Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Clea Simon talks about Dogs Don't Lie, writing, and animal speech

I first met Clea on a writers' site. She was so smart and so interesting that I immediately went out and got her book, Fatherless Women, and we began to email back and forth.  Then we met.  Then our spouses met, and before you knew it, we were all friends. Clea's one of my best friends on the planet and a fabulous writer, and I'm honored and thrilled to have her guest post on my blog. Thank you so much, Clea!

What would your pet sound like if she (or he) could talk to you? What would his or her voice be?
These are the questions that are at the heart of my new mystery, Dogs Don’t Lie. I mean, we know what our animals sound like in their real state, their natural state, their barks and meows and hisses. But what if we could understand them – if they spoke to us in our language, with human voices? What would those voices be like?
For some reason, it has always amused me to imagine my cat talking down to me. Sometimes, I imagine her scolding me – usually when I’ve done something that I assume must be annoying, like moving her toys to vacuum, or stepping over her when she’s sprawled in a doorway. “Must you?” I hear the disdain in her voice. “Oh, please.”
Don’t get me wrong; I’m neither psychotic nor self-hating. This voice just seems right somehow, and truly, when she comes up to me afterward all purry and wanting to be petted, this pseudo-scorn makes it all sweeter.
But the questions remain, and that eventually led me to create the unwilling animal psychic Pru Marlow. Pru can “hear” what animals say, telepathically, and she is continually surprised not only by what they say but also by how they say it. What their voices sound like – and, by extension, how they view themselves. (I’m not giving anything away, I think, when I reveal that the animals Pru meets in Dogs Don’t Lie often have very different opinions about themselves than their tone-deaf humans do – and often different names. It seemed quite natural, to me, for a neutered bichon frise to reject the name “Bitsy,” for example. In his mind, he was “Growler,” and acted accordingly.)
The voice of my protagonist Pru was another challenge, a bigger one. I was already writing one series when Pru came to me. My Dulcie Schwartz mysteries – which continue this month with Grey Zone – feature a bookish graduate student. Dulcie is sweet, a little na├»ve, and extremely earnest. When I write her, I become her, to the point of adopting her mannerisms to some extent. (Not a bad thing: she’s much neater than I am normally.) But when I started with Pru, I’d been reading a lot of the new female-centered noir (books like Megan Abbott’s Queenpin). And so Pru burst out tough and mouthy. Promiscuous, a little dangerous. Not the kind of heroine you’d expect in a mystery with talking animals, and not the kind of character I’d written before. It was a little scary, but also fun – and the more I wrote, the more her personality developed. Pru’s a cool character. Maybe that’s why her cat, Wallis, had to be even tougher, a take-no-prisoners tabby who isn’t afraid to read Pru the riot act when she steps out of line – or steps over her to leave a room. These characters declared their voices, and I had to fall in line.
Voice, of course, is always intriguing to writers. Questions around voice are key. What tone do we chose? What point of view? Voice is what makes a writer, makes a book. Voice is vital. The funny thing, I’ve come to learn is that in my chosen genre it is often ignored.
Crime fiction, after all, is known for its plotting. The biggest crime fiction names, in particular, ride on action-packed storylines. Boom boom boom – the hero is up and running, taking bullets and felling bad guys. In some ways, it is plotting that separates these big thrill rides from the more old-fashioned classic or cozy mysteries that are more or less what I write. Jack Reacher is never going to puzzle out the clues, just as Miss Marple never broke a collarbone and went on to tackle her suspect. And since these big thrillers are what earn the big bucks – and get made into movies – plot is seen as all important: the driver of series, of sales, and of readers.
This isn’t a complaint exactly. I do love plots and I admire page-turners. I read almost all of Dan Brown’s oeuvre at one point, just so I could learn his structures. Believe me, if I could end every chapter with “and then she saw the gun,” I’d be happy.
And yet, character – voice – keeps coming up. In fact, there’s a funny discussion going on in the world of crime fiction. You’ve heard of Stieg Larsson, the “Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” author? Well, his books have lots of action, sex, and violence, but what the critics have been commenting on is his heroine – the feisty Lisbeth Salander. It’s like they’ve just discovered characters. 
Maybe it’s that they don’t expect them. Maybe, despite the evidence of Dorothy L. Sayers and Donna Leon, Agatha Christie and Denise Mina, they think crime fiction – mysteries – aren’t up to interesting, fully realized characters. But readers do, and we writers are readers. Maybe that’s why I’ve been obsessed by characters recently. Possessed by them. It’s their voices.

