Saturday, January 8, 2022

Fiona Davis talks about The Magnolia Palace, dual timelines, writing strong female characters, writing during lockdown, and so much more!




Note the sublime photo above, of Audrey Munson. the first supermodel who was named "Miss Manhattan." The perfect icon for a blog about Fiona!

I adore Fiona Davis. Not just her books, either. I'm not sure when we met, but I keep happily running into her at books events (or I did, pre-pandemic, and every time I do, I get a glow. She is the New York Times bestselling author of six historical fiction novels set in iconic New York City buildings, including The Dollhouse, The Address, and The Lions of Fifth Avenue, which was a Good Morning America book club pick. Her novels have been chosen as “One Book, One Community” reads and her articles have appeared in publications like The Wall Street Journal and O the Oprah magazine. She first came to New York City as an actress, but fell in love with writing, and we are all so happy she did.

Her newest masterwork, The Magnolia Palace is about lies, betrayals and even murder in the gilded age mansion. It's got starred raves from Kirkus, Library Journal and from Publisher's weekly, and a slew of raves from the likes of Christina Baker Kline and Lisa Wingate. Welcome Fiona! I just wish this was in person!

I always believe that writers are somehow obsessed into writing the books they write. What was haunting you that created this wonderful book?

I’ve always loved wandering around old buildings and wondering about the people who lived there over the years, so writing about iconic landmarks really fuels my obsession. The Frick Collection was built in 1914 as a residence, and then turned into a museum in the thirties. As a museum, it feels like it’s been frozen in time, with splendid furnishings everywhere and art by masters like Rembrandt, Turner, and Vermeer hanging on every wall. When you walk in, it’s as if the Frick family is out at a dinner party and will be back at any moment. 

I love that you set your novels in these fabulous New York Buildings! I always feel that buildings have their own personalities, almost something you can feel when you go inside. Do you walk into these great buildings and just inhale the atmosphere and then ideas perk? And can you tell us what building is next?

The building definitely becomes like another character in the story, with its history and layout impacting the plot. During my behind-the-scenes tour of the Frick, I discovered there’s a circa 1914 bowling alley in the basement – which still works – and of course had to include that as a scene location. As I wandered the rooms I definitely began to imagine ideas for scenes and characters. For example, what was it like for a member of the household staff who lived on the top floor, with that splendid view of Central Park? As for the next book, I have a short story being published this summer that’s set at Carnegie Hall, and then the next novel is set at Radio City Music Hall, from the point of view of a Rockette in the 1950s. There are so many possibilities in New York City!

There’s so much wonderful material in this book, from the Spanish Flu to the Frick Mansion/Museum. (I love the Frick and imagine you went to visit and visit and visit again.) What was your research like? 

Because the world went into lockdown a couple of months into my research, I wasn’t able to get back inside after my initial tour – and in fact now it’s closed for renovations (although the works of art are brilliantly exhibited at the Frick Madison nearby). Luckily, at the Frick’s website (frick.org), there’s a floor plan with a 360-degree view of all of the public rooms. So I virtually visited multiple times a day as I was writing the drafts. Research for this book involved going through the Frick archives, which had fun surprises like dinner party menus from 1915, or payroll records of the staff, as well as interviewing experts in the art world. 

I loved your female characters, as I always do, Veronica Weber and Lillian Carter. So here is a writerly question. How did you go about developing those women? And what parts of you are in your characters? And what parts of them do you wish you had?

Veronica and Lillian are both models in different time periods – Lillian in the 1910s and Veronica in the 1960s, so it was really fun to figure out how that particular career had changed over time – and also the ways in which it hadn’t. I wish I was more of a free-spirit like Lillian, who is willing to take huge risks and throw herself into life. I’m afraid that’s just not my style. Veronica is probably a little more like me: slightly overwhelmed in a crowd and happy to watch the action from the sidelines. 

And another writerly question. Using a dual timeline nearly killed me! Any tips, because you did it beautifully.

Dual timelines can be an absolute beast, no question. I figure out the plot and outline it fairly thoroughly before I sit down to write that first draft. There’s so much to keep track of, especially with an element of mystery and clues that need to be dropped at the exact right time. Once that outline is firm, I tend to write the older timeline first, and then the newer one. I find that’s easier than bouncing back and forth, which will ultimately be the way the reader views it. 

What’s obsessing you now and why? What question didn’t I ask that I should have?

These days I’m obsessed with the novel The Ballerinas, by Rachel Kapelke-Dale, which is set in Paris at the ballet, and is beautifully written and a great mystery as well. And I think you covered all the bases! Thank you for this amazing opportunity, and I can’t wait to see you in person one of these days and give you a (gentle) hug. 



Sunday, November 7, 2021

Clea Simon talks about Rock and Roll, the 1980s, memory, and her raved-about new novel HOLD ME DOWN

 




I am so thrilled to Host Clea Simon my blog! Yep, I blurbed her new novel, HOLD ME DOWN, because it is so incendiary, so thrilling, so important, too. And I'm honored to have her here. Thank you, Clea!

Hello! Thanks so much for hosting me, Caroline, and for helping me to celebrate my new psychological suspense, Hold Me Down.

Gal Raver was a rock star. But that was 20 years ago and as HOLD ME DOWN opens she is back in Boston playing a big stage for the first time in years. The occasion is a memorial concert for her late drummer and best friend Aimee, who cofounded the band with her. But as she’s playing she sees – or think she sees – a face from the past, which unsettles her. The next day she hears that that person was murdered behind the venue and Amy’s widower Walter arrested. When Walter chooses not to fight the charges, Gal is compelled to get involved – not only to save her friend but to understand why, for a moment there, she thought “it should’ve been me,” an investigation that leads her back into her own wild, rock star days.


Why did you set this book in the rock world?

For starters, it’s a world you and I both know well! Like Simon at the start of your wonderful With or Without You, Gal begins her journey living in clubland – as did I, once upon a time. Back when I was in my twenties, I not only worked as a rock critic, I lived for the scene. It was my “third place,” neither home nor work. Where I spent my free time, and where I forged so many relationships.

