Monday, November 28, 2011

The editors of "Men Undressed: Women Writers and the Male Sexual Experience" talk about sex scenes, male critics and more

How could I possibly resist wanting to talk to the editors (Stacy Bierlein, Gina Frangello, Cris Mazza and Kate Meads) of the provocative Men Undressed: Women Writers and the Male Sexual Experience? The book is a terrific collection of bold, brave and brash essays from such extraordinary female authors as A. M. Homes, Aimee Bender, Tawni O'Dell, Gina Frangella, Cris Mazza, and many more. Thanks to all the editors for talking with me.

CL: So, what made you decide to gather women writers to write about the male experience? 

Cris Mazza:  Someone said to me, as the controversy over the title Chick-Lit for the first anthologies I co-edited subsided, that maybe it was now time to do Dick-Lit.  Ha-ha, I said, as though that hasn’t already be done in so many anthologies since the onset of printing presses.  But … there was a way in which the “male experience” hadn’t been anthologized.

At first, I was also playing amateur psychologist.  I wanted to see if the way women wrote sex from a male POV said anything about how they themselves view sex – something about their attitude that wouldn’t be consciously available, even to them.  This curiosity, of course, could not be satisfied because I had no way of knowing if any assumption I could make after reading their material was, in fact, anywhere close to plausible.  And, quickly, the initial curiosity that launched the project quickly changed when I discovered (a) many women didn’t even write graphic sex, let alone from a male POV, (b) many submissions claimed to have graphic sex and didn’t, (c) other anthologies of “women’s sensual writing” or “women’s erotic fiction” completely ignored the issue of perspective or point-of-view and men exploring sexuality from anywhere other than their own experience.  Some of my old bells started re-ringing: the comment a male editor had made to my then-agent about a male perspective sexual situation, a general lambasting at a women’s-writing conference from a woman-of-color who said no one else had the right to imagine or depict of character outsider her own cultural reality. [Note: co-editor Kat Meads has a new book out in which she did exactly this.]   I decided to go see what was out there and what might be said of it if I gathered it together under one cover. 

Kat Meads: My motivation was similar to Cris’s. I get very perturbed when critics or reviewers or readers start making rules about what can and can’t be written about. Very perturbed. I’m truly stunned and amazed that anyone would suggest/demand restrictions on a creative composition. Imagination: no creed, no color, no age, no gender. Anything and everything up for grabs. Does it work/convince as a piece of fiction? That’s what counts, the only judgment that matters. But when Cris and I started thinking about and reading for this project, it was clear to us that a particular kind of censorship—either absorbed or self-imposed—was operating in terms of women writing from the male viewpoint about sex. And I think both of us—and then all four of us—were a bit taken aback by the difficulty of finding work that met our vision for the book. But when we did find those stories and novels, we were ecstatic. In Men Undressed, women not only write as men about sex, they write very, very well.

CL: What kinds of stories did you expect to receive and were you surprised at what you got? I'm also curious what direction you gave your writers, and how you chose the stories you chose.

Stacy Bierlein:  Several colleagues asked, “Are you sure about this?  People write so badly about sex.”  But I didn’t believe that.  A well-written sex scene can be central to any powerful literary work. Sex scenes are often an ideal means for both writers and readers to really know a character.  In the 1700s male writers like Samuel Richardson got to know their female narrators by writing their soul-baring letters. This was a time of high censorship, so these letters likely stood in for sex scenes that would have prevented a novel’s publication. (It’s interesting to note too that Richardson’s work inspired more than one American clergyman to call fiction itself “a sinful form of writing.”)  In our age of texts and tweets, our characters do not write soul-baring letters, but certainly writers can put their characters in sex scenes to reveal their most intimate, honest, or horrifying selves. Certainly as writers we can attempt these moments that allow heightened power to details. The guy who reaches for his Blackberry before his partner has finished coming ….  Well, we know exactly who he is.  (It’s better to be writing him than dating him, of course.)  As we began work on our book, we asked writers for works of literary fiction with “frank sexuality.”  It took our attention that in the early months of our reading for Men Undressed we received strong, deeply admirable stories that were highly sensual yet void of real sexual tension or actual sexual encounters. Our associate editors got a little tired of the four of us saying things like, “Great story, but my god, why don’t they fuck?”  And to be honest, due to the high quality of some of the not-quite-sexual work we were rejecting, I wondered on several occasions if we might consider altering our mission for this book. Certainly “narrative cross-dressing” on its own was a formidable topic. Cris, Kat, and Gina held firm to the frank sexuality requirement and they were right to do so.  We chose visual stories that held us in awe, stories whose vibrant characters pushed at us in some way, and stories we envied and wished we had written. I think the results are stunning.

CL: Why don't men--and some women--want women to write raunchy? 

Cris Mazza:  I’m breaking this question down to “why do so many writers avoid graphic sex?”  I believe some writers, male and female alike, might fear the appearance of using graphic sex only to amp up a book’s “drama” – that old “only for prurient interest”  criticism which, outside obscenity court cases, just means sensationalizing, on par with including graphic violence and gore.   Some, perhaps, fear always being associated too closely with their characters and don’t want to feel that readers are able to peer into their own private intimate lives.  Some men likely don’t want their writing to live in the same sphere as locker-room one-upmanship.  But when it comes to what you’ve actually asked, why don’t men want women to write frank sexuality …?  Okay, you said “raunchy,” and I find I can’t apply that word to the category of sex-writing I’m talking about; and that’s why I’m demurring.  Raunchy is defined as vulgar, crude, coarse, gross, etc., and we’re right back into that court definition of obscenity.

Staring over: Why don’t men want women to write graphic or frank sex scenes?  Porn video makers in the 70s and 80s included some girl-on-girl scenes because men are very interested in women expressing their sexuality.  (Hey, have there been any women porn film makers?)  But publishers and editors and critics?  Somehow many were infused with or confused by a standard their mommies taught them for what kind of girl they should marry.  A virgin who would never use a “bad word” or even refer to her own body parts (or his) and wants to get undressed in the dark. 

OK, I know I’m being snarky.  I don’t know if men don’t want women to write sex scenes.  I do know that some women writers simply said to me, “I don’t do that,” as though I’d asked them if they like to have sex in public.

