadow Daughter is especially gorgeous and relevant during the holiday season, because it asks, how can we deal with family relationships that no longer work and that hurt us? Can estrangement actually be healthy? I'm not the only one to go nuts for this brilliant book. Take a look at the praise:

“Harriet Brown has written a very personal book about a difficult thing. Shadow Daughter is candid, thoughtful, complex, and well-researched. It will be useful to anyone trying to understand what went wrong.”  —Audrey Niffenegger, author, The Time Traveler’s Wife

“Digging deep into a subject so taboo we didn’t even know it was a subject, Harriet Brown has gathered many painful tales of estrangement, but it is her own personal history that gives backbone and emotional power to this courageous, thorough work.” —Mary Norris, author, Between You & 

“Brown's research and anecdotes help readers understand the many dilemmas involved in engaging in estrangement and offer support for those balancing on the edge of making this life-changing decision.” —Kirkus Reviews

Thank you so much for being here, Harriet!

What was the moment when you felt haunted into writing this memoir?

On some level I’ve been waiting to write this book for years. Long before my mother died, even before our final estrangement, I knew I wanted to write about our relationship and about the larger issue of family estrangement—for myself, for the catharsis I hoped it would bring, and for other people who might be going through similar experiences and who felt alone with those feelings and problems.

 Do you feel that you personally changed in the writing?

One thing that changed for me in writing this was that I had to—chose to—articulate to myself and on the page some of the inchoate thoughts and feelings that had been swirling around in my head for my whole life. Another thing was that I got to connect with so many other people who had struggled or were struggling with estrangement, and that was intensely instructional and liberating.

 Did anything surprise you in the writing?

What surprised me most, and continues to surprise me, is just how common estrangement is. Pretty much everyone I’ve ever talked to about it has mentioned a similar issue in their own family. Surprisingly often they bring up core relationships—a mother or father they don’t speak to, a brother who doesn’t speak to them. And just as often it’s the first time they’ve talked to anyone outside their immediate family about it. There’s so much stigma and shame around estrangement, and that isolates those of us who have been through this.

 Why do you think the mother/daughter bond is so difficult, in particular? Do you think cultural changes have made it more difficult or less?

I think all of these close bonds are difficult. Fathers and sons, mothers and daughters—we are social animals who can’t live without these close relationships but sometimes can’t live with them either.

We don’t get to choose our families, and it’s actually surprising that sometimes being estranged actually frees you and makes for a better life. But guilt, grief and regret still hang on. How do you learn to live with that?

 What a good and tough question. I think everyone must find her own way to work through these issues. For me it took a lot of repetition and years of very good therapy to help me understand on a deep emotional level that a) I was better off estranged and b) guilt just kept me enmeshed in a toxic situation. I do feel guilt and regret on occasion, of course, like any other human being J, but they don’t plague me the way they used to.

 What's obsessing you now and why?

 What’s obsessing me now is a story I hope will be my next book, which is about families that use cannabis to help medically fragile kids. It’s a story about love—the love of families that go against the medical mainstream and risk not just censure but jail to help their children. These are kids and families that deal with unbelievable obstacles and unimaginable situations. I’m deep in the reporting for that and it’s intense and life-changing.

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

A marriage. Grief. Running toward something new. Jaclyn Gilbert talks about her incandescent debut novel LATE AIR (great title, right?)

Come on, don't you just love debuts? The notoriously cranky Kirkus Reviews does, calling LATE AIR, "elegiac...a carefully plotted and cautiously hopeful novel about the ties that outlast marriage."Jaclyn Gilbert received her MFA from Sarah Lawrence College and BA from Yale University.  She is the recipient of a research fellowship from the New York Public Library, a contributor to the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference, and her work has appeared or is forthcoming from Post Road Magazine, Tin House, and Lit Hub.  

I'm so jazzed to host her here! Thank you, Jaclyn!

I always want to know about process. I understand that this brilliant novel was a short story first. (That was my experience, actually, with my first novel!) How did you transform it into a novel? How difficult (and exhilarating) was that?