I guess, in a way, those relationships are key. Because it’s such a self-contained world, the relationships that develop in it are great for fiction: the same characters thrown together constantly, with generous helpings of alcohol and other substances, are bound to interact in interesting ways. For me as a mystery writer, the club world functions like an English village would in a classic Agatha Christie novel – whatever happens, whatever crimes and whatever motives – are going to spring organically from a contained cast of characters.

It also interested me, that for all that rock is obsessed with youth with the now, it also constantly seeks to memorialize itself. When we meet Gal, for example, she’s playing a benefit – songs that she wrote twenty-odd years before. And, of course, once something is written or recorded it becomes a time capsule – a reflection of what was happening then. With crime fiction that also allows you to plant clues or exposition  

What research did you do?

I tried to evoke the physical memories of those days: Listening to a lot of older garage-punk bands. Picking up my electric bass for the first time in ages. I’d forgotten how heavy it is and how you stand when it’s strapped onto your shoulder. 

Other than that, I talked to a bunch of people who were on the scene at the time, many of whom were willing to share some very personal memories. These conversations all fed into my memories – and into who Gal was becoming in my mind. For example, when a buddy who used to sing with a band mentioned how far back into a club she could see from onstage, I thought, “I can use that.” And then, when I have Gal noting that, I realized, well, yes, Gal can see all the way to the dark corners of the club. But is she really seeing hijinks back there, or is something else going on?

So Gal is an unreliable narrator?

Not in the sense of, say, Gone Girl, where the narrator sets out to deceive you. Hold Me Down is written in close third person: Gal is telling us what she believes she knows. But what that is is unreliable as it is for all of us. Our perception of what is happening is always subjective. Throw in memory, and it becomes even less objective, as nostalgia, denial, and regret all tend to shift our understanding of what is real.

This uncertainty is really at the center of Hold Me Down. At its core are really two mysteries: Who committed the murder (and why isn’t Gal’s friend Walter defending himself), but also what happened to Gal to bring her to this point?

Hold Me Down flips back and forth in time, why did you decide to do that?

Really three times. We first meet Gal in the present day, when she’s jaded, sober, but kind of stuck in a holding pattern. In flashbacks, we see Gal at her rock star peak, when she was kind of crazy but unstoppable. But we also get peeks of the young Gal who first started the band with Aimee, nearly paralyzed with stage fright, dying to break though.

I’m realizing that one of my constant themes seems to be memory – not only nostalgia and regret but the way we the past sets us on specific paths

Not to give too much away, but you also deal with trauma – sexual assault and PTSD

Yes, Gal’s a survivor, as am I. As many of us are – but even though we survive, we’re shaped by what we’ve experienced. It’s like we’ve been pushed slightly askew by what hit us.  Our lenses on the world are maybe a bit warped. So again, Gal sees things that are maybe not quite as they should be.

Gal’s songs reflect a lot of what she went through, don’t they?

In a way they serve as touchstones for who she is at any given time. I really enjoyed exploring how she interacts with her own work. For example, when she’s young and anxious, she’s very careful about crafting a bridge to one of her tunes. Later, at her rock star wildest, she dismisses that same bridge as overly fussy and skips over it in concert. What else does she want to skip over?

But these songs exist outside of Gal, too, and the reader gets to see how everyone reacts to them, from the suits from the record label to the fans. And, perhaps most important, Gal’s bandmates, who may hear something different than Gal does – or perhaps than she intended. These songs take on a life of their own, and they serve to reflect back not only who Gal is at any given time, but how she is received in the world.

How would you describe Gal, as she is when we meet her?

She’s fiercely loyal. She can’t leave Walter even though he doesn’t want to defend himself. That’s partly because of her love for Aimee, which she’s transferred to Aimee’s daughter Camille and also to Walter. But she is also coming to terms with the damage she’s done to those she loved.

I love writing about process – what it feels like to channel something and then to craft it, whether that’s a song or a story. But it requires really making yourself vulnerable. You and I have talked about this, how as writers, we have to “go for the heat” and write about whatever feels most immediate or real. You’ve always encouraged me to be brave and do this, and I’m so grateful! I think it’s one of the reasons you’re such a great friend!

A former journalist, Clea Simon is the Boston Globe-bestselling author of three nonfiction books and 29 mysteries. including the new psychological suspense HOLD ME DOWN.  While most of these (like A Cat on the Case) are cat “cozies” or amateur sleuth, she also writes darker crime fiction, like the rock and roll mystery World Enough, named a “must read” by the Massachusetts Book Awards. Her new psychological suspense Hold Me Down (Polis Books) returns to the music world, with themes of PTSD and recovery, as well as love in all its forms. She can be reached at www.cleasimon.com, on Twitter @Clea_Simon and on Instagram @cleasimon_author


Saturday, October 30, 2021

Larry Baker talks about WYMAN AND THE FLORIDA KNIGHTS, Florida, mortality, writing, the looming presence of Trump, and so much more.

Larry Baker is the author of From a Distance, The Flamingo Rising, The Education of Nancy Adams, Love and Other Delusions, A  Good Man, and his latest, most wonderful novel WYMAN AND THE FLORIDA KNIGHTS.  He's also become a treasured friend and I am delighted to host him here! Thank you, Larry!







I always believe that writers are haunted into writing books. What was haunting you?

Haunted? Oh, other than a compounding fear of death and obscurity. I am 74.  I have published seven novels. I think my best one is still trapped inside me, but I have less and less time, less and less energy. Cliched metaphor warning: A lack of sand in the hourglass haunts me.

For WYMAN, I wanted to do something I have never done, attempt historical fiction. Not focusing on an individual, but a family over centuries. Having become a grandfather, myself, I am more aware of my own past, and I see my future in my grandsons, my family story continuing with them. I am optimistic about their future, but as I was writing WYMAN, I began to see how a family often has to overcome its past, its origins. In literary terms, the Faulknerian sins of the fathers. I'm a lapsed Baptist, a current Catholic agnostic, but I have never shed my Christian sense of guilt. Go back to Cain and bel, and toss in an artist's Faustian Bargain, and you'll understand what was haunting me.