Gina Frangello: I’m not sure that men don’t want women to write sex scenes, exactly.  What I do think is that “the market”—which both men and women are responsible for in different ways—tends to discourage literary women writers from focusing much on sex, whereas it actually very much encourages female genre writers—whether romance or pop or chick-lit or even thrillers—to write more overtly about sex.  This is so complex, really.  I’m not that much younger than Cris but we did come of age, so to speak, in a different literary era, and in my formative years as a writer/editor there was no huge shortage of women writing sexual fiction—some of my influences were Mary Gaitskill, Kathy Acker, Kate Braverman, really many women writers by the early 90s were writing candidly about sex, I sometimes think more so than in today’s market.  This was just on the brink of the wide-scale corporatization that took place in the publishing world, and it was also prior to 9/11 and the economic downturn, both of which had a somewhat “Puritanizing” influence on the publishing world (as well as on other art forms such as film).  

Between the fact that trade publishing is now almost synonymous with shareholders and marketing teams making more decisions than editors, and the fact that there started to be this prevailing belief post-9/11 that audiences couldn’t stand anything other than “feel good” or simple, inspiring stories, I think the truth is that bold, risk-taking art forms have really suffered pretty much across the board.  In my view, serious explorations of sex in fiction has been a casualty of these developments.  In the 90s, you had even mainstream magazines like Vogue talking about “perversion chic”—Quentin Tarantino was all the rage in Hollywood.  

The post-9/11 landscape, paired with what corporatization and economic recession did to the publishing world, really changed that cultural zeitgeist.  I think this has far less to do with men as a sweeping gender discouraging or disapproving of women talking about sex, and much more to do with an actually (much more discouraging) move away from serious art on a wider scale and with an anti-intellectual movement in the country.  Women are still writing plenty of sex.  But they’re not encouraged to do so in a serious way, outside of beach reads.  With the downsizing of serious art/literature in the United States, it seems to me that sexism has reared its ugly head in a way that would have seemed passé in the 1990s.  There are fewer and fewer “slots” available to writers of literary fiction, and among those writers only a certain number can also be edgy, risk-taking writers who are pushing the boundaries of convention with graphic content, and among those writers even fewer can be women because the publishing industry seems to accept without question that male work is Universal whereas female work is “for women.”  

I guess, Caroline, I think this question is almost unspeakably complex—it’s fascinating to me so I have to put the brakes on myself.  There are a few trade publishers out there, like Algonquin and Harper Perennial, that still seem to really be encouraging writers to take risks and that seem very open to women writers with big, bold or subversive ideas, but this seems to be less and less prevalent due to the current Armageddon in publishing.  People are going with the safe, the crowd-pleasing, and a lot of women writers are being ghettoized, with literary fiction becoming more a boy’s playground than it was in the 1990s, paradoxically.  And in this vein, women writing frankly, graphically and honestly about sex has never been exactly “safe.”  Which is why it’s more important than ever right now.

CL: How have male critics responded. Has there been any, "How dare you!" type of response? (And, by the way, I loved the foreword by Steve Almond.)

Gina Frangello: Well here’s the irony, really.  My personal belief is that once a book is published—once it’s been given that “stamp of approval” by being in book form, the general public tends to be far less aghast by it than marketing departments might have imagined they would be.  A lot of people seemed to believe, going into this project, that we were going to get some serious flack.  However, that hasn’t actually proven true thus far.  I did see a fairly heated exchange on the Facebook wall of one of our contributors, where some of her male “friends” were agitated by the book’s concept.  They felt it was reverse-sexism and that the book was going to be all about turn-about being fair play or about a reaction against male writers or men in general.  But the fact is, these guys hadn’t read the book; it wasn’t even released yet.  I think it would be very hard to come to a conclusion like that if they had.  

While the male characters in the anthology are often flawed—as all great literary characters are—the anthology is a celebration of male sexuality, not an indictment.  The women writers we selected are grappling mightily to understand men and get inside their skin in a visceral way.  Steve Almond remarks, as you note, that we are sorely in need of that understanding, and I think that’s precisely true.  No critics have yet disputed that or taken issue with it.  I’ll be somewhat surprised if things play out in that way.  The women in Men Undressed aren’t just trying to get revenge on D.H. Lawrence or something.  They feel their characters very deeply and care about them and breathe life into them.  Some of these women—like A.M. Homes, for example, were at the forefront of launching this new literary tradition, in which women are equally free with men to explore the Other.  There’s much to debate on the pages of Men Undressed, but I don’t think anyone who really cares about literature—as obviously critics do—would dispute the right of women writers to do that.

CL: Do you think male writers and female writers have different ideas on what makes a good sex scene? In reading these stories, I actually thought the writers were really more interested and focused on individual character, rather than trying to reveal the male at large, Could you talk a bit about that?

Gina Frangello: I’m not sure if male and female literary writers have different conceptions of good sex scenes, broken down cleanly into gender.  Certainly it does seem that there are ways of portraying sex, i.e. much of the porn industry on the male side, or romance novels on the female side, that appeal strongly to one gender and less strongly to the other.  But is this true in so-called “literary fiction?”  I’m not sure.  I think of someone like Mary Gaitskill, who is just a master at writing sexuality, and it seems to me that she has as many male fans as female fans, even though she’s a woman writer.  So I think the further away from stereotypes—and the closer to “individuality”—the art form becomes, the more it actually eschews a gendered definition, you know?  

Which actually ties in to the next part of your question, Caroline, because yeah, on the one hand our anthology is intended to focus on how women writers may envision Male sexuality, capital M.  As a compilation of 28 pieces of fiction, we hope to be able to launch discussions about that.  But on an individual, story-by-story level, I doubt that was any writer’s singular intent.  What I mean is: the focus on individual character, rather than some concept of “male at large,” is probably why the stories/chapters we chose are so strong.  

If a story attempted to capture the "male experience" in some global sense, it would likely be disastrously didactic and annoying.  After all, what would we think of a male writer who was trying to capture the "essence of woman" in his fiction, as opposed to writing about an individual female character, right?  Even in the example of Lady Chatterly, which—as Cris Mazza points out in her Introduction—may have misled many women readers over the years in terms of being a role model of female sexuality, we have to remember that Lawrence was only positing that one woman might have this sort of experience, not that all women were Lady Chatterly. And as Cris also points out in her Introduction, this is the task of all fiction, really. 

