Thursday, July 31, 2014

I tell fun--and not so fun--facts about my backlist, which is coming out on ebook from Dzanc Books REprint series and Open Road Media!

My early backlist is coming out August 5th! Meeting Rozzy Halfway, Lifelines, Family and Into Thin Air! And I have a big beautiful page on Open Road Media, where you can check out all the books! All four titles can be found wherever e-books are sold!

Thank you so much for reading.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Matthew Gilbert talks about his wonderful new book, Off The Leash: A Year at the Dog Park, what TV shows are worth watching (He's the Boston Globe's TV critic), and why he doesn't use his i-phone at the dog park


 I've know and deeply admired Matthew Gilbert for a while now. He's the whip-smart TV critic for the Boston Globe, and we always talk about shows we love (or don't love.) Plus, he's hilariously funny, which always matters.  His book, Off the Leash: A Year at the Dog Park is about a homebody who finds community because of his dog, about how dogs change us (and how we change them), and really, about being alive and present in the world. Thank you so much, Matthew for being here, (and you have to check out Srugim--a series from Jerusalem about young religious Jews and their tortured relationships.)

You’re a person after my own heart, a homebody, yet Toby, your dog, transformed you into someone who loves the company of others and who is truly present in the world. How did this alchemy take place?

When the puppy you’re falling in love with comes into your office and starts nudging your elbow with his cold nose, looking at you with his brown eyes like you’re the best person in the world, well, you go wherever he wants to go.

And my dog, Toby, always only wanted to go to the dog park. So as reticent as I was to stand around making chitchat with other dog owners, I couldn’t resist Toby’s hunger for play. I was the classic writer-type who writes because he’d rather not communicate in person; the thought of a dog park group was not inviting. And I was the classic TV addict who prefers to be protected from the hurts and messiness of the real world by a screen. But I had a dog who was a thoroughly social being, and he pulled me and pushed me.

I love the way we get the dog we need. In my case it was an introverted owner getting an extroverted dog who pulled him into a more vibrant, present life.

And gradually, as I write in the book, I came around. Big-time. I began to love the semi-anonymity of the park, the shared exhilaration of watching dogs wrestle and play, and the new friendships, which were daily and intimate and yet not overbearing. I liked the spontaneity and energy of the dogs, the way they made the people looser. I began to feel “off the leash” at the park as much as Toby.

Now that Toby is almost 10, I sometimes find myself nosing him while he’s sleeping, waking him up, and dragging him to the park for some off-leash time.

So tell us about the culture of the dog park. Is there a hierarchy of owners there, as well as dogs? Did you have to learn certain rules?

One of the things I love about the park is that the hierarchy is different from the one in the world outside the park. Maybe that’s the case in all subcultures. At the park, in my estimation, the people who are at the top of the heap are not there because of their jobs or their bank accounts or their beauty. You tend to thrive based on your passion for dogs, your love of your own dog, your willingness to socialize with strangers, and, very importantly, your willingness to take responsibility for your dog –when they have a tiff with another dog, say, or when they jump on people.

I quickly learned the rule about picking up your dog’s poop. Very important. Battles at the park often revolve around owners who repeatedly fail to scoop. But it took me a little longer to learn the more subtle social rules. For example, you don’t need to remember owners’ names, but it’s good form to remember their dogs’ names. Trying to take a park friendship outside the park is a no-no, unless you are quite certain the other person is interested. If they’re not, you’ve got a future of awkwardness between you.

Also, never wear fancy clothes. Most people learn that the hard way. If a dog swipes your pressed pants and leaves a mud stain on them, or if a dog pees on your favorite shoes, well, it’s your own fault. Someday, I’ll tell you about the lady who wore a mink coat to the park every day.

I loved how, in the dog park, you had to be really present. You couldn’t get on your phone or your i-pad, and dogs and people interacted. Did you suffer withdrawal? Was this nearly impossible to do? Can you talk more about this please?

No withdrawal at all.

OK. I just lied. Yes, when I put away my iPhone at the dog park, I feel a little lost, or orphaned. But how sad to have your dog playing and dancing joyfully at your feet while you’re not really there, because you’re busy with your Twitter feed or your email.  Part of the pleasure of going to the park with Toby is taking a daily break and going off the digital leash.

For me, the park has been a welcome dose of presence, and spurning my tech for an hour or two a day has been part of that.

 How and why do you think dogs bring out the best in people?
There are a million answers to that question, and no single one of them seems to quite nail it. You know, we try to be as good as we think they think we are; or we become more giving because dogs are so helpless in the human world. Bottom line: They tend to make humans more humane.

Sometimes, I think we each become better in whatever particular way our dog pushes us. In the book, I talk about how a person and his or her dogs form a kind of caravan as they walk through the park, with the dog confirming or challenging the owner’s view of the world and in the process making them better people.

 When did you decide to write this fabulous memoir? How did you go about shaping it into a story? And what’s your writing life like these days?

 I realized early on in my park life with Toby that the dog park is a special place, and that my time there with Toby was changing me somehow. So I started taking notes, thinking I’d write something or other. Finally, I wrote a piece for the Boston Globe about my love of the park, and I was blown away by the huge and passionate response from the dog-owning readership.

I started shopping around for book agents, and all of them told me that the book would need an “arc,” and the arc would need to be me. The St. Martins editor who finally bought the book, the fantastic Pete Wolverton, told me the same thing. So I took five months away from the Globe and wrote “Off the Leash.” It was peculiar to work for such a long time on one thing; as a critic, I rarely spend more than a day on a story. But I loved it, and hope to do it again. Got any good book ideas?

