Thursday, January 31, 2013

Alex George, author of A Good American, writes about A Life Lived Elsewhere

One of my favorite books of the year has got to be Alex George's A Good American, now in paperback. It pulses with life as it follows an immigrant family through decades of fascinating history, and it's captured all of the best adjectives: moving, funny, unforgettable. Plus, Alex is one of the most wonderful people around. I'm thrilled to have him back on the blog (any time, Alex. My blog is your blog). Thank you for this great essay. 


For the past forty years or so, my parents have lived in an ancient market town about seventy miles west of London.  I spent a week there last summer with my children.  When we weren’t watching the Olympics, we took my parents’ dog, a lovely old black Labrador, around the same fields where I used to walk her predecessors as a teenager.  As we went past the pristine cricket pitches of the local private school and trekked through the adjacent dilapidated cemetery, I was struck by how reassuringly familiar it all was.  It’s been almost twenty-five years since I left home, but the intervening time always vanishes as I walk past the familiar landmarks of my youth.  

I live four thousand miles away from my parents now, in central Missouri.  I moved to the States almost ten years ago, and although I am happy here, every time I return to England I am struck by both joy and a sense of loss.  Missouri has natural charms of its own, of course, but they are not the same – by which I mean, of course, that they are not mine.  I can admire the lakes, the trails, and the sunsets of the Midwest, but they are not freighted with the same warmth of memory that enriched those rambles with my parents’ aging dog.  

Paradoxically, England seems to exert a stronger claim over me the longer that I live in America.  I find myself increasingly nostalgic for my own childhood, perhaps because I am now finally at an age when I can look back with fondness, rather than toe-curling embarrassment.  As I walk the streets of the town where I grew up, the past rushes back up to me.  The candy shop where I spent my weekly pocket money is still there.  I remember the delicious agony of Saturday mornings as I tried to decide what to buy – my favorites were sherbet lemons which I would suck on until the roof of my mouth was sore.  Then, much later, there were the dark winter afternoons skulking behind the trees at the back of the supermarket parking lot, anxiously puffing on my first illicit cigarettes.  With these memories comes a palpable sense of belonging.  This place feels like where I should be.  It feels, in other words, like home.

My novel, A Good American, explores the complex relationship that immigrants have with the concept of home.  It tells the story of a young couple who leave Germany in 1904 and forge a new life for themselves in America.  There is a paradox inherent in the immigrant experience: you want to embrace your new country, but you don’t want to forget where you came from.  Living with both ideas can be a delicate balancing act.  To examine this, I performed a weird act of authorial schizophrenia, and split myself down the middle.  I attributed all of my positive emotions about moving to America to Frederick, the young husband, who embraces his newly adopted country with unwavering fervor.  In contrast, his wife struggles with homesickness, and is forever looking forlornly back across the Atlantic.  Seeing this contrast play out across the pages of my novel helped me come to terms with my own bifurcated existence.  And it was considerably cheaper than therapy.

Even now, having lived here for almost a decade, I am confronted by daily reminders that this is not the country I grew up in.  There remains a vast cultural chasm down which I am apt to tumble at inopportune moments.  Whether it’s people’s obsession with college sports or Sean Hannity, there are things that I guess I’ll just never understand.  When confronted by these, I often feel an outsider all over again, and am ambushed by homesickness.

A life lived elsewhere is full of such conundrums.  My daily life is in America, with my children, but my roots will always be in England.  Such is the bittersweet paradox of immigrant life.  And so, for me, home is an amorphous thing, shifting and mutating from one day to the next.  There’s no place like it.  

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Rochelle Jewel Shapiro, author of Kaylee's Ghost, talks about What Haunts You

Good friend Rochelle Jewel Shapiro, author of the novel Kaylee's Ghost (Kirkus gave it a rave) is on the blog again today to talk about why writing about what haunts you is so important. Honored to have her here! Thank you, Rochelle.

By Rochelle Jewel Shapiro

Maybe you’ve convinced yourself that the person-shaped shadow you glimpsed from the corner of your eye must be one of those floaters you heard people can develop and you will ask your ophthalmologist about. And surely that whispering you heard was the wind, no matter how breezeless the day. And that whiff of roses you smelled while walking mid-winter on a desolated stretch of boardwalk must be someone’s perfume. Still, you have to admit that something haunts you. And that’s what you need to write about! That’s what will be the most vivid, most compelling to your readers.

According to, one of the definitions of haunting is “to recur persistently to the consciousness.” Miriam Kaminsky, my heroine in both Miriam the Medium (Simon & Schuster) and my newest novel, Kaylee’s Ghost, a phone psychic like myself, is such a big part of my consciousness that people call me Miriam and I answer to it. And her Russian grandmother from whom she inherited her psychic gift as I did mine is so much in my psyche that every morning I see her sitting at my dining room table, sipping a glass of tea, the steam fogging her small silver-rimmed eyeglasses. I 
can even smell the lavender talc that she powder-puffed onto her creased neck.

