Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Happy 2010

Happy 2010.

Well, almost.

Instead of making resolutions, I think everyone should watch this remarkable trailer for Dani Shapiro's new memoir, DEVOTION (coming in Feb, along with a Question and Answer here on my blog.) Dani's book, about her search for spiritual meaning, is really everyone's search, and most appropriate right around now. What do we believe and why? How do we live and connect to others and to the universe around us? What really is our truth?

I carried this book around with me for days, unwilling to put it down, and often weeping as I read. Go watch the trailer, and get the book. Then let's talk.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Very merry

The holidays are always sort of strange to me. I'm Jewish, so we never celebrated Xmas, though Hanukkah was a very big deal growing up, complete with eight (count 'em! 8!) gifts. The first Christmas I really adored was my first year in Manhattan. My friend Beth, who lived across the hall, came to my tiny apartment and we made a sea bass with black bean sauce (I wasn't a full-out vegetarian then), which we promptly burned, then we went out all day to movies, crashed a party, and came back home and watched movies all night long. I loved it. My worst was also in New York City, when someone I had loved had died, and I was alone, and the city had emptied out of all my friends. Again, I turned to the movies, going until two in the morning, me and the other disenfranchised in the city! I would have kept going but I chose the wrong movie, a really tragic one, and I ended up crying in the theater, walking home at two, crying, and crying the rest of the night in my apartment.

These days, holidays are with my funny husband and funny son and if you think I don't count my blessings about how lucky I am every second, you'd be wrong. We've been seeing movies, hanging out, going to a movie in about two hours, and hanging out some more. And tomorrow, we go to Boston to see my mother and Jeff's cousin and his family.

I haven't written as much as I have wanted to, but I'm thinking, thinking, thinking, and I'm gearing up for 2010. I have a novel coming out in August, I just finished a script, I'm writing another novel. There's this feeling that anything could happen.

Sort of like when you think you see reindeer in the sky.

Magic, anyone? Maybe the trick is to make your own magic, and then spread it around.
Happy end of 2009 everyone.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Fighting fear

Writing a new novel is an often hallucinatory process. It always starts out, for me, anyway, with a bang. I have an obsession, an image in my head of something pulling me forward. The first chapter nearly always writes itself, and it's a good thing, too, because the rest of the chapters are always terrifically tough to get out on paper, and in the months and years that follow, that first chapter is the thing I cling to, the reason why I can't just toss everything in the wastebasket and think about going to dental school instead.

By mid first draft, which is where I am now, fear sets in. Is this good enough? Am I good enough? Is there really a story here and has it not been done before? Is it uniquely mine? I spend a lot of time trying to not listen to my fears, but of late, I've been listening, nodding my head the way you might at an uncle who's telling you the same old tiresome story, and then going ahead and keeping at it.

All writers really have, like any of us in life, is the moment. I try to focus on that moment--on creating--rather than fears about whether the book will get published, whether anyone will read it, whether I've failed. In the end, I can't control any of it, but I can dig deeper into the work and tell the story I want and need to tell.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Read This Book: What I Thought I Knew

I admit I'm drawn to books about medical mysteries. Maybe it's because for one terrifying year, I had one of my own (but that's another story altogether). Alice Eve Cohen's What I thought I Knew isn't so much a mystery as it is a journey about everything going wildly wrong. Her memoir is as funny as it is shocking, and I'm thrilled she agreed to answer my questions. (Thank you, Alice.)

The book begins with a shocker. You've been told you have a tumor, given all kinds of tests, only to discover that you are 6 months pregnant. I can't get my mind around the fact that this happened in New York City, home of the best doctors in the world. How could this be?

I think there were several doctors who were equally blinded. When my gynecologist did an internal exam, I told her all my symptoms, and she dismissed them--as did the gastroenterologist. I was examined multiple times over six months and I had a number of sonograms. I think it's like the ancient tale of the six blind men and the elephant. Each man examined one single part of the elephant without being aware of the big picture, and none could identify it as an elephant. Like the blind men, my doctors were examining me through the lens of their particular specialty, and were thus blind to the big picture: my gynecologist saw me as an infertile DES daughter and she never considered pregnancy. The gastroenterologist saw me only as a person with stomach problems, and so on. I sued my gynecologist because she made such huge errors, with such profound consequences. But at the same time, I don't think she or any of these doctors was a total moron.

How do you feel now about doctors?

