Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Talking with Kathy Louise Patrick of the Pulpwood Queens!

Who is more hilarious than Kathy Louise Patrick, the founder of the Pulpwood Queens and the owner of the only bookstore/hair salon in the world and a great blog? Writers and readers need people like Kathy, whose passion for books and authors is legendary and whose wild sense of humor makes reading a cause of celebration and fun. Thanks for letting me ask you all these questions, Kathy! (And check out the bookshop in the photo! I dare you to tell me you aren't dying to go there!)

Your bio is fabulous: you're a hilariously funny red-headed book selling hair stylist, who looks like she is in her twenties, has a franchise of Hair Salon/Book Stores in all the major cities of the world, runs the largest "meeting and discussing" book club in the universe, and you star on your own television show called "Beauty and the Book" that Oprah has deemed the best thing to watch on her NEW network. How did all this come about?

First all, regarding question #1, all of your statements are fact except the last part. That was a fantasy or what I call "faction", ( fact combined with a mighty wallop of fantasy fiction), of me starring in my own television show that Oprah has deemed the best thing to watch on her NEW network. The way I figure it, if I can visualize something actually happening, perhaps through hard work and determination it will. I mean I have been featured in Time, Newsweek, The Los Angeles Times, The Wall Street Journal, Oprah, and Good Morning America. It seems to be working. Whose with me on this?

No seriously, my book club began with six complete strangers that has now grown to 277 Pulpwood Queen and Timber Guys Chapters nationwide and in ten foreign countries. Again, if you can visualize it, through hard work and determination your dreams can be accomplished. For those who don't believe a word of what I have said, read my book, "The Pulpwood Queens' Tiara Wearing, Book Sharing Guide to Life"! It's all in there and the book is memoir, so you know what that means. It's my memories! Singing "That's my story and I'm sticking to it!"

So tell the truth, do you ever want to change the authors' hairstyles? And do they let you?

Do I ever? I mean any serious author has been holed up in some garret with a comfy, snaggly, snuggily bathrobe for months, perhaps years, my word. Their hair is a mess! Skin care? I don't think so! And talk about getting back to their roots? Someone say, "Color!" Wa la, the magical and artistic hands of Kathy L. Patrick!

Do they let me work my magic! Do they ever! One New Orleans author after her makeover declared after her cut, color and new do, "Good Lord, I look like I could be my own daughter". Her husband later declared that he didn't care how much it cost, she was to road trip to Jefferson for all her future hair care needs. They don't call me "Hairdresser to the Authors" for nothing. See March/April 2000 issue of Oxford American Magazine, feature titled "Hairdresser to the Authors" by Carol Dawson, photographs by Patricia Richards!

Tell me about The Pulpwood Queens Guide to Reading and Writing For a Higher Purpose?

"The Pulpwood Queens' Guide to Reading and Writing for a Higher Purpose' is the working title for my next book. I found myself when I wrote my own story of my reading life. I also found that by reading books amazing connections and insights can be made. Stories can be life-changing. One book in particular changed my life, "Same Kind of Different as Me". I ended up spending a year working with the homeless at a local shelter helping them write their stories. You see reading can change your life for the better, but writing can too! I went into the project thinking how wonderful I was to be helping them but you know what I found out? That their gifts to me far surpassed anything I ever gave to them. I am still in awe of the experience.

But on second thought, I may go against all sound advice and write something I have been dying to tell, my stories with all the authors. Or then again finish that darn novel I have been working on most of my life called "EUREKA!" As always, I have a lot to say and a lot to write!

Your Girlfriend weekends are legendary. You've just celebrated your 10th anniversary, so how are you ever going to outdo yourself for your 11th?

Fire baton twirl! Oh wait, we have done that! Well first of all, I tweak and change up my event each year! Last year we had an author "Moveable Feast" where the authors actually prepared the meal and served it! This year we are doing it again but this time, I am having some of the authors perform a play. Kind of Author/Moveable Feast/Dinner Theatre! It should be a hoot! Can you imagine the surprise of all the dinner guests as Pat Conroy served them Sweet Tea. And authors, Jamie Ford and Ad Hudler obviously had waited some tables before as they carried tray after tray high above their heads. Though Mary Kay Andrews was quite a trooper as she had never waited a table before and about had a Calamity Jane moment as she careened by me with a tray of dishes. Ah, the reader's life, dee-vine!

I am also adding a panel that will be spouses or partners of authors so we can get the real scoop of some of our favorite authors! At the end they will bring up their significant other! And I also had a little birdy tell me that New York Times Bestselling Author, Pat Conroy would be back! That alone will make the event SELL OUT AGAIN! You have been notified so call 903-665-7520 for your V.I.P. Pulpwood Queen or Timber Guy Package TODAY! We accept all major credit cards, checks, and even CASH! Shameless but sincere self-promotion!