A very good question that goes right into the heart of the process.  I started this novel as a story for my first fiction writing workshop as an MFA candidate at Sarah Lawrence College.  Around my class schedule, I began a habit of running along the Bronx River greenway.  One October day, I ran past a park golf course and wondered about the possibility of a stray ball hitting me or another runner nearby.  I thought suddenly of all my years of college running on the Yale campus golf course, and how never once I had considered these risks.  Something about the terror of that hypothetical asked me to sit down when I got home to try and write it as a scene.  I felt something lock in through the moment of writing—something about my past experience intersecting with my imagination as my pen scribbled over the page.  When I shared the work with my class, I received several emails from readers wanting to know what happened—asking me what my plans for the story were.  I began to consider the character of Murray as part of a larger work, or one that circled his own journey into his past around the inciting incident of a golf injury his star runner, Becky Sanders

At the time, I knew very little about traumatic head injury, but began reading as much as I could on the topic, studying regions of the brain, and the speed and distance required for a golf ball to incur severe damage.  I also knew that the narrative felt too confined to the coach’s experience of his athlete’s accident, and I wanted to weave in a female perspective that could look at larger questions of grief and recover.  At Sarah Lawrence, I had the good fortune of working with David Ryan as my thesis advisor, who was the first person to get me to think deeply about what stories Murray might have repressed from his past.  He helped me think of trauma as an echo split into tiny fragments that could erupt out of the coach when triggered by a sound, smell, or image.  I spent weeks meditating over the color and shape of Becky’s wound, and through drafts of endless free writing, I began to see where its echoes might resurface in the present narrative, through the blue of a swimming pool for instance, or the color of the sky around dusk, and I began to imagine a deeper trauma running parallel to that of Becky’s.  I began to imagine Murray’s runners as extensions of the daughter he never had, and this understory became a constant source of interrogation for me.  I have never had a child myself, so I began immersing in research around what it might feel like to give birth to a child in my late thirties.  Over time, I was able to develop the character of Nancy, someone whose literary and perfectionistic neuroses I can identify with, as much as I can Murray’s obsession with running and the body.  Transforming this story into a novel was very much a process of trying to marry and reconcile different aspects of myself through characters that were as much parts of me as they were points of departure through their lived experience as new parents.

Their own opposite journeys around grief, or the opposite ways they needed to heal in the aftermath of an unfathomable loss, in many ways allowed me to grieve the greatest loss of my own past.  My father and I no longer have a relationship, and my own struggle to redefine my relationship to running as not something I need to use to control and order my life to the point of injury, but as something that allows me to be present in my body and more compassionate toward myself as a whole, ultimately fueled the writing and recovery process driving this book. So much of Late Air’s emotional arc required questioning what it means to grieve as a means of survival—and what it means to forgive oneself and those you love in the process.  The opposite nature of my characters’ journeys also helped move the plot forward; while I knew they each had to find their own way through time and memory back to one another, I didn’t know how they would, or how many pages it would take.  My revision process was about constantly finding that balance, shaping their paths in a way that felt most organic to their humanity, and the trauma that fractured their lives, but also joins them together at the end in a search for lost time, love, and wholeness.

One the things that moved me the most is the idea of how marriage changes—how it can grow.  I always used to think that the best relationship was when it was new and passionate and sparking with excitement, but after 25 years, I’ve discovered the best, truest, deepest love is when you’ve been through so much together, when you can actually learn to see each other. Even so, I was surprised and moved at how the novel ended. Did you always know it would end that way?

I think my answer to this question is embedded in my answer to your last one, but in short, I suppose I didn’t always know the novel would end this way.  I think this is true largely because it took me time to understand the scope of the story I was trying to write.  At first, I thought it was the story of one coach and his runner, but when I began layering in his past and realized it was really a story about a marriage and the death of a dream, I began to see more clearly where it could end.  I vividly remember the day an image of the ocean came to me, with a couple sitting on a bench looking as gulls dove in and out for fish, and something about that image felt right.  I kept the image vaguely in my head, writing toward it as best I could, and in time, images of blue and water began to recur.  In this way, I began to see that blue was both a source of pain and healing for my characters.  That the ocean of breath, or the life force that is taken from Nancy and Murray, is also the thing that they share and are looking for through running.  I think it was this image that allowed me to imagine Nancy becoming a runner toward the end of the novel too—even though it is the last thing she imagines herself becoming after she blames Murray’s obsession with running and coaching as the reason behind their failed marriage.  

I am convinced that this image of the shared void between Murray and Nancy as a body of water helped me find the ending most completely, to explore all of its reverberations through the color blue in Late Air as a dual means for learning to sit inside our wounded bodies, as well as transcend them through a shared experience of love and loss in the end.

I was also fascinated with how you wove the past story in with the present story, the story of Nancy and Murray’s marriage in with their respective careers. For me, it’s always so difficult to know what to put in and when. How did you do such alchemy?