 It's always about the individual character, even when you are writing about a gender, race or ethnicity to which you as a writer also belong. Toni Morrison may be a black female, but her character, Sethe, in Beloved is not meant to be Every Black Woman.  Imagine the critical outrage if Morrison had been implying that Every Black Woman would murder her child!  But she was writing about one woman, and therefore her task was to make this action believable, resonant, and even understandable in that one character’s eyes and circumstances—and she succeeded brilliantly.  That's all any writer can ever hope to do unless they're conducting a clinical study, not writing a piece of fiction.

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

Stacy Bierlein:  I realize this echoes some of what we have discussed here as well as Steve Almond’s forward, but for the writers reading this interview I would suggest again, Why not write about sex?  It baffles me how many writers still avoid or dismiss this vibrant and important arena in their work.  In an era where we have so-called leaders discussing things like abstinence-only education for young people, there is precious little frank discussion of sex as a means of self-exploration or self-expression.  For many characters on the pages of Men Undressed, sex is that and more. 

Kat Meads: Who should read this anthology? Women and men. Read Men Undressed for its variety and surprises. Read it to discover new voices. Read it, discuss it, argue about it.

Stacy Bierlein: Indeed!

Renée Thompson talks about The Plume Hunter

 Renée Thompson writes about her love of birds, wildlife, and the people who inhabit the American West.  Her first novel, The Bridge at Valentine, received high praise from Pulitzer Prize-winning author Larry McMurtry, author of Lonesome Dove.--but more importantly, at least to me, she's also warm, funny, and a wonderful friend.  Her second novel, The Plume Hunter, about conflict, friendly, love and plume hunting (killing birds to sell the feathers for hats) is due from Torrey House Press on December 1. I'm honored to host her here.

Renée, I’m intrigued.  I’ve heard of plume hunters – which I thought existed only in Florida.  Yet your book is set in Oregon? 
I know, Caroline – it’s a surprise, right?  Most readers assume that birds were killed strictly in Florida, but plume hunters also shot birds in other regions of the country, including the marshes of Klamath and Malheur, in Oregon, where my novel is set (Portland also plays a small role).

What kinds of birds did they shoot? 
Great egrets (hunters were attracted to the “bridal plumes” on the birds’ backs during breeding season), snowy egrets, western grebes, pelicans, terns, owls, and all sorts of songbirds and shorebirds.  In the winter, market hunters in Oregon and California also shot thousands of ducks for the restaurant trade in San Francisco, Portland, and Seattle.

What inspired you to write a novel about plume hunting?
I was intrigued by a photograph of William Finley and Herman Bohlman, who, in the late 1800s were oölogists (egg collectors) in Portland, Oregon, but who turned to photography when egg collecting became unpopular with bird lovers.  About the same time, I saw a historical photo of market hunters with their kill, and something just clicked.  I did some research, and learned that in 1885 more than five million birds were killed in the United States alone for the millinery trade.  When I read that feathers sold for $32 an ounce – which in 1903 made plumes worth about twice their weight in gold – I knew I would craft a story about a plume hunter and his best friend – someone stalwartly opposed to pluming – and that their differing philosophies would provide conflict, and help propel the plot.

Can you tell us more?
I don’t want to give away too much, but I will say that at its core, Plume is about two best friends who are torn apart by their differences; Fin is Plume’s dark hero, and Aiden Elliott is his best friend, a man who considers himself the birds’ savior.  I’ll also mention that it was an interesting paradox that men who collected eggs and bird skins in the name of science – often for museums – didn’t see themselves as contributing to the demise of birds, since they weren’t “real” killers, but men furthering the understanding of our avian world.  To that end, I’ve also incorporated a fictionalized version of Frank M. Chapman, who, in real life, was the curator of birds for the American Museum of Natural History in New York City.  Chapman was instrumental in the re-formation of the Audubon Society after its failed first start, so I’ve cast him as Aiden’s mentor. 

Where does that leave Fin?
That’s actually a pretty important question.  Fin loves to hunt – it’s in his blood and bones.  Still, he struggles to understand if it’s hunting that fuels his soul, or the actual killing.  I think this is a question some hunters ask even today, and so I’ve explored it in Plume, allowing readers to decide for themselves the moral implications.

Speaking of moral implications – am I giving away too much by saying Fin and Aiden fall in love with the same woman?
Not at all – we just won’t let on who gets the girl, or what it costs the “winner”!

Amy Bourret talks about Mothers and Other Liars and the novel experience of being a novelist

A young drifter. A baby. A split second decision that will have ramifications for all involved. That's the subject matter of Amy Bourret's incredible new novel, Mothers and Other Liars.  I'm thrilled to host her here on my blog writing about the experience of having a novel out!  Thank you so much, Amy.  

Novel Experience

The first one was sent to me through my publisher before my novel was even published. A woman had received an advance copy of “Mothers and Other Liars,” and just had to write to tell me that she loved my book and couldn’t get my characters out of her head.  I was thrilled! I have been a voracious reader since I could read and can’t think of a time I wrote to an author just to say I loved a book. I’m sure “famous authors” get them by the bagful. But here was nobody me holding an honest-to-goodness fan letter. 

The letters have continued to arrive. Granted email, websites and facebook make it easier, but some readers have taken the time to put actual pen to actual paper and sent them with actual postage stamps:  “I don’t even know what to say……what a moving, wonderful story”; “I just wanted to write and say thank you for sharing your story with me”; “I wish to congratulate you on writing such a thought-provoking and beautiful story”; “I am still walking around days after finishing wondering what I would do if I were in Ruby's shoes.”; “Your debut novel is a journey through betrayal and forgiveness, secrets of the past, and the love and dedication that defines ‘family’”; “I stayed up all night reading”; “WOW. I just finished Mothers & Other Liars, and I had to email you to let you know how much I loved every single word of it”; “Thank you so much for the amazing novel Mothers and Other Liars, the book is such a gift;”

The true gift – and genuine surprise -- for me has been receiving these letters.  People are busy trying to cram 42 hours in a 24-hour day.  I already thought that being invited into a person’s home, to have my words sit with her in a cozy corner for a few hours, was an honor. And now for her to take even a few more minutes out of her day to write words back to me? Ironically, I have difficulty crafting the words to describe how meaningful that experience has been for me.  Even the hate mail, like “You obviously have no maternal bone in your body” or “You may write pretty words but you sure can’t tell a decent story” tells me that my book has touched someone enough for her to remember it after the last page (how many times have you read a book that afterwards you couldn’t describe?) and aroused enough emotion for her to follow through and write to me.

