Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Melanie Benjamin talks about The Girls in the Picture, the friendship of American Sweetheart Mary Pickford and screenwriter Francis Marion, Hollywood's heyday, female power, and so much, much more

"Benjamin, known for her living, breathing portraits of famous figures, takes on The Golden Age of Hollywood, and the friendship between icons Mary Pickford and screenwriter Frances Marion. As riveting as the latest blockbuster, this is a star-studded story of female friendships, creative sparks about to ignite, and the power of women. Dazzling."

Yep, that's my blurb for Melanie Benjamin's astonishing The Girls in the Picture. It isn't just a deliciously juice read about the friendship between screenwriter Frances Marion and star Mary Pickford. It's a book about female empowerment--and that makes it truly an important read. 

The one story I always tell about Melanie is that when I was reading in Chicago, during a blizzard, she drove me back to my bed and breakfast, only to find that my key didn't work. AND SHE STAYED UNTIL I WAS ABLE TO ROUSE THE OWNER AND GET INSIDE. It's little things like that that make her who she is, which is wonderful. 

Melanie's other mega-selling novels include Alice I Have Been, about Alice Liddell, the inspiration for Alice in Wonderland; The Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb, the story of 32-inch-tall Lavinia Warren Stratton, a star during the Gilded Age; The Swans of Fifth Avenue, about Truman Capote and his society swans; and The Aviator's Wife, a novel about Anne Morrow Lindbergh. Her novels have been translated in over fifteen languages, featured in national magazines such as Good Housekeeping, People, and Entertainment Weekly, and optioned for film. 

Thanks for being here, Melanie!

What made you choose these figures as your next project? And how does this feel personal to you?

I am a huge movie nut, and obsessed with old Hollywood, particularly those very early years.  There was just a vibe about it - the creation of a new art form - that attracts me.  So I've read a lot of books about this era.  And throughout many of those books, this close friendship between Mary Pickford and Frances Marion is mentioned, especially in a book by Cari Beauchamp called "Without Lying Down."  I always thought this could be the basis of a great novel, this empowering female friendship of two collaborators working in this wild and crazy atmosphere, and finally, the time seemed right.  More right than I could have known; since the book was done, there have been so many explosive bombshells about the way men in Hollywood treat women, and these bombshells echo many of the things that Frances, Mary and their friends first encountered in that early Hollywood. 

How was writing this book different than your others?

Every book is different!  I find that so exciting; that every novel is a different experience, has  different highs and lows in the process. I've learned to embrace that rather than fear it.

I bet the research was lots of fun. What surprised you?

So much of this story I knew already, so there weren't a lot of surprises, to be honest.  I do think that the scope of Fred Thomson's fame is not well known today, and it was a bit of a surprise. (Fred Thomson was Frances's beloved husband.)  I loved staying at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel; it was where some of the very first Academy Award dinners were held, and Mary Pickford was an original investor. It was fun to taste a bit of that old Hollywood glamor.

You’re so well-known now, that I have to ask, do you still have the same primal terror most writers have when they start a project? Or do you feel secure now? Or are you one of the writers who never feels insecure! (And if so, how do I get to be that way?)

I have an odd ability to be one hundred percent confident while I'm writing, and then to be one hundred percent ruthless and pragmatic about the business once the novel is done.  If that means ditching it and starting over with something new, fine - I can do that.  I have done it, even since I've become better known.  That never shakes my confidence in my ability, weirdly; I'm able to say, "Well, that didn't work!  Let me try something else!" without being devastated or having my confidence shaken.  What I don't always have confidence in is the business part that I can't control.  I know that you can write your best book ever but circumstances - timing, whatever's going on in the world, other books out at the same time - can conspire to make it so people don't read that book.  And that's the part that still can make me queasy.

Can you talk a bit about what changes these women made on Hollywood and how they might have led to changes today? 

Mary Pickford was the first actor to have her own production company.  She was the first female head of a major movie studio.  She was the first actor to command a million dollars a year, more than any actor (save Charlie Chaplin, who briefly out earned her.)  Frances Marion was the first woman to win an Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay, and then Best Screenplay.  Those are amazing firsts, and they blazed the trail - only to have it grow cold.  I think the bigger story here is how these pioneering women's accomplishments did not lead to changes; things grew worse for women in Hollywood after them, as it became a bigger business.  We're just starting to regain the influence that Frances Marion and Mary Pickford had, in their heyday. Which is why this book is so timely now, when the issue of Women in Hollywood is such a hot button.

What’s obsessing you now and why? 

I'm watching "The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel" on Amazon and loving it!  It's what I watch while I treadmill.  

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

You always ask great questions!  I could have expounded a bit about how it was, as a writer, to explore another writer in my novel.  And it was fun! I was able to give Frances a few of my own quirks--including that weird self-confidence I mentioned above. 

A school shooting. A paralyzed boy. A fractured community. One of the best books of the year (trust me because this is true.) Stefan Merrill Block talks about OLIVER LOVING.

First there is the praise: "A miracle of a book," Newsday. Then there is the book itself. I am not kidding around when I say I live for books like Stefan Merrill Block's Oliver Loving. Gorgeously written, it's also deeply profound. About the aftermath of a school shooting, it changes lives for both its nuanced characters--and for readers. 

Thank you for answering my questions and being here, Stefan. I think I'd read your grocery list (well, as long as it didn't have lard on it, or mayonnaise.)

 And here is the bio: Born in 1982, Stefan Merrill Block grew up in Texas. His first two novels are THE STORY OF FORGETTING and THE STORM AT THE DOOR, which won Best First Fiction at the Rome International Festival of Literature, the 2008 Merck Serono Literature Prize and the 2009 Fiction Award from The Writers' League of Texas, and was also a finalist for the debut fiction awards from IndieBound, Salon du Livre, and The Center for Fiction.

I always want to know what was haunting you that made you know that now was the time to write this novel?

I love that you chose the word “haunting.” I don’t think that I believe in actual ghosts, but beneath everything I’ve written is a similar haunted feeling of unfinished business from the past, a lost person or lost people who still feel profoundly present in some way.  In the case of Oliver Loving, the haunting was tied up with my hometown of Plano, Texas. Plano was a boomtown for much of my childhood – for a few years it was the fastest growing city in America—but beneath all that sudden prosperity there was also some profound darkness. In the 1980s, the media dubbed Plano “The Suicide Capital of America,” after eight kids ended their own lives. When I was a teenager, another crisis rocked Plano: within a year and a half, eighteen kids from my town died from heroin overdoses and several more from suicide. It became a fairly big story in the news; reporters from all over the country showed up to try to answer the same question that those of us in Plano could not: why this town? Why did so many children of a prosperous, upper-middle-class community fall victim to such terrible despair?  All of this is now nearly twenty years in the past, but for those of us who were present for that time, the scars remain, as well as the essential unanswered questions.