What's your usual writing life like, and has it changed during the pandemic?

Sadly, I write less and less nowadays. That began when I finished the first draft of WYMAN a year ago. Old age, some family health problems, life itself has changed how I write. If the Pandemic had occurred a few years ago, with the enforced isolation, I suspect that I would have written one or two more novels. I no longer have the five hours a day of uninterrupted isolation that made me productive in the past.

WYMAN and the Florida Knights is actually dealing with really contemporary issues. Can you talk about that please?

The story begins in 1866 with the arrival in Florida of the Northern Evangelical Thomas Knight and it ends on Election Day 2016 before the votes are finalized. Trump is a looming figure in the background in 2016 but this  story ends before the polls are closed, so the reader will have to imagine how his election will change the characters' lives. The Knight family came as Northern Republicans but their kind of Republicanism has devolved by 2016 and they are about to be usurped by darker forces. Thus, WYMAN is about how Florida is the avatar of American fragmentation. That sense of political fragmentation has parallel stories of alienation in the private lives of all the characters. Fathers and sons. Husbands and Wives. Artists and art. All unable to connect. But the story has a hopeful side. The old Knights are gone, but a new generation is rising.

Throughout my story, the characters are all battling to determine who tells their story. The central character is Sandra Knight, the owner and editor of the small-town newspaper. One of my favorite chapters in the book is when she goes to a T4ump rally in Orlando. Plus, the role of journalism (my first college major a million years ago) has always intrigued me. Sandra has to deal with every economic and social force that is killing newspapers all over America. Of all the characters in WYMAN, she works the hardest to keep her town from vanishing.

I always want to know, do you feel that a new book grows out of an old one, or must you wrestle with something completely new?

Well, since most of my novels have been under-whelming sellers, I can safely steal from myself and most new readers will never know. So, if I were an objective critic of Larry Baker, I would say that he is perennially writing about a few themes that recur over and over in his work. Emotional obsessions top that list. Misguided love, a quest for the ideal mate, sins and moral lapses done in the pursuit of some idealized "other." My first novel, FLAMINGO RISING, had a character named Alice, inspired by a real person. But, with that character written, that inspiration became irrelevant.

My novel, A GOOD MAN, also had an Alice who was hiding from her past. The second Alice was not inspired by the real person who inspired the first. WYMAN also has a character named Alice.

Other recurring themes? A quest for faith. And the universal theme of fiction--identity. How well does a writer know his characters, how well do they know themselves? With WYMAN, I made ample use of a trope I first explored in A GOOD MAN, how a character hides themselves in a name. I named a character Harry after a boy named Harry in a Flannery O'Connor story and after a radio DJ in a Harry Chapin song. Their stories, written by other writers, became the background for my own Harry.

Me, I have always hated my own name, Larry Baker. I look into a mirror, I do not see a Larry Baker.

I love that you write about Florida, especially now with all that's happening there. Talk about that, please.

I lived in Florida for three years, enough time to accumulate a ton of material for fiction. It's a unique state. In the early 1800s, it was the least American of all the other states. part of that was its Spanish background, but the single most important distinction was its natural environment. Today, science and capitalism have destroyed that original environment. Today, Florida might be the most American state, a hot mess, the worst of what America is becoming. 

What's obsessing you now and why?

Did I mention my sense of dwindling mortality? In literary terms, I might have one final project. I self-published a political novel in 2005, ATHENS/AMERICA, but I was never happy with it. It was too autobiographical, and thus too off-putting for most readers. Surprise, surprise, I am not always a sympathetic character. But the core of that story, how do fathers deal with the loss of a child, was still compelling to me. I needed another voice in the story, an observer of the two fathers in my original version. 

As I looked at ATHENS again, I imagined a new character, arriving. Adding him let me create a backstory for him. I'm going to self-publish my revised novel in 2022. New title? THREE MEN AND A DEER.

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

I dunno, maybe, "Have you dusted off your mantel and made a space for your future Pulitzer?" Or, "Your wife must be incredible patient and forgiving. Why did she marry you?" But here's a question that I like to ask other writers: "Is it possible to write an honest memoir?" People tell me all the time that I should write a memoir, but I have a simple answer: Never. I've been writing fiction for almost sixty years (not to be confused with publishing fiction.) Any processing of my life has been done through that, turning facts into fiction.


Monday, August 30, 2021

Cai Emmons talks about Sinking Islands, weather, living with ALS, writing, and so much more



I met and befriended Cai the way I do almost every new friend: a book comes in the mail and I love it so much, I have to know the author! In Cai's case that was Weather Woman, followed by Sinking Islands. I'm thrilled to have Cai here, and I thank her for her patience with me for taking so, so long to get this up.

Cai Emmons is the author of the novels His Mother’s Son (Harcourt), The Stylist (HarperCollins), and Weather Woman (Red Hen Press). A sequel to Weather Woman, is called Sinking Islands. Her story collection Vanishingwinner of the 2018 Leapfrog Fiction Contest came out in March 2020. His Mother’s Son received starred reviews from Kirkus and Publisher’s Weekly, was a Booksense and Literary Guild selection, was translated into French and German, was reviewed by O Magazine and The Economist, and won an Oregon Book Award (the Ken Kesey Award) for fiction. About The Stylist, one of the earliest novels featuring a transgender character, Booklist said: “With family relations as twisted as a French braid and language as vivid as a platinum dye job, Emmons’ potent novel features magnetic characters and complex and compelling secrets.” Weather Woman, Emmons’s most recent novel, about a meteorologist who discovers she has the power to change the weather, has been featured in such places as LitHub, The Rumpus, Book Riot, Montana Public Radio, Aspen Public Radio, The CCNY Grad Center, among others (see more coverage under “News”). The novel won a Nautilus Book Award and has been shortlisted for the Eric Hoffer Grand Prize.

What was haunting you into writing your latest book?