I thought I had prepared myself for publication. I stocked up on blue pens and pithy comments for book signings. I knew I would love talking to book groups and listening to them debate the choices made by my main character, Ruby.  Writing happens in a vacuum, just me, my keyboard and an empty room, so feedback about characters and plot and, yes, petty words helps me to write better. But the letters, this unexpected gift from the hearts of readers, has been such a novel experience.

Amy Bourret is a graduate of Yale Law School and Texas Tech University and a former partner in a national law firm. Her pro bono work with child advocacy organizations sparked the passion that fuels Mothers and Other Liars, her debut novel which was, selected as a Target Stores Breakout Book. She loves to visit book clubs and hear from readers. Learn more at

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Five reasons to see Answers to Nothing, coming Dec 2.

I'm a confirmed movieholic and nothing makes me happier than a wonderful film. I was honored to have had a chance to see a screener of Matthew Leutwyler's astonishing film, Answers to Nothing, opening December 2. Because I want everyone on the planet to see the film so I can talk about it with them, I've come up with five more reasons why you need to see it.

1. Dane Cook's revelatory, nuanced, heartbreaking performance.
2. And for Dexter fans, there's Julie Benz (Dexter's wife Rita!) Actually, the whole cast is just sublime.
3. Intertwined stories with fascinating characters: a single parent detective looking for a missing child; a pregnant wife dealing with her husband's infidelity, A cop haunted by his wife's death, a self-loathing African-American, and a school teacher with a jones for video games who is obsessed by the crime.
4. Because Matthew gave me this great interview.
5. And how about the fact that Matthew Leutwyler is just so cool?  Says he: "It's uncomfortable to expose your inner workings, but it just feels more authentic." And isn't that what we all look for in art (and in life?)

Monday, November 14, 2011

Pictures of You on Kirkus Best Books of 2011 List!

I am sitting here unable to work because I'm too excited. My novel Pictures of You was just chosen for the Kirkus Best Books of 2011 List! What is so astonishing to me is that from the moment I went with Algonquin, my whole life changed. I went from someone with meager sales to being a NYT bestseller, a Costco Pennie's Pick, a San Francisco Lit Pick, a Best Book of the year from Bookmarks Magazine, Bookpage AND Kirkus--and I think it really goes to show that you cannot give up.  You cannot ever give up. You never know what miracles are out there.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Leora Skolkin-Smith talks about madness, Grace Paley, resisting writing about what you need to write about, and Hystera

 I first met Leora Skolkin-Smith through Readerville, an online literary community and we quickly became friends. We talk about writing all the time and I've been thrilled to see how Leora's first novel Edges is now edging its way into becoming a feature film from Triboro Pictures. Her new novel, Hystera, about madness, youth and NYC in the 1970s, is from the Fiction Studio Imprint, one of the more exciting new publishing venues around. I'm honored to have Leora come on and talk about her book--which debuts November 15th!  And don't forget to listen to Leora on Reading With Robin, this Saturday, 92WHjj, 7 to 8 AM.

 What sparked the idea for the novel? Where did it come from?

 I once heard the  German writer Christa Wolf  speak on a panel, long ago, when her "The Quest for Christa T." first came out in East Germany. This book was banned immediately and as she wrote it, she had no belief it would find print. She said something even more interesting--she said, first she had been working on another book she knew would sell and be read, but this one, Christa T. kept looming up and haunting her instead. She had such a resistance to writing anything like it, to the unconscious, disturbing material inherent in it and she could feel that resistance so strongly, like a brick lodged inside her gut. Her resistance was overwhelming and so she had to try to understand it., or she would never be able to write the "sellable" one. She asked herself: What was it she was so scared of writing? What would she expose if she wrote? What material didn't want to surface from deep inside her? Was that too frightening? Too raw? Too passionate? All of these things could make a writer terribly uncomfortable and cause such a resistance. The only way she could concentrate again was to write out what she was so afraid of. Express what about Christa T. made her fight so hard against  knowing her character and her character's situation. And she wrote the book against all better judgement. And it was the best work she ever had done. Drive and force and passion to tell it broke through the resistance in the end. And that is the energy one needs to really write a meaningful book.

So now, she explained, when she asks herself, what should I write? The answer is: write the story you are most resisting, that is the one you truly must tell.

For me that was HYSTERA. And for all the same reasons Christa Wolf resisted telling the story of Christa T.

What kind of a writer are you? Do you map things out or do they come organically?
I'm a big messy spiller of paints. I love images, I have images come to me way before story. Images and fragmented senses. Sometimes just smells. I work from impressionism purely. I wish I could be someone who plans and structures with plot, but...that just never happens for me. Plot is the very last thing that happens.

You have a feature film coming out for your last book Edges. Has being involved int he film process changed the way you look at writing novels?

I love working on the feature film. It stretched all the boundaries, I learned so much about how a screenwriter must visualize and communicate the same feelings  embedded in words alone inside a novel and I think that helped my work as a novelist. Plus, it's all so exciting. I felt an affirmation I hadn't felt in the literary community, a welcome mat.

What's obsessing you now?

I'm trying write about a relationship I had with Grace Paley.  Since I was very close to her, I was witness to a whole lot of circumstances and saw up close what happens to celebrities and beloved writers who are fundamentally literary, but used, exploited by others and the media to create them as icons, in false pictures.  It's a challenge because I could get in a  whole lot of trouble doing it. Most of the characters are well-known. It's a roman a clef. Very hard but fun in that revengeful way one can't ordinarily express, having to be a "lady" or a "nice person".

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

Can't imagine! These were great!

Monday, November 7, 2011

Lisa Unger Talks about where it all began

New York Times bestselling author Lisa Unger really needs no introduction. Is there anyone on the planet who doesn't know her? Her novels have sold over a million copies and have been translated into 26 languages. Her new novel, Darkness My Old Friend, about the secrets of the past and the future of a rebellious teen was chosen as a Washington Life Magazine Lit Pick.  I'm thrilled she's agreed to write a little something on my blog about her beginnings as a writer. Thank you, Lisa!

