Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Dead Beats, the astonishing student run publication/readings/organization speaks!

I first heard about Dead Beats on twitter. An uber-successful student run group, Dead Beats doesn't just share the works of published writers, but it acts as a lift-off for unpublished ones. The top photo is from one of their sell-out crowded readings, and of course, you know who is in the second photo! (HINT: Kerouac and William S. Burroughs). I'm honored to host them here--and hope you all will support their readings (in the UK right now), and submit to them! Thank you, Dead Beats!

How did the idea for a student run publication organization come about?  What was the initial reaction?

Dead Beats originated in a post-seminar study group whose numbers quickly dwindled to form the core membership of three that composes the organisation today.

Already deft at using social media to communicate with each other, the thought of broadening the readership was simply an organic step. We wanted to share not just extracts from published canonical authors, but also other unpublished writers' homespun material that would otherwise remain unseen.

The initial reaction was stupendous and the reach astounding: within our first two months we received upwards of one hundred submissions from the world-over and the fact that we published 62 pieces in only our second month of being established is a great affirmation of the vital role literature still plays in modern society. We were surprised and overwhelmed at the amount of support we received.

What made you decide on your wonderful name, Dead Beats, and how do you reach out to writers all over the world?

As relationships and group dynamics settled, we came to the realisation that the Beats were formative to our thinking; the sentiments of that generation, and the methods with which they expressed them, struck a chord.  

However, the name was more of a formality than anything else. It described both our dispositions at this time last year and referenced our departed heroes.

As for reaching people, we still rely on word of mouth primarily and this seems to engender a more grassroots feel to the blog.

Who decides what gets published? What's the process like?

The three of us converge on a weekly basis to discuss each individual submission we receive, usually over coffee or pints depending on extraneous circumstances. Decisions are predicated on mutual agreement within the group. There are quite a few disagreements over submissions at times, and when this variance occurs is when we most look forward to the reader response. 

There is a misconception amongst some of our contributors that we are only interested in work of a Beat orientation, yet, Dead Beats publishes work of both an inspired and inspiring nature; the Beats stirred the ethic of the blog but their work doesn't define our goals.

We have no reading season and accept submissions of short stories and poems all year round. We believe that this marks us out from other literary journals, as we are all about keeping a constant flow of literary quality.

What do you see that is up next for Dead Beats?

We intend to collate an e-book compendium of our favourite writers thus far, curate even bigger poetry events and try our hand at organising regional workshops. Sheffield is just one city with followers; we have the world to explore yet.

You've been getting sell-out crowds for your performances. Any chance of you bringing Deadbeats to the USA?

Only if you're paying!
Though tongue out of cheek, we will venture as far afield as we can when the funds allow it. Expanding literary awareness across the globe is a notion that very much motivates us. Should a city call, we'll be there.

What's obsessing you now?

Currently, we are on the cusp of celebrating our first anniversary gig. We're determined that it'll be the best poetry night Sheffield's seen: we've bought party hats and benzedrine, so it better be good!

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

You might have asked: "Who are the Dead Beats?"
We would have responded: "There is no 'Dead Beats', just a bunch of guys trying to get published" (Ginsberg circa Sheffield 2012).

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Emily St. John Mandel talks about The Lola Quartet, Inspiration, jazz, and so much more

I carried around Emily St. John Mandel's The Lola Quartet because I couldn't bear to stop reading it. A #1 Indie Pick for May, it's so ingeniously plotted, so rich with character, that I found myself underlining the pages. Of course I tracked Emily down and begged her to let me interview her, and she was gracious enough to agree.  I don't know what to thank you for more, Emily, your mind-blowingly good novel or this fantastic interview, so I'll say thank you for both.

I couldn't begin to classify this brilliant novel--it's part literary noir, part crime thriller, and you could even say it's adult coming of age. Was the mixing of genres a deliberate choice? This, of course, leads us to my question of choice: How do you write? Do you plan everything out? Do you start with character? 

Thank you! I truly appreciate the kind words. With regard to genre, what I want is to write literary fiction with the strongest possible narrative drive. I never set out to write crime fiction. I was surprised to discover that whether you think of your own work as being literary fiction or not, if you start adding a lot of plot then people start calling them crime thrillers. I try to just write the best book I can without worrying too much about where it's going to be shelved in the bookstore. 

I don't plan anything out. My first two books began with wisps of premises, but this one was a little different, more a matter of a number of topics and ideas that I wanted to write about coming together. The first was a plumbing problem. When I was eighteen and nineteen I had my own (very small) apartment in Toronto. Living alone felt like freedom and I loved it, even though covering the rent took more than half my income at the time. (The rent wasn't that high, but I worked in a coffee shop.) 

At a certain point the shower started leaking extremely hot water. Plumbers would come by and fix it and then it would instantly break again, and the condensation was such that before long I had a situation where it was more or less raining in my bathroom and there was water running down the walls. I imagined the damage being done to the paint job was irreparable, but at the time this struck me as a reasonable trade-off for the landlord's failure to do anything about the cockroaches. (Like I said, I was nineteen.) 