Heidi Durrow and I talk about writing, anxiety and everything inbetween!

Huge thanks to the wonderful Barbara Drummond Mead and Reading Group Choices for this incredible new feature, Author Squared.  Heidi Durrow (The Girl Who Fell From the Sky) and I talk about the writing life here!

Sarah Jio talks about The Violets of March and authors who help other authors!

Guest Post: 

The Jodi Picoult Effect: Why Big-Time Authors Who Help Newcomers Rock!

Caroline, thank you so much for having me here! As a debut author, it’s so lovely and encouraging to be supported by successful writers (you!) who have also been in the same shoes, which is what I want to share a little about today. Being a first-time novelist is both exciting and nerve-wracking (as I’m sure you remember!), so thank God for veteran authors who stick their necks out on behalf of newcomers.  

My first novel, The Violets of March [LINK: http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0452297036/craforboo-20], is out on April 26 from Penguin (Plume). I sold the book last spring, and after the contracts were signed, I realized that I had a pretty steep learning curve ahead. After all, book publishing was a whole new ballgame for me. I came to fiction from the world of magazines, where I’ve been a contributor to publications like Glamour, Redbook, Health, SELF, Real Simple, O, The Oprah Magazine, and many others. I knew my way around the magazine industry, but books? There was so much to figure out. Blurbs! Marketing! Sales! Book buyers! Publicity! Um, yikes!

Perhaps most daunting was the task of reaching out to other authors and shyly asking them to read my book in hopes of getting an endorsement for the cover. I fretted about this for a long time. Frankly, the whole idea of sharing my work with other authors made me feel so vulnerable (something I needed to get over quick if I was going to be any good at this novel thing!). I thought about the authors I admired and respected and wondered if they’d ever—in a million years—be interested in reading my fledgling debut. Sure, I was proud of my novel, for sure, but there’s something very frightening about sending an early copy to an author you love. But, with great anxiety and trembling hands, I composed an email to Jodi Picoult (you know, the bestselling author of a zillion books, including Sing You Home). I told her about Violets, shared the book trailer, and held my breath as I clicked send. 

And guess what? A few minutes later, she wrote back. Just like that. And I nearly fainted. 

She shared that she’d already received five other blurb requests that day alone and couldn’t make any promises. But, she said if I still wanted to send a galley over just in case, she’d do her best to have a look. Yep, I sent a galley out that very afternoon, with fingers and toes crossed. And, several weeks later, I nearly fell out of my chair when she wrote to say she enjoyed the book and had written a blurb for me [LINK: http://www.sarahjio.com/?p=1128]. I was 9 months pregnant at the time, and promptly began having labor contractions. (True story.)

Here’s the thing, Jodi has an insanely busy schedule. She’s one of the top-producing authors in the world. She’s basicallysuperwoman. She didn’t have to give me (a total stranger with nothing to offer her in return but insane amounts of gratitude) the time of day, but she did. Her vote of confidence for my novel meant so much to me, as did the support from Allison Winn Scotch, Claire Cook, Sarah Pekkanen, Beth Hoffman, and Kelly O’Connor McNees—all of whom prove that the book world is filled with plenty of terrific, warm and generous souls. If I’m ever so fortunate to be in a similar place of success, I vow to be just as generous to new authors as these wonderful women have been to me. 
About me:
Sarah Jio is the author of The Violets of March, out from Penguin (Plume) on April 26, a Target Emerging Author selection and Costco buyer pick. Her second novel, The Bungalow, will also be published by Plume in April 2012. She lives in Seattle with her family and is at work on her third novel. To learn more about her, visit www.sarahjio.com.