I love it that you throw out the rules for chapters of your bookclub. You also do road trips to author events and have even taken groups to Europe. What else do you think many other bookclubs miss--and should be doing--when they set up their clubs?

Think outside of the box! Change up your book club meetings! I try to tailor each author event to a special place. Coming up next, actress, author, Kathy Kinney, (Mimi Bobeck) of Drew Carey Show fame and author, Cindy Ratzlaff are coming to promote their NEW book, "Queen of Your Own Life". I decided to have my Pulpwood Queens host the Queenly event at this fantabulous NEW 50's diner, Glory Dayz. Better yet, weather permitting, it will be outside in their retro wine and beer garden! We will really roll out the leopard and hot pink carpet. I am even making for this event a gigantic PINK Tiara Cake with Texas own Blue Bell ice cream for dessert!

Last time author, Charles Martin was here for "Where the River Ends" I booked a boat to take us down the river. Charles read aloud as we cruised down Big Cypress Bayou! Move over Nicholas Sparks as Charles had us all in the palm of his hand after that event! I passed out the publisher provided promo Kleenixes! I could have booked a fleet of boats if we were to do it again, it was that successful!

It's a little harder to be creative but the pay-off! I started 7 more book clubs in the last two weeks. Now that is in places like Blytheville, Arkansas, Golden, Colorado, Carollton, Georgia, to Anchorage, Alaska! We put the BIG TIME FUN in book club!

I already mentioned my next book projects so my next burning project right now is The Great Pulpwood Queen Purse Release held every spring. I urge all chapters to gather their slightly used handbags and purses and tag them, "FREE TO THE FINDER!" Placed inside each purse is a great read and enclosed the following letter:

To the Finder of this Purse!

You have found a real treasure! First of all, a book to show the true purpose of our Pulpwood Queens and Timber Guys Book Clubs, to promote reading and literacy! Second, a purse with our compliments, as we want the world to know that our book club is all about reading and having Big Time Fun! Please enjoy then pay it forward, pass it on!

Tiara wearing and Book sharing,

The Pulpwood Queens of ?, (whatever their chapter title might be)

Talk about SPRING INTO READING! And we got the idea from a book by Michael Lee West, so all good comes from reading great reads!

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

The Barbara Walters question, you know, the one that makes all her guests cry. "When you die, Kathy, how would you like to be remembered?"

Kathy: "As a good Mother and second, that her life was devoted to following her passions of Beauty and the Book".

I might also add, (if I wasn't going to be cremated and my ashes thrown to the wind on my grandparents, Mudd & Dirt's, old homeplace that we called "Outhome" outside of my hometown of Eureka, Kansas, Greenwood County), that my gravestone be carved "She tried". That pretty much sums it all up for me because I surely did.

And mark your calendar for January 13 - 17, 2011, our 11th Anniversary Girlfriend Weekend. The theme, "Tiara Wearing and Story Sharing", you see it's all about the story!

Saturday, March 27, 2010


Jennifer Gilmore is wonderful. No, no, I mean it. One of the warmest, funniest people on the planet, she's also a jaw-droppingly wonderful novelist. Her first novel, Golden Country was a New York Times Notable Book of 2006, a finalist for the National Jewish Book Award, on the long-list for the International IMPAC Dublin Prize, a finalist for the Harold U Ribalow Prize, and a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book prize. Her new book, Something Red is absolutely destined for even greater fame. I'm thrilled and honored to have Jennifer here answering questions. Thank you so much, Jennifer.

Because politics so affects the family in Something Red, I’m curious about how you see politics changing families today. Do you think that yearning to make a difference, to push change, can ever reach the same level today that it seemed to in the 30s or the late 60s?

I think that what it means to be radical or affect change is reshaped by every generation. Each generation has to define the term--and maybe even the term politics--for itself. I think we started to see it again with the Obama campaign. People were banging on doors and making phone calls and signs, like I hadn't seen in a long time. But it dissipated so quickly. I think that has to do with this incredible dissemination of information. It makes us feel that no matter what we do, it's a mere drop in the bucket. And, more cynically, I think it has to do with corporate culture and the way, frankly, our ideals have changed drastically since those two eras you note. For this generation, the "revolution" is going to have to be through technology, which of course, doesn't really work because a revolution, on any scale, is about people. My characters--in the late seventies--are living in a pre-cell phone, pre-computer age, but they are already dealing with the waning of people's will.

I loved the book trailer you did for Something Red, which melds all kinds of images from the 70s that end up having a whole lot to do with your novel, from the cookbooks to the Rosenbergs. I’m wondering what that was like for a writer, who deals in words, to put together such an arresting video, which deals just with symbols.]

