Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Rebecca Rasmussen talks about The Bird Sisters and Writing at Starbucks

One of my favorite novels of the year has got to be The Bird Sisters. About the fierce bonds of sisterhood and the pull of the past, it's as poetic as it is page-turning. I was delighted that I got to meet the amazing Rebecca Rasmussen at AWP this year. Smart, funny, with a heart the size of Jupiter-that's Rebecca. The Bird Sisters is forthcoming from Crown/Random House in April 2011. Her stories have appeared in TriQuarterly, The Mid-American Review, and elsewhere. She received her MFA in fiction from the Program for Poets & Writers at the University of Massachusetts. She lives in St. Louis with her husband and daughter and teaches at Fontbonne University.

I asked Rebecca is she'd write something for the blog (I love her writing, and The Bird Sisters just knocked me out.) Thank you, Rebecca!

Why I Write at Starbucks

By Rebecca Rasmussen

I always think I need a desk. My husband and I have lived in more apartments than we can count, from the East Coast to the West Coast to our current apartment in St. Louis, and in each one of these I find a nook—a closet, an attic, an entranceway—to make my own.

My latest nook is not nearly as nice as the others have been. It is an enclosed porch at the back of the apartment. The space is three feet by five feet, the floor is scratched white vinyl, and the walls are red brick, but not in the chic-exposed-brick way, in the man-this-brick-is-ugly way. The ceiling? Dark brown bead board that drips varnish onto my shoulders when St. Louis gets particularly humid. So, say, four months out of the year. There is a nice little spider that lives with me, though. She spins achingly delicate little webs in the corner I’ve given over to her. I call her Fern.

My nook gets unbearably hot in the summer and cold in the winter because it lacks even the slightest layer of pink fiberglass insulation. Either I can see my breath or I can see the sweat ringing its way down my T-shirts. I have a cute bamboo leaning desk from Crate and Barrel that I told my husband I had to buy.

“I’m a writer,” I said. “Writers need desks.”

I have collected a gathering of African Violets and Jades and a plant my daughter grew from a sprouted grapefruit seed she and her father found at breakfast one morning. (We’re all waiting for it to yield grapefruits—each for our own reasons.) I put up gauzy blue curtains to cover the urban sprawl that is our backyard—that sinister field of buzzing transformers that predicts the weather better than any person could or does. When the wires are singing, it’s best not to go outside. Lightning is coming. I put up pictures of birds, from North America, New Guinea, Australia. I mounted my old-fashioned barometer that always says, “Clear skies. Have a nice day.”

I should have been ready to work. And yet, this office, like every other office I have attempted to covert and occupy over the years, goes unused by me, even if the temperature is just right and the transformers are quiet and the light is warm and lovely.


“I’m writing,” I say to myself at home, which means I should be writing, but instead I’m looking for inspiration in the refrigerator, in the cabinets, in the stubborn wrinkles in my daughter’s dresses. I’ll iron before I write at home. I’ll ponder the vacuum. I’ll think Bach or Yo-Yo Ma will solve this distractedness. Then a cup of tea. Yes, nice green tea. Tea cookies? Do spiders get hungry for something sweeter than gnats or flies? Maybe I should Google that. Maybe I should Google the oil spill in the Gulf and watch the robots trying to patch together the future miles beneath the surface of the sea. Maybe it’s all utterly hopeless and I should just take a nap and hope I dream about ice cream cones and spun sugar. Because in a few hours I have to teach the mildly evil literature class and then pick up my daughter from pre-school and then make dinner and then go back to campus and teach the really evil literature class for four and a half hours. Yes, sleep. It’s all so daunting.

I am a mess at home.

All of my artistic friends can’t believe this truth: that I write my novels at Starbucks.

“Couldn’t you at least pick somewhere a little more artsy?” they say. “The Bird Sisters? At an environmentally irresponsible corporation that panders to the crowd mentality? They don’t even recycle? Don’t tell me you use Splenda, too?”

“I recycle my cups at home,” I say meekly. “I just bought a reusable one.”

“It’s just so blah there,” they say.

What they don’t know is that I write at Starbucks precisely because of its blahdom, because I can sit for hours without anyone bothering me, because the walls are always the same color and the straws are always green, because I hear the same music every day—Sinatra, Sinatra, Sinatra, oh wait, is that Streisand sneaking in there, too?—because even the coffee is anonymous and predictable, and there is something comforting about that.

(I’m here now—writing this.)

The outer me makes way for the inner me here in this short-backed chair. I can sit still here. I can think of all things old here, all the things I really love:

yellowed letters, polished sideboards, hope chests and intricate lacework, promises kept and broken, rolling hills and winding rivers. Sentences that glint like the sun in the puddle-ruts of red dirt roads. I can think of Wisconsin and Minnesota, of girlhood, of forest and farm country, of home.