I love that you speak about this idea of being haunted into writing a book. I’ve never heard anyone speak about writing this way, but that’s exactly how it operates for me. Something begins poking at me such that I can’t stop thinking about it. The thinking becomes a bit obsessive.  Questions begin to form and maybe a what-if develops, and pretty soon a novel is taking shape. In terms of Sinking Islands, I was haunted by the idea that people might read Weather Woman and think that I was putting forth the idea that a single person with superpowers might be the solution to our climate crisis. I don’t believe that at all. So I wanted to think about human beings collaborating and teaching each other. Having spent my entire adult life teaching in some form or other, and having benefitted so much from my own teachers, I wanted to write about that. Teaching is such a powerful tool. I think we all have a bit of the teacher in us. Good parenting is really all about teaching. There are so many doom-and-gloom dystopian books out there about our climate crisis; I like to think that I’ve written one of the few climate books that offers a modicum of hope—or at least it doesn’t wallow in despair! 

Do you feel like your writing grown with each book?

This is another superb question. I always, just after I’ve finished a book, feel that it is the best thing I’ve ever written, but of course that feeling fades quickly and I begin to ask, “Is this really any good?” It is impossible to answer that myself. My agent says she thinks my most recent novel, Unleashed (out from Dutton in 2022) is the best thing I’ve ever written, and I tend to agree with her. But I also feel as if I can never really be the judge of my own work. I can only weigh in on how the process has changed for me over the years. 

When I step back and think about each book I’ve written I think that I’ve become more ambitious. When I began writing novels I only dared write from one character’s perspective. Then I began incorporating a number of characters’ perspectives in the same novel. Then I began to stretch my imagination to write about things that are not entirely “real” though they are metaphorically and psychologically real. And most recently I wrote a first-person novel which I have never done before. So I think there has been some growth in terms of what I’ve dared to take on. And there is another kind of growth too—I’m sure you’ve experienced this—which is that you trust the process more and even when you’re stuck you know you can find a way through to the end. Along with that comes an ease with sentence-making and knowing what material is superfluous and can be cut. There is greater facility with manipulating what you have written so that seems like a kind of growth. 

I think my biggest fear is that I might begin repeating myself in subsequent novels. In a way I think we’re always writing around the same themes again and again, packaged somewhat differently. But I still feel, despite that fear, amazingly driven to keep writing, to keep exploring what it means to be human. 

What’s your writing life like now?

Three years ago I gave up my teaching job in the Creative Writing Program at the University of Oregon. At the time I had two books scheduled for publication, and I didn’t see how I was going to be able to publicize them and keep writing while also teaching. I was a bit frightened to no longer have the cushion of academia, but my husband has a good job that could support us both. I am so glad I decided to prioritize my writing when I did. I had no idea then that I would be diagnosed with ALS (I was diagnosed in February of this year), but something was telling me back then that it was time to go for broke and pay exclusive attention to my own work. I feel a great urgency to write every story that is still in me while I can. So far ALS has stolen my ability to speak, but I am so grateful that I am still able to move around and write and type. The 2020 pandemic year was extremely productive for me, and I now have two books that are scheduled to come out in 2022, and I’m working on a new novel that I hope to complete sometime early next year. Fingers crossed.

My writing days are still much as they have always been, writing first thing in the morning (longhand, with coffee, propped up in bed), and staying there for several hours until I am called upon to participate in the larger world. My afternoons are occupied with typing up what I’ve written or doing the “business” of being a writer. I guess my biggest challenge of late has been figuring out how to publicize my books without being able to speak. I have a high-tech computer that speaks what I type, which is extremely useful, but it necessitates slowing down, for me and for whoever I’m talking to. In social situations I am trying to adjust to being a listener instead of the talker I’ve always been!

What was it like writing a sequel?

Since I never intended to write a sequel to Weather Woman I was figuring things out as I went along. I knew that in Sinking Islands I had to remain true to what I’d set up in Weather Woman and build on that. I couldn’t change backstory events, or names, or rules I’d set up about how Bronwyn employs her power, etc. I was particularly brought up short when one character in Weather Woman, Earl, who I wanted to include in Sinking Islands was off-limits because he was already dead. I considered, very briefly, bringing him back to life, but that would have been violating the world I’d set up. So I ended up having another character, Patty, talk to Earl as if he was still alive. I also debated with myself about whether it would be okay to have Bronwyn have lost a pinkie to frostbite in Siberia, even though I had not mentioned that in Weather Woman (I decided that would be okay since it could have happened after the book ended). I spent a lot of time searching through the pages of Weather Woman for specific details I’d already laid down. It was kind of like doing continuity for a film—I didn’t want readers to discover inconsistencies. So far, no one has, but it’s not beyond the realm of possibility!

What question haven’t I asked that I should have? 

I am always intrigued by the question of why people write in the first place, and that question has been more on my mind of late since I know that I will be dead in the next few years. Why do I still want to spend my remaining time writing instead of traveling or doing any of the other things human beings find rewarding? I think part of the answer to that is that when I am writing I am in some kind of flow state and at my happiest. Also, since talking has become so hard there is a great deal I don’t say aloud, so writing has become an even more essential vehicle for expression. And over the years writing has become a habit that isn’t easily broken—it is my way of processing the world around me. But there is that other ineffable thing that keeps me—and other writers—writing. Some pressing desire to document what it feels like to be a particular human being, living in a particular place at a particular time in history. I don’t feel as if my experience is particularly important on its own, but I feel as if I’m part of a chorus of writers all saying, this, and this, and this, and it adds up to an amazing cantata of voices, all of which are neces


Wednesday, July 28, 2021

Portrait of a prolific seventeen-year-old author! Max Rudin talks about writing sci-fi, physics, what inspires him and more!


What's more exciting than discovering new writing talent? Especially when it is from a teenager? I've hosted young people here before (We have a ten-year-old in our family who already has written a novel, and our son Max wrote a novel "Movies of Doom" when he was eight. We gave him the full author treatment, getting blurbs from writer friends, writing a book club set of questions , getting an author photo, too.) So when writer/producer/comedienne /friend Bari Alyse Rudin told me about her talented 17-year-old son, who had already written many books available for purchase, I asked to see a few pages. To my astonishment, they were truly great! Professional! Sophisticated, too. So I wanted to host him on my blog to support him.