Thank you! I'm so glad you liked it. It's interesting because taking many images and putting them together was fun and actually quite easy in regards to my thought process. There are so many story lines in this novel--and those plots and characters are informed by a lot of the popular culture of the era. So excavating those images was like adding another layer to the book. It's distilling it to one image--the cover, say, or finding a title that leads us to one idea, or one larger theme--that is far more difficult for me.

The novel is told from the points of view of each family member that gives it a prismatic effect, as world and personal politics come to light. But the book is also sparkling with all these wonderful details from the period, with perfect little touches. The pages are so alive they practically breathe. What was our research process like? Was any of this material family stories?

My last book dealt in many of my family's stories. Or I should say family myths. In Something Red, though I did grow up just outside of DC, the stories were less familial. Many of the details--the house, for example, resembles my house. The attic room is the same room I blew smoke out of all through high school. And I am chagrined to report my father did do yoga, often without clothes, in the basement. It was more, though, that feeling of being so close to the very mechanism of our government--my sister and I had friends who were the sons and daughters of senators and lobbyists--so close we could get a private tour of the oval office, and yet, be as far removed from anyone else.

And to be honest, '79 was a little before my time, at least my teenage years were a little later! I wrote myself into a lot of research. Who knew I needed to figure out so much about the Cold War and immigration laws, and the Rosenbergs? I read a lot about social movements in this country because, in the end, the subtle nuances between communism and socialism and who denounced Stalin first and who was a Trotskyite, I needed to understand that a lot better and a lot more completely. And I needed to make sure the music was right for the era, the clothes, what people ate (there is a ton about food in this book) and even the way they talked to one another. Just because, say, a law changes in '79, doesn't mean people are instantly referencing it as such. I wanted to get those details absolutely correct. I have this theory now that every novel is historical. The present is just so instantly the past, especially due to the swiftness of technology. These issues of how people really talk to one another, what's in the culture, is an issue that every novelist, even one writing about right this moment, has to grapple with.

Your first novel Golden Country was about the American dream and the immigrant experience, and in a sense, Something Red is about another kind of American Dream—one of equality and politics. Yet both of these dreams don’t quite work out the way the characters wish them to. What do you think this says about the kind of dreams we forge for ourselves and our families, and the times we live in?

Well, I have always been profoundly interested in failure. But Something Red is absolutely the psychic and physical spoils of that dream the characters in Golden Country worked so hard for. But with each generation, what we want changes. The immigrants who came over needed basic stuff--and success was measured in very concrete terms. And in the sixties, women's rights and civil rights could in a sense be measured, however slowly, by physical change. African Americans were no longer sitting at the back of the bus. Women were actually in the work place. Those dreams of equality, or at least some degree of its physical manifestation, were realized. But it gets more complicated--success--the longer we've been in this country. After all, there are other kinds of dreams.

And who measures success is also complicated. I think as our dreams--and with dreams I might in this case say passions and desires--get more individualized, they get harder to mark and so harder to see realized. If you want to make a million dollars, say, you know when you've made a million dollars. (So I hear anyway...) But if you want to be a successful artist, or a great parent, how do we measure that for ourselves? Often we look outward for that validation and to the culture, which as we know, changes terribly quickly. It's an impossible premise. Which of course is where self-help comes in, and all that stuff that deals with the self and not the family or a collective group of people. When there is so much freedom--which is of course what we seek, what previous generations have worked very hard for, and what these characters are looking for in terms of the women's movement, and music, and labor unions--the choices become very complicated because there are so many of them. Which is around about way of saying, while the issue of say, gay marriage is a dream we could see happen in this country, it's gotten more and more difficult for our individuated dreams to come true.

You began as a publicity director for Harcourt. What’s it like being on the other side now, as a novelist promoting another novel? What do you know now as an author that would have been helpful for you to know as a publicity director?

I know publishing now more as an author with occasional peaks inside those elite offices than as an industry insider. It was difficult publishing a novel the first time around, while still working behind the scenes, knowing all that has to happen to make a book a success, and to still make the leap as an author. I knew the pitfalls of fiction, which are laughable when I remember how we used to bemoan the way fiction doesn’t sell; those numbers have dropped significantly. I don't mean to sound disingenuous when I say, I think it would be helpful to know as little possible about publishing as an author. It's certainly the case during the writing process. And while it's useful to be able to say to your publicist, be sure to send my book to this person or that person, and will I be doing this or that event, it's not really helpful to your psyche during the publication process. Know too much or know too little; in this day and age where everything with books, down to what text actually is and what is its value and how will be delivered to consumers, is up in the air, I vote to know as little as possible.