I am more me here than anywhere else.

What I have to do—teach, cook, mother, worry—falls away and I hear the worries of my characters, their hopes, their dreams, and their startling disappointments.

Although there are no birds here, only here can I hear them trilling.

Julianna Baggott talks about The Provence Cure for the Brokenhearted

Let's start with the facts: Julianna Baggott is the author of seventeen books, most recently THE PROVENCE CURE FOR THE BROKENHEARTED under her pen name Bridget Asher, as well as THE PRETEND WIFE and MY HUSBAND’S SWEETHEARTS. She’s the bestselling author of GIRL TALK, three collections of poetry, and, as N.E. Bode, THE ANYBODIES TRILOGY for younger readers. Her essays have appeared widely in such publications as The New York Times Modern Love column, Washington Post, NPR.org, and Real Simple. You can visit her blog, too. But Julianna is also one of the warmest writers you'd ever want to meet (and that's a fact, too), and I'm thrilled to have her here.

he Provence Cure for the Brokenhearted is a novel about the curative powers of place. Do you consider yourself a writer who focuses on place? How does place figure into this novel and your work, in general?

When I read one of the first reviews of the novel -- from Kirkus -- I was struck by the phrase "unabashedly romantic." It seemed like a suitable commentary on the differences between American and French culture. Americans are, generally speaking, "bashedly" romantic; and the French are insistently romantic. The first sentence that came to me in writing this novel was "Grief is a love story told backwards." I wanted to tell an unabashedly romantic novel about that grief, about a woman finding herself again, returning to her senses.

One of the most important things about living somewhere foreign to you is that you can't take for granted what you're seeing, hearing, tasting. It's how we should always live -- no matter where we are -- fully awake to the world around us. But sometimes we shut down to that world. I wanted to describe a character opening up to it. France has always held a certain power over me. I started learning the language at ten when my father was considering a transfer to Geneva. My French is bawdy -- I learned most of it in Parisian bars when in my early twenties -- and I love the language and the food and their unabashedly romantic natures.

You write novels for adults, younger readers, collections of poetry, essays, under your own name as well as two pen names. Talk to us about genre-hopping and writing for different audiences.

Every genre has its burdens, and each demands all of my imaginative efforts. When you write a character over the course of a novel, you are engaging, deeply, in the practice of empathy. Whatever genre and for whatever audience, I have to get that right. I have to be willing to fall into the experience of someone else. At different times in my creative process, I want to submerge myself in that experience for a long time -- as in the making of a novel. Sometimes I need to shift that gaze onto my own life and figure out something about myself or my own experience in the world, as in the making of an essay. Sometimes I want the pressure of white bearing down on the words -- as in poetry and screenplays. The lessons do transfer, but not fluidly. However, being rigorous in each genre benefits the others -- like cross-training. It also allows me a little time away from one project or genre-based way of thinking, which I find liberating. The time away allows me to return with a newly revved appetite.

As for audience, I'm always trying to narrow my audience to one other person -- as if whispering my story urgently into their ear. The better I am at knowing that other person, the easier it is to find the right words. I don't think of audience in general -- readership; that's too overwhelming. Sometimes that person I choose is my sixteen year old daughter -- as in the making of my upcoming post-apocalyptic, dystopic novel PURE or myself as a child as in THE ANYBODIES or another writer like Steve Almond and his character John, as in WHICH BRINGS ME TO YOU, which Steve and I co-wrote. And THE PROVENCE CURE FOR THE BROKENHEARTED was born as a love letter perhaps to place, to an experience, to this village and what it brought to me and my family.

Still, I have my obsessions that follow me into every book. For one, I'm compelled to write about the various hoods of women -- motherhood, sisterhood, daughterhood. That sneaks into everything I do.

This looks to be a foodie novel. Did you eat your way through the research?

Yep! Best research experience of my life. Period.

It was an insane idea -- taking four young kids, plus a niece, to France for the summer. I don't know how to explain it except that I felt if we didn't do it, we never would. I was compelled. We did it all on a shoestring budget. We rented a tiny ancient house in the tiny village of Puyloubier for cheap. We ate from local roadside fruit and vegetable stands. We lived on inexpensive local cheeses and, surrounded by vineyards, excellent inexpensive wines. And my husband and I did save up for a few splurges. Our most amazing meals were from invitations to eat with the people who lived in town. I write about these meals with such passion that my editor and I decided it was too vicious not to include a few recipes in the back of the novel. (Check out that Provencal chicken in cream sauce -- so easy and divine!)

You teach creative writing. How do teaching the craft and practicing the craft interact with each other?