Sarah Jio
Freelance Writer | Novelist | Blogger
Health and Fitness Blogger, Glamour.com
| www.sarahjio.com
Follow me on Twitter: http://twitter.com/sarahjio

Sunday, April 17, 2011


Yep.  I'm still touring, and it's still incredibly fun. But besides being the Vintage Beaded Cardigan and Red Cowboy Boots Tour, it's also been the Blizzard/Freezing Rain/Subzero Temperatures/Tornado tour.  Even when I got to Los Angeles, after tromping through the snows of Boston and Chicago and Ohio, it was...well, rainy and freezing!  This weekend, I was in North Carolina and a University Women Book and Author Luncheon in Charlotte, North Carolina.  Just in time for the tornado watch! But I've learned I don't really mind the bad weather, and if anything, it gives you a closer connection to the people who do brave the elements to come and see you!

Lesson Two:
 I've discovered that I love to speak in front of crowds--something miraculous for someone who always thought she was shy (Ha! Me, shy! Not anymore!) I love to just stand up and talk and interact with people, so much so that I signed with a speaking agency. (Imagine that!) When I first started, I wrote out speeches and memorized them in front of the mirror, complete with hand motions! I was terrified of forgetting a line, let alone a paragraph. I was third up in Charlotte, and after listening to the first two speakers, I realized my speech was all wrong. It was in the wrong order, it was too mannered, it wasn't funny, enough.  So when I finally got to the podium, I told everyone I was throwing the speech out and just speaking from my heart. And wonder of wonders, it was easy, it was fun, and I wasn't nervous about forgetting anything.  I was just talking.

Lesson Three:
Every way of going will have a problem so relax and be prepared. Planes are always delayed. In Chicago, it was two hours, because they couldn't find the pilot. ("He's out drinking," the person sitting next to me said.) Last night, the plane was delayed an hour because "A passenger who should not be on the plane is on the plane." Worse, planes have turbulence. Last night, coming in from Charlotte, there was so much turbulence, that the woman beside me began crossing herself and shouting, "Mary, Mother of God!" while clutching the seat. When the plane landed, we all cheered.

Trains, though an easier ride and smoother (I love trains) have their own issue.  Coming in from Boston, I draped my favorite blue chiffon scarf from Korean, a present from a friend, over my face, to sleep.  I was sitting next to some guy, and when I woke up, the guy was gone, and so was my scarf!!!

Lesson Four:
In this new age of publishing, not everyone gets a tour. It is an incredibly wonderful thing to be going to so many places and I always remember to thank everyone I meet profusely, and to be grateful. If there are any problems--well, aren't these the problems I always dreamed of being able to have?

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Portrait of the artist as a 15-year-old