Lisa Unger

I was nineteen years old when I first met Lydia Strong.  I was living in the East Village, dating a New York City Police officer and attending Eugene Lang College, the under graduate division of the New School for Social Research.  I was sitting in a car, under the elevated section of the “1” line in the Bronx, waiting – for what I can’t remember.   But, in my mind that day, I kept seeing a woman running past a church.  She was in New Mexico.  And all I knew about her was that she was a damaged person, someone in great pain.  Running, for her, was salve, religion, and drug.  That was Lydia. 
I pulled a napkin and a pen from the glove compartment and started writing the book that would become ANGEL FIRE.   It took me ten years to write that novel, mostly because the years between age nineteen and twenty-nine were, for me, years of hard work and tumultuous change.  But also because during that time, I let my dreams of becoming a writer languish a bit. Lydia was faithful; she waited. 
In spite of a first rate education, a career in publishing, and a strong desire to write fiction, I didn’t know much of anything when I was writing my first novel. I don’t think you can really know anything about writing a novel until you’ve actually written one.  (And then you go to school again when you sit down to write your second, and your third, and so on.)  All I knew during that time was that I was truly fascinated by this woman occupying a place in my imagination, and I was deeply intrigued by her very dark appetites.  I was enthralled by her past, by the mysteries in her present, and why she wouldn’t let herself love the man who loved her.  There were lots of questions about Lydia Strong; and I was never happier over those ten years then when I was trying to answer them.
I was fortunate that the first novel I ever wrote was accepted by my (wonderful, brilliant) agent Elaine Markson, and that she fairly quickly brokered a deal for ANGEL FIRE and my second, then unwritten, novel THE DARKNESS GATHERS.  I spent the next few years with Lydia Strong and the very colorful cast of characters that populate her life.  And I enjoyed every dark, harrowing, and complicated moment with them as I went on to write TWICE, and then SMOKE.
I followed Lydia from New Mexico, to New York City, to Albania, to Miami and back.  We trekked through the abandoned subway tunnels under Manhattan, to a compound in the back woods of Florida, to a mysterious church in the Bronx, to a fictional town called Haunted.  It was a total thrill ride, and I wrote like my fingers were on fire. 
I am delighted that these early novels, which I wrote under my maiden name Lisa Miscione, have found a new life on the shelves and a new home with the stellar team at Broadway Books.  And, of course, I am thrilled that they’ve found their way into your hands.  I know a lot of authors wish their early books would just disappear, because they’ve come so far as writers since they first began their careers.  And I understand that, because we would all go back and rewrite everything if we could.   
But I have a special place in my heart for these flawed, sometimes funny, complicated characters and their wild, action-packed stories.  I still think about them, and feel tremendous tenderness for even the most twisted and deranged among them. The writing of each book was pure pleasure.  I hope that you enjoy your time with them as much as I have.  And, thanks, as always, for reading.

Caroline Preston talks about The Scrapbook of Frankie Pratt

I first met Caroline Preston at a literary party and was instantly charmed by both her--and her work. Preston is the author of  Jackie by Josie, a New York Times Notable Book of the Year, Lucy Crocker 2.0, and Gatsby’s Girl, which chronicles F. Scott Fitzgerald’s first girlfriend who was the model for Daisy Buchanan. In The Scrapbook of Frankie Pratt, she's delved into her own collection of vintage ephemera to create a novel in the unique form of a scrapbook, creating a book that is gorgeous, enchantingly original and so much fun to read. I'm so honored to have Caroline here!  Thank you, Caroline.

What gave you the idea of writing a novel in pictures?

I like to say the idea of making a scrapbook novel was 40 years in the making.  The house where I grew up (in Lake Forest, Illinois) had a great old attic jammed full of trunks and boxes of 1920’s stuff that had belonged to my grandmother.  Flapper dresses, coils of her long hair which she’d bobbed in 1924.  And of course big thick scrapbooks filled with dance cards, letters from old boyfriends, ocean liner tickets. I can’t tell you how many hours I spent up there rooting around and daydreaming.

My first three novels were what I guess you’d call “conventional” format—i.e. words-- but I always used photographs and visual material in my research.  My third novel Gatsby’s Girl was inspired by the meticulous scrapbook F. Scott Fitzgerald kept about his first love, Ginevra King—her first note to him, her handkerchief, and a newspaper clipping about her marriage to another man.  Later he would turn the story of his unrequited crush into The Great Gatsby.

When I was casting around for the idea for my fourth novel, I wanted to create something that was as visual and powerful as a scrapbook.  And then I had a crazy idea—why not make a novel that WAS a scrapbook. Not a digital scrapbook, but a real one made of real stuff that I cut up with scissors and pasted together with glue.

How did you go about writing it? Did the photos, images, etc. come first and fashion themselves into a story, or did you have the story in mind and search for the images to support it?

I started with my character, Frankie Pratt, and the outlines of her story, which was set in the 1920’s.  I imagined an 18-year-old girl who wanted to become a writer and her journey which would take her to Vassar, Greenwich Village, and Paris.

Then I hunted down and bought all the things that a girl like Frankie Pratt would glue in her scrapbook—postcards, movie tickets, Vassar report cards, menus, sheet music, fashion spreads,  popular magazines, a New York subway map, a Paris guidebook, and of course love letters.  In all, I collected over 600 pieces of vintage 1920’s ephemera.

I found that Frankie’s story changed and evolved as I found surprising things—for example an original book cover for The Sun Also Rises. The book caused a huge fuss in Paris when it came out in 1926 because everyone recognized the characters, and she would been right there to bear witness.

So much of the wonderful ephemera in the book tells the story, but I also deeply admired the text--Frankie's voice is so spot on, and her character, revealed through her scrapbook is so alive. How did you find her voice?

Frankie’s story is told through her typed scrapbook captions.  I was inspired by the style I found in so many of the 1920’s scrapbooks I looked at, including Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald’s—breezy, funny, self-ironic, but also serious.  Most vintage scrapbooks do feel very alive because people kept them to record the happiest and most exciting times of their lives—going to college, getting married, having a baby, going off to war.  And of course, what could be more alive than Greenwich Village and Paris in the 1920’s!