Around the time I turned thirty, I came back to Texas for a long stay. I’d been living in New York since I graduated, and my homecoming felt surreal in many ways. Like anyone stepping into their high school bedroom, it seemed to me like some prior, teenage version of myself was still living down there in Texas. But in my visits to Plano, I also found myself thinking often of all those children who died, who will forever remain trapped as teenagers. The impossible conversation that I felt myself having with those lost children and also with a prior version of myself: that was the particular haunting that I wanted to explore in this novel.

You call your character’s last name “Loving,” and the town in which the tragedy unfolds is “bliss.”  What made you choose these ironic names?

Both those names, Loving and Bliss, have a big place in Texas history. The cattleman Oliver Loving is a kind of folk hero in Texas, and Fort Bliss is a major army base in far West Texas, not so distant from the fictional town of Bliss I invented. To my ears, both those names are steeped in Texan lore, and that was a big part of why I chose them. As a reader, I’m always attracted to novels where an essentially realist story has dashes of fable or myth, something mysterious and larger than human drama at work. Given all the unanswerable questions about what happened to Oliver --and the long, unknowable way he has spent the last decade-- Oliver has become “a boy and also a legend” to the people of his hometown, and I wanted to choose names that also carried a kind of mythic echo.  But you are right that those names are also ironic, considering all the tragedy that has befallen both Oliver and his town. In many ways, this is a book about how the road to hell is paved with good intentions, and I liked the way the names “Bliss” and “Loving” reinforced that theme, suggesting a huge contrast between the hope implied by those words and the reality of the present-day situations. 

So much of this gorgeous novel is about family, and how our minds work—or do not work, and how we reach one another. I just loved it. Can you talk about this please?  And about how this differs from your earlier masterwork, the mystery of forgetting?

Almost all of my stories have an impenetrable or unknowable space at their hearts. In the case of The Story of Forgetting, it was the aphasiac mind of a person in late-stage Alzheimer’s; in The Storm at the Door, it was a grandparent who died years before I was born; in Oliver Loving, it’s a persistent vegetative state. In all three cases, the novels are largely about the stories that families create to make sense of those places where our ability to understand breaks down.  There are a lot of reasons why this dilemma appeals to me, but I know that one of my major motives has to do with my own feelings about the purpose of fiction. As literary fiction continues to wane from the public conversation, it feels important to me that we writers try to make a case for the necessity of invented stories. I’m always interested in thinking about what fiction can do that no other art form can, and the greatest power of fiction, to my mind, is its unique ability to enter the interior experience of minds other than your own. And that is a major reason that I’m attracted to these minds that exist in a space beyond our knowing: it is perhaps only through an imaginative literary act that you can throw some light into those dark and unseeable places.

How were you changed in writing this novel?

Caroline, as you have now written nine novels, I’d be curious to know: do you feel, with each book, that you are reinventing yourself? Zadie Smith once wrote, “fictionally speaking, the nightmare is losing the desire to move,” and that rings very true for me. To keep moving forward, it feels essential that I revise both my idea of myself as a writer and the sorts of books I’d like to write. In the case of Oliver Loving, that revision felt more radical than ever. Though my first two novels touch on my own personal dilemmas, I also wrote both (as an actor might say) “in character,” transforming my voice to fit the story at hand. With Oliver Loving, I had a new goal: I deliberately wanted to sound like myself. I wanted the narrator’s voice on the page to be closer to my voice in real life. I took the advice I tell my students: I imagined that I was telling this story to a close friend, with whom I could be as sad or funny or ironic as I am in my life outside of writing.  I don’t exactly believe in the old modernist ideal that every writer must “find” his or her truest voice – I think that every writer potentially possesses many different voices and tones in which he or she could write-- but I do feel that in the process of writing this novel, I found a way to be fluent in something closer to my actual self.

What’s obsessing you now and why?

After three novels that took place close to home in one way or another, I’m very excited to write about a time and place far removed from my own. I’m working on a novel set in Vienna in the 1930s, which was a fascinating, harrowing period in the city’s history. One can’t help but see –in the rise of fascism and the demolition of that city’s intellectual culture—dark parallels with our own moment. The story I’m working on is about an inordinately gifted but badly misunderstood child and his family’s fight for survival in a society where difference would not be tolerated. In part, I know that my curiosity in that topic is a response to what is going on in our country right now, but I can also see that my motives are more personal than that. My wife and I just had our first kid, and I find myself wanting to explore another parent’s story as a way to prepare myself for the joys and anxieties of raising a child.

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

One last topic that I would like to talk about quickly is the presence of gun violence in this novel. Even now, it somewhat surprises me that a mass shooting is there, right at the center of my book.  Of course, these shootings have become a national epidemic and an urgent crisis, but I think that my need to explore it in my book came from my own childhood. Every time I see the news of another mass shooting, especially one in which young people are killed, I think about all those kids who died in my own hometown when I was a teenager, the grief that I know will stretch for decades and transform a community forever. There is a tremendous sadness in the thought that this long story of aftermath usually goes untold, as the public attention turns to the next tragedy. In putting a shooting at the heart of my novel, I wanted to explore that longer, more inward story of how sudden, drastic loss transforms families and communities, a story that has only just begun when the media have already moved on.

Saturday, January 13, 2018

Deborah Reed talks about how writing can be hell, the coast of Oregon, and her extraordinary new novel The Days When Birds Come Back.

Deborah Reed
is a marvel. It's always exciting when an arc pops in the mail for me to read and blurb, and I devoured The Days When Birds Come Back, so of course, I wanted Deborah on my blog. She's also the author Olivay, Things We Set on Fire, and Carry Yourself Back to Me. She has also authored two popular thrillers under the pen name Audrey Braun.  I'm thrilled to have her here. And now, some of the raves the book is already racking up:
"A character-driven narrative that focuses on the grief her two protagonists suffer. It's a sad tale in which grief almost becomes overwhelming but in which the reader is saved by Reed's lyrical and elegant prose and a sense of redemption at the end."The Oregonian

"Reed is skilled at unraveling their stories gradually, and is particularly adept at both drawing parallels between June and Jameson and depicting how the two help each other through their pain....An emotionally satisfying novel about the lingering effects of trauma and how people deal with guilt." —Publishers Weekly

I always think there is a why now moment, a haunting of the writer, that produces a book. What was yours? 