What’s obsessing you now in your work?

What's obsessing me in my work is everything I'm not doing. I'm fried. I teach full time and life with its powers of cruel distraction has overtaken my writing these days. Without sounding too earnest, I will say I think I am much sadder person when I'm not really working. I don't think writers sort their shit out in their work--wouldn't writers be a happier lot if they did?--but just knowing that there's a reason you've chosen to be sitting there, often staring into space, while the whole world seems to be in motion around you, that makes sense when you're working on a sustained project. Without that feeling, I'm spinning. Soon. I hope to be sitting there staring into space very soon.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Leavitt Loves Paper Rats!

As anyone who follows me on Facebook and Twitter knows, I've fallen in love with Paper Rats videos. They're hilarious, smart, very knowing videos about the writing experience, so of course I had to track down the people responsible and hurl questions at them. And who are these brilliant folk?

R.J. Keller (she's the black and white photo!) is a writer from Central Maine, where she lives happily with her husband, two kids, and the family cat. She is the author of the independently published novel, Waiting For Spring and a member of Backword Books.

In addition to writing angsty novels, she enjoys rooting for the Boston Red Sox, watching other people cook, and making writerly-fun videos with fellow Backword author, Kristen Tsetsi.

Kristen Tsetsi (she's the color photo!) is a former reporter, former cab driver, award-winning fiction writer, and a former adjunct English professor and writing instructor. She is also a founding member of Backword Books and one of the two creators (with R.J. Keller) of the YouTube series "Inside the Writers' Studio." She is married to the man she wooed in high school by slipping secret admirer notes into his locker.

So tell me what the title paper rats means?

KRISTEN: When we started talking seriously about making these videos, we wanted to have both a series title and a production company, of sorts. Because we're writers, "Paper Rats" - which is a user name I created to log into a different website years ago - just seemed like a natural and fitting choice. It's easy to picture a couple of writers (or, alternatively and more fun, rats) working their way through crumpled up balls of paper.

KEL: Also, we both like cheese.

Where did the ideas for making these brilliantly hilarious videos come about?

KEL: Some of the ideas come from personal experience. Some are just riffs on writer stereotypes.

KRISTEN: For our latest episode, "Writing, Time Management, and You," we asked facebook fans of "Paper Rats" to tell us what they'd like to see turned into an episode. One of the page's fans wanted to know how to balance life and writing. I don't think our video answered her question, but it ended up being a fun topic to turn into an episode.

How do you two know each other, and do you trade pages, offer advice, etc. to each other when you're working? (Or not working)

KRISTEN: We met as members of the indie-author collective Backword Books. And we've traded a few pages here and there. I recently sent Kel a passage from the novel I'm working on with the question, "Does this make any sense at all?"

KEL: And I recently sent a passage to Kristen with the question, "Why does this suck so much????" Thankfully, she's very honest and told me.

Who shoots the videos? What's the writing process like--and is it an excuse for not writing or does it sort of shame you into writing?

KRISTEN: We both shoot our own portions of the videos. Sometimes my husband will help me, but because I'm still looking for a job, I'm often home alone and will use this great little Joby tripod he got me for Christmas from

KEL: I enlist my kids' help in filming. My daughter is an excellent tripod - I mean camera operator - and my son frequently acts as director...the little tyrant.

KRISTEN: About the writing process, we go back and forth with ideas. It's a lot of, "What if we say this?" and "Ooh, how about if after this scene, one of us does something like that?" But the editing is mostly Kel. She just knows how to put together scenes.

KEL: But Kristen has an excellent eye for small details. There are times when I'll send her a section and say, "This just isn't working." And she'll write back with about seven ways to improve it within a few minutes.

KRISTEN: For me, it's an excuse. It doesn't shame me at all. As long as I'm producing something creative that people are enjoying, I feel okay. When I really need to write, I believe (hope?) I will.

KEL: Making the videos doesn't interfere with my writing. Rather, it's an excellent excuse to not do housework. "But...I need to keep those dirty dishes on the counter just one more day. It's for the video!" Then later it's, "I'll fold that laundry tomorrow. I'm busy writing tonight."

What writing projects are each of you working on now?

KRISTEN: I'm working on a second novel that's currently between titles. It's about a man who decides he must make changes in his life, but the changes he wants to make involve other people and their lives, and what he wants causes some pretty powerful upheavals in the lives of those other people.

KEL: The novel I'm currently working on - called "The Wendy House" - follows an alcoholic, deadbeat dad during the course of one day as he prepares to kill the man who murdered his daughter, all while having hallucinatory conversations with his long-dead wife.

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

Caroline - if it's all right, may we answer a question about the books we currently have out? If so...