So here is the story. While obsessively googling myself shortly after the publication of Pictures of You, I find this gorgeously written review. I love it so much I track down the blog and the writer (that's him in the photo), and to my surprise, Robby Auld, the scribe, is a teenager! Even more astonishing, he has this great blog where he talks sensitively about books he loves and the life he is leading and the things he is writing. We have occasional emails, and then tweets and when I mention I have just hired a terrific research assistant intern, he tweets, "I would kill to be your research assistant." Well, of course, I can have two, and of course, I hire him on the spot.
Robby came to one of my readings in Boston at the incredible Back Pages Books. I knew who he was the moment I saw him quietly standing by a shelf of books. "You're who I think you are, aren't you?" I said, and I made him let me give him a hug. While I was giving my talk/reading, I insisted on introducing Robby to everyone and urged them all to read his blog. And now I'm giving Robby some space on my blog because truly, he's one of the most interesting teenagers around.  
Thank you, Robby. I can't wait until we can do a Q and A about your first published novel.
The thing I notice from your blog is how truly brave you are. You continually reveal yourself through your writing in a really honest way, exploring such things as the rejection in acting, the fear in writing, and all sorts of human relationships. Yet you call your blog your safe place, even though you are not playing it safe in what you reveal. So, can you tell me more about why you feel protected within the blog? How and when and why did you begin your blog?
It’s really fascinating to me how obsessed my generation is with constant communication, yet 90% of us have no idea how to actually communicate. Thank you, for calling me brave. That means a lot to me. I would count myself among the people who are socially awkward. It is much easier for me to write about my feelings and the things I am thinking about on the Internet than in person with someone I know, and even with someone I trust. People can respond to my posts, and tell me what they think, how they feel about what I wrote, but only after the fact. The blog is my safe place because I am free to say nearly whatever I want, think nearly whatever I want, and I don’t have to worry too much about the kids I go to school with making fun of me for it. I’m not bullied much at all, which I’m grateful for. I’ve been blogging in a few separate places since middle school, but I’ve had this current blog for just about 2 years. It’s grown as I’ve grown. I’m pretty sure I’ve answered your question, and also gone off somewhere else entirely. I tend to ramble.
You wrote an incredibly moving post about your sister and your nephew and your mother, which reads like a short story or the basis of a wonderful novel. Is it? And is your life the basis of your writing work?
Again, THANK YOU. To veer off again, that is something I also really, really like about blogging. The COMPLIMENTS. I am a sensitive teenage boy in need of constant praise. Just kidding. I hope.
I have so many ideas for stories and books and other creative things I could/hope to do/write in my life. My family isn’t the basis of a novel/story YET, but never say never. I do have an idea for a massive family saga, but I’m not sure I’m mature enough at this point to tackle something as large as I’d like it to be. Doesn’t every writer need a family saga?
I think every writer’s personal life factors into their writing. My stories aren’t usually based on me, but they are coming from me, and I am the one that is writing them, so there are parts of me all over the place, though I like to keep them hidden. Even if I’m writing from a girl’s point of view, or someone who is much older than I am, and even if the story takes place miles and miles away from where I am writing it, it is coming out of my life, because I am living my life as I am writing it. If that makes any sense at all. I’m rambling again. Can you tell I don’t do this often.
When did you first begin to write and know that this is what you wanted to do? Where do you see yourself in ten years? (I have my own ideas about where I think you are headed, but I’d rather see yours.) And can you talk about your writing process?
I like to think I’ve always been writing, but I honestly can’t remember. I was a very flamboyant little boy, so much of my pre-public school years involved me wearing belly shirts and Spider Man underwear and dancing to the Spice Girls. Nearly every picture of me from my childhood involves me and the peace sign. Girl Power and all that. I started writing seriously a few years ago. I’ve written a few longer stories, which could possibly be called novels, but I never finished them, and I’ve moved on. I’ve always had trouble really sticking to stories I write, but I’ve learned that just means it isn’t the right time. I’ve wanted to be a writer, some kind of writer, since early middle school I think. It was only recently that I realized I could maybe actually do it.
If I tried to answer the question, of why I know that writing is what I want to do with the rest of my life, in condensed form, it would make no sense. So my short answer is that I just know. I’m sure you understand. It's a gut feeling.
Where do I see myself in ten years? Well, I’ll be months away from turning 26. I would like to be wrapping up an MFA program at some suave liberal arts college, and maybe be searching for a teaching position. Or, working in a book store. Or, working in a coffee shop. But, writing. I would like to be writing. I am never going to stop writing. (TELL ME YOUR IDEAS!)
What's the significance of running for amsterdam?
This is a funny question. Running For Amsterdam is my initials in word form. Robert Francis Auld. I came up with that name when I was in middle school, and I was OBSESSED with it for a while, though not so much anymore. I made an e-mail, which is the one we often communicate through, and I also had a Myspace under that name (though I have not checked it in months). A lot of people I meet wonder about that, and when I tell them they just say, “Oh, right. I guess that makes sense.” It doesn’t have much significance at all. Regarding Amsterdam, though- I love Europe. So much.
What question should I be mortified that I forgot to ask you?
I stayed home from school today, and was so excited to answer these questions. I feel pretty legit right now. So, THANK YOU. I thank you all the time. I will never be able to thank you enough. This is just so great. If you’d asked me about my favorite food, I would’ve said breakfast cereal. I love cereal, and Europe, and you. Thank you, again and again and again.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Now in Paperback! Anne Lamott talks about Imperfect Birds

To say I love Anne Lamott is putting it mildly. She's funny, warm, witty, and more than a few times, she has saved my emotional life, both with her books and with her spot-on advice. She makes you see the world differently (and she makes you laugh.)  Her fabulous novel Imperfect Birds is now out in paperback and it's just wonderful. To celebrate, I'm buying copies for my friends AND I'm reprinting an interview with Anne.