I liked the idea of rain falling indoors, and it was always something I wanted to write about. I also knew that I wanted to write about foreclosed real estate and Florida's exotic wildlife problem, after reading a couple of articles on those topics, and I knew I wanted to write a novel about the economic collapse. The collapse was such a strange time and there's still such uncertainty. I was also fascinated by the Jayson Blair story a few years back, and I wanted to write about a disgraced journalist.

I loved the jazz motif that plays throughout the novel. How do you come by your knowledge of jazz?

Thanks. I studied piano for years as a child and teenager, but I never played jazz and I still don't feel like I know that much about it, to tell you the truth. There's a gypsy jazz guitarist who plays a regular set at a club about a block from my apartment, so I've spent a lot of time listening to him. I've also read some Whitney Balliett; he was a writer who chronicled the New York jazz scene of a few decades ago, and I liked reading about those musicians. Once I knew that gypsy jazz guitar music would be a part of the book, I spent some time reading about the life of Django Reinhardt.

Loyalties shift, things are not what they seem, and it all builds to an ending that left me thunderstruck--the kind of "never ending story" ending that I love, that made me continue to wonder about these characters' lives. Did this ending surprise you as you were writing it?

The whole story surprised me. I never know where any book I start writing is going to go. I just start writing and hope for the best. I'm glad you liked the ending… it was the hardest thing in this book to get right. I must have rewritten it a dozen times. It hasn't been a universally popular ending, but it's the only ending that made sense to me. 

What's obsessing you now--and why?

I've been interested in orchestras lately. Partly because there's an orchestra in the novel I'm presently writing, and partly because I love music and I find that orchestras are beautiful things to watch in action; there's something moving to me about that many people collaborating to create a live experience.

Laura Harrington talks about Alice Bliss and the credits that follow our names

Laura Harrington's Alice Bliss is a remarkable, haunting novel about a girl grappling with her father's being deployed to Iraq, coming of age, and the aching bonds of love. Harrington's an award-wining playwright, lyricist and librettist, and I am honored to have her writing something for my blog.  Thank you, Laura!

A Modest Life

Laura Harrington

My father was an exceptionally modest man. Born in 1917, the third youngest of thirteen children, he was a wonderful listener and rarely talked about himself.  His highest form of praise was to call someone a true gentleman; he revered the old-fashioned attributes of grace, modesty, and service to others. After he died I found a list he had written on a piece of three-ring notebook paper, titled “credits.” I love this list so much I’ve framed it and it hangs in my office as a source of inspiration.

In our brave new world of self-promotion and online sharing of our lives, so many people now seem to come pre-packaged with a list (often of “credits”) following their name.  Not too many years ago, we had hyphenates; the classic example was: writer-director, which looks so moderate now, almost self-effacing.  Then the hyphenated lists started to grow until they became ungainly, such as chef-entrepreneur-television personality-artisanal cheese maker, etc

Now, thanks to Facebook and Twitter we can all have lists after our names. We package our public personas in quick, sometimes witty profiles.  These are like mini online dating entries, meant to communicate enough to inspire “following” or “liking.” 

I wish my father were still here so that I could ask him what motivated him to write that list.  Was it all those years of coming to my plays and reading theatre programs where my "credits" were listed? Who knows?   But my father’s list doesn't include any of the credits we now expect to follow someone's name, and that should, by all rights, follow his name, such as World War II veteran, accountant - turned entrepreneur, wine merchant, wine importer.  None of that.  

Top of the list: selling magazines door to door during the depression, which is how he helped feed his family when he was twelve and thirteen years old. He sold the Saturday Evening Post, Ladies Home Journal and the Country Gentleman, until he started caddying at age fourteen, and became Caddie(sic) Master at Ridgemont Golf Club.

Other items on the list:
Played on Marshall High School’s basketball, soccer and golf teams.
Lt. U.S. Army-AirForce. (Nothing about being a navigator/ bombardier, how many missions he flew from France into Germany, what medals he was awarded.)
Coached basketball.
Started Biddie Basketball League.
Started Little League team in the 18th Ward.
Coached Little League.
Secured 6000 signatures for Ike for President.
Appointed 18th Ward Republican Committeeman.
Helped AFS (American Field Service) recruit families for foreign student exchange.
Co-President of AFS, Penfield chapter.
Co-President of Baird Road School PTA.
Helped organize/ fundraise for the new Episcopal Church in Penfield.
Sunday school teacher. Classes held in our home until the church was built.
Member of Brighton Rotary Club.
President of Brighton Chamber of Commerce for two terms.

What I love about this list is that it gives such a clear picture of the man.  He served in the Air Force, raised four children, participated in politics, volunteered his time to enhance children’s lives through education, sports and foreign exchange, built a church, and was active in his business community. He thought children should learn to compete by playing games so that we might avoid competition on the battlefield, and he championed foreign exchange as a means of diminishing differences in the hope that we might learn to live peacefully side-by-side.

I wonder, in spite of my theatre credits and even adding in my teaching credits, whether my life and my contributions can possibly measure up to the idealism and dedication of my father’s exceptionally modest life.

Eileen Riley-Hall talks about writing and her new book, Parenting Girls on the Autism Spectrum: Overcoming the Challenges and Celebrating the Gifts

There are a lot of everyday heroes and heroines in life, and I truly think Eileen Riley-Hall is one of them. She's raising two daughters with autism, and when she couldn't find a book that offered any sort of hope, she decided to write one herself. Parenting Girls on the Autism Spectrum: Overcoming the Challenges and Celebrating the Gifts dispels myths and emphasizes practical advice on raising a child with special needs. I asked Eileen if she would write something for my blog, and I'm honored to have her here. Thank you so, so much, Eileen.

