Friday, June 6, 2014

SheBooks launches a Kickstarter campaign for Equal Writes for Women

I'm proud to be associated with SheBooks (they published my short stories, The Wrong Sister), and I want everyone to know about this important new campaign.

This is from Laura Fraser, the co-founder and editorial director:

Not enough women are able to get their work published today—even the best women writers. Almost three-quarters of the bylines in leading print and digital publications belong to men. At, we’ve decided to do something about this problem: Publish more stories by women. We’ve launched the Equal Writes Campaign to raise money to publish great reads by as many women writers as possible in 2014.

I’m the Editorial Director and co-founder of, which publishes short e-books by and for women. I’ve been a journalist and author for 30 years, and while I’ve been relatively successful—one of my books was a NYT bestseller—I’ve experienced how increasingly difficult it is to be published. One of my cofounders, Peggy Northrop, has been the editor-in-chief of four magazines, and a senior editor at many more, and she’s seen the space for women’s writing shrink and shrink. Getting published is difficult for everyone, of course, as content has been considered free on the Internet, and publishers are putting all their money into their top earners and basically ignoring the rest. But it’s particularly hard for women.

Why is that? It’s a complicated question, having to do with both socialization and sexism. On the one hand, we have what people call the "confidence gap," where women are reluctant to pitch to magazines--they don't have the sense that their work is worthy. And there has been some research that shows that if women do pitch, if they are turned down, they tend to personalize that, and think, "the magazine doesn't want me," whereas men might think, "they answered my email; I'll nail it next time." 

But the other factor is plain old sexism. It's still very much a boys' club, where male editors tend to trust male writers because they're part of the tribe. I've been in the writers’ collective called the San Francisco Writers' Grotto for 15 years, for instance, and I've seen equally talented men and women approach male editors at top-shelf magazines, and guys get the upper hand. I've had many personal instances of sexism in my career. One recent one was when an editor on a panel was describing a story in Italy he was considering. I approached him and said I'd like to pitch him on it--I speak fluent Italian and know Italy well. His immediate response was, "Oh, I was kind of looking for a science guy." He automatically assumed I don't write about science--which I have done, quite a bit--which is not what he might have assumed about a guy. And, well, a guy would have had the "guy" part of his remark down. Now, if you asked that editor if he was sexist and if he felt women should be equally published, he's a nice liberal guy who would have said "of course," and would have had no inkling of his deeper prejudices. Now, maybe it had to do with me and my writing. That's certainly a possibility. But his answer seemed automatic. (I did persist and check out the story, calling Italian journalist friends to get the scoop, and it turned out to not be the story the editor thought it was.)

Shebooks wants to change inequities in publishing by giving great women writers a platform. We want to raise their visibility not only to our own readers but to other publications.
My partners and I—the third is Rachel Greenfield, who was the EVP of Martha Stewart Publishing–have been excited by the explosion of digital media, which is giving readers new ways to find compelling stories. And we’re pleased to see writers find fresh ways to work and make money outside the usual channels.

But even on these new media platforms, the problem has persisted that female authors, journalists, editors—and ultimately female readers—are being shut out of the revolution. Innovative digital publishing companies led by men and publishing mostly male writers are getting lots of investment and attention. But we know that women are voracious readers in every format—buying the majority of books and magazines and reading (and writing) the majority of blogs.
 So we decided not to wait for our invitation to the party. was the result: a new media format, real money for writers (our writers all share in our profits), and engaging stories that women can’t wait to read, that fit the corners of their busy lives. We’ve been amazed at the quality of writing we’ve been able to publish.

We hope lots of readers and writers will join our Equal Writes Campaign. We publish mainly seasoned writers, but if you’re an aspiring writer, you can pledge at our $35 level and one of our editors will take a look at your manuscript—for possible inclusion in a Shebooks anthology.

Please spread the word—and thanks so much!

Laura Fraser
co-founder, Shebooks

Please pledge to join our Equal Writes campaign!