I’m still writing up a storm for the Globe, but I make time to write little personal pieces here and there, hoping to find the right subject for my next book.

 You’re also the Boston Globe’s TV critic, so I wanted to ask, what show should everyone be watching and why aren’t they?

 “The Americans” is the first thing that comes to mind. The FX show is about a married couple of Russian spies living with two kids in suburbia in the early 1980s. But it’s also a look at marriage, loyalty, nationality, and identity, and it has extra resonance now that we may be on the verge of Cold War 2.0. It has a decently sized audience, though it really ought to be a bigger hit. And it hasn’t gotten any awards love, though it ought to be celebrated, especially the lead performances by Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell. I can’t tell you why it’s not more beloved. Maybe we all just want to pretend that the 1980s never happened.

I’ve also enjoyed “Broad City” on Comedy Central. It’s a small, raw, unprettified comedy about the friendship between two twentysomething women, and it can be very twisted. And I love me some twisted – but I also know that mainstream audiences often don’t. The show has an improvisational feel, as the two women survive New York and have weird adventures. It’s like the indie version of “Girls.”

I don’t want to forget about “Rectify,” on the Sundance Channel. It’s a slow, but mesmerizing look at the life of a man freed from Death Row – but not exonerated – and how his family and hometown deal with his return. It’s dark and deliberately paced, both of which probably limit the size of its audience.

What's obsessing you now and why?

 Vee from “Orange Is the New Black.” Have you seen season two? Lorraine Toussant gives an indelible, powerful, complex performance as the calculating, perversely maternal drug dealer. I just couldn’t take my eyes off her. I kept wanted her to be a better person than she was.

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

Is Toby sitting on my feet at the moment? And the answer would be yes.

Sarah Bird talks about Above the East China Sea, the Okinawan people, growing up as an air force brat, and most importantly, why envy will hurt writers

I'm not the only person who loved Sarah Bird's extraordinary novel, Above the East China Sea. The Chicago Tribune called it "richly rewarding," and the San Francisco Chronicle said it was "a stunning account of wartime Okinawa. Bird is a wise and sensitive writer."  About two teenaged girls, an American and an Okinawan, both teenage girls two teenaged girls, an American and an Okinawan, the novel follows them through 70 years of profound loss and persistent hope.

 Sarah is the author of eight other novels. She's been selected for the Barnes & Noble Discover Great Writers series; a Dobie-Paisano Fellowship; New York Public Library’s 25 Books to Remember list; Elle Magazine Reader’s Prize; People Magazine’s Page Turners; Library Journal’s Best Novels; and a National Magazine Silver Award for her columns in Texas Monthly. In 2012 Sarah was voted Best Austin Author for the fourth time by the readers of the Austin Chronicle; was inducted into the Texas Literary Hall of Fame; and received the Illumine Award for Excellence in Fiction from the Austin Library Foundation. In 2013 she was selected to be The University of Texas’ Libraries Distinguished Author speaker, and was featured on NPR’s The Moth Radio Hour.

She has written screenplays for Paramount, CBS, Warner Bros, National Geographic, ABC, TNT, Hemdale Studio, and several independent producers.  Sarah’s screen adaptation of her sixth novel, The Flamenco Academy, is currently in development as well as two original screenplays. She has contributed articles to The New York Times, Salon, O Magazine, and is a columnist for Texas Monthly. Sarah, who moved all over the world growing up with her air force family, lives in Austin, Texas.

Besides being an exceptional writer, Sarah is also one of the warmest, kindest people you could ever meet. I think by the time we were through with about four emails to each other, I knew that she was my new best friend. I cannot thank you enough, Sarah for being here!

This is an extraordinary novel, and though I’ve loved all of your previous work, this one feels bigger, richer, more complex. It’s racking up tremendous raves, including my own here. How terrifying was it to write something this complicated?

Thank you, Caroline, it means so much that a writer I’ve admired for years thinks the best book I’ll ever write works. What was terrifying about writing it was the sense of obligation I felt once I accepted that there was no choice, I had to tell this story, the story of the Okinawan people, that has been with me almost fifty years ever since I lived on the island in the late sixties with my air force family. The material demanded that I be a bigger, richer, more complex writer than I was, and, in my own fall away Catholic girl way, I prayed that I could do this story justice. I actually like to think that I turned myself over to the kami, the spirits that guide Okinawan believers’ lives.

It was also scary to let go of my safety blanket of irony. My default setting is fairly ironic and this book demanded an open-hearted, unshielded approach. Surrender, actually.

Did anything surprise you as you were writing the novel?

I had more surprises writing this novel than I have had with any other. The biggest was the unexpected path that opened up and allowed me to weave the book’s two stories together. I was very committed to telling both the story of what the Okinawan people have had to endure both as a colony exploited by Japan and, since World War II, as a pawn of the Pentagon and the story of a contemporary military kid who has to face different and frequently more difficult challenges than I did. I really wanted to connect the stories of two girls, one a modern American, one a World War II-era Okinawan, to show how their country’s hunger for empire utterly shaped their lives, but I didn’t know exactly how I was going to do that. The answer that finally came to me did grow out of a colossal amount of research, but it was also a huge surprise and the finest gift I’ve ever received.

What was the research like?  I know you grew up on air force bases, so how much of your own experiences came into your novel?