I always loved to read, and growing up I hoped one day to write a book.  The first book I fell in love with was Charlotte’s Web.  How I admired Charlotte and prayed for the world to see what she saw in Wilbur.  In middle school, To Kill a Mockingbird  took me South for with lessons in family and character.  Scout and Jem were my companions, though I loved sad, sweet Dill best of all.   By my freshman year of high school, I considered my tastes more sophisticated.  I was wildly enamored of F. Scott Fitzgerald and his crazy, tragic wife and muse Zelda.  Their ill-fated love seemed the epitome of romance.  In my junior year I read Look Homeword Angel and fell under the spell of the poetic images, carved angels, “a stone, a leaf, an unturned door.”  Look Homeward, Angel became my obsession.  I carried the book like a medieval monk gripping the Book of Prayers.   I even chose Thomas as my confirmation to the consternation of my parents and the Bishop.  Of course, I know this makes me a total geek, as well as a devoted book lover.  In my defense, I was a well-rounded geek.  I was also a mathlete in high school – you know, feverishly solved math problems in tense competitions with nerds from other schools.  But books were still my first love.
In college, I majored in English, following a brief phase as a philosophy major.  After two semesters, my father pleaded with me to choose a major that might actually lead to employment some day.  Apparently positions as philosopher kings are increasingly rare and don’t pay off college loans.  So it was back to the novels and plays, and I continued my love affair with tortured artists – it all seemed so romantic to me.  Dramatic lives, full of such heavy sighs and fading sunsets.
Then, life happened, as it does to all of us.  I graduated from the grassy knolls and endless intellectual discourse of college to join the “real world.”  After a bumpy start at several boring desk jobs, I eventually found my career as a teacher.   My first job was teaching in middle school.  It only took a few weeks of cajoling twelve year-olds into reading to realize that teaching in middle school is not about books; it’s about children.  That year my feet touched the ground, and I found I liked it.   The chubby, awkward, often too candid characters in front of me every day proved more compelling and complex than any character in a book.  Reading To Kill a Mockingbird (still my favorite book of all time) with them became a chance to hear their stories of siblings and families configured in unusual ways.  Every day was a revelation.
Then, life happened again.  I became a mom – maybe the most “real world” experience a person can have.  Oh, did I fall in love, like a crazy person!  First with Lizzie, my brown-eyed baby girl, all serious and contemplative, like a skeptical little Buddha.  And then two years later with her sister Caroline, my smiling party girl, all energy, mischief, and hugs.  Never did I think there was anything unusual about my girls.  They were just delightfully original, quirky and sweet.  But when Lizzie was five, her nursery school teacher advised me to have an evaluation done with a developmental pediatrician. Lizzie was shyer than other kids, more intense.  Having Caroline in tow the day of the appointment proved profound.  The doctor evaluated Lizzie while Caroline lined up blocks on the brightly colored rug.  I could see him watching Caroline out of the corner of his eye as he asked me questions about both girls.  After a lengthy evaluation, the doctor pronounced Caroline with autism and Lizzie somewhere along the spectrum between Pervasive Developmental Disorder and Asperger’s.  I was devastated.  What would this mean?  Why had just been eliminated from their futures and mine?
So I did what seemed wisest:  I turned to my old friends, the books.  Not novels this time, but parenting books, books on autism.  The first books I found were grim, hefty tomes, describing therapies and struggles, or scary experimental interventions to be followed like a devout religion.  They would not work for me, so I kept reading.  I decided to become an expert, if not on autism, on my girls.  And in ten years, I read everything I could, and talked to every teacher, therapist, doctor, and parent I met.  And now at 13 and 15, my girls are nothing short of miraculous.  Are they still “on the spectrum?”  Yes.  Are they in any way diminished people?  Not one bit.  I learned that a diagnosis is not a prophecy and autism is just a word to describe some things that might be harder for them to learn.  But with opportunity and work and unconditional love, amazing things are possible.  Today, Lizzie participates in her school’s musical theatre productions, and has earned straight A’s all freshman year.  And Caroline still has autism, but she plays the trumpet in her school band, and she is learning algebra.  Lizzie has perfect pitch, a remarkable feel for music, and a lovely voice, special gifts from Asperger’s.  And Caroline is funny, does uncanny impressions of friends and neighbors, and is a virtual palm pilot of dates, times, birthdays, and holidays.  Her gifts from autism.
So, I finally wrote my book.   Not the novel I had once aspired to write.  But a true story, decidedly less glamorous, to share my girls’ stories, along with my evolved understanding of autism and the irrelevancy of the word disability.  We all have our struggles, don’t we?  Some have labels and some don’t, but they are within us nonetheless. The “characters” in my book don’t attend fancy parties, nor do they stare glassy-eyed at lights across the sound.  They don’t lament the emptiness of love, nor the surprising disappointment of success.  They are my girls and the many amazing children like them who keep trying even when the whole world seems to say give up.  I realized finally that writing a book isn’t about metaphors and angst; it’s about having something to say, something other people need to hear.  You just put it in words the best you can.
So I end back where I began when I turned the first page of Charlotte’s Web.  And like that insightful spider, I find miracles in the ordinary.  I write so all of the world can see that my girls are:  “Some girls!”  and “Terrific,”  but most of all they are “Radiant.”  