I try to open up my head and let my students see my creative process. I teach the importance of musing and being alone and quiet. I talk about the importance of writing while not writing -- in other words how important it is to engage with the world, moment to moment, so that when you get to the page, you've got something real to put down on it. I harp on the importance of memories -- which have already been edited by forgetfulness, leaving behind stains that are already tested for their psychological resonance. I preach a lot about dedication to craft, about the importance of pouring hours into your work, and reading like a writer. The fact that I'm saying all of his aloud reminds me to apply the lessons to myself, which can be crucial.

What are you at work on now?

Having just mentioned the importance of musing, I'm in the early stages of creating the next Bridget Asher novel. I have a feeling it's going to draw on my current life in very specific ways. Many ideas are rumbling around in my head, like distant thunder. I'm also at work on the sequel to PURE, the first in a dystopic trilogy that will be published next February, and dabbling in a few essays, a poem here and there. Juggling.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Jill Bialosky Talks about History of a Suicide

Jill Bialosky is a beloved editor and an incredible writer (the best of two worlds, no?) and her new memoir, History of a Suicide, is stunningly great. Entertainment Weekly raves, "Bialosky writes so gracefully and bravely that what you're left with in the end is an overwhelming sense of love, Time calls the book, "a source of solace and understanding." I'm honored to have Jill here.

You’ve published a few books of poetry and two novels. You’re also a celebrated editor a Norton. What’s it like being on the other side of the publishing fence. And what was it like to write a memoir, especially on something that was so painful?

I love the act of writing. It is the way in which I explore issues and ideas that are relevant to my life and I hope to the lives of my readers. I like the private, interior world of creating. And I have to say I also like the escape from it. Writing by its very nature is an obsessive occupation and it is important, at least for me, to be able to leave the work at a certain point and engage in the everyday world I associate with my vocation as an editor. When I publish a new book, I am like any other writer. I have to stop myself from checking my Amazon ratings and not personalizing or over-thinking every review or comment. Publishing a book is an incredibly vulnerable experience. And yet it is gratifying to receive letters and emails from readers who have been touched by a book I have spent over ten years writing and ruminating upon.

And of course every writer feels like a positive review is a gift from god.

Let me address the second part of your question about what was it like to write a memoir on a particularly painful subject.

I came to the memoir form accidentally. I had been writing about my sister’s suicide when she was twenty-one sideways in poems and in fiction since she died twenty years ago but at a certain point the form for the subject no longer suited. I felt I needed to take off the veils of fiction and poetry and attempt to write about the experience of what happened in order to understand the act and the experience of living with suicide. During the course of the journey I kept trying not to write about it, it seemed too painful and personal to do so, but the persistence of my sister’s memory and my desire to give grace to her life would not allow it. I felt as a writer that I had a certain duty to try and capture the experience of suicide and I also felt this pressing desire to redeem my sister’s life and write about suicide as a multi-faceted, complex event. This desire persisted and perhaps it was the persistence that made the work urgent for me.

Your memoir is attracting so much fantastic attention—what nerves do you think it’s touching in readers to make it so incredibly successful?

Thank you, Caroline. It’s been interesting. I was worried that because the subject was dark it would be difficult to get attention for and to find readers, but I am finding that the opposite is happening. People seem to be hungry to engage in the conversation about suicide, particularly the lifelong impact a suicide has on survivors. Many readers are reading the book because, like me, they have been hungry for answers. Many readers have been able to relate to the internal pain Kim suffered that I describe in the book and have found comfort in the shared reality. I am also finding that people are reading the book whether they have been personally touched by suicide or not. My book is very much about connection and family and about the fragility of the inner life. It is a story about the desire for survival and about tragedy and loss. It is a human story and it has been rewarding to find that readers are connecting with it.

I loved it that you recognized that one loss informs the other, and you write movingly of the loss of two of your babies. How do you think loss changes us and informs our lives?

That is a profound question and I am not sure I have the answer for it. I have come to believe that those we have lost are still with us, they shape our experiences, the way in which we love and care about others and they enrich our lives, even if their loss resulted in tragedy. Many people have asked me if writing my book has been cathartic. I don’t think of it that way because that would mean that the pain and suffering has ended, and that is not the case. But there is a certain freedom in being able to come out from the dark shadow the stigma of suicide has cast over my life and that has been a gift. Losing my babies and losing Kim were devastating. They have shaped who I am and what I care about, they are a part of me and I live with their shadows.

I read that you wanted to write a memoir about suicide that was not depressing—and you succeeded brilliantly. I found this memoir incredibly moving and also life-affirming. It’s so brave and so full of love. I wanted to ask, how did you find yourself personally changing in the writing—and afterwards?

