Saturday, October 29, 2011

Suzanne Morrison Talks About Yoga Bitch: One Woman's Quest to Conquer Skepticism, Cynicism, and Cigarettes on the Path to Enlightenment

Come on, how could you not love a book that's called Yoga Bitch? Suzanne Morrison's tale of enlightenment is a fresh, hilarious look at how we try to reshape our lives. I'm deliriously happy to have her on my blog (especially considering my own Yoga trauma.) Thank you, Suzanne!

Your book is so, so funny! I just loved it, especially after my own yoga trauma. (I got yelled at after refusing to do a freaking handstand in the very first day of beginner's class. "You look like you need challenge!" the teacher told me. )

First off, that is an example of the absolute worst kind of yoga teacher, the one who makes you try something you aren't ready for and then guilts you into it. That's not yoga, that's asshole acrobatics.
 (Asshole acrobatics: Oh, the images that come to mind!)

When I got to the part where all the yoga people, except for you, are drinking their pee, I was laughing so hard that I nearly peed. But I still wonder, why didn't you leave then? I know you said it was penance, but don't you think reward acts just as well?

Ha! Well, I considered leaving. But the thing is, I’m prone to inertia. Once I’m in a place, it’s very hard for me to pick up and leave. I’m not one to change horses in midstream. (Midstream! Insert pee joke here!) Also, I was fascinated. I mean, the world is full of so many different kinds of people. So many crazy motherfuckers. I’ve always been attracted to people who are completely different from me, and this was an opportunity to be embedded in this weird, foreign world. If we were talking about pissdrinking on day one, I couldn’t help but wonder what we’d discuss on day twenty, you know?

So, people always tell me that someone rushing around all the time and agitated (like me) would really benefit from slowing down with yoga. But it didn't work for me at all. You seem sort of similar to me--do you think that statement is Kool-ade or does it have some merit?

Well, I think it all depends on the kind of yoga you were to try. If a person told you Christianity would help, that could mean being a Catholic, a Baptist, a Calvinist, a Unitarian, one of those crazy Westboro Jerkfaces . . . same with yoga. There are a kajillion types of yoga out there, and I think if someone wants to do yoga, they’ll find their type. But, well, you have to want to try it. Seems like you might be drawn more to a yoga teacher who’s wicked and smart and funny, maybe one who comes from a more intellectual yoga tradition as opposed to one of the more airy-fairy types or the drill-sergeant Iyengar type.

Folks who are more agitated and rushing around all the time, like us, can go in a few directions: some of us prefer slower, more restorative yoga (where you basically lie around on the floor pretending to be dead for ninety minutes) because it chills us out (I’m in this camp, usually) or we need something to burn us out a little, like a flow class, where you sweat and move a ton, and by the end you’re exhausted. Some of us need to exhaust ourselves first before we can relax. If I’m mad at someone, that type of yoga is very good for me.

BUT! That said! There are countless yoga proselytizers out there, trying to convert the masses. They can’t help it—yoga has changed their lives and they want to share the wealth. It doesn’t mean they’re right about it working for you, too. 

For me, if I sense that a teacher is really happy with herself, really satisfied with her spirituality and her flexibility and her vegetarianism or whatever; if she really knows she has a lot to teach us, because she’s figured out so much? I run like hell from that teacher. I’m a lot more attracted to the Woody Allens of yoga, the neurotic, searching, questioning yogis who suspect it’s all a house of cards. Those are the teachers whose classes I return to again and again. Who knows, maybe you would too?
Then again, maybe you should just stay home and watch some TV. I love TV. Add some chocolate or bacon to the experience and you just might reach enlightenment.

 I know that yoga is about limitlessness, but your wise, funny and acerbic account makes it seem limiting and even cultish. (I know, I am showing my bias). why do you think it isn't as accepting of the unique? You, frankly, were the one person in the group, that I would have wanted to talk to!

Aw, thanks Caroline! You would have liked Baerbel, too—she was smart and funny and very grounded. Whenever I felt myself becoming too ethereal, I would run to her house for a good, sarcastic conversation.

As for accepting the unique, I think yoga studios attract certain types, for sure. One studio will be bursting at the seams with yoga bitches in overpriced workout clothes. Another will be full of smiley, happy people who’ve cooked their brains in overheated rooms and become very compassionate as a result. You’ve got your classes full of people who admit they have no idea what they’re doing in yoga, that they don’t know why they even came to class, that they know they’ll never touch their toes, but jeez, here they are, so they’re going to try, however sheepishly. (I love those people.) You have the smelly throwbacks to the sixties and you have the power yogis who look like bodybuilders.

But there’s that one type of yogi that seems so ubiquitous from the outside, the judgey, yogier-than-thou, perfect yogi, at once an acrobat and a self-appointed guru. This type has figured it out. She gets it. Anyone who thinks differently than she does simply does not get it. She is to be avoided at all cost. She strongly believes that your uniqueness would be vastly improved if it were remodeled in her image. Run.

Part of why you went on this retreat was because you were afraid of death. What about now? (and why or why not?) You were also trying God on for size. How is the fit? It it different now than it was when you were in Bali?