Monday, May 14, 2012

Meg Pokrass, author of Damn Sure Right, talks about being silly, screenwriting, Damn Sure Right, and more

Meg Pokrass writes flash fiction, poetry and makes animation--and her new book, Damn Sure Right (great title, right?) is absolutely wonderful. Her work has appeared in over 100 online and print publications from the Rumpus to the Mississippi, and she runs the incredible Fictionaut Five author series. Nominated for Dzanc's Best of The Web, the Pushcart Prize Anthology and more, she also teaches writing privately. I was honored to interview her for the blog.

You studied acting, so I want to know, does it help with writing? (Should I do it?)

You should if it sounds like fun! It can't help but stimulate creativity. 

Everything I know about writing I learned by studying acting at age 8 - 25 and by reading wonderful books and plays starting very early. I was very taken by the work of Tennessee Williams, Sherwood Anderson, Wendy Wasserstein. I've never taken a formal writing class. Everything I learned as a writer came from the early training, such as working with sense-memory recall, and how to develop an awareness of character motivation. Showing through this behavior, not telling.

One learns the power of rhythm through use of inflection, learns to listen to the subtleties in dialog...  
I had an interesting acting teacher who said, "Every scene... every relationship.. all moments in life involve some subtle relationship to sex, how there is sex in everything."  I still can't figure this out... and I don't think I agree...  HOWEVER, I do write a lot about sex. 

I also write a lot about my fear of abandonment (one of my life-long issues), getting older, losing places and people. I use my neurosis, I make lemonade from my emotional lemons. 

Here are 3 acting quotes which make just as much sense to me in writing:

"One of the things I like about my profession, and that I find healthy, is that one constantly has to break oneself to pieces." - Liv Ullmann

"Acting doesn't have anything to do with listening to the words. We never really listen, in general conversation, to what the other person is saying. We listen to what they mean.   - Jack Lemon

"Acting is behaving truthfully in imaginary circumstances." - Sanford Meisner

Why flash fiction? Did you gravitate naturally to it or was this something you tried and found it was a perfect fit. Do you also write longer fictions, or even contemplate a novel?

Prose poetry and narrative poetry got me first. I started writing poetry in the 1980s and was encouraged by two great mentors and poets, Molly Peacock and Ellery Akers.  My poetry was fairly narrative, and I had no idea that I was trying to write little stories. I found that out later. When I took a hard look at my poetry, it was flash.

I recently completed writing a novella created from flash fiction and prose poetry fragments. It is semi-autobiographical. 

I have to say that when i figured out poetry was not really my form, it opened the world up. I was less inhibited and clumsy immediately.  I don't know why. I felt like someone who had danced ballet realizing they were better at modern dance.. I jumped into flash with glee and haven't been able to leave it. 

I still write poetry, but the weight of that form is lighter on me now. 

You've been commissioned to turn the book--or some of the stories--into a script! How did that come about? What's it like for you? 
My friend, screenwriter Eugene Corr, who wrote one of my favorite movies, "Desert Bloom",  told me my work is quite visual, which was interesting to me --  and gave me the confidence to show my novella to a few people.

It just happened to be the right fit.   The producer hired an award-winning screenwriter (I can't name the screenwriter yet) to co-write an adaptation with me. I'll be learning so much about screenwriting from working with him. My novella has not been published yet, and I am about to send it around to agents and publishers soon. I do need a good literary agent now, so that is my new goal -- finding a good fit. I never needed a literary agent before since I wrote only tiny stories. 

What's obsessing you now? 

Justin Torres's tiny novel "We the Animals" - I can't get over it, keep re-reading it.  Oh man. A novel in 140 pages, these bombshell tiny chapters. Reading it feels like living a whole life. A life is inside there. It feels like some kind of miracle, what he did.

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

(Why are you so silly on Facebook Meg?)

It is my release. I love Facebook too much, have met so many wonderful friends there. It is my city which never sleeps. I know that is odd, but I work at home and am isolated from people too much. It brings the world in and opens up all kinds of creative interchange and play.  And yeah, I can be an actress again... there. 

Senior Associate Editor, 
Managing Director,

"Damn Sure Right" Reviews:

Nick Arvin talks about The Curious Case of the Book That Was Finished But Wasn't

Nick Arvin wrote one of my favorite books, The Reconstructionist, about one of my favorite subjects: car crashes. What's really interesting is that Nick holds degrees in automotive and forensic engineering, which puts a whole new spin on things. His work has appeared in the New Yorker, the Wall Street Journal and more, and he's also the author of In the Electric Eden and Articles of War. He's the recipient of the Rosenthal Foundation Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the Boyd Award from the American Library Association, The Colorado Book Award, and fellowships from the Michener-Copernicus Society, the Isherwood Foundation and the National Endowment of the arts.

I'm thrilled Nick agreed to write something more for my blog. Thank you, Nick!