That's a hard question. When I'm choosing doctors for my daughter, I use my parental intuition. I'm constantly weighing various options and wondering, when a doctor tells me something, is this the whole picture? I'm not a passive patient. I ask a lot of questions. I never wanted to repeat the 1950s experience my mother had when she was given DES to prevent miscarriage: the drug, routinely promoted as "the pregnancy vitamin," proved to be both ineffective and carcinogenic. You have to make sure the doctor is listening to you, taking your concerns seriously, and not looking at you as a bunch of statistics. I thought I'd learned that lesson well. I thought that an educated approach would protect me from this kind of medical malpractice. But everybody in our health care system is vulnerable.

Were you writing this as this was going on? And did the book change as events changed?

I was so not writing this book while the events were taking place! I was trying to survive. I was taking copious notes for a lawsuit and to keep track of medical issues. Part of my great sadness at the time was that I thought, " okay, I have no will to write anymore, no motivation. I'm too depressed, I have no more creativity. I just need to devout all of my attention to making sure my daughter's life has the best possible outcome." I had just completed an MFA program and had almost finished a novel, and then everything came to a grinding halt. I barely wrote anything for seven years.

One day, though, seven years to the day after I was sent for an emergency CAT scan, I walked to the part of Central Park where I walked that day seven years earlier. It was a brilliant sunny September day, just as it had been seven years before. It triggered memories. I went home and started to write. It was as if I had been asleep and just woke up.

What made you decide to structure the memoir the way you did?

For the first 6 months, I wrote with a kind of stream of consciousness. I didn't know at first that it would be a book. I thought it might be a collection of essays. I experimented with ways to capture the "what I know" lists--which were my way of reassuring myself, in my most desperately confused moments, of the things I could count on, good or bad, the things I believed I knew, that I could hang my hat on, while the earth was giving way beneath my feet. I have to give credit to Microsoft word for the numbers formatting. Numbering the "what I know" lists heightened and stylized them; they became a repeated musical motif, with variations. These sections helped structure the storytelling by punctuating turning points.

After going through such an extraordinary experience, do you worry that the other shoe is going to drop or are you hopeful?

I do feel hopeful, though I do look over my shoulder to see if the Evil Eye is hiding in the shadows. There are reasons why there are these folkloric superstitions about the Evil Eye and other manifestations of fear and foreboding in every culture, because that's what life is like. Incredible joy one moment and then someone dies; shit hits the fan, and then things are great again. I don't know if I will ever extricate myself from what seems to be an ingrained fear that something terrible might happen, but I am enjoying this exciting year.

What are you working on now?

I've begun writing a new book. It's too early to talk about, except to say that it is a memoir. I'm also working on a couple of children's books--a picture book and a middle grade novel. And I'm delighted to report that What I Thought I Knew is going to be a movie, penned by screenwriter Katie Ford whose film and TV credits include Miss Congeniality, Desperate Housewives, and Lifetime's Prayers for Bobby.

What's your daily life like?

This fall has been mostly about my daughter's middle school application process. I pick up my daughter three days a week and hang out with her, and the other two days, she has a sitter. I have two places where I write. I wrote this book at a tiny wooden desk by the living room window. Now I divide my writing time between my home office and the Writers Room, a workspace in Greenwich Village. I'm not the most methodical writer so I don't have a set schedule, though mornings are my peak writing time.

What didn't I ask that I should have?

Does the book have humor? Yes, yes, and yes! Did you win any prizes? Yes! I just won the Elle's Lettres Grand Prix for the Best Nonfiction Book of the Year.

Great new blog

Gina Sorell, a great friend and a truly terrific writer with a novel-in-progress that is one of the best I have read in years, has a new blog I'm going to be running some author interviews on her blog (as well as here), and guess who has the honor to be up there first? (Ah hem...)

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Kirkus Reviews closing

It's tragic and I'm stunned.

Kirkus Reviews, which has been one of the most important prepub reviews to get, is closing. Notorious for being snarky (they gave me one review for my third novel that was so terrible, I still remember every syllable of it, and no, don't ask me to repeat it, but yes it did include the phrase, "Leavitt has no one else but herself to blame.."), their praise could jumpstart a book and a star from them was cause for celebration. (Most of my Kirkus reviews were good, and I was thrilled to get two starred reviews from them. I still worship at their feet for the publicity those stars generated for me.)

Kirkus reviewed more books than any newspaper ever could, and the fact that they are closing is terrible. Newspaper review space is dwindling. Who is going to pick up the slack? How can we find out about books that might be under the radar? I'm so used to reading their reviews to keep abreast of the book world, that right now, I feel bereft.

This is a great loss for the book world.

Celebrating a forgotten woman writer

Know the name Margaret Woodward Boyd? I didn't, either. It's actually the pen name of Margaret Woodward Smith Shane, who was discovered by F. Scott Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald took her novel, The Love Legend to his famed editor, Maxwell Perkins, who promptly published it. In 1922, The Love Legend rocketed to the bestseller list and was praised by The New York Times as "a lively colorful tale."