Oh, I’m still afraid of death. I don’t have any equanimity about death whatsoever. I’m completely against it. I don’t know how one “gets over” death, or why I ever imagined I could do that. I mean—it’s death. You’re over. Done. It’s appalling, a major design flaw. But what’s nice about yoga and meditation is that they both really do help me to be more in the moment, so I’m thinking less about all my various psychic cancers and the probability of my dying of lupus or some rare type of encephalitis.

Writing does that, too—anything that requires complete concentration is good for eradicating, or at any rate postponing, fear. (There’s a reason artistic types tend to have an affinity for yoga and meditation—we engage that kind of focus on a daily basis. Concentration isn’t a foreign concept when you write books or music. It’s a requirement.) So I find that in concentration there is some relief from the fear of death, from fear of anything, really—change, illness, aging, loss, financial devastation, nuclear war, boils, taxes, all the things I fear when my mind isn’t occupied. The goal is to be that focused all the time, when chopping carrots, writing, having a conversation, waxing your legs. That’s enlightenment, in a nutshell.

As for God, I’m still looking. I think I’ve come to a place where I can admit that I’m on the hunt, that I’m deeply interested in religion and spirituality, and that might be enough for me. To be sort of a hobbyist at religion. I try to pray, to meditate, and I fail all the time. I think I’m doing it almost as an experiment, like, what will happen if I pray to Mary every night? It’s a challenge, almost. But I don’t know if I can believe in God as defined by any of the world’s religions. That’s why yoga’s a good fit for me, I think. It’s a great way to engage in spiritual inquiry without feeling like I’m getting boxed into something that feels fictional.

Why do you think it took you eight years to see how you had changed? And can you talk about that a bit here?

Well, I can be slow. I think that’s part of it. But mostly it took falling in love, which felt like starting a whole new life, to be able to look backwards and see the path that had led me there. It wasn’t until I had that perspective that I knew what the story was.

That’s why I structured the book the way I did, as a sort of dialogue between perspective and lack thereof. I went on my yoga retreat in Bali thinking that wisdom and self-understanding was something you could schedule, or pick up at the store, like a loaf of bread. (I think the wellness industry encourages this notion, too, and I am very susceptible to it.)

But of course that’s not how it works. I picked up a lot of tools for developing self-understanding while on retreat, but I didn’t come home with everything figured out the way I had hoped I would. I came home more confused than when I’d left! Here I’d thought that I would return to the States as wise and grounded and certain about myself as the yoga teacher, Indra, I admired. I thought she had found everything—God, herself, the love of her life—through yoga. I thought that if I just followed in her footsteps, I would find all of those things, too. Instead I left Bali thinking Indra might be a huge fraud and that I wouldn’t ever be able to truly change my life.

If I hadn’t responded so powerfully to Indra I wouldn’t have felt the need to write this story. But for years, I couldn’t stop wondering why I had believed her to be so perfect and why my disillusionment was so disappointing when she turned out to be—well, a human being.

And so the story is partly about how those tools I picked up on retreat became useful to me as I learned how to use them over time. There was one moment, many years after the retreat, after I had finally ripped my life apart and sewn it back together, when I felt like I finally understood what had happened with Indra. When, for the briefest of moments, I had insight into my life and compassion for the woman I had idolized. That was when I knew I had a story, because I knew where it ended.

 Do you think any sort of journey, other than yoga, can take people to where they need to go, if they are willing to self-examine?

Absolutely. For one thing, anything you do can be considered yoga. So you might never chant Om or do a downward dog or read a sutra, but if you’re living an examined life as a garbage collector, you’re doing yoga. If you engage your life honestly, you’re doing yoga. The idea is that you’re trying to acknowledge what’s real. What’s real might be that you’re an asshole, and if you recognize it, and say, “I am an asshole,” then you are doing yoga. If you are an asshole, and you tell yourself “I am not that bad. I’m not a real asshole, compared to that guy. Compared to that guy, that Hitler guy, I’m a real peach,” then you are not doing yoga. You are warping reality instead of allowing it to be what it is. Embrace the asshole. It’s what’s real.

Self-inquiry is everything. Honestly looking at yourself will take you all kinds of fascinating, harrowing, hilarious places. You don’t need to do yoga to go on that journey. You just need to pay attention, and invite your whole self to the table, not just the nice parts.

What's obsessing you now?

My new memoir is about my first big relationship, and how it changed me. I’m very interested in the struggle in my late teens/early twenties between my desire for independence and my need for connection. I thought I had figured the whole world out before I fell in love for the first time. But suddenly I found myself in a whole new world, one I didn’t understand at all. And most of all, I didn’t understand myself in it. I didn’t know myself anymore, with a man. I’m fascinated by that sort of alienation we can experience from ourselves.

I’ve also been doing a lot of research in the past couple of years on serial killers—my new show has to do with Ted Bundy, who was a friend of my parents’.

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

Which foods would you trade enlightenment for?

Chocolate, crème brulee, salt & vinegar potato chips, bacon, a perfect cup of coffee, Fritos, Doritos, Tostitos, Taquitos, Burritos. Pretty much anything that ends in an –os. A hamburger crammed with dill pickles and ketchup. Any cheese or dairy product except for cottage cheese, which I’ll eat but am not truly passionate about. Skim milk is for people who hate life, so that’s out, too. Crispy buttery chicken skin, with or without the rest of the chicken. Chocolate with almonds, chocolate with hazelnuts, chocolate with caramel, chocolate with mint, chocolate with chocolate, double chocolate, triple chocolate supreme which is something I think I just invented. Hot chocolate—I love hot chocolate. Chocolate covered bacon is very good. I also like wine with a chocolatey bouquet. Also, sausage. 