For me it was a major life change that led to living on the coast of Oregon, a place of immense beauty and fierce destruction, or impending destruction, as it were, living in a tsunami zone on top of the Cascadia subduction zone. It was all of this, as well as a casual conversation between a new
neighbor and me.
I was recently divorced, my kids grown, and I found myself living alone for the first time since my teens. Incredibly secluded and with open stretches of time, my past bubbled up to fill the void—the people, places, and things that had shaped my life, some good, some too terrible to speak of, but all influential, and I began to understand how I’d arrived at this moment in time of total isolation, penetrated by grief.
One day my neighbor mentioned that the house I was living in had been fully renovated by an extraordinary man of particular talent and integrity, a man with whom she'd become friends. In an instant I felt a story in my bones. Hard to explain how that works, like a spell coming on, the senses spark and tingle and the work simply begins. I didn't ask any more details; I just sat down and started writing a story about the true north of home and the struggle of rebuilding one's life in the midst of loss and tragedy. 

What was it like writing this novel? Did you find it different than writing your other novels, and if so, in what way? (I always feel that I am starting from scratch, that I have learned nothing…) 

To be honest, it was hell. I experienced one of the worst health crises of my life right in the middle of the work. I spent nearly a year feeling incapacitated most days by migraines of all kinds and vertigo and nausea, and yet I would drag myself to the computer and try to squeeze in at least an hour if I could. It felt like exorcising demons--the pain and disorientation constantly needing to be cast out. At one point I was literally trying to manage a way to write while the left side of my vision disappeared in the middle of working. All the words on the screen suddenly read diagonally through my right eye, and only in fragments was I able to decipher a word here and there. And yet, I was telling myself that perhaps if I turned my head sideways and closed that left eye I could see clearly enough to get some writing done. I could not, of course, and recalling it now I don’t have any idea how I got through.
However, I did find a strength I didn't know I had, and managed to unearth things that had been haunting me for most of my life. I figured out a way to let them go, and a catharsis took over and the illness disappeared. But the middle. The middle was horrific. The experience as a whole resulted in this book.
From the perspective of a writer, I know exactly what you mean about starting from scratch. This is my sixth novel and every time I feel once again as if I am lost at sea. I feel foolish and fake and baffled as to why anyone would trust me to do this again. And yet, here we are. I suspect this is a healthy dose of humility keeping things in check. I hope so. I no longer fight against it, whatever it is.
I wish this was not so, but loss always transforms us—as it does your characters. But there is always a choice. We can choose to be brave and transform, or we can succumb to the pain. Do you think there is a dividing line between the people who can and the people who cannot? And why? 

I think this is quite true, how very often we do have a choice to transform and must consciously make a decision to break through to the other side. But there is also the option of taking refuge in one’s pain, because the idea of shedding it for the unknown can, over time, become more terrifying than to live each day with the pain one has gotten used to. I also believe there are people who are convinced that they actually have transformed, and they wear this transformation like a badge, which feels an awful lot to those around them like the lady protesting too much. In the case of my novel, Sarah Anne appears to be the one who understands how to move on and transform her life into something more stable, more so than June or Jameson seem able to, but there is a large part of her who is hiding behind her foster child, doing all the right things for a child who needs her, but perhaps not for all the right reasons. She is blind to what it is doing to her marriage, to what it is doing to the very foundation of her life. June and Jameson come across as more flawed than Sarah Anne, but to me, they are more honest and even honorable to their loss by allowing the darkness to run its course, until they can find a way to reach the other side. I think many people make the mistake of not processing the worst kind of pain, and try instead to outrun it. You can’t outrun grief. Those seven stages are the real deal, and more powerful than any of us would like to believe.

I cried at the ending, and without giving anything away, I wanted to ask—did you always know this was the ending, or did it take you by surprise? 

I'm glad to hear you were so moved. Thank you. No, I didn't know the ending until about a month before I finished it. And, as with every ending I've ever written, I knew it was right and final only after I wrote it down. It’s a wonderful feeling, coming upon an ending in the same way the reader comes upon it. You write to see what will happen, and finally you turn to the last page, and there it is. You sit for a moment after that last word, thinking about these people you’ve come to know and love, wishing them well, and then you say goodbye in the same way the reader closes the book.

What’s obsessing you now and why?

Honestly, the state of the world we’re living in. My grown children’s futures, and if those futures will allow them to have children of their own. I am in a state of constant concern about healthcare, women’s rights, peace and goodwill toward other nations. I am finding it increasingly more difficult to write when everything feels petty by comparison to nuclear war and a totalitarian regime. Are you sorry you asked this question?

What question didn’t I ask that I should have?
How are you dealing with your obsession? The answer: Aside from phone calls and signatures directed toward making a change? Winging it, much like I did when I had to write but couldn’t see or sit up straight. Keeping a close awareness of the natural beauty all around me at the coast. Reading. Acknowledging the love of my family and friends. Continuing to search for hope.

Thursday, December 7, 2017

Caroline Preston talks about her extraodinary memorabilia-as-novel, THE WAR BRIDE'S SCRAPBOOK

I'm not sure how or where I met Caroline Preston, except I've known and loved her for a long time. She's is the author of three previous novels, Jackie by Josie (a New York Times Notable Book), Lucy Crocker 2.0, and Gatsby’s Girl, and her first scrapbook novel, The Scrapbook of Frankie Pratt. She has collected antique scrapbooks since she was in high school, and has worked as an archivist at the Peabody/ Essex Museum and Harvard University. Her latest book,  THE WAR BRIDE'S SCRAPBOOK is both a fascinating exploration of a long gone time, and a very personal narrative that reads like a novel. I loved it, I love Caroline, too.
      This is your second scrapbook novel. What first gave you the idea of creating a novel in the form of the scrapbook?

I like to say that the idea of making a scrapbook novel was 40 years in the making.  As a little girl, I used to pore over my grandmother’s flapper scrapbook filled with dance cards, ocean liner tickets, and even long curls snipped when she got her hair bobbed.