Finding lost literary talents like Boyd is the work of the fabulous David Wilk and Rvive Press, whose mission it is to revive a large list of great books that have been out of print for far too long. When he asked if I'd read Woodward's book and write an intro, how could I resist?

So is The Love Legend as good as Fitzgerald said it was? Yup. The story of four sisters in 1920s Chicago, it presents a fascinating portrait of politics, culture, love, marriage and career. If you'd like a copy of this--or any terrific books that are being revived, please visit the website.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Read This Book: Perfectiion

Perfection by Julie Metz is both shocking, disturbing and thoroughly wonderful. Metz's "perfect" life shattered when her handsome young husband died suddenly and she subsequently discovered his web of infidelity. How she unravelled all the secrets of his life and began to build a new life helped her redefine just what perfection really means.

What sparked the writing of this book?

When my husband died suddenly in January 2003, I was living in a small town north of New York City. My family and most of my longtime friends lived elsewhere and they were all worried about me. After a few days of trying to respond to individual e-mails, I decided to write one long e-mail each day and send that to anyone who wrote to me asking for news. After a few months I had created a diary of my early widowhood. When I found out about my husband’s infidelities in July 2003, several friends suggested that I should write about my experiences. But I wasn’t a writer and had no idea how to take the e-mails I’d written and put them together into a book that anyone would want to read. At this point, a professional writer I knew took me out for lunch and insisted that I give it a try. She pretty much sent me home with instructions on how to get started and kept after me to make sure I was working. After a while I sank into the writing experience and committed myself to the project.

As you were writing the memoir, and when you completed it, what discoveries did you make about yourself and the nature of your relationship with your husband?

The writing process helped me work through so many complex emotions: grief, then anger, shame, despair, and finally, acceptance. Along the way I learned that I was tougher than I had thought, that I could, in fact, take charge of my life, and rebuild it, with help from family and friends. From that point I was able to look back at my marriage and see the good and bad times with more clarity. In the end there are still unanswered questions. Henry’s behavior was so spectacularly self-destructive

You found out that your marriage was an illusion, so I’m wondering, what was the process that allowed you to trust again?

While I was married, I imagined that I couldn’t live without my husband. Then he died and I found that I could, after all, live without him. Slowly I put the basics of life back together. I was a working single mother and my heart was pretty much a disaster area, but I still earned a living and got dinner on the table. When I started to feel more settled, I made a list of what I hoped to find in a new partner: someone who was kind, and honest, who would love my child, and share my world view. When I began dating, I didn’t always stick to the list, so there was plenty of trial and error. When I met my present partner, I wasn’t sure that he was the right man for me, but slowly over time I saw his love for me and my daughter and his genuine interest in making a real family. This is what I’d wanted to have with my husband. It all took time and what I like is that we are still learning about each other.

Do you think a perfect marriage is possible? Why or why not?

Perfection! It doesn’t exist! So what’s left once we give up on that (unrealistic) ideal? We have the variety of real everyday experience, filled with beauty and flaws, excitement and boredom, happiness and sorrow. I look at my present relationship as a series of “everydays,” most of which are terrific, some less terrific, a few disappointing. I think the best relationships are ones where both individuals can change and grow and feel supported. What I enjoy about my situation now is that we genuinely love each other, we have fun together, and we weather difficult times with our spirits intact.

What made you want to know these other women that your husband had been with? Do you think that it ultimately helped, or was it more like rubbing salt into your already deep wounds?

My husband had died, leaving me with so many unanswered questions. I couldn’t ask him why he’d made his choices, but I didn’t feel like I could move forward with my life until I had some answers. I contacted the other women to try to understand what had happened to my marriage. I am not saying this is what every woman should do, but for me this was ultimately a positive experience. In the short term it was painful, but I did get some answers, and encountering these women helped me resolve my anger and find compassion for him, for them, and for myself. In one case, an unlikely friendship began that continues to this day.

I’m wondering, what are you going to tell your daughter about her father?

I have had many conversations with my daughter about her father. I would never have published the book without talking to her. What I have told her is that her father loved us but made some terrible mistakes. I want her to understand that adult life can be complicated, that we are flawed creatures, and sometimes our flaws can overwhelm us. I also hope to show her by example that it is possible to remake your life and that you can create your own second chances. And when I make mistakes (every day), I apologize and try to do better.

Why do you think you didn’t realize the signs of what was going on with your husband and all the women in his life, especially in the light of your honestly portraying the difficulties in your marriage? Do you think we choose to see what we want to see and protect ourselves from the rest?