The Curious Case Of The Book That Was Finished But Wasn't

Due to an odd circumstance, The Reconstructionist was published in the United Kingdom in a version very different from the edition published here in the United States. This came up briefly in an interview I did for Mark Stevens' blog; I thought I'd expand on the story here...

The root of the problem (if it's a problem; I'm not really sure) was that my previous novel, Articles of War, was acquired by its publisher in the UK as the first of a two book deal. That happened because my agent's counterpart in London shopped the book around and found only one publisher that was interested, and they wanted a two book deal. And I thought: Who cares how many future books they want attached to the deal! Exciting to be published overseas!

So, they did publish Articles of War in the UK. Meanwhile, I worked on The Reconstructionist. Worked and worked and worked on it. Worked on it for about four years, finished a manuscript, and sent it to my agent. He suggested some changes. I worked on those for about a year, then sent it back to him. He liked it. Hooray!

My agent began sending The Reconstructionist around to the publishers in New York. He also sent it to my UK editor. They had contractual rights to this new book, but they hadn't actually paid me anything for it yet. I figured there was a good chance that they would simply turn it down, since Articles of War didn't sell much in the UK. A month passed. And then a message came from the UK editor. She loved it! They would put it in their catalog for next spring!

Meanwhile, publishers in New York were turning it down left and right. Months passed while my agent worked through the various houses until, finally, Harper Perennial took a shine to it. It would be published in the US! Hooray!

My US editor promised comments on the book, but months passed. Meanwhile, the editor in the UK was pushing the book through copyediting, proofreading, putting together cover art, writing copy for the catalog, etc. I received the galleys. I was delighted to see that all my "tires" had been turned into "tyres," and I was finished!
Except that I wasn't finished, because then received a nine-page single-spaced letter from my US editor, describing his concerns and suggestions for the manuscript.
I'd been working on the book for about five years now, and the last thing I wanted to do was go through another round of major revisions. But the editor had put a lot of time, thought, and care into that letter, and I could see that the issues he was raising were legitimate.
So, the UK edition sailed into bookstores at about the same time that I began working through the issues in the letter.
In his letter, the US editor suggested the book needed maybe 20 additional pages at the beginning, to better set up the characters and plot. I ended up writing nearly 100 new pages. Those new pages include a quirky sequence of events centering around a lot of roadkilled wild pigs and a zombie pig on wheels. I think they'’re some of the best pages in the book, and when I describe the UK edition to readers, they often have a hard time believing that the pigs aren't in there, because they became so central to the book.
What's the lesson for a writer? I suppose simply to always remain open to feedback that allows you to see new possibilities in your work. Despite the weariness involved in writing new scenes for a project that's been haunting your life for too long already, the writing in those circumstances can come quickly if the purpose of the new writing is clear, because by then the voice and characters are well defined (and if they're not, you've got bigger problems). I find it can result in some of my best writing.
And, happily, there will be a new UK edition published this summer that matches the US edition.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Victoria Zackheim talks about Exit Laughing, screenwriting, playwriting, and more

I first met Victoria Zackheim through Readerville, an online watering hole for writers and readers. And then she did something unbelievable. My husband, Jeff Tamarkin, was touring for his award-winning book, Got a Revolution, and I mentioned to Victoria that we New Yorkers were coming out to San Francisco, where she lived and perhaps we could meet for the first time.. "Well, you have to stay with me," she said. "You, Jeff, and Max (who was six at the time!) The three of us descended on her loft, never having met her, and she was so hospitable, so warm and welcoming and generous, that we all felt that we had known her for years. It was, as they say, the beginning of a spectacular friendship.Though we live on opposite coasts, we manage to see each other at least once a year, one of the highpoints for me was spending 4 days at the Pulpwood Queens Book Festival...dressed as clowns.

Exit Laughing, her latest anthology (I'm kicking myself for turning down an invitation to be in it, but at least I got to rave about it with a blurb) has just come out, and it's stellar.

Thank you, Victoria for being here, but really, thank you for everything.

Exit Laughing is about the fun side of death, theose  lighter moments of a very dark time. What made you choose this topic? And were you surprised by any of the essays?

I cared for my mother during the last eighteen months of her life. We had a complicated relationship—not so unusual for a mother and daughter—and I was often frustrated by her reluctance, and sometimes unwillingness, to discuss how she felt about her life coming to an end. It wasn't until that one defining moment, when we laughed long and hard over her request to be taken to Alaska and sent out on an ice floe to die, that I realized how precious humor could be in the darkest of times. From then on, I made an effort to share humor with her: funny stories, articles I'd read, delightfully rib-tickling things said by her beloved 7-year-old great-granddaughters. Every time we laughed together, I felt another window of our relationship blow open and let in a fresh breeze. 

EXIT LAUGHING is my fifth anthology, and I have to admit that I'm surprised by every essay I receive. Perhaps it's hubris, and my belief that I can second-guess what an author will write, and I have to admit that I'm wrong nearly every time! I knew that Malachy McCourt was going to write about what really happened to Angela's Ashes, but I wasn't prepared for his outrageously funny description. (Think: undertaker, body bag, sanitation truck.) I'm very familiar with Amy Ferris's writing, which usually makes me laugh out loud, so I was knocked off-center by her deeply moving revelation regarding her mother's need to have a window seat when she flew. And who but Joshua Braff could create a parallel between death and the Road Runner? So yes, I'm always surprised...and amazed...and thrilled.