My first three novels were what I guess you’d call “conventional” format—i.e. just words.  My third novel Gatsby’s Girl was inspired by the meticulous scrapbook F. Scott Fitzgerald kept about his first love, Ginevra King.  Later he would turn the story of his unrequited crush into The Great Gatsby.

When I was casting around for the idea for my fourth novel, I wanted to create something that was as visual and powerful as a scrapbook.  And then I had a crazy idea—why not make a novel that WAS a scrapbook. Not a digital scrapbook, but an actual one made of real stuff that I cut up with scissors and pasted together with glue.  And so I created The Scrapbook of Frankie Pratt.

The War Bride’s Scrapbook is a scrapbook kept by a young bride while her husband fighting overseas. What inspired you to make a WWII era scrapbook?

I have a large collection of vintage scrapbooks.  Some of the most fascinating ones are the scrapbooks kept by wives while their husbands were overseas during WWII. They are an odd combination of touching love letters, cheerful home front memorabilia such as ration stamps, grim war clippings about battles and casualties, and  military souvenirs such as dog tags and discharge papers. 

These “bride’s scrapbooks” provide an interesting glimpse into the reality of wartime marriages. Many couples had gotten married only a few weeks after they’d met and then were separated for years. Letters were often their only means for getting to know one another and forming an actual relationship.

The scrapbooks kept by war brides are often sweetly hopeful and aspirational. They draw an idealized image of what their marriage and life will be like when their husbands return from war-- babies, new houses, new appliances and cars, domestic routines and jobs picked up again.

Most WWII scrapbooks tend to end abruptly in August, 1945 with headlines about the atomic bombs. It seems like the scrapbooks were put away, never to be looked at again until they turned up on eBay.  We don’t know what happened when (or if) the husbands returned home after the war.

In The War Bride’s Scrapbook, I’ve tried to write the whole story behind one of these bride’s scrapbooks. Why the bride (Lila Jerome) started to keep it in 1943, why she stopped keeping it in 1945. And what truths her daughters discover about their mother when they find the scrapbook 70 years later.

Are Lila Jerome and Perry Weld based on your own parents?

Not at all.  My father was 4-F because of terrible eyesight and spent the war in San Diego as a Navy Jag throwing drunken sailors in the brig. My parents didn’t get married until 1947. But Lila and Perry’s story was inspired in part by real people and real events.

 My last surviving WWII-generation relative, an aunt, dropped out of Vassar at 20 to marry her college boyfriend before he shipped out.  She wrote me some very candid emails about how she came to regret her wartime marriage almost immediately but felt economically and socially obligated to stick it out for 20 miserable years.

I had Perry serve with the much-decorated 291st Engineer Combat Battalion. The 291st managed to halt Nazi assault in the Battle of the Bulge by blowing up bridges. It also built the first tactical bridge across the Rhine River.

How did you go about creating Lila’s scrapbook?

The War Bride’s Scrapbook turned out to be a much more complicated and time-consuming undertaking than I originally imagined.  I spent four years collecting WWII ephemera and doing research.  I was fortunate to interview several WWII veterans including combat engineers and the author James Salter. Many friends shared caches of their parents WWII letters, and I research 291 Combat Engineer records at the National Archives. I went to WWII reenactments and befriended combat engineer reenactors who educated me about supplies and equipment used in the European Theatre. My husband and I toured sites visited by US combat engineers including Normandy. I interviewed orthopedic surgeons and trauma doctors about Perry’s war wound and recovery.  

Are the items in the scrapbook original or are the images from the web?

Almost all the items in the book are original. I collected hundreds of WWII-era publications and objects to create my scrapbook.  My office looks like something out of the Hoarders show.

The primary sources that I started out with were magazines from 1940-1946. Life and Time  provided a weekly timeline of war headlines and everyday life on the home front. Women’s magazines (McCall’s, Ladies Home Journal) were chock full of wartime illustrations, advice columns, fashion spreads, and ads.

I collected boxes of V-mail stationery, picture postcards  and telegram paper for Lila’s and Perry’s correspondence. I assembled all the “scraps” that a bride in the 1940’s would glue in a scrapbook: menus, movie tickets, ration stamps, book jackets, train timetables, war bonds, maps, and matchbooks.

I found military memorabilia such as combat engineer manuals, k-ration boxes,  uniform patches, and the French phrase book the army handed out to soldiers on their way to the Normandy Beaches (with handy phrases such as “Please don’t shoot me.”.)

 Where’d you find all this stuff?

A lot of oddball places. A retired couple down the road from me in Charlottesville had built an entire Home Front museum in the basement of their ranch house and lent me things from their collection, such as the French phrasebook. One of my favorite vintage stores is Whiting’s Old Paper in Mechanicsville, Va. which has over one million pieces of ephemera. There is a huge military flea market at the annual Battle of the Bulge reenactment. (Yes, such an event really happens--in January in the Pennsylvania woods!) And I was almost always able to track down something I needed on eBay—from a knitting pattern for GI sweaters to 1946 Chevy manual. I got so many packages my mailman started to complain.

How does a scrapbook create a different narrative of World War II than a conventional novel?

I really see The War Bride’s Scrapbook as containing three separate narratives. The first is the story of Lila and Perry’s marriage, told through Lila’s captions and their letters.  The second is a timeline of the war from Pearl Harbor to J-V day told through magazine articles and newspaper headlines. The third is a social and cultural history of the WWII era revealed in magazine art and ads. Cigarette, girdle, and appliance ads tell us as much about the role and expectations of a wartime bride as a 300-page novel.

Without giving anything away, I have to tell you that the ending gobsmacked me. I was weeping and shocked and yet, it felt like the exactly right ending. Did you always know it would be that way?

When I started the scrapbook, I didn’t know how Lila’s and Perry’s story would end after the war and I struggled over it for almost 3 years! I found my ending in the WWII letters of some of my friends’ fathers. These were men I had known growing up—silent, remote, strict 1950’s dads. In their letters, I saw glimpses of their younger selves—full of passion and optimism—that had been extinguished by war. They were probably suffering from undiagnosed PTSD.

I was also inspired by James Salter’s description of a reunited wartime couple--What would they be like now…? ..there was the power of all the letters, of being  apart, the denied love that reality cannot equal.

The addition at the end of the American Studies material is also pure genius, and I think could be used to study this book , and it asks the question, what really is the truth? Is it the artifacts we leave behind? The stories? Or how we choose to tell them?
Lila’s scrapbook is an ahistorical artifact, like a diary. It’s found by her daughters after her death and it upends everything they knew, or thought they knew, about their parents. I had a lot of fun writing the daughter’s email and interview at the end. She has the same smug, know-it-all tone that I once used with my mother!