Yes, my childhood years on air force bases, especially overseas, was the foundation. But I was woefully ignorant about Okinawa’s majestic history and her troubled relationship with both Japan and the United States. Thankfully, I live in a city with a world-class university library system and was able to lay my hands on loads of first-person narratives by Okinawans who survived the war, as well as translations of Okinawan literature. There was nothing on the shelves of any use about my modern air force kids. My background and impulses are in journalism, and I might well have flown to Okinawa to do interviews except that if I’d shown up in all my old lady glory I would have gotten exactly nothing. Youtube to the rescue! I found an entire channel called Planet Oki dedicated to the hip-hop scene on Okinawa. These were my kids, my Smokinawans, and I just let them unfold in front of me. I also came across lots of video diaries of young recruits going through basic training and those were very useful as well. I had several other amazing research experiences like drinking habu awamori, a distilled rice liquor with a deadly, and, obviously very dead, habu viper coiled at the bottom of the bottle and the magical appearance of the world’s Okinawa expert, Steve Rabson, who was beyond generous in helping me.

Did you map out the story ahead of time? How much of the novel did you know before you started to write?

Oh Caroline, how the writing gods lead us on! I started off thinking I knew the entire story. I was going to write a simple novel, maybe even YA if I got it right, about an air force kid newly arrived at Kadena Air Base on Okinawa. As soon as I started in on that, however, my memories and what I knew about Okinawa exploded and took me down a path that led to places I could never have imagined when I started.

Both your heroines, Luz and Tamiko contemplate suicide, but for very different reasons, which I found fascinating. Can you talk about this, please?

The issue of suicide looms large over both Okinawa and the American military. There is a continuing controversy between Okinawa and Japan about compulsory suicide, the large numbers of Okinawan civilians that the Japanese forced to commit suicide rather than surrender to the Americans at the end of World War II. What is not disputed is that the Japanese propagandized the natives into such a state of fear that thousands of them killed themselves rather than face the demonic beasts that they had been led to believe Americans were. I stood at the place where both girls start their stories. It’s called Suicide Cliffs and is famous for the huge numbers of Okinawan girls who jumped one hundred and feet down into the East China Sea from that spot.

Our military is trying to deal with an epidemic of suicide in its ranks. As my protagonist Luz, only child of a single mom whose beloved older sister has just been killed in Afghanistan, learns from an army study one of the major predictors for suicide is not having an intact family. Bereft about her sister and shorn of any support or connection, Luz’s discovery of the deep “connectedness” among Okinawans, not just among the living, but the dead as well, has a profound and profoundly healing impact on her.

So much of this gorgeous book is about the ways that culture, time--and human bonds--can save or transform us when we are facing unimaginable loss.  Please talk about this, too.

Yes, the experience of deep loss runs through all the characters. Luz has a crush on the prince of the Smokinawans, Jake Furusato, who is her guide to Okinawan life and beliefs, especially the belief that the dead remain with us forever, guiding us and intervening in our lives as long as we, the living, continue to honor them through rituals like burying them in the proper way and tending their tombs. “Furusato” means “homesick” in Japanese. In Okinawa this word takes on an added poignancy when it is applied to the kind of homesickness a person feels for his village, his ancestral plot of land, the tombs of his ancestors, which were seized by the U.S. military after World War II to be used for one of the bases that occupy one fifth of the tiny island. It refers to the special pain of being able to see where your home once was, now on the other side of a barb wire fence, yet never being able to return, not even to fulfill your obligations to your ancestors.

Sorry, that doesn’t really answer your question. I’ll just say that the mother of my Okinawan protagonist Tamiko expresses the wisdom that ultimately saves her daughter and a military kid she never knew. It is contained in the Okinawan saying Nuchi du takara, life is the treasure.

What’s your writing life like? Any rituals? How do you work with the usual anxiety every writer I know faces?

Because I am an obsessive sort of person, I always knew that if I were going to be a writer, I’d have to dive in and be as ritual-free as I possibly could. Being a journalist also helped me learn not to be too fussy about when and where I worked. I have to add that my husband would hoot great gales of laughter at what I’ve just written.  And he’d be right. He retired recently, so after having the house mostly to myself except for when our son was little for most of the thirty plus years I’ve been a writer, suddenly there was another presence around. God bless him, he tried to be quiet and stay out of my way, and I thought I was muddling through. Except for the fact that nearly every time he’d appear beside my desk I would shriek like a crazy woman. That was when I became aware of the altered state I go into when I’m working. Pretty soon, fear of these abrupt awakenings stopped me from getting into that state, and I wasn’t working, and I wasn’t happy. Really wasn’t happy. So now, he either occupies himself out of the house or I hole in a far back bedroom and write in bed like Voltaire.

Thank you for saying that about all writers being anxiety-ridden! Gads, how do I work with that? I’m in a rare moment of bliss because there’s nothing more I can do for Above the East China Sea and after months of torture and extensive false starts on three entirely different novels, I’ve finally settled into a new book. It was wonderful once I achieved that state of grace where I stopped “running ideas by” long-suffering friends and my editor and the book I was going to write made itself known to me. I was sure it was The One because I didn’t ask for anyone’s opinion, didn’t care that it’s not commercial, and almost don’t care if my publisher will buy it, this is the book I’m going to write. Whew. So, I guess I deal with the anxiety by hanging onto the memory of moments like these when the fog clears, the gas wears off, and I remember why I’m a writer and would never be happy doing anything else in life.

What’s obsessing you now and why?

Eeek, there’s a dangerous question. Caroline, I think I’m already going really long. I’ll come back to this if you like, but I’ve probably taken too much space as it is.

Sarah, I can’t help but noticing how envy-free you are. How did you arrive at such an elevated state?

Why, Caroline, I thought you’d never ask. I actually am excited about this. You in particular seem more evolved than I am and unfailing in your support of other writers, but I was cursed with being jealous of others good fortune. I hated feeling that way so much that, a few years ago, I went to a therapist about this problem. She wanted to dive into whether I’d had to compete for my mother’s love. Given that I was a shy, neurotic kid with five siblings, I saw this taking a lot longer than I wanted. So I read self-help stuff and just tried to be a better person. Not much luck. A friend would get a full-page review in the Times and it was a knife in my heart. How unattractive is that?