So much of the pleasure of the book is in the design, which looks and feels like a genuine scrapbook. Did you work with a designer or was this all your own considerable--and genius-- creativity?

I designed the entire book, with the exception of the cover.  Even I’m pretty surprised by that fact, because I have no training in graphic or book design.  I was liberated to try designing a book because it was in the format of a scrapbook, which is by definition laid out and constructed by amateurs.
On each page, I imagined what Frankie would have chosen to glue in and how she would have put it together.  Through the course of the book, 1920-1928, her design sense gets more sophisticated as she’s exposed to things like Art Deco and Cubism.

The fantastic book designer at Ecco, Mary Speaker, went over my final pages and made it into a finished book.  Ecco did a beautiful job with the book production—the paper quality, the cover, the photography, and the four-color printing are all amazing.

What's obsessing you now?

I have started in on my next scrapbook novel, this one kept by a bride during her first year of marriage 1959-1960.  I like to think of it as a prequel to Mad Men.  My favorite finds so far:  a 1959 Brides magazine, the Betty Crocker Bride’s Cookbook, a 1960 sex manual, View-Master slides, a set of bride and groom paper ...

Director Michael Medeiros talks about his upcoming film Tiger Lily Road

Anyone who knows me knows that I’m fascinated by craft, by how creative people manage to do what they do--and that I am not just a bookaholic, but a movieholic, as well. I first read about the film Tiger Lily Road, Michael Medeiros’, upcoming dark comedy about the lives and loves (or lack of) of two Connecticut women, on Google, and I was instantly fascinated. So I immediately tracked him down and badgered him for an interview. I’m honored to have him here. An actor, director, writer and songwriter, Michael’s acted in everything from Xmen First Class to Synecdoche, New York to The Good Wife and he's the director and writer of Underground. Thank you so much, Michael.
You’re also an acclaimed actor as well as a director and writer. Do you prefer being in front of the camera, behind it or at your desk, and why?

It feels great to switch from one creative activity to another. Sometimes I get to a point where I am thinking, “what the hell am I doing?” I tell myself I have to focus more, but then sometimes it helps to take a break and say, play my guitar, and then come back to film editing. I’ve been a songwriter since I was thirteen, and sometimes when I get editing fatigue I leave the desk and I play for half an hour and it refreshes me. And editing is, in itself, so much about the musicality.

What do I prefer doing? It depends on the day I’m asked. I just finished acting in a film that a friend of mine is doing, and I really had a good time. The material, the character – makes it a good time. And I got to learn a little big of magic for the role. But I do find that directing films uses all of my artistic resources quite thoroughly.

Tiger Lily Road is about the lives of women in a Connecticut Town—how they perceive themselves and the men in and out of their lives. Where did the idea come from?

Well, the easy answer is I’m not sure. The more complex answer is that it came from several places. After I wrote my film Underground, I wanted to make a feature and I wrote several that just wouldn’t have been practical for me to produce. They were too big, too expensive. I didn’t want to spend years chasing five million dollars. I wanted to spend months chasing a much smaller amount. So I was looking for that idea, and then I was up at this Connecticut cottage—my girlfriend’s family’s place—and one night at a party, I got to talking to these women. They were all in their mid to late 40s and none of them happened to be with a man, and I had this epiphany. I kept thinking, what great women they were, how funny and smart and talented. Why weren’t they in a relationship? And I thought, “There’s a story here.” And the story, as it evolved seemed to match up with the whole Connecticut location I loved. I've always found that "place" is one of the strong characters in any story. That probably comes from my acting training with Uta Hagen.

I started imagining –or something started to imagine for me--two women in this house and I started listening to them and following them, and what they were saying, why they didn’t have successful love lives. And then these two women began to split off in different directions, and these two best friends began to be complete characters. And as total opposites, I could use them to dramatize two sides of the same question.

On a deeper level I think the impulse to write it came from a need to express something about women - about how they empathize (or don't) with men and what that may cost them.

How do you write? Did you map this story out or did it organically evolve?

It was more organic. As in song writing, I go until the structure reveals itself. I don’t try to impose it too soon. I always allow that this may only ever be a fragment and then at some point, something clicks in and I know I'll finish it and have an understanding of how.

Did any of the women that sparked the idea read the script? What’d they think?

Well, the characters are not really them. I used the voice, the sensibility, but not the circumstances.

How long did it take to write Tiger Lily Road?
It was about a year and a half from first draft to shooting script. In that time, many people read it and gave notes—some of them quite scathing! I also did four different table readings with full casts of talented actors.

What’s fascinating to me is that you are making people out in the world part of the process by posting snippets from the film and asking for reactions. What’s the response been like?

It’s been fantastic. I have to be careful what I show online. I don’t want to give things away, but it does help to build a fan base.I'll be putting up a highlights reel in the next couple weeks. You'll be able to see it by going to: or by liking us on Facebook at tigerlilyroadmovie.

What’s obsessing you now?

Distribution. Finding the audience. Realistically, you have to seek the distributors. But now that there is this entire social media thing, it’s a little easier to create a presence before the film is ever released. But it's a lot of work. Eventually, the film will have its own website. But now, at this mid stage of post production, I make a lot of lists - of theaters, distributors, possible supporters.

Question you didn't ask: Who's in the movie?

An amazing cast, including: two time Emmy winner, Tom Pelphrey (a rising star if there ever was one), talented stage actresses, Ilvi Dulack and Karen Chamberlain. I wanted to use theatre trained actors for their ability to conceptualize complex characters. And New York theatre legend, Rita Gardner who starred in the original production of The Fantastiks with the late great, Jerry Orbach. Rita is in danger of stealing the entire movie.

Julie Klam talks about Love at First Bark

Ok, you might love Julie Klam because she's so hilarious and generous, but the icing on the cake is that Julie is the guardian angel of dogs everywhere, and she's made it her mission to show us all how fostering and loving dogs can really make us better people. Plus, she knows Timothy Hutton...need I say more? Anyway, I'm deliriously happy to have Julie back on my blog. Thank you, Julie!

I love the whole idea that dog rescue is a two-way street, in that it impacts both the dogs and the people doing the rescuing. How does that work? (And does it ever backfire?)