I’m haunted by the tragic plight of people who have had to flee from their homelands because of religious or political persecution as my paternal grandmother fled her Russian village with her five surviving children (five sons murdered in the pogrom) and my husband’s parents escaping Hitler’s Europe. The immigrant experience is always part of my consciousness, part of my writing. Whenever I see or read about people fleeing countries or huddled in refugee camps, it doesn’t matter how different their backgrounds, I feel that I know them intimately, that they are my people. And I know their generations, how they will carry the experience, be haunted by it.

Another thing that stays with me, that is part of my writing, my psyche, is those moments of giddiness that can happen even when things seem at their worst. For example, both in waking life and in dreams, I can see my maternal grandpa, Eli, pale and heavy, falling down our long flight of steps like a float in a Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, then landing dead-still at the foot of the stairs. In my gut, I feel my childhood terror when my grandmother pulled up his eyelids and there were no pupils. I can see her pinching his nose to make him swallow the dose of strong laxative, her cure for everything. Then I hear his stomach growl to life, watch him hobble top-speed to the toilet.

Writing about what haunts you will help you stay the long course of a novel, from its inception to its final word. Watch and listen for the energies of your imagination—or is it the spirits?—who will guide you and not let go.

Rochelle Jewel Shapiro is a phone psychic. Articles have been written about her psychic gift in Redbook, The Jerusalem Post, the Dutch Magazine, TV GID, and the Long Island section of the New York Times. She’s chronicled her own psychic experiences in Newsweek (My Turn), and The New York Times (Lives) which can be read on her website at
twitter @rjshapiro

Rochelle Jewel Shapiro

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Meredith Maran talks about Why We Write, odious genre labels, and so much more

You know the friend you can sit across a table from in a cafe for lunch, and the next thing you know it's dinner time and you've been laughing so hard that you haven't even touched your chocolate croissant? That's what being with Meredith Maran is like. I love Meredith. You've never met anyone as warm, interesting, and downright funny, plus she's one of the most big-hearted and generous people on the planet. The author of eleven nonfiction books and a novel, A Theory of Small Earthquakes, and she's a member of the National Book Critics Circle, Meredith writes features, essays, and book reviews for People, Salon, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Boston Globe, The Chicago Tribune, Self, Real Simple, Ladies Home Journal, Mother Jones, Family Circle, and More. 

Why We Write isn't just fascinating, it's also really important. And I'm thrilled, honored and jazzed to have Meredith here. And yep, Meredith, I DID include your answer to the last question! 

How did this book come to be?

I conceived it in 2010 when the "Chick Lit" battle was raging. On the Twittersphere, on book blogs, at literary events, and in the pages of the few remaining newspaper book review sections, the book world was hotly debating the meaning of "commercial" versus "literary" fiction. Bestselling authors Jennifer Weiner and Jodi Picoult argued that their work was disparaged as "chick lit," while equally accessible, popular novels by men like Jonathan Franzen were considered "literature." Commenting on The New York Times’ reviewing policies, Weiner told the Huffington Post: “How can anyone claim the paper plays fair when genre fiction that men read gets reviewed but genre fiction that women read doesn’t exist on the paper’s review pages?" 

At the time I was about to publish my first novel, and I didn't even know what to hope for: would it be labeled "chick lit" and not be reviewed, but reach large numbers of readers? Or would it be labeled "literary fiction" and get reviewed but not read?

I thought the whole conundrum was ridiculous, and not at all helpful to the biggest struggle facing writers and readers, which is--not to put too fine a point on it--keeping books and writers alive. I had a feeling that the motivations of writers across genres had more in common than the style of work they produced, and that putting them between the covers of a single book might start a conversation among them, and among their readers. So I decided to ask a bunch of them the same ten questions about their relationship to their writing. Sure enough! David Baldacci and Rick Moody write for essentially the same reasons.

Oh--also, I needed the money to fund the writing of my second novel.

How'd you choose the writers you chose?

I had a few criteria: I wanted the writers I chose to be "famous," at least to their own audiences (I'd never heard of some of the best-selling authors in the book until I started putting it together). I wanted them to be identified as either literary or commercial. And I wanted them to be representative (unlike the NYTBR) of the writers working today: male, female, white, of color, young, old, novelists, journalists. Then I started with some of my favorite writers, most but not all of whom are considered "literary," and then tried to match each one with a writer who was, or was considered to be, his or her opposite--"commercial."

What surprised you about their pieces?

Almost everything! Overall, I was surprised by the similarities in their relationships to their writing. Nearly all of them defined their need to write as one of maintaining sanity. I was surprised, too, by their differences--mostly in the funny, odd, quirky things they do to prepare themselves to write, to write, and to recover from writing. Also, I was surprised by their openness and honesty. In a really poignant, candid moment, Jennifer Egan described the night she decided her first novel was terrible, and she'd never be a writer, and she went mad wandering the streets of the Lower East Side calling friends and telling them never to call her a writer again.

Did you see any themes emerging, similarities and definite differences?