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Heather Gudenkauf writes about Iowa, story world and her latest genius novel, Little Mercies

Heather Gudenkauf is the New York Times and USA today bestselling author of The Weight of Silence and These Things Happen, and  her newest novel, LITTLE MERCIES, will be out this June. I'm thrilled to have Heather here, writin gabout story world, setting and so much, more. Thank you so much, Heather! 

A picturesque college town surrounded by craggy bluffs and thick woods and the desperate search for two missing children; a renovated bookstore settled near the banks of a rushing, winding river and the mystery surrounding the birth of one little boy; a close-knit farming community and a small, rural school breached by an intruder with a gun and unknown motives; a large Midwestern city where a social worker finds her world unraveling and a young girl who finds her world put back together again. All settings for my novels. Fictional accounts? Absolutely! Fictional locations? Not quite.
I’ve lived in Iowa most of my life and in the years that I have been a student and a teacher, school has been canceled for snow, ice, wind-chill, and floods. I know that an impenetrable dense fog that can close highways and schools in the morning can be swept away in just a few short hours by a warm, soft breeze. One year, on the first day of school, high winds ripped the roof off of the section where my third grade classroom was located sending it crashing through the ceiling of another portion of the school where children sat moments earlier.

That’s Iowa for you. And in each of my novels I have woven meaningful real-life locations into my fictional settings. In The Weight of Silence the Willow Creek Woods was fashioned from Swiss Valley Nature Preserve, a beautiful forested area with the twisty Catfish Creek snaking through it. I have spent countless hours hiking there and this was where the seeds for my first novel sprouted.

Also plucked from my own life and dropped into my second novel These Things Hidden is River Lights, 2nd Edition, my favorite independent bookstore that is the blueprint for Bookends where much of the novel takes place.  River Lights is nestled in a gorgeous 1870s building, the former Pusateri’s Grocery, with its original wooden floors and tin ceilings, located in the heart of downtown Dubuque, Iowa, the perfect home to match the shop’s warmth and charm. Visitors are invited to bring their dogs into the store and will be welcomed with an organic doggie treat upon arrival. But of course the best part of the bookstore is the staff. They are always there to ask about my family and are always ready with a book recommendation. I am never disappointed with what they suggest.  While the bookstore in These Things Hidden is the scene of a very dramatic (even traumatic) event within the novel, whenever I enter the bricks-and-mortar storefront it feels like coming home.
In my third novel, One Breath Away, the setting of the book, the small farming community of Broken Branch, Iowa, was inspired by the anything-but-broken real-life town of Wellman, Iowa. Wellman is a community of about 1,500 with a prominent Amish population and, along with my hometown of Dubuque, epitomizes what is common to so many Iowa communities: a wonderful sense of family and generosity to those in need. Wellman is also where this city girl learned about cattle farming and the difference between heifer and a cow – and there is a difference!

The setting of my current novel, Little Mercies is housed in bustling urban metropolis with a diverse population and a vibrant cultural backdrop. Within the pages of Little Mercies, a dedicated social worker faces her worst nightmare and comes to rely on those around her to help. During the course of writing Little Mercies I met a dedicated social worker who shared the joys and challenges of her work in serving families in crisis and in need. Her input was invaluable in the creation of main character, Ellen, as an authentic, believable character. In order to learn more about the medical profession and legal system I visited with doctors, a paramedic, an attorney and a chief of police. I even got the chance to tour a police station and walk through the steps of the booking process during the course of writing the novel. One of my greatest pleasures while writing Little Mercies was the people I met along the way and the wonderful conversations I was able to have with these home state experts that helped inform my writing.

Like the fictional townspeople in Little Mercies, communities all over Iowa come through for their friends and neighbors. A farmer you’ve never met will stop to help you when you are hopelessly lost on a barren county road (true story). When a virtual stranger’s son was diagnosed with bone cancer several Iowa towns took the family in as their own – saying prayers, sending notes of encouragement, raising money. Even a group of twelve year old boys without a second thought shaved their heads in allegiance with a classmate going through chemotherapy (another true story).
The best thing about all of this is that that’s just Iowa for you. You could close your eyes and stick a pin in a map of Iowa and the inhabitants of any city, town, or burg would react in the exact same ways. These along with so many other reasons are why I continue to write about my home state – full of little mercies - Iowa.