I think if you rescue animals, you're rewarded, you can't help it. Specifically in this book I was thinking about when times are hard and you feel you don't have control over things and you can do this one small gesture which actually isn't small at all, and make all the difference in the world. It's empowering and validating and it doesn't cost you anything.

I need to ask (because I am insanely jealous) about that hilarious book trailer you did with Timothy Hutton.

Okay, truthfully, Tim and I are secretly in love. In fact it's such a secret that he doesn't even know it. Honestly we had a mutual admiration society going, mutual in that I loved him and he was drunk when he said he'd be in my book trailer.

I always thought that people loved their dogs simply because they got unconditional love, but your book shows that it is really so much more than that. Dogs teach us to cherish each moment, to never give up, to be loyal, and more. Is there anything else I'm missing?

You forgot how to cook french food. Oh, no that was Julia Childs.

How can regular people get involved?

Regular people as opposed to insane losers like me? When you contact a rescue group, you can be as involved as much or as little as you want. You can do very small, simple things like making phone calls, doing home visits to prospective adoptive families, reference checks, fundraising. You don't have to foster dogs, though doing it is insanely wonderful.

How did all your rescue work change you personally?

I think like any volunteer work it makes you conscious of how much there is to do in the world and how few people there are to do it.

Can you talk about your NPR radio show Hash Hags?

Ann Leary used to do a show on NPR that was just her and one day she asked Laura and I if we would do it with her. It's ridiculously fun, we get great guests and having been on the other end of those author interviews where the person asks you the standard questions, we try and make it a little different. And once a week I get to talk to Ann and Laura, what could be better than that?

And the questions I always ask, What's obsessing you now?

I just got back from my book tour and I bought something before I left that has to be returned within 14 days and today is the 14th day so until it's out of my hands I'm going to be obsessed.

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

Everyone else has asked me if my husband is some kind of saint or something for allowing me to wreak the havoc in the house with all the dog rescue that I do. I'm glad you didn't ask me that

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Ayelet Waldman and Robin Levi talk about women in and out of prison and their astonishing book Inside This Place, Not Of it: Narratives From Women's Prisons

Ayelet Waldman and Robin Levi have created a book that is nothing short of extraordinary: Inside This Place, Not Of It, is a collection of narratives from women who are inside prison, or who recently got out. It's powerful, important and it does what the best books do--it changed you. I'm so honored to have both Ayelet and Robin here to talk about this powerful book.

Where did the idea for this book come about? What made you decide to make this a narrative project (which, by the way, is a brilliant idea) and how did you get access to these women?

Ayelet: The oral history Voice of Witness series founded by Dave Eggers and Lola Vollen is remarkable. Each book illuminates a different human rights crises around the world. They've done books on exonerated death row prisoners, on undocumented workers, on Burma, on Sudan. I found the series so exciting, illuminating, tragic that I knew right away that I wanted to do a book on women in prison. Robin and I have known each other ever since she came as a guest lecturer to a class I taught at the law school at the University of California at Berkeley on the drug war to talk about the effect of the drug war on women, and I immediately knew that this book could not happen without her.

Robin: I was thrilled when Ayelet approached me about doing this book. Despite the fact that the population in women's prisons is skyrocketing, there is very little discussion of who is going there and why and even less about the abuses they face when in prison. For me and my organization, this seemed like a once in a lifetime opportunity to highlight the experiences of these women (and men) in their voices. And we were particularly pleased to do it through the oral narrative that allowed us to look at their whole lives, not just the abuse and to have it in their voices. So often, those of us in the social justice world only get to talk about the abuse, not all the abuses leading up to it or the strength that allows people to survive the abuse. If they do, as we well know, some don't survive.

How did the prison officials and the guards feel about this book?

Ayelet: Basically, we had to do our interviews under the radar for the most part. Robin? You tell Caroline how we snuck in places, how we got in in CA, etc.

Robin: While putting this book together, Ayelet and I learned in great detail the wide array of obstacles that the prison system puts in place to prevent the voices of people in prison from being heard. It is extremely difficult to get inside prisons, unless you are an attorney, and we were getting information on matters of a legal nature and even then it can be difficult. Once in the prisons there are many restrictions on recording equipment, some states on allow some antediluvian technologies, which involve surfing Ebay to procure, others allow nothing, meaning that the interviewer is trying to interview a person about the harrowing details of her life, while madly scribbling to take it all down verbatim. It is not surprising that the one state where we tried to do that, we were unable to use that narrative. And then in very few states you can actually use a digital recorder. And other methods of communication are even more difficult, even if doing this type interview via phone wasn't already ridiculous, the 10 -minute time restrictions on calls combined with the exorbitant rates made it impossible. Even writing was difficult. In Colorado we sent lined paper and a self-addressed stamped envelope  to one woman as a courtesy so she could write us back. The paper and envelope were confiscated and she was told that if we did that again, the letter would be thrown away. This is why Ayelet and I stepped back from our original choice to only interview people inside prison and decided to include recently released women.

How were the narratives recorded? Did you need to build trust or would women eager to tell their stories? It must have been incredible healing for these women to tell their stories, but more importantly to actually be heard. I'm reminded of one of the lines, "What saved me was that someone cared."

Ayelet: Again, Robin can talk so eloquently about this...but I"ll say one thing. We were blessed with the assistance of one of the narrators, who is also a member of the board of directors of Justice Now. Teresa helped us train our interviewers, and without her we never would have understood how much we were asking of these women, how traumatizing it can be to open your heart so completely, to revisit trauma, and then to return to the grim reality of prison. To say she made us sensitive to their pain is to belittle how much we learned from her. Teresa is such a brave woman, and such an inspiration.