Although by definition, all the writers in the book are commercially successful, I was surprised by how many of them have struggled to be published; how late in life several of them came to writing, and how hard they've fought to keep from being categorized. Walter Mosley comes to mind. He fought being boxed in as a genre writer, just as Jodi Picoult resents being called a writer of "chick lit."

Why do you write?

Same reason as the writers in the book: I'd go nuts if I didn't. And I do go nuts when I don't. I was a full-time writer for 25 years, during which time I woke up happy to go to work every single day--and went to sleep worried about money pretty much every night. Thanks to the changes in the publishing industry--lower advances, lower sales, years instead of months between selling a book to a publisher--I took my first full-time job at age 60. Luckily, I love the gig, but it's been a huge adjustment, finding time to write--not to mention getting dressed in the morning.

If you could choose three pearls from the collection that would be especially helplful to writers, what would they be?

Meg Wolitzer compares writing to a bouillon cube. She says the key to great writing is to pick ordinary moments and magnify them, so the reader can add water. I adore her work, so I wasn't surprised to adore what she has to say in this book.

Terry McMillan says she only writes about characters who disturb her, so she has something to discover about them, and so the characters have to win her over. I loved that! She also taught me a trick I immediately put to use in my own novel. When she's starting her character profiles, she goes to McDonald's, picks up a bunch of employment applications, and fills one out for each character she's creating. Genius!

What's obsessing you now?

Relief that Mitt Romney isn't President. My new in-sink dish drainer, which allows me to throw dinner parties in my new bungalow in Los Angeles. Wondering when and how I'll find time to finish my next novel. Eagerly awaiting some pretty cool events to promote Why We Write, with some pretty cool writers.

What question should I be mortified that I forgot to ask you?

Oh, my dear Caroline, you are so mortified so much of the time, always unnecessarily, that I refuse to contribute to it. You're a beautiful writer and a beautiful writing ally and a beautiful human being, and if you don't include this answer I'll know it and I'll out you on Twitter AND Facebook! Love you!

Thursday, January 24, 2013

And now for your reading pleasure, a bit from Suzanne Finnamore Luckenbach's Add to Cart: A Memoir of Loss, Lust and Securing My Second Husband Online

Suzanne Finnamore Luckenbach's written some of the bravest, smartest, funniest books around, chronicling her marriage (Otherwise Engaged), her baby (The Zygote Chronicles) , her divorce (Split) and now, Hot off the press, from "Add To Cart: A Memoir of Loss, Lust and Securing My Second Husband Online."  I also have to say you can't hope for a better friend. Suzanne's the kind of person who somehow knows you were thinking about the stars, so she goes out and gets you all of your favorite constellations and then throws in a few planets, too.

Read. And love this sneak peek.

Chapter X A Lifetime Supply of Men: The Ten Commandments (Featuring Special Guest Star Augusten Burroughs) 

I signed up for a year contract on By now it was becoming obvious from the screaming on the redwood deck and the progressively apocalyptic engineering reports that my house was not going to whisk off the market anytime soon. Additionally, the monthly rate for Match was much lower with a longer contract. With a yearlong campaign, and if I applied myself, I could as Lulu promised acquire a lifetime supply of men.

They are as follows:

The Ten Commandments To Online Dating

1. Thou shalt lie.

Pretend to love men unreservedly. Pretend to be a few years younger and much happier. It will show on your face. Everything shows on your face.

2. Do Not Be All Things To All People

Your goal is not to cast a dragnet and get as many men as you can shovel into your pit. Your goal is to be yourself, only better, and have that stance draw a stable of good matches.

3. One Log Won’t Burn

Date as many men as you can handle. If you meet someone you really like, throw another log/man onto the fire and watch it blaze up. If you meet a man you really like, do not focus on them, they will sense this and run for the hills. The more men you date the more attractive you are to the men you date, because they are animals. Animals and rogues. It would be nice if they weren’t but they are. Act accordingly.

4. The Man Pays

He always pays, especially in the beginning. If he doesn’t pay in the beginning he will never pay, and he probably doesn’t care either. When the check arrives, do nothing. If he doesn’t pay, fuck him. He is either poor or he thinks he is a woman. Please.

5. No Soliciting

You’ve gone online and you’ve put up an ad for yourself, essentially. This is enough. Do not sell yourself past this. Do not ask him how he feels or tell him how wonderful he could be if he buys into you. That’s the job of a bible salesman. You are not a bible. You’re the opposite of a bible.

6. Be Particular
Jerry Hall once said that choosing a husband is much like choosing a diamond: “You don’t want the one with the obvious flaw.”

My friend Augusten Burroughs further expounded on this in a timely email to me when I announced I wasgoing online, which he fullu supported and said, in essense, Finally.

“Bwabee? Here are the ONLY requirements:

1. Must have own source of income.
2. Must not be a criminal
3. Must not be married
4. NEED not be handsome but you MUST find him attractive, more so on each date.
5. Reads
6. Is patient, non judgemental and has no history of mental illness -especially manic depression, chronic depression, treatment-resistant depression or any other fucking flavor of incurable depression.

and that's really it.