Sonia Taitz talks about In the King's Arms, Love, Loss, and What She Wrote

I raved about Sonia Taitz's novel in my book column at, and I'm absolutely honored to have her here talking about the writing process.  I can't thank you enough, Sonia!


People tell me I’m making up for lost time. My just-released novel, IN THE KING’S ARMS, was nearly published two decades years ago (the deal fell through). The last book I wrote, MOTHERING HEIGHTS, came out in the 90’s. Where have I been, and what have I done, and how can I catch up now?

The thing is, I’ve really been here all along. My body, mind and heart have all been avidly involved in the raising of three kids. When MOTHERING HEIGHTS came out, I was still able to juggle two children and my writing. But being on television in makeup and heels to promote my book never felt as right as wiping off the paint, kicking the high-heels back to the closet, and getting down on the floor to cuddle or play. By the time the paperback edition of MOTHERING HEIGHTS came out, I had three lively children – Emma, Gabriel, and Phoebe – all under the age of five. My housekeeper quit in dismay (to be fair, the place looked like the lovechild of Disneyland and Hoarders). Then my father fell ill with terminal cancer and a year later, my mother did, too. It felt like the easiest and most right thing in the world to put on my sweats and grab some facecloths and be useful in the most anonymous and thankless way. The thanks, actually, was there, but was unspoken; it was the love between all of us.  As I said in MOTHERING HEIGHTS, “what children take from us, they give…. We become people who feel more deeply, question more deeply, hurt more deeply, and love more deeply.” The same is true when we take care of our aging parents.

I popped my head out in the 00’s. Both my father and mother, by then, had passed away, and I had been there with them, invigilating even their deathbeds. I knew they were at peace. My children were growing up happy, good and strong.  Eventually, I started writing again, first a play, and then a draft of a new novel, and then – when my parents had been gone for many years -- a memoir about growing up as the daughter of Holocaust survivors. Perhaps taking care of the helpless or wounded had begun with this unique childhood. As an immigrant’s daughter, being there for my parents -- who had survived death camps and refugee camps, and who came to America without money or language – had always felt right to me. As I began writing again, I also dusted off my long-dormant law degree, working with foster children and with victims of rape and domestic violence. Gradually, slowly, I emerged back into the world of makeup and heels. Well, lip gloss and two-inch heels. But I emerged.

IN THE KING’S ARMS (the story of the daughter of survivors and her romance with the son of anti-Semites) is now published. Another novel is being buffed and polished, and my memoir will be out next year. I’m also planning to bring MOTHERING HEIGHTS out as an ebook. So I’m guess I’m back. But I never left. I just went somewhere beautiful, worthy and rich – and am a better writer for it.

Mike Levy talks about Kosher Chinese: Living, Teaching, and Eating With China's Other Billion

I first met Mike at the Brattleboro Book Festival, and sat enthralled through his reading (and also had a blast talking to him at the Authors' Reception.)  I quickly discovered that not only is he one of the funniest people on the planet, but his stories are so engaging, all you want to do is just sit and listen to him talk--or keep reading his phenomenal book! Of course, I badgered Mike into coming onto my blog and I'm thrilled to host him here.  Thanks, Mike!

How did writing the book come about and what was the whole process like? Did you start writing it after you were home or while you were in China?

I once read that Maya Angelou does all of her writing on legal pads with a felt tipped pen, and does it with military regimentation:  5-11am, every day, in the same room, with the same things sitting next to her (a thesaurus, a Bible, and a bottle of wine, or something like that).

My process was the opposite.  No regimentation, or even intention!  I was blogging while in China, and a friend sent the blog to his literary agent.  The agent—Will Lippincott, a real champion for young writers— liked what he was reading and contacted me on Skype.  It was all very 21st century.  We chatted on and off while I was in China, but I never really thought of trying to create the seamless narrative necessary for a memoir.  But when I got home and met with Will, he convinced me a memoir was not only possible, but the best way to tell my story.  And so we started the year long process of transforming hundreds of blogs into a book pitch.

What was it like to build a community in such a foreign environment--and what was it like when you came back home to culture shock?

I was surprised to find how easy it was to build community, even half a world away, among people with a wildly different background from my own—these were farmers earning a few dollars a day, and I grew up in a typical American suburb.

I learned that people everywhere respond to authenticity, and people everywhere like to be heard.  So I tried to be myself, and I tried to ask questions.  This led to a lot of mahjong, a lot of late nights drinking beer with new friends, and a lot of basketball.  Life in Guiyang was physically difficult, and at times I was spiritually isolated (I was the only Jew within a thousand miles, after all). . .  but it was emotionally rich.  I quickly found friends and community.
Coming home was easier than I thought it would be.  One thing I remember vividly was lying in the grass in Northampton, Massachusetts, and literally burying my face in the soil.  That sounds ridiculous. . .  but China’s environment is so wildly devastated, and the county is so overcrowded, that I had not seen an open, clean patch of grass in almost three years.
We are lucky to be post-industrial, and I will never again take clean air and water for granted.