So, here’s what finally cured me: I found out that envy is not just one of the cardinal sins but often regarded as the worst of the cardinal sins. Perfect. This information plugged right into my prewired Catholic girl circuitry and, man, overnight, gone. I also got some technological help in the form of a free piece of software called LeechBlock. No writer should be without. It’s better than a total Internet block because don’t we all have to ask Shri Googlenami many legitimate questions all day long? But now I’ve blocked the sites that seem to exist solely to foster envy. Yes, Amazon and Facebook, I’m talking about you, and I’m happier and more productive. And, big bonus, not going to hell.

Caroline, thanks for the great questions and for being the higher order of writer who is amazingly supportive of other writers.

Emily Arsenault talks about What Strange Creatures (great title, right?), deadbeat muses, ghosts, and so much more

 When a young woman's brother is accused of murder, she goes into action to try to save him--even though her own life could use some salvation, too. Brilliant plot, right? Emily Arsenault's latest is a tense and witty read, but so are all her other novels: The Broken Teaglass, In Search of the Rose Notes, and Miss Me When I'm Gone. I'm so jazzed to have her here. Thank you, Emily!

A brother arrested for murder, a sister who must prove his innocence, trying to save him when her own life is in turmoil.  Where did the idea come from? What made you haunted enough by it to write a novel?

To start with, I was pretty sure I wanted to write a story about a jaded brother and sister, and I was pretty sure I wanted their relationship to have some humorous elements. In very small ways, I based them on my mom and my uncle, who live a block away from each other in the same New England town in which they grew up. (Like Theresa, my mother eats out a great deal. And like her brother Jeff, my uncle is very frugal and scavenges her doggie bags.) Of course, I couldn’t write a novel about these two simply sitting together at a kitchen table and making wisecracks. I needed for them to have a challenge that would jolt them out of their sarcastic passivity. So I threw a murder at them.

How did you find out about Margery Kempe, the medieval mystic, and how does she function in the novel?

I learned about Margery Kempe through a survey of early English lit class when I was fulfilling credits for English teaching certification years ago. I was intrigued by her unusual life—particularly the fact that she managed to convince her husband to allow her to take a vow of celibacy—and to go on pilgrimages by herself—after she’d had fourteen children with him. When I started What Strange Creatures, I knew I wanted Theresa to have kind of a quirky dissertation topic, so Margery Kempe came back to mind. It wasn’t until then that I read the entire Book of Margery Kempe (her autobiography—which she had a scribe write for her, as she was illiterate). I was happy to find some very odd stories about her life that I was eager to share with readers along the way. Additionally, I wanted Theresa to have a thesis topic somehow related to religion, so she could struggle a bit with the concept of faith. Margery Kempe gives Theresa an outlet—albeit a bizarre and at time frustrating one—for reflection during very difficult times.

For such a terrifying scenario, there is also a lot of humor in the novel. How did you balance the lighter moments with the darker ones?
That’s a good question. This is my fourth book. My first book, The Broken Teaglass, had a lot of humor in it. The two after that didn’t have all that much, and when I sat down to write What Strange Creatures, I was determined to make humor a priority again. I decided that what had prevented it in book two (In Search of the Rose Notes) and especially in book three (Miss Me When I’m Gone) was that the murder victim was too close to the narrator for anyone to have very much of a sense of humor. That is, the tragedy of the victim’s death overshadowed the tone of the book. With What Strange Creatures, I made the accused close to my narrator instead of the victim. Still a pretty grim situation, but nonetheless Theresa and her brother tend to survive tough times through humor and sarcasm. They can’t help but continue that habit even when the situation is more frightening than any they’ve ever experienced before.

What surprised you about the writing?
This was the first book I wrote as a parent. I started it when my daughter was about five months old and finished it when she was about eighteen months. I suppose what was most surprising to me about the writing this time around is that it doesn’t always need to be torturous. I had relatively short writing sessions to work with each day (or every other day), and learned to get right to work and enjoy it as an entertaining “break” from parenting rather than something to get stressed about. Writing novels is a joy and a privilege, not a burden. This is not to say it can’t sometimes be difficult, but I believe that before I had my daughter I perhaps took my writing opportunities for granted.

What’s your writing life like? Do you have rituals? Do you map your stories out or just wait for the Muse (that pesky Muse never shows up when you want him/her)?

I wouldn’t say I have rituals. I guess I have little tricks to get me through. For example, since I am a sugar addict, I sometimes reward myself with a Coke or a cookie if I’ve reached a certain word count by the end of a writing session. I do plan my stories to some extent. I usually know what I think my ending is going to be before I start writing in earnest. I don’t usually know many of the specifics of how I’ll get there. Sometimes I change my mind about the ending about two thirds or three quarters of the way through the first draft, and have to go back and do some serious rewriting. Actually, this is usually what happens for me, and it can be a painful process. Often it requires me to throw away a great deal of material. I suppose I have a Muse, but she is sort of a deadbeat Muse. She visits me about twice a year, when things are already going well anyhow.

What’s obsessing you now and why?

Ghosts! I am very excited about the novel I’m working on now, as it’s more of a haunted house story than a murder story. I’ve loved ghosts stories since I was a kid. This ghost story combines the unease of new parenthood with the suspicion that one’s family is “not alone” in their home. Lately, I’ve been wasting a lot of time watching mediums and ghost-hunters on Youtube. The book also has some historical elements that are new to me, and fun to research. Parts of the book take place in 1884.