Thank you, Caroline. Writing the book was filled with moments of great pain and anxiety and also joy and exhilaration. There were times when I was writing about Kim during the years in which she was struggling where I would lie down on the couch in my study and weep. But there were also moments that were incredibly exhilarating, especially when I was writing about the early years of her life where she gave me and my family such joy. She was a spirited, gifted girl and it was great to bring her back to life. I was also intellectually engaged by many of the texts that I read about suicide, particularly works by other poets, novelists and philosophers and I found the work stimulating. As I mentioned earlier, it is liberating now for me to have written this book. My sister’s suicide for so many years was my dark secret. I couldn’t talk about it to others. It was too painful. Now I still feel those moments of pain but they are balanced by no longer feeling the same sense of shame and responsibility that I had felt before I wrote the book. Many memoirists and novelists will say that they are changed after writing a book, simply because they are no longer the person they were before they wrote it. They have gone through the journey. I suppose I feel that way too.

If your sister had been able to write her own story, how do you imagine it would have been different?

I’m not sure. I do feel that in my book I was able to capture Kim’s inner world. I used her diaries and papers and letters to help with this process. I felt close to her and as sisters we shared similar inner worlds. And yet, I am sure her book would have been incredibly different. I am sure that if one of my other sisters wrote about Kim’s experience it would be different too.

Virginia Woolf wrote that what makes memoirs interesting is the way in which they reflect the person to which the experience has happened. And in writing about Kim I was of course writing about my own life.

Ah, the ubiquitous question: What are you working on now?

I have several projects going on at the moment. I hope they take flight. I am working on a sonnet sequence that I started this past summer and also on a novel. And I have another idea for a nonfiction work that would be meditative, about family and our experience as human beings with complicated minds and hearts.

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

Your questions were perfect. Thank you.

Gary Buslik talks about A Rotten Person Travels the Caribbean

First, there's the hilarious title: A Rotten Person Travels the Caribbean: A Grump in Paradise Discovers That Anyplace it's Legal to Carry a Machete is Comedy Just Waiting to Happen. Buslik has written one of the friskiest, funniest travel memoir I've ever read--and by the way, I've met him at a reading of mine and he isn't a grump at all.

Okay, so what makes you a rotten person and a grump? (Besides being hilariously funny.)

The truth is, I hate traveling. What happened was, one night shortly after we met, when my future wife Annie and I finished making love, she sighed, "There must be more to life than this." So I suggested getting married and honeymooning in Branson, Missouri, to see Andy Williams. Instead, she bought a travel magazine, pointed to a picture of a hammock strung between palm trees, and said, "Buy it for me." She meant the Caribbean, not the hammock, because that's how the woman thinks. I was just starting out then, so I couldn't afford to purchase the entire region, but not wanting her to think I was a piker, off we went on a one-weeker to Jamaica, which she planned on converting to a large shoe rack.

Because I was still too polite to ask why her suitcase weighed as much as Luciano Pavarotti, I schlepped what I assumed was an Italian tenor to Montego Bay, suffering a collapsed spinal disk and permanently reduced libido. By the time we got our hotel room, and I hauled her bags onto the bed, and she unpacked her iron, folding ironing board, ghetto-blaster with built-in record turntable, diesel-operated TV, hair-curler steaming contraption, electric toothbrush, power nail buffer, pneumatic jackhammer, kerosene lantern, and Black & Decker variable-speed electric drill with carbide-tipped bit set, I was in too much pain to ask the obvious—so, sorry, I can't tell you why she had packed a hair curler. As for the power tools, I just assume she was afraid we would get caught in a hurricane and have to personally rebuild our hotel. Anyhow, I was in too much pain to perform my groomly duty and had to settle for propping myself up in bed and watching a cricket match, which has rules designed to make Americans feel stupid, so to this day I blame the Caribbean for my crummy mood and my detesting opera.

I know this is supposed to be a travel book but it’s also a really sweet and funny look at your relationship with your wife Annie. You banter and lovingly insult one another, and it has the same tone as your travels—you grump about things, but it’s clear you are having a blast. Did you know she was going to be such a big part of the book when you wrote it?

I did know it, and I'll tell you why. When we first met, Annie used to edit my manuscripts, until she developed carpal tunnel syndrome from crossing out all my trite metaphors and doltish clichés, so ten years ago she gave up the whole enterprise in a keen sense of self-preservation and, it must be said, disgust. At first I was miffed, but it actually turned out liberating for me too. Because to protect her mental health (such as it is) she now makes a studious effort never to read my writing, I'm able to portray her any way I want with virtual impunity*, putting her in every chapter and saying things I would never say in person—for fear she'd file for divorce and in public records reveal that I polish my cat's toenails.

* I say "virtual impunity" because you can bet your bottom dollar her buttinsky sister will call and say, "Did you read what Gary wrote about your sex life?" (Again, such as it is.) Annie won't confront me about it because she knows I'll just reply, "Well, you shouldn't have stopped editing, and what's good for the goose is good for the gander, so don't upset the apple cart. And, besides, life is like a stormy sea."

So what’s the worst place you’ve ever been and why? And what’s your idea of a dream vacation?