What I find most remarkable about you is how you keep reinventing who you are. Not only are you a novelist, but you've become a successful editor of anthologies, and even more astonishing, you've also become a successful playwright and screenwriter. Can you talk about how all of this came about? Did any of it daunt you? And what's next up for you?

It's funny, because I've always imagined myself as a playwright and screenwriter, and that confident part of me kept nudging me forward and whispering, "You can do that, you can!" So when I began to edit the essays for my first anthology, The Other Woman, and I kept seeing women on stage, acting out the essays, I knew I had to give it a try. I chose five pieces from the book, broke them into many fragments of text, and then wove them together to form a play. The essays have changed since that first performance, and I'm very excited to say that there will be a four-week run at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre, with opening night scheduled for February 22, 2013. 

As for the movie...I was at a party, it was around 2002, and one of the guests was holding us captivated by his story of how he and two friends carried off a truly amazing prison escape in Northern Ireland. Over the years, the images that he described became so real to me that I could actually see the movie unfold. When I was introduced to an independent film producer, Matt Muzio, I related this story and he loved it. A few weeks later, I handed him a screenplay; a few weeks after that and it was ready to be shopped around. Within days, it was optioned by Identity Films. I'm working on revised scenes now!

Your question about feeling daunted is very interesting. Perhaps if I were younger, I might have entered into these projects with doubt or trepidation. But I'm not young, I've got nothing to lose, and what a freeing experience it is! I'm often asked if I'm afraid to fail. How can I fail? If I give it my best and it doesn't work, I've succeeded at giving my best. For me, the only true failure is not giving it a try. 

Let's talk process. How do you write? What's your working day like? 

I'm usually up, dressed, fed and ready to work by 7 AM. If I'm in the middle of writing, I might write until early evening, take a break for dinner, and then keep working until there's nothing left...which can happen at 9 PM or 4 AM, depending if I'm in that zone. I don't recommend working like this...it's very hard on the body...but it's how I've always worked. And yes, I've even set alarms to make me stand up and move around, but sometimes I work with such focus that I don't hear the alarm!

What's obsessing you now?

Identity Films got excellent and enthusiastic input from several potential directors, so now I'm shifting the focus of the screenplay and writing entirely new scenes. I LOVE doing this, but I must admit to getting a wee bit obsessive about doing it right!

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

I have a new project, which I'll begin as soon as the screenplay is finished and delivered. My theater partner, producer/director Ellie Mednick, and I have just been given the rights to the  memoir, Entangled, which I'm going to adapt to the theater. I'm very excited about this and can't wait to get to work!

Amy Hatvany talks about forgiveness, fathers and daughters, and Outside the Lines

I was honored to blurb Amy Hatvany's terrific new novel, Outside the Lines, about finding a father you thought was lost to you, and forgiveness. It was a book I loved so much, I asked Amy if she would write something for the blog. Thank you so, so much, Amy.

My Father, Myself - Amy Hatvany, on OUTSIDE THE LINES
I didn’t plan to write a novel about a father and daughter. All of my books have dealt with varying themes of motherhood - perhaps because I have been in the throes of baby/toddler/grade-schooler-ville for the better part of a decade. Being a mother encompassed me in a way I’d never experienced, and when I get obsessed about something, processing it on the page is the only way I know how to make any sense of it at all. (Maybe I’m a slow learner, but I’m still not sure I have much about this mommy-gig figured out; most of the time I just wing it.)
But, as my children have (finally!) started to brush their teeth, shower, and get dressed without being strong-armed into it, I believe my mind made room for something different. I didn’t know what I was going to write about next - in fact, I’d begun to feel a little panicky about it (Will I ever write again? Maybe I’m just a fraud!) - and then, out of nowhere, I had a dream a few months after my father had died: I was walking along a sandy beach, wind whipping my hair around my face, the sun still shining on an icy winter day. Suddenly, I spotted a blue tarp over a pile of driftwood, and as I lifted it up, I realized my father was curled beneath. He was skinny, bedraggled, and appeared disoriented. When I woke, I was struck by the overwhelming feeling that he had been lost, was suffering, and I’d been looking for him for a long time. In that moment, the premise of OUTSIDE THE LINES was born. 
I began writing about Eden West, a woman searching for her homeless and mentally-ill artist father, David, whom she’s been estranged from for twenty years. I wrote from his view point and hers, both past and present, so the reader would see how close they were and how their relationship fractured when she was only ten. And then later, what drives her to find him again. 
As I wrote, I thought deeply about the sometimes emotionally tumultuous relationship I had with my own father. How much I loved him, and yet, for whatever reason, how we never seemed to connect the way I hoped. I thought about what a profound influence needing a father’s unconditional love and acceptance has on a woman’s choice in romantic partners. I often wondered if my father was alive to read this story when I was finished writing it, would he understand that I forgave him long ago for any of his flaws, simply because as a parent now, I’m keenly aware of so many of my own? 
I hope so. I hope wherever he is, he’s kicking back with this new book of mine and whispering, “Don’t worry, honey. I forgive you, too​.” 

Yay! A new indie bookstore is opening in Connecticut!