What question didn’t I ask that I should have?
These were such great questions—I don’t have much to add. Thank you for giving me the opportunity to discuss What Strange Creatures!

Friday, July 25, 2014

Miranda Beverly-Whittemore talks about Bittersweet, singing off-key, growling monster books, and so much more

Come on, who hasn't read and worshipped BITTERSWEET, Miranda Beverly-Whittemore's astonishing New York Times bestseller about outsiders and class. She's also the author of The Effects of Light, and Set Me Free, which one the Janet Heidinger Kafka Prize for the best book of fiction by an American woman published in 2007. She's also the winner of the Crazyhorse Fiction Prize, and I'm so honored to host her here. Thank you so much, Miranda.

What I loved so much about Bittersweet was that you melded both a Gatsbyish sense of the outsider yearning to be inside a rarified world, and also an encroaching tension and menace that had me gripping some pages so tightly, I almost tore them. So I want to ask, how did this novel spark

Oh thank you so much! Long before I started to think about Bittersweet in a concrete way, probably long before I started writing books at all, I fell in love with a certain kind of book, and, as I started to read more widely, I realized that every time I read a book with the same thematic premise—an outsider longing to get “in”—I felt a kind of electric recognition. I found myself obsessed with/ in love with this central notion, and the push/pull of wanting the outsider desperately to get in while also knowing they’re going to have to pay for belonging. I’m talking about books like The Great Gatsby; The Line of Beauty; Brideshead Revisited; Atonement; The Emporer’s Children; The Secret History. Perhaps you’ll notice that in all those books, the outsider is a young man, so I suppose I believed that I might have something new to add to the genre with the creation of Mabel Dagmar.

Because I usually come at novels from a few different angles, and all angles to sing for me in order to want to actually write the damn thing, I also knew that I wanted to write about the place where this book is set, which is a real place I’ve been going to my whole life and love with all my heart. It’s funny to me that I could turn such a benign spot into something out of a dark fairy tale, but it’s true that the sense of menace the book might hold didn’t become clear to me until I realized that’s where this story was set.

Because this novel is so artfully constructed, I want to ask, was there ever a moment when you had no idea what you were doing, or you worried that you had lost control of it?

I find that no matter how well planned or plotted a book is, there is always that moment when it turns into a growling monster above me and I wonder what I’ve wrought. I didn’t set out to write a “thriller” per se, and at first, the book kept crawling into that territory. Once I relaxed a bit and stopped trying to reel it back in, I allowed myself to understand that that thriller aspect of the book was a strength, and not something to fight against.

What do you think writing this novel taught you?

I come from a literary fiction background, which means I’ve always felt pretty self-conscious about my propensity for big plot. Because I’d had a hard time selling a couple of books before I wrote this one, I was feeling a bit more adventurous (…or desperate), and I realized that I wanted to try my hand at writing a book with polished sentences that also went for it in terms of plot. I decided to embrace the idea that my next novel could be both commercial and literary, and in doing so, adopted the belief that there was someone out there who would want to (and know how to) market and sell a book with both elements in it.

I suppose that in embracing my strengths as a novelist (and not feeling as though I had to kind of downplay them anymore in order to be “cool”), I remembered how much fun it can be to write a book. I know that’s not really cool to say either—we love the idea that writing a book is all blood and guts (and certainly, there were real wrestling matches I had with Bittersweet)—but I’ll be honest that for the most part, writing this book was a real pleasure. A friend of mine said that she felt like she could hear me laughing as she read, and that made me so happy to hear. I loved reconnecting with that pleasure principle, and I think readers are as well.

Without giving anything away, I want to comment on the brilliant fast forward at the end.  At what point did you know you were going to structure the novel that way?

I always knew this tale was being told from a great distance. The space between the immediacy of the action and the telling of it was how I came to know who Mabel was, because so much of this novel operates based on how she chooses to present the facts.

That said, the ending has changed a lot; this is the third version of that “fast forward” ending. The first version was much more dystopian, and my agent encouraged me to rethink it before we sent it out. So then I went back to the drawing board and ended up with something close to what we have now, but—without giving anything away—the ending was much less satisfying. I owe my editor for being the one who pointed this out, and all before she became my editor, after she’d spent about 12 hours with the book. She contacted my agent that she loved the novel and had dreamed about the setting the previous night, but that she disagreed with my ending, and would be willing to take another look at the book if I wanted to revise. So I spent the next two days rewriting the last fifteen pages or so. Up until that point, the ending had never felt quite right to me, even though I knew that tonally it wanted to be told from a fast forward. Once I got Christine’s notes, not only did I know that she had to be my editor, but I realized I’d finally discovered how to end this book.

What’s your writing life like these days?

Because I had such a hard time selling another book after my second novel, Set Me Free, was published in 2007, I promised myself that if/when I sold another book, I’d devote myself for a year to the cause of getting the word out about it. I had a clear sense that Bittersweet might be my “last chance” and I didn’t want to squander it. There have been many upsides to that decision, but that downside of it, of course, is that I’ve had to take a major break from writing in a daily way in order to do all the social media and outreach I’ve agreed to. I’m thrilled that I just sold my next novel, JUNE, and will be writing it over the course of the next year, and it’ll be interesting to see what the shift back into daily writing will be like. My family life will change too, because for the first time since my son was born five years ago, he’ll be in school five days a week. I’m looking forward to hunkering down back into language and closing down the social channels I’ve opened up this past year, or at least putting them on pause for a bit.

What’s obsessing you now and why?