You and I have had a conversation about why going to an extremely foreign environment is so much better an experience than going to, say, Paris or London, where it's much easier to fit in. The rewards are just greater. Do you feel that that way of thinking transcends travel and applies to everything else in life as well, like work and love and etc.?

What a fun question!  As you know, I’m a teacher, and the best part about the job is seeing things with fresh eyes—seeing a text from a teenager’s perspective, or looking at a problem again for the first time.  I feel like this is such a gift.  Traveling to a new place can result in the same feelings (newness, curiosity, rebirth, connection).  And when I’m not teaching and not able to travel, I use literature to create a sense of the foreign.  I spent last weekend in feudal Japan. . .  thanks to David Mitchell’s The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet.

 I was really interested in how your love for ritual comes across in the book. You keep kosher, go to temple (sometimes), yet you aren't religious.  Can you talk a bit about that?

The simplest way for me to describe my habits is that I do what works for me.  Yoga helps me relax, so I do it.  Traveling helps me stay curious, so I do it.  And Jewish ritual helps me feel healthy and happy, so I do it.  In other words:  my religious habits are done for the same reason as my exercise habits, or intellectual habits.  I wrap tfillin in the mornings because, for some reason, it connects me to myself.  I keep Kosher because it gives each meal meaning.  I don’t do these things because I think God wants me to.  I don’t even know what that statement could even mean.

All of this makes me a typical Jew, I think. . .  A person wrestling with tradition, text, and the divine.  It’s a life long journey.

What's obsessing you now?

Home brewing Chinese rice wine, reading Haruki Murakami, and trying to figure out how to teach 4th graders about Buddhism.  Yikes!

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

The question that comes up most frequently as I travel to talk about Kosher Chinese is this:  why are the stories in the memoir so different from the stories people see in the mainstream media.  The answer is that central China really is a world apart.  The billion people living there are rendered invisible by the New York Times and CNN. . .  I guess the story of the booming coast on the one side and the spiritual Tibetans on the other overwhelms the story of actual daily life for typical Chinese people.  And that’s a shame.

Pictures of You one of BookMarks Best Books of 2011!

Joy. Joy. Joy. Joy.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Beth Kephart talks about book trailers and You Are My Only

Nowadays, you sort of have to have a book trailer. It's interesting and fun to think about your novel as a preview at the local movie theater, with people watching while they chomp on popcorn. But it's also really difficult to get the visual right. I did a trailer for Pictures of You, but I hired someone I thought was brilliant to do it for me, and all I knew at the start is that I wanted fog.  I wanted it to be moody.  I wanted it to feel dark. I'm glad I have a trailer. I really like it, though I keep wanting to change it around, much the way I do with my novels after they are finished.  And I take full responsibility for the misspelling I didn't catch! 

I invited Beth Kephart here to talk about the process and to show off her trailer.  Thanks, thanks, thanks, as always Beth, for being here on my blog (and here in my life.)

I don’t know, truthfully, what a trailer for a book should be. Or if trailers, in general, make a difference. But I wanted to make something (my own hands, my own heart) that would hold the book in a small electronic space—engender a mood, suggest a sound, give voice.

You Are My Only touches on sensitive things—on the real-life heartbreak of kidnap. Cute wouldn’t do for this trailer. Big and noisy would be wrong. Slick, I thought, was a poor choice, too. I just frankly wanted quiet, wanted the book to speak for itself. I also wanted to thank some of the many exquisite people who have read this book ahead of its release and given me the hope I needed to carry it forward.

I take photographs when I’m not writing; I decided to use some of them. I know how to operate iMovie, so I made a “B” roll with that. My husband was in charge of filming me (tripoding the camera, testing the lights, then leaving the room when I spoke so that I could feel alone) and in charge of transitioning our various bits and pieces into Final Cut Express. I sat beside him for four hours on a rainy morning until we got it right.

Well. Right is an overstatement. I am aware of the trailer’s flaws. But the quiet is there. The mood of the day. Me in my office, reading. That’s all it is, but I am glad we made it. It

Pictures of You proud sponsor of brilliant Brad Listi's OTHER PEOPLE author podcast!

I'm thrilled to announce that PICTURES OF YOU is the sponsor of the latest episode of Brad Listi's new author interview podcast, OTHER PEOPLE, episode 11, Adam Levin. Brad's the brilliant founder and producer of The Nervous Breakdown, and all TNB book club titles are getting podcast sponsorships in the early going as a way to help the cause and the club.

And the show is available for subscription free of charge at iTunes.

How cool is this???

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Former Algonquin Publicity Assistant/ Genius Sarah Rose Nordgren talks about her new writing fellowship, Paris, and the writing life

It's no secret how I worship all the gods and goddesses at my publisher, Algonquin. Sarah Rose Nordgren, as publicity assistant there,  booked my flights and my hotel, held my hand when I panicked, and made sure I never had to get up too early or leave too late from anywhere at any time. Sarah just won this amazing writing fellowship, and I wanted a chance to celebrate her so I asked her to come on my blog.  Thank you, Sarah, for being on my blog, for being on my side, for being my friend, for everything in the world I can think of.

You've won this extraordinary Fellowship in Provincetown. Tell us about it--and is it strange going from a fulltime job to being a writer full time? 