7. Do Not Call Back

I’m not saying you shouldn’t call him back if you like him and he calls. I am saying you shouldn’t run to the phone singing that wonderfully deranged song from the seventies that we all saw ourselves in:

“...Let it please be him, Let it be him. It must be him, it must be him.... Or I shall die”

Let him marinate. Men are animals, and animals need to marinate, to tenderize. Wait two days, even if it fucking kills you. It won’t. In fact it bring you thrillingly to life ---you will begin to feel as if you are in full control. It’s an illusion, but it’s a good one as illusions go, and terribly useful.

8. Demand Flowers Without Seeming To

Once again I envision with icy clarity a battalion of women, this time in motorcycle boots and long batik patterned skirts, telling me I am wrong to want flowers and that this is an outdated notion that degrades women. This same task force already had a cerebral contusion when I suggested that a woman shave a few years off her age.

(But where are those women now? I will tell you: they are making cheese in California and attending consciousness raising groups. Tra la.)

To demand flowers, simply ask the man what his favorite flower or plant is. Then tell him what your favorite flower is. Then change the subject and visualize those flowers hurtling toward you. The flowers will come; bonus points if they are delivered to your door. Oddly enough, the direct approach can also work. I have been known to say; “I would love to get some flowers, baby. That would be terribly exciting.” Men want to please someone they know is capable of being excited, someone who never demands but suggests exactly what she wants and then doesn’t harp on it. They have been married before, most of them. They fear the Continuous Loop of a woman saying “I shouldn’t have to ask you. You should just know.” Which is a patent falsehood: You do have to ask, and they don’t know.

9. Go Ahead, Have The Sex

Why deny yourself the pleasure of sleeping with a man until the third date due to a fear of being cast aside? Fourth date sex is no guarantee of longevity. (There are commandments in love, but few rules. Disavow yourself of the notion that there is a formula to true love, like baking a pie. The formula doesn’t exist.)

I had sex on the first date sometimes. I may have regretted some of the men, but I never regretted the sex. John Updoke said, “If I had my life to do over again, the last thing I would give back is the fucking.” It’s an old wives take that a man disrespect and dislike loose women. They actually don’t. Well, some do, but not the kind you should be interested in. You should be interested in the kind of man who not only has a hard time keeping his hands off of you, he can’t wait to see you again. You want a man who is addicted, not a man who is totting all your sexual favors in a ledger and cross-referencing it with a social sanctioned timetable.

10. He Doesn’t Exist

When you are not with him, your life goes on. He doesn’t exist unless he says or does something that brings him to center. Sadly, if you immediately make him the center he has an excellent view of all the other women clustered round him who have also made him the center. You want to be the one offstage that he wonders about. The one, whom he suspects, at first, doesn’t know he exists. So don’t know it. Don’t Facebook friend him, don’t Tweet him, don’t text him or put him on your speed dial or Favorites, because he doesn’t officially exist, until he does. Keep your mitts off the steering wheel. Men love to drive; they become upset when they are not driving. They don’t think we can see a parking space in full view, they never have. Allow him the continuous opportunity to recall his existence to your attention. Is it a game? No, it’s a life strategy that I plan to employ well into my hundreds, with my next husband. Even if you are crazy about him, do not show the crazy. Let him drive, let him park, let him wander through the dark. You’re the light.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Love is Strange--especially when I write about it for Sunday NYT Modern Lovew

I usually give this blog up to other writers, but I'm so excited I'm going to grab some real estate myself.

I always say I am the poster girl for never giving up. I've tried to get into the New York Time's Modern Love column for at least six years now. I always got back a polite no. There were always good reasons why they didn't want my piece. My piece went too far back in time. Or it didn't quite fit what they were looking for. Or it simply rambled. I finally assumed that they just didn't want ME (like any neurotic would).  Recently I was talking to a writer I know and telling a story, when she said, "You should write that to Modern Love." I didn't see it, but I figured I had nothing to lose, and so I did, sending it in, expecting nothing.

Two weeks later, I got an email and as soon as I saw it, I knew it was another rejection. I almost didn't open it. (We pause to tell you why: Many years ago, when I was first trying to get published, I ripped a brown self addressed stamped envelope in two, sure it was a rejection I couldn't bare to read. While the pieces fluttered around me, I saw the word: CONGRATULATIONS.  I scrambled to pick up the pieces and discovered I had won First Prize in Redbook Magazine's Young Writers Contest!) But I did open the email, and saw that they are going to publish my piece, probably Feb. 10th, if all goes well.

I'm thrilled, thrilled, thrilled!  I hope you will all read it!

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Winslow Eliot talks about "What Would You Do If There Was Nothing You had to Do?