My idea of a dream destination is any place where they serve macaroni and cheese, show Celebrity Apprentice in English (although, frankly, Donnie Jr. is starting to get on my nerves), and the taxi drivers aren't so inbred they all have the same last name and can't remember where they left the brake pedal. As for the Caribbean, I'm fond of the Dutch islands, such as St. Maarten, Curacao, and Aruba. The Dutch run their tourism-related businesses cleanly and efficiently, in order to make up for the fact that you have to dig up tulip bulbs every fall and replant them in the spring. Also, the Dutch are funnier than other people when they're drunk. They climb palm trees for no apparent reason and fall on their heads. I suspect this has something to do with tulip bulbs.

I have to ask. One of your rave blurbs is from an inmate counselor at a state penitentiary. There’s got to be a story behind that, right?

There is indeed a great story behind that, involving mass murderers John Wayne Gacy, Jeffrey Dahmer, a prisoner who still does a dead-ringer Cher impersonation, a catnip mouse, and Keith Olbermann. Unfortunately I can't tell you what it is until I get to know you better.

You also teach—does that help your writing or hurt it or a little of both?

A few years ago I taught undergraduate creative writing and failed miserably because, in the name of truth and caring about my students, I told them that if they really, really wanted to be writers they should get as far away from college as humanly possible. I reminded them—and myself, to really answer your question—that we're all in the entertainment, not the genius, business. My superiors in the English Department, believing that entertainment is anathema to academia, were horrified at this pronouncement and, as punishment (and object lesson, I suppose), asked me to teach Shakespeare instead—obviously being too dense to see the irony.

I'm not sure teaching Shakespeare either helps or hurts my own writing. It would be easy to get creatively intimidated, knowing that he wrote more than thirty dramatic masterpieces and 154 of the world's finest poems before the age of forty. Longhand. Quill. Dipping and blotting, blotting and dipping. Candlelight. Oh, and that little matter of bubonic plague, right outside. On the other hand, for me at least, it's encouraging to know that he was apparently having fun. No, we writers can't all be geniuses, but we can all have fun. Do you have fun writing?

What are you working on now? (the ubiquitous question)

I'm having fun writing a novel. I'll finish my first draft in about six weeks, put it aside for a month, and revise and polish it before the end of the summer. In the meantime, I keep limber writing shorter stuff. I have a piece coming out next month in Best Travel Writing 2011(Travelers' Tales) and other story coming out in an anthology over the summer. During my month hiatus from my novel I'll probably write another short story or two. Oh, and I'm researching a novel that I want to write next year. I keep going. I write every day and don't wait for inspiration. I suspect Shakespeare would want it that way.

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

A. What aspects of the Caribbean do I find particularly interesting, from an historical perspective?


What a brilliant question. The West Indies has a colorful and storied history, beginning with Columbus, when he first set foot in the Bahamas, believing he had discovered Kansas and, later, Lord Nelson beating the bejeezus out of the French, which is why today we eat at Arthur Treacher's Fish and Chips and not Madame Curie's Plutonium and Chips. For me, being Jewish, I'm most intrigued by the number of synagogues that all claim to be the first in the Western Hemisphere. Almost every island has one, which you can visit for normally five dollars, but for you, three-fifty. On several islands the synagogues themselves are gone, but we know there must have been thriving pre-Columbian Hebrew communities there because you can still see plaques on ancient volcanic boulders that say gift of max and esther fleischman. Thank you for asking.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Gorgeous book roses

I am blown away by these breathtaking roses made from the cover art of PICTURES OF YOU by my genius friend and artist, Kathleen DeCosmo, whose designs were recently at the Oscars!

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

I am in NEWSWEEK!!!

I am dazzled and thrilled to report that Pictures of You is featured in this weeks NEWSWEEK, a full quarter page as part of Jodi Picoult's picks in Bookbag. I had no idea and found this while lazily googling. It's Tina Brown's inaugural issue and it was picked up by The Daily Beast and EarlyWorld! (Scroll down for the story!)

Monday, March 7, 2011

I talk about touring at the Pulpwood Queens

I am thrilled to be part of the Pulpwood Queens bookclub and today I talk more about what I learned about touring.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Writer Jessica Anya Blau talks about fearlessness

Jessica Anya Blau is a terrific writer. Her first novel, The Summer of Naked Swim Parties was chosen as a Today Show top summer read and her second novel, Drinking Closer to Home is racking up the raves, including being called "unrelentingly, sidesplitting funny." I'm thrilled she's agreed to write something about the art of bravery in writing. Thank you, Jessica!