What are you working on now?

An illustrated history of dogs in American culture.  I’ve already found some treasures at vintage stores and, of course, on eBay. A Simplicity pattern for plaid dog coats, postcards of dog cemeteries, publicity stills of Rin Tin Tin performing on the radio…

Christina Adams is a leader in Autism and Camel milk and the author of A REAL BOY: A TRUE STORY OF AUTISM, EARLY INTERVENTION AND RECOVERY. You KNOW you want to read this interview


Christina Adams first attracted my attention on Facebook because she was just so freaking fascinating. And be prepared. She gets even more incredible.

Her essays and reported pieces have appeared in the LA Times, The Washington Post, NPR, OZY, Open Democracy, Orange Coast Magazine, Orange County Register, Global Advances in Health and Medicine and literary magazines. Perhaps more unusually, her work with autism and camels has been featured by Dubai One, Gulf News, Khaleej Times, Tata Sky Channel, Epocha, GOOD, Farming, radio and more. She’s spoken at Sarah Lawrence Writer’s Program, CSULB Distinguished Visiting Writer’s Program, Squaw Valley Community of Writers, international health and disability conferences, and just spoke at the Marwar Camel festival hosted by HRH The Maharaja of Jodhpur. She wrote A Real Boy: A True Story of Autism, Early Intervention and Recovery.

You’re a writer, but you have this other side. I’ve seen the photos.  You’re in India or Dubai or Cuba, or on some Amish farm. Is this related to your writing?

Yes, and it’s all because of my bedeviled writer’s mind. After writing in the corporate and government world, I got an MFA in fiction and wrote a novel. It won an award, but before I could publish it, my son was diagnosed with autism. So I worked hard to get him better and wrote a memoir about that (A Real Boy).  After it came out, I was at a children’s book fair. I got bored and my mind started turning when I saw a camel there, but no kids were riding it. I went over to chat with the owner and got an intuition that camel milk might help my son. After a lot of research and guesswork, I flew in some frozen milk from Bedouins in Israel. He drank it and got better overnight. That set me down the path into this strange world. Sort of my own Silk Road.

That’s an incredible story. How do you balance being a writer with your research and advocacy work? Do your two lives get along or conflict with each other?

I’m a literary writer at heart—I wrote my first short story at nine. I was so devastated when my son was diagnosed, and I swore that autism wouldn’t stop me from writing, but slowly you turn toward your lived story. Autism became a window on the world and informed my writing—it taught me biology, nature, law, psychology, medicine. And I had to try to help others. So I’ve written memoir, essays and reported pieces and do TV, radio and conference speaking. My first piece about camel milk and autism went viral and helped start the industry. Then I published a medical journal article on it. It’s cited a lot, but it’s a weird success for a writer since only scientists see it (it’s cute how many assume “MFA” is some kind of scientific credential!). That piece led to international speaking and advising. I’ve always had a knack for putting advanced concepts into explainable terms. I guess the takeaway is that life happens and since we chronicle life as writers, we have to chronicle what it does to us. Whether it’s overt or unconscious.

So your work energizes your writing?

Definitely. I just returned from a month’s speaking tour in India, and had overflow crowds on the topic of autism, camel milk and the value of camels to society.  Being barefoot in the TV studio was a fun new thing, wearing glam Indian clothes but no shoes. I wrote an essay for the Rajasthan Patrika (newspaper) and got a lot of press, which triggered a lot of interest. Being treated like a celebrity was really unexpected. A policeman showed up at my hotel at night, and I asked, am I in trouble? Turned out a VIP wanted to talk about camel milk!  Having people drive so far to meet me, being honored at a village temple, seeing my work in Hindi and Portuguese, was all gratifying, but once I got back home it was humble pie as usual. My favorite part was hanging out with the Raika camel herders, a reclusive camel caste I’ve gotten to know as we try to save their camels. Blowing smoke from a bedi (leaf cigarette) out my nose, like they did, won me some points--a guy wanted to trade rings with me. 

Camels are amazing creatures and more useful to humans than you could dream, almost sci-fi stuff. They have unique abilities found in no other creatures. Now the price of a pregnant camel has doubled in the US since I started, but camel cultures are under pressure. I just read my new piece about this at Sarah Lawrence Writing Institute’s series on Democracy and Education. These herders have never shared their ancient wisdom, so I help bridge the two worlds. Camels can help human health conditions like diabetes, STDs, snakebite, and cancer now, so I work with scientists and spend time with Somali, Tuareg, Amish, Indian and Arab cultures. I’ve seen 2,000 pampered camels gleaming in red desert sand, and fed bottles to bleating, curly-haired baby camels. My videos were translated into Malay this month. Some things you just can’t see coming.

Maybe not! So what stories have yet to come from all this?

I’ve been on this wild ride for over 10 years, so now I have a book proposal I’m finishing. It’s a great emotional subject. The camel world is super visual, hidden, magical and political. Camels mean different things to people: family member, heritage or ego symbol, currency, luxury pet or work animal. Also, this year I published print magazine essays, one about my “divorce apartment,” a place I rent to divorced people, framed by the story of my own divorce and remarriage, as well as a long feature on an autism school. Other things I want to write are about being an Appalachian that breaks tradition to leave home but finds out you never really can, with some sensitive family history about the Civil War and its aftermath. And one about marriage and divorce, a subject I finally mastered in real life.  But so many of my readers want this camel book, and I hope I can get it out there.

What are you obsessing about now?

Indian fabrics. I wore Indian clothes for my events and I’m missing getting up and choosing a dupatta (scarf), embroidered tunic, leggings and sparkly jewelry every day. I love the care women take with their daily style. I visited female sheepherders who wore ruffled bodices, armloads of bracelets and pink toenail polish.

Also people give me camel statues, art, chocolate and hats. So I’m facing ‘creeping camelization’ in my life, but trying to keep it micro.

What question did I fail to ask you?

The word ‘fail’ doesn’t apply to you! I love how real and friendly you are on Facebook and the NYC vibe is a bonus. People often ask how my son is. He’s doing great. Got a job without help, at a big employer. Taught a lesson in class. He even asked me what I wanted for Christmas. He never ends a call to me without saying, “Love you.” So that’s what it’s all about. A producer just finished a short documentary about him. He even did a radio show, discussing the ‘toxic masculinity’ of frat culture and why guys with autism are more logical than that. Like they say here in Orange County, Dude, that’s sick! (A compliment.)