One of the most helpful tools I learned was through my thesis advisor, David Ryan, who told me about kernels and satellites.  In this craft idea, you decide which thing had to happen in your book to make it the story you are telling, and you decide that, you have to be very selective about which details, scenes, and images will be most effective at circling that core moment or truth.  Once I realized that I was telling a story about two traumas, I had to think about all of the ways those two traumas were working in echo; I had to figure out which key aspects of Nancy and Murray’s characters would be most effective in establishing their love for one another and their hope for their first child, as well as reveal all of the ways that dream had been shattered through the past and present narratives.  I would say that none of this came easily.  So much of it relied on telling the surface stories of both Murray and Nancy’s lives, both apart and together, and then deciding all of the ways they overlapped, and what scenes would allow me to most effectively create depth and sub-text around what I know, or at least think I know, to be true about them.  This whole process required a lot of cutting and reshaping.  It required a lot of patience and diligence in trusting that layers would be able to weave themselves together through the magic of memory, imagination, and time—or through the process of revision itself, since it allowed me to deepen my connection to the story I was trying to tell, allowing the story to form its own memory and pool of subconscious I could call forth in moments of intensive rewriting. 

I know you were a runner yourself, which acts as a superb metaphor in the novel i.e. what are we running from and why aren’t we running to? Can you talk about this please?

In writing this book, I realized that running is a double-edged sword.  In one way, it can be something that allows us to run away from our emotional pain, as a practice that allows for the adrenaline rush, or the high, that can let us escape what we don’t want to feel or re-experience.  For me, it was my father’s critical words when I was a teenager.  The last thing I wanted to feel or hear were these words, and running allowed me flight from the idea of the woman I feared becoming in his eyes.  Running in this way was a means to control my body, to focus on racing times and my weight instead of the question of my father’s love, which proved to be conditional when I was in college.  The conditionality of his love set in motion a grieving process that I think Late Air seeks to reconcile or find peace with.  I realized that my writing process was very much tied to my identity as a runner; I realized I needed to find a way to affirm myself through the experience of writing, as much as I did in my experience of running, so that both writing and running could serve as paths of salvation, and not destruction. 

In this way, the book became about running toward what I was most afraid of feeling, so that I could ultimately transcend and heal from that loss.  The death of a child is, I think, in many ways a metaphor for the death of the child in me, or the child I felt my father couldn’t love unconditionally in the same way I was trying to find a way to love myself unconditionally in this life.  Nancy’s journey took the shape of my own through her own desperate search to sit in her body again.  Her running chapter offers a source of healing that can redirect her journey as one that seeks not to forget her pain, but that which accepts it and lets it go so that she can forgive herself as a wife and mother.  It is what allows her to have compassion for Murray by the end of the book.  Through Nancy, I ultimately found greater compassion for myself; all the long runs I took while writing this novel helped me learn to sit in my body just as she had to; Nancy also taught me to sit through the most uncomfortable aspects of the writing process.  Rather than flee the scene, I had to write through conflict, feel what my characters were feeling in their bodies in order to make their experiences most whole.

What’s obsessing you now and why? 

 I am obsessed with a lot of things, I would say.  But one thing I realized I am particularly obsessed with is the psychology of repression: how we can spend our whole lives repressing a given story or feeling like a secret that leads to a continual cycle of trauma.  In our current political climate, I often think about how many stories have been repressed through the whole of human history to give priority to other stories that do nothing but incur further violence and destruction.  I feel desperate to understand why we may repress what we do because we are men or women, husbands or wives, sons or daughters, parents or children; I realized that it is the fact of binaries that lends for a continual repression of otherness that fails to recognize the ambiguity of our humanity.  As a writer, I realized I want to do more to honor that ambiguity, especially as it relates to societal norms, and I want to find a way to show that moral ambiguity is far more interesting than absolutism’s attempts to define our morality as either good or evil.   In my writing, I hope to make the experience of reading more about the process of asking questions and trying to see things from as many vantage points as are possible, so that we can begin to believe in the multiplicity of truths, and celebrate the shared experience of not being able to pinpoint a single answer.


I think you’ve allowed me to get at the heart of what I am trying to write.  Thank you! I think my last answer to the great human question is that to find patience and love for ourselves is to find it in others, and as a writer who is still very poor at practicing patience, I am determined that each day I try to be more patient, I might inspire others to do the same—as a means of becoming less reactive when confronted with fear and conflict.  As a writers and readers, my hope is that in an age confused by the competing demands of technology, consumerism, and media, we can still find time to step back and observe how beautiful it is we are all here together: alive.