I admit I first became interested in Winslow Eliot because I really thought she had the coolest name on the planet. I quickly discovered that her name wasn't the only thing cool about her. She's not only the author of several novels, including Pursued, A Perfect Gem, Heaven Falls and Bright Face of Danger,  and  she's also written Writing Through the Year, which features some of her writing practices from her WriteSpa. Her latest, What would You Do If There Was Nothing You Had To Do is meant to help writers (and everyone, really) find their natural path in life. And wait, there's more! Her next novel, The Happiness Cure, will be published in 2013. Thanks for writing something for the blog, Winslow!

What Would You Do If There Was Nothing You Had To Do?

Late last winter the title for my first non-fiction book came spinning at me like a galaxy: “What Would You Do If There Was Nothing You Had To Do?” I used the archetypal Fool’s journey as a launching place and from the first step I took over the edge of that cliff, the book seemed to write itself. From the first few pages, the motion forward felt so powerful and ‘real’ that I spoke to people about my project as though it had already been written. Which, looking back, it already had: I found myself rather like the source of a mountain spring – the words, ideas, exercises gushed out of me without pause. I think from start to finish, and writing twelve or so hours a day, I was finished in three months. Then I spent another three months revising, and then having the book professionally edited and finally proofread. The whole process from first page to publication took nine months. I’m serious.
Each time I would come to a place where I thought I’d need more research, or I felt inadequate to express something, it was as though a wand touched my shoulder and reminded me that I already knew everything I know, and it was time to share that. The flow never ceased.
I know that much of the “flow” came from my beloved mother, who had died the summer before, but who never felt very far from me. Her encouragement, enthusiasm, and belief in me permeated this endeavor. So much of the wisdom of the book draws on her wisdom: A woman well ahead of her time, she had an organic compost on the terrace of her New York City penthouse back in the 1950s; she took my brother and me on a freighter trip around the world to teach us geography; and she cared about esoteric thinkers and writers long before it was fashionable. Many friends have told me how she opened a door for them by her practical spirituality, her delight in adventure, her commitment to being generous and helpful to others. Most of all, I remember her passionate injunction to “Have fun!”
From my earliest memories I’ve sought an understanding of the great questions of “What is it all for? What is it all about?” Perhaps by now I’m finally getting a glimpse. “What Would You Do If There Was Nothing You Had to Do? Practices to create your life the way you want it to be” became a synthesis of what I understand so far about “how to live.” One thing I know: Each one of us has to answer this question for ourselves. This book became my humble attempt to help other people discover how to live with joy, serenity, generosity, and fun.

Wiley Cash, author of the NYT bestseller, A Land More Kind Than Home, talks about returning to his childhood library

Wiley Cash isn't just a really great guy, he's also a superlative novelist, and I wasn't the only one raving about his debut, A Land More Kind Than Home. It was a New York Times bestseller, and a New York Times Notable book of 2012. Kirkus, Library journal and Books-a-Million also put it on their Best Books of 2012 list, and it was the Debut of 2012 from UK's Crime Writers' Association, as well as a Barnes and Nobel Discover Great Writers Selection, and IndieNext Pick an a Southern Independent Booksellers's Alliance Pick. I'm thrilled to have Wiley here again. Thank you, Wiley.

Wiley Cash on Returning to His Childhood Library: What He Found, What He Remembered, What He’ll Never Forget

Sixth birthdays were special in our family because that was the day you got your first library card, and once you got a library card you’d never be bored for the rest of your life. Boredom was something hard to come by in our neighborhood in Gastonia, North Carolina, where we had a basketball hoop in the driveway and miles and miles of woods and fields and streams all around us. But you could only spend so much time shooting baskets or playing in the woods or searching the creeks for turtles. You’d eventually have to come inside when it rained or when it was time for bed, and what were you going to do then?

I grew up with a mother who read to my sister, brother, and me, and early on I understood that life isn’t just about the things you do; it’s also about the things you think, and thinking is what reading gave me the time and the tools to do. That may be why I was always so taken with the sculpture “Storyteller” that sat in the foyer of the main branch of the Gaston County Public Library. The sculpture is of a person holding a book in his lap, reading it aloud to a much younger person who sits on his right. There was always something comfortable, familiar, and magical about that sculpture, and I still felt that way when I saw it in May 2012 when I was at the library to read from my novel A Land More Kind Than Home, out in paperback from William Morrow/HarperCollins on January 22, 2013.

By the time I visited the library in my hometown, I’d already been on book tour for two weeks, visiting dozens of book stores and book clubs all over the south. But this was different; this was the place that had turned me into a writer, and I knew I’d see, at least I’d hoped to see, the people who gave me stories to tell. I wasn’t disappointed. Several of my teachers from elementary and junior high school were there, and so were old neighbors and friends and parents of friends who I hadn’t seen in years. Neither I or my family have lived in Gastonia since 1998, but on that day in May it was like I’d never left home, and I didn’t feel that way just because of who was in the audience. I also felt at home because of the library itself.