Called "affecting" by Huffington Post writer Carol Hoenig and praised by Emmy award-winning former news correspondent James C. Moore, Kristen Tsetsi's semi-biographical novel,Homefront, allows readers an uncommonly honest and intimate look inside the surreal, sometimes humorous, and often frustrating experience of waiting through a deployment. A vivid cast of characters, including a cab-driving former professor and a charming but acerbic Vietnam veteran, brings this experience to life for the reader with - at times, very uncomfortable - rawness.

R. J. Keller's "Waiting For Spring": Angst, sex, love, and redemption in the boonies of Maine. Waiting For Spring takes readers beyond the Maine tourists know, beyond lighthouses and lobster and rocky beaches, and drops them instead into a rural town whose citizens struggle with poverty and loss, yet push onward with stubbornness and humor.

Thank you so much for the interview, R. J. and Kristen. And guess what? I myself might actually be in one of the videos? ;)

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Writing and time management

My friend, the writer Chris Meeks sent me this hilarious YouTube video that I love with a passion. I dare you to watch it and not feel someone has been tracking you with a hidden camera. And wait, they just posted a new one on reviews.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Deborah Grabien on "what happens next?"

Deborah Grabien, fabulous author of Dark's Tale and the fabulous Kinkaid mysteries, is perhaps one of the coolest, funniest people I know. Okay, no perhaps about it. So, of course, I wanted her to write a guest post for my blog, and she produced this great one. Thank you so much, Deborah.

...then what happened...?

Once upon a time...

All good stories supposedly start that way, right? Draw the kids around the campfire, melting marshmallows forgotten and dripping off the end of the stick as they listen, wide-eyed and breathless, to the storyteller, the holder of mysteries, the keeper and sharer of secrets, the only one who knows the ending: then what happened?

A few years ago, the author of (at the time) seven published novels, I found myself in an odd position: as both the storyteller and the kid. There was a hell of a story in there: rock and roll, an older married musical genius with addictions beyond my ability to help and a disease that would kill him too young, a love that went wrong or maybe never existed beyond my own heart. That was my history in there, a few years that had had so shattering and defining an effect on me that I locked it away in my soul, and refused to look at it for thirty years.

...then what happened...?

No clue. I didn't really know what had happened, and I didn't want to look. Any time his name was mentioned, I drew back like a turtle rapped on the nose. It hurt. But I was just turning fifty - well hello there, midlife crisis!

It was obvious to friends and family that the time had come for me to deal with it. I'm a storyteller, bred in the bone; books, drabbles, song lyrics, essays. What better way to deal than to write about it?

Immediate knee-jerk response: NO.

My old friend Marlene pointed out that I could fictionalize it: "You write novels! You lie for a living! Write about it. Write about you. Write about him. You need to do this!"

No. Nonononono. NO!

But of course, the brew - midlife, memory coming back out of the cracks, beginning to bump into old friends from that time, the need to see who I'd been and why I'd become who I am - was too strong. I took a deep breath, braced myself, and prepared to rip away a long hard scar across my heart, and possibly drown in the blood of my own buried memories.

The result was JP Kinkaid, his longtime younger lover and caregiver Bree Godwin, and the band Blacklight. The Kinkaid Chronicles was christened in blood and tears. I don't know that I've ever written or done anything that took more courage or required more emotional risk. These are the books of my heart, and I'm now halfway through the seventh.

Looking at my locked-down Livejournal blog, I find the first entry about the Kinkaid Chronicles at 6:55 pm my time on 18 May, 2005. I was about to begin the first book and I was asking for work in progress readers. I got 51 responses in under six minutes. My email and blog went ballistic. The second entry is not quite two hours later that same day: I'd sent the first four thousand words to my wip-list.

Two hours. Blood, much? Hell yes. But wait, there's more.

On 18 June, exactly one month later, the book was done. 93,000 words. I'd lost weight, lost my temper, and found my own history. I was as raw as Hypatia: no place to hide, scraped clean to the bone. Every one of those 93,000 words had cost me blood, air, and safety.

When St. Martin's Press bought it, they wanted virtually no changes: the occasional typo, the occasional overuse of a word or phrase, because the series is narrated by the man himself, in the voice I remembered, the voice that hurt, that I'd lost along with my younger self. And dear gods, I'd lost scar tissue. So much in there, so rich, so painful, failures and powers and moments of pure love that I could look at now, feel the burn, feel the pleasure, feel young Deb back where she belonged: sharing the world with the woman I am now. Because, you know, one doesn't exist without the other.

As a writer, I'm in service to my story. This is my job, my duty, my responsibility. It's the covenant I've made with myself. This is the price of storytelling: I give blood when the story needs it.