I frequently meet people who tell me they would write, “if only . . . . “ Maybe you’re an if only person yourself. There’s nothing wrong with being someone who imagines they’d like to write but just doesn’t do it for any or all of the following reasons: kids to care for, laundry to fold, and episode of American Idol to watch, a fulltime job, a part time job, ageing parents who need help, a dog to walk, a refrigerator to clean, a garden to weed, a status update to post on Facebook, a corn chowder to make, a hall closet to clean out, etc. In fact, when I don’t write my house is tidier, my laundry is sorted and my refrigerator doesn’t look like an accumulation of the stuff you shove down the garbage disposal. The truth is, it is much easier not to write than to write. But let’s just say that you want to write even if it means your house looks like it’s been cared for by a dementia patient and your lover is often snarky because you’re choosing writing over giving him a foot rub. Now what?

Now you need to get over your fear. These are the writing fears I’ve recognized in myself and in other people: fear of writing something useless (or trivial, or overblown, or bellicose, or vain, or boring, etc.), fear of being seen as stupid, fear of exposing the wackyness of your family and friends, fear of being discovered as a fraud, fear of exposing your obsessions and eccentricities (strange sex, anyone?), fear of your mother finding out what you really think of her, fear of your children realizing you’re horny, fear of your boss knowing that you actually loathe the corporate world and wish you could hang out in a café all day drinking lattes and checking out the wildly tattooed in Inked Magazine.

The only way I know to get over my fears is to accept them and write in spite of them. Say your fear aloud: If my kids read about this character who is obsessed with smearing jelly donuts on her armpits they’re going to know that I want to smear jelly donuts on my armpits. But so what! Will anyone die? No. Will anyone lose a limb or even a limbic system?! No. So forget about it and just write. You will be relieved, inspired, and overjoyed when you simply allow yourself to write about the characters, situations, and things that honestly interest you. Unlike most professions, you don’t need to be certified or hired in order to write. Take advantage of this lawlessness! Utilize your freedom! Ignore your fears and write from the center of your heart, the bottom of your sex drive, and the furthest recesses of your reptile brain until you’re in the final edits of your about-to-be-published manuscript. And then what?

And then, change the names of all the characters who are based on people you know and enjoy the fact that you’ve been published!

-Jessica Anya Blau

Angela Balcita talks about Moonface

Angela Balcita has written an incredible brave, incredibly funny and moving book about kidney failure, organ donors and the path of true love. I was thrilled that she agreed to answer my questions. Thank you, Angela!

Your story originated in Modern Love. What made you decide to write about it for that column, and what was it like expanding it into a memoir?

Actually, MOONFACE did not originate in Modern Love. I began writing the story in graduate school. The first few chapters of MOONFACE made up my thesis for my MFA degree in nonfiction writing. After graduate school, I held on to those chapters, not quite sure if I should continue with the project or move on to something else. At the time, I enjoyed reading the Modern Love column, mostly because the people in it often seemed to have oddball romances not unlike my mine and Chris’s. So, I wrote an essay, pulling a lot from that thesis, and I submitted it to Modern Love’s editor.

After the piece was published, a couple agents reached out to me and told me they loved the story and wondered if there was a manuscript behind the essay or if this piece was ready to be turned into a book. That really got me motivated to keep writing. My agent and I sold the book to Harper as a love story about the successful kidney transplant I had received from my husband. But during the process of completing the manuscript, the story changed. Real life events forced me to rewrite some pages and add what I never imagined would be there.

I was fascinated by your relationship with your husband, who donated a kidney to you. How did it impact your relationship and do you feel you somehow understand him more because of it?

I think we both looked at the transplant as a union. I understood his heart a little better, and how he ached when I ached, how he was happy only when I was happy, and vice versa. That helped me get a glimpse into what marriage is about. Even though we weren’t married at the time, the transplant symbolized a commitment we were willing to make to each other. It solidified a feeling that was already there.

I’ve always struggled with the idea of sacrifice. From the recipient’s perspective, it was hard for me to accept such a gift without feeling the full spectrum of emotions: love, joy, gratitude, guilt, worry, concern, fear. And while there is a certain about of responsibility that comes with receiving an organ, there is also this sense that my donors were giving me these gifts so that I could have a full life, and so that I could live the life that I imagined for myself.

So, after our transplant, I fully understood why my good-hearted people like my husband make the sacrifices they make, why good people do good things.

You've had three different donors. How did each donation change your relationships?

My first transplant was from my brother, Joel. When he donated his kidney, he was just barely an adult (I was eighteen and he was twenty-two). And yet for him, this mature decision to donate was automatic. He didn’t even mull the situation over. He knew that he was the best candidate for the surgery, and so he immediately signed himself up for the task. I had a hard time seeing him go through the recovery. That was the early 90’s, when the surgery for the donor was more involved. But, as always, he was cool and constant. He’s taught me a lot about strength, duty, and doing the right thing. I always idolized while we growing up, and now, I do even more so.