Thank you so much, Bari, and huge thanks to Max!

 

 


 

 

I'm astonished that you are so good a writer at such a young age. When did you first start writing?

 

Besides assignments for school, I first started writing when I was in fifth grade. In fifth and sixth grade, my friend Sebastian and I came up with many ideas for books that we wanted to write. Over the phone, we’d work together on the start of different stories, never ending up finishing them. However, working on those stories was incredibly fun, and I realized that I loved storytelling. Also, I’ve always had a tendency to daydream and think through different scenarios in my head. Combined with my interest in astronomy, physics, and other sciences, this led to questions about how humans might live in space in the future. By the time I was a high school freshman, I was determined to start and finish a book on my own. That book ended up as my first, A Truly Dead Rock.

 

 Where do you find inspiration? What else do you love besides writing? What books inspire you?

 

The inspiration for my books started with natural wonders, the different landscapes that exist in space and how they might look. How does a sunset look on the Moon or Venus? Then, I began to think about manmade wonders. How would the sky of a domed city or a large space station look? From these images of beauty, I wrote about the people that would get to see them in the distant future and what sorts of conflicts they might face in their lives.

 

 Besides writing, I enjoy making educational YouTube videos and podcasts. In doing so, I research topics that interest me in science or history and explain them in an intuitive way. This is very fun for me, because I get to teach and because I get to learn. Whenever there’s something I wonder about, I want to research it so that I can teach others about it through my videos or through my writing.

My favorite sci-fi books are Red Mars, Green Mars, and Blue Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson, which were a great inspiration for me. These books outline a detailed history of an inhabited Mars for hundreds of years in the future. They are very long books and include vivid descriptions of the different landscapes at different times in Martian history. These beautiful scenes inspired me to bring other uninhabited parts of the universe to life. I also very much enjoyed Jurassic Park and The Lost World by Michael Crichton. I watched the Jurassic Park movies when I was ten and couldn’t stop watching them over and over. They drew me into sci-fi, and when I found out that there were books behind them, I immediately decided to read them. Crichton’s explanations of complex topics in science and math always made sense, and I enjoyed the logical flow. Understanding the science behind the science fiction enhanced the experience of reading.

 

 You are incredibly prolific! I want to know your secret!

 

It’s no secret! I start with the beautiful things that exist out in the universe then describe them like I have seen them myself. Beyond that, I use my experiences with my family, my friends, and the world to craft a sensible story. The different places humans might live in the future could be incredibly distinct from Earth, but the human mind would remain the same, and for the most part, so would our social experiences. Also, practice is important to improve one’s craft. Description used to be much easier for me than dialogue, and it still comes more naturally to me today. However, with my second and third books, I made sure to include more dialogue in the storytelling so that I could get better at it, and I think my work has paid off! When you start your writing with something that truly inspires you, you are bound to get good results, and in the areas that are lacking, the more you practice, the better you’ll be. By straying outside of your comfort zone, you will develop a wide array of talents.

 

Where do you see your career in five years? What would you most love to happen?

 

In five years, I see myself having published five more books. I have many more story ideas that share continuity with the first three I’ve written, and I also have ideas that stray far from them. I’d like to amass a larger readership, because I love hearing that the ideas in my books have inspired other people’s imaginations. Furthermore, I’ll be graduating high school this year and going to college next year. I want to get a degree in physics and become a physicist. The concepts I’ll learn will help me in writing more scientifically accurate stories and give me plenty more “what if” questions to think about. Ultimately, I’d love to see my books made into movies one day, because science-fiction movies have inspired me just as much as sci-fi books have (especially when I was younger). In the future, it would be amazing if I could make a living off of writing.

 

 What's obsessing you now and why?

 

Right now, I’ve been thinking a lot about evolution and the power of natural selection. I’ve been reading a web project called “Serina: A Natural History of the World of Birds,” which is about a planet populated solely by canaries (as well as plants, fish, and insects). The project chronicles the evolution of different species in a collection of articles from different time periods after the introduction of the canaries up to a few hundred million years. The way that the pressures of ecological niches can transform these birds into distinctly un-bird-like forms is astonishing to me (such as a species resembling whales and another with nearly human intelligence). Since I usually focus more on physics than biology, this thought experiment has been new and interesting to me, and I’ve been thinking more about the effects that genetic modification could have in my book series. Harkening back to my old favorite Jurassic Park, I’ve been thinking about genetically modifying ravens to become more similar to their velociraptor ancestors.

 

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

 

“What are your books about? What are you planning to write next?”

 

So far, my books have been about people living in a space-faring society, one hundred years in the future. My first trilogy, The Solar System Century, has detailed the progression of the 22nd century and all of the interesting technological and political events that might occur in that time period. It follows the story of the Possaic family, generation by generation. Next up, I’m reeling in the timespan and writing a book that takes place in the near future, twenty years from now. What’s fun about writing a book that takes place in the near future is that the world that the characters live in is much more familiar to me, and I have greatly enjoyed thinking about how the next few decades of history might play out. From personal computing to genetics, the world of the near future is more advanced than our own, but the culture and society is much more familiar. I’m excited to try something new and think about the backstory to my first few novels.

 

 In order of publication, my books are A Truly Dead Rock, A Bottled Up Flame, and A Somewhat Odd Start. You can easily find the links on my website, gravitymaxmedia.com, under the “My Books” tab to order them in paperback or as ebooks. If you want to read the first few pages of my books to get a preview, they are also available under that same tab on my website. Furthermore, if you are interested in watching my YouTube videos or my podcast, you can find them on my YouTube channel, Gravity Max. The link to my channel is on my website under the “YouTube Channels” tab. Thank you very much to Caroline Leavitt for putting me on her blog! I feel honored that she took an interest in my writing.

Sunday, June 6, 2021

Suzanne Koven talks about imposter syndrome, women in the medical profession, sexism, racism, writing and her extraordinary memoir: Letter to a Young Female Physician.