JP Kinkaid has evolved into his own character, rather than simply the avatar for his inspiration. He's retained the original voice, but it's become his own. And Bree, very much a younger me, has grown out of some of her obsessive behaviours and into JP's partner, not just his younger caregiver and buffer. They've become individual and distinct as people, and when I summon them up in my mind's eye, I don't see myself at Bree's age, or my lost love as JP is the books. I see unique individuals.

That's also the price of storytelling: you have to let the story run, whatever form your story takes. Sometimes, you aren't going to want to see what your characters evolve into, or how they change. You lose control that way. But if you don't - if you try forcing living breathing characters into a niche of your choosing - your work will almost certainly have no soul. It may be technically perfect, but it will have no heart, no passion or power. There will be no kids around the campfire, with or without marshmallows, wanting to know what happens next. They simply won't care.

It's not just about fiction, either. You tell stories in song? Same thing. You can't fake it, you can't force it, you can't rely on just technique. It has to breathe, to fell, to tell. And that means that, sometimes, you have to bleed for it. That's the price of making it real: giving your art heart means you have to share some of your own.

Scary notion, I know. Believe me, I know. The Kinkaids continue to surprise me, to open old wounds and force me to mine them for truths and understanding. It isn't easy, ever. JP Kinkaid himself refers to those unexplored moments in their history together as "landmines." He's right.

But there's a payoff, even beyond the Zen that comes from knowing you've looked beneath your own barbed-wire walls. There are those kids, sitting around the fire. They're there because you made something real from your own pool of pain and history and love and longing.

And every last one of them wants to know what happens next.

--Deborah Grabien

Friday, March 12, 2010

Guest post from Susanne Dunlap

Who doesn't love the story of Anastasia? Susanne Dunlap, the author of Anastasia's Secret (which has its own blog, by the way) is a fabulous adult novelist, but she's used her alchemy to transform an enduring story into a Young Adult novel. I asked her if she'd write a guest blog for me about that, and she very graciously agreed. Thank you, Susanne.

When I read a really good book, something strange happens to me. I am no longer the 50-something adult who has been through a rather hard and hectic life, but I become a thirteen (or fourteen, or fifteen)-year-old, curled up in the big wing chair in our family living room, terrifying myself with Bram Stoker’s Dracula, or weeping over T.H. White’s The Once and Future King. Some books take me to my childhood room, where I’d stay in bed until noon or later on Saturday morning, not sleeping, but reading James Michener, or Mary Stewart, or Alistair MacLean. Reading was always the most magical escape for me. I consumed books as though I needed them to breathe.

I continued to read as an adult, discovering Virginia Woolf, The Brontes, Jane Austen, Henry James and other favorites I return to again and again. So I suppose it shouldn’t have surprised me that, after many twists and turns in other career directions, I would eventually write. Not surprising as well is that I should first find my voice in historical fiction for adults—with a foundation in the research I did while I was in graduate school for music history.

But something else happened in the process of writing: I couldn’t help reaching back to my teenage years to recapture the magic I felt in reading. Reading—and writing—equal on the one hand escape from dealing with the difficult things in life, whether they’re to do with growing up or growing old. On the other, they equal a feeling of belonging, of connecting on a deep level, when I experience similar travails and traumas through the eyes of a fictional character. So in my adult fiction I kept finding myself dealing with young female heroines at turning points in their lives, emotional cruxes that to me seem the most interesting of all moments. Before I even knew it, I was sort of writing for young adults.

Here I must give some credit to my wonderful agent. He’s the one who pointed out that tendency in my adult books, and that I should consider consciously writing for that audience. In some ways it was the tiniest shift of focus: I never wrote explicit sex or used foul language in my books anyway, and they’re linear narratives, not experimental or anything esoteric (a good story is what I always aim for). But the transition also pushed me farther than I’d ever been able to go in my writing before. By writing for the teen inside me, I was able to take the next step in my craft. Instead of just a nod to the angst-filled young reader I was, I had to climb back inside my own head and face the demons there. I had to become myself as a teen again if I had any hope of connecting with readers who are currently experiencing the frightening changes and world-expanding growth of adolescence and young adulthood.

So how did I do it? The most obvious way was that I took my distanced, multiple-third-person voice and wrote in the first person, as my 15-year-old main character. Don’t for a second underestimate how difficult that was for someone accustomed to escaping into her imagination. I couldn’t escape from myself. I had to reach down and try to pull up all those painful memories and try to get them onto the page in the form of genuine emotional engagement.