The next morning, before I left town for another event in Charleston, South Carolina, I went back to the library to see if the magic of the previous day had faded after the reading was over, the books had been signed, and the people I’d known all my life had gone home. But the magic returned when I stepped into the foyer and saw the old sculpture I’d been seeing all my life. I spent the next couple of hours wandering through the library, picking up books I’d checked out when I was a kid and looking for my own book on the shelves. To my delight, it wasn’t there. “They’re all checked out,” a man at the circulation desk told me. “All twenty copies.” I don’t know that I’ve ever been so proud in my entire life.

But the most memorable part of the day came when I took a trip upstairs to the periodicals section to look for a story that had been haunting me for years. When I was fifteen years old, two young sisters who’d gone to my church were both murdered by their considerably older boyfriends. I’d thought about those two girls a lot over the course of my life, and I think something about their story went into my second novel, which is about two young sisters whose father kidnaps them from a foster home in Gastonia. The two girls who’d been murdered were foster children as well, and they’d spent part of their lives being raised by an elderly couple from my church. I knew the couple’s names and the girls’ first names, but I never knew their last names, and I was never able to find them even though I’d spent years searching the internet for any news of two young sisters who’d been murdered in Gastonia, North Carolina, in the early 1990s. But it only took the reference librarian about fifteen minutes before I was looking at a microfiche of the two sisters’ faces on the cover of The Gaston Gazette on the day after their bodies were found covered in lime in a shallow grave at the foot of Crowder’s Mountain. The girls looked exactly as I’d remembered them, but there was so much I’d forgotten about their story that I was now able to learn. I thanked the reference librarian over and over, and I told her I’d spent years trying to find the information that she’d found in a matter of minutes. “That’s what we’re here for,” she said, smiling. “We love it when the internet isn’t enough.”

I left the library that day knowing I’d return, whether it would be to roam the shelves the same way I’d once roamed the woods behind my house as a child or to discover the mysteries of my youth by opening the pages of history in order to write my own. I have to go back. All the things I remember, all the things I’ve forgotten, and all the things I want to know are there. 

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Weekend Edition's Scott Simon talks about writing to make sense of the world, his favorite Weekend Edition Show, adoption and so much more

I am so completely thrilled and honored to interview Scott Simon, the host of Weekend Edition Saturday. I first met Scott virtually on Twitter, when he responded to a post of mine, and we began to chat. I soon found out that as well as being brilliant, he's also off-the-wall hilarious. (I shared my favorite game with him, deciding which you would rather be: a chimpanzee with the brain of a man, or a man with the brain of a chimp.) 

His resume is dazzling. Scott Simon has reported from all 50 states, covered presidential campaigns and eight wars, and reported everywhere from Africa to the Middle East. His work was part of the Overseas Press Club and Alfred I. duPont-Columbia University Awards NPR earned for coverage of Sept. 11 and its aftermath. He was part of the NPR news team that won prestigious Alfred I. duPont-Columbia University Awards for covering the war in Kosovo as well as the Gulf War. In 1989, he won a George Foster Peabody Award for his weekly radio essays. He received a Major Armstrong Award in 1979 for his coverage of the American Nazi Party rally in Chicago, and a Unity Award in Media in 1978 for his political reporting on All Things Considered. He also won a 1982 Emmy for the public television documentary The Patterson Project, which examined the effects of President Reagan's budget cuts on the lives of 12 New Jersey residents. A frequent guest host of the CBS television program Nightwatch and CNBC's TalkBack live, he's also appeared on NBC's Weekend Today and NOW with Bill Moyers. He also narrated the documentary film "Lincoln of Illinois" for PBS. Simon participated in the Grammy Award-nominated 50th anniversary remake of The War of the Worlds, and hosted the BBC series Eyewitness. He's written for the New York Times Book Review and Opinion sections, the Wall Street Journal opinion page, the Los Angeles Times, and Gourmet Magazine. 

But wait, there's more! 

Simon's Home and Away: Memoir of a Fan topped the Los Angeles Times nonfiction bestseller list for several weeks, and was cited as one of the best books of the year in the Washington Post, Boston Globe, and several other publications. His second book, Jackie Robinson and the Integration of Baseball, kicked off the prestigious Wiley Turning Points series, and was the Barnes & Noble "Sports Book of the Year." Simon's first novel, Pretty Birds, about female teenaged snipers in Sarajevo, was released in 2005. His political comedy, Windy City, was chosen by the Washington Post as one of the best novels of 2008. Baby, We Were Meant for Each Other, is his latest, extraordinary memoir, about adoption.  

I cannot thank you enough, Scott.

You’re kind of an amazing Renaissance man. You’re a highly respected broadcaster and journalist, you write brilliant novels and books on everything from sports to politics to adoption, you’re a devoted husband and father--and you even appeared in a production of The Nutcracker! Is there anything you can’t do and wish that you could--and why?