 

 




 It's no secret how much I love nurses and female doctors, both of whom saved my life when I was sick. So, of course, when Suzanne Koven's book LETTER TO A YOUNG FEMALE PHYSICIAN bumped into my house, I snapped it up and was immediately engrossed. And I quickly tracked her down and asked if I could talk to her and promote the book.

Suzanne Koven joined the faculty of Harvard Medical School and has practiced primary care internal medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston for over 25 years. In 2019 she was named inaugural Writer in Residence at Mass General. Her essays, articles, blogs, and reviews have appeared in The Boston Globe, The New England Journal of Medicine, The Lancet, The New Yorker.com, Psychology Today, The L.A. Review of Books, The Virginia Quarterly, STAT, and other publications. Her monthly column “In Practice” appeared in the Boston Globe and won the Will Solimene Award for Excellence in Medical Writing from the American Medical Writers Association in 2012. Her interview column, “The Big Idea,” appears at The Rumpus. Suzanne conducts workshops, moderates panel discussions, and speaks to a variety of audiences about literature and medicine, narrative and storytelling in medicine, women’s health, mental healthcare, and primary care.

Thank you so much, Suzanne for being here, and for this wise, must-read memoir.


I want to first talk about your astonishing essay about imposter syndrome which was read nearly 300,000 times globally. You’ve written that that was terrifying to publish, so how scary was it to expand that essay into this remarkable book? What was the why now moment when you decided to go ahead and do it and what did that feel like? I’d also like to ask how you felt writing this book, if you had any sensation that maybe you were not an imposter after all?

 

It was scary to write a memoir, but not because of the self-revelation involved. One thing that publishing the original “Letter” essay and other personal essays taught me is that when you confront your most shameful thoughts on the page readers see themselves, not you. I felt pretty confident I wouldn’t be judged harshly for my faults and foibles. I felt much less confident about whether I could actually complete such a large project and yes, my imposter syndrome flared. I’d finally gotten over feeling like a doctor masquerading as an essayist and now I felt like an essayist masquerading as a memoirist! But my wonderful family, agent, editor, and writing buddy all cheered me on and, if I learned nothing else in my medical training, I am capable of persevering when I want to quit. This came in very handy.

 

What I so loved about your memoir was that so many of us tend to see doctors as gods, yet you show the tender parts—the insecurities, the fears, especially as women. One female doctor told me she was on a plane when a patient had a heart attack. She flew into action only to be told that “they needed a real doctor.” Why has this attitude persisted and do you see it getting better?

 

And these kinds of horrifying incidents happen even much more often to female physicians of color. I did want to show that doctors—male and female—are just people. But, as you say, I also wanted to explore how being a doctor is different for women. And the fact is that sexism in the form of pay inequity, harassment, gaps in promotion and research funding and in incidents like the one you mention do persist. I think they persist for the same reason that sexism persists in other professions and industries: because for all our progress we still live in a very sexist society. And medicine is, perhaps, more traditionally hierarchical—and patriarchic—than most.


I also loved how reading has enhanced your practice with Lit med. There is a narrative of illness. Patients are stories. But doctors are stories, too and I wish they knew how much patients appreciate knowing that of them—much like how readers appreciate your honest book.  Is it necessary not to be friends in order to have a good doctor/patient relationship, and if so, why?

 

The boundaries between doctors and patients interest me so much and I wrote about them a lot in the book—also the boundaries between my own roles as doctor/mother/daughter/friend. A doctor can be a friend—my doctor is my friend (and colleague!)—but to be effective she can’t be only a friend. I often feel, though, that I do some of my best doctoring when I am straddling the border between doctor and friend.

 

You write a lot about dieting in your book but what I was wondering about is the relationship between doctors and nutrition. People do use food to manage stress and anxiety, but I've never heard information about this from any of my doctors. Why?


Doctors received little education in nutrition when I was in training and I don’t think they get much more now. And if you go to the average doctors’ conference—particularly those involving residents—don’t expect to see much healthy food. That’s a bit of a different issue than dieting. Though in recent years the medical community has started to see obesity as a medical condition, nutrition is still largely outsourced to commercial enterprises and, as I write about at length, female doctors are not at all immune to the pressure to be thin that this culture places on women.

 

What’s haunting you now and why?

 

I love that young women in medicine (and other readers!) are responding so deeply to my book. But I am haunted by the fact that my tales of sexism in medicine 30 years ago ring so true to young doctors today. I mean, shouldn’t we have made more progress in three decades?



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

 

You did great. Thanks so much for reading my book so generously!

Wednesday, May 12, 2021

How to live gracefully with the end in mind? Barbara Becker talks about her gorgeous book, Heartwood, making the most of every minute, writing about what matters, grappling with cancer and finding joy.

 


 




I had written a piece for Psychology Today on how grief is not what you think it is, that the "rules" people dole out are not helpful at all and we should all grieve in our own way.  Almost instantly, I started getting emails that said, "You have to read  Barbara Becker!" And so I did, and her book Heartwood meant so much to me that I sought her out to interview.

Barbara Becker is a writer and ordained interfaith minister who has dedicated more than twenty-five years to partnering with human-rights advocates around the world in pursuit of peace and interreligious understanding. She has worked with the United Nations, Human Rights First, the Ms. Foundation for Women, and the Grameen Bank of Bangladesh, and has participated in a delegation of Zen Peacemakers and Lakota elders in the sacred Black Hills of South Dakota. She has sat with hundreds of people at the end of their lives and views each as a teacher. Barbara speaks on a wide range of topics, including deepening our sense of meaning & spirituality and mid-career pivots.  She lives in New York City with her interfaith family.

First the raves for her book!