Anne Lamott should be a national treasure (complete with a holiday named after her.) Her book on writing (Bird by Bird) is required reading for any budding writer (or anxiety written pro), her book on having a child (Operating Instructions) should be tucked inside every diaper bag, and her novels simply soar. Her newest, Imperfect Birdsreturns to one of her earlier novels, Rosie, to tell the story of teenage drug culture and parents being terrified for their the safety of their kids. It's as remarkable as she is--and thank you, thank you, Anne for answering my questions.

Of all your books, this one was the one that absolutely terrified me. It was so raw, so real (plus, I’m the mother of a 13 year old and I worry about the future endlessly) and yet, it also was, to me, the most spiritual of your books, too. Would you say this is because in those dark, scary moments, that’s when there is light (if you can notice it?) Or that being tested give us an opportunity to reveal our best (as well as our worst) selves?
When we are faced with really frightening developments in our lives, like loss or a bad diagnosis or a lost child, we get stripped down to what is true and essential--and this is the most spiritual place we can arrive at. And then to be deeply loved in such a raw and undefended state--without armor, routine, and the ability to Fake it--is the absolute definition of Spiritual.
Knowing Rosie (from your novel Rosie) as a child and then seeing her as a teenager here also made this book more nerve-wracking for me. Because Rosie was the child of an alcoholic mother, I was sure Rosie would never want to have anything to do with substance abuse. Is this usually the case?
There's no such thing as "usually the case". Kids with alcoholic parents have a genetic predisposition to be alcoholics or substance abusers. I really have not observed a "norm". What I've observed in Marin is high-achieving kids with seemingly ideal family circumstances, who have lost their lives, minds, futures, to high risk behavior. We just lost another gorgeous 17 y.o. Marin girl last weekend, about to graduate, who got drunk with her girlfriends about 20 minutes from my home, fell off the cliffs into the ocean, and washed up near Muir Beach.
Elizabeth doesn’t believe in God, though she does seem to have a belief in some things, and there was that powerful scene in the sweat lodge where she feels a glimmer of something larger than herself. Do you think it matters whether you do or you don’t believe, as long as you are open to the moment? And that being open to one moment, like in the sweat lodge, might make you open to more moments?
Yes, I do think there an many many ways to opening our hearts and awakening to the present--and Presence. To seek this presence, of a deep rich reality, the shimmering Now, is to find it. And then some commit to developing this sense of Life, and other people keep hitting the snooze button via workaholism or multi-tasking, which is absolutely life-destroying
For me, the novel was about the reality we create for ourselves—i.e. Rosie’s reality is that what she is doing isn’t so wrong, but James and Elizabeth reality about what she is doing is really something different. Rosie lies, but so does Elizabeth to James. You nail the fierce love parents have for their kids, and the pain when those kids start to pull away into their own lives (as well they should) and their ignorance of the pain it causes their parents. How do you think it’s possible for anyone to really know the truth and reality of someone else’s life? And is there a way we can be better at it?
I don't know that we can really understand what it's like to be another person's, but we can see when people are exhibiting self-destruction and deceit. Parents have to be willing to risk not being the coolest parent on the block, in order to set healthy boundaries, and to impose appropriate consequences for lying, stealing, smoking, etc. A lot of parents so desperately need their kid's affection that they (maybe unconsciously) don't see what their kids are up to--don't see the cries for help, the out-of-controlledness. They don't want to fight with their kids, or have their kids pull away, and so they keep their heads in the sand, or get it to come out OK in their minds--ANYthing that will keep the appearance of closeness: anything to avoid making waves. But as I said, another 17 year old died this weekend.