Tons! I wish I could hit a curve ball (or for that matter, a big league fastball), sing like Harry Connick Jr., cook and create like Rick Bayless, or write novels like Mark Helprin. Or do just about anything as well as Scott Turow. But alas, the only thing I can do to a true world standard is toss a malted milk ball or grape high into the air and catch it in my mouth. Our daughters can loft them from across the room, and I can usually gobble them. I’ve been known to toss grapes high in the air, on windy days, and still snare them in my mouth. It’s a fine talent for a parent to possess. But I’ve yet to discover how to make it into a livelihood. So I have to do all that other stuff.  

I know that I write to make sense of the world, to answer questions that obsess me or simply to work through things I’ve lived through. Do you feel that you do the same, or do you write for different reasons? And are the answers always the ones you expect? Is it easier to write fiction or memoir? My husband and I always joke that he writes truth (non-fiction), where I write the deeper truth by lying about it in fiction. Would you agree?

Writing is the only way I really have of trying to make sense of what’s around us. I find fiction harder to write than non-fiction, and that’s why I do it (as opposed to—you will recognize the difference—enjoy it). I like trying to slip into other skins, and soak myself in their history, viewpoint, and emotions. When it’s done well, fiction sinks deeper and stays in a soul longer. In that way, it surely is truer. Fiction creates characters that accompany us for the rest of our lives, speak to us, inspire, counsel, caution, and make us laugh.

Mercutio, Graham Greene’s Wormold, Mr. Biswas, Rusty Sabich, Frank Skeffington, and quite a few more characters, rattle around in my head and thoughts almost every day in a way that “real” characters from events and history rarely do.

You had the kind of childhood that made for a great memoir, Home and Away. You’re the son of a comedienne and an actress, your stepfather owned a bookshop and was also a minor league baseball player, and you have lived just about everywhere--how did all of that shape your world view?

My wife says that moving around as we did had the effect of strengthening my identity as a Chicagoan—which, after all, is a fabulously diverse place, not only ethnically, but a northern city filled with migrants from southern places, a Midwestern town with both western prairie and eastern urban traces. That makes sense to me. Wherever I’ve been with the exception, perhaps, of Saudi Arabia, I find ways in which I fit, while always keeping some of the eye of the stranger. That’s a good perspective for both for journalism and fiction. 

I also think I’ve been blessed to have a special, personal experience with comedy, theater, reading and baseball, which all occupy the same shelf in my heart. 

What's the best part about preparing for Weekend Edition?

The chance to learn something new every day. The collegiality of working with both bright young staffers you’ve just met, and older talents with whom you share some history. The chance to talk to (and this is just one week; a great week, but not untypical) Hugh Jackman, Anne Hathaway, Tom Stoppard, Christopher Plummer, and a Utah man who is racing his stomach cancer to try to finish carving a carousel for his grandchildren—is a blessing.

What are the stresses? 

Well, without forgetting the blessing, sometimes all the reading, planning, editing and meetings—especially meetings!--can seem a chore. But who wouldn’t want that kind of drudgery? Sometimes the travel can be a taxing. But I always wind up being glad I made the trip and met new people. War zones can be stressful, but alas, also very satisfying opportunities to tell important stories. 

Has there been a favorite show that you did? 

I should say, “All of them.” But without doubt, it would be the 5-hour special show we did in the days following the attacks of 9-11. We read some poetry. We talked to people. We remembered those who died. We tried to hold everyone who was listening close, in the embrace of our shared loss.

I still remember something Fran Lebovitz said—she even laughed at herself. “All of these people I’d seen all of my lives—firefighters, cops, emergency crews—turned out to be so brave. So damn useful in a way I’m not. And they would unflinchingly sacrifice their lives to save my useless one. It’s very humbling for a writer.”

It was a sad, angry, emotional, stressful time and I often broke down. But I was also glad to have work that might have meant something to people. We certainly felt that way all over again when we did our show in the wake of the Newtown, Connecticut shootings (for those who think journalists don’t have feelings—we all spent several days working with red-rimmed eyes). 

If I sold shoes, I wouldn’t know what I’d do during a time like that. Go door to door, I suppose. 

Or one that you wish you hadn't?

Oh gosh yes. But I’d prefer not to say. I don’t mind criticizing my own flops, but any story, show, or interview that I might cite is the result of me working with a producer who cared about that show and did their best to make me sound good, and I appreciate that.  

I do get twinges when we—or I—haven’t given someone their due. Just a couple of years ago, we had the late classics professor, Rufus Fears, talk about the evolution of democracy. We asked him to reflect on events in Egypt, and he cautioned that Egyptians might wind up choosing a more restrictive, religious system of their own free accord. He reminded us that democracy is a process, not a guarantee. A lot of people complained that Professor Fears sounded as if he didn’t know Egypt. As I write this now, in January, 2013, would anyone say Rufus Fears was wrong? But alas, we can’t have him back on our show—he died just a few months ago.

Also, our sports man Tom Goldman broke a huge story in 2007 that one of Lance Armstrong’s teammates had said that he had used steroids with him. Tom was on our show, but my questions were hard and skeptical. I kept asking, “But no athlete has been tested more, and he’s passed every one of them.” Well as I write this, the story is breaking that Lance has finally confessed to Oprah that he was essentially running a criminal steroids conspiracy scheme to win all those titles. Tom was utterly right, and deserves special respect for reporting that story when a lot of people refused to believe it. 