As the book details, Chris and I were wading through uncharted territory post-transplant. We were both still just dating and trying to figure out what would happen next. Questions about marriage, family, love, and sacrifice get a little trickier when there is something like a transplant involved. So after his donation, I would say our relationship became more defined, in a way, and we laid out a precedent for how we were going to handle future twists and turns in life. But learning these things did not come easily.

And my last donor, Maggie, was a friend from graduate school. Before she knew I was in need of another transplant, she was ready to offer her kidney in an altruistic donation. That’s just the way she’s always been—eager to help someone when she knows she can. She’s taught me so much about selflessness and generosity. She had always been a close friend, but now, she and her wife are members of my family. (In a way, Maggie is a blood relative!). Now, almost two years after the transplant, she and her wife are expecting their first child. I look forward learning more about motherhood from the both of them.

You found love in the midst of a chronic illness--any words of advice to others battling long-term disease? How did you keep your incredible spirit up?

Chris and I have always chosen to look at life as a celebration. Yes, there are hard times, troubling issues, chronic illnesses, and yes, it takes a lot of patience and courage to work through those things. And it’s important to observe and examine your feelings during those moments. Chris and I don’t overlook or laugh off those times of frustration or anger or sadness. We talk them out and write them out; we often let ourselves get emotional. But, we try to not hold on to those feelings for too long. We try to shift our perspective so that we can move beyond them.

Life is a celebration—there’s always something to celebrate. Whether it’s a good doctor’s check-up or making an extraordinarily delicious dinner or having a healthy brilliant, baby girl, there is at least one reason why you should be dancing right now.

What's up next for you?

I want to spend some time enjoying and celebrating my family instead of making them into characters and writing about them. We’ve had a rough few years, so I’m hoping the rest of our years will be boring and uneventful.

I’d love to find a way to balance motherhood with writing, because so far, I’ve found that doing both is difficult. When I do sneak away a find a few hours to write here and there, I find myself being drawn back to older family stories: my family’s emigration from the Philippines, their adjustment into a new culture, the richness of our ethnic ancestry. So, perhaps a new project will come out of those stories.

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

What kind of response to the book are you receiving from your readers?

I’m finding that readers are connecting with the book in different ways. I’ve received emails from people with chronic illness who say they’ve gone through similar experiences, and they understand how illness takes a toll on every aspect of your life. Young sufferers, particularly, like that I talked about being sick at a young age, during a time of growing and experiencing new things.

Other people have told me that they connected with the discussion of marriage in the book, and they are looking are their relationships differently. I bet there are a lot of women out there asking their husbands, “Would you give me a kidney if I needed one?” Sorry, guys.

Of course, there are people who question the choices I’ve made in my life, and I can’t blame them for doubting me. At times, I doubted myself. But, I’m grateful that the transplants I’ve had enabled me to make those choices, that they’ve opened up my world to hope and possibility. That is what living on this earth should be about.

Angela Balcita

Laura Kasischke talks about The Raising

Booklist compares her to Donna Tartt--and very rightfully so. One of her brilliantly haunting novels, The Life Before Her Eyes, became an eerie film. Laura Kasischke teaches in the University of Michigan MFA program and the Residential College. The author of seven collections of poetry and seven novels, she's also one of the warmest, most wonderful people you'd ever want to meet. I got to share coffee with her at GLIBA book conference and immediately wished she lived next door to me. (Hey, Laura, why don't you?) Her latest, The Raising, is about ghosts, death, and the subversive nature of college. Thanks, Laura, for another spectacular novel, and for answering my questions!

I was unsettled and fascinated by this novel--particularly with the material in Mira's undead studies. What was researching this novel like? Did you also suffer any bad dreams or qualms while researching ghosts, zombies, and stories about death?

The information Mira shares in her course, “Death, Dying, and the Undead,” is all factual—in other words her lessons are either actual facts or the established folklore of a time and place. The story of Peter Plogojowitz, for instance, with which she begins her semester, is one of the earliest vampire stories. It spoke to me, when I first encountered it, of some of the concerns of my novel, and as I continued to write, the tale became a kind of phantom tale within the events of my novel. Plogojowitz was a peasant who died in a German village in 1725. He was buried, but within a few days he returned home and asked his wife for his shoes. After that, he appeared to many of the villagers, and several of them died soon afterward. The village became obsessed, and they exhumed the body, drove a stake through the heart, burned it to ashes, and the peasant walked no more.

In my novel, it is a sorority girl who ‘walks,’ and it was my thinking that a college campus is its own village, full of folklore and traditions and initiation rituals. Like a village, it has its haunted places, its ghost stories, its rituals related to the death of villagers. This is what I explored through my research as well as the development of the plot.