OK, so, maybe I wasn’t all that brave. I’ve yet to write anything about a suburban teenager with an alcoholic and drug-addicted mother and an emotionally distant father. I still place my novels back in time and far away in place.The Musician’s Daughter is set in late 18th-century Vienna, involving Haydn’s orchestra and the imperial household.Anastasia’s Secret concerns the tragic story of the youngest grand duchess of Russia during World War I and the Russian Revolution. My next book takes place in Turkey and the Crimea during the Crimean War. That said, through them I have taken huge steps in what I now see is the right direction for me. In connecting with myself, not pulling any punches or treating young readers as if they are incapable of deep understanding and subtlety, I am finding my true voice as a writer.

That annoying adage, preached to aspiring authors by almost every teacher, “write what you know”, is very, very misleading. Do I know about what I write about? Yes, because I do the research, and because I am a human being, a female creature who has made it through the ups and downs of a rich life. But much more than that, I write what I love, what I want to read, what I wanted to read when I was in my teens and early twenties.

Frankly, I’m delighted to admit that I’ve regressed. I feel as if I am the youngest grandmother in the world, with the heart and soul of a sixteen-year-old. And I’m the luckiest one too. I get to go back and find myself, work out the things that seemed impossible then and resolve them, every time I put words on a blank page. I hope, too, that adults read my teen books and discover a little of that for themselves. I’ve become rather addicted to young-adult literature in general. At its best, the raw emotion, the sincerity and bravery, touch me deeply. It’s often smart, witty, hopeful and helpful. If I were a teen today, I’d have many more choices of reading material that would appeal to me than I had then, when I mostly read adult books.

And this vampire thing? It’s nothing new. I started this post with the vivid recollection I still have of feeling the back of my neck tingle and my skin crawl reading Bram Stoker’s Dracula. I’ll never add to the growing catalogue of vampire novels, but I don’t begrudge the success of those who have. If I can send a teen to another world, a safer place from which to experience danger and thrills, where life’s difficulties are surmounted and love triumphs, then I’ll know I have done something worthwhile.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Dressing the part

As a writer, I tend to live in jeans, sneakers, t-shirts, and vintage beaded sweaters. I do own some nice things, mostly from years ago when I had to dress coherently for my job as a writer for a video club (Bruce is back and better than ever in this high-octane thriller!) but I tend to save those for weddings or parties or....readings.

I'm thrilled that I'm going to be at BEA signing books for Pictures of You and that I will also be giving a talk, but that means....I need something to wear. I have to look like a writer, whatever that means, but I also have to feel comfortable and confidant, and I want to have some sense of my own style in there, too.

So off I trundled to Saks but every dress I looked at was $350-$500 and I stared at one price tag so long, the saleswoman came over and assured me that that particular dress (the $500 one) would last forever and always be in style and I could be 98-years-old and still look cool. I roamed the city, into Anthropologie where everything was too tight or too big or too expensive, then roamed to Eileen Fisher, where everything looked like a potato sack on me (unless it was too tight or too expensive) and then found my way to Macy's where I found a DKNY fitted little black and white dress on uber-sale for $65.

But the thing that got me is as I was paying for it, the saleswoman stared at me and barked, "Where are you going to wear this dress?" I was so startled (did it matter? Would she not sell me the dress if I said I was going to wear it to load the dishwasher?) that I said well, I was speaking at this event. My voice was trailing off and then she peered at me again, as if she were deciding something. She gave me a big smile and said, "You're a writer. I can always tell."

How thrilling! It made me wonder, is there a way writers look? Are we recognizable by our ink stains or our intense expressions or the way an everyday thing like buying a dress becomes a story?

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Read this book: Diamond Ruby

Joe Wallace is one of the literati twitterati I hang out with on twitter. He's funny, smart, and his first novel Diamond Ruby is a grand slam, featuring a feisty heroine with a pitching arm that could rival Babe Ruth's. Of course I wanted Joe to answer questions here. (Thanks, Joe!) And if you scroll down, you can see me wearing the way-cool Diamond Ruby baseball cap Joe is using in his book promotions.

Diamond Ruby is filled with thrilling historical cameos, from Babe Ruth to Jack Dempsey. What kind of research did you do for the book and what was the process like for you?

I loved researching Diamond Ruby! In the microform room of the New York Public Library, I paged through half a dozen newspapers covering every day of the spring, summer, and fall of 1923, when most of the novel takes place. It was fascinating seeing history (the opening of the Coney Island Boardwalk, the death of President Harding, gun battles between rum-runners and Prohibition agents, all the day-to-day tumult of life in the big city) covered from so many different angles. It made those times seem three-dimensional to me, as if I were living inside them.

The decision to include real-life characters like Babe Ruth and Jack Dempsey was not an easy one. I tend to be wary of books that get inside the heads of real people, so I chose not to. Babe Ruth especially strides across this novel with all the self-assurance he had in real life, but he’s always seen through Ruby’s eyes. She stands in for us, seeing him as we would if we’d been lucky enough to be in his presence.