When I was married, I had a lot at stake in not looking at the reality of my life. My identity was very wrapped up in being Henry’s wife. We had our child and a house and comfortable life in a beautiful town. I think many women are in this situation. Since my book came out I have received many letters from women who also didn’t see what was going on in their marriages because they were too afraid to look. Not looking too hard is a way of protecting oneself, though it won’t work forever.

I always ask…what are you working on now, what’s your writing life like, and what question didn’t I ask that I should have?

I am working on a novel now. Some of the themes are similar—a woman in midlife confronting her past and her future—but it’s such a different experience writing fiction. There is a new freedom in being able to invent scenarios and imagery, though I often feel now that the characters are directing the action rather than the other way around. I have a pretty clear idea of the basic story but I don’t really know yet how it’s all going to turn out.

My writing life is…probably not ideal. Which is to say, I have is no set writing schedule. I clear away the breakfast dishes and write at the dining table, while I also work with my assistant on book design projects, pay bills, make soup for dinner, and run loads of laundry. In the evening I might work some more on writing, while my daughter does homework, also at the dining table. But this is pretty much how the first book got written, so perhaps this method will work a second time…

People are sometimes curious about the title of the book: Perfection, since the story is about a time in my life that was anything but perfection. I chose the title because I felt that women are really struggling with this idea of perfection: perfect bodies, houses, kids, careers. The feeling that you have fallen short of the standard creates a feeling of shame that leads women to make some poor choices as they try to hide or plaster over the parts of themselves they feel are less than perfect. I wanted to find a way to redefine the word “perfection” so that it could encompass real life with all its beauty and flaws.


Thursday, December 3, 2009

Ah yes, my odd voice

In the beginning, I could sing. No, really, I mean it. Not just carrying a tune, but being good enough to be in my schools "special chorus," standing on a stage in a special navy blazer and little white skirt. I had the same high, sweet soprano my mother and sister did, and then I hit sixteen and rebellion took over. I didn't want to be like either of them, not in sound or looks or desires. I wanted to be something different. Something more dramatic.

I changed my name from Carolyn to Caroline.
I changed the way I looked and threw out the bright yellows for black and deep, muddy colors.
I grew my hair and stopped straightening the curls and wore complicated earrings and short velvet skirts.
And one day, in the midst of all this metamorphosing, at seventeen, my voice changed all on its own.

I couldn't carry a tune anymore, though I still liked to sing. My voice became hoarse and husky--so much so that my doctor insisted I go to a specialist because sudden hoarseness could mean real, physical trouble. The doctor I saw snaked a tube down my throat and made me sing as he did it. Then he drew the tube out and shrugged. "Your vocal chords don't touch," he told me. "You can fix that by taking singing lessons." Then he grinned at me. "But why would you want to?"

Ah yes. That's the way I feel. I've gotten used to people asking, "Do you have a cold?" (No, I always sounds like this, except when I have a cold and then I sound worse.) Or "Are you doing that deliberately?" (Nope. Well, maybe.)

One of the things a novelist has to do is self-promote. I know, I know. It's awkward sometimes, and being self-deprecating, I sometimes shy away from that "Look at me! Look at me!" quality that you have to have. I don't want to be seen as pushy or bragging or obnoxious.

I want people to read my work. I ache for them to, actually, so with that--and my strange voice in mind-- I offer you an opportunity to hear my voice. I am talking about my last novel, Girls inTrouble, and my new novel coming up, Pictures of You, on David Wilk's fantastic writerscast.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009


I usually don't like books on writing but sometimes when I am in the thick of a novel and it feels out of my control, I reach for them, either to reassure myself or to see if there might be something--even a line--in there, that might help me.

A lot of the time, I think the advice is wrong-headed, or maybe it's just that it's too obvious conversing about the things I already know. I want to be surprised. But recently, I picked up From Where You Dream by Pulitzer prize winner Robert Olen Butler and the book is like a revelation. Maybe it's the language he uses, but even the things I do know about writing seem new here. Instead of talking about how important it is that every character want something, he uses the better word: yearning. Instead of the writer talking about the idea he or she has for a story, Butler insists it's far better to think about the emotional nuances, because emotion is where you build your story. You dig into the subconscious and he gives great advice on how to get into the "zone."

I haven't finished the book, but I've already recommended it to my UCLA students, and truly, I haven't been so exhilarated since I read John Truby, the screenwriting guru, whose simple change of the word "backstory" to "ghost" made me look at backstory in a different, richer way.