And, of course, there is the sexiness of the dead, so readily available to us in the culture of vampires. But not only vampires. During the writing of this novel I discovered that googling the words “beautiful dead girl” yields ten million hits—and so many of them tell the same passionate, tragic, and often semi-supernatural tale. It’s the tale of my novel: the way young death amazes, attracts, terrifies, poeticizes, and changes those around it with its strangeness.

What sparked this novel? And how do you write? Are you an outliner or a seat-of-your-pen/pants kind of writer?

In this novel I was most interested in exploring the differences in the ways those who are young and those who are older consider the subject of death. The romance of death for teens and twenty-somethings seems particularly potent and in the air at the moment—the popularity of vampire lit being testimony to this. Death attracts the young. Why? Further, there is attraction to the romance of the young who’ve died. Only a few miles from my house there is the kind of roadside shrine I write of in THE RAISING: In this case the shrine was erected at the site where three teen girls were killed years ago in a car accident. The stuffed animals and flowers are continually replenished, and the photographs of the girls on placards never change. The girls in those photos are frozen at the ages of their deaths, and something about this seems to me to be as much about their deaths as it is about their eternal lives. This was on my mind continually as I wrote THE RAISING.

I used to have many superstitions and rituals related to writing. I had to write at a certain time of day, in a certain place, with a certain kind of pen, in a certain kind of notebook, etc. Now, since having a child, I can’t even remember what those rituals were. After I had my son, I learned to write when I could, where I could, with whatever was handy. Now, my only consistency is that I try to write every day. I don’t write every day. But I try.

In all of your books, you jar reality. You make readers see things in new, and often unsettling (there's that word again) ways. And you mix genres. This particular book is both a chilling read (your promo calls it part Stephen King and part Donna Tartt) and also a smart, literary novel that delves deeply into character. Do you think that by making the readers' ground a little shaky, that you gently nudge readers into looking at life differently--even things they might have taken for granted before?

I don't actually set out to do that. To me, the ground just seems shaky. And if my writer evokes that, well, that's, in my opinion, just the shaky ground...

Can you talk about how teaching (you're a college professor) impacts your work?

This novel was particularly inspired by my teaching, and by my students. I'm not sure the writing itself is any different from the writing I'd be doing if I weren't teaching, but certainly in this case my students and my environment were all-important. The story told in THE RAISING began for me several years ago when I (erroneously) believed I’d seen a former student of mine on campus. I had to hold myself back from tapping this young man on the shoulder in the moment I remembered that he’d died of an undiagnosed heart condition years before.

Of course, this was another student—but so similar in appearance, in manner, in clothing and age (the age my student was when I knew him, which was several years younger than when he died) that I felt anyone would have made the same mistake.

The incident caused me to think about the particular age of this student and his double. Of that time of life, and the experience of a college campus. How interchangeable the students looked to me that day. They looked like one another, and they looked like the people I’d gone to school with myself, two decades earlier, long before I became a professor at the university I attended as a student, in what sometimes feels like another life.

The campus, then, seemed like the perfect setting for the events that occurred to me then. A college campus is full of ghosts and their stories. Suicidal ghosts and homicidal ghosts roam college campuses freely; Greek ghosts and residence hall ghosts, lover’s ghosts and theater-major ghosts may stick around to haunt the places where they died. The fact of death doesn’t skip over a college campus just because its inhabitants are mostly healthy and young, but one could also say that college campuses are haunted not only by the dead. Being, as they are, inhabited by young adults who stay only a short time, and who, for the most part, don’t return, there’s an endless parade of souls through the place, and not much but fading memories of them left behind after their diplomas have been taken away. No matter how vivid those years seem at the time, they’re brief and liminal. It’s a threshold time. A time between times:

A ghost is someone who is there, and not there. What better definition is there of those years between childhood and adulthood that so many spend in college? Return to your college campus decades later, and see yourself as a ghost on every corner. Every year someone new takes your room in the dorm, and wanders the hallway as you did, hurries down the stairwell, waits for the hot water to run in the shower stall, stands in line outside the cafeteria. Here, to be a ghost you don’t necessarily have to be dead.

You've also had films made form your books. Though I really loved the film of The LIfe Before Her Eyes, I didn't love it half as much as I loved the book, which seemed to me to go much deeper and to be much more unnerving. Did you ever want to write a script yourself?

I did try to write a screenplay once, but since what I like to do most in writing is to describe the details of a landscape and the sensory experiences of the characters--well, it was a pretty awkward screenplay.

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

Have you ever actually seen a ghost?

Well, I saw something/someone! An old hag in the doorway who ran toward me, and disappeared in thin air when I screamed. I was five at the time, and when I told my mother and grandmother, instead of saying what most adults would say to a five year old, that there's no such thing as ghosts and that I was dreaming, they both nodded and agreed that they had long suspected our house was haunted. I tried to explain to them that I was probably just dreaming, but they thought, no, I'd seen a ghost.