In your video, How to Tell a Story, I love that you talk about writing lean, mean, and clean, and how a story is really about discovery and communication, and the fun and the spirit. I truly think that this willingness to converse, to open yourself up and discuss your personal life, is part of what makes you such a brilliant journalist. Would you agree? And do you think there are different rules for telling an engaging story on the air and on the page?

I wouldn’t say different rules, but some approaches work better than others. I think being open about yourself can subtly encourage people to open up, too. A discipline that you should observe in broadcasting is to avoid dependent clauses (or as I like to joke with my producers, “Speaking of writing for air, avoid dependent clauses, whenever possible). Readers can go back and forth on a page. Listeners cannot. I strive to write that way, and sometimes it reaches into my novels, too. I like to think it can make paragraphs a little more active and sturdy.

I also think that broadcast prose should be correct but conversational. People on a bus do not say to each other, “Did you hear that President Barack Obama, the recently re-elected Illinois Democrat, announced today that he is appointing John Kerry, the three-term Massachusetts senator and former Democratic presidential nominee, to be the next Secretary of State?” Not even people in Georgetown talk like that. 

One of the (many) reasons that I enjoy writing novels, though, is that you can trifle with some of those storytelling truisms. In the novel I’m finishing now, a reader won’t realize until the very last pages that the narrator of the story is… whoa, there, almost gave it away. But this being said, I think both fiction and non-fiction can benefit from story-telling techniques. A news story may be utterly responsible, but if there is no narrative tension, no one will be listening at the end of it. 

What’s obsessing you now and why?

Well, I think at the moment I answer this, a lot of Americans are wondering what we can do about reducing the violence around us. I am an old crime reporter. I am under no illusions that tightening gun laws will deter professional assassins, drug thugs, and mobsters from acquiring assault rifles. But as a father, I wonder if it wouldn’t be wise to see for sure.

As someone who is able to work only by the grace of free speech, I tend to be an absolutist on the First Amendment. I wouldn’t want to see laws to censor video games, movies, or any media for children. I’m not convinced that playing games like Mortal Kombat stir up violence. But when you see children imitate the way Derek Jeter wiggles his bat, or the way Katy Perry stands when she sings, it’s hard to say games and shows have no effect on children. Why would decent adults want to produce them?

I am also concerned about the wide and growing American use of drones, domestically and internationally. Attention is mounting now, but I would commend the October 14, 2012 column of Margaret Sullivan, the Public Editor of the New York Times, who quoted David Rhode, the former Times reporter who was once held captive by the Taliban, as saying, “If a Republican president had been carrying out this many drone strikes in such a secretive way, it would get much more scrutiny.” Are citizens failing to raise those questions because the president who orders these drone strikes supports green energy? 

I am also troubled by the public indifference over growing homicide rate in inner city America. Lives are being lost every day—cruelly, stupidly—to a new kind of drug and gang violence, and virtually no political interest mentions it. But this violence is eating away at life in the hearts of our great cities.

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

You are lucky that you didn’t ask about my wife and daughters. This Q and A would roll on! Let’s just say that I have become galvanized about adoption. My wife and I kind of fell into it—it wasn’t our first option for starting a family (we tried what I’ve come to call The Biblical Method to beget). But after trying a couple of rounds of lab assistance, we looked at each other and said, “Why I am I having a ten-minute date with a paper cup, and why are we pouring money into a lab tube, when there are millions of children already in this world who need the love of parents?”

You, Caroline, have written beautifully about the complicated feelings of birth mothers. I have been targeted as “The Adoption Pimp” by an organization (Birth Mother, First Mother Forum). I hope I respect the pain they feel, even as I cannot pretend to truly know their loss. I think they have judged my book (Baby, We Were Meant for Each Other: Random House, 2010) merely by its’ cover and title.

My wife and I don’t feel that we snatched our daughters out of the arms of their mothers or away from their culture. We feel blessed to hold in our arms two little girls who would otherwise spend their childhoods in orphanages, a place in which they would never know parents, or the touch of love.

(And they will have the chance to learn about their culture, growing up here, rather than be sent to work in a field or factory by the age of twelve, which happens to orphanage kids in China.) 

I don’t want expectant young mothers in this country to be pressured into giving their children up for adoption. And I respect those laws that give preference to adoptive parents who share the same ethnicity as a child who may be adopted.

(I don’t have the same respect for laws in some places that prevent same-sex couples from adopting.)

But when all of those laws wind up simply preventing children from being adopted by parents who will love them, just because of their origins or ethnicity, is any child or culture better for that? We all have just one life. A child doesn’t have time to waste while adults work out their issues. 

There are an estimated 50 million orphaned or abandoned children on this planet. They need—they deserve—the love of parents. Nothing would be better for this world than for each child to be able to grow up with the everlasting commitment of parents.