The winter fellowship at the Fine Arts Work Center is an artist’s dream. Each year ten visual artists and ten writers are awarded seven full months to devote exclusively to their art. The Center provides living and working space and a small stipend, and the only criteria is that the recipient spends the fellowship months here in Provincetown creating. The Fine Arts Work Center has been around since 1968, and has hosted a parade of amazing writers including Louise Glück, Michael Cunningham, Denis Johnson, Marie Howe, Ann Patchett, and Nick Flynn (the list goes on and on!). The community and support provided by the FAWC is invaluable, and Provincetown itself is a wonderful place to write. At the very tip of Cape Cod, the town is surrounded by ocean, and the fellowship year begins just as the last tourists are straggling out of town. The winters here are windy, dark, moody, and isolated, which makes it perfect for writing as long as you keep your head screwed on tight. As a Returning Fellow (I was also here in ‘08-09), I know what I’m getting into, and this time I brought my fiancé (poet Michael C. Peterson) and furry feline (Yuri) along with me to fend off insanity.

Three weeks into the fellowship, I’m still getting my sea legs, as it were. The transition from working fulltime (and I had an exceptionally busy summer) to being a fulltime writer again does feel very extreme! I’m trying to be patient with myself as I loosen my grip on the clock and relax into a more writerly schedule. It’s impossible for me to just jump in and start producing poems when my brain has been tuned into work and schedules and wedding planning and moving… I have to clear away the mental clutter gradually so my writer-brain can wake up and emerge from the waters. 

You were this remarkable publicist at Algonquin and I owed my life to you so many times--how did you manage to write while always been available to other writers?

I liked my job at Algonquin precisely because I had the opportunity to work with other writers. Even though we were usually communicating about practical things like schedules and press materials and tours, I enjoyed feeling like I could contribute to the success of a book, and help writers have a positive publishing experience. The world of publishing for poetry is usually quite different than for fiction because there aren’t big tours, and the books don’t sell in large numbers, but if and when I’m lucky enough to have my manuscript published, I’ll be thrilled if I have anywhere close to the support and care that Algonquin gives it’s authors.

While I do think it’s possible to write and work a day-job (many people are doing it as I write this!), I’m sorry to say that I’ve personally never figured out a satisfying way to balance work and writing. My brain goes into productive/schedules/to-do list mode, and it’s very difficult for me to slip into a more open and spacious mind-frame in the evening or on a Saturday. I wish I could give some advice about this issue. Perhaps someone can give me some good advice!

When --and why--did you first start writing? And why poetry? Do you also write fiction?

Like many writers, I fell in love with words early and hard. I was fortunate to attend an alternative school (Waldorf) from preschool on through middle school, and one of the pedagogical strategies there is to do a lot of memorization and recitation. We learned and recited poems by Blake and Emerson (my 8th grade class learned the entirety of The Raven by Poe), read stories and poems aloud, studied fairy tales and Bible stories and Norse and Greek mythologies. It was the perfect education for an artist! In elementary school I began writing several novels which I never finished (the first clue that I’m not a fiction writer!). These novels usually revolved around some young girl who had a terminal illness or other major tragedy in her life, and her wild Arabian horse. Then in middle school and high school I started writing poems and never stopped.

Besides one foray into a fiction workshop as an undergraduate at Sarah Lawrence, I’ve known for awhile that my heart is written in verse. The “stories” I wrote in that one fiction class were more like extended prose poems under the influences of Lydia Davis and Hans Christian Andersen (I’m making them sound way better than they actually were). The big tip off was the conversations in workshop. Students wanted to discuss “what happened” in my stories, and politely requested more character development and dialogue. Plot? Character? I looked at my classmates like they were Philistines. “But what about the mood?” I asked. “And did you notice my syntax?”

Where do you want to be in five years? (Besides in Paris, writing in a cafe!)

Only there and nowhere else! (Add husband and lovely future children to the scene: Michael and I can alternate days so one can write while the other cavorts in the park with our dear son, Marcel, and daughter, Joyce. We can meet for lunch in the café, where Michael and I will drink café au lait and the children will have steamed milk and sandwiches.) 

What's obsessing you now?

I’m reading The Origin of Species by Charles Darwin and India by Patrick French, and thinking a lot about pre-history. Today I also started reading The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore by Benjamin Hale (a college friend whom I recently became reacquainted with), which seems like it could be a nice compliment to the other books. I don’t know where these lines of thinking will take me, but probably somewhere!

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

“Where can people read your poetry?” Well, online you can read it here and here. Also look out for my work in the Best New Poets 2011 anthology which pubs in November, and in upcoming issues of The Iowa Review and Pleiades.

Anna Solomon talks about The Little Bride, when writing feels like a lie, and the joys of research

Let's begin with this: I love this novel. Anna Solomon's The Little Bride, about a young Jewish woman who comes to the West as a mail order bride, is always haunting, sometimes horrific, and totally  sublime. I raved about this novel for my column at, and I wanted to talk more with Anna about her book.  Thank you, Anna!

How did the idea for the novel spark?