I think what I really like is the feeling that this voice from this particular book is down in the writing trenches with me. Reassuring me. Pushing me on. And that's pretty wonderful.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

READ THIS BOOK: An Uncommon History of Common Things

An Uncommon History of Common Things is one of those books you can't put down because of the wealth of fascinating information. A wonderful compendium of everything from how pajamas began to the origins of indoor plumbing, it's been called "witty and enlightening" by Library Journal and People made it one of their hot gift picks.

Bethanne Patrick, one of the authors, is one of those people you want to be your friend for life. Warm and funny, she's every author's best friend because of her fierce love for the written word and her incredible support.

Where did the inspired idea for the book come from?

I can't claim credit for the idea; that came from my delightful National Geographic colleagues Susan Blair and Susan Tyler Hitchcock. Susan Blair is a developmental editor at NG, and Susan Hitchcock was a project editor who is now the Editorial Director for Reference Books. They both loved a book whose title I can't specifically recall: Panatti's History of Everyday Objects? They came to me as a freelance writer with an idea and a one-page outline.

How did you go about choosing what items to write about? And how did you do the research?

I developed the chapters and outline, and then Susan Hitchcock and I went through a long process choosing all of the items. We wanted to find things that are still common today, used around the world, and that had great stories to go along with them.

Obviously this took a great deal of research. I'll confess that I started out on the Internet...but there was no way to stay there! I had to get back to BOOKS and many times primary source materials. National Geographic has a rigorous reference process and an even more rigorous fact-checking process. But I'd like to say that there are great materials online: e.g., the New York Times archives has clips that were useful in tracking down "pink for girls, blue for boys," and I found a couple of amazing e-texts of history books for the salt-extraction industry in the U.S.

I loved the sidebars—that the bread slicer was almost banned in WWII (which shows how much people loved it) and that canned goods started with Napoleon, rather than with housewives in the fifties. I also thought the Chinese invented pasta. (it was the Arabs.) What I love about the book is that it makes you look at the world differently. Things that were once as familiar as peanut butter, boxer shorts and breakfast foods take on new significance and meaning, which is so wonderful and lots of fun. Which origin for an item particularly surprised you and why?

Thank you so much, because the sidebars and the timelines were a tremendous amount of work. As you note, sometimes we had to look hard past commonly accepted knowledge (e.g., the Chinese invented pasta) to find first uses of things. I think the biggest surprise was how table napkins came to be -- the Spartan "apomagdalie" were bits of bread dough that people used to wipe grease off of their fingers! Makes complete sense, but who knew?

The photos are as glorious as the text. Did you have input on the design at all?

Our photo editor, Chip (gotta check his surname!), is, like all NG photo specialists, absolutely first rate. The general look of the book was not in my domain, and I didn't need to help Chip much -- but he did consult with me on more obscure items, and we worked closely together on those difficult sidebars (as did my hardworking editor Susan Straight!). I think he had fun, however, with the shoe sidebar.

You worked with another writer, John Thompson, who authored or coauthored Dakotas, National Geographic Almanac of American History, and more. What was it like working with another person? How did you keep the continuity of the tone and the writing?

John and I never worked together! I'm willing to tell you this because our editors could not believe how similar our diction and tone were considering we've never even met. He made life easy for all of us, because he's such a professional and such a fine writer.

You do everything, Bethanne! You interview authors on The Book Studio on WETA, you're the beloved Book Maven at large, a journalist, you do twitter book tours and you write. So how do you manage to juggle all the things that you do?

You're so kind...I'm also a wife, mother to two, and I'm working on a memoir called Broken. I mention those things so that everyone will know that it's possible to realize your dreams. I've failed at so many things (and some of them quite recently!), but I've also been fortunate to succeed at others and to keep moving...I'm a late bloomer, and although I've said this before, my fellow Smith College alumna Julia Child is my role model. She didn't start teaching cooking classes until she was nearly 40, and she didn't get her WGBH TV show until she was 50. So by the "Child clock," I'm actually ahead of the game with my WETA Internet show!

At my college graduation, Beverly Sills told us that "you can have it all, but not at the same time." That was advice I really needed, since unlike most of my friends, I turned down the job in NY publishing I'd been offered and got married. Years later, I'm not only working in publishing -- I'm still married. The message is not to be a child bride; it's to trust your heart and never lose your passion.

Finally, I couldn't juggle anything at all without the support of many. I tell The Book Studio team all the time that "It takes a village to get Bethanne camera ready" and that does not just refer to my wonderful hair and makeup artist Lorna Basse! I've met, befriended, and worked with great people. However, those who weren't so great? Sometimes they taught me the most, or gave me contacts that led to career breakthroughs.

What ‘s next for you?