I’ve been working a lot on being in the moment. Maybe it has something to do with finding myself, all of a sudden, with a kindergartener. It just seems like time is slipping by so quickly, so I’m putting down the smartphone and computer and spending time playing or talking with the kiddo, appreciating the parts of the world, and people in it, that I’m lucky to know and love. I’m also on a declutter kick, obsessing about getting things out of my house. That’s something else that happens when you have a kindergartener: you realize you have accumulated a LOT of crap.

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

I always love to hear about what a writer loves that has nothing to do with writing. So my answer to that question is: cooking (I’m a big fan of starting with a recipe and then diverging from it halfway through); sleeping (I can sleep nine or ten hours a night if my schedule allows); being with my family (I loathe that we are spread out so far across the planet); and singing off key to musical theater (latest fave: Matilda.)

Saturday, July 19, 2014

My backlist is coming! My backlist is coming!

I’m really excited that my backlist is coming back onto ebooks, from the wonderful Dzanc Books and Open Road media, so I just want to tell you a little about the books, all available as e-books wherever e-books are sold (that means Kobo, Nook, etc.) And you can pre-order them! The book photos were all done by the wonderful Jill Dodds and the books will be out August 5th!

Meeting Rozzy Halfway
is my first novel and it made me famous and it came about by mistake, almost. I never intended to be a novelist. I was going to be a short story writer, and I could have papered my walls with rejections. Meeting Rozzy Halfway is about two sisters growing up in Boston, tightly bound together until one of them begins to slowly go mad. I wrote the story and sent it off to Redbook magazine’s Young Writers Contest (I was really young), expecting nothing. Months later, I was coming home from another terrible job I was fired from (this one was working at a puzzle factory that made obscene puzzles) when I saw the big brown envelope that I knew meant rejection. I tore it in a million pieces, spreading it like confetti on my front stoop.

And then I happened to see one word: congratulations. I leaped down and put all the pieces together. it turned out I won First Prize! They wanted the story! And publishers began calling! Rozzy made me known. I was living in Pittsburgh at the time, and I was flown to NYC to be interviewed by Publisher’s Weekly. I was on TV and radio and feted and raved about in the Washington Post, The New York Times, The Kansas City Star and just about every paper on the planet. I even had a film option from Paramount. I thought my career would always be like that!  (But that's another story, one of publishers going out of business, sales forces leaving, and a final rescue by my adored publisher, Algonquin Books.

My second novel coming out is called Lifelines and it’s really a novel about identity, and the fight between a Russian mother, who may or may not be psychic, and the daughter she is sure has inherited her gift. The Los Angeles Times commented on my “strong and memorable characters” and said the book was “excellent.”Do I believe in gifts like that? I admit I sort of do and I keep two decks of Tarot cards in my office and pull three cards every day.  This publisher, who also published Rozzy, went out of business. Sigh.

My third novel Family is about the feeling we all have--that someone we are orphans, that we can never really belong to anyone. For this one, the New York Times said, “There is no denying this author’s talent.” I chose the name because I was thinking about the nature of family, but also because there was this great old TV drama with the same name, and being superstitious, I thought it would bring me good luck. Family is the story of Nick Austin, who grows up in an orphanage and is both yearning for and terrified of love. He has two families, and one teenage daughter who discovers what her father is doing. (And yes, this publisher, Arbor House, went out of business two weeks before the book was due to come out.)

Into Thin Air is the book I call my Madonna book, only because for three whole days Madonna was considering optioning the book as her directorial debut--then, of course, she went on tour instead. But the option was picked up, a script was written, and then the director ran away wit the producer and that was that. Library Journal called it one of the best books of the year. and compared me to Anne Tyler  It’s the story of Lee Archer a young terrified woman who marries a high school boy sweet on her to escape her family, and finds herself pregnant. After delivering her baby in a hospital, she vanishes into another life, abandoning her young husband and her baby.

These novels are my babies. I hope you’ll read and love them, and help them take their first steps out into the world again.  And if you pre-order, I'll buy you your own planet!

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Sarah McCoy, Jenna Blum and Erika Robuck talk about their new anthology GRAND CENTRAL, glamming it up for the launch, Modcloth, writing, and so much more

Ok, here's the truth. I'm friends with all of these amazing women and the only thing I'd like more than hosting them on my blog would be to hang out with them around dinner and toast them. They're all part of Grand Central: Original Stories of Postwar Love and Reunion. I want to mention the other amazing women in this anthology, too: Sarah Jio, Melanie Benjamin, Alyson Richman, Karen White, Carla Mercer-Meyer, Amanda Hodgkinson, Pam Jenoff, Kristina McMorris. Thank you so much, Jenna, Sarah and Erika for being here--and for everything.

JENNA BLUM is the New York Times and # 1 international bestselling author of novels Those Who Save Us (Harcourt, 2004) and The Stormchasers (Dutton, 2010) and novella “The Lucky One” in the postwar anthology GRAND CENTRAL (Penguin, 2014). Jenna is also one of Oprah’s Top Thirty Women Writers. Jenna’s debut novel Those Who Save Us is a New York Times and international bestseller; in 2011 it was the # 1 best-selling novel in Holland. Those Who Save Us is also a Boston Globe bestseller and the 2005 winner of the Ribalow Prize, adjudged by Elie Wiesel.
Jenna’s critically acclaimed and reader-beloved 2nd novel, The Stormchasers, which Jenna researched by chasing tornadoes for six years with stormchase company Tempest Tours, is also a Dutch bestseller, a Boston Globe bestseller, a Target Emerging Author Pick, a BORDERS bestseller, and has been featured in French Elle.

I had the BEST TIME ever being on a panel with Jenna, where we bonded over boots and laughed more than is probably legal.