You had to ask that, didn't you? It's a bit embarrassing, actually. I was Googling myself - yes, indeed, in the good old days before 'Google Alerts' - and among other Anna Solomons, I came across one, Anna Solomon Freudenthal, who was on this website called "Stories Untold: Jewish Women Pioneers." I was fascinated. I had no idea that Jewish pioneers even existed! It seemed like a wonderful, exaggerated version of my own experience growing up Jewish in New England. I poked around, and saw that one of the women on this site, a Rachel Bella Calof, had been a mail-order bride to North Dakota. Now I was more than fascinated, I was hooked. I read Calof's memoir (an amazing account her children discovered and had translated from the Yiddish) and when I was reading her description of the "Look" she'd been given - this was the examination she had to undergo to see if she was fit to be a bride - when I read her line, "They inspected me like a horse," I was stunned. It's one of those lines that says everything and nothing. A perfect entry point for a fiction writer. So that's where I began.

What was the research like? Did anything surprise you?

My research process was intensive, thorough, and also random. I didn't research for a year and then start writing, I started writing immediately and researched as I went. I never really set out to write a historical novel. I felt like I was writing a novel that happened to be set during a different time. (I felt this way until I sold the book and was informed that what I'd written fell firmly into the category of 'historical novels.') So I really used the history to inspire the story, but I didn't want to be inhibited by it. Most of the book turned out to be true to history - or true enough - but I knew that for me the story's truth had to come first.
One thing that surprised me was that other fiction often turned out to be the richest source of information for me, especially when it came to bringing particular places to life. Odessa, for instance, I couldn't have written without Isaac Babel's 'Odessa Stories.' And Willa Cather's 'My Antonia' was critical to my own experience of - and expression of - the Great Plains.

 What I loved (and I don't want to give it away) was the ending of the novel, which was that glorious combination of exactly right and yet totally surprising. At Because I am always so interested i process, can you tell me when you knew the ending? Did you always know it or did it startle you?

I'm so glad you loved it! I love the ending, too, in part because it did surprise me. Not the general trajectory - I had a sense of where Minna (my protagonist) would end up pretty early on in the writing process - but how it occurs, how she gets herself to that ending. A lot of my writing it like that: I know where I want to go, but have no idea how to get there. For me, this ending is an opening out. Most of the book is very intimate, it's very close to Minna's point-of-view and you don't see a whole lot of what's going on in the wider world - because she doesn't, she is very focused on what's right in front of her, she is also pretty self-absorbed, I think that's fair to say. At the end, though, she changes, and so the book changes: suddenly the world (the public world of the 1880s - the events and trends and architect of the time) comes spinning into view. I found that exhilarating, and unexpected, but it was also just right, for Minna and the book. To me, it's a very hopeful ending.

What's your writing life like?

Usually, very regular. I thrive on routine, and discipline. (Sexy, right?) I write in the mornings. I used to write within 15 minutes of waking but now that I have a small child I can no longer do that. I have to come at my work after being awake for two hours and sending her off to school. I've adjusted, though. I write for 3 hours, on average, then try to take a break, a shower or a run, maybe one more idea ekes out of my unconscious, and then I open myself up to the world. Turn on the wi-fi, deal with emails, write copy for a PR firm, etc. But it's so important to me not to do any of that before I get the writing done. Sometimes I don't write very much, or what I write is bad, but I sit there anyway. It's a kind of faith, I guess.

Right now, though, everything I just wrote feels like a lie because I have been working really hard to promote this book and traveling a lot and writing essays and answering wonderful q&a's like this one and so I have absolutely no routine. I find it very disorienting. I mean, it's a lot of fun and I love giving readings and I am so thrilled and gratified to hear from people who are actually reading and discussing and debating my book! It all feels totally worthwhile and wonderful. But I do miss my good ol' daily routine. My goal is to be back to it by January 1.

 What's obsessing you now?

A personal essay I'm writing, for a magazine I won't name for fear of jinxing myself. It's a family story - about suicide, and memory, and living in the present. Small topics, right? It's kicking my butt. But it feels great to be struggling in that way, even if I'm not able to struggle with it every day right now.

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

Oh let's see. How about my short stories? It's funny, because I've been publishing short stories for years and this novel thing is so new so I still identify myself more as a short story writer and I have this weird feeling about the fact that more people are reading my novel than have ever read my stories. I'm so happy they're reading it but I want to knock on their doors and say, hey, you know what? It's not really my first book. My first book  - in my mind - is made up of short stories. I love short stories. They are such a demanding form, and they've been so important to my development as a writer.  I plan to keep writing them, even as I write my next novel. And yes, there is a next novel. It's set in Gloucester, MA - my hometown - during Prohibition.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Pictures of You on Bookmark Magazine's Best of 2011 List

I am thrilled, honored, and totally jazzed to announce that PICTURES OF YOU made Bookmark Magazines Best Books of 2011 list.

Thank you to everyone who read my book or supported it in any way.
I want to buy you the planet Saturn.

Jessica McCann talks about writing a jigsaw novel

Jessica McCann is the author of the award-winning novel, All Different Kinds of Free. Inspired by a true story, the novel follows Margaret Morgan, kidnapped in 1837 along with her  free children and sold into slavery. And on a personal note, Jessica is one of the coolest, warmest writers on the planet. I'm thrilled to have her here on my blog. And you can follow her on twitter and facebook at Twitter: @JMcCannWriter
Facebook: .
Thank you, Jessica. 

Writing a Jigsaw Novel

by Jessica McCann

As a kid, I used to do a lot of jigsaw puzzles with my mom. She taught me to put together all the edge pieces first, to create the outline, and then fill in the middle. In school, that seemed to be the conventional wisdom from my writing teachers, too. Start with an outline, then fill in the details. For better or for worse, I’ve never been very good at following conventional wisdom.