The aforementioned memoir, which I'm working on with my fantastic new agents, Rob Weisbach and Erin Cox. We're also working on all kinds of new features and opportunities for The Book Studio (soon our booklists will be featured on the "Masterpiece" web site, starting with the new production of "Emma" in January). I continue to be interested in keeping book reviewing relevant. Right now I'm running for the board of the National Book Critics Circle; I may not be elected, but I believe that criticism can and must remain viable in this new-media world.

What question should I be mortified that I didn’t ask you?

I don't think there are any you didn't ask me...hmmmm...well, you didn't ask me about my favorite books or my greatest influences as a writer (which are questions we ask on The Book Studio!), so I'll tell you! I don't think I'll ever get tired of "To the Lighthouse" by Virginia Woolf, because I believe that Lily Briscoe's "Can't paint, can't write" dilemma (and her confused jealousy of Mrs. Ramsay's boeuf en daube) are still issues that affect modern women. When I need inspiration for writing, I re-read some of John Cheever's short stories or Joan Didion's essays. Funny, since I don't write short stories or essays per se -- but I return again and again to writing that really stays with me, not writing that is like anything I do.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Read This Book: My Father's Bonus March

My Father's Bonus March is a haunting memoir by a great writer, Adam Langer. It's the story of a son trying to know and understand his enigmatic father, who was obsessed with writing a book about the Bonus March of 1932, when 20,000 WWI veterans went to the Capital to demand compensation.

I was fascinated by the Bonus March, something I had no idea existed. Why do you think your father didn’t really finish it? And do you think it meant so much to you because it was a project the two of you could do together?

I think that one of the most important lessons I learned from writing this book was not to settle for or even seek definitive answers. Throughout the majority of the book, I struggle with the question of why my father wanted to write this book and why he never did. But towards the end, I come to realize that the process of searching for answers is much more rewarding and informative than any single answer could be. Was it because he never intended to finish the book? Was it because he ran out of time? Was it because the book was only ever a dream? Was it because the definitive history of the Bonus March, published in 2004, made his project no longer necessary? Through asking these questions, I know more about my father than any yes/no answer to any of those questions could provide. As for why it was important to me, I think it ultimately has less to do with my hopes for what we could have done together than it has to do with images and myths I had about my family that have turned out to be only images and myths. I grew up with the idea that my father could do anything he wanted to, anything he put his mind to, and the fact that he didn’t complete the book seemed to contradict this idea. But the truth is that we’re all limited and the fact that my father didn’t complete his book doesn’t or shouldn’t detract from everything he did accomplish in his life.

How difficult was it to make the transition from writing fiction (the superb Ellington Boulevard, The Washington Story, and Crossing California) to writing nonfiction? How did the process differ?

I started out as a journalist, so it wasn’t much of a transition. I started writing for newspapers and radio stations when I was in my early teens and worked for more than a decade in Chicago in journalism. A lot of my fiction has been informed by journalism and my attention to detail, my sense of dialogue and interaction comes from stories I have written and people I have encountered as a reporter. What made this a bit more difficult than other journalism projects was the fact that it was my own family history that I was investigating, and I felt a responsibility to honor the relationships and friendships that my father had made over the course of his eighty years and to accurately capture the voices that informed his world. The process was a bit more painstaking than it usually is for my novels, which are usually written in some sort of euphoric burst of energy. It’s a lot easier to write while blasting Bob Dylan and Nirvana than it is to write while blasting “Brother, Can You Spare A Dime?”

You traveled all over the place for this book and dipped into the past, but while trying to understand your father, I wonder if you can talk about the revelations you had about yourself. (For example, I was fascinated that your brother tells you this project means more to you than it probably did to your father.)

I think I’m more conscious of the reasons I want to write, and of the stories I want to tell. But that’s not only because of what I learned about my father and the Bonus March, but also because I am aware of my responsibilities as a parent of two young daughters. I take a very different approach to parenthood than my dad did. I don’t’ plan to become some deadly serious writer without any irreverence, but I do need to interrogate myself every now and then to ask why I’m writing what I’m writing, which is something I didn’t always consciously do beforehand.

I was impressed by the narrative structure. Ostensibly about the Bonus March and understanding your father, the book becomes a meditation on human connection, complete with some oral histories, and some documentary scenes. Was this a conscious decision or did this structure simply evolve because the narrative demanded it?