SARAH McCOY is author of the New York TimesUSA Today, and international bestseller The Baker’s Daughter, a 2012 Goodreads Choice Award Best Historical Fiction nominee; the novella “The Branch of Hazel,” in Grand Central; The Time It Snowed in Puerto Ricoand The Mapmaker’s Children (forthcoming from Crown, May 2015). Her work has been featured in Real Simple, The Millions, Huffington Post, and other publications.  Sarah also taught me everything I know about how to pack three weeks of event clothes into one carry-on suitcase, and which boots are the coolest.

 ERIKA ROBUCK self-published her first novel, RECEIVE ME FALLING. Her novel, HEMINGWAY’S GIRL (NAL/Penguin), was a Target Emerging Author Pick, a Vero Beach Bestseller, and has sold in two foreign markets to date. CALL ME ZELDA (NAL/Penguin) made the Southern Independent Booksellers Bestseller list, and is a Target Recommended Read. FALLEN BEAUTY was released on March 4th, and she is a contributor to GRAND CENTRAL (June 2014, Berkley/Penguin), a short story anthology set at Grand Central Terminal in New York, following World War II. Her forthcoming novel, THE HOUSE OF HAWTHORNE (NAL/Penguin), will be published in May of 2015.

Erika taught me how to hand-sell our books at a book fest, even if it meant waving them in the air while seeming to dance.

So what sparked the idea for this book?

Sarah: "The Branch of Hazel” is actually a spin off from story from one of the characters in THE BAKER’S DAUGHTER. Elsie’s sister, Hazel, was a Lebensborn Program mother and throughout my national and international book tour, the reader crowds were consistently asking me for more Hazel. They wanted to know what really happened to her. They wanted more information about the Lebensborn Program— the Nazi program that bred pedigreed, young German women to SS officers of perfect Aryan lineage in attempt to create a “master” race. As soon as the war ended, these once lauded women were then shunned. Their perfect children were labeled shameful bastards of a monstrous initiative. The girls were typically between the ages of 17-24 so they were just at the beginning of their lives. How do you move on from such a past— can you? That was the question that haunted me for Hazel and all the Lebensborn women. This novella was sparked and fueled by their real-life, untold accounts. 

Erika:  Kristina McMorris called me and said she and Sarah Jio had brainstormed the idea, and would I be interested in joining? I was honored to be included. We chose the date and time based upon all of the authors’ experience with the time period and our shared love of the iconic New York location.

Jenna:  Ask Kristina McMorris. She is the genius who thought of it! The story goes that Kristina and Sarah Jio, another GRAND CENTRAL girl, were having dinner in the Northwest where they live, and Kristina said, “Wouldn’t it be great if we got a bunch of us WW2 author gals together and did an anthology of stories all set in Grand Central Terminal on the same day just after WW2?” And Sarah said, Sure, that’d be great, in that let’s-do-lunch kind of way. The difference being, Kristina actually made it happen. She corralled all us GRAND CENTRAL girls via email and Facebook, and we all said yes, and she and her agent pitched it, and Berkeley/Penguin bought it very quickly. That’s Kristina’s story, or my version of it, and I’m sticking to it. Also, if you’ve ever met Kristina, you know she has great personal charm AND she used to be a wedding planner, so none of us ever had a chance. 

What  I especially loved in this book was the way the pages breathed history.  What do you think these stories can tell us today about war, love, and reunion? 

  I have to laugh about this because my story is the sole novella in the collection that isn’t about love and reunion in the traditional sense; it’s about a man trying to outrun his unimaginably anguishing past. But I suppose that really is about love, isn’t it?, its lasting and pervasive effects, which can assume the form of deepest grief. And now that I think about it, all the novellas in GRAND CENTRAL are this way: about imperfect, fragile, damaged, enduring love—of men and women, children, friends—and how it survives even death.

Erika:  When I travel, I often gaze around air and rail terminals wondering what has brought each person to the station, and where they are going. I love seeing people embrace after separations, and ponder those who return alone. There is a certain magic in realizing our connections to others, even when it is not immediately clear how we are joined. In this time in history, like no other, our county was united in a common goal. Like Karen White has said, this generation was called “The Greatest Generation” for a reason. It was a pleasure to spend time telling their stories. 

Sarah: What
I cherish about this collection and what my fellow authoresses have created that I don’t believe could be achieved in a one-author novel is the vast range of story perspectives. Each of our novellas highlights a little known or nearly forgotten aspect of World War II, the great love that people had for each other and their country during that time. It is something to marvel! And to be remembered. I see the book as a reunion in narrative form too—  reuniting readers with the heart and emotions that infused the historical facts and dates.  A love story to the men and women of 1945.
What surprised you in the writing?

Erika:  I was surprised about how different the authors' ideas for their stories were, while sharing themes of love, sacrifice, courage, and reunion. There were many moments in the writing and publishing of the anthology that felt serendipitous. 

Jenna:  Two things. 1) I fell in love with my own story. I was initially, if secretly, reluctant to return to World War II in fiction because I spent ten years there researching my first novel, THOSE WHO SAVE US. But I couldn’t resist the concept of GRAND CENTRAL and I did have a story I’d always wanted to tell, inspired by a Holocaust survivor I interviewed for the Steven Spielberg Survivors of the Shoah Foundation, who’d been a chef in Czechoslovakia before the war and after the war was fired from his job as a busboy in America because his concentration camp tattoo upset the diners. Once I started writing this story, it surprised me by deepening into what it means to have lost one’s entire original family, what it means to try and assimilate after such a blow, and what it means to be a gentle man in a brutal world.