When doing jigsaws, I would try to work the edges first. I really would. But then, what’s this here? Could it be part of an elbow? Maybe it’s an ear. And what about this piece? It has the same peachy hue, maybe it goes with this one. Ah ha! Little by little, section by scattered section, the big picture would eventually come together. Inevitably, the final piece to snap into place would be some flat-edged rascal that seemed to be lost until the very end.

My writing generally takes shape the same way. Even for the shortest magazine article, I struggle with sticking to an outline. A quote jumps out at me. An anecdote begs to be fleshed out. A statistic yearns to be researched. Then all the pieces get shifted and rearranged again and again, until the big picture finally materializes. The opening paragraphs are usually the last thing I write.

Multiply that by about a hundred, and you have a pretty good idea of how I wrote my first novel -- little by little, scene by scattered scene, until the last plot point finally snapped into place.
ALL DIFFERENT KINDS OF FREE was inspired by actual events. It tells the story of Margaret Morgan, a free woman of color in 1830s America whose perfect life was shattered when she was kidnapped and forced into slavery. It took me a good five years to figure out all the plot points, to write and assemble all the scenes and chapters of the book. And the first scene I wrote, the one I thought would be the opening scene, ended up somewhere in the middle.

For a long time, the realization that this is my writing process was daunting as hell. Oh, it's fine for a 1,500-word article that takes a few weeks to complete. But apply it to novel writing, and you're looking at years of writing and revision for every book. Finally, I came to accept that writing a novel (and doing it well) simply takes as long as it takes.

Freelance writer and memoir author Jessica Handler also thinks it's OK write out of order. In fact, she encourages it.

"Just because your story follows a timeline doesn't mean you have to write it linearly," she said in her article "Writing without a Map" (The Writer magazine, May 2011). "If you're inspired to write a scene other than the one that comes next in your manuscript, go for it. You can put the story in the right order later."

You can put the story in the right order later.

Handler’s advice is comforting as I hammer away at my second novel. My outline is sketchy, at best. I have about two dozen scenes and vignettes written, which are random and completely unrelated. But that’s OK. I know now the big picture is there somewhere, waiting to reveal itself. And as I shift and re-arrange all the sections, I know that final flat-edged piece is just waiting to be snapped into place.


Cindy Bokma talks about writing, beauty blogging and Here If You Need Me

I first met CIndy when she interviewed me for her great blog Cindy Reads. We became friends and Cindy now even has me writing about beauty products for her fantastic beauty blog Hello Dollface (You cannot imagine how much fun this is to try out $70 lipsticks and $200 skin creams!) But Cindy and I also have many, many conversations about writing, novels, scripts, the works, and one of the best times of my life was shopping in Manhattan with her--No one has a sense of style like Cindy, or better celebrity gossip.  Her new novel, Here If You Need Me is as sparkling as Cindy herself, and I'm thrilled to be peppering her with questions.  Thank you, Cindy!

So tell me about your book. What sparked the idea?
The book is about a working class young woman befriending a down- on- her- luck celebrity with disastrous results. When I wrote the book, I was running my celebrity gossip website. I considered what would happen if a regular person like myself became friends with a celebrity. I don’t think it would be as glamorous as most people imagine. In fact, I could see being sucked into that world of fame and money and losing everything!
What's your writing process like? Are you an outliner or do you just "follow your pen?"
I love to follow a screenplay format. It helps to keep my ideas clear so I know where I’m headed. I use Blake Snyders “beat sheet” from his Save the Cat book. Its brilliant. Once you kind of know what your character is going to do, and is supposed to do, you can be free to fill in the blanks. It works for me...most of the time. 
You run a successful beauty blog, Hello Dollface, another literary blog Cindy Reads, and you're also a screenwriter as well as a novelist. Plus, you're a wife and mother! So how do you juggle everything in your day?
Oh my gosh, Caroline, I’m overwhelmed! I am super busy every single day. There isn’t one day of the week where I’m not on my computer, working on something. I feel like in order to reach the level of success I’m after, I have to put in the hard work! Its been ten years of sitting at the computer every single day whether I feel like it or not.
What's obsessing you now?
Right this second, it’s the pile of laundry in the bedroom and the fact Project Runway is on!
There are a few projects on my mind- one is my 40 Things Before I Turn 40 series, about trying to cram in all the things I want to do before I turn 40. I want to try NaNo and bang out a novel in November. And I have an idea for a television series I’ve been planning in my mind- I have to get that on paper.
What project are you working on next?
NaNo! I have an idea for my book and it will be the first character I write that is a mother and wife in the suburbs, which is exactly what I am.
What question didn't I ask that I should have?
Maybe if I have an agent? Which I do not, but I desperately need! 

Danielle Younge-Ullman talks about writing, divorce and dysfunctional families

Danielle Younge-Ullman's Falling Under is the story of a reclusive young artist whose past begins to catch up with her when she falls in love. Gripping, disturbing and deliciously dark, it's a book that gets under your skin. I'm honored to have Danielle here to write about it. Thank you Danielle!

Agoraphobia, sex, art, gay rights, religious extremism, alcoholism, dysfunctional families…these are some of the things I talked/wrote about when Falling Under first came out.

But I recently realized I’ve never said, in blunt terms, what the book is about.