Thursday, November 16, 2017

The luminous Gayle Brandeis talks about her profound memoir, THE ART OF MISDIAGNOSIS: SURVIVING MY MOTHER'S SUICIDE, which is gorgeous, important, healing, astonishing, and every other great adjective I can think of

THIS  book. This book. This book.

Portrait of the artist as a gorgeous person

Gayle was wearing this jacket the first time we met at BEA

Some people you just know you have a bond with. I first met Gayle Brandeis on Readerville, and I felt that bond. That I got to meet her at BEA, and as soon as I saw her walk in in a green leather jacket, I felt this flood of warmth. Over the years, we've deepened our connection, in person, by phone, by email, by every bit of our cells.  I've watched all the amazing changes in her life--and in her writing. When she sent me THE ART OF MISDIAGNOSIS  to read, I was gobsmacked. I had never read anything so profound, so powerful, so brave and so gorgeously written. About love, about the mother/daughter relationship, about mental illness, about the things we do to ourselves to protect ourselves--it's an extraordinary memoir by an extraordinary person.

Gayle is the author of Fruitflesh: Seeds of Inspiration for Women Who Write, Dictionary Poems, the novels The Book of Dead Birds, which won Barbara Kingsolver’s Bellwether Prize for Fiction of Social Engagement, Self Storage and Delta Girls, and her first novel for young readers, My Life with the Lincolns  which won a Silver Nautilus Book Award and was chosen as a state-wide read in Wisconsin, and the e-book, .The Book of Live Wires, the sequel to The Book of Dead Birds.

Gayle’s poetry, fiction and essays have appeared in numerous magazines and anthologies (such as Salon, The Rumpus, The Nation, and The Mississippi Review) and have received several awards, including the QPB/Story Magazine Short Story Award, a Barbara Mandigo Kelley Peace Poetry Award, a grant from the Barbara Deming Memorial Fund, and a Notable Essay in Best American Essays 2016. Her essay on the meaning of liberty was one of three included in the Statue of Liberty’s Centennial time capsule in 1986, when she was 18. In 2004, the Writer Magazine honored Gayle with a Writer Who Makes a Difference Award.

Gayle currently teaches in the low residency MFA programs at Antioch University Los Angeles and Sierra Nevada College, where she was named Distinguished Visiting Professor/Writer in Residence 2014-2015.  Gayle is currently editor in chief of Tiferet Journal and founding editor of Lady/Liberty/Lit.

I love you Gayle. Thanks for being here. Now let's have dinner together.

How did you manage the courage to write this extraordinary memoir?

Theres a moment in Brene Browns TED Talk on vulnerability where she says that the original meaning of courage was to tell ones story with all ones heart. I love this. This definition resonates with me so much. It did take every ounce of my heart (and my gut and my head) to write this story. There were definitely times I had to back away, times I didnt feel capable of going to those painful places, but then I eventually regrouped and threw all of myself back into the endeavor.

What was the why now moment when you realized that you had to write it right now?

Really, as soon as my mom began to exhibit delusional behavior 16 years before her death, I knew that I would have to write about her. Writing is how I best make sense of things, and I couldnt make any sense out of these delusionsthey came out of the blue and turned my world upside down. She explicitly asked me not to write about her while she was alive, and I didnther words held great power over me. Even after she died, when I realized I was free to write about her, when I knew I HAD to write about her, it took me a while to unknot the gag order she had placed upon me (plus I was grieving and post-partum, so it was hard to do much of anything), but I could feel the words gathering steam inside of me and eventually they started to pour out.

What did you expect to heal by writing this--and what happened instead or besides, that was healing?

I wanted to write my way toward understanding my mom and her suicide, even though I knew total understanding wasnt ever going to be possible. I think I wanted to write my way toward a sense of peace. I wanted to build a container for my pain, to give shape to what felt so big and chaotic in my life, to gain some power over a story that had held so much power over me. What ended up being most healing, and was really unexpected to me, is how much compassion I gained by writing thisI started out really quite angry with my mom and ended it with my heart cracked wide open.

Our mothers are almost always a loaded subject. Especially when you are a mother yourself, as you are. How did writing this memoir change your mothering?

I think that as I started to feel more compassion toward my mom, I started to feel more compassion toward myself, as a mother and a human being, as well, started to be a bit more forgiving of both of us, to acknowledge that we each tried to do our best to our capabilities at any given time (and some times were more capable than we are at others). I definitely feel very conscious about wanting to avoid certain aspects of my moms parentingthe way she made everything about her, for exampleand wanting to emulate othersthe way she exposed me to the arts, the way she encouraged my creativity, the way she made me feel limitless (at least in certain ways.)

What is obsessing you now and why?

The thing I really wish I wasnt obsessed with is the news. I feel like I have to stay on top of it, have to know whats happening in the world so I can respond to it, so I can resist in the most effective way possible, and its exhausting. I dont step away from it enough and I know Im risking burn out. But voices like Roxane Gays and Rebecca Solnits and Lindy Wests keep me going, writers who respond to current events with such intelligence and fearlessness. Im definitely obsessed with reading good smart takes like theirs on whats happening in the world. And jellyfish. Im obsessed with jellyfishI love how beautiful and graceful they are, and am fascinated by how they can exist without a brain or heart. I was stung by one twenty or so years agoIm still waiting for my jellyfish superpowers.

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

Who is one of the most generous and amazing writers you know? Why, Caroline Leavitt, of course! I am so very grateful to know you and thank you for all you do of promote books and writers. You give so much and I hope you know how deeply it is appreciated, and how beloved you and your books are. 

If your mother had been able to read this book, what do you think her reaction would have been?

She would either never speak to me again or we would finally have the relationship I had always hoped to have with her, one in which we could speak openly to one another, one in which we didnt have to be on guard around each other. I very much would like to think it would be the latter. I know I feel close to her now in a way I wish I had when she was alive; Id like to think that feeling would be mutual. 

Saturday, November 11, 2017

Acclaimed writer Joan Silber talks about IMPROVEMENT, books being pains in the neck, writing stories, and so much more

"There is something so refreshing and genuine about this book, coming partly from the bumpy weave of its unpredictable story and partly from its sharply turned yet refreshingly unmannered prose. A winner." ―Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

I first met Joan Silber through her novel HOUSEHOLD WORLDS, which was so breathtakingly brilliant, so alive with the troubles of a family, that I was underlining passages. I still have that copy, though it is dog-and-cat-eared now. Since then, I've met Joan for lunch, run into her as I, too, was trying to escape the madding crowd of a book festival, and I'm so, so honored to know her.