Robin: Sadly, I will not be eloquent, but I will do my best. Well, as I said the narratives were recorded in the only way the prisons would allow us to. For the narratives that were done outside the prison, we used a digital device which obviously made things easier for both the interviewer and interviewee. But that said, building trust was vital and we had a lot of help to make that happen. First, my organization, Justice Now, has a long history working in the CA prison system so we had a lot of good will built up there. Second, our first narrator, Theresa Martinez, which is her real name, really stepped up to do an amazing job of letting us know what is was like and telling us ways that we could support the narrators both during and after the interviews. She then trained the crew of people interviewing folks and created an advice sheet to use for doing interviews particularly in prison, where there is no formal support system to go to after reliving all of this trauma. That sheet is now being used at the Yale Human Rights Clinic in their work unrelated to the book. When we were reaching out to other states, the good reputation of Justice Now helped us to access other narrators and in some cases other attorneys or advocates vouched for the fact that we would be respectful during the process and would use the information with respect. But the thing that was really amazing was that so many were willing to put themselves through this process, to relive these abuses, because they wanted to make a difference. They were so emotionally giving. So many more women wanted to participate that we couldn't access either because they were inaccessible or involved in litigation so their attorneys would not let them participate. And I do think, especially with Theresa's work that they found it healing. Several of our narrators are really looking forward to doing advocacy on this book. Olivia Hamilton is going to work on anti-shackling initiatives in Georgia, Sheri Dwight is working with anti-domestic violence organizations in LA. They gain strength from telling their story and having it heard. But that does not mean that it is now easy. After the book was released, Theresa spoke publicly for the first time as herself and she broke down in tears, which she almost never does when doing public speaking, but we talked later and we felt it was part of, "Okay this is really it. Its out there." Sheri said, "Did I really say all that? Well I did and it’s true, so print it." It’s healing and scary. They are my heroes.

It's fascinating to me that women who got out, wanted to help the ones who were still in.

Ayelet: That's the most amazing thing to me, too. We're so used to thinking of prison as this dangerous place full of dangerous people. But in women's prisons, at least, the danger doesn't come from the women. It comes from the guards, the wardens, the medical "professionals." The women by and large don't harm one another. They support one another. They lean on each other. Their sense of community is utterly inspiring.

Robin: That really struck me too. All the women who were out wanted to do something to help people still inside and or people who were recently released. In fact, many of the people who are still inside are working hard to support people inside the prison. This speaks to this enormous sense of community inside prison. It is amazing. It also speaks to the fact that these narrators are by and large the strong ones. They have survived and come out the other side. They are strong enough to share their experiences in the hopes of positive change. They are the leaders. Sadly, as I said before, not everyone survives.

One woman says that "I learned who I am because I was stripped of everything," which is very, very powerful. And what I got from these narratives is that hope does not die.

Ayelet: Isn't that amazing? In this country we have tried so hard to destroy the hope of people in prison -- we strip away their basic dignity, we treat them so cruelly -- and yet they manage despite our best efforts to maintain optimism. How is that even possible?

Robin: Hope doesn’t really die. They create this amazing supportive community, they make pecan pie and even thanksgiving feasts with these macgyver-like ovens. They help each other overcome these abuses and drug addictions. Humans, along with an amazing capacity for evil, also have an amazing capacity to for love and through that to survive. At least that's my opinion.

Writing a book always changes a writer--and I can't imagine that putting together this book did not change you in some significant ways, because I know that reading it certainly changed me. Can you discuss this?

Ayelet: It's sounds so lame to say that I try to appreciate my blessings .... but it's true. Whenever I think of Teresa, for example, I am reminded that here is a woman who despite everything is so generous, so sweet. How dare I ever complain?

Robin: It’s true, doing this work I always been aware of how lucky I am. But this book has re-emphasized it, in such a human way. As a person doing this work on a day to day basis, it has made me view the statistics I spout differently. I also said that more than 2/3 of people inside women's prisons had experienced sexual or domestic abuse, but now when I say it I can think of the different, awful ways that they were abused. In many it makes it harder to be that rational spouter of facts, but so much more important.

These narratives are harrowing, upsetting, unfathomable. What can average people do to help these women?

Ayelet: We have a section in the back of the book that tells you where to go, what to do. Mostly, it's a matter of letting those in power know that we as a society will not tolerate this any longer. We won't accept a prison industrial complex that harms so many people, and makes us less safe, rather than more.

Robin: I do think the first thing is to go to our what you can do section and see if there is a particular issue that you want to pursue, send a letter about, volunteer or support work on. We give resources and suggestions for challenging the high number of women in prison, shackling during labor, high cost of telephone costs, family separation, child sexual abuse, etc. But also, as Ayelet says, we really need to take these women to heart and through our everyday activities, our voting, our volunteer work make sure that decision makers know that we must change our criminal justice system. That we need to put money into communities and rather than prisons, because while working on this book it struck me that as a society we break these women and then as a response we throw them away into prison. We must make sure that our narrators great gift of telling their lives is not in vain.

 I'd like to ask Robin about Justice Now, which is trying to build a movement to challenge violence and imprisonment. Can you elaborate on this please? What kinds of things are being done and what is the most effective?

 Robin: Justice Now has been trying to build a movement to challenge violence and imprisonment for more than a decade. As you can imagine it has been slow going. We do this through partnering with people inside women's prisons on advocacy and through leadership development. We have three main divisions: direct service, human rights and campaign. Direct service works to help people in the here and now, especially those with child custody issues and serious medical issues. They also work to put together advocacy/information sheets for people inside. Through this program we have been able to help people who have less than 6 months to live or are permanently incapacitated get released from prison, under the California compassionate release law. The human rights program conducts research to inform decision-makers and the public what is really going on inside prison. The Human Rights Division produced "Inside this Place," and other reports/ law review articles on safe motherhood and destruction of reproductive justice inside prison. The campaign division works to support initiatives to reduce the number of people in prison and to oppose that increase funding for prisons. This division expanded the compassionate release to include permanently incapacitated people.

 All of our work is done in partnership with the people inside the prison and with our substantial intern contingent, and this is our leadership development because we train future leaders. In many ways, I feel that the leadership development aspect is our most successful part of our work. Many of our former interns have gone on to become activists and as for the people in prison, they also have become advocates and have gained strength from the experience. Theresa, Victoria Sanchez and Charlie Morningstar are active with our organization.

Are you in touch with any of these women now?

Robin: Absolutely. I think we are in touch with most of the narrators. A few have disappeared back into their demons, but most have not. Many email me and they are all very, very excited and pleased about the book and hoping to be part of advocacy. We are drafting op-eds with four of the narrators, one of whom will be working on anti-shackling legislation in Georgia and one of them will be joining in May at a conference at UC-Irvine. In a month or so, I will send them a letter updating them on what is happening with the book. I am hopeful that this will be the start of a long term relationship.