Ruby is based on real life Jackie Mitchell, the girl who struck out Babe Ruth and was banned from baseball. What interested me was that I had never heard about this. Is this because I somehow missed it, or is it because people wanted a story like this buried? And what happened to the real life Ruby?

Before I found a photograph of Jackie Mitchell at the Baseball Hall of Fame, I’d never heard her story either. It’s not completely lost: There have been a couple of picture books about her, and you can find brief biographies easily on the Internet. I think the story is little known, though, because Jackie’s career came to such a quick end when she was banned from baseball by Commissioner Landis. Jackie was just a teenager when it happened, and never got the chance to have a real career, one with an arc that might have made her truly famous.

I don’t know much about what happened to Jackie after she was banned. I purposely didn’t look too deeply because, after all, my Diamond Ruby Thomas shares very little with her inspiration other than a strong throwing arm. I did read that Jackie later barnstormed with an independent (men’s) baseball team, before quitting because she felt humiliated by the way she was displayed as a kind of sideshow attraction. Her treatment is still a scandal and a shame.

Diamond Ruby is your first work of fiction—what surprised you about writing fiction as opposed to non-fiction?

What surprised me about writing fiction is how emotional the experience is. I’ve loved writing nonfiction, especially meeting fascinating people and getting to tell their stories. But Ruby and the other characters became real to me too, and so it became incredibly important that I succeed in communicating my views of them to readers. I felt I would be letting the characters down if I didn’t succeed in portraying them as I imagined them.

What I loved about the book was that it had this rich, A Tree Grows in Brooklynfeel, coupled with some John Irving like moments. Who do you feel your literary influences are?

It is, of course, an incredible honor to be compared to A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (one of the best of all American novels, I think) and John Irving’s extravagantly imaginative books. My literary tastes have always been all over the place, ranging from mysteries and thrillers to an ongoing devotion to Latin American novelists and other writers who experiment with form and structure. Recent favorites include Haruki Murakami’s boggling A Wild Sheep Chase and David Mitchell’s equally ambitious Cloud Atlas.

But the strongest influences on Diamond Ruby have been novels featuring tough, strong young female protagonists. I still remember loving Joan Aiken’s young-adult novels of my childhood (Nightbirds on Nantucket et al) featuring a plucky young heroine named Dido Twite. More recently, Laura Lippman’s superb What the Dead Know and Kate Atkinson’s Case Historiesand When Will There Be Good News? also helped point the way to Ruby Thomas.

It may be hard to see at first, but the late Dick Francis’s mysteries were also a huge influence on me. Yes, Francis’s protagonists were 1) male; 2) adult and 3) fascinated by horses, none of which exactly call to mind a teenage girl trying to survive in 1920s New York. Look a little deeper, though, and you’ll see all the characteristics my young heroine shares with Francis’s heroes: They never stop thinking, never admit defeat. People underestimate Francis’s heroes—and my Ruby—at their peril.

What are you working on now and how is it obsessing you?

I’m currently midway through the first draft of my follow-up to Diamond Ruby, tentatively titled Ruby in Paradise. (And, yes, I’m obsessed!) It’s set in Hollywood in 1926, three years after Diamond Ruby. The leap forward in time poses me a series of challenges: Ruby is a young woman now. She’s away from her home turf of Brooklyn. She’s in a town that prizes physical appearance above all. Her family is fracturing. How will she react? Will she be as strong and resourceful facing threats to herself and her loved ones as she was back home?

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

I’m not sure, but I did want to say something about the revolutionary effect that social media—Twitter, facebook, blogs—have had on my career. I spent more than twenty years as a lone wolf, venturing out only to do research or interview experts for some book I was writing. Now, because of the online world, I’m part of a sprawling, supportive community of writers and readers. It’s a golden feeling.

Monday, March 1, 2010

On screenplays and novels

I'm in the middle of revising a script for a producer, writing a new novel, and anxiously awaiting publication of my novel Pictures of You. It's a juggling act, but one I really love. I mean, really, what's better than doing something you love?

But writing a script is so different from the novel that I'm having trouble with the story. A script is like a racing horse headed for the finish line. Everything has to push that horse along. You can't dally with backstory the way you might with a novel, you can't get into too many points of view. I spent all morning reading the script for The Savages, which was so good, it took my breath away (Tamara Jenkins also was interested a while ago in making my novel Into Thin Air into a film. Sigh. I wish she had.) But I took the script apart, watched the beats, nursed my flu, stopped to make soup, and came back to work. I switched from the script back to the novel, then tried to make some lists for pre-pub publicity, then back to the script.

Some days, you feel just like a polygamist.