REVIEWS

Becker debuts with a stirring chronicle of the events, moments, and stories that led to her reconciliation with mortality…Becker’s eloquence is a salve for confronting a difficult topic…This will be a comfort for anyone contemplating their own mortality, or those in search of advice for others.”
Publishers Weekly Starred Review

A graceful meditation on divine deliverance. Once firmly entrenched in our “death-shy” contemporary culture, the author is now a reassuring advocate for peace and interreligious understanding, and she views dying as an opportunity to seek enlightenment and give thanks, regardless of one’s preferred spiritual path.”
Kirkus

“This insightful, quietly moving book is not just for the grieving or those who comfort them.”
Booklist

“Life is an adventure of following our curiosity—that is, the voice of our true self—into the unknown world around us.  In Heartwood, Barbara Becker inspires us to follow our curiosity into a world of love and loss that is both universal and a source of our uniqueness. And what could be better than that?
Gloria Steinem, bestselling author and activist

“The global human family is interconnected, and a loss in one place affects us all. Barbara Becker’s words beautifully and compassionately reflect this truth. Heartwood is a gem.
Dr. Denis Mukwege, Nobel Peace Prize laureate, author of forthcoming The Power of Women: Learning from Resilience to Heal Our World

 

I always want to know what was the why now moment that you decided to write this book? I love your description of grief as an invitation and the message that we don’t get over things, and in a way, we shouldn’t have to, because grief is really a message about how well we have loved and been loved. Can you talk about this please?

 

 

When my earliest childhood friend Marisa was diagnosed with stage 4 cancer, I went on a journey to explore the meaning of loss and love. While she was living out the last year of her life, I became completely absorbed by the question Can we live our lives more fully knowing some day we will die?

 

Marisa made the absolute most of her remaining time.  She was an incredible lover of life! She got married to her college sweetheart.  She travelled to Italy with her family. She spent deep, quality time with friends.

 

But I couldn’t help wonder about what happens to those of us who are still here, who are going about our day-to-day lives? Can we too live with a more heightened sense of what matters most by taking on death as a teacher?

 

I discovered that wise people throughout time have advised us to live with the end in mind, from the Dalai Lama to the Prophet Muhammed. So I tested whether this wisdom that they pointed to could would uphold within the context of a modern life.

 

Ultimately, Heartwood is a book about resilience and hope.  It’s a book about truly living, fully acknowledging that we will die. When I stepped back and looked at what I had done, I saw that I had written a love letter to life.

 

 

 

I love the metaphor of trees and I would love you to talk about it.

 

Sure! Heartwood is a metaphor found in nature and a central theme of the book. Imagine walking through an old growth forest. Inside every tree is a central pillar that is most prized by woodworkers, that gives the tree strength and stability. That core is called heartwood, and what most people don’t know is that it’s no longer living… it no longer transports water and nutrients.  The living growth rings of the tree expand out from this central core.

 

It turns out we’re a lot like the trees.  Those we’ve loved who have died form our heartwood, our enduring strength.

 

There is both pain and beauty on this journey. We make meaning through narrative and metaphor. With both of my parents now gone, I think of them as my heartwood. We don’t ‘get over’ our loved ones when they die.  Instead, we find an ongoing connection with them, even as we go about living.  It also helps me to recognize that someday, I’ll be someone’s heartwood too. 

 

 

 

I was really fascinated with the whole idea of being courageous about writing about or talking about death, because I wanted to know why? (As you wanted to know.) Isn’t it more authentic and more important to show our feelings, our questions, our everything?

 

Yes! The story I hesitated to tell in Heartwood but then pushed myself to include was about my two miscarriages. In the land of taboo infertility and miscarriage are among the most hidden losses. This silence is so prevalent in our society that it was only in dealing my own losses that I learned that my own mother had lost a pregnancy, as had both of my grandmothers, including a child who died a couple of days after birth.  And my great-grandmother died in childbirth when my grandmother was small. If this was the history of my family alone over just four generations, including me, how many countless millions shared in the world’s unwritten epic of hidden sorrow? If we are going to talk about interconnection through loss, it’s right there.  It’s a goal of mine to help change this and to acknowledge women and men who have been through pregnancy loss and the loss of a child.  Today I have two healthy sons, but I will never forget their siblings who were never born.

 

 

What was it like writing this book, revisiting grief and rethinking life?

 

At a certain point, I realized that the only way to write authentically about loved ones I have lost was to make the writing itself a sacred act.  Whenever I sat down at my desk, I would light a beautiful little candle and spend a moment remembering the person I was writing about that day. It helped me draw them near to my heart, and it made all the difference in the world in helping me feel like I was honoring them rather than “doing my work” for the day.




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

 

The elephant in the room for me right now is that just as my book on life and loss  is about to be launched, I have been unexpectedly diagnosed with breast cancer. What a ‘where the rubber meets the road’ moment this has been!  I have been reminded again and again in these past couple of weeks that the Heartwood story is about learning to face things as they are, not as we would like them to be.  The Taoists say this is a world of 10,000 joys and 10,000 sorrows, and both of these realities are true. Can I stay present to all of it? 

 

Having cancer is a radical lesson in surrender.  I’m learning to walk step-by-step, not writing chapter 21 when I’m only on chapter 4, so to speak.  First it is surgery, then the first week of treatment, the second, the third and so on.  It’s not possible sometimes to think beyond one day at time. That has its benefit too—there’s a simple grace that unfolds when we slow down in the midst of a culture that can move at warp speed.  All of the people in Heartwood who I was fortunate to learn from, and all of the wisdom I gleaned from their beliefs and traditions are such a source of strength to me now.

 

 

Any final words on what is obsessing you now and why?

 

Juxtaposed to my own health crisis, I am paying attention to a more joyful ending at the moment – my youngest son’s graduation from high school! In a year marked by the losses as well as the disappointments of Covid, this feels like a transition worth celebrating!