Kind of a major omission, I know—one I’m going to remedy right now.

Falling Under is about how hard divorce hits kids, and how deep and long-lasting the effects are.

It’s about how much harder divorce hits a kid when the parents stop being parents.

It’s about how those kids go forward with a profoundly changed view of the world, and how, despite everything they count on being ripped from under them, they bravely adapt and survive.

Finally, it’s about how some of the deepest effects of divorce are not seen until the children become adults and tackle adult relationships. This is where their world-view (often “trust nothing”) becomes hard to live with and the survival skills that got them through child/teenage-hood stop working.

I wrote Falling Under to explore these issues and demonstrate the effects. I hope readers come away with a deeper understanding, and a motivation to do better and be better, whatever their circumstances.

Now, I am not anti-divorce, nor am I in favor of blaming one’s parents for everything.

I am in favor of fighting like hell to save a marriage, YES for the sake of their kids, before giving up. Because as much as people want to tell themselves that getting out of an unhappy marriage will benefit their kids, across the board, statistics say otherwise. (Sorry.)

I am in favor of putting the kids first in every subsequent decision, once you decide to divorce. Difficult? Yes. Impossible sometimes, when two parents have different opinions on what “putting the kids first” actually means? Yes. But TRY, and KEEP TRYING. These kids need to be protected and supported, not used/fought over/abandoned, and/or turned into mini-adults. Many parents, I believe, do their best. Many more could do better.

On the flip side, if you are/were the kid and you’re not coping well and maybe living with a continual feeling that the sky is falling, you are not crazy—you’re having a normal psychological reaction. (This applies even if your parents had a “good” divorce.)

Bottom line: you’re going to need to do some work and/or get some help. Look at where you came from for understanding, though, not for blame, or justification for your own mistakes. Fact is, parents are flawed, and sometimes they’re going to fail to give you what you need, probably because they don’t have it to give. Cultivate empathy. Learn to forgive, because when you’re an adult (and parent) you’re going to fail too sometimes. And know that while this experience may have messed you up, if you pull through it, you will be a bigger, stronger, better person with a deep understanding of the human condition and the fierce power and perspective of a survivor.

That’s it. Now you don’t even need to read the book. But if you do, and you want to drop me a line, you can find me on Twitter @DanielleYUllman and at

Monday, October 17, 2011

The hilarious Greg Olear warns writers what NOT to do when your book comes out

I've had Greg Olear on my blog before to talk about his fantastic new book Fathermucker. (He's also the author of Totally Killer, which is totally killer, and the senior editor of the fabulous The Nervous Breakdown.) Now I'm thrilled that Greg is giving advice about how to deal with the release of a new book. Oh, and Greg? About the new Book Scan feature on Amazon? Be afraid.  Be very, very afraid.

The Second Coming
By Greg Olear

With one novel under my belt—it’s called Totally Killer, and there are plenty of good copies still available—I’m now the world’s leading expert on how to approach the release of a new book.  Here are five inviolable rules:

1. Thou shalt not obsess over thine Amazon ranking.

Yes, fine, it’s the only real metric we have.  And the rest of the publishing world has access to it, so it’s sort of like having to publicly tape-measure your pecker in various stages of post-pool shrinkage—except with Amazon rankings, unlike priapic endowment, large size is not desirable. 

But it’s just a number, man, and a fickle one at that; blink and you miss when it breaks 2,500.  And it doesn’t take into account all those pre-orders.  Or the legions of fine consumers who buy their novels from indie bookstores or the Nook.  So don’t let it ruin your whole day when it plummets like lead to the high six digits.  And whatever you do…

2. Thou shalt not buy thine own book on Amazon to improve thine Amazon ranking.

Do the math, dude.  Just not worth it.  But very, very tempting.  In fact, I’m completely certain that the nefarious purpose of the Amazon ranking is to shame authors into buying their own books.  Speaking of Amazon…

3. Thou shalt ignore thine Amazon reviews.

Although the volume of reviews, good or bad, is probably a better indicator of sales success than the aforementioned Amazon sales ranking—case in point: 151 reviews of a certain New York Times bestseller with a picture of a wingèd camera on its cover—you should read those things at your own peril.  People can be mean.  Sadistic, even.   And in the same way that the über-conservative Republicans are always the ones who vote in every single election, the sadistic one-star-givers are always the ones who cross-post, so…

4. Thou shalt not visit Goodreads.

Seriously.  Just stay away from that site.  Block it with your parental controls.  If being a working writer is like living in a 12-step program, Goodreads is a hideous bender from which you wake up a week later, in some Bangkok slum, with a gang symbol tattoo on your forehead and a bad case of the clap.  There should be the Dantean warning on the splash page: abandon hope all ye writers who enter here.  Yes, there are a lot of excellent, excellent people on there, and the site has been good to me…but it has also made my heart sink.

5.   Thou shalt not visit thine bookstore.

I went a few days before Fathermucker came out and bought a stack of books to last the next few months, because once my novel drops, it fills me with dread to walk into a bookstore.  What if they don’t have my book?  What if they do, but it’s not prominently placed?  Should I swallow my pride and explain to the friendly bookseller that they should carry it?  No, no, better to stay home and try one more time to get through Swann’s Way.

Those are the rules.  Break them at your peril.  Now if you excuse me, Amazon has this new Book Scan feature I have to investigate…