My initial intention was to do a shot-for-shot remake of CITIZEN KANE with every scene corresponding to one of the DVD Chapters. I was going to begin with a documentary scene, move to an aerial shot of Xanadu, cut to a scene in a library, cut to a death scene, cut to a reporter (me) doing research. The reason for this was because I think Orson Welles’s film is the ultimate film about the ultimate unknowability of mysteries that vex us. Also, because it’s my mom’s favorite movie. Ultimately, this structure became unwieldy and gimmicky and I needed my own structure and couldn’t suppose another’s on it. The structure has the appearance of being somewhat freewheeling, but it’s actually been very deliberately planned. It’s less about a chronology of events than a chronology of understanding. One of the things I came to learn as I was writing the book was how understanding doesn’t happen in one smooth narrative arc; it happens haphazardly, with pendulum swings, flashbacks, contradictions, and so forth. I could have written a much more straightforward book beginning with how the idea for the book developed, how I went about my process, how the individuals I met and the research I did changed my perceptions, ultimately ending with some revelatory moment. But that would have been a lot less honest of an approach.

What I also love is the history of your becoming a writer, from the melodramatic early plays to the early stories about linebackers. Although you thought you would be a doctor, it’s clear in this case that writers are born. I’m wondering if the writers desire to make story of what we don’t understand or to fill in the holes in our lives (in this case, your father) was the main impetus for your being a writer?

Not so much with the stories of linebackers, I don’t think. I’m not sure if that was my initial motivation, particularly because a lot of what I used to write had little do with family history or my neighborhood. I always had a love of stories and of theater. From a very early age, I remember sitting with my mom and reading such books as THE PLANT SITTER and THE BLUEBERRY PIE ELF, seeing productions of everything from PINOCCHIO to A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC. I don’t always write to fill gaps or out of some great longing. There’s some of that, but I approach writing much as I do reading, which I pursue for so many different reasons—to learn, to escape, to change my own perceptions, and so on. As for my main impetus, well, I don’t think I’m much better at knowing my own self definitively than I am at knowing my father. But it’s the process of the search for answers that’s exciting and rewarding, and that’s what I pursue through reading.

What question should I be mortified that I forgot to ask you?

What’s your next project? A novel. What’s it called? The Thieves in Manhattan. When’s it being published? In July. What is it? Probably the closest thing to a thriller I’ll ever write. What music have you been listening to while answering these questions? Elvis Costello’s “Pidgin’ English” and “Lighthouse” by The Waifs. What’s for dinner tonight? Pizza. Are you making it yourself? Yes, the dough is rising now. What’s in the dough? Flour, olive oil, yeast, salt, and corn meal. Corn meal? Yes, it makes the dough much crunchier. What kind of tomato sauce? Fairway brand Marinara. You bought the sauce? Yes, sorry to say.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

in praise of work

Totally swamped. Writing constantly. Finishing a script (gave myself a 6 week deadline), pushing forward on a new novel I'm calling The Missing Ones and in the midst of this, buckled my knee while lifting weights. How can this be? So I hobble forth and am off to the orthopedic surgeon tomorrow, but will have something interesting up here in the next few days, I promise.

I did want to ask people what they use to boost their writing day and keep their energy up. My husband surprised me with a UPS delivery of dark chocolate covered almonds and after devouring 12 of them, I was surprised to find that my energy level ramped up and I felt really, really happy. I'm betting it's the caffeine (I don't drink or like coffee) and while I loved the effects, I'd really rather find something other than chocolate covered almonds to eat all day long and I'm not sure how good all that caffeine is in any case. There was this wonderful book by Alice Weaver Flaherty, The Midnight Disease: The Drive to Write, Writers Block and The Creative Brain about the neurology behind the urge to write, and I remember Flaherty mentioned a drug many writers were taking because it made them concentrate better, work longer hours and feel exhilarated. (But of course, I don't want to take a drug, either.) Give me natural highs--boring, I know--but I'd rather ramp up vitamins.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Read This Book: Ghostbread

Ghostbread by Sonja Livingston is an absolutely astonishing debut. Livingston was one of seven kids, moving from one crumbling environment to another with their most unusual mother, and her memoir is harrowing and hilarious.

Don't believe me? Go read.

You lived in everything from farming towns, an Indian reservation and followed your mother from one broken down place to another, always in search of something better. How did you ever keep that hope alive of finding it? What made things easier?

Actually looking forward to the next best thing does make things easier when you’re in a tough spot. Projecting yourself forward seems like a natural and healthy way to deal with situations over which we have little control. The problem is, of course, that I still find myself looking forward too much, versus enjoying the beauty of the moment. I have to remind myself that this is it! That said, I truly believe that there is beauty to be found in even the most ramshackle places. Learning to mine reality for its treasures was good training ground for writing!