Another astonishing debut: Maya Lang's The Sixteenth of June

To me, there's nothing more exciting than a wonderful fiction debut. Like Ulysses, The Sixteenth of June wraps around a single day in the lives of a family, even as it explores ambition, love, and the connections we make or fail to make. Maya was awarded the 2012 Bread Loaf-Rona Jaffe Foundation Scholarship in Fiction, and was a finalist for Glimmer Train‘s Short Story Award for New Writers. Her work has appeared in VQR and Publisher’s Weekly. I'm so thrilled to have her here. Thank you so much, Maya!

The Sixteenth of June is set over the course of a single day, much like James Joyce’s Ulysses, and so much of it pays homage to Joyce. So, my first question is, Why James Joyce? What made you decide on this structure and what were the difficulties you faced?

First, thank you so much for having me here. I always look forward to this blog and the questions you ask, so this is an honor.

I think there’s an old saying about how the writer doesn’t choose the subject matter; it chooses her. I was studying for comp exams in grad school one day when a sentence came to me out of nowhere, seeming to drop from the sky: Leopold turns the volume up as the hail comes down, so loud that Nora worries the windshield will crack and across it a giant web will bloom.

I felt like a cat that had just coughed up a hairball: What is that? Later, I realized the first word was “Leopold” and the last was “bloom.” I wondered if there could be a novel riffing on Ulysses while exploring the questions that bothered me about it. Namely, why do we revere a book that holds us at arm’s length? Do people truly love Ulysses or do they just claim to?  If I, as a doctoral candidate, couldn’t get through those unpunctuated passages or follow the references, who could?

Many Ulysses references snuck into that first draft unbidden. As I revised, I decided to incorporate more. I modeled each chapter after an episode in Ulysses and brought in excerpted lines. My goal was to weave these into the novel seamlessly (no attention is drawn to them with footnotes or italics) so a reader won’t necessarily be aware of them. Anyone who reads The Sixteenth gets a small dose of Joyce. I’m like the mom who sneaks veggies into the brownies.

I loved the whole idea that from a single day, a lifetime can evolve, that in just a moment, the course of a life can change. Can you talk about this please?

Gladly. It’s something I believe very strongly, that if you follow a character for a day—her thoughts, her internal dialogue—you can glean a sense of a whole life, its arc. The particular day in this novel isn’t an ordinary one, but its richest moments occur between events. I think life speaks to us in interstices, in the before and after. I can’t tell you a thing about my college graduation, but I remember the car ride home.

This mesmerizing novel is very much about love, and two brothers who both adore the same woman. Do you think there is such a thing as having a choice when it comes to love?

Whoa! Tough question. Amazing question. My gut reaction is that I don’t think we can choose whom or what we love, no. This is why breakups and death can be so painful, because a choice gets made for us and reminds us of our futility. As humans, we like to believe that we’re in charge. This is hubris. In love, as in writing, as in life, we are often surprised by our choices. We are drawn to certain things or people without knowing why.

I don’t mean to suggest we’re utterly without agency. Maybe you feel drawn to someone and make a choice to resist the impulse or to urge it along. But that initial attraction is quite mysterious. “I never would have imagined myself ending up with him.” “That’s not what I thought I would have chosen.” Our predilections and desires surprise us, but I think this is a good thing. There is always more to ourselves than we realize.

What was it like to write this particular novel? What were the difficulties—and the joys? What’s your writing life like?

This was the first long piece of fiction I’d ever attempted, and I started it when my daughter was three months old. As a strategy, I don’t recommend this. I was sleep-deprived, harried, exhausted, and I was in a new city (Seattle) with no family in the area.

I wrote the novel at nights and on weekends, an hour or two here or there, whenever I could. I felt like I’d discovered a little escape hatch into an imaginary world. I didn’t tell a soul about it other than my husband; I didn’t even think of it as a novel. This uncertainty was the hardest part. I basically felt like a crazy person with a secret. On the other hand, that solitude—writing for the sheer happiness of it—was wonderful. The difficulties and pleasures with writing are often one and the same.

What’s obsessing you now and why?