The other thing is that I thought the story was meant to be a short story, and I was all proud of myself because I got it turned in by deadline. My agent called me and said, “I love, love, love the story—but did you read your contract? It is supposed to be a novella.” I was 6,000 words short. It was lucky I was so in love with the story because I then got to expand it.

Sarah: "The Branch of Hazel" was incredibly difficult for me to write. I had to go back into that dark Nazi psychology to understand what Cata had been through and what she might be willing to do to start anew, to make a future. Once there, I had to cleave myself from “Sarah McCoy” of 2014 and all my women’s and religious rights dogma. I had to put myself inside the skin of Hazel and Cata; girls who came of age in an entirely different culture where their ability to produce, seduce and be abused was valued more than their hearts and minds. It stunned me how much compassion I could have for them, despite the fact that they were tried and true Nazis. So the writing was surprisingly difficult but surprisingly moving for me, personally, and I hope for readers, too. 

 Why do you think Grand Central Station is such a character in itself?

Erika: Walking into Grand Central is like stepping in a cathedral or museum. The soaring architecture draws the eye upward and quiets the heart. It is a monumental reminder of how small we are. 

Sarah: Once you’ve stepped inside Grand Central Terminal, you understand. It is alive. The wall tiles are breathing. The floor is singing. There is something unbelievably powerful about that place and I’ve been to hundreds of train terminals around the world. It's different. It has a beautiful, bittersweet, electrifying and undeniable mojo. The perfect resume for an author’s imagination. 

Jenna: Because it’s historic and beautiful. I mean, the teal ceiling, the constellations—come on! Also, it’s a crossroads of so many departures and reunions; you know how happy it can make you to watch people kissing hello at an airport? I think some of that mojo has seeped into Grand Central’s gorgeous marble walls.

I loved the way you all got glammed up for the launch party! How much fun was that, and did you do research for it?

Erika: Kristina McMorris was the brainchild of so much of this project, and I believe it was her idea that inspired all of us to shop for 1940s dresses. She set up the hair appointments and created a spreadsheet for our stylists of hairdos we each found that would capture that 1940s glamorous style. The salon, West Vibe, was a dream—they had music of the period playing for us, mimosas for our enjoyment, and had practiced making “Victory Curls.” By the time we emerged and stepped into Grand Central, it was as if decades had disappeared. 

Jenna:  It was SO much fun! Many of us love 1940s clothes anyway (for my first novel I dressed in that sort of costume all the time while writing—but only in the house, since at that time my get-up was one of a German domestic circa 1939).  So we knew we wanted to rock a GRAND CENTRAL USO-chorus girl line at our launch. Kristina found an incredible salon for us, West Vibe, and we sent our hairstyles to them via email weeks before; the morning of the launch, while we were all getting Victory Curls and Kate Hepburn hair, we found the stylists had been practicing for weeks on mannequin heads to get our ‘dos just right. (I wanted to take my mannequin head to the launch with me but the other girls convinced me it was a bad idea.)

Sarah: We had the best time at the June 28-29 New York City launch weekend! The seven of us authors who were able to attend said it over and over: there was kismet between us. We truly could’ve been a group of sassy USO sisters standing strong together on that September 21, 1945 day. It felt like we were, in any case. Research for our costumes was painstakingly arduous. It required countless hours of online shopping at and even more time texting, emailing, tweeting and calling each other to ask, “How does this look? Polka-dots or stripes? What do you think of these shoes with this?” Oh, the burden we endured for authenticity in our work. Ahem… But seriously, the process of creating this book and preparing to launch our collective darling in the world bonded us as sisters of ink blood.

What’s obsessing each of you now and why?

Erika: After a trip to Concord, Massachusetts, tours of the Old Manse, Walden Pond, and Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, and rereading the work of the writers of that period, Nathaniel and Sophia Hawthorne made it clear to me that their story needed to be told. THE HOUSE OF HAWTHORNE releases in May of 2015. It is a novel about the marriage of creative people, what they give up for love, and the search for peace and "home" on earth by those who cannot be settled. 

Sarah: I’m still obsessing over the stupendous time we had launching Grand Central in NYC and wishing I could wear a red rose fascinator every day! But more specifically regarding writing and reading: I'm totally obsessed with the  Underground Railroad, John Brown’s lineage, runaway slaves and dark mysteries of the Civil War. All of this and more is in the novel I just completed and handed into my publisher, Crown/Random House. The novel is titled THE MAPMAKER’S CHILDREN, another contemporary-historical hybrid like THE BAKER’S DAUGHTER. This time, I dabbled a bit more in the craft of mystery writing and learned that I so enjoy mapping out thrilling adventures— as the author and as a reader. That’s set to release in May 2015 and I cannot wait to share it with everyone! 

Jenna: My upcoming nuptials. I switch channels between being a normal person and Bride-Brain. Also, my agent wants me to write a novel based on my GRAND CENTRAL character and what happens to him after the novella’s conclusion, and she’s as persuasive as Kristina and with a French accent, so that will probably happen.

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

Erika:  Will you ever collaborate on an anthology again?  YES!!

Sarah:  If I can come visit and we can go shopping for cowboy boots together. (It is a well-known social media-crowed fact that we are boot bling sisters.) You forgot to ask me to do that, but I know you were thinking it. So I’ll go ahead and RSVP ‘Yes.’ I have my heart set on a pair of floral embroidered, rainbow ones. I want to stomp around in a leather garden on my feet with you by my side... to boot. 

P.S. Thanks so much for having me on Leavittville again! Always an honor and a pleasure, my dear. 

 Jenna: Where did we get our dresses! Modcloth, baby. Otherwise known as the Rabbit Hole of shopping. You are forewarned.