I'm always thrilled when a new bookstore opens--and I've been begging people to open one in Hoboken for years--and I'm thrilled to have Christopher Jones (along with Gina Holmes, he's opening Monte Cristo Bookshop in New London, Cionnecticut) here to talk about it. Thank you, Christopher, for both the interview and for the bookstore!

I'm delighted that you are starting a bookstore! What made you decide to do this (and will you PLEASE open one in Hoboken?) 
I have been in retail management much of my adult life. One day back in November, while job hunting I thought to myself why can’t I just open my own store? But what to sell? The answer was in front of us, in piles on the ground, on shelves in the living room, in our bags, on the floor of our cars. Books! Gina is the most well read person I’ve ever met. We were both together. It just seemed perfect.  At first we thought “Cee Gee’s Independent Bookshop” would be a good name and we used to it to promote ourselves. It was quite effective. We were on the radio, in the newspaper...even the governor sent us a handwritten letter of support.  
After deliberating we changed the name to “Monte Cristo Bookshop” . The building was originally built in the 1910s as The Monte Cristo Garage. It was owned by actor James O’Neill, father of author Eugene O’Neill, New London’s most famous resident. In theaters around the world he played the role of the Count 6000 times. Some called it an obsession. He named many of his properties after names in the story. So here we are. Not a sandwich. Not a cigar. But an island with a secret treasure. Perfect.
What kind of store is it going to be?
It will sell mostly new books of all genres but also have a limited used selection and various knick-knacks. We expect an inventory of 40,000 books on opening day. Using a distribution model we will deal with local authors and publishers on a case by case basis. Some authors may want money up front, some may do consignment. It really depends. Our used selection will also be extremely limited. Classics and books that we know for certain will sell. We will be open seven days a week from 10-8. There is talk of a possible coffee counter.  There will be a dedicated event space. 
The store will also have a mobile component initially for school book fairs, but possibly useful as a kiosk near the train station downtown, and at area festivals. 
 What kind of events will you have?
All sorts of events! We suspected how great these events are at other stores, but after a few long phone conversations with various bookstore owners around the country it became very apparent; These events are the lifeblood of many stores. They certainly will be ours.
We will have several authors per week. Everybody from local authors to celebrity authors will be included. Bigger events will be held at the ballroom or theater down the street, whom love the idea. Authors will be encouraged to read and/or interview in front of a crowd. Weekly children's readings. Fun after hours events like poetry slams, literature themed movie nights, scrabble tournaments. The sky is the limit here.. Keep in mind our space will be a community space. We will have lectures, seminars, and workshops going on all of the time. The key for us is to the keep the store environment a busy open place.  We may close our doors at 8pm but I suspect many events going until 10pm.
 Will there be an online presence--and how can authors and readers help get the word out! 
Yes. We do not have our website up yet but we will be online. There will be an online store as well as a mobile application. As in, on your phone or e-reader device that is compatible, you can browse and buy your books from us a competitive prices. Imagine that?!
What's your twitter and FB handle so everyone can follow you!
Twitter we are @montecristobook

How do you feel about the future of books? 

They are not going anywhere. The first time your e-reader screen freezes on you will be your moment. Unless the facebook notifications and text icons dinging in the background pull you away from your story first. Really, books are not music. There is a certain amount of effort that goes into them to read them. The sales figures are in. The industry is hardly doomed. Amazon’s days of monopoly will not be forever. We are very optimistic about it all.

Is there any questions I didn't ask that I should have?

Our fundraiser starts June 1st and runs for eight weeks. Please visit our facebook page on how you can help our dream  become a reality!

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Wally Lamb talks about giving back, his writing program for incarcerated women, meeting Oprah, We Are Water, and so much more

There are certain books that saved my life at certain times, and Wally Lamb’s She’s Come Undone was one of them. I was working full-time at Columbia Video Club and having a rough time because all I really wanted to do was write--and the long hours of my job and the tedium were doing me in. I carried She’s Come Undone with me everywhere. I read pages when I should have been writing about the latest Bruce Willis movie (“Bruce is back and better than ever!”) Delores Price made me feel I could do better, and I count her as one of the forces that made me tell my boss (we called him “the little angry man”) that while I could physically continue to work for them, I could no longer do it spiritually. And so, I began writing full-time.

Since then, I have read everything Wally Lamb has written: I Know This Much is True, The Hour I First Believed, Wishin’ and Hopin’, Couldn’t Keep It To Myself: Testimonies From Our Imprisoned Sisters, I’ll Fly Away: Further Testimonies From The Women of York Prison. And it goes without saying that I cannot wait for his newest, We Are Water.

He’s won awards from the National Endowment of the Arts, the Connecticut Commission on the Arts, and he also won the Connecticut Center for the Book’s Lifetime Achievement Award. But wait, there’s more: He won the Pushcart Prize, the New England Book Award for Fiction. He’s been on the New York Times Notable Books of the Year listings, and he was selected by Oprah’s Book Club TWICE and was also Germany’s Bertelsmann Book Club choice. She’s Come Undone was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Best First Novel of the Year Award and one of People Magazine’s Top Ten Books of the Year. I Know This Much is True won the Friends of the Library USA Reader’s Choice Award for best first novel and the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill’s Kenneth Johnson Award for its anti-stigmatizing of mental illness.