It’s clear that the writer is born in you early, as you struggle to find reasons for what is happening to you, and as you are forced to make up stories to creditors who call. When did you begin to write and to realize that your past was something worthy of writing about?
I always enjoyed writing and language. As a high school kid, I wrote poems full of high drama and churned out story after story about runaway children and lost puppies. I didn’t start to seriously write until I had a graduate degree and a solid job in hand. I wrote about my past at first as a way to sort it all out, but when I began to share my personal writing, people responded and asked for more. But because of my past, and growing up with a mother whose energy went into painting murals on our walls at midnight versus say, meal planning; my idea of what art is and the value of things like writing was skewed in favor of gaining stability. In fact, that tension between stability and being open and risking still tugs at me.

I’m also curious why you ended the memoir at graduation, rather than when you began writing? What was writing this novel like?

Good question! What a great idea—to end the book when I began to write, because really that’s when I began to shed the old life to make room for the new. I should have known you when I was writing it! I ended it at graduation, because early readers didn’t seem satisfied with the ending I had. The book didn’t seem “finished” and indeed, it still isn’t in many ways. I mean, how do you pick a moment of transformation? I tried. But it felt forced. And the truth is that many people who grow up like I did aren’t “transformed” in the way of neat endings. In that way, ending the book with the future hanging in the balance seemed more real to the situation. But for a personal ending, writing is perfect; a natural ending that could have worked beautifully.

Can you talk about your love for Nancy Drew (and how do you feel about Nancy now?) and Wonder Woman and how those icons helped you survive?
Could my life have been more different than Nancy’s? Here was this girl with her own car, an allowance, and a square-jawed Protestant father. I admired her clothes, it’s true. And her genteel background. But there was something else. Nancy was always zipping around of her own accord, following clues, and confronting sordid strangers. She had freedom. And in her own quiet way, real spunk. Ironically, Nancy Drew is the sort of girl I might have managed to look like from the outside, but with an outhouse, a string of half-siblings, and my firing as an altar girl, Nancy and I really had little in common. And Wonder Woman! Those cool bullet-repelling bracelets and the way she disposed of Nazis by the dozen, need I say more? She was strong and beautiful.Both of these characters, Nancy and Wonder Woman, provided examples that were otherwise lacking. They were complete fiction and imperfect and while the feminist in me might cringe at the impracticality of their pointy-toed footwear, the truth was that they showed me another way of being; one that was less familiar, but more desirable.

Fashion, as well as humor (the book is very funny and live) figures a lot in the memoir. You admire Nancy Drew for her clothes, you follow a girl who tells you to wear red, etc. It’s striking that in the midst of all the poverty, you find and follow beauty and it offers you a kind of strength and hope. Can you talk about that?

I suppose fashion was beauty to me. I love nature and artwork and poetry as an adult, but as a girl, fashion took the place of those things. I’m not sure how or why I cared about clothes or hair.No one in my family seemed to care. But I did, and it was another bridge to people and ideas that took me outside of my surroundings. And actually, those who know me will laugh because I rarely wear makeup and dressing up to me these days simply means choosing darker jeans, but back then, how things looked was important. French-braiding my hair or whipping together a 1980s-Madonna-tube-skirt were things I could do to make my world nicer. A small thing I could control. I remember debating at one point whether I should become a nun and try to save the world, or a fashion designer who could jazz up nuns’ attire, thereby improving the looks of those who save the world!

Do you think that is was your imagination that allowed you to look at poverty in a different way and manage to eventually transcend it? And do you think poverty is tougher for girls?
Imagination helped. And my sister Stephanie. We imagined together. And what is stronger than sharing your dreams? I cannot give enough credit to my resourceful sister. I still struggle with understanding how to transcend poverty. It seems so obvious, but we know poverty is about much more than a lack of money. Something else is missing. It has lots to do with trading in shame and invisibility for the right to feel worthy. Worthy of existing. Worthy of writing. And so on.This is a struggle for many people, of course, not just those who come from poverty. And I do believe it’s tougher for girls to break out. Not just emotionally, but physically. All too often, girls inherit the physical burden of children and caretaking which makes it easier for them to get trapped in cycles of despair and poverty. That said, boys from disadvantaged backgrounds face huge challenges. Changing a life in any meaningful way is really hard work. For anyone.

What’s next for you?
I’m working on a novel about a Niagara Falls Daredevil. Western New York has a rich history of stunting and feminism. It’s an interesting combination! And as I mentioned earlier, the idea of living dangerously (or at least audibly) versus playing it safe intrigues me. The novel is allowing me to explore what it means to put yourself out there. Literally!

And finally, what question should I be mortified that I didn’t ask?
Your questions are great. They’re so insightful, I feel I should send a check for therapy.