Current obsessions: “Breaking Bad” (I’m in the third season and can’t get over how brilliantly it’s edited), the comedian Louis C.K. (he’s a genius! Like Nietzsche doing stand-up), and Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See (a luminous, exquisite novel. I’m still trying to figure out how he pulled it off structurally).

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

Hmm. How about this, since it gives me an excuse to share an invitation: What are you doing for Bloomsday?

I’ll be celebrating Bloomsday and the launch of The Sixteenth of June at the Strand in New York City. The Strand is one of my favorite bookstores on the planet, so I’m thrilled. I’ll be in conversation with the acclaimed David Gilbert (& Sons). Readers of your blog are warmly welcome: Monday, June 16th, 7 p.m., The Strand (Broadway and 12th).

Faith, The Shakers, Identity: Rachel Urquhart talks about The Visionist, one of the most extraordinary books of the year

It's totally amazing that The Visionist is Rachel Urquhart's debut. Set in the world of The Shakers, it's about identity, faith, betrayal, and so much more. It's a book that's so richly imagined, so compelling, and so gorgeously written, that you feel as if you are living every page. And I'm not the only person raving.  The New York Times, The London Times, O Magazine, NPR, and more, all were as dazzled as I was. I'm honored to have Rachel here on the blog. Thank you so much, Rachel.

The Visionist is so much about identity, who we think we are, and who we can become. At one point one of the characters asks, “Is anyone who we think they are?" Do you think the search for that question is as important as the answer to it?

I think that you are getting at something very important, which is the fact that there are some questions we ask not because we expect a concrete answer, but because the inquiry itself is its own answer, one that helps us feel our way through the darkness as we try to figure out who we are, where we are, and what we are made of. Realizing that no one can be fully known is one of many human truths that allows us to understand and, one hopes, prepare ourselves accordingly for fact that nothing in life is certain. I believe that everyone is an imposter of sorts—even if it’s just because of the difference between the person we are perceived to be and the person we really are. That’s a generalization that applies to each of the characters in my book.

All the details about the Shaker community were so vivid and unsettling. What was your research process like?  Did anything about your research surprise you and veer the story in another way?

In the beginning, I researched this book as if I were a journalist doing background reporting. I started big—Who were the Shakers?  I ended small—How noisy is a room full of sisters working on looms? What’s it like to knead bread? Or gather up the brethren’s soiled bed sheets when you are not allowed to even speak to them? Or submit to the weird and frightening inspections carried out during the Midnight Cry?  The big stuff helped me shape the narrative in a crude but essential way. I needed to understand why the Shakers believed that all ties to one’s “blood relations” had to be broken; I needed to get a sense of what it might have been like to engage in ecstatic worship; I needed to try and see the world through a Shaker’s eyes, all the more so when the view seemed unsympathetic. All of that fed the body of my book. But it was the little stuff that thrilled and amazed me in its power to shape my characters. I never planned for Charity to have paisley-shaped lesions all over her body until I came across a photo from the late 1800s depicting the beautiful torso of a young woman suffering from figurate Erythema, a dermatological condition that is often brought on by stress.  [Here’s the photo, just FYI.]

I had no idea that the old herbal recipes I came across in Shaker medicinal journals would sound like poetry, and so I couldn’t read something like, “Take of Capsules of White Poppy, and dried and freed from the Seeds, two pounds…” and not have it affect the language I used in certain sections of the book. Images of Shaker sisters plucking the fur from raccoon pelts by candlelight so that they could make mittens for the brethren were at once so homespun, so weird and so primal. I did my research hoping to find that kind of detail precisely because I knew it would be the making of the soul of the book.

So much of the novel is about faith, what we need to believe in and why and how we do it, but it's also a book about politics and property and how those two things have as much hold on people as faith does. Can you talk about this please?