His teaching awards include a national Apple Computers “Thanks to Teachers” Excellence Award and the Barnes and Noble “Writers Helping Writers” Award for his work with incarcerated women.

I’m thrilled, honored, and jumping-up-and-down excited to host Wally on my blog. A thousand thank-yous, Mr. Lamb. 

I don’t know if you know this, but you have the reputation for being one of the nicest writers on the planet. Sometimes with huge success, such as yours, writers become distant or haughty, but everyone I talk to who knows you, adores you. How did you keep your level head and warm heart as you became more and more famous?

Two weeks after Oprah selected She’s Come Undone for her book club, I was having a quiet moment of jubilant disbelief as I sat on our sofa looking at my name at the top of the NY Times bestseller list. At that exact moment, my son Justin walked by carrying a Magic Eight Ball. (Justin, age eight at the time, is our resident wise guy.) “Is Dad a dork?” he asked, then shook it, looked up at me, and with a grin on his face, read the answer: My sources say yes. As most parents will agree, with kids around, there’s not much danger of becoming too self-important.
Seriously, though, I know many writers who work as hard or harder than I do, and whose work is as good or better. I still sometimes scratch my head and wonder how and why so many blessings have come to me. Unable to answer that question, I try instead to give as much as possible to those in need—particularly those who are voiceless and powerless. I’m talking here about time and talent as much as money. And of course, when you give what you can to others, you get back as much or more in return.

You had what seemed like instant, huge fame when She’s Come Undone came out. When did you know it was going to be big, and did it change you or the way you thought about your writing?
When I tell people that this summer Atria Books will publish a 20th anniversary edition of She’s Come Undone, they seem surprised that the book has been around that long. That’s probably because most readers became aware of it in 1997 when Oprah made it her third book club selection. Truth be told, the novel was published five years earlier in 1992. So it wasn’t a big book when it came out. It enjoyed modest success for a first-time novel by an unknown author. There’s a funny picture of me that appeared in the Boston Globe when Oprah chose the book. I’m seated in front of my high school students, one shoe untied, a befuddled look on my face. Above my picture, the headline asks WALLY WHO?
You were chosen for Oprah’s bookclub twice. So, were you nervous meeting her? And are you still friends? 
Was I nervous when I met Oprah? Hell, yeah. You take a breath when she walks into the room and you see that she’s just as human as anyone else. But Oprah’s warm, funny, charming, and inquisitive—it’s the key to her success, after all—and so the nervousness quickly fades away as she engages with you. Although I haven’t talked to Oprah in several years now, I have the feeling that it would be easy to pick up where we left off if or when we did reconnect. Oprah’s the real deal and I admire her greatly for the things she does and the way she is.

I really want to ask about the incredible writing program you did for incarcerated women at the York Correctional Institute, a maximum security prison. When a book came out of it, Couldn’t Keep It To Myself: Testimonies from Our Imprisoned Sister, the prison sued the contributors for the cost of incarceration, calculated at $117 per day. The prison also moved to close your program down, and probably would have succeeded if not for a 60 Minutes program. How in the world could they do such a thing? Can you talk a bit about this and is the program still going on?
 I’m happy to report that the writing program at York Prison is not only going strong but that it’s doubled in size, and we have since published a second volume of the women’s autobiographical pieces titled I’ll Fly Away: Further Testimonies from the Women of York Prison. When the State of Connecticut sued the women for their writing, it was in response to the sale of Couldn’t Keep It to Myself. Each woman would receive $6000, which would be waiting for her once she’d served her sentences and been released. Because many of the incarcerated writers had been battered women, they also voted to contribute $6000 to a shelter for abused women and children. Fearing public backlash from conservatives (“How dare these women make money when they’re there to be punished!”), the state sued the contributors not for their $6000 share but for the entire cost of their imprisonment. Imprisoned since 1986, one woman now owed the state $917,000. It was a cruel and ridiculous overreaction on the state’s part, and in response I nominated one of my students for the PEN/Newman’s Own First Amendment award, which is given to a writer whose freedom of speech is attacked. When she won the award, things got really ugly. But the Department of Correction overplayed its hand. The students’ floppy disks were confiscated and all of their work was deleted from the hard drives of the ancient computers they were allowed to use. Worse yet, the prison’s spokesman denied this was happening. That’s when Sixty Minutes got involved. Lying to Sixty Minutes? Not a good idea. Suddenly, the State of Connecticut did an about face, lauded and reinstated the program, and settled the lawsuit quickly. The cherry atop the sundae of this challenging experience was that, as a result, the legislature passed a law. It is no longer legal for the State of Connecticut to sue inmates in its custody for the money they accrue while participating in rehabilitative programming.

What’s obsessing you now?

I’m currently obsessing about the final draft of my latest novel, We Are Water, which will be published in 2013. This one’s about art, racism, family love, the toxicity of long-held secrets, and a wife who leaves her husband for a woman. My other current obsessions include Mad Men and Nurse Jackie (TV), The Alabama Shakes and The Shins (music), and Amanda Coplin’s novel The Orchardist and David Fitzpatrick’s memoir of mental illness, Sharp. Both books are forthcoming this August and both are terrific reads.