I’m intensely curious about process, so can you talk a little bit about yours in writing Imperfect Birds? And can you talk about what you are working on now?
Well, novels as you know are a lot harder than stories or essays--it takes close to 3 years, and you never quite know what you're doing. I really try to commit to my characters, and capturing each one's voice and truth, instead of committing to a finished novel. It can be a nightmare for a lot of the process, because you're trying to keep so many plates spinning in the air. So I just to get a day's work done everyday. I let myself write incredibly shitty drafts. I ask one or two cherished writer-friends for feedback. I read novels, to see how other people handle tough stories of being human, and in families, and community; how we survive unsurvivable loss, how we grow, how we age, how we heal, how we keep our senses of humor. And I write everything over, and over, and over; and rely DEEPLY on great editing.
What question didn’t I ask that I really and truly should have?

You could ask how Sam is doing! He is 20 now, a student of industrial design at an art academy in San Francisco, and he and his girlfriend have an 8 month old baby boy, who (along with Sam) is the apple of my eye. His name is Jax; my grandma name is Nana.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Valerie Trueblood, the author of the amazing Marry or Burn, talks about weddings, writings and more

I first read Valerie Trueblood's Seven Loves a few years ago and was knocked out by the exquisite language and the genius of the story. Marry or Burn, her new and astonishing collection of short stories (She's been compared to Alice Munro, and rightly so), examines the thorny path love and commitment can take.  I asked Valerie if she would write a guest post, and I can't tell you how truly honored and thrilled I am that she agreed. Thank you, thank you, Valerie.

A wedding is a good place to think.  We cry at the start as the bride comes forward, smile at the end as the couple sweeps past, but in between, while people get up and down, hand each other things, read from shaking pieces of paper, there’s a lull.  Despite the voices, it seems as if a mute has been put on the scene.  That’s when I try, in the pew or the little plastic chair sinking into the grass, to formulate a position. 
Is marriage a good thing?
Is it a good thing with a lot of bad things happening in it?  Is it a bad thing with a lot of good people in it trying to make improvements?  Is it a natural state?  Do we have to live in pairs?  Is that even the pattern any more, or are we replacing it with something else, and if so, what?
I didn’t just decide one day to write a book of stories about marriage.  In fact now I’d like to experiment with a landscape in which it does not figure—for instance a series of stories that never use the word “wife.”  But I was sitting on the floor looking through a pile of stories, and just as I started to read “Invisible River,” a story about an inauspicious wedding, the title came to me:  MARRY OR BURN.  It’s from that letter of Paul’s to the Corinthians in which his advice to those who can’t be celibate is that it’s better to marry than to burn.  The title called the book into being. 
Right away I saw that the problem would be keeping stories out rather than finding ones to include.   Whatever the subject, marriage would turn up, like the schoolkid who flaps her hand at every question.
Harper’s magazine puts together a wonderful list every month, the Index, made up of facts in odd combination and awful or comical statistics.   There we learn that the chance an unmarried American under thirty says marriage is becoming obsolete is one in two.  The chance that he or she wants to get married:  19 in 20.
But in my work I try to steer clear of irony.  There doesn’t seem to be room for it in even the longest short story.  Often when people want to give a story a compliment they say it has a novel in it; people have written to me that one story or another of mine is a miniature novel. (Will women writers ever see the end of the word “miniature”?)  I don’t think so; I think the short story is a unique form and is working in territory where few novels go.
The long story that closes the book, “Beloved, You Looked Into Space,” had been with me for years, working its way out of a bitter center.  For the bear attack alone I had to bury myself in books about animal attacks—very troubling for an animal lover, but fruitful in its paradoxes.  The bear makes his appearance, but the story is really about a family, a father and two daughters, coming back from the death of the mother, over two decades that have blurred the grief but never annulled it.  At the end the characters have tumbled through all this in memory, and exist for a moment, I hope, in the arrested, blessed state granted to weddings and to short stories.