 


Friday, May 7, 2021

Maryanne O'Hara talks about her astounding memoir about love and loss and finding the light again, LITTLE MATCHES, mystical understanding from raw grief, our life stories, and so much more.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 First the praise:

 "Little Matches is gripping and true in all ways, and I am so glad to have spent time in the company of Maryanne and Caitlin. This is a fine, affecting memoir that will stay with me for a very long time."  - Meg Wolitzer, author of The Female Persuasion and The Interestings

“This luminous, harrowing memoir is a tale of a mother’s devotion and grief, yes, but when I closed Little Matches, tears standing still in my eyes, I was left with a sense that I had met not one but two remarkable spirits, my world enlarged.”  - Dani Shapiro, author of Inheritance and Hourglass

“Here is love in ink, and you will feel it: a book about life, including death.  O’Hara’s great achievement is showing us that inside of human connection, everything has a home—despair, hope, fear, beauty, decay. It turns out that death poses no threat to love.” - B. J. Miller, author of A Beginner’s Guide to the End

"The bravest and most generous of memoirs, Little Matches is the diary of your dearest friend, intimate and universal, an exquisitely written poem of deepest love, grief, and devotion. This is a journey of the soul. I feel haunted by these pages and profoundly blessed to have read them.”  - Lisa Genova, author of Still Alice and Every Note Played

"Maryanne O’Hara has written an extraordinary book, beautiful, heartbreaking, and so full of life on every page that I was reminded that loving deeply is full of risk and the only way to live.  This is the most meaningful book I’ve read in a very long time." - Jane Bernstein, author of The Face Tells the Secret and Rachel in the World

“A raw yet comforting journal of grief, pain, and sparks of hope.”
- Kirkus

“In this vividly written memoir novelist O’Hara shares a painful but ultimately beautiful account of her daughter Caitlin’s life with cystic fibrosis. . . . Her compelling story will resonate with anyone seeking a light in the darkest depths of grief.” - Library Journal

“Bracingly honest and deeply comforting.” - A PEOPLE magazine Book of the Week


 Maryanne O'Hara is the author of the astonishing novel, CASCADE, about an artist who is trying to figure out what’s important in life, and it takes place in the 1930s in a town slated to be destroyed for a reservoir, and in the art world of pre-war New York City. It was the Boston Globe Book Club’s inaugural pick, a People magazine pick of the week, and a finalist for the Massachusetts Book Award. Currently, it is the Massachusetts pick for the East Coast Centers for the Book “Route 1 Reads” program.  We could all love Maryanne for that alone.

But soon after CASCADE’s paperback released, her daughter Caitlin's (radiantly pictured above) respiratory health rapidly worsened. She needed oxygen 24/7 and a lung transplant. For three years, the family lived in twilit limbo as she waited — far too long — for the call that seemed like it would never come. Caitlin got her transplant, finally, but it was too late. She’d had to wait too long. She died in December of 2016. She was 33.

 LITTLE MATCHES is about life during overwhelming grief, about finding meaning in what seems meaningless. Written in the same gorgeous prose O'Hara is known for, it is remarkable. I'm so honored to have Maryanne here Thank you, thank you, Maryanne.

I always want to know about the Why Now Moment. What made you want to, need to write this astonishing memoir?

 

I was rudderless in my grief. For months, all I could do was flop from one surface to another and cry. I cried so much that I had to see an eye doctor because my eyes kept forming raw blisters from all the salt. The only thing that made me feel barely alive was writing on my blog where I could grieve out loud and feel connected, for as long as it took to craft and publish a post, to my readers and to Caitlin herself. Early on, readers suggested I write a book, an impossible idea. But nine months after Caitlin’s passing, my husband and I were walking around Walden Pond. It was our wedding anniversary, and the fact of “nine months” felt significant. I made my decision there, on one of Thoreau’s woodland paths. I needed purpose in my life, and if writing our story was going to inspire and help people, I wanted to do it.

 

As soon as I made the decision, I knew it would be important to start right away, to write from inside real-time grief. Doing so allowed me to document the personal transformation that happened, also in real time, as I gave hard thought to who I was and what I believed in.

 

Little Matches is the perfect title for this book because it represents all those little lights in the darkness. What is more devastating than losing your child—and yet, you wrote about it with such brave grace. Can you talk about this please?

 

Ohhhh… thank you. You know, Caitlin lived with such brave grace. She set an example, and the least I could do was follow it. Also—since childhood I’ve been obsessed with the passage of time, with knowing that our human lifetimes are just a blink. A part of me might have always known what was coming for me, known I would have to write about it. The author self inside always stands apart, observing and preparing the words, doesn’t she?

 

The structure of the novel, emails, texts, drawings, is so intimate. Did you always know this would be the structure?

 

I initially pictured the project as a multi-media mosaic of images and words, many of them Caitlin’s. When I began to write inside the limitations of a physical book, I wanted to bring some of that mosaic feel into it. Little Matches is in many ways co-written. Caitlin’s voice, in the form of emails and texts, brought her into the narrative in a seamless, organic way.

 

What I loved so much about this fierce, moving memoir is that out of great, raw pain, comes a kind of almost mystical understanding.  Now that this amazing memoir is out in the world, what has changed for you?

Yes... I think that’s what I love, too. All of the questions that had idly preoccupied me in life, and in the fiction I had published, became critical. It wasn’t enough to ruminate anymore. I needed answers­­ to the big life questions. It was the only way I could think of to continue to exist. What changed for me was that I came to discover what it is I believe in, and to know that my path forward has a lot to do with those beliefs. The feedback I am getting from readers is incredibly heartening. The fact that this book could make a woman quit her dead-end job and fly out west to visit an old friend to “take time for what’s important?” That it could reconcile a mother and daughter? What’s better than that? 

 

 

What’s obsessing you now and why?

 

Hah. I’m really working at not obsessing about anything, especially Little Matches. This book is so important to me, and I want the world to know about it and yet, so much of publishing is out of our control in this noisy world, as you know. So I’m working at not making myself anxious over what I cannot control. I’ve been focusing on what do I truly want now? How do I want to live the rest of my life?  I do know one thing: that my focus word moving forward after writing this book has been tranquility.  

 

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

 

I would love to encourage everyone to think about their own life stories and how they might be told. I will be doing some legacy workshops, listed on my website, where I offer tips on conducting a life interview with a loved one or with oneself. Self-reflection, thinking about purpose and what gives your life meaning––it’s all so important. Giving ruminative thought to the overall arc of one’s life, acknowledging that it will one day end, is a valuable way to figure out whether you’re on the life path that your inner self knows is right.