She's the acclaimed author of Ideas of Heaven: A Ring of Stories, is the author of Lucky Us, Fools, In My Other Life, In the City, and Household Words, winner of a PEN/Hemingway Award. Her work appears in the current O. Henry Prize Stories and The Pushcart Prize, and in Norton's The Story Behind the Story: 26 Stories by Contemporary Writers and How They Work. Her stories have been published in The New Yorker, Ploughshares, The Paris Review, and other magazines. She's received awards from the Guggenheim Foundation, the NEA, and the New York Foundation for the Arts.

Improvement, her newest novel is about the choices we make and the costs we bear, a single mother, an eccentric aunt, and so much more.

Thank you so much, Joan, for being here. You're my heroine, literary and otherwise.

You have such an acclaimed career, that I am wondering if you feel that every new book builds on the last one? Or do you feel that each book is a brand new work with its own ideas?

I think my writing has especially felt like a continuing project since Ideas of Heaven  (2004), when I began writing long stories linked in a particular way, where a minor character in one is major in another, and characters are circling the same ideas.  Improvement is a novel, so I had to find new ways to unify the elements while getting the range I wanted.  I wanted to write something with the intensity of a line carried through, while still using the skills I learned in spreading across a web.
That said, each new book is a pain in the neck in its own way.  I think I know what I’m doing and then I don’t. 

What was the why now moment of writing this novel?

I just looked at my old notebooks before answering this, and I had entirely forgotten how long it took me and how many false starts I made.  I had made a third trip to Turkey and it was much on my mind.  And then Hurricane Sandy hit New York, and I heard a report on the radio about older people in housing projects who were managing just fine with no electricity or water.  (My own neighborhood, the Lower East Side, was in the dark zone so I knew what they dealt with.)  I’m always interested in self-reliance, and I began to develop the character of Kiki, unfazed by the blackout, and I gave her a past in Turkey.  I had a younger character, her niece, narrate her story, to get a sharper angle.  Once I gave the niece a boyfriend at Rikers, I saw the story heightening.
I wrote the first chapter as a short story—to my great joy, it got picked for Best Short Stories and O. Henry Prize Stories.  I didn’t know it would turn into a novel that I’d spend the next three or four years grappling with.

Improvement bursts back and forth from the 1970s to present day, and employs more than a few narrators.  Was this always your plan or did the book unfold this way organically?

I knew I wasn’t going to stick with one narrator.  But I didn’t know who the various characters would be or where in time I’d want to move them.  As it turned out, there are eight chapters and Kiki and her niece are only in three of them.  I wanted to follow a constellation of characters whose lives bear the results of what the niece decides, and I wanted to tell about the aunt’s past, with its own trails.   I liked moving the settings—I’m sort of against fiction being too parochial--I could do New York, parts of Turkey, and Berlin (where I have friends), and it was my luck to have a student who’d taught high school in Richmond. 
When I wrote cycles of stories in the past, I always just made them up as I went along, and I recklessly thought I’d been writing long enough to do that in a novel.  It was much harder than I thought.  I’m not doing that again!  But I did know early on how the book was going to end.
I did write a craft book on Time in Fiction, and I’m always interested in fiction’s powers to move through time.  I learned a huge amount from Alice Munro—I can’t tell you how happy I was when she won the Nobel Prize.  I think she has many admirers but not so many followers, and I am proud to be one of them.

I’d love for you to talk about the title Improvement. Reyna makes a decision for the good of her child, which sets off a kind of train wreck. What does it really mean to improve your life, or at least to give it a chance?

I love your summary of Reyna’s decision—that’s just right.  She is able to make a kind of recompense in the end—she can’t fix things but she can improve them.  I think she’s quite resourceful about it, actually.  People joke that for once I’ve come up with a cheerful title, and I think I do want the story to end with a feeling that the effort Reyna makes, the stretch to generosity, is what a reader would wish for her.  It’s my version of a happy ending, though there’s plenty of disaster and loss in the book.
I also thought of her boyfriend’s cigarette-smuggling scheme as an attempt at improvement as well, a form of hope (hope can get a person into trouble).  And I wanted reparations to have other echoes in the book—Monika works at compiling records of art bought in the Nazi era, Teddy the truck-driver is trying to be re-paid by his insurance company.   Teddy’s wife tells him, “It’s just a big mistake to think you ever get paid back what you deserve in this world.  You’re not dead, that’s the main thing.”  Not only is the wife giving good advice, but this is the dilemma of any fiction writer:  portraying an unjust world while allowing for right conduct.   

What’s obsessing you now and why?

I am very aware, as we all are, of the catastrophic changes in our political world--I feel it as a time when the worst of human nature is rising to the surface.  I really didn’t expect to be alive in such an era.   Of course, I’ve marched in protest (I’ve been marching all my life) and signed many, many petitions.  I think I probably work at not letting it take over my thoughts—I guess that’s the opposite of obsessing.  My escapes have taken different forms.  I went through a spell of re-reading Dickens, I’ve taught English as a volunteer to novice monks in Laos and Thailand, I’m traveling on vacation to Sri Lanka in March.  The idea is to remind myself of what else there is. 

What question didn’t I ask?

Ask me what I’m doing next.  Stories again.  I’ve got four done, and they’ve been very demanding, though I’ve loved working on them.   I don’t know why I thought writing would get easier—no writer has ever said that, that I’ve heard.  But I’m happiest when I’m working and a simmering malcontent when I’m not.

A wild, gorgeous holiday gift: Carolyn Turgeon talks about The Faerie Handbook: An Enchanting Compendium of Literature, Lore, Art, Recipes, and Projects

It was the boots that did it. I was at Kathy L. Murphy's Pulpwood Queens Girlfriend Weekend, when I saw the ones belonging to Carolyn Turgeon--embroidered, black and gorgeous. "They fit like slippers," she told me. We became friends that weekend, and we've stayed in touch ever since. Her new book, THE FAERIE HANDBOOK is truly one of the most beautiful books I've seen, and it's filled with recipes, fashion, fascinating facts, and lore, all faerie-centric, too. The pages are silver tipped. There is a lovely lilac ribbon to mark your page. The illustrations and photographs are breathtaking. (Just take a look at the photos above!)