Going in, it was clear to me that, in general, the characters living inside the Shaker community would concern themselves with faith and purity, while the characters living outside, “in The World,” would concern themselves with money and power. What I didn’t see coming was the porousness of the divide between those seemingly opposite communities and pursuits. Simon Pryor, the inspector, pretends to have no faith at all, and yet without it, he knows is lost. His nemesis, James Hurlbut, is by far the greediest character in the book and yet there is a specific moment when he could have chosen the less craven path. Both men are haunted by an absence of faith and morality in their lives. Likewise, inside the Shaker community, money and power play more of a role than one would ever expect. Her dedication to her flock leaves Elder Sister Agnes just as determined to put her hands on the Kimball farm as is James Hurlbut. She is no stranger to manipulation and understands all too well the power wielded by Polly and the Visionists. And finally, she is not above using Polly’s little brother, Ben, as a pawn to get what she believes will be best for the community. After all, like many people who joined the Shakers, she lived a hard life before arriving in the City of Hope, and—like Simon Pryor, and James Hurlbut, and Polly Kimball, and eventually, even Sister Charity—she knows that good and evil, truth and lies, faith and politics, are never separate.

I deeply admired the structure of your novel, the way all the myriad voices came together in a way that was both exactly right, surprising, and deeply satisfying. What was it like to build that structure? Was it always in you mind or did it evolve organically? 

I began with the idea that the voices would braid together very evenly—which is a highly impractical way to tell a story with multiple narrators and, ultimately, kind of pretentious to boot! That error taught me to think hard about form, and when it’s appropriate to employ a very specific pattern to one’s narrative, and when a pre-conceived structure simply gets in the way of the story. I also made the mistake of beginning each chapter with an archival snippet. Sometimes, it was a Shaker prayer or recipe or saying; sometimes it was a paragraph from a newspaper, or and advertisement, or a sentence from a travel journal; sometimes, it was even a quote from one of the great thinkers and writers of the time—Emerson, Hawthorne, Greeley—who happened to have spent time with the Shakers. The point was to begin each chapter with something factual that would kind of enhance the fiction to come. (And, I suppose that if I’m to be honest, the point was to prove that I’d amassed a ton of information and I kind of wanted to show it off.) But no one really cares about “real” facts when they are wrapped up in a story. The “snippets” got in the way of the narrative, so out they went.

Once I’d freed myself from those two missteps, all I had to do was balance timing, tension and mood, and trying to figure out the sequencing nearly killed me. Time moves so slowly in the girls’ stories because they live inside this emotionally charged place where very little happens. Meanwhile, I had to invent all kinds of ways to slow the action down in Simon Pryor’s sections, so that his story would keep pace with theirs, and everyone would end up in the right place at the right time by the end. I ripped this novel apart and put it back together again so often and in so many different ways. Of course, I still wish I’d paced certain things differently, but I ran out of time and perspective. That’s just what happens, right?

What's your writing life like these days? 

I am not going to lie: it’s kind of depressing! I know I should list a thousand projects I have going, but the truth is, I am a glum ruminator before I sit down to write. I go into a kind of hibernation, and my mind runs thick as molasses, and I imagine that I will never write again. Eventually, I come out of it—and I’m relieved to say that I can feel my imagination waking up. Finally.

I need to clear my plate of all family responsibilities (ha!), and place myself in the secluded wilds of Massachusetts—where I wrote The Visionist over ten summers—and just…begin. The new book is all in my head. I’ve written a few chapters, and an endless shaggy dog story of a synopsis. I’ve even made an Xcel graph of characters and storylines and sub-storylines. (That’s a first, believe me. It took me a week just to figure out how to actually use the program!) Very little of that will end up in the book, but it’s the make-work I felt I had to do to get the ball rolling.

What's obsessing you now and why?

I am obsessed by two things. The first is what I’m going to be writing about: the gifts and burdens of legacy, and how the past shapes who we are but also, if we let it, who we can become. The second is, how I’m going to write it, which is to say, the reclusiveness. I am trying to prepare myself for the way I’ll have to live in order to produce another book. Sorry—that’s an extraordinarily self-absorbed answer, but it’s the truth! I may be over dramatizing things—oh, what I would give to be more British about writing!—but I think that immersing myself so deeply in my characters comes at a bit of a cost to my real life. Because if I’m working hard to see things from their perspective, I kind of lose my own, and it can be hard to find it again at the of the day.

What question didn't I ask that I should have?
Hmmm. Maybe, Are you finally done talking?