Carolyn is also the author of Rainvillage; Godmother: The Secret Cinderella Story; Mermaid, The Fairest of Them All. She's the editor of Faerie Magazine, too.

Thank you so much, Carolyn for being here, and I hope to hang out with you really soon so we can compare boots.

I have to ask, though I know the answer, what is about Faeries that draws you? As a child did you believe in them and devour all the Fairy Tale books like I did? (And do you think they are around now?)
I did love fairy tales and myths and magic as a kid, and books full of pretty stories—and of course I still do! I like the idea that the world is full of magic, if you know where to look, that there’s tremendous beauty just out of sight. In the book’s introduction I describe an old story of a country midwife who’s taken to a cottage that seems normal and cozy until she accidentally rubs her eye with a strange ointment; then the cottage becomes an ancient oak tree and the fireplace, a hollow, mossy tree trunk. To me fairy stories are about all those hidden things. Whether fairies are around now? I don’t know. There have been stories about the fairies leaving us as long as there have been stories about fairies, it seems, but I like to think that there are all kinds of things out there that we can’t see.

This book is so completely gorgeous that I want to know if you had a hand in the design? It’s an exquisite gift book, too.
Actually, for months before we even signed a book deal and agreed on what the book would be exactly, my editor Liz Sullivan and I went back and forth discussing the book’s sumptuous, ornate, storybook design—and salivating over fancy Victorian-y book covers we used as inspiration. Like this one, with this insane gilded floweryfont: ! Isn’t that gorgeous? So we knew from the beginning that this book had to be like a treasure chest, from the silver foil to the stained edges to the purple satin bookmark and the inset image (by Kirsty Mitchell, who does some of the most elaborate and stunning fairy tale photography out there). As for the images inside the book, Grace Nuth (who is a senior editor at Faerie Magazine and helped me write the book) and I spent many hours finding the most wonderful images we could to illustrate each section, and Liz and the design team narrowed down the final images from those choices. In the past, I did not really have a say in how my novels were presented (and didn’t always love the way they were!), so I really appreciated that Liz discussed every step with me and was dedicated to making something so, so beautiful.

The Faerie Handbook has literature, lore, art, recipes and even projects. How did you decide what you wanted to put in here? Did anything not make the cut (and you wish that it had?)
I made the initial list by sitting down and brainstorming with Kim Cross (who founded Faerie Magazine) and we refined it as we went. Initially, it was twice as long! But we had to make room for all those lush images, so lots of things were cut. Originally there was going to be a whole section on fairy tales, including some actual stories, and a bit about moss, and sections on berries and tree houses and fairy gardens and Hans Christian Andersen’s paper cut-outs…. All kinds of lovely things! But we narrowed it down and actually expanded the book by thirty-two pages over what it was supposed to be originally. Of course I’d have loved another ten, or hundred, but the ones we have are pretty good!

What’s your favorite part of this book and what is up next for you?
I love all of it, to be honest, but I have a particular affection for the image of the 80-year-old fairy lady featured in the “Fairy Beauty” section written by Grace. That image actually originally came to our Faerie Magazine submissions folder and was from photographer Marsha Steckling, who did the shoot to celebrate her mother Sharron Rhoads. “We both have always loved the theme of the Fairy Queen,” Marsha wrote, “and put together her costume and created the photographs in a park near my home.” When we posted the images on our Faerie Magazine Facebook page, it was insanely popular, one of the most beloved images we’d ever posted, so it was important to me to include it in the book! The most popular image we’ve ever shared was from Tricia Saroya, a brilliant stylist we’ve worked with many times, of a Midsummer Night’s Dream garden party she created for our summer 2015 issue. You see this long candlelit table with an arbor draped in fairy lights stretching over it, and that image (taken by Vince Chafin) had something insane like 150,000 likes when we first posted it online and was seen by many millions of people. We actually shared that image the other day on a panel we did at FaerieCon, and a couple in the audience was astonished—they’d based their wedding on that image and had no idea it was from us! So that’s in the book as well, along with Tricia’s tips on how to throw your own enchanted soirée. I loved being able to include a few of those treasures.

Next up is The Mermaid Handbook, which is the same thing but with mermaids, out in May 2018! I’ve had a long history with mermaids by now, ever since I wrote my novel Mermaid and started a mermaid blog and ended up doing things like attending mermaid camp at Weeki Wachee Springs and going on a mermaid dive trip in the Bahamas, etc. So doing that book felt like a good way to pull all that mermaid expertise together.

What’s obsessing you now and why?
I’ve turned back to a novel now, one I’ve been working on for years (off and on), about Dante and Beatrice (I studied medieval Italian lit in graduate school), so in every spare moment I’m reading about all things medieval and carrying around suspicious-sounding tomes like Spiritual and Demonic Magic: From Ficino to Campanella or Accounting for Dante: Urban Readers and Writers in Late Medieval Italy. Our winter issue of Faerie Magazine is medieval-themed, as it happens (we’re just finishing it now) and we recreated Dante Rossetti’s Beata Beatrix, a portrait of Dante’s Beatrice, for the cover, which was shot by Steve Parke (who is brilliant photographer; he has a book of photos of Prince just out, Picturing Prince, from his 14 years as Prince’s art director!). Doing a magazine can be incredibly stressful, but being able to do something like that is pretty great.

What question didn’t I ask that I should have?
Well, if you’d asked me about a particular challenge we had with the book, one is that I’d written this bit about taking a fairy bath but couldn’t find the right image to go with it.  I spent hours searching for the perfect shot! It didn’t exist, so we had to make one. I live in a beautiful apartment building in Baltimore but the tubs are ordinary, and everyone knows that fairies never do anything ordinary, so I put out a call for an extraordinary clawfoot tub, and a friend of a friend of a friend ended up having one we could use. So Steve Parke grabbed his camera and we bought a pile of flowers from the local florist and a jug of milk and showed up at this lovely house, where the husband of the friend of a friend of the friend was waiting on the charming front porch. He greeted up graciously and watched as we filled that clawfoot tub with milky water and flowers and then took a zillion photos, rearranging the flowers as we went, adding in new ones as the old ones sunk. When we were done, I offered the fairy bath to the husband, but shockingly he turned us down, so Steve and I cleaned the tub and filled a basket full of milky flowers, which we returned to the florist in case they could put them to use.  After all that, the image in the book doesn’t even show the tub!